Stepping Out in Polka Dot Socks

Three weeks ago, walking to my office, I saw a woman coming up the sidewalk pushing an old man in a wheelchair.  I don’t remember what either of the old man or the woman looked like.  My attention had been sucked inside my head where I saw myself pushing my husband, who died almost two years ago. He was not confined to the wheelchair, but he lacked the breath to walk very far.  Our wheelchair was a perky bright red folding number, I had picked it out at the medical supply store, where it sat among the commodes, the beds, the ramps, and medical supplies. We used it to help him traverse the space between the car and the doctors’ offices, but in the final months, we often used it inside the house.  The wheelchair was a focus of tension inside his increasing difficulty breathing, the shrinking world of a dying man.  I pushed the chair matter of factly but inside, I was anxious, frustrated, and shadowed by dread. Yet in that walk to my office, I yearned to be pushing my husband in the wheelchair again.  I’m dumbfounded.  I argue with the yearning.  You just wanted it to be over.  He hated it.  You hated it. Nevertheless, some part of me missed pushing my husband in that shiny red wheelchair.   

Two weeks ago, standing in the transfer bus door at Newark Airport, I mentally walked into my old house in New Jersey, home from a trip.  I saw the green marble top on our island, the center of our kitchen. To my left at the round table, my husband sat in the green swivel chair, in a plaid flannel shirt, khaki pants, and leather slippers, fingering a Combivent bronchodilator.  I had gone home the old way, out the Newark Airport exit to a taxi to my driveway, in through the garage to the kitchen, where my husband waited.  Part of me still hadn’t moved, was retracing the route to my old home.  My face sagged.  I have to go to my new home, from the terminal to the AirTrain, to the New Jersey Transit train, to the 1,2,3 subway, up 72nd Street to apartment 909.  As I wheeled my suitcase across terminal C to the AirTrain, I roamed around in the New Jersey house, and I wondered how I would feel wheeling my suitcase up 72nd Street.  This is the first time since I moved that I forgot where I was going, even momentarily in a bus doorway.  I’ve taken at least four flights from Newark Airport since I moved into Manhattan. But today I went home to my husband who used to sit behind his desk in the study but now waited in the kitchen, not just for me, but also for death.

My friend texted me last week, “I’m wearing your husband’s socks!”  “Which ones? “ I asked.  “The polka-dotted ones. “  She sent me a picture of the socks draped across her shoes, swept with multi-colored polka-dots on a tan background with orange toes and heels.  My friend is tall, with feet and legs long enough to use the fancy socks that were left neatly stacked, unopened in their clear plastic wrapping, in his drawer. I handed them over, grateful for the solution, but I cried when I saw the picture. My husband was tall, slender, with graceful long legs. He loved to buy clothes—suits, ties, pocket silks, brightly patterned summer shirts like the one that an art gallery owner in Taos wanted to hang on his wall. One of his favorite catalogs carried multi-colored socks, and he would study the catalog, absorbed in the choices.  The polka-dotted socks were among those he bought.  The photo was insouciant but I was sad. 

It occurs to me that this last image, sent by my zany friend, is progress—two years along in this getting on with life.  No one is dying in this image.  Those socks are a lark ascending on the joy of being alive. 

Witnessing–A Cousin Lost to Breast Cancer

“When I was driving to work, I suddenly felt this terrible sharp pain in my breast.” Thus my cousin Cathy told me how she knew something was wrong.  The pain in her breast was diagnosed as inflamatory breast cancer.

Cathy's Robin

Robin–One of Cathy’s Series of Bird Pictures

Ten years younger than I, Cathy was only in her mid thirties.  A full-faced, smiling young woman, she was an artist and had developed a career designing needlework. She was not only developing a following, she had several patents and had won awards for her designs.

I had called Cathy because her mother, knowing I had also recently been treated for breast cancer, asked me if I would talk to her. Thus I became engaged long-distance (she lived far from me) with her in her struggle.  I was the far luckier person.  Cathy’s kind of cancer is aggressive and very hard to treat successfully. More than 20 years later, I’m still going strong.

Her treatment was harsh, including a bone marrow transplant, but she died within two years of her diagnosis.  She went, when she had to, from her home in the town where she worked to her family home, but she would go back to resume her life when she felt strong enough. She was always creating a cross-stitch project for someone during this time.

A tiny needlepoint picture of mushrooms by Cathy

A tiny needlepoint picture of mushrooms by Cathy

I think of Cathy often because we have displayed some of her paintings in our house. She was talented; we are both sad and enriched when we look at her work. I am also reminded of her mother, my Aunt Gloria. The youngest of three, Cathy’s mother lost her own mother at the age of 4.  Her father quickly remarried to a smiling, warm woman whom we called Mama Clo. My aunt and she got along fine; my aunt grew into a sturdy, matter-of-fact woman with a hearty laugh and a wry sense of humor.  She married and had two children, Cathy and a younger brother.  When they were about the age of Aunt Glora when her own mother died, her husband died of lung cancer. She married again to the local postmaster, outliving him after a long marriage. They were together with her when Cathy died, and together they cleared out her apartment and folded down her life.

The last time I saw Aunt Gloria, she was living alone in the house she had lived in with her late husband.  Her son had built a house next door. She welcomed us with pleasure and we spent lunch together reminiscing, catching up, remembering the family members we had lost.  When we asked if she had any of Cathy’s work, she gave us some of Cathy’s paintings.

Cathy Livingston photo

Cathy about a year before she died

What’s on my mind today?

Psychoanalysis has made me much more aware of my own thoughts and feelings. This awareness helps, is essential to, my work with patients, though the reasons why are far too complex to explain in a blog.

On the other hand, learning to pay attention to what I feel and where my mind roams is a skill that I want to keep developing.  Having had the experience of analysis, I know that a listener is also crucial to developing this skill. The blog serves both requirements. It will help me think about what seizes my attention, and it provides a listener, the presumed reader. Perhaps such a blog might be of interest to others and there will be real readers. We’ll see!