Stared Awake

I was awakened yesterday morning – on my birthday – by a growing awareness of another presence quite close to me, hot breath on my cheek.

I opened my eyes slowly to see a rather large golden muzzle and a pair of big brown eyes staring intently at me from their resting place at the edge of the bed.

This vision unexpectedly brought up a hazy but happy image of my big sister doing the exact same thing to me, long ago and far away, when I was a young teenager and she, a university student in her early twenties, was visiting from New York City. Something I hadn’t thought of for years. I laughed out loud at the memory.

In those days, my parents and I lived in an historic 1880s home many miles outside of Philadelphia. It was an interesting old house, one with a nearly impossible amount of character. Over the many decades of its existence, various homeowners had added several stone additions to the original log cabin, each with its own personality traits.

The resulting jumble sat on two acres, surrounded by big old climbing trees. There was even a magical wishing well on the back stone terrace, surrounded by shady gardens.

Behind the house, there was a wooden carriage house of uncertain vintage, large enough to accommodate three vehicles, with tall wooden doors that swung wide open and needed to be anchored in place by sliding long metal rods down into rusted old metal holes in the ground.

On the backside of the carriage house, there were more gardens and an old stone stable with two stalls (for horses we didn’t have) and a hayloft, accessible only by a rickety pull-down ladder.

Even in the dead heat and stillness of long and lazy summer afternoons, I would climb up, throw open the large hayloft window and hang out either with one of my best friends or just by myself, reading or writing. It was my first studio, my first loft apartment.

Inside the log cabin portion of the main house, which my mother used as our dining room, there was a large hundred-plus year old stone fireplace with a cooking area on one side and an eating side on the other. The fireplace was so big that if you took care to stoop way down, you could actually walk right through it – providing there was no fire going. An enormous, black cast iron antique pot hung from a long iron arm anchored into the stone and could be swung in either direction across the fire, as needed, to increase or lower the heat on the contents.

The old wooden floors creaked a lot in this, the oldest part of the house. It took me awhile to learn which part of which steps to avoid if I wanted to creep up or down the back stairs, to or from my bedroom above, soundlessly.

And it was up there, under the eaves of the old log cabin portion of the house, in one of the twin beds, that my sister slept next to me when she came for a visit.

If she happened to wake up before me, which she usually did, she would get up quietly and kneel down on the old wooden floor next to my bed. Then, without touching me, she would stare at me fiercely until I startled awake from the sheer psychic pressure of her intense gaze. The moment she saw my eyes open in surprise, she would throw her head back and chortle with laughter, delighted at having awakened me by her sheer force of will.

This never, ever failed to amuse her.

Unnerving as it was for me, I liked that my big sister wanted me to be awake with her the moment she was up.

And all these years later, I love that Kiitos, my 8-month-old puppy, who has never done this before, woke me up in the same way on the morning of my birthday. It brought to the surface this long ago memory of a cherished sister who has not slept by my side for more than twenty years now.

It felt like she was here, with me, on my birthday – the first to greet me, the one to have, once again, stared me awake.

Best of all, she reached out to me through a dog. She loved her two dogs more than just about anything else in the world.

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Except maybe me.

What a gift.

 

 

Giving Death Space

I have yet to watch Halt and Catch Fire, but some words in a recent review of the series by Todd VanDerWerff caught my attention.

“The important thing about a TV death isn’t how it happens,” VanDerWerff writes.

“It’s not the shock of the moment. The important thing about … death comes in the aftermath. Do the characters get time to grieve, to live with that pain?

The reason the deaths on Lost and Game of Thrones are so resonant,” he contends, “is because those shows give their deaths space … what’s important isn’t the death itself but everything that unspools afterward.”

His words stayed with me because these days I frequent that space, as do many others this year, surrounded by the unspoolings of our lifetimes.

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Throughout our lives, we move in and out of that space, depending upon where we are in the trajectory of our own life events. It’s an archeological museum set in a jungle of memories that we visit in our minds – a museum where the exhibits are photographs and letters; the artifacts are gifts received and things passed down; the audio-visual components are fragments of conversations, the memory of a laugh, the reciting of a little poem written long ago and captured on a cellphone.

But what’s really on display is the magical realism of memory.

