AFTER DEATH, WHAT?

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This is not a philosophical question, or a religious one. It’s a question about what happens to the person sitting by a hospital bedside when the occupant of the bed, someone who was loved and cherished, becomes (suddenly or at last) “the deceased,” dies perhaps even while the sun is still shining brightly through the clean hospital windows, mocking the dark ache in the heart of the solitary survivor.

In the hospital where Bill died early in May, a four-year-old state-of-the-art hospital in upscale Princeton, New Jersey — home of a world-renowned university, of the Institute for Advanced Studies (where Albert Einstein found safe harbor after fleeing anti-Semitism in Europe during World War II), and of Westminister Choir College, whose graduates grace stages in many celebrated opera houses – in this spiffy new hospital, the person blinded by tears who holds the still-warm hand of a new cadaver simply ceases to exist.

A nurse’s aide came to wheel away the equipment that had sustained Bill’s life for the past seven days. I began to gather up my things, thinking they were about to clear the room. “You can stay for half an hour or so,” she said matter-of-factly as she left. “They won’t take him away and remake the bed before that.” People continued to walk back and forth in the hall. I had to get up to close the door.

Not that I had counted for much in the hospital before that, except as a conduit for conveying important information about Bill. In fact, “you can stay for half an hour or so” was one of only five things anyone there said to me the day Bill died. Earlier, Bill’s fourth pulmonologist had come by to report he wasn’t getting better and what did we want to do next, whereupon I told her Bill’s son and I agreed we should let him go. She nodded and said, “I wish more families were as wise as you.” And that was that. She just left. I never again saw or heard from her, although it was me who had accompanied Bill on every outpatient appointment with her and asked at least half the questions. It was also me who had brought him to her office in a wheelchair just before she checked him into the hospital because he was so weak and sick. She knew me. I had thought she was nice. But of course I wasn’t her patient. Her role as a physician ended with Bill’s death. She had no obligation to me, not even a human one. Not even to say she was so sorry.

Somewhat later, another pulmonologist came in. I had seen him briefly just once before, because he was one of four in practice together who took turns doing the hospital rounds for pulmonology cases, so that each was there only every fourth day and you never really got to know any one of them. (Maybe that’s how they keep from becoming too emotionally invested in a patient.) “You’d better notify a funeral director to come get the body afterwards,” he said. “We can only keep it overnight.” As if Bill were a left-behind package needing removal.

After they pulled out the intubation tubes and — still unconscious — Bill was rapidly slipping away, an intensive care nurse came to check that dying was proceeding properly and reprimanded me for looking at the monitor to see his oxygen level. “Don’t look there. Look at his face,” she scolded. (While I still could?) She turned off the monitor. So it was me who first noticed he had died. I held my hand against his cracked and slightly open lips but no faint breath came out. She brought in the pulmonologist who had advised calling a funeral director. He held Bill’s inert wrist for a moment, looked at the clock, and said — not to me, but to the nurse, who was taking notes — “Time of death 2:52 p.m.”

When he, the nurse, the nurse’s aide, and the equipment were gone, I called the funeral director and made arrangements to come to his office next day to pay him for what he was about to do and give him the requisite information for the death certificate. Then I kissed the forehead of the body in the bed that wasn’t Bill any more and stumbled out of the room into the hall and towards the elevator. It was a long hall. I had trouble maintaining my balance. The resident who had seen me every day for the past seven days was at the floor reception desk as I passed him. I gave him a slight nod, but not a flicker of recognition crossed his face. He might have been staring into space. I also crossed paths with the two day nurses and one of the four pulmonologists who had looked after Bill during the seven days he spent in their care. All three looked right through me.

One person noticed how erratically I was walking. It was the respiratory technician, a woman called Antonia who appeared to be in her late fifties; she had been in Bill’s room every day during the last three days of his life to adjust the respirator keeping him alive. Our eyes met, she came towards me and held out her arms. It was a big hug. My eyes began to fill again. “Will you be all right driving home?” she asked, still hugging. I nodded, because it was too hard to speak. “Be careful,” she said. “God bless.”

Of course I wasn’t all right driving home. My hands and arms shook so much I could hardly keep the wheel from going out of control as I tried to make the winding turns out of the hospital complex and back onto Route 1 South. Two other drivers gave me long and frightening honks, as if it were thanks only to them I myself had narrowly escaped being killed.

Resigning myself to the fact of Bill’s death is still very hard. But what particularly festered on the day he died, and does to a certain extent even now, is that his doctors and nurses made it so very clear they didn’t care at all about what I might be feeling. Maybe where there’s so much pain and suffering for their patients, they can’t permit themselves the humanity to be even momentarily concerned with those who survive the patients. Or maybe my experience was unique. Maybe at other hospitals it’s different. I don’t know. All I can say is that nearly three months later, I don’t remember the names of any of the four pulmonologists or the intensive care nurses. I’ll remember Antonia with gratitude for a very long time.

BEREAVEMENT ASSIGNMENT

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I’m not generally a group person. I have belonged to book groups over the years, where I invariably tend to talk a lot.  As a rule, however, I’m more comfortable meeting people one on one, rather than being one of many sitting around a conference table.

That said, Bill (in helpful mode to the end) noted from his hospital bed that I might find it comforting to join what he called a “grief group” after he was gone.  Dutifully, despite my lack of enthusiasm for groups, I found two, terming themselves “bereavement” groups.  The first, which cost $50 for six weekly sessions and by happenstance had only women participants, is over now and was not, for me, particularly helpful, other than being a place to go when I needed very much to get out of the house.  The second, also running for six weeks but free, has another two meetings scheduled and is more interesting, possibly because there are a couple of men in it who speak of their bereavement in somewhat different terms than the women in both groups have tended to do, but possibly also because the leader/coordinator is a much better counselor.

For this second, still ongoing, group there was an assignment this week: I was to write myself a letter from Bill in which he addresses what he valued and appreciated about me during the time he was facing his illness and death with such bravery, and then to reflect  on what difference this letter might make for me in my life currently. I was also cautioned not to stress about it or put myself under any pressure, and to remember there is no right or wrong.

Stress? Pressure? Me? This “assignment” was like waving catnip at a pussycat. Thirty minutes later I had sent it off, thinking, as I clicked “attach file,” that it might also make a pretty good sequel to the last piece I posted here several weeks ago. So for those of you who are wondering how I’m doing, here’s how I’m doing, as of now:

Bereavement-Group Assignment, July 26, 2016

I wrote many letters for Bill during the years we lived together – business letters and also letters to his grown children, the latter based on what he wanted to say to them but typed all lower case so as to look as if he were the one at the computer and not me.  The fact is Bill not only couldn’t really type, but also couldn’t write worth a damn (which he cheerfully acknowledged), and couldn’t spell very well either, although he had a huge vocabulary and was an easy and charming conversationalist.  It’s a wonder he got through medical school, and in French, too. (His medical degree was from the University of Geneva, in the days when very few Jewish boys were accepted by American medical schools.) So it seems extremely unlikely he would have written me a letter when he was dying.  If he had, it would have looked like the messages on the birthday cards, Valentine’s Day cards, Mother’s Day cards, and cards that came with flowers for no reason at all just because he felt like bringing flowers home that day: “For my beautifull wonderfull Nina. All my love, Bill.”

