Running low on dreams

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© Bruce Allen   October 21, 2021

I admit to never having been much of a dreamer. I’m sure there are a host of reasons why, but I can’t recall more than a handful of what one thinks of as dreams in my adult life, after the NBA and MLB became inconceivable.

Let’s see. Since high school I remember dreaming about meeting The Perfect Woman and living happily ever after; I grew to believe that I had checked that one off. In high school, I dreamt of becoming a guitar and keyboard player in a big rock band. That, I realized in college, wasn’t going to happen. In college, I dreamt of saving the world from itself. Right. Once married with children, I dreamt of becoming a captain of industry, one able to pay his bills without worry. For a number of years I dreamt only of getting out of debt. I dreamt briefly about working for myself; that particular dream cost us 300 large.

There was a period of time, a sweet spot for us, between maybe 2009 and 2016. We were happy, both working, she was making more than ever; I was working at Chase for insurance and gas money. But we were putting a third of what we were earning into retirement accounts, playing catch-up until maybe 2013, when, suddenly, and for the first time in our married lives, the prospect of a dignified retirement came into view. I allowed myself to dream about our golden years spent visiting kids and grandkids and going to graduations and weddings, doing a little more traveling, puttering in the yard until most of those dreams came crashing down in 2016.

Since then I’ve found dreams hard to come by. Nancy took most of the few I had with her when she left. I look at my future and it’s hard to argue against the observation that most of the good things that were ever going to happen to me in this world may have already occurred. I don’t make good use of my time. I am developing a list of low-grade health concerns, with outpatient surgery in the foreseeable future. Plus a crown. Plus getting my blood sugar under control. Plus my vision keeps getting worse.

Seems like most of the encouragement I’m getting to soldier on and find new things to do calls upon me to do a lot of stuff vicariously. “Take better care of yourself, so you can go to their graduation.” “They’ve already lost their Nanny, they can’t deal with losing their PopPop anytime soon.” Kind of like emotional sub-letting.

I can’t put my finger on anything I would call a dream at this point. All I know for sure is what I don’t want. I don’t want a long, agonizing descent into decrepitude. I don’t want the grands to have to watch me going down the tubes for months and years. So, yes, I guess I still have a dream, that of saying goodbye to this world not soon, but relatively suddenly, and before all the wheels fall off my brain and body.

Before The Flood, I had given some thought to moving after Nancy passed. I was looking at houses on the west coast of Michigan and around Burlington, VT, places that get real winters. But the closing of the show with Nancy made me realize that, living alone in a remote place and getting ill would become a cluster of the first order. That I would likely always live here, where my daughter and her family live. If they were to move for his job, I would have, I suppose, a choice of wherever they land, or Chicago or Seattle. I would have no reason to stay in Blood Red Indiana.

Reverting to cliche, I observe again that if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. Without dreams, how is one to know which road to choose? Isn’t it our dreams which guide us, which drive many of our decisions, which make it possible to endure the heartache that comes to the thousands and thousands of people who end up in my boat every day? I suppose my remaining dream is to not feel like this forever. I need to reach a point where I can tell Nancy’s story without falling apart. There is yet no shadow on the horizon suggesting what a Chapter 2 of my life might look like.

So, never having been the sharpest blade in this particular drawer, the introspection drawer, I feel as though I’m flailing, looking for something to capture my attention other than watching the birds feed in the backyard. As of yet, I’m not feeling ready to try to tamp down my grief and make room for other emotions, other friends, other activities. I’m pretty sure I’ll feel differently at some point down the road. All I know is that right now, today, the future appears dreamless.

Re-learning Life

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© Bruce Allen    August 27, 2021

I think I mentioned that my wife, Nancy Gillespie, died last Tuesday. We would have been married 46 years next month. Having watched her live with late stage pancreatic cancer for over five years, I knew how the story would end. I knew I would grieve her hard, having left a few things unsaid there late in the game. I correctly anticipated much of what is going on right now. One of the things I failed to anticipate was my sudden need to re-learn how to talk, perhaps how to think, now that she’s gone.

