OLD’S NOT ALWAYS BAD

Standard

fullsizeoutput_c15

For cut flowers bought in a shop, these carnations are very old.  Survivors, you might say.  I carried them home two weeks ago today, part of an ill-advised purchase of red wanna-be petunias that were really something else (what I still don’t know), plus these rimmed carnations, plus a large bunch of spiky greens, all of which I disliked intensely once I had managed to stuff every last stem into an oversized container fit for major floral condolence.  I had wanted yellow flowers, or orange ones, and not too many. I had wanted to put them in my own much smaller rectangular glass vase, wanted them to look at home.  Instead what I let myself be talked into was stiff, institutional, fancy. (SeeMeditation on Flowers,” two posts back.).

But after ten days, the petunia wanna-be’s began to shed their red petals all over the glass table top. The spiky green things wilted and yellowed.  The carnations hung on. Time isn’t always the enemy.  Now that I have only the carnations, they seem more orange. And now they do look the way I wanted them to, a little sloppy, a little droopy, just right next to Bill’s orange bowl.

They’re not going to last, I know that. If you look closely, you can see one carnation has given up, its stem bent sharply towards the ground.  Several of the others are beginning to wrinkle. But even if it’s just for now, that’s fine.  Isn’t now all any of us have, even the young who feel they’ll live forever?

For now, there’s also a bonus.  It’s on my other table, in a little vase I’ve had since I was twenty-seven.  That’s fifty-nine years ago.  Old can surprise you.  Hang on.

fullsizeoutput_c17

Advertisements

BIG WORD FOR FEELING AWFUL

Standard

[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.

SEX AT NINETY-ONE

Standard

Going to high school on the subway by myself at twelve and a half, I sometimes eyed women who looked to be about thirty and wondered if they could possibly still be doing “it.”   Life disabused me of such naivete. By the time I myself neared thirty, I was newly separated from a three-times-a-week husband and found myself dying for it (no longer in quotation marks) after just a couple of weeks of abstinence.

The psychotherapist I was then seeing assured me these cravings were normal and that human sexual appetite continued practically into the grave. One of his patients was a ninety-year-old widower who had a weekly appointment with a prostitute he particularly liked. Once a week at ninety! Of course, the therapist didn’t specifically discuss what they were doing together. Nor did I care; at twenty-nine I had neither hands-on experience nor theoretical knowledge concerning the various kinds of disappointments and failures with which aging equipment too often needs to contend. Nonetheless, if in fact the therapist’s report was accurate –and why shouldn’t it have been? – these paid encounters must have produced positive results or the ninety-year-old patient wouldn’t have continued them.

Avid readers should of course recognize that such piggyback hearsay, from elderly client to psychotherapist to me to you, is not admissible evidence in a court of law. But as I myself grew older, which meant the applicant pool in which I could go fishing when unpartnered began to shrink for various reasons none of which need exploration here, I occasionally thought back to the ninety-year-old. Aging ladies, if you too are beginning to feel opportunity-challenged, take heart. The next part of my narrative has nothing piggyback about it. It’s cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die true, and happened not so long ago either.

But first, some back story. The separation from the three-times-a-week husband occurred early in November 1960, at which time I was working on Madison Avenue as a copywriter. A client invited me to a masked New Year’s Eve ball. We were to come as our favorite eighteenth century characters. How romantic! Sure enough, as I was wandering around in my rented empire white dress (from the Napoleonic part of the century) with a white silk mask covering my eyes, there came a loud rapping at the door. A tall Venetian doge with dark hair, black cape, black mask and black staff burst in, cased the room, and found me. As explained above, I was ripe for the picking. At midnight, the masks came off. The doge, transformed into a most attractive thirty-six-year-old Harvard graduate, kissed me and took me home to my nearly bare new one-room apartment, where we danced till three in the morning to Frank Sinatra exhorting us from my portable victrola to take it nice and easy. The next day (after I had reported back to the psychotherapist, who gave provisional approval), we crossed “Go” and 1961 was off to a great start.

