I Miss Her So ...
On August 3rd, 1964, Carol Podhoretz and I met and had our first date. It was a blind date engineered by my sister, Sheila. When Carol first cast an eye on me, through the peephole in her apartment door, she decided that she was ill and could not go out.
The fact that she was dressed to the 9s let me know instantly what had happened. She had assumed I would look like my sister, who was pretty and slim. Instead she saw a not all that tall, bald man, who weighed nearly 300 pounds. This had happened before and was why I avoided blind dates. But Sheila had been persuasive. Carol was teaching a speech pathology practicum course in which Sheila was a student, and Sheila said it would help her if I took out this new woman in town.
Rather than be totally ungracious, Carol invited me in for a drink, and after an hour of conversation said she was feeling better if I still wanted to go out. We went out for an evening of dinner and dancing.
From that night on neither of us dated any other person and on December 19th, of that year, Carol proposed and I accepted. On Christmas day, her birthday, I presented her with a ring. Just over a year after we first met, we were married.
On October 8th, 2007, Carol and I learned that she might have lung cancer.
In a few days after her initial diagnosis I had found connections among or through friends to every noted cancer center in the country. We settled on Johns Hopkins.
After seeing several doctors, the diagnosis was confirmed by an oncologist at Johns Hopkins University Hospital on October 25th. Carol had stage 4 lung cancer, with several spots of cancer cells in her brain and a spot at Thoracic 10.
Each of the doctors told us the same thing that the median life expectancy of a person with disease as advanced as Carol's was 8-10 months. But each of these doctors told us of someone who had beaten the odds by many years.
I remember in particular the supportive words of the doctor with whom we met at Johns Hopkins, "Carol - you are a healthy person who has cancer."
We decided then that we would never talk about the prognosis again, but it was omnipresent in my head.
Carol began radiation for the brain spots. A three-week course of radiation to be completed before chemotherapy could be started. At the outset of radiation, she was told that she could no longer drive.
As soon as the depth of Carol's illness became known a wonderful group of her women friends organized a driving pool that would take her to treatments - wherever she wanted to go.
By the end of her radiation treatments on November 9th, Carol's hair had fallen out and she had acquired two wigs. She was physically exhausted and had lost her sense of taste. This was not a surprise as she had been warned of these consequences due to radiation therapy.
Carol had also started a course of acupuncture with hopes of reducing anxiety and was consulting a psychotherapist.
Chemotherapy was scheduled to start on November 28th and Carol was dreading it. She talked about not being sure she wanted to go through it. I did my best to encourage her about her prospects, but we had both heard the prognosis and she was bearing the direct burden of the treatment.
On November 11th, several of Carol's friends took her out to dinner and a Bruce Springsteen concert. She had always wanted to see Springsteen in concert. So she rested most of the day and when she arrived home that night it was clear she had enjoyed herself but even that one outing took all the energy she could muster.
On the 17th of November, Carol and I were scheduled to attend the Bar Mitzvah of my god son, Max, a young man who we both loved. The night before, his entire extended family came to our home for a Sabbath dinner. Max's family suggested moving the dinner to their own home, but Carol would not hear of it. Carol was very tired and joined us for just over an hour.
The next evening we dressed for the Bar Mitzvah ceremony, which was to begin at 5:30 p.m. Carol was very tired and I told her it was okay for her to stay home, that everyone would understand if she missed the ceremony.
But she wanted to go, and when Carol wanted to do something, it was not a good idea to try and stop her. She managed, with my help to get completely dressed, except for her wig. As she sat on the side of our bed I could see that she was completely exhausted. I told her again that she did not have to go and that I would attend to the ceremony and not stay for the party.
With sadness in her eyes that I had not seen before, she said, "I am just too tired. You go, I will be fine here." I helped her to undress and then went to the service, in which I participated. When it was over, I slipped into the reception room and got a plate of goodies to take home. But Carol could not bring herself to even taste them.
On the morning of November 19th, Carol was scheduled to go to Sibley Hospital to have some fluid removed from her lung. As I was preparing to leave the house for the office, she was as tired as I had ever seen her. I offered to stay home and go to the procedure with her. She said no and, she was very comfortable with Marcia, our friend who was scheduled to pick her up and go with her.
