GAME CHANGER, NAME CHANGER

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Readers for whom new posts from this blog arrive via email may not have noticed. Between the last post and this one, “The Getting Old Blog” acquired a new name.  It was time.  How long can you go on “getting” old without eventually reaching your destination?

“The Getting Old Blog” began life nearly five years ago, in November 2013.  (This was after three weeks or so of baby-step experimentation in “Learning to Blog” — still out there in the ethernet if you’re interested, although I don’t see why anyone would be).  Despite the scary-sounding year of my birth (1931), I didn’t feel particularly old at 82, and thought a blog marking my passage into the “later years” might be a good place to park bits of memoir (old folks tend to look back), memoir disguised as fiction, and general reflections on what was happening to me as I reluctantly rolled towards becoming 83, and then 84, and so forth.

But as you’ve already read (two posts back in “So What Happened?”) last year was for a nanosecond the end of me. Having your heart stop beating, although they get it going again, really does change the rules of the game. Not to mention the months and months of medical and pharmaceutical tribulation that necessarily follow such a near-terminal event.  Who was I kidding with this “getting old” stuff?  I was old.  I am old.  In bed at night, with the lights out, I can still fantasize that a near-crazed-with-lust eighteen-year-old is pressing hard and stiff against my luscious seventeen-year-old body. It helps, of course, if I’m on my back and an eleven-pound cat is lying vertically on top of my mid-section or else pushing in rhythmically with its two front paws. You think that’s funny? With the lights on, I do too. I know what I look like undressed; I still have a full-length mirror. I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, but no one ever called me stupid.

One of my grandsons, who at twelve of course knows nothing of his Nana’s occasional nighttime fantasies, tried to reassure me last week that “you’re only as old as you feel.” Like many pre-adolescents he’s a sponge for grown-up expressions — even though he still lacks the life experience to know when they’re cliches. To which I immediately replied, “That’s a lot of crap!” and everyone burst out laughing, partly because it’s true, but also because 87-year-old grandmas aren’t expected to say “crap” out loud– at least not in the suburbs of Brandon, Florida.

I’ve therefore been thinking for a while of what to rename the blog. Some ideas — “While There’s Still Time” or “Near Journey’s End” — were too funereal. “What It’s Like To Be 87” was appealing; I could change the number each time I acquired another birthday. But it would be inaccurate. Each of us ages somewhat differently, and what 87 is like for me will not reflect the experience of every 87-year-old woman. I seem to be an outlier.  One example only: I know a number of near-87-year-old women who sleep with their cats but are glad — at least they say they’re glad — their sex lives are over. Hand-holding might be all right, but anything more than that: no-siree, an expression that dates them as much as anything. Bottom line: “On Being Old” seemed most descriptive without necessarily being depressing.  It’s also an accommodating title. It can encompass scraps of memoir as well as details of my life in a so-called “over-55,” but really more like “over-70” or “over-75,” community.  In fact, it will accommodate just about anything about being me at this stage of my life, whatever that stage is.

So welcome to “On Being Old.”  Don’t get hung up on the new name and go away.  It’s really just the same old same old… me.

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Selfie taken in Florida last week. (Slightly retouched but only slightly.) The sunglasses do help.

 

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NEW TRAVEL COMPANION

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Bill's oxymeter, now mine

(It’s called an oximeter.)

As you may recall, in April I made a deal with the cardiologist who had brought me back from near death in a hospital procedure room the previous December — and two months later also got me out of a-fib.   He agreed to let me go off amiodorone.  Amiodorone is the med that was keeping a-fib at bay but also making me feel like a stumbling zombie. In exchange, I was to check my heart rate every morning before I got out of bed. Any number between 60 and 100 beats a minute was good to go.  Over 100 beats? The a-fib was back!  What then? Call the cardiologist and get ready for another cardioversion.  (Allegedly a day procedure the second time.)

To check your heart rate these days, you don’t have to count your pulse beats against a stop-watch the old-fashioned way.  Now there’s the oximeter, a gadget just about the size it looks in the picture (on a desk-top) and named for the first of its two functions: determining the oxygen level in your blood.  As a pulmonary fibrosis patient, Bill had two of them, one on each floor of the house. He kept sticking a finger in one or the other just about every fifteen minutes, hoping I suppose that if he did it often enough the disappointing top number on the little screen might go up. It never did. [If you’re really curious, 95-99 is excellent, 90-95 is okay, below 90 means trouble.]

My feeling about many of Bill’s medically flavored devices was that some of them might come in handy when I got older, one way or another. As the oximeter did — because it also measures heart beats per minute. You press the bottom two sides together to open the top enough to insert a forefinger. Then you press the button near the top so the oximeter lights up and goes to work. Presto! Two numbers appear in red on the lighted screen — top one for oxygen saturation, bottom one for beats per minute.

