I had 45 minutes before meeting a friend at the Symphony. Bored in downtown San Francisco on a brilliantly sunlit late afternoon, at the Main Library right across from City Hall. Couldn’t go for coffee, because a friend and I were catching a quick dinner in between pre-concert talk and concert. Couldn’t hang out in the library (Duh!!) because I was still drinking my mint tea. Wondering how to entertain myself, I ventured outside, surveyed the scene and found:
A gaggle of police and security types surrounding a homeless lady, patiently explaining to her that she could not be hanging out on the Library steps with a rifle. “It ain’t loaded,” she was saying; “I ain’t pointing at nobody.” Some friends were vouching for her. Nevertheless, the rifle was confiscated and the lady admonished not to walk around downtown with an assault weapon.
Around the corner, two extremely agile skateboarders were having a contest, enthusiastically applauded by a small audience.
Back on the Library plaza, the now rifle-less lady sat talking things over, with only a few bags of belongings but still some supportive friends. Several of them seemed clearly in need of mental health services. (In my city’s defense, San Francisco continues to make heroic attempts to address homelessness and mental health issues but the need overwhelms the problem. Thanks a lot, Ronald Reagan.)
Also on the scene was the traditional errant seagull, surveying other settling-in homeless people, passing tourists and 6:30 traffic.
Eventually I strolled past the Library/City Hall area, a few blocks west to Symphony Hall. As my friend and I were waiting for the house lights to go down and the concert to begin, someone came down the aisle to reach his seat. His evening attire included strips of multi-colored blinking lights. The ladies on either side politely made way for him. Before the conductor came onstage he unplugged himself and all was calm.
Just another twilight in downtown San Francisco. But as darkness fell, calm prevailed — and the symphony was glorious.
They took the table in the morning. Two hefty moving men who were working in a nearby apartment and agreed to find it a new home. I had had it on Craigslist (for best offer) but got nothing but scammers, so the appearance of these gracious gentle giants was a blessing. The new furniture was scheduled for delivery at 12:30. Carefully they lifted the table around the living room corner and out the door – and only then did I realize I was not ready to say goodbye. Most of life had been lived around that table for the past 26 years. I wanted to run after the moving men and say, “No! Wait!! I changed my mind!!”
Who knew grief could come with such a wallop?
And why was I so unprepared? Had I not had the table on Craigslist for a week, and had I not talked with a half-dozen nonprofits who might be able to pick it up next month?
The table needs to go today, though, because the new furniture is arriving. New furniture chosen in the early weeks of this thing called widowhood. When images of a quarter-century of happiness around a clunky old oak table were an unformed abstract.
As I remarked to countless friends in recent weeks, the only big, clunky thing I ever really loved was Bud. I did not love our big, clunky old furniture. So it had seemed perfectly reasonable to send the aged sofa, chair, giant oblong desk/table etc off to new homes via the San Francisco Recology people and go select some lovely new pieces at Pottery Barn. (“You want to spend a lot of money fast?” I also remarked more than once; “get my daughter Sandy to go with you to Pottery Barn.”)
Before the new furniture arrived I had a long-scheduled interview for a newspaper story I was writing. As soon as it was in place there was a San Francisco Contemporary Music Players concert – with the weekend’s concerts dedicated to my good husband. There was very little time to mourn the table. Life goes on, and it is a wonderful life.
Still. At that table for happy decades every morning started with coffee and the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle (print editions.)
Around that table friends gathered for drinks, meals, conversation. Bud posed Tonto, his 1930s childhood doll, for a portrait. Martinis were served. Grandchildren now grown sat in highchairs while the grown-ups had a cold beer. Hands were held as prayers (multi-faith grace at meals for the most part) were said. Goodnights were declared.
Somewhere, for sure, the sturdy oak table is finding a new, happy home for its next half-century or so. May it rest in peace.
There seem to be a growing number of mortals on the planet who are convinced they have a direct line to the Almighty. On the face of it this looks like a pretty good thing – until you get to the point at which God is telling you something different from what She’s telling me. And that’s when I think it goes from good to scary.
I had an interesting conversation with a handsome Lyft driver named Zaid the other day. It included a crash course on the Quran. Zaid can (and did) quote extensively and verbatim from the Quran – so my Biblical/theological expertise was quickly outclassed and I figured I would do well just to listen. I am sincerely eager to understand all faiths better, so listening was easy. About five or ten minutes in, the conversation went thus:
Zaid: “So, do you even know what language Jesus spoke?”
Me: “Ummm, Aramaic?”
Zaid: “And how many years later was the Bible even written down?”
Me: “Well, the Old Testament, maybe five or six centuries B.C.; the New Testament I think about 50 or 60 A.D.?”
