Henry, William and Rowing

Winter has returned after a brief hiatus.  This morning after breakfast, I cleared five or six inches of snow off the driveway.  The forecast for the next week or so is more or less snow every day, nothing spectacular, but consistent.

It is Friday night approaching midnight.  Carol woke up a little combative but settled into a pretty good day after that.  I look over at her birthday roses, and see that they are wilting. In all honesty my care of them was perfunctory, adding a little new water every couple of days and ignoring whatever was in the little packets the florist had instructed me to add to the water.

That thought leads me to what follows.

Years ago when we took a car trip to Salem and Concord Massachusetts, the home turf of a number of my favorite writers, I bought a souvenir T-shirt.  On its front, the face that Nathaniel Hawthorne said belonged to the ugliest man he had ever seen, stares out under one of his strongest recommendations.  “Simplify,” it says.

With that word, Henry David Thoreau preaches his antidote to what he perceived to be the misery of his society where he saw the masses leading lives of “quiet desperation,” suffering from the disease William Wordsworth had earlier diagnosed in a sonnet as wasting our powers with too much “getting and spending.”

All of which is an unnecessarily literary preface to the fact that I have simplified my life, not for the perhaps more substantial reasons of Thoreau and Wordsworth, but out of necessity.  Given my caregiver responsibilities and time constraints I cannot tend to many things I would otherwise take care of.

I do manage the getting and spending in the mundane terms of the household cash ebb and flow, paying bills, and keeping an eye on disbursements from my IRA.  I recognize that both Henry and William had more fundamental ideas in mind, but this is where I am now.  I do the cooking, laundry, and necessary cleaning.  Otherwise, I subcontract or ignore the rest.

So as winter approached instead of hauling out the leaf blower, I contracted with the local company that I used to hire only to finish the massive job of clearing away the mountain of leaves layering our heavily treed property.

I gave up keeping the bird feeders stocked.  Our feathered friends were on their own.

For now, I will probably continue to snow blow the driveway, but if that turns out to be too time-consuming or onerous, I will hire help for that chore.

These extra expenses are not particularly troublesome since our entertainment budget, once fairly healthy, has now dropped to about zero.  Instead of going out to eat or attending concerts and movies, money goes to do things I no longer feel I can do .

As with so many other changes, this one parallels how I have come to see myself.  I am primarily a caregiver.  Responsibilities associated with that role take priority over everything else.

I get no gratitude from Carol, nor should I expect any.  I suppose the dog is happy that she is fed and let out to do her business as necessary.  Friends tell me they respect what I am doing, but they cannot have any idea of what that really means.

I’m not talking about needing a pat on the back.  After all, keeping Carol at home with me for as long as I can has been, and remains, my deeply held preference.

I am only holding up a figurative mirror to look at myself, to see what I have become through the lens of what I can and cannot do.

What comes back to me from that activity is clear enough.

What follows, though, remains shrouded in uncertainty and ambiguity.

Super Bowl Sunday night after a snowy weekend requiring several sessions behind the snow blower to clear the driveway.  I watched the game on the big screen tv downstairs while Carol slept.  Because of my interest in football, she sometimes tried to watch games with me, but she never really succeeded in sharing my enjoyment.  I don’t think she objected to the violence of the game, for she loved watching boxing.  I suppose learning the rules and strategies required more effort than she wanted to invest.

The question now, of course, is moot.

We are both accommodating ourselves to the hospital bed.  As advertised, it makes certain activities, such as raising Carol to  sitting position, easier.  The sleeping surface is considerably wider than that which the sofa offered, and Carol sometimes gets herself into odd angle positions, but for the most part she does sleep well enough in it.

I have now, however, discovered one of the reasons I delayed for so long in obtaining  the bed, and why in spite of its advantages, I am still unhappy with it.

I thought my reluctance was based on the presence of the bed introducing an unwanted change in the feel of our shared living space.

That much was, and is, true.

But I now understand that there is a deeper level.

When we were both sleeping on the sofa, it was possible for me to position myself in such a way as to be able to be in close physical proximity.  Our sofa is an L-shaped sectional.  Carol occupied and slept on one leg of it.  During the day, aside from attending to her needs, I did  not spend much time on the sofa.  But sometimes, I would bend myself around the corner of the sectional so that I could put my arm around her.

