Dewey and the Prius


IMG_4037.JPG Dewey

In the summer and early fall of 2014,  long before our fateful trip to New York City that ended with David’s death a month after we returned, David and I had decided to buy a new car. Nagging can, on occasion, make people change.  I’d rant at David about everything I found wrong about the vehicle we shared: a 2005 silver Hyundai hatchback with a stick shift that he had bought the year before he met me.

The Hyundai and I did not get along. Back in my glory days I had loved my blue VW named Lindequist   (another story.) I drove Lindequist across the United States; she became as famous and as infamous as I was.  But by age 71 I was done with stick shifts. I’d had enough of stalls on the steep hills of San Francisco and Berkeley; I hated rolling backwards in a panic toward the car behind me while trying to restart the Hyundai’s engine, the acrid smell of burning clutch pad polluting both my nostrils and the air inside and likely outside the car.

On top of that, the Hyundai didn’t fit my body.  I drove either with the steering column wedged like a log between my legs or with the seat so far back I needed to be a gymnast to reach the gas and clutch. I like to give my car names; David, as I recall, named the Hyundai “Harry,” but I did not feel attached enough to it to name it. At best the car and I tolerated each other.

“When I bought this car, I told myself it was the last car I would ever buy,” David used to say about the Hyundai, his tone regretful. But he did concede. Which left us with the question: what make and model car?  New or used? As was his way, David did  meticulous research on-line, especially with Consumer Reports. We set a budget. David arranged a financing package with our bank. We would buy the car together at the Christmas sales. We test drove four cars, narrowed the purchase down to either a Mazda or a Prius.  David preferred the Mazda, me the Prius.

“You’ll be the primary driver, so you get to make the decision,” David told me, reflecting, I now believe, his increasing physical vulnerability. How could I foresee that by Christmas David would be dead?  And that the Hyundai would indeed turn out to be the last car David bought and I the new car’s only driver?

Dewey, you may recall, is my imaginary combination of David and Stew. By the time I was emotionally stable enough after David’s death to hold my own in the profit driven, male-dominated world of car sales, and after I’d recruited my friend Merle with her Chicago chutzpah to accompany me to the Toyota dealer, I  talked with Jessica and Dan. What, I asked,  would Dewey advise  about buying a car? Having David and Stew as partners meant, among other things, I could talk weighty decisions through. But now both were gone. David was a detail freak who loved his numbers; Stew an expansive personality who lived by Jerry Rubin’s motto: Do It!

“You wanna buy a car? Get a Mercedes! Whatever if you want.” Jessica, Dan and I agreed is what Stew would have said had he been available for a consult.

“Here’s the budget. We should try to stay within the limits,” is what David and I agreed to when he was alive.

I love my new red Prius. I’ve driven her for three full days. She satisfies my  expectations of everything I want – in a car, that is.  I brought her in for a mere $800 more than the $20,000 budget David and I had allocated. More important, talking with Jessica and Dan helped me to figure out Dewey’s role in my life: to compromise between contradictory positions. While I tell myself I’m skilled at making decisions for myself, Dewey helps me synthesize opposing yet equally valid points of view, both of which I agree with.  While I haven’t named my Prius yet, I’ve come up with a bumper sticker I’m determined I will make for her: “Better Red than Dead.”



Update 2.25.15

As of today, February 25, David has been gone three months and four days. I continue to make my weary way up the down escalator.

I keep myself busy trying to complete projects like our taxes. That one plunged me into a world of hurt, as I relived David’s decline and death courtesy of cold numbers and receipts. I found David’s careful notes on medical expenses for 2013 only after I’d finished figuring out this year’s by myself. I spent an entire day calculating how much David spent last year on herbal supplements ($6240 but some were for me) only to discover supplements aren’t deductible. Still, I needed the task of taxes to be over ; they stressed me out more in not being done than in the hell of implementation.

I feel more liberated than conflicted about turning what once was David’s office into a woman’s proverbial room of my own.


