May 22, 2014

Tired and nervous as a cat, I am sitting in Room 138 of the Courtyard Marriott adjacent to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. Buck is in the shower, preparing for a routine EKG at 11:50, then an appointment with Dr. John Casler at 1:15, then a 3 p.m. with a nurse practitioner to go over labs and clear him for general anesthesia tomorrow morning for Dr. Casler to remove the enlarged lymph nodes from the left side of Buck’s neck.

11:45 now, and we’re in the Davis Building. Buck has gone in for the EKG, which we are well-accustomed to,a s we both get one every year as part of our physicals.

It’s been so many months since I kept a regular journal that the very act of putting ink onto paper feels strange.

I’m so anxious about Buck’s health I can barely focus my eyes. He would say I am hollering before we’ve been hit and of course he is right about that. Nonetheless, I feel half-paralyzed, jerky, spastic. Much too distracted to read a book.

I see I am in no-way prepared for our “real” aging, possible illnesses and eventual death. Not his. Not my own.

Where Meaning Dwells

“One in six men will get prostate cancer in their lifetime. Most of them will die of something else before the prostate cancer would have killed them.” The urologist sat on a swivel stool and looked at my husband, who was perched on the edge of the examination table.  “But here is where it gets tricky,” Dr. G. continued. “How long are you going to live?” He glanced over at me, flashed his steel-blue eyes. I felt like he was gauging my reaction to see how open he could be, whether I would get up and run out of the room. He looked back at Buck. “Because that’s a big factor in determining how, or whether, we treat it.”

Buck doesn’t have prostate cancer, or at least if he does we don’t know about it. Yet. But his Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) numbers have turned erratic. A chart he and I made last night from 2008 to December of 2013 looks like a nascent Bull stock market beginning to make a run. And the doctor’s question goes to Buck’s age. “You’re an unusually healthy guy for 76,” he said. “Extremely fit. No meds. Most likely good for what? Ten to twelve years? Maybe more?”

My ears began to buzz, and I had to concentrate on breathing to keep my hands from clenching the chair arms, to keep my face impassive when I wanted to scream. I felt like an atomic clock was in the room with us, counting down seconds.

Buck laughed easily. “Oh, more, I think. Maybe a lot more.”

We talk about death sometimes, and he makes me swear to stay healthy and safe. I swear. I make him swear to live forever. He promises to try.

The urologist explains to us that Buck’s PSA numbers aren’t alarming in isolation, but have begun to show a certain velocity that can be a danger sign. He wants to be sure if there are any cancer cells present, he knows which type they are. Apparently some are quite aggressive and some are not. The doc recommends an ultrasound examination and biopsy. Buck agrees and a time is set for next Wednesday.

We’re back home now. It’s raining and dark, with deep, nearly continuous rumbles of thunder. Buck is downstairs in a room we call “The Lodge,” writing away on the revision of a book he has just completed. I’m upstairs in an open area we dubbed “The Treehouse,” drinking spiced Chai and writing too many words in a bright circle of light. The curtain of rain outside the windows when it hits the concrete patio below makes a sound like tin foil crinkling.

A woman acquaintance warned me once that I was unwise to be so close to my husband; that in time it would bring me grief. Can you believe that? Foolish woman.

Besides, grief has been my close companion since I was 13, and I am unafraid of it. It is like that inner part of a ripe tomato skin, the part I call the velvet, the part where meaning dwells. You can only get to it by dropping the ripe tomato into boiling water for thirty seconds and then lifting it out with a slotted spoon. The peel slips off, revealing the gem-like velvet. Grief is always in the room with us. Grief, I think, is also the kernel of love.

A happy postscript: Dr. G’s nurse, Patty, called Friday morning, to advise us there were no aggressive cancer cells, no passive cancer cells, not even any passive-aggressive cancer cells, none at all. When I looked at Buck, he suddenly seemed years younger. When I caught my own eye in a mirror later in the day, so did I.

Treehouse of the Honey Moon

You can see the tractor marks in the sandy ground from where Buck was bush-hogging yesterday.
Sunrise in the longleaf woods.

