Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Opposite of Caregiving

The Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum) features dark green foliage and a large white flower. They are strictly indoor plants that take medium light, bloom year-round and are very forgiving. That is, until the unlucky houseplant met me.

Sarah,” I led off in my email, “will you take Tommy’s plants?” My neighbor had admired them on a previous visit. I watched, guilt shadowing my face, as she lifted a watering can from its dusty shelf and approached the Peace Lily.

Tenderly, as I had seen my husband do, she watered the plant along with all of the others he had cared for over the years. The drooping leaves appeared to heave a sigh of relief, soon brightening and popping up as the water I had thoughtlessly denied them quenched their thirst. 

My gift to my neighbor of the half dozen houseplants was part of my effort to divest of anything that required my care and attention. I had spent a good part of my second marriage taking care of my husband -- willingly and faithfully -- and now, with his passing, I wanted to be free of responsibility.

It’s not only houseplants I’m rejecting, but also pets. “No, no dogs,” I’d reply to those who suggested a furry companion to assuage my typical widow loneliness.  “A cat?” they’d pose. “Much easier to care for. No walking in the winter. Just a litter box.”

I’d turn down that idea, too. “Expensive,” I’d respond. "Can't afford it." We had spent a fortune over the years in vet bills for Sasha, who died at 9 and Buddy at 14. While we loved our Golden Retrievers like children, the financial cost is, in truth, one factor, but also the responsibility, and more importantly, the pain of their eventual loss.

And, there'd be the memories a new pet would bring. “Like clockwork,” a neighbor reminded me. “You, Tommy, and Buddy, walking around the park at six in the morning. Then, there'd be Tommy shouting at Buddy, ‘no, no,no’ as the dog headed for a mud puddle. And before Tommy could change Buddy’s direction, there’d be your dog plopping like a hippo.”

I laughed as I recalled that repeated scene. No, no more dogs. No more images of my husband racing to catch up with our Golden. No more reminders of my glee as I watched Tommy fetch Buddy from his makeshift pond. “I’ll hose him off in the basement,” he’d say, more amused than angry.

“A roommate, that’s what you need,” suggested my daughters. “You’ve got two spare bedrooms in your big house, you’ve admitted to loneliness in the afternoons, get a roommate for company and extra cash.”

It was true the two spaces I had reserved for my out-of-town daughters and their families have gone mostly unused, expect for brief visits twice a year. I thought about their idea. Thought about the money that could help me pay bills. Thought about the young student, actor, or even an airline pilot who would welcome our proximity to O’Hare. I even started composing an ad for that last possibility.

But then, I got depressed. I had images of me lowering the volume on my TV so I wouldn’t disturb my housemates. My 4 a.m. MSNBC show that accompanies my early rising might have to be curtailed out of concern for the stranger needing his or her sleep down the hall.

I saw myself opening doors to find clothing tossed on the floor, unmade beds, which paying renters would have every right to leave. I imagined me morphing into Mother, waving away their objections and insisting they eat a little something before their class, performance, or flight.

“Go, leave the laundry,” I heard myself saying. “You’ll be late. I’ll take care of it.”

Then, despite my best intentions, I couldn’t doubt the vision of me lying awake, listening for a late-night key in the door, just as I once did with my flesh-and-blood.

“No, no borders,” I told them.

“But your loneliness,” my daughters reminded me.

“There’s nothing wrong with being temporarily lonely,” I said. “Right now, I really don’t want to talk to anyone. I want to sit on the couch and eat my meals while watching TV.”

Of course, I know a time will come when lack of responsibility moves from respite to emptiness, when I will long for a beating heart nearby. Until then, I will talk to myself and my departed husband. For a smidgen of care taking, I’ll tend to the mixed bouquet on my kitchen table. Trim stems, change water, add crystal. I think I can handle that.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Takeover

The first thing I tackled were the hundreds of black plastic take-home containers and their sibling clear plastic lids that were jumbled on kitchen cupboard shelves. How had we accumulated so many? Why were they in such a hodgepodge? And more importantly, how did I let this mess get out-of-hand? I was the cook; Tommy, cleanup and storage; but that was no excuse for this mortifying clutter.

With my husband gone over a month, I felt ready to start clearing out many of the piles that had sneaked up over time. The mountains of containers, that threatened an avalanche whenever I opened the cabinet door, was just one example of my indifference.

“My fault,” I admitted. I was conversing with Tommy because I felt guilty about the expunging about to take place. “I neglected too many things,” I said, not expecting a response. “I didn’t pay attention to what was sprouting in corners, on shelfs, in drawers.”

This cleansing, and more that was to occur that day, was part of an effort to take back my house. Without realizing it, I had ceded it to my husband. Not just the exterior, where he had tended a garden, painted the front porch and stairs, and stained the back deck, but it appeared I had turned over the interior space, as well.

After the cupboard was tidy, I started on the coat closet. I planned to donate Tommy’s wardrobe to Goodwill, believing the absence would ease my journey. But, I paused at the first hanger. “Not your high school jacket,” I said. “We’ll keep that.”

