Happy Birthday to Me

7AD03FC1-BEF4-444F-B390-3F2B63EB698EIt’s my birthday. For some reason, birthdays have never meant very much to me. I know about the day I was born because my mom told me that story over and over again. She and my dad were living with my grandparents. She went into labor during the day when my dad was working. My grandparents didn’t have a car so they asked their neighbor Vern if he could drive them to Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago. Vern was nervous and driving fast so inevitably, he was stopped by the police. After they assessed the situation they wound up providing an escort for poor Vern and my mom.

Mom was in heavy labor but there was no chance of my arriving in the car. She told me she had an hourglass-shaped uterus and her kids got stuck in the narrow part. As her third baby, I was no exception. As she struggled away, the doctor, hardly dripping with my empathy, sternly looked her in the eye and said, “Dorothy, do you want to have this baby?” Evidently she complied. The other part of that day that she spoke of most often was getting wheeled to the nursery and looking for me amongst all the squalling infants. She said I was sound asleep, naked with a rashy rear end, elevated and ignored. I guess that was a sign of things to come.8454AA56-59F7-453A-BBE5-7F89995ECA25

There are no birthday photos of me in those little pointy hats with the elastic chinstraps or cakes and balloons. I know there were acknowledgments of my early years because I remember being told to make a birthday wish every year. I always wished I would get my own horse. After awhile, when it was clear that was never happening, I stopped the wishing part and evidently relegated the birthday to a lower echelon than big deal. 07ECB78A-81AA-4F62-A717-25C8C397F942

I did have a 13th birthday party. I think this happened because we lived in a Jewish neighborhood where many kids were having bar or bat mitzvahs that year. I had a light blue dress with white threads sewn into flower shapes on the bodice. I felt very grown up. I expect that was the point although no ceremonies were involved which inducted me into adulthood.

I also had a sweet sixteen at a restaurant called Jenny’s. I do have photos of that one. I got really nice gifts, felt included in the often unattainable cool crowd, and was happy to feel part of the social world around me. That made up for the scrabbling my family always seemed to be doing to cover the most basic needs.

So, this birthday. Why bother thinking about it? I was never daunted by the passing years. On occasion a birthday meant something. I was excited when I was able to vote. I never cared about being able to drink legally because I rarely drank, but still I felt legit. Given the lifestyle of my late teens and twenties, I noticed when I hit 30 because all my peers thought we’d be killed during the revolution of our youth, if not by the establishment, then perhaps by all the drugs we tried.

There was one birthday in 1989 that felt weighty because both my parents were diagnosed with cancer that year. Simultaneously Michael was elected to our local city council and promptly collapsed with a herniated disk that required surgery in the midst of all the other chaos. That year followed the emotional havoc of 1987 when my dear cousin committed suicide and 1988, when my beloved Fern took her life. Those three years made my world tilt on its axis. I was never the same after those traumas.1C91002F-578A-454B-9BAC-9788B7FE6A60

So I sailed on through 40, 50 and 60. My kids decided to throw me a big surprise party for the 60th and invited everyone they knew who’d been connected to my life. The surprise part went away when all those invited said they were coming and the kids needed some help paying for all the refreshments. Ha.

But that 60th was my last birthday with ease. The next year, Michael was diagnosed with cancer. Every second, every minute, every day was important as we wended our way through the miasma of disease and treatment. That’s when I really started learning how to live day by day, instead of just spouting off about it. Every morning when I opened my eyes and saw Michael breathing was better than any birthday. He would always say, I woke up so it’s a great day. I don’t think I’ll ever forget him saying that. 779F1F0B-C2A7-405C-9DD7-DFEB6E4AA3A4

Last year, May was a downhill slide for him. On my birthday, I sat holding his hand as he lay quietly, mostly comatose, me pleading with him silently, please don’t die on my birthday, please don’t die on my birthday. And he complied, dying four days later on what I believe was my brother’s anniversary with his first wife. May is such a full month in my family.

So, why be spending so much time thinking about this birthday? I suppose it’s because I will be 67, the same age that Michael was when he died, the same age that my father was when he died. What a strange coincidence. I learned that not everyone will really  live to be very old, unlike what we’re told  by countless articles and television commercials. Some of us will be gone tomorrow or the next day. No one really knows what may happen any second. And that’s probably a good thing because when fearful times come, no amount of anticipation can ever truly prepare you for the hit.

So on this birthday, just in case,  I’m taking time to notice what this age means for me. I’m mindful that my body feels and shows wear that didn’t used to be here. A graceful adjustment to those changes is a challenge.  But I can still swim four or five days a week and while in the water, I’m still as able as I ever felt. I’m aware that my mind is as keen if not keener than it’s ever been. I feel intuitive and wise. I’m still quick verbally and can think on my feet. Michael wrote that an early death would mean missing Alzheimer’s. I can relate.

 I’m still a political creature. I recently read a description of the French writer Octave Mirbeau which said, “Above all, he was a tireless campaigner for the causes of truth, justice, and the downtrodden—a man with very advanced ideas. A fellow novelist once said of him that every morning he got up angry and then spent the rest of the day looking for excuses to stay that way.” I chuckled when I read that, reminded of my own daily rage. I’m glad my youthful inclinations weren’t merely a phase but rather a foundation for my life.

As parts of me decline, I’m gaining ground in my head and my knowledge is expanding. I’m grateful for insatiable curiosity that has a life of its own even as I remain angry and frustrated that I didn’t get to have Michael until we were both ready to die together. If that time would ever have really arrived.  I never stop wondering or exploring even on the days when I cry at the drop of the proverbial hat or at a note of one of the zillion songs that remind me of him.

 

Then there’s the gratitude. I’ve been incredibly well-loved. I had a wonderful partner who was busy worrying about how to comfort me as he faced his own death. The same guy who sold a catalogue of music he’d built for starting his own record store 42 years ago, to another person who also wanted to start a store. He did that so he could buy me a ticket to fly to California to visit Fern where I could decide whether I wanted to commit to our relationship or walk away. Yeah, that happened. All around me are the manifestations of that love which kept growing, despite everything and anything, which lasted until his death and is still burning alive inside me. He said he’ll be with me forever and I believe that. How lucky am I?

 

Then there are my two children who are as close to me as children can be to a parent. They trust me, value me as a person. and they love me deeply. With all the twists and turns life takes while you raise a family, I got one that’s real, deep and substantive, another precious lucky gift when such things can often turn out so sadly. I even have a wonderful relationship with my son-in-law and am lucky to have two healthy grandchildren. I know so many people who hunger for these things in their lives.

 

I have my sister and sister/cousins who provide a web of support from wherever they are. And I have other extended family with whom I’ve managed to maintain caring relationships.

 

And then there’s my chosen family, comprised mainly of young people who were part of our family life through ties with my kids or other random connections. They rejuvenate me and keep from floating off into old people land. They enrich me by sharing their lives with me and continuing to be part of my world as they grow and develop their adult lives. If I was religious I guess I’d say I was blessed. Mostly I just feel fortunate. I’ve been able to cast a wide net which makes for a stimulating world.

 

I love my beautiful, old beater of a home. I feel as good in it today as I did when we moved here 40 years ago. The rooms literally vibrate with warmth and comfort. That it could be this way after Michael died here is testimony to the endurance of love. A few harsh months didn’t diminish what makes a home for years.  And there is my beloved garden. After hurling myself at this vast space for so long, it is my gift to everyone who sees it. I never get tired of looking at its beauty, even though I know the weeds may kill me and I’m likely to fall over in my flowers while I attempt to control the chaos of the life that pushes out of the ground without my permission.

