Thinning Down the House

I’m moving on again. I’ve had to do this a few times in the past couple of years. Like a lot of people, we’re finding that the jobs we want or can get are not necessarily where we were living, or where we wanted to live. (Yay for the efficiencies of capitalism, as people take great losses to truck around after work, often forced to leave perfectly good homes and positions.)

As we rent out the home we own near Boulder, we’ve entered a new phase as tenants ourselves. One new liability of this role is that, in this economy, landlords are going into foreclosure quite frequently. Including the guy we’ve been renting from. So once again we have to move.

I was just reading an account in The New Yorker by someone who loves moving. I find it emotionally exhausting. 

Each time we’ve moved we’ve “streamlined.” Each time we still can’t fit our stuff into the new place. Too much of the past gets excavated, and there are too many decisions to make. I get why my partner wants to keep these pictures of his deceased wife and some of her jewelry. But what about her high-school diploma?

What about the dollhouse? he counters. He means this HUGE dollhouse my grandfather built as a replica of the home I was living in as a child. My grandfather also built miniatures of all the furniture in the house. The craftsmanship isn’t excellent, but it’s still a cool dollhouse. All of my siblings played with it in some way, even if was to use as a gerbil cage or as a matchbox parking garage. Somebody, possibly my kid, re-tiled it throughout in construction paper. Okay, it needs some remodeling, but I don’t think it’s a scraper. The point is, it’s been a imaginative focal point for generations of Steeveses.

The problem is that it’s competing for storage space in a very cramped basement with dozens of crates of my books. And with Tony’s climbing gear. 

Just the other day, I got an email from some advice guru—not sure why I’m on her list—on how to declutter. It appears that it’s energetically congesting to hold on to stuff. Put questionable items in a box, she says, and if you haven’t gone looking for them in six months, have your partner donate the box without your even checking it.

Nice, but what about the dollhouse? We’ve got stuff in boxes we haven’t seen in two years. I’m not throwing all of it out. I know I won’t need it all in six months, but I can’t swear I won’t need it in 12 or 24, or that I’ll be able to afford to buy it back if I do. Everything is way too uncertain.

I have decided to let go of the sheet cake pans. I’m pretty sure I won’t be making cakes for elementary school classes, thank God. But when it comes to things like the dollhouse, I was saving it for grandchildren, so the longer it’s stored, the better. My son is only in college.

So, I guess the dollhouse needs to be dragged around, at least until I know if a) the kid is even having kids, and b) he and his partner will want it for their kids. Maybe he’ll connect with the kind of person who would hate the idea of their perfect children playing with a dollhouse that was once peed in by gerbils. You never know with some people. 

But didn’t you have a crappy childhood? my partner points out. It’s a hundred degrees out and we’re sorting stuff in an garage without air conditioning. What’s so great about a dollhouse made by a grandfather who otherwise sounds kind of mean, and that replicates a terrible little house you hated living in?

Well. Um. He did put a lot of work into it. It doesn’t seem right to just… Anyway. Just put it in the keep pile, will you?

You can only get so thin right at mid-life. Maybe you can ditch a bedroom, but you’re still serving as a storage unit for your kids. You still have leftover pets. You still have to work and need good closet space for your professional wardrobe and a bathroom big enough for two people to get ready in.

In this economy, you don’t know what’s next. Are things getting worse for us or better? Will a smaller house or a bigger one be around the next corner? I don’t want to be a hoarder, but I also don’t want to give up hope.

“No one expected to feel this uncertain at this age,” said one friend, let go after decades at a multinational corporation. I agree. We’re not wired for it. In many cultures, people over 45 are elders. We’re not supposed to be rushing around trying to find jobs, trying to convince landlords that just because we have pets we won’t trash their places, trying to decide what to do with that photo album that’s always been on the bookshelf built into the dining room wall.  

Contrary to the “wisdom” of almost all these self-help gurus, it almost never feels good to let things go. Tony and I have almost always regretted the books and records we’ve sold or given away. Inevitably our tastes (okay, except the Bay City Rollers) have circled back. The grad school notes I tossed in the dumpster during one purge I then went looking for after I reconnected with a high school friend on Facebook. Turned out he was a professor working in an area I’d written a paper on, and he wanted to see that paper. Damn it.