For the past 40 years or so, whenever I was away from work and was asked a question, I would almost always answer in the first person plural, saying “We did this, or we like that, or we went somewhere,” not thinking any thoughts that didn’t imply us, rather than just me. Lately, when asked a question, I have to hesitate, think for a second, before replying “I” something or other. It still feels like I’m cutting her out of the conversation, something I wouldn’t have considered doing before. Of course it’s dumb and stupid, but I need to re-train my brain. When discussing the girls, it’s always we.

I need to re-train my brain on how to shop for groceries. Up until recently, I was charged with shopping with the interests of both of us in mind. Naturally, this was harder with her stuff, since it ran kind of far afield at times, causing me to do a lot of backtracking at Kroger. Now, when I pick up something that’s not on the list, I don’t have to be concerned about possibly screwing up. Worse yet are trips to Costco, where I have to break the habit of wondering whether she would like some cheap fleece or shirt or anything. No more cruising women’s fashions at the Costco.

I have to train my brain to develop a system for attacking the large and growing bushel of cards and notes, each of which needs a thank-you note. WWND. I’m thinking that while I’m at it I might as well use a database package–Google Contacts–to start a real address file. If there are 250 and I can do eight a day that’s a month, which I should be able to do.

I thought it was a good sign that I was able to sit through Mass last week. Couldn’t talk, not yet, but was able to stand there for 40 minutes. I do enjoy going to 7 am which was never going to work for Nancy again. I slept through Adoration this morning, as I went in asking Jesus to help me rest, that I’m not sleeping well. He said why should I, when the only time you talk to me is when you have problems? I said You do You.

It’s the mental stuff that flits around your subconscious that is the most disturbing. I find myself waiting for her, then recalling that she’s never coming back, which makes me sad. I would like to talk to her again, see how it’s going for her, get her to help me find my passport. Not that I’m going anywhere, just because of this Real ID Thing next year. I’m trying to imagine sitting by the fire on winter evenings, not having her there to share the heat. Like Joni Mitchell sang 50 years ago, “The bed’s too big, the frying pan’s too wide…” Wondering what she’d like to hear on the piano. Wondering if it’s 5:00 somewhere. Wondering what’s the purpose of having a fire when it was always to keep HER warm.

It’s kind of funny to hear her friends tell me how much she told them she loved me, that I was her rock, that she had depended on me for years and I had never once failed her. But it seems like the things I love to do, or used to love to do–cooking, gardening, playing music, writing–she mostly tolerated, rather than enjoyed. She rarely asked me to do any of these things, unless it was routine weekday cooking. She almost never read any of my stuff, other than the one time I accidentally shared my entire Word file and she got to reading the very private journal about her journey located elsewhere on this computer and in the cloud. She always had advice about cooking and gardening. The music she could do nothing about. My writing she could ignore.

I suppose we slip into some bad habits after living together for almost 50 years. A premature death interrupts any intention of doing a few repairs. Perhaps it was just the rather natural and predictable case of our interests having grown in somewhat different directions. The foundational stuff would always be there; some of the decorating accessories clashed, a reminder that we each retained a measure of our own pre-marital selves, that we hadn’t merged personalities. Hell, we hadn’t even merged last names. Had cancer not visited us, I’m certain our marriage would have continued along its merry way. More time happy than unhappy. The thought of trying to find happiness with someone else laughable.

There are probably lots of spouses out there, trapped in loveless marriages, who wish their spouse would contract a dread disease. Neither of us was ever going to be one of them. For being 70 years old we were pretty damned happy. Glad to see each other every time we did. Kind and thoughtful. Helpful and considerate. We had moved beyond passion, to devotion. It could have gone on a long time. Praise God that our relationship was in good shape when she entered her rapid decline. She had been anointed and received last rites and absolution two days before she died; her soul was in good shape, too. In her words, all would be well.

But I’m still here. You can see straight through the hole in my soul. How on earth can these things they call “celebrations of life” be celebrations if the main celebrants are all dissolved in tears? There are a lot of us, people who are going to miss the hell out of Nancy Gillespie.

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Nanny and Q at Bethany Beach, June, 2021

Until Death Do Us Part.

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© Bruce Allen   August 10, 2021

Marriage Blog Art

We spoke these words in our wedding vows on September 27, 1975, part of the large ritual to which I paid little attention at the time. I was 24, she was 23, we were in fine health, the entire world laid out in front of us. The “until death do us part” line was just another piece in a large production. My belief we would always be together implied, as I’ve discovered, that I would pre-decease her. In other words, we would always be together as long as both of us lived. Once one of us were to die, the surviving spouse would only be able to say “45 years” or “a good long time.” Death interferes.