He had the same first name as my first husband, but that name by then brought up such odious associations that I thought and spoke of the desirable masked man only by his family name, which also made me feel quite sophisticated. (I was a very young twenty-nine.)  McDonnell (let’s call him) was a terrific lover. He cared as much about giving pleasure as getting it. “I am a good cocksman,” he crowed one night, explaining how he had learned four or five years before to hold it for a long time.

He was also extremely poor husband material. Not that I was looking to marry again just yet; it would be a while before I had fully and legally untangled myself from the first husband, not to mention the time needed to recover from the emotional battering of that first marriage. But taking the long view, it must be said that McDonnell had already been married and divorced twice, and was trying to survive in Manhattan on the $6,000 a year left to him after deductions from his salary for alimony and support of the three young children of his first marriage. A philosophy major in college, he hated his job as Personnel Director of a large insurance company. He occupied a single room in a residential hotel with a good address and wore (in rotation) three gently used Brooks Brothers suits from Gentlemen’s Resale. When we went out, we often ate $3 suppers at Original Joe’s, off Third Avenue. He liked Gibsons, which were extremely dry martinis with cocktail onions instead of olives at the bottom of the glass. He probably liked them rather too much. However, he didn’t start drinking till 5 o’clock and the Gibsons never interfered with what went on in bed, so I was probably less judgmental than I ought to have been. I even kept gin and cocktail onions in the one-room apartment for him.

About a week after we met, he also sent me the most beautiful and poetic love letter I have ever received. It was written in his office when he was supposed to be working, blue ink on three pages of closely lined yellow legal paper. All I remember of it now is that we were in the Garden of Eden, and God didn’t know about us yet, and the writer of the letter was going to chase and chase me until I could run no more and fell down. It ended, “I am your you, you are my me. I love, love, love, love, love you.”

But did he ever become my me?  I think not.  I was certainly somewhat in awe of him, with his haut-Wasp inflections and what I thought of as his deep knowledge of the world. And especially at the beginning, I was extremely pleased and happy he was in my life. He made me feel like a desirable woman again. However, he also caused distress and then pain, probably unintentionally, by keeping me always at arm’s length, with the result that throughout the year we spent together we really led separate lives. He didn’t want to socialize as a couple (except with a few of my friends, when it was convenient for him), or to meet my parents when they came east to visit me, or to talk seriously about anything. We never spoke on the phone, except to arrange meetings. Nor do I think he ever really loved me, despite his facility with the written word. By fall, it was clear he was developing a roving eye. He began to drift off. He called less regularly. We saw each other only every other week. When I finally worked up courage to ask what was going on, he confessed he was trying to maintain two relationships at once, the newer being with a married lady. (She eventually gave him crabs.) That was it for essentially old-fashioned me. Four months later (and crab-free), he tried to come back, but the psychotherapist helped stiffen my spine. It was time to move on.

Afterwards, I spotted him on the streets of Manhattan only once, in the late 1970’s. I was now again a wife, mother of two young boys, and walking our golden retriever along the curb of West 86th Street on a Friday evening when suddenly a tall man strode swiftly towards me out of the dusk. My heart jumped with recognition. McDonnell. He looked just the same. By contrast, I looked awful – ten pounds heavier, bad hair, disheveled and damp from having made and cleared away dinner, with a stained apron still on under my unbuttoned coat. I swiveled to the side, hoping he wouldn’t see me, and he went right by, intent on his destination, which turned out to be an apartment house near Central Park. I was pretty sure there must have been a lady friend in that building. He had the eager look on his face I associated with Gibson-lubricated anticipation of a romantic interlude.

In the fall of 1995, my older son moved back to New York for a job after graduate school and I came down to visit from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was then living. I would be arriving before he got off work, so I needed to fill a couple of hours until we could have dinner together. Almost all my former friends had moved away, but I found McDonnell in the Manhattan phone book and called a few days before my shuttle flight. We arranged to meet for a drink at a well-known watering hole in the East 20’s. He didn’t sound especially enthusiastic, but that may be because my call came out of the blue, after (for him) about thirty-four years. However, he certainly knew my name and voice.

