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.





The Surgeon General’s Report linking smoking with lung cancer, emphysema, and heart disease was released in 1964.  But for quite some time before that, I had already realized that smoking was gradually becoming more a burden than a blessing. Even without actually trying to stop, I was aware that I couldn’t not smoke.  If I sat downstairs at the movies, where smoking was not allowed, I could hardly wait for the picture to end so as to rush out and light up. I couldn’t sit for very long in the stacks at the library where I was doing research for my master’s thesis without stopping work to go down and through the library doors for a cigarette.

I couldn’t lock the door when I came home in the evening without making sure there were enough cigarettes in the house to get me through to the next morning.  I didn’t ever wake up at night to smoke, but if I woke up for some other reason — loud noise in the street, for instance — I was unable to get to sleep again without smoking at least part of a cigarette.  And first thing in the morning, even before brushing my teeth, I had to rush to the kitchen, make a cup of coffee and take a sip so I could light a cigarette without feeling guilty about smoking “first thing in the morning.”  I needed to light a cigarette before getting into the shower, before putting a piece of paper into the typewriter, before picking up the telephone, either to make a call or answer one.  If going into some one else’s office for a meeting, I went with pen, pad of paper, and package of cigarettes — glasses on top of my head.

My wooden furniture at home had cigarette burns where cigarettes left in ashtrays had fallen from ashtray to table surface.  A white synthetic leather pullout sofa bed in the studio apartment I rented after the end of my first marriage featured a burn mark on one cushion, where a flying spark had melted the synthetic leather. (And no, I couldn’t turn the cushion over.  There was no synthetic leather on the other side.)

I was also realizing I didn’t really enjoy smoking. I knew people who professed to love it.  What I experienced from the first deeply inhaled draw of a fresh cigarette was not pleasure, but immediate release from extreme discomfort.  I was smoking to relieve feeling not good.  When I smoked I felt normal. Not anything special.  Just normal.  When I didn’t smoke, I felt more and more uncomfortable, edgy, in need of my fix — until I could barely stand it.  I remember asking myself what my life was really about. It seemed I was existing to smoke — all the time I was awake — and was smoking in order to exist without misery.

Now and then I would discuss these feelings with the Hungarian — the entirely supportive shrink who was helping me put my life back together. We talked about the addictive properties of cigarettes (using the word “addictive” in the non-legal sense, of course, as neither of us were then lawyers).  The Hungarian said he stopped for two weeks every year, to prove to himself cigarettes were not his master, and that he was in control. [Today, forty-five years after I was finally able to stop, I would maintain two weeks wasn’t really “stopping.” But at that time two weeks without cigarettes sounded like eternity to me.]  He told me a story about hiding in a bomb shelter in Hungary during the war. Next to him was an older man who had managed to stop smoking twenty years before.  As the Hungarian extracted a cigarette from its package and lit it, the older man asked for one, too.  “If this is the end for us,” he said, “I want one last cigarette before I die.”  We both puffed companionably together during these conversations.

Then came the Report. Well, everyone knew, in a general way, that smoking wasn’t exactly good for you.  But lung cancer, emphysema (whatever that was), heart disease?  How long could you smoke with impunity before those kicked in? The Hungarian kept encouraging me to stop if I was so concerned.  Just to make sure that I could, if I really wanted to.

“I can’t stop,” I said.

“Of course you can stop,” he said.  “We will stop together.  Starting at midnight tonight!”

It was a Thursday in May or June of 1965 that he made this entirely unforeseen offer.   I was paying him for this?  Yes I was.  So how could I say no?  Having taken me by surprise, he outlined the deal:  Beginning at midnight, neither of us would take a single puff until we met again on Tuesday evening.  After that, we could each do what we wanted. But for nearly five days, we would hang in there.  There were also some guidelines, supposedly to make it somewhat less difficult:

  • Avoid coffee and tea — because caffeine would intensify the craving for nicotine.  (It perked you up, whereas nicotine calmed you down — both by shrinking the capillaries and thus reducing blood flow, and also by depriving you of oxygen with every puff.)
  • Drink lots of water, to flush nicotine out of your system.
  • Chew gum, if you have to do something with your mouth.
  • Take walks, inhaling deeply for healthful infusions of oxygen.
  • Distract yourself with activities during which you normally don’t smoke.  (I had no such activities, but didn’t argue the point.)

