Ten Years Ago…Or A Minute

Thanksgiving – 10 years ago.

One of my life principles for coping that I’ve shared so often with my family (and practically anyone else who would listen) is what I dubbed “The Five Year Rule.” Whenever my kids felt that what was presently happening in their lives was an overwhelming tragedy from which they could never recover, I’d abruptly interrupt them and ask them to tell me what they were doing five years ago today. They’d pause, stare and then try to remember exactly what was happening back then. And of course they couldn’t. I’d then explain that the momentous “now” would five years from today, be something that at best, would be a vague memory. Gaining perspective helped them in going forward, an important life skill everyone needs to acquire to have what I call “the best life.” Because the truth is, life will require coping skills from everyone. Today, however, I find myself with my memories from exactly ten years ago, vivid, actually blazing away in my mind. I’ve gone forward from that impossible time, but I can still see and feel everything that happened in the weeks leading up to and including Thanksgiving, 2013. Always my family’s favorite holiday, I couldn’t believe we were going to celebrate, not only with family, but with a number of other people who often found their way into our home in late November. Of what to that point was our 31st year of hosting Thanksgivings, only two times were more memorable. One was the first time my parents, grandmother and siblings came to our home for the holiday, back when I was thirty and a new mom, my daughter just three months old. I was sick that year but I dosed myself with every cold medication I could find, determined to show everyone I’d arrived as a fully competent person into adult life. Managing a baby, a holiday dinner and an illness, simultaneously? No big deal. The second memorable time was when my brother had a terrible argument with my parents, which was so upsetting for them, that they canceled participating in that year’s Thanksgiving. I was so hurt and angry that everyone had to pay for their issues which had nothing to do with the rest of us. But truly, those times paled in comparison to 2013, the one that for me, is unforgettable.

Michael doing his usual turkey carving for what we thought would be his last time.

Back in April, 2012, Michael and I were slammed by his diagnosis of Merkel Cell cancer, the deadly orphan disease which if metastatic, had only an 11% survival rate at five years. Michael’s was metastatic but only slightly so, with just two lymph nodes out of sixty-six testing malignant, except for his initial small facial lesion. Even so, after an extensive surgery, he was hammered with thirty radiation treatments to his head and neck which left him dry-mouthed and partly bald on one side of his head. After a clean scan seven months from those interventions, his doctors felt he had a good chance of surviving for a lot longer than five years. We cautiously went forward, always reminding ourselves that anything could happen, but being more confident that with every passing month of good health, that Michael would be a long-term survivor. A year after his treatment we met with his cancer team. I was anxious for him to get another scan, like so many cancer patients who get followed with three month scans for years. After a fierce argument with the oncologist, who said those scans weren’t in the protocols for Merkel Cell, it was finally agreed that Michael would get one more scan on November 8th, 2013, about a year after his last one. That was a Friday. We met with his surgeon the following Tuesday to get the test results. I can still see that scan on the light board in the office. Bright red blotches were everywhere, up and down Michael’s skeleton, metastases on at least 11 large bones in the body. I don’t know who was more devastated, us or our poor surgeon who was convinced this had to be a new cancer. He had never treated a Merkel Cell patient before. But Michael and I knew right away that this monstrous and insidious disease had been quietly spreading. A bone biopsy confirmed that. The astonishing part was that despite the heavy cancer load, he was still asymptomatic. At that moment the team oncologist assumed Michael’s care. We immediately went to see him, listening as he told us about a harsh chemotherapy cocktail which, if effective, might stretch his survival to a year. Without it, we were told that at best, he had two to three months to live. We asked him if starting treatment in a couple of weeks was possible, giving Michael enough time to immediately retire from teaching and to clean out his classroom. We also hoped to have a last Thanksgiving with all our family gathered before giving ourselves over to the grueling pace of treatment. The oncologist didn’t think a bit more time would make any significant difference. So off we went, headed for home, stopping at our seven-months pregnant daughter’s office where we were joined by our son. The four of us wept and grieved, crushed by this tough news. Was it possible that Michael might not meet his new grandson, due in January? We didn’t know.

Thanksgiving Day, 2013.

Journal entry – November 12th, 2013

The family is devastated, weeping constantly. Will Michael be gone at only 64? My future is an empty black space. Just a mother? Just a grandmother? No more partner. Michael is crying in the next room. He tells me he doesn’t want to leave. I am powerless. What I would do to keep him alive is anything. But for him to suffer? I can’t bear it. I can’t bear anything.

Michael and our kids, after Thanksgiving dinner.

Journal entry – November 17th, 2013

Last night we went to see the film “12 Years a Slave.” It was beyond somber. The theater was absolutely silent at the end and no one said anything on the way out. Was this the last movie Michael and I will see together? I hope not. But is there any movie that will be a good last one to see?

Me with my grandson.

Journal entry – November 24th, 2013

We lie in bed for 10 hours at a time, staring at each other, holding each other. We are in the moment, in the past and down the road. I am enveloped by love and lonelier than I’ve ever been. I feel my inexorable slide into isolation. I know it. I can’t see past Michael’s inevitable disappearance. Which has always been inevitable but is now breathing down my neck.

The day after Thanksgiving.

Journal entry – November 24th, 2013

Yesterday was likely Michael’s last Thanksgiving. A full house. As I prepared the food I felt overwhelmed, disconnected, detached. The meal turned out to be as delicious as any I’d ever served. Go figure. I guess it was the right thing to do. Lots of the day felt normal. I only cried twice. There was much love and support, yet not enough to touch the Grand Canyon of grief in my heart.

Michael and our dog, Flash.

