Parallels

 

1718D660-F6E8-4C1A-932B-4BCC84494183Certain years of your life stand out from the others. Months and months can go by, with one day melting into the next. Maybe at times that feels stale or boring. For me, I think those times are often the best ones, when nothing special has happened, nothing to make the ground beneath your feet feel unstable and shaky.

 

One of my most intense years was 1989. The previous two were marked by personal tragedy. In 1987, my cousin committed suicide. He’d been troubled since his mid-teens. Our families were very close and although I knew his situation was dire, I don’t think anything can ever prepare you for a young person choosing to die. I attended his funeral carrying my young son. The grief of my family was spread over my shoulders. The following year, my oldest friend, who’d borne terrible emotional disturbances during our entire relationship, killed herself too. Her death was two weeks before our 20th high school reunion. I attended the event but was devastated and moved like a ghost through the living history around me. I was inconsolable. I dreamed my way through my grief. I would be at the high school reunion again, but it was in a different location. People knew I was suffering and suddenly I’d see their faces change and I knew she had appeared. I turned around and saw her, wearing a red sweater which complimented her dark hair and olive skin. We went rushing to each other and I reached out for her, only to feel her whoosh right through me and vanish. I took this as a message that she was better off gone. Those two events are the prelude to 1989, the year that tilted my world on its axis, to forever rotate differently from the way it did from the time I came to call “The Before.” This was the first of two cataclysmic sections of my life.CBEA4E7B-2950-45D9-B8ED-EC420FE1233A

Michael and I started out 1989 with a plan. Four years earlier, he had run for alderman in our city, against a classic caricature of a corrupt good old boy incumbent who’d spent years in office. I was his campaign manager, completely inexperienced, but game. We ran a good campaign but didn’t have much going for our “Get Out the Vote” plan. Michael lost that election by 2 votes. That sting was still fresh as we heated up for the election season in January, 1989. I was reprising my role as manager, a more experienced and streetwise one. Michael had raised his competitive level and resolved to meet every voter in our ward.583859B0-4E52-4CB3-821A-AA0EFE1D87E8

We were really busy. Both of us had full-time jobs and two kids who were seven and two. My parents had moved to Urbana from Chicago two years earlier to join us and my younger sister. I was the precinct committee person in our jurisdiction. Life whirred along quickly during the late winter and early spring months. Michael, who’d been having back pain on and off for a few years from his relentless softball career, marched through it, going out every night after dinner and taking our daughter with him on weekends to knock on doors. I was organizing our team of volunteers, combing through lists of registered voters  and still nursing our baby boy. But we were in our late 30’s and full of Michael’s campaign slogan: Energy and Commitment. This second campaign resulted in a victory on April 4, 1989 and the whole family attended Michael’s swearing in at the City Building in early May.D50E77FD-07BE-4A7D-85D9-313C928E4C78

Our celebration was short-lived. My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in mid-May. She had surgery 2 days before my birthday. We were all scared, but she came through it, despite other significant health issues. The first five months of that year were really intense. 9427A6D1-D1AF-4726-8EB5-019E6DB7B6EA

In June, Michael and I took our kids on a one week vacation to see his parents in Florida. The trip was rejuvenating but when we returned, my dad picked us up at the airport and told me he’d been urinating blood. My mother was a scant month past her surgery. Dad was diagnosed with bladder cancer metastatic to bone shortly after our return.  That meant both of my parents were struck with cancer in 5 weeks. My mom continued to recover as my dad began to decline. In the meantime, those long months of door-to-door campaigning, coupled with too many bat swings caught up with Michael. He began to suffer from severe back pain.253CA3D8-9C05-41FF-AF70-921C99E7DBA5

I chased around from one thing to the next, changing drains in my mom’s incision, driving my parents to doctor’s appointments and eventually dad’s chemo treatments, taking the kids to school and day care and feeling a sense of fear that was hovering constantly. As the summer moved along, dad was getting sicker, and Michael, who’d been diagnosed with a herniated disk, was in dreadful pain. I wound up sleeping on the floor to give him room to search all night for any comfortable position. To top off the chaos, we were having a new roof put on the house, supposedly a week job that stretched into months. Fighting with the roofers about the messes they’d made and getting them to clean up their detritus was my escape valve. Someone I could yell at to vent the agony of trying to hold up too many people.

By late August, Michael could barely move. My father was admitted to the hospital suffering from dehydration. Two days later, I told Michael his situation was unsustainable and drove him to the ER to be admitted for surgery. As we waited for a room for him, I took him to see my dad whom he hadn’t seen in weeks. When I wheeled him into dad’s room, Michael didn’t recognize him as he was so changed. Michael’s surgery was the next day and was a great success. As he rested in the hospital, school started for my daughter who was entering second grade. The first day was only a few hours – she would go to my neighbor’s house for the remainder of the day. My son was at day care. I was mercifully at work, trying to feel normal. That day there was a dramatic storm with lots of lightning. I was sitting at my desk when my neighbor called and told me to stay seated. I was terrified that my daughter had been hurt in the weather on the way back from school. Instead, she told me that lightning had struck a hundred year old tree in front of my house which flung limbs through our brand new roof. I rapidly drove home to look at the damage, noting all the city workers gathered in their trucks, ogling the disaster at the alderman’s house. As I stood staring at the mess, I remember thinking, “so this is the  metaphor for my life – the sky is truly falling.” I drove off to the hospital to tell Michael what had happened before anyone else could.

Both Michael and my dad were released from the hospital within two days. My dad’s birthday was on August 1st and we decided to celebrate it, knowing that it was likely his last. He was turning 67.

 

At the time, I remember telling myself that I wished he’d be around longer, but that he’d had a good life, a happy marriage, children and grandchildren, the whole deal. But he was devastated. He cried at his party and my wise and brave little daughter went up to him and asked why he was crying. He told  her he was sad because he was going to miss us all so much. She looked up at him and said, “Grandpa, you’re right here, right now. You should try to be happy that we’re all still together.” She was positively profound and exactly right. My dad was so close to my babies. We were all so sad.

