Monday, January 31, 2011

Cape Cod Words

Dan, Long Beach, Truro, Mass.

They have only gone out ahead of us
And do not want to come home again.
We will find them on those heights
Up there in the sunshine!
It is a beautiful day on those heights.

The summer that Dan was ill, we had been scheduled to take our vacation on Cape Cod the last week in July, as usual. We had found a promising new rental in Provincetown the previous winter, and we booked it on New Year’s Day. To say that Dan loved the Cape doesn’t really describe it; as soon as Christmas drew near, he would say, isn’t it time to reserve a place on the Cape? 
While Dan was in the hospital that summer, I succeeded in one thing: I change our Cape reservation to the last week in September. Dan’s chemotherapy would be over and he might be well enough to go. 
I’ll drive us out, I told him. You’ll see land’s end again. 
He didn’t look as if he believed me. The brain cancer had left him speechless, with little movement, but we understood each other. On my side, I didn’t know how I’d get him out there, but if I could, I would.
Dan died on August 26. About a month later, the two basenjis and I headed out for Provincetown. I’d missed a lot of work, but it hadn’t been vacation. I need one more week, I told my office, and I did. 
After a summer spent in the car, I now walked everywhere. I took the dogs to the beach: the waves frightened Lulu, but Cooper’s nose and feet found the sand and water familiar, so we made her come with us. 
I did things that Dan would have considered too hokey. I went on a whale watch, which was really fun, and I took a literary walking tour of Provincetown. 
The walking tour ended near the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House. In  front of the building was a bench with a plaque: 
They have only gone out ahead of us
And do not want to come home again.
We will find them on those heights
Up there in the sunshine!
It is a beautiful day on those heights.
Oh, I thought. 
Is that what happened
I was incredibly—yes, unbelievably—comforted. The idea that Dan was just a little ways beyond us and was having such a wonderful time that he didn’t want to come home made me happy for the first time in months. The thought that we would find each other one day on those heights was tremendously reassuring. 
A woman was sitting on the bench right next to the plaque. “Excuse me,” I said, rustling in my purse for notebook and pen, “I’m just going to copy down that quote.”
”It’s a free country,” she said. 
I sighed, sat down next to her, and wrote. The notebook page, its ink fading, still hangs on my bulletin board. 
I sent 80 Christmas cards that year and, seeking to comfort us all, I wrote that verse by hand on every one of them. One recipient said that she and her husband had discussed my obvious nuttiness. Everyone else seemed to understand.
You may say, the dead are dead. Dan’s remains were cremated and his ashes rest in a ceramic urn in the cemetery at the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt. Tremper, New York. That’s it. There is no more. 
And I will say, as those words probably comforted the families of hundreds of missing seamen, so they comfort me. 
Dan and Cooper, Long Beach

Friday, January 28, 2011

10 Scary Things: #7

7. Flew across the country by myself. 
Treehugger sighted, Olympic National Forest
I did feel like a child. I bought stuff—a new suitcase, a spiffy black duffel type with recessed wheels at one end, and a rain jacket that would double as a windbreaker. I asked my friends in Bremerton to pleeze meet me at the Seattle airport. 
My solo exploration skills had atrophied—years had passed since I planned an itinerary alone, kept track of the tickets, got myself to the airport on time—but they were retrievable. Now I know how to take the bus from SeaTac to Bremerton. My suitcase and I have been to Italy, Spain, China, Russia, and Japan, where I don’t know anyone. Normal travels, but they're mine; I have a list, and I’ve seen much of what I wanted to see. The rain jacket got shabby with wear and I bought another one. 
Only on the China trip did I think that maybe, finally, I had chomped off more than I could chew. My initial flight was cancelled and my suitcase, got on the next flight, without me. I had no one to sit with in the airport and say, what the hell do we do now. I probably made some bad decisions. Dan probably would have come up with something, would have got us to China on schedule. But flying made Dan anxious; we traveled light, with only carry-on bags, and China was not on his agenda. I arrived there alone, a day late and a bag short. I wormed my way to the head of the line of a dozen people whose suitcases were missing. I described my suitcase, which looked like everyone else’s, to a mildly multilingual person. Despite or because of our efforts, the suitcase showed up, intact, a day later.
White Sands National Monument
These days, I’m taking walking tours of Hudson and exploring local trails on my snowshoes. New views, new ventures! And I may pack my bag and head west this spring. 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Car Rides

An e-mail from L: We took a drive today, she writes of herself and her husband, who is ill. That’s all, she writes, we don’t even stop for lunch anymore. 

And my first thought is, I would be so happy to take Dan for a drive. 

