When I was young I always looked forward to May. May was the month when for the most part, the last winter clothes could be ditched and the days were just fine for bare legs and feet. Nights could still be refreshingly cool. Gardens blazed with color and the rich scents of lilacs, lilies of the valley and peonies wafted on the breeze. I was born in May, as was my oldest and best friend. Mother’s Day was a big deal, both when I was a kid celebrating my mom, and later, when I became one. May life wasn’t always bliss but I liked it more than the swelter of July.
I got married on May 1st, another reason to celebrate the month. For years there was always a reason to be happy when turning the calendar page from the short month of April to its longer special events sister. But times changed. My oldest friend committed suicide in 1988 and all subsequent Mays took on a wistful sad feeling in mid-month. Years later, when Michael got cancer, every anniversary felt like it could be the last, a sensation that added poignancy to each subdued celebration. When he finally died on May 28th, 2017, in the midst of those last days I felt relieved because he didn’t die on my birthday, which happened only a few days earlier, unbeknownst to him. Mom was dead too. All the previously joyful events, clustered in one month, felt too hard to bear. I’ve litigated those feeling in a previous blog which you can read at this link.
However this May, I’ve had different reflections than the usual ones which involved me getting past moments of anticipatory grief. I haven’t been simply getting to the other side of the losses or thinking about how different life is now from what it once was. I’ve learned to be more in “the now” than in “the then.” I have a few anecdotes to demonstrate my progress, which I’m glad is an ongoing process. Staying static, always the same, is like early death, at least to me. I’m still evolving.
“So you know, that you’re over the hill
When your mind makes a promise that your body can’t fill
Try and get a rise from an atrophied muscle,
And the nerves in your thigh just quivers and fizzles
So you know, that you’re over the hill
When your mind makes a promise that your body can’t fill.” Music and Lyrics by Paul Barrere, member of Little Feat starting in 1972. From the album “Waiting for Columbus.”
I’ve been swimming almost daily for many years. Since I started babysitting for my infant granddaughter, my schedule has been somewhat erratic. Two weeks ago, I was in the pool for my usual exercise, but at an odd time for me. The crowd of swimmers was different from the usual people who show up daily. In the next space over from me was a couple who appeared to be in their late seventies or early eighties, a bit further down the age road than me. I admit that watching them together made me wistful if not outright jealous. They’d clearly spent a lifetime together. I felt one of those unbidden pangs, thinking about how much time Michael and I spent in the water together and wishing we could’ve still been bobbing along like these people.
The man in this couple was in worse physical shape than his wife, moving at a really slow pace through the water. But they were both upbeat, chatty and friendly. After a little while, they engaged me in conversation which is customary for most of us slower swimmers. Except they didn’t realize, that like them, I was a slow swimmer too. The fact that I was passing them by brought on some chatter that always strikes me as kind of ridiculous for people who have aged. In their perception, my speed was remarkable and a reminder that they were now a lot slower than they once were. Soon they were sharing stories of their long-lost physical prowess, memories of how many miles they could walk and how many laps they could swim back in the day. I forgot about missing Michael. I was distracted by thinking what a waste of time it is to long for the bodies of our youth. I, who in reality am of tortoise-level speed in the water, am just grateful to be healthy enough to keep swimming, walking, gardening and simply going up and down the stairs from the first floor of my house to the second. My mom used to drone on about all the things she missed doing after she’d aged. I never wanted to sit around bemoaning the inevitable changes in my body. I’m grateful that at 72, I’m still so functional. I know that Michael, who died in his 60’s, would have given anything to still be walking around, being in life. I felt like I’d had a great reminder, that staying present is a much better approach to daily living than dwelling on the past. A good pool lesson.
After the pool I drove home. I was sitting in my car in the garage, fumbling around, trying to gather up all my stuff that needed to go into the house. I caught a glimpse of movement in my rear view mirror and recognized my neighbor who’d crossed from her driveway into mine. She didn’t see me. I realized she simply wanted to bury her face for a moment in the remarkably sweet, fragrant scent of the peonies which line the driveway. By the time I got out of the car, she was gone. After dumping my things in the house, I got some clippers and snipped off enough blooms for a sizable bouquet and then tapped on her door. When she answered I told her I’d seen her head enjoying the peonies and that I wanted her to have some of that delicious smell in her house. Simple gestures of kindness matter. We chatted awhile about how marvelous these flowers, known as hundred-year plants, continue to emerge after decades, always an event we look forward to in May. Small miracles. Somehow the talk about nature’s mysteries led us to a discussion about all the life events we’ve experienced without exactly understanding how they’ve worked. After all the years we’ve known each other, for the first time I told her about the inexplicable magnetic connection that drew Michael and me into our intense friendship which preceded our romantic relationship by almost 9 months. Our conversation was buoyant and uplifting. Instead of feeling his absence in a negative way, I was instead joyful about our remarkable collision. I’m glad I could be in that moment and that I could share it as a new story without being maudlin. Nice.
