Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Three Years Ago, Part 9 of 13

Brooklyn, October 1958. I am 1-1/2 weeks old. My father is 40.

On November 26, 2002, two days before Thanksgiving, my father committed suicide. This series presents journal excerpts from that time and the aftermath of his death, edited for privacy purposes and omitting numerous "to do" lists....

1/30/03 approx 8:30 pm. I've been taken out to lunch (yesterday) and today given a party and lavished with gifts extravagant by my department's standards. Exit interview at Personnel -- my questionnaire will go to my supervisors. I said, "There isn't anything there that they don't already know."

My interviewer took a double-take when, after my missive on "Training and Advancement" and after describing management in 6 words as basically "minimal," I rated Management as "Good." I explained that I've worked with numerous managers, that they let me work independently, that they're basically good people with no harassment or unpleasantness. "Not quantity, but quality." I showed him (and he looked over) my doorstop worth of reviews, writing and editing samples, etc. Was surprised I hadn't gotten a byline at my previous job -- I explained my former boss would attest to my work and added that I've done a lot of ghostwriting. He said he was familiar with that experience. I added that I'm thrilled to have gotten a byline here.

Nice sentiments on the cards and in emails -- I'd sent out my messages of thank yous and here's where I'm at.

2/1/03 approx 2 pm. Visitors have just taken several objects we're giving away -- they'd arrived early at the studio on Humphreys Street and called around 1:25 -- while Mary and I watched coverage of the Columbia disaster. Seventeen years, almost to the day, after Challenger -- only, this time, a breakup on re-entry.

When I awoke I turned on the radio and heard that the crew had just received clearance to land. I breakfasted, took a shower, came back out. When I turned NPR back on, Scott Simon was saying that they had now switched to "special coverage" status, and that Columbia seemed to have broken up over Texas.

During the earlier news, I was worried that NASA gave landing clearance despite foggy conditions at Canaveral, but what happened over Texas would seem to bear no relation to the fog.

My reaction is low-key compared to Challenger. Still sad, and numbed, and with the added layer that I had been witness to the launch of STS-1, Columbia's first flight -- grimacing when Bob Buzell named the first flight crew as Crippen and Engel ("Young and Crippen," I corrected the TV). But, as with 9/11, emotionally-charged events correlate with errors in reporting, as with the confusion made between Columbia and Challenger -- the 2 "C" shuttles, now both gone.

Given today's events, I will stay at the studio until 3 before I head back home, though the folks who said they'd stop by may decide not to show, or may lose track of time. I have this and next month's rent and a letter to drop off for the owner. I'll put up a couple of flyers advertising that I have free stuff to give away.

Yesterday Mary and I were at the office until around 9 pm, emptying out my things. I borrowed a hand truck from outside the mailroom to transport it all. Divided my day between meeting deadlines and schmoozing, and saying goodbyes, and sending thank-you emails. We had a late dinner -- 2 celebratory Irish Coffees for me -- and got home around midnight. I dropped off to sleep shortly after I lay down.

One colleague was caught by surprise (he hadn't been checking his emails). Saw me with the hand truck and asked, "Big report?" Shared tales of moving with Mary and me.

On Wednesday Mary and I went to Dance Freedom (it felt so good to be back!) and schmoozed with folks. I sang, played the piano. We touched base with an acquaintance who was mustering up the courage to dance, and who was able to as part of a group of three.

Life takes strange turns. This morning's events illustrate to me just how tenuous it is. The danger in Texas and Louisiana posed by shuttle debris -- breathing the fumes can lead to death by suffocation within 2 days. Mary and I both considered the move to Florida with respect to a shuttle flight path. Mary wondered if the chemicals in all those bottles of Raid may have affected my father's nervous system and impaired his legs.

At least the weather has warmed up -- my hands are not too cold as I write, waiting by the front door. I have my cell phone here, on and recharged, in case people need to reach me. I suspect at this point that we will have no-shows.

Monday I will stop in at the PO and ask what their protocol is for boxes of Media Mail. I'd like to start getting those sent off. I have the flexibility to bring them in at times of low traffic volume.

2/4/03 9:13 pm. Listening to the music of Panufnik. Yesterday I brought 24 boxes of Media Mail to the Uphams Corner PO. I'd checked in the morning to see if there are any restrictions on number of boxes, time of day, etc.; there aren't. I then went in search of a convertible hand truck.

It cost about $250.56 to mail 674 lbs (.37/lb), and I have almost that much ready to mail off in the next round. Lightening our van load considerably.

I was hoping to do 5 trips (30 boxes) to the PO, but managed 4 -- they were quite ready to see me stop. It takes a long time to process the boxes, and the line was growing. Each trip took about an hour overall: schlep the 6 boxes to the landing, bring the hand truck outside, load the boxes onto it, secure with rope, drag through ice and slush and bricks -- some of it uphill -- the half-mile or so to the PO, wait in line, get the boxes processed, wheel the empty truck home, break for water and a breather before the next load.

At the end of Round 1, I felt a hand on my shoulder and a woman say, "Hey, lady, you're holdin' up the line." I turned and saw my neighbor V, grinning. We're planning to get together before Mary and I take off.

Today I dismantled/emptied another set of bookshelves, emptied and dismantled the kitchen table, and packed more boxes. The task of packing still looks daunting, but I am making progress. Also done today: went to PO box, picked up groceries (notably greenery), picked up cell phone for Mary, which I'll activate later this month.

Sometimes -- like now -- I am comfortable and not overly worried. This all feels natural, a good risk, a good move at this time. Other times I am scared half out of my wits. It is superstition -- that here I have the chance to return to my writing projects, to take that time and space, and something will go terribly wrong. That I see the end of exile, but, like Moses, will be barred from the Promised Land. Now, more than ever, I need to exercise blind faith, to keep on keepin' on. Many folks are in a much worse position than I. And yes, I might screw this up, but I am trying my best, and it wouldn't be my first screw-up, nor would I be the only person to do so. In fact, I've miraculously held together quite well all these years.

Now listening to the music of Lou Harrison, who has died. Good man. I'm thankful that NPR mentioned his gay activism. He'd worked closely with Ives, and with Copland -- also gay composers, though NPR did not mention that.

I need to remember that I feel less afraid when I'm listening to music -- one of those self-evident truths that should be much more obvious to me than it is.

I think of how separated I have been from fiction these past few years -- remember when I was turning out visions in the 1980s. I know I can return to that, once I have my sanctuary back in place. I was going to do it at Humphreys. I am trusting that I can do it in Florida.

I do not know what will become of us. Is moving at this time (a tanking economy, war seeming imminent) one that gets us out of potential danger or moves us into its path? Above all, I need to keep following my instincts. And music helps restore my instincts.

I feel vulnerable. No company to "take care" of me. I felt less vulnerable when I quit my prior job, but then it was just me: something that had both its positives and negatives.

Blind faith.

July 1955; my father is 37. I believe the women behind him are his mother (left) and her sister. Less than a year after this picture was taken my paternal grandmother was dead of pancreatic cancer; seven months after that my parents would marry.

The way my parents told it, my father had not dated until he and my mother had been introduced to each other by a mutual friend at a party four months before their wedding. My mother had heard my father play Gershwin's
Rhapsody in Blue on the piano and fell in love with him on the spot.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Three Years Ago, Part 8 of 13

Germany, May 29, 1945. My father (age 27), part of the "entertainment corps," is at the piano. The man holding the violin is Jascha Heifetz, whose "Hora Staccato" my father had rearranged for the accordion.

My father did not want to talk about the war, perhaps in part because while he was overseas his own father had died, about four months before this photo was taken.

On November 26, 2002, two days before Thanksgiving, my father committed suicide. This series presents journal excerpts from that time and the aftermath of his death, edited for privacy purposes and omitting numerous "to do" lists....

1/19/03, 2:35 pm. I pray that Mary gets home safely -- only after we arrived here did she realize she'd left her wallet home, with all her money and ID. I'd gotten extra cash from the ATM -- if need be, I can get more down in Florida. The ID I can do nothing about, except to vouch for her if need be.

At first she was going to accompany me here. Then she decided she needed sleep more. I was almost out the door, headed for the subway, when she awoke and changed her mind again. I asked, "Are you sure?" Yes. Then there was the threading through newly-built Big Dig spaghetti streets, at one point ending up back at the bay, before we finally arrived at Logan Airport. I bought us lunch, we wished each other safe trips. "I'll take better care of myself," she said. When I asked if I should have insisted that she stay home, she said she didn't know.

