What’s Love Got to Do with It? by Cynthia Close
When the phone rings after midnight it can never be good. Dazed, I glance at the glowing blue numbers on the Comcast box connected to my tiny flat screen TV. 12:15 a.m. I figure it’s about my mom. Finally, she’s given up the ghost, smoked her last cigarette, and kicked the bucket. I fumble with the phone, anticipating the voice of the head nurse at her assisted living complex. Hearing the breathless voice of Carolyn – an old friend from Cambridge, I’m thrown off kilter, uncomprehending.
“So sorry to wake you – it’s Richard. Dan and I are at the ER at Mt. Auburn Hospital. It’s serious. He’s had a stroke.”
Numb, I scramble. Try to refocus my thoughts. It sounds like she is speaking Chinese. Maybe I’m still asleep – but no – they ask the practical things.
“Do you have his health insurance information? Medicare? a Social Security Number?”
Feeling the residue of responsibility, I grope around, hoping for clarity. It could be on the HUD document, the closing papers for the house, but that was four years ago – I say, “I’ll look.”
They have his clothes, find his keys, his cellphone, yes, yes, it’s serious, real serious, what about his dog, Jasper? Constant companions since I left, the poor animal was suddenly alone in Richard’s bare, dingy apartment for the first time – probably freaking out. Carolyn finds Cheyenne’s phone number on his cellphone. She thinks I should call – yes – I should be the one.
I’d never met his only child, Cheyenne. She was an invisible but felt presence in his life. It’s like I’ve known her. I saw the pictures he took the first time he’d seen her as an adult, the first time he realized he was a grandfather and for the first time he understood the ecstasy I felt at becoming a grandmother.
“O.K., I’ll call Cheyenne.”
Three hours difference. It’s 9:00 p.m. in California. I squint at the number I scrawled in the half dark. I dial. It goes to voicemail. Not knowing if this is Cheyenne’s number or if I dialed correctly, I leave what must sound like a weird message. I identify myself – unsure if she ever knew my name.
“I’m calling about your dad, Richard. He had a stroke. He’s at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge. It’s serious. Here’s my number…”
A few moments later the phone rings. Grabbing for it, the receiver slips from my hand. My breath catches in my throat. I croak, “Hello?”
A sweet, somber, young voice, a voice tinged with apprehension, says, “Hello, this is Cheyenne. I don’t pickup the phone if I don’t recognize the number.”
I tell her I do the same.
She knows who I am. She says her dad had talked about me the only time they met, when she came to Cambridge to introduce him to the three grandchildren he didn’t know he’d had.
An hour-long conversation followed, filled with tears and regret. I tell her how important she has been in her father’s life, how he has carried her with him through the years, how I’ve known of her as long as I’ve known him – starting in 1983, when he and I first met, how he tried so hard to see her, how her mother hated him, keeping her from having any contact with her dad.
When he told me he’d had a daughter who he hadn’t seen since she was two, who still lived a few towns over, I didn’t believe him at first.
I remember pushing on his reluctance to pursue or renew the relationship with the mother of his only child.
“How could she hate you so long? It’s been years; Cheyenne’s no longer a baby, she’s a 10-year-old little girl. Let’s invite them, her and her mother, for Thanksgiving dinner, surely she’s softened.”
This had seemed like the right thing to say, the logical, normal way to think. After all, the modern family isn’t perfect; it can take many forms. Time should wear away some of the bitterness in any relationship.
He’d known it was a lost cause but he let me try and I saw and heard for myself. I called their number ready with the most charming greeting and heartfelt invitation I could muster. A woman’s voice answered sounding slightly annoyed as though she’d anticipated a telemarketer. As soon as she realized who I was and why I was calling, words long soaked in venom were spat at me, someone she’d never met, it didn’t matter. It was as if her hurt had happened yesterday and I was just a surrogate for him – the man she lived to hate. Such hate is a kind of insanity and I felt sorry for her. She had chosen to live the rest of her life feeding on the corpse of their relationship like a zombie.
I don’t tell it like that to Cheyenne. She knows what had been sacrificed and we cry again together and I tell her how much her father loves her. Though she and I were strangers I knew, better than anyone, the truth of that love.
As the magnitude of my news sweeps over her, she says she is almost sorry she had taken her kids to see him that one time two summers ago. Cheyenne now has the burden that knowing brings. If she had just sat, surrounded by the moat her mother’s hate had pooled around her, she would not have known or could have pretended it did not concern her, none of her business, this mystery father that was never a part of her life. Now it’s too late. He is real to her. I tell her she can call me anytime. We say goodbye. As we disconnect the dead air hovers with no resolution.
