Dear friends and readers,
I took that photo of my spinet piano a couple of weeks ago when Yvette had left a composition book on it. She had devised a song, sung it and somehow took a photo and recorded herself so as to put a video of herself singing on her blog. I wrote of this more than two weeks ago and how I was planning to begin piano lessons for myself. I finally did this week, one hour with a woman named Julie. We wrote out clefts, notes, begin playing on her Steinway grand piano. The sounds coming from the teacher’s piano were lovely — harmonious, bright like a bell. Full with an echo when you left your finger on a key. I like calm rhythms. As I said on facebook when I began to play I cried because I wished I could be happy while playing these. I felt I ought to be. I remember I wrote shortly after Jim’s death I felt I was living in a house which had lost one of its four walls. Now I understand the meaning of Haushofen’s Wall better: she said it was about how this transparent wall was between her and the rest of the world: Lessing said of the book it could have been written only by a woman. Maybe it’s good then that my spinet has a much tinnier, thinner sound. I don’t have to feel I’m can’t reach something I was surprised to feel I wanted.
I want the lessons for myself too: when I was 12 I asked for piano lessons, but my parents would not buy me a piano. My father insisted I learn guitar; he had some vicarious dream of me playing guitar to others at parties. How little he had to have imagined me for real to dream such a thing. But it was an old guitar; one he had picked up somewhere so I was ashamed of it. Nonetheless I took weekly lessons for three years. Looking back I realize that I was discouraged from the start, told I had no ear, or would not be very good at it by the teacher. Why I persisted I don’t know. I know why I quit but that belongs to a rape story. Suffice to say here I quit so as not to have to take a long walk past a big park by myself. Not that the teacher regretted my absence, though once I remember him worrying about me one day when I looked in some distress, and offering to phone my parents. Well now I’ve no one to tell me I will never play well. Not that I expect much more than simply learning to play songs and make music.
I looked diligently to see if I could find a photo of Jim playing, but I never seem to have taken one of him doing this. There’s only one of me one Christmas (2005) sitting next to the piano as it used to look with his books piled on the top for when he wanted to play anything. Why would I have taken such a photo? He didn’t play to show off to others; I didn’t expect I would have to remember him playing.
Julie’s a cancer widow too; she’s about 76 — 4 years ago her husband died age 72 of a horrible lung cancer metastasized: it had taken 2 years. The first time I met her (last week for an introductory brief time) she said by the end his death was a relief. She said she was “fine” now; this time she said as how when she used to look at a kind of flower he liked and they would drive by, she would cry but now when she drives by, she rejoices to remember he loved it. Her smile when she said this was slightly frozen; such a statement is of course a sign of madness.
This is a very sad weekend for me. Last year after several days of feeling bad (and going to one of several godawful oncologists at Kaiser who pronounced him as looking “really great,’ like all of them hardly paying any attention for real), and then telling me he could not drive to Caroline’s wedding, on August 3rd he awoke early and said in a kind of deep panicked voice, “something is very wrong.” A strange very bad pain; we rushed to the 24/7 Tysons Corner medical facility and by 12 the tests were done. It was some time after that a much better doctor sat down in that cubbyspace with us and pronounced two words quickly and softly, “liver mets.”
I had no idea what she meant. I felt bewildered. Later that afternoon when we were home and I looked about metastasis and then liver, did I realize the gravity of what had been said. Jim was not up to going to Caroline’s wedding that day; the reform rabbi who was performing the ceremony brought a computer person with her and they set up something which permitted Jim to watch the ceremony from home with Clarycat on his lap and to be seen by everyone at the wedding doing so. I think he heard it too. Still I did not understand this was a death sentence at first nor how soon death would come. I kept using the word probably for a week or so. Maybe it was when the doctor dismissed us to a hospice — how Jim hated them when he still had some strength, tried to throw them out, showed what scorn he could for the first woman’s phony spiel. He looked upon me as deluded by them; if I was at first (as I am a little slow this way), within 2 weeks I saw what most of them were.
I did eventually get a decent nurse (an ex-doctor from the Philippines who answered my questions instead of telling me what a good question that is and avoiding any answer lest they compromise their position with anyone, risk anything) twice a week, and it was due to him that the last four days we did have a round-the-clock second decent nurse. Once near the end they exasperated him to the point he removed a rubber sheet they had forced on him and he laughed to find this kind of emotion could still stir him.
