EASIER SAID THAN DONE

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One of the “attractions” we visited last weekend during a short trip to the Berkshires was The Mount.  (I say “we” because I went with a relatively new acquaintance from Windrows who had proposed the trip and volunteered to do all the driving, which was about 3 1/2 hours each way from Princeton.)

The Mount is the house the novelist Edith Wharton designed and built in Lenox, Massachusetts, and occupied most of the time from 1902 until 1911, when she separated from her husband and moved to Paris.  It is white and cool — important in the sweltering pre-air-conditioned New York and New England summers — and sits on raised ground.  In the rear is a magnificent landscape of Italianate gardens, formal on one side, “natural” on the other. Although I’d been to Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Lenox, several times in my several past lives, I was never before able to visit The Mount because it was under reconstruction each time.   However, for several years now it’s at last been open to the public.

I’m a sucker for gift shops at such places. I always want some little reasonably priced something to remind me I was there.  At The Mount’s gift shop you can buy heavy and expensive illustrated books of Italianate gardens and others about The Mount itself, which I didn’t.  You can also buy copies of most of the over forty books of fiction and non-fiction Wharton wrote and published during her lifetime, which I also didn’t.

According to the guide who led us through the house, she did the writing in bed from 8:30 to 11:30 every morning of her life, before arising to don the corseted, restrictive day clothes of her era. She tossed each handwritten sheet on the floor, later to be gathered and typed up by a secretary.  In her bedroom on the top floor you can see scattered on the bed photocopies of some of those pages — of The House of Mirth, written at The Mount.  The writing enabled her to enhance her inheritance so as to support expensive living in Paris and the Riviera. She was a great success in her lifetime.  (The three novels still generally recognized and admired today, whose titles you may recognize and movie adaptations of which you may have seen, are The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, and Ethan Frome).

Not surprisingly, several pithy sayings suitable for printing on cards may be found in the collected works of a woman who wrote so much. Again no surprise — such cards were indeed in the shop, and then they were in my purse, and now they are going to be in the blog.  ($4.00 each: How’s that for a reminder I was there? Ah well, the Mount’s reconstruction is still paying for itself.). Although faithful blog readers may be able to surmise why these two particular cards spoke to me,  I suspect they may have general relevance to most everyone past the first flush of youth. (Or else why would they have been in the shop?)

But first some Wharton back story.  She was born into New York high society in 1862, when women were discouraged from achieving anything but a proper marriage. Unfortunately, she was a bookish girl who read widely (in French, German and Italian as well as English), and early on yearned for a wider intellectual life than was thought seemly for those in her social circle. Her marriage to Ted Wharton was not good.  He was social, outgoing and apparently not much of a thinker; she relished solitude, books, and good conversation. There were no children. Eventually he became mentally unbalanced, they separated, and she achieved a divorce.  She is known to have had only one lover, after separating from her husband; the lover turned out to be a cad with a divorced wife, a mistress, a fiancee, and a propensity for sticking his pen in many inkwells. Nonetheless, she hung on for three years before giving up.  (Her private papers reveal that it was with him, at the age of 47, she had her first orgasm.) Afterwards, she continued her ongoing and copious written correspondence with male friends such as Henry James and Walter Berry, but seemed to have had no later intimates.

As she advises (on the card above), “If only we’d stop trying to be happy, we’d have a pretty good time.”  And perhaps she did have a pretty good time.  (Not to be cynical, but I can’t help thinking the money helped.  However, she earned it herself. And I do believe she enjoyed the writing as well as the spending.) Moreover, I once had a psychotherapist who said just about the same thing.  He asked me what I wanted.  I was fifty-seven.  I said I wanted to be happy. He said happiness was not the goal of therapy.

Another card (which I also bought) quotes Wharton’s thoughts on how to have a pretty good time without trying to be happy.  Actually, the thoughts are not specifically about not trying to be happy, but about how to stay alive — which I take to mean alive in all senses of the word — well after the age at which most (all right, many) people start to fall apart.

But it seems to me it comes to the same thing in the end:

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Be unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things?That’s a tall order, about which we could talk for days. For one thing,  life is change.  Often we forget it.  Our lives continue day to day, seemingly the same.  Boring even.  And then, suddenly, boom! — it’s not the same at all.  And yes, it is scary.  Especially the older you get.  But what are you going to do?  Give up?  Or go on?  I’m not going to wax philosophical about intellectual curiosity or interest in big things, either. You’ve got it.  Or you don’t.  (Although I suppose you could force yourself because you know it’s good for you; better to be insatiable about learning something new than be insatiable about chocolate cake.)

But happy in small ways?  Well, sure. Small ways to be happy turn up all the time, usually when we least expect.  In fact, six of them turned up right in The Mount’s gift shop, next to the Wharton lessons in life. However, I’m also discovering that part of becoming old old (“long past the usual date of disintegration”) is pacing yourself.  So I’ll just save them for the next post!

STARTING OVER

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Some readers have expressed interest in where I went after the sale of the condo commemorated recently in a set of self-indulgent photos.  (“As I Was Saying….,” July 18, 2017.)  So this post, equally self-referential, is about where I live now. [Be advised there was no professional photographer at work here this time.  Just me with an iPhone.]

fullsizeoutput_b93When we first saw it together two years or so before he died, Bill thought it looked like a middle-class Miami hotel.  No way was he going to move here. Ever. A year later, when our stairs had become too much of a daily challenge, he capitulated.  We visited several “retirement” communities with apartments all on one floor.  This seemed the best of them, for a variety of reasons I can go into another time.