 

After that event, his decline was swift. Each day he was diminished. My daughter was cognitive enough so that we could explain things to her. My son was too young. He knew something was terribly wrong but he didn’t have enough language to express himself. I remember him bringing his favorite cup to my father as he lay in bed. He hoped that somehow, his grandpa would get up and fill it for him. As my dad became progressively more ghostly, my daughter would delicately climb in his lap and he would mutter the words to a touching children’s book, Love You Forever, while the adults watched and wept. Dad died on September 25th, a month after my daughter’s 8th birthday. She understood that he wouldn’t come back while my son must have been mystified at my dad’s disappearance. The primary ramification of dad’s absence for him was relentless sleeplessness that continued until he was old enough to express his fears of closing his eyes at night and being alone. At last we had something to work on to help him recover from his inexplicable loss of a constant presence in his life. My life had changed forever – my children’s lives had as well.

Inexorably, time moves on. We either go with it and get with the program or not. Some of us bend and adapt and others get brittle and break. I was flexible and moved forward, different, looking at life through the new lens of mortality and vulnerability. I got deeper in almost every way. I tried to shepherd my children in a healthy way, help my mother and treasure my time with Michael. I always thought that I would die before him based on our genetics.

 

So daily life ultimately resumed. Subsequent years were full of average days and normal crises that are to be expected by just being part of the human experience. In late 2010, I retired from work to care for my firstborn grandson. Every day, from the time he was 7 weeks old until he was 3, he came to grandma’s daycare. Within a year, we moved my now elderly mother into our home as we felt she was unsafe on her own. Four generations were under our repaired roof, as our son migrated up and back between home and his PhD work abroad in Central America. Life was hard work but essentially good.

During the years following my dad’s death, my husband had left his music business of 27 years, returned to school and acquired a master’s degree in the teaching of U.S. History. He was one of the lucky ones who enjoyed two careers that he really loved. But teaching was his true vocation and he knew his career wouldn’t be long enough to satisfy his thirst for the job. Starting over in your 50’s is a challenging task. He worked long hours, perfecting his classes and developing one that combined his love of music and film in a course that encompassed critical movements of the 20th century. He was at school every day by 7 a.m. and returned around 4 p.m., unless he was advising or mentoring. As a man in his 50’s and 60’s, these were long hours. He was happy to come home and see our precious grandson at the end of his day. Often he’d lie down for a short nap and as little Gabriel became more mobile, he’d curl up next to grandpa, and bring him his favorite stuffed duck to hold while he slept. Michael adored him and really liked the duck as well.

 

Then the second cataclysm struck. Michael was diagnosed with Merkel cell cancer in the spring of 2012. We learned quickly what a lethal disease it was and got prepared for the surgery and subsequent treatment he needed after getting our second opinions. I had an impossible time assimilating the idea that Michael could be gone before me. In addition, we struggled with my mother, who was unable to understand why Michael’s cancer was any different from hers which had proved eminently survivable. Ultimately we moved her into assisted living as the demands of dealing with Michael’s disease along with those of a baby and an elderly person got too unmanageable for me. The first year after diagnosis it appeared that Michael’s cancer may have been caught early enough for him to survive. But in November 2013, a scan showed widespread metastatic cancer. We’d sent Gabriel off to daycare that August. My daughter was pregnant with her second son. Michael’s prognosis was 2-3 months, absent treatment, and perhaps a year with chemotherapy. We were all devastated. One of our most intense issues was trying to protect Gabriel who was about my son’s age when my father died. We were terribly worried about him and were also afraid that Michael wouldn’t meet his next grandchild.

He and I would lie together at night, clutching each other  and talking about the impossible future. Both of us wanted to help all the children, even as we bent under the weight of the knowledge that the long life we’d hoped for wasn’t going to happen. The parallel with my father’s fate wasn’t lost on us. When things felt too dark he would often say, “ when things get bad for me, bring me Gabriel’s duck to hold. It’ll make me feel better.”

We rode the cancer rollercoaster for the next few years. Michael lived to see Tristan’s arrival in the world. His health ebbed and flowed but in the good times, he and Gabriel spent lots of time  together and had great fun. Gabriel got old enough to talk about Michael’s illness and to understand more. When he was at our home, he frequently sat on Michael’s lap with the duck, playing with his grandpa’s pocket watch which fascinated him with its bright red light that he could flash on and off. Little Tristan seemed unaware of what was happening – at least we hoped so.

 

Michael outlived his prognosis, but  he was seriously ill in 2015. In April of that year, my older brother died. Michael was hovering at the edge of death when we suddenly acquired an immunological drug off-trial that pulled him back from the brink. He was still very weak when my mother fell and broke her hip, dying shortly thereafter in July,    2015. Two powerfully impacting deaths in so short a time. I was thinking back to 1989, the year my father died at only 67, with 2 deaths preceding his. Michael was the next in line. He was 65 in 2015. I realized how foolish I’d been to believe that my dad had enough life. He’d missed so many marvelous experiences, ones that my mother enjoyed without him, although she missed him, always. I knew Michael would miss so much too.

His comeback lasted for over a year. But in January, 2017, the impossible Merkel cell reared its head again and this time, almost 5 years after diagnosis, I knew we were at the end.

By this time, Gabriel was approaching his 7th birthday. He was keenly aware of the decline in Michael’s abilities to share experiences with him. He would say things like, “there go my bike-riding lessons, there goes my swimming.” In the midst of my own pain, I was frantically trying to think of a way to help him.

As Michael’s disease progressed, he wanted to spend time with our grandkids but sometimes their energy level overwhelmed him and he would be verbally snappy. We talked about it and he was able to understand that he didn’t want to leave a negative impression with the boys at the end of his life. One afternoon he apologized to Gabriel and wept. Gabriel’s unforgettable response was, “ I know you didn’t mean it, grandpa. The cancer corrupted your brain.” Just like his mother.

As I grappled with my own pain, my children’s pain, I saw the similarity in the effects of Michael’s decline on our two grandsons that I’d seen when our kids were the little grandchildren. Gabriel was like my wise little daughter and young Tristan was like my too young son.

I talked with Michael about doing something for Gabriel while he was still alive. We agreed that giving him the pocket watch would be the best thing to do. Michael was a little confused but managed to pull off handing a gift bag to Gabriel containing his coveted red flashing watch. Gabriel said, “I never expected this -it’s making a memory. Such a profound moment.

