I wonder if all people are born equipped for life’s passions. And if they are, is the capacity for them the same for everyone? Does everyone start out with a genetically determined amount or is there an infinite level that is sometimes achieved and sometimes not, depending on what happens to each of us? I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about this. Some people seem like they’re boiling over with passion and others act so subdued that it’s hard to know if they’ve every experienced a single moment of that powerful sensation.
I think passion has lots of different connotations, both positive and negative. Some passions are conscious and others lurk below our mind’s surface. They can be enriching and growth-inducing or deleterious and damaging to our health. Passion can be enthusiasm and avid devotion. It can be overwhelming in both rage and love. It can be intense sexual attraction. It can be vehemence and anger. Probably it’s combinations of a wide range of feelings and this can be very confusing. I know that I’ve felt all types of passions ever since I was a little kid.
When I was about five, I got a chameleon. I loved it so much I squeezed it to death. What a horror. I was way too young to understand the implications of the potential for destruction associated with a positive feeling. But I learned more and more about that as I grew up. My parents told me I was born loving everyone and everything and that people loved me back. My mom said she was afraid someone might steal me, most particularly my dad’s sister, someone she detested. My older brother told me he first remembered being truly happy when I came along. Sad for him but good for me. I did love so many things with a passion. I loved my parents. I loved warm milk. I loved animals. I loved fudgsicles and chocolate popsicles. I loved playing outside. I loved school and school supplies, especially crayons, erasers and glue. So I guess I started out with my fair share of passions.
As I got older, I extended all that passionate love to people. I loved my friends. I started to love boys. I loved sports and movies. I loved justice. So much passion. It wasn’t long before I started getting knocked around by reality. Reality was that just because I loved what I loved didn’t mean that I was going to reap big returns on my passionate investments. I loved school but after 9th grade, it mostly bored me to death and as I went off on my own to learn, my grades tanked. I had just enough natural talent to take me into college but nothing about that structure worked any better for me at that level.
Then I realized that the just world I dreamed of may as well have been in a galaxy far, far away. The disappointment from that discovery ignited my negative passions which are still going strong today. Always something to be furious about and to fight against. Fuel for my engine.
I loved participating in sports but that brought me negative attention. I wanted to be an attractive girl but my youthful participation brought me the nickname “moose” which had a profoundly negative effect on the joy I found as an athlete. In my junior year of high school I cut 60 PE classes and as a senior, had to make them all up, two for one, in order to graduate. On swimming days, I was soaking wet on and off for hours. But I still loved sports although I became more of an observer rather than a participant. I still have my swimming but at one point I dreamed of smashing home runs and spiking volleyballs for a long time. I made it back to volleyball as an adult, playing while pregnant. Maybe that vibe is why my daughter turned out to be an exceptional athlete in a time that was somewhat kinder to women than the days of my youth. Although not yet kind enough. But let me stay on track here.
I was a passionate friend and potentially a passionate girlfriend when I was a kid. I fell in love easily. And I stayed there. There’s another component to my particular brand of passion – loyalty. My husband and my kids always told me I was the most loyal person they ever knew. That’s probably a fair assessment. Once committed to someone, at least in my own mind, if not in actual practice with the person I’ve sekected, I stayed put. I’m hard to get rid of once I’ve made my choices. Despite the fire that burns in me so frequently, I’m not the type to flame out. My burn is slow and long-lasting. A lot of disappointment and pain have to happen before I walk away from someone. I guess it’s fair to say that I have personal standards of how people should treat one another, my rules, for sure. But I’ll bend and accommodate for a long time before I give up on a person. Over the years, I’ve developed what I call my permanent list. I have occupants on that list who said or did something egregious enough so that I know I’ll never forget it, at least as long as my brain is functioning. But for the most part, that list is of those individuals who are beyond my forgiveness. I know that’s not a very politically correct attitude in current culture. Forgiveness is a real thing advocated around me. Being unforgiving is supposed to be bad for you, toxic and unhealthy.
Your Greatest Strength
Social intelligenceBeing aware of the motives/feelings of others and oneself; knowing what to do to fit into different social situations; knowing what makes other people tick.VIRTUE CATEGORY: HUMANITY
Forgiveness Forgiving those who have done wrong; accepting others’ shortcomings; giving people a second chance; not being vengeful.VIRTUE CATEGORY: TEMPERANCE
I took a personality trait test from a Yale-sponsored class a few months ago. You answer all these questions and a list of your character traits ranked from best to worst is generated. My best trait was emotional intelligence, followed by loyalty and my worst was the inability to forgive. Sounded right. And it works for me. Michael was always trying to get me to let things go and be more forgiving. He said my hot rage and grudge holding was going to damage me physically. Well, look who’s still here and who isn’t? I’m living on the terms that suit me.
