A Resting Place In The Garden of Eden

“Be sure you blow out the candle before you go to bed.” It was my husband’s voice reaching out to me. This was a familiar warning, because when Tommy was alive, he repeated that order every Friday night after I lit the Shabbat candles.

“It has to stay on for 24-hours,” I said, not aloud, just in my head as I have done for many of our afterlife conversations. “It’s a memorial candle, it marks your November 2 anniversary.”

“Your people are weird,” Tommy said. “Why celebrate my death? Why not my birthday? Our marriage?”

“It’s not a celebration,” I said. “More an occasion to remember our loved ones. Did you hear me recite the memorial prayer; His resting place shall be in the Garden of Eden? I like that. It helps me cope.”

I went on, “I imagine you in my version of the Garden of Eden, playing golf with Bill and some other departed duffers. Your voice is fully repaired, so you’re teasing each other with each shot. Am I close?”

“Pretty good,” Tommy said. “Add in that we never have to reserve a tee time. We can walk on any course, any time of day or night.”

I loved that image, so I took our conversation a step further. “Can you believe, sweetheart, it’s been an entire year? Blink of an eye,” I said.

“Well, you’ve been a busy girl during that year.”

In my mind, his voice was proud not angry. I recognized that cherished tone because it was one that bound me so closely to this second mate. I could see him at the 2006 book launch for my memoir; first row, first seat, beaming at me as I stood on the stage of Women and Children First.

Tommy was my first reader for the book. I’d hand him 10 pages, which he grabbed as eagerly as if I was writing one of the Elmore Leonard or Ruth Rendell novels he loved.

“Great,” he’d say. Or sometimes, “I don’t like the chapter title,” or “I don’t understand this Yiddish word.” Those reviews were my cue to alter or translate.

“Yes, it has been quite a year,” I said, winding back to his assessment. “You supported all of my activities, right, honey?”

There was a hush from my illusive conversation partner. He’s likely reminiscing about our house, I thought, the one we lived happily in with our Golden Retriever, Buddy. The house I sold.

A few beats later, his response: “It was hard to watch you leave Dakin Street,” he said, confirming my suspicion. “But I understood you had no choice. Without me to do the maintenance stuff and without Buddy to protect you, it was too large and too risky to stay alone. Still, I felt a pang.”

I quickly changed the subject that was raw for both of us. “So, Tommy,” I said. “How are you keep tabs on me? Watching on high from a cloud?”

“I read your blogs,” he said.

I hit pause on our chat as I quickly reviewed a year’s worth of posts. Were they all favorable? Had I exposed anything he would prefer hidden? When I started the first blog, “The Rookie Caregiver,” I called him to my computer and asked if he’d like to read what I had written.

“Pull up a chair,” I said, nervous about his reaction. My husband was more private than I, even elusive about his past, so I worried how he would feel about this Internet publicity.

But he avoided a seat and instead stood behind me as I scrolled through the pages. He patted my shoulder, and raised two thumbs, his universal sign back then of “Okay by me.”

“You’re fine with all of this past year’s posts?” I said to my dearly departed. I wanted to be sure I understood him correctly. I knew there could be several filters between heaven and earth that might mess with communication.

“Sure,” he said, “I’m quite the superstar up here,”. “Everyone is jealous they’re not kept alive – well, sort of – like me.”

“Your privacy,” I said, “you don’t have a problem with me sharing our stories with the world?”

“Sweetheart, don’t get a big head. It’s your world, your friends, and your fans. You’ve never kept secrets from them.”

I was relieved to hear this, to get Tommy’s blessing. “Okay, honey,” I said. “You can rest easy. I promise to blow out the candle before I go to bed.”

“Good girl,” he said, then, “love you, Wifey.”

“Love you, too, Hubber, I said; misting at the memory of our pet names for each other.

Déjà vu

I watch as the nurse places two plastic bags in the locker. One holds my friend’s shoes; the other clothing he has removed following the nurse’s instructions.

“Will my stuff be safe?” he says to me.

“If you like, I’ll put your wallet and watch in my tote,” I say.

What I don’t tell my longtime friend, who I’ve accompanied to this Outpatient Ambulatory Surgical Center, is that I’ve got this down pat. In Tommy’s case, I stowed his aged wallet and wristwatch in my bag where it never left until I placed them on a mini-memorial atop his chest of drawers in our bedroom.

“I left my wallet home,” my friend says.

“So, no worry,” I say. I sit on a chair facing his bed while we wait for another nurse to come in to get his vitals. Next, the anesthesiologist reviews drugs they will use to knock him out, and finally the surgeon appears to discuss what happens next.

While this is going on, I zone out and recall the time a year ago when I sat with Tommy in a pre-op area. In his case, the ENT team planned to insert a feeding tube down his throat so he could get nourishment. He was dehydrated – that’s what brought us initially to the hospital – and the tube was to solve his problem. Then, we’d be on our way home.