When the end was coming close, I gave Michael the duck he’d asked for years before when we discussed his death. He held it while he slept just as he had during the after school naps.

 

On the day he died, the family gathered at my house. Gabriel asked for the bandana Michael wore during chemo and the one he donned to imitate his beloved grandfather. I washed and dried the duck and told him it was his again. He looked at me and said, “grandma, you need the duck now for company. Please keep it.” I was so moved and indeed, it’s been on my bed every night since Michael’s death. Michael was only 67, just like my dad.

The two stunning periods of loss that happened in 1989 and 2017 changed my life course. And those times changed everyone close to me in this life. I don’t go too far down the road any more. I don’t want to search for the third time my world can be rocked. But until my mind fades, I’ll always remember when my innocence was truly lost and my struggle to make things easier for all the littles, the children I’ve loved. I hope what I did helps them as they navigate their own cataclysms. And the duck remains in my bed. E3FD6B16-A1BE-4C20-99B3-A55A364B0329

Huh.

 

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Yesterday, I got my renewal bill from WordPress, the platform I use to publish this blog. I realized that meant I’d been at this writing for almost a full year. I remember when I woke up on January 1st, I felt compelled to start doing something new as I moved into the second half of my first year as a widow. I think widow is a detestable word. Then again, I don’t think wife is so great, either. Anyway, only a scant two weeks after I’d finally pulled off the curating of Michael’s interesting and layered life and thrown a massive homage to him, I wanted out of my comfort zone, choosing to share my thoughts about all kinds of issues with a faceless audience. I figured that somehow, whatever I mulled about would resonate with someone, somewhere. To date, my 65 posts have been viewed 5317 times by people in 40 countries. Starting out, I would never have guessed any of those numbers were possible. I try to imagine what possesses people to read my tales. I suspect that the interest starts out as a random choice and that for one reason or another, some invisible filament briefly connects me to the people who choose to keep reading the ideas that tumble around in my head.C81D3CCD-7E91-4222-B236-A5776FAD5552

A lot of what I’ve written is for my children and theirs. So often the little events of our lives get lost in the daily grind. I want my family to know what I haven’t had a chance to tell them. They might laughingly say that it’s unlikely that I’ve forgotten to tell them something. That’s okay with me. I do tend toward storytelling. But, additionally, I think this is probably an attempt to keep both myself and Michael from disappearing. With him gone and memories in older people usually fading, I’m in a rush to record things before I forget them. The truth is, most of us won’t be remembered for some huge contribution we made to our world. The number of famous people is minuscule compared to the multitude of unknowns. That doesn’t mean we haven’t touched lives, that we haven’t been worthy or rather, worth remembering. But what does that mean, exactly?  How do you know what your worth is when there are so many ways of defining it? 76493F62-8718-4813-81FF-03E409C2064A

A dictionary definition for self-worth reads:

confidence in one’s own worth or abilities; self-respect. When you look up “worth” itself, you get a few descriptions. The first is: monetary value. The second is:
the value of something measured by its qualities or by the esteem in which it is held.
I think how we regard ourselves reflects a wide range of comparative tools.
For some people, the number of titles they hold has value. For others, the amount of material goods and money they’ve acquired is the standard. Another crowd values recognition from an external audience which feeds their personal sense of self-esteem. On and on it goes. And of course I know it’s not all that simple. We’re more complicated than that – at least I hope so. What I do think is simple is that there is a  commonly shared desire to have made an impact on someone or something in our lives. To know that we were here, in our fleeting time on the planet and that our presence was noticed and felt, at least a little bit.46445D16-7FB4-4BED-BB33-01D6D83E00C0
Life should have meaning. At least, I think it should. But my meaning and someone else’s version of meaning can be oceans apart. For example, I don’t have a stack of credentials. There are no letters after my name which signify my accomplishments. Except for this insignificant blog, none of what I’ve done, or who I am, is visible to the greater part of the world. I like it that way. I’ve always preferred to operate in the background. If the people close to me chose to live their lives in a public way, I was a great promoter. When Michael decided  to run for public office, I was his campaign manager. I did it three times. But when asked to consider a position like that for myself, the answer was always no. I recently saw a friend’s social media post that referenced a personality type called “an extroverted introvert.” I think that’s a pretty fair assessment of who I am. The irony is that Michael, who was on a public stage in many capacities in his life, was an introverted introvert on the personal level. Of the two of us, there is no doubt that I was brimming with self-confidence while he was more insecure and uncertain. He frequently asked me why I thought so much of myself when there was no discernible evidence to support my opinion. I knew the answer to that one, although the question itself made me laugh.  What I feel about myself hasn’t been dependent on the opinions of others since I was a young teenager. I left the world of being defined by outside sources behind, after navigating all the perils of high school society. I was so done with other people’s opinions. I shed those like tattered clothing when I left home at age seventeen. And good riddance. I chose to draw on what’s inside me rather than what’s outside. I’m not saying my way is the right way. It’s what works for me. Everyone gets to pick their own path and their own tools on navigating it. 5B288625-2970-4335-A413-F1C666723FED

I do wonder, though, how we all find our directions. I suspect that many roads are just randomly chosen because of circumstance or accident. What family we’re born into is clearly a ticketless lottery. We’ve yet to definitively arrive at whether genetics or environment is the critical factor in how lives turn out, and are still exploring the relationship between those two determiners of who we are. Still, even in families of origin, vast differences exist between siblings. The subtleties in our DNA can make a family gathering as mystifying as a masked ball. Yet, no matter what the differences may be, certain life events are what I’d call the great levelers. Births and deaths, unions, break-ups and even natural disasters, can make those who, in average daily life, would be disparate and apart from each other, find understanding and recognition, if only for a short time. There are always outliers who move wraithlike on the fringes of shared experiences, but I think their numbers are fewer than the greater mass of people. 840D4CD5-B82B-40F7-B500-C050FF2FBC13

