NEVER TOO OLD FOR ADVENTURE

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wish me luck, wish me fun.  

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MEDITATION ON FLOWERS

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I bought myself some flowers...to cheer myself up..I was the one who bought them. It wasn’t an impulse purchase.  Last Sunday afternoon, I deliberately walked to the flower shop a few blocks away.  So how could this large arrangement of fresh flowers feel so wrong when unwrapped and on the coffee table?

I never used to buy myself fresh flowers. Before Bill, I was working in downtown Boston all the time, and nowhere near a florist. I certainly could have picked up reasonably priced bunches of multi-colored flowers at my suburban supermarket on weekends just before checking out with a cart of groceries. But they somehow always looked unreal to me, and cheap.  Besides, when would I have enjoyed them, or even have had time to change the water? I always seemed to be at the office.

 Afterwards, it was Bill who brought them home.  Always for birthdays and holidays,  more often for no reason at all.  In fact, it was unusual for there not to be a clear glass vase of fresh flowers on the coffee table in the family room where we spent most of our time when downstairs.  (The clear glass was my choice; I disliked opaque containers for fresh flowers.)  When they began to wilt, my frugal tendency would have been to nurse them along a little longer. He would insist on throwing them out. Then he would add “Buy flowers” to his daily list of things to do.

 He especially loved sunflowers.  If they were out of season, he chose lilies, preferably yellow or orange ones.  He never really spent a lot. Three stems, or even two, would do for him, with as much greenery as he could persuade the lady florist to throw in for free. (He had a way with ladies.)  When very occasionally persuaded to bring home roses because they were more romantic, they were yellow.

 My favorite color is red.  (You can see it in the chairs we bought together.  He chose the designs, I chose the reds.)  This made for a certain amount of mild dispute about flowers.  Once he did yield: a dozen red roses on my birthday.  I received them with great enthusiasm, hoping to encourage repeat performances.  No such luck, even though I generally expressed somewhat less warmth than he would have liked for all the yellow, or orange, or yellow and orange it fell to me to arrange in one of our two clear glass vases.

 As for the sunflowers, when we began life together they were my special bête noir.  I had never liked the ubiquitous Van Gogh that shows up in all surveys of French nineteenth century painting. And I particularly disliked the large brown centers and short little petals of the sunflowers themselves. They just didn’t look flowerlike to me.

 Unfortunately, at various times — either before he met me or surreptitiously afterwards — Bill had acquired about twenty stems of artificial sunflowers. They were to tide him over, I suppose, during those periods when there was a dearth of live ones.  Some were close replicas of the real thing, down to the big green leaves.  Others, more fanciful, were white and red, as well as yellow, with larger-than-real petals and colorful smallish centers.  He also had a secret cache of objets d’art in the depths of his large office closet, from which he produced three containers in which to put nine of the fake sunflowers. (Three, three, and three.)  These, after much discussion, found their way into our bedroom, to the top of the piano, and onto a sill in his office. Some of the others   appeared in the finished basement in still other containers I’d never known he had, although we’d been together for over eight years at that point.  The remainder of his sunflower stash I found thrust into the back of that capacious office closet when I was staging the condo to sell it; they were still waiting their chance to come into the light.

 It should come as no surprise I kept them all after he died.  Death changes the value of everything.  In retrospect, I was sorry I’d made a fuss about them.  It wasn’t such a big fuss, but still.  How much I would rather have had him back with all his nutsy sunflowers, actual and artificial, than live alone in a sunflower-free apartment!

 Bill’s fake sunflowers are therefore flourishing again at WindrowsThree sit in my office window:fullsizeoutput_c08 Three are on the bureau next to what I still think of as “his” side of the bed:Bill's sunflowers in the Windrows bedroomThree of the most fake adorn the all-purpose table in what the Windrows architect  designated as the “dining” area:fullsizeoutput_c0a The rest are stuffed into a red (yes!) vase that sits in the living-room window:fullsizeoutput_c0c But even with all the manmade sunflowers artfully placed here and there, up until last week my “new” apartment (not so “new” anymore) still had no fresh flowers in it, if you don’t count the two white orchids given to me on my most recent birthday by people I’ve met only in the last year. Yes, I put the orchids on my living-room windowsills away from direct sun, and yes, I keep them going, as recommended, with three ice cubes in each pot once a week. But to me they’re something else:fullsizeoutput_c0fArt objects maybe. fullsizeoutput_c0eNot what I think of as “fresh flowers” though.  And what’s a home without real flowers?