It’s 8:00 p.m. on a Saturday night. Five minutes ago, I put on a headset to corral the exuberant strains of Antonín Dvořák string quartets into my ears while I write. My day began with a sunrise walk in the Gulf coast Florida pine woods near Pensacola. It’s a different world from the powdered sugar beaches some twenty-five miles south of where I sit. And a cultural universe away from the live music, theater, galleries, and clever restaurants sprouting up all over the downtown corridor.  Buck and I aren’t completely off the grid, although you would have a hard time convincing friends and family of that. But everyone who comes through the old farm gate seems to like the Hardy Boys secret tree-house club feeling of closing the gate behind them and leaving the world as they know it for a few hours.

Buck’s ears work best in an atmosphere of quiet and minimal distraction, at least when a visit with conversation is in the offing. I don’t notice it anymore, or if I do, it’s part of the lovely spell here, a time out of time feeling. Maybe it’s like cooking with a light hand when it comes to salt. It may be clear to guests, but has been part of our routine for so long it’s part of the ground of our being. Besides, in our noise-polluted world, isn’t it a relief to find an island of quiet?

The morning sun shines through the area we call the "iron rock forest." The ground here is full of iron rock. Buck and I thought it was impenetrable and that this area would never grow trees. That was ten years ago. We were wrong.
The morning sun shines through the area we call the “iron rock forest.” The ground here is full of iron rock. Buck and I thought it was impenetrable and that this area would never grow trees. That was ten years ago. We were wrong.

Earlier this year, maybe last year, too, Buck and I began what we  called a “period of discernment” about whether we want to stay here and “age in place,” or to move to a more urban scene, one with a nice climate, outdoor restaurants, places to walk, access to good medical care in the event it’s needed, some place with a high “walkable” score. And a smaller house. We began to wonder if a change of scene would stimulate creativity, especially now that we’re both writing fiction; whether we might find it helpful to get ourselves out of the woods and among people more often to study their faces, body language and conversations. Whether it might surprise us and be fun.

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The singularly lovely pinewoods hibiscus, also known as a “man-of-the-earth” flower.

I began to meditate upon whether it was enough to have access to “the world” via high-speed internet and occasional travel, whether walking the same paths in the same woods day after day and year after year could weave its own unique creative longevity that held value beyond interactions with peripatetic waves of people in cities, towns and planned communities.

We thought of favorite haunts we have visited over the years, from Western North Carolina and the coast of Maine, to the marvelous California coast, even southwest and central Florida. We talked about how it might be enjoyable to live in a community where you either walk, bike, or drive an electric golf cart to the book store and grocery. And so, off we went in search of what are called +55 Active Retirement Communities. There’s a ton of them in Florida. Most are easy to reject out of hand. The most impressive one had stunning landscaping, fitness centers on every corner, shopping, medical facilities of all sorts, and nice people, but it was, um, I’m reaching for just the right word here. Is it “odd?” “Suffocating?” I haven’t processed all of our visits completely yet. One place we visited, not too far from Jacksonville, we planned to stay four nights. We left after two and drove straight home without stopping, and locked the gate behind us.

We learned that Florida developers are indeed still selling alligator-infested swampland to Yankees (and everybody else). In one development, you could buy a small interior lot for  $5,000, while just across the street, a lot that backed up to a swamp, a slough, a preserve, sold for $180,000. Same size lot, by the way. The driver is whether a lot for sale is “waterfront” or “water view” vs. “interior.” The nature and quality of the water is where things get a little fuzzy. One realtor chuckled uncomfortably when I enthused about how great it was that every “waterfront” lot came with its own mud hole, alligator and community of water moccasins.

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The pine seedlings planted in 2003 and 2004 have become a sheltering forest.