The other day I watched almost the entire George H.W. Bush funeral and found that I could empathize with his family’s loss, despite having disagreed with virtually every public policy decision made by both he and his son. And I’m no marshmallow as far as politics are concerned. But I seem to have a deep empathetic river in me that allows for at least temporary compassion for almost anyone. Note the almost. Some people are so beyond caring about that I suspect nothing would shake me from the hardness they evoke in me. heart and brain that walk hand in hand

I get really confused sometimes about the seeming incompatibility between my emotions and my intellect. Trying to sort out and accommodate internal conflicts takes a long time. Which brings me back to the clear necessity I feel for sharing all kinds of feelings and thoughts through my writing, while simultaneously not caring about the way it’s perceived. Quite a conundrum. I guess I think there’s an inherent value in having been largely introspective about the events in my life, and that having dissected and analyzed them for so long means they should be put out there to read, as my contribution to the world. Experience counts for something. I do believe that my interactions with different people at critical points in their lives will have an enduring effect on them. My legacy, my mark is not conducive to measurement. But through these many thousands of words that I pour out, there must be worth. There must be something that adds to the body of reflections worth consideration. Otherwise, why would I be compelled to hurriedly get as many of my ideas and stories out of my depths and into the universe? I don’t think it’s egotism. A way for the most modest type of making a mark that I was here? Round and round I go, spinning in my analyses. Maybe it doesn’t really matter.9499FA25-0B98-4147-AB49-795A5EB4D76C

 

I do know this. The most significant lesson I learned in dealing with Michael’s cancer was that learning to be present in each moment was the only way to survive. We couldn’t go backwards nor could we get too far ahead of ourselves. I remind myself of that lesson daily. I’m not totally zen by any measure but I’m better at being in the now than I’ve ever been before. I give myself to the writing and sharing. As Michael would always say, “it is what it is.” For me nothing is ever quite that simple. I question myself and turn my thoughts inside out to get to some crystalline form of my truth. In the end, perhaps it doesn’t matter what my motives are, whether I’ve had an impact on anyone or anything, or if everything about me and mine disappears. As long as my executive functions are still operating, I imagine I’ll continue to wonder, to try to understand anything and everything. Maybe that’s the legacy. Never stop trying to figure things out. I guess I don’t get to know how it will all look in the end. And I guess that will just have to do, going forward. B92FA28E-A597-495F-B298-A347221555E5

The Fade

 

B3CF4F75-B7C0-4DB0-BCB7-23067230A0F0I tend to ruminate, mull and ponder. Subject matter can be almost anything, but I think I spend the bulk of my time examining relationships and emotions. I wonder about my part in them and am always trying to get to their real truth, whatever that means. During the winter holiday season, which I’ve always abhorred, I tend to go deeper into myself. After Thanksgiving, which is at least gift and religion neutral for the most part, we enter that period where the pressure really builds on people. This time of year is particularly difficult for those who aren’t leading the lifestyles portrayed to us by virtually all media outlets and the retailers who affirm them with the excessive Christmas decorations that appear earlier and earlier every year. Black Friday, Cyber Monday, daily specials, all beckoning us to buy that magic something which will be the perfect thing for the perfect people we love in our perfect worlds. Everyone has someone. Everyone is in a relationship. Everyone is having a great time. When you don’t have what you’re made to believe everyone else does, life can feel very oppressive.AA299074-80B1-4433-B6F6-BC5591B35F55

My personal life is very far from perfect and has always been flawed, even at its best. I suspect that most people feel similarly and that except for rare occasions, they feel more like imposters than genuine individuals, trying to stay balanced while navigating these commonly held societal traditions. I’ve been trying to demystify some of these iconic days and look at each one as precisely that – a day. I started working on this when Michael and I were living within minutes and hours after his diagnosis. Such a challenging way to be even after practicing really hard.0594cb6c-63fb-499e-b352-f22050a7055a.jpeg

But practicing helps so I was mentally better at this second Thanksgiving without Michael than I was last year. I guess I’m emotionally healthy enough to adapt to what I have to accept, as long as I’m alive and cognizant. I realized some other things as I thought my way through the beginning of what is a holiday slog for me. There are demarcation points in my life, points at which what were the secure, repetitive, homey traditions changed.68EE5100-5B2D-4546-8C00-623A5816E0BD

As a young kid, my life revolved around my family of origin. My family had complex problems, as do so many, but there was a stability about holiday events, when comfort foods were cooked and everyone came together with the group members being the same for a very long time. Some relatives lived far away but there was a central group which was intensely bonded. Eventually, a few people moved to different parts of the country. But I had parents and grandparents, siblings, an uncle and aunt and some cousins with whom we shared the holidays for quite a long time.  One year, my brother had a terrible argument with my parents and they cancelled Thanksgiving. I was hurt and angry and felt frustrated and inconsolable. My approach to that situation was taking over the holiday myself. I was thirty, a new mother and I realized that I could carry on the good traditions, while eliminating the random, unpleasant choices that other family members could thrust on me. I essentially assumed the role of matriarch. I hosted my parents and different siblings along with their kids. We added cousins and their families, and friends as well, especially those who were sorely missing a place to feel included and part of a festive time. For thirty-five years, that tradition held. I let it go when Michael died and that is ok.A8C8B3F2-49AD-4A72-BED5-103710541C9C

I contributed to both last year’s and this year’s meals. It felt mostly normal. I thought about my mom, who, almost without exception, would announce every year that she loved Thanksgiving and wished that she could still prepare the meal. I don’t want to be that person.

Although I have an occasional urge to throw a big party, it was getting harder every year and now lacks that special luster that glowed out of Michael and me. I want to be present, in my current place and not wishing for what is past.0280409A-5CE0-47D4-9F61-B8ADD003BFF8

As I looked around this year’s dinner, I realized how much smaller these family events have gotten over time. My dinners were usually for 20-25 people. Once I think we squeezed 27 into the dining room. But this year, we were 12 family members and an extra friend. I realized that my children’s generation, at least those who are geographically close to me, have only produced 2 kids. Maybe there’ll be more or maybe not. I am now the elder. And there are more absences around the table. I don’t feel like the oldest person in many ways, but the numbers don’t lie.

