IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH. TIL DEATH DO YOU PART.
THESE WORDS, ALWAYS SOLEMN, ARE VERY DIFFERENT DEPENDING ON WHEN YOU UTTER THEM TO YOUR PARTNER: IN YOUTH, WHEN YOU ARE UN- OR LESS-TRIED? OR LATER, PERHAPS MUCH LATER, AFTER LIFE HAS BEATEN YOU UP A FEW TIMES?
THIS IS MY HEARTFELT EARLY VALENTINE TO LATE-LIFE LOVE.
I wrote the story which follows in 2016.
At that time, Mark Graff and I were dating each other, deeply smitten but uncertain as to the nature of our long-term commitment. Or even if there would be one.
Hence, out of respect for what might or might not unfold, and to protect his privacy, I simply called him “my guy.” Things have changed since then.
This story dealt with the first medical crisis we faced together. Privacy-protection was important: it was his crisis, and he feared an illness, publicly stated, might make him appear weak or vulnerable.
But it was also “our” crisis. And navigating how we would handle it, in our then-still-newish relationship, proved to be part of developing that relationship.
When young, healthy people (many of whom have not yet had time to face the more severe testings life will eventually throw their way), marry, the vows they speak concerning the more dire possibilities usually seem remote. But if they stay together, at some point, the forbidding, often unexpected, realities of life will surface, as they do in all lives. Time, which seems stately in its pace when young, begins hurtling past as one ages.
But when older people commit, those dire possibilities are right there.
Mark and I were in our sixties when we met. I was twice-widowed; he’d had a wife with an inoperable central nervous system cancer, a child with a congenital heart defect; a stent placed in his own heart. When, five and a half years into our relationship (three years after I wrote this), he proposed marriage and I accepted, we knew what we were getting into — if not specifics, then the general outlines.
Strangely, this knowledge is not entirely grim. As I said in another story I wrote, for AARP Magazine, Sex as a Death-Defying Act, when you have sex as and with an older person, “Experience, history, mortality are in bed with you… In later life, you know one of you almost certainly dies first. This intensifies every caress.”
Since the time I wrote Love in the Time of Cardio, Mark has gone through a knee replacement and two other surgeries. I’ve had four, including a reverse total shoulder replacement. Because it was my right shoulder (I’m right handed), caring for me proved labor-intensive. I couldn’t drive, chop vegetables, open an oven with one hand and remove a casserole with the other. Without assistance I couldn’t put on or remove a bra, or affix the very tedious shoe-box-sized “immobilizer sling” I was supposed to wear for six weeks, or fill and put on the shoulder-covering ice-jacket thing that reduces the swelling.
Tenderness, connection, patience, finding the best in yourself even when you feel grouchy, exhausted, overwhelmed, or in pain… I suppose most people who are coupled at least aspire towards these things.
But over time you get tested. These aspirational qualities get expanded, played with; they enlarge and contract, as illness and other life-circumstances happen. Sometimes these circumstances grow overwhelming. Compassion gets tinged by loss. Grief, fear and tiredness can make affection and equipoise go AWOL.
But stick with it, and if you loved each other in the first place, love flames back up again. Revitalized by having made it through difficulty.
Falling in love is miraculous, but, when it happens, it’s also simple. Heavy-duty attraction is evident, unambivalent, clear. If and as love lasts, it expands over time, moving from the early primary colors to a palette with uncountable resonant shades, subtle as well as vibrant. With these, lovers/partners paint their one-of-a-kind shared life. Should they both live into elderhood, each grows aware that there will be a non-negotiable end.
This chilly January of 2024, Valentine’s Day around the corner, I celebrate this: the caring by one person for another, at the moment when one is not one’s whole, healthy, best self. Champagne, chocolate, special nights out, jewelry, perfume, trips, lingerie: all these tropes of romance have played a part in Mark’s and my journey (yes, lingerie can be worn when one is north of 65).
But so has the ever-present knowledge of death.
