I think what really stopped me in my tracks recently was having to cancel my train trip to Glacier National Park for the second year in a row. In 2017, I’d planned to go there, just a few months after Michael died. I wanted the perspective that breathtaking natural beauty always provides, particularly the kind that emphasizes how small each of us and our problems really are. Last year, Glacier burst into flames, the fire moving from west to east, eventually encompassing the parts of the park I wanted to see the most.
When it happened I felt despair but managed to reroute myself at the last minute to Sedona and Flagstaff which provided me some balance and perspective that I desperately needed at the time. I felt the urge to strike out on my own and establish my identity as an independent person, as a woman who would now live alone, outside of a long term relationship which I’d been engaged in since barely out of my teens. I guess I never considered that lightning could actually strike twice in the same place, as fire engulfed the identical parts of Glacier this year. What I know now is that climate change and dry conditions throughout the west have made a September trip there a poor idea – better to go in spring when the likelihood of raging infernos will be lower. At least I hope so. Somehow I know I’ll dip my toes in Lake McDonald, even if it’s freezing, and I’ll look down on those magical colored rocks painted by years of glacier activity and minerals. That’s my plan. I haven’t given up yet.
When I was still working at my long held job of thirty-three years, I was up to my eyeballs in being a good partner to my husband, a good mom to my kids, a good daughter to my parents and generally, what I hoped was a compassionate, supportive person to my family and friends. I didn’t have a lot of spare time. My son, the science guy, told me I was maladaptive, definitely shorted out somewhere in my DNA, missing the “selfish gene,” and continually putting other people’s needs ahead of my own. Abnormally altruistic. Whatever. I believe that people have a fundamental nature and mine has been consistently that of a caregiver.
But sometime during my 50’s, I started carrying a small notebook in which I jotted down every thought or wish I had about what I’d do, given a little more opportunity. I retired from work earlier than I’d initially planned, to take care of my first grandson, a plan which would benefit him, my daughter and her husband, and me as well. My close coworkers were all older than me and were eligible to retire from our office before me. The place just didn’t feel the same, so the new babysitting plan seemed like the perfect choice. The hours would be long but rich. I always loved babies, the most innocent and least manipulative little people.
What I didn’t know was that within a year, I would need to move my mother into my home, as she was beginning to fail in her ability to care for herself independently. Nor could I have guessed that my strong, seemingly invincible husband, would be diagnosed with hideous Merkel cell cancer, turning what was supposed to be our “golden years,” into a dogfight with a relentless predator. During those years, I think I worked harder than I ever did in my life.
Eventually my grandson went to daycare, my mother died and I plied all my wits to use the time Michael and I had as best as we could. When he was well, we traveled. Each day was a gift that we were acutely conscious about, trying our best to maximize every hour, to live with no regrets. We got five years, miraculous for someone with metastatic Merkel cell. And then, we ran out of time. Michael died. For the first time that I could remember, I didn’t need to care for anyone but me.
While mourning Michael, I knew that what I needed to do for myself was honor the powerful desire he showed for life by living as fully as I could. To do otherwise felt like disrespect for everything we believed. So I found my notebook and started trying to accomplish all those thoughts and wishes I’d been writing down for years. And the notebook wasn’t the end of it. Going from two to one happens in a breath. When it’s the last one, the survivor’s life begins. There are so many things to do, to process, to complete. My lists grew longer all the time. And I hurled myself into them. My normal pace is just this side of breakneck speed. Age and bad knees have slowed me down somewhat, but I know that I still accomplish a lot more than most people in a day, certainly in my peer group. The hardest part about all of this has been the loss of the structures in my life. No particular time to sleep or wake, no particular place to be unless I choose it, no one’s needs to define my behavior.
For over a year and a half I’ve been searching for my lost Circadian rhythms. Staying up all night long, and then being unable to sleep enough to cover the lost hours is a repetitive, nagging task that I’ve been unable to master so far. I planned every detail of a celebratory exhibit of Michael’s life that was so massive I needed to rent our local civic center to accommodate the display and the huge number of people who attended. And yet, I can’t make it upstairs at a reasonable hour. I’ve traveled, taken classes, and been a major player in planning my 50th high school reunion. I’m writing stories about Michael and me to give to our children and grandchildren. I’m going to be an expert witness in a trial connected to my old job and I wrote a CV for the first time since 1977. I’ve gotten translations done from old family letters in unidentified languages that I inherited from my mom after she died. I tossed three trips into a short time to compensate for the loss of Glacier. But I started feeling uncertain about the one I had for this week and cancelled it so I could dig around inside myself and try to understand what felt wrong.
