Sunday, August 29, 2004

Ronald Reagan Jr. Needs a Stepfather

Those of you who set your sundials and plant your crops according to the appearance of my blog, carefully inspecting each post for coded messages, will recall last month when I wrote about my visit to a dying friend.

Well, she died. The memorial was today. It was beautiful with many tributes from friends and family. They don't make faces like they used to: Mine kept leaking.

But the most powerful tribute from my point of view -- meaningful to me, meaningless to you unless you have been with the same partner for so long people are beginning to wonder if you lack imagination -- was made by my wife after the memorial.

"She was number two on the list," my wife said.

"Huh?" I said. I'm good at conversation. I know how to draw people out.

And then my wife recalled to mind that time in the mid-90s when she thought she was going to die. She had the symptoms of serious heart disease. The initial diagnosis was bleak. But then Kaiser did a heart catherization, which revealed veins as capacious as the salt caverns under Detroit. It was stress that caused her physical grief-- crazy bosses inflicting their insanity, the power to cause pain become a weapon that had a life of its own.

After she was "reprieved" we talked of many things. And one of the things she surprised me with was the fact that she had chosen who my next wife would be from among our unmarried and unattached acquaintances. My wife is nothing if not methodical. She had prepared to die. She was and is a listmaker. She had worked through the distribution of her goods:

An ivory bracelet, a gift from my father: to my youngest sister
One pottery cow, from my great grandmother's kitchen: to my niece
One husband, acquired in my youth, original equipment: to ......

I was amused, but I felt a little ... handled. My wife explained her decision-making process. Her criteria for my second wife were Intelligence, General Attractiveness and Kindness. I have misrepresented her criteria. Kindness came first. I was offended. I felt belittled. What about intellectual voracity and sexual ingenuity, the better to love me with, my dear? Kindness is what you worry about when you are putting a puppy or kitten up for adoption. When someone is trying to arrange a blind date for you, at worst they recommend the "sweetness" of the individual proposed. Kindness! Don't go there! Kindness is sexless. Kindness is required of those who bathe lepers. Kindness is not hot. It's not even cold, which has its own carnal challenge. Kindness has no temperature at all.

Once I had finished scoffing at kindness, I wanted to know why this woman or that woman of our acquaintance hadn't made the list -- and that conversation was wicked fun, since my wife avoided that most decisive of all categories for exclusion, i.e., wouldn't have you on a plate.

I don't know exactly how my wife was going to manage the handoff, whether it would have been the last whisper on her own deathbed or a letter presented to me on the one- or two- or six-month anniversary of her death. And I knew what the deeper meaning was underneath this specific machination. It was her way of saying that if she died I should go on with my life. Really, she said, it wasn't optional: "I think that if you lived by yourself you would be a sad man. Many men live quite happily alone. But not you."

Of course, my wife was right. I suppose I will need to be processed in a spirit of gentle but unrelenting tolerance, if, to use a baseball metaphor, I have to go through the lineup a second time. It's not flattering, but there it is. I need somebody nice, which is the stuff that lives, not dreams, are made of.

Still, the woman my wife had picked out for me was smart and pretty. These weren't trick categories, and this wasn't charity. My wife designate has gotten married since. My wife wasn't handing me out like Christmas turkeys for the poor. But so many years ago, when I first learned of my proposed consignment, my wife picked up that I was not quite agog with flattery at that point in the conversation, so she dropped it.

I did not know that the "approved" list extended to two till today.

(And I ask my wife if she has a current list. I am suddenly curious. My wife frowns: "Nancy Reagan, Courtney Love and Linda Tripp," she says. "Better take good care of me.")

Our friend whose memorial we attended today left someone behind. I think about him. I am sure she had a list somewhere, perhaps not written down but in her heart. If it is not there for him to read, he can guess at it. Perhaps, it has a few names, perhaps many, perhaps a whole gender or even beyond (he said, wiggling his eyebrows like Groucho Marx).

But somewhere, written down or in her heart, I am sure she had a list.

1 comment:

G Pabst said...

V. nicely written.
You're getting good at this!