The way my father always told it, as it turns out, was better.
"On his ninetieth birthday, the late Maurice Chevalier …" my father, himself the late Maurice Zolotow, would begin, relishing the telling so much he almost gave off sparks of pleasure, " …was asked how it felt to be 90. 'Marvelous!' he replied, in that suave, beautiful, wry, French voice of his, 'When you consider ze alternative.' "
I decided, for this post, to check, to see if the ever-exuberant Maurice, had gotten the exact birthday correct. And what did I discover?
What Chevalier actually said, and not, as far as I could tell, in response to being asked about a particular birthday, was this: "Old age isn't so bad when you consider the alternative."
Which, compared to my father's version, is pretty lame.
What brings this to mind is that today, as I was making the bed, I found myself considering alternatives.
My late husband was, uncharacteristically, very particular about certain things relating to death. I say 'uncharacteristic' because he didn't, for instance, keep the life insurance premiums up to date nor leave a list of Quicken passwords (thus, when he died in a bicycle accident at the absurdly young age of 44, my bereavement was not just emotionally and physically devastating, but financially so as well). But, some time in the late 1980's he had been to a funeral he found "gruesome" and he came home, wrote up a funny, acerbic little note about it, and made three copies.
One he gave to me: I laughed and promptly forgot about it. But 15-some years later, after his death, I found the other two: one in a file labeled "important papers" and the other in the safe deposit box at the bank. (The location of its key, however, was as unknowable as the Quicken passwords; it cost $25 to have the bank get into that box. Which was still much less than what Intel charged to "de-encrypt" the passwords. But when a sudden "I", as opposed to "we", must find out how much money I have, well, you pay Intel and you pay the bank).
One of the things Ned had deemed so important that he wrote it three times was that he wanted his body cremated, not buried ("Who needs to be lugging around 225+ pounds in a box?" was how he put it). And he also wanted his ashes placed in a certain river in South India.
(Damn. I was going along fine, not one shred of the automatic tears-well-in-the-eyes, heart-horripulating grief-moments until, unaccountably, I wrote that last sentence. Which proves one of the points I will be making: that when grief wants to be felt, it will find a way to make you feel it.)
By the time I took his ashes, in a plastic bag, to India, still relatively early days after his death, I still had the ridiculous idea that you could somehow outsmart grief.
I had discovered that almost anything associated with him, activities we had done together, places we had had conversation, taken walks, eaten together, and on out to infinity, could bring on those spasms.
So, I cleverly decided that to avoid this I would travel to India via a route we had never taken. I would not go New York and then via London, or Zurich, or Frankfort, to Bombay. I would not go Los Angeles, and then via Singapore or Seoul, to Bombay. Instead I would travel to San Francisco, and go from there to Hong Kong, and from Hong Kong to Sri Lanka, and from Sri Lanka to Trivandrum, in southern India, skipping Bombay altogether.
I also decided to take the well-meaning but essentially impossible to deconstruct advice given to me by many people: "Be kind to yourself." "Be gentle to yourself." "Be good to yourself." So rather than bullheadedly charge my way straight through the journey, I would stop along the way, give myself a chance to rest and recover, in these new, not-associated-with-Ned places.
So there, grief, I remember vaguely thinking as I made these travel arrangements.
Thus I found myself in a hotel room in Hong Kong, looking out the window across an expanse of water towards Kowloon, at a beauty and terrain which seemed to me singular in both its beauty and its Chinese-ness.
Thus I found myself knowing that had Ned himself been with me (instead of that improbable plastic bag of ash which I was supposed to believe was all that now remained physically of that big handsome fellow with whom I had spent 23 years), his watercolors, brushes, soft pencils and pad would already be out, and he would have been sitting, riveted, beside that window, jet-lag be damned, his tall form curved over that pad, his attention absolute, painting or drawing for probably a couple of hours.
Thus, I discovered grief, far from being outsmarted, had outsmarted me, in this form: "Why couldn't Ned be here to see this? Why will he never get to experience this?"
And thus I found myself, on the way back from India, having completed the task the once-living, now-dead Ned had set out for his still-living widow, at the Mount Lavinia Hotel in Sri Lanka.
The Mount Lavinia is a 4-star hotel, an over-the-top architectural artifact of the days when Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then called, was ruled by the British. The good old, bad old days. The days when the sun never set on the British Empire and the underlying "nice country, we could use its resources, we'll take it" ethos ruled.
