AND THEN…

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I can’t tell you what happened after I drove away from the Princeton hospital in the middle of the afternoon on May 6 because I don’t remember much about it, other than that I kept swerving erratically as I turned the wheel and was repeatedly honked at.  I suppose I survived because the honkers were also good drivers.  But I did manage to get myself back into my own driveway behind Bill’s red Honda, and then into the house through the garage door, carrying the hospital plastic bag containing everything he had had on when we had checked him in seven days before.  I couldn’t unpack it.  I just put it down.  It was all I had left of him.  It would still smell of him.  And I had to save that until I could cry.

Just then I couldn’t cry.  I sat on the family room sofa to call my two sons to tell them it was over.  They must have said the right things, each in his fashion, but I don’t remember what they said.  Did my voice shake? It must have.  I don’t remember.  Then I must have used Bill’s phone, which had a reduced overseas rate plan, to call his oldest niece in Israel and afterwards his Swiss first wife, mother of his older son, in Geneva.  His niece, who is a psychotherapist, was very kind. I do remember the kindness of her voice, but not her words. It was something about now I had to take care of myself.  His first wife (who speaks English and also likes me) was so matter-of-fact that I actually do remember what she said. It was that she was sorry but after all he had lived a long life, and I had my sons. She also invited me to visit if I ever come to Switzerland.

After that, I must have fed the cats and petted them and petted them.  They knew something was wrong.  Bill hadn’t been home for a week and I was clearly not myself.  They kept rubbing their furry cheeks against me in an unusual display of either affection or distress. I cleaned the litter boxes, and forced myself to drink an Orgain, of which there were over a dozen left in the fridge for Bill.  (Orgain is a somewhat more nutritious, and expensive, version of Ensure, that last nutritional resort for people who have difficulty eating enough).  I was numb.  I put my checkbook in my purse for tomorrow and went upstairs with the sole thought that I had to get some sleep because the next morning I needed to drive to the undertaker, who would have by then removed the body from the hospital — to pay him for having done that and for the cremation that would follow.  We had some old sleeping pills in the bathroom cabinet, but I was afraid to take one, or even half of one, lest I not wake up in time.  I stayed in bed all night, but if I slept I don’t remember it.

The undertaker was professionally solicitous. Sleepless and still in a state of shock, I resented it. He didn’t know me, he didn’t care about me, he was really only interested in my business — which he was going to get anyway because he took care of 90% of the dead in Princeton (as he was quick to assure me when I inquired).  I particularly resented his oily deference and lowered voice when, after obtaining the requisite information for the death certificate, and learning that I had no interest in buying any of his pretentious urns, he informed me that the fee for having removed the body and for the cremation would be $3,000, payable before I left.

Does anyone haggle in such circumstances? Did I really have any viable option?  Deciding it might be more prudent to hold on to cash for the time being, I kept the checkbook out of sight and gave him a credit card in payment.  My mother’s identical cremation in Palm Springs, California, sixteen years earlier, had cost slightly over $300.  I asked him what he charged people who couldn’t afford the fee.  He said if they could prove they were being supported by the state, there was a reduced price, which they could pay in installments.  He also said because his establishment was in the center of town and he needed a lot of space in back for mourners to park, his real estate taxes were very high. He was sure an educated, professional woman such as myself would understand.

The educated professional woman who was allegedly myself didn’t understand much at that point, but she did understand that in a money economy, everything costs.  Even dying.  However, she didn’t have time to brood about it.  There were many other things to attend to.  I had to finalize Bill’s affairs. As important, or even more so, I needed to decide what to do about the condo, which was both too big and too expensive for me to maintain by myself past the end of 2016.  The best time to try to sell it was soon, because people with young children who were looking to buy in Princeton wanted to do it in time to register those children in the Princeton public schools before the beginning of the school year.  So if I were going to sell, I had to get it staged and on the market by early July.  But first, I had to get myself back in shape to function.

Easier said than done.  Bill died on a Friday.  By the following Monday, I felt — felt physically, in my nearly 85 year-old body — as if I might be dying too.

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WHAT’S IN A PET NAME?

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Early in my girlhood, I became aware my mother and father called each other a name I visualized as “Mi” although they both pronounced it “Me.”  I had no idea what it meant or where it came from but knew it was not a name I was supposed to use.  It had something to do with whatever went on between them that didn’t concern me (lower case), their daughter.

