The past few months, my garden has been aflutter with monarch butterflies. I planted very deliberately, hoping to entice and nourish them with milkweed and tithonia, a deep orange Mexican sunflower. My strategy worked. Every day when I pull into my driveway, I pause to take photos of the monarchs, dipping their nociceptors into the rich centers of the flowers, while their wings slowly open and close as they balance themselves. I’ve watched them spar with each other and the busy bees as they dart about, vying for territory and position. As a bonus they’ve been joined by swallowtails, red-spotted purples, painted ladies, sulphurs. In my tiny part of the world I’m creating habitat and possibilities, which I think is the best any of us can do in these delicate climate change times. A lot of small contributions can add up to bigger changes. I wish anyone with a patch of dirt would dig in and feel the satisfaction of lending a hand to our threatened creatures.
I read an article the other day which stated that people who had a physiological response to music have more fiber connections between their auditory cortexes and the brain regions linked with emotional processing. I must have tons of fibers between my two centers. I’m one of those people who can’t sit still when listening to music. Parts of me are always moving, whether I’m listening in my car, at a concert, pretty much anywhere. Often, only one note of a song will hurl me through time, back to a situation from long ago, one that is fraught with feelings, both positive and negative. I listen to a Pandora station while I work in my garden, a station I designed with dozens of artists.
Their songs play on a random shuffle so I experience variety while hearing a combination of songs that I know and new ones, suggested by the mysterious AI forces whose algorithms determine musical preferences that work for me. Generally speaking, this works out very well and helps me garden longer, despite the challenges that my aching knees and sciatica present while digging and planting. A few afternoons ago, I was very pleased to have shoved forty spring bulbs into the ground, replaced a dead elderberry bush with a beautiful variegated weigela, and surrounded my baby kousa dogwood with the paving bricks I decorate with rocks I’ve collected during my travels.
Add in 4 cubic feet of mulch spread and I definitely felt accomplished. As I slowly climbed my back steps, ready to call it quits for the day, Neil Young’s Harvest Moon popped up in my stream. Harvest Moon was the first song on the CD’s Michael made for me before he died, his Love Songs for the Lovely Renee, which I’ve only managed to listen to one time. In less than a millisecond, I was reduced from my tired, achy satisfaction to a heaving, sobbing wreck, in what is often described in novels as the “keening and wailing” of grief. I remembered Michael and I swaying to that song on many occasions, feeling all that is implied in the music and the lyrics. When he was so desperately ill and confused as his life was slipping away, I played that song among a few others and he rapidly turned toward me, with absolute recognition and clarity as his music/emotion connections were still untouched by his advancing cancer. I treasure those moments, when we both knew what lay between us. Magic.
As I sink my hands in the dirt, planting for the future, I observe all the life going on in the ground around me. Busy organisms, living their lives, some lengthy, some a brief moment, but all entwined with mine. I read a book a few years ago called The Earth Moved-On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms. All these creatures that we step on or over, who play an immense role in the health of our earth, which many of us are so likely to know little about. The intricacies of how nature works are endlessly interesting to me. The miraculous interplay that goes on while we’re doing something else is quite stunning. As with the incredible formation of a healthy baby who appears with its millions of cells and autonomic activities working away, so goes the interaction of incredibly diverse ecosystems that we are surrounded by daily and which we too often ignore. I know that coexisting within these structures are true miracles, perhaps more so than the random lucky breaks we often describe that as such. Right under our noses is the miraculous, taken for granted, often unacknowledged at all. The seeds in the plumes of my pampas grass attract lots of birds who hang on the delicate filaments and feed as they sway, back and forth, back and forth. Eventually what they digest may be deposited elsewhere and soon pampas grass will be sprouting unexpectedly, far from my front yard. The worms will aerate my soil and my bulbs and roots will emerge next spring as beautiful flowers, aided by their movement and excrement. These are the daily miracles I appreciate and they’re enough to smooth the rough edges of life. Clouds and insects and flowers and life cycles. Readily available and so rich.
