When We Were Legendary

I’m coming upon the five year anniversary of writing this blog. I’ve been revisiting posts from the past. When I wrote this one, I hadn’t been able to tell parts of my story with Michael. Since then, I did wind up writing the entire story of Michael’s cancer experience on this site. They are under the headings – “Be 278,” the book title I’d intended from the beginning. I don’t know how many letters I’ve written Michael since I published this in January, 2019, slightly less than a year and a half after his death. Probably about 500. I don’t write him as often as I once did, but when things feel too big or important, I still feel best after sending a missive his way. In my head I talk to him all the time. A lifetime habit.

2c7b4cf8-a778-45e7-aff4-d5953e90fe35Dear Michael,

The polar vortex is upon us now, howling outside our bedroom window, wind chill -30 degrees. I’ve left the thermostat at daytime level and water is dribbling from the faucets. My brain is whirling right along with the vortex. Today I spent some time looking at physics videos which explained wavelengths. I still feel your wavelength, right next to mine. I’m trying to figure out where your energy went, or rather where it is now. Is this the stuff of future science which will finally be able to measure all the sensations people have that fall into the category of inexplicable?a2328b1a-d619-4f53-87ba-699c054f27b3

Sometimes I feel like you’re Princess Leia popping out of R2D2, when her hologram said,  “help me Obi Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.” I think you’re out there like that, sometimes closer than others, making your presence known. Our kids feel you too. And  you’re in our house always, palpable although invisible, at least to the naked eye. Who’d have thought that a sensible person like me would think these thoughts?09c8a632-12bd-48fe-86b1-42035ba70f1c

Last night I read my journal from hideous 2015 when our world was crashing in on us. I have no idea how I survived that year, the relentless fear, the awful events piling on, one after the other. You were rejected from the major clinical trial for Merkel cell carcinoma in January. In February you had an enormous tumor sliced off your head, almost to your skull. Each day you got so much more ill and you were in dreadful pain. The doctors were wrong about too much and I knew it. They had such narrow views which they clung to because they didn’t know how to manage your orphan cancer. You were the first patient to ever be treated for it locally and all the far away doctors thought you should be in the clinical trial. You were terrorized, difficult to deal with and our differences were so magnified, I thought I would go mad. You, quiet and withdrawn and me, talking relentlessly and aggressive, trying to peel you out and away from death.f37354c0-0d5c-4030-802a-a17aad9081f6

And then my brother died in April. My mother’s dementia worsened. She was asking me where my father was, and her siblings, and when I told her they were gone, she cried and said she’d missed everything. a5c43574-bcf5-49c3-928a-322dfcc68e39 My relationship with my older sister ended back then, as did my friendship with our dear friends and neighbors. The cancers of you two husbands took us wives into opposite ends of the universe and we broke apart. You declined day by day until our local oncologist pulled a desperation move and acquired one of the immunological drugs off-trial as a last-ditch effort to save you. That was mid-June. The treatment was miraculous but exhausting as we crawled and clawed our way through each treatment.f5ebd063-0f2d-4b1b-b4fb-bb1749ea58e9

In July, my mother fell, broke her hip and was hospitalized for eight days. I flew up and back from you to her, from her to you, until she died on the 25th of that month.ab3d71bb-605b-410b-8a86-e07282007555

Then our beautiful Flash, the dog of my life died, only five days later. Three deaths between April and July. I was sure you were next. Rapid funerals and then back to trying to help you survive. Our kids were struggling, we were all struggling. I was exhausted after reading through the events again. And I thought last night, can I ever really write the book about your cancer? I’ve been trying for over a year. Maybe it’s not the right time.336cb7fc-9a8c-40a2-bdda-4616e7dee1e5 Maybe all these letters I’ve written to you since you died are really that book. I can’t say right now. When I write to you, I feel just like I did when I talked with you, often multiple times a day during our forty-six years of friendship, and certainly every night before we slept. Writing you feels easy and natural while writing the other book makes my words freeze in my head. When the second anniversary of your death comes at the end of May, my letter total to you will be about three hundred. I’ve laughingly titled this book P.S. I Forgot to Tell You Something. Maybe it’s really the cancer book, the one I titled : Be 278. That title came right after we got your diagnosis and saw on the Merkel Cell Cancer website that only 277 people were alive five years after detection if their disease was metastatic. That was you, my boy. You made it. We got our five years.133eb2a6-bc8c-4b12-a663-ebf2c6d4cd20

My head spins, trying to decide what I should be writing about. All your treatments? The moments where, had things gone another way, you might still be alive? The truth about clinical trials? All of those things feel too big.8a8a662d-bb8f-46a3-b97a-edeb5939e421

Instead, let me tell you about my day. I went to Lifelong Learners school for people over fifty – I’m taking one class about molecular biology, one about honey bees and alcohol, and the last about women and jazz in movies, later this month. The first two were both enjoyable. But I was thinking of how little diversity exists among the students and I feel like an imposter sitting with such a homogeneous group. I saw many retired doctors and professors. Do I belong among them? Seemingly. But the societal reflection of cultural stratification drives me mad. I know it’s complicated. I want it to be different. Nothing is ever simple for me. Not even taking a class for my own personal edification.

I long for simplicity but I guess it’s not how I roll. And I’m still thinking about reading that dreadful journal. Mostly, though, right now I want to sit back and stop remembering what it was like to feel and see your tumors in 2015. I remember everything, the growths on your head and the back of your neck and your clavicle. The one I felt in your left groin.

Watching the disease run through you was so terrifying. Why did your cancer have to be so visible? I haven’t looked at the photographs of its seemingly inexorable march for awhile. Back then, I know I felt my intellect was transcending my emotions because things would have been unmanageable for me if I didn’t do that. But right now, the emotional side is driving my bus. I want to be back in the before. When we were legendary.2e3bbe47-8736-4afc-8e07-5bd7a1b81bf8

When we took the 1970’s motorcycle trip to Ralph’s farm with our friends and we got the room with the single bed. And we didn’t come out for days except to use the bathroom and to get an occasional bit of sustenance because we were discovering ourselves as lovers after our months of friendship. We wound up being perfect for each other and we burned with passion and couldn’t get enough of us. Everyone else on the trip, including our hosts, made our hedonistic behavior part of the lore of that farm. The couple who were like ghosts, covered in sweat, physically entwined and so zoned into each other that we never experienced anything but ourselves for those days. Yes, when we were legendary.

That’s where I’d like to stay in my mind. Boomerang your wavelengths back into that space and be with me. I don’t need much more than that to fuel me and send me forward. I still feel us, glued together in that incredible time of discovery and unity. The mental, emotional and intellectual cataclysm that powered our friendship, the one that I still can’t figure out, was already in place. Then we made the icing on our cake. Endless cake. I still taste it and marvel. What happened? Now I am all about the absurd romance and “you’re the one for me” notions that I’ve always dismissed intellectually when I’m especially sage and thoughtful. I’ve never really believed that stuff. But evidently it really happens, because here I am in love with my dead guy, still wearing my wedding rings, talking to you every day in the ether.When we were legendary. We are still legendary.

I am crawling under the covers, listening to the wind trashing things around me, metal hitting wood, not knowing what morning light will bring. Frost covers the bedroom windows. But I am hunkering down in our place, warmed by the heat we generated for decades, still burning inside me. Legendary.ab40a756-a4bf-40e0-8ca2-27bd1bb30a2b

 

A Self-Administered Gut Punch

Fern’s journals

A part of me envies the people who are really good at avoiding what they know or what they believe will make them feel lousy. Apparently I wasn’t paying attention when that nifty avoidance trick was being taught. I have an unerring ability to walk straight into what is most assuredly going to stir up one kind of emotional agony or another, even when I’ve been able to put away the greater part of such despair, sometimes decades ago. And so it is with Fern’s recovered journals. I have finally gone through the 36 journals that I received the day after Thanksgiving. I approached these notebooks with a combination of eagerness, nostalgia and trepidation. During our youth, we read each other excerpts from what we wrote every night. Even when that stopped, I had a pretty good idea of what her entries were like as our relationship evolved steadily, with only one short break, got over thirty years.