But we did get through that time. Nothing about it was easy. Michael managed to survive the brutal chemo with a minimum of side effects. Mostly he was exhausted, and often dark and cranky. He was ferociously angry about the possibility of dying a good twenty-five years before most people in his long-lived family. Still, he got through his 18 rounds of the chemical assault. Afterwards, we decided that we would take advantage of every moment we had together and promptly headed to St. Pete’s Beach, Florida for some time along the Gulf Coast, one of our favorite places. That was just the beginning. We moved our retirement to the current moment. Every time he was well, we hit the road. I wanted him to see everything he’d ever expressed any interest in visiting. We went from the Baseball Hall of Fame to FDR’s Hyde Park to the Outer Banks to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. We went to the Civil Rights Museum, to Graceland and to the Outer Banks. We saw four gorgeous national parks in Utah. Michael got to meet and spend time with our second grandson. We got three more Thanksgivings with our family and friends along with birthdays, anniversaries and just regular daily life. During that bonus time, Michael, always the best gift-giver, quietly designed a beautiful heart-shaped pendant for me, engraved in his own handwriting. He created three romantic CD’s he titled “Love Songs for the Lovely Renee,” all of which he wound up giving me while he was unexpectedly still alive. And when he finally died in May, 2017, I received his ultimate gift, a mourning quilt he’d commissioned, made from his clothes, with a beautiful note sewn into its fabric. There was even enough material for a wall hanging for each of our kids, with notes for them as well. He was planning for our comfort beyond his absence. A remarkable loving gift to treasure, always.

My surprise pendant
My CD’s.
The mourning quilt.
Michael’s message on my mourning quilt.

A decade ago, and now 6 and a half years since Michael’s death. I’ve experienced the most intense emotions I could have imagined in that time. I always knew that despite his encouragement about me eventually seeking a new partnership, that I never would. I still feel involved in our deeply intimate relationship, in some mysterious, inexplicable ways. I’ve tried leading a life rich in experiences during these years, and to be brave about facing the world on my own. I got new knees and have traveled multiple times by myself, always thinking that to do less would be disrespectful to both me and Michael. I can still manage the stuff of daily life. He still wanted to do everything he could, to the very last minute. I live by that memory. I am always wishing, even in my most joyous moments, when watching our children and grandchildren in all their various, exciting pursuits, that Michael could have shared these moments with us. I wish he could’ve met our daughter-in-law and our beautiful baby granddaughter. But I’m doing the best I can for both of us. As long as I’m able to keep going, I will.

My one and only tattoo that I dreamed and then made real, shortly after Michael died.

Tomorrow will be my seventh Thanksgiving without Michael. Because we’re having a big crowd this year, I’m making the first turkey that I’ve made since 2016, to augment my son-in-law’s spread. Someone else will do the carving as that part was never my job. My cranberry orange relish is already made, as are my two sweet potato pies which just need to be heated. In the morning, I’ll put that bird in the oven and then make my family’s favorite cole slaw. For the most part, that represents most of my traditional dinner which I stopped hosting in 2017. A normal Thanksgiving, at least as normal as any of them have been these last years. There’ll be laughter and singing and rollicking around. I’ll have a good time and so will everyone else. My kids and I will acknowledge how much we miss Michael and I will say that he’s always nearby, which he somehow is. Ten years ago…sometimes feels like a minute.

Saying Yes

Was I really upside down on this escalator?

I’m still trying to figure out exactly how I wound up lying on my back, feet splayed out in front of me and pointed upward, slightly to the side of my suitcase, my right hand, my non-dominant hand, gripping the handrail as the escalator in Union Station made its way up to the mezzanine. Somewhere in the bowels of Union Station in Chicago, the cameras have footage of me, lying like a turtle on its shell, flanked by two young men who’d answered my calls for help. They’d wanted to pull me to my feet but I knew that was a terrible idea considering the angles. Plus there was the fact that I had two heavy bags slung across my back, one literally loaded with rocks I couldn’t leave behind, rocks I’d collected while visiting my son and his family in Colorado plains. Those bags were underneath me. When the escalator reached the top, I pushed my suitcase aside, wriggled myself off and asked them to take the backpacks off me. Then, with only a sore bottom, shock and some humiliation, I was able to turn over and push myself upright. I thanked the young men who were looking at me as if I was out of mind, grabbed all my bags and hurried away to grab a quick bite before going back downstairs to line up for boarding my last train. Needless to say, I didn’t take the escalator back downstairs. I opted for the elevator. I think I’ll pass on escalators for awhile. Anyway, I was in my 17th hour of travel from Colorado back to my home, bone-tired and desperate for the next couple of hours to pass quickly so I could get back into my house to collapse.

Some of the rocks I hauled home – or did they haul me?
Escalator wounds on the back of my leg.

I was worried about the weight of those rocks as I was packing for home. I’m not a geologist. I’ve just always loved collecting rocks which I use to create borders and attractive spaces in my garden. I actually had gone through my bag a few times, winnowing out the ones which I guessed I would just have to do without. I thought that was quite reasonable of me. At no point did I figure that they’d be anything other than hard to carry for awhile. If I’d known that they’d contribute to my falling off-balance or whatever I did on that escalator (it happened so quickly I can’t quite reconstruct what happened,) would I have left them behind? Or would I have still said yes to bringing them home? That’s what I thought about on my last train ride home.

Some of the garden pavers I make with rocks from my travels.

As I approach my 73rd birthday, saying yes has become a central tenet in how I manage my life. I was raised in a family in which there was a heavy emphasis on the negative, most of which was based on fear. All potential activities were assessed based on what terrible things might happen if you did them. It wasn’t all plagues and locusts, but more the threats of assaults, dismemberment or dread diseases. I was a teenager when I started figuring out that mom and dad had an extremely paranoid view of doing anything other than hanging around together at home. What I didn’t know was how deeply ingrained that idea would become, that every activity, even ones as simple as going to an evening movie was fraught with peril. I was left to unravel the same fears over and over again trying to separate normal caution for the irrational type. Well into my adult life, my mother would frequently tell me she thought I was reckless. I had to laugh. I considered myself to be deliberate, non-impulsive and an over-thinker, almost to a fault. And here was mom, perceiving me as a throw-all-caution to-the wind person. My dad was even worse. I was in my late twenties before I realized how in many ways, my parents who were so close and so in love, were also a pair of scared kids who didn’t give each other much help in working their through all that fear. My mom, who outlived my dad by twenty-five years, eventually found her way to recognizing how they missed a lot of opportunities in their lives because of that huge hindrance.