Awful as amiodorone was for me, I was nonetheless dismayed at the price of my freedom from it. “But if I have to call you and hurry to the hospital — that means I’m chained to Princeton for life!”

“Where would you go?” asked the cardiologist. He’s a dear man, and works very hard, and really cares about his patients. But he’s only 57 and perhaps feels that old-old people don’t mind rocking away their remaining years on a porch. (Especially in Princeton.)  I cast about wildly for a destination. “Well, Florida?” I began.  (Actually I dislike Florida. Heat, hurricanes, huge highways everywhere — and flat as a pancake.). “I have a son and grandchildren in Florida.”

Florida was apparently all right with the cardiologist.  I could still call him from Florida and fly home.  A day or two in a-fib might not matter too much with all the other medication I was still taking. “And suppose I want to fly to Europe?” (I think big.)  At this he looked dubious.  “Where in Europe?”

I had no immediate plans; that wasn’t the point.  I wanted him to give me back freedom, as much freedom as I could manage at my age. So I improvised: “Maybe London, Paris, the south of France?  Places where I can speak the language? (This was stretching it; my unused French has eroded badly with the years, but the cardiologist didn’t know that.)  “Or Israel!” I declared. “Bill’s favorite niece lives in Israel. I might want to go there!”

The cardiologist brightened up.  “Good hospitals in Israel,” he declared. “If you revert, have the Israeli hospital doctor call me; we’ll take it from there. But don’t forget to buy trip cancellation insurance.”

An imprimatur! I could get out of Princeton (nice as it may be) and go somewhere else.  No crossing oceans yet. First I have to learn to be an old old person in an airport. But make hay while the sun shines, say I, because who knows how long it’s going to shine? So tomorrow I’m off to (what a surprise!) Florida — for a short visit to my two pre-adolescent grandchildren who live there with their mom and dad, my younger son.  I haven’t seen these grandchildren for a year and a half.  School has begun for them already, but we’ll have afternoons and early evenings together, and there will be time with their parents during the day. Philadelphia to Tampa-St. Pete is only a three-hour flight. I fully expect to survive it.

And I’m not going alone of course. Guess what cute little black thing is coming with me? Back in about ten days.

 

SO WHAT HAPPENED?

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Eleven months ago, with bravado I didn’t quite feel — I posted, with an exclamation point: “You’re Never Too Old for Adventure!”  Readers liked it. Liked, liked, liked it.  Although months went by without another word from me, the “likes” kept coming. “Good for her!” they were probably thinking.  “Never Too Old!” is in the same category as “Never Say Die!” and “You’re As Young As You Feel!”  Who wants to quarrel with that?

It turns out I was wrong. You can be too old for adventure, at least the kind of activity that normally passes for adventure.  In your head, you may still feel thirty-five. But you’re not.  You realize it as soon as you assess the world into which you still want to plunge like a youngster. Your body doesn’t know from thirty-five anymore.  It starts looking around for a chair by mid-morning. As for “Never Say Die!” – who’s kidding who?  Come on now.

During the eleven months since “Never Too Old!” I ‘ve had to come to terms with the idea that I’m not just “getting old” anymore.  I am old.  Geriatric medicine has categories. You’re “young old” while you’re between the ages of 70 and 85. After 85? Biologically speaking, you’re “old old “ – at least in comparison with other people. (And who else is there to compare with?)  Disregarding all that, I defiantly squeezed an extra year out of being “young old.”  Although I crossed the biological line into “old old” two months after Bill died; immediately afterwards, I sold a condo and bought a new apartment all by myself. (No, my children didn’t help. They were quite sure I could manage, and I could.) Then I went off to Dublin a couple of months after my 86thbirthday.  I looked pretty good.

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Age 86 in Dublin, September 29, 2017

Yet much to my surprise on reaching Dublin, I found I had aged out of interest in organized travel.  I used to feel I had to see everything important in the world that I could afford to get to.  Now I discovered I didn’t. You might think I’d given up, but I really didn’t want to hurry from one cultural treasure to another anymore.  I didn’t relish spending an hour in a hot crowded museum looking at hammered gold necklaces made by pre-Celts, or going to rather amateurish theater featuring adorable young Irish wannabe thespians in their early twenties just because drama is one of the three or four things you travel to Ireland for. There were too many churches and monasteries and castles and estates of the Anglo-English rich filled with opulent furniture for cranky old me. I had the feeling I’d seen it all before, in other countries at other times.