I remember when Mark changed the dressing on the on my shoulder. “Perfect scar,” he said, with great satisfaction. “Healing beautifully.” (He could have been a surgeon, I thought: that analytic cool and interest in how things, including bodies, work.) Though I had said I wouldn’t look (because, unlike him, I am squeamish, easily grossed out by some bodily stuff, not cooly analytical), I made the mistake of glancing in the mirror. I was shocked to see not only the scar, but that my entire right breast was empurpled with bruising. The doctor had not mentioned that this would occur. Dizzy, horrified, I sat down.
But what did Mark do? After he had the wound re-bandaged and had carefully, carefully helped me into a long gray bathrobe and the immobilizer?
Looking me in the eye, he slipped one hand in the top of the robe and cupped one breast. A then-38D, 67-year-old breast. Even when unbruised, that breast softened long ago to gravity. Then he closed his eyes for a second in pure pleasure and appreciation, then opened those eyes (gray-blue) again. “I love these little breasts,” he said. “I love this little body.” By which, I heard, “I love and desire you, even when you are wounded. I’m keeping the faith that you will heal.”
“Little,” let us understand, was a term of endearment here.
This is how love looks to me now, almost a decade into it with Mark, and twenty-three years after being widowed from the first great love of my life. Love now, with Mark, at the infancy of old age, is dimensional, tinged with lust, care, reassurance, fondness, commitment, silliness. Its foundation is respect, admiration.
This is love that, even when knowing the eventual certain outcome, makes a person say, yes.
Yes, this is worth it.
“Is that your heart, or mine?”
Here is when it began: a little after one in the morning.
Here is where: in my bed, in Vermont, with my guy. I’m curled into him, my head resting on his shoulder, sleepy, happy.
He says, “Mine.”
I say, “Wow, it’s beating awfully fast, and hard.”
I’m the one who first suggests a trip to the emergency room might be in order. After about ten minutes of back and forth, he agrees.
This is so uncharacteristic of him — to agree that he might need help and does not have it all under control — that I get frightened for the first time.
The moon is bright. The drive takes about 40 minutes. My night vision is not great. I’m wearing glasses instead of my contacts. Yellow signs and white signs have huge glowing auras. I know the route well. The sleepiness in which I’d floated before has fled. I’m wide awake.
We have the “it’s probably nothing” conversation at least twenty times between my home and Brattleboro Memorial Hospital.
I think, he may actually believe it’s probably nothing. And since he is the hyper-rational, science-and-data-based one, if he says it’s probably nothing, maybe it is.
But maybe it’s something.
For sure it’s something enough that I am driving him down 91 in the middle of the night.
I wait as he fills out paperwork. Wait for him to be called.
“Do you want me to come in with you?”
He hesitates. “Well, I think you’d probably feel better if you did, but I’d probably feel better if I went in by myself.”
I say, and I hate being so grown-up that I know that I must give this answer, because it is the answer that adults afford each other, “Well, it’s your body and your health. Whatever makes you feel better is what you need to do.”
Pretty soon the night nurse, a slight guy with reddish-blonde hair, wearing blue scrubs, comes out for him. They disappear behind double doors.
I am sitting on a small bench padded in blue leatherette. Across from me, on an identical bench, is a twenty-ish woman, hair shaved on one side, in a long blonde ponytail with a seaweed-like green streak on the other. I have no idea why she is here or when she arrived. Her fingers are madly busy on her phone. Every time she sends or receives a text her phone gives a loud watery self-important blurp, every 25 or 30 seconds.
It is now 2:54 a.m.
I am trying to read on my Kindle. I alternate between being too worried, too tired and too distracted by the every-few-seconds blurp of the cell phone to concentrate.
Finally I say, “Excuse me, would you mind muting your cell phone, please?”
She gazes at me blankly. “Volume button’s busted,” she says. “Sorry,” she adds, aggressively.
Eventually I curl up in a scrunched fetal position on the blue bench and sleep, briefly. Time changes shape. How long have I been here? Why haven’t they come and gotten me?
When I wake up the cell-phone user is gone. I read a little more. A book on Marcus Aurelius, which quotes, among others who use difficulty as an opportunity for growth and personal development (as I myself espouse, and generally practice), Benjamin Franklin: “The things which hurt, instruct.”
