One Year Ago Today

One year ago today I took my ex-husband out of a skilled nursing facility and back to his house. I’d spent the the previous week scouring the kitchen and bathrooms, sweeping floors, vacuuming rugs and trying my damndest to make the place habitable. I bought an adjustable bed for downstairs and had his TV set up so he could watch it from the bed. I never was able to eradicate the dog odor, but you got used to it after a while. I’d also hired a woman off Craig’s List as a live-in caregiver. [Never hire anyone off Craig’s List. It may be great for prostitution but definitely not caregiving.]

I had brought over some clothes and toiletries for myself. I’d be moving back into the house I’d left to him six years earlier. I’d bought a couple of cheap but comfortable beds for upstairs, one for me and one for the “caregiver” who lasted all of four weeks before (Thank God!) she left, taking my new frying pan with her. I had thought I was only staying for three months — the amount of time I’d taken off from work. Those three months turned into eight of the most grueling and saddest months of my life.

Watching my ex-husband — and my friend — dwindle away pound by pound, skill by skill, memory by memory was excruciating. So often it seemed like he wasn’t trying to get better, and yet he wasn’t giving up either. We’d bring in physical therapists and he’d be so proud when they managed to get him to stand for two or three minutes. But the stroke had wreaked havoc in his brain and he simply wouldn’t do the exercises unless they were there to help him.

The biggest problem was his fluctuating blood pressure. When it got too low, which would be considered normal for anyone else, his eyes would roll back in his head and he’d pass out and vomit. This is no way to live, I thought and sometimes even said aloud. But his spirit wasn’t ready to go. Not till the very end, till those last few days in the hospital, when he agreed to take the morphine and slip out of our grasp.

Today I took his dog to the vet for his rabies shot. I explained that Grendal was my dog now, and no they wouldn’t be getting permission for the transfer from his previous owner. It was a done deal.

I didn’t want two dogs. I didn’t want an 85-pound black lab who sheds profusely in addition to my oh-so-perfect little dog. But I have him now. And I’m okay with it.

Two Necks, One Rope

Once, quite early in our relationship, we came across a story about a couple who committed suicide in an unusual manner. They took the back window out of a pick up truck, looped a rope around a tree and then fastened either end to each of their necks. One of them sat in the driver’s seat and one in the passenger. Then the driver punched it; the truck lurched forward, snapping both their heads off. 

We found this story fascinating. We were in awe of their ingenuity, their sheer determination, and the showmanship involved in the act. 

After the stroke, it feels as though that’s where we are: in the truck with the engine idling, one end of the rope around each of our necks. However, I intend to escape the noose before he hits the accelerator. When he decides to go, he’s going alone.  

Premonition

Hurricane Florence made landfall on Sept. 14, 2018. It was a big, scary storm and about 40 people in North Carolina died as a result. I don’t know how they died. Did they drown? Were they crushed by falling trees? In Charlotte, we were far enough inland that the dangers didn’t register with us. In fact, we were somewhat excited to have some real weather for a change. But honestly I wasn’t expecting much.

Herb, on the other hand, was all geared up for the big one. He had loaded up his Ford Escape to come over and hunker down with his dog in my third-floor bonus room, or “the hole” as he called it. He was sentimental, this ex-husband, hoping to recreate some distant familial memory of us hanging out, watching TV or sitting by a fire, during a weather event.

Turns out I was right: The sky gets gray.  A few pathetic attempts at wind gusts stir the trees now and again. Rain drizzles. We sit in my living room — I on the couch with my computer, he in the chair. There isn’t a lot to say. He has always disparaged my writing so we don’t talk about that. As a leftist and a right-winger, we cannot talk politics. The only things we can talk about are our daughter (though that can be tricky as we disagree on so much about her), our dogs (which admittedly we can go on about for quite a while) or his health. 

And that is what we wind up talking about. His health. His feet hurt from neuropathy. He had a bad episode in New York when he was working at the U.S. Open. His back muscles had contracted. There was weakness on one side of his body. He had difficulty walking. He’d gone to the urgent care. The doctor said it could be caused by a brain problem and told him to get it checked out when he got home. Somehow he managed to make it through the Open, where he was working in some technical capacity for ESPN. But he hadn’t gone to a doctor yet because even though he’d been 65 since April 15, he hadn’t signed up for Medicare. 

