Much is Taken, Much Abides

I wrote a piece a while ago that I shared on Medium last week.  It’s probably pretty redundant for anyone who has been reading here – about Dad, poetry, Tennyson, Whit, loss, memory.  One of the reasons I go back and forth on continuing to write here is this sense that I’ve become a totally boring, repetitive writer.  Still, it’s a piece that means a huge amount to me, so I’m proud to see it up.  You can read the piece here, and the first part of it is below.  To add color to the particularly complicated and rigorous last year, Liz, who read at Dad’s funeral (one of two non-family members to do so) recently died herself.  I will attend her funeral next weekend.  Losses everywhere.  Much is taken.  Much abides.



Annus mirabilis

I’ve had the expression “annus mirabilis” running through my head lately and finally I turned to Google to discover its actual full meaning.  Many people have called 2017 an “annus horribilis” for our family and in some ways it definitely was.  But in fact “annus mirabilis” feels more accurate to me.

An annus mirabilis is “a Latin phrase that means “wonderful year”, “miraculous year” or “amazing year”. This term was originally used to refer to the year 1666, and today is used to refer to several years during which events of major importance are remembered.”

And you know what?  2017 definitely wasn’t wonderful, but it was amazing, in the I-was-amazed meaning of the word.  In the meaning that I read in Jeanne McCulloch’s All Happy Families: “Amazed: to fill with wonder.  Also: to bewilder.”  Our entire lives changed in 2017.  The year was full of wonder and bewilderment, in equal measure, I think.  The changes can be captured in twos:

Two new schools
Two new jobs
Two fathers (and grandfathers) gone

One of those new schools was a boarding school, so our family life took on a new shape.  One of those new jobs was a company that I helped to found, which has been an incredibly marvelous experience (and I’m so grateful that both Dad and John knew of that founding before they died).

Events of major importance?  No question.  2018 has been a year of fewer changes but no less emotion, which surprised me, truthfully. But when I step back and think about it, I guess it makes sense that there would be some settling in, some aftershocks, and so I think that’s what has been going on. The degree of both wonder and bewilderment that 2017 held were never going to resolve themselves neatly overnight when we stepped into 2018, a transition I recall as being fraught with emotion, even as it feels like a decade ago.

I am trying to give myself space and gentleness as I acknowledge that our annus mirabilis is taking longer to process than I anticipated.  Intellectually that makes sense.  Emotionally I want to be “me” again.  But even as I write that, I realize the futility of that wish: the me that began 2017 is gone, and I’m forever changed by the events of that year.  Wonder and bewilderment.  Annus mirabilis.  All these words resonate somewhere deep inside me, and I grab onto each.  But on some level I still feel lost in an inchoate place.

But I can’t stop thinking of annus mirabilis.  Maybe that’s my book.  It’s certainly where I am right now, and at least for a while still to come, I imagine.

How We Thought It Would Be

I’ve said before, and I’ll say again, that much of our suffering in this life is due to our attachment to how we thought it was going to be.  Put another way, I believe that one of the tasks of our lives is letting go of how we thought it would be.  What did you think, that isn’t so?  I’ll go first.

I thought my father would live to be in his nineties

I thought my daughter would go to my alma mater for high school

I thought I’d have published a book or two by now

I could keep going.  For a long time.  That’s not really news to me. What’s news is that when I think about it, I realize that I don’t dwell on these things.  Well, maybe my dad.  That one I still rue daily.  But maybe I’m growing into maturity, because at this point I can recognize these truths I thought would describe my life without pain.   How did that happen?  I’m not sure.  I wish I could pinpoint when the “what…ifs” stopped, but I can’t.  I do know that it’s releasing them that’s allowed a whole-hearted embrace of the reality of my life.

By letting go of our attachment to what might have been, we can embrace what is.  I know that is true. There’s no question that there’s a list equally as long as the things I thought would be true, and that’s the list of things that I didn’t expect.  Some of those surprises have been pleasant, some dazzling, and some heartbreaking.  But they represent the reality of life right now, and there’s room for them because of all the things that aren’t as I hoped, planned, or imagined.  So the task, I’m quite sure, is to let go of the latter so that we might let in the former. It feels like this is all going to happen anyway – what isn’t as we thought it would be isn’t, and what is, is – so the only question is how gracefully we can allow these things to be.

Easier said than done, but I seem to be moving in that direction.  Maybe the letting go comes with circumstances out of my control showing me how little the fretting and holding on helps me.  Maybe it’s just an inevitable development with middle age.  I don’t know.  I’m pretty sure it’s nothing I’ve done, and no comment on me in particular.  But I’m grateful for it.

What did you think would be, that isn’t?   And do you have any lessons about letting go of those things?

Memories and ghosts

I’m heading down to spend the 4th of July holiday with my children and husband, my mother, and my sister and her family, as we do every year.  We crowd into the house, which has at least one too few bathrooms for all of us.  We watch and cheer at the town’s old-fashioned parade.  We line the kids up for group photos, which used to feature at least one person crying and now feature at least one person being a little surly.  I used to dress the children in matching 4th of July pajamas, but that’s no longer happening.

This year there’s an echoing hole in the center of our experience.

We spent last weekend at Mum and Dad’s rambling house by the ocean, where we’ve spent so very many weekends.  I have been expecting the summer to be full of landmines and memories, and last weekend that proved true.  His absence colors everything in that house.  Sure, his absence colors my experience in general, but it is never more true than in that house.

That house where I brought Matt to meet my parents for the first time, a month after we met, in January 1998.  He and Dad were reading the same book (let me assure you it wasn’t an airport New York Times bestseller – rather a textbook-style book, about two inches thick, about the history of Europe).  After that weekend, Dad said to me, “Well, if he had only lived in Europe for a stint, I think he’d be perfect.”  To which I replied, “Did Matt not tell you about the two years he lived in London before business school?”