I realized that I’ve been racing along, “on the clock,” as if I’m being chased. On the clock is a phrase used most frequently when a sports team is trying to select a player during a draft. A team will get a certain amount of time to choose their person and when time lapses, they either have their choice or trade it to another team.
My clock is self-designed and the hands have been spinning at a remarkable clip. In my mind it looks like clocks in movies, when to show that time has passed, the hands move rapidly around the clock face at a crazy pace. I suspect that part of my intensity has to do with the fact that next month I’m going to have my first surgery, a knee replacement. In practical terms, I think it’s very lucky to get into your seventh decade with so little medical intervention. My two children were caesarean births but I was wide awake and only numbed for those. This will be my first general anesthetic. I think I’m so unused to the idea of being the patient, the person who needs help, that I can’t see past that uncomfortable position. I’m having trouble understanding that being temporarily dependent is so disconcerting that I’ve been packing my days with activities, as if I’m on a timer that will run out before I’ve made my choices. Except I’m the player. I’m already chosen and I’m already playing on my own team. I’m moving so fast that I’m outrunning myself. If my trip to Glacier had gone ahead as planned, I’m not sure I’d have become aware of my mad dash. Maybe it’s one of my coping skills to deal with Michael’s death. But it’s also my heightened awareness that anything can happen at any time. I know I can’t get everything I’ve ever wished to do accomplished. I’m not sure that really matters. I need to get used to accepting the fact that some limitations are to be expected as I move through this part of my life. Also that moving a little more slowly is acceptable. And that my subconscious message to myself, to cut away a vacation that didn’t feel appropriate for this time, is acceptable.
I’ve noticed that the only times I feel I can move more slowly and accept that more moderate pace as a positive rather than a negative thing, are when I’m swimming or working in my garden. I’m needing to figure out how to adjust my clock and stop judging myself against the number of items I cross off my list. The truth is, that as long as I live, if I continue to live in a continuously evolving way, my list will never end. And that’s the way I think life is supposed to be. We don’t get done until we’re done forever. My expectations are unreasonable. Time to get off the clock. I’m still figuring it out.
I can’t exactly remember when I started leading a hypervigilant life but I’m pretty certain it began around age four. My mom needed a hysterectomy at an early age, just 32, and her hospitalization really scared me. My maternal grandparents came to stay with us to help my parents with their four kids, two under age five. I still remember how tightly my grandmother pulled my hair into pigtails with those little scrawny rubber bands. The pigtails stuck straight out of the sides of my head, making me feel like each strand was being pulled out at the root. So different from my mother’s way of doing them, arranging them slightly to the rear which always put less pressure on my scalp.
My brother Fred, who was eight years older than me, devised a brilliant plan to make me feel better. He would walk me over to the hospital, sneak me in and let me have a visit with mom. So on a warm day, off we went. I remember picking some pansies along the way and clutching them into wilt as we trotted along. Methodist Hospital, which no longer exists, was 1.7 miles from our house. That was quite a hike for a little kid. But we made it, me red-faced and dripping with sweat, just as I respond to hot weather today. When we got to the hospital, Fred was shielding me and pushing me behind heavy curtains, hiding me from the staff. In those days, little kids weren’t allowed to visit. Finally, we slipped into my mother’s room. She was lying in her bed behind the curtains which separated her from her roommate, and although she was surprised to see us, she seemed slow and drugged and just took our appearance in stride. I remember being afraid but she called me to come close to her. As I approached, she said, “would you like to see my scar?,” and lifted her gown to display a long vertical raw line up the center of her belly. I will never forget that sight.