But he did tell me what he might have put in a last letter, had he thought to write it.  He told me on the evening of May 3, the last night before intubation and three days before he died; it was the last night he could still speak, although through the bi-pap mask.  I wrote it down as soon as I got home, so I would never forget it.  This is what he said:

            “It breaks my heart to see you so sad.”

             “You were the best thing that ever happened to me.”

              “You’re one in a million.”

               “I love you so much.”

                “You are wonderful and beautiful. You’re intelligent, and funny and sexy.”

                 “You’re so kind.”

                 “We had fifteen wonderful years together.”

                 “It’s all right to cry.”

                 “I hate to leave you. But I don’t want to live on a machine.”

                 “I know everything will be okay.  You’re strong, and you’ll be fine.”

 Does rereading this change anything about my days without Bill?  It doesn’t make them less painful. If anything, it reopens the raw wound of his having disappeared from my life.  I feel it’s better for me not to dwell on what is gone and irreplaceable, but just to go on putting one foot in front of the other and trust that, as he said, eventually “everything will be okay.” Maybe not “fine.” Certainly not “wonderful.”  But okay. After all, he was “one in a million,” too.

When I was somewhat younger, I used to think what you had to do in life was find the “right” person and become secure in your relationship together, and that would be the end of the story, that particular search story, anyway. I now feel nothing in life is secure, and that it’s all a journey each of us takes by ourself, with good times (if we’re lucky) that we don’t entirely appreciate while we’re passing through them, but also times after the good times that are not so good, because at bottom we remain profoundly alone, even where there are other (similarly lonely) people to keep us company at the movies.

 

 

MY DARLING BILL IS DEAD

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i.

He died at the University Medical Center of Princeton on May 6, 2016.

ii.

It was sudden, and not sudden. Although this blog has candidly addressed my thoughts and feelings as I enter late life, there have been significant and purposeful omissions. The biggest is that from its inception two and a half years ago, Bill and I both knew he had a fatal disease for which there was no hope of cure.

For a long time it was a theoretical knowledge, obscuring our horizon but not imposing much practical restriction on daily life.  Back in 2005, when we had been together only four years and still lived in Massachusetts, he felt unwell and checked himself into the ER of Mass. General.  It turned out he had been overdosing with vitamin D, which is unwise (as he should have known, being an M.D. himself).  In the course of the complete workup that hospitals are wont to do when addressing a systemic complaint, a perceived crackle in the lungs led to a scan, which led to a hospital pulmonologist showing up at his bedside to announce bluntly that, by the way, he had idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and the average life expectancy for that disease was three years.

“Idiopathic” meant, in his case, no known cause.  Fibrotic scarring of the delicate lung tissue can be generated by continued exposure to and/or inhalation of strong irritants, after which it continues even where there is no further exposure. Bill had never worked in an environment polluted with noxious substances, never smoked, never lived in a heavily trafficked inner city.  He was a psychiatrist who sat in a chair in a comfortable and well ventilated suburban office for most of his working life and listened to unhappy people talk about their problems. “Why him?” is another of life’s unanswerable questions.

Moreover, the diagnosis was inadvertent.  If he had not gone to the hospital because of the excess Vitamin D, the fibrosis would not have been discovered until one or both of the two symptoms of this hopeless disease manifested themselves: continued coughing and/or shortness of breath.  Bill was symptom-free in 2005 and remained so for eight more years. That said, it’s not a diagnosis one can forget. He took a copy of the scan with us when we moved to Princeton and began a rigorous program of what he hoped would be proactive “alternative” treatment for lung issues.

These I will not describe, other than to remark that for the rest of our time together half our freezer and refrigerator were given over to expensive, time-dated and time-consuming antioxidant substances to inhale or swallow, and that one of our two linen closets contained enough supplements to open a store, plus boxes of bottled remedies to ward off any incipient cold that might develop from a sneeze or a sore throat, because even a cold could turn into a bronchitis or a pneumonia that his compromised lungs might not be able to handle.

iii.

The threat of death by suffocation was not all Bill confronted by the time he was 83 or 84. But although several of his other medical conditions were extremely painful, they were not fatal, and all but one tended to be cyclical, so there were periods of relief.  He was brave, patient, not particularly complaining, and appreciative of everything he felt life still had to offer.  However, these other ailments distracted me, so that I didn’t note with precision when the coughing began.  Looking back without notes, I place it in the fall of 2013 — two and a half years ago, which was when I began to blog.  (I don’t think there was a connection, but I must say that although he was never a demanding man, when doing all the chores around the house and tending to him began to consume much of my time, the blog was a great help to me; it could be written at home but also connected me to the world outside.)

The coughing was awful, and incessant, and utterly exhausting.  It sounded like a large dog barking non-stop.  If I had gone out to market or the drugstore, I could hear it coming from the front bedroom or living-room when I pulled into the driveway.  One or two of the neighbors inquired.  Not wanting to explain about the fibrosis, he said he was having a bad bronchitis.  Perhaps he thought that was true.  Somewhere he had picked up the idea that if the coughing was productive, as his was (meaning it produced phlegm), it was not a fibrosis symptom.  If so, he had been misinformed.  Even if productive, that kind of coughing is a sign of fibrosis.  In any event, he found a medication, Gabapentin, which suppressed the cough (although not the cause) and another year went by.  He could still climb the stairs in the condo without getting out of breath, and if he seemed to tire on short walks more quickly than before, that could be attributed to age. The last time we strolled the paths in Marquand Park together, in May 2014 (a visit memorialized in this blog with many photos of the trees he loved), he needed to rest on a bench halfway along.

iv.

At the end of 2014, the stairs became more difficult for him and we began the search for a pulmonologist to work with.  We did not revisit a second time the full-of-himself head honcho at Columbia Presbyterian in New York who had replied to Bill’s initial question, “How long do I have?” with a shrug and the curt, “Pick a number.”

In Princeton, the kindly fellow who ran the pulmonary rehabilitation lab at the University Medical Center where Bill would die a year and a half later told him he was off the bell curve for death from pulmonary fibrosis because he was still alive nine and a half years after diagnosis. That was cheering but also wrong. As we were told by the third pulmonologist, who took over when the kindly fellow retired, the clock begins to run from manifestation of symptoms, which is usually when the disease is diagnosed, and not from the time of an inadvertent diagnosis made when there were not yet symptoms.

