Wednesday, October 30, 2013

From Third Wheel to Driver’s Seat

As I skipped from table to table at the bar mitzvah luncheon last weekend, I felt a novel emotion. Although I wasn’t paired up like my friends who were attending the same celebration, I lacked any sense of third wheel.

I felt no envy, no mad desire to be coupled, simply a feeling of being comfortable enough to chat with strangers who were seat companions, in the buffet line, and anyone who caught my interest.

This was a very different experience than my previous episode of singleness. After my divorce from my first husband, and before my marriage to Tommy, I relished my freedom for a bit, but then wanted desperately to be paired up. I hated being the gal left at the ballroom table to keep an eye on purses while couples danced. I yearned for a man on my arm, so I would better fit in with my married friends.

The Chicago Reader was the of its day and I found several men to date. In the auditions, I was impartial. Fellows who I would’ve ignored if I weren’t so nauseatingly needy, would get at least one date.

Of course, that was 23 years ago and I have grown up since then. And although I have, on these pages, admitted eyeing men at the gym, I just don’t have the same pathetic ache, which I attribute to several factors:

*I really enjoy the studio apartment I have chosen to replace our home. Although only 615-square feet, at my petite size, it feels like a perfect fit. There is no space for a roommate and his stuff.

·      *At bedtime, I use a pillow as a stand-in for my late husband. In spoon position, I tell him my day’s activities. While this lacks an audible response from my proxy, I can easily imagine his voice and sweet goodnight. Schmaltzy as this sounds, it totally lulls me to sleep.

           *During the luncheon I described in my opening paragraph, I witnessed several friends who were either full-blown caretakers of their spouses, or were struggling with the impending role. Their plights reminded me of the last years of Tommy’s life when I was an around-the-clock caregiver. I have to selfishly admit, I am not eager to reenlist for the job, which, at my age, is a real possibility.

·      *Except for a few long-time friends, most of my crowd is single. If I want companionship, a phone call, e-mail, or text message can usually find me a delightful sidekick. And this pal is likely to be agreeable to my choice of event or menu.

·      *Although I no longer own a car, I have learned how to travel throughout the city and suburbs via public transportation. For example, here’s how I got to the aforementioned Skokie bar mitzvah: I caught the Brown Line at the Merchandise Mart, exited at Kedzie, took the #93 Foster bus to Dempster, and then the #250 Pace bus to Central Park. Okay, it was 90 minutes door-to-door, but I had a window seat and a scenic adventure.

·      *My waking and sleeping schedule would likely deter any potential swain. And I’m reluctant to adjust my body clock just to be part of a couple. I suspect that a single man seeking a girlfriend would want his female companion to remain awake throughout a movie or play, erect on a dance floor, and conscious for a goodnight kiss.

·     * I love television. No, I mean I REALLY LOVE television. My favorite evening activity – prior to falling asleep on the couch – is to watch favored episodes on HBO, Showtime, or Netflix. This viewing is typically accompanied by feet propped on my coffee table, an ice cream dish in my paws, and a sigh of solo satisfaction. Would a guy find this alluring? Would I be forced to share my Edy’s Slow Churned Butter Pecan?

·      *I won’t change my appearance or wardrobe to hook a guy. In my earlier single stage, I wore 3-inch heels, clothing I deemed alluring, and shopped at Victoria’s Secret for the “just in case” dates. Now, I refuse to dye my grey hair, get Botox or plastic surgery, or don anything that doesn’t stretch.

Having said all of the above, if you, dear reader, were to identify a divorced or widowed male, in my age group, who still drives – better yet, at night – I might be persuaded to shift some of my reasoning. For there are times when a ride in the passenger seat, with a sweet, bright, funny guy at the wheel does sound tempting.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Jealousy At The Gym

“I thought you said you’d never get married again.” It is my deceased husband Tommy who startles me awake.

“Where did you get the idea I’m getting married,” I say. His voice, which started in a dream, shifted me from prone to upright in bed.

“I saw you at the health club. Heard your conversation with your trainer, Kim. You were asking her to introduce you to some guy.”

“I thought you hated the East Bank Club,” I said, referring to the posh fitness place I tried to get Tommy to join. “What were you doing there?”

“Keeping an eye on you,” he said.

“Look,” I said. “I’m still wearing my wedding ring and I have no intention of ever taking it off.” I raised my left hand to the ceiling, assuming the image could break through the stucco and reach my complaining husband.

As I waited for his response, I thought back to the day more than 14 years ago when he and I walked across Ashland Avenue to Service Merchandise where we purchased our $25 gold bands.  After our wedding in Las Vegas, where we placed them on each other’s finger under the guidance of an ecumenical minister and 16 guests, I never took the ring off.

“Listen, Tommy,” I said. “I don’t ever want to marry again. You are my last husband. But, would you mind if I started to date? It’s been nearly a year, and I’m beginning to feel the need for a male companion. I miss the ‘what did you do today’ conversations and a guy on my arm.”

There was silence from my celestial spouse. Although in the last years of his life I had become accustomed to his aphasia, in our imaginary conversations, I had returned him to full voice. That’s why this pause bothered me. Was he angry and retreating from our beloved dialogues, or was he contemplating my question?

“You change your mind so much,” he said, ignoring my excuse.

“I won’t debate that,” I said. I counted on my easy agreement to let me off the hook.

“I heard you tell your daughters and your friends you were glad you rented a small apartment because there’d be no room for anyone else in it. Did you mean that?”

“True,” I said. “But, I’m talking about dating someone, not having them move in with me.”