And it does look better (although still somewhat institutional) when seen from the front door:

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You could even imagine elderly people enjoying the sun, or shade, on one of the front benches near the fountain when they’re not quite mobile enough to get away:

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However, it was at least in part the presence of all those not quite “able-bodied” elderly people — with their walkers, or in their wheelchairs pushed by aides — that put us off.  (As if we weren’t getting “elderly” ourselves.) But eventually the condo stairs — and Bill’s fifty-foot oxygen cannula — got the better of us.  And where would we go if we sold the condo? The reason most persuasive for coming here was the apartments.  Many of them had interesting layouts, quite unlike the rectangular, unimaginative arrangement of rooms in the two other places we’d checked out.  Bottom line: We’d just have to learn to live with all the other aspects of a “retirement” community we weren’t ready for.

Then Bill got too sick to think about moving anywhere.  Until very near the end, just before they put him under with morphine so he could be intubated, when he wrote in a little notebook:  “Get Windrows apartment.” He wanted me not to be so alone after he was gone.  I can’t say I moved here because he said I should.  It’s that I finally decided he was right.  Even if I didn’t look and sound as old as I really was (nearly eighty-five when he died), sooner or later I wouldn’t be able to drag the garbage and recycling out to the curb. Sooner or later, I wouldn’t be able to drive, for one reason or another.  Sooner or later, I might fall. And then who would I call?

Apartments of the size you want become available at infrequent intervals at Windrows.  (Yes, that’s the name of the place.) You have to wait for someone to move nearer their children, or else to die.  But the two guys in the Marketing Department worked with me.  And I was lucky.  I managed to snag a one bedroom with den on the second floor that even Bill would have approved.  Affordable. (Just.) Spacious. Sunny in the afternoons. A porch off the living room.  I also had enough money left over from the sale of the condo to replace the carpeted and tiled apartment floors with wood floors, have everything but the kitchen repainted white, install pleated pull-up window shades plus many more ceiling lights, and switch the cable and television lines from one wall to another, in order to accommodate better placement for the computer in the office, the television set in the living-room wall unit.  So now it’s begun to look like home to me, especially as I was able to find room in it for the “modern” furniture — actually mid-twentieth century furniture — Bill and I bought after we began living together. (Perhaps you’ll recognize some of the pieces and pictures from the condo shown in the previous post.) The two cats and I moved in last September 23.

I try not to think of it as the last place I’ll ever live.  Unlike apartments in most retirement communities, residents here aren’t locked into any kind of continuing-care scheme. These apartments are bought and sold at market rates.   So I can always decide this is not for me, sell, and move away.  Where, I have no idea just yet.  But the possibility is there.  It consoles me, gives me a sense I can still go on inventing my life. Anyway, the apartment is certainly a good place to which I can withdraw whenever community living gets too much for me.

There are miles and miles of corridors.  Four and a half floors of them, each of which takes about ten minutes to circle in its entirety by foot. When you first move in, you need breadcrumbs to find your way back to wherever you came from.  Here’s a small part of the second floor near the north elevator: fullsizeoutput_bb2

But eventually you find the right door, and open it:fullsizeoutput_b98

Front hall of apartment (with Sophie at right):fullsizeoutput_b9b

Better view of living room area: fullsizeoutput_b9c

View from sofa of piano, dining area and kitchen pass-through:fullsizeoutput_ba8

I also managed to find a wall for our expensive Italian folly, the wall unit which had to be taken apart for the move and then put back together:fullsizeoutput_ba1

There’s a mandatory eating plan: one chooses either four, fifteen or thirty meals a month. This is allegedly to forestall reclusive tendencies.  True recluses, or those who prefer to eat at home, can circumvent Windrows’ paternalistic tendencies by ordering one of the prepaid plan meals by 3:30 in the afternoon (a menu is available online, on a special television channel, and printed out in the mail room), and then picking it up downstairs or — for $5 a pop — having it delivered. Be that as it may, every apartment has a fully equipped kitchen.  I had mine painted the same color as the kitchen in our condo, to give me the feeling that at least some things have stayed the same:fullsizeoutput_ba4fullsizeoutput_ba5

The “den” has just about the same square footage as my office (aka the third bedroom) in the condo, although the windows are on a different wall and it has no closet. It therefore serves quite nicely as a more-or-less familiar place in which to work, with the added perk that I get a view of the porch and the tree beyond it when I sit at the computer. The double doors can be closed off from the view of guests. When there are guests. fullsizeoutput_ba0fullsizeoutput_ba6

The oblong red box on the floor was a Danish magazine holder that Bill acquired by mail, possibly even from Denmark!  Alas, once it reached us it never did get to hold magazines, as it filled up too quickly beside his chair with Kleenex boxes, eyeglass cleaners, and various gadgets for now never-to-be-discovered uses.  Emptied and transported to Windrows, it now serves as a place for Sophie to snooze when I’m online and she wants to be nearby:fullsizeoutput_ba7

Looking out at the porch from my desk chair:fullsizeoutput_baa

Heading down the hall, past a second (guest) bathroom, towards the bedroom:fullsizeoutput_ba9

