Before Your Last Trip to the Outhouse, I want you to know…

Jimmie and I have been dealing with health issues of late. I should say Jimmie has been dealing with the health issues and I have been following along behind trying to keep up with the details. I choose to think about these interludes as romantic getaways, because hospitals let you stay over, and provide you with a folding cot which makes your back feel the way it looks when it’s folded up during the day.IMG_8721.JPG

Four hospitalizations since August for the same man-plumbing issue have culminated in our most recent overnight stay at Good Samaritan after what is the surgery most dreaded by men. I have this on good first hand info from many of the men in my life who’ve had it and lived to tell about it. Ask any one of them what the worst word in the English language is. Starts with a c:


Watch them spit it out with disdain, a churlish look of scorn tinged with not a little fear. Watch their eyes dart to the left as their lip curls. P surgery, pee surgery it’s all the same thing in this case. But at 90, a surgery under general anesthesia is enough to get you thinking about death.

After the doctor left, having delivered the news about the upcoming surgery, we huddled together, Jimmie in the 1960s-era wooden hospital guest chair with the leatherette dun-colored seat that exhales like it’s farting every time you sit on it, and me, sitting on the edge of the bed, the sanguinating catheter bag huddled to our left like a resentful pet who has been ignored too long. Our conversation turned to the inevitable, which is, of course, truly the inevitable.

“The night my father died,” said Jimmie, softly, his gaze averted, “he went out to the outhouse up at the cabin in Maine. My sister Claire was there with Mom and Dad. He came back and sat down in the chair and then fell out of the chair onto the floor. Claire said she knew instantly that he was gone.”

“What did he look like before he fell over?” I asked, scanning Jimmie’s pallid face, so depleted from the significant blood loss over the past weeks.

“He looked fine. I think it was a happy time for him. He loved being up in Maine. It was a complete surprise. I always thought that’s the way I would go,” he said. “I don’t know if my heart will stand this surgery.” The other unstated message was that the recent events haven’t been a “happy time in Maine.”

That sat between us somberly, as did the knowledge of Jimmie’s older brother Jack’s untimely death from a heart attack and similar type of collapse. I felt my cheeks becoming hot. My optimistic, fix-it-all attitude was showing some pretty severe cracks. My rational mind struggled forward. “They aren’t going to suggest a surgery that they don’t think you can survive, Jimmie. Your cardiologist will evaluate your ability to withstand the surgery. It seems to me that the real question is whether you want to continue to live.”

This may seem like a really harsh way of asking someone, and I think it was, but I had just finished reading the Dornsife Magazine, Fall 2017-Winter 2018, the theme of which was “Grave Concerns: the Mortality Issue” so I was primed for the conversation. I looked into his eyes, still not looking at me, and he said, “Not if I have to live this way,” with no hesitation at all.

“Well, before your last trip to the outhouse, I want you to know….” I sought to convey my love and gratitude to him for our magical life of thirty-five years together, while nagging behind me was my arch nemesis and evil twin, Maude Lynn.

You’re overreacting, Els, she sneered. And as usual, she proved correct.

Jimmie took my hand, bringing it to his lips, and kissed it gallantly, as we professed our love for each other. “Let’s remember there were so many good times, and not dwell on these difficult times.”

I tend to be extremely pragmatic, accept difficult circumstances for what they are and move forward. It is a primary trait among stage managers and theatre people in general. But to be frank, looking directly at the loss of Jimmie and our life together isn’t something I feel pragmatic about. I prepared for this surgery knowing that Jimmie never expected to live past eighty; we’ve talked more than once quite frankly about death. He’s been more ill recently than I’ve ever seen, and the procedures he has been going through with this recent bout have created a new Jimmie, whom I have struggled to love as unconditionally as the old one. We prefer to be around people who are healthy and pleasant and upbeat. If that isn’t the case, you are probably in the health care profession. I so respect those in the health care profession; they don’t frequently get to see the old versions of healthy people, but dwell in the land of the sickly, frightened, enraged or deflated new versions of formerly healthy people. Earlier this week as I watched the RN in the Emergency Room working on irrigating the catheter, I said “It’s kind of satisfying, right?” Without hesitation, JP, a former youth hockey player, (we’d bonded about that earlier) now RN said, “Yes it really feels good to make improvements in the health of a patient.”

We recently changed doctors. Jimmie’s GP closed his private practice to reduce his working hours as he approached retirement. Jimmie’s new GP, is kind and direct and speaks loudly – either a result of his geriatrics training, or perhaps hearing loss from also being a musician (something I overheard him say rather loudly at his office during our first visit.) He described for us the romanticized Hollywood version of aging, a gentle slope of decline as you get older. He derided that fabrication. I watched him describe, his hands chiseling the air in a series of steps, that patients are more likely to go from a steady baseline condition, to an event such as a surgery, or a heart attack, or a hospitalization, after which they drop down to a new baseline. This process repeats and he said if he got to do a TED Talk, that’s what he’d tell us. This made a lot of sense. I’d prefer to hear it in a TED Talk than see it in my spouse.

