Nonfiction by Janice Dvorak
Across the street, my elderly neighbor Clara backs her Grand Marquis down the driveway millimeter by millimeter. From my porch glider, shaded from the summer sun and Clara’s line of sight, I scan for new dents but see only the familiar. Those are the work of Clara’s even-more-elderly, debilitated husband, Ed, who drove the car before Clara. Though he shouldn’t be driving at all, he currently weaves and jerks and curb-jumps around town in a newer, progressively dented model of the behemoth, while Clara creeps along in his cast-off.
Days after one recent ding, Ed hobbled over to sit beside me at our neighborhood beach, where I was reading. We watched the tide awhile, then he asked about the disabled transportation service I use. Though I am forty years his junior, we have poor health in common. The specifics and causes are different, but we both have failing hearts, bad vision, sluggish reflexes, impaired mobility. Our spouses will almost certainly be widowed in the next few years.
I talked the service up: convenience, trained drivers who wrangle and secure assistive devices, door-to-door service. As weeks pass and scrapes and dents accumulate, I get more direct. “Ed, giving up driving wasn’t easy, but at least now I won’t cause an accident. I could have hurt someone, maybe even killed a kid or something.” Ed latches onto “kid” and changes the subject to Halloween, almost a month away. He’s looking forward to giving out candy, something he used to grouse about. But on Halloween night, their porch light is off. Ed’s drives get shorter and less frequent, then stop. Just after Thanksgiving, we hear that Ed, at 86, has died.
* * *
Winter comes quickly after Ed’s death. I’m inside more, dealing with escalating health issues, a legacy of childhood cancer treatments. My “late effects,” which are medical issues that show up decades after treatment and often are progressive. Mine have affected every system and body part, limiting energy, mobility, function, disease immunity. I don’t run into Clara often. Instead of trading books in person, we hang bags from each other’s front doors once or twice. We’ve never been phone buddies, so I get news of her from my husband, Greg, and neighborhood friends. She is doing well, working as a hospital chaplain, enjoying her grandson.
From my couch, where I rest and recuperate from frequent illness, little has changed across the street, other than the lack of weekly ambulance arrivals. There is one fewer Grand Marquis in the driveway, but the same lawn services rakes leaves and clips the shrubs into their usual cones. Neighbors shovel her walk and driveway as they did when Ed was alive.
But inside, she must be sorting Ed’s possessions, removing his name from paperwork, filling time once taken up by caring for her ill spouse. Having buried both parents and a sister, I’ve culled an overwhelming amount of someone else’s possessions and plowed through stacks of paperwork. For years, since my first terminal diagnosis and as my health has declined, sparing Greg all of that has been a goal, but one at which I’ve made little progress. Ed’s death shoves me into overdrive. My Type-A traits that went dormant when I had to stop working are awake and demanding action, constant action, and results. Now.
I brainstorm everything Greg will have to face after my death and what I can do about it all now. Paring down my possessions is a no-brainer, so I begin there. Muscle atrophy, nerve damage, and heart failure mean purging a couple of drawers or cabinets leaves me with limp, numb arms and dozing even before Greg gets home from work. But I’ve done something to help him, to improve his life.
There must be ways I can upgrade the house, in case Greg wants to sell it. I worry that my stairlift and wheelchair ramp will make that more challenging. But there’s the beach right at the end of our street, three doors down. Houses here sell fast, but at some point will all those climate change Internet memes of polar bears in distress and time-lapse animation of cities drowning mean fewer buyers? Should I encourage him to sell, as this is a big old house that needs upkeep, or to stay, as it seems Clara is?
Greg is noncommittal when I ask; I can tell he doesn’t want to talk about it. I try periodically, but he turns it back on me. Would a smaller place be easier for me to get around in? Would I like to live closer to shops and cafes? We love our house, and I can’t take him away from his jogs along our beach, from the smell of changing tides, something he never experienced until we moved here from Florida. And here we already know our neighbors. When I was hospitalized for three weeks, they fed him, shoveled our walk, and offered to care for our cat. But they aren’t friends, not to him, really. Because I am home with more free time, I have coffee and takes walk with them, but he only chats briefly when doing yard work, or coming and going.