During the next years, I remember lots of worrying. My household seemed to always be preparing for the axe to drop. My mom was sick a lot and that caused me great anxiety. I knew that we needed to be worried about money all the time. My dad wasn’t settled into a stable job. Mom didn’t like my dad’s family very much. Sometimes she didn’t like hers, either. I grew up steeped in superstition and fear. Some of it was just fabricated, some of it felt like tradition and some of it was real. My maternal grandparents had fled Europe after living there in desperate straits for years. My grandfather had been in an early arranged marriage when he was only thirteen. My grandmother told stories of hiding in an underground hole to avoid being raped or carried off by Cossack horsemen when she was a teen. Her first baby died of pneumonia during World War I. My grandfather came to the US first – it was almost seven years before they were reunited.
After that there was the classic immigrant scrabbling for jobs and income. When looking through census records, my grandfather was described variously as a chauffeur, a carpenter and a factory worker. I knew him as a barber. My grandmother had eight live births and many miscarriages. Three of her children died before age 11, including 2 daughters who died within six months of each other. They were the dominant family in my life. I never knew either of my paternal grandparents- they died before I was born. My mother was hostile to my father’s sister Sylvia and his younger brother Carl was close to her. They played no significant role in my world. But my mom’s brothers and their families had their own struggles and all their life trials were shared with me by my mom. I learned about stillbirths and mental disorders, polio and untimely deaths. I heard dark sexual secrets. By the time I was thirteen, I was used to analyzing all kinds of situations in terms of their potential disastrous consequences. Every experience was laced with the possibility of tragedy, accidents or misfortunes.
I was observing the behavior of the generations ahead of me and looking for an edge, an angle that would help me avoid some of the potholes ahead in my road. And more importantly, I needed to find my way through what is inevitable in everyone’s life, the unpredictable events that need to be managed, that are an inevitable part of living.
I decided that using my mind to anticipate, to develop scenarios, to prepare for as many possibilities as I could imagine was my best option. My approach to obstacles became simple – whatever the mountain that rose up in front of me, I would think my way over it, through it, under it or around it. I would try everything. I would be brave. I’d be resourceful. And I’d be ahead of the curve, ready to pounce, no matter which direction would be required. And for the most part, I think that my over preparedness has worked for me. Always being alert, at the ready, can be tiring. But the practice made me quick, responsive and stronger than I ever imagined I could be. I’ve lost a lot of people but I’m still here, still whole. My style helped me be a good advocate and I know that my hurling myself against problems certainly helped me in my most important job, helping Michael stay alive longer than anyone ever imagined.
Now I’m left with myself. I’ve always believed that that’s how we all are in the end. I’d hoped to enjoy the pleasures of my love with Michael for more years than we got, but I knew that we were likely to be apart in the long run. My habits that I honed over a lifetime are still in place although my focus is less intense than it was before. I worry about my kids and my grandchildren but I have more time to think about myself than I have since I was a very young woman. I’m facing my first significant surgery, which is pretty lucky considering my age. But I’m nervous, and as always, am trying to prepare for all possible outcomes like I always have done. But it feels very different to be planning only for myself as opposed to planning for my partnership. I’m in uncharted territory and I’m not sure what to expect of myself now. Will I be as able and as interested in caring for myself as I was for Michael, for my parents, for my kids? Some of the wind has definitely been knocked out of my hypervigilant sails. I know that what’s ahead of me is definitely the shorter part of my life. I’m not, nor have I ever been, the person with the goal of living forever. If anything, I was always somewhat fatalistic. As a college student, I clipped articles that I saved in an “apocalypse notebook.” And one friend in particular, would often greet me as the “angel of doom.” My family was and has always been annoyed by my frequent reference to what I always thought would be my early death. I suppose that was a reflection of what happened throughout my life, so many people lost at a youthful age. But on I’ve marched, pretty robust, but ready for what I always felt was the phone call that could change your life in a second. So I guess we’ll see what happens. Maybe I’ll go old school and use the skills that served me so well in the past. Maybe I’ll be a slacker or a crank. I really don’t know what the outcome of this next phase will be. Stay tuned.