 

I found myself thinking about my mother and grandmother, both of whom outlived their husbands. My grandma lasted 12 years without my grandfather but he was older than Michael or my dad when they died.  My mom lasted 25 years without my dad. The thought of all that time is daunting and depressing to me. Being without Michael for that long seems impossible, even though it’s only slightly more than half the time we were together. My mom always talked about the things my dad missed that she got to experience. Many grandchildren and great-grandchildren and all their special events and activities. I’m already mourning Michael’s having been unable to attend my grandson’s first piano recital and missing his first soccer goal. The losses could grow like a huge mountain.AF8EE167-2A0B-44AA-A2CF-7780F8CB5D28

My dad was only 67 when he died, the same age as Michael. I was in my 30’s then and I can remember thinking that although it was sad, he’d lived a good life. He had a long happy marriage, kids, grandkids and eventually a decent job. He had years of retirement with my mom and enjoyed a simple life. I thought theirs was a bit too limited and my mom did too. But he seemed okay with it. Now 67, my current age seems so much younger than how it felt when my dad died. I feel robbed of all these years I was supposed to have ahead with Michael. His dad died at 98 and his mother is still alive at 96. My own mom died just short of 92. The truth is, I know that the average life expectancy in the US is well below all of them. I have no idea how to imagine how many years are ahead of me. I’m still in the day to day mode and expect I always will be.

All this pondering brought me back to thinking about my dad. He was a quiet man. He certainly had no trouble expressing an opinion but he didn’t share a lot of personal information. He was not like my mother, who over-shared and never met a boundary she couldn’t cross. She’d sometimes complain that she would go to her grave not knowing so many things about dad. I suppose she did. I think she inadvertently did so much talking that she elbowed him out of the conversation. Dad was kind of mysterious. His father died when he was only 8 and he assumed the man of the house mantle as the oldest boy. He started working when he was little, selling apples from a wagon. He felt responsible for his mother, sister and brother. I know he resented family members on both his parents’ sides who weren’t very helpful to his mother and fell into what seemed an inexorable slide into poverty. I know he only made it through his second year of high school and held a variety of jobs for many years. Factory worker, salesman, insurance broker, credit manager. Married to my mom at 19, the two of them lived with my maternal grandparents, setting up a lifelong hostility between his mother and my mom who took away the person my paternal grandmother relied on most in the world.

My parents were two children who had difficult childhoods. They loved each other madly but the truth is, while they weathered what life tossed at them, neither one was able to really help the other expand personally and grow their great potential. My dad bounced around workplaces until he was in his 40’s when he landed a job as a cashier at the First National Bank of Chicago. He was street smart and somehow understood banking, and within a few years, he was promoted several times until he was finally an assistant vice president in the bond department, buying and selling money. I never got the system he worked in, but it was a pressure cooker and reminiscent of the madness you see on the floor of a commodities or stock exchange. I know it was a job suited for younger people because it was intense all the time. High strung and nervous, he wound up with heart problems and an early retirement which kept my parents and especially my mom, comfortably financially for many years longer than his actual employment. That was in the  days of real pensions.7239B837-173C-4FB7-923E-368DA0E11959

Dad talked to me about politics and morals and principles. I feel that the roots of my life ideologies were profoundly influenced by his input. But he didn’t tell many stories about himself. I learned that despite a wise guy bravado, he was actually afraid a lot. I can’t imagine what it’s like to feel such a heavy yoke of responsibility as a little child. That type of experience leaves a peBesides politics and financial markets, I had no idea what his interests were, nor did he have any obvious hobbies. He read newspapers and magazines. He wasn’t big on nature. My mom said he drove her crazy by saying, “if you’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen them all.” He was smart and perceptive and very loving in his own way. But because he was never parented, he was partially a little kid who teased and gave all four of us kids awful nicknames. He loved babies but when the little ones got bigger, he worried constantly about them getting hurt and would yell and be very limiting about what they were allowed to do. When my daughter went from adorable baby girl to daredevil he would run after her, yelling at her to stop. Stop everything.

He tried to control all of us by setting up unreasonable limits which were so enticing to break. He would look in my eyes with a mixture of pride and skepticism. His nickname for me was weasel when I was young. He poked around in my purse to see if I had money. When he found my birth control pills, he came into my room, brandishing the container and saying, “you’d better remember to take these.”

I was as close to him as I could be. When he was diagnosed with cancer he told me when he was going to quit treatment. He asked me to plan his funeral. He cried and told me he wished my son would have been able to see him when he was bigger so they could talk, so my kid would remember him. I thought I knew him, as well as anyone could.

But the truth is, he remains a shadowy person. Before my mother died, she gave me some things that belonged to him. I was incredibly busy and preoccupied at the time. Michael was sick. My brother had died, although I kept that from her. She’d always said that the one thing she couldn’t handle would be having a child of hers die before she did. So I gave his small pile of memorabilia a cursory look and put it aside.

As I thought of all the empty spaces at Thanksgiving, I decided to pull out dad’s things to have a look. To my surprise, I found he had a hobby. He was a bit of a philatelist, a stamp collector. I have no idea how long he was at it. He seemed interested in collecting stamps from all over the world. In addition he would receive first edition releases which appear to be from the US Postal Service.

He kept all of his business cards which document his promotions over time. He saved all of his cardiac reports and the medical bills from his surgeries. And then there were the sentimental cards and photos of his family that stretched back to his early childhood and the beginnings of he and my mom.CA565274-EBF2-4B42-8D98-6D40B82FA43F2F9E9A73-A5E3-40E9-9764-870D64B4F77D

I remember his beautiful singing voice and how unabashed he was about crooning away with us at all the holidays. We sang You Are My Sunshine and Tell Me Why at all our gatherings. I know my daughter still sings to her children but we’ve switched over to popular music after our dinners these days. I realize that my generation will be the last to remember my dad and his seriousness about celebrating everything just so, while my mom made faces behind his back and made all the kids laugh. I feel compelled to get some of this ephemeral past life written  down so that as my road narrows, it won’t all be forgotten.

