Monday, December 5, 2011

How to Read While Walking the Dog

When I try to describe this blog, I tell people first that it’s not self-help—I don’t want them to think that I can actually help them, like send them to some agency and their troubles will be assuaged. 
But here’s some self-help I can’t resist sharing. 
Late last spring I realized that I would be much more patient with the sniffing of Lulu, my basenji, on our walks if I read while she sniffed. For years I had spent her sniffing in an effort to be aware of my surroundings, but we take two or three walks a day, including a mile-long walk, and I needed something new. 
Footnote: Lulu and I do take walks in the woods—we’re regulars on the Columbia Land Conservancy circuit—and special walks, in the cemetery, for instance, so I can read the gravestones while she sniffs. Upon our arrival in Hudson we tried to explore the city on foot, but we discovered that each block is home to at least one Enemy Dog defending its turf in a way that made me nervous. Lulu has a Napoleon complex, and it’s up to me to keep her safe. 
I would love to walk down Warren Street looking in the shop windows and talking to people while Lulu sniffed, but Warren Street, with its noise and its people to talk to, makes Lulu nervous. Most days, then, we take our long walk on Union Street, with its occasional lawns, lots of hedges, and piles of leaves that may hide dead things. 
On Union Street one afternoon for the one-thousandth time, I was trying to make myself aware of the light and the sounds of the day and the season, while really what I wanted was to speed walk down to the river, but I left my job to take care of this dog, so some compromise was needed here, not texting or talking on my cell phone, but a compromise that worked for me. 
A book. 
I needed a book, a small book with a strong story line that I could read a paragraph at a time. I’m not talking about reading while actually walking, that’s too silly, but my reading during her sniffing. And no, I don’t need an iPod. This past Thanksgiving, as Lulu and I walked, the silence of Union Street suggested rest, a city momentarily at peace. On this mild day windows were open and I heard a child’s voice, and later, snatches of Spanish, and on the way home, a speakerphone conversation in the lilt of the islands. I know you wouldn’t want me to give that up.
Enter Stephen King. When I retired last fall D. kindly gave me How Fiction Works by James Wood and On Writing by Stephen King. Wood doesn’t allow for keeping half an eye on the dog, who has inserted her snout up to her eyes into some vegetative matter, but I figured King would write a narrative, whatever his subject. His book was a thick mass-market paperback, promising hours of happy dog walks. 
Now when I think back to last summer, with the searing heat that led Lulu and me to walk our mile early in the morning, I flash back to the street in a waking city. The Meyers Contracting crew is assembling as Lulu sniffs and I read the generous, wise, witty advice of Stephen King. I read the book from the first page to the last, no skipping around. I didn’t think I would care about his early life, but I did. His few examples from his own books still underwhelmed me, but the guy does know how to inspire. I wish I had read his book-writing process years ago; I’ve been doing it all wrong. But it’s not too late to change. 
Then summer was waning and I had finished On Writing. I had to move on. Wolf Whistle worked—a wild novel by Lewis Nordan centered around the death of Emmett Till. I had meant to read it for years—had packed and unpacked it twice as I moved. Now Lulu gave me the time. Lately, I keep up on my issues of One Story, a literary magazine that sends out one short story at a time. Good stories, well told, and at 5 x 7 inches, the perfect size for dog walking.
That’s it—that’s my advice for today. Enrich your life while walking your dog!
*Verse: Rupert Brooke.
  Image: Nancie Dunn,

Monday, November 21, 2011

On Retirement I

A year ago I retired from the Publications Office at Bard College. C, a retired teacher, says she dislikes the word, with its dictionary definition of withdraw, retreat, recede, and I know what she means; my retiree friends and I have, rather, transitioned into a new life, one we looked forward to and planned for, a life at least as busy as the previous one. 
By using retire I am trying to face up to the word, as I tried to face up to the word widow. I guess I could say I left Bard College, but that’s vague, did I drive away or stick out my thumb? Or that I quit Bard, or resigned, but to me those words imply at least a huff, if not anger. I wasn’t angry, even though the punch line of my retirement was: 
If you ask me to choose between my job and my dog, I’m going to choose the dog. 
Obviously, not everyone has that option; I was, and am, extremely fortunate. 
Lulu Salarygirl
For years I was encouraged to bring the dog to work; then the college policy changed and dogs were forbidden on campus.  Bringing Lulu to work had allowed me to keep her. If, when Dan died, I had been employed almost anywhere else in the world, where you couldn’t bring your dog to work, I would have found her another home. Basenjis need a lot of exercise, and Lulu was particularly lively puppyhead. 
Lulu was helpful at the office, carrying my mittens 
Now it was too late for that. We were sidekicks. Banned from the office, she howled when I left in the morning. We managed that summer with a loyal midday dog sitter and long evening walks, but I couldn’t face coming home every night through the long dark winter to a wired dog.
That is, I had been planning to retire from Bard in June 2011 in any case, so I crunched the numbers yet again to see if I could bow out early. I typed up a list of my assets, which barely filled one page, and walked down the street to the office of my financial adviser (see "A New List," November 4, 2011). 
Again, R’s consideration of my financial status was practical and to the point. He looked at the one sheet of paper and said, OK, you can do it, with neither wild enthusiasm nor dark despair. What about the annuity TIAA-CREF was pitching? I asked. Should I do that? He looked at the ceiling for about four seconds and then said, No, don’t bother, you don’t have enough. With nothing more to discuss, we shook hands and I skipped home.
I have a friend who assesses her life annually, on New Year's Day. She and other friends consider each move carefully, as Dan did, basing it on hours of research. More often I make a decision based on gut feeling and then run with it, hurtling along without a lot of time to think. I’m going to try to develop here, before your eyes, and review and assess the last year.
Preparing for retirement, I made two lists, Concepts and Niggling Matters. I’ll start with Concepts:
Write. I do write more. I should write even more, and so I resolve, but even when I lived on nothing years ago, and wrote for three hours a day, I never felt like I had done enough. Still, I have a novel started . . .
Read books. This meant “don’t get so bogged down with newspapers and magazines,” read books. I am doing that, at the expense of magazines, and, less so, newspapers. Time is finite, I’m healthy, the chores are all mine. In fact, I came up with a way to read while I walk Lulu; more on that later. 
There are three more concepts—freelance editing, Literacy Connections, and yard work—but I’ll close this post here. I don’t ask you to read more than 700 words at a time, and I have a lot more to say.

