“A coward dies many deaths. The valiant never taste of death but once.” – William Shakespeare, Julius Ceaser.
Boy, Shakespeare had it so wrong.
This weekend I journeyed to my childhood home for the last time. I went down to gather with my brothers and sisters to help my Mom move from her house of fifty plus years to another house further out on Long Island. Where suburban spread had scattered my siblings who remained on the Island, my Mom stuck fast to the small house in Franklin Square, a suburb just outside of Queens and a short 35 minute train ride into New York City.
When I spoke with her earlier in the week she mentioned how everyone was going to be stopping by to help with the move. I told her, of course, that I would be down to lend my back and heart to the move and I could tell she was relieved. “Oh, that would be great!” she said. I could tell that she had landed the answer I knew she had been fishing for.
I drove down Saturday morning over the same route I had for the last twenty years. When I pulled up to the house the movers were just finishing closing the truck and I could see my Mom sitting on the stairwell that led to the upstairs with the front door wide open. It was a very warm October day and the sun drenched the house with a sort of golden-amber hue.
With my old Minolta 202 slung over my shoulder, I took some pictures of the outside of the house. “You a photographer?” one of the movers asked me. “Nah, just one of the movers,” I replied. When I stepped into the living room it was bare and the emptiness caught me completely off guard. I heard myself wheeze lightly, as if I had been sucker punched and my breath was drawn out against my own will. For the years I’d lived here, I had never seen the rooms so barren.
I hugged my Mom and thought how stoic and frail she looked. She smiled, but it was a smile of duty. She had been through a lot over the months with the sale of the house. I know the physical strain had taken its toll, but there was the emotional toll that we really never talked about. I had seen this look once before. It was at Daddy’s funeral a million years ago she wore that look: that look of uncertain weariness.
Thank God my sister Denise was there, directing the movers and my mother with the skill of Patton moving his tanks against German Panzer divisions. Together we cleaned up what remained: some clothes, a mirror, some plants, some switch-plates. We stood by the wrought iron railing that led to the upstairs, the same railing we used to slide down when we were kids. We were considering what else had to be loaded into the last of the cars when Denise unscrewed the decorative brass finial that adorned the end of the banister and tucked it into her bag. We used to do the same thing as kids but then we would use the brass ornament like a microphone and sing into it. “The new owners won’t mind if we take this,” my sister said. We kept finding pennies and nickels and dimes and quarters on the floors of the empty rooms. We would pick them up, only to find more later on. “It’s Daddy,” Denise said. “He’s trying to tell us something.” When the movers and Denise left, it was just my Mom and I. I went from room to room and took pictures. Then I just stood in each room and recalled some event that took place in each of the rooms. I touched the dark pine paneled walls of the upstairs rooms where Joe and I lived through our high school years. I stood on the exact spot where my trundle bed stood and recalled as if it were yesterday that morning when my brother-in-law climbed the stairs to wake Joe and me to give us the news about Daddy’s passing after his stroke on that day that changed everything for all of us.
I went into the garage where I had once destroyed my sister’s ten speed when I was first learning how to drive. As I was backing out of the garage one day, I accidentally hooked the frame on the car bumper onto her bike and rather than get out of the car to see what was holding it up, I simply gave the car more gas. I still owe her a bike to this day. It was in this garage that my brother Dave and I took apart the engine of an old Pontiac Le Mans Grand Prix that our neighbors gave us. I helped him do a valve and gasket job on the engine. He actually knew what he was doing; I just liked getting dirty. It was in this garage that the old Dodge Plymouth Valiant given to us by our cousins Sam and Rena lived – my Dad loved that car.
I went down the basement and found some of my old high school poetry scribbled in chalk onto a wood panel by the washing machine. There on the wall was the remnant of a Mari Evans poem: “If there be sorrow” was all that was left – the first line of the poem, the rest of the poem was all washed out but I remembered it and I recited to myself it in a dark, moist whisper: “If there be sorrow/Let it be for things/Undone, unachieved, unrealized, unattained/To these add one:/Love withheld, love restrained.”