Mom and dad, ages 25 and 26, parents of two.

My life was quite different. I found a partner whose strengths and weaknesses were virtually opposite from mine. I didn’t know all of that important information in the early days of our relationship at the tender ages of twenty and twenty-two. But as years passed, I realized that, unlike my parents, Michael and I were going to help each other grow, confronting our problems and finding new ways to improve our lives. In the areas where I was most cautious and more likely to find my way to “no,” he would nine times out of ten, be a “yes.” My ability to be braver and stronger and more sure of myself evolved throughout our years together. I can still hear my parents’ voices and nervous admonitions in my head but my own voice is louder and certain. When Michael died, I knew that he wanted me to continue on my positive path. I can’t say he was thinking much about the challenges aging might bring in being able to just say yes. But now I’m here for myself for those decisions.

A view from the train window as I made my west to Colorado.

And the answer about whether I would have taken my trip if I knew I’d have a scary incident is yes. And would I bring back those rocks? Definitely. I would add the caveat that I might not travel in as exhausting a manner as I did this time. If the future was now, I could magically teleport myself from home to elsewhere, avoiding the hassles of public transportation. My last trip in August was the flying nightmare, running from gate to gate in the airport as my flights kept getting changed, hauling luggage and feeling wiped out before getting anywhere. It culminated in a miserable overnight stay in the Dallas airport due to an overdue flight causing me to miss my connection home. That sour experience caused me to choose the train for this visit instead of flying. But obviously when you are worn out from long hours jouncing along the tracks, perhaps tripping on an escalator while laden with bags becomes more likely. Still, I can tweak some of these issues by getting some help along the way. Asking for and receiving help is not one of my strong suits in the “yes” department. I remain a work in progress. And there are different travel modes to explore. But still, I wouldn’t have missed my time with my family in their new, amazing location where they’re doing great conservation work. Those experiences are worth a fall or two.

My Colorado view.
My Colorado family.

Saying yes isn’t just about travel. Like most people, economic and time constraints determine how much time I can spend away from home. But daily life too has lots of opportunities for turning a no into a yes. Some mornings I wake up lazy. Some mornings I might feel achy and slow. The effort of getting dressed for the outside world has less appeal than a comfortable chair and a good book, or even a mindless time of binge-watching mediocre television. Getting myself going to bundle up, climb in my car, drive over to the indoor pool and jump into cold water is not exactly a thrilling option on a cold, damp day. But I’ve practiced remembering that invariably, I always feel a lot better after I’m done swimming. Or that I’m energized from dragging myself out at night to a middle school concert that only lasts 30 minutes. I feel better after attending an online class that sounded so interesting when I registered for it months ago but now looks like a bore. Don’t get me wrong – Im still capable of choosing to opt out of things. More often than not, though, the satisfaction I get from participating always seems like a good thing that I’ve done for my mind and/or body. I have no idea how long I’ll be able to assert myself in this decision-making. I could get sick, debilitated, lose my executive function. So I really can’t stand the notion of squandering my time. What we have is so ephemeral. I think of Michael, gone now for over 6 and 1/2 years, who struggled mightily for every extra minute of breath. All I have to do is look around our roiling world to remind myself that now’s the time to participate in life. I don’t know anything about later. Saying yes is working for me, despite the occasional tumble or rotten night’s sleep. I’m going swimming now. Yes.

Fleeting Moments With Strangers

Union Station, Chicago.

For as long as I can remember, strangers have engaged me in conversations. Location was irrelevant. I could wind up hearing the intimate details of someone’s life while in line at a grocery store or in the waiting room at a hospital. Even waiters at restaurants sometimes seemed to forget I was a customer, hanging around my table to share all kinds of personal information. I honestly don’t know what kind of signals I send out that invite this kind of exchange. I don’t think I’m that much more friendly than anyone else. Why me? People talk to me everywhere. After knowing me for awhile, every time we were going anywhere where there might be substantial numbers of people, my husband would say, “don’t make eye contact with anyone. We have things to do and I don’t feel like getting stuck, listening to someone telling you a life story.” I remember being at crowded airport gates, when within minutes, I’d be hearing sad tales from a random individual who seemed to instinctively know I would listen, while watching Michael sigh and slump resignedly into a chair, knowing my attention would be elsewhere for awhile. Most of the time his natural curiosity made him a good sport but he also found these delays in our plans to be pretty annoying. These days, when I’m on my own, especially when traveling, I feel like I’m emitting signals which let people know that I’m a good option as a listener. And I’ll readily admit that being alone, observing the behaviors of people around me and engaging with individuals I’ll only “know” for a short time is thought-provoking and interesting. Being away from my usual routine always brings surprises at how life works outside my little sphere. A fresh perspective is a good thing.

Last week I boarded a train in my hometown for the first leg of a journey that took me to beautiful Union Station in Chicago and then on to Colorado for a visit with my recently re-located son and his family. As I stood in line on the platform waiting for that initial train, I was behind two people, one of whom was a blind man and the other, a woman who seemed to be his friend, guiding him by the elbow as we snaked toward the doors. But as the line broke apart, with passengers heading to the train cars based on where they were exiting, the man went one way, while the woman went the other. Ultimately, she and I entered the same compartment. When the train pulled away, she immediately asked me if I’d keep an eye on her things as she needed to get her morning coffee. She leaned down and said with a tone of confidentiality, “you don’t even want to know me before I’ve had my coffee.” I knew that as soon as she returned, she would begin a conversation. And so she did. Before that two and a half hour ride was over, I knew both hers and her husband’s professions, how many homes they owned and all about their only child, a financially successful son living in San Francisco. He was handsome and athletic with lots of friends, but single. She then said she really wasn’t certain about his sexuality and felt rebuffed when she told him how much she really wanted a grandchild. Then the train pulled into the station with me going my way and she going hers. Somewhere in the middle of all that she did give me a recommendation about squirrel-proof bird feeders which I made note of in my phone. I also know where she lives because her house in our mutual hometown is a relatively new one in an older neighborhood. I spent decades as an assessment official, meaning I know a lot about real estate and had actually measured her home after it was built. And that was that. I don’t know her name and she doesn’t know mine. Will our paths cross again one day? Who knows?

