STAY PUT OR MOVE ON?

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The conventional wisdom extended to the new widow or widower is to not do anything for a while, or (putting it another way) to do only what you feel like doing.  That’s tricky advice, because of the “feeling” component.  Do you go on living where and how you’ve always lived with the person who’s died — reminded every hour, in that familiar setting you shared, that the person who should also have been there is absent forever?  You may “feel” you want to stay, close to as much of his or her presence as lingers, everywhere you look, in the clothing, the furniture, the favorite foods in the pantry.  However, staying put may also prolong the excruciating feeling your life has been torn in two and the other half remains missing.  Your own (now disabled) life may stay put as well.

Or do you take a deep breath and turn your back on your joint past (without ever forgetting it)?  Do you then begin looking for another, smaller, different place in which to live because you “feel” that’s the only way begin building a life of your own even though you really don’t feel like doing it just yet? Should moving on begin with an actual move?

I present this query as if it were a matter of free choice. Indeed, for all the widows I met in the two six-week bereavement groups it was a free choice.  All had been married to the same man since emerging from college. (“From my father to my husband,” as one put it.)  All had comfortable homes in which they had raised their children and which grandchildren visited frequently, homes now free and clear of mortgages. They drove relatively new and powerful cars. Some had second houses in Florida, to escape the winter months.In no case did money problems figure among their laments.  In other words,  in their bereavement they were well fixed to stay put. And I believe that in the four months or so since the second group disbanded, none of these widows has moved. One who I ran into in the local market hasn’t yet begun to empty her husband’s closet, although he died about a year ago; she says she’s begun to think about it only now because of her daughter’s urging.

Two of us have not stayed put.  F., a recent widower, nursed his artist wife for four years until in the end he lost her to cancer. They had been living in a large house in a township about thirty minutes from Princeton, chosen to accommodate his wife’s studio and artwork. Now she was gone and he was alone with all the memories which seeing her paintings, sculpture and drawings around him every day could only exacerbate. Moreover, he had both professional and social connections in Princeton, from which he was somewhat isolated where he lived. Yet these were the people who might best be able to help him begin again.  So F. put his house on the market within a few months of the funeral and before the bereavement group’s first session.  He also made a deposit on a new one-bedroom rental apartment in the heart of Princeton.  This didn’t mean he had worked through his grief.  He felt, however, that he had a better chance of recovery (if we can call it that) in a new environment with fewer triggers to remind him of what he had lost.

My situation too was somewhat different from that of the other members of the two groups. I also had a choice. But not a good or completely free one.  Bill and I had been together only fifteen years, and although we split all expenses down the middle, I was the one who bought the condo we’d lived in for the ten years since we came to Princeton.  While we kept separate checking accounts, we also shared a joint one, into which last January he had transferred sufficient funds to pay part of his share for the calendar year. But his social security disappeared with his death in May.  Although until 2017 I could carry the condo expenses alone (including mortgage and real estate taxes)  without touching capital, after that I would need to begin withdrawing what I had counted on not needing to withdraw so quickly, since there wouldn’t be any more when it was gone.   That seemed unwise.  Irrespective of my “feelings” about the condo, which reminded me wherever I looked of the other person who used to live there and had vanished, I knew I should sell before 2017.

I knew this as soon as Bill died in May.  It took me about three weeks to emerge from shock, weakness, and very frequent tears. Then V., a real estate agent, called. She wasn’t reading my mind.  I was the one who had first called her mid-April to set up a meeting I had to cancel when he developed terminal pneumonia. She was now following up.

The back story is that for a long time after the symptoms of his disease manifested itself, Bill had insisted he wanted to die at home.  About a year ago, he reluctantly changed his mind.  The stairs were becoming too difficult, given the state of his lungs.  We needed to live on one floor, preferably where many of the chores of home maintenance would be taken care of, and perhaps where there was also access to nursing care if needed. However there could be no buying without selling.  The money for the next place was tied up in my equity in the condo.