Images: Ta-Da !!!! by Mary Engelbreit,
             Lulu Salarygirl by Jamie Ficker

Friday, November 4, 2011

A New List?

“I like your blog,” said A, “even though I never comment on it. If I were to make a list,” she added, it would be ‘10 Dumb Things I Have Done since My Husband Died,’” and then, generously, “you can have that idea.” 
I love this idea as a follow-up to 10 Scary Things I Have Done since My Husband died (see various posts, starting with January 14, 2011). Perhaps this list could be more interactive, since it’s not one I’ve been keeping, and A didn’t give me any specific items. 
To start I’ll say that so far, I’ve been fortunate: my Dumb Things have been relatively minor, or at least not life-altering. This is because I have received extremely good advice. Twice this advice has come from Dan, shouting down from heaven, mostly about real estate, as in:
Are you crazy?! You can’t afford to take three loans! 
This while I was on the phone with a mortgage broker who was pitching three loans so that I could buy a new home before selling the one I lived in. Dan doubtless saved me from some foreclosure debacle.
And again, a few months later while I was looking at houses, I could hear Dan: DON’T buy a house if the one next door is a wreck and the one across the street is falling down! I could have paid cash for the house with those views, but I didn’t, instead taking a small mortgage for a house surrounded by sturdy homes and wonderful neighbors. Today, the wreck house looks much better and the falling-down one is closer to the ground. 
I’ll start the list. Really, we don’t have to keep it to ten, if we find a hundred dumb things, so it goes. 
Stopped reading the mail from TIAA-CREF because it makes me too nervous. Because I didn’t open the TIAA-CREF mail for months, I missed a payment check of several hundred dollars. By the time I remembered it, more than 90 days had passed, so I had to call TIAA-CREF and ask that it be reissued. I know they have my age on their computers, and the stripling who took my call probably thought, boy, she’s slipping fast.
Real estate and money—probably the best opportunities for dumb moves. I’m fortunate to have been well advised about money, too. It started when an officemate said, Are you trying to do that all by yourself? as I sought to untangle some financial matter with unproductive phone calls. You need a financial adviser, she said. 
So I e-mailed the wealthiest person I knew who would answer my e-mail and asked her for a recommendation. She replied promptly with two names. One of them was even wealthier than she, a self-made man whose wife went to my church. 
I can tell you everything I know in an hour, he said, which seemed reasonable. In fact, he needed only 45 minutes to reorganize entirely my minuscule estate, for which service he charged me a pittance (friend, wife, church). I went off to start saving, really saving, money, real money, toward my retirement. 
Now I would never make an important money move without consulting him first. When I wanted to retire early and he said you can’t, you don’t have enough, I sucked up my tears and found ways to save more. When I went back to him two years later we both had survived the crash and he said OK, OK, you have enough (he loves his work, doesn’t understand why anyone wants to retire), and only then did I go ahead.
But, enough about me. Got any dumb moves you want to share? Ideally, put them in the Comments. below, and we’ll take it from there, but if you’d rather send me an e-mail, then do that. 

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Vanity Plates

Once, I said the words vanity plates to Dan. Probably I was cooking up some scheme to promote my first novel, Sisters, for which I made a part-time living out of movie options for five years, and I was thinking how classy that single word would look at the bow and stern of our tiny Honda. 
We don’t have vanity plates, Dan replied, gently but firmly. In my mind’s ear I can still hear his slight emphasis on we. He was so sure about this that I didn’t argue. A quiet, private man, he had, 99 percent of the time, impeccable taste (I did save him from one terrible plaid suit), while I am this sort of messy, overextended person who will risk making a fool of herself. As a book editor, Dan was always involved in marketing, but my novel had sex scenes and a character that was based on him; the local library had a copy, probably that was enough. Get a business card, take an ad, but we don’t advertise ourselves all over town; maybe we don’t want all our neighbors in Hollowville NY to read the book. 
If my second novel had sold, I might have tried again—Carolina would have looked so cool on the plates—but it didn’t, so I didn’t. 
But this year, last month, I could not resist. I have no Dan to keep me in line on good taste, to say no, you’ll hate those T-shirts when you get them home, or, that music is awful, you’ll give the CD away two days after you buy it. 
And I wanted plates with my blog address. 
I thought about it for months.
It was probably tacky . . . it would look so cute. 
Because of New York’s eight-unit limitation, the address would lack one letter . . . I’d get a business card with the address, give it out to anyone who asked.
I might regret it . . . so I’d change it again. 
And then one late-August day, I was walking up Warren Street in Hudson, our county seat in Columbia County, and there was the DMV office. Imagine it shimmering on the corner. I walked in. I would just ask about a vanity plate, just get the price. I wasn’t driving, so I didn’t have my license plate number, which I could never remember. 
The woman at the information desk was absolutely going to sell me vanity plates. With my driver’s license she easily found my car registration on her computer. The plates would cost $60, less than I had imagined. The woman at the information desk was a widow. I wrote out the blog address for her to take home. I needed this plate, those business cards. I had enough money in my checking account, and there was no line.
The plate didn’t go through automatically. Up in Albany, some computer questioned my taste. A telephone call was required. Dan would not approve, said the computer. But . . . but . . . I mean no harm . . . there’s nothing salacious about this . . . he doesn’t have to drive the car . . . he’s safe in heaven . . . the computer relented.
Then I waited, checking the mail eagerly for “four to six weeks.” Actually putting on the plates was another adventure, and yes, I was out there in the garage with what I dreaded most, the new plate on the back of the car and the old plate stuck onto the front. Chances were pretty good that I could drive the one mile in town to the shop where I get the oil changed without being arrested and there be a source of amusement before I paid someone to change the plate. I kept working with the WD-40, putting my whole weight against the screwdriver, and finally I did it. 
I have vanity plates. I put them on myself.
People smile at my car.   