I’m not sure what I should do next. It is almost 2:00 a.m. and I am wide-awake. I check the MegaBus schedule to Boston on my computer and decide to book a ticket. There is only one trip a day from Burlington, Vermont. The bus leaves at 4:15 pm.
I manage about two hours sleep. As I shower, a flurry of calls. Cheyenne again. She had spoken to the doctor in the ICU at Beth Israel Hospital where Richard had been transferred. She was listed in his file as his closest relative, but she barely knew him and requested that the doctors accept me, his former partner, as though we still lived together. I am grateful for her trust. Shortly after her call, a Dr. Cai calls me, asking if I know anything about Richard’s medical history, who is his primary care doctor? is he on any medications? As far as I know there is no primary care doctor. Richard might have gone to the walk-in clinic at Mass General or to the Red Cross to give blood, maybe once a year, if that. Like me, he didn’t smoke, didn’t drive, didn’t do drugs, and unlike me, he rarely drank. He is a borderline diabetic, but his 3-4 hour daily walks photographing the flora and fauna around Fresh Pond kept that in check. He tended to be a tad overweight, but I liked the meatiness of him. He felt substantial.
It’s almost April. You’d never know it from the still snow-drenched embankments and solidly frozen rivers, lakes, and streams that flow past my window as the bus lumbers southeast towards Boston. Were there always so many little cemeteries on this route? Scattered remnants that appear in odd places; a small clearing in the woods, a few slanted slabs of slate leaning away from the wind, casting long shadows against the dirty white dregs of winter as the sun slips low in the west. I’d traveled this route many times in years past and never noticed these carved shards of stone and slate, markers of lives lived, meaningful only to those who remained which in some cases may now be no one.
Richard just turned 70. I will soon be approaching that mark myself. This is the beginning of the time when age matters. We’ve both been told how much younger we look, seem, act. He with his round, soft, unlined face, always bearing a child-like expression of innocence. Me, in camouflage blond hair, grown shoulder length with the encouragement of my hairdresser. She said it “works” for me. Not all older women need to resort to the short, gray, masculine, clipped around the ears look. I can hide the deepening wrinkles on my forehead with the jaunty swish of bangs that draw the eyes down to my mascaraed lashes. It’s become harder this year to hide the truth of my age from myself, the droop of the jowl, the slack skin on the neck.
The sign says, “Boston 50 miles.” It’s 7:00 o’clock. A soft aftermath of a setting sun reveals the sliver of a new moon shining high in the pale gray sky. The bus will be there in an hour.
An array of digital monitors, blinking lights and constantly changing numbers flicker in green, red, pink, blue and white, each representing a tube or wire exiting from the hole in his head, his nose, the IVs in his arm, the catheter to his penis, the plugs on his chest. Every inch of his physical self is monitored.
A nurse, one of the many that will pass through his day, stands at a computer screen where all those numbers indicating which part of him is living or dying or fading or racing, sinking too fast or not fast enough, are instantly displayed and acted upon if any of those aforementioned tubes, clamps, and wires needs adjusting. This particular nurse’s name is Erika. I note it because my daughter is a nurse named Erika. A piece of information identifying the patient is written on one of the whiteboards in his room that also has my name, followed by my phone number, and the description “former long-term partner.” Next to that is Cheyenne’s name, “daughter”, and her phone number.
His eyes are closed. His body is covered with a white sheet. He looks nearly the same as the day I left him four years ago – except for the slope of the no longer rounded belly –that’s gone – and the tube exiting the hole in his skull working to syphon the fluid that had flooded his brain as he was doing the back exercises that he had designed himself and published in Maggie’s Back Book. Maggie, of Maggie Lettvin, a one-time famous exercise guru from the MIT Cambridge crowd. How ironic that he had a stroke while doing exercises he had designed to relieve the pain of others. Now he must rely on the care of others who are trying to relieve his pain.
It was luck the small whistle he always carried on his key chain was laying next to him on the floor when his body seized up. He started blowing it with all the strength he could muster, which caught his landlady’s attention. She came into his apartment to see what all the noise was about, discovered him in obvious distress and called 911. Had it not been for that whistle I might at this moment be attending his funeral.
