I hope I’m the one who’s having hallucinations now. Could Ed really be saying to me what he seems to be saying, that he hopes he and Aliceann will be able to move into a small house in Florida within a year? She isn’t happy up here, he says, and he hates the cold weather.
I share the news with the family and we are all flabbergasted. Is he still under the influence of the medications? Is he just trying to run away from the trauma of the surgery, the terror of the hallucinations, the misery of being in a nursing home? What can we do? What will become of the two of them—well, the 10 of them—if they go back to Florida? What will happen as he gets worse? How will we be able to help?
Kathie has an idea. She suggests I tell him openly and frankly how happy I am that he’s here (which is true) and that I hope he won’t leave (which is also terribly true).
“Do you think that would be enough to make him change his mind?”
“I do, Mom. He tells me he loves Aliceann, but he’s never stopped loving you.”
So I made the call to Ed, told him how much I would miss him if he left, and asked if he would please reconsider his decision. The request opened up a tangle of complexities I hadn’t bargained for.
* * *
I come to see Ed at Endicott Manor at 4:00 in the afternoon—just after Aliceann’s visit and before Kathie’s. He’s lying askew in his bed, the room gloomy without any lights on. He begins stuttering in his rapid-fire, barely comprehensible fashion, that he is so embarrassed, he’d been looking forward all day to seeing me and now . . .
I say I don’t understand what you’re trying to tell me, dear. Why are you embarrassed? (I wonder if perhaps he has soiled himself.) Do you want me to get a nurse? No, he wants me to call Kathie. When he speaks to her, I can understand enough of his words to realize he is embarrassed about the way he looks. He had wanted to be wearing a nice-looking shirt and trousers, instead of the rumpled ones he wore yesterday, and he wanted his face washed. He has this thing about washing his face. Every time I come in, he isn’t content until I wash and dry it for him. His skin is as dry and scaly as a lizard’s—sun damage, I suppose, after all those decades on the flying bridges of his various boats. His hair lies sparse and limp on his head, ash blond, mostly ash. His eyes, once the same sparkling blue as our daughter Vonnie’s, have faded to a dull slate color. His lower eyelids have sunk, so that a rim of white curves below his pupils. He appears to be gazing upward in gloomy supplication.
I wash Ed’s face, as requested, not neglecting the Tom-turkey wattle that hangs from his chin and rests on his neck. Where had that come from? He didn’t have it two years ago when he and Aliceann came north for Blake’s 80th birthday bash. In the snapshot taken beside the pool, the Old Buzzard (as his sons like to call him), stands with an arm around Wife #1 and Wife #2, still a fine-looking man.
I assure Ed he looks just fine and urge him to stop worrying. He refuses to stop worrying. “I want to put on a clean shirt,” he says, unconvinced that the wash-and-wear one he has on is perfectly presentable. He wheels over to the closet and points to another one, a twin to the shirt I unbutton. After he struggles into it with my help, he decides he is cold and asks me to get a pullover sweater from the bureau.
The pullover is troublesome. We get one arm in the sleeve, but the other one doesn’t know which way to go, so it shoots straight up in the air. I pull it down again and manage to work it into the other armhole.
“Thank you for being so patient,” he says. “Aliceann is very good, but she gets upset when it takes her so long to get me dressed.”
Contented at last with his appearance, he suggests we move over to the window, where there is a nice view (of the parking lot in the winter twilight). Then he begins to tell me of his plans. He wants to marry me. I put my chin in my hand to keep it from dropping. He wants this last chance at the kind of happiness Blake and Grace have found together. He knows I lead a full, busy life, and he wouldn’t interfere with that for the world, but he’d like to spend as much time with me as I can possibly spare. He will take bridge lessons to refresh his memory, so he and I will have that hobby in common.
