The Life You Get

My granddaughter and me.

I understand that there are people who envy my present life. I live right across the street from my daughter and her family. After their parents, I was the first family member to see my grandsons, although my husband was right next to me for that initial birth, almost thirteen years ago. I retired from work to take care of the first grandchild for three years. I would’ve done the same for the next one but that plan was supplanted by Michael’s lapsed remission from his cancer. I’ll always have multiple levels of sadness about those circumstances. Currently, my son and his wife are living only a block and a half away from me. I was with them in the hospital when their baby, my only granddaughter, was born last November. Right now I’m babysitting for her half-time during the week and sometimes on weekends. I’m not sure their family will be permanent residents in my community like my daughter’s crew, so I’m spending as much time as I can with her while they’re still here. I’ve learned how to prioritize my present while I’m in it, part of my effort to lead as much of a regret-free life as possible. I still spend a considerable amount of time with all the kids. Of course none of this grandma business was part of the master plan for my life. How ironic.

My grandsons and me, a while back.

At no point in time did I ever think that the role of grandmother would dominate my daily life. I think everyone who’s known me for a long time would testify to the fact that I never, not even once, uttered a desire to have grandchildren. Nor do I think that spending time with grandchildren is better than being with my kids, like so many people say. All the fun and none of the responsibilities is I believe, the thought that prevails among those who subscribe to the grandparent life as the ultimate familial experience. I suppose that partially, I don’t feel that way because my time with the current littles isn’t just fun and games but is actually significant caregiving. For me that’s a natural choice. But additionally, my feelings about my kids could never be supplanted by anyone. They are the manifestation of the irreplaceable connection between Michael and me.

Me and my kids.

As I grew into the place when thinking about the future becomes concrete, I was scarcely thinking about becoming a parent, much less dreaming of being in the grandparent role. My fantasy adult world featured a passionate partnership, dogs, and a big library with lots of comfortable chairs to accommodate my visitors, who’d join me for animated conversations about, well, everything. Although the term “dilettante” has a somewhat negative connotation, I felt like at heart, I was that person, a dabbler, interested in a broad range of subjects, not really a master of any particular one. Everyone isn’t cut out for a laser focus on just one specific thing, or at least I don’t think so. A single clear path forward never happened for me, outside my desire to be partnered. I certainly didn’t envision changing diapers in my seventies. My mom was more that person rather than me. I couldn’t relate to her constant fascination with children which lasted her whole life. And yet here I am, with this life I got rather, than the one I dreamed. My partner died too young. I expect to miss him for as long as I’m mentally competent. But the grandchildren are still vibrant and alive, right next to me. I’ve adapted. I do think that the way I grandparent is good for me, my kids and theirs. Dabbling in these interesting little people suits my curiosity and stimulates my intellect. And I love them. I wish they had Michael in their lives as well as me. Having two full sets of grandparents would widen their world.

My paternal grandmother.
My paternal grandfather.

I started my life with one set of grandparents rather than two. My paternal grandfather died when my dad was only eight years old. Dad rarely mentioned his father or his dad’s family. I expect his memories were few and mostly painful. My dad’s grandparents and uncles were all still living when his father died. All I knew about them was that they had a steel business in Lafayette, Indiana. My grandmother approached them for financial help after her husband’s death. She was soundly rebuked. My dad remembered going to visit his dad’s family when he was little. The patriarch, his grandfather, frightened him by loudly shouting, “who is that boy?,” as he stared down at him with piercing blue eyes. I’m certain that my brother’s eyes were the only part of that old man that I’m sure was manifested in my family. Bits of information about a falling-out between my grandfather and his family seem to indicate that he was an outlier. While everyone else was involved in building a family business, he’d struck out on his own, working as a commercial photographer. My mom seemed fairly positive that he was on the verge of a significant discovery regarding double exposure when he died. Her details about dad’s family were pretty sketchy. I wish I knew more about that story. I have no idea how my grandmother survived after his death in 1930. But somehow, she and her kids did, my dad, his older sister and his younger brother. I know she died twenty-one years later when my mom was pregnant with me. I feel that her’s was an unnecessary death, a consequence of sepsis following a botched appendicitis attack. Mom told me that one day when she was pregnant with me, she was walking toward my dad shortly after his mom’s death. He looked at her and said that in keeping with family tradition, she was now carrying his mother’s name. But mom didn’t like her name, Rae, she altered it to Renee instead. And voila, I was named for that woman I never met. I will forever wonder what parts of me reflect those people I never knew, but who silently exist in the DNA that shaped me, along with my kids and theirs. A life mystery.

My maternal grandmother.
My maternal grandfather.

