Carol sleeping noisily on the sofa, this Thanksgiving night. The day, predictably, was quiet, folks everywhere celebrating the holiday each their own way. In the early afternoon, the pastor of the Methodist church Carol sometimes attended, called up to say someone would be by to drop off two dinners for us. This kind gesture was not at all unexpected. There was more food than we could handle, given Carol’s diminished appetite, so later in the afternoon, I heated up one of the two dinners and will save the second for another time.
Otherwise, Carol, whose stomach has been acting up, drowsed on and off, and I watched a lot of football.
Our daughter Danielle is planning a visit next month around the holidays. I have encouraged her to read this blog in preparation as she has not seen her mother in almost a year. She said that she has read parts of it.
But that is not enough.
Nothing, really, is enough.
I am concerned as to how she will handle the shock that awaits her. It is possible that Carol will not recognize her, as extraordinary a statement as that is. I have concluded that Carol’s siblings have stayed away because they find it difficult to see her like this. That is, perhaps, a kinder way of looking at their seeming indifference, but maybe a more accurate one. They, of course, grew up with her, knew her for the bright vital person she was, and saw her that way during the years since we moved here.
For Danielle, as her daughter, I can only imagine the emotions will run much deeper and stronger. Mother and daughter were very close through all the growing up years. Danielle has Asperger’s and Carol, long before the diagnosis, sensed that there was a problem and was protective. In spite of the autism, Danielle has managed quite well, got her bachelors degree, found employment, lived in Cleveland for her first job, and is now working in Minnesota and completing an associates degree in programming.
As she reached college age and now through her years of employment, she and I have grown closer, and her relationship with Carol is not as tight as it had been. But still, there is a lot of history between them. I think of their shared love of cats. Danielle has always had one or more cats in her apartments. They both enjoyed the Cat Who books.
Carol brought her up to be a strong woman, and that, I am sure, has enabled Danielle to overcome the obstacles posed by her autism.
She will need that strength as she confronts her mother’s diminished capacity.
She and I were texting this evening while she was still at work, talking about driving versus flying to get here, and that led to conversation about cars, and what I was thinking of doing when my current lease expires in a couple of months.
After we were through exchanging messages, I was looking at the app on my phone. I saw that it offered a link to pictures, those I had sent her, and those she had sent me. I looked through these images. Among them were a couple of pictures of our rescue Golden Retriever, and from her end some scenes of cloud formations that intrigued her. She shares her mother’s keen visual sense and love of photography. Other images sometimes served a practical purpose, such as one I sent showing her what baseboard heating looks like so she could tell me if that is what was in her apartment so I could guess at the source of her heating problem.
But most striking and heart wrenching for me was a pair of images from August of 2016. One of them is of Carol sitting at our kitchen table, with a little smile on her face, and waving. I couldn’t remember the context for this one until I saw its companion sent from Danielle, showing her sitting at her work station and also waving. I remember now that these photos arose out of a phone call as a kind of still picture version of Skype.
What struck me is that Carol is sitting up at the table, something she no longer can do. I believe, if I look closely at the picture, she is sitting in the transport chair. I must have wheeled her in that to the table.
Now, I cannot without great difficult get her into that chair.
The picture was shot sixteen months ago.
Checking my calendar, I see that those pictures were taken just a few days after we returned from our visit to Minnesota, a trip of about six hundred miles each way, involving stops in motels.
I cannot get Carol out of the living room, much less into the car.
Danielle saw her mother here last January, when we were still able to go out to eat.
We will not be able to do that this time.
Thinking about all this is so painful. Living with Carol from day to day, I don’t often take the longer view that I just did.
It’s like picking off a scab to see that the skin below is still raw.
Another almost winter day, no sun, a little snow, altogether depressing weather compounded by it being Saturday when it seems I am on my own little island while the rest of the world goes about its business. Tried to get worked up about Michigan playing Ohio State, but with limited success. I’ve never been that interested in college sports, coming from an area thoroughly dominated by the professional versions.
