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44


Ezra at his last birthday party, in his wedding suit, taking portraits of all his guests (Dec. 18th, 2013) Photo by Caroline Samponaro.

Ez should be 44 today. He made it to 40, which was longer than anyone expected at the time, and yet way too short by any calculation. Ok, so he got to the top of the hill without having to go over, as they say we do after 40. But the thing is, Ez couldn’t wait to get older. He loved the thought of himself as an old, dignified man, with silvery grey hair and glasses. More immediately, he was desperate to see me pregnant and to have kids in time for them to know Putney’s snuggle. He was sure our kids would be girls, who would be tomboys. He’d be a stay at home dad and I’d be a professor at nearby City College. The kids would hang out with him in the shop, with Adi and Boop at their place around the corner, with Uncles Thomas and Evans next door, and with the kids in the neighborhood as soon as they were old enough. Ez would build bike seats and bikes for every phase of their development. They’d all bike up to have lunch with me at school and he’d make dinner for us every night. Ez would be first in line to sign the kids up for NYC public schools, completely unphased by the trials and tribulations that would almost certainly entail. We’d spend the summers in Nova Scotia. He’d teach the kids to swim and sail, and how to survive the various elements. We’d do house and island together and he’d help me take care of our community of elders for whom primitive island life would be getting pretty difficult by then. If he went too long without making stuff, though, he’d get anxious, and I’d insist on staying on the island until September of each year, so at some point he’d take up boat building as a summer job. Back in the city, during fall, winter, and spring, he’d keep building bikes in one way or another for as long as he found that interesting and beautiful. He’d keep taking photographs, making movies, and cooking food. I’d read and write and maybe get to a dance class every once in awhile. Beyond that, my vision of him, us, and of his vision of us gets blurry. I guess that’s as far as we got in terms of dreams and schemes.

In his afterlife I’ve managed to keep a few of our dreams alive. Shortly after Ez died I started teaching at City College, which is hands down the best job I’ve ever had. I haven’t finished my PhD (in part because it is difficult to do while working full time), which means I get get harassed by CUNY every semester for not making “satisfactory progress”- this despite the fact that I have made progress (all but the dissertation), and that I continue to pay tuition and to teach their undergraduates for practically nothing. So that’s a drag, but also a pretty privileged problem.  And I should be able to finish my degree in the next year, at which point I can try for a permanent, salaried position. I spend the summers in Nova Scotia, taking care of the house, hanging out with the elders, learning how to survive the various elements if not how to sail (yet), soaking up the sun, and feeling at home. I’m grateful for the life and love that I’ve had and that I could have ahead of me.

And yet, I can’t seem to move through the grief or to “move on” with any grace. I just get by.  I go to work, I take care of the house in Harlem, and I communicate, more or less, with the handful of people I see on a daily basis. I’ve tried, in fits and starts, to find my way back to the people, places, and practices I love, to find new ones with whom and through which to move forward.  But one way or another, I’ve lost or withdrawn from almost every relationship and activity that ever mattered to me- most recently Putney Sue, but also friends, family members, housemates, and lovers- through death, distance, intentional and unintentional estrangement.  In the process, I’ve all but let myself die, and I hate myself for it. Ez would be so unimpressed, so frustrated with me.

Having spent today, his birthday, reflecting on all of this, I realize how much I relied on his energy, vision, and love to carry me through and to be my compass. And I can see clearly now that I’ve spent quite enough time marinating in loss. There’s simply too much to do. As Ez would say, it’s time for me to “get on with it.” I’m so glad I can still hear him.

43

Today would have been Ezra’s 43rd birthday.  The weather in NYC is the kind he liked the least- wet and unseasonably warm, yesterday’s snow melting into gray city slush.  I imagine he would have spent the day in his shop, determined to make something beautiful out of it.  In imagining this, I feel his distance.  Not his absence, as I have felt so intensely over the last two and half years, but the space-time between then and now, him and me, us and this.  I suppose that’s what happens after some number of moons and trips around the sun, especially in relation to a traveller like Ez.  But I have struggled to make sense of this particular flavor of pain, much less move through it with any grace.

The other day I saw my friend Marilyn for just a few minutes and she sensed the struggle.  She told me that movement and change- whether painful or pleasure-full- are not just facts of life; they are its essence.  Trying to fix the flux, avoid the pain, or hoard the pleasure is both futile and crazy-making.  Marilyn sent me the book that had recently reminded her of this: The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts.  I found the following passage especially helpful:

“When … you realize that you live in, that indeed you are this moment now, and no other, that apart from this there is no past and no future, you must relax and taste to the full, whether it be pleasure or pain. At once it becomes obvious why this universe exists, why conscious beings have been produced, why sensitive organs, why space, time, and change. The whole problem of justifying nature, of trying to make life mean something in terms of its future, disappears utterly. Obviously, it all exists for this moment. It is a dance, and when you are dancing you are not intent on getting somewhere… The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance.  Like music, also, it is fulfilled in each moment of its course.”

This is something I think Ezra understood without the slightest effort.  It’s how he lived and died.  I’m grateful to have been reminded of this truth and of Ez in its light.

Meanwhile, the dance goes on…

ozzie-ezzieOswald Ash (left) and Ezra Alder (right), born on November 2nd, 2016 to dear friends, Caroline and Sarah.
violet-and-broLogan Ezra Nanney (with big sister Violet Ryan), born on December 12, 2016 to my brother Tripp and his partner, Leslie.

