My mom Kathy was the primary caregiver for my stepdad Guido after his stroke for six-and-a-half grueling, painful and often beautifully poignant years before he finally passed away.
This fictional story is inspired by her journey and is one chapter in my novel: Married Sex: Fact & Fiction.
I love you mom.
The Golden Years
It’s been four years since Beth has worn makeup. She stopped after her husband Ned’s stroke. There didn’t seem to be a point. But today she removes her reading glasses to apply newly purchased eye shadow. Heather Glory, engineered specifically for the mature woman.
Her face is a blur in the bathroom mirror.
In a way, this is a blessing. Now she can’t see the broken capillaries around her nose from one too many wine spritzers or the years of sun-damage sustained before the sun became a criminal.
She swipes the makeup brush in the general direction of her eyelid, hoping to shadow the crease, thus creating an illusion of smoky mystery. Last Friday, her watercolor teacher, Eric, playfully patted her ass and whispered, “A well made body lasts.”
Beth knew he’d stolen the line from Colette, whom he’d been reading in some co-ed, singles book club, but she blushed anyway, feeling blood move in parts of her body that had been long-forgotten outposts in some polar tundra.
It feels ridiculous, even perverted, being attracted to a younger, if not young, man.
Eric is a perennial Peter Pan, flitting from one too-young woman to the next; as each woman gets older and wants more, he takes flight again. Beth teases Eric about his complex and gives him maternal advice from time to time. But lately their banter has become flirtatious. She tells herself nothing will ever come of it, but today she wants to look as pretty as a sixty-five-year-old woman can look. Just for fun.
A plaintive “Ahhhh!” resounds from the bedroom.
Beth drops her shadow brush. After four years, Ned’s imperious summons can still make her jump like a cat in a house full of dogs.
Ned’s son, Michael, is due any second, and he never likes to actually handle Ned if he can help it. She has to hurry if she’s going to get to her art class on time. With a last swipe of makeup she exits the bathroom.
In their bedroom, she sees her husband laying flat on his back in the rented hospital bed. Ned’s head is raised off the pillow as he glares wildly in Beth’s direction, his eyes trying to focus.
When he locks on to her moving form, he yells with outrage again.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” she says. “You were asleep two minutes ago.”
He groans a denial.
“I know you were, because I looked in on you. NCIS was on the television and you were snoring away.”
He huffs in disgust.
“We’ve got to get you ready before Michael comes.”
Ned looks at her with interest.
“Yes, he’s taking you for your drive today.”
She can tell by his silence that Ned’s pleased with this development.
She taps his right leg, the one that still has mobility, signaling she’s ready. Obediently, he throws his right leg over the bed’s edge and, with her help, places his right foot on the carpeted floor. Next she grasps the back of his shrunken, ropey neck periscoping from his shirt like a turtle’s from its shell.
He grabs her other arm with his good right hand, and in a fluid movement, she pulls him to a sitting position. When he’s upright, she reaches for his left leg, still lying inert on the coverlet, and drags it to meet his right one.
His immobile limbs remind her of the limbs of an unwanted Chinese jade bush she hacked to death when they first moved into this house.
The bush’s limbs were surprisingly dense and heavy, still pulsating with sap. A superstitious neighbor warned Beth, as she dragged the massive bush in pieces to the dumpster, that killing a Chinese jade would bring bad luck.
The wheelchair is locked in place and ready, the left arm pushed up so she can slide Ned in, both foot rests set aside, to be reattached when he’s in the chair.
Next comes the transfer.
She must pull him to standing as he pushes up simultaneously with his good leg then transfer him into the wheelchair, pivoting him with her right hip against his right thigh.
At six feet, he now weighs less than he did in middle school. Even so, half of his body is still seventy some-odd pounds of dead weight.
She’ll miss class if, like last week, her back spasms while trying to transfer him to the wheelchair and she winds up in bed all day, hopped up on Advil. If his good leg pushes out of sync with her pull, he’ll topple onto her. If the pivot isn’t synchronized perfectly, he’ll slip between the wheelchair and the bed, potentially cracking his skull on the night table, like he did the week before. That took ten stitches and set them back with his swallowing; they had to go back to the feeding tube.
This time the transfer works; her back and his leg hold. She suffers only a dollop of his drool on her right shoulder.
She looks at her watch.
Class is in fifteen minutes, Michael’s late and she still has to get Ned on the toilet. As she rolls him down the hallway to the guest bathroom that has been modified for him, she wonders, not for the first time, how things might’ve been different if she’d never laid eyes on that Chinese jade. If she’d never laid eyes on Ned.
