Framing the Sky

 

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It could be nearly any swath of cerulean sky.

Perhaps it should be raining, given that it is monsoon season.  Maybe a dusky smoke could betray some hint of what kind of earth may lie underfoot or what surrounds this view.

Instead it has a tell-tale frame: beams erected in 1192 still divide the sky with mathematical precision, locating the commonplace within the extraordinary.

I’ve long been drawn to views framed both by what surrounds them and how one approaches and looks at them, rather than being defined by what deliberately has been placed around them–to a unique vantage point of the moment, rather than an artist’s enduring choice for the many who may behold an exhibited work: a lake at dawn, a single building bathed in gold light for just minutes; a single door opened to boughs steeped in steamy rain; a tree bisected by ancient ruins; doorways within doorways; a pink city revealed through a tiny window in a palace door.

My favorite frames look up, eyes upon the heavens, moving us from the ancient and earthbound within our grasp to forever’s swirling star dust skies.

 

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The Last Lap

 

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Trees Through Tears (c) SMG

It was an unspeakably awful thing to say.

After an exhausting and unnecessary verbal battle, the hospice’s medical director–who had been openly skeptical of my physician husband’s emphatic wish not to die in a hospital (at least when I was the one to express that wish as his medical proxy)–asked whether my husband wanted to drive with me from the hospital or wanted an ambulance to take him.

“Held on to hope like a noose, like a rope
God and medicine take no mercy on him
Poisoned his blood, and burned down his throat
Enough is enough, he’s a long way from home . . . .

Laid up in bed, you were laid up in bed
Holding the pain like you’re holding your breath
I prayed you could sleep, sleep like a stone
You’re right next to me
But you’re a long way from home.”

Referring to the ambulance, that doctor added, out of my earshot but not that of our friend and my sisters-in-law, “You might as well, for your last lap.”

This remark’s casual cruelty–its trivialization of my husband’s determination to come home, its grotesque appropriation of the fundamental unit of an unending journey, when we all knew this was a one-way trip to an imminent and early end of life–makes my heart race even now, as I sit alone in a different home in summer rain’s dappled quiet more than five years later.

******

One of the many privileges of parenthood has been getting to know my children’s remarkable friends. Not long ago I went to a senior honors presentation by one of them, who gave a talk about linguistics and Jacques Lacan, and introduced me to a French Holocaust survivor’s account of a uniquely healing moment.

Gérard Miller’s film “Rendez-vous chez Lacan” shares her story of having been haunted for two decades by her nightmares of the Gestapo seizing her and her family; she was describing a recent nightmare when Lacan leapt up and ran his hand along her face– converting the terrifying power of the word “Gestapo” into, in her native French, a tender touch, a g’este à peau that she was able to recall as a physical memory.

In the ambulance on the way home I had clutched the neon pink card-stock portable DNR in my left hand, rolled like a diploma and splotched with my tears. I had touched my right hand to the side of my husband’s temple and cheek.  A g’este à peau.

It’s well past time for me to reclaim that journey  home, our last trip together.

******

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Just Off the Road (c) SMG

The ambulance arrived late in the afternoon, an hour-and-a-half after we had been assured it would come.

We had a quiet ninety minutes, no one checking vital signs, no one administering medicine or checking on us.  No machines buzzing or beeping.  I had not realized how unaccustomed we were to being undisturbed.

The room’s single window could not be opened, and the temperature seemed unbearably to rise.  We lay together on the hospital bed.

Eventually growing restless, Jim mustered the energy to walk a single circle around the unit floor, leaning against me. This was the same hospital where he worked, and every physician and nurse and staff member who saw us looked at us somberly and silently, some of them wiping away tears.

Our children and friends had been at our house for hours, setting it up for Jim’s return.

The ambulance arrived and its two-person crew came up to Jim’s room as I gathered our few belongings.  By that time the things we carried were few.  The driver seemed surprised to see me there. My older brother, who had flown in from Chicago, had driven Jim’s truck  back to our house from the hospital.

“It’s OK if I ride with you?”  I asked the ambulance driver.

“Yes, but you understand you have to ride in front.  You can’t be in back.”

“That’s fine.” I said.

I walked alongside the gurney and into the elevator, my hand on Jim’s shoulder.  We stepped out on the first floor, through a sequence of sets gently whooshing sliding doors, to intense late-afternoon sun.  I squinted and turned away to see Jim’s boss, our friend, speed-walking into the hospital just inches away, into a rare Friday evening meeting.