Oxygen entered our house.  Medicare paid for a large concentrator with a fifty-foot cannula attached. (Easy to trip over.)  It stood at the foot of the stairs, so the cannula would reach Bill’s side of the bed in the master bedroom.  He didn’t need it for a while. He did need the seven-pound portable rechargeable oxygen concentrator that could be carried, with effort, in a shoulder bag or a backpack whenever he left the house or did anything requiring exertion. It had to be recharged every two hours or so, which meant we couldn’t stay out very long.  By now, I was doing all the driving anyway.

There was also Esbriet, an obscenely costly prescription medication the FDA had just approved; in Europe it had been shown to delay the development of the fibrosis somewhat if taken at maximum dose.  Bill was never able to achieve the maximum dose.  Even a two-thirds dose closed his esophagus so he couldn’t swallow, made him round-the-clock nauseous, and removed all his appetite, so that he lost significant weight — for him, always trim-to-slender, not a good thing. The third pulmonologist thought his problems with it might be age-related; younger patients seemed to tolerate it better. He recommended stopping it entirely or else trying an alternative and equally costly new drug, Ofev, that similarly slowed fibrosis development but had a different, although equally undesirable, side effect: constant and urgent diarrhea. Bill rejected the alternative without trial.

v.

At the beginning of 2016, a fourth pulmonologist arrived at the University Medical Center. She seemed empathetic and had a father with emphysema and his own oxygen concentrator at the foot of the stairs.  That may not have been the best of reasons to switch, but Bill wanted to feel comfortable with his doctor, which was probably as important as anything at this point. She put him on oxygen 24/7, which meant he began using the fifty-foot cannula day and night. Essentially, he was trapped in the house. It also rubbed sores on the tops of his ears. We had to put moleskin rectangles there.

The pulmonologist at Mass. General who had said the average life expectancy was three years did not offer detailed statistics.  50% of pulmonary fibrosis patients live five years from onset of symptoms; the other 50% don’t.  Since the coughing had not begun till the fall of 2013, I calculated that with some luck we might have another two or two and a half years together. Bill, tethered to his tubular lifeline, wanted to believe me but I think now probably realized it was not likely to happen.  He read books about the meaning of life, listened to Baroque music, watched nature videos, and slept more. We also held hands much of the time, even as we fell asleep.  I felt he was drifting into some space in his mind where I couldn’t follow, seeking to make peace with death.  Someone commented on this blog that the few and sporadic pieces I managed to post in 2016  were very dark.  Of course they were: It was just too hard to be lighthearted, even in a virtual world that wasn’t our real one.

vi.

Bill turned 88 on January 27.  After he died, I found in the recent Google history of his iPad the question, “What percent of people live to 88?”  Was he trying to comfort himself?  April 13 was our fifteenth anniversary but it was raining, so we postponed celebration.  A few days later, he made the effort to shower, shave and dress nicely; we went out to dinner at a local Italian restaurant. (He loved pasta to the end.)  I let him out at the door with his portable oxygen, parked, and walked back to join him.  Although neither of us knew it, it would be our last outing together.

Near the end of April, I came down with the worst flu I had had in forty years (despite our both having had the recommended flu and pneumonia shots the prior fall).  For four days, I could hardly get up in the morning.   Of course, he caught it from me.  Just as I was beginning to recover, he sank fast. He fell out of bed the following afternoon, so weak I couldn’t help him off the floor.  I had to call a neighbor and her teenage son; the three of us managed to hoist him onto the mattress. That night it happened again, at one in the morning.  This time I called the police. They sent an ambulance and the EMTs, as well as a young police officer.  The head EMT wanted to take him to the hospital, but Bill refused and signed a paper to that effect.  However, the following day, his fourth pulmonologist insisted I bring him in.  He had to rest several times between the door and the car. When we reached the hospital, I brought a wheelchair out and helped him and his portable oxygen into it, parked, and came back for him.  I had never pushed him in a wheelchair before and was picturing in my mind that I might be doing that from now on.  I still thought there would be a “now on.”

vii.

He arrived on a Friday. He died the following Friday.  A nasal swab indicated that what we both had had was a viral flu, which in his case had turned into viral pneumonia with a probable overlay of bacterial pneumonia.  For three days, while he remained relatively upbeat, they pumped him full of steroids, antibiotics, anti-viral medication and much more oxygen than the home concentrator could generate, but were unable to reverse the infection in his lungs. They then suggested a bi-pap mask, which would prevent him from eating.  They also explained that they couldn’t leave him on it long,  and the next step would be intubation (breathing on a respirator) followed, if that didn’t work, by a tracheotomy.  Bill adamantly rejected the idea of tracheotomy; he refused to live connected to tubes and machines.

At first he decided against intubation as well, knowing that if it didn’t assist him in beginning to breathe on his own, he would never come off it, meaning when they removed the tubes, he would die.  But then on Tuesday, he changed his mind. One of the hospital pulmonologists was encouraging intubation because with the extra time it could provide, the medication might eliminate the infection and he would have another two or three months of life. Eventually, he agreed.  “Let’s give it a shot,” he said.

viii.

I spent Tuesday night at the hospital.  We both knew it might be our last night together, because intubation involves so much morphine that he would be unconscious from then on.  But we had time to tell each other most of what we wanted to say.  When I couldn’t quite understand him through the bi-pap mask, he wrote in a little notebook I still have in my bag. I did most of the crying. He said he wasn’t afraid to die anymore, that slipping away under morphine was not a bad way to go, and that he was only sorry he was leaving me.  He also said many other things I shall treasure all my life, but they are not to share.

By Friday morning, it was clear that intubation was an exercise in futility; it was not helping him breathe on his own. The doctors asked if I wanted to continue. I called Bill’s son in California, with whom I had been in daily contact. He agreed we should let him go. I had asked the attending that day how long Bill might live when removed from the respirator.  He said a few hours, or even a day. They removed the tubes at 2:35 in the afternoon.  He was pronounced dead at 2:52.  I sat by his side, and held his hand, and watched the blood drain from his face.  Although the hand remained warm for a while, his face turned yellow.  Whatever was lying in the bed wasn’t Bill any more.  Bill was gone.

SEX AT NINETY-ONE

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Going to high school on the subway by myself at twelve and a half, I sometimes eyed women who looked to be about thirty and wondered if they could possibly still be doing “it.”   Life disabused me of such naivete. By the time I myself neared thirty, I was newly separated from a three-times-a-week husband and found myself dying for it (no longer in quotation marks) after just a couple of weeks of abstinence.

The psychotherapist I was then seeing assured me these cravings were normal and that human sexual appetite continued practically into the grave. One of his patients was a ninety-year-old widower who had a weekly appointment with a prostitute he particularly liked. Once a week at ninety! Of course, the therapist didn’t specifically discuss what they were doing together. Nor did I care; at twenty-nine I had neither hands-on experience nor theoretical knowledge concerning the various kinds of disappointments and failures with which aging equipment too often needs to contend. Nonetheless, if in fact the therapist’s report was accurate –and why shouldn’t it have been? – these paid encounters must have produced positive results or the ninety-year-old patient wouldn’t have continued them.