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


I’m sitting with two friends in the “community room” of the new library, waiting for the program to begin. It’s a pleasant room, exciting even, with the feel of a small, well-designed airport; a wall of windows lets in a spring sky mottled with drifting clouds, promising in its own way. 
And I realize, sitting on a plastic chair, waiting for our flight of imagination, that among us, I’m the oldest generation of widow. D is inching up on two years, while A’s loss is still fresh; D has brought A here to distract her, and when I greet A with a hug, her face crumples. She’s not a sentimental woman, and her pain is a good lesson for me; I’d forgotten how raw it could be. 
Some time ago, at a dinner, I sat next to a woman who did financial planning. Since the world is full of widows who need financial planning, she had many of this kind of client. She said she had noticed that after two years, a change has taken place. The active grieving seems mostly complete, the widow more ready to face whatever her new life might hold. Had that happened to me also, she asked kindly, and I said yes, it was a fair assessment. 
I mean, I didn’t wake up two years later on August 29 and say, well, time to move on! Depending on the day, I may still think of Dan a dozen times, but that’s down from a hundred. A month before the first anniversary of his death I flew out west to visit friends (see Scary Thing #7). That fall I went to Italy, a trip I had wanted to make all of my adult life. When I got home, I started the kitchen remodeling, a project Dan and I had been mulling when he fell ill. 
I still didn’t read obituaries, too aware of the pain that each death had caused each family. An ancient parent lost, a spouse or brother caught in midlife . . . a child, an infant . . . I turned away. 
And newspaper horoscopes  . . . forget it. For years I had checked them out, for Dan and me both, just in case they held any clue. But they had known even less than I did. 
Eventually, I started the obituaries again; I had always read them for their stories. Today I’ve even forgiven horoscopes; they aren’t meant for the dying, I guess, and “love is in the stars” can be interpreted a lot of ways.
Looking back, I am mildly amazed at how many I preceded as a widow, in a few years. Larry lived longer than Dan, but not much. I never expected John to die so soon after Dan. Ed dropped dead. Then there was D’s Michael and A’s Grant.
Helen died too, leaving Wayne, and Jim lost Anna before he died. 
But that’s it. Two widowers to . . . 
I meet three friends for dinner at a restaurant. P. is divorced, and she looks at the three of us, and says, “You’re all widows!”
We range in age from late 50s to mid 80s. We are legion. 
When you don’t have children, you never know how old you are. So I have no context in time except to see myself as, not the leader, but the forerunner of this little band of survivors.
And I’m not even that. “Really enjoy your blogs,” DB wrote recently, “and relate to them—even 23 years after the fact—it never really leaves you.” 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

August 28

Today marks the arrival of Hurricane Irene, or its remnants, in Upstate New York. It is also the anniversary of Dan’s death. I like to think that he enjoys the cosmic irony of this. 
I wrote Dan's obituary. Since I had had no control of anything for three months, I took control of his obituary. Here is most of what I wrote for the newspapers: 
The cause of death was primary central nervous system lymphoma, with which he had been diagnosed in June. 
 . . . graduated from Saint John’s in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, and attended Columbia University on a full academic scholarship . . . 
. . . worked from home as a freelance book editor, specializing first in U.S. history and more recently in textbooks for emergency medical technician trainees  . . . also the “quizmaster” for “Time Classroom,” a publication of Time, Inc. . . . chaired the Zoning Board of Appeals for the Town of Claverack and served on the board of directors of the Rip Van Wrinkle Basenji Club. 
Among his many interests were running, hiking and boating. With Michael Makynen, a friend from his Saint John’s days, he canoed the entire length of the Connecticut River, from the Atlantic Ocean to Canada, over the course of two years, in weekend trips. 
. . . also a superb avocational chef, who studied with Virginia Lee, Diana Kennedy and David Lawson . . . enjoyed the arts, particularly music and dance, and was an avid filmgoer who could remember details of movies he had seen years before. Until the onset of his illness, he did the New York Times crossword puzzle daily, in ink, in 10 minutes. 
In addition to his mother and sister . . . survived by Debby Mayer, their two basenjis, Cooper and Lulu . . . and many friends who sustained him and Ms. Mayer during his illness.
Mr. Zinkus was a generous donor to several local nonprofit organizations; those who wish to remember him are asked to make a donation to a charity of their choice. 

What I e-mailed to friends was this:
He’s raising a glass with Walter . . . 
He’s reading poetry with Linda . . . 
He’s cooking and arguing politics with Joani . . . 
He’s running with Bambi . . . neither of them falters, neither of them falls. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Little White House by the Side of the Road

OK, I’ve not been swamped with requests, but there have been a few, along the lines of what L. said, that as a non-dog person, she would have liked to see a photo of the house that I moved from in the last post, rather than yet another photo of the dog. 