Built in 1806 as the grand country house of Sir Thomas Maitland, the second governor of that small island country, the Mount Lavinia is sited on a promontory above the Indian Ocean, which surrounds the mansion on three sides, an easy scramble down to an immaculate white-sand beach.
The place, an elegant, beautiful, impressive pile, enormous, embodies everything one might think of as the romantic style of the colonial tropics. (For you must be able to hold romance, appreciation, and aesthetics in one hand while at the same time holding history, imperialism, theft, oppression, and racism in the other… at least, I think you do, especially at the Mount Lavinia and similar places, like Raffles in Singapore, at least before Raffles was Disneyfied. If you can't grasp both sides, what you hold when you try to understand a Mount Lavinia, is a literal half-truth).
So picture the Mount Lavinia. Tall ceilings, ever-circulating fans. White marble expanses indoors and out. Terraces with vintage rattan couches and chairs and tables. Enormous windows. Gigantic potted palms. White walls, mahogany paneling. Velvet-covered sofas and arm-chairs, very cushy, inside, beckoning a guest to sit and have a cup of tea or a nip of sherry. Polished brass. Views and more views. Manicured gardens. Statuary.
And everywhere, as it is today (or was when I was there), the brown-skinned servitors who keep it all running smoothly. Some uniformed, standing guard or offering assistance or leading guests to their table. Others mopping, sweeping, polishing, gardening, tucking in, folding down, endlessly and mostly unobtrusively.
What did I do during the three or four days I had allowed myself there before my return to the U.S.? How was staying there being kind, good, or gentle to myself, as I had been told to do? I'll be damned if I can answer either question with full accuracy. I can only answer in pieces.
I swam in the warm sea, aware that the Lavinia's lovely and near-deserted beach was bordered, on either side a half-mile down, with walls, on the other sides of which the same beach teemed with native Sri Lankans, messy, populous, loud.
I slept and woke at odd hours.
I kept finding myself shaking my head, over and over, at the unreality of every single part of my present and presumably future life — where I was and where I would be, without Ned.
At one point I remember looking at the room service menu and seeing the snack items described as "tit-bits", and rapidly dissolving into laughter which quickly turned to those endless, exhausting sobs. Because how Ned, who adored large breasts, would have roared and carried on at that! And how instantly it would have become a riff, a reference in our ongoing private personal language of references and experiences.
And how that language, which had ever and always had only two native-speakers, was now, to all intents, dead, as absent of life as the ashes I had scattered by the handful standing in the Pamba, as they swirled around me and then slowly floated away: light gray ash, dark brown water.
At another point, in my small room, facing the sea, I sat at the dark wooden desk, writing, crying, thinking, or all three. Without forethought, I took my wedding ring from my left ring-finger, where it had stayed for 23 years. It was as if I had slammed into a wall of emotion as forceful as the physical tsunami that was to strike Sri Lanka years later. Before I could be sucked completely under, I immediately shoved, jammed, that ring back on my ring-finger.
Shortly after that, sitting at the dark wood desk on a tropical night, the surf audible from my room, I wrote the following poem:
How It's Done
I don't know how
to not be married to you
I guess like this
I wake up every morning
and you are still dead
At one point I went up to the formal dining room for dinner. I was not eating much, but "You have to eat," as people kept telling me, and there was enough of the curious experience-glutton in me to still want to check out the atmosphere, the food… though when I ordered, or went to the buffet, I found I could only swallow a bite or two before my throat closed over.
It must have been a Friday or Saturday night, because every single table except mine was filled with people in groups. Most, from the speech, were Australian; there were a few Europeans. No other Americans present, as far as I could tell. A few tables had couples, most larger groups. There were many groups of 4 to six; families, I imagined, older parents with adult children and their spouses, vacationing together. And there were several very large groups, 12 people, 20, well-dressed, cheerful, laughing, at long tables, a lot of standing up and sitting down and going over to talk to someone and then coming back, the occasional toast made. I learned later that the Lavinia was a popular wedding destination ("one-stop", as the hotel's web-site helpfully explains).
In all that room, humming with guests and servers and kitchen staff refilling the buffet, the fans swirling, the windows open to the ocean breeze, the potted palms rustling with both the wind and the fans circulating the air, I was the only solo diner in the restaurant.
