artist educator, singer songwriter, multi-instrumentalist
It feels odd having finished the short memoir pieces, at least for now. I feel almost an emptiness, not entirely unpleasant. It just feels as though I’ve lost my direction somewhat. There’s plenty more to write about, and things I omitted from my story. I’ve only hinted at my childhood or occasionally included some flashbacks, but I didn’t start from the beginning. My early years were harder than the later ones and harder to write about. I have very few memories from the years I lived with my birth family, and the ones I do have are mostly unpleasant. Anyway, I’ve previously written short memoir pieces about some of those memories. The CD I released in 2014 had spoken word memoirs recorded, one for each song. Although, I won’t record them this time, maybe it’s time to tell you a little bit about the songs in the new CD.
Deep Ellum Blues:
I first heard this song played live by The Dead at an acoustic show in Connecticut. It must have been sometime in the late 70s. Paul was a more dedicated Deadhead than I was and insisted on going to every show he could. We didn’t have much money and could usually only afford one or two shows a year. I liked seeing a variety of bands, but I usually deferred to Paul because he was so enthralled with The Dead. That year, he had heard a rumor that they were coming to the East Coast, so he went to a ticket agent to find out. There were no dates announced yet, but the agent promised to let Paul know as soon as any information was released. We waited and waited until finally one day, we got the call. There four tickets available for a show in a small theater in New York City. The agent didn’t know exactly where the seats were, but he insisted they were good ones. He also had two tickets for show in New Haven, Connecticut and didn’t know anything about that show either. He apologized and explained that he wasn’t used to getting rock and roll concert tickets. The New York tickets were pretty expensive for that era, but we took them as well as the two for New Haven. We thought we could easily get rid of the two extras. Boy, were we wrong! No one wanted to buy pricey tickets for mystery seats. We thought we were going to be stuck with them until finally a friend of a friend scooped them up. He was so excited to get these sold-out tickets, he even offered to do all the driving and get us high all night in exchange.
Finally, came the day of the show. I had arranged for a sitter to watch our daughter, and Paul had miraculously managed to get the night off from work. Then, late in the afternoon, I got a call from Paul saying that he had to stay late at work and wasn’t going to make the show after all. He was devastated. Our sitter was also a Deadhead, so Paul suggested that I find someone else to watch Jessie and ask Debra if she wanted to come to the show with me. Of course, she jumped at the chance, so I got my mom to keep our daughter overnight. This was a rare occurrence. Mom was not usually interested in babysitting since she still had her own young child at home, but this time she agreed. Just as Debra and I were walking out the door to meet the other couple, Paul raced in. He had pleaded with his boss who finally relented. Poor Debra. We promised her a ticket to the show in New Haven instead. Paul had already agreed to work that night. She was disappointed but happy that she had any ticket, so all was good.
We were running late by the time Paul showered and changed. The other couple were getting anxious. We all were. Our driver raced into the city, miraculously avoiding any speeding tickets or other delays. There was no parking anywhere, so he finally flagged down a parking garage attendant, handed him a fifty-dollar bill and asked him to take charge of the car. Then we ran to the theater. We still didn’t know where we would be seated but figured the theater was so small it wouldn’t really matter. We handed our tickets to the usher as the band was just getting on stage tuning up and starting to warm up to the start. As the first notes floated in the air, the usher kept walking us further down the aisle until she stopped at the front row and waved us in. We were almost in the center. What a thrill! I could lean back and put my feet up on the stage. It was a great show that night.
A few days later I went to New Haven with Debra. These seats were up in the balcony in a larger venue, but they started out the show with an acoustic set. It’s the only time I’ve heard them do an acoustic set and was also the first time I heard their slow version of Friend of the Devil. I wasn’t a fan of the new version, but the rest of that set and the rest of the show were both great. It was too bad that Paul had missed out on that. He was disappointed that he never did get to see them play acoustically, but he was also thrilled that we’d had those front row, almost center, seats and stayed high on that until the next show. He always said it was worth twice the price.