The guest bathroom is sort of a small shrine to Bill.  His bigger Calder mobile sways over the toilet. (It used to be in his office, aka the condo second bedroom.) One one wall is a Hebrew rendering of the Physician’s Oath of Maimonides: “Inspire me with love for my art and for thy creatures. In the sufferer, let me see only the human being.” Behind the toilet is a numbered photograph of Balliol College, Oxford, which Bill liked very much. We had it in the bedroom, facing the bed. The two small framed photos taken at the base of the Acropolis are mine, from the year before we met. But we spent six happy summer vacations on a Greek island together.  And Greece is Greece. So why not hang them here?fullsizeoutput_bab

The bedroom, which is large, is not so different from the bedroom I shared with Bill in the Princeton condo. (Except, of course — a very big “except” — he’s never seen this bedroom, never been in it.  I still keep strictly to my side of the bed, though.  Habit? Hope?)  That’s Sasha curled up in comfort on her two Shaker chairs by the window. She first began to do that, in the condo, when she was a kitten:fullsizeoutput_bac

The lesser Calder is in the bathroom attached to the bedroom. You can tell which bathroom I use the most:fullsizeoutput_bad

Sasha and Sophie use the same bathroom as I do.  The two boxes are not “hers” and “hers.”  They both use the one on the left more.  I don’t know why.  I can switch the boxes but they still favor the one on the left.  The right box only gets the occasional dump.  Even in the interests of full disclosure, do you really need to know that?  Probably not.fullsizeoutput_bb1

I can see the porch from the side bedroom window too:fullsizeoutput_bae

But it looks best when you step outside through the door from the living room:fullsizeoutput_bb6

The two potted boxwoods (one at each end of the railing) were a housewarming present from my older son:fullsizeoutput_bb7  

And the tree conveniently planted outside my line of apartments shields most of the windows from views of the rear parking lot:IMG_2280fullsizeoutput_bb3

It wouldn’t be real life, though, if there weren’t another view from the right hand living room window.  Fortunately, I can’t get too close to it.  The sofa and cat tree are in the way.  So this, less aesthetic, view is best seen by Sasha, from the top of her cat tree.  She finds it interesting.  I find it illustrative of the fact that nothing in life is perfect.fullsizeoutput_bb4

And there, dear readers, I shall leave you for the time being — your curiosity over-satisfied.  What life is like at Windrows once I walk out the door of the apartment, down the carpeted corridors and into the north elevator I shall leave for what will likely be many other posts, although I hope not all of them.

Bear in mind that I am now a recently-turned-eighty-six-year-old malcontent who is not at all happy at having disbelievingly found herself over the border of that far country described by geriatricians as “old old age.”  How could it have happened?  I am going away to the Berkshires for four days tomorrow — plays, Yo-Yo Ma, museums — to forget about it for a short while.  Will reply to comments, if any, when I get back.  

xoxox

AS I WAS SAYING (five months ago)….

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Selling a house/condo/apartment takes fakery, the same kind of fakery as selling almost anything else in a market economy, including yourself.  But you read all about faking the “anything else” in my last post. ( “Faking It,” February 2, 2017.)  So let’s move on to profitable unloading of real estate.  Very few people wanting to buy seem to be really clear about what they’re looking for.  Oh, they may say it’s location — location, location, as the realtors are wont to chant ad nauseam. Or square footage.  Or number of rooms. Or a sunny kitchen. Or a good public school for the children.  And it may well be some or all of those things are what they hope for. But when the realtor shows them the location, the footage, the rooms, the sun on the breakfast table (not so easy in itself), they will still dither and waffle and toe the sand and think about it. And think about it. And think about it.  And get back you. Maybe.

For a speedy sale you’ve got to enchant them, open their minds to a fairy tale life:  the life they imagine they could have in your house/condo/ apartment. Of course they never will have that life. Nobody does.  Nobody keeps their kitchen counters immaculately empty except  for one perfect appliance (perhaps a Museum of Modern Art toaster) and a charming French pot of herbs near the window. Nobody’s stove top is free of cooking utensils, except for a little red enamel teakettle. Nobody’s rooms are junk-free, emptied of detritus, piles of this and that on the floor, children’s toys, cat trees, litter boxes. Almost nobody’s bathroom counters aren’t crammed with toothbrushes, mouthwashes, beauty aids, Kleenex boxes, deodorant, Q-tips.

But you can play let’s pretend.  You can be the fairy godmother who transports your potential buyer into never-never land. Of course, it’ll take more than just airily waving a wand to whisk away all the imperfections of real life.  You’ll have to pile the kitchen stuff in the oven, in the broom closet, in the dishwasher.  You’ll have to buy some Sterilite boxes and sweep the bathroom mess into them, for storage under the sink.  You’ll have to clear the tops of your furniture except  for one or two really good decorative objects.  You’ll have to polish those tops till they shine. Into the closets with everything else! Then up with the shades, on with the lights! Let everything be bright and cheery and uncluttered and clean! That’s what modern fairy godmothers do.

