Golden Retriever

A New Lease

I've raised the horizontal blinds that cover the floor-to-ceiling windows of my convertible studio apartment.  The Chicago River is frozen over, cars on the expressway are slogging in both directions, and the sun is sneaking above the high-rise and loft buildings that complete my view to the north.

A new lease waiting to be approved is on my small Lime Ricky green table. As of April 15, I will have lived here for one year. I settle on a pillow that softens the seat of a wooden chair and start reviewing before I sign on the dotted line.

The view distracts me, so I drop my pen and allow myself to muse over the decision I made just two months after my husband died November 2, 2012.  Elbowing past advice to make no major moves for at least a year, I put our house on the market. And five months later I landed here, in this new apartment and life. Now, as the lease renewal approaches, I decide it's time to review the pros and cons, and changes, which have occurred since that swift transition.

First the pros:

I love my living space. While the views are new, the furnishings are warmly familiar. A dozen paintings that burst our house's walls with color and interest are now hanging in my 612-foot-cocoon. My Kingsbury Plaza maintenance men leveled, nailed, and attached all; one of many tasks they have undertaken with sweet eagerness.

I am typing this essay on a gaunt MacBook Air, which I exchanged for a muscular desktop that would've overwhelmed my Sapphire blue worktable and pint-sized apartment. Instead of the home office I once had, I now work in a snug corner with a built-in bookshelf that holds the few volumes, photographs, mementoes, and supplies I brought with.

I am managing without owning a car. A major change between my former life and current -- other than I'm absent my husband -- is that I no longer own a car. Finances were the primary reason, but also, I can walk to grocery and department stores, am a few blocks from three CTA lines, and can hail taxicabs or use an App for shared rides.

I have boosted my physical and spiritual health.  The East Bank Club is adjacent to my apartment building, so no matter what winter delivered, I've been able to travel underground and work out at least five days a week.

The club has also become my afternoon distraction. At times, my apartment feels claustrophobic, so I return with my laptop to an alternative, people-filled environment. And because, off-and-on, I've been a member for 30 years, I greet many old friends and meet new ones.

I've joined Chicago Sinai Congregation (walking distance) and attend weekly Torah study. Along with filling in the holes of my religious knowledge, membership has brought a sense of community and new friends.

I don't have to worry about home maintenance. When weather forecasters warned homeowners to beware of frozen pipes, icicles dangling from eaves, and sidewalks and driveways needing plowing, I was grateful I was no longer a homeowner.  

And now the cons:

I have made only one friend in my building. In my old Dakin Street neighborhood, I knew nearly every family on my block. I watched kids grow from babies to teens. In my apartment building, which is more like a dorm because of its thirty-something population, I have made only one good friend. She's the age of my daughters, and cares for me and makes me laugh just as my flesh-and-blood do.

I miss owning a dog. Although my building allows pets, and there are many I can coo at, including my friend's bity boy, I pine for a pup. But, the practical me understands I can't afford the extra expense, I'd have a hard time racing to a vet without a car, and potty breaks in a high rise are challenging.

I'm spending too much money.
I think it's a wash between my monthly rent and my former mortgage payment. And, with the absence of car expenses and lower utility bills, it would appear I'm in good financial shape.

But, with the pros I mentioned earlier, like my pricey health club and proximity to grocery shopping (Whole Foods) and department stores (Nordstrom's), I'm finding temptations hard to pass up. Thus, I'm wary every time I face a monthly statement.

Despite the cons I've confessed, I know that if I had stayed put, the traces of Tommy and our Golden Retriever, Buddy, would've trumped all and tinted my mood. I signed the lease. A new year, a new me.

Empty Nest Syndrome, Part 2

I had narrowed my search to synagogues whose online descriptions contained code words that met my criteria: inclusion, equality of women, welcoming to gays and lesbians. As I scrutinized their monthly bulletins, I imagined myself sitting in a Torah class debating the text's contemporary relevance. Would that satisfy a current tug?

Maybe a Sabbath service at another house of worship? Could that  reignite a lapsed  faith?  Or, would a film or book group provide stimulation and challenge? A social justice program focused on immigration? How about that one?

The quest began to feel familiar, so I closed the cover of my laptop and moved to the couch for further investigation. It was there, sinking into the furniture’s comforting cushions, with my eyes shut, that my mind was free to flip the pages of the calendar backwards. Days, weeks, months, years reversed until I reached 1988. That's where my tour ended. I was likely, once again, suffering from Empty Nest Syndrome, albeit with very different losses.