As we sit there in my living room, the storm whimpering outside, I have the clearest vision: He is in a hospital bed, and I am in a chair next to him. What I can’t see is the hell that comes after that. 

When he realizes there will be no hurricane and leaves, I am overwhelmed by a sense of dread. It’s a suffocating feeling, and I gasp as I flee my own house. I call my daughter and tell her what’s going on. 

“That’s anxiety,” she says. 

Yes, of course it is. I know what’s coming, and everything in me tells me to run as far and as fast as I can. But I won’t do that. Instead I will live my life, waiting for that phone call, knowing it is coming.  

Mid-April Journal Entry

It’s a Wednesday morning in the middle of April. I am still living a life that has nothing to do with my dreams or aspirations and everything to do with a past I thought I’d left behind a decade ago. The sunlight coats the bark of the trees. The leaves form a wall of green. My heart feels like a piece of granite. 

I meditated this morning as I do most every morning. I came to the conclusion that I must not say anything that isn’t life affirming to him. It’s not my place.

He sits in his chair and hiccups loudly and thinks of things to ask me to do. 

I try and try and try to accept but nothing in me wants to accept this. In that way, this is exactly like being in prison — that feeling of deep and unrelenting dissatisfaction. I don’t want to be in this place with this person. But here I am. At least in prison, there’s an end to the sentence. I’m a rat caught in a maze but there’s no solution.

As soon as I come home, the sadness sets in. I go upstairs into “my” room and look outside the bay window. It’s like an emerald cathedral. Something about springtime, the silky air, the heady scent of flowers, of fecundity, of life. And I’m trapped in the bell jar but without Sylvia’s trenchant eye. There’s a ghost here. The ghost of a man I used to love.

Two things I can tell you about that man: he was the one person I’d have wanted to be with in the event of an apocalypse. And he was the one person I would have trusted to help me murder anyone who harmed our daughter. And of all the people in the world, he was the one I wanted at my side during my cancer ordeal. But that man is gone. That laughing man with the twinkling brown eyes, his apple cheeks red and his infectious giggle. That man is gone. And this one in his place — helpless, cantankerous, demanding, pathetic, and needy. This one breaks my fucking heart.

The Phone Call

I suppose every memoir contains a chapter that could be called “The Phone Call.” It is that ringtone that signals the end of the world as you have known it and the beginning of a new reality. There is always a before and after the phone call. And it always starts out as an ordinary day, doesn’t it? It was an ordinary day and then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. It was an ordinary day — not a cloud in the sky — and then the Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It was an ordinary day and then a man in a bell tower shot the President of the United States. It was an ordinary day and then two airliners crashed into the World Trade Center. It’s the ultimate “disruption.” Of course, these disruptions happen in smaller but equally disorienting doses in our own lives.

Sept. 26, 2018, was a typical day for me. The sun beamed benevolently as I strode toward one of the academic buildings at the university where I teach when my phone rang. I saw that the call was from my ex-husband, and I answered it.

“I don’t feel good,” he said. “I’m nauseous and weak.”

“You probably have that stomach bug I had last weekend,” I said. The previous weekend he had been over at my house, hoping desperately for a good hurricane. Herb always enjoyed a weather event. A blustery storm, wind, rain, ice, snow, a power outage. He was always prepared with plenty of food and usually some way to generate electricity. Unfortunately for him, the hurricane that had started out so promising on the coast was merely a few gusts and some sprinkles by the time it got to Charlotte.

He also liked any excuse to park himself at my house and pretend we hadn’t gotten divorced six years earlier, to pretend we were still family, which, in a way, we still were. But I wasn’t that interested in just sitting around with him that weekend. I had my annual stomach bug, so I didn’t feel great. And I intended to finish a draft of a novel that a literary agent had asked to see. So we sat in my living room boring each other until finally he and his black lab, Grendal, left.

The so-called hurricane moved on, my stomach got back to its healthy, hungry self, and come Monday I was back in classes. Then on Wednesday the phone call. I had to get to class so I told him I would call him back later that day to see how he was doing.

I went into the classroom and talked about paragraph unity and topic sentences and that sort of thing, but the whole time I was uneasy. A niggling notion scratched at my brain. Something about his voice, about the way the words didn’t stand up by themselves in that California non-accent of his.