The things I don’t know and that I’ll likely never know, drift randomly through my mind as I dig and plant with my music in the background. Do I emit some pheromone or vibe that makes people fall asleep when they sit or lay in my lap? Why does that always seem to work even when I feel agitated? Would Michael’s doctor, who left Carle Clinic in the middle of his treatment, have had the courage to re-start his immunological drug that was taken away because of an unexplained liver enzyme reaction? Would having it again have made a difference in his life span? Why are my memories so vivid? Is it a biological phenomenon? Why do some genes express themselves so obviously while others don’t? Is it inherent in our individual biological make-up or is it the dynamism between them and our environment? And if it’s both, which is more significant? On and on I go, wondering and wondering and wondering. My head is filled with the traffic of emotions and I spend time sorting out who I’m hearing in there. Which kid, which friend, which family member. For a pretty realistic, grounded person, this is pretty cosmic stuff, but I feel it. I suppose it must be based in areas of my mind that I can’t access or understand. One day, there may be answers to all my mulling. For now, it’s a bunch of mysteries that intrigue and baffle me. I dig and I dig and I dig, literally and figuratively. My garden is the metaphor for all the busy activity happening between my ears.
This fertile ground that I give myself over to with such great pleasure is the earth of Michael and me. This fall marked the 40th year that I’ve lived in this house, most of them with Michael. When we first moved here in the fall of 1978, we felt lucky to be property owners as interest rates and home values had felt beyond our economic reach. We were reclaiming a large rental property in a university town which hadn’t been paid the attention given to a single family dwelling. We got into a neighborhood with the elementary school which we felt would be good if we had kids, but that was for the future. Neither one of us thought we’d live here for decades. Time moved along and we turned our attention to the unkempt, weed-ridden yard, the big double lot, with very few vestiges of care from long ago. We fenced it and slowly, staked out spaces where we could create the inviting extension of what the inside of our house felt like, warm and homey. On weekends we spent hours outside, Michael carving out swaths of earth for his beloved tomatoes, gradually expanding his way into multiple vegetables and herbs, learning to can and plan for food during the fallow months. Berry bushes entered the picture as well. I added to the edibles with quince bushes that produced the most fragrant fruit and planted dwarf apple and pear trees. I was busy with flowering shrubs, the showy trees of spring and the perennials I’d discovered. The city girl gone farmer. Sometimes we worked parallel to each other, but we shared tasks as well, digging our way through mounds of mulch, creating brick borders and supporting each other when a task was too hard. We are in this ground. When I work outside, Michael is all around me. Even as I miss him, I feel him nearby, and as I feel him, I become centered and stronger. I had no idea what it would be like to live in our spaces after his death, both the inside and outside ones. It’s now been one year, four months and six days since he’s been gone. I find myself most at peace where we spent the bulk of our time together, and have no desire to leave what seems to hold the essence of who we were in our partnership. I tell my kids that if they find me, collapsed in my garden, to know that I went out happy.
All the M’s. Happening here in the ground, my hands buried in rich, black earth.
The past few weeks have been pretty packed for me. I’m preparing for knee replacement surgery at the end of October. The rules that surround such an invasive procedure were more than I anticipated. Perhaps the most pressing one is that no invasive dental treatments are allowed three weeks before or three months after the surgery. And in keeping with my usual string of luck, I had two ancient fillings, already crowned, call it quits at the same time. Mirroring molars on opposite sides of my upper jaw. So off I hustled for the joy of the root canal. I’m calling 2018 “the year of the tooth.” I know it could be worse.
Although dentistry has certainly improved since I was a child, they haven’t figured out a way to change the sound of the drills. You don’t hurt after the anesthetic, but you still feel the torturous looking tools accompanied by that awful high-pitched whine. The lights for the microscope used for this work is so bright that you need sunglasses to protect your eyes. As I lay in the chair, I decided to distance myself mentally from the entire procedure and send my brain somewhere else. I practiced the deep breathing of meditation. Much to my amazement, I found myself back in the first apartment I shared with Michael in April of 1972, the morning after I moved in with him. We’d been friends since the previous August and had spent many long nights together, talking and listening to music, and eventually, falling asleep innocently and platonically. But I well remember that transitional morning and because I have the gift/misfortune of powerful multi-layered memory, I found myself back in that glorious moment and totally away from the physical assault on my mouth. And this is what I know as classic reverie, the ultimate gift for unfortunate times.
