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.”