I came across a submission I’d written about five years ago.
Just off the Piazza San Marco is one of the Venice’s most famous bridges, the Bridge of Sighs. It is an enclosed structure built by Antonio Contino in 1600 and connects the Doge’s Palace with the prison. The bridge was supposedly called The Bridge of Sighs because through the two small limestone lattice covered rectangular windows, the prisoners would view their beautiful Venice for the last time as they headed toward a life of imprisonment.
The image renders me helpless in the face of my upcoming life transition. Lately I have found myself stopping to gaze back at the beauty, which has been my marriage, our life together, the trappings of our life together. I try not to be morose about it, because that’s not where my tendencies lie. But facing any transition can be scary. Thirty years ago, when I married a man who was so much older than I was, people warned me, but the fierce love and loyalty I felt to this relative stranger at the time was instinctual, as true as anything I had ever known. We were soul mates, no matter the distance in years between us. It was destiny. And so, in the face of many of my family members’ disapproval, we married, after a little less than a year of acquaintance.
And we have made a solid, satisfying union. We merged minds, bodies, and finances, religious, political and moral beliefs to create a life that has brought us peace, prosperity, and a profound sense of happiness with the world and with each other. My attitude since then has always been sometimes you need to take a risk to reap a reward.
In the spring of 1982, while a student at Princeton University, studying Art History and also basic Italian, I worked as a cashier at the Student Center.
After a Sunday morning shift in May prior to my looming graduation, I stopped in the lobby area between the café and the pub. I reached in to my jeans pocket and pulled out a few quarters, and after plunking the first into the slot, I heard a friend’s voice off to my left. It was Louisa, a Renaissance Painting Graduate Student. The Art and Archeology department was small, so we were at least familiar with the students whose carrels were around ours in the McCormick building. Louisa was saying, “Do you know anyone who would like to come to Venice for six months with me as an au pair for my daughter? I am writing my thesis on Lorenzo Lotto and will be traveling to Florence sometimes and need someone to watch over her.”
I turned back to the machine, and plunking the second or third quarter in, said, “Yes, that would be me.” And so, as in bold transformative events, there on the bridge spanning the pub and the café, I committed myself to living in Italy for six months.
Six months turned all too quickly into twelve and then thirteen before I returned from Venice after accepting a job at the McCarter Theatre as a dresser on Play Memory, a Joanna Glass play, directed by Hal Prince, bound first for Philadelphia, then Broadway.
One of the cast members became my running companion, and at the time, I would have never guessed that we would become lovers and one day, man and wife in a marriage that has endured thirty years. He was thirty-three years my senior; in spite of that vast distance, we have found our love of books, movies, theatre and each other capable of bridging the divide.
Twenty-three years ago, after discovering that we were unable to give birth to our own biological child, we took a leap of faith and adopted a beautiful two-and-a-half-year-old boy through the L.A. County Department of Children’s Services. Our son, now twenty-five, told me recently that he was worried about finding someone he could have a relationship with like his parents’. Not to worry, I told him, he would find someone who would love him and whom he would love. We have trained him well by example to take that leap of faith in love.
I don’t know where I got my optimism about marriage. My parents divorced acrimoniously after twenty years, leaving nothing but scorched earth between them until Mom died twenty years later at age 65 from lung cancer. Dad remarried two times, both to women with whom he shared professional interests, something that he and Mom never seem to have connected on. Don’t underestimate the power of lust and naiveté in the 1950s. My innocent and horny parents plunged into a marriage the gloss of which soon wore off, after the babies came, three of us in six years. But they toughed it out for twenty years until the early 1970s; my father, through his travels and interest in, ironically, family planning, met worldly women my mother could or would not compete with.
Amateur psychologists reading this may decide that due to my parents’ unhappy marriage and the departure of my father during early adolescence, that I was looking for another father figure when I married my husband. Probably my own psychologist felt this too, but I prefer to think that soul mates exist, and I found mine.
