Life Aboard LULU

September 4, 2000 (Death Visits Our Extended Family)
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One day last month my email brought the sad, shocking news that Michael Barron, our friend Toby’s brother, had died of a sudden, massive heart attack. It was an upset on so many levels and I’ve been reflecting on it ever since.

 Michael, all sinew and bones, the human equivalent of a strand of linguini, was a marathon runner and surely among the fittest, most health-aware people we know. Yet he died in the gym. It came as a jolt that someone so responsible and committed to keeping fit as Michael could die so suddenly and at such a young age of the very disease all this discipline and physical exercise is supposed to keep in check.

 Michael’s death has been percolating through my feelings ever since. There’s the simple sadness that he is gone. He was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. Spending a few hours with him always meant a rigorous workout for my tear ducts and stomach muscles.

 I also felt pain for Susan, his wife, who, coincidentally, I went to college with, and his three daughters. For Jean, his mother, a droll, plucky octogenarian who is no doubt responsible for her three childrens’ astonishing senses of humor. For Toby, whose relationship with Michael over the 25 years I’ve known her has scaled the heights and depths of everything siblings can feel for each other. Toby, who lives in Australia, couldn’t get back in time for the funeral.  She emailed me a copy of the eulogy she’d written, which her son, Chris, delivered at the funeral. Toby captured Michael and the essence of their up-again, down-again relationship, as her Aussie friends would say, “spot on.”

 But beyond my feelings for all the people involved are the philosophic ramifications and existential messages his death evoked for me.  For several years now I’ve been ruminating about our lives and the way we are living them; Michael’s death provided one more wake-up call, yet another reminder of how bound we are by the tape measure of time. And of our own location along it – much nearer the end than the beginning.

 Of course, one meaning to take out of Michael’s death is “When your time’s up, it’s up.” Nonetheless since I believe that Michael is the exception and not the rule, it raised my anxiety level about Gary. Gary’s behavior in this arena disturbs me more and more as I see old age beckoning down the road. Despite the fact that his father keeled over and died, at the age of 59, right in front of him, of a heart attack one Saturday night at a Yonkers Raceway dinner table, Gary never exercises – unless you count (as he does) climbing a flight of stairs or lifting the dinghy on to the davits. He makes it his business to eat a cheeseburger a day, and thinks downing a Lipitor along with eight glasses of water daily is quite enough attention to his health. Gary’s interpretation of taking care of himself looks like a rigorous pursuit of how much butter can be piled on any given hunk of bread. (I think he’s figured out if you tear off smaller and smaller pieces from the Mother Loaf, you can end up with quite a good-sized yellow iceberg to pop into your mouth.)  Gary unfailingly adheres to the entirely self-generated mantra: “Yes, you deserve a Dove Bar, “ even if he’s looking more and more like one himself.

 I worry about Gary because, aside from considerations of health, being fit is at the very heart of our current life. We need to be incredibly spry to live full-time aboard a boat. Sailing her -- reeling in powerful, slapping sails and lines; navigating the changing deck levels even at anchor, much less in rolling seas; bending up, down, in and out of small spaces; climbing up and down ladders, into and out of a dinghy myriad times a day -- asks a lot of aging limbs and backs. My joints and vertebrae have begun protesting. In just these ten months since our departure, I notice significant differences in my ability to take these new stresses our boating life brings.

 I hadn’t ever considered the possibility of such aches and pains. My body has always driven me wherever I wanted to go, which I figure is compensation for having to watch my face gathering itself into a congress of wrinkles – forcing, ultimately the grudging acceptance that I am Gravity's child. But it’s one thing to check the mirror every day and observe the non-stop progress of sagging, dripping, congealing flesh and it’s quite another to find my body also belongs to Pfizer and Merck and Searle (and not the Madison Avenue Searle, either). It’s becoming clear that Fosamax, Celebrex and Lipitor are increasingly the oil that will keep our crotchety engines from creaking too loud.

 On a more metaphysical level,  Michael’s death heightened my consciousness that we don't have the time we always count on. Not that we really ever do. It sounds trite, but it’s bedrock true that all we really have is the moment. Yet we go about planning on the next minute, the next day, the next year. People talk about “If I die” rather than “When I die,”  forgetting we’ve got the longevity of a child’s handprint. We are snowflakes believing we’re diamonds.

These were not unfamiliar thoughts. In fact, such considerations were the impetus for putting us right here, right now, on a sailboat.  The idea of sailing off into the sunset resonated with me the minute Mel first broached it -- as age 58 began breathing down his and Gary’s necks. What an opportunity – our last, I figured -- to do something completely different, to choose a daring adventure, to challenge ourselves with an unpredictable life.

