Monday, September 26, 2011

Asked and Answered

I have become friendly with a woman who visits her mother, Mary, a lovely 93-year old woman from Senegal, at the nursing home. Ethel, the daughter, was named for her grandmother, but the name is colossally misleading. Ethel resembles Lena Horne, one of the most beautiful women of all time, and should not have a name we associate with Lucy Ricardo's sidekick, Ethel Mertz. Or gasoline. "Fill 'er up with Ethyl." I always stop in Mary's room to talk to both women when I am there to see Flip.

Today, Ethel stopped me in my tracks. "Do you date?" she asked. Brain freeze. "What?" She repeated herself. "Do you date?" "You mean, like men?" I said. "Yes," she said, smiling. I scrambled to compose my face because this was not a question I have even asked myself in over twenty years. "Uh, no." I stammered. "Because you're married?" she said. I started to laugh. It seemed obvious, but Ethel was serious. "You're so pretty," she continued, "and I have a friend."

I said, "Have you been listening to Pat Robertson?" She took a step back. I wasn't sure how to interpret that, but she didn't know who he was. I explained that he is a televangelist who recently remarked that it was okay to divorce a spouse with Alzheimer's and go on with ones life, and that this was getting a lot of airplay. I said that while I wouldn't judge a person who did that, it wouldn't work for me. She agreed that everyone is different. I told her that I always welcome new friends and have both male and female friends, but I still feel married to Flip.

Driving home, I thought about what my marriage means to me now. "In sickness and in health" is obvious, of course, along with "for better or for worse." Flip is the love of my life, and we've had twenty beautiful years together. It has never occurred to me that I "deserve" the trappings of marriage despite his present inability to participate in it. Sex without love has never appealed to me, even when I was young and had more demanding hormones, and I can enjoy good conversations with men or women without hoping that they will lead to someone's bedroom. I wonder if this means that I am over some mythical hill and have become a lesser being than I was. Perhaps it does, but frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.

I am still grieving the disaster which has taken Flip from me, and from himself. It's strange to mourn someone who is still alive. Perhaps on some illogical level, I am waiting for him to "get better" and return to his former self, although I know that won't happen. Alzheimer's is for keeps. It takes no prisoners. Elvis has left the building. And yet, he still knows who I am, and he trusts me. I am not offended by Ethel's question because she meant well. She hoped to put two lonely people together so they wouldn't be lonely any longer. She doubtless even believes we would get along. But the equation is far more complicated than 1+1=2.

I have three grown children who mean the world to me, so I am not alone. I really don't want or need another partner. I think it may be time for me to fall in love with myself a little, to explore some of my own interests and learn skills I have put on a back burner for so long. I'd like to become more fluent in French, Spanish and Italian, and to learn Japanese and Mandarin. I'd enjoy classes in painting, French pastry making, sewing, photography, advanced knitting, as well as traveling. This independence is a gift from Flip, who believed that I could accomplish anything. He praised and celebrated my mind, my talents, even my cooking, and always made me feel special. The best way I can honor him is to become as fine a person as he is and my own capabilities will allow, and I'm not sure I could do that if I were part of another couple.

In the past I have flirted with the idea of becoming a Buddhist nun, but the required discipline would frustrate and bore me. Freedom appeals to me, the kind of spontaneous freedom to go where I please without accounting to anyone, to stay up all night reading (or writing) without disturbing someone, to skip dinner if I'm not hungry or to eat a box of cookies if I like. I will always miss Flip by my side because he was the best friend I've ever had as well as my ideal romantic partner. But if we are not destined to walk into the sunset together, I'd rather go by myself. And I'm going to retire his number because no one could ever take his place.


English Rider said...

Pat Robertson is a horrible human being, doubly so for his hypocritical religiosity. He and John Edwards are cut from the same cloth.
The rest of your post was well articulated and from a place of internal beauty and strength that they will never attain, or even strive for.
Rock On! Same planet, different worlds.

Taradharma said...

what a beautifully clear and poignant post. It IS your time, now. I like the freedom you describe. I like the connection you have with your children, and, still, with Flip. You are a family woman, and one who now can breathe again and explore her inner life and the world around her. You've got plenty of richness going on, dear woman.

You must feel like a kid, in a way, starting out anew. But with the soberness and sadness that life brings to us as we grown older. The WISDOM that life brings to us if we will only open to it.

mischief said...

Whatever direction this branch of your life takes you, I expect you to find fulfillment and happiness because that seems to be your default setting. Your ability to enjoy life and appreciate the positive things in the world around you - even in the darkest times - will undoubtedly make this new part of your life wonderful. xx

Snoskred said...

