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

A Day in the Life

A Swift Current A Day In the Life--the power of the calendar

Beach Heart (a discovery on an otherwise ordinary day)– Photo by Hallie Swift


 

Every holiday– every birthday–

every year;

my mom was giddy with excitement.

In anticipation

I’d send a reminder to

cousins and friends;

her photo with a note:

hugs and kisses welcome here!

Year after year,

flowers and cards and visitors and candy

descended on the nursing home;

just the thought of it

made me giddy too.

 

A Swift Current A Day in the Life--the Power of the Calendar

They Say It’s Your Birthday–Photo by Hallie Swift

 

Now that she’s gone,

holidays and birthdays

stare at me

from the calendar page;

each promising to deliver

its own private havoc.

Standing in a checkout line,

(is it Mother’s Day already?)

I avert my eyes from

the greeting card display

but it’s too late.

I swat away tears

fumble coins

bungle amounts;

the customer behind me

sighs

with New York impatience.

I want to tell her

(this has never happened to you?)

it doesn’t take much to rattle me–

Father’s Day-

Easter baskets-

Valentines-

ENOUGH!

But

I know

I’m not the only one

upended by the innocuous.

(Facebook reminds me)

there’s no such thing as an ordinary day;

it’s always someone’s

birthday—

anniversary—

or even

death day,

for that matter.

And these extraordinary

ordinary dates

reverberate

on the page and

in our minds;

none of us escaping

the silent struggle

no one else can see;

more of us

in mourning

than you would ever know.

Recently

an ordinary,

unremarkable

winter’s day

was

(would have been)

my mother’s 100th birthday.

I proclaim her milestone

on Facebook

–the new village square–

a photo from our cross country drive

only months after my father died;

a widow at the age

I am now.

My mother turns toward the camera

a quintessential tourist pose,

the Grand Canyon behind her;

alone–

strong–

brave–

(or do I detect a rueful shadow in her half smile?)

Happy 100, Mama!

I hit post

and discover instantly

I am not done.

Suddenly galvanized

by the facts of her life,

I continue my exploration;

one by one

photo by photo

hour by hour

I recount the twists and triumphs

of 95 years.

With each addition,

a forgotten woman emerges,

my Mama.

And I realize:

until this day,

her last decade–

the decade of dementia–

had dominated my memories and

belied her life.

I had allowed the confusion, pain and grace of our final years

to become her whole story;

our whole story.

But she was so much more.

As I unbury my dead,

a chorus of cousins and friends

cheers my revelations–

helping me strike back

at a calendar filled with dread.

Dates loom large;

on the 100th anniversary of my mother’s birth

her story challenged my grief;

my sorrow finally tempered by

understanding,

pride,

and yes, even

giddy excitement.

That evening

my husband took me to dinner;

we raised our glasses high in the air

the end of an extraordinary ordinary day

Here’s to you, Mama

what a life—

happy 100!

 

nothing she did
or said

was quite
what she meant

but still her life
could be called a monument

shaped in a slant
of available light

and set to the movement
of possible music

(from “The Grandmother Cycle” by Judith Downing Converse Quarterly, Autumn)
 

 

A Swift Current A Day in the Life The Power of the Calendar

It’s My Birthday Too Yeah– Photo by Hallie Swift

 

They Say It’s Your Birthday, words and music by Lennon & McCartney, All Rights Reserved.

The excerpt from The Grandmother Cycle is from the opening pages of one of my all-time favorite books, The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, which explores the life of an “ordinary woman”…

Double Take

You say you will love me
If I have to go
You’ll be thinking of me
Somehow I will know…

 

A Swift Current Double Take whenever i see an owl, I see her

Halfway Through the Wood… Photo by Sylvia Ferrell-Jones

A quiet winter Sunday–

a charming photo on Facebook—

an owl peaks out from a tree.

I close my eyes

take in my breath

(Mama!).

I want to thank my friend for

this fleeting moment—

this unexpected gift

but

“my mom LOVED owls”

is all I can muster.

I don’t add

her small collection of ceramic owls

was the first thing you saw

as you walked in the door of our childhood home;

or that my sister and I wore

owl pendants on our lapels

at the funeral.

And now

owls are

everywhere

pillows and wallpaper and tshirts and stickers and notecards and calendars and ornaments and

A Swift Current wherever I go, I see owls

Oh My…Radish Moon creations by Sarah Nicholas Williams

 

And every single time,

I see her–

like a spark,

catching me off guard;

startling–

playful–

elusive.

And it’s not only the owls;

–that would be too easy—

but again and again

just when I least expect it,

–there she is!–

tracing the shadows

just out of reach.

My eyes fall on a solitary figure

a half block away;

her coat–

her gait–

her hair!

I quicken my pace

but just before I call out

she turns her head.

Well, of course-

of course,

I knew that!

(you didn’t really think I’d call out, did you?)

