Back in 1979, “All That Jazz” won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Later that year it was nominated for nine Academy Awards for which it won several. The film was an utterly unique musical, spooling out a macabre story loosely based on the life story of its director, Bob Fosse. Fosse carved out a unique portrayal of a type “A” personality for Joe Gideon, whose amphetamine-fueled energy and perfectionism leads to a fractured personal life and ultimately death, the action playing out to catchy tunes and fabulous dance numbers. When Michael and I saw it, I loved it. He detested it. Never a big fan of musicals anyway, he also wasn’t entertained by watching someone shatter and die. He liked movies with happy endings. I was fine with going to the dark side. How fitting for the two of us. One of the key scenes in the movie was a dance number to the song, “After You’ve Gone,” with Gideon’s ex-wife, daughter and mistress tapping away, as he struggles to stay alive. That song came scooting up to the surface of my mind the other day as I finally took what was for me, the big step of discarding Michael’s bathrobe which had been hanging on its hook with no wearer for over six years.
I couldn’t have worn it even if I wanted to as Michael was over a foot taller than me. Besides, my body temperature runs hot and I am rarely bundled in anything so bulky. When I took it down, I sniffed it a few times but of course there was no scent of anything like him. I laid it on the bed, snapped a photo and wrapped it up in the discard pile. No second thoughts.
Throughout our life together, Michael and I had many conversations about what might happen when one or the other of us died. When there were no imminent health threats, those talks were easily shoved below the surface of our daily existence, when other more pressing matters needed our attention. But in that last spring when hope for his survival was squelched by the metastasis of cancer to his brain, we went back to that topic. On the days when he could tolerate the concept that he wasn’t going to live, he’d turn wonderingly to me and ask, “what are you going to do after I’ve gone?” Mostly, I was so exhausted and devastated that my response was, “ beats the hell out of me.” Then he would tell me that he wanted me to find a new partner to share all my warmth and vitality and blah-blah-blah. I’d just stare at him and think I had no idea if I’d be alive at the end of our road together, usually making a comment to that effect. He’d look at me and say, “you have no idea how strong you really are,” whereupon I’d quell my desire to throw something right at his head. But here I am, years later, finally parting with his bathrobe. There’s not much other personal stuff like that left. What we survivors might hang on to is hard to anticipate. But at the same time, I’ve certainly lived a lot during these six years, albeit differently than what Michael imagined might happen for me.
Initially some practical aspects of my life barely changed after he was gone. For almost all of my adult life I was a public official, working in an office where annually, people over 65 trekked in to file papers which would reduce their property taxes for the coming year. There were always plenty of women who would jug show up weeping, saying that they’d never handled the business part of their lives. They were inexperienced and uncertain. For many, this visit was their first as the person responsible for a financial matter. When they’d leave, I turned to my colleagues and said, “one day that’ll be Michael, coming in here sobbing, because he’d never managed the business end of our lives and had no clue about what was happening.” When we were young, he tried to do that stuff but his term as the manager of our organization ended right after our water was turned off because he forgot to pay the bill. So I wasn’t suddenly buried in uncertainty about how to manage. Rather, as he always insisted that I learn how to do the tasks that were more in his wheelhouse, I found satisfaction in keeping up all the maintenance of our ridiculously large house, lot and garden on my own. During this droughty summer for example, I’ve busied myself with studying watering devices, and concocted schemes to keep everything alive. His tasks are now mine and for the most part, I’ve taken satisfaction in being able to keep up. I even hear him in my head when I attempt to accomplish something that fails. “Just as I suspected,” he’d say. I have managed to keep my sense of humor intact which I think would make him glad. If I keep going, this large homestead may become too much for me. But my daughter and her family live across the street so I’m already figuring out to how to downsize in place. I think he’d also be happy that our family structure has been steady for me as it would’ve been for him if our situations were reversed.
As far as that new partner business, I realized early into my widow life that I wasn’t going that route. Michael didn’t realize that I was no longer that person he surprised with his steady friendship and our magic connection back in 1971. Even then I was a skeptic, mystified that someone had disarmed me to the point where I felt trust of a magnitude I didn’t expect. We weren’t perfect. But I could never imagine establishing another relationship that could approach what we shared. And that’s the only type of connection I miss. I classify myself as an extroverted introvert. I know how to socialize but I’m okay with a considerable amount of time on my own. We were actually quite alike in that way, but in his mind toward the end of his life, I think all he could imagine was my loneliness. That’s true, but I’m only lonely for him. The rest of the time I’m good. I have enough friends, family and incidental contacts to meet my need for contact. It’s working for me.
