Saturday, April 11, 2015, 8 p.m.
I woke up this Saturday morning feeling free, lighter, and elated.
The long haul was over. My sister was finally in heaven. I wouldn't spend my day eating myself up for not saving her, and not rushing ineptly and spasmodically through chores meant to hold my fraying life together so I could head to her house, or one of three different hospitals she's been in.
Then, after that rush of elation and lightness, I felt sad. My sister died yesterday.
Today is not the saddest I've felt. Three people have asked me in the past 24 hours how I am. One was Katie Lynch, a warm-hearted Facebook friend, who sent me a private message.
One was Susan Roxbury. She is the mother of Dan Roxbury, Antoinette's daughter's husband.
We were standing in Antoinette's kitchen when she asked. Antoinette's body was still in the bedroom. It took the hospice nurse a couple of hours to get there to confirm what we already knew. After she completed the death certificate, it would be time to call the funeral home.
The hospice nurse, a woman with a presence as soft, kind and fluffy as angel feathers, volunteered to clean Antoinette's body before the funeral home came to take it. She invited me to leave the room.
"No," I said. "I'm a former nurse's aide."
"Yes," she said. "But some people find it hard when it's family."
"No," I said. "I'll help."
We removed the many blankets we had piled on Antoinette when she had started to tremble. We used the nearby sanitary wipes to clean Antoinette's body one last time. We used nurse's aide technique to move her heavy body off the pad, roll the pad up and remove it, and reach all areas with the wipes.
To me it was all part of the deal. I slept in the same bed with Antoinette for many years. I bathed in the same bathtub with her. She punched me with that body and I gave back as good as I could, though I was younger and smaller. Once, during a particularly heated fight, I sprayed cleaning fluid into her eyes. Chemical weapons. That ended that fight pretty damn quick.
We didn't touch for decades, and then she surprised me by kissing me during the sign of peace at our mother's funeral. Then, when she got sick, I gingerly ventured the occasional touch. The sicker she got, the more I touched her.
One day when she was pretty out of it, I stroked the soles of her feet, and she said, "That feels good." I was surprised by the positive feedback. I was stroking the soles of her feet when she stopped breathing. Now I was washing her corpse.
Later I accompanied the funeral home guys, burly guys in suits, as they lifted the corpse onto the spring-loaded stretcher. Antoinette's sister-in-law, being protective, had tried to close the front door in front of me. She looked at my face and opened the door again. I walked outside as they moved my sister's body into the hearse. My parents never said goodbye to a departing guest at the front door. They always walked the person outside, down the sidewalk. It's all part of the deal.
Again, Antoinette's body was still in the bedroom when Susan Roxbury asked me how I was.
I replied in the same way to each of the three people who asked this question.
"I'm okay," I said. "The worst day was October 26, 2014, the day I saw the three bears. It hit me really hard that day. I thought of Antoinette's coming death every minute and I could not escape the grief. I felt pulverized by it."
I usually clean when I feel this bad. It's a way to impose order on a world out of whack. I spent four hours cleaning yesterday. I couldn't clean again today. I am obsessive compulsive and I ration when I allow myself to clean.
I washed laundry instead. I wrote – another way to impose order. And then I went where I always go when I feel freed up, when chores are done. I went to my favorite place on earth, Skylands.
I love cold and fear summer but even I have to confess that winter 2014-15 outstayed its welcome. Persistent snow cover, ice-locked ponds, overcast skies and cool temperatures meant that I didn't see crocuses or hear spring peepers until April 5, Easter Sunday, the latest I can remember.
Even today I saw one stray frozen fountain of ice escaping rocks facing the Wanaque Reservoir, and clumps of snow clinging to the north side of Ringwood Manor.
Other than that, though, the weather seemed to reflect Antoinette's release. Blue skies. Some high clouds. Temperatures in the mid-fifties. There was a strong wind. It's always hard to know how to dress in spring. In the shade, wind blowing, it's February. When you are walking uphill and the wind dies down and the sun comes out, you sweat. I wore a denim dress and a down vest. Perfect.
Right before I headed out, I noticed some earrings on my desktop. "Wear these," my little voice said, rather insistently.
I was surprised.
I am neat I don't leave earrings on my desk. I cleaned yesterday. How did these earrings get here?
I was also surprised by the message. My little voice generally doesn't instruct me to wear earrings. I don't wear earrings when hiking. They'd get in the way of my binoculars strap.
To get to Skylands I walk up Morris Road. Morris Road is a one-lane, paved road through woods. There are many beech trees, with their distinctive smooth, pale bark. Because of the silence and the pale trees, and because I am on a paved road, rather than a footpath, these woods feel sort of spooky. I've walked this path hundreds of times over a couple of decades. I rarely see or hear much wildlife, except for the old reliables: turkey and black vultures overhead, the phoebe on the WPA bridge from 1939, the yellow warbler in the brambles insistently informing all passersby, "Sweet, sweet, I'm so sweet!"
