Birthday Boy

Michael’s birthday is the last significant anniversary that ends a tough stretch of emotional hurdles for me that begins every May 1st, on our wedding anniversary. I wrote this post back in 2018, a year after Michael’s death. This year will be the seventh birthday since his untimely death at age 67. My tall broad shouldered husband could look quite intimidating, which was a great cover for a tender, sensitive person who cried when he accidentally broke a robin’s egg, stuck a stillborn puppy in his mouth in a futile effort at resuscitation, and was a sucker for sappy romances. Here’s his backstory. Happy birthday, baby.

When you stop to think about it, birthday celebrations are a bit odd. Although somewhere deep in our brains, the passage from our mothers into the outside world is probably recorded, we don’t have easy access to that memorable entrance. In fact, most of us remember little from the first few years of life. And yet it seems to me that our earliest years are deeply significant, combining whatever is hardwired into our DNA, with the effects of how we are treated by our parents or caregivers. My own children, now in their thirties, routinely exhibit behaviors that are virtually the same as the ones from their babyhood. We are always growing, even during infancy, and by the time we are about five, certain basic feelings are locked into us, whether we can recall how they got there or not.
Today is Michael’s birthday, the second one since his death. This day finishes off the long list of anniversaries that punctuate my month of May. Father’s Day will be more challenging for my kids than for me. But his birthdate resonates with me. As I remember the many birthdays we spent together, I find myself thinking more about the little boy who was formed before I showed up. And that little boy was always present throughout our adult life, on birthdays and all other days, as we maneuvered our way through life and its multitude of challenges.
Michael’s parents were difficult people, hardly the types that were suited for nurturing children. They give credence to the concept of licensing couples before they reproduce. So much heartache could be avoided that way. But that isn’t likely to materialize any time soon. And for my sweet guy, he seemed like an alien, a mutant creature in the cold, insensitive environment that was his home life.

Michael had an older sister. Rather than beloved children, I felt they were essentially perceived as two-dimensional objects. I think their parents didn’t spend much time learning to know or to help their kids. Rather, they hoped their children would grow up to reflect their own very clear values and choices, to become mini-versions of themselves. Their parental love was narcissistic. And putting a child’s needs ahead of their own was never part of their family code.

Michael’s earliest memory was from the vantage point of a 2 and a-half year old with pneumonia who’d been admitted to the hospital. His parents left him there by himself. He woke in the night and began wandering around, confused. The staff wound up putting him in restraints which he remembered for the rest of his life. Another one of his vivid memories was being a 5 year old child in Cleveland, who needed speech therapy to correct a lisp. He took the trolley by himself to his lessons, with a note pinned to his coat, detailing his personal information in case he got lost. As a parent, I always found those two stories incomprehensible. Actually, they were incomprehensible before I was a parent.

Michael told me that he’d actually escaped the worst of his parents’ attentions, which were initially aimed at his sister in a full-court press attempt to turn her into a stylish debutante. She had the wrong stuff. Michael did too. Both of them recognized from their earliest years that they were lacking whatever it was their parents wanted to see in them. And whatever was intrinsic to them didn’t resonate with their parents. Their most essential selves were unseen, not acknowledged, unvalued. That uncertain boy, lacking in confidence and self-deprecating to an absurd degree, came to me packaged as a strong, daring, talented man who seemed capable of anything. And he was sweet, perceptive and gentle. What could possibly go wrong? As we learned to know each other, I learned that boyish uncertainty which was constantly gnawing at him. While I pushed forward, certain there was no situation I couldn’t think my way through, Michael hung back, passive and nervous about putting himself out there, about taking emotional risks or intellectual challenges. He’d jump from a cliff, ride a motorcycle without a helmet and hop rollercoasters until his head spun. But he moved slowly and cautiously in the things that mattered most in the real life. As we made our way down the road, navigating the proverbial “rat race,” I could be found stamping my feet at the finish line, waiting for him to catch up. One of his favorite questions for me was, “would you mind removing your feet from my back?” Our differences in pace were memorable, me trying to yank him forward, and him, trying to hold his own space. Life was interesting indeed.

I tried to love him out of every insecurity that had taken root in him from the beginning of his life. He was intermittently grateful and annoyed. And I, despite being frequently frustrated, was madly in love with this sweet, gifted man who’d been unfairly treated by those dreadful parents. After a long run of twenty years, during which they heaped their abusive style on me, I divested myself of my relationship with them. I’d had enough, trying to help him maintain the hollow shell of a familial relationship. I couldn’t stand who they were, nor the damage they’d done to Michael. What kids will tolerate from their abusive parents is remarkable. But they weren’t my parents. I walked away. Michael said he didn’t blame me and had our situations been reversed, he wouldn’t have lasted six months.

Michael and I moved forward together. In time, his confidence grew as he began to build first, small personal successes, and eventually, the bigger ones that made him a fabulous public servant and a gifted teacher. And most important, he was a matchless husband and a devoted loving father.

