MY DARLING BILL IS DEAD

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i.

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

ii.

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

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

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

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

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

iii.

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

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

iv.

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

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

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

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

v.

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

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

vi.

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

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

vii.

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

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

viii.

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

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

SCARY

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Although most of us nearing old old age don’t often talk about it, even to each other, it’s a time of life that necessarily brings thoughts of what could come next.  As prepared as we may feel ourselves to be, both emotionally and practically — such thoughts begin to impinge more and more frequently on our consciousness because of what we see happening to our contemporaries.

“I just never thought this would happen,” exclaims a woman I know.  She is two years older than I am, with a husband nearing ninety, and two sons in their fifties not living in Princeton or anywhere near it who have children of their own still to educate.  Both she and her husband had been professionals throughout their working lives and seemed to me somewhat better fixed than Bill and I are.  When I met her about five years ago in a reading group, they were living in a free standing, well furnished house with three bedrooms, a study and a finished basement, as well as the requisite living and dining rooms and three full bathrooms.  The house had an attached two-car garage for their two cars and was beautifully landscaped by the condo association to which they belonged.

But she was already losing her vision to macular degeneration that didn’t respond to drops. Soon after we met, she became legally blind and could no longer drive.  They struggled on for about a year with the husband driving wherever they needed to go. Eventually, however, they had to move to a retirement community that provides transportation to doctors, hospitals, supermarkets, shopping centers and, on notice, elsewhere in town.  This was a huge downsizing — to a one bedroom apartment with den.

However, she adjusted.  The other residents were educated, many of them formerly affiliated with Princeton University, and there were activities within the main building to get her out of their small apartment and keep her occupied with lectures, movies (which she could still more or less see), and a small gym with physical trainer. As for reading, first she read with a magnifying glass, and then only books she could obtain on Kindle, where you can increase the type size to 16 or 18.  (It slowed down the reading, but she was determined.) Finally she needed a machine under which you slid the Kindle or iPad to magnify it still further.  She could no longer see well enough to review bills or write checks.  It became hard to communicate with her by email.

A year later, his emphysema took a turn for the worse and he was put on oxygen.  They gave up the remaining car to a grown granddaughter.  He was willing to use the oxygen at night when he slept, but not the portable one to move about the main building — which made it more and more difficult for him to reach the dining room.  He had to stop to catch his breath and rest on benches strategically placed along the corridors, sometimes falling asleep while he sat there.

One Sunday afternoon, when out to lunch with one of their sons, who was visiting, the wife tripped getting out of the car. She had a heart attack and a stroke which left her mind intact but resulted in a useless left arm and leg.  They took her to Philadelphia for cardiac surgery; she then went to a rehabilitation clinic where with hard work, she has managed to recover sufficient use of the left leg to walk slowly (although not too far) and to hang light bags on her left arm but not do much else with it.

She’s now back in their retirement community apartment.  Because of her incapacities, she has to have home help from 9 to 3 every day. It costs $25 an hour, or about $4,500 a month over and above all their other living expenses. After an initial period when it was covered, this cost has been coming out of pocket. Three months ago, her husband’s doctor put him under hospice care.  This means it was then thought he would not survive more than another six months.  Hospice pays for two hours a day of home care (as well as a visit every few days by a registered nurse).  However, his doctor believes he needs round-the-clock assistance, because he keeps trying to get up to reach the commode every other hour of the night and falls. His wife, obviously, can provide no physical help at all.  This means another sixteen hours of home care per day at $25 an hour.

She telephoned me in despair last week.  Money has been flying away at a frightening rate.  She’s had to authorize their broker to liquidate funds they never thought they’d need to touch for such a circumstance — including roll-over IRA funds that are taxed after being distributed (so you have to take out more than you need to keep the amount you want after paying taxes on the whole of the withdrawal).

And the scary part is that her husband is doing well!

“What does that mean?” I asked.  “He’s getting better?”

“No,” she said.  “But he’s stable.  His vital signs are strong.  He eats. His brain seems clear when he’s awake.  Three months of the six are gone, and he’s not any sicker.”