A new photo for me, unearthed from one of the journals

Way back in October, 1988, I gave up on ever acquiring them, just days after learning of her death. I remember everything about the week of October 2nd, 1988. That Sunday night, I talked on the phone with Fern for a very long time. She was in terrible shape. She’d recently spent a month as a resident of an in-house therapy unit in a Utah hospital. Her depression and suicidal urges had reached new, dangerous levels. In my memory, her self-destructive thoughts had emerged in her teens. In their infancy, those thoughts alienated and frightened her. During our young lives together, between the average concerns of growing up, our relationship took on a different tone because of her scary impulses. I became a composite figure to her, a friend, a sibling, a mother and a counselor, the roles rotating as the mutable situations dictated. I loved her and I was willing to do what I could to help. So on that October night, a conversation about dying was nothing new. But this hospitalization was indeed new and different for Fern. I felt it was her last desperate attempt to go back to her pre-verbal time, to attach identities to the blank faces who’d caused her pain, to understand how she’d gotten to where she was, despite her valiant efforts to have a life. She’d signed on for hypnotherapy, sometimes an adjunct to traditional therapy. I remember reading about the potentially controversial aspects of this treatment, primarily concerns that sometimes, a therapist might “plant” false memories in a patient’s consciousness. A few cases like that made national news. At the time, I was only interested in what was specifically happening to Fern. In an utter failure of this country’s health care system, she was released from the hospital when her insurance coverage, which included a limited 30-day inpatient maximum clause, came to an end. Her hypnotic sessions had stripped away many of her defenses and had left her exhausted and uncertain. Her current mental condition, however, wasn’t the bottom line in her release.

A happier face

On the phone that night, she told me that she felt that she’d gotten to the root of her emotional damage. She thought it was too much to bear. We were two weeks away from our 20th high school reunion. After all her painful years, I tried telling her that she survive two more weeks. That we’d meet in Chicago, experience the reunion, and that as she’d done periodically in the past, she’d come home with Michael and me. She’d be safe and well-cared for; we’d find her more help to see her through this latest confrontation with the past. All she had to do was hang on a bit longer. After an hour or so, she said that the worst part about contemplating suicide was imagining how painful it would be for the loved ones left behind. We said “I love you,” and hung up. The next night, Monday, I woke in the middle of the night. I’d dreamed that I was dying and was sobbing uncontrollably next to Michael, who was doing his best to convince me that I was still alive. I was so terrified. Two nights later, on Wednesday evening, I went out for a night off from mom duty.

I went to see the film, “Gorillas in the Mist,” a grueling watch about the murder of Dian Fossey, the primatologist and conservationist. I came home feeling wrung out. I was describing the film to Michael when the phone rang. A woman whose voice I didn’t recognize, asked me if I was a friend of Fern’s. When I confirmed my identity, she apologetically told me that Fern had killed herself Monday night. I collapsed in hysteria, throwing the phone to Michael who had the presence of mind to get contact details from this person named Mary, before attending to me. I was utterly crushed, having quickly realized that Fern’s Sunday night call was actually a goodbye and that my Monday night dream was some cosmic, incomprehensible moment of me experiencing Fern’s death. It was all too much. I was overcome with grief, but in the next few days, I talked to these unknown Utah people, to learn what they could tell me about what had happened. After Fern was found in her car in a Utah canyon, her parents and brother were contacted, had flown west immediately for a fast cremation, and an equally quick trip back to Chicago. Her friends out there were surprised that I wasn’t around, but Fern’s mother told them that they were trying to spare me, worried about my potential response. I was furious. I was robbed of any possible closure by her family, with whom Fern’s relationship was always a tangled mess. I talked to these women for hours, and got to the journals topic immediately. I wanted desperately to keep all those private thoughts of hers away from her family’s scrutiny, as well as anyone else’s. I think I spent three straight days begging for someone to box them up and ship them to me, offering money and my whole aching soul. Ultimately I knew I was making a futile effort. Fern had made no actual provisions about her belongings. Michael and I spent a long time talking about how to adjust to what was the reality in front of my face – that the journals were lost to me, no matter how wrong that felt. I had to hold all that was between Fern and me in my mind, absent the concrete notebooks. Stuff was stuff, we said. I had to let that physical part go. And I did until they emerged from the universe.

I’ve spent the better part of the last six days submerged in these volumes. In a previous blog, I noted that no matter how close, how intimate you can be with another person, there are deep parts of ourselves that defy sharing. After this time spent running my hands over all these pages, seeing the familiar handwriting, finally again and again, I’m aware that what I thought I understood about Fern’s profound mental pain was the proverbial tip of the iceberg. What is more remarkable is how she managed her illness. In her far too short life, she was still able to access her talents and put them forth into the world. She was a published author. She was multi-lingual. She spent part of her professional life as a valued court reporter because her flying fingers were not only swift but accurate. She played piano, loved bowling, nature, gardening and cooking. While her demons’ ambushes grew more powerful and frequent as she grew older, she somehow remained functional, which is miraculous. I was moved in many different ways as I made my way through her history. I laughed more than I thought I could at her dark humor, cringed at some of her blunt self-assessments and was profoundly touched to see that my efforts to help her were on her mind as her energy for survival waned. I picked out a few lines from different moments that truly touched me.

May, 1966 – Age 15

“Renee is smart, potentially, but doesn’t study. She’s sarcastic, funny, bad-tempered, a liar and is undependable. We have a lot of fun with each other.”

May, 1967 – Age 16

“Renee, I love you, my rock and my salvation.”

Age 18
Age 18
Age 19
Age 37

But I bring an additional 34 years to this incredible unearthing of the past, almost as many years as the 37 I spent in my entire relationship with Fern. There are many years missing from what I received in these boxes. Our graduation years, 1964 and 1968 were not included. Almost all of the 1970’s are absent, years which included college graduation, grad school, my marriage and hers, albeit a brief one. Were they lost along the way, during this long journey to me? I know that her writing continued uninterrupted. The mystery about those lost years will remain in my mind, despite my ability, at least for now to remember parts of them all. In addition, my familiarity with medical issues, developed out of necessity, emerged and overtook my emotional response as I learned that Fern was being treated with a variety of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medications and sleeping pills for a number of years before she died. I’m left wondering how the potential combinations of these drugs might have contributed to her suicidal thoughts, and how that chemical tampering might have impaired her judgment. One particular agent from the Benzodiazepine family was particularly dangerous and was banned in the UK in 1992. But in this country, the FDA reviewed the medication and continued its approval. I’m not doing myself or anyone else much good by dwelling on this matter, but it’s hard to ignore. Three decades ago, there might not have been enough studies to determine which patient was a candidate for these powerful substances. Even today, we all know the dreadful outcomes of prescribed medications. I’ll need to let go of what I can’t do anything about, but that might take more time.

