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.

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MY DARLING BILL IS DEAD

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i.

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

ii.

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

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

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

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

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

iii.

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

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

iv.

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

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

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

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

v.

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

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

vi.

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

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

vii.

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

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

viii.

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

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

REALLY DUMB STORY MAKES SENIOR CITIZENS SOB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WRITING SHORT: 31/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

Whenever presented with a question more complicated than what the weather’s like outside or should a friend send back the weird new shoes she’s bought – in other words, something that requires what could be called thinking — I often hedge. That’s because I don’t really know what I think till I see what I say.

I may think I know what I think. But once I begin talking or writing about it, what I thought I think changes. Sometimes the result is simply a more dense and complex version of my instinctive response. At other times, what I see is not so simple to parse.

When I began this series of short takes on “whatever,” not knowing where “whatever” might lead, I anticipated lightness and whimsy – fifty breezy trifles fit for summer days. I’ve just reread the first thirty, one after the other. How dark so many are. Beneath their surface froth, they’re colored by shimmers of loss – lost youth, lost opportunity, lost loved ones, lost life, the slow, relentless approach of death. Even the butterflies of which I was so proud not long ago: they’re both gone now, having lived out their miniscule three-week lifespans, as I knew even then that they would.

I do make conscious efforts to evade such thoughts. Judging by my summer output thus far, it’s been a losing battle.

WRITING SHORT: 12/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

I recently came across a box in the basement holding the white leather baby shoes in which I learned to walk in 1932. It was then the fashion to bronze outgrown baby shoes and keep them in the living room. However, these had been carefully cleaned with white shoe polish, stuffed with tissue paper and put away as if being saved for another day. I look now at these very small white shoes with stiffening laces and try to imagine the baby who wore them, the baby who was me. I can’t. I can’t even remember how it felt to take first steps among kindly giants in a world where everything was high above.

The reason I was in the basement was to find a large red-rope folder containing all my older son’s school reports and college applications. They’re his property really, to do with what he wants; it’s time they left my safekeeping. In the folder was a notebook labeled “My Diary” in which, as homework, he was supposed to write something every day for his first-grade teacher. I leaf through the careful block-printed entries on its wide-lined pages: “Ap.(ril) 8 Today we took Mommy to a doctor. We know him. We took mommy to t(he) doctor because she had some wax in her ear. It was keeping water in her ear.” That little boy I do remember. He had just turned seven. He and his younger brother were the center of my universe.

My older son is now a forty-eight year old man with some gray in his hair. Where is my mother’s baby? Where is my little boy? Day by day we change and disappear. The dead aren’t the only ones who are gone from us.

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ROGER ANGELL ON LIFE AFTER NINETY

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Roger Angell and his dog Andy, January 2014.  Photo courtesy of The New Yorker.

Roger Angell and his dog Andy, January 2014. [Photo courtesy of The New Yorker.]

[The most viewed piece I ever posted was a summary of “This Old Man,” an essay written by Roger Angell. It had just been published in The New Yorker.  My post ran sixteen months ago, on February 14, 2014, But it still shows up in the stats as being read almost every day by one or more people somewhere in the world.

Initially, I credited its popularity to the fact that the TGOB post offered readers almost half of the Angell essay for free, whereas The New Yorker archives were not free then, except to subscribers. But now I think there’s something more to it than that.  As far as I know,” This Old Man” is almost unique in being written by someone with a clear and literate voice who was in the tenth decade of his life — 94 when the essay was published, 95 this year.

That may seem a long way off to most of you.  Not to me. In less than a month, I will be 84. So once in a while I go back and reread the post, to remind myself of what it may be like for me in just ten years, if I’m lucky enough still to be here then.  Of course, Angell has far more money than I do, and more connections, and more this, that and the other thing to perhaps ease his journey towards the end.  But I do believe most of the essentials about which he writes remain the same for everyone.

Of the sixteen people who clicked “like” on the post when it first appeared, I recognize the avatars of seven or eight.  But many newer readers and followers of TGOB may not have gone rummaging in the blog’s archives to find it.  Therefore, I hope those of you to whom it’s already familiar will humor me for running it once more.  It does make those of us who are only a bit younger, or even very much younger, stop and think.]

ROGER ANGELL ON LIFE IN HIS NINETIES

[A reblog]

Roger Angell was born in 1920. He is the son of Katherine White, an early and renowned fiction editor at The New Yorker, and step-son of E.B. White, author of Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web. Angell himself has been associated with and written for The New Yorker nearly all of his professional life, more recently always about baseball, and still does a baseball blog for the magazine. I can take baseball or leave it (which is more than I can say for football, basketball or hockey), but mostly I leave it now that my two sons are long out of the house. So when I see something by Angell in the magazine, I’m inclined to skip it.