I pull one of the large cushiony chairs meant for visitors and family up to his bedside. The hand on his one functioning arm is encased in a mesh mitt to prevent him from accidentally unplugging himself from some vital bodily function. His eyes are slightly open, just slits.
Leaning down, close to his face I whisper, “Do you know me?”
He replies with a thick-tongued, “Cynthia”.
He gestures with the mitt, trying to rub it off against his body. I see it’s only attached with Velcro. I remove it. He wriggles his now free fingers, grabs my hand and squeezes it. We always held hands no matter where we went together. It was natural. We were attached. It wasn’t affectation. It was real.
Now crying, I sob, “I love you.”
He whispers an answer with still closed eyes, “There’s no such thing as love.”
I laugh. Ritchie is in there. It is the ironic, sardonic but never mean Ritchie I know. Suddenly, I’m hopeful. The vigil begins.
Nearly a month has passed since that dreaded phone call. This is the first time I’ve visited him since he was moved out of the ICU. I am the one who insisted that they move him to the Braintree Rehab Hospital as opposed to another facility they’d suggested in Salem, Massachusetts, or New Hampshire, thinking Braintree is more accessible from Boston by public transportation. It isn’t as convenient as I thought. Driving from Boston takes 30-40 minutes, depending on traffic. I feel guilty, causing his friends, our friends, my friends, extra effort to visit him. He needs to see those familiar faces around him, letting him know he has not been forgotten.
As Carolyn and Dan pull the car into the parking area I spy him, propped-up in his wheelchair with pillows, a thin white cotton blanket around his shoulders, holding court. Four people, two men, two women and two dogs surround him on the sun-splashed patio forming his entourage. I recognize two of them; Don, an old friend from Richard’s early days at MIT in Cambridge and Alka, who brought her magnificent German shepherd, Yogi. They joined the newer contingent of his admirers from the Fresh Pond crowd.
White hair, white skin, swathed in a white blanket, caught in the brilliant light of an early Spring sun, he seemed to hover in a space that was all his own. As I approach him, the others slip out of my line of vision. They may as well not have been there. He stares at me with wide, unblinking eyes, reaches for me with his one good arm and hand and says loud enough for all to hear, “Here comes the love of my life.”
His voice quivers. The ironic tone that accompanied such pronouncements in the past is gone. He pulls me toward him unabashed with a surprising show of strength as though no one else is in sight. As I slide my arms around his neck and shoulders and lay my cheek against the fine thin skin across the top of his skull, I feel the truth of this thing in him, the thing I’ve always known, the thing that he’d now freed, set loose by the stroke. Or, perhaps facing mortality erased the fear and vulnerability that admitting such a love brings.
My unexpected tears run down, leaving a moist spot on his skin where my cheek had been. Someone hands me a tissue. All is awkward quiet for a moment. Our small audience, sniffling, caught in the overflow of emotion, comes back into my consciousness.
“Take a photo of my staples.” He gestures to the sutures holding together the pale blue/white translucent skin stretched across the broad expanse of bone. We used to joke about his “high forehead.” He never was completely bald, but he has a receding hairline. Now the wispy remains of fringe around his ears and the back of his head are almost white. It is as though he’d aged twenty years since I last saw him in the ICU at Beth Israel Hospital. The drain in his brain has been removed – hence the sutures.
It takes two people to maneuver him in and out of bed, to the wheelchair, and on to the several hours of intense physical therapy where he tells me they “torture” him. While I know he means it as “tongue-in-cheek” a sort-of-a-joke, it is also true. His back pain from an old injury is excruciating. He is encouraged to stand at the parallel bars and coaxed to balance on his one good leg – but his equilibrium is off and he just keels over. He never has handled pain well. Some men grin and bear it. Not Ritchie. He lets everyone within earshot know of his suffering, his pain.
I move an available lawn chair to sit by his side. He reaches for my hand and asks if I would help prop him up with a pillow. I struggle a bit with the dead weight of him, suddenly fearing that this could be the rest of my life, my future, nursing him, being instructed by him on the finer points of relieving his pain. The dismayed look on Carolyn’s face tells me she sees my weakness and wants to snatch me back, reminding me how I’ve made a new life in Vermont and it doesn’t include the burden of Richard.
Introductions are made. Alka and Don and I hug, old friends. The new folks seem to realize for the first time Richard had had a life somehow separate from his obsession with recording the ecology of Fresh Pond. I nod politely at the two new faces, barely registering their presence. They are part of the world Ritchie made for himself after I left and evidently they cared enough about him to visit, braving the Boston traffic on this Marathon weekend in spring to check on the progress of his recovery.
