Friday, April 12, 2019

Duck-duck*


I worked at a place called the Bridge. It was one of those
Milton Gorodezky - 7th Cavalry 
storefronts drop-in centers for teens.   I sat around with a few counselors talking with whoever walked in. The sound was continuous chatter. It was a room with broken down furniture and a rattling fan in the corner.  Kids smoked and shot pool. I played pool but not with much skill. The kids thought I was impairedand probably said mean things behind my back.
Someone dragged a phone over.  I rarely got a call.  It was my wife, Sarah.
“Mike, I didn’t know if I should call you. You are far away and I’m afraid about you driving home,”… there was a long pause. 
“Your dad died.”
I didn’t answer.  The few people in the room had stopped talking and were clearly watching and listening. I was their break from a boring afternoon.

Finally, I asked, “How? Where?”
“He was at work at Sears. They say he just collapsed and died.  We don’t know… Maybe a heart attack.  Please, come home now. Be very careful driving.”

The kids in the room heard these few words:

 “Hello”, 
“How?”, 
“Where”?
 “OK”.



But they watched me say the words. They saw my body go rigid and then sag. I stared at the floor.  So when I said,
“I am going home now.” They all seemed to get it.
  
I walked out the front door and into the summer afternoon heat.


My car was a VW bug. It was a weak little car. As I climbed out of the San Fernando Valley smog up to Mulholland Drive, I had to drive and cling to the right of the freeway as the big rigs roared by me.  They didn’t honk. They knew I couldn’t go faster.

Slowly I shifted gears and climbed home.  I had time to think about my father.

I re-lived listening to him tell me about his years in the Army.  He loved those stories and so they rolled around in my head offering me some solace. 
I remembered Dad lecturing me on how to fold a towel and to be neat about it. He told me how to mop a floor and to do it in an orderly back-and-forth motion.  
“When you are in the Army, Mike, you betterknow how to clean up.”
Why did he tell me that?
As I drove home, I thought, Why am I thinking about the Army?”

I said aloud in my empty car:
You better pay attention dummy. You can’t get killed in this traffic.  Sarah told you to be careful. Be careful.

I arrived at our West Los Angeles apartment, built next to the Freeway.  Sarah was holding a stuffed toy duck when I came in the door.  Our baby Laura was in her crib and asleep.

“Your dad was just here today. He came about lunch time.  .I didn’t know he was coming.  He just knocked on our door. He drove here before going to work to give this duck to Laura.  Laura loves it.  She calls it ‘duckduck’”.

Like the Velveteen Rabbit, Laura would hold and pet this duck until his poor little duck-head was bald.  If you pulled a string, he would quack with a strong loud quack.




We listened to that quacking sound as we drove from our place down to my folks apartment. Now, I guess, it was Mom’s apartment.  The house was already full of friends and family. The story was being told and retold by my tearful mother.

My sister, Elaine, had arrived. She and I went off to hide in the kitchen.  Mom’s apartment was not that big. Hiding in the kitchen meant standing near the refrigerator and out of sight from the crowd in the living room.  
Elaine and I giggled together.
“God, stop that.”
“Stop, we shouldn’t be laughing.”
I gasped to catch a breath. “I can’t. I don’t know why we are laughing.”
Elaine asked, “What will the relatives think.  Bite your tongue. We have to stop laughing.”

I walked away from Elaine and in to my parent’s bedroom.  I saw my dad’s bottle of green aftershave.  In a flash, I was a small boy at the white porcelain bathroom sink. I watched Dad make shaving lather with a brush in a mug.
He would smushit onto me and then wipe it off with the sweet aftershave.  It stung my skin.
I took the bottle pulled the tiny plug and took a deep breath of my father.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Condo Living *

CondoLiving

If you stood in the condo kitchen, in just the right spot and looked across the playground and then through the eucalyptus trees, you could see the ocean.  

“Look, Sarah.  Stand here at the sink and lean over. You’ll see it. It’s such a deep blue today.”

The stainless steel sink was full of greasy dishes hiding beneath puffy white soap foam.   You could still smell the chili from last night.
“Come on… look.”

Sarah looked into the sink. She looked in the general direction of the window.

“I’ll look later.”