What I liked best was running into Joe Biden in the gift shop of Trinity College with another member of my travel group. (He carefully ascertained which states we were from — blue, of course — before giving a hug, a photo op, and an admonition not to despair.)

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Don’t look at me, look at him!

I also enjoyed the half day of unscheduled time, which I used to amble alone at my own geriatric pace across the Liffey and up Grafton Street to St. Michael’s Wood. I stopped where I wanted (bookstore and dress shop), sat where I wanted (on a park bench), and ate what I wanted (takeout salad from “Chopped”).

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Crossing the Liffey.

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Walking up Grafton Street.

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Lunchtime at St. Michael’s Wood.

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The Dublin lunch for me.

Then I came home – wishing I’d swallowed my pride, caved, and asked for a wheelchair in both airports instead of dragging my carry-on through inspection and miles of corridors all by myself, as I used to do. And soon  – right after Thanksgiving – a first for me came out of the blue:  a-fib, aka atrial fibrillation.  It was the persistent kind, that doesn’t go away on its own. My heart began beating wildly and quickly. This sounds romantic; it wasn’t. I was always out of breath.  I could have died of a blood clot at any time. My internist thought the cause was eating too much pickled herring over the holiday. The cardiologist dismissed the herring theory; he surmised it was because I had sustained two separate colds with different symptoms one after the other just before Thanksgiving.  But whatever the cause, they both announced (without tact or euphemism) that this can often happen “when you’re old,” and agreed I must hurry over to the hospital that very afternoon, stopping off at home only to arrange care for the cats. “Just for four or five days,” promised the internist.

I was in a hospital bed for over three weeks. Really in it. No hopping out to go to the adjoining bathroom. Bells and whistles went off whenever I moved too close to the mattress edge, even inadvertently — bringing frantic nurses admonishing, “No no no.” What happened to the “four or five days?” It seems that during the TEE (transesophogeal echo) performed to ensure there were no clots near the heart before proceeding with  cardioversion, an a-fib corrective procedure  — my heart rate dropped from crazy high to zero. For a nanosecond I was technically dead, although anesthesia prevented me from being conscious of what it is like to die.

The hospital doctors decided I had been unusually sensitive to the anesthetic.  That may be debatable…or not.  Who knows?  My own cardiologist — whom I credit with saving my life on the spot and keeping me alive during the ensuing three weeks it took to bring me out of congestive heart failure — assured me no oxygen was lost. (Meaning no loss of intelligence, ha ha.)  But now I know what it really means, and feels like, when ER doctors on television shows cry out, “Intubate!” They mean they’re going to shove a thick blue tube down the throat of the patient, preventing speech, swallowing, even screaming. There was also a catheter,  the aforesaid confinement to bed (initially in intensive care), and an extremely unattractive thirty-five pounds of water retained during all this which had to be taken out of me, slowly, with strong diuretics and bedpans that kept me awake all night. They also gave me a pacemaker – which involved another “procedure.” It was inserted, again with an anesthetic, near the surface on the left side of my chest.  It will prevent my heart rate from ever dropping below sixty again. Every time I take my clothes off I can see it, looking like a Zippo cigarette lighter with wires tucked just under the skin. It – or its successor – will be there for me to look at all the rest of my life.  Lest I forget what’s keeping me alive.

I got out of the hospital at Christmas – with a walker, and then a cane, still in a-fib and wobbly. I then spent the next fifty-six days at home on Eliquis, a very strong blood thinner, until it was deemed safe –meaning no further danger of clots — for me to go back to the hospital to have another try at the cardioversion which would shock me out of a-fib.  It did. You could say I got my heart back on Valentine’s Day.

There followed another two months of learning to walk on my own again, and struggling with a particular anti-arrhythmic called amiodorone of which it is said, “Your doctor believes the benefit outweighs the risks.”  What they mean by “risks” are unpleasant to dangerous side effects.  During the period I was taking it I had increasing vertigo, uncontrollable tremors in hands and legs, and a foggy brain. I walked like a drunk. I was afraid to step down a curb.  I even fell. The fall persuaded my cardiologist to let me stop taking it; a fall is the almost worst thing that can happen to an otherwise okay old person. In exchange I had to promise to measure my waking heart rate every morning before getting out of bed. (There’s a little machine for this called an oxymeter; I don’t have to count out loud.) If it’s ever over 100 I must let him know at once.

Alas, amiodorone has a half-life in the body of fifty-six to a hundred or more days.  In my case, it took nearly three months to clear. I could tell by the ebbing of the vertigo when I got up from a horizontal position or got back into bed from standing up, and also by my increasing ability to walk a relatively straight line. I think the half-life has finally expired.  But that also means the chance of a-fib returning has risen from 10% when taking the amiodorone. to 50% now. I knock wood, and keep my fingers crossed.

