I was alone again. It was strange to be 60 and single. But in a sense, I’d been alone for a long time. Because of her absences, I’d felt like a single parent for much of our marriage, so when I was — when it was official that I was single — it wasn’t that much of a transition.
We divided the time with the boys, so we each got three-and-a-half days a week. Luckily, I got the weekends. The three boys shuttled between our houses, which were four minutes apart.
She took the Volvo and since I had only my late mother’s convertible, I went shopping for something to accommodate three strapping young men. I ended up with a used Volkswagen Routan. Lots of room, a video system, captain’s chairs in the second row. It would be a good fit for the boys and me.
When Nicole saw it, she laughed. “A minivan?” she scoffed. “You’ll never get laid again.”
It was comfortable, though. The boys and I loved our summer road trips and since we no longer had access to the Volvo, we needed something that gave us more space.
With this life transition dropped on me, I figured it was a good time to make changes.
I was in the middle of a radical period of change for my body. It had been battered by chemicals and radiation. It had been cut open, resealed, and cut open again. It had been beaten up and so had my spirit. Now, I realized, I need to work on my mind as well as my body. I needed to restore my soul.
It was humbling, even devastating, to find out how disposable I was.
I remembered a particular time, long before, back when we lived on the farm in Florida. She came home on a Friday night, in the wee hours of the morning. I’d been alone with the kids. We’d gone swimming, had our ritual Friday-night pizza, watched a movie, and then I got them all in bed. I sat there waiting for her to come home — from her office, I assumed. When she finally did, I told her — in resignation, not in anger — “It’s a lonely job, being your husband.”
Now the job was no longer mine.
Being alone was nothing new. I knew I needed to do some things to help me navigate this interruption in my life. Part of it I could do myself. For the other part, I’d need professional assistance.
The part I could do myself was to take control of my environment.
She moved out and I decided to make the house my own. We’d lived there a few years but while Nicole was with me, the house still looked as if we had just moved in. Maybe she never fully unpacked because she never really planned to stay. I sensed that her departure had been in the works for a long time and that my cancer had only delayed her inevitable exit. No wonder her first reaction, when I told her I had cancer, was anger. I had ruined her plan.
I needed to take control of my mind as well as my body. The first thing I wanted to do was to make the house fully into my home.
These changes sound cosmetic, but they were more psychic than anything else.
I turned the kitchen and breakfast room into a family photo gallery — lots of pictures of Savannah and the boys and the big kids, all in matching frames. I had these wonderful and endearing portraits of the kids but they lived exclusively on my phone. Now they were on the wall, matted, in matching black frames.
I was addicted to this testament to my family. Soon, the gallery spilled into the formal dining room. I could walk around the room and see my mother and father on their wedding day, my mother with her brother who’d been killed in the war, my brother fishing off a pier in 1963, daughter Mary with her hair taking flight around her. It was a museum of my gene pool.
That room, so seldom used before, became a focal point.
I had always had a Rock’n’Roll Room in my house when I was single and despite Nicole’s vow that we would always have such a room, that idea fell by the wayside. No big deal. I dealt with it.
But when she left, I resurrected it, making it an all-purpose monument to American popular culture.
I had a good starter set of art. An old girlfriend had gotten me signed prints of The Band at Woodstock by photographer Elliot Landy, and photographer-autographed portraits of Bob Dylan and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
I went insane on the website of Jim Blanchard, who’d been a student during my days at the University of Oklahoma. He is a gifted artist and I ordered prints of his portraits of Sterling Hayden (as General Jack D Ripper from Dr Strangelove), Muhammad Ali, Johnny Cash, Karen Black (in character from Five Easy Pieces), Marvin Gaye and Marty Feldman. I also framed posters I’d been carrying around for a while — a promo for the Beach Boys’ Smile, the Milton Glaser poster from Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, and a Sgt Pepper piece.
There was the soft-sculpture of the Rolling Stones tongue trademark. As long as I was at it with this plush stuff, I decided to order rock’n’roll pillows — Charley Patton, Angus Young, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan and a few others. How many times does one have the opportunity to snuggle up with an Angus Young pillow?
I branched into movies — the ‘circus poster’ from the first Star Wars re-release (a tribute to the style of the former Saturday Evening Post illustrator, JC Leyendecker) and a reproduction of a Day the Earth Stood Still poster.
Pretty soon, the Rock’n’Roll Room — essentially the family room, where we gather most frequently — became my happy place.
The living room had been ignored all this time — mostly just a place where she stored laundry and other stuff. Now, I decided to do some living there.
I painted it ripe melon and began making it my main art gallery — two prints from artist Michael Cleverly, including one of the gates of Owl Farm, home of his late neighbor, Hunter S Thompson.
I had two pieces — one a print of a party at George Plimpton’s house and the other a lucite sculpture of a shoe — by my old pal, artist John Ross.
There was a print of a street scene in Paris that had been in my father’s office. Then there were two hand-tinted photographs from my ninth grade classmate Sarah Fishburn. (We reconnected after 40 years, thanks to Facebook.)
I moved a small stereo into the room and instead of obsessively fretting about missing the boys, I began spending wonderful evenings in solitude, reading, and listening to an astonishing variety of music.
