I don’t remember when Suzanne starting making me lists. It must have been around 1993, shortly after corporate life abandoned me and I started working at home. A few botched errands and a minor mix up at the cash machine—transferring $5000 instead of $500–and I found myself never going out the door without a yellow sticky note with detailed instructions in her careful handwriting: “Bank – $300 – Flashing” (meaning wait until the ATM machine has flipped over); “Drugstore – Rx – Suzanne,” “Cigarettes.” The $5000 transfer incident meant she never completely trusted me with errands again so when digital cameras came around I started taking a pocket camera with me to the post office and photographing the mail perched on the lip of the chute so I could prove later that I had actually mailed it.
It’s not that I have a bad memory. I can recall almost every meaningful incident in my life. I know all the lyrics to Thunder Road. I simply have no memory for the small or mundane. I am the kind of person who can give you a 20-minute dissertation on the films of Robert Bresson but needs to be reminded to take a bath or shave. Suzanne, on the other hand, was the world’s biggest sweater of details, an obsessive filer and cataloger and organizer. She worried about things like keeping an up-to-date ledger of money coming in and going out and paying bills on time. She worried about credit ratings and often called vendors to make sure they had received our payment. She worried about whether she had put the check in the envelope. She worried about our air conditioner falling out of its mount and killing somebody on the street. Worry was Suzanne’s hobby. I seldom worried about anything. We were perfect for each other.
We met in the student union at Marshall University in October 1964 and got married four months later, in January 1965. She was everything that I admire in a woman—beautiful, brilliant, talented and a little bit crazy. It took me a long time to realize that I was a little bit crazy too. It was wartime. Troop ships sailed at dawn. I had joined the Navy Reserve to avoid being drafted and sent to Viet Nam after I graduated. We lived in her parents basement for five months before I had to go on active duty and Suzanne went back to West Virginia University to finish her BA. We were apart much of the 19-months I was away but she wrote me ten-foot letters on continuous yellow wire machine paper. After I got out of the Navy we spent a year in Morgantown getting graduate degrees. Then we came to New York. The early days were golden. I got articles published in Esquire, a couple of book contracts and a ICM agent. Suzanne had one-woman shows at a big Soho gallery and the Staten Island Museum. I remember standing at a literary party at Max’s Kansas City and thinking “If I don’t make it big, it’s my fault because I have the connections and opportunity.” I didn’t know how right I was.
For me, the lowering of expectations was a combination of factors—chronic depression (which I didn’t know I had until Prozac came along), immaturity, a lack of discipline and a corporate magazine editing job that allowed me to spend a million dollars a year of other people’s money to do whatever I wanted to do with virtually no supervision or accountability. Meanwhile I backed into an even easier and more lucrative sideline writing advertising sections for business. I’m not really complaining; if I had taken some other route I would not have met all of the great people I have and had many wonderful adventures and an incredible cache of friends. That is the achievement of which I am most proud.
Suzanne was different. She had no desire to be famous. For much of her life, she was tormented by mental demons over which she had no control. Not garden variety neurosis, but more of a mild to not so mild psychosis. Finding the right medication helped but the thing that helped most was doing things with her hands. She was a terrific painter but the finished product was not as important to her as the process. She was just as happy sewing or mounting stamps into her stamp collection. That she was able to function as well as she did is a tribute to her determination and character. The demons disappeared as quickly as they appeared but they made it hard for Suzanne to have close friends and for a long time it created a distance between us. I didn’t always respond as well as I should have. I did not forsake all others but I don’t believe there was ever a moment that I was not connected to her. Women will never understand this but there is a difference for men between infidelity and unfaithfulness.
Because of her mood swings, Suzanne was often hard on people and she was hardest on the people she loved the most. This often led to conflicts but I long ago made peace with the idea that she wasn’t doing it to be mean-spirited but was genuinely trying to be helpful in some strange way. She loved the people she loved and hated people who were pretentious or loud or intellectual showoffs. She was not good at idle social chatter—politics, sports, real estate, new ipads, or any material possession for that matter. People who knew us socially always assumed that I was the smart one although she had me by a good 50 points on IQ.
She was also incredibly generous. There are dozens of people who have her drawings and paintings on their walls simply because they said they liked them. She loved taking our nephew on trips and buying him things. After my father died, Suzanne sent my mother money every month and as she got older and sicker, she called her every day. She was much nicer to her than I was. When she thought her father wasn’t cashing the checks her sister Nancy, his guardian, was sending him, she sent him cash every week. She made five or six trips to visit him and often paid for our nephew to fly down from Pittsburgh where he was working at the time. She loved making things for people.
The best part of our life together were the years after I came home to work and we started spending every moment together. We were always incredibly close and connected but having the opportunity to spend so many days and nights together doing fun things and sharing new experiences—like getting to know classical music and going to concerts and going out for lunch every day—rejuvenated and enriched both our lives. We took a tour to Russia; we went to Las Vegas and got remarried by an Elvis impersonator at the Graceland Chapel with our then teenaged nephew as our best man. We made three very moving pilgrimages to the World Trade Center site in the weeks and months following the horrible event. When Sam Goody’s went out of business, we spent $1,200 in one day on classical CDs. With age, the demons settled down. We had the chance to spend more time together in those years than most couples do in a lifetime.
After she survived her first big COPD attack in 2004 and knew that her illness was progressive and terminal, she immediately started organizing our possessions. She scanned hundred of photographs we had taken over the years and put them on CDs; she scanned all of my family and her family photographs and made and mailed CDs to everyone she thought would want them, she scanned photographs of all of her paintings and drawings. She spent hundreds of hours photographing and creating catalogs of all of the art work by other people we had collected and got them accepted by the Huntington (WV) Galleries, the Staten Island Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art Library. It is not easy to give things to museums but she made it easy for them to accept them.
Three or four years ago she started putting together a black notebook with detailed instructions to me for doing everything in the future after she was gone—from paying bills on time, to when to get my passport renewed, to when our lease is up, lists of every account we have with numbers and contact information, even instructions and phone numbers for calling Social Security and telling them she was dead and a special reminder to have my will redone right away so our nephew was the beneficiary. As her condition slowly worsened and she could do less and less for herself, I sometimes joked with her that the main thing keeping her alive was the absolute conviction that I would screw e verything up if she weren’t here. I was only half kidding.
Here’s a sample:
Don’t forget to renew your NY non-drivers photo ID card. Call the local Department of Motor Vehicles and they will give you the details on how to do this by mail. Tell them you have a terrible back and can’t get to the DMV office. Download and fill out the forms they tell you. Copies of documents—Your Social Security card is in “Certificates” in bottom left file drawer. Remember that you have a new SSN card. Get the complete address, amount of check, and how to make out the check. They have a special rate for senior citizens for a 10-year card.
I refused to open and look at the instructions for a long time but in the last six months as she slipped further and further away and I had to start taking care the basics and could no longer rely on her for guidance, the black book was my salvation. It was her final gift of love.
Our regular home health aide was out one Monday not long ago so a different woman came–a large, wise older black lady. She looked at Suzanne and knew. Before she left she washed Suzanne gently, combed her hair, and carefully made up the bed around her, folding down the bed covers neatly across her chest, “You rest better when your bed is made nice,” she said to me. I lay down on top of the covers and listened to her breathe all night in case she became distressed. By morning she was gone. It was November 29, exactly two months shy of our 47th wedding anniversary. She was the strongest, most courageous, most generous person I have ever known and there is a hole in my heart bigger than the Grand Canyon. She knew everything there is to know about me and loved me anyway.