Gloom and Light

One of the humorous suggested epitaphs I found in my husband’s notebook after he died.

Let me start by saying that I’m keenly aware that the forthcoming numbers I’m going to share are definitely first world problems. I don’t live in a war zone where large groups of people get bombarded and disappear in an instant. There’s no famine in my part of the earth. Natural disasters which can instantly wipe out lives are uncommon where I live. I know all this. But those caveats aside, I still feel like I’ve known a lot of people who’ve died in the past three years. Twenty-three, to be precise. Only one had made it to 80 years of age. The youngest was 19. Causes of death ranged from drug overdoses to suicides to cancers to heart attacks. There were those which came without warning and those which were a culmination of the gradual and inexorable slide to the end, usually cancer finales. When you get into your seventies, you’re aware that death, the true fellow traveler of everyone, will be presenting its invoices on a more regular schedule than it did during your youth. Still, even for someone like me, a seasoned semi-pro at death, these final exits can feel pretty gloomy. As death begins nipping at the heels of my peer group and more, staying in the light gets more challenging.

June, 1964 – Eighth grade graduation.

I got started early at trying to keep my balance during dark times. I remember feeling anxious about the possibility of death when I was just about four. My mom disappeared into the hospital at that time, leaving me and my three siblings in the care of our maternal grandmother. Grandma was in charge of us while our dad was at work. She was a harsh character, at least for me. I missed my mother desperately. My brother, eight years my senior, recognized my suffering and snuck me off to visit mom. An event meant to comfort me turned out quite opposite of that benign intention. My mother, post-surgery and loaded up with painkillers, didn’t bat an eye when we slipped into her room. Instead, she goofily, raised her hospital gown to explain her situation, showing us a raw-looking vertical abdominal incision, the image of which is still seared into my brain. I was always a bit afraid of the vulnerability of bodies after that, particularly hers. I worried about her all the time. But the deeper fear came later, on the day I graduated from eighth grade. I’d just turned 13 the month before, that magic number that felt like a bridge between being a little kid and a neophyte adult. I was wakened on graduation day by a muffled conversation going on between my parents. I was excited, jumping out of bed to join them. I could sense that something was wrong and instinctively pulled back. But my mom saw me and immediately said, “Renee, your graduation has been marred. Your cousin Iris has died. Dad and I have to go be with your aunt and uncle. Your sister will go with you to your graduation.” I just stood there, stunned. Iris was a baby, not even two years old. I couldn’t process what I’d heard. Babies are weren’t supposed to die. And even worse, I felt terrible shame at being sad, not only because she was gone, but because I was selfishly sad that my parents were going to miss my special day. I’ve never forgotten all those emotions which were my true introduction to the ephemeral state called life. Dealing with life and death meant juggling all kinds of feelings, some of which made you confront the less than attractive parts of yourself. I think that was the beginning of that difficult state called self-awareness, sometimes easily accessible and other times, so elusive. Trying to stay self-aware is my lifelong project.

My brother holding my cousin Iris.

Since that long ago sad day, my life, like most people’s, has bounced from mundane everyday moments, to the joyous and dark ones. I’ve lost many people along my way. The worst deaths were the suicides of the young. They felt so wrong. I was left wondering how the dark parts of life, which happen to everyone, become so impossible that the only light they saw was a final exit. I’ve spent a significant part of my days trying to understand how to balance these two poles of existence. I’ve learned that for some people, the weight of the dark side, which I think is intractable clinical depression, remains a burden that can be impossible to overcome. Certainly it is as lethal as any other disease. A tragic place to wind up. Luckily for me, after recognizing my own internal dichotomy between what I might call my better angels and my not-so-great demons, I realized that I could have an impact on the constant tension between gloom and light. Yes, events in life can just happen, with no advance warning, with no time to prepare. So how to have any agency over this random universe? I thought about one of my dad’s frequently repeated pieces of advice. “You have to have a plan,” he’d say, over and over again. Yet, plans can get blown up at any moment, due to unexpected circumstances. So I’ve worked on modifying that advice, making a plan, yet remaining nimble enough to adjust it when necessary.

There’s nothing I can do about the fact of my age. Nor can I change the reality that for however long I go forward, I will lose more loved ones and friends along the way. That’s the gloom. But I can create light in the middle of all that. I’ve found my way by doing what I call living from the inside out. What I want and need and feel is what I aim for in my daily life, irrespective of what might seem important to other people. Getting to that place has taken quite awhile. But I’ve learned that by, as the old saying goes, traveling to the beat of my own drum, I’m better able to manage the hard times. I suppose it’s because I feel secure and comfortable in knowing that despite what may happen, I’m doing everything I can to make the most out of my time. I think the best part of this plan is that when I go to sleep at night, for the most part I have no regrets about what I’m doing. That’s worth more than anything to me.

I exercise every day, mostly swimming, but also walking. I’m not very fast but I’m consistent. I feel better when I’m moving and hope I can continue it for the foreseeable future. I listen to lots of music which is so helpful to me. I read. A lot. These are the things I can do for myself which don’t require any help from anyone. At least, not yet…

A beautiful hibiscus

I also practice bringing life into my days. I am constantly working on making my yard an inviting space for all manner of birds, insects and even the annoying rodents who are part of my mini-ecosystem. Feeling like I’m doing a little something to provide habitat for pollinators is particularly important to me. When the gloom of climate change casts its dreadful pall, I can go outside and feel less helpless. Just being out in nature helps me keep my perspective, knowing that I’m just a small thing passing through time, like everyone before me and everyone who’ll come after me. That doesn’t mean I don’t get sad. It means that I can work my way back to feeling lighter. And doesn’t that make me the lucky one.

Part of the pollinator’s garden
A visiting hummingbird
A happy bee
A beautiful monarch
A resident cardinal

I feel like I’m continuing to improve at finding my way through all the challenges life has thrown at me and which will continue as long as I’m breathing. I often wonder what will be the thing that could derail me from using these coping skills which have been so useful to me. After all, I’ve survived the death of my life partner which once seemed impossible. Of course some of my success at this living business is partially due to the still powerful sense of that decades-long relationship which is still alive inside of me. But that is another story…

Heat, Goodbye, and Becoming a Mother

A screenshot from today’s weather app.

Today really isn’t any different weather-wise than the last several, with a couple more to come. This summer in my community has been either the second-hottest or the hottest since records were kept. I’m really not sure. After days like this, the difference between records doesn’t seem particularly relevant. I swam today but after running a couple of errands, my only time outside has been to let my dog in and out of the house. Inhaling brings heat into my windpipe. I’ve never been a big fan of summer temperatures unlike always chilly Michael who complained fiercely about my need to cool off. I’ve been thinking about the difference between our personal thermostats since yesterday, the 42nd anniversary of my first labor pains, the beginning of a 44 hour process which ultimately ended with the birth of our daughter, our first child. I remember feeling hotter then that at any other previous moment in my life.

Our newborn daughter

Back then we didn’t have air-conditioning. The heat felt brutal as I lugged my pregnant belly through August. Ten years would go by before we finally caved in and installed central air in our house. A lifetime ago. Michael and I had been together for 10 years. Now he’s been gone for over 6 years and I’m still here, with all the memories from long ago. In addition I’m sorting through all the current events, on both the macro and micro levels. For today, though, I’m setting aside the global worries about politics and climate change. Instead I’m thinking about the sad start to this blisteringly hot week, when I learned of the suicide of an old friend who used to work at Michael’s music store for many years. Jeff was the sweetest person, a gentle guy who over time related to me kind of like an older sister. We used to swim at my favorite pool together. We’d talk about music and his crushes. Over time our lives evolved, mine on a fairly traditional path, his into a darker space when drinking and depression weighed on him. He never found a life partner. He loved his cat, his beautiful dinner companion, Caramel.

Jeff, back in the day.