They met in San Francisco in nineteen seventy-nine.
They were both married at the time. Ned was a legend at Waller and Waller International Shipping, where she worked as a secretary. He’d fought as a marine in the Battle of Iwo Jima, and was awarded the Navy Cross for continuing to man his 20mm anti-aircraft gun aboard the Intrepid in the face of a Japanese kamikaze, which he shot down before it reached its destination.
Ned stayed on in the Far East, developing the connections that would make him CEO of the most successful international shipping business in the world. In the interim he married three times.
The first marriage was to a Malaysian woman who was the equivalent of a European princess. The marriage ended when he refused to live in the royal compound and take up the family textile business.
There was just one child, an encephalitic boy who died before his fifth birthday. Ned was long gone by then.
He named Michael, the son from his second marriage, after the dead boy.
His second wife was a Filipina graphic artist whom he divorced when she developed a methadone addiction she claimed was her only refuge from his indifference.
When he met Beth, Ned was married to his third wife, a ball buster who kept him on his toes by cheating as frequently as he did and, during her brief dalliance with the black arts, cursing his masculinity, which caused occasional impotence.
Beth was married to a kind but ineffectual restaurant manager when she first met Ned.
She’d been sent to collate docking records and bring back coffee for her boss when she saw Ned in the employee lounge. He usually didn’t use the lounge since he had his own private kitchen in his penthouse office.
In the two years she’d worked at Waller and Waller, Beth had only heard about Ned Harris from interoffice murmurings. The moment she saw him, expertly preparing a thick thimble of espresso, she knew this striking, intimidating man must be the Ned Harris.
Within the week he was leaning against her beat-up VW van in the employee parking lot, incongruous in his Bruno Magli pinstripe, his Ferragamo shoes buffed to a muted mahogany shine.
He was seventeen years her senior.
When he saw her approaching, wearing the latest prairie skirt trend with lace up granny boots, he smiled a predatory smile.
He asked her to lunch at the Regent Hotel for the following Wednesday, his standard invitation.
Almost every woman in shipping and delivery had seen the ceiling of suite 219 at the Regent. Beth turned down several lunches in a row, but one day, for no particular reason, she said yes.
His cock was a revelation. It fit her perfectly, stimulating her to a vaginal orgasm, which she’d never had before. His lips on her nipples brought them back to life; they’d been desensitized in the last several years by her eager-to-please husband’s incompetent manipulation.
Ned could bring her to orgasm just by licking her nipples or kissing her mouth. He could bring her to orgasm just by looking at her across a conference table.
She did all the things besotted mistresses do.
She waited for her phone to ring; she called his home and hung up when his wife answered; she cried in a stall in the employee bathroom; waxed her bikini line; bought lingerie and sex toys; colored her hair; had her mustache electrolysized; got manicures and pedicures, wore perfume; slathered herself with body lotion; had a consultation about breast augmentation; stopped having sex with her husband; didn’t care if he found out; became reckless and obsessed.
She confronted Ned at work, made scenes in hallways and parking lots.
She thought seriously about killing herself when he broke things off completely. It would have to be pills. She didn’t have the nerve to cut or shoot herself; she was afraid of heights. What would happen if she jumped off the Golden Gate and didn’t die? What if she was paralyzed and couldn’t finish herself off?
They use the pivot technique again to get Ned onto the toilet.
Beth bought a commode on sale at a hospital equipment store downtown. It’s on casters and can be rolled to fit over the toilet now that the toilet lid and seat have been removed.
The chair works well for bowel movements because Ned can sit directly over the toilet, but it doesn’t work as well for urination as the chair doesn’t take into account the trajectory of the penis. This time, she remembers to point his penis toward the bowl so he doesn’t pee all over his pajama bottoms. Yesterday she forgot and had to change his clothes and clean the floor, which set her back fifteen minutes.
“Oh, there you are. Sorry, sorry.”
She turns to see Michael ducking out of the doorway as if he’s caught Beth and his dad in coitus.
She’s irritated that Michael is still squeamish around his father after all this time.
He’s yet to change one of Ned’s diapers or his condom catheter. Today she’s not letting him off the hook.
“I’m running late for class, you’re going to have to get him on his chair yourself.”
Michael reappears in the bathroom door, querulous.
“But, he doesn’t like me to do it. He gets embarrassed.”
“You get embarrassed. He doesn’t care. I’ll be back in time to make dinner.”