The Metropolitan Lounge in Union Station

I grabbed a quick lunch in the food court at the station, always a good place to people-watch. Sometimes sad-looking characters wander through that area. There are men who shuffle along, looking confused and aimless, women with swollen feet and ankles, talking to no one in particular about nothing in particular. A reminder of how lucky I am to still feel relatively healthy and purposeful in my actions. Then I headed to the Metropolitan Lounge, a waiting area for passengers holding sleeper car tickets.

A woman started talking to me in that lounge as we were both between trains. She asked me where I was going, and when I told her Colorado, she relayed the following story. Two years ago, she made train reservations to visit a friend in Colorado Springs. A month before her departure, she received a phone call from Amtrak telling her that the car to which she was assigned was disabled. Would she like to reschedule her trip or get her money back? Huh? She then asked the caller to make a three-way conference call so her friend could hear what happened and thus would not think she was fabricating the story because she really didn’t want to visit. Okay…why in the world did she feel compelled to share this odd tale with me. I had no clue. I simply wished her a safe journey, wherever she was going this time. She never did tell me her current destination.

Departure line outside the Lounge.

Next, a woman and her husband, both appearing to be in their early 70’s, entered the lounge. The woman was very unsteady on her feet, bent forward at her waist, as if her upper body weight could randomly cause her to tip over. She asked if she could join me at the table where I’d parked myself until departure time. I immediately replied in the affirmative. I couldn’t figure out why she didn’t have a walker when she looked so delicate in an upright position. After sitting for about twenty minutes, an Amtrak employee announced that it was time for everyone boarding the #3 train, the Southwest Chief, to line up against the wall with their baggage so we could be led through the labyrinth-like underground part of the station to our departure track. She also announced that anyone requiring special assistance could be driven to the train on an elaborate golf cart-like vehicle. I scrambled around with my suitcase and backpack and eventually found myself lined up, surprisingly behind the wobbly woman and her husband, both of whom were steering extra large blue suitcases, each with four wheels. I was astonished that they hadn’t availed themselves of a ride to the train.

As we filed our way through the tunnel-like curves, dodging people and carts, I became increasingly concerned, as every ten feet or so, the woman would stumble, her body leaning forward at a precarious angle. I could tell that the weight of the suitcase, often rolling slightly downhill, was setting a quick pace which she couldn’t control. Every now and then, her husband grabbed her elbow but he too was busy maneuvering his own cumbersome case. She managed to catch herself three or four times. Finally we entered the last stretch when we were closing in on boarding the train.

The dangerous concrete pillar.

I grew more alarmed, as the episodes of the woman stumbling forward were increasing in frequency. Suddenly she bent almost in half, her rolling suitcase propelling her ahead until she landed, face first, on one of the concrete pillars that supports the ceiling of the station. She sank slowly to the ground. I reached her almost as quickly as her husband who pulled her up to a standing position, blood pouring from her nose. I asked what I could do to help. All he asked for was a tissue to help mop up the blood. I was mostly incredulous, thinking that they could just continue, dragging their bags, climbing aboard this cross-country train with her in such a vulnerable condition. But that’s what they did. Was this a vacation? I couldn’t make sense of it. No one asked for my opinion, nor did I offer one. But I couldn’t stop thinking about how a few simple steps could have made her experience avoidable. What were they thinking? Or not thinking?

My roomette on the train.

Finally I was on the train, and settled into my berth. Loading time takes awhile and it’s common to keep your privacy doors open until everyone is aboard. Across the narrow hall was a couple about my age who started a casual conversation about how warm our little rooms were. From there they told me that they’d gotten on this train in Cincinnati and were taking it all the way to Los Angeles where they’d get off for eight hours to explore the city before boarding another train to go home. Evidently they’d spent a similar amount of time in Chicago. Hmm…they had three giant suitcases. I couldn’t understand why they needed so much luggage when they were spending most of their time just riding. But that’s just my opinion. Then the conversation turned more serious. The woman, whose name I never learned, told me that her 32 year old son died of Covid a year and a half ago. He was engaged at the time of his death. A scant two months later, his fiancée married someone else. She was pregnant. She and her husband sued her for a paternity test in case the baby was their grandchild. What a dreadfully painful story. After we slid our doors closed for the night, I never saw them again until they departed their berth for breakfast as I was pulling into my final destination. Although I’ll never see them again, I think I’ll always remember their sad story, losing their only son and spending their days, riding trains up and back across the country.

Sunset through the train window.

Less than 24 hours of travel and oh, the things you hear and see out in the big world. Shared moments with total strangers, everyone with a their own backstories. Travel certainly is an eye-opening experience. There’s so much happening, parallel to us and often invisible as we make our way through life. A lot to ponder on a rumbling train in the night. And later, too.

A Public Service Announcement

Ordinarily I’m the one doing all the writing in my posts. But I ran across this graphic and its accompanying article from The Atlantic today and I thought it was worth sharing.

