When I was a young woman my dad would frequently share his views on life. They were more than a tad simplistic. When the conversation was getting a bit too esoteric he would say, “you wanna know what the meaning of life is? I’ll tell you. You get born, you grow up, you get a job, you get married, you have kids and then you die.” Needless to say, no one took that bare bones analysis too seriously. Most of us thought a lot more happened than that. As he grew older, he told me a little more. He’d lost his dad when he was only eight and his mom when he was in twenties. He had lots of bravado, but I think part of him was always a scared little kid. He started saying this one line over and over. “If you can get to age 70, you have a decent chance of cruising along for awhile.” He didn’t make it, dying at 67, just like my husband. Tonight is the eve before my 70th birthday. I remember the story of my mom being driven to the hospital by our neighbor Earl while she labored away. My delivery wasn’t easy – none of hers were. She said the doctor stood over her saying sternly, “Now Dorothy, do you want to have this baby?” Eventually I emerged.
I was told I was a good-natured, easygoing baby. I ate and slept well – one of those babies who they thought was dead because I was conked out for the night. There’s what we’re told about ourselves and what we actually remember. Tonight I’ve been sorting out how fast these years have gone by and what I actually remember, decade by decade.
First Decade – Baby to age 10
I was born in Chicago, but my parents moved our family to Sioux City, Iowa when I was eight months old. My first solid visual memory is of me sitting on the kitchen floor in our duplex on 16th street. My mom was irritated because our cocker spaniel Trixie was in heat, leaving blood droplets on the floor. She put a diaper on Trixie. While I watched this, I also noticed tiny flecks of dust catching the sun’s rays through the window. We didn’t stay too long on 16th street. We moved to a bigger house on 23rd street because my mom was having my little sister when I was just under age 2 and 1/2. I loved that house and our neighborhood. We lived next door to Reggie Brewer and his family and across the street from the Larimers who were wealthy. I was in love with their son Robin who was my age. We played together all the time, along with his younger siblings Charlie and Janie. I liked bugs and dirt. My mother needed a hysterectomy when I was four and my younger sister was two. I suffered from fear of abandonment after that. I was terrified by her absence and didn’t like the way my grandmother took care of me. All she cared about was how clean everything should be. That left me out. I attended kindergarten and first grade at Hunt School. I loved school, especially the smell of new school supplies and books. I was an early reader. I knew my older sister didn’t like me but my brother did. She was over five years older than me and he was eight years older. They were a different generation and I spent most of my time with my younger sister. I was never mean to her. I decided not to treat her the way my older sister treated me. I was happy in Sioux City. We had a scary flood once during which we evacuated our house and our car floated away. After my mother was sick, I wet my bed and my older siblings teased me out of that and also mocked me for liking warm milk. But generally I was ok. At age seven, my dad’s business venture flopped. He was involved with his sister’s husband and my mom hated them both. So we moved back to Chicago. We never lived in a house again, only in crowded apartments. I looked out the back window of the car as we pulled away, waving goodbye to the Larimers whom we’d never see again. But little kids don’t know the meaning of never.
When we got to Chicago, I was enrolled in Horace Mann School, put back in first grade because they thought perhaps the Iowa school system was sub-par compared to Chicago’s. Within two weeks, I was moved up to second grade which I found to be an unnerving experience. Evidently I had already discovered some coping skills because I adapted quickly and was selected for a program designed for a student to complete three semesters in two. I did the same thing between seventh and eighth grade. Ultimately, I skipped a whole year of school. In retrospect, I think this was a bad idea as academics aren’t the only consideration in decisions about child-rearing. But I was flattered to be considered smart. More challenging than schoolwork were the clear economic class differences in our neighborhood. I could see by observing my sister and brother that this striated society was painful and uncomfortable. I started to plan my own way of coping with this system. I clearly remember knowing I couldn’t compete with these kids who had what seemed like a zillion lessons and attended overnight summer camps. I was going to have to use my brain to overcome the financial chasm.
