My Friends, Part 1: The Yanks

Today is the day I finally move out of the Plano house where Connie and I spent the last dozen or so years of our lives together, raised the kids into adulthood and ran two consultancies as well as my blog and our podcast. We loved the place — actually, Connie found it in the online listings, loved it, ran through the numbers to make sure we could afford it, then found us another house to look at first just so I could say that I preferred the second one, and she could get the one she wanted in the first place. Sneaky? No, respectful. She knew that as much as I respected her judgement, I’d want to be part of the decision-making process, and she engineered the thing so we could both get what we wanted. Did I care when she later confessed her little subterfuge? Of course not; on the contrary, I was grateful for her consideration. And I wasn’t the only grateful one: for the first time in their lives, the kids were living in a house that wasn’t rented, and it gave them a solid grounding and foundation — a place to call “home” — at last. And they flourished.

Now they’ve all left home, and Connie’s left as well. And finally, we get to the point of this post.

The generous people who have contributed to my GoFundMe appeal have helped me take care of many of my outstanding financial obligations stemming from Connie’s medical condition, and at least my financial condition is no longer the looming disaster it was — THANK YOU. I know some of you quite well — we’ve met in person, even if just briefly — and of course there’s been that relationship with my Loyal Readers developed over many years. (As one Longtime Reader put it when I wrote to thank him for his large donation: “Let’s just call it a late payment on all those years of enjoyment you gave me with your old blog. Now get going on the new one.”) What the appeal has done has taken the burden of financial ruin away (mostly, anyway; I’ve got a little way to go still — if you haven’t been there yet, please consider it). But I have to tell you all, the incredible and generous response to the appeal has lifted my spirit beyond measure, and the horrifying prospect of utter destitution has been staved off. Thank you all, again.

Then we have my close friends.

I have spoken of these friends in the past, and it is absolutely no exaggeration to say that without them, I have no idea what I’d have done in the dreadful month following Connie’s death — or, for that matter, what I’d do with the rest of my life altogether. I’m going to list my closest American friends first — we’ll get to the Brits in another post — and use their online handles to spare them any embarrassment (and if you know their real names, please avoid using them if you go to Comments). They have been astonishing — “they” being Doc Russia, Combat Controller (CC), and Trevor (my South African buddy of over thirty years). They’ve called me daily with sympathy, support and advice, and sometimes just to check up on me, despite their own hectic schedules, and if I’ve called them in varying stages of despair and melancholy to bleat out my woes, I’ve never hung up the phone at the end without feeling better, more hopeful and less lonely than when I dialed.

We all know the part about actions speaking louder, right? CC and Trevor both live in Austin, but they come up to the Big D fairly often, and always spend time with me.
Trevor canceled a business trip (to Tokyo, I think) to be with me the week after Connie’s death, and helped me with the funeral home arrangements as well as with countless other painful details.
CC has been a voice of commonsense in financial advice — in my fucked-up state I would have made some appalling screwups  without him — and on more than one occasion his level-headed analysis has saved my bacon.

And now we come to Doc.

When the oncologist gave us Connie’s final, dreadful diagnosis, Doc told me in no uncertain terms that he was not going to let me move into some tiny little apartment and stare at the wall all day and night; instead, he told me (and I mean ordered me) to move in with him for a whole year so he could help me get through this horrible shit storm that was going to be my life. Clearly, he knew better than I how much Connie’s death was going to devastate me, and he was not going to allow bad things to happen to me. (He’s divorced, so there’s no wifely issue on me moving into his house.) When I feebly protested his overwhelming generosity, he basically told me to shut up. “I work long hours in the E.R., and it’ll be good to have someone look after the place. Also, when I go on my African safari in the spring, that means the house won’t be empty. And in any case, I’ll always have a hangout buddy, a companion to go shooting with, and a drinking partner when I feel like going to the bar. Believe me, there’s no downside to this.”

So today I move not into the apartment I rented in downtown Plano — Daughter’s living there and paying the rent until I’m ready to claim it back — but into the guest suite in Doc’s house.

As I said earlier, I’ll get to the Brit contingent in a later post; but it is absolutely no exaggeration to say that Doc, CC and Trevor have literally saved my life, in just about every sense of the word. They have been friends in need, and friends in deed.

“Thank you” can’t even begin to cover it.

Mourning Has Broken

I wish. To turn the passive into the active, mourning has (almost) broken me.

