We have made friends – and said goodbye to them – as our lives or theirs took a different direction, as we or they moved from the job, the cause, or the neighborhood that had put us in the same orbit, on the same wavelength, for a time. Spouses, too, have come –and, for many of us, gone – either by our choice or theirs. We have said goodbye to our children, as well – both actually, as they left us for university or the first job or first apartment, and metaphorically, as the babies who kept us awake at night became 10-year-olds, then teens, and then adults, who keep us awake for different reasons.
We have said hello, and then goodbye, to six or seven decades of history, some inspiring (the ’60s), some silly (the ’70s), some awful (the years and wars of Bush the Second), only to find ourselves, now, mired in the direst of them all, the Trump years, wondering at the cosmic irony that may make this, the all-time lowest point, our last chance. We have also had to say goodbye to many of the certainties that formed the reassuring background of our lives: newspapers thudding grayly onto the doorstep every morning, thick with ads; the gentle passage of the four seasons, unaffected by a recklessly warming globe. And then there have been the serial goodbyes, as radios gave way to television sets in boxes; LPs to CDs; browsing at Blockbuster to browsing on the Web; the grocer, the butcher, the bakery on the corner to supermarkets and malls, which in their turn are going the way of Amazon.
Goodbyes are not always sad. It is a pleasure to bid goodbye to depression and anxiety, to people we feared, friends we distrusted, jobs we disliked, and especially to semi-lethal combinations of some or all of the above. And many goodbyes are actually hellos. Goodbye to the baby is, eventually, hello to the adult. Goodbye to one neighborhood or country is hello to another. Goodbye to work can be hello to a retirement so creative we need to find another name for it.
But our age cohort is also characterized by the steadily increasing number of final goodbyes we find ourselves having to say. Parents die, leaving us orphans at an age when one is too old to think of oneself as an orphan. Friends and lovers die. Those are the hardest, because it is true, so true, that each death diminishes me. Each death leaves a chasm where friendship and love and shared adventures used to be. Each death reminds us how inexorably closer we are than we were a few dozen goodbyes ago to our own deaths, to the goodbye that will be our last.
That is why I find our unfailing good cheer so astounding. We are dancing on our own graves. But it is not a mindless dance, not wrongheaded, not foolish. We dance because we are still alive, because whatever our afflictions or limitations, we still have much to give. Because standing here, the product of so many goodbyes, so many hellos, we are indeed wise beyond our years. We possess the wisdom – and the happiness – of the ages.
He stood in the kitchen, legs spread in the stance of a wronged warrior, arms raised toward the ceiling, palms upward in appeal. Hungry for an ice cream sandwich, he cursed the empty spot in the freezer that had stored the carton. His internal pressure gauge rose until his entire body steamed, mouth twisted and lips foamed. He slammed the freezer. Hard. The lower hinge sagged. Nothing remained safe in our house.
The boys and I stared in amazement, not daring to say a word.
Anger still smoldering, he smashed his fist through the hollow pantry door and smiled at the jagged hole. “Looks a lot like your head.” A minute later, he’d forgotten his comment.
His arrival home the next evening brought an encore. Stomping in, he yelled, “the place looks like crap from the outside. The windows don’t match. You have every shade pulled at a different level.”
This from the man who undressed in any room and let his dirty clothes slide to the floor. I refused to pick them up until unexpected visitors gaped in disbelief at underwear lying on the living room rug.
While he couldn’t remember what he said or did, I couldn’t forget. To survive, I hardened myself to his habits and bluster, but it took some time.
Meanwhile, our boys were growing up. I tried to create the appearance of a normal family by inviting neighbors over for games in our backyard pool, including one of riding unbalanced animal floats, a turtle and a legless giraffe, to see who could stay on the longest. Once, as I climbed the ladder to get out, he yanked the bottom of my swimsuit down and hooted raucous laughter because I’d mooned our guests.
Maybe it’s not surprising he didn’t respect my modesty because he had none of his own. Complaining about the heat during a party in our entertainment room, he dropped his pants and finished the evening in blue slick-as-satin briefs that friends tagged, “electric blue jobs.” Boxers would have been a step up for decency.
After everyone left, I asked why.
In a flash of cruelty or a rare case of honesty, he said, “Sometimes I wish you weren’t here. I’d be happier without you.”
A wave of my wand granted his wish.
