She had a big breakfast, lay down and . . .

Mom, 2009?

Mom, 2009?

My mother died November first. She was 98 years old, though she looked younger. Yesterday her death became one of the stories Lee tells to people — at dinner, parties, breakfast, or whenever they seem appropriate. This telling was at Crafts People in Spillway, according to Lee, or Hurley, according to their business card.

When we walked into the first building — Jewelry, Lamps and Toys — the man sitting at the door, the owner, recognized Lee. We wandered a bit about until we were in different places. I was kneeling at a counter with barrettes and hair ribbons, sticks and such, hoping to find just the thing for my niece for Chanukah, when from the other side of the aisle came the words: “She had a big breakfast, and lay down for a nap, and . . . .”

He may have already told the story to Derrick or Eric or others of his men buddies separate from our life together, but this was the first I heard him tell it and it shook me a bit.

Only those few words. I quickly moved into the little room at the back which held the toys, in order to avoid hearing more. If it becomes part of his repertoire, it may acquire embellishments, and I’m looking forward to them.

But this telling was, like her death, quiet, peaceful, simple. I wasn’t at her death and will never know if she died as peacefully as the woman who sat with her told me. She said it was beautiful and the way she said it and looked at me and cried, there is no reason not to believe her.

I would have liked to have been with her.

She was in her own world these past few years or so. For the most part they seemed comfortable, content, healthy years, although I have no idea at all of what was going on in her mind. Did she know that she was and yet was not the woman she used to be? that she was unable to communicate? that she no longer could walk? that her sister had died? that her grandson got married? that people still loved her? Did she really just exist in the moment and did that moment ever seem much too long or meaningless? What did she do in-between those moments?

Did she recognize me as her daughter, did she recognize me as someone who came to visit every now and then, did she miss me when I wasn’t there?  Did I disappoint her by not doing whatever she might have wanted me to do, or not saying whatever she wanted me to say? Did she want?

redheaded woman illustrationMy presence during these later years may have had no impact on her happiness. My presence at her death may have been the same. Her last thoughts may have been of those who died before her — her mother, father, husband, or maybe no thoughts, only a longing to be finally free of the confines of her wheelchair and her own mind, or maybe no longing but just a blissful nothingness.

Is it a gift to be present at death? My husband Clark told me of how he held his father’s hand and felt his spirit pass on to him as he died. I wanted so much to give Clark the chance to be on the giving end when he died but I made a mistake and I’ve never forgiven myself. The night of his death was a nightmare that still continues to haunt me, all the layers of which I have yet to explore.

Perhaps being at the side of my mom when she died would have helped me.

It’s been written that

            “when Mister Death come, the living couldn’t see him, and wept and wailed,
            but the folks that was dyin’ rose up to greet him, and smiled at him on their way,
            like they knew him for a friend.”

I like to think that is true, but its simplicity makes me cringe when I think of those who lose loved ones, especially young loved ones, to accidents, gun shots, cancer. Who gives a shit about this Mister Death coming and taking our innocents away?

           “Well son,” said granny, “here’s another question she asks of you. Why did you take             away her baby sister from the cradle?”

           Then Death twisted and turned in his sleep again. “She was sick,” he said, “She                  was full of pain. I took her so she need never cry again.”

Life, death — it’s all a burden and a blessing.

*

redheaded woman cover

Mr. Death and the Redheaded Woman, by Helen Eustis, with illustrations by Reinhard Michl. A Star & Elephant Book published by Green Tiger Press, 1983, originally published in The Saturday Evening Post, February 11, 1950 under the title “The Rider on the Pale Horse.”

I hope I’ll get another chance

We just recently moved into the eleven by eight foot loft of our new addition where we can lie in bed and look out over the Hudson and the Catskills.  There’s not much we can do there but sleep, read, and you know what.  It’s very romantic.

Our kids were up for Thanksgiving – three thirty-ish men with their lovely women.  It was a fabulous weekend for us, the first Thanksgiving with the two families merged.

The last of our children left Sunday afternoon, and the house felt suddenly empty, but it also was once more ours alone.  We decided to pour ourselves each a glass of wine and watch a movie in bed ––

*

*

An hour or two later we awoke.  Lee told me he felt like were in our twenties again.

I told him I forgot to open my eyes.

Mommy! Mommy!

Zachary Kanin, in The New Yorker, 11/25/2013

“Mommy, Mommy!”

I’d hear my son’s baby squirrel voice from the back seat of the Caravan.

“Mommy!  Where’s Daddy?”

We’d have just passed a squashed squirrel on the road – most likely Groton Road on the way to  — to anything.

“It’s okay, honey, he’d reply in his mommy squirrel voice.