She sat down on the couch with a silent gaspand groan.  Or was it the whoosh of the fake leather couch? Sarah would prefer that I heard only the couch.  She rarely complained.  She rarely told me how she felt.

We had recently moved from our custom-built 4 bedroom house in Napa to Santa Barbara to be closer to our daughter, Laura. Our younger daughter, Suzanne, was in Chicago and Laura lived in Santa Barbara.  My wife, Sarah, had a plan for me.  When she died, I was to be living near one of our kids.  Moving to Chicago did not seem practical.  So Sarah selected Santa Barbara.  

Laura picked out the condo.  
“Dad, it is perfect.  It is on a park near the ocean.  There is this bench I’m sure you and Mom will love. You can sit there and enjoy this wonderful view.”

We flew down from Napa and bought it after a quick weekend look.  

I walked across the park to see the bench. It offered an “Oh Wow” view of the Pacific.  

Sarah and I did not sit on the bench.


We were fine in the condo.  By the time we moved in, we felt relievedto not be in a hospital.

At the top of one flight of stairs were the two bedrooms.  The so-called master bedroom had a view of an alleyway full of garage doors.  Near the window, we positioned our two little green chairs that we brought from Napa.

In Napa, the chairs sat in a small study. We could swivel the chairs to look at a little fireplace or swing around to a picture window of Napa Valley.

In the condo, the chairs barely fit between our one large alley-view window and the king-sized bed. The chairs twirled around in a full circle. They also rocked.  They were treasures.  But there was nothing else to see.

On a typical evening, we sat in our chairs facing one another. We would pass the marijuana water pipe back and forth.  We listened to music, but mostly we talked. Really, we mostly laughed. You know, that hysterical laughter that seems to spiral until you can barely breathe.
Sarah, we have to stop laughing so loud. 
“Do you think people can hear us?”
“I don’t know why we are even laughing? Maybe we have had enough.”

I reached over to Sarah.
“Can I touch it?”
“OK.
I leaned over from my chair and placed my hand on Sarah’s stomach to touch Tammy.  Who else but two crazy people would name something Tammy The Tumor? It was  big.  Conventional measuring techniques seem to use fruit.  That is curious, isn’t it? But the tumor was, in fact, the size of the proverbial grapefruit.
“Does it hurt when I touch it?”
“No, you know it doesn’t hurt. You can touch it.”
Sarah continued, “Sometimes it is uncomfortable” and I take some Vicodin.  Look at this bottle there must be 200 tablets.  They don’t seem to care how much I have.”

After an unusual silence, I said:
 “Sarah, I really wish this wasn’t happening.  I don’t want to be alone.”
“Mike, you know I don’t like to talk about this.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”  I had broken the rule.  I was not to talk about death.

Sarah said, “I need to get in the tub.  I so love that whirlpool thingy. It is the place I feel best.”

She went into our tiny bathroom and filled up the tub.  She climbed in an turned on the motor and water jets. The device had its own heater and kept the water very warm.  Sarah put scented candles around the edge. She could stay in it for hours.

I yelled through the door. “When you get out, I will go for a walk by the ocean.”

“Oh, you can go ahead. I’m fine.  Go ahead.”

I waited downstairs until I heard the sounds. When Sarah opened the door, I could smell the candles.
The motor stopped. I could hear the water gurgling down the drain. The floor creaked and there was the quick hopping sound of footsteps as she jumped into the bed. The sound of bed springs was the final signal.

“OK, Sarah,” I yelled.I’m going now.”

I left the condo. The bright sun always shocked me.   I crossed the lawn, opened the metal fence door, and entered the park.  I could smell picnic bar-a-cue smoke. Dozens of toddlers were playing in the sand.  
“Bang, bang,”a little boy yelled. He pointed his stick at me.
“Look at me, Mommy,"
“Look at me!” cried a little girl on top of a playground tower.

The park was full of laughter. Fall leaves lay on the playground as I walked towards the ocean.  A row of mothers and nannies sat on their green slat benches watching the kids.
“Mommy, Mommy!Look, Look, Look.”

I crossed a large lawn area of the park. I carried a cell phone.  It was my magic talisman that meant everything would be okay.  If I had the phone, I could walk away.  All would be well.