Over the course of a decade and a half, a team at the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (a.k.a. NANOGrav) worked to prove that gravitational waves from the birth of the universe are echoing in the background of space-time today. https://theatln.tc/FY2lfe5U

They have now found proof that “every proton and neutron in every atom from the tip of your toes to the top of your head is shifting, shuttling, and vibrating in a collective purr within which the entire history of the universe is implicated,” Adam Frank writes. “The gravitational-wave background is huge news for the cosmos, yes, but it’s also huge news for you. The nature of reality has not changed—you will not suddenly be able to detect vibrations in your morning coffee that you couldn’t see before. And yet, moments like these can and should change how each of us sees our world. All of a sudden, we know that we are humming in tune with the entire universe, that each of us contains the signature of everything that has ever been.” ⁠

“As children, each of us had a deep and easily triggered sense that the world is full of wonder, that everything is strange and amazing,” Frank continues. “Today, gifted with a new understanding of the architecture of the universe, each of us has an opportunity to revisit that wonder. After you finish reading this, take a look around you. Ponder how the solid-seeming ground beneath your feet is quietly shaking with the force of billions of years of cosmic collisions. Go outside, if you can, and watch the wind blow through the trees … The endless comings and goings of galaxies, stars, and planets create a melding of songs that you are part of too. The NANOGrav discovery exposes the intricacy and gracefulness of that melding. It’s a reminder that the world always has been, and always will be, worthy of wonder.” ⁠

📷️: Bill Ingalls / NASA / Getty

And then there’s this. Enjoy.

The James Webb Space Telescope recorded new images of the Cartwheel galaxy. This one is a composite made with two tools, the Near-Infrared Camera and the Mid-Infrared Instrument.Credit…NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

Spreading the Wealth

An October view – A tree in a local park

When I was trying to figure out how to help my kids grow up in a complicated, often frustrating, and sometimes overwhelming world, I landed on a couple of rules that were comparatively easy to grasp. I suppose that sounds a little simplistic but after practicing them for most of my life, I think they’re pretty reliable. The first one is “the five year rule.” When in the midst of what felt like the worse possible crisis, one with no apparent way out, the abrupt question “what were you doing five years ago today?” was an instant conversation-stopper. Invariably the person asked that question would say, “do you mean about five years ago or exactly five years ago?” The answer to that inquiry never really mattered. No one could remember five years ago in any way but a blurry one. The next step was to share the friendly insight that five years from now, the trauma of this moment would one day be as hard to recall as the one from back then. For most of life’s challenges, this strategy of casting perspective over challenging moments worked like the proverbial charm. Major catastrophes aside, it’s a foolproof way of reducing a lot of painful, yet nebulous drama.

One of the trees on my block.

The next strategy that I repeated ad nauseum concerned the development of coping skills. I’d figured out that most of life is spent coping with all kinds of situations, ranging from the smallest unexpected events to the biggest, interspersed with both mundane and joyous moments when things go smoothly. At least that’s how it seemed to be for me and most of the people I knew. I’d found that developing some reliable methods of problem-solving was not only practical but also calming in stressful times. Coping skills could be anything from exercising to burn off steam, to listening to relaxing music, to cooking up a storm in the kitchen. Whenever I personally felt bogged down, I found that cleaning everything in sight invariably helped me think my way out of my quandaries. My line was – and still is – “the people with the best lives are people with the best coping skills.” I believe that and I think my family does too.

Sensational color in my rear view mirror during an afternoon visit to a local park.

The final rule is what I’d call a bite-sized one. The great big world’s issues juxtaposed on the complexity of our little lives can often feel too tough to manage. I always hated that feeling of sinking below the weight of that big unmanageable load. I knew that for those of us lucky enough to be free of clinical depression, there always had to be some way to get through the tough times. I came up with a goal and an accompanying slogan. “Find a little beauty every single day, no matter how small it seems.” Whatever groove that line occupies in my brain must be very deep because I’m always on that quest no matter how dreadful I feel. Through every difficult time in my life, disappointment, loneliness, isolation and even death, a part of me is looking around for that little slice of beauty. I’ve surprised myself, recognizing that my daily hunt keeps me connected to life like nothing else. This last rule is the one that has spurred me to share the fabulous delights of October in the heartland, my home in the midwest.

Beautiful carpets of leaves in my neighborhood.

This past summer was one of the hottest and driest in Illinois as well as the rest of the world. On the heels of the previous few summers which followed a similar weather pattern, I worried about how I would keep my garden alive, most especially for the birds, butterflies and bees that depend on the food supply I’ve established for them over the years. I watered almost every day, receiving the highest water bills I’ve ever had in the decades I’ve lived in my home. Even with that effort, this year many perennial plants didn’t show up in my yard while others looked exhausted all summer. As fall temperatures rolled around in mid-October, I turned my worrying to the trees in my community which had also suffered from the drought. Many looked drab compared to previous years, with some dropping their leaves all at once while others had multiple dead limbs or had died altogether. I wondered if the typical brilliant colors of fall would be notably absent this year, a foreshadowing of the toll climate change is wreaking on this planet. Long ago I’d learned that the beauty of the fall palette is dependent on a combination of temperature, rain and sunlight, although I couldn’t say much about the quantities of those individual elements. All I know is that after a slow dull start, a few good rainstorms and moderate weather has seemed to miraculously restore so much of what looked like a loss earlier this year. The profusion of hues has been dazzling, from the yellowest of yellows, to the oranges and rusts and finally, to the deep mahoganies and flaming reds which are my favorites.

Photos of my town’s library, brilliant with fall colors.

I’ve been positively gluttonous about this unexpectedly lengthy abundance of beauty. I’m taking pictures from every possible angle, outside my house and through my windows. I drive up and down the streets, pulling over so I can hang my head upside down under a particularly glorious branch. My daily tenacity has kind of surprised me although I realize I’m just trying to soak in as much of this fleeting display as I can before the gray months arrive. How many leaf photos do I actually need? That number has yet to be determined. However, this hedonistic luxuriating is a bit too self-indulgent considering my principle of finding just a little beauty in every day. So I’m sharing the wealth with whoever might chance upon this post. I hope you enjoy the splendor as much as I do.

This photo was taken through my car window today as I was halted at a stoplight.
A section of my front yard.
Through the car window.
Around the corner from my house.
The view from my driveway.
About a mile out of town.
In the park.
So much color.
My neighbor’s tree through the bathroom window.
Beautiful branches.
A fall leaf.

