Jilly D.

Archive for October, 2011|Monthly archive page

My bleeding belly button

In Health, Mourning, Signs from beyond on October 30, 2011 at 1:59 am

Every month on the 15th, starting in October 2009, my belly button has bled. Weird, eh? Then it didn’t on the two year anniversary of Sam’s suicide.

The dried blood surprised me every time. Most of my Q-tips I use to get the ear wax out but I found myself dipping one end in hydrogen peroxide and swabbing the old umbilical cord.

When I didn’t have a bloody belly button, I thought maybe the healing had begun. Grief takes physical manifestations. The absence of this symptom I noted.

But it wasn’t just the 15th, it was a Tuesday. My body isn’t going to let me forget. Sam and I were one; he was as much inside of me and I was into him. The umbilical cord is like sinew and tough and without any pain receptors so when cut, there is lots of blood but no pain.

Connected at the core, we were a couple made whole by our differences. When he died, I felt his departure in every cell of my physical existence. The physical connection between us remains a bloody wound of our symbiosis found in the orifice of my center.

So why does my belly button still bleed?

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Sobbing awakens me

In Mourning, Signs from beyond, Time and seasons on October 28, 2011 at 3:37 am

The sobbing wakens me. I’m crying in my sleep so hard it forces me to consciousness and my eyes read the red digits on the alarm clock beside my head as 3:42 a.m. My face is wet from crying and I sit up in bed to catch my breath. I know he’s not here. I’m alone.

And yet he was the only person I could ever feel alone with and not feel lonely. Now I feel lonely, upon reflection. We both sanctified our own solitude and he was the only two-legged creature I could share the experience with in daily life for more than a decade. Like the comfort of an indoor plant or a pet, we lived alone together as cats in a common household. His physical presence a comfort rather than a distraction from my inner self.

It’s as though I am having an out-of-body experience. My unconscious weeps as the sadness seeps through my skin. I am awake enough to know my sleeping-self suffers. I see me laying under sheets, blankets and comforters nestled between his dogs. Even my dreams are disturbed by Sam’s death. It’s like watching sleeping dogs twitch, the way I see myself in the middle of the night’s darkness alone in my bed.

Under conscious control I start to calm my breathing and unclench my muscles. Fists, feet, thighs, arms, calves calm. My mind and body meld back into the middle-aged mush of myself in a flannel nightgown while the first snowfall of the season gathers on the lawn. I imagine him next to me snoring gently.

When he’d breathe in, I’d inhale. I’d exhale in sync with his breath. Matching his relaxed in-and-out respirations would always lull me into deep restful sleep. I’d lie there tight up against him and sink into his rhythm and find stillness, and calm, and the kind of peace I thought only the Dali Lama could know.

The breath. The touch. The warmth. The quieted spirit.

Sam used to say that sleep was just God’s way of letting us practice for death. I think he was trying to tell me that death would be as peaceful and sweet as sleep. In sleep there is no pain, there is no loneliness, there is no want. Or so he thought.

Sobs rock me awake and his absence sends me down a well of loneliness in the middle of the night.

“Come back to me,” I cry. My heart is broken. He’s tried in all kinds of animal forms. Deer crossing my path, squirrels squawking at me, the blue heron and raven who chase me   down for long discussions on walks along Valley Road.

There’s no way to make up or break up or argue or agree with him anymore, and yet my heart keeps trying. One doesn’t forget. Never.

While it would be easier in some ways if he’d been killed in a tractor accident, or hit by a stray bullet from a hunter in the woods, or keeled over from a heart attack in the hay mow. Easier because he would not have intended to end his life which left me without him, alone.

Sam’s intentions cannot be mistaken. It was no accident. He planned it. Had planned it for a long time and had told others bits and pieces of his intent and method. He did not want me to be implicated and made sure it could not be mistaken for what it was. He’d barricaded, chained, bolted and locked every possible entrance.

