By Gayle Brandeis
Seafoam Salad is on the menu. If I were dining someplace fancier, I might picture this as a feat of molecular gastronomy, an expensive cloud of brine, but I have no idea what it might be here. I ask the server to describe the dish. “It’s like green Jello with stuff inside,” she says. I pass and ask for a regular green salad and buttered noodles, the only vegetarian items offered tonight.
I am sitting with my ninety-three-year-old dad in the dining room of the Olive Grove Retirement Community. This is where I landed after my husband and I decided to separate. I’ve reserved the guest apartment here for ten days as I look for a more permanent place to stay; today I’m three days in. This morning, I had breakfast with my dad and a man named LB. My dad warned me that his friend tells everyone, by rote, “LB stands for Lover Boy, but my wife says it stands for Lazy Boy.” Apparently I make the old guy shy; over our poached eggs and Malt O Meal, he said, “My wife says it means Lazy Boy, but I think it stands for,” and he paused, choosing his words carefully. “I think it stands for something much better.” He blushed and looked away.
“Are you sure that’s where you want to start your life as a fun, single lady?” my nineteen-year-old daughter asked me before I moved in here. She’d just started her own fun, single life in New York a few months ago.
“I can’t imagine a better place,” I told her, and it’s true. This separation is not about being fun or single. It’s about being real, and where better to do that than amongst people confronting the end of their life? Plus it’s safe and clean—a lot safer and cleaner than the fleabag hotel where my three-year-old and I camped out the first two nights after I left our house. And it’s sweet to have my dad as my neighbor, my dining companion.
My dad moved here a few months ago. He broke his hip last year, and after he got out of rehab seventy miles away, I moved him to an assisted living facility near my house. He’s recovered well enough to come to Olive Grove, a more active senior community, although he still requires care, and the loss of independence has been hard for him. He hates to rely on me for rides, to rely on caregivers to help him in and out of the shower.
“I wonder what life would be like if Mom were still here,” he often muses. He imagines he’d still be in Oceanside, that she would have snapped out of her delusions and taken care of him after his fall. I gently remind him that she wasn’t herself three and a half years ago, that she thought he was poisoning her and that he had sent a legion of minions out to attack her; she had come back from delusional episodes before, but this one was different–she was completely gone behind her eyes. A point of no return. She must have known that, too; she killed herself one week after I had given birth. Four months after my wedding.
An apartment complex named Golden Oaks sits a block away from Olive Grove. I hate driving past it. The first time I saw the sign for Golden Oaks, I lost my breath; other times, the name made me cringe so hard, my muscles cramped. After my mom’s death, we learned that the random parking garage in South Pasadena where she had hanged herself was attached to a luxury senior apartment building also named Golden Oaks. There is nothing luxurious about the Golden Oaks in Riverside—the place looks more like a cheap motel than a permanent residence, and somehow that makes its presence even more upsetting. When my dad first considered moving to Olive Grove, I wondered how I would survive seeing “Golden Oaks” on a regular basis. Over time, however, it has gotten easier; the sign has become a homeopathic remedy of sorts, an inoculation—taken in small doses, the name of the building has less power over me.
Not quite four months after my mom’s suicide, my husband’s mom died of an unexpected heart attack. Friends marveled at how well we were coping at the time, and I suppose on the surface we were. We poured our energy into buying and renovating a house and into taking care of our baby, whose joyful presence seemed the perfect antidote for grief. But fissures were opening beneath us—after my husband’s mom died, I didn’t feel supported as I continued to grapple with my loss, and my husband didn’t feel supported as he grappled with his own. Unspoken resentments built up inside us, growing toxic. We both lost respect for each other; we both felt drained by one another’s presence. In a strange bit of psychodrama, we each projected annoying aspects of our dead mom’s personalities onto each other—my husband started to see me as selfish, like my mom; I started to see him as weak, like his.
We didn’t acknowledge any of this was happening until six months ago when I entered a charged long distance communication with another man, and my husband discovered it, and everything blew up in our faces. We went to counseling, we promised to live our lives in a more “brave, open, and honest” way, but it wasn’t working; our house became more and more tense and claustrophobic, and I became more and more despondent and restless. When we broached the possibility of a separation, such a deep sense of relief washed through me that I knew it was the right thing to do. We realized we each need our own space to reconnect with ourselves, to do the inner work we neglected when we were picking out our recycled glass countertops and reclaimed wood floors.
I can breathe more fully in the guest apartment at Olive Grove, with its musty fake flower arrangements and its big wooden console TV, than I’ve been able to in ages. The space isn’t buzzing with conflict. The walls are empty of history—at least of my own. I can crawl under the cabbage rose bedspread and know no one will be seething next to me. And on the days my son is here with me, he loves it, too—the couch has become a great mountain for his action figures to climb, and there’s a pool, and many long hallways to explore.
I feel like we’re in a sitcom sometimes as we walk down the halls—someone should pitch that to a network: single mother and child move into retirement home and wreak havoc. Not that we’re wreaking havoc here, at least not much; the residents generally smile as Asher runs past them in their walkers and wheelchairs and motorized scooters, seemingly grateful for the burst of youth he brings to the place. And at forty-five, I feel suddenly young and vibrant, myself, thankful for my strong and sturdy limbs, my freedom of movement. Being here reminds me that this won’t always be the case. I usually wear board shorts over my bathing suit when I swim, self-conscious of my thighs, but when I go to the pool in the building’s courtyard, I keep my shorts off. Here, I have nothing to hide.
Last week, I led a seminar called “A Year to Live” at the MFA program where I teach. The class was all about using awareness of our mortality to write our most urgent and meaningful work. We crafted our own obituaries and made lists of the things that get our hearts pounding so we’d remember to infuse those passions and fears into our work. We talked about how to live our writing lives so we won’t have any regrets when we come to the end of the road. I warned the class that such explorations can be dangerous—they force us to look honestly at how we’re living our lives, and if we’re not happy with what we see, that can force us to make some uncomfortable changes. Preparing for the class helped prepare me for this separation. And living here at Olive Grove is like a continuation of the class, extra credit, reminders of mortality everywhere I turn.
The servers deliver trays of Seafoam Salad around the dining room and it’s actually quite beautiful, bricks of opaque pastel green gel. I almost regret not ordering it as I watch my fellow residents dig in, but I enjoy my leafy greens and my noodles, and the Fruits of the Forest pie I order later for dessert. The residents here tend to eat with gusto—and complain with equal passion when they’re disappointed in their meal. Food is one pleasure still within their grasp. I look around the room at all the folks with their white hair and stooped shoulders and varying degrees of vitality, and I think about how much life every single one of them has experienced and endured. How many stories live inside their skin. And I am filled with a sudden surge of resolve; they’ve survived a lot, and I can, too.
“Are you full enough, honey?” my dad asks me, and even though I find myself hungrier for life, for experience, than I have in a good long while, part of me does feel satisfied, even at peace. I turn to him and say “Yes, Papa. Yes I am.”
GAYLE BRANDEIS is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage (Ballantine), and Delta Girls (Ballantine), and her first novel for young people, My Life with the Lincolns (Henry Holt), which won a Silver Nautilus Book Award. She released The Book of Live Wires, the sequel to The Book of Dead Birds, as an ebook in 2011. Gayle teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Antioch University and is mom to two adult kids and a toddler. She was named a Writer Who Makes a Difference by The Writer magazine and served as Inlandia Literary Laureate from 2012-2014. She and her husband reconciled after a several month separation, and are looking forward to moving to the Lake Tahoe area this summer.