It’s Gonna Be Cold Outside:
I’m turning sixty-eight in a few days. I feel young in spirit but, like so many of us who are aging, my body is starting to betray me. I’ve never been very good at exercising enough. The things I love to do are play music, write, create art and read. Those involve a lot of sitting. I also have a serious back condition that I’ve had for most of my life, ever since I was twelve. It’s almost invisible but causes me quite a bit of discomfort if I’m not careful. I’ve also inherited a few chronic ailments, and stress has taken its toll on me even though most of the stress is gone now. When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, and I lost much of my work, I anticipated that stress would return because of my loss of income. But I was pleasantly surprised. Friends, family and fans were generous and helped out in many ways. I also accepted food from a church group and a food box from the government twice. But mostly, like so many others I was staying at home and wasn’t spending money on gas or on rent for the space I had been using for my classes. I also wasn’t eating out as much, especially those lunches in cafes when I had been between classes and needed to stay in town for hours at a time with nothing to do. I was amazed at how easy it was to be at home. It gave me the chance to reevaluate a lot of things.
I thought a lot about my music career and the direction I wanted to go in. I was no longer practicing with a band and was back to playing music by myself the way I wanted it to sound. I started writing more songs. I rearranged old songs and sorted through my piles and piles of song bits that were never completed. I organized my files and organized my life. I also consistently wrote my memoirs. I found that the more I wrote, the more I wanted to write. I realized that I had a lot to say and wanted to say it while I still could. My mother died when she was eighty, my dad at eighty-four. Eighty is only twelve years away for me. Mom was active and healthy until her massive stroke. She only started looking and feeling her age at around sixty. This song is my reflections on aging. It’s not meant to be morose and was not written with regrets in mind. It’s just an acknowledgement that I’m getting older and slowing down a bit, and that’s okay.
In 2014, I moved in with my current partner in his off-the-grid solar house, that is heated mostly with wood, in the foothills of the Taconic Mountains on the Rensselaer Plateau. I’ve had to learn a new way of daily living. Our refrigerator is a small RV/Marine refrigerator, so I shop more often, we only use lights when necessary and only in the room that’s occupied, and we only vacuum or use kitchen appliances on sunny days. We have no fans or air conditioning in the summer, and it is sometimes chilly in the house in the late fall, winter and early spring. I’ve learned to let my body acclimate to the weather. I’ve become quite fond of hooded sweaters that keep my head warm. All of these things contributed to my writing of this song in the fall of 2020.
The winter was coming with continued isolation and more reflection on my part. I was pulling out my warmer clothes and started wearing my hat indoors before we cranked up the wood stove. I was enjoying telling my stories and, in telling them, remembering more and more each day. I tuned my guitar to an alternate tuning of E-B-E-A-B-E, as I often do for inspiration, and played random chords until the pattern came. Then I put all of those thoughts and experiences into words. I love hearing what other people take away from my songs. As I was writing it, the cold was a metaphor for the uncertainty I was feeling about the future and about my aging. But it can also be a song about facing a harsh winter or maybe something else entirely. I wonder what it all means to you.
I have said before that my friends refer to me as a serial monogamist. That is because I am committed and loyal to my partners. However, eventually, when faced with daily emotional and verbal abuse, I come to a breaking point and decide to move on. I left home and moved in with Paul Cavanaugh when I was twenty. I left him and moved in with Dick Kavanaugh when I was forty. Now I was sixty and was leaving again. I managed twenty years in each abusive relationship and was now determined to live alone. I decided to move into a friend’s house. I would be renting a long narrow room, large enough for a single bed, some bookshelves, desk and dresser in a long line against one wall. One friend said it reminded her of a dorm room. I saw it as a landing place where I could regroup and figure out what to do next and where to go from there.
Two days after I went to court, and the day after I announced my moving date, Dick came home in a terrible mood. He started right in yelling at me and throwing things around. I decided that I needed to go out that night and started exploring my options. I have always tried to support other songwriters as much as possible and had a list of people to see. One of them was playing as hour away so I started reaching out to friends to find out if anyone would join me. No one that I spoke to was interested in going out that night, so I went alone. I walked in, took a seat at the bar, and ordered my usual bourbon neat with a slice of lemon. I turned my back to the bar to pay attention to the singer in front of me and noticed a clean-cut looking man also sitting at the bar wearing a jacket and tie with a video camera and recorder between us. I soon struck up a conversation, curious about the recording he was doing. Before too long, I had moved to the seat on the other side of him so as not to disturb the recording, and we spent the entire night talking and enjoying each other’s company. I have to admit, it was an unexpected and pleasurable turn of events.