I only recently have had flashbacks of his wild and desperate calls for help in the final weeks. He was furious at the news on TV. Michael Jackson died. Madoff made off with millions. He made me look up the phone numbers for the tv news hotlines and write them down during the news broadcasts. He’d call up and leave threatening messages. I was flabbergasted and expressed my total astonishment to him for doing it. He’d made calls to Bolivia the winter before to inquire about land there and had likely already put my name on some kind of watch list. My record of government surveillance goes back to my college years when I supported the people of Nicaragua and El Salvador with a campus club. I couldn’t imagine why he’d call and say Madoff should be executed, shot before the people, on a voicemail with a phone number listed under my name. I laughed and cajoled him about his hidden militia tendencies. Now his rage against Wall Street and the corporate rip-off of the American public and the desecration of democracy are called the 99%. Why did he feel so all alone?

No health insurance. The skin cancer on his back was back and it had spread. People owed us money and couldn’t pay because the economy tanked. He was serious when he told me it was best to keep your stock in the barn, not in the market. Sam was giving me the 911, the nine-eleven, the heads up in the most subtle ways. The perfect storm brewed and his inability to say what was going on inside himself is what still hurts most of all. You think you really know someone. He lived inside me; every cell. How could his suicide have taken me by surprise?

I’ve been listening to a new CD by Mary Lorson and the Sobrettes (Amelia Sauter and Leah Hougtaling). The lyrics resound in my head:

“You’d rather die….ooooh, than tell me. You’d rather die….ooooh, it’s just a matter of time.”

We all die. Sooner or later. One way or another.  We’d talked about these metaphysical matters many times. Sam did not want to live through his parents’ passing. He couldn’t’ bear it. He told me so and it was no secret to his family that he felt this way. He loved his mother and father deeply. He knew he had hurt them and yet redeemed himself to them as a prodigal son.

He made his own decisions. He didn’t include me in the deliberations. He lived his life to its fullest and he wasn’t going to settle for less. He kept careful records of hours and work and who owed what and what he owed and in the end, Sam left this world thinking others owed him far more than the handful of bills and receipts submitted to his pauper’s estate. What is owed to Sam Warren will be tallied at the pearly gates if Saint John can do the new math. I know he earned a pair of wings. The hot cancerous flesh across his back formed the outline of where they would be attached under his shoulder blades.

He would not talk to me about it. He would not let me see or touch. he would not go back to see the doctor about it. The broken wrists and ribs and setbacks didn’t seem to faze him. He slept through the pain and the bad parts. He told me everything would look different in a week; just a week before he shot himself. I thought he meant the publishing contract offers for my memoir about our life together; withdrawn on notice of suicide. But in that memory of him thinking it would get better in a week, I loved him even more because he had hope for me.

Bob dog

In Friends on October 20, 2011 at 1:11 am

Bob, the dog, owned the corner of 53rd Street and Cornell Avenue in Hyde Park where I rented a room in a brownstone for a couple of years in grad school. Bob was a real junkyard dog; a Heinz 57 variety with an old man’s face even when he was a pup. I moved into the ghetto and the dog had been left behind along with a smelly mess in my new digs.

Walking through the hood alone as a stupid white girl from Wisconsin, I adopted this dog as my mascot and put a red bandana around his neck. About four months old in 1982, Bob did everything to please me and learned a million tricks. Initial leash training proved his extraordinary intelligence and total obedience to me. After a few weeks I never put the leash on him unless I was tying him up outside a building to run a quick errand inside. Most places let me take Bob along; to classes, in the bookstore, office buildings.

Bob and I went everywhere together on foot. That little red bandana of his proved my safe passage through the street hustlers and dope dealers. Red was the right color to be sportin’ on 53rd and Cornell. The gang-bangers were afraid of dogs; especially a crazy mangy looking one, off leash.

For years Bob and I walked around the Point on Lake Michigan, up and down the Midway, across the quads and through the streets of Hyde Park. Bob and I would walk up to 56th to Harold’s Chicken Shack and get a plate to share. He’d been eating chicken bones off the street so long, getting some with a little meat still on it was our treat. I’d walk with him to the grocery store and tie him up near the bike rack. On the way to classes in the morning, I’d leave him outside the Divinity School while I ran downstairs for a cup of hot coffee. Bob liked hanging outside the doors there. Everyone talked to him so nicely. He’d just sit there delighted to wait and wag his tail.

