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.

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

Tuck loved to be free —

Tuck 4 062013 LeeWatching him bound across
the field by the creek made
my toes curl.

Even when he bolted
it was impossible to scold him.
He always came back – full of burrs
and sticks and leaves,
soaking wet,
satisfied and glad to be a dog.

We’d leave the gate open if he were
still out when
we went to bed.

Sometimes I secretly really wanted him
to break away,
squeeze through the fence,
escape the leash,
chase a bunny,
but I
wouldn’t admit it.

What if he
frightened a child?
dug up a garden?
snatched a chicken?

What if he were
hit by the train?
attacked by a coyote?
snagged on a wire?
shot by a neighbor?

He had no use for treats or bribes,
could take or leave his meals,
didn’t sleep on a pillow,
fetch sticks, bother with toys.

He had been wild once,
I was told, in his life before
I knew him

but it must not have been all good

because always he came back to us,
because he always tried his best
to be a loyal, beloved pet,
extending his paw to all, and
keeping an eye on Jaxon,

because he walked proudly at my side,
tail tall and curled,
fluffed like a drum major’s feathers,
on lookout for suspicious dogs on leashes,
and people who might hurt me.

At least that’s what people told me —
that he would protect me.

He was a proud descendant of wolves:
his body peppered with buckshot,
he preferred to sleep outside.

He had a fierce bark, which he didn’t use often,
and it surprised me each time I heard it.

His ballsiness was well noted:
his kennel name was Manly.

His last few days were Hell.

We said goodbye.

He closed his eyes
and went to sleep.

Friendship on Campus

Just read today’s NYTimes article on college sex by Kate Taylor.  Sex is nothing new.  Sex when drunk is nothing new.  Sex without love is nothing new.  It has been going on forever. The article is new and begging for comments.  I’ll fall into line and make mine. 

What’s missing from this article is that women and men on both high school and college campuses, unlike when I was a student in the sixties, can be friends — not just loving couples or hookups, drunk or sober.  Or at least the boys and girls/men and women of my son’s school years –the nineties and two thousand naughts — were friends.  To me that possibility is the most important change in male/female relationships in the past fifty or so years since the women’s sexual revolution.

The sixties opened the door wide for pre-marital lovemaking without guilt or shame.  This eventually became acceptable in the minds of all.  Well not all.  Not those who truly believe in and practice abstinence until marriage, and we should all respect their choice.

Free sex (again what the feminist movement brought about) was certainly not acceptable in the minds of those who had a problem with equality of the sexes.  They took it as a perk.   A dirty perk.  They still do.  Lately with the nonsense coming out of the mouths of our politicians, and the medieval stances being made by legislatures across our land, one might think they are the majority.  Can’t be.  They are just the loudmouth bullies who were loudmouth bullies when they were younger.

Good and bad came with women’s sexual liberation.  On the bad side were the abuses of all those young women and men who wanted to express their trust and love, but who were too immature and innocent to understand that not all the people with flowers in their hair were as pure in heart and mind as they were.  There were bouts of loss of self-esteem, “degrading encounters,” and the hurt and depression that come with miscommunication or lack of communication about expectations or outright lies, conflicts with family and perhaps future partners.  Same as now.  Were there increases in venereal disease or unwanted pregnancies or extra-marital affairs?  There could very well have been.

A lot of college men in the sixties were heavy, heavy drinkers.  What has caused this increase in the female student population?  Is there an increase?  I don’t recall any of my classmates ever saying “If I’m sober, I’m working,” as one college woman is quoted in the article.  Does that reverse into “If I’m not working, I’m drinking and having sex?”  Doubtful. An increase in drinking among today’s female students might stem from a sense of futility, financial pressures, lack of opportunity and lack of encouragement from the leadership and powerful that have emerged from their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.  Being young doesn’t mean you are stupid.  There are just not many places for them to go.

On the good side, the women’s sexual revolution of the sixties enabled students and young adults in their twenties and thirties to delay marriage and experience the freedom of being single and independent before marriage.  The youth of my day were free from internal and external pressures to do things the way our parents did.  A person learns a lot about him/herself and the partner he/she wants and needs by experiencing relationships with different people.  This goes both for personality and lovemaking.

We had time on our side.  We could grow into ourselves before our marriages, not after a divorce as so many of our parents. 

Perhaps the above thought is out of date. Today’s college students can’t do things the way their parents did.  There is little on their side.  Where are the jobs?  What do they do when they graduate?   What fields are open?   They can sell their souls and work for Monsanto or Exxon or Bank of America.  They can teach but only if they agree to deny science and teach lies.  They can go into the arts but only if they have a corporate sponsor which means they are censored.  They can try to change the system but only if they are strong (or crazy) enough to be publicly persecuted and harassed.

