Tuesday, August 27, 2013

California Dreaming

"How often do you get to see your parents?" I asked the limo driver.

"Only every few years,” he said.

We were in bumper-to-bumper traffic en route to LAX where a flight would return me home to Chicago. I had started this query as a diversion, and because of an itch I had packed along with the contents of my suitcase.

"How do you feel about that schedule? Does it work well for everyone in your family?” I was settling into the smooth black leather seats of the luxury car, and grateful for the driver’s willingness to share.

"I don't like it," he said. "I wish they lived here full time. They're getting older -- my father had small strokes a few months ago and it would've taken me 10 hours to get to Peru.”

I hadn't thought about that, about an adult child's reasoning for wanting his older parents to live closer. Could it be that part of my California daughter's wish to have me live in her city was partially based on this concern?

The possibility of a move was started as a seasonal idea. "Maybe I'll come in February and instead of staying my usual four days, I'll spend a few weeks," I said. "Get away from Chicago's winter."

"Listen, Mom," she said. "You may not believe me, but when I told you I’d love you to move here, I meant every word of it."

“Well, if I ever did move here, I wouldn't want to live with you. I wouldn't want to be sitting around waiting for you to escort me somewhere."

"Who said you could live with me?" She was joking; I was sure of it.

"Maybe I could rent a small apartment?  And a car?" As we talked, I could feel the discussion moving from italics to bold. Was I considering a sunbird's getaway, or something more permanent?

By now, I was playing my own devil's advocate. "Actually, with Tommy and Buddy gone, there's really nothing to hold me in Chicago,” I said. “I got rid of most of my possessions when I moved to my rental. It'd be one load of a cross-country moving truck."

"Oh, oh," said my other daughter in earshot. "If Mom's thinking about it, it'll happen."

"No, no," I said. "I haven't decided anything. We're just talking here. But, it would be nice to see my grandchildren grow up. And maybe with me here, you'd move, too?"

"I have a life in Boston," she said. "But, it would be great to have you and Sis in the same place."

The discussion ended at that spot, but continued to swirl around on my ride out of Los Angeles, onto my plane, and when I landed at O’Hare.

“Good to be home,” were my first words as I settled into the cab that would take me to my apartment in River North. Home, where did that come from? What had happened to my temptation to move to California?

My sentimental feelings about the city where I was born, and had lived nearly my entire life, continued as I entered my building’s lobby.

 “Welcome home!” said the evening concierge. There was that word home again. Was he somehow privy to the back-and-forth going on in my head?

And when I unlocked the door to my apartment, my declaration, “I’m home,” was automatically shouted out.

I dropped my luggage and cozied into the couch to survey my doll-sized estate. Paintings on every wall, our wedding photo and pictures of our dogs arrayed on a built-in bookshelf, my small office desk and bench, floor-to-ceiling windows with their awesome display of the river and night-scape -- all exuded a warm familiarity. “I love you!” I blurted out.

That’s when I realized how much I had come to adore my new place, which has quickly become a refuge and cocoon cushioning me from the sad events that propelled me to this new life. How could I ever leave this solace?

How could I leave a friend I’ve cleaved to since sixth-grade grammar school, to dozens more friends won over the years, to treasured relatives,?

And, how could I leave a recently joined synagogue study group that is helping me refresh my spiritual self?

The path was clear: If concern for my health was a factor, I’d assure my faraway daughters that my strong support group would be at the ready in case of a medical emergency; no need to immediately hop a plane to be at my bedside.

Then, I’ll book one week -- two weeks top -- in February. Afterwards, I’ll return home, to Chicago, where I belong, and where I'll continue my new, independent nourishing life.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Homeward Bound

The first thing I saw was an American flag flying from a pole attached to the roof of the porch. My heart lifted. It wasn’t patriotism that buoyed my spirits, but a sign that the new owners of our old house had changed its appearance.

I had dreaded returning to the place where Tommy and I, and our golden retriever Buddy, had lived for 13 years. Because my departure wasn’t spurred by happy events, but by my husband’s death in 2012, this visit was stained with sadness.

When I first received the invitation to share the graduation celebration for a neighbor’s children, I told my daughter, “I don’t think I can go. The party house is right across from ours. It will be too painful.”

As I spoke those words I envisioned our blue-trimmed house with porch steps that needed painting, the flowerpots that Tommy hung each summer, and the decorative bench that sat along one side. 

I conjured images of Buddy and I seated on the top step. When my picture included my husband on his red Schwinn rounding the corner heading towards our house, I couldn’t stop the tears.

“Do you have to go?” my daughter asked. “I’m sure they’ll understand.”

“I love the graduates and I believe they’d like me to be there,” I said. “Maybe I have to think of them instead of me.”

On the day of the graduation party, I rode the familiar Blue Line train to my stop. The cars were filled with passengers and luggage on the way to the final destination of O’Hare Airport. Going home, I thought to myself. These travellers were likely looking forward to their return, while I was worried about my reaction.

I could have walked on the opposite side of the street, but was drawn towards my old house, where the sight of the flag eased my passage. When I arrived at my address, a large black dog raced down the steps to greet me. “Sorry,” said someone on the porch as he tried to move the dog that was now happily being petted.

“No, it’s okay,” I said. “I love dogs. This used to be my house.”

He reached out a hand. “Hi, I’m a brother-in-law, let me get the owners.”

When he went inside to retrieve them, I introduced myself to people sitting on the porch. My apprehension was evaporating as I witnessed how much this beloved spot was being appreciated by others.

