My book is called “Detour in Cancerland: In Which A Ridiculous Woman Attempts to Defer Widowhood Through Remodeling (and Lust.)”
Which is the origin of the name of this blog, and a pretty good description of me. Ridiculous woman.
It is critically important to understand that the only ridiculous person in the book is me. Really, it’s no contest.
So back to the title:
The remodeling was for Mike.
The lust was for The Bulgarian.
Allow me to explain.
A few months after Mike was diagnosed, when the chemo seemed to be working and he felt better, I decided to just go ahead and do it. I couldn’t let Mike die never having had a decent kitchen in this house. He spent a lot of time in the kitchen and I wanted to give him a nice one that he could enjoy, for however much time he had left. Here, I’ll show you what I mean:
This is “before.” Note the peeling paint, and the disgusting black gooey grime on the hideous 1970’s multi-color stripe indoor-outdoor carpeting. The “harvest gold” double sink, which Mike stood in front of for 17 years, washing, washing and washing endless dishes. The fake laminate “butcher block” countertops. The rusting door and drawer pulls. We had duct tape under those hanging cabinets, because if we turned the heat above 64 degrees in winter, water from some invisible ice dam on the roof would drip down behind them onto the counter. Oh, and get this:
“Harvest Gold” fridge, standing on a piece of plywood. which, when the Bulgarian’s guys demoed the kitchen, I discovered was not completely, not really much at all, covering a hole in the floor that opened into the dirt floor crawlspace below, which must have been the mouse highway. More disgusting gooey black grime on the gross 1970’s indoor-outdoor carpet. You probably can’t see the mouse poo, mouse traps and mouse carcasses, but I assure you, they’re there. The cat did the best she could.
The stove was cheap and newer, because I accidentally set the old one on fire when I turned on the broiler to cook some salmon, not knowing that Mike had stowed a cardboard pizza box in the oven. The broiler was below, so I didn’t have to open the oven door and didn’t see the box Mike had put there. He had gone out for a walk and came home after the fire trucks had left.
OK, so, anyway, I decided to go ahead and do it. Remodel the kitchen.
Enter The Bulgarian, who built the new kitchen for me, for Mike.
And with whom I fell school-girlishly, madly, ridiculously, hilariously in love.
Right in front of my dying husband.
OK, I don’t blame you if you abandon me now. What a heinous, horrible, evil, selfish thing to do. I’ve read about other widows who were overcome by lust for a younger man – but at least they had the decency to wait until after their husbands had died. Me? Nope. When I wasn’t picking up prescriptions or reminding Mike about appointments or trying to help him find a comfortable position in which to rest, or something he could eat without feeling sick, or taking the laundry to the laundromat because the basement has also been demoed, I turned into Sally Brown following my Bulgarian Linus around, with little animated hearts visibly pulsing and floating around my head, every time The Bulgarian walked in the house. And in addition to Mike, all the guys the Bulgarian brought with him to work the job could see it, and they smirked and snickered.
And the Bulgarian, (technically, “Bulgarian-American,” but around here, the “American” is assumed – Mike described himself as Irish, Italian and Polish, not “Irish-Italian-Polish-American” etc.) just calmly carried on, finishing the basement and building the kitchen. And here, look, here’s the new kitchen:
Who wouldn’t fall in love with a man who could build a kitchen like that? Yes, I chose the cabinets, the light fixtures and the colors, and the quartz countertop, but he put it all together, and told me about the Edison bulbs which create that soft, lovely light,
and with one of his helpers, a silent, grumpy, smirking old Bulgarian guy, applied the very thin, natural shell backsplash tile I had chosen, which had to be pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle and nearly drove them both nuts. Some of the seams are visible, and there are a few uneven places, but I don’t care. I find it endearing. It reminds me of the Bulgarian’s amazing endurance, patience and imperturbability. Mike got to cook in this kitchen, several times, before he couldn’t stand up long enough to finish making the soup or the sauce.
And earlier on, Mike was well enough to come and choose the floor tile with me, porcelain made to look like slate (because everyone warned us against natural stone – said it would track little pebbly pieces all over everything) and we both liked it a lot. So much that we used it in the basement, too.
