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!

TRUMP AND LIFE

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

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

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

BIG WORD FOR FEELING AWFUL

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[Whatever the headline may suggest, this post is not about last Tuesday’s election.  My feelings about that are indeed awful, as if someone had suddenly and unexpectedly died, except it’s not the heartrending death of a someone but of political, ethical and perhaps even personal life as I and everyone I know has come to expect it. However, everything that can be said at this point has already been said, by other bloggers, columnists, friends.  As for the frighteningly uncertain future, we can only grit our teeth and wait for whatever comes next. So I am returning here to last May, after Bill’s death and my visit to the undertaker.]

Bill died on a Friday. On Saturday morning, of necessity, I visited the undertaker/funeral director. I then got myself home and didn’t go out until Monday.  There were comforting phone calls, which made me sad when they ended because I was alone in the house again. There was also cuddling with the cats and raw sorrow.  It felt as if a large part of me had been cut away, leaving a hollowed-out bleeding cavity. Solicitous acquaintances sent flowers.  I had no desire to eat (although I knew I should), and wished I could sleep (but couldn’t).  The refrigerator was still full of Orgain, a packaged drink somewhat like Ensure but designed by a doctor undergoing treatment for cancer and allegedly composed of more nutritious ingredients, which Bill had been able to consume even when the medication he was taking to slow the progression of his pulmonary fibrosis removed his appetite and made him nauseous.  I survived the first weekend on two or three daily vanilla Orgains.

I did go to bed early and lay there until it was light again, but if I slept (and I probably did, in fitful bits) I don’t remember it. I do remember my law-school-trained mind spinning like a kaleidoscope gone crazy, unable to focus either on my misery or what I had to do next on Bill’s behalf.  Which was to (1a) sell the red Honda he had driven; (1b) try to return to the distributor for credit his newest and virtually unused portable oxygen concentrator,  five pounds lighter than the one Medicare had provided — for which he had paid nearly $2000; (1c) close his credit card accounts; (1d) notify his insurers of his death; and (1e) verify that I would not need to probate the will, since New Jersey doesn’t require it if the decedent owned nothing solely in his own name at the time of death. There was also what had to be done, all by myself, on my own behalf. Which was to (2a) sell the condo as soon as I could, since it was both too big and too expensive for me to maintain alone much past the end of the calendar year without seriously dipping into capital; and also to (2b) find another place for the cats and me to live as soon as the condo was sold, although the money to buy this “other” place, when I found it, was solely the equity in the still unsold condo because I was pretty sure I didn’t qualify for another mortgage while I still had one. (A few weeks later, I found out I was right.  I was coldly informed by loan officers at two separate banks that I would need to show at least $10,000 in monthly income to carry the two mortgages, even for only the three months or so before the condo would presumably sell.  Hah.  That was not something I would ever have been able to do, even when I was working.)

The (1a-1e) through (2a-2b) in the prior paragraph is of course so neatly organized because I am writing this piece six months later; organization or any kind of  plan was completely beyond me that weekend.  My mind lurched from “close his credit card accounts” to “see if I can get a mortgage” to “should I take the car to Honda or try to sell it myself” to “do I know a lawyer I can consult about the will who won’t charge me” to “the condo is an unsightly mess of medical equipment and books all over the floor” to “how could he leave me to deal with all this by myself?” to “I need more Orgain from Amazon, chocolate flavor this time.”  Then one of the cats, still missing Bill, would come to the bed in the middle of the night to be scratched, petted and comforted. And I would cry, in the dark, into her fur.

Everyone who called advised doing nothing for a while until I felt stronger.  That was good advice. But the Type A person I also am thought: What do they know?  “Listen to what your body wants,” said Bill’s niece, a psychotherapist practicing in Israel.  Well, all right.  Unfortunately, by Monday — when I attempted to walk to the brick mailbox stand two driveways away from mine — I realized I could move only very slowly and was wobbling. Was my body trying to tell me something? I began to eat again, carefully, because I knew I should, and also because kind acquaintances were deluging me with offers of meals at their house, meals at restaurants, prepared meals brought in (one even vegan and surprisingly tasty) — none of which I could in good conscience refuse — and also because a survey of the refrigerator and pantry cabinet revealed so much food stored there to tempt Bill’s appetite that I would have to give it away, throw it all out or begin consuming some of it.  Sleep didn’t come as easily as the meals.  And the trips to the mailbox were becoming even more difficult. By the end of the first week, I was making them only every other day.  (Since Bill was the King of Catalogues, that meant the box was so stuffed when I did eventually open it that I hardly had the strength to pry out its contents and scraped the outsides of my fingers raw on the metal sides of the opening.)  A friend who picked me up to feed me rotisserie chicken and salad had stone slabs for steps up the grass from her driveway to the house. I had to ask her to let me clutch her arm to make it to the front door.

