The Dark Has Its Own Light

A Swift Current The Dark Has Its Own Light

Elmer Bischoff– Figure at Window with Boat, 1964

As you come to this last page, there’s a sense of reaching out– for something that you can’t quite reach–that you can’t quite get. When you get to the top, you haven’t got it, but there’s a breathing out,

and accepting

that’s how it is…

It’s anything but a resolution. It’s not a reassurance either. It’s not that everything is going to be alright–nothing is going to be alright.

It’s just about accepting the way things are…

Words by pianist Paul Lewis about
Schubert’s last Sonata
The New York Times
August 2, 2016

Six years

after my mother’s death,

I have found

a certain peace.

It’s anything but a resolution;

it’s not a reassurance either;

and it certainly is not catharsis.

My mother is dead.

Her absence is an indelible part of me–

a space that cannot be filled—

nor should it.

Time does not heal;

I still long

for what cannot be–

but my grief

is tempered by

gratitude;

surprise;

even joy.

Six years

after my mother’s death,

I still shed tears

but I don’t fight them.

They are my silent– even welcome—recognition

of what I’ve lost and

what I live for.

Six years later,

she visits my dreams

with startling clarity–

pushing –prodding–

minding—mothering—

she makes her stand

in the dead of night.

Six years later,

I hear her voice

in my thoughts and

in my words — from

silly asides to

serious exhortations–

I am astonished to realize

she lives on

through me.

Six years later,

I look back;

I move forward;

everything’s going to be alright–

nothing is going to be alright.

As I come to this page,

there’s still a sense of reaching out

for something I can’t quite get;

for someone I will never see.

But there’s a breathing out—

accepting

the way things are.

My mother is dead.

I stare into the void

and

finally see.

The dark has its own light.

 

 

In a dream I meet
my dead friend. He has,
I know, gone long and far,
and yet he is the same
for the dead are changeless.
They grow no older.
It is I who have changed,
grown strange to what I was.
Yet I, the changed one,
ask: “How you been?”
He grins and looks at me.
“I’ve been eating peaches
off some mighty fine trees.”

~~ Wendell Barry

 

 

A Swift Current The Dark Has Its Own Light Corita Kent and Mickey Myers

As seen on a friend’s bookshelf…words by poet Theodore Roethke–print by Corita Kent and Mickey Myers, 1984

When I first read the interview with pianist Paul Lewis, his words stopped me in my tracks. In describing the final page of the slow movement of Schubert’s Sonata in B flat, Lewis helped clarify my then-muddled thoughts about my evolving grief.  Here is the link to the New York Times interview by David Allen: https://nyti.ms/2lDqDvd

A Meeting in A Part– copyright Wendell Barry, 1980 All Rights Reserved

Like Paul Lewis’s words, seeing the Corita Kent/Mickey Myers print at a friend’s home helped me think about loss.  Corita Kent’s artwork is the copyright of the Immaculate Heart Community All Rights Reserved– for more information http://www.coritaartcenter.org

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To Understand (and he blessed you best of all)

looking up February 7, 2014  Photo by Hallie Swift

looking up February 7, 2014 Photo by Hallie Swift


Your eyes seem from a different face

They’ve seen that much that soon

Your cheek too cold, too pale to shine

Like an old and waning moon

And there is no peace

No true release

No secret place to crawl

And there is no rest

For the ones God blessed

And He blessed you best of all

                                                          (from King of Bohemia by Richard Thompson)

On this day, thirty eight years ago,

my father died.

He was 63 years old.

In my mind,

he was not done.

My dad had anticipated his retirement years;

articles he would write;

classes he would teach;

trips he would enjoy;

someday.

When he died, his record company issued a news release:

‘…one of the very few true experts in the field of classical music…”

my very true expert;

my daddy;

gone at 63.

In his last months, he wrote to us; ideas and observations, philosophies and beliefs;

his letters, I thought, signaled the promise of things to come…

…Beethoven is not the only artist who suffered from excessive solemnity- which is a lead in to my second heretical statement.