Aboard the Coast Starlight
Lonnie’s handsome husband, 54, died five months ago, standing up in the bathroom, sneaking what would be his last cigarette, she explained over her burger. “At least he died doing what he loved.”
Slim, blonde, with turquoise rings on every finger, bangle bracelets on both wrists, she’s wearing hot pants and a bright blue tank top with her name across her chest in bold white letters.
She hates being alone and has never been without a man ever, she said twice.
Lonnie’s got a man in her life again. They met online and he watches over her, worries about her, especially when she rides the train alone.
Lonnie’s wearing a special bright red lipstick, one that hardly ever comes off. All the women want to know where she bought it.
As she heads down the dining car, her love handles peeking out between her shorts and T, reeling from side to side in motion with the ride, all the gray-haired men turn to watch her go by.
the next you’re gone.
left without saying good-bye,
without us saying ours.
waving a white handkerchief to fend off the end,
avoidance of that loathsome dark good-bye,
as if its two-beat utterance would bring a pox upon us.
to ease on out in your snazzy red threads,
slipping away into that unimaginable compact with death,
gifting us your heart, your razzmatazz.
Her Last Year
they come in at night to take a shower
in my bathroom
they stand over my bed
but I pray to Jesus to protect me
and they go away
The food worries me
they are putting something in my food
I can see it when I look in the toilet
after I, you know
brown specks, about that big
they look like raisins
sometimes I see them in the cereal
and in the rice
I eat bananas and yogurt
I like ice cream and potato chips
but I have to be careful
For her, darkling demons, dementia’s brood
Blacken her mind, shutter memory’s flare
Fearful paranoia her only mood
Terrible conjurings her steady fare.
If I persevere through my trials
It’s here, in the Bible
I have to persevere
The Ensure doesn’t taste right anymore
I think they put something in it
I don’t think they like me
But I never complain
People come to see the apartment
I hear them talking outside
They are going to throw me out
Our Father, whose art is heaven
hallow hollow be bee in my name, your your
kingdom be done with this
On TV, those cooking shows
They cook dogs and cats now
I don’t mind the cats so much
Not that I would ever eat that
But I won’t watch them cook dogs
I can’t the words in my prayer books
Right here beside me
I went to Bible Study but they made fun of me
in the dining room they laugh at me
because my feet are funny
and my throat makes a noise when I swallow
Each day her mind flees down steep sickness stair
Each night’s delusions twist without relief
She wakes to troubled attempted prayer
Jumbles once familiar words of belief.
God tells me
Andi has been pregnant a long time
a year or two now I’m
waiting for that baby
My great-grandson Ruth
Woody’s wife that other one
she does my laundry and says
she and Woody are wife but Ruth
That doctor, she wanted to know when I was born
She my graduation picture
I was quite a looker
I tried to figure it out
but I can’t remember when my parents
we lived in Emmaus
My father grew
strawberries I think he
All meaning lost to Alzheimer’s sly thief
Robbed of truth, mem’ries comfort no more
comes I’ll tell God to
The couple comes out of
their hole to watch my TV
they don’t want to pay for their own
my dogs on the chair
protect me from that
snake under that what call chair
the dogs follow me
I know they’re alive
though Andi Andi Andi stuffed
stuff of alive though
God Wood y
Andi came with ?baby?
picture who is that
I pretty Joe
When she dies, deep relief buries our grief
We pack her room quickly, a final chore.
Just this, please God, send kinder death to me.
Farewell to Our House in Cleveland
I am thankful that we didn’t have to paint the living room ceiling,
or replace the no-wax tile on the kitchen floor.
We sold our house.
And I am thankful for the noisy teenagers who came and went at all hours;
For sick days spent draped with comforters and cats;
For time wasted together on trashy TV we loved to hate;
For mornings when we faced the car-pool sullenly;
For the comfort of whispered conversations in the dark recesses of exhaustion.
We sold our house,
With memories embedded in the walls
Of a girl who swayed into womanhood,
And startled her parents into bewilderment and awe,
Of adults who become orphans, and wept
Beyond the reach of logic.
We sold our house that was
Sometimes too huge, sometimes too crowded,
Usually too messy, now much too neat.
We sold our house,
And I am thankful for my tears at parting from it.
I am thankful that our discarded dreams do not accumulate
like radon in the basement.
I am thankful that our history travels in our sinews.