Dan has been dead for years. I still think about him maybe three times a day, in part because of this blog. That’s down from 100 in the weeks after his death, or 50 in the months after. 

I’m happy in my life, with my friends, our activities, my volunteer work. I’ve traveled much of the world, one country at a time. My job was OK, and now that I’m retired, life is even better, and my bills are still paid. 

But I would give all that up in an instant to be able to take the ailing Dan for a drive. The peace of it, the privacy of the car, just the two of us with the windows rolled down, the air fragrant with heat or mown grass, the hint of autumn or a coming shower. We could drive along the Hudson River and look across it to the Catskill Mountains. We could admire pumpkins line up for sale in October or the low sky over Lake Taghkanic in December.  

Imagining this, I’m recalling a drive when he was ill. We met a friend for dinner in Rhinebeck. Dan refused to use his walker and did something mildly demented at dinner, but we all got through it and then we hugged our friend good-bye and headed back home. The next four months were hell, and then it was over. But for forty minutes that evening, sweet May air filled the car, and the sunset clouds ahead of us were blushed with rose. 

I didn’t have to worry about his falling; he didn’t have to struggle to be something that he no longer was. For an hour we were safe, together. 

Friday, January 21, 2011

10 Scary Things: #8

8. Paid for help. 

The scary thing here is pushing past the specter of scarcity (what if I don’t have enough?) natural for a widow or for a man who grew up poor. Dan would never have paid to get the gutters cleaned or the weather stripping replaced in the garage. That’s why it still needed to be done. Dan was perfectly capable of doing it, but other, more interesting facets of life continually intervened: reading (two newspapers a day, two magazines a week, and at least two books on his bedside table); running (four miles a day); movies, music, walking the dogs in the woods.

I am incapable of almost any home repair, and reluctant to commit the hours, outside my full-time job, to learn any. Community activism, local and global, is more important to me. Evenings, Dan might be reading; I might be out at a meeting.

As a result, when he died, the only way to lock the two sliding glass doors was with sawed-off broom handles. Every pane of glass in or near the house needed washing. We’d been unable to come to terms about the kitchen renovation. Outdoors the dog was rusty and the second compost pile was locked behind snow fence and contained our only pitchfork, beyond my reach. My chore list grew daily while I worked, cared for the dogs, and strapped on snowshoes in order to feed the birds that freezing, snowy winter.

As spring approached, I knew I had to Do Something. In desperation I consulted the classified ads in the local newspaper and there I found: “Got a list of chores you never get to? Give it to me!”

I took a breath and picked up the phone.

I have no advice on how not to be murdered or bilked by your handyman. Someone was watching out for me: in return for taking a chance on a total stranger, I found a handyman who showed up on time. He worked quickly and quietly; he knew everything and could do anything. A retired NYC cop, he loved dogs and could have been a voice coach for NYPD Blue. In short, he was a miracle—one that expected to be paid that day, and not with a credit card.

As time went on, our projects grew more complicated, more disruptive, but worth the pain. 

I urged J. on friends. Sometimes I could see it in their eyes: the resistance to spending the money. Others took the chance and were rewarded with this sort of Johnny Appleseed of handymen, who worked alone, sowing improvement and repair in his path.

In my home, a new budget line led to visible progress. The house became safe and comfortable. It began to look cared for, even happy. Indoors, all the art that we had meant for years to get onto the walls was hung, straight. The remaining pack had started to pull itself together.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

10 Scary Things: #9

9. Asked for help. 

I would rather that people offer help, instead of my putting myself out there and risking the discomfort, on both sides, of refusal, but when I needed help, I learned to take the chance. 

Not only does the widow no longer have the mate to chop up the remains of a rotted tree, 

but also there is the family to care for. I could bring Lulu to my dog-friendly office, but such service was beyond Cooper, cocooned as he was in limited vision and brain function. Daily Cooper duty proved too much to ask, so instead I asked five friends each to choose one weekday. They came to the house midday, let Cooper into the yard, talked to him for a few minutes, and gave him a biscuit. 

From my end, at least, it worked splendidly—OK, a neighbor, incomprehensibly, forgot Cooper one day, but he survived. And I think another friend wondered why I was keeping the dog alive, but never mind. 

Because it extended our family. Before Christmas, Cooper and I sat together on the couch with a catalogue and ordered tulip plants for all his helpers. 

And at Valentine’s Day, when I was feeling particularly bereft, Cooper and I had five Valentines to send. 

Monday, January 17, 2011

He might as well have died

Dan might as well have died. 