In the past few weeks, I have been forced to face the truth about our age difference. My husband has been in very good health since we met. A marathon runner for twenty years, he invited me to run with him through our courtship, and we played tennis, rode bikes, and stayed active through the early years. There have been health hurdles for both of us. In fact, I’ve probably come closer to dying than he. He’s had a hernia operation, two broken wrists, cataract surgery, and is on his second set of hearing aids – happily this set works. Being with him through all of these things has been educational, but the medical signposts have reminded me how vital he is to my happiness. Every time he has had a surgery, because of his irregular heartbeat, I have been scared of losing him. The medical professionals are also wary about it, which isn’t reassuring.
A few days before Christmas, he woke up visibly upset. He said he hadn’t slept well, getting up throughout the night to pee (a common torment for men his age). He described his anxiety as having been caused by a phrase or series of numbers that kept running through his head. He just wanted to clear his head so he could go back to sleep because he was so exhausted. Exhaustion has been a recent wrinkle in his health history despite two daily naps. His inability to articulate what the phrase was on this particular morning and his generally confused state scared me.
I thought he might have had a stroke, so dialed 911 and threw on my clothes to be ready to follow the ambulance to the hospital. In five minutes, the paramedics were kneeling around his feet at the couch in our living room. One of them asked me what medications he took. Calling the paramedics had made my heart race, and reconstructing a list of 8-10 daily medications in that state was impossible. So I simply turned, swung open the door of the kitchen cabinet where we keep our medications, and started pulling out the medicine bottles. The paramedic typed the information into his laptop while the other three took Jimmie’s BP and temperature. His head was hot, and I could hear them recommending he go to the hospital, turning to ask me which one we wanted to use. I told them Good Samaritan Hospital, which is about 3 miles from our apartment in downtown LA.
I arrived at the ER two minutes after he had and they told me to wait in the waiting room. Pretty soon, I was in admissions, showing his ID cards to the admitting nurse. Time in the ER goes very slowly. I know this from multiple trips as the mother of an active, non-risk-averse boy. I’ve learned patience in the ER, and that being kind to people brings kindness back to you. And so it was in this ER, which measured up to its name, Good Samaritan.
Jimmie was admitted, and we spent the next night and well until 4:00PM the following day in his private room. We saw four doctors counting the ER doctor, who was easily the youngest doctor I have ever met. He looked as though he might have donned his white jacket over wet board shorts after running out of the surf. Jimmie greeted him respectfully when he re-appeared in the cubicle.
The young doctor, bowing slightly, very formally and somewhat ironically, said, “Hello, Patient.”
I smiled at the missed irony, but mostly out of nervousness.
Over the course of the 30 hours, we were told that it had been a very small stroke and they would do a CT scan to determine the damage. After the CT Scan the news was that there was no discernible damage. In fact, there was no evidence of a stroke and yet, they were admitting him. We were told to sit tight while they did the paperwork and got him a room upstairs.
After rolling the gurney into his fourth floor room and checking his vitals, they reported that his heartbeat was too slow, asking if he knew that he had a very low heartbeat sometimes?
The doctor who visited his room at 11:00PM at night woke him from a sound sleep and interrogated him about why he had come to the hospital in the first place.
“What was the phrase that you couldn’t shake from your brain? Who called 911?” Guiltily, I raised my hand.
Before we could leave the next day, we were informed that someone from physical therapy was coming to assess his stability and how safe it was for him to go home.
The hospital staff was attentive, kind, and comforting, bringing me a cot so I could stay overnight with Jimmie, which was exactly where I needed to be.
Those 30 hours in the hospital were like a forced vacation. When I called in to work everyone understood my absence, and we were at the end of a long and grueling semester, and I was able to work from the hospital room. I read a lot, sat with Jimmie, who slept and recovered. The furnishings were simple, two chairs, one with arms and one without, a rolling tray table, and the very fancy hospital bed, which could weigh you while you were lying on it. I was frequently tiptoeing around the room so as not to wake Jimmie, but inevitably forgot about the armchair’s built in whoopee-cushion effect. Every time I sat down, it made a huge flatulent noise, which made us laugh a lot.
Later the next day, at home nestled in to our comfortable living room, the reality of what we had been through and what it meant for the future began to sink in.