Once I return from Florida the ensuing 6 weeks will be challenging, but I suspect I'll have enough to keep me busy. I feel as though I'm in a holding pattern -- but, Goddess willing, that pattern has an end in sight, and hopefully we'll reach it all in good shape. What follows is anyone's guess.

Last night I read to Mary my "Letters to the Next Millennium" -- she'd been curious. Made me want to write to 2025, what with this new change coming up. Leave my "younger" perspective for the next time I'll be reading these things.

I become blase about flying, though with the undercurrent of fear and fatalism that predates 9/11. Now that I know the drill, I simply go through the motions: get boarding pass at the kiosk, check luggage, take off belt and ring and hair clip, empty pockets, take out laptop, etc. Only the one extended security check, so far -- otherwise, no delays.

"Miriam should take out that recycle bin for you." The woman in the aisle seat, to the one in the center. "You've done it enough. You deserve a rest." The center woman, white-haired, had dragged the bin up from the basement, toward the curb. "That thing is half your weight. It's like carrying a four-year-old child."

I am impressed by the kindness in those words -- the recognition and appreciation of another's effort and hard work.

I also take with me the sympathy card from my coworkers. One of the new staff addressed his brief missive to the wrong person -- who'd been called away due to her own father's illness. But if the weeks-long delay in the collection hadn't occurred, neither would the confusion.

My first priority, other than house-necessary activities, is to rest -- I speak not necessarily of this week, but of the time when we have settled in. Some of the ambitions I'd had in my earlier years -- creatively, socially -- I may be able to realize, more so than now. But I don't want to push myself too hard too soon.

Through all of this, I have experienced breakthrough bleeding for the past 10 days, my finger [broken in 2001] has been sensitive to cold, my left shoulder has become re-gicked from all the carrying (I have carried almost all the give-away material for the studio both down the apartment stairs and up the studio stairs), and I get intermittent pain in my right toe -- which I hope will disappear with a change to newer shoes.

I truly hope we will be happy -- laying in a vegetable garden, planting trees and ground cover, taking hikes along the coast and in the woods, writing, dancing, singing, doing art, making friends. Being not isolated, not living in a mess, not working myself to death. Is that too much to ask?

1/23/03 The bank official offered to create a new safe deposit sign-in card so that I wouldn't see my father's signature, but that does not bother me. It is a presence, like the flannel shirt hanging on "his" chair -- the other shirts have been donated to next month's yard sale that the local women's group is holding to benefit a scholarship fund.

The official had said that her (father? One of her parents) had died 6 years ago, and the sight of a signature or other memorabilia still brings her to tears. But she had been living with her parents when they died. I had been away, and came home to familiar objects from which I'd distanced myself. I explained how my way of dealing with death is to get busy, stay active, do those tasks that need to be done. I don't know if this makes me unusual -- and I don't care, barring idle curiosity.

Sometimes I am fully into the Adventure. Other times I am almost sick with worry, and hope that what I feel physically is due to that stress, hoping that the stress itself is not compromising my health.

Meanwhile, I move furniture around the place to make room for when we arrive with the rental van.

I have been gorging on the Turner Classic Movies channel, which can become addictive, and therefore dangerous. I've been staying up late and sleeping in, though yesterday's/last night's/middle-of-night painting of the studio did wonders. I begin to more fully claim the room -- thankful that I had the foresight to send down my paints, though forgot to take brushes! So, no detail work, yet. But for all intents and purposes, the walls are sufficiently prepared for me to move my things in. Then, if I want to do detail play, I can. I still want to paint the door, but that can wait.

1/25/03 12:30 am. Water heats for coffee. The studio is painted -- as much as I will do this trip. Furniture is moved out of the way in preparation for our moving stuff in. Again I worry when I shouldn't. I know that I can change gears again if I need to, but I need to (a) give myself a chance to succeed here, and (b) give myself a rest. Allow for the void, which is needed in order for me to realign.

Part of me feels as though I am ripped from my moorings, knowing full well that I am the one doing the ripping. I am left to my own devices now, fully. I remain part domesticated, part feral. Feral in that I can be alone, can keep myself company. My family includes the trees and sky, the geckos, the neighborhood cats, the snowy egrets I saw on today's walks, the spiders. Though the roaches and silverfish are not yet "family".

I have struggled alone for long enough that I deal with recent events almost dispassionately. The movie characters with whom I identify are the rugged men who survive through hard work, who are self-sufficient and self-reliant. The women who become melodramatic and clingy are like alien creatures to me.

Then there is the domesticated part of me -- the middle class background that predisposes me to worry. In that way I am like the conventional husband in the old movies -- the one rivaled and often defeated by the more feral, rugged man.

No longer under pressure to be perfect, sometimes I seem all the more terrified of making a mistake. Silly. One learns from mistakes. Mistakes are part of life -- I've already made plenty, and I've survived them.

E and his wife survive, press on. That in itself teaches me. They have lived on next to nothing. My mission, should I choose to accept it, is to cut down on my worrying. The main difference between now and then is that I now worry for 2, feel too damned Responsible. Not warranted.

1/25/03 2:32 pm., by the Delta clock at Gate 69. Mary called around 2AM -- I was only half-asleep. She'll meet me at Logan; we'll take the subway home.

I've doused the place, the kitchen especially, with Raid. Then waited outdoors because I couldn't stand the smell. Effective for up to four weeks, so the place should be fine by the time we return with the cats. Turned off the water, shut off electricity to the water heater. Trimmed the hedges, moved paint cans to the garage. Spare car key left for E.

I wear my mother's rust-colored sweater -- had forgotten to take it off when I was picked up. Chilly outside -- and I was waiting outside because of the Raid. Nasty, nasty stuff -- I could feel it in my chest, went uh oh. Hate using the damned chemicals.

I think about the young woman I was 20 years ago. Just beginning to realize her dreams, just beginning the struggle. And, through the struggle, the realization that things could have been worse -- a life enslaved, under siege, possibly forced to bear an unwanted child. Blood pressure skyrocketing, cramps debilitating.

Now, having gone through 20 years of independent life, the past 7 shared, I quake at the new change. Yes, I know how to make a new life, know how to hustle if need be. "You'll be all right," says the woman who drives me to the airport, and I agree. I know how to look after myself -- have done that and looked after others as well. The driver cleans houses, waitresses, and runs a limo service, and raises 3 boys. I have just Mary and the cats.

July 1957. On the back, my father's neat block lettering spells out "CLIFF DWELL." This same trip included the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Mt. Evans.

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Monday, November 28, 2005

Intermezzo: Weather Report

Water ballet

Yesterday Mary and I walked around five miles; today the rain keeps us inside. Earlier she had removed the window screen to aid my picture-taking through the glass. Again I experimented with the manual controls, choosing faster shutter speeds and underexposing shots that I later tweaked in MS Photo Editor, to bring up their brightness and contrast.

We had a low-key holiday, filled with magical walks after sundown, talking with folks out walking dogs or just walking, making a new friend....

I had brought our portulacas inside when the nights became cold. They now sit on our southeast-facing window sill and bloom when the sun is out. Not today, though. Beyond the window are two ex-pickle (maybe ex-olive) barrels, approximately 50-gallon capacity each, that hold surplus rain. The "water ballet" in the photo up top took place inside the black barrel cover closer to the window.

We have two rain barrels and several containers to hold surplus, which we use for everything from watering plants to flushing the toilet. Our rain barrels have tubes (see below) to handle most overflow conditions but in heavy rain even those get overwhelmed. Here, water from our downspout extender proves too much for our 75-gallon-capacity container.

Water spills out of our rain barrel's overflow tube at lower right. Its current rounds our teal tub -- one of our containers for excess water -- and flows toward the upper left. In drier times the teal tub has served as home to one of our local black widow spiders.

Much of our furniture and linens are around 40 years old or more. Our couch is draped in sheets, including these pink and blue striped ones from the 60s. Also on the couch -- and the only item I moved for this shot -- is the decades-newer purple pot-holder.

Red warmed my lap on this day of heavy rains. My camera was next to me on the couch. In addition to cropping I applied some watercolor effects courtesy of MS Photo Editor.

Yesterday the sky was much brighter.

Daisy is backlit by morning sunlight, posed on top of a box that's on top of a four-drawer file cabinet. To get to her "pedestal," she raced up the inclined back of our weight bench, and was very cooperative (nay, blase) while I experimented with the tripod and manual controls.