In the beginning, when the loss is fresh, the museum never seems to close. But as days and weeks pass, the museum – almost imperceptibly – starts changing its hours. It pops up unexpectedly during dark hours, like the Night Circus or Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Or at an art gallery. Or sprinkled throughout the 65,000 hand-painted frames of Loving Vincent. 

I learned about art and books from my mother, and I like that she’s still alive in these moments, popping in for surprise visits – never staying long enough for a cup of tea or chat, but leaving an impression every bit as vivid as what I’ve always thought of as reality.

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Like dreams, these memory moments are ephemeral, yet still wickedly visceral. I’ve come to count on them in that empty stretch of space, the wake of her leaving.

And so, I decided to take my house off the market and I’m not going out as much for now. Instead I’m giving this recent death space, while staying open to surprises and marveling at what pops up to play with my mind when I least expect it.

Like this fragment of an interview with Father Greg Boyle I happened to catch today on NPR. He was asked if he was scared of death. No, he replied. Then, quoting the Dalai Lama, he explained:

“It’s not the end, it’s just a change of clothing.”

 

[all photography by me ~ from Barcelona, Seattle & Asheville]

 

 

 

The Serendipity of Shoji

I love how serendipity surprises you when you least expect it, like some mischievous little sprite waiting in the shadows for just the right moment to jump out and startle you.

A week before my mother died, as a respite from the stresses of caregiving, I booked myself into an Asian-style spa called Shoji – a nearly hidden little refuge tucked away on a mountaintop outside of Asheville, not far from the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I didn’t know when I made my reservation that I would end up there only a few days after her death. What I did know was that my body and mind needed the healing powers of warm bubbling waters interspersed with hot, cedar scented air and cold plunges. In a primal and intuitive way, the only therapy that felt right to me was a sauna.

My son introduced me to the Finnish sauna experience last year, when I spent Christmas with him in Helsinki. Many Finns consider the sauna essential to their wellbeing, as evidenced by the ratio of one sauna for every two people in the country. [‘Sauna,’ interestingly, is the only Finnish word to make it into everyday English.]

Unaware of a Finnish-style sauna in Asheville, I headed to a quiet and reclusive Japanese mountain spa called Shoji.

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In addition to the hot sauna, there is a private hot tub and a cold plunge.

I stayed at Shoji for a couple of hours, alternating between heat and cold, air and water, pondering life and death, and the newly raw absence of my mother from my life.

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I drank tea and read a book, and let the water and sauna therapies do their transformative magic.

After a few hours, I felt more at peace and – at least temporarily – physically restored. And so I returned to Shoji each week that month until I felt ready to tackle the world on my own again.

It’s been weeks since I’ve been there now, and I hadn’t given Shoji much thought until yesterday, while looking for something else, I came across the writings of Frank Ostaseski, co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project.

“There is no separation between life and death,” he writes in his book, The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, “other than a small hyphen, a thin line that connects the two.

“Death is not waiting for us at the end of a long road. Death is always with us, in the marrow of every passing moment. She is the secret teacher hiding in plain sight. She helps us to discover what matters most.”

In Japanese Zen, Ostaseski went on to say, “the term shoji translates as ‘birth-death.'”

Birth … death … mother … daughter.

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I had no idea of the meaning of its name when I headed to Shoji to begin sorting out my head and heart after the death of my mother.

I only knew that, for reasons I couldn’t explain, Shoji was where I needed to be.

 

 

 

Never Never Land

When I was in middle school, my mother succumbed to what was then the new trend of writing and sending out copies of “the Annual Christmas Letter.” Each of the five of us had our own small paragraph in which she deftly summed up an entire year in just a few lines.

The year I turned 14, I was a bit dismayed to read that my paragraph in the Christmas letter contained the following: “Kristin once again dressed up for Halloween, perhaps this will be the last year.” The sigh of “will she ever grow up?” was not lost between the lines.

Fortunately for all, the appeal of writing an annual missive soon waned for my mother and she resumed sending each friend and relative a handwritten card.

And I eventually moved to Asheville – the land where everyone, regardless of age, still loves to dress up.

Every day of the year.

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The Best Conversations

The journey through mind and memories continues….

Many weeks after my mother’s death, my heart holds a simmering stew of mixed emotions where moments of peaceful acceptance are spiced with shards of regret and seasoned with fragments of conversations that pop into my head, often when least expected.

