Blue Line

Homeward Bound

The first thing I saw was an American flag flying from a pole attached to the roof of the porch. My heart lifted. It wasn’t patriotism that buoyed my spirits, but a sign that the new owners of our old house had changed its appearance.

I had dreaded returning to the place where Tommy and I, and our golden retriever Buddy, had lived for 13 years. Because my departure wasn’t spurred by happy events, but by my husband’s death in 2012, this visit was stained with sadness.

When I first received the invitation to share the graduation celebration for a neighbor’s children, I told my daughter, “I don’t think I can go. The party house is right across from ours. It will be too painful.”

As I spoke those words I envisioned our blue-trimmed house with porch steps that needed painting, the flowerpots that Tommy hung each summer, and the decorative bench that sat along one side. 

I conjured images of Buddy and I seated on the top step. When my picture included my husband on his red Schwinn rounding the corner heading towards our house, I couldn’t stop the tears.

“Do you have to go?” my daughter asked. “I’m sure they’ll understand.”

“I love the graduates and I believe they’d like me to be there,” I said. “Maybe I have to think of them instead of me.”

On the day of the graduation party, I rode the familiar Blue Line train to my stop. The cars were filled with passengers and luggage on the way to the final destination of O’Hare Airport. Going home, I thought to myself. These travellers were likely looking forward to their return, while I was worried about my reaction.

I could have walked on the opposite side of the street, but was drawn towards my old house, where the sight of the flag eased my passage. When I arrived at my address, a large black dog raced down the steps to greet me. “Sorry,” said someone on the porch as he tried to move the dog that was now happily being petted.

“No, it’s okay,” I said. “I love dogs. This used to be my house.”

He reached out a hand. “Hi, I’m a brother-in-law, let me get the owners.”

When he went inside to retrieve them, I introduced myself to people sitting on the porch. My apprehension was evaporating as I witnessed how much this beloved spot was being appreciated by others.

A couple, likely in their 40’s, were exuberant in their greetings. “We’ve heard so much about you from the neighbors.  We’re happy to finally meet you. Would you like to come inside?”

I hesitated. I was doing okay so far, hadn’t fallen apart, but could the interior send me over the edge? “Have you changed the inside?” I asked. “If it looks different, I think I can handle it.”

“Come in,” they said. They led me inside and were as tender as if I were returning to a long-ago childhood home, rather than one left a mere four months ago.

Several of the former white living room walls were painted bright colors. The wooden floors had been finished in a darker stain. The stair bannisters were now white. In the kitchen, the oak cabinets had also been painted white.

I couldn’t recognize this house! There was no repetition of the many pieces of art we had hung on our white walls. A large sectional had replaced the facing couches that cushioned Tommy and Buddy on one and me on the other.

“Do you want to see upstairs?” they asked. I was growing confident.

“Sure,” I said. More painted walls, a crib in the smallest bedroom, an alcove there once stuffed with extra bedding had become a closet for baby clothes, new carpeting in all of the bedrooms. I was as delighted as if I had been the contractor who had performed the renovations.

I cooed and praised at the remake. It wasn’t so much because I admired their decorating choices but because everything looked completely different!

We shook hands when I left. “I know you’ll enjoy the house and the neighbors as much as we did,” I said.

“We love it already,” they said.

The party was sweet; the neighbors were grateful I had attended. When I left, as I walked back to the Blue Line on the opposite side of the street of my old house, I stopped for a final look.

“Goodbye,” I said. With just a slight mist blurring my vision, I put two fingers to my lips and blew my old house a kiss. Then I continued my journey home.

My Psyche and Its Five Stages

In the past few weeks, my psyche has been on a roller coaster. I’ve counted five stages that lifted, dropped, and finally steadied me. 

The Euphoric phase began when I prepared to move into my new apartment.  I breezed through my To-Do list: Hire a mover, arrange for a house sale,  unpack boxes with the help of a best friend, submit maintenance request for paintings to be hung,  renew membership at adjacent health club. 

Jubilant text messages and photos flew from my iPhone to friends and family. I gushed of exercise classes, breakfasts with friends, walks downtown. My daughters especially, returned words of happiness for me.
As prepared as I was Euphoria, I failed to brace myself for the next stage, and wound up capsized by Grief. This is what happened: The estate sale of left-behinds was over. I thought it wise to return and check out the house before the buyer’s walkthrough that was to occur on the morning of the real estate closing. 
 “Why are you going back?” a daughter asked. 

“I just have to be sure all is okay for the walkthrough,” I said. 

“Do you think you can handle it?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

I took the Blue LIne from my apartment, then walked the short blocks to my house. I got only halfway there when I could feel myself crumbling.

“Will you go with me?” I said to a neighbor as she was getting into her car. “I’m going to check out the house, and I don’t think I can do it alone.”

