Posts Tagged 'relationships'

Because of you

I flew Contour Airlines from Santa Barbara to the Bay area this weekend to celebrate my buddy Harry’s 80th birthday. Two months older than me, Harry and I have been the closest of friends for more than sixty years.

I highly recommend the Santa Barbara airport and Contour Airlines. Arriving mid-afternoon on Friday after a forty-five-minute easy drive from Ojai, I parked in the half-empty long-term parking lot, took a five-minute walk to the Spanish influenced terminal building and found the airport nearly deserted. I thought that perhaps I had missed an Ebola evacuation announcement.

I got my boarding pass from a very friendly Contour employee and made my way to the dreaded TSA security gauntlet. I was one of two people in line. The super-friendly supervisor asked if I would mind being a guinea pig for the new TSA employee at the screening monitor. With time to spare, I did my civic duty and opened my toiletries bag, watched it being hand searched, worried about what illegal or embarrassing item I might have forgotten about, zipped it back up without incident, and was thanked for my participation.

With little to do in the cavernous terminal, I casually sauntered over to the customer-less Peet’s Coffee kiosk, grabbed a cup of dark roast, sat in a very comfortable chair, played with my Spell Tower game and waited for boarding to begin. Boarding started when promised, and the plane departed and landed on time in Oakland. It was nirvana.

My wife to be, Ila, and Harry’s intended, Judy, were girlfriends at Chicago’s Boone grade school in the late forties. I started dating Ila during her high school senior year and, coincidentally, fell in love with Harry. The four of us remained inseparable until sweet Ila died in 2017.

I was Harry’s roommate at the University of Illinois. Studying metallurgy, Harry endured long hours of study, late nights, and early morning risings. He had this annoying habit of setting the alarm clock well in advance of his required wake up time, and then employing the snooze feature of our clock in order to bag several ten-minute naps. Even though I could have slept later than Harry, I suffered through his chronic, snooze habit in deference to his extended study nights.

Never lazy, Harry had several temporary jobs during summer vacations. Working in the Café Brauer snack-bar at the beach, he honed his not inconsiderable people skills, now in daily evidence at Noah’s bagels in Livermore, by ogling the girls who made the mistake of thinking that he was not a letch. Another summer vacation job tested Harry’s skills as a house painter. Unwilling to take the time to laboriously mask the crevices between the window and its frame, he simply made them un-openable by painting them shut at the home of my future in-laws. His follow-up job was unsealing the windows.

Graduating college and tearfully forsaking the life of a house painter while pocketing his newly minted PhD in material science, Harry began working at Argonne National Laboratories in Chicago’s southern suburbs while Ila and I set up shop in the northern suburbs. The distance between us, although minor by today’s freeway standards, tended to limit our time together.

In 1967 I accepted a job in San Francisco and we resigned ourselves to maybe seeing each other once a year. However, six months later, Harry called me and excitedly announced that he had taken a position with GE and was moving to the Bay Area. Now we could be, as nature intended, together once again. Unfortunately, I had just accepted a position in Southern California. And that’s how things have remained for over fifty years.

Though three hundred and fifty miles apart, we celebrated holidays, vacations, bar mitzvahs and other life cycle events together. Ila’s difficult illness limited those events and our time together lessened considerably. When Ila died, Harry stayed with me for days while I tried to cope with the emptiness. As always, being together was enough. Conversation to fill the vacuum was unnecessary. We had, years before, developed an alert system whenever we had something to say. Harry would reach over and touch my wrist announcing he was about to speak. I would stop whatever I was doing, straighten up and look alert. And I would listen.

Many years ago when the number of our face to face meetings was diminishing, Harry began to call me every Monday night at 7:30. A call to assure himself that everything was ok. A call to announce that he cared about me. We usually don’t have much to say during these calls. A “How are you” and “What’s new” followed by “I’m fine” and “Nothing much” often ends the call almost before it begins. But the warm feeling of reaching out lasts for the rest of the evening.

Harry’s eightieth was held in a Chinese restaurant near his Livermore home. His continuing concern for me was in evidence when we were blind-sided by the traffic and were fifteen minutes late. As we pulled into the parking lot, my cellphone rang and Harry said “Where are you? Everyone else is here.” I had been missed.