At the end of the night, I introduced myself to the singer-songwriter and complimented him on his beautiful guitar. He handed it to me to try out. I played “Highway In Your Eyes” and tried to hand it back, but he insisted that I show him the runs I play on that song. Then he complimented me, and we chatted a bit longer. As I was leaving, I hugged him then turned to the videographer and stuck out my hand. He looked at it, laughed and said, “What? No hug?” so, I hugged him, too. Then he handed me his business card and asked if he could see me again. It read Joel Patterson, Mountaintop Studios. I hesitated, remembering that I wanted to be single. But I gave him my card as well and agreed to exchange emails. I explained that I was going through an ugly breakup and needed to focus on that and my other family obligations before I could see him. He agreed to wait for two and a half months if we could stay in touch via email. The next day, I told Dick that I had met someone that night and would probably see him again after I had moved. Things were messy enough already, and I didn’t want extra drama. I believed that honesty was the best policy.
The next weeks were traumatic and emotional. As I said before, my friends pitched in to help, but there was always the cloud of my former partner always nearby reading in his recliner while we sorted and packed. I reminded him that I had found the house, and he had not wanted to be a part of deciding to move there. He always insisted that it was my house and my decision alone. But he refused to leave the house, stating that it was now his home regardless of how he came to be there. Somehow, he managed to be home whenever I worked at the massive job of cleaning and clearing everything out. The more time went by, the angrier I felt. I knew that I would have a difficult time forgiving him for his treatment of me when my mom was dying and forgiving him this monumental task that was left to me to deal with by myself. I had always remained friends with Paul after our split but wasn’t sure I could that this time around. Although Paul was angry much of the time and was abusive in many ways, he was kind to me in times of turmoil. He cared for me when I was ill, supported me when I faltered and always showed his love for me. This time around, I felt as though I had been a burden. I was sure that Dick was relieved to be rid of me despite the years we’d spent together.
Meanwhile, Joel and I emailed each other almost daily. One day, he wrote to tell me that he was recording a show in Schenectady, not far from my house, and wondered if I would meet him for coffee. I was hosting a family birthday party that day and knew I wouldn’t be able to get away. Besides, I had already told him that I was committed to waiting until I moved out to see him. I explained all of this then didn’t hear back from him. I figured he was busy, but when day after day went by with no word, I started to wonder. I finally wrote to him asking what was up. He said that he thought I was writing him off. He was sure that was my subtle way of telling him that I wasn’t interested because he was so close by that day. He didn’t have any idea what my family gatherings were like with over a dozen people of all ages for a day-long celebration with me doing most of the work. As I smoothed things over, I found myself wondering why I felt such a loss when I was determined not to get serious about anyone. But I ignored the warning signs and went back to daily correspondence.
May first came fast. I moved into my little room and settled in a bit then let Joel know that I was ready to see him. We arranged to meet at a show by the same singer that had been instrumental in our meeting. Once again, Joel showed up in a jacket and tie. We enjoyed the first set then went out to my car to smoke a joint. One thing led to another, and I finally told him that I thought he should invite me to his house to spend the night. We had been out in the parking lot long past the show’s end. It was now around 3 am. He explained that he loved a distance away, but I didn’t care. I was enthralled with this quirky and wonderful man. I followed him home, making him wait for me as I waited at all of the red lights that he ran. As we drove, I started to wonder what I was doing. I barely knew him and was now following him to his isolated home. As we drove on and on, I felt slightly nervous until we drove past a sign for The Peace Pagoda. During my time teaching at The Free School, I had helped out while it was being built. I knew exactly where I was and how to get home. Very shortly, we went up a long steep dirt road then turned into a dark driveway. When the outside motion detector light came on, I saw what looked like a huge three-story barn. This was his home.
I spent a lovely night there and woke up the next morning feeling tired but happy. Joel made me breakfast. He told me that he had been going to see that same singer-songwriter for a few years, doing free videos for him, which he never did. He said it was like a compulsion that he didn’t understand. Now he realized that it was all done so that he would meet me there. That fit right in with my belief that things happen for a reason if we only follow the signs. Then I remembered that it was Mother’s Day, and I had plans to meet my daughter for brunch. I reluctantly left agreeing to see him again soon. We did see each other again the next weekend, and every weekend after that. I kept trying to explain my resolve to be single for the rest of my life and insisted that we had to keep things casual. He just laughed each time, and it did end up being a losing battle. We quickly went from seeing each other every weekend to almost every day. I still insisted on renting the room in Albany, and we alternated back and forth from Petersburg on weekends to Albany during the week when I had to work in town. Then Joel did something for me that changed the tide.
