“My husband better outlive me,” I said to Ronit. “The other day he went to the bank to transfer money from checking to savings. Or savings to checking. I don’t know. I’m like a 1950’s housewife. I don’t know what we have, or where we have it.”
“So your survival depends on your husband’s survival.”
“Yes,” I said. “And he tells me that I will outlive him. He’s got that crease on his earlobe, the one that’s associated with cardiac disease.”
“Crease?” Ronit said. I explained to her that a diagonal crease on the earlobe, according to my cardiologist husband, was one of the indications of heart disease. Frank’s sign, it was called. She seemed surprised, maybe alarmed. Did she have one? Did her husband? If our relationship wasn’t what it was, I imagined she would have asked me more about this cardiological finding.
“I wish your husband a long life,” Ronit said. “But I also think you could go into the bank yourself.”
“I can’t,” I said. “The Hebrew.”
Ronit flashed me a skeptical look.
“Honestly,” I said. “And it’s not that I don’t want to learn it. I can’t. I’ve been here twenty years, and I still say mah shlomech when I’m speaking to a man.”
“I’m sure that in this neighborhood you can discuss all your banking needs in English.”
“But I don’t know them in English either. I never grew up. I went from my father’s house to my husband’s house, with a few years of college in between.”
I thought about a conversation that Ronit and I had had about the late Israeli actor Assi Dayan. Ronit had said how he had never grown up, how he had been dependent on his strong mother Ruth until he predeceased her at the age of 68. My mother was strong too. And my father, come to think of it, had shared certain similarities with Assi’s father. A picture of the two of them shaking hands – my father and Moshe Dayan – sat on my desk: two men who had had less complicated relationships with the state of Israel than they’d had with their children.
“So maybe this is why you don’t get a mammogram,” Ronit said. “So you can make sure your husband outlives you.”
I blushed. Going for a mammogram – or not – had been a topic of conversation between me and Ronit for a while. Like for the whole time I’d been in therapy with her.
“It’s just that I want everyone I love to outlive me,” I said. “A nicer person might say the opposite.”
“You know,” Ronit said. “Getting sick isn’t pleasant.”
“I don’t want to get sick,” I said. “Though my mother did shine when we were sick as kids. She’s a nurse by profession. Maybe I want to be taken care of.”
“There is a lot of suffering with sickness,” Ronit said. “A lot of suffering.”
“I don’t want to suffer,” I said. “Just the opposite. Anyway, I don’t believe in taking extraordinary measures.”
“Extraordinary measures?” Ronit said. “A mammogram?”
“You remember the playwright Anat Gov? I think people came down on her for not fighting her cancer when she got it. But that was her choice.”
“To my memory she did fight it,” Ronit said. “To my memory she fought it and lost.”
“I don’t want to be like Fania. I don’t want to live too long.”
“Fania is how old – 90-something? And you’re –”
“Fifty-two,” I said. “Still, I don’t want to be left. I want to leave first.”
Neither of us stated the obvious: that in my relationship with Ronit, she was the one leaving first. It occurred to me that this whole conversation was just a variation on a theme: If leaving had to happen, then I wanted to be the one to go.
Could it be that I wanted to leave life before life left me? My father had had a similar perspective. He had fought his illness, but not nearly as hard or aggressively as someone else might have. It was as if he’d been saying: Listen, cancer, nobody tells me what to do, not even you; you can kill me if you have to but I won’t be descending to your level. It was as if he’d been saying: A person can’t lose a battle that he’s not even trying to win.
“Anyway,” I said to Ronit, “everything’s falling apart. Yesterday I had to eat an orange with my front teeth; it hurts to bite into cold things with the back ones.”
“You could go to a dentist.”
“So you could enjoy eating an orange.”
“I used to be able to walk forever, but now sometimes my knees hurt, my hips hurt, my heels hurt. And my eyes – even with multifocals it’s getting harder to read. And the world! There are so many bad things happening in the world.”
Ronit was quiet.
“Remember that time I used the word cushion and you said I wanted to rest? It all feels like a struggle. I’m tired.”
“This is depression talking,” Ronit said. Then, hearkening back to other conversations we’d had, about separation, she added, “There’s a piece of your depression that you’re not ready to separate from.”
Maybe she was right. The literature supported her point of view. Adam Phillips, in his book Becoming Freud, writes, “We want to get better but we love our suffering. What Freud increasingly found most difficult to cure in his patients was their (mostly unconscious) wish not to be cured.”
“I want to leave at the top of my game,” I continued. “But a person never knows when the top of her game is going to turn into the bottom. And then one day there you are: dependent on others. A burden. On your kids. There’s a small window between the time your kids need you and the time you need your kids.”
“And what’s so terrible about needing your kids?” Ronit said.
I shrugged. I mused. I thought back.
“Every time I went to the mammography clinic the doctor would ask me if I’d published another novel yet. It became embarrassing to say no.”
“There are lots of clinics.”
“That’s not the main reason I stopped going. I stopped going when I realized that I’d have to fake being unhappy with bad results.”
“And yet you went. You told me that for many years you went.”
“But it’s been so long now. I’m afraid of what he might find. I’m afraid of what he might not find. I’m afraid. I’m afraid to know.”
“Know,” Ronit said gently. “Go.”