Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Getting Along With Myself

When my daughter Melissa was seven, she contracted rheumatic fever and spent nearly a year in relative solitude, much of the time in bed. If she was not sleeping or being entertained by a member of the family, she played imaginary games or looked at books. As she got a little stronger, she dressed up her dolls and stuffed animals and made up stories about them. Several years later we were discussing a neighbor child who had become a pest, calling Melissa often to beg her to come over and play. Melissa surprised me by saying, “You see, Mom, she never had the advantage of being sick the way I did. I had to learn how to get along with myself.”

A few months after I began life without Bill a friend dropped by to visit and left me a book to read, a quasi-manual for new widows. I dipped into it and was advised that the relationship I had with my husband was now ended and I needed to understand what my new relationship to him would be. I didn’t finish the book, but I did think about that bit of advice. I happen to believe that love goes on forever; I’m not sure about relationships.

In the on-line dictionary, I found three meanings for that word as applied to people: the way in which two or more people are connected; the way in which two or more people regard and behave toward each other; and an emotional and sexual association between two people.

I accepted easily that Bill was dead and his life story had ended; everything I knew and loved about him was now static. The dynamic relationship between us had finished its long decrescendo, and silence reigned in my house and in my heart. I had never lived alone, and it was my turn to learn to get along with myself. Sad and anxious as I was, I still welcomed that opportunity.

To prepare for writing the memoir, I thought deeply about our relationship and identified stories that showed what the building blocks had been, the challenges and the “Wow” moments. I then dissected the years of Bill’s chronic illness and my caregiving, and what effect it had on the relationship. I dug deeply into the sadness of slow losses and made notes in my journals about our efforts to keep intact not only the emotional connections but also the ways we regarded and behaved toward each other. I’m not at all sure that I forged a new relationship with Bill during that process; rather, I gained respect for his determination. Once I was persuaded that it did not in any way diminish the cherished memories of married life, I admitted to myself that I actually liked living alone, moving slowly to the beat of my own drummer.

Here on Tybeee Island, after four weeks with the warmth and pleasure of visits from family and friends, I have been alone for the past six days. I have three more to come before two of my children—Melissa and Robin—and their spouses arrive. I’ll be thrilled to see them, and I know their vitality and love will nourish me. Meanwhile, I can eat a bowl of cereal if I don’t feel like cooking or roast a pork loin as I did last night. I can play opera CD’s and turn up the volume or listen to Yo-Yo Ma turned low to sooth my busy mind. I can be lonely and still be happy. I can exult in the joy I feel as I study the majesty of the winter ocean at the same time I notice the continuing pain that Bill is not there to hear me say softly, “Isn’t it beautiful?”

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


My husband Bill was my best friend before we fell in love and for the fifty years we were married. About a month after he died, when I had stopped being numb and had moved through the valley of utter desolation, I decided to take stock of my life. I carefully reviewed my financial assets and then considered my human resources. Who would be a sounding board? Who could I talk to when I had to make hard decisions? As part of the process, I made a list of all those I considered good or close friends, limiting it to I people who lived in Celo (where I live) and nearby. I was astonished that in just a few minutes I had written 26 names on the yellow legal pad. The list was heartening and made me feel less lonely. However I realized almost immediately that you can’t pick a name off a list and cultivate a good friend to be a best friend, and indeed I didn’t even try. What I did do was start inviting people on my list to come by for tea, sometimes just one and sometimes in groups. To the best of my ability, given that I was sick for the next two years, I practiced being a friend.

In the past six years many of my Celo friends have come to visit me on Tybee Island and I have been enriched my those encounters; it provides the opportunity to go deeper or broader or both. My friend Joyce came three times and this year she and her husband Gil decided that they too needed a respite from winter and are here for two months. They have rented an apartment from Paul and Annie a couple I met several years ago through their dog Sandy at the Tybee dog park. Last Saturday Paul turned 60 and Annie feted him with an outdoor open house. Paul invited me and when he learned I had houseguests said, “Bring them along.”

My Celo friends, Liz and Carl, were interested in the party. But their son Benjamin stayed behind with my dog Nigel. We arrived around 3:00 PM and were enchanted by the whole scene and the folks we were meeting. Joyce and Gil soon came down the steps from their second floor apartment, and Paul’s friends began to arrive on bikes. Beef Bourguignon was bubbling away in a cauldron suspended over a large pit fire. Annie arrived from their top floor apartment with a bannock (Scotch bread) in a cast iron skillet and set it on a shelf over the same fire. Beverages, side dishes and snacks were spread out on tables in the carport. Carl stayed long after Liz and I departed. We had felt the same sense of community that we have in the mountains.