“Well, it was hard for me to hear you asking your trainer to play cupid,” Tommy said. “You can understand that.”

“Of course I do, honey,” I said. “But, I’m spending too many nights at home; me and TV. When you were alive, and we watched shows together, that was one thing. But, I’ve continued our tradition in spades. Now, with Apple TV and Netflix, I’m more tied to the set than ever.”

“What’s wrong with that?” he asked.

I smiled as I recalled our evenings on our two couches. Each of us stretched out, watching our favorite shows night after night.

“No, honey, you’re right,” I said. “I loved every minute of our marriage. And I know I’ll never find another guy who wants to sit home and watch TV with me.”

“Well, it seems like you’re trying hard to replace me,” he said. “I also heard you asking your two lawyer friends to keep an eye out for a single man your age.”

Now I was rankled. Tommy disdained my health club in favor of his plain YMCA. Oh, he liked the golf center all right, and he enjoyed running its track on winter days. But when I posited joint membership, he turned up his nose. Now, it appears I can’t get him away from the place.

“Okay, you’re right,” I said. “I did ask Jimmy and John to keep me in mind. I’ve known both of them for years and they’re my same age. I thought they’d be good matchmakers.”

“They’re both Jewish, aren’t they? Is that what you’re looking for? Finished with Gentiles are you?”

“No, no, honey,” I said. “I didn’t specify a religion. In fact, I wouldn’t mind someone who’s not Jewish. You and I were in-tune, despite our different faiths.”

Another pause from above, had I convinced Tommy of my innocent need for a companion, and not a husband? Had he retreated to his heavenly home, contented he would never be replaced?

Then came that voice that I can still hear clearly. “Listen, sweetheart, I’m really just teasing you. It makes me happy to hear you’re thinking about dating. That means you haven’t soured on men; that my part in your life has you seeking another me.”

“Never another you,” I said.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Déjà vu

I watch as the nurse places two plastic bags in the locker. One holds my friend’s shoes; the other clothing he has removed following the nurse’s instructions.

“Will my stuff be safe?” he says to me.

“If you like, I’ll put your wallet and watch in my tote,” I say.

What I don’t tell my longtime friend, who I’ve accompanied to this Outpatient Ambulatory Surgical Center, is that I’ve got this down pat. In Tommy’s case, I stowed his aged wallet and wristwatch in my bag where it never left until I placed them on a mini-memorial atop his chest of drawers in our bedroom.

“I left my wallet home,” my friend says.

“So, no worry,” I say. I sit on a chair facing his bed while we wait for another nurse to come in to get his vitals. Next, the anesthesiologist reviews drugs they will use to knock him out, and finally the surgeon appears to discuss what happens next.

While this is going on, I zone out and recall the time a year ago when I sat with Tommy in a pre-op area. In his case, the ENT team planned to insert a feeding tube down his throat so he could get nourishment. He was dehydrated – that’s what brought us initially to the hospital – and the tube was to solve his problem. Then, we’d be on our way home.

After they wheeled Tommy out of the pre-op area to perform the procedure, I returned to his hospital room. The phone rang. “We have a problem,” said the doctor on the other end. “When we tried to insert the tube, there was a blockage. We’re pretty sure it’s cancer.”

The voice of my friend’s surgeon wakes me: “He’ll be out of surgery in a half hour, so just stay put in the waiting area.”

Sure enough, before I know it, the surgeon finds me to say, “He did great. You can go in and see him.” My friend looks fine, and is chatty. Perhaps the painkillers, or his relief all is over is making him eager to converse.

But, as we talk, this latest nurse is monitoring his blood pressure and it is too high. Could our gabbing be the culprit?

“Do you mind?” my friend asks with an eye to the closed curtain that will lead me out.

“No problem,” I say. Then once more I go to thoughts of Tommy and the time he was in this hospital and wouldn’t let me out of his sight. During the 10 days he was here, I’d sleep on a cushioned window seat. On the few nights I didn’t stay over, I’d return to find him wearing a weighted vest.

“He tried to leave,” a nurse explained. “Had his clothing, shoes, and baseball cap on. Was halfway down the hall before we caught him.” Often I’d wish he had escaped, for those hospital days were the worst of my life -- heartbreaking and fruitless.

Once my friend’s blood pressure subsides, I’m allowed to return to his room. He is dressed and ready to be escorted via a wheelchair to curbside where a cab will return us to his nearby apartment.

At his high rise, I push open the lobby doors to save him from exertion. We go upstairs and I hang out for a few hours until I’m satisfied he can be on his own. “I can call neighbors if I have problems,” he says. “Go home.”

When my Tommy was finally released from the hospital – with his internists’ advice to forgo risky surgery because it would be torturous and not cure his aphasia or his increasing dementia -- it was an ambulance that took us home.

When we arrived, neighbors were waiting. I stood on the porch as the drivers lifted his stretcher up the stairs. The neighbors followed and held the front door open. With a gentleness and reverence that reminded me of a potentate’s litter, our caravan moved to our bedroom where a hospital bed awaited.

With Tommy safely settled, in the house where we lived for 13 years, away from the hospital setting I had grown to despise, the neighbors stayed to help set up the equipment. Oxygen tanks and medical supplies stuffed the hospice room.

An evening phone call to my post-surgery friend confirms he is managing okay. The painkillers are doing their job and he is comfortable watching television. “Thanks for being there for me,” he says.

Because Tommy wasn’t able to speak for the last year of his life, I didn’t get those same words. But, as many a caregiver will tell you, it was an honor to be there for him.