But periodically, the childhood demons emerged and he felt less than, not good enough. Over and over, throughout our years together, he’d ask, why are you even with me? It drove me crazy.

In 2012 we began the long road of his cancer experience. Many of the trivialities we indulged in during normal life, were shunted off to the side as we faced months of tough treatment and uncertainty. Our feelings for each other deepened in intensity as we reveled in every moment we shared. Still, he would ask me why I bothered with him, when he could be so difficult. In 2014, he’d been through 2 surgeries, 30 radiation treatments and 18 rounds of a powerful chemo cocktail. His birthday that year had us hanging on the edge of an uncertain future. I was casting about for an appropriate gift and fretting over finding something meaningful, something significant.

In the end, I wrote him what I hoped would be the penultimate answer to his endless insecure questioning of my loyalty to him. The ultimate I would save for what was our fragile future. We were lucky to get almost three more years. Here it is, as true for me today as it was when I wrote it 4 years ago, as true as it was for the many years before I wrote it, and as true as it will be forever. Happy birthday, my darling boy, wherever you, or your microbes, or particulates may be floating through the universe. Parts of you will always be with me.

Because you never tried to change me.
Because you were never threatened by my intelligence.
Because you always made me feel like I could do anything.
Because you forced me to do things I didn’t think I could do.
Because you stood up for me.
Because you always played on my team.
Because you made me feel beautiful, no matter what.
Because you are a gorgeous, sexy beast.
Because you listened.
Because you heard me when I wasn’t talking.
Because you are my best friend.
Because you make me feel safe.
Because you’re funny.
Because you’re smart.
Because we made unbelievable children together.
Because you stayed hot for me our entire life together.
Because you tried to be a hero.
Because you know what’s fair and right.
Because you’d go to the wall for me.
Because we understand the world in the same way.
Because you love books and movies.
Because you’re a sap.
Because you make me crazy.
Because you’re my home.
Because you’re my best fit.
Because you hold my heart.
Because you are my always and forever.
That’s why.

6/5/14 – Happy birthday – With all my love, Renee

Six Years Gone – Still Feels Impossible

Michael and me – 1976 – five years into our relationship and just married.

I just came back from a weekend away with my family. We spent our time at the beautiful stretch of beach on Lake Michigan. This particular gem was a getaway spot for twenty-five years of family vacations, sometimes for all of us, or some of us, or just Michael and me. After Michael died six years ago, I wasn’t sure I could go back there. I was afraid of being in that amazing relaxation-inducing environment where we virtually never had a bad time, certain that I’d be overwhelmed with grief. But after a couple of years passed, I missed my time there. After my son and I tested both the physical and emotional waters on a one day excursion, and found I did well, we resumed making our annual trip which now includes sharing memories of Michael as well as making new ones.


I think the general consensus about this weekend was that everyone had a wonderful time. We mostly sat on the beach. A number of us collected rocks washed up on the shore. There was frisbee tossing and volleyball, fishing and painting, reading and napping. And plenty of eating and snacking. We played Scrabble but never got around to the card games, especially Spades, that were always part of our past family trips. The thing is, back then we were a foursome, two sets of partners. So far, we haven’t found our replacement fourth. Maybe someday. We toasted Michael. At one point, I sat on the long front porch with my kids and my sister where we shared some laughs, remembering all the funny Michael quotes which always made us smile. A quirky, funny, quippy guy.

But of course we all have our private moments. My kids experience their own unique sadness. I remember how I felt as a young mother, the pangs of regret I had that my dad, who died in his sixties like Michael, never got to see all those normal but wonderful times with my kids, who now barely remember him. Our oldest grandson, my daughter’s child, has some dim memories of Michael. There are certainly more photos and videos of him than there were of my dad, thanks to the technology of our time. But Michael never met our only granddaughter nor my son’s wife. And both my kids were deprived of the years they thought they’d have with their dad, son of those people who lived into their nineties. The other day I asked my daughter if she had any regrets about choosing to pursue her career in her hometown. She told me, “not a single one – except that dad died instead of being here with the rest of us.” I think that’s always true for both my kids, the constant awareness of the empty spot where Michael will always belong, especially during family events.

Michael and our kids, during his last remission.

And then there’s me. During the past six years, I’ve made the adjustments to being on my own, the ones required in order to lead the best version of whatever time is left on my dance card. Michael loved being alive and wanted desperately to stay that way. I would never want to squander even a day, if for no other reason than it would dishonor his memory. But I’m also still energetic and interested in the world, still motivated when I wake up in the morning. What is also true is that I remain uninterested in any further partnership. I am still with Michael which was unexpected, peculiar and endlessly fascinating to me. My invisible companion. For the most part, my days are now calm, the outbursts of powerful grief having lessened over the years, now the rare surprise rather than the norm. I’m not the least bit embarrassed to state that I talk to him, in my head and sometimes aloud, during the course of my days. I think I told Michael almost every thought I ever had, which few exceptions, for almost 46 years. When he left his business to become a teacher, I think the hard part for me was that I couldn’t call him half a dozen times a day to share some idea that crossed my mind.

