I have deferred knee replacement surgery for so many years, I barely remember when the pain began. I think it was about 14 years ago. I was really adept at avoidance behavior. Eventually I coupled it with my fear of the length of recovery. I worried that as Michael’s cancer roiled about for years, I had to be ready. That always stood in the way of dealing with my badly needed maintenance. And I was really afraid. Except for birthing my children I’d never had a surgical procedure. And I was awake during those. The years of being by my parents’ bedsides, most particularly my mother’s, had me irrationally averse to lying in a hospital bed, unconscious, while people stood around me, talking, laughing while I was helpless and unaware. I’m really bad at that. Everyone I know has given me wise counsel about how help is really a good four letter word, and how a person needs to reach out eventually and let others give back what you have willingly dished out for a lifetime. Ugh. So what if I’m a little nutty about this stuff? The only person I hurt is me. And I think that’s my choice, no one else’s. I could hear Michael in my head. He never thought I’d finally cave in and offer myself up to a surgeon, despite any grade of agonizing, limiting pain. As the saying goes, old habits die hard. And mine have been deeply ground into my psyche and defy logic and reason. But my life changed. Without Michael to care for, my awareness of my own physical issues sharpened and felt really hard to manage. I got sick of trying. I think part of it was that if something went awry, I didn’t care as much as I used to. My life isn’t nearly as exciting or urgent as it felt when I was part of our team. So I saw the orthopedist and set the date for surgery.
And I decided that I would do my best to have my outcome be successful. My preparation for total joint replacement really worked. Months of swimming and physical therapy helped me glide through my procedure. I was up and walking within a few hours after the operation and was back home in less than 36 hours. Huh. Now I have to be mindful in order to recover properly. That means no overdoing. My doctor who informed me that I was very “Type A,” told my kids to basically sit on me so I don’t mess up his beautiful work. My pain level is minimal. I’ve snuck out the door a few times to breathe fresh air and look at my flowers that remain miraculously alive in my late October garden.
I’ve had the good fortune to watch a timely tennis tournament in Basel, Switzerland featuring my personal favorite, Roger Federer, which has accompanied me through the week.
The pain medications have been strange. I have a strong aversion to feeling too relaxed or mellow. Being hyper-vigilant is pretty challenging with a mushy brain. I declined home health care and today, less than a week after surgery, I had my first post-surgical physical therapy session. I’ve started weaning myself away from the painkillers.
Just a few weeks ago, I was getting my ducks in a row. I made a list of all my accounts and passwords. I put all of my important papers in an accessible safe so things would be easy for my kids if I didn’t make it. I even started planning for which personal items would go to each family member, thinking ahead to unknown grandchildren and spouses or partners of grandchildren I already know. Sometimes I go a little too far down the road. I don’t really have enough valuables to spread around to all the imagined recipients of my smallish bounty.
But while I was abuzz, I drifted around in my mind and found myself dwelling on some of the best stories about Michael and me. Thinking of giving away my little treasures conjured the romantic and sweet gestures that he showered on me during our years together. They linger and will warm me forever. Here are a few of them.
When we were married less than a year, we had no money. The truth is, neither one of us was very ambitious and acquiring piles of cash wasn’t high on our list. At the same time, Michael, a great secret-keeper and a wonderful gift-giver, really wanted me to have anything I ever casually mentioned wanting, even the teeniest bit. We were visiting his parents in December at their home in Florida. One of the people who lived in their building was a diamond broker who worked at DeBeers. So very strange. A whole other lifestyle. Everyone who lived there seemed to be about their possessions. Hy, the jeweler, who had a fairly down-to-earth wife named Renee, decided to bring a tray of his wares out for us to coo over and admire. As much as I was tempted to resist, the shiny baubles, so out of my league, drew me inexorably toward them, the proverbial moth to the flame. I had a pretty strong affinity for aquatic life and most particularly, dolphins. I’d read a book by Dr. John Lilly, a counterculture physician who believed that the dolphin’s brain size and seeming inclination for interacting with humans, made them ideal candidates for learning computer-synthesized language. A truly appealing concept. I’d already decided that if reincarnation was a thing, my logical animal of choice would be one of those generous, joyous and intelligent water leapers, cruising the seas with a family and practicing random kindness. Tucked into one of the black velvet slots on Hy’s tray was a gold dolphin with a ruby eye. A multi-use jewel that could be worn as a pendant or a pin. I was filled with longing and also annoyance at what an easy mark I was. I pined a bit and then turned away. My wedding band was a silver hippie band with a few flowers on it. My engagement ring came from my mother-in-law, via Hy. She was embarrassed that I didn’t have an engagement ring that she could talk about with her friends. I wore it for years, a facsimile of one I would’ve wanted if I allowed myself the luxury.