She means he’s probably not going to die in the predicted three months.  The round-the-clock care may go on, and on. She is looking into the possibility of saving some money by replacing the current system of hourly home care with a live-in person; it may be slightly cheaper, but not much. (Moreover, it might not work if he keeps waking so often at night; a single live-in person would get no sleep.) Bottom line: the longer he lives, the more his home care depletes their savings, and the less is left for her own survival afterwards.

Who ever thinks the time will come when you might have to worry someone with whom you’ve lived for sixty-four years won’t die before you run out of money?

 

 

 

 

 

 

IF ONLY….

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Eventually you reach the point where most of your life is behind you. You have to exert considerable imagination to keep the days from being repetitive. What’s coming down the pike is at best not likely to be particularly exciting, at worst not advisable to think about too much.  That’s when some of us who are crossing over into old age may be tempted to amuse ourselves by wondering what sort of life we might have had if we’d played our cards differently.

Bill is a big one for this kind of fantasy. If only he hadn’t done thus and so.  If only he’d listened to M. If only he’d chosen a different career path, a different wife, a different country in which to settle. Right now he’s mourning the fact he never applied for dual citizenship and a Swiss passport at the time he was married to a Swiss national, had just become the father of a Swiss-born son, and was practicing medicine in Geneva. When he becomes especially disgusted with the domestic and international news, he so yearns to live in Geneva again! What he would do about me if he could take off for Geneva we don’t discuss, because it’s a pipe dream.  Not only would he likely find lots to dislike about present-day Geneva. He doesn’t have the passport, or the social benefits Switzerland affords its citizens.  Becoming Swiss was the road not taken.

He’s tried playing this game with my history, too. He thinks younger me, the one he never knew, had an unnecessarily hard time, beginning with college. “You’d have had a much better life if you’d gone to Radcliffe,” he declares.  In this scenario, he gives me a happier, more flirtatious four college years than the ones I lived through.  He also has me engaged to a Harvard man by the time I graduate, preferably someone who will go on to become well-fixed and famous.  I will then have the money, leisure and connections to develop my talents, whatever they might have been, instead of having had to “settle” for less than optimal husband material and then having to slog away at earning a living in various jobs/industries/professions while being married to men less meritorious, in his view, than I deserved.  When he talks like this, he almost sounds like my mother.

Does he really believe I could have attracted the likes of, let’s say, John Updike, who actually was at Harvard during the years I attended college? Maybe he does. (He overestimates my abilities in almost every area.) He’d be wrong. Or if not completely wrong, if John Updike had been fool enough to fall for insecure, emotionally immature me — then we almost certainly would have divorced each other pretty soon, as both of us did, with other people, in our actual real lives. Besides, would twenty-year-old John Updike, fresh from Shillington, Pennsylvania, have been attractive to irrationally picky me? Bill doesn’t factor in questions like that when he’s spinning straw into gold.

Mind you, he’s no dummy. He’s not a believer in the actual possibility of these alternate reality fairy tales.  Maybe it’s a holdover from all those years of doing psychiatric talk therapy with patients.  He just enjoys speculating. But count me out of the “if only” game. I don’t want to waste time on trips to la-la land. (We are ying and yang about that.) In my view, most of us played the cards we were dealt as best we could, often after careful consideration, although sometimes also driven by irrational impulses of which we were at the time unaware. If in retrospect, it seems there might have been preferable alternatives, they weren’t real alternatives.

For the record, I enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College — the school Bill believes I would have done better not to attend — at a time when the last few World War II vets, beneficiaries of the GI Bill, were graduating. It would be about twenty years before the college again became co-ed. I nonetheless accepted its offer, despite the absence of men, like a wallflower being asked to dance.

Sarah Lawrence in 1948 was a twenty-year-old college, slightly north of New York City, which for its first couple of years seems to have functioned as a two-year holding pen for young ladies waiting to become wives of future lawyers, doctors and financiers. But in the early 1930s it somehow managed to transform itself into an experimental four-year adventure in learning to learn for oneself. Alas, in 1948 I was a highly conventional young person of seventeen who wanted to be like everyone else. I would have felt perfectly comfortable with a conventional college education. Experimental adventures in learning for oneself sounded absolutely terrifying. I knew how to memorize, to do extremely well on examinations, and to compose in fluent, dutiful prose any number of well-organized but boring thoughts on set topics.

