Archive for August, 2018

Just a little guilt

I went to my bereavement group this morning. We meet the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month at Help of Ojai’s West Campus. It had been months since I had attended a meeting and I thought it was time to renew acquaintances.

I arrived a few minutes early and found a stranger, Vivian, who was relatively new to the group. A nice woman who seemed quiet and a bit distant. We exchanged pleasantries and then fell silent.

Kathy, a strong, determined, yet warm woman of about fifty, leads the group.  She is quite good at it, knowing when to talk and when to be silent. Saying the right things also helps. Kathy has been there and back many times. We spent a few minutes focused on small talk.

Marsha and Joyce arrived. Old-timers whose attendance predated mine. Both women had lost their husbands; each was at a different stage of bereavement. Not everyone takes the same path. The process and elapsed time vary for each person.

The ninety-minute session began with a description of how we each were feeling. Some participants took pains to describe their feelings in detail, while others spoke more generally. Listening, it seemed that I had not missed much in my two or three months of absence from the group. But progress isn’t necessarily why people attend. Being among others in similar circumstances is often enough to warrant continued attendance. It’s good to know that other people have many of the same feelings that I do.

I had a special reason for coming at this time, since it was the one-year anniversary of Ila’s passing. I felt almost bidden to attend, as though it was part of the rite of passage. A pilgrimage to the place where I had spent many hours listening to others while sharing my feelings without restraint. Sharing thoughts with others who had similar reasons for being there and who felt safe enough to be frank, honest and human.

My turn to speak was rapidly approaching. I quickly sorted through the events of the last few months. I tried to organize my thoughts into a cogent verbal expression of my feelings. When I finally began to speak it all seemed to fall into place without significant effort.

I spoke of my continuing dedication to zealously working out at the gym. How it not only strengthened my body but how it also nurtured my psyche by regularly socializing with other people, many of whom I now call friends.

How I had slowly returned to photography. Taking photos for the Music Festival, contributing two dozen of my photos to the walls of the newly reconstructed hospital in Ventura, and a greater willingness to just take pictures regardless of subject.

How I had resumed driving the Help of Ojai bus. For appreciative riders who have no other way of getting to the grocery, the doctor or, bless their hearts…the hair salon.

How I had joined with some talented people in a creative writing group. How I had restarted my blog with full credit to the writing group for giving me a weekly incentive to put my thoughts on the web.

And my family and Jackie, all of whom I treasure beyond words.

Overall, I felt a bit guilty because of my good health and rebounding happiness. Guilty that I was happy even though my loved one was gone. And then I remembered what happened a week ago. And I told this story to those sitting around me.

It was the day before the one-year anniversary of Ila’s passing. It had been a busy day for me with several trips into town, work on several projects and little time to just relax. Around four o’clock I felt tired and decided to sit on the soft couch in the living room and attack a NY Times crossword puzzle. And, of course, I quickly fell asleep.

My nap couldn’t have lasted more than ten minutes. Awakening, I looked to my left and saw sweet Ila standing there, her hand resting lightly on my left shoulder. It lasted no more than five seconds. Just enough time to see a broad smile on her lovely face. A smile that seemed to say, “It’s OK.” And I felt refreshed and happy.

It didn’t matter whether it was fact or fiction. All that mattered was that it happened.

She’s been gone a year…

My sweetheart of nearly sixty years died a year ago today, August 23, 2017.

I’m not sure if it seems like a long time ago or just a blip in the universal clock. I do know that I have been counting the months since she died. And the weeks. This has been a particularly tough week for me, grouchy, snippy and all too ready to argue about meaningless slights. My temper, usually under control, has exhibited itself in ways that do not please me. I look at my face in the mirror and wonder where the smile has gone. I sleep less and eat the wrong things. I often skip meals and find food tasteless.

I look at the collage of Ila’s photos on the wall. They span the time between her grade school graduation and an older, wiser person sitting on the couch in the living room. She’s ill, but still smiling at the camera with that honest, loving face. The face that always left me smiling too.

In Costa Rica last month we were without her. A family incomplete because of her absence. A family that felt just a little bit guilty while laughing and playing together. We posted photos of the trip on a website we created to memorialize the adventure. We posted too many photos, I thought. Until my random clicking landed me on a photo of the kids…Isaac, Bella, Morey and Sammy. Smiling with honest faces. Casual in their posing. Full of young life and brimming with happiness. I smiled, then I cried. Not tears of sorrow but ones of joy.

I sent the photo to Jackie. I knew she would like it because Sammy was glowing and being a kid, free from any artificial constraints and loving every minute of it. Happy to pose, not because we asked her to, but because it was the most natural thing to do.

I sent an e-mail to son David thanking him for posting the Zip-lining and river rafting photos. I told him that I hoped Mom was looking over my shoulder and getting high from it all. That she could enjoy her family and get pleasure from the happiness of others.

And then I cried again, by myself. Like my heart was going to break. It’s been awhile since I did that. Without constraint. Without embarrassment. Remembering. And it felt good.