However, this week’s The New Yorker contains a long piece he has just written which is not about baseball. It’s called “This Old Man” (subtitled “Life in the Nineties”), and I could not put it down until I had read every word. Finding something good about getting old written by someone a bit older than me doesn’t happen every day! So I wish I could just copy out the whole thing here to show everybody. But it’s too long. (Pages 60-65 in the February 17 & 24, 2014 issue, the one with the annual Cholly Knickerbocker cover.)

Nonetheless, without pushing the outer limits of bloggery too far, I can probably offer a taste from the middle (about how the rest of the world treats you when you’re old) and then the last page and a half, about which I thought, oh yes, oh yes, oh yes, all the way to the tiny diamond which marks the end.

If you’re twenty-five and feel you don’t need to think about things like this right now, you probably don’t. Unless you’ve got a great-aunt or great-uncle still hanging in there, and want to know what it feels like. But your generation probably doesn’t read TGOB much, if at all. So this post is mainly for everyone else.

Because I’ve had to cut somewhere, I’m skipping the beginning and some of the middle, in which Angell describes his present pretty-far-gone physical condition (eyes, limbs, spine, heart), his personal losses (wife Carol, daughter Callie, dog Harry, many many friends), his remaining joys, his thoughts on death and dying. You can find the magazine online (Google it if you don’t subscribe), should you want to read it all. This part is from page 63:

We elders — what kind of a handle is this, anyway, halfway between a tree and an eel? — we elders have learned a thing or two, including invisibility. Here I am in a conversation with some trusty friends — old friends but actually not all that old: they’re in their sixties — and we’re finishing the wine and in serious converse about global warming…or Virginia Woolf…. There’s a pause, and I chime in with a couple of sentences. The others look at me politely, then resume the talk exactly at the point where they’ve just left it. What? Hello? Didn’t I just say something? Have I left the room? Have I experienced what neurologists call a TIA — a transient ischemic attack? I didn’t expect to take over the chat but did await a word or two or response. Not tonight, though. (Women I know say that this began to happen to them when they passed fifty.) When I mention the phenomenon to anyone around my age, I get back nods and smiles. Yes, we’re invisible. Honored, respected, even loved, but not quite worth listening to anymore. You’ve had your turn, Pops; now it’s ours…..

And here are the last two columns of page 64 and all of page 65:

I get along. Now and then it comes to me that I appear to have more energy and hope than some of my coevals, but I take no credit for this. I don’t belong to a book club or a bridge club; I’m not taking up Mandarin or practicing the viola. In a sporadic effort to keep my brain from moldering, I’ve begun to memorize shorter poems — by Auden, Donne, Ogden Nash, and more — which I recite to myself some nights while walking my dog, Harry’s successor fox terrier, Andy. I’ve also become a blogger, and enjoy the ease and freedom of the form: it’s a bit like making a paper airplane and then watching it take wing below your window. But shouldn’t I have something more scholarly or complex than this put away by now — late paragraphs of accomplishments, good works, some weightier-op-cits? I’m afraid not. The thoughts of age are short, short thoughts. I don’t read Scripture and cling to no life precepts, except perhaps to Walter Cronkite’s rules for old men, which he did not deliver over the air: Never trust a fart. Never pass up a drink. Never ignore an erection.

I count on jokes, even jokes about death.

Small Boy: My name is Irving and my dad is a mechanic.
Teacher: A mechanic! Thank you, Irving. Next?
Small Girl: My name is Emma and my mom is a lawyer.
Teacher: How nice for you, Emma. Next?
Second Small Boy: My name is Luke and my dad is dead.
Teacher: Oh, Luke, how sad for you. We’re all very sorry about that, aren’t we class? Luke, do you think you could tell us what Dad did before he died?
Luke (seizes his throat): He went “N’gungghhh!”
Not bad — I’m told that fourth graders really go for this one. Let’s try another.

A man and his wife tried and tried to have a baby, but without success. Years went by and they went on trying, but no luck. They liked each other, so the work was always a pleasure, but they grew a bit sad along the way. Finally, she got pregnant, was very careful, and gave birth to a beautiful eight-pound-two-ounce baby boy. The couple were beside themselves with happiness. At the hospital that night, she told her husband to stop by the local newspaper and arrange for a birth announcement, to tell all their friends the good news. First thing next morning, she asked if he’d done the errand.

“Yes, I did,” he said, “but I had no idea those little notices in the paper were so expensive.”

“Expensive?” she said. “How much was it?”

“It was eight hundred and thirty-seven dollars. I have the receipt.”