But tonight instead of “Right on,” I think, fuck this.
Eventually the male nurse in blue scrubs comes back through the door. “You can go in now.”
My guy looks remarkably relaxed. He’s on a gurney, in jeans and running shoes and an idiotic pale green hospital gown. There’s a needle in his arm. Electrodes polka-dot his chest, attaching him to a monitor whose numbers keep changing. This cubicle approximates a room by virtue of curtains on a track and heavy sliding glass doors which can be pulled shut. These mostly keep out the sound of the man who is raving loudly inside another ER room, that one guarded by two state troopers.
The first thing my guy says to me is, “I told them to let you in twenty minutes ago.”
The second thing he says is, “Evidently I am having my first episode of atrial fibrillation.”
There is another outburst from the man down the hall (“How long have I fucking been here? No man, how long? 24 hours? Arrrrgggh, I… what the… what the FUCKing cocksucking, what are you —?”).
The third thing my guy says, in reference to the raving man, is “Someone is having a worse day than I am.”
The fourth thing he says is, “I wish I could see the numbers, that would make me feel a lot better.”
He can’t see them, because the monitor is above and behind his head. I don’t know that they would make him feel better. I watch the numbers on his heartbeat jump every few seconds: 100, 141, 153, 122, 139, 110, 144.
The fifth thing he says is, “I’m actually not worried. I know you are, but I’m not. This is harder on you than on me. “
The male nurse comes and goes, checking numbers. He gives me a detailed explanation of “A-Fib.” He explains the condition both in general and relative to my guy’s “episode.” They’ve given my guy a drug to regularize his heart rate and blood pressure (which is trying dangerously hard to compensate for his irregular heartbeat); it’s not working. Plans B, C, and D are discussed. I understand some of this. My guy understands more; he’s dealt with medical stuff and heart stuff. He continues to appear sanguine.
A different nurse comes in. “Who is your regular doctor?” A look passes between me and my guy. He says, “Well, I don’t have a regular doctor in Vermont, I’m up here visiting her. My regular doctor is in New York.”
Alone again, he tells me, “This is harder on you than me. I’m pretty sure there’s nothing to worry about. The worst thing is, I’m getting really hungry.”
Yet another nurse, female, comes in. I say to her, a little sternly, “Is there anything we can get him to eat? There are blood sugar issues.”
‘How about bread and peanut butter?” she offers.
About fifteen minutes later, a slice of bread with peanut butter arrives. I try, unsuccessfully, not to notice that it is white bread with hydrogenated peanut butter.
Both are foods I would never eat, nor feed someone I love.
A doctor arrives: likable, tidy, compact, spare, wearing a turquoise blue turtleneck and buttoned turquoise blue jacket. She radiates both competence and compassion, is clearly no-nonsense. “Tell me what happened,” she says.
He begins, “Well, we were lying in bed, it was a little after one in the morning, after some hanky-panky —” and continues.
This doctor seems to me to underline that what is happening is not something to take lightly. She is calm and serious. Blood clots are mentioned. Stroke risk. The electrical impulses of various chambers of the heart. What compensates for what. Various medications and options; side effects.
I follow some of this, and am as alarmed as my guy, who seems to follow all of it, conversing with the doctor, appears not to be.
“If we don’t get this normalized we may have to keep you in the hospital for three or four days, for observation. Probably we are going to move you to the intensive care unit.” She explains that this way, certain drugs could be administered immediately in the event of an emergency, whereas “on the floor” it would take longer.
“We wouldn’t be putting you there because you’re right at death’s door,” she says, “because you’re not, so don’t worry.”
A second drug is administered by the male nurse in the blue scrubs. My guy’s heart rate keeps jumping around, but now the jumps sometimes go below 100. 77, 81, 99, 108, 80.
I say to him, during one of the intervals we are alone, “Hanky-panky? You call what we did hanky-panky?” Meaning, don’t you think that what passed between us was a little intense to be so described? Isn’t that trivializing it?