Ila died one day after her sweet daughter’s fifty-sixth birthday. Nancy always tells me that she will easily remember Mom’s passing since it was the day after her own birthday. But I know she will remember it regardless of when Ila died. She’s that way. Loving, focused, serious and a crier. She seems tough but she’s really a closet pussy cat.

I bought Ila’s diamond engagement ring when I was twenty. I really should say my father bought Ila’s engagement ring when I was twenty. It must have been important to him since he was not a man who could, nor would, throw money around.

Ila accumulated other jewelry during our sixty years together, including a treasure chest of pieces given to her when her mother Marge died. Marge was a collector of fine clothes and jewelry. Ila was the opposite. The engagement ring was very special to Ila. She didn’t wear it much because she thought it too valuable to lose. But I really think it was because she felt it was too showy. It lay in the dark for the last twenty-five years in a safe deposit box.

Over time , Ila gave most of the other jewelry to the kids, but she held onto the ring. I was never quite sure what she intended to do with it. It’s quite beautiful, like its owner was. It sparkles in the sunlight like Ila did whenever she appeared. It’s hard as a rock, which Ila could be when it was necessary. And it’s sharp as a tack, like Ila was when confronting me or the kids with some misdeed. But most of all, it is a testament to my love for her over the last sixty years.

And I will pass it on to the someone who most reminds me of Ila’s quality, her honesty, her never-give-up attitude and her unbounded love for family. Someone I’ve loved since she was a baby in my arms. Someone who misses her mother as much as I do. I’m sure Ila will be pleased.

Carbon Paper

Carbon Paper is not the name of a rock group.

It was Monday morning, and I was headed down the hill for my workout at the Ojai Athletic Club. I’ve been anal about working out since I met Jackie and decided that I needed to do something to narrow the sixteen years between us.

When I first met her, I could only make it half-way up the Shelf Road trail. Now I can do the round trip without having my chest seek refuge in another body. Loss of a good slice of my belly fat, and the discovery that I actually had ribs, were additional perks that came with burning an extra four hundred calories each morning.

I like NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. She has interesting guests and knows enough to ask brief questions while letting her guests grab the spotlight. Jonathan Banks was Terry’s guest this Monday morning. I had no idea who he was until he began musing about his roles in the award-winning Netflix series Breaking Bad and its current series, Better Call Saul.

Jonathan usually plays an understated bad guy. At seventy-one and five foot nine, he looks a little like me with his bald head, big nose and all-knowing squinty eyes. During the Fresh Air interview, he said “When you look like me, you better know something about acting, cause you ain’t no leading man.”

At one point in the conversation, Jonathan was talking about the evolution of the art of making multiple copies of scripts; he recollected how carbon paper was once a mainstay in that process. As interviewers often will, Terry interrupted and told the listeners what carbon paper was. I laughed out loud at the notion that some people had never heard of carbon paper and, a moment later, felt a bit older than I did ten seconds earlier.

I then found myself dragging old memories from my storage device, each of which had aging at its core. For example, I was reminded of a conversation I had many years ago with a woman, a good deal younger than me, about whistling. I said, “Speaking of whistling, do you remember Lauren Bacall and the famous line in the movie To Have and Have Not?”  Bacall said “If you want something, just whistle…you know how to whistle, don’t you? You just put your lips together and blow.” And my lady friend said, “No I don’t know Lauren Bacall…who was he?”

Or my old Rabbi who said “Whenever I look in the mirror, I see a young man.”

Or when I was the youngest guy at the business staff meeting, then average, then the oldest.

Or my mother and brother, both victims of the ravages of aging, that cause me to occasionally count backwards by nine as I try to assure myself that I still can.

When I was thirty, I figured I hadn’t yet lived half of my life. At forty, I thought I thought I was beyond the half-way mark. At sixty, I hoped I would have half again to look forward to. At nearly eighty, I don’t do that anymore.

I sometimes read about improvements planned to the state water system, the bullet train and the long-term impacts of climate change. And I wonder if I’ll live long enough.

I think about multi-year projects that I might not start, because I might not finish.

But I’m a quick learner.  So aided by example, I’ve decided to forget about running out of time and, instead, run a bit faster in the time that’s left.

Yesterday, my daughter Nancy sent me a video of her Rabbi, Paul Kipnes, as he was crossing a suspension bridge in Costa Rica. Walking backwards with some uncertainty on the swaying structure, he compared the whole world to a very narrow bridge. A scary one that puts fear into our lives. But the important thing, he said, is not to be afraid to cross that bridge. Staying on one side and failing to move ahead is not a viable alternative.

And I remembered Chuck Peterson. A pleasant, unassuming man, successful and seemingly satisfied with what he had accomplished. At age 92 and living in Montecito, he and his wife decided to leave there, build a home in Ojai, plant two thousand olive trees and split their time between Ojai and the management of their resort business in Costa Rica. They did just that. And Chuck died two years later at 94.

I remember thinking, why would a guy do that at 92? I didn’t realize it then, but Chuck was a risk taker. It didn’t matter how much time he had left. It only mattered that he did what he wanted to do. Doing things that made him happy, without worrying about his ability to complete them. He had learned a lesson that made sense to him and he was intent on repeating it.

Or as Karl Wallenda said…Life is being on the wire, everything else is just waiting.


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