Upcycled, mixed media artwork by Keely Jane
My wife's ashes were ready for pickup three days ago. She died January 19th. The excuse for the delay was that winter is a busy time for the funeral business. She would not have cared. She gave no thought to what became of her after she died, didn't consider it worth her time. I tried to see the delay at the funeral service the same way, but the idea of her lying in a cold morgue all this time bothered me. Most of her life she felt cold even though the temperature in our living room remained, summer and winter, 80 degrees Farenheit. I once saw a photo of her taken when she and her first husband were camping out on their way back to the east coast after a year spent at a university in Oregon. She is still in her sleeping bag. Her eyes are only half-open. She looks as if, were it up to her, she would no more come out of that bag than a cat would jump into a cold lake.
Oddly enough, the last year of her life, even before her illness and fall, she was uncomfortably warm. Even semi-naked she needed a fan on. And that was even before the end of our year-long lockdown, when we both were looking forward to leaving the house again. In March 2020 she had had to give up a part-time job with the City of New York because of Covid-19. The job only amounted to a handful of hours each week, two half-days, but she took the work as seriously as she did the full-time, career-capping position she resigned in 2009.
That year, 2009, she turned 70, but she was still getting up at 4:00 AM every weekday morning to catch a subway, a train, and then a bus to the Long Island hospital where she was director of training. She took just as seriously her post-retirement part-time position as vettor of applications for professional jobs with the City of New York. That job was just a subway ride away, but after she fell and broke her wrist, she began taking a car service to work, though the car service cost half what she made. She even had a "personal" driver, a man in his 80s, who picked her up every morning and arranged his schedule to bring her home. I met him the day he drove us both to a doctor's appointment. He clearly didn't like the looks of me. He was offended when we failed to call him for the ride home.
That man's attachment to my wife was not unusual. She got a similar response from both men and women all the time, though she didn't seem to realize it. She placed little importance on what people thought of her, in any case. When I told her someone she was working with on a committee of our co-op was much taken with her, she looked as if I had told her he was a pervert. Most people who respond with indifference to such admiration are covering up a secret pleasure. For my wife the idea was both too ridiculous and irrelevant to take seriously—much like her attitude toward what would be done with her remains.
She remained an attractive, even pretty, woman to her last day when she weighed less than 60 pounds. But it wasn't her looks that caused some people to take to her so strongly. It was her direct, brutal honesty. There was nothing coy, roundabout, or affected about her. I sometimes called her "the digital woman"—fully on or fully off. She made no bones about whom she despised, and she despised many. But if she liked you—and she could end up loving the same person she had previously hated—there was nothing she would not do for you. She ended more than one friendship over what seemed to me a minor matter, but everyone who got to know her came to realize how loyal and generous she could be. Along with other attributes, including a first-rate intelligence, those qualities made for some deep and lasting relationships. Men seemed to experience her directness initially with shock, then with a pleasant surprise, ending in more than one case infatuation.
She died, at home, not from but because of Covid, through the failures of our healthcare system and my own ineptness. That part-time job with the City had grounded her mentally and kept her moving. Before lockdown she managed, despite chronic arthritic pain, to get out of our top-floor apartment even on days she did not go to work. She visited a nearby bank to draw cash, a dry cleaners, and every week had an hour's workout with a professional trainer. When she returned home from rehab after breaking her hip last summer, that same trainer made home visits twice a week to put my wife through modified versions of her pre-fall workouts. The trainer is about the age my wife's daughter would be had she had a daughter, as is my wife's best friend, whom she mentored when she headed up the training department at a hospital here in Brooklyn. During those at-home workouts, my wife made much more of an effort than she did for either of the physical therapists who visited, finding stamina to complete exercises for her trainer that seemed miraculous given her unwillingness to follow up on the regimen the PTs prescribed.
I often wondered why she was acting like an invalid during those months when she was still capable of returning to something like the life she had known before her fall. She was more stubborn than anyone else I have ever known. But she also took a great deal of pride in her self-sufficiency. During her time in the hospital and rehab, she had come to know what it was like to be dependent on others for even her most basic physical needs. And even in her best days she had never eaten anything she did not want to or that was not prepared exactly to her liking.
But being at the mercy, or lack of mercy, as she saw it, of overworked care-givers first in the hospital and then in a rehab was intolerable for her. Her resistance started the day she fell. For the better part of an hour she refused to allow EMS workers to take her to the hospital, though she was in great pain. Then, in the emergency room she tried to sign herself out, with the result that I had to legally override her decision, though I knew I would get a tongue-lashing for doing so.
Despite being diagnosed with pneumonia, she flew through the operation and never suffered any discomfort from the fractured hip afterward. But she could not endure the delays she had to put up with in the rehab, sometimes just to relieve herself. Her capacity for patience was very low in the best of times. A guest's being late five minutes for an invitation to dinner was almost as upsetting to her as their not showing up at all. She arrived for doctor and dental appointments well in advance, an hour or more. When we first started dating, I always found her already waiting at the agreed-upon meeting place, though it was not until years later I realized she had been standing on that street corner or sitting on that park bench long before I showed up (always on time).
