Death and Birth in Three Days

posted July 21, 2010

Last Wednesday, my mother flew up to Boston and met up with Katryna and me and our sister Abigail who lives near the city. We were manifesting a dream my mother had articulated sometime last year: wouldn’t it be fun to have a mother/daughter night out? Abigail, the most planful of the four of us, had gotten us to put a date into our calendars––urged on by the fact that Abigail was due to deliver her third baby on July 25. So the four of us showed up in Boston on Bastille Day, our husbands and kids back at home. Katryna and I met with our editor at Shambhala and then put the book on hold to meet our mother and sister at the Museum of Fine Arts on an unseasonally cool rainy day. We stepped into the first exhibit and almost in one voice, murmured “Grandmummy!” as we gazed at some lithographs by one of her favorite artists: Toulouse-Lautrec.

Grandmummy, AKA Margaret Brett Tenney, was born in 1907 in her parents’ apartment in New York City. She spoke French before English and studied at the Sorbonne in Paris in the twenties. She loved modern art, and we three granddaughters grew up being taken to art museums. I didn’t think this was unusual until reflecting on it recently; didn’t all children know the difference between a Giacometti and a Rodin? She stayed single until the age of 35, running a hat shop called The Mad Hatter (in Manhattan) and acting with a troupe called the Snarks. At 36 she had my mother. At 40 she gave birth to my aunt Sarah. Her husband died when she was sixty, and she began to travel all over the world, visiting communist China and the Soviet Union in the seventies as well as South America, Africa and many parts of Europe, especially her beloved Paris where she maintained many friendships. She spoke too many languages for me to count; she learned Spanish in her seventies. She discovered acupuncture while visiting China in 1972; she took up yoga at the age of sixty-five, and we grew up witnessing her morning ritual: sun salutations, a headstand and then a breakfast of yogurt and granola.

She just celebrated her 103rd birthday on July first. She has been senile for the past ten years, unable to walk unassisted and needing round the clock care. We came to visit her regularly, introducing her to her six great grandchildren, playing drums with her, singing to her. We’d had some calls recently from her caregivers letting us know that she seemed to be fading, refusing to eat and drink. So when the four of us stood in the MFA looking at the Toulouse Lautrec lithos, I had the thought, “Grandmummy’s dying. Grandmummy’s here.”

The next morning, I woke at six, my mother sleeping in the same bed as me, Katryna on the fold-out couch in our suite in the Park Plaza. I went for a run around the Boston Commons, wished Elle and Jay were with me to see the swan boats and the Make Way For Duckling bronzes. My mother called my iPhone as I was coming up the elevator to let me know that Jean, my grandmother’s caregiver, had called to say that this might be my grandmother’s last day. Our aunt Sarah happens to live in Cambridge, so my mother called her right away and the two of them made plans to drive to New York together. We hugged each other goodbye and wished each other well.

Grandmummy died that night with both of her daughters by her side, so peacefully that it was difficult to know if her last breath were really her last. As she was born at her home, she died in her home.

Three days later, Abigail was in labor, and on July 18, my grandmother’s seventh great grandchild was born: Trenor Augustus Hillman, a beautiful healthy seven pound one ounce baby boy. Tom and the kids and I drove out to meet him the next day, having dinner with my mother and Sarah and Abigail’s six-year-old twins on the way. My kids were delighted; partly because they got to eat graham crackers in the hospital, but mostly because of “baby Twenor” whom Elle got to hold.

On the way home, the kids were too excited to sleep. The night sky was pink and purple, with a half moon and flashes of lightening in the distance. They wanted stories of their grandparents, so we obliged. When my voice got tired, I asked them if they wanted to listen to George Harrison songs–I don’t know why I thought of that; maybe because I thought they’d be curious to hear the musician their dog was named for. I played them a mix on my iPod that I’d made last spring: semi-hits of Geroge’s from the 70s, like “Blow Away,” “Crackerbox Palace,” “Give Me Love” and “My Sweet Lord.” They convinced me to sit in the tiny space in between their car seats. An arm around each child, I sang along and savored how much they loved the same music I do.

“Mo mo Ge-haa-ison,” said Jay. “Again Ge-haa-ison!”

When the slide guitar came in at the beginning of “My Sweet Lord,” Elle said, “Mama, why can you not play guitar like this?”

Why, indeed.

We rehearsed last night for Falcon Ridge; our second rehearsal in the past two weeks with our CrackerJack Band, Dave Chalfant, Paul Kochanski and Lorne Entress. I was sick with a sore throat and fever, and during the first half of the rehearsal felt dazed and in a trance-like state the way one does in the early throes of a head cold. I have not cried since my grandmother died. Frankly, it hadn’t felt that sad. She lived to be older than anyone I’ve ever known, and she died peacefully and painlessly at home with both of her children by her side telling her they loved her. What more can one want?

And yet.

When one loses a loved one slowly the way one does when senility comes at the end of life, there is a way in which the grieving goes deep underground. It’s there, like a stream at the bottom of a frozen river, but hard to access. When our other grandmother Lila died (also after ten years of Alzheimer’s) in 1996, I felt those ten frozen years powerfully unthaw. That particular event coincided with the release of our first major label CD, Gotta Get Over Greta. We flew in for a funeral wedged in between gigs. After the funeral, we got into our van Moby and began a three and a half month tour that took us all over the country. When I returned from that first big tour, I was a different person. In many ways, that grandmother’s death was the beginning of my journey back to myself, coinciding what anyone’s friendly neighborhood astrologer would call my “Saturn Return” (always happens around the age of 28.5).

We played through the first part of the set, which consists of a healthy mix of old Nields chestnuts from the 90s, Nerissa & Katryna songs from the Oughts and four, count ;em, four) new songs slated for our 2011 release. As we got to “Creek’s Gonna Rise,” the song I wrote for our church which burned down in January, I felt the river thaw. I couldn’t hold back the tears, and as we moved on to “Easy People,” they flowed down my cheeks in relief. As it always goes when we really truly cry, I wasn’t just crying for my grandmother, but for all the losses: my mother-in-law, the church, my grandmother Lila, the loss of the innocence I had as a young musician in my 20s, the gratitude for a life full of music that could have this effect on me and my emotions, not to mention my two children. And by the end of rehearsal, I actually felt more healthy. Music does heal.

I am ready to grieve my grandmother’s death, celebrate her life and also move on to what’s on the plate for today. Last night when I got home from rehearsal, Tom told me to check in with Jay. Recently graduated to a big bed from his crib, he was lying on his back, his blanket tossed off, both arms and legs akimbo, his peaceful little face still and perfect, his breath rising and falling gently. I stared at him, thinking, “THIS moment, THIS moment.” I might not remember it. But I might. I hope I have it with me for the rest of my life, and that on my death bed, in whatever state I am in, it comes back to me with all the sweetness it contained in its actual moment.

And if not, my prayer is to stay awake to the next luminous moment. I am sure I will have many this weekend at Falcon Ridge.

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  1. Hi! I am so glad to have found your blog. You were my music instructor at Camp Greenway and I have such awesome memories of you! Thanks for teaching me the classics: Pinball Wizard, Leaving on a Jet Plane, My Brother Thew Up on My Stuffed Toy Bunny (!!). Also, your mom was my AP history teacher at Potomac. Tough teacher, and generous and amazing lady. Sending you well wishes!

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