It is late afternoon. Carol is dozing and I will start thinking about supper soon.
I have attended funerals of friends or colleagues, and a few relatives of the in-law variety, but I have never experienced, close up, the death of a loved one, with one minor exception. The exception was my maternal grandmother, who lived with us for a time before going into a nursing home where she died.
In all honesty, even though she was a close blood relative, I can’t say she fits the categorization of a loved one. It’s not that I was not sad when she died. I simply did not have that much of a relationship with her. From the Ukraine, she spoke little English. Or it may be she was just a quiet person. Anyway, I can only recall one thing she would say from time to time, and that is “Hay is for horses,” probably prompted by hearing somebody say, “Hey…” I remember a few things about her, primarily the sour cream cookies she formed with an overturned glass and baked when she lived with us. I may be fabricating a memory when I think I recall playing Casino with her. Before she moved in with us, we would sometimes visit her in Brownsville in Brooklyn, where she lived alone in what I now understand to be straightened circumstances, but that being said, she never seemed unhappy or troubled.
Just not the sort of grandmother with whom a teenager, which is what I was when she briefly lived with us, would have formed a deep emotional bond.
My line of thought here is identifying individuals with whom I had a close, ongoing relationship when they died. I guess by close I mean both emotional depth and physical proximity. My best friend, best man at my wedding to Carol, fits that category. A troubled, hugely talented individual, he lived with us for a while when his emotional life had become a train wreck and he was sleeping in his college office before we invited him to stay with us. He accepted but insisted on paying rent.
He got himself together, remarried, separated, and was setting up his own apartment when I got a call from his daughter asking if I knew where he was. I didn’t. A little later that day another phone call told me that he had been found dead of a heart attack.
He was an Okie, and I was from Brooklyn but we became brothers.
He died twenty or so years ago, but I can still hear the concern in his daughter’s voice when she called that day.
My nuclear family members—mother, father, sister—all died in Florida while I was living in New York. I did not witness their final months, weeks, or days. In the cases of my mother and sister, their deaths were sudden. My mother had heart issues and her death, when it occurred, was not unexpected. My sister died from a freak occurrence. Not long after she died, my father was thought fit enough for coronary surgery at age eighty-six, but crushed by his daughter’s death, he never really recovered from the operation. I flew down the day of the operation, but thereafter I spoke to him from time to time on the phone but did not see him again.
All of this is the context of what I am thinking about these dark, late fall days. I am less prepared for what I am living through with Carol than otherwise I might have been. I imagine that after the death of people very close, one encounters daily reminders of who they were, most especially, as with a spouse with whom you shared living space. I recall, for example, visiting Carol’s uncle in the house he shared for so many years with his wife. Recalling those visits now, there were only a few objects that seemed to have been hers. Perhaps he had, over time, removed others, or maybe there simply were not that many clearly associated with her.
In any event, he seemed to have recovered from his grief and mourning. He could talk easily about his wife, although he did not do that very much.
I know that the sense of loss I experienced at the deaths of my parents and sister was somewhat less intense because they had not been intimately involved in my life for decades. My observation of Carol’s uncle dealing with the death of the woman he had spent his whole long adult life with suggests that after a certain period of time, the sharp edge of pain fades, or transforms into something more tolerable. And one somehow turns the page.
If you’re waiting for the point of all this to my situation, here it is.
Just this morning, I was doing something absolutely insignificant: putting breakfast plates into the dishwasher. As I stood there with the door of the dishwasher opened it occurred to me with disproportionate force to the trivial nature of what I was doing, that we had bought that dishwasher not that long ago, and that Carol very much wanted one with a polished steel surface.
How long, I wondered, would I be struck by these moments when I remember where or when something or other came into our lives. Not mine. But ours.
And does the fact that Carol is breathing heavily across the room from me now change those experiences for me?
She is not gone.
And yet she is going.