She immediately hugged me and I became undone, hysterically weeping into her shoulder, “He wants to go home and I just can’t stand the thought. . .”  I did not mean  the thought of going home, but of his dying.  I simply could not believe that time had come.

The ambulance crew stood there, and by the time Jim’s boss had disengaged from both of us, looked at me—undoubtedly an immeasurably pitiful sight, weeping and holding that pink paper anyone in that line of business can identify—and said, “You can go in the back.”

I sniffled into my sleeve.  “No, that’s OK, I can sit up front.”

They looked at me and spoke in unison.  “Please get in the back.”

******

For the first among thousands of trips we had made together on the same road, we faced backwards, or view of the familiar obstructed only by the outlined letters spelling “Ambulance.”

The sirens were off.

And so we traveled back home, a fifteen-minute ride.

Only afterwards did I begin to imagine, when I see a silent ambulance, that it might contain someone truly on the way home.

******

Jim brought up two subjects on his way home: one was wildly practical, and one was from his heart and required some interpretation.

His conversational palette cleanser was a ministerial reminder to me, from his cautiously frugal side as the family financial planner who had in each child’s infancy begun saved money for another college.  As the ambulance pulled out in front of the hospital building where Jim had been bombarded with fruitless chemotherapy and radiation, he said, “You need to remember to cancel my phone line, because it’s a hundred dollars a month.”

That out of the way, he paused and told me quietly, “It’s important to do something for Bob.” Our Doctor Bob.

I would had to think about that for several weeks more.

******

Jim’s last trip covered the same stretch of road we had traveled thousands of time, to and from Jim’s work, and my work far away along the highway to which it connects.

We had turned left onto that road on the way to the hospital when I was in labor with our first child, then nicknamed “Bud,” on an uncharacteristically cool August day.

We covered exactly the same path when Jim had driven us  from our first home to the hospital where our next three children were born.  Each time, the return trip on this road was made with the newest addition swaddled in an over-sized, grandmother-knit sweater—first white, then mint green, then yellow–slouched into a backward-facing infant seat. Summer, spring, and twice in winter.

The only other time I had been in an ambulance on this  road, all of the children (then numbering three) had been with me.  Jim had calmly been waiting in the emergency room on the other end: Noah, at two, had hit his head in a fall onto cement and had an ostrich egg-sized lump on his forehead. The ambulance crew gave him a green velvet teddy bear, a gift that provided him comfort long afterwards.

When we first began driving on that road there had been two working dairy farms.  The children never tired of exclaiming “Moo cows!” every single time they saw the rural wonder of wandering cows, any more than the beagles tire of the sound of the same food clattering like tiny pebbles into their metal bowls twice every day.

We passed the bakery where we had picked up treats for family celebrations, and where on the way to preschool years earlier a well-weathered man had given our four-year-old daughter a two-dollar bill that he said had been passed along to him in a bakery for good luck when he was about her age.

“Has it worked for you?” I asked him.

“It has.”

We passed the SPCA, where our younger daughter had fallen in love with countless animals and we had brought two of them home forever.

We passed the family farm stand where we had picked out juicy summer tomatoes, buttercup corn, fall pumpkins, and gourds.

We passed the fairgrounds where we had gone every summer, one son somehow deftly outmaneuvering the games’ designers so he could bring back arms full of enormous stuffed animals for his little sisters.

This was the same park where we had trudged through many annual fairs, including one only days before an August birth, when my feet were so swollen that I had to borrow huge tennis shoes from our visiting friend Jon’s trunk.  He took a look at me and laughed heartily, dubbing me “Preggo the Clown.”

We had traveled that stretch of road either at the beginning of  nearly all our family vacations, loaded with sand toys and summer books, or  ski equipment in a rack on top that I invariably forgot about before doing some degree of damage pulling into the garage at trip’s end.

Almost every day our daughters spent at high school involved at least two nearly identical round-trips.

The road branched off at about the half-way point towards our dear friends Randy and Judy’s house, which had been the siren call to moving across the state line when Jim began practicing medicine–two weeks before our first son was born.

Eventually we had driven the same route between home and the hospital to get Jim to the Emergency Room for a sequence of horrific complications. It was always in a blizzard.

This time we pulled into our driveway just in front of a van bearing bright spring tulips from relatives in California. Our friends and family were there to meet Jim. He declined the stretcher and walked inside on his own steam and he never suffered again.  The ambulance pulled away.