My mom’s parents were always part of my life, my grandmother surviving until I had a child of my own at age thirty. They were more like elements of my surrounding landscape rather than people who played a significant role in my development. I have almost no memories of my grandfather. Mostly I envision him sitting silently while my grandmother yelled at and scolded him. Maybe by the time I was conscious of them they’d fallen into these roles, behaving differently toward each other when they were younger. Another mystery with no answers. I remember going to my grandfather’s barber shop in the basement of Goldblatt’s department store in Chicago, swiveling around in his chair in front of the mirrors lining the wall. I remember him being in the various apartments he occupied with my grandmother, but there’s no imprint of any conversations or interactions between me and him that are lodged in my memory. Besides a wild ambulance ride with the two of them after grandpa collapsed on their kitchen floor when I was home for winter break during my freshman year of college, he might have been a piece of furniture in my world.

My grandfather with my cousin, me and my sister, somewhere in Chicago, circa 1961.

My much more vocal grandmother left a bigger impression on me than silent Sam. I can still hear her vitriolic commentary which was the constant accompaniment to the clanging of pans and squeaking of oven doors that I associate with her presence. To be fair, Rose had more than enough reasons to be gruff and angry. She was a smart woman who was illiterate. During the early part of her life with Sam, she was left to fend for herself in Europe during the first World War, losing their only child to pneumonia while Sam was busy trying to get established in the U.S. I think she knew he didn’t lead a celibate life during their years apart, but when she finally joined him, that betrayal wasn’t enough for her to throw off the traditional status of women as second-class citizens in their culture. They stayed together. She lived through multiple miscarriages, pregnancies and deaths of her children, enough sad events to embitter anyone. She yelled and complained mightily through the years. My mom, the only other surviving female member of their family, was engaged in a running verbal conflict with her for as long as I can remember. I sided with my mother and never felt the warm, fuzzy feelings a kid will often associate with a grandma. Still, I remember her marvelous cooking, the spicy chicken and her homemade gefilte fish, along with the simple fare like rye bread slathered with apricot preserves, and sweet chunks of cantaloupe. She liked plants, had a green thumb and gardened when she briefly had a yard. She bought all us kids new clothes when she visited. When my mom was hospitalized, a frequent event when I was growing up, she stayed with us. She pulled my hair into tight pigtails on the sides of my head that yanked all day. She liked to smell our necks which I understand more today than I did back then. Grandma was complicated, but I can still hear her voice, even when it was most annoying, and I think she loved me in her own brusque way. I was proud of her when after my grandfather’s death, she finally became a citizen at 78 years old, passing her test orally as she couldn’t read or write. She was tough. I think inherited at least some of her sturdy peasant strength as well as her talent with growing things. Hers is the one identifiable imprint that my grandparents made on me.

My grandma Rose with my infant daughter, 1981.

Now here I am in this unexpected life, spending big swaths of time with the youngsters. Do I wish I was still with Michael? Absolutely. We both knew that we’d never feel as if we had enough time together, even before he was sick. The part of me that is always next to him, hums along just below the surface of my daily life. In the meantime, I pour my emotions, my energy, and my intellect into these grandchildren, hoping that I’m helping them lead rich, interesting lives. I don’t know what they’ll remember about me when I’m not around. Will they wonder what pieces of them were influenced by me when they’re old enough to ponder. Who knows? Regardless, for me, I need to know that I’m making contributions to their development, that I have gifts to offer these innocents that will help them navigate their lives. And I definitely don’t want to squander this life I got, just because I didn’t get exactly what I wanted. So on I go, still wondering how I turned out to be such a grandma. As Michael would say as I dissected everything that happened, “it is what it is.” Yup.

Retrospective Part 3 – The Movies

Me and mom.

Sometimes I feel baffled about who or what influenced my life choices, unable to decide whether my inclinations were nurtured, were genetically baked into me, or some random combination of the two. About my deep love of the movies, though? I know without a doubt that my mother instilled her love of film into me starting when I was a very small girl. Always bubbling and starry-eyed when she related her childhood adventures of finding a nickel and sneaking into a theater by herself, she was the person who introduced me to the actresses and actors of the 1930’s, instilling in me what became a lifelong appreciation of black and white films. She loved musicals, nursing her unrealized dream of becoming a dancer, preferably one who dramatically fell into the arms of Tyrone Power or Robert Taylor. And then there were the actors who reminded her of my dad, Errol Flynn and David Niven. I learned to admire them too although conversely, I never bought into the jealousy she harbored for the cinema bombshells she found threatening because dad thought they were attractive. In another life, maybe mom would have brought her considerable dramatic flair and fabulous dancing ability to a professional life. As it turned out, she was way too uncertain of herself to chase her celluloid dreams, but that didn’t affect my separate and burgeoning interest in all things film that stuck with me my whole life. I didn’t share her desire to perform but rather was simply grateful for both the entertainment and the often thought-provoking stories found on the screen.