“Mi” was used more affectionately than another mysterious word they sometimes called each other — the one I visualized as “Bubi” but sounded like “Booby.”  “Bubi” was matter-of-fact; “Mi” meant something a trifle more intimate. I eventually figured out “Mi.” It was the first syllable of both their names in Russian — his, “Mikhail,” or “Mischa,” hers, Mira (pronounced “Meera”).  Since they were using it while speaking English, it was a trace of their early days together in Baku before they emigrated — the memory of which was exclusively theirs. The provenance of “Bubi” remains unknown to me to this day.

My father sometimes had another word for my mother: “Youshka.”   It showed up in the context of satisfaction with or approval of something she had produced around the house — a good dinner, nicely ironed handkerchiefs, the fragrance of lemon-scented Old English furniture polish.  When reminiscing about his boyhood to me many years later, he once mentioned his family had had a servant called “Youshka” whom he had liked very much; she had brought back candy for him from her day off.  I don’t know if my mother ever heard this anecdote.  She can’t have been very fond of being called “Youshka” though; she never called him “Youshka” back.

Bill recalls his parents called each other “M.”  “M” was the initial letter of each of their first names: Morris and Mary.  (Bill’s grandmother, who was Mary’s mother, called her daughter Miriam. But that began with “M” too.)  No one else called either of them “M.”  It was just for, and between, them.

My first husband, when pleased with me, called me “cute sweet.”  It’s scribbled all over dozens of household notes and post-its which I stuffed into a large manila envelope after reading them with increasing irritation.  Whatever affection all those “cute sweets” may have contained, they sounded patronizing to me, as if I were some small something that he had acquired and was fond of but wasn’t in any way central to his existence.  He was nine years older than I and over six feet tall, so I couldn’t really have called him “cute sweet” back even if I’d felt like it.   It may be I never threw the “cute sweets” away because as long as I felt I had to stay in the marriage, that might have been bad luck. Then I forgot about the envelope after things went from not-so-good to worse and he stopped calling me that or using it in little household notes. An upside to keeping them:  although the last “cute sweet” was probably written in 1959, because I run across the envelope from time to time while looking for something else in the basement, I still remember all those “cute sweets” well enough to tell you about them.

My second husband didn’t go in for pet names, So any pet names arising in my marriage to him were the ones I used with my small children when tucking them into bed at night, Since they would now be extremely embarrassed were I even to hint at what they were (if indeed they remember them), I won’t.  When they reached adolescence, the pet names fell into disuse. But they developed special names for me and their father when speaking about us to each other, which I got to hear but he didn’t.  I was “the Ya!” and he was “the Uh!”  I have my own views on what ” the Ya!” and “the Uh!” meant, but if I go there, we will need to commence an analysis of that marriage and our somewhat different approaches to parenting that would be unwise.  Besides, “the Ya!” and “the Uh!” are not pet names within the meaning of this post. I believe they too were abandoned by the time their users reached college.

Bill and I also began our life together with pet names for each other, reserved for that private place between the sheets where they will stay.  All I will say about them is that (1) these names are not based on either the initials or sound of any syllable of our respective first names, which isn’t what you wanted to know, anyway; and (2) a pet name as I conceive it must be accepted by both parties, the one who speaks and the one to whom it refers.

As witness the day when I suddenly burst out not with my usual pet name for Bill, but with “Baba!”

“Baba?” he not unreasonably inquired.

But when I explained I had no idea where it came from but it meant him and it was good, he soon began calling me Baba too. Not always, you understand.  Just, impulsively, now and then.  I even made up the first two lines of a little song about it. (You will have to create the extremely short tune for yourself.)  “I’m a Baba; You’re a Baba; We are Babas two.”

When I connect with my brain, I suspect that “Baba” is a corruption of “Baby.” But believe me when I say that at such times as “Baba” falls from my lips, my brain is usually in sleep mode.

Then came the cats, Sasha and Sophie. Sometimes, when one of them was being particularly adorable, I began calling that cat Baba, too.  What do you know? Before you could blink an eye a couple of times, we were a family of Big Babas and Little Babas!

Is “Baba” sufficiently acknowledged by the cats to qualify as a name accepted by both parties and therefore a bona fide pet name of the sort I’ve been discussing? (As distinct from a “pet” name given to dogs, cats, or parakeets.)  I believe I can assure you that it is, at least as far as the cats “accept” that their individual names are Sasha and Sophie.  They do know the difference between those two “S” names and sometimes come, correctly, when individually called. And when they feel like it.  By now they will also come to the sound of “Baba” — when they feel like it.  Of course, they may simply be coming to the sound of my voice, the voice of the treat-and-food provider.  But these are mysteries beyond the purview of this post.