By the way, don’t think it’s over. The pacemaker has to be checked every three months to be sure it’s working.  I also now need to take five medications a day (although not amiodorone, thank God), three of them twice a day (including the Eliquis). They don’t bother me particularly, although one of them does slow me down.  My brain says, “Move!” and I can’t, because something in the body holds back. Moreover, the costs of the non-generic meds have pushed me into the doughnut hole this year, where I’ve never been before. Only Americans over 65 with Medicare Part D insurance for the price of pharmaceuticals will understand what this means.  Once you reach the doughnut hole you’re on the hook for 45% of the cost of your medication for the rest of the calendar year (until you’ve spent $5000 on your own), despite  substantial monthly premiums. One of mine (Eliquis), which you see advertised on the evening network news quite frequently in the United States, costs $1,100+ without insurance for a three-month supply. They don’t mention that in the commercial. But that’s another post.

Oh, I mustn’t overlook my jolly internist – the one who blamed the a-fib on too much pickled herring; he says that at my age (that word again!) it takes a year to get back the strength lost from three weeks in bed. Of course you don’t just wait for it to come back. You have to exercise, keep moving. God forbid you spend a day just reading, or writing, or lollygagging around.

It all keeps you aware you exist only as long as one small, tired 87-year-old organ goes on valiantly beating – with lots of medical and pharmaceutical help.  I never felt particularly vulnerable and fragile before. Now I do. Which hasn’t stopped me from making new plans.  But still…. It’s a different universe I inhabit.

Why didn’t I blog about all this while it was happening? Well, for one thing, I didn’t know how it was going to come out.  For another, until recently I couldn’t.  In bed, shaky hands, foggy thoughts?  Really?  But now we’re all caught up. If I ever figure out how to change the name of ‘The Getting Old Blog” to “On Being Old,” you’ll understand why.

NEVER TOO OLD FOR ADVENTURE!

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Am I still up for adventure? I’m about to find out.

I haven’t been overseas since 2009. In 2010, I had my right hip replaced during peak travel months. (The hip decided the timing, not me.) For much of 2011, Bill wrestled with erythromelalgia, a  rare nerve disease of the extremities — in his case feet.  It causes extreme pain and you don’t want to get it. Thank God it’s intermittent. All we both hoped for that year was for it to go away, not for us to go away. In 2012 and 2013 came more physical deterrents of one sort or another, none fatal but none travel-friendly. And then his asymptomatic pulmonary fibrosis developed its symptoms, which put the kibosh on any kind of intercontinental movement, even if we had wanted to go in such gloomy circumstances.  But now it’s 2017, my passport’s good, and I’m off tomorrow — age 86 — for seven days of a sponsored program in Dublin, to discover what I can still do.

Why Dublin?  Because (1) it’s one of the very few short programs in the Road Scholar brochure marked “Easy.” Baby steps to begin with. And also (2) I needed a euro country, preferably one where I hadn’t been before.  When downsizing last year, I found inside Bill’s old wallets and mine 380 euros left over from all the lovely summer and autumn traveling we did together in Greece and France and Italy and Portugal.  Every year when our holiday was over, we would bring euros home as a magical promise to ourselves we were going back.  These last ones certainly aren’t accomplishing anything languishing inside my passport case inside a bureau drawer. They need to be where they can do their business.

I had forgotten going away takes such a lot ofpreliminary work (and dollars). But now I’ve arranged for cat care and plant care and being driven to the airport and back… and had my hair cut (and colored) and toenails done and did my own fingernails and notified family and the front desk downstairs as to my coming whereabouts and how to reach me…and broke in a pair of ankle-high wine-colored leather walking shoes and trimmed the packing list down to whatever will fit in a carry-on — challenging, because it’s not summer weather in Dublin anymore. It looks like if I’m ready to go.

I realize every brochure is partly PR, but Road Scholar usually delivers.  So if you’re curious about some of what I might be doing and seeing starting Wednesday, and if you can read the print below on whatever device you’re using to access this post, here’s what they’ve promised:

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Spoiler alert: no more blog posts till I return and recover from jet lag. Not that I’ve been the soul of regularity in the past year or so.  But I have been trying for a post a week lately. Alas, this one will have to do for at least two weeks. However, I shall return.

Wish me luck, wish me fun.  