Here’s the thing. I’ve always been a strong man, both physically and mentally. I lost my own father at age twenty-one and in retrospect, got on with life with the callousness of youth to help me overcome the loss of the man who helped guide me through my tormented adolescence into young adulthood. I’ve been a rock to friends when they’ve been in trouble, and was always the first to open my big mouth or use my fists when I saw some kind of injustice. And I brought security and peace to Connie who, despite her own strength and toughness, was fearful of men because of her own troubled background. I was always, in other words, the tough guy, the independent guy who bulled his way through life and did it all by himself, if no one else wanted to join in the fun.

What has disturbed me the most about mourning is that it has weakened me so much. For the first time in my life, I’ve come across a situation that overwhelms me, and although I’ll survive it, there are times when I frankly don’t care if I do or not. I’m not being melodramatic, either. There are times when I just want to curl up in some lonely corner of the world and never leave, let the whole fabric of my life crash and burn, the hell with it all. For the first time in my life, I truly understand the situation of hobos and tramps, the people who just say “Fuck it,” and leave society, to sink themselves into drunkenness and drug addiction because the pain of everyday existence is just too much to bear. These are not people who willingly drop out; these are people who are pushed out by the demons inside their own head — and for the first time ever, I too have those demons in my head.

But that passes. I have discovered that apart from the responsibility I have to my family, my friends and all the other dear people in my life, I have an even greater responsibility to myself — that stubbornness which says, “You can’t just walk away from it all, and you can’t escape it either. So… waddya gonna do, Tough Guy?”

There’s really only one thing to do:

I hope so. If I survive this thing it’ll be through my sense of humor, although believe me, right now I have absolutely no desire to laugh. When that comes back, then I’ll know that morning has broken.

 

Black Despair

I lost it last night.

As I’ve been emptying out the house, I’ve come across all sorts of things which remind me of Connie; photos of a younger version whom, tragically, I never knew, old awards for some job excellence, thank-you letters from grateful clients and so on. Some of the things elicit a wry smile, some a strangled sob, and most a simple, “Oh, sweetheart.”

The kitchen has been the absolute worst. You see, amongst all her other achievements, Connie was a superlative cook, a cross between artist and artisan, and any of my Readers fortunate to have been guests at our dinner table will attest to that fact. Her spice “rack” (two overhead cupboards’ worth) overflowed onto the counter into four actual racks, and her utensils, from Le Creuset pots and pans to a wooden tortilla press — you don’t think we bought tortillas, do you? — were like the woodworking tools used by master craftsman Norm Abram: a means to create works of peerless quality. And unlike so many women, cooking for her was never a chore but a delight, just as long as she wasn’t asked to make prosaic stuff like sandwiches (I was deputized for that).

Back when I was working in Corporate America, I was in a meeting in my office with two of my subordinates when I got a call from my secretary: “It’s Connie; she apologizes but she has an important question for you.”
So I hit the speakerphone and said, “You’re on speaker, and I have Jim and Kenny here with me, so keep it clean.”
She laughed. “What do you want for dinner tonight?”
“I dunno; maybe just a salami sandwich?”
Icy silence. Then: “Hmph. Your choices are: Beef Burgundy or Banana Chicken Curry.”
“Oh. Okay, the curry sounds good,” and after the farewells I hung up, to see two pairs of eyes staring at me in astonishment.
“What’s the occasion?”
“No occasion.”
“You mean, she does this — cooks you this kind of meal — all the time?”
“Pretty much every night, unless we’re going out. But she doesn’t like to go to restaurants unless she’s tired.”
“Why?”
“She says she doesn’t like the way restaurants — even the good ones — screw up the food.”
“My God.”

So last night was Kitchen Night. I got about halfway through — tossed the spices which neither I nor the kids wanted or needed — but when I got to the copper saucepans,  crepe cookers and ebelskiver pans, I ran into a wall. “I can’t do this, sweetheart… I just can’t do this anymore. It hurts too much,” and I collapsed against the counter, weeping like a little girl. If the earth had opened up and swallowed me at that moment, I would have welcomed it.

The kids (Daughter and BF along with Son&Heir and Canucki-Girlfriend) will finish the kitchen today and tomorrow. Without them, I would have just left the house, never to return. As it is, I could barely write this blogpost.

Sorry to unload on y’all, but I did warn you that there’d be days like this. Today, the isolation is not so splendid.