“How do I get his pants back up and zipped?”
She sighs. For a moment she thinks how good it would feel to let the oars go and allow her vessel to plummet over the falls, down, down, down into oblivion. But she’s developed a strong spine after living so many years with a man as demanding as Ned. She stands and looks at Michael. “Help him stand. I’ll show you the rest.”
It’s this strong spine that keeps her getting up every day and fighting as Ned lives and lives and lives.
Instead of killing herself after Ned dumped her, Beth quit Waller and Waller.
She went home, crawled in bed and slept for two weeks. The phone began to ring constantly. She heard her husband tell someone that she was fine, that she’d moved on. Then, days later, she heard her husband accuse the caller of being the reason she was so destroyed, that their marriage was a shambles. Even later, she heard her husband tell the person not to call them anymore, not to bother them or he’d call the police. There would be consequences for harassment.
Then the phone just rang and rang and rang.
She woke up on a Wednesday to find Ned sitting on the edge of her bed. He wore one of his tailor made work suits, a forest green silk tie with paisley peacock feathers. His thick, unruly grey hair was brushed flat, a few stray curls escaping the pomade on his crown. His thick fingers grasped her hand. “Marry me,” he said.
It took her six months to get her divorce. It took him two years.
In the beginning, Ned left her home for long stretches while he traveled Asia for Waller and Waller. He took the bullet train into Shanghai, had his suits made in Singapore, brought her silk kimonos from Hong Kong and a case of the clap from Taiwan.
Between threats to leave him and passionate reconciliations, Beth stayed home to raise Michael, who was then a teenager. Michael and Beth were in the same boat, both hungry for Ned’s time and affection, which was an unfortunate impediment to them developing any real intimate bond. They were two lonely roommates who occasionally shared a homemade spliff harvested from the marijuana plants Michael cultivated amidst their rhododendrons.
Beth lost her appetite. She became skinny. She thought maybe someday she’d disappear altogether.
The waterscape isn’t working.
The scale and proportion are all off. There’s no depth to the piece. The boat, the wharf, the ocean are all on the same flat plane on the canvas. Her art teacher Eric has asked Beth to lunch and she finds it impossible to concentrate.
“I want every detail,” says her friend, Elaine, from the canvas beside her.
“It’s just lunch,” whispers Beth.
“Of course it is,” Elaine says with undisguised lechery.
“Well, I’m only planning to eat.”
“I’m just saying if Bob were out of commission for four years he’d want me to take a lover. It’s been a long time since you’ve had a good stiff one between your legs.”
“Good God, Elaine, why don’t you just broadcast it on the evening news!”
Sometimes Beth thinks she shouldn’t have rekindled her friendship with Elaine.
It seemed the natural thing to do when Beth and Ned moved back to Santa Barbara, Beth’s hometown, but Elaine still loves to shock and provoke as if she were still the rebellious potty mouth Beth knew in high school. It’s no wonder all four of Elaine’s children have moved several thousand miles away.
Beth notices Eric walking from easel to easel, checking his students’ work.
He’s the antithesis of Ned, an aging hippie who wears his long, salt and pepper hair pulled into a ponytail at the base of his neck and a short-sleeved shirt unbuttoned down to his slight potbelly. He wears cutoff jean shorts that display rather well shaped calves leading down to feet enshrined in Paleolithic Birkenstocks.
Ned would’ve found Eric too disheveled and “artsy” to take seriously. Eric wouldn’t be Ned’s idea of a man.
Eric’s blue eyes crinkle into a smile as he comes to Beth’s easel. Her hand holding her palette trembles as he surveys her work.
“It’s terrible,” Beth says preemptively.
“You just need to lighten the foreground here on the docks and do a little more shading there on the water. Like this.”
Eric takes Beth’s hand to dip and guide her brush on the canvas.
His palms are calloused and rough. Beth wonders what he does that makes his hands so rough. She knows he surfs off Rincon with all the young kids and wonders if handling his board may’ve done it. Or maybe it’s from tending his garden of organic produce. She’d like to see that garden. Would like to eat those lush tomatoes, those tart persimmons.
Elaine has stopped painting and is staring at them, rapt.
Beth scowls at Elaine, who barely suppresses a giggle. Elaine makes a big show of going back to her canvas. Much as Beth hates to admit it, Elaine is right. She’d like to go into Eric’s bedroom and make love with him.
When she fantasizes about this, she isn’t in her body.
