[Reposted and adapted from a Facebook posting from earlier today in response to his daughter Nina Markow Eigerman’s announcement of her father’s death.
Happy birthday to me. If this is February 23, I’ve made it. I’m threescore and ten. Also known as seventy. I’m a bit superstitious so I’m posting this a week early.
With God’s help, then, I’ve made it to seventy years old. There were a few times I didn’t think I’d make it. And there were more than a few times when I didn’t want to.
I got here anyway. Hier steht ich, ich kann nicht anders. Thank you, Martin Luther.
Something like that.
I suppose this is where I’m supposed to say something profound about all that I’ve learned. But I remember the last chapter of Thomas Pynchon’s V, still my personal contender for the Great American Novel. One of the principal characters, Benny Profane, is sitting with some girl in Valletta, Malta, trying to scheme his way into her pants. He’s less than thrilled with himself and the girl picks up on it. “But the experience, the experience!” she cries. You must have learned so much. “I’d say,” says Benny, with uncharacteristic introspection, “that the experience hasn’t taught me a damn thing.”
I’m asking not so much about what we learn as about what I’ve learned. I can’t answer for a We. And I won’t be as dismissive as Benny about what I learned or didn’t. I’d say it comes down to very little, maybe to one maxim. Love wisely, love too well, love anyway. I’m starting to sound like the Beatles even when I feel like the Rolling Stones.
You will be hurt, you will be crushed. But love as though your life depends on it. Because, believe it or not, it does. And learn to trust only the right people. The problem is you will spend most of your life trusting the wrong people, one of whom will almost certainly be you. But you may eventually find the real pearls in the sand at the bottom of the sea. It may take you all your life.
You’ll be nipped at by sharks and stung by Portuguese men ‘o’ war. But you’ll keep moving. Believe there is a God. He’s out there, he’s in you. And you are not him. He likes to in-dwell. The Jesuit poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins understood this. God may be a pain in the ass but he’s all you’ve got at 4:30 on a cold, rainy night when it seems like death is a perfectly valid alternative to what you’re enduring. Sure–put your head in the stove and get it over with. Pick up that sharp knife and open your veins. Crack open a quart of vodka and pour it down your snout. God will know what’s in your heart, and he will know it’s not ill-intentioned, just desperate.
To get this said first of all:
I’m leaving Pennsylvania and moving back to New Jersey.
Okay, start the jokes. Which Exit? You can add a few of your own.
Actually, if you must know, the exit from the Garden State Parkway is Exit 105. It’s the city of Long Branch, and that’s where I’m going.
Regarding dates, I don’t have a chronologically long history with Pennsylvania. I moved into this appalling garden apartment across the Delaware from Jersey on January 3, 2010. I had problems with being in Jersey by then, and even more about the move. As much as I tried to get used to Southeastern Pennsylvania, and as much as I tried to accept it, sometimes things you accept and simply unacceptable.
New Jersey is not Paradise either, “which exit” jokes notwithstanding, but I know where everything is. I have a network of people in Jersey, people I know. I know people in Pennsylvania too, but it’s not the same.
I had some really good days in Pennsylvania, particularly involving the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, but they didn’t compensate for the drawbacks. I can’t say I’ve had nothing but bad days here because I had some really bad days in Jersey as well, but there’s some qualitative differences.
When I got here, or shortly thereafter, my health started to deteriorate. I had diabetes before 2010, but once I got here it began to spiral. Diabetes and combined with podiatric neuropathy have been at me like termites chomping a wooden beam. In other words, my legs and feet are killing me. My balance is a mess. While that’s been somewhat ameliorated via weekly acupuncture sessions, life lived in orthopedic shoes is not my idea of anything I want to accept for long.
When my older son got engaged earlier this year, I had to drive 85 miles each way on the Turnpike and Garden State Parkway in a rattletrap car to get to the restaurant in Paramus for the engagement party. And for him to come down here to see me requires all but military tactics to negotiate Route 1 and 130.
The new housing is affordable and intended for old guys like me (I hate the term “senior citizen”). There are grab bars in the tub, and a pull cord to summon help if I become ill or fall. On the two occasions I’ve fallen in the tub, I had to scream for help. Helplessness may be an existential condition of real life, but the fear it brought is an unacceptable consequence of trying to take a shower.