Robert Taylor and Tyrone Power
David Niven and Errol Flynn

The first movie I saw in a theater was as a six-year-old in Sioux City, Iowa where my family lived for about seven years. They moved to that town shortly after I was born. My older brother and sister took me with them after I begged and pleaded to go along. The age gap between us was respectively, over five and eight years. The movie was “The Giant Claw.” I still remember acting brave during the show but that night I had terrifying nightmares. I never forgot the images which are so laughable today. But not back then.

Film poster from The Giant Claw
My nightmare image

When I was a kid growing up in Chicago, there were three neighborhood movie theaters on the south side. They were the Avalon, the Jeffrey and the Hamilton. Admission was twenty-five cents. A dollar would buy a ticket and treats. My favorites were Milk Duds, real chocolate encasing real caramels, and Jujubes, little fruit-flavored candies that took awhile to melt in your mouth. Often they were as hard and unyielding as rocks. Most matinees were preceded by cartoons. I remember watching films like The Pit and The Pendulum starring Vincent Price, my eyes wide before the towering screen. The theaters had stages which meant they could double as venues for live performances. I saw the Dave Clark Five perform at the Hamilton when I was a teenager.

The Avalon was an exotic structure that looked like a Moroccan temple.
The Jeffrey
The Hamilton

In a city like Chicago there were multiple theaters which became available to me as I got older. Going downtown to the Loop was always fun. I saw “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help” at the Woods theater. Back then for the price of one admission, you could sit in the theater for hours, watching the same film over and over. That’s how I memorized so many lines from my favorite movies, the result of hearing them for hours in a row. Taking advantage of historic theaters like The Biograph, where John Dillinger saw his last film before being captured, was a big city bonus, as were the art houses where avant-garde and foreign films were debuted. I still remember seeing “Marat Sade” at the 400 Theater when I was a young adult.

The 400

I truly can’t count the number of movies I’ve seen in my life, although occasionally, I’m tempted to write them all down for posterity. Periodically I take the quizzes that the websites which rank the best films ever made put forth, primarily I suppose by gathering the opinions of respected film scholars and movie critics. Favorite are of course, purely objective choices. Most of these lists are of American cinema, although I make an effort to explore what’s going on in the film industries from around the world. As with books, music and truly, all the arts, I’ll never get to know as much as I wish I could. But over all the years there are movies which have stayed with me for one reason or another. Some are special to me because they always make me either laugh or cry. Some are just beautiful or have stunning images. Others taught me what I didn’t know. Some resonate with those parts of me that I can’t express verbally. I’ve deliberately excluded some brilliant films because watching them multiple times is too painful. “Old Yeller,” “Schindler’s List” and Platoon are not on my list. I saw countless movies with Michael at my side. We always held hands, leaned on each other, or took turns resting hands on legs, staying close. Some of my movies evoke that intimacy when I rewatch one. In any case, I land on the same ones, over and over, depending on my mood or need. So here they are, in no particular order.

If I live another 10 years, I’ll see if there are any additions or subtractions. I want my my mind to stay flexible as long as I can. I wonder of any of these movies are on your list.


My dad in hospice at home, talking to my daughter – September, 1989

The other day I received a telephone call from Carol, the hospice nurse who was assigned to Michael’s case in May, 2017. Michael wasn’t in hospice for very long, just about eleven days. During that brief time, I developed a fairly intimate relationship with Carol, who entered our lives at that impossible moment when a family has resigned itself to the fact that the death of their loved one is imminent. That she still calls me to chat is one of the unexpected positive byproducts of that fraught experience. Carol’s call brought back lots of memories to me. Michael’s last days weren’t my first experience with hospice. Back in 1989, after only a three month wrangle with bladder cancer metastatic to bone, my dad entered hospice for his last few weeks of life. At the time I was thirty eight years old, reeling from the fact that both my parents had been diagnosed with cancers within five weeks of each other. My mom, always the less healthy one, survived this cancer, her second one, and lived for another twenty-five years. My dad couldn’t tolerate his treatment and after only one round of chemotherapy, and despite the fact that the cancer hadn’t spread, opted out of life, asked that his funeral arrangements be made and went home to die.

My mom after her cancer surgery, 1989.