My mother had her favorite places in Asheville – Malaprop’s Bookstore and 5 Walnut Wine Bar among them. But I think her favorite of them all was Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar, pictured above.

There, over a glass of wine and a cheeseboard,

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she and I would have long discussions about the affairs of the world, my kids, and good adventures from days gone by. Although her short term memory was terrible! – as she often exclaimed in frustration – she was clear and sharp in her stories from decades past of her travels and the places we’d lived. We could (and did) talk for hours.

This past year, however, she became a little reticent about leaving her little garden apartment, even to visit her favorite places.

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When I suggested going into town together, an awkward look would pass over her face and she would say, somewhat apologetically, “How about if we just stay here?”

And so, every week I would join her in the dining room at her retirement village for lunch or dinner, and listen once again to the stories. Often we were there, still talking, after everyone else had left. She loved that.

“We have the best conversations!” she would exclaim when I eventually walked her back to her little flat – even if she had done most of the talking.

She’d call a few days later to thank me for coming over and tell me how much she’d enjoyed our visit, often ending with the same words, “We have the best conversations!”

Last February, I offered to take her out for a glass of wine in celebration of my sister’s life. She started automatically to demur, but when I suggested we go to Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar, she couldn’t resist. And so we celebrated Valentine’s Day and my sister there together in the usual way – a glass of wine, some cheese, and of course – stories.

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“We have the best conversations!” she remarked on the drive back to her place in Black Mountain.

It was to be her last visit to the Book Exchange & Champagne Bar. In the weeks that followed, she became increasingly reluctant to leave her little home.

She did admit, some weeks later, that she would love one more trip there. A mischievous little girl smile of hopefulness and delight lit up her face at the very thought of it.

But somehow I didn’t have the time, or make the time. I wasn’t sure she could manage it. Nevertheless, it still bothers me greatly that I didn’t somehow work it out for her.

Second guesses and regrets are part of the pain of dealing with death, but I’ve realized that trying to mentally outwit the sharper edges of remorse is often unproductive.

Rather, the best antidote to the relentless head-tricks and mind games we put ourselves through in the wake of loss might just be an unexpected little piece of magic.

And so it was the other night when a painting in a dark corner of the old Wedge building in the River Arts District caught my eye.

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I was wandering around a friend’s studio during a reception showcasing her work that was intriguingly titled, “Accidentally On Purpose.”

Mixed media artist Jacqui Fehl is a tiny, magical creature with large grey eyes and long ropes of platinum & black dreads. She describes her paintings as “a blend of grunge, whimsy and outsider.”

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Influenced by music, lyrics, feelings, and stories, Jacqui’s art is unpredictable – playful, colorful and humorous with an appealing edge of darkness. Jacqui says her creative process is mostly intuitive; she may start out with an idea, but never really knows what the end result will be.

I’ve been a fan of her work for years.

“It is a dance of layering on, removing, covering up and revealing. I like my work to be loose, a bit flawed and not too precise or perfect.”

That sounds like my life, I thought, as I read her artist statement.

Even in the shadows, and even though it was not part of the show, I could see and feel there was something about this particular painting that was very compelling. The colors, the mood of it – it had a storytelling aura and lovely intimacy about it.

Another artist in the gallery caught me staring at it.

“You like this one?” she asked.

“Yes, I do,” I replied, unable, for some reason, to take my eyes off it. I was curious about – and drawn to – the random appearance of chairs throughout it.

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Knowing that Jacqui always gives her paintings interesting titles, I asked her if she knew what Jacqui called it.

She picked it up from the easel and in the low light of dark corner, squinted at the writing on the back of it

“The Best Conversations,” she said.

I stood there, speechless. And so she said it again, a little louder this time.

“It’s called ‘The Best Conversations.'”

A little magic, a little serendipity … remembering the many times my mother had said those exact words. My head flooded with delight – and relief. Finding this painting felt like forgiveness.

Accidentally on purpose, indeed….

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Jacqui Fehl’s delightful painting came home with me that night.

It now hangs in my little writing/breakfast room behind the kitchen –

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– just one of the many places where my mother and I often had ‘the best conversations.’

Hat Trick

In my family, a passion for hats skipped a generation.

My Danish grandmother, pictured above with my mother back in 1923, delighted in wearing outrageous and stylish hats. She also delighted in buying them for my mother.