The kitchen was meant to evoke my Grandmother’s kitchen in Maine – the beadboard, the color. No cookie-cutter, white, subway-tiled suburban McMansion kitchen for me, for my Mike. This kitchen has character. Mike even arranged what we now call “the cubbyhole,” placing Grandma’s kitchen drop-leaf table and Mom’s chairs in the nook where a “command center” desk and window seat should go, but which I couldn’t afford – I’ll take care of that part when I win the lottery:
If you’re still here, there are a few other things that must be clearly understood.
I loved my husband, and miss him every day. He knew all about my ridiculous crush on the Bulgarian. He watched it unfold, as did everyone else in the house, and he endured the embarrassment of it, along with the banging and the jackhammering and the sawing and sanding and painting, from his sickbed. It only just occurred to me a few weeks ago that it wasn’t really so awful to put him through all that, because the remodeling kept him out of the kitchen, so he didn’t consume all his strength trying to cook and wash dishes, which he would have done, until he fainted, again.
Mike knew me so well. He understood why it (the crush on the Bulgarian) happened, and he forgave me for it. We talked about it. Eventually we laughed about it. And we forgot about it, during those last few months, when the job was done and Mike made it through, to enjoy and cook in a decent kitchen, at last.
And he liked the Bulgarian, whom he described as a sweet, kind man. Which he was.
Exceptionally patient and kind, the both of them, Mike and the Bulgarian, when you consider the magnitude of the ridiculousness.
By which I mean, the Bulgarian, though a grown man, was a little over twenty years younger than I. And though he was a stocky guy, a more than a foot taller than I, there is no doubt that at the time, I outweighed him. Substantially.
I’m not sure “ridiculous” really does it justice. I looked like a giant middle-aged human beach ball. And the Bulgarian was, if not young, a lot younger, and strong, and capable, and calm, through all the ridiculousness. And his voice, my God. Deep, rich, smooth, steady. Every time I heard The Bulgarian say my name, I tried something else, something more, to make myself into something resembling a woman. Eventually I got a job that kept me on my feet moving around all day, and I started to lose weight, fast. Which I hope in some small way pleased Mike, because I hadn’t had much motivation in that direction for very long time.
The book tells the whole sad, silly, ridiculous story from the time Mike was diagnosed through the year after he died. And I’m telling you this now because, if you read yesterday’s post, I seem to have embarked on my next round of ridiculousness. So I thought I should explain the ridiculous part, because that’s the theme here, along with laughter and love, and it seems that’s just who I am. Ridiculous.
What could possibly have possessed me?
I plead temporary insanity. I really do think that finding out my husband had eighteen months to live sent me over the edge, there. Which is what I told The Bulgarian when I apologized to him for it.
And you know what he said? He said I had nothing to apologize for, nothing to be embarrassed about.
“It happens on every job,” he said. He seemed to be referring generally to highly emotional behavior – all clients lose their minds as a remodeling job drags on and on, I suppose (but not all of them are trying to get a job done before their spouse dies). The Bulgarian made it very clear, though, that he didn’t want to talk about my specific type of emotion.
But because of his patience, his kindness, his listening and his magnificent voice, I could easily believe that “it happens on every job” meant that every fat, middle-aged woman The Bulgarian ever worked for fell madly in love with him. Besides which, he knew how to do everything.
I was comforted when I talked to a few friends, and confessed my absurd crush, and they told me that the exact same thing had happened to them. They fell in love with their electrician, or their carpenter or their painter on their remodeling project, for the same kinds of reasons. They were young, strong, capable and they would listen and talk to you. So, maybe it does happen on every job.
I explained it to Mike, when he asked how this could be, how could I possibly be making such a ridiculous fool of myself, drenching myself in perfume, suddenly using vats of skin products, fixing my hair every day, for this…this…Bulgarian? this way:
“It’s very simple. There are three reasons I am in love with him. First, even though he’s getting paid for it, he listens to and actually remembers everything I say to him. Second, he does what I ask him to do….., eventually; and third, HE NEVER YELLS AT ME.”
“Ha. In sharp contrast to me,” said Mike. (We talked like that. One thing we had going for us was honestly. Sometimes brutal honesty).