This was absolutely not what Sarah Lawrence was about. There were no exams, and no memorizing, except for vocabulary in foreign language courses, of which there were few.  There were no textbooks; one read source material.  Small classes met for an hour and a half around a conference table, but only once a week. In addition, there was an independent term-long project associated with the class subject matter on which each student worked by herself and on which she reported every other week to the course professor in a private conference in his or her office. The project was supposed to culminate at term’s end in a long paper called a “contract.” There were also no grades, and therefore no conventional way of knowing how well you were doing. Every semester, you received a paragraph or so of commentary on your work from the professor of each course, assessed in terms of your ability and potential. (The office kept grade equivalents of these reports, in the event you needed to apply to graduate school afterwards, but you never saw them while you were an undergraduate. You weren’t supposed to be working for grades.)

You’d think someone whose modus operandi had hitherto been to claw her way to the top of her classes might not be ideal raw material for this educational experiment. But based on my academic record and completion of a sixteen-page application consisting of thirty-two questions about myself, each to be answered on half a blank page, I was offered a full scholarship.  It was probably a mistake in judgment on the college’s part. They may have thought they could shake up the way my mind worked. As for me, I didn’t question their motives. Despite some apprehension about the novel educational environment into which I was about to plunge myself — would I be able to keep the scholarship being the principal fear — I had no hesitation in saying yes, yes, yes.  Sauve qui peut.

The situation at home which drove my acceptance was as follows:

(1)  Radcliffe, where I did really want to go (because it was the sister school of Harvard), did not give me a scholarship and didn’t even admit me, probably because there was no point in wasting an admission on someone who needed financial aid and wasn’t going to get it.  I was “wait-listed,” a polite way of saying, “Sorry.” Did being Jewish have something to do with that? Some might have said yes, although you probably couldn’t have gotten anyone in the Admissions Office to admit it. A girl from my high school with the exact same grades as mine, but who wore a cross around her neck and sang in her church choir, was admitted — with financial aid from the Radcliffe Club of New York. I had no cross or church choir membership, although I did then play classical piano fairly well. I also remember sinking fast with the ladies from the Radcliffe Club at their tea for applicants during our high-school senior year. I was entirely inexperienced at gracefully holding a teacup and saucer, plus a cookie, plus my handbag, while trying to balance on rarely worn cuban heels and searching for subjects about which to converse with the several minimally polite Radcliffe Club members in their forties and fifties circulating the room to check me out.  Bill’s reveries about my going to Radcliffe might have made allowances for these circumstances; he himself had to go to medical school abroad — in Geneva, to be specific — because Jewish boys had such a hard time getting into medical schools here at home.

(2)  Vassar, my second choice, did make an offer but provided no aid.  The Admissions Office there informed my parents that if they could swing the first year and I did well, there might be a scholarship for the second year. Tuition and board that year was $1200. My father earned $5000 a year (before taxes) when he was working, thanks to Local 802 of the AFL Musicians’ Union.  But a hotel musician had no guarantee of a steady job, could be let go on two weeks notice, and frequently was. So my parents banked half of every paycheck that came in, and managed on the other half.  $1200 would have just about cleaned out the savings account. My father was reluctantly willing, my mother less so. She believed a woman’s economic security lay in finding a husband with a good job, not in acquiring fancy higher education that might lead to who knew what. As for me, I was afraid of wiping my father out and then finding that Vassar’s conditional second-year scholarship did not come through, leaving me without any alternative after the first year.

(3) There was also a fallback school, where I didn’t even have to apply. It was Hunter College, to which the high school for girls I attended was attached, both administratively and geographically.  A diploma from Hunter College High School automatically entitled you to a place in the freshman class of Hunter College. Moreover, because it was a city school, it was free, or almost free.  I could have gone on living at home, in the tiny room at the end of the short hall behind the kitchen which I had occupied since I was eleven, and taken the subway from Kew Gardens into Manhattan and back every day, just as I had done all through high school. I’m sure I would have received a good, if conventional, college education in some subject of my choice, probably English, and then gone on to teach it, perhaps at Hunter. Maybe I might also have met someone to marry, although I wasn’t sure where. I would also have had to go on spending too much time alone in the small apartment with my by-then depressed and menopausal mother, since my father frequently had to take out-of-town jobs. This future so much didn’t make my heart beat faster I wanted to cry whenever I thought of it.

