that's not on my bucket list

“So where will you live if you have to live without Buck?” my sister asked in our long phone call last night. “It’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it.”

No, no. There’s nothing imminent going on, thank God. But she knows that Buck is 82 and I am 68 (good solid peasant stock and so far remarkably sturdy) and so barring a freak accident or random deadly disease, the brutal calendar suggests I could be a widow for a long time.

Flo is ten years my senior. She turned 79 yesterday and her husband of 56 years turns 81 today. “If I have to live without Charlie,” she said in her voice which has grown breathy and thin, “I think I’ll stay here with my kids. Plus I love Arizona.”

“We’re not in control of the timing of things,” I say, “so it just depends. We know we need to sell the big house while we are still strong enough to do all the necessary things on our own.” Flo has opened the door, and I muse aloud. “When we sell here, when that time comes, we plan to go to Jacksonville and hunker down somewhere close to the Mayo Clinic where we’re assured of great medical care.”

“And they know you there. They have all of Buck’s records.”

“Yes.”

“So you think you would stay there, then?”

“Probably, I don’t know. Somewhere in Florida, for sure. I love old Florida, somewhere on the water, maybe a river, but near the ocean where I could walk the beach everyday. Mother was so strict, I never got a sunburn as a teenager.” Flo and I quietly laugh. Oh, we both knew our mother.

Well. It’s early morning now. I realized that conversation was still on my mind when I called Lou dog by my sister’s name when I got out of bed in the dark to leave Buck and my bedroom, trying as I always do not to disturb his sleep and failing as I always do. He stirs and reaches for me.

feeling the bite

I typed that title, erased it, wrote “nibble,” erased that because it wasn’t true and was too clever by half, typed “feeling the bite” again and am going to let it stand even though it makes me feel like a traitor.

Sexy as hell in a black silk t-shirt, Buck sat on the end of my bed and tried to explain that the day would come when the 14 year difference in our ages would bite. I was 30 then and couldn’t imagine my own mortality, much less his.

Like the two intelligent communications professionals we were, he and I “talked through the Scotch” over many fire-and-bedside chats, and eventually came to the conclusion — in classic cost-benefit analysis style — that if we could get a good 20 years, it would be worth unwinding the dregs of two failed marriages and making a life together.

That was 38 years ago. The investment ripened with years of reinvested dividends and was amortized decades ago. It’s been cream off the top ever since, and more exciting than most Blue Chips.

Buck told me to keep my seatbelt buckled; that it was going to be a wild ride. And I’ve done that. Good thing, too. Especially for this part.

Guess I’ve broken the ice for myself on this delicate subject. It may take a few more food pictures before I broach it again. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, time’s precious, and I’m shutting down the computer for tonight and joining Buck and Lou Lou Belle in our bed we fondly call “the cloud.”

Facing our (Aging) Face

Success in shooting pool is a matter of geometry. The angles for shooting an aging face are even trickier. Especially with a cell phone.
Success in shooting pool is a matter of geometry. The angles for shooting a selfie of an aging face are even trickier. Especially with a cell phone. Taken Sunday, August 17, 2014.

I know a real estate broker who continues to use a photo in her newspaper ads that was taken thirty years ago.  It might work if she never met her prospects. Makes it much harder to establish trust. We wear the years in different ways. I see something in my eyes, a weight, a fatigue,  that wasn’t in earlier photos. It’s subtle, perhaps invisible to the casual observer, but hard for me to look at because I know from whence it came.

May 22, 2014

Tired and nervous as a cat, I am sitting in Room 138 of the Courtyard Marriott adjacent to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. Buck is in the shower, preparing for a routine EKG at 11:50, then an appointment with Dr. John Casler at 1:15, then a 3 p.m. with a nurse practitioner to go over labs and clear him for general anesthesia tomorrow morning for Dr. Casler to remove the enlarged lymph nodes from the left side of Buck’s neck.

11:45 now, and we’re in the Davis Building. Buck has gone in for the EKG, which we are well-accustomed to,a s we both get one every year as part of our physicals.

It’s been so many months since I kept a regular journal that the very act of putting ink onto paper feels strange.

