Birdsong Yahrzeit

My relationship with birdsong is complicated. The music, the signal of rising light and warmth and nesting and babies of all sorts returning is intoxicating.

But it’s forever stamped in my mind with the explosion of cancer cells in Eric’s body, the cancer that killed him. He first started to seem sick in early spring, just as there was enough light to get out for a run before we both had to leave for work in the morning. Stepping out on the porch every day I heard more and more birdsong.

Then one morning as we headed up the small hill past the cemetery to the dirt road that turns into a woods road that turns into nothing, Eric touched his chest and said, “I think I pulled a muscle swimming the other day.”

I thought who pulls a muscle in their chest swimming but buried the thought. We both  became adept at denial over the next month, as he got sicker and more consumed with pain and we kept acting like this was an inexplicably recalcitrant bad back.

It was a body full of cancer and by early May he was dead.

Everyone who knows me knows this story. How does it become more than just another story of someone losing someone they love? Especially now, when there’s a whole new category of how to lose a loved one? Maybe recognizing cycles and honoring them is a story we all need.

Yesterday morning I had a committee meeting of the land trust board I’m on and I did the Zoom call on my porch. Other people on the call could hear the birds in my yard and there were texts about the birds, asking what they were. I know I have robins, sparrows, chickadees, mourning doves, bluebirds, mockingbirds and bob-o-links in the pastures across the street.

But when I was asked what the song was punctuating the call, I didn’t know. I pay attention to the birds in my yard, but I’m not sure I want to be able to name the ones that mark the descent into illness for Eric.

I feel like a write a yahrzeit post every year on the anniversary of Eric’s death. But I know I don’t because I checked, and it’s now over a week past the day he died and I’m just getting this post up now. Maybe I was waiting to deal with the birdsong.

This is the first poem in my book about losing Eric, The Truth About Death. I’ve posted this poem before and I’ve certainly talked about losing Eric before. But as I said, maybe that’s the point, to remember that life has cycles and cycles and learning to turn with them can leave us in a better place. Like listening to and appreciating birdsong.


Now the song varies, mocking chains of notes,
the catbird flying from maple branch to fence post.
All spring I noticed the rise in birdsong
as we went out each morning, stronger chatter,
the brakes off, cells dividing and dooming themselves.
I sit in your chair, I wear your clothes, your ring.
I talk to your photographs. I watch the sky,
watch birds in the yard and realize how many flocks
I’d missed. For weeks I washed you, watched you,
lay next to you, all we could do was touch hands,
all you could do was whisper, your eyes black
morphine disks. Yet you turned back for me.

New Category

As Eric’s 13th deathaversary creeps closer (Sunday by the day of the week, Tuesday by the date), I think about how much everything has changed, and how much is the same.

One big same is I still live in the house Eric and I bought together almost 40 years ago. I look out on the same pastures and farmyard. The stone wall of the cemetery up the hill, with a burst of flaming forsythia among the gravestones, still draws the closest horizon. I run the same routes in the morning and hear the same birds. Today a loon called as I ran along Northwood Lake, its eerie tremolo announcing its arrival as it landed in the water.

Eric loved loons and their regular presence around me is a way he stays with me. A loon shows up in this poem from The Truth About Death, the book I wrote the year after Eric died. As always, loons cry as they fly overhead at dawn most mornings in the spring and summer, moving between the lake and the ponds to the north.

But there are some big changes that ride along with what has stayed the same. I’m older, I’ve lost more people, I have grandchildren, I have more time for my own creative work, I run slower but still fast for my age, I know a lot more widows, I’m no longer a widow myself.

But I don’t think of myself as being in a new category anymore. I’m just here, and mostly it works.


I’m finally home reliably enough to get milk from my neighbors. I’m a lucky woman that I live next door to Jersey cows that produce more milk and cream than the dairy family can use. The fact that such a rich and delicious food is produced 100 yards from my house feels miraculous to me.

Life has been full of left turns this winter. David and I were unexpectedly away from home for much of the last few months, away too much to drop off my empty milk bottles at the farmhouse across the brook so they could reappear the next day, the pale yellow cream at the tops of the bottles already half way to butter. I’ve missed that sweet milk and the rhythm of it.