A couple, likely in their 40’s, were exuberant in their greetings. “We’ve heard so much about you from the neighbors.  We’re happy to finally meet you. Would you like to come inside?”

I hesitated. I was doing okay so far, hadn’t fallen apart, but could the interior send me over the edge? “Have you changed the inside?” I asked. “If it looks different, I think I can handle it.”

“Come in,” they said. They led me inside and were as tender as if I were returning to a long-ago childhood home, rather than one left a mere four months ago.

Several of the former white living room walls were painted bright colors. The wooden floors had been finished in a darker stain. The stair bannisters were now white. In the kitchen, the oak cabinets had also been painted white.

I couldn’t recognize this house! There was no repetition of the many pieces of art we had hung on our white walls. A large sectional had replaced the facing couches that cushioned Tommy and Buddy on one and me on the other.

“Do you want to see upstairs?” they asked. I was growing confident.

“Sure,” I said. More painted walls, a crib in the smallest bedroom, an alcove there once stuffed with extra bedding had become a closet for baby clothes, new carpeting in all of the bedrooms. I was as delighted as if I had been the contractor who had performed the renovations.

I cooed and praised at the remake. It wasn’t so much because I admired their decorating choices but because everything looked completely different!

We shook hands when I left. “I know you’ll enjoy the house and the neighbors as much as we did,” I said.

“We love it already,” they said.

The party was sweet; the neighbors were grateful I had attended. When I left, as I walked back to the Blue Line on the opposite side of the street of my old house, I stopped for a final look.

“Goodbye,” I said. With just a slight mist blurring my vision, I put two fingers to my lips and blew my old house a kiss. Then I continued my journey home.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Swell Party

“So, what are your planning for your 75th?” a friend asked.

“I don’t think I want a party,” I said. “I’ll declare the entire month of August my birthday and I’ll let friends take me out to dinner.”

“Sounds like a good plan,” she said. We were on the phone, so I couldn’t see her expression. But, her tone was skeptical.

 “I’ll save money and avoid bruising those I don’t include in a big bash,” I said, trying to convince her, and myself.

But, was it really a good plan? What if the once-in-a-lifetime occasion drifted away and I came to regret the absence of a party? And despite the several friends who volunteered to host individual birthday meals, my idea was beginning to feel tepid. Even depressing.

As I continued to muse about my approaching big day, I decided to pitch the question to Tommy. Although gone from this earth, he and I frequently engaged in conversations that I found enlightening, and more important, uplifting.

“What do you think, Honey,” I said aloud. No one else was in my apartment when I launched our dialogue, so I didn’t have to fear skepticism or derision. “Expensive party, or a series of dinners?”

I waited a few beats to conjure my deceased husband, but soon enough, I could feel his presence. “This bed is too small,” were his first imagined words. I was propped upright on two pillows in the new full-size bed I had purchased for my small apartment. Tommy’s assessment was coming from the empty side of the bed.

“It fits my life here,” I said. “But, let’s get to the question at hand. Do you agree it’s better to ditch a party and save money and bruised feelings?”

I expected a significant “yes” because for his 75th, we went to a restaurant with two other couples. I had offered a party, but my husband, who shunned the spotlight and frivolous expenditures, declined.

“You should have a party,” I was certain I heard him saying. “And, I’ll throw it for you.”

I placed my hand on the bare linen, then on the pillow I hugged each night pretending it was Tommy. He continued, “ask Barry if he’ll open our favorite restaurant for you on a Monday when he’s usually closed.”

“Smoque, the barbecue place in our old neighborhood?” I said.

Because I was directing this movie in my head, I could pause it at any point and insert flashbacks. I saw Tommy and me entering the restaurant, just days after it opened. Barbecue, a few blocks from our house! I was in heaven.

Although my husband was a vegetarian, he was satisfied with salad, mac ‘n cheese, baked beans, french fries, and peach cobbler while his wife alternated between ribs, brisket, and chicken. He knew my addiction to this menu and, in his love for me, put Smoque at the top of the list when I asked him for a lunch choice.

In my film, I saw calendar pages flip quickly as Tommy and I remained patrons of our neighborhood joint. As his brain degeneration progressed, we developed a ritual. As soon as we entered, he’d head for the cooler, pluck a cola, then proceed to our regular table. I’d go to the counter, order his veggie sides, then add my meat choice of the day.

Tommy was in charge of salt and pepper packets and plastic silverware, which he’d pickup on his route back to our seats. Within 30 minutes, without my husband having to struggle to find words or conversation, we’d be on our way home.

“What about the money?” I posed to my apparition. “It’s really not in my budget.”

“Life’s short,” I heard him saying. Perhaps his experience -- dying at the age of 77 -- was now altering his views of frivolity and finance.

In an email I wrote to Barry, I said: “You may be wondering why I haven’t been in lately. Tommy died November 2, and it’s been too painful to return. But, my 75th birthday is coming up, and in honor of that occasion, and in memory of Tommy, would you consider opening on a Monday night for a private party?”

Five days before my actual birthday, on a Monday when the restaurant doors bore taped signs that read, “Private Party,” I stood with a friend who had clasped me in a hug. “It’s a shame Tommy couldn’t be here,” she said.

I smiled, stepped back and surveyed the happy crowd. Above the cheery noise of 40 friends and relatives, and with Barry on hand to supervise the celebration, I shouted to be heard, “Oh, he’s here. He’s definitely here. In fact, he threw it for me.”