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.
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.
to have a life that isn’t consumed with anxiety and terror.”
“How’s it going,” Jon Lovett asks.
“It’s difficult, man.”
So says Marc Maron in this week’s podcast of Lovett or Leave It. Maron goes on to counsel that you do have to figure it out. Trump thrives on making us mad and scared so when you let the unprecedented unprecedentedness of the terror of his presidency keep you from enjoying the clear blue of a cool autumn day in New Hampshire after spending two days playing with the unspoiled and precocious children of your child, then he’s won. Resistance is enjoyment of simple pleasures and there’s nothing better than a rainy Saturday morning entertaining beautiful children so their parents can have a rare morning of sleeping in together.
I have to say this over and over in order to write blog posts. What difference do my experiences make, as sweet as many of them are? Well, they make a lot of difference to me and then I have energy to at least try to do my fifteen acts of resistance a week (way off that average recently having taken over a month more or less off). And my frequent emails to Mitch McConnell (go here and join in the fun) telling him I’m afraid in a way I have never been as an American (fear is a core motivating message of Republicans so I love being able to honestly use it to oppose McConnell’s unconscionable behavior) are actually renewing.
Life has been good to me recently and horrifically hard for a number of people I love. So all that makes sense is to share the extra generosity of my life. Mortality and change and rain then sun, zinnias and eggplant running into colder weather but no frost yet, bouquets in the house still and all the colored paper clips put away from Ava “working” at my desk this morning.
Ava loves to help put things away and clean up. Emilio has an arm that’s astounding for a six-year-old. Really. We measured our football throws this morning and as I thought he can throw twice as far as me.
Thursday was my first full day at home without any commitments since returning from Ireland. I planned to garden and open the memoir file on my computer and start to sort out my next steps in the revision process.
Instead, I got up and made a list for the day, starting with four people I wanted to call. Then I did a lot of puttering — folded our Ireland hiking maps and put them in a cupboard with all the foreign country maps I’ve collected over the years, rearranged files on my desk, filled out medical forms for an upcoming appointment, made a big pot of black beans.
Finally I opened the memoir file and fiddled with it for a few minutes. Then closed it. Looked out the window. I went out to the garden to pick flowers and make bouquets for the house, hoping that might dislodge the heavy funkiness and floating dislocation I’d felt all day.
Arranging hydrangeas in vases to dry for the winter, I thought about Chris. Two summers ago when I spent so much time with her as she was dying, the first thing I’d do when I got home was pick flowers for the house. And here it is just about two years since she died. Tomorrow is the deathaversary.
Then I got the “ball to the head,” the term Adrienne uses to describe the sudden smacks of grief you don’t see coming.
The four people I’d put on my list first thing that morning to be sure to call are all friends who’ve lost a spouse. Of course I wanted to talk to them, check in. I know how hard it is to figure out your way through the loss of a life partner. But I wanted to talk about grief for myself too, and access the rare benefit that comes from deep loss — being able to talk to others about it.
Having people to talk to who’d gone through a loss like mine was such a comfort for me after Eric died. It comforts me still.
When I was first working on climbing the 48 peaks over 4,000 feet in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, I had many companions. Eric came on most of the hikes, sometimes Adrienne or Sam, and many different groups of friends. But as the hikes got longer and less rewarding (e.g. limited views at the end of a very long trek), Eric was the one who stayed with me.
Our hike to Owl’s Head, a remote peak with a steep scramble up a slide of rocks and no view at the top, 18 miles roundtrip with two tricky water crossings, ended with us walking for miles in the downpours from thunderstorms. By the time we got back to the rivers we’d used water shoes to cross on our way in, we walked through the water in our boots. They were already soaked.
The day we hiked to Mt. Isolation, a 13 mile trip that required a car drop at the end of our trail out, then hitchhiking to our starting point, was so sticky and buggy we kept stopping to puff a cloud of deet around us, hoping to keep the black flies and mosquitos away. The bonus of that hike was the isolation — we had the peak to ourselves.
