A story of intergenerational love between two women.
People enter our lives, perhaps only for a moment, a few months, or a few years. One may need more than the other, but often there is still a meaningful exchange. Sometimes those people come wrapped in unexpected packages.
It was late fall, and I went with Carolyn, who was well on her way to becoming my ex-girlfriend, to an over-forties lesbian dance on Capitol Hill in Seattle. Many who appeared to be throwbacks to the age of masculine appearing butches danced with femmes in dresses and heels. Afterwards, several women suggested we go to a nearby restaurant for a midnight snack. I was reluctant (as a physician, I was used to early mornings, not late nights) but Carolyn wanted to join them. Ten of us crowded around a long table, drinking, eating, and laughing. An older woman sat across from me with dyed red hair, and perfect makeup. She was in the middle of a story.
“I cajoled his secretary at the front desk to tell her boss that there was a gorgeous buxom blonde on her way up to see him,” she said, her voice low and raspy. “When I popped my head into his office, he looked surprised. I said, “Oh, you were expecting the blonde? Sorry, she is off today.” She cackled at her own joke. “But I sold him hundreds of dollars of advertising.”
What chutzpah, I thought. She was dressed in an exquisitely cut dark pantsuit, off-white silk blouse, a red handkerchief in her jacket pocket, pearl necklace, and matching earrings. With her brash manner and low raspy voice, she exuded a masculine confidence. For the rest of the evening and into the wee hours, she rocked the table with laughter at her one-liners and stories. I was quiet, but alert, wondering. Where did she come from? Who were her friends?
Her name was Eileen and Carolyn knew her, so a week after our first meeting, we had dinner on Capitol Hill with Eileen and her friend Tru. Pulling up to the curb in her late-model silver Mercedes Benz, Eileen emerged from the driver’s side in a white fur coat with a broad-rimmed purple hat perched jauntily askew shading one eye. Tru, a former gym teacher with dyed blond hair, and a slim athletic build, wore jeans, tennis shoes, and a brown suede jacket. What an odd couple, I thought. Who wears a real fur coat these days?
Carolyn had mentioned on the way to meet them that Eileen had told her she and Tru were not a couple. They just got together for sex. For sex? Two women in their seventies? I couldn’t quite get my head around it.
Lively conversation ensued at dinner, punctuated by Eileen’s one-liners and raucous laugh. She called everyone darling, including me, winking at me across the table.
Noticing her strong accent, I said, “Are you from New York?”
She gave me her full attention as I probed further. Sure enough, she had been born and brought up in Brooklyn. More remarkably, her mother abandoned her as in infant in a boarding house. She got rickets in the orphanage and was adopted at age two by a young couple, both of whom were alcoholics. At 13, they threw her out of the house permanently for being a lesbian.
“Wow, with that kind of background how did you end up so put together?”
She smiled wickedly. “How do you know I am?”
I asked for her phone number and gave her mine.
Later that week, Eileen called to ask if I would like to come with her to hear her friend Marge play piano at one of the gay bars close to the hospital where I worked. She said she found it a relaxing way to unwind after a long day spent at the League of Women Voters where she volunteered. Eileen did not drink having given it up along with her three pack per day cigarette habit, cold turkey, years ago, but I had a glass of wine as we listened to some old classics. She told me more of her life and hardships; on her own at 13, having no family, losing two partners to death, a lone woman making her way to the top of the heap in advertising with little support—difficulties that might make some bitter. But in Eileen I saw only profound kindness and understanding of human frailty, born of suffering.
“I have to get home and dictate some charts tonight,” I said after several hours, wishing that I could linger with this interesting woman.
Eileen drove me back to my car, switched off the motor, and turned to face me.
I sat silently, looking down at her veined hand and her long, manicured fingernails resting in the space between us.