 Mel’s longstanding dream was especially appealing to me since we’d lived for nearly 60 years not 25 miles from Brooklyn, where each of us was born. We never considered moving anywhere else to change jobs, try a different climate or culture. I never spent junior year abroad, or even took a summer to travel abroad. I missed the rowdy, chaotic ‘60s when you could renounce your identity and try on a whole panoply of different personalities, stances, lifestyles. I’d never even been a color war captain.


Gary, unfortunately didn’t see it my way: he was unbudgeablely -- and irritatingly -- opposed.

  “If not now, when?” I asked, borrowing a well turned line from my friend, Susan Nodiff. “And if not us, who?” 

  “Why even consider this?” he protested. “We’ve got a great life. We’re finally got some financial stability. We can take time off, travel anywhere we want for longer and longer periods of time. Why should we saddle ourselves with the expense and responsibility of a big-ticket item like a sailboat?”

 “I’ve loved our life too. I love our children. I love our friends,” I answered. “But is this what it’s going to look like for the rest of our lives: out for dinner at some trendy restaurant every weekend with a different set of friends -- but ultimately the same friends?  Movies, the occasional Broadway show. My book club, my investment club, my work with battered women are all important to me, but I’ve wrung just about as much meaning as I think I can from all that. Plastic Works and landlording, some pubby lunch every day and some New Rochelle civic affair every week -- is that going to continue working for you year after year? 

I waxed eloquent: “How long can this privileged but ultimately narrow way of life sustain us? Surely not another 20 years. Are we never going to experience living some other way, taking some unexpected chances, traveling new paths, learning brand new things, meeting new and different people?”

 I delivered this speech, in whole and in part, with fierce determination -- a combination of reasoning, whining, whimpering, browbeating and bulldozing -- whittling away over the next two years Gary placated me – or more accurately tried shutting me up -- by shopping for, but remaining uncommitted to buying, a sailboat. Both of us enjoyed the hunt, which propelled us anywhere from around the corner to as far as Spain.

 Then one day in Newport Harbor, about 10 days into a three-week vacation, he turned to me in one of those quiet morning wakeup moments and said, “I can do it.”  Such a comment usually refers to some boat repair or real-estate financing.

 “Do which?”

 “Sail away with you.”

 Talk about your moments of truth. Of having to exchange intention for mere invention.

 After all this nagging, I was amazed to note I wasn’t euphoric. My first reaction was, “How can I leave the children?” For example, what would I do without seeing Suey – the only one of our children who lives nearby -- on a regular, relatively unscheduled basis? Not to mention how could I leave the grandchildren, though we didn’t even have any at the time.

 This decision was perhaps my first real life experience with significant compromise, with not being able to have it all. With the concept of “you can have some of what you want but not all of it.” This wasn’t like someone telling me I couldn’t order rack of lamb for two – just for me. It was more like having to choose between a heart and a brain.

 I wrestled with unexpected reluctance and anticipatory regret while we continued to chase boats. But merely thinking about matters was like being caressed by a feather duster compared to the day-to-day sledgehammer reality of being so far away that we now experience. Without our cell phones or our wireless Palm Pilots or satellite connections or easily accessed public phones, these days we’re only as close as an email or the occasional payphone call can bring us.

 I have to keep reminding myself of why we’re here whenever I speak to the kids, look at their pictures, see them back in the States, play with their babies, notice how fast and far from us the little ones are growing up.  On the other hand, having to talk myself through the sad moments has the advantage of helping me to appreciate our adventure. Concurrently, my consciousness of our compromised physical prowess has made me grateful for every day Gary and I have together. Michael’s premature death underscored all that.

And then we returned Stateside for three weeks of enjoying family and friends only to learn that the 45-year-old son of our longtime cleaning lady, Marly, had been riding on his motorcycle and was stuck by an out-of-control car. He lay in a coma a week before she even found out. He died a week later. And, as fate would have it, he was the good, not the prodigal, son

 Another recent Westchester experience underscored our particular good fortune. Gary and I had dinner at Tre Angelina in White Plains, which consistently delivers really, really good Italian food -- especially in our

most beloved category: the Red Sauce. Friends first found it a few years ago. Last year, it was sort of a sleepy little place where you could always just drop in for dinner. Unbeknownst to us, during this first year of our absence, the Ridgeway/Fenway country club crowd has discovered it. Without even our permission. Life does march on.