I didn’t say anything to that. Which was a way of acknowledging its truth. Mike could remember every move of every chess game and every shot of every tennis match he ever played. But he couldn’t remember a damn thing I said to him, for 26 years.
Widows aren’t supposed to admit this sort of thing, that their marriage was difficult, hanging by a thread. There was nothing remotely normal about our marriage (if there is any such thing as a normal marriage.) And though we had many happy times, shared lots of laughter, enjoyed reading to each other and listening to music and watching hockey and goofing around, there was also the fact that for years and years, Mike’s communication with me see-sawed between sullen silence and terrifying, frequently irrational, or to me at least inexplicable, screaming rage. I learned to manage it, to let him yell it out, and then days later, to go back and talk about whatever it was that set him off, if he could remember, or articulate it, and we’d move on.
While he was a difficult husband, he was an exceptional, fantastic father to our developmentally different child, and we stuck together for that, and we made it through, and we found the love again. And for that (in addition to the new, beautiful kitchen) I will always be grateful to The Bulgarian. Because having him around gave Mike a chance to remember what I looked like when I was in love, and I think to want to be the one on the receiving end of that look again. Once the Bulgarian was done with the job and out of our lives, that look was for Mike alone, and we talked and laughed and enjoyed that new kitchen together for several months before his strength faded.
When I stand in that kitchen now, at night after the dishwasher is loaded and our child has gone to bed, in the soft glow of the Edison bulbs and the rich gleam of that natural shell tile, I can see them both there. Mike cooking his last pot of spaghetti sauce, his last vat of chicken soup for our child, saying, by way of thanks, even if he didn’t mean it, he wanted me to know he appreciated it all, “Wow, look at this kitchen! And Mom did all the prep! Prep is everything!” because I had peeled the carrots and washed and chopped the celery and had everything organized into labeled plastic storage containers in our gorgeous new stainless steel fridge, so all he had to do was put everything in the pot and season it in his way, which is about as much as he could do by then.
And I see The Bulgarian there, puzzling over some newly uncovered, weird remnant of past do-it-yourselfing (we live on the “do it yourself” side of town) and I hear him saying my name in that rich voice, humoring me. No harm, no foul. He just did it to keep the job moving, to calm me down and to try to be as unobtrusive as possible as he toiled away for months, finishing the basement and building that kitchen for me, for Mike.
So there you have it. That explains the ridiculous. I’ve done my best to disguise The Bulgarian’s identity in the book (but not his ethnicity – because there’s just something too funny about a battalion of Bulgarians in the basement, which was a big part of the story) because I really don’t want to cause him any further embarrassment, and I do want to protect his privacy. There are over 150,000 Bulgarians around here, and a lot of them work construction, so he could be any one of them and I hope to God I have succeeded in disguising which one he is. Because as I have said, he is a good, kind man.
And my beautiful, heroic Mike endured it all, and said that he liked the result (even though before we started he said he liked the kitchen the way it was.) He took his chemo and felt awful, and then got better, and we went to Maine one last time, and when we came home he endured the noise and the dust and the jackhammering and the embarrassment, and in the end he and the Bulgarian became friends in a way, because they spent a lot of time together in this house while I was at work, and when the house was finally a Bulgarian-free zone, something about it all seemed worth it. We found our deepest love again.
And I like to believe that Mike, seeing me in the throes of this crazy crush, was comforted in some way, that I might try to love someone new after he was gone. I hope that’s true, anyway.
So, that brings us around to ridiculous, round two, online dating. That is turning out to have a great deal of potential, on the ridiculousness scale.
Oh, geez. Mike, hon, I know you’re there, listening somehow. Thanks for forgiving me for it all. Help me out here. Can you find me someone who’ll let me be my ridiculous self, and love me for it, like you did?
Based on results so far, that could take quite a while. So I’m sure I’ll have a lot more ridiculous experiences, and ridiculous behavior on my part, to tell you about, once the book on round one is truly done.
Until then I remain, your humble, obedient, etc.
(the “humble, obedient etc.” stuff comes from my obsession with the Aubrey-Maturin books, which I’m reading again now, so I find myself lapsing into this eighteenth century parlance from time to time. I do beg pardon…