If find the famous Sistine Chapel fresco of Michelangelo to be a bit ludicrous- I suspect the reason I regard it as a failure is that Michelangelo attempted to do too much- and found it impossible to sustain a high level of thought on the vast scale that he outlined.

Like the Ninth Symphony, the kindest words…are that it is a noble failure- but a failure nonetheless.

Several times I have been tempted to write a series of essays under a general heading like “Putting the Classics in their Place.” I have myself sometimes been annoyed by my own timidity at not speaking out against the oppressiveness of mass acceptance.

He never got a chance to write those articles; teach those classes; take those trips. My father’s retirement was brief; cancer stealing his hard-earned years of leisure; of reflection; of speaking out.

In my mind, he was cheated.

And I felt cheated too.

I read those final letters countless times; desperately searching for him amid the carefully chosen words and well-reasoned opinions. I wanted to know what he would think; what he would say; what he would do.

I wanted what could never be.

And I could not let go.

Just a few years ago, my pain began to ease. I wrote an article; not about Beethoven; not about Michelangelo;

I wrote about my dad.

He had been a record producer—in the early days—back when there were long-playing albums. In his era, the producer’s name didn’t appear on the jacket. I wanted to correct that oversight; give him credit; capture his role for posterity.

Researching every accomplishment; documenting every claim;

I wrote a Wikipedia page;

the internet equivalent of scratching

I was here

into the sand.

I showed it to my best friend. I watched nervously as she read. She paused and looked at me

This is a big life.

Three simple words:

a big life;

and for the first time in all those years,

I felt relief.

I began to understand;

he had done so much in so short a time;

he could do no more;

he was done.

I no longer needed to talk to him

every time I heard a piece of music;

no longer felt tumultuous anger;

no longer wished for what would never be.

My daddy

gave me all he could;

the rest was up to me.

I Was Here  Central Park discovery as I wrote this post  Photo by Hallie Swift

I Was Here ( a Central Park discovery as I wrote this post) Photo by Hallie Swift

And then, just a few weeks ago, I was completely confounded by the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman.

I felt a sense of loss out of all proportion. I kept telling myself

…you don’t know him…he belongs to his family…to his friends…

but the news blared and I listened

…the greatest actor of his generation…

I thought films were better because he was in them; his characters illuminating,

even the smallest part searing.

I read story after story about his prodigious career, his nuanced, soul-diving performances;

done at 46.

Amid the tragedy of his death, articles repeatedly bemoaned

performances we lost;

roles he should have played;

disappointment we will never see his Lear!

I bristled;

What could have been

only undermines

the undeniable feats;

the huge accomplishments;

the impenetrable mystery

of

his big life.

We want to believe

the best is yet to come;

we keep telling ourselves

someday…

but

for any of us;

for all of us;

our best

might be have been

a long time ago;

our promise now a memory.

(But we will never know).

Finally

I understand;

the measure of a life –

any life—

my father’s life–

is not captured by

annotated references

and attributable sources.

His best

might be hidden in the margins–

a fleeting moment;

an off-hand comment;

a letter written to his daughter when

he knew he was going to die.

He tried to tell her

what matters.

Put the classics in their place.

It took me

a long time

to understand;

every life

a big life;

no small parts.

63 years; 46 years;

he gave all he could.

Gone

Done

Blessed.


If tears unshed could heal your heart

If words unsaid could sway

Then watch you melt into the night

With Adieu and rue the day

Did your dreams die young

Were they too hard won

Did you reach too high and fall

And there is no rest

For the ones God blessed

And He blessed you best of all

To Understand

to understand— Corita, serigraph, 1965 Used with permission of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles “to understand is to stand under which is to look up to which is a good way to understand”…art and words by Sister Mary Corita

For more information on Corita Kent (Sister Mary Corita) www.corita.org

All Lyrics from King of Bohemia by Richard Thompson copyright 1994 Beeswing Music All Rights Reserved

Bookends Part 2 (which nobody can deny)

A Swift Current  Corita flowers for mary

flowers for mary
Corita, serigraph, 1979
Reproduction permission of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles

I love you.