We’ve lived this rather extraordinary, solitary life out of sight of another house for so long, doing just what we please, that we’re unwilling to make trade-offs for convenience or even entertainment that we perceive would constrict our freedom and force us into social interactions that would lay claim to precious time. As age encroaches, our thinking on this may be forced to evolve, but we’re not there yet. As we walk and talk here at home, Buck reflects that he has had many wonderful friends over his lifetime, but most of them are now dead. He doesn’t believe he has enough years left to form new deep friendships, and would rather not go there. I’ve always been a loner (of the non-psychopathic variety), except for the instant and bone-deep bond I formed with Buck well over thirty years ago, so I’m good with our Edenic lives, too. We still have several treasured friends who use Pensacola as home base when they’re not living on their boats or in their land yacht RVs, and close and precious family ties.  The circle of writing friends I’ve developed over the last decade is every bit as important to my sense of contentment as is walking the woods — and can be nurtured no matter where I live. That’s one of the good things about the Internet. But Buck’s parents, grandparents, a son, and a former wife are all buried in Pensacola, as are our beloved dogs. Yes, we understand they are not “here.” And yet. There is something that pulls us to stay, something that has more to do with the living, with family, and with the look of a big-eyed fawn, the music of the bold spring, and the feel of connection when a hawk flies low and waggles its wings. Leaving the woods for some shiny place elsewhere feels like it might be an unmooring we would regret, one that couldn’t easily be put back together.

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Solitary green-eye flower and young longleaf.

And so, we’ve come to a decision, at least in a loose, general sense. It is this: we’ll sell this wonderful, way too big house sometime in the next year or so, and then build what we’re calling a tree-house deeper in our own hundred-acre wood. The house we’re in now is set in an open area, a clearing. The site we’re looking at is closer to the natural spring, and the small house we would design and build there will slip right in to hide among the big hardwoods and pines. The lawn will be the leaves which have been softly layering for centuries. We’ll make a path to the spring and build a tiny sitting deck overhanging it, a place for talk, writing, coffee or cocktails. Or simply listening to the music of the stream. Not a bad way to melt back into the earth when that time comes.

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Wee Bit Hill and Glen

 October, 1999

Broddick, Isle of Arran, Scotland

The eight of us, two women and six men, stood in a circle holding hands in the small living room of a rented villa on the grounds of a hydrangea-draped old hotel. It was the embers end of a lively night of story telling, guitar playing, singing and laughter for two Americans far from home, a life-battered Englishman, and five Highlanders.

When Farquhar Ross began to sing the once-banned Oh Flower of Scotland in a pure contralto voice,  the whiskey went out of everyone, and the room turned into a centuries-old meeting of patriots with their blood up, a sacred space.

WEDNESDAY afternoon, Buck and I hit the interstate exit that said “To Home,”  and stopped by our local Publix to re-provision before heading to the woods following a short road trip. Buck laid out strawberries, blueberries, Greek yogurt, two cobs of sweet corn, a tomato and other treats on the conveyor belt. I stood still, ears cocked one aisle over, where a young cashier with black curly hair was singing Gaelic folk tunes in an exquisite tenor while he chatted with a customer. Before leaving, I learned his name is Seamus. He’s a college student from Ireland, studying at the University of West Florida.

Buck noticed I was humming and smiling as we carried our purchases across the steamy parking lot to the car. I told him what I heard. Our thoughts immediately went to that night on the Isle of Arran.

“I wish we could experience that all over again,” I said.

“Me, too,” Buck said, “but we can’t recreate those one-of-a-kind events. We just have to savor the memories and make new ones.”

There is a white turtledove at the feeders this morning. Its ethereal look is striking among the ubiquitous dun-colored mourning doves. Looks like Pope Francis amid the throngs of people in Rio de Janeiro. Cardinals and titmice flap and hiss, making the feeders sway like cars at the top of a ski lift. Contentious birds, squabbling in the midst of a 24-hour all they can eat buffet.

I drink coffee, listen to the drone of a low-flying airplane, the song of red wing blackbirds just beyond the clearing, and the industrious drill of woodpeckers. I consider how the oak tree that serves as a landing pad for birds on their approach to the feeders has recovered so entirely from its near destruction by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 its disfigurement is now only a cellular memory concealed within the permanent memoir of its rings.

Buck and I have nearly completed our period of discernment. We have visited other places to consider whether, as we age, they might offer some greater measure of independent sustainability for the long haul for two independent cusses accustomed to plenty of space and total privacy.

We have seen some very green grass indeed. But we are home now, immersed in our own “wee bit hill and glen.” We have put the suitcases away on a high shelf.

And we have formulated a plan.

Death Talk

I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

~Woody Allen

I’ve been thinking about death lately.

Oops. Sorry. That wasn’t a very nice way to begin.

I’ve been married a long time and I’m crazy about my husband and I can see that we’re getting old and I don’t want become a widow and I sure as heck don’t want to die.

