Thursday, November 30, 2023

Muddling Through


Dear Reader:

Note use of the singular – you might be the only one. This post hides in plain sight. Potentially public, it will be very private, because if I don't tell anyone about it, here it will sit, you could say lonely, but that's not actually how I see it. I'd just say, unobserved and tranquil, like a book in a dusty library, with the pages uncut. Since I'm studying French, sometimes words come up that you would say in French, “tranquil” being one. Sometimes a word will pop up in Swedish, that language I learned so long ago but which stays in my mind, lurking, like a pleasant kind of shingles, welcomed outbreaks.

It's the end of the month, and I vowed I wouldn't let November creep away without a post. I've got so many planned, and a couple almost ready to go. Good ones, I think. I'll put out notice of them once I post, maybe next week. I plan some of my posts and work on them, and some I just wake up and write. What the mind does in bed, reposing (another French word, note), I don't know, but there's a clarity and a creativity, you just see it as it comes and then help it along. It's so funny that “work” would be defined as something we do awake, sitting or standing, alert, doing something. But the non-work of lying there is some of the best work we do.

I didn't know that when Ann died it would be so profound for me. Of course I should have known, but I didn't. Let's just say I'm not a planner, which makes my trip East in early October, a week in Boston and New York City, so amazing, because I had to plan everything, including the times that would be unplanned, and it all worked out perfectly, 100%. Each thing fell into place, even the train when I found myself sitting next to a companionable lady, whose name turned out to be Andrea Forbes, returning home after a sojourn (French word) with old Wellesley classmates, Tower Court, Class of 1981, and we talked for 3 hours. Even that turned out fine. I don't plan, it's hard to foresee things in detail, but you just kind of have to trust the future and your ability to cope. I get that distinction, by the way, from my time at the Graduate School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, now the Goldman School, with initials unchanged, GSPP, when planning was juxtaposed to “muddling through,” as Lindblom put it. I'm a muddling-througher, so this whole period that they call grieving is such a surprise to me. I thought grieving was full of sadness, but that hasn't been my experience, it's more just readjustment. I think I haven't let myself think about it much, although now that I'm getting further away from it, I do let myself, and mostly I'm sad about the missed opportunities we had to be happy. We had lots of great times, it's true – if I think about them, I get sad. The good times make me sadder than the bad times, as you would expect, but not as I would expect because I don't expect anything because I'm not a planner. Still. I wish we had relaxed enough to love each other the way we did, we were devoted to each other, but there was conflict, and there was Ann's illness during the 80's and 90's until she got better with about 20 years left to live. The final illness, which took years of decline but when we were really, paradoxically, sometimes the happiest, well, that was a crescendo or decrescendo, or both, I don't know, but then for some stupid reason, I didn't know that when her death finally came, that it would be such a period for me. Period, as in comma and period, not epoch and period.  I discovered that part of the marriage vows should be, "I now make you the most important person in my life."

So, of course I knew it would be a big difference, I just had no idea how different it would be. It's not all bad, not at all. It took some getting used to, but I'm fine alone. That is, living alone, not being alone. I'm not in some woods with a clearing and a log cabin and no one around. I can talk to everyone; we have phones, and “long distance” is a thing of the past. I look to my past, and I have friends from virtually every period of my life. Bob Levin dates back to kindergarten, and now we live 2,500 miles away from the Henry C. Lea Elementary School, but we live about 3 miles apart. Bob says, we didn't like each other then, and I answer, well, I liked you. My high school classmates (a bunch of them! Including Lynn, who I saw in New York in my perfect trip in October), my college roommate, my med school classmates, two friend from the Public Health Service, Dean from my practice days (a closer and closer friend, Dean) and my basketball email friends, Rich my medical director from Bayside Medical Group days, Stu from Alta Bates, friends from GSPP, neighbors, friends from the gym, my sister-in-law Nancy, my kids, my brother and sisters, book group friends, friends from Maui and the Makena Surf. And I left people out. New friends who I walk with Saturday mornings at 6:45 AM, and then we have breakfast. And still, I have lots of time alone, and look forward to Tuesday and Thursday afternoons when Antonia and Jose come to take care of the house and garden, as they have for over 25 years, we're our own little family, they loved Ann so.

So, I didn't know what I'd do with my freedom. Would I “date?” No, doesn't seem to be in the cards, although I have a new friend I lunch with. I do notice that when I relate to women, it's with an immediate intimacy that takes them aback. They all respond, often with surprise, but with welcome. I was a pediatrician for 30 years, don't forget. They're not used to someone as emotionally intimate as I am. But, you know, I've had a lot of relationships in my life – when I was younger I was liked – and now I'm 82. So the intimacy isn't going to be sexual, as far as I can see. It's kind of a truncated intimacy, but there it is, insistent. I do like women. I really like the new women I've met, doing the HMS project, at a dinner party, etc. But I don't date. You never know what happens, you just kind of muddle through.

