slave castles — and the weight of history

(June 29, 2020: I first published this on F.S.O. nearly three years ago, but it’s never felt more relevant — so I’m pinning it to the top of my blog in the hopes it’ll reach more eyeballs. And because we all need to be reminded, I’ll say it right off: Black Lives Matter.)

As I stood there in the cells and dungeons, I could feel them: The weight of people who had suffered there, starved there, lay in chains in their own vomit and excrement. Those who died in the airless dark. Those who lived only to die, stacked like lumber, on ships to the Americas. Those who made it to distant shores only to find themselves bound in servitude, forever torn from family and home.

Touring the “slave castles” of the Ghana coast — the fortresses where untold numbers were held captive before the crossing — I felt this, and I wept. It’s all I could do. That, and dwell on all the generations of African-Americans who’ve grown up knowing only that their ancestors traveled this torturous route across the ocean. I don’t know much about my own ancestors, but as a white American, I know where they came from: Italy, Germany, Scotland, England, France. Too many Americans of African descent don’t even know that much. Too many can’t say which homes their forebears were stolen from.

This all hit me, as I stood there. I thought of their ancestors, shackled in those very rooms, nameless to the men who held and beat and raped them but known to the loved ones left behind. I thought of the profound — beyond profound — evils of the slave trade and the centuries of anguish, obstacles and disadvantage endured by its victims and descendants in Africa and the Americas both. I thought of Black Lives Matter, and the critics who rebut it with “All Lives Matter,” not realizing they’ve just articulated the point. Lives are exactly the point. All is exactly the point. All includes Blacks. Had All Lives Mattered from the start, Black Lives would never have been seized and sold and shipped and enslaved and then, over centuries of bias, routinely and tragically diminished.

This is obvious, or it should be. I’m not pretending to have insights into the African and African-American experience. I am not presenting myself as any kind of scholar, or as anything but a woman who spent a week visiting her daughter on a semester in Ghana and, while there, bought and read a short book on the slave trade and castles. We visited two: Elmina, built in 1482 and run by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then the British; and Cape Coast, built in 1653 and held principally by the British.

I didn’t take photos of the interiors of either fort, just exteriors and a few plaques inside. Shooting more would have felt disrespectful. People wasted away in those buildings. They died of cholera and malaria and starvation. Those who fought or tried to flee were thrown into a tiny cell with no light and no air and no food and no water and no hope for escape, not in this life. In both castles the guide brought us in, shut the door and turned off the light.

We stood in silence. The hows rained down. How many had died there, alone in the dark? How many days did it take them to expire? How did anyone survive in these fortresses of savagery and genocide? How did the Europeans convince themselves that the people they held weren’t people? How did any of this happen? How did it continue for hundreds of years? How can Americans reconcile this history with the dreams and ideals we claim to revere? How can we move forward? How can we make amends? How can we ever comprehend the lives lost, the damage done, the legacy of torture and statelessness and unfathomable pain?

I felt indescribable grief. Plain, immense, baffled, pressing sorrow. And I thought: I wish all Americans could stand here. Reading about history is one thing. Feeling the weight of its crimes in the place they were committed is a revelation of staggering impact. I’ve never been to Auschwitz; I imagine it’s the same.

One of the plaques I photographed was this one, which hangs in the the courtyards of Elmina and Cape Coast both.  It includes this appeal: “May those who died rest in peace. May those who return find their roots. May humanity never again perpetrate such injustice against humanity. We, the living, vow to uphold this.”

There it is. That says it all: Peace. Humanity. Injustice. We, the living.

Let’s uphold this.

 

 

 

 

the tale of the bow

Once upon a time, Mama had an absolute beast of a violin bow.

A French one. An Ouchard, a name revered in bowmaking circles. How she could afford it, I don’t know. Possibly the chipped ivory on its tip. Possibly some other quirk. Possibly the dear friends who helped fund her career as a concert violinist.

I don’t know.

What I know is this: When she played with it on her violin, the world screeched to a halt on its axis. Time stopped. The heavens cracked open. The beast in her hands joined forces with her fiddle, a beast of another sort that was made for her in the sixties by a Swiss-American luthier named Karl August Berger. In Mama’s hands these twin beasts made music that hit the bottom depths and reached the loftiest heights and bounced the surface of the earth, oceans and lava and rose petals all splashing in their wake.

I never felt good enough, musical enough, to master either of these small wooden objects, two exquisite products of the hope and vision that fuel every act of creation in this world and (I believe) the next. We humans are makers at our core. But some are better at making than others. Some are fueled by clearer visions, greater hope, more honed abilities.

That was my mother. She was an astonishing concert violinist. But she heard some music in me (flawed me, amateur me) and made me promise that I would keep playing her violin after she died, that I wouldn’t let it sit idle and decline with neglect. I gave her my word. And I’ve been playing it consistently since her death in 1994 — never with perfection,  always with passion and joy.

But the mighty Ouchard: That was too much for me. I played with it, yes. I tried to get a grip on its power and complexities. But I wielded it with fear, never able to master its weight and find its balance, never able to draw from it the warmth, nuance and muscular, singing tone that I heard in Mama’s playing. As decades passed and osteoarthritis kicked in, I also felt increasing pain in my right thumb. With no small regret, I decided I needed to sell the Ouchard and find a lighter bow. I made a few calls, asked a few people, got nowhere.

Then, two summers ago, I was chatting with Jason Anick at Django in June.

You ask: Who’s Jason Anick? One of the best goddamned violinists you’ll ever hear in any genre. He can do anything on the fiddle. I’m not exaggerating. Any. Effing. Thing.

You ask: What’s Django in June? A band camp for nerds (I’ve been one since 2016) obsessed with the swinging Paris jazz of Django Reinhardt. It’s held at Smith College each year — well, except for 2020 and 2021 — and its instructors are mind-boggling musical virtuosi from all over the world.

Jason had just wrapped one of his afternoon violin workshops when he mentioned, hey, he had a few instrumental goodies for sale from his own collection. Come take a look, he told us.