“I’m on my way to pick up the kids,” she said, “but I’ll get my husband.”

I stood on the sidewalk, sinking lower each minute, as she raced into the house and returned with her husband. He grabbed my hand.

“I thought I could handle it,” I said, already weeping. 

“No problem,” he said.

When we arrived at my front door, my neighbor handed me off to the owner of the estate sale company who was awaiting a pick-up of my upright piano.

“I’ll take it from here,” she said, and opened her arms for my collapse. 

As I hung on to her, I viewed the empty house, now devoid of furniture, artwork, clothing, pantry or refrigerator goods, and I sobbed.

The emptiness and finality summoned the same anguish as I experienced with my husband’s death

“Get it all out,” she said. 

By the time I left our house for the last time, I recovered. I reversed my route and returned to my apartment.

Two days later a text arrived from my real estate broker, “The walkthrough went fine, no problems.” 

“Thank God!,” I sent back. “I was on pins and needles.” Because I had rolled the dice and moved out before the closing, I was especially grateful to enter this stage, Relief.

A few hours later, a phone call from the same person, “Congratulations,” he led off. “I wanted to be the first to tell you. The closing is over, all went well. You’re no longer a home owner.”

I sent texts to my daughters and friends who were awaiting the outcome of the closing, “‘Tis done!” 

Their responses came immediately: “Congratulations!” “You must be so relieved!” “Yay!” 

But instead of joining the glee chorus, I had an odd feeling of, how shall I say it, anticlimax. Where was the Euphoria I had felt when I moved, pre-closing, to my new apartment? Where was the Relief from the first text of a successful walkthrough? 

I realized then that those positive emotions had been first put into play with Tommy’s death. His absence, the void, the empty house, the finality, would forever tinge these pleasurable feelings.

“You can pick up your check,” came the next electronic message. This, from the paralegal who had worked on the deal. 

As I walked from the lawyer’s office to my financial manager, with the check from the house sale proceeds tucked inside my tote, I felt myself entering yet another stage, Pride. I had done it. I made the decision to put the house on the market. I had successfully, with my broker’s aid, negotiated a price that brought a bounce to my retirement account. I had moved, unpacked, and was already settled in my new home.

My roller coaster ride is easing into the finish line. I’m calling this stage, Tranquillity. Not as heady as Euphoria, much better than Grief, a companion to Relief and Pride, and an emotion that, prayerfully, will keep me company as I move through even more stages of this new life.  

Carless in Chicago

I am in a window seat on the CTA Red Line that is traveling towards Howard. When I reach that stop, I will transfer to the Purple Line that will take me to Main. From there, I will walk about six short blocks to my friend Ruth's house.

As I look out the window at the high rise buildings and landscapes skimming by, I contemplate my new role as someone without a car. I do not feel deprived. In fact, I am enjoying a new sense of calm, relief.

Being carless is a fresh experience for me, for I have been a licensed driver since the age of 16. With learner's permit in hand, my dad took me for my first lesson. I don't remember the exact details, but I can easily see me in the driver's seat of his Buick, propped up on at least two cushions to have a view over the steering wheel. My dad, Irving, is in the passenger's seat. A Camel he is smoking is dropping ashes on his shirt, but he is unperturbed. He brushes them to the car's floor with his left hand, while his right maintains steady drags on the cigarette.

"You're going too slow!" he is shouting at me. I am cautious, because Dad was the opposite. I had no intention of emulating his speed, or his habit of weaving in and out of cars like a NASCAR competitor.

We both survived those early lessons, and I emerged with his perfect method for parallel parking. It is a skill I taught my daughters, my recently deceased husband, and my grandson.

I'm enjoying this musing as an El train passenger. "It's my meditation," I had told my daughter after the first of my carless trips. She worries about my anxiety level, certain it will topple me one day.  "I study the view, the people entering and exiting. I eavesdrop on conversations. I can feel my blood pressure dropping."

"Okay," she says, mollified for the moment. My child is worried that I gave up my Honda Fit hastily.

"Couldn't you have held onto it until you moved downtown?" she had asked. "Why now, when you're still in your house?"

I knew my explanation would just reinforce her picture of me sizzling like someone receiving electroshock therapy. But, I gave it a shot: "I had an entire year left on my car lease,” I said. “If I couldn't return it to a dealer, I'd owe $3,000. The only way to get a manager to accept it was to be sure it was in perfect condition."

I revealed how my rides in the Fit had turned into episodes of angst. I was terrified backing out of supermarket lots, certain I would ding a fender. I was convinced my bumper would become a victim at a yellow light when I’ve stopped and the cabbie behind me doesn't.

"Okay, I understand that," she said. "But, what about grocery shopping? I don't see you shlepping paper bags on the bus."