“Eight hundred and thirty-seven dollars!” she cried. “But that’s impossible. You must have made some mistake. Tell me exactly what happened.”

“There was a young lady behind a counter at the paper, who gave me the form to fill out,” he said. “I put in your name and my name and little Teddy’s name and weight, and when we’d be home again and, you know, ready to see friends. I handed it back to her and she counted up the words and said, “How many insertions?” I said twice a week for fourteen years, and she gave me the bill. O.K.?”

I heard this tale more than fifty years ago, when my first wife, Evelyn, and I were invited to tea by a rather elegant older couple who were new to our little Rockland County community. They were in their seventies, at least, and very welcoming, and it was just the four of us. We barely knew them and I was surprised when he turned and asked her to tell us the joke about the couple trying to have a baby. “Oh, no,” she said, “they wouldn’t want to hear that.”

“Oh, come on, dear — they’ll love it,” he said, smiling at her. I groaned inwardly and was preparing a forced smile while she started off shyly, but then, of course, the four of us fell over laughing together.

That night, Evelyn said, “Did you see Keith’s face while Edie was telling that story? Did you see hers? Do you think it’s possible that they’re still — you know, still doing it?”

“Yes, I did– yes, I do,” I said. “I was thinking exactly the same thing. They’re amazing.”

This was news back then, but probably shouldn’t be by now. I remember a passage I came upon years later, in an Op-Ed piece in the Times, written by a man who’d just lost his wife. “We slept naked in the same bed for forty years,” it went. There was also my splendid colleague Bob Bingham, dying in his late fifties, who was asked by a friend what he’d missed or would do differently if given the chance. He thought for an instant, and said, “More venery.”

More venery. More love; more closeness; more sex and romance. Bring it back, no matter what, no matter how old we are. This fervent cry of ours has been certified by Simone de Beauvoir and Alice Munro and Laurence Olivier and any number or remarried or recoupled ancient classmates of ours. Laurence Olivier? I’m thinking of what he says somewhere in an interview: “Inside, we’re all seventeen, with red lips.”

This is a dodgy subject, coming as it does here from a recent widower, and I will risk further breach of code and add that this was something that Carol and I now and then idly discussed. We didn’t quite see the point of memorial fidelity. In our view, the departed spouse — we always thought it would be me — wouldn’t be around anymore but knew or had known that he or she was loved forever. Please go ahead, then, sweetheart — don’t miss a moment. Carol said this last: “If you haven’t found someone else by a year after I’m gone I’ll come back and haunt you.”

Getting old is the second-biggest surprise of my life, but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love. We oldies yearn daily and hourly for conversation and a renewed domesticity, for company at the movies or while visiting a museum, for someone close by in the car when coming at home at night. This is why we throng Match.com and OkCupid in such numbers — but not just for this surely. Rowing in Eden (in Emily Dickinson’s words: “Rowing in Eden –/ Ah — the sea”) isn’t reserved for the lithe and young, the dating or the hooked-up or the just lavishly married, or even for couples in the middle-aged mixed-doubles semifinals, thank God. No personal confession or revelation impends here, but these feelings in old folks are widely treated like a raunchy secret. The invisibility factor — you’ve had your turn — is back at it again. But I believe that everyone in the world wants to be with someone else tonight, together in the dark, with the sweet warmth of a hip or a foot or a bare expanse of shoulder within reach. Those of us who have lost that, whatever our age, never lose the longing: just look at our faces. If it returns, we seize upon it avidly, stunned and altered again.

Nothing is easy at this age, and first meetings for old lovers can be a high-risk venture. Reticence and awkwardness slip into the room. Also happiness. A wealthy old widower I knew married a nurse he met while in the hospital, but had trouble remembering her name afterward. He called her “kid.” An eighty-plus, twice-widowed lady I’d once known found still another love, a frail but vibrant Midwest professor, now close to ninety, and the pair got in two or three happy years together before he died as well. When she called his children and arranged to pick up her things at his house, she found every possession of hers lined up outside the front door.

But to hell with them and with all that, O.K.? Here’s to you, old dears. You got this right, every one of you. Hook, line, and sinker; never mind the why or wherefore; somewhere in the night; love me forever, or at least until next week. For us and for anyone this unsettles, anyone who’s younger and still squirms at the vision of an old couple embracing, I’d offer John Updike’s “Sex or death: you take your pick” — a line that appears (in a slightly different form) in a late story of his, “Playing with Dynamite.”

This is a great question, an excellent insurance-plan choice, I mean. I think it’s in the Affordable Care Act somewhere. Take it from us, who know about the emptiness of loss, and are still cruising along here feeling lucky and not yet entirely alone.

