Yom Kippur Visitation

Photograph by Todd Henson https://toddhensonphotography.com

Tuesday I looked out my study window as I talked on the phone. In the dim light I could make out a blue heron standing on the top of a tall white pine tree. It seemed a strange place for a bird I normally see flapping wide wings across the sky or standing in shallow water, waiting to snatch a fish.

But it was almost dark, almost the beginning of Yom Kippur, so it made sense. Here was Eric, in his usual guise of one of the birds he loved most, planted in my view, helping me usher in the solemn day.

Yesterday morning at Temple I was talking to a friend, catching up on news while we waited for services to start, when a young woman approached. She circled around to stand where I could see her face.

“Excuse me,” she said, stepping forward, and told me her name. I greeted her, then was honest and asked how I knew her because I couldn’t remember. “Did you used to be married?” she asked, clearly not sure she had me right after I told her my name.

“Yes, I was married to Eric Schain,” I said, knowing that was the connection she was looking for. She smiled. She’d had Eric as a Temple School teacher and loved him. She’d thought she recognized me from all those years ago and wanted me to know how important he’d been to her as a Jewish child. Her mother had taught with Eric. They were big fans of each other, sharing a love of Judaism and a commitment to passing along their traditions.

The young woman and I chatted for a few more minutes — she wanted how Adrienne and Sam were doing and told me her mother died two years ago. Another parent gone too young. As we parted she again told me how much Eric had meant to her and held her hands in prayer beneath her chin, made a small bow with her head, then lifted her face and put a hand over her heart.

Sometimes I wonder why I still make a point to get to High Holiday Day services. I consider myself a secular Jew — attached to the holiday and festival celebrations I shared with Eric, traditions at the center of the family life we built together. But I’m not observant or religious and often squirm during services at the frequent mentions of God, as if there’s an embodied being behind life.

But once again I was reminded why I was there, why I keep this observance in my life. It’s where I find Eric.

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Four Years and Infinity

I had a short visit with Ava this past weekend, meeting up with family at a disc golf course, on our way home from a vacation on Cape Cod. Ava and I hung out by the road, on a picnic table in the shade of tall maple trees. We played with a princess sticker book and played school and of course she was the teacher. At one point a loud motorcycle went by and Ava covered her ears.

“Smart move,” I said. Which led to a story from Ava about a time she was in a field and had to cover her ears because she heard “100 motorcycles or infinity, or actually both numbers at once.”

Yesterday was the four year deathaversary of my sister Chris. Four years! It feels like ten and it feels like four and it feels like infinity. Maybe so many people I love have died that one grief bleeds into the next and each loss feels like forever.

My sister Meg called me yesterday to let me know she was going to visit Chris’s memorial bench. She planned to paint some rocks to put on the bench and wanted to know if I had a message I wanted her to put on a rock.

“I do,” I said. “But I feel like it’s selfish.” When she asked me what it was I told her I wanted to say, “I miss you.”

“That’s not selfish,” Meg said. She’d called our sister Jeanne earlier in the day and Jeanne had the exact same message. “And I planned to write ‘We all miss you,'” Meg said.

The memorial bench isn’t always there when family goes to visit it. Perched on top of a sea wall, looking out over Minot Beach to the ocean in Scituate, MA where my sisters and I grew up, the bench gets knocked over and tossed around by storms.

But the bench was in place yesterday, and Meg was able to bring painted rocks. Peace, Love, Thinking of You, and We Are All One, which is the message Chris chose to have on her bench.

We all miss you.

 

How the World Works With A 4-Year-Old

Ava: Do pirates suck your blood?

Me: No, vampires do, but there aren’t really any vampires.

Ava: What are vampires?

Me: Vampires are in stories but they’re not real.

Ava: Are pirates real?

Me: Yes, pirates are real. They’re people who rob other people on ships. But not people like you, like big ships and pirates have their own boats and they go up to other boats and steal stuff. There are real pirates and there are stories about pirates that aren’t all real.

Ava: If you had a treasure chest of gems on a boat, pirates would steal that.

Me: Yes, that what stories about pirates are like.

Ava: Let’s go play on the playground.

Me: Okay, but remember my back is really sore today. I won’t be able to pick you up. I can’t pick up anything right now.