About forty people were there. Mostly old friends and close family. Many faces were familiar, but they seemed to have aged faster than I had. Harry, contrary to his preferred seat of the pants approach, had prepared some detailed remarks about the event and the people there who had touched his life. I blushed when he seemed to spend an inordinately significant portion of his presentation reminiscing about our time together.

One at a time, about half of the guests rose to say a few words. Harry’s wit and sarcasm took center stage in their remarks, and all offered anecdotes that highlighted his lasting friendship and his uniqueness. When it was my turn, I found myself stretching to say something important. Yet I found that what seemed important to me may have sounded trivial to those at the tables.

I recalled an evening in our senior year when, as a rite of passage, and surrounded by a horde of onlookers, Harry had to serenade Judy while standing outside her dorm. He had memorized and practiced that Arthur Hammerstein song for weeks on end in our small room; I could have delivered it in his stead. When his time came, he couldn’t remember the beginning of the song he had labored on as though it was his doctoral thesis. He had asked me to be his best man and I was standing beside him. He frantically leaned over to me and said, “What’s the words?”

I touched his wrist and whispered in his ear, “Because of You.”

Feeling mortal

According to Merriam-Webster, the word mortal means causing or having caused death. After the events of the last seven days, I more fully understand what it means.

When I was younger, I played a silly game with myself. I’d think of my age and calculate the percentage of my life still ahead of me. For example, when I was twenty-five, I figured I’d live to the conservative age of seventy-five. So, I still had two-thirds of my life to live. It was comforting.

When I was fifty, I figured I had used up two-thirds of my probable seventy-five-year sojourn on this planet.  Since I was not a believer in the afterlife or of a micro-managing deity, it gave me little comfort to feel closer to the end than the beginning.

I’ll be eighty in a couple of months. And I no longer play that game.

When I was much younger and working for a living, I’d, more often than not, be the youngest person in the weekly staff meeting. Now younger people offer to carry groceries to my car in the Von’s parking lot, others hold open the door for me at the athletic club, and I’m always respectfully addressed as “sir.”

Last week I was driving up Sulphur Mountain Road to my house in the Upper Ojai. It had rained earlier in the day and the bone-chilling combination of high humidity and low temperature made me shiver. Even the car heater wasn’t good enough. The thick, dark cloud cover added to the dank conditions that were usually only found in Dracula movies starring either Bela Lugosi or Gary Oldman.

About a quarter-mile from my driveway, the road was partially blocked by three police cars and a troop of officers. They seemed on break, just standing idly by with their hands in their pockets, as though waiting for something to happen. I slowed the car and stopped alongside the patrol cars. And one other car that looked strangely familiar.

My neighbor Ron’s sons, Eric and Max, walked toward me. I rolled down my window and asked what was going on. Eric said “That’s my father, lying on the shoulder, covered by the yellow plastic tarp. He died here about thirty minutes ago.”

You’ve probably felt like this before. Someone says something that is so incongruous that, at first, you don’t fathom its meaning. Then it sinks in and, depending how close you’ve been to those involved, you experience some level of shock.

Ron had been our good neighbor for nearly twenty years. We had eaten together, shared stories at neighborhood parties and helped each other overcome life’s roadblocks. An inveterate and former pipe smoker, Ron had been ill for some years and his death was ordained. Nevertheless, its abrupt end on the muddy shoulder of the road he had traversed hundreds of times was unexpected. I thought he might go on indefinitely, despite the lung disease that eventually brought him to ground. I’ll miss him.

Earlier that same day, I had attended the weekly creative writing class at Help of Ojai. For many months, I’ve spent Thursday mornings listening to the stories, poems and life experiences crafted by a dozen or more gifted writers. I also offer my own brand of writing to those who are kind enough to listen. The two-hour weekly session ends with a sometimes agonizing quest to identify a restaurant that eight or more of us can abide. It’s a challenge that, at times, is more difficult than getting past the constructive criticism leveled at us by the incisive, grammatically correct class participants.

Creatures of habit, most of us regularly occupy the same seats at the large, square table, unless one is tardy and confronted by a full house. I sit next to Johan who generally is one of the first people to arrive.  Reared in South Africa, Johan offers insights into a country that only a native can tell. In truth, his writing is occasionally difficult to warm to and he is often bestowed with criticisms that are well-meant but which can also be disheartening. His ability to absorb these barbs is often tested, and I find myself caring for his fragile ego.