That doesn’t sound so good, either.  Maybe I should start over.

When you’re a young person just starting out, you don’t think about the “whole life, too” nature of marriage. You know about that “’til death do us part” business, but it’s not real. If you marry in your twenties, you’re still immortal. Looking back over the years, I see now that “whole life, too” is not marriage as a parallel track where you have a roommate with whom you have lots of fun sex, possibly children, and dinner most nights , but a cellular merger of wills and wishes; where compromises and ceding of time do not take away, but rather heap up so that in the “give a little, get a little” exchange, you become more of who you are, not less. At least, that’s how it’s worked for me, although I have my doubts as to whether that’s what generally happens. I’ve seen too many long-run marriages that wind up as a clawing away, a tearing down of each other, a desiccation.

Confused yet?

I’m a writer married to another writer. We were many other things before we became writers. At the ages of 75 and 62, we are both hard at work on our first novels, and we feel the stench of time’s hot breath down our necks. Buck was once a working journalist; I’ve had several creative nonfiction stories published here and there.

I should be working on my manuscript this afternoon instead of starting up yet another blog.

But, like I said, I’ve been thinking about death.

My Whole Life, Too

A friend sent me a link to singer Ingrid Michaelson’s cover of the 1961 Elvis Presley classic, “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” The video looks like a young bride-to-be’s fantasy. But knowing my friend, a sixty-something retired partner in an accounting firm she co-founded, a budding artist, and married for 40+ years to man roughly 12 years her senior, I looked for something in her missive beyond a bride’s rosy lens.

It was there, all right, and it hit me squarely between the eyes.

“Take my hand, take my whole life, too.”

Layers of meaning only discernible by the long-married, such as my friend, such as myself, also a sixty-something year old married for 30 years to a man I adore who is 14 years my senior. Can we ever see our end in our beginning?

One Ping Only

“MR. WESTMARK, ARE YOU EXPERIENCING ANY PAIN?” The nurse’s round, pink face and pear-shaped body makes me think of a giant bunny. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a fluffy cotton tail beneath his scrubs.

“No,” Buck said.

“Would you confirm a few details for me?” Once Nurse Hare has Buck’s full name and our phone number, his computer screen fills up with personal archival information from every encounter Sacred Heart Hospital and Buck have ever had, except maybe for his birth, but that happened in 1937 at the old hospital over on 12th Avenue.

“And can you tell me why you are here today?”

“Well, it’s probably nothing.”

The nurse tilts his head, waiting.

“It’s a funny feeling, right here, where my heart is. Like a wave. Doesn’t last long. Doesn’t hurt. Feels electrical. Kind of like what I had a month ago, but those just felt like extra thunks. Lasted about a day and a half. This is different.”

A white hospital bracelet materializes in Nurse Hare’s hand and he has Buck’s wrist ensnared within it quicker than a New Orleans’ cop making a wee hours arrest. I watch his smooth professionalism from where I stand two feet away, leaning against a file cabinet. He continues to puff out questions like soft clouds, all the while taking Buck’s temperature, pulse, and blood pressure, looking without looking, assessing. “Are you feeling that sensation now?”

“No. I feel fine.”

“When did it start?”

“When I got up this morning. Happens every five to 20 minutes. Umph. There’s another one. So, around lunchtime, I called my internist, and he wanted me to come over here and get an EKG.”

Nurse Hare completes his intake and gives Buck a paper with a number on it: 94 — not such a bad number to have, since it’s based on a triage designation. He points to a room visible through a transparent plexiglass wall on the other side of the main reception area, and tells us to watch the screen and listen for a doorbell sound and that number being called. We move in that direction like obedient, slightly confused, sheep.

By this time it’s nearly 2:30.  A TV suspended in one corner is set to the Weather Channel. We and others in the room gawk at the image of a large tornado that has touched down near Gulfport, Mississippi. The storm is headed our way. Great.  When a tall young guy in blue scrubs calls #94, (no doorbell sound, nothing on the electronic screen),  we meet him at swinging double doors. I tell him I am going to run out and move the car from the Emergency Room’s 15 minute zone and will be right back. He explains that Buck will probably be back out by the time I return, that they are going to do an EKG and get some blood, and then it will probably be an hour or so until they can “kick somebody else out”  and have a bed ready.  Did he say bed?

