Above the Tree Line

I knew, before stepping foot in this apartment, that if my wife could gaze east and see nothing but lake and sky, then scan south along the Outer Drive to the Drake, we’d take the place.  And I knew, if I could envision what I know is out there, recreate the scene I saw as a young man but can’t see today, we’d take the place.  That’s how simple it was, how we arrived way up here, on floor 34, above the tree line.

The view is awesome—so I’m told.  My wife tells me how azure blue or bottle green or steely gray is the water today, how the whitecaps rise and fall.  She describes the buildings that form the skyline.  I conceptualize.  I construct blueprints.  I remain a visual person.  I paint my canvas.  I place figures against the background which I do see—the light.  Oh, the light—it’s light up here even on gloomy days.  All these free-range lumens ward off Seasonal Affective Disorder—so I’m told.

I can see the world from here.  If I stand, nose to the window wall, my visual field wraps around me.  I last saw this wide forty years ago at the Shedd Aquarium, where I pressed my nose to the aquarium glass and watched a gar, the fresh-water cousin of the barracuda, glide past and counted every scale on its skeletal frame, like I’d counted cars on a long, slow, freight train.

Do you see how, having had sight, I default to the visual?  If I can “see” it, I can feel it.  I wonder if or why I rely on recreating every scene visually in order to legitimize it.  Up here, above the tree line, I open the window and become oriented to my surroundings by sound.  Wind. Traffic.  I’d thought I’d hear waves, not cars.  One of these nights, toward the wee hours, when the city is fast asleep, in a storm churning this Great Lake, I’ll hear the waves.  And see them.

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Moving up in the World

I’ve been away.  Not “away” like far, far away.  Not stuck in writer’s block.  I’ve not been sick, nor has my wife. We’re not entirely well but not sick either.  No, we’ve been busy.  Busy moving into this retirement community, this senior high-rise.  Call it what you will—we simply call our new home, “The Home.”

Our plan had been to move when we turned 75 and were sick of painting the house and shoveling snow.  Moving now, at 68, acknowledges our uncertain medical prognoses and our likely need for a hand sooner than later. Seems we’ve picked the right place.  In our new home, the average age of residents is 83.  Most need extra help.  The elevator capacity is measured, not in pounds, but in walkers, wheelchairs and, in my case, a Seeing Eye dog or, taking up even less space, my white cane.

Friends and family call ours a proactive move.  Just in case.  On the safe side.  Prepared for the future.  We concur.  But moving, the act itself, has been more stressful than we’d imagined.  My wife and I concluded that ours had been such a happy marriage simply because we hadn’t moved.  We swear never to do it again.

So, it looks like we’re in for the long haul.  That is, after we unpack.  As my wife wanders room to room and says, “I can’t find anything,” I meander among boxes, saying, “I can’t see anything.”  Organization is our daily duty; an occasional “I’ll get it!  I know where it is!” becomes celebratory.

We’ve been told that help is just a phone call away, even to change a light bulb.  That’s a bit extreme, but when I asked the housekeeper to show me the trash chute, she grabbed the bag and shouted, “That’s my job.”  I wonder if she’d unpack for us, too.

All this old people stuff begs the question, “Have we become our parents?”  Nope. My dad   called retirement homes either “God’s waiting room” or “Death’s waiting room,” depending on how bleak he felt.  That’s sad, because it shows he’d lost his love of people, lost his character as master of ceremonies. He died in his den, on hospice, without setting foot into the “waiting room.”   My mother, characteristically in opposition to my father, immediately emptied the house—except for her clothes, a place to sit and a place to sleep—and moved to a retirement home, where she remains after a decade. She has friends.  She sees life, death and drama.  The turnover rate is high among her age group.  She has learned to face change philosophically.

My wife and I are adjusting to the change in lifestyle and schedule.  At dawn, we mix with the Prunes-for-Breakfast Club.  At eight a.m., when the doors to the Fitness Center open, I’m there for my walk on the treadmill. The mail arrives at three.  By six, my wife and I put our computers to sleep, feed the animals and dress for dinner.  As we stand at the hostess station waiting to be seated, my wife whispers, “Looks like we’re not the only diners wearing pajamas under our evening clothes.” By nine, when I walk Randy the dog for the last time, we’re often the only footsteps echoing across the lobby.