I guess I got the most bashed around emotionally by my first serious college boyfriend. I thought I was going to marry him. The truth is, I thought I was going to marry everyone I ever loved, going all the way back to when I was five years old. But this was the first genuinely reciprocated love I’d felt as a grownup and despite warning flags about not being ready and immaturity, I was convinced that if I fought hard enough, I could make this happen, even with evidence to the contrary popping up regularly and painfully. We were together on and off for three years. One morning after feeling that we’d had the best night of our life, I woke up to him telling me that we needed to break up and that things just couldn’t work. I was astonished, hurt and enraged. As he made his way out of my apartment, I followed him into the street, screaming at the top of my lungs that he would never find anyone who loved him the way I did and that he’d regret this decision for the rest of his life. My roommate and another friend dragged me back into the house as his metallic blue Chevy Hornet pulled away.
The fact is, he did figure that out later but by that time, I’d mostly recovered and was with Michael with whom I spent the rest of his life. Sadly, not the rest of our lives. Michael helped me rebuild myself and to believe that I could trust someone and reestablish my belief that a lifelong positive passion was possible. I’d already figured out that I could hang on to my negative passions about feminism, politics, economic justice, the health of the planet and the like. But I wasn’t sure about people. One of the places I put my positive passions was to sports, both teams and individuals. I could afford to invest myself in those without personal disappointments that had left me flattened and despairing. I picked my loyalties and stayed with them. I had favorite teams and players. I watched everything, football, basketball, hockey, swimming and became an Olympics junkie. As time went on I added tennis and soccer. I still remember the uniform numbers of those individuals who for whatever reason, won my heart. Jean Beliveau, #4 – Montreal Canadiens. Doug Mohns, #11 – Chicago Blackhawks. Doug Buffone, #55 – Chicago Bears. Fred Biletnikoff, #25 – Oakland Raiders. I could go on and on. A lot of my friends were surprised that I was so into sports, as many of them, particularly the contact ones dominated by males, seemed in direct conflict with my feminist politics. But I didn’t care what it seemed like. My personal passionate commitments had cost me a significant amount of emotional angst. I think I was born with a fairly deep reservoir for giving but I’d come to realize that when I put myself out there, I’d best be prepared to be doing it because I needed to for me and not because of what I expected in return. I’d had a lot of disappointment from family, friends and lovers. With sports, the worst that could happen was that your favorites could lose. The pain threshold for those things was tolerable for me, easier than all the personal disappointments. At least, it always had been for many years. When the silent switch happened, I really wasn’t aware of it at all. I’ve only just figured out that my lines had gotten blurred below the surface of my consciousness because of what life dealt out to me. I was too busy in the living of it to recognize that I’d set myself up for a whole new undoing.
So these sports. As a Chicagoan and a southsider, I loved the White Sox. I branched out and embraced the Cubs. I was a hockey fan and I sat with my dad as he agonized over DePaul’s basketball team. Except for golf, I’d watch almost anything. Eventually, tennis got my attention. I watched the women, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and of course, finally Venus and Serena. I admired their skills and grit. But I always loved the boys and most particularly, the ones who behaved well, rarely had tantrums or broke their rackets and in general, seemed to play against that spoiled brat type. No John McEnroes or Ilie Nastases for me.
I liked the cool Swede Bjorn Borg, who played like a smooth machine. After him, it was Pete Sampras, who was just a kid when he started and had a long 14 year career, complete with those beautiful serves and the tenacity to keep playing after vomiting on the court from sickness and dehydration. The civilized guys. I made an exception for Jimmy Connors sometimes because he had high entertainment value. There were a few Australians thrown into the mix and the Croat Goran Ivanisevic who had sporadic talent but took forever to win the big tourney. But in the middle of Pete’s reign, Roger Federer appeared on the scene. And that was all she wrote for me.
Federer broke into the big time as a teenager and was kind of a punk for awhile. But the tragic car wreck death of his Australian coach when he was 21 was a life changing event for him. Between that and his relationship with his older girlfriend who eventually became his wife, he pulled himself together and became who he is today, a brilliant champion, a genuinely loved public figure and a generous philanthropist. In short, my favorite tennis player.
Federer’s been playing for 21 years. I’ve watched him countless times and always enjoyed his grace, elegance and tenacity. For most of those years I watched him and the other players during the four major tournaments, the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. There was a lot of other tennis happening off my radar, many tournaments and point systems for rankings. I didn’t really care about that stuff. I was happy with what I saw, read articles so I had some idea of the background for the majors, and was generally content.
When Michael got sick seven and a half years ago, that was where I was at. As we processed his disease and what we knew would be a limited future, I was trying to get a handle on interests that would distract me from the constant pressure of anticipating death. Michael liked tennis too and had played for years as a young man. Often we watched matches together. But as time went by and we rode the waves of anxiety, I started to seek out more and more information about tennis. We’d switched cable tv providers and the Tennis Channel was included in our package. I realized that there were all kinds of tournaments and that Roger participated in lots of them. He was famous for holding records in places that had never crossed my radar. And we had a DVR. I started taping everything. When I had nothing to do, I started watching more tennis. I liked other players but Roger was the one. As the months of Michael’s illness progressed, we both labored under the strain of wondering how much time we had left to enjoy our life. Sometimes I drove my reserved husband crazy, wanting to talk through everything all the time. He was in treatment, often tired and in need of rest. I had lots of time on my hands but I wanted to stay nearby, soaking in every minute of life with Michael. So I turned to the box where Roger waited in the DVR. He was such a joy to watch. Healthy, easy and an amazing contrast to my precious guy who was carrying such a huge load. Over time, I decided that who needed a DVR when you could set an alarm and watch a tournament live from Australia, China or the Middle East? We didn’t really have a normal routine or schedule any more so I could make my own hours. As years went by, Federer’s wins or losses began to affect me more and more. The worst time came in 2016 when he sustained a knee injury while bathing one of his kids. He decided to withdraw from the professional tour for months while he rehabbed thoroughly and tried to decide if he could return and play at the championship level again.