That the red hue David chose for his walls matches the woman’s hair in the Picasso painting on my screen saver gives me comfort; it confirms I’m heading in the right direction. When I’m ready, I’ll move David’s picture up from the living room and put it next to Stew’s. During daylight I can forsee time, hopefully sooner rather than later, when my post-death to do list no longer stretches out behind me like one of those gigantic creature kites at the Berkeley Marina. I’ll relax, turn David’s former office into a Judy Gumbo cradle of creativity and feel upbeat enough to seize the six months I need to complete Yippie Girl. Still, when I wake up in my lonely bed between 3 and 3:30 a.m., my to do list feels less like a kite and more like an albatross around my neck.

My Bracelet’s Back

I like to think I have a second sense about small objects. I know (or thought I knew) that some, like my black and grey long wool scarf, like to travel on their own trajectory. I’d find my scarf draped over front door hooks, restaurant chair backs, car seats or bedspreads from which it would disappear and then return. Others, like my silver wedding ring with Stew, once lost, was gone forever. I used to think I could tell the difference between travelers and vanishers on some subliminal scale. I was wrong. Nor can I explain why differences exist between objects with emotional resonance and those without, but I’m convinced they do.


This evening, two days after it disappeared and, even though deep down I had given up all hope, I discovered my bracelet wedged into the sleeve of my black North Face hoodie, staring at me like Simon playing peek-a-boo. I admit it – I was relieved. I’d bought the bracelet in Viet Nam, given it to Jessica who rejected it as not her style. She’d given it to Simon as a plaything; I’d confiscated it from him. I may have fallen into anthropomorphizing but its true: I loved my bracelet even though it’s just an object. It is not David, it is not Stew, still, every little loss reminds me of the big one.

Back to Morning/Mourning Sad

Wake-ups are the worst. It matters not if I’ve had a good day the day before. I’ll wake up with the ambiguity of not knowing how I’ll feel from one moment to the next. The “getting better” blogs I posted a few days ago are not me this morning. Good happened yesterday along with shit, but not enough to sink into my consciousness and allow me to wake up calm, or, no matter how much I wish it, happy. Yesterday, on the occasion of Vietnam’s New Year’s holiday of Tet, I received warm e-mail greetings from the sons of my dearest, now deceased Vietnamese friend; a diplomat and poet who loved to quote Bob Dylan. One of his sons welcomed “Auntie Judy” into their family. When I tell David how this makes me happy, he doesn’t answer back. Nor does Stew.

Diana from the Berkeley Barb reunion posted on Facebook a front page of the Barb from 1970 with me in a white karate gi, my legs unshaved, furry with peasant hair, my fist extended in front of me. I smile but with ferocity.
This picture represents everything I wish I was right now: the Judy Gumbo who can rebel against death since she had not experienced it close up.

There’s gotta be a way to integrate Judy Gumbo’s defiance into my grieving self. I wonder: what would Dewey- that combination of David and Stewie – say? Neither of them are any sort of deity but still, WWDS? If I can figure this out, I may wake up happier in the morning.

Lost Bracelet / Lost Loves

I’ve lost my favorite bracelet: a green and grey one made of water-buffalo horn, a memento of my 2013 trip to Viet Nam. It went missing from the top shelf of the small upstairs tonsu where I thought I’d put it the night before. I didn’t panic, instead I got sad. I searched all the logical places, tried and failed to remember where I’d last seen it. I often have a second sense about lost objects; a confidence they will show up again. And frequently they do. Not this time. In my heart I believe my bracelet is gone baby gone. Like Stew and David.

I find myself rubbing my arm where my bracelet ought to be, the way I rub my “boyfriend” pillow and pretend it’s David. Perhaps I’m in denial, still the bracelet’s loss feels like just a blip on the radar screen of my life. Objects are symbolic. A month after Stew died my wedding ring vanished. I had lost so much weight the ring slipped off my finger and disappeared, never to return. I was devastated. Utterly bereft. Compared to that, I’ll miss my bracelet, but I’ve learned it is not David. It is not Stew. It is, after all, just an object.