Zaid: “Exactly. On the other hand, the Angel Gabriel spoke directly to the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, who transcribed the words of Allah directly into the Quran (which I read from beginning to end at least once every year.”)
About this time I was grateful to be near my destination. Because we had reached the point at which I was to understand that Zaid’s God is right and mine is wrong. Now, although the God of my puny understanding has not responded sufficiently to a lot of questions about the injustices and inequities of our little planet, I’m cool with Her general compassion for me. And so far I haven’t found anything Jesus said about loving one’s neighbor, caring for those less fortunate, etc to be off the mark. (Actually, I think God may have said, in a sort of aside from time to time, “Who’s responsible for injustice and inequity? Me?? Or perhaps, you people down there?”)
I admire those who take their faith seriously enough to study on a continuing, regular basis. What I don’t admire is their conviction that they’re right and I’m wrong, and whatever they’re doing is right because God says so. It doesn’t take much history to see what trouble this has gotten us into. Or awareness of current events to see what trouble it’s causing all over the planet today.
God knows I have enough trouble with my fellow Christians. Particularly those of them in power who are telling me (for example) that God says a fetus has rights greater than those of the woman in whose body it resides. Or that I may not choose to lop off a week or two of intractable pain when I’m ready to die because God says I should suffer a bit longer. God seems continually in favor of laws that they like and I don’t. Not to get political or anything like that, but these folks are in cahoots with a guy who has broken most of the Commandments more times than can be counted, and if he’s done anything lately that Jesus might approve of I haven’t noticed.
In decades of working with the San Francisco Interfaith Council and other such groups I have met countless Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and followers of faiths I’m still learning to pronounce, all of whom simply seek peace. At community breakfasts etc everyone prays in his or her own tradition and listens, as well as possible, with an open heart. We actually stay pretty far away from suggesting that anyone’s god (or faith journey of whatever sort) is better than that of anyone else. But it’s a little disheartening to read every day about the meanness and murder going on around the globe in the name of the poor, abused Almighty.
I could easily be a Brahma Kumari. The Brahma Kumaris believe all religions are valid. Just about all they preach is peace. And not incidentally, their leaders are all women (who make decisions in cooperation with the guys, but still.) As far as I know, no Brahma Kumari has ever started a war.
Which is more than can be said for the rest of us righteous folks.
I can say this with some authority, having inhabited this strange new realm for roughly two months now. And though I concede probably 90% of the widows of the world – more, if you count Syria, Afghanistan, Mozambique, etc – are way worse off than I, still I can feel pretty pitiful about it with very little effort at all. Because:
No matter how independent you might have been for how long – and in six wearying years as a caregiver I have surely gotten used to flying solo – there is a weird stigma thing one now feels, as if an indelible W had been surreptitiously stamped onto one’s forehead. Accented by a gray veil that is technically invisible, but all-enveloping. The status is distinctly different from being single, or divorced, on both of which I can also speak with authority. Singlehood and divorce imply a chosen freedom, an aura of devil-may-care, if you will. Unless one all but takes out an ad proclaiming I don’t want this! I need a partner! (been there done that too, I’m afraid) the solo by choice can have a pretty good time doing exactly as he or she pleases.
Widowhood, on the other hand, is the Great Unchosen. (Well, unless you do in an unloved spouse with an axe or something, and choose to spend your widowhood in the penitentiary.)
It is like being suddenly halved. The other side of the bed is too vast and cold; the placemat on the left too perpetually vacant. The ability to spread out the New York Times without knocking over the adjacent morning coffee does not compensate for the darkness spoken by that empty space. Half of you reads the paper and sips coffee; the other half of you waits in vain for commentary on today’s breaking news or for the request for another piece of toast. The toaster isn’t even half functional any more; it only grudgingly accepts the new reality.
Widowhood is forever opening doors onto sadness. Occasional doors open to rooms full of people who feel sorry for you. They’re only being kind, but still. Many doors open into areas of couplehood where you no longer belong. And who can predict how many zillion times you open the door on coming home, calling out greeting and overflowing with tales that can no longer be told — because who can tell tales into a void?
The world shifts and resettles. Life goes on. Widowhood – even for the young, who lose husbands to stupid wars or senseless tragedies – is likely forever, since we females have an unnerving habit of outliving the males of the species. One adjusts, explores new avenues of finding joy.
“I promise,” I said, “that I will not let them admit you; we’ll come back home today.”
My husband, who had lived with congestive heart failure for decades, was so filled with fluids that he was like a walking (sitting; he was wheelchair-bound) waterbed. This was a Monday. I am not medically competent, but I’ve been a hospice, AIDS/HIV and Compassion & Choices volunteer, and I knew enough to know he was sliding toward end-stage CHF.