(4)  Finally, there was Sarah Lawrence. The high-school college guidance counselor had suggested applying to at least three schools if I wanted to try to avoid enrolling at Hunter. It would have been prudent for all three to be in New York State, because there was a good chance I would win a New York State Regents scholarship in the competitive statewide examinations held midway through the last year of high school, and thereby receive $300 a year for each of four years of attendance at a New York institution of higher education.  True, Radcliffe was in Massachusetts.  But even the guidance counselor thought I should give Radcliffe a shot.  However, Vassar was in New York State. Now I needed another.  Skidmore?  Barnard? NYU?  What about this one, with the pretty light blue catalogue cover?  It offered courses described in expansive terms that had nothing to do with specific subjects — “The Individual in History,” “Classical and Christian Civilization,” “Renaissance and Reformation” — and therefore sounded grown-up and sophisticated.   “Why not? What’s the harm?” I thought, with my mind focussed on Radcliffe.  I listed Sarah Lawrence as my third choice on the SATs.  The catalogue cover was really very attractive.

And that, dear friends and dear Bill, is the story of how I became a Sarah Lawrence girl rather than a Radcliffe girl (or, for that matter, a Vassar girl).  There really was no choice; “if only” never entered into it.  What came afterwards may not have been the easier ride Bill might have wanted for me if he could have rearranged things his way, or the opportunity for a rich choice of well-heeled husbands that was undoubtedly my mother’s dashed hope.  But when I look back, it seems to me I wouldn’t have become whoever I am had I been able to follow a hypothetically easier road.  At Sarah Lawrence, I did (with angst) eventually learn to learn for myself, to connect disparate facts in a new way, and thus equipped, was later able to survive and even somewhat prosper in what was then still really a man’s world. Yes, it was sometimes lonely.  Yes, I was sometimes envious. But with time it became evident that no road is really easy. Better to learn to tough it out early, while you’re still resilient and can roll with the punches. There’s also a bonus.  In your later years, you can always blog about it, and it won’t be boring.

 

 

THE VIRTUES OF ROUTINE

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At many points in my life I wanted so much to be free of my day-to-day routine. Those were the years when every work day was like the next in structure and stress and when every weekend day, almost equally stressful, was filled with all the routine boring tasks for which there was no time during the week. [Ah, for someone to make the beds, pick up and vacuum, do the laundry, shopping and occasional ironing, visit the dentist for me, run the errands that couldn’t be run during lunch hour!]  When was there going to be time for me, to pursue all my interests, pleasures, curiosity, desires?

Then there was time.  Less money, but much more time.  Plenty of time for the routine boring tasks like bed making, laundry, marketing (which seemed to expand and occupy even more time than before). Plenty of time for sleeping in, lunching out, reading crap, watching television. Plenty of time for wasting time. And did I waste it!

So what about the interests, pleasures, curiosity, desires?  Well, there was certainly time for that too. Surprising how little actually got done, though — especially in that window of opportunity before “time for me” began to be time left over from doctor appointments (mine and Bill’s), “procedures,” visiting sick friends, and wasting even more time recovering emotionally from the visits.

When I flew to Florida to see one of my sons and his family earlier this month, school had already begun for his young children, ages nine and eight. I therefore had occasion to observe the value of their routine.  Since my son was still on summer break from work, the family schedule principally revolved around the children’s days: up, dress, breakfast, to school at eight, pick-up at three, after-school dance classes for my granddaughter, music lessons or practice for my grandson, homework, early supper and helping to clear, walking the dog, baths in sequence, some free time to play by themselves, reading stories aloud as a family, quiet time in their own rooms, lights out at nine.