I don’t think anyone in our family had realistic ideas about the practical aspects of hospice. The departure from active participation in trying to stay alive meant that life would go forward in my parents’ home without any further doctors’ appointments or visits to the hospital. A nurse would visit every few days to take vital signs, answer questions and provide medication we could administer for comfort care. The nurse was a liaison between the formal medical setting and our family. The professionals were still out there but we were in charge. Despite knowing that the daily decisions about meds, food and everything else would be the family’s responsibility, the actuality of adapting to that total caregiver role was really overwhelming for my mom. For me and my younger sister too, the siblings who lived nearby. I had a job, two young kids and a husband, who in the midst of my parents’ issues, was recovering from a siege with a herniated disk and ultimately, a back surgery.

My younger sister and me with dad.

The first few weeks of dad’s hospice time were relatively uneventful and my mom was able to manage their situation with support from me and my sister. But then dad’s pain medication made him groggy in addition to suppressing his appetite. The weakness that set in as he detached from nourishment eventually changed his status from mobile to bedridden. Next came a commode which ultimately would be followed by diapers and a catheter. A fall which required me to tear out of work in order to help my mom get my dad off the floor, was the catalyst for moving a hospital bed with guardrails into the spare bedroom. All these changes. The brief nurse visits could hardly prepare us for the devolution of dad from husband and father into a fragile, helpless person, soon to be wholly unmoored from the life that came before.

Dad and me, 1976.

Volunteers came to visit, to be helpful. For the most part these well-meaning people were not a great match for anyone in our family. No screening was involved to determine whether they shared values and beliefs similar to ours. As a result, we experienced friction and alienation at a challenging time. An aide whose job was to provide bed bathing and general hygiene service, shaved my dad’s mustache off before we had a chance to tell her that he’d had one for the majority of his adult life. What an alienating moment for us, although his body grew that hair back before he died. Ultimately we opted out of visits from the hospice staff, choosing instead to only be alienated from each other. I write that with irony. Each of us family members brought our own ideas and emotions to helping care for dad. Despite our common background, we didn’t always agree on the way things should go. Our individual paces for adjustment were highlighted in a time like no other in our past experiences as a family. I can still recall making the leap from the normal boundaries between daughter and father to suddenly changing his diaper as if he was an infant. I remember thinking that the shock of a sudden death did not make the same demands on a person as having a loved one in hospice care does. Some people will never know the psychological permutations we had to make during those weeks. At one point my mom wanted to take my dad to the hospital. Reminding her that would violate his wishes changed her mind but the truth is, his hospice enrollment had removed that option anyway. She was simply too overwhelmed to remember that. When I became a parent I crossed from one type of adulthood into another – when I cared for my father’s body, while advising my mother, I went further into grownup life than what my parenthood had required of me. My siblings had their own version of these startling changes, bringing their personal spins to each challenge. We made it through everything, up to and including dad’s death. But hospice wasn’t simple nor was it really peaceful until the very end of dad’s life.

Dad and me in better times.

When Michael’s turn for hospice arrived twenty eight years later, I was obviously marginally more prepared than I’d been during my caregiver time with my dad. My mom’s physical and emotional limitations required me to do a level of caregiving with dad which I desperately wanted to spare my own children. For the most part I was able to manage that, mainly because I’d had considerable practice at maintaining the parent/child boundaries that had crumbled in my family of origin when I was only a teenager. I didn’t spend a lot of time bemoaning my early responsibilities. I just didn’t want my kids to repeat my experience in their lives.

Shortly before hospice – Michael with Rosie, his beloved cocker spaniel. She would be farmed out to friends for awhile when taking care of Michael consumed all my time.

Michael had been in remission for over a year when he suddenly began exhibiting confusing behavior. After a month of negative CT scans we finally were able to get a brain MRI which showed widespread cancer throughout his brain tissue. With only a few weeks’ life expectancy, his drive for life was so powerful that he underwent whole brain radiation. We spent almost 5 weeks in the hospital, from February to early March, 2017, before finally being able to go home. He was never fully himself again, alternating between short periods of lucidity, confusion and forgetfulness. Amazingly he regained some physical strength during April but the the cancer rollback from the radiation was brief with a steep decline on all fronts beginning in May. As days passed, life grew more challenging as both his cognitive and physical skills declined. All these changes spooled out between visits from home health care personnel, still drawing blood, taking vitals and encouraging physical therapy. Still a very tall and heavy person, Michael became more and more difficult for me to manage. Making the decision to enter him into hospice was particularly hard as he still maintained a deep desire to survive, coupled with an inability to retain understanding about the severity of his situation. Watching the person you love best disappearing in front of you is deeply eroding. After spending decades as partners in planning, having to make that choice was incredibly painful for me. But finally I did it.

Before Michael’s steep decline, a bit of time with our oldest grandson.

May 17th, 2017 – It’s not every day that you sign your husband up for hospice. No more doctor’s appointments. No ER. No more bloodwork. No more home health visits. Just watching and waiting for death to come.