Now I am not and have never been one of those people who hates to eat at restaurants alone. I do it often, and always have, and kind of enjoy it. I always bring a book. I read some of the time, but if the food is really good or the atmosphere interesting, I make an effort to put it down and just be present with the experience, eating, watching, and thinking my own thoughts.
But that night, under those circumstances…
I watched as a man and woman, in their late twenties or early thirties, walked towards the buffet. I remember she was wearing a brown skirt of a light loose velvet with burnt-out designs, swirly, with a deliberately uneven hem. She walked with her chin slightly turned up, a bit ahead of him. He was gazing at and focused on her; she had a kind of pride and arrogance, as if she knew he danced attendance on her, as if she knew she were beautiful and desirable (though, to my eye, she wasn't particularly). It was the gait and stride of a woman who is aware she is adored and takes it for granted without knowing she does.
I recognized all this, or thought I did, because, as I watched them I thought, with a pang, I used to be like that. I wished she had been able to turn around, to tell her escort (husband or boyfriend), "I love you! I bask in your admiration!", to suddenly kiss him on the cheek or the mouth, or to catch his eye and laugh. But she couldn't, or didn't. She was enjoying being the beloved too much to love. I had done this in some of my years with Ned. But, and for this I will forever be thankful, I had woken up a few years before his death. I believe that by the time he bicycled out of this world, Ned knew that I loved and wanted him every bit as much as he did me.
I had a small paperback book with me at the Lavinia dining room. I don't remember which book. I do remember making a conscious decision, though, to put it down. To look, observe, feel what I was feeling, to not zone out with the slight addiction of somewhere else a book can sometimes afford, though probably nothing could've that night.
I put the book down. I noticed the girl in the brown velvet skirt, the cant of her chin. I noticed the indoor palms (one just behind me in an enormous pot), as I sat at the small linen covered two-top for one ("Will anyone be joining you, madam?" " "No", and like that the silverware and napery across from me had been removed).
The table was towards the center of that busy room; I was a quiet island in that ocean of movement and sound, business and joviality. I noticed the sublimely temperate night air, the fragrant steam released as silver domes were removed from large white dishes, the waiters in their whites, the maitre d in his black jacket. I noticed the music; incongruous but of course apropos in a globalized world, in a colonial luxury hotel that catered to westerners: James Taylor, singing, "You've Got a Friend."
I noticed, in a strange almost anthropological way, that my heart was breaking; had broken. The grief, the still-gradual sinking-in of from now on, for forever, he is gone and it is non-negotiable, there is not one thing you can do about it. You will never be happy again. This is your life now. And observing, observing, observing.
As I felt and watched myself feel, a thought, distinct as if lettered in a dialogue balloon, appeared in my mind.
This is brave. What you are doing, Crescent, right now, is brave.
Then, an instant, internal, screaming rebuttal, as noisy inside me as a toddler shaken by frustrated desire, tantrumming by the candy display at check-out when his harried mother refuses to buy a Kit-Kat:
But I don't WANT to be brave! I don't want to be! I don't want to be!
Observed. Duly noted. As was the next line of the internal dialogue:
Well, would you rather be cowardly?
Three years later, during my first winter here in Vermont, the pipes froze. I called the plumbing and heating company, they came to thaw them, but used a propane torch which was, unknown to them, defective. My kitchen exploded.
Fortunately, the young men doing the thawing suffered no permanent scarring or damage to their lungs. They were, however, out of work for six weeks.
And me? I was out of my home, the home I had just bought, just moved into, for six months. The rental house I found was nice enough, but I couldn't believe this latest turn of events. Just simply could not believe it.
One night I called up one of my oldest, dearest best friends, Bill Haymes.
I said, "I'm sick of it!"
He said, "Yes?"
I said, "Ned and I go through that really tough spot, I stick it out, we don't divorce, it's great. Then he fucking dies! He DIES! Then I lose the … " (we will pause in this telling for an allusion to the loss of something else tender to me in my old life) " and the…" (pause for an allusion to the loss of yet another something else tender to me in my old life). "But no, I pick myself up, I sell my stuff, I move fucking across country and I start all over again. But then… and then… then my fucking KITCHEN blows up? My KITCHEN blows up and I have to spend half a year in a rental house? I am so goddamn SICK of being the resilient plucky little heroine, I hate it, I'm sick of it!"