Mt. Cabot is the northern most of the 4,000 footers, mostly viewless and tricky to climb because of a private property closure on the trail that has the shortest route. Eric and I climbed it on a snowy day in November of 2002, and that was the day Eric first noticed a change in his eye sight. When he looked at his pole he saw a crook that wasn’t there. It was two weeks later that we learned he had a cancerous tumor in his left eye.
Eric was still with me when I completed my list in October of 2003. Then he finished his list on Mt. Madison in March 2005. Our last hike together, in March of 2006, he complained about the pain in his back when he tried to run down Mt. Israel, a small mountain with an excellent view. Two months later he was dead, his liver and bones overrun by cells from that original tumor.
I thought about all of this yesterday as I hiked up to Jennings Peak with David and our friend Anne. The view was excellent, but much of what recommends the hike is the ridge leading to the peak, which is covered with beautiful moss. It’s not a trail to a 4,000 footer, but it was one of the first hikes Eric and I did together, and he was enchanted. Over the next several years, as Eric and I talked to friends and family about my peak bagging quest, he was often asked about his reason for doing all the hikes with me. “I’m in it for the moss,” he’d say, remembering the hike to Jennings Peak, and all the other beautiful mosses we saw over the years.
Yesterday I was in it for the exercise, the companionship with David and Anne, the challenge, the view, the chance to be outdoors most of the day, the magical ridge of moss, and the memories of Eric.
Last night I went to the 4th of July BBQ I’d planned to be part of two years ago. A lakeside camp, boats, swimming, friends and lots of my friends’ family including adults I’ve known since they were kids now with kids of their own. Burgers and hot dogs and fresh strawberries and then fireworks set off from the raft off the beach and other rafts up and down the lake front. I had fun.
Then this morning I got up and cried. I missed the BBQ two years ago because I wanted to be with Chris, my sister whose metastatic cancer had progressed enough to make her so sick she couldn’t see how sick she was. My other sister Meg had a cookout at her house with my family and David and I knew that was where we wanted to be. It hurts to remember how fragile Chris was that day, how she had trouble standing on her own, how she talked about being patient while she waited for her new medication to work.
At one point while we were eating she looked up at Meg and thanked her for the invitation, as if she hadn’t spent more holidays with Meg than almost anyone else in her life. Why does that moment haunt me more than others?
The rest of that summer haunts me, and last summer when our friend Peter was so sick, and the summer after Eric died and all the summers he was alive and healthy when we had our own July 4th traditions — a day of kayaking on Squam, followed by a BBQ and fireworks at a good friend’s house, Eric along with his buddies John and Mark bending over a batch of fireworks with a lighter and then backing up quickly as light and color exploded upward. I remember the heat of summer sun on our skin, the fresh smell of lake water, the ease of a cold cocktail on our friends’ deck as burgers and chicken sizzled on the grill.
Last month David and I spent two weekends with my family, bracketing the week Chris always rented a house on the beach in Humarock, near where Meg and my parents live. The rental on Humarock tradition has continued and much of my family was there. At one point we did a Face Time call with Adrienne and Emilio and Ava because they couldn’t get there, and after my mother had said hello to her great-grandchildren she handed the phone back to me.
“Who else do you want to talk to, Ava?” I asked.
“Grandpa Eric,” she said with a smile.
I’m happy we’ve done such a good job telling her about the grandfather she’ll never get to meet that she wants to meet him.
This deathaversary season (what Adrienne, Sam and I call the anniversary of Eric’s, or anyone’s, death) has felt harder than other years. Or do I say that every year? I don’t think so.
The accumulation of other losses, the spread of grief in my circle of friends and family from those losses, and the communal dismay of the majority of Americans at the continued display of arrogant greed, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia (okay, I won’t go on forever) among the white fuckboys currently trying to run/ruin our country all contribute I’m sure.
But I suspected dates were lining up in a way to remind exactly of what was going on 11 years ago, when Eric was diagnosed with metastatic cancer just before Passover. I was right.
David and I had a busy weekend, spending time with my family to celebrate Easter in a decidedly secular way then coming home to host a Seder with a group of friends we’ve been celebrating Passover with for many decades.