But just for that instant…that flash of an instant…

(thank God I didn’t call out!)

A woman sits next to me in the theater;

she smiles, adjusts her wrap, studies the program

while her perfume takes me to your room

I sit on your bed feel your nervous tension my excitement too as you put on your party dress the babysitter arrives my chicken delight too my face nestled against your cool neck your sparkling earrings my goodnight kiss I promise to be good you look so pretty mama so very pretty please

don’t leave!

I duck into a diner–

a quick bite–

tuna fish salad on wheat toast please and yes, I want the potato chips;

there’s a catch in my throat

but this time I knew you were coming.

I can never order a tuna fish salad sandwich (on wheat toast)

without a catch in my throat

we pile into a booth at DuPars near the Broadway Wilshire or Hody’s at Hollywood & Vine back to school shopping I’m giddy your feet hurt we’re starving! and yes we want the potato chips and maybe even a root beer float…!

And now, mama,

my feet hurt too.

And maybe I understand, if only just a little, what it was like for you.

And how I never told you

all I meant to say.

I stare at the table;

the waitress sets down my plate

you need anything else, hon?

A woman walks down the street;

her perfume

her coat

her hair–

she turns away;

I smile.

Up the block

across the table

in the next seat

an owl peaks out from a tree.

You’ve been gone four years, mama

but you do not fade.

You ease my longing

dampen my sorrow

shelter me.

I still cry, mama

but not as much;

after all

how can I be sad

when you’re

always

just one

step

ahead.

 

A Swift Current  Double Take I see owls everywhere!

Walking Down Lex…Photo by Hallie Swift

 

Opening quote from the song “Things We Said Today” words & music by John Lennon & Paul McCartney Copyright © 1964 Northern Songs All Rights Reserved International Copyright Secured

Halfway Through the Wood photo by Sylvia Ferrell-Jones, copyright Sylvia Ferrell-Jones, all rights reserved. Used by permission. I entitled the photo with a not-so-vague reference to Stephen Sondheim’s No One Is Alone from Into the Woods…the song was the impetus for this essay.

Owl pillows and t-shirts are part of a line of products by illustrator Sarah Nicholas Williams, Radish Moon, all rights reserved. Used by permission. To view the magical Radish Moon creations (drawings and dishes and dolls, oh my!) see http://www.radishmoon.com

And to readers who love the artist Vuillard as much I do, rest assured that I looked…but I don’t think he painted owls, or at least I couldn’t find one!

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

Just Like Me

A Swift Current Farm Stand

At the farm stand– Photo by Hallie Swift

Late summer, last year

in line at my favorite farm stand

surrounded by the season’s bounty;

sun high in the sky;

good friends arriving soon.

A woman stepped to the front of the line;

I’m old so I get to go first.

Fine with me;

in my mind, summer’s unhurried pace is summer’s unheeded joy.

I did not care

if she stepped to the front of the line;

except–one thing–

she didn’t look old.

And so I offered a compliment

You don’t look old…

I am old, she insisted. I am 73.

Well, in my world, 73 is not old. Now 95…I would concede that 95 is getting up there!

And then, as though someone had opened a spigot, I babbled on, completely unable to restrain the flow:

my Mother was 95

and well, she had dementia, and she

(what am I doing?)

well, she died at 95

(why am I saying this?)

and um, there you have it

(will someone stop me please?)

my Mother was old

(and you’re not!).

Even at the farm stand– on a gorgeous day– at the height of summer,

I could not shut up about my Mother.

And the old 73 year old replied

If I ever get dementia, I hope someone takes a gun and shoots me.

In the sudden flash of a moment,

I felt like the old 73 year old had assaulted me

and reviled those coveted years.

I could not just stand there.

I had to say something.

I took a deep breath.

Well, for me, at least with my Mom, while her personality split apart, I still saw her; I still saw her light, I still saw her…she was still there.

The old 73 year old spat her words

I know all about dementia; my husband died of dementia; I have written articles about dementia. I know!

She knew;

up close and personal—

she knew

And she was livid.

To diffuse the moment, I asked her name. I promised to look for her essays.

And I wrote the first draft of this post as soon as I got home.

I asked the blank page what I wanted to ask the old 73 year old.

When?

When exactly?

When exactly should I shoot you?

Should I shoot you when you

are crowned Queen of Hearts on Valentine’s Day;

eat your dessert before your dinner;

win the bingo prize?

Should I shoot you when you proudly tell me

your alma mater is honoring you;

the cute social worker is flirting with you;

your dead sister is calling you?

Or maybe I should shoot you when you tell me the woman sitting at the end of the table

is really a man

dressed as a woman

investigating your sister’s mysterious death

at the age of 99

(she knew dangerous secrets!).

Would that have been a good time?

Of course,

I will not shoot the old 73 year old

under any circumstance.