Sunday night we all went back over to Moose Street and had supper with Gil and Joyce. The six of us were not a combination of folks who get together in Celo, but away from all our obligations in surroundings that fostered relaxation, we related with ease and a sense of discovery. Conversation flowed and I felt that we were all delighted to be together.

I woke up this morning thinking about the word friend, devalued and converted to a verb by Facebook, Online you can friend someone and you can also unfriend them if you choose. The dictionary tells me that friend means a person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, not always the case on Facebook. Friend is such a comforting concept that we use it about coffee or tea, favorite garments, shoes, the chair where we sit to read or even darkness, made famous by Simon and Garfunkel.

What defines or deepens the concept of friend for me are those moments when perhaps souls touch, and in the presence of another there is a mutual sense of warmth and light. Those, I believe, are moments of grace. I had such moments this past weekend and it gave me courage to share a problem I am dealing with that relates to aging. I found understanding, acceptance and practical solutions.

The loneliness of grief, the forced isolation of my own illness and the voluntary isolation of writing a book, have given the opportunity to befriend myself. This in turn solidified my understanding that I could never replace my best friend and allowed me to embrace an expanding of the best collection of friends a person could ever hope for. And, of course, I have Nigel, my ever-faithful dog-friend.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Grandmothering Thoughts On My Birthday

Today is my birthday. I am seventy-nine, beginning the last year of my eighth decade. My paternal grandmother, who was proud of her advanced years, would have said, “I am in my eightieth year,” thus pushing the age envelope. She was stern and not anything like the grandmothers in the books I read as a child. She wasn’t mean, but I always had the feeling that she would rather not be bothered with me. I certainly never felt cherished. She managed to live six months into her ninety-second year. My other grandmother died at 64, several years before I was born. I considered Bill very lucky to have two living grandmothers when we were married. Both had exerted considerable influence over him and he felt close to them. I want to tell you about one of them.

Grandma Dreyer was a soft-spoken woman whose lovely face was framed by her snow-white hair. She dipped her head a little when she spoke and from time to time would cover her mouth with her hand while she gave a little laugh. Her dresses were made of flowered cotton fabrics and she often added a white collar pinned in place with a broach. I heard stories from Bill and his mother, Mena, about how strong-willed Grandma was and how difficult she sometimes made life for her daughter-in-law. It was hard for me to put that together with this gentle person who seemed like the perfect archetype of grandmother.

On one of my early visits to Sunset View Farm after Bill and I were engaged, Mena wanted to take me to the cemetery to see the graves of the family forebears. She asked me to call Grandma Dreyer to find out if she wanted to come along. I dialed the number and Grandma answered “Hello?” There was a little tone of question in the soft greeting.

“Hi Grandma, this is Donna Jean. We’re all going to the cemetery and wondered if you’d like to go with us.”

With a clear tone of self-deprecation, she said, “Oh no, that would be too much trouble. You all just go along.”

“Well, I don’t think we’ll leave for another ten minutes, so if you change your mind, call us back.”

I hung up and turned away from the phone and there stood the rest of the family looking a little shocked. “What did she say?” Bill said. I repeated her words and he laughed heartily. “You were supposed to coax her, to say that it was no trouble and we really wanted her to come. Sometimes we ask her three times before she says yes.”

I was about to say something that I would probably have regretted about expecting people to say what they mean and my not knowing how to coax, but was saved from myself by the telephone bell. I picked it up and Grandma said in a rush, “Well, if it really wouldn’t be too much trouble, I’d like to go with you.” On our frequent visits to the farm in those early years of our marriage, I always spent time visiting with Grandma Dreyer at her house.

In 1960 we spent the entire summer taking care of the farm while Bill’s parents went to Europe. I described that farming experience in Decrescendo. But in the book I didn’t include my joy at spending more time with Grandma. I didn’t write about the delicious meals she sometimes fixed for us, her willingness to tell me stories if I asked, or the day she arrived in sunbonnet and apron with a basket of corn she had just picked. “This is for you,” she said.

“But there’s too much, Grandma. You should keep some for yourself.”

“No. You take it,” she said. “I’m all fed up on corn.”