Bill listened thoughtfully, as ever. Then he said, "Yeah, but you know, Dragonwagon, what's the alternative? Whiny, depressed, angry victim?"
"I know!" I snap at him. "I know! That's why I'm opting for plucky! But I don't like it!"
Why was I thinking about all this, and recalling my father quoting Maurice Chevalier, as I made the bed this morning?
Because, frankly, my life is pretty good at this moment, at least in the world within myself. I'm happy, my writing and teaching are going well, I'm learning some new things I'm very excited about, I live on an indescribably beautiful piece of property in the most progressive state in the union. If it was just me on the ride, right now I think life would feel almost perfect (although then I would probably be lonely, so maybe not so perfect.)
But it's not just me, and never will or can be. And, though I feel pretty calm and happy, frankly things could be easier.
I'm carrying some extra weight: I'm carrying oversight and deep involvement in the care of my 96-year-old mother, with whom I spend one week each month (it's a four-hour drive to her place), and about whom I have just gotten over a brutal two year struggle with a sibling. I "won" in the sense that I now have truly exceptional caregivers in place and she is now being well and lovingly taken care of, and his campaign of unceasing verbal abuse and threats towards me has abated for, oh, five months now. But still.
And, I'm carrying a friend, one of my dearest, who is suffering from deep depression. To carry this friend, to leave room for her to experience what she experiences, to refrain from attempting to fix it while making sure she gets to therapy and goes out on walks and takes her meds, making sure that I remain compassionate and open to her, but also self-protective of my own heart, making myself immune to her mood, unaffected by it… this is wicked hard.
I am not at all sure I'm doing it right. I am not at all sure, just as I wasn't when dealing with my impossible brother, that there is a right way. You just do the best you can, and keep checking in with your integrity, and hope things turn out. And they may, or they may not.
Another friend, aware of all I was working with — I am, thank God, rich in friends —, asked me last Saturday, "So how are you doing with all of that?"
We were swimming together in the pond. I took a few strokes in that deep, cold water before answering, letting it clear my head so I could reply honestly. Thinking about this is like thinking about the Mount Lavinnia: opposites coexist. Right now, I am happy. Right now, I am troubled. These things are true, side by side.
Finally I said "I think, really, that I'm doing about as well as I possibly could under the circumstances."
And, that's true.
But, it still doesn't feel particularly good.
And that's just my little immediate world. When it comes to the daily bad news about climate change and pathological partisanship and fringe-owned hate-broadcasting mass media and the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer and the world going to hell in a hand-basket at such a shockingly, alarmingly fast rate of speed… well, as Truman Capote said, "Honey, don't let me commence."
Making the bed this morning, I felt sadness and worry at my friend's suffering lapping the shore of my well-being. I felt exhaustion as I edged up to the fact that the weekend caregiver for my mom is not remotely as good as our heaven-sent weekday caregiver, and will have to be replaced again soon, a destabilizing, time-consuming process that could possibly (for no rational reason) bring the return of my brother's wrath. And again, as I almost always do, I felt the back-beat of terrible sorrow about the future of a world that will soon be too hot, too dirty, too crowded, too impoverished, with too many species of flora and fauna heedlessly, thoughtlessly swallowed and gone forever, as "Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers. " (Wordsworth.)
And yet. I chose, instead, well-being above suffering. Or, not above exactly, but along side; yes, that again. To continue as I have, compassionate as I am able to be at any given moment, but immune.
Like Candide, I have an abundant and well-cultivated garden.
This is not perfect. Things could certainly be easier. Better. I would certainly like them to be. I would like my brother and I to be at peace. I would like to find a weekend caregiver for my mother who is as perfect as our full-time one. I would like the dark gray screen in front of my friend's eyes to lift, so she can be flooded with sunlight and reclaim the creativity, energy, stick-to-it-iveness and joy in which she once resided. And the world itself — my wishes, hopes, and prayers for it are so vast and muliple that they cannot be numbered. This — things, my life, the lives of those I love, life itself — is so not perfect.
But when it comes down to it — and it does, every day — I would still rather be brave than cowardly. I still feel I have to opt for plucky.
And, as the two Maurices said in their different ways, when I consider the alternative, it's marvelous.