Second Decade – Age 10 – 20
What can you say about the astonishing years between 10 and 20? So much growth in every possible way. Your body goes through tumultuous changes, morphing from that of a child into that of an adult. I remember the confusing scramble to catch up with what happened to me while I slept. One night I went to bed a girl and woke the next morning, ostensibly a woman. One minute I was confused and incompetent, the next self-assured and cocky. Like having whiplash. My home life was tumultuous. I knew there were financial challenges and that my older siblings were both struggling emotionally. I tried to be cheerful and easygoing but I worried a lot. I felt parental toward my mom and dad and was always looking down the road, trying to be prepared for anything. I was a really good student all the way through eighth grade but by high school, I was losing interest in staying between the lines. By sophomore year, my biology teacher told my parents that I might do better in a lab school where I had a more individualized study plan. But that was private and expensive. So mostly I skated along with my mediocre weighted honors classes grades keeping me in the center of a college oriented life. I had a crush on the same boy from 5th grade through high school. We were good friends but despite my scheming, we never got where I wanted to go. I had a pretty normal social life, dated, went to events and pondered the uproar of the late ‘60’s. I lived through the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy and the Chicago Democratic convention. When I went to college in the fall of 1968, I was a seventeen year old virgin with rapidly evolving left-wing politics. Personally I was careful and conservative. I floundered a lot during my freshman year. By my sophomore year, I was engaged in anti-war demonstrations, traveling to DC to join forces with my peers. I also fell deeply in love for the first time. That relationship was doomed by our youth, or rather more by the immaturity of my boyfriend. We struggled through a few years while I became much more political and focused on how I wanted to live my life. When I was twenty I was struck by some mad instantaneous thunderbolt while attending a wedding. I met the young man who would become first, my best friend and six months later, my life partner. From roller skating down our block to emotional partnership in ten years. Remarkable.
Third Decade – Age 20 – 30
I moved in with Michael in 1972 and was with him until his death. We were both politically active in the anti-war, civil rights, women’s rights and the environmental movements. We went to school, worked in alternative communities and struggled to build a deep, honest and committed relationship. Sometimes things were pretty tumultuous but along with the struggles came a passionate, powerful union. After 4 years of living together, we got married. We traveled together, attended concerts and museums, festivals, camped in beautiful parks and partied a lot with our friends. By 1978, we were both established in secure jobs and by the end of the year, we bought a house. We worked hard on fixing it up as it was quite old but packed with character. When I was 30 and Michael 32 , we’d had ten years together. We felt ready. I had my first child that year.
Fourth Decade – Age 30 – 40
We added a second child to our family about five years later. My parents moved to our town and became part of our daily lives. Michael became a city alderman. I became an organizer of school fundraising events and served on our park district and school district advisory committees. We grew an intimate family unit. The latter three years of the decade were painful. In 1987, my cousin committed suicide. The following year my best friend did the same. In 1989, both my parents were diagnosed with cancer. Michael suffered with herniated disks and finally had back surgery. A tree struck by lightning crashed through our recently applied new roof. My dad died within three months of his diagnosis. We were sorely tested by these crises but made it to the other side. And we were still together.
Decade Five – Age 40 – 50
Michael’s music business was beginning to suffer between the advent of online streaming services and big box stores. My job was stable and provided benefits. Our kids were getting older, participating in athletics and music so we were on the run all the time. My mom became very dependent on me during the years after my dad’s death, especially as she’d never driven a car. I called my life, Driving Miss Dorothy. Michael and I had stress during that time but we’d grown truly strong as partners so we managed. As Michael approached 50, he decided to go back to school to become certified as a US History teacher. His political science degree wasn’t useful so he became the ancient undergrad. Our daughter was already in college. I was nervous but happy he was moving on. Life was never dull.
Decade Six – Age 50 – 60
Michael successfully transitioned into his new career, not only getting certified to teach US history but also acquiring a Master’s degree. Happily, he found a true vocation which was a fabulous gift at his stage of life. We were thrilled. He wrote an exceptionally cool class called Modern American History through Film and Music which was a big hit with his students. Meanwhile our daughter had graduated from college and moved home to attend law school in our hometown. She made this move largely to develop a relationship with her brother as adults. Separated by five years, they really weren’t totally bonded. They are now. Our son graduated from high school and went off to college within easy driving distance of home. When he graduated, he took a year off and then entered a PhD program at our local university. So although empty nesters, our family was close. My daughter fell in love and married during these years, setting up permanent residence nearby. Michael and I had slid back into the familiar place we’d established during our ten years before children. We had anniversaries, trips and the usual arguments which had marked our always flaming relationship. He always said our lives would be perfect if I’d just stop talking. Not an option. My kids got together and threw me a fabulous 60th birthday party. Life was good.
