Sifting Through The All The Feels

Dad, my daughter and me

Yesterday was the 33rd anniversary of my father’s death. This photo was taken a little less than two months before he died, in what was a brief cancer experience lasting only from June until September. Dad was a finicky guy, unwilling to go through the many degradations of cancer treatment. After only one round of chemo, he opted out. Oh, 1989 seems like another universe. That year was packed with so many significant events which came on the heels of two dreadful suicides, one my young cousin’s in 1987, and the other, my oldest friend in 1988. I knew I’d changed internally after surviving those two traumas. Moving forward, I had no idea that the following year, both my parents would be diagnosed with cancer within five weeks of each other, following my second stint as Michael’s campaign manager in his successful run for alderman. Four years earlier he’d lost his first attempt by only two votes, but we were smarter during the 1989 try. On the heels of his election came my parents’ illnesses. A few weeks later, Michael’s long-aching back gave out. After three weeks of his writhing in pain in our bed, me sleeping on the floor to give him room to toss and turn, I woke him one morning and announced I was done with this mess in the middle of working, helping my mom and dad, dealing with our kids and feeling a lot like Edith Bunker from the television sitcom “All in the Family.” We got him dressed, into the car and went straight to the emergency room which contacted his orthopedic surgeon who arranged for a laminectomy surgery the next day. My dad was in the hospital at the same time, being rehydrated. While we waited for Michael’s room, I wheeled him to see my dad – Michael looked right at him, didn’t recognize him and peered at the person in the next bed, trying to figure out what happened to dad. An extraordinary shock. After a storm the day after Michael’s surgery took out a huge oak tree on our parkway, sending giant branches through our brand-new roof, I felt tougher than a piece of petrified bark. What a succession of nightmares. I was 38 and thought nothing could could penetrate my thick skin after experiencing so much of life’s cruelty. Of course I was wrong. I’ve survived much more since then, but have been shocked by the sudden rush of unexpected feelings that pop up unbidden, demanding responses. I’d thought I was prepared for anything.

The interior of “What’s Cookin,” a restaurant on North Lincoln Avenue in Chicago that we went to countless times as a family, when visiting my parents before they moved to our community.

Between 1972 and 1986, Michael and I drove to Chicago frequently to visit family and friends. We used to laugh about how my parents, living in a city with a plethora of gastronomic delights, tended to eat in the same half-dozen restaurants over and over. One of them was What’s Cookin’. Of course the owners and staff grew to know them, so when we showed up, our party always got seated fast. A big basket of bagels, bialys and soft challah bread was brought to our table, along with a tray of various pickles. The place was homey and we loved it. After my dad died, Michael and I continued to go back to the city periodically. On one of the first trips back, we decided to eat at What’s Cookin’. I think that was the first time I learned about the deep emotional ambushes that can catch you off-guard. All I felt in that familiar place, with its familiar smells and sounds was my father’s absence. I barely got through our meal, on the verge of tears and so terribly bereft. We got out of there and never went back. I think it went out of business but I don’t know when. After that incident which I tucked away in my mind, I often wondered what else would come my way that would unexpectedly undo me emotionally.

Apple Pork Festival – Clinton, Illinois
BroomCorn Festival – Arcola, Illinois

Years ago, in the decade before we had kids, one of the ways Michael and I would entertain ourselves on weekends, was to hop in the car to go exploring. We found state parks, small lakes and interesting little towns with bars that served great food. We also ran into random festivals about which we knew nothing. We listened to bands, ate fair and carnival favorites and perused flea markets that were part of the event. Michael looked for old tools, baseball cards and 45 records, while I bought okd books and started a pottery collection that I’m sure no one in my family wants at all. But we loved those days. We tried to take our kids along with us when they were little, but they got bored and tired. Eventually we quit going as life got busier and busier with the kids’ sports and music events taking up so many nights and weekends. When we finally had time to ourselves again, we decided to revisit those festivals which over time, had grown bigger with lots more visitors and attractions. When Michael was in his cancer years, he was well enough to attend these events a few more times. Those normal moments were so exquisite. You’d think we were off on a grand world tour.