I was fearful and unwilling, but  the transference was too strong.  I  walked out of his office at eight in the evening, managed to smoke ten more cigarettes (making myself nauseous) before the appointed hour, stumbled to the incinerator in the hall at three minutes before midnight to throw all my remaining packs down the chute so I couldn’t retrieve them from the garbage pail in my apartment — and then gulped down a glass of water and slid between the sheets of the pullout sofa bed with the cigarette burn on one cushion as if I were climbing into my coffin.

I don’t know how I survived Friday at the office; I could not possibly have got anything done. I spent Saturday and Sunday mainly in the sofa bed, reading trashy magazines and sucking Life Savers like crazy in between long headachy naps and frequent trips to the bathroom to evacuate the quarts of water I was drinking. I may have called in sick on Monday in order to put away several pints of ice cream. (Ice cream is supposed to help everything. Wrong.) But Tuesday was coming.  Blessed Tuesday, when at last I would be able to light up!  Mainly what got me through all this were thoughts of the Hungarian’s similar suffering.

Tuesday evening, he congratulated me, declared he felt fine, and lit a meerschaum pipe.  “That’s not fair!” I cried.  I hadn’t even brought a fresh pack of cigarettes with me.  Somehow I thought he would offer me one and we would light up together.

“You can smoke too, if you want.”  He smiled.  “And you can continue to not smoke, if you want.  It will get easier, because you’ve done the hardest part.  It’s up to you.”

When I left him after the session, I paused in front of the drugstore near the subway stop.  Should I?  Shouldn’t I?  I went in, still uncertain — and bought three candy bars to carry me over until I got home to my cigarette-free studio apartment.

We were approaching the summer before my second wedding.  I munched my way through it — wearing one of three drop-waisted Pucci-type-print “sack” dresses that managed to look chic while also disguising the fact that I was rapidly losing my waistline and gaining about two pounds a week.  All foods were wonderful, all the time — and the more fattening the more satisfying.  I also discovered packages of little cigarillos in the drugstore:  they tasted terrible but you didn’t  inhale them, so you got the awful (but now also wonderful) taste of tobacco without injury to the lungs.  Also they looked rather sophisticated, if you were well dressed and coiffed when you put one between your lips.  A trans-gender activity by a feminine-looking woman!  Why hadn’t I thought of it before?

I was virtuous, and plump.  And then plumper.  And then had to buy a wedding dress.  The Big Day was September 12. There was a store on Broadway in the 80’s, the name of which I no longer remember, that would make up your choice of dress style in the fabric of your choice. That seemed the place to go, as I wasn’t sure what size I was anymore, and didn’t want to know.  They could measure me and do what had to be done.  I chose a slenderizing dress and jacket combination, to be made up in ivory colored silk.  (Such a purist! I considered white inappropriate for a non-virginal bride.)  The seamstress who was measuring me said I was a perfect size 14.  What was so perfect about that?  I also needed a dinner dress and a couple of sportive outfits for the Bermuda honeymoon.  In size 14?

No, no, no.  This was my fresh start in life. This time I was going to get it right with a brand-new husband. Fat had no part to play in such a future.  Three weeks before the wedding, I smoked a cigarette.  Before the week was up, I was back to smoking thirty.  After two weeks, when I returned for the final fitting of the ivory silk dress, they had to take it in quite a lot.  The taken-in dress was even somewhat loose on September 12, but I was a happy bride.  Everyone said I looked beautiful.  Stopping smoking would have to wait.

[More tomorrow.]



[…continued from yesterday…]

Getting away for three weeks was no problem for Jake; he simply informed his patients that he would be gone in August and then found another shrink to cover for him in emergencies.  Sarah had to make more elaborate and extensive preparations.  Although the lawyers at her firm were supposed to take four weeks off every year (“We work hard but play hard,” was the mantra intoned for the benefit of incoming associates) — taking the four weeks, or even three weeks, all together was just not done.  (Suppose a client needed you!)  The customary modus operandi was a week here, two weeks there — as each lawyer’s practice, and annualized billable hours, permitted.

Sarah began announcing her vacation plans in May.  She announced them more frequently — at the coffee station, in the womens’ john — in June.  She made sure none of her cases was headed for trial over the summer and found colleagues to handle what needed to be done while she was away (thereby incurring several heavy IOUs).  In July she stopped taking on new matters and began to emphasize, at firm lunches, how difficult this tiny island was to get to. (She didn’t mention Turkey.) She explained that Greece was seven hours ahead of Boston, that she didn’t know if there was a telephone available to her on the island anyway, and that she understood from Jake mail could take as long as six weeks to arrive  — much of that period consumed between the time it got to Athens and arrived at its final destination — so that she would, as a practical matter, be unreachable during the time she was away.  “You’re so lucky!” exclaimed Mabel, the lawyer in the office adjoining hers.  “I always have too much on my plate for more than a week in Chatham!”

