Inside the narrow ground-floor bathroom, I maneuver around the walker to position a small end table on which I place a mixing bowl filled with hot soapy water and a washcloth. The soapy water must be replaced by clear water, a clean washcloth, and a bath towel. Shaving cream, a razor, aftershave, a small mirror, and a hand towel come next. Then I move the bowl, washcloths, shaving cream, razor, aftershave, mirror, and towels to the counter by the sink and place deodorant, a glass of water, and a toothbrush with toothpaste on the end table. Then I find clean underpants, shorts, a long-sleeved t-shirt, and another pair of the yellow, nonskid socks from the Bell Trace rehabilitation center.
Don sits naked on the raised toilet, squeezed between a bathtub and a wall, a cabinet just above his head, the end table positioned next to his uncast knee. To help dress him, I crouch on the floor at his feet. In the old days, he did these routines standing in the upstairs bathroom with the door closed while I snoozed.
The walker, jammed sideways through the door, gets Don to the wheelchair I have placed just outside the bathroom; it cannot fit through the door frame. I wheel him to the wingback chair next to a window in the living room—the wall-to-wall carpet slows us down—and then go back to get the walker so he can use it to rise and pivot to the real chair. Then the bathroom must be cleaned. We are both fatigued and I am still in my pajamas, but the breakfast dishes have to be done because the dishwasher has broken down and the sink is full of last night’s mess. As I leave him with his iPad—it’s about 11 a.m., so he has already consumed his raft of pills—he says, “Shake me up, Judy,” to which I say, “This is a happy day!”
He’s glum about his camper outfit. He’s glum about the heavy cast, his dependency on the walker, the wheelchair, the pills, the visiting physical therapists, and me. Even with the extra-wide shoes with Velcro fasteners that Julie found at K-Mart, we cannot get his feet shod. That they are not merely swollen but flaking tells me we must return again to his GP for some sort of antifungal cream. Last time the GP prescribed an antibiotic for a urinary infection and “water pills.” Taking the pills requires recurrent blood tests at the hospital to be sure they are not damaging his kidneys and trips to the nurse practitioner at the kidney doctor’s office.
“Every mark of an old crock,” Don says. “Bibs, urinals, wheelchair, safety belt, smelly clothes.”
Coming and going on errands, Julie calls her father “Grumparella,” but it could be my nickname today. I’m grumpy because, earlier this morning, I was awakened by “an accident,” the term I used to use when one of my kids had trouble with toilet training. Every once in a while accidents happen with the ostomy, no matter how careful I am about my diet and about changing the contraption that sticks to my stomach. Excrement oozes through the adhesive that attaches the pouch to my belly.
At the crack of dawn, I felt the messy seepage below, jumped out of bed, fled upstairs to the bathroom, cleaned myself up, showered, and put on a new apparatus. My mistake was looking in the mirror over the sink in which I cleaned the soiled underpants. Every mark of an old crock: a tall scarecrow with a balding head, no eyebrows or eyelashes, a bump on my chest where a port was embedded, abdominal surgical scars, no pubic hair, a plastic bag hanging from my belly, what little flesh there was hanging downward too. I don’t look like the person I used to be; I am not the person I used to be.
While I found and put on a clean pair of pajamas, I thought of the wounds of aging and imagined horrific scenes of its acceleration. Dickens’s aged flirt Cleopatra, whose hair drops off, whose lips shrink, whose skin becomes “cadaverous and loose; [she is] an old, worn, yellow, nodding woman, with red eyes, . . . huddled up, like a slovenly bundle, in a greasy flannel gown.” Don had read the thickest novels by Dickens aloud to me throughout a succession of toasty winters, a blazing fire in the fireplace making the leeks and radishes flicker in the big painting on the wall as I glanced up from the quilting that enveloped me.
I’m so weary that I feel perpetually pulled down by gravity, encumbered—as if moving through muck—by the weight of the cast, the wheelchair, the walker, our bodies. For doctor visits, I have to prop open the broken screen door to haul them into the car. Except for these fraught trips, every day is the same—getting cleaned, dressed, fed, undressed, bedded takes up all our time and strength.
“If I hadn’t married you,” Don had said in the Trace, “I would be rotting in a ditch.”
To prove that married people could also rot in a ditch, on our arrival home I ordered a DVD of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days from Netflix and then settled down with the play, since Don snoozes intermittently from all the drugs. The notion of love conquering all and providing a safe haven from the miseries of the world—the powerful conviction that there’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us—seems ridiculous to me, an old lover. If late-life love cannot make us invulnerable to everyday misfortunes, what conceivable purpose does it serve?
I had worried that watching the play might deepen our depression, but we both found it intriguing and unflinchingly honest. The arid wilderness of aging in Beckett’s geriatric farce invokes heat and gravity, the sweltering and swelling weightiness of flesh: a female character immobilized in a scorched mound of earth, a male character so incapacitated that he crawls on all fours. Winnie, in her fifties, remains buried up to her waist in act 1; in act 2 she is imbedded up to her neck, unable to turn or bow or raise her head. To her right, sixty-something Willie lies out of her sightline. She is stuck, immobilized, while he finds it difficult to speak or maybe is losing his hearing.
At the opening of both acts, an insistent bell wakes them and Winnie begins her happy day or daze of incessant chattering. Rummaging through the objects in her large black purse and incessant grooming occupy most of her attention in the first act. A toothbrush, toothpaste, a mirror, spectacles, a handkerchief, a bottle of medicine, lipstick, a brimless hat with crumpled feathers, a magnifying glass, a windup music box, a gun, and a nail file: Winnie takes one after the other out to use or inspect it. She considers them treasures or comforts that help her get through the hours. They give her a sense of getting something done, of keeping calm while carrying on. “There is so little one can do. [Pause.] One does it all. [Pause.] All one can.” Trimming her nails or checking her teeth: “these things tide one over,” she says. And so they do, when nothing else can be done.