A long time ago, I gathered all the class photos of me and Fern from elementary school through high school and laid them out in chronological order on my study floor. I noted how with each successive year, Fern’s eyes seemed to get sadder and slightly more paranoid. In my head, I hear my mom’s voice repeating that line about how the eyes are the windows to the soul. I suppose that’s fair. These journals then, are the doors, swung wide open. I think it’s my job to close them now. At first I thought they might join her collected works of fiction, a couple of novels, poetry and her masters’ and PhD theses which are located at the universities where she received her degrees. But after viewing them I’m now certain that just as I wanted to guard her privacy in 1988, I still feel the same way. If I thought that Fern’s struggles out in the daylight might somehow make life better for someone else, I wouldn’t hesitate to put them out there. But I don’t. No one who hurt her can be brought to justice – they are all dead. Fern’s torment is over. For a long time, I tried to be her helper. What’s left for me to do is stand watch over her memory. I can do that.

The Perfect Day

Today I finally opened the two boxes I received last Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. I was waiting with intention, knowing that the boxes contained all the journals of my friend Fern, journals I tried desperately to acquire after her suicide in October, 1988. I knew I needed to be alone when I finally had those journals in my hands. That they are with me now is an incredible gift. I am now their resting place. For years during our youth, we shared journal entries with each other. Despite that intimacy, I’d learned through my life experiences, that as intimate as any human being can become with another, there are deep parts of ourselves which defy our best efforts to share. We enter this world on our own. Despite the deepest love and understanding, we also leave on our own. I’ve lived those moments several times over. When I opened the first box, I found a notebook from 1966 in my hands. It fell open to a sweetly written page Fern wrote about me when we were eleven years old. But although I’m generally pretty good at not reading the end of the story before the beginning, the next journal in my hand was the last one in which she wrote, the journal that was in her hands as she died. I’d often wondered about that, whether there’d been a suicide note left behind. This journal is that note, fully describing her last thoughts, her last moments alive. I was informed of her death a few days after it happened. She was far away from me, near people I didn’t know. I pieced together the facts of her end by talking with strangers. But I keenly felt how horribly wrong everything had gone for her. Tonight I’m surrounded by her writing, in longhand cursive. Her pain was even worse than I’d suspected. I found myself thinking about this blog I wrote to describe how we’d managed to understand what would be a perfect day, so many years ago. Now more than ever, I understand what a remarkably brave person she was, struggling with inner demons her whole short life. Publishing this is part of my bearing witness to her remarkable courage and spirit.

A3AA4661-BB24-4D1B-B0A4-5A9327E2CB52This is a photo of me and my friend Fern on my 16th birthday over 50 years ago. We met when we were 7, in second grade in Chicago. We were an unlikely pair. She was shy and awkward, I was outgoing and aggressive. We became best friends. Through elementary school, high school, as unsuccessful college roommates and beyond, we shared a deep, intimate relationship. We wrote 3 snotty novels together as teenagers, we saw the Beatles together and imagined being old ladies, rocking in our chairs, harmonizing to all their songs. We had the same crushes and didn’t mind sharing. We talked on the phone for hours, eventually graduating from gossip to big ideas and deep thoughts and feelings. After many years, we knew Fern had serious emotional issues. She struggled through them while becoming a court reporter, a pianist, a bowler and eventually, a PhD candidate in creative writing. I tried really hard to help her but I was no match for the depth of her pain. She killed herself in 1988, two weeks before our 20th high school reunion. I’ve never really gotten over it. I miss her all the time. A wrong and unnecessary death. But aside from the countless memories, I am left with one permanent gift from our life together, the perfect day.

One hot summer day in 1966, we were just a couple of kids with nothing to do but amuse ourselves. Our friend, Mary, who lived in a big building right on Lake Michigan invited us over to hang out. We walked there, sweaty, but not caring as we watched the sidewalks shimmer in the heat. When we got to Mary’s, other friends were gathered, girls and boys, sitting on the large concrete patio that overlooked the water. The air felt cooler there. My main crush was on site which made the day glow for me, and Fern’s was there as well. We were utterly innocent. A glancing accidental touch of a hand was a dream you could live on for weeks.

There was a neighborhood bakery called Burny Brothers. I remember the pink boxes so rarely seen in my house and to my delight, Mary’s mother had bought their cinnamon rolls which I’m sure were the most delicious ones I’ve ever tasted. We snarfed them down as we kidded and flirted and the hours flitted by. Eventually it was time to go home. As Fern and I lived only a block apart, we left together. On the way home, we decided we were hungry and decided to stop for a burger.AD03E099-969B-4847-AE73-782750D457DE

This is where we stopped, The Red Hen. For a buck, you could get a burger, fries and a Coke. For me, it was always special to eat out, even at fast food restaurant. Mustard on burgers? Unthinkable at my house.

We strolled outside and sat down on a hot bench to eat and talk over every minute detail of the day. As we ate and chatted, we watched an auto mechanic come out of his shop and get ready to slide underneath a car. He had a portable radio with him which he flipped on before he disappeared on his little rolling cart. And suddenly, Paul McCartney’s unmistakable voice wafted out as we heard Eleanor Rigby for the first time. What a great moment. As we sat there in bliss, full stomachs, dreamy dreams and the perfect musical accompaniment to what had been a perfect day, we had a simultaneous realization. We’d been talking about turning 16, which meant summer jobs and responsibilities. Before we knew it, we’d be thinking about college and adult life and all that is implied by those transitions. We were keenly aware that what was ahead would likely be harder, and that the landmark events like getting a driver’s license, college, work, maybe marriage and kids, would be frontloaded with expectations. And miraculously, we knew that those futures were full of land mines that could easily blow up in our faces. The day we’d just shared was a perfect day, a carefree day, when nothing bad happened, nothing hurt and every tiny sunny detail felt just right from start to finish. We promised each other that we wouldn’t ever forget it and that when all that adult load came down, we’d be able to go back and remember what was simple, carefree and ultimately the best time ever.

This year will mark the 34th anniversary of Fern’s death. Along with the weight of her totally wrong death, I now carry the memory of that perfect day by myself. It still works for me. I’ll always be grateful for it. B2F75A5E-1EF6-4D64-A3B4-9638CCD07264

Dispatches From Elsewhere

My brother and two of my nieces – 1981

Did you ever have an intense stretch of time during which there was so much input into your brain, that you felt like you’d perhaps left your known world for awhile? Periodically that happens to me. If I was a baby someone might say I’d been overstimulated. My body would probably devolve into the “startle reflex, “ that jumpy thing where it shakes, as if in a sudden chill. Maybe I’d wail for a bit. However, I’ve had lots of practice at navigating intermittent jolts to my reality. My most frequent response is to get caught up in a flood of vivid memories that are stirred by my efforts to stay present, while navigating the jarring data from many people who’ve entered my normally quiet space.

Me with my siblings in the 50’s. I’m on the left, seated next to my younger sister. My older two siblings are dead.

Today is my brother’s birthday. He died in April, 2015, so this is my eighth year of acknowledging his arrival since he’s been gone. Earlier this year my older sister died. Although I’ve adapted to the disappearances of many loved ones, the sibling deaths are particularly challenging. I started my life not only with my parents, but with these two housemates who were part of my daily life until they grew up and moved on. A special type of intimacy exists within that context that differs from that which is acquired by choice. When my brother joined the Air Force at age nineteen, I wasn’t even in my teens. After basic training, he came home from Biloxi, Mississippi for a visit, but ultimately he was shipped out to the Philippines where he served in an intelligence unit, eyes on the early years of Vietnam. When he wrote me letters, he always noted how many “wake-ups” were left before he came back home. I wrote him kid-like information. I remember telling him that when our parents went grocery shopping on Friday nights, buying a six-pack of fudgsicles for a family treat, I woke early on Saturday morning to eat his as well as mine. Innocent times.

Part of the Thanksgiving crew last week
Part of a group of 20 at post-Thanksgiving breakfast.