I had always wanted a porch swing. When we moved into the farmhouse in Princetown, I finally had a front porch. My kids all pitched in and bought, assembled and installed a porch swing on that porch. I was thrilled and often sat out there enjoying it. Then one day, Dick decided we needed a ceiling fan on the porch and took down not only my swing but also the rafters that supported it, so it never got put back up. When I moved out, I put it in my storage unit. I had to go there to get my sound equipment for a gig when Joel noticed it and asked about it. I tearfully told him the story. It was just one of many things that still stung. He offered to store it in his garage so that it wouldn’t take up so much room in the unit. I declined at first, but he soon talked me into it. The next time I visited his home, I saw my swing installed on a free-standing frame made out of saplings he had cut down in the woods. I stood there and cried. At that moment, I fell deeply in love with this amazing man and knew I was no longer able to keep things casual. After a few more months, I agreed to move in with him and have been happier than I’ve ever been in my life.
It is the first time that I have a life free of trauma, though it did take a while to settle down. My son recovered from his breakdown, after many more months of turmoil, and we have gradually and carefully repaired our relationship. Dick Kavanaugh and I did manage to have a tentative friendship, and his cancer eventually ended his life. I am still close to some of his children and grandchildren. There have continued to be many ups and downs within my family, but I navigate them with the backing of a loving and supportive partner. I soon planted flower gardens and brought over my yard decor, a picnic table, chiminea, chairs and benches and children's items for outdoor play. Together, we have planted gardens, marked trails in the woods, and hosted events on our outdoor stage. We've created a peaceful and musical environment for people of all ages.
We have had a few struggles in our relationship like any other, but we are able to sail through them without fighting with each other. We make compromises and accept each other for who we are. It’s the first time I have lived without being cautious, without being yelled at or blamed for things. I’m no longer afraid of what each day will bring. And most important of all, I have my life and he has his life. If I want to travel, I do it without him because he likes to stay at home. We have no expectations of each other beyond being kind and loving. In the eight years that we’ve been together, I have traveled to music festivals where I camped for three to four days, Oregon for ten days, South Caroline twice for a week at a time, Maine a few times and gone to China for two weeks without him. I’m always glad to come home, and he’s always glad to have me back.
In addition to all of this, he has enabled me to move forward with my music, recording me, making music videos and sometimes running sound for gigs. He is my harshest critic but in a kind and loving way, keeping me on my toes and encouraging me to be the best I can be. When the Highway In Your Eyes CD was nearing completion, he mixed it and recorded a few more songs in his studio. I hired an artist friend to do the cover, but he put it all together. When we were first together, he had me read my memoir pieces aloud to him in the evenings. It was a nice way to get to know each other. I would read a piece, then he would share something from his life. He encouraged me to put some of them together on a second companion CD, so I did, one for each song. In 2014, just after its release, WRPI did a show using both CDs and playing a story then the song that went with it. It was very cool to listen to them in that order, but it seemed to make the most sense to put the music and stories on separate CDs so that you could listen to just one or the other.
I spent the first year living with Joel recovering from all of my past trauma. I felt exhausted and unmotivated much of time. He and others encouraged me to just take the time to rest. I spent the second year trying to figure out what was next. By the third year. I was feeling alive again and starting to move forward. Now, I feel as though I am living the life I never even imagined was possible with the “Finest Man.”
The night that my mom died, I had a dream that I was in my music room, playing my dulcimer when Mom walked in. She stood and listened then said, “That’s a beautiful tune. I love you, Deb.” I woke up crying then went downstairs and played the tune from my dream. I originally titled it “Margaret’s Waltz” after my mother, but there is already a well-known tune by that name, so I shortened it to “Maggie’s Waltz.” It was a healing dream. My parents had never shown me support for my music, never asking about it and never coming to any shows. After they both passed, I found out that they bragged about me all the time to others. I wish I had known that while they were alive.