That house where Dad glanced at me as I walked downstairs in my wedding dress and turned back to the US Open.  Sampras was in a fifth set!  “Dad,” I remember saying with a sign, “We do have to go.”  To his credit, he turned the TV off then.

That house where Mum and Dad hosted Thanksgiving for over 30 people for more than two decades.  Where Matt and I pulled up, with a sleeping Grace in her carseat in the backset, on Thanksgiving morning 2002.  I have intense, vivid memories of that drive, arriving in front of Mum and Dad’s house, leaning against the headrest of the car, looking into the front windows through which I could see Dad in his bowtie.  Matt’s father was still in a coma after his heart transplant.  I was deep in the weeds of post partum depression.  The rest of the day is a blur, but I do recall with crystalline detail looking through the windows from our navy blue car as we parked.

That house where Grace and Whit lived with Mum and Dad for several summers, growing into themselves, developing their own relationships with their grandparents, learning to sail and playing tennis.  Where Dad and Whit took the boat out alone, where Dad and Grace went out to dinner alone, where we spent more nights around the dinner table than I can count.  Where for many years, Mum blew out birthday candles with all four of her grandchildren as Dad looked on from the other end of the table.

That house where, very often on a weekend morning, Dad and I were the first people up.  I’d bring him a cup of black coffee and he’d glance up and say, “well, thank you!” before turning back to his book.  I sat in the other room, reading, and could feel the pulse of him in his red leather chair.  The same red leather chair where he held Grace and Whit as infants, and where he later read to them.

That house where I had my last conversation with my father.  That house where I talked to him, hugged him, and saw him for the last time.  It was another Thanksgiving with over 30 people there, including this year’s foreign student (my sister and I have long maintained that it is the presence of someone we’ve never met before is what makes a Thanksgiving truly real). That house from which we went for our usual after-dinner walk on Thanksgiving, which wound home through the boatyard, Dad and I walking in silence among the boats, up on stilts for the winter.

That house where we gathered for Dad’s funeral. Where a few special family and friends gathered the night before to have dinner, solemn and laughing at the same time, where memory swelled into a present, tangible thing.  Where Matt and I retraced that same walk, the one we always do, early on the morning of the service.  Where Tennyson ran through my head, as he often does.  Where the old sailing friend of Dad’s quoted the same lines from Ulysses as he struck the canon as the crowd gathered for ceremonious colors in Dad’s honor.

And tomorrow, back I go to the same house, for the week with everyone together.  It will be the same in many ways and of course wildly, terrifyingly different in one enormous one.  All we can do is hold onto each other and proceed. Red and blue and white.  Fireworks and memories.  Ghosts around every corner, as well as memories of laughter and joy.  It’s still Mum’s birthday.  We are still together.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides.


Preemptive mourning

this is an old photograph of Grace, but I love the way she is literally in flight

Grace went away to school last year.  Shortly after she left, our lives veered off the rails.  It’s taken until the last month or two for me to be able to see the last year with any kind of clarity (and I’m sure this is not yet perfect clarity).  What I can see now, that I could not then, is that I spent most of the year before Grace went in a state of suspended animation and almost overwhelming anxiety.  My angst and preoccupation was all-consuming.

I have friends preparing to send children to boarding school in September, and it is talking to them that has helped me understand in a new way how difficult the months between April (her decision to go) and September (her leaving) were for me.  In fact, that season was one of the most difficult of my life.  I say that even knowing what followed immediately on the heels of Grace’s leaving.

It is such a first world problem: a child going to boarding school.  Cry me a river.  I know.  It’s just the departure for college four years early.  And yet it was immensely, guttingly, overwhelming hard for me.  No matter how you slice it, Grace leaving for boarding school was the end of something.  What’s come in the wake of that end is something new, wonderful, and full of its own pleasures and joys, absolutely.  But last September was also, irrevocably, an end and a farewell.  Life since then is both a celebration of what is now and an elegy to what no longer is (a similar sentence to once I’ve used before, describing parenting in general).

A dear friend recently posited that perhaps my overwhelming anxiety and grief about Grace leaving was some kind of subconscious preemptive mourning of the other losses that last fall held for me.  I’m not sure about that,but it’s an interesting interpretation.  In retrospect, Grace leaving was more all-consuming than John’s or Dad’s deaths, in some ways, mostly because it hung over us for months.  Of course John’s and Dad’s deaths were bigger losses that helped calibrate Grace’s departure, but the truth is even by the time John died (3 weeks after Grace left), I was already okay.

As is true for me – and yet as I apparently need to keep learning – the anticipation of Grace’s leaving was a hundred times worse than the reality of it.  The months leading up to her leaving home were full of angst – I remember last summer, at one point, the mailman asking casually “how are you doing?” as he dropped off the mail and my responding by bursting into tears.  I was a skinless, fragile person, walking through the world haunted by the end that Labor Day represented.  And once we reached that end, we pushed off into a new world.  And that new world has been lovely.  Grace is happy, happier than she’s been in a long time.  I feel closer to her than ever.  We are fine.  We have a new configuration, and we are all adapting.  The most important thing, for me, is the knowledge that she’s in the right place, doing the right thing.  As a parent, that’s all I need.

I wrote about Grace recently that “watching her [you] fly is one of the two biggest joys in my life.”  And indeed that’s true.  I didn’t realize until I was through it what a painful season last summer was, but I can see it now.

It was letting go, writ large. 

Not something I’ve ever been good at, but oh, my, the rewards are glorious. 2017 had a lot of letting go in it, and it’s my belief that 2018 and beyond will show us those rewards. It has already begun to.