I pin my first experience with the malady to the gloom I felt after my two daughters moved from living at home to their own apartments. But, that wasn't the excuse I used to cajole my husband. My addiction to my girls, and his feelings of being lower down my list of beloveds, were already causing frays in our 28-year marriage. So, I opted for a project I thought could bring us closer together, and perhaps fill the void left by my absent offspring.

“I want to join a synagogue,” I told my husband. We were living in our posh condominium off of Michigan Ave. and seated at the breakfast table with a view of the lake and other high rise buildings.

“Why now?” he asked as he divided the morning paper -- sports for him, local news for me.

“The High Holidays are coming up and I don’t want to feel left out,” I said. “I don’t want to feel dumb anymore.” This was believable, and it remained the excuse I gave to others who questioned my synagogue search and my timing.

“I’ll do the investigating and If I find one that feels comfortable, you can check it out,” I said.

We landed at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation (JRC) in Evanston. With its charismatic rabbi’s encouragement, I joined the Board of Directors, and embarked on a year-long study to have an adult Bat Mitzvah.

My plan worked. My husband joined the synagogue’s choir, accompanied me to Saturday morning services, and lifted his tenor voice in ritual song during the celebration of my late-to-the-game, coming-of-age ceremony.

Then, he left me for another woman.

Feeling like a third wheel, and possibly the object of pity by those who knew my story, I dropped my JRC membership. Occasionally, I’d return, and when I married Tommy, I brought him to a special service. But, my second husband had his own Lutheran lapses and while he encouraged my bond to my roots, had no interest to join me. So, I slowly let Judaism seep away until this current search.

While my first attack of Empty Nest Syndrome was brought on by my daughters’ departure, I realize now this second episode is due to a combination of losses. Consider: within a period of six months, Tommy and I had soothed our golden retriever as the dog took his last breath. Three months later, it was my husband who died after being diagnosed with throat cancer.

Then, I added to these losses by -- in what  seemed like a flash -- selling our house and moving from a neighborhood where both the dog and spouse and I lived happily for 13 years with model neighbors.

While my swift action was intended to lift depression and establish myself in a new, urban lifestyle -- and in many ways the relocation has accomplished this -- that blue feeling that accompanied my daughters’ leave-taking has begun to creep in.

How to fill the void? Will a particular synagogue help me find new faith and relieve the sadness? But, then I remember those old “third wheel” feelings that arose as a solo amid families and couples. Would I be at ease in pews of long-time members up-to-speed with one another and liturgy?

Perhaps I should instead postpone the search, slow down, and sit with the inevitable sorrow that has been my recent visitor.  Staying put; a new challenge for me. 

Re-Couching the Potato

I'm on the couch watching an episode of "Castle," when I say aloud, "This is a fun show, Tommy, I wonder why I didn't watch it with you?"

Of course, there is no reply from my spouse as he has been dead for over six months. But, like many widows, I regularly engage in one-sided conversations.

I continue, "I know you're getting a kick out of me being back on a couch. They tried to pull me off, but the routines you and I treasured are winning out."

The "they" I'm referring to includes my daughters and my friends who derided my married couch-potato lifestyle. Neither Tommy nor I were partygoers or night owls and we preferred staying home, watching television on our dual couches.

It's likely they blamed my reluctance to venture out after hours to either my husband's preference and my adherence to his wishes, or later, during his illness, to wanting to be on hand for his care.

While some of this is true, I must now confess: Tommy wouldn't have cared if I left him to join friends for an evening out. On the few occasions I did this, I'd return, flop onto his couch and jokingly say, "Don't make me go out again."

"You belong home with me and the Pooker!" he'd say. Buddy, our Golden Retriever, would be tucked in next to Tommy, so I’d have to squeeze myself in between man and dog to make my silly announcement. Of course, that scenario occurred several years ago, before aphasia robbed my spouse of speech and when Buddy -- who somehow became “The Pooker” -- hadn’t succumbed to his 14-year-old canine ailments.

My life obviously changed when Tommy died. With his presence not overriding decisions, I opted to try to fulfill the wishes of They. So, I booked theater events and dinners out with friends. In long distance calls and on Facebook status updates, I trumpeted, “The potato is becoming un-couched.” At once, I was lauded by those championing an exit from my nightly horizontal TV-watching habit.

