Still on Fire

Despite my best efforts to deny the approach of fall, a week of chilly weather convinced me that the time had come to pack up my mental health kiddie pool. Generally I’ve always been a fall/spring person rather than a summer/winter one. My body runs hot so moderate temperatures are always my preferred choice. My desire to hang onto summer this year is certainly out of character. But that was before “the now.” “The now” is the pause of whatever passed for normal life in “the before.” Oddly enough, normal life in “the before” was still very much a work in progress for me, as I continued my attempt to build a new lifestyle as a single person for the first time in my adult life. The structures I’d put in place to manage my days have all disappeared. My daily swimming is over. My book club hasn’t met, even online, since before the pandemic. Travel is off the menu. My classes which met in person are online – no human contact there. I’m living a small life. For the most part, I am my company. That is, me and my ghost.

Other people have it much harder than me. I’ve had my garden for getting out of the house. I’ve taken full advantage of that refuge. Recently, I had bloodwork done for my annual physical exam. My doctor sent me a note telling me to reduce my vitamin D supplement as my level was getting close to the high side of normal. I wrote back, explaining that I was spending 4-6 hours in my yard every day. Lots of sun during this dry summer. We decided to test me again in three months after my indoor time returned to a more balanced schedule. Maybe then we’ll change my dosage. In the meantime, I’m plotting on how to stay outside as much as possible.

I cleaned out the fire pit I bought Michael years ago, re-chipped the area around it and have been collecting tinder and wood. I bought battery-operated lights to string around that space so I can use it at night. Like most of us who are following the guidelines for safe coronavirus behavior, anticipating the winter claustrophobia and planning ahead seems like a wise choice. My attempts to find manageable plans for myself to handle the inevitable lock-in are in keeping with what feels like a parallel undercurrent going on in me. My attempt to finish writing Michael’s cancer story is something I want and need to get out of myself. I started writing it in April of 2018. I wanted to share what it’s like to have an orphan cancer, what happens to a family, what people suddenly need from themselves, how to live with death in your face every day. I’m on Chapter 12, getting closer to the end of the story. But as I want to push off the inevitability of Covid winter, I find a million ways to avoid reliving the end of that story. I remember it. I think about it almost every day. But I still don’t like it and there’s part of me that dreads finishing. My cancer posts are the least popular of my blogposts these days. Maybe no one feels like reading dark stuff in the middle of a pandemic. Life is harsh right now but painful losses go on despite the overarching viral menace. I’ve certainly gotten mostly used to the finality of Michael’s death. But the peculiar sense of his presence which floats around me all the time belies that fact. Just like all the distractions I find for myself to avoid thinking about the long isolated winter ahead, I can write about almost anything else with ease. I think that’s your basic PTSD which is something you learn to manage as a new part of your life. I don’t think it ever really goes away.

I’ve spent a small fortune watering my plants daily, keeping the flowers alive so I can continue to attract butterflies and bees to the garden. I’ve gotten some new bird feeders to coax those who stay through the winter to come closer to my house. All my tricks are working.

But the inexorable signs of what’s to come are making their presence known. My plants are keeping up a good fight, but they’re withering as they’re supposed to do at this time of year. The riotous colors of fall deepen every day. I love them, as I always have, although sometimes, as I gaze up at the trees, I imagine that each time I blink, they’ve moved closer to their inevitable browning, falling and turning to dust. I still think they’re breathtaking and beautiful. In keeping with my belief that living in the present is best, I’ve decided to embrace this time like I did in “the before.” My yard is full of glorious hues. My favorite trees around town are also ablaze and yesterday I drove around to catch them in their prime.

Going with the flow of nature is the easy part. The outside world, despite my anxiety about climate change, still does what it does, despite my tiny efforts to control the bits of it within the bounds of my exertions. That part of life, detached from the political noise and my inner conversations is about its business, day in, day out. So far, at least, the day rises and the night falls. About that inner dialogue, though…

My books speak to me from their stacks, the ones on the table next to my recliner in the living room, along with the electronic ones that fit conveniently in my pocket. But most of the voices I hear during my days, come through my headphones, hour after hour through my Pandora playlists, virtually all music. I’m not eager to listen to podcasts as my children do, or even books on tape or Audible or whatever, which for me are better for road trips. At least as long as my eyes still work. And road trips aren’t happening right now. The rhythms in my ears, the lyrics, the memories, the exposure to new sounds and old ones I missed along the way, generate energy that keeps me moving, both physically and mentally. With so little social contact during these past months, I am talking mostly with myself. And with Michael.

I can’t remember the first day I started writing Michael letters after he died in May, 2017. From the beginning of our friendship in 1971, I had never experienced such a level of intimacy and trust with anyone, the kind that makes you feel you can say anything without ever being judged. What a marvelous gift which I took full advantage of, during those early months of getting to know each other. When I went to Europe for a couple of months in early 1972, I already knew that we needed to risk all that wonder by taking this mind-melding up a notch to the romantic. After telling him that during a phone call the night before I left, I poured myself into writing him letters the whole time I was gone. When I returned and moved in with him almost immediately, the flame was lit and burned for the rest of our life together. All these post-death letters, which now number in the hundreds, feel like they belong in a book, the title of which is “P.S. I Forgot to Tell You Something.In this quiet time, when I’m mostly with myself it’s become pretty clear that I’m still really with him. I feel him around me while I do the chores which were once his, while I lament the political state of this country, while I listen to the music, when I enter the sanctuary of our bedroom at night. I still need to talk with him. Instead of experiencing a lessening of my emotions toward him, they’re getting stronger. When I feel down or rattled, the essence of us, which I have no idea how to describe, surges up from somewhere in my gut and keeps me going. For the kids, he would say. You have to stay ok for our kids.

So here I am, muddling through all this, often likening my interior to that time when we stood at JFK’s gravesite, remarking on the eternal flame. Apparently that was a metaphor for us. Maybe that’s why concluding the cancer story has been so hard for me. How do I write about the end which exists on one plane, when it so totally doesn’t in the reality I now occupy?

I was out in the garden a few days ago when this song by Aztec Camera, “Still on Fire,” popped up. Immediately I was taken back to the mid 1980’s when it was released. Michael added it to his house favorites CD collection. We’d been together for years, had one kid and would soon have two. As they grew up, we all listened to that collection of dozens of songs and all of us really liked that one. For Michael and me, the title said it all. And here I am, on my own, still on fire. How lucky and unlucky.

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