“You have awfully long nails for a lesbian,” I blurted out, then blushed. “Oh, they’re not so scary,” Eileen laughed, taking my hand in both of hers. Though she was 73, and I was 44, I felt a slight buzz, but not the rush of excitement so familiar to me in my youth. “We will have to do this again,” she said.
I agreed. On the way home I wondered how I found myself drawn to a woman old enough to be my mother.
I was seeing a psychologist hoping to discover why I kept choosing the wrong women. The very next day, I told her about Eileen.
“Because she is so much older you might lose her,” she said. But I wasn’t thinking long term. I felt a bond forming, and I wanted to go with it.
Eileen and I saw each other a couple more times in the next few weeks. One evening when I got home after dinner with her, I let out my Doberman, Sam, to go pee in the backyard. As I stood under the porch light watching him, he suddenly stopped dead in his tracks, stiff and still. I ran out in my slippers and robe to lead him up the two porch stairs and into the house. Laying him down, I felt his body and found his abdomen rigid. I pressed my stethoscope to his belly to listen but there were no bowel sounds. The likely diagnosis was an acute abdomen, much like appendicitis in humans. I called the emergency veterinarian clinic to tell them I was bringing him in. Then I dialed Eileen.
“Can you come?” I said, my voice shaky.
“I will meet you at the vet clinic in 20 minutes,” Eileen said, and relief washed over me I would not be alone facing the potential loss of my best friend of twelve years.
The emergency vet was busy, and as we waited for Sam to be seen Eileen turned to the woman next her, whose large fluffy cat stared at us with its wide green eyes.
Eileen cooed to the cat in her raspy voice and in a teasing tone said, “Hello, sweetheart, how gorgeous you are! Come home with me, darling, and I’ll treat you so much better than your current mommy.”
The woman’s worried face relaxed into a smile, and I smiled too. Eileen prattled on until the vet called Sam and me into the exam room. The vet confirmed what I already knew—that he had an acute abdomen—and he recommended the insertion of a nasogastric tube, an IV for fluids, and to keep him overnight. I could take him to a vet of my choice for diagnostic studies the next day. With the procedures accomplished, the vet put a lethargic Sam in a cage. A sob escaped me. I might not see him in the morning.
“Not used to separations, are you?” the vet said, his eyes kind. “He will be alright here tonight.”
As I returned to the waiting room, Eileen said. “I’ll follow you home and tuck you in.”
I let out a long sigh, “Okay.”
Once in the house, she sat next to me on the couch in my living room, holding my hand, while tears ran down my face and I wiped my nose on my sleeve. She uttered no platitudes, just sat in witness to my grief for which I was grateful. When I had no tears left, she waited while I got undressed, then came upstairs and tucked me in. She kissed me goodnight on the forehead and let herself out the door. It was 4:30 a.m.
A day later, Sam had surgery and survived.
Over the next couple months, I saw a lot of Eileen. Neither one of us cooked much, so we often went out to eat after I finished work, me always ordering wine, she abstaining. One evening, Eileen told me. “I’m not seeing Tru anymore. It was just about the sex anyway.”
I’d already ended it with Carolyn right after the first dinner with Eileen. Though I’d had several long-term relationships with women, over the past few years I’d grown weary of dating, and roller coaster affairs. I wanted companionship and comfort. At the peak of my medical career, I was secure financially and so was Eileen, both of us self-made women from modest beginnings. Her success even more impressive because she was born in 1921. She’d made her own way in the world without the support of family when times were even more difficult for women, especially, lesbians. I worked long hours with increasing administrative responsibilities and little time for friendship or romance, and Eileen made few demands. She also “got me” in a way few of my friends did then.
After dinners out, we often returned to Eileen’s house on exclusive Mercer Island, a high-end neighborhood near downtown Seattle. It was more convenient to my office than my own home. On the weekends, I’d set up a make-shift desk in her comfortable living room to dictate my patient notes and organize my administrative responsibilities, sometimes reading for pleasure.