In 1986 I bought my first car, a 1972 Subaru, and took a trip north out of Chicago back to Appleton, Wisconsin, where I’d gone to high school and college. I planned to spend the weekend at the home of my friends’ Amy and Tracy. Bob and Laurie and Amy and I walked down College Avenue a couple miles and decided to eat at a great Italian eatery. I tied Bob up to a parking meter right near the side entrance to the restaurant, in the shade and off the sidewalk in the grass.

A bottle of red wine, huge plates of pasta, garlic bread, and salad and we stumbled back out into the street laughing.

“Wha…Where’s Bob?” I immediately noticed Bob was not at the parking meter. I start calling out my dog’s name. My heart was in my throat. No, this can’t be happening.

“Bob. Bob dog!” I whistled. I heard a muffled bark. The three of us walked behind the restaurant and in the parking lot Laurie noticed the white van of Animal Control.

“Look. He’s got to be in there,” Laurie pointed to the back of the vehicle and just then its’ back-up lights went red.

I rushed up to the back and started banging on the doors. I heard Bob whining inside. The driver braked, put it in park and jumped out of the vehicle.

“What are you doing lady?” said an officer in uniform.

“That’s my dog in there. You can’t steal my dog. He was waiting outside the door for us and he was tied up to the parking meter,” I said. “Let me have my dog.”

“No. No. We are taking this dog. You can pick him up tomorrow at the pound,” he told us.

“Give me back my dog. Open those doors. Now. I said give Bob back to me,” I shrieked.

Amy started to giggle a bit. Then she collected herself.

“Officer. I don’t think you understand. My friend is here on a road trip with her dog from Chicago and she needs to get her dog back tonight. The dog has its rabies tags and ID tag and we didn’t know we needed to put money in the parking meter for parking the dog,” Amy spoke sweetly. She smiled down at Office Howdy Doody from her view at 5’11” wearing flats.

“No. No.” He got back in the van. We moved out of the van’s way.

“Come on,” said Amy. We ran back to her house and climbed in her car and drove out to the dog pound. The van was parked outside. The sun had set and it was dark. I got out of the car and banged on the locked door.

A patrol car drove up and briefly turned on its’ headlights and siren with a half dozen bwuep, bwueps. Two officers approached us and by this time I was determined to get Bob out of the slammer or I was going in with him for the night.

Amy thought the latter was becoming a likely outcome. Maybe it was all my tears and hysterics and yelling and screaming, but nah. I think Amy finally convinced them I was serious about wanting to get Bob back and that in her custody I could be trusted to leave town without further incident. They didn’t lock me up and they did release Bob and he was curled up at my feet before 10 p.m.

Bob protected me in the big city from the hoodlums but in small town Appleton, I had to protect him from the dog catcher and Barney Fife.

Smell the money, honey

In Holidays, Pictures and memories, Time and seasons on October 19, 2011 at 3:46 am

October smells like evergreens. When the long afternoon sun hits the woods and I walk through the pines and maples along Six Mile Creek, I suck in the scent of autumn. The corn stalks blew dry and brown in the past few weeks and everything rustles in the breeze.

Years ago I spent most of my Octobers and Novembers making Christmas wreaths for the Trumansburg Tree Farm. Tina Podkaminer started the wreath-making business from the scraps cut from the trees destined for New York City’s green markets. Her husband, Joel, continued to hire local women during the pre-holiday season for many years after Tina began her own successful catering business, called Word of Mouth. Hmmm. For many years she and her business partner, Katie Crumm, served our my yellow and green beans in season to distinguished Ithaca guests, including Toni Morrison, and private wedding ceremonies. Eggs from our chickens made up in some of their baked goodies makes me proud years later when they continue to buy local and produce quality cuisine.

The intoxicating fumes of fresh evergreens gives me a bad case of ‘wreather madness’ every year around this time. We had such fun, six or more of us at a time in the heated garage, singing along to the radio’s holiday sound track and cutting up evergreen boughs, bunching green bouquets, and crimping bunches of greens together into wreaths. It felt like working in Santa’s workshop.

