The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Living Wake December 24, 2013

Mom and I both said it at the same time. This evening had turned out to be – with no prior intention – a wake. The impromptu party of old friends, with tales re-told, pictures snapped and the general volume of the room increasing as the night progressed, had truly become a living wake. Had there ever been such a thing? mom and I wondered aloud to each other. How fantastic a gathering it had been, and how important for all of us. Likely there would be no such gathering after dad’s death; so this had been it. We had gathered around dad’s bed, telling stories and laughing, then gradually made our way to the living room filling in all the available seats. We all stayed much longer than I think any of us had planned. And while my father opened his eyes only once or twice in the four hours we visited, we all agreed that he had been present for the party. Stories were recounted, old photos were passed around, and there was laughter just like in the old days. (Our house had always had humor if nothing else!) And somehow, although she had not planned for it, mom rose to the occasion as ever she did in the days of yore, pulling cheese, crackers and wine out of almost-empty cabinets to continue her long-standing role as queen hostess.

Back in the days of my father’s early music festival he’d always had an assistant to help him during the summer. The duties of said intern were wide-ranging and went far beyond simply picking musicians up at the airport and manning the box office. These various and sundry jobs were the subject of hilarious tales re-told tonight, none of which had to be elaborated upon to be entertaining. And what made this all the more precious a night was that two of dad’s long-standing assistants were here: the two Jims. They are more than former employees, they are family. I’ve known them both far longer than I’ve known just about anyone, and while I don’t fancy myself an old person, the way the tales were flying tonight I think that my generation now qualifies for that category. One of the Jim’s son was also there along with his girlfriend, and I found myself suddenly very aware of how old we all sounded. As a child I can remember my own parents talking of things that happened long before I was born, and thinking them irrelevant and, well, ancient. I looked at my own father and realized in some new dawning awareness that one day I too would not only be old, but very old. Sometimes it’s more than hard to believe; it’s scary. But it’s the crazy and unpredictable stuff that happens in the middle that makes the trip worth it I guess.

If I’d wondered how my brother would fare in the face of our father’s imminent death, I had my answer tonight. Andrew wobbled in during the party absolutely stinking drunk. Thankfully everyone (save perhaps that poor young girl) knew the deal. More than that, they responded with love and compassion. One of the Jims even let my poor brother collapse in his arms as he succumbed to his grief. I’m grateful to him for understanding. This is a tricky situation for anyone, and much more so for someone who doesn’t have it together emotionally. My mother was also able to get teary, although I haven’t seen her out and out cry yet. But it’s coming, I’m sure. I found it strange, but as we were wrapping up the evening and making our goodbyes she began to cry a bit, and I didn’t. In fact, I felt almost cried out. It almost feels as if this waiting is just too much. Like I’m done already. Only thing is, I know I’m not. And I’m still so very scared.

It’s late now. And it’s Christmas Eve, too. I’m so tired. Mom must be tired too, but it’s not over yet. We’re almost there, mom I think to myself. I also think to myself that dad must have – on some level – appreciated the company tonight. He shifted positions nearly the whole evening seemingly in search of a comfortable spot, yet I’ve heard this is simply a phenomenon that happens near the end of life. And although he seemed mostly gone from the room, he was able to nod a time or two in response to a question, and had us roaring with laughter at his agreement. Yeah, I think dad knew what was going on. He’s just pooped is all. Just too tired preparing for his transition, too tired fighting this defeated body to speak, to engage. After all he’s been engaging, performing, teaching and living for eighty-five years. I can understand.

Thanks, dad, for throwing such an awesome party.

 