Last Thursday I found myself confronted by an empty chair on my right that is normally staked out by Johan. About ninety, his absence due to a cold or minor ache or pain would normally be unremarkable. Nevertheless, I did feel an eerie vacuum created by the empty chair. I missed his repartee, his signature hat and his cellphone that seemed to have a mind of its own, demonstrating it every so often by interrupting various readers with its strident, irreverent sound. At times, I thought Johan would strangle the offensive device. We ended our class and trooped to Ca’Marco for lunch…without Johan.

The next day, Friday, I arrived at Help of Ojai for my morning bus driving shift. Tina, a delightful woman who schedules the bus trips, said “I’m sorry about Johan.” My first thought was that he had been struck down by the flu or some other malady that laid him low, maybe even hospitalized. After telling Tina that I didn’t know anything about Johan, she told me that he had passed away the day before. I immediately visualized the empty chair and said, “I just sat next to him last Thursday.” And I thought, how could something like this happen so quickly, without so much as a by-your-leave. Without warning, a last good-bye, or another reading of the 123rd paragraph of his novel.

The passing of Ron and Johan on the same day caused me to focus on my own mortality. I suppose that’s normal. To measure your years alongside theirs. To think about the fickleness of death. To realize that life is fragile. To cause us to seize the opportunity, that we might otherwise delay if we were immortal. But, blessedly, our mortality brings with it the urge, even if momentarily, to do before we cannot. To love with all our heart. To be loved.

Maybe I’ll start that counting game again.

Coffee with Norm

I hadn’t seen Norm in almost two years. And then on Wednesday I bumped into him in the dairy aisle at Vons.

I had to look twice to be sure it was him. Older and grayer, he carried himself with a bit of a stoop and a little shuffle in his gait. Always kind-hearted and sensitive, his somewhat older persona fit his indelible character.

We had once been very active in the Ojai photography milieu but both of us had mostly abandoned that activity for reasons that could not be clearly enunciated by either of us. Norm had a creative streak that produced some clever and cutting-edge photos. He was one of the first to create photos without the benefit of a camera. This novel idea led to a discussion some ten years ago about whether his artwork was truly a “photo” that met the requirements for submission to the annual Ojai Art Center photo contest. It did, and it won.

Norm was kind enough to send me an email the day after our Von’s tryst that told me how much he enjoyed our brief conversation surrounded by the milk, butter and sour cream. I wrote back and, with some hesitancy, asked him if he’d like to have a cup of coffee. I knew that the death of his wife, Phyllis, nearly three years ago coincided with his withdrawal from the art scene and I wondered if he might not respond to my invitation. But he did, quickly, and we settled on Java and Joe at nine o’clock two days later.

I was already sipping my usual dark roast coffee with Splenda and cream when Norm arrived, right on time. No surprise, since he was always punctual. A lot like me, Norm did not crave the center of attention and tended to cede the podium to those more verbose than he. I hoped we’d have enough to talk about before my coffee cup was empty.

I felt a bit awkward when I told him of my engagement to Jackie. Due to what seemed a reclusive demeanor, I had assumed that Norm had not fully recovered from the death of his wife, dear Phyllis. Also talented, she had been both a prolific artist and an art teacher. Conducting classes at the Art Center, she had a large following. Her illness had gradually robbed Phyllis of her ability to continue in her usual mode. So, she moved the classes to their home. Then, as she became frailer, she employed the computer and on-line instruction. Norm told me about the last year of her life when they would combine trips to Santa Barbara hospitals and doctors with lunch at favorite restaurants, walks on the beach and much conversation. It was a happy second honeymoon for them even though the outcome was ordained.

I need not have worried about Norm’s anticipated discomfort as I talked about “my Jackie.” For he had some time ago taken up with a woman in Camarillo. Introducing her to his family led to serious consideration of their relationship. However, it was not to be and their togetherness ended short of any more formal binding. Currently happy, it was like he had attended my bereavement group when he spoke of feeling guilty while enjoying himself when Phyllis could not.

We had a bit of an organ recital and lamented on those parts of our body that did not respond as quickly as they did years ago. About five years older than me, Norm had some physical setbacks but is able to work in his garden and be entertained by his children who show up regularly to check on him. He commented on my activities with “You seem to have a full schedule.” Funny, since I often don’t feel that way. Maybe it’s my lifelong need, sometimes a curse, to stay busy.