I walked on a path atop a cliff. The ocean was a constant sound.  Why was the ocean such a reassuring sound? 
I stopped to crane my neck to the sky.  A large V-shaped formation of pelicans flew very near to me.  The children shrieked.  I fumbled my phone to take a picture, but without a sound, the birdswere gonefrom the sky.


My daily ocean walk was not peaceful. It caused my inner dialogue to kick in.
Will Sarah be okay?
If I have the phone, she can call me if she needs me.
But when I’m two miles away, what then? 
What would I do? 
I walked with this riddle cycling in my head. “What would I do? What could I do?

Monday, April 1, 2019

The End Game *


The End Game 


ACT 1
It was a foggy Santa Barbara morning. I brought Sarah a cup of coffee. I climbed up the narrow stairs of the little condo.    I walked with quiet care. I tried not to spill on the new carpet.  The carpet still had a weird smell, but it felt good on my bare feet.  As I walked to our room, I thought, “How confining this place is.” I felt the walls come close to me.

A few years earlier, we had built a big home in Napa.  With four bedrooms, all our family could come and stay with us for holidays.  Sarah was an immigrant child.  She and her family came to the USA in the early days following WWII.  The Napa house was a fulfilled dream. During construction, I took a picture of her climbing high on the new foundation with arms outstretched to the unlimited horizon of a bright blue sky.  It was her joy.

“Careful Sarah. Don’t back up. You are only inches from the edge.”
She laughed and twirled.

We walked inside the skeleton of the house.
“Here, Mike. Stand here. This will be your office and we can put in a garden just outside your door.”
“Oh, Mike, Let’s put in one of those big greenhouse windows outside the kitchen.”

I told Sarah: “The contractor says we can’t have another fireplace in our small  sitting room. He says there is no space.” “He says there is no room for another fireplace in the master bedroom.”
“Well, screw that!” she said.
In the end, we had three fireplaces, and the home was something we created.  It was all we imagined. 

Soon after we moved into the Napa house, Sarah had another episode of cancer, this time a different form of cancer.  
We told friends, “No, it is not THAT cancer. This is a new and improved cancer.”  We laughed at our clever retort.   

The Oncologist told us everything from here on out would be palliative not curative.

Sarah was working as the Executive Director of the Napa hospice. She worked hard at her job. After the latest health news, she worked still harder. 

“Sarah, you’ve got to ease up. You are working 12-hour days.”
“What do you want me to do! Quit work and sit around waiting to…”
She didn’t finish.  One of our rules was never to speak of death.  We both knew she would die, but Sarah forbid any talk of it.

Later, I found a book by David Rieff, titled Swimming In A Sea of Death.  The author, the son of Susan Sontag, described caring for his mother at the end of her life. She was like Sarah.  She was alive. She would try anything to stay alive. She would do experimental treatments, radiation, chemo, and multiple surgeries. Everything.—Rieff’s book was a solace to me since the author’s memoir showed he had lived some of my life.

As with David Rieff, my fears were mine and were to be kept to myself. We could talk of anything, but never could we speak of the darkness we both knew was ahead.

As Sarah became more ill, her Board Chair called her up to St. Helena Hospital for a meeting.  I felt I knew what was about to happen.

I offered:  “I’ll drive you up. We can go out for lunch afterwards.”
Sarah shrugged. “It could take a while, this my regular monthly meeting.”
“I don’t care. I’ll just sit in the car and listen to the radio.”

I waited in the hospital parking lot.  Somehow, I knew this would be “the talk.” The talk where someone told Sarah it was time to stop working.
It was a hot summer day. I drowsed in the heat with the windows open. I parked the car near a van full of children. I listened as the mother lectured the kids about being noisy and laughing so hard and so loud.

Sarah came back to the car.  We sat for a while letting the air conditioner cool us off. I was quiet. Listening. Waiting.

“Well, she said we should plan for my retirement.” And the Board Chair said, You owe it to Mike to stop working.” Sarah told me,
“Really?  ‘She said that.?’
Yes, it was all very painful. I cried. I hate that. I hate crying.”


I felt very grateful for the compassion sent to me by the Board Chair. I turned it over in my mind: “You owe it to Mike to stop.” 
I was not ill. I was the caregiver. I was the husband.  How odd, I thought, someone was showing me kindness.

As soon as Sarah announced her retirement, my Santa Barbara daughter, Laura, went into action.
She hunted for a place on the Mesa, where she lived.   We all knew Santa Barbara. We had all lived there many years ago.