I always think of my sister Antoinette while walking up Morris Road. I think of her because she was the first person to take me to Skylands. I also think of her because there is a small pond along the road. The property adjoining Skylands used to be Mount St. Francis, a convent. Kids from St. Francis would go there for school trips.
Antoinette went after receiving a pendant as a gift when she was in grade school. The clasp broke when Antoinette was standing over the pond. The pendant slipped off her neck into the water, never to be seen again. If I scuba dived into the pond, would I find this pendant lost sometime during the Johnson administration?
As I walked up Morris Road today, I thought of that day of terrible sadness, October 26, 2014. Antoinette had received the terminal diagnosis in May of 2013. In October of 2014 she was in three different health-care facilities fighting a secondary condition, a life-threatening infection. Seeing her in such bad shape slammed me up against the inevitable.
On that October day I also went to Skylands. I saw two unusual things that day. I posted a blog about it here.
That day I saw a kinglet, a small bird. I don't often see kinglets. They are tiny birds who spend their time high up in trees, and they are only winter visitors. This kinglet was trapped on a branch. I could not make out what was trapping her – a thorn? A spider web? I approached her, hoping to free her, but she struggled and worked herself free and flew off.
Later on that October day, I saw three bears. I'd never seen bears on Morris Road. Again, I'd walked this road hundreds of times. Not only were there three bears, but they were almost eager to be seen. These bears turned, looked at me, and just stood there, posing.
When people yesterday and today asked me how I am in the wake of my sister's death, I kept saying, "I felt it all back in October, the day I saw the three bears."
Today, as I walked along Morris Road, past the pond that may or may not contain the rusted remains of Antoinette's pendant, my "little voice" said, "Wouldn't it be something if you saw a bear on Morris Road today? If you do, that will be sign from Antoinette."
And I replied, "Little Voice, shut the hell up. I don't want today to be all about hearing you telling me to wear earrings and look for signs. I want to chill out and breathe and just let things be for the next 24 hours."
And I kept walking uphill to Skylands. And I did not see any bears.
When I got to Skylands I opened a little box that contained a lock of Antoinette's hair.
I had tried to save a lock of my mother's hair after she died. Antoinette physically restrained me from doing so. "You sentimental weirdo! Stop it!"
No one was there to stop me from snipping a lock of Antoinette's hair.
I released some of her hair on my favorite bench. It's the stone bench with the cupids – or maybe they are nymphs – that overlooks the annual garden and the perennial garden. I released some in the apple orchard, at the exact spot where Artie, our poodle, flashed an elderly woman. I released some at the scenic overlook, where you can see nothing but trees for miles and people say, "I can't believe this is New Jersey!" and some in the lilac garden, on the circular bench around the tree.
I saw very few birds. I did see one kinglet. That was a nice surprise. I don't see them often. Then I started walking back down Morris Road.
I was almost to the pond when I realized that I was not alone.
To my left, a bear was walking through the woods, parallel to the road. The bear was walking in the same direction as I, at the same speed. Very little foliage separated us. I could see the bear's entire body, its signature bear-like sloped posture and ambling gait. It turned and looked at me a few times, but it never stopped walking, at my pace, same direction, close to the road.
We walked like that for some minutes. I walked slowly; the bear walked slowly. And then the bear walked onto the road in front of me and crossed it, into the woods to my right.
I thought it too risky to keep walking. I stood still in the road. Eventually two monster pick-up trucks, the kind with huge tires and shiny gear, drove past me and stopped.
One guy wearing flannel and a cap got out. "There's a bear over there. Do you want a ride?"
"Yes, please," I squeaked. I minced toward his truck.
"You shouldn't be hiking alone in these woods!" the man said.
He sounded Cajun. He was dressed in complete backwoods gear. I expected to find nutria pelts tanning in the back seat.
"Where are you from?" I asked.
"Bergen County!" he said.
Bergen County??? Home of Paramus, the world capital of shopping malls! Maybe he's just watched too many episodes of "Duck Dynasty." But New Jersey is unpredictable, with the wild folded into the tame.
"I hear a guy in Bergen County was attacked by a coyote the other day," I said. I always converse, charmingly, with strange men who give me rides. It's kept me alive so far.
"Yup," the guy said. "That coyote was rabid." He still sounded totally Cajun.
PS: As I have been typing this up, I looked down and again saw the earrings that my "little voice" had told me to wear this morning.
Some years back my sister and I went to Great Swamp. We stopped in the park gift shop. I looked at these earrings, inexpensive little things. I was attracted by their color; I adore turquoise. My sister grabbed them and bought them. I tried to pay; she wouldn't let me. It's like when she bought me pomegranates. I just realized right now that these earrings are in the shape of bears.
The blog post about seeing the three bears last October is here:http://save-send-delete.blogspot.com/2014/10/in-all-my-years-of-birdwatching-i-have.html
|Morris Road, in warmer weather. Source|
|Favorite bench at Skylands, behind the wellhead|
|The earrings with foliage from a grove Antoinette liked|