Michael and I returned home and went back to work. Our wedding anniversary was May 1st. I will never forget the delighted look on his face as he slid a box across the table, the gold dolphin nestled against velvet, my chin hanging down in astonishment. That first anniversary was the beginning of all the secret negotiating he’d practice throughout our life, finding a way to give me something precious that I’d long since forgotten about.
Another fun memory started with the first time we ever left our daughter after her birth. As parents who got started in our 30’s, we were really ready to be committed to our kid. We’d had a good ten years on our own and the mad love we felt for our daughter bordered on the ridiculous. When she was three, we finally decided to leave her with my parents and go for an extended October weekend to Galena, Illinois. I still remember my anxiety. When I called to speak with her, she was busy and uninterested in our absence. I was a bit disappointed but we relievedly threw ourselves into enjoying the historic town, visiting the surrounding sites, eating well and just being alone with each other.
We wandered in and out of restaurants and shops, feeling romantic and refreshed. Invariably, we hit an antique store and just as invariably, there was a ring. An old simple aquamarine that fit perfectly. Michael and I had our usual conversation during which he explained why I didn’t need it and I reluctantly agreed. We finished our trip, picked up the kid and went home. But of course, Michael had written down the name of the shop, contacted the owner and arranged for the purchase which fell into my lap during the December holidays. The funniest part was that he’d described the wrong ring and instead of getting the aquamarine, I got an amethyst one that I didn’t love as much but which fit as well. In truth, I loved the idea of what he did more than anything else and I’ve been wearing this ring for 34 years. I can’t take it off. Our honeymoon which took place 15 years after we were married produced a caymanite charm for a necklace representing our fabulous but delayed adventure in Cayman Brac. Another surprise that turned up months after we’d returned home. For our 25th anniversary, our life was a little dicey. Michael had decided to leave his record store where he’d worked for 27 years to return to school to get certified as a secondary school history teacher. I remember when we told our kids they were stunned and worried. He was an old guy making a big career change. But it was our 25th wedding anniversary and we had the sensibility that we’d only get one of those. So despite the fact that there were three family members in school and my public servant job wasn’t likely to make me rich, we took a Caribbean cruise on the Norway, an old-fashioned-looking ship that reminded us historians of the Titanic. We promised each other no gifts. We decided to dine alone in The Bistro for our anniversary dinner. That night Michael produced a single rose from somewhere, roses being his signature anniversary gift. But then, he slid a box across the table and inside was a grownup ring, a fancy amethyst that truly stunned me. This man. A dazzler.
Another summer trip that included a street fair where artists were showing all kinds of amazing, unique creations brought me the bracelet I didn’t need, the one made of old typewriter keys to remind me that I really could write, yes I could, if I would only get down to it. And there are other lovely vignettes that popped up over the years. But I’ve saved the best two for last.
One afternoon during the Christmas season, I was out shopping and walked over to the jewelry case with multiple discounts, the big clearance. And there, staring up at me was the real engagement ring I’d wanted, a lovely deep green emerald in a simple setting that had been marked down enough that I thought I could swing this one. I tried it on and of course, it was perfect. I asked the jeweler if we could set it aside for just a few hours. I ran home and told Michael about how this was the one, the real one and I’d never want another ring again. Out came the same old arguments about how it was too expensive and unnecessary and all those other annoying rational ideas. As usual, they all made sense and I reluctantly called the store and told them to put the ring back on display. Two days later, my daughter and I were out shopping and I asked her if she wanted to see my ring. She was agreeable and we strolled over to the display case to find that it was gone. I was sad and furious that some terrible person was going to wear what rightfully belonged to me. I remember going home and being my most excellent snarky self to Michael. Eventually I got past it.
That May was our 30th wedding anniversary. We went out to dinner at an eclectic place which featured lots of seafood. I have a serious shellfish allergy and forgotten my epipen. I went into a lengthy explanation with our waitress, describing how I couldn’t afford to have any of my food grilled on the same surface as shrimp or lobster, that there could be no touching of my food to any hand or surface which brushed crustaceans, and on and on until the poor thing was a nervous wreck. Michael ordered shrimp and I had steak. All appeared to be going well. And then the moment came. A little box magically appeared on the table and Michael gently shoved it toward me. I was truly bewildered and then overwhelmed when I opened it and found the emerald he’d stashed away almost 5 months earlier and hidden until this night. I burst out crying, bringing the terrified waitress running to our table, certain that I was going to die on the spot from shrimp juice. What a moment. I told Michael again that I’d never look at another ring and I haven’t. I’m still so married, I wear it every day.
