“Promise me you’ll keep doing your work…”

 “Promise me you’ll keep doing your work,” Robert said, taking both my hands in his and pressing them to his heart, looking deeply into my eyes.

It was three years ago — end of March 2008 — and we had learned that his body was succumbing to multiple myeloma. There were treatments we could and would try, but this conversation marked the countdown to the end, as I think back on it.

He would have one more month of health — fatigued, but able to live the way he loved — going to his art studio to paint, dancing joyfully, and loving me as if his life depended on it (and maybe it did). Then, as treatments failed, his back fractured in multiple places. The extreme pain led him into another world — a world where love was not enough to heal or even ease the physical, emotional, and spiritual pain. 

A world of preparing to die.

 “Promise me you’ll keep doing your work…”

Our profound sexual connection had powered our relationship for our seven, soul-soaring years together. Neither of us had ever had a relationship as sexually exuberant or as emotionally satisfying! Professionally, our spicy hot afternoon delights propelled me to switch writing topics from health and fitness to senior sex. Better Than I Ever Expected: Straight Talk about Sex After Sixty celebrated our love affair. We married in 2006, the year the book came out.

We already knew that our love wasn’t “forever” the way young people think of it. Besides being seniors, we had the challenge of Robert’s diagnosis — at that point — of leukemia and lymphoma. Our wedding celebrated not only our love, but that six months of chemotherapy had sent Robert’s cancer into remission. We were told we might have ten or more good years of health, a magical gift.

But we didn’t have ten years — we had two.

 “Promise me you’ll keep doing your work…”

March 2011: Two countdowns shift in my mind. In August, I’ll face the 3-year anniversary of Robert’s death. (When does it get easier?) But before that, in June, I’ll welcome a new book into the world — Naked at Our Age: Talking Out Loud about Senior Sex — the book I started working on with Robert. In fact, you’ll see that he wrote part of the chapter, “Unlearning Our Upbringing: Men’s Stories.”

I think at our age, those of us who dare to live and love fully have this balancing act between the sweet surprises and rewards of living our dreams out loud and the inevitable losses. Robert gave me the right advice: “Promise me you’ll keep doing your work.” It sustains me and brings me great joy — as does sharing it with you!

Put Your Head on My Shoulder

12/14/10 update: I wrote the memory below last March 7, first in my personal journal, then as a blog post.
Later on, working on the last chapter of Naked at Our Age, I realized it also needed to be the ending of my book.
Today, I was finishing proofreading the designed pages that Seal Press sent me and simultaneously struggling to figure out how to make today — which would have been his 74th birthday — special.

As soon as I read this memory at the end of the book, I decided to share it with you again:

Put Your Head on My Shoulder

One day I was rushing about, I don’t remember for what, maybe preparing for a trip. I was stressed, crashing about, full of nervous energy. Robert caught me in mid-flight, taking my hand. “I’m so busy,” I protested.
“Just for a minute,” he said quietly, leading me into the living room.
He switched on the CD player, and Michael Bublé began to sing, “Put Your Head on My Shoulder.” Robert enveloped me in his arms and began to dance me around the floor. My body melted into his strong embrace and his graceful rhythm. I started to cry, feeling his closeness and knowing that nothing was more important than holding this man I loved in my arms. I continued to sob, and he didn’t need to ask why. He just cradled my head into his shoulder and kept us dancing.
I don’t remember what I was rushing to that day, but I do remember every moment in Robert’s arms, the feel of his chest against my face and his body leading mine until our rhythms melted into one being. Yes, just like making love.
I would do anything to dance in his arms again. I narrate this special moment to remind you to stop, take time with your lover if you’re fortunate enough to have him or her with you, and never take for granted that there will always be time later on. Now is all we have. Treasure each other.

A Birthday Without Robert

11/8/2010: Two days from my 67th birthday, and I miss Robert terribly. He always made such a fuss over me on my birthday, cooking me a special meal (vegan mushroom stroganoff and vegan chocolate mousse, for example), writing loving messages in carefully chosen cards, and either buying or painting something special for me.