This past 4th of July, my daughter was hosting a barbecue. She invited me and asked if I’d do her a favor and make cole slaw, one of my house specials. I was happy to oblige but also a little anxious. I haven’t done much in the way of food preparation since Michael died. When I went to check my cabinets for vinegar and mayonnaise, I was amazed to see cobwebs draped over the shelves. I was slightly embarrassed, but mostly bemused. When Michael and I would discuss his death, we often wound up on the topic of food. “What are you going to eat when I die,” he’d ask. I’d say, “Raisin bran and cottage cheese and pineapple. No worries.”
I didn’t know how close to the truth that really was – I think I’ve only turned my oven on twice since he died in May, 2017. Once was for Thanksgiving, a dinner I’d hosted for 35 years. Thanksgiving was Michael’s favorite holiday. Over the years I’d worked out my menu and had the planning and preparation down to a smooth operation. But every year as I got older, it got harder. My creaking knees and sciatica made the long hours challenging and physically expensive. When Michael died, I told my kids that I was passing the torch I’d inherited from my mom. My daughter and son-in-law took on the event, requesting sweet potato pies from me and again, the slaw.
When my son came home for a break from his post-doc, I made him his favorite quiche. That’s it. The two times I’ve turned on the oven. I’ve used the burners on occasion to make the chicken soup my kids love. I also wanted my grandchildren to taste what was the traditional warming food that my grandmother and mother made, the steaming soup that made everyone feel happy and homey.
I spent a lot of years being the primary cook in our family. Michael grilled burgers, chicken and steaks but I cooked most of our meals and tried to create interesting recipes. I never loved it the way some people do. I was decent in the kitchen but never deeply invested. Both of us liked to eat but in his late 30’s, Michael’s love of food changed from enjoying it to and cooking it. He planted a huge garden, so he could cook with fresh ingredients and can the rest for use all winter.
Besides the requisite tomatoes and tomato sauce, there was delicious salsa. Perhaps the best treat was the pesto which he froze in ice cube trays, popping out one or two in the cold months for pasta, pizza and bruschetta.
He started buying and reading lots of cookbooks. The first challenges were finding recipes for his favorite foods, adapting and tweaking them, until at last he made a meal that rivaled a restaurant special. He started with simple foods like chili and ribs, fooling around with spices and ingredients until he’d made his own unique flavor. I can’t remember how long he took to create his perfect barbecue sauce. Then came other marinades and basting sauces. Eventually he built two different spice racks for the kitchen to store his herbs, spices and endless oils and vinegars.
As his interest grew, he collected cookbooks and spent hours reading, selecting and sorting recipes, starting with appetizers and salads through main courses, and eventually moving to desserts. Because he was arty, his food presentation was beautiful, full of color and garnishes. I sit in our home, remembering stuffed mushrooms, caprese salads (only when fresh tomatoes were in season, mind you) and marinated cucumbers. I can hear him pounding away with his mallet, flattening chicken breasts for chicken parmesan and hear the vegetables flying up and down in his wok as he flipped them for stir fry. He perfected deep dish Chicago style pizza and incredible kabobs which were laden with meats, vegetables and fruit. He baked bread. His two favorite desserts were a moist gingerbread based on a friend’s recipe which he adjusted to his taste, and jam kolaches that his paternal grandmother baked when he was a small boy. The joke around here was that we’d eat lunch and had barely cleared the table when he’d say, what do you want to do for dinner? Trying to stay lean was impossible for me. He was a foot taller than I was and could eat without ever really gaining weight. For me, it was always a struggle. I’d tell him that I simply couldn’t keep up with him, but he would tempt me and was loving enough that no matter my weight issues, he was always happy with me. I was lucky/unlucky in that way.
As time went on, except for my few treasured specialties that my family loved, I left the kitchen to him. I’d watched what happened with my mother when my dad died. She’d stopped cooking almost immediately, not interested in making the effort for herself. She ate simply, mostly food that required no preparation. I was pretty certain I would mimic that behavior. I’d rather read a book. During Michael’s illness through our five year journey, his ability and desire to eat came and went. He was sad when he couldn’t eat and glad when his appetite returned. During the hard times, I did my best to cook and coax him into eating but the fact was, he mostly enjoyed his own food more than most of mine. Luckily, there were good times throughout that period.