I told Sarah: “I don’t really want to move to Santa Barbara?”
“Do you want to be alone here in Napa?”
“I don’t want to be alone. Period.”
“I want to know you will not be alone. You’ll be near Laura.”
We continued,
I said, “Well, one thing I will not do is a move down to Santa Barbara while you are acutely ill. We need to go now while you are still doing pretty well.”
“I swear, I’m not going down there with you wrapped in a blanket and propped up with pillows.”

I had a clear image of that future. On some trips we had taken, Sarah had become very ill.  That image of Sarah, travelling while sick was born from experience.  

Of course, the car-pillow-blanket scene is exactly what happened.  This is how it played out:  
Because Sarah was always in clear denial, even after the “retirement talk” she continued her life with little regard for her illness. Whenever she could, she behaved as a normal healthy person. When invited to a Saturday afternoon garden party with several other women. She accepted, got dressed up in Purple (it was a “I Shall Wear Purple” Club).  Wearing a strange but cute hat, she headed out.  Her friend Sheila had taught her wig and make-up tricks to hide her true status. She looked great.

At the party, she pushed away people trying to help her climb some garden stairs and fell backwards.  She was wearing an intra-venous port for medications beneath her clothing.  Tearing the port loose, she was badly hurt.  She returned to the hospital.


When Sarah began her hospitalization, the grand plan to move to Santa Barbara was already in full operation. The plan executed quickly

· Sarah and I had bought a Santa Barbara condo picked out by Laura.
· The Napa house went for sale.  
· I quickly sold the house.

And so, I began what everyone called downsizing.  Only I did this alone. 

I was driving back and forth between the hospital and the house. I had to get the house empty within two weeks. The pressure was on.

My work to empty the house was the beginning of a long grieving process.  I moved through the house. My partner for 40 years was not there to argue that we should save this or that.  I began to throw things away with almost psychotic abandon.  I used the three car garage and threw things into a huge pile.  By the end, it was 15 feet in diameter and 5 feet high.  I referred to it in my mind then and my memory now as the “mountain.”  

It was a lifetime of objects.  The anthropologist would wonder who left this great pile?  Electronic devices, hundreds of books, blankets, pillows, carpets, baskets, broken chairs, perfect chairs, garden tools, large textiles stretched on frames, never used wine racks, little tables, unwanted gifts and our collection of big round mirrors..  

What should I keep?  Was I saving things just for myself? Was I saving things for both of us when she comes home from the hospital?

Eventually, I called our realtor and said:
“Just hire somebody to haul everything in the garage away.”
“OK. 
“Then pay them to do the clean-out. I’m done. I’m going to a hotel.”

We could not escape the hospital.

I walked down a long hospital corridor hall at the Queen of The Valley Hospital. It was afternoon. I walked to the big rose gardens surrounding the hospital.  This was part of my survival routine. Go for little walks.
I passed a Catholic priest who was a chaplain.  He recognized me.
He said, “Oh, are you still here? ”
“Yes, Sarah has been here 23 days so far. I though people never stayed in hospitals for so long.”
The priest gestured to hug me and I consented. 
“Could I stop in to pray with Sarah?”
“Sure”
Later Sarah told me how she enjoyed his visit. A person of no particular faith, Sarah said:
“I’m good with prayers. I’ll take them from anyone.”

We talked with the doctor about escaping from the hospital.  He agreed to let Sarah come and stay with me in the hotel while she continued receiving Intra-Venous antibiotics.  This meant I had to learn how to help administer the IV drugs.  Each day a nurse came to our hotel room and checked the process.  I learned what I needed to know.  My training as an Army medic helped.

Finally, we got the ok from the doctor. We gathered the pillows and blankets and drove to Santa Barbara.  It took two days to go 500 miles, but we made it to the condo.  It was full of packing boxes.  Laura had made up the bedroom, and Sarah went straight to bed.

Act 2

But back to that morning, I mentioned to you.  I carefully climbed the stairs with the hot coffee for Sarah. I brought the Sunday papers.
Instantly, I knew there had been a huge change. Her speech was different.  It was not sleep. It was not drugs.  It was not the marijuana from the night before.  No, something was terribly wrong.