After they wheeled Tommy out of the pre-op area to perform the procedure, I returned to his hospital room. The phone rang. “We have a problem,” said the doctor on the other end. “When we tried to insert the tube, there was a blockage. We’re pretty sure it’s cancer.”

The voice of my friend’s surgeon wakes me: “He’ll be out of surgery in a half hour, so just stay put in the waiting area.”

Sure enough, before I know it, the surgeon finds me to say, “He did great. You can go in and see him.” My friend looks fine, and is chatty. Perhaps the painkillers, or his relief all is over is making him eager to converse.

But, as we talk, this latest nurse is monitoring his blood pressure and it is too high. Could our gabbing be the culprit?

“Do you mind?” my friend asks with an eye to the closed curtain that will lead me out.

“No problem,” I say. Then once more I go to thoughts of Tommy and the time he was in this hospital and wouldn’t let me out of his sight. During the 10 days he was here, I’d sleep on a cushioned window seat. On the few nights I didn’t stay over, I’d return to find him wearing a weighted vest.

“He tried to leave,” a nurse explained. “Had his clothing, shoes, and baseball cap on. Was halfway down the hall before we caught him.” Often I’d wish he had escaped, for those hospital days were the worst of my life -- heartbreaking and fruitless.

Once my friend’s blood pressure subsides, I’m allowed to return to his room. He is dressed and ready to be escorted via a wheelchair to curbside where a cab will return us to his nearby apartment.

At his high rise, I push open the lobby doors to save him from exertion. We go upstairs and I hang out for a few hours until I’m satisfied he can be on his own. “I can call neighbors if I have problems,” he says. “Go home.”

When my Tommy was finally released from the hospital – with his internists’ advice to forgo risky surgery because it would be torturous and not cure his aphasia or his increasing dementia -- it was an ambulance that took us home.

When we arrived, neighbors were waiting. I stood on the porch as the drivers lifted his stretcher up the stairs. The neighbors followed and held the front door open. With a gentleness and reverence that reminded me of a potentate’s litter, our caravan moved to our bedroom where a hospital bed awaited.

With Tommy safely settled, in the house where we lived for 13 years, away from the hospital setting I had grown to despise, the neighbors stayed to help set up the equipment. Oxygen tanks and medical supplies stuffed the hospice room.

An evening phone call to my post-surgery friend confirms he is managing okay. The painkillers are doing their job and he is comfortable watching television. “Thanks for being there for me,” he says.

Because Tommy wasn’t able to speak for the last year of his life, I didn’t get those same words. But, as many a caregiver will tell you, it was an honor to be there for him.

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.

A Swell Party

“So, what are your planning for your 75th?” a friend asked.

“I don’t think I want a party,” I said. “I’ll declare the entire month of August my birthday and I’ll let friends take me out to dinner.”

“Sounds like a good plan,” she said. We were on the phone, so I couldn’t see her expression. But, her tone was skeptical.

 “I’ll save money and avoid bruising those I don’t include in a big bash,” I said, trying to convince her, and myself.

But, was it really a good plan? What if the once-in-a-lifetime occasion drifted away and I came to regret the absence of a party? And despite the several friends who volunteered to host individual birthday meals, my idea was beginning to feel tepid. Even depressing.

As I continued to muse about my approaching big day, I decided to pitch the question to Tommy. Although gone from this earth, he and I frequently engaged in conversations that I found enlightening, and more important, uplifting.

“What do you think, Honey,” I said aloud. No one else was in my apartment when I launched our dialogue, so I didn’t have to fear skepticism or derision. “Expensive party, or a series of dinners?”

I waited a few beats to conjure my deceased husband, but soon enough, I could feel his presence. “This bed is too small,” were his first imagined words. I was propped upright on two pillows in the new full-size bed I had purchased for my small apartment. Tommy’s assessment was coming from the empty side of the bed.

“It fits my life here,” I said. “But, let’s get to the question at hand. Do you agree it’s better to ditch a party and save money and bruised feelings?”

I expected a significant “yes” because for his 75th, we went to a restaurant with two other couples. I had offered a party, but my husband, who shunned the spotlight and frivolous expenditures, declined.

“You should have a party,” I was certain I heard him saying. “And, I’ll throw it for you.”

I placed my hand on the bare linen, then on the pillow I hugged each night pretending it was Tommy. He continued, “ask Barry if he’ll open our favorite restaurant for you on a Monday when he’s usually closed.”

“Smoque, the barbecue place in our old neighborhood?” I said.

Because I was directing this movie in my head, I could pause it at any point and insert flashbacks. I saw Tommy and me entering the restaurant, just days after it opened. Barbecue, a few blocks from our house! I was in heaven.

Although my husband was a vegetarian, he was satisfied with salad, mac ‘n cheese, baked beans, french fries, and peach cobbler while his wife alternated between ribs, brisket, and chicken. He knew my addiction to this menu and, in his love for me, put Smoque at the top of the list when I asked him for a lunch choice.