I love you too, Mama.

I love you for your happiness…and your volatility.

What? Mama! My volatility?

Well, Hallie, you do know you have a tendency to explode!

I have a temper; a hair-trigger, fly-off-the-handle, I’m-not-proud-of-it
temper.

And looking back, I am not convinced my Mother loved me for it. Perhaps her words were a commentary in disguise; a need to make an observation; an assessment delivered delicately, with humor, in the spirit of counsel and understanding.

I haven’t forgotten.

I savor those exchanges; those pristine moments of sharing and ease and grace. Amidst the pain and upheaval of dementia, I relished the joy of just being together, at long last. We had the time to say things we’d never said and the chance to give thanks for what had gone before.

The decade of dementia;

it was horrendous;

it was a gift.

I remember moments of uproarious laughter; moments of unsettling poignancy; moments of redemptive quiet. I loved staring into her almond-shaped hazel eyes–eyes that had seen so much and knew even more.

I repeatedly told her she was beautiful.

You’re always telling me I’m beautiful. Do you really think so?

Yes, Mama, of course…you are!

It’s funny, you know. I never thought I was attractive.

Mama?

I never really liked my looks.

Oh Mama…

A Swift Current My Beautiful Mother which nobody can deny

My Mother

My beautiful Mother and I spent countless hours together in the garden; drinking in the expansive view of Los Angeles; drinking in each other. Sometimes we were animated, effusive companions; other times we shared a calm, benevolent silence.

But during every visit, without fail, my mother eagerly introduced me to the nursing home workers as they walked through the garden. I had known them all for years, but my Mother wanted to introduce me–formally–each and every time.

She knew all their names, or at least the names she had conferred on them. Grasping our hands, she exclaimed

This is Hallie! This is my daughter…all the way from New York!

Back then, I thought those repeated introductions were awkward; embarrassing (They know me mama, they know me). And now, lingering in my memory, those moments are imbued with a sweet urgency; my Mother’s unheralded accomplishment. I see her elegant sweeping hands; I hear her proud tone, I sense the workers’ patient understanding.

Meet my daughter Meet my daughter Meet my daughter!

As we sat in the garden one day, we were suddenly surrounded by several staff members. I was alarmed (my God, what are they doing; what’s wrong?). They looked at each other, and burst into song;

For she’s a jolly good fellow

For she’s a jolly good fellow

    For she’s a jolly good fellow…

My Mother’s mouth was agape; her face aglow with surprise and wonder; thanks
and love;

Mostly love.

On a good day, my Mother saw love in every direction. I remember a handsome young man who frequently visited a fellow resident. He was a social worker from Los Angeles County.

According to my mother, it was love.

It is so sad, my mother whispered. She is not well, and they are so in love.

Mama, I think he works for the County.

Oh yes, that is how they met. And now they are in love.

And love was all around my Mother too. The handsome social worker always brought little treats for her. Fellow gentlemen residents were becoming interested. An old friend from church was developing feelings.

And whenever a helicopter flew overhead, the pilot was most certainly my cousin. From our vantage point in the garden, she greeted every roaring chopper, waving and shouting

Dave, there’s Dave! HI DAVE HI DAVE

When I saw my cousin, I laughingly shared my mom’s enthusiastic reaction to helicopters in the sky. And Dave replied:

Oh, that is me. I told her I would be by. I buzz the nursing home during training runs.

That was you?!

Of course it was you.

And my Mother knew.

Of course she knew.

After years of dancing with this disease, you think I would know it too;

I never should have doubted her.

And after years of this dance, you think I would know that her perceptions and moods were dictated by the misfires of her brain and the chemicals in her body.

I could not change her world;

I could not make it better;

But still, I tried.

Every time I headed to the nursing home, I made a special effort to bring flowers and chocolates, ice cream and magazines; ingredients to jump start a happy visit

(as if I could).