Avid readers should of course recognize that such piggyback hearsay, from elderly client to psychotherapist to me to you, is not admissible evidence in a court of law. But as I myself grew older, which meant the applicant pool in which I could go fishing when unpartnered began to shrink for various reasons none of which need exploration here, I occasionally thought back to the ninety-year-old. Aging ladies, if you too are beginning to feel opportunity-challenged, take heart. The next part of my narrative has nothing piggyback about it. It’s cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die true, and happened not so long ago either.

But first, some back story. The separation from the three-times-a-week husband occurred early in November 1960, at which time I was working on Madison Avenue as a copywriter. A client invited me to a masked New Year’s Eve ball. We were to come as our favorite eighteenth century characters. How romantic! Sure enough, as I was wandering around in my rented empire white dress (from the Napoleonic part of the century) with a white silk mask covering my eyes, there came a loud rapping at the door. A tall Venetian doge with dark hair, black cape, black mask and black staff burst in, cased the room, and found me. As explained above, I was ripe for the picking. At midnight, the masks came off. The doge, transformed into a most attractive thirty-six-year-old Harvard graduate, kissed me and took me home to my nearly bare new one-room apartment, where we danced till three in the morning to Frank Sinatra exhorting us from my portable victrola to take it nice and easy. The next day (after I had reported back to the psychotherapist, who gave provisional approval), we crossed “Go” and 1961 was off to a great start.

He had the same first name as my first husband, but that name by then brought up such odious associations that I thought and spoke of the desirable masked man only by his family name, which also made me feel quite sophisticated. (I was a very young twenty-nine.)  McDonnell (let’s call him) was a terrific lover. He cared as much about giving pleasure as getting it. “I am a good cocksman,” he crowed one night, explaining how he had learned four or five years before to hold it for a long time.

He was also extremely poor husband material. Not that I was looking to marry again just yet; it would be a while before I had fully and legally untangled myself from the first husband, not to mention the time needed to recover from the emotional battering of that first marriage. But taking the long view, it must be said that McDonnell had already been married and divorced twice, and was trying to survive in Manhattan on the $6,000 a year left to him after deductions from his salary for alimony and support of the three young children of his first marriage. A philosophy major in college, he hated his job as Personnel Director of a large insurance company. He occupied a single room in a residential hotel with a good address and wore (in rotation) three gently used Brooks Brothers suits from Gentlemen’s Resale. When we went out, we often ate $3 suppers at Original Joe’s, off Third Avenue. He liked Gibsons, which were extremely dry martinis with cocktail onions instead of olives at the bottom of the glass. He probably liked them rather too much. However, he didn’t start drinking till 5 o’clock and the Gibsons never interfered with what went on in bed, so I was probably less judgmental than I ought to have been. I even kept gin and cocktail onions in the one-room apartment for him.

About a week after we met, he also sent me the most beautiful and poetic love letter I have ever received. It was written in his office when he was supposed to be working, blue ink on three pages of closely lined yellow legal paper. All I remember of it now is that we were in the Garden of Eden, and God didn’t know about us yet, and the writer of the letter was going to chase and chase me until I could run no more and fell down. It ended, “I am your you, you are my me. I love, love, love, love, love you.”

But did he ever become my me?  I think not.  I was certainly somewhat in awe of him, with his haut-Wasp inflections and what I thought of as his deep knowledge of the world. And especially at the beginning, I was extremely pleased and happy he was in my life. He made me feel like a desirable woman again. However, he also caused distress and then pain, probably unintentionally, by keeping me always at arm’s length, with the result that throughout the year we spent together we really led separate lives. He didn’t want to socialize as a couple (except with a few of my friends, when it was convenient for him), or to meet my parents when they came east to visit me, or to talk seriously about anything. We never spoke on the phone, except to arrange meetings. Nor do I think he ever really loved me, despite his facility with the written word. By fall, it was clear he was developing a roving eye. He began to drift off. He called less regularly. We saw each other only every other week. When I finally worked up courage to ask what was going on, he confessed he was trying to maintain two relationships at once, the newer being with a married lady. (She eventually gave him crabs.) That was it for essentially old-fashioned me. Four months later (and crab-free), he tried to come back, but the psychotherapist helped stiffen my spine. It was time to move on.

Afterwards, I spotted him on the streets of Manhattan only once, in the late 1970’s. I was now again a wife, mother of two young boys, and walking our golden retriever along the curb of West 86th Street on a Friday evening when suddenly a tall man strode swiftly towards me out of the dusk. My heart jumped with recognition. McDonnell. He looked just the same. By contrast, I looked awful – ten pounds heavier, bad hair, disheveled and damp from having made and cleared away dinner, with a stained apron still on under my unbuttoned coat. I swiveled to the side, hoping he wouldn’t see me, and he went right by, intent on his destination, which turned out to be an apartment house near Central Park. I was pretty sure there must have been a lady friend in that building. He had the eager look on his face I associated with Gibson-lubricated anticipation of a romantic interlude.

In the fall of 1995, my older son moved back to New York for a job after graduate school and I came down to visit from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was then living. I would be arriving before he got off work, so I needed to fill a couple of hours until we could have dinner together. Almost all my former friends had moved away, but I found McDonnell in the Manhattan phone book and called a few days before my shuttle flight. We arranged to meet for a drink at a well-known watering hole in the East 20’s. He didn’t sound especially enthusiastic, but that may be because my call came out of the blue, after (for him) about thirty-four years. However, he certainly knew my name and voice.

I was now sixty-four, he was seventy-one, and I wasn’t at all sure I would recognize him. But I knew I looked pretty good this time. I had become a well-paid lawyer, and money buys gym membership, a good hairdresser, nice clothes, tasteful makeup. I was also at liberty. Truth be told, if circumstances had been favorable I might have considered a reprise. Old friend and all that. I waited across the nearly deserted street from the appointed place until someone came along on the other side. I knew his purposeful walk at once.

Although still trim and despite his years looking otherwise not much changed except for a few grey streaks in his dark hair, he sounded petulant over our glasses of Pinot Grigio. He was living in Brooklyn Heights with a patent lawyer of Scandinavian origins about whom he couldn’t stop complaining; she had got fat during their five years together, she was sloppy, she bought too many clothes, she had no interest in art or literature, she didn’t understand boundaries. Afterwards he filled me in on what else had been going on with him during the previous thirty-four years: a third marriage, fourth child, third divorce, grungy jobs (including night word-processing at a law firm) that permitted him to write a failed novel, and then a modest family inheritance which freed him from the necessity of supporting himself, bought him a tiny studio apartment in the East 90’s just below Spanish Harlem (then being occupied by the fourth child, now grown), and permitted him to travel a bit. He had almost no curiosity about me. We each paid for our own wine and parted with pecks on the cheek and obligatory murmurs about keeping in touch.