There was more I missed. I planned to spend much of the winter pulling together a manuscript for a Vermont College of Fine Arts Conference workshop this summer. But family illnesses overrode those plans and I just cancelled my enrollment in a week-long workshop with Matthew Dickman. That would have been a terrific week, with a wonderful poet and teacher and the feedback of the other workshop members. The VCFA Conference is magical — a week with kind and interesting people who are also devoted  to writing.

But I don’t have a manuscript. The time I’d planned to use to sort, revise and write poems into a book shape  was spent in cars and hospitals. And by now I’m sure I won’t have a manuscript ready to send in by the deadline of July 1. Well into my second week of being home without any major interruptions, I still have no creative focus. I can weed perennial beds and make granola and do a spring clean-up and purge in the basement of the barn. But I can’t focus on anything that requires sustained  creative thinking. I haven’t regained the drive that makes my own work the most important thing I can be doing. I got used to there always being something that really was more important.

But I’m home. David is home too. And we’ve been here long enough to trade our empty bottles for milk.  I’ll skim the thick cream off the top and start a batch of yogurt. The cream I’ll churn into butter.

Back to my delicious routine. May it spread.

#I Love Where I Live

The hashtag #ilovewhereIlive is a favorite of mine on Instagram, because I post a lot of beautiful photos from around my house, and because I really do love where I live.

Part of that is the cows. I’ve lived with cows as neighbors most of my adult life. In my 20’s, when I moved a lot, the houses Eric and I rented often bordered pastures. This house, where I’ve lived for 37 years, has an active dairy pasture across the street and again, there are the cows, out of the barn and into the field, a couple of new, tiny ones among them.

There has finally been some rain and the tall grass has a wet sheen, seed heads bent. As I walked home from a friend’s house yesterday I looked for the newest calf and only her ears showed, patches of white on brown, through the overwhelming green where she was lying down.

There are also cows on the other side of my house, owned by a family with three children. The oldest daughter is training one of the heifers for show and when I see her walking the cow down the street, hand on her halter, I remember the others I’ve watched do the same over the decades, including the girl’s father. I’ve watched boys and girls teach cattle to pull a sled, to walk led by a halter, to stop when commanded and to hold still.

I know when the heifer is out being trained without having to see her and the girl. One of the cows left behind bellows nonstop until the heifer returns. Her plaintive cries fill my yard and even seep into the house, a reminder I live among animals who have something to say.

At one point walking home yesterday I passed a patch of Lady’s Slippers, pink scrotums of flower dotting the pine needled hill. How lovely, I thought, to be in the country, in the quiet beauty of a unusually chilly spring afternoon. The packed dirt road sloped downhill, bordered by a stone wall silvered with age and under a grand old maple starting to fall apart, as the maple in my yard is, as many of the maples in this neighborhood are.

Like us, maples age. They loose limbs and leaves and hollow out and fall, then  saplings takes their places. When I moved here the maples at the corner of my road and up at the cemetery were still grand, tall and full and thick, with no edge of decline yet showing. But 37 years is a long time. Trees get old. My achey legs and creaky back after long days of gardening and long runs let me know I’m getting old too.

Still, walking that road, under the old maple, listening to birds sing and cows moan, was exactly where I wanted to be, with the misted light, the lush vegetation, and a world pulsing with life around me.

Shehechiyanu Again, Which Is the Point



The cows are back in the pasture, the pond is warm enough to swim, laundry goes out on the clothesline rather than in the dryer, I wake to birdsong and light already in the sky, the back deck is a private enclave enclosed by leafy trees, the woods are full of blossoms, there are pots of flowers on the porch and the screen door is up in the kitchen.  All the pleasures of the new season to be enjoyed again.

I’ve written about Shehechiyanu before, the Jewish blessing giving thanks for being alive to complete another year’s cycle, coming around again to a festival or holiday or favored event — the first outdoor swim of the season, the peonies first open blossom, the cows crowding the corner of the field across the street on their first day out.

I thought I’d posted the poem I wrote many years ago imagining the blessing for the cows. If I did post this before, the WordPress search function doesn’t think so.  Here it is.