Before I Forget

Oh those credit cards.

I was sitting in my car yesterday morning, getting ready to run a few errands when I had one of life’s dreaded experiences. The one when you reach into your wallet for your debit card only to find that it had magically vanished from its usual spot, tucked safely inside one of those nifty credit card sized carrying cases. In fact, not only was the debit card gone, but so was the credit card that’s usually sitting right behind it. I immediately felt panic. Years ago, my husband and I had our identities stolen, kicking off a long struggle to recoup money stolen from our bank accounts, and to close down multiple fraudulent credit accounts established in our names. The idea of doing that again was harrowing. I quickly dumped everything out of my purse. Twice. I ran back into my house, tossing couch and chair cushions around while digging into their creases, hoping to find the errant cards which had somehow slipped out of place. In the meantime, my brain was in overdrive, trying to remember the last time I’d used either card. I was already losing time in my day, aware that with every passing moment someone could be creating havoc in my financial life. I finally decided to cancel both cards, opting for immediate peace of mind. But wouldn’t you know it? I remembered the last time I’d used my debit card and found it shoved halfway into a small space in the front car seat cushion. Then I remembered that I’d taken extra stuff out of my little wallet when I’d been traveling in August. I found the missing credit card in that stash. All of five minutes had passed, too late to reverse the cancellations. Sigh. Much ado about nothing.

But of course it’s really much ado about something. I lived for the bulk of my adult life with an amazingly forgetful man. When I hear Michael’s voice echoing in my mind, a good deal of the time it’s asking questions like these: “have you seen my wallet, have you seen my checkbook, have you seen my glasses, have you seen my grade book?” Sometimes just for fun, he’d call down the stairs and say, “have you seen my brain?” Haha. His absentmindedness drove me crazy. Once when we were quite young, he decided he wanted to take responsibility for paying our household bills. That ended after the first month when he forgot to pay the water bill which he only remembered when the water was turned off. We used to joke about this stuff. He’d tell me that if I developed dementia, I’d just have the memory of a normal person. Meanwhile, when he was given his miserable cancer prognosis, he said that the upside was that he’d never get Alzheimer’s disease. What a cruel twist it was that ultimately his cancer metastasized to his brain, creating the rotten confusion he thought he’d escaped. But that is a different story. This story is about my memory, remarkable character that it is, and the dread I have about losing it. Was the debit/credit card fiasco a sign of what I’ll gently call “slippage?” Or was it just one of those insignificant moments that don’t mean anything serious?

My mom

My mom had a fabulous memory. She told her life story in technicolor and surround-sound. Sometimes when I think about her tales, they’re so vivid that they feel like mine. I know that I’m like her in that way. Her mental acuity remained sharp all the way into her eighties. I remember her bewilderment when she realized she was slipping. Will I live long enough to have that happen to me? I must say that reality is not high on my to-do list.

My older pool buddies

I’m thinking about the erosion process commonly called aging. Of course there’re the obvious physical aspects, gray hair, some of it in the most unexpected and peculiar places, and wrinkles, sagging skin and what my dermatologist kindly calls “wisdom spots,” which back in the day were more unpleasantly referred to as “liver spots.” Then there are the aches and pains, the slowing down, the gnarly joints and so on. Those are actually the easy parts, the ones that aren’t indicative of a dread disease. But for me, it’s the mind decay that’s way more daunting than that body changing. Recently I ran into a woman I swam next to for years. She’s a bit older than me. She had to stop swimming after she developed severe lymphedema in her leg after a cancer surgery. I saw her in a grocery store and we shared a pretty effusive greeting. We started catching up on each other’s families when suddenly she asked me to tell her my full name. Then she couldn’t remember the name of another friend from the pool. And finally she couldn’t remember the pool itself, or where it was, saying she thought it closed a few years ago. What an unsettling interaction. She seemed like herself until the conversation devolved into confusion. Her husband showed up and she then told me she couldn’t go anywhere on her own any more. I was really sad and somewhat scared too.

Colorful fallen leaves – a metaphor for lost memories.

I’ve been noticing lots of these changes, not as severe as my pool friend’s, but similar changes nonetheless, with a number of my peers. There’s the one with whom I’m exchanging texts who suddenly seems to forget what we’re talking about and goes off on some random tangent. Or the people who tell me the same story we talked about yesterday. And there’s nothing like those moments when I refer to a shared experience and see a blank look which indicates that my friend has no memory of ever having been in that moment with me. The horror of it all. At least for me. I’ve counted on my mental competency so much throughout my life. Who will I be if that part of me erodes?

The truth is, there’s not a thing I can do about what may be ahead for me, another one of my pet peeves. I really can’t stand thinking there’s nothing I can do to fix a problem. So I’ll continue to play all those Words with Friends games and all the various New York Times ones. Maybe I’ll keep making new brain pathways to compensate for the old ones getting worn out. My brother used to have the following slogan at the end of his emails : “Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most.” Yes. I can relate.

Writer’s Block and History Lessons

I have been wrangling with writer’s block. I think the events of the past couple of weeks have been so dark that stringing sensible words together has simply felt like too much. I’m going to try though, to see if I can find my way back to what’s been my most reliable tool for processing, even when I’m faced with what seems impossible to process. Not writing is bad for me. Here goes.