Not the one she inhabits now with breasts that lie flat on her ribcage, flesh that falls in ripples down her body. Strange growths she’s either had shaved off at the dermatologist or learned to live with. A neck she wears like a cowl on her collarbone.
No. Not this body. But the one she had when Ned finally came home to her for good, and she began to enjoy the taste of food again.
It was Ned’s forced retirement that saved their marriage.
He was only sixty, but he’d infuriated the Wallers by covertly buying up majority shares of their family stock and kicking their figurehead off the steering committee.
They countered by merging with American Presidential Lines; their direct competition.
APL’s acting CEO took charge after the merger and convinced Ned to choose a generous parachute package over an ugly public dismissal. If it had been just a few years earlier Ned would have come back with a vengeance, but chest pain sent him to the ER.
Doctors discovered he had ninety percent blockage in three ventricles of his heart. After triple bypass surgery Ned lost a great deal of his bravura. What he lost, Beth gained in their marriage’s balance of power.
For the first time, he needed her.
Initially, she exploited her newfound power in restitution for all the past slights between them. She’d refuse to make dinner, to shop for groceries, to clean the house, telling him they were on equal footing now and he could do equal work.
She even enrolled in a real estate course and got her realtor’s license. She sold houses for two years and had several opportunities to have affairs with men who were younger versions of Ned, in the full bloom of their audacity.
One night, she showed a townhouse to a swaggering junk bond salesman. He had the slight weight of both her breasts in his palms when a deep sense of dread overcame her.
It was the harbinger of a heart attack that nearly killed Ned.
That night, sitting at his bedside watching while he breathed through a ventilator in a coma-like state, she forgave herself for her petty cruelties and, in doing so, she was able to forgive Ned.
“Of course she wants a father for her child,” Beth says to Eric over their lunch of club sandwiches after class.
They are sitting in a booth at The Brown Pelican diner overlooking the Santa Barbara harbor, and Eric is yet again regaling her with his bachelor woes. The latest woman is only thirty-eight to Eric’s fifty-seven years. She has a seven-year-old son.
“I’m always up front,” says Eric. “I tell them I’m not looking to settle down and raise kids. I mean, if I was gonna do that I’da done it twenty years ago.”
“How many times have I told you, we women are fixers. We take a man and try to change him. All these young women think you’ll fall so deeply in love with them that you’ll change your mind. It’s no great mystery.”
“You’re right. You’re always right.”
There’s a pause as they each sip their iced tea.
Beth’s hair rises on her forearms. She feels a change coming that is, as yet, inchoate, but no less real for that.
Eric looks up at her. “What I need is a woman who is past all of that.”
“Past kids, past drama, you know, just past all of the games. Someone, God forbid, in my age range.” He fixes her with a flirtatious eye. “Maybe what I need is an older woman.”
The ball is in her court. She can take this as meaningless flirtation or as an overture.
Her mind seems to be moving very slowly, as if the neurons are firing through thick molasses. In fact, she is slightly uncertain this is reality and not some midday dream. She feels as though she’s floating above the scene, looking down wondering whether or not the elderly female protagonist will take the bait, leading her down a new path, a new set of dramatic possibilities.
This unreality persists until Beth sees the boy.
He’s standing next to their table wearing a blue and white striped t-shirt, extremely muddy sweat pants and what looks like a pair of formerly white Keds, now covered in grime.
“My mom’s outside,” the boy says to Eric and wipes some dripping mucous from his nose with his forearm.
Beth and Eric simultaneously look out the picture window to see a redheaded woman, her hand resting on the handlebars of what must be the boy’s mud blackened bicycle. The woman stares through the window at Eric as though Beth were invisible. It looks like she’s been crying.
“Shit,” Eric says. He turns to the boy. “Come on.” Eric slides from the booth and takes the little boy’s hand. He briefly glances at Beth. “I’ll be right back.”
She nods and watches as he and the boy exit the restaurant and approach the woman.
The woman never looks at her son, just pushes his bike at him.
The boy takes it and climbs on as his mother turns to Eric and says something that causes Eric to put a hand on his head as though he suddenly has a headache. The little boy rides his bicycle around the couple in a large, arcing circle.
Beth recognizes the look on the woman’s face, the sharp hunger for love, the rage that comes from trying to possess the un-possessable.
She knows that face. It was hers when she argued with Ned so long ago it now seems like a transatlantic crossing from another life.
After Ned recovered from his heart attack he and Beth began the second half of their life together.