I’m so anxious about Buck’s health I can barely focus my eyes. He would say I am hollering before we’ve been hit and of course he is right about that. Nonetheless, I feel half-paralyzed, jerky, spastic. Much too distracted to read a book.

I see I am in no-way prepared for our “real” aging, possible illnesses and eventual death. Not his. Not my own.

Where Meaning Dwells

“One in six men will get prostate cancer in their lifetime. Most of them will die of something else before the prostate cancer would have killed them.” The urologist sat on a swivel stool and looked at my husband, who was perched on the edge of the examination table.  “But here is where it gets tricky,” Dr. G. continued. “How long are you going to live?” He glanced over at me, flashed his steel-blue eyes. I felt like he was gauging my reaction to see how open he could be, whether I would get up and run out of the room. He looked back at Buck. “Because that’s a big factor in determining how, or whether, we treat it.”

Buck doesn’t have prostate cancer, or at least if he does we don’t know about it. Yet. But his Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) numbers have turned erratic. A chart he and I made last night from 2008 to December of 2013 looks like a nascent Bull stock market beginning to make a run. And the doctor’s question goes to Buck’s age. “You’re an unusually healthy guy for 76,” he said. “Extremely fit. No meds. Most likely good for what? Ten to twelve years? Maybe more?”

My ears began to buzz, and I had to concentrate on breathing to keep my hands from clenching the chair arms, to keep my face impassive when I wanted to scream. I felt like an atomic clock was in the room with us, counting down seconds.

Buck laughed easily. “Oh, more, I think. Maybe a lot more.”

We talk about death sometimes, and he makes me swear to stay healthy and safe. I swear. I make him swear to live forever. He promises to try.

The urologist explains to us that Buck’s PSA numbers aren’t alarming in isolation, but have begun to show a certain velocity that can be a danger sign. He wants to be sure if there are any cancer cells present, he knows which type they are. Apparently some are quite aggressive and some are not. The doc recommends an ultrasound examination and biopsy. Buck agrees and a time is set for next Wednesday.

We’re back home now. It’s raining and dark, with deep, nearly continuous rumbles of thunder. Buck is downstairs in a room we call “The Lodge,” writing away on the revision of a book he has just completed. I’m upstairs in an open area we dubbed “The Treehouse,” drinking spiced Chai and writing too many words in a bright circle of light. The curtain of rain outside the windows when it hits the concrete patio below makes a sound like tin foil crinkling.

A woman acquaintance warned me once that I was unwise to be so close to my husband; that in time it would bring me grief. Can you believe that? Foolish woman.

Besides, grief has been my close companion since I was 13, and I am unafraid of it. It is like that inner part of a ripe tomato skin, the part I call the velvet, the part where meaning dwells. You can only get to it by dropping the ripe tomato into boiling water for thirty seconds and then lifting it out with a slotted spoon. The peel slips off, revealing the gem-like velvet. Grief is always in the room with us. Grief, I think, is also the kernel of love.

A happy postscript: Dr. G’s nurse, Patty, called Friday morning, to advise us there were no aggressive cancer cells, no passive cancer cells, not even any passive-aggressive cancer cells, none at all. When I looked at Buck, he suddenly seemed years younger. When I caught my own eye in a mirror later in the day, so did I.

Morning Scribble

scribble . . . to write hastily or carelessly without regard to legibility, correctness, or considered thought

– Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (unabridged)

That’s what I’ll be doing in this space every morning. And lucky for you, it will be posted privately within the blog, so you won’t have to read my messy ruminations. Other posts about writing, reading, photos, nature walks, all the random “Beth’s world” stuff, including vignettes and little stories, will be shared in the clear.  But not the scribbles.

Buck and I talked night into morning. We read in bed for hours, then turned out the lights, held hands (and toes, I hope that’s not too much information) in the way of content long-marrieds, and as our talk turned serious we finally got hungry and padded to the kitchen for milk and a fig newton.

We talked about aging, how it is no longer an abstraction. We talked about the weight and heft of memories in a long life. Buck reflected that memory is not a series of events, but a constant process of feeling, of sensation. You don’t just think of something that happened long ago, you feel it. It can be joy, but there’s an accumulation of loss and regret, too. Every one of his 76 years was in that handsome face at one this morning as we talked about the gifts and burdens of longevity.