In this last round, Tony has been putting his MSW notes into the recycle bin. “It almost feels like these parts of you never existed when you throw them out,” he said. I know that’s why I hold on to my books. Sometimes I forget I read whole shelves, but it all comes back to me when I stand in front of them.

And then there’s the stuff that maybe is best to leave in the back of the closet. It turns out that there really isn’t that much that’s “energetically liberating” about going through every single box. It would have been fine if you left the dead wife’s jewelry at rest and spent your weekend out in the sunshine, roped up on a technical route on Independence Pass. Who’s to say that isn’t also a form of moving on?

Anxiety—it makes you fat and clingy.   

Advertisements

Dearly Beloved

It took 22 years to come to this.

I never knew what to do about letting Jacob’s ashes go.

But I am taking a creative writing fellowship on the East Coast this fall. My ex-husband is also moving, and our other son is in college on the West Coast. It didn’t seem right to put Jake in storage, or to drag him around the country.

It’s pretty hard for parents to design a memorial for their own child, especially when they have no religious community. When it’s a baby it can be even more difficult, because no one else knew the person or has any memories to share.

In the last few months I’ve been getting a strong sense that it’s time. And finally some ideas for how to go about it.

Return to the source, the place where he was made. Where both our boys were made.

Eldora1

Climb to an overlook on Spencer Mountain, where I used to hike, ski, or snowshoe nearly every day. Sometimes I was alone, sometimes with a friend, sometimes pregnant with one boy or the other, and sometimes with the second son on my back or at my side. (And always with a dog or several.)

Hold up the urn, a hollowed-out piece of an aspen branch, and show Jake the view he never got to see with his eyes.

SpencerView

Point out the house he would have lived in.

Houseview2

Kiss some of the ashes, taste them on my tongue, and offer them to the wind that slips out of the jet stream to help make Eldora such a place of power.

Then lead my ex-husband and my living son back down the mountain to “the rock,” a boulder jutting into the rapids in North Boulder Creek.

P6120417

When I was depressed and drained I would lie there and draw on the heat of the rock, the roar of the water, and all that melting light from the glaciers above. I did this when pregnant with one son and then the other and after Julian was born I brought him here for picnics in the summer. I took him snowshoeing here in the winter, when the hurl of the wind supplanted the thunder of the melt. “Icy ri-ber” was one of Julian’s first concepts.

As the three of us approach the rock, there are many shared ah-ha’s and remember thises and remember thats. But also some shocks as a treasured memory turns out not to be shared by the other.

For years I’ve had a hard time revisiting this valley because its beauty pains me. I hate that I don’t still live here, that I couldn’t hold on to the magic for the sake of my living son.

And that’s part of why this ritual needs to happen, and why Jacob needs to go now. He doesn’t need to be tangled up in this confusion and regret any longer. This is a farewell to a marriage, a segment of motherhood, and a childhood, as well as to a little son and a brother.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

All this source water. Jake may never have seen this place, but he certainly heard and felt it.

  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One of the most challenging moments comes when the box is empty. We’ve talked about burying it nearby, but I’ve forgotten to bring a trowel. Julian dangles the box over the river, stroking it. Should we just drop it? his dad and I wonder. It feels right. But when we do, we all are shaken by the violence with which the water grabs it away. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“I guess you’re never ready,” Julian says later.

No. You never are. Not for the final good-bye.

So I think of Charon and his boat on the River Styx, Moses and his basket of reeds. This valley was once a container for all of us, and now we’re all taking different paths. It wouldn’t be right to leave Jake behind, rooted.

Jake&John

Well, little boy. We’ve kept you close for so long. Travel far. Stay safe. Please, please check in. Our hearts are always open to you.

Unpreparing

A further post on the matter of mentally preparing for death. Or un-. Not sure why I’m on this kick. But as I was in the middle of all these thoughts, a high-school English teacher of mine, David Weber, sent me the gorgeous poem below. It was written by another former teacher at Exeter, Charles W. Pratt.

