Saturday, October 17, 2009

Hail the Queen: On Her Birthday Weekend, the Queen's Wish is my Command. I Bow and Scrape Like a Foot Servant.

Barbara and I recently celebrated her birthday, a big one, her cough-cough fifth. For an entire weekend, she ascended a queenly throne and I was her slave, bowing and scraping before her. Her every wish was my command.

She ordered me around like a foot servant and I obeyed like one, scurrying here and there with lowered head and clasped hands. All weekend, she said, “I want this” and “Do this” and I said, “Yes, dear, yes dear. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

On Saturday morning, we went for a walk around a nearby college. When I started to go one way, she said, “That's not the way I go.” I stopped in my tracks, smiled and said, “Your way is my way.” And we went her way.

It was a gorgeous fall day and she thought it would be a good day to go for a ride. “Anywhere you wish,” I said. “I'll drive, you sight-see.” She smiled. Barbara enjoys being driven. I would be the Queen's chauffeur.

We had already talked about a slow, backroads drive to Connecticut. I suggested that while in Connecticut we might visit my former wife Phyllis who had entered a rehab facility. She was dealing with serious health issues.

Now I was fully aware that I was suggesting something your average wife would do only at gunpoint, if then. I was fully prepared to have her say no, accept it, and leave it at that. After all, that would be perfectly reasonable and understandable.

But Barbara, speaking and acting like a true queen, said that visiting Phyllis would be fine with her. “I think it would lift her spirits,” she said.

She suggested that we could take our time and go the back roads and maybe stop for lunch at an out-of-the-way place. “You got it,” I said. She mentioned that there was a great place that she once ate at with her (and now my) daughter, Misha, but wasn't sure where it was. “We'll find it,” I said, “and if we get lost in the process, it might be fun.”

So I chauffeured the Queen up and down Connecticut back roads while she took in blazing autumn color and country homes. We stopped by my old house on Hidden Lake in Higginam, where we had gotten married overlooking the water. The new owner took our picture on the spot where we had exchanged vows.

In a leisurely way, we managed to end up at the restaurant that she loved so much, The Cooking Company. On a beautiful, sunny fall day, we ate outside and I have rarely seen Barbara enjoy a lunch so much.

But don't take my word for it. At the end of this post is a short video – under a minute – of Barbara having lunch at her special place. Lunch was topped off with coffee and scrumptious pastries. Now I hate to spend money. I rarely go to a restaurant or store without complaining about the prices.

However, the Queen saw no sour look and heard no exasperated word from me about prices. Stepping completely out of character, I threw paper money around like confetti.

After lunch, we meandered around Connecticut back roads in the general direction of Middletown where Phyllis was in rehab. There was no hurry; Phyllis said we could get there when we got there. There was no schedule to worry about.

Between nine grandkids, and keeping up with people, and running complicated lives, Barbara is normally like most of us -- juggling a schedule. But today the mighty, all-controlling schedule was, along with me, a craven servant of the Queen.

In keeping with the aimless spirit of the day, when we got to the rehab center, we were in no hurry to leave ... and Phyllis was in no hurry for us to leave. We chatted for a while in her room. Then I pushed her wheelchair down the hallway to a porch where she could look out upon a beautiful day.

We stayed nearly two hours. Mostly, Barbara and Phyllis, wife and former wife, chatted away like only two women can do, while I took it in with some amazement. Though on oxygen, though in a wheelchair, though deeply worried, Phyllis, the mother of my two sons Greg and Jon, clearly appreciated our visit. She was as talkative as I have ever seen her.

As I pushed her wheelchair back to the room, I couldn't help thinking back to when Phyllis and I were young, got married, and ran off together to a great adventure – three years teaching in Africa, Kenya and Nigeria. I remembered her courage in having a baby, Greg, in a little bush clinic in Kenya and then dealing with a toddler son surviving both malaria(Kenya) and dengue fever (Nigeria), deadly diseases that kill millions of Africans today.

I could never have imagined that some day we would both be old and that I would be pushing her wheelchair in a rehab center. Where did all the years go? Saying goodbye and kissing her on the cheek, I saw a picture in my mind's eye of the way she was all those many years ago.

By the time we left, it was late afternoon and the sun was still shining brightly. Normally, we share driving. But on this birthday weekend, I was the birthday girl's chauffeur. I meandered over country roads in the general direction of home. As I did, Barbara was a tourist, taking in the passing scene: old homes, farms, barns, country stores, people on bikes -- a moving, living, authentic New England panorama.

She was like a wide-eyed little girl, entranced, content, relishing being out and about on roads and in places she had never been before. She looked just like she did years ago when I took her on her first trip to Europe and my son Jon drove us through Germany, Austria, and other parts of Europe.

Normally, Barbara is the adult and I am the kid. She worries about everybody and everything, does whatever must be done, and does it to perfection. I wing it and, if I am lucky, muddle through. (A question I have never been able to answer is: What the hell is a perfectionist like Barbara doing with a flawed character like me?)

