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.

AND THEN…

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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.

BEREAVEMENT ASSIGNMENT

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

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

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

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

Bereavement-Group Assignment, July 26, 2016

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

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

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

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

              “You’re one in a million.”

               “I love you so much.”

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

                 “You’re so kind.”

                 “We had fifteen wonderful years together.”

                 “It’s all right to cry.”

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

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

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

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

 

 

QUESTIONS IN THE MARGIN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

REALLY DUMB STORY MAKES SENIOR CITIZENS SOB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CHEERY POST

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Perhaps it’s time for something a bit lighter, after the gloom my last piece seems to have engendered in everyone.  (I won’t even summarize what it was about: too much of a downer.  If you’re curious or have already forgot, go read, or reread, it.)

Since it’s too cold for oldies like me to seek much cheer outdoors, let’s try to brighten the day with something indoors.  Furniture, for instance.  My general rule, now there’s no more earned income, is not to buy any.  What we already have is enough. Bill’s general rule, given my general rule, is to cut out pictures of stuff he really likes and squirrel them away in notebooks, where they can be found without too much effort in case of need.

Need?  Yes, occasionally something falls apart.  Some of the pieces I brought to our menage are even older than I am.  When we married, my second husband and I acquired most of our bedroom furniture from used dealers in small towns north of New York at a time when Victorian stripped oak was big.  (And also cheap. It came from the homes of the deceased just across the Canadian border  where it was acquired “for a song.” Even after the labor of stripping away the dark patina of age and restoring the wood’s natural color, it came within our very modest budget.)  Thus, my share of this furniture, when we divided it up at the time of our divorce, included a stripped oak bureau with mirror:

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Bill is a modernist.  His tastes run to expensive Italian designer furniture, chairs from Knoll, gadgets from MoMa (the Museum of Modern Art).  He has had his way with our living room and some of the family room, while we still had a little discretionary money to accommodate his desires.  He is also patient.  He waits.  And sometimes he is rewarded.  Four months ago, the whole top part of my bureau, the part supporting the mirror, pulled away from the base and was found to be hanging by two loose nails. Since the years had already streaked the mirror with black blemishes, it didn’t seem worth it to call in a furniture restorer, especially as Bill sided with the Polish cleaning lady, who wanted us to get rid of the top of it before it collapsed on her.  With some difficulty, we smuggled it out of the house and out to the curb in three big black garbage bags.  (Just in case our condo association might consider it didn’t qualify as collectible refuse, if left there in its uncovered state.)

There is another mirror on the other side of the bedroom, hanging on the wall. It’s full length. (This one dates from the time when it seemed important that I not go off to work with my slip showing — a time when there were such things as slips. )  But it has no table near it.  I can’t use it for hair, or makeup, or deciding which earrings to wear.  (The earrings, and other jewelry, are in the wooden box on the right side of the bureau.)

Bill to the rescue!  Whenever he does this to me, presenting something to buy that would never have crossed my mind otherwise, my knee-jerk reaction is “No!” (A little peek into why other people sometimes think we’re so “cute” together.  Ying and yang all the way.)  I will spare you the details of our interpersonal colloquies concerning the acquisition of the new mirror Bill had already picked out before there was a need.  It took me three months of automatically looking at the blank space above the bureau and not seeing any reflection at all, three months of scouring the internet for something attractive to me that didn’t cost north of $500, three months of measuring and imagining what something would look like above my bureau that I had never before imagined, because it wasn’t Victorian and didn’t “go” — until I decided life was too short and even if it was a big mistake, so what?

And you know, it wasn’t. Big, yes; mistake, no.  A huge orangey-red mirror in the bedroom?  Hey, why not? It sure cheers up the morning, and the evening, and bedtime. What else really matters?

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