I learned later that when Marcia arrived, Carol was not downstairs as was her usual practice. Marcia went upstairs and found that she was too tired to dress herself, so she helped her. Then they called the doorman to come up with a wheel chair so she would not have to walk to the front door.
As they pulled out of the driveway of our apartment building, just after 10:00 in the morning, Carol said she was tired and was going to close her eyes for a moment. When they arrived at Sibley Hospital, some fifteen minutes later, Carol was unconscious.
I was in my office when Marcia called and explained that they were at the hospital, and that the doctors were trying to revive her. I jumped in a cab. I have little memory of what went through my mind in the cab except an overriding fear that I would be too late. As I arrived at the emergency entrance of Sibley Hospital and headed through the door I saw Marcia down the hall and she was on her cell phone. I could tell by the look on her face that I was too late. She held me and said Carol was dead. [I later calculated that we had been together for 43 years, 3 months and 16 days.]
A nurse or doctor came out to see me, to give me the news, and took us from the entry way to a place in a hall inside the emergency area. Within a few moments friends began to appear. It is hard to describe how grateful I was to see their wonderful faces.
I had called our internist who was also our friend, and left a message for him as I left my office. He soon appeared at the hospital.
As we filled the hallway, a nurse showed us to a waiting room. She said I could see Carol in a few moments. I don't remember for sure who came with me; I think it was our doctor.
There has been no more sad or difficult moment in my life. Seeing her so pale and unsmiling, wearing a kind of turban so her bald head was not visible. I touched her cheek, I kissed her and said my goodbye.
How did it happen so quickly? We knew the prognosis was bad, but no one suggested it would happen so quickly. All of the doctors that had been involved in her treatment were surprised.
Once I left the room in which she was laying someone from the hospital administrative office came to find me, and I went with our doctor to another room where a quiet and respectful person asked me a series of questions and did the final paperwork.
He asked whether I wanted an autopsy. I turned to our doctor and he said this was so unexpected we might learn something. "Did we all miss something?" he said. And so I agreed. I sat as our doctor signed the death certificate. Carol had been pronounced dead at 10:47 a.m. That was the first of what turned out to be several moments of finality.
In a little while I said goodbye to my friends and Howard took me to the funeral home that I knew we would use. Carol wanted to be cremated and she had made her own urn, in fact she had made two, one quite different than the other. (She made one for me as well. It has been sitting on a shelf in our living room for years.)
The word of Carol's death spread quickly and many folks came by that night - and the next two nights.
Some one or more of our friends offered to spend that first night, but I declined. Carol and I spent many nights apart over the years as a result of her travels or mine. But I always knew it was temporary. I knew this was not temporary. There was a moment late that night when I wondered whether I was just having a terrible dream.
In the days that followed, I learned from several of her friends that Carol had been wondering what was going to happen to me if she died. I believe she became reassured after her conversations with her closest friends that they would watch out for me. They have kept their promise to her and I am so grateful.
Beginning with the day on which she had the first hint she might have cancer; Carol kept a very detailed journal which she eventually titled "Nailing down this cancer thing."
The last entry Carol made in this Journal was November 11th.
Carol had an e-mail pen pal, Theresa, from Eugene Oregon with whom she traded one or more emails a day beginning in February 2000. The last email she received from Carol was on November 15th.
Many months later, I learned about an email exchange between Carol and one of her friend's who was involved in organizing the car pool. On November 16th, Rhoda sent this message to Carol "(name of a person) would like to be put on the carpool list. Before doing so, want to run it by you."
On November 18th, Carol wrote back "Please hold on modifying the list until I have a better sense of my life."
I have come to the conclusion that Carol decided it was time to go. Over the years, she talked about having lived longer than she ever expected. She did not want to go through chemotherapy with long-term prospects being so bleak.
I shouldn't have been surprised I suppose. Carol and I had many conversations about death over the years. It may seem a little odd that we had discussed this subject well before her illness, but Carol's family history provides an answer. Carol's mother died at 38 years. The sister who raised her, died at 46 years, and her other sister died at 61 years. All four women died of cancer, four different cancers. (Carol's father died at age 40 of a heart attack.)
