Minding the Sky || The Constant Inconstant

Posted in Blogs, Gardens

July 1, 2015

I had been posed in a shoulder stand during my morning yoga practice when the words: “constant inconstant” came to mind. The last I remember writing here, so many months ago, the cherry blossoms had just peaked, the air smelled of turning earth, and we began to imagine the days of summer beauty coming upon us, suddenly, like a deer crossing the road. (https://www.whidbeylifemagazine.org/minding-the-sky-dreaming-of-buried-treasure/)

Hidden jewels  (photo by the author)

Hidden jewels (photo by the author)

The sky has changed several times since then and now we are in the full bloom of it. The light lasts late into the day, the scent of strawberries drifts up from our tiny patch in the morning sun and I have already put aside some jam to capture their beauty for a winter’s remembrance. My feet pointed at the ceiling and blood rushing to my brain, I thought: “The upside down bat laughs at the topsy-turvy world, while the constant inconstant swirls all about” and I thought—perhaps that’s what I’ll write about for this solstice season’s blog.

The phone rang. I came down from my shoulders to answer it. By the tone of the caller, I knew something life changing had happened. And indeed it had. My husband’s work partner in the Firesign Theatre, Phil Austin, aka Nick Danger, had died in the early hours of that day. The loss—to his wife and closest companion for over 44 years—Oona, to his other surviving Firesign partner, Phil Proctor, and his wife Melinda, and to us, let alone the fans, the multitudinous, wonderful, motley and colorful assortment of fans who have loyally memorized and recited lines from over 25 albums and performances over the past 50 years, is quite frankly incalculable.

The question is: what loss isn’t?

And the follow up—will the grief ever subside?

Phil Austin, aka Nick Danger   (photo from the Firesign Theatre Archive)

Phil Austin, aka Nick Danger (photo from the Firesign Theatre Archive)

In our community, we’ve shared such losses that the whole town has turned out for—and each one of us, individually and alone, has had some loss that has left us topsy-turvy, upside-down and backwards, wondering, “How will I ever come back from this?”

Sometimes it sneaks up on you when you’re not looking. Sometimes you even think you’re ready for it. When my mother died, a year and a week ago this past Sunday, I had thought, while I held her hand, or just sat in the room as she slept most of her final days away, that I would feel a relief for the end of her suffering, for the end of the life in which she was bedridden, in pain and stuck between one reality and another. I thought I was prepared for saying goodbye and letting her go to wherever she was bound to from here.

In her final days, in a moment of luminescent alertness that comes in the process of dying, she told me she was excited because when she left here, she was going to go back to school. “A big school—well, more like a medium-sized one—but big enough,” she said, modestly pleased with the prospect. “What will you study?” I asked, curious as to what she saw for herself as her next course, after here.

“I’m not sure” she said, a little daunted, as I’d asked her to describe a place she‘d never been, “I think I’ll find out when I get there, but I’m sure it will be interesting. I’ll go on ahead and get things started—we can meet up there later on.”

3Mom before she went IMG_1775

Muriel Albers Walcutt Bittel toward the end (photo by the author)

I hoped that would be true, that we’d meet up again, later on.

She was 96 and had celebrated her birthday three months earlier surrounded by family and people who loved her, in good spirits, with good cake. I see now that for her, that was her ideal goodbye party—the one at which she smiled and nodded regally, then merrily waved us off on our way as she silently made up her mind to let go and die (which three months later, to the day, she did).

I was completely wrong about being relieved when she “checked out of the hotel,” which is how we in our family refer to the d-word. I was as distraught as anyone at any age might be, losing a mother who was, like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way. Never mind that in the last years of her life, she was a flat, paper-doll semblance of her former self. The memories I had of her were rich, 3-D, and filled in all the gaps. She was funny, she had moxie, she threw a good party and had a terrific laugh. She was the mother everyone wished they’d had.

In the patient slog up to death’s door, I tried to remind her of as many of our shared joys as I could, and while she seemed to relish the stories I told her of many great times we’d had together, she also seemed distracted by the world that was visible to her just past my shoulder, attending voices only she could hear at that exact moment.

As it turned out—no, I was not relieved when she was set free from her body. I was distraught, grief-stricken, and felt as though someone had stabbed me through the chest with a sharp implement. That feeling has stayed with me, to a greater or lesser extent, ever since. Recently, I have come to the conclusion that I will never not miss her. And so it is, I think, with those people we really and truly love, who are irreplaceable in our shared lives and hearts. How could we expect to “get over it”? Prepared for loss or not, ready or not, we grieve. It is the human thing to do.

This past week my husband lost his life-long friend and working partner, Phil Austin—aka Nick Danger, the fabulously funny faux detective who sent-up the noir genre in a conflagration of cellophane sound effects. His wife, Oona and he were what Kurt Vonnegut would have seen as a duprass—a life-team of two who, together, were part of the four-man karass of the Firesign Theatre; they—Phil and Oona—were in it together, for life.

In their forty-four-year-and-counting relationship, they spent only one night apart in that entire time, and when they did, they agreed never to do that again. The grief for Oona over the loss must feel insurmountable.

Phil’s departure coincided with the weekend of the first anniversary of my mom’s death. As a result, I felt it hugely, both coming and going. Floating in the tide pool of these deep emotions, I find that the only refuge from that sense of grief is to remember.