The next day, I was scheduled to do a Cavanaugh & Kavanaugh gig at a local library. I’ve always believed that the show must go on, and I was still numb from the long ordeal and in shock from her eventual passing. I insisted that we do the show but was reluctant to go to the party we’d been invited to that evening. The show went well, and playing music felt healing. Afterwards I agreed to go to the party where we would do more jamming. However, I hadn’t counted on going with a moody partner who seemed to be going out of his way to try to fight with me. I wasn’t interested in fighting with anyone and tried to go along with his whims until the end of the night when he aggressively insisted on leaving in the middle of my playing a song. At the end of the song, disappointed at leaving because the music felt so good but determined not to engage in drama, I went to say goodbye to our hosts. When I looked around, I saw that Dick was in the middle of the jam. At the end of that tune, I told him I was ready to leave. He loudly and rudely said that he had gotten tired of waiting for me and was now staying. I was furious and embarrassed, so I walked to my daughter’s house and spent the night there. I refused to answer his calls and finally returned a few days later in time to prepare for Mom’s funeral.
That was a turning point in our relationship. I wasn’t sure if I could forgive his insensitivities during the past year while I was dealing with such a traumatic event. I’m a very loyal person and don’t give up on relationships easily, but once again I’d had enough. Although I felt as though I no longer loved him, I also recognized that he was dealing with a probably fatal cancer and didn’t want to abandon him. I’d already lost Paul to cancer, though his diagnosis was well after we had split up, and I knew Dick would need support, but things were never the same. We became roommates that shared the same bedroom and continued to play music together. I tried to help him with his health issues, but he soon stopped all of the recommended protocols, including regular testing. Nothing I said could change his mind. It seemed as though he’d given up. Still, I was determined to be there for him.
Things did improve slightly over time. My dad passed a year later, and Dick was supportive and kind. I started feeling hopeful that we would get back on track, but the time when my mom was dying still haunted me. Then one day, I came home from a demonstration in Albany, hot and tired. He was in my office using my computer, and I asked him when he thought he would be done since I had work to do. He snapped at me, saying that he would get off when he felt like it. Then he accused me of being selfish and possessive of my computer. I also got angry and, when I did, he jumped up and shoved me into the doorframe, yelling and calling me names. He had often been angry and violent, but it had never before been directed at me. I felt like I was reliving the scene with Paul so many years earlier and snapped. I screamed back and ran out of the house. When I returned, I calmly asked him if he wanted to continue to be with me. He replied, “no.”
We started talking about how the break-up would work. He insisted that Tabitha give up her bedroom to him. He already had a room and most often slept in the recliner in the living room, so I suggested that he take that as his room, as well as the smaller room adjacent to it. My office was on the other side of the house, and his section could be closed off to everyone else, but he refused. I was devastated. I had painted Tabitha’s room for her when we moved in with clouds on the ceiling and trees and flowers on the walls. She loved that room and slept and played in there. But there was no changing his mind. I moved as much of her things into my room as I could and shared my double bed with her. I was finished fighting. I’d been fighting my whole life and didn’t have any more energy for it. I knew I had to make a complete break, but he refused to move out of the house.
When I first found the farmhouse, I went to him and asked if he wanted to move there. One of my Music Together moms had offered the house for a reasonable rent. We had always talked about moving to the country, so it seemed ideal. Dick refused to make a decision. He told me that if I wanted to move there, I should decide to do it, and he would then decide if he was going to move with me. I replied that I would need someone to share the rent, but he stood his ground. It was going to be my house. I decided to do it, and he decided to move in with me. I was confused but happy that it worked out. Now, suddenly he was saying that it was his home, and he wasn’t going to leave. Once again, I was confused. I thought it was my house, and he was renting rooms. Finally, I gave in again. I knew that in order to have any peace, I was going to have to find another place to live. Meanwhile, we lived there as roommates. Then in November of that year, his son committed suicide. He was devastated, and I took him back into my bed, moving Tabitha back into her old room.
That same year, I had been approached by one of the dads in my music classes and offered a trade. I often do trades with families who couldn’t otherwise afford classes. I believe strongly in making the program available to everyone who wants to do it regardless of their financial ability. He offered to record a CD for me with his remote equipment. This was incredible. I was still writing songs that Cavanaugh & Kavanaugh didn’t perform and was eager for this opportunity to get my original music out in the world. I was feeling done with Cavanaugh & Kavanaugh. I had little input anymore as to what songs we played, and my original songs were usually rejected. I wanted to do more solo gigs again, and this would help. It became my second full-length CD. I called it “Highway In Your Eyes.” Dick and I were getting along again, so I asked him to play guitar on a few songs. I recorded most of my and Dick’s tracks on a day in January the following year at the Cary Institute in Rensselaerville, NY.