As you can see, my mother was not as enamored with them.

When I look at this next photograph of my grandmother, I can see how my grandfather –a dashing young naval architect descended from generations of Danish shipbuilders – became absolutely smitten with Margrethe Petersen.

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“She was a very vivacious girl, good-looking, with a wonderful complexion, and intelligent to a very high degree,” he wrote in his memoirs. “She interested and attracted me more than any girl I had previously gone out with.

“One evening after a party at home in Nordborggade, Århus, I escorted her to the door of the apartment house where she had a room with a family and before we parted, I told her that I loved her.

“I do believe that she was a little skeptical because I was not exactly the marrying type, having led a carefree existence and gone along with girls without serious intentions on my part.

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“This time it was serious, though, and once she realized it, the foundation was built for the marriage which was to last for ever so many years.”

My mother, perhaps in reaction to the childhood outfits her mother dressed her in, seldom wore hats unless they were quite practical.

But just like my grandmother, Margrethe –

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I, too, love wearing hats.

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photos of me by Tom Hunnicutt

The River Runs Through Us…

 

I’ve been going through my mother’s old photographs. Each day I grab a handful to sort through and scan, many of which I have never seen before.

Some I will keep, some will be sent on to someone else in the family, and some will be tossed.

This one of my mother is a keeper.

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It offers a glimpse of her I hadn’t seen before – a little girl who liked to sit in rivers. It resonated immediately.

I remember getting into trouble when Eric Holzman and I – both just 6 or 7 at the time – played in a stream all afternoon while our parents were having a lawn party. When we eventually presented ourselves to the guests, naked except for knickers and completely slathered in mud, my mother was not amused.

Growing up, I often felt she was rather strict with me, more strict than she was with my older brother and sister. She seemed to be more afraid for me than she was for the others.

Which is odd, because in some ways, I had a lot of freedoms. By age nine, I walked myself a mile to school along the river and through the streets of London. At eleven, I was riding buses and trains by myself across the city to a different school. Seven years later, I was going to college in a different country. At nineteen, I moved to Paris for the summer to be a nanny. Those freedoms she encouraged and never seemed to think twice about.

She was a world traveler but I am more open-minded than she was, and even more adventurous. In retrospect, I think it was my free and creative spirit that worried her.

Times changed. She was the kind of girl who married her college sweetheart and I was a child of the sixties. She grew up during the Great Depression and World War II. I came of age during Woodstock, Haight Ashbury, and Vietnam protests. Over the years, we knocked heads many times over many things – and her criticisms always seemed to highlight the ways in which we were two very different people. Infuriating as they could be, however, and whether or not I cared to admit it, I knew these criticisms were rooted in her desire to protect me – both from others and from myself. In retrospect, I wonder if she was scared – and perhaps just a little bit intrigued by – the freedoms of my era.

Which brings me back to the photograph above. What I most like about it, is that it is a foreshadowing of the girl this little girl would eventually give birth to – one who also likes to sit in rivers. Even after her death, it weaves us one small connection closer.

The river still runs through us.

 

photograph of me by Sammy Fong.

 

 

 

 

Rafting through ten million years of rock layers

 

Months ago, a hiking friend suggested a whitewater rafting adventure down the Gauley, a free flowing river that cuts through ten million years of rock layers in West Virginia. With more than 100 named whitewater rapids in less than 30 miles, it is known as one of the most adventurous whitewater rivers in the east.

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Each September, the Army Corps of Engineers provides a series of twenty-two controlled releases for the express purpose of downriver recreation. Collectively known as “Gauley Season,” these releases – the result of an act of Congress and the first law passed in the US to specifically mandate recreational whitewater dam releases – are scheduled on six successive weekends bringing millions of dollars annually to the local economy. The Gauley attracts paddlers from all over the United States and even overseas. And so, at the beginning of summer, a small group of us booked to do the Lower Gauley in early September.

Coming just two weeks after my mother’s death, however, eleven miles of Class III-IV, V rapids was suddenly the last thing I felt like doing.

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But it turned out to be the best thing I could have done.

The Gauley River, which is likely named after the historic Gaul region in Europe, begins in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, and runs through a scenic mountain area used for fishing and hunting by Native Americans for 10,000 years. It eventually flows into the New River, considered by geologists (despite its name) to be one of the five oldest rivers in the world, older than the Appalachian Mountains themselves.

