I ought to have been born between the World Wars, when it was romantic to be sentimental, when having an attachment to the past was normal, when lovers would hand-write nostalgia-filled letters whenever apart, when taking a journey down a memory lane strewn with tales of adventures and friends and events long gone by could rouse a spontaneous and unembarrassed launch into Doris Day’s and Les Brown’s rendition of A Sentimental Journey.
The news did not exactly come as a shock. I had filed away the possibility that his life would end one day in the part of my brain reserved for things I simply did not want to think about happening. A less willful, less stubborn, less enthusiastically alive man would have long ago succumbed to the many illnesses he had endured over the last 2 decades. His ability to push back had convinced me that nothing could kill him. An email in mid-March relaying that he was in hospice care switched on the emotional regulator that controlled my reservoir of memories about him, sending through a few at a time, as though dropping them into my consciousness in a metered manner would avoid a flood tide the day he finally decided to part this Earth.
While certain life experiences are more or less universal – falling in or out of love, winning or losing a job, saying goodbye to one’s parents at the end of their lives – there are times when our individual realities are so idiosyncratic it’s hard for anyone else to relate, times when things can look calm and ordered on the outside, but underneath roils a breeding ground of anxiety. The sort of uncertainty that washes over one in a business meeting for instance, when a casual downward glance might reveal that one’s jacket is missbuttoned, which inspires a swift hand clutch to the bosom, which in turn reveals a cuff button visibly hanging by a thread. And although everyone knows that buttons on even well-made suits are virtually spit stuck in place, this knowledge provides no consolation whatsoever to the afflicted in this case, nor does it offer the slightest barrier against the oblique stares of judgmental colleagues, each of whom begins to free associate various reasons for their missbuttoned colleague’s public dishelvelment.
My conscious awareness of the meaning of the word “stepparent” didn’t begin until I married a man with three adult children. For someone is not a stepparent unless they are legally married to a person who has offspring from a prior relationship. I really should have known this, or at least given it some serious thought, because my mother was the stepmother to my father’s daughter from his previous marriage, a girl who therefore legally also became my half-sister because we had the same father.
Will my hands look like hers when I am old? The nails dry and ridged, the joints heavy with arthritis, the veins sitting slightly atop the bones, the fingers slender and delicate, the skin thin and pearly and freckled with age spots, but the grip of a woman who worked with her hands all her life still strong and engaging and defiant.
My fault entirely for making the task so difficult. How foolish to have created so many enticing views from which I was forced to disengage. How indulgent to have installed a window over my husband’s Jacuzzi, in which he bathed and read in the early morning hours while I slept, and from which it was possible to see all the way to the south gap in the Massanutten Ridge.
How absurd to have six windows rounding the north and east corners of our bedroom, all the better from which to watch a raccoon, for instance, make its way along the entire length of Farmer Marsden’s apple orchard before disappearing into the pasture on the other side of the vegetable garden.
I had no one to blame but myself for making it so painful to say goodbye to the small house my husband and I had built in the Virginia countryside, and the vivid mental picture I’d painted of the long life I thought we would spend in that beautiful light-filled space.
People from my early professional life seem to be popping up everywhere. I’ll receive an out of the blue email from one person, while the smiling face of another emerges from a sea of faintly recognizable features somewhere on social media. Funny how these old friends seem to know that all these years later I still have a land line, their instantly recognizable voices sometimes leaving long and detailed hellos from various places around the world.
“In species in which males care for young, testosterone is often high during mating periods but then declines to allow for caregiving of resulting offspring.” – Department of Anthropology, Cells to Society, Center on Social Disparities and Health, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University, July 2011