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Posts Tagged ‘mortality’

What will they remember you for?

In aging, behavior, domestic life, family, life, love, men, parenting, seniors, women on October 20, 2014 at 2:14 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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A few days ago, we attended a memorial service in suburban Maryland for a family friend of my husband’s, a handsome, distinguished architect whose work spanned New York City and Detroit and who helped design JFK Airport.

I never had the pleasure of meeting him, but what a glorious service!

What a powerful reminder of the complicated, messy, loving lives we lead.

How we are often both reticent and expressive, if perhaps not when, where and how others might most have needed or wished for.

How our smallest words and deeds can, unwittingly, leave a lasting mark.

How much we crave connection, even as we blunder and stagger and do it so imperfectly that forgiveness is sometimes the greatest gift we are given.

How, for some fathers, their children are their greatest joy.

What did his friends, children, grandchildren and colleagues remember?

– He baked bread in clay flowerpots

– His amazing home-made pizza

– He loved classical music — and Rodrigo’s exquisite Concierto de Aranjuez was part of the service, played simply and beautifully on a gleaming black grand piano. A lone trumpet also played the Navy Anthem and My Funny Valentine.

– His service in WWII, inspiring a young seaman, a grandson in his medal-beribboned uniform, to tell us that’s what inspired him to join the Navy as well

– His midnight rescue, done calmly and gently, of his niece — out on a first date — who had locked the car keys in his borrowed car, with the engine running

– The day, as a Columbia School of Architecture student, he discovered that Frank Lloyd Wright was visiting New York City, staying at the Plaza Hotel. He jumped into a car, drove downtown to the Plaza — and, with no formal introduction, invited Wright back to campus for their 4:00 ritual tea. Wright, who then was paid $30,000 per lecture and had a New York Times interview scheduled that day, spontaneously agreed. (Now that’s chutzpah!)

– His three marriages; (as one female relative said, to loving laughter, “I kept hoping…”)

My husband clutched the late man’s brother’s hand, our dear friend, while I held Jose’s, knitting a fierce rope of love, something rough and strong to hold fast to.

We exited the church into brilliant fall sunshine to discover a raft of cellphone messages from Texas; my husband’s own half-brother, a man 24 years his senior, had suffered a major stroke and would likely not survive. He died a few hours later.

This, barely three days after Pratt Institute, where I now teach two classes, lost a female student to suicide, on campus.

It has been a week of death, of mourning, of loss, of remembrance.

Of our impossible, inevitable, inescapable fragility.

What will they say of you?

Is it what you hope?

A sudden chill

In aging, domestic life, family, life, love, men, seniors on October 11, 2014 at 12:01 am

By Caitlin Kelly

His bicep still feels like a wall, solid and strong.

His energy and curiosity have long since out-paced that of his peers.

He just spent a month sailing in Greece with a friend.

That's him, helping me into my heels before my second wedding

That’s him, helping me into my heels before my second wedding

But, for the first time, during a recent visit, my 85-year-old father finally, suddenly, felt old to me. And, to his clear dismay and surprise, to himself.

We’ve never had a smooth, easy relationship. He’s missed many of my birthdays and we rarely do Christmas together. He made it to both my weddings and walked me down the aisle.

We’ve had arguments so loud and ferocious I debated cutting off all contact with him.

But he’s my only father.

And I am, in many ways — competitive, stubborn, voraciously curious, a world traveler with a host of interests, artistic — very much like him.

A film-maker and director of television documentaries, he rarely hesitated to piss people off, preferably on their dime, a trait I’ve also inherited in my work as a journalist. Gone for months working while I was growing up, he’d bring home the world — literally: a caribou skin rug and elbow length sealskin gloves from the Arctic, Olympic badges from Japan, a woven Afghani rifle case, a hammered metal bowl from Jerusalem.

In the 60s, when I was at boarding school, his gold Jaguar XKE would pull into the parking lot and whisk me away for a day of fun., often a long walk through the countryside.

We’ve since driven through Mexico and Ireland, shared a tent while driving across Canada the summer I was 15  and drove from Montreal to Savannah, admiring the Great Dismal Swamp in the rain. Much of our time has been spent in motion.

We rarely, if ever, discuss feelings. It’s just not something we do.

But it’s sad, frightening, disorienting — inevitable — to suddenly see him tired, limping, sobered and chastened by mortality after a lifetime of tremendous health, good luck and international adventure.

I’m not used to him being human.

Wandering the graveyard

In aging, behavior, culture, History, life, travel, urban life on June 22, 2012 at 1:11 am

Near the house I’m sitting in Vermont is a town with a small graveyard with some early stones. Early, of course, is a relative term in a nation as young as the United States.

I wandered there at sunset, the sun low and pearly in the sky. I was sweaty and sore from a major workout at the gym, feeling as alive and strong as I have in years. What better time to contemplate one’s mortality?

I always notice the same things in graveyards dating from the 18th. or 17th. century here — people who died at, then especially, a ripe old age in their 80s or 90s, but a large number of young wives in their early 20s and their tiny babies, some dead within a few days or weeks of their birth.

How must have life, and death, felt like then?

Women died in childbirth. Their babies died of a host of diseases for which modern medicines were far distant in the future: smallpox, scarlet fever, diphtheria, pneumonia, influenza. Doctors, if one even lived anywhere nearby, arrived at whatever speed their horse and muddy, icy or snowy roads allowed them — after being hastily summoned by someone riding, rowing or running at top speed to find them. Even then, they had only a limited armamentarium in their black leather bag.

Husbands might — as one man did in this cemetery I visited — have three or four wives in their lifetime.

How much more familiar and intimate the spectre of (early) death must have been.

Where I live, in a northern suburb of New York City, I was for many years puzzled by many small graveyards I’d spy as I turned back onto the highway. They’re shaded by thick, old trees, bordered with stone walls and a wrought-iron gate. I wrote a New York Times story about them, (how I often satisfy my curiosity about something), and discovered these had once been on family farmland, long since sold off, the graves left behind.

It’s so easy to forget who came before us and what their lives, and landscapes, were like. Early graveyards are a useful reminder.

Their marker stones are often very beautiful, with a skull or an angel, and deep incised script in red sandstone or white marble.

My husband is a Buddhist and wants me to cremate him and spread his ashes at our favorite lake in Quebec. I should choose the same method as, with no kids, I can’t see anyone going to kneel at my grave. My ashes, similarly, are probably best scattered into a Canadian lake from the back of a canoe, to the haunting cry of a loon.

If my husband dies before I do, who will even take care of my disposal and estate? Serious stuff I still have to decide and write into a longer and much more detailed will.

I have no idea where my grandfathers are buried, or my paternal grandmother. My maternal grandmother, a grande dame who squandered much of her considerable wealth, was cremated. My mother buried her ashes in a silver Russian tea caddy (what else? where else?) in a Toronto park. Yes, illegally. I have no idea where exactly…but I wave to her whenever the subway car passes through the Rosedale station, nearest to the park.

My maternal great-grandfather, a prominent businessman in Chicago in the late 19th. century, has a gorgeous mausoleum I hoped to visit when I was there last year, but ran out of time. At least I know he’s still there.

Do you ever visit cemeteries to which you have no personal attachment?

Why?

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