"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" ~ Mary Oliver

Tag: life is long

christian de duve . . .

May-July 2007 354_2
As I was having my breakfast this morning, I started reading the front section of the New York Times from the back page first. Glancing down the editorials, I turned the page and saw a long obituary on the left hand page for Dr. Christian de Duve at the age of 95 in Brussels. He died by euthanasia, it seems, a way to die that is legal in Belgium. He had spent the last month writing letters to people letting them know about his decision to depart this life. Listed also were the names of two sons, two daughters, grandchildren and two great grandsons. Curiously, nowhere was it mentioned the name of his wife, whose name was Anne, as I recall.

You see, when I graduated from college, I married someone who decided to go to law school at Columbia University because his father, a partner in his own law firm in Ohio, wanted him to follow in his footsteps. Reluctantly, D. studied law although he circumvented practicing law by going on to study for a Masters in Urban Planning. His parents, (my in-laws) gave him money for his law school education, but volunteered none to us for our living expenses at the graduate students’ apartment building on Riverside Drive at the time.

Always resourceful, there was a typing pool of graduate student wives who earned monthly expenses by taking in dissertations (9 carbon copies) from the never-ending stream of candidates needing their work to be completed before graduating and getting a job. I remember using a heavy duty IBM electric typewriter and earning $300 a month (50 cents a page, 5 cents a carbon) for over three years while I also had our first and second daughters. In those days, copiers were nonexistent and I still can remember rolling the platen down carefully to make an erasure for each onion skin copy and calculating how much room footnotes would require at the bottom of the page. Ah, those were the days!

In any case, I did the typing after I became pregnant and had to quit my first job as a bilingual administrative assistant to, yep, Dr. Christian de Duve at the Rockefeller Institute. In those days, Dr. de Duve continued his laboratory at Louvain, Belgium as well as the lab at Rockefeller. Two requirements were necessary for me to get the job: correspondence in French and English and making Medaglia d’Oro espresso coffee to his liking. There were Belgian lab assistants, post Docs from Chile and Belgium and grant budgets to keep track of. I took the bus to work from the Upper West Side to mid-East side where the Rockefeller campus sheltered more Nobel Prize winners than practically anywhere else.

Dr. de Duve himself shared the Nobel Prize a few years after I left. And I remember going downstairs to lunch riding in an elevator with (future) Nobelists, Dr. George Palade, Dr. Rene Dubus and of course, Dr. de Duve.

He was kind and aloof. His beautiful wife, Anne, well dressed and also aloof, visited a few times a year. I’m not sure why she was not mentioned in his obituary, but I read in another article that de Duve’s “beloved wife died in 2008.”

In any case, Christian de Duve had a very long and productive life, it seems. I remembered a decade or so ago running into something that he had written online and had sent him a message. He remembered me and wrote back a friendly but reserved greeting. Just like him.

“life is long” . . .

thankful every day

“Life is long”. . . a woman speaker told us at one of the Wednesday morning assemblies when I was a scholarship student at Smith College in the ’60′s. She talked about how important this idea was because as women, we might have to put the care of others ahead of ourselves. And that there might still be a chance to do something or be something that was really important to us. Later on.

It was a turbulent time. Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and others sang to protest the Vietnam War. Women’s Lib was at its peak, American astronauts walked on the moon, and the Beatles rocked everyone, singing “I Want to Hold Your H-A-N-D…” Being somewhat shy, I was too naïve to know what I really wanted out of life, never mind whether life was short, or whether it was long.

My first marriage lasted for over a quarter of a century and the best thing that came out of it was our children. The one thing we did well together was raising them to be independent, to be curious and to give them experiences and tools to find their way in life.

Preferences in the way he and I wanted to live were in stark contrast to each other: he wanted to travel the world and live in exotic cultures–the Wanderer. All I wanted to do was to be at home. In my own home in comfort of my own making: to read, play the piano, knit, cook meals, listen to music. We couldn’t have been farther apart in terms of what we each wanted to do at the middle-aged period in our lives.

The divorce was lengthy and painful, lots of to- and fro-ing. Worries about finances. I moved three times in two years, including cleaning out the Victorian house that our children grew up in for twenty-two years, virtually by myself. The first week in my new apartment, the family dog slipped out from the back yard, even though the iron gates looked secure. When I searched but could not find her, I found solace in the I-Ching reading which said, “peace.” I figured that either I should chill out because she would turn up, or that she was already at peace. The next morning, the phone rang and a dog Samaritan said she found Bridget on the causeway in the next town. Two degrees  of separation, the Vet’s number on Bridget’s rabies tag and my new phone number left with the Vet during the move coincided to reunite us once again. I didn’t have a job at the time, although by then, I had worked for seven years in a biotech start-up and had a track record for making decent money. Three months later, I got a call that led me to a new biotech start-up company sixty miles away.

The movers, in their haste, forgot to tighten the lyre on my Steinway grand piano. I looked in the phone book for someone specializing in Steinways to come and take care of it. That person turned out to be my future husband. We were friends for four years when we decided to marry. This year, we celebrated our 16th wedding anniversary and have been together now for almost twenty years. I never thought this might happen during the turbulent unsettled time in my life.

We are both pianists, grateful that we are together to share our lives. Whenever I say that I should have left my first marriage earlier given all the trials and tribulations, my husband quickly disagrees. He feels that had even one thing been different in our pasts, we might not have met each other at all. Timing is everything, it seems, even if it takes awhile.

As a postscript, my ex-husband married within a year of our divorce being finalized. He and his wife travel and live all over the world. All’s well that ends well, it seems.

That’s how I came to understand what I heard when life was still innocent and full of promise, “Life is long.”