The long goodbye: The backstory

That's what we decided to name this eastbound roadtrip: The Long Goodbye (with due acknowledgement to Raymond Chandler). It's our long goodbye to Roberta of course, but it's also Roberta's goodbye to the Decamaron- it's all of us saying goodbye to the Decamaron. I said in my first post for this blog that I'd fill you in on the backstory and since tonight Roberta will be back in her home for the first time since early March, it seems like I'd better get around to it.

Roberta, Wendy, Jerry and Sara feasting for Wendy's birthday. Add me and 6 dogs and you've got a hell of a shelter-in-place household.

It's hard to know how far back to go. I can't give the flavor and the right context. I'm also totally stuck inside of me– this is all through my own eyes. I mean, for my dog the pandemic is the best thing that ever happened in the whole world. Her mom stopped going to work and leaving her in a small house every day. Instead we wound up living in the country with 5 other dogs, a choice of human beds to lie on and people doting on her constantly. But I digress.... my point is this, I want to explain SOMETHING about our situation or at least about MY situation or at a MINIMUM I want to explain what I meant by the Decamaron.

I guess I need to go back to here: Sara is my cousin and has long been a personal hero. Kind of a big sister I never had but also kind of a wickedly mischevous parter-in-crime. I didn't know her growing up, but after I moved to California, we hit it off as friends and driving the hour from Oakland to Petaluma to spend time with her, her husband Ron, her dogs and her entourage has been one of the most joyous parts of my life for the last decade. It was always a delight when Sara would ask, "Want to bring up the dogs next weekend for a play date?"

And that brings us to Ron. Ron died on March 11. It was horrible. This is what I mean about it being hard to figure out how far to go back. I can't fully explain how amazing Ron was, what a remarkable human being- how marvellous and fun they were as a couple-- the world they built together. If I don't convey a slice of that, then it's unacceptable to just throw in the line "We went to be with Sara when Ron died."

His death wasn't unexpected, he died after 5 years of obscene diminimshment from ALS. Sara was amazing throughout. They wrung every last bit of joy and humor and love out of the time they had. We marveled at their ability to enjoy life and charm the world until so close to the end. Sara was amazing.

But I can't do justice to who he was or who they were together. And I'm really just a dog in the pandemic. I wanted to be around Sara at the end, in part because I wasn't as close to Ron as other people who were there. I wanted to help her out because while I was terribly sad for him, I felt like I could help. And she'd needed to do so much for so long... she was long overdue for a chance to fall apart.

Wendy is Ron's sister and she and her husband Jerry were very close to Sara and Ron. Wendy and I had gotten to know each other a bit over the last few years as they logged a lot of time at the ranch. They've been living there with all of us through the pandemic. Wendy is making this whole trip possible by taking on the role of dog-and-plant-and-chicken wrangler.

Roberta and Sara are friends from childhood. They met at ice skating camp and remained close long after both had moved away from New Jersey. Sara used to say to me, "You know my friend Roberta, right?" and I never really could keep straight which person from the past she was. I knew I'd met her but Sara's past had so many names and people and past lives. But two days before Ron died, I picked her up from the airport shuttle and brought her back to the ranch. I didn't recognize her in the carpark. I crossed a mis-remembered ID off my mental list (ok, she's not THAT one).

Roberta and I went for a couple of bike rides (she went on more than a couple). Now I'd recognize her in any parking lot!

So, that's the setup. Sara, Roberta, Wendy, Jerry and me. Ron died and 2 days later the sheter-in-place order comes.  Roberta was supposed to fly home to Rhode Island, but she and her husband decide it makes no sense to do so– he's a family practice doctor. It's important that he stay healthy. It's important that she stay healthy. Wendy and Jerry live within driving distance, but it doesn't make sense for them to go back and be totally isolated from their family. It's easier for us to make a big household. I'm only a 45 minute drive from my place in Oakland, but my boyfriend Nick is doing essential work, everything from grocery delivery to meals-on-wheels. I love him for doing this and I really want to see him, but if I'd gone back to see him, I couldn't come back to be with Sara. So I stayed there.  