They disappear into the back-shop.

Out front, several city police cars have two men and a woman sequestered within their bulky circle. The woman wears cut-off jeans and a green tank top that shows tattooed cleavage and rolls of fat between where her top ends and the shorts begin. That scene, plus the scudding clouds and swirling wind, add to my sense of unease. I run to the car and drive across the street to park at the very front of the shopping mall parking lot. It’s a lot easier than riding around trying to find a parking space on the hospital grounds. I feel strange and exposed while I wait for the walk signal to cross 9th Avenue back to the Emergency Room. The sky looks like it’s in a bad mood. I smell rain. Where is that tornado now? I know Buck is okay. Isn’t he?

Buck is back in his seat by the time I return. “The tech said he didn’t see anything that would raise any flags on the EKG.”

“Good. What happens next?”

“We wait, damn it all. Here I rush us down here and take up the whole day and nothing’s wrong.”

I smiled. “I can live with that.”

He laughed. “Yeah, well, I take your point.”

He pulls a full legal pad stuffed with several stapled inserts from his black zip-up case and goes to work editing a section from his manuscript draft. I flip open my Kindle Fire and read a few chapters of Natalie Goldberg’s latest, The True Secret of Writing. Between the Weather Channel’s doom-like forecast, the cop scene outside, people-watching and eavesdropping, I don’t get far in the book, but far enough to read her description of visiting Ernest Hemingway’s home in Key West, and noting that Death in the Afternoon is one of her favorites.  I have specifically, maybe immaturely, avoided that one because I think it’s about the glorification of bull fighting. But now, my fingers moving as I watch that tornado on the flat screen, I find I have instantly downloaded Death in the Afternoon into my Kindle library.

I hear a child call “Mama? Mama?”

A woman speaks. “Here it is, Mama. Here’s that cheeseburger you wanted.” A shapeless old white-haired woman slumped in a wheelchair  falls upon the greasy package like it was her last meal.

A Chinese man walks in with quick, short steps, his face set in worry lines. Heads straight for the security guard standing almost at attention beside the reception desk. “O.R.? O.R.?”

Finally, the guard comprehends. “Third floor.”

The man spots a nearby elevator and starts walking. He turns back to look at the guard.  “Here? Three?”

“Yes.” The guard nods.

I’m at the desk to ask a question and overhear this exchange. “You get some of everything here.”

“Yes, we do.”  He is a tall black man, mid-fifties if I had to guess, with a baritone voice, military bearing and wise eyes.

We have been waiting for about an hour when a man in jeans overalls and a brown t-shirt comes in, accompanied by a large woman in baggy fuchsia shorts with her blond hair pulled back in a pony tail. She walks to an empty row of chairs in front of us, but he stops and sits down beside me. She calls to him and motions, but he says, “I’m wore slap out. I’m taking a load off.” Her eyes dart around, but when she sees he is not going to get up, she walks back and sits by him on the other side. The unmistakable odor of fresh excrement wafts over Buck and me. We don’t look at each other, but silently, simultaneously gather our things and go around the corner where we spy four empty chairs right beside the automatic front doors. They open every few seconds, bringing in a new wave of humanity on a tide of fresh, humid air. It is the best seat in the house.

A man arrives by ambulance, covered in hives, unable to breathe. His wife stands in the front entrance, explaining this to someone on a cell phone. She sounds calm, almost nonchalant. When she walks by, I catch a fragrance of fresh soap and strawberry shampoo.

Buck writes, strikes over, writes again. I start reading Death in the Afternoon.

A disparate gaggle, two women and a man, comes in the door and stands a foot away from us. “I was callin’ and callin’ her cell phone and she don’t answer it. Finally, she picked up, and I got her talkin’ to me but she was talkin’ real slow. When I got over there, she was gone, and they cain’t find her. ” The man mutters something. I smell nicotine and booze. A nurse herds them to a far corner, where I see her explaining something to their bowed heads.

Technically, Buck and I are violating the rules of the way the ER is organized. We’re sitting in Reception, rather than one of the three holding pens set aside for those who have already been “received.” I see the battle-weary woman, an efficient traffic director, exchange a look with Roosevelt, the tall security guard, but they don’t ask us to move.