I next saw Carol at the funeral parlor. She had to be identified before the cremation. My sister Sheila and her husband had arrived and they were with me. I remember being held by my sister and saying "what am I going to do, what am I going to do?"
As she lay in the wooden coffin Carol looked exactly as she had on the hospital table. This was the second moment of finality.
Then a few days later the funeral home called to say I could pick up her ashes. A friend went with me. It seemed so weird walking out the door carrying the light blue ceramic urn which she had made, knowing that it contained all of what was left of Carol's physical being. This was the third moment of finality.
There was a brief moment when I was angry with Carol for dying when she did. Why had she done this to me? Why had she died when I was not even there? There were things that I wanted to say to her one more time before she died. I had waited too long. There was nothing I had not said before, but it seemed like the right thing to say them one more time. I have now come to believe that she decided to spare me that moment.
On December 9th - 500 friends gathered at the Terrace Theater of the Kennedy Center. Carol lived in three worlds and they came together that day to share their memories of her.
There was the world of babies, represented by her friends from the organization, Zero to Three, where she served on the staff and then on the board for more than 20 years.
Her second world was that of the potters. Carol had become an accomplished potter and had a whole coterie of friends with whom she learned and worked and played.
And there was the world of politics, a world which she and I shared.
Carol's closest friend, Rita, was the mistress of ceremonies. Marvin Hamlisch, a favorite of Carol's, opened with two of her favorite songs. Then there was a video put together by another of Carol's close friends, Hilary. It was a wonderful montage. Her niece Bonnie spoke for her family, and my sister Nancy for our family, Bev, one of her pottery buddies, represented that world, and Matthew, the executive director of Zero to Three, spoke for that world. Rita then spoke and I closed.
I had known from the beginning that I wanted to speak. As the day of the gathering approached and I had finished putting my thoughts on paper, I began to wonder whether I could pull it off. One of our friends reassured me. She said it would be okay, that I did not have to worry. That the room would be full of people who loved one or both of us, and they would carry me through even if I faltered. She was right.
That gathering was the fourth moment of finality.
A few weeks after Carol died, I was in the large walk-in closet in our apartment. I tripped and fell over one of my shoes that I had left lying in the middle of the floor. I landed hard on one of my two metal knees. It quickly swelled up and turned dark purple. It hurt something fierce.
For what seems like 40 years, Carol had warned me about leaving my shoes lying around. She kept telling me that someday I would trip and fall. X-rays confirmed that I had not injured the artificial knee, but it hurt and was stiff for a long time. I know that somewhere Carol was watching and shaking her head and saying “I told you so."
After I told a couple of my friends what happened, they insisted that I get a "life alert" like system to wear around the apartment when I am home alone.
About six weeks after her death, I missed her so much that I wondered what it would be like to stop living as I am and instead be with her again, wherever she might be. I often wondered whether I was having a bad dream from which I would shortly awake.
For the first couple of months after Carol died, I was in a fog. Two of my friends urged me to go to the office for at least a few hours every day. But even when I was physically there, most of the time my mind was somewhere else.
My body had all but deserted me. Every physical problem I had experienced over the last 20 years returned with a vengeance. My knees, both of which had been replaced, were not capable of lifting me off a sofa or the commode.
My shoulders, both of which are afflicted with rotator cuff problems, were all but frozen. I could not reach my wallet in my back pocket, so began carrying it in a side pocket. Putting on a coat or jacket was a painful task. The doorman in our building would help me on with it in the morning and someone would do the same in my office when I was ready to leave.
My hips hurt whenever I walked.
The muscles in my neck were so sore that I could not turn my head. I dared not drive. I had to organize myself to get out of bed. I could not just swing my legs over the edge and get up.
And if all that was not enough, I developed an unexplained anemia.
My emotions were so fragile that almost anything brought tears to my eyes.
I had a sense before all of this happened that our physical and mental well being are tied to our minds. Now I am convinced.
