NEVER TOO OLD FOR ADVENTURE

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wish me luck, wish me fun.  

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PROUSTIAN MEMORY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AS I WAS SAYING (five months ago)….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.