In my film, I saw calendar pages flip quickly as Tommy and I remained patrons of our neighborhood joint. As his brain degeneration progressed, we developed a ritual. As soon as we entered, he’d head for the cooler, pluck a cola, then proceed to our regular table. I’d go to the counter, order his veggie sides, then add my meat choice of the day.

Tommy was in charge of salt and pepper packets and plastic silverware, which he’d pickup on his route back to our seats. Within 30 minutes, without my husband having to struggle to find words or conversation, we’d be on our way home.

“What about the money?” I posed to my apparition. “It’s really not in my budget.”

“Life’s short,” I heard him saying. Perhaps his experience -- dying at the age of 77 -- was now altering his views of frivolity and finance.

In an email I wrote to Barry, I said: “You may be wondering why I haven’t been in lately. Tommy died November 2, and it’s been too painful to return. But, my 75th birthday is coming up, and in honor of that occasion, and in memory of Tommy, would you consider opening on a Monday night for a private party?”

Five days before my actual birthday, on a Monday when the restaurant doors bore taped signs that read, “Private Party,” I stood with a friend who had clasped me in a hug. “It’s a shame Tommy couldn’t be here,” she said.

I smiled, stepped back and surveyed the happy crowd. Above the cheery noise of 40 friends and relatives, and with Barry on hand to supervise the celebration, I shouted to be heard, “Oh, he’s here. He’s definitely here. In fact, he threw it for me.”  

Body Type

I watch as she moves closer to him. When her body meets his, she lifts her arms to wrap them around his neck. She raises her chin to smile. He looks down at her, circles her waist with his arms, then offers a happy grin.

My paper cup of iced decaf is cold in my hand, so I shift from staring at the young couple to finding a seat in the cafe. I lower my tote bag to the empty chair next to me, extract my cellphone, and check email messages. But soon enough, I return my gaze to the couple. They are chatting while still deep in the hug.

This is what I miss, from my marriage, from my husband. The toe-to-toe enveloping, the hug. I wonder, does she get to inhale the scent of a freshly-laundered shirt, as I did when I closed in on Tommy? Does her boyfriend’s shirt smell of Target’s lemon-scented detergent? Tommy’s did.

Although my husband was decades older than the lad in my vision, his frame and strong body were similar. When I met Tommy, on the street where we both lived, my first thought was, "not my body type." He was about 5'9", tall enough for a shrimp like me, but had no fat, no rolls plumping his belly. "Nothing to hang onto," I complained to my friend after a few early dates.

The short, tubby, white-haired, Santa Claus-type, sans the red suit, was what I was going for after a divorce from my first husband, who at 6’ and skinny towered over me. I didn’t need Dr. Freud to diagnose that my predilection for rotund was based on my father, the parent who called me his princess.

Before I met Tommy, I found a boyfriend during that Bermuda Triangle period of my life -- between divorce and remarriage -- that perfectly fit my body-type requirements. He was short and fat, had grey hair, and even smoked round the clock like dear, departed dad. While the cigarettes, fast and careless driving, unhealthy eating, and intense friendships with other women, should’ve sounded alarms, I was too smitten to think clearly.

Fortunately, my father's doppelganger settled on another gal that he fancied more than me. I lamented for a bit, but eventually realized I was fortunate in dodging a lifestyle that likely would’ve had me growing infirm and fat.

When nonsmoker, tip-top shaped Tommy came into my life, I quickly tossed out my previous preferred body type and came to love the one I married. Of course, my husband’s other prized features helped to dump doughy. Tommy was low maintenance, helpful around the house, had interests that matched mine, and most importantly, thought I walked on water.

Not long after my sighting of the hugging couple, I told my daughter, “I’m not ready to date, and I can’t imagine sharing my new life with anyone, but I miss spooning. It’s a bedtime perk I pine for.”

 “Try a pillow,” she said. “Get a king-sized one, place it vertical in Tommy’s spot, and cuddle up.”

In the bedding department of Macy’s, I had my choice: down-feather combinations, foam, polyester fiberfill, memory foam and latex.  Prices varied. When the salesperson was out of sight, I lifted each pillow and hugged it to my body. Like the children’s fable, one was too soft, another too hard, and one -- although not perfect -- would do.

Along with my pillow selection, I bought a set of king-sized pillow cases. I washed the pair in Target’s lemon-scented laundry detergent, then slipped one over my husband’s proxy.

At night, as I clasped the pillow to my body, I knew my arrangement would be a poor second to the real thing. The body type turned out to be flawed, too cushy where it should’ve been muscled, too short where it should’ve been a few heads taller. But the freshly laundered pillow case conjured a fragrance that improved my tableau.

With my imagination urging me on, I whispered to the pillow, “love you, Tommy.” This was my half of a duet we played out each night. In my head, the one now deep into my polyester fiberfill,  I could hear his response: “Love you, too!” 

 The pillow, which soon morphed into my perfect body type, and I, grew drowsy, then we both surrendered to sleep.