A few days into this, Sara told her sister Katherine about our situation– and she said, it sounds like The Decamaron.  I had no idea what that meant, but I looked it up– Katherine really nailed it.

a collection of novellas by the 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375). The book is structured as a frame story containing 100 tales told by a group of seven young women and three young men sheltering in a secluded villa just outside Florence to escape the Black Death, which was afflicting the city.

The decamaron has been remarkable. It started in tragedy but at first it was mostly emotionally bewildering to have concurrent Big Horrible Events happening. The small start-up company I work for basically went belly up the same week that Ron died which was the same week that the lockdown started in California. This was much more than a job for me – it was a passion and very much the center of my social universe. For days I would be thinking "Oh my god, I can't believe that Ron died and my company closed..." forgetting about the pandemic. Then I'd remember the pandemic and my job, and forget about Ron. My brain couldn't hold it all. It felt scarily disorienting more than it felt sad.

But even in the darkest and worst days, there was an unbelievable level of humor and laugter. We would feel as awful as you could imagine but then that would fade for a little while and then someone would tell a joke or a funny story. Or one of the herd of dogs would do something absolutely ridiculous.

We adopted the name the decamaron and the days grew into weeks and then months. The garden moved from spring to summer. The dogs sorted out who was on top and started following me around. We all became friends, then family. We developed routines and roles and rituals. We did jigsaw puzzles and needlework. Sara weeded the shit out of the garden day after day and for dinner she went and picked lettuce. I collected eggs from the chickens. Only three of the four lay eggs but I can't figure out how to know which one is the deadbeat. I got everyone's iPad sorted out and we all got styluses and we watched YouTube videos teaching us how to use a drawing app. Sara and Wendy concocted costumes for the garden sculptures for every holiday and occasion, sending everyone into hysterics, including the neighbors.

Roberta's crochet vegetable creations got more inventive and impressive. Wendy and Roberta got serious about making masks (including the ones featured in the Superior Cop incident). Nick brought my sewing machine from Oakland and more clothing and we stood 6 feet apart and wore masks and went for a socially-distanced date. Jerry got fed up with our half-assed attempts at repairing broken things and took matters into his own hands, sorting out the woodshop/shed and garage. The local wine shop delivered a bulk order, and when we plowed through it they delivered another. At first we were too worried to go shopping so Nick brought us groceries and we left them in the garage for a day before bringing them inside. We watched 6 seasons of Schitts creek over several weeks of Roberta-made dinners. Roberta and I started in on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and started singing the theme song together constantly. Wendy and I spent the mornings together in the kitchen, shmoozing over coffee and poking fun at Sara and Roberta who were in Sara's room, presumably poking fun at me and Wendy.

We partied together for Passover (used a doggie chew stick for the shankbone) and for Roberta's birthday. For Wendy's birthday, Jerry pulled out the stops and splurged on lobster and we feasted outside with artichokes from their garden and what seemed like gallons of butter. We gave each other presents and traded clothes and stories and ideas. We didn't fight (though I'm sure I drove folks nuts at times!)  

And now that is all 2800 miles away and weeks ago. We just drove past Rochester, NY. We're about 5 1/2 hours from Roberta's house. This is our 5th day of driving.

This is too long for a blog post, but it's too short to convey what I set out to say. But The Long Goodbye seems appropriate- goodbye to everything that was before. Goodbye to everything that went before, to everyone from that other world of the past. Goodbye to me from last year, she doesn't exist any more. Goodbye to Ron, I can't pretend he exists any more. I'll see Wendy when we get back, but she and Jerry are going home soon. Goodbye to them and goodbye to moving from room to room in the house, trying to figure out how to best fit all the people and dogs without wanting to clobber each other. Hello to whatever happens next, I guess. Sara and I will start the drive home on Monday.