Sarah considered this comment to be less about three weeks away from the office in Greece than about the arrival of Jake in her life.  Mabel was eighteen years younger than Sarah, in the process of a drawn-out divorce, and frantically looking for a replacement husband. To her, Sarah’s near-miraculous acquisition of a new man represented a major triumph over the adversities of life for the older woman, and Sarah saw no reason to disabuse her.  Maybe Jake wasn’t absolutely perfect, she told herself, but she was pretty lucky.  How many women of seventy were going off to a small Greek island for a romantic tryst?

Privately, however, as August grew closer, she became less sure she was doing the right thing. Could three weeks away be a professional mistake?  She needed this job. If only she could just quit — and play the piano, travel, cook, maybe write, not always be hurrying to make deadlines, attend meetings, defend depositions.  The practice of law took a lot out of you. Even with a four-day work week, she always felt tired, and usually spent most of Friday just resting up.

But if she quit, what would she live on? Sarah had come late to the law, after marriages to two impecunious husbands who had nothing to share at divorce time. Social Security would barely cover her monthly mortgage and condo association payments. And she certainly couldn’t count on Jake’s contribution as a basis for retirement when — if she were honest with herself — they didn’t really know each other that well.  Not the way she knew her husbands by the time they had parted.

Then it became too late to cancel without losing a lot of money. And Jake would never forgive her if she put the firm before him. (“The firm?” she could hear him saying.) She would just have to apply herself seriously when she came back, and people would soon forget she’d been away for nearly a month, and then everything would be all right.

“So.   How does it feel to go away for three weeks with this man?” asked Feldman, long, thin and wrinkled. She had been seeing Feldman before work on Wednesdays for fifteen years. No one who knew about this could understand why she was still forking out good money for talk therapy now that she was long divorced.

“I don’t fork out anymore,” she would say.  “It’s Medicare’s turn.”  Or: “I can’t leave a husband until I have a shrink, and I can’t leave a shrink until I have a husband.”  Or (sometimes): “You know how Catholics go to confession once a week and feel better afterwards?  Well, here’s a place where I can go once a week and say absolutely anything and it’s okay.  I can just unload.  Where else in the world can you do that?”

That didn’t mean Feldman wasn’t often annoying.  His reluctance to say anything substantive, for instance.  (Was he just going to sit there?  “Of course,” he always replied.)  And his questions  — straight out of some How To Be A Shrink book. (“How does that make you feel?”)  Once, during the long lonely period preceding the arrival of Jake in her life, she had begun a session by exclaiming, without being asked, that she felt like shit.  He regarded her impassively.  “How does it feel to say that?” he asked.

“How does it feel to say I feel like shit? Come on, Feldman!”

“How does it feel?”  (Without even a smile.)

And now he was at it again.  “Jake,” she said.  “His name is Jake.  Why are you calling him ‘this man?'”

“There have been other men, no?  The two husbands?  Two old boyfriends, recycled? So when I ask today, my question is about this man.”

But Sarah already knew Feldman couldn’t admit he might be wrong.  “It feels fine to go away with Jake for three weeks, thank you for asking.”

“You have been very picky about your previous suitors,” he persisted.  “You go fishing for a new man from time to time, reel him into the boat, inspect him as he dangles at the end of your line, then flip him back into the sea. How is this one different?”

Suitors?  What suitors?  Those few pitiful specimens who had answered her previous ads?  The one seeking a woman willing to encase herself in soft rubber garments at bedtime?  The one whose wife had mid-stage Alzheimers, but was safely out of the way on Gardiners’ Island under the care of a round-the-clock nurse’s aide?  The one with an ileostomy bag and an adult daughter in a state psychiatric hospital?

“Oh, Feldman,” said Sarah, “stop already.  If there’s any problem, it’s not with the man, it’s with the three weeks away from the office.”

Feldman took her mention of “three weeks” as an opportunity to change the subject.  “You understand the time you will be taking off, the three hours we will not meet during your weeks away — those are your hours, and you will be responsible for them,” he said.  He meant that he expected her to pay for the three sessions she would miss.  They had had this conversation every year she had gone on vacation.  Usually, it had been for only a week at a time; needy, and therefore in a weak bargaining position, she had always paid.  The two Greek tours had taken longer, and each of those years she had paid for two missed sessions, resentfully but without any sense that arguing would do any good.  This time she dug her heels in.  She was on a tight budget for the vacation as it was.

“How come you don’t give me make-up sessions when you go away on vacation?” she demanded.

