Lost and Found: That “Third Thing”

My third husband, Jim, was already retired when I met him, both of us in our 60’s. We had lost spouses to cancer and were living as singles—for me, nearly seventeen years, but not so long for Jim. We had much in common and didn’t want to date for years to get to know each other, so we decided to jump right into the complexity of marriage.  “Uff da,” as we Norwegians say.

We believed we were old hands at marriage—especially me—but quickly realized that marriage later in life, like all marriages, has plenty of challenges.  They are just different ones. I began to understand, too, the importance of what the poet, Donald Hall, calls a “third thing.”

Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment.

Starting out, Jim and I didn’t have that third thing. We both had our individual families and histories, but nothing we’d created or shared exclusively as a couple. Then along came Eddie, our beagle, who showed up on our deck one afternoon in late September. At the time Jim’s dog, Happi, was dying of oral cancer. She slept peacefully most days on the corner of our couch.

I’d noticed a dog wandering in the thicket behind our house, and wondered what he was doing there, so when he showed up, I let him in, believing he had to be lost. He came in like he owned the place, and gently sniffed Happi, resting on the couch. He then took a drink of her water and settled down on the rug with a sigh. When Jim came home, we walked the neighborhood with the dog, expecting that he belonged to someone nearby. No luck, so Jim took him to our local vet and left him. The vet called later and said that using the dog’s chip, they had found the owner, and the two were reunited. Case closed; Happi died a week later.

Then came November and a call from the vet who told us that the owner didn’t want the dog and was going to take it to the pound, unless we might be interested. We were mourning and didn’t want another dog. We also didn’t want this friendly dog to go to a pound. So we took him. A week later was Thanksgiving, and Eddie—we now knew his name—made a grand entrance to our family by lifting his leg and peeing on the dining room table leg, just as we were about to eat.  An ignominious beginning, to say the least.

Over time Eddie showed his true worth. He was always a stalwart defender of Jim through his illnesses. He sometimes howled in happiness when Jim walked through the door. He also followed me doggedly (pun intended) around the house. Gradually—and finally—we found ourselves with a third thing—our family of pets, which included Thor, whom I brought to the marriage, and Tress, Jim’s cat, and of course, Eddie, with his beagle personality, the obvious linchpin. (Tress later died, and we now have a new cat, Stella.)

Jumping ahead to this September. . . we went up north to Lake Superior, on the edge of the Superior National Forest, beyond Duluth and almost to the Canadian border. A pristine wilderness, and we would be there at the peak of fall colors.

A Beautiful Fall Day–Up North

It was our first time out after Jim’s illness, finding our way back to the world. Wonderful friends had invited us to a cabin and said, “Of course, bring Eddie.”  And Eddie had been Eddie, kind and loving to everyone, and trusting that this change of venue was fine, jumping onto a red chair and settling for a nap, whenever he could.

The weekend was coming to an end. Jim was already in bed in our little guest cabin. Outside the night was pitch black; it had been raining all evening. As I got ready to climb in bed, I looked for Eddie in his red chair.  No Eddie. I looked all over the cabin, peeked under the beds, opened closet doors that he couldn’t possibly have gotten into, but still no Eddie. I woke Jim to help me search. He suggested that maybe Eddie had gotten outside. The screen door did not latch, although it made an angry retort if you didn’t manually close it.

Eddie was gone. We’d lost him and in a place immense and filled with dangers everywhere. I started thinking about those TV dramas where a child goes missing and someone says, “The first 24 hours are the most important.” So, in my pajamas, I slipped on my hiking shoes, grabbed a rain jacket and flashlight and took off down the dark road calling “Eddie, Eddie,” still traumatized from almost losing Thor only a month ago and thinking dark thoughts about our status in the universe.

Who did we think we were, venturing out when Jim was still recovering? We’d been preoccupied with having everything go well for Jim, so that his legs would not swell and pull us back into the hole of sickness we’d been climbing out of.  And now we’d put Eddie—a big part of the menagerie that made up our third thing—at risk, Eddie, who trusted us and believed in the goodness of the world.