I was now sixty-four, he was seventy-one, and I wasn’t at all sure I would recognize him. But I knew I looked pretty good this time. I had become a well-paid lawyer, and money buys gym membership, a good hairdresser, nice clothes, tasteful makeup. I was also at liberty. Truth be told, if circumstances had been favorable I might have considered a reprise. Old friend and all that. I waited across the nearly deserted street from the appointed place until someone came along on the other side. I knew his purposeful walk at once.

Although still trim and despite his years looking otherwise not much changed except for a few grey streaks in his dark hair, he sounded petulant over our glasses of Pinot Grigio. He was living in Brooklyn Heights with a patent lawyer of Scandinavian origins about whom he couldn’t stop complaining; she had got fat during their five years together, she was sloppy, she bought too many clothes, she had no interest in art or literature, she didn’t understand boundaries. Afterwards he filled me in on what else had been going on with him during the previous thirty-four years: a third marriage, fourth child, third divorce, grungy jobs (including night word-processing at a law firm) that permitted him to write a failed novel, and then a modest family inheritance which freed him from the necessity of supporting himself, bought him a tiny studio apartment in the East 90’s just below Spanish Harlem (then being occupied by the fourth child, now grown), and permitted him to travel a bit. He had almost no curiosity about me. We each paid for our own wine and parted with pecks on the cheek and obligatory murmurs about keeping in touch.

Although often privately critical, I am almost always loyal. Now that we had, as it were, reconnected, I began to send McDonnell seasons’ greetings most years. Each was politely but minimally answered, sometimes two months late, in a familiar handwriting which had become mysteriously tiny and crabbed. In 2000, we met for another drink, at the same place, when my son became engaged and I came to New York for a lunch given by the bride’s mother for the bridesmaids, the bride and me. His “drink” was now coffee. He’d gone on the wagon when he finally left the Scandinavian and moved back into his studio apartment. I was sixty-nine, he was seventy-six. On inquiry, he declared himself to be quite fit and well. He had also become spiritual, he said. He had a  Maharishi with whom he spent summers in the Berkshires. He did yoga twice a day, took a marvelous powder every morning called Green Magma, then walked around the reservoir, rain or shine. In the afternoons, he looked after his investments and meditated.  Gone were the Brooks Brothers suits and cotton oxford button-down shirts; he looked a trifle shabby in a worn pullover sweater under a tweed jacket out at the elbow. But he did have a (new) lady friend in White Plains with whom he spent every weekend. Cocksman to the end, I thought. God bless.

The following year I met Bill and we began living together. We also regaled each other with tales of our respective pasts. At seventy and seventy-three, why be coy? Eventually, we came to McDonnell. “Have him to lunch if you want,” said Bill. “If he’s ever up here to see his guru.” (Neither of us are guru-minded.) And so it came to pass that McDonnell did indeed have lunch with us in Cambridge in 2004 on his way to a summer of spirituality in the western part of Massachusetts. He was still without a perceptible stoop, and retained a full head of hair, although it had become entirely grey. (Hey, he was eighty.) He also displayed excellent company manners. It was as if there had never been anything between us. We three discussed castles in the south of France, good places to stay in Tuscany, a charming little guidebook written in French in the eighteenth century he told us about, the name of which now escapes me. There was also some chat about minstrelsy. On leaving, he pronounced the meal delightful. “Come again,” we urged. “Mmmm,” he agreed noncommitally.

Then we moved to Princeton, which is much closer to New York than Cambridge. As old friends became ill and began to die, I would occasionally mentally calculate McDonnell’s age. The year he turned eighty-four, I suggested we have lunch together the next time I came to the city to visit my new grandchildren. We settled on a day, he named a favorite place in his neighborhood, and then got a cold so the lunch never came off. I abandoned desultory efforts to stay in touch. Even stopped sending holiday cards. Time marched on. Four years after that, which was three years ago, when he was eighty-eight, he inquired by email: “Weren’t we supposed to have lunch a while ago?” I reminded him about his having had a cold and added that I didn’t come in much any more, but was going to an opera matinee in the near future and if he wanted to meet at Lincoln Center for a quick lunch at the restaurant inside Avery Fisher Hall before the curtain went up at the Met, that would be fine. It was the first time he had ever initiated a get-together. In retrospect, the fact that it was three years ago was significant.