His personality was still kind and sweet but his demons exacted their prices from him. Eventually he overcame the substance abuse and became a counselor and helper to people with problems like his own. But that intractable depression became monstrous. Although we weren’t always involved in recent years, we did connect during some of his roughest times. I knew that his suffering was deeply rooted in his physiology, a fact that I’ve had to face in the past with people close to me who eventually opted out of their relentless pain. I felt so helpless at the end of our talks. And now I’m just so sad. He finally wore himself out. At times like this, I feel Michael’s absence the most, when there is no emotional shelter from these tragedies except for what I can provide for myself. Still as this week draws to a close, there is beautiful bright spot. Tomorrow I will celebrate the 42nd birthday of our adored daughter, who reminds me of Michael almost every day.

I remember so much about that time. I can literally feel myself in my memories, hearing conversations from so long ago and experiencing the physical sensations from those most amazing days in our life. I’ve written about this time before but on the eve of this birthday, a welcome respite in this oppressively hot and sad week, reliving those precious days seems like a good choice.

August, 1981

August, 1981. I was still working but seeing the doctor weekly. I was massive, hot, grouchy and worried. As my due date approached, I went for my weekly appointment and discovered that my blood pressure had spiked. Dr. Brodsky suggested that I stop working, stay home and relax. I wasn’t thrilled. I was going past my due date. The house was hot. I had a giant face. I hated my hair. Back then I had a hairdresser who was almost a friend. He kindly came over and soothingly cut and styled my shaggy locks in my dining room. I’m not good at waiting. And this waiting was a problem because I only had six weeks off for maternity leave. This break was not in the program.

I was annoyed. The due date passed. The days were slow. I went to the doctor. I wasn’t dilating. We missed going to a friend’s wedding who graciously stopped by for a short visit on her special day. Juanita, my nurse neighbor, stopped by to check on me on her way home from work. I couldn’t wait for Michael to get home at the end of his day so I could snipe at him. I wanted to share the aggravation. On Sunday night, August 23rd, we had an argument after he returned home from his regular prep-for-the-work-week deal that he’d done for years. He retreated upstairs while I decided to sleep on the couch downstairs where it was cooler. At about 11 pm, pain woke me. Labor? At long last? I lay there all night, waiting for regular intervals to happen, dozing, communing with myself. At around 7 am, I got up, showered and went upstairs to wake Michael. We called the doctor, who told us to come right in for an exam. My pains were still somewhat irregular and I was over 9 centimeters away from being ready for delivery. Sent home, I told Michael to go to work until our appointment later in the day. I remember making fried eggs and toast which felt like a homey thing to eat. Around 4 in the afternoon, Michael came home and picked me up to go see Dr. Brodsky. My pains were about 6 minutes apart but I was still far from ready to deliver. The doctor told me to do some moving around. We went to a little mall on campus to play pinball. The weather was steamy. As I shook the machine, water was streaming down my body. Not one to let an opportunity pass, we went to a small shoe store and I bought an expensive purse I couldn’t really afford. If not spoiling myself now, when? Then we went home to wait. Hours passed. By 10 p.m. I was 23 hours in and I was exhausted. We called the doctor who advised us to go into the hospital.

Mercy Hospital

I got settled into a birthing room, attached to a fetal monitor and was appreciating hthe air conditioning. Michael and I dozed on and off without much new happening. At seven in the morning, Dr. Brodsky showed up to examine me, found I wasn’t progressing and ordered a pitocin drip to stimulate my labor. And it did. I spent Tuesday having contractions every 90 seconds, sweating, and watching Michael eat roast beef sandwiches and Hershey’s chocolate bars. He’d read that the birth coach needed to keep up his energy levels. I felt so slimy. I got up, dragged my equipment with me and took another shower. I had the switchboard block calls from my mother which were really distracting. No cell phones back then. Meanwhile I was starving. The nurses said I couldn’t eat in case I needed surgery because of the risk of food aspiration. I told them I never vomited and needed fuel to continue this work. After relentless badgering I was finally given jello and broth. At 7:00 p.m. Dr. Brodsky arrived to check my progress. I was only at three centimeters after 12 hours of pitocin. The horror. He decided to go aggressive. In the birthing room the benign-looking decor hid the instruments of intervention. He was going to break my water which is kind of like being skewered meat on a shishkabob. You also need to use the bathroom a lot which was relentlessly exhausting. At 10:30 p.m. Dr. Brodsky came back in to the hospital to check on me. After everything I had arrived at only four centimeters dilated, a considerable distance from the required ten. Brodsky sat down on the bed, took my hand and said, “dear, I don’t think this is going to work.” At this point, my commitment to a natural delivery was all but gone – I was ready for anything to end this impossibly long labor. Clearly I had a baby who preferred to stay put. Then things happened fast. They took Michael away to clean him up and get him gowned. I was also washed, catheterized and given a spinal block before we were reunited in the operating theater. Dr. Brodsky introduced me to the resident who would assist in my caesarean. I had an oxygen mask over my face but was able to tell her I thought that meeting someone who was going to rummage around in my body was odd. Michael was sitting by my head, holding my hand. A little drape prevented me from seeing my lower half. I was asking lots of questions. Dr. Brodsky proceeded with his incision. I felt as if a line was being drawn across my abdomen which was actually his first cut. The anesthesiologist asked me if I ever stopped talking. I said no. I asked Michael what things looked like. He said I looked like a scene from the television show “Mash.” Then I felt my stomach collapse. I asked Dr. Brodsky what I’d had. He said, “a big fat baby girl,” who was hustled off to be examined by a pediatrician while I was being repaired. They told me she weighed 10 pounds, 9 ounces and was 23 and 1/2 inches long. All I could think of was that she’d already outgrown all her newborn clothes.

After I spent time in recovery, I was returned to my room where Michael met me. Then our baby was brought to us with a pink bow taped to her head, which Michael promptly pulled off. My first impression was that I thought her ears might need to be pinned back as they were pressed forward after her hours in the birth canal. I examined this stubborn little girl whose legs stuck out from under my arms because she was so long and wondered at her perfection. Michael sat on the bed with me as we marveled at what we’d made. Now we two were three.

Back home

And Just Like That

The Dallas/Ft. Worth airport

I recently spent the night in the Dallas/Fort Worth airport. This was a first for me, and one first I could have done without. I’d just returned from a cruise, a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Alaska, a place I didn’t really understand how much I’d love before I went there. I got off the Alaskan cruise ship on a Sunday, hoping that as I decompressed from travel, I’d have time to think about the marvels I saw, as well as sifting through my feelings about cruising in general. Instead there I was, mired in the most ridiculous situation, a classic jumble of the quagmire of flying and the absurdity of corporate rules, so stupid that they might as well decide to just throw their money away. Ah, but in truth, they always find a way to make it back, don’t they, usually on the backs of their passengers. But I digress… After a Sunday night layover in Seattle, on Monday morning I boarded a Dallas-bound plane to catch a connecting flight which would take me home to Illinois. I was really happy to be avoiding the madness of Chicago’s O’Hare airport, a factor in my travel plan. But as is so often the case these days, my first flight to Dallas was late. There wasn’t much layover time to between flights begin with, and as the minutes ticked by, I feared that I would miss the next plane. However, after a mad sprint which included multiple escalators and a train ride between terminals, the four people including me, all trying to catch the same plane, showed up at the gate before departure. Alas. Even though there were still passengers for our flight still lined up in the terminal, we were informed that boarding was closed. The ticket attendant stated that we needed to have been in line fifteen minutes before departure in order to be allowed to board, and further, that we could read that rule on our boarding passes. Except that only those with paper passes have that information – for the people like me who had electronic passes, there was no such information. I’m an infrequent flyer so there was that too. So there we were, re-directed to customer service to re-book our tickets while watching our plane just sitting there, out of reach, just outside the windows. I think there’s a metaphor in there somewhere…

Hubbard Glacier, Alaska.