I’m getting pretty good at this, finding the ability to retreat into a 3D mental space where I can roam, feel, smell and touch whoever or whatever is with me. Being with Michael is the best, but I can be at my grandmother’s kitchen table as a child, my hands on its white and blue porcelain surface, eating sliced cantaloupe and rye bread with apricot preserves. I can smell the hallway in her building. I can feel myself riding in my high school boyfriend’s car on the Dan Ryan expressway, my head on his shoulder, no seatbelt, and almost fearless, as I watch the speedometer arrow moving close to 90 miles per hour and noting that I’m not really afraid. When I get to these places, I’m reminded of my favorite Twilight Zone episode – An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge – based on a story by Ambrose Bierce, a study in reverie prior to death. I saw it in high school and never forgot it. Reverie must be one of the mind’s and body’s built-in survival skills. Having access to such a tool is a wonderful thing.
All this dental activity took place the week prior to my 50th high school reunion. A once in a lifetime event. I was ambivalent about attending which was ironic as I was a principal player in organizing and pulling it together. A casual inquiry on social media about whether or not there would be a reunion led to my involvement, and for one reason or another, I wound up being the point person for it. Because of technology, I’m in contact with old friends and some have been part of my life consistently. But we’re flung far apart and I didn’t know what it would actually feel like to be with so many old friends again, some who’d been so significant in my growing up process. Others less so. Conveniently, the event was taking place on the same weekend as the Laver Cup, a tennis exhibition organized by my beloved Roger Federer, featuring the world’s top players at the United Center in Chicago.
So, if the reunion was a disappointment, I had a whole other plan which I knew I’d thoroughly enjoy. That part of my Chicago trip was a resounding success. As I approached the city, I felt a certain amount of trepidation. Although I grew up as a city kid and consider myself pretty streetwise, I’ve lived for almost fifty years in a relaxed university community. It’s easy to navigate and the skies are uncluttered by buildings poking their heads up so high that horizon doesn’t exist. I can appreciate the beauty of the architecture but I never want to live in that environment again. The pace is too fast and it takes too long to get everywhere. But I was determined to find my city self, bad knees and all. A handy pair of walking sticks are my new friends.
I believe there were five feeder elementary schools into my high school. Lots of baby boomers, so many in fact, that during our freshman year, we attended a branch school because the main building was too crowded. South Shore High School was located a bit west of Lake Michigan and its theme was water-related. The school paper was the Shore Line, the yearbook was the Tide, the sports teams were the Tars. In keeping with the event, I threw a little temporary color in my hair – it’s name was Aquatic.
I was interested to note that almost 25% of the attendees were from my grade school, Horace Mann.
I’ve thought a lot about that. The majority of my current contacts from that part of my life were people I’ve known since I was a little girl. Of course, there are some exceptions. But that time seems to be one when significant bonds were made. Below the surface of what grade school is, there were all kinds of traumatic events occurring in the lives of those innocent-seeming little faces that I remember. Part of me knew that then and more of me knows it now. I, of course, had major issues happening in my home life amongst different family members that were unnerving and scary, just like everyone else. I do have my diary from 7th and 8th grade which has the requisite gossip about boys and girls and crushes. But I did note some more grownup thoughts appearing during that time. My baby cousin, not yet two, died on the day I graduated from eighth grade. Sweet little Iris. So wrong. The familiar faces of my school friends and our relationships formed the safety net of my life back then. There were special ones I could always count on, despite any social pressure. And I remember a few unique teachers too, particularly Mrs. Masterson, my very tough grammar teacher, and Helen Brennan, my English teacher who smelled of some lovely perfume, had pink cheeks and delicate hands which she placed on your desk when leaning over to discuss your work. Thinking back, Miss Brennan, Miss Harding and Miss Annan were all English teachers who had a powerful influence on my intellectual growth. Along with Mrs. Coleman, my biology teacher, and jolly Mr. Kelly, a history teacher, I understand that they gave me the essentials I still use today to process the world.