I hadn’t seen him since the Cambridge lunch eight years before, but assumed I would still be able to spot him when he showed up. I was wrong. I waited alone in the deserted lobby of Avery Fisher for some time. Then a strange figure came up an internal staircase from the basement level. He wore a clownish red knit cap with a pompom on top, a dull grey cotton padded coat, and a green wooly scarf tied clumsily around his neck.  The figure wandered about uncertainly. He was tall. Although he looked nothing like any version of McDonnell I could remember, the height decided me. Who else could it be? I rose and addressed him. The responsive voice was somewhat shaky, but the haut-Wasp inflections were impeccably in place. It was indeed he.

As soon as I identified myself, he gave me a warm and intimate smile. Of course he recognized me! He had such wonderful memories of me! Wonderful memories! He leaned forward very close, as if it were 1962. I pulled a few steps back, involuntarily. I was eighty-one. I tried to picture my twenty-nine-year-old self naked and spread-eagled on her back.  “I’ll bet you do,” I said, perhaps more acidly than he deserved.

He had in the past eight years become a stranger with no recognizable similarities to any of the prior McDonnells I could recollect.  When we entered the restaurant, he seemed so unsure of himself  I felt I shouldn’t have brought him there. He pulled off the silly knit cap to reveal a shock of thick snow white hair. His once dark eyebrows were sparse, and he had a black mole on his neck I didn’t remember. When he slipped out of his unusual coat, I noticed a large moth hole near the neckline of the old yellow merino wool sweater he had on underneath. He didn’t know what to order. I suspected most of the offerings might be too expensive for him in his currently threadbare condition and suggested the frittata, which was the most reasonably priced. He didn’t know what a frittata was, but agreed it would be all right when he heard it was essentially Italian fried eggs. When it came, he asked me how to eat it.

I tried to bring up pleasant memories. In February 1961 he had bought me a copy of John Updike’s Rabbit Run for Valentine’s Day the week it came out and written a wouldn’t-it-be-nice-if inscription on the flyleaf: “For darling Nina, from the author.” He didn’t remember. For my thirtieth birthday, his gift had been the collected poems of Cavafy, of whom I had not yet heard. “Did I do that? Marvelous poet,” he said, accepting my Parker roll after he had consumed his own. And he had no recollection whatsoever of having hand-written the three-page love letter about the Garden of Eden.  He said only one thing about our mutual past: “We were so happy. Why did it end?” I told him he had left me for a married woman who gave him crabs. The crabs he did remember. “Oh yes,” he said, wrinkling his nose in disgust. Then he shook his head a few times, presumably at himself.

I paid for my own share of the lunch; he didn’t argue or resist. At my request, he walked me across Lincoln Center to the opera house. There was another opera in my matinee subscription a month later, but when I suggested we might meet again before that performance, he gave a vague smile without agreeing. I didn’t press it. He assured me he’d be fine going home on the subway by himself. It was the last time I saw him.

But not the last time I heard from him. (Yes, we have arrived at the climax of my story!) Last December he suddenly popped up in my email box, without a subject line. By now, he was 91. I quote the email in its entirety:

Woke up thinking about you! How are you? Fondly,  E__.

“What do you suppose he wants?” I asked Bill.

Bill thought McDonnell must be lonely, living alone in a grim little rear room on the third floor of a brownstone in a New York City very much changed from the years of his prime.  Bill is getting up in years himself, and because he doesn’t go out much anymore he welcomes company. He had pleasant memories of the Cambridge lunch and the talk about the south of France.  He suggested I invite McDonnell to Princeton for another visit.  So I did.

I have reviewed the email I sent this aged man who Bill and I agreed must be lonely. In light of what followed, I was clearly too warm. I said his email was synchronicity, because I had been thinking of him too. (Not entirely a falsehood; I do occasionally check the internet to learn whether those whom I know or knew continue alive.)  I inquired as to whether he could still get himself to Penn Station, issued the invitation (with instructions as to how to reach us), offered my two phone numbers, and ended unwisely: “Your little email opened the door to many memories safely tucked away in the basement of my consciousness, beginning with that masked ball on December 31, 1960. Fifty-five years ago.  Ball is now in your court. I’m dancing back and forth on the service line waiting for a return.”  (An instance of extending a metaphor too far.) Moreover, and much to my subsequent chagrin, I signed it, “Hugs.”