Ava: But if you saw a gem you could pick that up.

Me: You’re right. I could.

Milk

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.

Birthday Dreams

Astrocytes in the Brain
An Ava & Mimi collaboration

Early Wednesday morning I was being chased by creepy men in a nightmare. I’d been able to run away, along with some other women, until a large, blond, overweight man caught up to me. I looked at him and thought calling to my friends, who were somewhere in front of me, was my best chance of safety. I was terrified.

“Help,” I managed to squeak out, which was some kind of noise loud enough to wake David, who then woke me. Even awake the palem bloated face of the man in a short sleeve, patterned knit shirt stayed in front of me. I shook myself, got up to pee, then went back to sleep.

It wasn’t until later on Wednesday that I remembered the nightmares Eric had in the last year of his life. His whimpering and muffled cries would wake me. I’d sit up and shake him, and he’d rise from his dream to tell me about some ghoulish figure pursuing him. Months after Eric died I remembered those nightmares and wondered if they came from his body warning him that his cancer was back and blooming. There was a menace chasing him. The dreams started before we knew how sick Eric was, probably about the time the cancer got a foothold in his liver and bones.

Wednesday was Eric’s birthday. He would have been 67. A friend texted me early in the day to say she was going to eat a piece of candy in his memory — he had a pronounced sweet tooth. Candy was a way of life; Twizzlers and Peanut M&M’s were favorites.

I texted Adrienne and Sam about candy and Eric’s birthday and we all committed to Eric-inspired indulgences some time that day. Adrienne gave Emilio and Ava candy after dinner and told them it was to remember Grandpa Eric, who would have made sure they had access to sweets if he’d lived long enough to know them.

Ava said, as she ate her chocolate, “but we can’t call Grandpa Eric. He’s dead.” Emilio said, “we’re eating candy to remember Grandpa Eric because he loved candy. But can we not talk about him being dead. It’s almost my bedtime.”

Eric lives on, along with anxiety and pleasure and joy and connection and candy and dreams.

The night after the nightmare I had a long dream about Eric. He was just around. Being in life.

 

A New Year, Another Year

I sit in Temple, listening to the familiar Rosh Hashanah prayers. Eric is beside me, in his brown and black tweed sports jacket, reading along with the Hebrew. He taps me on the shoulder and points at something in the text, some letters I might recognize. He wants to teach me to read Hebrew.

Except he isn’t and he doesn’t and he won’t. This is the 13th Rosh Hashanah when he hasn’t sat beside me, but I still feel him there every year.

Today I sat behind a family I’ve known since Eric and I joined the Temple in 1981. Two daughters, a husband and wife. The older daughter is Sam’s age and they went through Temple school together. The mother worked in the same hospital as Eric and was principal of the Temple school for many of the years Eric was a teacher.

They switched seats often during the service, standing for a prayer and then shifting around. They chatted and put their arms across each others’ backs and tapped hands and leaned against a shoulder off and on. I loved watching their connection and affection and wondered what it feels like to have the same husband for all those years, to have your mother and father still together, to have a family unit uninterrupted by loss.

My kids and I have the kind of connection and affection I witnessed today, but there’s that hole that never goes away. We’ve walked a long way through our grief and are all living lucky lives in so many ways. But still, there’s a particularly piercing sadness during these High Holy Days that meant so much to Eric. I think about how life would be if Eric was still here — would we all be together at the Temple, would we each be living where we are now, with the same partners, the same work?

Probably not for most of those questions. But I still have Eric’s jacket and it’s back hanging in my study, a trick I thought of two years ago. I can almost see him in it. He’s smiling, watching me at my desk, happy to know I’m writing, happy to know that the kids and I are okay.

Sometimes we’re sad, but we’re okay.

 

Alone In My House For the First Time in Weeks and Now Alone Alone

I’m not actually sure it’s been weeks, but it feels like it, so that’s how I’ll count it. I love having a full house, love seeing and hanging with my children and stepchildren and grandchildren and all the partners and friends that come with them. Lucky, lucky, lucky.

But there is a wall. A wall where the part of my brain that disengages with daily life and picks up in the pursuit of art — poetry, prose,  drawing, collages,  gardening, book-making — starts to stutter and slam around and ask for more attention.