This was both embarrassing and worrying.  I was all alone in Princeton.  Although they were warm and supportive on the phone, one son lived in Florida and the other shuttled back and forth by train between work in D.C. and weekends with his still-young children and wife in New York.  If I became too weak to take care of myself, not to mention all the things needing to be done, then what?  By the time I stepped out the door to get the mail a week to the day after Bill had died, my heart was pounding loud and frighteningly fast, I gasped for breath as if I too had suddenly developed pulmonary fibrosis, and I was so dizzy the ground under my feet spun around. As I proceeded very slowly towards the box with legs far apart, like Charlie Chaplin, to keep some kind of shaky balance, I felt I might be on the verge of dying — not that very minute, but soon.  Although my head was still revolving like a top, I was able to grasp and hold on to one thought:  Call a doctor before it was too late.

Easier said than done.  For nine and a half years, since coming to Princeton, Bill and I had been seeing an internist highly recommended by the nurses in the major medical practice nearby as the most patient-friendly.  Dr. L. was indeed apparently much interested in each of his patients, at least for the time allotted him by the insurance companies, and even seemed to remember just about everything about you when you showed up for bi-annual checkups without first having to review your chart in your presence. But as we each grew older, and more symptoms of this and that surfaced, Bill pulled away. He was mostly seeing specialists by then, anyway.  I hung on to Dr. L. until last year, although Bill kept urging me to switch to Dr. G., another internist in the same practice whom he liked much better on the one or two occasions he had consulted him.

The cause of Bill’s disenchantment with Dr. L., and eventually mine, was that patient-friendly as he was, Dr. L. was a worrier. He was also perhaps over-impressed by our academic and professional credentials and shared all his proactive medical hypotheses with us.  If there were a symptom or a complaint, he not only knew all the conditions and diseases of which it might be a harbinger, which would need to be tested for, but would share all this (potentially scary) thinking with us.  In my seventies, I was sufficiently healthy that Dr. L.’s proclivities as one’s medical advisor didn’t really bother me. Later it did, very much. By then I had enough to worry about, without contemplating dire possibilities that might not come to pass.  But that’s another post, for another time.  Suffice it to say that last March, Bill prevailed, I switched to Dr. G., and obtained an appointment for the end of May.

Thus, in the middle of May when I suddenly needed him, Dr. G. had not yet met me. Moreover, a phone call revealed he was completely booked through the end of June, and certainly couldn’t squeeze in a new patient he didn’t yet know.  Although no one suggested it, I felt unable to return to Dr. L.  Nor would I under any circumstances take myself to the Princeton ER, given my recent experiences at that hospital.  (See “After Death, What?” TGOB, July 29, 2016.) However, Dr. G.’s appointment secretary was very kind when she learned my husband had recently died and I felt as if I were going to die too.  Her husband had died two years previously and she had felt exactly the same way.  She would try to find someone else to see me. (I did hope it wasn’t going to be Dr. L. but kept that to myself.) Good as her word, she called back an hour later with the name of Dr. S., who had recently joined the practice and therefore had an opening, five days from then (no, not sooner), at 8 a.m.

Beggars can’t be choosers.  In the meanwhile, I googled Dr. S.  His photo showed pink cheeks, a big smile on a round young face, lots of neatly combed dark hair; he looked as if he’d just emerged from college. Although he hadn’t gone to any of the medical schools known to me through fifteen years of living with Bill (a psychiatrist), young Dr. S. had practiced for a couple of years in Philadelphia, could probably determine whether I was dying or not, and could then hand me over to the appropriate specialist(s) to treat whatever was wrong with me.