Lately, when Sophie — the dumber of the two — is particularly slow to grasp something, such as that it’s okay to eat from her dish while Sasha is eating from her own dish — I have begun  to call her “Poo-poo,” or “Poozie.”  Bill is still trying to wrap his mind around that one — “Why? Why?” he asks — so it may not become shared family vocabulary. If it doesn’t, it will simply be my way of venting annoyance that both our Little Babas are not equally brilliant (for cats).

How did I fall into this seemingly nonsensical post, anyway?  Because if I can’t think of something to write next, I look at the title of the blog.  This time, it occurred to me that when one of us survives the other (as will certainly happen when two people are getting old together), the pet names for each other will go too.  But not the pet names we gave together to our relatively young cats. And that will be a comfort.

When my father died, my mother had no one to call “Mi” and “Bubi” anymore, except perhaps in her heart. She didn’t even have cats. But in her last years she did start feeding a non-feral stray cat, lost or left behind, who came to her door every morning and evening for the cream and tuna she put out.  “Why does she keep coming?” she asked me ingenuously.  She looked forward to it though. So I do hope she gave the cat a pet name she didn’t share with me. A name that was private — just between her and the cat.

A pet name means more and more as you get older.  It means you’re still not alone.

HOUSE CAT WITH PRIVILEGES

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A RARE TREAT.

Sasha and Sophie are house cats.  They are not allowed to go out.  Not without me, that is.

Unfortunately, going out with me involves wearing a harness with a leash attached.  Cats don’t take kindly to being harnessed, and Sophie — the younger of the two — still will not submit to it.  Out come her claws as she struggles, and back into the drawer goes her harness. Another time perhaps.  But Sasha, now five years old, has learned the rare appearance of the harness means something exceptionally good is going to happen. She will get to explore the great Outdoors.

Our cats are not entirely housebound.  There’s a wire-fenced deck off the kitchen, from which they can smell foliage, hear birdcalls, spy on squirrels scampering through the underbrush in the rear of the condo.  But there’s no grass under the paws, no growing leaves to munch, no trees on which to scrape the claws.  And Sasha certainly appreciates the difference.

We don’t go out together often, Sasha and I.  Not in winter, when it’s too cold for both of us.  Not in summer, when it’s too hot for me, since I can’t crawl underneath the low spreading leaves of a grove of trees where it’s cool and shady.  But there’s still spring and fall.

However, walking a cat is not like walking a dog.  You go where the cat wants to go,  not vice-versa.  It takes a long time, it’s tedious, and sometimes it’s hard to get her back in the house when I’ve had enough.  Not that we go very far.  Usually she just slowly circles the five-unit structure in which our condo is located, investigating every ground planting in the front, and making a few careful forays into the uncleared and dedicated forest land behind.

Exciting though it may be for her, it’s boring for me.  Especially as there’s really nowhere to sit down while she explores.  But she makes me feel so guilty when I go out without her — and don’t think she doesn’t try to second guess which door I’ll be using so as to run out with me when I leave — that once in a while I carve out an hour of the afternoon just for her.

Sasha Getting Her Greens.

SASHA GETTING HER GREENS.

Then she can poke around to her heart’s content. Although it makes Bill nervous when he sees me do it, I do let go of the leash if she ventures where I can’t or don’t care to follow.  The harness is red, so it’s easy to spot, even at a distance.  And she doesn’t go far. When I call, she even waits for me to catch up. That way I have both hands free to try to take her picture.  Or should I say pictures? I have to snap six for every one that’s usable.

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WHEN I LET GO OF THE LEASH, THE HARNESS TWISTS AROUND. BUT SASHA DOESN’T SEEM TO MIND.

Occasionally, someone walks by pushing a baby carriage and does a second take at the sight of a cat on a leash.  But if Sasha’s off the leash, they do a second take at the sight of me, lounging against a tree or sitting on a rock in a residential neighborhood as if I had nothing else to do.

But I am doing something.  I’m enjoying her appreciation of the big wide world.

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 WE CAN ALWAYS TELL OUR TWO CATS APART BY SASHA’S GOLDEN EYES.

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APPARENTLY A CAR JUST PASSED BY. THAT’S NOT SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN. (ACCORDING TO SASHA.)

Eventually, though, even she gets tired.  When we pass the deck chair on the front walk, she settles down for a rest.  Soon I’ll be able to pick her up without her fussing, and carry her into the house.

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ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.

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 LOVING LOOKS MAKE EVEN THE THREE ITCHY BUG BITES I COLLECTED OUT BACK WORTH WHILE.