I had several visits with a psychotherapist that had treated me in earlier years for my fatness. He encouraged me to talk about my feelings with friends and I have done that. Sometimes I worry that I am burdening them with my feelings.
Several folks suggested that I consider attending a bereavement group, but so far I have not done that.
I have spent hours alone with my memories and with questions. Earlier in the summer, when Carol complained about a cough and shortness of breath she had not felt a need to see our doctor. Should I have been more attentive and pushed her to see the doctor? Why did she decide to leave me? Why didn't I stay home that morning in November when she was so tired? Many people have referred to Carol as my best friend. Somehow how that did not sound right. I have lots of friends. I have several best friends.
And then I realized that Carol was not my friend. There is no adjective or series of adjectives when attached to the word friend that described our relationship. She was so much more than a best friend. Carol was a part of who I was and am. I can only hope that I was the same for her.
Recently, a friend's husband died. As we talked she described her husband as her "soul mate." And then she said "just as you and Carol are soul mates." That fits. Carol and I did not have any children. We had each other. But I never knew or guessed how much I would miss her or in how many ways our lives were intertwined. Some days, it is as if Carol has been gone forever and some days it is as if she died yesterday.
I have received hundreds of cards and letters of condolence, so many telling little stories about her. Carol certainly had a way of connecting up with people whom she had just met.
To this day the urn with her ashes sits on the mantle in our living room, surrounded by favorite pictures of her and of us. I have subsequently learned what she wanted done with the ashes.
While there was no hurry, within a month or so, I felt the need to begin the work of doing things with Carol's possessions. (I have talked to at least one friend who when his wife died could not bring himself to even open her closets for two years.)
Although a number of our friends stood ready to help me with the task of her possessions, I did not want to bother them.
Hilary did help me go through her bathroom. Throwing out bags of makeup and items some of which I could not possibly identify. It made me uncomfortable with the idea of asking her friends to help me go through the rest of her things.
Then Debbie gave me an invaluable gift, four hours of time of a concierge service. I have never received a more timely and useful gift.
This service and the women who manage it has been a life saver. They went through Carol's closets and arranged to have appropriate clothes delivered to a charity that Carol liked, that helps women who are entering or reentering the work force. The remainder went to Good Will. They went through our storage lockers and disposed of just about everything in them. They arranged to sell Carol's car. They also arranged the installation of a new tv set in my home office and replaced our microwave and toaster, which were on their last legs.
They completed the personal filing that I had left fallow while Carol was sick and thereafter. I cannot begin to list the numbers of projects they have undertaken. Libby, who has paid particular attention to my needs, has come one day a week to work with me as I went through endless boxes, drawers, file cabinets and cubbies in which Carol had stored an endless number of items. Carol had stored things in our apartment in assorted out-of-the-way places that I did not even remember existed.
Carol was incapable of getting rid of anything.
I am able to cook, but what was I to do with the three cusinarts, 150 Tupperware pieces, 75 coffee cups, and dozens of bowls, pots and dishes (most of which she had made) that were stuffed into every drawer, cupboard and shelf in the kitchen?
How many people do you know who saved every invitation, letter, interesting article, and photo we received for the last 20 years and had stored them in packages by year? That was Carol. And the pictures and mementoes were endless.
With Libby's help, I recently selected more than 500 books, mostly Carol's, but some of mine, to be donated to a group called Friends of the Library.
Perhaps I could have gone through these materials alone, but when I tried doing it alone, I often became morose and quickly stopped. Libby kept me going.
I waited until mid-July, 8 months after Carol's death, to begin to look through Carol's computer files. There were various iterations of the journal in which she kept of all the information about her illness, from the names of doctors to test results to her feelings.
Starting at the time of the initial tentative diagnosis, Carol kept a very detailed journal of events and things to be done. She titled it "Nailing down this cancer thing". She regularly shared it with me. The last entry that I have been able to find is dated November 11th about mid-day.
There were files about pottery, and the family tree she had worked on, and a passel of other rather ordinary items. And then I came upon something that jumped out. It was titled "My funeral."
The memorandum was probably started at least 3 years before Carol's death, and it seems unlikely that she added anything to it after she knew she was ill.