Dr. S. looked exactly like his picture.  He might have been a classmate of  one of my sons when in their twenties.  Still, he was an M.D..  I explained why I was there. Husband died ten days ago. Heart fast and pounding. Unable to breathe. Legs like cooked spaghetti.  So dizzy the world was turning round and round.  No balance.  Unable to think a straight thought.  “Well, let’s see,” said young Dr. S. soothingly, reaching for his tools.  My blood pressure was normal.  My heart rate was normal.  My blood oxygenation level was 98-99 (so the breathing was normal).  “Then why am I feeling like this?” I demanded. “As if I were going to die?”  Young Dr. S. must have been a very good student in whichever medical school he had attended.  He knew exactly what ailed me.  It sounded as if it had come right out of a textbook.

“Somatization!” he declared.  

He meant it was all psychosomatic.  The pounding heart, the breathlessness, the vertigo, the loss of balance, the inability to focus.  I had never heard the noun form before, but if there’s a medical adjective, there’s usually a big and latinate related noun. “It’s just a reaction to your loss,” he said to me in a voice appropriate for addressing a small child or someone not quite with it.

And what was I supposed to do with this information? Learn to live with it? Dr. S. mentally turned pages till he reached the one that dealt with treatment for the grieving patient. He then told me I needed sleep and food. I was to get eight hours of sleep, and if I couldn’t fall asleep when I went to bed, I should get up and read till I felt sleepy, and then try again.  I was to eat whatever I wanted, even if it was french fries, without worrying about it, because I now needed the calories.  I suppressed various impulses to tell him I wasn’t stupid and instead listened impassively, not quite the good and grateful patient contemplated by the medical textbook but close enough. What was the point in pushing it with young Dr. S.?  He was doing the best he could.  He also told me to exercise. “Even if I’m moving like Charlie Chaplin, but more slowly?”  Yes, exactly.  And then I would start to feel better.  Well, perhaps that’s what the medical textbook said. “Could you also write a scrip for ten days of a mild sleeping pill?” I asked.  “To get me through till my appointment with Dr. G.”  No, young Dr. S. feared I might become addicted.  If I really couldn’t sleep after the getting up and reading for a while, I might try Benadryl, which is over-the-counter and not (he said) addictive.

While waiting in line at Rite-Aid to pay for the Benadryl, I thought about Dr. S.’s big word for feeling like death.  Somatization. I had never believed that symptoms of what were later diagnosed as real physical complaints, like chronic fatigue syndrome or Lyme Disease, were psychosomatic, even if they were first dismissed as such.  Apparently I was wrong. It seems in some instances the body does speak up to tell you what you’re really feeling.  Mine, for instance. It was saying that all of me was suffering from mortal grief, even where my heart was actually beating regularly and my lungs actually functioning normally. I had just been been in shock too great to realize it.

And that did make me begin to feel better.  Or at least less worried. The Benadryl was a bad idea; one tablet knocked me out for eleven hours and left me woozy for twenty-four.  But after that I began to fall and stay asleep without help, except from the cats.  So although I continued to weep often and spontaneously when by myself, I had become somewhat more optimistic about being able to manage living without Bill, even if unhappily,  by the time my scheduled appointment with Dr. G. rolled round.

The following week, the undertaker called me to come pick up Bill’s ashes. For the $3,000 I had paid him he probably would have kept them for a while, had I asked. But better sooner than later, and be done for good with that unctuous and falsely sympathetic man. The bag containing the plastic urn seemed surprisingly heavy when I picked it up, although Bill hadn’t been tall or big-boned.  Regretfully, I needed Mr. Unctuous to carry it to my car for me.  I hadn’t thought to bring a cane (although there were eight or nine of Bill’s, in various styles, in the house) because I wasn’t used to needing one.  But I was still afraid I might fall if I held the heavy bag while going uncertainly down the incline from the funeral home door to the curb.  However, I wasn’t dizzy anymore, and that was something.  Besides, Dr. G. had written a scrip for physical therapy to get me stronger again and I already had a first appointment scheduled.  He had also given me another prescription, for thirty days of a mild sleeping pill.  I did fill it, but by then I no longer wanted or needed sleep aids. Six months later, the thirty little pills are still in the drawer of my bedside table.

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.

***

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?”

***

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?

***

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?

 

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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THE DON (A story) (2 of 2)

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[….continued from previous post.]

