The Presence of His Absence

 

Our normal routine was interrupted two weeks ago by my husband’s sudden hospitalization. Our caregiver couldn’t get him to walk after they had lunch at the mall on Monday. He couldn’t reach me on my cell phone so he called 911 and they whisked him to the emergency room. It was an hour later that I noticed four missed calls and then the text that they were at UCLA Hospital. I dashed out of the office and met them in the emergency room.

“He has a high fever and an infection,” the nurse told me as we waited for the doctor. “We have him on antibiotics.” I pressed for more details but I heard the familiar refrain, “You have to wait for the doctor.”

So we waited. My husband was sluggish and napped intermittently as we waited. I read email, checked Facebook and read news clips until the battery ran low on my cell phone and work phone. I rummaged through my purse and jotted thoughts in my pocket notebook. The dinner hour came and went and I told the caregiver to go home.

And still we waited.

At 8, the doctor came and said they didn’t know the source of the infection but he was quite sick and would need to stay for a few days. It was well after 9 by the time he was moved upstairs and settled into a room. I had misgivings leaving him for the night, surrounded by people he didn’t know and not remembering where he was. It was after 10 by the time I got home and even though I was exhausted, I made calls to the boys and sent emails to re-arrange my schedule at work.

By the end of the second day, his coloring returned. Each day he got stronger and his ever ready smile returned. A physical therapist got him up and walking to exercise his muscles. I was much better equipped to sit at his bedside with a bag full of books and magazines. We got used to constant interruptions as they checked his blood pressure and pulse, adjusted the IV and gave him oral medications. We re-educated each new shift on how to communicate and care for him.

He had not been hospitalized since his cardiac arrest and coma 14 years ago. I had forgotten how exhausting it is to be in the hospital, both for the patient and caregiver. After he came home, it took a week to rest and readjust sleep cycles to deal with the fatigue. And it wasn’t just the back and forth to the hospital and work during those four days that took its toll. It was those late evenings when I came home from the hospital, sat on the couch in the living room, and saw his empty chair. I wasn’t used to his absence. Although I travel on my own for work or for pleasure on occasion, he was always home. He was the vitality that made our house a home. The presence of his absence loomed throughout the house.

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A New Chapter

 

At the end of June, I will be retiring from the school district and I feel a mixture of sadness and elation. Sadness at leaving deeply formed relationships and wistful about the knowledge and expertise I’ve acquired over my tenure at the district. But mostly it’s elation at the prospect of a new life and not waking at 6 every morning, spending half an hour to 45 minutes on the freeway and coming home close to 7 in the evening. I think of all the things that await me: neighborhood walks in the morning or enjoying my backyard in the afternoon when the only sounds are the chirping of birds and the wind chimes from my neighbor’s yard. I think of the books I can read and drawers and closets I can declutter. I dream of the travels I will take with my husband and the ones I will take on my own.

Last week, there was another cause for elation: my memoir is being published by Coffeetown Press! It began with an inquiry to my agent about a month ago but I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I am used to rejection as a writer, and I have learned not to get too excited. Then there was another inquiry about my planned promotional activities. “I am retiring!” I wrote to my agent. “I can devote more time to promotion after that!” And then the offer from the publisher and a call from my agent.

“Time to break out the champagne!” he said. I was still in disbelief, I didn’t think it would ever happen. I was pinching myself even when I celebrated with my writing group and then again at Barbara Abercrombie’s Literary Salon. Now that I have the signed contract and a welcoming packet from the editors, it feels real. I am ready for the editorial process and planning for promotional opportunities. I walk with a lightness in my step and my sadness over leaving work subsides.

“What will you do with your time after you retire?” my colleagues ask.

A warmth spreads through my body and blossoms into a smile as the words of my agent echo in my mind. “You will be a published author!”

My next chapter awaits.

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Beauty v.s. Duty

 

We drove home from Mammoth a day early and I planned to spend the next day running errands that are hard to do on weekends when I have my husband in tow. He can manage the grocery store pretty well since we use the cart like a walker to help with his balance. The aisles are wide enough for me to help steer the cart as I fill it up with our necessities for the week. It’s the other stores that are more difficult – the heavy cart and large, bulky items at Costco or the crowded aisles of Bed Bath & Beyond. I planned to take advantage of having the caregiver come on my vacation day so I could scoot in and out of scores quickly and unencumbered.