I am teasing, taking his mind off our – his – circumstances.
But I’m also serious: it does trivialize it, makes what was in fact incendiary sound geezerish.
And under all this, the back-beat: what if I have to do without that now, what if that was the last time, what if what if what if?
To the next professional who asks him what happens, he says, “We had just finished making love, and…”
Still a little soft-pedaled and vanilla for what went down between us. But I recognize and appreciate the gesture.
He says to me, “Look, this — ” gesturing at curtain, IV, monitor, “is a different experience for you than me. I get that.” And for the third time: “It’s harder on you than on me.”
I think he believes this. Maybe he’s right. But maybe he’s just putting up a good front to make me feel better.
It is light by the time he is moved up to ICU.
By the time I’m let into his private room there, he is wearing only a hospital gown and ill-fitting beige socks, which ride, wrinkled, around his ankles; the stupid hospital socks with the ridiculous non-slip white plastic dots on the soles.
We both know how undignified this looks, so neither of us says a word about it.
When the daytime duty nurse, Ekaterina, comes in, he asks her to turn the monitor so he can see it. Once he can see the data, he is, indeed, happier.
We agree that if this had to happen, better that it happen here, in Vermont, with me.
I note the regal maple tree right outside the window. The view of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, just across the river.
In Vermont, people like to say, “The best thing about New Hampshire is looking at it.”
I lie down next to him in the narrow bed. My head on his shoulder. His heart is still beating so very hard and fast. We semi-doze a little. Eventually he asks me to move to the blue chair next to the bed.
Eventually he asks me to move back next to him. Again, my head on his shoulder, his arm around me, his heart still beating so very hard and fast.
Various other doctors and nurses come and go and ask questions, mostly the same ones.
He says, “I don’t even like to imagine you putting this on Facebook. Be careful what you say, okay? The last thing I want is a bunch of people I don’t know discussing my health and weighing in on the diagnosis and telling me what they think I ought to do and ‘Oh, my brother-in-law had A-Fib and he took such-and-such a supplement and stopped drinking and he’s all better now.’ Or, ‘But he didn’t make it.’ “
He pauses for a second, then adds, “But I fell in love with a writer. I realize you have to write. And your experience of this is your experience, not mine.”
Breakfast is brought to him.
I am told to leave, get some sleep, and come back around 3:00. “Most likely we’ll release him today, barring anything unforeseen.”
He says, “I’m still your big strong guy, you know.”
It is 9:31 a.m., very sunny. I drive home.
On the way, I recall how, during our first months together, he told me about walking to the subway under a temporary protective awning by a construction site.
He said that a large piece of building material crashed onto the awning, so loudly he nearly jumped out of his skin. “And you know what my first thought was?” he asked me. ” It was, ‘This cannot happen to her again.’ “
He knew, of course, about the time I went into another emergency room a wife, and left a widow.
No one gets out of life alive, but some of us really know this.
On the way home from Brattleboro Memorial I think: “Do I really need another lesson in ‘love the moment you have, because that – the moment and love – is all we ever have’?”
On the way home I think: “Oh dragon, is there anything in life, ever, ever, that teaches or illuminates anything else lasting except this?”
On the way home I think: “Maybe he’s right, this might be a different experience for each of us.”
On the way home I recall my own episode of much milder A-Fib, which happened for several months following my mother’s death.
I recall how terrifying it was when my heart would suddenly beat like mad, how I’d fake my way through conversations, as if there wasn’t this thing happening inside my chest. I was assured by my general physician, two friends who’d had it, and finally a cardiologist that this was an annoyance, not a danger, and that it might come and go for awhile, or I might have to live with it, but not to worry.
Eventually, it stopped happening.
But my numbers were nowhere near as dramatic as his. Mine was sub-clincal. I never had to be medicated, or go to the ER.
But maybe he’s right, it’s no big deal.
On the way home I think: even if it’s no big deal for him, it’s big to me.
I get home, eat some cereal, fall into a bottomless sleep as sun streams in the window.