His immediate response was captioned “Fire!”

(Fire?)

Thanks for your ready response. It instantly lights a fire. I’d love to be with you and will reply more fully later tonight. E___.

Another email came two hours later, captioned “Hot!”

 (Hot?)

I just left word on the two phone numbers you gave me and am dying to hear from you. E___.

So I had to call him back.  It was 10:30 in the evening, rather later than people of our generation are used to calling, but if he was “dying to hear from me,” so be it. The conversation was extremely peculiar.  Sounding both happy and hesitant, he said he would be glad to make the trip to Princeton but had no experience with the protocol.  Protocol?  I explained again where to buy a round-trip ticket, which train(s) to take, and that I’d pick him up at the station.  If it was a nice day, we could have a little tour of Princeton and then come back to the house for lunch with Bill.  He had met Bill in Cambridge, remember? McDonnell didn’t remember.  Then he inquired into my feelings about the visit.  Feelings?  He pressed on: “Yes, how do you feel about me?”

“Well, I feel friendly,” I began. “What did you think?”

“No, I mean what is your mood? Is it warm?”

Oh God.  “My mood? What do you want me to say, E_____?  I have fond memories of you. But we haven’t known each other for more than half a century.”

“Do you want us to know each other again?”

This back and forth went on for what felt like an eternity. He assured me he hadn’t been in a relationship for three years. (Which explained his getting in touch prior to our Lincoln Center meeting three years before.) He also made reference again to our supposed past happiness together. Don’t ask how I finally managed to extricate myself.

Five minutes after we hung up, a third email arrived.

Dear Nina,

What I was hoping was that you might be in the mood for having sex with me, either chez-vous in Princeton, or here on 96th Street. I hope this directness doesn’t offend you.

That’s what I meant when I asked about the “protocol” — the having of sex with another man’s wife, in the husband’s presence (or at least knowledge), which is what I suppose a visit to Princeton might entail. (Please excuse the expression.) I’ve never done that before.

Anyway what I’d like to propose for openers is: on any day you feel like it, come to town for luncheon with me where I usually have dinner when I eat out at the Corner Cafe (they serve wine) on Third Avenue and 92nd (or so) at, 1 p.m., followed by letting me show you my apartment and so forth, and then putting you in a taxi for Penn Station.

What about it?  E______.

You want to know what happened next, don’t you?  Although to be desired at eighty-four is nothing to sneeze at, even if the desirer has become unappealing and the suggestion is nuts, I’ve always been serially monogamous and it’s too late to teach me new tricks now, even if I had wanted to learn them, which in this instance I definitely didn’t.

E_____,

I understood perfectly what you meant on the telephone, and thought I had disabused you of your fantasies. Apparently not.

What you propose is out of the question. I am eighty-four and have no desire to “have sex” with a nearly ninety-two year old man, whatever our relatively brief relationship may have been fifty-five years ago. Nor do I have any desire to see your apartment “and so forth.” If my email suggested anything to the contrary, you misread it.

In light of your hopes, which are entirely unrealistic and disconnected from life as I know it, I must also withdraw the invitation to Princeton.

Good luck in your quest.

Nina

At two in the morning, he replied:

I’m sorry I jumped to too many conclusions, Nina. All the best. E_____.

And thus, dear readers, I cannot provide more specifics about what this ancient lover from my long-ago past might have meant by “having sex.” Was it Clintonian sex (excluding vaginal intromission)?  Would it have required assiduous oral or manual assistance from me?  He was certainly hot to trot, and seemed confident all would be well, assuming my assent. I conclude from this extraordinary and entirely unexpected episode in my very late life that there must be some truth in old saws.  Practice does make perfect. Sow and you shall reap.  You don’t lose it if you keep using it.