The cows are back
in the pasture, random
black and white a foreign
light in the field of green

tipped with a sheen
of moisture from rain
that fell last night
steadying the grass

in its surge of growth
sufficient to allow
the cows’ return
to fresh fodder.

Does a cow bless,
once again, far fences
after winter’s pen,
silage and hay,

open air a tickle
in a fold of her teats
just past where her tail
could reach?

Eleven, Twelve — Double


December 18

Guitar music comes up the stairs. David is playing.  He hasn’t painted since April. I’m building a standing art desk next to my writing desk, a space to turn and make things with materials, not words, colored papers and pens and boxes of cards and catalogues I’ve been collecting for years to use for collages.

Which means emptying a book case so I can run the new desk into the corner. Already my date books are in a box in the barn.  Next go my journals. What do they say?

March 6, 1979: I confront Jim, a nasty and misogynistic roommate who lived with Eric and me in a house we rented from Lynne Cherry in Marlborough, CT. Lynne sometimes spent a night or two there, had slept with Jim one weekend, but now she was angry at him, he hadn’t paid his rent.  She asks us to talk to him so I do.

I don’t back down when he tries to placate me. At one point I just kept talking back at him, wouldn’t shut up – making him face my anger & he told me to leave his room – we had a stare down & he couldn’t budge me – I loved it.

One journal has no date on the cover and my entries don’t even have the day of the month: saturday evening, sunday evening, thursday, saturday early afternoon, friday, the next tuesday may 24 – ah, a date. Still no year and no upper case letters. I think it was 1977. Who needed to know the day of the month in 1977? Not me.

I write a lot about writing. Needing to get possessed. Art desk.

December 19, 2015

When I sit on the end of my bed to put on my shoes, I see a Great Blue Heron on the other side of the far farm pond in the cow pasture. A really big one.

Then I quick catch yet again that it’s not a heron. It’s not Eric. It’s the tall stump of a small tree that blew over two years ago, the wood bent forward in a thick figure of a heron.  Eric isn’t in every heron, though seeing a heron fly overhead or standing in water makes me think of him.

This summer when I was home from being with Chris for a few days a heron stood in the intersection of Canterbury Road and West Street for about 30 minutes. It didn’t move, other than to swivel it’s head. A car went by, in the lower part of the intersection several yards from the heron. The car stopped, then went on.

I kept watching. The heron stayed so long I stopped watching. Then I decided I wanted a photo and went to get my phone and a truck came and needed to make the turn up Canterbury Road and the bird lifted and flew away.

Chris has a story on her blog about a heron seeming to follow her one day, and thinking about herons are how Eric comes to me. The winter she learned she had cancer in the lining of her brain she was scared, but she told me Eric had visited her and been close and that felt comforting to her.  She wonders about magic — Birds are special; they can fly, they can soar and they can also put their feet on the ground.  Birds connect heaven and earth.  


Ice Skim


Yesterday there was a glass-thin layer of ice across a leaf-packed tub of water on the disc golf course David and I walked with Sam as he somehow got discs to angle around corners and find open lines through trees.  The sun was bright but winter felt close by.

This morning I ran by small ponds skimmed with ice.  Now the sun is setting behind the silo in the old farmyard, at least 45 degrees down the horizon from where the last light disappears behind trees in June.  Darkness takes up more and more of every day.

But the pasture across the street still has a sheen of green, grass not yet entirely done for the season, though not enough for the cows to eat.  They romp and bellow as they come to the hay trough that’s parked in front of our house, right under my study windows.  A daily show I never get tired of.  Like watching a fire or moving water, having animals live across the street, in clear view, is calming.

Almost exactly three weeks from now the sun will begin to travel back up the horizon. It’s a relief to be that close to the light cycle turning around yet again.  It will continue to get colder, the ice will thicken and eventually hold and hopefully bear weight for skating or skiing.

But there will be more light.  And cows.

Home Alone


Emilio prepared for saying good-bye to everyone by crying.  “I don’t want to go.  It’s been too short.” Then he got dressed, ate breakfast, and pitched in to help us all get out of our vacation rental by 10:00, after a late night for all of us.

