When Michael and I were expecting our first baby, we spent lots of time talking about the type of parents we wanted to be, along with the kind of atmosphere we hoped to create in our home. I think that’s what most people do. Michael in particular wanted to build a space where our children felt totally accepted for who they were, where their friends were always welcome, a home that was a truly secure haven. So what was one of the first things we did when we brought our little girl home from the hospital? We put her little downstairs daytime bed right underneath the stereo in the orange room which was our combination music room and library. After ten years of rocking out at mega-decibels, we wanted to make sure she could get used to sleeping with the volume turned up. The photo above shows her lying there, angelically asleep, with Michael smiling as one of our dogs gazed at this novel little creature. I’m there, too, my top half missing from the shot. I’m sure the whole room was vibrating.
Our plan worked. We created a little rocker who fit right in with us. Her early musical tastes were focused on a lot of one-hit wonder tunes, like Mickey and Come On, Eileen. Michael, who through his record store had access to all kinds of music, started making House Favorites tapes and then, CD’s, first for all of us, and then eventually, just for our little girl.
In early 1983, a pop song named Whirly Girl by the group OXO was released and climbed into the top 30 records on the Billboard Charts. Our baby was crazy about it so we played it all the time. The other day as I was working out in the yard, it popped up on a random shuffle in my headphones. Initially, I was swamped with memories from that time but ultimately I focused on the song title because that’s how my mind feels right now – whirly.
There’s a certain amount of time I spend every day thinking about either the masks war, in which people absolutely refuse to wear a mask because doing so stomps on their individual freedom, or the fact that so many who do comply, wear them incorrectly. When I venture out into the world, invariably I run into either one or both of those types. I absolutely do not get any of this. Absent the financial means to afford one, I don’t understand how anyone who is a member of a community greater than one, treasures this freedom of theirs as more valuable than public health. I wonder how they’d have felt if they had to sew yellow stars on their clothes so they could be easily identified by their religion. I get pretty roily inside when I think about how small and selfish their minds must be. Especially when they wrap up their righteous rage in the flag or the Constitution. Grrr. Then there are these folks who are actually wearing the masks absolutely incorrectly. Their noses aren’t covered, the mask is below their chins or hanging off one ear. I find this particularly maddening when I go to pick up food from an institution with a big sign touting all the healthful protocols their business is taking to protect everyone’s health. Do these owners check on their employees? I mean, is slipping two loops over your ears as complex as solving a Rubik’s cube? Rocket science? Should I gently point out their mistakes? Or just continue to fume away about the level of stupid and selfish I see around me? I guess the pandemic is turning me into an intolerant, crotchety old lady. Or maybe that’s who I’ve always been without the old part. Of course, there is the daily dose of Trumpian dystopia which relentlessly escalates, despite the feeling that each awful revelation from the day before is the zenith of his horrors. The bigotry and racism seemed hard to top, along with the denial of the Covid19 crisis, but now we find ourselves in the midst of a new madness, which essentially put the lives of American troops into a dark marketplace of murder and headhunting for bounties. Do I feel incredulous? Sadly, no. Truly, this person seems utterly devoid of any interior moral foundation. He is the definition of self. I don’t know whether his simple fascination with tyrannical leaders is just wishful dreaming, or whether Putin really does have the ultimate blackmail item in his back pocket which he can pull out at any time. Right now I’m glad that the EU has banned travel from the US into their countries. Given everything, that action seems fitting. My mind indeed is a whirly place.
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In the midst of the outside big world jumble, I managed to complicate my life a little further. Back in 2012, when Michael got diagnosed with his cancer, we refinanced our house. We were looking to pay off outstanding bills, get extra cash for out-of-pocket treatment costs and enough money to take some trips. When you get a diagnosis with an almost certain prognosis of death, you try to stuff in as many life experiences as you can, especially the ones you thought would be part of a retirement that would stretch out for years, given the longevity in Michael’s family. The best-laid plans, right? During the five years that Michael survived, we took advantage of that strategy. After he died in May, 2017, I wasn’t in the mental space to give much thought to mortgages and the like. I was in survival mode. During the last three years, I’ve done my own traveling while trying to adjust to my highly undesired new life. But during this time of isolation, I have swung back around to the business of my big old house. I’ve done a lot of physical fixing. Noting that interest rates for mortgages had dropped well below what we’d gotten 8 years ago, I decided to refinance, shortening the term and saving lots of money. Sounded like a good plan – everything was moving along nicely when I suddenly realized that an appraisal was required. After the sordid housing crisis of 2008, the lenders have tightened up the requirements from appraisers. They now take photos of every room in your house, all the mechanical items and even the basement and garage. Uh-oh. I’ve made a few sporadic efforts at cleaning the garage, Michael’s domain, which is full of intriguing stuff. The only time I go into the basement is when it’s time to change the furnace filter. It’s actually a dark, creepy cellar with awful stairs which is accessible only from the outside. Years ago, one of my son’s friends was making a horror film. He asked if he could shoot part of it in our basement as it was one of the scariest places in town.