My daughter once called me a cockroach. I wasn’t insulted. I knew she meant that as a compliment. I think Michael would’ve agreed with her if only he’d thought of the reference. What’s true is that so far, I’ve been able to keep making my way, despite the challenges life has tossed my way. Things could always be worse and in fact, I always remember that comparatively speaking, I’ve had an easy ride when considering how harshly the world treats so many. What I learned from watching Michael try so hard to stay alive, was that I need to appreciate any extra time I get, if for no other reason than to honor his memory and our relationship. I recognize that the person I’ve evolved into now is essentially an outgrowth of our solid decades together. I want to make good use of my time, doing as much of what we imagined our retired life would be, on my own.
So, after he’s gone. I spend time with our family. Although mostly I stay present in my experiences, there are moments when I’m flooded by Michael’s absence. I guess that sounds weird but it’s apt. I wish he’d could have had the pleasure of watching all the changes I’ve been able to witness, from our daughter’s remarkable journey in her law career to our son’s resilience as he navigated a tough job market, finally landing a position where he’ll have an opportunity to utilize his wide-ranging talents. I get to see them as parents and partners, not to mention watching their kids evolve as they grow. At least Michael got to know the first two grandkids, albeit for too short a time. When I hold our baby granddaughter, I think of how much he’d have loved to meet her. Sometimes people who knew us and our kids when they were little, remark that this little girl resembles him. What a curious mixture of love and wistfulness I feel at those times.
Michael would be glad to know I’ve been able to travel, back to our old favorite places like Starved Rock and Lakeside in addition to new ones like Niagara Falls, Canada. I used to think I’d never be able to be in our special spots without feeling miserable but I was wrong. I remember incredible details of all that was good. I think he’d be proud of me for the trips I’ve taken alone, out to Sedona, Yellowstone and Glacier. I like that independence I feel and the quiet time to reflect on all the natural beauty this planet still offers. The climate change issues and the awful political mess that started before Michael was gone still rattle my cage on a daily basis. Getting a break from that miserable stuff is necessary for my sanity.
I’m still gardening away. Michael wouldn’t recognize parts of our yard, as I’ve slowly chipped away at his beloved suburban lawn, replacing it with pollinator-attracting plants. I still grow some vegetables which I harvest when the squirrels don’t get them and I’m always glad to see his perennial herbs, planted decades ago, reappear every year. Sometimes I’m not sure where I feel most connected to him, but that garden where we worked side by side for so many years is certainly still filled with all kinds of our magic. The kids are under strict instructions to mix our ashes together when I exit this life and spread them on that ground. So far, the plan is to start there and then make a few deposits in the Lake Michigan and the Gulf. That is, if the natural world still resembles some kind of normal. The earth is so hot right now that the Gulf has an average temperature of a hot tub. Terrifying.
I still have all my hobbies, still take lots of classes and generally, feel like I’ll never have enough time to do everything on my mind. I have adopted the peculiar habit of making lists of every movie I’ve seen, every book I’ve read, every concert I’ve attended, every television series I’ve watched, all in the category of “since Michael’s death.” I think in the beginning, that was a way to remind myself that I was still alive after months of being focused on impending death and separation. Now I just think the lists are interesting bits of my personal history which my kids might enjoy reading some day.
Meanwhile I’ll be employing a number of my “after you’ve gone adaptive skills” soon. Next week I’ll be taking the Covid – cancelled trip to Alaska which was scheduled for May, 2020. I’m glad that three years later I’m still healthy enough to go. In addition, somewhere along the way, I realized that I only have four more states to see out of the fifty in the U.S. This upcoming trip will knock that down to one after some schedule juggling. I hope I survive my own planning.
The other more emotionally taxing experience will be adjusting to the upcoming move of my son and his family to Colorado. I knew this was a possibility as he was applying to far-flung jobs. But I’ve so enjoyed having him close by, despite all his adventures in science which have taken him to all corners of the world. He always managed to come back to live at home for awhile. I’ve been so lucky. I think I prioritized my time well, especially with my granddaughter for whom I’ve been a bit like a bonus parent. These are the things that are particularly hard without my partner, someone who’d feel pretty much exactly like me when facing situation like these. On the other hand, if I can do his absence, I’m sure I’ll find the way to manage this one.
A bathrobe stimulated me to write this post. I’m sitting in my bedroom, or my shrine as my daughter calls it. Whatever. Over six years after he’s gone. I think I’m doing alright.