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.

Garlic Is Up!

Egyptian Onions

And so are chives and yarrow, phlox and the dusty purple coils of columbine. The green world is breaking out, the biggest plant so far the Egyptian onions from a clump my grandmother gave me 30 years ago. The onions are a gangly, messy allium that grow in bunches. Their fibrous green shoots sprout clusters of small onions on the tips, get heavy and fall over to the soil to root and start another bunch.

My grandmother gardened into her 90’s, though at some point in that decade she said to me, “You know, I get so tired. I can’t just dig in the garden for hours and hours anymore.”

At 97 she was still driving, and was in an accident; she was hospitalized and then in rehab for a couple of weeks. The accident wasn’t her fault. When I visited her at rehab she told me the problem with all the people there was they didn’t have anything productive to do. It made them lazy and slow, they could be doing factory work of some kind. She stood and said, “You should see how they walk,” and then did an imitation of an elderly person’s halting gait. She may have been the oldest person in the facility.

So I see the onions green again and think of what a feisty, self-reliant and matter-of-fact person she was. I don’t remember her ever hugging me. I don’t remember her ever telling me she loved me. That was all assumed. When she visited she brought hats and mittens she’d knit for my sisters and me, she made sauerkraut and mashed potato pancakes, she played the piano and had a hammock on her porch. She gave me Egyptian onions.

One night when I was young she put me to bed. As usual I was anxious about going to sleep  — how could I make sure I didn’t die if I wasn’t awake? I told my grandmother the tall white pine outside my bedroom window scared me. The branches looked so menacing. “Oh no,” she said. “Don’t be scared of trees. The trees are your friends.”

She lived to 102, in her own house, alone, until the last month of her life when she moved to a nursing home. She had bladder cancer and went there “to die,” as she told me. She seemed fine with it. A year before she’d been hospitalized and when I visited  she complained that she couldn’t get a needle and scissors so she could sew. There was nothing to do.

Nothing to do doesn’t work for me either.

 

 

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.

A Ball to the Head

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.

In It for the Moss

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.

Haunted

July 4th, 2003

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.

If only she could.

Deathaversaries: When Dates Line Up

 

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.

How fitting.

 

#daylightsavingstime

The Truth About Death
Cover painting “Grace” by David

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 # 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

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.

Moving

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.

Yom Kippur Afternoon

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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.

I can do better. Eric’s jacket helps me see that.

 

My Sister’s Chi

Me, Chris, Meg, Jeanne

Today Chris would have celebrated her 65th birthday. Instead, those of us who love her are remembering her and honoring her, as sad as we are.

But she’s also still here.  Chris was a committed practitioner of Qigong — postures, movement and breathing to bring life force in to your being for health and vitality. The name comes from two Chinese words: qi (or ch’i or chi) means the life force or energy that flows through all of us and everything, and gong means skill cultivated through practice.

Chris thought a lot about chi, about the life force, about how we’re all connected.  When she died, her chi didn’t disappear because her energy wasn’t bound by her body.  It flowed in to the life force that’s everywhere.  I used some of that chi today.

Sam did a 20k trail run two weekends ago — that’s over 18 miles, up and down mountains, on scrambly trails, not an easy run.  When he called, excited by how well he’d done, he told me how he uses chi when he runs — his own version of chi running.  When he’s in the flow and feeling good, he stores chi to use later if some part of him starts to hurt or if he’s lagging.  If someone passes him, moving smooth and fast and clearly in a good zone, Sam thinks, “Well that person has some chi to spare.  I’ll take a bit of that.”  Then he uses stored chi or borrowed chi to send to an aching knee or tired legs.

I loved the idea and thought of it today, just under 8 miles in to what I hoped would be at least a 10 mile run.  My knee hasn’t completely healed from whatever made it so cranky during the NYC half-marathon in March, and though I have another half-marathon to run in a little over a week, I haven’t been running much, wanting to give my knee time to rest.

The rest has been working.  Last week I was able to run over 7 miles without knee pain, the first time I’ve run more than 3 or 4 miles in many weeks.  I wanted to add 3 miles to that today, thinking that would mean only adding another 3 next weekend to do the half-marathon.

Heading into that 8th mile my legs were tired and my knee was cranking up.  And then I thought about it being Chris’s birthday and the energy she left behind, so much life force still to be used, and I concentrated on pulling her chi into me.  I felt a tingling rush of warmth through my body and Chris was right there, hovering over me as I ran another 2 miles — 10.2 miles, exactly what I’d hoped to do.

I’ve been texting with my sisters Meg and Jeanne today, touching base on this sad and happy day (the 6th birthday of one of Jeanne’s grandsons), and when I told them about my run my sister Meg reminded me it’s everyone’s chi.  Universal energy.  “We are all one,” as it says on Chris’s memorial bench.