One Year (Almost).

Often, I have so much I want to articulate that it renders me mute. I fall short of expressing myself adequately, of finding just the right words, and so I find myself retreating into the perfection of silence. Like the smooth, white hill outside our home after a midnight snowfall. No footprints, nothing to interpret, no interference. Just quietness. There is beauty in that, but also a precarious vulnerability, knowing that at any moment, a branch from a towering oak might fall or a stubborn car might insist on making tracks. And then, the cycle will begin again. The searching for the words, the feelings, the reconciling of the factors beyond my control.

I know Russell struggled with this same tenuous feeling, but in a slightly different way. He had so much to articulate, that he could not record enough. His fiction-writing sessions were better described in hours instead of words, as he often deleted as much as he documented. He could craft a sentence for the better part of a night and then shake his head because it still wasn’t exactly what he wanted to say. He felt this way about much of his life. His existence. Russell always feared that he would not live to be an old man. He wanted to leave a legacy of words. Perfect words. He was the consummate artist, always trying to capture, to refine, to master. There was an observable, painful elegance about his daily pilgrimage. And though he was never satisfied with the product of his work, he was soothed by the ritual of it. The pursuit of the thing. The longing of the reward.

In between Sisyphean efforts, Russell filled time by recording the simplest things; the weather, the boldness of his tea, a joke exchanged between innocent siblings, the time he woke up that day. I wonder if he did this for monastic practice or rather to be in the right place at the right time in ready anticipation of the epiphany he patiently sought. His daily reconciliation reminded me of how I feel when I think about the universe. Is the beauty in the vast greatness of the infinite or in the nuanced smallness of the tiniest feature?

While driving to work recently, I was listening to NPR’s Performance Today, like I often do. Like he often did. The featured work was Death and Transfiguration by Richard Strauss. When I heard the host describe the work as a detailed depiction of the death of an artist, my instinct was to change the station, revert to quiet stillness. But instead, I listened, as it seemed honorable and right to bear the weight of the revelation. Strauss, among many others, shared Russell’s quest for the seemingly unattainable.The search for perfection on this Earth in the creation of something beautiful, something lasting and meaningful.

In a letter to his friend, Strauss explained the idea behind Death and Transfiguration:

…the idea came to me to write a poem describing the last hours of a man who had striven for the highest ideals. The sick man lies in bed breathing heavily and irregularly in his sleep. Friendly dreams bring a smile to the sufferer; his sleep grows lighter; he awakens. Fearful pains once more begin to torture him, fever shakes his body. When the attack is over and the pain recedes, he recalls his past life; his childhood passes before his eyes; his youth with its striving and passions and then, while the pains return, there appears to him the goal of his life’s journey, the idea, the ideal which he attempted to embody, but which he was unable to perfect because such perfection could be achieved by no man. The fatal hour arrives. The soul leaves his body, to discover in the eternal cosmos the magnificent realization of the ideal that could not be fulfilled here below.”

It was difficult to remember my husband’s last hours, described so accurately and compassionately by a man a century his elder. But the heartache I initially felt recalling the shadowy time between here and gone was subtly replaced by feelings of something new. Something that felt almost like comfort. Like Russell was vindicated in his quest for the thing that can only be revealed in the transition to what lies just beyond us. The transition to something impossible to know before its actual revelation. Perhaps Russell glimpsed the perfection he sought and was satisfied for that moment. Perhaps it is possible that when he unclenched his hands in those final moments and repeatedly whispered, “OK…OK…,” he was finally at peace.

It is my hope that in the straddling of the two worlds, Russell felt his soul complete. And that he was proud of his life’s work: his goals, his family, his accomplishments. It is my hope that he was enveloped in a coherent wholeness that transcended and outshined his greatest fears and doubts as an artist and, most importantly, as a husband, a son, and a father.

Because, if that is so, then I can also find comfort in not having the words and in breathing the quiet stillness.


Fill in the Blanks

On the sixth week after her father passed away, my oldest daughter presented me with a family portrait.

I told her I liked it very much. I like how Dad is standing tall, in front of the children, in a protective stance. I like how all the kids are huddled together, bonding, perhaps, in their collective memories.

I asked her, though, “Why don’t we have faces?”

She answered, “Because we just don’t know how we feel yet. We are ready to be laughing or crying at any moment. We just don’t know.”

Blank Spaces

Poppy (9)

On the sixth week after her father passed away, my youngest daughter presented me with a drawing.

I told her l liked it very much. I like how even though Mom and Dad are separated by space, they continue to share the warmth of a radiant heart enveloped in sunshine. I like how there is heaven and earth, stars and sun, and a calming symmetry between them.