She explains that she wants a nice obituary with a good photo, and includes a number of specific details, most all of which were included in her obituary.
She wanted to be cremated and one of her pots used to hold the ashes, and after a year to have her ashes included in a really nice glaze. As for a memorial service, she suggests the possibility of the Four Seasons, "but I don't like the idea of spending so much on parking. Don't go there without a fantastic deal."
She suggested the possibility of Marvin Hamlisch playing at the event, although after his name she wrote "(kidding)." She thought she had asked Rita to speak and she was convinced that I would not be able to speak.
The final section of the memorandum is summarized by the following. "I know that most of my things are in order and only important to me while I am alive. There is stuff that I have held onto in case I want to take a trip down memory lane that is of no use to anyone else. I don't like the idea of anyone going through this stuff and calling me a pack rat after I am dead. And I don't want anyone to think I was messy."
She intended to leave instructions for how "someone might dispose of categories of collected items such as photos, miniature shoes, pottery, and clothes." She never got around to making that list. I have distributed most of these items in a manner that I think she would have approved.
Carol cared about Zero to Three, the organization at which she worked and to which she remained dedicated until her death. A fund in her memory at Zero to Three has grown to a substantial amount through the extraordinary generosity of so many friends.
For Carol's 65th birthday, as a gift (with wonderful help from a special friend) I endowed a Fellowship at Zero to Three.
Carol will be remembered through that Fellowship and the projects that will be supported by the fund established in her name.
Carol made decorative bowls and goblets to commemorate various private and public events; a set of bowls decorated as a family of bears, with a bowl for each of our pals, husband and wife, and each of their children and grandchildren; a goblet for a young person for his or her bar or bat mitzvah; a goblet for a wedding couple; bowls to be used as the awards given by Vital Voices.
Carol had a Flickr website that I did not learn about until well after her death. It can be found here. There are some beautiful examples of Carol's work.
Carol also wrote parodies, hundreds of them for various celebratory events in honor of friends, for their birthdays and anniversaries, for our Passover Seder, and for just about any occasion you might imagine.
It still doesn't take a lot to bring tears to my eyes or great sadness to my heart, but it seems to be happening less frequently.
Somewhere I read the quote of a man who said of his deceased wife "she was the editor of my life." That phrase shows up again in a recent article by Dorothy Gallapher who spoke about her first editor as also the "editor of my life."
That description fits Carol so well. She was the editor of my life in many ways, but she was also the editor of my printed word.
I produce a newsletter. I suspended it when Carol became ill. When I went back to it this past May it was the 77th issue. When I finished drafting it I realized that Carol had edited the first 76 editions. She had a perfect eye for English and for some of the characterizations I made of things that would not likely make sense to any of the readers. A few years ago, I wrote a book. Carol wrote a chapter from her perspective of what it was like living with a fat man. She was the first editor of every chapter that I wrote.
My first trip away from Washington after Carol died was in early May. I arrived at my hotel room in New York City and automatically did what I did on every trip I took. I picked up the phone and dialed home "to tell Carol or leave word that I had arrived."
It was not until the answering machine came on and I heard her voice that I realized what I had done.
A couple of months later I still had not changed the message. I thought about it a number of times, but did nothing about it. It was as if her voice on that machine, which I called from time to time to hear her voice, made her death less of a certainty. Then one of my friends mentioned that it was upsetting folks who called the house and heard her voice as they left a message. I checked with Rita. She confirmed that several people had spoken to her about it, but she had not wanted to bring it up with me.
The next day I changed the message.
For most of this year, the image of Carol that had been omnipresent whenever I lay in bed was that of her standing by the bedside, in a flannel night gown, her head shaved, worrying that a pain she felt in her leg was a sign that her cancer had migrated to another part of her body.
And then, on August 15th, our anniversary, that image went away and my visions of her were of happier times before her illness.
I had my first dinner party for about a dozen close friends. It came off exactly the way I hoped and not too complicated. I thanked our long-time caterer for pulling it off exactly the way I wanted it to be done. She laughed and said, "Carol told me to take care of you."
