But, as we shall see, this 84-year-old's idea of decline would be more of a summit for the rest of us mortal souls.
It has been nearly three months since Larry lost Elaine at 72, his soul-mate of 18 years, to breast cancer that spread to her lungs. She died after a final, glorious journey through Denver, Albuquerque, Sante Fe, and breathtakingly beautiful surrounding country. The pain of the loss has not subsided. If anything, Larry hurts more.
Improbably and unfairly, he has been through this before, having previously lost Helen, after 31 years of happy marriage. She also died of cancer, at 64. By choice, they had no children but they had each other for all those many years and that was enough for both of them. Larry does not know how he managed to survive the loss of Helen.
And now he does not know how he will survive the loss of Elaine. In one lifetime, he has been called upon to somehow endure a double loss of daily love and sharing. This is something that most men avoid by wisely dying. Women live an average seven years longer than men, leaving us with surplus widows and scarce widowers.
It is well established that women do much better than men in adjusting to the loss of a spouse, largely because women tend to have wider and stronger family and social relationships. When it comes to surviving the loss of a life partner, there is no doubt which sex is more successful: women.
Yet society at large still expects grief-stricken men like Larry Behr to do what they have always done – be strong, pull yourself together, get the job done. In short, be a man. We say to them: Hey, nothing lasts forever. This is the way it is. Get on with your life, man.
This is the way it is, of course, and Larry knows that. He not only gets the societal message, he embraces it. But this is purely intellectual and cultural and has almost nothing to do with what Larry is actually going through today.
His heart is broken. His love has left him. He is bereft. He is lonely. He is inundated with powerful emotions that, even the second time around, he does not fully understand. He only knows that these emotions are trying to take him down and, dammit, they ain't gonna do it.
Larry could play the helpless old man, except that he obviously isn't. He is a fully viable adult man, in good health except for normal aches and pains. He has prospered first as a sales manager for 28 years at the same New Jersey company and then during the many years since in active “retirement.”
He is quick to say that he is not the retiring type. There are men many years younger than Larry in nursing homes, whiling away their days in dependency and despair. Not Larry. He is independent. He has his own money and has had the same financial advisor for 20 years. He lives in the large, comfortable home that he and Elaine shared and enjoyed together.
He has all his cookies. He is fully mobile. He drives. He sails. Here he is on his boat on Gardner Lake. He travels. He keeps up with current affairs and can expound at length on the pros and cons of President Obama's stimulus plan. A whirlwind of interests and activity, he is always doing something.
“Idleness is my enemy,” he said. “Time on my hands gets me thinking too much. And when I think too much about Elaine, I get down.”
He said he couldn't sleep last night. “I kept waking up with my mind going in all directions. Finally, at four this morning, I took a sleeping pill. I can't bear the thought of going to a movie."
The plan was for three of us -- Larry, my wife Barbara, and I -- to have lunch, take in a movie, and fill a Tuesday afternoon together. He and Elaine used to love movies; the two of them went almost every week.
But Larry said he was just not ready to go to a movie without Elaine. So we decide to do lunch, have Larry give us a guided tour of historic Bristol, and cap off the day with a trip down memory lane in the home he now lives in alone.
A bright spot in Larry's life is that Elaine's family of five grown children (and 16 grandchildren), have reached out to him and make a point to include him in family gatherings. He deeply appreciates this and wants to remain a part of the family as he has been for 18 years.
But at the same time, he knows that as caring as Elaine's family is toward him, they can never fill the emptiness he feels. "They have their own lives," he says. "They are busy running here and there and I understand that."
He is also close to his sister Norma in New Jersey, and his nephew Mark and Leslie and their son Alan. But they are in New Jersey and Larry is three hours drive away in Connecticut. The distance is difficult to surmount regularly.
The neighbors have been wonderful, sending food and making a point of checking in with him. But now there is less of this as his being alone in the house has become more and more accepted as the new normal. Normal for others maybe, but not for Larry.
It is a leisurely two-hour lunch in a Bristol family restaurant, Applewood. "You can't beat this place," Larry said. "The food is good, there's plenty of it, and it's cheap.” He proved to be right on all three counts. Elaine was an excellent cook and did all the cooking.
Larry does not cook. He has been eating out a lot, coming to Applewood three or four times a week. The staff now know him. While reinventing himself emotionally, it is a safe and familiar place. He and Elaine used to come to Applewood to give her a break from cooking.