About seven years ago, Jimmie’s older brother, Jack, had died at 83. He fell to the sidewalk one night when he was out taking a walk in his neighborhood. This exodus wasn’t reassuring. But Jimmie just celebrated his 88th birthday. He said to me while we were seated on the couch, “I guess it’s because I just had my birthday, but I don’t have a long time left.”
It wasn’t the first time he had spoken quite so definitively on the subject of dying, but in the context of the previous days’ events, his simple statement assumed a powerful certitude.
Over those two days, I grappled with more mundane thoughts. How, in the three days before Christmas, could I organize help at home? What would we need? How much would it cost? Would Jimmie accept having strangers in the apartment? How could I continue to work if we didn’t hire them to come in to check on him, say, get him lunch?
This is a transition I’ve been expecting to make for a long time. But his statement alluded to the inevitable transition further down the road that I’ve refused to consider. The transition from wife to widow, from couple to single, from happy to mourning, devastated, lonely, sad. How would I fill my days? How would I continue in my life as the one left behind?
Those many years ago, while in Venice, as the au pair for a six-year-old girl enrolled in an international school, I had a lot of unstructured alone time between dropping her off at school and picking her up. I spent the first month hiding in the apartment for fear of looking like a dumb American before I took the leap and began my life in Italy.
Venice has somewhere between 378 and 409 bridges, spanning one hundred seventeen islands. In my thirteen months there, I hoofed my way around the city, up and over both little and big, permanent and temporary bridges. Those bridges remain a part of my psyche even now, thirty-two years after my return to the states. Each of them has significance. Who I am is shaped in large part by my encounters on these bridges.
My travels over The Rialto Bridge, the largest pedestrian bridge over the Grand Canal, lined with vendors’ shops on either side, helped me to hone my Italian. While fulfilling the daily tasks of being the 22 year-old guardian of Louisa’s child, Anna, I bantered with the friendly and curious Venetian shop owners in my halting Italian, answering their questions about why I was living there. Slyly, and slowly, as they wrapped my prosciutto and Parmesan, they queried me about how long I would be there, where I lived. Only after I proved to be one of their best customers, shopping like a Venetian every day for verdure et formaggio, did they come to treat me like a native. My mother came to visit me at Christmas, and I took her to the Rialto to introduce her to my “friends.” Thinking about how I managed and mastered that time in my life in Venice seems helpful when I consider my life after Jimmie. We are very much in the shopping phase of this transition.
Prior to the hospitalization, we had made plans to go north to Los Osos to spend Christmas with a group of Jimmie’s and my family. One of the first decisions we made, after consulting the doctors, was to keep those plans. We also decided we wouldn’t share the recent health scare with them.
Martha, Jimmie’s niece, had lost her husband to a tumor that revealed itself with a sickening and immediate deadly effect after they had managed his complicated health situation for close to forty years. Our last trip to see her had been to attend his memorial service on September 28th. Per Martha’s wishes, who wanted to be home for Christmas, we would drive north on Christmas Eve, staying at a lovely B & B just about 3 minutes from her home. Optimistically, I booked two rooms, hoping our son, Chris and his girlfriend, Whitney, would come. We agreed that it would be really important for us to be there and to be together.
Being from New England, Jimmie loves a good clam chowder. The past four summers we have spent one to two weeks in Cape Cod and our good friends, Tina and Michael, make Jimmie say it every time we come back- just so they can laugh – “What did you eat there?” And Jimmie responds, obligingly, “Clam Chowdah.” And we all laugh. It is as much a part of the early weeks of August as dusting off the fall syllabi. The other night as we ate our dinner, clam chowder and bread, we discussed the recurring theme of my becoming a writer. I was starting to think about attending a conference, or a retreat, or some other place to practice my writing and try my hand at fiction. The events of the days prior made me say, “I would never leave you to go for a week anywhere, but someday I will.”
How callous to have spoken about the afterlife. Not his, but mine. The life after he is gone. For the May/December couple someday can be a hurtful word. We knew what it meant. It meant simply “after you are gone.” When we first were together, Jimmie used to recount a joke about the newly married old guy on the golf course with his geezer buddies. One of his friends says, “Aren’t you afraid of the age difference?” To which the old guy responds, “If she dies, she dies.” We laughed a lot about that joke, but now, we were talking about something real and potentially soon; a time that nears with each new medical emergency. It becomes irritatingly accurate like the thoughts penned to me by my idiot stepbrother in the months before we got married.