My brother’s birthday punctuates the end of a people-packed holiday gathering. After the couple of Covid-limited holiday seasons, family and friends, vaccinated and optimistic, were all willing to travel, wanting to resume traditions that were sidelined by an abundance of caution in 2020 and 2021. Actually, in our organization, a lot of caution was still being exercised as my three week old baby granddaughter, the most vulnerable in the family, didn’t attend any events. Instead, with a hat-tip to the triple virus threat rampaging through the pediatric population, she stayed home with her mom and/or dad, accepting visitors in small masked numbers for her protection. She was the exception, however. Having given up my hosting duties in 2017, my daughter and son-in-law now welcome a diverse group of family members along with friends of theirs and friends of my son’s. At this point, mostly everyone knows everyone else, at least to some degree. Except for one cousin of mine who’s several months older than me, I’ve become the elder in my family. Everyone ahead of me is gone. When I was a little kid, I wanted to know how a person got to be first in line on the highway. Every time our car was seemingly at the head of the group, another would appear in front of us. That’s not how things work with the aging-out process. Now I’m the matriarch and that will be true until I’m not around any more, in one way or another.

Me and my son
Me and my daughter

Our amorphous family group now includes my sister, my cousins and their kids, along with my kids and their children, plus their friends, some of whom have families and some who are single. My daughter and one of her best friends formed a Covid bubble with our nuclear family during the first years of the pandemic. Over the course of last Wednesday through Sunday, the number of people with whom I interacted, at least to some degree, ranged from 6 to 33 individuals. Although there is always laughter, singing and an inordinate amount of physical affection, a key element in our get-togethers, the more serious side of our diverse lives also emerge during our interactions. I’m always open to listening and conversing about what’s happening in people’s lives. And of course, there’s always something. Ironically, though, despite my firm belief in exploring substance rather than dealing with superficiality, I’ve always struggled with the undercurrents of multiple emotional dynamics I can sense when I feel them in large groups. I feel like the best description of me is extroverted introvert. I can manage putting myself out there in a group setting, getting to the deep parts of life, while a part of me longs for a retreat into silence. I definitely have a hermit side tugging away in the midst of all the action.

Fern’s journals

While all the eating, socializing and intimacy was unfolding, a part of me was off on interior journeys. I had my 32nd mammogram scheduled for last Friday afternoon. I have six women relatives, including my mother and my older sister, who had breast cancer. Since I turned forty, I’ve been getting checked, with a somewhat fatalistic view about when, rather than if my turn would come to contend with this disease. I still await the outcome of that scan. In addition, on that same Friday afternoon, I received the boxes containing my beloved friend Fern’s journals. In the most amazing circuitous way, they’ve finally made it into my hands. After her death in 1988, I made a futile attempt to obtain them from people who didn’t really know me. After my persuasion failed, I thought I’d never see what we’d so often shared during our years of writing together. Now they’re in my house, still unopened. I had a houseguest along with being immersed in “the crowd” for days on end. I’ve been waiting to recover from all the activity before tackling this momentous private dive into my history with Fern after all these decades.

Michael and me, Florida, 1979

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I also picked up newly digitized VHS transfers from the person who’s handling that process for me. These videos date back to the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, with their quality significantly more degraded than the ones from the ‘80’s forward that I got last month. Still, despite the blur, I’ve been slowly making my way through each frame, moments from memory frozen in time. I remember this particular visit to Michael’s parents’ Florida home in September, 1979. Between hurricanes David and Frederick, the Gulf of Mexico was wavy and wild. I was pummeled by a breaker as I made my way down the steps to the beach while wearing the swimsuit I had on in the photo above. The wave ripped the suit right off my body as I struggled to hold on, mortified as Michael and his dad laughed at my discomfiture from their immersed vantage point in the water. I can still feel the whole scene.

So, while squarely in the center of “the now” with all these people last week, a part of me went off to “elsewhere.” That space was the combination of pondering my future health and longevity, along with some dives into the past, stimulated by the journals in front of me and the recovered videos. But I also temporarily existed in another surprising dimension, elicited from my brain after taking my cousin’s son on a campus tour during their visit here. A high school junior, he’s exploring his options for college. He’s interested in science and was hoping for a tour from either my son, the biologist or my son-in-law, the chemistry professor, both of whom have keys to their buildings. During Thanksgiving break, though, the university is quiet, most public areas void of activity except for those of foreign students who stay at school instead of leaving to celebrate this national holiday.

Me in 1969 with a friend, outside the student union.

I never thought I’d become a resident of the community in which my college campus was located. But that’s precisely what happened in my life. In 1968 when I began my university career, I was a 17 year old city dweller. I had every reason to believe that after a 4 year stint in school, I’d at the very least, return to Chicago, if not a different city, to start my adult life. Instead, I made it home for two summers before settling in to this slower-paced town which has been my anchor for decades. The most formative experiences of my life happened right here, many of them on campus. Even after I was done with school, I still visited the campus area because Michael’s business was located in Campustown. My kids went to school a few blocks from the main quad and played their sports in a campus gym and on campus soccer fields. Music recitals and performances were also in university buildings. But over time, as our lives shifted, I rarely was in that world. I’d drive through, noting all the changes that have occurred over time, re-routed streets, high-rises and changing storefronts. Except for a brief stop at the Student Union with old friends a few years ago, I can’t remember the last time I walked around the quad, the center of my academic and social life, more than half a century ago. Although the larger university area is now sprawling and visually altered, the quad looks the same as it did when I was young. As I walked and talked with my family, a part of me was visualizing and feeling moments, big and small, that have stayed with me all these years. There wasn’t enough time to process all that was coursing through me during that quick tour. Today I went back to the campus to give myself an opportunity to think about those memories.

The south steps of the Union today
Me with Al, my first true love, south steps of the Union, fall, 1969.

I remember everything about the day I felt my first spark of interest in Al as he strummed his guitar on the steps of the Union. I’d met him the first week of my freshman year in 1968 at some student dance he attended with old friends of mine. I wasn’t interested until this moment a year later, little knowing that for almost three years, he and I would exist in a tumultuous and ultimately unhealthy relationship which took a long time to die out.

The chemistry building where Al, a pre-med major at the time, was attending organic and inorganic chemistry classes. We had some passionate dalliances in that building.

After we’d broken apart and reconciled more times than I can count, we bumped into each other on campus in August, 1972, shortly before his departure to California for graduate school. We sat and talked in the summer heat on this concrete bench before one final emotional parting at his apartment.

The site of the accidental meeting with Al in August, 1972 – the concrete bench outside the Administration building on the quad.

A few years after Al moved to California, he came back here to see me, more mature and convinced that we could start over. That was a hard time for me. I was already in a committed relationship with Michael. Still, I hadn’t stopped caring about Al, one of those loves that was about bad timing more than anything else, but too damaging for me to ever try again. We went for a walk on campus, winding up passing through this building where in an elevator, he did his best to persuade me to give him another chance. I kissed him goodbye and never saw him again.

The last kiss site

Meanwhile, back in 1975 on a cold March 1st night, Michael and I were huddled together in a crowd on the steps of the Auditorium, waiting for the doors to open. We were supposed to see the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, a group with an interesting song portfolio, who were scheduled to perform that night. I was holding my ticket in my freezing hand when a gust of wind blew it out of my grasp. We couldn’t find it. I told Michael to see the show without me. I walked a few blocks to see the great Koko Taylor play a blues set although I’m not sure if her show was at either Panama Red’s or Ruby Gulch. The campus had music clubs galore, the two I just mentioned along with Mabel’s and the Red Lion, where local groups sprouted, got famous. They performed alongside the big name stars like B.B. King, the Rolling Stones, Elvis and Bruce Springsteen, among countless others, who performed at the larger venues like the Assembly Hall and the Auditorium.