I’d kept incredible notes and sketches of my work as a wreather. The various species of evergreens and their habitats and cutting instructions to highlight the beauty of these greens. My pride in this work astonished me. I worked diligentlyone day with my team of wreathers to produce a twelve-foot in diameter wreath of breathtaking beauty to hang on the World Trade Center. One of three. I can still remember how beautiful the juniper berries were in the mix of white pine, blue spruce, douglas, frasier…. An intoxicating mix of deciduous cuttings.

The best day of the week was Friday. Payday. We worked hard all week to build up a pile of wreaths in various sizes to take down to New York City on the Thursday night run. Friday morning we worked just as hard knowing the cold wet weather would keep our rounds of green fresh and fragrant.

Mrs. Burr had worked for Joel many years and enjoyed earning her gift monies for her friends and family. Married to a dairy farmer, she liked working so she could spend her own money on store-bought things.

“Did you ever notice the smell of cedar on your twenty-dollar bills, girls?” Mrs. Burr asked us one Friday mid-morning. “I’m serious.”

I looked at her. I looked at the rest of us around the L-shaped workbench where we stood cutting up branches into bunches and crimped them into place onto a metal ring. I started to smile. Sue burst out laughing. So did I.

“What? What?” Stephanie said. “Smell of cedar?”

“You better smell your money, honey,” said Mrs. Burr. “I think Joel keeps his money in a cedar chest. That’s what I think. ”

I looked around and we all started laughing, gut busting hard. Smell the money.

Funny thing is, I did smell my money that week. It didn’t smell like anything. I checked every week and never noticed any cedar scent.

Now Blue Spruce and Juniper have their own odors. The firs have real fragrance and the pines have distinct scents: green, white, red.

A bed of needles turns orange in October. A fragrance of memories. Do you smell money, honey? Cedar knows.

Are you having fun yet?

In Mourning on October 14, 2011 at 12:33 am

This question comes to mind; and not just my mind. Cousin Tommy told me he thought about getting a tattoo in spoof of those straight edge freaks who had endured the torture of the needle to inscribe on their flesh What Would Jesus Do? What would Sam do?

What would Sam say? I hear his voice even when I don’t want to. If he had an opinion he voiced it distinctively. His view of the world still lives inside my heart. I can hear him loud and clear. I am not deaf.

“Are you having fun yet?” he’d ask me while my cheeks hardened under the sun pulling weeds among the onions.

Would he be interested in the Occupy Wall Street movement flying under the radar of corporate news media? What would he think of the recent stock market sinkholes? What would he think of me as I try to live without him?

He’d grab me around the waist and pull me close. Then he’d hold my head in his hands and look into my eyes and ask, “Are you having fun yet?”

Dance to find joy

In Health on October 9, 2011 at 2:48 am

Feeling joy again seemed unattainable in the wake of Sam’s suicide; two years after it happened. My muscles had habituated themselves to the sensation of trauma, loss and grief. The tiny muscles around my mouth had gone from smile lines to a deep frown. Even though I’d given in to my emotions and fully grieved Sam’s death, my body carried his unfinished life, the weight of his actions, and my survivor guilt.

In second grade I became a Brownie and I’m a Brownie for life. I had to turn that frown upside down. I’m miserable being miserable. I’d joined the fitness club and after a year felt lonelier every time I went there. I needed to do something for me that was fun. What is fun? Been so long I didn’t even remember.

I always loved to dance.

Sam never danced with me. He “slow danced” the way couples my age just hang on to each other when a slow tune comes on; he held me in a warm embrace and we swayed side to side. But we never went dancing. He liked to watch me dance. Not that I knew a single two step or how to do it. But I could make my body respond to music in way that felt good and natural. Dancing is when the mind and body and beat blend into a trance of spirit.

If I waited for someone to ask me to dance, hell might freeze over. I needed to dance and I wanted to learn how.

Then it dawned on me. I could take dance lessons. So I looked through the local listings and discovered a 45 minute class in swing dance on Fridays from 5:45-6:30 p.m.

