California Dreaming

"How often do you get to see your parents?" I asked the limo driver.

"Only every few years,” he said.

We were in bumper-to-bumper traffic en route to LAX where a flight would return me home to Chicago. I had started this query as a diversion, and because of an itch I had packed along with the contents of my suitcase.

"How do you feel about that schedule? Does it work well for everyone in your family?” I was settling into the smooth black leather seats of the luxury car, and grateful for the driver’s willingness to share.

"I don't like it," he said. "I wish they lived here full time. They're getting older -- my father had small strokes a few months ago and it would've taken me 10 hours to get to Peru.”

I hadn't thought about that, about an adult child's reasoning for wanting his older parents to live closer. Could it be that part of my California daughter's wish to have me live in her city was partially based on this concern?

The possibility of a move was started as a seasonal idea. "Maybe I'll come in February and instead of staying my usual four days, I'll spend a few weeks," I said. "Get away from Chicago's winter."

"Listen, Mom," she said. "You may not believe me, but when I told you I’d love you to move here, I meant every word of it."

“Well, if I ever did move here, I wouldn't want to live with you. I wouldn't want to be sitting around waiting for you to escort me somewhere."

"Who said you could live with me?" She was joking; I was sure of it.

"Maybe I could rent a small apartment?  And a car?" As we talked, I could feel the discussion moving from italics to bold. Was I considering a sunbird's getaway, or something more permanent?

By now, I was playing my own devil's advocate. "Actually, with Tommy and Buddy gone, there's really nothing to hold me in Chicago,” I said. “I got rid of most of my possessions when I moved to my rental. It'd be one load of a cross-country moving truck."

"Oh, oh," said my other daughter in earshot. "If Mom's thinking about it, it'll happen."

"No, no," I said. "I haven't decided anything. We're just talking here. But, it would be nice to see my grandchildren grow up. And maybe with me here, you'd move, too?"

"I have a life in Boston," she said. "But, it would be great to have you and Sis in the same place."

The discussion ended at that spot, but continued to swirl around on my ride out of Los Angeles, onto my plane, and when I landed at O’Hare.

“Good to be home,” were my first words as I settled into the cab that would take me to my apartment in River North. Home, where did that come from? What had happened to my temptation to move to California?

My sentimental feelings about the city where I was born, and had lived nearly my entire life, continued as I entered my building’s lobby.

 “Welcome home!” said the evening concierge. There was that word home again. Was he somehow privy to the back-and-forth going on in my head?

And when I unlocked the door to my apartment, my declaration, “I’m home,” was automatically shouted out.

I dropped my luggage and cozied into the couch to survey my doll-sized estate. Paintings on every wall, our wedding photo and pictures of our dogs arrayed on a built-in bookshelf, my small office desk and bench, floor-to-ceiling windows with their awesome display of the river and night-scape -- all exuded a warm familiarity. “I love you!” I blurted out.

That’s when I realized how much I had come to adore my new place, which has quickly become a refuge and cocoon cushioning me from the sad events that propelled me to this new life. How could I ever leave this solace?

How could I leave a friend I’ve cleaved to since sixth-grade grammar school, to dozens more friends won over the years, to treasured relatives,?

And, how could I leave a recently joined synagogue study group that is helping me refresh my spiritual self?

The path was clear: If concern for my health was a factor, I’d assure my faraway daughters that my strong support group would be at the ready in case of a medical emergency; no need to immediately hop a plane to be at my bedside.

Then, I’ll book one week -- two weeks top -- in February. Afterwards, I’ll return home, to Chicago, where I belong, and where I'll continue my new, independent nourishing life.

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.

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.

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...