Meanwhile, my younger son was struggling. I knew he was drinking more than I liked and had been experimenting with some of the newer designer drugs which I knew to be dangerous. He had moved back into our house to go to school for music at the local community college and had finished his first year. He was quite talented but also a bit lazy and had never focused on schooling. He started out his first semester strongly and ended up doing well. Then, his grades faltered. He couldn’t seem to concentrate and didn’t understand some of the courses. He passed, but just barely and got discouraged. He asked for my help which I gave, but he soon became surly and angry with me most of the time. I was worried and suggested that he seek help which only made him even more angry. He had gone on a cross-country trip with his best friend the summer following his first semester, and it was a disaster. He came back worse than ever. He barely got through school that fall and had to repeat a class. I was worried and didn’t know how to help him. He was already an adult, so there wasn’t much I could do.
Life was incredibly stressful again. I was having trouble sleeping and couldn’t concentrate on anything. I knew I had to find a place to live but had no energy to even think about it. Neither Dick nor Austin was helping out around the house regardless of the agreements that had been made, and I was burning out fast. We heated the house partially with wood. We’d all agreed that Dick would cut the wood, Austin would split it, and I would stack it, bring it in and keep the stove going. That winter, we were constantly running out of wood. Sometimes Dick would go buy a bag of wood from the convenience store, and I was hauling dead branches out of the woods. We had an electric splitter, so that wasn’t as hard a job as it could have been, but I was left on my own to heat the house.
One day, I went up to Austin’s room to ask him to please go out and do wood. He refused, and I got angry. Before long, we were yelling at each other and suddenly I found myself on the floor with his hands around my throat, screaming that was going to kill me. I managed to scream at which point he stopped, looking shocked and stricken. I ran out of the house with my phone and called the State Police. They took my son away as I cried and shook. Then one of them stayed with me while I called Dick to see if he would come home. They said they didn’t want to leave me alone in the house after such a devastating experience. I told Dick what had happened, and he assured me that he would come right home. He was twenty minutes away, so I told the trooper that he could leave. I would be alright for the short time it took for Dick to come home.
After three hours, Dick walked in the door. I asked what had taken so long, and once again, I got yelled at for being controlling, as he reminded me that I wasn’t his keeper. I left and walked in the woods for hours, shaking, crying and berating myself for staying with someone who continued to be so insensitive to me in my times of need. The next day, I went to court with a friend and tried to get the judge to mandate counseling. I was told that they only intervene after a second incident, which made no sense at all to me. They wouldn’t even recommend drug counseling. I was urged to get an order of protection for six months, which I did. I went home, shaken and sad. Dick wanted to know why I hadn’t included him in the order and didn’t understand or accept that it had nothing to do with him. I was the one that had been targeted. Our neighbor was there at the time and was able to calm him down. I had to leave the house while Austin came with the same family friend to get his things and move out. He left me a note, and I cried some more. I couldn’t believe that my life was falling apart so traumatically and all at once. I immediately regretted having called the police but also knew it was the right thing to do. Like so many other times, there were friends who were understanding and supportive and others who were judgmental and didn’t seem to understand the strong bond between a mother and her children.
The next day, I told Dick that I would be moving out May 1st. That would give me two and a half months to find a place to go. He sneered and asked where I was going. I told him that I didn’t know yet, but I would figure it out. He laughed, sarcastically wished me luck and walked away. I started walking around the house looking at the twenty years of accumulated things from our life together, books, CDs, sheet music and lyric sheets, household items, furniture and more. When I had left Paul, I packed a suitcase and left, coming back over time to take a few things. This time, I knew I had to sort through things and wasn’t looking forward to having to do that together. As it turned out, we didn’t do it together. He refused to do any of the work. He told me to take everything. He wanted nothing. Luckily, my friends came and helped me, taking loads to donate, helping me pack and bag things up for the trash. There is much more to tell about that difficult time, but I will leave you with the image of Dick sitting in his recliner reading or napping while my friends and I sorted through our communal belongings for weeks and weeks, setting aside things that I knew were his or would mean something to him and splitting up our household goods in an effort to be fair and equitable. I have always been thankful for my friends, but never more than during that time while I was forced to deal with a nasty breakup at the same time as what felt like the loss of my son. I never underestimate my friends. They have been my saving grace time and time again.