Ed is so serious, so vulnerable, I try not to say anything that will hurt him. I tell him I love him, promise I will indeed devote as much time to him as possible. Then he says earnestly, staring into my eyes, “What if you found out in a few months that I had cheated on you?” I say that I would be happy for him. He hangs his head, looks at his lap for a couple of minutes, then says with a wry attempt at a smile, “That isn’t very flattering.”
What had he expected me to say, I wonder. Then it dawns on me that he wants signs of the tormented woman I was 30 years ago.
I explain that I am way beyond jealousy. I love him unconditionally, not possessively. And I’m thinking, with what would this poor old wreck cheat on me?
In December of 1970, I found a letter. Without my reading glasses, I could see only the kisses at the end and thought it was one of mine. Then I saw Ed standing in the doorway. His face told me everything.
What does a woman do when she is jolted from a dream world and discovers her marriage has collapsed? If she’s like me, she goes a bit crazy with shock and bitterness. I gave boozing a try—not so much to drown my sorrows as to get attention from Ed.
“He wants a different woman? By God, I’ll give him a different woman!” I scowled into the mirror, toasting my bleary-eyed image with a third double martini. My alcoholic phase didn’t last long. For one thing, Ed was disgusted with my drinking and reported it to our children. For another, I couldn’t stand the hangovers. Alcoholism wasn’t my bag.
I spent a lot of time curled up in bed, thinking about suicide. Then my reveries shifted from suicide to murder. One of us would have to go, there wasn’t room on this painful planet for both of us. “I didn’t do anything, why should I be the one to die!” In my favorite fantasy, Ed is walking across the yard to the greenhouse. He passes a bird feeder strung on a line between the greenhouse and the porch.
“Officers,” I picture myself saying to the policemen examining the 22 rifle, “I was shooting at a starling, and my husband happened to walk by when I pulled the trigger. You see, the Audubon Society says it’s all right to shoot starlings because they’re not indigenous to Massachusetts.”
What could be more convincing, especially with the word “indigenous” thrown in? Nah, they’d never buy it, and besides, I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of murdering anyone, even if he deserved it.
Back to Plan A. After my suicide attempt I was committed to a psychiatric hospital—jailed, really—for two weeks. I was assigned a psychiatrist and had to agree to regular visits before I was allowed to go home. I sat in his office and fed him stuff about my childhood. Never mentioned my fantasy about Edward and the bird-feeder.
As we sit by the window in the nursing home, Ed talks about the boyfriends I had in high school and how jealous he’d been of them: Hugh Van Rosen, John Calderwood, Bob Black. “You should have married Bob Black,” he says. This thought had occurred to me more than once through the years, but I say, “What? Miss all the flying? Miss having our wonderful children? I should say not!”
“You were even jealous of my English teacher,” I say, laughing. “Remember how you used to call him Mr. Stinker?”
“Mr. Rinker was a stinker because every time you talked about him you got starry-eyed. I wanted some of those stars for myself. I was jealous when you began having lunch with him after we separated and jealous when you traveled with him after the divorce. If he hadn’t been dead for ten years, I’d still be jealous.”
* * *
December 24, 1999
We have our annual Christmas Eve dinner at Ted and Maureen’s. Aliceann has obtained a pass for Edward from the nursing home, so this time there are two wheelchairs, Kathie’s and her father’s, to maneuver up the long stairway. Vonnie’s son Michael is on hand to help his uncles hoist Ed’s heavy chair. “Don’t look so nervous, Grandpa,” I hear him say, as he firmly grips the footrests. “We’ve never yet sent anyone head over heels.”
The second floor is filled with grandchildren of all sizes and ages and their parents, now in their 50s. As I pass around a platter of Maureen’s hors d’oeuvres, Ed sips his drink with hands that have regained much of their usefulness. He looks at the rooms full of our vibrant, intelligent children and grandchildren and says to me, “Isn’t it amazing, all these wonderful people came from us, just the two of us.”