He painted a wooden cigar box to create a beautiful jewelry box to hold the earrings he delighted in gifting me. He decorated little boxes for me. He was moved by a story I wrote and painted a folder to hold it. He even decorated a cane when I was injured and couldn’t walk unassisted.
Whenever he painted something utilitarian for me, he always included a heart, sometimes easy to find, like the box above, sometimes needing a concentrated hunt because he hid the heart in the design. He would watch me search for it, sometimes shaking his head because I was blindly missing it.  
The most wonderful gift was this Kimono painting he created for me for Christmas 2002. The hanging parts are painted on muslin; the “sleeves” are on canvas. He became well known for these kimono paintings and was able to sell as many as he could paint.


Then, having learned he had cancer and didn’t know how much time he would have to work, he decided he would do no more kimonos, no more “pretty paintings,” in fact.
Instead, he delved into his soul and his drive to develop as an artist and painted some of his best work. See it here:  
I know I’m moving forward after two years and three months wihout Robert — new experiences, new friends, new accomplishments, even dipping my toes into dating. I can’t bring him back, so I must live my life without him.
But anyone who has grieved knows that special days like birthdays and holidays pack such a punch that our gut recoils, our heart fills with holes, and the healing seeps out. Grief isn’t linear, it’s cyclical. Each time, as my uncle Larry Leshan tells me (he lost Eda LeShan, his wife of 58 years), “Although the knife is as sharp, it doesn’t cut as deep or as often.”
“To my wife on her birthday,” Robert’s final birthday card to me said. “Every day with you is more special than the last. All my love to you, today and always. Robert 2007.”

All I Really Love About Life, I Learned After Age 50

All I Really Love About Life, I Learned After Age 50
(with apologies to Robert Fulghum, who learned it all in kindergarten)
By Joan Price

Before age 50, I had a pretty good life. I loved my job teaching high school. I had discovered the joy of exercise, which eluded me before age 30. After a near-fatal automobile accident at 34, I turned life’s lemons into lemonade by morphing the fitness habit that had saved my life into new careers: writing magazine articles about health and fitness and teaching aerobic dance. By age 47, I had written a book.

I wasn’t so lucky in love. I had been married and unmarried to a very good man, who remains a close friend, then had a 25-year string (string? more like a giant ball of yarn!) of involvements – long-term, short-term, and casual. All warm and joyful, but not the love I sought.

At menopause, overheated and haggard from sleep deprivation, I switched from teaching sweaty aerobics at the crack of dawn to contemporary line dancing at dusk. That switch turned out to change my life… more about that in a moment.

Before age 50, I struggled to figure out who I was and wanted to be, and battled my way there. After age 50, that became easy. Rather than needing emotional kung fu to battle my way to authenticity, I could use a softer aikido approach and let what I didn’t want flow away.

After age 50, I understood that joy blossomed through living fully, whether I was single or coupled at the moment – learning new things, teaching (now in health clubs, dance halls and speaking engagements instead of high schools), keeping my own body fit and strong, interacting honestly and helpfully with others, and writing professionally. I wrote six more books after age 50!

I still hoped I’d find that special man to love, but I wasn’t putting my life on hold waiting. I realized I had to be the person I was looking for.

And then the love of my life — artist Robert Rice — danced into my line dance class and into my heart. I was 57 and he 64. We fell in love, and our joy-filled, spicy love affair propelled me to switch my writing and speaking topic from health and fitness to senior sex!
After five years of loving each other, Robert and I married. We knew he had cancer. We didn’t know we’d have only two more years together. I learned after 50 that we must treasure our loved ones while we have them, because at our age, we will lose them, or they will lose us. We must love fully and joyfully while we can.

I also learned how fragile we are, even when we do everything possible to keep our bodies and minds strong. On June 20, I tripped, slammed to the floor, and shattered my shoulder in ten places. My new book, Naked at Our Age: Talking Out Loud about Senior Sex, was due to Seal Press five weeks later. I had put the book on hold for a year after losing Robert, when grief was my day job. Then I had spent the next year writing it. Darned if I would blow off my deadline for a broken shoulder! I finished the book – on time! – typing with my arm in a sling, measuring out pain killers so that I could focus.

Resilience: that’s the major lesson I learned after 50 and continue to learn at age 66. Life continues to amaze me. What delights are next?

Note from Joan Price: I’m trying to blog my way to the AARP Orlando@50 conference. This blog post is an entry in their competition to find the official blogger to travel to and cover the event. Find out more about the conference here.