And, when I sold our house and moved to a downtown apartment, my support team concluded, “Now that you’re in the city, you’ll find it so much easier to go out in the evenings. Restaurants, theaters, movie houses all nearby.” With my interests at heart, they likely envisioned me dolling up nightly, slipping on high-heeled shoes, enveloping myself in new, not-black t-shirt and not-blue jeans clothing.

Alas, a leopard doesn’t change her spots and you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Take your pick of these animal-themed cliches. After a month in my new urban lifestyle, with a vibrant city and night lights summoning from my floor-to-ceiling windows, here I am plopped on my solo couch, and even finding new TV shows to watch. I offer a few reasons:

1) I love T.V. Tommy and I had a roster of shows -- primarily police and medical procedurals, with a few sit-coms thrown in -- that I taped so we could watch them together during our 7-8 p.m. viewing. Recently, I stretched that time to begin at 6 because I added Netflix and Apple TV and am catching up on missed programs.

2) I’m an early-to-bed and early-to-rise kind of a gal. I’ve been this way for as long as I can remember. As proof, there are black-and-white photos of me slumbering atop folded arms on banquet tables at weddings and bar mitzvahs. So, like those metal doors that seal run-down storefronts, my lids fold at 8 p.m.

3) Because I am much more active during the day, I require evenings at home to recharge. I live adjacent to a health club, and I exercise most mornings. There’s a Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Mariano’s, and Target within walking distance. These frequent 2-mile roundtrips, accompanied by age and arthritis, demand relief.

4) I have lunch dates nearly every day. Friends are eager to see my new place,  so we’ve been booking meals at nearby restaurants.  One restaurant meal per day is fun, two is overkill.

So now, in my adorable urban apartment, with a view of the Chicago river and skyscrapers, I’m on my couch with a dinner tray atop my stretched out legs. While my loved ones might be disappointed in this turn of events, I know of someone who’s delighted. “Move over,” I imagine him saying. So, I do, and at the same time, make room for the Pooker.

The Sign

The sign is actually quite simple, just the realtor’s name, his company, and contact information. It stands to the right of the stairs that lead up to the front porch. Because it's a windy day, the sign sways, but the post that anchors it, remains steady.

The sign must’ve been planted when I was elsewhere in the house because this is my first sighting. From my window view, I see that the message is printed on both sides. Good idea, I think, that way passersby coming from either direction, can learn that our house is up for sale.

I say "our” house because I can't yet bring myself to omit my husband from its ownership. And perhaps that's one reason I hesitated in allowing the sign to be erected in the first place.

"Can we put it on the market without a sign?" I had asked my realtor.

"If that's what you want, that's fine," he said.

"I'm just not ready."

"No problem."

I'm not sure why I balked. After all, my neighbors have followed my life and Tommy's illness with steady concern and support, and are all aware of my decision. "We hate to see you go," they had said, "but we understand."

Nearly 13 years ago, when we first bought the house, these neighbors came to our door bearing a flowering plant and a plate of cookies. "Welcome," they said, and then handed me a flyer for a block party that was scheduled later that month.

One by one, I met nearly everyone on our street. I’ve been witness to pregnant bellies and adoptions that brought forth children whom I’ve watched sprout taller every year. And, I’ve seen puppies grow from wild frolickers to snoozers on front lawns.

The block parties continue as annual events, and each year spread further up and down the closed-off street as new young families discover us. "We've blossomed into a small-town square, straight out of Norman Rockwell," is how I described our last party.

Perhaps Tommy’s and my entry into the neighborhood all those years ago was made easier because of our own Golden Retriever, for this is a dog-addicted neighborhood. There’s a park at the end of our block that attracts early risers who meet daily to release their pets to delirious chasing of tennis balls, and one another.

After our dog died in June at the age of 14, I'd still return to the park at the morning light and imagine Buddy in the mix. He was just 1-1/2 years old when we chose him from a shelter. For a few weeks after he was gone, I'd return to the park with my jacket pockets still filled with treats, a tennis ball, and a plastic bag. I'd sit on a bench and chat with friends while watching the dogs play. Eventually, though, I deposited a half dozen balls on one neighbor's porch, and boxes of treats on another's.

As I think of it, perhaps I didn't want to put up the for-sale sign because I thought it would break Tommy's heart, even if he might be too remote to notice. "Feet first," he'd say whenever anyone would ask if we'd ever leave.