Since Michael died, I’ve had that What’s Cookin’ moment in my head. How would I feel if I did this or went there? After a lifetime of sharing experiences, there aren’t many places in my community, the surrounding area or Chicago that don’t remind me of him. Lots of times the memories unearthed are sweet reminiscences that fill me with bittersweet feelings that are fine, manageable and kind of like your favorite bathrobe or sweatpants. They just feel good. Slowly during the last five years on my own, I’ve gotten back to almost every special place we shared multiple times, with no traumatic emotional moments. But I can be working in the garden, headphones plugged in when one note of one special song pops up and suddenly I can barely stand, dissolved in waves of grief that emanate from the deepest part of myself, so deep I can’t comprehend it.

This album by CTA, eventually to become Chicago, was released in 1969. “Beginnings,” one of its cuts, didn’t make a dent in the music charts back then. In June, 1971, the song was released again with “Color My World” as its flip side. This combo zoomed to number 7 on the Billboard Top 100 list, just in time for me to meet Michael that summer. By April, 1972, we were living together for what would be the rest of Michael’s life. We spent hours lying in bed, talking and listening to whole albums, not playlists. This one stimulates volcanic responses which I have to ride out like a surfer, trying to catch and hold a wave. I’m somehow still in this emotional vortex, somewhere in my being.


When I’m with you
It doesn’t matter where we are
Or what we’re doing
I’m with you, that’s all that matters

Time passes much too quickly
When we’re together laughing
I wish I could sing it to you, whoa oh
I wish I could sing it to you

Oh oh oh oh oh oh woah oh oh oh
Oh oh oh oh oh oh woah oh oh oh
Mostly I’m silent, hmm

When I kiss you
I feel a thousand different feelings
A cover of chills
All over my body
And when I feel them
I quickly try to decide which one
I should try to put into words, woah oh
Try to put into words

Oh oh oh oh oh oh woah oh oh oh
Oh oh oh oh oh oh woah oh oh oh

Only the beginning
Only just the start
Oh oh oh oh oh oh woah oh oh oh
Oh oh oh oh oh oh woah oh oh oh
Oh oh oh oh oh oh woah oh oh oh

On the road to Clinton this past weekend.

For my birthday this year, back in May, my son and daughter-in-law gave me the promise of a day of my choice, perhaps a trip to Chicago to catch a museum exhibit and then dinner at my favorite restaurant. At this point, my adult family members are all more interested in sharing experiences than in acquiring more stuff. For some reason though, every time we thought about going off to do something, an obstacle arose. A schedule conflict, rotten weather, just one thing after another. Finally, we got down to this past weekend, when the Apple Pork Festival was happening in Clinton, Illinois. I haven’t attended that event since 2016. I had a sense of reluctance about it, the kind connected to the potential for a negative emotional reaction when all the memories of my past times with Michael might erupt.

Strange as it may sound, I’d already had a trying challenge with the retirement of Roger Federer two nights earlier. We all seek our relief from the stresses of our daily lives. Watching Federer play tennis for the past 24 years was one of mine. That’s longer than the average distraction and one that’s carried me through tough times. Recently, I’ve had more deaths close to home, as is typical for people in my age group. Watching Roger’s emotional send-off was a bit like another one. But I know that in this life you have to adapt and move on, rather than getting mired down in what was. So late Sunday morning, off we went, adding my two grandsons to the mix as part of the outing.

I’d been there so many times before that the locations of everything unspooled in my head like a labeled map . As we entered the site, I was glad to feel no sense of sadness or despair but rather excitement about getting a funnel cake and sharing that experience with my daughter-in-law, who’s European and had never tasted this slice of Americana. Music was playing from the bandstand, also located in the same place as in the past. The tunes were mostly familiar, Allman Brothers, Pure Prairie League, Marshall Tucker Band, a lively mix on a sunny cool afternoon. Everyone was in good spirits, enjoying the atmosphere and each other’s company.

I only have one major place left unvisited, where Michael and I went for many years, sometimes with our kids and sometimes on our own. I’ve been thinking about it more and more often lately, mostly about all the great times we had there and about how much I’d like to see it one more time. I still can’t predict what stimulus might make my grief, now a normal component of who I am, come bubbling up when I least expect it. I guess that’s what living really is, being surprised by what feelings show up when you’re not prepared. At least I’m not just lying on my couch with a case of the vapors, eating bon-bons. That would be a disservice to me, everyone around me and especially to Michael, who wanted to be alive for every second, no matter what happened. Just still sifting through it all, day by day.

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