Her feelings are easily hurt. Mine aren't (though my sons disagree with this). Though great with the grandkids, Barbara likes to be with adults and do grown-up things. I could play with grandkids all the time.

Yet as I chauffeured her through the Connecticut countryside, we switched roles. She was the kid and I was the adult. She was a little girl looking like she didn't have a worry in the world, exactly what I was a striving for. I wanted this to be her best birthday ever.

I worried, again stepping out of character, that it wouldn't be. And that was the only worry I had on this weekend in this crazy, economy-crashing, warring, self-obsessed, trouble-plagued world. Barbara and her feelings were all that counted.

Sunday was the Birthday Party, with a luncheon and cake at high noon. I organized it, doing the calling, making it happen – and somehow it did. It was small with just family, with lots of kids, and a few friends. We ate, laughed, sang happy birthday,and presented Barbara with flowers, cards, and gifts.

She was happy, laughing and carrying on while I videotaped her. When I presented her my gift,a new digital camera, I told her that I fainted twice in the store -- I hate to shop -- but that "they revived me quickly." There were lots of kids, such as Liam and Bella, pictured here.

When the party was over, the celebrating was not. That night we went out and did Karaoke and a group of us sang for Barbara. She surprised everybody by going up there and singing with us and two good friends Larry and Dolores. A special moment for Barbara came when daughter Misha, son-in-law Ed, and their girls, Mia, 7, and Bella, 6, sang as a quartet.

We still weren't done. The next day, Monday and Barbara's actual birthday, was another masterpiece of a fall day. She said she would like to go for a ride. Another one. With me driving, of course. Her Highness likes having a chauffeur. I knew she liked being driven. I didn't realize she loved it.

I asked her where she would like to go. “I don't know,” she said. “Somewhere.”

“What if we just drive and see where we go?” I asked.

Totally not her usual plan-everything-to-the-tiniest detail self, she liked that idea. Where was my worry-wart, perfectionist wife?

After breakfast and a nice long, brisk walk, I steered our trusty old Corolla toward western Massachusetts. More countryside. More leisurely turns onto backroads that went who knows where. We sure didn't know. Nor did we care. Much of the time we were half lost.

But the Queen sat there watching the autumn leafy show go by as if she didn't have a care in the world ... which, for her, a total departure from her usual self. She didn't know where we were going to end up and didn't care. She was -- gasp-- winging it!

I had never seen her so childlike and irresponsible. Yes! Another kid for me to play with!

Oh, by the way, I, the supposed adult, didn't know where we were going, either. But, somehow, we ended up in Amherst, Mass. I made like I had planned it all along.

“Surprised,” I asked, “at how well I planned this?”


Of course, she knew I didn't. We were in fantasyland, exactly where I hoped Barbara would be on this birthday weekend. No responsibilites. No serious thoughts. No fears. No expectations. We were leaves blowing in the autumn wind, except we were alive.

Really alive.

We walked around the center of Amherst, which was swarming with college students from UMass and Amherst College starting on a new school year. Barbara is shown here in Amherst looking -- and acting -- like a college student. There's something refreshing about milling on the streets and cafes with young college students.

Somehow the students pull you into their aura of youth, which is all about today and tomorrow. Even a brief visit into their world, where everything is exciting and everything is possible, makes you forget that you are ancient.

And wouldn't you know, but the perfect place for us to have something to eat called out to us. I pretended that I planned for us to eat there and Barbara pretended to believe me. It was aptly named “The Loose Goose.”

We ordered delicious fresh salads and sat outside watching the parade of college students chattering away, treating us to snippets of breathless conversation about romance, studies, parties, sports, petty conflicts.

Then we walked around Amherst center some more. And, you're not going to believe this, but the perfect place beckoned for us to have coffee and dessert. A table for two waited for us on the sidewalk. I snapped this picture of the table and two chairs before we occupied them.

“I had them save this spot for us,” I said.

“Good job.”

We lingered. We sipped coffee. We treated ourselves to scrumptious pastries, whose outrageous cost I accepted without a peep. We talked. We enjoyed the bright fall day and each other.

The drive home, with me the chauffeur and the Queen the rubbernecking VIP, was unhurried and mellow. I had done my best to make my Queen happy on her birthday weekend. Had I succeeded?

While I was writing this, I asked Barbara to rank her birthday weekend from one to ten with ten being the best. She gave it serious thought. “I don't usually give out tens,” she said. “How about a nine and a half?”

“I'll take it,” I said.

But she came back to me later and said, “You know, I think I have to give the weekend a ten. Thank you for a GREAT weekend!” Exclamation mark needed! Big emphasis on “great.”

It came with smile as big as her heart and a hug as genuine as she is. She meant it.

I may be just a kid, but I can tell when my wife means it and when she doesn't.

So long and keep moving.

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