And then there was his last, most moving and heroic sneaky gift. When he was given only a few months to live, with perhaps a year with treatment in 2013, he set out to leave me a lasting symbol of his love, something that would comfort me when he was gone. During his chemotherapy, he went to a local jewelry designer and created a heart pendant for me. My daughter went with him. His hands shook but he was able to make an impression in his handwriting that read, “my life, my love, my heart” which the jeweler imprinted on gold. When it was made, he put it away because against all odds, he stayed alive. He finally gave it to me almost two and a half years later. He also had the presence of mind to make a mold with his handwriting in the event that if anything happened to the original, I could have it remade. He knew I would never be able to stand the loss.
So there it is. Somehow my process of going through my surgery and facing my fears swung me around to remembering the delights of my marriage, the special little moments that helped me survive the hard parts, that rejuvenated my feelings for Michael over and over again. They continue to connect me to that magic that has always eluded my best language, my absurd number of words. Life is so unpredictable. I wouldn’t have thought about these stories all in a row absent my pathetic knees. What’s next?
I’m sitting in the blue room in my house. Most of the other walls in this home are painted white. But there was always the blue room and the orange room, actually more of a salmon color. When the kids were little, it was easier to ask them to go get something from the blue room or the orange room rather than the music room/library or the computer room.
The blue room is on the first floor of the house. When we moved in forty years ago, the house was broken into three apartments. We lived on the first floor and rented out the upstairs until we started our family. I picked out the paint for this room, our bedroom. I remember the amazing quilt I found for our bed, a glorious paisley with the same blue as the walls, accented by subtle autumn colors.This room has seen a lot. Michael and I had lived together for 6 years when we moved in. The rhythm of our relationship was established and growing stronger every day. There’s something special about the first bedroom you have in your own house. We loved each other, our bed, our room, our house and we felt lucky. We read in bed, listened to music and let the dogs sleep at our feet. One time we borrowed a Polaroid camera from a friend and took sexy photos in here. This was the room where our daughter was conceived. When that happened, we took over one of the apartments and moved our bedroom upstairs next to the one for our baby.
And then the blue room became the computer room and the music room. Michael built CD racks of golden oak that went from floor to ceiling. With his usual anal-retentive style, the CDs were alphabetized, with the classical ones having their own shelves and their own order. What was once our closet became the home for the racks he built for his beloved vinyl collection. Our computer was here along with a bookshelf or two. A place for work and music. The kids learned to dance in the this room. I think virtually all my family members bopped around in here at one time or another.
Adjacent to the blue room was the orange room which became our library, also shelved from top to bottom, lined with books. Neither one of us had much discipline about book buying. When I was a kid, we had one bookshelf. It was made by my grandfather and I still have it. I started with the first book on the first shelf and read them all in order. Then I started over again. Of course, there was the school library and the city library to compensate and fill my insatiable desire to read. But I had always dreamed of a room filled with an eclectic assortment of books that I couldn’t possibly get through no matter how hard I tried. That dream was realized in this house. Such happy times. In time, the orange room was painted white, except for one sneaky sliver of orange I left in an upper corner. The orange room became my mother’s bedroom for a few years and after her time, a parlor and playroom for the grandchildren.
But back to the blue room. Michael died in this room. I don’t think about that very often. We spent so much more time living in it, that the short period of time preceding his death is insignificant compared to all of our history. But today I’m thinking about it. This room is in a state of flux. The fall before Michael died, he sold his music collection. Both of us understood he’d lived so much longer than anyone predicted, but that we might run out of time, at any time. The thought of me having to deal with unloading thousands of LP’s and CD’s was overwhelming. I couldn’t imagine having to do that while trying to survive Michael’s loss. So he did it. People came from music stores throughout the Midwest and eventually he found the right buyer. One day, everything was packed into boxes and carted away. We saved a few special favorites and depended on Michael’s massive iTunes library and our house CDS that he’d made over the years to keep our toes tapping. After the sale, we started tackling the blue room. The shelves were taken down and sold. We kept one to store the CD’s we’d kept. And the items too precious to let go. The shelves pulled away bits of wall so we started started spackling the ancient plaster while discussing what we wanted to do with the space. We talked about the possibility of moving our bedroom back down here as my knees deteriorated and steps got harder to navigate. Maybe it would just be a reading room.