That’s right: remember. Not avoid—but remember what I loved about my loved one that I miss so much. Because if I avoid thinking about it, I will lose the sense of who that missing person is and what was beloved about them. And then I would really lose them—forever. So as hard as it is, (and I imagine it is very hard in Charleston, S.C., right now, and locally in Langley where Bob Giswold’s family gathers this week to honor his passing) let’s remember them, think of them, see them in our mind’s eyes, and love them still.

As for my mother, I remember she was quite simply magic. A real live Magic Mommy—she made magic with birthday parties with present trees and buried treasure and backyard carnivals—and she made magic at holidays with the sort of Santa Claus you could really believe in and an Easter bunny no one would doubt, and she made magic on plain old ordinary days, because what could be better on an ordinary day than a little magic?

I don’t know how she did it. Even when I was grown and gone and living on the opposite coast of the country, my mother could suss out what I needed most at that exact moment and somehow got it to me. In my twenties, which were pre-computer days, when—if you were a writer or trying to be a writer, you needed your typewriter with you at all times—I lugged my Smith Corona electric back and forth across the country on every trip, from one end of the airport to the other, on and off trains, in and out of subways, up and down six-floor walk-ups in downtown NYC, as I looked for that illusive writing job that would finally settle me down to one place, one job, one life.

My mother witnessed this struggle with the mechanics of my life, as she met me at an airport between flights, to share a quick meal, on the way to someplace else. Finally home in Los Angeles afterwards, I was amazed when a UPS guy delivered a package to me that contained an Olympic portable, the lightest typewriter made at that time, specifically for journalists and built to fit on fold-down airline trays. I was ecstatic. My mother—the true magic mommy—was a practiced genius of observation.

I miss that about my mother—the way she had of knowing her family’s needs and making sure they were met.

Now, I lean heavily on the constantly changing nature of the sky to remind me that however things might be at this exact moment, if I wait a minute or two, or a day or two, or even a week or two—it will change—it will all change and upside down or right-side up, the constant inconstant will be at work. But there are also the permanents, the eternals, the qualities that are outside of all time/space continuums—and I am certain my mother’s thumbprint is visible even there, on my understanding of what remains in the wake of the permanent impermanence of our lives.

In the last days, as my mother’s hold on the here and now began to weaken and the life force thinned out and away from her bones draped in the luminous transparency of her vanishing flesh, she had begun to speak in that kind of beautiful poetic, symbolic way that comes of trying to say big things, summarizing huge thoughts from a lifetime of experience, in a very few words. At such a moment, she looked at me with great seriousness, and said in one short declarative sentence everything she knew to be true in this life: “Love is bigger than a big sky,” she said, saying the exact thing I needed to hear at that moment.

Love is bigger than a big sky—and the sky is always changing. Let the big wings of the one carry you through the downdrafts and the bumpy air turbulence of the other. And believe me, because my magic mommy told me so and she knows—“It will all work out,” she said with a kind certainty, “Whatever it is, it will all work out—just wait and see.”

Muriel at 96—the day after the party (photo by the author)

Muriel at 96—the day after the party (photo by the author)


If I wanted to be a magic mommy like my mother, I would be sure to take a band of appropriately aged children and playful adults to the Meerkerk Garden’s Fairy House Festival between 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 11, where supplies will be available to build your own elf and/or fairy house. $5 admission charge, unless you are 12 and under, in which case admission is free. See http://www.meerkerkgardens.org/calendar.html for details.

The last time we went there, I took some old childhood friends of mine who were visiting the island and they had a marvelous time, enjoying the spontaneous magical buildings, photo opportunities, and a picnic on the grounds. In memory of my magic mommy Muriel—I share a few pictures from that outing below.  (photos by the author)

5Four friends go to MeerkerkFour old friends set off on their adventure at Meerkerk Gardens.

6Four friends alot to see IMG_2327Odin and Agatha are excited to show their visiting friends Robear and Celeste the magic of Meerkerk Gardens.

“Where shall we go first?

Let’s tour the houses!”

That one is interesting…

8Four Friends visit unusual structure!

Let’s get a closer look!

9Four friends trying it out 2011-07-09 00.22.56

Very comfortable!

10-Four friendsLet's try this one! IMG_2342

Here’s one with a roof top garden. Love the view!

11-Four friends the girls IMG_2353

The girls like this one!

12-Four friends picture IMG_2355

I’ll snap a picture!

13-Four friends Celeste and RobearIMG_2356

We’ll use this one for our Christmas card!

14.2011-07-09 17.56.35

Picnic time for the four old friends at Meerkerk Gardens after visiting the Fairy Houses

15-Four friends time to go IMG_2368

That was fun! Time to go!


The author at work.

Judith Walcutt lives and writes on Whidbey Island. Her novel, “Memoirs of a Modern She-Noodle,” will be published in 2016 by NeoPoiesis Press. (photo by the author)


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  1. Judith’s perspective on her mother’s journey very much appreciated at this particular time in my life. Thanks, Judith.

  2. Although she probably doesn’t think so, my guess is that she’s a Magic Mommy, too. And ain’t it nice to live in a community where there are such writers with us every single day.

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