Eleven – Part 1

Me and my kids

I really like my kids. I’m not talking about loving them. I mean I really like them. They’re decent human beings, compassionate, generous and deeply concerned about the world. They both work hard at difficult jobs aimed at making life more fair and building a better future. They’re also smart, versatile and highly entertaining. They make me laugh. My daughter relates to me about how much we know each other’s thoughts without uttering them, generally in real time. If it wasn’t so comfy, it would be unnerving. My son is very funny and has made observations about me that I have to say are pretty much spot on, despite my efforts to deny them. One of his commentaries from some years ago still retains its value. While visiting him at college, he told me I was an itinerant lecturer, wandering around giving unsolicited advice to random people who crossed paths with me. My husband found that so amusing that he had business cards with that title, plus “cruise director” for good measure, printed for me, all ready for distribution.

More recently, after living with me again for a time, my kid told me that when I emerged from sleep in the morning, my energy level was for him, an unbearable “11” on a scale from 1-10. Absolutely true. I require no transition time from sleep to wakefulness and no caffeine to kick-start my day. I usually open my eyes already thinking, spilling over with plans, ideas and lots of language. I’ve come to think of it as some weird, irrepressible life force that must be an intrinsic part of my genetic make-up, passed along by generations of strong women. When Michael was alive, he absorbed a lot of that energy, tethering me to solid ground and helping me control my internal volcano

In our last weeks together, we spent time talking about the future I would have without him. He shared all his hopes for me, that I would find new partnership and love, and to lead a rich emotional life as though those options were givens, based on what he referred to as the “you have no idea how strong you are” attribute. I remember looking at him blankly, thinking he was crazy. All that stuff sounded like some movie script, the lines the dying person says to the survivor, permission to move on and the like. I had no idea what was going to happen to me after living with him since I was 20, facing my proverbial golden years on my own, with absolutely no interest in starting a new personal life with anyone. I knew I had strength, not how much though, nor did I have any notion what use it might have as an adjunct to the constant missing of the only person with whom I’d ever been my most authentic self with all the time. Before I met him I never knew anyone who wanted to adapt to my quirky “vigor.” After he was gone and I had some time to adjust, what I wanted most was to establish myself as a woman alone, who could assert my independence without anyone but me. That first summer, I wanted to travel to Glacier National Park, to be awed by the beauty of nature, entirely on my own. I had my train ticket and room reservation, but the planet had other plans. Half the park was on fire and the other was darkened by smoke. Hurricanes were flooding the south and the west coast was burning. Two days before my scheduled departure, I swapped my ticket for one to Arizona, heading to the three National Monuments near Flagstaff and ultimately, to Sedona, known as a spiritual vortex. That was a term I didn’t understand, but figured it couldn’t hurt. I had a successful trip, enjoying the gorgeous red rocks, ancient ruins and a petrified volcano. Most importantly, I was glad to be with myself although I’d realized fairly quickly, that Michael was going to be present wherever I went. I carry the note he left for me in the mourning quilt made from his clothing, stuffed into a pocket with an additional one for each kid. He wasn’t messing around. He is everywhere.

I was profoundly affected by the last five years of my life with Michael. I’d always known the importance of living in the present, squeezing as many experiences as possible out of life which is so impossibly short. Until you lose the quality of your daily existence, most people who don’t suffer from emotional problems that suck away that impulse to live fully, are striving to make the most out of their days. We lived like that for 40 years. The advent of cancer heightened our desires to push ourselves even harder, recognizing that we could see an end to our time together. When Michael was well, we went everywhere we’d dreamed of, within our economic power. We traveled to all those places on our wish list, covering what we wanted to share together. Michael’s determination to stay alive, to live what he could at his maximum level was astonishing. My natural energy was further enhanced by the incredible determination he showed after every relapse, the determination to stay himself and engage in the big stuff, what was really important to him. I think that his gift to me was the recognition that living large was how to approach my new world. With the best of us squirreled away inside me, my sustenance and my inspiration, I decided to get myself into my best life as fast as I could. If it’s possible to develop companionship with my whole self, no longer a caregiver, no longer responsible for anyone but me, I think that’s what I’ve done. I feel like an “11” almost every day, aside from the occasional, “slow down before you kill yourself” admonition that I periodically give myself. I’m on the move in one way or another, day and night. I know I have a shelf life. I just don’t know its length. My older two siblings died at 72 and 76. Those numbers are not far away from my current age of 71. Will I be like them, or like my mother and grandmother who lived two decades longer? Who knows? The last part of their lives, especially my mom’s doesn’t appeal to me. Like most people, I’d like to check out of my life still being recognizable to myself and my family. As anything can happen at any time, my opinion may not matter much. But my respect for Michael’s desire to stay with me and my family fuels my intensity and ratchets me up even when I’m tired.

I’ve been analyzing these last few years a lot recently. Currently, the Western & Southern Tennis Tournament is going on in Cincinnati. Back in 2018, on the first anniversary of Michael’s death, I went on a family trip with my daughter’s crew, down to North Carolina, cruising the Blue Ridge Highway and winding up in Asheville and at the Biltmore. I rented a car there because my bone on bone knees, for which I’d deferred surgery while Michael was ill, were hard to manage – I didn’t want to impede the off-trail hiking that my kids would be doing. So they did their thing while I cruised around, looking at Civil War sites and the state arboretum. But I was itching for another trip on my own, wanting to build on the independence momentum I’d started just a few months after Michael died.