On Sunday we set out in the midafternoon, taking a different route than usual: down to and through our community park and out the other end, before heading back toward the highway. I saw fiery leaves climbing a power pole on a stretch of road we hadn't explored before.

I had an audience. Mary told me she heard a couple of people talking about "somebody taking pictures." I looked up, saw two women a couple of houses away. I called greetings to them, told them about the pretty red leaves.

One of them mused, "I guess you can find beauty in just about anything." I heartily agreed.

I thought two of my shots were worth piecing together, even though they don't match up exactly, because I like the way the coils interact.

We came across this white-winged dove further down the road. According to the Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America, this species, Zenaida asiatica, ranges down to Peru and was initially imported to southern Florida. A few winter along the Gulf of Mexico, which might explain this one. None of our field guides shows this kind of scissored tail, although the markings are right; we think a would-be predator may have plucked some of the tail feathers.

The University of Michigan Museum of Zoology has much more info -- including the fact that there are 12 subspecies of white-winged dove.

Sunset Strip

Otherwise known as photograph numbers 4, 9, 14, 16, and 17 out of 20. I was stopping at just about every intersection, jockeying for sight lines.

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Three Years Ago, Part 7 of 13

New York, 1956. My parents' wedding.

On November 26, 2002, two days before Thanksgiving, my father committed suicide. This series presents journal excerpts from that time and the aftermath of his death, edited for privacy purposes and omitting numerous "to do" lists....

1/4/03 1:35 am. Winter weather outside. Daisy perches in my open duffel, plays Pokey for my attention. I've made headway in packing and discarding, but still have a long, long way to go.

Mary had awakened disoriented, unsure at first whether she was in FL or here. I live more of a double exposure and chameleoning: here to FL to here to FL to here, so far, to be followed soon by back to FL, then here, then back to FL, then back here for the final drive to FL. Not so much disoriented as batted like a ping pong ball. Two sets of To Do lists. Two mentalities. Two cultures. Two sets of roots in different soils.

I have gone around the apartment taking measurements of filing cabinets, bookshelves.

1/11/03 approx 6 pm, at the studio -- listening to music of Bax. I've just given some art supplies to D, who tidies up -- we'll walk back to "the neighborhood" together when he's done. Talked about art, he serving tea and biscotti.

I go in to work, now hemmed in by dozens of boxes -- literally "boxed in." About 16 are of the type I don't want to break down because they're so solid; the others I break down and cart home on the subway -- at home there are 8 awaiting reconstruction and filling. I will bring home my 3-legged chair so that I can put the backless one out on the curb. Earlier the glass (which I hadn't realized was unattached) fell out of the coffee table we'd rescued from the curb and smashed my big toe, and Mary yelled at me to stop, elevate, and ice it. We've been snapping at each other. But we've been making up afterwards. Coming back together, toughing it out.

D's life is in flux as well, now that he has sold his business. He plans out new projects, will probably take over my studio space after I've left. He, too, tries to pare down. We try to fob things off on each other. We talk about the need to say No to pressure, to find oases of respite from the grind.

Call from the health insurer. I've been accepted for coverage in Florida, with a rider saying that I am not covered for anything having to do with genitalia, because of my treatment for menstrual cramps. There must be a 2-year hiatus from treatment before I can be covered.

I am outraged at this -- this if anything is an argument to add dysmenorrhea to the disabilities list. Once we are settled in, I'm willing to see how I do without the Pill. I've lasted through that kind of pain before, and I am willing to do so for two years to get coverage in case something more serious happens to my genitalia.

Once again I am thrown back on my own devices. Part of me is superstitious, fearing that something catastrophic will happen. Part of me is fatalistic and stoic about it. I am free to take my own risks and chances -- at least, freer than before -- though in a sense part of me is still risk-averse because I feel responsible for Mary, plus the cats. We move in different rhythms, and in a way that frustrates both of us -- me more, I suspect.

"This is the time when the universe throws everything at you," a friend tells me. Oh yeah, yep, uh huh.

Part of me is very sad, as well as very happy. I am a plant uprooted, roots exposed to the elements. I need rest, leisure, respite. I am torn from this community just when I begin to get to know fellow creative folks.

D: "You won't be here to see all the fruits of your labors." The advancing of the artist's collective. The further development of the studio space. He talks of people who used kitchens as their studios, or the best room in the house -- a place of honor, not the usual basement or garage. We spoke of using the outdoors as a studio -- I could set something up on the concrete apron outside the house, use a long extension cord for electricity.

Children scream in the street. Piercing voices.

Earlier today I drove Mary's truck, truly for the first time. Cautious, frightened. Tense. She complains I turn the wheel too much, causing the truck to complain. I argue that I need to turn it that far in order to clear a lamppost. No, she says; the truck has a tight turning radius. When I park I show her -- I stop turning the wheel when it starts to complain and end up on the curb. Vindicated. "You see?" I say. I try to explain the process I go through but she doesn't want to hear it. "How can I convince you that I understand?" she asks.

But that's not the point. The point is that she becomes upset, which makes me upset; then she's upset because I'm distracted. I put in a day at the office, crowd myself with boxes, break them down, cart them home in the cold and dark, shoulders aching, come home to a perpetual mess.

Which is why this studio space is so important now. I need to come here for peace, come here to vent. Come here to write without interruption. Sometimes I feel as though my life runs dry -- when it is me doing all or almost all the packing, the schlepping, the working. And then berated because I didn't take my shoes off, in an apartment that is so overwhelmingly cluttered that tracked sand becomes a moot point. It reminds me too much of my parents' marriage.

1/14/03 6:25 pm. Mary and I had a better day Sunday than Saturday -- we moved a fair amount of give-away items, then picked up the boxes I'd stockpiled in my office. "I had no idea there were so many," she said. Two days later I have another 18 in the office, but all those are broken down. I continue the office clean-up, eat too much, strive impatiently for freedom.

I walk through these cold Boston streets and envision leaving them behind. My mother dies and I move to Massachusetts 8 months later. My father dies and we move to Florida approximately 4-5 months later. Twenty years apart.

As we pack -- including repacking now-deteriorated boxes left still packed from our move to Dorchester almost 4-1/2 years ago -- I find books I'd looked for in vain. The boxes have M numbers, so I'd thought they were Mary's. M56, M44 -- I joke about "Messier numbers" because our apartment looks messier and messier. I find a card, blank, and write her a poem.

We don't sleep much. I pack until it is suddenly midnight, 1AM ... I awaken the next morning and pack until it's time to leave for work -- though unless there's a project I don't rush to the office. What are they going to do, fire me?

I deal with the twined forces of freedom and constraint, the latter more from worry than anything else. I need to keep it in check. Goddess willing, Things Will Get Done. Twenty years ago I broke out of a prison, slashing chains, and carrying minimal possessions. I flew solo, Do Or Die, a recently minted adult with a life of possibility ahead of me.

Now I pull up roots, pack a ton -- probably literally -- of boxes, including 20 years of journals and writings. More books. Music and data CDs. Electronics. Plus Mary's belongings. I travel not solo but with a family, a household of Mary, Daisy, and Red. I travel with health issues to consider, genitalia non grata.

Would I have gotten a hysterectomy, had I known earlier? D's sisters have all had hysterectomies; he wondered if that was the norm. Neither my mother nor grandmother did. Do I carry a time bomb that I could just as well have yanked out? Or is it better for me to let my hormones drift, however they may, to their final resting place?

"My hero is leaving!" A colleague, whom I introduced to Mary in my employer's parking lot on Sunday evening. We were there to get boxes; she was there to put in overtime. She, at least, gets paid for it.

Another colleague also feels the pressure of Boston economics -- he makes do with a small art studio, still feels the pinch. His girlfriend's father died just after Christmas; they'd sat vigil at the hospice for three days. He considers leaving for Philly, where he has family -- but he's set down strong roots here, is connected to too much to want to let go.

1/15/03 7:10 pm. "Multitasking again, I see," my supervisor said. "You will be missed."

1/16/03. I pray that February is less hectic -- with full weekdays to pack, show studio stuff that we are giving away, etc. Lately I've been running on automatic pilot, and worrying too much -- though today the worry seems to have dissipated. I feel better.

I need to give myself the freedom to fail miserably, so that I don't have to worry about doing so. I need to get back to self-trust.

Staten Island, 1979. My father dances with me at my wedding. I would leave my first marriage 3-1/2 years later.

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Sunday, November 27, 2005

Three Years Ago, Part 6 of 13

Undated. My parents.