Your blog always makes me feel a rainbow of emotions at the same time.

You are an incredible writer. Thank you for sharing this difficult journey with the world.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


I agree with you about Robertson and Edwards, and despise hypocrisy. But knowing the agonies of losing ones spouse to dementia, it would be hard for me to blame someone who just can't do it anymore. Some of us are stronger than others, or at least we all have different strengths.


I really don't feel like a kid starting over, and wish so much that it were not necessary to make the best of a horrid situation. But if I don't salvage what I can of my life and look for personal pleasures and challenges, I'll be letting Flip down as well as myself. And I do wish that I had more wisdom.


I think that seeking fulfillment and happiness should be everyone's default setting; otherwise, we are wasting this beautiful world which offers so many surprises, many of them even positive in nature, and so many things to laugh at privately, in our own heads, when it wouldn't be considered appropriate by others. Luckily for me, I am easily entertained, and knowing kindred spirits like you helps so much.


It's been such a long time. Tell me everything! It must be Spring in the land down under. Thank you for your kind comments, and for looking me up after so many years.

e said...

Dear Susan,

The poignancy of this post is amazing...Though I am sorry for your loss, you are going into a new part of your life with clear vision and strength. The rest of us should be so lucky. I am cheering you on from afar.

Paula said...

Your post was beautifully written. I had wondered if you had heard the unmitigated drivel that Robertson recently spewed. You are wise to see your new found free time, acquired at a terrible price, as a time for private pleasures and accomplishments.

I never thought much of Robertson before, but he has now ruined any witness or moral authority he ever had. Those vows I took at the altar before God 39 years ago did not have a clause stating that adultery was permissible if the person I was to love and honor above all others should become mentally ill. We said forsaking all others till death do you part, not until mental illness appears, not until selfishness takes the place of morality.

I cannot imagine betraying my husband because of an illness beyond his control. If there is any karma, Robertson will be left alone someday while his wife parties on.

the walking man said...

You never struck me as a person who did not love herself as well as most of them around you. But maybe well intentioned Ethel sounds like she had some kind of mind that pastry thing...remember I am diabetic so take that into account when you start your experiments. I volunteer to be your taste tester.

Anonymous said...

Being a nun would definitely be a waste of your free spirit. It would be like telling s light to shine only so much and not a bit more. Let the light be free to be all it can be.

I think you should gracefully accept Ethel's well meaning recognition that you are a beautiful person and use that affirming energy. But I too believe in my marriage vows of "in sickness and in health" and am inspired by your actions.

I am sure you know that your readers recognise that both you and Flip are something special and have something special.

TechnoBabe said...

Wow. It gets harder to comment here.

Ethel does sound like a beautiful woman and naturally she is drawn to your inner as well as out beauty. She surely is learning from your wisdom in knowing your own mind and being able to share it with her without hurting her. You are not in a place in your life to want or need new friends to take your energy and time. Not yet. Probably right now you have no idea what your future holds as you continue to hold the present together as you take care of yourself in the spare time. Having hopes for working on languages etc is healthy and it is so good to hear you even glimpsing at things you would like to do. It all comes down to the now: as you say, you still feel married to Flip. Hugs.

Bob said...

I find it interesting that you have already ruled out sharing your life with someone else, that you won't have time for anyone else because - been there, done that - and you have things you want to do that another committed relationship would keep you from.

Certainly being in a relationship requires that a portion of your time and energy be spent dedicated to that relationship - compromising what you want as apposed to what is mutually important. Having the (pending) freedom to spend that time you used to devote to your marriage to spend on yourself is a new world. But, do the two have to be mutually exclusive - a committed relationship vs. having your own goals?

I know it is too soon to even be thinking about a new relationship. You are, after all, still married and still love your husband. I realize that still being in that relationship colors how you view your future - how can you think of being with someone else when you still have Flip.

I guess all I am trying to say is: don't preemptively close doors in your future that haven't even opened yet. Your future is a vast, unexplored territory. I would hate to see you limit yourself and miss some grand adventure.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


I can hear you cheering, and it helps so much! Thank you.


I loathe Robertson in general, but I think that maybe he was trying to say that life goes on, and absolving those who can't stay the course of their guilt. Or maybe he is just a callous bastard. Who knows?

Not everyone has as good a relationship as Flip and I enjoyed. Guilt has nothing to do with trying to make him as contented as possible under truly awful circumstances. I am not self-sacrificing for the sake of our vows, although I take them seriously. I just love him and always will. He's earned it.