My boys had a huge repertoire of voices. They’d invent characters and mimic others:  Bush one, Spock, Jack Nicholson, and oh my goodness, a favorite teacher during a speech at graduation.

“It’s okay.  Daddy had to go somewhere.  He’s all right.”

I guess that’s why when I read the featured cartoon this morning my stomach lurched, I felt the blood drain from my face, and my entire day has been colored by the sorrow and pain of those stupid water toys.

Six Novels in Woodcuts by Lynd Ward

2013-11-15 00.53.05It took a while to gain the confidence to approach these books without words, a gift from Alex, and when I finally took the plunge I was mesmerized — both with the content and also with the process.  The six novels can be read and studied and reflected upon by oneself, but they are a fine pick for discussion, many discussions. There is no one interpretation to the string of illustrations.  Love, greed, despair, hope, tyranny, fellowship, passion, hypocrisy, regret — it’s all exploding in the woodcuts.

Historc Trust of NYC Lighthouse

Historic House Trust of New York City

Lynd Ward also illustrated children’s books.  The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge was in the library salvaged from my parents’ home when they sold it.  I have no memory of reading it, yet it seems profoundly familiar.   How did this book find its way to my parents’ bookshelf.  Who bought it and why?  Did I like the book?  Did my parents visit the little red lighthouse by the side of the George Washington Bridge?  Did they take me?  Did they buy it because they were familiar with Ward?

My father’s brother told me that my dad was somewhat of a socialist, not one with a card in his pocket, but one with a heart.  What stories we could have told each other if only . . .

Fourteen joys and a will to be merry

IMG_0067Tuesday morning the flag that flies in the park outside my kitchen window was flying at half-mast. It was important to know why.

Two of my friends had died quietly the day before: one was more like family. Although they lived next door to each other, near the park, neither of them had any clout in town. The flag wasn’t lowered for them. It was eerie.

My friends were in many ways similar.

Both spent a lot of time by themselves. It seemed by choice. They did enjoy socializing, and each of them could be great company.

Both loved the Hudson. One kayaked on it, the other swam in it.

IMG_0062They both spent a lot of time gazing at it from their back porches, and they knew that it was forever changing, and that it would always be revealing more but not all of its secrets.

DucksThey loved the birds – the birds in the air and on the water. They watched each other watch a duck family that crossed through our contingent yards several days in a row on their way to the water. We never did find out where the ducks were coming from. Perhaps they nested at the pond down the road. It seemed a long walk for little ducklings, but one theory is as good as another for the story.

foxBefore&AfterTuckThey both observed the animals that darted out from the lilacs and sumac that bordered the tracks – mostly bunnies, but there were others. One took a picture of the sickly fox that roamed the shore, the other took the fox out of its misery.

They both were survivors. She fought breast cancer and was determined to beat it. She reminded me of my husband Clark who fought until he didn’t have the strength to sit on the tractor and mow the orchard anymore.

My other friend’s body was full of buckshot. We knew it was in his ear, but not until the xrays the day he died did we know that his body was riddled with shot, especially in one leg. He started gagging and gasping for breath on Thursday, and by the weekend Lee and I knew that he deserved a better life than the one he would have if he started the regimen to cure himself.

IMG_0055They both were creative. She maintained beautiful gardens, mostly in large planters. I like to look down on them from my top deck. We talked plants a lot, and also animals, and neighbors, and always the river. Her husband gave me one of her pottery pieces for our “tower toasting” just a few days before she died. It is next to me on my desk. Lee and I knew when she went into the hospital the last time she might not make it to our celebration.

Tuck 2 062013 LeeMy other friend, whom if you haven’t guessed was my dog Tuck, was creative too. He could find a way to get out of anything – almost. She called him Houdini. I think she would have loved to find a way out of her body and run with him.

What does one do when two friends die on the same day? I got into the car and drove to see my mother. She has had to depend upon someone for help in her daily life for the past ten years. She acknowledged me and smiled and I told her the news of the family, and in five – ten minutes she dozed off again. I held her hand drawing in whatever motherly comfort I could.

When in transit, I’m nowhere, a good place to be when you don’t want to be anywhere else. I sing with favorite music or listen to books. This four-hour round trip the book was A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of my Father by Augusten Burroughs. I hurt for the little boy who longed for his father’s love and had created a reality where he and his father shared a special relationship complete with little rituals. Finally Augusten discovered how wrong he was.

The tape kept running. I was no longer listening, but had had my own breakthrough. Life, death, love, loss, yesterday, tomorrow had all come together and I was happy to be alive. The memories of these two friends, whose times were up, were now part of me, along with the memories of others who had touched me in one way or another.