At home in hospice. Michael’s hair never grew back after whole brain radiation.

When Carol the hospice nurse came to introduce herself and drop off supplies and medication, she talked with Michael and me together, and then to me alone. She’d quickly assessed our situation, giving me helpful guidance about deciding when and how to proceed with medication which might keep Michael calm and relaxed. The first days of that time were still hugely difficult. Trying to keep Michael safe and comfortable was a 24 hour job until the time came when he was no longer mobile. He continued to attempt behaviors his body and mind were not capable of performing. I was frightened a lot of the time. My kids came to stay with me round the clock for the last days of Michael’s life. I was able to keep them from having to parent their dad, but rather to love and grieve him as his children which was so important to me. By the time he died, I was beyond mental fatigue and utterly physically drained. We all felt that Michael never made peace with dying so those beautiful moments we’ve all seen dramatized in movies weren’t part of our hospice experience. On the day Michael died, Carol wasn’t the nurse on call, but she showed up anyway, informed by her coworker that Michael had passed. Although I have no military experience, I imagine that the bonds forged under fire must be similar to what happened with Carol and me during this end of life process. Her popping up in my life throughout these last six years is, I guess, a testimony to that connection. I haven’t sat back to relive those days in awhile. After getting these thoughts out I’m again going to set it aside. Those memories are never leaving me.

Fifty Years Plus and Still…

A photo I took at the basin a few weeks ago. Ducks swimming through a shimmering building reflection.

I usually swim on Tuesdays at noon but today, I went for a walk instead, around a midtown feature in my community which is informally referred to as “the basin.” For decades, the basin was previously called the Boneyard creek, a slim rivulet which ran diagonally through town and the university campus. Generally a blight, almost anything could be found in that relatively shallow water. Filthy and bad-smelling, it was described by a local news service like this : “From the early 1900s, the Boneyard was deemed a polluted eyesore; reports of gas pollution and foul odors date back to as far as 1915.In 2004, a master urban area renewal plan which encompassed a sizable section of the creek, was initiated by the city in concert with the university. The basin opened in 2012, a park with several water features that attract waterfowl and which provide habitat for turtles and fish. Native plants line the shore and the slopes to the water, drawing bees, dragonflies and birds. During the times when Michael was too sick to leave town, we’d head over to sit at small tables under the shade of umbrellas, soaking in mini-respites from cancer-treatment life. Sometimes we brought the grandkids. Later, after he died, I still went there with the kids. And I continue go there frequently for strolls and relaxation.

Michael strolling around the basin, 2015
My oldest grandson at the basin, a couple of years ago
Michael’s last time at the basin, about 6 weeks before he died.

On this mild February morning, I put my headphones in my ears and cranked up the music, my best company on these walks. I play Pandora on shuffle so I’m always surprised by the next tune. I think that keeping unpredictability in life is good for the brain. As I strode along I was glad to see that a cleanup effort had taken place since my last visit. At that time I was really disturbed by a buildup of garbage and rubble, not only on the banks beside the basin but in the water itself.

Garbage thrown around at the basin.

I don’t think I’ll ever understand the casual dumping of almost anything into areas of natural beauty. For that matter, I’m still appalled by the litter still so evident in many urban areas. I suppose there will always be some people who simply can’t control the self-absorbed behavior which allows them to drop what is no longer of value to them, wherever and whenever they please. But come on. Ignoring environmental concerns must take a special kind of willful ignorance. How can anyone not care about the pitiful condition of our aching planet? What bubble desensitizes an individual to the knowledge that climate change, along with a lack of respect for the earth, has brought all living things to the edge of a dangerous tipping point? After all, the first Earth Day in the U.S. was way back in April, 1970. You’d think the message would be omnipresent by now.

For the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the National Archives featured this poster by artist Robert Rauschenberg. (National Archives, Records of the U.S. Information Agency)

Earth Day 1970 achieved a rare political alignment, enlisting support from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, urban dwellers and farmers, business and labor leaders. By the end of 1970, the first Earth Day led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of other first of their kind environmental laws, including the National Environmental Education Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Clean Air Act. Two years later Congress passed the Clean Water Act. A year after that, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act and soon after the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. These laws have protected millions of men, women and children from disease and death and have protected hundreds of species from extinction. (From Earth Day website)

“What About Me” – album by Quicksilver Messenger Service, 1970

The tune “What About Me?,” the title song from the 1970 album by Quicksilver Messenger Service, popped up on my Pandora feed as I walked this morning. Sometimes it’s hard to be optimistic. I thought this coincidence was fitting given my thoughts of the day. The lyrics to this song, written over 50 years ago, could have been written yesterday with relatively few adjustments for time. I admit that I wasn’t thrilled to look back and realize the agonizingly slow pace of people’s attention to our shared living space needs a major adjustment. Here are the song lyrics. Read them and weep.