On Sunday morning, the actual anniversary of his death which also occurred on a Sunday, I woke at the exact moment that he breathed his last, in the quiet of our house. Initially, I felt fine. But then I saw a text message from one of his close colleagues and friends, telling me that he knew how hard these days were, which instantly triggered one of those powerful grief surges that always stuns me. I hadn’t experienced one in awhile so apparently I needed a longer than average release. I joined my family, already downstairs eating in the dining room at the inn and didn’t hold back as I sometimes do. I want to be myself at this point in my life, even though I hate crying and always have. But it stopped eventually and we all went off to the beach to enjoy the day.

I looked out at the gorgeous lake, still marveling, as I often do, about the powerful connection that I continue to feel for Michael now. I’ve never been able to adequately explain the intense, immediate connection we made the night we met. Back then we became instant best friends, each of us romantically involved with other people, but drawn to each other almost all the time anyway. I can feel that mad electricity when his misplaced kiss grazed the corner of my mouth, months into our friendship. Not long after that, I realized that something magical was happening and nine months later, at age twenty, I moved in with Michael to finally begin our lifelong romance. I’ll always be glad that our deep friendship came first.

So on I go, or we go, in this mostly normal, but also strange abstract way. As long as I’m able to think and able to feel, I guess I’ll be like this until I’m gone. I can’t believe six years have passed. My mom lived for twenty-five years after my dad died, a fact which I’m not eager to repeat. Who knows what’s ahead? I didn’t expect the life I got. For now, I’m still here, trying to enjoy my world. For the past couple of days, I’ve been thinking about some quotes from “Love in the Time of Cholera,” a beautiful book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of my favorite writers. They resonated with me before Michael died and reflect my feelings even more now. I’ll end with them.

…The girl raised her eyes to see who was passing by the window, and that casual glance was the beginning of a cataclysm of love that still had not ended half a century later.

She was a ghost in a strange house that overnight had become immense and solitary and through which she wandered without purpose, asking herself in anguish which one of them was deader: the man who had died or the woman he had left behind.


When nothing is working.

I’ve been struggling with a dreadful case of writer’s block. I’m in the midst of four different blogposts right now. I write a few lines and hit the wall with all of them. One of them is about what Michael and I learned about doctors while going through his five years of cancer and treatments. I really want to finish it because I think what I have to say would benefit others for whom the future may hold a similar experience. I can’t get there. Another focuses on more of the biographical and autobiographical information I hope to share with my family and their families, the lore they might forget, the lore they’ve yet to know. Michael had a full outline for his autobiography which he was never able to start. During the last part of his life, I interviewed him and got him to tell me some of his stories so that they’d never be lost. I was amazed to learn that there were some things I didn’t know, surprising because we’d talked to each other about so much during our life together. I knew that he had a few special words that he kept to himself – he was afraid I’d co-opt them and incorporate them into my daily jargon as I was wont to do. I want to finish that one, too. Then there’s the one about all the different places we lived, photos included, that’s supposed to provide a(n) (I hate “an” in front of “h” even if it’s correct) historical timeline of the most interesting events that happened while living in each house.

One of our many rental houses, back in 1974.
Our house back in 1980, two years after we bought it.
Still here, decades later.

For a while when we were young, we moved almost every year. No wonder we stayed put in the house where our adult lives played out, the one where mine is still playing out. I want to finish that one. I really do. And then there’s this latest one, only a skeleton piece which has the miserable title, “Baby, We’re Not Going to Have Our Time.” On January 31st, 2017, lying in the emergency room, after his brain MRI results were given to us, that’s what Michael said to me. As tears poured out of us, we sat stunned by the diagnosis of carcinomatous meningitis, actually still Merkel cell cancer but unfamiliar to the radiologist because of its rarity. On Friday, January 28th, 2017, we’d been told that Michael’s scans were negative for disease. What an unimaginable adjustment we had to make, practically overnight. I have an angle on that story but the fact is, the combination of all these trains of thoughts, all the required words necessary to write anything cohesive and orderly has just gotten to be too much recently. I haven’t exactly figured out why, but I have some ideas.