In early 2010, it looked as though life was beginning to settle down a bit, and things were going along fairly smoothly. My older son was expecting his second child and was partnered with a wonderful woman. It looked like they would soon take Tabitha, who I had been raising for him, into their family as well. My daughter and my other son were both working and seemed as though they were on a good track. Because I had lived through so many disasters, I used to say that I thought I’d experienced just about every bad thing there was to deal with, but I no longer say that. It seems as though I jinx it every time. Dick and I were still struggling some, but I attributed that to his having to deal with his cancer and the fact that he was often grumpy even without having to face that. He had wanted to break up with me when he first got his diagnosis. He said he wanted to live alone and not burden anyone with his health issues, but I assured him that I would stay by his side. I guess I didn’t realize how difficult he would make it for me to remain, but I was committed to seeing him through it. Then a new disaster struck.
On the day before Easter that year, my parents came to visit us in an old farmhouse we were renting. This was momentous. My parents never approved of my lifestyle. They never approved of most of the choices I’d made throughout my life and rarely, if ever, came to visit. They never came to my shows, whether they were rock, jazz or folk. They also never asked about my music or my career. But that day, they were full of praise for my home. My mom walked around the yard with me, admiring the gardens and making plans to come help me tend them. My dad kept talking about the house he grew up in remarking at how much this place reminded him of it. It was the best visit I’d ever had with them. As they were leaving, Mom told me she was looking forward to coming back and said she loved me. I cried as they left because this was such a turning point in my life. Mom never expressed her love for me and always criticized everything. I felt hopeful.
Two days later, I was packing up my music supplies after teaching a class when Dick walked in. I wondered why he was in town. I wasn’t expecting him. He’d come to tell me that my mom had suffered a severe stroke, was not discovered quickly and was now in the Emergency room in critical condition. We rushed over there where she was still unconscious. My dad and siblings were already there and waiting for me. The doctor explained that a large portion of her brain was affected. There was a treatment that could potentially bring her around, but they wouldn’t know how much permanent damage was done for a while. He explained that the treatment was a little dangerous and would cause her to be agitated, but if we could keep her still, she would have a good chance of surviving it. We told him to go ahead, and I spent the next hour or so singing lullabies to her to try to keep her calm as the medicine worked its magic. The music also worked its magic. As long as I sang, she lay still. When I stopped, she started twitching and moaning. After a little while, I couldn’t sing another note. I needed to get something to eat and take a break. I had worked until 6:30 pm without having had any dinner. It was now quite late, and I was getting lightheaded. I instructed my brother to continue singing while I was gone. He is not a singer and was uncomfortable doing it, but he did it anyway because we could all see how it helped.
After days in a coma, Mom finally woke up. The damage was horrific. She couldn’t walk or use her right side at all and had no speech. She also couldn’t recognize letters. This meant that she couldn’t point to letters to spell out what she wanted to say. She had been vivacious and outgoing, the life of any party with friends of all ages. It was devastating for her to go from being a grand communicator to having no ability to communicate. Dad was also devastated. She was his whole life. I always marveled at their love for each other. But she was also his caretaker. She did everything including caring for him after his much milder stroke. Close friends often referred to her as the “General.” She ruled the roost. Now, no one seemed to know what to do.
She was moved to a nursing home as soon as she was released from the hospital. She needed full-time care and physical therapy. One of the nurses in the hospital had mentioned a music therapy for treating aphasia to me, so I started looking into it immediately. Aphasia is the loss of speech after a brain injury. The idea behind this therapy was that you can rewire the brain to access language from the music areas. In order to do that, you sing every conversation to the patient. So, I did. I even got some of the aides and nurses to join in. The doctors wouldn’t even try, nor would the other members of the family. But the speech therapist also did it. She thought it was a great idea. Eventually, Mom was able to say a few words and even sang happy birthday.
I went to visit every day and mostly read aloud to her. Believe it or not, we communicated through ESP which had always been strong between us despite of our differences. When I lived far away, I would often lift up the phone to call her only to find her already on the other end. Now, she would be trying to say something to one of the staff and would be almost in tears when they didn’t understand, and I would instinctively know what she wanted. When I expressed it, she would nod and squeeze my hand. Both Mom and the staff came to rely on my being around. It was ironic that I was her main caregiver during that time after having been the black sheep of the family and left out of many family functions. Because I didn’t worry about being criticized, I started opening up to Mom and saying things that I never would have said before. I started telling her about my life and revealing things I’d never revealed before. At one point, I realized that and mentioned the fact that it was due to the fact that she couldn’t say anything. As soon as I said it, I regretted it, but Mom just laughed, nodded and squeezed my hand. It was such a difficult, draining but healing time. I felt as though it was a gift to both of us. We were able to heal our relationship before it was too late.