It was a terrible two weeks last August, filled with pain for him: he was also pretending to be more delusional than he was to avoid talking to me. I just keened on and off. August 3rd is in some ways far worse for me than October 9th (the night he actually died). All hope died. Hope gone. It was the end of the life we had lived. He had used the metaphor of a wall too. When we still hoped he was going to recover for a while, live yet for a couple of or even few years, he’d say he was on the other side of a wall where cancer patients dwelt. That no one who had not had cancer could know what it was to experience it. No matter how I empathized I was on the other side — I felt that was not quite so, since the world had gone grey for me. I’d see as in a distance farmer’s markets with people buying food and crafts cheerfully. The brightness on the other side of a wall.
A musical weekend: Yvette plays and sings weekend mornings and I began practicing twice a day for 15 minutes. I bought a metronome. Furniture polish to make the instrument look better. We also ventured forth for the first time in two years to Wolf Trap: to hear a favorite folk-rock singer, Mary Chapin Carpenter, sing with the National Symphony Orchestra (and her own band intermingled with them). What a journey — and a hugely crowded set of parking lots. It’s not a trivial trip, and without Vivian it would have been much harder to get there and taken much longer getting home. The National Symphony Orchestra made such beautiful sounds — especially the exquisite opener, Yvette and I considered getting a subscription. Vivian said the first piece of music was the best. Yvette called it a wonderful night of music, only the orchestra out-performed her. We will keep an eye out for concerts we might like and go to the Kennedy Center on the occasional Sunday. Carpenter’s voice in real physical life is a deep harmonious melancholy mezzo soprano too — she was singing a new kind of song for her, more emotional, “Songs for a Movie” a new album. I did miss her rousing, raucous ones but they wouldn’t go with that orchestra. The evening was cool, the sky pretty — until it began to rain after we were driving home.
I like music. Thus far the class I genuinely enjoy at the JCCNV is the dance fusion workshop. This week I went once to waterarobics and the instructor had a tape of disco music. There is one jolly woman who doesn’t bother follow the instructor and she was water-dancing the whole hour.
A friend told me about Stephen Grosz’s Examined Lives, a book partly about grief. He writes about popular beliefs, saying that death and grief are quite distinct. (So Kubler-Ross is a codification of the social lies I outlined the other day. I remember when Jim was still thinking he might recover him ironically going over the stages, telling me where we were in this scheme of things.) She wrote: “With death there is closure – the person dies. Grief is different – there is no such closure, only a gradual lessening of the pain over time.” Perhaps accurate words wanted are bereft and gradual numbing. But I am not numb.
The man I hired to see my lawn mowed each week has obligingly grassed over both little plots I made for Jim and I to have flowers in for our retirement years together. All that is left is the circle around the maple tree. It’s so small even I can weed it, but if there are no daffodils after this year, that will be fine.
I thought of Emily Bronte’s Remembrance with its opener, “Cold in the earth,” and read it and it helped to reconcile myself to Jim’s having been cremated (though never fully) — at least I don’t have to dream of him cold in the earth. But Marina Tsvetaeva’s stanzas as translated by Elaine Feinstein are more appropriate to a world where missiles drop bombs on sleeping people who had the temerity to want to eat more:
Tonight — I am alone in the night,
a homeless and sleepless nun!
Tonight I hold all the keys to this
the only capital city
and lack of sleep guides me on my path.
You are so lovely, my dusky Kremlin!
Tonight I put my lips to the breast
of the whole round and warring earth.
Now I feel hair — like fur — standing on end:
the stifling wind blows straight into my soul.
Tonight I feel compassion for everyone,
those who are pitied, along with those who
Who sleeps at night? no one is sleeping
In the cradle a child is screaming
An old man sits over his death, and anyone
young enough talks to his love, breathes
into her lips, looks into her eyes
Once asleep — who knows if we’ll wake again?
We have time, we have time, we have time
From house to house the sharp-eyed
watchman goes with his pink lantern
and over the pillow scatters the rattle
of his loud clapper, rumbling.
Don’t sleep! Be firm! Listen, the alternative
is — everlasting sleep, Your — everlasting house!
Here’s another window
with more sleepless people!
Perhaps — drinking wine or
Perhaps only sitting,
or maybe two lovers are
unable to part hands,
Every house has
a window like this _
A window at night: cries
Who sleeps at night? No one is sleeping.
In the cradle a child is screaming.
An old man sits over his death, and anyone
of meeting or leaving.
Perhaps — there are many lights,
perhaps — only three candles.
But there is no peace in
my mind anywhere, for
in my house also, these
things are beginning:
Pray for the wakeful house,
friend, and the lit window.