On November 26, 2002, two days before Thanksgiving, my father committed suicide. This series presents journal excerpts from that time and the aftermath of his death, edited for privacy purposes and omitting numerous "to do" lists....

12/18/02 5:29 pm. Had a good conversation with a coworker yesterday. He'd slipped on the ice, banged his temple on his car, and suffered a concussion -- out cold. Doctors told him to not sleep for 24 hours. He's ready to leave Boston -- also tired of the cold, the mess, the high cost of living. He was also thrilled about the mention of Mary as my "companion" in my father's obituary: "Wow! In Florida!" Meaning other than Miami and environs.

12/20/02 approx 9:15 am. Seven boxes brought home last night for packing -- I'll bring more home tonight if the weather holds up; we're expecting rain. Temperature is warm and springlike.

E is in the house almost daily, "visiting" with my father. This morning I tested out the answering machine for ways to get messages by remote.

Need to check the PO Box a last time before we head down there.

We are bringing down laundry, to wash and leave (in most part) there. Cheaper and more efficient than the laundromat, and faster than doing a hand wash.

Mary becomes more excited about the move. What with the horror stories I've heard about animals on planes, we've decided to do the drive down with all 4 of us -- poring through Triptiks and tour books while we waited to see the movie The Two Towers.

Tomorrow morning I'll go to the PO to have them hold our mail while we're gone -- then be at the studio to see a client at 9:15 am, then show our sitter the ropes re cat care. Need to do up an instruction sheet and tidy up the apartment as best I can before we go.

12/24/02 4:50 pm. Mary naps. This morning we missed the trash pickup (we've got next Tuesday) but got all the tires replaced on my father's car, then drove into town to get my license replaced. We'll try for Mary's license on Friday, after the courthouse etc. reopens -- it's closed today and Thursday as well as tomorrow. We'd have done it today, but she'd left her Massachusetts license at home.

It felt a little sad giving up my Mass license. This will be the fifth license change for Mary: CA to MI to DC to MA and now to FL. For me, getting my Mass ID and then eventually my license was a watershed event -- being on my own for the first time, learning on the fly. This move is another watershed event -- first time owning a car and home, being on my own in a different sense.

We began the day in mist, graduating to squalls, now full monsoon with thunder and lightning. Not a time for TV. I've begun rearranging furniture in the second bedroom, which will be my studio.

12/28/02 5:15 pm. Mary naps -- she'd spent the day doing a bang-up cleaning job under the kitchen sink and removing roach egg cases from around the house. I've brought the recyclables to the drop-off, checked in at the post office, and gotten boric acid and groceries.

Three layers of my stay here:

1. Going back to childhood: all the furniture and props from Brooklyn. Part of me harkens back to the child-dependent.
2. The guest: In my parents' and then my father's house. The visiting adult, living my own life, an insider-outsider. A stranger, a foreigner.
3. The landed gentry: owner of this home and its contents, owner of the car. A sense of ownership that, in its way, also harkens back to childhood: my space.

12/30/02 8:45 am. There was frost earlier this morning and yesterday morning. Last night I had the master bedroom windows open to air the place out, plus baking soda on the floor. Mary and I slept in the studio. I'll pick up more baking soda today to continue the job.

Mary and I have begun reading Taras Bulba -- one of the old, hardbound collector series books from Brooklyn. One of the books I was not allowed to touch while growing up.

Sometimes I look at the accomplishments and recognition of parents and relatives and feel like a pale reflection, before I do a reality check and take stock of my own accomplishments and survival. I've gotten this far. Changing gears is difficult -- again, I am stepping off a precipice -- and I am thankful for the prospect of continued freelance work. But I also need to get more involved in the community and in the pursuits I've been putting off. Once our stuff is down here -- once the cats are galivanting about -- then we can continue from there. Once again, the superstitious part of me fears getting killed before then and not having the chance to see what lies ahead, but I know that this is part of my pattern -- in a year that began with my cousin's death and aftermath and continued through job cutbacks, then work overload, then Red's illness, and now my father's death.

12/31/02 9:20 am. A gorgeous day -- I have the eastern-facing window open. Trash has been picked up. We've been sleeping in the studio room while the master bedroom airs out the last vestiges of urine.

Sometimes I wonder what the hell I'm doing, because this is frightening to a degree. Then I remind myself of the conditions up north, and my own priorities in life, and I know that moving down here is the right decision.

6:15 pm. Deluge. Thunder and lightning. Mary naps. I spent some time looking through the box of photos, including report cards (I thought I'd had them all...).

Double exposure: As I made to turn off the rheostat, I found myself heading for the spot on the wall where it had been in Brooklyn. Walking to the post office to mail off a birthday card, I could feel the heavy, breezy, not unpleasant air -- what in Brooklyn "smelled like Florida" and what I recognized in Boston as the Gulf Stream. Only down here, the Gulf Stream has only 10 or so miles to travel. "Smells like Florida" because it is.

Big thunder.

My father's lawyer had commented, on seeing me walking, "Doesn't she have a car?"

"She has now," his assistant said.

"Then why is she walking?"

"She's from Boston," his assistant answered. "They walk up there."

Interesting photos of myself and others that I hadn't seen before. Layers of memory entwined with new beginnings. Too much emphasis on the past and I am wary of regressing -- but I have good momentum toward the future: a useful hybrid.

New Year's Eve. Cusp of 2003. I find the old photos of my cousin and her parents, and try to make sense of how that little girl, that older cousin whom I called "sister," ended up as she did. How I never expected to survive and yet here I am, thriving in spite of (because of?) the struggles. Obviously I've just got to keep dreaming, then living the dream -- taking my own advice.

I find myself relying more and more on my magnifier glasses. Such is life.

Surprised to find some college yearbook photo proofs that show more levity, more naturalness -- and therefore less of the scholarly look that I preferred. On my FL license is the image of a woman who has lived, who has gray in her hair, what you see is what you get. Direct gaze of one in transition, fallen back on her own resources.

Mary still has her MA license -- I see it and feel a twinge. Funny how a bureaucratic laminated card can evoke such emotions. Massachusetts has meant so much to me.

But -- however wistfully -- I am ready to leave it.

"You are so easy to work with," the paralegal tells me. Made me feel good -- made me feel better than I care to admit because the old tapes can still play in the background. Fortunately, the new tapes are considerably louder. Since she returned from her vacation -- where she was too keyed up over job issues to relax -- two more people have died. Inheritors and beneficiaries demand money immediately -- or need counseling, or both. Surviving spouses especially will come into the office in a state of extreme grief and anger.

Brooklyn, probably early 1960s. The household where I grew up included my parents and my maternal grandmother (far left). Both my mother and grandmother taught in the New York City public school system; my father taught music privately.

My grandmother wintered with relatives in Miami Beach. My first memories of Florida date back to grade school, when my mother and I flew down to visit her during the holidays. With rare exception my father remained in Brooklyn, refusing to board a plane.

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Saturday, November 26, 2005

Three Years Ago, Part 5 of 13

Brooklyn, July 1963. I am four years old, my father 45.

On November 26, 2002, two days before Thanksgiving, my father committed suicide. This series presents journal excerpts from that time and the aftermath of his death, edited for privacy purposes and omitting numerous "to do" lists....

12/15/02. I've given my notice at work and started packing, both at the office and at home. Folks are already interested in our rescued furniture, and would have come this weekend except that I thought a Fed Ex would be coming with papers about my cousin's estate.

I will miss this studio, this sacred space. I will particularly miss being "roomie" to D, who may move into this room, either instead of or in addition to his own. I still feel as though moving is the right thing to do, but it will have its painful aspects.

For the first time in 12 years, I am actually able to take the time to schmooze with coworkers -- though still had to miss a lunchtime bowling outing to meet a sudden deadline. There's talk of using me for long-distance freelance work.

Part of the magic of this studio is that I am in a private place, with my music (first Durufle, now Coyningham) and a lack of the clutter that plagues the apartment. Really, the main items of value to me that I will move to FL are my writings -- on my next trip I'll take down the Zip disks that have much of them in electronic files. The raw data.

I've been giving artwork away. An online friend will get Crone Pixies, which I plan to mail tomorrow AM before I head to the office. In response to his email prompt, I wrote "Sestina for Shifting Gears," to which he responded by saying it was a "four-tear" work. For him, something that evokes a single tear is a rarity.