By the time the first class was over, I knew I was cancelling the next. I knew what I hadn’t realized I knew from the moment we spoke. It took me that whole class period to understand what I’d heard — the slight slur in his speech. My ex-husband had had a stroke, and our world was changed irrevocably.

Taking Care of My Ex

January, 2019

“You are a saint,” more than one woman has said to me. “I would never take care of my ex.”

I am not a saint. A saint takes care of strangers, not ex-husbands. A saint doesn’t dredge up injuries from a quarter century ago and deploy them as weapons in a heated moment as I have done several times in the past few months. A saint does what she does without resentment. Me, not so much.

A few months ago, my ex had a stroke. I’m the person he called. We were divorced six years earlier and separated for three years before that, but he hadn’t exactly reinvented himself. He simply moved to another state for a few years.

Three years ago, he moved back to the city where I still lived, back into the house where we had raised our daughter. He wanted to get back together. He said we had a bond. No way, I told him. Not gonna happen. I was happy with my life just as it was. I’d never been able to fit that 1950s mold of wifehood, exemplified by his mother.

After much haranguing and “talking” where we settled absolutely nothing from the past and found no common ground between two entirely different narratives of our lives together, we settled on a sort of friendship. We would get together about once a week to take our dogs out for a run in the woods, and we’d grab a sandwich from Jersey Mike’s. Once in a while, we’d have a nice dinner and go to the symphony, something we never did when we were married.

I’d always enjoyed his sense of adventure and appreciation for fine food, but the same issues that infuriated me during the marriage would occasionally flare up: his politics of stinginess (why should he have to pay for poor people’s health care?); his lack of empathy for the unfortunate; and a few other “quirks,” including not taking care of his health — stratospheric blood pressure and out-of-control diabetes.

Then, not surprisingly, he had a stroke in his brain stem that rendered his entire right side useless, slurred his speech, impaired his ability to swallow, and transformed this burly fellow with a salty sense of humor into a frightened, obstreperous, frail old man. He fought with the hospital staff, yelled at the CNAs and nurses at the skilled nursing facility, and railed at me for not caring enough, not doing enough, not being there enough. Reminding him we weren’t married had no effect.

Other times, however, he was reasonable. Though disdainful of much of the staff in the various health care institutions, he respected the doctors and was friendly toward the physical therapists. And there were times when his rage at the health-care machine was perfectly justifiable. Well-meaning medical professionals rendered him unconscious at least three different times by insisting he take medications that caused his BP to plummet.

After two months of various facilities and once the insurance ran out, he insisted he would get better quicker at home. I thought he could be right. At the nursing home, his mood had gotten progressively fouler. He refused to eat, to drink “thickened water,” or to take his medications, and he didn’t cooperate with the therapists. When they begged him to sit up in his wheelchair for twenty minutes to strengthen his core, he wheeled himself down to the director’s office and demanded to be put back in his bed. He had patient’s rights, he bellowed. When he left, no one at the facility shed a tear.

So an ambulance brought him home on a stretcher. I left my own house in the care of my current Airbnb guest and moved back into the house I had once shared with my ex. He had almost no furniture, and it took days of cleaning by me and some hired guns to get the place habitable. It was as if time had stood still since the divorce and he’d just been waiting for me to bring back the dining table and deal with his taxes.

I hired someone off Craig’s list to live in the spare bedroom of his house and help out, but the woman I had thought was a perfect fit turned out to be pushy, unreliable, and a frying pan thief. It was good riddance when she left.

That left me to do this physically demanding, emotionally devastating, and intellectually stultifying job by myself. I started believing in miracles when the son of a neighbor turned out to be the perfect sitter so that I could get to a yoga class or a cafe to write a few times a week.

It’s still harder than I could have ever imagined. He can be demanding, impatient, and borderline abusive. After a sleepless night of changing soiled diapers, I turn surly, resentful, and quick with a curse word. But mostly we muddle through — trying to find foods he can tolerate, scheduling visits with therapists, interviewing helpers who never seem to meet the criteria.

We spend our evenings watching “Grey’s Anatomy,” and, of course, the series often mirrors our lives. The episode in which Arizona hurls invectives at poor Callie for trying and failing to be a good caregiver hits especially close to home.