Death is busy interfering with our marriage at this very moment. She is lying in our room, in a hospital bed, an opioid pump attached to her giving her regular jolts. Mentally, she is 95% gone; physically, about the same. She has end-stage pancreatic cancer after over five years of chemo. She has fought the hell out of it. But, ultimately, as it almost always does, cancer wins. It may win here today or tomorrow. Actually, it has already won, since she is so far gone, a husk of her former vibrant self. Our adult daughters take turns hugging and caressing and whispering to her, all to little avail. But it makes them feel better.

My own instinct is to remove myself, as much as I can, from the scene in the bedroom, as I generally sit down, glance at her, and start crying, thinking about how I’m going to miss her. I went to Costco for a few items yesterday, and usually I glance at women’s clothing to see if I can find anything for her. Dressed by Kirkland, as it were. As I walked past the apparel, it occurred to me that so many of the things I buy I do with with her in mind, that I haven’t grocery shopped just for myself in over 40 years other than the odd week when she’s been out of town. Triggers.

Removing myself from her room I see as beginning the process of breaking 50 year-old bonds that will break completely some time soon. The hospice nurse said while here yesterday that when death is imminent she will start visiting everyday. She will be here today and tomorrow. I’m not sure all of this pre-grieving will help anything when the time comes, but I have no choice.

Just for the record, I do not buy into all of the “celebration of life” stuff they surround funerals with these days. When have you ever been to a real celebration where the main celebrants are all collapsed in tears? How does one go about celebrating a life cut short, a life with so much left to give? How does one celebrate a God who looks at a marriage, decides to take one of the spouses, and then takes the wrong one?

Our six grand kids will get hollowed out by this experience one way or another. For the four older ones, this will be a readily-understandable, if psychologically unacceptable, experience they will feel in real time, their grief ultimately replaced by real memories. For the two young ones, the older sister is, at 6, too young to get it completely, but she gets it, and is kind of stuck in no-man’s land–grieving with everyone else but not fully clear on the details. For the three-year old, this will be something she will only come to grips with when she’s older, seeing photographs of herself with Nanny, hearing about the pictured events, developing kind of virtual memories, having missed out on the real ones because her hard drive and RAM are still being installed.

Our hearts, though powerful pumps, are fragile things. They are subject to breakage, both slight–a chip here, a gouge there–and major, such as what occurs when a lover dumps you or a spouse contracts a fatal illness. My own heart is holding up okay thus far until the words goodbye, forever, I love you, I’ll miss you, won your race, made it home, time to let go, put it in God’s hands, or any of a hundred other phrases pop into the air, or even just my head, and I start to melt down. Hearing Brad Paisley and Sheryl Crow singing two songs–When I Get Where I’m Going and Always on Your Side–gets me right here. We have been anticipating these days for five years, yet it is still such a shock when they finally arrive. Like a train that’s five years late.

So, we suffer with her, me and two of my daughters. Our eldest is stuck 2000 miles away, has been here twice recently, but may not be able to return until after The Flood, with her kids and her ex, who is also part of this family. She and her kids have already said goodbye to her mom and their Nanny. As hard as this is for me and my kids, it will be harder on their kids, as it is like Pearl Harbor for them, emotionally.

Some of the hardest moments in people’s lives are those where they must face their own mortality. People who died suddenly sometimes avoid this altogether. Most people don’t. Some, like my wife, confront it every day for years, a constant reminder that there will be some terrible days in one’s future. There wasn’t a single day in those five plus years when my wife didn’t want to live. Now, that the time has come for her to let go and rest on her laurels, she is having a hard time, her memories reduced mostly to muscle memory, the holding on having become strong and firm and terribly hard to let go of.

But she will, perhaps today. I just went in and sat with her. Put my hand on hers and got no response. She is still inside that body of hers somewhere, but she’s hard to reach and getting harder each day. My goal, as a writer, is to get my readers to laugh and cry in the same post. Which is why I’m ending this one with her final coherent words to me, after almost 46 years of civilized discourse. A few days ago she wanted to hold a small bowl of cut fruit I had made for her, and I wanted to hold it for her, to help her eat and avoid a spill. In the midst of this slight tussle, she looked me in the eye and said, “Don’t mess with me.”

