I did a little travel recently, mostly to visit my aging father-in-law, but there were other diversions along the way. I will make my next post a series of photos, the quirkiest among them, not the tourism or family shots. But for now, today, the day after attending the memorial of a friend who recently died, I will share something I wrote after a visit with him in the summer of 2011. Thanks for reading and conjuring a moment with Bill with me. Losing people in this generation is like leaving another pothole in my path: the ground under my feet feels uneven. It's what we do at this age, isn't it, navigate the losses - people in their 80s, like he was, have so many sunken places where there once were friends and family; they have to hope the new ones, like us, will be willing to try to fill in that space. As a person with no children, I hope, if I reach that age, I'll have some younger friends, better friends than I was or am.
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Let me tell you more about my friend Bill.
First of all: he is very deaf, and this is terribly disabling to a very extroverted and cultivated man. He has lived alone for about 5 years; before that he had lived with his now-deceased partner. Together they had managed an antique business for many years, first in Manhattan, then in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where they had their weekend home to which they ultimately retired, keeping a shop in New Hope and then in Frenchtown, New Jersey. My husband and I first met them when we started visiting this area around 1998 or '99, looking for a new place to settle. In that time, Ted managed the store more, while Bill was the specialist -- they dealt mostly in antique tools and scientific instruments, or things that would have been made with special materials or techniques. It was so fun, always, to visit their shop, although we couldn't indulge in acquisitions often. He is still selling off his collections, mostly through auctions now, and talks about how cut-throat and corrupt the business is.
Bill was originally from West Virginia and Shreveport, LA, and he loved to travel, especially to Scandinavia. In their house I’ve seen pictures of theatre people, as Ted had been involved with local theater; and other worldly-looking sorts, in photos taken all over the world. Last night in his house I was looking at all the platters and glassware and thinking of how his house must have often been filled with friends and conviviality. Now when we take him to dinner anywhere around here, although it is very difficult to converse with him, unfortunately (I would love to ply him with questions and listen to his stories), he always wishes to be in the noisiest and most clamorous place full of people, which is hard to find here, especially on a Wednesday. He always says "Where is everyone? It's only 8:30!"
Bill was a lean athletic man in youth, and a swimmer. Now, he has arthritis and had to have his spine operated on in the last couple of years, so he's not so bent over now. He's had his knee operated on, but he can not stand. He wanted so much to be able to make the short walk from the car to the terrace of the Frenchtown Inn, with the aid of his walker, but he couldn't do it and had to be pushed. This was a blow to his dignity, but he bore it gracefully and with humor, and I made a mental note of how to be in the world, which I often felt in his presence. We sat outside on the terrace, smelling the big sycamore trees and the Delaware River, and Bill ordered whiskey, as always. He had a whiskey at the house too, before we left. If he gets tipsy, I can't tell, since his deafness and his old Shreveport accent make his speech pretty slushy anyway.
He would like us to visit more often than we do. In the last couple years, due to an injury, I've been in survival mode myself much of the time, and couldn't manage the trip and the hours it takes to visit him, and take him out and then home again, as often as we would like. When he sees me he always tells me I look wonderful; but last night he said "You look MARVELOUS! -- clearly better! I didn't realize how much difference it would make."
He said his doctor doesn't want him to be alone for one moment, which he finds oppressive. The doctor wants him to move to assisted living but he refuses. He has aides that come in every day but no one stays the night; it always feels a little strange to leave him, but this is what he wants. He often sends the aides away early, and has to be quite firm to get them to leave. He told us that he sent away his aide before we arrived yesterday because "she's fat and she has enormous boobs and she was wearing a big pink dress! If Ravenna saw that she might turn away and go home!" He was just kidding of course, and we laughed all together very hard. In fact he just wanted invisible help beforehand, so he would look clean and dignified awaiting us, alone, in his own house, and then offer us drinks and go to the refrigerator and the cabinet himself, seated in his walker, and be our gracious host.
Bill has two cats, Maude, a Maine coon cat that I have hardly seen because she is so wild and shy, and Samantha, who is a tiny black and white little princess. Among his very special objects all over the house, there are all sorts of less special objects representing cats. He also sometimes calls me “Pussycat.” But my husband says that when Bill refers to me on the phone, he always calls me “Her Ladyship.”
Bill can't hear even on his special telephone very well. He is a little mystified by computer stuff, so it's hard for him to use it for communication instead. I wish we could just write letters back and forth. I wanted to take a picture of him last night, and of his home too, the light was beautiful when we arrived at his place, worn and cluttered with many interesting things and not a few kitschy things too. But I didn't want to treat Bill as though he is an artifact. He has great humor and grace but I know that he feels a little embarrassed sometimes by the degradations of aging. At dinner, if he drops his food, I carefully focus elsewhere as though my attention can't be had until he has removed the food from his shirt or the edge of the table. From the corner of my eye I see him look to see if I have noticed. Probably he sees me seeing him; he knows I see and look away.
I feel that Bill and I understand one another and have an affectionate bond, even though we really hardly know one another and can hardly converse. It seems to me that we became faster friends when he saw what a blow had been Ted’s death to me; Bill's bluster had kept me at a little distance until then. I believe Bill knows I see him as a boy, as an adolescent, a rake, a young man, in middle age, in high spirits, in loss, in his prime, and his whole humanity. I suspect that's what he sees when he tells me "You look MARVELOUS!" He is a brilliant soul and one of a kind, and I love him; but he always seems to be telling me the same. He is a marvel and, for me, a lesson in how to be over 80.
July 11, 2011