Also, piggyback hearsay or no, my psychotherapist told the truth.

NEW YEAR’S GREETINGS FROM THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION

Standard

If you’re too young for Social Security benefits, you may not be aware that every December the Social Security Administration (SSA) sends out a notice to benefit recipients of their “benefit amount” for the coming year. It doesn’t want us elderly Americans to be surprised when the first monthly deposit of the new “benefit amount” arrives electronically in checking accounts come January 3.

IMG_1759

Sometimes the amount actually goes up a tiny bit. That’s because benefits for “senior citizens” are supposed to rise with the cost of living. However, when there’s no such rise, as measured in ways described below, the benefit does not go up.  Or, as the SSA described it reassuringly to me and millions of other elderly citizens last month:

We review Social Security benefits each year to make sure they keep up with the cost of living. The law does not permit an increase in benefits when there is no increase in the cost of living. So your benefit will stay the same in 2016. [Italics added.] There was no increase in the cost of living during the past year based on the Consumer Prince Index (CPI) published by the Department of Labor. The CPI is the Federal government’s official measure used to calculate cost of living increases.

The Consumer Price Index used by the SSA for its periodic Cost of Living Adjustment is the CPI-W. According to Wikipedia, the CPI-W is based on the price of an alleged market basket of products used by an urban wage earner and clerical worker population consisting of clerical workers, sales workers, craft workers, operations and service workers, and laborers.  Excluded from this population are professional, managerial and technical workers, the self-employed, short-term workers, the unemployed and retirees and others not in the labor force. Since retirees are excluded, it follows that their increased medical and drug expenses are not factored into the CPI-W.  The CPI-W apparently did not go up in 2015.

Bill and I have just spent the past few weeks investigating several well-recommended non-profit retirement communities in our area, where I specifically asked about the estimated increase in monthly fees from year to year — the fees representing a sort of unofficial consumer price index for the elderly who might be considering a move to one of these places. These are the fees which cover the price of one hot meal a day, heat, electricity, basic television, cleaning, plant and grounds maintenance, and the like.  At Pennswood, a Quaker retirement community in Newtown, Pennsylvania, I was told it is just under 3% every year, including 2015.  At Stonebridge, in Montgomery, New Jersey, it was reported as between 2.6% and 2.7%.  At Windrows, in Plainsboro, New Jersey, it was similar.  Does it make sense for the SSA, whose beneficiaries are the old and the disabled, to base its Consumer Price Index calculations on putative expenditures by a wholly different population?

Let’s leave that one unanswered for the time being and move on to the SSA’s December message.  The truth is that the SSA was jerking us around when it announced that because the cost of living did not go up in 2015 (yeah, yeah), our benefits would “stay the same” in 2016.  Yes, gross benefits will remain the same. But as a practical matter, the message is a lie. The gross benefit is reduced by the monthly premium for Medicare Part B (insurance for out-of-hospital medical costs such as doctor visits, outpatient “procedures,” and the like), so that the money which reaches your bank is net of that premium. If you signed up for Medicare Part D, which covers most of the cost of prescription medication, that monthly premium also comes out of the gross.  And guess what? The monthly cost of the two premiums together went up between 2015 and 2016. Which lowered the net benefit — the actual amount of money old people get to spend on the “cost of living.”

It didn’t lower it very much — only by $15.60 a month.  But the average Social Security monthly benefit is $1.230.00 gross. (Again, I credit Wikipedia for this information.) Take away $209.60 — the 2016 monthly premiums for Part B and Part D together — and only $1.020.40 is left. If I were in that parlous situation, I would rather not pay the additional $15.60 in premiums and have $1,036.00 in income every month, like last year.  $15.60 represents at least a couple of thrifty home-cooked dinners.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the original Social Security Act into law in 1935, the benefits were intended to be only one leg in a three-legged stool, supported on its other two sides by a private pension and by retirement savings. But according to Eduardo Porter, in “An Aging Society Changes the Story on Poverty for Retirees” (New York Times, December, 22, 2015), a recent study by the Government Accountability Office estimated that fewer than one in five retirees among the bottom 20% had any kind of defined benefit pension that pays a guaranteed monthly amount, and fewer than 1 in 10 have any retirement savings at all. Moreover, a typical low-wage retiree can expect to receive only 44% of his or her lifetime wage from Social Security.