A Crack In Everything

My acupuncturist tells me grief is held in the hands. Especially the fingers. It’s a great explanation of why my hands ache all the time.

It amazes me how universal the grieving process is. It doesn’t matter if you’re a former Yippie or an east coast poet who wrote about her husband’s death in the February 9 issue of the New Yorker. I’ve written plenty about the pain Stew and David caused by dying but little on the moment of their passing. Of how the bodies of two men I loved devolved from warmth into a still, unearthly coldness. In his last moments Stew took a breath, then silence, a no-breath, then another breath, a longer silence, a breath, a silence then no more breaths. With David I heard a death rattle, loud and slow, a sound unlike anything I’d ever heard yet unmistakable. Stew was so reluctant to leave this life that, in my recollection although Jessica denies this, when they carried Stew’s body down the stairs, one arm fell out as if to grab the bannister and hang on. When David died they covered his body with a royal blue cloth and wheeled it like a king on a gurney down the concrete path of the community David had helped found.

The poet writes that at the moment of death she saw her husband’s soul leave his body. So did I with Stew – a ripple in the ether. A shiver in the air. Stew appreciated the spiritual. In Portland we had studied the Kaballah. For a year after he died I’d find Stew in the form of different birds. This may sound hokey but I read a piece in the New York Times by a woman who wrote that a convocation of eagles had presaged her mother’s death. If it’s in the Times, it must be true, right? Stew’s most impressive appearance was as a wild turkey in the backyard of my house on Acton Street, his chest feathers puffed out like Stew, heading toward the garage Jessica and I had re-named the Stew-dio.

David the pragmatic atheist said he didn’t care what happened after he died. Why should he? He’d be gone. David did exactly as he said. After he was helped downstairs to sit in the hospital bed for the final time, he folded his elbows, flapped his arms and announced “The eagle has landed.” Three days later David died. And gone. No after party, no mirage, no ripple in the cosmic breath, just a one-time group of cawing crows who quickly flew away. I feel David much more as an absence than a presence.

I still wake up my teeth clenched tight at 5 a.m. unable to get back to sleep. Still, I must be on the road to recovery. I’ve begun listening to Leonard Cohen. I realized after Stew that listening to Leonard is my first real clue to coming back. “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets ion,”
he sings. Does the difference in how David and Stew died shed any of that light on Dewey? I’m not sure. Stew taught me to disregard boundaries, to live life to the fullest. David made me aware that, as I aged, I needed to impose limits on myself in order to survive. I can imagine Dewey nestling his warm stomach into the curve of my back just like David would, to tell me I have to keep on doing both.

Day in the Life

Yesterday I kept busy like a normal person – I went twice to the hardware store because they gave me the wrong bulb, I faced the Costco hubbub alone for the first time since David died to buy a printer as part of the reconfiguration of his office into mine. I walked my 1.25 miles at the Marina and had a laugh with Bets on the phone. For the last two days I’ve felt as if I’ve moved beyond the paralysis of grief. This phase of widowhood is full of firsts: for the first time I accomplished 3 tasks in a row without having to nap in between.

Tonight with Ellen, Pat & Keith, (David’s late wife’s brother) I will cook a community meal for25 people of that same pasta (except gluten free) and meat-balls I used to cook for Stew and Jessica. Tomorrow I will escape Valentine’s Day and stay over in Santa Rosa with longtime friends Linda & Eve then Sunday I drive down to Belmont and Simon.

Normal life, right? My mind remains occupied by Dewey- What will Dewey tell me about how to live my brave new life? The blank spaces in my day have morphed into the tiny stresses that accompany the mundanity of busyness. I’d prefer to find the time to stop, to contemplate and to blog.

A MUST READ: Lottery Tickets: Mourning A Husband by Elizabeth Alexander in the February 9 New Yorker.

