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.

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.

 

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.

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

Neighbors

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When I bought my house 37 years ago I didn’t realize I would be completely surrounded by one family, the Johnson’s. Johnson family members owned the farm across West Street, the house kitty-corner on the other side of the cross roads, the small pasture across Canterbury Street, the white cape on the other side of Narrows Brook along with that barn and corner of land, and the corn field across Route 107.

How lucky I’ve been, to have Johnsons for neighbors. There have been the inevitable shifts and changes and now my property doesn’t abut Johnson land on every side. But many family members are still in the same houses, with one significant exception.

Arlene Johnson died last Friday, at age 96. She was a remarkable woman. At her service the minister talked about what an “extraordinary ordinary”person she was. But, he said, she wasn’t perfect, no one is except in Jesus.

Arlene’s neighbor on the other side of her house disagreed. She stood up when people were invited to share stories about Arlene and said, no, Arlene was perfect. The fact that this neighbor is someone who’s lived 200 yards from me for 18 years and I’ve only ever seen her three times, and who introduced herself as the person who never leaves her house, gives a tiny view into who Arlene was — such a special person that she could connect enough with a deep introvert that the woman not only went to the service, but stood up in front of a church full of people and spoke and cried and described how Arlene loved her. And she loved Arlene.

I agree with my introverted neighbor. Arlene was as close to perfect as anyone I’ve ever known. She was invariably kind, friendly, spunky, cheerful and helpful. Even though she and her family have a deep faith in Jesus and believe in the redemption he offers, she never once tried to talk to me about her faith or press her beliefs on me. Rather, she was curious about Judaism. When we were preparing for Sam’s bar mitzvah she told me she’d never been to one and wondered what it was like. I invited her and her daughter-in-law and they came and had a great time.

Over the winter, as Arlene’s health deteriorated, David and I visited as often as we could. David would play guitar and I’d chat.  I showed her my photos from our trip to Ireland and she told me about her attempt to climb Mt. Major last year; she only got halfway before she realized maybe she was a bit too old to reach the summit. At her service her grandson said the one thing she left undone on her bucket list was zip lining. Until just about a year ago she was walking to the corner store on a regular basis, and up the hill to the old maples to collect fallen branches to haul home for kindling.

The minister at Arlene’s service talked a lot about the love and saving grace of Jesus, but the face Arlene showed the world was one of a deeply human, considerate and caring individual. Her favorite verse was Micah 6:8: And what does the Lord require of you? To do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.

That was Arlene. What a world it would be with more people like her in it.

Indigo

 

There should be a name for the color of the particular blue deepening into purple-black indigo of winter evenings, especially as a day of snow slips over into sleet. The indigo glow through my windows right now brings back this poem from February 2007.  The barn and shed and silo are still there, though the farmhouse burned. And l need a bigger wagon, there’s so much more to hold than a hole now.

Valentine’s Day

The first real storm washes out the little color
in the landscape, the barn and shed and silo
weathered to the gray of a cut snow bank.
Sparrows peck in the perennial bed, tall stems
and seed heads clustered through snow. Small storms
of snow blow up off the roof of the hay shed,
sweep past. We would ski at midnight to catch
the pure snow before the storm slipped over to sleet.
So much happens every day, I need a wagon to hold
the hole. Last night I lay on the kitchen floor,
where our cat slept for her last year, her old body
bony, weightless. I noticed the narrow maple
floor boards running under the hutch, thinking
the world is flat even as I know it is round.

Lichen On His Stone

I hadn’t been to visit Eric’s grave for a long time. Six months? More? I’m quite sure there was no lichen on the rose granite headstone the last time I was there.

Now there is. I thought, this looks like an old grave. I thought, this is beautiful. Eric loved mosses and lichens, the small plants and organisms that add richness to the world’s green.

How long does it take for lichen to take root on granite? Or how long does it take before I’d notice that lichen has crept into the carving of Eric. And January. The Hebrew letters too.

The stone has been there since April 2007. Many lichens grow less than a millimeter a year, so these could have been growing on Eric’s stone all along.

I’d like to live in a room painted the pale sage of the lichen on Eric’s stone. It’s almost the color of Squam Lake water over white sand. Eric would love that lapping at his grave.