My former husband, Lee, slowed down in every way by Parkinson’s Disease, lives in a nursing home where I visit him once a week, and yesterday was my day to visit. I opened a large envelope on his desk and out slid Dr. Suess’s feisty poem, a birthday card for Lee from dear friends John and Lyn.
He can’t read any more, so I read the card, along with the others he received, and we both laughed. He frequently can’t find the words he wants but his sense of humor is still intact. I am aware that in coming months or years it might not be, and as I have often in the past four years, I remind myself that this is the good time compared with what is sure to follow as the disease worsens.
Other friends in their 60s, 70s and beyond are struggling with what happens to a body as it wears out. I’m blessed (looking for some wood to knock as I type this) with a body that has shrunk 2 inches, prefers not to climb steps or hills in warm weather, and whose skin often tells me, “Enough already with the sun!” as my dermatological bills attest, but which is still strong. I can schlep and lift, and do.
More to the point, I can wheel Lee, who weighs over 200 pounds (five stars for the food at The Redwoods in Mill Valley), around the building, out to the beautiful garden there, and even down the block so he can watch the dogs play in the bayside dog park. I can also help him stand up and can easily bend down to pick up things on the floor.
But more important, as I read and laughed at Dr. Suess’s kvetching, I realized that for me, these are, indeed, golden years. Lee and I have been divorced for almost 20 years, so right there you know I have not been a devoted wife non-stop. Or maybe even ever. But I find to my relief that I do seem to be a devoted former wife, and I can only attribute it to alchemy.
After 15 years of living apart, coming together mostly only for weddings and funerals, I became Lee’s manager: I moved him from Hawaii to an assisted living apartment in The Redwoods, equidistant from where our son and his family live 45 minutes to the south and my apartment 45 minutes to the north. I managed his care for the first two years.Old resentments and annoyances still pushed their way into my general willingness to help, but it was ok until the day I had to pull over onto the shoulder of the highway and sob. When I was mostly finished crying, I called our son and said, “Your turn.” and he said, “OK, don’t worry, Mom.”
We hired a care manager, a wonderful advocate, and I had two years off. In the crucible of those two years, the base metals of my habitual responses to what I used to find difficult about him gave way. When I resumed my role as manager in January of this year, I was relieved and grateful to notice how glad I was that I could be there for him, as I had always thought I would be. It amazes me, actually, how much I enjoy clipping his nails and even flossing his teeth. I am doing something necessary for someone I still love.
To be completely honest, I don’t discount that if Lee were still in control of his thoughts and words, he might insist that I do things his way, which would pique my good will. But his essentially passive, peaceful nature and desire to be likable dominate his personality. It’s not only easy to be with him, it’s pleasant.
There is a mutual appreciation that flows between us, the gold of this time we have. He tells me occasionally how much he appreciates me and kisses my hand. I remember the charm of loving him long ago and the love letters I wrote to him when he was travelling and I was living with my parents, waiting for him to come home so we could get married.
Haiku for Lee in England
The night star cloud
blows a bright ray
cross the heavens.
It soars through our souls.
I neither long for what we once had, nor do I hold onto the disappointments that festered during our 28 and a half year marriage. I am simply grateful for how we can love each other now. Pure gold.