 About some things I’m quick.  About others not. A while ago, during a burst of sporadic early morning exercise, I passed Monday Morning, an upscale flower shop in Forrestal Village a few blocks from where I live. In the window sat a huge water bucket crammed with bunches of large-faced sunflowers, their big brown living centers turned avidly in the direction of the sun.  $7 a bunch. Instead of going right into the shop as Bill would have done, I walked on by, with a smile of course – thinking how he might have run amok inside and bought two or three bunches.  (One summer he gave my older son a dozen huge sunflowers in thanks for having invited us to visit in Southampton. It was hard to find a vase large enough to accommodate them all in the rented summer house.)

 It took me two weeks of staring at the empty surface of the black glass table in front of the sofa. That was two weeks too many. By then only a few bedraggled sunflowers with little faces remained drooping in a small bucket at the back of Monday Morning, far from sun. Poor sunflowers. (I know: pathetic fallacy.)  And now they were priced at $5 a stem, a deal breaker.

 But I had come out for flowers and I’m stubborn. So what did they have in the big window water bucket this week? There was a twenty dollar bill and a credit card in the back pocket of my jeans and I wasn’t going back with nothing.

 What they had, in more than one bucket, were bunches of red blooms that looked to me sort of like petunias but weren’t. That tells you how much I don’t know about flowers. Almost everything looks like petunias to me. Except sunflowers and lilies and orchids. (And pansies and daisies and carnations: I know what they look like too.) There were also bunches of carnations in all colors, including not only red, but yellow and white and red-rimmed cream.  And also many bunches of greenery, some in thick-leaved silvery green, others with dark green spikes and feathery fronds. $10 a bunch; 3 bunches for $20. All very fresh and perky.

“What color do you like?” asked the saleswoman, closing in for the kill.  “Her chairs are upholstered in red,” said a Windrows acquaintance helpfully; she had come out with me for the walk to Monday Morning and was now putting in her two cents.

I kept eyeing the yellow carnations“Can I mix yellow with red?” Bill had always said you can mix anything with anything, and I always disagreed.  Except now death had intervened.  “Not really,” declared the saleswoman decisively, ending discussion.  “Try these.”  She pulled from the water a bunch of red-rimmed white carnations and pressed them against the bunch of dripping wanna-be red petunias she was already holding.

“Isn’t that nice?” she asked rhetorically.  “It will go perfect with your furniture.”  Really?  What did she know?  But it did make a third bunch of the spiky greenery free. And the greenery might help the flowers.  And the carnations were a kind of orange.  If you squinted.  I wielded the credit card, the acquaintance peeled off for a cup of coffee,  I walked back to Windrows alone with a tissue-wrapped armful.  Literally an armful.

 Which meant I now needed a very large glass vase. There was one, at the back of a high kitchen cabinet, which had come into my possession fifteen months before, when Bill died. It then contained an expensive condolence arrangement.  Bill wouldn’t have liked this vase, even if condolences on his death had nothing to do with it.  It was beyond large, and had a “fancy” shape.  As I trimmed each stem and placed it in the vase, trying to mix red-rimmed carnations with red mystery flowers, I knew the whole enterprise had been a mistake.  Why had I bought so many? Why had I listened to a saleswoman who didn’t know what was in my heart? Did I even know what was in my heart? What was it I really wanted? By the time I had forced the spiky greens in around the edges, and placed the completed arrangement in the center of the black glass table (see top of post), I was hating it.