Don reminds us that Richard has run his share of Marathons. Testing his old friend’s memory, making sure we are prepared to pay due respect to his answer, he loudly asks Richard, “How many Marathons have you run?”
Without hesitation, not bragging, Richard says flatly, “Ten, but only finished six.”
I’d heard the stories of each race told years before, those finished as well as those interrupted by heat exhaustion or debilitating leg cramps. Now his muscles suffer a cramping of another kind.
I note that everyone tends to shout their questions or conversation when addressing him, as though he were deaf. His hearing is not affected by the stroke; it is his brain, left arm and leg that has atrophied. Shouting will not help his ability to understand the conversation. I’m comforted knowing he responds equally well to an intimate whisper, given up-close.
The afternoon light fades, taking his energy with it as the new and former friends turn to leave. A white-coated attendant comes to wheel him back to his bed, to the room that now delineates his world. I’m left standing, not sure if I should follow. Carolyn gestures for me to get back into the car. Is this what I am supposed to do? Or is it the moral thing to stay and care for that person in your life that you knew you had loved? Neither he nor I had ever believed in self-sacrifice. The core of our mutual artistic being was the protection of self. That was the source of our strength. Our creativity was born of our, as he put it, “irrational self-confidence.” I watch the doors of the nursing home shut behind him. I turn, slide in the back seat, closing the door as the car pulls away from the curb.
Not long after this encounter Richard is shunted from Braintree to Neville Manor in Cambridge while we, his friends Dan and Carolyn and I sort through his belongings, pack up his computer, all his writing, his photographs and what we can figure out about his business and banking records. He lived such a spare life. There is an air mattress on the floor in the bedroom, his well-worn down parka hangs in the closet with just a few shirts. He mainly wore jeans and t-shirts, which are folded in the drawers of a dilapidated dresser along with some underwear. Large bags of specialty dog food occupy part of the kitchen’s storage space, along with stacks of sardine’s – it’s as though they were kept as back-up in case some natural or manmade disaster made it impossible to get to a grocery store. We arrange to pay his landlord with the help of an online Go Fund Me campaign, giving us time to find a foster home for his beloved dog, Jasper.
Richard’s penchant for living in the moment unfortunately resulted in his lack of planning for the future. He had never bothered to apply for social security, in part because he rarely paid his income taxes. Understandable since being “self-employed” he barely made enough money to warrant the payment of taxes. As a former war resister, having been jailed for a time in the 1960’s because of it, he felt a tad self-righteous, not wanting to do his part to support the war machine.
When he talked about his personal history he said, “My whole brain wants to cry.” It pained him having worked within the military industrial complex on the software and design of the FA 18 Hornet fighter jet. Knowing that he had worked with and could continue to work with some of the world’s top scientists – “wonderful people,” Ritchie said – was a dilemma. They were designing weapons to kill. He faced a moral turning point in his life when he left that world and willingly went to jail in protest of the war in Vietnam. Unfortunately, now the fine line between him living on the street in his wheel chair, or qualifying for Social Security and Medicaid, depended on digging up enough records from his time in the 1960’s and 70’s when he’d been regarded as a near “genius” computer programmer and had trained other programmers at NASA to write code not only for military applications but for America’s first space shuttle.
He was born in Marinette, Wisconsin, on February 8th, 1945 the son of his namesake, 19 year-old Richard Lee Gardner Sr. and his 17 year-old wife Veronica. It wasn’t long after his birth when mom Veronica moved on, dumping hubby #1, finding herself on a farm in Thermopolis, Wyoming with hubby #2, who fathered two more children in spite of being a brutal dad and meaner husband. Richard never spoke of his stepfather, except for telling the story of being forced to drive a tractor at age six. He described the feeling of terror that overtook him atop this gigantic piece of machinery. Perhaps the vertigo and motion sickness that always made travel difficult for him took root in that one horrific moment. Two more husbands and one more child followed, leaving Veronica eventually settled in Cody, Wyoming where she embraced Mormonism. She still lived there with her 4th husband when Ritchie and I went back for his 20th High School Reunion.
He had been a wonky kid with a paper route and was an academic star at school. He read voraciously and loved his English teacher Miss Shawver, and his History teacher, Mr. Robertson. He was the only student in his class offered a full scholarship to MIT. Literally the day after graduation he hopped on his Lambretta, and except for a few rest stops and camping out under the stars, didn’t stop till he hit Cambridge. By the time he got there, his Lambretta was trashed, a little more than a croaking pile of well-used parts. That was the last piece of motorized equipment he ever drove.