That being the case, one could, of course, advise our “average” beneficiary to forgo prescription medication insurance in 2016. But is that really a “luxury” for the old? Are the still relatively healthy young aware of how much it’s going to cost to ride bareback — that is, uninsured — into the wilds of pharmaceutical costs awaiting them when they age, even if they’re among the relatively few who’ve always taken care to eat right, exercise, avoid stress, and be born to genetically lucky parents? Why not advise the pharmaceutical and insurance industries to forgo just a little profit instead?

 

 

 

 

 

WRITING SHORT: 37/50

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

The August air outside today is thick, steamy and hard to breathe. An online weather advisory for Mercer County, New Jersey, where I live, announces that air quality in the region has reached or exceeded unhealthy levels. Exceeded unhealthy levels.

In my air-conditioned car, I drive to an air-conditioned market for refrigerated mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, red peppers, cucumbers, an avocado, lemons, a quarter of a watermelon and vanilla ice cream. I pass no other old people on my way, and very few other people. I see no young with earphones jogging the streets.

What did folks do before air-conditioning? If they could afford to get to a beach, the children frolicked in the water and the old sat with their feet in it. If they couldn’t, they darkened their rooms, fanned themselves, drank lemonade and waited for a breeze. Some of the old ones died. Few lived as long as me.

I’m not kidding. Philadelphia, which is near Mercer County (although in Pennsylvania) and shares its climate, was the capital of the new United States for the nation’s first ten years. Everyone in government went back where they came from every summer because the hot, soupy weather was deadly. Year after year, thousands upon thousands of Philadelphians died of yellow fever (carried by mosquitos), and sometimes malaria, if not respiratory insufficiency.

We may call ourselves lucky to live now, not then. But although electric power is a public utility, the price of which is somewhat controlled by policy concerns, it still isn’t cheap. Not everyone can afford to run air-conditioning twenty-four/seven. And when the demand is high, power can fail. You might also consider how long our present sources of power may last and the environmental risks connected with developing alternative sources.

A day like today reminds us how tenuous and fragile human life really is. As a wise reader recently observed, the natural world is a brutal place – from which we distract ourselves with ephemeral diversions and the comfort of friends.

Give thanks for diversions, friends, cold lemonade. And let’s hope for better weather tomorrow.

WRITING SHORT: 18/50

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

Bill often dreams about his second wife. Let’s call her Norma. He says they’re nightmares. In all our time together, he’s never dreamed about Marie Claire, his Swiss first wife. Bill and Norma were married for eighteen years. It’s been twenty-four years since they divorced. For the last fourteen of those twenty-four years he’s been with me. But it’s always Norma I hear about in the morning.

“What terrible thing did she do in the dream?” I ask for the umpteenth time. He never remembers. He does remember plenty about what she “did” in the marriage, beginning six weeks into it when she smashed a valuable objet d’art on the floor that had been a wedding present from his sister.  I’ve heard it all, always knowing Norma’s account of their eighteen years would differ, and sometimes imagining her version, despite not knowing Norma herself.

I used to think the Norma of Bill’s dreams might be a metaphor for me. We do have our squabbles. (Although I don’t resolve them by smashing valuable gifts on the floor. Not that it’s relevant, but his sister never gave us a gift to smash, probably because we never married. It wasn’t because she didn’t like me, although she didn’t. She didn’t like Norma either.)

Bill assures me dream-Norma isn’t me. He’s a psychiatrist; he should know. But I take nothing on trust. “So will you get Norma out of our bed!”  It’s supposed to be funny, although not entirely. I really am sick and tired of Norma.

This morning when we woke up, he had a new announcement: “I dreamed about you last night,”

“Really me? Not Norma?”

“Oh, yes. You, Nina.”

“Bad dream?”

“Not awful.”

“What was I doing?”

“We were squabbling.”

“What about?”

“Nothing much. What’s for breakfast?”

A dream like real life! Could this be at last the end of Norma?