I got myself into a black dress that had some swing to it and forced myself to drive to the Oasis Dance Club on State Route 96B outside Ithaca. Hot and humid, I was sweating profusely before I even got inside the door.

Get in there. Just go and have a good time, I told myself sternly.

A hodgepodge of buildings, additions, beer gardens and parking lots, the Oasis is on SR96B, just south of Ithaca College. When I walked in I noticed the band stand and dance floor immediately empty and quiet. To the right was a long bar and restaurant tables. A small crowd of diners and drinkers as I scanned the room.

The first person whose eyes met mine was a white guy at a table eating supper. I’d noticed he didn’t look up when I walked in and seemed to be enjoying a meal; I didn’t take a second glance. I walked toward the bar and felt everyone else in the room staring at me, wondering who I was. I didn’t recognize any one person, but I felt familiar with their friends with whom they had just gotten off work in Ithaca and were stopping on their way home heading south to Danby, Wilseyville, or Candor.

I ordered a club soda from the barkeep and the band members started to come in and set up. The sound system played a dance mix of pop tunes.

Then I noticed a woman my age with dark hair and a skirt step onto the dance floor with an older couple, the Youngs. They started doing the West Coast swing and the young woman identified herself as the instructor by her coaching of the two as a team in tandem with the beat.

I walked over to her and said I’d like to join the class lesson.

“Have you ever danced before?” she asked?

“No. Not really. Not a class. No. I don’t know a thing.”

“Okay. Well then. First I need to show you how to follow. That is the most important thing. I’m Iska and I’m the instructor and you follow me,” she said with a warm smile.

Okay then. I will at least learn how to follow. This isn’t where I’m going to meet a man who will dance with me. So relax and get something good from this; be in the moment. I took a long breath and faced Iska.

“Give me your hands,” Iska said.

I took both my hands and placed them in hers.

“Curl your hands; cup them a bit.” She interlocked her cupped hands with curled fingertips. Feel the resistance between my hands and yours. The hands are how you learn to follow,” said Iska. I followed her instructions. She pulled and then pushed very gently with her hands from her shoulders.

“Good,” she said. An affirmation I needed. I took another deep breath. “Now we learn the steps,” said Iska. My eyes dropped to her feet.

“No,” she said. I looked her right in the eyes as my heart sank. Correction already. “Look at me, not at your feet. Listen and I will help you learn the steps as you look at me, not down.”

The elderly couple were practicing their west coast swing and staying with the beat. Me, not so much. Follow. Now feet?

“Step right. Step left. Step back. Step forward.” Iska moved in sync with her instructions as I listened and stumbled.

Just then the gentleman who’d been enjoying his meal stood up and approached Iska and I. Iska let go of my hands and greeted him.

“Hi Richard. I have a new student and perhaps you can help this evening,” said Iska. She turned to me and said, “Jill, this is Richard and he’s going to help you learn the steps. I’m going to check in here on this other couple and I’ll be back.”

My heart started pounding and I was already hot, but I felt a wave of steam I could have ridden on a surfboard. I’m scared.

Looking into his eyes and seeing his smile, I sensed a warmth and openness I didn’t dare trust to be real. He offered his arms out to take my hands. I extended them.

And so my first real dance lesson began. When my hands cupped into his and found an interlocking resistance, he began to push and pull very gently. I noticed he was smiling and his eyes sparkled and stared into mine.

“Imagine our shoulders are the telephone poles and our arms and hands are the wire between them,” he said, putting a strong image in my brain. My elbow relaxed and between his shoulders and mine it became jello wiggly loose.

“Good. Relax,” he said. At that I tensed up.

“Step,” as he put all his weight on his left foot and led me to shift onto my right foot. “Step,” he said again and shifted his weight onto his right side and I corresponded with a shift to my left.

“Now, put your right foot back behind your left and step back; but don’t put your heel all the way down; it’s a rock step. You rock back and then forward. Rocking step.” Richard demonstrated the step slowly and several times. Wow. A man with patience in teaching me something.