So I did. I tried out a couple bows. One was a sweet, light stick that sat perfectly in my hand and pulled lovely tones from the fiddle.

“Oooooh,” I said, “that feels good. I like that. And I need a new bow, ’cause I’ve got one now that’s way too heavy for me. It was my mother’s. I’m thinking I should sell it, but I don’t know where to go. It’s an Ouchard. Do you know any violin shops that might be interested?”

He looked up

An Ouchard? 

“Yep.”

Emile Ouchard? 

“Yep.”

Do you have it here? 

“Yep.”

Can I see it?

“Yep. It’s not perfect. Got a chip on its tip, see? But Mama played everything with that thing. Kreisler. Bach. The Chaconne! I remember her playing the Chaconne!

I handed it to him. He hefted the bow. Hefted his fiddle. Started in on the Chaconne. The sound, the force, the beauty of that soaring, searing, thundering Bach — I hadn’t heard that music, not that way, since I last heard Mama play it. My God, I thought. My God. My God. My God. It took all my self-control not to collapse into a blubbering mess in a sunny corner of Smith.

He stopped playing. Put the bow down. Looked at it. Looked at it again. Nodded.

Clearly, it had to be his. Mama would want it to be his. The universe would want it to be his. It was his.

We agreed to a trade — his light, dancing bow for my mighty but chipped Ouchard. He’d take it into his luthier for a look, he said. See how much the repair would cost. Then weigh that against its value and see if we’re even.

We were. After a couple emails and phone calls, we finalized the trade. I told Jason I could feel Mama smiling, and I meant it. I meant it.

I felt her smiling again — and I told him again — after hearing him perform on the Ouchard with his killer trio last month at a “Django by the Sea” concert in Kittery, Maine. It was some of the best goddamned music I’d ever heard in any genre. They did everything on those instruments. I’m not exaggerating. Every. Effing. Thing. 

Once more it took all my self-control not to collapse into a blubbering mess. I’d made it about two-thirds of the way through the concert when, stepping up to the mic, Jason mentioned someone in the audience named Amy. He gave a little shout-out to my mother and her fine beast of an Ouchard, holding it up for the audience to see. Then he lifted to his fiddle and played a gorgeous Latin tune with warmth. With nuance. With a muscular, singing tone.

Did time stop? Did the heavens crack open? Did a halo blaze around him, the Ouchard bathed in celestial light? No. I mean, not that I recall. But I I did, in fact, burst into tears, and I can also report that I’m shedding a few right now.

That, my friends, is the Tale of the Bow — and it’s quite an arc, is it not?

In cased you missed it, that was a pun.

And I can still feel Mama smiling.

lessons from a blow to the head

This past Saturday morning, I rode my bike around Washington Park, basking in the sunshine and the tulips. I bumped into a friend, and we chatted and laughed and hugged — yay, vaccines! Then I pedaled away, feeling such freedom, such joy, such relief, such a sense of renewal and gratitude for life.

Back home, I took a shower in the upstairs bathroom. After toweling off I figured I’d clean up the sink a bit, so I started scrubbing away and fluttering around absent-mindedly, paying no attention to the slippery floor. 

I put my bare heel down on a wet spot, and boom. 

I fell. Slammed the back of my head bloody hard against the tub. I felt and heard the smack in slow motion, almost, recognizing and regretting the stupidity and seriousness of what just happened.

I thought, Fuck. Fuck. Stupid Amy. Fuck. I just did that. I might die. I can’t do that to the kids. I can’t. They already lost their dad. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Mama died after a fall. I watched her eyes fade before me. I should have known better. I should have slowed down. I should have remembered. Stupid. Fuck. Stupid. 

My son Mitchell came in, sweet and wise and calm. He called his sister Jeanne, also sweet and wise and calm, who’s had wilderness first-aid training and knows concussions. I told her I hadn’t blacked out. She asked me a few questions, then sweetly, wisely, calmly told me to go to urgent care just to be safe. 

My boyfriend Dave arrived just then, emitting yet more sweetness and wisdom and calm. He drove me off to urgent care, and I filled out forms. What’s the reason for your visit? one asked. I wanted to write: Because I’m stupid stupid stupid. When a sweet, wise, calm woman walked in and asked me questions, I told her how scared I was. I told her about Mama’s subdural hematoma. But Mama was on blood thinners, I said. And I’m not. Thank God. And no, I didn’t lose consciousness. And yes, I remember what happened. No headache so far. No vomiting. That ringing in my ears? Tinnitus. Nothing new. Same old screech as always.

She had me stand with my eyes closed. Stand with my arms out. Walk heel to toe in a straight line. Puff out my cheeks. Raise my eyebrows. Follow her finger around my face, touching my nose then her fingertip then my nose again. All sorts of weird is-your-brain-broken shit that I was happy to do because I passed every test, passed, passed, passed, and she sent me home telling me to take it easy and go to the E.R. if things suddenly turned worse.

But they didn’t turn worse. I never got a headache, never puked, never even got much of a bruise on the back of my head. And I can’t comprehend why. I. Just. Don’t. Get it. I fell and smacked my head so damned hard against the tub, I still can’t believe I didn’t wind up with a concussion at least. I must have the world’s thickest skull. Or I must have broken the fall with my arm on the sink and my butt on the wall, because if I hadn’t, I might not be here to write this. 

The fact that I still have a mind to blow? That blows my mind. It feels miraculous. Like an affirmation, a new lease on life, a blast of angling sun at dawn. I thought of my bike ride around Washington Park that morning — that sense of renewal and rebirth. Here it was again, minus the tulips.

A friend of mine, hearing the saga of my blow to the head, remarked: “You have more to do.”

And I thought: Hmmm, okay. What is it? Clearly I am being instructed to add no-slip mats and stickers to the upstairs bathroom (done). But what else? If indeed I’ve been given a fresh start, what’s my purpose? What mission am I on? Is this some message from On High telling me to give more, to write more, to listen more, to do more for people in need, to meet them where they are each day? To live in the present, to be kind and open, to see the gifts of the world around me? To finish that batshit and probably unpublishable little novel I’ve been working on, the one about my sister’s first attempt and suicide and my quest to retrieve her from heaven? (There. I just said something publicly about it. Now I have to.)

