Summer has brought a grand exhale to the Robbins household.
On an August morning, sun streams into Art and Sandy’s kitchen in Golden’s Bridge, their “country” home. Art moves from the table to the counter with his walker. He is disconnected from tubes, breathing unfiltered air. For the first time in a year, Art is off full-time oxygen. His levels remained high enough and consistent enough for several weeks, so his doctor agreed he could give it a try. It has been more than a month with no daytime lines.
“Being on an oxygen high is wonderful,” Art said. “Not having a damn oxygen cord following me is wonderful. To be able to go in and out of my office without a line following me is wonderful. The trick was: “Follow the green line and you’ll find Robbins.”
The joke now feels like something he can smile at.
Art says one of the greatest benefits of being off of oxygen is the relief it has brought Sandy.
“It’s a shift. Sandy isn’t as scared about my wellbeing now that I’m not dripping with oxygen lines,” Art said.
“Psychologically for both of us the whole sense of who you are is much more back to normal and that’s wonderful,” Sandy said. “It’s like he’s been released.”
Art’s limbs and long hands and fingers are still heavy, but there is a lightness to his face, now unencumbered.
“It is rare when you’re older that things improve,” he said. “Usually it’s nothing but downhill. This is a real shift up.”
* * *
This summer – mostly spent in Golden’s Bridge - has been healing, restful and a little too slow for Art and Sandy’s liking.
A highlight was that Art was able to teach at the Pratt Institute’s summer program in New Hampshire for a week, a program he helped start about 40 years ago and something he had missed a few times in recent years. The week in New Hampshire was also an opportunity to spend weekends with their children and grandchildren who live in Massachusetts and come up north to visit.
This summer, with no therapy groups and the space of the country house, Art has also returned to painting, which he hadn’t done in many months. He has been covering large canvases in layers of modge podge and bright, sweeping strokes.
“It’s one of the few avenues of expression that are open to me. I don’t want to write. My days of that are over. I don’t have the energy to take a class per se. So I paint,” he says.
Sandy is not in the office in the summer, so she telecommutes. She works on her computer trying to secure the theater’s grants and finances, communicating with her staff and setting the schedule for the fall season. In between, they run errands, borrow books and movies from the library, have occasional visitors and take more naps.
Summers were, at one time, the highlight of the Robbins’ year. They traveled to dozens of countries through Art’s work and always left time to travel with their children and grandchildren. Today, sitting with cabin fever at their kitchen table, they are nostalgic.
“Summers are so different than they had been,” Sandy says.
“Oh and how,” Art echoes. “We taught and traveled the world and that’s gone. All of that is logistically and mechanically challenging. That needed a lot of flexibility which we no longer have.”
“All of these relationships in Europe become less active,” Sandy says.
“Summer after summer of creating and drinking and eating with them. Singing with them. All that’s over,” Art says.
“If most of your relationships are out of the country that’s a problem,” Sandy says.
During the year, the Robbins rarely have time to focus on the social life that they miss but the long days of summer bring a feeling of loss.
“You feel that a lot of people who we meet feel we are an older couple, and we won’t be interesting,” Sandy says.
“It’s a whole balancing act of importing people to visit with us which is difficult,” Art says.
Every summer Art and Sandy also used to travel to Cape Cod, one of their favorite places. Now the traffic, crowds and hundreds of steps down to the beach seem insurmountable.
In the middle of the conversation, Art stands up to return to his art studio.
“One of the things I have learned is to enjoy the moment more than ever,” he says. “All this other stuff is unimportant.”
One of Sandy’s tasks for the summer was to set the line-up for the theater’s next year – directing the staff to book space and plan the cast accordingly.
One day in July, while Art and Sandy were in New Hampshire participating at the Pratt Institute’s summer program, the weather was colder than they had prepared for. They wandered into a thrift store to buy a last-minute coat.
While there, Sandy flipped through the racks of old books the store was giving away, as is her routine. She found “The Hundredth Monkey,” a story and theory she knew, but has never seen in book form.
The concept of The Hundredth Monkey is a theory of change that a new behavior or idea tends to spread rapidly once a critical number of members of one group adopt the behavior or idea. The thin book that Sandy picked up made the case for using the theory to create more peace in the world.
The book and theory generally made Sandy think about her growing concern over violence in the world – particularly in the Middle East – and what she could do to further effect change. While she and Art are regular contributors to different organizations, she decided to work through the theater, her main mechanism of expression and influence.
Sandy announced to her staff that she decided to reorder the theater’s upcoming season. Typically, the Shadow Box Theatre performs holiday-centered shows: “Lumpy Bumby Pumpkin” and “Tobias Turkey” – their most profitable shows, first.
Sandy says that this fall they will instead perform “Little is Big,” a story of a little fish who is threatened by a big fish and then tries to scare the big fish in return. Sandy wrote the show so that the children in the audience help teach the little fish that scaring the big fish was not the right action, either. This show is always followed up by an audience sing-a-long of songs about peace.
