I grew up rich in cousins. I spent holidays with my first cousins and lived, starting at age 11, in the same town with second cousins (the children of my mother’s first cousin) AND a first cousin twice removed (my grandmother’s first cousin – each generation that separates us is the “removed” part). Don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz.
As the third child of three and in the middle of the pack, age-wise, among all my cousins, I often longed for special attention from elders. I found it in my relationship with my grandmother’s first cousin and her husband. To maintain a bit of anonymity, I’ll refer to them by their initials: A. and M. They were mathematicians who delighted in logic games, musicians with strong opinions about composers and performances, and as elegant and worldly as my middle-school brain could imagine. They had no children.
M. grew up in Japan during World War II and came to the U.S. for graduate school. A. grew up in Wisconsin and in France, thanks to her father’s work as a professor. They met and married — a bold act for that era, a Japanese man marrying a white woman.
The first time I visited their home, we sat on pillows around a low table, Japanese style. I was so inexperienced and eager at age 11 that I added both milk and lemon to my tea, curdling it. A. endeared herself to me forever with her gentle smile and quick explanation of the science experiment that I’d accidentally conducted.
There are many more stories to tell since that day nearly forty years ago, but I’ll fast-forward to the present, where M. lives alone, five years after A.’s death. He has not moved a single item in her study. Her books lay as she left them and her perfume bottles gather dust. It is an understandable reaction to the blow of her loss. M. does not like change of any sort and this was the most unwelcome change imaginable.
I am now his caregiver, both legally and lovingly. It is an honor that I accepted after caring for my father to the end of his life in 2017. As I told M., I’m going into this new caregiving relationship with my eyes open, knowing the length, depth, and breadth of what he is asking of me. And I’m saying Yes to it all. I think I saw M.’s shoulders drop about an inch when I accepted and in that moment I felt all the belonging, all the love that had been stored up in me by A. and M. come rushing forward. What do we want to do in life but be there, in those moments, in fellowship with another human? What higher use is there for my time and energy?
Which is why I spent one full day last February dusting. And vacuuming. And clearing the kitchen counters so they could be scrubbed for the first time in years. I stood at the threshold of A.’s study but did not go in. M. and I will let that dust settle for a bit longer, I think.
Image: M. can no longer play his viola. The last piece he played was “Elegy for unaccompanied viola,” by Benjamin Britten, and the sheet music remains on its stand.
Dave deBronkart says
Wow. This took my breath away and brought tears to my eyes.
“Unaccompanied viola” indeed. Brilliant. Your long-awaited writing voice is emerging. Wow.
Dave deBronkart says
I *had* to hear the Britten piece. I’m no connoisseur, but I can hear the loneliness. Here’s one YouTube, 7 minutes long. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=liOf63yCTKk
Susannah Fox says
Thank you, twice over!
Tami Dew Rich says
this story, this exchange + the video. (Dave, Thanks! I *had to* as well. Pls consider sharing your video find on Susanna’s Twitter; ppl wd love.
Quynh Tran says
This context with the images of M’s study reflect such a lovely life. I’ve been asked to do the same for a family friend who plans 10 years out. Learning a lot from what you’ve shared. Thank you.
Kim Nazi says
Amazing and beautifully told Susannah! What greater use of time and energy?
Alex Fair says
Beautifully written and a beautiful act. Thank you for sharing Susannah.
Wendy Sue says
I do love the line and question, “what higher use is there for my time and energy?” Which, of course, you answer w all of your beautiful prose. Thanks.
Mighty Casey says
We’ve had this conversation before, so I’ll keep this brief: you and I both know how important, and how “you don’t get no do-overs,” this human caregiving stuff is. This is a beautiful example of both why, and nuts-and-bolts how, this work proceeds.
Hug M for all of us. Consider yourself hugged by all of us … in a safe, physically distanced way, of course =)
Michael Hoad says
As they say on social media: I’m not crying. The computer screen is out of focus.
Roni Zeiger says
Thank you for this, Susannah. It is just what I needed right now, like so many others do, which is part of what makes you magical.
Joan and Mel Schnall says
Susie, Joan and I found your elegy both beautifully written and deeply moving. How fortunate M is to have a caretaker who is not only personally committed to the heavy task, but who understands so intimately the unique person being cared for, and that person’s subtle values. As aged people ourselves, we appreciate the importance of gently relinquishing what we have outlived, be it viola or hiking, while treasuring the continuing pursuit of beloved activities, many of them of our inner worlds of intellect and observation. Those changes, taxing as they are, do not compare to the more difficult one of assuming increased dependence on others. You seem to be sensitive to this. That you assume the task as an act of love rather than obligation, bodes well for its success. May we take this opportunity to tell you that we have always found you to be most warm, friendly and loving. With loving regards, Joan and Mel
Susannah Fox says
Joan and Mel, thank you! I’m so touched by your message. And yes, relinquishing control is difficult for most of us. My approach is to keep the locus of control in his hands for as long as possible. When he expresses a preference, then those are my marching orders. I’m there to serve, not direct.
I will do this today.
Minutes before this arrived I was thinking of the taped speeches by Ram Dass I listened to thirty years ago and several times since: “Conscious Aging” and “Approaching Death.” They gave me a sense of cocoon for our transition back out into the greater everything.
Susannah Fox says
Friends, thank you for your love and support. M. passed away peacefully. The birds were singing through the open windows and I was wafting the fragrance of his favorite green tea toward his face as he took his last breath. M. asked that instead of a memorial service, please go for a silent walk in the woods and think of him. I invite you to join me and think of dear ones who have passed away as we walk, separately, but together in grief.
Lucia Ruggiero says
Walking with you.
With great appreciation