41

snowy-500

A year ago today, on his 40th birthday, Ezra posted this “lonely photo.”  It came at the end of a blog post that recalled a long list of things he’d been able to do that year, despite his grim prognosis, and probably due in part to his choice to refuse chemo and to embrace palliative care.  He also described feeling untethered, given that his birthday and the end of 2013 had seemed like it would be his last horizon.  Ez lived five more months, during which he made many more objects and dinners, and took many more photos.

In late May, a few days before he died, we were sitting on the edge of the bed, looking out the window, and he said with joy, “It’s snowing!”… It wasn’t, of course.  Between the cancer’s progression and all the meds he was pretty disoriented.  I started to tell him gently that he was confused and to suggest he get some rest.  I’m so glad that I didn’t.  Instead I sat and watched with him, and said “Yea, isn’t it beautiful…”  Perhaps his last horizon was wintry after all.

Here’s to Ez and 40 fast years.

Big love,
Hillary

Teaching Cancer to Cry

Ezra Caldwell

Daniel Ezra Caldwell died at home on May 24, 2014, after six years with cancer. He was cared for by his wife Hillary and other family and friends, with the support of the hospice team from the Visiting Nurse Service of New York.

Born in 1973, Ezra grew up in Putney, Vermont.  As a boy, he moved from one passion to another – juggling, acting, rock climbing, building crossbows and puppets, making constant use of his fathers’ woodworking shop. From the age of eight, he spent much of each summer in northern Vermont with the Bread and Puppet Theater, performing as the baby gorilla in their annual circus. After graduating from the Buxton School in Williamstown, MA, he lived the village of Santa Marta in El Salvador for a year during the post-conflict reconstruction, working in a woodworking shop with ex-combatants.

He attended the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, first focusing on art and design but then making an unlikely switch as a complete novice to the modern dance department. After graduating, he danced for Momix and Gabriel Masson Dance, then spent a year in a masters’ program in dance at Bretton Hall, part of the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom. Here he began to use video and persuaded an entire institution that there were two of him, the twins Daniel and Ezra, as documented in abundant footage. One of them attended the masters’ program; the other was a chef in a local Thai restaurant. His cooking benefited from the year as much as his art. He left without completing the degree, stubbornly determined that a written thesis should be unnecessary for an arts degree.

On returning to New York, Ezra choreographed and performed with his own small company, at times collaborating with his musician brother, Thomas Bartlett. He had work commissioned by universities in Belgium and Holland, performed in festivals in Europe and the US, worked as artist-in-residence at Sarah Lawrence, and at dance workshops in Lima Peru.  For almost ten years, he taught at DanceSpace NY, later Dance New Amsterdam, gathering a following for his athletic and demanding classes.

In 2007 he moved away from dance and teaching, turning back to the involvement with fabrication and design that had preoccupied him since childhood, and which had been refined during summers and other stretches doing construction and cabinet making.  He had for a while been assembling bikes from components, putting them together for friends and family and dance students. But now he learned how to weld and quickly became a respected custom builder and designer, turning out his elegant Fast Boy Cycles in a shop in his brother’s basement next door.

In 2009, Ezra was married to Hillary Nanney in a fisherman’s church in the La Have Islands, Nova Scotia.  Ezra had been visiting the islands every summer since he was a boy, and he and Hillary spent many weeks over recent years kayaking, mussel gathering and exploring with their beloved dog Putney Sue.

Ezra was always, in one way or another, a performer and an artist, but he was happiest when his creative impulses locked on to the practical side of life. Beautiful bikes met his needs better than fine art. He liked performing more as a cook than as a dancer.  He created and enacted a rich, unique life and death and he never lacked an audience.

Ezra decided a few years ago to forego further treatment for his cancer, and spent most of his remaining months deeply engaged in the things that mattered most to him – making bikes and other objects, mountain biking, photographing the world around him, cooking, playing pool. As his capacities diminished, he seemed always able to adapt and find new ways to satisfy his passion for productivity and mastery.  Courageous, independent, opinionated and stubborn to the end, Ezra amazed, delighted and exhausted his family and close friends.  At the same time he entertained and inspired thousands of people through his blog, which demystified cancer, chemo and colostomy bags with flair and humor.

Ezra is survived by his wife Hillary, his brothers Zachary Caldwell, Sam Caldwell and Thomas Bartlett, sister Mary Bartlett, parents Sheridan and Edward Bartlett, nephew Gunnar Caldwell and grandfather Alexis Nason, as well as numerous cousins and other relatives.

In lieu of flowers, if you wish to make a donation in Ezra’s name, the family asks that you consider one of the following:

Recycle-A-Bicycle’s Earn-A-Bike program is a school-based program that teaches students basic bicycle mechanics through RAB curriculum. Students then volunteer time after school and earn hours in exchange for a bicycle frame. Participants build bikes for themselves, friends, and family members, too.

To donate please visit: https://secure.qgiv.com/for/rec and click on “Ezra Caldwell Memorial Fund.”

Visiting Nurse Service of New York (VNSNY) is a not-for-profit home health care agency that provides direct home care by physicians, nurses, rehabilitation therapists, psychologists, and more.  For the last year of his life, Ezra became a passionate advocate for palliative care, due largely to his experience in VNSNY’s Hospice Program, as well as the Palliative Care wing at Mt. Sinai Hospital.

To donate online, please visit: www.vnsny.org/community/support-vnsny/donate; by phone, call: 212-609-1525; or by post, send checks to: 107 E. 70th St. NY NY 10021 (Make checks payable to: Visiting Nurse Service of New York; memo: In Memory of Ezra Caldwell).