His face glowing from the light of a table lamp, he looks up at me expectantly from his wheel-chair. I put a finger to my lips. Aliceann, smiling as always, is standing nearby. Childless except for her 4-legged sextet, she may have overheard her husband’s innocent ego trip and yearn all the more to be back in Florida, where the climate is kinder.
The most pleasurable aspect of the evening for me is seeing my sons exchanging anecdotes with Kathie’s Frank, radiating respect and affection for their formerly shy, quiet brother-in-law. During the months they helped him work on the Westwood addition, they got to know him for the generous, capable man he is.
One thing troubles me: I can’t understand why Aliceann heaps Ed’s plate with so much food. Even in his heyday, he couldn’t have done justice to it, but at this point, it pains me to realize that most of his delicious dinner will be fed to the disposal. The same thing happened when we spent Thanksgiving with Tim and his family. Wife #1, a child of the Depression, can’t help being dismayed by the overly generous habits of Wife #2. Oh, how I hate waste, and oh, how my tongue hurts from biting it.
Kathie calls me later, at 11:30, long after I arrived home from our festivities. My bedroom phone is unplugged, but I hear the one in the kitchen. She says that back at the nursing home, her father has been trying to reach me for an hour, wanting to be sure I had reached home safely. As I dial his number, I feel a flurry of emotions: guilt, for encouraging him too much in hopes he would change his mind about abandoning the apartment; complimented that he has still has such a strong attachment to me; worry that that there may be repercussions yet to come. Ed answers the phone and romances me some more, as if he were a lad of 24 instead of a lad of 84. I am touched but from now on will be more careful about giving him unrealistic expectations.
December 25, 1999
My Christmas day dinner with Ed and Aliceann in their new apartment is like something out of Alice in Wonderland if I keep my sense of humor, or Dante’s Inferno if I don’t. My first shock comes when I find Kathie and Frank with coats on, getting ready to go to his parents’ house
“You mean I’m the only guest?”
“Mom, you know we always spend the holiday with Frank’s family.”
So I scrape myself up off the floor and go into the apartment to face whatever the afternoon holds in store. Aliceann appears to be her usual bubbly, efficient self, assembling a tray of hors d’oeuvres and suggesting we move into the living room. “We” turns out to be the three of us plus the eight pets. Before long, Edward is nodding, so Aliceann asks if he’d like to take a nap until dinnertime. This he goes along with, saying apologetically, “I’m a fine host.”
With the radio playing a medley of Christmas carols, Aliceann rejoins me a few minutes later, and there we sit, first wife and second wife—first wife declining any of those curly cheese things in a bowl, having seen Strumpfe happily lapping them. Aliceann takes one, then gives one to the tail-wagger, then has another herself, a ceremony that has obviously gone on for years. I am enjoying the brie but privately irritated, keep pushing the platter out of Strumfe’s reach, since he is clearly as fond of the delicacy as I am.
Wife #2 describes the traumas of the last two years—losing her father, then finding she has to give up her home and sell her dolls. Not all of them, as Kathie and I could see when box after box labeled “dolls” was transported into the basement, while Aliceann drew a map showing the locations of the Ed Malleys’ possessions.
“I was never consulted,” she says resentfully. “I was just told we were going to sell the house and move north. We could have rented a smaller place in Florida.”
“But Aliceann, I remember Ed telling me Kathie was a saint to provide a home where you could bring all your animals, instead of giving them up to move into a rental house.”
“There are lots of places where animals are accepted. I could easily have found one for a thousand dollars a month.”
A place that would accept 6 peeing cats and 2 dogs? Get real, Aliceann, I’m thinking.
She admits to being furious with all the Malleys, including Ed. And including me, I’m sure. But I allow her to vent without arguing and even murmur a few sympathetic words. Could it be that a tiny trickle of Christmas spirit has meandered into my crusty heart?