But when I woke, I thought about the “super bloom” at the Poppy Reserve in the Antelope Valley. It was way past sunset when we reached Lancaster on our way home from Mammoth and too dark to drive out to the reserve. The super bloom was past its peak and was probably nearing the tail end. Two weeks before, my neighbor Nancy had visited and declared it glorious and in full bloom. I made calculations in my mind – it would take at least an hour to drive out there and another hour to come back. I had at least two hours of errands to do around town. But I had the whole day ahead of me, and how long would the bloom last anyway?

So I got in the car with my coffee and breakfast and drove to the reserve, listening to podcasts and relishing the solitude of the drive. It was windy and cloudy when I arrived and the poppies were semi-closed. Still, I hiked for about an hour in the southwest quadrant of the park and once I got away from the crowds clustered near the visitor center, it was wonderful to be out in the open, in the dry wind and quiet of the outdoors. I passed a patch of goldfields and poppies and had the trail to myself. In the distance, the hills were carpeted with yellow and orange. Near the end of the hike, I came upon a slope of poppies in full bloom awash in orange. I felt buoyant and awestruck as I snapped photos.

I ran some of my errands on the way home in Lancaster and more once I got back to LA. I was home by five, my car laden with purchases. But I felt lighthearted and happy.

Beauty won over duty.

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The Best-Laid Plans…

 

I raced up to Mammoth after work, hoping to beat the heavy spring snow storm that was forecast. The roads were clear and dry all the way until north of Bishop, near Sherwin Summit. The wind whipped around our car and after Crowley Lake, thick flakes of snow blurred the view through the windshield.  My biggest fear was having to put chains on the tires which I have never done. I had brand new chains in the back of the car, along with gloves, a blanket and a flashlight, just in case. But the snow wasn’t yet accumulating enough on the highway to warrant chains. We pulled up to our condo just as the snow was beginning to stick.

Relieved, I settled my husband in his chair upstairs and unloaded the car. We brought two bags of groceries in case we couldn’t get to the store, along with a cooler with perishables. I brought my personal computer and my work computer. I brought hand weights so I could work out. I brought adapters for our cell phones and iPad and our Chromecast. It took several trips from the car and up the stairs of the condo before we were finally unpacked.

I lit a fire in the stove and settled into my chair. And then I realized I had forgotten my canvas tote bag in the den at home. I had carefully packed the essay I was working on with all the comments from my writer’s workshop. I tucked in magazines I hadn’t had time to read. I stuffed in the LA Times crossword puzzles for the last three weeks that I haven’t been able to solve. I had scooped up the clutter of unread mail and bills on my desk and stuffed them in the bag. I put in the two books I was currently reading – a novel by a writer I met at the writer’s retreat and A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold. I felt adrift –what was I going to do to fill up my time here?

 

In the morning, I find plenty of books still unread on the bookshelves – Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne, Travels by Michael Crichton and Old School by Tobias Wolff. There is a book of crossword puzzles in the cupboard. We watch cooking shows all morning on TV. Outside, the snow is mixed with rain and throughout the day, the branches on the pine trees sway in the wind, sending chunks of heavy snow crashing to the ground. The condo has warmed to 69 degrees from the stove and we have plenty of wood. I look out the window, grateful and content.  I beat the storm!

 

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Why I Write

 

I have had writer’s block for several months now. The anti-muse in me says, “Who cares about writing? This country is falling apart, who wants to read a personal essay?” I have been silenced as I follow social media constantly for the next scandal, the next outrage, ignoring my writing.

This weekend, I took a pause from my everyday life and went to Barbara Abercrombie’s writing retreat in Lake Arrowhead. In the clear mountain air amid the pines, the muse came back. There were five minute writing exercises to loosen the pen, insightful and helpful comments from fellow writers, and Barbara’s calm and sage wisdom guiding us all. Several essays, including mine, were influenced by Trump and current politics. I dusted off an old piece and refined a new one. The logs crackled in the fireplace and I had the condolet to myself as I wrote and rewrote late into the evening both nights, incorporating the advice I received during workshop. By Sunday morning, I felt bonded to my fellow writers and wanted to stay for another week or another month, reading my work aloud and listening to theirs.