Seventh Decade – Age 60 – 70
I couldn’t have cared less about sixty as a benchmark birthday. Life was comfortable. We became grandparents. I retired from my job that had been perfectly fine for over thirty years, to care for my grandson so my kids wouldn’t have to worry about baby day care. Mostly, I felt lucky in my life. Big love. Great kids. What more can anyone ask out of this messy world? But then our luck ran out. In 2012, Michael was diagnosed with an orphan cancer, one so rare that treatments were few and largely ineffective. The disease moved so rapidly that on the same day as his diagnosis, we met two hours later with an oncology surgeon and quickly scheduled a surgery. I was still caring for my grandson and also my mother who’d finally needed to move in with us. Life was a blur. We finally got some space for a second opinion which concurred with the first, that 30 radiation treatments were required post-surgically. These were to the head and neck. We had a long, hard summer. Somehow, Michael, though fatigued and thin, made it back to teach school in the fall. I kept caring for my grandson but we moved my mom into assisted living. A year passed. I was anxious for another full body scan which hadn’t been done in what I felt was too long. The doctors finally agreed and discovered widespread bone cancer, confirmed by bone marrow to be metastatic disease. Being right was terrible. That November, 2013, Michael was given two to three months to live, absent treatment, and perhaps a year with it. Our daughter was pregnant with her second child. We didn’t know if he’d live to see that baby. He quickly retired and began chemotherapy within a few weeks. The next few years were a rollercoaster of remissions and remission lapses. We had ecstatic times of trips tucked into the healthy periods and despair in the dark times. I read everything I could about this monster disease, wrote specialists across the country and begged for clinical trials and experimental treatments. My state of mind was hyper-alert. Michael focused his energy on staying alive. By 2015, his predicament was getting worse with every passing day. Meanwhile, my brother died unexpectedly in April. My mom began a descent into dementia. Michael was given an off-trial drug in May as a last ditch attempt to save his life. He clawed his way through the fatiguing treatments. In July, he was weak but alive. That month, my mom fell and broke her hip and was dead within two weeks. Four days later, our almost 15 year old collie was diagnosed with lung cancer. I had to euthanize him. Michael clung to life. His tumors shrank. By December there was no evidence of cancer. But his liver enzymes went wild and we lost our oncologist. The new one was unwilling to risk resuming the treatment. We got to 2016 with joy and trepidation. Generally it was a great year. However, in December, Michael seemed off to me. We went to our doctors who ran some scans which were all negative. I didn’t care. He was changing right in front of me. By the end of January, 2017, I forced our way into the emergency room where I demanded a brain MRI. The results were dreadful. They revealed what was essentially a metastatic cancer meningitis. Invisible on regular scans, the brain MRI, his first, picked up the ghostly mush. He was given 4 weeks to live. We tried various barbaric treatments as he tried desperately to survive. He made it through seventeen weeks. He died in our home with his family, as he’d wished, if it had to happen at all. I spent six months planning a memorial which was a wonderful if dreaded affair. In January, 2018, I started a blog and began the business of trying to establish a life on my own. I’ve done okay absent the wretched politics of the Trump administration and Covid. I am still here, curious about what comes next.
Decade 8 – Day 1
Today was my 70th birthday. My daughter took the day off work and we drove up to my old hometown to see a Monet exhibit along with a fabulous newer artist, Bisa Butler, among other old favorites. We ate a late lunch at our favorite pizza place where we’d shared so many wonderful family times. I was thrilled to have some alone time with her as her schedule is pretty packed. I came home to beautiful flowers from my son, who is out of the country, and my cousin. And something else so timely and special. I planted a tree 3 years ago to honor Michael, but it didn’t survive the winter. I tried again in 2019. I could tell this year that it’s definitely going to succeed. A kousa dogwood, it’s a languid, drapey tree especially when laden with blossoms. Michael had that long relaxed frame which was my source of comfort for so many years. Today on my birthday, it seemed perfect that I received what I’ve been planning on doing for these past 4 years.