At about 2:00 pm he calls. He tells me that just as they were wheeling in equipment for an electrocardiogram, his heartbeat returned, suddenly and completely, to normal.
“They’re letting me go,” he says. “Come pick me up. But don’t rush, discharges always take a ridiculously long time.”
He says, “And by the way, they can’t tell me what caused it. They said it may never happen again, but if it does it’ll just be a nuisance, it’s not going to affect my longevity expectation. And they also said I can keep drinking coffee.”
I had never said a word to him about his coffee intake. I had cheerfully bought a Chemex, carefully chose and ground the beans whenever he was coming to visit, the better to make his coffee pleasurable. How did he know, then, that I even as I poured it, I had wondered if it was excessive?
I knew after this experience I would need to order a heart rate monitor on stand by in-case he felt dizzy or nauseous. Late one evening a couple of days later, I went online and began reading a few sites. One stood out to me, but I needed some extra reassurance before I hit the ‘Buy Now’ button. So I kept searching to see if I could find any other reviews.
That I would be looking for a heart-rate monitor and find one I considered “promising” was itself troubling.
I took a shower before driving back to the hospital. I finished with cold water, to shake off the minimal sleep and disorientation.
I remembered the most recent time I had picked him up, not at the hospital but at the train station in Bellows Falls, Vermont, only two days earlier, when he’d come up from New York. He had texted me, “Wear a skirt.” Although texts are not auditory, I could hear the growl in that directive.
And loved it. (His being able to issue directives to me in this area, and my delighted receipt of same, is, I feel the need to say, consensual. Discussed before we acted on it.)
And I’d worn a skirt to meet him at the train station.
I knew, regardless of how healthy it turned out he was or wasn’t, that given our dynamic and who he was, he would hate me acting nurse-y, bossy, concerned about his health. I knew that asking him every second how he was and if he felt okay and if he needed anything would drive him around the bend.
I got out of the cold shower, toweled off.
I put on a dress, and heels, and lipstick.
I drove off to whatever was next.
That night, afterwards, again in our bed, we again did whatever the word is for what we do.
Afterwards, he opened his arm, and I again curled up next to him, my head on his shoulder.
His metaphorical heart and mine had remained recognizable to me throughout, as was my surety that whatever the outcome, even the one that most terrified me, even knowing that to open one’s heart sooner or later means that life will smash it wide open on jagged rocks, it was worth it to love and be loved by this man, for however long we had.
I was so grateful that we had more time.
“Not ‘I love you,’ ” Ram Dass once said, “But ‘You take me to that place in myself where I am love.'”
However much we love another person, we do not and never can “become one” with them (which “one” would that be, anyway?).
The essence of human love, it seems to me, is that that other person is other: different, wondrous, curious, exasperating, adored.
Love is, among so much else, our protest against and our effort to bridge this immutable separateness. A separateness most clearly proved by mortality, or even a middle-of the-night brush against it (as I saw it) or a middle-of the-night inconvenient health scare that looked like a brush with mortality to a beloved girlfriend (as he saw it).
Call it a heartfelt difference.
Differences which, as we later deconstructed it, we viewed with respect for the other.
I lay there that night, my head on his shoulder.
Listening to his heart, not mine. His heart, not mine. I heard it at last, normally, beautifully beating.
This blog-post / essay is part of Crescent Dragonwagon’s memoiristic Nothing Is Wasted on the Writer series, in which she explores using the events of one’s own life as, at least in part, material for one’s writing. Sometimes she explicitly discusses this process; sometimes, as in this story, she just dives in.
“You ask how I did it.” said Dragonwagon, in an email responding to an admiring writing student who’d emailed her after reading Love in the Time of Cardio, when it was first published. “I felt compelled. Just had to write it. What that brush with mortality woke in me was so powerful I had no choice, it demanded that I write it, immediately. I did it within 24 hours of his actual hospital stay. If I hadn’t I never would have remembered details, like the green-ponytailed girl in the ER waiting room whose phone kept annoying me, or the peanut butter and my inward reaction to it, if I had waited. Carpe diem, baby!”
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