Generally, I’d say that for as long as I can remember, I’ve believed that no matter how big the obstacle, how daunting the task, how overwhelming the situation, I’d always find a way to bull through, push past, climb over, slide around or, whatever you want to call the method, overcome anything. Maybe the outcome wouldn’t be perfect, but I’d find the way to twist the problem into something I could work with, could live with, could conquer. I think my bar in life may not be as high as that of some people. For me, it’s been about finding value in being who I am, rather than being what I do. I already know I could’ve done more in the measurable, external ways. I never had a vocation – I had a job. I was good at it. Had I solved some of my youthful problems with self-discipline and focus, I could’ve been more successful in a career. I’m ok with that. Money or the lack thereof, has always been a recurrent issue. I’m ok with that too. I figure, if money had been really important to Michael and me, we’d probably have done something more about it than we ever did. There were circumstances in our lives that, had we chosen differently, might have made things easier. But given the choice of alienating the people who might’ve made our lives more comfortable but were dreadful human beings, and keeping quiet about our feelings, we picked the alienating road. I’m alright with that too. We had no inheritance in our organization, not even from the sale of a parents’ house. The choices we make, are hopefully made with our eyes wide open. We made peace with that.

I’m pretty good with the “who I am” bit. I was a good daughter, a good wife, a good mom and a good friend. I’m also a good grandmother. I still am actively some of those things. I try to be a decent human being, on my terms defined by me. I’m hardly a saint. I’m a grudge holder and an unrelenting enemy, but not without reason. I always have a reason. Aside from that slightly vicious tendency, I think I meet my requirements for being a good person. When Michael’s cancer was forced on us, after the initial shock, I gathered myself as I always did, to find the pathway against this new obstacle in our life. I focused all my intellectual power on searching for a way to stop this disease from taking Michael’s life. I wasn’t delusional. I wasn’t positive there was anything to be done outside what the doctors told us. But I was also not constrained by the rules that govern the medical standards of care. Being unencumbered by rules allows for casting a wide net, no matter what the focus. That’s what I did and I was so driven that nothing stood out as an obstacle on this path. I learned to read scientific articles and taught myself everything I could about Michael’s cancer. I contacted specialists all over the country and convinced them to treat me as someone with ideas worth trying. While Michael focused on trying to be alive, I reached for every possible treatment that could possibly prolong his life. And all the efforts worked. He lived much longer than the initial few months prognosis. But in the end, Merkel cell cancer was the obstacle I couldn’t overcome. I’ve come to terms with that, for the most part. In my capacity as an advocate and caregiver, there were some walls too high for me to scale. Institutional rules and being powerless to control all the doctors blocked my efforts. I understand what happened but I’m still not at peace with some turns in our road. I’m still mad. I’m still grieving. I still want Michael to be alive. But I don’t grapple with these feelings with the same intensity every day any more. I’ve adapted. I’m living a real life, a life in the present.

Virgil’s Aeneid: An Inside Look into Ancient Rome’s Greatest Epic Poem

I take classes and most recently delved into molecular biology, bees and jazz. I took a class on the Aeneid, a classic I missed back in the day. I’m teaching myself about art, particularly the history of painting. I’ve discovered so many new-to-me artists. I do love that. I swim four to five times a week and walk on the days that I don’t. I have art projects, knitting projects and am an avid gardener. I’m engaged with my family and friends. I’m concerned about politics and the state of the world. I worry about climate change. So far, snow still falls. At the end of these musings there’s a bottom line. Michael’s absence has sucked away the quiet joy which was part of my everyday life. His steady presence, love and understanding provided my anchor to this life. I will always long for that. But there is my writing, my other longtime anchor which is just about me. When it becomes a challenging task, life is harder. Thoughts flit through my head. Sometimes they feel random and disconnected. I can be distracted. Sometimes I censor myself which is something I promised myself I wouldn’t do when writing my blog. I try to remember I’m writing for me. I want to do whatever I please right now. I want to ignore all the writing rules and forget worrying about other people’s opinions and judgments. I just want to let loose what drifts through my head during those days when words fail. On occasion, there are moments when doing laundry and washing dishes seem like huge victories. Grief rears its head, reminding me I’m on my own unpredictable timetable. So here’s what I’m going to do now. I’m going to bust through this writer’s block. I’m just going to let myself wander and meander a bit, writing what comes along until I get over this big bump, recording my thoughts no particular order.


1) I want to taste my mother’s specialties. She gave up cooking after my dad died. In a way, it felt like being orphaned. I want her stuffed cabbage and her sweet and sour cabbage soup. I want her fricassee, so spicy and delicious – I want to dip hunks of yellow challah into its thin, tangy juices. I want her impossibly melty chocolate cake with the citrus-y frosting that was a balance for the sweetness. And to devour her sponge cake which had coffee in it and stood six inches tall. I want her lemon meringue pie. I’ll always want those special dishes that were comfort food.

2) I can see myself at my grandmother’s white table with the porcelain top, blue vines painted on the sides, eating chunks of rye bread topped with apricot preserves, cantaloupe slices on the side. I hear her asking me to bring her a piece of bread in her thick Polish accent. I remember her calling prescriptions descriptions and how she loved to look at pictures of sexy baseball players. I feel pangs of sadness as I can still see the pieces of paper on her dining room table which were covered with her careful renderings of the alphabet. I can’t believe she was illiterate. I’ve never been able to understand that tragedy for this highly intelligent woman. Misogyny in action.