Shortly after 5:00 p.m., a tech fetches us and we follow him to Cubicle 9. The obligatories follow: shirt off, gown on, lie down, blood-oxygen, blood pressure and heart monitors up and running, messy stab for an unneeded port in his well-muscled right arm, and several Residents come in to talk. By this time, Buck and I both are more than eager to get out of there. Knowing we had to come. Knowing he really is fine.

There’s talk of premature ventricular beats which are generally benign, heads nodding in the right direction about the cardiology appointment we already have upcoming, and discussion of his great-looking runner’s legs, and overall fitness. The patient doesn’t take any meds; has an athlete’s slow heart rate. All good. They leave.

We yank off the EKG sticky pads. Buck gives me one of his trademark sharky grins. “Well, Twitchy Baby, looks like it was one ping only. Let’s go home and get us a good drink.”

Patriarch

BUCK REGALED ME WITH ALL SORTS OF ENTERTAINING STORIES when we were courting thirty years ago.  “Courting” is one of those sweetly anachronistic words that is fun to type, rich in images from an earlier century. Heh.  I laugh, but as a matter of record our courtship and marriage did happen in the latter third of the previous century.

One of his stories involved a beautiful blonde-headed toddler of a cousin named Marianne. Her parents lived in Washington, D.C. and little eight year old Buck, five years her senior, had come to visit. They fell in love, in the way of young children, and romped all over his Aunt Marguerite’s and Uncle Muegge’s house until young Buck outdid himself trying to impress Marianne and went sailing off a second story landing and bounced off the wood floor below, alarming the adults and bruising more than his ego.

Marianne lives on Pawley’s Island, South Carolina now. Like Buck, she has grown children and grandchildren. She lost her beloved Jon last March after 44 years of marriage. Let’s just say I cannot imagine and do not want to ever become a member of that club.

In a brave, intentional effort to emerge from a chrysalis of grief, Marianne came to see us last week, a side trip on her way to spend a week with old friends of hers and Jon’s in a resort on Anna Maria Island on Florida’s west coast. We took a field trip to Joe Patti’s Seafood Market one day to fetch cocktail crab claws and fillets of fresh red snapper, went to lunch at a wonderful new restaurant, IRON, another, but mostly we sat at a small round dining table in the Longleaf Bar and Grill right here at home and talked until the dinner, wine and ice cream were long gone and the short, fat candles sputtered. We brought out fragile old photo albums. We laughed, cried, and marveled together at the unexpected twists and turns on the road between childhood and old age. My fingers linger when I type “old age.” It feels presumptuous; inaccurate. Do I include myself? I don’t think 61 is “old.” Buck at 75 is not “old.” Where is the line? Is one old at 85? I know people whom I consider old (as in old fogies,not old souls) at 43.

And yet, a time may come, with longevity, when one is the eldest member of a particular blood-tied clan. I rather suspect it may be a peculiar, lonely feeling.  Saturday morning, as Marianne was about to leave, Buck said, “Well, I sure don’t feel like it, but I guess I’m the patriarch.”

Marianne said, “You sure are!”

Beautiful Decay

A fallen log in the stream bed at Longleaf in February, 2013.
A fallen log in the stream bed at Longleaf in February, 2013.

Don’t laugh (or cry, please) when I say that the most miraculous thing I have ever seen is a baby’s solemn eye, so new to the world and ready to put on a cloak of assumed merriment to help us all believe the illusion; and the softest thing I have ever felt was the skin of Buck’s mother’s hands, which I held those fourteen afternoons in June when we scattered runes, interpreted dreams, and added columns hoping to believe in the plus side, while she slept and I rocked in the cornflower blue chair.

Shadow of a twisted branch in the shallow stream bed at Longleaf in February, 2013.
Shadow of a twisted branch in the shallow stream bed at Longleaf in February, 2013.

Layers of decaying leaves in the stream bed show like shells through the clear shallow water until they dissolve back into the fecund muck; twisted vines and sun-starved branches throw shadow pictures on the surface. Its feet in the water, a Florida anise tree every spring sheds scarlet fringes like ribbons. I follow them on the pulse of the lively spring, all the way into the dark heart of the eternal swamp.

Florida Anise Tree Bloom