“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.”
 

“I’m Going to Make You Coffee….”

If you ask me if I still miss Robert, two years after his death, I answer, “Only when I breathe in or out.”

I still start each morning recapturing a memory. Today it was the way he opened his ocean-blue eyes in the morning and smiled, his face melting with love. “Let’s snuggle,” he would say. Then one of us would decide, “I’ll snuggle you,” and we would shift to our sides, the snuggler wrapped around the back of the snuglee.

I loved when Robert snuggled me, enveloping me, so close that we couldn’t tell where he ended and I began, if indeed there was a distinction. I would take his hand in both of mine, push my nose into his palm, and inhale deeply. His palm smelled of sleep, a warm, enticing smell that was totally Robert. I can still smell his hand, still taste his skin as I kissed him everywhere my mouth would reach.

Other mornings he woke ready to meet the day, his garden or art studio beckoning, no time for snuggling. He announced, “I’m going to make you coffee,” and I always responded, “I love it when you make me coffee.” He padded out to the kitchen to grind beans, boil water, and arrange the filter cone over a metal coffee pot that had journeyed with him for decades.
In a while he brought me coffee in bed with the newspaper and arranged both lovingly on a tray. Before bringing me my coffee, he told me once, he held the cup to his cheek to make sure it was just the right temperature.
He liked me to stay in bed while he had some quiet, private time in the morning to contemplate his latest painting or tend his garden, so he gave me a cowbell that he had decorated with a heart made of Japanese paper. I was to ring it when I desired a coffee refill.

The “make you coffee” ritual started early in our seven-year love affair, and persisted wherever we were, home or hotel, and whatever else was happening in our lives. Towards the end, when his body started succumbing to cancer, he told me, “As long as I can make you coffee in the morning, I know I’ll be all right.”

Then one morning, he tried to get up, and he couldn’t. He stumbled, his legs trembling, his back stabbing with pain, his brain unable to emerge from sleep. He sat back on the bed. “I can’t do it,” he told me, and we both cried, as I’m crying now, remembering the day that everything changed.

…Now I make my own coffee in his special coffee pot and carry it to the living room where I’m surrounded by Robert’s paintings. I write memories in my journal—snippets of sweet conversation, playful games we invented, afternoons that turned into evening as we made love as if life depended on it. Maybe it did.

Even though I write for a living, using a computer and all the tech tools available to me, I write my memory journal in longhand. Somehow writing longhand comes from the heart more than the brain, and I rediscover memories I had forgotten.
My hand lingers over the page, and I picture Robert’s hand –the artist’s hand making love to the canvas, the gardener’s hand making love to the dirt, the dancer’s hand making love to the music, and my lover’s hand–making love to me.
During Robert’s last ten days, I held and kissed his limp hand. I told him of my love, narrated memories from our seven years together, sometimes not knowing if he was asleep or unconscious or moving from this world to the next. “Squeeze my hand if you can hear me,” I would say, and sometimes he would. Over the last week his squeeze became weak, then just a twitch, and then… nothing. I continued to hold his hand and talk to him, not knowing if he could hear me.
I still talk to him, and sometimes his words come to me in response. “Are you really answering me, or am I making this up?” I asked him. He replied, “It doesn’t matter.”

What does matter, at this point in my life, is that I’m taking with me the best of what Robert and I shared. That’s what he’d want for me, and what I want for myself. I find joy in my writing, in dance, in close friends, in physical and mental exercise, in learning, and yes, in my memories of Robert.

I hold my coffee cup to my cheek. It’s just the right temperature.