When she moved out, her half of the basement — her office — was vacated. I took a decommissioned projector from school and bought an 10-foot wide screen and created a home theater, decorated with posters from my favorite films — The Right Stuff, Two-Lane Blacktop, Jaws and a few others. I painted it a refreshing color called ‘Florida Key’ that mimicked the surreal shade of the water around Key West.
I paid the premium price for the right Green Monster shade and turned Travis’s room into Fenway, complete with scoreboard and yellow foul lines. Charley’s room became a temple for Boston Celtics worship and Jack, my budding filmmaker, got a blue-screen wall. I re-did their bathroom as a tribute to Ron Swanson and made my bathroom into the Beatles Bathroom, the color of a Yellow Submarine.
It was a standard home in a New England suburb — nothing remarkable outwardly. But I did my best to give it distinction and character inside, and to make it a fun and welcoming place for the children. (Savannah’s room — hers whenever she visited from college — was the entire fourth floor.) I think they liked it.
But taking control of my environment could only help so much.
My office is set up to connect to the department administrator’s office. Naturally, this breeds a close working relationship.
As I often say, the best thing I’ve done at Boston University is to hire intelligent and talented people for that position. After Lisa Bassett, I’d found Mary Chapman — Mary, who helped run the joint during my cancer leave. When she left, I hired Sarah Kess.
I’d known Sarah as a brilliant, inscrutable, somewhat quiet grad student. She stepped into her new role as department administrator and immediately mastered it. In fact, from the day she started, she had already outgrown the job. That also had been the case with Lisa and Mary. (Boston University is blessed with a hyperintelligent, dedicated and kind staff, but they are usually on their way to some other career).
But I had hopes that Sarah would stay longer than the usual two-and-a-half year term. She valued the atmosphere of the department and particularly the part she played in managing our Power of Narrative conference. As a writer, she drew energy from the seriousness of purpose displayed by the writers in our midst — those in the student body, as well as those on our faculty and staff.
Though she was young — not yet 30 when she was hired — she was a font of wisdom and maturity. In short, she was the opposite of me and was a tremendous support during not only the cancer stuff but in the separation and divorce that followed.
She talked me through a lot of things and helped me clarify the issues in my life. But it could go only so far. Eventually, she said, I needed to see a therapist.
The university has such support for faculty, staff and students in emotional crisis. On Sarah’s urging, I began seeing a university therapist soon after the separation and it was extremely helpful. Those were tough times. When you feel worthless and have a crushing sense of failure, you need someone to help you deal with those emotions. The university therapist did so over the course or a month. But the university therapists are intended for short-term issues. My issues appeared to have legs.
Soon, I was sent to a therapist in private practice nearby in Brookline. In the name of doctor-patient confidentially, I’ll call her Elizabeth. Through weekly meetings, we began focusing on ways to go on — a path for me that would lead to me being a better parent, a better teacher, a better person.
Before each session, I’d fret that I’d have nothing to say. I’d usually start with “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Woebegon,” and then go into a free-form meander through my mind. Before long, an hour was up.
Elizabeth was patient. She’d offer analyses that made me rethink so much about my life and relationships. She made me realize that I did have worth after all. A lot of worth, to hear her tell it. Slowly, I came to agree with her.
In short, she restoreth my soul.
As a recovering asshole, I’d done much in my years in Boston to reassert myself as a good guy. Now, I amped up those efforts. I’d say hello to everyone on the street, give up my seat on the subway to someone with greater need, and wish baristas and bank tellers and gas-station attendants the nicest of days. I got it all back too. What does it say on the back cover of that old Beach Boys album? “The smile that you send out returns to you.” True that, Boys of the Beach.
This wasn’t an ending, Elizabeth told me. This was something new and good. I felt a personal sort of commencement speech welling up in my head: this is a new beginning, a new opportunity. It was my job to listen to commencement speeches every year and so many of them said the same stuff. But that stuff was true: a commencement is the beginning of a great time of life.
So let’s commence. Let’s strike another match and start anew, as Bob Dylan said. Each dawn brings Another day for you to realize me, as George Harrison once sang.
If you’ve never done therapy, it probably sounds like something self-indulgent, very Me-Generation.
Perhaps it is. But the two times I’d done marital therapy, I found it very helpful. During the bout of couples therapy with Nicole, our therapist suggested we get his’n’her therapists.
I got one and talking to her weekly was liberating. Nicole never made an appointment with her assigned therapist. Her loss.
Self-indulgent though it may be — perhaps one of those First World problems — therapy brought me back. I’d had moments of tremendous despair and a feeling of worthlessness. I’d been tossed away, like used tissue. Thanks to Elizabeth — and, at the core, thanks to Sarah — I began to see myself in a different way.
There’s so much that can be achieved through guided self-examination. Sarah — not just as a colleague, but as a life coach — helped me find a way to go on, to find a sort of mental prosperity, to embrace my life as is and to not look back.
And so I rarely do.
All of this attention to environment and mental health carried me through that first solo spring. Thank God for the house and all of the work I was moved to do. It too restoreth my soul.
But my body was unrelenting. Just as I found myself buoyant again, I discovered I needed another battery of surgery. It turned out to be four operations in all, in the space of six months. And blood was again exiting my body, in an indelicate manner, though from a different source.
The thing about life is that it never stops — until it does.
As Warren Zevon said, life’ll kill you.