 

I’m grateful for all the music I listen to daily. When I was working, I carried a notebook around for the last several years, noting what I wanted to do when I retired, that I didn’t have time for while being busy all day. Listening to whole albums that I loved was on that list and I’m elevated by doing that again.

I have dear, loving friends, some who’ve been with me for practically my entire life,  and others who are new or newly discovered. They help me navigate my days. I rarely feel lonely and when I do, it’s only for Michael.

I’m grateful for books, movies and art. I’m grateful for Netflix and hunky Jamie Fraser whose fictional character reminds me of Michael.  I’m grateful for my sense of humor, twisted though it may be. I’m grateful for the travel I’ve been able to do, not as much as I wished for, but certainly more than most people on this planet. I’ve been stretched intellectually and emotionally by being in different places and most importantly, I’ve righted my balance with the perspective gained by moving around.

But maybe most of all, I’m grateful that I’ve arrived in my full self. I am mentally and emotionally fearless. I feel unintimidated. No one scares me. Truth is my friend. And that makes life easier. Stripping away the phony rules of behavior is wonderfully liberating. There’s a lot to feel good about in my life. I know that if I still made birthday wishes, what I’d want this year is as unattainable as my horse. So far no one has found a way to return Michael to me. But in honor of his joy in life, on I go, hoping to remember always,  that he gave everything he had to wake up one more day. Not trying to do that makes me feel less than. I don’t like that feeling.807A9F37-6CE6-4892-B4DE-26A80F69445C

So happy 67th birthday to me. Maybe I’ll live longer than this year. Maybe not. But I’m acknowledging this time and this self that is me. I’m good with that.

Life Circles

 

I never knew my dad’s parents. They died before I was born. This wasn’t unusual. Many people grow up without extended family. My parents didn’t know any of their grandparents either.938EEA46-7260-4505-8367-07EB4D6EB620 However, my mom’s parents were always part of my life. I loved them.  But they weren’t the type of people who had much input into how I grew up. They were immigrants with limited ideas that didn’t seem particularly relevant to their current time. Although they were loving, they weren’t engaged with more than the most basic parts of my world. Food, a new dress and banter around a kitchen table. Aside from that, they didn’t have much to offer to me, a child of the 60’s. My grandfather died when I was a freshman in college. My grandmother lived long enough to meet my firstborn child. We appreciated and loved each other but their deaths weren’t earth shattering for me. 

When I became a parent, we traded visits with my mom and dad, us driving to see them while they took turns coming here. But they were getting older and life became more complicated. When my daughter was 5 and I was pregnant with my son, my parents moved from Chicago to live near my sister and me. They’d both experienced significant health issues, and running up and back to the city was becoming more and more challenging as my life got busier with kids and work. Having them close meant that I could more easily take care of them as they aged. 

They arrived just before I had my son. I had three months’ maternity leave and another month when I was able to take him to work with me. He was a happy, luscious baby and my parents were entranced by him. My mom said, he’s a good one – I’ve seen a lot of babies and I know. They offered to watch him during the week while I worked. Although anxious about their health, I was relieved to have him in a safe, loving environment. The early months of my daughter’s life entailed three different caregiving settings and I was worried and stressed about her all the time. With my parents here, I was able to nurse my boy on my lunch hour, call and check on him as often as I wanted, and be generally relieved that he was so adored all day. 

But during that time, my mother was hospitalized with newly developed diabetes and my father declared he could take care of my son by himself. I found this astonishing as I couldn’t remember my dad ever feeding and changing a baby in my life. He managed it. But I didn’t want to burden them with the responsibility so I found alternate care. My folks were beside themselves and so emotionally distraught that I let him go back to them. They managed to stay well until he started day care at about 14 months old. He was with them for just over 10 months. 

We spent regular family time together and my parents were babysitters and overnight hosts on numerous occasions. My mom, so perpetually girlish, played dress up, fabricated amazing fanciful stories, and read lots of books. Dad took everyone out for dollar pancakes and made sure no one got injured during adventure games. My kids were lucky to have so much extra attention. They were having the extended family that I’d had, but with greater intimacy with my parents than I’d had with my grandparents. It was lovely.  Sadly, a scant two years after they moved here, mom and dad got cancer within 5 weeks of each other. Our world changed overnight. My mother survived her breast cancer but my dad succumbed to his bladder cancer in under 4 months. My daughter was 8 and my son was just shy of three years old. 

Both my kids were traumatized. My daughter was older and able to reason things through, to understand and accept our explanations about cancer and death. My son’s experience was different. He was too little. He couldn’t make sense of anything.   He’d never been a great sleeper and for the next several years couldn’t sleep through the night. He wound up in a little nest on the floor by our bed, always reaching up with his hand to make sure we were there. He was terrified of death. He argued incessantly about the unfairness of having no company in his bed, despite being surrounded by a myriad of plush companions who “weren’t humans.”

When he was six and more cognitively aware, we got him help so he could work on the fears that had started when his grandfather effectively disappeared. In his world, my father had vanished with no real explanation.  After some time, he learned self-soothing skills and eased into a more normal schedule. The bond he’d built with my parents went forward with my mother. 

E563E987-A54D-45D7-96F3-98F20AA4B5A5.jpegAs he grew older, he maintained an intimate relationship with her and considered her a confidante and a person of trust. He never went through the phase of distancing himself from her like so many young men transitioning to adulthood. He always spent time with her, eventually returning all her caregiving with nurturing of his own. As she aged and became more limited in mobility and cognitive function, he visited her with his movie camera to interview her and save her memories. He took her out to breakfast, her favorite meal,  and wheeled her outside through the parks and our campus community, singing and chatting with her, tucking sprigs of lilacs behind her ears and making her convulse with laughter. I marveled at his consistent devotion and often wondered about the connection that was created during those early months when he spent all his days with my parents. Would his relationship with them,  and most particularly my mother,  have been the same, absent that shared living time? Who knows? On the eve of her death, he came to say goodbye. As I watched them, I was powerfully moved by the depth of the extended look they shared and I felt the passing of the powerful emotions between them. I’ll always remember that look. I know that he still misses her every day.

I spent my career in a small intimate office working with three women for over 30 years. They were a few years older than me. When they turned 65, they all retired. I stayed on and helped train the new employees, but I was the classic fish out of water and had no idea how I’d get through another three years until I became eligible for my pension. Then my daughter became pregnant. I realized that I had enough years to retire as long as I had income to cover the costs of my health insurance until I was Medicare-eligible. That amount was significantly less than the cost of day care for an infant. A perfect solution for everyone. I chose to provide my daughter the same gift my parents had given me, the ease of going to work without fear for the baby. 

I retired in October 2010 and began caring for my grandson when he was seven weeks old. The adjustment was greater than I anticipated. I’d been working since I was 15, always having a job as I went through my older high school days and college. Except for maternity leave, I’d never spent all day every day with my children except on weekends. My days with Gabriel were long and challenging,  but I fell deeply in love with my grandson. My husband did, too, coming home after teaching, snuggling into naps, reading, playing and singing. My mom, who was in her late 80’s and growing infirm, moved in with us. Our son, who was working on his PhD, spent half his year living at our house. We led the multi-generational shared living situation that had been more common in previous generations.

The rhythm of our life came to a dead stop in April, 2012, when my husband was diagnosed with rare Merkel cell cancer. He got through his initial surgeries and treatments and had the summer to recover before returning to teaching. But we knew we were living under the threat of an incurable orphan disease. Meanwhile, I managed to continue to care for my grandson with a bit of schedule juggling. We hoped I could keep him until he was 3, a good age to start to day care and learn socialization. He was the bright light in the midst of our fear and anxiety. I was sad to see him move on to preschool in August of 2013. 