Wrong Kind Of Update

When I quit blogging, I pretty much stopped going to blogs altogether, and lost touch with many old friends. So when I received a kind donation from someone with a familiar name at my GoFundMe appeal, you may imagine my shock upon reading the note attached:

Dear Kim,
When my husband (Chris, AKA Spoons of The Spoons Experience) and I visited Texas for a weekend, you and Connie insisted on our visiting you, which, as admirers of your blog, we were very excited by. You and Connie cooked us up a brunch fit for a king, then took us shooting (lending me your supercool Colt Python to try at the range!). A truly marvelous day was had by all. These are memories that now make me smile and tear up at the same time, because Chris died suddenly of a heart attack at 41 nearly four years ago. We had finally managed to accept that that we could never have children, but we had each other, and we knew we’d grow old together. But that wasn’t in the cards. What I did have, though, thank G_d, was parents who loved me and helped me, emotionally, financially, every way way they could. They still do. I can’t, *shouldn’t* forget how many blessings still remain in my life, though I’ll admit that some days it’s still hard. May G_d bless you and your family in your time of grief and hardship, and may you too come to be able to tell (or type) anecdotes from your life with your own beloved with smiles as well as a tear.
Laura

This broke my heart. I loved visiting The Spoons Experience, enjoyed his wicked sense of humor and sharp intellect, loved meeting him and his wife in person — they were such a warm and friendly couple — and to learn of his death like this was a complete smack in the face.

R.I.P.  Spoonsy; and Laura: please keep in touch, and yes,  I’ll be telling stories about Connie for the rest of my life. Smiles can come later.

 

Not So Silly

A week or so ago, I went over to the funeral home to pick up Connie’s ashes and get her death certificate. The funeral director, a lovely young lady named Amanda, had been wonderful throughout this whole grisly process — dealing with the hospital, the doctors and the state of Texas as part of their service.

Once all the talking was done, I said to the container of ashes, “Come on, sweetheart; let me take you home.” Whereupon Amanda gave a little sob, and ran out of the room.

All the way home, I talked to Connie’s ashes, telling her what I’d been doing in her absence, how the kids were doing, and in general keeping her up to date an everything that had happened since she died.

Stupid, huh?

I’ve always wondered at people who kept Mom’s ashes in an urn on the mantle like some sad reminder or token. Of course, it’s been a staple of black humor in stage productions and movies (the scattering of the ashes scene in The Big Lebowski comes to mind), and yes, it’s all good fun, but silly.

I don’t think it’s so silly anymore. Actually, it’s kind of peaceful and reassuring to have them around even though, let’s be honest, they’re ashes.

She’s not going to stay here, though. In fact, later in the year she’s going to be laid to rest in a long barrow in Wiltshire, built on the farm which belongs to an old family friend (pictured in the article). The irony is strong: Connie was always severely claustrophobic, but as another friend said, “She’ll get over it. Besides, she’s going to be among friends, now.”

What I do know is that Connie loved the place; she called it “home”, and when we visited the farm, she would sit for hours at the kitchen window looking out over the Vale of Pewsey. When I asked her what she was doing, she replied, “Looking at one of Constable’s paintings,” because that’s exactly what it looked like. Here’s what she was talking about:

It is even more beautiful than the photo suggests. And when it’s my time to go, guess where my ashes will end up? Yup… right next to hers.

Together again at last. And I’m not claustrophobic.

A Reason To Live

(Before I go any further, I want to beg my Loyal Readers not to read anything more into my words than what they actually state. This is a philosophical discussion, written in as dispassionate a manner as I can manage given the circumstances.)

It seems to be a fact of life that when one spouse of an elderly couple dies, it’s not long before the other dies too. I haven’t looked up any actual stats for this — it’s purely an observation — but it seems that if it’s the wife that goes first, it doesn’t take long before the widower follows. It seems especially true if the couple is truly elderly — say, in their 70s or 80s, and I believe that spousal deaths “days after” (and sometimes even “hours after”) are almost a given once a couple has reached their 90s together.

I know exactly how they feel.

What I’ve figured out, speaking just for myself, is that once one is older, the death of a spouse takes away a large reason for the survivor to stay alive. The kids are grown, have left the house and are getting on with their own lives. (Which is exactly as it should be. Nobody should be held to their parents so tightly in adulthood that they can’t follow their own lives’ dreams and ambitions.)

It’s not just the lack of companionship following a spouse’s death. It’s that a large part of living involves being there for someone, to help them, care for them and (if you’re a man) protect them or (if a woman) feed them. (I speak here of a traditional couple, where roles are clearly defined and assumed with willingness and even joy. I have no idea how “modern” couples function, nor do I wish to follow that tangent here.) Once that part of the relationship has ended, what’s left is… not much. In my case, I can cook for myself, clothe myself, defend myself and generally look after myself and my needs. But so what? I’ve always been able to do all that. What a relationship means is that you can do all that, not just for yourself but for someone close to you — and it’s not a duty or obligation; it’s a pleasure to do it, to share it, and to give all that to someone you love.