Clara switched on the downstairs lights. “Stay and have another cup of coffee,” she urged. Florence didn’t mind if she did. They sat at the kitchen table to consider what had just transpired.

Florence was not the ideal partner for this kind of analysis. Her lack of interest in style and grooming blinded her to the wife’s shortcomings in dress and makeup. Worse, she didn’t find Couteau as attractive as Clara did; his unfavorable report on her work in the Shakespeare seminar had jeopardized her scholarship and she’d had to write two more long papers over the summer to get it reinstated, understandably weakening her susceptibility to his charms. “It can’t be easy being his wife,” she observed. “I bet he’s a difficult man to live with.” Also she didn’t think his drinking out of Clara’s glass was going to lead to anything. She agreed it wasn’t what the typical don would do with the typical donnee’s wine glass, and further agreed he likely found Clara attractive, especially in that sophisticated corduroy outfit, or he wouldn’t have done it. That said, she was inclined to view the sip of wine as an error of judgment.

Here, Clara had to concede, Florence was the expert. Sloven or no, she had lost her virginity to a much older man almost as soon as she’d arrived at college three years before. Clara’s knowledge of her deflowering hardly constituted a confidence; she’d told at least six other people, all of whom had thoroughly discussed it with one another. He’d done it on the floor of his 57th Street art gallery, beneath a Picasso, the Saturday she went to New York to apply for a weekend job. It turned out there was no job. Just instant mutual attraction and a long affair. Even now they still connected from time to time, if their respective schedules permitted. (She checked her diaphragm in a Grand Central locker whenever she went home on school breaks.) Clearly her views on Clara’s future with their mutual don were entitled to deference.

“Look,” she said, “it was only your glass. If he really wanted to go to bed with you, why didn’t he kiss the back of your neck, or put his arm around your waist, or his hand on your tit? He could have done any or all of that while the two of you were looking out that damn window for so long.”

“No, he couldn’t,” Clara insisted. “You were there.”

“He didn’t care about me being there or he wouldn’t have done the thing with the glass. Besides,” she added, “you didn’t exactly encourage him. If you wanted to make something of it, why didn’t you turn around? You just stood there, for God’s sake. He must have thought you’d report him if he went further!”

So now it was Clara’s fault. “You really think nothing more is going to happen?”

“Not before he gets back to school,” opined this woman of the world who owned a diaphragm. “What do you expect him to do? Write you incriminating love letters? Call you on the house phone and explain to someone else why he needs to speak to you?”

“Then what can I do?”

Florence was buttoning her coat to get back to her own off-campus house. Behind as usual, she needed the Thanksgiving break to catch up on assigned reading. “Invite him over to lunch next term, after he’s back. Make hamburgers or something. This is a neat house for stuff like that. You could even serve it in your room. And see what happens then.”

Clara paced restlessly after she had left. Did she really want to steal him away from the wife in socks and become the wife herself – stepmother to his unseen little girl and slavey in his kitchen? Not really. But the delicious unhappiness of an affair with a married faculty member who couldn’t resist her: how could she not yield? Was it too dangerous? Would it jeopardize her degree? What should she do? What could she do? If only it had been a regular don-donnee dinner, without any of these troubling problems! She wished she’d eaten more of the wife’s cooking.

Taking Florence’s advice, Clara invited Couteau to lunch a few days before spring break. He seemed surprised, but accepted. In town, she bought a pound of freshly ground round, lettuce, tomatoes, ketchup, and also a few hard rolls in case he needed bread. Everyone else in the house agreed to stay away for this momentous occasion. Clara cleared off her desk, borrowed a second desk chair from another room and laid out two place settings, napkins, salt and pepper, the ketchup bottle, a basket of the rolls and two glasses. Couteau arrived just as the two half-pound patties of ground round were nearing completion in the frying pan. (A half-pound was what Clara’s mother had always made for her father.) Clara slid the meat onto plates already decorated with lettuce and tomato slices, and led Couteau up the stairs, each of them carrying a plate and an eight-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola. When he saw they were to eat in her room he hesitated momentarily, but then courageously crossed the threshold. Clara left the door open, to reassure him. “Where is everybody?” he asked.

“Why, at lunch!” she laughed gaily.