My moods shift. For the most part I am jubilant at the prospect of liberation -- all the while knowing that I make room for the next set of challenges. I chomp at the bit, want to be out of here and living in Florida now. Want the move to be over with, the next phase to have begun. Another part is wistful, particularly with respect to the folks I'll be leaving behind, who have been dear friends. All the rest is window dressing, the techniques of surviving here. Will I be homesick for the challenges of the grunge and the creativity required to withstand it? I don't think so -- much as I had relished trading in the roughness of NYC for the relative calm of Boston 20 years ago.

My superstition remains -- that, in Mary's words, "the other shoe will drop." That I'll be cut down on the cusp of a new life. But I've been here before -- this is a death and rebirth much like that when I left my husband and came to Boston, beginning a new life. So, too, I look forward to our new life in Florida -- already meeting with new people, touching base with creative pockets.

The woman who runs a lawncare service tells me that my father "knew how to live" -- that she'd hear the classical music emanating from the house, that he would greet her when she came around, when he was still able to walk.

E confessed to me that he'd gone into the house, to where he usually sat with my father in the Florida room, and got down on his knees and prayed. Had a long conversation with my father. At first he apologized to me for doing so. I said I was very happy he did -- that he should feel free to do so whenever he feels the need.

I become teary-eyed, sometimes, and at the same time thankful that my father and I could make and had made our peace with each other -- that he had become a true ally and a friend. Now I am blessed to get to know him through other people's eyes, while still remembering and acknowledging the father of my childhood, whom I had to leave to survive. Who later on acknowledged that I'd lived "a hard life."

My own grief is a quiet, pensive one -- loud only when Helen had died, when I believed Red was dead. Grief for true innocents who loved and gave of themselves unconditionally -- a state that I believe my father had reached, or come close to, at the end.

I told Mary that I feel like a newly-hatched chick who holds its wings out to the side: letting them dry, testing their shape and function. Through some miracle, I have been prepared for this time.

At the same time, I function more on blind faith. While my superstitious self girds for disaster, I feel more accepting of "what will be, will be." I do not have to worry about the impact a catastrophe in my life would have on my father -- he is dead. If it has an impact, it will be in the afterlife, from which his vantage point would (I presume) be a different one.

I feel as though I prepare to come home after years in exile. Nothing is wasted, of course -- the exile itself has been instrumental to my ability to make my way home.

I need to check with a fellow support staffer to see if a collection was taken up. When I spoke with a coworker on Friday, he was unaware that my father had died.

I told Mary, "Whatever happens, I am thankful that I feel so happy now." Living in the moment. There is a societal dictum that I not be happy -- after all, my father has died. But if he is looking down on me, I know that he would want to see this liberation, this quest for beauty and for joy. I truly feel that both my parents, in whatever form they have taken (internally, externally, both), are experiencing a glorying in my freedom -- and that is what brings tears to my eyes as I write. The emotions behind them: joy, relief, redemption, some sadness, but sadness tempered with hope. I feel that they are together, watching over me. I float in an equation whose variables change.

There will be more death, because death is inevitable. So much more the reason to live each day to its fullest. Part of the way I do that is by sending my art out into the world, into loving homes. To acknowledge the past and go forward.

Except for the image on the wall of Dorchester Bay as a model for DBII, the walls are blank white. It is music that characterizes this room -- now that of Howells -- leaving an otherwise blank slate save for artwork and supplies. No posters, no photos. Instead: a hermitage, a cloister. I begin to better understand the prohibition against graven images, would argue that there is a time for them and a time to be in blankness -- the journey through the desert -- wherein there is time and space for the mind and soul to contact the Divine directly, without intermediaries.

Undated, probably early 1970s. My father and I share a paddleboat. The location is probably New Hampshire (I'm guessing Lake Winnipesaukee), where my family vacationed during the summer.

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Friday, November 25, 2005

Three Years Ago, Part 4 of 13

Undated. My father had been born in 1918; this probably dates from the early 1920s.

Except for the clothing, his baby pictures and mine are close to identical. Relatives told me I had been his twin. Only when I reached adulthood did I start to show some of my mother's looks.

On November 26, 2002, two days before Thanksgiving, my father committed suicide. This series presents journal excerpts from that time and the aftermath of his death, edited for privacy purposes and omitting numerous "to do" lists....

11/30/02 7 am. Yesterday E was over for about 3 hours. When he first came in the door he broke down in my arms, sobbing. Wondering if he'd done something wrong. My father had really "pulled a fast one" on him, convincing him that I would be called, pretending to be unable to get out of bed. As soon as E had left that day, my father saw his opportunity and started hustling.

He'd kept a large pot under the bed, that he'd used to piss in. There is a round stain on one of the chairs by the bed, where the pot had also rested. E had brought my father a metal pail that worked much better. My father had managed to get the pail back to the bathroom before he died.

He had used a white trash bag that came with cinch straps. E found the bag sucked in, my father's hand holding the straps. E positioned himself on the bed to show me. The blood-stained handkerchiefs and stains on the bed and carpet had come from a fall.

12/1/02 7:05 am. According to my dream of last night, my father and I are meeting at 10 am today. He'd called me while I was blending (setting=liquefy) pink pieces of cellulose that I had torn up: the type of cellulose found in packing materials. The blender was very noisy -- the phone had rung and I'd turned it off for other calls, but let it keep going this time. I could hear him fine despite the noise. His voice sounded upbeat.

I feel myself making more and more of a transition toward living here, at least for a while. My main concern is the cats. Already they show signs of missing me, and I'll be here another week. I plan to come down again with Mary, because I want her to see the place and the area. But my absence -- and particularly both our absences -- will be hard on the cats, especially with Red still in recovery. If we move, they would be uprooted for an extraordinarily long journey, and they are old.

I'm especially thankful that my father and I shored up our relationship in the last 6 years of his life. Ironically, I believe that our estrangement allowed both of us to get to that point.

11:15 am. Yep, I kept our 10 o'clock appointment.

E called at 9:15, said there was a change in plans, that he knew I had work to do today. That he'd come over with a "surprise" for me -- that instead of going for Chinese food at noon, we'd go around 4 or 5.

When he arrived -- he said he used to come over at 10:30 to see my father on Sundays -- he told me to turn my back so that he could surprise me. Then he presented me with a cute little paper shredder, knowing that I shred paper. In my dream, I'd put the cellulose (thicker than paper, but ultimately the same stuff) in the blender the way I put shredded paper in the blender to pulp it for sculpting.

Then we talked over coffee. He told me that my father had shown him the letter in which I'd called my father to task for what he'd done. "And I love you anyway," he said. And I told him of my childhood, the history behind the estrangement. About my fears. And he understood. I told him that the greatest gift my father had given me was this past summer, when he gave me his unconditional support. That I told him I might make mistakes, including big mistakes, and he said that was all right. That I told my father he had no idea of how much that meant to me. I told E that I finally felt I could no longer be afraid -- of failing and being blamed, of falling flat on my face and my father saying, "How could you do that to me?" And that's when I broke down. He took me into his arms, said he felt bad for coming over and making me cry. I said that it was a good thing. "I feel sorry for you," he said, and I said, "You don't have to, any more."

So, now I am in a proper grief stage. But I also feel extraordinarily blessed -- that E and I could open up to each other. He wants Mary and me down here -- he and his wife have lost so many friends to death, including three to suicide, my father being the most recent. The other two had shot themselves.

12/6/02 9:15 am. My supervisor had called yesterday morning to warn me about a quick-turnaround, labor-intensive job on Monday. I let her know that Mary and I were planning to relocate here -- she will tell the department. I will tell the people in the second department in which I work. Right now that is the most frightening prospect of all: seeing if we can make it down here.

E has been through hell with this, and I've been weathering his own storms. He was sobbing on the couch last night: "Bernie, how could you do this to me?" My father had tricked him: pretended to be bedridden so that he could get E to leave before he sprang into action. E was back this morning, apologizing for his behavior last night. The two things I reminded him of was that (1) everything he did, he did out of love. I know that -- and my father, wherever he is, knows that. And (2) given my father's wishes, and deceptions to attain those wishes, E had done a mitzvah: a good deed.

E kept asking, "What could I have done differently?" He thought he should have called the police when he suspected something. I said, "I don't know how much more my father may have suffered if the police had stopped him and taken him to a hospital."

Mary had sent a terrific email to her folks, thanking them for all they've done. I chimed in, with copy to Mary, letting them know how blessed I am and have been to have Mary in my life, how she taught me, how they raised a good kid.

One of my father's new flannel shirts remains draped over a dining room chair -- for me it represents a comforting "presence." Every so often I place my hand on a shoulder.