When David and I are here in the house by ourselves, we’re easily able to ignore each other for long stretches of the day so we can fall into the tunnels of our own creativity and our work to make the world a better place. When family and friends are here, I love them too much to do anything but hang with them. Time with them is precious.

And then there’s the shopping and cooking and eating together, long meals with long talks, and games of Catan and Set and during these too too hot days lots of playing in the water. When I wake up Emilio is up right behind me so my early mornings aren’t at my computer unless we’re watching videos of endangered species. This morning I woke to taps on my shoulder and Ava’s whisper, “Mimi, Mimi, Mimi.” Time to get up and make her a honey “samblewich.” So busy. So sweet.

Later: I wrote the above over a week ago and haven’t been back to it since. Because I was only alone for one evening and then it was three more days of company and then once all the visitors left David and I put water toys away and did laundry and weeded and cleaned out the fridge and focused intently on his campaign for State Rep from Northwood (yes, he’s running!, but that’s another post).

Now I’m really alone, in Vermont, on a second story deck overlooking two old oaks, the closer one with a gaping, bubble-edged scar where a branch fell off what looks like a long time ago. A big mouth saying hello. These are very grand trees and very old. And my only company.

I’m in Montpelier for the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference. Yes, I’ll be spending a lot of time with other people during the day — workshopping a new poetry manuscript, going to lectures and readings and meals where, once again, there will be long talks. But the talks will be about writing and I’ll be living alone. When I come back to my AirBnB there will only be the page to talk to.

Time to expand.

Firsts

It’s been two weeks of firsts, though the wedding last weekend that David and I officiated was the third for each of us. But it was the first time we’ve done it together, and many of the guests commented on how nice it was to have a married couple perform the ceremony of marriage for another couple.

The most impressive first of the wedding  was hiking with the bride. The original plan for the wedding was to do it on Neville Peak in Epsom, the proposal location and also a frequent hike for the bride when she visits her aunt and my friend Alison. But getting all the guests to the summit wasn’t going to work, so instead a hike after the wedding was planned. The hiking option was announced on the invitation: ceremony at 2:00, hiking or cocktail option at 3:00, reception at 5:00.

Would anyone really choose hiking over cocktails? The ceremony wasn’t very long, so there was time for both. After photos and drinks, the bride bustled up the train of her embroidered and beaded gown and walked down the driveway and started up the dirt road to the Epsom Town Forest, headed for the beaver pond a mile uphill in the col between Nottingham and Fort Mountains. At least half the wedding guests followed, still in dresses and suits and shirts and ties. It was a merry sight.

A one point a young family passed us on their way down the trail and were surprised to see a beautiful bride in her white gown, sparkling and magical. The two little girls stared and the parents stood behind them looking puzzled.

“It’s like a fairy tale,” the father of the bride said and the girls kept staring. “It is a fairy tale,” I said, then pointed to the bride. “And she’s a magical goddess.” The bride smiled, the groom smiled, we all resumed hiking.

The next day David and I went to pick up Emilio, who spent last week with us on a camp on Northwood Lake. Friday afternoon, as we were getting ready to drive Emilio home, he and David made a list of all his “firsts” of the week and wrote them in the cottage guest book.

  • first almost tornado (the wild thunderstorm that hit Northwood Lake last week)
  • first world cup on the water (every float trip from the dock to the beach featured pretend competition between world cup teams)
  • first time wearing goggles to search for a lost swim ring
  • first overnight in a tent (three of the five nights he was here)
  • first time sleeping in a sleeping bag (it got chilly at night later in the week)
  • first time catching a fish
  • first cotton candy ice cream (left behind by his uncle Sam)
  • first personal password for a Kindle (he’s reading “Dog Man”)
  • first ten minute river of minnows swimming past the dock (gorgeous and extraordinary)
  • first time surfing on a boogie board (Emilio stood on his own for over 10 seconds)
  • first time a bald eagle has flown right over his head with a fish in its claws
  • first snapping turtle sighting (a big one!)
  • first time seeing a scuba diver in a lake
  • first time watching a huge crane lift felled trees (see first first)
  • first time kayaking in David’s kayak

So many firsts, so much fun. It’s been a great couple of weeks.

