Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
Thoughts from a Train
Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me,
Other times I can barely see.
Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been. – The Grateful Dead
Yes. That’s exactly what the last two years and change have felt like for me. A mixture of light and darkness, often a blurry palette, although I’ve come to know that my most essential self is primarily sunny.
I can’t account for how much life is determined by genetics versus environment but my mother told me I was a cheery baby from the start and my older brother said that when I came along he felt truly happy. I’m alone on an Amtrak train, headed out of Chicago, my hometown. I still feel that, despite having lived almost 50 years in my other hometown, the place where I went to get an education, found my partner, my community and raised my children. Two homes. That seems right.
I’m headed north and then west to Glacier National Park in Montana. I’ve been trying to get there since 2017, when the wild effects of climate change caused the park to burst into flames, not just that year, but also the one following. I finally figured out that my wanting to avoid the crowds was putting me into the dry season so this trip will be chilly and perhaps a bit snowbound at the higher elevations. I don’t care. I need to get there. I know that this natural majesty and sheer size will help me stay oriented to my actual place in this universe. I actually took a photo of Michael in Arches National Park to illustrate this concept.
I am a speck, maybe even less than that. The world and the people around me can easily skew that perception. I yearn for smallness. I felt too important and too needed for a long time. And my tasks were always truly out of my control although I fought furiously to empower myself and wrest some measure of power from invisible forces. In the end I gave everything I could muster from myself. Since Michael’s death, I’ve been grappling with how I ultimately had to surrender the person I most loved and find a way to live without what are for me, the most essential parts of life.
The repository for my trust. The confidante for whom nothing needed to be held back. The warm body to lean on, sometimes in the day and through all the nights. The person who shared the exact same feelings about our children. Oh my, how I have empathized with those courageous single parents out there. Passionate kisses and passionate sex. Lucky me, lucky me to have had so much to lose forever. Because nothing could possibly compare to any of that.
So I am silent in my little berth. I have Michael’s miraculous old iPod with its 2500 songs. I have his water bottle and my walking sticks to help me experience this glorious nature while protecting what’s left of my battered knee, soon to be replaced when this trip ends.
I’m looking out my window at all the views you can’t see from the car unless you travel the backroads. The train has Wi-Fi. I can watch Netflix if I choose that. Maybe when it’s dark. For now, I’m writing down the names of the birds I see and looking at trees and clouds like I do when I’m home. We’re passing through Milwaukee where the temperature sign reads twenty degrees cooler than it was when I headed out early this morning.
I looked at Facebook a while ago and saw the memories generated by whatever their crazy AI technology is and sure enough, there photos of a trip Michael and I had taken to the Outer Banks in North Carolina on this date in 2014. He was a couple of months out from his mega-chemo cocktail and had one clean scan under his belt following that treatment. The next one would be in August where three cancerous spots would again reappear on his bones. But that June, we were traveling as we’d decided to do between scans. We were going to have a retirement come hell or high water. Michael hated having his picture taken, so I was surreptitiously getting unconscious photo bombs from him while he innocently read his book.
Those photos are a perfect metaphor for right now. I feel him near me just like that, a bit off to the side, doing his thing, but close. As he always said, he was going to be with me forever. I’ll take what I can get.