Ethel doesn't know me very well, or Flip. She is very sweet, and completely took me by surprise with her offer.

But more importantly, I am sure that most pastry recipes can be adapted for diabetics. No worries.


I love what you said! My mother always referred to me as a free spirit, but she didn't mean it in a good way. It's odd that you seem to know me better than she did when we live on opposite sides of the world and have never met.

I am drawn to Buddhism and could even handle a reclusive life, but fear that endless chanting and a life of circumscription would bore me. I will always be a Buddhist sympathizer, though.


You are exactly right that I have no idea what the future will hold, and take care of myself in my spare time. I'm trying to change that, though. I cooked dinner last night for the first time in months. I didn't eat much of it, but the cat enjoyed going through the garbage as soon as I left the kitchen. (It was a vegetarian stir fry. He looked at me with astonishment that anyone could eat such drek.)


Your advice is really quite perfect. You covered everything, especially the fact that I am far from ready to even consider life with anyone else when I am still rearranging my cherished life with Flip. We did have our own interests while in a deeply committed relationship and supported and shared each others' activities. It made us both richer. I think at this time, my energy is so depleted that I cannot fathom nourishing such a relationship all over again. It may change, but if it doesn't, I will be fine with that, too. Thank you for such caring advice.

nick said...

I can quite understand you not wanting to consider a substitute for Flip, when you're clearly still so deeply attached to him. Ethel obviously didn't grasp that the intensity of your relationship is not affected by Flip's sad decline. But it's also good that you want to fall in love with yourself a little and not lose touch with your own inner needs.

meno said...

Not to make this all about me, which is what i am about to do, but i needed to read this right now. So, thank you.

When i get to San Francisco next, we are so going out together.

Wanderlust Scarlett said...

When I grow up I want to be just like you. Truly.

What a strong, intelligent, wonderfully deep woman you are, and I am reminded of it every time I read your words.

I needed this today, this reminder of grace and strength. Needed it very badly. Thank you so much.

Much love,

Scarlett & V.

Tanya Brown said...

I doubt Flip, the Flip who walked by your side for so many years, would begrudge you any peace and joy you can find. That said, you have to do what feels right. In some sense, this situation is still fresh and horrible and you're in the midst of coping and finding yourself again.

Whatever you do or don't do, I have every confidence that it will be the right thing.

Brown said...

Beautiful post. Thank you so much for sharing; I love the view from your window!

heartinsanfrancisco said...


I have rarely treated myself as kindly as I do others, maybe because of my conditioning, and maybe because I expect more of me. If I can rectify this without becoming self-absorbed, I'll be pleased.


I would love to spend "real time" with you anytime! And I take it as a great compliment that you relate to what I wrote enough that in some way it seems to be about you, too.


You are not exactly lacking in grace and strength yourself, you know. You have accomplished amazing things at a young age, and I admire you right back.


Flip always had my back. He would want me to be happy in any way I chose. But I am choosing not to become romantically involved again, and right now that works for me. Besides, I would not want to be eying the clock impatiently while visiting Flip because of a date later.


I really appreciate your kindness and always enjoy your fine mind and writing skills. Could you please send me a massage? My neck is a mess.

Pamela said...

I haven't been here in a long time. I am sorry that things have moved along the way they have, though not unexpectedly. I'm glad you are being true to yourself.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


I'm sorry, too. Some situations are really hard to make the best of. Thanks for coming back again.

secret agent woman said...

While I loathe Pat Robertson, I do see his point. But I don't think there are right or wrong answers to it - I think everyone has to search their hearts and discern their own wants and needs and move ahead in whatever way brings healing. It sounds like you have some solid ideas about what that might mean for you. I think in the midst of a devastating situation, the best you can hope for is that - a measure of healing and strength and grace. I wish all those for you.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


I agree about Robertson on both counts, and believe that people should do what seems right to them in this, as in any, situation.

I am not making any forever decisions about my life at this point when my energy is so depleted. I am just getting through each day, grateful for any small pleasures that occur, even if they are just in my own mind, noticing something amusing or beautiful.

Odat said...

What a beautiful post!

And yes, start to celebrate yourself and indulge in what makes you's soo worth it. And Flip would most likely love for you to do it too!

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Thank you. I'm sure you're right about Flip. I'll try.

Sextant said...

This is just one of those posts that leaves one speechless. The beauty and pain that you know in your life have been expressed so poignantly here. Your belief in marriage and human love are an inspiration.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Thank you so much for your kind words, and welcome to these shores. I have often enjoyed your comments at Jo's site.