It’s so beautiful, that first snow of the season. But it’s so darn depressing.
Photograph brought to you by Robin Botie.
What’s something wonderful about winter?
What I learned last week is that if I show up and listen to someone else’s story, and do something to help out—then my walk in the woods, the laundry, my photo-of-the-week and writing will probably not get done. But if I don’t allow myself to stress out over what I didn’t get accomplished, I can end up feeling magnificently productive and blessed anyway.
What did you do last week that got in the way of everything else you intended to do?
“Are you in pain? Why are you groaning?” the aide asked my 93-year old mother.
“To hear myself, to know I’m still here,” Mom insisted, “No pain.” Close to the end of her life, and on morphine, my mother’s world was disappearing. Producing the constant, low, gravelly moaning sound was soothing to her. Although it gave her visiting daughters the creeps.
I’m remembering that now because I may be creeping out some people by some of the things I do to comfort myself. And what I do to assure myself I’m still here, still an active participant in the world.
Not everyone understands that while I wake each morning, grateful to be alive, I am ever aware that the list of people who have touched my life, who died, grows continually longer. This dying-thing is a problem that’s going to get worse the longer I live. So I’m looking for positive ways to deal with the pain of losing loved ones.
It used to be I could recite their names every night as I lay awake waiting for sleep. But as more and more people in my world keep disappearing off the planet, I’m losing track of their names.
Over the course of last year, I learned to play TAPS on my cornet, and began dedicating each note to the beloved ones I can no longer see. It’s like calling out to the dead. Like saying goodnight, goodbye, thank you, and I care about you. But it’s more.
Last week, I played my cornet in the early morning, by the foot of a dear friend’s grave at Greensprings Natural Cemetery. Afterwards, I felt so at peace, I told several of my living friends who then responded, “You’re so nice to do that.” I didn’t know what to say to that, because playing TAPS is as much for me as it is for my dearly departed. It is utterly calming to me. I hear the notes echo out into the sky, over lakes and hills, and assure myself: I am still here. And as long as I’m able, I will call to the ones who altered my life, and keep some small part of them here with me.
How do you soothe yourself? Have you ever found that something you do or believe in is irritating to others?
My father was the one who taught me to love animals. For years, he had a wild squirrel he named Oscar that he trained to eat peanuts from our hands. He had an old drooling boxer dog who was my big brother the first years of my life. Animals were as important as people were to me. As an adult, I made animal designs for tee shirts, and coined the slogan “Creatures of Earth Unite for Survival.” I would cry copiously anytime I saw commercials showing neglected or abused animals. And whenever my son brought out his shotgun, I’d stomp and shriek a ruckus to scare away his targets, yelling, “Not the bunnies, not the birds….”
But something changed. Somewhere along the years, I lost my empathy. For animals, anyway. Maybe now that my daughter died it’s difficult to recognize the preciousness of a wild critter’s life.
Last week the visiting wildlife control operator confirmed that my house has squirrels, mice, chipmunks, woodchucks, raccoons, ground bees, cluster flies, and more. This was fine for outside. But they’ve been nibbling their way into my home. And into my humaneness.
The operator reminded me of all the reasons I didn’t want to live with wild creatures. The potential fire hazard of gnawed wires, Lyme disease, chew-holes in the stucco and trim, destroyed belongings…. We would start with the squirrels. We’ll eliminate them from the house, he said, informing me that once squirrels move into a place they’re not likely to move out. I suddenly remembered that squirrels were my son’s old girlfriend’s favorite animal.
The operator was listing all the options and processes he intended to employ. Video-taping, trapping, removal, … euthanizing. I squirmed, and scratched at my underarms, thinking of all the creeping, the chewing on electrical wiring and insulation, the dropping of turds. The twitchy-thing squirrels do with their tails that probably shakes out whatever fleas and ticks they’re carrying. Squirrels scuffled between floor joists, sounding like a herd of greyhounds racing overhead, through the house, north and south.
My father would have said, Poor squirrels—they’re just trying to make a living too.