Our first date was a comedy of errors, but for her a painful one. We had agreed to meet at a bar-restaurant in Brooklyn Heights, a more-or-less equidistant point between where she was living in Manhattan and my apartment in Brooklyn. I arrived early, took a place at the bar, and waited. I waited for an hour, and then I waited some more. If I hadn't decided to use the men's room off a back room not visible from the bar I would not have found her sitting there alone among the empty tables. She had been drinking steadily and was barely able to walk. Though it seemed to me a comic confusion at the time, with a happy ending, I can only imagine now how dreadful that wait must have been for her, the acute pain of being stood up, added to the chronic impatience that plagued her, and sometimes those around her, throughout her life.
Taking on the responsibility of looking after someone when they are recovering from an illness and a broken bone is serious business. It tests the limits of your capacity for selflessness. I started to learn my own limits after just a couple weeks of trying to take care of her on my own. Even after I hired one, two, and eventually four home health-care aids to help out during most of my waking hours, I remained badly sleep-deprived and, when the evening aid went home, short-tempered.
I had expected my wife to cooperate with the regimen she had started in rehab, which the PT's and her trainer were now trying to get her to follow. But she spent almost all her time in bed reading mysteries as she had done before her fall, indeed whenever she was not at a job or preparing to go there. Like a chain-smoker who lights up a new cigarette as soon as the one she has been smoking is done, she no sooner reached the end of one book than she started a new one. It's only now I realize the kind of anxiety she had to be enduring all those years.
The truth is I only half-knew my wife. I've come to realize that after getting better acquainted with those she once spent the better part of her days with—co-workers and friends. The woman they knew was a capable, self-assured administrator, supremely adept at making intelligent decisions and implementing them. I sometimes heard the voice of that woman when I called her at work—understanding but confident, energized, engaged. But the woman I lived with out of her professional element was another matter—dogged by an abiding resentment about her teenage pregnancy and the shotgun marriage that followed. The woman I lived with was deeply damaged, haunted by memories of how her parents and a deeply misogynistic society had let her down or cast her aside (she was expelled from an elite high school because of her pregnancy, but the boy, her first husband, was not).
But she refused to accept neither judgment as final. She went to night school and earned a New York State regents diploma, not just the usual high-school equivalency. She graduated cum laude from City College, then still a first-class institution, got two masters degrees, and did all of that (except for the second masters which she acquired in her 50s) while caring for two young children.
Her ashes finally arrived. They sit atop a dresser in our bedroom. I didn't know how I would react to her returning in such a state. I could have had her buried in Green Wood Cemetery, whose tall trees I can admire from our living room windows a couple blocks away. Thanks to the crematorium's long delay in attending to her, I had plenty of time to think about where she ought to go. If I buried her in Green Wood, I could look out any time and know she was lying beneath those immense trees, looking much the same as she did when she stopped breathing. But the idea of her interment in cold or frozen ground, she who required 80 degrees of heat winter and summer, and more importantly, lying so close and yet so far away, made me settle on cremation.
Now that she—her ashes (I have only the funeral service's say-so they are indeed hers)—have come home, though, I feel oddly removed from them. The reduction of the living woman she was right up to the end and even beyond to a box of dust seems ludicrous, even cruel. She is not lying in a cold morgue anymore, but I cannot, or perhaps refuse to, regard what is in that container as her. There is more of the woman I knew or did not know in the boxes of tissues she kept in every room or the eyeglasses the EMS workers left behind—those powerful lenses she wore since her teens and which she had always to have within reach when they were not on her.
Time is supposed to heal. What it actually does is distance us from what once seemed real. Time allows us to control the narrative, to selectively forget. We have little choice. The process is inexorable and necessary if we are to continue living without those we depend on for our reality. But the narrative we construct can never be more than partially true, if true at all, any more than those ashes can truly be my wife. Day by day she is disappearing into selective, sometimes contradictory memories (except for the final painful ones that have a stark, irrefutable life of their own). I can only try not to despair without distorting the facts of my failure to better look after her, not just over past last year but during our four decades of marriage.
During her last hospitalization, after her primary-care physician had told me she was dying, she bounced back until she was something like her old self, eating real food and demanding to go home. At one point I spoke to the resident who was assigned to her. That young woman seemed a caring, capable professional, but her advice, though less blunt, was as dire as our GP's had been. She offered anodyne advice to speak with my wife about the good times we had had, to in effect accept the inevitable. I let her finish her homily, then replied, "Doctor, I just spoke to my wife. I told her that I didn't want to go on living without her, that my life would be empty and meaningless."
The doctor responded with a coo-like noise.
"Do you know what my wife said then?" I went on. "She said, 'Cut the crap. Get me out of here.'" The young doctor giggled, perhaps happy to have some relief from the professional persona she had to wear so much of the time.
The blunt, no-nonsense woman I was married to is the one who still abides when I approach the box she is supposed to inhabit like a genie in its lantern. If I start to ask her advice about a new ache or pain or even begin to make a comment about the weather, she replies (though not out of that box), "Cut the crap." And I turn away and try to get on with the business of a life. But each day, like the figure on the deck of a ship moving inexorably toward the horizon, she recedes further and further from me. Each day my imagination adds by subtraction to the reality of the woman I lived so close to for so long in the flesh. At some point I will be barely be able to make out the tiny silhouette at the railing of that ship. Even now I can't tell if she's waving or is just seasick and shouting, "Get me out of here!"