I looked up from our conversation and saw Jackie bounce into the coffee shop. Her appearance, complete with a certain impish demeanor, immediately brightened my day. Introducing her to Norm added to my enjoyment. Her hand lovingly rubbing my shoulder completed the unexpected treat. Jackie shared some words with Norm and, knowing the right time to depart, did so with an infectious smile. When she was gone, Norm looked at me and said, “She’s just like you described her, only more so.”

We spoke of photography and the increasing difficulty of aging muscles to bear the weight of the usual assortment of professional level camera equipment. Smart phones and their increasing ability to emulate the photos taken with traditional cameras occupied the next few minutes. Norm’s visits to hospitals and doctors with Phyllis had generated an interest in watching others as they sat in waiting rooms. Using his smart phone, he shared with me some of the photos he had taken of these kindred spirits. I remarked on both the unique concept and his ability to capture the moment that showed their pain, boredom or exhilaration. I was both enthralled and jealous of his art. But probably not enough to ignite my own juices.

Norm reminisced about the time we had once spent every June, hanging selected photos on the Art Center walls in anticipation of the annual show. He and I sometimes were a team, measuring, nailing, hanging and leveling the submissions. In the midst of our thoughts he said “I remember you and Ila sitting on the couch during a break. You held hands and sang together. The sight was something so warm that I wished we could have hung it on the wall. You seemed so happy.” I couldn’t remember the occasion, but he was so pumped about it that I didn’t want to break the spell. “Yes, we did that a lot.”, I said.

Like a lot of things that grow fuzzy with age, we tend to alter their true story in ways that satisfy a need, improve its reception by the listener, or we simply forget. Some stories are told so many times that they become real. I sometimes start them with the preface “I’ve told this story so many times that I’m not sure what’s real and what’s made up.” But it doesn’t matter, so long as I can tell it.

Time passed and the extended silence between our sentences signaled the end of our conversation. I asked Norm to call me if he wanted to do this again. Wondering if we would, we deposited our coffee cups in the trash and walked to our cars. At our age, tomorrow is a lifetime.

I’m a fiance

Taken from the French, the word fiancé is the masculine term for a man who is engaged to be married. A fiancée (note the double e) is a woman who has chosen a similar fate.

I haven’t been a fiancé for almost sixty years since dear Ila and I linked our lives together. It feels a little strange and a bit lofty at my age to be calling myself a fiancé. So I thought there must be another term that means the same thing but would slide more easily off my tongue than “Hello, I’m Fred and this is my fiancée Jackie.”

According to Wikipedia, being engaged is not the same as dating. During this period, a couple is said to be betrothed, intendedaffiancedengaged to be married, or simply engaged. “Hello, I’m Fred and this is my betrothed, Jackie.” Or “Hello, I’m Fred and this is Jackie. We are intended.” Nope. Just doesn’t work.

I shared my new status with my bereavement group at Help of Ojai. When asked if anyone had anything to share with the group, I quickly said “I’m engaged.  And my fiancee’s name is Jackie.” The faces of those sitting around the table gave me cause for celebration. I asked if I sounded awkward saying fiancé. I was assured that I had done it well and could lay to rest my fear of using the term.

You may recall that I had the same difficulty finding a term that described our status before Jackie and I were engaged. Back then it was a toss-up between partner, sweetheart, significant other, beloved and lover. We have managed to live through that awkward period without significant damage. and I’m sure we’ll do the same while coping with uttering fiancé or fiancée.

The question most often asked after someone congratulates me for being engaged is “So when’s the wedding?” After some hesitation, I generally say something cute like one small step for mankind or you’ll be the second to know. According to my sources, the length of an engagement varies widely. The longest engagement on record was between Octavio Guillan and Adriana Mart¡nez. They finally took the plunge after 67 years in June, 1969 in Mexico City. Hopefully, they had time to consummate the marriage before one of them invoked the phrase until death us do part.

The ring also plays a significant role in engagements. The tradition dates back to the ancient Egyptians when a ring was thought to symbolize eternity. It was worn on the ring finger which was believed to have a vein running directly to the heart, later named vena amoris. Second century Romans believed that a ring signified the ownership of the woman.

The first recorded use of a diamond engagement ring occurred when Archduke Maximilian proposed to Mary of Burgundy. The diamond ring craze began in earnest when Cecil Rhodes founded DeBeer’s in the late 1800s. Pricey, but probably better than the early caveman who tied cords of braided grass around his chosen’s hands, wrists and waist to bring the hussy under his control.