Twice I’ve said that, out loud, and both times it had to do with food. M., in response, looked mildly horrified, as if I’d gone around the bend. 

I had thought she’d understand about Random Harvest, the produce market he loved. I liked Random Harvest too, but for Dan there was nothing else like the tomatoes and peaches they sold, the salads they made and the muffins they baked. We discovered tubes of tomato paste there, and blue cornmeal chips. He loved the people who worked there, he loved sitting on the porch with the dogs. 

The shop was seasonal, from May through Thanksgiving weekend, a gray clapboard building with an open porch and a small greenhouse; we were among the first who greeted Chris, Paul, and Theresa in the spring and we planned our lives around the Friday-after-Thanksgiving closing sale. We could do a week’s worth of shopping there on Saturday and Dan would find a reason to go back on Sunday. Let’s take the dogs for a ride, he’d say—Theresa loved the dogs—or, we’d pull in for local peaches or blueberry muffins on the way to Ore Pit Pond for a swim, and then we’d decide to stop by again on the way home. 
Summer dogs

But things always change, don’t they. The person you expect to outlive you dies. The most successful produce market for miles around is sold. A new family buys it, and in their first summer they keep things exactly the same. The next year they start tinkering, and as I’m pulling out of the parking lot one afternoon, I notice the huge metal box, hulking under the hanging plants—an ice machine.  

The words pop out, unbidden: Dan might as well have died.

He would have been furious. Ice machines speak of gas stations, 12-packs, Twinkies. Random Harvest was being dumbed down, was trying to be all things to all people. I can remember Theresa cheerfully telling a customer, “There’s a convenience store in either direction, where you can buy ice, mixers, anything else you need.” She welcomed her customer’s question; she was happy to refer him to another local business. His need would be taken care of; she didn’t have to do everything. 

And then one year, Random Harvest simply never reopened. I set off for swimming, looking forward to peach and a scone for the grass beach—I mean, I could taste this, the mix of sweet and savory—and later, on the way home, ice cream and a dinner salad. The loss was a complete surprise, the proverbial, metaphorical blow: the empty greenhouse, the little wooden Closed sign on the porch steps. No random harvest for you. 

A combination of the bad economy, and some unknown fatal flaw in management? After moving farther away, I shopped there less myself . . . but Dan, Dan would have stayed loyal till the end, would have felt such a deep sense of loss . . . of youth and tomatoes and friendship and sun, of flats of seedlings and dogs on the porch. Yes, the strawberry season passes in the blink of an eye, but do we have to be hit on the head with a reminder? 

It’s a thought wild in its logic, crazy in its rectitude, so I’ll put it like this: if they both had to die, it’s good he went first. 

Friday, January 14, 2011

10 Scary Things I Have Done Since My Husband Died

OK, he wasn’t my husband, strictly speaking, and I’ve done 110 scary things since he died, maybe 1,010, but I’ve culled what for me is the top 10, and I’ll share them here one at a time in what I understand to be a David Letterman–type list (without a TV, I lack experience with much of our culture), in which 10 is the least and 1 is the most.
10. Got up in the morning. 
In this way, the widow not only acknowledges that life goes on, but also that he or she accepts it. This can be dreadful and scary. 
My father died in the evening, and my stepmother did not rise from the bed for a day. She had my half sister and me downstairs, dealing with the concept and practicalities of the funeral. Dan died at about 9 p.m., and after a few hours’ sleep I got up the next morning: our two dogs had to be let out and fed—at seven o’clock, not nine or noon. At that point, you might as well make a cup of coffee and stare out at the backyard. Or go to the computer. 
Since everything had gone so terribly wrong for the last four months, I was writing Dan’s obituary myself, so that it would be correct, and would include what I wanted it to: the dogs and me as his immediate family; his canoeing the length of the Connecticut River, from the Atlantic Ocean to Canada, in weekend trips (and not writing a book about it); his full academic scholarship to Columbia; his generosity to local causes. 

I had to deal with the odd but kindly woman at the local funeral home, which I had chosen only the night before, minutes after Dan’s death (I grew to think of her, not unfondly, as Morticia). I had to call the gentle, marvelous people at the Buddhist cemetery across the Hudson River, which was the only place I could think of in which Dan might be happy to have his ashes buried. 
In all of these distractions I took some comfort. Because not only had I lost the love of my life but also, in another part of my brain, I knew that each thing that I touched—the kitchen sink with its mysterious gurgle; our three cars (his idea) with their total of almost 400,000 miles; the ancient Cooper, the adolescent Lulu; my unremarkable paycheck—was now mine to deal with alone. 
Not just the expense, more important, the decisions, without Dan, the witty, practical man with cutting-edge taste in music who paid off his credit card every month, and who had been at my side for 25 years. During the four months of his illness I had paid the bills, cared for the dogs, got the cars serviced, and neglected the house.
Now it was September, and I wasn’t so much up a tree as out on a slender branch, among leaves that fluttered to the hardening ground.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Climbing Fences

Dan and I and our two basenjis, Cooper, 16 and Lulu, 2, lived in a rural corner of Claverack, in Columbia County, on a quiet, pretty road that didn’t go anywhere. In two miles there were some 10 houses. Our home was small and modest, but it had almost five acres and the advantage of a private back yard, hidden from view. 

