hip surgery

The Men In My Life

I’ve unpacked the tin tubes, plastic posts, and curved tops from the skinny box that has arrived from Walmart. The directions for the shoe rack appear fairly simple: attach this to that, then that to this, and finally, remove scrambled shoes from the floor of my bedroom closet and set them neatly on the gizmo.  Alas, my assembly looked like a wacky Lego, rather than the structure promised on the carton’s front.

Ramir to the rescue. In less than five minutes, he unscrewed and repositioned all of the parts until it was a replica of the image. Ramir, along with George, Greg, José, and Roberto, who are members of the maintenance crew in my apartment building, have smoothly taken over the helpmate role once performed by my husband, and several men who lived on my block on Dakin St.

Back then, when Tommy and I were in our three-bedroom house, John topped the team who cared for us. Even before my spouse became ill, when he was able to still mow the grass or shovel the walk, John would beat him to it.

“Honey,” I’d say. “I hear a snow blower outside. Do you think it’s John?” 

We’d both go to the window, open the drapes, and wave as we saw our neighbor steering through through white mounds on our front walk on his way to our driveway.  While John was the über neighbor,  there were other males who came to our aide. 

“What ever you need, any time of day,” was what Casey said as the ambulance drivers were bringing Tommy up the stairs from our ride from Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Then, Casey placed a yellow post-in in my hands with his cell phone number. 

Joél on Dakin St. asked how he could help after I had hip surgery. “My car needs maintenance,” I told him. “Give me the keys,” he said.

During the 12 days my husband was in hospice, upstairs in the bed with railings on both sides, his long-time buddy, Randy, visited several times a week to rake leaves and de-clutter the downspouts. 

After Tommy died and I sold our house and moved to an apartment building, friends who were experienced renters said, “You won’t have to worry about lawns or snow anymore. And if anything needs fixing, you just call maintenance.”

And I did. At first, my requests were basic: replace a dead light bulb, unclog the bathroom sink’s drain, coax a stubborn ice maker. But the new men in my life have far surpassed those everyday appeals. With care and precision, members of the staff have hung all of the two dozen paintings on the walls of my convertible studio. 

And it was Ramir who was at the door after this request, “I have a Hoover Upright vacuum cleaner, and I can’t figure out how to put it together.”  As I stood nearby, feeling like a dazzled intern watching a surgeon, Ramir studied the carton’s image, and quickly performed the operation. “Let’s test it first,” he said. He plugged in the cord to the wall socket and after the first loud hum, showed me how to steer it. Then, he stood by to be certain I could manage the hefty machine on my own.

“Can I give you something?” I asked him then, and again at the latest shoe rack assembly, for I knew these tasks didn’t really fall under the category of Maintenance. But, this new man in my life waved away my question and was quickly out the door.

When Tommy was well, which was the majority of our 16 years together, he was our family handyman. In the basement of our house he erected a wooden table where he placed all of the tools he had accumulated in his adult life. He mounted a pegboard on the wall that stored nails, screws, hooks, and other tidbits essential to his odd-jobs and carpentry ambitions.

As his health deteriorated, and this aspirations evaporated, I bequeathed the table, tools, and pegboard to good neighbor John. But, I held onto one hammer, one screw driver, and a pair of pliers, believing I’d need them in a future life.

I’ve used each gadget occasionally: to pound the cover  of a stubborn jar of pickles, to open a key ring and add a store’s loyalty card, and to twist off the top of a bottle of nail polish. But thanks to the new men in my life -- who have accepted all of the responsibilities once handled by the guys on Dakin St., and by my own beloved handyman -- that’s all this trio of tools will likely be asked to do.

Sunday Breakfast, Minus One

It’s 7:15 in the morning and I’m standing at the kitchen counter sorting out the bulky Sunday newspaper. “I’ve got your sports section and the comics,” I say out loud. My husband, who died Nov. 2 of this year, is not physically in the room to hear my declaration. But, conversing with him eases my raw pain.

After Tommy died, I halted our Sunday routine and stayed away from Dapper's, our usual breakfast place, believing it would be too painful for me to enter without him. But this Sunday, I had to shop at Target in the same mall as the restaurant, so I figured it'd be a good opportunity to test a revisit.

Somehow, I could feel my husband agreeing, celestially pushing for our regular weekend routine. First, though, I had to finish preparing the newspaper that had always accompanied us.

I replicated Tommy's system: Out went the advertising flyers to the recycle bin. Sports and Comics -- his first choice sections - on top of the pile, followed by News (local and international), Business, Arts, Travel, Real Estate, and Magazine. I took a plastic bag, packed in the specially-arranged paper, and drove to Dapper’s.

“Can I do this?” I said, as I stood at the entrance’s revolving door. Tommy, evidently believing the question was addressed to him, gave me a mystic push and sent me twirling inside.

I stepped to our usual booth. But, since we hadn’t been customers for two months because of my hip surgery, and my husband’s hospitalization and hospice, it wasn’t set up with our place settings. There were no tiny pots of jam, flavored coffee sweeteners, and other items our waitress, Linda, typically arranged before our arrival.

“Okay, don’t sit there,” Linda said rushing towards me. She grabbed my shoulders and steered me away. I was frozen in the spot, tears staining my eyeglasses. A few of the regulars swiveled to peek, but quickly returned to their newspapers and food. Our duo was minus one. My tears and my partner's absence told the story.

As Linda offered alternative booths, I said, “The counter. I want to sit at the counter.”

“Perfect,” she said.

Linda may have seconded my choice because it could keep her closer to me, perhaps to forestall a second breakdown. But, I had another reason: when I first met Tommy in 1996, he was a regular counter occupant at the Lakeview Diner. Once we became a couple, we moved to a booth.

Now, single, a widow, I decided to honor my husband; I’d become a counter person, too. At this early hour, I was able to spread out. My backpack went to the stool to my right. I unfolded the newspaper atop the bare counter on my left. I was easing in.

In between customers, Linda stood on her side of the counter, elbows up, hands holding her concerned face. I could bawl directly to her without rousing anyone else. “It’s so hard being here without him,” I said.

“He’s here, sweetheart, he’s here,” she said. “His spirit is here.”

“I really felt like he wanted me to be here, and he wanted to come, too.”

“Of course,” she said.

So, I did what I always did, but this time from my new counter seat instead of our old booth: I removed Comics and Sport from the stack I had brought with. Without worrying about anyone thinking me dotty, I said to my right, “Okay, Honey, here’s your sections,” then placed them on the empty space. As I finished my own parts of the newspaper, I’d add them to Tommy’s pile.

Although his stack never moved, never diminished, I was okay with the arrangement. I drank my coffee and ate my egg-white Spartan omelet with mozzarella instead of feta, Greek toast, bacon, and fruit. My eyes never left the newspaper.

When I finished my breakfast, Linda brought only one white foam box for leftovers. No need for Tommy's half of waffle, pancake, or cheese omelet.

I placed all of the newspaper sections back in the plastic bag I had brought from home including Tommy’s stack. I knew I’d never read Comics or Sports, but somehow, I couldn’t leave them behind.

After I paid the bill, and as I headed for the exit, with a lightweight bag of leftovers in one hand, and a full bag of newspaper sections in the other, Linda called after me,  “See you next week?” Her voice and face hopeful.

“I’ll try,” I said. “I’ll try.”

Then, with Tommy’s gentle push, I slowly revolved out the door into my new life.