Later that first night at the ER after Jimmie was admitted and settled into his room, I stumbled out of the hospital at 11:30 PM, exhausted after seven hours in the ER. The night nurse reminded me to bring Jimmie’s Advanced Directive to the hospital when I came back. I had, of course, forgotten. It took me two days to remember to bring it back with me. I didn’t want something written almost twenty years ago and hadn’t spoken of since to define our conduct should the need arise. Thinking about these choices is hard, but with the assistance of his doctors, we arrived at the decision to move forward with the surgery which happened two days ago. With a spinal, not a general anesthesia. They rolled him out of the operating room, and his eyes were open. I said, “Hi, Jimmie.” He said, “Hi, Els.” In retrospect, I keep thinking, “what was I so worried about?”

Every day we hear from family and friends, colleagues from work and we are buoyed by their support, their virtual hugs (Jimmie may be becoming a little bruised from all the passed along hugs) and the knowledge that this too, shall pass. Now that we are home, it’s my job to teach the new visiting nurses what medications he takes, and answer their incredulous question each time I open the door to a new person:

How old are you, anyway? (While looking down at their clipboards at Jimmie’s DOB).

We went to the park today and sat in the sun. Fingers crossed. Neither of us is ready for our last trip to the outhouse yet.



Last night at about 1:50AM I awoke, nausea rising as I rose from the bed and padded toward the bathroom. Truth be told, I had set my alarm for 4:45am to go to my spin class, followed by my annual sojourn to jury duty. The fact that I was now heaving into the john at 2am seemed like a cruel interruption to an already abbreviated night. And probably the appropriate response to the quick orange chicken I had rolled out for dinner last night.

After brushing my teeth, I went back to bed and lay awake in bed; my mind had stumbled on a grisly pun that burrowed into my brain like a pop music ear worm; my latest is Meghan Trainor’s, Me Too frequently played during the jumps at my YAS spin class.

If I were you, I’d want to be me too.

What does that mean, anyway? Not really what I wanted in my head as I tried to get back to sleep. And psychologically quite the opposite of the man I found myself thinking about.

“Paulbearers.”  At the end of last week, we’d gotten an email requesting assistance at the funeral of our dear Paul Backer to be pallbearers, with a number to contact. I attended the memorial on Friday, had not planned on attending the mass or grave site service, and besides, I’d be too short in both upper physical strength and the height needed to carry a man of Paul’s stature.

But at the scene shop, I heard a funny story, if that’s possible when speaking of pallbearers. A co-worker had answered the call to do the ultimate heavy lifting in life.

My co-worker, Michael, needed a new black suit for the occasion. His old one no longer fit him, and it was 20 years old. So he went to buy a new suit on Friday. It ended up being a little too big around the waist for him. The salesman said, “Can I have that taken in for you, sir?” He said, “No, I’m fine. I have a nice dress belt.” And off he went, slightly baggy suit in hand.

At the funeral, he joined 7 other pallbearers to carry the coffin of our giant friend. The ground in the cemetery was rough, the flat stones a bit sunken in the soggy grass. Mike and the others made their way carefully toward the grave site, all eyes on them; there were a considerable number of former students, friends and family there for the service.

After putting the casket down at the grave site, they all stood back as he was lowered into the ground. Michael and the others had done the undesired job well.

As soon as Michael got home, he reported that his dress belt suddenly broke in two places, his new pants falling to puddle around his ankles. Had that happened while he was holding the coffin, it would have been a scene out of an Evelyn Waugh movie. One that Paul surely would have appreciated.

Michael laughed, as he told me his story, looking heavenward and shaking his right fist, he thanked and swore at our friend, Paul for saving him the dishonor.

I suspect there will be a number of visitations from Paul in the coming months. Not necessarily paranormal, but mental and spiritual. He was so present in our lives at school and his wit and breadth of knowledge will no doubt continue to surprise us. Hopefully his visits won’t take the shape of midnight sickness and a hangover of grisly puns, but things will be ascribed to Paul just because he is much with us, in spite of his current body’s resting place.

For example, I will always think about Dr. Backer when I hear the following terms:

  1. Backer’s audition, now pronounced “bocker’s audition” because we now know the correct pronunciation.
  2. Paulbearers – those who volunteer to do the heavy lifting
  3. Paulacial – what Paul’s office will feel to its new denizen without Paul’s obsessive collection of books.
  4. Paulitical – what I’ll be thinking of as I watch Election 2016 coverage
  5. Paulitheatrics – a festival of devised work celebrating Paul Backer
  6. Paulitico – a blog devoted to promoting the performances of students and alumni of Paul’s

You get the idea. Gone but certainly not forgotten.