Living within our means

It’s 2013. I move one more year away from Dennis, forever in 2011.

I’m making the usual resolutions, losing weight, writing more, being prudent with my money.

To a point.

Looking back on our time together, I’m so grateful we didn’t always live within our means. After he died, I was so glad we stood before the Eiffel Tower and wandered through the West Bank of Paris when we had no business putting that trip on a credit card.

Suze Orman would kill me, but I believe there are times when the privilege of having an experience transcends the need to be wise and prudent.

When my struggling newspaper actually sent me to Paris in 2007 when it could barely afford to send a reporter to Bakersfield, we knew this was one of those times.

“I’m going along,” Dennis said. “We can’t afford it and I don’t care.”

“I know,” I said. “I don’t either.”

During the week after he died, our memories in Paris were some of the first that bubbled up for me. The chocolate croissants. Lighting a candle in Notre Dame. Watching the boats rumble by on the Seine River. The sheer awe of the shadowed statues in the Louvre, staring through centuries.

We bought a sailboat in the early 1990s. We could not afford a sailboat. But we had been landlocked in Tucson for years and here we were, living on a glittering coastline.

“We have no business getting a sailboat,” Dennis said. “But I think we need to do it.”

I didn’t even have a full-time job at the time. I was a freelancer for the Star.

“I think so, too,” I said.

We were all sails, no rudder. And it was glorious.

We took sailing lessons and learned that every single issue in your marriage comes out when you’re crewing a boat.

“How come YOU always get to be the skipper?”

“Ow! Why didn’t you tell me the boom was swinging?”

We made every mistake novice sailors can make, ramming the boat into the dock by accident, nearing capsizing in the Santa Barbara Channel, disrupting a harbor wedding when our motor died and we had to hit the airhorn to summon help.

The monthly slip fee kept us in debt.

Many is the time we couldn’t afford to go to dinner, but we did. Those unexpected times when the conversation over wine is warm and deep. When the waiter is funny and the chicken piccata is perfect.

We couldn’t afford tickets to the Ahmanson Theater, but we bought them. Season tickets. The plays got us talking about concepts, possibilities, so far beyond the usual marital patter of “did you take the trash out?” or “How was work?”

His eyes lit up during the tap number of “42nd Street” and I thanked him for being gay enough to appreciate a well-synchronized ensemble tap dance.

“I’m definitely that gay,” he said.

We fretted and lay awake some nights, worried about money.

And I’d do it all over again.

Those times were worth it because I can still visit them. I still go there. I sit with Dennis in our tiny room on the West Bank while we drink coffee on the balcony and consider what we’ll do that day.

I can go back to the boat and watch him pull his cap down as he gazes over the bow. I hear his voice. His laugh. I watch him stick a toothpick behind his ear. Create little structures with empty folded Splenda packets on the table of a too-expensive restaurant.

I’m glad we were sometimes really stupid when it came to spending money on experiences. Because experiences are durable. Things are not.

When I think of our time together, I’m so glad  I can’t make that dry proclamation: “We always lived within our means.

Instead I can say:  “We had a really, really good time.”

The handkerchief

I was rummaging around in a drawer today and came across something lodged in a corner.

It was a white handkerchief, pressed into a perfect square. It was one of the handkerchiefs Dennis always carried in his pocket. Never tissue, always a cloth handkerchief.

Not unusual for most men, but we’re talking about a man who was allergic to irons.

Many was the morning he walked out of the house to work in a wrinkled shirt, one collar turned up and a buttoned pocket tortured into origami in the dryer. His pants were never ironed.

If I protested, he would assure me his shirt and pants “would smooth out by noon.”

I’m not even sure his shirt was ironed for our wedding.

But the handkerchiefs were always pressed, and folded once, then again, and ironed with care. Then, being Dennis, he would stuff them into his pants pocket.

Then one day he explained the handkerchiefs. Why he had a drawer full of them.

“My dad always carried a handkerchief. Actually, he carried two,” Dennis said. “One for him, and one for me.”

I remember his the tears filling his eyes for a moment, the way they always did when he mentioned his dad.

