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.


I have bemoaned time’s swift passage my whole life.  I’m a broken record, actually: I write, I talk, and I think endlessly about this.  Tempus fugit was almost the name of this blog.

And, suddenly, in the last couple of months, that has changed radically.  Now time’s crawling.  It’s been two months since my father died, but it feels like two years.  Thanksgiving, when he stood at the head of one of two tables and carved one of two turkeys, feels like even more years ago.

It’s a strange, contradictory thing: the actual days, as they pass, aren’t really any slower.  Nor are they jammed full of anything special.  Oh, yes, that first week after Dad died is a total blur, and I’m simultaneously aware that it was one of the most sacred and also the most strange weeks of my life.  And a lot has happened, since last fall – Grace went away to boarding school, my father-in-law died, my father died, my mother had her hip replaced, other dear friends and family members died.  We had special visits with our cousins on both sides, experiences inflected with both sorrow and celebration.

But everything feels so slow right now.  Full and blurry at the same time.  I’m sure this is a manifestation of grief (along with my irritability I hope).  But it’s remarkably different from how I normally experience life, which is both vivid and at high speed.

Sometimes, though, time slips in a dramatic, disorienting way.  On Saturday, Mum and I went to a family funeral (her beloved cousin, who was really her father’s younger first cousin, and to whom she’s always been closer than that familial tie would suggest; he also spent a lot of time in Marion, so was a part of my parents’ and our lives).  She stood up and read Crossing the Bar, the Tennyson poem that was read at my father’s funeral.  In that moment, as I watched her read, I felt dizzy, overcome with memory.  I felt like I was back in the church where we celebrated my father’s life, and, maybe even more, I was on the back porch with him as he quoted the poem from memory in post-dinner candlelight. In that moment, as I watched Mum read (beautifully, though I could tell she was emotional) time flew again, ad I thought of this post, and wondered if it was true.

It is, though.  Mostly, everything feels like it is moving incredibly slowly.  I’m struck by how far away life last fall feels.  I suppose it’s that, more than slowness, actually, that I’m keenly aware of.  And maybe that makes sense; the dual deaths of Matt’s father and my father cleaved our lives into a before and after.

The only way I know forward is to do just that: to move forward.  To let myself marvel at the tricks time plays on me, at how long ago it feels that Dad was here while he simultaneously sometimes feels so vividly present.  I think, several times a day, of the email my father sent to Grace after her other grandfather died, in which he asserted that the only thing to do is to face forward and grab the future with both hands, even if it hurts.”  Indeed. I’m trying.

I do have moments of noticing – often captured these days on Instagram. Life is no less beautiful; what’s different is the lens through which the world.  I trust that things will return to normal, but I also know it will take a while.  Until then, I’m going to let myself move ploddingly through my days, observe what startling joys I can see (alongside the numerous, and inevitable, moments of stunning sorrow). Dad believed in the value of new experiences, of that I’m certain.  I don’t know that he’d thought through this last, and most definitive new experience he would offer me, a literal change in how I move through the world. But it’s undeniable, this impact, and I’m trying to get used to it.


sunset over the reception after my father’s funeral, 12/3/17, photo by Grace

How shall the heart be reconciled/ to its feast of losses?

I’ve written about these lines, from Stanley Kunitz’s beautiful poem The Layers, many times.  That fact makes me shake my head now … I never knew what loss meant, until these weeks, so it feels naive that I was writing about it at all.  Maybe I was getting ready, in some strange way. I do think all our experiences add up to where we are, and in retrospect things make sense, so perhaps the circling around impermanence, and loss, that I’ve been doing here and in other writing, has been some kind of preparation or prescience.

In October, I shared a photograph on Instagram with a caption about how September had felt like an earthquake for our family.  I almost worry about sharing this piece today, for fears of what tremors lie ahead. Am I jinxing us? Every time I think the earth has stopped shaking, there’s another rupture ahead.  This one, my father’s death last month, is for sure the largest for me.  By a mile.

Dad was the center of my world, his is the voice I hear in my head, he was my first and most essential advisor, counselor, and sometime critic.  My mother, who I’ve described as “like the sun, surrounded by orbiting planets,” is an integral part of my daily life, much more than Dad ever was.  But his influence in some ways loomed even larger, and until the day I die it will be his approval and opinion I seek above all others.  His loss is immense, and to come on the heels of of my father-in-law’s death feels almost inconceivable.