I remind myself that it's up to me how I live my life from here on in, as it has always been. Not only has my cousin's death and estate mess prepared me for what I do here, but it has also opened me up, such that I could keep opening up over the past week. Between this house and everything else, I keenly feel the hybrid influences of my parents and childhood, and my life as an independent individual running under my own steam.

True, the circumstances are much, much different -- but I think of my cousin's state of mind when her father died: what I took to be due mainly to grief and to her physical condition and not to the effects of what I now believe were addiction and mental illness. I became The Capable One, wonder if I shouldn't feel more emotion than I do -- but I also see where my vulnerabilities are, and I let them show.

When I drove to the courthouse and then to the sheriff's office, I was caught -- fortunately temporarily -- in a Catch-22. Given title to the car, I was told that I needed to get the insurance switched over before I could get the registration, and before I got the registration I could not drive down the highway. The insurer had told me they could not switch anything over until I'd gotten the title changed.

Fortunately, they had a branch office about a half-mile from the courthouse. I learned that for someone like me who has never owned a car or carried auto insurance, there is a two-week waiting period to get it. I didn't have two weeks. My flight left in two days, and I faced the prospect of being stranded with the car a dozen or more miles from home. The woman who helped me tried to get something done on the computer, which kept rejecting her info and timing out. She called the main office, got a live person, and explained the situation -- and got me a binder number and temporary insurance until the rest comes through. That was enough to get me a registration and new plates, and I was able to drive back home.

I hear and deal with the old father voice that makes me feel like an undeserving burden, and remind myself of the new father voice that became my ally and supporter and that trusted me and my judgment. That new voice is an incomparable blessing that gets me through.

As I waited to have my first appointment at my father's lawyer's office, I got a call on the cell phone from the lawyer for my cousin's estate. That lawyer gave his condolences, said he'd sent papers for me to sign. He understood that my father had died "with his boots on," as I've been putting it.

Meanwhile, I deal with my own superstition that in this time of transition, something fatal will happen to me, leaving unfinished business. Which leads to my sense of fatalism that if it does, it does. Which leads me back to blind faith and an attitude of one day, one hour, one moment at a time. The plane could crash or be blown up. I could be shot in the subway. We could have an accident on the highway. Etc. Acknowledge the fear and superstition and get on with life anyway.

I need to prepare myself to step from this roomy, neat, warm house and climate into a cramped, cluttered apartment in freezing cold Boston -- Mary will meet me at the baggage claim area, carrying rubber boots. But I'll be reuniting with the cats, about whom I worry because I can't explain to them what is happening. We haven't yet been able to find a sitter for them. Worse comes to worse, I'll do another solo trip while Mary holds down the fort, or she'll be down for only a few days -- enough so that the cats can be on their own. As with everything else, I have faith that this will work out, too, however it does.

Last night, Mary told me she'd mistaken one of my binders for hers, and accidentally read some of my pre-millennial letters to "Elissa 2000." She wouldn't read more without my permission -- but, she confessed, she wanted my permission. I gave it to her, and added that if I died first, I wanted to warn her of the rants in my journal, that I didn't want her to be hurt by them. Often, after venting, I'm able to talk things over more calmly with her. She knew, or said she did.

Television has been particularly interesting, and timely. On Star Trek: The Next Generation, "Unification," with its relationship between Spock and his father, Sarek. On Voyager, an episode I've never seen before, wherein the doctor experiences a holographic family, complete with dysfunction and death.

I continue to believe that the universe has patterns, and that everything in the past (and, for all I know, the future) prepares me for the present.

Even the episode I watched last night of Cheers dealt with the making of a will.

Yes, there were other diversions: Goldfinger, news, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Not everything had a distinctive dovetail into what is happening. But enough to make me sit up and take notice.

2:16 pm. My flight back to Boston leaves in a little less than 90 minutes. I've taken along the greenery I'd bought, had a lettuce heart and a green pepper, and bought some bottled water. Back to healthy food, though I can tell I've lost some weight on this trip.

I don't know if it'll be a challenge to maintain my work schedule or to try to keep busy; we'll see. I'll lay off the freelancing for now, except for what I enjoy, like finishing up the commissioned artwork.

Had baggage check-in at curbside, which was wonderful. I asked the guy if I could bring food on the plane: lettuce and green peppers. He asked, "Anything sharp?" No. Guess that means cheddar's out (smile). My carry-on bag (with even more keys, now) went through without a hitch: no need to look through all the pockets and open up my computer, as they had at Logan.

Boston has light snow and 28 degrees.

(Later) We begin our descent before reaching NYC, flying through a crystal clear night. I saw the lights of Staten Island first, then recognized the Verrazano, then the foot of Coney Island. When I saw Manhattan I looked toward the southern tip. The boroughs were filled with light in the familiar grid patterns, but Ground Zero was the absence of light. Not a black hole but a sooty, gray hole, in contrast to the blackness of the water. Ground Zero, unmistakably.

Undated, early 60s. My parents and I are on the left, my second cousin J and her mother on the right (my father and her mother were first cousins). J was 21 months older than I and also an only child; when we were adults we called each other "sister". J died in 2001 (age 44) of morphine poisoning. Her mother had died in 1988. Mine had died in 1982, less than a month after her 57th birthday.

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Thursday, November 24, 2005

Three Years Ago, Part 3 of 13

Undated; I'm guessing late 1930s. When he was young, one of my father's jobs had been as a restaurant musician, playing accordion. At left, in a photo made into a postcard when it was taken, he wears the satin shirt that had been part of his uniform. He had carried the accordion through Europe during World War II and had also used it to teach.

He gave it to me when he retired, despite his assertion that I was "not built for it." But I didn't (and still don't) mind my breasts being mashed; I had performed with it at several conventions in the 80s. Sometimes I've used it in impromptu jam sessions. It has moved with me from New York to Massachusetts to Florida.

On November 26, 2002, two days before Thanksgiving, my father committed suicide. This series presents journal excerpts from that time and the aftermath of his death, edited for privacy purposes and omitting numerous "to do" lists....

11/25/02 approx 9:45 am, on the subway. I slept fairly well, though sinuses had me up for part of the night. Spoke with Mary about the tension in the place -- she is having to deal with hot flashes, and is not yet at the point where she feels comfortable simply excusing herself to take off a layer of clothing. I suggested that she treat the hot flashes in the same way as she does a bathroom break: give them the same priority and immediacy. For my part, I said, I've needed to learn to interrupt her when I have to, since that behavior was punished when I was growing up, and I'd learned to be excessively polite.

Approx 6 pm. En route home with groceries -- will pick up roast beef at Patty's Pantry, because Red was eating what we had earlier today.

Call earlier from Mary, whom I think begins to accept the possibility that Red has settled into his "elderly cat" phase. Time will tell. I see parallels between the cats and my father: succumbing to age yet living as freely as possible -- Red's continued jumping on the high stool despite the fact that it is more taxing for him now. My father's steadfast refusal to see a doctor despite his decline, which now seems to be accelerated. And parallels in our reactions and increased ability to let go. As Mary said -- and I agree -- there's probably nothing I can do unless he breaks something.

One day at a time, as always.

To do list:
1. Make plane reservation
2. Make van reservation
3. Files to coworkers
4. Cancel appointment with client
5. Change outgo message in office
6. Get father's lawyer info
7. Get carrying cash
8. Check FAA site: what not to carry on planes
9. Rent checks for apartment, studio; insurance check
10. Get release form signed and notarized; fax back to funeral home
11. Tell N I'm putting next week on bereavement leave
12. Get copy of my cousin J's estate stuff just in case [J had died in 2001; I'm her executor in a still-ongoing probate]
13. [list of phone numbers]

To pack:
1. Papers
2. Laptop
3. Cell phone and A/C
4. Energy bars if allowed on plane
5. Keys (all)
6. Clothes
7. Pills: Rx, ibuprofen
8. Glad rags
9. Contact info
10. Toiletries

11/28/02 7:20 pm, at my father's house. [I had flown down from Boston that day, which was Thanksgiving.] His tape of Rodrigo's Aranjuez plays. I have gone through papers (with many more to go), established my "room" in my mother's study, spoken to my father's friend E and his housekeeper S, done a To Do list, sent emails. Have had about 6 hrs sleep in the past 48.

When I got home on Tuesday the 26th, there was a message on the machine from the Sheriff's Department. Mary greeted me, told me there was a message -- and I had a feeling it was that my father was dead. I called.