Those children got so much done in a day!  And so did I when I was their age. As I watched them, I became nostalgic for a structured, protected day like theirs.  Not the routine of my working years, but of all the school years that preceded them — when life was about learning and growing and enjoying. Of course, that also presupposed a certain amount of luck in being born to parents who, whatever their other idiosyncrasies, would and could provide the protection for those things to happen regularly within the orderly sequence of the days. But in that particular way, I was lucky, despite my parents’ somewhat difficult life as immigrants in a country new to them.

And then it occurred to me that getting old needn’t preclude adopting a new and fruitful routine.  The fact that one can be lax and lazy when paid getting-to-work-on-time is in the past doesn’t mean being lax and lazy is a must.  All we need is to be our own parents, in the same way we were parents to our children when they were young. Get ourselves up, give ourselves breakfast, and send ourselves off on days of new experiences, mental and physical and aesthetic, as suits the “me” in each of us.

I’ve been truly slothful with the years of freedom I’ve been given. However many more of those years there may be, the sloth must stop. Of course, I’m really lecturing me, not you.  (Bill says I have a punitive superego.) But it’s true that as the weather has cooled down somewhat, I’m feeling energized and inspired by my trip.  So thank you, dear grandchildren — for unknowingly showing me how to get into harness again this fall.  A routine: who’d ever have thought I’d want one back? But what do you know?  I do.

CRIMINAL LAW AND ME

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I’ve enjoyed movies involving criminal trials as much — well nearly as much — as the next person, especially before I became a lawyer. (Afterwards, my interest devolved into seeing how many mistakes about courtroom procedure, the practice of law and the office life of lawyers I could find in what I was seeing, which was fatal to that temporary but willing suspension of disbelief essential to viewer appreciation.)

It’s true I entered law school at the age of 51 principally to be able to earn enough money to finish raising my two trusting children as I thought they should be raised. But I did feel I might be a good trial lawyer because I’d always been a big talker.   As a seasoned movie-goer, I visualized myself mesmerizing juries with my words. Then I discovered mesmerizing juries came last.  There was a lot, a lot, a lot of other stuff that preceded it, especially in civil litigation, where 90% of cases settle on the courthouse steps, if not before. As for crime in its less than murderous aspects, much of it is plea-bargained before it reaches fact-finding in court, which is what jury trials are all about, at least until the penalty phase.

[Before moving on, are we clear about the difference between civil and criminal litigation?  Civil cases are claims of harm brought by one party against another that don’t involve alleged violation of a federal or state statute, or of a municipal regulation.  The plaintiff (complaining party) seeks either injunctive relief — “Court, make him/her/them stop it!” or “Court, make him/her/them do it!” — or else money damages, as compensation for the alleged harm done.  No one goes to jail or prison or is condemned to death.  Criminal complaints, on the other hand, always allege statutory or regulatory violations, are brought against the defendant(s) by state district attorneys or federal assistant attorney generals acting on behalf of  governmental entities and, if proven beyond a reasonable doubt, do result in jail or prison time, or — as in the recent Boston Marathon bomber trial, brought under federal law — a death sentence.] 

Okay, back to me. What kind of future did I have in mind  when I applied to five law schools in the greater Boston area and entangled myself in considerable federally-backed loan debt?  Candidly, I was hoping for any kind of job I could get at what everyone thought of as “my age.”  Lawyer husbands of neighbors counseled that after I had passed the bar, I should set up shop at any small local law firm that would give me a desk, and then represent anyone who came in: this potential client population, they anticipated, would consist of friends, or friends of friends, seeking divorces or separation agreements or modification of custody agreements, or perhaps a new will.  No salary, of course. Just a percentage of whatever I brought in.

Theoretically speaking, there would have been an alternative to this unappealing prospect right at the outset, although no lawyer husband of a neighbor mentioned it. Any member of the bar can sign up at any Massachusetts trial court to represent indigent defendants and be paid by the Commonwealth. It’s not much per case, but probably more than a percentage of any domestic dispute fees I might have been able to generate. I could also have applied for a job as a county Public Defender and, if hired (despite my “age”), become a “regular” employee of the Commonwealth. These two avenues would have been open to me because criminal defendants are legally entitled to representation by counsel and few, other than members of the Mafia or those accused of white collar crime (that is, of playing footsie with the federal and state securities laws) can afford to retain private defense lawyers. Therefore the government which has indicted them must also provide a defense.