I asked her, though, “Why don’t we have faces?”

She answered, “Because all the really important things you feel are on the inside.”

MH Drawing

MH (5)


Social Sympathy

The Greenville Journal wrote a couple of articles related to social media and the role it plays in helping families and communities grieve and support one another during difficult times. I am honored to have been interviewed about how our global village supported us through Mary Hazel and Russell’s illnesses and continues to support us now.

Sweet Goodbye


How Strange

It was shower night. (We aim for every other night as my children protest when I suggest they clean themselves every single day. I pick my battles.)

I was putting away laundry in the twins’ room when I heard P call out to me, in the way that your kids do the second you walk out of the room, “Moooooooom?” Moooooooom?!”

“I’m right here,“ I answered loudly. Sometimes, lately, the kids have wanted me to be a little closer. “What is it?”

“Can you come in here?” she asked.

“Sure,” I surrendered, as I piled the remaining clean laundry back into the empty basket. I poked my head around the door, making sure not to let out all the hot steam from the cozy marble-tiled bathroom. I have been frequently reprimanded. “What do you need?”

“I need you to come in. Like all the way in. Please?” she added.

I scooted in, barefoot, and navigated around the broken tile that I’ve been meaning to replace for years. I perched on the nearby shower chair which remains in the bathroom though nobody needs it anymore. “What’s up?” I asked.

My modest daughter peeled back the fogged-up shower curtain and stood there with the hot water beating down on her back. She was holding a slim crescent-shaped bar of soap and looked like she had seen a ghost.

“Mom,” she whispered. “Dad used this bar of soap.”

I smelled peppermint, tea tree oil, and a little lavender. I took a deep breath. There were several long seconds of silence, but the understanding washed over me, too.

“He used this on his body, while he was still alive,” she said. “How strange that the bar of soap is still here. And Daddy is not.”

More silence. More deep breathing. Nodding.

“Mom, I don’t think we should use it anymore. I think we should save it. It was Dad’s soap. This is how he smelled.”

I told her that I had been having similar thoughts. When I emptied the trash from the bedroom for the first time after he died, I took inventory: a banana peel, an empty yogurt cup, a napkin, a tea bag. His last snack. And I thought, “How strange that the banana peel is still yellow.”

How strange that his phone is still charged, waiting for a text. How strange that his slippers are still poised under the bed ready to receive his tired feet. How strange that he still gets mail. How strange that the grocery list he started on a pink Post-it Note still waits in the drawer. How strange that the cat our daughter chose from the Humane Society on her eighth birthday outlived him. How strange that his laptop is still plugged into the same outlet, where he wrote his last journal entry, on the day before his heart stopped. How very strange.

On the afternoon I squeezed Russell’s right hand, and the palliative care doctor held his left, his voice cracked when he responded, “How strange…” He had just been told that the medicine was no longer working. “How strange that I never will finish writing my second novel. How strange that I won’t see the children graduate,” he hoarsely whispered. “How strange that I won’t be around to take care of my mother and father.”

And it is all just so strange. The negative space. The echoes. The ripples. The feeling that he has just been in the hospital a little longer than usual but will return any day now. The illusion that he is still whole in my mind, when I close my eyes.

We are only a month into this grieving process. I expect that eventually we will put away his razor. We will sort through his clothes. We will consume the last of the groceries we bought while he was still with us. And then, I’m sure, there will be a completely new and different kind of strange.

Eventually, I realized my daughter, soap sliver in hand, had been shivering at the shower threshold for some minutes. We had been staring right through each other, lost in our own strange thoughts. I got up from the plastic chair, held her wrinkled hands, and drew her small, wet body into a clean, warm towel where we stayed until the shaking stopped.

I wonder how long soap will keep in a Ziploc bag.

Dad's Soap.jpg

A Conversation with Charlie

C: “Mom, where is Dad? I mean, physically. Where is he right now?”

Me: “Well, Buddy, his heart was too big and his body got tired. His spark just flew right on out of there. I was holding his hand when it happened and I saw it.”

C: “So if his body doesn’t work anymore, does that mean he can’t use his brain? Dad always said when he couldn’t use his brain anymore, it was time to move on.”

Me: “Well, that’s a good question. I don’t think it works in the same way we’re used to.”

C: “Can he remember things?”

Me: “I like to think so.”

C: “Is he conscious?”

Me: “I think it’s a different kind of state. Something we can’t really understand yet.”

C: “If he’s not conscious and his brain doesn’t work like it used to, I’m scared he doesn’t remember me. And if he doesn’t know who I am, then it makes me feel different.”