At home I read the blurb on the audiobook cover: “. . .Though harrowing and brutal, [the book] will ultimately leave you buoyed with the profound joy of simply being alive.” Come on, I thought, this is ridiculous.

It’s now Thursday and I’m somehow picking away at this feeling of joy by wondering if I should feel guilty for loving life while others are struggling just to live another day. Every now and then this pesky theme of mine surfaces and Lee, bless his heart, tells me it is good to enjoy life. I always come up with qualifications.

But here’s to a great neighbor and my dog Tuck, and here’s to my neighbor’s husband who shall grieve as long as he needs, and here’s to Lee, my constant companion and our lost spouses, and here’s to my mother, my sons, my friends, my extended family, Tuck’s vet, and here’s to you.

Love,

Spoonbeam

So let me tell you about my tower #12: Ups and Downs

Lee and I will be young forever.  Lee may not actually believe this, but he certainly did not encourage me to look at the tenuousness of that assumption during design stage.  His method of operation is to take no responsibility and let me make my own mistakes.  Then when something goes wrong he’ll say, “I wouldn’t have done that.”  If he doesn’t say that it is what I imagine.  It’s okay.  He’s prepared.  He has a dumb waiter at his barn which he used to move pottery up and down from his workshop to the kiln which will fit into our spiral corner just in case.

plan showing stairs

We climb 27 steps to get into the tower’s top floor.  The easier climb, going up in the cottage and over the bridge has 29 steps.

Perhaps it was not the smartest design but it is fun to live in a tree house.   So far there has been only one evening that I couldn’t possibly climb those stairs and that was two days ago after spending time on my knees in the garden.

Tuck is not really this goofy looking --

Tuck is not really this goofy looking

Nobody has fallen down the stairs except my dog Tuck, on the spiral.  It is a good thing he got over that embarrassment quickly since he is a dog with little self-control.  He’s not allowed to cross the alley between the cottage and the tower because he will be overpowered by the desire to chase rabbits or take a swim.

Looking across the alley from the tower door

Looking across the alley from inside the tower door

We’ll be sitting in the kitchen and decide we should walk the dogs.  Lee crosses to the tower to get Jaxon’s leash.  Tuck is up the steps over the bridge and down the spiral to meet him at the door.  Lee comes back to the kitchen through the alley.  Tuck is up over and down and greets him at the door.  Lee remembers he forgot his phone.  He cuts across to the tower, and Tuck goes up over and down to meet him over there again.  It’s great.  Tuck has never been happier.

Jaxon on the other hand will not use the spiral.  I admire him for recognizing his limitations.

The culprit stairs

The stairs have fallen with me on them.  Lee claims the blame, but it’s partially my fault also.  He was working on the three steps that go from the bridge to the tower and left the project for lunch or whatever.  I dislocated my finger when the steps collapsed beneath me.  That was a down. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’ll probably have a stiff index finger and not be able to make a tight fist for the rest of my life.   Lee will probably be very disappointed I didn’t post the photo he took of my finger — the one that he has used to gleefully gross out most of our friends.

Sitting on the top deck and having morning coffee is an up and makes me so glad we threw out common sense and built our home with all those steps.  We are in the shade, we see three herons in their usual places, an eagle, fishermen, and an early sailboat.  There’s a delightful breeze.  There is a lot of bird activity in the trees at that level in the morning.

IMG_0839Our stairway to the second floor is a spiral from Stair-Pak in Pennsylvania.   It’s all oak, and arrived in pieces, each numbered so that there would be no mistakes putting it together.  It went together easily and looks great.  Make sure you check with them before you buy elsewhere.

Our stairway to the third floor was designed and built by our friend Scott Ziegler – a true craftsman.

Still needs finish work & painting --

Lee designed and built the bannisters out of a slab of cherry. He built our coffee nook and storage under the stairs from excess flooring.   The risers and sides of the staircase still need finish work and painting.

He's watching you --

Close up of the head of the monster in the railing

And Lee built new handrails on the second floor landing in the cottage.  He hated the ones that were there. The railings sit on metal rods which screw into the floor for easy removal — convenient for carrying furniture up and down and into the two rooms on the second floor.  Also for spanning a ladder over the stairwell when painting the ceiling and walls or placing a light fixture.

2013-08-17 03.48.23

Ah – and then there are the outdoor steps complete with Lee’s wife’s family goddess which traveled from China by plane on the lap of his father-in-law.  Now she protects our home and our families.  Later she will stand at the door of his son’s home and hopefully she will continue to bless my boys and their loved ones as her own.

Just a brief aside.  We received our Certificate of Occupancy yesterday.  Thank you to everyone who worked with us!

It wasn’t all roses

Today is Fathers Day and I had a show-stopping conversation with Morgan.  His dad, my husband, passed away in 2006, when Morgan was 22.  We were talking about choosing a partner for marriage.

