Some years in your life stand out as those in which you feel you’ve taken a transformative leap, becoming a modified version of the self that existed only months earlier. I’d have to say that 1979 was one of those years for Michael and me. We’d done the mad act of buying an old house, currently being used as three apartments, without ever having seen the first floor. That turned out to be the apartment with the open lease, the one which would be our personal space as we began our venture, not only as homeowners but as landlords. Quite the leap from the almost annual moves we’d made since moving in together in April, 1972. I think we were both stunned by our headlong plunge into a world of responsibilities but we were going forward at a fast pace, as if time had suddenly sped up. The days of feeling like life was moving in slow motion were relegated to history. From then on, we’d be scrambling to keep up with the pace of adulting which had magically become who we were.
We didn’t take too many photos of the house in those days. I suppose we were too stunned by the enormous amount of work to be done. The bathroom and kitchen had their original fixtures from the early 1900’s. A claw foot bathtub, a sink and toilet that were crammed into a six foot square space as the bathrooms had been added well after the house was built, stacked on top of each other to replace the outhouses which were in place from 1893 to 1916. The kitchen sink stood on legs with no cabinet space below it. The only entry into the basement was through cellar doors on the side porch. Lovely golden pine floors had gaudy linoleum glued either to the centers or the trim around the rooms. Guessing what year the walls had last been painted was impossible. The house stood on a double lot which had been mowed but was overgrown with volunteer scrubby trees and bushes. There was simply dirt rather than yard. A hitching post was clutched by a tree that had grown around it.
I found jawbones with teeth in the dirt along with hip joints that appeared to be from cattle. We had five rooms on the first floor. Upstairs there was one two-room apartment and one three-room. The tenants shared a bathroom which was located in the back hallway. We began the herculean task of reclaiming this space filled with good feelings although suffering from years of neglect. We got the floors refinished after yanking up all the linoleum. We stripped wallpaper and started painting. Suddenly there was a salmon-colored room for our books and albums, a blue room next to the bathroom which became our first bedroom and soft whites and beiges for everything else. I think the biggest difference between Michael and me became glaringly clear at this time. I lived at a rather breakneck pace while Michael kind of oozed along, being “mellow.” That may be my most detested word. That’s when he came up with a line he used the rest of our lives – “would you mind removing your feet from my back as you run over me?” I was always in a hurry and could easily tolerate a little imperfection while he was slow, methodical and a perfectionist. So went our lives.
The first few months of the year were sucked into the fixing up vortex that pulls you in when you buy an old home. Still, we managed to get away for weekends, visiting with our friends from college, many of whom had migrated back to Chicago. We visited Brookfield Zoo, went to Cubs’ games, hit the museums along the lakefront and went to our favorite restaurants.
Michael snuck in a white water rafting trip with our friend Brian.
When we were home, we continued to work on improving the house. The yard was a disaster. That reclamation project would take years, adding a garage, digging out unwanted opportunistic foliage and building a fence so our dogs could be in open space.
We were also dealing with our tenants who had the usual issues, dripping faucets, broken appliances and my least favorite, plugged up toilets which required plunging. I can’t figure out how we dealt with all these chores in addition to working full-time, but we were young and energetic. June rolled around and I successfully planned a surprise party for Michael’s 30th birthday. I remember how astonished he was that someone who talked as much as me could fool him, but that verbiage was a great cover for my excellent secret-keeping skills. The old “what you see isn’t necessarily what you get.”
Then July showed up, bringing different challenges. My dad who’d already survived a heart attack, started having severe angina. He was hospitalized and had an angiogram which indicated that he had five blocked arteries. His own father had died of heart disease at age 39, when my dad was only eight years old. At fifty-six he’d already dodged what appeared to be a genetic bullet. A skinny guy, his body produced lots of cholesterol which wasn’t helped by the fact that he’d smoked since he was a kid. Always the healthier of my two parents, he was suddenly faced with a life-threatening situation. My sister and I hustled up to Chicago to support both him and my mom as they confronted a harsh reality, a threat they’d nervously contemplated for years.
I still remember the tension in the cardiac surgical waiting room. Everyone was waiting for a word about a loved one. Sometimes a message was delivered by medical staff. Faces went crestfallen. Others reflected joy but it was muted as all were keenly aware that outcomes would be different from patient to patient. No technology back in those days. People sat with books, magazines, and knitting. Fidgeting was common. No one wanted to leave the room, but despite everything, there was hunger, toilet breaks, and thirst. A timeless room with no windows so there was no sense of the outside world. After long hours, I remember the tall crisp Irish surgeon, Dr. Coogan, coming to speak with us. Dad had survived his five coronary bypasses and Coogan called him a tough old bird. He would be in recovery next and then in the cardiac intensive care unit. Visiting was limited to a half hour twice a day.