What About Me – Quicksilver Messenger Service – 1970

You poisoned my sweet water.
You cut down my green trees.
The food you fed my children
Was the cause of their disease.

My world is slowly fallin’ down
And the airs not good to breathe.
And those of us who care enough,
We have to do something…….

Oh… oh What you gonna do about me?
Oh… oh What you gonna do about me?

Your newspapers,
They just put you on.
They never tell you
The whole story.

They just put your
Young ideas down.
I was wonderin’ could this be the end
Of your pride and glory?

Oh… oh What you gonna do about me?
Oh… oh What you gonna do about me?

I work in your factory.
I study in your schools.
I fill your penitentiaries.
And your military too!

And I feel the future trembling,
As the word is passed around.
“If you stand up for what you do believe,
Be prepared to be shot down.”

Oh… oh What you gonna do about me?
Oh… oh What you gonna do about me?

And I feel like a stranger
In the land where I was born
And I live like an outlaw.
An’ I’m always on the run…

An I’m always getting busted
And I got to take a stand….
I believe the revolution
Must be mighty close at hand…

Oh… oh What you gonna do about me?
Oh… oh What you gonna do about me?

I smoke marijuana
But I can’t get behind your wars.
And most of what I do believe
Is against most of your laws

I’m a fugitive from injustice
But I’m goin’ to be free.
Cause your rules and regulations
They don’t do the thing for me

Oh… oh What you gonna do about me?
Oh… oh What you gonna do about me?

And I feel like a stranger
In the land where I was born
And I live just like an outlaw.
An’ I’m always on the run.

Source: LyricFind

Songwriters: Dino Valenti

What About Me? lyrics © BMG Rights Management US, LLC, Carlin America Inc, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

Who Says So?

Another one from the archive – It’s always interesting to have a look back. Having two replaced knees has indeed been a game changer.

0B888484-2BF5-45C4-8D23-5FE7B168320FWho says that everything I want to write has to make sense and stay in some sort of order? Trying to write the helpful book about coping with an orphan cancer is too grinding. Writing letters to Michael is easy. So is expressing my internal monologues. So that’s what I’m doing because it’s a relief from being orderly. So greetings from my stream of consciousness.6792F348-D740-4CAC-9AB0-FF38A26DD84A

I have been outside all day. My yard feels enormous. Keeping up with it requires a big effort. It’s been awhile since I’ve been able to sustain an 8 hour work day in the garden. One replaced knee makes a considerable difference in endurance. Imagine how I’ll be after the next surgery this summer. Unstoppable. I hope.D3884EBB-889F-4F45-9D61-49FA447C8A84

I am not a poet. I love some poetry and some not much at all. But I wrote a poem, born of emotions I couldn’t purge from my body in any other way. Here is my non-poem stimulated by one note of one song on the headphones.9993F33D-E6F4-45BD-93D7-2205D6969096

One note.

One note, I disappear into another time, barely breathing.

One note, an album cover, a bed, a body, panting, yet barely breathing.

One note, reality and memory collide, a visual extravaganza, wailing, yet scarcely breathing.

One note, an internal riot of feeling, gasping like beached fish.

One note, pain, love, gratitude, emptiness, how am I still breathing?

One note,I wouldn’t trade any of it, not for one easy breath.

One note.E83F58E6-7460-47CC-BBE7-7E5C2B051CE6

And here is another weird little wordplay that helped me through a moment.

Oui can be aye.

Aye can be I.

can be eye.

But we can’t be I.

I wish I was still a we.

Kind of bizarre, but I get to do what I want. After all this is my space and I’m not censoring. Back to the yard. AE5FAFAA-97B1-4EB9-876F-1291BB0A9714

The garden is a mystery this year. Is it because of the polar vortex? My forsythia is greening up after showing none of its famous yellow blooms that always herald spring. Many of my flowers are coming late and some are not going to appear. I know because I crave their bursting life and color so much that I photograph them every year. They have gone the way of impermanent things, which is mostly everything in the physical universe. I am an unwitting phenologist, studying climate change in my little world. I am currently sitting in what was Michael’s massive vegetable garden, now a pollinators’ garden which is easier for me to manage. I don’t want to can tomatoes or pesto or salsa like he did. To me, those things are just for eating, not making. Although I’ve already planted a few tomatoes and a few peppers. I’ll always do that in honor of my boy.103A73C2-0A4D-44B9-B97A-3DC4CC90DD15