In the ER I mentioned to assorted intake people that we would not agree to hospitalization. The physician who eventually arrived looked my husband in the eye and outlined the ways she could help him feel better and perhaps live longer (he was 89.) “But it will involve being in the hospital for a few days,” she said; “and I think that is not what you want.”
“That is not what I want,” said my husband, looking her in the eye.
“Fine,” said this saintly, beautiful doctor (name on request; I’ve already sent her a thank-you letter copying everyone I can think of.) “We will do what we can, and send you home today.”
So we went home. It was a long day, and my husband was too weary even to finish his martini (an indication to me that he really didn’t feel well. The nightly martini was important.) He said he didn’t want even a bowl of soup. Bed sounded good, he said, but he was beyond cooperation. I then had to summon the Wellness people in our retirement condo building to help.
“Old person. Unresponsive. Call 911” said the Wellness people, as they helped me get him into bed.
“Do not call 911,” I said.
“We understand,” they said. “We love him too. But we have to call 911.”
The paramedics arrived. Paramedics are invariably the most gorgeous hunks. Two of the six who arrived had been to our apartment months before when my husband landed on the floor – he was 6’4” (at his peak) so it took paramedics to get him from floor to bed. “I remember talking to him about all this art,” one said. “And he was a Marine,” said the other. What’s not to love about paramedics? But. “We must take him to the ER,” they said.
“You may not take him out of this apartment,” said I.
It became an interesting battle.
“We understand,” they said. “We agree with you, ma’am. But we have protocols.”
Finally I said to the guy in charge: “You call your head person at San Francisco General and tell him you have this little old lady standing here with her husband’s DNR, POLST form and DPOA and she says we may not remove him from their apartment.” Actually, I was prepared to go over that person’s head. I have friends at SF General. But to his eternal credit, the in-charge physician (may he survive and prosper) said, “Fine. Get him in bed and leave him there.”
One of the paramedics saluted my husband as he left the bedroom.
My husband died three days later, in his own home where he wanted to be, with me scrinched into the hospital bed hugging him into the hereafter.
Had I not argued against the retirement home 911 protocols, and fought against the EMR protocols, he would have died in a cold, bright-lit hospital room with strangers poking and probing him and we the taxpayers spending thousands and thousands of dollars to make his last several days miserable.
What’s wrong with this picture? Only the caption.
The caption 99% of us would want is the one below the snapshot of my husband’s death, at home, with someone we love best hugging us into the hereafter.
Fully 60 percent of the U.S. population get the hospital caption — the one that goes with that blurry photo above — instead . (Another 20 percent get the nursing home caption.) One should not have to have a ferocious on-site advocate to let one die at home in one’s own bed. In addition to the DNR, the POLST and the DPOA there should be a JLMA form: Just Leave Me Alone, for those of us who concede that we’re actually going to die some day and work to keep our end-times as inexpensive and comfortable as possible.
Until such time, I am grateful for the forms we do have, and for the two compassionate physicians who helped my good husband die the death he preferred. May he rest in well-earned peace.
In a new year with meanness and cruelty on the news every day, there are counter forces at work. Here is my favorite Pay-It-Forward story so far for 2019. It involves my lovely friend Eva Zimmerman, who agreed to let me to share it. Eva and her husband, Noah Schreck, welcomed their first child, daughter Zahra, into the world last spring. But the exuberant joy they were having was interrupted by Noah’s diagnosis of colon cancer, requiring surgery in December.
On January 2, Eva posted this story (lightly edited here) on Facebook.
“Noah is home! He has a lot more healing and resting (and eating) to do to get back to his old self and Zahra is being super helpful by screaming and screeching at a newly-discovered ear piercing volume, constantly. We’ll readjust and recalibrate and make this work. We’re thankful to be together.
“We are so fortunate to have so much support. Meals waiting on the porch, welcome signs and ice cream delivered, childcare, and just the love and prayer that we’ve felt this entire time… Thank you, all.
“As I was leaving the hospital with all of Noah’s belongings, taking everything to the car to load it and go pick him up in the patient loading zone, I stood watching a beautiful young black couple comforting each other as they were waiting for the parking lot elevator. The elevator opened, she entered, he motioned for me to go ahead of him, he held the door open for me. As we stood there, heading to the same parking lot floor, he wished me a Happy New Year. I told him that it truly was a Happy New Year, that I was taking my husband home today after almost two weeks in the hospital.