3) “I’m gonna fix his clock.” That is one of the ridiculous phrases my father said when he put on his menacing act. He was not wholly without courage. But as I grew from a child to an adult, I thought he was mostly blowing hot air when he blustered. Internally, he was leading a fearful little boy life, brought on by the death of his dad when he was only eight years old. Ironically, my mom, who seemed afraid of so many things, turned out to be the brave one. Anyway. On our first wedding anniversary I gave Michael a chiming Seth Thomas clock. It stopped working years ago. I just had it repaired after decades of its silence. I fixed his clock. Oh, dad.

4) Random commercials pop up my mind. I don’t know why. The jingles that are tucked into some memory groove in my brain pop out randomly . Today I heard “there’s something about an Aqua Velva man.” Where did that come from? My dad and Michael both used Old Spice. “Old Spice means quality, said the captain to the bosun. Ask for the package with the ship that sails the ocean. Fresh as the sea, yo-ho, yo-ho.” Well, I said I was going to just let it all out.

5) I think of Albert now and then. My first true love. Every time I hear Your Song by Elton John I remember how terrible I felt when he told me that song reminded him of me. The trouble was, I had it confused with Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind,” which was about a doomed relationship. I wallowed in despair until I figured out the mistake. I never got a chance to feel happy about it until after we were finished. By the time I’d sorted out the mixup we’d broken up and gotten back together about half a dozen times. My innocence and trust were trashed by that relationship. In the end I think I returned the trashing favor. He came back for me a few years after our last breakup, matured and ready for commitment. I’d burnt my bridges and was already in love with Michael. But I can still remember the last time Albert and I made love, in a house remembered locally for its architecture. I certainly didn’t know that at the time. We were so terribly young. I tried to communicate with him a few times in recent years. Fifty years later, he refuses to speak with me. I’ll never know why. We both went off and lived our lives. He was a success, at least from what I’ve gleaned from the internet. At my 50th high school reunion, most people were just happy to see that many of us were still alive. I thought he might feel that way. We shared something real and powerful. Timing is indeed everything. At one point we both thought we’d wind up married to each other. Two ships passing and all that other trite stuff, I guess. I have a couple of his highly entertaining pieces of writing about our relationship. One was a fable about Stormy and Little Chicken. No doubt who was who – I was Stormy, the wild horse with eyes that alternately flashed and then went tender. He was poor Little Chicken. The humor and fear still resonate. Then there’s the one about the phony science experiment which measures the physiological reactions of its male and female subjects, two lovers who drive each other mad. They’re found dead in a lab, electrodes still attached, with cause of death measured in extremes of love and torture. Still priceless. I’d love to share those with him. But he’s closed that door and won’t look back. I can’t understand why but I guess it’s evidence that I was powerfully loved more than once in my life. I know that makes me lucky although sometimes it’s easy to forget.

The cover of the original book I read.

6) I’m re-reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. I do it every ten years or so. I sink into it, like a comfortable friend. I love it as much today as when I read it the first time back in the ‘70’s when it was published.

7) I’m watching mostly period pieces on television. Most have historical foundations although there’s no pretense of adhering to truth. They have lush costumes, violence and lots of romantic, passionate sex. They have no relevance to current affairs. I’m amazed by this choice of escapism. I’ve never read a romance novel. Some of the shows are based on books I’ve walked past for my entire adult life. I think of myself as a practical realist. Michael was the romantic in our relationship. I guess I’m filling the void by loving what he’d love. It’s kind of like wearing one of his old t-shirts. Recently I had a photo of us from 1972 screened onto the front of a shirt. Doing it was fast and easy but I surprised myself. Another thing I couldn’t imagine myself doing. But I also got a tattoo to honor our relationship. Being unpredictable to myself is a good thing.

7) I’m lucky to be so close to my kids. They understand how I feel because they lived with their dad and me, and they felt the power of our relationship. They had their own intense feelings for him which they’ve been dealing with right alongside me. They think that my “golden years” pretty much suck. So they try to help. I’m a loyal Beatles fan. I had a pen pal from Liverpool when I was only twelve – I lived and breathed their music. I was lucky enough to see them perform at the Chicago Amphitheater when I was thirteen. In 1989, both my parents got cancer, Michael had a herniated disk and I was managing work, two kids and a lot of stress. My dad died in September of that year. In October, Paul McCartney was on tour and Michael got tickets for us through his record store. For some reason, I felt it would be disrespectful to go a rock concert so soon after my dad’s death. Over the years, it’s been one of the choices I regretted and I work hard to keep regret out of my life. A few years back, I saw that Paul was touring again. He’s getting old and I knew he couldn’t go on forever. I toyed with the idea of going to the closest venue, but opted out due to the expense and other plans I’d made for that year. And then, tickets magically showed up in my email, courtesy of my babies and which also included my son as my concert partner. Of course they’re grownups, but I’ll always think they’re my babies until my cognition vanishes. And I hope I’m gone by then. In the jumble of thoughts that are no coherent story, I’ll end with that vignette. One regret was erased forever. I’ll take that with gratitude. Perhaps my next foray into writer world be more focused than this one.