I knew all about the Western and Southern Open, only about 4 hours away from home. And I knew who was playing. I’d always wanted to see my beloved Roger Federer play tennis in person, but thought that was a luxury I couldn’t afford. I decided to give myself that gift, in keeping with what I’d done with Michael when we were maximizing our remaining time. Affordability be damned. I had one life. I got myself a good pair of walking sticks and bought my tickets. I’ve never regretted that trip, steamy hot and so exciting. While I waited for August, I spent the rest of the summer gardening, writing and swimming, along with enjoying a mini-reunion with two of my closest college friends, one of whom had terminal cancer. That was a wonderful experience.

Me, Julie and Maurine, my oldest friend from elementary school and ultimately my college roommate and travel companion to Europe.

Then off I drove to my five day Roger paradise. I think that was my first road trip alone, aside from a few work conferences within a couple of hours of home. There’s nothing like giving yourself a present. Mine was getting to watch this amazing athlete who I respect because of his behavior as a citizen of the world. I couldn’t believe how close I got to him at a practice court. I felt like I did when I saw the Beatles. I enjoyed a lot of the other action as well, getting to see Serena Williams, along with visiting my cousin and a dear friend of my daughter’s. As I clanked along with my sticks, also useful as defensive weapons against rude tournament-goers, I planned my first knee replacement for October.

Serena Williams

Although my painful knees were still in my way, this drive to enrich my life while still on this planet was growing. Prior to my surgery, good fortune or unusually excellent timing, placed me in Chicago on the same weekend as the Laver Cup. A tournament organized by Federer to both honor the legendary Rod Laver, and to bring tennis closer to more varied spectators, was taking place at the United Center during my 50th high school reunion. My old stomping grounds. I was the primary organizer for the reunion but I bought tickets to the tournament anyway, scrambling through my hometown with my walking sticks, watching great tennis, meeting many old friends and eating my favorite deep-dish pizza. I was pressing hard, exactly what I wanted to do, taking care of my new goal which apparently had become to be the most self-actualized version of myself.

Me and my trusty walking sticks
Me with two of my best high school friends after a couple of tennis sessions.
The four of us went to grade school together.

Finally, that October, I had my first knee replacement. The surgery went well, mostly I think, because I did regular physical therapy beforehand. My recovery was fast. I couldn’t wait to do the other knee, an option my doctor insisted needed more time. By early January, I was off to visit some old friends on the Gulf side of Florida. Definitely a nice way to expedite recovery.

Photo of the canal behind my friends’ home, clouds reflected on the water.

I was happy with the start of 2019 and kept rolling along. I attended an anti-gun rally one freezing, slushy day, still engaged in the political issues crucial to our time. That will be a given for the remainder of my life until either my brain or I go.

Two months later, my son went with me to St. Louis to take in a Pete Yorn concert at the Pageant theater. We had great seats and since my son attended college there, we both experienced a gamut of emotions from wistful sentimentality to bliss, thinking about the past and grateful for the headiness of the moment.

A few weeks later, he and I hit the road for a fifteen day road trip to the east coast. Michael had been up that coast multiple times in his youth, so except for a special visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame and FDR’s Hyde Park during one of his remissions, we never went that way. The trip began with a Paul McCartney concert in Indiana. The last time I’d seen him in person was 54 years earlier in Chicago at the Amphitheater. Of the hundreds of concerts that were the bonus of living with a music store owner, I’d have to put this one in my top five. What a way to begin a journey.

We hit twelve states, managing capitals, the ocean, a national park and historic sites along the way. Michael’s zillion song old-school Ipod provided our musical accompaniment. I even got to see the real home of the collies I thought were fictional heroes and heroines. I must’ve read “Lad: A Dog” hundreds of times as a kid and kept a copy of that book my whole life. But I’d discovered he was real and wept at his gravesite in the current park which was once his real home. This mobile reaching for experiences at a rapid pace agreed with me, feeling like I was living the life Michael and I hoped to do together in retirement.

In my whirling “11mode, within a week or so of returning home, I boarded a train, finally on my way to Glacier, the trip I’d hoped for two years earlier. A place for contemplation and awe, it met all my expectations and helped me into the spiritual space I weave into and out of as I make my way through the unexpected route my life has taken, now a loner instead of a partner. Nature and music are my stabilizers.

The beautiful rocks of Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park.

I returned home from Glacier and two weeks later had my second knee replacement. Again, I had an easy time of it for which I was truly grateful. The pain following surgery was nothing compared to the years I’d spent hobbling around with that wretched bone on bone pain.

I had set a few personal goals, one of which was to see all 50 states in this sprawling country. I had an Alaskan adventure planned for May, 2020. I had five states left unvisited on my list. By October, I was ready to knock off Alabama, passing through Shawnee National Forest and Tennessee for a look at Shiloh Battlefield and Memphis, as my sister, my travel companion on this outing, hadn’t been there before. After Alaska, only three would be left in my assignment book.

I stopped traveling for the last few months of 2019, except for a fabulous surprise trip to Chicago, a gift from my daughter to see the remarkable “Hamilton.” We had to climb lots of steps in the theater and a sympathetic usher gave me a fan for my efforts. I went back up there one more time, for a reunion with the guy I adored from 5th grade through high school, and my real boyfriend from back then, who was more a best friend than anything else. The rest of November and December were for time with family, going for real walks with my Stryker titanium knees, and dealing with the other more inside projects of daily life. I read, I wrote, I swam and I planned for a full calendar of travel for 2020. Life can be full of surprises, curve balls and the like. Coping skills are important.

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