They bought homes they renovated themselves and flipped. They traveled the world, staying with old friends Ned had made while traveling for Waller and Waller.
They were each prone to romanticizing the culture they saw and the locals they met on their travels to Melbourne, Paris, Greve in Chianti, London and Maidenhead, England. They were given to making promises to revisit these newfound friends when they returned again. They enjoyed sampling local cuisine and each gained middle-aged padding that they’d fucked and fought away years earlier.
They mourned their childlessness together, but they each knew that Ned was their child, which made their bond ultimately unbreakable.
Beth would like to think that she’d finally tamed Ned, that it was her particular brand of love that finally brought him to heel in domestic life. But she suspected that he stayed with her, his fourth and final wife, because he had simply gotten too old to start over with another woman.
It was the night after he had his stroke, while she lay in a makeshift cot next to his bed in intensive care, that she realized they had finally become happy.
Beth is paying the lunch bill when Eric returns from outside.
“Hey, Beth, I’m so sorry about that.”
“Cash or credit,” says the Pelican cashier.
“Credit,” says Beth.
“Wait. Here, I’ve got some cash.” Eric pulls a wad of cash from the back pocket of his raggedy shorts. Beth pushes the money away.
“I’m just so messed up right now. She’s waiting for me. I’ve got to set her straight. Maybe next week you and I can …”
Beth cuts him off. “What you’re doing to these young women is unkind and wrong. You have nothing to offer them. You should leave them alone entirely.”
His impish charm falters and she can see more clearly the churlish, irresponsible child. “But I tell them up front …”
“You make love to them. And in that physical act there is a promise. At a certain point we all have to take responsibility, even for our unspoken promises.”
Beth puts her wallet in her purse. She looks into Eric’s sky blue eyes for a moment, trying to muster the memory of what she’d found so attractive.
“Will I see you in class next Friday?”
Beth turns. “Of course. Why wouldn’t you?”
Ned’s three-year-old granddaughter, Eugenia, sits in her child booster at the dining room table.
She’s eating overcooked carrots, with one wary eye on Ned, who shovels pureed round steak into his mouth at the end of the table. Ned’s started wearing a piratical patch over his left eye to help with his double vision. He scares the bejesus out of Eugenia.
“… so I can’t find a bathroom and I have to whip little Genie’s panties off right there at the airstrip and she just pees on the grass like a boy.”
Octavia, Michael’s wife and Eugenia’s mother, is still talking about Eugenia’s potty training. Beth can never understand why the parents of small children think it’s appropriate to discuss their child’s toilet behavior over dinner. It occurs to her, looking across the table at Michael, who sips at his chardonnay, that her stepson never changed Eugenia’s diaper either.
Ned is having one of his choking fits where it seems he will aspirate his entire liquefied dinner. Beth whacks him on the back.
“Swallow,” she yells, not because she’s panicking, but because Ned is now mostly deaf. He focuses on swallowing properly, gulping and coughing as he goes.
“I told you not to take such big bites,” she chides gently as strained beets roll down his chin.
“I’m sorry, I can’t …” Beth looks up at Michael, who is picking up his plate, looking away in disgust. “I just can’t eat when he does that.”
“He can’t help it.”
Even as she says it, she suspects it’s not entirely true. Ned does tend to cough up more food when there are visitors. Octavia says it’s because he wants attention, even negative attention. She read about it in her Toddler Time book.
Michael gets up from the table. “We’ll just take our dinner to the patio.”
Octavia is already standing, carrying her and Eugenia’s plates toward the door. Only Eugenia sits stock still, staring at her grandfather, morbidly enthralled.
For just a moment, Beth is overcome by profound loneliness. Among all these people, including Ned himself, she is alone with this responsibility that is as real as another person in the room.
No one else can do this for her. None of the men Ned led into battle will help her; none of the people who worked for and admired Ned over the years will help her. None of his ex-wives and conquests will help, and Michael can’t help. He has his own life, his own family.
The responsibility for the last years of this man’s life rests on Beth’s shoulders alone and she can’t even talk to him about it, because the part of his brain that was her obsession, her lover, her teacher, her lord and master, is forever gone to them both.
A long thread of reddish slaver hangs from Ned’s chin.
He wipes at it with the Kleenex he keeps in his good hand during meals, which only causes more saliva to fall from his mouth. For a moment Beth feels bone-weary. Then she meets his eye. He looks at her the way an infant looks at his mother, with utter trust and devotion. She takes the dishtowel that serves as a bib around his neck and wipes his mouth clean.