The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Waypoint October 14, 2021

I love maps. I can spend hours looking at a map, imagining the topography, envisioning the reality of being in those places, and trying to more fully grasp the relationship between here and there. Landmarks are, of course, essential to figuring out where you are – and how to get to your destination. These days I feel as if I’ve arrived at another one of my life’s landmarks, and the time has come to plot my next course.

In an ongoing effort to distract myself from the realities with which I now must live my life – an eye injury which challenges me daily, extra pounds which do not come off my frame as easily as they have in the past, and a clinging sense of sorrow that my best days may well be behind me – I am trying to keep moving. I am trying to keep busy.

Of course I continue to teach piano, and in spite of a recent heartbreaking setback, I am still looking for a musical partner. I run the Studio’s Airbnb. These things are routine and familiar parts of my life. But they have not been enough to keep my spirits from sinking. This, I can now see, is going to take some effort. And while I can honestly say that I’m not pining for my son, and while I deeply appreciate not having to make a full dinner every night and drive a twice-daily shuttle to and from school, I have to admit that I do miss him. The house lacks a certain energy now, it lacks a certain animation. My son challenged me, he taught me things and encouraged me to think more critically. I sorely miss our wonderful daily conversations. Somehow, for as much as I treasure being alone, it’s not feeling quite as blissful as I’d previously imagined it might.

When I look at my mother’s life as it is these days, it saddens me. I see the parallels between our lonesome lives, and it makes me sadder still. Mom lives by herself, and she doesn’t have the benefit of students and their families coming and going. Her world has grown smaller as her strength and mobility have diminished, and now her only companions are the wildlife she feeds outside her window, her television and her emotionally dysfunctional adult son who speaks very little and almost always leaves her guessing as to what’s on his mind. But even so, he is her son, he is the one who gives her a reason to keep daily rituals in place. She pays his bills, buys him food, makes him dinner, and often speaks about the goings-on at her place using the plural pronoun “we” – when in truth my brother is hardly her companion in the true sense of the word. Sure he fixes things around the house on occasion and he joins her most nights for a meal – but he is moody, unpredictable and often angry about something. Many days he utters not a single word to her. But he is her son, and somehow that is enough. Yeah. I get that part.

We’re all fond of saying that life is short, and that you must live life to the fullest because you never know… And of course this era of covid has brought that message to the fore of our collective mind, yet how often do we actively heed this way of thinking? How often do we challenge ourselves because we know tomorrow isn’t promised? Me, I’ve usually been the one to try shit out. I’m usually the one to take the dare, the one who’ll do the crazy stuff. On some level I have always felt like it was now or never. So I get it, and I’ve tried to live it. But I admit I’ve held back. Especially during my tenure as a single mom. I put a lot on hold, and justifiably so. But now that there’s space and time before me, I feel an urgency about getting back on the horse.

I can honestly say that there is some bone-deep, existential shift taking place inside of me these days. I’m thinking much more seriously about the stuff that I have always thought I might do “one day”. And my new awareness is born of two things: the deaths this past year of several peers (who were also dear friends), and the magic of reaching this certain age. I can’t consider myself middle-aged now. That’s not really accurate. Even if 50 is considered to be the new 40. Fuck that. OK, so maybe our current culture affords us a slight advantage – after all, do your remember how a woman in her 50s just a few decades ago seemed like a dried-up granny? That’s certainly not true now – but the possibility of dying still looms, undeniable and ever-present. Cancer is everywhere. Covid is real. And accidents happen. For me, these days, life feels like a roulette wheel. So I gotta get going.

A few days ago I saw a neighbor’s post on Facebook. She and her family – including two young boys – had climbed a mountain. She’d raved about the gorgeous view, and stated that it was not a difficult climb. The day that I saw the post it was midday and sunny. I had no students coming, no side jobs, no Airbnb turnover. My day was wide open. I did a quick search for the mountain, downloaded a trail app, and within minutes I was pulling on my hiking boots and filling a backpack. Inside of an hour I was at the trailhead (if I’d known ahead of time how long and narrow the wooded road to the mountain was, I might not have gone. I’m grateful to now know about these ancient carriage roads; they won’t put me off in the future). I was off to somewhat of a late start in the day, but I was comforted by the sight of a full parking lot when I arrived. I’d be safe, at the very least, if something should happen.

The ascent was a challenge, inasmuch as my heart was pounding so hard I began to wonder if it wasn’t actually dangerous, and I was virtually gasping in air through an open mouth for much of the upper part of the trail. When I reached the summit, I was drenched in sweat. But as anyone who’s climbed a wooded trail can attest – the sight of light from above and the expanse of rock that meets you when you reach the summit restores your body and your spirit as few other experiences can. I think this is why people get hooked. I think it’s why I climbed another mountain a day later. And, in spite of how horrible I feel when the ascent becomes almost torturous, it’s why I hope to climb again soon. Tomorrow, in fact, if all goes well.

Not too long ago I began taking a Tai Chi class. It’s an expense that some might find imprudent when my means are so modest, yet it’s something I feel that I have to do. I love moving. I love dance. I love working on balance. One day I hope to teach a dance class at the Y – but for now this is how my love of movement is going to manifest. I don’t know much about Tai Chi, but I can’t let that stop me. What I do know is that it feels good.

And speaking of getting back on the horse – that’s on my list too. I have a few friends who ride, one of whom, like me, is missing her daughter and companion, and so I hope to go riding with her. It’s been decades since I’ve been in a saddle, and I remember how sore it made me when I was young, so I have no illusions about how it’ll feel. It’s gonna hurt, I know. But how many things that are truly worth it don’t require some discomfort at the start? I can’t think too much about it. Yeah, things can go wrong. And you can get hit by a car crossing the road to check the mailbox. No reason not to try.

When I crewed on a sailboat in the Atlantic many years ago, I also decided to go without a whole lot of mental preparation. I mean, how can you prepare for open-ocean sailing when all you’ve ever known is sailing a dinghy on calm, summertime waters? It kinda amazes me now when I think back on it: the captain had emailed from a port and asked me to please bring some baking supplies with me, so my modest rolling suitcase contained huge zip lock bags of flour and sugar… No one in security so much as batted an eye (different times to say the least). I had in my pocket a scrap of paper with the name of the harbor where I was to find the boat. I did not understand a word of Portuguese, nor was I fully understanding the logistic challenges required to get from the airport to the tiny coastal town. But somehow, in a pre-cell phone world, I made it to the boat after two days of travel. And before I could quite comprehend the scope and nature of the adventure before me, land was long out of sight and I was taking our bearings and writing them down on a chart. In spite of my inexperience, I was soon piloting a large boat and plotting courses. I just had to go step by step. I knew close to nothing when I began, but I’d learned a lot when the trip was over. Through some pretty rough storms, torn foresails and stalled motors we’d made it to our various destinations.

Whenever I hesitate to try something new, I try to remember the boat. I recall how not overthinking was key. I also remember how important it was to know where we were – and to know where it was that we wanted to go next.

I know where I am. I know that my body is not what it was. I also know where my body will go if I live long enough. No one can evade the physical reality of aging, no matter how healthy they may be. So while I’m alive and able, I owe it to myself to get on the boat and go.

I owe it to myself to check the map, chart a simple course, and head for the waypoint.

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