And just like that, I went from my big thoughts about wild beauty and the power of nature to furiously stating my rage to a young customer service representative who after awhile, was kind enough to hand my sister and me food vouchers for the evening, a hotel voucher and tickets for an early flight for the following morning. All that eased some of my frustration until I called our assigned hotel to find out about their airport shuttle service. I found out that they couldn’t get us back to the airport early enough to ensure we would get through security to make that new plane. Not daring to risk another missing-the-boarding-time debacle, we opted to tough out a night in the eerie airport.

Morning clouds through the airport window.

I couldn’t sleep. Morning came, time for our 6:15 a.m. flight. We were huddled in chairs by our assigned gate. As I looked around, I thought the area looked surprisingly empty so close to departure time. Suddenly I felt suspicious. I pulled out the boarding passes handed to me the night before. There in an unobtrusive corner next to the flight time was a little letter “p.” This was no morning flight. We’d been booked on the same evening flight we’d missed the day before. We were facing another 12 hours in the airport. In the next two hours I dashed around the airport looking for help. Eventually a sympathetic and more experienced customer service person checked out the errors in our documents, shook her head and squeezed us onto a flight to O’Hare with a connection for home. After tearing around the airport again we made that plane. We arrived home almost a full day late.

At least I could brush my teeth at the airport.

Admittedly I should have scrutinized those first adjusted tickets more carefully. But I’d gone from angry to exhausted to resigned in about 30 minutes, and naively believed what that young service rep had told me. I still can’t figure out how she saw what wasn’t really there. What I did think later was something I knew already. In a moment, life can go from one extreme to another. When they were growing up I used to tell my kids over and over, “the people who have the best lives are the people who’ve developed the best coping skills because life is about constant coping.”My own skills were certainly tested after returning from my incredible trip to the annoying mundane issues part of daily life. In a matter of days, I went from that absurd airport story to hassling with my internet provider wanting to raise my monthly fee by 50%, to breaking a beloved necklace, to a toothache in one that’s already been root-canaled and crowned. Daily life for those of us not currently contending with life or death matters. In that way, I know that at this moment, I’m lucky.

Crosswise Islands, Alaska

Despite the messy interruption, I’m still reflecting on my feelings about going to Alaska. I had mixed feelings about taking a cruise. I think I’ll always associate cruises with my in-laws, who cruised frequently and loved being in the fanciest cabins, bringing formal clothes for dinners and getting invited to sit at the captain’s table. Of course they were the same on land as they were at sea. Michael and I spent years arguing with them about why they thought food tasted better when they were dressed up than not. You don’t have to participate in that aspect of a cruise any more, where style and affectations are important symbols. Except for one restaurant meal that was included in the fare, we never ate in the dining room. Food is readily available cafeteria-style or through room service 24 hours a day. Drinking, socializing and entertainment on the ship are big draws for some people. But there are also quiet places for reading, decks for uninterrupted walking and uncrowded railings with unobstructed views for admiring the sea.

View from the aft deck 9.

The truth is that although I believe I deserve special trips after a lifetime of work, I never feel wholly comfortable in an an environment which excludes people without economic privilege. I admit I spent some time trying to figure out how to make cruises available to people who can’t afford them. I feel the same way about getting people access to the fabulous national parks in this country with their incredible vistas and open spaces. In the midst of my own pleasure I can’t help but think about life’s inequities. Michael used to say that the problem with living with me was that as long as I knew someone, somewhere was having a tough time, I’d be sad. I guess not much has changed. Anyway, I wouldn’t say that a cruise is my favorite form of travel. I’m a big fan of road trips which are less regimented in terms of schedule. At my age though and on my own, the potential risks of that travel weigh on my mind. And there’s a lot to be said for being transported to incredible places, fed and having no responsibilities for cleaning. You can even have laundry done on the ship.

Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska

Those thoughts aside, I can still hardly believe what I saw on this journey. Magical moments with forty to fifty feet long humpback whales, feeding at will in a bay, their spouts shooting up from the water as they swam along. Otters floating in a group on their backs, some slipping off for a playful swim before heading back to the others. Bald eagles as omnipresent as sparrows. Salmon making their run upstream in their river of origin to spawn. Glaciers with their impossibly turquoise ice. Orcas swimming in a group in the Pacific, free and wild.

Humpback whale.
Salmon in the Mendenhall River.

I really didn’t know that the Tongass National Forest is the largest in the U.S. at about 16.7 million acres, nor that it is a temperate rain forest with astonishing biodiversity. The portions I saw were wild, breathtaking and awe-inspiring. At this time of so many climate disasters, just seeing it felt restorative and even more, inspires the commitment to keep anything from intruding on its still-pristine condition – read “drilling.” I saw parks which honor the native peoples, their treasured totems and clan houses a cultural reminder of life before intrusion. The nature guides on my off-ship excursions were natives who knew so much history and who exhibited reverence for the marvels around us.

Tongass National Forest
The forest.
Totems in Ketchikan

I found Alaska awe-inspiring, the kind of place which reminded me that indeed, perspective is everything. The scenery is a reminder that there are natural treasures to cherish, that our human dilemmas diminish in the face of such overwhelming majesty. I’ve seen beautiful places before but I think the scale of Alaska just feels so much bigger. If I had the means, I’d go back to experience more than the small slice I saw in one short week. But I’m grateful for what I was lucky enough to see once in my lifetime.

Aloft and Musing

I’m on my second airplane of the day. After over three years of delay, I’m bound for Alaska. Back in 2020, I canceled an Alaska trip when I realized the pandemic had trounced my big plans to celebrate my last year in my 60’s with a two-week sea/land adventure. After that unfortunate situation, I wasn’t certain I’d ever have an opportunity to get this experience. At the time the birthday balloon popped in 2020, the excellent trip insurance I thought I had, covered basically everything, everything that is but a pandemic. I lost a chunk of my fully-paid-for trip to the cruise ship company. Over the past few years, they kept reminding me that I had a future cruise credit available. However, the rising costs of virtually everything during the recent inflationary time, including the price of Alaska cruises, made for a big crimp in my already-stretched travel budget. As time was winding down to that moment when the credit would expire, I did a lot of thinking. There was no economic pathway to the elaborate two week trip I’d planned in 2020. But I’m in my early 70’s, still healthy enough to travel. How long will that be true? Who knows? I decided to set my sights a little lower. I could get myself a one-week Alaska trip with a few off-ship excursions which would get me close to the wildlife piece of the 2020 adventure without the cost of a second week. I knew I needed to go for it, in keeping with the promise I made to myself years ago, about making sure to live as regret-free a life as possible. This trip will leave me with only one unvisited state out of fifty in the U.S. As someone who only took one vacation until my adult life, I never thought I’d be able to have traveled to so many far-flung places. But here I am, en route to the last three of the unvisited four spaces left on my home map. How lucky.

The earth below.

As I bump along on the plane, I realize that I’ve recently ended an era in my life. Once there was the childhood era. Then there came a young, single woman time. Next came a love and partnership period, followed, after a decade or so, by parenthood. My thirties and forties were important periods of personal growth. I was a lover, a wife, a mom, a friend and a professional. I was a sibling, a cousin and a daughter, shifting roles with my parents, dad dying when I wasn’t fully evolved, but working on it. When I hit the next era, in my fifties, I was getting really comfortable with virtually every part of me. I liked that time a lot. I became a grandmother near the end of that decade. I was barely into my sixties when I was caregiving that first new grandkid, my aging mother and ultimately, my husband whose cancer arrived during that first year of my seventh decade on this planet. From there it was the expected and completely unexpected era which included the death of my brother and my mother, and the seesawing health of my precious partner which ultimately ended with his death. No asteroid has hurtled into my world, at least not yet. But all the same, the past dozen years or so certainly have been a unique era, marked by loss, huge mental and emotional adjustments, and eventually, a re-tooling of myself. I have managed to get through all the changes which have stripped me down internally until I could reassemble myself, scars and all, into the current me. This newish version of the pared-down and yet full-blown self that is me, will likely be the last iteration in my evolution, from a child to the absolutely adult woman I am today. My last era. I think my role as a caregiver will finally ebb as my time with providing significant support for my nine-month-old granddaughter is ending soon. My son’s family will soon be moving a thousand miles away, precluding that almost daily care. Haven’t I been the fortunate one? I’ve given my best to this time. I’ve been so glad for the opportunity of helping nurture a new little person who I’ve thoroughly loved. But now they’re traveling and I’m off on this adventure, a stepping off point for this next segment of my life. I have no particular roadmap for what’s next. When I was a kid in elementary school, one feature on the report cards sent home quarterly, was titled “makes good use of time.” I think that’s just what I want to do, make good use of whatever time is left to me.