“Sarah!  Sarah!”  “Do you know what day it is?”
“Uhh, No. It is Thursday.”
“Do you know the names of our daughters”
“Suzanne and….”
“Who are our grand children?”
She did not answer.

I went to the telephone and called the Cancer Center.
The nurse asked me, “Why do you think it has moved to her brain?”
“I just know.”  Without an invitation, I said:
“I have a wheelchair in our car.” “I’m coming in,"
By the time I arrived, our doctor came out to the parking lot and said,
“Let’s just wheel her straight over to the hospital. ,"
The doctor walked along with me and arranged for our room.  Nurses brought in a CD player with some music.   I called my daughters, Laura and Suzanne.
On the phone, I said,“Now it is time to come.”



Act 3

Friends and family have left you to be alone in the room with Sarah.  Now it is only you.
You wait in the hospital room for the doctor to come and pronounce the magic words. You wait alone by the bedside. You turnoff the music. You look around the room for objects you should pack-up and take home. There is nothing. Sarah was unconscious soon after coming to the hospital. 

You drive alone back to the condo where you had been together the past and last year. A few weeks before Sarah died, you secretly met with the Oncologist who gave a prognosis you needed to know. Sarah did not want a prognosis.  The doctor was eerie in his precision. 

You move to your favorite spot on the leather couch to watch “the pictures” and listen to “the music.”  For the past 12 months, you have been scanning photographs  and loading music onto your computer.  Your vigil with Sarah consisted of of sitting on this couch watching a lifetime of photos along with all of our special CDs. You  had 1200 pictures loaded by the end.

Now home from the hospital, you turn on the pictures and sit alone on the couch. It is puffy and you can sink deep into the cushions. You keep all the lights off and keep the blinds drawn. You close out the ocean and the flowering red bougainvillea.  Random pictures march by on the huge screen and the music is continuous.  You really need no one. The music and pictures are your loving companions.

The daughters arrive.  They ask you to stay on the couch while they help clean things up. They remove Sarah’s possessions.  They do not require your opinion. They are so earnest. They have brought a radio and a collection of black plastic bags. They close the door and turn up their music. You stay on your couch.  You hear laughter from the closed door.  You remember laughing at your father’s death.  We all must do that.   

The pictures scroll by for the entire 42 years you spent together. Not until later you will pick a few pictures for the memorial. Later, you will write an obituary. Later, you will turn over all the e-mail to your youngest daughter. Later, the eldest will prepare a playlist from the music.

You see, a picture of Sarah on a cruise.  Her hair has fallen out for the second time.  She bought a red wig. Oh, now Sarah is on a canal boat in Holland. You remember how she began to hemorrhage in the restroom.  There she is at the Tivoli Garden in Copenhagen. That was the night you complained about her drinking and you had a huge fight on your 40th anniversary.  You both pose at the bow of the ship mimicking Titanic actors.  The pictures pause for 1 minute then they dissolve, one after another.  Sometimes you can’t wait for the picture to dissolve.

The music does not match the pictures. It is running its own happy memory festival.

Unlike television, the pictures and music are endless. You remember everything about the past.  You can not change the channel. The past is now your companion. You try to scrape off the bad parts of your memories.  You cannot.

Alone again, you can now go into the bedroom the girls have cleaned.  It is sterile.  They leave nothing. On the bedroom wall are hooks for necklaces and earrings.  

We had played a game with this wall. You would pick a piece off, hold it up, and Sarah could tell a detailed story.  Sarah seemed to know intimate details on every single piece.
“Oh, you bought me that in Berkeley on Telegraph Avenue.”
“That one is from that little lakeside place in Missouri.”
“Don’t you remember, you gave me that for my birthday?”

Now all the jewelry has departed.  The wall is empty.  On the floor, you find one earing.





Thursday, July 19, 2018

First House*

First House
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Yesterday had been eventful. It was a big day. In just one day, Sarah and I had put down a payment on our first house. We signed the preliminary papers allowing “them” to check out our credit and general honesty.  That had gone well. It was routine for the bankers but it was not routine for us.  It thrilled Sarah and me.

We giggled in our Ford Pinto as we drove back through the snowy streets of Ann Arbor.
“Each of the girls will have their own room.”
I can’t wait to show it to them. 
I love the big basement. Those stairs near the kitchen seem scary. We can keep the laundry down there and eventually fix it up as a playroom.  We can dump all the toys down there.
“It even has a built-in dishwasher. Can you believe that?”