We spent time looking for the perfect ring. And we found it in a small jewelry store in Santa Barbara. More a storeroom than a store, Tuon, the owner, made us feel confident that he could bring off the pairing of a diamond with a setting that did it justice.

Anxious to get the ring on Jackie’s finger before Thanksgiving, I called Tuon weekly. “Not to worry, it will be done”, Tuon assured me. His text on the Monday afternoon before Thanksgiving said “Come to the store Tuesday morning. I have what you seek.” Jackie had a full day at school Tuesday and gave me license to pick up the ring without her. I protested, ”But what if you don’t like it?”. Fearless as always, she sent me on my way.

It gleamed. It was perfect. It was her. I took a photo and sent it to Jackie’s iPhone. Her priceless shrieking told me we had done good. I unwound and took a deep breath. One small step…check.

Tuesday night seemed an appropriate time to formally propose and present the ring. I added a Where’s Waldo tie to my outfit that included tennies, a  tee-shirt and worn Levi’s. I knelt at her feet and said “Please do me the honor of marrying me. She giggled, put the ring on her finger and said with that twinkle in her eye “Yes I will.” Another small step…check.

No one has yet asked me “Why did you decide to get engaged.” I’ve thought about it. Jackie and I have spoken of it frequently. It’s not some crazy idea that just popped out. I am nearly eighty, some sixteen years older than sweet Jackie. Should I depart this world at ninety-five, Jackie will be my current age. I’ve tried to mentally list the reasons why I want to be engaged. After all, there are lots of people who live together happily without marriage. Maybe nearly sixty years with Ila left me with the belief that if you love someone, marriage is the logical conclusion.

I don’t think that logic is a vital component in the decision to marry. If we base it on logic, the odds seem to be arrayed against marriage. No, I think it’s simpler than that, perhaps genetic. Perhaps it’s like that caveman with the braided reeds who understood that a lasting relationship includes the warmth, the sharing and the relative certainty of marriage.

Time to work on a guest list.`

Is anyone listening?

Many years ago, in a country far, far away, there lived an old man who thought he had seen it all. He had been through every kind of natural and man-made disaster but had managed to cheat death and live a peaceful existence. Until now.

His neighbors and friends, having been impacted by global warming, immigration, declining food stocks and 24/7 exposure to events around the world, had grown increasingly sullen, insular and argumentative.  Mere differences of opinion could not be solved by peaceful discussion. A profound loss of common decency was replaced by strident self-interest. This rapidly deteriorating state-of-affairs was something the old man hadn’t  seen before. His neighbors, once unified and caring, had turned surly. They no longer spoke to one another. They only sought the company of those who were like-minded and who shared similar opinions of right and wrong.

People separated into two distinct groups, each easily identifiable by the color of their clothing. One group wore red. Red shirts, red pants and red shoes. The other wore blue, including their underwear. The Blues walked down the left side of the only street in the country, while the Reds filled the right. Some Reds and some Blues, more strident than others in their group, wore large felt hats emblazoned with their group motto Me First. They also carried large signs that, in appropriately colored letters, shouted their group’s demands. They carried the signs wherever they went; into the supermarket, the church and the schools.

Their children were indoctrinated from the age of three by TVs, computer screens and smart phones. Talking heads poured forth their vitriol twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Panel discussions deteriorated into near brawls. Children freely mocked other children without punishment.

Each group embraced leaders who promised to ignore the pleadings of the other group.  Once amiable and social despite their differences, the leaders of each group now shunned their counterparts and never crossed the street. Eye contact became rare; verbal intercourse was only used in dire circumstances. The unwillingness of the groups to speak with each other left the street in disrepair and eventually all public conveyances had to be removed from active service. Unable to move without restraint, people became even more insular.

The only meaningful activity was voting in elections that occurred every two years. Pitting Blues against Reds, these elections were preceded by attack-ads that focused on the personal traits and imaginary foibles of one’s opponent. Real issues, in particular the much-needed repair of the only street in the country, were either ignored or promises made that were either impractical or required solutions that were well beyond the available financing. Elections regularly caused the in-party to lose control. Every two years, any positive steps taken by the party last in power were undone by the incoming party.  Soon, fed up by the lack of any solution, the street issue faded into obscurity.