Talking to Myself

My favorite place for walking in my town.

I live in a place that has plenty of green space. Where I spent most of my early years, I lived in a brick and mortar neighborhood, surrounded by three story apartment buildings and narrow gangways, (what we Chicagoans called the slim concrete sidewalks between the apartment houses.) Of all the parks in my town, this arboretum is my favorite spot for walking. Being outside amidst all the lush beauty relaxes me. All I have to do is walk and look around. For a short time in my day, I have no chores and no obligations. Thoughts flow in and out of my mind. Mostly I take no notice of them. Often I’m marveling at the diversity of the plants, the tree bark, the birds, the animals or the insects, all part of the surrounding landscape. But sometimes I pay a bit more attention to what pops up in my head, both the mundane musings and the unusual ones that alternate in no particular order. Little conversations with myself. Today I decided to take note of a few. This particular week encompasses my birthday and the sixth anniversary of Michael’s death. Seems unimaginable. Six years ago I was approaching my birthday in terror, terror that he would die on my birthday, forever shrouding what should be a celebratory time with unending grief. He hung on for four more days after my day. I thought that was so generous of him although in reality, he’d lost track of norms like the calendar. I choose to believe that somewhere inside him he held off dying on my birthday with intention. I know he would have wanted to, although he was struggled. One day in the midst of his blurry decline, he told me that he was trying very hard to focus on me though he was thinking mostly of himself, trying to comprehend the impossible knowledge that he was going to die. I am thinking about our talks from that time as I stroll along. I wonder if I’ll ever forget any of those moments.

I’m wondering about my ability to easily shed people. Way back when I was seventeen and just out of high school, I remember planning how I was going to begin cutting away relationships that felt empty or worse than that. I couldn’t stand the ones that made me feel like I was pouring myself out but never getting anything filling in return. I started practicing “relationship pruning” with gusto when I began college. I was in a sorority in high school. I hated the idea of exclusive clubs but I did it anyway, to survive in my culture. One of the initial activities that happened on my campus that first fall was sorority rush. I think almost everyone I knew from back home was going through it. Even Fern. Not me. I was done with all that, being “clubby.” I was off on my own road with myself. I got better at being alone with practice. I think that’s how I’ve survived Michael’s death so well. Sometimes I went against my better judgment and delayed what my friend Joanne and I called “the elimination.” Usually that was for the wrong reasons, most of which were influences from other people who thought I should stop pushing people away. Not any more. I’ve had a harder time shedding things like books and scraps of paper during my efforts at downsizing than people. I wonder if this trait is my gift or my tragic flaw? Both? That Michael. He was much more tolerant than me.

I wonder how turtles, sunning themselves on a log, are so tuned in to people sneaking up to get a good look at them. Before I can get a decent photo, they’ve slid into the water. Chipmunks are way faster than squirrels. And it’s a lot easier to get a good photo of a robin than a red winged blackbird.

Despite the fact that I didn’t feel adequately parented by mom and dad, I never had any other adult figures who filled their shoes. When I was a kid, I really admired the aunt who lived closest to us in Chicago. She was a teacher and she knew things that I knew my parents did not. About classical music and literature, for example. But she was married to my mom’s youngest brother and when mental illness asserted itself in her life, she eventually disappeared from my practical reality. I did get to see her once more after many years, sadly at the funeral of my cousin. I always thought of her and remembered her with love. But she was never a mother figure to me. And there was no one even close to being a dad figure besides my own. He was someone whose early life left him emotionally stilted. But he taught me a lot. I still here his voice and mom’s too. As I walk down these paths…

My skin literally crawls when I hear people refer to either themselves or their partners as their “better halves.” Is that supposed to be a message about how close they are? The idea of ever being half of myself is repugnant to me. I think I had an amazing partnership with my husband. Neither one of us felt like the other was a missing half that made us one whole. We were wholly our own full persons. How did that concept become popular? Blech.

I’m really glad that the seventh season of Outlander will be starting in a couple of weeks. Years ago when I first started watching the series, I found it too far-fetched and uninteresting. But long nights on my own and a lifelong obsession with period pieces made me give it a second try which finally hooked me. The real draw is the Jamie Fraser character who with his long shaggy red hair and ridiculously heroic character reminds me so much of Michael in our early years. In any case, because of pandemic delays, the season has 16 episodes which I am really looking forward to watching. I’ve often wondered about whether I’d live long enough to finish my favorite shows. A bit maudlin I know, but those thoughts appear more frequently in the head as the finish line of life gets increasingly closer.