Doing Better Plus Dewey

I’m getting tired of all this grieving. I’m bored with my emotional exhaustion. This morning , in that moment of half-dream, half wakefulness where political correctness goes out the window, I had a clear vision of David’s profile, a Mount Rushmore of David’s face with his aquiline Jewish/Roman nose and slightly recessed chin.  I put my ear next to David’s mouth so I could catch what he was saying but I could not hear him. What was he trying to say?

I think I may be getting “better” whatever “better” means. I have not blogged for a week. Nor have I felt that compulsion to ease my inner turmoil by blogging.  Instead, I spent the week engaged in a world in which grief was a theme but did not always predominate. I hosted guests from out-of-town, and did what two weeks ago would have felt impossible: I opened myself up to Yippie Girl.  For the first time since David’s passing I could adopt a Yippie Girl frame of mind, and feel at ease with my enthusiastic, energetic former self who I remembered from before the deaths.

Last August, before David and I went to New York and returned to the finality of aggressive cancer, I’d made a summary of comments I’d received on Yippie Girl from my work group.  After David’s illness and death I had erased all memory of doing that. Finding the comments allowed me to meet for two hours with Roxanne from my book group who, to my delight, agreed to summarize and critique them. It was a first step to open up a process. My Yippie Girl persona still feels foreign and distant, but I’m closer now to going back to her since I know doing so means I can go forward. Last night I went out with Hannah to see the Berkeley premiere of  “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry” about the women’s movement I’d been part of. Earlier that day I helped put our Common House back together after a water leak left our living room with ceiling beams exposed and covered by a sheet of plastic. Each public act brings me outside of Griefworld. Even Karen, my therapist, says I’m doing better.  If this keeps up, my blogging may become less frequent.

But “doing better” has within it a huge contradiction, inherent in a concept I learned as an undergraduate that the sociologist Erving Goffman calls the “presentation of self in everyday life.” Sociology 101- people respond to their perception of how others act toward them. On the surface I’ve begun to act as people knew me:  engaged, social, perhaps more shakey and not as competent as I once was but on my way.  In consequence, people treat me as if I’m back to business as usual. At the same time, my internal self feels out of sync.  I respond extremely to acts or statements that don’t warrant an extreme response. I take offense where none is intended. I have trouble making decisions. I accept ambiguity, my Macy’s escalator of emotions continues inexorably up and down. Being treated like a normal person reinforces my capacity to feel better, but at the same time I want everyone to see inside my soul, to take into account my fragility and sense of loss. Does accepting this contradiction mark a maturation of my grieving process?

I also have a new man in my life. What? You ask in horror. So soon? Rest easy: my new man’s name is Dewey. D stands for David and ewey for Stewie. Dewey is, to be perfectly clear, imaginary. He’s about 5 ft 9 inches tall, has a high forehead, blond to reddish hair that falls in waves both on his head and barrel chest. His arms are long enough to embrace me, he stands on skinny ballerina legs. His butt is unclear in my mind since I remember Stew’s as small and tight while David’s, a legacy of his mother Rose Handler, was large and an ongoing source of dissatisfaction for him.

I am just beginning to invent Dewey as a character from whom I can learn. Dewey is Jewishly smart, tactically strategic and compassionate,  with occasional flashes of a Brooklyn/Bronx temper. He combines extremist thinking with moderate action, he is a theatrical and political activist, a trusted non-sexual advisor to hordes of women. Dewey possesses David’s right brain ( or so the left brain/right brain myth goes) engineering skills that help him start projects, log statistics, and pay such close attention to detail that he’ll hoard quarters in one change purse and nickles and dimes in another. The David part of Dewey makes his presence felt through quietness and slowing down. Dewey’s left brain is visionary, containing Stew’s poetic fearlessness, his love of the big picture, hatred of the passive aggressive and ability – which sadly is beyond me – to hoard not objects but factoids. The Stewie part of Dewey is a speech and myth maker. Dewey emerged as a character when I realized that, in the process of mourning David I was also mourning Stew more profoundly and more deeply than I had allowed myself to do after Stew died and I set out on my “fight or flight” escape from Portland. I’m not sure yet what I’ll do with Dewey, but I’m open to any and all ideas.