Mom & Dad at JFK 1990

Morgan said a thoughtful, tender thing to me, at least that’s what I heard.   He said that he and his younger brother Alex have an idea of what a good marriage can be because of the way their parents, Clark and me, stayed together and remained committed to each other for over 25 years.  That’s the model they have in mind, and they are looking for partners with which to do the same.  But oh, my words are so clinical and cliché.  His words were so very much more human, more Morgan.

Clark and I were truly each other’s best friend, there for each other, no question.

Morgan and I spoke about other things too – work, the addition, his cats, air conditioning, July 4th weekend, the cicadas.  And then we hung up.

And then I began to worry.  

In my efforts to make sure my sons are certain that Lee does not mean more to me than their father, have I led them to believe that Clark and I had a fairy-tale marriage?  Will they be endlessly looking for fairy-tale relationships?  As a young girl I believed in fairy-tale romances and marriages.  As an older woman I believe in fairy-tale romances and marriages.  But in-between I learned that it isn’t all lovey-dovey and happy til death do we part. 

There were days during my marriage, and sometimes there were weeks or months when I wondered why or how or when.  Do I really love him?  Would I be happier with someone else?  Am I trapped?

We never fought and I can’t remember ever raising our voices at each other.  I’m pretty sure that is true.  Two of the men I dated after his death, and the one that I am living with now get to that frenetic, shouting state so quickly. 

Arguing with men, with anyone actually except my mother and a few employees (I loathe being in a supervisory position) was new to me, and very uncomfortable, and so I talked about it, trying to understand this hurtful dynamic in a relationship.  One of my “dates” thought that Clark must have been hen-pecked.  How else could he not have gotten angry with me since I was such a controlling, demanding woman?  I don’t see that. 

Clark was level-headed, calm, comforting.  When I totally crashed the computer in our bookstore, leaving us without any inventory or purchase and sales records, he treated me gently and with concern as I walked around constantly crying, mute, and in a shadow for three weeks.  Even when he was hurting with cancer, he found the way to help me through my anxiety and craziness over my mother’s violent and ugly onset of Alzheimer’s and the difficulty of getting her, her friends, and her independent living facility to accept the fact that she needed help.

Another one of my “dates” thought that Clark must have been a saint.  I don’t see that either.

Lee doesn’t analyze.  He just knows that we are both a little bit (hah) high strung, and get frustrated easily.  Of course, I think he is the provocateur, but we won’t go there.  If we’re not laughing at ourselves in an hour, we kiss and make up in the morning.   We know we’ve got a good thing going and we aren’t going to let our big fat egos and our insecurities mess it up.

Clark and I may have talked and discussed, compromised, but I don’t even remember doing that.  We just thought the same way.   We successfully owned and operated two small businesses together.  We built one house and did major improvements on two others.  I guess we were a good match.  

He wasn’t very exciting though. 

When we were courting he had a dream of sailing around the world.  This sounded like heaven to me.  After several years I realized this was definitely just a dream.  He was much too cautious, too responsible, and he had a nightmare of an experience sailing the Marion Bermuda Race in 1979.

Only once did I see him lose it.

That was right after Morgan was born.  He had recently changed jobs, and had given up smoking.  Who knows exactly what brought on the anxiety attack that sent him to the hospital and then to bed for months.  If ever I would have left him, it would have been then.  But somehow both he and I got through it.   Yes, he did get stuck when he was diagnosed, but who wouldn’t, and he soon started looking for answers.

Later on, as he got sicker and weaker with his non-Hodgkins, our life got smaller and smaller, but it was actually a dream.  We were living in a 200 year old home that smiled on us.  We hardly ever left it.  Our children were off on their own. 

It felt to me as if I was getting to know a new Clark.  We spoke of what was happening to him and what would become of me.  We were delving into places that we never had entered before. We were falling in love again. 

Perhaps I have rewritten history for myself and for my boys.  It is hard when you are juggling jobs and children to take the time to love each other.  As I look back now, which I am so lucky to be able to do, I wish we had taken more time for ourselves and were more expressive of our feelings.  At the time I was proud of our stoicism.  It seemed to me that we just understood we were with each other and we didn’t have to prove it to each other over and over.  And I think he felt the same.  We never doubted. 

We were fortunate we had a quiet, close time at the end of Clark’s life.  He made it possible.  He is the one who wanted us to buy that big, rambling house – a bear to maintain – on nine acres which needed constant mowing and care.  I wanted to say “No.  We don’t need an apple orchard.  What are you crazy?   All that spraying, all that work?”

But because I knew I had another life on the way, I would have done anything with him.  

And we did good