Tanks move in formation near the border with Gaza on Saturday near Sderot, Israel.
Amir Levy/Getty Images
Rockets fired by Palestinian militants from Gaza are intercepted by the Israeli Iron Dome defense missile system in the early hours of Sunday.
Eyad Baba/AFP via Getty Images

For what feels like the umpteenth time in my life, I’m witnessing another horrifying eruption of violence in the Middle East. In the midst of the endless hatred, innocents are dying. I know that many people in both Israel and Gaza want to live in peace. But that never seems to be enough. I will never understand how mowing down civilians can be seen by anyone as an avenue to achieving anything. In the end, the random gore just hardens the resolve of the perpetrators while adding new furious recruits to their ranks. I recently read a quote from Margaret Mead, a cultural anthropologist whose views invited criticism from all sides of the political and ideological spectrum. I’m not an authority on her scholarship. But I’m trying to hang on to this concept in these fraught times. In his book, “Hope Dies Last,” the great author Studs Terkel tells us, “Hope has never trickled down. It has always sprung up.” He then relays a collection of oral histories by Americans from all walks of life and their never-ending hope in the spirit of activism, commitment and the determination to resist.” I’m sure that’s true for people everywhere. I hope so…

Moving to the domestic front, there’s the astonishing dysfunction going on in what at this point, I sarcastically refer to as the U.S. government. A handful of fringe representatives have managed to halt the functioning, pathetic though it may have been, of the House of Representatives and at least a chunk of the Senate. First we have the fired House Speaker who needed 15 rounds of voting to be elected by his own majority party. Then, after a contest between two representatives, neither of whom acknowledge the legitimacy of the 2020 election, despite all evidence to the contrary, we have the ultimate winner of that poll. Jim Jordan, is an Ohio representative, who in sixteen years in the House, has been consistently rated as one of the most ineffective legislators in that body.

Jim Jordan – Photo by Jim Bourg/Reuters

His primary goal seems to be pushing every bill as far to the right as possible. Who votes for this person? Moving to the Senate, we have Tommy Tuberville, who took office in 2021, the football coach senator who is holding up all military appointments because he opposes the Pentagon’s abortion policy. I thought his party was the “support the military” flagbearer. And just who votes for this guy? I have no idea, as the government barrels toward another shutdown deadline, how there is hope for any resolution to this chaos. These supposed lawmakers hold the wellbeing of millions hostage to their brinkmanship. But what do I really know, living here on planet Earth, instead of in an alternate universe? Their fierce loyalty to their party leader is another inexplicable conundrum to me. How is it possible, that after being charged in four separate criminal cases in just over four months, facing over ninety separate charges, that someone’s presidential poll numbers increase? One of those “what’s wrong with this picture” moments? I can’t fathom what I’m missing. I remember the quote, “one person can make a difference.” I didn’t think that statement applied to a destructive goal rather than a beneficial one. Of course, in this case, I suppose there is always a major personal benefit to Individual 1, whose name I can’t bear to write. What a moment in history.

In an effort to distract myself from the miserable news, I chose to watch The American Buffalo, airing on PBS in the U.S. I suppose I could have selected lighter fare and I admit, I watched all four episodes of “Beckham” on Netflix in a binge moment. But the fact is, I prefer to read and watch historically-based books and films, largely to find context and perspective which help me find equilibrium in difficult times. Certainly the wanton destruction of the buffalo, inextricably bound with the genocide of native tribes in this country, is a reminder that history is filled with examples of inhumanity and myopic greed. The bison population, estimated to be 30-50 million at the beginning of the 19th century were reduced to 100 wild individuals at the beginning of the 20th century. Their fate and ultimate survival is a reminder of how the tides of history can push whoever is in the way of the powerful and the often heedless, to the brink of extinction. Now in the 21st century, parallel comparisons can be drawn between the past and the current issues of our time. The series is excellent and insightful, despite not being the lightest entertainment fare. One of the significant figures featured in this program is Quanah Parker, a Comanche chief, who lived during the tumultuous decades of buffalo annihilation and the genocide of native peoples. I recommend the following book which relates his remarkable story.

Two years ago, I was lucky enough to get myself to Yellowstone National Park. Home to more than 60 mammal species, the bison is the largest grazing animal to wander that land. Of course, its numbers are a mere sliver of what they once were, but seeing their majesty and recognizing the miracle of their survival is a profound experience. I was there during rutting season when mating is the sole focus of the males who can forgo eating to procreate. They’ll never be what they once were. Nonetheless, their presence and tenacity is a sign of hope in dark times.

A photo from my Yellowstone trip
At Yellowstone

I just finished reading another book which focuses on the Osage tribe, a people who became fabulously wealthy during the early 1900’s when oil was discovered under their reservation in Oklahoma. The book, fairly well-known now, is Killers of the Flower Moon.

The unexpected but welcomed tribal wealth spurred a killing spree by greedy opportunists who wanted control over the seemingly limitless profits available. The story is another example of myopic greed, lack of vision and inhumanity, which in this current time of profound climate change, is still so relatable. Those who continue to press for fossil fuels and drilling in pristine natural reserves, turn a blind eye to anything but instant gratification and the acquisition of profits. The recently released film based on the book and directed by Martin Scorsese, will hopefully illuminate the consciousness of people who might otherwise not learn about that instructive moment in time, so comparable to the present. Is there really “nothing new under the sun?” Seems not.

Today, where I live, it’s a beautiful fall day. I’ve worried about whether any brilliant fall colors would show up as they have in the past, primarily because we had such a dry, hot summer. After a few rain events, we’re finally getting a more normal autumn, despite the obvious stress on many trees throughout the area. These thoughts are a luxury. No bombs are dropping where I live and no one is coming to kidnap or kill me.

The war is still happening in Israel, in Gaza and in Ukraine, too. Other less publicized conflicts are raging throughout the world. The House of Representatives is still missing in action. Do I still have writer’s block? Probably. Did I manage to make sense of anything by thinking about history? Maybe.

So these are my golden years. As I often say, what’s next?

Legacy – A Shout Into The Void

Michael in his classroom.

When you’ve spent almost forty-six years talking to your most special friend about virtually everything, it’s not the least bit unusual to continue those conversations after that person’s corporeal being is dust, or ash as the case may be. Some people might think that’s weird. Fortunately I don’t care what people think, which makes life a lot easier. Anyway, during the course of my days, it’s not unusual for me to direct a comment or two in Michael’s direction. Sometimes they’re just to share some news about our kids or grandchildren. At others, when the world’s problems are too huge and complicated, I talk about those, especially when I feel helpless in the face of them all. Occasionally though, there are moments in which I truly, desperately wish he could hear what I want to tell him, the kinds of things he often wouldn’t have believed, despite all evidence to the contrary. Most of those moments revolve around the lifelong uncertainty he carried within himself. Michael grew up in an environment which made him feel inadequate. His parents were perennially disappointed in his life choices, practically ensuring that he would never be confident and sure of himself. I used to tell him that his strongest suit was self-deprecation. His insecurities were my mortal enemy. As his partner, I tasked myself with the job of trying to undo his psychological damage, to help him develop the self-esteem he so richly deserved.