And his great desire to stay alive made him drink the protein supplements loaded with nutrients so that he never physically diminished to the place where many terminally ill patients wind up. When he was well, he continued to experiment with food, but he was mindful that with his dire prognosis, this couldn’t go on forever. Ever the historian, he decided to codify our house specialties, mostly his, into a genuine menu. He spent hours designing this and while at the time, I laughed at him, I truly treasure these creations which honored our life together and make a gift to our kids and grandkids. I never figured out some of the crazy nicknames he assigned me in our life but Barnacle is indeed one of them. Of course, my son sometimes calls me crowbar, so apparently this is a familial eccentricity.
I can’t figure out if I’m going to change and eventually go back to a more traditional eating style, when I might want to actually cook, instead of quickly assembling tuna salad or eating cereal. The kitchen is the last place I want to hang out in my house. The plants in it are still alive and I have dried sprigs of rosemary and thyme hanging where Michael left them. But I wonder if that room will ever feel like so lived in as it did when Michael’s zest for food was vibrantly alive in our home. Our house is very old with nine foot ceilings. I can see spots up there above the island where he would sling ingredients with his sloppy, reckless style that always made me crazy. His food definitely left a wake behind its preparation.
The other day, my grandson was in there with me, looking for the snacks that I keep on hand for the boys. He asked, “Grandma, what are you going to do with all grandpa’s spices? You certainly aren’t going to use them.” His observations feel right, although I’ve yet to empty all the shelves. I guess I’ll wait awhile longer to see how I feel. I do hear that kitchen calling out. I’m just not sure it’s for me.
During the years after my father died, I spent a lot of time with my mother. We’d always been close. Our relationship got more complicated after dad’s death. She’d always had a power figure in her life, one she could love and resent simultaneously. I felt that was because she was so childlike, mostly like a teenager with street smarts and the ability to rebound after tough times, but also in need of a grownup figure because she was unsure of herself. Unfortunately, I unwittingly walked into the power figure role, responding to my dad’s requests that I do the things for her which he’d done, which she should have been able to do for herself. It took me a while to figure out this inappropriate relationship. I should have been able to view her as my mom but ultimately we writhed around in our role reversal with each of us wanting what had been written out of our family script before we understood it was happening.
The best times we had were when we could come together to do something neutral, like working on our family history. She’d inherited my grandmother’s photos. She also had random postcards and letters, written in languages neither of us could read, perhaps Yiddish, or Polish or Hebrew. We started out relying on her excellent memory, poring over the photographs and trying to establish who everyone was, where they might be. This was a complicated process as my maternal grandparents were first cousins. In addition, my grandfather had an earlier teenaged marriage, eventually annulled, but which nonetheless, produced a child.
We managed to identify and label many pictures. While we worked my mom told me stories of how when she was a child, the letters and postcards would come from Europe. My grandmother was illiterate, but my grandfather wrote back to these faceless authors, often enclosing one or two dollars in his letters. Mom would mail them for him. But she said there wasn’t much conversation about her family, just snippets of stories that she recalled. She was left wondering what happened to these relatives she never saw. The only one who appeared in her life was her half-brother, Benny, who my grandfather somehow secured passage for, out of Poland during the 1930’s. By the time she was an older teen, the letters and postcards stopped coming.
I was busy during those times with mom, raising my family, working, leading my life. I made attempts to find translators for the letters and postcards, but always seemed to hit walls which made me set them aside. Intermittently, I looked at the faces of the unidentified people in the photos, searching for family resemblances. I imagine most if not all were lost to the Holocaust in World War II.
My mom is gone now, along with all her siblings. Although my cousins have some stories from her brothers, my uncles, I think that she shared more than they did or rather, more than perhaps they knew. Now my husband is gone, as is my brother and I’ve found myself mulling over how to solidify the known family histories to pass on to the next generations.
Through a random conversation with a visiting scholar from Poland, my son-in-law created a bridge that has finally connected me to a professor in Berlin who says she can translate all of my postcards and letters. They are fragile with age but I’ve digitized them so they won’t be lost. I’m hoping they reveal the identities of the ghosts from the 1930’s, shedding light on those who vanished without any of us really knowing how they connect to our world.