“The woman said, ‘Our son will be here for the next two weeks.’ I told her I hoped he’d be home soon, healthy. She said, ‘Hoping for soon and cancer-free.’ I told her, ‘My husband is leaving today, cancer-free.’ She said, ‘This is why he’s here, they are doing surgery to remove his cancer.’ I told her that this is exactly why my husband has been here, they got it, they got the cancer, and he’s leaving today cancer-free. She and I held hands and I said, ‘I’m sending the blessing to you all now. It’s with you now.’ As we walked to our cars, she told her husband of the chills that went through her and simultaneously, they went through me. Though incredibly hard, we’ve been protected through this, because of you all. I gave that protection and blessing back to another family just as we left. It was a moment I’ll never forget. I don’t know their name. But as I write this, I’m watching Noah sleep next to me, and I’m thinking of them, envisioning their son home safe, soon and cancer-free.”
“Welcome to the family!” chirped my new Inbox message. It was filled with so many little hearts and emojis I initially felt I must have been adopted into some friendly group sharing my religious or philosophical leanings. Its presentation, which would have been entirely fitting for such an invitation, was overwhelming in its warm-fuzziness.
Actually, all I had done was order a watchband.
Unwilling to pay the highway robbery prices that the digital watch people wanted for a replacement band at their store, and tired of my cute young manicurist wearing herself out with futile efforts to clean my old watchband, I had gone on an online search. There are more watchband choices out there than lipstick shades. But I persevered. On about page 43 I found a band identical to the highway-robbery-priced one, clicked off my $12.99 and hit Send. That, apparently, granted me entrance into the family.
Actually, this is not exactly a one-time thing. It appears that every online purchase I have made, plus just about every cause I have supported, has brought me into the circle of extended-family items (Watchband? You’re going to love these earphones!) or communications. “Thank you for your support” tends to be followed by daily updates and hourly pleas for further support, not to mention invitations to support like-minded causes. And if you’d like to keep your watchband selection private? Forget it. Facebook now knows. Every company related to watchbands now knows. You will be so bombarded with watchband-related ads in between posts from your real life Facebook friends you may find yourself saying, one day, “What the heck, maybe I should order that power cord; my power cord is frayed . . .” Resist that urge. Go to Walgreen’s and buy it; they already know everything about you from all those Club Card purchases anyway.
Here’s the thing. Who among us has not purchased something online, Liked something on Facebook or Instagram, or sent off a contribution to a worthy cause? In truth (unless you subscribe to Rudy Giuliani’s assessment that truth is not truth) each of those transactions immediately welcomed us into some extended, digitally-connected family, and 99% of the universe is, by similar fates, right there with us. It is a downright incestuous situation.
Holiday letters? I am definitely ambivalent. It is lovely catching up with old friends (many of whom, on our holiday list at least, I only hear from once a year.) I’m interested in what’s been happening in their lives over the past year. I’m somewhat less interested in what’s been happening in their children’s or grandchildren’s lives although they’re usually pretty spectacular. But too many paragraphs about the latter and my eyes tend to glaze over. I resist all political messages – whether I agree with them or not. I love the letters that include remarks about books the writer has enjoyed over the year.
This year my own greeting was a learning experience.
I send holiday letters for the reason given at the outset of ours for 2018: Having reached the point at which we figure we’d better keep in touch or somebody will say, Are Fran & Bud still around? . . . And sometimes I break my own preference rules as happens at the end of this year’s letter from our house: Without getting overly political, we worry about the future of the ever-warming planet, and this being Christmastime we yearn for the day when our country will welcome the stranger, protect the poor, care for those less fortunate, all those things Jesus talked about.
Because many of our year-end missiles go to friends who are Jewish (not to mention agnostic, Buddhist, atheist, you name it) I usually include an expansion of some sort when I detour into my own strong Christian faith. This year, searching for accuracy, I mentioned to my pastor friend that I knew there was something very similar to that last line in the Jewish tradition. “Sure,” she said, “Tikkun Olam.” Ah, so. While Christians celebrate a Messiah who preached all those things not being done very effectively right now, Jews seek to prepare the world for a coming Messiah – by welcoming the stranger, protecting the poor, caring for those less fortunate. “Repairing the world,” is how my pastor friend put it, and she is best buddies with a nearby rabbi and both of them know stuff. So if I don’t have this theologically right, I will be happy to forward your comments to them.
In any event, it is worth considering. Perhaps as we emerge from the darkest days (I’m talking Solstice here) we may still welcome a stranger, try to help someone less fortunate, repair the world. Worth a try.
Oh, and books. OnDupont Circle: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Progressives Who Shaped Our World (James Srodes) somehow gave me hope for years ahead, and After Emily: Two Remarkable Women and the Legacy of America’s Greatest Poet (Julie Dobrow) is fascinating. All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr) is a treasure.