OLD’S NOT ALWAYS BAD

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For cut flowers bought in a shop, these carnations are very old.  Survivors, you might say.  I carried them home two weeks ago today, part of an ill-advised purchase of red wanna-be petunias that were really something else (what I still don’t know), plus these rimmed carnations, plus a large bunch of spiky greens, all of which I disliked intensely once I had managed to stuff every last stem into an oversized container fit for major floral condolence.  I had wanted yellow flowers, or orange ones, and not too many. I had wanted to put them in my own much smaller rectangular glass vase, wanted them to look at home.  Instead what I let myself be talked into was stiff, institutional, fancy. (SeeMeditation on Flowers,” two posts back.).

But after ten days, the petunia wanna-be’s began to shed their red petals all over the glass table top. The spiky green things wilted and yellowed.  The carnations hung on. Time isn’t always the enemy.  Now that I have only the carnations, they seem more orange. And now they do look the way I wanted them to, a little sloppy, a little droopy, just right next to Bill’s orange bowl.

They’re not going to last, I know that. If you look closely, you can see one carnation has given up, its stem bent sharply towards the ground.  Several of the others are beginning to wrinkle. But even if it’s just for now, that’s fine.  Isn’t now all any of us have, even the young who feel they’ll live forever?

For now, there’s also a bonus.  It’s on my other table, in a little vase I’ve had since I was twenty-seven.  That’s fifty-nine years ago.  Old can surprise you.  Hang on.

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PROUSTIAN MEMORY

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Nearly every morning, after filling a small bowl with fresh organic berries, I spread a tablespoonful of raw crunchy organic almond butter on two brown rice crackers while the water boils for coffee. The reason I’m so precise about the amount of almond butter is because almond butter is caloric. Healthy but caloric.

When raw, without added sugar or salt, it’s also surprisingly expensive, which is interesting to consider. Why should doing nothing to organic almond butter cost more than roasting, salting, and sweetening it first? If I were a culturally responsive and critical blogger, I might have posted about that. But as I’ve always been at heart a me-me-me (and mine) person, I have other thoughts whenever I dip the knife into the glass jar of almond butter and spread the measured amount I’ve allotted to myself on the crackers.

It would be easier to keep dipping until I had enough to cover all the cracker surfaces, preferably thickly. However, given that I’m still vain (admittedly with less and less to be vain about, except I still fit a size 6), I don’t do that. Instead, I try to get as close to the edge of the crackers as possible with the almond butter available on the knife, carefully scraping it thin and out with the blade.

And then nearly every summer morning, rising out of the depths of me as I wield my knife, comes a picture of a narrow-boned slender young woman of perhaps twenty in a miniscule bikini. There’s no extra flesh at all — does she ever eat? — yet you couldn’t call her underweight. She is perfect for her purpose, whatever that may be. She has deeply tanned Mediterranean skin and long nearly straight dark hair. She sits dockside under a café umbrella with two dark men in the sparkling port of Leros, a Greek island in the Dodecanese between the Greek mainland and Turkey. Are the three Greek? Italian? (This part of Greece is a summer getaway for many Italians.) The sun is high, the water — just yards from the café — a saturated gorgeous blue which makes anyone who’s ever seen it long to be back in Greece again. The dark men, in stylish sunglasses, are shirtless; they wear only shorts. Leather slides dangle from their bare feet. They have tangles of dark chest hair, dark straighter hair on arms and legs.

I can’t see her face because she’s bent over two thick slices of warm Greek white bread on a white plate; she’s preparing the bread for one of the men. He’s twenty-six or twenty-eight. He must know she’s doing this for him; he doesn’t touch the cup of bitter black coffee that was part of his order. He’s talking with the other man and smoking while he waits. I can’t hear them well enough to make out the language. As is customary, the bread is served with a lump of butter and a small cuplet of Greek honey. Her hair falling over her face, the young woman spreads the butter slowly and meticulously over the entire warm surface of both slices, until the bread is thinly covered all the way to the soft crusts.

Then she begins again with the honey, teasing it out patiently and slowly over every bit of surface of now melted butter. And again. And yet again. What is this all about? Is it what he expects of her? What she feels is fitting for him? (God forbid a morsel of un-honey-buttered bread enter his mouth?) Why not order more honey? Because he’s the one who’s paying and might not like her not making do? None of this breakfast is apparently for her. And he seemingly ignores her. Not even a friendly pat of thanks. The other man nods, rises and leaves.

We have to leave too. We came to Leros earlier this morning from Lipsi, an even smaller island where we’re spending the summer, to pick up some prints made from a memory stick sent with an acquaintance the week before. Now the noon Flying Dolphin is coming into harbor.  It will soon turn around for the return trip to Lipsi. No waiting for stragglers.