The poem takes the opposite angle from my last post, where I was saying that I would want a little bit of time to meet my own death. Not enough to linger, but enough to say my goodbyes, to express gratitude, and to beg forgiveness where necessary. To get the kind of footing under me that Jane Kenyon seems to have found in her famous piece, “Let Evening Come.”

Let me be immersed in life when it happens, Pratt says in his powerful poem. I hope you’re as moved as I was.

 

Resolution, by Charles W. Pratt

 

When the tsunami draws back its fistful of waters

And crushes the city, let me for once be ready.

Let me be washing the dishes or patting the dog.

 

When the great windstorm angles across the flatlands

Hungry and howling, let me be patting the dog.

Let me kneading the bread or picking an apple.

 

When the ground shudders and splits and all walls fall,

Let me writing a letter or kneading the bread.

Let me holding my lover, watching the sunrise.

 

When the suicide bomber squeezes the trigger

And fierce the flames spurt and wild the body parts fly,

Let me be holding my lover or drinking my coffee.

 

Let us be drinking our coffee, unprepared.

 

“Resolution,” ©2010 by Charles W. Pratt. Used with permission. In From the Box Marked Some Are Missing, New and & Selected Poems, Brookline, NH: Hobblebush Books, 2010. www.hobblebush.com

 

PC250309 (2)

Julian and Tony on The Ridge at Loveland Ski Area, Christmas Day, 2010.

Massive

At the end of last year I posted about some “night terrors” after I met an older man contemplating his impending death. A high-school classmate responded by telling me of his heart attack a few years back. His comments are included at the end of the blog post; he says he felt an overwhelming sorrow at the thought that he might not be able to say goodbye to those he loved and express his gratitude for what they had done for him.

I spent some time thinking about this. Around 12 years ago, my father died. Although many people admired him for his athleticism and charisma, he was your basic deadbeat dad. A violent, manipulative drunk, abusive in every way.

I don’t hold all of it against him. He suffered from at least some combination of these, all untreated: alcoholism, narcissistic personality disorder, ADHD and/or manic depression, post-traumatic stress disorder from World War II, and multiple concussions. God bless the shrink today who would have to deal with that differential diagnosis.

His brain was sclerotic from the alcohol and maybe from bipolar’s kindling effect, and his thinking had grown rigid over the years. Nevertheless, he had the phenomenal memory that ran in his family and that was as legendary in the local bars as his physical strength. He could recite historical names and dates, or your telephone number. At 73, he was still building docks and boathouses, singlehandedly hoisting pressure-treated beams, and competing in triathlons despite his vices.

He was also hilarious, thanks to the kind of reverse empathy the sociopathic and utterly despairing can deploy.

He and I shared an abiding interest in history and a passion for Crazy Horse, psychopathic dictators, European-theater World-War II machinations, and the Revolutionary War. I owe my retention capabilities, my critical thinking skills, and my doggedness to him. If I was never successful at connecting with him, I can hardly regret where the quest has taken me.dad

We didn’t talk often, because I didn’t often have several hours in which to converse about history and politics over the phone. But one day around 12 years ago I had LASIK surgery. I was sent home and told not to open my eyes for a day or so except to go to the bathroom.

Okay, I thought. Why don’t I catch up on my phone calls?

I called up my father and talked to him for around three hours. History. Politics. But also some personal stuff. He’d been working on his issues, or so he said.

He said, “I think I’m finally able to love.” He said that he recognized that for his entire life, he’d been incapable of loving others.

He didn’t come right out and name narcissistic personality disorder, but isn’t that what not being able to love anyone is? One of the defining aspects of the disorder is that someone who has it almost never can have the insight that they have it. For all I know it was his latest con, or self-con. But I think he really hoped.

Five days later, his heart failed.

Coincidentally, this death occurred at a place that was at the center of our childhood summers. He just happened to be working there. And my brother happened be nearby and heard that someone needed help. He rushed to the scene, not knowing that it was our father.

To be sure, heart disease and strokes run in my father’s family, and given the way he abused his body, it’s probably amazing that he made it to age 73. Still, the metaphors are pretty darn glaring.