And it gets worse the longer a couple has been together. In my case, The Mrs. and I were together for over twenty years, and I mean “together” in its most elemental sense: other than the (very) occasional business trip where we were forced to be apart, we were together — and I mean in the same home office, living room, bed or even on the same couch — pretty much all the time. That’s how much we enjoyed each other’s company, conversation and intimacy. If I went to the supermarket, I hurried home as soon as I was done, and if she was out of the house for whatever reason, she’d race home as well. In later years, we were inseparable, as much by choice as (towards the end of her life) by necessity, and let me stress this as strongly as I can: it was never — never — an imposition for either of us. There were no “craft rooms” or “man caves” in our home; if she needed to do some work on her sewing machine, I’d go and sit close to her, or she’d bring the machine and stuff into the family room and work there. The only time we ever declared apartheid was when I wanted to watch a Formula 1 Grand Prix race or a Chelsea football match because the noise drove her scatty, and I’d go watch it in the bedroom. (And get back to where she was, in the living room, library or kitchen the minute the event was done.)

And here’s the problem. That intimacy, that pleasure in each other’s company was forged over many, many years. I’m now in my early sixties, and probably won’t have another twenty years to forge that relationship with another human being, even if I wanted to — and right now, even setting aside my still-active mourning and pain, I don’t want to. There is a feeling of not exactly pointlessness, but of, I don’t know, maybe despair at what life holds for me in the few years remaining to me on this planet.

Of course, I have several very good, very close male friends who are not only supporting me during this shitty period of my life, but have promised to help me achieve the (very few) activities that remain on my bucket list (a topic for another time). But I’m a man, and as much as I enjoy the company of men — and I do, very much — it’s nevertheless true that male companionship is by its very nature episodic and finite: trips to the range, drive trips, hunting trips, cheery conversation over pints of beer (or pints of gin) at the pub, and so on. All of those are wonderful, and I look forward to them with great anticipation and participate in them with considerable enjoyment; but at the end of the day (or evening), I still have to go home to an empty house, an empty living room, and an empty bed. Those are the Empty Times, and they’re lousy.

This is not, by the way, a cry for female companionship. It’s just that, as an old-fashioned man, I miss the intimacy of female companionship — but at the same time, I know that the odds of me ever finding same again are depressingly slim.

I suspect that most older men feel the same way I do, deep inside, and especially so if they’ve been blessed with the same kind of relationship as I was over the past couple of decades. I can’t even begin to think of what George and Barbara Bush mean to each other, after a relationship which has lasted over seventy (!) years. What I do know is that if “Bar” dies before GHWB does, he will follow soon after. That’s not a gloomy prediction: it’s an observation based on many similar circumstances of men like him.

When you reach that stage of your life, the question any man is going to ask himself is: what’s the point of it all? Why carry on?

Hence the title of this piece, and here’s the thing. To give just a few examples, captains of industry, successful and driven politicians or endlessly-creative men do have something to keep them going: their businesses, their idealism, their creativity, whatever. They have a reason to live. But they are the exception. Most men who have lived ordinary lives (such as I) don’t have any of that to keep them going, and they die of loneliness, of a broken heart, or of just plain despair.

I need a reason to live, and other than from my writing (which, admittedly, is a strong one), at the moment it’s hard to find that reason, that purpose. As I said at the top, this is not a cri de coeur or warning of a suicidal impulse — I’m a lot stronger than that, so don’t worry. And maybe this is all just a part of mourning and dealing with the loss of a loved one; I don’t know because I’ve never been here before. I’ll probably get past this mood because I generally do — I am an even-tempered man not susceptible to mood swings; but as much as I know that “this too, will pass”, it sucks all the same. And I’ll be really honest: many artists and writers find that pain is a catalyst for their creativity, but for me, it’s hard to be creative at a time like this. It’s easier to write a blog, which is reactionary writing and commentary, than to find the impulse to pen a new novel or short story.

I understand the appeal of religion, now, to people of my age and circumstance. It must be so comforting to feel the presence of some greater power that will soothe the torture of existence, or an afterlife which promises reunion with the love of one’s life. Sadly, I still can’t go for that, despite the temptation, because it’s just not realistic.

Reality is where I live, and right now, reality is pretty fucking bleak. There’s a very good reason I chose Max Bolotov’s The Setting Sun as the header of this new blog.