Michael’s health seemed stable. By that time my daughter was pregnant with her second child who was due in January. I would have a few months off and then begin caring for the new grandchild in February, hoping to give him the same care as his brother. But life threw us its worst curve in November of that year when Michael was diagnosed with widespread metastatic disease. We were told that absent treatment, he would have 2-3 months to live. All plans vanished. Michael began chemotherapy in December after wrapping up his teaching career. My daughter and son-in-law secured a daycare spot for the new baby as I intended to devote myself to Michael’s care and become his medical advocate. We made plans to move my mother into assisted living as I could no longer divide my attention between her and my husband. The big question was whether Michael would tolerate his medications and stay alive long enough to meet the new baby. I felt like I was living my parents’ life with Michael teetering on the edge of death and my young grandson facing the same challenge as my children had.

Michael defied the odds. He responded well to treatment and was here to meet his new grandchild. And Gabriel got older, past the time when my son could make little sense of what was happening to his grandparents. As he did, his cognitive skills grew and although we kept details of Michael’s cancer from him, he understood that grandpa was sick. For a few years the ups and downs of Michael’s health didn’t interfere with Gabriel’s daily life or his emotions. He felt stable. His grandpa took him to swimming lessons and helped him practice riding his two-wheeler. On the bad days, they curled up together and watched kids’ shows and movies on television.

All that changed in January, 2017 when Michael’s cancer first subtly, and then with a roar, returned and affected his brain. After a few bewildering weeks with tests that came back negative for disease, I dragged him to the ER to get to the root of the problems. A brain MRI unearthed widespread cancer, like a meningitis of the brain.  We wound up staying in the hospital for 32 days and nights where Michael opted for brutal treatment that offered little hope for survival. While he struggled on, the hospital room became the place where the grandkids saw their grandfather. And it was weird there. He slept a lot and was barely communicating. I tried to be normal but was incredibly distracted. Their visits were short, scary and unsatisfying. 

Somehow, Michael survived those grueling weeks and we returned home. He wasn’t the same person, although for a few weeks, he regained enough strength to go across the street and visit the kids in their home. But he was confused and frustrated by the cancer advancing in his brain. One time, he was short tempered with Gabriel who was just being a normal, talkative 6 year old boy. I admonished Michael who was immediately regretful. He apologized to Gabriel. That little boy said he understood that grandpa didn’t mean to be harsh and that he knew the cancer had corrupted his brain. An unforgettable moment. As days passed, Michael gave Gabriel his pocket watch which he’d always loved because it had a cool red light that was fun to turn on and off. When he got it, he said he understood that this was unexpected gift that would always be a memory for him. 

In late May Michael died at home. That afternoon, our family gathered and Gabriel asked for the bandana  Michael wore during chemo and the one which he always wore in camaraderie. We all began to grieve and make our adjustments. 

During this past year, I have been operating on several planes. First, there is my personal journey about the death of my best friend and lover who was with me for 45 years. Then there is the view from my internal observation deck as I stand at the edge of my inexorable  physiological diminishing. This  has been an interesting challenge as my body changes and I face the fact that my best physical years are behind me. I would like to be graceful about this transition although I wrangle with my expectations for myself and the expectations of others.  

Then there is my role as mother to my grieving children. Although they’re adults, they need to share their feelings about what for many years was our tight knit foursome that stood against the world. Michael was a huge loss for them and now, I embody not only myself, but the institutional memory of our family. They were always aware that nothing lasts forever. But for a time, it seemed like Michael would. 

And finally, there are my grandsons, and most particularly Gabriel. I worry about Tristan for whom Michael’s death mirrored my son’s experience with my father. He was too little to understand what happened aside from knowing that grandpa was sick. One day he was just gone. For awhile, he looked for him and he can still identify him in photos. But I have no way of knowing how this death will manifest in him until he’s older and more able to express himself. 

But Gabriel. He remembers everything. He lived with us for almost three years, every weekday for most of his waking hours. As he helplessly watched Michael slip away, he was alive with awareness. Suddenly vulnerability entered his life. He sounds like an old guy sometimes when he says things like, life just isn’t the same without grandpa and that everything has changed. He recognizes mortality, his and everyone else’s. Thankfully he has the verbal skills to express his feelings but it is daunting to stand in the face of his questions and fears. Trying to be truthful while providing comfort is hugely challenging. What do you say to a fearful child who says promise me you’ll never leave me? He’s smart enough to consider what might be inherently dangerous. Those things are to be avoided.  He’s also thinking about a career which is both safe for him and which may allow him to understand why some people survive cancer and others don’t. He likes to share private time with me so he can speak his worries and feel my presence which he associates with safety and security. If I cry, his face crumples with fleeting looks of fear, the desire to comfort, and the hope that I will emerge on the other side, smiling, just being grandma. Quite a learning curve. 

The sweetness and tender, open love of this sensitive child lays across my shoulders as both a curious balm and a heavy weight. He reaches into the parts of me that are still for giving to others. And because he is needing so much reassurance, I dig deep to assuage his vulnerability. If I live long enough, will he and I replicate the relationship my son had with my mother? Her old age doesn’t appeal to me because she was so physically limited and eventually dementia appeared. Could a bond with a grandchild make that work for me? That all remains to be seen.

I often feel I’m stretched beyond my capacity. Needing to be okay for the ones who love me can be a heavy load. I’m trying because it’s my nature to give. But probing around my insides is a necessity and more pressing right now. Balance is always hard. 

Life feels like overlapping circles. Sometimes I don’t know if I’m leading my own life or my mother’s. Our similarities are obvious and profound. Of course there are vast differences as well. She lived for another 25 years after my dad died. She wasn’t very motherly toward me and instead required a lot of care and support. But she remained a wonderful grandmother. I don’t know how much time she spent in deep introspection. That wasn’t her way, despite her astute perception about other people. I suspect I will keep paying attention to everyone, while trying to deal with myself and attempting to stay as even as possible. 

I’m still exploring life on my own. I have so many questions and interests which range from mundane to obscure. Managing my time and trying to be a mindful mother and grandmother are important to me. But often I’m left wondering about the inexplicable sensations that push aside everyday challenges and are so unexpected. Why do certain pieces of music make me feel that I’m breathing in the essence of Michael, filling me with peace and contentment? What is that about? I have no idea. As he often said, it is what it is. Wending my way through the density of all the layers, mine and everyone else’s,  is my ever morphing daily mystery. I’m trying to live life to the fullest, to leave the best of me with those I love.  Inch by inch….

The Soul of a Garage

I’m not really sure what a soul is – the dictionary defines it as the spiritual or immaterial part of an animal or human, regarded as immortal. Or, the embodiment of something else, like being the soul of discretion.

For a lot of my life, soul was about music, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, James Brown, Van Morrison and too many others to name. But as I’m kind of science-y and am interested in the brain and the tenets I learned about matter and energy being converted rather than being destroyed, I’ve come to think that soul is endless possibility and whatever people perceive it to be. And that perception varies widely from person to person.