Somewhere amongst my papers I have a small photo of the little white house by the side of the road when Dan and I bought it, but I can’t seem to find it, and this blog is about moving on, isn’t it, not about rummaging around looking for old photos. 

So here’s what I offer for the house I moved from in Scary Thing #1. I took this photo as a record of the yard renovation I was having done, adding gardens to the front in an effort not to mow so much (joke on me, gardens take much more time than mowing lawn). At the left is part of the attached garage, an amenity I now lack. The white building that can be partly seen through the trees on the right is the home of my neighbor who bow-hunted (still does, I assume) (see last post). 

The front part of the house was originally the one-room schoolhouse until the districts were consolidated in the 1960s. Only one family had owned it before us, and they had added onto it, including the half-story upstairs. As I said in the last post, we redid practically every inch of this house and the outdoors too, but we could never figure out how to get that @#* eagle off the front, which the sellers had bequeathed to us, so we just left it there. 

At Christmas I took to wrapping the little front porch in chili pepper lights—never mind. Here it is, what is no longer mine. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Scary Thing #1

In which I finally arrive at the scariest thing I have done since Dan died. Numbers 10 to 2 are in earlier posts.

Sold our house. 

Despite all its implications of dismissal and rejection (don’t need you anymore!), despite all the smart financial reasons for staying (I paid off the mortgage and then put that amount into my retirement fund every month), I moved on. 

I didn’t expect to. I loved our house. Dan and I had replaced everything, from top (roof) to bottom (septic tank). We had recreated the bathroom, enlarged windows, added a screened porch and deck. By myself, I had the kitchen remodeled. The house stood “finished,” needing only the continual maintenance every house requires. 

I loved our pretty, quiet road that didn’t go anywhere. I knew the neighbors, and if they were odd, or imperfect, so are we all, and their presence still provided assurance. 

In the field beyond our fence were two posts where our basenjis were buried. On the posts were engraved oval plaques, one commemorating Bambi (“Huntress, Gourmand, Wit”), and one Cooper (“Dignity . . . Always Dignity”). I had mixed a little of Dan’s ashes with Cooper’s, and I hadn’t thought I could leave those graves. But by now the physical remains had blended with the earth, and I could take the plaques with me, tokens of their spirits.

So long, country life . . . 
Because the house, its gardens and field, its three acres of woods, were all in the wrong place. Once, I was pleased that Lulu (the remaining basenji) and I could take a two-mile walk without seeing a soul, not even in a passing car. But with Dan gone I grew tired of driving for every single thing I had to do, and I yearned for more human contact. Visiting Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, by myself one August, I walked each night after dinner for an hour or more, on sidewalks, under gentle streetlight. On the second night I saw several of the same people. We recognized each other in the dark with a “good evening!”  and I thought, that’s what I want. To say hello, to pass the time of day.

One night that October I let Lulu out into the yard. She raced around the fenced perimeter, disturbed by something, and wouldn’t come back into the house, so I joined her outdoors. By the light of the harvest moon I could see that my neighbor, who bow-hunted, had got a deer and hung it from a tree limb in his backyard. He stood silhouetted next to the vertical deer, so I waved. 

“Good work!” I called. 

“Yup!” he said. “Got one.” 

“Lulu tipped me off!”  

He chuckled. “Yeah, them dogs, they know.” 

And I felt a pang of fear. We had moved here, Dan and I, in part because we wanted to live in a place where everyone wasn’t exactly like us. Where I now wanted to live, I wouldn’t have even one compost pile, and I would never have that conversation. 
 . . . Hello, city digs!

Was I making a mistake to yearn for a world of sidewalks and streetlights? It was very scary. But that’s the American way, isn’t it: you light out for the territories, and then years later, Mama wants a house in town—a sign, as the poet Frank O’Hara wrote, “that people do not totally regret life.”*

That same October, I dreamed about Dan. We were inside our house, preparing to leave. As we moved to the door, he said, “I’m glad I was here.”
I was glad to be there too. But now I wanted a place where my walks with Lulu weren’t filled with memories so much as new sights. My solo exploration skills were honed. Accustomed to the branch I had found myself perched upon, I was ready to move off it, onto a higher one.

*“Meditations in an Emergency”

Monday, July 11, 2011

July 11, 2011

Today would have been Dan’s 65th birthday. 

I don’t think he would have been happy about it. Looking back, he wasn’t at ease with our aging. For me, growing old is inevitable, so I try not to worry about it. 

And all things being equal, I bet Dan would have looked the same at 65 as he did at, say, 55. He would still be running, still be taking the dog for a long walk. On the same day. 

He would have a smartphone, and he would love it. His Skype would work. He would have drawn the line at a Kindle, however, and I can’t believe he’d pay to text-message.

As for this blog, he was a private person who was accustomed to my writing about him. He was tuned into marketing; he might have thought of ways I could try to get more readers.

7-11. It has a good ring to it, and it’s supposed to be lucky.

Happy Birthday, Sweetie.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

On memory

An e-mail from D: It is common not to remember things, she writes. For months, all I could remember of M was his illness, and that may be why I didn't want to write about it. Now I can remember other, much nicer things, like certain cute facial expressions.

Unlike D, I found it necessary to write about Dan’s illness. I took my good auditory and visual memory and wrote down everything that had happened to us. I recalled kind, helpful medical staff, and strange, uncaring things other hospital staff said to us. I remembered times when friends had saved me, times when other friends had broken my heart. That way, I didn't have to keep remembering it. It would be there, if I ever needed it, but I could stop thinking about it.