I’ve also had my DNA analyzed and have been contacted by people who are somehow related to me. Talking with them and tracing roots will take a long time. I was amazed to discover that 14% of my genetic code comes from outside Central Europe and that within that percentage are ancestors who arrived in the US in the early 1820’s. Decoding those mysteries will take a long time. I’d always thought that the earliest my relatives arrived in this country was just prior to World War I.
When I look at family photos, I’m keenly aware of how many people have already vanished from my life. Many are dead. Others are estranged. What was once the foundation, the underpinning of my life looks so different now than it did two decades ago. That reality applies to friends as well as blood relatives. What seemed so unassailably real and concrete can disappear, sometimes slowly and sometimes in a flash.
I’m attending my 50th high school reunion next month. There will be people who’ve remained in my life since those old days and others I haven’t seen since I was thirteen years old. During the past 15 months since my husband’s death, I’ve been on a journey, historical, emotional, and intellectual, trying to make sense of what makes a family, what makes a life. So many of those absent people were lost, not just to death but to irrational hatred, misunderstandings and focusing on what divides people instead of what unites them. I’m still looking at those lost but as with almost everything, that exploration has unearthed the found.
My found family is not based in blood. The new family that has grown to fill some of the empty spaces in my life evolved through what are the critical values Michael and I built into the structure of our relationship and the values for our little family of four. Tolerance, friendship, unconditional acceptance, steady support and love. Through our forty five years together as we wrangled with life and faced its challenges, we always came back to rest on these principles. Even when I’m lonely for Michael, the solidity of our intentional ideology lifts me.
And because our children were willing, engaged participants in a mutually agreed upon world view, our home became a refuge for a broader network of young people who were intrigued by our brand of family. All subjects were on the table. Kids were treated with respect and acceptance. Maybe the most important thing that happened in our home was genuine interest in what you felt and what you thought. What I don’t think either Michael or I thought much about, was the idea that as years went by, some of kids in this younger generation were sticking around, growing up and integrating themselves into the fabric of our family. During the months since his death, these friends, once just kids, have provided an amazing network of support for me. I’m still “the mom,” but our conversations are wide-ranging and there is an equal exchange of feelings and ideas. What I find most remarkable is how easy it is for me to express myself and to feel the same acceptance from them that we once offered when they most needed it.
I find this experience to be transformative for me. The shared conversation that’s grown over decades has created an unexpected comfort net for me that can only be described as familial. Now we’re talking about their lives as parents, about their experiences with their families of origin and the balancing of their lives, their work, their aspirations.
Essentially I find that I’ve got new family, people who care about what happens to me and want to give back for whatever we provided for them during the precarious years of their youth. I think Michael would be comforted to know that whatever we shared with each other and our kids has spilled over into this part of my life and provided relief from the empty spaces left by those who are gone. My found family has rallied around me to visit and support me and has made space for me in their lives. The multi-generational nature of this crowd of people suits me. I think that being locked into a single peer group is stultifying on multiple levels. Being around younger people is like breathing fresh air, feeling alive. I’m grateful for the emotional sustenance. Coupled with those family members who are still here, my old friends and my network of this accidental family, I’m finding the strength to continue to cope with the rugged road of grief.
My life with Michael is validated by the knowledge that what we shared still reverberates through this world, beyond our children and grandchildren. I marvel at being the center of the coalescence of figuring out the mysteries of my family’s past and all who were lost, with the recognition of the family I’ve found along my way. Life is full of surprises.
The other day I watched a spider crawling up the shower wall. The walls are solid marble or fake marble, but nonetheless, slick when wet. The little thing would make a little progress, slide back down and then start over at a new spot. The same behavior over and over. It was still struggling away when I got out of there and moved on to the next part of my day. But the image of its efforts remained in my mind. An epiphany popped up. I realized that I’ve essentially been doing the same thing as the little spider since Michael died. Making some progress in trying not to drown in grief, slipping back down the wall, and then trying another spot that might be less slick.