This ground feels like us to me. We worked this earth together for a very long time. I cry here but I am also peaceful which is a hard state for me to achieve. I told my kids to remember that if they find me dead amidst the flowers, I went out happy. Back to the interesting spring, though. Returning in abundance are Michael’s perennial herbs. They are beautiful and fragrant. He always wondered if they’d die back eventually. Who knows? And just for you, my dead punster, no chive.


feel guilty for still liking Michael Jackson’s music. What was once fun for grooving and dancing is now a quandary for me. Do we dispose of all their art when we discover that the artists did dreadful things in their lives? Does that tarnish their art to the point that it should be hidden, erased? Or did their deeds wind up informing their art in a circuitous way? I’ll never be able to sort through these dilemmas. I’ve been thinking that there should be one enormous “outing” day. On that day, every public figure who’s perpetrated a wrong against an innocent should be exposed and brought to task. These intermittent exposures that keep popping up in the news are so emotionally eroding. Morgan Freeman, Neil deGrasse Tyson. Ugh. Maybe getting them done all at once would be shockingly painful but then we could be done. If there is such a thing that’s done.77C1D403-2A5E-4BE1-9E7B-9D671D28814C

I am listening to a random shuffle of music on my headphones while I work. I am always wondering where all these song lyrics in my head are stored. I’ve known every word of every song I’ve heard today. I think Brian Wilson is a musical genius. I hope neither Paul McCartney nor I die before I see him in June. I haven’t seen him perform live in 55 years. That sounds crazy to me. Now I am listening to My Sweet Lord by George Harrison. That stimulated a memory from back in 1971 when my friend Ted commandeered me while I was doing acid. He bought a dozen glazed doughnuts from Spudnuts, the sweet shop on campus and took me to his apartment.  He put his new fancy headphones on my ears so I could listen to this song while he plied me with sugar and asked me questions about his girlfriend. All I knew was that I thought I could hear each individual track that George laid down in that song. When I hear it now, I still think I can separate each track.


Today I looked at a photograph from 1976 and realized that everyone in it was dead. My parents, my husband, my brother, my sister-in-law and my dog. An eerie thing to note.


My former sister in law died this week. My brother died four years ago. My great nephew sent me some videos my brother took of our family in 1976 and 1981. My brother had already sent me a copy of the 1981 film which features my newborn baby. I’d never seen the one from 1976. So many of the people in the film are gone. I was beautiful but I didn’t know it.


Even after 4 years with Michael who flattered me constantly, I still felt unattractive. Michael, thank you for fixing so many of my insecurities with your incredible love and support. I know we had a lot of clashes but I do remember your devotion. You told me we’d never have fought if it wasn’t for me being so opinionated and assertive. I still can’t figure out how someone who had so many insecurities as me could still be so aggressive. But I’m glad about it. You were right – I was always stronger then I actually understood. The reason I’m still here, I suppose, given that your doctor told me my risk of death from my caregiving of you put me at the highest danger I’d ever been in my life. Yes, I’m still here, reporting all these thoughts and feelings which are now flung into the void as you are not here to listen. Maybe…I still am wondering about where all this energy goes. I’m done working now.D7FD1520-63CB-41A5-9917-347B8C97FB7E

I’m currently watching Notre Dame Cathedral burn in Paris. I remember being fortunate enough to visit there, to see the amazing art and feel the history ooze from the walls. I am not Catholic. Religion is irrelevant to me. Watching history erased is painful no matter what you believe. Some parts of the building may remain. Again, nothing lasts forever. Except what is intangible. At least for me. D50EB05B-2DAE-42E8-BA1B-0EEF97726730

Prairie Bathing

A prairie view – clusters of trees breaking up the flat land.

I can’t say that terrain or geography played any part in deciding where I’ve wound up spending most of my life. When I was growing up, my family didn’t do much traveling. I was born in Chicago, moved to Iowa as an infant and at age seven, returned to Chicago where I lived until leaving for college, attending school in my home state. I saw Michigan once when I was twelve, during the only vacation I ever had with my parents and my younger sister. We never traveled as a family when my older brother and sister still lived at home. When I was sixteen, I got to take a train from Chicago to Montreal, to see Expo ‘67, the World’s Fair. Despite that Canadian adventure, aside from the multi-cultural fair exhibits, my time in Montreal was just an urban experience without much exposure to varied topography.