I searched near the steep shoreline and down the two roads near the cabins.  There were a couple of hiking trails along the river, but I didn’t dare take those in the dark though I imagined Eddie sniffing his way down them, following a provocative scent, then trying to find his way back to the cabin. All the while, a wolf watching and waiting to make dinner of him. No Eddie. As I walked back, my eyes filled with tears, overwhelmed with loss—the loss of Eddie along with the loss of Jim’s health.

Imagine This–In the Dark

I walked into the cabin, knowing there’d be no sleep, just as there’d not been much sleep in the weeks before. There was Jim in the kitchen, Eddie at his feet, begging for a bite of toast. I couldn’t believe it. Eddie had found his way back in the murky, threatening darkness. 

But Eddie had never been gone at all. There was a mattress stored under the bed, and although both Jim and I had looked under the bed, we had not been able to see that Eddie had squeezed himself on top of that mattress and directly beneath the bed mattress, with barely enough room to raise his head, like being the filling on a mattress sandwich. He’d finally come out to all the excitement. Crisis averted, our boy, the linchpin of our third thing was safe and sound.

We live in a time rife with threats—to our country, to climate, to the flora and fauna of our earth, and we live with this during a time in our own lives filled with uncertainty. Having a third thing is one way of standing together among that uncertainty. Jim’s and my third thing might not be the stuff of poetry, but it is our third thing, and, like life itself, both ubiquitous and fragile. Will we someday lose Eddie, or Thor or Stella or something else we dearly love? Of course, but meanwhile we have Eddie, who found his way to our doorstep and people who love him. While I was searching for the “lost” Eddie, there he was, wedged between the mattress version of a rock and a hard place, sleeping soundly and trusting that all would turn out okay.

Who Is the Old Lady Directing This Circus?

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A week ago, I sat in a zoom circle organized by Jenny Antolak to reflect on a problem endemic to almost anyone over the age of 30:  We have been so busy growing up that we have often forgotten how to fall in love with our lives.  Jenny directed us to Shel Silverstein’s remarkable poem, “Growing Down”, which starts with a description of Mr. Brown, “the grumpiest man in town” who constantly hectors children to grow up, but ends up learning from them:

He got his trousers torn and stained,

He ran out barefoot in the rain,

Shouting to all the folks in town,

“It’s much more fun, this growin’ down.”

As we shared about the rules we followed in order to become successful adults, I confronted my carefully nurtured self-image as a bit of a rebel and a rule-breaker.  Sure, I made some career choices that were “risky”, leaving a plum job at Tufts University to go to a soft-money research institute, and later making a decision to detour from an obvious path to higher administrative positions in order to become a “regular” faculty member – but those were within a game where I knew all the rules and which ones I could break with no consequences.  More often I made careful and conventional choices that were “adult” and “responsible”, in marriage, in work, in friendships and other commitments.

But, while recovering from a divorce that my then-husband and I had avoided for years (those rules– “until death do us part”), I fell in love with someone who, before we were even sure that we were an item, asked me to join him in a spitting contest on the porch!  The silliness of it blew me away – as well as the utter charm of being childlike in my mid-50s.  When we married, I included in our vows his obligation to make me laugh every day.  No problem there, but on the outside, I still held on to the persona of someone who had been handed the playbook of life and had memorized it.  And I wanted to look it.  I colored my hair.  I wore eyeliner.  I bought my clothes at the American Craft Council shows, not at Macys.  And of course I had the black dress (or pants and top) to show them off.

Fast forward to retirement…when all the rules could change because we had played by the careful financial planning rules for middle-income professionals. But then there is a new script – the script for aging gracefully from the New York Times. Horrifyingly, it starts not with social skills or running barefoot in the rain, but with buying a hearing aid sooner rather than later and making sure to give up your driver’s license before, rather than after, an accident. 

Another article also triggered me, reporting that The Villages, a retirement community in Florida, has grown to more than 150,000 residents–with a 10 page list of rules governing residents.  Could Mr. Brown learn to “grow down” there, or would he be tied to an art class at 10, golf at 1, and cocktails at 5?  The behavioral rules of aging tell us where we want to live, what we should wear (read any woman’s magazine, which has hair and clothing suggestions tailored to age….), what to eat, how much to exercise, and repeatedly urge us to stay socially connected (once we get the hearing aids that allow us to…)

What happened to “When I Grow Old, I Will Wear Purple”, and Jenny Joseph’s 1992 warning that,

I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.