Like many other brilliant men (Steve Jobs and Bill Gates come immediately to mind) who were on the cutting edge of the technological revolution that computers wrought, Richard never graduated. As a freshman, he hung out in the Lab for Nuclear Science with upperclassmen and postgrads like Noelle Morris, brother of filmmaker Errol Morris, and Tom Van Vleck, two guys who eventually were credited for inventing email. Richard had just turned 20 when he was recruited for Project MAC, the origin of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. He worked on Multics (Multiplexed Information and Computing Service) a timesharing operating system begun in 1965 as a research project, which was an important influence on operating system development. Richard was still an undergrad while doing work in the nescient world of computer programming and research that remains the main reason anyone goes to MIT in the first place. Michael Spock, son of the famous baby doctor Benjamin Spock, was the director of Boston’s Children’s Museum in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Spock put Richard in charge of designing and building the museum’s first hands-on computer exhibit. Later on Richard became one of the founding members of the Boston Computer Society. It was still going strong early in our relationship when he took me to one of their meetings. I remember it in part because I met John Updike there, standing in line behind me. Updike told me he was doing some computer research for his novel Roger’s Version, which would be published a few years later.
Not that it was love at first sight, but there was an undoubted mutual attraction the moment Richard and I laid eyes on each other. We met at an art gallery opening in Boston, three years after I’d left my husband. I was seeing two other men at the time and lying about it, but that didn’t prevent me from being open to Richard’s totally unique perspective on life. We slept together on our first date, only the second time I had ever seen him. Our shared intimacy was immediate. I felt safer in his presence than I had ever felt with anyone, including my father and mother. His voice had a deep, resonant, knowing tone as our pillow talk veered from tectonic plates written about by John McPhee in Basin and Range to the 16th century diaries of Montaigne and ended with How Real is Real by Paul Watzlawick, a book that then had only recently been published. All of this was new to me. There was no doubt that we would be seeing each other again.
Richard played a complex game balancing his self-deprecating simple country boy image with a brilliant mind. In describing himself he wrote, “My seeming sophistication with words and writing give the impression that I know something about everything. I deliberately practiced/cultivated that in high school. It was a way to escape from circumstances there. This fakery made my life seem richer and more interesting, and it cost me nothing. But there was always the risk of being found out.”
It was Richard who coaxed and cajoled me into confessing my other sexual relationships. It was Richard who accepted every part of me for what it was without exception. It was Richard who would not let me get away with lying to myself. It was Richard who thought I was capable of achieving great things even when I was plagued by self-doubt. It was Richard who questioned why I never used green in my paintings. It was Richard who first handed me a lined notebook and pen and said, “write.” It was Richard who trained me to run when I was approaching 40, had no muscle tone and, fearing decrepitude, I began a daily practice that changed my physical self permanently for the better. It was Richard who took me to Cody, Wyoming, the first trip I made further west than Hershey, Pennsylvania, and the first time I understood the meaning of “big sky” country. It was Richard who took me to a radical artists’ commune on the Austria/Hungarian border, where I met a man, a guru, who changed my view of the world, where I lived for five years without Richard. It was Richard who waited for me when I returned penniless to the United States and it was he who found me a job in the classified ads of the Boston Globe. It was a listing for an Executive Director of a documentary film company, something I knew nothing about, yet because of my “irrational self-confidence” I was offered the position when I convinced them in 1993, that what the company needed was a website, something Richard told me to tell them. By 1994 he’d helped me make that happen – (that’s why the company’s URL is www.der.org - we were one of the first film companies to have an online catalogue – thanks to Richard).
But for all the success I had, for all the proposals Richard laid out for me that I acted upon and brought to fruition, he was less able to profit, in any significant way, from his ideas. While I am ruthlessly competitive–the need to win is so intense I can’t even let my grandchildren beat me at Scrabble–he seemed to lack a competitive gene. His philosophy, his strategy to win an argument or fight was: “Do nothing, don’t resist.” Hence, we never argued. We sparred intellectually but he so outmaneuvered me, it was no contest.
We lived together during the twenty years I ran that documentary film company. His help was incalculable, though he was always behind the scenes while I stood center stage, traveled the world, claiming all the accolades. He stayed home, walked the dog, and worked on his computer on his various projects, all of which involved accumulating and manipulating huge quantities of data. He made some money on an irregular basis publishing the results of his labors.