With a gesture as natural as breathing, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his handkerchief.

A square of sky

I lay on the CT scanner yesterday as the technicians positioned me and drew on my breast and then tattooed me under both arms and in the middle of my sternum. The tattoos will help guide them when they shoot me with radiation 35 times, they explained,

I looked up at the ceiling, trying to help my mind leave my body while they worked.

There on the ceiling was a square of sky. Not just a skylight, but a skylight painted to look as if I was gazing up at a palm tree, heavy with coconuts, under a blue sky.

“I’ll go get the results of the PET scan you had yesterday,” the radiation oncologist said.

He didn’t expect to find anything. The cancer hadn’t spread to my lymph nodes, so the body scan the day before was just insurance.

I gazed back up at the painted palm tree as the technicians moved me around, my breast exposed. I will never get used to this, I thought.

Tears flooded my eyes for a moment as one more memory returned. The night after Dennis and I were married, we flew to Los Angeles, then caught a plane to Hawaii the next day, arriving as the sun set.

After we checked into our hotel on the Big Island, we walked outside to the pale beach and lay down on the sand. The moon rose and silvered the waves as Dennis and I counted stars, the new Mr. and Mrs. Dennis and Kim Gregory. So many stars. So many dreams.

We lay there for a long time, talking idly, certain we’d grow old together. The palm trees above us looked so much like the painted palm trees above me now.

“The doctor needs to talk to you,” one of the technicians said. She helped me up and back into my gown.

No. No.

I wanted him to bounce into the room with a cheery “Your PET scan is clear!”

“The doctor wants to talk to you,” is never, never good.

I followed the technician into the radiologist’s office, the ribbons of my hospital gown trailing off my bare back. I didn’t even bother to tie it. I just held onto it in front, steadying my heart.

I walked into his office and sat down.

“You’ve got a wrench thrown into the works,” he said.

My stomach was tight, my throat was dry.

“You’ve got a mass right here,” he said, pointing to the center of his abdomen. “Near your kidney. Maybe outside of your uterus.”

Shitstorm Number Three.

it wasn’t lit up, he said, so it’s probably not breast cancer that has metastisized, but it’s something. I’m sure I turned white. Again. Because when I stood up, he put his arms around my shoulders and gave me a squeeze. His wife had cervical cancer he said, so he understood just how arduous and scary all of this was.

“OK,” I sighed. “What do we do next?”

So, on Monday, I get another scan. This one of my pelvic area. It might lead to another biopsy. Another long needle. Another wait. Then, in the afternoon, I go to the oncologist to figure out if I need chemotherapy or just radiation, or both.

I thought about the square of sky with the painted palm trees. I promised myself right there and then that, when this is all over, and it WILL be all over someday, I am going back to the beach where Dennis and I lay that night, dreaming. I am going back to Hawaii, just for a couple days, maybe by myself, and find those palm trees, and maybe, my  own square of sky.

Gap Creek

One time Dennis and I took a chance on an Oprah Book pick.

We had a road trip so I picked up “Gap Creek” on CD, by Robert Morgan.

It started out OK, about a woman living in the high country of Appalachia in the 1800s. It wasn’t long before Dennis and I started shaking our heads at our sad, sad heroine.

Her little brother dies in her arms. She has a disappointing, lackluster marriage. She moves into the valley into this miserable hovel with her miserable husband. There’s a fire. There’s a flood. The crops fail. Her baby dies. The cow dies. The only thing that doesn’t die is their depressing marriage.

Dennis and I got to the point where we were laughing ourselves silly every time something else awful happened.

“Of COURSE the cow died!”

“Betcha the house burns down.”

“No, it couldn’t get any worse.”

But it did.

“Of COURSE the crops failed.”

“And there went the baby.”

It was an awful book and we wanted to strangle Oprah, but we couldn’t stop listening. Bad stuff doesn’t just happen and happen and happen.

Greetings from freaking Gap Creek.

Hands

Whenever I was driving and Dennis was in the passenger seat, I would reach over and squeeze his hand and he would squeeze back. Two quick squeezes, then I’d stroke the back of his hand and return to the steering wheel. No words. Just that.