During Dan’s brief, terminal illness, I had taken care of him and the dogs and neglected the house. Now the only way to lock the sliding glass door onto the back deck was with a broom sawed off for the purpose, and as I slid the door closed on Cooper and me that icy January morning, I heard the broom handle roll back into place. 

And there we were, the ancient blind wanderer and his underdressed caretaker, closed out of their shelter by her stupidity. 

On the other side of the house, the front door was unlocked. I could bring Lulu to my dog-friendly office, but Cooper had retired from such activity. A friend would come at midday to let him out and the only way to enter the house, which was otherwise snowed in, was through the front door. So I unlocked it every morning as soon as I got up. 

Getting to the front door was now the challenge. We were buried, including the mudroom door that led into the garage and the gate that led to the back of the driveway, which was piled high with plowed snow. 

I could try to force the bedroom window, or break it, and then try to crawl through it. 

I could grab the snow shovel on the deck and spend an hour digging out the back gate and trying to unjam its frozen lock.

Or, I saw, I could clamber up the snow and climb over the fence. Then I could force my way through the drifts to the part of the driveway that was plowed, and the sidewalk to the front door. 

It was ridiculous, but there was no other way.

“Stay, Cooper,” I said, “I’ll be right back.”

His look said he wasn’t going anywhere. 

And I did it. Thanks to record-breaking snow cover, I climbed over a five-foot fence. Then I ran, in great high strides like the cartoon character I was, in pajamas and jacket and boots, through crotch-level snow. In less than a minute I had reached the other shore—plowed driveway, shoveled path, unlocked door. I tracked snow through the house, threw the broom handle aside, and rescued my ailing companion. 

And that’s what this blog is about. Solving problems on your own. Taking care of those you love. Climbing the fences.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Welcome to my blog

Welcome to my blog, 2becomes1.

Widowhood, Joyce Carol Oates has written, isn’t “placid and tragic so much as it’s physically arduous.” If she were to write a memoir, she said—which she has now done—it would be “filled with all sorts of slapstick, demeaning and humiliating things. Like trash cans whose bottoms are falling out.”

Oates was comparing her experience to The Year of Magical Thinking, the memoir by Joan Didion, which took widowhood onto “a very high plane,” said Oates, “beautiful and elegiac.”

Here in upstate New York (Columbia County), I’m in the Oates camp, the widowhood that’s arduous not only emotionally but also physically, widowhood, that is, for the rest of us, who work full time and then take care of the dog, the house, and ourselves, probably in that order. And children! God bless the widows with children, an experience I don’t share.

Dan Zinkus, my husband in all but ceremony, became visibly ill in May one year, and died, at 56, of brain cancer in August of that year. In the maelstrom of those four months, I made some adjustments to living alone, and now it continues—one, living the life of two, and learning when to pull back, into the life of one.

As for humiliation, the bottom of my trash can hasn’t fallen out, yet, but I did lock myself and our 16-year-old dog out of the house one dawn in late January, the winter after Dan died.

That winter was the hardest we’d had in ten years. We had an ice storm over Thanksgiving weekend and an official blizzard on Christmas Day. By late January the back of my little white house by the side of the road was snowed in except for the sliding glass door that led out to the deck. I’d shoveled tunnels through the waist-high snow for our two basenjis, the ancient Cooper and the puppy Lulu; they could have easily climbed the snow stacked against the fence and escaped, but basenjis are smart dogs, and usually know when and where they are better off.

Imagine first light; the temperature in the teens, the snow waist-high and more, banked against the fence. I’m wearing a jacket and boots over my pajamas and sleep-socks. The dog, Cooper, is blind and suffers from what the vet kindly calls “cognitive dysfunction.”

We’re standing, Cooper and I, stock-still in a dog tunnel I’ve dug through the snow in the backyard. He doesn't know we're locked out, while my mind ricochets around the house, looking for entry. Resolutely middle class, I don’t really expect to freeze to death, but I'm scared and I don't know what to do.