I insist on picking up the check, Larry having characteristically snatched the previous lunch bill. I said: "This is to let you know just who is making the decisions about your life now."
The running joke is that I have applied for and have received court custody of Larry. I tell him that the reason we are there is because the court requires regular visitations. He laughs.
As heartsick as Larry is over the loss of Elaine, his sense of humor still marches on as if to its own imperatives. The sign here is typical Larry Behr humor. It is near the front door and greets every visitor.
He blames his poor mother for his sense of humor. “Wherever she went, even to the store, she would come back with a story about somebody she met or something that had happened,” Larry said.
Larry's stories are legendary and come out when they have to, which is all the time. You have to run off somewhere. Too bad. You have to hear a story on your way out. Not feeling yourself, Larry will have a story for you. It may or may not make you feel better. It may or may not be funny. It may, actually, be awful.
But quite a few are hilarious. Many are cultural jewels from his childhood, from his wartime experiences in World War II, from his stint hosting a Connecticut radio show – and thus the sonorous voice – and from going on nine decades of living.
Normally, I limit Larry to three stories a visit. He good-naturedly goes along with the limit and Elaine seemed grateful for it. But Larry never stops trying to slip in an extra story and must be gently but firmly restrained.
He is also a thoroughly addicted punner. When you thank him for something, he invariably says, "my pressure.” Much in Larry's life may be changing, but the punning goes on delightfully impervious.
Driving through historic sections of Bristol, Larry demonstrates a keen eye for architecture, pointing out structure after structure with striking form and appeal. Some are Victorian or even earlier mansions, evoking long ago entitled classes. Some bespeak Bristol's history, such as the Bristol Clock Museum. The city was a leader in the manufacture of clocks. Larry himself is a skilled clock craftsman, attested by the antique clocks in his home that he has restored.
Larry drives by the site of the Hope Clinic where Elaine received loving treatments for her cancer from Dr. Virginia and her dedicated staff. The Hope Clinic and Elaine's hopeful, humane experiences at the Hope Clinic was the subject of an earlier blog
"A few months after Elaine died, the Hope Clinic closed," Larry said, "and Dr. Virginia moved out to Colorado. The clinic could not go on. It was buried in debt." We passed the building that the Hope Clinic bought in the hope of expanding its services. "It went into foreclosure," Larry said.
After the Bristol tour, it was time to inspect his home redecorating. The home is gradually becoming his home as opposed to his and Elaine's home. “In my redecorating, I want to make it a tribute to both Helen and Elaine,” Larry said. Elaine is already a powerful presence in the home since she and Larry furnished and decorated it together.
During his years with Elaine, memorabilia of Helen were stored in boxes in the basement and in his office. Now he is going through photos and mementos and figuring out how to make Helen a presence in his life once again along with Elaine. The restored clock shown here recently went up in Helen's honor.
He points at the dining room wall. “I'm thinking of a large framed picture of Elaine at one side of the wall and one of Helen at the other side, as a tribute to both of them.” He asks if he can have photos enlarged that much. We tell him that it is done all the time.
He takes out a photo album of Helen and we go through it viewing Larry's life with a longtime love, while he supplies a running commentary. She was beautiful with the figure of a fashion model. She was also bright. “This was a woman who did The New York Times crossword puzzle in pen,” Larry said.
Speaking of his life with Helen, Larry's voice is soft, his eyes wistful. It is exactly the way he speaks of Elaine, who was not formally his wife but was in every way that counts the most.
Next, he shows us his office or “War Room.” There is a large framed montage of old photos from his World War II service in the U.S. Coast Guard. He was an anti-aircraft gunner on a Coast Guard vessel. It's mission in the Pacific was to deliver arms, munitions, supplies, and U.S. Marines to enemy beaches.
Serving through most of the 1941-44 war, he took part in several fiercely fought and bloody invasions. He first fired at attacking Japanese warplanes at the age of 18. The photo shows him manning his anti-aircraft gun.
He vividly recalls one particular combat moment. “A Jap plane had come out of the sky at us and the pilot had positioned the plane between our ship and our destroyer escort. He figured we wouldn't risk hitting each other and hold fire. I fired with everything I had and the Jap plane caught fire and crashed into the ocean between us and the destroyer.”
To this day, Larry has not been able to forgive the Japanese. “I do not forgive and I do not forget,” Larry said. He says that he has never bought a Japanese car and never will. Two monster American cars are in the garage; one of them was Elaine's, which she loved.