 Maybe it would look better if I sat on the sofa?  Not really.  fullsizeoutput_bedHow could I make it look the way fresh flowers used to look on the family room coffee table before Bill died?   I moved the vase off center and considered:

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(Sophie had no aesthetic opinions to contribute here. However, as I had awakened her with all my fussing, she was plainly planning to taste the flowers when I finally went away and left her in peace. As there’s never any way I can stop her from doing most of what she wants to do, and since I was already disheartened by my purchase, I had no problem with her plans.)

The table was just too bare.  In the condo, there used to be a large shiny black ceramic bowl that looked like a giant ashtray on each of our two coffee tables, one of them next to the glass vase that held the fresh flowers of the week. The bowl in the family room had a bright yellow inside surface and the one in the living room a bright red inside surface. Occasionally Bill would switch them around — “temporarily,” he said — to see if they looked better that way. I didn’t really care which was in which room as I privately thought they were both extremely unattractive (although clearly some designer’s idea of decorative “art”) and hoped for a long time, without success, that they would fall out of favor when Bill acquired something new that needed table space.  It goes without saying I got rid of them both when downsizing.  Now my eye was missing them.  Why hadn’t I kept at least one?

What I had kept were two small black bowls of his — partly because they didn’t remind me of ashtrays but mostly because they didn’t take up much space. One was lime green inside, the other orange.  I put the orange one next to the oversize vase of red and red-rimmed flowers and pushed it around a bit until it seemed to settle itself on a diagonal to the vase.  It was much smaller than the shape in my memory, but it was all I had. Maybe with Bill's orange dish near it?To cover more table top, I added a third object — my black-bound Kindle, representing the piles of books that used to accumulate wherever Bill was sitting.

A little more mess? And the flowers pulled up higher?

Then I pulled the flowers out of the vase as far as I could — to give them air and free them up a bit.

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Bill would have said, “Enough already.  Leave it.  It’s fine.” And he’d have been right. This was as good as I could do. Let’s face it: I’m neater than Bill ever was.  I can’t leave messes of books and papers around, even to simulate the feeling that he’s still here.  My books are on shelves, my papers in files, magazines in magazine racks.  I was ying, he was yang.  Or vice versa.  That’s why our flowers looked the way they did. And why mine look like this now that he’s gone.

The bottom line here?  When these have lived out their natural life, I’m buying more. No one’s going to talk me into red ones next time. I’m going for yellow. Not necessarily sunflowers, although I’m not ruling that out. And definitely not too many, even if “many” is a bargain.  They’re going to have to fit into one of my own two much smaller rectangular glass vases.

Next time I’ll also know that buying flowers, even yellow ones, won’t be like bringing him back for a while, or making the place where I live like home.  It’s just as close as I can come to it. And that’s something.

 

 

STARTING OVER

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Some readers have expressed interest in where I went after the sale of the condo commemorated recently in a set of self-indulgent photos.  (“As I Was Saying….,” July 18, 2017.)  So this post, equally self-referential, is about where I live now. [Be advised there was no professional photographer at work here this time.  Just me with an iPhone.]

fullsizeoutput_b93When we first saw it together two years or so before he died, Bill thought it looked like a middle-class Miami hotel.  No way was he going to move here. Ever. A year later, when our stairs had become too much of a daily challenge, he capitulated.  We visited several “retirement” communities with apartments all on one floor.  This seemed the best of them, for a variety of reasons I can go into another time.

And it does look better (although still somewhat institutional) when seen from the front door:

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You could even imagine elderly people enjoying the sun, or shade, on one of the front benches near the fountain when they’re not quite mobile enough to get away:

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However, it was at least in part the presence of all those not quite “able-bodied” elderly people — with their walkers, or in their wheelchairs pushed by aides — that put us off.  (As if we weren’t getting “elderly” ourselves.) But eventually the condo stairs — and Bill’s fifty-foot oxygen cannula — got the better of us.  And where would we go if we sold the condo? The reason most persuasive for coming here was the apartments.  Many of them had interesting layouts, quite unlike the rectangular, unimaginative arrangement of rooms in the two other places we’d checked out.  Bottom line: We’d just have to learn to live with all the other aspects of a “retirement” community we weren’t ready for.