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the garage. That’s mostly due to my bad knees which are overdue for intervention that exceeds the palliative kind. I deferred dealing with them while Michael was sick over those many years, always worried that he might need me while I might be unable to help if I was recovering from surgery. That turned out to be true. Although, in truth, he would always look at me, bemused, knowing that me volunteering for surgery was as likely as me volunteering to be shot out of a cannon. Yeah. I don’t like medical stuff, at least in relation to myself.
Last year when he died, I finally caved and went to see the orthopedic surgeon. Imagine my surprise when he told me I’d have to wait for knee replacement because studies showed that grieving people don’t respond well to that procedure. A surgeon who wouldn’t cut. Amazing. So I tried some different injections, but bone on bone knees just really need to be fixed. I’ve gotten used to the pain and the creaking. To cope, I’m chock full of self-help ideas that keep me active. One of my best ones was deciding that potting plants while seated in a place where dirt doesn’t matter much, would solve some of my problems. Hence the garage. I sit in there, working from a chair and it’s turned out to be a good choice.

But the garage was always Michael’s domain. I had some gardening stuff stored in it and because he was orderly, I always had room to park my car inside. But aside from going out there to chat with him or help when he needed an extra pair of hands for a project, I really wasn’t part of that space.
As these spring weeks have gone by, I’ve been in there for a couple of hours every day. And I started looking around. So many tools and gadgets and boxes and unfinished projects. After awhile, I started feeling inexplicable sensations that would just suddenly appear, washing over me or surging up in me. And I would be left with incredible emotions, sometimes sadness, sometimes elation, sometimes anger and often, frustration. Just so random and unpredictable.
But I’ve started figuring this out. I’m thinking that although we don’t normally attribute spiritual qualities to inanimate objects, it appears to me that I’m absorbing the remnants of Michael that are apparently embodied in the garage.
He loved being out there. Throughout our 40 years in the same home, I casually accepted and grew to depend on Michael’s multiple interests and talents that he employed to keep our big old farmhouse in mostly one piece. He taught himself carpentry and was a decent auto mechanic. Over the years he acquired lots of tools for both inside chores and yard and garden work. While living together I never really stopped to marvel at the fact that he never found a challenge that he didn’t meet with an idea. He just did stuff.
Things weren’t always tame or smooth. When he was frustrated, his famous temper would rear up and even in the house, you could hear things being heaved around out there, accompanied by a string of expletives which mostly made me and my kids laugh.


He’d be out there pounding away, sawing, measuring and using his ridiculous collection of clamps that ranged from teeny to enormous.
All our shelves were built in that garage. The ones for books, the spice racks, the CDs and the vinyl ones. His display cases for his hot sauce collection and his buttons and music memorabilia. The long coat rack in our back hallway was built there.
Boxes of keys, doorknobs and cellphones are on the workbenches, saved for the myriad of projects he wanted to build for use in his classroom. His fishing gear, slalom water ski and his beloved bicycle are sitting in their places. His ancient backpack, sleeping bag and our camping gear are there. An unfinished cornhole game for our grandchildren leans against a work table. The bolts are so big I think it’ll last a hundred years.


All his canning supplies are there for his annual tomato, salsa and pesto creations. Then there was pickle making, corn relish, cucumber salad and who knows what else as he varied the vegetable and herb gardens every year.
And there are branches that he’d cut. I have no idea what the plan was for those. Our daughter’s first little rocking chair is up in the rafters-I know he intended to refinish that one day. Then there’s the wood. Wood in all shapes, lengths and sizes. The love of wood was a real thing for him. He made a beautiful drafting table that he used for drawing his abstract pictures. A few hours in a lumber yard was a favorite pastime.
So what does all this mean? I’ve come to believe that the garage is holding parts of Michael in its walls, in the tools, in the varied sports gear and the hobbies evident there. When I sit there, the essence of him is in there with me. The garage has soul. Last year I was too raw to notice anything out there. I’d feel Michael’s presence in our house. The sensation of what that is defies all my words. When we moved in here, we both felt that good things had happened in this space. And now the spirit of him and us and our family has joined what came before us. I wondered if going through the end of his life and his death in this our safe cocoon might change the way I felt about being here. But that didn’t happen. This is still the place with all the good vibes.
And the garage has them too. As some of the haze of grief recedes and my sharpness asserts itself, instead of feeling less of Michael, I feel him more. My awareness of the breadth of his skills and talents is often breathtaking. I admire him more than ever. He wasn’t just about teaching or public service or even being a loving husband, father and friend. Some people lead tiny lives. His was big and adventurous and the essence of him has rippled out and still occupies physical space.
My garage has a soul. Being in it is being immersed in my life partner. What an unexpected gift. I add it to my pile of treasures from our shared life.

The Lusty Month of May

 

4845FCDF-1600-4878-8952-218A421128A4When I was in my late teens, I went to see the film Camelot which was based on a stage musical. The movie premiered in 1967. The title of this post is a song from that film, composed by Lerner and Loewe. The story was emotionally stirring and made its way into our cultural lore as emblematic of life during the Kennedy administration.
Of course we know that the romance and the tragedy skimmed the surface of politics, life and love. But I sobbed my way through it anyway, leaving intellect aside to just feel all the feels. I remember.
And what did May really mean to me? As a youngster it meant a surprise May basket, stuffed with candy, and a dance around the maypole at school, entwining pastel crepe paper streamers as we skipped under each other to avoid tangling.
I have a May birthday. So did my childhood friend Fern who was born 10 days before me. But even though we were bonded in time, she was a Taurus and I was a Gemini which somehow meant we could account for our very glaring differences.

C11321A6-6F69-4427-907D-FFC82C0BE59EAnd May was also Mother’s Day month which back in my youth, meant waking before dawn and assembling a breakfast for my mom with my siblings. A breakfast which we usually picked at until there was virtually nothing left for her. She just wanted to sleep anyway.

MAYDAY-CST-050214-003.JPGWhen I got older, May 1st became the celebration of labor and a new bond that I felt out on the left wing with my political friends. I learned the words to the Internationale, although I’m not sure I recall all of them.

 

 

92E47B0A-1B90-4F92-B3ED-BF7F5BBE0E1CAnd then suddenly, I was in real love and after a four year testing period, Michael and I chose May 1st as our wedding date. The lusty month of May indeed. As we got ready to actually do it, we looked wonderingly over the balcony of our hotel in Chicago and watched the May Day parade roll down Wacker Drive, thinking how odd it was that we weren’t down there marching.

18B2D977-2445-4443-9412-4752525900A5
Fern died 30 years ago and although I think of her regularly each year, her birthday is always a difficult time for me.

When Michael died last year on May 28th, four days after my birthday, I realized that the joy I always associated with the lusty month had now gone sour. Instead of celebrations, these dates which marked such significant events will at best be bittersweet. For now, as I face down my first wedding anniversary without Michael, soon to be followed by my first mother’s day without him and my mom long gone, I realize that those moments are just the beginning. Next will be Fern’s birthday, followed by my first birthday without Michael and then, the biggest one, the first anniversary of his death.
It feels like a lot to me. I know that maybe some day, the pain from all of these landmarks will lessen. I’ve had anticipatory grief, trying to prepare for May which is now finally upon me. I am flooded with memories of our wedding scrambled in with the final weeks of Michael’s life last year. There are too many stories to weave into a blog post.
I woke today and felt internally wobbly. I managed a few chores and went swimming, happy that my usual crew wasn’t at the pool because I wasn’t sure I could keep myself together. Then I went home and gardened for awhile, listening to music, crying and imposing a state of silence on myself. For this year, I need to go through these first few days and nights alone. And I settled on what I needed to say, to let free the memories seared into my mind and the thoughts I’ve been journaling as I’ve navigated this year.