Sometimes all it takes is a pause from everyday routines and a chance to step back, indulge in the muse, and rediscover why we write. We ended the workshop with each of us reading lines from Terry Tempest Williams’ poem, “Why I Write.” These were the lines that resonated with me this weekend:

“I write to make peace with the things I cannot control.”

 “I write against power and for democracy.”

 “I write out of my anger and into my passion.”

 “I write as a witness to what I have seen. I write as witness to what I imagine.”

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A Little Bit of Something

 

We have been exercising for over six months now and the recent rains have altered our routine. At the first sign of rain, there are exchanges of texts with Coach D. “Are we working out tonight?”

The answer from Coach D is always, “Yes, a little bit of something is better than nothing.”

I rearranged the clutter in the garage and cleared out enough space to lay out mats so we could do our crunches and plank. The sit-up chair and benches for weights get set up on the patio, even when there is a light mist. We don’t do agilities on the lawn when the grass is wet so we do more jumping jacks and more sets with the jump rope. And at the end of an hour, we have worked up a sweat and I feel better for having exercised, even though it is in a smaller space.

I think about our persistence when I am barraged by all the “alternative facts” spewed by Trump administration. I struggle to adapt to this new reality and at time it feels hopeless. What can we do with a Republican Congress and Senate? What hope is there to overturn the decisions that are made every day that defy rational thought?

I forward the Indivisible guide to friends who haven’t heard of it yet and wonder what they can do. I write post cards to Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski to thank them for not voting for Betsy DeVos.  I write to Elizabeth Warren to thank her for not backing down. I write to our senators in California to keep up the pressure. I write to Ted Lieu to thank him for speaking up.

It feels pithy and insignificant but still, I have to believe that a little bit of something is better than nothing.

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Remnants from the Women’s March

One week ago today, I was at the Women’s March in Washington, DC with hundreds of thousands of people. I took Friday off from work, left my husband with the caregiver and traveled to Baltimore, anxious and nervous. I had never participated in a demonstration before. I stayed near Annapolis with a friend of a friend, someone I had never met before but felt an instant connection with, along with the seven other women at the house. Debi and Chris welcomed us to their home and had everything prepared – a chartered bus to take us to the Metro line the next morning and prepaid Metro cards. Chris had fashioned gallon sized Ziploc bags with duct tape straps so that we could carry the water, apples, string cheese and granola bars they provided. Every detail was attended to and the impassioned, articulate conversation lasted long into the night.

At the Metro station the next morning, women were passing out pink pussy hats and I selected a neon pink hat made in Cincinnati, Ohio. At the Capitol South Metro stop, the platform was filled with marchers in pink hats and their cheers echoed through the tunnels. Even though we were at the rallying point at 3rd and Independence, we could not get close enough to hear any speeches. There aren’t enough superlatives to describe the experience of the march – inspiring, awesome, euphoric – it was a peaceful gathering of like-minded souls pressed together in solidarity. My fellow marchers, Debi, Susan R.D., Susan D., Rhonda, Jami, Julie and Jessica, held onto each other as we meandered through the crowd, my neon pink hat serving as a beacon as we tried to stay together. I felt pride in our country as we marched among the buildings and monuments that belong to us, the American people. After the march, over dinner, we vowed to keep in touch and hold each other accountable with follow-up actions.

And then the week unfolded, as the flurry of executive orders and gag orders were issued, one action more horrific than the other. I was glued to social media and news shows, growing increasing hopeless and helpless. I had to train myself to step away, turn off the TV and iPad and stop looking at my phone.

And in those moments, I close my eyes and conjure images from the march — the cheers echoing through the tunnels in the Metro station, the women singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as we marched down Constitution Avenue, the chants of “This is what democracy looks like!” — and then I remember the sisterhood of my fellow marchers. It gives me the energy to fight on.

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The Solace of the Open Road

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I was in Salt Lake City on Election Night, the first leg of a cross-country road trip with my son Zack who is headed back to Brooklyn. The day began so innocently and ended in a nightmare. The next morning, still in shock, we commiserated with his friends then drove south to Moab, somber and subdued. My list of tasks – updating my blog about the recent wedding we attended, checking in with my agent about my book, my recent article that was published – seemed insignificant and small compared to what lies ahead for our country.