The other day my daughter-in-law asked me if I often think of death, as I frequently reference that topic in conversation. I answered yes, but the truth is, my thinking about death is nothing new. When you grow up insecure about your parents’ health, you never feel as if time is stretching out interminably. I was usually scared when I was growing up, recognizing that life could abruptly end. That part of my history is always in my head. Thankfully, for me, it’s not crippling, but rather a motivating tool for staying active, continuing to learn, and for not getting stale. Those are my general goals. Getting on with my interests and trying something new. Here’s the first new one. I recently had a conversation with a good friend who was annoyed with the vacuous nature of social media, with people using this resource primarily to display only the best parts of themselves, the smiling faces, the happy times, the great places. I thought about what she said for several days. I realized I’ve never deliberately shared an unattractive photo of myself. And then I thought, why not? I don’t want to be one-dimensional. I recently found that the camera my daughter gave me to photograph birds visiting my feeders is so sensitive to motion, that it caught me moving around my garden, hot, sweaty and unposed as I went about my work. I saved those pictures to share as a more accurate representation of me as I go through a normal day. So here they are. Something new.

I’ve been thinking about the art in my house. Michael and I, both frequent visitors to Chicago’s Art Institute, each had a hand in choosing prints to hang throughout our home, particularly after attending an exhibition there which featured one of our favorites. During the last few years I’ve been expanding my knowledge of painters from centuries past to artists currently engaged in creating. Right now, I’m in a transition period, adding new little pieces of art to my personal space, particularly from local creators, as well as hanging my own photos on the walls. I took an inventory of those older pieces before I left on my trip, to think about whether I might want to replace some of them when I return. Putting old friends away isn’t easy though. These paintings below have been comforting companions to me for a long time.

As I jounce along on this airplane, yes, I’m musing about unposed pictures of me and art. I’m thinking about how many books are on my to-read list. I’m thinking about how I love to look at my daughter’s face. That I will really miss seeing my son pull into my driveway on his bicycle when he comes over to work out in my garage. I’m thinking about how to keep my garden alive if the droughty conditions keep getting worse. I’m thinking how amazing it was to spend hours with Michael, just silently staring at each other. And how amazing it is that I can still feel him now. I’m wondering if I’ll see whales in Alaska and how long I’ll be physically competent. Up here in this tin can, time feels different. What will I be doing in a few days? What will I be doing in a few months? And how many years are left? I’m musing about the luxury of musing and feeling grateful to be doing okay. What a luxurious interlude.

After You’ve Gone

Back in 1979, “All That Jazz” won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Later that year it was nominated for nine Academy Awards for which it won several. The film was an utterly unique musical, spooling out a macabre story loosely based on the life story of its director, Bob Fosse. Fosse carved out a unique portrayal of a type “A” personality for Joe Gideon, whose amphetamine-fueled energy and perfectionism leads to a fractured personal life and ultimately death, the action playing out to catchy tunes and fabulous dance numbers. When Michael and I saw it, I loved it. He detested it. Never a big fan of musicals anyway, he also wasn’t entertained by watching someone shatter and die. He liked movies with happy endings. I was fine with going to the dark side. How fitting for the two of us. One of the key scenes in the movie was a dance number to the song, “After You’ve Gone,” with Gideon’s ex-wife, daughter and mistress tapping away, as he struggles to stay alive. That song came scooting up to the surface of my mind the other day as I finally took what was for me, the big step of discarding Michael’s bathrobe which had been hanging on its hook with no wearer for over six years.

Michael’s bathrobe.

I couldn’t have worn it even if I wanted to as Michael was over a foot taller than me. Besides, my body temperature runs hot and I am rarely bundled in anything so bulky. When I took it down, I sniffed it a few times but of course there was no scent of anything like him. I laid it on the bed, snapped a photo and wrapped it up in the discard pile. No second thoughts.

April 2017, about a month before Michael died.

Throughout our life together, Michael and I had many conversations about what might happen when one or the other of us died. When there were no imminent health threats, those talks were easily shoved below the surface of our daily existence, when other more pressing matters needed our attention. But in that last spring when hope for his survival was squelched by the metastasis of cancer to his brain, we went back to that topic. On the days when he could tolerate the concept that he wasn’t going to live, he’d turn wonderingly to me and ask, “what are you going to do after I’ve gone?” Mostly, I was so exhausted and devastated that my response was, “ beats the hell out of me.” Then he would tell me that he wanted me to find a new partner to share all my warmth and vitality and blah-blah-blah. I’d just stare at him and think I had no idea if I’d be alive at the end of our road together, usually making a comment to that effect. He’d look at me and say, “you have no idea how strong you really are,” whereupon I’d quell my desire to throw something right at his head. But here I am, years later, finally parting with his bathrobe. There’s not much other personal stuff like that left. What we survivors might hang on to is hard to anticipate. But at the same time, I’ve certainly lived a lot during these six years, albeit differently than what Michael imagined might happen for me.

What I’m doing these days…

Initially some practical aspects of my life barely changed after he was gone. For almost all of my adult life I was a public official, working in an office where annually, people over 65 trekked in to file papers which would reduce their property taxes for the coming year. There were always plenty of women who would jug show up weeping, saying that they’d never handled the business part of their lives. They were inexperienced and uncertain. For many, this visit was their first as the person responsible for a financial matter. When they’d leave, I turned to my colleagues and said, “one day that’ll be Michael, coming in here sobbing, because he’d never managed the business end of our lives and had no clue about what was happening.” When we were young, he tried to do that stuff but his term as the manager of our organization ended right after our water was turned off because he forgot to pay the bill. So I wasn’t suddenly buried in uncertainty about how to manage. Rather, as he always insisted that I learn how to do the tasks that were more in his wheelhouse, I found satisfaction in keeping up all the maintenance of our ridiculously large house, lot and garden on my own. During this droughty summer for example, I’ve busied myself with studying watering devices, and concocted schemes to keep everything alive. His tasks are now mine and for the most part, I’ve taken satisfaction in being able to keep up. I even hear him in my head when I attempt to accomplish something that fails. “Just as I suspected,” he’d say. I have managed to keep my sense of humor intact which I think would make him glad. If I keep going, this large homestead may become too much for me. But my daughter and her family live across the street so I’m already figuring out to how to downsize in place. I think he’d also be happy that our family structure has been steady for me as it would’ve been for him if our situations were reversed.

The picture of me I found in Michael’s nightstand drawer after he died. Photo credit – him.

As far as that new partner business, I realized early into my widow life that I wasn’t going that route. Michael didn’t realize that I was no longer that person he surprised with his steady friendship and our magic connection back in 1971. Even then I was a skeptic, mystified that someone had disarmed me to the point where I felt trust of a magnitude I didn’t expect. We weren’t perfect. But I could never imagine establishing another relationship that could approach what we shared. And that’s the only type of connection I miss. I classify myself as an extroverted introvert. I know how to socialize but I’m okay with a considerable amount of time on my own. We were actually quite alike in that way, but in his mind toward the end of his life, I think all he could imagine was my loneliness. That’s true, but I’m only lonely for him. The rest of the time I’m good. I have enough friends, family and incidental contacts to meet my need for contact. It’s working for me.

A giant asteroid hit the Earth some 66 million years ago, resulting in the extinction of dinosaurs. However, cockroaches survived.