There is so much I’ll never know. Out of all the cogitation I’ve done about holidays, expectations and trying to keep afloat in the overwhelming rush of life, I’m left with the need to pass forward what really was authentic once, what counted, what lasted in my memory. Passing it down the line, hoping it doesn’t sink into oblivion.B73ABE28-343F-4D27-95E0-AEAB749B97B0

I Know Me

E6025F66-D97B-4351-BE7B-72B43800D2FFWordy. Verbose. My, you have lots of language. These were often the types of comments my high school teachers, and then my college professors, noted on the papers I wrote as a young woman. All true. After enough chiding, I’ve gotten to be a decent editor. I know that less is more. I’m good at one-line zingers and often can find just one word that says it all. 9CA13F4B-50FA-44C7-A330-D63FE9AA128E

But not so much in regard to explaining where I’m at about Michael. Then again, I suspect I am pretty good at explaining how I feel. I just can’t make people hear me. Not really. If I was perfectly clear, then perhaps I wouldn’t constantly be reminded by people that I don’t know what can happen in the future. That I should “never say never.” That I should be feeling ready to “get back out there.” I’m so done with these old saws. 50B6E75D-0CFD-42E2-A2D9-188AEF050053

Given the expectations of our culture and relative to his own genetics, Michael shouldn’t be dead. But he is. The long life he and I expected isn’t ever going to happen. There are no magic wands to wave. And I understand it. I also understand that I’m not going to have another partner. I don’t want one. I don’t care how long I live. That part of my life is over. I want it to be over. You don’t need a partner in order to lead a satisfying life. I believe that. I also know that I believe it is impossible to replicate what I already had. That anything less than that would be a waste of my time for me. I’d rather read or travel or think. Volunteer. Garden. Enjoy my other hobbies. I’m good at entertaining myself. I don’t need a dinner companion who is male. I have friends. I have family. What’s the problem, people?

Maybe I can figure out how to be more clear. I’ve spent a lot of time on internal exploration. I know myself very well. And because I’ve spent a lifetime writing, I can go back and find the roots of my thought processes. I recently read a journal entry that I wrote on October 20th, 1971. I’d known Michael for a little over 2 months. We were both involved in romantic relationships. Mine was killing me but I kept hoping I could turn it around. Michael’s was less serious, but present, nonetheless. We consoled each other. We empathized with each other. We spent a lot of time together talking and building our friendship. I don’t recall specifically, but I think might have been taking a class in British poetry at the time, taught by the brilliant Edward Brandabur. I interject this because in my verbose, wordy style that leaked into my journal writing, I found a reference to William Wordsworth’s Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, written in 1798. I’ve always remembered the lines critical to me. “And I have felt a presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, and the round ocean and the living air and the blue sky…” Wordsworth was taking about nature. I was talking about Michael. 33BAD4B7-1B78-4A51-86FC-1112B96F3036

Here are the dramatic journal excerpts from a 20 year old kid who had enough tough life experiences to feel old:

“The euphoria I have so long ached for and almost gave up on is here, upon me. I’ve seen a plain face – at first sight, the same as anyone’s on the street. And a body like others I’ve known. A glance of acknowledgement, an awareness of an existence, nothing more. A face and a body which now are beautiful, exceptional and so meaningful,  that my once casual glance now sees a soul, fully written in eyes and expression, in a slouch, a hand petting a dog. A soul so close to mine, it feels my internal knowledge, lingering in my direction but an instant to bask momentarily in an emotional freedom. We are not lovers except in our minds. I don’t know if we’ll ever share ourselves in that lovely physical passion, but how irrelevant, suddenly. For there, I know him too, his gentleness and tender heart reaching innocently, despite his anxious perceptions, to that pure, clear place in love. His pain, the onslaughts on him, hurts me as equally as it does him, and within myself, I arm for battle, for fighting those foolish, blind people who injure him. I love you, Michael.”6CD3F299-7472-4CE5-B3AD-9DA68F051C95

Pretty saccharine. Yeah. We both felt that way almost instantly. An incredible depth of understanding and emotional intimacy. By January of 1972, I had taken the leap and confessed that I was in love with him, just as I was leaving the country for a few months. By April, after my return, we were living together. We were never separated after that. Like most couples, we had some issues to iron out. Those took a few years. We were so young. But we never moved apart. And that cosmic, instantaneous friendship was the bedrock of our life. We retreated to it during the hardest times. We rode it, clinging to it over life’s waves. I found another journal entry from 2007 the other day. I’m using all these snippets as I work on writing my book about dealing with his orphan cancer, and what it did to our lives. I didn’t know these journals would all become my primary sources. I was just writing, unloading my thoughts and feelings. My catharsis. Anyway, in that one, I was fretting about my son and some of his problems. But at the end of that note, I’d written that absent worrying about my kid, I was a very happy woman. I had big love that endured. Big love that kept growing. 4DAC82AB-4779-4DE4-8E1A-054F71C428A3

I stayed that happy woman, all the way up until Michael’s diagnosis. Then our world was turned on its head. We spent the next five years coping with that shocking reality. 365B395F-75FB-4C01-89B1-E0879CF9DC88

I know that the reason I feel so certain about not wanting to be in another relationship is because of those five years we spent dealing with his unusual cancer. Unless you’ve actually lived through the experience of your person being given a deadly diagnosis, and clawing your way through it, you can’t really understand what would make someone like me be so definitive about whatever time is left ahead of me. Once the initial shock and terror of having to absorb all the words tossed at you by the doctor wear off, things can go in different directions. Some people find that their relationships are too fragile to withstand the daily pressure of treatments and uncertainties, of relapses and hopeful moments. In our case, that go-to friendship and the strength of it retained resilience and power. I wouldn’t have thought it possible that we could become more of a team but we did. I found it terrifying. I knew that one day, Michael would be gone. I would lose what had been that constant support that I’d leaned on my entire adult life. But that knowledge drove us closer. As threatened as we always felt, we pulled more tightly together. Michael used to say that if we got any closer we’d be coming out each other’s backs. We chose to pare down our world and spend as much time as possible with each other. I went to all of Michael’s scans, infusions and radiation treatments. I wanted to squeeze every possible second we could get out of life. My no regret policy. A lot of what happened was hard to watch.