So what I'm doing with my freedom is working a lot. I write my blog, and people read it sometimes. I think I write pretty good. People think I'm smart – Bob Levin and I have discovered that we have differing ideals – he always wanted to be seen as “cool,” and I always wanted to be seen as “smart.” Also a good athlete. Bob thinks if I had stayed at Friends' Central I could have been all-league in basketball and a four letter man. I never thought of that. As much as you can achieve your goals, it seems that we have, Bob and I. I think he's cool (and I love his books, especially I Will Keep You Alive,) and he thinks I'm smart, and I think others view us that way, too.

So, I work. Completely unforeseeable, since Ann died of Alzheimer's and it was a long process, I discovered a lot in the process and I realized that I knew nothing about it, despite being a highly-educated and experienced doctor. So, I've thought that med students should be better exposed than I was to the “humanistic” side of medicine. Our Harvard Medical School class of 1967 had a Zoom meeting last January on Alzheimer's and I discovered a real community of classmates who were animated about the caring side of medicine, so we started a project, we found great student collaborators and faculty collaborators, and we're actually being successful in getting to projects to help students develop in Humanistic Medicine. I tell my collaborators, always be pessimistic, these things never work out, so if there are surprises, let them be pleasant ones. So far, that's what we're having, pleasant surprises. It helps when you give money or have the possibility of same, let's be clear, but I'm trying to offer ourselves and our experience, and that seems to be holding sway so far. We'll see.

I'm working on my French, which I started before Ann died, and I've stepped it up. My reading is a lot improved and I've read about 30 books, I guess, all fiction, and I've been swept away by literature, French literature. I fell in love with Annie Ernaux. Read The Years first. One of her books is about the death of her mother. I read A Very Easy Death (which I took to be an ironic title) by Simone de Beauvoir. Writers and the death of their mothers seems to be a genre. Annie and Simone both turned those intimate deaths into literature. I had thought about taking notes as Ann declined and died – I did that when I had my macroadenoma of the pituitary and it's a great post – but I decided I wasn't going to do that. It would have been a service for others, but I declined. Nope, it was just going to be me and Ann, no prostitution. Not that Annie and Simone prostituted their mothers' deaths by writing about them, pas du tout, but it wasn't what I was going to do. But I loved both Annie's and Simone's books. I want to write a post about them, especially Simone's, but I'm pretty busy. I can't tell you how much I loved them. I'm so happy I can read the in French (with the English on my Kindle for reference.)

I'm also writing a post about the problem with primary care medicine in the US, which they say is dying. It will be a good post; it's close to done. Posts can be done without all the crap you have to do for a formal article; what a pleasure. Of course, in my case, hardly anyone reads them, but c'est la vie.

I've got to get all the pictures I've taken, and the pictures we have of our ancestors with little notes on who they were – I don't know but my sister Kathy might – I wish there were someone to just set me up doing it. It's the setup that's hard; after you know what the mechanics are, you can just find the time to do it. It's getting started that's hard. And now my damn desktop has lost it's internet connection, and the urgent will take precedence over the important.

I can't tell you how rewarding this project with HMS has been. I found this student who wants to be a leader and has all the potential to be, and I think I can help her. All my classmates are enthusiastic, and I think I can help them find fulfillment. I was telling Eana, the HMS student leader, that it's true, that when you give to others so often you are doing more for yourself than you are for them, even though you'd have to look way inside to find that out. But then, does that mean that when you are doing for others, you are committing a selfish act? Everything is so confounding in life. “Confounding” is a great French word.

In the spring of 2022 there was a class reunion at HMS and I found I couldn't go. I couldn't even write the class note on where I was or what I was doing. I didn't say “I'm not ready,” I didn't think of it that way, it wasn't that I thought I was sad, I just wasn't ready, and of course there was COVID, and I didn't think “ready,” really, I just thought I would be unhappy going, without Ann, even though she made things harder because of things she didn't want to do, and I couldn't be gone from her for too long, etc. But we had found a restaurant on Beacon Hill for breakfast, we walked there a couple of mornings though the Public Garden from the Four Seasons, and somehow going to the reunion and not walking over there with her wasn't something I wanted to do. So I didn't go. They had a good time there, and it was after that that my classmates started the Zoom meetings.

But then this last June there was a French students' trip to a chateau just north of Toulouse with my French teacher, and I did that, and then my sister Emily came over from London and we spent four days or so together and had a great time going down to Carcassonne, and then to Lagrasse and Perpignon and Barcelona and then we flew out, and I said, yes, I can do it, it was a perfect trip. Somewhere in there, near to a year and a half after Ann died, maybe a year and a quarter, I got up one morning and felt better. I hadn't felt sad, or maybe I wouldn't let myself, I thought about it I guess, but then I refused to think about it, as I said, but then I discovered that I looked forward to the day more, and then I discovered I could travel, even if I didn't have a built-in companion to travel with, and now I'm on Maui and I'm typing away and I have too many projects to finish, but somehow maybe I will, maybe I'll muddle through.

Budd Shenkin