The Auditorium this morning as students poured out of class.
Ozark Mountain Daredevils

I walked past the English building where I took so many of my most favorite classes, including a seminar on James Joyce’s Ulysses, up in some attic where a mini-Dublin sat on the floor so we could follow Bloom’s movements through the city.

I had multiple history classes in beautiful Lincoln Hall which was alternately used for movie showings on weekend nights in its stadium-style lecture hall. One night back in 1971, in my psychedelic drug experimental stage, I watched part of “Viva Zapata” starring Marlon Brando in that theater. The action in the film felt so slow that I thought I could see bullets moving in slow-motion before entering bodies, so frightening that I jumped up, fled the building and ran a long time before anyone caught me. That memory is still vivid. As my title says, I am writing dispatches from elsewhere, dispatches that emerge unbidden from my memory, just because I’m strolling through this place.

Lincoln Hall
Lincoln Hall interior

During my campus excursion this morning, I stopped at a few more buildings to take photos and to spend time in the flood of visual images and powerful feelings evoked by these old buildings which just stood still while I accumulated my life history. I could write more, and even more from this “elsewhere” that I feel fortunate to recall. I can feel myself there, almost as vibrantly as I feel myself here right now. But after the tumult of the past week or so, I’m going to regroup to open those boxes I’ve been eyeing since last Friday. On to the next event.

Stretch Your Arms Out

Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday, lots of friends and family who’d missed gathering during the pandemic, showed up to celebrate with my nuclear family. Everyone has what I’d call “something going on,” multiple and diverse matters. Somehow or other over the years, I’ve apparently filled in a few gaps in the lives of my kids’ closest pals. When they visit now, we spend a lot of time talking about issues, big and small, personal and general. I realized that I was repeating some thoughts from a blog I wrote in 2020, when I had plenty of alone time to ponder life and its mysteries. I decided to re-publish it today. Still resonating with me.

Sometimes, just contemplating the vastness of the world as we know it is just too big. Add in the universe, and the little we truly know of it, and feeling overwhelmed is not only a justifiable emotion but an expected one. I know that some people never give the vastness of it all a moment’s thought. Lucky them. Then there are the rest of us to whom considering the magnitude of what’s going on out there can elicit responses ranging from mild concern to catatonia. I’d categorize myself in the frenzied thoughts crowd.

When Michael and I had been together for a few years in the early ‘70’s, he started calling me his little existential soulmate. I spent lots of time thinking about the meaning of life, the meaning of death, the meaning of everything, analyzing, turning things inside out and outside in, upside down. He was of a different bent, able to distance himself from the overarching big questions that I wrangled with regularly. He would always look at me and slowly intone his mantra, “ Mellow, mellow.” He was perfect for me, so relaxed that being near him was practically sedating. At least temporarily. I used to tell him that I wished he had a zipper in his chest that I could pull down so I could climb into his actual physical space, if only for a little while.

For the almost ten years we lived together before we had kids, my busy, questioning brain wasn’t much of a big deal. But then we had offspring number one, our daughter, who from an early age, was occupied not only by the meaning of life questions, but a skepticism that bordered on nihilism. Having a kid like that changed everything for me. I no longer felt like I could just indulge myself in this heavy thinking. I needed strategies. I wanted my girl to enjoy her life, to not worry all the time, to find joy instead of blasting through all the iconic moments of childhood when she was still so little. Like her asking me with a stern face, “ I want to know if there’s really a tooth fairy and you can’t lie.” “Santa Claus is a cartoon character – how can there be so many of them all over the place at the same time?” No illusions for this girl. And that was just the beginning.

My daughter was a most desired and welcomed baby. In addition to us, her doting parents, my sister and parents played a big role in her life from the minute she was born. Everyone was taken with this bright, engaged imp, but my dad was putty in her aggressive little hands. She was just months old when he was confronted by his mortality; a serious heart issue threatened his life after his having undergone five coronary bypasses only three years earlier. He was scared, angry and adamant that he wasn’t going to have another big surgery after the failure of the last one. I brought my little one to see him in the hospital. When we stepped around the curtain which divided him from his roommate, my daughter began shrieking with recognition and excitement. An astonishing performance from someone so tiny. My dad cried and immediately announced he’d changed his mind and was going ahead with treatment. We were all grateful.

Seven years later, dad had been diagnosed with metastatic bladder cancer and was slipping toward the end of his life. My parents had moved to our town a few years earlier so my kids were really intimate with them. Explaining his illness and treatment failure to my son who was under three was really difficult. That was not the case with my daughter who seemed to have a secure grasp on what was happening. She was unafraid and remained affectionate and loving to him, climbing carefully on his lap to avoid hurting him. I’ll never forget him embracing her and remembering from his deeply diminished state, the beautiful words from the Robert Munsch book, “love you forever, like you for always, as long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be,” as they snuggled together. On his birthday, barely two months before his death, we had what we knew would be his last birthday party. He stood alone for a moment, tears streaking his cheeks. My girl walked up to him and wrapped her arms around him and asked why he was crying. He told her he was terribly sad about dying and that he would miss everyone so much. She replied, “Well, you’re still alive and right here, right now, so let’s try to have the best time.” That was a stunning and unforgettable moment I never forgot.

Dad’s last birthday August 1st, 1989

So here we were with this bright, intuitive, direct little girl starting to question the meaning of life following the death of her beloved grandpa. And that’s the time you really begin to stretch yourself, both as a person and a parent. Not just to be helpful to your kid but to answer your own questions, to find substantive ways to make sense of a world that’s often dark and ugly. A place where despite doing your best, there’s so much challenge and disappointment. To make life meaningful.

The advantage to having your first child at thirty and then another at 36, is that I had plenty of time to muddle through my own big questions to formulate some ideas that worked for me and that hopefully, might make sense to them. As my kids grew, I was able to formulate these cogent little maxims that I could share with them, things I could repeat over and over ad nauseam that might help them through the tough times. I can just hear them right now, saying, “I know, I know, I’ve heard you tell me this a thousand times.” Actually that would be correct. But I’m still saying the same things to myself as life’s process is exactly that – a mutable, morphing thing that requires the application of a skill set that makes it work for, rather than against you. I may have referred to them in other blogs but they’re worth repeating. And there’s one that I haven’t written before.

First, I believe that if you choose to do something, do it because you want to, not because you expect anything in return. That payback stuff should come from inside yourself, not from the outside world. Next, there’s the five year rule which means that when you’re feeling your worst, try remembering what you were feeling exactly five years ago. It’s pretty much impossible. Just as this moment will be hard to remember five years from now. Perspective is everything. One of my most favorite core precepts is this one – the people with the best lives are the people with the best coping skills. Life is always presenting situations which require coping, essentially on a constant basis. No skills, tougher life.

Angel of Marye’s Heights

Chronologically, my last theorem may be the most important one. I was in my 40’s when it dawned on me. Our family was on a trip that took us to Fredericksburg, Virginia, site of a bloody battle in 1862 when the Union Army assaulted an impregnable position on an elevated position called Marye’s Heights. Wave after wave of infantry were sent up the hill where they were mowed down by Confederate soldiers dug in behind stone walls above the embankment. When night came, the freezing field was filled with the bodies of the dead and wounded who were crying out for water. A Confederate sergeant was so moved by their cries that he, Richard Kirkland, with filled canteens and carrying a white flag, made multiple trips down the hillside, ministering to soldiers from both sides, risking being shot by everyone. The story was unforgettable and I took a photo of the statue which was surrounded by shrubs which were a natural barrier between the statue and the visiting public.