 So there we are, Gary and I, sitting, quietly talking and ostensibly enjoying a rare evening alone. Except my head is swiveling around uncontrollably -- I am mesmerized by foursomes at surrounding tables: overdressed, overmadeup matrons (though doubtless, exactly my age!), with their pot-bellied husbands whose winter pallors are now healthily golf-burnished.

 The ruling aesthetic here is Precious-Metal Overkill; the dress code Designer Gumbo; the conversational style Hysteria Overdrive.  The women are whining loudly about the menu, complaining about the air conditioning, the light in the room -- or lack thereof -- while the husbands are yelling stock quotes across the table. While passing by us are brand new arrivals being marched to perfectly fine tables, which they invariably reject summarily, only to be led to tables that appear to me no different from each other than sets of identical twins.

 I’m listening to this Westchester Jewish glitterati speaking in thunderous voices, like they're all hard of hearing, in barrages of urgently delivered dialog, as if each one has the most earth shattering of news, the most amusing of anecdotes to impart -- while all they're talking about is some Last Call Neiman Marcus find or Loehmann’s steal, some two-stroke advantage in a Member-Guest  or some insulting stateroom assignment on a recent Alaskan cruise.

 I'm gaping at one table after the other, hardly able to listen to what Gary is saying to me. I'm both amused and horrified by the ferocity of the out-yentaing, by the tenaciousness and degree to which they embrace what seems to me the emptiest of pursuits, the most spoiled upper-class existences. And I interrupt him to say, "Aren't you sitting here just dropping dead from how lucky we are to have gotten away from this?”  I am positively celebrating our involvement with a more varied and grounded potpourri of people – a real cross-section of ages, religions, cultures, ancestries.

 This incident, along with the early deaths of Michael and Marly’s son made me not only grateful, but deepened my awareness of yet another unanticipated gift this new life path has brought. Our relationship has been enriched immeasurably. Being together 24 hours a day might have strained and abraded everything we had built together – we’ve personally observed and heard about such strains on cruising couples’ relationships. To the contrary, we feel we’ve forged a deeper bond out here on our own. We are a team, and we rely on each other more than ever. This adventure actually takes us back to the very roots of our relationship. We are, as we did some 30 years ago, sharing an intensely exciting project together that’s similar in magnitude to our starting and growing the plastic business, each of us offering our strengths, both of us putting forth our best.

 For starters, to make such a dramatic break with our past life, we each reclaimed the clearly defined roles we’d established over the years: me to think the daring life thoughts and Gary to make the scary money decisions that made a financial and tangible reality out of a pipe dream.

And now we spend our days side by side tending the boat, meeting the challenges, learning something brand new together – not to mention sharing the fun, the changing environments and the new people.

 I’m reminded of an engagement present we got when we finally decided to get married, after 22 years of being together: a lithograph depicting two fanciful, airborne creatures side by side, floating over an epigraph that reads,  “We had traveled far enough together to listen easily in the quiet spaces…”

 It was one of the few pieces of art we brought aboard, and sits today on my dresser. I read it, or at least take note of it, numerous times a day, and am almost always visited by the same inner smile that washed over me when I first saw it. For me, the litho’s message resonates with a relationship choice Gary and I each made separately that never needed speaking of -- not to clutter the space around us with meaningless chatter and unnecessary repetition. This kind of superfluous communication that passes between many couples creates a constant background static – metaphorically, a kind of congratulatory backslapping diverting their attention from the scary reality that every one of us is ultimately alone confronting an alien, possibly meaningless, world.

All this recent stocktaking makes me recognize that during this year there has been a deepening of the quiet between us, of our contentment and comfort with each other, that we have traveled even farther as a unit than we ever thought possible.

Beyond all this bounty, in this new lifestyle, I get to see Gary in ways I’d long forgotten. No longer at the effect of so many other people, his self-reliance and astonishing creativity surface constantly. Customers, employees, co-workers and tenants made our old lifestyle possible, but at the same time involved endless compromises, concessions, negotiations, and saying “yes” when “no” or ‘I refuse” would have been the comfortable answer. Nowadays I see my husband’s strengths and rarely his shortcomings. Gary tackles solutions to problems when others around are calling the diesel mechanic, the generator expert, the electrical engineer. When most people say “it’s impossible,” Gary just goes quietly about doing it. Regardless of the “it” that’s in question

My respect for him ratchets up a notch or two a day.

Now if only I could get him to order salads for lunch.




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