The reunion turned out well. People really seemed to enjoy reconnecting and most had the awareness that the event was a once in a lifetime experience. Sone enjoyed it so much they suggested planning a 70th birthday in a couple of years. For me, there wasn’t enough time for substantive conversation with a lot of people I wished to catch up with a little more. My high school honey brought me a corsage that he said was on orders from my husband’s spirit. And the guy who was the idol of my dear gone friend Fern, brought me a copy of letter he’d received from her so many years ago. Powerful and moving. I was lucky enough to leave the reunion with my oldest friend who’d been my college roommate, my European travel companion and the person whose family and mine vacationed together for years. Spending time with her made me miss her when I went back home. In the meantime, a flood of strong memories were unleashed by the experience.
I remember when it was okay to be twelve and get on the IC, the Illinois Central and go downtown to the Loop. The seats were made of wicker and could be moved so if you were traveling in a group you could face each other. Getting off at the Randolph Street station and maybe getting a hamburger at Wimpy’s or when flush with cash, a French dip beef sandwich at Don Roth’s Blackhawk restaurant. Strolling along State Street and wandering through Marshall Field’s with its elegant interior. Sometimes you could eat at its Walnut Room and top off your sandwich with dessert, either Frango mints or those creamy, sugary ones that always seemed to be on the table at every social event I ever attended as a kid. If you chose Carson, Pirie, Scott, you could eat at the Heather House, its answer to the Walnut Room. On the way home, I’d grab a few flowers to bring my mom from the lady who had a cart at the entry to the station.
In my mind, I’ve played softball on the Horace Mann playground and swung so high on the swing set I thought I’d go over the top. I’ve walked up and down 71st Street, 79th Street and 87th Street. I’ve been at the Shoreland Deli as well as Seaway’s. I’ve shopped at Seder’s, Yankee Pedlar and Gordon’s Dress Shop. I’ve gone to Schwartz’s lingerie shop where the women came uninvited into the dressing room and gathered your breasts in their hands to show you how to wear a bra the right way. I’ve coveted the Weejun loafers and the Adler wool socks. The Brooks Brothers Ivy League shirts and the Gants with the locker loops on the back. I’ve gone to movies at the Avalon, the Jeffrey and the Hamilton theaters. I’ve bought a Silly Putty egg and a red-haired Barbie doll at Wee Folks toy store. I’m pulled the string on the Chatty Cathy doll that I shared with my sister. I’ve dressed our cat, Charlie in the blue corduroy coat and hat that we took off our Tiny Tears doll. I’ve dipped my hand into the penny candy barrel at Feldstein’s delicatessen and smelled the blood at the Dessauer’s butcher shop where my parents got their meat. I’ve had a strawberry soda and fries at the Bon Ton restaurant and a famous chocolate phosphate at the counter in Woolworth’s. I’ve bowled with Fern at the Pla-Mor bowling alley. I feel like Bloom in Ulysses. I could go on and on, live-streaming my memories to myself.
But it’s reality time. That was then. Now it’s time to get ready for my surgery. I have a lot of house and garden to prepare for winter. I need to organize my projects that I’ll need when I’ll be recovering. The reunion is over and I need to turn my attention back to the book I’m writing about how to handle the diagnosis of an orphan cancer. I have this blog that I use to share my thoughts and memories and ultimately, to create a history for my children and grandchildren for the time when I’m gone, taking my history with me. I’m still trying to figure out what structure to incorporate into my life which has no structure at all. I am moving through my world with the cushion of the relationship I shared with Michael deep inside me, bolstering me up during those times when reality seems particularly dissatisfying or unpleasant. I’m reminded of the movie title “Reality Bites.” Yeah. Sometimes it really does. The battles are laid out in front of me just like they always have been and I’m trying to pick them wisely and still have time left to just breathe and enjoy life. I remind myself every day that to honor Michael, who gave so much to be alive, that I need to do as he would do. Otherwise, what’s the point? Still putting one foot in front of the other. Maybe the knee surgery will make that easier. We’ll see.