It was an awkward meal. Clara asked if the meat was sufficiently well done. He said yes, it was very good but a lot of food. Flushing with embarrassment, Clara said she thought that was the amount men ate. (This did not explain why she too had half a pound on her plate.) He said he had a class to teach that afternoon and would fall asleep if he ate it all. Hurriedly, she changed the subject and asked about his wife, his child. He said they were fine. He asked what she thought she might want to do next year. If she were applying to graduate school, he’d be glad to write recommendations, her last paper was really remarkable. She said she was putting grad school on the back burner for a while to see what real life was like. He nodded, and pushed his plate away. Half the hamburger was still there. Clara had finished all hers. He didn’t drink from her glass. He didn’t drink from his own glass either. Maybe he didn’t like Coca-Cola? He thanked her for the home-cooked lunch and got up to go. “We’ll have to do this again,” Clara said. “When you have more time.”

“When do I have more time?” he asked pleasantly.

As soon as he was out the front door, she hurried back upstairs. Damn him. Had he forgotten Thanksgiving, the heavy breathing, the sip of wine? And if he was regretting all that, if he had realized in the interim that a love between them could only come to naught, why did he agree to come to lunch and put her to all this trouble? He hadn’t even offered to help take everything downstairs! Well, of course not, why would he? That slavey of a wife did everything for him. She poured ketchup on the remains of his ground round and ate it angrily before stacking the plates. She had to make two trips because she had no tray, and had just managed to finish cleaning everything up, including the greasy frying pan, when some of her housemates returned from their own lunch in the dining room. “How was it?” they asked, curiously. They didn’t know about the heavy breathing and sip of wine.

“I’m certainly not doing that again,” Clara said, loss and indigestion throbbing in her midsection.

“Bad, huh?”

“Pretty awful.” She laughed hollowly. “And I thought I was being so nice. It just goes to show….”

 

And then it was really over. Parents began arriving for the commencement dinner. They sat on folding chairs on the small lawn in front of Clara’s off-campus house and exchanged polite remarks while waiting for it to be dinnertime. Photos were snapped. Couteau came looking for Clara in the dining room. How gracious he was to her parents, whose conventional views of life he had worked so hard, with only partial success, to eradicate in Clara. Although he sat at their table through the appetizer and entrée, chatting lightly of this and that while she hoped for a private look in her direction, he excused himself before dessert to join Florence and her parents at another table.

Following dessert and coffee Clara’s parents left too – because, said her father, it was a long drive home and they would have to get up early for commencement at eleven. Dutifully she walked them to their new Pontiac and then hurried back to the dining room. By then the dinner was breaking up. Some of the other parents were now calling taxis to go into town for drinks with each other. Clara made her way around clusters of people she didn’t know, past deserted tables littered with dirty cups and crumpled napkins, looking for Florence and Couteau. “Oh, they’ve left,” someone told her. “Her parents weren’t able to come after all, so he took her into town to the Spoon.” The Greasy Spoon was a drinking hangout. Clara had never in all her four college years been there. He took her? On the very last evening they could ever have together? Sloppy disheveled her? She swiped the last four brownies from a tray near the kitchen, wrapped them in two napkins and took them back to her room, where she ate them methodically at the desk which was no longer her desk, brown crumbs falling on her new yellow cotton dress.

The next morning the sun shone. Alphabetically by last name, the graduates lined up in black caps and gowns rented for the occasion, to sit in the first two long rows of folding chairs arranged on the broad front lawn of the administration building. Florence was two seats away. Clara leaned over the girl between them and poked her. She turned. “What happened at the Spoon last night?” Clara whispered.

“Nothing,” Florence whispered back. “He drank a lot. He looked pretty drunk by the time the place closed.”

“And then?”

“What then? I went back to my room.”

“And him?”

“He went home. At least he said he was going to.”

The girl sitting patiently between them suddenly made shushing noises. The faculty, also in caps and gowns, were filing solemnly out of the building to sit on a dais set up on the front portico. Ah, there was the college president, followed by the dean. Clara tried to make out Couteau under one of the black caps. Sour brownie rose up in her mouth, the taste of failure and gastric reflux. She swallowed hard and choked everything down, stomach acid burning her throat. A name was called, a diploma presented, hands shaken. She heard clapping from parents, families and friends of others coming from the seats on the grass in the rows and rows behind her. Another name. And another. The clapping grew slightly less enthusiastic. Too many names. It seemed to go very fast all the same. Soon she tensed. There. Her name. Up she went. Diploma. Handshake. A scattering of claps.