I dropped Sarah off at the University. She waded through a snowdrift.  She had chained her ancient bike to a No Parking Sign.  She wore a parka and boots. I had on the same outfit.   This was Michigan in the winter.  We didn’t care: We were buying our first house.

Idrove back to work. Although still in graduate school, I worked for a small consulting firm.  These kinds of businesses grow around major universities like parasites.  Or were they like barnacles that attach to the big graduate schools?  I was working on my Ph.D. and the company was busy harvesting federal money.  It was all efficient.

Mary and Bill ran the company, two young Ph.D.’s who had created their own business: OASIS (Organization for Applied Science In Society).  Despite the big name, it only employedabout five people.

OASIS was on the second floor above a retail business in Ann Arbor. I walked in stamping the snow from my boots.  I chatted with Mary in an empty conference room.

“Mary, how do you set the price for something like this project?  We don’t know how many hours it will take.”

Don’t worry we will just double the estimate.  Remember, they call these contracts COST Plus.  

“How does that work?”I asked.  “It seems weird, I know you told me, but…” The contract language confused me.

Well, we put in our invoice each month and then we may tack on a 25% mark-up. That is the plus partof cost-plus.  So the more we work and the higher our costs, the more money we make. Cool? They guarantee us profit.

It still didn’t seem right to me.

I was a young graduate student with a wife and two kids.  I was about to buy a house. This contract was a very goodthing!

Mary invited her business partner, Bill, to join us in the conference room.  He shut the door.  “OhOh.,I thought.

“Mike, we know you are buying a house, but we can’t give any more salary until you get your Ph.D.”
“What!”  “But your other partners only have BAs. Why do I have to finish?”  I was getting wound up. 
“So do you give me less work or less responsibility without my degree?” 
“No,”they both replied in unison. “We expect the same from you.”
“We are doing this for you, Mike.” “Trust us.” If you earn too much, you might never finish.

My face flushed with anger.  I felt righteous.

Graduate school folklore indicatedthat the more you earn before you finish schoolthe less likely you were to finish. But I was angry. I thought: “To hell with folklore.  These two are cheating me.” 

“This is not fair,” I said aloud.  
I stood up and left the room slamming the door. I rushed to my office gathering my coat and a few belongings.
I stumbled back into the conference room. 
“OK, if my work is inferior because I don’t have a Ph.D., then I quit.” 
Mary said, “Oh come on Mike. You don’t mean that.”
“Yes, I do” and with that I walked out of the building.

I believe it was the poet William Bendix who said: “What a revoltinsituation this is.”

In one day, I had signed to buy a house, and the same day, I quit my job.

Hmm.

Sarah and I were living in a rented house. It was inferior to our potential new home.  It had only 2bedrooms and a special feature. It was tilted. If you set your child’s ball down on the living room floor, it would roll of its own volition.  The whole place tilted.
We sat on the high end of the room in our thrift store couch and tried to figure out what to do.

We sat quietly.
“Jesus, what are wegoing to do?”
“They will want to do an employment verification.”
Sarah said, “My job won’t be enough.”
We sat silently, worrying together.


It was the very next morning I sought solace at the cafe with my grilled cheese.

Gloria,who I casually knew came in and sat down next to me. I was clutching my coffee mug.  I pressed the warm cup against my face.  I did that when feeling anxious.  I was worrying intensely about money and the new house. I was off in anxiety-land when Gloria turned her stool toward me.

“Hey, Mike, do you know anyone who is looking for a job?”
If there had been a soundtrack orchestra, they would have played a great crescendo. Or perhaps two trumpets could have sounded.

“Well, yes, in fact I’m looking for a job.”

“Well, you know Saul Cooperwho runs the mental health center. They are on the top floor of this building. Why don’t you just go up and apply? You are more than qualified. I think he likes you.”

I dropped my sandwich, threw some money down and walked to the bank of elevators.  I shot up to the 8thfloor and asked to speak with Saul. 

As fate had ordained, we set the girls up in their own rooms. We filled the basement with all the stuffed animals.  The stairs to the basement were still scary. The stairwell light was poor. But we could fix all that.