I designed our holiday cards before Matt’s dad died.  They feature a photo that’s not great of us four, notable because we are in motion.  The whole card was about things being blurry due to change: 2 new jobs, 2 new schools, half of our nest now empty.  At Labor Day, this had already been a huge year of transition and change.  And then came September and November, and back to back deaths, and suddenly we are deep in grief on top of breathless from all that’s new. It occurred to me only as I wrote this post that it’s these two men’s names that I have, one my middle, maiden, and professional, and one my married and legal.  I’m proud to have both of their names, and grateful for the enormous ways that both shaped me.

I’m struggling to catch my breath and to find my footing.  I keep thinking of Kunitz’s lines, and about how this autumn has truly been a feast of losses. There are two other lines of writing I’m thinking of a lot these days.  One is Mary Oliver: “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”  Dad gave me a box of darkness, in his death, yes, but also, I’m beginning to understand, in his life.  The seam of sorrow that ran through his heart I recognize in myself.  He and I talked about light and darkness often, but it’s one conversation I remember particularly vividly.  He quoted a passage from Paradise Lost from memory.  He was comfortable with life’s poles, and knew the way that one enriched the other.  I have written about this a lot, and I suspect it’s his single most enduring gift to me.

The other passage I keep hearing in my head is Khalil Gibran: “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being,the more joy you can contain.”  I have long believed this to be true, and I already knew I was capable of deep sorrow and deep joy both.  These last few months, however, have shown me new depths of loss and sadness, and I suspect it will take a while for me to experience the commensurate joy.

I really do feel like I’m standing in the rubble of an earthquake, and what’s new since the last time I mentioned an earthquake in October is my fear there are more startling, unanticipated shocks coming. Maybe there are.  I can’t focus on that now. What I do know is that I’m changed forever after this fall, and I’ll never stop missing my father-in-law or my father.  I am still deep in mourning, but even from this dark, dark place I feel undeniable gratitude that both of them were in my life.  “Though much is taken, much abides.”  Indeed.

Thanksgiving and the fullness of life

This is always a poignant time of year, and this year it feels more so than usual.  I wrote last year about Thanksgiving 2002, when Matt’s father had his heart transplant, when the course of our family’s life bent permanently.  Last year Matt’s whole family gathered to celebrate his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, which was also the 14th anniversary of his transplant.  It was a gathering none of us will ever forget.

Of course things are very different this year.  Matt’s father is gone, and his sudden departure has punched a big hole in all of our lives.  On Wednesday we’ll gather with his family, and on Thursday with mine. I can’t stop thinking of that morning in 2002, with our colicky newborn in the back of the car and my father-in-law still in a coma at Mass General.  I can’t stop thinking of Thanksgivings in Vermont, before that, when Matt woke up before dawn to go hunting with his father and brothers.  I can’t stop thinking of last year, and the spectacular Florida sunrises, and the heartfelt toasts to mark 50 years.  The memories feel thick and close this week, sharp, vivid.  The people who are gone feel near, and I wonder, as I often do, where they are.  There’s so much I wonder about death, so many questions I have, both metaphorical and literal.

I wrote on Instagram last week of how this year I’m particularly aware of the losses that 2017 has brought to us.  Of course, there have been many beginnings, too. We began this year with a strong sense of optimism, aware that 2016 had been a difficult year, and the first months were full of good news.  Then, of course, came some bad news and some endings, Matt’s father’s death the most significant by a mile of a longer list.  We come to the end of this year in a more reflective mode than we began it, but perhaps that is a normal rhythm.  It strikes me that it probably is.

As the ghosts and memories swirl around me, what I feel, more than anything, is gratitude. I feel privileged to have lived those moments, even the difficult ones, and to have known and loved (and been loved by) the people who are no longer here.  I feel thankful for the family who remains, who hold some of the same memories I do.  I feel a tangible sense of honor to be on this earth, taking pictures and writing about my experience, looking at the sky, loving my family.

Kunitz’s words, “how shall the heart be reconciled/to its feast of losses?” run through my head.  How to honor what is gone while also remembering what has begun?  That is the task of these weeks for me. I feel thankful in a newly deep way, a gratitude shaded by the awareness of life’s losses and heartbreak.  Maybe this is adulthood: an elegy for what is gone and a song of celebration for what is at the same time.

I think what I’m saying is that as I get older, difficulty and glory are more closely intertwined, the light and the dark of life more inextricable.  Every joy is striated with awareness of sorrow, but the reverse is true, also. That’s either the most depressing thing I’ve ever written or the truest, I don’t know which. Maybe it’s both. But this period of my life is marked by a simultaneous embrace of what is – of thanks for what still is, in some cases – and the aching, echoing reminder of what was.

As I write these words it occurs to me that I am talking about nothing less than holding the fullness of life.  The losses and the beginnings, the heartbreak and the beauty, the mundane and the magical. All of it, all the time, simultaneous, bittersweet, dazzling.  Life itself.