I don’t know. For all I know, I could die tomorrow. I’ve always known I could die tomorrow: If you spend much of your adulthood losing people you love, many of them suddenly, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion. We’re only here for a wee spell, any of us. That wee spell could be 98 years or an hour. It could be filled with love and laughter or isolation and pain. For most of us who live long enough, we get a combo of all four. But what’s “long enough,” anyway? Not up to me to determine. Not in the end. Which is coming.

And yes, this is an extremely morbid post. 

After getting home from urgent care Saturday afternoon, I ticked off my blessings: three wonderful grown kids, plus a wonderful bonus kid; a wonderful man; wonderful relatives and friends; a meaningful job; health; a home; the joy of music; the joy of laughter; coffee. 

That evening, playing Scrabble with Dave, I looked down at my letters and gasped. Six of them had something to say: 

I ALIVE. 

And I am. I am. I am. Today. For now. For some reason I may never understand. But that’s okay. I’m grateful to be here, and while I am, I’ll do my best to live in the moment. To give in the moment.To love in the moment. To take nothing for granted in the moment.

Because the moment is all we have — and that’s enough.

melancholy baby

My father’s first language was Neapolitan, the gorgeous, singing dialect of Naples. If you’ve heard it, you know that it’s music — its syllables rising and falling like pitch, swelling and shrinking like rhythm. As a kid I heard it and loved it but never understood it, never knew its meaning beyond the emotional plane. Okay, I knew a few things: some of the more blasphemous swears he blurted that I continue to blurt to this day (MADONN’ -eh SANT’-eh GIUSEPP’-eh!). I also know how to say “You are a hard turd that someone had a difficult time voiding from their ass,” or something along those lines, though it’s much more concise in Neapolitan. 

Daddy spoke that and nothing else for the first five years of his life, growing up in a tenement in Manhattan’s Little Italy with his kid brother Freddy and their immigrant parents. He was born in 1907, before World War I, before World War II, before all the madness we know as the 20th century rolled in and filled the city with fumes. Fifty-six years later, I entered the world. Twenty-eight years after that, he left it, and I found myself filled with regret for all the conversations we never had, all the questions I failed to ask. 

I wish, in my own childhood, I’d asked him about his. I wish I’d asked him about his pals, about their trips to the rooftops to look for German U-boats, about the people he knew who died of the Spanish flu. I wish I’d asked about the “Goof Club” cohort he grew up and boxed with, and I wish I’d asked about his love for Tin Pan Alley — all those bright and bouncy tunes he banged out on the piano and squawked out on the squeezebox.

If only I’d thought to ask him about them. If only I’d asked him to teach me one. If only I had sung with him. 

I’m thinking of one in particular, only because I couldn’t possibly forget it: “My Melancholy Baby,” Ernie Burnett’s cute, catchy, corny-beyond-belief 1912 ditty, which implores its adorably weepy listener to cheer up and give the singer a hug: 

Come to me my melancholy baby
Cuddle up and don’t be blue
All your fears are foolish fancy, maybe
You know, dear, that I’m in love with you.

Daddy loved that song. HE LOVED IT. He sang it in Neapolitan, which somehow made it even cornier, throwing his arms in a wide embrace and belting that sucker out for literally anyone who’d listen. He sang it to me, my sister Lucy, our mama Jeanne. He sang it to visitors. He sang it to neighbors he encountered on walks. Check out the photo above, snapped by a fellow who lived up the hill from us; when I saw it I knew without asking that Daddy was singing, and I knew which song in which language. 

Keep in mind, this was a classical music critic who’d authored or edited more than a dozen books, interviewed Pablo Casals and worshiped Beethoven as his one true god. But “Melancholy Baby”? In the final years of life, when his memory failed him in so many ways, that offered the apex of joy for him. Nothing made him happier.

So here I am, 29 years since his death, plumbing my own joy where I can find it. Obsessed as I am with Hot Club jazz, I decided to fiddle around with the tune — on Mama’s violin, no less — and I promptly fell in love with it. I noodled around with different tempi and phrasings, different bowings and licks, and as I did I walked around my bedroom and glanced at Daddy’s photo on the wall. He was there. With me. In the music. I could feel it. 

When my kids (“kids”) asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I had one request: a Neapolitan translation of That One Song. I got it. I also got a voice memo to help me with the pronunciation. I scribbled down the lyrics phonetically, delighting in the tongue-rolling, sing-song flow, then practiced the whole thing with my marvelously understanding (and marvelously musical) boyfriend Dave on ukulele.

We tried it out in an online “jam,” then recorded it in my living room. 

In the spirit of Daddy, I flung out my arms and belted that sucker out — almost certainly butchering the lyrics. But I butchered them with love. I butchered them with joy. I butchered them in a manner worthy of the irrepressible paesan’ who sang them through my childhood and sang them again with me, I’m sure of it, in my humble Albany home the other night. And as I scratched away on Mama’s fiddle, I knew they were both beside me — smiling as widely as heaven allows.

I smiled, too. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

timeless

Today is a strange day, just as yesterday was a strange day, just as the day before it and the day before it and the day before that were strange days, too. I know that tomorrow will be strange, and the day after tomorrow will be strange, and too many days and weeks that follow — more than than I can know, or want to.

Shakespeare warned us about tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow : It creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time.

All I can say is: Ugh.

Living through a pandemic is bloody weird, is it not? Yes, yes, yes, people are getting vaccinated. Yes, yes, yes, something distantly approaching normal may return in a matter of months, though not for the far-too-many who’ve died and the far-too-many-more who grieve in their absence. But this fall, maybe maybe maybe, things could be a wee bit brighter for those of us who remain. So I’ve heard. As if anyone can know. As if fixing on some distant month will make the long march of days between now and then feel anything other than strange.