You may not like the jokes. But oh, is he ever right! Here’s one more little bit to leave off with:

In the first summer after Carol had gone, a man I’d known slightly and pleasantly for decades listened while I talked about my changed routines and my doctors and dog walkers and the magazine. I paused for a moment, and he said, “Plus you have us.”

Another message — also brief, also breathtaking — came on an earlier afternoon at my longtime therapist’s, at a time when I felt I’d lost almost everything. “I don’t know how I’m going to get through this,” I said at last.

A silence, then: “Neither do I. But you will.”

SECOND POSTSCRIPT

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From left to right: Menia (my father), Monia (on violin), Bertha (pretending to play the piano), Bronia, Father (my grandfather), Mother (my grandmother). Probably taken in 1909 or 1910.

[In addition to twenty-two pages of memoir, my father also left behind notes about what had become of his parents, sisters and brother after his departure on the “Marmara” from what he always continued to call “Russia.”  His information was derived entirely from letters; there were no international phone calls. It is therefore sparse. But if you want something about how it was for them all after 1922, when the memoir ends — here it is, to the extent that we can now ever know it. The end of their stories.]

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FROM MICHAEL RAGINSKY  

August 1984

Died:

  • Father, at age 64. Diabetes. Died in a coma in a hospital. Got very ill on April 16, 1936. By then had bad eyesight and poor hearing.
  • Mother, at age 77 or 78. Was ill and bedridden. Died in bed at either Bertha’s or Bronia’s home on May 26th, 1949.
  • Monia, was in bad shape but still alive in 1946. Do not know when he died.
  • Mulia, Bronia’s first husband. Died at age 55, on December 14th, 1945. Bronia was then 51.
  • Foma, Bertha’s first and only husband and Yulia’s father. Died in early 1973.
  • Bertha, at age 82, after two months of illness at home, on July 22nd, 1974 . (Had diabetes and hypertension.) Funeral was July 23rd, 1974.
  • Bronia, at age 81, after severe heart attack on July 17, 1975 and suffering for three days, during which she did not eat or drink. Died at 12:30 p.m on July 20th, 1975.  Funeral  was July 22nd, 1975, at 5 p.m.

Other events and dates from Russian letters:

  • Bertha and Yulia [mother and daughter] lived in the same room on Ulitza Basina 35, 3rd floor (formerly Balachanskaya) since the time Monia and I left Baku in 1922, and then with Foma [Bertha’s husband] — until they got separate apartment in 1962. Forty years in misery and horror with enemy neighbors. Foma and Bertha married in 1915, when Bertha was 21 and Foma 25 or 26. They divorced after twenty-two years of marriage in 1937. Foma had left for a younger woman. (After Father died.) Yulia was then 21.
  • Bronia and Mulia [wife and husband] got an apartment in a new building in 1935, with bath, phone, gas, etc. — a luxury at the time. Lived at same address till Bronia died, and now Yulia is living there with Volodia [her husband]. Baku-370010, Az.S.S .R. Ultiza Solntzeva 24; block 12. Apt. 116.
  • In 1940, on June 1st, Yulia married Volodia [Vladimir] Kalinin. Yulia was then 24 and Volodia was 26; after marriage, they went to live with Bertha [Yulia’s mother] in her room on Ulitza Basina 35; all three lived there till 1962, when all moved to a separate apartment.
  • Bertha never re-married because, Mother wrote me, she was very choosy. Or, who knows why?
  • Bronia, after Mulia’s death, desperately wanted to leave Russia and begged to come to live with Myra and me [in America]…which was impossible to do at that time. Besides, in 1946 at age of 52, without English, what could she do in America with her outdated dentistry? [Bronia had become a dentist.] She thought she could move mountains….  Not being able to go to America, she married, in November 1946, an old patient of hers: Piotr Michailovich Kasitski, engineer, age 50. Bronia was then 51 or 52. She had known him already for 15 or 17 years. He had a job in Moscow, and they lived there for a while: Tovarisheskii Pereulokl 26, kwartira 7. But in less than a year, Bronia was dissatisfied with her marriage and she returned to Baku, where she continued to ask for help to emigrate to America. At age of 53 or 54, since nothing came of coming to America, she apparently divorced her husband and in 1952 married for third time a man by name Semion. I forgot his last name. This marriage also was not what Bronia wanted. I do not know whose fault it was. But it lasted for 11 years. In 1963 Semion died, of cancer of stomach, in hospital, in terrible pain. Funeral September 23rd, 1963. On April 1st, 1968, Bronia went out on pension at age of 73. She only lived on pension seven years. Went on pension too late, considering her heart condition and hypertension. Never wanted to quit working. Died at home from massive heart attack.
  • Now, from all of our Russian family, the only ones left are myself and Yulia…..

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RIP