Wasn’t this the weekend in April 2006 that we had a much diminished Seder after Eric got home from the hospital with his grim diagnosis? We’d planned to host the Seder with friends that year, but had called it off earlier in the week when we understood Eric’s back pain and accelerating fatigue was from bones full of cancer. Instead of a dozen friends seated around the table, we had a small family Seder, using a two minute Haggadah someone had sent to Adrienne. Eric sat at the head of the table as he always did at Seders, leading the ritual telling of the story of the Jew’s exodus from slavery in Egypt, embellishing the minimal text with his own knowledge of Jewish history and custom.
Yesterday afternoon when David and I got home I pulled out my folder of calendars and wasn’t surprised. Yes, the dates line up. The day Eric got home from the hospital in 2006 was Friday, April 14. We had our small Seder on April 15. This year David and I hosted our Seder on Sunday, April 16.
No wonder I’m feeling the presence of sorrow. The 2006 calendar is repeating. The sun is at the same angle, birdsong is rising out of the fields in the morning at the same pitch, the brook out back is running high and hard, and the red buds on the maple tree out front are fattening into their familiar, fuzzy flowers. On some level, my body takes this all in and connects it with that scared and bewildered body 11 years ago.
There is a difference in the Jewish calendar though. Passover is ending today, not beginning as it was in 2006. Tonight I’ll light a Yahrzeit candle, which I just learned is a tradition on the last night of Passover.
My conversation with Adrienne about daylight savings time started on Instagram. Under her photo of scrambled eggs and coffee she wrote daylight savings is weird. #theend. When I commented I want my hour back she replied every year! Time for the poem from 10 years ago!
Yes, Adrienne has listened to me complain about this lost hour all her life. It’s such a let down after that extra hour (bonus galore!) we get in October.
I’m not alone. Twitter is full of complaints today. Mamas, how are your #daylightsavingstime naps going? (Accompanied by a photo through a door of a child standing in a crib playing with a mobile.) I remember those days.
And, as always on Twitter, there’s politics and humor. You didn’t lose an hour of sleep #BernieSanders just redistributed it to someone who needed it. Losing an hour of sleep means you have to sleep in, right? I woke up and it was like noon wtf low key wishing we lost the next four years vs one hour of sleep last night. so do i have one more or one less hour to be high today? Well, at least the clock in my car is right again…
There was a suggestion we all chill out by Relaxing Back Into Soothing Stillness w/this #GuidedMeditation
Here’s what I had to say about it ten years ago, the poem Adrienne recalled. I wrote it the weekend Sam and I helped her move to live with Matt in NYC. March 2007, in the midst of the writing fever that produced The Truth About Death, less than a year after Eric died. I could feel the raw pain coming up off the pages as I looked through the manuscript for this poem. What a time.
Our daughter is going to the epicenter, someone is always
going somewhere, I can’t make small talk, I talk too much,
I am following the little red car, I can do anything I want,
I am a sparrow feeding in the bushes, the promised manna,
such pain to get here. Highways, cars, family, the irrevocable
center, flip your hand, wave off the evil eye, not evil, scary.
There is a blue balloon floating, this song is the tits, this song
is the bee’s knees, it’s if I had wings. I’m still mad
about the hour they took away two weeks ago. There are bells
ringing, it’s 6:00 p.m., the boys are watching college hoops,
the buildings out the window fall down in cubes, gardens
tucked into ledges, trees and statues below, a lion and a nymph
holding bounty, a set table in a room of glass, birds, planes
lifting west. I dance with a maenad, I dance by myself, drive fast
with my family. A lovely and ancient tradition. At dinner we discuss
predictive text, our son never finds his phone, our daughter’s lover’s
mother knows the pre-revolutionary Russian for lovely,
beautiful – veeleekalyepnah. When she found her grandfather’s book
of Torah commentary it opened to her son’s portion. Go forward
and be a blessing unto the world. Never enough, never enough.
For five years — 2010 to 2014 — I did a blog post on or about Yom Kippur. I missed last year, I missed all of the High Holy Days last year. On Rosh Hashanah I was in Massachusetts with Chris, in her last days, and didn’t even consider leaving to go services in NH. Yom Kippur was less than a week after Chris died and I wasn’t yet able to face so many people I know asking how I was. Would I lie and say fine, or be honest and tell them my sister had just died and it had been a long, difficult summer, helping to take care of her and watching as another loved one disappeared into the fog of cancer? Rather than answer that question, I stayed home.
