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.

In Progress

Positive discipline, like going for a run, or studying, or writing a first draft—THAT I can do.

But negative discipline: NOT eating the chocolate, or having the second martini, or sleeping with the guy on the first date. That’s harder.

Then there’s accepting, moving on, whether it’s positive or negative. Integrating things I didn’t want to have happen and letting them change me and take me in new directions. The death of a child. A divorce. Like a lot of people, I’m not so good at that.

What I suck at most is allowing the good stuff to happen. What if it turns out I didn’t mess up my kid? He’s at college right now and apparently doing fine. He just got a National Science Foundation scholarship. He’s composing interesting techno music—a former perfectionist, he’s not afraid to put works-in-progress out there for the world. Not to brag; these are his achievements. However, it seems they might be at least partial evidence that he’s alive and well.

What if he’s all right in spite of the fact that I wasn’t the perfect parent, or the perfect wife?

I know. It’s a banal realization—there have been whole novels and movies on this topic—but there it is. I’ve been sitting stunned in my house since my son drove off to school last fall.

What if it’s okay for me to move on, too?

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.