I hadn’t thought about that young woman for a long time. Then I discovered almond butter. Now suddenly, more than ten years later, she comes to me in the mornings as I ply my knife out to every cracker edge, just as she did with the honey. What was their relationship back there on Leros, the dark man with chest curls and his lean subservient handmaiden? I don’t want to think she was just for fun. I like to imagine he had brought her to Leros for a week or two to get her away from some laborious, repetitive job, either in Athens or Naples, because in his way, whatever that was, he cared about her. I want to think they had some kind of relationship; her body wasn’t quite beautiful enough for her to be just arm candy. At other times, on other islands, we saw vacationing men with gorgeous, scantily dressed young women brought along to the beaches to have their luscious glistening near naked flesh everywhere shamelessly palmed and squeezed and fondled, day-long foreplay on public display.  Then when the sun went down, these beauties were fed, doctored with alcohol, and taken to bed, where presumably whatever skills they had, if any, were put to use behind bedroom doors. These young women did nothing all day but lie extended on the sand on their stomachs, idly turning the pages of the same magazine over and over, apparently without shame at their soft supple bodies being so openly degraded by idle male hands, like large pieces of silly putty without feelings.

I hope my young woman wasn’t like that. She’s in her early thirties now. If he didn’t marry her (or she decided in the end she didn’t want him), I hope she found someone else. I also hope she eats now and then, and that whoever she’s with talks to her and loves her. Anyone so dedicated to making two slices of warm white bread as perfectly appetizing as possible, given the limited resources available, deserves at least that, if not more.

You might also wonder why another woman, this one in her seventies, who was sitting near the water in a Greek café while waiting for the Flying Dolphin to take her back to another island, would be so focused on a young woman more than fifty years younger as she buttered bread and spread honey on it. I can only speculate. Because I never had a body like hers? Because dark Mediterranean men with curly chest hair had never looked at me, even in what might have been called my “prime?” (Whether I would have wanted them to is another question.) Because I’m always interested in food, even when I might not let myself eat it because it’s bad for me, has no nutritional value, etcetera etcetera? Or just because I’m always watching other people, listening to them if I can get them to talk, trying to learn something more about life and how we live it, each in our different way, before my own comes to an end? Whichever it was (or all of them), it has now led to me having Proustian memories in the kitchen nearly every morning.

It would be a lie of omission if I didn’t add that when the young woman on Leros comes to mind while I’m putting almond butter on rice crackers, those hot, bright blue and white summers on Lipsi also rise up, almost as alive as they used to be. As Proust observes about the effect of dipping a petite madeleine (a little fluted French cake) in a cup of limewater tea such as his Aunt Leonie gave him as a child when his family brought him from Paris to visit her house in Combray:

And as in that game enjoyed by the Japanese in which they fill a porcelain bowl    with water and steep in it little pieces of paper until then indistinct, which the   moment they are immersed, stretch and twist, assume colors and distinctive           shapes, become flowers, houses, human figures, firm and recognizable, so now all        the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water lilies of the          Vivonne, and the good people of the village and their little dwellings and the    church and all of Combray and its surroundings, all of this, which is acquiring         form and solidity, emerged, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea. [From Lydia Davis’s translation of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way.]

It seems almond butter – organic, raw and crunchy – is my petite madeleine. I once wrote a first chapter of what was going to be a novella about Lipsi. It was called “An Island of Their Own.” (I did cast it in the third person then, but now there’d be no need that. Almost everyone who’d be in it is either dead or doesn’t read English.) And that was before I discovered almond butter. Maybe I should resurrect it and continue. Not a promise. But I’m not stopping the almond butter in the foreseeable future. So who knows?

MEDITATION ON FLOWERS

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I bought myself some flowers...to cheer myself up..I was the one who bought them. It wasn’t an impulse purchase.  Last Sunday afternoon, I deliberately walked to the flower shop a few blocks away.  So how could this large arrangement of fresh flowers feel so wrong when unwrapped and on the coffee table?

I never used to buy myself fresh flowers. Before Bill, I was working in downtown Boston all the time, and nowhere near a florist. I certainly could have picked up reasonably priced bunches of multi-colored flowers at my suburban supermarket on weekends just before checking out with a cart of groceries. But they somehow always looked unreal to me, and cheap.  Besides, when would I have enjoyed them, or even have had time to change the water? I always seemed to be at the office.

 Afterwards, it was Bill who brought them home.  Always for birthdays and holidays,  more often for no reason at all.  In fact, it was unusual for there not to be a clear glass vase of fresh flowers on the coffee table in the family room where we spent most of our time when downstairs.  (The clear glass was my choice; I disliked opaque containers for fresh flowers.)  When they began to wilt, my frugal tendency would have been to nurse them along a little longer. He would insist on throwing them out. Then he would add “Buy flowers” to his daily list of things to do.