But early in the decade, a chance encounter spurred my decision to leave no stone unturned. I found a great florist near my hotel; I had fun picking out cheery bouquets. Standing in the checkout line, a woman complimented my choice, and I happily replied

They’re for my Mom.

She dissolved in tears.

I didn’t do that. I didn’t do that. I didn’t do that when I had the chance.

And now I can’t.

From that day forward, whenever tempted to skip my errands, I remembered that woman’s tears. That moment was like a yellow flashing warning light.

(What if this time is the last time?)

But one time, I did skip it. I was staying in a different part of LA; didn’t know where to get her favorite chocolates; didn’t think the bouquet would be as nice. And over the course of several days, I arrived at my Mother’s side, empty-handed.

On the last day, I told her I was returning to New York. I would be back soon.

Really? You’re going back to New York?

Yes, Mama, but I will be back soon.

But Hallie,

I didn’t get any flowers or any chocolates.

My mother, her mind unraveling, still knew.

I had broken the pattern.

And she knew.

Of course she knew.

I never should have doubted her.

Flowers grow out of dark moments (said Corita).

But the irony is staggering.

That vicious, anguished decade

bestowed unrivaled moments of

secretly-coveted intimacy

    I love you

joyful revelations;

for your happiness

unexpected honesty

and your volatility!

I feel now as I felt then:

Sorrow;

Doubt;

Love;

Mostly love.

I believed then as I believe now:

that vicious anguished decade

was a gift;

every moment—a gift

which nobody can deny.

Long ago

it must be

I have a photograph

Preserve your memories

They’re all that’s left you.

~Paul Simon

A Swift Current Which Nobody Can Deny

Fast Flowers Photo by Hallie Swift

Bookends, lyrics and music by Paul Simon, copyright Universal Music Publishing, All Rights Reserved

Corita Kent, flowers for mary, 1979 serigraph dedicated to Corita’s sister Mary Downey, Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles, for more information  www.corita.org

Postcards to the Edge

At the Art Institute of Chicago

My Mother at the Art Institute of Chicago, 1985 Photo by Hallie Swift

Vuillard never ceases to amaze. I recall a poignant moment with our Mother in front of one of his paintings… she was simply swept into the picture. It was almost as though she had been there. I realized at that moment perhaps more than any other…she understood the language of painting in a way one did not have to articulate.

                                                                     ~From a letter by my Sister, an artist

A few weeks after my mother moved into the nursing home, I sent her a postcard; the image was a painting by Monet.

Later that same week I sent a Matisse.

And a few days later, Vuillard.

If living in a nursing home meant my Mother could no longer explore museums and galleries,

then I would take the museums to her.

And so began our decade of discovery—painting by painting, postcard by postcard.

But art was only part of our discovery.

There was another revelation, completely unexpected;

the postcards became our lifeline.

In the world of dementia, every sentence is precarious; every exchange hard won. As my Mother’s dementia tightened its grip, her ability to converse became increasingly tenuous. Her memories were tangled; thoughts confused; words frequently out of reach.

During visits or phone calls, her responses were often nebulous; we could explore a new topic for maybe a sentence or two, if at all.

But I discovered if a subject had been mentioned on a postcard, we could actually have an extended conversation; it was as though she had needed time to absorb my words and find her response.

Every time I walked into her room, I found her clutching several postcards. She carried them wherever she went; the edges bent; words smudged. Like childhood flashcards, she repeatedly studied each one, examining the images; reading each sentence over and over and over again.

I wrote simple, clear messages; looking back, I think I invented the tweet:

You remember Mary from Minnesota…

I met a famous chef…

I saw a great play…

Perhaps through sheer repetition, these simple, brief messages laid the groundwork for more involved, interesting and even fun interactions. And during our conversations, she could introduce topics without any prompting from me…

Did you have fun with your Minnesota friend?

Tell me about the French chef!

I know you liked that play, but I didn’t think it was so hot!

(I loved that she formed an opinion about a play she hadn’t even seen; a true critic!)