On her birthday, I brought Justin’s family, with their four-day old son, to visit her. She held Ethan for fifteen or twenty minutes. She was thrilled. I love looking at that photo of them. Tabitha was still living with me, though she would spend a few days a week with her dad. It was exhausting working in the mornings, spending all afternoon with Mom then getting Tabby from school and caring for her until bedtime. I also drove out of my way to pick up Dad, who couldn’t drive, bring him in his wheelchair to visit Mom and drive him back home, an extra hour of driving. I was burning out fast. Meanwhile, Dick was being more and more unreasonable every day. He refused to help out with meals or any extras. I often picked Tabby up from school and went back to the nursing home with her, so she could visit with my mom, getting home late and having to fix meals, catch up on chores and put Tabby to bed at a reasonable time. Then, one of Mom’s physical therapists came to me with distressing news. The insurance company was refusing to pay for any more sessions because Mom was not going to make any more progress. The therapy sessions were maintaining rather than improving. If they stopped them, she would revert with increased pain and discomfort. They had been watching me interacting with her during her sessions and wanted to train me to take over for them. The last thing I needed was another task, but how could I refuse? Mom didn’t like it either. The therapy was extremely painful. She would rather have quit, but then the pain would only have been even worse, so she agreed.
My birthday is at the end of the summer. When my birthday came, I decided I needed to get away. I need to visit the coast at least once a year to get rejuvenated. Having grown up on the Long Island Sound and spending much time along the coast of Connecticut then living on the west coast many years, I need to breathe the ocean air on a regular basis. So, we went to Maine for a few days. When I returned, I found that Mom had suffered another serious stroke and wasn’t expected to come out of it this time. We were all devastated – again. After consulting with the doctors, we decided to withhold food. By law, she would still receive fluids but would gradually waste away. They predicted that she wouldn’t last longer than a week at most. Ten days later, she was still hanging on. I continued to go everyday and read to her. I didn’t know if she could hear me, but I wanted her to know I was there. Then one day she was very restless.
I don’t know how I knew this was her last day, but somehow, I did. As long as I was there, holding her hand and talking or reading, she was calm. If I left to use the bathroom or just walk around for a bit, she would start thrashing about moaning. It got to be time to pick Tabby up from school, but I didn’t want to leave and knew I didn’t want to bring her back with me, so I started making phone calls. I couldn’t find anyone able to help out so, in desperation, I called Dick. He rudely refused to help out telling me that he had plans to go to the YMCA to take a sauna. I explained the situation and told him that his daughter had agreed to take her in the evening when she got out of work. I only needed a couple of hours, but he refused. I reluctantly left Mom, picked Tabby up and drove home. There was Dick. Relieved, I asked if he had come home to watch Tabby. But no, apparently, I had ruined his day by asking for his help and he was too upset to relax in the sauna. And yes, he was still refusing to stay with Tabitha until seven pm. I started to cry, and he eventually agreed.
As I drove down the driveway, a cloud of dragonflies flew in front of my car. I’d never seen so many of them in one place before, so I stopped and got out. They flew all around me, then one of them landed on my shoulder then flew over to my garden. I followed it and was standing in the garden when my phone rang. It was my brother calling to say that Mom had just passed. In Japan, it’s believed that when a dragonfly lands on you, it’s a soul visiting. I’d like to think that it was Mom coming to say goodbye. I’ve also heard that loved ones sometimes have a hard time letting go unless they are alone. Maybe that was true for her, too.
Later that evening, as we were saying our goodbyes before the coroner came to take her away, a hospice worker took me aside. He told me that his wife had passed the year before, and he was doing hospice work since then. He always asked his teenage daughter if she wanted to accompany him, and she always refused until that day. As they walked past Mom’s room, she heard Mom moaning and asked if she could go in. Hospice workers are not allowed to sit with patients who are unconscious unless there are family members there, but she was not a hospice worker, so he agreed to let her go. She held sat with Mom and held her hand as she passed. I thanked him, but he insisted on thanking me because it was such a healing experience for his daughter who had been struggling since her mom’s death. It was a reminder to me that things seem to happen for a reason, and good things usually come out of the bad. As ugly and heartbreaking as the experience was for me, it was also quite beautiful and healing.
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