I will have to find new doctors or go back to an old primary care physician. That’s okay. Doctors are everywhere. I will have to have Comcast and Vonage come out here to rewire my phone and internet service. So I will do it.
I will have to transport my cat. He’s okay as long as he knows he’s with me and has his food and me nearby. Cats and dogs are amazingly adaptable. They crave only their human guardians and companions, but become disturbed if they’re separated from them.
Somehow or other, we’ll make out okay.
Andrew Gold, the singer and songwriter is dead, and I feel just a bit poorer this morning than I did yesterday.
Gold helped heal me one hot evening in July 1977. I had just returned from the hospital where my wife was awaiting a therapeutic D&C the morning following an unexpected miscarriage–a ghastly event–that occurred in the middle of a supermarket. She had no appetite. She was in tears and an understandable rage. So was I–or simply in in the midst of a great sadness. This was to be our first child after nine years of marriage; and the child had just disappeared. Just like that. So I went home, ate something, and proceeded drink about a pint of something destructive–probably Scotch, which I did not like except for the effect. And on the radio was Andrew Gold singing “Oh What a Lonely Boy.” I broke down. I spent the evening in tears, surely feeling sorry for myself but also for that child I would never see, for my wife and her family, for a world of hurt that I felt belonged to me and (that night) me alone, even though I knew better.
In the morning I sat in my wife’s room while they had her up in surgery removing the last vestiges of the pregnancy that wasn’t supposed to finish itself.
A year later our first child was born. Now formally engaged, he is getting married next June 2. He had been and remains one of the wonders of my life. His younger brother Ben came along in April 1981. He gave us a monumental scare but that’s a story for another time.
This morning I read that Andrew Gold is dead: son of Ernest Gold and the singer Marni Nixon. According to the New York Times he died of a heart attack. I shall miss him. He got me through one of the worst nights of my life and you do not repay someone with forgetfulness and ingratitude. Rest easy, Mr. Gold. We all die, but you went too soon.
Right now I’m fighting an attempt to evict me. I’m behind in the rent because my income–culled from Social Insecurity, Unemployment, and eventual payments from a community college in Jersey that will not renew me–is leaving me in Pauper’s Paradise with just about enough money to buy food for myself and my cat. Not to forget the $20 a day to put gas into my rickety old car that I pray from day to day holds up to get me from home to campus and back.
Have I said I hate my work? I have to go to an orthopedic surgeon tomorrow because the wear and tear on my body has helped exacerbate the bulging disks in my spine. I cannot walk any distance and I cannot stand or sit without extreme discomfort. I’ll see what the doctor says tomorrow. I’ve been told to avoid surgery but right now I could use a nice rest in a good bed for awhile, and to hell with the lost income and possibly limited mobility while I’m healing, assuming I heal. I don’t know if I’d qualify for Disability because I took SS payments in 2007 before I hit 65, so your guess is probably better than mine. But Medicare–until someone kills it–is a lifesaver right now. Someone other than I is paying for the MRI, x-rays, and whatever else they need to do to me. I’ll accept it gladly.
(Footnote: I can’t apply for Disability because I waited until I was over 66. Hell, nothing hurt before that. Screw Congress until they tell me I’m screwed.)
I wrote earlier that there are some mistakes we never stop paying for and I guess this is the time to reap some more rewards. I’m sick of reaping rewards. I’d like to be able to earn a living again. But in this economy, at age 67 and counting, how much of a shot do I have at even contract work of the kind I used to do? In my best earnings year, 2001, I grossed $144,000 before deductions that included alimony. Now I’ll be lucky if I can gross $12,000. It seems I took a long walk off a very short pier.
“I guess some mistakes we never stop paying for.”
“I believe we have two lives: the one we learn in and the one we live with afterward.”
Roger Towne, script for The Natural, 1984
It’s January 3, 2011, the anniversary of my first year in this apartment, in Bristol, PA. Like all other places in which I’ve lived, this is a haunted house because I have my ghosts with me. They won’t go away. They indeed represent the lives I’ve prepared for through the mistakes and strengths I’ve gathered over years before. That is hardly unique–we all carry around undigested bits of the past. If there is any interest in what I write, the comments are mundane and repetitive, bordering at times on self-pity. All the same, feeling sorry for myself is not on my mind today because the situations I was in earlier needed to be stared down..