And then it was May, nine months after Dan’s death, and the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts was opening at Bard College, where I worked. We staff members were comp’d with tickets to a couple of performances, and my friend M went with me to a concert. 

Sitting in the larger of two theaters, waiting for the concert to begin, I found myself thinking of how pleased Dan would have been with this place, and how fascinated. M and I were content to sit and look around us at this new theater, to watch people coming in, finding their seats, greeting one another. Dan would have been skittering up and down the stairs, checking out each balcony level for future reference. He might have tried the elevator once, but otherwise he would have walked, long strides that took him to every available corner. 

Then he would have reported on it all to me, and the “old” Dan would have been excited at what this new venue offered. The later Dan, the one whose brain was being attacked, “like a defenseless monastery on the shore,”* would have found something wrong with it, as he did with me, with everything, in the few months before his illness became visible, and he lost speech. 

But I wasn’t remembering that. I was back with the real Dan, the one who was interested in everything. Dan would have loved this place, I said to M, and she looked sad. No, I said, it’s OK, it’s a happy memory. 

I had changed right there, that night. I could once again remember happiness. 

*”Picnic, Lightning,” by Billy Collins.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Scary Thing #2

2. Dealt with the snake in the bathroom. 

The Massachusetts State Reptile
Arriving home one evening at about nine o’clock, I opened the bathroom door, and in the split second before I turned on the light, I thought, I didn’t leave a man’s tie lying in the middle of the bathroom floor. 

The snake—a big one, I swear—was struggling at that very moment to leave, to work its way back down the heat grate and into to the cellar. 

I dealt with this problem by stamping my foot and yelling: “You, snake! Get out of this bathroom! Go back down that heat grate!” 

Slowly, the fat snake complied. 

It was September. Dan had been dead for just over two years. If it had been one year, I would have had to call the one couple I knew who stayed up late and tell them that Lulu, my basenji, and I were on our way over. We have to sleep on your couch, I would say. We’ll be quiet. We’ll leave early. But we cannot stay in this house tonight.

I didn’t do that. Instead, I pulled the bathroom rug over the heat grate. Then I found several large, heavy books and I walked around the house, placing one of them on top of each of the other heat grates, including (horrors!) the one near the head of the bed

I could have peed in the yard with Lulu under cover of darkness, but daybreak would end that solution. I might as well become accustomed to my sole, snake-infested bathroom. We made our ablutions that night, Lulu and I. We curled up in bed together. In the morning, light rose again. 

* * * *

You’re thinking, well, she didn’t really solve that problem. But there was more. The next morning I e-mailed a report of the incident to my friendly contact at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Columbia County. He replied promptly that I had described a garter snake and don’t worry, they weren’t poisonous. I also called Todd Nuisance Wildlife Pest Control, who had helped me in the past with pests who were more nuisance, less frightening. We lived in the same town, Claverack, and he came over Saturday morning. In the cellar he sniffed around, literally. 

Nope, he said, you don’t have a snake infestation. There’s a smell when you do.

Then we sat at the table on the deck and he told me stories of terrible snake infestations he had dealt with. Opening the ceiling of a house to have dozens of snakes fall on his head, that kind of thing. 

We bought this house 20 years ago, I said. We’ve lived here full time for 11 years. I’ve never seen anything like this. 

He mulled over this information, but he had no answer. 

* * *       *

Images courtesy of Wikipedia
I didn’t see another snake in the house for two-and-a-half years. Then one evening in March I came into the bedroom to find Lulu, my sight hound, pointing a snake. By then I knew you were supposed to guide the snake into a shoebox and take it outdoors. My shoeboxes were upstairs in the attic, and I was dreadfully afraid the snake would disappear in the bedroom in my absence, so I ran to the kitchen, just a few steps away in my tiny house, grabbed a paper bag, and ran back to the bedroom, all the while calling to Lulu, “Good dog! Stay! Keep that snake there! Good dog!”

She was. She did. With my shoe I guided the reluctant snake into the brown paper shopping bag and then ran out of the house to leave it in the woods beyond the gate. 

I didn’t call or e-mail anyone the next day. I was in the midst of Scary Thing #1, and that’s another story. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Part of My World

Below are a few lines that popped up one day in my e-mail, in the Way of the Internet. At the time they meant a tremendous lot to me; today I prefer the brevity of the quote I found in Provincetown, which I put into an earlier post. 

Still, the words below are all over the Internet because they do comfort people. They’re in various forms and formats, so I’ve taken some liberty to cut them down. They’re part of a much longer sermon delivered by the Reverend Henry Scott Holland (1847–1918), canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, on May 15, 1910, at the funeral of King Edward VII. (Canon simply means that Rev. Scott Holland was staff clergy at St. Paul’s—I always thought it was an important title until I looked it up.)

These words weren’t the point of the sermon and they don’t even reflect Rev. Scott Holland’s entire theology, that day or ever. Apparently, the sermon was filed away and forgotten for 80 years until someone, probably thinking ahead to the Internet, resurrected it, so to speak, and now a few words of the sermon have a life in cyberspace. 

As literature, Rev. Scott Holland’s text is not treated well, in my opinion: the sermon is referred to by at least two different titles, and word on the Internet street is that “Death is nothing at all” is the sermon's first sentence when in fact that sentence appears 533 words in. Online the “death is nothing at all” section is usually published in lines broken for a poem, which Rev. Scott Holland did not do. If you’d like to read the sermon, it’s here, in the best link I could find. 