At the time, I was ambivalent.  Although approaching my 85th birthday, I didn’t feel ready to consign myself to “a retirement community.”  I thought of those communities as holding pens for death. On the other hand, Bill needed to be in such a place. So I swallowed my reservations. We visited a beautiful and (for us) hugely expensive facility run by the Quakers in Pennsylvania, another in Montgomery  (just north of Princeton) which gave me possibly irrational but nevertheless bad vibes, and a third in Plainsboro (but with a Princeton address), where the lovely apartments were market-rate — and without future medical care built into the monthly fees, thereby greatly raising them. I also began calling real estate agents to get started with the sale part of this double enterprise.  We met with three and were about to meet with V., who would have been the fourth, before Bill became too sick to proceed.

So when V. called at the beginning of June, I could have consulted my feelings and said, “Not yet.”  Or I could have made the choice I thought I should, and said, “Yes come. Let’s talk.”  Not in any way enthusiastic about moving to that “retirement community” (just about the only source of one-floor apartments in or near Princeton not priced out of my league), but driven by financial prudence (as well as fear), I agreed to meet with V. in a week.  That gave me just one  week to rid the condo of all Bill’s medications, cannulas, inhalers, oxygen concentrators and related equipment; to get off the floors, and find a place in the already full bookcases for, the towers of books surrounding every place he liked to sit; and also to make his office (the second bedroom) and his bathroom (the second bathroom) somewhat more presentable.

There’s nothing like a timetable to get you off your ass and thinking again about something other than yourself. Plenty of time to cry early in the morning and in bed at night.  As for the question posed in the headline, in a way (and much like attendance at bereavement groups) it’s different strokes for different folks. What answer might I have given if I were rolling in money?  I truly don’t know.  But I’m not.  That said, I think I made the right decision — for me.  I’m better off, in almost all ways, here than there.

The prospect of V.’s visit precipitated a whirlwind of activity that didn’t let up until after I moved into the Plainsboro residence near the end of September.  By that time I had resumed sporadic, although not yet regular blogging. I had also reaped all kinds of kudos from acquaintances for having rebounded so efficiently and accomplished so much in such a short time. I hadn’t “rebounded.”  I still miss Bill acutely, beyond writing about it,  even in this new environment. But I did accomplish quite a bit in not very much time at all.  However, there’s no mystery or miracle about it.  You do what you have to do.  And with some luck, and some help from friends and interested professionals, it gets done.

One or two (or three) more posts about the “moving on” part. And then we’re up to date!

WHY WE MOVED FROM ONE UNIVERSITY TOWN TO ANOTHER IN 1,000 WORDS OR LESS

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1.  We met in Cambridge (Massachusetts).  He was a 73 year old psychiatrist with a private practice. He also taught one class a semester at the Harvard Medical School.  I was a 69 3/4 year old civil litigation lawyer by then practicing at a small firm in Boston that permitted a four-day work week.  The other day a week I would trundle my laptop to the Boston Writers Room (where there was no laundry or internet to distract me) and try to write something that wasn’t a brief or a memorandum in support of a motion.

2. He hated Cambridge because it reminded him of his marriage to his second wife, who still lived in their Cambridge house,  which she had obtained during an acrimonious divorce.  Everywhere we went reminded him of something that had occurred during the marriage, or someone they had met when they were still, as it were, “together.”  So from the day I first knew him, he wanted to leave.  A psychiatrist can practice anywhere, once he obtains a license from the state he has moved to.

3. I didn’t hate Cambridge at all, but would have been willing to leave except I was chained to Massachusetts as long as I needed an income stream.  It’s not that I loved my law practice  so much. (I didn’t, really.) But I still needed money, having begun life as a single woman after a second divorce with a net worth of zero at the age of sixty. Moreover, my right to practice law wasn’t portable without sitting for two days of bar exams all over again, except to a few states that had reciprocity arrangements with Massachusetts. And even then, who would want to hire a 70-year-old lawyer without a book of business or knowledge of state law? So we stayed put where I was licensed.  In my condo on Brattle Street.