The strangeness comes from the sameness borne of COVID, from the inevitably reduced social interactions and the drastic dialing-down of events both anticipated and not. It comes from the timelessness inherent in the sameness. From the repetition, the predictability, the absence of the unexpected. I am not complaining, or trying not to — not too loudly. I can’t. I’m among the lucky ones. My strange days are good and healthy strange days, filled with love and laughter and music and rewarding work and plenty of sleep and a routine that doesn’t tax me. And I’ve had lovely getaways, all within driving distance, all of them restorative. But then, post-getaway, it’s back to the weirdly altered coronaviral routine for seeming perpetuity.

On weekdays I wake, I caffeinate, I eat a bowl of cereal. I check my email and read the news in my boyfriend’s kitchen or my own, with my batshit cats rubbing my legs and my son asleep upstairs. My daughters are distant in miles but near in spirit, texting and calling to make sure I’m okay.

I crack open my laptop and work. I drink herb tea. I eat chocolate and peanut butter and bananas, sometimes all at once. I go for a walk. I work more, drinking more herb tea and doubling up the used bags to get the most out of them. I practice the violin along to backing tracks. I eat things other than chocolate and peanut butter and bananas. I cook. I exercise by running up and down the stairs, then do sit-ups and push-ups. I shower. I text, email, talk on the phone, Zoom once a week with friends and bandmates. About every dozen days or so, I make a big run to the grocery store, mask snugly covering my mouth and schnozz. I order shit from Amazon: cornflakes, toilet paper, socks. On the weekends I play Scrabble with my beau. We watch virtual jazz shows with each other and sci-fi with my son. We go for walks. On Sundays I watch virtual Mass. I drink yet more herb tea.

I read. I fall asleep. I dream of having crazy fun at parties with maskless people, then freak the hell out when I realize it’s not safe, and the dream becomes a nightmare. Then I wake and start all over again.

The sameness of it all, the strangeness of it all, makes me wonder what Einstein might have said about this distended temporal state we’re in — timelessness, perhaps, or time reduced to a coma by the profoundly bland repetition of it all. On this train we’re riding the clocks aren’t slowed or stopped but pointless. Time isn’t relative but rendered moot, invisible, even, a haunting in the shadows. Which second, which minute, which hour, which day of the week is it? Which month? Wait — you mean, it’s nearly February? But but but but I’m only halfway through my bowl of cereal! And it’s the same bowl of cereal I’ve been eating since last March!

Sitting on my bed on this sunny, windy, chilly day, I’m realizing it’s been months since I last posted on this blog. I can’t say why, exactly. It’s not that I’ve had nothing to say. I’ve said plenty, whether the words have simply rattled around the space between my ears or reached someone else’s. It’s just that time passed at Macbeth’s petty pace, then more passed, then more — but I barely took notice of it.

One of my batshit cats is at my feet right now, his paws twitching in a busy little dreamstate. Through the window I can see trees sway and sparrows streak across my neighbors’ roofs, and I’m reminded that each tiny movement of a branch or a wing is different from the last one, different from the next one, different from all the tiny movements piled up behind us or yet to come. I’m reminded again that change is, after all, the only constant.

At some point, I know, that change will bring us to a new phase in this country and this cosmos, and the strangeness will lift. The sense of sameness will abate, and our endlessly repetitive COVID routines will get upended by a rash of ass-kicking in-person commitments and travel plans. We will all run screaming from our homes, hug each other, high-five each other, cheer in each other’s faces and party like there’s no tomorrow, because tomorrow, as we’ve all learned, is just another twitch in time that we can’t see.

But we’ll get there. I swear on the holy relics of my many herbal tea bags, we’ll get there.

happy birthday, lucy

Just now, as I was paying a bill online, my eyes fell on the date: 10/17/2020.

Lucy’s birthday. She would have turned 60 today. The force of this revelation smacked me suddenly and sideways, and I burst out in tears, then more tears, then more.

I’m still bursting. My beautiful older sister stopped aging at that unending moment in the spring of 1992 when she took her own life, downing bottles of psych meds before curling up in a fetal position on her bed in Cambridge, Mass.

She was 31. I was 28. When I turned 32 four years later, I felt a breach in the space-time continuum that’s never fully healed — just as I felt after turning 56, a year older than my late husband when he died by suicide in 2011.

This is the inexplicable, unavoidable truth of grief following suicide loss. It never truly ends. You’re never truly over it, because it never truly stops being an affront to all that you know and love — including the tidy forward pace of time itself.  You and your absent dear one were meant to travel it together, plodding side by side as you both age. You were meant to swap belly laughs, chit-chat, glances and insights en route. You understand that they were hurting; you accept that it wasn’t their fault; you do your best to comprehend their darkness and accept that they saw no escape.

But their departure from this universe rips yours to shreds, and the only way forward is straight through the chaos. There’s just no sidestepping, no dancing around it. This is true at the beginning — when you get that first, horrific phone call or answer the doorbell to find cops on your stoop, their faces gripped with empathy — and it’s true again and again and again and again and again, whenever the force of their death and your grief rears back and strikes you with bare-knuckle, out-of-the-blue force. You can’t duck it. You take it. You feel it. You give it its due. And, somehow, tripping over the shards of your past life, you move forward.

As the years pass, these blows to the heart occur less frequently, but that’s not to say they ever stop entirely. I was startled by this new reassertion of grief nearly 30 years after Lucy’s death, but I shouldn’t have been. She was, and I am not exaggerating, the most unfailingly good, indelibly beautiful and astonishingly gifted person I’ve ever known, a concert pianist whose whole soul expressed itself at the keyboard. She was hilarious, with a profound knack for the absurd. She was giving, always setting aside her own load of torment while her kid sister whined about some guy she had a crush on. And she was candid, always, about her unrequited love for a life that never loved her her back. She never took it for granted; she only wanted it to cause less pain. 

I miss her. I will always miss her. I can’t imagine reaching an age when I don’t miss her, when her death becomes so-what and I stop grieving entirely. As a person of faith I believe that I’ll see her again, laugh with her again, and maybe sit back with margaritas at some poolside somewhere in an eternal moment of light and joy that never slides into darkness.