"Peapod home delivery!" I said. "They shop at Mariano's, the produce and groceries are terrific, they carry the Intelligentsia coffee I love, and they even have the Alstroemeria flowers I've been using to perk up the house for showings."

"Sounds like you've got it covered, Mom."  

"Just think of it," I went on. "I'm reducing my expenses, getting exercise by walking stairs to the platform, and protecting the environment." As I recited these benefits, I was heroic, altruistic, deserving of a medal.

“Good for you, Mom,” she said.

My reflection of this mother-daughter conversation was coming to an end as I alighted from the Purple Line at my Evanston stop and walked to Ruth’s house.

“You made it,” my friend said as she stood at her open door. She led me in and waited as I unzipped my boots and removed each layer of my wardrobe.

“No problem.” I said, dropping into the nearest arm chair. “Water, please.”

Ruth looked at me, and from her seat on a facing couch, said, “Marshall will drive you home later.”

Although I’m certain I would’ve rallied and successfully tip-toed the treacherous icy blocks to the Purple Line stop. And, heavily layered, I could have handled waiting on the windy platform for the Red Line. Knowing me, after carefully descending the slippery steps at Sheridan, I would’ve been fine sharing seats or aisles with bulky-coated rush hour passengers. But, I didn’t want to be rude.

“If you insist,” I said.

Ma's Home!

If I were clever, I would've recorded Tommy's voice declaring, "Ma's home!" and then jerry-rigged the machine to start as soon as the front door opened. If I had done that, my homecoming might have been easier. As it was, following a return flight from Boston, when I placed my carry-on in the front hall, I was greeted by silence.

Of course, in order to get my husband's happy welcoming, I'd have to go back to 2011 when he still had speech. But, lacking a crystal ball, how could I have predicted that by 2012, his aphasia would have robbed him of all words?  And, how would I have known that by Thanksgiving, not only his voice, but Tommy himself, would be gone?

The November trip to the East Coast this year, for the feast-filled celebration, was to be the first major holiday I had spent with either of my daughters in likely 14-1/2 years, the length of my marriage to Tommy.

Initially, my husband and I declined their invitations because travel on those special days were too expensive, and there were the crowds to deal with. My daughters accepted this as reasonable. And since a long-time group of friends, who gathered annually for Thanksgiving and Christmas, was part of the package that accompanied my second marriage, I could tell my kids, "Don't worry about us, we'll be with Tommy's gang."

But when the longing to see them erupted, I'd ask Tommy if he'd like to join me on a short trip. His response was always, "No, you go ahead and enjoy your family. I'll stay home and take care of the Pooker." ("Pooker" was our nickname for Buddy, our 14-year-old Golden Retriever who died in June of this year.)

With my husband's blessings, I'd do a four-day, non-holiday, trip to Boston or Los Angeles. I'd be sure to call him three times a day: upon arrival, first thing in the morning, and last thing in the evening. "Get your butt home," he'd tease. "I miss you, too," I'd say.

And, upon re-entry from those solo trips, I could hear a lusty, "Ma's home!" the minute my key turned in the latch.

When Tommy lost his ability to speak, I ended those visits. I feared for his safety on his own, and wasn't willing to diminish his independence by hiring a round-the-clock companion.

But, in May of this year, with my 10-year-old Boston granddaughter cast in a musical, I decided to try something different. I figured it would be easier to have him with me then worry about him left at home, "Come, too," I urged. Surprisingly, he agreed.

We hired a dog-sitter for Buddy, and off we went. Unfortunately, the four days proved to be challenging. My husband's brain degeneration -- the culprit in his aphasia -- had me watching his every move. With his reasoning kaput, I had to bar him from jaunts on his own. "Never again," I said when people asked how the travel experiment worked.

Thanksgiving 2012, just spent in Boston, was picture-card perfect. I relished walks along pastoral Jamaica Pond with my daughter, catching up on our lives. I stood back-to-back with my beautiful granddaughter, who had grown in height and maturity since I had last seen her. With lucky timing, I joined in on birthday celebrations for my daughter's partner. And, I was blessed to be a guest at the bountiful table hosted by more of my daughter's loving family.

Without an ailing husband at my side, or waiting for me at home, there was nothing to pull my thoughts and concern back to Chicago, I felt at peace; I relaxed. On the other hand, there were no arrival, first-thing-in-the-morning, and last-thing-in-the-evening phone calls to be made. No one awaited my voice.

When I landed back at O'Hare, rode the Blue Line to my stop, then walked the few blocks towards our house. I stopped at the foot of the stairs to extract keys from my backpack, then hoisted my carry-on to the porch. I took a breath and steeled myself.

If only I had thought to record, to set-up, to be greeted by Tommy's joyful "Ma's Home!" it might have eased my homecoming. But, then again...