My declining health has made me less social, therefore Greg, an introvert, is less social. People like him once they get to know him, and he does have friends, but he doesn’t initiate contact and is apt to decline invitations. I dragged us to parties and threw our own, but now that I don’t, we see people less often. Friends invite us out, but I can’t always handle the stairs into their homes or am too ill to attend. Without me, will he be a hermit? I understand enjoying, preferring solitude, but without me, will he be too alone, have too little support?
I try to interest him in the Internet (“There’s porn!”), reminding him that when we first moved here, I met several friends through a book club I found online, but he only smiles and nods. I push him out the door to a Super Bowl party and dinner with a college friend who also moved from Florida to Massachusetts, but he comes home from the party early and loses touch with the friend. Attempts to get him on social media fail. “I would hate that,” he says decisively, pointing out that I am a reluctant, infrequent Facebooker and Tweeter. I read about a Boston chapter of the alumni group, take a call from a mutual friend who has Celtics tickets.
“I don’t have time,” he says, but doesn’t say that helping me easts up any free time left over after his long work days and lengthy commute.
“When I’m gone,” I say, “you can get a Mustang, and there are all kinds of local car clubs and events.”
He’s always wanted a vintage Mustang. Now he can’t even own a new one, though he admires the late models. Like Clara, his vehicle is dictated by his spouse. In our case, my mobility issues make it difficult for me to get into a low seat and we need something big enough to load my scooter or wheelchair. He has a work vehicle, so we can’t justify a third car to drive, and, again, he spends time caring for me that he would need to fix up a hobby car. I can’t think of a way to give him more time, so I continue my “Greg’s New Life” initiative.
* * *
When the snow melts, I get out more, white-knuckling my walker handles as I wobble down to the beach or two streets over to the mailbox, trying to work up to the bakery a quarter-mile away. Clara pulls up beside me in a current-year-model Subaru Outback, which I’d seen in the driveway, but hadn’t realized was hers. Her daughter has long driven an older, red Outback, and I assumed this new one was hers. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen the battered Marquis in a while. This suits her, as does the near-pixie that has replaced her sensible gray bob. It could be new, or has been hidden under winter hats. “It’s so good to see you out,” she says. We chat briefly, but she sees my energy flag. “We’ll talk soon,” she says, and zips away.
Other people’s marriages are largely unknowable, but Clara and Ed seemed happy. I believe Clara mourned him and still does. But here she is, with her new hair and new car, off to see her grandson or attend to a patient’s spiritual needs. I shouldn’t be surprised. My mother and father were blissfully happy together for 40 years, and when Dad died, my sisters and I feared we would lose her, too. Her grief was thunderous, steeped in rage, but as months passed, she traded the family house for a condo by the ocean she filled with new furnishings, and bought an entire wardrobe of bright, flowing silk. “Everything had to be different,” she told me later. Eventually, she found pleasure in those differences.
I’ve known other widows, others who have lost loved ones. I’ve seen them grieve and survive. I’ve been one of them, having lost my father, sister, and mother. Some need change, some need the familiar. Some want to handle every possession and memorial service detail, others cannot face either. Some need more help, some take longer, but almost always, they, we, grieve and survive.
As a hospice RN, I helped facilitate the process. Mostly, it helped to give the bereaved room to mourn as they needed, to make those choices they could and wanted to make. I know, knew, on some level that I was going about this wrong. But when it was Greg I thought of widowed, I wanted to do now what I won’t be able to do then—help him. Except I might have been doing that opposite. He’s more sentimental about possessions than I am. Maybe he’d want to sift through my clothing, remembering a dress from a date night, a sweater he bought me that I wore to a rag. I could be tossing ticket stubs and bracelets that would prompt memories that would comfort him. I have not let myself remember that I know better.