Perhaps not surprisingly, public defense work never crossed my mind. Defend criminals in order to send my darling children to good colleges?

I know, I know.  Under the Anglo-American system of law, you’re not a criminal until it’s proven.  Accusations can be wrong. You’re entitled to a defense. Even if there’s seemingly compelling “proof” that you’ve done what the criminal complaint asserts you’ve done, there may have been legal flaws in the way such evidence was obtained which should preclude any verdict based on it.  I do believe all this.  However, I’ve never believed it enough to step into a jail cell, even with a prison guard right outside, in order to confer with a sullen client, perhaps not guilty of the particular offense with which he was now charged, but only perhaps.  (Although a defense attorney wouldn’t really want to go into that, because unlike in movies, the job after indictment is not to find truth, whatever it might be, but to identify flaws in the prosecution’s case.) I would have been especially reluctant to step into that cell if the sullen client were known to be generally comfortable with wielding knives and punching people even if he may not have done it this time.

That’s not to say I don’t admire lawyers who do step up to bat in order to preserve what they can of how our legal system is supposed to function.  I know a wonderful woman, married to a man with whom I shared a secretary when I practiced law, who emerged from Harvard Law School with a stellar record, held a prestigious federal clerkship, and then turned down a great offer from a major law firm paying major money to go defend criminals in Suffolk County, which includes downtown Boston and its slummier corners. At the start, she earned barely a living wage walking into those prison cells alone. But her defense work, which is now in the federal system and supervisory, has since that humble beginning been praised and commended by the entire Massachusetts judiciary and bar.  I might add she continues to correct you if you happen to use the word “criminal” in connection with anyone in her client base.  “Alleged criminal,” she says quickly, with a smile.

So how about the other side?  Nina Mishkin, tough on crime?  Criminal Law was one of the five mandatory courses of the first-year curriculum at Suffolk Law School when I enrolled in 1982.  I found it confusing.  But then I found the other four courses confusing, too. (Constitutional Law most of all.)  I suspect everyone did, but being twenty-two and twenty-three, they all played it cool and pretended it was a breeze.  At 51, I sweated bullets. Going to law school “at my age?” What had I been thinking?

I did like the Criminal Law professor, though.  She was about as old as I was but had gone to law school at 39, after an early marriage splintered into divorce.  Then she practiced in the Middlesex County District Attorney’s office for eight years, building up trial experience. (I found out all this later, of course, not while her student.)  She was also attractive, wore great suits which I much admired, and had good legs. She must have had the legs before she became a lawyer but they did add to her appeal as a role model. When the results of the Criminal Law exam, given in December, were posted in January, it appeared that sweating bullets had been of some merit as a methodology for learning law. I finished first in the class:  1/345.

Encouraged by early success, I made a mental note to take, in due time, the other course she taught, a third-year elective called Criminal Practice.  Which, in my third year, I did. This was not, as you might imagine, simulated courtroom practice in a classroom, although there was some of that — to somewhat prepare us for what awaited in a real court.  (“Objection!”  “Objection!” “Objection!”)  No, no.  We would actually be thrown to the lions.  Had I considered carefully, I might have had second thoughts. I have never done well with on-the-spot stress and angst.  (Stress and angst that I can take my time with, although not good, is part of life. By contrast, thinking fast on your feet doesn’t come up very often.) But I already had a job offer for when I would pass the bar. (God willing!) And so, with carefree abandon, I registered. What the hell. That was exactly the right word.  For me, hell is what it turned out to be.

It was then possible to offer live courtroom practice to students under a statute I can no longer cite permitting them to represent the Commonwealth in Massachusetts District Court (not to be confused with the federal District Court) under the supervision of an Assistant District Attorney.  This court had jurisdiction over only a few relatively minor criminal offenses. (Complaints involving weightier matters were brought in Superior Court.) The two I now remember were “‘Larceny Under” (thefts of under $100 in value) and “OUI”s (“Operating Under the Influence” — that is, drunk driving).  Over the semester, two OUI’s came my way.  I knew nothing of adroit cross-examination, how not to lead the witness, how to rephrase, or when to make my own objections.  Truth to tell, despite the 1/345 I knew nothing, and neither did any other law school student or graduate, about how to practice law, or how to try cases.