I cannot do that with her in the bed.  It is placed against the wall opposite the sofa.  I can sit on the arm of the sofa and reach over or through its railing, but doing so is awkward.

Before, I typically slept on my leg of the sofa with my head away from her and my feet encroaching into the corner section.  In the mornings, I would awaken, reverse my position so that my upper body was now on that corner section, and I could reach her to hold her hand, or stroke her cheek or hair.  Sometimes she objected to this attention, but most times she accepted it happily, or so it seemed.

I now see that my ability to do that preserved the fiction that we were still living as we had, in the shared intimacy of husband and wife.

The bed has removed that fiction.

In it, she the patient, I the caregiver.

Woke up to a steady but light snow this morning.  I decided to forego my usual Sunday morning jaunt to the store to pick up the NY Times along with a muffin for Carol and whatever else we might need until I do a full grocery shopping. Just didn’t want to deal with the snow although there wasn’t that much accumulation.  Read the paper online, and gave Carol her ordinary breakfast.

It’s Sunday night as I write this.  Watched Victoria and Queen Elizabeth’s Spies.  Carol, of course, dozed in her bed.  Even the dog chose her bed instead of coming into the tv room with me.  I’m getting used to these solo television watching occasions.

But not happily.

Every once in a while a line from some source will jump into my consciousness for no particular reason, or at least no reason I can identify.

That happened yesterday.  I don’t now recall what I was doing at the moment, but whatever it was I am fairly certain it had nothing to do with this sentence that flashed itself into my consciousness.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

That is the last line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Although decades ago, I taught that book in an American Literature survey course, and although I admire it immensely, I have not thought about it in a very, very long time.

And yet, yesterday, that line popped into my consciousness.  No, that’s not exactly right.  I did not have all the words, or even most of them.  Rather, I recalled that the novel ended with something about a boat and rowing.  I then did what we all do nowadays, rather than digging the book off whatever shelf it is now on, I Googled something like “Gatsby rowing.”

And the line appeared.

This is not the place, nor do I have the energy, to suggest the line’s relationship to the novel,  why Nick Carraway, the narrator, is made to say it.  Rather, taken out of its context it speaks powerfully to me in my situation.

It captures the pull backward that I deal with numerous times every day whenever some thing in our house reminds me with considerable force of the life we have left behind, be it the Victorian pictures of a girl reading a book on the wall in the downstairs bathroom, or the wooden sign announcing “Baths 5 Cents” on the wall of the upstairs bathroom, both chosen and installed by Carol, the one expressing her own particular version of feminism informed by her love for reading, the other a humorous reminder of her historical sensibility.

And of course, there is the more serious pull of those moments, far enough between, but powerful when they occur, when with some gesture, or word or two, Carol for a moment is again herself.

That happened a night or two before, and again last night, when on each occasion, she said in a very quiet voice, “I love you.”  I permitted myself each time, to savor the moment.  It would have been wiser, perhaps, to discount it, to understand its ephemeral nature, how impossible it is to be sure of its significance.  She might even have been declaring her love for the me in her memory rather than the me in front of her.

But of course emotions trump rational thought.

And so, for the moment, I let myself in my little rowboat be borne back by the current into our shared past.

The larger question is how hard do I want to row against that current.  Do I, in fact, want to best it and begin to leave that past behind me.

Fitzgerald is no doubt suggesting that so to do is impossible.  We may beat against the current, but it will prevail.  Perhaps we will make a little progress, only to be thrown back.

Thus far, I see Fitzgerald’s words as an accurate representation of my situation.  The metaphor is apt: rowing against the current is an arduous business, forward movement bought with the expenditure of considerable muscular energy. That thought reminds me of the time my father took me fishing in a rented rowboat on Sheepshead Bay off the south coast of Brooklyn, and only with great difficulty rowed us back against the outgoing tide.  Shortly thereafter, he bought an outboard motor he would attach to the rented boats.

For me, now, it would be the expenditure of emotional rather than muscular energy to provide the movement away from the past.

I can also see that if the past is dominated by pain or disillusionment, as may be the case for Nick when he offers these words, then the point is the difficulty of putting some distance between you and the occasion of that pain or disillusionment.

Moving from a painful past is complicated when the pain is, as is often the case, tied up with something very good.

Which is where I am.

I do not want to forget my past with Carol.

But remembering it, and knowing how it is irretrievably gone, is it own kind of pain.

Nor do I know what exactly I am rowing toward.

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