But in the meantime, I’m here. And she’s there. So from my little kitchen in Albany, the tears still wet my cheeks, I declare to the heavens: Happy Birthday, Lucy.

the only constant

A little over two weeks ago, I said goodbye to my job with the Times Union. In nine days, I start another one with the nonprofit webzine MadinAmerica.com. 

So I’m in limbo. And  limbo feels strange. Limbo always feels strange, hovering between the last leg of the journey and the next one, between the past I know and the future I can’t, between all the rich and crazy chapters that came before and the Lord-only-knows what and how many lie ahead. And by “limbo” I don’t mean either ye olde celestial abode for the unbaptized innocent or the bendy Caribbean dance I have never and will never attempt. Not with my knees. That’s a future I can see. I also don’t mean to imply that there’s anything negative in this limbo, that I’m hanging out in some nasty patch of oblivion and neglect.

I’m just not where I was or where I will be, and I can’t see around the bend. But can I ever? Isn’t something beautiful or odd or agonizing or potentially batshit always up ahead? Life dishes out the unexpected no matter what we do to guard against it, and no matter how many months in advance we make our dental appointments. I can say I’m about to start a new job next week, and right now that’s the plan, but what if a meteor slams into my roof? What if lobster-shaped aliens land in Albany and beam me onto a giant ship filled with corn and boiled potatoes? Don’t laugh. It could happen. Weirder things have.

Acting on faith, whether your creed is a question of religion or life itself, means making plans in the hope they might be realized and the understanding they might not. “Hope for the best, expect the worst,” as my surrogate dad Dan used to say, and let me tell you, he knew both. “The only constant in life is change,” said Heraclitus, whom I did not know personally. Or as my late husband Chris used to put it: “God can only help us in the present.” Not back there in the before-time. Not up ahead. Right here, as this second spills into the next one.

All we have is now. All I have, as I type this, is the chirp of sparrows in my tiny, leafy backyard and the sun that dapples the grass. I have my health. I have my hands. I have my nutball cats on the porch. I have my wonderful son working on a piece of furniture in the basement. I have my amazing daughters in Brooklyn and Detroit. I have the sweet man I’m blessed to call mine preparing to come over in an hour. I have my neighbors, my family, my pals, the bustling, friendly streets that I call home, and all the many gifts that fill this interesting corner of the world.

I look up at the sky and watch the clouds drifting east. I hear crickets. I hear a jet moving north, then a mourning dove sings its eulogy from the huge silver maple arching above me. Then a flutter of wings somewhere. A mewling sound from some agitated little scamp, probably a squirrel. Leaves rustle. A grackle lands on a bush, then flies away. The mourning dove sings again, the clouds cover the sun and drift on again, and the crickets just keep at it.

This is limbo. This is change. This is the moment that is no longer, and then this is the moment that is no longer, and then this and then this and then this. It’s all fleeting. It’s all cause for gratitude. So I look at the life behind me and say, Thank God. I look at the life ahead of me and say, Thank God. I look at the life before me now and say, Thank God.

And then, once I say it, it’s behind me.

on rainbows, omens and the orange menace

I am so damn sick of 2020. Aren’t you? Don’t you just want to hop into your Tardis or Delorean or some other stylin’-ass time machine and zap yourself toot-sweet into the future? Short of that, aren’t you tempted to crawl into your comfy person-sized suspended-animation fridge, plug yourself in, program your nap time, fall asleep in a deliciously frozen haze and prepare to thaw out after this bizarre apocalyptic spasm in history has come to a halt?

When that might be, I can’t predict. Don’t put that onus on me, folks. I’d love to be able to say “Ooooh, just set your clocks for Wednesday, January 20, 2021! The Orange Menace will be gone by then! That’ll be the end of the end times! Aim for that! Milkshakes for everybody! Yay!” But I have no idea if that’s the case. We could all go the freeze-pop route only to wake into an even more dystopian era than the one plaguing us right now.

Between the spiking infections and piling-up deaths from COVID-19, the partisan madness of those who refuse to wear masks, the attacks on protesters and the free speech they embody and employ, the anti-science, anti-democratic stances of those in power, the evidence past and present of systemic racism, and the singular, unrelenting abomination of a morally twisted baby-man in the White House who retweets videos with full-on KKK hate speech, I’m feeling like we’re all trapped inside a giant dump truck alongside mountainous piles of shit. It stinks in here. There’s no room. And we’re about to plunge head-first over a cliff.

And, you know, maybe we are. But the other night, my band and I played a small, socially distanced gig outdoors in Delanson. It was fun. Sunny. Joyful. The music of Django Reinhardt always is, and I smiled behind my mask as I scratched at my fiddle and sang. When a shower ended the gig prematurely, we packed up our gear and hauled it through the rain to our cars — and just then, the sun came out. And with it, a double rainbow.

A double rainbow. What did that mean? Was it a positive omen, or yet another sign of creation’s imminent destruction? On the drive back with my boyfriend, we followed it, observing changes in the sky and the shifting illumination of the arcs themselves. As the top rainbow faded, the bottom glowed. By the time we arrived, the clouds above us were a billowing pink and peach and purple, and the rainbow blazed downward into a mythic pot of gold. Its colors dazzled. It looked straight out of Oz.

I took photo after photo after photo, blurting holy shit after holy shit after holy shit before this unexpected spectacle at dusk. This wasn’t any omen. It was no augury of good or ill. It portended nothing but itself, and that was enough. Amid the self-imposed madness of this age we’re in, there above me soared a fleeting snatch of timeless beauty, a glimpse of the embracing sublime and a reminder that nature, now as ever, arcs higher than humankind. Higher than the Orange Menace. Higher than anything that happens between now and whenever this ends, however long it takes to get there. I have to believe we will.

In the meantime, I’ll take all the rainbows I can get.

faith, fear of death, and fatheads

Lately I’ve been dumbstruck, and not in a good way, by some of the sentiments expressed on social media regarding:

A) God

B) Faith

C) Death

According to certain factions in conservative Christianity, we who are worried about COVID-19 should just calm down and stop whining about masks and stuff because, to quote one adherent of this view, “Living in fear of death is no way to live life.” This particular fathead referred to people upset about the mounting death toll as “the Corona SS” and then added, just for good measure: “I’ll be happy to tell you about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ if you fear death.”

