A Tribute to Pete Seeger

As he does every morning before leaving for work, yesterday my husband, John, kissed me and said, “Have a nice morning. Love you.” But what he does not say every morning is, “Call me when you wake up.”

I nodded, smiled, and said, “Love you too.” I rolled over, and as I started to doze, thought about why he wanted me to call: Maybe he’s going to surprise me and tell me he’s taking the afternoon off. Maybe he wants to have lunch together. At 9:30, before I even crawled out of bed, I called John.

“Did you hear?” he asked.

My breath quickened. My resting heart rate went from 58 to one hundred fifty-eight.

“What?” I said.

“Pete Seeger died last night.”

Though I had never met Pete, I felt as if I had lost a loved one. I could barely speak, and wanted to cry, but could not, probably because I could not believe he was dead. I did not want to believe that Pete, a musical icon for decades, who persevered after being blacklisted for being convicted of “contempt of congress” in 1957 after refusing to answer questions about his party affiliation, was gone. I did not want to believe that the man who co-founded the Hudson River Co-op, who stood up for First Amendment rights, who at 92 marched with a thousand demonstrators as a part of the Occupy Wall Street protests, was gone. I wanted to believe that he was still going to step up on stage with his seasoned banjo and ask the audience to sing with him, sing “If I had a Hammer” and “Where have all the Flowers Gone.”

But he was ninety-four. I almost forgot that. After all, he had surprised us and showed up at the Farm Aid concert this past September and sang “This Land is Your Land.” We sang with him. And a few days before he went into the hospital, he was chopping wood. I don’t even chop wood, and I’m forty-seven.

That evening, John and I talked about other nonagenarians we know: our neighbor, John’s dad, and the residents of the assisted living facility we perform music for. We talked about how these people might pass: pneumonia, or peacefully in their sleep, like Pete, their overstretched hearts simply unable to beat another beat. We played some of Pete’s songs – John on the guitar and me on the fiddle. We still could not believe, or accept, that he was gone.  But is Pete really gone. I mean did you see all the Facebook postings the day after he died?  Pete’s voice, his music, affected lingering change. Even President Obama said so when he called Pete ‘“America’s Tuning Fork (thank you Wikipedia).”’

It’s two days after Pete’s death and I wonder how many weeks, months, or years until it’s time to say good-bye to my father-in-law, my neighbor, the residents of the assisted living facility, and my own parents.  I wonder how many years I have left, John has left (I know this is terribly morbid, but it’s unavoidably real). Until then, though, there’s plenty of time, and space, for all of us to write, to sing, to speak-out, to do something, anything, that will keep our metaphorical banjo strings resonating. That’s what Pete would want. Image

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Past Prime

The other day, as I walked out of my condominium into the hallway, my 91-year old neighbor, Shirley, was pushing her walker along the carpet faster than she usually does. At least her daughter was with her in case she fell. But the way Shirley looked ahead, not smiling, worried me. “Is there something wrong,” I asked.

“My mom cut her shin,” Shirley’s daughter said. “It looks infected.”

Shirley, all bundled up in her puffy coat, wool hat, and gloves shuffled forward. “We should get going,” she urged her daughter.

Later that day, I visited Shirley so I could check the injury to her shin (though I don’t practice as a nurse any longer, once a nurse always a nurse). The wound, the size of a book of matches, was covered in powder-white gauze, but the surrounding area was bruised. Shirley’s skin was so thin it looked like parchment paper. I carefully felt above and below the dressing, then touched the other leg, making sure both felt equally warm – that’s one way to assess for adequate circulation. But, as I laid my protein dense palm on her wasted legs, her skin seemed to move, as if it might peel right off of her, like a peach past its ripe stage: dehydrated and wrinkled.

The next day, when I yanked the toaster plug from the socket, I cut my finger on one of the prongs. It bled for a while and stopped only after I put pressure on it for five minutes. I put a Band-aide on it, one of those fun Band-aides with a smiley face. While in bed that night, it throbbed and I had to hold it above my head to make it stop.  The next morning when I took the Band-aide off, my finger bled easily and it had a hole in it, not a deep one, but deep enough that I had to keep it covered. Four days after the injury, it still hadn’t closed. Maybe I need a butterfly stitch, I thought. Instead, I decided to keep the hole uncovered for the rest of the day. By day five the hole started to shrink, and on the seventh day it completely closed. A surface layer of missing skin was the only remaining sign of my hasty plug-yanking maneuver.

A week after I initially check on Shirley, six days after my injury, I knocked on her door, hoping that the antibiotics the doctor had prescribed for her had worked and her wound had healed.

“How’s the leg?” I asked.

“It’s better, see.” She lifted her pant leg, showing me her skinny shin. Instead of gauze, a thick black and red scab the size of a half-dollar covered the wound beneath. I ran my hand along her shin, feeling for swelling and heat – signs of infection. The weight of the scab tugged on her skin, creating a ring of creases, like a starburst.

“Keep an eye on that,” I told Shirley. “You’re skin is fragile.”

Back at my place, I slipped some bread into the toaster. Watching the elements heat up to an incendiary red, I thought about Shirley’s 91-year-old skin. How many years do I have left before my skin is as fragile as hers? I’m only forty-seven. I have forty-four more years to go – plenty of time.

The toast popped. I plucked it from the toaster, then un-plugged the cord from the socket, carefully.

Even though the hole in my finger has healed, on its own – no antibiotics, no gauze – I can’t seem to stop rubbing my thumb against the spot of missing skin.

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