 

Trying to live the best possible version of your life, one day at a time, is so much harder than you can imagine. The terror of waiting for scan results and blood tests. In Michael’s case, he had visible tumor tissue. Trying to keep a steady hand while making a photographic record of each growth with a tape measure for accuracy. Watching helplessly on the bad days when the radiation has burned the skin so badly that it’s discolored, peeling and painful. Having to shove Boosts and Ensures at someone who isn’t hungry and watching it be forced down in a desperate effort to keep being alive. Knowing that you don’t think you could stand any of it yourself,  while you wheedle, encourage and support the person you love most. Feeling like you might explode any second. Wanting release but being unable to let go for one second. Having your child look you in the face and say, “Mom, you can’t cure this cancer.”7DA1AC79-4126-45D9-B1A3-4C308A604EE4

Writing and calling oncologists all over the country, pushing for ideas, trying to get into clinical trials, stretching your emotional and intellectual boundaries beyond your wildest imagination. The journey changes you forever. The arrow on my internal gauge was on empty for a long time. And finally, the inexorable endpoint came. Michael died. And I was still alive.

A lot of people say you have no idea what may happen to you. No one knows that better than me. I’ve received the dreadful life-changing phone calls regarding my husband and my parents. I have children and grandchildren, a sister, cousins, nieces and a nephew and all their kids. I’m wholly aware of the fearful things that can show up out of nowhere. And the world is out there with its daily tragedies. And there’s me. I’ve just navigated my first significant surgery and I did ok. But one day, unless i inconveniently fall asleep and never wake up, or I’m felled by one of the biological killers like a massive stroke or coronary, I’ll have to face my own death. I’ve pondered that a lot. Will I be able to maintain the level of executive function I had for Michael and my parents when it comes down to me? Who knows? What I do know is that taking on another partner and possibly having to do all that caregiving again is not on my to-do list. I spent myself on the love of my life. I was glad to do it. I am regret-free. But I never want to do it again. And I am absolutely certain that being able to share a meal or hold a hand is no enticement to me. I’m quite content with my good memories of my very good life. What I built with Michael remains a very much alive part of me and it’s still helping me live my life in the best way I can. I watched my husband fight for every day. Each day he said, “I woke up this morning so it’s a good day.” He maintained that view until his last days. I want to feel that way and to do my best to squeeze the beauty and the gratitude for each morning that he did. I don’t want to lie on the couch with the vapors and be miserable. I feel like I would dishonor Michael if I did that.FD9210CB-9407-4B87-A6FE-0FCDA18FF503

Michael and I discussed his death frequently. He asked me what I would do when he was gone. I told him I had no clue. Sometimes he thought we should check out of this life together. Mostly he would say that I needed to stick around and take care of our family. I thought that was nervy. More caregiving for me. He did tell me that he wanted me to be happy and essentially gave me his blessing for any future relationship I might choose. But in truth, we both knew I was done. He will forever hold the parts of my heart that were in his care for so many years.D7820734-5E95-4C54-8650-7DBD85323C78

So please, readers, especially those of you who know me personally and who see me: believe what I say. I’m only lonely for Michael. The rest of my time is full up. I’m not pitiful. I wish I’d never wound up as an early widow.  Certainly countless others have it worse than me. I consider myself lucky. Too many people will never know the magic that was big love in my life. And I feel for them. I’m doing fine. Please recognize that everyone doesn’t need a partner to have a good life. And stop telling me what I don’t know about myself. If a miracle happens and I change my mind, you can mock me then. Right now I’m all good. 8308017E-A2D2-4FFA-9B72-583BB5744D59

Midterms-My Incredible Daughter

AA358C8A-F0BA-484E-BB9F-61BBCA44DCAEIf you live in the US, politics are upon you whether you like it or not. This midterm election is one of the most significant moments I can recall during the five decades I’ve been able to vote. Politics flow through my body. I believe that everything that happens in our lives is politics. I know there are many who would disagree, who are deaf to political dialogue, who have never or may never cast a ballot.

I am appalled by this neglect of a right that has been bled over, all around the world as well as in this country. To blithely set it aside is abhorrent to me and a slap in the faces of those who struggled so hard to get this voice.

I try hard to understand why people choose to disenfranchise themselves. I wonder about alienation, about the feeling of being outside or above or beyond the fray. The fray that truly envelops all the parts of our lives, that often go unnoticed until a ruling or an institution slaps you upside the head and you think, “Oh no way, wait a minute.”

Personally I’ve always felt my private politics separate me from the mainstream. I don’t think that my perfect world could ever happen. But I’ve always believed that the common good is important and that exercising my privilege of voting and being present are ways to get closer to what may improve conditions for many people. I certainly don’t think that any of my ideals would ever make life worse for anyone, except for perhaps those whose wealth is insanely disproportionate to that of an average person. My equalization ideas might rankle them. 3B1E4E72-FBA8-4B15-957E-5AA5B297D1CB

So I’m waiting for tomorrow and hoping that all the millennials vote,  and that people in all the generations vote,  and I hope the results help erase some of the horror that the past two years have been like for so many. I truly can’t understand how any woman can cast a ballot that will help support the policies of our current administration. I’ve recently watched Trump-supporting women being interviewed and can only ascribe their acceptance of our current government as a narrowly held world view that shuts out the blatant misogyny in favor of a creed I don’t fathom.Donald Trump's Untimate Deal Cash Giveaway

I’m so disappointed that my long-term participation in the efforts for equal rights for women, and my working with all my women allies toward tearing down the age-old patriarchal system still has so far to go. I’ve thought a lot about the #metoo movement and remembered my youthful experiences that I thought I’d put behind me. They are still so blatant. And then in the midst of the pondering, I started thinking a lot about my remarkable daughter. I’m sure there are countless people who have remarkable daughters and who have every reason to be proud of them. More power to them all. But my daughter is a warrior. And here’s why.

My baby girl seemed to have been born with her face into the wind. As an infant, anyone could see the determination that is such an integral part of her personality. Trying to reach a toy just beyond her grasp. Watching Superman, the movie, at age 4 and anouncing that a man must have made the film because she’d never cry and scream the way the female lead was doing. Learning to read before starting school. Seeing cheerleaders for the first time and crossing her arms across her chest and saying, “when I grow up I’m going to be a sports girl and they can cheer for me.” On and on it goes. Raising her was a challenge. Michael used to say he was so glad I was around because he believed everything she said while she ran circles around him emotionally. She had no social filters. Whatever ran through her head came right out of her mouth. Making and keeping friends was tough. But she plunged ahead.