 He especially loved sunflowers.  If they were out of season, he chose lilies, preferably yellow or orange ones.  He never really spent a lot. Three stems, or even two, would do for him, with as much greenery as he could persuade the lady florist to throw in for free. (He had a way with ladies.)  When very occasionally persuaded to bring home roses because they were more romantic, they were yellow.

 My favorite color is red.  (You can see it in the chairs we bought together.  He chose the designs, I chose the reds.)  This made for a certain amount of mild dispute about flowers.  Once he did yield: a dozen red roses on my birthday.  I received them with great enthusiasm, hoping to encourage repeat performances.  No such luck, even though I generally expressed somewhat less warmth than he would have liked for all the yellow, or orange, or yellow and orange it fell to me to arrange in one of our two clear glass vases.

 As for the sunflowers, when we began life together they were my special bête noir.  I had never liked the ubiquitous Van Gogh that shows up in all surveys of French nineteenth century painting. And I particularly disliked the large brown centers and short little petals of the sunflowers themselves. They just didn’t look flowerlike to me.

 Unfortunately, at various times — either before he met me or surreptitiously afterwards — Bill had acquired about twenty stems of artificial sunflowers. They were to tide him over, I suppose, during those periods when there was a dearth of live ones.  Some were close replicas of the real thing, down to the big green leaves.  Others, more fanciful, were white and red, as well as yellow, with larger-than-real petals and colorful smallish centers.  He also had a secret cache of objets d’art in the depths of his large office closet, from which he produced three containers in which to put nine of the fake sunflowers. (Three, three, and three.)  These, after much discussion, found their way into our bedroom, to the top of the piano, and onto a sill in his office. Some of the others   appeared in the finished basement in still other containers I’d never known he had, although we’d been together for over eight years at that point.  The remainder of his sunflower stash I found thrust into the back of that capacious office closet when I was staging the condo to sell it; they were still waiting their chance to come into the light.

 It should come as no surprise I kept them all after he died.  Death changes the value of everything.  In retrospect, I was sorry I’d made a fuss about them.  It wasn’t such a big fuss, but still.  How much I would rather have had him back with all his nutsy sunflowers, actual and artificial, than live alone in a sunflower-free apartment!

 Bill’s fake sunflowers are therefore flourishing again at WindrowsThree sit in my office window:fullsizeoutput_c08 Three are on the bureau next to what I still think of as “his” side of the bed:Bill's sunflowers in the Windrows bedroomThree of the most fake adorn the all-purpose table in what the Windrows architect  designated as the “dining” area:fullsizeoutput_c0a The rest are stuffed into a red (yes!) vase that sits in the living-room window:fullsizeoutput_c0c But even with all the manmade sunflowers artfully placed here and there, up until last week my “new” apartment (not so “new” anymore) still had no fresh flowers in it, if you don’t count the two white orchids given to me on my most recent birthday by people I’ve met only in the last year. Yes, I put the orchids on my living-room windowsills away from direct sun, and yes, I keep them going, as recommended, with three ice cubes in each pot once a week. But to me they’re something else:fullsizeoutput_c0fArt objects maybe. fullsizeoutput_c0eNot what I think of as “fresh flowers” though.  And what’s a home without real flowers?

 About some things I’m quick.  About others not. A while ago, during a burst of sporadic early morning exercise, I passed Monday Morning, an upscale flower shop in Forrestal Village a few blocks from where I live. In the window sat a huge water bucket crammed with bunches of large-faced sunflowers, their big brown living centers turned avidly in the direction of the sun.  $7 a bunch. Instead of going right into the shop as Bill would have done, I walked on by, with a smile of course – thinking how he might have run amok inside and bought two or three bunches.  (One summer he gave my older son a dozen huge sunflowers in thanks for having invited us to visit in Southampton. It was hard to find a vase large enough to accommodate them all in the rented summer house.)

 It took me two weeks of staring at the empty surface of the black glass table in front of the sofa. That was two weeks too many. By then only a few bedraggled sunflowers with little faces remained drooping in a small bucket at the back of Monday Morning, far from sun. Poor sunflowers. (I know: pathetic fallacy.)  And now they were priced at $5 a stem, a deal breaker.

 But I had come out for flowers and I’m stubborn. So what did they have in the big window water bucket this week? There was a twenty dollar bill and a credit card in the back pocket of my jeans and I wasn’t going back with nothing.

 What they had, in more than one bucket, were bunches of red blooms that looked to me sort of like petunias but weren’t. That tells you how much I don’t know about flowers. Almost everything looks like petunias to me. Except sunflowers and lilies and orchids. (And pansies and daisies and carnations: I know what they look like too.) There were also bunches of carnations in all colors, including not only red, but yellow and white and red-rimmed cream.  And also many bunches of greenery, some in thick-leaved silvery green, others with dark green spikes and feathery fronds. $10 a bunch; 3 bunches for $20. All very fresh and perky.