There were more tears this morning, but not Emilio’s.  He’d left with Adrienne and Matt on Friday to go back to Long Island.  David and I were lucky — we got to extend our family vacation into the weekend, with Melia and Michael, Mackenzie and Sam all at the house until this morning.

This was our first family vacation with this iteration of family.  Our week together at a big, comfortable house on Squam Lake was terrific — fun, sweet, funny, scenic, serious, tasty, refreshing, relaxed and energy packed.  There were constant conversations among the family and flow of guests, so many people visiting from so many spokes of the family at one point that a visitor said good-bye to Adrienne as she was going out the door, thinking she was a guest leaving.

There were quiet evenings with only the core nine of us, Emilio asleep and the rest of us reading or talking over a game.  There were late nights with a crowd for dinner and numerous stunner sunsets.  The World Cup final was streamed on three different computers set on tables facing a semi-circle of chairs.  At one point the streaming feed of one computer was 3 seconds behind, creating sequential squealing and groaning across the room, as those watching the on time screens reacted and the rest of the room caught up. Emilio climbed his first mountain (West Rattlesnake) and he and I together picked every accessible ripe blueberry on our corner of the lake, out in the morning to get what had ripened overnight and eat it before the birds.

Now I’m home alone for the first time in 10 days.  “Transitions are hard,” I said last night, thinking about how just now would feel, everyone gone, the house only holding David and me today and for many days to come.  But as I listened to the kids talk about their own transitions, back to our usual geographically scattered state, I thought maybe I have it easiest. I’m already home.

And actually, I’m not home alone.  Long story, but Sam ended up flying back to Tennessee today and will be back up next weekend to get his car.  That meant his puppy Quinoa will be here with me for the week, a particularly adorable part of the family left to make the house seem a bit less empty.



Mountains and Cows and Moving

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Saturday we climbed Mt. Liberty.  It was a cold day, even with the bright sun, and stopping along the trail as I hiked to the top of the Franconia Ridge, I chilled easily and had to start moving again.  But at the summit there was full sun and no wind, the least wind I’ve ever experienced on that ridge.  While we ate lunch I savored the view, and let the sun heat the black jacket across my back.

Yesterday morning we pulled up the shades in the bedroom and the cows in the pasture across the street were staring right into windows.  Could they see us?  Frisky all day, they kept sniffing and jumping on each other’s rear ends, watching me as I did a final mow of the yard, then trotting again in a circle around the close corner of the field, as close to me as they could get.

Top to bottom, field to forest, long sloping ridge lines to cow eyes tracking my day.  I keep moving through whatever is next.

A New Year

Today is the fourth day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  This year I was given the honor of delivering the D’var Torah during the second day services; it’s a tradition at Temple Beth Jacob for a member of the congregation to be the guest speaker on the second day.  A D’var Torah is a talk related to a portion of the Torah (first five books of the Jewish Bible), usually that week’s portion to be read during services, often including life lessons and commentary.  A sermon, in other words.

Eric was deeply involved with Temple Beth Jacob, and had written five different D’var Torah commentaries over the years, for different occasions.  I read them all, trying to plan what to say.  It was wonderful to reconnect with Eric in that way, to remember his commitment to Judaism and to sustaining a strong Jewish community.  I didn’t end up with a plan about how to focus my D’var Torah, but I did end up talking about the Yiddish saying, “One plans, God laughs,” and how planning can be laughable, in both a discouraging, and encouraging way.  Because our plans often get interrupted by unfortunate events, but we also often end up in fortunate places without any planning on our parts.

My talk went well, and those at services on Tuesday were uniformly positive in responding to my talk (I talked a lot, also, about Eric, and David, and the twists and turns of life and death and moving on — I’d put the talk up here, but it’s too long for a blog post).

But best of all is the herons I’ve seen every day since the beginning of the New Year.  Great Blue Herons were Eric’s favorite bird, and I see him when I see a heron.  The last two mornings, out for my morning run, a heron has lifted out of the brook I was running past and slowly flapped its long wings to cruise along the course of the water.  “Hey, Eric, Shana Tova,” I thought and heard Eric saying back to me, “Good job.”