I learned about this sleight-of-hand back in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2005, when I sold a condo all by myself for the very first time. I was beginning to tell you about it in that last post  — published, alas, much too long ago. That was a post designed to set us up (in its “To be continued” promise), for an account of my second sale, which was of the condo Bill and I lived in together for ten years, until he died. That second sale would have the logical next chapter in the ongoing saga of my life after his death. However, the ongoing-ness interfered with the blog. (I won’t explain, except to say there was too much happening at once, too soon, to digest and write about it.)

And now that I’m a year past the worst of it, even selling our home last year has become stale news.  So let me summarize quickly:  The Cambridge sale in 2006 was a great success. I had bought that first condo (two bedrooms, one bath) for $200,000, lived in it for eleven years (the last four with Bill), and sold it (after learning to play fairy godmother) for between two and three times what I’d bought it for.  True, I sold in a rising market.  But still…. There was even a bidding war after the first open house.  Two potential buyers even asked if they could also buy everything in it, it looked so nice, so ready-to-move-into.  (And this “everything” was mostly my mother’s old furniture and knick-knacks, from the 1960’s). With that kind of success, “staging” (aka faking it) was a lesson I didn’t forget.

A couple of photos should give you an idea of what that Cambridge condo apartment looked like in its “wouldn’t it be nice if” fairy-tale period, until the closing:

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Looking into Cambridge dining room from living room (after staging).  Portion of living room in photo below.

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Thus, when it came time to sell the Princeton condo last year, I knew just what to do. In a way it was easier without Bill, although being without him was why I had to sell; we didn’t have to argue about where to put what where.  There was a garage and half the basement for storage (we’d turned the other half into a furnished room); we already had a lot of Sterilite boxes in multiple sizes; and I did a lot of dragging things up and down stairs on my own, to tuck them out of sight. Then the realtor brought in a professional photographer.  He put the camera on the floor. “Why is he doing that?” I asked.  “It makes for better pictures,” the realtor whispered.

It sure did. I may have played the role of fairy godmother to my property; the photographer played fairy godfather.  His camera placement and wide-angled lens turned a modest, nicely furnished condo, now “staged,” into a magical dream.  Who wouldn’t want to live there? Even though I knew how much trickery had gone into what we produced together, I loved his pictures so much I bought a set, to keep forever and forever after they vanished from the internet, post-sale.  Although it never really looked like this when Bill and I lived there with our two British Blue cats (their grey hairs over everything, their litter scattered on the bathroom floors), I could imagine, couldn’t I?  For one shining moment (e.g., ten days), this beautifully spacious sunlit dream house was mine.

There was another bidding war.  I don’t know what the successful buyer was thinking when she offered the slightly inflated asking price. But I didn’t ask. I needed her money to buy myself and the cats a much smaller apartment — one bedroom with “den” (a separate room, although minus a closet) — in an over-55 community, and then fix it up to my liking. (Wood floors, white walls, more lights, etc.) So I busied myself with that.  It’s where I’m living now.  A very different kind of place, and a different kind of life. I’m sure you’ll be hearing at least something about it in future posts.

But I still have the photos of what 35 McComb looked like through the photographer’s camera eye just before its sale. And although I know it’s not really a good idea to keep looking back — I might turn into a pillar of salt  — I do take those photos out from time to time.  So you’ll have to see them too, to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s. The front door is at the top of the post.  You can leave whenever you like.  I left out photos of the three bathrooms and the laundry room, so as not to overtax your indulgence. But if you do stay till the end of the tour, just remember — this is what “faking it” looks like:

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fullsizeoutput_9c6fullsizeoutput_9c2fullsizeoutput_9bdfullsizeoutput_9b9fullsizeoutput_9b7fullsizeoutput_9b6fullsizeoutput_9b5All the same, and even when you’re too old for fairy tales, a little make believe is nice….. (Sigh.)

 

FAKING IT

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Even as a young girl eagerly devouring the “ladies” magazines my mother brought home from the corner newsstand, I thought the advice I found there about keeping a husband’s interest after marriage quite unfair. Especially the part about hurrying to the bathroom to apply makeup before he woke up and caught you with a nakedly unadorned face.  Although privately agreeing with the magazine beauty columnists that one looked much better enhanced by the sorcery of cosmetics than not, I did wonder how come the man didn’t have to do anything special to keep the marriage going.  Of course this was a long time ago, when in most marriages — as I realized long before I had finished high school — the man earned all or almost all the money and the woman’s job, if you could call it that, was to make sure he wanted to go on supporting her.

Whether a heavily made-up face was what a man fantasized about in the privacy of his side of the double bed is another question entirely, and not within the purview of this piece, wherever you thought its headline was leading.  But even if the magazine editors didn’t quite get the male psyche, they were right on the button with the then-economic interests of their readers. Keep yourself attractive, by whatever standards then obtained. Whether “attractiveness” also included faking pleasure between the sheets even where there really was none was probably determined privately by the woman on a case-by-case basis. In any event, back in those long-ago days when I was still living under my parents’ roof, I thought both parties simply exploded simultaneously with some kind of as yet unimaginable joy upon vaginal entry,  which meant that kind of fakery was not an issue.

When at last old enough actually to share a double bed with another, I never was able to force myself to reach for the cosmetic case before he opened his eyes.  However, time had marched on and that was no longer key.  What you were supposed to be was thin, or thinnish (even if “thin” didn’t come naturally); you also had to wear a panty girdle or girdle even if you were thin so nothing at all could possibly jiggle, so your behind was one unbifurcated cheek (preferably perky), and also so any bumps at the top of your thighs, however slender, wouldn’t show in a sheath dress or skirt. That was just to get to first base with a man — long before the necessity of having to keep his mind on you after marriage.