Moving to “The Home” signals a new phase in life, a new story.  This is Chapter One.  More to come.

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Breaking News from the Class Reunion

My wife and I attended our fiftieth high school reunion.  Most of the chatter was about how everyone else looked.  They even gave an award to the person who had aged the least.  I didn’t win.  But I felt I was first runner-up because people greeted me by name—then I remembered my name tag was stuck to my shirt.  My wife told people they hadn’t changed a bit but when one guy growled, “You saying I was bald and beer-bellied back then?” she pointed to my white cane and told him I was the one saying everybody looked the same as they did on graduation day.

To classmates, I described progressive blindness not as the end of the world, but as a pain in the ass. When I got tired of the “pain in the ass” part, I said that it meant not doing some things I used to do and learning how to do other things differently or that I thought it helped my problem-solving skills or that I felt I’d become  more imaginative.  Once in a while, I said that blindness wasn’t the end of the world and I couldn’t see it from here anyway.  As the night wore on, I said simply, “Oh, I didn’t recognize you” and tried to keep a straight face.

And then there was Annie King, MIA from past reunions, telling me she’d named her firstborn son after me.  “Well, partly,” she hastened to add, “I like the name, too.”  I told Annie King’s husband that Annie had been my first girl friend—not my first girlfriend—my first girl friend and that I’ve had many female friends since, including my wife. I told Annie’s husband that women friends are a source of wisdom and perspective.  Annie’s husband nodded his assent, perhaps understanding, perhaps wondering what kind of kook his wife had been pals with.

A trio of male class officers gave speeches.  They told how their Midwestern virtues of faith, work and self-reliance had enriched them.  But, to me, their pride exceeded their humility. And when they read the names of the Top Ten Boys and ignored the Top Ten Girls, my wife cried foul.  “I felt unworthy in high school.  Now that I finally like myself, these guys make me feel invisible.”

I concluded that these reunion speeches rivaled Facebook for self-indulgence.  I silently petitioned our class officers to talk of issues deeper than upward mobility or the big game against East High.  Wasn’t a passing reference to the victims of wars then and since, women’s rights or the rule of law in order?  I wanted the speakers to give a shout out to Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.  After all, the headline graduation morning read, ”RFK Shot Dead in LA.”

Maybe I misjudged my contemporaries, maybe I missed the point of a class reunion, but wasn’t it relevant to mention the crucible that forged us  in 1968?  The divisive trauma of today’s civics lesson? This night, the state of the union was whispered in dark corners by people acting like spies.  Perhaps secrecy was the safest way to express an opinion, given that in any gathering these days, it’s likely that half the crowd views the other half as the enemy.

People are incorrigibly themselves and my wife and I are unapologetically political. I whispered that, given Annie’s and other women’s evident delight  at seeing me, I must have shown them respect in high school.  Then I hastened to connect my past deeds with current events, namely Judge Kavanaugh, confirmed to the Supreme Court that very day.  Given my wife’s and my experience with what kind of high school drunk I’d been, we decided to do one better than Kavanaugh and find, not 65, but 66 female classmates who would vouch for my character. I liked our odds—ours was a big graduating class.




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Cars for the Blind

I try to avoid three things: vampires, werewolves and the lady across the street.  Most days, when she’s perched on her porch yelling at passers-by, I pretend I can’t hear her.  Today, she’s getting out of her car and I’m walking home from work and, damn, we’re on a collision course. I could pretend I can’t see her, which I can’t—I’m blind, you see, and not seeing her wouldn’t take any pretending.  Now we’re so close I hear her wheezing and I know it’s either talk to her or pretend I can’t hear her and plow right into her.

“Hi, Steve,” she says.  She’s called me Steve for ten years and I told her for eight years my name is Jeff but the past two years I haven’t bothered.  Being pseudo-Steve provides a buffer from her intrusion.

