Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Grave Thoughts

Because I could not stop for Death/He kindly stopped for me…over and over in my head the last week,  the over-used Emily Dickinson couplet like an annoying nag, a childhood haunting-- because I never loved that poem… and the image of the threesome in the carriage… Death, the deceased, and immortality-- well, three's a crowd and they seem somehow incompatible.  Death is neither kind nor proud, as John Donne pointed out over three centuries ago… and how many generations of Donnes have stopped for Death-- have thought about these things, have struggled with acceptance or resistance, embraced God in strength or desperation?

Despite the fact that the only absolute certainty of life is its demise, we are universally unprepared when death touches us-- when we are diagnosed or when we lose a loved one.  Some of us obsess and read obituaries daily, commemorate daily passings on our Facebook pages, indulge in private rituals and personal prayers.  Are we thinking of the departed or of our own selves, trying to rehearse the moment, to cope, somehow, with the ultimate thing we dread?  Some cultures celebrate death; my own foray into Goth-dom explored the macabre and dark; it was appealing and brave-- confronting the monster head-on, wearing fear on our clothing, tattooing its image on our skin like a boldfaced dare.

It's ironic that my last post was a sort of Eulogy… just days later my beloved mother died and the farewell was neither noble nor poetic.  I have had altogether too much intimacy with Death this year-- family, mentors…  my friend with whom I sat, whose witness and unwilling end-of-life nurse I became because she was unable to accept her fate and fought until the very end.  It was something I wish I'd not experienced, although I am told I did a humane and sympathetic thing.  There was no closure; the end was hideous, painful, sad and desperate.  The posthumous silence was heavy and haunted; it all felt terribly wrong and as though I'd been let into a private room no human should see.

My Mom-- the version I knew-- had been fading into some emotional and physical place of distance.  I could seldom reach her, although she occasionally came back into the present and looked at me with such deep poignant recognition and love; I craved those brief moments, and was not ready to lose her.  Personal grief is like a wave-- like a tidal undertow that knocks you off your feet and takes your breath away.  It is the end of possibility, the absolute curtain on something that feels like your true love.  It is undeniable and difficult.

Burial feels like a primitive ritual.  For me the concept of burial associates with hiding something-- covering something up which will eventually be uncovered.  Maybe that was the point of the ritual; I haven't researched this… but have read plenty of Edgar Allen Poe, and have noticed the enormous popularity of zombie and vampire films in recent years.  Still, as far as I know, no one has actually yet come back and described the experience.  Seeing my mother's coffin in a hole in a graveyard surrounded by strangers made me feel a little more desperate.  Leaving her there felt wrong; I sensed in my broken heart a calling-- don't go… stay with me, I wanted to scream-- to tear my hair and rub dirt on my face, to lie on top of her and sing to her… but I had to behave, to place my small shovel of dirt with a single white rose and wait for the gravediggers to follow later on with their little dedicated steamshovels.

The gravestone is a symbol, for most of us… but we still visit-- we leave flowers and stones; my friend brings his trucker Dad a coffee light and sweet with a glazed doughnut.  I've even seen a pack of cigarettes in a cemetery… a ball and glove, a Yankee hat.  Does this help?  It is so literal.  Death is literal; the afterlife is vague and unexplained.  We speak to the dead, we pray, we cry-- we write songs and poetry… we find things on the street, we look for signs.  Who knows?   Que sera, sera, my mother used to sing to me, but she didn't really believe that.  She even told me she wanted to be cremated because she feared suffocating.  Her wishes were not honored by my sister who always seems to manage the last word in my little family.  My brand of sympathy is discredited, my rock and roll existence is like a stain on the stiff white-washed facade of her artifice.  She has invented her version of dignity, of shame-hiding and cover-up.  Yes, burials of all types are familiar to her.  She speaks in cemetery tongues.