Ideally, you also had to be able to manage your hair, do without glasses in social situations, be a lady in the living room and a whore in the bedroom.  Of course plenty of women did get to first base without some or all of these qualities (myself certainly included), but most of us nevertheless hated one or more parts of our bodies because they didn’t look the way they were “supposed” to look and therefore struggled with as many fakeries as we could afford. (Hot rollers, padded bras, stilettos that improved the ankles but were killers to walk in, dieting in public but raiding the fridge once the girdle was off for the night; I’m sure every female reader of a certain age has her own list.)  I remember asking both a journal when I kept one, and a psychotherapist when I could pay one, “Why can’t I be loved just for me?”

Indeed, who doesn’t want to be loved just for being who they really are?  And yet long after marriage — or multiple marriages — most of us continue to play games with the truth. If we’re lucky, not so much on the domestic front as we and our men grow older and more realistic about what is important, and lovable. But almost always in the outside world, in order to survive. Although I haven’t worked for pay for over ten years,  I still keep a moralizing magnet on my refrigerator acquired during all those decades of having to market myself to successive employers, latterly at an age which on paper might have looked like the kiss of death: “Good clothes open all doors.”  They do, and they did.  Of course, once the door opens and you walk in, the clothes aren’t enough.  You’ve got to be up to scratch on all the multiple facets of the work you’re applying to do.  But you never get to that if the door never opens.

Bottom line: some form of fakery is probably necessary in a market economy for almost every kind of success.   For instance, as a new late-life lawyer in a large firm I soon learned my professional survival would likely depend on keeping to myself all real opinions about the value of what we were doing on behalf of our huge corporate clients.  Do I therefore owe my legal career, and consequent ability to achieve a modest retirement  before death, to the fact that I had little yellow stickies on my computer and inside my front desk drawer reminding me all day long to KYMS?  (My personal acronym for “Keep Your Mouth Shut.”) Not entirely. Good work was also involved.  But KYMS was an excellent start.

Which brings me to yet another example:  selling residential real estate, where the fakery is known in the trade as “staging.”  I learned all about staging in 2005 while selling the first property I had ever owned only in my own name: a two-bedroom, one-bath walk-up apartment on the second floor of a a semi-historic building in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  The building may have been old, but it did have charm and a good address, and the floor-through apartment had “good bones.”  Moreover, I was basically neat, and didn’t own a lot of crap because I had left most of it in the marital home when I moved out six years before buying the Cambridge apartment.

Then I met Bill.  I had bought the apartment  without foreseeing a second occupant, especially one who collected “stuff.”  Bill brought his smaller possessions with him.  (The larger ones, I learned later, were in storage.) Where to put them?  There was one sizable locker unit two floors down in the basement of the building, but it was already fairly full of beloved old grade school math notebooks and incomplete sets of Clue and Monopoly belonging to my two adult but as yet unmarried sons.  Besides, Bill didn’t really want to be rummaging around in a dark basement locker every time he wanted something.  So any available surfaces of my previously uncluttered home began to look like this:

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Cambridge 2005: End table in den (aka second bedroom). Formerly holding only lamp.

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Cambridge 2005: Other table in den. (Formerly holding only lamp. Big pictures mine; small pictures his.)

Since I wasn’t blogging in those days, I have no photographs of his side of the bed with its cluttered bureau top and piles of books on the floor, or of the single bathroom after it had acquired his toiletries and nutritional supplements as well as mine. However I’m sure you can imagine. (Having the two photos above was dumb luck.) “Great apartment,” said the friendly realtor. “But you’ll have to clear all this stuff away.”

“Where shall I hide it?” I asked plaintively.

“Wherever.” She waved her hand blithely.  “I’m sure you’ll find a place.”

[To be concluded in next post.]

 

 

 

 

STAY PUT OR MOVE ON?

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The conventional wisdom extended to the new widow or widower is to not do anything for a while, or (putting it another way) to do only what you feel like doing.  That’s tricky advice, because of the “feeling” component.  Do you go on living where and how you’ve always lived with the person who’s died — reminded every hour, in that familiar setting you shared, that the person who should also have been there is absent forever?  You may “feel” you want to stay, close to as much of his or her presence as lingers, everywhere you look, in the clothing, the furniture, the favorite foods in the pantry.  However, staying put may also prolong the excruciating feeling your life has been torn in two and the other half remains missing.  Your own (now disabled) life may stay put as well.

Or do you take a deep breath and turn your back on your joint past (without ever forgetting it)?  Do you then begin looking for another, smaller, different place in which to live because you “feel” that’s the only way begin building a life of your own even though you really don’t feel like doing it just yet? Should moving on begin with an actual move?

I present this query as if it were a matter of free choice. Indeed, for all the widows I met in the two six-week bereavement groups it was a free choice.  All had been married to the same man since emerging from college. (“From my father to my husband,” as one put it.)  All had comfortable homes in which they had raised their children and which grandchildren visited frequently, homes now free and clear of mortgages. They drove relatively new and powerful cars. Some had second houses in Florida, to escape the winter months.In no case did money problems figure among their laments.  In other words,  in their bereavement they were well fixed to stay put. And I believe that in the four months or so since the second group disbanded, none of these widows has moved. One who I ran into in the local market hasn’t yet begun to empty her husband’s closet, although he died about a year ago; she says she’s begun to think about it only now because of her daughter’s urging.