8AB1F9C5-8C77-47C7-884E-39ACAA02ACE0
First, there are our wedding vows that we wrote so earnestly all those decades ago.
Me: I stumbled about in the labyrinth
Pained and troubled by a bleak confusion.
Imagine my joy when a light in a far corner was you.
Me: Michael, with you I will reach for an ever-growing integrity in living.
Michael: Renee with you I will strive for an equal sharing of love, responsibility and trust.
Me: With you I will share my thoughts and emotions in honesty.
Michael: Together we will work for individual growth and development that we may each find meaning in our lives.
Me: Together we will struggle to make beauty, dignity and mutual respect integral parts of our relationship.
Michael: Together we will search for a fulfillment of our ideals.
Michael: Through the darkness of my mind, I search for what I see is true.
I stood alone without belief-the only trust I know is you.

Not exactly standard fare, but reflective of who we were and how we tried to live.

3794115A-9A4E-4C5F-9247-E568A4B1C586And then there was this note I wrote to Michael in July, 1997 which I found when going through his papers after he died. Already 25 years into our relationship. It still moves me and was oddly prescient of how I still feel today.

In my head, I see your profile
Because I’m next to you, as usual.
Thinking of what we’ve done.
Births
Surgeries
Death
Lies
Fears
Insecurities
Joy
Companionship
Passion
Friendship
Tenderness
Excitement
Longing
Everything.
With more to come.
It sneaks up on you.
Year after year.
The great love of your life.
Your best friend.
The blurry lines between you and me and me and you.
I made the right choices. I did the best for me.
Right now, our children are coming home from a trip, haven’t seen them in six days or so.
Haven’t seen you in four hours.
I miss you more.
Will you be coming to sit on my bed in the middle of the night if you should die before me?
The way my mother says my father comes to hers?

I have no memory of writing that but here it is, in black and white before me.

Every year, Michael gave me roses on our anniversary. The tradition started with one for each year but after awhile, that got too expensive. He always wrote a little note on one of the cards that are lying around when you go to pick up flowers. I have all of them. In 2014, he had just finished 18 rounds of chemo before our anniversary. The card below came that year. And he certainly kept his word as he did impossible things to stay alive.A05D13AA-00CB-4E9A-A3B0-BAD2BB588D1A

This is what I wrote a few days ago, assessing where I am today, approaching this intense month.

Anniversary Love – For Michael

You are every note and every lyric.
You are every story and every poem.
You are light and midnight blue.
You are every petal and every stalk.
You are the field, the mountain, the glade, the ocean.
You are serenity and rage, peace and tumult.
You are constant and transient.
You are daunting strength and trembling weakness.
You are my comfort and my desolation.
You are satiety and starvation.
You are the beginning, the middle and the end.
You are the past, the present and the future.
How could both your presence and your absence blot out everything?

Have I left anything out?

The lusty month of May. I hope I have the strength for it.

I Will Speak Out

 

407FF0AD-61C8-4EFC-9B8F-005DFF3DF2E7For you with the well-meaning intentions.

I won’t be robbed of my voice.
I will not be told what I’m supposed to feel.
I will not be told what I’m supposed to do.
I will not be told what I should expect.
I will not hide myself to make life easier for you.

Keep your platitudes.
Stop trying to comfort me.
You are afraid.
Or you think you know things that you don’t.
I don’t care what happened to your friend or your sister or your mother or your daughter.
Don’t tell me that whatever happened to them will happen to me.
Stop telling me about what time will do for me.
We, we humans, are not all the same.
You don’t know me as well as you think you do. Or as well you want to.2812C729-7025-4CB5-9937-145DC997CD28

I know me. I swim inside myself and I have been in here for decades. And I’ve been busy. Figuring me out.
Find the courage to look at the me that I am right now.
You can’t predict anything.
You can’t tell me what will happen.
I am what is, right now.
And right now is all that matters because tomorrow is anyone’s guess.

Right now song lyrics pierce my heart.
Right now I want to show the new best thing to my partner who is gone.
Right now I am brimming with stories that I only want to tell one person who is gone.
Right now when I worry I want to lay my head on the chest of my best friend who is gone.
Right now I remember powerful moments of passion for my absent lover who is gone.
Right now I want to talk about my children and grandchildren with my husband who is gone.
Right now I want to sit in a movie theater or a concert venue with my hand entwined with his as it always was. But he’s gone.
I want to talk about the news with my person who shared my views. He is gone.
Right now I know that I am uninterested in trying to fill the void left by my partner, my best friend, my lover, my husband. Who was all of those in one body.
Stop telling me what might happen.

I don’t care what you think.
I am still in love with the same person I loved for all the life that came after my teens.
And I’m in my mid-sixties. I’ve earned my wisdom.
I don’t care what you think I should want.
More importantly, I don’t care what you hope you’ll want if you become like me – the person whose person is gone.

What you want or need is not what I want or need. I never want to be the person who offers what is my version of your truth.8DA44C4A-CA87-4AA2-AE6E-EED244C2267A

I’m reading a book called Mad Enchantment, a book about art.
And that title describes what I feel for my person.
Still. An inexplicable magic that lives on unembodied.
And I think it will for always, until I die too. Mad enchantment.
If you’ve never felt this, I’m sorry. But I did. And no one gets to dilute it. Don’t believe it if that’s what you need to do. But this is my reality, not yours.
You don’t get to steal this from me.
With your good intentions.
Just be quiet. Or go away.

Expectations and Dogs

83A1B9C6-0304-4F8F-A023-F3A4498D752FI have been pondering the expectations I have for myself at this point in my life. Wondering which ones stem from my core and which ones I derive from cultural norms, at least norms as I perceive them through reading, conversation, and the overall seepage of daily technological input.

I remember some kind of quiz in which you described yourself starting from the most general category. Eventually you would add more refined adjectives to give a stranger a picture of yourself. My initial category was human being. Next was woman. Sometimes I was woman first. Daughter, sister, friend. Political entity. Girlfriend, lover, wife. Mother. Caregiver. Animal lover. Intellectual, confrontational. Passionate, questioning, psychologically daring. On and on. As I think myself through all these iterations and concepts, organically I wind up separating my life into time periods. That seems logical. As we evolve there are natural age demarcations in development that go along with growth. Some psychologists measure growth by decade. Early childhood, the first ten years, then the march through adolescence and the teens and finally the 20’s and onward.

Right now I am a widow in my sixties, coming up on the famous one year mark since my husband’s death. I don’t know how that one year got to be a societal thing. Wait a year before making any important decisions. Why a year? That’s just a sliver of time. What’s the magic in those twelve months that renders anyone more or less able to think or act?

I haven’t done anything that seems to fit the cultural expectations for this first year. My doctor’s advice was  to sleep, rest, eat healthy and exercise. Make no demands on yourself.  Well, I exercise. I’m working on the other parts of her advice. But the journey through Michael’s illness changed the way I feel about time. The high energy level I’ve had my whole life has slowed a bit and will inexorably become even slower as I age. So I’ve lived at a rapid pace this year and though there are times when I sit and relax, my inner furnace is blasting away and compelling me to move ahead with anything and everything. I no longer feel I can count on the tomorrows that used to feel they would roll out forever. My insides say, do it now. And I’m listening.

Somehow while thinking all this through I’ve wound up pondering my life with pets. Sounds strange, but they are metaphors for periods in time. I find that as I’ve moved through life, each companion reflects what I knew about myself, what I expected within the context of the duration of their lives. Thinking of who I was when they lived seems more relevant to me than the “one year rule.” So I need to give them their due.  They are windows into why I am this person at this moment. In at least a little way.

Early childhood. The expectation that it was our normal to share a life with pets.