Then Bill got too sick to think about moving anywhere.  Until very near the end, just before they put him under with morphine so he could be intubated, when he wrote in a little notebook:  “Get Windrows apartment.” He wanted me not to be so alone after he was gone.  I can’t say I moved here because he said I should.  It’s that I finally decided he was right.  Even if I didn’t look and sound as old as I really was (nearly eighty-five when he died), sooner or later I wouldn’t be able to drag the garbage and recycling out to the curb. Sooner or later, I wouldn’t be able to drive, for one reason or another.  Sooner or later, I might fall. And then who would I call?

Apartments of the size you want become available at infrequent intervals at Windrows.  (Yes, that’s the name of the place.) You have to wait for someone to move nearer their children, or else to die.  But the two guys in the Marketing Department worked with me.  And I was lucky.  I managed to snag a one bedroom with den on the second floor that even Bill would have approved.  Affordable. (Just.) Spacious. Sunny in the afternoons. A porch off the living room.  I also had enough money left over from the sale of the condo to replace the carpeted and tiled apartment floors with wood floors, have everything but the kitchen repainted white, install pleated pull-up window shades plus many more ceiling lights, and switch the cable and television lines from one wall to another, in order to accommodate better placement for the computer in the office, the television set in the living-room wall unit.  So now it’s begun to look like home to me, especially as I was able to find room in it for the “modern” furniture — actually mid-twentieth century furniture — Bill and I bought after we began living together. (Perhaps you’ll recognize some of the pieces and pictures from the condo shown in the previous post.) The two cats and I moved in last September 23.

I try not to think of it as the last place I’ll ever live.  Unlike apartments in most retirement communities, residents here aren’t locked into any kind of continuing-care scheme. These apartments are bought and sold at market rates.   So I can always decide this is not for me, sell, and move away.  Where, I have no idea just yet.  But the possibility is there.  It consoles me, gives me a sense I can still go on inventing my life. Anyway, the apartment is certainly a good place to which I can withdraw whenever community living gets too much for me.

There are miles and miles of corridors.  Four and a half floors of them, each of which takes about ten minutes to circle in its entirety by foot. When you first move in, you need breadcrumbs to find your way back to wherever you came from.  Here’s a small part of the second floor near the north elevator: fullsizeoutput_bb2

But eventually you find the right door, and open it:fullsizeoutput_b98

Front hall of apartment (with Sophie at right):fullsizeoutput_b9b

Better view of living room area: fullsizeoutput_b9c

View from sofa of piano, dining area and kitchen pass-through:fullsizeoutput_ba8

I also managed to find a wall for our expensive Italian folly, the wall unit which had to be taken apart for the move and then put back together:fullsizeoutput_ba1

There’s a mandatory eating plan: one chooses either four, fifteen or thirty meals a month. This is allegedly to forestall reclusive tendencies.  True recluses, or those who prefer to eat at home, can circumvent Windrows’ paternalistic tendencies by ordering one of the prepaid plan meals by 3:30 in the afternoon (a menu is available online, on a special television channel, and printed out in the mail room), and then picking it up downstairs or — for $5 a pop — having it delivered. Be that as it may, every apartment has a fully equipped kitchen.  I had mine painted the same color as the kitchen in our condo, to give me the feeling that at least some things have stayed the same:fullsizeoutput_ba4fullsizeoutput_ba5

The “den” has just about the same square footage as my office (aka the third bedroom) in the condo, although the windows are on a different wall and it has no closet. It therefore serves quite nicely as a more-or-less familiar place in which to work, with the added perk that I get a view of the porch and the tree beyond it when I sit at the computer. The double doors can be closed off from the view of guests. When there are guests. fullsizeoutput_ba0fullsizeoutput_ba6

The oblong red box on the floor was a Danish magazine holder that Bill acquired by mail, possibly even from Denmark!  Alas, once it reached us it never did get to hold magazines, as it filled up too quickly beside his chair with Kleenex boxes, eyeglass cleaners, and various gadgets for now never-to-be-discovered uses.  Emptied and transported to Windrows, it now serves as a place for Sophie to snooze when I’m online and she wants to be nearby:fullsizeoutput_ba7