But then everything stopped as Michael’s cancer returned in a new frightening iteration and no one was thinking of remodeling any more. After a month-long stay in the hospital, Michael was released in a debilitated state. Because the blue room was mostly empty, I ordered a hospital bed placed in it to make things easier for both of us. The bathroom, which we’d had redone when my mother came to live with us, was handicap-accessible and just a few steps from the bed. It was the safest place for Michael to spend his last months. I hauled my recliner in and slept right next to him, just in case. In case of anything. He actually managed to get back to our bedroom for a few weeks. I was terrified because of all the stairs and the circuitous route to the upstairs bathroom. A short but sweet respite. Eventually we wound up back downstairs in the blue room.
During the summer of 2017, after he died, I worked in this room for hours, organizing the rest of his music memorabilia to be given away or disbursed to our kids. I did the writing, made the slide show and created the displays for his celebration of life right here, listening to the music of our lives as I plugged away at all the chores that come with the end of a life. I’ve cried here many times, but mostly I’ve just felt the consistently vibrant presence of our connection which is yet unfaded. When I breathe in the blue room I feel like I’m inhaling the essence of Michael which is peculiarly strong and buoyant. I lean on it internally. I never expected any of these sensations. They just come, they just are and I accept them and draw strength from them.
I am supposed to have knee replacement surgery this week. A glitch might delay that. Taken off guard, I’ve been casting around for some balance. And I wound up here, in the blue room. My knee replacement surgery is so long overdue that my countdown, which now numbers only a few days, seems fairly ridiculous. I still remember the first time I realized that my knees were becoming problematic. I was on a wooden ladder on my side porch, painting. Always an acrophobe, I’d spend a fair amount of time making sure the ladder was stable, no wobbles, no chances for me to tumble off. If it didn’t feel right, I’d climb down and make my tiny adjustments. I remember thinking how old our ladder was, and how terribly creaky it sounded when I was stopped cold by the realization that the creaky sound was coming from my left knee. I was fifty four years old. A medical procedure and doctor avoider my whole life, I spent the next years soldiering through the increasing pain. I’d inherited my mother’s arthritis, the gift that keeps on giving. I saw how it diminished her life, making her crabby and irritable because she was hurting. And she was taking lots of drugs. I decided I would do neither of those things. No abusing other people because of my pain and nothing but over the counter medications and topicals to get through the days. And of course, immersing myself in my beloved pools.
Michael would urge me to do something about myself, go to the orthopedist, consider injections, maybe even surgery. But he knew I was stubborn and eventually would look at me, concerned but bemused as I fought to prove mind over matter was a thing. When I’d mull over changing my mind about treatment, he’d say, “Right, I’ll believe it when I see it.” I can still hear him saying that now. When he got his cancer with its dreadful prognosis, all thought of dealing with my knees was pushed aside. I knew I would never take the risk of being in recovery if there was a chance he’d need me. Over time, all my cartilage disappeared and the bone on bone grinding became part of my daily life. It’s been a challenge. Whoever doubts that chronic pain erodes you on multiple levels clearly has never experienced it. When Michael died, I decided that the time had come to deal with myself as my quality of life was tanking. I’ve pushed through a lot, but aside from trying to figure out a way to live an amphibious life, surgery is the only answer.
The Role of Emotional Health in Functional Outcomes After Orthopaedic Surgery: Extending the Biopsychosocial Model to Orthopaedics
I made an appointment with the orthopedist last June. Imagine my surprise when he said that his protocols precluded surgery on people in acute grief. He says that studies showed that their successful recovery rate was significantly less than the non-grieving population. So he sent me away for another year. When I went back this June, I asked him if he’d need new imaging of my knees. He laughed in my face and said absolutely not. I am so in the bottom of the knee barrel that I am now the perfect candidate for surgery. No more looking required. So here I am, about to have my first grownup medical intervention. That makes me very lucky and very nervous. How do I respond to anesthesia? Who knows? What in the world will it be like for me to the patient after having spent so much of my life as the advocate, sitting at the bedside of both my parents, my sister, my friends and even my children? Powerless? I hope not. My least favorite thing.
But now there may be a sudden swerve away from this long-delayed intervention. I’ve always said we are all one phone call away from a change in your life. I got my phone call late Friday afternoon. I don’t yet know whether I’ll be proceeding with my surgery or if a new plan will be required. That still remains to be seen.
So I am in the blue room. Looking around and remembering all kinds of things as I listen to the music that never ends. Sheltering in place.
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.