As the film company prospered, my salary increased, and we could finally afford a comfortable, four-story townhouse, a stone’s throw from Harvard Square and across the street from Fresh Pond Reservation, the biggest green space in the otherwise densely populated Cambridge, Massachusetts. Finally, there was room for the seven-foot Christmas tree I’d always wanted, with enough space beneath it for the mountains of gifts bought for my grandchildren. We also had a guest room and bath on the second floor where my daughter, her husband and the kids could stay when they visited us from Montreal.
As I enthusiastically embraced my role as a leader, learning the ropes of the film industry, deal-making, and attending film festivals in countries I could barely find on a map, Richard’s life-long interest in photography gradually became an obsession. The lure of Fresh Pond: its trees, underbrush, an occasional fox or coyote spotted on the adjoining golf course across the street from us could not be ignored. The fact that we had a well-loved dog that needed to be walked several times a day provided the ideal excuse for Richard to head out every afternoon, camera in hand, to document in great detail all that nature had to offer.
The 162 acres of open space that surrounded and protected the Fresh Pond Reservoir, –a vital part of the drinking water supply system for the City of Cambridge–provided Richard a focus for data collection that could be integrated with the rhythm of his life. The man with the camera soon became known among all the regular dog walkers, joggers, bird watchers, and misfits who daily traversed the 2.5-mile path around the pond. In spring 2003, when we first moved in, he was still using a film camera that required him to send out the results for processing. He loved the little point and shoot Olympus that allowed him to actually print the date on the front of each photo. Our artist/photographer friends thought it looked tacky but to Richard the data was an important part of the aesthetic.
One of his favorite subjects was dogs. Cambridge authorities allowed owners to walk their dogs off leash at Fresh Pond as long as they were non-aggressive. Richard never met a dog he couldn’t relate to. They all loved him, the treats he kept in his pockets helped to smooth over any questionable interactions. He photographed them all, asking each owner the name, date of birth and any interesting anecdote, which he recorded in the waterproof notepad he carried with him, every day, 365 days a year. Some dogs, like the regal German shepherd Yogi, became favorite subjects.
When self-publishing software first became available Richard was an early adapter. One of his initial attempts using it resulted in a photo-book titled Reservoir Dogs. It included many images of his dog friends taken from 2005 to 2007. In the forward he listed five different cameras that were used: Vivitar 55, the Olympus Point & Shoot, Canon S80, Nikon P4 and an Olympus SP55OUZ. He had asked me to write a little something about him to include on the back cover of the book, which I did, stating in part that “Reservoir Dogs was the result of his character, his obsessiveness, his observational skills and his patience. It is also a document that allows us to appreciate the rich variety and even humanity of all of Richard’s doggy friends who have joined him in their love of nature and fun at Fresh Pond Reservation.”
When did Richard’s scientific and artistic interest in this place become the focus of all his obsessions? When did it come to embody all that was important in life to him? It was hard to pinpoint any single, exact moment. Like the effects of climate change, it was gradual, cumulative, an ever-escalating force that gained in momentum with each passing season. His hour-long walks soon expanded to two, then three, then four hours or more because he had to stop to photograph certain plants, or mushrooms, or owls’ roosts every day. When he made the switch to all digital, it opened a torrent. A single day’s walk produced over 400 images. All these images were then uploaded, stored on commercial sites like Flickr or SmugMug, and categorized according to subject, date, etc. Certain trees like the Witch Hazel would become icons to him, always the first to bloom, often when there was still snow on the ground.
Richard and I shared a large circle of friends and colleagues with whom we would often celebrate various accomplishments, birthdays, or just the pleasure of their company at any of the varied and excellent restaurants within walking distance of our home. After we had lived at Fresh Pond for about a year, Richard was only able to join me at these events if he had accomplished his daily walk around the pond and taken at least 200 photographs. Rather than argue with him, we didn’t accept any invitations unless we could work around this schedule. Weather was never an obstacle. He took pride in the fact that his all weather gear and increasingly high tech cameras allowed him to function as documentarian, even in the worst blizzard. Year after year he would brag that he hadn’t missed a day photographing Fresh Pond.