When my turn came, I was immediately stunned to see a white coated man with a long gray ponytail, examining my dad’s chart at the foot of his otherworldly bed which was in the center of a mass of tubes and flickering machines. I knew this man. He was a friend from college who went on to be a nurse, and ultimately, to medical school. He was in his residency on the cardiac service. He had given me my first hit of acid when we were juniors at the university. Now he was holding my dad’s chart, in charge of his life, at least in this moment. Stunning and utterly random.
As the days passed, my dad who had never been ill, had negative responses to his medications and developed arrhythmia. We were reassured that this was an expected result, but it was unsettling. In addition, he became rude and made completely out of character lewd remarks. He was temperamental and angry, most particularly when I refused to bring him cigarettes which he referred to as “his things.” My mother was self-medicating and acting out and altogether, I mostly felt a need to flee. The doctor explained that many men behaved like this post-surgically because they were uncertain of their futures and their ability to eventually resume a normal life. I understood these concepts and could feel my dad’s discomfort. But it was a lot to manage. I was 28 years old with my hands full of my own life and too many of my parents’ tribulations. That would remain a consistent theme of my life, the blurry boundaries between who are the kids and who are the grownups in my family. Love was plentiful but roles were awry.
Eventually Dad was released to get better at home and my sister and I returned to our lives. Michael was facing a crisis as a new record store was opening just doors away from his campus business. This was a threatening scenario and we spent hours brainstorming about strategies for dealing with the new competition. One day, out of nowhere, my high school boyfriend appeared in town and showed up in my office. He’d left a job to start a rollerblading business in Evanston near Northwestern University and thought opening a site in our university community was a good plan. Within days, Michael’s store was diversifying into the rollerblade rental business which we hoped would help with the new threat to his work stability. Literally within days of that deal, my mom’s health took a precipitous decline. Stuck with ulcerative colitis since she was a young woman, she thought she was facing a colostomy surgery. She also was a candidate for back surgery because of severe spinal stenosis. That turned out to be the one that needed to come first. I used vacation and sick days to head back to Chicago, along with my sister, worried that both my parents were going to collapse from the stress.
Mom made it through as she had through so many previous hospital stays and surgeries. Exhausted from all the racing around, I headed back home. The next event was another pop-up visitor from the past. The lovely blond guy who helped me survive my toxic relationship with Al, the person who preceded Michael, contacted me to complain about his marriage, his work and life in general. For an eyeblink this distraction was a bit of fun, but I was in my marriage forever, so I drew a line, despite an urge to run away from all my hassles for an interlude in unreality. An escape hatch which needed to be ignored. Understanding that was a bad plan made me realize that I was a full-on adult making mature decisions. Life was indeed moving fast.
In September, Michael and I made a quick trip to Florida. The weather was incredibly oppressive and the area had experienced two hurricanes in a short time, leading to powerful surf, a disappeared beach and intense riptides. I had a two humiliating experiences on that getaway. I was making my way down the steps from the seawall toward what little beach was still evident when a big wave crashed into me, yanking the top of my bathing suit off, right in front of Michael and his dad who laughed uproariously as I struggled to hang on to the railing and cover myself at the same time. The other was going for a swim, not recognizing that I wasn’t able to fight the currents and was being carried further away from my landmarks toward concrete dock supports which extended into the Gulf. I had my head up as I tried to control my trajectory and keep my bearings. Suddenly I felt Michael grab me from behind, like the experienced lifeguard he’d been for three years. He told me I looked like a pathetic puppy who might get lost forever. Not very empowering but I was glad he was there.
We headed back home and back to the house rehab. Michael and a friend rebuilt the front porch and I made my first attempt at gardening. We had friends and family visit us regularly and made another grownup decision. We’d planned a winter trip to the Bahamas but scrapped it to buy a beautiful couch instead. I really loved that couch.
Michael and I began to discuss having kids. He was especially interested in starting a family to build what he’d missed so much in his own family of origin. We needed to draw a few breaths first and attend to that task the following year. So our first year on Broadway reached it’s end. On to the ‘80’s.