I really miss Roger Federer. He still has a significant social media presence because of his far-flung business and charitable interests. But I miss watching him play. I miss having someone to root for. I still watch a lot of tennis. I admire a number of players. But no one has inspired me. Before Roger came along all those years ago, I was a Bjorn Borg fan and a Pete Sampras fan, with a few other players I enjoyed watching. So far there’s no one who inspires me now which is unfortunate. In these times it would be nice to have a nice inspirational distraction. I guess I’ll see if that part of my life is over. The French Open is coming soon.

I’ve been listening obsessively to John Cale’s album, “Fragments of a Rainy Season,” released in 1992. A live album, a compilation of performances actually, it’s always moved me. Him and a piano. Sometimes you forget about what you loved. Finding whatever that was again is always such a treat. I feel the same way about coming upon candy from my childhood. Tasting it again is just so sweet. Last month, Elisabeth stopped at a gas station and saw a package of Chuckles, one of my childhood favorites. She brought it to me. I wished she’d bought all of them. But maybe not.

No one talked to me about having a powerful sex drive in their seventies. Mom always said she’d be happy just holding hands with dad who was dead at 67. Who am I to talk? I’m stuck with all this energy but I don’t want to be with anyone but Michael. Is this a first world problem?

We haven’t had enough rain this spring, just like last year? Will everything around me be desert someday? Who knows? I’m glad I won’t be around to see it or feel it. I thought my body would stop sweating so much when I got older. Alas. I wouldn’t want to live on some boiling anvil. Meanwhile I’m watering every day. But not the grass.

I try to keep thoughts of creeping fascism and book banning and the oppression of women and minorities absent from my head when I’m here walking. Many of my friends say they’ve tuned out to survive the madness. I can’t do that. Except for a while when I’m here. I’m a sucker for a cloud’s reflection on the water. Just hanging out. Talking to myself.

May Thoughts, Big and Little

Lilac bush in the front yard.

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.

Lilies of the valley line my sidewalk.
Peonies in the front garden.

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.”

The site of the “pool lesson. “

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.

Michael still swimming together even in the midst of his chemotherapy.

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.

The driveway peonies which evoke miracle stories.

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.

The arboretum
The arboretum

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.

Me with mom and dad.

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.

Presenting the scholarship named for Michael.

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.

My 2003 Honda

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.

Me, then and now.

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.


My dad in hospice at home, talking to my daughter – September, 1989

The other day I received a telephone call from Carol, the hospice nurse who was assigned to Michael’s case in May, 2017. Michael wasn’t in hospice for very long, just about eleven days. During that brief time, I developed a fairly intimate relationship with Carol, who entered our lives at that impossible moment when a family has resigned itself to the fact that the death of their loved one is imminent. That she still calls me to chat is one of the unexpected positive byproducts of that fraught experience. Carol’s call brought back lots of memories to me. Michael’s last days weren’t my first experience with hospice. Back in 1989, after only a three month wrangle with bladder cancer metastatic to bone, my dad entered hospice for his last few weeks of life. At the time I was thirty eight years old, reeling from the fact that both my parents had been diagnosed with cancers within five weeks of each other. My mom, always the less healthy one, survived this cancer, her second one, and lived for another twenty-five years. My dad couldn’t tolerate his treatment and after only one round of chemotherapy, and despite the fact that the cancer hadn’t spread, opted out of life, asked that his funeral arrangements be made and went home to die.

My mom after her cancer surgery, 1989.

I don’t think anyone in our family had realistic ideas about the practical aspects of hospice. The departure from active participation in trying to stay alive meant that life would go forward in my parents’ home without any further doctors’ appointments or visits to the hospital. A nurse would visit every few days to take vital signs, answer questions and provide medication we could administer for comfort care. The nurse was a liaison between the formal medical setting and our family. The professionals were still out there but we were in charge. Despite knowing that the daily decisions about meds, food and everything else would be the family’s responsibility, the actuality of adapting to that total caregiver role was really overwhelming for my mom. For me and my younger sister too, the siblings who lived nearby. I had a job, two young kids and a husband, who in the midst of my parents’ issues, was recovering from a siege with a herniated disk and ultimately, a back surgery.

My younger sister and me with dad.

The first few weeks of dad’s hospice time were relatively uneventful and my mom was able to manage their situation with support from me and my sister. But then dad’s pain medication made him groggy in addition to suppressing his appetite. The weakness that set in as he detached from nourishment eventually changed his status from mobile to bedridden. Next came a commode which ultimately would be followed by diapers and a catheter. A fall which required me to tear out of work in order to help my mom get my dad off the floor, was the catalyst for moving a hospital bed with guardrails into the spare bedroom. All these changes. The brief nurse visits could hardly prepare us for the devolution of dad from husband and father into a fragile, helpless person, soon to be wholly unmoored from the life that came before.

Dad and me, 1976.