I am thankful that we sold our house,
With so little trouble, really.
I am thankful that who we are and who we have been and who we are yet to be
Can never be confined within masonry,
Or carted away in cardboard,
To Whoever Stole My Gloves from the Table in the Library
Nice, aren’t they – chic leather lacing down the wrists?
Do they fit?
Do they match what you’re wearing
(black is so A-list)?
I wonder; did you even pause – assistant librarian there
to right and wrong them for you, lost and found them for you –
or did you consider them yours all along
sent by God or Whomever?
Are you out in the weather (I am)
wearing them now? Must insist: put vitamin C on your list –
I wouldn’t wish upon you
such a nasty upper respiratory –
as had me coughing into them
May my – my – warm above-the-wrist
fit-for-a-duchess braid-enriched Ralph-Lauren cashmere-lined gloves –
smack you upside the sinuses. Make you sniffle.
Shake. Drop your last nickel. May they itch. Prickle.
Nest a snake, a cockroach (scorpion too tropical).
Pocket’ll have a hole bad hair pic’ll go
viral engine idle endlessly
at lights windows rattle hackers get into your Google –
moreover, you shall disremember dates, twitch much
skip trips, let your pass-word slip, miss-type your zip code
miss-swipe your bank card.
Your socks will unmatch in the wash your door unlatch
a pickle catch in your throat your taxes
increase. I see grease stains on your coat
a spider bite on those glove-snatching hands
a cyst– condition preexisting; I foresee – surreal! –
rats eating the cereal, for those fists
a life of wretched shoplifting
passed over –
(Inspired by the curses in “Nell Flaherty’s Drake,” anonymous 1830’s Irish street broadside)
Farewell to My Mother
My feet have never been as cold as they were on the frigid January morning when my mother was buried. The ground was like frozen tundra beneath my feet. I couldn’t imagine how the gravediggers had even done their job. I shifted from side to side, struggling to maintain some heat in my shivering body as the rabbi recited the strange but familiar Hebrew prayers and the small group of mourners shared in our family’s grief.
Why hadn’t I worn warmer shoes, heavy socks or boots? This was Boston in January. I had spent the first 17 years of my life here. I was very familiar with blustery blizzards and bone-chilling weather. But on this January day I felt under attack by a hostile and alien climate and I just couldn’t stop thinking about how freezing cold my feet were. I wanted nothing more than to get back into the well-heated limousine with the neatly uniformed driver.
As the service ended and I trekked slowly and painfully on the concrete path from the gravesite back to the limousine, I felt excruciatingly alone. My husband was not by my side. For more than a week, following the latest of several hospitalizations, he had been in a New York City nursing home.
Three days earlier, at 8:30 on Sunday morning, the shrill ringing of the telephone had jolted me out of an already fitful sleep. I fearfully checked the caller ID, fully expecting to see my husband’s cellphone number or, even worse, the number of the nursing home administrator.
Barely awake, I was surprised and confused to see my sister’s cellphone number instead. Using my childhood nickname, she said softly, “Ca, I’m downstairs. Please let me in.” My sister lives 90 miles away and it was 8:30 in the morning. I knew this could mean only one thing. I wanted to send her away, to make it not true. My heart was racing and my hands were sweating as I opened the apartment door. “Mom died this morning,” she said simply, telling me what I already knew. We fell into each other’s arms, sobbing.
As we held each other, I heard a cry from deep inside me: “I was going to go see her tomorrow. Why didn’t she wait for me?” For months, I had been feeling guilty because I had been so caught up with my husband’s health issues that I had neither the time nor the energy to visit her.
Now she was dead. As we laid her to rest in her beloved New England, I wished she could hear my words, “Mom, I love you. I’m sorry I didn’t come to see you.”
So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, adieu
Not sorry to see you go.
Goodbye stained bedding, I’m done with you.
Bye-bye “Aunt Flo,” you’re leaving too.
Goodbye black pants one week each month.
Bright colors await me, I’m going to lunch.
Goodbye humiliation, goodbye frustration.
Adieu to wondering “am I in gestation?”
Farewell stained skirt,
Get lost, brother’s teasing smirk.
Goodbye cold hands scrubbing in the sink.
Goodbye infernal stains of brown and red and pink.
My forty-year sentence is served, it’s through.
Goodbye, farewell, so long, adieu.