Since Carol's death, I have felt a new sense of vulnerability when it comes to my health. Who is going to watch out for me, to be my nurse, to advocate for me if I am in the hospital? Carol had done this for me twice in the last couple of years as I had both knees replaced.
Her absence in this regard was brought home to me most recently as I sat in the waiting area at Sibley Hospital's Outpatient Surgery Center, about to have carpel tunnel surgery. This procedure is not really a big deal, in and out in 4-5 hours. But, as I sat waiting to be called into the operating prep area, I was uncomfortable. Several folks had offered to come with me and one of them was going to pick me up with I was done. But they were not Carol; it was different
This has been a year of many firsts and changes.
I never thought about or began to realize how many things Carol did for us that just made our lives together work, foregoing her own professional interests for mine, orchestrating order in our lives, managing our home.
Carol, who was an accomplished speech pathologist and audiologist, worked herself out of a career as she followed me to Washington, back to Minnesota, and then back to Washington. When I asked her at the end of my second stint in government what she thought about the idea of moving back to Minneapolis again, her reply was short and direct, "just leave me the keys to the car and the apartment." We did not move. Happily, she built a new and successful career.
It was Carol who said to me after the 2004 Democratic convention, "You are too tired, you are not as young as you used to be, you are not doing this again." And while she was not here to enforce her edict, there was no way I was not going to follow her judgment. It was right too many times before.
Who knew how complicated it could be to get a replacement for a fancy faucet in the shower in my bathroom, a faucet which in fact is no longer stocked by the company from which it was purchased? Certainly I had never been burdened with such challenges before.
As I approach the day when it will be a year since Carol's death, I am physically back to normal and my emotions are a little less fragile, but I miss Carol in so many ways.
- I miss being together on election night. Either I would fly home in time or she
would join me in some other city.
- I miss the call I would make each Sunday morning when I left yoga class to see
whether she wanted a vente or grande skim latte.
- I miss our celebration of birthdays and anniversaries.
- I miss how much she enjoyed gifts that I brought her just for the fun of it,
unconnected to any event.
- I miss her at my Valentine's Day lunch.
- I miss seeing her hunched over her pottery wheel, sometimes in the middle of the
night, often in her nightgown, swiftly and skillfully turning a lump of clay into a beautiful
piece of pottery.
- I miss those early morning rides to Dulles airport when we were heading
From the moment we were picked up, Carol would be complaining about how early she had to get up in order to deal with my need to get to the airport in plenty of time. She would soon be snoozing and then she would sit at the airport slightly irritated until she got on board and could also take a snooze.
Then she would wake from her nap and smile, and everything would be okay.
And how could I forget that morning when she was leaving for South Africa, and since I was going to the airport with her, I insisted that we leave at an early hour. She had the usual complaint.
But then, sweet justice. As we pulled up in front of the Dulles terminal Carol realized she had left her driver’s license and all of her credit cards at home. The driver picked up speed and head back for our house.
We got home, she picked up the documents, and we got back to the airport in plenty of time for her flight. After that she did not complain about leaving for the airport earlier than most normal people.
- I miss the look she would give me when we were out and around with others
and I said or did something that crossed a line or was just plain stupid.
- I miss her telling me those things which I needed to hear that not even a close
friend would say.
- I miss coming home, opening the front door, and calling out "hi, I'm home," and
from some room, I would hear "hi honey, I am on the phone or I am in my office or I'll be right
out." Now I come home to an empty apartment whose quiet is as loud as her voice.
- I miss our dancing. Carol had done a stint as an Arthur Murray instructor and
my folks had taught me to be a respectable ballroom dancer.
We danced on our first date. We were dancing on December 19th when Carol proposed. We danced in our living room when no one was around. We danced at dances and parties. We danced out-of-doors. We could dance with or without music, we so knew each other’s moves and rhythms.
- And mostly, I miss those moments at the end of the day as we lay in bed, in the dark, when Carol would turn to me and snuggle up in my arms and I would just hold her.
It is 10:47 a.m. on November 19, 2008. It has been exactly one year since Carol died. My life goes on, but a part of me is gone. I miss her so much.