Jenny argues for joyful silliness and breaking rules precisely because we are old enough to realize that we could always have gotten away with it – but were too cautious (or forgot).

Karen Martha laughed when I mentioned this, recalling that, when she recently complained about loud music in a coffee shop, her granddaughter (who happens to be our blog’s technical assistant) looked at her and said, “you usually don’t act like a grandma, but just now you did.”  Ooph – a 2X4 to the side of the head to remind us that it’s ok to ask for a quiet table in a restaurant when we are out with our 70+ year old friends, but not ok when we make it into a rule.

Which also reminds me that my 16-year-old granddaughter was invited to see Chicago by a friend’s grandmother.  The kids assumed that they were going to see a local production of the musical.  When they got there, it turned out to be the band  by the same name—at least some of whom are septuagenarians.  They had a blast listening to the songs that rocked our world when we were in our 20s!  Now that’s an astute grandma.

We are still part of the circus of life. So, every circus has lots of rules – they are there to govern the safety of the performers.  However, the performance needs to ensure that the audience is only aware of the magic and not what keeps the circus functioning behind the scenes.  The behind-the-scenes rules for those of us who wish to age well while “not acting like a grandma” is to pay attention only to new rules that keep us safe (if your knee suggests that a cane will keep you from falling, use it!), while ignoring the rules governing old people’s behavior that are designed to keep us invisible.  Even more, can we celebrate everyday events that suggest that we, like Mr. Brown, are growing down rather than growing up in the way that modern memes of aging expect?

I remind myself that the circus—especially Cirque du Soleil and its more modest spinoffs –  is magical because it pushes us to think about our humanity beyond our usual imagination.  For me, that will translate into more humble efforts: Getting down on the floor to play with a 4-year-old (my knees remind me that it was a lot easier with the oldest grandchild, but I can still do it).  Or remembering to have another spitting context.  Or sometimes just doing whatever equivalent of running in the rain strikes me.  I am reminded of the last lines of Brittany Spears’ song – prescient as the voice of someone who was forced to play by other people’s rules for much of her life:

Don’t stand there watching me, follow me, show me what you can do
Everybody let go, we can make a dance floor just like a circus

I guess that I am the ringmaster here….

–photo of t-shirt from The Old Ladies Rebellion

Welcome to the Club

The Clubhouse

I wake up from pleasant dreams that I can’t remember, but I do know I felt good in them. Slamming awake I realize that it’s still there, the reality of my life. My husband, Jim, has a chronic condition that will require care the rest of his life.  Currently, it’s acute and my days revolve around it. I eat breakfast, not only standing, but taking a bite and then doing something that needs doing before the lymphedema nurse arrives. I haven’t showered, but the dog’s been walked, I’ve tidied, and I’ve thrown a load in the washer. This is the life of a caregiver, disjointed and always on call.

I am not alone in my call to give care, indeed, having joined a club that welcomes all members. Nearly 42 million adults in the US care for elderly parents or friends, with three out of five of these, women. The average age of caregiving recipients is 68.9 while the average age of caregivers is 49. I’m outside the norm on that one. But I’m not outside the norm of a 20 hour work week for caregivers (See https://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/ppi/2020/05/full-report-caregiving-in-the-united-states.doi.10.26419-2Fppi.00103.001.pdf.).

I’ve been thrust in the roll of caregiver four times in my life, and each experience was completely different. Context matters, who you are taking care of matters, your life at the time matters, the malady matters, how long the caregiving will go on matters, and your attitude matters. I suspect this is just a minimal list of all the permutations. For now, let me tell you a little about how caregiving has impacted my life. Maybe others will be inclined to share their experiences.