4. There are lots of interesting foreign movies, concerts, exhibits and lectures open to the public when you live where Harvard is. (Moreover it sounds very classy to have a Cambridge address, especially on Brattle Street, if you care about that sort of thing. And yes, I confess, I did care, at least a little bit.) Right across the river in Boston — take the Red Line to be there in no time — is also Symphony and the Boston Ballet and three theaters showing road company versions of New York plays and musicals. Not to mention outposts of Saks, Lord & Taylor, Neiman’s and Barney’s, where it’s much easier to shop than in the mother stores in New York and Dallas.  So it was really great to be in Cambridge, if it weren’t for the black ice in winter, and the miserably hot and humid summers, and Bill complaining loudly about how the grass would be greener somewhere else.

5.  Then three of our combined five adult children wound up living in New York. Also both my financial advisor and accountant opined that I had frugally put by enough so that if I remained frugal I could retire and live till 102.  (After that, if I were lucky enough to have an “after that,” I would need to get by on Social Security.)  We could leave! But where should we go?

6. Clearly, New York itself — secretly in my heart for all those many years since I’d left it — was out of the question.  We could probably afford no more than a studio in a good Manhattan neighborhood or a small one-bedroom in a not-good one.  And we needed more space than that, so that we could get away from each other for a while.  Where then? For reasons best known to himself, Bill suggested New Mexico or North Carolina, arguing that if we lived near a university in either of those states it wouldn’t be so bad to be so far from the Northeast where we both had grown up.  For reasons I made perfectly understandable — the three children in New York, one of his in Switzerland, and one of mine in Florida — New Mexico was a geographically bad idea and North Carolina had nothing going for it as far as I was concerned except girlhood memories of having read Thomas Wolfe, who had left the state himself as soon as he could and was now, in any event, dead.

7.  Then one sunny afternoon during our 2004 summer vacation on a tiny Greek island in the Dodecanese, Bill mentioned Princeton, New Jersey. Eureka!  An hour and a half from New York and 3/5 of our children (not to mention my soon-to-be first grandchild).  Home to a major university (think Princeton),  the Institute of Advanced Studies (think Einstein), Westminster Choir College (think free concerts). Home to McCarter Theater, which brings in five plays a year, plus ballet, concerts by world-class instrumental soloists, jazz, and three operas. The university has its own art museum, theater, and Richardson Auditorium, a perfect acoustic venue for Princeton’s resident string quartet, for free concerts by the University Orchestra and for not very expensive subscriptions to the Princeton Symphony Orchestra). And New Jersey is historically a blue state.  (We didn’t know Chris Christie was coming down the pike.)  It even had a Whole Foods!  How could we go wrong?

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Princeton University in the spring.

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This is the historic (and picturesque) part of campus. There is strikingly modern architecture elsewhere.

8. It took us over a year. (Selling Cambridge real estate, buying Princeton real estate, and like that.) When we finally moved, he was 78 and I was 74 1/2, which people sometimes say was brave, given that we knew no one here. But would it have been less brave to go on slipping on black ice at the risk of breaking elderly bones, and (in his case) go on being reminded of an unhappy past lived in Cambridge neighborhoods?

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University Chapel. Convocation and Commencement ceremonies are held here. There are half-hour organ concerts open to the public at noon throughout the academic year.

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A late April flowering. Outside a reading room of the library. (I think.)

9. Anyway, what’s done is done and here we still are, nine years older.   When people ask why Princeton, I sometimes say — because it’s easier — we just threw a dart at a map.  If we really had, it would have been even braver of us.  But I guess it’s too late to try that one.

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Between Firestone Library (left) and the University Chapel (right).

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McCosh, where English and American literature classes meet.