Guest Posts, Grief

The Exploring Heart

April 30, 2017

By Debra Feiner-Coddington

Sometimes in the middle of my nights when everyone else is sleeping the beautiful things happen. In those quiet hours they always have. Nocturnal now, nocturnal forever, I pass as a day dweller because I don’t need much sleep. While everyone else breathes into their night I prowl through my house, my home, and find the simple things I miss during the hours when the sun shines and I’m too distracted to notice them. Too busy. At night when I am alone listening to the little noises: snores, the creaking of our wooden house responding to the change in the weather, I find them, little treasures waiting to be found; seen. With no distractions I become Ponce de Leon, Magellan. And my home is where I unearth discoveries.  The rippling glass of a jar holding trailmix on the counter; very old, my son Baylin unearthed it cleaning out the ramshackle mess of a storage shack. An apothecary jar. Mouth blown and hand made. The uneven glass makes me dream about whose hands made it, what they looked like, what’s been stored in it over the course of its life. What it can tell about its life before, and the stories about us it holds for the next pair of hands to fill it.

Baylin never seemed to care much about the trail mix I made for his dad who thrives on nuts and berries. But when it was time for his cross country drive to Burning Man, his last ever road trip Baylin asked, “Ma, do you mind if I take the trail mix with me?” Mind? Oh dear. Even then, when I thought he’d remain with us, when I thought we’d watch him marry and give us grandchildren, even then I was tickled that he liked my trail mix enough to want to take it on the road to feed him as he traveled. What mother complains about their children loving the food they prepare no matter how simple? Even trail mix. “Mind? No Baylin. Take it with you. I don’t mind.”

The dogs under my feet, I sprinkle out a handful of the mixture and examine the contents. Pecans are my favorites. Not just in the way they taste but because of how they look. Like perfect little tan brains. Halved. I wonder what the skulls of the tiny animals who own these pecan brains look like. Furry I decide. They have very soft fur, brown tinged with grey at the edges, ticking I think that’s called, large brown eyes reflecting gentle light and claws that don’t retract. Like tiny lemurs.

Dried ginger and cherries are the first pieces I pick out. I segregate them and eat them separately, savoring the taste and the sweetness of the sugar, knowing I should count the carbohydrates so I can cover for it with insulin. But I don’t anymore. Not so much. Diabetes means my blood sugar will rise unacceptably and when the endocrinologist checks my A1C results I’ll be scolded. And I wish I cared more.

I did before Baylin died. But Baylin’s gone and needs no trail mix for his travels or for quick snacks to fill his lanky body’s endless void. Wherever he is no food nor air is needed and I resent counting carbohydrates as I wonder what sustains my son. I pop a dried cherry in my mouth and wonder when, if ever, I’ll manage to care again. And think maybe that will never happen.

At night the wrinkled pecans I reach for are imbued with curious beauty. I wonder, is everything? In the dark of night when I become the explorer? The only one. The single one who creeps silently through the wilderness of the known. Is everything more beautiful in the quiet darkness?

As if to bring me back to earth, to whatever this reality is supposed to supply, the dogs stir. They’re weary of waiting for me to go upstairs to bed so they can follow, and decide it’s past time, and climb on the living room sofas, curling their legs into their bodies. They become doggie balls, warm. Only their eyes follow me when I disrupt their dreams of trees, grass, the smells on sign posts that are their email. For them, for the dogs, comfort rules. They have no interest in following my wanderings through a house they’re so familiar with and wish I’d climb the stairs.

I go outside instead to look at the sky. In the little clearing of our home the sky remains dark. Lights from the surrounding towns haven’t yet invaded, for which I am grateful. For which Baylin was always grateful. I search for stars and remember that the night our friend Lynn died a meteor shower was supposed to send stars shooting through the skies. But it didn’t. No shower. No stars. No show. That our friend died and the meteors withheld their promise felt like a rip-off. The star’s, “Fuck you,” it felt ultimately unfair.

And I took it personally.

Standing in the doorway staring at the black sky over the driveway, Baylin sitting on the single uneven stone step into the house, I began to curse at the sky and the missing star-shower. Half-assed meaning it. Half-assed drunk. Half-assed finished with the faith that cracked when Lynn received her diagnosis, that night I found my way back to the voices that made Baylin laugh as he got acquainted with the cartoons that periodically invade my brain.

I hurled furiously sincere and ineffective epithets, and began to rail. Began to rant. At the sky. At the lack of a show in honor of the death of our friend, “What? What? No meteors? No comets? No blazing lights? Shooting stars? No nothing? Give it up stars! Lynn’s dead!  The healthiest person on the planet dead of stage-four metastatic lung cancer? Give us a show.” I demanded, “You took Lynn, now at least give us fucking show.” Getting more animated, raucous, and louder by the minute, I begged and railed.  Relentless. Nagging and shaking my fists at the un-responding sky as Baylin laughed at my insane demands, which escalated until we disintegrated into hilarity.

It was the first night we’d laughed since the many weeks our friend Lynn began actively dying, and it felt cleansingly, shockingly good; like a beginning.  I wrap the memory of that night around me, across my shoulders like a coat; protecting me from what was to come.

Nine nights later Baylin was dead.

At twenty-six he drowned at his bachelor party fourteen hours before he was to be married, disappearing in the dark, deadcold of the Hudson River. And my newly terrible, foreign life began.

In the softness of the night while everyone sleeps I sit alone staring at the sky.  I breathe into the quiet smoking the cigarettes I quit 40 years ago, remembering Baylin’s laughter at my scolding the blue-white stars for holding back. For holding out on us.  As they do tonight.

Hugging my knees against my chest to shield my heart against the chilly air, I hold up my wishes, my hopes and my prayers to warm in the brightness of the memory.

Although she identifies to the world as being an artisan-business owner, Debra Feiner-Coddington has been a closet writer since 2nd grade, when she wrote short stories and plays she performed for her mom. Raised in New York City Debra met her husband at a blacksmithing conference. Together they built their ornamental iron business, their home and their family in New York’s Hudson Valley. In December of 2012 Debra’s 26-year-old son Daniel Baylin drowned. It was the night before he was to be married. Sitting on the couch she shared with Baylin for all of his years Debra fell into her writing. She hasn’t yet emerged.

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  • Reply Jill Goldberg April 30, 2017 at 6:49 am

    Oh wow. So beautiful. I am so sorry for your loss(es). Thank you for sharing.

  • Reply cecilia fasano April 30, 2017 at 7:58 am

    I’ve never read a description of grief such as this. It went right to my heart, to my lungs, to my watering eyes. I am so sorry for your loss. Please don’t stop writing. Thank you . xx’s

  • Reply Mark Liebenow April 30, 2017 at 7:43 pm

    This is beautiful, Debra. Although I already knew many of the details, I had not heard you speak of this so eloquently. Thank you, my friend.

  • Reply Lora May 12, 2017 at 5:16 pm

    Your writing is beautiful. Heart-wrenching. I’m so sorry. I hope you’ll write more and share it with the world.

  • Reply Cynthia Salzhauer August 24, 2020 at 1:10 pm

    Debra and Fletcher, somehow while wandering the internet I learned only almost 8 years later of your horrendous loss. They say that saying goodbye to a child is the most rending thing a person can go through and I feel for you even this many years after the fact. But reading the obituaries and the articles and your beautiful essay, Debra, gives me an idea of the beautiful person you lost. I cannot call and rub this old but never healed wound raw, I can only express myself here where you might never see it. I feel for you, I bleed for you in my heart and each time I rejoice in my own children and grandchildren I shall think of you and of the life that never reached the farther mountains of accomplishment that should have been his destiny.

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