The decision came as a surprise to the theater staff.
Their fall finances and schedule had already been threatened by a new policy that does not allow pre-K students to go on field trips until December and allows no child of any age under 50 pounds to go on a field trip by bus. More than half the kids who come to see the theater are pre-K and kindergarten students, easily under 50 pounds.
“In spite of the fact that last year we lost the pre-Ks, Tobias Turkey was still our second-biggest money maker, based on cost and popularity. When Sandy said we shouldn’t do that show, we were looking at the figures, and we thought we should still sneak it in for a week,” said Raymond Todd, the theater’s manager of operations. “We are starting in November with Little is Big. Usually we start in October and we are hankering, chomping at the bit for money. Now there’s a further delay.”
Carol Prud’homme Davis said that Sandy’s line-up is “exactly right as it should be for the season” as far as the lessons it teaches, but she hopes that next year, they can find a way to do both the holiday shows and the shows with stronger moral messages.
Despite the financial challenges which keep her up at night, Sandy is, more than ever, committed to performing what is in her heart.
Every year, Sandy’s birthday, August 11, is celebrated collectively with her daughter and her son, who also have August birthdays.
This year began with a surprise 50th birthday party for their youngest daughter Laura (“Can you believe my baby is 50?” Sandy says). The party included sleepovers from several of the grandchildren in the days before and after.
Sandy’s birthday itself was quieter. Art and Sandy borrowed the movie “Selma” from the library. Art began reading Harper Lee’s recently released book, “Go Set a Watchman.”
“I woke up in good spirits. I even made up a song already,” Sandy said over lunch. “It was a very sweet song, but it’s gone.”
Sandy bought herself a small chocolate cake to celebrate. Art says planning surprises or shopping for gifts when you have a walker and rely on your wife to bring you places is nearly impossible.
Sandy’s phone rings at least once every 30 minutes throughout the day. Everyone wants to wish her a happy birthday. Sandy matches their enthusiasm.
“I am so happy you called!” she says over and over.
Her cell phone and the house phone ring at the same time
“Can you believe that I’m 82? It’s very hard to believe.”
A friend calls from Sweden, and Sandy recites a poem for her that she wrote long ago for her husband.
Sandy’s son Michael calls.
“Do you know who my first call was this morning?,” Sandy tells him. “Your daughter! Miwa! She’s very good. She’s an angel. How did you get such an angel? I remember that little bubbeleh when she was born.”
Reflecting on 82, Sandy is feeling more vulnerable than she remembers feeling in the past.
“I have felt many more differences this year than I had before. I fell badly this year. We had more emergencies this year. It’s an accumulation of having a raw spot rubbed constantly for a number of years. You get worn down. I’m not sure if it’s a function of age or life circumstances that make you feel drained,” she said.
She is also beginning to feel the weight of external expectations of aging.
“When it comes to the loss of your energy as you get older, a piece of it is the way the world thinks you should be, and you give back the mirror. We do that all our lives, in the way people think you should be. Children do it all the time. Why should we think we don’t do it as adults? We reflect back how the world reflects us.”
Sandy decides on seven candles for her cake - four candles to symbolize 80, then two for her additional years and one for good luck.
Art sings: “Happy Birthday” to his dear “Sandeleh,” patting her on the back as she blows out candles and then goes to answer another call.
Through the challenges of the year, it is clear that Art and Sandy’s marriage is their greatest asset. They are remarkably strong, loving and honest when they speak about each other.
Sandy tells the story of the first time Art was seriously ill, recovering from heart surgery in the hospital for weeks. Before being discharged from the hospital, Art quietly asked his grandson to clean up his office because he wanted to see a patient when he got home. Sandy was exasperated when she found this out.
“I said, ‘I’m furious. I’m through. I just spent weeks with you in the hospital and this is what you are worried about,’” she recalled. “Of course I wasn’t through. You learn to let your love predominate.”
Art says that his increased need for Sandy’s care has been extremely challenging in recent years.
“It is one of the biggest conflicts of our marriage. To cope with needing her in a way I never have before, but not being infantilized and losing my freedom. That’s been a struggle.”
Sandy says that as she cares for the now diminished, but once “strapping, powerful man” that she married has been a whole new stage of their relationship.
“When your love predominates, the rest falls away,” Sandy says. “You know what to do and how to do it respectfully. You learn, when you really have respect for each other, how to help one another without making the other person to feel helpless.”
On her birthday, Sandy stands at the bottom of the stairs in their driveway and winces, watching Art slowly, navigate his way down.
“I’m married 62 years,” Sandy says. “In many ways in that period we both have grown enormously. For us, the thing that is most precious in our marriage is we have respect for each other and each other’s beingness. It is critical. For me it is a vital piece of what love is about.”
This series is a production of the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. It is led by Dorian Block and Ruth Finkelstein. It is funded by the New York Community Trust. To find all of the interviews and more, go to www.exceedingexpectations.nyc
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