While pondering this little metaphor, I realized that long ago I’d unwittingly set myself up to have a particularly terrible time with grief. As a teenager, I somehow got myself into the mindset that the really good times were the ordinary moments that a person experiences in everyday life. I saw lots of momentous events come and go. Many of them were overrated and disappointing. There was so much pressure in trying to create a perfect event. In my life I saw people fighting over lackluster parties, weddings and funerals. Nothing ever turned out according to plan. I remember the graduations which were so fraught with expectations that fizzled as the graduates had anxiety attacks and family members jockeyed for a place of importance in the success of the graduate.
On my eighth grade graduation day, my baby cousin died and my parents couldn’t even attend to see me march in my sister’s prom dress, with my honor roll pin in the middle of my dangling blue and white ribbons. I’d barely turned thirteen. But I was thinking away, trying to figure out how to squeeze a little joy out of every day, rather than counting on the big life events for happiness, for joy. I was going to demystify the big deals and go for the small ones.
I became skilled at finding the nuggets of good, some tiny, others larger. How about a cloud? A flower? A painting? Perhaps a bird or a beautiful insect. Putting my feet in waves at the beach. Eating when I was insanely hungry. A song. An unforgettable line from a book. A scene from a movie. An embrace. A dizzying kiss. A loving pat on the ass. This was the stuff of true joy. Not all those things I was taught to wish for, to dream of, to set as my goals. My joy was inexpensive and easily accessible. Sometimes a few seconds were enough. An hour was stupendous. I developed my theory about coping skills. I knew that life was constantly challenging, that everyone had to cope with unexpected or unanticipated problems. So what was logical to me was that the people with the best lives were the ones who’d developed the best coping skills. I would be one of them. And the little daily joys were paramount in helping me cope. I spread the word to my family and anyone else who would listen. The itinerant lecturer, as my beloved son wryly tagged me.
And the truth is, I was right. That skill set served me well the bulk of my life. I could adapt fast and twist a negative to a positive just by glancing around my environment. I made a great first responder to all bad news. The queen of silver linings.
During Michael’s five years of the cancer rollercoaster, we squeezed what we knew would be our limited retirement into every moment of good health. We traveled as much as we could and saw grand geological vistas and beautiful oceans. We saw wild horses running on the beach and dolphins leaping into the air. We ate delicious food. We savored holding hands in the movie theaters while we shared popcorn.
We listened to live music and ate funnel cakes at funky festivals. We went to museums and saw powerful art. We worked in our gardens and read books next to each other. And we lay in each other’s arms every night. All the coping skills which made the tough stuff of life more manageable. We did the best we could.
Since he’s been gone, I’ve felt flattened out. I’ve done some fun things. I’ve spent time with my loving children and grandchildren. I’ve had my close friends get closer and be present for me. I’ve traveled and appreciated natural beauty. I’ve taken classes and gone to concerts. I’m out there in our garden which still looks so beautiful. But I haven’t felt joy. All those small things I found to create havens on the darkest of days added up to what joy felt like to me. I stopped looking for the big events long ago. Putting my feelings into such weighty and tenuous events was the opposite of joy to me. And I’ve missed the feeling. Michael’s constant presence was the underpinning to my zest for life. I didn’t really understand that. I knew we had what we called big love. From our very beginning to his end, we were enveloped in each other and nothing, not the worst of times or disagreements, ever touched the powerful intensity of what held us together. I still ponder that bond every day. I even stole the title of a book about Claude Monet I read recently, which accurately described how we felt for each other – the mad enchantment. That comes close to the description of us. But that lives in a private space in me. I can go there when I want to and I can feel us. But what about now?
I have many passions and interests. I like spectacles. I love the Olympics. I love the Triple Crown even though I worry about the horses. I love awards shows.
I also love Roger Federer, the GOAT, the greatest of all time.
I’ve watched Federer play tennis since he was a boy, mostly because I’ve been watching tennis for a long time. There are few sports I don’t like. Over the years I’ve had so many people tell me they think it’s odd that I’m so interested in all the competition and negative energy that’s so often present in the sports world. I get it. I see it. But I love sports anyway. I got started by loving to play sports myself, even though I was embarrassed and humiliated by some of my skills. When I was a kid, I was teased about my ability to hit a softball and toss a football. The boys called me “moose.” The Chicago White Sox had a lefthanded player named Moose Skowron – hence the terrible moniker. In eight grade, a lot of kids wrote to me as moose in my autograph book. When I showed it to my son, he cried at the meanness of people as he imagined me as a young pained girl.
