Sunday, February 28, 2010

Our New Year Begins


The weekend of 2010’s beginning found us on the road again - a treacherous road. Winter came to the East Coast in no uncertain terms this year, and the holiday was not able to hold it at bay. We set out early, driving north through an innocuously named “wintry mix” that forced most to remain in their homes, and most others to move more slowly than my wife can manage - thus we spent a good part of the beginning of our drive in the passing lane, with me ad-libbing atheistic prayers as we roared through the icy haze, past jack-knifed tractor-trailers and any sense of sanity. But Kathy is a skilled driver. Crazy, perhaps, but good. And so we moved north to Rhode Island without trouble, though the storm pursued us relentlessly all weekend long.

We visited Ruth, Kathy’s grandmother (and now mine), who is a gem of a woman. Ninety years and going strong. We played cards and listened intently to her stories, including one which particularly touched me: her recounting of her husband Pete’s last days. This tale inspired the following, which I read a week later during the open microphone portion of the Iota Club and Café’s Poetry Series in Arlington.

Pete's Song

She tells it with such brevity, the story of a man, losing his mind -
I see her in the living room with the furniture they shared,
Its curves of an earlier age, colors all faded and thin
Like the skin that graces her hands, and the white of her hair.

He married her quietly, in a wind-swept oceanside town
Before taking his commission and shipping off to the fight.
She began their family with the first of four daughters
While he was away and her brilliant eyes grew bright -

Anticipating his return. He was handsome, and knew his letters,
So she gave up college and teaching to become his perfect bride.
Together they made this home, this comfort in which she rests
And sings the song of his decline, and of staying at his side.

After he fell, there was nothing more that she might do.
As he had her, she had carried him as far as she could.
The nursing home, the room he left when he needed to sing
Was where he faded, graying inside like time weathers wood.

His moments grew more uncommon, but harder to bear,
"These are not my people!" he cried, and he knew.
Beside himself with loneliness, he ached to go home.
He looked at her, said "I only ever really loved you."

Softly, his heart gave way with a trembling sigh.
He died near the window, the afternoon sun on his face.
She got the news at home, in the kitchen that was theirs for years ,
And the narrative ends there, almost empty, with a ghostly grace.

M. Dill

That was a special night – only the second time that Kathy had been in the audience when I read. Nothing quite compares to reading to your own muse. Some other friends joined us, too, all of whom inspire me in some way. One is a gifted storyteller, and wiser that I think he even knows; and the other two are amazing artists (one even read her own work that night – it was brilliant, beautiful and filled with power).

But I get ahead of myself. The New Year. New England. We not only visited Ruth, but Kathy’s great aunt, Jo. She is in assisted living, now, at 94, but has not slowed down much at all as near as I can tell. I hope to be so sharp at 54. And we paid a visit to Ellen, one of Kathy’s three aunt’s on her mother’s side, and thus one of Ruth’s four daughters. Ellen is a joy, all smiles and gladness. I felt good about being able to help the staff at her group home assemble some furniture while we were there. Perhaps the hardest part of being in Africa is being so far away from family, from such amazing women as Ruth, Jo and Ellen… and Pat.

Pat is Kathy’s mother, and we stayed with her on the Massachusetts coast, where she fed us and feted us as warmly as always seems to be her wont. And while we were there, we were revisited by the wrath of winter. Driving down near the water, we witnessed swells sweeping under shoreline buildings, the flooding of roads and yards, and a crashing surf trying to batter its way through the break walls. I managed to catch some of this sound and fury on video: waves rolling under homes; and waves climbing the concrete barriers.

The snow fell and fell, and we feared that Pat’s party would get canceled; but Massachusetts and Rhode Island folks are a hardier lot than that. Almost everyone arrived to join in the festivities, including my sister-in-law, Karen, her husband, David, and their daughter – the light of everyone’s life – Maisy. I was really touched that they had driven all the way from Rhode Island – indeed, that so many had braved that storm.

Before returning to D.C., we returned to Ruth’s house, where the snow continued to layer the landscape. So we decided to spend an extra night with Ruth, playing cards and talking. Or rather, we used the weather as an excuse to stay. And we were so glad we did. After all, we will have no chance to see her again for two years…

As is so much the case for my own mother, Anne, who we visited in Ithaca later in January. Of all the people I know on this earth, no one would be more willing to visit us in Lesotho. Alas, her back may not allow her to make the flight. (A problem with which I can too easily identify.) So again, Kathy, without complaint or hesitation, drove us for hours and hours, that we might spend some precious moments with family before we left for Africa. We even got to see my son, Casey, and his girlfriend Sheryl, who are such superb human beings as to make any father proud.

And I must say, that as much as my own back may suffer after eight or nine hours on the road, I cherish those moments with my wife. (We even managed to stop in Philadelphia on our way back, for lunch and a look at the Liberty Bell!) I never tire of her company, her companionship, her conversation. Truly, I am a fortunate man.

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