So Long Ago, So Not Long Ago

DECEMBER 9, 2013

“You know, it’ll be thirty years on the 10th.”

I had pulled off the road and was talking on the cell with my eldest son, Max.  He was making a detour through New Jersey on his drive from Boston to Dallas returning home after doing some business in Beantown. 


“Yeah, I know.”  He was going to stop by the cemetery and pay a visit to his mother’s gravesite.  He’s a parent now with three kids of his own, the same number Donna and I had when she was diagnosed with her terminal cancer.  We compared notes on how 30 years could feel both so far away in time and yet so present via the simple act of a memory.  Max was almost five and a half when she died on December 10th, 1983,  and is the only son who has memories of her and growing up in our tight little family. This is ironic in a way as Alex- next in line and almost 3 on the day of her passing- had for years after Donna’s death the most crystal clear memories of her and events around her that left me both baffled and awed at how he could remember such details.  Over time, sadly, he would lose those recollections of her. Ben was a year and a half, too young to solidify any impression happening as it did during her brutal struggle to live. 


30 years is a noteworthy stretch of time.  How does one honor the memory of one so loved yet so folded into the continuing drama that is life? Last year I slept restlessly and thought about her for a couple weeks prior to the anniversary only to forget most of the day till one of the boys called to bring up Donna’s passing. 


I know I didn’t mourn adequately, driven as I was to keeping the ship that was our family on course, and it probably contributed to some truly terrible decisions in the ensuing years, years that felt like the biblical wandering in the desert.  Sleep deprivation was the rule, though at the time sleeping 3-4 hours a day seemed weirdly cool, like something was being accomplished by not resting.  I became the angry, yelling father, a bitter replay of my own, and I hated myself for it.  Yet, for all the mistakes and fumbles over the past three decades I have managed to make claim to not one but two happy marriages in my lifetime, where teamwork and mutual support worked hand in hand with love and respect.  I am grateful every day for Terri, who walked into a house of four angry males and brought-no, insisted upon- civility and optimism and made us all better human beings in the process. Terri would often say that the foundation had already been set by Donna and even if the boys didn't consciously remember her they had absorbed her energy.


I am grateful for the years I had with Donna, the warrior hippie who also brought a relentless optimism and tenacity to all matters in life.  She took the depressed, fear driven son of post WWII Eastern European immigrants and tightened him up even as she eased some of that ingrained sense of terror out of his system.  The earth mother who insisted on home birthing, green juicing and holistic medicine; whose farm girl physique reveled in the hard work of organic gardening.  The eastern mystic who wrote and directed the annual Christmas Eve plays performed at her mother’s house and decorated each individually made songbook collection of carols from which we all sang.  Most of all I am grateful for our sons she gave birth to and for the foundation she helped establish in raising a family with love and discipline.  The boys were boys, but they had manners.


I went looking for my sketchbooks going back almost forty years in an attempt to put together a portfolio of drawings of her from those six years.  Alas, I’ve sadly, probably, lost more sketchbooks than I would want to admit, some probably victims of weather (we had a flood in the cellar when we first moved to our house in Stephentown that destroyed many boxes of belongings) while others not found might possibly be stacked in some box still unopened from all the moves. 

But I found enough to put together a little memorial.  Some of the drawings are okay at best, some good, still others too good for comfort.  But they spotlight a history together that in many respects would play like a dream were it not for these reminders.  30 years.

Very early drawing in the courtship phase. Short courtship- we were looking for a place to share within 3 months. One of the first things she did was start digging up a noteworthy portion of the backyard with me behind our side of the duplex for a vegetable garden. She was a reader of Rudolf Steiner and his philosophy of biodynamic farming. Most anything I learned about gardening and was to carry with me through the years was from her.

Brutally hot summer for a first time pregnancy. Still two months to go before Max entered the picture.

With Max.

Number three, Ben. Donna reading to Max in his bedroom.

First Christmas card as a family.

Still a trio.

Jazz had entered the house in a big way- WBGO-FM was on almost all day when classical music wasn't flowing through the house. We were spending more time jumping into Manhattan and listening to artists like Dizzy at Fat Tuesdays. Years later Max would find himself singing Salt Peanuts for Diz at the Blue Note. Donna could read music. As much as I tried I couldn't. I had a friend who was a brilliant saxophonist teaching me but being a parent with a growing family was probably not the right time to start learning in earnest. I still have that Buescher 400.

Then the diagnosis came after months of pain- much of it she kept to herself- and about 6 months after giving birth to Ben. It was a ferocious cancer that left her but rare moments during those last 9 months when she was not in excruciating agony. She fought back with a fury against the wildfire raging inside her. She had no desire to leave the boys behind. It was probably her single greatest motivation to keep fighting. A few drawings from the final months.

You feared her waking up from even the shortest nap because the suffering would be right there waiting to pick up where it left off.

Final drawing. One day to go. She was somewhere else most of the time eyes darting around searching, waiting. The pain meds had no effect. It was a sort of delirium. The next day I went home to take a shower and got a call to return ASAP. She apparently was waiting for me to return before finally giving in.

I can't end this posting on a note of grief so will, instead, conclude with another Christmas card from the early years. The same way these Santas float in the mock Magritte background so too do our memories of moments in time.