Today we followed the upper Colorado River on Highway 128 as we headed to Denver. Towering sandstone cliffs surrounded us as the road curved along the gorge. The river was smooth and still on the surface but if you looked closely, you could see swirling eddies and currents just below. The scenery provided diversion and we talked about all things non-political: his path as an artist, ideas for a new art project, my ruminations about work. We unplugged from news media as the aftermath was too much to bear. There was no NPR or radio, only podcasts and books on CD. At night in the motel, we watched a rerun of Good Fellas and quickly skipped over news channels.

But inevitably, we always return to the topic of the election and what it means for the future. There are no good answers and no explanations. There is just angst and disbelief and the fear that safety nets will be dismantled. The only comfort is the open road and the deep blue sky and I wonder how it seems possible to have such beauty in the world still, when everything else is falling apart.

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A Scottish Interlude

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It’s been almost a month since my week-long vacation in Scotland. I left my husband at home with the caregiver and traveled with my neighbors and assorted sons and nieces, theirs and mine. We visited ruins in St. Andrews, caught a glimpse of the Highlands as we drove by Loch Lomond, rode a ferry to Islay and sampled six whiskey distilleries, then toured castles and museums in Edinburgh. In between were plenty of shared meals filled with laughter and whiskey.

It has taken weeks for my sleep cycle to return to normal and to get back into the rhythm of work, caregiving and exercise. This weekend, our workout session seemed especially hard, maybe due to the excessive heat Los Angeles has been experiencing or maybe due to the lassitude and sluggishness that always follows a good vacation. I struggled, especially during the 16th or 17th rep of concentration curls or pullovers, trying to get to 20. My body felt weak and my brain cried out, “I can’t do this! Just stop!” But there was Coach egging me on, helping me count to 20. I knew I would feel better after the session but how do I get through the here and now?

I surveyed the weeds and patches of brown in my lawn from my mat while I did 30 karate kicks on each leg. Thirty seemed like an impossible number so I thought about the green grassy fields in Scotland, a deep green rarely seen in the southern California, to keep my mind off my aching body. Sweat dripped from my forehead as I rolled out the ab wheel and I was starting to feel woozy. Then I remembered the sensation of lashing rain on my face as the wind whipped around us when we walked from the Ardbeg distillery to Lagavulin, not the least bit bothered by the wetness as reveled in the cool air.

And that is the value of vacations – to sustain you and keep you going during those times when you want to give up and say, “I can’t do this!” It provides the welcome relief from heat or tedium or weariness of everyday tasks and can transport you again, if only for a few moments, to a time when all that mattered was laughter and whiskey.

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The Comfort of Routines

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Structure and routine are important in dealing with brain injury, the occupational therapist told me when my husband was discharged from the hospital. He suffers from memory loss so establishing routines helps provide consistency and stability to his day. It also helps with sequencing skills – knowing that things will happen on a regular schedule and in the same order.

It makes me think of the comfort of our routines. Every Friday night, we have dinner and martinis with our neighbors. Sometimes we eat in and make martinis at home. Sometimes we eat out  – the Polish place in Santa Monica, the Oaxacan restaurant in Venice, the Mexican place on Lincoln — but most of the time, we end up at our favorite old-time steak house in West LA.  With its red fake-leather booths, wood paneled walls and salt-water aquariums, it always feels welcoming on a Friday night.

The four of us slide into our usual booth and the bus persons know us and the waitresses greet us with “Hon” and “Sweetie.” They know I prefer vodka and my neighbors prefer gin in their martinis. The drinks will be made by a bartender, not a mixologist and there is not a hipster to be found. The floors are not concrete, there are no high ceilings and there’s no loud music playing. You will not read about the food in Jonathan Gold’s reviews in the LA Times but we like the cheese toast and salads with Green Goddess dressing.

We don’t really come here for the food. It’s more for the ability to converse with each other in a relaxed setting, venting about the week’s frustrations at work or lamenting the state of politics or waxing philosophical about the meaning of our lives. We don’t remember how long we have been doing this – we think it was after the last child went away to college about ten years ago.

Every Friday afternoon an email will be sent about martinis and a plan will be made. It has become a regular routine. It doesn’t matter that we have been doing this for ten years or that we have been friends for almost thirty years, we never run seem to run out of things to talk about and it provides a sense of consistency and stability in my life.

The point is: routines are just as important for those of us who are not brain injured.

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