Looking out at the porch from my desk chair:fullsizeoutput_baa

Heading down the hall, past a second (guest) bathroom, towards the bedroom:fullsizeoutput_ba9

The guest bathroom is sort of a small shrine to Bill.  His bigger Calder mobile sways over the toilet. (It used to be in his office, aka the condo second bedroom.) One one wall is a Hebrew rendering of the Physician’s Oath of Maimonides: “Inspire me with love for my art and for thy creatures. In the sufferer, let me see only the human being.” Behind the toilet is a numbered photograph of Balliol College, Oxford, which Bill liked very much. We had it in the bedroom, facing the bed. The two small framed photos taken at the base of the Acropolis are mine, from the year before we met. But we spent six happy summer vacations on a Greek island together.  And Greece is Greece. So why not hang them here?fullsizeoutput_bab

The bedroom, which is large, is not so different from the bedroom I shared with Bill in the Princeton condo. (Except, of course — a very big “except” — he’s never seen this bedroom, never been in it.  I still keep strictly to my side of the bed, though.  Habit? Hope?)  That’s Sasha curled up in comfort on her two Shaker chairs by the window. She first began to do that, in the condo, when she was a kitten:fullsizeoutput_bac

The lesser Calder is in the bathroom attached to the bedroom. You can tell which bathroom I use the most:fullsizeoutput_bad

Sasha and Sophie use the same bathroom as I do.  The two boxes are not “hers” and “hers.”  They both use the one on the left more.  I don’t know why.  I can switch the boxes but they still favor the one on the left.  The right box only gets the occasional dump.  Even in the interests of full disclosure, do you really need to know that?  Probably not.fullsizeoutput_bb1

I can see the porch from the side bedroom window too:fullsizeoutput_bae

But it looks best when you step outside through the door from the living room:fullsizeoutput_bb6

The two potted boxwoods (one at each end of the railing) were a housewarming present from my older son:fullsizeoutput_bb7  

And the tree conveniently planted outside my line of apartments shields most of the windows from views of the rear parking lot:IMG_2280fullsizeoutput_bb3

It wouldn’t be real life, though, if there weren’t another view from the right hand living room window.  Fortunately, I can’t get too close to it.  The sofa and cat tree are in the way.  So this, less aesthetic, view is best seen by Sasha, from the top of her cat tree.  She finds it interesting.  I find it illustrative of the fact that nothing in life is perfect.fullsizeoutput_bb4

And there, dear readers, I shall leave you for the time being — your curiosity over-satisfied.  What life is like at Windrows once I walk out the door of the apartment, down the carpeted corridors and into the north elevator I shall leave for what will likely be many other posts, although I hope not all of them.

Bear in mind that I am now a recently-turned-eighty-six-year-old malcontent who is not at all happy at having disbelievingly found herself over the border of that far country described by geriatricians as “old old age.”  How could it have happened?  I am going away to the Berkshires for four days tomorrow — plays, Yo-Yo Ma, museums — to forget about it for a short while.  Will reply to comments, if any, when I get back.  

xoxox

AS I WAS SAYING (five months ago)….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

 

 

WHO AM I?

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Well, you can read the “About” page for some basic data. And if you hang around this blog for a while, you’ll find out more.  But curiously, a little over a year ago, when I was filing posts on dogs I had known and the cats in my life, someone complained, politely, that dogs and cats were all very well, but what she really wanted was “to hear more about you.”  “You” meaning me.

The last time there was such a clearly expressed interest in hearing more about me was in the fall of 1997, when I had just turned sixty-six. It was on a website called “The Silver Connection” that probably doesn’t exist any more. (If it does, I don’t want to know about it.  Nothing good came of it, except a funny story. Which we may get around to sooner or later, in another post, when I run out of better material. Or not, as the case may be.)

But it did seem a waste of time and effort to reinvent the wheel on TGOB when there was already a perfectly good “more about me” out there.  After all, I was still pretty much the same, even sixteen years later –minus a couple of inches, some stamina, and a burning desire to find a new man.  So where was that copy of what I told Silver Connection?  I finally found it — in a dusty red-rope folder in the basement marked “Personals.” (Am I well-organized, or what?)