Oh, Steve, how’s Randy?”

“He’s fine, thanks.”  I grip Randy’s harness so she can’t get her hands on my dog.

“See, I’m good with names,” she says.  Then, to Randy, “Whatsa doin you big bootiful doggie?”  This last is said, I imagine, with a totally stupid, baby talk face.

“Say,” she says, “I been hearing this radio spot wanting people to donate their cars to some blind group.  How come they want cars?  Blind people can’t drive.”

“It’s along the lines of 1 8 7 7 Kars 4 Kids,” I say.  “The cars aren’t for the kids to drive.  The cars are turned into cash to help the kids.  It’s a fund-raising thing”

“Oh, I thought maybe they’d turn the cars into the kind that drive themselves.  That would make sense.  Well, I gotta go, Steve.  Bye-bye, Randy.”

She makes a move for Randy but I sidestep her and call, “Farewell” over my shoulder, glad to be done with the lady across the street, fortified for any chance encounters with vampires or werewolves.

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Some Assembly Required

As my vision has deteriorated, I’ve entrusted household tasks to those with a sharper eye.  I handed the lawn mower to a landscaper who doesn’t impale the blade on tree roots.  I passed my saw to a handywoman who doesn’t cut boards a quarter inch short.  I’ve outgrown the need to supervise my hired hands, choosing to provide moral support and stay out of their way.  I’ve come to believe that somebody with decent eyesight and a screwdriver can finish my old jobs in half the time, without profanity or bloodshed.

Recently, I was struck with a vision of a Felix the Cat wall clock gracing our kitchen, above the little window with the checkerboard valence.  You remember Felix the Cat—a two-tone cat with a clock in its tummy, with eyes and a tail that moved back and forth to mark time.  The Amazon ad said that every six seconds someone bought a Felix the Cat wall clock.  I counted to six and ordered mine.

Felix the Cat arrived in a box the size of a mouse trap.  “Felix the Kitten,” I muttered, placing four plastic body parts on my desk and the print instructions under the OCR.  I could kind of noodle out what to do except for how to “snap the plastic bracket so that one end attaches to the tail lever and the other end attaches to the eye mechanism.”

“Honey,” I said, presenting the dismembered cat to my wife, “Will you please help me put this damn thing together?”

She scanned the instructions and ordered me to retrieve a small slotted screwdriver and one AA battery.  I did as I was told.

“’Loosen the screw and remove the back cover, exposing the battery compartment’” she read from the directions.

“Got it,” I said.  “Where’s the screw?”

She guided my finger to the screw.

“The screwdriver’s too big,” I said.  “And we don’t have a smaller one.  But not to worry, I’ll use my thumbnail.”

“’Failure to secure the bracket will result in…’” my wife read.

“Ouch!” I cried.  “That screw ripped my thumbnail.”

“And I can’t get this bracket to snap into the tail and eye slots,” said my wife.

While I searched for a nail file to unscrew the screw, I thought, “She ought to be able to figure this thing out.  She can see the instructions.  She can see the parts.  What’s the problem?”

The nail file loosened the screw and I handed Felix to my wife to remove the back and insert the battery.  I tightened the screw and my wife snapped the bracket into the tail and eye slots and then held up the clock against the kitchen wall.  “Tick, tock,” she said.

I thought, “See?  My theory is proven.  All it takes is good eyesight.”

Then, Felix’s tail fell from his body, bounced off the countertop and hit the floor.  “I give up,” said my wife.  ”Sorry, Honey, but I don’t know how this thing works.  I’m out of ideas.”

While I thought about how I used to be able to put things together, how now I felt so stupid and powerless and frustrated and how I blamed my wife for not being able to do everything that I can’t do anymore, I said, “That’s OK, Honey.  Thanks for trying.  You did your best.”  After I repacked Felix for his return trip to Amazon, I trimmed my damaged thumbnail and smoothed the edges with the same nail file I’d used on the screw.