Okay. Okay. (Fans face in futile attempt to calm down.) Okay. FIRST OF ALL, I have to state flat-out that NOT ALL CHRISTIANS ARE FATHEADS. Not all of us are anti-science, and not all of us are convinced that the best response to a pandemic is to pretend that it isn’t happening and then tell everyone who’s trying to take precautions that they’re all Godless Nazi twits who should shut up and find the Lord, and, you know, SO WHAT if thousands upon thousands of people are dying horrific preventable deaths.

Excuse me, but THIS MAKES ME WANT TO JUMP UP AND DOWN SCREAMING UNTIL MY DOLLAR-STORE READING GLASSES FLY OFF MY NOSE.

Okay. (Fans face again.) Okay. I would like to take this occasion to state flat-out that I believe in:

A) God

B) Jesus and

C) Masks

Yes! All three! I know, shocking, isn’t it? Even more shocking, I am a huge, HUGE fan of:

D) Fearing Death

Let me explain myself. (Clears throat, pulls mic close to mouth.) I believe that the Someone Out There who made us actually wants us to live — and wants us to want to live. I believe our fear of death is God-given, instilled in us to keep us here and keep us striving despite all the sacks of crap that are thrown our way.

Life is a gift, but it’s hard. IT’S HARD. I say this as a person of faith and one who has lost too many loved ones to suicide, my husband and sister included. I know they wanted to live — or, again, wanted to want to live. They fought to remain here with every ounce of their beings, and they did so with the faith that God was present in their pain. But the pain became too much. Fear of death became secondary. And I lost them.

SO DON’T TELL ME I SHOULDN’T FEAR DEATH, MR. FATHEAD. Don’t tell me this fear springs from a lack of faith — whether in God, or in life. That fear is a gift. That fear pushes me to treasure this time I have on earth, these hugs I share with my dear ones, these moments of light and beauty and laughter that dapple the craziness. That fear lends urgency to this life, defines its boundaries, inspires all of us to live and give and love and heal in spite of it — knowing we’re not here for long, groping for answers we know we might not find.

And since we’re on the subject of Our Lord and Savior, I just gotta add one point: EVEN JESUS WANTED TO LIVE. (Shakes fist, thumps bible, adjusts dollar-store reading glasses.) In the Garden of Gethsemane he grappled alone, in agony, in the dark, with his own fear of death. I am baffled why any professed follower of Christ would gloss over this little moment, because that’s why his sacrifice meant something. Meant everything. Meant the literal and figurative world. He gave himself to God, and to us, despite his own urge to let the cup pass him by. It’s kinda, you know, the point.

Does that sacrifice mean the rest of us shouldn’t fear death? Nope. It means WE SHOULDN’T TAKE ANY OF THIS FOR GRANTED. It means we should live and give and love and heal the way Jesus told us to live and give and love and heal: With absolute awareness that we aren’t here for long. With the sense and conviction that death is around the bend, and every sacrifice matters, every gesture of love and generous impulse. With the stubbornness within that says life is worth living even when it hurts like hell.

We’re here now. Let’s cherish what we have, do what we can, and take care of each other.

(Straps on mask.)

 

 

 

 

Staying connected in the time of corona: let’s share our stories

Well, it’s taken me a while, but here it is: My first blog post in the midst of this incomprehensibly weird scourge. While I’ve written plenty of coronavirus stuff in my other life as a Times Union staffer, I’ve struggled to find the energy and insight to post something meaningful here. I need to weigh in, I kept telling myself. I have a platform. I should do something with it. But then: Something? What kind of something? And then: Oh, crap, it’ll have to be Profound. I’m too pooped to do Profound. And finally: I’ll figure it out tomorrow.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow crept in this petty pace until I realized, at long last, that I shouldn’t be thinking in terms of Profound, whether capitalized or not. I should be thinking about the everyday. The mundane that roots us, links us, makes us laugh in a time of isolation. The funny six-foot interactions we have with strangers, feeling kinship even as we veer into the street to avoid the plague. The ways each of us is trying to help — with a phone call to a friend, a gift to a pantry, a delivery to a family in need.

The little reminders of light in the darkness, assuring us that we’re still here. That we’re still human. That we are, despite everything, still connected.

Here’s a big one for me: going outside and finding community. An unexpected upside to COVID-19 has been the joy of walking in the early spring sunshine and seeing so many neighbors out there, stretching their legs. A lot of them are walking their dogs; a lot of them are taking a break from telecommuting to grab a blast of vitamin D; a lot of them are playing games with their children.

The other day I saw folks teaching a boy to ride a bike, and it filled me with gratitude — relief, even — to know that happy memories are still being amassed. That this one kid, at least, will grow up and look back on March 2020 with the remembered thrill of freedom and balance and force, of the wind against his face and the pedals beneath his feet and the loving hands that steady his ride and then, in an act of faith, let go.

And as I realized this, the moment become my happy memory, too. Parents love, children mount bicycles, and life prevails.

What are your own beautiful moments that turn into memories? Your own glimpses of light and causes for gratitude in the midst of COVID-19? Your own mundane, miraculous reminders of all that makes us human? Post them here as comments. As we move forward, I’ll do my best to amass them in subsequent posts.

The name of this blog is, after all, Figuring Shit Out. This is shit we need to figure out together. So let’s do it, my friends. Let’s stay connected, Coronavirus be damned.

dan

As I write this, Daniel P. Richardson — one of the most loving, giving, charismatic, profanely truth-talking, monumentally interesting and utterly unforgettable people I’ve ever known and ever will — is in his last days. His blood cancer finally brought his numbers too low, and he stopped the transfusions that had been keeping him alive. So he’s home right now, welcoming friends and family who arrive for one last moment or two with this indelible human being.

My kids call him “Pop-Pop.” I call him my second father, the friend and former headmaster who took over after I lost my parents and sister in a two-year span. His wise and beautiful wife, Pat, was “Nana” to my kids and a second mother to me. I can barely articulate just how much they and their brood have given us over the years. I can barely imagine this world without him.