Dark green wool with grey leather sleeves, “Steinmetz H.S.” bannered on the back, “53” on one sleeve, and “Tom” on the front, the jacket was not an original; it was retro. But exactly like the one my young student would have worn in his senior year.

“And not the Fedora,” I said, as I stood on a step stool to reach the top closet shelf for the dozens of baseball caps and hats he had collected.  “Yeah, you were a hunk when you wore your black leather jacket and topped it with that Fedora.” I pictured him, arms akimbo, giving a shake to show off.

After filling one large bag with items that I could part with, I moved to the second floor. In my takeover plan, I was not only de-cluttering, but also trading places. I coveted Tommy’s bathroom, which was within our master bedroom and had a shower stall, unlike the tub with shower head in my bathroom that had me clinging to grab bars for dear life.

Now in Tommy’s former bathroom, I pressed open the three mirrored doors that shielded his medicine cabinet. I tossed out hardened tubes of sunblock, congealed shaving cream, fossilized hair tonic, and prescription medications.

With a soapy rag, I whisked each shelf clean. I studied the mirror to be sure no apparition glowered back. Clear, so I made trip after trip from my former bathroom to my New Master Bath. Cosmetics, q-tips, cotton pads, women’s deodorant, all were lined up on the two lower shelves I could reach without a step stool.

Next, it was time to clear out rows and shelves of blue jeans, shorts, shoes, slacks, sweaters that were spread throughout two closets. Again, I hesitated. I could not give to Goodwill the sport coat and suit I insisted my betrothed buy for our Las Vegas wedding weekend in 1998. My frugal fiancee protested he’d never wear those fancy duds again, and he was partially right: The sport coat had perhaps a yearly airing, but the suit hung abandoned in the closet for the remainder of our marriage.

I would not toss out his painter’s outfit either: laborer-ripped long and short blue jeans, a red sweatshirt and orange T-shirt, and a crimson Harvard baseball cap -- all speckled with the blue of our porch. The set would remain here, just as he left it, all reminding me of Tommy’s tender maintenance of our home, before his cruel illness interfered.

The long row of T-shirts and sweat shirts my husband bought at resale shops slowed me down, too. I decided to keep them all and wear as sleepwear.

When I descended to the basement, I was confronted by several golf bags and clubs, dozens of boxes of Caldwell balls, paint brushes and opened buckets of blue paint. Instead of sorting them for donation, I turned and retreated upstairs. “Not today,” I said. “Not today.”

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Ma's Home!

If I were clever, I would've recorded Tommy's voice declaring, "Ma's home!" and then jerry-rigged the machine to start as soon as the front door opened. If I had done that, my homecoming might have been easier. As it was, following a return flight from Boston, when I placed my carry-on in the front hall, I was greeted by silence.

Of course, in order to get my husband's happy welcoming, I'd have to go back to 2011 when he still had speech. But, lacking a crystal ball, how could I have predicted that by 2012, his aphasia would have robbed him of all words?  And, how would I have known that by Thanksgiving, not only his voice, but Tommy himself, would be gone?

The November trip to the East Coast this year, for the feast-filled celebration, was to be the first major holiday I had spent with either of my daughters in likely 14-1/2 years, the length of my marriage to Tommy.

Initially, my husband and I declined their invitations because travel on those special days were too expensive, and there were the crowds to deal with. My daughters accepted this as reasonable. And since a long-time group of friends, who gathered annually for Thanksgiving and Christmas, was part of the package that accompanied my second marriage, I could tell my kids, "Don't worry about us, we'll be with Tommy's gang."

But when the longing to see them erupted, I'd ask Tommy if he'd like to join me on a short trip. His response was always, "No, you go ahead and enjoy your family. I'll stay home and take care of the Pooker." ("Pooker" was our nickname for Buddy, our 14-year-old Golden Retriever who died in June of this year.)

With my husband's blessings, I'd do a four-day, non-holiday, trip to Boston or Los Angeles. I'd be sure to call him three times a day: upon arrival, first thing in the morning, and last thing in the evening. "Get your butt home," he'd tease. "I miss you, too," I'd say.

And, upon re-entry from those solo trips, I could hear a lusty, "Ma's home!" the minute my key turned in the latch.

When Tommy lost his ability to speak, I ended those visits. I feared for his safety on his own, and wasn't willing to diminish his independence by hiring a round-the-clock companion.

But, in May of this year, with my 10-year-old Boston granddaughter cast in a musical, I decided to try something different. I figured it would be easier to have him with me then worry about him left at home, "Come, too," I urged. Surprisingly, he agreed.

We hired a dog-sitter for Buddy, and off we went. Unfortunately, the four days proved to be challenging. My husband's brain degeneration -- the culprit in his aphasia -- had me watching his every move. With his reasoning kaput, I had to bar him from jaunts on his own. "Never again," I said when people asked how the travel experiment worked.