When Winnie instructs her partner how to crawl backward, I am reminded of myself, directing Don on how to move his unmovable body around. Willie speaks for the most part in monosyllables; Don is losing his voice or he mumbles (or I am going deaf). Pestering Willie to communicate, Winnie cannot contain her joy when he does: “Oh you are going to talk to me today, this is going to be a happy day!”
How can I enliven Don’s homecoming? I invite his colleagues to visit for a late afternoon cup of tea. Some of them were part of a lunch group—I called them the Wheezers and Geezers—he can no longer attend. Positioned in the living room with all his props out of sight, Don looks depleted, not the vital man he once was but a phantom of himself, encased in the cobalt-blue carapace and the weird camper outfit. I leave these men to discuss university affairs since their presence means I can quickly run to the grocery store, where I stock up on foods Don likes—Moose Tracks ice cream, cinnamon bread, jam—as well as my own staples: Nicorette gum and red wine. That’s what I subsist on these days.
Winnie and Willie never eat or drink; neither do they pee or poop. This sort of inane observation seems inescapable on a day begun not with a bell but with an accident. On the day of an accident, the best strategy for me is fasting. Even if it means showering instead of bathing, even if I cannot conceive of going swimming ever again, the ostomy equipment, I realize, is the essential prop without which I could not function. With it—hidden under clothing, so most people have no clue—I can look and act like a regular person, especially when I wear my wig and draw on eyebrows. This morning, didn’t I clean myself up and help Don to dress? My situation seems far superior to Winnie’s, I think, and then I hoot, for I am doing exactly what Winnie does: I’m encouraging myself to look on the bright side, to see the glass half full, to remark on another happy day. Surely this is not what Beckett means us to understand, that we are programmed to accept whatever nightmares come and to keep on going? This year’s nightmares: Don fell twice, I had an operation for ovarian cancer that nicked a bowel and led to infections that in turn led to an ileostomy: a bit of small intestine pulled out of the body and stitched onto the stomach.
Because Happy Days concludes with the schmaltzy waltz duet “I love you so” from Strauss’s The Merry Widow, I have an excuse to read it as a story of later-life love. Throughout Winnie’s numerous requests for the sound or sight of Willie, she reiterates that his presence makes her ongoing existence tolerable. She entreats him to hold up a finger or repeat a phrase. She promises not to ask him for taxing responses, because “to know that in theory you can hear me, even though in fact you don’t, is all I need, just to feel you there within earshot.”
Fretting about Willie’s visible absence and audible silence, Winnie in the second act finds her head “always full of cries” that remind me of my worst fears of cancer and maybe also Don’s fears of his disability: terrors of hosting an alien, of being violated or exposed, of losing body parts and control over so-called private parts.
I’m waiting not for the curtain to go down or the bell for sleep but for five o’clock, so I can begin drinking. Don teared up when we heard about the death of our friend Paul Zietlow, and then an email arrived from George: his wife has been diagnosed with lung cancer that has metastasized to her brain. On the Web, I read about the deaths of Shari Benstock and Jane Marcus, two feminist critics gone with so many of my generation. They bring back the terrible loss of Patsy Yaeger last year. What month is this, what year? It is the season of sorrow, the year of grieving.
I gaze out at the steep driveway down to the garage, its edges covered by ivy and myrtle. Did Don and I really once take sleds and slide down it, risking a smash in the ravine below? They were yellow and red plastic trays, flimsy things, sending us hurtling downward, fast and then faster, until we toppled over, laughing at having escaped colliding into encrusted tree trunks, their iced branches glittering in the lone, tall yard light. The thick, downy snowflakes clung to our hats, scarves, even our eyelashes as we embraced in a heap, warmed by our crunching up and careening down.
During one of this succession of difficult days, I ask Don, “Do you think we should have the bathroom renovated?”
“No,” he says. “We won’t be here that long.”
“Where are we going?
“That’s a good question.”
On another of these difficult days, I tell Don, “You need a new iPad. Yours is cracked and running out of juice.”
“So am I,” he says.
It’s the vaudevillian pitter-patter of familiarity, as comforting as the chirping of birds. Once, during the stroke fright, when I was telling Don about the taxing demands made by the families of the women in my cancer support group, he said, “You have the advantage of being married to an older man: joint decrepitude.” After his first operation, Don recalled a time when he had been working a harvest in Oregon and heard a fellow laborer say about another, “He has as much of a chance as a one-legged ass-kicker.” Every time I announce that I’m going to take a shower, Don says, “I believe there’s one left.”
Old lovers know that love does not conquer all, that our intimacy cannot establish a safe haven somewhere, someplace, for us. We are vulnerable to miseries that make us opaque to each other. Yet even if we are stuck or stumped, we are living and learning and loving. And even though there are no remedies, transitional objects prop us up. The apparatuses of the aged—walkers, wigs, hearing aids—become part of us but also not-us. They may not be as treasured as toddlers’ teddy bears or security blankets, but they help us cope with loss. Kathleen Woodward, the prominent scholar of aging, once speculated that the transitional objects of old age symbolize and mediate our separation from the lives we used to lead and maybe also our ultimate separation from life itself. “Shake me up, Judy”: isn’t that Dickensian tagline also an imaginative prop?
Tomorrow morning and the next and the next, I will maneuver around the walker in the narrow ground-floor bathroom to position a small end table on which I will place a bowl of soapy water and a washcloth.
Excerpted from Late-Life Love by Susan Gubar. Copyright © 2019 by Susan Gubar. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.