I wrote yesterday of a portion of my “program of work” this year for writing.  Buck and I are developing our own personal agenda to craft a living space and lifestyle that will carry us through the next decades in the independent style so crucial to our well-being and productivity. Not for the faint of heart, but then, denial is not our style.

I see the ink beginning to fade on this scribble . . . by tomorrow it will have faded, and any future writings in the “scribble sector” of this blog will be invisible.

 

 

Tough Old Bird

She reminds me of an old four star general, marching reflexively to distant cannon fire and preparing for battle with a ferocity no mere civilian can grasp. Thanksgiving is coming, and there is an eighteen-pound Butterball to be bought, defrosted for three days and reconstituted as a living symbol of perseverance.

I’m only 62, a youngster compared to our venerable guest. She has buried more relatives than I even know, including her husband and several sisters. She has been to the brink, too, peered over the edge and decided she would rather gamble in Biloxi on Saturday, place a different sort of wager in church on Sunday, and hop a cruise ship every chance she gets.

“Take it easy,” is not in her lexicon of acceptable phrases. The first word out of her mouth is “No,” quickly followed by “This is what we’re going to do.” She made a major concession to be our guest Thursday along with seven other family members, but only because I was implacable on this point, and she is busier even than usual, shuttling between visiting another sister in and out of the hospital, applying hot and cold compresses to her own eye following a procedure last week, and planning her next trip.

Come Thursday afternoon, Madam General will load her Lincoln Town Car with the glorious bird, pans of cornbread dressing, pole beans fresh from the farmer’s market, and homemade chocolate layer cake and fudge pie. She’ll drive her 85-year-old self to the woods. She’s one tough old bird and I salute her.

One Ping Only

“MR. WESTMARK, ARE YOU EXPERIENCING ANY PAIN?” The nurse’s round, pink face and pear-shaped body makes me think of a giant bunny. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a fluffy cotton tail beneath his scrubs.

“No,” Buck said.

“Would you confirm a few details for me?” Once Nurse Hare has Buck’s full name and our phone number, his computer screen fills up with personal archival information from every encounter Sacred Heart Hospital and Buck have ever had, except maybe for his birth, but that happened in 1937 at the old hospital over on 12th Avenue.

“And can you tell me why you are here today?”

“Well, it’s probably nothing.”

The nurse tilts his head, waiting.

“It’s a funny feeling, right here, where my heart is. Like a wave. Doesn’t last long. Doesn’t hurt. Feels electrical. Kind of like what I had a month ago, but those just felt like extra thunks. Lasted about a day and a half. This is different.”

A white hospital bracelet materializes in Nurse Hare’s hand and he has Buck’s wrist ensnared within it quicker than a New Orleans’ cop making a wee hours arrest. I watch his smooth professionalism from where I stand two feet away, leaning against a file cabinet. He continues to puff out questions like soft clouds, all the while taking Buck’s temperature, pulse, and blood pressure, looking without looking, assessing. “Are you feeling that sensation now?”

“No. I feel fine.”

“When did it start?”

“When I got up this morning. Happens every five to 20 minutes. Umph. There’s another one. So, around lunchtime, I called my internist, and he wanted me to come over here and get an EKG.”

Nurse Hare completes his intake and gives Buck a paper with a number on it: 94 — not such a bad number to have, since it’s based on a triage designation. He points to a room visible through a transparent plexiglass wall on the other side of the main reception area, and tells us to watch the screen and listen for a doorbell sound and that number being called. We move in that direction like obedient, slightly confused, sheep.

By this time it’s nearly 2:30.  A TV suspended in one corner is set to the Weather Channel. We and others in the room gawk at the image of a large tornado that has touched down near Gulfport, Mississippi. The storm is headed our way. Great.  When a tall young guy in blue scrubs calls #94, (no doorbell sound, nothing on the electronic screen),  we meet him at swinging double doors. I tell him I am going to run out and move the car from the Emergency Room’s 15 minute zone and will be right back. He explains that Buck will probably be back out by the time I return, that they are going to do an EKG and get some blood, and then it will probably be an hour or so until they can “kick somebody else out”  and have a bed ready.  Did he say bed?