Out on the river, we could feel the age of the area. Looking at the dense green vegetation on the mountains around us, it felt like we were floating back in time. A friend commented he almost expected to see dinosaurs emerge from the foliage onto the shoreline.

Even though the Lower Gauley has fewer and more spread out rapids than the Upper Gauley, a number of the rapids “pose significant challenges.” Fortunately, we had Candace – a fierce and fit, intelligent and experienced river guide at our helm, coaching us through the tricky waters.

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The Lower Gauley run begins with a series of whimsically named rapids – Wood’s Ferry, PJ’s Hole, Canyon Doors, Heaven’s Gate, Upper & Lower Mash, Upper & Lower Staircase, Rollercoaster, Roostertail, and Rattlesnake – and ends with the less whimsical, more candidly descriptive Pure Screaming Hell leading into Purgatory and Hell Hole.

Before calling the paddle sequence of each rapid, Candace gave us careful instructions as to which direction to swim should we find ourselves unexpectedly ejected from the raft.

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After a summer spent taking care of my mother through a rapid downward spiral of health challenges, ending with her death, this run was just the shock I needed to reprogram my entire central nervous system.

And it worked. We paddled hard, we laughed, we got scared, and we got soaked. Water therapy at its best.

Exhausted from the adventure, I fell asleep late that night, at peace and relaxed for the first time in months – the scent of the Gauley still in my hair.

 

photography by Tom Hunnicutt & Kristin Fellows

What’s in a Name?

A few weeks ago, at the suggestion of Mom’s caregivers, I phoned a local funeral home. The funeral director himself answered.

“This is Charles Graves,” he said.

I wondered if I had heard him correctly.

“Seriously?” I asked.

“If I had a nickel…” he said.

Before I had time to fully ponder the irony, he added, “And my cousin’s last name is Burns. He’s a fire chief up in New England.”

These unexpected little bubbles of humor and serendipity – like air pockets in an ocean of grief – have helped me laugh and breathe through some tough days.

I started to pay more attention to the cast of characters around us.

Of the many wonderful RNs taking care of Mom in her last weeks, my favorite was a third shift, well-built ex-Marine. I first met Nick the night he popped his head into her room during what had been a particularly rough evening for me.

“Do you need anything?” he asked me cheerfully.

“No, I think she’s fine for now, thank you,” I replied quietly.

“No,” he said with a smile, “Do you need anything?”

“Well, maybe a glass of water,” I said, surprised at his thoughtfulness. “If it’s no trouble.”

“How about a hug?” he responded.

I nearly cried. But then I caught sight of his name tag and smiled instead – at Nicholas Favorite.

I got the water and a big hug.

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After Mom died, in lieu of a memorial service, I put fresh, colorful flowers on all the tables in the residents’ dining room she so loved, with its vaulted ceiling and large expanse of windows overlooking the gardens.

I phoned her retirement village beforehand to coordinate the arrangements and asked to speak to the head of dining room services.

“Hello,” a cheerful voice answered. “This is Angel!”

Of course it was.

 

Listening to the Pauses…

Last Friday I sat by my mother’s bedside, listening to her breathe, silently counting the lengths of the pauses between breaths.

That I was even there that night was because I had heard another pause, earlier in the day, during a phone conversation I had with my brother.

I had called to give him an update on where she seemed to be in the pattern of what hospice anticipated might be her last hours. After a summer of unanticipated changes in her health, I was exhausted. I would be better able to help her, I told him, if I could just get a good night’s sleep. Perhaps, I rationalized, she might even be waiting for me to leave her alone.

I waited for what I was sure would be a positive and supportive response from him. But instead, he paused.

He paused for just a beat or two before saying, “Okay.”

I heard his words, but what I listened to was the pause.

It would have been easy to ignore, but instead I let it ruminate in my head.

Late in the afternoon, after hours of listening to my mother labor to breathe, Tom took me out for a much needed good meal, followed by a glass of wine with Zoë and her boyfriend. Afterwards, aware of how much I wanted to go home and sleep, he instead offered to drive me back out to see her. Remembering the momentary pause in the conversation with my brother, I realized I had already made the decision. I said yes.

Had I not, I would have missed my mother’s very last hour of life – and the opportunity to breathe with her, until she had finished breathing.