His death was not completely unexpected. What I did not expect -- but what does not surprise me in retrospect -- was that he had committed suicide, been found with a bag over his head. His friend E had been visiting; he'd sent E home around 4:30 pm: "Come back after dinner." E did, and found the body -- lifted my father's hand; it fell down limp. Tried to rouse him without success. Called 911.

When I got the news, my hands did what they usually do in times of stress, and turned ice cold. Mary wanted me to eat -- I had to wait for my stomach to calm down.

E told me that my father refused to eat -- said he was starving himself. That for pain, he had been taking aspirin, Aleve, and Tylenol. That my father had left a suicide note (which the cops have), and had mailed a letter to me, which will arrive in Boston while I'm here.

A deputy sheriff just stopped by -- a neighbor had called him to report lights on in this house, knowing that my father had died. I asked him to thank her -- that it's good knowing that folks here look out for each other. Earlier today, the man who had helped my father after he'd backed up into a ditch a few days before he died stopped by to bring him a homecooked Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings. He didn't know my father had died -- gave the meal to me instead.

I feel very peaceful in this house, particularly with my father's tapes playing. Part of me is thrown back into childhood, seeing all the old furniture and chotchkas -- as E said, "He never threw anything out." There's a step stool in the garage that I remember from early childhood.

Having found all the major papers except title to the car, I just need to get that and the death certificates before meeting with the lawyer's staff. Tomorrow I go to the funeral home to get the death certificates -- and to bring photos of my father so that they can make an identification. My father specified no funeral, no viewing -- just cremate and scatter. I figure that, at least symbolically, he will join my mother in the Gulf of Mexico.

Thinking of a charity for collection at the office, I at first thought of following a coworker's lead and saying the Women's Center. I briefly mentioned the Hemlock Society to my supervisor as a possibility, but added that folks might not necessarily want to give to that. Then, later, I realized I wanted a group that brings classical music to disadvantaged kids. First I called the Boston Symphony Orchestra development office and left a message. Once I got into the office (I'd spent most of Wednesday at home, on the phone), I called a colleague who has a masters in music. She told me that the New England Conservatory has a program. I called, left a message, and was called back in the evening by the coordinator -- who was thrilled and very thankful -- the program is running on a shoestring, with no outside funding. It occurred to me that this is the perfect confluence of tributes to both my parents -- music on my father's end, working with disadvantaged kids and minorities on my mother's.

8:30 pm. Just spoke with Mary, who will call back. I did not tell her that I found, on the bedroom bureau, two blood-spotted handkerchiefs of my father's. Blood on the sheets, a stain on the rug. I don't know if it preceded his suicide or was a product of it.

Mary's brother and sister-in-law are expecting their first child, which makes a beautiful balance to my father's death. They had been trying for years, finally decided to give up, and voila! Wonderful, wonderful news.

My father had given items to E that he wants to return to me -- I insisted that unless he really does not want them, I'd like him to have them. There are 2 wool blankets, still in wonderful condition, that had been my paternal grandmother's. E and his wife hate wool. There's a small piano lamp whose replacement bulb can't be found. There's a set of dishes that they have hanging on the wall. E said my father pushed these items on him, insisted he take them.

My father's letter [written instructions hidden in a cabinet] advises me to sell the house quickly so that I don't have to worry about it. I find myself wanting to keep it, move here, live frugally -- do art, write, turn my mother's work room into a studio. There is something very coccooning about this place. Mary is all for moving down here, which makes me think we both need to spend time here, get to know the area, before we pull up roots.

I appreciate a coworker's sentiments yesterday: "Too much!" Knowing about my cousin's messy death and everything else that's happened this year.

Brooklyn, late 60s or early 70s. My father wears one of his old satin performance shirts, along with my mother's wig and sunglasses and one of my "hip" pendants. He has twisted my mother's cigarette into his closest approximation of a reefer and is flashing "peace".

His sense of humor -- which I have in some part inherited -- ranged from quirky to bizarre. (My mother was no slouch, either.) Sometimes, when I was an adolescent, I wore his satin shirts as dresses, belting them at the waist.

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Intermezzo: Thanksgiving Bird

At least, I think it's a flycatcher. Mary had called me to the window earlier (Wednesday) when she saw a bird in one of our saltbushes. (Saltbush flowers can be seen here.) Each of the dozen-plus shots I took through glass and screen was blurry, but I thought this one was "impressionistic" enough to play with....

I've been trying to identify the bird, which we also viewed in binoculars. If it bobbed its tail I'd call it an Eastern Phoebe, but we saw no tail-bobbing. If it had white wing bars I'd call it an Eastern Wood Pewee, but its wings looked fairly uniformly colored. The body type seems to be a flycatcher's, so I'm going with that. Our Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern Central and North America includes Florida in the phoebe's wintering range and places our area at the southernmost part of the pewee's breeding range.

Life in the present day continues amidst my preparing and posting the ongoing series. Mary and I, bundled now in layers and woolen caps against what in Florida passes for cold, have taken wondrous walks in the dark beneath a visible Milky Way. We've dragged foam pads onto our concrete back porch and lay down with binoculars, spying the Andromeda galaxy.

Wednesday morning I took in the portulaca as the temperature dropped below 40 degrees F. The just-short-of-last-quarter moon was almost at zenith. Jupiter rose, having crested the trees.

I had photographed the Monarch butterfly below on Monday and hope it has reached warmer climes. Says the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders, "Monarchs are capable of flying 2,000 miles from Canada to Mexico and back again to the southern United States. Millions migrate every autumn, often stopping in the same rest spots each year. Some even fly as far as Hawaii and eastern Australia. In early spring and summer, returning females travel north in relays, new generations replacing old, laying their eggs along the way."

If you look closely, you can see its proboscis arcing up and then back down into the lantana.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Three Years Ago, Part 2 of 13

My father at the Grand Canyon in July 1957, age 39. My parents had been married for eight months. I would arrive in another fifteen.

On November 26, 2002, two days before Thanksgiving, my father committed suicide. This series presents journal excerpts from that time and the aftermath of his death, edited for privacy purposes and omitting numerous "to do" lists....

11/24/02 2:40 pm. Delius's Brigg Fair plays on the CD. I have finished pulping paper, adding some paint touches to Dorchester Bay II, and washing up. I've set more paper to soak. Drinking Red Zinger tea. I have the cell phone with me -- if I don't get home first, Mary will call before she leaves, so that I can resume watching our cat Red as he recovers from his illness.

6:40 pm. At home, headphoned into Respighi, once more with Red Zinger tea. Red has downed some kibble, powdered milk, and asparagus. We've discontinued the steroids -- he had a second throw-up, all liquid, and had been drinking excessively -- a sign of too much burden on his kidneys. We still give him the antibiotics. So long as he's doing some eating on his own, it seems he's making progress. [We believe our cat Red had been stung by a hornet after he had snuck outside and gone missing for four days. At the time of this journal entry, he had been sick for more than a month.]

Once again I feel completely untethered. Worried about my father. Worried about Red. Worried about what's in store for us. Worried about the prospects of war, global warming, and the other Big Picture items -- and all the components of our Little Picture within the BP. I find myself wondering whether I do the right thing -- on many levels.

Today's work at the studio was of the nonthinking type, where I was pulping paper -- more mechanical than artistic. Met more artists moving in: heading toward third floor studios, carrying huge canvases past me -- abstracts -- as I washed up at the slop sink. I wore thermals underneath my clothes, listened first to the music of Vollenweider (and sang along full-throated), then to Howells. Then to Delius. Warmed myself with tea and with warm/hot water at the sink. With all that working in the cold, I did not sneeze as much as I do when I'm at home. I walk into the apartment and can feel my tension increase. I'd been somewhat aware of it before, but after my 8-minute walk from a half-day at the studio, the change is palpable. That, more than anything else, tells me how much I need the studio. I'm perfectly happy with my tea there. At home I sit before the TV and nosh, try to shut out the world.

I know I'm in the chrysalis stage of a difficult birth. Looking for balance and at the same time looking for a way to honor the Muse. These are not incompatible ambitions. I feel as though I've been working for someone other than myself -- and, in a way, I have.

And yet, I know the rewards of that as well. I just need to make sure to take the time to come back to myself.

I think of D talking about his suffering -- how for years it seemed his lot. He is now peeking outside that door -- and I need to do more of the same. I've begun, but am still torn between obligations, at least as I perceive them. I need to remember Blum's quote: "You are reminded that you must draw first from the well to nourish and give to yourself. Then there will be more than enough to nourish others."