Opportunities for high school graduates are even bleaker.  They pay little, offer little chance of advancement, and provide no security or benefits.

Perhaps experiencing life so that you can be a better person and make a better partner choice no longer matters.

Girls and boys were not friends in my school days.  Girls wanted boyfriends, steadies, a class ring, an athletic letter, dates on Saturday night, a club jacket, husbands along with diplomas.  That’s what girls learned from their parents, the TV, the love songs on the radio. Boys wanted someone who would put out or they were too shy to want anything at all.

Somewhere between the sixties and the nineties something changed. 

Both my boys have had girl “friends.”   They’ve been to my house and have spent the night and I know they have not shared a bed, but often a bedroom.  It took me quite a while when they were in high school to believe that all was innocent.   

It was such a great change, a very needed change.  I wish I had had boy “friends” when young.  My first male “friend” was gay and I was in my late twenties!  Even now I’d feel a bit of a flirt and a bit deceitful meeting a man “friend” for coffee or for a walk along the river while my constant companion was at home.

Am I that different from my son’s girl friends?  I wonder. It has come to seem perfectly natural that my sons can have females as friends.  I wonder it if is perfectly natural that other women’s daughters can have males as friends.

Are today’s students so different from those of just ten years ago?  Please don’t tell me so.  Please young women and men of today.  Hang on.  There is no one way.  There are many ways.  Some just wander around a little more than others.

Classmates of the opposite sex are not just marriage partners or hook-ups.  They can be friends – friends for a year, friends for life.    You don’t have to swear to love each other until death do you part.  You don’t have to be committed.  There are chapters in your lives.  Live each one to its fullest.  Friends are fun in good times, they are there in the bad. They are very nice.  It may take a little more effort than getting drunk and doing it standing up in the bathroom.  You may still argue and go different ways, but after making the first friend, you will find it gets easier.  And you won’t have a hangover in the morning.

If you don’t have sex with each other, that’s wonderful.  If you do, that’s wonderful too.  

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

Chinatown Update

No trip to NYC is complete without our last minute shopping spree.  My birthday celebration in the city was no different.  We ventured out from our Mott Street apartment into the daytime bustle of Chinatown.

Pig headsI worry about the endurance of this neighborhood.  Just today I read in the Times “that New York needs to be lofted back into global competitiveness. That the city isn’t modern enough.”  And that the Department of City Planning is “envisioning a taller, denser, shinier future for the neighborhood around Grand Central.”  How soon before the entire city is one tall, dense, shiny complex dotted with gentrified neighborhoods for the super-wealthy and not so-super wealthy?

At least not yet.

We scurry from one stall to another buying baby bok choy, Chinese broccoli, mangoes, cherries, pomelo and whatever else we see that looks good.  The cost is always considerably less than what one would find locally.   But the biggest incentive to shop is that it is so much fun to be part of the activity on the streets.  Lee is a pro and his interactions with the vendors are swift and smooth.  He can’t speak the language but he’s got the brusqueness down pat.

We bring home more produce than we think we could ever eat but always seem to consume it all in one stir-fry and soup after another.

Then we pop into the markets for all kinds of noodles, sesame oil, sauces, and black beans.  Lee has his favorites.

2013-04-22 13.01.39

We go to Kam Man on Canal Street when we need more tea blossoms, a teapot, or other kitchenware.  I’m more at home there.  The store has American structure with check out lines and cash registers, and now New Kam Man has a web presence, but we still pay in cash, which is the norm in Chinatown.  Hank C, the “Perpetually Hungry,” on Yelp says he see more tourists in Kam Man than locals, and that could be. The store is  doing something right, at least for me and the other tourists. Hank recommends the Hong Kong Supermarket and other shops on Elizabeth Street and perhaps we’ll give them a look-see when we are down again next week.

Yee Li

Our last stop was Yee Li for lunch and to stock up on meals to bring back home.  We were delighted to see that our favorite restaurant is freshly painted and has earned its “A.”  The ambiance is still the same however.  We were tickled to see two men carry a large glass canister to one of the tables.  They dumped out a big pile of cash and started to count the bills.  No pretense here.  No fear either.  The waiter smiled when we took our photo.

We learned from Lee’s Chinese family that this was the tip jar.  And of course since they grew up working hard in their family’s restaurant they added, for their enjoyment and ours, a few stories of their childhood in the business.

The future is what it is all about, but when life seems meaningless and we feel lost, these small vibrant connections to our past can help us remember the way home.