Although often privately critical, I am almost always loyal. Now that we had, as it were, reconnected, I began to send McDonnell seasons’ greetings most years. Each was politely but minimally answered, sometimes two months late, in a familiar handwriting which had become mysteriously tiny and crabbed. In 2000, we met for another drink, at the same place, when my son became engaged and I came to New York for a lunch given by the bride’s mother for the bridesmaids, the bride and me. His “drink” was now coffee. He’d gone on the wagon when he finally left the Scandinavian and moved back into his studio apartment. I was sixty-nine, he was seventy-six. On inquiry, he declared himself to be quite fit and well. He had also become spiritual, he said. He had a  Maharishi with whom he spent summers in the Berkshires. He did yoga twice a day, took a marvelous powder every morning called Green Magma, then walked around the reservoir, rain or shine. In the afternoons, he looked after his investments and meditated.  Gone were the Brooks Brothers suits and cotton oxford button-down shirts; he looked a trifle shabby in a worn pullover sweater under a tweed jacket out at the elbow. But he did have a (new) lady friend in White Plains with whom he spent every weekend. Cocksman to the end, I thought. God bless.

The following year I met Bill and we began living together. We also regaled each other with tales of our respective pasts. At seventy and seventy-three, why be coy? Eventually, we came to McDonnell. “Have him to lunch if you want,” said Bill. “If he’s ever up here to see his guru.” (Neither of us are guru-minded.) And so it came to pass that McDonnell did indeed have lunch with us in Cambridge in 2004 on his way to a summer of spirituality in the western part of Massachusetts. He was still without a perceptible stoop, and retained a full head of hair, although it had become entirely grey. (Hey, he was eighty.) He also displayed excellent company manners. It was as if there had never been anything between us. We three discussed castles in the south of France, good places to stay in Tuscany, a charming little guidebook written in French in the eighteenth century he told us about, the name of which now escapes me. There was also some chat about minstrelsy. On leaving, he pronounced the meal delightful. “Come again,” we urged. “Mmmm,” he agreed noncommitally.

Then we moved to Princeton, which is much closer to New York than Cambridge. As old friends became ill and began to die, I would occasionally mentally calculate McDonnell’s age. The year he turned eighty-four, I suggested we have lunch together the next time I came to the city to visit my new grandchildren. We settled on a day, he named a favorite place in his neighborhood, and then got a cold so the lunch never came off. I abandoned desultory efforts to stay in touch. Even stopped sending holiday cards. Time marched on. Four years after that, which was three years ago, when he was eighty-eight, he inquired by email: “Weren’t we supposed to have lunch a while ago?” I reminded him about his having had a cold and added that I didn’t come in much any more, but was going to an opera matinee in the near future and if he wanted to meet at Lincoln Center for a quick lunch at the restaurant inside Avery Fisher Hall before the curtain went up at the Met, that would be fine. It was the first time he had ever initiated a get-together. In retrospect, the fact that it was three years ago was significant.

I hadn’t seen him since the Cambridge lunch eight years before, but assumed I would still be able to spot him when he showed up. I was wrong. I waited alone in the deserted lobby of Avery Fisher for some time. Then a strange figure came up an internal staircase from the basement level. He wore a clownish red knit cap with a pompom on top, a dull grey cotton padded coat, and a green wooly scarf tied clumsily around his neck.  The figure wandered about uncertainly. He was tall. Although he looked nothing like any version of McDonnell I could remember, the height decided me. Who else could it be? I rose and addressed him. The responsive voice was somewhat shaky, but the haut-Wasp inflections were impeccably in place. It was indeed he.

As soon as I identified myself, he gave me a warm and intimate smile. Of course he recognized me! He had such wonderful memories of me! Wonderful memories! He leaned forward very close, as if it were 1962. I pulled a few steps back, involuntarily. I was eighty-one. I tried to picture my twenty-nine-year-old self naked and spread-eagled on her back.  “I’ll bet you do,” I said, perhaps more acidly than he deserved.

He had in the past eight years become a stranger with no recognizable similarities to any of the prior McDonnells I could recollect.  When we entered the restaurant, he seemed so unsure of himself  I felt I shouldn’t have brought him there. He pulled off the silly knit cap to reveal a shock of thick snow white hair. His once dark eyebrows were sparse, and he had a black mole on his neck I didn’t remember. When he slipped out of his unusual coat, I noticed a large moth hole near the neckline of the old yellow merino wool sweater he had on underneath. He didn’t know what to order. I suspected most of the offerings might be too expensive for him in his currently threadbare condition and suggested the frittata, which was the most reasonably priced. He didn’t know what a frittata was, but agreed it would be all right when he heard it was essentially Italian fried eggs. When it came, he asked me how to eat it.

I tried to bring up pleasant memories. In February 1961 he had bought me a copy of John Updike’s Rabbit Run for Valentine’s Day the week it came out and written a wouldn’t-it-be-nice-if inscription on the flyleaf: “For darling Nina, from the author.” He didn’t remember. For my thirtieth birthday, his gift had been the collected poems of Cavafy, of whom I had not yet heard. “Did I do that? Marvelous poet,” he said, accepting my Parker roll after he had consumed his own. And he had no recollection whatsoever of having hand-written the three-page love letter about the Garden of Eden.  He said only one thing about our mutual past: “We were so happy. Why did it end?” I told him he had left me for a married woman who gave him crabs. The crabs he did remember. “Oh yes,” he said, wrinkling his nose in disgust. Then he shook his head a few times, presumably at himself.

I paid for my own share of the lunch; he didn’t argue or resist. At my request, he walked me across Lincoln Center to the opera house. There was another opera in my matinee subscription a month later, but when I suggested we might meet again before that performance, he gave a vague smile without agreeing. I didn’t press it. He assured me he’d be fine going home on the subway by himself. It was the last time I saw him.

But not the last time I heard from him. (Yes, we have arrived at the climax of my story!) Last December he suddenly popped up in my email box, without a subject line. By now, he was 91. I quote the email in its entirety:

Woke up thinking about you! How are you? Fondly,  E__.

“What do you suppose he wants?” I asked Bill.

Bill thought McDonnell must be lonely, living alone in a grim little rear room on the third floor of a brownstone in a New York City very much changed from the years of his prime.  Bill is getting up in years himself, and because he doesn’t go out much anymore he welcomes company. He had pleasant memories of the Cambridge lunch and the talk about the south of France.  He suggested I invite McDonnell to Princeton for another visit.  So I did.