Lake Michigan

I loved growing up with Lake Michigan as a backdrop for my childhood. I learned to swim in its chilly waters which I still prefer for swimming. I don’t find balmy seas, the water temperature feeling like the air, to be particularly refreshing. Except for swimming, I knew kids who water-skied, canoed and kayaked. In my family of earth-bound people, I was the only one who swam. When we went to the beach, everyone sat on the grass adjacent to the sand. My parents thought I was going to the Olympics. Oh my. Maybe I would’ve gone back to the city if I’d had more water-based skills and hobbies. As it was, the lake itself wasn’t enough to draw me back to the fast-paced, more complicated life of Chicago. I found pools instead of the lake and swam in them instead. Later on in life, despite always missing a body of water in my community, that geographical feature wasn’t enough to counterbalance the socio-economic factors that were key in determining “home.” I’ve spent practically my entire life in the “Prairie State,” away from my most loved terrain feature, the view across a big body of water.

Gulf of Mexico
Bryce Canyon
Glacier National Park
Sequoia National Park

As an adult, I’ve had the privilege of significantly expanding my travels. Although I don’t expect to see every place on my bucket list, I’ve dipped my feet into a couple of oceans and several seas. I’ve been in the mighty Alps and the Rocky Mountains, with other ranges in between. I’ve stood under the majestic soaring heights of the Sequoias and Redwoods, as well as experiencing the largest Cypress and Ponderosa Pine stands in North America. I’ve been in the tropics although despite the incredibly fascinating biodiversity, I’m not a fan of constant humidity. I live in the prairie.

Getty Images

I read about forest bathing some years ago. Evidently the Japanese government recommended that hardworking city dwellers, who spent lots of time locked in offices, head to their closest wooded area, minus their phones and cameras, to wander aimlessly for a few hours. Scientific studies showed evidence that two hours in the forest, using all five senses during that period, had significant health benefits for people. One of the papers describing these results can be viewed in the link below.

A garden in Maine

I don’t think anyone would argue that even a brief immersion in a natural environment is beneficial to everyone, regardless of age or career. I worry about the technology generation, the kids who’ve had screens in front of them since birth. In fact, a relatively new term has been coined to describe children who spend almost no time outside, at least in the U.S. – “nature deficient disorder.”

“These days, kids spend much more time inside, mostly thanks to technology. The average American child spends about 4 to 7 minutes a day playing outside and over 7 hours a day in front of a screen. Spending time outdoors isn’t just enjoyable — it’s also necessary. Many researchers agree that kids who play outside are happier, better at paying attention and less anxious than kids who spend more time indoors.” Article in Child-Mind Institute, 2/23.

I’ve even noticed that my three month old granddaughter is instantly attentive to a smart phone if it’s within her view. Her focus is almost eerie.

An autumn photo of a field not far from my house with a colorful break of trees at one end.

I worry about all the young people who are missing their opportunity to experience the wonders of nature. And there are the adults who lead inside lives, dictated by work requirements, time constraints and geographic limitations. We can’t all spend a few hours forest bathing, especially where wooded areas are scarce. If I’d been more cognizant of what natural environment would have best suited me, I’d be living near a beach. That’s beyond my reach now. But during my childhood, when video screens weren’t as pervasive as they are today, I spent a lot of time outside, even if that meant just hanging out on my block. I collected insects, gathered leaves, looked at weeds and flowers. I made bracelets and necklaces out of clover and blew my share of dandelion seeds into the air. I watched anthills, teeming with life.

Clover weed made wonderful jewelry.

I didn’t know that my activities were providing me with health benefits. Looking back on my robust youth, I now think I was silently feeding my immune system with what was readily available just out the front door, even in my urban neighborhood. Once I settled into adult life, I continued to make space for getting outside as often as possible. Admittedly, I’m more mindful about how immersion in nature, even for a short while, improves my mental state almost immediately. And I’ve realized that essentially, rather than forest bathing, I’ve been prairie bathing for most of my life. For the past few years, I’ve been carting my oldest grandson just about a mile out of town, so he can experience time away from those screens. He enjoys the prairie too.

Prairie vista

The flat lands offer big skies and broad vistas. Standing at the edge of the prairie can almost feel like looking at the horizon from a beach. That kind of expanse is calming, a reminder that no matter how huge our issues might feel, in the overall scheme of the natural order, we individuals are quite small. Perspective makes a difference when life can feel overwhelming.

The prairie rustles in the wind. Animals graze and wander. Birds hunt for food and soar overhead.

Grazing deer
Hawk aloft

In the early morning or late afternoon, when the sky is clear, remarkable colors light the clouds. The innocent sense of wonder, so easily accessible for children, becomes available to the more jaded among us with our too often tired and anxious brains.

Communing with the natural world, stepping back from stress, and generally soothing the soul, doesn’t require a forest, a beach, a mountain or an ocean. Mental vacations can happen for anyone, anywhere, including the plains dwellers, removed from the more spectacular geographical features of this planet. Prairie bathing may be the easiest holistic exercise you ever try. Bring the kids and the grandkids. It’s working for me and mine.