Monday, September 26, 2011
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.