I have reviewed the email I sent this aged man who Bill and I agreed must be lonely. In light of what followed, I was clearly too warm. I said his email was synchronicity, because I had been thinking of him too. (Not entirely a falsehood; I do occasionally check the internet to learn whether those whom I know or knew continue alive.)  I inquired as to whether he could still get himself to Penn Station, issued the invitation (with instructions as to how to reach us), offered my two phone numbers, and ended unwisely: “Your little email opened the door to many memories safely tucked away in the basement of my consciousness, beginning with that masked ball on December 31, 1960. Fifty-five years ago.  Ball is now in your court. I’m dancing back and forth on the service line waiting for a return.”  (An instance of extending a metaphor too far.) Moreover, and much to my subsequent chagrin, I signed it, “Hugs.”

His immediate response was captioned “Fire!”

(Fire?)

Thanks for your ready response. It instantly lights a fire. I’d love to be with you and will reply more fully later tonight. E___.

Another email came two hours later, captioned “Hot!”

 (Hot?)

I just left word on the two phone numbers you gave me and am dying to hear from you. E___.

So I had to call him back.  It was 10:30 in the evening, rather later than people of our generation are used to calling, but if he was “dying to hear from me,” so be it. The conversation was extremely peculiar.  Sounding both happy and hesitant, he said he would be glad to make the trip to Princeton but had no experience with the protocol.  Protocol?  I explained again where to buy a round-trip ticket, which train(s) to take, and that I’d pick him up at the station.  If it was a nice day, we could have a little tour of Princeton and then come back to the house for lunch with Bill.  He had met Bill in Cambridge, remember? McDonnell didn’t remember.  Then he inquired into my feelings about the visit.  Feelings?  He pressed on: “Yes, how do you feel about me?”

“Well, I feel friendly,” I began. “What did you think?”

“No, I mean what is your mood? Is it warm?”

Oh God.  “My mood? What do you want me to say, E_____?  I have fond memories of you. But we haven’t known each other for more than half a century.”

“Do you want us to know each other again?”

This back and forth went on for what felt like an eternity. He assured me he hadn’t been in a relationship for three years. (Which explained his getting in touch prior to our Lincoln Center meeting three years before.) He also made reference again to our supposed past happiness together. Don’t ask how I finally managed to extricate myself.

Five minutes after we hung up, a third email arrived.

Dear Nina,

What I was hoping was that you might be in the mood for having sex with me, either chez-vous in Princeton, or here on 96th Street. I hope this directness doesn’t offend you.

That’s what I meant when I asked about the “protocol” — the having of sex with another man’s wife, in the husband’s presence (or at least knowledge), which is what I suppose a visit to Princeton might entail. (Please excuse the expression.) I’ve never done that before.

Anyway what I’d like to propose for openers is: on any day you feel like it, come to town for luncheon with me where I usually have dinner when I eat out at the Corner Cafe (they serve wine) on Third Avenue and 92nd (or so) at, 1 p.m., followed by letting me show you my apartment and so forth, and then putting you in a taxi for Penn Station.

What about it?  E______.

You want to know what happened next, don’t you?  Although to be desired at eighty-four is nothing to sneeze at, even if the desirer has become unappealing and the suggestion is nuts, I’ve always been serially monogamous and it’s too late to teach me new tricks now, even if I had wanted to learn them, which in this instance I definitely didn’t.

E_____,

I understood perfectly what you meant on the telephone, and thought I had disabused you of your fantasies. Apparently not.

What you propose is out of the question. I am eighty-four and have no desire to “have sex” with a nearly ninety-two year old man, whatever our relatively brief relationship may have been fifty-five years ago. Nor do I have any desire to see your apartment “and so forth.” If my email suggested anything to the contrary, you misread it.

In light of your hopes, which are entirely unrealistic and disconnected from life as I know it, I must also withdraw the invitation to Princeton.

Good luck in your quest.

Nina

At two in the morning, he replied:

I’m sorry I jumped to too many conclusions, Nina. All the best. E_____.

And thus, dear readers, I cannot provide more specifics about what this ancient lover from my long-ago past might have meant by “having sex.” Was it Clintonian sex (excluding vaginal intromission)?  Would it have required assiduous oral or manual assistance from me?  He was certainly hot to trot, and seemed confident all would be well, assuming my assent. I conclude from this extraordinary and entirely unexpected episode in my very late life that there must be some truth in old saws.  Practice does make perfect. Sow and you shall reap.  You don’t lose it if you keep using it.

Also, piggyback hearsay or no, my psychotherapist told the truth.

QUESTIONS IN THE MARGIN

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When I was in college, I once blurted out in a literature seminar class about a Shakespeare tragedy  (Lear, I think):  “But what does it mean for me?”  The professor smiled gently, which meant it was all right for everyone else to laugh, and I never again asked that sort of question.  At least not so nakedly, and certainly not aloud.

Of course, this took place long ago.  Before the beginning of adult life, so to speak. These days, much nearer its ending, I seem to have begun again to make similar queries about my reading. Perhaps the self-centeredness of youth, so long suppressed in the interests of family well-being and societal give-and-take, arises again as obligations and companions become fewer and one finds oneself more and more alone with reading matter and thoughts.  Now I find myself underlining. Occasionally, I even write nearly undecipherable comments in the margin; they are baldly about me in my declining years, irrespective of the thrust of the argument or narrative I am reading, which may be going somewhere else entirely.

***

One:  In a book for the general reader called Stumbling on Happiness, the author — Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard — explains, amusingly, that few people realize psychologists all take a vow that at some point in their professional lives they will publish a book or chapter or article that contains the sentence: “The human being is the only animal that…”  They can finish The Sentence any way they like but also understand that whatever else they may have accomplished professionally, they will be remembered (if at all) for that sentence. He then goes on:

I have never before written The Sentence, but I’d like to do so now, with you as my witness. The human being is the only animal that thinks about the future.  Now let me say up front that I’ve had cats, I’ve had dogs, I’ve had gerbils, mice, goldfish, and crabs (no not that kind), and I do recognize that nonhuman animals often act as though they have the capacity to think about the future. But ….[u]ntil a chimp weeps at the thought of growing old alone, or smiles as it contemplates its summer vacation, or turns down a Fudgsicle because it already looks too fat in shorts, I will stand by my version of The Sentence. We think about the future in a way that no other animal can, does, or ever has, and this simple, ubiquitous, ordinary act, is a defining feature of our humanity.

My question in the margin disregarded the humor.  I demanded of Gilbert: “And what of the human being who can identify no remaining future worth living for? Is weeping all there is?”