They disappear into the back-shop.

Out front, several city police cars have two men and a woman sequestered within their bulky circle. The woman wears cut-off jeans and a green tank top that shows tattooed cleavage and rolls of fat between where her top ends and the shorts begin. That scene, plus the scudding clouds and swirling wind, add to my sense of unease. I run to the car and drive across the street to park at the very front of the shopping mall parking lot. It’s a lot easier than riding around trying to find a parking space on the hospital grounds. I feel strange and exposed while I wait for the walk signal to cross 9th Avenue back to the Emergency Room. The sky looks like it’s in a bad mood. I smell rain. Where is that tornado now? I know Buck is okay. Isn’t he?

Buck is back in his seat by the time I return. “The tech said he didn’t see anything that would raise any flags on the EKG.”

“Good. What happens next?”

“We wait, damn it all. Here I rush us down here and take up the whole day and nothing’s wrong.”

I smiled. “I can live with that.”

He laughed. “Yeah, well, I take your point.”

He pulls a full legal pad stuffed with several stapled inserts from his black zip-up case and goes to work editing a section from his manuscript draft. I flip open my Kindle Fire and read a few chapters of Natalie Goldberg’s latest, The True Secret of Writing. Between the Weather Channel’s doom-like forecast, the cop scene outside, people-watching and eavesdropping, I don’t get far in the book, but far enough to read her description of visiting Ernest Hemingway’s home in Key West, and noting that Death in the Afternoon is one of her favorites.  I have specifically, maybe immaturely, avoided that one because I think it’s about the glorification of bull fighting. But now, my fingers moving as I watch that tornado on the flat screen, I find I have instantly downloaded Death in the Afternoon into my Kindle library.

I hear a child call “Mama? Mama?”

A woman speaks. “Here it is, Mama. Here’s that cheeseburger you wanted.” A shapeless old white-haired woman slumped in a wheelchair  falls upon the greasy package like it was her last meal.

A Chinese man walks in with quick, short steps, his face set in worry lines. Heads straight for the security guard standing almost at attention beside the reception desk. “O.R.? O.R.?”

Finally, the guard comprehends. “Third floor.”

The man spots a nearby elevator and starts walking. He turns back to look at the guard.  “Here? Three?”

“Yes.” The guard nods.

I’m at the desk to ask a question and overhear this exchange. “You get some of everything here.”

“Yes, we do.”  He is a tall black man, mid-fifties if I had to guess, with a baritone voice, military bearing and wise eyes.

We have been waiting for about an hour when a man in jeans overalls and a brown t-shirt comes in, accompanied by a large woman in baggy fuchsia shorts with her blond hair pulled back in a pony tail. She walks to an empty row of chairs in front of us, but he stops and sits down beside me. She calls to him and motions, but he says, “I’m wore slap out. I’m taking a load off.” Her eyes dart around, but when she sees he is not going to get up, she walks back and sits by him on the other side. The unmistakable odor of fresh excrement wafts over Buck and me. We don’t look at each other, but silently, simultaneously gather our things and go around the corner where we spy four empty chairs right beside the automatic front doors. They open every few seconds, bringing in a new wave of humanity on a tide of fresh, humid air. It is the best seat in the house.

A man arrives by ambulance, covered in hives, unable to breathe. His wife stands in the front entrance, explaining this to someone on a cell phone. She sounds calm, almost nonchalant. When she walks by, I catch a fragrance of fresh soap and strawberry shampoo.

Buck writes, strikes over, writes again. I start reading Death in the Afternoon.

A disparate gaggle, two women and a man, comes in the door and stands a foot away from us. “I was callin’ and callin’ her cell phone and she don’t answer it. Finally, she picked up, and I got her talkin’ to me but she was talkin’ real slow. When I got over there, she was gone, and they cain’t find her. ” The man mutters something. I smell nicotine and booze. A nurse herds them to a far corner, where I see her explaining something to their bowed heads.

Technically, Buck and I are violating the rules of the way the ER is organized. We’re sitting in Reception, rather than one of the three holding pens set aside for those who have already been “received.” I see the battle-weary woman, an efficient traffic director, exchange a look with Roosevelt, the tall security guard, but they don’t ask us to move.