We’re having a good time, huh? Smile. Squeeze. Yes.

I did that the other day. It was on my birthday. I reached over in one of hundreds of phantom responses I’ve had since his death. I reached over and stopped, because there was no hand to squeeze.

Please let me not forget his hands. The hands he would plunge into his pockets when felt shy. The hands that would stroke Cleo’s head as she lay in his lap. Or click together tiny tracks for his model trains. Or duct tape the Toyota’s engine so we could limp it across the desert.

His hands were pebbled with scars from years of wrestling with engines and band saws and constantly cutting himself. He forever had a red gash on one hand or the other.

I remember the day he was demonstrating the safe use of a drill for other engineers where he works. He held up the drill to a wooden plank and promptly ran it through his left hand. All the way through. Somehow he had the presence of mind to hit the reverse button as he sat there looking at the drill impaling his palm.

Coworkers bundled his hand in towels and rushed him to the emergency room. He called me and said “I’m at the emergency room” and hung up.

Classic Dennis. I had to figure out which emergency room as I flung myself into the car and raced over to Community Memorial. I guessed right, thank God. Dennis was never much for giving details.

He could never completely bend his forefinger after that. I think it bothered him. He even received $6,000 worker’s compensation. But it hurt him that the loss of the use of his hand was worth a check. Any check.

I remember seeing the exhibit “Bodies” in Atlanta and marveling at the miracle of the hand. The evolution of that marvelous bit of humanity that could grip and tear and point and caress. All the nerves and muscles coalescing into something to help us express ourselves, build, and love. It’s as if they evolve to help us do what we most want to do. To build, love, or express ourselves with a keyboard.

When I said goodbye to him almost a year ago, his hands were laid beside him, under the sheet. I laid my head on his chest and wrapped my arms around him. And my hands…my useless hands…ran over and over his body, his chest, his face, his hair as I sobbed and tried to bring him back to life.

My hands couldn’t do that, but oh how they will always try.

The Tour

Dennis loved The Tour de France. Loved it. Like the Pope loves the church.

July was always a complicated month for us because we went on vacation around my birthday, which falls around Dennis’ beloved Tour de France.

On my 50th birthday we took a cruise to Alaska. Dennis was worried about their having a cable system that would pick up The Tour. Or a computer signal so he could watch The Tour. So he would spend the early morning hours scouring the ship, hunting for cable access. He became known to the ship’s crew as “that Tour de France guy.”

We would often vacation in Tahoe around my birthday and Dennis would get up at 4 a.m. (have to see it live. HAVE to) and run down the street to the bar at Harrahs and sit and watch The Tour. There was no other TV that picked up the cable station carrying The Tour. Must see The Tour.

At home, he would hole up in the back room and I’d hear grunts and cheers and “Attack!”  for hours as Lance kicked everybody’s ass. Every once in a while Dennis would emerge from Tour Central to replenish his Diet Coke supply.

“He’s dancing on the pedals!” Dennis would say in his British announcer voice.

Then he’d disappear back into the Tour Cave.

Dennis had seven bikes, probably because Lance had too many bikes. One year he rode in he Tour de Tucson and he was so proud, he wore his Tour de Tucson T-shirt for 20 years. It had bleach stains and a hole that afforded a view of one of his nipples and an expanse of stomach, but he wore it and wore it. I tried to sneak it into the Salvation Army box but he fished it out. And wore it some more.

Just as we did so many years, we vacationed in Tahoe in July of 2011.  His work required we delay our vacation until after The Tour that year, but we took our bikes for our annual Tour de Tahoe.

If he had to die young, I take some comfort that he didn’t die at the wheel of a car, or in his lab at work. He died on his bicycle.

I can almost hear him some days.

“I’m dancing on the pedals!”

.

The blind date

Dennis and I met on a blind date 23 years ago today, on June 3, 1989.

He and I had each other’s telephone numbers for a couple of months before we met. We were both so disillusioned about love, neither of us was in a hurry to contact the other.