But that cruel moment at the farm stand stirs fundamental questions;

ethics at the crossroads;

soul wrenching doubt.

I have seen it before;

people who think they know what they will do when devastating illness strikes

are often the very same people who cling most fervently to this glorious mess we call life;

seeking every possible treatment;

daring to defy the odds.

I believe

we need to talk about these issues,

in our families and as a society.

But for the record

my heart resents

the flip retort; the brusque aside; the I won’t let this happen to me.

Because when it comes to dementia,

you are not in control

and Just Shoot Me is not a plan.

This year, late summer,

at my favorite farm stand

I thought about the old 74 year old,

And decided it was time to keep my promise.

I found two of her essays.

Her husband had died within months of my Mother.

Her writing portrays

a storybook romance with an older man; their robust life together and

her indefatigable determination to care for him

in the most horrendous of circumstances.

But I am stunned as I read her imploring words;

(Could this be the same woman?).

Less than a year before his death,

her writing is unequivocal.

Though he had almost completely dissolved

into a mere ghost of the brilliant man he had once been;

she exhorts him to live.

Hang on, she beseeches, hang on.

A year ago,

I was bewildered and hurt by

her abrasive demeanor; her ferocious anger;

but now, I know.

Last summer

as we stood side by side at the farm stand

she was grieving,

just like me.

She had witnessed the brutality of dementia

up close and personal

And still

She knew love and

She was not ready to let it go;

She was not ready to be left behind;

She was not ready;

Just like me.

At the Farm Stand

But Now The Days Grow Short — Photo by Hallie Swift

God Is In The Details

The morning after our Mother died, it was just me and my sister; bound by love, blood and the telephone line.

We had called our cousins.  We had started to reach out to friends.

What do we do now?

It is not an existential question.  It is, in fact, a quote.  The morning after our Mother died, I said to my sister,

What do we do now?

Our Mother had never talked about her funeral. In retrospect, it is hard to believe that she made it to her 95th year and never once mentioned it. None of us had mentioned it. There were no written instructions; no prepaid burial arrangement; no reserved plot.

But there was a meeting of the minds.  Without specific directions, my sister and I essentially re-created the rituals our Mother had designed 35 years before when she planned the services for our Father.  And while my sister and I conferred on every decision, we ultimately followed the path she had forged all those years ago.

But all those years ago, I was young; distraught; overwhelmed. I was numb during my dad’s services. I remembered only the broad brushstrokes. The details were a blur.

For 35 years, I had nothing to hold onto.

I was determined that it would not happen again.  The funeral was designed to honor her, but it was also for me. I was keenly aware that I was making my own memories.  I needed something to hold onto.

We debated where her service should take place. After ten years in the nursing home, my Mother was no longer an official member of the parish where she had worshipped for more than forty years. But we decided to go back to the church of our childhood, and one step into the cool, dark space answered those doubts. I had attended the elementary school; she had devoted countless volunteer hours to the “Mother’s Club.”  We had walked up this aisle to mourn our Father; it was right to mourn here again.

As we entered the church, her casket was waiting in the vestibule. It was adorned with a richly embroidered red and gold folk art tapestry that our parents had loved; thirty-five years earlier my Mother had draped this same cloth over our Father’s casket.

And thirty-five years ago, she had placed three white carnations on his coffin; one from each of us. A gentleman of the great indoors, he could readily identify only one type of flower: a carnation. Our Mother had a trademark flower too; for the last decade we had sent Hawaiian orchid leis to celebrate every special occasion.  Our last gift was here; a single white orchid lei rested on the scarlet and gold.

As we stood with our cousins in the church vestibule, the priest began the prayers.  He removed our family tapestry and replaced it with the traditional white cloth pall, part of the prescribed funeral liturgy. He continued the prayers, but suddenly stopped, motioned, and directed our cousin to put the tapestry back.  We were surprised and moved by the priest’s impulsive decision to break protocol, remove the church’s symbol and incorporate our family tradition into the ceremony.

As our cousin stepped forward with the delicate red and gold weaving, she swiftly leaned over and kissed our Mother’s casket. Spontaneous, poignant, seared in my memory; already our sweet cousin had given me something to hold onto.

As the sound of bagpipes filled the air, our Mother was carried into the church by her beloved sister’s grandchildren; six men she had adored since they were little boys. They in turn had lavished her with attention and affection.  We followed in procession; her family together again; a gathering she would have relished.

The architect Mies van der Rohe is credited with the expression: “God is in the details.” And to this day, I think of the details of that day; the enveloping embrace of friends, the glorious Pie Jesu from the Faure Requiem, a cousin’s reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians:

“Finally brethren, whatever is true,

whatever is honorable,

whatever is right,

whatever is pure,

whatever is lovely,

whatever is gracious,

if there is any excellence and if anything is worthy of praise, think about these things.

The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”

It took me 35 years to get here.

The memories are a gift.

God is in the details.