Lately though, I believe my husband would approve of my decision to sell and move to a rental apartment. He knows I'm useless with a hammer, am terrified of a power mower, and need more than a stepladder to change a lightbulb. These were his tasks, and I’m certain he’d rather I keep my hands off them.

Because of the way he cared for me during our 16 years together (2 as sweethearts, and 14 as wedded), I don't think Tommy's keen on me living here alone, despite the safety of our neighborhood. In fact, as I do the nightly security check: lock windows and doors, turn on outside lights, and draw the drapes, I can sense him in my shadow, double-checking my work.

I realize that in the morning, when I do the reverse of the nighttime check, when I open the drapes, turn off the porch lights, and unlock the front door to retrieve the newspapers, the first thing I'll spot is the sign. Perhaps I should brace myself for the expected pang.

But it could be, that after a night’s sleep, I’ll see it in a different light -- not as a prompt of old memories, but as guidepost to my new chapter.

Without A Trace

"It might be best if you stash some of the family pictures," the realtor says. "People coming through want a clean landscape; no traces of the current owner."

I realize he's trying to be gentle for he's aware of the circumstances that led to my putting my house on the market.  I'm not offended by his suggestion. We’re a team with the same goal: sell my three-bedroom house, which has become too large and too lonely without my husband. If successful, then move me into a rental apartment that will better suit my budget and solo life.

"I guess I could de-clutter," I say. My gaze travels around the rooms on the first floor. The dining room table holds a framed photograph of Tommy on his Schwinn. I love that picture because it's testimony to his amazing spirit. Despite my husband's challenges, he'd hop on his bike every afternoon, while I'd stand watch at the window and pace until he returned.

I hit pause on my reverie and promised the realtor, "I'll handle it before the showing."

"Take your time," he says, and puts a hand on my shoulder that tells me he sympathizes.

When he leaves, I move to our upright, its top decorated with photos of two different Golden Retrievers, beloved pets who gave us 9 and 14 years of sweet companionship. Where to hide these temporarily? The piano bench! I open the lid and place the three pictures on the Rogers and Hart Songbook.

The second floor is the real challenge, for it's not only Tommy and the dogs hogging every surface and shelf, but daughters, grandchildren, and my brother and his family. All smiling back at me with memories of our younger, innocent, hopeful selves.

I slow my task because each photo must be studied. Their backstories flash in front of me, like the crawl at the bottom of a TV screen. Instead of sports scores or weather advisories, the line that enters my vision reminds me: This one must've been taken 16 years ago because my oldest grandson is just a baby here. My daughters and their partners, Tommy and I, and Sasha, the first of our dogs, are sprawled across our queen-sized bed.

Everyone in the scene gleams. The joy of a new grandchild and the feeling of family togetherness are palpable. Now that I think of it, I believe some of Tommy's happiness in that photo was due to this new family he has won. With no children of his own, my second husband relished his sudden role as stepfather to my vibrant daughters.

Without a piano bench to use as storage, I find a carton to hold the second floor's larger collection. I lift a photo from a book shelf. It displays my husband and me and my brother and sister-law. We are at some party that I can't recall, but it must've been special because the men are in sport jackets and the women in fancy clothing. "Is anything wrong with Tommy?" is the line that this photo generates. "He seems to be repeating things."

"It's not Alzheimer's," I tell my brother. "He forgot to take his thyroid meds for several weeks and he's a bit muddled." Wishful thinking, I realize now. Not Alzheimer's, but the first evidence of a brain degeneration as miserable as the better-known illness.

There are wedding photos everywhere. Tommy and I posed as newlyweds; smiles nearly as bright as the Las Vegas lights in the hotel we've picked for our venue. Here's a crowd photo of my daughters, their partners, my grandson now a toddler, my brother and sister-in-law, and friends who could fly in for our January 13, 1998 wedding. I gather all of these testaments to our happy union, then open a dresser drawer to tuck them in.

On the nightstand next to our bed, I not only have another framed photo of my husband, but also his watch, wallet, and wedding band. I've set them here as a makeshift alter -- my last stop for a goodnight chat before heading under the covers. One-by-one, I place  each totem in a drawer. But once strangers traverse my clean landscape, I'll  retrieve and return his beloved possessions to their rightful spot.

When I am finished de-cluttering, and my home no longer bares traces of my old life, I head out the door. The realtor is due soon with a prospect. I hope they have children, a dog, and, please, a camera.