Two thoughts dominate my internal monologue. The first is how long will this last? Will it consume my entire retirement? There’s anger behind this thought, and I don’t like that in myself. But I’m not only angry. My second prevailing thought is compassion. Someone I love is coping with pain and the knowledge that his life will never be the same, that many of his favorite ways of spending time are gone. Probably toughest of all is watching him cope with the knowledge that this recurring illness is a harbinger of the end of life.

My first introduction to caregiving was when my mother, Margaret, was dying of kidney cancer. My two sisters and I agreed to do two-week stints to help her and our stepfather. I went first. It was heart wrenching to see her in pain all the time. Her cancer had spread to her bones, and she lay, mostly moaning in pain. A strong painkiller patch deadened some of her pain, but she was also in pain about dying. “I’m not ready,” she told me. “I wanted more time.” She never talked about how she would use more time. She knew she wasn’t going to have it.

My mother lived three months from those first two weeks when I cared for her.  I never had a chance to care for her again. When I returned home, my second husband, Gary, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I was to be a caregiver to him instead. Caring for my mother felt like a loving responsibility. I was to quickly learn that caring for a husband whom you love very much is a completely different experience.

Gary lived fourteen months from his diagnosis of cancer. We had a mix of good and bad times, and I never resented caring for him. During the hard times, he was extremely cross from his pain—understandable, but still difficult. During the good times, we mourned the loss of our future together. I was with him every step of the way. A part of my heart was broken when he died. A wise counselor has taught me that within the brokenness is the memory of a man I dearly loved. I can hold that memory and go forward with my own life.

Seventeen years after Gary died, I met Jim, my third husband, whose own wife had died of cancer. We were going along nicely, forgetting how life can turn on a dime. Over one Labor Day weekend, he developed sepsis and went into septic shock, almost dying. We later learned it was from a perforated ulcer. When he came home from the hospital, I was back in the club. What I didn’t expect were the demands of helping someone who’s in great emotional turmoil from the aftermath of the disease itself—depression. We muddled through, not realizing that chronic edema, a consequence of his illness, would create the ideal conditions for another bout of sepsis three years later.  

So here I am again, a fourth time, which I sense will be indeterminate. I must say it feels different. Two days ago, a nurse bluntly said to us “It’s not edema, it’s lymphedema, a different condition. And you’ll have it the rest of your life.”  She kindly didn’t add, “Get used to it,” but it was implied.

Once again, those same two thoughts haunt me—what will happen to my life? Will I be able to do the things I enjoy? Will I ever be able to travel again? And what about my writing? Rosemaling?

Then there’s that second haunting thought about his suffering and fears. I feel challenged to alleviate these and help him go forward. I also feel great sadness for him. Am I up to the challenge?

Susan Allen Toth wrote an excellent memoir, No Saints Around Here: A Caregiver’s Days,  about caring for her husband who died of Parkinson’s disease. She writes:

“So much.” I think that simple phrase could easily be the motto emblazoned on a caregiver’s shield. Love, pain, courage, endurance, loss. So much, so much.

We caregivers are a club. We don’t have to feel isolated because we are in the company of caregivers all over the world, not to mention the circle of help from home nursing services, friends, and family. And we have love, the foundation that helps us go forward no matter how uncertain the future may be. As for me, it’s early, and doggone it, I will do my utmost to take care of both Jim and Karen. If there’s one thing the caregivers club has honed in me, it’s determination!

Losing Thor and Finding Belonging

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The adventure began when I realized at dinner that I’d not seen Thor all day. It was 7pm. I knew he’d come home when he got hungry. After dinner I went outside to water the flowers, expecting him to rub against my leg, as he does when I show up in the garden, his secret domain. No Thor. I checked the closets—he’s notorious for walking out from some place we don’t know exists in our house. Again, not a sign of him.

When I acquired Thor from the Humane Society as a kitten, I’d promised myself that I’d take exceptional care of him. He was the first cat I’d chosen myself, not given to me by someone needing to get rid of a cat. Because of that promise, I had to find Thor before bed. I started walking the neighborhood calling him. My neighbor to the south offered to help, but I worried that he wouldn’t come to her. He was by nature skittish of other humans. 

By bedtime, no Thor. I reluctantly searched the thicket of trees behind our yard, “Thorrrrrr. . . Thorrrrr.” But no Thor embraced my legs, only mosquitos and unidentified bugs.