It didn’t bother me that we never traveled together anymore because my job required extensive international travel. One year I was at a film festival in Paris the same week I’d attended one in Tartu, Estonia. Arriving home, after battling customs, hair-raising flight connections, and lugging suitcases through endless airport corridors, it was always a relief to have Richard waiting at our door with his tail-wagging companion. After 20 years of shouldering the responsibility of running a company, the stress of constant decision-making started to wear on me. Since I was the one who managed our household finances, I knew exactly how much money it took to maintain our lifestyle living across the street from Fresh Pond in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I knew if I hoped to survive with enough of my health and sanity intact to get to know my grandchildren and to reinvest myself in my own creative endeavors, I needed to retire, and if I retired, we could no longer afford to live across the street from Fresh Pond.
Even today, once I set my sights on a goal, I have the ability to focus my energy to make the outcome a reality. It’s that “irrational self-confidence” part of my character. Since Vermont had all that nature could offer–a thousand times bigger and better than Fresh Pond–and it’s largest city, Burlington, was a college town with a liberal political vibe not unlike Cambridge, it seemed like the ideal alternative. When I discovered Burlington was only two hours from Montreal that sealed the deal in my mind. What could be more perfect? Richard and I both preferred the stimulating change of seasons with a healthy dose of cold to keep our brains stimulated, rather than a retirement community in Florida.
I began getting our house in order to sell. I painted the bathrooms. I contacted real estate agents while searching the Internet for houses to buy in Vermont. It was an ideal time to leave the film company. We’d just had our best year ever with a healthy surplus on the earnings side of our leger. Every weekend I’d take the bus from Boston to Burlington. Our kindly Vermont real estate agent would pick me up and show me the latest houses on the market in our price range. The agent seemed a bit flummoxed by the fact neither Richard nor I drove a car, nor did we intend to acquire one. His vision of the areas of town he thought were viable for a carless couple was much narrower than my own. Even our friends thought it wasn’t possible to survive in Vermont without a car but our lifetime of experience told us it was simple, a matter of perspective. Although Richard did not enthusiastically embrace the idea of leaving Fresh Pond, he didn’t overtly fight against it either. He just kept to his rigid schedule of walking and photographing while I charged ahead, “staging” our home for sale.
All my efforts brought faster results than either of us expected. Our townhouse went on the market in February 2011 and we accepted an offer six weeks later. It was only a stroke of incredibly good-timing that I found an ideal home, a recently renovated 1880’s carriage house. It had two floors, two bedrooms, two & a half baths, a good-sized kitchen and, with the confirmed sale of our Cambridge place, we could afford it. It was also within ten minutes walking distance of Lake Champlain and shopping, had a bus stop at the end of the driveway, and Ethan Allen Park, a slightly wilder version of Fresh Pond, was on the next corner.
My joy and relief at finding the ideal home for us, a place that met, I thought, all of Richard’s prerequisites, soon turned sour. My Blackberry had become my home away from home. I not only ran the film company using it as my office, it was my main means of communicating during the many hours spent on the bus between Boston and Burlington. As soon as the real estate agent and I returned to his office, he went off to prepare papers for me to sign, making the offer for the carriage house. Left alone in the conference room, I picked up my Blackberry and called Richard.
“Hi Ritchie! I am so excited. I found the perfect home for us!”
Before I could say another word, his response short-circuited my brain.
“What do you mean, us?”
His voice, cold, unfeeling, uninterested, totally detached. Who was this person? Seconds went by. The real estate agent returned. I clicked off the phone and tried to compose myself. I looked up at the agent, my face wooden, and asked, “Where do I sign?”
The next few weeks were spent in suspended disbelief. How do you live with someone for longer than you’ve lived with anyone your entire life and not know him?
The dissonance between the Richard I thought I knew, and this person he had become did not register. We continued to sleep together in the same bed. His days revolved around his walks at the pond while I packed cartons marked “bedroom” and “kitchen.” I arranged for a lawyer to represent us at the closing, just to avoid the possibility of any last minute antics. I held my breath, thinking it all could go sour, no guarantees, as anyone who ever sold a home while buying another knows. On the day before the movers were scheduled to pick up all my stuff and haul it up to Vermont, I asked Richard where he planned to live. He continued to stare at his computer screen. I wondered if he’d heard the question. In a voice devoid of emotion, he said, “I don’t know.” I panicked. He hadn’t packed any of his things and we both had to be out of the house in two days, leaving it “clean and swept” for the new owners.