EE81D9D7-1BF3-4BF5-9562-BB0E5428D463 Our home always had animals in it. We lived in Sioux City, Iowa at the time of this photo. I’m in the stroller. During those years we had a golden cocker spaniel named Trixie. I have no pictures of her. I remember her being unspayed which meant that while in heat, my mother had a lot of extra work to do. I was at the floor level with Trixie who wore diapers like me. Evidently I pushed my relationship with her because she bit me in my armpit and was given away. We moved houses and along came the next dog. King. Here I am with my arm around him. Of course, he was the family dog, but for me, that sweet face defined all my future pets. He shaped my vision for all my animal companions. The collies. Loyal, gentle friends who wanted to do what you needed them to do. Who looked in your eyes and felt you. Michael always said I liked intellectual dogs who thought like me. An astute observation. I wasn’t about playing ball and teaching tricks. I was about bonding and interacting. 5CDE10E5-649F-4948-8155-C6CC907AC49FI remembered  his gentle nature my whole life. When we moved to Chicago where we’d live in an apartment instead of a house, we had to leave him behind. My first big heartbreak with a pet. But not enough to stop the emotional risk we all take when we commit ourselves to loving someone who will likely die before us. A key lesson learned. And one which set an internal expectation of the cost of love.

In Chicago, my brother worked in a pet store and from age seven through my teens, we had a variety of critters, turtles, birds, cats and a few puppies who always outgrew our limited space. At seventeen, I graduated from high school and went off to college. I promptly got a dog which I smuggled into my dorm room. Arby grew fast and I deported her to my parents who eventually gave her away. My mom said she lost five pounds trying to walk her during the first week she was in Chicago. 

I needed a pet for me. When I finally moved into an apartment, my boyfriend at that time and I went to a friend’s place where we each chose a puppy from a large litter. His was Frankie. Mine was Herbie, named for the philosopher, Herbert Marcuse. She represented my ascent to independence. I was ready for the responsibility of my own animal. My relationship with the boyfriend was troubled. My relationship with Herbie was wonderful. A meeting of the souls. We slept curled up next to each other. She was what I wished for in a pet and I believe she reflected my values, loyal, attentive, unwavering. I was acting out my relationship expectations with a canine and figuring out what I needed. She accompanied me into my life with Michael. In the photo below, she’s the one lying with her head between her paws. Her one surviving puppy Tubby from a two puppy litter, is to her left. 0FDB93EA-C889-4C11-92B2-A482BF60D40AMichael and I were living communally at the time with a total of six people, four dogs and a cat. But Herbie and I still had our private thing. One night after arguing with Michael, I went to lie in my bed. Herbie came into the curve of my body as she’d done since she was a baby. Michael came into our room to talk and reached out to me. Herbie snapped at him. He was terribly disappointed. In the end, she remained a one-person dog. When we moved out on our own, she became aggressive toward strangers and bit our paperboy. I knew that keeping her was selfish and socially irresponsible.  So I gave her up. Michael took her to the Humane Society. I was so devastated, I sent him back the next day to get her. He was told she’d been taken by a farmer in a nearby community. I never really believed it. But I learned that I was growing up. Instead of having it all be about me, I recognized that I had community responsibilities. That was a leap for me. Instead of thinking only of my own needs, I was stretching out into a wider world view. I couldn’t just stay a kid, clutching my stuffed toy. I was part of a bigger picture and I needed to act accordingly. I was moving into a place I still occupy-it’s not just about me and I don’t think it should be. A new expectation for myself.

Michael had his goofy Irish setter, Harpo, but I couldn’t stay dog-less. We saw an ad for border collie pups at a farm outside of town. We drove out and were shown into a big barn that was swarming with adorable fur-balls. I sat down while they climbed in and out of my lap, romping, tumbling and sniffing. In the end, I chose the one who stayed the whole time. Loyalty, so high on my list of priorities was written all over this little one. I named her Ribeye after a debacle  with steaks that I wanted to remember forever. When we drove home, she vomited in my lap. To this day, I say you never know what true love is until you’ve gotten personal with someone else’s vomit. And so began 15 years with the smartest dog I ever owned. 

 

 

Ribeye lived for 15 years. As my life transitioned from Michael’s girlfriend to his wife, from random short-term jobs to the one that lasted the bulk of my adult life and finally into motherhood, she was part of our daily world. And her sensitive, responsive behavior changed the tenor of our household. She was so psychologically tuned in to us that she shook when we argued. Her distress made us modify our behavior. She was an animal who parked herself in front of you and made deliberate eye contact. Unwittingly, we were being trained for parenthood. We had to think about her needs. We recognized that she needed gentle treatment. And as we adapted to her, her own behavior  was extraordinary. She could walk beside us in downtown Chicago without a leash. She exhibited anticipatory behavior, watching us for subtle messages that conveyed what we needed from her. I honestly believe that caring for her made me an aware parent. Michael’s Irish setter who also lived to be 15, died a year before her. For a time, we remained a one dog, one child family. When I was 8 months pregnant with my son, Michael appeared one afternoon with a surprise, an eight week old springer spaniel puppy he’d named Manfred. Adorable, wild and crazy. Definitely not an intellectual dog.2DFE93E2-9DCD-44D9-A4D3-A931582FACC3 His presence added to the general chaos of a new baby, the adjustments of our older child to her sibling and Ribeye having to handle a lively interloper. It was a lot. I was now in my 30’s which I felt was truly the beginning of my adulthood. There were many demands on my time between family, work and home. I wanted to be the best I could at all those things. As the kids scrambled through the house and Michael and I juggled our multiple roles, Ribeye advanced into old age. I saw her become painfully arthritic and realized that it was my responsibility to determine whether she was having a quality life. This was a truly grownup obligation whuch required an emotional stretch. I remember weighing the moral choices of letting her decline further or making the call to euthanize her. I wound up choosing the latter. That day was a watershed event, a true passage for me. I didn’t handle it well. And I was permanently changed by it. My priorities were shifting. My desires were no longer first. I learned what it meant to evaluate intellectually and to manage my emotions. That time was the groundwork for my future. A scant year later, Manfred died at only 3, a victim of a congenital brain lesion. Losing three dogs in three years was astonishingly painful. We decided to take a break for awhile. Our daughter had a parakeet and there were guinea pigs and aquariums. Months passed. I felt the weight of maturity. But the absence of dog sounds were loud in my head. We thought about getting a cat although I never was a feline fan.   When my son was under a year old,I made a secret trip to the humane society, just to look around. Back in those days, there was a puppy room, which beckoned me despite Michael’s insistence that we continue the dog drought. When I was drawn in, despite a feeble attempt at resistance, there she was. Another collie puppy with alarmingly large paws. And I jumped immediately and went home to face the wrath of my husband who felt victimized by me making a choice alone. Sydney Rose.

 

 

She was our real family dog. My son grew up with her from babyhood into his teens. She was the pet who did it all for everyone. She played ball, went for walks and went to work with Michael occasionally. She snuggled with everyone and was smart, calm and sweet. Another dog who could sit leashless without concerns. For me, there was no “mine” with this animal. She was ours. I wasn’t needy with her. Those days were over. I was a responsible adult with dependents who required that I look at their concerns before my own. I loved her but I’d developed realism that was lasting. We enjoyed great years with her. But when her decline began, I was aware earlier and emotionally stronger. I took her to the vet’s office alone and held her in my arms, speaking quietly and soothingly as she left the world. I had taken another leap in my personal growth and my expectations for my behavior. With Ribeye, 15 years earlier, my vet said she’d be better off without my frantic hysteria. Not any more. I’d figured out how to live better, wiser and tougher.

