His heart was beating under my hand

I had a beautiful dream about Robert, and as I approach the second anniversary of losing him, I keep rerunning the dream in my mind.

In the dream, I awoke to the sound of a song playing in my living room. I went down the steps, and there was Robert dancing! He was spinning so fast that he was almost a blur. He was dancing as he must have danced as a young man, before I knew him, when he was studying ballet and modern dance. I watched with love and amazement.

He slowed his spinning, then stopped and smiled at me, that tender smile that filled his eyes with softness. I put my hand on his chest, hot and moist from his exertion. Then the most wonderful part of the whole dream: I felt his heart beating under my hand!

So many times in our seven years together (exactly, from first kiss to last), I rested my hand on his beating heart. It was always the first place I touched when we came together. It was where my hand rested when we snuggled after making love. I loved his fuzzy chest hair–the touch and smell and heat of it–and I loved his beating heart.

I woke, still hearing the song in my mind that he was dancing to. It was “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”

“You honor me when you do your work” — Robert to Joan

As much as I enjoy and believe in my work, it’s often hard to concentrate on writing my book with Robert gone. After more than a year and half, I still can’t breathe in and out without missing him mightily. He is always in my thoughts and in my heart.

Almost right up to the end of his life, Robert actively supported my dream of this book. “You’ve got to keep doing your work,” he told me earnestly, knowing he would not live to read it. During the last weeks that we were able to walk in the park together, we discussed this book—what would be in it, how it would expand on topics brought up in Better Than I Ever Expected, what new topics it would need.

I would read him excerpts from emails and interviews that were coming in, and he would listen compassionately. Sometimes he would sit down in my study and start talking, and I would scramble to type what he said.

I hadn’t yet come up with a good title for the new book, and Robert left me little penciled notes with ideas on used envelopes and sales receipts (he never started a new piece of paper when an old one would do). We brainstormed together incessantly. It wasn’t until a few months after he died that Naked at Our Age suddenly struck me as just the right title.

Although my beloved Robert died before this book could be written, it will be as much his as mine. “You honor me when you do your work,” I hear his voice telling me.

So, Robert, my angel, this book will be for you, in your honor, with memories of our great love.

Finding Love in Later Life

When Carol Denker interviewed me for her magnificent Autumn Romance, she started with this prelimary questionnaire. I came across it today and wanted to share it with you, as Valentine’s Day approaches:

CD: What advice would you give to individuals over 50 who are looking for love?

JP: Participate in social activities that you love, and you’ll meet people with similar passions. In my case, I loved line dancing — in fact, I taught line dancing.
Friends told me, “You’ll never meet a man line dancing!” It was true that 90+% of line dancers are women, but one evening a magnificent white-haired man came to my class. When he turned his ocean-blue eyes my way, I had to remember to breathe. When he started to dance, his movements revealed a lifetime of dance training

That was how I met Robert Rice, the love of my life, a man who happened to be looking for a new place to dance in December 2000.

CD: What have you learned about love from this relationship?

JP: I had no idea how deeply I could love and how precious later-life love could be. We seemed very different at first, and both of us were fiercely independent and – we thought! – unwilling to change at this stage of life to suit another person’s needs or expectations.
But I learned that the ways I needed to change to be bonded to Robert were exactly the ways I wanted to grow – and he learned the same.
We were so in love that our differences stopped mattering, and then all but disappeared, as we learned from each other and grew together in love.
When Robert was sick and on his journey to death, I learned how selflessly I was capable of loving. I learned to be less demanding and more giving. I learned to savor every moment, knowing we were on borrowed time. All that mattered was how precious he was and doing all I could to make his last months, weeks, days as comfortable, peaceful, and love-filled as I could.

Near the end, we learned to say “I love you” through squeezing each other’s hand. When I touched his chest softly and he murmured in response, we were making love.

Missing Robert

I’m trying to work on my book, but as my birthday approaches, I miss Robert so horribly that I had to write memories of him. Excerpts:

I cried with Robert when we were forced to accept his death. His mind stayed strong at first as his body weakened. While he still had the strength, he prepared with the care and organization that he always ran his life. He got his affairs in order and cleaned out his files and his painting studio. He gave away thousands of dollars worth of art supplies to an art program for developmentally disabled adults. He made gifts to family and friends. He labeled files that I would need.

Multiple myeloma sapped his life from him while he still breathed. His back, broken in six places, caused him brutal pain. One day he drew the pain to show me. His drawing was so raw, so anguished, so horrible in its detail, that I wail aloud picturing it. I am tempted to share it with you here, but I won’t, because you could never forget it.

It wasn’t until Robert entered hospice care that he was able to be at peace, out of pain, and a loving man again. I owe a great debt of gratitude to hospice, who figured out how to medicate him properly and counseled him with great respect and warmth. They also gave me the bereavement support and counseling that enabled me to preserve what was left of my sanity.

Robert’s last ten days were spent in bed, journeying in and out of consciousness. Sometimes he woke startlingly lucid and sweet, sharing memories and words of love. Often he was only semi-awake, seeming to have one foot in our world and one foot in another. His comments were occasionally hilariously funny – he saw our line dance class dancing with llamas on a stage in front of us, for example, or he plucked flying books from the air for his granddaughter Megan, an avid reader, to attach to her eyes — though he didn’t know why we were laughing.

Sometimes he slept for days, and I thought I’d never hear his voice again.

One day I was crying in my study, listening to his breathing on the baby monitor that hospice recommended. “I wish I had my best friend, my darling Robert, to ask for help with this,” I sobbed.

Then it occurred to me: I still did. Perhaps the man in the bed was a shadow of the man he used to be, but he was still there. I went to the bedroom, where he lay, eyes closed, mouth slack. I took his limp hand and whispered, “Can you please help me for a minute?”

“Yes,” he said quietly, without opening his eyes.

“How will I go on without you?” I asked, resting my tear-streamed face on his chest as lightly as I could so I wouldn’t hurt him.

He stroked my hair slowly, a whisper of a touch, soft as a kiss. “You’ll be okay,” he told me. “Reach out to people.”

Now I do. I reach out to people I know, people I don’t know. I reach out to you.