Despite the treacherous struggles of her mind, the postcards revealed my Mother still had more than a glimmer of cognitive ability. After a series of cards about the New York Yankees, she turned to me and sardonically inquired:

Well Hallie, what do you do for fun these days, other than baseball?!

She even grasped information I hadn’t intended to reveal. I never told her I had changed jobs, leaving the “security” of a big company to work with my best friend.

But because I was spending more time with my friend, unintentionally Elie’s name appeared more frequently in the cards. And one day my Mother turned to me:

I notice you mention Elie more often these days. Are you girls spending more time together?

Her cognition was severely diminished,

but she was still able to read between the lines.

My perceptive Mama;

She was still there.

For more than ten years, I sent postcards several times a week. She saved every one until the Fire Department said she had too much paper in her room! My postcard repertoire expanded beyond the art world to include scenic views, tourist sites and even the free ones from restaurants; some weeks almost any 3 by 5 paper would do!

Postcards to the Edge

Postcards sent to my Mother included artists Berthe Morisot, Corita Kent and Wayne Thiebald among many others…

But while I raced to write the cards, I always knew someday it would end.

I always knew that one card would be the last card.

Columbus Day, 2010.

We were watching the final game of National League Championship Series:
the Giants vs. the Braves.

(What do you do for fun, other than baseball…?)

Between innings, I walked over to my desk; I chose a postcard:

Apartment View by Wayne Thiebald.

And I wrote the last message.

As my Mother lay dying,

I told her we had a nice weekend; we went to Long Island;
we walked on the beach.

Shortly after I wrote a few simple words,

3000 miles away,

my Mother died.

It was a little after 6 PM in Los Angeles;

right after her dinner hour.

A few minutes before 9 PM in New York;

between innings;

I selected the last image.

And I wrote the last card;

the postcard to the edge…

The Last Postcard: Wayne Thiebaud's Apartment View 1993 Oil on canvas licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, published by Pomegranate AA280993

The Last Postcard: Wayne Thiebaud’s Apartment View 1993 Oil on canvas licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, published by Pomegranate AA280993

I’ll Be Home For Christmas

Preface This year I have been apprehensive about the approaching holidays; it is the first time that my husband and I are not traveling to Los Angeles.  Last Friday, I was planning to post my reflections when the horror in Connecticut engulfed all of us in a deep and profound sorrow.

In one of her original 1968 serigraphs, the artist Corita Kent prominently featured the words by Gabriel Marcel “We can only speak of hope.”  During this sad week, these words have become my mantra. In this spirit, I offer you the post originally intended for last Friday:

I’ll Be Home For Christmas

For the last twenty years, my husband and I have spent Christmas in sunny Southern California.

This year, for the first time, we are not boarding a plane bound for Los Angeles.

In the early years, I anticipated our pilgrimage across the country to see my Mother with a jumbled combination of hope and dread. Christmas in LA always loomed as the final duty in a year defined by obligations.

Every year Christmas week beckoned with the promise of a brief respite from anxious clients, corporate crises, and imminent deadlines. Surrounded by the lights and festivities of Manhattan, year after year I dreamed about canceling our flights and staying home; Christmas, New York, and us– just us.

But every year we would pack our bags, board the plane, and head to my childhood home.

In the early years, I tried to balance our need to unwind with my Mother’s gleeful expectation of fun-filled activities with her offspring.  And every year, as the week drew to a close, I felt defeated. For my Mom, who had anticipated our reunion with such fervent longing, the week had gone by too fast.  For us, numbed by exhaustion, it had become little more than yet another exercise in checking tasks off a list.

And suddenly we were right back in our If-I-Can-Make-It-Here world of clients and crises and deadlines.

“Did you have a good vacation?”

“Oh yes, wonderful.”

But then my Mother’s world shifted on its axis, and with it, our Christmas. For the next ten years, we headed to Christmas in LA, but not to my childhood home. For the next ten years, we headed to a nursing home.