Volunteers came to visit, to be helpful. For the most part these well-meaning people were not a great match for anyone in our family. No screening was involved to determine whether they shared values and beliefs similar to ours. As a result, we experienced friction and alienation at a challenging time. An aide whose job was to provide bed bathing and general hygiene service, shaved my dad’s mustache off before we had a chance to tell her that he’d had one for the majority of his adult life. What an alienating moment for us, although his body grew that hair back before he died. Ultimately we opted out of visits from the hospice staff, choosing instead to only be alienated from each other. I write that with irony. Each of us family members brought our own ideas and emotions to helping care for dad. Despite our common background, we didn’t always agree on the way things should go. Our individual paces for adjustment were highlighted in a time like no other in our past experiences as a family. I can still recall making the leap from the normal boundaries between daughter and father to suddenly changing his diaper as if he was an infant. I remember thinking that the shock of a sudden death did not make the same demands on a person as having a loved one in hospice care does. Some people will never know the psychological permutations we had to make during those weeks. At one point my mom wanted to take my dad to the hospital. Reminding her that would violate his wishes changed her mind but the truth is, his hospice enrollment had removed that option anyway. She was simply too overwhelmed to remember that. When I became a parent I crossed from one type of adulthood into another – when I cared for my father’s body, while advising my mother, I went further into grownup life than what my parenthood had required of me. My siblings had their own version of these startling changes, bringing their personal spins to each challenge. We made it through everything, up to and including dad’s death. But hospice wasn’t simple nor was it really peaceful until the very end of dad’s life.

Dad and me in better times.

When Michael’s turn for hospice arrived twenty eight years later, I was obviously marginally more prepared than I’d been during my caregiver time with my dad. My mom’s physical and emotional limitations required me to do a level of caregiving with dad which I desperately wanted to spare my own children. For the most part I was able to manage that, mainly because I’d had considerable practice at maintaining the parent/child boundaries that had crumbled in my family of origin when I was only a teenager. I didn’t spend a lot of time bemoaning my early responsibilities. I just didn’t want my kids to repeat my experience in their lives.

Shortly before hospice – Michael with Rosie, his beloved cocker spaniel. She would be farmed out to friends for awhile when taking care of Michael consumed all my time.

Michael had been in remission for over a year when he suddenly began exhibiting confusing behavior. After a month of negative CT scans we finally were able to get a brain MRI which showed widespread cancer throughout his brain tissue. With only a few weeks’ life expectancy, his drive for life was so powerful that he underwent whole brain radiation. We spent almost 5 weeks in the hospital, from February to early March, 2017, before finally being able to go home. He was never fully himself again, alternating between short periods of lucidity, confusion and forgetfulness. Amazingly he regained some physical strength during April but the the cancer rollback from the radiation was brief with a steep decline on all fronts beginning in May. As days passed, life grew more challenging as both his cognitive and physical skills declined. All these changes spooled out between visits from home health care personnel, still drawing blood, taking vitals and encouraging physical therapy. Still a very tall and heavy person, Michael became more and more difficult for me to manage. Making the decision to enter him into hospice was particularly hard as he still maintained a deep desire to survive, coupled with an inability to retain understanding about the severity of his situation. Watching the person you love best disappearing in front of you is deeply eroding. After spending decades as partners in planning, having to make that choice was incredibly painful for me. But finally I did it.

Before Michael’s steep decline, a bit of time with our oldest grandson.

May 17th, 2017 – It’s not every day that you sign your husband up for hospice. No more doctor’s appointments. No ER. No more bloodwork. No more home health visits. Just watching and waiting for death to come.

At home in hospice. Michael’s hair never grew back after whole brain radiation.

When Carol the hospice nurse came to introduce herself and drop off supplies and medication, she talked with Michael and me together, and then to me alone. She’d quickly assessed our situation, giving me helpful guidance about deciding when and how to proceed with medication which might keep Michael calm and relaxed. The first days of that time were still hugely difficult. Trying to keep Michael safe and comfortable was a 24 hour job until the time came when he was no longer mobile. He continued to attempt behaviors his body and mind were not capable of performing. I was frightened a lot of the time. My kids came to stay with me round the clock for the last days of Michael’s life. I was able to keep them from having to parent their dad, but rather to love and grieve him as his children which was so important to me. By the time he died, I was beyond mental fatigue and utterly physically drained. We all felt that Michael never made peace with dying so those beautiful moments we’ve all seen dramatized in movies weren’t part of our hospice experience. On the day Michael died, Carol wasn’t the nurse on call, but she showed up anyway, informed by her coworker that Michael had passed. Although I have no military experience, I imagine that the bonds forged under fire must be similar to what happened with Carol and me during this end of life process. Her popping up in my life throughout these last six years is, I guess, a testimony to that connection. I haven’t sat back to relive those days in awhile. After getting these thoughts out I’m again going to set it aside. Those memories are never leaving me.