I nevertheless prevailed.  Bottom line: Nice-looking middle-aged lady in navy blue nunlike skirt suit actually won.  Both times.  In front of two separate six-person juries.  The second time, even the hitherto dour judge smiled approvingly. But the stress and angst to reach that result, the splitting headache that left the premises with me, were too high a price for prosecutorial triumph. At the end of the semester, I accepted the job offer from a (big) civil litigation firm, which provided plenty of stress and angst of its own, but spaced out over the next twelve years. Those two little OUI trials therefore became the only true war stories of my legal career — good examples of what thinking outside the box and life experience can do for you when opposing counsel and a not particularly friendly judge seem about to shut you down.

You want to hear?  My pleasure.  Another time.

WHEN DOES “OLD” BEGIN? — A GUEST POST

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[Although I’ve begun to think of people in their 60’s as “still young,” I realize that’s just a matter of perspective.  There was a time when I thought 50 was “old.”   Here’s a piece by Martha Mendelsohn, a New York-based writer colleague of mine who’s at least twelve years younger than I am. It first appeared in the Winter 2011-2012 issue of Persimmontree, an online magazine of the arts by women over sixty, as a response to a request for short pieces about “The Next Step.”  I enjoyed reading it when it was published there, and felt it certainly also deserved a place in a blog about getting old in a world where most other people, who appear to be getting younger every year, have begun to treat you as if you’re somewhat older than you still feel.  I should add that Martha has curly streaky-blonde hair, probably wears a size 2 or 4 and looks damn good — not just “for her age” but for any age.]

******

 ACCEPTANCE

by Martha Mendelsohn

The members of my book group were downing the dregs of the Manchego and wine when L. cleared her throat: “This may sound like a weird question—but do I look okay?”

Surely that was a rhetorical question. “You look more than okay,” we hastened to reassure her. With her twinkling blue eyes and deep dimples, L., at 68, was still an undeniably attractive woman. “Because as soon as I got on the subway,” L. continued, “a man, who couldn’t have been under 50, offered me his seat.”

A groan of recognition arose. It seemed that all of us recent Medicare recipients had been subjected to this particular brand of public transportation gallantry, and none of us appreciated it. Maybe we could no longer take the subway steps three at a time, but we went to the gym, chased after grandkids, and still worked. We were not about to throw ourselves under the train tracks for these unwanted acts of kindness, but we deemed them offensive.

J. was the most outraged. She had spent much time and money having the quotation mark between her eyebrows and other signs of age erased, but that didn’t stop a passenger from insisting she take her seat on the crosstown bus. Someone suggested: “Next time, just say, ‘Thanks, but I’m not pregnant.’”

I find myself thinking that the only time anyone should cede a seat is for a pregnant woman or any passenger, whether 19 or 90, with an obvious infirmity. Why shouldn’t an obviously still-mobile person of a certain age be allowed to remain standing? I was on the bus with my husband when a not-so-young woman bolted up, begging him to take her seat. (He acquiesced reluctantly.) “This man plays eight hours of tennis a week,” I informed her, even though in truth it annoyed me how much time he spent on the courts.

For now, hoping to head off seat offers, I hide my under-eye pouches behind sunglasses. But I encounter other affronts: At doctors’ offices, I routinely am called “hon,” “sweetie,” and “dear.” Will the time come when I feel grateful for such endearments and those thoughtful riders willing to yield their seats? Will I ever reach the point where “pushing 70” doesn’t sound like it refers to my mother?

The next step is to accept my age. To accept the seat.

******

[Martha has also written a page-turner of a YA novel which is scheduled for publication in April 2015 and may be pre-ordered at Amazon.  It’s called The Bromley Girls and is about a Jewish girl’s experience with latent anti-semitism as a sophomore at an exclusive and expensive girls’ private school in Manhattan in the 1950’s. If there are young readers in your extended family and circle of friends, you may want to check it out.]