***

Two: When Breath Becomes Air is a touching fragment of a book by Paul Kalanithi, a highly promising young neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer just as he was finishing his training and died at the age of 37 while writing his story.  (His wife completed it in an epilogue to the book.)  He describes what confirmed him in his choice of neurosurgery as his specialty in the following passage:

While all doctors treat diseases, neurosurgeons work in the crucible of identity: every operation on the brain is, by necessity, a manipulation of the substance of our selves, and every conversation with a patient undergoing brain surgery cannot help but confront this fact…. At those critical junctures, the question is not simply whether to live or die but what kind of life is worth living. Would you trade your ability — or your mother’s — to talk for a few extra months of mute life? The expansion of your visual blind spot in exchange for eliminating the small possibility of a fatal brain hemorrhage? Your right hand’s function to stop seizures? … Because the brain mediates our experience of the world, any neurosurgical problem forces a patient and family, ideally with a doctor as a guide, to answer this question: What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?

Without having to confront the trauma of brain surgery, Kalanithi’s question nevertheless resonates with me.  As one begins to experience the admittedly much slower but inexorable decline in one’s capacities that accompanies (the trauma of?) aging, it’s difficult sometimes to avoid asking: “What does make life meaningful enough to make one want to get out of bed in the morning if one still can, or at least sit up, and get on with whatever life is left?

***

Three: Somewhat more positive are the views expressed by the late Henning Mankell in a compilation of essays, written while he was dying of cancer, called Quicksand: What It Means to Be a Human Being. (Mankell is best known for his Inspector Wallander mysteries, which have been filmed both in Sweden and by Kenneth Branagh in England; both sets are available on Netflix.)  I haven’t yet read Quicksand, but did read a review of it by Sheena Joughin in The Times Literary Supplement for March 4, 2016. Thinking of life as quicksand is unsettling, but as one grows older seems more and more apt.  The following is from the review:

Quicksand is preoccupied with those who are in life yet set apart from it, as Mankell feels himself to be following his diagnosis.  He visits a church in the town of Slap to gaze at an eighteenth-century family portrait with fifteen children in it.
“What is striking and remarkable about the picture, and perhaps also frightening, is that the artist…painted the children who were already dead.” This is a consolation to Mankell….

He admits that illness has made it hard to read new books, so he returns to those he already loves, most crucially Robinson Crusoe–a story he rewrote as a child and now so important to him because Robinson, despite his isolation, is never really alone: “The reader is always with him, invisible but by his side.”….Writing his way through cancer, Mankell knows he is in an ambiguous place — between life and death, like everyone always — yet still “the same person I had been before….It was possible to live in two worlds at the same time.” Quicksand gives us that rare opportunity too.

I find heartening these observations about the power of the pictures we paint and the literature we write to keep us, in a way, not alone while we live — and still alive afterward. Should we not make pictures or write on then, till the end, leaving some aspect of ourselves still here for those who come after?

 

TELLING IT LIKE IT IS ABOUT SCALIA

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Illustration by Tom Bachtell for The New Yorker, February 29, 2016

This week’s issue of The New Yorker‘s “Talk of the Town” section opens with a stunning comment on the passing of the late Justice Antonin Scalia by Jeffrey Toobin, a staff writer, frequent contributor and author of several books on legal issues.  It stuns in the clarity with which it sums up Scalia’s work on the United States Supreme Court. I have not yet read anything like it, and what Toobin writes needs to be said.

It’s all very well not to speak ill of the dead.  But there’s an important difference between not speaking ill and stating the facts.  Now that the time for obsequies and personal encomiums to the late Justice’s wit, love of opera and dedication to his job has passed, it’s time to state plainly what he tried to accomplish during his many years on our country’s highest bench and how nearly he succeeded.

When I was in law school, we used to joke in Constitutional Law classes that the Constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is.  Humorous, but true. With the passing of Justice Scalia, we’re at a hugely important tipping point for our country.  Whether or not our obstructionist Republican-majority Senate succeeds in blocking hearings on the President’s nomination for his replacement, it’s reasonably certain these obstructionist senators are fighting a losing battle.  Here’s Toobin on the subject. (I’ve omitted some of it, for which you’ll have to go to The New Yorker itself. But this is the gist.) He says it much better than I could.

 

LOOKING BACK

by

Jeffrey Toobin

Antonin Scalia, who died this month, after nearly three decades on the Supreme Court, devoted his professional life to making the United States a less fair, less tolerant, and less admirable democracy. Fortunately, he mostly failed. Belligerent with his colleagues, dismissive of his critics, nostalgic for a world where outsiders knew their place and stayed there, Scalia represents a perfect model for everything that President Obama should avoid in a successor. The great Justices of the Supreme Court have always looked forward; their words both anticipated and helped shape the nation that the United States was becoming. Chief Justice John Marshall read the new Constitution to allow for a vibrant and progressive federal government. Louis Brandeis understood the need for that government to regulate an industrializing economy. Earl Warren saw that segregation was poison in the modern world. Scalia, in contrast, looked backward.

His revulsion toward homosexuality, a touchstone of his world view, appeared straight out of his sheltered, nineteen-forties boyhood. When, in 2003, the Court ruled that gay people could no longer be thrown in prison for having consensual sex, Scalia dissented, and wrote, “Today’s opinion is the product of a Court, which is the product of a law-profession culture, that has largely signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda, by which I mean the agenda promoted by some homosexual activists directed at eliminating the moral opprobrium that has traditionally attached to homosexual conduct.” He went on, “Many Americans do not want persons who openly engage in homosexual conduct as partners in their business, as scoutmasters for their children, as teachers in their children’s schools, or as boarders in their home. They view this as protecting themselves and their families from a life style that they believe to be immoral and destructive.”

But it was in his jurisprudence that Scalia most self-consciously looked to the past. He pioneered “originalism,” a theory holding that the Constitution should be interpreted in line with the beliefs of the white men, many of them slave owners, who ratified it in the late eighteenth century…. [He] spent thousands of words plumbing the psyches of the Framers, to conclude (wrongly, as John Paul Stevens pointed out in his dissent) that they had meant that individuals, not just members of “well-regulated” state militias, had the right to own handguns. Even Scalia’s ideological allies recognized the folly of trying to divine the “intent” of the authors of the Constitution concerning questions that those bewigged worthies could never have anticipated. During the oral argument of a challenge to a California law that required, among other things, warning labels on violent video games, Justice Samuel Alito interrupted Scalia’s harangue of a lawyer by quipping, “I think what Justice Scalia wants to know is what James Madison thought about video games. Did he enjoy them?”

Scalia described himself as an advocate of judicial restraint, who believed that the courts should defer to the democratically elected branches of government. In reality, he lunged at opportunities to overrule the work of Presidents and of legislators, especially Democrats. Scalia helped gut the Voting Rights Act, overturn McCain-Feingold and other campaign-finance rules, and, in his last official act, block President Obama’s climate-change regulations. Scalia’s reputation, like the Supreme Court’s, is also stained by his role in the majority in Bush v. Gore. His oft-repeated advice to critics of the decision was “Get over it.”