Thanksgiving 2012, just spent in Boston, was picture-card perfect. I relished walks along pastoral Jamaica Pond with my daughter, catching up on our lives. I stood back-to-back with my beautiful granddaughter, who had grown in height and maturity since I had last seen her. With lucky timing, I joined in on birthday celebrations for my daughter's partner. And, I was blessed to be a guest at the bountiful table hosted by more of my daughter's loving family.

Without an ailing husband at my side, or waiting for me at home, there was nothing to pull my thoughts and concern back to Chicago, I felt at peace; I relaxed. On the other hand, there were no arrival, first-thing-in-the-morning, and last-thing-in-the-evening phone calls to be made. No one awaited my voice.

When I landed back at O'Hare, rode the Blue Line to my stop, then walked the few blocks towards our house. I stopped at the foot of the stairs to extract keys from my backpack, then hoisted my carry-on to the porch. I took a breath and steeled myself.

If only I had thought to record, to set-up, to be greeted by Tommy's joyful "Ma's Home!" it might have eased my homecoming. But, then again...

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Sunday Breakfast, Minus One

It’s 7:15 in the morning and I’m standing at the kitchen counter sorting out the bulky Sunday newspaper. “I’ve got your sports section and the comics,” I say out loud. My husband, who died Nov. 2 of this year, is not physically in the room to hear my declaration. But, conversing with him eases my raw pain.

After Tommy died, I halted our Sunday routine and stayed away from Dapper's, our usual breakfast place, believing it would be too painful for me to enter without him. But this Sunday, I had to shop at Target in the same mall as the restaurant, so I figured it'd be a good opportunity to test a revisit.

Somehow, I could feel my husband agreeing, celestially pushing for our regular weekend routine. First, though, I had to finish preparing the newspaper that had always accompanied us.

I replicated Tommy's system: Out went the advertising flyers to the recycle bin. Sports and Comics -- his first choice sections - on top of the pile, followed by News (local and international), Business, Arts, Travel, Real Estate, and Magazine. I took a plastic bag, packed in the specially-arranged paper, and drove to Dapper’s.

“Can I do this?” I said, as I stood at the entrance’s revolving door. Tommy, evidently believing the question was addressed to him, gave me a mystic push and sent me twirling inside.

I stepped to our usual booth. But, since we hadn’t been customers for two months because of my hip surgery, and my husband’s hospitalization and hospice, it wasn’t set up with our place settings. There were no tiny pots of jam, flavored coffee sweeteners, and other items our waitress, Linda, typically arranged before our arrival.

“Okay, don’t sit there,” Linda said rushing towards me. She grabbed my shoulders and steered me away. I was frozen in the spot, tears staining my eyeglasses. A few of the regulars swiveled to peek, but quickly returned to their newspapers and food. Our duo was minus one. My tears and my partner's absence told the story.

As Linda offered alternative booths, I said, “The counter. I want to sit at the counter.”

“Perfect,” she said.

Linda may have seconded my choice because it could keep her closer to me, perhaps to forestall a second breakdown. But, I had another reason: when I first met Tommy in 1996, he was a regular counter occupant at the Lakeview Diner. Once we became a couple, we moved to a booth.

Now, single, a widow, I decided to honor my husband; I’d become a counter person, too. At this early hour, I was able to spread out. My backpack went to the stool to my right. I unfolded the newspaper atop the bare counter on my left. I was easing in.

In between customers, Linda stood on her side of the counter, elbows up, hands holding her concerned face. I could bawl directly to her without rousing anyone else. “It’s so hard being here without him,” I said.

“He’s here, sweetheart, he’s here,” she said. “His spirit is here.”

“I really felt like he wanted me to be here, and he wanted to come, too.”

“Of course,” she said.

So, I did what I always did, but this time from my new counter seat instead of our old booth: I removed Comics and Sport from the stack I had brought with. Without worrying about anyone thinking me dotty, I said to my right, “Okay, Honey, here’s your sections,” then placed them on the empty space. As I finished my own parts of the newspaper, I’d add them to Tommy’s pile.

Although his stack never moved, never diminished, I was okay with the arrangement. I drank my coffee and ate my egg-white Spartan omelet with mozzarella instead of feta, Greek toast, bacon, and fruit. My eyes never left the newspaper.

When I finished my breakfast, Linda brought only one white foam box for leftovers. No need for Tommy's half of waffle, pancake, or cheese omelet.

I placed all of the newspaper sections back in the plastic bag I had brought from home including Tommy’s stack. I knew I’d never read Comics or Sports, but somehow, I couldn’t leave them behind.

After I paid the bill, and as I headed for the exit, with a lightweight bag of leftovers in one hand, and a full bag of newspaper sections in the other, Linda called after me,  “See you next week?” Her voice and face hopeful.

“I’ll try,” I said. “I’ll try.”

Then, with Tommy’s gentle push, I slowly revolved out the door into my new life.