One evening the following spring, I glanced up from my patient charts to find Eileen standing before me in a flowing purple gown, a scarf wrapped around her head, a veil over her face.
“Ah, my busy, stressed-out, adorable woman, I’m here to tell you of your future,” she announced in a convincing Eastern European accent. She looked down upon me with a severe expression and passed a stick of smoking incense under my nose. I sneezed.
“You will arise and accompany me to store, where we buy many fine delicacies to prepare sumptuous feast.”
I hesitated, so she continued. “Or maybe you like accompany me out to dinner and belly-dancing.”
I laughed. Eileen had taken a sudden interest in a downtown Seattle bar that featured belly-dancing on the weekends and had even threatened to take it up herself. I put down my charts, closed my books, and got up. There would be no further work that Saturday.
For the next couple of years, I spent half of each week at Eileen’s house where I had my own room and a makeshift desk. I spent a rare night in her bed, but my libido had gone underground, channeled into my work. Most of my downtown lesbian friends assumed Eileen and I had become a couple. Did they think it odd? I did not dissuade them, comfortable to focus on my work.
When I took up dance lessons at the Century Ballroom, a gay venue, with a couple of lesbian friends, this assumption was tested. After the first two lessons where I danced with others, Eileen met me at the Ballroom for our third lesson in a newly purchased short black leather skirt, tights, high heels, and a matching black leather jacket. She was so uncomfortable in the heels that she couldn’t dance, and my friends just shook their heads in wonder. I partnered as a lead with several women closer to my age while Eileen looked on. I found myself drawn to one of them.
Even so, I had no time for dating, and nothing came of it. Life continued as usual with Eileen integrating into my lesbian social group that met every Wednesday morning at the Urban Bakery for breakfast and a walk around Green Lake. Eileen engaged in lively conversation with the group and was usually at the head of the pack on our walks.
For Eileen’s seventy-fifth birthday, I threw a surprise party for her that featured a belly dancer. Eileen and the dancer sashayed around the center of the room, draped in scarves while the rest of us clapped along. Few women of any age could convey her same joie de vivre.
Despite Eileen’s obvious vigor, a couple of years after her seventy-fifth birthday, I noticed some changes. She sometimes forgot conversations or agreements we had made, resulting in arguments. Often she was not tracking very well. At first, this was not noticeable to our friends, because she continued to engage socially and remained quick with the bantering responses and one-liners. But my heart was heavy knowing where this would lead and that I was helpless to do anything about it.
That year, my libido resurfaced. I found myself drawn again to a woman my age who came to our Fourth of July party; this time I acted on it.
A few weeks later, standing on the deck of my new home on Mercer Island, looking out over the sparkling water of Lake Washington, I took a deep breath and delivered the news I felt I must.
“Eileen, I’m dating someone I’m very attracted to.”
She looked stricken. “I’m just too old for you, aren’t I? Have you slept with her?” Tears welled up in her eyes.
Pain pierced my heart like shards of glass. I hated to hurt this remarkable woman.
“Yes,” I said. It was the truth. I had to acknowledge it as much as I’d dreaded this moment.
It took a while, but Eileen and I resumed our friendship. For her eightieth birthday, I created a slide show of her life for a blowout affair I helped to organize with many of her friends and ex-lovers. She continued to experience some confusion but remained upbeat. I often stopped by her place after work to sit with her for a few moments on her front porch. Though I had to repeat myself many times, those moments were rare periods of peace and calm in my otherwise hectic life.
“All is well.” Eileen would say, and I’d take a deep breath and relax.
When Eileen lay dying in her mid-eighties, I had just returned from a trip to Ireland with my wife. At home in her own bed, she appeared to be unconscious. I held her hand and kissed her forehead.
“All is well,” I said, hoping she could still hear me. “It’s okay to go.”
I glanced out the window, tears blearing my eyes and thought what a remarkable woman, what a remarkable life, and how lucky I’d been to know her.
Soon after, she took her last breaths.