Rev. Scott Holland begins by describing the “cruel ambush” of death. It “may come to the very old as the fitting close of an honourable life. But how often it smites, without discrimination, as if it had no law!” Then may come a time of comfort for the bereaved, because, speaking for the deceased, he said: 

Death is nothing at all. It does not count. 
I have only slipped away into the next room . . . 
The old life that we loved so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. 
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.

Call me by my old familiar name, 
speak to me in the easy way which you always used. 
Put no difference in your tone, 
wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. 
Laugh as we always laughed at little jokes we enjoyed together.

Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. 
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was, 
let it be spoken without an effort, 
without the ghost of a shadow on it.

Life means all that it ever meant. 
It is the same as it ever was.
There is absolute unbroken continuity.

Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?

I am waiting for you, for an interval, 
somewhere very near, 
just around the corner.

All is well.

Actually, rereading these words, they are comforting. 

But this connection will be hard to keep up, says Rev. Scott Holland, without a word, a sign, some tangible evidence, and “once again the old terror will come down upon us. . . . Our task is to deny either judgment [the terror or the comfort], but to combine both . . . if we recall the idea of growth, then we can afford to be in ignorance of what life’s ahead.” 

For Rev. Scott Holland, and for me, the love of God secures for us this strength. “In the power of the spirit, we are passed from death to life,” he said. He was speaking to a group of believers; I know that for the most part, I’m not. Either way, his words appeal 100 years later because they reassure us that we’re not crazy, that it’s OK to keep our loved one’s spirit in our heart and mind, which we’re going to do anyway. As Susan Marsicano said in a comment to an earlier post, “I smile & tell his stories when timing is right, & share his art. Sometimes I say his name, as he remains very much part of my world.”

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Scary Thing #3

Back to 10 Scary Things I Have Done Since My Husband Died, and yes, for me this was the third-scariest.

3. Learned to use the gas mower

With its fierce blade, its requirement for a poisonous, inflammatory chemical, of all the frightening things that lurked in the basement and the shed, the gas mower was the most forbidding. For two years I didn’t touch it; instead I used our hand mower, a quiet, friendly helper that allowed me to meditate over the smell of new-mown grass.

But in our third spring together I had to admit that my friend and I couldn’t handle almost an acre of lawn—front-back-side. Everything was weedy and tufted and unkempt. My neighbor kindly mowed the meadow in back of the house. He seemed to love to use his riding mower, and I might have asked him to add my lawn, but I knew I should minimize favors and figure this out for myself. 

I made a ramp into my hatchback with an old closet door, and pushed the gas mower up and into the car. Just solving the transportation problem felt like an accomplishment. At the shop where we’d had our mowers sharpened every year I explained about Dan and the mower and me. When you pick it up, said the second-generation mower serviceman, I’ll show you how to use it. 

I'm not afraid of all machines . . . 
And he did, taking me out to the little patch of weeds in back of the shop and showing me how to push the button three or four times and pull the chord and adjust something. He laughed when I asked how I would know when it needed more gas, but I stood there until he told me, knowing by then that even stupid questions have to be answered. 

(I had also read the manual. Dan always tossed the manuals on top of the file cabinet and I put them away in folders by location category so that we might possibly find them, and since his death I actually read them. I am probably the only person in the United States who, as instructed, does not wear tie shoes when using her gas mower.) 

Reversing the transportation process, I brought the mower home and I was suddenly, strangely, eager to use it. I could do this! It was starting to sprinkle, but I pushed the button three times and pulled the chord and the mower started! I mowed on the front lawn and it looked better! The sprinkle was turning to rain but I mowed on, unable to stop. Only when I knew that we really must come in out of the rain, did we.

As I chatted to the hand mower (which I still have, as security), so I talk to the gas mower. It’s more noncommittal, a sort of male appliance, in contrast to the sisterhood of the hand mower, but we work well enough together. I hate the noise and feel sorry for my neighbors (never mind that I listen to theirs, I regret adding to the noise pollution). I mow as fast as I can. I tried to reduce the lawn by adding gardens, not a complete success because then I had more weeding to do, and trickier mowing, around the gardens, which required the hand mower, etc. Now what’s scary is filling the gas can and then pouring gas into the mower because I can never figure out the spout, but I proceed through these details; my jaw may be clenched, but I do it. 

Dan did all of the mowing and most of the cooking. I’ve lost weight since he died, but I haven’t got sick, and from a distance at least, the lawn looks pretty good. You clear your hurdles; you take your satisfaction where you can.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Love of My Life

“He was the love of my life.”

A. says this firmly as we raise our glasses to J., her late husband. I’m charmed by her use of the phrase, and pleased to have confirmed what I always suspected. J. died six years and one month ago. We’re late with this honorary dinner—we’re busy widows, our weekends spent in trips and concerts, gallery openings and dinners. But here we are, in the outdoor garden of a favorite restaurant. J. liked this restaurant, says A., they got here at least once before his final illness, and I think of how many good restaurants Dan missed by dying in his 50s, not his 80s, like J., but I don’t say that because we’re here to talk about J.

Later, after we’ve stopped for ice cream and sat on a park bench, watching people, admiring their dogs, greeting friends, and I’m home, I think again of the Hudson City Cemetery where I walk with Lulu, my basenji. In the cemetery we’re finally well paced, Lulu and I, because I have something to read while she sniffs, and I am truly amazed at the number of widows who outlived their husbands by 15, 20, 30 years or even more. 

What were they thinking all those years, I wonder. Did one not remarry? Were they lonely, or, more likely, poor, left to raise a family without their breadwinner? Did they lose the love of their life?

He was the love of your life! a college classmate declared at a reunion. I didn’t argue, but I was startled, having not thought of my life in segments.