Ed awakes from his nap after an hour, and Aliceann serves us a roast lamb dinner on the small table in front of the kitchen window. What an unpleasant experience that is. Joining us are the royal felines, always at least three of them wending their way around our plates, licking the basket of rolls, darting their heads toward our plates. Ed has ice cream for dessert. One of the Siamese cats sits next to the dish and helps herself, while he helps himself.
“Ed, doesn’t that bother you, to have your cat eating out of the same dish you are?”
“Cats are very clean animals, Barbara,” Aliceann says in defense of the kids. “They wash themselves a lot more than people do.”
As I finish my own ice cream, I try to avoid looking at the cat—hard to do, since her rear end is a foot away from my spoon. The radio is urging me to have myself a merry, merry Christmas, so I decide to focus on the holiday’s blessings: a delicious dinner I didn’t have to prepare. And a cleanup Aliceann insists on doing by herself.
December 26, 1999
During my daily visits to Ed at the nursing home, I feel as if I am tuning into my own soap opera. He continues to tell me he has fallen in love with me all over again and wants to have a last chance at romance (wistfully envious, I’m sure, of octogenarian lovebirds, Blake and Grace). I assume his medications must be responsible for this wild idea. I am thunderstruck when I realize he very much expects sex to be part of the picture. Groping for a diplomatic response, I say, “Please don’t take it personally, dear, but the fact is I have no interest in a sexual relationship with anyone. I love you dearly, but in an affectionate sisterly way.”
A few minutes later, in his stammering mumble, he says something about a therapist.
“Did you say therapist?” I ask. “For whom?’
Oh, I see. To help me regain my libido, so that I will be able to enjoy a last glorious fling with my first lover. This is the kind of path his roaming mind goes leaping into—as Blake notices when he happens to call while I’m there, trying to keep my former mate amused without re-compromising my virtue. Been there, done that, no regrets.
Ed mumbles and rambles on about being in love with me and wanting Blake’s help to advance his cause. Blake then calls Aliceann and tells her Ed is sounding off-the-wall. She promptly calls me, quoting Blake, and asks what the symptoms are, what will she have to deal with now? I reply guardedly, both because Ed is nearby and because I don’t want her assuming that her “sister” has been making a move on her husband, who is, of course, her “sister’s” ex-husband, and who is therefore, all the more likely to be even less trustworthy than a real sister. He has some unrealistic ideas, I say, but he’ll probably forget them by the next day.
Far from forgetting them, he is expanding on them. “You and I have got to spend a night together. It will be like old times. It will be our second honeymoon. You’ll see, when Blake gets back from his trip with Grace, he’ll work out all the details. We could go to a motel . . . “
”Ed, what about Aliceann? She’s my friend, I couldn’t betray her. We have a wonderful relationship, and I don’t want that ever to change.”
“I’ll just tell her I’m in love with you and want my freedom.
I beg him not to say anything like this to Aliceann and above all, not to threaten her with divorce. “She’d immediately hire a lawyer and you know how lawyers try to stir everybody up and make everything worse so that they’ll get more money. That’s all Ted needs on top of his other worries.”
“All right, I won’t bring your name into it, I’ll just say there’s someone else in my life.”
“But she’d know you were talking about me. Please, Ed, let’s just go along the way we’ve been. I love you and I enjoy kissing you and cuddling you, but we can’t go running off to New Hampshire the way we did when I was eighteen.”
Ed instantly becomes agitated and angry. I have “led him on,” my affection was nothing but a big put on, how could I kiss him and hold him and not expect him to want more, all his dreams of happiness have been destroyed, etc. etc. Those repercussions I feared have materialized.
So, now what do I do? I care about him. I want him safe and cared for. I want him to live, but not with me. I depart from the nursing home in a turmoil, trying to figure out what I’m going to do with my Romeo gone rabid. I wonder if it’s too late to become a nun. But first I must go to confession. Father, I did lead him on a bit but I thought the end justified the means. Cross my heart.