I don’t have a Felix the Cat wall clock hanging above the little kitchen window with the checkerboard valence.  But some assembly required taught me a few things.  One—my wife does her best and knows when to quit.  Two—I must not displace onto her the impatience and frustration I feel at my own limitations.  Three—having eyesight doesn’t necessarily solve all problems.  And four, this message for Amazon—if every six seconds, someone buys a Felix the Cat wall clock, then every twelve seconds, does someone return one?

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Toys for All Ages

Saturday morning, I sat on the living room floor and played with my toys—just like when I was a kid.  Back then, I was the voice of the Lone Ranger, calling, “Hi Ho Silver” as the stiff-legged horse galloped across the carpeted plains.  I made funny faces on Mr. Potato Head, then set my Slinky loose on the stairs.  I built the Empire State Building, with King Kong perched atop its tower, on my Etch-a-Sketch.  Before lunchtime, I had tamed the Wild West, invented plastic surgery, mastered the laws of physics and created the Eighth Wonder of the World.

I am older now, and I’ve put aside childish things.  Saturday morning, I sat on the living room floor and played with the Seeing AI app on my iPhone.  AI stands for artificial intelligence and the app does all sorts of amazing things, from reading text to recognizing faces.  It even reads handwriting.  I printed block letters with a black Sharpie on white paper and Seeing AI read, “Hey, good looking!”  Now, that’s intelligence!

Then I switched the menu to “Person,” pointed the camera at my face and heard, “Eighty year-old man with blond hair looking neutral.”

“Eighty years old, my ass!” I shouted at the phone.  “I’m only sixty-eight—and my friends say I look ten years younger.”  I jabbed the phone and snapped another head shot.

“Eighty year-old man with blond hair looking angry,” said Seeing AI.

“You bet I’m angry!  You cheated me out of twelve years!”

Then, recalling that crabby people look old, I forced a smile.

“Eighty year-old man with blond hair looking happy,” said Seeing AI.

“Wrong again,” I said, and, putting Sharpie to paper, I hand-lettered a manifesto.

“Fifty-eight year old man with blond hair looking smug,” read Seeing AI.

“It’s about time you got it right,” I said and closed the Seeing AI app.

Saturday morning, I sat on the living room floor and played with my toys.  I pondered modern maturity, made peace with technology, honored the judgment of friends and took ten years off my age.  All before lunchtime.

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Speaking of My Vow of Silence…

After driving crosstown during rush hour and hiking cross-country through parking lots, then careening down corridors to the Cancer Research Center, my wife turns to me and sighs, “I’m sorry, Honey.  I don’t think you signed on for all this.”

I had heard those words before.  Long ago and far away, in the eighth year of a marriage and eighth year of RP, my then wife succumbed.  “I feel like I’ve lost my best friend,” she told me.  “It’s not that you’re a person with blindness, it’s the person you’ve become.  I didn’t sign on for this.”  Her despair was exceeded only by my own, for I knew I was its cause.

We settle into waiting room chairs.  “You’re right, Honey, I say.  “Sickness and health weren’t part of our vows.  As I recall, I pledged not to talk so much and you promised not to interrupt so much.”

“In music, they’d say I added harmony to your melody,” says my wife.

“You are the soprano to my basso, the Diva to my Lothario.  And I’ll say this about sickness and health.  I’ve learned a lot, especially from you. Cancer is not your fault.  Blindness is not my fault.  Only if we let them become our fault.  As long as we work together, we’ll get through anything.  Life is ten percent what happens to us and ninety percent what we do about it.  I haven’t always done my best with blindness.  I withdrew and isolated.  But you, you’re out there doing it.  I admire your strength, your resourcefulness and your honesty and I’ll do anything I can to support you.  You have so many…”

“Honey,” says my wife, “the doctors are ready for us now.”

“Really?  I didn’t hear them calling.  I must have been…”

“Talking,” says my wife

“Hmmm, yes.  Well, let’s get on with the show.”  We rise and my wife leads me left and right and straight to Exam Room 12 for her second or third or, maybe fourth opinion.  But who’s counting?

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