When the time comes to say “Adieu.”
future home, a small realm amidst tall grasses and wildflowers separated
by a low log fence from the Pocantico River flowing by.
We ambled to this peaceful spot – as likable a destination as any we’ve traveled to,
felt comfortable in, could put down roots in – within this overgrown section of Sleepy Hollow
Cemetery in Tarrytown, New York, set aside to grow naturally.
Thinking of cemeteries sometimes frightens me. Yet, this verdant edge of
Sleepy Hollow kept for “green burial” does not. There are no jutting
headstones that ghosts of scary, headless horsemen can hide behind,
only flat grey rocks retrieved from the river, hand inscribed or plain,
a meadow left untouched, except for sun, rain, wind, snow and minimal upkeep.
It is one of just a few established as Garden cemeteries – the first, at
Père Lachaise in Paris – a delightful inspiration of the French, like champagne,
that suits us both.
The whole expanse of Sleepy Hollow – some locals call it a park – is a
historic landmark. Even literary. It’s peopled by at least a few I can imagine
myself conversing with from time to time. We pass Washington Irving,
Elizabeth Arden, and Brooke Astor. Also the capitalist Andrew Carnegie,
as well as Samuel Gompers, who founded the AFL – such strange bedfellows.
Some Rockefellers are just a few feet away.
Our little plot, B18, is as perfect for us as our home is now.
What’s more, it is just two spots over from a dear friend, who went
to St. John’s College, the great books school, as my husband did,
ensuring eons of challenging conversation on ancient and modern
classics. Of course, all in due time.
Still, it’s nice that so simply, so serenely, after years of
deliberating our options, this portion of our lives is settled.
Lives, you ask? Lives? Not death?
You’re surprised? Here’s why.
It’s there, you’ll notice in our future address, B18.
The number 18, or Chai – miracle of miracles – translated
from the Hebrew means Life.
It began for me during the winter of eighth grade. The artificial feeling. I am not acting real, I thought. While I responded cheerfully to my friends’ overtures, I felt as if I were a windup doll.
You are my life, Paula. I would die for you .
Then don’t be mean. Don’t hit me.
Don’t tell me I’m bad.
My body was changing. Blood every month now. The curse, Mom called it. When I told her about the blood, she slapped me lightly on both cheeks. It was the custom, she said. I told my younger sister about it, hoping to prepare her, so that she would be spared the shock of what I had felt.
Now there was pubic hair. And I had breasts that stuck out like miniature erect pears. With the change in my body came increased sensitivity, as though a protective covering, a psychic skin had been peeled off.
I began to write poetry. “It’s beautiful,” said Mom in one of her calm moments. “Your poetry is beautiful.” Sometimes I thought Mom was thinking through me, and that my thoughts and feelings did not belong to me at all.
Paula, I love you the most of all my children. You are the most like me. Oh, I am lonely, my darling child. You are a friend, not just a daughter. Mom nestled her chin against my soft dark hair.
At that instant, her force flowed into me. It felt like an alien being. A being that would like to choke my younger sister. Choke the baby brother.
I wanted to vomit this alien being inside me, but I couldn’t. It lodged there.
Maybe I could kill myself because it would be less painful to be dead. To float around as a disembodied being. No anxiety about whether people liked me. No more wondering what to do with my unruly hair. No more homework pressure. No more worry. No more pain.
Days later, I lay on the roof. The asphalt shingles scratched my body. I watched Mom below with three policemen. A branch from the maple tree nearly grazed my face. Through the leaves I watched them, feeling as distant as if I were light years away, as if I were watching them through a kaleidoscope. Blobs of shifting color and form.
One of the policemen was filling out a report. What does she look like? Medium height. About five foot three. Twelve years old. Nearly thirteen. Long black hair. Birthmarks? Other signs of identification?
Finally I watched them drive off in the squad car. Mom paced back and forth along the deck. She went inside the house. Soon she would be phoning her friends. Everyone would be frantic. Good! Dad would be upset, too. Let him suffer.
Much later, after a sliver of moon appeared in the night sky, I realized I was hungry. Beyond hungry. I felt light and spacy as I climbed down from the roof and made my way towards the street. A gigantic black bird appeared and moved its huge wings.