I went outside and said goodbye to the multi-stemmed Black Birch tree in the back yard. It looked like a hydra with its many thick trunks. The many stems made it ideal for building a tree house and I remember nailing boards of plywood between the trunks, and two-by-four steps climbing high to the top of the tree. I touched the tree and said goodbye to it like it was a person.
Just next to the tree was the concrete patio extension that jutted out from the main patio that my Dad poured when he bought that brick façade barbeque pit. He built it during an era when barbeque pits were the rage. I recalled how as a kid I stood at the other end of the yard and pretended I was pitching for the Mets hurling a heavy sponge ball against the brick backstop of the pit until the brick began to give way and the façade started to crack. The barbeque pit is long gone but the concrete extension is still there, intact and as fresh as when the concrete was first poured.
I went back inside and loaded my car with a few more things. My Mom hadn’t eaten breakfast and it was 10:00AM. She was starting to shake. “Ma,” I said to her, “you’re diabetic!” Then I mouthed the words in an exaggerated deliberateness: “You have to eat!” I drove up to Dunkin Donuts and got her a croissant and cup of coffee. Afterwards, I went outside and finished off the roll of film, then put my camera into the car and walked back in.
She was on the steps again, with that same look: overwhelmed but resigned, uncertain but sure, tired but anxious. I hugged her again and tried to say something wise, offer up some verbal balm that would soothe whatever anxiety or doubts she had. Up to this point, I had been cool, nostalgic, but not really sad. I felt grateful, really, really grateful - for being able to say goodbye to this place, this sacred place in my life that had harbored me all those years. Growing up here had been nothing if not a safe haven. Whatever interior, spiritual life I possessed now as an adult was formulated here, within these walls. Then I felt the lump in my throat and that burning behind the soft of my eyes. I said nothing – I couldn’t - but my Mom did: “We had some good times here, didn’t we?” I wanted to say “yes” but I was crying. I hugged her again, nodded and turned to leave. I got in my car and drove off sobbing past the nicely trimmed Long Island lawns.
As I was composing myself in the car, trying hard not to seem psychotic (now the picture of some man sobbing in his car, alone, would barely raise an eyebrow in New York, I had been living away from New York a long time so naturally I felt self conscious) it suddenly hit me what it was that I was feeling: I was dying. I knew that I would never be back this way again. The friends I had in high school are no longer in this town; they are all over the world now, and now my Mom too would be gone. I had no business being in this neighborhood ever again. I was experiencing grief, not for the loss of some good times or old memories – but the real and actual death of who I was back then. The person I was, the one who grew up in this house, was gone – actually had been gone for some time but now the last tie was severed and it was like mourners throwing their handful of dirt onto a coffin. This was my way of experiencing the death of me as something real, something tangible.
In a way I felt a little relieved. We would be retelling the stories of the old neighborhood on any occasion we could – our family life is built around this sort of story telling. But I was free to feel sad for the loss of who I was back then. The words of the mystic Julian of Norwich suddenly came to mind: “All shall be well, and all shall be well. And in all manner of things, all shall be well.” As I heard these words bubble up from my heart, words that often comforted me, I eased into the loss like a pair of new jeans.
I headed over to the new place where in true Biegner fashion we made (what else?) but a party of the event, moving my Mom’s things into the new house thus opening another chapter, starting yet another story, beginning another epic tale to be told at some later date and time. We worked hard and ordered out for dinner together and got her settled into her new home. Like an old fashioned “barn raising”, we were tired but happy, really happy to be able to be together for something like this. Not everyone can say this. Not everyone has the ability to be together and celebrate the passing and comings of old and new things in their lives.
We do not die once but many, many times over – coward or courageous soul. During these threshold moments when we are afflicted with the blinding clarity of truth, it hits us square between the eyes and we are defenseless to stop it. When we are forced to give up our childhood home it forces us to give up at last our identity of who we thought we once were. Once we accept this identity as the sham that it is – for we are never really who we think we are, anyway - we are free to pass. It is not until we recognize these moments in our lives that we finally understand the freedom of this sort of loss. With just a bit of pain and a bitter hint of melancholy, we can let go as we move on and allow ourselves to grow just a little bit more.