I was worried. I made one more perusal of the neighborhood, calling softly, so as not to awaken anyone. I went to bed, hoping that he’d be at the door by 1am, and I’d let him in, give him a treat and sleep well. 1am, 2am, 3am—no Thor and no sleep. I was up by six, roaming the neighborhood, calling his name. I knew it was bad. He ALWAYS comes when called, and he doesn’t stay out all night, a patterned behavior I’d reinforced.

Thus began my search. A part of me believed searching was futile. Our neighborhood is defined by a lake. I walked around that lake that first morning at 6am. And I continued to search nearby blocks all day.

I read websites about how to find a missing cat, listed him on the missing pets website, and created a poster, as the sites advised. I printed over 100 posters, bought a stapler at Ace Hardware, and plastered the neighborhood with them.

Then it started, my neighbors, most of whom I don’t know except by sight, sent texts telling me they were sorry and would keep an eye out. A young man who heard me call Thor, said he’d alert his grandparents, retired neighbors whom I’d never met. The next night I met them, and they told me they’d scoured the shoreline for Thor.

The third evening, a woman phoned and said she saw a grey cat at a neighbor’s house. She offered to wait until I could get there. I jumped in the car and raced to the location, a block from Minnehaha Creek Parkway and five blocks from my house. Could he have gone so far, lost, and heading in the wrong direction? 

When I met the woman and her husband, they walked the neighborhood with me, calling Thor’s name. This part of the Diamond Lake neighborhood is filled with traditional, pricey homes with landscaped gardens. I traipsed the alleys, and I saw people enjoying the summer evening with friends. A few acknowledged me and said they’d keep an eye out. No Thor, however.

I was now too tired not to sleep, and I was also racking up mega points on my Fitbit, walking the neighborhoods. South of our house is 60th St., the demarcation between Richfield, a first ring suburb, and Minneapolis. The street also marks a change in the neighborhood, with the Richfield neighborhood peopled with Hispanics and tiny starter houses. I got the same helpful reception in that neighborhood, “Oh, your cat is lost? I’ll keep an eye out. Put some food out and something he likes to cuddle.”

Sunday morning: Day four. Thor was probably gone for good, since I knew he’d come when I called if he heard me. I’d allowed him to be outside, and he had always stayed close to the house, but something had probably scared him, and he’d gotten confused. I sadly took responsibility.

I decided to do laundry, knowing there was nothing else to do. By the laundry room, I heard meowing, and thought it was our other cat, Stella, who’d been following me everywhere since Thor had gone missing. This meow sounded different, soft, more like Thor’s. I walked into my husband’s office, pried open a sticky pocket door to a closet we never use, and guess who ran out? Thor! I screamed, breathless with happiness. I couldn’t believe it. I’d checked that closet the day he went missing, and I’d been downstairs many times. Why hadn’t he made a peep, or come out the first time I checked? Thor went right upstairs to his bowl and commenced eating. Only a cat can be locked in a closet four days and not come out a hopeless neurotic. 

The ending is happy. A few days later as I walked around the neighborhood taking down posters, a little boy I’ve never met asked me, “Has Thor come home yet?”  I told him yes, and I walked on realizing what a remarkable experience of belonging to a neighborhood I’d had. Other neighbors sent texts asking if Thor was back yet. People cared. People offered to help. People walked with me when I was searching. People commiserated when they saw me calling “Thorrrrr.”

Karen has written eloquently about belonging, but losing Thor made me find belonging. I normally feel like an outsider—it’s my personality; I’m more of an observer than a participant. But in this neighborhood, for four days, I was an insider. I felt connected to others by the common experience of loving and losing a pet.

I learned that belonging is two sided and requires effort to engage as much as having others invite you in. I’d been on a quest. I‘d walked the modest neighborhood south of me and the pricey neighborhood to the north, and in both places, people cared. It wasn’t about our differences but about our attachments to what we love. I reached out, engaged and people engaged back. Losing Thor, however briefly, taught me that if I reach out, there’s a world out there that will respond, and I can belong. 

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No Need for These Anymore