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.