I’ll never forget the scrawled words on the card that I opened and laughed at before tossing it down the couch in our New York apartment. My youngest stepbrother, who was a year older than me at the time, had written, “When you are in your fifties, Jimmie will be an Octogenarian.” I had fantasized that he had had to look up the word to spell it. Now, here I was on the cusp of 55, with Jimmie, 88, damn it, and that moron is being proven right. At least I have lost touch with him so I won’t need to have him gloat as Jimmie’s health fails. I take some solace in the fact that as then, I decided I would not live my life in a state of fear about the future, but would trust my heart to guide me. Thirty years later, this decision has stood us both in good stead.
We followed up on the Monday between Christmas and New Year’s with the cardiologist whom we had seen at Good Samaritan. A Korean doctor, he practices in a medical building on 6th Street near Vermont Avenue, right in the heart of Koreatown. Jimmie’s appointment was for 9:00AM. We arrived by 8:45 and saw the doctor around 10:30. But that seems to be the case just about everywhere these days.
The doctor explained that the echocardiogram revealed weakening muscles in the walls of the ventricles, and enlarged left and right atria, with a possible hole between the two. He leaned forward, speaking directly to Jimmie, making sure he was getting all the details. I liked that he was talking directly to Jimmie, rather than to me. Several of Jimmie’s other doctors have a habit of doing that, as though his hearing impairment slows them down too much. It is really infantilizing.
He prescribed water pills, and potassium, to reduce the amount of liquid in Jimmie’s chest. “Don’t drink too much liquid,” he said.
“How do we reconcile the instructions from the urologist to drink water with yours to not drink water?” He referred to the chart at the two medications prescribed by the urologist and said they didn’t necessarily require more water, and that the heart needs took priority.
“You are in heart failure,” he said simply, and explained that proof of that was that Jimmie was frequently short of breath even when stationary.
To have the cardiologist confirm what Jimmie had said after returning home from the hospital earlier created breathlessness in me, too. But the doctor was looking at us, taking in that his choice of words had been powerful.
“After we treat the liquid issue, we will begin to treat the ventricle muscular issue.”
“With medication,” he said. In spite of his initial prognosis, he seemed to have a very hopeful outlook.
My own doctor, a vibrant, smart practitioner in her mid to late forties, always asks me “How is Jimmie?” She has a sister who married a man much older than she. I think she keeps track of what her sister will be going through by asking me that simple question every time she sees me. I am always so glad to tell her “Jimmie’s great.” I am not looking forward to the time when I have to say “Jimmie’s not great.” Or “Jimmie is gone.”
The visit to Los Osos was joyful; with a new baby and a toddler in the mix, we were constantly entertained. Chris, a commercial fisherman in San Francisco, treated us all to the fruits of his labors, bringing 12 cooked Dungeness crabs, which he cleaned with a hose in Martha’s front yard prior to picking meat for over an hour. There were photos taken of the crab fest, Chris picking out the meat, his head thrown back as he responded to someone’s joke. These are the moments that we will remember.
The romantic bed and breakfast where we stayed faces out on a beautiful bay. I discreetly asked the innkeeper if they did weddings because we hope that this young woman may be important in our son’s life. It feels good to think about future joyful events. It is in my nature, just as it was when I was twenty-four and contemplating a life with my much older fiancé. For as much as I am looking behind me and savoring our special moments, it behoves us all to keep our gazes firmly planted ahead. In other words, the Bridge of Sighs is no longer the most important bridge in my life.
What a wonderful essay, you set a very high bar.
Thanks, Jimmie. I know you will raise the bar even higher!
Els, I loved this. I have said before and will say again You are a great writer! Thank you for this and keep writing. You sister have the gift. Much love to you and hope I will see you again in this brief lifetime.
Stan, thank you so much and I hope you are staying safe at home in these odd days. As I become more resigned to this isolation, it allows me to think about next steps. It’s probably a valuable time in my journey, and I hope in yours. Hope to see you again, too! And thank you always for your kind encouragement. XO,