I’ve had a lot going on in my head lately. Actually, that’s nothing new. I almost always have a lot going on in my head. But a number of different thought threads have been knocking into each other and somehow I need to pull them all together to see if there’s some essential cohesion about what all this random pondering means, if anything.First, I guess the underlying connection is likely reflective of my lifelong oppositional, anti-authoritarian attitude. That central theme of my life didn’t really manifest itself until my sophomore year in high school. Up until then, I was a very good student, cooperative, getting good grades and being pretty comfortable fitting in out there in the world. But at thirteen, I decided I was done with a lot of rules. I was interested in learning and often took off on my own intellectual journeys. But school was off-putting. I didn’t want to do a bunch of random studying just because it was there, because it was the curriculum. My school system was fundamentally unfair. I was in these classes which were labeled “honors” or “honors telescope.” My performance was mediocre but the value of those labels gave me extra credit. My class rank was bumped up and I was somehow in the National Honor Society. I thought it wasn’t right then and I don’t think it’s right now. Other harder-working and better-performing students deserved my spot more than I did. In addition, I developed terrible study habits, just sliding along instead of applying myself. My intuitive biology teacher, Marjory Coleman, suggested to my parents that I transfer to the lab school at the University of Chicago, where individual programs might fit my personality profile better than the public school. But that was a private school and beyond our means so I continued on my merry way.
By the time I started college, just barely having turned seventeen, I was locked into my attitudes. I was all about being a rule breaker and an in-your-face person. I cut all my classes the first day at my university and piddled around with my formal education until midterm grades were sent home to my parents. My dad called me and said, “what the hell are you doing there?” I didn’t want to go home so I pulled my grades up by a letter and things settled down a bit. I was able to do well in the classes I enjoyed but my GPA was appalling most of the time while I busied myself with what felt important to me. Mostly that was being anti-war, pro-feminism, pro-civil rights and the like. A lot of my friends pulled off both school and their social conscience activities with much greater success than me. I wasn’t interested. Institutions and expectations be damned. Youth. Who knew or cared what would come down the road? It took me a long time to find a way to to fit myself into “regular” life. I remember getting dropped off from work once, into the middle of an anti war demonstration and then never going back to my job. And my similarly rebellious partner didn’t do much to tamp down my impulses. What a team we made. As we moved into our later twenties, we both figured out that we needed to find a way to take care of ourselves and eventually, we found work that was suitable for each of us. Fundamentally we were the same rebels as we’d been before. I remember my mother-in-law once saying in utter exasperation, “Our friends’ kids went through the ‘60’s and early 70’s and they all got over it.” Oops. Michael and I remained pretty consistent throughout our lives. Neither one of us liked the random abuse of power in any context. We were both defiant. When we saw an issue that we perceived as institutional tyranny, we fought it. We did that for ourselves, for our children and for other people who came into our world. Michael carried his attitude into the public sector. I never put myself out there the way he did, as I felt that my attitudes and big mouth were better used behind the scenes. I could be diplomatic but I was happier when I could just be the all me show, all the time. I understand the rules. I can abide some of them, based on the principle that a cooperative society works best when accommodations are made for each other’s differences. But often, I don’t like the rules nor the time I spend restraining myself from my natural inclinations to push back against them. Over the years, that choice has led to both positive and negative responses. On the whole, who I am works for me. Here’s a daily life example.
The other day while swimming laps, there was a water aerobics class going on in another section of the pool. The instructor was loud and harsh, very militaristic in her behavior. I found it really annoying and as I swam my laps I was thinking that if I’d ever been interested in military service, I’d likely have been booted to the brig pretty fast. In addition to her aggressive teaching style in that peaceful venue, there have been several occasions when my fellow swimmers have been disrespected or hurt by unconscious types who attend our facility and are self-involved and thoughtless. It’s always me who goes forward to call out the bad behavior. I just can’t stop myself. More and more I find myself verbally intervening in situations I think are unfair or unjust. So what does any of that have to do with censorship? A lot, as it turns out, at least to me. I explored a variety of “censorship” definitions today. I liked this one – “In general, there are four major types of censorship: withholding information, destroying information, altering or using selective information and self-censorship. Withholding information is a common form of censorship used by many governments throughout history.” Of course, I’m opposed to censorship, although I understand that often, there can be reasonable moral intent, especially in regard to children, that isn’t always another arbitrary rule, but rather a protective device. But those instances are limited. I looked through the long list of books that have been censored, finding so many of my favorites.