Although elections occurred only every two years, campaigning was non-stop. Fundraising for candidates began the day after the bi-annual election. Pleas for funding soon eclipsed the funds raised in the last election. People, fearing that the other side would eclipse their own meager resources, poured money into the pockets of their chosen candidates. Property taxes, income taxes and other revenue sources were regularly reduced by the party in power in order to fund candidates.

Other public services began to diminish. Schools closed, police and fire personnel were laid off and the street continued to crumble. Each side blamed the other for this lack of service. Those who won an election would initially promise to create greater unity with the other party. This commitment soon faded, and threats continued to be hurled across the potholed street by both Reds and Blues. Blues who were seen consorting with Reds were deemed traitors. Reds suffered the same consequences. Meaningful discourse ended.

Financially bankrupt, their infrastructure in ruins and unwilling to compromise, the country became insolvent and unmanageable.  Other countries surrounding it viewed the dire situation as an opportunity for expansion. Efforts to fend off the attackers weakened the country and left it without recourse. It gave up and was absorbed by its strongest neighbor.

The old man, now close to death, walked the barely recognizable street. He confronted his former countrymen, whose Red and Blue uniforms were now in tatters and indistinguishable. He asked, “How did this happen?” But no one listened.

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.

Hello, is Ila there?

Hello, is Ila there?

Ever since the Ojai fire in early December and the mass slaughter of old wooden telephone poles, nearly all of my calls come through my cell phone. My landline returned after four months. But by then I had weaned myself from a wired connection. I still do get landline calls and nearly one hundred percent of them are from people who want my money.

So, through necessity, I’ve developed a keen ear for determining whether the incoming call has been placed by some insensitive machine. You’ve probably learned the same trick of identifying robo-calls. It’s that slight hesitation as though no one is there, coupled with a tell-tale bleep, warning you that you are about to be connected to a real person. Like a well-trained gunslinger, I can usually press the end-call button before the connection is completed.

But sometimes the call is placed directly and so I’m required to listen to someone speak a few words before consigning the call to a far-away place. And that’s what happened around two o’clock Monday, about thirty-six hours after my return from Costa Rica. Maybe it was the jet lag that made me slow on the draw…or maybe it was something else.

Hello, is Ila there?  For what seemed like an eternity, I sat there, phone in hand, and didn’t know how to respond.  A series of possible answers flowed through my brain at warp speed.

Sorry. Ila passed away 

She doesn’t live here any more

No one here by that name

Please don’t call me again, my wife died nearly a year ago

After what seemed like eons of silence, I finally settled on No, she’s not here.  And I hung up before the caller could respond with obligatory condolences.

But that’s a lie. Ila is in fact here. Little bits of her have touched many people and she continues to influence their lives. Her DNA is deposited in her children and her grandchildren. Her honesty, generosity and morality have cascaded to her offspring. And will someday reside in her great-grandchildren.

I was sharply reminded of this by my daughter, Nancy, at dinner in Costa Rica last Friday. On a Friday that marked eleven months since Ila’s death. On a Friday that would normally have found me in the synagogue where I would stand and say the Mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer for those who have passed out of our lives.

Instead, we were in a celebratory mood, having spent the last week enjoying all that Costa Rica has to offer including its abundant scenery, local food and wonderful people. It was our last night and ten of us were feeling no pain.

And then Nancy stood and said with great difficulty “Before this all ends, we need to remember those who are not here with us.” As tears filled her eyes, I looked around the table and saw all the people, now silent, who had been touched by Ila.

Her DNA, morals and peculiarities can be easily found in her two children. Her three grandchildren are fortunate offspring sharing in the gifts presented by Ila. In turn, her influence has helped lead her children in their selection of their partners.

And I am the principal beneficiary of her love and largess, freely given to me during nearly sixty years of knowing and loving her. She, who was a partner in all we did. She, who probably engineered the Chicago snowstorm that convinced us to move to California. She, who insisted that I start a business and stick with it despite the all too frequent times that found me questioning my judgment. She, who always stood by me as we weathered the periodic storms that nearly engulfed us.

And it goes on today to affect others. People ask me “Do you think that Ila is happy that you are not alone?” I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do think she would be happy with the new woman in my life. I know that my choice of a loving soul mate has been influenced by the woman who came before her.

So, the next time some caller asks Is Ila there? I’ll say Yes, but she’s busy now.


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