“What color do you like?” asked the saleswoman, closing in for the kill.  “Her chairs are upholstered in red,” said a Windrows acquaintance helpfully; she had come out with me for the walk to Monday Morning and was now putting in her two cents.

I kept eyeing the yellow carnations“Can I mix yellow with red?” Bill had always said you can mix anything with anything, and I always disagreed.  Except now death had intervened.  “Not really,” declared the saleswoman decisively, ending discussion.  “Try these.”  She pulled from the water a bunch of red-rimmed white carnations and pressed them against the bunch of dripping wanna-be red petunias she was already holding.

“Isn’t that nice?” she asked rhetorically.  “It will go perfect with your furniture.”  Really?  What did she know?  But it did make a third bunch of the spiky greenery free. And the greenery might help the flowers.  And the carnations were a kind of orange.  If you squinted.  I wielded the credit card, the acquaintance peeled off for a cup of coffee,  I walked back to Windrows alone with a tissue-wrapped armful.  Literally an armful.

 Which meant I now needed a very large glass vase. There was one, at the back of a high kitchen cabinet, which had come into my possession fifteen months before, when Bill died. It then contained an expensive condolence arrangement.  Bill wouldn’t have liked this vase, even if condolences on his death had nothing to do with it.  It was beyond large, and had a “fancy” shape.  As I trimmed each stem and placed it in the vase, trying to mix red-rimmed carnations with red mystery flowers, I knew the whole enterprise had been a mistake.  Why had I bought so many? Why had I listened to a saleswoman who didn’t know what was in my heart? Did I even know what was in my heart? What was it I really wanted? By the time I had forced the spiky greens in around the edges, and placed the completed arrangement in the center of the black glass table (see top of post), I was hating it.

 Maybe it would look better if I sat on the sofa?  Not really.  fullsizeoutput_bedHow could I make it look the way fresh flowers used to look on the family room coffee table before Bill died?   I moved the vase off center and considered:

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(Sophie had no aesthetic opinions to contribute here. However, as I had awakened her with all my fussing, she was plainly planning to taste the flowers when I finally went away and left her in peace. As there’s never any way I can stop her from doing most of what she wants to do, and since I was already disheartened by my purchase, I had no problem with her plans.)

The table was just too bare.  In the condo, there used to be a large shiny black ceramic bowl that looked like a giant ashtray on each of our two coffee tables, one of them next to the glass vase that held the fresh flowers of the week. The bowl in the family room had a bright yellow inside surface and the one in the living room a bright red inside surface. Occasionally Bill would switch them around — “temporarily,” he said — to see if they looked better that way. I didn’t really care which was in which room as I privately thought they were both extremely unattractive (although clearly some designer’s idea of decorative “art”) and hoped for a long time, without success, that they would fall out of favor when Bill acquired something new that needed table space.  It goes without saying I got rid of them both when downsizing.  Now my eye was missing them.  Why hadn’t I kept at least one?

What I had kept were two small black bowls of his — partly because they didn’t remind me of ashtrays but mostly because they didn’t take up much space. One was lime green inside, the other orange.  I put the orange one next to the oversize vase of red and red-rimmed flowers and pushed it around a bit until it seemed to settle itself on a diagonal to the vase.  It was much smaller than the shape in my memory, but it was all I had. Maybe with Bill's orange dish near it?To cover more table top, I added a third object — my black-bound Kindle, representing the piles of books that used to accumulate wherever Bill was sitting.

A little more mess? And the flowers pulled up higher?

Then I pulled the flowers out of the vase as far as I could — to give them air and free them up a bit.

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Bill would have said, “Enough already.  Leave it.  It’s fine.” And he’d have been right. This was as good as I could do. Let’s face it: I’m neater than Bill ever was.  I can’t leave messes of books and papers around, even to simulate the feeling that he’s still here.  My books are on shelves, my papers in files, magazines in magazine racks.  I was ying, he was yang.  Or vice versa.  That’s why our flowers looked the way they did. And why mine look like this now that he’s gone.

The bottom line here?  When these have lived out their natural life, I’m buying more. No one’s going to talk me into red ones next time. I’m going for yellow. Not necessarily sunflowers, although I’m not ruling that out. And definitely not too many, even if “many” is a bargain.  They’re going to have to fit into one of my own two much smaller rectangular glass vases.

Next time I’ll also know that buying flowers, even yellow ones, won’t be like bringing him back for a while, or making the place where I live like home.  It’s just as close as I can come to it. And that’s something.