Afterwards there was some milling around, but everyone was anxious to get on the road. Couteau approached. Stay in touch, he said. She nodded. He walked away, out of her life. A few of the others from her senior house waved to her. Goodbye, goodbye. Stay in touch. She nodded again. You too. It was hard to say more without crying.

 

Clara kept the Neilson and Hill, but although Couteau had covered only eight of the plays in class, she never again opened it to read another. At first she feared she wouldn’t be able to duplicate her interpretive success with All’s Well That Ends Well. Later, dipping into Shakespeare slipped further and further down her to-do list. But when she was sixty, her two children grown and gone from the nest, her career as a patent lawyer settling into four unpressured days a week at a small boutique firm, she began to look back at her life and it crossed her mind she’d like to see Couteau again before he died.

Having obtained his present address and telephone number from the college and made arrangements for a visit, she discovered he now lived in a modest two-story house at the top of a very steep hill in Kerhonkson, a small town in the Catskills. Margaret Couteau opened the door with a warm smile. “He’ll be so glad you came,” she said. Although quite wrinkled, she otherwise hadn’t changed much, except for white hair and the extremely thick cataract lenses in her glasses that enormously enlarged her eyes.

Couteau, heavier and looking much older than his wife, sat hunched sourly in an easy chair before a television news channel with the volume turned up high.  Two canes leaned against the chair. He made no effort to get up, but did switch off the television with a remote. Then he stared at Clara for a moment, as if unsure of who she was, before extending a cold gnarled hand.

“His arthritis is very bad,” explained Margaret.

“Hello, Charles,” said Clara, as cheerfully as she could. “You do remember me, don’t you? Clara? From the class of ’52?

He continued to stare. “I remember you used to be angular and sharp,” he snapped suddenly. “What happened?”

Clara said nothing. It had been forty years. I was only angular and sharp for about two weeks as an entering freshman, she thought. Is it my mind he’s remembering?

“Margaret says you’re some kind of big shot lawyer now. So you sold out too.  Like most of the others.”

They had lunch in the adjoining kitchen. He needed the two canes to maneuver himself to the table. It was fillet of sole, peas and carrots. Clara noticed Margaret had actually shelled fresh peas and scraped fresh carrots. Couteau complained the carrots weren’t sweet enough. Clara had brought a good Bordeaux and the most expensive single malt Scotch she could find in her local liquor store. He nodded when Margaret showed him the bottles, but otherwise took no notice. When he had finished eating, he rose with help and stumbled painfully away for a nap on a sleeper sofa in the living room. “He can’t get up the stairs anymore,” explained Margaret when he was out of earshot. “He has to live down here now. We put in a downstairs bathroom.”

Clara helped her clear, wash up and dry. There was no dishwasher. Then they sat down at the kitchen table again. “This must be very hard for you,” said Clara. “Alone here at the top of a mountain. How do you manage?”

It seems Margaret did all the driving up and down – to get groceries, reach the drugstore, fill the tank of their fifteen-year-old Buick. Genevieve, the daughter, lived with another lesbian woman in Western Massachusetts. She did speak with her mother every week, so there was that. “But Charles is very disappointed Genevieve turned out the way she did,” said Margaret. “He feels it was some kind of failure. Unnatural, he calls it. He doesn’t want to talk to her when she calls.”

“How can that be?” exclaimed Clara. “His views about how to live were so liberating!”

“I don’t know about that,” said Margaret. “Charles was always quite a conventional man. He even made me stop working after we married. He didn’t think a wife should go out to earn money. You can see where that landed us.”  Then she noticed the expression on Clara’s face. “He did talk a good game, though,” she added kindly. “You weren’t the only student who found him inspiring.”

“You’ve got to get off this hill,” said Clara. “How much longer can you go on like this?” She wasn’t just thinking of the cataracts.

“Tell that to Charles.”

Couteau woke up in time to see Clara leave. He appeared somewhat anxious for her to be out of the house so he could turn on the television again. There was a program he wanted to watch. Only Margaret seemed sad to see her go. Before she came, Clara had imagined she might make a little joke about that sip of wine on Thanksgiving Day so long ago. All things considered, it was just as well she hadn’t.