The War Room has a display of Larry's collection of antique guns, including a wood model of a 12-pounder cannon. This was a weapon used by the American Man of War in conflicts from the Revolution through the Civil War. He restored it himself. He fixed the jammed wheels, made the ramrod, and added chains.
In remembrance of his radio host days, the War Room also has an oldtime radio mike along with an “On the Air” sign. Here Larry reenacts his old radio days. A wood sculpture depicts him on the air "almost live." He boasts that he has "the perfect face for radio."
The theme song for his radio show was Duke Ellington's "A Train." The choice was easy for him. Besides loving the music, Larry used to ride the A Train from Coney Island all the way up to the Bronx.
He has a collection of old military hats and happily poses in his old Coast guard hat and other hats, not all of them becoming. In posing, Larry does not, frankly, act his age.
In the deepest of grief, he cannot seem to stop the child in him from repeatedly coming out. It is a child that we get to see in old photos, such as the one of him taken with his 1939 classmates.
Larry plans to stay in the home that he and Elaine shared and that he will now share with memories of both Elaine and Helen. “For one thing,” he said. “look at all this stuff. The cellar is packed too. What am I going to do with it?”
Yes, Larry's home has lots of “stuff,” but it is also spotless and in perfect order. Nothing is out of place. There is no dust on anything. Elaine used to keep the house that way. I tell him that I expected to be stepping over all kinds of junk. I ask if he has a housekeeper.
“No,” he said. “I do it all myself.”
“Even the vacuuming?”
The extreme housekeeping is part for Elaine – she would want it that way – and part to keep busy. Larry is investigating our world to find out what it has to offer an 84-year-old starting over. He is looking into getting involved in Literacy Volunteers, for example, and other social service organizations.
He has joined a 150-strong Bristol choral group that meets for two hours every Monday night. His base baritone is a welcome new voice. The group, led by the head of the music department at Bristol Eastern High, described by Larry as "brilliant,"sings everything from Latin liturgy -- in Latin --to modern pop.
The choral group is rehearsing for a public performance in May, at a location to be announced soon. Larry is shopping for a tuxedo to wear at the performance. "Music helped me get through the loss of Helen," Larry said, "and now it is doing the same after Elaine."
He has started a business selling and fixing antiques and calls it “Fetherson & Fothergil, Purveyers of Antiquity.” We are all invited to make of that name what we like. Sounds to me like old comporting with old.
His business card offers restoration and repairs of the following: Weapons. Scientific. Clocks. Tools. Primitives. Does the last one refer to people or things or both? He makes house calls. The card sums up his business as “specializing in almost everything.”
Rarely does one see or hear of a business with almost no interest in making money, but Fetherson & Fothergil is such a business. “I'm not doing it to make money,” Larry said. “I'm doing it for people, to see them, to be around them, to talk to them.”
He didn't also say, “to save my life,” but that is surely the bottom line for Fetherson & Fothergil just as money is the bottom line for General Electric. In pursuit of his own surely quixotic idea of business, Larry will be hitting the antique shows, fairs, and other places where antique-lovers gather.
While serious businesses follow the money, Fetherson & Fothergill goes to where the people are. Its “customers” don't need fat wallets; they just need to love antiques and be willing to hear Larry's stories and tell him their own. He will charge something for his wares and services, but it is largely a front to maintain appearances.
“I'm cheap,” he said. But he is quick to add that he does quality work. Should there be any doubt about that, it is dispelled with one look at the beautifully restored fine antiques displayed throughout his home.
If you are an antique-lover and are in the market for a cheap antiques purveyer and restorer who makes house calls, there is a number you can call. It is 860-585-6484. In conscience, however, and in the interests of full disclosure, there is a caveat.
If you are a woman, you must understand something. Having loved two fabulous women, Larry Behr is a newly-single man who is fast approaching the day when he may be ready to love again. Do not think that because he is 84 that he is romantically harmless. He is 84 going on 55.
“I'm on the prowl,” he admits. “I'm looking for a meaningless relationship.”
He has already gone on one date. Date? At 84? “Aren't you a bit too old to be even thinking about dating?”
“Look,” he said not the least bit sheepishly. “I like girls.”
So girls -- excuse me, ladies -- watch out for Larry Behr. Also, he has been known to dangle enticements, as in this photo. There, you have fair warning.