Two of us have not stayed put.  F., a recent widower, nursed his artist wife for four years until in the end he lost her to cancer. They had been living in a large house in a township about thirty minutes from Princeton, chosen to accommodate his wife’s studio and artwork. Now she was gone and he was alone with all the memories which seeing her paintings, sculpture and drawings around him every day could only exacerbate. Moreover, he had both professional and social connections in Princeton, from which he was somewhat isolated where he lived. Yet these were the people who might best be able to help him begin again.  So F. put his house on the market within a few months of the funeral and before the bereavement group’s first session.  He also made a deposit on a new one-bedroom rental apartment in the heart of Princeton.  This didn’t mean he had worked through his grief.  He felt, however, that he had a better chance of recovery (if we can call it that) in a new environment with fewer triggers to remind him of what he had lost.

My situation too was somewhat different from that of the other members of the two groups. I also had a choice. But not a good or completely free one.  Bill and I had been together only fifteen years, and although we split all expenses down the middle, I was the one who bought the condo we’d lived in for the ten years since we came to Princeton.  While we kept separate checking accounts, we also shared a joint one, into which last January he had transferred sufficient funds to pay part of his share for the calendar year. But his social security disappeared with his death in May.  Although until 2017 I could carry the condo expenses alone (including mortgage and real estate taxes)  without touching capital, after that I would need to begin withdrawing what I had counted on not needing to withdraw so quickly, since there wouldn’t be any more when it was gone.   That seemed unwise.  Irrespective of my “feelings” about the condo, which reminded me wherever I looked of the other person who used to live there and had vanished, I knew I should sell before 2017.

I knew this as soon as Bill died in May.  It took me about three weeks to emerge from shock, weakness, and very frequent tears. Then V., a real estate agent, called. She wasn’t reading my mind.  I was the one who had first called her mid-April to set up a meeting I had to cancel when he developed terminal pneumonia. She was now following up.

The back story is that for a long time after the symptoms of his disease manifested itself, Bill had insisted he wanted to die at home.  About a year ago, he reluctantly changed his mind.  The stairs were becoming too difficult, given the state of his lungs.  We needed to live on one floor, preferably where many of the chores of home maintenance would be taken care of, and perhaps where there was also access to nursing care if needed. However there could be no buying without selling.  The money for the next place was tied up in my equity in the condo.

At the time, I was ambivalent.  Although approaching my 85th birthday, I didn’t feel ready to consign myself to “a retirement community.”  I thought of those communities as holding pens for death. On the other hand, Bill needed to be in such a place. So I swallowed my reservations. We visited a beautiful and (for us) hugely expensive facility run by the Quakers in Pennsylvania, another in Montgomery  (just north of Princeton) which gave me possibly irrational but nevertheless bad vibes, and a third in Plainsboro (but with a Princeton address), where the lovely apartments were market-rate — and without future medical care built into the monthly fees, thereby greatly raising them. I also began calling real estate agents to get started with the sale part of this double enterprise.  We met with three and were about to meet with V., who would have been the fourth, before Bill became too sick to proceed.

So when V. called at the beginning of June, I could have consulted my feelings and said, “Not yet.”  Or I could have made the choice I thought I should, and said, “Yes come. Let’s talk.”  Not in any way enthusiastic about moving to that “retirement community” (just about the only source of one-floor apartments in or near Princeton not priced out of my league), but driven by financial prudence (as well as fear), I agreed to meet with V. in a week.  That gave me just one  week to rid the condo of all Bill’s medications, cannulas, inhalers, oxygen concentrators and related equipment; to get off the floors, and find a place in the already full bookcases for, the towers of books surrounding every place he liked to sit; and also to make his office (the second bedroom) and his bathroom (the second bathroom) somewhat more presentable.

There’s nothing like a timetable to get you off your ass and thinking again about something other than yourself. Plenty of time to cry early in the morning and in bed at night.  As for the question posed in the headline, in a way (and much like attendance at bereavement groups) it’s different strokes for different folks. What answer might I have given if I were rolling in money?  I truly don’t know.  But I’m not.  That said, I think I made the right decision — for me.  I’m better off, in almost all ways, here than there.

The prospect of V.’s visit precipitated a whirlwind of activity that didn’t let up until after I moved into the Plainsboro residence near the end of September.  By that time I had resumed sporadic, although not yet regular blogging. I had also reaped all kinds of kudos from acquaintances for having rebounded so efficiently and accomplished so much in such a short time. I hadn’t “rebounded.”  I still miss Bill acutely, beyond writing about it,  even in this new environment. But I did accomplish quite a bit in not very much time at all.  However, there’s no mystery or miracle about it.  You do what you have to do.  And with some luck, and some help from friends and interested professionals, it gets done.

One or two (or three) more posts about the “moving on” part. And then we’re up to date!

TALKING ABOUT GRIEF

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Does talking about it help?