Animal Farm. To Kill a Mockingbird. Ulysses. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I get the concept of age-appropriate. But the acquisition of knowledge and exposure to different ideas is in my view, crucial to the development of critical thinking. Who gets to decide this stuff? Governments, school boards, religious leaders? The road gets dicey very fast. In one of my favorite movies, Cinema Paradiso, every film shown by the village’s theater projectionist has to be vetted by the town priest for inappropriate sexual conduct. The scenes are then cut from the film before it’s shown. The projectionist’s bequest to his protege and friend is a compilation of the beautiful passions which were removed from the movies. Truly, I found it one of the most magical subversive behaviors I’ve ever seen.
So we have books and films being censored. There is political, governmental and social censorship. I’m not sure I can even imagine the breadth of the hidden secrets from countries like ours which are ostensibly operating for the benefit of the body politic. And the censorship of those blatantly totalitarian regimes that hide objective realities from their citizens is also unimaginable. Censorship is prevalent across the globe. I have no doubt about that.But then I arrive at self-censorship. That’s the one that I’ve been struggling with the most, the one most accessible to me, particularly as I’ve been navigating my new status as a widow, a woman on my own. In my youth, I was often called a truthsayer, and amusingly, an angel of doom, always bringing up the dark stuff in a kindly way. But in order to get along socially, in work settings, as a parent, a wife and an advocate, I’ve practiced self-censorship as a method of finding a smoother path to what I’ve needed or wanted for myself and the people I love. I’ve understood when silence is more appropriate than talking, when restraint has been more important than pushing. I don’t want to create unnecessary conflicts, nor do I want to be confrontational just for the sake of doing it. But my filters and my patience were definitely worn thin by the years of fighting hard by Michael’s side when he was sick. I spent more energy than I realized. When he died, I could feel a perceptible internal shift in my attitudes. After making an offhand comment one day, my daughter looked at me and said, “Oh no. Dad died and took all your filters with him.” That really resonated with me. I’m not actually sure I had that many filters in the first place. But I did have boundaries. I was careful with my children because they didn’t need to carry the burden of my behavior. I was always mindful that my husband was a public figure, and I curbed some of my natural instincts, in order to protect his reputation in the outside world. So did he. But with him gone, and only myself to think about now, I find that I’m not much interested in a public veneer. I want to say what I think all the time. I don’t want to think about what other people want to hear. And that makes life complicated. I can’t think of a topic that feels off-limits to me. But that isn’t true for many people. I want to talk about death and disease. I want to talk about sex and feelings, aging and the marginalization of older women. I want to be blunt. But often when I do, I feel a recoiling, even from people who’ve known me for a long time. There seems to be a wide web of buffers around many issues. Buffers that are supposed to stop you before you push past them into uncomfortable territory. I’ve always found them irritating. I like cutting to the chase which in my view, saves a lot of time. And I understand how fleeting time really is now. We can all disappear in a blink. But that isn’t what everyone around me thinks. When Michael was alive, I had a safe place where I could unload every thought that went through my head. I never felt censored. He didn’t necessarily enjoy my expounding on all the things I chose to lay at his feet, but his unconditional acceptance of what I needed was a given. And now that’s gone. I can get away with being the full-blown me with my kids to most degrees, and also with my sister who’s been very close to me. But even in those relationships, there are still boundaries. I still have to watch what I say in certain situations. And the truth is, I don’t feel like it. I am raw. As time passes, I feel more cut to the bone by my experiences. And I feel like sharing them is a positive thing, something that can provide insight and help for those who are trapped in the social niceties that preclude direct communication. I guess I can’t impose myself on the people who want to be removed from my commentary. But I’m thinking that I’d rather be by myself rather than acting according to someone else’s code. For however long my life is, I’m thinking that living my own way is more important now than smoothing the way for others. Transitioning from a caregiver to a new model of me. So I guess, it’s buyer beware. What you see is likely what you’ll get. And apparently, I now come with a take it or leave it warranty.
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.