Me: “Different how?”

C: (Pause) “You know how you look in the mirror every day and you see your reflection, right? Like every day. There you are, just like you expect.”

Me: “Yes…”

C: “Well, now I kind of feel like I don’t really have that reflection anymore. Like when Dad stopped being able to remember me, my reflection kind of just disappeared.”

Me: “Oh my goodness.”

C: “What?”

Me: “Not only do you look just like your father, you’re starting to think like him, too.”

C: “Is that a good thing?”

Me: “It is. Just remember, your Dad is always with you. You carry him around in your heart and in your memories, and I feel he is with us.”

C: “I know all that, Mom. I know that when I miss him I can remember him; I just…wish he could remember me.”

Me: (Hugs for hours.)

Charlie Blog

He Was Home


rdh3The first time I met Russell, almost twenty years ago, he had just locked himself out of his house. And he was not happy about the situation. Over the course of the next two decades, he managed to lock himself out of the house just slightly more often than he misplaced his keys inside the house. Which was pretty often. It was an ongoing joke among our close friends. He received more than a few ridiculous hide-a-key tchotchkes for birthday presents. Our lawn, at times, resembled the Jockey Lot on a bustling Saturday afternoon, covered in gaudy decoys, like concrete frogs and Chia pets. (The only things missing were some boiled peanuts and funnel cake, both of which Russell was extremely fond.) Eventually, we just stopped locking the door. We joked we had nothing worth stealing anyway. The things that mattered most weren’t things, after all. Russell was happy knowing that he could always go home when he wanted to and there were no more obstacles preventing him from doing so.

Russell was always happy being home. He was comfortable in his chair, his spot on the couch, his place at the kitchen sink washing dishes and gazing out the window at the songbirds and daydreaming about his “stories”. He was comfortable with his thoughts. He was not afraid of the quiet. He was also, however, a great lover of people, of their energy and their unique ideas and perspectives. He loved to learn; I’ll never forget the day he first discovered this little website called Wikipedia. It took the place of his gold-leafed set of hardback encyclopedias that his mother reports he used to drag to the bathroom when he was potty training at the tender age of two. He was the epitome of a Renaissance Man; when he was in his twenties he rebuilt the engine to his 1967 baby blue Mustang (twice, actually) by reading the manual. He knew the etymology of every word he spoke and whether its root was Latin or Greek. And now, so do our children. He loved a good salon, explained helpfully by our friend, Wikipedia, as “a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation. These gatherings often consciously followed Horace’s definition of the aims of poetry, ‘either to please or to educate’.” These were some of the values Russell held most dear – pleasing, educating, and just being at home in the company of like-minded souls.

Several years ago, Poppy wrote a poem at school about home that I’d like to share:

Where I’m From

by Poppy H. (age 7)

I am from a house that has a smooth front porch and scratchy carpet.

I am from a house that has lots of toys and cats.

And a dog.

I am from a noisy radio.

I always hear the news.

I am from Dad telling me stories every night.

We love all the stories.

I am from me playing the piano C to G over and over again.

I am from root beer and saucy pizza.

(It is so cheesy.)

I am from the smell of cat litter.

And also fresh crusty quiche and berries so juicy.

I am from warm hugs and kisses.

I am from Christmas,

Being the first one up and the last one asleep.

I am from cancer check-ups.

I am from laughing all the time.

I am from Slackajack and Butter – my favorite toys.

I am from love.

When Russell and I first met, we spent a lot of time adventuring, sometimes quite far away from home. Though he was born with a particularly rare and progressive congenital condition (affectionately known as Russell Hinson Bad Leg Disease), we enjoyed ten years (give or take) of some pretty amazing outings. We discovered the love of long-distance road biking together and looked forward to the Bakery Ride to Saluda every Sunday and the cross-state tour every spring. We participated in triathlon relays together, with our friend Vanessa, where Russell held down the bike leg like a pro. It was during a trip to a race in Maui when Russell proposed. We also enjoyed many a meandering hike, where I further learned of Russell’s curiosity about the natural world. He not only stopped to smell the roses, he stopped to watch skinks (which are not the same as lizards) scuttle up trees, he stopped to examine the mechanics of a solitary walking-stick bug, he stopped to look up leaves in his Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs so he could learn and memorize the scientific names of every tree in the southeastern woodlands, as well as the songbirds who lived there. (Cardinalis cardinalis is the only one I can actually remember off the top of my head.) During one particular favorite vacation to the Pacific Northwest, he lead the charge to the top of the Continental Divide, encouraging both me and my parents to stand atop a glacier field where only few others endured the journey to enjoy the view. We used to say about Russell that all who wander are not lost.