Over the years, he was able to improve, to see himself as he really was, rather than through his parents’ lens. Michael led a fully realized life as an adored husband and father, a small business owner, then a respected public official, and finally in his true vocation as an educator. That life was the instrument behind his healing process which eventually helped dissipate his early history of feeling like a failure. I can’t say his negativity wholly disappeared but it definitely got smaller. I always wished that he had more time to appreciate himself as much as he deserved. In the past two months, now over six years after his death, Recently, I’ve received two unexpected missives, one from a young teacher who started her career in Michael’s department at school, and the other from a former student. They would have gone far in building Michael’s faith in himself. The first was the teacher’s thank-you note. The one from the former student came via my son-in-law, who serendipitously, is now that student’s professor, fifteen years later. Both of these people had struggled, the teacher after being overwhelmed and drowning in her first job, and the student from having a difficult home life in which he felt abused and adrift. Michael was always sensitive to those who suffered from uncertainty. His ability to identify them and to nurture them was one of his great gifts. He would have been so gratified to receive these.

The Thank You letter.
August, 2023

“Dear Renee,

I hope this note finds you well! Perhaps in the garden or spending time with your grandchildren. I wanted to take a moment as school is starting to send you a thank you note. Yesterday I was asked to share a story with a new colleague about a time when I felt seen and valued, and I immediately thought of Michael. I still think often of how he really ‘saw’ me at one of the hardest moments of my life, and planted in me such incredibly important seeds of self-worth and self-confidence. I’m living back in my hometown, on my third year teaching middle school math (!), and this year in a pilot program, doing all kinds of things with kids that Michael would love. I know I’ll be asking, “what would Michael do?” often this year. I’m so grateful for the part he played in setting me down a path where I’ve settled into my 30’s feeling whole as a person, and confident as an educator. Sending you lots of love.”

Michael with a student on his last day of teaching, November, 2013 – Photo – Rockford Register Star.

The following is the email my son-in-law received:

“I found out this morning that I had your father-in-law as a teacher in high school. I hope it’s ok that I share a few of the memories I have of him.

“I transferred from a small private school to the larger public high school during my sophomore year (2008). I remember meeting Mr. P. that first week – he scared me to death. He would randomly call on people to read out loud the various magazine or newspaper articles he would bring in. And he wouldn’t have people read just a line or two, I’m talking PARAGRAPHS! The first time he called on me I was so nervous. I started reading and when I came to the word “bass” I pronounced it as in the fish – the context of the story was as in the instrument. The whole class laughed, but Mr. P. made me keep going. After the class,he pulled me aside and told me mistakes happen to everyone and to not let it get me down. This was the beginning of a relationship that changed my life. I made sure to have him as a teacher for the rest of my high school years.

Mr. Pollock took us on interesting field trips. He would often have guest speakers come in to his classes regularly to teach us hard skills we would need to know as we became adults. He would have politicians come in, real estate agents, car salesmen, bankers, and more. He taught me how to write a check. Twice I got to witness his favorite guest speaker, his daughter, who helped him perform a political skit to ‘Who’s on First?’ He helped me become an election judge each year (getting paid to skip school was awesome!) and always encouraged us to attend city council meetings. He would have us debate opposing sides of controversial issues and always made every viewpoint welcome.

But it wasn’t these memories that made Mr. P. special to me. My father was an abusive alcoholic (to put it mildly) and my mother struggled with mental illness. At 14, I started working at a Taffie’s Diner full time to help support the family. Mr. P. would come in and visit me occasionally. I started falling behind on assignments and classwork. Many days I would miss school altogether. He would offer me extension after extension. During my junior year, he called my house almost every day it seemed. My parents got so sick of him calling they would see his number and not answer. They didn’t care whether I was in school or not. I would listen to the voicemails he would leave over and over. He was the first person who I could remember really cared about me, about my future. I never told him I would listen to those voicemails, but they meant so much to me. I never wanted to disappoint him. Without him, I wouldn’t have graduated from high school.

After high school I tried college, but I was working too many hours to make it work. A few years later, after Taffie’s had closed, I fell into some tough and dark times. Maybe it was just sheer luck, but I started a small business that was successful, which then opened doors to even more opportunities. I’ve been more successful than a kid like me was ever supposed to be. I paid cash for my house and even bought the duplex my dad lived in and raised his rent – it might not have been the healthiest way to get revenge, but it sure felt good cashing those checks until he finally moved out. But no matter how much money I made; I could never shake the feeling that I didn’t finish school. I’m sure part of that is because of your father-in-law. So now at 32, I’m the grandpa on campus finishing up a psychology degree.

I guess all of this could really be summarized like this. In my world growing up nobody cared about me. Your father-in-law did. And it made all the difference. And the most beautiful part was there was nothing special about me. Mr. P. cared for all of his students like this. He truly made a profound impact on my life and on the lives of so many others!”

Michael and me in conversation.

I wonder what Michael would have felt, knowing that he managed to turn his own insecurities into tools which would truly benefit others, leaving a long-lasting impact on their lives. I so wish that he could have known more of his legacy. I’m grateful for these people he touched years ago, who took the time to acknowledge how he helped them. We all need whatever support we can get in this world. I share these letters to remind myself and anyone else, that if there are individuals who made a difference in your life, let them know. Meanwhile, I’ve flung their words to Michael, somewhere out there in the universe. Perhaps they’re nothing but shouts into the void. Or maybe not.