Not long ago, Scalia told an interviewer that he had cancelled his subscription to the Washington Post and received his news from the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times (owned by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church), and conservative talk radio. In this, as in his jurisprudence, he showed that he lived within the sealed bubble of contemporary conservative thought. That bubble also helps explain the Republican response to the new vacancy on the Court. Within hours of Scalia’s death, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, announced that the Senate will refuse even to allow a vote on Obama’s nominee, regardless of who he or she turns out to be. Though other Republican senators have indicated that they might be a little more flexible, at least on hearing out a nominee, the chances of a confirmation before the end of Obama’s term appear to be close to nil.

This Republican intransigence is a sign of panic, not of power. The Court now consists of four liberals (Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan) and three hard-core conservatives (Roberts, Clarence Thomas, and Alito), plus Anthony Kennedy, who usually but not always sides with the conservatives. With Scalia’s death, there is a realistic possibility of a liberal majority for the first time in two generations, since the last days of the Warren Court. A Democratic victory in November will all but assure this transformation. Republicans are heading to the barricades; Democrats were apparently too blindsided to recognize good news when they got it.

…. Scalia won a great deal more than he lost, and he and his allies succeeded in transforming American politics into a cash bazaar, with seats all but put up for bidding. But even though Scalia led a conservative majority on the Court for virtually his entire tenure, he never achieved his fondest hopes—thanks first to O’Connor and then to Kennedy. Roe v. Wade endures. Affirmative action survives. Obamacare lives. Gay rights are ascendant; the death penalty is not. (These positions are contingent, of course, and cases this year may weaken the Court’s resolve.) For all that Presidents shape the Court, the Justices rarely stray too far from public opinion. And, on the social issues where the Court has the final word, the real problem for Scalia’s heirs is that they are out of step with the rest of the nation. The public wants diversity, not intolerance; more marriages and fewer executions; less money in politics, not more. Justice Scalia’s views—passionately felt and pungently expressed though they were—now seem like so many boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

© The New Yorker 2016

REALLY DUMB STORY MAKES SENIOR CITIZENS SOB

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So here’s the story.  (Think early eighteenth century France, big pouffy dresses for the ladies, tight britches for the guys.) In a tavern in Amiens, where carriages change horses, young people are singing and laughing and gambling and drinking.  Enter a party of three:  beautiful young woman of eighteen, destined for the nunnery; her brother (or cousin, depending on whose translation of the libretto you go with), escorting her there at the behest of their father; and rich lustful old geezer (who just happened to share the carriage and immediately hankers for beautiful young woman).

Handsome impoverished (but well born and well dressed) student, name of Des Grieux, disporting himself with friends, spies beautiful young woman and falls instantly in love. “Your name?” he inquires. “Manon Lescaut, mi chiamo,” she replies in Italian, because (despite eighteenth-century France) this is a Puccini opera — with typically glorious Puccini music to less glorious tinkering by Puccini himself with the already somewhat silly story by Abbe Prevost on which the libretto is based.

Meanwhile, lustful old geezer has secretly paid tavern keeper for a swift carriage to Paris for a man and woman.  (No names are mentioned.) He is thinking himself and Manon, whom he plans to abduct. However, he is overheard by a friend of Des Grieux, who promptly informs Des Grieux of the availability of this free transportation.  Des Grieux invites beautiful young Manon to run away with him to Paris. She demurs, but without real conviction.  He tries again.  As between the nunnery and a handsome (though poor) young man of good birth who she’s just met, what do you suppose she chooses this time?  And off they go. End of Act I.

Puccini decided to skip the short period of impecunious happiness shared by the hapless lovers in favor of opening Act II in the luxurious bedroom of lustful old geezer. We learn that between acts, Manon soon tired of Parisian happiness without money and has run off, without a word to Des Grieux, to place herself under the geezer’s “protection.” Now she has gorgeous gowns, a fortune in glittering jewelry, servants galore, but life feels cold without love. After she has sung about that, Des Grieux bursts in. Manon’s brother (or cousin) has tipped him off as to her whereabouts. He is understandably wounded by her preference for worldly wealth.  She assures him she really loves only him, despite the near-irresistible appeal of bling.  They blend their voices in a practically orgasmic duet.  (You can hear it on YouTube, sung by a young passionate Placido Domingo and Renata Scotto, not really able to pass for eighteen any longer but a great singer.)  Lustful old geezer find them together and rushes off for the police. Des Grieux urges Manon to flee with him; she agrees but wastes too much time gathering up her jewels, and is arrested for prostitution — lustful old geezer’s revenge. She is hauled off to jail, to await deportation with other prostitutes to New Orleans.

I will make haste now.  In Act III, we are first at the jail and then at Le Havre, where the police are loading prostitutes one by one onto a transatlantic sailing ship.  When they call Manon’s name and she emerges, still in her expensive pouffy gown, there are gasps from the crowd at her beauty.  Someone explains she was “seduced.” Poverina!  Des Grieux, who has followed Manon, hoping to protect her, can’t stand the idea of never seeing her again and persuades the captain to take him on as cabin boy so that he can sail to America to be with her.

Act IV is just the lovers, alone in the desert outside New Orleans. (Puccini and his four other librettists had a shaky grasp of Louisiana geography.)  They have left New Orleans, where things were difficult for them, to reach a British colony. Don’t ask why. Alas, they didn’t think to bring water with them. Their clothes are in tatters. Manon is fading fast and cannot go farther. She collapses, perhaps of thirst, and urges Des Grieux to leave her while he tries to find help.  He  does go, but returns, unsuccessful.  While he is gone, she regrets her past at some length (despite the thirst). On his return, they sing of their love for each other. You might say it has taken the whole opera to get us to this point, but oh, is it ever worth it!  She sings she doesn’t want to die, he sings he doesn’t want to lose her, their voices blend, she sings there isn’t much time left so he should kiss her, he sings and does kiss her, their lips meet, she yields to death and expires in his arms, he falls upon her body with strangled sobs.

Last Saturday morning, I sat with twenty-three other people sixty and older at a three-hour presentation of all this, with lecture and projections of past performances recorded on DVD.  The presentation was provided by Westminster Choir College in preparation for a trip to New York next Saturday to see a live Met production of Manon Lescaut.  Although we had all been gently chuckling at the absurdities of the plot as it unravelled, by the time the lecturer turned up the lights at the end of Act IV there wasn’t a dry eye in the room, and some of us actually had tears running down our cheeks.

People who don’t like opera don’t seem to understand what it can do for us. Yes, the plots are usually silly.  Yes, it may be an acquired taste. But without pontificating about its power to move us deeply with heart-rending music and fine anguished voices despite story lines that test the limits of belief, I would just ask a few questions about the cathartic power of Manon Lescaut in that roomful of senior citizens last Saturday.  Even when our meaningful world begins to shrink, sometimes (as in the opera) only to you and one other person, who really wants to die?  Who wants to lose a beloved partner? Who are our tears really for?