There’s no one answer. We’re all different.  The only thing you and I have in common is that we’re both human.  In other respects each of us is, miraculously, one of a kind. So people experience loss of a loved person differently.  The searing pain may be the same in every bereaved heart. There the similarity probably ends.

There are differences between loss of one parent and then of the remaining parent, between loss of a brother or sister and loss of a child or of a husband or wife. Family situations also vary among the grieving survivors.  There may be strong familial support or no family at all, loving friends or none. Often when the survivor of a death is getting on in years, the loving friends who might have been there are already dead themselves.

For the most part, men and women also seem to differ in their response to what has happened. Many men may feel they can tough it out alone, or that their loss is too private to share. Some simply lack the habit of being able to talk about feelings.  There are women who also feel uncomfortable speaking openly about private matters. However, these appear to be in the minority.   In the five or six walk-in bereavement group meetings and two six-week bereavement group sessions I attended after Bill died, I encountered only five men — two in one of the six-week groups and three others at separate walk-in sessions. Three were widowers and two were sons who had lived all their lives with their mothers.  Everyone else I met was a recent widow, or a sorrowful daughter or sister.

Therefore anything I say here about the value of talking about one’s great loss will not be useful for everyone.  I have at least one friend, no shrinking violet, who went to a couple of meetings after her husband died at too young an age and felt bereavement groups would not help her deal with the hand she’d been dealt.   Nonetheless, since I’ve been quite frequently asked why I attended (and now and then still do attend) such meetings, I’m going to set down here my experience with the benefits of going.

At the time Bill died last May, the very existence of bereavement groups hovered only lightly on the periphery of my consciousness as a vague notion they provided spiritual solace for church members. Since I’m not only nominally Jewish but entirely without spiritual faith of any kind, I would therefore not have been in any way comforted by the references to Jesus and God I expected would be offered by such groups. However, on one of his last days of consciousness before the morphine required for intubation knocked him out, Bill mentioned them. Although a psychiatrist by training, he had always favored talk therapy over pharmacology wherever medication might not have been absolutely necessary. Concerned even on his deathbed about my being alone in Princeton after he left me, he tried to think of what might help. So of course his suggestions included a place where I could talk it out.

My own instinct, not dissimilar, was to find a psychotherapist instead of a group — of necessity one who would take Medicare.  Throughout my life, it was always psychotherapy that helped me survive and surmount some very real difficulties.  Afterwards I would say, in jest (but it was also true), “I can’t leave a husband until I have a shrink, and I can’t leave a shrink until I’ve found another husband.”  I’ve also said, not in jest (but equally true), “I don’t know what I think till I hear what I say.”  Last May I wasn’t leaving anyone; he was unwillingly leaving me.  But the default position was the same.  I was going to need someone to talk to.

When I had sought therapy before, I was working and could pay.  Now I wasn’t working, and couldn’t pay — at least not for long.  In the intervening years, it has also become hard to find a therapist (let alone a psychiatrist who still does talk therapy) willing to settle for what Medicare will approve per session.  Eventually, with the help of my internist, I did find such a person. It is a great and much appreciated luxury for someone like me, needing to talk or write about what is going inside, to be able to sit down once a week with someone absolutely supportive and non-judgmental who for fifty minutes at a time exists only to listen and offer an occasional comment or suggestion.  But it took time to find her.  In the meanwhile, there was a nonsectarian bereavement group meeting once a month at the Princeton Senior Center where you could just walk in without registering or making a prior commitment.

I’m not a group person.  I like one-on-one, not only in therapy but with the people to whom I can be open. So it was with some trepidation that I showed up at the Princeton walk-in group on May 16, ten days after Bill’s death.  There were about eight people in the room, plus the group leader, who was a licensed social worker and part of the local hospital hospice staff, and also the hospital chaplain, a young woman newly pregnant. Despite my hesitation at the presence of the chaplain, she said nothing remotely “spiritual” at any point during the hour and a half we were there. Her function was to co-direct the discussion with the leader and, I suppose, to be available with her chaplain hat on for anyone who sought her out privately afterwards.

The group was part of the hospital’s outreach to the community. We sat around a long table on which there was a large box of Kleenex, introduced ourselves, identified the person we were there for and when he or she had died.  That was all we had to say, unless we felt like saying more. Almost everyone in the room said I had come too soon.  I didn’t think so. “Soon” is when you are raw and bleeding inside.  “Soon” is when you most need some kind of triage.  Even if you just listen to other people talk about how they are hurting without saying anything yourself, it helps. It helps to hear you’re not by yourself in feeling such extreme pain and fear. (Some people don’t admit the fear, but you can hear it in what they say.)

A number of acquaintances have said to me they didn’t need groups because when they were in that dark place hollowed out by death they were able to talk to family and friends.  I didn’t find talking to family and friends to be the same.  Even when you’re being deluged with phone calls, and invitations to dinner, and visitors bearing flowers and food, the callers and visitors don’t really want to hear too much about how you’re feeling.  You can sense their uneasiness as you speak. They make sympathetic sounds and nod and offer tissues, and then try to turn the conversation to other things, either to distract you from your sorrow or because they’re uncomfortable with such raw feeling.  It takes someone who’s been there or — better yet — who’s there right now.