I had moved from El Paso to Tucson after a frustrating relationship and had pretty much decided I was good with just four cats as companions for the rest of my life. They were box-trained and hairy, and I figured that was as good as it gets when it came to relationships.

One night, I was going through the “no good men out there” speech to a new friend, Cyndi Broome. She said I really should meet an old family friend of hers, Dennis Gregory.

“I think you’d like each other,” she said.

I knew I wouldn’t. He was an engineer. Probably not socialized. But what the heck. I gave her my number and she saw it got into Dennis’ hands.

Dennis had been dating off and on, but nobody seriously. He had decided he was going to be alone, too. He had tried to talk himself into various women, but in the end, just couldn’t go through with a final commitment.

For three months we had each other’s phone numbers. Finally in May, I got a call. A nice voice. A very nice voice. Warm and kind.

“I just wanted to complete this round of phone tag,” he said after three back and forth calls.

Finally, one evening, we talked. For three hours we talked. He made me laugh. He seemed well-adjusted, and sweet.

Later he would say: “I fell in love with you over the phone. That very first night. I didn’t care what you looked like. Even if you were a homunculus, I was in love with who you were inside.”

We met for our first date at the Presidio Grill on Speedway Boulevard in Tucson.

I wore a green silk top and a white skirt. Dennis, who always saw himself as a clothes horse, wore khaki pants, a traffic cone orange short-sleeved shirt and shoes with no socks. That was his date wear.

After years in television, I was used to smooth guys–way too sophisticated. There was nothing phony about Dennis.

“Wow,” he said. “I didn’t think I’d ever get somebody beautiful to go out with me.”

This guy was not smooth. I loved it.

We talked about our families, our friends our jobs, our dreams. I got salad dressing on my green silk shirt. He stuck a toothpick behind his ear. We compared notes to figure out who was the bigger slob. (He was. Moldy wild rice in a pan on his stove clinched it.)

It felt so different from any other man I’d ever dated. I felt comfortable. Like I’d come home at last.

That night,  I called my mom.

“OK, if I tell you something, don’t freak out,” I told her. “I think I met the man I’m going to marry.”

(She did, indeed freak out.)

That same night, Dennis called his friends, Dave and Chris Confer.

“I met her,” he said. “I met the woman I’m going to marry.”

The yellow biplane

Dennis always wanted to learn to fly.

I was leery because I didn’t like the idea of a guy who forgets to take out the trash zipping around in a machine dependent on his remembering to hit the right lever.

I mean, Dennis could limp a Toyota through the desert on duct tape and paperclips, but a single engine Cessna is far less forgiving.

Plus, flying lessons were expensive.

Still, he talked about it all the time.

“It would be great. When you sell your first novel, you can get me a plane and we’ll fly up to Tahoe for the weekend.”

He wasn’t always the most practical soul, but it was touching how much he believed in me. To say nothing of his belief that a guy who locked his keys out of his car on a regular basis would remember to do a flight inspection.

I could just imagine it.

“Eh, that’s good enough. Let’s take off.”

I told him there was no way I was getting in a tiny cockpit and dying in a fiery wreck. No way I was scraping him up with a pancake spatula, either. No plane lessons. No plane.

But on October 21, 1996, I relented. Just a little.

I told him I wanted to go for a drive. He complained and said he had too much stuff to do around the house, but I insisted.

“It’s your birthday. Don’t be a pain in the ass.”

“Where are you going?” he kept asking, but he relaxed.

I turned into the Camarillo airport where there, on the tarmac, a smiling pilot stood waiting by a yellow biplane.

Dennis’ face split into a grin.

“I can’t believe you did this,” he said.

I pulled out my camera and snapped photos as the pilot fitted Dennis with a World War I flying ace helmet and they climbed into the biplane. They roared down the runway and lifted into the air, the sunlight gliding down the wings as it banked into the autumn sky.

They spent an hour sailing over fields quilted with green and the glittering ocean foaming onto the shore. The engines thundered in his ears and the air whipped his cheeks red and he smiled and smiled.

When they landed and rolled down the runway, Dennis climbed out of the yellow plane and pulled the helmet off. His hair was a bush, his cheeks were flushed and his eyes, bright.