In the beginning, we were convinced that our Mother’s nursing home stay was just a temporary detour. I viewed our new surroundings with apprehension and even disdain; we might be here but we don’t belong here; our Mother is going home. During those visits, I stared straight ahead, barely heeding the other patients; my husband sat in the garden with a book and a come get me when you need me expression.

But my Mother did not go home.  And over time, the Christmas sojourn to LA took on a new imperative; imbued with unforeseen joys to be had only in the small, enclosed world of people living their final days.

At the nursing home, we were surrounded by the basic pleasures of the season: crafts and cards made by local kindergarten children; the communal TV blaring Miracle on 34th Street at FULL volume; a therapy dog stoically outfitted with reindeer antlers; sugar cookies served with fruit punch; fire department-approved decorations covering every available surface; carols sung by enthusiastic musicians; nurses, orderlies, social workers and volunteers working steadily to ensure all was calm, all was bright.

Over the years, I grew to love Christmas at the nursing home.

I loved spending Christmas week with the people who took care of my Mother with patience and care and skill and yes, I think even love. I was in awe of the front desk administrator who stopped by her room every evening to wish her a good night; the aide who carefully selected her outfits–complete with matching socks; the activities director who convinced her to join the festivities; the dietician who always remembered her preferences; the maintenance worker who, knowing she thought he was a beloved nephew, visited her every day; the social worker who calmed her frenzied outbursts by enlisting her ‘help’ in the office (“but,” my Mother informed me “I don’t get a paycheck”); the nurses who efficiently addressed every need and quietly reassured her: your daughter is on her way.

And I loved spending Christmas with my Mother; her wishes fulfilled; her delight apparent even during the toughest years.

We belonged there.

And during those years my husband and I developed our own traditions for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; after several hours at the nursing home, we continued our celebration; joyous times with extended family and friends who became our new family.  Bleary-eyed and happily exhausted, we enjoyed good food and good friends; our new home away from home.

Home.

This year we are not boarding a plane.  This year we are not heading to LA.

This year, I’ll be home for Christmas.

If only in my dreams…

 A Swift Current || My Mother's Last Christmas Eve View from the Nursing Home December 24, 2009

My Mother’s Last Christmas Eve
View from the Nursing Home
Photo by Hallie Swift

Your Name Is A Golden Bell; Thoughts Shared By Readers

I am deeply gratified by your response to A Swift Current, both by comments posted here and those shared with me privately.  Your thoughts have encouraged, inspired and challenged me, and I thank you.

I would like to share two responses to the last post, I Call Your Name.

The first is from a friend who lost her husband four years ago. She mentions him in our conversations without hesitation or pause. But she recently confided that some friends appear uncomfortable when when she says his name.

And so she edits herself, to put others at ease.

Perhaps her husband lovingly anticipated her dilemma. Before he died, he asked her to send the quotation below to their many friends. Written in 1910, it is an excerpt from a sermon by the Canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Henry Scott Holland:

Call me by my old familiar name.

Speak of me in the easy way which you always used.

 Put no difference into your tone.

Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.

Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together.

Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.

Let my name be ever the household word it always was.

Let it be spoken without effort, without the ghost of a shadow on it.

My friend’s husband concluded his final message with these words:

And now I bid you a most heartfelt farewell.

And my sister reminded me of a serigraph by the artist Corita Kent, G O greatest show of worth.  This memory is particularly poignant. Shortly after our Father died, our Mother started work at Corita’s gallery in North Hollywood. For the next twenty years, she spent her days surrounded by Corita’s jubilant art (www.corita.org).

Part of the 1968 series Damn Everything But the Circus, Corita’s print incorporates a quote from The Last Unicorn by P. G. Beagle:

A Swift Current || Reflections on Elderly Parents || Your Name Is A Golden Bell

Corita, serigraph, 1968
Used with permission from the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles

It isn’t surprising that the remarkable Corita could communicate this idea in one profound and exuberant image. These words will be my Thanksgiving prayer:

Your name is a golden bell hung in my heart.

I would break my body to pieces to call you once by your name.”