This past week on a cool day, instead of swimming I went for a long walk at the beautiful arboretum in my community. For a place in the middle of town, it manages to convey a sense of being away from urban life, at least for a little while. For me it’s a great spot to get a little “zen,” not my usual daily state of mind. Back in February 2020, before anyone knew that Covid was Covid, I was really ill, deducing later that I’d been afflicted with the nasty bug, mostly because I’d lost my sense of taste and smell. I’ve never fully recovered from that loss. While strolling along in the arboretum, I heard the distant sounds of a mower, and to my delight, realized I was smelling that unmistakable scent of newly mown grass. I can’t begin to describe how thrilling it feels to be restored to a normal sense, even if it’s brief in duration. Happy May to me. Another upbeat moment.
Mother’s Day was a time for some deep thoughts. I had a place to be, at a brunch with my daughter and her family, her friend’s family and my sister. During the day, I read many social media posts from people reflecting on what this fabricated holiday felt like for them. There were storybook tales about an ideal life. Some people were nostalgic for the good old days with their mothers. Others had negative feelings because of their sad or unsatisfactory relationships with their moms. Sad women mourned the losses of their children or their inability to ever be a mother. Others just wished the whole day would go back where it came from. I always acknowledge my mom on that day. But the truth is, though I know I was deeply loved by my mom, and dad, too, I have no memory of being parented by them, at least not in the way I view the parental role. My earliest memories of my parents are fraught with worries. I was insecure about something scary happening to them. My mom was frequently sick. I always had a sense of responsibility for their happiness that drove my behavior. I felt parental toward them instead of the opposite. My two older siblings and I didn’t have many conversations about how they perceived our parents and now they’re both gone. I was so worried about my younger sister that I protected her when I could from the emotional uncertainties of our household. I learned a lot on my caregiver journey. That there can be love without guidance, or teaching or safe havens. I’m glad for the love I had but the fact is, I never felt emotionally protected until I met Michael. And that was far from a parental relationship. On the other hand, on Mother’s Day, I heard from many of the bonus children I acquired from parenting my own kids. I have no doubts about my kids’ certainty that they were safe and cared for, and that their less fortunate pals felt some of that in our space too. They’re all in their 30’s and 40’s now. Time just whooshes along. Sometimes the tough parts of life that shape us yield unexpected benefits. So all in all, it was a happy Mother’s Day for me.
On Wednesday evening, I presented a history scholarship named for Michael to a graduating senior from the school where he enjoyed an impactful second career as US History and government teacher. After years as what we sardonically referred to as his position as a record magnate, actually a co-owner of a music store, that retail business was folding. He found his way to what ultimately was his destiny and vocation, teaching the subjects he loved so well. Also a public official for twenty years, he brought an interesting combination of talents and knowledge to his students and was almost instantly well-loved. When cancer forced his retirement, the scholarship was conceived and implemented, with him living long enough to see it awarded to talented students whose interests dovetailed with his, a lifelong focus on social justice and community activism. I had the pleasure of reading a wonderful essay on the history of white supremacy in this country whose author was this recipient of the scholarship. The next morning, that young woman’s mother contacted me to let me know how grateful she was for seeing her daughter honored. She said she was moved by my speech and wondered if I’d send her a copy to save for her kid. There are days in my life when I wonder if I’m still relevant in the world to anyone besides my family. Today wasn’t one of those days. Another May thought.
The other May saga has been the story of my botched and expensive car repair. After my vehicle was seemingly possessed by strange forces which caused lights and warning signals to flicker and my horn to honk by itself, I looked up the symptoms and landed on a moderately priced part that appeared to need replacement. The mechanics at the dealer however, where I went because the problem was electrical, disagreed with my diagnosis and instead, recommended some computer module that wound up costing over $700. On the day I got the car back, they recommended the repair I wanted in the first place. I knew immediately they were aware they’d fixed nothing. After driving the car for two days to confirm that fact, I let them replace the part I wanted, refusing to pay for the labor. But I still was annoyed. Instead of absorbing the financial loss, I called the service manager this morning and pled my case. To my amazement be concurred with me and voluntarily offered me a refund for that unnecessary repair. At another point in time, I might have just felt disgruntled and done nothing. But not this May. Sometimes you can get more done than you expect.
I still have my birthday ahead of me and the sixth anniversary of Michael’s death, which still seems impossible to believe. But I can already tell that those days won’t be terrible. At this point, as long as I’m still healthy with a working brain, the birthday doesn’t matter. And on the death day, I’m going to be in Michigan, in the place which holds about a million happy memories for me with Michael. My whole family will be together to remember him which can only be a good thing. Times do change after all, which is how I want to live the rest of my life, evolving, instead of being stuck in one old place. My absent people will be with me forever on my journey through the Mays I still have coming. Of that, I am certain.
I still think of the following line on a regular basis. Sometimes it’s not the great philosophers whose quotes stay with you. Instead it’s the movie writers.