Not barely. I can’t articulate it. I can’t imagine. But as Dan told me during my own moments with him — probably final — just this morning, it’ll be okay. I will, too. He held my hand as he said this: “You’ll be okay.” He knows how much I love him, he knows how much I’ll miss him, he knows how much his time on this earth and in my life have meant to me and always will, and he knows none of that will ever change.

For the last several months, I’ve tried to give something back by helping him with his memoir: “Surprised: A Richardson Story.” He was in a rush, knowing he would die from myelodysplastic syndrome and determined to get his life on paper before he left us. About a year ago, he started writing it; by early March, he’d finished it; over the next several months, we whipped the manuscript into shape and published it on Lulu.com; at the end of July, we celebrated its release.

Then, a week later, Dan nearly died of sepsis and plunged into delirium. It took him months to recover and emerge from rehab, and when he did, he decided to write a new chapter to tack onto the end of his book. An “addendum,” he called it: His thoughts on almost dying of one disease and surely, gradually, inevitably inching toward death from another. I again agreed to help him, recording long conversations and doing my best to inhabit his thoughts before assembling his final reflection on life, death and love.

In January, I finished it. He gave it the stamp of approval, but asked me to hold off on publishing the newly revised book until he returned from a winter trip to Key West with Margaret, his loving partner and a rock to us all.

When he got back, his numbers plunged, and he stopped treatment. On Friday I drove out to see him. On Saturday morning, I asked if he had anything more to say in his book, any final words about his final days. And he did: a handful of plain, beautiful sentences about family and friends. I added them to the end — an addendum to the addendum — then uploaded the revised book to Lulu and hit “publish” once again.

Below are excerpts from Dan’s “Thoughts on Dying.” Typing this now from my kitchen in Albany, I still can’t believe he’s about to leave us. I still can’t comprehend either the bottomless nature of love or the fathomless nature of loss, or how we can’t know one without risking the other.

Thank you, Dan. You are a blessing forever. Such insufficient words for all that you’ve given me and my kids, but that’s all I can manage right now. It’s okay. I’ll be okay. I love you.

Addendum: Thoughts on Dying 

Excerpts from “Surprised: A Richardson Story,” By Daniel P. Richardson. Lulu Press.

I thought I was finished with this book. I was finished with this book. But a week after my family celebrated its release — along with Betsy’s birthday — with a party at Margaret’s house, I almost died from sepsis. And I found I had more to say.

But while I wanted to churn out one last chapter, I didn’t want to write it. I’m on pain meds, I don’t have the energy any longer, and I’m nearing death from MDS. So Amy is writing this for me. She interviewed me, recording multiple conversations over the course of a four-day weekend, and then she pieced together my thoughts in my voice — or as close to my voice as she could get. What you’re now reading is Amy channeling Dan, assembling my final reflections and messages that I want to convey to those I love.

Maybe you’ll get something out of it, maybe you won’t. But for what it’s worth, this is how it feels to live while dying.

****

. . . .I was already dying of MDS when, on Aug. 6, 2019, I got a staph infection that settled in my lower back, prompting indescribable spasms of pain. My bone marrow was already malfunctioning, failing to generate blood cells and stave off infection. I was already in the end stages of a fatal disease. This is what happens with MDS: While you’re getting sicker, you can still do a lot. You can still walk and talk and drive and go see movies and drink. You can still live while you’re coping. But you just start slowing down, and then you wind up giving up time each week to getting blood transfusions to keep you going — and at some point, for most people, that gets overwhelming. You make a decision to stop.

And the odds catch up with you. You wind up with internal bleeding of some sort — due to the scarcity of platelets. Or your heart stops.

Or, one day, you get an infection.

Mine should have killed me. I was in my X5, driving back from an appointment with a high-powered blood specialist, when I got slammed with back pain. I got home, made it upstairs and went to bed. But the pain was too great. I was in such agony, way beyond anything I’d ever felt — and I’ve had half a dozen major operations on my body, so I knew pain, or thought I did. Heart-valve replacement. Knee replacement. Surgery on my back, which led to the insertion of the metal plate that got infected. But in that brief period before I went black, all but disappearing from the face of the Earth, I experienced a pain that I had never before experienced, anticipated or even thought was possible. And I wound up in intensive care at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

Three weeks later, I woke up confused. I didn’t know where I was, or what was going on around me. I was in a strange place. I had some family around me. People were telling me I’d been sick, but I didn’t understand them, and even if I could, I didn’t believe them. My back hurt badly, and I resented the pain, the loss of mobility, the way I was being slowed down and restricted by whatever was going on. I was angry, loopy and combative. I fought everything, which was complete bullshit on my part, because I was weak. I lashed out at people, spending that whole time in the hospital getting pissed off. I didn’t know where I was or what was going on. I was completely out of it; according to my own pet theory, this was a protective device in response to the pain. But I knew that an awful lot of my family was around, Margaret was around, and I was in a hospital — a serious hospital — surrounded by people telling me to do things I didn’t want to do. They were treating me like a little baby, and I hated it.

They wanted to keep me there. They wanted me to do therapies I didn’t want for reasons I didn’t comprehend. But then, slowly, I realized it was good for me. One woman came in and played memory games with me, and she became key in my rehabilitation. Someone else helped me with my legs and my knees and movement, and I realized I needed him, too. I grasped that I’d been very close to death, and no, I couldn’t really get out of bed. I couldn’t get out of the chair that I slept in. I couldn’t move. I gradually came to understand how ill I’d been, and how much work was required in getting me back in a position to enjoy life. I was loopy and uncomprehending, not realizing just how sick I’d been.

Over time I became less loopy, and I started hearing stories of everything I’d done and said in the midst of all that loopiness. How I kept hitting the nurses’ button, thinking I was in a hotel. How I just wanted to “have a glass of wine and head upstairs to bed.” How I kept trying to yank out all my tubes and get up, and how furious I became at folks who wouldn’t let me. How I howled at Susi, steam coming out of my ears like a Looney Tunes character: I love you dearly, but get the fuck out of my way! I am getting out of this bed!