My Mom's interment took place on the day of the solar eclipse.  This offered some comfort for me, in the cosmic confluence of the heavens and the transition of my Mom who despite her old-fashioned ideas and obsolete code of ethics was rather pure of heart.  It forced us to look upward, to the sky-- a sort of directive to symmetry, and to the place she, in her funny naiveté, along with so many of us, imagined.   She also loved me, truly and deeply, while often objecting to my lifestyle and regretting what to her seemed my shameful and unnecessary oath of poverty and allegiance to a difficult and vague life-plan including single motherhood.   But I never complained, and everyone else did.

As things so often come in threes, I feel almost released this season, although I realize the acceleration of life at my age will bring the next round altogether too soon.  The Houston floods have brought the specter of mass grief and loss into everyone's horizon, and this tempers our selfish personal sorrows,  or inspires in us that much more sympathy.   For me the musician--  timing is everything.  My sleepless nights now are spent watching endless footage of rising waters like tears-- of rescue and sacrifice and devastation.  We are so reminded of our helplessness in the larger 'picture' of the world; for those who have laid loved ones to 'rest' in graveyards and cemeteries… the ravages of nature have as little regard for the dead as the living.  It is tragic and will leave an enormous scar.  And yet, one day, the sun will come out, as it did here all week while the southern coast was pounded, and the universe does not feel shame or grieve for its acts of cruelty. We sad humans must mourn, and save, and help, and love, and try to come to some understanding with Death, because he is surely not kind and will not pass us by, not a single one-- not so far.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Camera Obscura

When my adorable son was barely three years old, he came upon his first 'little person' on line with us at the supermarket.  After thoughtfully scrutinizing her, he cried out… 'Look, Mom! It's a girl just turning into a lady!' Of course it is difficult for young children to comprehend the phases of life-- the concept that they are going to grow up, that their own parents and Grandparents were once young-- that this is a slow, gradual, continuous process.

Now that I am entering a late phase of life,  I again find it hard to grasp the lessons of time, to accept the harsh losses and assimilate the regrets of my peers who seem oddly unprepared, despite decades of identical 24-hour daily allotments, for their senior years.  Recently I saw my Dad cross over-- cross, with all its meanings, is the appropriate word, because he wore a tough and cantankerous skin over his purple hero's heart, even in death.

My mother, on the other hand, has deteriorated slowly and with a kind of demented grace.  She sits in a chair like a soft throne, with her thinning white hair pulled up in a tight knot, her famous cheekbones still defining her profile, her skin still soft but papery.  It is her eyes that tell the story-- watery, unfocused-- occasionally expressive but progressively less and less present.  Where are you, Mom-- in some honeymoon dream with your handsome decorated lover lifting you over some threshold, standing above the falls with the deafening roar of water rushing you off into another undertow of memory? It is difficult to know whether the sadness I read into her increasingly blank stare is hers or my own.

From her chairside, I facetime my son-- her favorite grandchild, the nurse-companion assures me-- and the three generations share a moment.  He is quite a man now; time has done its work here, too.  I meet his old school friends on the street and some of them have begun to lose their hair and take on that look of premature disappointment men in their 30's and 40's often wear.  The babies I held so recently are adults now-- the young couples I knew are turning grey, losing their religion.  Witnessing these passages is the way I process my own.  I am relatively unchanged, consistent.  I have different expectations.  I gave up on my vow to own a limestone townhouse on East 70th Street; I no longer want one.  I treasure my things, my books---  thank the angels I can still play bass and write songs and poetry.   I ask for little else-- can survive on the barest minimum in this city where I feel rich without money.  Yes, I was fortunate enough to have had the foresight to invest in an apartment when they were oh-so-cheap… exchanged vacations, movies, restaurants-- for a home, 'ant' that I was, having left my 'grasshopper' husband in the UK with the rest.