I was worried about it but at the time I was really focused on the stretch of good health Michael was enjoying so we took advantage of an excellent fall and traveled a lot. I had concerns about some signs of immune system letdown in Michael but as late as December, 2016, we were in our happy place at Starved Rock and life seemed even and predictable. Unfortunately that languorous period was short-lived. By the first week of January, Michael’s behavior was unusual. His appetite was diminished and he had some odd moments when he wasn’t making a lot of sense. We went in to see our oncologist who did some bloodwork and ordered a scan. Everything came back clean. So on we went. Things got stranger and stranger. I began to believe that there was an occult return of Michael’s cancer and began a nagging process that drove him nuts. He wanted to leave well enough alone and I didn’t. We began bickering. Right around the same time, Roger was getting ready to emerge from his medical exile and enter the Australian Open.
As days went by, Michael’s behaviors became odder and odder and I kept dragging him back to the doctors. Meanwhile, Roger was winning match after match. I was up in the night, watching him in real time and trying to avoid arguing with Michael who was annoyed with me. The doctors kept finding nothing. On January 29th, 2017, I had the pleasure of watching Roger win his first major since being injured.
On January 31st, I prevailed upon Michael to let me bring him to the ER to see if we could get him a brain MRI, the only test he hadn’t had. By that night we had the dreadful diagnosis of carcinomatous meningitis, a rare manifestation of certain solid tumors that’s becoming more common as people survive their original cancers for longer periods of time. We were devastated, Michael even more than me as he’d believed the continuing positive reports while I knew something was terribly wrong. We had a 32 day siege in the hospital and then I was able to bring him home in early March. The median survival time for this disease was 4 weeks from diagnosis. Michael hung on for almost seventeen.
Meanwhile, the French Open began close to the end of Michael’s life and I continued to watch through June 11th. I remember thinking how ironic it was that Roger’s playing bookended the last months of Michael’s life. When July came, along came Wimbledon. I watched all of it and Roger emerged victorious. That highlighted my summer of preparing for the celebration of Michael’s life which was planned for December. When that was over, I stared down 2018, trying to figure out what to do with myself. I started this blog on January 1st. I was in the midst of planning my 50th high school reunion and also wanted to do a little traveling.
I finally landed on the Western-Southern Open tennis tournament in Cincinnati, a chance to see Roger in the flesh for the first time. As he was getting older I figured I’d better get that bucket list item done. Additionally, the Laver Cup, Roger’s creation was happening in Chicago, at the same time as my reunion.
I bought tickets to that as well. Both events were wonderful and I was so glad I went. Roger won some and lost some and I felt satisfied. But as time passed I found watching him, especially when he lost, to become more and more stressful. I was aware of the negative feelings but not sure what to do about them. Each match got worse and worse. This was not supposed to be my relationship with sports. I was irritable, frustrated and hostile. I could barely stand being with myself. When my son was around he tried to be comforting but I was basically so obnoxious he’d wind up leaving me to my own devices. I started thinking really hard, going back over the seven and a half year history of Michael’s disease, death and this mourning period. A lot has happened to me during that time. I spent a lot of emotional capital during those years. I spent an extraordinary amount of love on my marriage, so much that I often wonder if I can love anyone or anything new ever again. Even a pet. And then just this past week in the midst of an ugly US Open for Roger, I recognized what I’m referring to as a silent switch. Somewhere back there, as I recognized that my time with Michael was running away, I put a lot of my heart into Roger, a sports guy who was supposed to be a distraction, not someone personal. As his fortunes ebb and he gets closer to retirement I realized that my outsized reactions are more like living through an intimate loss instead of just watching an athlete’s life come to its normal conclusion. I realized that I’d transferred some of my feelings about Michael’s absence to a weird anticipatory despair about Roger’s career coming to an end. How bizarre is that? Probably not very. Roger’s trajectory is another ending, a metaphor for what I’ve been coping with for a very long time. I didn’t recognize exactly when it happened but I know it did. And acknowledging the inappropriate outsized reactions I was having helped me see the need to face this metaphor for what is – a familiar road twisted into an inappropriate level of importance. It’s time to set it back in a more normal place. Ironically, during this week of internal probing and exploring, I’ve been outside in my garden a lot. I had no trouble identifying two adult butterflies, feeding, still strong but battered by predators, perhaps by wind. But still living out there in the world. I was aware that I identified with them. No silent switching in this case. Awareness is hard and often mysterious. I’m going to keep going after it. It’s better than living in the dark.