Lincoln the Lawyer statue by Lorado Taft.

When I returned home, I thought a lot about the difference one person can make, in the smallest way or the biggest, often at just a random moment. At the time, I was serving on my park district’s citizens’ advisory committee. A local park had a beautiful statue of a young Abraham Lincoln at its entrance. While I was serving on the committee, the statue was away, being cleaned from the multiple acts of vandalism perpetrated by the high school students who gathered around it on their lunch hours or after class, to smoke or fool around as kids do. During our committee meeting, I brought out my photo from Fredericksburg and suggested that after the statue was returned, perhaps plants could be placed around it to create a natural barrier like the one in Virginia. The park commissioners agreed, the statue came back and the plants were put in the ground. Since that time, many years ago, there hasn’t been a single mark on that statue. Whenever I pass by I always think I’ve left one positive civic mark on my community which will last forever, whenever that may be.

Michael stretching out on our last big trip to Utah’s National Parks in October, 2016.

Which leads me to that last piece of advice I told my kids and which I still tell myself regularly. Stretch your arms out and turn in a circle. Whatever you can touch is something you can change, fix, or help. The big stuff feels unmanageable, too complicated, too difficult. But what’s within your grasp is different. A lot of small efforts make you feel like you’re doing something positive to impact the world. They kind of kick existential thoughts to the curb. And what a relief that is in the hardest times. I think this idea has helped center my kids. I know it works for me.

I put on my red fist growing like a flower shirt this week to remind myself that it’s still my job to resist the madness of the political nightmare in this country. I voted in person – forget that mail-in ballot. I got my flu shot. I bought extra sandwiches so when the increasing number of unfortunate people ask me for money when I’m out and about, I can give them something healthy. I made friends with a woman who admired my garden. In an incredibly dry spell, I watered my plants and filled my birdbaths to make sure that all my critters survive. I pulled weeds. I read books and listened to music. I’ve reached out to friends who are going through hard times. I went to my Zoom classes, started Spanish classes online and brushed the dog. I took my grandson for a drive through for dinner and answered a million of his questions. All together, not bad for living in this dystopian universe which will end one day or not. It’s the best I can do for now and taken as a whole, keeps the darker thoughts at bay. You have to work at it, bit by bit. So far, it’s working for me. One foot in front of the other.

The Last Thanksgiving ?

This year, I have a brand-new granddaughter as the holiday season begins.

My grandsons are 8 and 12 years old. Since the birth of the eldest one, my brother, my mother, my husband and my older sister have died. Of my family of origin, only my younger sister and I are still alive.

My younger sister and me.

I’ve had three dogs die in the past 12 years, not to mention a number of friends who checked out way too early, in my opinion. I’ve lived longer than my dad and my husband, both gone at age 67. My brother was my age when he died. I think more about the uncertainty of the future than I once did. I try to be aware of my moments and to take advantage of the opportunities to share experiences with my family and friends. I wonder if I’ll live long enough for my new little girl to have real memories of me after I’m gone. What if this is my last Thanksgiving?

Michael and me with my cousins and my mom, enjoying Thanksgiving dinner a couple of decades ago, table #1.
Same Thanksgiving, my kids, older sister, niece, nephew, 2nd cousins and family friends, table #2.

Thanksgiving was traditionally the favorite holiday in my family of origin. All about the great food and good company, absent the pressure of gift-giving or rituals outside our own, everyone was primed to simply enjoy ourselves. When we were kids, my parents always hosted the gathering. My uncle and his family who lived in Chicago, always shared that day, along with my grandparents. These gatherings were boisterous. We had freewheeling conversations which covered a lot of ground, from the personal to the political. We always sang, preferably songs that allowed everyone to belt out their parts in harmonies. After beginning our relationship, Michael and I attempted to alternate between our two families for Thanksgiving but we only made it to one stiff dinner with his parents before we abandoned that plan. My family didn’t celebrate Christmas so we saw his parents in December instead. The fact is, my crowd, despite being far from perfect, was certainly a lot more fun than his. My quiet guy routinely remarked over the years, that no matter how many people died, the decibel level at Thanksgiving was always the same. I think that was a fair assessment. The more introverted additions to our family were best-served by taking small mental health breaks from the intense intimacy.

The carver

I remember the one year my brother got into a significant and painful confrontation with my parents who promptly cancelled our upcoming Thanksgiving dinner. I was furious, as was my sister. That year I hosted the holiday, inviting her and a group of random friends. Foreshadowing for the almost thirty five years that we became the permanent hosts of the holiday, I suppose. We hosted the first family event at our home when I was thirty, just a few months after our daughter was born. I had a miserable virus but I desperately wanted to signal my readiness to be more than a guest at this point. I’d stepped into my new role as a mom and wanted to establish our own traditions in our little family, embracing my origins but also advancing our differences from the prior “kidrole. The following year, we went back up to Chicago, this time to my brother’s home. But his marriage was soon to come apart and from then on, our house was the destination. Within five years of our daughter’s birth, my parents had moved to our town. Going forward, our holidays were a mixture of family and friends.

Thanksgiving at my brother’s home, 1982
My brother, his daughters and his future wife. At this time he was still married to my sister-in-law of 15 years.
Me with my parents, my sister and my brother-in-law, Robert, also dead at age 67.
My daughter – age 15 months
Me with my mullet hairdo and my daughter

Despite the peculiar and untrue traditional perceptions about the meaning of Thanksgiving, a whitewashed version of relationships between Native Americans and white settlers, the classic principles about taking a break from daily life to ponder gratitude and the positive parts of our existence were always important to Michael and me. We considered ourselves lucky to have a home, healthy kids, and a long-lasting powerful love affair. Sharing that emotional bounty with people, along with some seriously delicious food was a really satisfying experience.

Michael and me, serving up dinner.

Over the thirty-five years that we hosted this event, we had a core group of family in attendance. Sometimes more far-flung relatives joined us along with a revolving crew of their significant others. Neighbors and their families, co-workers with their spouses and kids, gathered around the tables with our kids’ college friends and roommates. People with no relatives nearby found an extra chair squeezed in between others. Best buddies from school life, back in town to visit their families, often showed up to snag dessert. We still sang, often accompanied by guitars that someone had picked up along their way.

Dad, my sister and me, about 6 weeks before he died.

I can’t remember what the first Thanksgiving without my dad was like in 1989. That was an incredible year, Michael being elected to the city council in spring, both my parents diagnosed with cancer in early summer, Michael with back surgery in August followed by dad’s death in September. I know it happened. More memorable was Thanksgiving, 2010, two months after my first grandson was born. New life. At that time, I thought of nothing but what I believed would a rich future with our growing family, rolling out years into the decades beyond.

My mom and my younger sister, Thanksgiving, 2010.

In April of 2012, Michael was diagnosed with the rare and deadly Merkel cell cancer. We were shocked and terrified. After an extensive head and neck surgery coupled with 30 radiation treatments, he recovered from his treatment and was given a protocol of being examined every three months. He had one full body scan in November of that year. The results were negative and that year, we were deeply grateful at our traditional Thanksgiving. Our local team of doctors along with the specialist we’d consulted were pleased with his progress. Merkel cell usually reappeared in the same area as the original lesion which for Michael, was on his face. His skin remained clear. In June, 2013, at a consultation with his doctors, we requested another scan. Subsequent scans were not included for his Merkel cell cancer stage which seemed crazy to us, given its lethal reputation. After much wrangling, the doctors ordered a scan for November, a year after his first and only one. The return date was November 8th with a doctor’s consult scheduled for November 12th. I wasn’t home for the scan. My family and that of our close friends, had arranged for a weekend getaway, with me and the wife in that family, surprised by a spa adventure. The husband in that crew had been through a bone marrow transplant following his diagnosis with a lethal form of leukemia. Everyone encouraged us to enjoy a brief restorative experience after the brutal stress we’d endured. I was uncomfortable with leaving. I called Michael to see if he’d gotten any results but there was nothing but a phone call moving his November 12th appointment to the 11th. I was home for that one in which we received the devastating news that his scan showed widespread cancerous lesions on over a dozen bones. We were transferred from the care of his head and neck surgeon to oncology. His prognosis was 2-3 months survival absent chemotherapy with perhaps one year possible if he survived the powerful treatment cocktail he would have to endure. Our daughter was expecting a second child in January. We weren’t certain if Michael would be alive to meet that baby.