When I moved into my building it felt palatial.  We'd come from a studio apartment; my son endured his kindergarten friends remarking he slept in a closet; he did.  The head of our new coop was this elegant, intelligent woman who turned out to have been the fashion editor of the New York Times at a time when this was culturally important.  Her husband was a world-renowned Swedish photographer whose fashion photos were spectacularly smart and iconic.  Since I had a Swedish boyfriend, our kinship was sealed.  They took me under their wing, so to speak.  I adored them.  We shared evenings and ideas.  They were perennial attendees at my all-night musical Thanksgivings, and were treasured and wonderful guests.  Gus, the photographer-- also shared my passion for music.  He came to my gigs-- even the difficult solo ones-- critiqued my songwriting with brutal honesty and a sharp POV… gave his opinion freely of my friends, their work, etc.  He came to school events and photographed the children.  He'd knock on my door at night when I was home and sort through cds and art books.  He brought me albums and tapes and taught me so much about jazz.  When I visited Sweden, I'd bring him small things… I even photographed his boyhood home-- the apple trees and the stream running through his memory.  He was like the father I never experienced.  His love for his own children was boundless and unconditional, and somehow he realized I'd missed out, and generously shared a paternal affection.  I was proud of him.  His choice of wife-- stellar.  More than anything-- his decisive modus operandi-- as though he knew exactly what he thought and wanted and laid it out there.  This is rare.  True honesty and a point of view to go with it.  He attended coop meetings and harshly criticized injustices.  He supported me in my crusades and shared my sorrows without pity.  As a couple, they were the emotional roof over my head upstairs.

As he got older, he was a little more cantankerous-- scolded my friends at my own table, announced he disliked people to their face… knocked on my door and demanded that I cook him Swedish meatballs, bake him cookies-- insisted on eating on my sofa where he left stains and spilled wine.  Whatever was on my stereo, he would take it off and put on either Bud Powell or Art Tatum or his very favorite, Slim Gaillard.  He liked a bit of humor with his jazz.  He loved women, beauty in all forms… and knew how to convey a message with an image.  During the last year, he began to pocket small things from my apartment.  I caught him in the act once, and he responded, without remorse,  'You don't NEED this.  You don't even notice it!'  It was as though he was aware our time was a little foreshortened, and he needed some souvenirs.  He was becoming greedy of moments as the sand ran down in his hourglass.  I, too.

Last week he passed away.  My grief is disproportionate; after all, I am not even a relative.  To their children, with whom I am not nearly as intimate, I can only express sympathy and condolences.  To his wife, who somehow understands my attachment, well.. I will cherish the future hours we can hopefully spend together, sharing ideas, like two women.  She is the maternal role model I never had; the enduring, amazing wife-now-widow.  I will listen and learn what I can, while she is here and generous with her evenings.

Recently an aging fashion designer stopped me on the street and asked for them.  They were quite the 'it' couple in their day, he always assures me, and generally accompanies this with an anecdote or two.  This time, for some reason, he graphically described the palpable chemical attraction one could sense between them in their prime.  For some of us, imagining people in their 80's and 90's as the Rihanna or Brad Pitt of their era-- well, it takes imagination… but I have learned now… such is time.  These waves crashing onshore at this moment, the surfers riding this crest, the shells and animals and fossils that we find in their shallow temporary graves at the water's edge-- will be less than memory in mere minutes.  All our selfies and photos-- well, they are just digital sand.

The images Gus left behind-- both photographic and realtime-- are etched in my memory.  The photographs are fortunately ingrained in the internet and in books; he has left a hefty legacy and will not be forgotten.  It is his persona that has left a mark on me-- the in-your-face direct line to his mind-- his affection, his humor-- his laugh, not to mention his gorgeous physical presence and unique style even into his 90's-- his personal fashion and his pride, and his compassion-- his unequivocal appreciation for whatever I had made, and the example he set as a father, a husband… and a friend.  I grieve for selfish reasons, as one does.  Last night, in tribute… I reached for my Slim Gaillard… and it had vanished.  Dearest Gus.