Apparently I was good at being Mt. Vesuvius.

Amy told me this story: In the ICU, surrounded by family, I asked about the “executive committee” that had made the decision to trap me there. Why? What the hell was that about? Who the hell were they, anyway?

“We’re the executive committee,” she replied. “We love you and want you to be well.”

“Well,” I said, “the executive committee can kiss my ass.”

Through all of this, the television in the hospital room was off and on, and politics — as always — was in the air. The president’s face must have come up in conversation or on the tube, because I’m told I likened him to Voldemort: “I know who it is, and I will not say his name.”

Everyone says I made the nurses laugh.

****

. . . I live in the present — because I have to. It’s not as though I have any choice. I have this moment, and that’s about all I can count on. Amy asked me whether it’s freeing, in a way, and I haven’t given that much thought. I suppose you could make the case. I know I’m in a position that’s unlike anyone else’s in the family right now. And in a strange way, I’m grateful.

The part of my life with Pat was spectacular. We had our problems, but it was wonderfully happy, and I haven’t lost that reward I felt from living with her. Now I’m getting another reward from Margaret. I’m getting a reward from the kids. I’m getting a reward from so many others. I don’t have that kind of classical regret that people have as they look back on their lives, because my life is so rich right now. I think of Betsy, who’s so close to Margaret — to her, she’s become a symbol of maternal caring. She’ll call me up on the phone and say, “Is Margaret there?”

Betsy is a gift. Margaret is a gift. Pat’s still a gift. Death doesn’t change any of that.

The simplest way to explain this, for me, is that old age is no longer encroaching on my life; it’s taking it over. My body is worn out. It no longer has the resilience to effect a cure. But I’m still fortunate, because the discomfort is nowhere near as bad as it could be, and through it all I remain surrounded by loving, caring people who feel that loving and caring reciprocated right back. I don’t want to dwell on my illnesses, on the fairly constant but bearable pain, or on the limitations in what I can do each day. I sleep odd hours — sometimes for long stretches, other times hardly at all — and deal with mildly morbid thoughts all the time. I also require aid and help from those living around and with me.

While I’m long past the point of hoping for a miracle, I’m thankful that communication is easy and love is plentiful. This is the contradiction I’m living out right now: I know the diseases are there, I know they won’t be getting better, and I know they’ll continue to cause pain and discomfort — but at the same time, I have these wonderful people around me. Randy, who’s become my caretaker, reminds me with his steady and giving presence just how fortunate I am. So do all the other loved ones in my life.

I keep myself busy imagining how and when this will all end. Based on past histories, I figure it shouldn’t be too bad — except for my departure from the nests of the people I love. The final gong could easily be a stroke or some other, sudden breakdown, though I damn well hope it isn’t another bout of sepsis. That was the worst pain I’d ever experienced, and I’d rather not go through that again.

Still, I am prepared to die. I am prepared because I know I’m dying, I know there’s nothing I can do to stop it, I know it’s logically the only thing that’s going to happen. There’s no way it’s not. I accept that, so there’s no element of surprise in it for me. But there is something else. There’s one thing I feel, and again, I’m going to use words that have been used for millennia. I have a fear of the unknown.

When you get right down to it, that’s what it is. Right now I don’t have any fear of death itself. I don’t feel that I’m going to be in horrible pain when I die. I could be, but the odds are that drugs will take care of that. That’s not the unknown I’m worried about. Instead, it’s one of those questions I can’t answer.

What’s gonna happen to me?

When I heard Pat’s last breath, it was sort of a little gasp. What was that? What happens right then? Are your lights out completely? Are you done? I think so. But I don’t know. I probably won’t ever know.

I really don’t believe in an afterlife per se. But as far as I am concerned, there is one, and I’m looking at part of it right now. Right here. My family is my afterlife, and I don’t just mean my blood relatives — I mean everyone I’ve had an effect on. Nils is the afterlife for me. Amy and Connie are the afterlife for me. Betsy and Randy and Danny, all of my grandkids, everyone I love — they’re all are the afterlife for me. If you have an impact on somebody, you have an afterlife: That is something I believe in, and it comforts me. For better or for worse, no one can take this afterlife away.

****

. . . . Randy says I seem mostly at peace with all of these gonnas, and to a certain degree I am. I’ve worried about the last one — What’s gonna happen to the people I love? — because families are families, and people are human, and there’s been some stress here and there as I’ve done my best to resolve matters before I die. But I feel I’ve done a pretty good job communicating with everybody, and I believe that the discussions we’ve had have helped. In fact, they’ve been pretty spectacular. Lifesaving, in a way. And everybody deserves some credit for them. I know the family wants to carry on and carry out my legacy, whatever that may be.

But I want them to know that we’ve done the best we could under the circumstances, and while far from perfect, it’s pretty god-damned good. That’s been my hope more than anything else: to have peace and love and good fortune follow my time here on Earth. And if the whole thing can end without any tension, and I think it will, that’s all I ever wanted. I want the family to continue. I want everyone to stick together. Randy says no one will replace me — not him, not Danny, not anybody. They’ll “cobble things together” and find new ways of being together as a family, he says. Maybe Betsy will be the new center of gravity, the loving magnet, and everyone will gather around her.

Maybe he’s right, though I do think “cobbling together” is a little extreme. I know it’ll be different without me. It’ll be different. But they’ll still have each other. I’ll still be a part of their lives in some way.

And they’ll still laugh. Ultimately, that’s all I want. Whenever there’s anything like this — anything tough, any illness, any other struggle or cause of tension — I want them to come together and laugh.

I’m about to leave, so listen to me, please. This is what matters to me.

Do you hear what I’m saying? I want you to laugh.

****

Just a few more sentences. I took one last trip – to Key West, with Margaret – and I am now in my last days. When I decided to stop treatment and go into palliative care, the doctor asked me what I wanted from the final stretch.

I had three words for him: “family and friends.”

I’m surrounded by both.