The blackboard in Michael’s classroom

By the end of that week, Michael had retired from his teaching position with our family going with him to empty his school classroom. The next question was whether or not to have our usual Thanksgiving gathering. Certainly there would be nothing usual about it. We were certain this would be the last Thanksgiving we’d share as our whole family. The concept of Michael’s future absence was a heavy emotional load. In the end, we decided that the opportunity for everyone to join us and to say a potential farewell was the right thing to do. We had a big crowd. I remember sleepwalking through the food preparation, being astonished at how normal and delicious everything tasted. We cried in the street with our neighbor family immersed in similar grief and anxiety. While we cried we experienced simultaneous wonder at how normal everything seemed. The last Thanksgiving. At least that’s what we thought.

Thanksgiving, 2013
Our grandson with the photo blanket of our family, designed by one of my nieces.

Fortunately for us all, 2013 wasn’t our last family Thanksgiving. Michael survived for three more years, three more wonderful November celebrations. After his remarkable five year run he died in May, 2017. Those years changed the way I look at time. Although I always knew that living in the moment is the only way to go, with each passing year, I’ve grown more aware of how how quickly life passes. At almost 72, I’m still supposed to have more life ahead of me. But who knows? Maybe I do or maybe I don’t. I no longer host Thanksgiving dinner. I passed that torch to my daughter and son-in-law in 2017. Still, I prepare my dishes to bring with me and look forward to the familial time, despite missing Michael.

When it’s all said and done, I hope that if indeed, I don’t make it to the next one, that I’ll have used my time wisely. When I had my kids, every year on their birthdays until they were eighteen, I wrote each of them a letter, detailing the big and small events of their lives. At eighteen they both got their stacks of memories. I’ve done 12 for my oldest grandson and will present the 8th to my youngest one in January. I’ve already started the first one for my granddaughter. If I’m not here in the flesh I guess that whatever I write for however long will have to do.

Life on Broadway – Chapter 12 – 1993 – A Momentous Year

As I turn back the pages of my memory to recall the significant events of long ago, I’ll occasionally look at what was happening around our family as we made our way through the world. “Jurassic Park” came out that year along with “A Few Good Men,” “Dave,” “The Fugitive,” “Groundhog Day,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” and “Schindler’s List.” As lifelong avid moviegoers, we saw everything, although Michael barely made it through “Schindler’s List.” My tender husband always loved rom-coms, action films and comedy better than those painful dramas. I was good at suffering through my entertainment. Whitney Houston scored the biggest musical hit of the year with “I Will Always Love You,” closely followed by the song with the best hook, “Whoomp There It Is,” by Tag Team. I was partial to “Two Princes,” by the Spin Doctors.

The world spun with its usual assortment of events. Tuberculosis was declared a global emergency by the World Health Organization. Nelson Mandela and FW deKlerk were awarded the Nobel Peace prize for their cooperative efforts against apartheid in South Africa. River Phoenix overdosed outside the Viper Room nightclub in Los Angeles, cutting short a brilliant acting career. President Clinton signed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act which mandated federal background checks on those purchasing firearms in the United States and also enforced a five-day waiting period on purchases. Feels like a million years ago.
The World Trade Center was bombed, foreshadowing the tragedy of the future. I could enumerate so many more moments in time but I’m writing only a small backdrop for a few key moments of the year in my family’s life.

World Trade Center bombing aftermath – 1993
Photo credit – FBI

Michael and I were 44 and 42, respectively, while our kids were turning 12 and 6. Our daughter was a sixth grader, a middle schooler, a young girl who’d started school young, on her 5th birthday. Meanwhile our son, who’d missed the cut-off date for entering kindergarten the year before, would enter 1st grade in the fall at age 6 but would quickly become one of the oldest kids in his class in November. From our perspective as parents, we both felt that they were each well-suited to their places in their classes. Childhood should be longer but don’t tell that to the kids waiting for driver’s licenses.

I suppose it’s fair to say that we were fairly settled into our lives. Michael still worked at his record store in addition to beginning his second term as alderman in our city, while I’d been in my job as an appointed public official for fifteen years. My job was primarily valuation of commercial property for real estate tax purposes, not the most popular work around. But I was certified by the state and our office was known for its fairness, efficiency and being immune to pressure from “the haves” who always wanted more breaks. It was not my vocation but I liked the work and most especially my friend/boss who was wonderful and who amazingly, had been a high school classmate of Michael.

Michael at his desk in city council chambers.

This year was an election year. I was Michael’s campaign manager as I’d been in his previous campaigns. My boss had no opponent which made life easier for all of us. Nothing like job security. By April, we were set for another four years in the work arena. Meanwhile, my younger sister and her husband were in the midst of an adoption process. With my mom still getting used to being single after my dad’s death a few years earlier, and my sister’s world about to drastically change, family was front and center in my life. Everyone lived near me. Big events with new demands cause subtle internal shifts in the moorings of life. As much as I’d felt like we’d been residents in the adult world for some time, this forties decade was the one that solidified the feeling that we’d arrived in that space where self-doubt and uncertainty were replaced with more confidence and the experience to manage the inevitable bumps in our roads. I’d been through deaths, my best friend’s, my cousin’s and my dad’s. Michael and I had been together for over twenty years. The kids were having the expected growing pains of life and we were teaching and guiding them. I felt ready to fully assert myself and that’s what happened next.

My nephew-to-be

We’d begun going to our annual visit to Michael’s parents in Florida at the end of the school year, rather than at Christmas. Our daughter’s first year of middle school was classically bumpy. She was fortunate that she was a good student, musician and athlete. The social side was harder. She decided to chop off her hair at about the same time she got braces. Young girls have so much insecurity during those days. In addition, she was well-known for delivering her opinions straight-up, with little thought for niceties. I remember her telling me I talked in a telephone voice which she thought was a waste of energy. Yup. Good times. Our son, meanwhile, was the guy who thought that he could be friends with everyone and thus, make all those friends, many of whom couldn’t stand each other, be friends too. Those were interesting days. I think awkward was the word of choice. Our parental approach was to stay as close as possible to our kids during difficult times, rather than doing what we often really wanted to do, which was run for the hills. I think our plan was best for the long haul, albeit challenging at times.

Michael’s parents’ condo in Longboat Key, Florida

Michael’s parents lived in a beautiful location on the Gulf side of Florida. A gorgeous and peaceful spot, it never was enough to dampen the almost instantaneous friction that arose when everyone was together. I couldn’t have been more different than his parents if I tried. We shared virtually no common beliefs about the way we wished the world would be. They were wealthy, privileged, entitled racists, who looked down their noses at virtually everyone. Michael had been in conflict with them since he was a kid but held fast to a concept of family which didn’t exist in reality. Kind of like being in the film “Groundhog Day,” every year’s trip started out with a positive outlook which rapidly devolved into discomfort, arguing and sniping. The dissonance between the glorious digs and the hideous conflicts were wearing me down after all those years. Usually a peacekeeper, I bore up under the insults and tone-deaf comments, trying to smooth things over. As the kids got older, that got harder. The older generation’s disdain for our lifestyle and their negative attitude about our worldview got to be more than I could bear. They thought we were kids stuck in the ‘60’s instead of adults living by a well-thought-out set of principles. I didn’t know that the 1993 trip would be the last time I went to one of my favorite places on the planet. Here’s how that happened. But first, a photo dump of that late May, 1993 vacation. I make only rare appearances in these pictures. I preferred hiding behind the camera.