My daughter once called me a cockroach. I wasn’t insulted. I knew she meant that as a compliment. I think Michael would’ve agreed with her if only he’d thought of the reference. What’s true is that so far, I’ve been able to keep making my way, despite the challenges life has tossed my way. Things could always be worse and in fact, I always remember that comparatively speaking, I’ve had an easy ride when considering how harshly the world treats so many. What I learned from watching Michael try so hard to stay alive, was that I need to appreciate any extra time I get, if for no other reason than to honor his memory and our relationship. I recognize that the person I’ve evolved into now is essentially an outgrowth of our solid decades together. I want to make good use of my time, doing as much of what we imagined our retired life would be, on my own.

Me with my daughter and son.
My grandsons
Holding my sleeping granddaughter

So, after he’s gone. I spend time with our family. Although mostly I stay present in my experiences, there are moments when I’m flooded by Michael’s absence. I guess that sounds weird but it’s apt. I wish he’d could have had the pleasure of watching all the changes I’ve been able to witness, from our daughter’s remarkable journey in her law career to our son’s resilience as he navigated a tough job market, finally landing a position where he’ll have an opportunity to utilize his wide-ranging talents. I get to see them as parents and partners, not to mention watching their kids evolve as they grow. At least Michael got to know the first two grandkids, albeit for too short a time. When I hold our baby granddaughter, I think of how much he’d have loved to meet her. Sometimes people who knew us and our kids when they were little, remark that this little girl resembles him. What a curious mixture of love and wistfulness I feel at those times.

Starved Rock
The pool at Starved Rock
The joy of Lakeside
Horseshoe Falls, Niagara, Canada

Michael would be glad to know I’ve been able to travel, back to our old favorite places like Starved Rock and Lakeside in addition to new ones like Niagara Falls, Canada. I used to think I’d never be able to be in our special spots without feeling miserable but I was wrong. I remember incredible details of all that was good. I think he’d be proud of me for the trips I’ve taken alone, out to Sedona, Yellowstone and Glacier. I like that independence I feel and the quiet time to reflect on all the natural beauty this planet still offers. The climate change issues and the awful political mess that started before Michael was gone still rattle my cage on a daily basis. Getting a break from that miserable stuff is necessary for my sanity.


I’m still gardening away. Michael wouldn’t recognize parts of our yard, as I’ve slowly chipped away at his beloved suburban lawn, replacing it with pollinator-attracting plants. I still grow some vegetables which I harvest when the squirrels don’t get them and I’m always glad to see his perennial herbs, planted decades ago, reappear every year. Sometimes I’m not sure where I feel most connected to him, but that garden where we worked side by side for so many years is certainly still filled with all kinds of our magic. The kids are under strict instructions to mix our ashes together when I exit this life and spread them on that ground. So far, the plan is to start there and then make a few deposits in the Lake Michigan and the Gulf. That is, if the natural world still resembles some kind of normal. The earth is so hot right now that the Gulf has an average temperature of a hot tub. Terrifying.

A part of the garden
What was once grass
The front garden

I still have all my hobbies, still take lots of classes and generally, feel like I’ll never have enough time to do everything on my mind. I have adopted the peculiar habit of making lists of every movie I’ve seen, every book I’ve read, every concert I’ve attended, every television series I’ve watched, all in the category of “since Michael’s death.” I think in the beginning, that was a way to remind myself that I was still alive after months of being focused on impending death and separation. Now I just think the lists are interesting bits of my personal history which my kids might enjoy reading some day.

North to Alaska

Meanwhile I’ll be employing a number of my “after you’ve gone adaptive skills” soon. Next week I’ll be taking the Covid – cancelled trip to Alaska which was scheduled for May, 2020. I’m glad that three years later I’m still healthy enough to go. In addition, somewhere along the way, I realized that I only have four more states to see out of the fifty in the U.S. This upcoming trip will knock that down to one after some schedule juggling. I hope I survive my own planning.

My son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter.

The other more emotionally taxing experience will be adjusting to the upcoming move of my son and his family to Colorado. I knew this was a possibility as he was applying to far-flung jobs. But I’ve so enjoyed having him close by, despite all his adventures in science which have taken him to all corners of the world. He always managed to come back to live at home for awhile. I’ve been so lucky. I think I prioritized my time well, especially with my granddaughter for whom I’ve been a bit like a bonus parent. These are the things that are particularly hard without my partner, someone who’d feel pretty much exactly like me when facing situation like these. On the other hand, if I can do his absence, I’m sure I’ll find the way to manage this one.

Looking at these photos while I write.

A bathrobe stimulated me to write this post. I’m sitting in my bedroom, or my shrine as my daughter calls it. Whatever. Over six years after he’s gone. I think I’m doing alright.

Julie and Farewells

When I woke up this morning, my first thought was that today is Julie’s birthday. An easy one to remember since it’s the Fourth of July. The least I can do is to remember her before the fireworks begin.

I wrote this blog in 2019. Julie died in March of 2020, barely a day before Covid took over our world. Today her memorial service was finally held, more than two years after her death. The intimate presentations by her husband and friends, punctuated by selections of Julie’s beautiful writing, was powerful. As I sat on Zoom, watching it all, I sobbed and intermittently looked into my backyard, watching birds fluttering around, listening to their calls as the mating season has arrived. How I miss my wonderful friend who loved watching the chickadees visit the bird feeder on her back deck. Rich chose a selection from a note I wrote her, which appears highlighted below, in his eulogy. I feel the same way today as I did back then. Goodbye, dearest Julie.


I have a beloved friend named Julie. I’ve been lucky enough to have kept her in my life for about 50 years. We met in college. We were part of the revolutionary days of the late ‘60’s and early 70’s. We were anti-war, pro-women’s and civil rights and profoundly anti-establishment and anti-patriarchy. Julie was a warrior-poet. Erudite, well-read, sardonic and bitingly funny, she was my kind of person. She had the courage to head a slate of candidates who were running for office as an alternative student government at our university, with Julie as the chair. Everyone won but her. A more moderate male was elected to the spot which should rightfully have been hers. Hard times for women back then, despite some progress. Still hard times. I knew Julie before she married her husband Rich as she knew me before I married Michael. Today that seems almost as if we were friends in prehistoric times.

She was a few years older than me. I can’t find a couple of excellent photos of her from back in those days but I include a few blurry ones. She was very spirited and beautiful, along with all her intellectual firepower. Julie was a “townie,” born in the community where we both attended college. When she got involved with Rich who was a graduate student, she got a job and stayed in town while he was finishing his degree. They had a daughter who is few years older than mine.B9D44278-8654-4E14-BEFC-FD431D9CC944

When many of our friends made the post-graduation exodus to Chicago, we still had each other and I felt lucky that our two daughters, a few years apart in age, played in the same houses together. Eventually, Rich got a job at a college in Kentucky and they packed up and moved away. We wrote, frequently at first, and then less so. But it didn’t really matter. When we got together, we had one of those easy relationships that picked up where it left off, without any difficult transitions.7A32A9CD-FC31-46A3-95CE-D46E9B683E54

Eventually, they moved to Ames, Iowa where they still reside. They came back here frequently to Julie’s hometown for visits, her hometown where I still reside. Eventually her dad died which was a big deal because he was a department head at the University. I remember going to the memorial service for him which was crowded and blurry because of all the attendees. But I was there. As years went by, Julie’s mom ultimately needed living assistance and Julie moved her to Ames. Visits home decreased. Still we managed to stay in touch.A4A2FEE9-EEAA-4439-A1F9-962D0E1203C6

About 19 years ago, breast cancer showed up in Julie’s life at a pretty early age. It was one of the particularly nasty types, the Her-2 positive version which necessitated that she was blasted with treatment. She clawed her way through all of that and came out on the other side, for which all who loved her were deeply grateful. But about three years ago, cancer reappeared in her liver, the same breast cancer as the earlier one, with a slightly different mutation. How incredible that a cancer can lie dormant for almost seventeen years and then re-emerge in a new place and be so life-threatening. By that time, Michael had succumbed to his cancer and I was a free agent. Cancer can be such an isolating experience. I’d vowed to myself that I would make myself available to loved ones and friends who were going through treatments and hard times.