In a perfect world, ZsuZsa would have been a manuscript curator at the Met. She would have worn a houndstooth wool-tweed skirt from Miu Miu and a velvet Prada belt bag, and on weekends she would have enjoyed an occasional meal of expensive, caper-driven gnocchi or a meditative afternoon in the gardens at the Frick with the fantasy, non-drinking version of her last ex. As it was, however, she lived alone in Hoboken and did user-support for networked printing at Goya Foods, whose mango juice with its 38 grams of sugar she loved.
She was heading into Manhattan to a birthday party for the mother of a childhood friend, the friend herself having passed on. At 60, ZsuZsa would be the youngest person there. Although she was now twenty years into the habit of being single and couldn’t actually remember what the stirring of passion felt like, she poured herself into a green shirred-waist dress that made her look like the snake from Anthony and Cleopatra. ZsuZsa liked old people; with them the pressure was off. They were full of stories they liked to tell. The exhausting commerce of social status and expectations could be set aside in their company. At the party, she found it very pleasant to find herself enjoying the company of one Mr. Bota, a newly widowed East European polyglot, with whom she discussed Murano glass and bibliophilia in English. Because despite her name, ZsuZsa was a monoglot.
The champagne had been flowing freely for a couple of hours, when the sharp crack of yet another bottle being decorked was immediately followed by a howl of anguish and cries of “My eye!” “Ow!” “My eye!” The party-goers turned to see the horrified face of the woman holding the champagne bottle and the bowed head of her slumped victim. Someone wrapped up ice in a cloth, someone else rousted the ophthalmologist in 316D, but eventually the weeping victim (“I cannot see!”) and his wife headed off to the emergency room and – as we later learned – to surgery.
The party spoiled, twenty people were kissed on both cheeks, mutual love was pledged, and jackets sought. As ZsuZsa pulled off her sandals and slipped into her walking shoes, the suave Mr. Bota gallantly offered to either pour her a last champagne or walk with her to the Q. A perfect gentleman. But no, she really couldn’t imagine it. No, she said, I’m taking a cab. Goodbye, she said. Goodbye. At the corner she sneaked a look back, then dashed off towards the Q.
It was a short cool walk, sprinkled every few seconds with a splotch of mist. It was as if the heavy summer air was so oversaturated that globes of wet periodically condensed into suspended droplets, into which one walked. On the escalator down, she walked into one at tear-duct level. It paused for a second, then rolled down her cheek.
My son-in-law Adam told me, “The last time Jacob saw Gramme, they enjoyed a competitive game of Rummiku. I think it might be best for the children to hold onto those vibrant memories when they had so much fun together. I don’t think it would be helpful for them to see her in a coma.”
I had to call my siblings and four children when my 94-year-old Mom was failing. No one could believe it. Me included. How could their strong spirited Gramme be dying? She had seemed indomitable. She had always been there for her four children, twelve grandchildren and ten great grandchildren, despite being widowed at the age of 53.
My brother left work early and drove right over to see Mom. My two sisters took the first flight out of California, but by the time they arrived, Mom had slipped into a coma.
Most of the grandchildren decided to provide support from afar, while protecting their children from the trauma of seeing their beloved great-grandmother lying still and breathing heavily, without her familiar animated conversation and signature stylish outfit with matching necklace and earrings.
My daughter Samantha had a different opinion than Adam, her husband. She wanted to bring the children – Aerin, 11, Jacob, 8 and Ronen, 5.
I decided Adam was right and told Samantha so. She felt strongly otherwise. “I think it’s important for the children to see how we care for someone with love at the end of their life. They will experience the family pulling together to be there for Gramme. I don’t think it is a scary experience. It’s a part of life. Families take care of family. I will talk to them about what to expect and prepare them that she will look different and she won’t be able to talk to them. They will always be glad they had an opportunity to say good-bye to their Gramme.” Samantha was very convincing.
When the children arrived, they each had some time to go into the bedroom to say good-bye. We told them that although Gramme wasn’t responsive, she could probably hear them. Jacob went first, said, “I love you Grammie” and kissed her on the cheek. Aerin asked Ronen if he would like to go in with her because she thought he might be scared. She held his hand and led him to sit down next to the hospital bed. I didn’t hear their conversations but the two of them had some private time to bid adieu to their Gramme.
She died two days later, enveloped in the love of three generations.
Yes, after a lifetime of checking for blood, it is as though part of ourselves is strangely missing. Thank you for your piece.
Mimi Jennings, I wish the very same to the person who stole my umbrella, that rainy day in the coffee shop.