Eastern Arizona
Now A. and I seem to have stopped the count. We lived alone before them, we live alone now. In my unscientific, anecdotal experience, widowers who have been happily married want to repeat the experience. If I had died first, Dan would have mourned me, then found someone else. Widows, however . . . well, statistics are against us; to be widowed in your mid 50s or late 70s argues for extreme measures in the mate-seeking arena. People do find each other, of course, at all ages; the only marriage announcements I read are about gay couples and elders, people in their 80s who decide to get married. And I have my mother (1914–2009) as an example. John, her husband, died in February 2007; he would have been 95 that August, and they would have celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary.

I hope you’ll find someone else, my mother told me when Dan’s ashes were barely cold. I was horrified. It was too soon, his illness too searing. I had willingly spent every ounce of physical and psychic energy for him, but I didn’t know if I could do it again. Yes, a new relationship could last 25 years. Or, at my age, death could intervene again, after 25, or 2.5, months. 

By the time I looked up, I had a life. I hear that single men stay away from widows—too much “my way or the highway.” I understand. M’s widowed mother had a beau, but she wouldn’t marry him because—to simplify—she didn’t want to do his laundry. 

Am I lonely? Rarely, but sometimes. Do I skip articles proving that elderly widows make up a large percentage of the poor? You bet. Do I look at my one closet and think how would I ever share it anyway? Guilty as accused. Do I think sometimes that if there were two of us, our reach would be farther, we could explore further? Yes. Do I worry about any of this? No. He was the love of my life. Or one of them. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Scary Thing #4

We're moving down the list of 10 Scary Things I Have Done Since My Husband Died, getting to the scarier . . . 

4. Became a lay reader at my church. 

I don’t know what divine Providence has kept me off the stage. I like the concept: you dress up, become someone else, tell a story. But innate shyness or unusual common sense saved me from what probably would have been yet another level of frustration and humiliation. 

In our own race, we all got ribbons: Gary, Dan, Bernie, Debby
Still, I’ve not been afraid to make a fool of myself. When Dan and I were runners, I was the first to sign up for a local footrace. I did OK, placing in my age group; after that we would both sign up and Dan would do really well, coming in first in his age group, and I would not embarrass us, earning a smaller medal for a slightly later arrival.

When women were finally, belatedly, invited to become lay readers at my church, I volunteered. It was owed to me, after all, but more important, I wanted to do it. All my life I had been aware of select men in the congregation who took turns, one or two of them every Sunday, to move smoothly, flawlessly, around the Episcopalian altar. They actually read very little but rather assisted the priest, handing him the wafers and the wine just when he needed them, standing in precisely the right place at exactly the right moment, in a silent liturgical dance. 

I like to dance, too, though I'm better as a runner, and I was taught as a girl to help, so I went ahead with this ministry, nerve-wracking as it proved to be. Even after training, my first few months on the altar were suffused with anxiety: I would touch something I shouldn’t, would not be where I was needed, would leave an unforgivable gap in time and space, would, finally, in my ignorance, spoil the sacred ritual for everyone. 

I forced myself to do it, rising at 5:30 to go over my notes for the 8 a.m. service, walking through it in my head, reminding myself that my church is full of friends and I hadn’t yet set my alb on fire with a candle or spilled red wine on the white summer frock of an elderly parishioner, as our chief lay reader says he once did. 

Still, instead of bring me closer to the Eucharist, not to mention God, lay readership first had me focused on the details, not the concept, a flaw I’ve suffered from in many areas of life. But when you’re closing the altar rail for communion, and the decorative end piece of the damned thing comes off in your hand, it’s hard to remain spiritual. 

Yet I stuck with it, once again surviving the risk of looking foolish. I pushed myself, got to the point where I could relax a tiny bit and focus on the prayers. Now at 5:30 a.m. I find a prayer that I will say during the service because, as a lay reader, I can do that. Ultimately, serving wasn’t so much learning a dance as a new language, moving over the months from inarticulate, to hearing my mistakes as I made them, to communicating. People say they like to listen to me; maybe they're just being nice. But when our rector told me that he appreciated celebrating the Eucharist with me as lay reader, it was, simply, one of the biggest compliments I have ever received in my life. 

