I can’t tell you what happened after I drove away from the Princeton hospital in the middle of the afternoon on May 6 because I don’t remember much about it, other than that I kept swerving erratically as I turned the wheel and was repeatedly honked at. I suppose I survived because the honkers were also good drivers. But I did manage to get myself back into my own driveway behind Bill’s red Honda, and then into the house through the garage door, carrying the hospital plastic bag containing everything he had had on when we had checked him in seven days before. I couldn’t unpack it. I just put it down. It was all I had left of him. It would still smell of him. And I had to save that until I could cry.
Just then I couldn’t cry. I sat on the family room sofa to call my two sons to tell them it was over. They must have said the right things, each in his fashion, but I don’t remember what they said. Did my voice shake? It must have. I don’t remember. Then I must have used Bill’s phone, which had a reduced overseas rate plan, to call his oldest niece in Israel and afterwards his Swiss first wife, mother of his older son, in Geneva. His niece, who is a psychotherapist, was very kind. I do remember the kindness of her voice, but not her words. It was something about now I had to take care of myself. His first wife (who speaks English and also likes me) was so matter-of-fact that I actually do remember what she said. It was that she was sorry but after all he had lived a long life, and I had my sons. She also invited me to visit if I ever come to Switzerland.
After that, I must have fed the cats and petted them and petted them. They knew something was wrong. Bill hadn’t been home for a week and I was clearly not myself. They kept rubbing their furry cheeks against me in an unusual display of either affection or distress. I cleaned the litter boxes, and forced myself to drink an Orgain, of which there were over a dozen left in the fridge for Bill. (Orgain is a somewhat more nutritious, and expensive, version of Ensure, that last nutritional resort for people who have difficulty eating enough). I was numb. I put my checkbook in my purse for tomorrow and went upstairs with the sole thought that I had to get some sleep because the next morning I needed to drive to the undertaker, who would have by then removed the body from the hospital — to pay him for having done that and for the cremation that would follow. We had some old sleeping pills in the bathroom cabinet, but I was afraid to take one, or even half of one, lest I not wake up in time. I stayed in bed all night, but if I slept I don’t remember it.
The undertaker was professionally solicitous. Sleepless and still in a state of shock, I resented it. He didn’t know me, he didn’t care about me, he was really only interested in my business — which he was going to get anyway because he took care of 90% of the dead in Princeton (as he was quick to assure me when I inquired). I particularly resented his oily deference and lowered voice when, after obtaining the requisite information for the death certificate, and learning that I had no interest in buying any of his pretentious urns, he informed me that the fee for having removed the body and for the cremation would be $3,000, payable before I left.
Does anyone haggle in such circumstances? Did I really have any viable option? Deciding it might be more prudent to hold on to cash for the time being, I kept the checkbook out of sight and gave him a credit card in payment. My mother’s identical cremation in Palm Springs, California, sixteen years earlier, had cost slightly over $300. I asked him what he charged people who couldn’t afford the fee. He said if they could prove they were being supported by the state, there was a reduced price, which they could pay in installments. He also said because his establishment was in the center of town and he needed a lot of space in back for mourners to park, his real estate taxes were very high. He was sure an educated, professional woman such as myself would understand.
The educated professional woman who was allegedly myself didn’t understand much at that point, but she did understand that in a money economy, everything costs. Even dying. However, she didn’t have time to brood about it. There were many other things to attend to. I had to finalize Bill’s affairs. As important, or even more so, I needed to decide what to do about the condo, which was both too big and too expensive for me to maintain by myself past the end of 2016. The best time to try to sell it was soon, because people with young children who were looking to buy in Princeton wanted to do it in time to register those children in the Princeton public schools before the beginning of the school year. So if I were going to sell, I had to get it staged and on the market by early July. But first, I had to get myself back in shape to function.
Easier said than done. Bill died on a Friday. By the following Monday, I felt — felt physically, in my nearly 85 year-old body — as if I might be dying too.