Oftentimes I’m baffled by my agreement to take care of him. I could have said, no, you can’t go home, you’ll pay the 170 dollars a day co-pay, and you’ll stay at the facility. But that didn’t even appear to be an option at the time. Who am I to tell him what he can or can’t do? And how could I let someone I’d known for so many years, someone I once loved, the father of my child, languish by himself under the jaundiced eyes of strangers?

I had other reasons, as well. If I hadn’t stepped up to take care of him, he would expect our daughter to do it. She lives on the other side of the country and is in the early stages of a career she loves. Her life would be derailed if she had to take care of him, and I’m not sure she could have told him no. My life was not going to be derailed by taking some time off my teaching job. Secondly, I hoped that with the help of an attorney I might be able to straighten out his financial affairs and at least save his house. If I’d left him in a facility, he would most likely have lost what little he had within a few months. (So much for not taking care of the poor!)

But I don’t enjoy being a caregiver. In addition to the sheer tedium of the job and the sometimes back-wrenching work, I miss my house. I miss dinners with friends, movies, trips to visit family, and the freedom to do what I want when I want. Friends tell me to hire someone to replace me, or get him back into a facility, let him burn through his money until he’s eligible for Medicaid.

Eventually that may be the only option, but for now I find I simply can’t abandon him. He was right. After all these years, there is some kind of bond — not a marital bond, but a familial one. This is, after all, the father of my child and the person who had once been my best friend. I could no more leave him to manage this phase of his life alone than I could drop my dog off on the side of the road and drive away.

I’ve learned a few things through this ordeal. For example, I’m a pro at operating a hoyer lift and doing a board transfer from bed to wheelchair — two things I didn’t even know were things prior to this adventure. I’ve also discovered that while I am often kind and helpful, when angered or tired, I am ashamed to admit to a cruel tongue.

Finally, though, I’m learning acceptance. I may rail, gnash my teeth, and seethe at what feels like a trap I willingly stepped into, but then I realize I’m not going to walk away so I may as well suck it up. Like an alcoholic starting the twelve steps, I have to admit I am powerless over the situation. My ex might regain some semblance of a life. Or he might not. I can’t force, cajole, or even encourage him to deal with this the way I think he should.

I try to explain to people (and nearly everyone I’ve encountered, including his doctor, has looked at me as if I were a pink giraffe) why I’m still here. It’s this: when I look at him, I see a person who not too long ago had a full life. He had stimulating work and a curious nature, including a fascination with mushroom varieties and the emperor Napoleon; he relished a good meal and a Stella Artois; and he deeply enjoyed a walk in the woods with a couple of dogs. Then a coup occurred in his brain, and that life was demolished.

So many situations in the world right now fill me with a sense of helplessness and despair — immigrant children in detention, Syrian refugees, oppressed people the world over, and the poor, beleagured planet. I donate to the appropriate organizations, and support political candidates who promise to do the right thing, but these acts don’t alleviate the feeling of helplessness.

In this situation, however, I am not helpless. I can do the laundry, pour a glass of juice, move him into the recliner, request a home visit from a podiatrist, or find the remote control. I can set aside my scruples for a while to fulfill that housewife role I once rejected. It doesn’t make me a saint to help him get through this. It makes me human.

Writers Write

The last year has been a rough one. My ex-husband had a stroke and I wound up moving back in with him and taking care of him until he died ten months later. During that time I scribbled in journal after journal but didn’t blog, didn’t publish, and didn’t share much. Then I confessed to my creative writing students that I didn’t have a blog anymore. One of them looked at me (with a touch of dismay) and asked, why not?? I felt a wave of gratitude for that question. It was the kind kick in the butt I needed.

So now, I am looking back and processing the events of the past few years. I’m also continuing to explore a variety of forms of creative expression. I’m looking at my life as I move through my sixties, and examining the world around me — this scary, alarming, disturbing and yet also delightful and surprising world.

I suppose I’m writing mainly for myself, as a way to hone my craft and keep my writing muscles strong. But maybe there are others who can relate to this journey and don’t mind reading the rants, ravings, and works in progress of a woman who is also a work in progress. Please feel free to leave a comment or send me an email at tmacenulty@gmail.com.