It had been clear that summer that Grandma Dreyer was slowing down, but she hadn’t changed and for me she was the epitome of beauty and grace in old age. She died a year later.

At age 28, I was sure I wanted to be like her when I was old: hard working, self-effacing, gentle, a real lady. I never observed the strong will or any of the negative qualities that I sometimes heard about, although I had no doubt the stories were true. For the few years I knew her, she had become the grandmother I had dreamed of as a child, and I was sure she would be my model when my three little ones had children of their own. As it turned out I approached being a grandmother the same way I approached being a mother: full of a sense of wonder about these amazing little people who shared my DNA. Beyond that I just continued to be who I was, straightforward and direct.

Bill had visited her shortly after she celebrated her 80th birthday in 1954. When he greeted her, he asked the cliché question, “How does it feel to be eighty, Grandma?”

She was quiet a moment and then sighed. “Well, it’s not the same.” Today I feel no different than I did on my last birthday, although perhaps a little healthier. Next year when I am eighty I will find out for myself if it is not the same.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Resolved: No Resolutions This Year

First a little report from New Year’s Eve and Day on Tybee Island: The action-packed 13-minute fireworks display began on the stroke of midnight. It was entirely satisfying. The Tybee Polar Bear Plunge was a mix of Mardi Gras and hubris. There were some old guys (male and female); however, most of the plungers were younger than 40. At noon as Kevin and I came across the rise and headed down to the beach we saw layers of gray: the sea, a pea soup fog, and the overcast sky. Just as we stepped on the sand we heard the signal to start the run for the rosiness that the 48-degree water would paint on all those exposed bodies. We heard the running feet, some splashing about and the whoops and hollers as the undaunted successfully plunged. What we saw was surreal; black silhouettes seemed to glide through the gray soup. As we moved into the crowd we saw that many of the Polar Bears, who were running back to the comparative warmth of a beach towel, were in costumes, now dripping wet. So too, were people in the crowd. Two young men were posing suggestively for anyone’s cameras, both wearing lime green spandex that could have come from a burlesque costume shop and barely (so to speak) avoided full frontal nudity. The Tybee Island New Year’s celebration did not disappoint.

I watched a little news on New Year’s morning and saw a man-on-the-street interview segment. He was asking people about their resolutions. Several said, “Lose weight” and others said, “Exercise more” and a few had a specific goal like learning a new skill. The last woman he spoke to looked glum and even irritated when asked. She opened her mouth and revealed a wide gap between her two front teeth which made her seem almost menacing as she growled, “Be nicer to people.”

“What people?” said the interviewer.

“People like you,” she growled, and then her face broke into a lovely gap-tooth smile and she added “Happy New Year”.

It started me thinking about myself and any possible resolutions I might want to make. My mother was committed to perfection as a goal. She used the word a great deal and when any experience she had didn’t measure up to expectations she would tell us exactly what had ruined the perfection. In my forties, after living my life in the shadow of imperfection, I became friends with a board member when I was working for the American Friends Service Committee. He was an executive with a major Philadelphia corporation. I was fussing about something the Board was considering that to my mind was not perfect, and he said something that changed my attitude.

“No, Donna Jean, it is not perfect, but it is good enough and in this situation, good enough is best. If it is brain surgery, only perfection is good enough. But, I’ve learned that taking the extra time to achieve perfection is usually not needed to get the job done.” It was one of the markers that happen in any life when someone drops a seed of wisdom just at the moment you are ready for it. It was the beginning of my quest to let go of perfection especially when something less was good enough.

Fast forward to the start of my life alone after Bill died: In the Epilogue of Decrescendo I talk about my two-year illness. During the second year, I enrolled in an eight-week program called “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction”. It was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn as a part of the heart rehabilitation work of Dean Ornish. Through the step-by-step exposure to the concept of mindfulness—of a true awareness of my thoughts, my body, my spirit and my reaction to stress—I learned some new things about living. Since then I have read books by many different authors exploring awareness, living in the moment and doing things mindfully. The great Quaker leader Douglas Steere called it “being present where you are.” I think it is something you practice, not necessarily something you achieve.

So, after I considered the various deficiencies in my life I might address, It occurred to me that resolutions might well interfere with responding to the moment. I don’t need to lose weight; I’m right in the middle of the normal range for my age and height. I’ve been told that my exercise program is better than average. I’m generally nice to people. I don’t think I need resolutions any more.

Happy New Year!