Shortly after 5:00 p.m., a tech fetches us and we follow him to Cubicle 9. The obligatories follow: shirt off, gown on, lie down, blood-oxygen, blood pressure and heart monitors up and running, messy stab for an unneeded port in his well-muscled right arm, and several Residents come in to talk. By this time, Buck and I both are more than eager to get out of there. Knowing we had to come. Knowing he really is fine.

There’s talk of premature ventricular beats which are generally benign, heads nodding in the right direction about the cardiology appointment we already have upcoming, and discussion of his great-looking runner’s legs, and overall fitness. The patient doesn’t take any meds; has an athlete’s slow heart rate. All good. They leave.

We yank off the EKG sticky pads. Buck gives me one of his trademark sharky grins. “Well, Twitchy Baby, looks like it was one ping only. Let’s go home and get us a good drink.”

Patriarch

BUCK REGALED ME WITH ALL SORTS OF ENTERTAINING STORIES when we were courting thirty years ago.  “Courting” is one of those sweetly anachronistic words that is fun to type, rich in images from an earlier century. Heh.  I laugh, but as a matter of record our courtship and marriage did happen in the latter third of the previous century.

One of his stories involved a beautiful blonde-headed toddler of a cousin named Marianne. Her parents lived in Washington, D.C. and little eight year old Buck, five years her senior, had come to visit. They fell in love, in the way of young children, and romped all over his Aunt Marguerite’s and Uncle Muegge’s house until young Buck outdid himself trying to impress Marianne and went sailing off a second story landing and bounced off the wood floor below, alarming the adults and bruising more than his ego.

Marianne lives on Pawley’s Island, South Carolina now. Like Buck, she has grown children and grandchildren. She lost her beloved Jon last March after 44 years of marriage. Let’s just say I cannot imagine and do not want to ever become a member of that club.

In a brave, intentional effort to emerge from a chrysalis of grief, Marianne came to see us last week, a side trip on her way to spend a week with old friends of hers and Jon’s in a resort on Anna Maria Island on Florida’s west coast. We took a field trip to Joe Patti’s Seafood Market one day to fetch cocktail crab claws and fillets of fresh red snapper, went to lunch at a wonderful new restaurant, IRON, another, but mostly we sat at a small round dining table in the Longleaf Bar and Grill right here at home and talked until the dinner, wine and ice cream were long gone and the short, fat candles sputtered. We brought out fragile old photo albums. We laughed, cried, and marveled together at the unexpected twists and turns on the road between childhood and old age. My fingers linger when I type “old age.” It feels presumptuous; inaccurate. Do I include myself? I don’t think 61 is “old.” Buck at 75 is not “old.” Where is the line? Is one old at 85? I know people whom I consider old (as in old fogies,not old souls) at 43.

And yet, a time may come, with longevity, when one is the eldest member of a particular blood-tied clan. I rather suspect it may be a peculiar, lonely feeling.  Saturday morning, as Marianne was about to leave, Buck said, “Well, I sure don’t feel like it, but I guess I’m the patriarch.”

Marianne said, “You sure are!”

Beautiful Decay

A fallen log in the stream bed at Longleaf in February, 2013.
A fallen log in the stream bed at Longleaf in February, 2013.

Don’t laugh (or cry, please) when I say that the most miraculous thing I have ever seen is a baby’s solemn eye, so new to the world and ready to put on a cloak of assumed merriment to help us all believe the illusion; and the softest thing I have ever felt was the skin of Buck’s mother’s hands, which I held those fourteen afternoons in June when we scattered runes, interpreted dreams, and added columns hoping to believe in the plus side, while she slept and I rocked in the cornflower blue chair.

Shadow of a twisted branch in the shallow stream bed at Longleaf in February, 2013.
Shadow of a twisted branch in the shallow stream bed at Longleaf in February, 2013.

Layers of decaying leaves in the stream bed show like shells through the clear shallow water until they dissolve back into the fecund muck; twisted vines and sun-starved branches throw shadow pictures on the surface. Its feet in the water, a Florida anise tree every spring sheds scarlet fringes like ribbons. I follow them on the pulse of the lively spring, all the way into the dark heart of the eternal swamp.

Florida Anise Tree Bloom