My father so wants for me to be officially recognized and compensated. I do, too -- but my main purpose lies in the creative arts. If I did not have to be employed, I would quit in a second. I know I need to take more chances, and I intend to use the studio to expand my degrees of freedom.

I also think of the studio space as a room from which to gather strength for whatever lies ahead. I think of several factors, but of my father in particular. He doesn't want me to see him, doesn't want me to fly down. Doesn't want me to see a diminished person. I believe this has been the first two-week period where I have not received a letter from him between phone calls.

Today I brought to the studio the towel that Helen
had given me one year -- and I'm glad it's there. It reminds me of the way she had lived her life, deriving joy and beauty where she could. As I strive to do in the midst of everything else.

I need to take this music of Respighi to the studio.

(Later) I told Mary I was concerned that she may not have the same outlet as I, and that I was grateful for her emotional support of the studio space. We made a list of things to do, given time and energy.

Red has vomited again. We talk about various ways of handling the situation, keep an eye on him. We'll call the vet on Tuesday, if not before.

Brooklyn, early 70s. My father stands in the living room, holding Daisy I. Her almost-spitting-image, Daisy II, currently lives with Mary, me, and a healthier Red. I grew up with cats, as had my father, whose family had taken in strays. Our back yard in Brooklyn had been a sanctuary for dozens of them -- such that the dog next door barked at "other" neighborhood cats but not at the ones we fed.

My father's lap was the one she sought; they'd had a routine. He sat in his favorite chair (just out of frame, to the right), watching TV. When she leaped up, he looked down at her, eyebrows cocked, and intoned, "Did I send for you?" Her self-assured look back said,

She had been spayed but had never received any vaccines or check-ups. She died in the late 70s from "a blood disease," probably feline leukemia. I was off at college, though still within the city, and learned of her death during a weekend visit home.

Behind my father is the organ he used in his teaching. My parents brought it down to Florida in 1980. It was still here in 2003; over the decades its electrical wiring had melted. I've removed and kept some of its pieces, including keys, stop switches, and vacuum tubes.

Hanging above it is a portrait of my maternal grandmother, who had won the sitting in a Bingo game. The portrait, given to me after her death, has moved with me from New York to Massachusetts to Florida.

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Three Years Ago, Part 1 of 13

Brooklyn, year unknown. At some point our back yard lost its swing set and my father converted the space into a vegetable garden. There he grew chives, lettuce, cucumbers, zucchini, green peppers, and tomatoes.

This is my favorite photograph of him. He seemed truly happy and at peace when he was either gardening or playing the piano. My relationship to the piano is complex because my father had been my first teacher. In contrast, my gardening -- forged from Brooklyn memories -- carries with it a joyful simplicity.

On November 26, 2002, two days before Thanksgiving, my father committed suicide. This series presents journal excerpts from that time and the aftermath of his death, edited for privacy purposes and omitting numerous "to do" lists....

11/23/02 2:56 pm. In the [newly established] artists' studio on Humphreys Street. I have turned the heat on so that I can sit and write without my hands being cold. I wear my work clothes, and have just finished my latest installment of commissioned artwork. I shredded paper last night, and will put more up to soak before I leave.

I sit with a cup of green tea, having brought the coffee maker here -- and, on the CD player, Grant Still's music has seen me through the past 90 minutes or so.

5:49 pm. Schmoozed with fellow artists, taking a Grand Tour of all the studios. Later, the owner stopped by with a group of folks, to whom I gave a tour of my space. He was pleased -- able to show people that there was already a working artist in the space. He said that this had been the first room to receive baseboard heating, and as such had been a regular hangout for the workers.

Mostly, we hung out in my friend D's room and toasted the studio space with wine and munchies. D asked us each to paint on the wall. I'd given him a blank book as a housewarming gift -- he wants to do more writing.

He showed us work from his portfolios of 20 years ago. Beautiful stuff. "I was an artist then," he said. We assured him that he still is -- but I know what it's like to be separated from one's heart. He thought his work would end up killing him, didn't think he'd survive it. He was turning to survivor literature (and in some cases those who had not survived, like Etty Hillesum) because he could identify, on a certain level, with that kind of suffering. His days had gone from 5 am to 8 pm, fairly unchanging through the week.

We were having extraordinary exchanges of ideas -- on art, printmaking, photography. He showed us wonderful books of photos. Another artist with us, a printmaker and photographer, told stories about the people portrayed in the books. One man had died in a cold Parisian room, after he'd made it his mission to capture Paris on film. He'd died in poverty. An American woman, a photographer herself, had found a collection of his plates, bought them, brought them to the States, and saved his art before it was destroyed.

My father had asked, this morning, "Do you like what you're doing?"

I asked, "All of it, or a specific part?" Then I said, "I enjoy the creative work. Everything else is window dressing."

He has not been feeling well. He's in a lot of pain, pops a lot of aspirin. He'd taken a bad fall a couple of weeks ago -- doesn't think he broke anything but of course refuses to see a doctor. His pain subsides as the day progresses, but he's been waking up in pain. His voice sounded a bit slurred on the phone and at times I wondered if he understood what I was saying. Our conversation was quite short.

That, and his question to me, makes me wonder if he'll live to see 85.

Brooklyn, 1959. I am about a year old. Before my mother lost her singing voice to cigarettes and yelling, she would stand at the piano (not the one in this photo), singing while my father played. I remember being enthralled, when I was very young, at her rendition of George and Ira Gershwin's "Summertime".

When I was a toddler I was plinking out "The Chicken Song" on the piano with one finger. I'd given the name to one of the faster themes in Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody because it had accompanied a frantic chicken on a Saturday morning cartoon.

Being able to play by ear was a mixed blessing. It let me get away with being a terrible sight-reader because I could memorize music very easily. My father wouldn't tolerate it, scowling when I entertained my friends by playing Hit Parade songs. Decades later, when he and I had a chance to forge a closer bond, he confessed to me that he, too, had been a terrible sight-reader. He'd improved his skill, forced to keep up with his own piano teacher -- his mother -- who played a composition with one hand while he had played it with the other.

Postscript:As I scanned photographs of my father for this series earlier tonight, my radio began to play Serge Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3. Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski was the soloist. Gianandrea Noseda conducted the New York Philharmonic.

The New York Philharmonic was my "home orchestra" and my father's; both of us had been born in Brooklyn. Rachmaninoff had been my father's favorite composer -- the only composer whose portrait he displayed. My father had concertized in his youth and taught piano, organ, and accordion.

On the radio, Trpceski dedicated his performance to his father.

Sometimes the Universe has a way of falling beautifully into place.

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Monday, November 21, 2005

Caught Before the Rains

Color-altered tree with Spanish moss

This morning I saw a thick swath of green advancing on radar and knew I had to start my walk or be caught in a deluge. By the time I got back home my clothes were spotted with drizzle. By the time I was ready to upload my photos -- my camera put hastily away at the first drops -- the rain was roaring down. I wondered if the loud raking on my studio window was hail....

It wasn't -- just the effect of a stiff northwest wind that made the trees around us undulate like anemones. We had bands of deluge throughout the rest of the day. Had this been a thunderstorm I'd have kept the computer unplugged.

The artistic treatment up top was taken from this photo. I don't know what this tree is but I love its bark, and I wanted to get a shot of the interplay between bark, wood-slatted fence, and Spanish moss.

In another experiment I flipped part of the shot 90 degrees to the left and did minor color alterations to bring out the contrasts.

Today marks the first time I fiddled with manual controls outside of astrophotography, experimenting with focus, f-stop, and shutter speed before settling on the above shot. I love how the different bark and brick textures overlap. The tree on the left is the same one as in the other photos above, caught from a different angle.

Citrus sunspots

I took this shot from across the street; the tree was also set back in my neighbor's yard. After downloading I enlarged the picture in PowerPoint. The Auto settings threatened to give me a lighter image than I wanted, probably compensating for the overcast sky. Working the manual controls has been a fascinating trial-and-error process, in which I am little by little becoming more confident.

Pods in Bondage

The rain began to fall after I'd gotten in a couple shots of these swamp lily pods. A month ago the lilies looked like this:

During the first half of my walk, I came upon a tree whose opening I had photographed before, planning to make a collage in which I would insert something cute inside. Turns out an optical illusion did it for me! That isn't a glow-eyed owl peering out from inside, just part of the natural detritus in the shot below.

Come into my treehouse!

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