You may be wondering whether or not I was ashamed, back in 1997, to be wasting time with such online nonsense. A classy lady like me? I cannot tell a lie, I was. But it was a free trial.  Plus I was being ashamed all by myself;  there was no one to see. And although my efforts failed to unearth usable quarry — I met Bill elsewhere, about three years later — they did eventually lead to a blog post. (You see, everything comes in handy sooner or later.)

I wrote it in answer to the reader who wanted to know “more about me.”  The post ran on December 3, 2013. That’s a long time ago in the posting world, so I thought I would put it up again,  slightly edited and re-titled, for all the new blogger friends I’ve made since then. Another year and some has gone by, but nothing essential has really changed, knock wood.

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The Silver Connection began its interrogation with many probing short-answer questions to determine if I was worth marketing. I won’t bore you with all my short answers, but here’s a sampling. I’m sure you can guess what the questions were:

  • Female
  • Heterosexual
  • 5’5″
  • 135-140 lbs
  • Full head of hair
  • Big brown eyes
  • Divorced
  • Living alone
  • All grown and living on their own
  • Northeast USA
  • Economy car
  • Avid book reading
  • Classical
  • I do not drink
  • I do not smoke
  • I am rather fashionable
  • I don’t watch television
  • I am usually on time
  • Professional degree
  • Buy top of the line brand names
  • A friend put me up to this. (Here I lied.)

However, I suspect that what anyone who wants to know more about me will find more interesting are the essay questions and my answers. (There I did not lie.)

Describe what you feel is your ideal relationship? A partnership of mind, heart and body with a man who speaks my language, understands my references, shares my sense of humor, my values and my appetite for life, has considerable and broad experience of how the world works, at every level, and is interesting and fun to be with.  He will know that we both need to be private at times.  He will also be a kind and trustworthy man.  He keeps himself in good working order.  If he doesn’t exist, next best will do.

What do you find “sexy” in a mate?   See above.

Share about your main strengths and weaknesses. I’m a survivor.  I’m smart and well-educated, and that has helped.  I’m also funny.  (If you didn’t laugh, you’d have to cry, no?)  People say I have pizazz.  I say I’m my own creation, and it isn’t over.  I continue to be a work in progress. I am considered attractive.  I am also a good and loyal friend.  For life.

I love life.  I may complain loudly about it at times, but I really love it, even the hard parts.  I also love people, for the most part.  Most human beings I’ve met are remarkably strong, and resilient, and courageous when you get to know them.  I love listening to people talk about themselves.  In fact, I think people’s stories, and how they’re managing with the hand they’ve been dealt, are just about the most interesting things there are — whether in literature or in life.

Although I didn’t start out that way, over the years I’ve become quite independent — financially, professionally, intellectually and emotionally.  Younger people also think me wise about life’s difficulties, and bring me their problems, which is sweet of them, as I’m still learning.  I continue to examine my experiences for whatever they can teach me.

Despite all of the above, raising my two kids, now grown, still counts as the best thing I’ve ever done, even though we experienced adversity along the way and even though I’ve done quite a few other, somewhat “glamorous” things as well.  It continues to make me happy to think back, now and then, to how they were when they were younger, and at home with me.  I also love them a lot the way they are now.

I am kind, warm, friendly, fun to be with, honest about everything important, and also at times silly, frivolous and astonishingly youthful.  [This question certainly invites self-indulgent nattering, doesn’t it?]  My weaknesses?  Plenty.  But you’ll have to discover those for yourself!

Is there anything about you that the questionnaire didn’t cover?  (I.e., physical disabilities, illnesses, allergies, strong likes or dislikes, shoe size?) I don’t tolerate material dishonesty, gratuitous unkindness, physical abuse and/or cruelty of any kind, or people with major control issues.  But of course, I don’t know anyone like that.  And I’m sure you’re not like that either.

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And now back to the basement where you belong, Silver Connection!  There are other more interesting things to write and read about. Now that I’m eighty-three.