Going Home

Right after I first fell in love with the German man I married, my mother died. (No, the shock didn’t kill her.) Something I recognize but don’t dwell on is that my decision to move to Europe is tied to her death. Somehow the most important link to my life in America suddenly vanished. When I left the States I had a full if overly busy life with two jobs, one which gave me health care and retirement benefits, and close friends. But as I’ve written elsewhere [1], the siren call of a European man and European life style (make that Life and Style) won my heart.

I was surprised – and deeply moved – to discover that my friendships and attachment to places I love stayed alive, even with one or two years or even longer between visits. When I was a kid, my family had moved every few years thanks to my dad’s job with the Forest Service. I know how to make new friendships, and how to keep old ones. The international stuff is harder, but it’s do-able.

My annual visit to the US this year is bathed in wistfulness and memories. This is my first flight back without seeing my father Bobbo. For twenty-five years I believed that losing Mom broke the golden thread connecting me to my old life. Turns out, a less obvious thread – but one equally as golden – tied me to Bobbo. He became my main reason to return. With both parents gone now, my sisters have become guardians. They, and I, are the keepers of the memories.

I write down anecdotes, wanting to get the details right. I fret over the little stuff. Did we really never lock our doors living in Cazenovia? What year was the big snowstorm of our childhoods in Connecticut? I remember Mom sent Bobbo out to meet us  (my sisters and I trudging in rubber snowboots through drifts chest deep, on our way home from my friend Doris’s house). But how old were we? Was it all three of us? And what year was it? Mom and Bobbo would have known these details. My sisters and I have to puzzle them out, placing our recollections together in a common picture.

The particulars are fading. They curl like the edges of old family photographs.

But these pictures make up earlier lives. It’s why we treasure old camera footage, precious cassette tapes of voices long silent. When asked what you would take first if your home was about to go up in flames, people almost always say, the family photographs. Because gazing into the eyes of an old photo is really looking back into what we looked like, and what life felt like.

It’s a way of going home.

NOTES: [1] Go to my post J’aime la Vie to learn why I stayed in Europe! © Jadi Campbell 2017. All photos © Uwe Hartmann. To see Uwe’s photos and pics from our trips go to viewpics.de.

Click here for my author page to learn more about my books and me.

Breath

Her chair is in our living room. I curl up in it cross-legged; the air around it is empty.

I wash the leather cushion and back with a damp cloth. It swivels under my touch, then stills.

Her limbs did too, shortly before she died. I gave her the ritual of a final loving massage. It was gentle touch, my palm on her forehead, my hand over her heart.

Her ragged breathing calmed. I found myself matching her breaths. You can go, it’s okay. I thought those words, and said them aloud.

Her breaths slowed. In, out. In. Out. In….. out. In.

And just like that, she was gone.

Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. A hole in the everyday has punched through the solar plexus of life’s waistcoat. I discover I can’t fill the resulting void.

My mother-in-law and I breathed together, the same air, for 24 years. I’m not able to breathe back out, because Mama’s no longer here to do it with me.

Remembering How to Feel

I have to relearn how to feel. My mother-in-law went into the hospital with a lung infection for a long week and a half. She rallied, and returned to the nursing home. I finished my third novel Grounded and began preparing it for publication on Amazon. Then Mama grew weaker again. A few days later we got the call we’d been expecting. The home phoned and said that we should come. Uwe and I had the blessing of being at her side as she died. Less than 48 hours later, my book became available.

We were busy with all the details that follow a death. People had to be contacted, and a funeral arranged, and Mama’s body transported to the town where she would be interred next to Uwe’s father. We drove down to meet with the funeral hall director and a pastor, and to visit Mama’s sister and her family. We cleaned out her room in the nursing home, sorted through the little that remained, moved furniture. The book would wait. I’d celebrate its release later. And I wanted to stay strong and present for Uwe, because these are the moments when your partner is so much more important than anything else.

When we finally got done with all the details a few days ago, I turned my attention back to a very special project that will take place next Monday, June 6th. My first-ever writing commission has been to write a story to connect an evening of Gershwin songs. In February I wrote in a 2-week blaze of inspiration for NEAT, the New English American Theater in Stuttgart.  The four singers and a pianist rehearsed the songs. A Welsh actor will read my story. All I have to do is show up and sit in the audience and marvel and enjoy the talent on the stage.

I went to a rehearsal a few nights ago and heard my story spoken aloud for the first time. It is a surreal experience to hear one’s creative work interpreted and combined into a greater artistic work. I was speechless as I watched and listened. Up to that night, I’ve been numb. I figured I could finally allow myself to feel proud, to be satisfied with all the hard work I’ve done with my writing. I gave myself permission to be excited about my book and the Gershwin evening. But when I let myself open up to feeling something emotional, a tidal wave of grief hit me. I’m mourning my mother-in-law of course. I’m grieving for her, even knowing she was ready to go and had given us the gift of waiting until we got to her bedside to leave us. One of us, Uwe or I, have visited her pretty much every other day for the two years that she lived in the nursing home near us. I don’t have to feel bad about not seeing her enough, or caring enough. But I write this in the present tense, because it’s all occurring in real time still. The birth of my book, the death of Mama, the use of my words to connect the magic of timeless songs, it all weaves together for me, I can’t separate out any of the strands. I’m a hot mess, trying to remember how to feel again. I remind myself that any one of these emotions is huge, fraught with anticipation and months or years of living and taking form and interconnecting with hopes and expectations. Love, sorrow, hope, creativity, illness, dying, death, coming into being, leaving this earthly plane…. Trying to remember how to feel any one of these emotions, let alone all of them all at once, overwhelms me.

But mostly, mostly, perhaps what I feel is gratitude. To know what I have in my mother-in-law and my art. To literally feel in body and soul how it all connects. To be able to feel again, even if it leaves me in tears.

And to know I’ve got a lot more tears in me.

NOTES: In loving memory of Margaretha Hartmann.