Now I’m fasting and ruminating, my usual Yom Kippur afternoon. Last week at Rosh Hashanah services I felt Eric sitting by my side. I kept seeing the sports jacket he always wore to the Temple, because he would ask what he should wear and I’d suggest the brown jacket with black and tan threads woven into a tiny check design. My favorite. When I got home I took out the jacket — one on the few pieces of Eric’s clothing I’ve saved — and hung it in my study. I can see it now, facing me as I sit at my desk.
Since attending Kol Nidre services last night, and through this morning’s service, I’ve been thinking about forgiveness, contrition, sin, wrongdoing, right action, justice and peace and regret, which is what we’re meant to consider on this solemn day.
The Rabbi’s sermon last night was about regret, and how people more often regret something they didn’t do, a risk they didn’t take, a goal they didn’t fully commit to, a hand they didn’t reach out, a letter they didn’t write. I remember how often Eric said, in the last weeks of his life, as he faced his death, “I have no regrets. But I’m having so much fun living, I’m not ready to be done.”
I’m certainly not ready to be done either, but I can’t say I have no regrets. Like most people, my greatest regrets are about things I didn’t do — a card I didn’t send, a story I haven’t dared to write, a call I didn’t make. I’ve also judged people according to my version of the narrative we share, not challenging myself to see the world from their eyes. It can be too easy for me to think I’m the one who has it right.
Yom Kippur is about being honest with ourselves, digging deep and admitting to the ways we’ve not been our best selves, then using that knowledge, not to be ashamed or give ourselves a hard time, but to do better.
My sister Chris died one year ago yesterday. A year seems like an impossibly long time for her to have been gone, and also impossibly short. That’s the thing about death and the physical absence of the person — it can feel unreal, and so time gets distorted. Chris had been part of my entire life. She was two years older than me, so she was here when I was born and somewhere in my sense of the world she is always here.
Except now she’s not. Of course her absence feels much more acute for her husband and her boys — a life partner and a mother are gone, and I know how completely disorienting the loss of a spouse is. The built-in companion on evenings at home, the warmth next to you in bed, the other parent to sort out worries about the kids — all gone. How to even make that work?
It was a great struggle for me and there are enough people in my life now who are living the same struggle that I know my experience wasn’t uncommon. Others at the time who reached out to me, who’d lost a partner, confirmed it then. “It’s like an out-of-body experience, isn’t it,” a colleague said to me at work one day. His wife had died the year before.
It’s been ten years since Eric died and I’ve long since come back into my body. But I remember being out of it, I remember being manic and obsessed with writing The Truth About Death, I remember drinking a lot and eating hardly at all, working out whenever I could and talking, talking, talking, as I tried to make sense of what my life was going to be. Losing a sister has been much less brutal — sad and disorienting in its own way, but not cry-myself-to-sleep-alone-in-bed sad.
There was a family trip to Chris’s memorial bench in Scituate, MA yesterday that I couldn’t be at, but I’m building a cairn for her in the woods, on the rock where I’ve built cairns for Eric.
My younger sister Meg texted me first thing yesterday and suggested we talk on the phone and read each other our letters — Chris wrote letters to her husband, to each of her boys, to each of us sisters and to our parents. A common theme in her letters, and which she talked about at the end of her life, is her belief that she’ll always be with us.
“Know that I am not gone, only my physical presence is missing. In the space I left is my love, energy, memories and shared history. Things I would not trade for anything. Enrich that space with new people, events and shared history. I will be close by your side,” I read to Meg and she read similar words to me. We cried. We miss Chris, but she was right. Yesterday she was with us in her words and in the memories of her that Meg and I shared. She was with us as we talked about our commitment to being in the moment as much as we can, a lesson Chris worked hard to keep at the center of her own journey.
I just put another rock on her cairn, topped with a heart stone from the beach in Humarock, a favorite place for Chris.