She was a remarkably talented athlete. She never had an awkward stage. A talented flute player, who was recognized for excellence at the state level, she struggled to balance sports, music and utterly convincing acting skills while enjoying academic success.

As a small child she thought she wanted to be a veterinarian but learned that math was a critical part of that program. That caused an immediate pivot and at age 7, she announced that she wanted to be a lawyer. She never changed her mind.

The growing up years were a jumble of sorting through the skills needed to navigate a successful personal life, while simultaneously enjoying watching our girl stack up amazing accomplishments, one on top of the other. Academic success, athletic and musical talent that brought awards and accolades,were extended through level after level of school. Our girl was nominated for the NCAA Woman of the Year as a senior in college and at age 36, was inducted into her college’s Hall of Fame for her athletic achievements,  in addition to being perennially academic all-conference. 20A1BE3A-C924-40F1-8826-0F7BD9ACDDE5

When she attended law school, she won the Avery Brundage Award for excellence in athletics while achieving a stellar academic record. The time blew by fast and at age 25, she began practicing law. Along the way, she committed herself to her community. I can’t begin to enumerate the number of volunteer services she has provided in her hometown. She has served as a mentor for years, in addition to being president of the mentoring board. She served on our local park district advisory committee. She is an adjunct professor at her former law school, coaching trial advocacy teams. There is a laundry list of all the other activities she has participated in, including coaching volleyball for four years at her high school, meanwhile marrying and having two children. But I am digressing. C8638DA0-7619-4B1B-98EC-DF2C9243935A

What does any of this shameless bragging have to do with the midterms? Women need to sway this election, at least in my opinion. Somehow, this country needs to shift back to values that are representative of sane, measured principles rather than wild fear mongering. The steady dismantling of all the programs which provide the underpinnings of a positive culture which benefits its citizens needs to stop.  Benefits for all citizens, regardless of sex, race or creed, need to be reinstated.

My daughter is an educated professional who after 6 years of private practice, switched gears and took her talent to the position of assistant federal public defender. Her years of studying government, and her thoughtful consideration of the most essential cornerstone of our country’s ideology, the Constitution, which every politician invokes at one time or another, led her to believe that the purest form of practicing law would be in that office.E2EFA0D5-B176-4048-9FC2-F15750EF93D1

As Amendment VI to the Constitution states:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

This Article gives fundamental protections to everyone, whether indigent or rich, regardless of sex, race, religion or political belief. The right to a fair trial. The people who fall into this system, as outlined by law, are my daughter’s clients. She believes that her job is to represent them to the best of her ability, as is promised by the Constitution.

My strong, dedicated daughter practices this type of law in her hometown. Sometimes the  charges against her clients are heinous. Many local citizens are either ignorant of, or don’t care about the rights of the accused. People are tried in the press and are judged guilty before they ever are seated in front of a jury of their peers. And my valiant daughter, puts her chin up and contends with all forms of disdain, hatred and abuse, because she is doing her job. She is approached with disbelief and asked how could she defend this or that client. I have no idea how she tolerates these ignorant assaults. Yet, in truth, I recognize that her determination and solid commitment to a set of fair standards holds her steady in the face of adversity. She could have chosen an easier path. But she devotes her service to the most disenfranchised members of our society. And I admire her for that. I hope that other women just like her lead the way tomorrow. I hope they dominate in their elections. F8973323-D1E4-4C86-9FA1-29B537611D2C

Many people will never get what she’s doing. But people like her, and the family she and her husband are raising, are the hope of the future. People like her who work their tails off every day, doing the right thing against all the pressure, all the odds, will reset the course of this country and re-establish the ethical and moral standards that have been discarded at a dizzying pace during the past 2 years. My daughter is hope, courage and commitment to a time-tested set of principles. Principles don’t change like weather. They just are. And they are supposed to be just.

That’s how the midterms and my kid became part of one story. I know I can depend on her to continue on the difficult journey she chose because it is right. My hope for tomorrow’s midterm results is that people in this country are moving on the same path and that the slide into chaos will be halted. I’ll be watching. I hope you will be, too. A78FE339-9D39-4DAA-8443-92E92B3FC6FB

Wandering

F591B30F-4799-43F3-B079-07A31B12225AI 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.10344F86-95FC-4F2A-97F0-6083C0742531 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. 6A3935D6-647A-4A0D-B5E9-FCEF93ECFAB4

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. 3368C80B-5924-46C7-8E4B-7F19FB30DDDBOur 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. 48E38450-8369-4DF4-A9A7-A8992DC00922 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. A8C51EB9-D882-4799-858F-3B803CA367CDWe 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.3C922B19-234C-445F-A048-7AE29DA10319

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. A6265E51-2F38-40DD-98BB-E26EF62DAA89

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.774354EC-5C69-4368-ACE4-5B4541D28489

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. B1B12652-E80F-4861-875A-F3A9A5E33AA4

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?05F9AF09-5F08-48C4-816B-6BFD9802175F

Blue Room

FA1C9026-4974-4343-A404-A15A4F0256B9I’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.80A85735-498B-4DF2-9F96-C553DD88886C

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.70FC1FE2-D5B5-4ADB-BD21-7F367AEB7850This 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.F1A13DA5-7230-42E2-8FF9-DAE79BB4D2B9

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.

A175E5B1-D4F5-4119-9658-09D0F23B75EEAdjacent 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.  AD1F2605-5660-447C-967D-1E82A234C1FBI 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.2BC44CC0-6CE9-4D23-BF4B-48ABAB16CF84

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. B120DA96-4FEA-4C85-8DEE-4BD5F8ECB1E4A64DC11D-7F65-47AA-806E-C971CE31A1BEThe 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.5BBA7306-1C5D-4B7F-A1B6-BFF184F2D1F8

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.EE322857-55E4-4363-8288-1FB76D995C77

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.8169F0EE-E108-4D7D-AC8F-F6981BC7399C

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.352D2476-C61B-43D5-BF32-902F3B9344AB