He looked surprised.  “That is a separate issue entirely,” he said.  “When I go away, you are of course free to go away yourself.”

Now there’s a dumb argument, she thought.  “It isn’t a separate issue at all.  If you’re entitled to a vacation from me, with the result that I lose out on therapy, then I’m entitled to a vacation from you, even though you lose out on income.  Fair is fair, Feldman.”

“Are you saying you won’t pay?”  His voice quavered a little.

“I don’t pay anyway,” said Sarah.  “Not any more.  Maybe Medicare can pay for the missed sessions.”

“It doesn’t work that way,” said Feldman.  “Medicare pays for treatment, not absence from treatment.”

“Then why should I pay for missed sessions if Medicare won’t? Tell you what, Feldman.” She had him now, she was sure of it. “Let’s leave it up to you, not me.  If, as you say, the missed hours are ‘mine,’ I won’t rat on you if you bill Medicare for them.  And if you decide you’re not entitled to Medicare payments for treatment you didn’t provide, that’s obviously okay with me, too.”

Aha!  He was slowly nodding agreement. Had she just connived in an act of insurance fraud?  Not really, she decided.  Not by merely making the suggestion.  After all, she didn’t know what he was actually going to do.

“Of course he’s going to bill for his time!” said Jake that night at dinner.  A piece of eggplant from the ratatouille they were eating fell on the tablemat as he waved his fork in the air for emphasis.  Jake’s table manners had deteriorated since he had begun to feel at home in her condo.

Sarah reached over to pick up the eggplant  — she hated mess — and put it in her mouth.  The mat now had a stain.  She sighed. Neither of her husbands had been neat eaters either.  “How do you know that?  Why can’t you admit he might do the right thing?”

“He needs the money.”

“He can’t be that hard up,” said Sarah.  “He’s one of the two best psychiatrists in all of New England!”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Jake.

“No, really.  I asked around before I started with him.  And I can never change the time of the appointment.  He’s always full up.”

Jake laid his dirty knife on the mat to explain.   “I don’t care how busy he is. Psychiatrists aren’t like orthopedists or dermatologists.  Those guys have a revolving door: patient in, patient out, new patient in, etcetera.  But Feldman sees a fixed number of patients for years, including you.  He can’t start with someone new for the three weeks you’re away, because when you return he has to give you back your hour.  And then what’s he supposed to do with the extra patient?  So a loss of income when you’re on vacation is just that.  A dead loss.”

Sarah hated not to win arguments.  “He shouldn’t count on it then.  Why can’t he assume each of his patients will be away a certain amount of time and average his income over the year, instead of anticipating a specific accounts receivable every month?”

“Why didn’t you ask him that?” said Jake.  “While you were at it, you might also have explained to the poor bastard what he was supposed to do about his monthly checks to her?”  He jabbed his finger in the direction of the floor.

(The ex-Mrs. Feldman lived beneath Sarah.  They did not get on.  She objected repeatedly to Sarah playing the phonograph.  She complained loudly about Sarah practicing the piano in the evening. They had eventually worked out their differences with the help of the condo trustees, but accidental meetings in the stairwell or the laundry room remained chilly.   Such being the case, Sarah welcomed those occasional instances when the mailman mixed up their mail, thus affording her the opportunity to inspect the outside of the ex-Mrs. Feldman’s correspondence.  In the days before Medicare began paying for her therapy, she had once even found in her mailbox an envelope addressed to Linda Feldman in the familiar, and highly idiosyncratic, handwriting which appeared on her monthly invoices for professional services rendered by Martin Feldman, M.D.  She couldn’t resist holding it up to the light before putting it on the ledge below the mailbox labeled Ms. Linda Feldman.  There was a check inside.  Alimony!  Her money was leaving the building only to come right back again.  She was personally supporting that odious woman.  She couldn’t read the amount of the check, though.)

“Ah yes, that,” said Sarah.

“He’ll be working till she drops,” said Jake.  “Or he does.  How old is she?  How old is he?  Over seventy-five?”

“Why are you so sympathetic to him all of a sudden?” asked Sarah.  “I thought you didn’t like him.”

“I don’t not like him,” said Jake.  “I just don’t like his method.  This silent Freudian business.  Besides, what do you need him for, now you have me?”

Sarah did not want to go there.  “Must we discuss Feldman’s financial difficulties?” She pushed her chair back to clear the table.  His place mat would have to go to the cleaners.  She should probably get the kind you could just wipe down.   “Dessert is frozen yogurt or grapes.  Which?”

[…to be concluded tomorrow….]