Despite the overwhelming nature of the heart attack, my father fought it hard. His coworker saw his paroxysms and ran for help, leaving him lying on one end of a very long dock. When he returned with a police officer, my father had reached the other end, climbed up a ramp, and was in the parking lot, where he was having more convulsions.

Maybe this is just what the body does when it dies, and there was nothing conscious about his struggle. Some people said, At least it was quick. But would you want it to be quick? Would you want to be overtaken by death, without a chance to say goodbye, clear things up, offer your thanks?

I think that’s part of my “night terrors” thing. I had a pulmonary embolism in 2004. For about a year afterwards I’d wake in the night grappling with the immediacy of death. Statistically it’s likely that another clot is how I’ll go. And I would think: please, no. I want to know in advance, a little. Not to linger, not to suffer. But to have a chance to make my peace, express my gratitude, say what needs to be said.

In Who Dies?, Stephen Levine suggests that we all, at the very least, try to become comfortable enough with the idea of death to ensure that our last words/thoughts are not OH SHIT.

For all the warnings and signs I’ve had, I’m not sure I’m there.

Are you?

 

Massive

 

I.

You could say he died of a full heart.

It burst with the overturned blue

of the lake beneath the tree-limned

sky. His last meal: hot dog, onions,

Pepsi, thou shalt eat ice cream and chips

in memory of Me. He munched

in the new truck above the harbor

of our childhood, those years of blue-lipped

lessons in heaving, leaf-murked water.

Somewhere there is a steamer sunk

too deep for anyone to find.

 

The waves tugged the ice-mangled dock.

He was about to fix everything,

he had the wet suit on, the muscles

in his back good and strong.

At seventy-three, the muscles

still so impossibly strong.

Ironman, Olympian, no one

rises up in a massive attack

of the heart. Though he tried.

He staggered and he crawled.

 

Is it fullness, or emptiness,

if a father says, five days before his death,

finally he is ready to love?

 

II.

You could say his heart was full

of never having been ready to love.

 

III.

You could say it was cholesterol,

alcohol.

 

IV.

There are so many ways to love a father.

Seven years old: ski black diamonds, never

letting him out of your sight; eleven:

sneak gulps of his manhattan; thirty-seven:

come upon the scene too late, the giant

purpling before your eyes.

Leave one rose floating near

the far, deep end of the tilted pier,

artery-colored in the lungless lake.

Lonely, beautiful, begging for rescue

from the tourists ever coming to this place,

this harbor of learning to swim.

 

Originally published in Vermont Literary Review Summer/Fall 2008.

Night Terrors

Just last week I met a very elderly man with a terminal illness (let’s face it, we’re all terminal) at a party. We had a frank discussion. He said he was tired of funerals and hoped when he returned to his home state he could attend a few weddings or christenings instead. He dreaded reading alumni publications, he added.

eclipse

(Solstice Total Eclipse, photo by Melinda Johnston)

I said, You know, it’s getting to be the same for me, even at my age. Nearly every year, if not every issue, there’s a death notice for someone in my class. Maybe only one, but it’s happening.

We were interrupted, but I was about to ask this man if he feared dying, because it sounded like he did. It actually felt like a comfortable question in the context of our conversation, and I suspected that his own family was steering clear of questions like this.

He had mentioned his minister, so I wondered how his thoughts about death fit into his religious system and if his beliefs affected how he felt about dying. And if he grew more or less fearful with age.

Right now, I feel afraid. No particular reason, I just do. I felt less fearful when I was younger.

When I was 23, I had a terrible horseback riding accident. There were quite a few seconds—I’m not sure how many, because there’s always time dilation in these situations, so maybe 10, maybe even 30—between when I lost control of the horse and when I hit the tree to contemplate my fate.

My mind was and is capable of handling a lot of threads at once.

I knew it wasn’t going to end well. The horse was an Arabian, going at a full gallop, and the trail through the woods was narrow. I knew I would be thrown, if not into a tree or rock, then over the horse’s head when he stopped. Aside from the horse, I was alone. Serious injury or death seemed the only likely outcomes.

So, I was lucky.

Some of the injuries took years to recover from, but I wasn’t killed or paralyzed.