 

Sunset on Northwood Lake
Photo by Emilio

Falling In Love With Lilacs

February 16, 2009 — An Island Journal*

Eric and I found a lilac bush and a house to go with it. It was 1981 and we needed to move. For the past five years we’d moved around New England as Eric built his career in food service management. I didn’t care where I lived, as long as I was with Eric. I was a poet, I could write anywhere. The shifting landscape of Eric’s work had landed us in New Hampshire two years before. We rented a house and got married in the backyard. Adrienne was born in our bedroom. We settled in. But after a year the couple who owned the house needed it for her parents. We wanted to stay in New Hampshire, Eric had a good job, it was time to stop moving. We began looking at houses to buy.

Eric fell in love with the lilac bush by the front door of the house we bought, the only house we ever owned.  When we first saw the house it was a mess. Old, wide-reveal aluminum siding left smudges of white on your skin or clothes if you rubbed up against it, metal gleaming through in patches like a bald skull under thin hair. The rows of windows on the porch running along the south and west sides of the house had peeled to bare, raw wood, the glass barely held in place by dried caulking that flaked off in chunks. There had been a grease fire in the kitchen the year before and black soot still crawled up the walls to the ceiling, an echo of the flames. An old corner room had been turned into a bathroom, a toilet and free-standing sink and tub spread across the space. It was an upgrade from the two seater outhouse in a corner of the barn.

But the massive lilac bush was in full bloom by the front door and the air was sweet with scent. We stepped over the threshold into the living room and looked at each other.

“This is it,” we said to each other with our eyes.

In the week after Eric died, the lilac blossoms burst open and I sat on the porch, next to the bush, and wrote and listened and watched. The world was all new again, focused around absence. A catbird I wanted to believe was speaking to me for Eric sat on the wires crossing through the crown of blossoms, and sang over and over. The songs varied in pitch and melody, as if the bird was trying out for parts as other birds, other beings. A pair of sparrows was nesting in the yew hedge on the other side of the porch, and when the catbird wasn’t singing I listened to the chicks squawking as the parents brought them food. Birds became my porch companions. They occupied my grief and gave me a new language, one I didn’t have to write down or try to remember.

The passage above is from the The Island Journal, the first iteration of the memoir I recently completed — a book I intended to write only on islands, in a handmade journal David gave me in the first months we knew each other. There are many reasons there are very few traces of that original Island Journal in the finished draft of the memoir (the primary reason being that people who read it couldn’t figure out what was going on), but there are so many memories packed into that journal that come to me at different times.

Like right now when the lilac bush is coming into peak bloom. I still live in that same house, the lilacs still make me think of Eric, and I still bring a bouquet to Eric’s grave every year. I’ll bring one tomorrow.

The Tower Room

Eric loved this room. It’s on the second floor of the tower that connects the house to the old barn loft, so it’s high up. With three big windows to the south and one to west, it’s full of light and the views are outstanding — the old farmyard and silo across the field next to a line of tall spruce, and the slope of Fort Mountain to the south. The forsythia is a bright splash of yellow at the edge of the road and the maple tree we planted five years ago as a memorial to Eric is thick with red buds.

Eric watched TV and napped and slept in this room. Once we built the tower as part of a house renovation he spent more time here than anywhere else in our house, even counting sleeping. He’d watch sports or the history channel sitting in his Danish leather recliner in the evening, fall asleep, then get up at some point and sleep on the couch. In the middle of the night he’d get into bed with me. He was a nomadic sleeper.

When he got sick we moved a bed into the room and this is where he spent his last three weeks. This is where he died, about a foot from where I’m sitting right now. My desk crosses into the space that held his bed.

The tower room is now my study and the room where I spend most of my waking time. I look out these windows and feel like one of the luckiest people ever, to get to be in such a beautiful space while I do work I love. Eric missed so much, sometimes I try to appreciate things double. Or maybe it’s just that I know how quickly it can all be gone.

Eric died twelve years ago this morning by the day, tomorrow by the date. I planned to light a yahrzeit candle for him tonight, sun down to sun down, but I couldn’t wait. I came to my desk earlier to work on the manuscript I’m putting together and couldn’t concentrate. That Sunday morning in 2006 is so present in this room today. I couldn’t only think about it, I needed to do something.

So I lit the candle early. I look out the windows. I write.