So I took off for Ames in fall of 2017 to spend some time with my old friends and give them support and empathy in their difficult situation. We had a wonderful visit and although we were uncertain about how effective the treatments would be, I hoped that I’d see Julie again. And that’s exactly what happened. She outlived her prognosis and actually did well enough to make a visit back here last year.

Other dear friends from Chicago joined us and we all were thrilled and hopeful that she would be one of those who’d beat the odds. She had such a good time that she talked about the possibility of moving back here and reestablishing a life in the town of her childhood. We continued to communicate and all seemed well. But suddenly things took a dark turn – the liver cancer metastasized and spread to her colon. An exploratory surgery unearthed too many bad spots splayed out everywhere and the only treatment  alternative was a “light” chemo, as if anything that toxic could actually be termed light. Her response was dreadful with her immune system getting hammered and making her vulnerable to virtually any opportunistic germ. Slowly she recovered from that.20E0A589-208C-4462-B286-AE351D8C92CB

During the US Open that year, she and Rich and I spoke before my personal favorite, Roger Federer’s, match on a Tuesday evening. We were all pretty lighthearted. But the next day, Julie began experiencing dreadful abdominal pain and was hospitalized. After scans and other tests, the doctors concluded that she had an intestinal obstruction which in the case of someone with her disease, was considered a death sentence. On September 7th, Rich sent out a note to family and friends saying that Julie had days to weeks to live and was being transferred to a hospice facility. He told people that if we wanted to plan a goodbye we were welcome to do that and transmitted a message from Julie expressing her gratitude for all the love she’d felt from those of us who’d been part of her life.09A932F1-D74C-4629-9C24-E21E3F828127

I sat stunned in my living room, not knowing what I should do. My knee replacement surgery was still pretty recent and an hours’ long car ride with my leg bent seemed like a terrible idea. So I decided to send Rich a note with the request that he read it to Julie who was being treated for pain while being fed through nasogastric tubing. I wrote this on September 7th, the same day I got this dreadful news.

My dearest Julie,

I have lain beside you in beds and on couches since we were so very young, when we were vulnerable and pained, and when we were angry and valiant, and  so “in your face,” to the assholes of the world. So I lay beside you now, in some ethereal form which should be wordless in reality, but is not in the case of you and me. I remember.

Hours of talking and sorting and handholding. Speaking of love and sadness and mysteries of this difficult world. Gales of laughter through the worst of times. The gifts of our language which we acquired on the journey of this life ring loudly in my head. Julie the poet. I could listen to you for hours and you listened to me, a master of graffiti, as we found the right word that would resonate for whatever was the urgency of the moment.

I have not left you and you will not leave me. Whatever are the crevices that our bodies hold for those who come along and somehow wriggle into the fabric of our person is the place I am in you and the place you are in me. Even when we are converted to ash or dust, that space for each other was settled long ago.

I wish you release from every type of pain. You’ve suffered better life’s challenges because your will came from a place of love. For as long as I am a corporeal being I will lift your banner and try to ease the pain of your dearest family. I treasure what we’ve been able to share in recent years, an affirmation of what is unbreakable and forever. I love you, Julie, for now and always. Thank you for being a gift in my life.



I thought this would be the last communication between me and my old friend and I was terribly sad. But as days went by, there were changes happening with Julie. She decided she wanted her feeding tube removed as it was interfering with her ability to feel close to people. That happened, and eventually, she progressed from a tiny amount of liquids to more solid food with no significant adverse effects. After days in hospice went by, she was able to have her IV pain meds replaced with other forms of delivery and got strong enough to get around without her walker. By September 23rd, Rich informed us that Julie was going into hospice at home where she could look at her own trees through her windows and have the comforts of her own space as she walks down the narrower road to the end of life.

People were invited to visit and on September 26th, I felt good enough to climb in the car for a seven hour drive to see my friend. That was a longer trip than I expected due to construction and traffic and I worried that Julie might be too tired to relate to me. And sure enough, within about 45 minutes of my arrival, her eyes were closing. So I thought I would give her what I could in silence and darkness. I must have a peculiar pheromone, one that my family calls my special sleep “juju” that acts like a sedative on most people. I climbed into Julie’s bed and she put her pillows in my lap, snuggled under a blanket and allowed me to gently massage her until she passed out. And I sat there for about three hours sending my quiet love and empathy to her as she rested.

The next day she felt pretty well and between appointments with hospice people and her daughter coming over, we chatted and talked about everyday life, old memories, death, cancer and everything in between. I slipped out for awhile to have lunch on my own and to give Rich and Julie some downtime and quiet space. I also wanted to find some sweets and fruit that the nurses were recommending for extra calories to provide strength. A lovely cafe with a bakery helped me feed myself and bring in treats that I hoped Julie would enjoy. We stayed up later last night, squeezing as much time in as we could get. But everyone feared that the full time company could prove too exhausting and that she might totally crash today. She said she felt better than she’d anticipated and we talked some more about the big ideas of life with a few light notes tossed in for fun.

Finally the time came to leave as I had a long drive ahead of me, and Julie was scheduled for the aspects of hospice that include visits. Time is a valuable commodity. So we had what might have been our final embrace. Julie is fragile but wept with strength while I held on to myself as I learned to do during all the practice I had in grieving Michael during his day by day decline. I have no idea how long Julie will stay alive or if I’ll have the chance to see her again. This time of my life, as is true for all of us who are aging, will be filled with losses. I feel as if chunks of my history are being carved out of the tapestry that winds out behind me. Of course I have the peculiar combination of pain and the gift of memory which I hope I retain as long as I’m alive. There’s doesn’t seem much point in being around if you know nothing of yourself. But for now, I hope that visiting Julie while she is still cognitive and aware was the gift I intended it to be. It was hard for me. I’m still too close to Michael’s death so I relive that time in moments like this. I’m not sorry I did it though. Love is love and love is pain and pain is love and all is a jumbled mess. At least that’s how I see it. F2153451-61A9-44B3-9B62-2C78E68D5684

A Surprise Confession

The pool. Again.

Slightly over a month ago, I wrote about the fact that this pool where I swim daily, weather permitting, is a place where I do some of my best thinking. But I’m not always silently pondering away. There are these random conversations which spontaneously occur with the people sharing your lane. On most days, someone is usually swimming right next to you. Over time, the regular swimmers begin to engage, especially when we see each other, not only at the outdoor pool, but also at the indoor one, which is open for the length of a school year, from late August to late May.

Me at a different pool.

Despite the fact that a lot of people are around, and that kicking and splashing are pretty noisy activities, the pool can be surprisingly intimate. In the locker rooms, people get naked, both before and after wearing flimsy swim garments that outline their bodies, including their private parts. Most often, a nude stranger is showering next to you. Locker rooms also have toilets. That’s a whole lot of intimacy going on right there. Personal chatting doesn’t seem like such a big deal then, comparatively speaking, in such a literally stripped-down environment.

The indoor pool.

Over the years, I’ve certainly done my share of conversing with a fairly sizable group of people, connected only by our common choice of swimming as a primary exercise. When I first started logging my regular laps at the outdoor pool, I was only in my twenties. Back then, I was usually in the company of my friends or Michael, so I primarily socialized with them. Most of my other conversations were brief and limited to casual comments about the water temperature or the weather. As years went by, I wound up coming to the pool on my own. I noticed, and was noticed by the faithful who showed up every day. I remember one person telling me she was sure I was a lawyer after eavesdropping on some of my chatter. I haven’t figured out exactly why but maybe I was argumentative. Someone else thought I was a teacher. We all listened to each other. Over time, we habitual swimmers, governed by the hourly limits of lap swim schedules, would wind up chatting as we daily made our way through our routines. Back in those days I met and talked with Nina. She was a fascinating woman who spent her youth in Scandinavia hiding from Nazis. She moved to the U.S., married, had kids and became a newspaper columnist. By the time we met, she’d already been through breast cancer and at that current moment, was grappling with ovarian cancer. I’ve never forgotten her telling me that the nurses on the hospital cancer floor told her that fatter patients did better with chemotherapy than the skinny ones. I thought that was such a comforting tidbit. I told her about my family and she admired my breaststroke steadiness. I looked forward to our regular interactions. She’s been dead for about eighteen years now. But she’s alive in my memory. As years passed, people with whom I’d been side by side for many years are now gone. The passage of time exacted its price from some of those water lovers.