The operator squinted, pointing at a hole in the house’s exterior. You might have some Flying Squirrels here, he said. And the thought of squirrels flying in my house put me over the top of my tolerance.
Okay. I’m in. How fast can you euthanize them? I gulped.
Wasn’t Rocky, of Rocky and Bullwinkle, a flying squirrel? What destroys your empathy?
My head is dizzy with memories of times that don’t exist anymore. Times and places and people. Some of my friends say I spend too much time looking back into the past. It wasn’t always that way. I can remember wishing time away, willing it to fast-forward into the future. That was long ago. These days, it feels like every year that passes carries me ever farther from the times spent with my daughter who died. Far from the days I was happy, and strong, and oblivious to what time could bring.
The Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dali’s famous surrealistic painting of melting clocks, is said to depict the erratic passage of time. Persistence? Not MY memory. Memories fade, they change. Nothing lasts. But maybe time does. Erratically.
This thing called time is a sneaky thing. It drags on and on sometimes, or flies by in a blink. It silently accumulates until one day you are dumbstruck wondering where it went, and how you got to be so old and worn out. Without even knowing, you can run out of time. A valuable, irreplaceable commodity, time is a most precious gift. If someone simply shows up and devotes an hour or so of their time to you, how can you not love them?
Despite what some folks say, I’ve learned time does not heal ALL wounds. And there’s no making up for lost time. You can’t kill time, or stop it or buy it, really.
Time, when you’re healing, is life. How we spend our time is how we spend our lives. And whether or not I am here on this earth, whether or not you are here, time continues to move ever forward. Without us. That’s the scariest part.
All this flooded my mind last week when, on a field trip to an abandoned industrial complex with my photography class, I came upon a clock hanging almost upside-down, suspended at 8:04 on some unknown day when its time ran out.
Is time timeless? What lasts forever?
My mother’s ashes filled three red plastic 18-ounce cups. One sister poured the cremains evenly, and almost to the brims, and handed the cups to the others like she was serving Juicy-Juice. We sisters stared down into the ashes. They were much finer than my daughter’s had been. No coarse sand or bone fragments. These ashes were fine enough to fly. Which is what Mom had wanted: Take me to October Mountain and scatter my ashes to the winds, that I may soar the Universe and observe eternity, she’d written. The powdery ashes would fly, but they’d stick to our hands. Good thing one of us had thought to bring cups.
There we were. Four of us, aged-sixtyish women with an impressive collection of phobias and health issues, gathered at the overlook of October Mountain. We’d traveled from as far away as Florida to be where Mom had spent over twenty summers. The drive up mostly unpaved mountain roads had been brutal, the Toyota Highlander plunging up and down, in and out of huge potholes. Finally reaching the lookout point, we’d tiptoed out of the Highlander trying to be inconspicuous, and hobbled over to the highest point, a large rock littered with cigarette butts.
The fourth sister, our honorary sister, refused to be dragged up the rock. Instead, she would snap photos from below. Close by, in the parking lot, a man sat on the tailgate of his truck, smoking, and watching the view with his pit-bull who eyed us with interest. We hesitated, hoping the man would leave. But he started up a new cigarette. And then a park ranger who was spraying something nasty nearby came over to warn us not to go walking into the brush below. As if there was any possibility we ailing-ancients might venture off our rock to go bushwhacking down the mountain.
We better do this fast, one sister said, when the ranger turned back to his exterminating. None of us wanted to be yelled at, or maybe even arrested, for sprinkling ashes in a state park.
The day was sunny and clear. Fall colors were just beginning to paint the hills. From our perch on the overlook we could see all the way to Mount Greylock—But there was no wind. It took only seconds to toss out three streams of my mother’s ashes. They landed inches off the rock, thickly dusting the bushes below us in white.
No words were said. No poems. Quickly we gathered up the cups and bags, and scrambled into the car, and headed back down the mountain on the bumpy dirt road. Without being stopped. And two days later I’m sitting in my cozy house wondering if the winds ever picked up enough to send my mother’s ashes soaring—to greet the Universe—before the rains came down.
What is your Ashes Story?