Wake November 29, 2013

My ex used to say that I spent more of my life’s energy looking backwards than I did looking forwards. In part, I would tend to agree. Ever since I can remember – at around the age of eleven or so – I’ve always felt a low-grade, persistent sense of melancholia around me. (Maybe it started with my Grandma’s death, I don’t know. But an awareness of things becoming irreconcilably gone seems to have become part of my thinking around that time.) In writing this down I’m struck by the irony of it; I’m a fairly humorous gal and never shy about being vocal. I keep things light, and I always try my best to make a connection of some sort with every person I come into contact with. And yet… and yet I do a lot of things in life on my own, solo. I did as a kid too. Of course I’d play with children as a kid, and of course I interact with folks easily as an adult. But beyond the cursory and cheerfully polite interactions throughout my rather average, ‘small’ days, I don’t spend much time with friends. And this I suppose, is mostly by choice. Mostly, I enjoy being alone. I have a handful of friends in my life whom I love dearly yet only see them infrequently (that’s mostly logistics!). And that’s fine for me. But what is not so fine – what has me waxing melancholic at times – is the absence of some folks who have simply disappeared from the landscape of my life altogether. Having moved a thousand miles away from the town my heart still feels is home, I understand well how life changes, how it comes to pass that you may never again see some people who were once virtual fixtures in your life, but it’s still sad to know you’ve lost some forever. However, this is a connected, info-drenched world in which we live, and it’s that which gives me hope. In the back of my mind, I am comforted to know that if I try, I stand a pretty good chance of getting back in touch with the folks I miss.

This past week a Chicago-based bass player died. He’d been one of a handful of folks I’d tried to locate after losing touch, so hearing of his death just floored me. This man had a great sense of humor and he always had a twinkle in his eye. His passing has shocked a lot of friends who also hadn’t seen him around for a while. He’d just about dropped out of the music scene over the past couple of years as he’d had his hands full battling some personal demons. He was a relatively young guy too – but no matter, in the end he couldn’t get ahead of em. Seeing the Facebook posts popping up all day yesterday, I could feel the community’s need to share their sadness with each other. And precisely because so many of us live in far-flung places now, there can be no wake – no one gathering of friends to say goodbye to provide a healthy sense of closure we’d all probably like. And as I understand it, his family does not want to hold a memorial service either. I guess I can understand. It might be far too painful for them. I don’t know. But I do know that his death has got me missing my old friends, longing for those long-gone idealistic years as a young musician in Chicago, and feeling the added sorrow of living in a world where old friends don’t necessarily live in the same physical communities any more. It’s at a time like this when I lament having left my heart-home. But then I think of the dozens of dear friends who themselves have since moved on, away, some of them even living on the other side of the globe…

And it starts up again. Rob’s dying reminds me of other friends who’d also died too soon. And I realize I’ve lost a lot of friends. And I think of my parents – how must it feel to routinely hear of the deaths of their contemporaries? Just what is that place in one’s life like? To know that very few who remain are older than you, that most are in fact much, much younger, and that you are one of the few remaining of your age to still be here? Man, just how does that feel? If one goes into the experience, is it frightening as hell? Or does one just accept it, with a gradual dimming of the senses, a dulling of the heart in order to protect itself from such deep sorrow or fear? Or, perhaps (as is definitely not the case with many of my agnostic friends) does one take a certain relief in knowing that those who have left us have themselves gone to a much easier, happier place where we too will one day see them again? Either way it doesn’t change the fact that your friend is not here anymore. So our sorrow for their departure is honestly just about us. Our being sad is our being selfish. Which I think, from time to time, is actually a necessary thing. Crying it out is healthy and right.

But to live with a constant, low-grade sense of the sorrows of this world, to have this mist of melancholia float around you while you go through your day, that’s probably not terribly healthy. Yet I find myself haunted, as if by the merest vapor of a thought, throughout my days, by the faintest tugging… a vague, undefinable sensation of things not being as they should – and thereby not being quite as happy as they might otherwise. I can’t say that I’m sad, per se, but I can say that I do not always live in a heightened state of happy alert. Having said that, I readily admit to being a person who’s quick to find the humor or irony in a situation; I’m quick to turn a mishap into something useful. A lemonade from lemons sort of approach. But still. I suppose you might say that I’m a cheerful person – who knows better.

And I know better than to think Rob – or any of my friends who’ve passed on – would want me to mope around in a tearful funk over them for very long. Sure, I’d kinda expect my friends to cry at my own death, but by all means I want them to move things along when they’re done… Shake themselves back to life with a little Richard Pryor or Monty Python or Louis CK. Something, anything. Keep going. Cuz it’s gonna be alright. Somehow, it will be. But we just all gotta keep moving.  After we say our goodbyes, and dry our eyes, it’s time to wake up and get back to it.

In Loving Memory of “Jazzman”

Rob Amster

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Link to a performance of “The Waking” with Kurt Elling