The walkers.

The two Joans both died. One Joan was a surprisingly robust woman, considering she’d had multiple sclerosis for many years. She needed a walker for stability and wore interesting water gloves for warmth and also, to improve her grip on the bars that eased her way into the water. She was what I’d call forthcoming, even blunt. She talked about her preference for her son over her daughter and shared details about her life with her deceased husband, Bob. She was a person with blatant prejudices; we tangled with each other about her racism and anti-semitism. Not your average pool talk. I found her honesty refreshing and was pleased that in her late seventies, she was still able to rethink some of her views. She used to visit Florida for part of the winter. One year she left and didn’t return. The other Joan was a tiny, frail person who sometimes seemed like she could drown at any moment. But she managed to pull herself up and back in the water, all the while with a hostile eye on the newbies who sometimes parked themselves in her favorite lane. Joan continued to swim even as she declined into dementia. Her daughter Susan came to stay with her, loyally bringing her to the pool even as her energy and focus waned. Eventually the aquatics managers were alarmed about her delicacy and requested that Joan discontinue her swimming. One day she stopped coming. I saw her being walked around the neighborhood but ultimately she passed away.

Some came with their canes.

Gisela, another elderly cancer survivor, continued to lower herself into the pool during her treatment, seeking the forgiving relief water provides to those in pain. So did Pat, so friendly and sociable, who shared the good and the sad stories about her youth and her current life as a loving wife, mother and grandmother. Her pool life was abruptly ended when a post-surgical leg abrasion turned into the wound which wouldn’t heal. So much for immersion in water. The rest of us still miss her company.

My daughter was tutored in math by Jerry, who in his 80’s is still a swimmer at the outdoor pool.

Recently I’ve realized that there’s been a shift in my position in the pool age hierarchy. Those of us in our early seventies have moved up to the “oldest” level, with so many of our former swimming mates now deceased or unable to attend. Jerry, the math tutor now in his eighties, still shows up intermittently with his wife, Joyce. Aside from them, the only other regular elderly attendee is Jack, now eighty-nine years old. Until two years ago, Jack would always come with his wife Emmer, to whom he’d been married for well over sixty years. They shared a remarkable story. They’d both been married before each other, to partners who had each died tragically when they were in their twenties. Jack and Emmer were single parents, who met and fell in love, ultimately recovering from their shared grief to build a new family. Sadly, Emmer died almost three years ago. Before that, I mostly talked with her in the water, sharing stories about our kids and talking about medicine and science. Emmer always had her bright white hair done in an impeccable style, never putting her “do” in the water.

Emmer always used on of those swim noodles to prop herself up as she paddled along. She’d had cardiac problems for several years and had gotten through a recent heart ablation, intended to stabilize her heartbeat. Her doctors were somewhat reluctant to proceed, given her age, but she cheerily went forward, always an optimist. I remember one hilarious interaction we had the summer before she died, when I realized she’d left her swimming supplies behind as she made her way to the locker room. I picked everything up and ran to the locker room where I found her, still getting ready to leave. I came in shouting, “Emmer, you’ve forgotten your noodle,” which made both of us laugh really hard. At that moment she was smiling with her perfect hair, emitting the scent of baby powder which she applied after every swim. That was the last time I ever saw her.

Jack – from Facebook.

Jack is now my oldest pool buddy. We usually share a lane at the outdoor pool during the three days a week he now permits himself, rather than five. He’s being cautious about not overdoing his exercise as he tries to protect his shoulder, which has gotten delicate in recent years. Aside from our shared appreciation for swimming, I think it’s unlikely that we’d ever have crossed paths. Not only is he seventeen years older than me, but we are diametrically opposite in terms of our fundamental beliefs. Jack and Emmer shared a deep fundamentalist commitment to religion which I do not. In addition, Jack is politically extremely conservative while I am at the opposite end of that spectrum. On the few occasions when we’ve exchanged ideas on those topics, our differences were immediate and obvious. Rather than engaging in conflict, we instead have chosen to chat about more neutral issues, always polite and I think genuinely wishing each other the best, as we make our way through the world, absent our deeply missed life partners. But apparently there is something about being in this exposed state that can elicit the most unlikely statements from people. At least that’s what happened a few days ago. I mentioned to Jack that my recent experience of caring for my granddaughter had added a dimension of physical contact to my life that I hadn’t had in the six years since my husband died. Getting accustomed to endless days without touching another human being is daunting after decades of body closeness. I think it’s generally agreed by those in all corners of the medical profession, that physical contact is an important and necessary factor in maintaining mental health.

Me and my granddaughter.

Jack quickly piped up and said he really missed his physical contact with Emmer. He talked about the comfort of her wonderful body. He stated that even though he thought she was where she was supposed to be, he wished he could still be with her. I was fascinated when he went further, talking about how he still fantasized about her at night, wondering aloud why he doesn’t see many articles about the long-lasting sexual drives that can still accompany a person into old age. As he lives in a senior citizens’ assisted living facility, I asked him if he ever discussed this topic with any of the other people who lived there. He said that he’d never discussed this issue with anyone and seemed a bit embarrassed to have mentioned it. I immediately responded that I thought his feelings were normal. Although I’m sure there is wide variation between people regarding their sex drives, I’m certain that more older people are sexually active or at least interested than some might imagine. I know I am. I found myself wondering out loud about how the commonly shared parts of life, like sexuality and death are still so off-limits in normal discourse. I know that if I bring up my own still-alive feelings that many people look positively squeamish. I was glad Jack felt comfortable enough to express himself to me although the irony of having this devoutly religious man unburden himself to me, his opposite, about such deeply personal feelings, was not lost on me. The good news is there was no subsequent awkwardness between Jack and me after our exchange. We even referred to that conversation again in the course of our recent swims beside each other.

I’m glad I’m still swimming. On the days when there’s no company I’m happy to buzz along in my own head, thinking away. I still visualize Michael when I’m in the water. I’m like Jack, still interested in my absent partner. I’m glad that I’m approachable, even to the most unlikely people. Life continues to be surprising in so many ways. You never know what someone in the next lane might confess to you. And that’s what keeps me interested in tomorrow. For anyone who’s curious, here’s an article about sex and the elderly. Very enlightening. Being old may not be what some people think.

Curiosity at 3 A.M.

An annoying photo Michael took of me from our bedroom window many years ago – me returning from the grocery store before he was even out of bed.

I’ve been trying to recall the point in my life when I stopped sleeping well. According to my parents, I was born a champion sleeper and stayed that way for my young life. My older siblings were so disruptive in the night that when I came along, regularly conked out for twelve hour stints, mom and dad took turns checking to make sure I was still alive. As I got older, I made do with fewer hours. I was also an early riser, preferring that quiet part of the day, when I often felt like the only conscious person on the planet. I was always awake before Michael and both my kids, even after my son, who was a dreadful sleeper, altered my steady rest forever.

Michael, asleep with one of our dogs, before we had kids.

Before anyone in the house had blinked sleepily awake, I had run all my errands, gone swimming and walked the dogs, getting back home in time for breakfast with the family until we took off for work and school. I’d never thought about this over-achieving routine as part of a life strategy. I think my internal clock was simply predisposed to this early morning schedule.

Michael and my daughter who snuck into my spot after I was long gone.