Saturday, March 26, 2011


At dinner with A . . . our memories of our husbands are part of our lives, so something might come up about J . . . and then she may say, if only I had known . . . I would have . . . or, they didn’t tell me . . . I should have . . . 
J died almost 7 years ago. 
I understand. I was haunted by remorse after Dan died—horrified by what I hadn’t realized, what I hadn’t known, and how my stupidity and lack of information might have affected his care, his last few months on this earth. 
I would remind myself that I had done a couple of things right. I persuaded the oncologist to let me bring our dogs, two basenjis, to the hospital to visit Dan, even though they weren’t official therapy dogs. I made sure he always had the window bed, a constant struggle for three months with medical personnel who seemed to consider their patients not people but pieces of furniture.
But if only, if only . . . I should have done more research, I should have done this or that with our money . . . I should have . . . 
And then, three months after Dan died, I got a mailing from the local hospice agency. In general I had found hospice too little too late for him, but I didn’t blame them, I blamed me, I should have told them this or insisted on that; exhausted as I was with trying to deal with bureaucracies, I should have made one more Herculean, or Debbyan, effort for him. 
And in general I found hospice literature a little insipid and perhaps more helpful to those without a religion or spiritual practice. But writers are readers. I pick up all the free newspapers, I read ID tags, and if the diner placemat has ads on it, I probably read them. When hospice sent me something, I would read it, before throwing it away or filing it so carefully that it was permanently lost. 
Now hospice sent me a brochure that was going to tell me how I would feel the first year after the death of my loved one, and I said humph, but eventually I sat down to read it. 
One of the first things it said was that feelings of remorse were natural and normal and most survivors felt them. 
Oh, I thought, they do?
And hospice said yes, they do. Perhaps you’re feeling guilty or sad about the last months of your loved one, but the fact is, you did the best you could. It is not your fault . . . don’t beat up on yourself and if you can’t stop, talk to someone about it. 
To learn that remorse was normal, not unique to me, was a new concept and a great comfort. 
I had done what I could. For three months I made the 45-minute drive to the Albany Medical Center every evening after work. If I had known that Dan would live for only three months, I would have taken an unpaid leave from my job, but he was so strong, and so stubborn, I figured he would last for as long as he wanted to. I didn’t know if I could afford our house by myself, and I certainly couldn’t without my job. 
I should have done more research, found someone who would have given me a realistic assessment of his chances and made me listen to it. I should have organized our money better . . . 
See how it happens?
It’s over, that horrible three months in the hospital, and it was a relatively short time on our continuum. In terminal illness, you take your good fortune where you can find it. The light rises, then fades. The dogs curl up on the bed. Now he rests in the wooded cemetery at the Zen Mountain Monastery. In the trees, birds rustle; down the road, the traffic hums, so he doesn’t forget us. 
Dan and Cooper were readers too.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Scary Thing #5

Back to 10 Scary Things I Have Done Since My Husband Died. Remember, each new thing is scarier than the last. 

5. Put down his dog. 

I’ve known that phrase forever, since I was a kid in Schenectady. Or, we put the dog to sleep; one didn’t use the more polite euthanized. You may say I killed the dog, but the vet who had known Cooper since he was a puppy said, “People wait until their animal is in pain. You don’t have to do that,” and that was my guiding principal. 

He never trusted our driving.
When we got Cooper, a purebred basenji, he was four months old; riding home, he peed on me. We understood each other, Cooper and I, but he bonded with Dan. The first time a friend came to inspect Cooper, the dog sat between Dan’s feet; years later, when we finally gave up and let the dogs sleep on the bed, Cooper took an outside position next to Dan, the first line of defense between us and the bedroom door. Dan was our alpha wolf and Cooper his canine lieutenant. Bambi and I just tried to keep up. A year after Bambi died, at 15, the indomitable Lulu joined us. Cooper, then 14, spent the last two years of his life looking beleaguered; a photo records Lulu sitting on his head.

Cooper was 16 when Dan died in August, and the winter afterward he was either asleep or bumping into things. Coming in from errands on a Saturday and finding Cooper comfortable on the couch, I would think Dan must have stopped by and put him there

At a demo in D.C.
In January I made an appointment with Dr. T., hoping he would give me some clear direction. Cooper wore his cobalt blue storm coat with the Thinsulate lining and looked quite the gentleman. In the chilly waiting room, he sat in my lap—and Cooper never sat in my lap—and let people admire him. Not pet him, but praise him. 

Dr. T. declared Cooper physically all right. The $150 a month I spent on medications and supplements was keeping him functioning. The med that he’d been taking for what Dr. T. kindly called “cognitive dysfunction” was no longer effective; Dr. T. was pleased that it had worked for six months. 

I took Cooper home, hoping he might reach 17 in June, and have some time on the deck in the sun. 

In March, I realized June was too far off, that I was pushing him onward, keeping his physical systems running, but nothing else, perpetrating mild torture on both of us. Did he miss Dan? More the sense of something “off,” in his alpha wolf, who then disappeared, leaving him with two females he couldn’t care for. 
Table dog, with Bambi and Debby

I called Dr. T’s office. Maybe he was away on a long trip. “I think it’s time for Cooper,” I said, “and I’d like Dr. T. to do it.” 

The receptionist was kind but firm. “He can do it Monday,” she said.

“OK,” I said, thinking, I can always cancel, I can not show up, they can’t drag us out of the house. 

Feeling like the witch in Hansel and Gretel, I fed Cooper his favorite dinner, chicken and rice, during his last weekend, and gave him half a Dentabone every evening. In bed at night, he curled next to my heart. 

On Monday I went through with it. Remember, I had already driven Dan to Albany Medical Center ten months before. I was beginning to realize, that winter, that in some bizarre way we had been fortunate, Dan and I; if he had to die, at least he went quickly, without months in a nursing home that he would have hated. Loss is sad, but sometimes death is not the worst thing.

In Dr. T’s examining room, Cooper sat in my lap, snuggling into me, his nose under my arm. 

“Time for Dan to take care of Cooper again?” said Dr. T., and I nodded, unable to speak, tears on my cheeks. Cooper went without protest, seconds after the shot. Dr. T. left us and I sat holding Cooper. Bambi, the dog love of my life, who I had rescued from an unhappy home, had died here after surgery, in a place she hated, alone except for a kindly vet who stayed with her overnight. Cooper died in my arms.

I sent an e-mail to friends reporting that Cooper and Dan could again take their walks together. 

“He can see again, and think what he can see!” replied B. “The celestial boulevard has never seen anything like those two,” wrote P. I was comforted.

I managed that winter by imagining lives beyond my own. People of limited means would find Dan’s beautiful sweaters in the thrift shop and give them as holiday gifts to other people of limited means. Dan had “only gone out ahead of us . . . “ It was a beautiful day, wherever he was, and we would find him there. 

Now imagine holding a dog, trying to hang onto him when he sees something you can’t, and he wants nothing but to run to it. 

You let him go. 

He charges away.