Moreover, you get about thirty days of undiluted sympathy from the non-bereft.  Then you’re expected to make efforts to return to regular life.  Even quite good friends are capable of asking, “So, how are you now?” or, “How are you doing these days?” or, “Any plans to get away for a while this summer?” They also make every effort to avoid mentioning the person who has died. His or her name simply disappears from what they have to say.  They mean well.  But they just don’t get it.  And they don’t comprehend your inner confusion, if you try to explain it to them:  Are you really missing him (or her) so much as the weeks and months begin to pass?  Or is it the life you built and lived together that you miss?  Nor do they grasp the hot rage that alternates with your despair: The death wasn’t the fault of the disappeared, so why are you so angry, and (for God’s sake) at whom? After a while, you realize it’s futile to reach the uninitiated.

You can talk about all that in a bereavement group.  The others may come from other professions, other social circles, backgrounds, cultures, faiths…may have other vocabularies, may be less able than you to articulate what’s going on with them inside. But they will listen respectfully and with interest to what you need or want to say. They will have felt what you are feeling, or will begin to feel it as you talk about it and they let it well up.  You (and they) are in a place where it’s safe to let it out.

You also learn coping strategies, or work them out for yourself, from listening to those a little further away in time from death than you are. In addition to the good ideas you pick up, you may also on occasion feel privately superior to some of the group participants.  For example: one poor fellow in his fifties whose mother had died several months before said he wandered around the local supermarket in the evenings although he had no need to shop, so as to feel himself among other human beings. Although I felt sorry for him, I knew at once that’s something I simply would not do. And if you’ve come to the meeting with the sense you’ve been crushed by loss, perhaps beyond repair, hearing about such desperate measures may energize you to find a more palatable and self-respecting alternative.

Some people even make new friends from among those who are sharing their experience.  A mini-group of four who participated in one of the two six-week group sessions I attended  last summer banded together for the purpose of not being alone on Saturday nights.  They pick a local movie by e-mail and all have supper at a nearby restaurant before the movie begins. I myself would not find a shared loss sufficient basis for pursuing friendship outside the bereavement group unless there were other interests and points of view in common.  But it seems to give these four considerable comfort, now that they are all without partners, to spend “date night” doing something together that they did with their partners before.

Why do I still occasionally go to bereavement groups now that it’s six and a half months since Bill’s death? Because I’m in no way out of the woods yet.  The rawness of the injury (and death of a partner is a severe injury to the survivor’s sense of self) has scabbed over. But in my case, anyway, the depth of the sorrow seems to have been somewhat deferred, given the fact that I had to spend June, July, August and September winding down Bill’s affairs, getting a condominium townhouse ready for sale, marketing it, looking for an apartment to live in after the sale, coordinating both contracts so that the apartment contract was contingent on the successful sale of the condo, downsizing, working with a contractor to somewhat alter the apartment before the move, and then finally moving.  (Some of that perhaps to be recounted in future posts.) Such concentrated activity left only early mornings and nights for unrestrained crying. So it is just now when I am “settled” again that I have the relative leisure to let myself fully experience how I feel as I embark without him on this new life into which I was thrust against my will.

And for where I am in what could be called the grieving process, a group can continue to be helpful. I’m the sort of person who responds to what someone else has said rather than initiating a train of thought myself.  Last Monday, at a walk-in session, I responded to a widow who told us how she was sorrowfully trying to recreate the Thanksgiving she had had with her husband for so many years — with a thought I hadn’t been able to formulate clearly before she spoke. I said I felt as if the life I had shared with Bill now seems to me like a play in which I was suddenly left onstage without the other player.  But half a year later, I’m not in that play anymore.  The scenery’s been struck and they’ve mounted another play on the stage, with new scenery.  I certainly remember the first play. I know all the lines. And I dearly wish I were still in it with my co-star.  But I’m not.  He’s disappeared. Now I’m the lead character in this new play.  Except I’ve only been given the first few pages of the script and I have no idea at all yet what the author,  whoever the author is  –me? — has in mind.

That’s exactly how I’m feeling this Thanksgiving.  But I don’t think I could have discovered such an apt and clarifying metaphor for it if I hadn’t been at the bereavement group meeting last Monday. I’m sure there will be post comments from people who’ve had other, more negative, experiences with bereavement groups. But as I said at the beginning, and as Bill always said when someone said or did something that flummoxed us, we’re all different.

I wish you a warm and tranquil holiday weekend.

TRUMP AND LIFE

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Yesterday I declared I wouldn’t be commenting on the election. However, I just came across a piece by Adam Gopnik, published four days ago by The New Yorker Digital News Desk, called “Talking to Kids About Trump’s Victory.” Gopnik’s last paragraph strikes me as so exactly right — not only about Trump arriving after eight promising years of Obama but also about life in general, especially as I have been experiencing it recently — that I can’t resist quoting it.

The lesson of history—one of them, anyway—is that there is no one-way arrow in it, that tragedy lurks around every corner, that the iceberg is there even as the mighty Titanic sails out, unsinkable. [italics mine] Having a tragic view of life is compatible with having a positive view of our worldly duties. This is a big and abstract thought to share with children, of course, and perhaps, like so many like it, it is teachable only as a pained—at this moment, acutely pained—daily practice.

Is a quote a comment?  Probably.  Is life really tragic?  If you live long enough, it does seem so.  Must we nevertheless keep a positive outlook on our familiar duties and pleasures, and take as much comfort as we can from them? What other choice is there?