During our early years together, Michael and I quickly realized that his night owl tendencies did not align with my “up with the songbirds” habit. Over time, job requirements and kids helped us gradually adjust our schedules so that we could usually go to bed at the same time. As we got older, we both pushed ourselves to stay up a little later, anxious to spend our time doing things rather than sleeping. I found I could manage on about six hours of eyes closed. Michael needed more, so he supplemented with naps between work and dinner.

Michael catching an afternoon nap with our oldest grandson after getting home from teaching.

Ironically there started to be times when he was encouraging me to turn in earlier. I’d found that I needed the evening hours for fitting in all my interests, the ones that had nothing to do with any other people or obligations outside of myself. I started pushing myself to have a number of hours of discretionary time which equaled those committed to work when I was in my fifties. Sleep seemed like an unfortunate waste of time. I knew all about the connection between a good night’s rest and good health. But I pushed those boundaries anyway. Then, during the course of Michael’s cancer, his circadian rhythms kept changing, leaving me to adapt to his wildly unpredictable hours so I could be with him. Always in need of sleep when he was healthy, he passed out at every available opportunity.

Michael sleeping in the chemo infusion center.

I learned to be awake at any hour, especially in the middle of the night. I was always surprised at my ability to be lucid, no matter what time I lurched into consciousness. I realized that I would have been a great medical resident, those people who are required to function at a high level no matter how tired they might feel. Alas, that ship has sailed. In any event, after Michael died, my new hyper-alert schedule, conforming to nothing like “normal,” stuck. Now, over six years later, I’ve become a night person, in a way I could never have imagined. If I’m lucky, I can get five uninterrupted hours of sleep. Even after days when I’ve been swimming and doing heavy gardening, I only seem to manage a little over four and a half hours on a regular basis. Of course I get tired. But if I squeeze in a nap for an hour and a bit more, I feel rejuvenated and ready to keep going.

Classic photo of Michael and my son sleeping.

All that morning energy which I’m still able to muster when I wake, is at night transformed from the physical realm into a mental one. Maybe it’s the darkness. Or more just the stillness. There are no birds singing at midnight or beyond. I can hear an occasional vehicle going somewhere, or a siren or a faraway train whistle. But mostly I hear nothing but my own thoughts. I don’t listen to music at night. I let myself drift.

My daughter asleep on my bed.

I know I should follow all the suggestions for getting a good night’s sleep like turning off all screens, performing relaxing nighttime rituals like taking a warm bath, and avoiding stimulation. But the most innocuous activity, like watching a movie or reading a scientific article can suddenly and unexpectedly pique my curiosity. That dead-of-night interest leads to exploration which I know I should avoid until the next day. But there’s something so satisfying about being in the quiet, discovering something new that feels like it’s filling a previously unknown gap in my education. I know that sounds ridiculous. I honestly have no idea why my restless quests for more knowledge feel so important. I think to myself, “ what possible practical purpose do these deep dives into some offhand topic have in the long run?” I’m not going to teach them to anyone else, except perhaps in a casual conversation. Do I need more random facts taking up space in my brain? Am I just an older version of that kid who once thought I’d be able to read every book that was published? For a long time I thought I could, until I read somewhere that on average, there are about eleven thousand books published daily in the great big world. Another bubble burst. While I engage in these internal debates, I often hear my mother’s voice intoning one of her favorite adages, “no one can hurt you as badly as you can hurt yourself.” I’m sitting here in the night, thinking I should go to bed while digging for new information on the thought of the moment. I actually have an example that perfectly illustrates my behavior.

Me holding my oldest grandson.

A while back I started thinking about how despite the fact that I love movies, I’d never actually taken any classes about film, film history or film criticism. One of those subject areas that never quite fit into my formal education although in real life, it’s probably a tossup between how many books I’ve read and how many movies I’ve watched. I took plenty of classes about books and literary criticism. Maybe because I viewed books more seriously than movies? Were movies just a frivolous form of entertainment that didn’t have much to do with my view of what I could do with them as a career or vocation? I really don’t recall giving these ideas much thought until I was well into my adult life. Regardless, I wanted to learn more. After spending months with my eldest grandson, introducing him to films that had never crossed his radar, I wound up taking a class on the similarities between Alfred Hitchcock the director, and Edward Hopper, the artist. I really enjoyed it, learning more about Hitchcock and the fact that he directed several silent movies before the ones I knew well from my youth. I found an excellent example of one, The Lodger, which was so fascinating that I launched into digging out more of those films I hadn’t seen. I also got interested in directors. I hadn’t realized how much I’d never known was out there. I’ve been fascinated to see how well these gems have held up for almost a century.

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1926). Photograph: BFI

In the past year I’ve watched lots of these movies and highly recommend them. I include some stills from other particularly great choices.

Janet Gaynor, George O’Brien in the film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927). Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive
The Passion Of Joan Of Arc
Don Juan with John Barrymore and Mary Astor.

Turner Classic Movies (TMC) regularly runs silent films. Recently I noticed that they appeared to be showcasing documentaries about notable individuals who in the early days of cinema, made significant contributions to the industry. Again, I had no real knowledge about any of them. The other night I watched a film featuring one of those unknowns, at least to me, the biography of one Carl Laemmle. Laemmle, an impoverished Jewish immigrant from Germany, came to America to seek his fortune like so many others. But at age 40, he had yet to find success. A move to Chicago and his exposure to nickelodeons changed his life. He built a career in silent film as an innovator, clashing with Thomas Edison who wanted a complete monopoly over the movie industry. (I never knew about Edison’s heinous history on undermining labor. That is another rabbit hole for me to dive into some other time.) Laemmle wound up moving to California and founding Universal Studios, renowned for its pop horror films which built on the work of German expressionists from a decade earlier.

Carl Laemmle – photo credit – Journal Register.
Universal – Grand Opening Poster 1915 Universal City 005

Laemmle, became known as Uncle Carl, essentially by treating his employees like family members. This dynamic character also encouraged his female employees to take on assignments typically viewed as the men’s domain.

“So he gave workers already on his lot — including actresses, seamstresses, costume designers and other female employees — a crack at writing and directing short reels and feature-length movies. Lois Weber, often called America’s first female director, produced and directed a slew of films for Laemmle, many about controversial women’s issues such as abortion, divorce and sexual freedom. Her work was so popular that she became the highest-paid director at the studio and directed 100 films. Weber hired an assistant, Frances Marion, whose scripts were so good that Mary Pickford chose her as her official scriptwriter. Marion finished her career with 130 scripts to her name.” LA Times.

I just had to order this book about this woman I’ve never heard of before.

“If you were female, Universal was Shangri-La.” LA Times.

“There is this telling statistic about Uncle Carl’s company: During the heyday of Universal’s silent era, there were 30 female directors and 45 busy female screenwriters on the studio payroll, arguably the most in history.” LA Times.

Who knew any of this great stuff?

But there was more to learn about Carl Laemmle. In 1930 he produced All Quiet on the Western Front, the anti-war film which drew broad acclaim in the U.S. However, Germany saw the film as an affront. With the rise of Hitler and the right-wing National Socialist German Workers’ Party, Laemmle wound up permanently exiled from his native country. As the prejudice against Jews in Germany increased, he waged a campaign to save as many people as he could, taking on the limitations of the U.S. government along the way.

Laemmle with one of the people in the 300 families he helped escape from Nazi Germany.

Hollywood’s Unknown Rescuer

Before Schindler’s List, an L.A. studio boss saved hundreds of Jews from the Holocaust.


The moon at 3 a.m.

The Laemmle story is one of those things that keeps me awake. Not about current events, politics or climate change, not about my garden, my family or missing Michael, no – at 3 a.m. I find myself thinking about Carl Laemmle and Thomas Edison and now, Lois Weber. I go off on these tangents on a regular basis. All the logic in the world about sleep and health are irrelevant compared to the curiosity in the dark of night. What’s next? I have no idea.

My granddaughter asleep on me a few days ago.

I thought it would be appropriate to end this post with a photograph of me sleeping. But there aren’t any. I’ve asked everyone close to me if they have one and they don’t. The irony…