What a nightmare. I spent hours down there, sweeping, sorting, finding a few treasures and mostly ancient junk like carburetor parts and old lawnmower engines. The garage wasn’t much better. This business-y idea turned out to be grindingly hard labor. I stashed aside some potentially salvageable 45’s and albums that were somehow overlooked when we divested ourselves of Michael’s collection. Most of everything else went into the garbage. The appraiser came and went. She said things were fine. If only she’d seen it all before my massive efforts. Ah, well. All that’s left is my exhaustion and a who-do-I-think-I’m-kidding-at-my-age hangover that’s making it hard to get up from my chair.
Whirling back to the outside, life in the yard is good. I have nesting house wrens, cardinals and robins. They’re making good use of my birdbaths and cubbies for raising their hatchlings. The monarchs have found the milkweed. I could do without the big influx of rabbits along with the omnipresent squirrels who’ve eaten too many plants, denuded blossoms getting ready to open, and vandalized vegetables for no good reason that I can discern. I’ve engaged them in a race for the black raspberries, though and have chalked up a minor victory.
The flowers of course are magnificent and bring me great joy. The labor involved in urging them out of the ground is worth it. Just looking at them helps ratchet down the constant whirling thoughts that flit from subject to subject in my clicking head. Today, I put my coping skills to good use by enhancing my personal relaxation space with an outdoor mini-spa for myself. I don’t see getting back in the water any time soon. This will do for the present. As the saying goes, “adapt or die.”
As I mull over this life, so different from what I ever thought possible, I did have one recent experience that was delightful and satisfying. One of the hardest issues I’ve faced since Michael died was the collective responses that people have had to me and my feelings about my future. I’ve always known that I would never want to have another partner. That attitude was met with different reactions. Some people thought my grief was too fresh for me to know what I’d want. They’d say, give it some time to go through the stages following a big loss. Then we’ll see if you change your mind. If I talked about the challenges of being alone, they’d say, but you have your children and grandchildren. And that means what? They have their own lives. We intersect, as always. But it’s not the same as climbing in bed every night with your best friend and lover. As the months have passed, I’ve concluded that there’s just a lot of discomfort in these kinds of discussions. Unless you’ve lived the same life as someone else, you just don’t know what will work for them. And everyone’s relationship with their partners is different. I believe mine was an aspirational love that was rare. I had it for 45 years. I’m still in it. I feel my relationship every day, deep in the core of me. I don’t believe I could ever have that again and anything less is irrelevant. I have a number of people, most importantly my kids, who get this.Often, I draw a blank stare. But I had a great thing happen with one of my oldest friends, someone that both Michael and I’ve known for over 50 years. Our lives have been closely connected all that time.
Glenn and Michael met at college in 1967 and lived in the same fraternity house, although Michael moved out after a year. I met Glenn when I came to college in 1968, through a high school friend of mine. I didn’t meet Michael until 1971, but he and I both always knew Glenn. We all socialized, but initially, with different groups of people who ultimately became blended. Glenn and I had a date once – the most memorable part of that for us both was really enjoying the album we were listening to – Tea for the Tillerman. When I was arrested in 1971 at an anti-war demonstration, Glenn bailed me out of jail. All three of us worked at the record store which ultimately became Michael’s career for the 27 years before he became a history teacher. When Michael and I became a couple in 1972, Glenn would visit us on a regular basis to enjoy the verbal sparring and bickering we engaged in, very different from his non-confrontational style. Glenn told me he was afraid that I’d overpower sweet Michael with my combat-boot personal style, but that never happened. We were with him through a series of his relationships up to and including his marriage which has now lasted decades. We shared life events together, from having kids to losing family members. He and Michael went on white-water rafting and canoe trips. We played Hearts and Spades together on a regular basis and wound up going to a lake in Michigan every summer for years with a group of old friends for family camp. Glenn worked for the city for which Michael was an alderman and later, head of the city’s planning commission. They were both involved with the local food bank. When we had our daughter, Glenn gave her more gifts for her first birthday than we did. Twenty-five years later, he became a certified wedding officiant and performed her wedding ceremony. When Michael was withdrawn into the last stage of his life, he saw Glenn once, the only person who got into our house besides medical professionals and our family.
Last week, I went to see Glenn and his wife Colleen for an outdoor social distanced visit, the first time I’d seen them in many months. We had a lot to catch up on, what we’d all been doing, what was happening with our kids, how we felt about the current state of the world. Glenn asked me how I was managing, going through this weird time on my own. I told him that I never really felt alone, as Michael’s presence is just here, all the time. In the most normal, conversational tone, he said, “you know, it feels like your relationship with Michael right now is a lot better than it was right after he died.” I was startled, delighted and I laughed a lot. I’ve been laughing about it periodically. I told him that I was so utterly drained and devastated after Michael’s death that it had taken me awhile to recover from the expensive emotional price wrested from me by those challenging years. Now I’ve had a lot of recovery time and the way I feel with Michael is like the majority of our life together, wonderful, rather than those painful, stressful times. So, yeah, we’re good. Still arguing in some of my dreams, though. I was really delighted that for the first time, someone acted normal and accepting of me rather than awkward or judgmental. That meant a lot. I’ve covered a lot of mental turf in this post. As I said, these days, I’m a whirly woman. Actually that might always have been true – it’s just that these days, everything feels exaggerated. On to the next set of thoughts.