When I realized I’d lost control over what might happen, I experienced a tremendous calm. I wouldn’t say my life flashed before me, exactly, but there was a kind of… reckoning. I let it go. I thought, this could be it, and there came an acceptance.

No fear at all.

I think my body was scared, but on a mental and spiritual level, the I-ness of me, there was serenity.

And then a few years later, my first child died. Afterwards, I sort of wanted to die, too. I wasn’t suicidal, exactly, though I did think I might not fight the wheel if my car started to drift toward the edge of a cliff. I was very curious about dying. Even if death meant oblivion, which I didn’t think it did, I wanted to know. I wanted to discover what Jake had experienced. I figured there would at least be an instant when you would realize that, yes, you were being obliterated. And at least it would be settled. 9780385262217

When my second son came along, I knew I was committed to living. And delighted by life again. Even so, I was certain that if I lived a very long time, eventually I would welcome death. I’d be tired of loved ones dying. Death was part of what made life, and it was the contract we all signed.

But now I’m scared of it.

Why is that? I really wanted to talk about this with the man I met at the party. The poem below poses one reason, but I’m not sure it’s the whole truth.

 

 

 

Night Terrors

 

I was around 40,

after the embolism,

waking nightly

in the track-lit bathroom.

Sitting to pee, I’d think,

I’m going to die.

Not because of the embolism

exactly, or directly.

Just death, its certainty.

 

I was surprised

by my terror.

After your death,

nothing seemed more certain

than death.

I would follow you gladly,

full of curiosity,

even eagerness.

How can a bereft

mother fear death?

 

Yet, as the chips

come closer to being down,

I do. Fear I won’t find

you there, either.

In Honor

Dear little Jake,

You had your great-grandfather’s nose, or so we imagined, based on photographs of him. You were alive for only three days, and writing that phrase makes me have to stop typing and cry. You were only alive for three days, and so we can only do an age-progression in our minds.

When I was pregnant with you I had many dreams of you at various ages, and around six months after you died I dreamt of you as a young man, walking toward me across the alpine tundra, I guess during a hike we were taking together.

That is all I have, really. It’s not much.

We have the your little baby coos, echoing down these 21 years, the memory of your furrowed brow, the clench of your hand on our fingers. I have your lips nuzzling my nipples. And then your hands and feet turning so blue and cold, your terrible cries of alarm, near the end. And those last, quiet gasps.

And whatever it was that came into the room between your penultimate breath and the final one. I thought it was the nurse, but when I turned, no visible person was there.jake2

Twenty-one years, Jake. I’ve marked these years in various ways. Sometimes I’ve baked a cake. Other times I’ve returned to the place we lived when you were conceived and walked along some of the trails where I used to hike, ski, and snowshoe, pregnant with you, just the two of us, when I was still unadulteratedly happy, hopeful. This year I’ve just returned from a trip with your “younger” brother. He’s choosing a college, Jake! My nest will really be empty now. I can’t even begin to express how complicated my feelings are today, the day after returning from this tour with your beautiful brother, of whom I feel so proud, writing these words on your twenty-first birthday.

Each year the gulf between us has yawned more widely. The wonderful baby smell on your clothes began to fade. One year the lock of your hair was no longer among your “effects.” A terrible blow even today, when I long to touch you. The dreams have diminished in frequency. Even a nightmare is a treasure now.

Your brother has taught me much about the mysteries of parenting. Nothing is as I fantasized when I was carrying you. Grief experts say that when a child dies a dream is lost. But that happens in any case when a parent raises a child; it’s just that in the ordinary experience the process is more gradual. The child of one year vanishes into the child he or she becomes the next year. Your father and I divorced; we didn’t become the parents we thought we’d be. So it’s not just our dream we lost, but who you’d actually have become… somewhere along the way, we lost all sight, all way of knowing, of even being able to imagine who you might have become. And who we might have become.

Little son. We didn’t get to exchange all of the gifts we had for each other. You didn’t get to share everything you had with the world.

How I wish I were like other parents, taking things for granted. Simply sending a card, and a care package, to you……off in some college or study-abroad program… or wherever you might be…

I simply have no idea.

Happy Birthday.

Love,

Your Mother, still here, loving you

jakepreg4