We were again without a hairy beast. One Sunday morning I was skimming the pet section of the newspaper when I saw an ad for reasonably priced collie pups in a nearby town. Michael and my son were both doing schoolwork when I meandered into the study and mentioned that there might be an interesting pet prospect just 20 minutes away. I suggested we go have a look. I can still see the sardonic expression on Michael’s face as he said, “Right, we’ll go have a look.” When we pulled up to the address in the small town I saw a majestic collie sitting regally on a concrete stoop. This dog looked like the ones I’d read about as a young girl when immersed in the writing of Albert Payson Terhune. Lad: A Dog. The people opened their front door and a frantic looking female surrounded by her litter came running outside, looking desperate. I was immediately repelled because I knew we were at a puppy mill, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the gorgeous little things. Because I was a mom, I let my kid pick this animal. I wanted a female but he was stuck on a boy who never left his side. I remembered how I’d felt 30 years earlier when Ribeye stole my heart by being the loyal one of her litter. So suddenly we had Flash.

 

 

I was just past 50 when we got him. My daughter was away at college, my son was leading a busy high school life and Michael was preparing to start his new career as a high school teacher. Someone told me that in your life, a particular pet can be whats’s called your heart dog. I never heard of it before but I believe that’s what he was for me. My kids were past their most dependent years. Michael and I were in a stable strong relationship. I was increasingly unencumbered by caring much about how I was perceived by the world. I was ready to have this loving, intelligent companion who spent a lot of time with me. He was really loud and idiosyncratic. He needed daily walks and preferred to have his bowel movements anywhere but in our large fenced yard. Whatever he wanted was fine with me. Every morning I was as regular as any mail delivery person could ever be. I went out in all weather and felt like I was beautifying the neighborhood as people slowed their cars to call out what a beautiful animal he was. Those times together were joyous. I felt I was right where I was supposed to be.  I’d fully arrived in my life and was brimming with confidence and certainty. I loved my life and was smitten with this animal who embodied the liberation I felt. When he’d tangle himself around a tree, he’d look at his leash and retrace his steps and move on. I was as proud of him as I was of my own kids. When I think of the preposterous nicknames I called him, I can scarcely believe my own absurdity. For ten years, he lit my world. Then life changed.

My elderly mother needed help and moved into our home. I retired and started caring for my grandson full time. And then Michael got sick. Eventually, Flash’s loud barking became the soundtrack to my difficult days. He drove me crazy. I didn’t have enough of myself to go around. In 2015, my brother died in April. Michael was terribly ill and beginning an experimental treatment, barely hanging onto life. Then my mother fell, broke her hip and declined rapidly. She died on July 25th. I’d realized Flash had a slight cough and 4 days after my mom’s funeral. I took him to the vet and asked her to start testing. I didn’t want to leave without a diagnosis. All it took was blood work and a chest x-ray. His lungs were full of cancer. I held him in my arms and he was gone within a minute of being administered the euthanasia drug. An era of my life ended with him. So many people had disappeared from my life. When Flash died, I realized that the losses I’d experienced had changed the way I felt about animals. I was beaten down.  I didn’t expect to recover those feelings.

Surprisingly, Michael got well for awhile and in 2016, we decided to try for an animal again in this window of opportunity. After a disastrous adoption of a puppy who turned out to be congenitally ill, we wound up with Rosie, a black cocker spaniel. Michael had grown up with one which he remembered lovingly. We were told that Rosie was 5 by the humane society but she was actually 11. Michael loved her. I was indifferent to anything but what he wanted. Less than a year later, Michael died. Rosie was gone a scant month later after suffering from lung problems.

 

 

I was emptied out. But the silence of our big house felt too lonely. I started hunting for a small, manageable companion in a shelter. I knew I needed some life here, although I still felt and feel that the time of deep love for animals has altered. I can give  kindness and compassion but I don’t expect to experience the passion I felt for my furry friends from the past. This  expectation is consistent with the one that makes me feel like I don’t expect to love a man in a romantic way again. People tell me it’s too soon to know that but I don’t believe them. I think I know what zeniths I’ve reached in most parts of my life. So now I live with Violet, my 9 year old rescued showgirl who has secrets of a tough life I’ll never know. After a few months of hard work we’ve settled into a comfortable coexistence, two older ladies who’ve been knocked around by life and are satisfied with silence and peace.

 

 

Still the sweet collie breed, though. So some expectations remain the same.

Be 278: A Cancer Journey

Chapter 1

1EB0E50C-1A36-4D06-9EBB-9AA7FA161A89

When I was a child, I remember the conversations at family gatherings when the adults invariably turned to the topic of health. Theirs, or that of friends and family. So boring. Endless droning about digestion, diabetes, heart disease and of course, cancer. My mother was especially talented at grisly descriptions of carbuncles, appalling surgeries, amputations and unexpected deaths. I tried to tune it out. All of this stuff had nothing to do with me. But the truth is, my mother was sick a lot, beginning in my early childhood, and continuing throughout my life. Anxiety about potential illness became my internal companion as the litany of problems expanded. My dad too, developed his own physical issues. By my late teens, I was always afraid.80BAEE96-21EB-462B-8C87-6B0D4AB33D3F

Personally I was healthy and robust. But my body felt like a land mine which could explode at any moment. I was afraid of sickness. Even a cold was a threat. I was sure I was destined to die young. I spent way too much time thinking about the fragility of life. So I worked on myself to stay grounded in reality.  Facts were facts. I was a decent athlete. I loved swimming. I had muscles. I started thinking I might make it past thirty. My interior conversations focused on survival. Eventually I developed hostility to the slightest physical problem that I developed. I figured burning hatred would douse any audacious bug that tried to get me.C68053BF-2511-418A-8525-0A72CDF60EE3

When I met Michael and we fell in love, I was delighted to learn that he came from a crowd that had good healthy genes. Everyone lived to ripe old ages. I felt lucky to be with someone who’d most probably outlive me. He was big and strong and I figured I’d check out way before he did. My abandonment issues that were part of the constant fear from my mom’s illnesses receded into the background. I felt relief because no matter what happened to my parents, I knew I’d always have him. As we got older together, moving into our 40’s and 50’s, those gold-orange prescription bottles appeared on our shelves. We stood in front of them and laughed about the beginning of our inexorable decline. But aside from a few issues that Michael had, like a herniated disk or a torn Achilles’ tendon, we were still feeling pretty confident about our long range future. We were the boomers, after all. Destined to outdo our families at everything, including longevity. I referred to myself as sturdy peasant stock. In a former life I was the person sent to the Volga River with a wooden yoke across my shoulders, carrying back water-filled buckets on a ten mile trek back to the village. My now-aching knees held up well back then,  until menopause hit and stole away the magic of estrogen and smooth gliding joints. And Michael? He was referred to as The Beast. He was invincible. He could lift anything, build anything and play multiple sports. He was like a superhero. As a teenager, he lifeguarded for three years. He saved a Boy Scout who fell off a raft into rushing white water. He hauled me to safety when I got stuck in a powerful undertow in the Gulf of Mexico. He resuscitated a young girl with a heart condition and kept her alive until the paramedics arrived. He “loomed.” When three drunken college students bumped into me on a sidewalk and cursed at me, he made them stand in a line and apologize to me. When the neighbor kid took all his money and bought a beater car from a bad egg who was taking advantage of him, Michael went and returned the vehicle and got all the money back. An imposing man.  I was safe and secure. All my jangly nerves, tuned over a lifetime, settled in his sphere. He was my omnipresent sedation. But there were some issues for both of us which stemmed from our youth.C30236C5-3E44-4A55-92E5-9C59CAB81B56