“Well, you can’t just live in a tent at Fresh Pond.” Although he probably thought of that, he finally made a few phone calls. One of our kindly neighbors offered Richard space in his garage to store the few items he wanted from our life together. It wasn’t much. I reminded him he’d probably need a bed to sleep on and he could have ours since my new house already had some furniture that the previous owner left. At the last minute some friends of friends came to Richard’s rescue with the offer to rent their home, only a few blocks away. After my movers drove off and Richard had stored his cartons of photos, computers, camera equipment and reams of collected data in the neighbors garage, we stood in the empty driveway. Our dog Jasper, sat patiently between us. We stared blankly at each other while tears streamed down our faces.
“What about the dog?” we both asked each other in the same breath.
Downcast, Richard said, “I thought you would take him.” And I would have, especially since, until a day ago, it wasn’t clear Richard even had a place to live. Just at that moment our friend Alka drove up to see if Richard needed a ride to his newly rented place.
“Do you want him?” I asked.
“Yes,” he choked.
“Then take him.” I said, turning away.
As Alka opened the car door, Jasper hesitated for a moment then jumped in the backseat. Richard got in front next to Alka. I watched numbly as the car drove off down Huron Avenue. That was the last time we had contact till I saw him in the ICU at Beth Israel Hospital four years later.
My life in Vermont has been richly rewarding. My granddaughters stay with me in the summers. We swim at Leddy Beach, spend hours roaming around the Shelburne Museum and take advantage of all the other wonderful places to explore in Burlington. I’ve met many new and wonderful friends, have become an advisor to the Vermont International Film Foundation, and have joined a very supportive writers group. With their help, I’ve begun to take the craft of writing seriously. It is no longer a lark, or a blog post. I write professionally for publications that pay me on a regular basis. The rest of the time I write to make sense of things, to see my life transformed into something more important than it seemed in the actual living of it.
Ritchie continues to improve, albeit gradually. He’s still living in one room with two roommates in a nursing home, near Cambridge, thanks to the acceptance of his Social Security and Medicaid application. Sometimes he is lucid. He has a cell phone and a laptop computer. He used to be a wizard on the keyboard. I never saw anyone type as fast. Now it is hunt and peck with his one good hand. He has started to record his life in the nursing home, a form of data that he emails to me. More than data, it seems like poetry. I titled his most recent report and added his name.
Nursing Home Blues
By Richard Gardner
4:15am september 4 something falls from the ceiling and stabs me in my right eye
i had the impression it was a small piece of glass.
many of the other patients report stuff in their eyes. somebody always seems to be getting eye drops. i don’t think they will ever consider my ideas for recording this kind of data.
the pain subsided after my eye was flooded with tears
joe wants to watch the hurricane news on tv.
the usual noise and chaos in the hall.
8:10am september 4 a sudden intense pain in my heart,
but it passes
maybe the next time will stop it from beating and i will finally get out of this place.
vermiculite (wikipedia) explains how it can contain asbestos
that might be the stuff on the ceiling.
now everyone is arguing about who got their shower this week
it shouldn’t be that hard to keep track of one shower a week
joe can’t remember if he got his yesterday.
THERE SHOULD BE a reward for discovering and reporting
asbestos on a ceiling.
the slightly less than one handed typist signing out.
Armed with an MFA from Boston University Cynthia plowed her way through several productive careers in the arts including instructor in drawing and painting, Dean of Admissions at The Art Institute of Boston, founder of ARTWORKS Consulting, and president of Documentary Educational Resources - a film company. She now claims to be a writer.
To support this claim, she is a contributing editor for Documentary Magazine and writes regularly for Vermont Woman magazine, Art New England, Professional Artist magazine, Artists Network, and Art & Object. Her creative non-fiction appeared in the 2014, 2016, and 2017 anthology, The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop, and her essays have been published in various literary journals including 34th Parallel, Woven Tales Press, The Black and White Anthology, The Seasons of Our Lives, Across the Margin, Montana Mouthful, and Agni among others. She has read publicly at many venues including the Cornelia Street Café in NYC. She was the inaugural art editor for the literary and art journal Mud Season Review launched in 2014.
Cynthia has completed Carnal Conversations, a memoir told through intensely intimate observations often laced with ironic humor as this escapee from 1950’s nuclear family life finds herself at forty near the Austria/Hungarian border living on Friedrichshof, a radical artists commune where the nuclear family has been banned and couple relationships are anathema. She was the last person to be admitted to the commune just as the AIDS scare peaked.
While she searches for an agent, she continues to live and write in Burlington, Vermont two blocks from Bernie Sanders. You can read more about Cynthia and her writing on her website.
Be sure to check out our exclusive interview with Cynthia over on the Orson's Publishing blog.