Taking both my hands, he slowly led me through the footwork. Step. Step. Rock step. Step. Step. Rock step. He made me say it out loud. All the while holding my gaze.

“Okay. Now I’m going to take your hand and put it on my shoulder here,” Richard said and placed my left hand on his bicep and he put his right arm behind me around my waist. This feels good. He held my right hand in his left hand up at shoulder level, with his left elbow down at his side.

“Step. Step. Rock step. Say it with me. Step. Step. Rock step. Do it now. Step. Step. Rock step.” Richard had me dancing.

“Smaller steps. Think very small steps. Don’t lean back. Don’t try to lead. Just step, step, rock step. Small. Again.” Richard’s arm around me and my response to the tug and pull, the resistance and attraction, made me blush and feel an exhilaration of my spirit. This is why I had pushed myself, this is what I was looking for, a little joy in the give and take of two human bodies in motion to music. I’m coming back for more of this.

Richard asked me out to the dance floor for another round after the lesson was over and the live band drew a crowd of swing dancers. Patiently he guided me through the steps and his smile and good humor gave me a boost of confidence I hadn’t felt in decades. This was worth so much more than I bargained for.

I watched him dance with Iska, the woman instructor, and it was a lesson in itself. Small steps. Let him lead you. Be open. He’ll guide you.

I sat with the couple who had wanted the intense west coast swing lesson. Double step to every step except the rock step. They had been dancing together since 1948. I asked how they met.

“Atop a Swiss Alp in 1948. She was working for the UN and I was doing my doctoral fieldwork in anthropology,” Dr. Young told me. I felt so inspired that I knew I’d be back the next week. How did they stay so in love all these years and did dancing have anything to do with it?

Last night I went again to swing dance lessons. I felt how wonderful Richard and I connected on the dance floor. I just want to dance with someone who can lead.

I start to stumble when I overthink the steps and the movements about what’s next. I start to stumble whenever I feel I am not in control. And yet he embraces me and holds me when I am out of step and guides me back into the rhythm.

“Look at me,” Richard says. “Don’t look at my feet.” My gaze meets his and I feel a kinesthetic connection between us. I let him take over and just follow.

Small. Small steps. And in letting him take control he makes me into a dancer. The twirls, spins, pretzels and sidewinding fun stepping thrilled me to my core. Is this joy? Small, small steps.

So long September….

In Time and seasons on October 1, 2011 at 8:21 pm

The first days of October have been known to include clouds with snow. The chill is on and the color called out from the leaves against the grey skies. This is the kind of day you call blustery. No denying how time marches on and silence here the past two weeks filled with private grief.

Putting the garden beds to sleep for winter, plant life dies back, and saying goodbye to September is bittersweet. I harvest the sweet memories from past years on the farm. Autumn approaches.

Three years ago this weekend Adam Ellick came to visit Sam and me On Warren Pond Farm and report for the New York Times how we were faring compared to the rest of the world in the midst of the worst economic collapse since the depression.  In that interview Sam told Adam point blank that if he got sick or hurt he would just quit. Adam reported he meant quit the game of life.

Sam said I would be able to go on because of having learned something from having lived this life with him. I nod my head in the video and yet I was stunned in that moment. Less than a year after Adam arrived to find snow on the first weekend of October, Sam quit. I am stunned yet.

Sam had such a great time when Adam visited. He got such a kick out of the young city slicker who didn’t see the boulder on the shoulder of the driveway for the snow. Sam went out in the snowstorm to find the rental car on top of a thirty inch tall boulder. We got the car off the rock and Sam banged out the dents and had a hearty laugh in the blinding snow.

The warmth of the fire in the Ben Franklin stove steamed up our glasses when we came back inside. I put the pork chops on and Sam turned on the TV to watch more bad news. The dogs underfoot and Adam’s tripods, lights and cameras in our faces, Sam soaked up Adam’s attention. After supper he took Adam out to the sunroom and flipped the switch to show off his Lionel train panorama. Twinkling blue eyes and a smile on his face, he played with the train for the fun of it. The backdrop of a first snowfall made the light brighter and our souls warmer.

Let it snow. Let it go.