I married her, in great part, because of her indomitable spirit, how she was impossible to intimidate. Small but powerful. I never wanted a life partner who would be subservient and “whatever you say” me to an early departure. I wanted a woman with some genuine intellectual horsepower and the willingness to speak her mind. And I had her, for almost 50 years. That girl is now gone, but I shall hold up my end of the deal and care for her remnant, until death do us part.

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What Four Decades of Marriage Does for You

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© Bruce Allen

This is a re-post from 2018 that I still like.

all you need is loveFour decades of marriage allows the two of you time to weave, with your kids and God’s grace, a family tartan of beliefs, values, standards and stories that will become part of their DNA and which they will, in turn, pass down to their kids.

It allows your relationship the opportunity to bloom, to struggle, and to emerge from struggle tempered, capable of withstanding decades of whatever the world throws at you. [It is during the almost-inevitable struggle stage, as kids arrive, that most marriages fail. To weather those storms requires commitment, which is bolstered by the fact that things tend to get easier as the children age and you can threaten to put them in iPad timeout.]

It allows you time to observe how your spouse likes things, things ranging from morning coffee to after-work drinks on the deck of a summer evening. Unless you’re a fool, you’ll do those things that way; it requires no extra effort.

It allows time to develop a sort of rhythm with your kids as they progress through school, a set of after-school routines that becomes standard and requires little discussion or negotiation. It allows them time to realize that the quality of their lives improves the closer they adhere to those routines. Studying, practice (sports and/or music), dinner together, free time, reading, prayer before bed, the whole deal. After a while they like it that way. Mostly.

It allows a steel bond to form between husband and wife that can withstand serious illness and show no signs of stress. Though the spouses themselves may experience stress, the relationship can shrug it off.

It allows time to influence the lives of grandchildren, should one be so blessed, and the luxury of having them around until bedtime, when it’s time to go bye-bye. Time to do grandparent things–coloring Easter eggs, decorating Christmas cookies, reading, playing on the floor. Getting one’s hair done by a four-year old.

It allows spouses to grow into an attitude where he or she is willing to give 60% in order to get 40% back. No 50/50 division of labor, no counting tasks​, no keeping score​. In a 50/50 relationship each spouse feels put out, as if he or she is doing more to support the family. In a 60/40 relationship each spouse expects to do more, and so it isn’t any big deal.

It allows time for traditions to evolve and get handed down. Our kids approach things like birthdays and holidays in the same basic way today they experienced them as kids. There are numerous variations of family or regional origin, all of which are good, all of which are variations on a theme.

cropped-sunset-lovers.jpgIt allows one time to, if necessary, drag one’s spouse to God. For which the spouse will ultimately be grateful.

It allows time for love to form in such a way that spouses learn to accept one another as imperfect people doing their best. To ascribe good intentions. To respect boundaries. To be happy to say, “You do you.”

Finally, it allows time for both of you to recognize and affirm that you spoke your wedding vows sincerely, believing every word at the time, and that you can gladly continue living them decades later. That you couldn’t imagine having lived without one another. That you did a fine job selecting a spouse.

These idyllic observations generally describe, somehow, our own family circumstances. Many people have far more complicated situations; I get that. People can only control things under their control. We have been greatly blessed. Beyond that, it’s important to keep praying and pray hard.

Marriage Blog Art

Wedding Vows Revisited

 

Marriage Blog Art.pngWe were married in late September 1975 in a small Catholic church in the New Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia. It was one of those steamy Indian summer Saturday mornings that hang around, wearing out their welcome, before the brisk, crisp notes of fall arrive in October. The church doors were open, and the bright lights focused on the altar made it even warmer inside.

I clearly remember Gilda Radner’s Rosanne Rossanadanna bit on SNL back in the day, with sweatballs dripping off the end of my nose as I stood, petrified and melting, in front of God and the world and made a bunch of promises for “all the days of my life.” I don’t remember much about the actual promises, vows we wrote ourselves. I’m pretty sure the “…for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health…” parts made it in there.