We grew up during the years when being outside without sunscreen was the norm. We both suffered terrible burns. He was a fair skinned guy with reddish hair, the son of a blonde and the nephew of a carrot top. I was pink and white, but toasted myself regularly and had multiple blistering episodes. Being red or tan was supposed to be healthy. People looked better with a tan. We used baby oil and Bain Du Soleil to deepen our color. Coppertone and Sea and Ski were applied mostly for aroma. A history of skin cancer ran in both our families. Michael’s heritage was worse than mine as his parents had more leisure time spent sunning on vacations and living in Florida. His father was stationed in Hawaii during World War II and tanned constantly. They began developing basal and squamous cell carcinomas in their 50’s. When caught early, those cancers were rendered harmless by excision. Both his parents had regular dermatology appointments and were frequently treated with liquid nitrogen for pre-cancerous lesions and/or mini-surgeries. Eventually, the more dangerous melanoma showed up on his mother’s body twice, but the tumors were removed before they had a chance to metastasize from her skin’s surface. His parents were well into their 80’s when these cancers became a commonplace occurrence.

In my family, there were a few basal and squamous cell tumors which were dispensed with easily. But then, my older sister developed melanoma. Hers was caught before it spread but Michael and I realized we’d better get serious about having our skin  checked on a regular basis. We both had numerous moles removed and were monitored every three to six months. We believed that the thinning of the ozone layer that occurred during our lifetime allowed for more ultraviolet ray damage to our tender major organ. Which is exactly what the skin is-a delicate organ. We laughingly called our regular doctor visits slice and dice appointments. I had one cancer and many pre-cancerous lesions burned or removed. Michael’s problems were almost always malignant. Our doctor prescribed numerous topical treatments for him to try fending off what was likely to become cancerous. We applied them to his face, back and chest which looked macerated and gory for periods of time. But we felt like these were manageable problems. We were being vigilant and cautious and felt that as long as melanoma could be avoided or treated before it got too aggressive we’d be ok. The price we had to pay for our careless youth wasn’t as bad as it could have been.14379BC9-2EC8-4137-9992-B8383B690986

The spring of 2012 was a good time for us. We’d lived together for forty years by then. The struggles of young couples in sorting themselves out were far behind us. We were among the fortunate people who’d fallen more deeply in love with each year we spent together. Our first ten years were spent on our own so we had plenty of time for wonderful, carefree adventures. When our children came along, we were ready. We savored our family life, through the great times and the bumpy ones. Mostly we felt lucky that we had healthy, successful kids who were really decent people that grew up to care about the world. When they moved on in their lives, we didn’t go through an empty nest period, but rather returned to those first ten years’ of couple practice and picked up where we left off, truly reveling in each other’s company. Life is never perfect but our little cocoon was a happy place. One night in February, 2012, we were in our bedroom getting ready for sleep when I noticed a small reddish-blue blemish on Michael’s left cheek. It was small and unremarkable except for the fact that it was new. We looked at it with a flashlight and magnifying mirror and decided that if it was anything at all, a basal cell carcinoma was the most likely diagnosis. He’d had many of those before. But we were cautious. Both of us had our regular dermatology checks coming up, mine in March and his in April. I suggested that we switch appointments since he had a new lesion but he said he didn’t think that was necessary. And he noted that as long as he didn’t have melanoma, he wasn’t going to be worried. So we left our appointments as they were.

At this point in time, Michael was teaching high school government and history classes. In his 50’s, he’d walked away from his partnership in a music store that he’d built for 27 years. With the advent of big box stores like  Best Buy and free music downloads from the internet, business was shrinking, frustrating and depressing. Michael had spent years as an alderman in our community, as the plan commission chairman and as an active participant in a variety of community service programs. But he was looking for something new and felt his political science bachelor’s degree was relatively useless. So he went back to college, took 30 undergraduate education hours and became certified to teach secondary school. Eventually he went on to graduate school for a Master’s in the teaching of US History. And he found his vocation. He literally ran to school every morning. He was usually the first one in the building. He took on the classes assigned in his department and eventually wrote his own class, Modern American History through Film and Music. A blend of all his favorite loves in one blaring classroom. He worked constantly, coming home late afternoons, resting for a bit, and eating dinner before retreating to his “cave” where he happily tweaked and refined his units with total intensity. I worried about his long hours but he was truly happy. I had retired from a thirty-plus years job as a public official. I was a certified professional but mostly loved having a flexible job working with one of my best friends who made sure I was comfortable and able to mother my kids without pressure. When she retired, I worked awhile longer, but when my daughter became pregnant, I left work to care for her baby, hoping she’d never have the early years day care woes that I went through as a young mom. In addition, we’d moved my elderly mother, who’d made it through her dictionary of diseases, into our home to care for her as she became less able to fend for herself. Life was good.1F481BF7-EBA9-4512-9B56-9BDD14ABD9CA

On April 17th, 2012, Michael went to his dermatology appointment and his doctor examined the new small blemish on his left cheek. She said she was 95% sure that it was a basal cell carcinoma and performed a biopsy immediately. Michael came home with a small band-aid and the usual instructions on how to keep his wound clean and ensure that it would heal with little scarring.  

By this time I was sixty and Michael was sixty two. We’d begun to have conversations about mortality that go along with moving into the decades that suddenly feel older. My father, who died at a disappointingly early sixty-seven used to talk with me about how if you were lucky enough to avoid serious illness in your 50’s and 60’s and make it to seventy, you could often just cruise for awhile and be ok. His own parents had died at thirty-nine and fifty-four. So amazingly young. Both he and my mother had developed cancer  just weeks apart in 1989. His was bladder, hers was breast. I remember the phone calls coming into my office informing me of the malignancies. I remember it was then that I realized we were all one phone call away from our lives turning upside down. A week after Michael’s biopsy, he was teaching. I was upstairs with my grandson, trying to get him down for a nap. My cell phone was in my pocket on vibrate. When I looked at the incoming number, I realized that it was the dermatology office. I slipped out of my grandson’s room and in a whisper, answered the phone. I heard our dermatologist’s voice and felt a surge of fear. She told me I needed to sit down. My instant thought was “melanoma.” But then she said I needed to get Michael out of school immediately because he had an appointment with a head and neck cancer surgeon in two and a half hours. I said, “What in the world is this?” And I heard the words, Merkel Cell Carcinoma. Unlike what we’re led to believe, melanoma is not the deadliest form of skin cancer. That title belongs to Merkel Cell which was what Michael’s biopsy showed. Time being of the essence in this case was a classic understatement. She told me she had hope because it still seemed early based on the size of the lesion. She’d never had a Merkel Cell patient in all her years of practice. The rare bird, one of the orphan diseases. At that time, there were about 1500 cases diagnosed per year in this country. I hung up the phone, contacted Michael at school and ran to my computer. I’d heard of this disease which most often struck people who were elderly or who had compromised immune systems from a friend whose father had the disease. I remember her telling me that the website she found about it was so terrifying she could barely look at it. Michael arrived quickly from school and we sat and read together. At that time information was scant because so few people got the disease. Those who did and whose tumors metastasized had a limited lifespan. I remember looking at a small chart in a blue box that analyzed data on about 2600 patients gathered over several years. At the bottom it stated that 277 were alive 5 years after diagnosis. I turned to Michael and said, “You need to be 278.” We were now the people whose lives had been upended by the one life-altering phone call.