Inside our home, until he peacefully lost consciousness less than a day before he died, Jim laughed with friends among endless tender words and gestures.

“At last I was sure
That you weren’t far away from home.”

 

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A Wishbone Sunset and a Journey Home

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July 16th, 2016.

At the appointed late afternoon hour,  one of our daughters was a wedding guest several hours away. She was in the same chapel where, at a service of remembrance four winters ago, the sun had suddenly streamed through a frigid cloud cover to the last strains of the first verse from Beethoven’s Hymn to Joy:

“. . . .Hearts unfold like flowers before you, opening to the sun above. . . .Melt the clouds of sin and sadness, drive the storms of doubt away; Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day.”

July 16th is my wedding anniversary. Somehow, already it was my sixth one alone.

Does the journey of marriage continue after death parts those who took its vows?

Weeks ago I watched the end of my father’s life of more than sixty years with my mother, including just short of 59 years of marriage.  I wonder whether she too will come to tap–or, as I have, sometimes fitfully and fruitlessly beat my fists against–the boundary at which their paths unwillingly diverged, and how she will see the new space between them.

One can only share a journey so far…or at the veil’s threshold does the form of the relationship and of each of its innermost parts simply change, becoming not so much disordered as reconfigured?

My husband’s size 13 work shoes’ thunks on the sixteen stairs that curved upstairs in our house have become transfigured into “footprints like a butterfly’s.”

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The ever-present camera he used to carry, elegant and specially adapted to his patient photographic skills, has transmuted into a small and simple point-and-shoot one I cannot be without.

It is curious–one of my father’s favorite and most loaded words–that as traditional time moves forward (“Wait, how did I get to be forty?” I asked Jim.  “The inexorable march of time?” he offered) my mind carries me almost ceaselessly back . . . to my older brother clicking his heels at our wedding, to my husband plucking a plump leech from our youngest child’s toe at a first visit to his favorite lake, to the glimpse of a summer stand on the side of the road that looks just like the place we picked strawberries with visiting friends from California when our children were babies.

Now I have gathered in my arms, as if holding a child, black boxes holding my husband’s and my father’s ashes.  I had told my mother what the box would look like and what its weight would be.

It is as if everything, part and particle, has been rearranged in time and shape and space itself. And while there is conservation of matter, love remains capable of infinite expansion.

When the sun hangs low in the west
and the light in my chest won’t be kept
held at bay any longer
When the jealousy fades away
and it’s ashes and dust for cash and lust
and it’s just hallelujah
And love in the thoughts,
love in the words,
love in the songs they sing in the church
and no hard feelings

Not infrequently, I thought I heard myself voicing Jim’s thoughts, in the measured tone he would have used, while speaking to my father as he was in hospice care at home.

And I thought of the single most ridiculous and selfish thing I said to Jim during his illness, when I wept in the deep winter of his hospice care and said he would never be alone, but I would be alone forever.

What I meant was that we–our children and I–would never leave his side, and I could not face being being without him, of not having him at my side, for the rest of my life.  I still can’t. I still and always will miss his physical presence more than words can say–the same measure by which we love the children born of our marriage–but I also believe what I read to the close friends and family who gathered after my theoretical physicist father died, about why you’d want a physicist to speak at your funeral:

 

to “remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. . . .  [and] tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives. And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that…scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they’ll be comforted to know your energy’s still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly.”

 

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July 16th.  The day my father had walked his only daughter down the isle of Memorial Church and I married my husband.  This was the first time both were gone. My husband’s ashes were mixed with the sea on Father’s Day; my father died three years later on Father’s Day.

When my body won’t hold me anymore
and it finally lets me free,
where will I go?
Will the tradewinds take me south
through Georgia grain, a tropical rain
or snow from the heavens?
Will I join with the ocean blue
or run in to a Savior true
and shake hands laughing?
And walk through the night, straight to the light
holding the love I’ve known in my life….

But I was not alone. Grateful for the indulgence and the company, I followed an impulse to go with a dear friend towards a spot I’d never seen before, where an outdoor chapel’s pews face the sea. Over the course of nearly an hour, we watched layered clouds brighten and sharpen into a wishbone suspended over the sun as it dropped under a purple band at the horizon.

What did I wish for as a child when I held a wishbone in my Drumphian fingers? What do I dare to wish for now?