(To lower stress for everyone, I think the standard set of “I do’s” should be changed to, “Lord, I surely hope so.” If things were to fall apart down the road, the person might feel simply disappointed rather than branded for life in the eyes of God.)

With very few twisted exceptions, I cannot imagine a couple entering into marriage, sacramental or otherwise, without a fervent hope that they truly mean the words they are saying. They hope they’re telling the truth. I suspect wedding vows almost always feel like the truth, but the truth, from ground zero, is often difficult to discern.

Standard wedding vows include the “richer and poorer” and “in sickness and in health” clauses for the purposes of form only. Surely, if a couple finds themselves rich and healthy, it makes some things easier. For the poor and sick, who spoke the same vow, things, in general, are far more difficult. This would presumably include staying married, which can be tremendously challenging with little kids in a high stress environment.

Although we cannot know if we are lying or truthing on our wedding day, we get to find out later in our lives. Looking back, for me, proves several things. Nancy was telling the truth during the richer and poorer part, in that, though we’ve never been rich, we’ve been poor, and she never showed any signs of it eating into our marriage. During times in my life when I’ve been sick, she has been there for me. And now, as it turns out, I, too, was telling the truth during the sickness and health part.

In 1975 I’m pretty sure I didn’t give that part much thought. My main concern, if memory serves, was that I would inevitably, inexorably, somehow, someday bungle things up and land us in divorce court, Catholic-style. As to how I might screw up, there were numerous ways, but which one wouldn’t matter–any would do. I was kind of a slouch, marrying up to a woman with high standards and strong moral fiber. My main worry, besides the stifling heat, was that I wouldn’t be able to hold up my end of the deal.

So, 40-some years later, the sickness part arrived.  Since then, I have confirmed to myself that I was telling the truth in 1975. I am ready, willing and able to respond regardless of what sickness brings. I cannot imagine it being otherwise. I haven’t yet been called upon to do much, but I’ve created space in my life I can devote to my caregiver role without advance notice. No one knows how to do the everyday things the way she likes them. No one knows how to manage the home the way she likes it. Our local middle daughter knows and does it all but has her own uber-busy kids and life and job to manage. I am generally the boots on the ground.

Fortunately, my “giving” love language is Acts of Service, which allows me to happily do the numerous small things involved in keeping prescriptions on hand, an empty nest provisioned and financially afloat. We are now both officially on Medicare and Social Security, enmeshed in the safety net of public policy, and doing everything her doctor tells her to do. We are coloring within the lines, and she is exceeding most expectations by being in such good shape at this time.  I would like to take credit for her robust health, but that would be absurd and dishonest. She attributes it to the power of prayer.

So, as it turns out, we were both speaking the truth in 1975 and have lived it, per the terms of our original agreement, in full. It continues to work well. It has allowed us to transition from employed and long-lived to retired and dealing with a serious disease. It has changed the conditions of our relationship, not the content. The content, the essence, comes from decades of struggle and delirium and determination, the fruit being our three daughters, their families, and the privilege of assuming the role of Nanny and PopPop. Fast Eddie was the original PopPop for our kids, and I am but a pale imitation for theirs. Nanny has no such pretenders.

2017 has been, for me, a year of examining feelings, feelings about oncology, feelings about God, feelings about the Church, feelings about myself. And although I rarely feel as if I can hear God speaking to me, I can say that living day-to-day is generally low stress as long as I don’t allow myself to think about Life in the Future. The lesson here, and I’m a slow study, is to ask only for our daily bread and let tomorrow take care of itself which, for me, is virtually impossible, since I have put myself in charge of having tomorrow’s bread on hand today. And some idea of what the next day’s bread will look like. Protein, veg, starch.

To the extent we are discomfited by Nancy’s illness, we are comforted by being able to live day to day without pretense, almost always on the same page when it comes to her health. Trying to make things easier for one another. We are weathering a storm and have ridden out several other storms along the way. We are headed in the same direction.

As it turns out, when we spoke our wedding vows in 1975 we meant every word.  Who knew?

Couples struggling in their marriages might re-read their wedding vows, to see if they can remember how they felt when they originally spoke them. It might only take two minutes. It might take all night. Doing so might be balm on a series of relational wounds inflicted by life lived multi-tasking at 90 mph in the 21st century.

Doing so might remind us how we believed we were telling the truth back in the day.

May God shed His grace on you.