But I stayed interested. I sat with my father when he watched sports on television and I learned a lot about all of them. And I went further and found favorites of my own. I was so happy that my kids were both great athletes and spent happy hours watching them excel.
But Federer. As he evolved and matured, I marveled at his athletic grace and beauty. So light on his feet and so natural. He worked on himself and erased his early bad boy behavior and became a calm, contained presence on the court. A welcome relief from some of the “enfants terribles” who are so prevalent among the many players. Best of all, he grew a social conscience. With the millions he earned he started a foundation which is dedicated to educating impoverished children. This year alone he’s started over 80 schools in Zambia. If you look him up online, you can see pictures of him sitting in the dirt with children crawling all over him. He plays with them and stands in front of chalkboards teaching them. Federer.
My family and friends tease me mercilessly about my devotion to this famous stranger who exemplifies so many good qualities to me. They call him my boyfriend. I know who my boyfriend was and still is – my Michael. But…
During Michael’s last months in 2017, Federer was returning from a six month layoff because he’d had knee surgery. In January, 2017, he was returning to competition in the Australian Open. He is considered old for tennis now. He was 36 then. Michael had gotten clean scans from the doctors but I knew he was sick. After 45 years of living together, I knew him well enough to recognize a problem. But I couldn’t prove it. We were arguing. At odds. During the Australian Open, I sat up late through the nights to soothe myself by watching Roger play. And miraculously he won. My happiness carried me through the beginning of Michael’s end which began at the end of that month.
Michael died in May, 2017. Suddenly I was alone in our home. But coming up in July, there was Wimbledon. Federer pulled off another miracle and won that tournament too. His success helped bookend the hardest months of my life.
This year, I was casting around for something to anticipate, some pleasure to distract me from my absence of joy. On a whim, I thought, what if once in my life I could see Roger Federer in person? What would that feel like? I decided to buy tickets for the Western Southern Open, a run-up tournament to the U.S. Open that Roger had won several times. He’d skipped it last year but I figured, what the hell? If not now, when? A four hour drive from home? You bet.
I anxiously waited to see if he would decide to play the tournament. He’s picking and choosing, now 37 and not likely to take as many chances with his body as he did years before. It could be this one or Toronto. He chose this one, in Cincinnati, Ohio.
I arrived here on Saturday night and Sunday went to the tennis venue to watch a few early round matches, but also to see Roger practice. I’d been told that the practices were almost more fun than the matches. I carefully found his practice court and planned my strategy of arriving early enough to be close to the fence which keeps the public at bay. With knees due for replacement, I needed a strategic plan.
I arrived at the site to get near the front and experienced the hot, sweaty crush of his many fans, jostling for a good view. I spent over 2 hours on legs that felt like lead. But I was determined that this was my one shot and that mind over matter is a thing. I kept my eyes on the entry gate. And it suddenly swung open and he appeared.
Is there such a thing as levitation? That’s how I felt. There he was, in my real life, breathing the same air as me. And then I had the pleasure of watching him swing his racket and float on the court which is what he does. I have photos and videos to prove it. I was there. And I felt joy.
I still feel it. Tomorrow I’ll get to see him play a match right in front of me. I’ll keep that with me the rest of my life.
And more importantly, I’ve learned from a little spider and a famous tennis player that I can modify my skills for life as its demands require me to do, in order to experience more of that joyful feeling I thought was gone forever. Different joy. But joy nonetheless. I don’t know what comes next. But a little more hope has inched through my internal seal, through the door I thought might be closed forever.The Colors of Joy – Arran Skyscrapers – Penny Gordon-Chumbley
Today, this song, written by Michael’s beloved Grateful Dead, comes to mind as I wrangle with my conscience on my own, in his very apparent absence. I am down to myself on this road. Though I still hear him in my head.
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung
Would you hear my voice come through the music
Would you hold it near as it were your own?
Perhaps they’re better left unsung
I don’t know, don’t really care
Let there be songs to fill the air
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow
If your cup is full may it be again
Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow
But if you fall you fall alone
If you should stand then who’s to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home