Maybe this has been part of my grieving, for what I am losing of myself, for the pain I will cause Greg that I would bear for him if I could. I can't parse how much I was doing for him and how much for me. At this point, it doesn’t matter. Instead, I look at how it’s been affecting us. Greg would rather eat take-out or tuna salad sandwiches with me than a feast with me asleep. He’d rather talk about vacation plans or current events than face a quiz about how he will make friends when I am dead. I’d rather read a book or lunch with a friend than discard some outfits I might wear again, but don’t want Greg to have to deal with that someday.
After my mother died, Greg and I discussed what we wanted when we die. We agreed on the main points: cremation, no stiff, formal service but a casual gathering at our place. We made folders for each other. Greg’s folder for me has financial information, a short list of possessions he’d like given to certain people, house maintenance reminders. My folder for Greg had gotten thick with printouts of websites for meal delivery services, local meetups he might enjoy, instructions for things he could figure out on his own. Days after I see Clara in her new car, I shred all but a few papers—accounts I handle, a Red Hot Chili Peppers song and poem by Marie Howe for my memorial. By mutual agreement, it’s all practical, no love letters. That would be too hard, we agreed. Better to say it all, do it all now than to imagine ourselves gone, the other alone. But that’s how I’ve been living, as if I were already gone.
Ed drove longer than he should have, but at least he kept living in the present. He didn’t drag Clara into a life without him while he was still here. I want Greg to enjoy life without me; he wants to enjoy it now with me, wants me to take pleasure in what I can, make me happy when he can. I’ve been overdoing it. It’s time to stop, to understand that Greg is smart and resourceful and has heard and felt the message behind every Goodwill donation, every bare breast I show him on the Internet: that I love him and want him to be happy, always.
* * *
When summer heats my porch enough, I spend as much time as possible there on the glider, cushions helping my atrophied back and neck muscles hold me upright. I read and nap, watch children play and neighbors stroll by, wave at Clara when she comes and goes.
I still think, sometimes too much, of ways to prepare Greg for life without me, but it’s more about making sure he knows the passwords to our Amazon and Netflix accounts and less about physically exhausting myself to fill a shopping bag for charity. I still glance for items I can donate or toss, but not with a sense of desperation, more like someone who watched a Hoarders episode rather than a marathon. I save energy for rides on my mobility scooter to get ice cream or walks by the beach to watch the tide or visit with friends.
Two or three times a week, I make a dinner simple enough that I can be awake to eat it with Greg. Tonight, that’s turkey burgers. I season the meat and form patties that Greg will cook, while I rest. We keep this recipe in a slim blue binder that contains his favorite dishes, those I’ve taught him to prepare, with notes to make him laugh, to make cooking them easier for him. If he never opens the notebook, even if he never turns the stove on again, he will be fine. He’ll eat. He’ll work, he’ll mourn, he’ll get a Mustang or he won’t. He’ll manage.
My hands are still gooshing (thanks to my notes, Greg may think that is the technical term) ground turkey when I hear Clara’s door slam. Our front door is open to the porch, so when I lean back from the counter, I see Clara, colorful skirt fluttering, slide behind the wheel of her car. I rush to the doorway and hover there as she rolls smoothly out of her driveway. I can’t wave or I’ll be cleaning raw turkey off the floor and window screens, but I step onto the porch just far enough to see her face, to confirm what I hope—that she is smiling. The world blurs slightly and my face numbs, which means if I don’t sit down soon, I will see stars, then pass out. But I stay on the threshold and watch until Clara coasts to the end of the street and turns the corner.
Janice Dvorak has an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College and has been published in the journals Willow Springs, Superstition Review, and The Florida Review. She has an essay in the anthology I Wasn’t Strong Like This When I Started Out, published by Creative Nonfiction’s InFACT Books.