Michael with his dad
Michael’s mother – my longtime nemesis

So here we were on the annual vacation which I always approached with trepidation. I wasn’t the skinny, tennis-playing blonde who was bright enough but certainly not intellectual that my mother-in-law would have preferred in her elite family. I’d say my frequent frame of mind back then was simmer. I was always simmering. My in-laws had done some remodeling that year which changed the sleeping arrangements, so Michael and I were staying next door in a small apartment, actually quite a relief. In the middle of the night a few days into the trip, our daughter called us. She’d developed a bad earache and went to her grandmother for some Tylenol to get relief from pain. She told us that my mother-in-law had lain down beside her to help her back to sleep with quiet conversation. The gist of it was that instead of choosing to live in a crummy town, attending a middle school where there were so many fat black kids, my daughter could make different choices. She didn’t have to be overweight like her mom, and could go to classy schools with “the best people,” whoever they were. As soon as she was alone, our kid called us crying, asking why her grandmother was telling her such rude, confusing things. We soothed her but the second we hung up the phone, I had crossed the line from familial tolerance into familial elimination. I told Michael that night that I’d finish the vacation quietly but that I was done with participating in such a phony toxic relationship. I’d done it out of love for him but I got finished. He told me that had our situation been reversed, he’d have lasted maybe six months with my parents. We packed up and went home. The next day, I called his father, who at least had a more pleasant disposition and a better fake veneer than his arrogant mean-spirited mother. I told him that absent the fact that we had all had feelings for Michael, we had nothing else in common, and that I had too much self-esteem to participate in any further contact. We’d had issues before but at last the rude, thoughtless interference with my daughter had exhausted my last drop of patience. He tried to convince me to give us another chance but I’d done twenty years by then and was finished. I never went back to Florida again. For a few years, Michael went with the kids but eventually he got done as well. We let our children make their own choices but nothing was ever repaired between Michael, me and them. I let them come to my daughter’s graduation after not having seen them in years and was sorry I did, as they managed to spoil the celebration with their rudeness. That was the last time I ever saw them.

I never dreamed that I’d arrive in an emotional place that I couldn’t fix. Back then, I don’t know how much psychology was focused on getting rid of the toxic people in your life. But that’s what I did. Michael and I were strong enough to navigate the mess. I felt like I’d crossed an invisible line between finally growing up and being a fully evolved adult. I could never understand how Michael survived his upbringing in that family. He was certainly wounded but our life together over so many years helped heal him. I know forgiveness is supposed to be the ultimate accomplishment in life but I never got there. They lived well into their 90’s, years beyond Michael. I still resent life’s unfairness.

First day of school, fall – 1993
First day of school, fall – 1993

We moved into the routine of our regular summer. The kids went to camp while we worked. We slipped away for a few weekends, one in St. Louis for Six Flags and the wonderful city zoo, and another in the Wisconsin Dells. In August, we again joined our old friends and their families for our raucous annual gathering in Michigan, always good for the soul. Then suddenly it was back to school for a new year.

I think that having gotten started on our family after having a long time alone together, coupled with the lessons we’d learned from our bumpy starts in life, made Michael and I work extra hard to cement our little family unit. Some of our excursions were outside our budget and often wound up with me, who’d only had one family vacation in my childhood, crying my way to the parking lot ahead of everyone else, after sibling bickering and Michael’s hot temper got the best of me. But we kept at it. And the two of us made time to be alone. I still remember these photos from an October fall day in Allerton Park, a lovely place not far from home, where we hung out with our dog, Sydney. Always a place of peace. Thankfully, our relationship was undamaged by my departure from his family.

After we hosted Thanksgiving which had become our annual big family holiday event, for the second year in a row we were able to head to New Orleans for a trip wrapped around a conference for me. We had a wonderful time, rolling on the Big Muddy, eating great food and listening to lots of music. Was that the year we saw Maria Muldaur, the Neville Brothers and Michael, a crazy time middle of the night show with The Meters? Well, it was either that year or the previous one. The end of 1993 was at hand. I had come totally into myself. On to the next events.

Mutual Benefits

First snow of the year

The first snow arrived, followed by below freezing temperatures. Fortunately, I don’t suffer from seasonal affective disorder, which makes life for those afflicted a huge challenge, especially if they reside in temperate zones where four seasons are the norm. I’m not a big fan of either extreme heat or cold but I’ve found ways to manage myself under those conditions. I’m probably more worried about ice than anything else the weather can toss at me. Getting older comes with potentially nasty results if you slip and crash to the cold ground. Honestly, falls become more risky no matter what the weather. Aging is more perilous than youth on every level, in every season.

Music goes a long way in buoying me through my days, hot or cold. When I’m outside I listen to streaming services. When I’m inside, I’ve got this great collection of CD’s, primitive though that may sound, along with the equipment to play them. Actually, they’re quite like streaming channels. Michael made me my own special playlists ages ago. I also have his collected house favorites, a set called the British Invasion and oldies from the ‘50’s through the ‘70’s. As he prepared to sell his massive music collection, he couldn’t stop himself from duplicating special albums. I could lock myself up for a year, playing music day and night, and never finish what’s available to me. Right now I’m resisting the impulse to include lists of my favorite songs, artists and concerts in this blog. Perhaps another time.

Summer and winter, front yard.

Aside from the stuff of daily life which for me includes chores, swimming, writing and spending time with family and friends, I am committed to doing my part in making my corner of the world a better place. Over the years, as climate change has accelerated to become the existential threat of our current era, I’ve evolved from the greenless-apartment-dweller who found a yard, into the gardener-developing-a-habitat-for-threatened-pollinators person. When I first began to muck around in the dirt I had no idea that I was making that kind of commitment. But I’m really happy to have found a way to make at least a small difference in our challenging world. Being visited by a wide variety of creatures who fly, crawl or roam into my garden is as good for me as it is for them. We’re experiencing mutual benefits. They find physical sanctuary, at least for awhile. I find respite and peace, along with a sense of accomplishment, also at least for awhile. My habit of list-making and record-keeping has turned into a decades-long history of commentaries, observations and photographs which describe the trends I’ve seen here as I continue to develop this space. Although the year has not quite ended, I decided to look back to the snowy days of January, 2022 and the subsequent months through the summer. The snow comes and goes, as do the visitors. I selected a number of photos that celebrate the diversity of natural life in my sliver of the earth. Here they are, for your viewing pleasure.

Bluejay
Cardinal and sparrow
Little miracles
Sky over the yard
Lingering honeysuckle berries
Squirrel marauders
Juncoes, sparrows, dove
Blustery day
Squirrel sitting in the bird feeder
Caught in the act – attacking the suet feeder.
Starling
Starling group
Downy woodpecker
Female cardinal
Carolina wren
Awful frozen beak
Carolina wren
Competition for food
Starling and its shadow
White-breasted nuthatch
Starling in the bird feeder
Robin
Daffodils emerging
Peonies
Snowdrops
Tulips
Mourning dove
Crocuses
Red bellied woodpecker
Hyacinth
Hyacinths
Peonies