I have had a lot of time to look backward at my life. I know: you can’t change the past. But you surely can learn from it and own responsibility.
Mistakes, then. I renounced my marriage in 1997, not so much because I found someone I liked better (I had) but because that marriage had become a convenience wrapped in mutual savagery and bitterness. It had become painful to both of us but I at the end of the day was the one who had to admit it: there really was a someone else and that even if there were not, the pain of living under the same roof with someone I did not love and who did not love me anymore would surely kill us both. I could no longer behave everything was okay because it wasn’t. I had become exactly what I never wanted to be, a serial womanizer, a repository of misery and guilt, the kind of man for whom I had no respect and less forgiveness when I encountered him in others. But he was now part of me. How do you withstand having metamorphosed into the person you cannot stand? How do you delude yourself into thinking that the sin against your marriage–for sin it was–is something only God can see, and that he really doesn’t care much of a damn one way or the other?
I was amazingly good and pulling the wool over my own eyes until February 17, 1997, when it all had to come out in the open. So I stepped from one arrangement into another.
My “arrangement” survived two divorces–the other woman’s and mine, both of them born from cruelty–and flowered until the blossoms fell off the plants.
Tnen, by late 2002, we went dead to one another. I could not believe I was being rewarded for my duplicity not with more duplicity–for I’d learned through effort and alimony the truth about faithfulness from my acts of faithlessness–but with a slow, staggering toward the open grave I’d dug for myself starting years before.
I fell into it for the first time in May 2007 and didn’t know enough to take it seriously until October 2009. Ironically, the death of our mutually beloved dog sealed the fate of the relationship. The dog at last was what was holding us together; and two months after he died, the entire arrangement became as dead as the dog himself. At that point I found the resolve that I had to locate another place to live. My companion even helped me look: it was not bitter, simply profoundly sad.
So I ended up in this garden apartment complex in Bristol, PA, not because I love Bristol–I don’t–but because it’s affordable. After New Jersey, very little costs a lot. The apartment sucks and there’s no garden, by the way.
I isolated in here. I saw few people and didn’t let them see me. It is generally contraindicated for people like me to hide out in silence, but even silence and exile will create if not cunning then the astuteness to take inventory, to look at the stock of my life and see where I blew myself up. I did a lot of praying, a non-intellectual activity that was and remains vital to my survival. I went into profound depression, and the antidepressant I went on caused my attention to wander and got me into a car accident back across the river in New Jersey. I managed to lose two teaching jobs in a row because my work was not supported by consistency or anything like rational behavior. I was, in short, a complete flake. I skirted poverty, which is to say I had to borrow $40 from one of my kids to eat on and even feed my cat. I was terrified and miserable.
I’ve learned to build an amicable but distant relationship with my former companion. She sends me links to music sites. My cat is a lot happier without her cat (they hated each other), and when her cat died I felt sad but not exactly grief-stricken.
Through it all I’ve had a chance to reexamine the mistakes that got me here: passivity, misplaced anger and aggression, downright duplicity. I don’t especially like that previous incarnation of myself but I have to own who he was and be on the lookout for him flaring up again–because he’s gone but not forgotten. I continue to pay for my mistakes because they are my mistakes. I created the life I have to live with now and made the mistakes I probably will never stop paying for. Which is more or less okay because I am a survivor and I’m a bit harder to kill than I used to imagine.
I’m going to be out of commission for awhile (short, I hope) while I hunt down another place to live and then figure out how I’m going to pay for it. I’ve had a life change in the last few weeks that makes moving a necessity. What I dread is having to go into one of those “Senior communities” where the only people I see under 55 are in the supermarket. Right, I am 65–but most days I feel either like 100 or 19, depending on whether the Wellbutrin has kicked in yet.
So the marching orders:
1. Find a place that’s affordable
2. Figure out what’s disposable and throw it out
4. Become so busy that I don’t have time to grieve.
And please spare me the happy horseshit of “It is what it is.” Sometimes it is precisely what it should not be because at this age I don’t deserve it.