He talked about his plane ride for weeks. Gliding over the waves, how the toy cars on the highways looked and the glory of the mountains beyond.

Sometimes I see that same yellow biplane flying around over the county, taking somebody else on the ride of their life. I know Dennis is up there, too, his cheeks still red, his eyes still bright, flying, flying.

 

The most interesting man in the room

Frustration laced with anguish is the best way to describe what it’s like sorting through the heaps of model trains, bikes, tools, CDs, books, wine, hiking gear and other stuff Dennis accumulated during his life with me.

But when my mom surveyed the stuff, her reaction was different.

“He had so many interests,” she said.

She’s right. It’s one of the things I loved most about him.

When he was little, his dad used to joke about how Dennis’ brother, Bruce, used to fall asleep on trips “as if he had a button on his butt,” Alvin Gregory would say.

But not Dennis. He was always awake, looking all around him, thinking. Always thinking.

I’m very engaged with the outer world of people and places, and Dennis was very engaged with his inner world of ideas and possibilities. We were good for each other there.  I observed. He invented.

Today I was dusting off his collection of “Retief” science fiction paperbacks when I uncovered a wooden frame and lever.

I smiled.

One of Dennis’ many inventions that he was certain would make him millions.

Many a night I heard various machines whirring away in the garage, interrupted by pounding and the occasional: “Dennis, you stud!”

The wooden frame I found today was his attempt to invent a gadget that would shoot out aerosol air freshener whenever anybody flushed the toilet.

I remember the night he came whistling in the front door, his arms full of 20 cans of air freshener. He had me pick the one I liked, then fastened it into his brand new invention with a Velcro strap.

Then he hooked it up to the toilet lever, setting the wooden frame thing on top of the tank. Dennis never bothered with aesthetics so I gave up asking “So isn’t that a little klunky-looking?”

“Oh no, I’ll fix it up so it will look really nice,” he would always say about virtually all of his inventions.

He had me flush the toilet.

Whoosh.

A cable leading from the lever to the wooden frame thing pressed down and shot out a stream of orange-vanilla Lysol spray.

Dennis grinned and slapped his stomach, a gesture of self-satisfaction that I’m  certain Jane Goodall could explain.

Flush. Whoosh. Flush. Whoosh.

I heard those sounds for about an hour as I watched TV. I opened doors and windows so the cat and I could stop sneezing.

Then, there was a 50th flush and an “Oh shit.”

I ran to the bathroom. The aerosol can wouldn’t stop spraying.

“Whhhhhhoooooooooosssssssssssssshhhhhhhhhh”

Dennis was trying to unhook it from the frame while trying to shield his face and I was grabbing towels to try to smother the damn thing.

Finally we wrestled the can out of Dennis’ revolutionary device and tossed it in the bathtub where it drained itself. The house smelled orange-vanilla fresh for weeks but it was clear he was not going to make his fortune with his super-sprayer.

There were other brainstorms.

I remember when we suddenly needed a yurt in the back yard. Apparently that’s a round tent used in Mongolia. I hoped he would get distracted from the yurt craze, but we went through several months of Yurt Monthly magazines.

Then it was teardrop trailer time. We could pack up the animals and travel around and camp, he said. I”m not a fan of camping, but I didn’t have the heart to discourage Dennis from his beloved teardrop trailer, which he, of course, would build from scratch.

“See?” he would say, pointing to a tiny, tiny trailer in a magazine. “It will look like this. And I’ll paint it any color you like.”

I couldn’t imagine anything more miserable than camping in something a little smaller and rounder than a Volkswagen. With five animals.

But I loved the excitement he generated whenever he got a new brainstorm.

Why don’t we retire in Ecuador?   Let’s write a TV comedy. Let’s go to Quartzite and write about the people there. I’m going to build Cleo a ramp.

He died, and so did that wonderful brain so alive with ideas.

I want to believe Dennis’ wonderful mind is still alive somewhere. To quote my friend Dave Montero after Steve Jobs died:

“I’ll bet he’s up there bending Steve Jobs’ ear.”

So I guess Heaven will soon be getting the iFlush…