The wishbone had to be broken, snapped clean through, to make its fulfillment possible.

 

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A few people then wandered near us and quickly left, remarking that they’d “just missed” sunset.

We waited.

The noseeums began biting.

We waited some more.

The visitors who had flashed by in search of the precise moment of sunset weren’t quite right.

They hadn’t missed it. Once we had waited long enough, it gloriously reassembled.

 

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Father’s Day

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June 1990, Cambridge, Massachusetts

 

One-thirty-one-thirty-one.

It’s the mechanical response: my father’s date of birth.

He died on Sunday, Father’s Day.

A few days earlier my subconscious had hovered around the equally palindromic date of six-one-six-one-six as I was waiting to pick up my older brother at the airport.  Only days before that my father, who had long been immobilized by Parkinson’s Disease, had haltingly spoken the very same phrase my husband voiced days before he passed away.  Although there had been no overt sign that my father’s death was imminent, intuition spoke.

“It’s just my gut, and my gut’s been wrong, but I think you should fly out this week.”

And my brothers and I found ourselves laughing, giving each other a hard time, and telling stories and finishing each other’s sentences as we surrounded my father’s bed during his last days.

*****

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February 1931, New York City

Family legend has it than when my grandmother Helen held her first-born son  with her husband Harry, who had arrived in New York City from Austria in time to enlist as a soldier in World War I, she announced–against all objective probabilities–that young Paul would be attending college at Harvard.

If anything, she was understating her baby’s future.  Not only did he enroll at Harvard at the age of sixteen, but he had his Ph.D in Physics by the time he was 23.  He remained at Harvard for more than six decades, as a researcher, professor, and Dean of Applied Sciences.

*****

My father’s friend of now 66 years, Irwin, introduced him to an artist and bassoon-player named Ann.  They married in Copenhagen in 1957.

Over the years, some interesting items have gone missing from my parents’ home–including a painting by my mother and Jackson Pollack on a Sunday New York Times magazine.  In recent days I have been searching for a photograph (possibly just incriminating enough for my mother to have disposed of at some point) of her as a graduate student, wearing a spectacular polka-dotted dress and art deco hat and tickling my father with a feather at a party at Irwin’s apartment.

Who would have thought physicists could be so wild?

*****

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Tough Rider on the Streets of New York, 1933

 

I am the only daughter of a father who had no sisters, and am beginning to suspect our father-daughter interactions were atypical–but for the fact that I could push his buttons when I was little and cranky.

He could not carry a note, let alone a tune, but enjoyed warbling the description he thought suited me best:

There was a little girl, who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead/And when she was good, she was very, very good, and when she was bad she was horrid.

Well, maybe he did get me.

We didn’t go to any father-daughter dances, but he took me to some pretty fancy meetings of the Academy of Arts and Sciences.

We “summered” at what I now know was a secure nuclear laboratory facility.

Best of all were the department picnics in rural Massachusetts, where the physicists would gather inside a barn while their little ones ran around outside doing dangerous stunts, engaging in applied physics for toddlers. Nearby roads would be marked with handmade signs reading “Theoretical Picnic this way.”  Think about it.

*****

He had one of the world’s most beautiful minds and was one of Massachusetts’s most terrifying drivers.  He could solve any complex problem but was baffled by teenage temperaments. He could envision aspects of time and space and matter–condensed and otherwise–no human actually can see, but had some difficulty locating matching socks. He loved his work and family and friends the best he knew how, which is all any of us can do.

*****

This Father’s Day began, as it has for years now, with a search for the right place to honor my children’s father. We’ve been close to home and we’ve been far away, including a trip with ashes to Northern Ireland.  On Sunday we knew we had to be outdoors, where we so strongly feel my husband’s presence, and settled on a trip to botanical gardens encircled by soft mountain paths.

 

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Father’s Day 2016

The sunny great outdoors suddenly shifted to my father’s bedroom, windows shut and shuttered, when I received a call from my younger brother as my sons and I navigated a mountain trail. My father had a coughing spell, and a visiting nurse assured me his temperature was normal and his vital signs were good.  No need to rush back, I was told, and we continued walking.

Many hours later, peacefully and suddenly, my father seemed merely to fall sleep.

*****

In some ways, physicists seem to appreciate like no one else their place in the vastness of the universe; the human body’s nature as a temporary repository of energy; and the knowledge that in taking a last breath someone becomes not here, but everywhere.

We’ll miss you.

 

 

 

 

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