Even before Russell’s mobility became a challenge, he was a methodical and deliberate soul. His attention to detail was often at the expense of punctuality. He could easily spend two hours in the shower. He evened out the laces on his tied shoes so they were equal on both sides. He had the most impressively-groomed eyebrows in the house. He didn’t simply do things to do them. He took careful measure in the doing. One autumn day, I chided him for taking all afternoon to rake a small patch of leaves in the front yard. “Wouldn’t it be faster just to use a leaf blower?” I asked. He answered, “I wasn’t just raking leaves. I was working on my novel.”

My daughter said to me just the other day, “I sure am going to miss waiting for Dad.”

Unfortunately, the week our baby girl was born, Russell underwent a laminectomy (another word I learned from Russell) to remove a tumor in his spinal cord. This procedure bookmarked the point in time when the kids’ daddy developed his “boo-boo leg”, when he started walking with a distinguished cane, when he was no longer able to ride his bicycle or hike up mountains. This marked the time when Russell was home.

And Russell was home.

When the children came home from school, flinged their backpacks in the corner and threw off their shoes, they knew dad was home. When I took my shift carpooling neighborhood friends to and from (fill in the blank), I could drop off one of the possums and know that dad was home. While I enjoyed running most mornings, the kids were gently awakened by their dad because he was home.

Over the last few days, the kids and I have repeatedly noticed the echo of their father’s presence at home. Poppy observed, “I miss the way Daddy cleaned the bathroom sink after we brushed our teeth.” Mary Hazel remembered how he used to happily torture them with the exaggerated attack of “Monkey Paw and Raven Claw”, a tickling ritual that filled the family room with raucous laughter and loud squeals. Charlie wished yesterday that his father were here to watch Avatar with him on Saturday mornings because he was the only one who understood the epic battle between the Fire Nation and the Earth Benders at Ba Sing Se. Because Russell was home.

rdh1Russell was the sounds of home. The frequent tapping of the keyboard. The walker shuffling down the hall in the early pre-dawn hours because of stupid insomnia. The radio always being tuned to NPR even when nobody was in the room because the cats might get lonely. The sound of the Eastern towhees when he opened the windows on a spring day. “Drink your teeeaaaaa!” The microwave beeping periodically throughout the day as he heated up his tea, because it took him sometimes all day to fully enjoy one cup of the gentleman’s coffee. The lock on the door clicking not once, but always twice, at night when he put the house to sleep. The score to Fiddler on the Roof. Gillian Welch singing sad ol’ songs on his favorite Pandora station. The streaming water at the kitchen sink every time even one piece of silverware was left for longer than a minute. He was “Hey Baby and Hey Buddy” every time he greeted the twins. He was “Hey Lucy. How’s it going?” whenever the neighbor girl from across the street came over to play. He was “Sweet dreams. It’s time to close your eyes now,” when Mary Hazel pulled out just one more book to read before bed.

Russell was the smells of home. Dinner being warmed in the oven upon our return home from late soccer practices and chorus rehearsals. Fresh kitty litter in the laundry room. Dryer sheets. He was the smell of red wine and chocolate, and sometimes Southern Comfort. The fire log burning and crackling on the first chilly fall night. The smell of balsam and cedar and noble currant candles lit by his bedside. Deodorant soap and coconut shampoo.

Russell was the sights of home. He was standing at the front door on school day mornings waving goodbye to the children despite the difficulty he had getting there. Tidy piles of paperwork. A laptop that was never closed. An electric razor always plugged into the bathroom outlet because he shaved every day, even if he expected to see no one. Neat piles of laundry on the sofa, always a work in progress. His owl collection. His book collection. His birthday card collection, because he kept them all. He was consistently the last person the babies saw when they closed their eyes at night because he always promised to put up their rails and check on them “one more time”.

For the last couple of years, Russell was indeed home. And because of that, Russell was home.

We struggle to move one single thing that belonged to him because then it just wouldn’t be the same as it was when Russell was home. And, of course, how could it be? But aren’t we the lucky ones for the memories? The memories of a father who was always home, never away on business, never not having time for bedtime stories, never saying, “I’m too busy right now.” Aren’t we the lucky ones because he helped create a secure, loving, nest from which our fledglings can be brave and take flight, when the time comes. Aren’t we the lucky ones for knowing a man whose consistent, thoughtful, and kind ways are forever etched into the foundation of what we know as home? Poppy, Charlie, and Mary Hazel will always know what “home” feels like.

In large part, because Russell was home and, no matter what, he can never be locked out again.