The Real Magic Mike

D108CDF2-7C9E-4CE9-8930-227F5BFFAD29Michael died 422 days ago. That’s only 2.65% of the 16,425 days we lived together. Apparently at about 365 days, the grieving partner is supposed to have recovered to the point at which, along with participation in normal life, the capacity for joy returns. I guess I’m an underachiever.

The truth is, this second year feels harder than the first. The fatigue, the shock, all the activity associated with a life’s end takes up a lot of time. I’ve been incredibly busy since Michael died. My lists remain undone at the end of each day. Always more to do. The legal business is done. I threw a big bash to celebrate the rich, complex life Michael lived. Now I’m deeply involved in planning my 50th high school reunion. Those are the objective realities. I’ve taken classes, traveled by myself, created art and started a grief support group. In certain ways I’m the poster child for the median time for societal standards of recovery from grief. E9815038-0FD6-4EEC-B7C8-869E13DD6FD0

But what is actually of note is that none of these activities has allayed the deep pain I feel.  The novelty of Michael’s absence is so over for me. I’m done with it. I’ve proven that I can deal with it. Check. Now, I’d like him back. Right away. Yesterday. A pretty unreasonable stance, I know. I still can’t believe I don’t get to see him or speak with him again. One more hug. C1A77B7A-F97F-443D-B141-25A67DB267A2

By this time, most people who are still partnered up have stopped thinking about what daily life is like for me. Adapting and moving on is what’s supposed to happen. I appear to have done that. I’m doing life, too, just like them. But the crushing empty space where Michael is supposed to be is always right in my face and on my mind. A constant awareness. I’m not prostrated by grief every day and I’m not crying all the time. Still, the ache is always present, and no amount of my letter writing or my occasional good dreams can fill that chasm. A0C86F0F-8515-4EF7-96ED-568402CDD859

I try to think about the future. Michael and I had time to discuss what might happen to me. He wanted me to be happy. He wanted me to share my energy with someone, to not be lonely. As I listened to him, he knew I was looking at him in disbelief. Another intimate relationship for me? Unimaginable.1116FA33-3636-4869-8CA4-22204EBDC461 

So what about this guy has blotted out all thoughts of another companion? I know plenty of people who find a new person to be with, perhaps not with the same feelings, but still, someone to share the rest of what’s ahead in life. The thought of that is alien to me and completely undesirable. I never think about it. Why? I am fixated on my husband. Who was the real magic Mike? Why is his hold on me still enormous, his mystical presence so powerful for me? I remain very married. 75E52488-0C48-4EDD-A799-C0B02720F1AC

I knew the first day I met Michael in 1971 that something big had happened to me. That was most interesting because at the time I was madly in love with my first real deal, Al. The guy who made mincemeat out of my heart and reduced me to a neurotic, sniveling mess for a few years. When I read my journals from the years we spent together, I feel humiliated and barely recognize myself. I was very young and didn’t have the strength to divest myself of what in retrospect, was a toxic, immature relationship.45CF4C15-D952-41E2-96DE-2022569007FF

I think I was always looking for big love, even as a kid. Though my parents led far from a perfect life, their obvious passion and support for each other became my role model. I looked around the world of the late 60’s and chose to be very cautious in my personal life. I didn’t want to make a mess and I didn’t want to look back with regret on bad personal choices. So I was very careful before giving my heart away. I had high school boyfriends and one in particular that lasted through my freshman year of college. But that fizzled out. Those loves were baby steps. When I began my sophomore year, I was unattached, open and still pure, holding on to my virginity until I met the guy I was going to marry. I may have been the last innocent I knew in those years of “free love.” I was holding out for the brass ring. 9B3038B3-EA4F-4BCE-BFE8-79B878AF8520

I’d met Albert briefly at some street dance as a freshman. What I remembered most about him was that his dance technique mostly resembled the consequences of sticking your finger in an electric socket. I forgot about him. But in October of 1969, when I ran into him on the south portico of the student union where he sat strumming his guitar, I felt a spark. Through the next four months it was the classic spark turning to a flame. I was still holding onto myself with a significant amount of caution. On New Year’s Eve that year, when he brought me home from our evening out, he whispered, “Just for tonight, I love you.” Talk about a red flag. I should’ve run the other way immediately.

But I was dazzled by this guy, mostly by his oversized brain. He was incredibly bright and for the first time in my life,  I was with someone who didn’t find my intellectual ability intimidating. That’s not the same as liking it, however, but I didn’t understand that then. Ten months passed, many of them tempestuous. We argued a lot but I thought the up and back was worth it. True love. We would expand each other’s consciousness and grow. I thought I’d found my life partner. I was nineteen years old. Finally I felt ready to commit myself to this guy I figured I’d marry as soon as we were done with college. I was ready to take the big plunge. I had sex for the first time. Things didn’t get any calmer. I spent most of 1970 and 1971 in a devastating emotional ride of breakups and makeups. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t concentrate. I lived on one track, trying to keep my dream of being like my parents, one lover for life, alive. I disgusted myself.9C2F761F-E649-4E3D-AF6F-1C77F2DA2D54

           Interim boyfriend.

In 1971, I finally dated someone else besides Al. He didn’t like that much and we continued our torturous journey, splitting apart and rejoining. He had a lot of random encounters with women while I stayed as true to myself as I could, being with only one other person who I inadvertently tormented as my heart was always somewhere else. I still feel badly about that.  I never did “casual” very well. I always thought it was a superfluous waste of my time. 

I didn’t trust Al, ever. I knew that he wasn’t ready for what I wanted. He always told me that I functioned as if there was only the all or none hypothesis. I think he was right. I thought I could force him to be ready for a committed relationship which was a huge mistake. So I limped ahead with my self-esteem in shreds. I had trouble concentrating on school and was buffeted around by the swirl of unsettled feelings. 

I decided to focus on politics. I was active in the anti-war movement, the women’s movement, the civil rights movement. I made different friends. I wasn’t in the best mental shape but I wasn’t lying on the couch with the vapors, either.


In the summer of 1971, I was working, living in my college town and hanging out with people in the alternative community. I was invited to a wedding that August. The day before the wedding, I was at the home of some friends who had made the wedding cake. People were coming in and out to have a look at it. A couple walked in the front door, the man a very tall, thin person with auburn hair, a big red mustache and a beard. I was introduced to Michael for the first time. I’d heard of him before. He was infamous for tearing out the telephone system in his fraternity house after his “brothers” rigged a way to eavesdrop on a private conversation he was having with a girlfriend. He moved out of the fraternity shortly thereafter as his personality and that lifestyle were a mismatch. When I’d heard that story three years earlier, I’d pictured him as short, dark guy with glasses who’d been bullied as a kid and had developed a persona with an agitated affect. When this long, mellow string bean showed up, I remember laughing to myself about how wrong perceptions can be.



The next night, I attended the wedding which took place in the backyard of a rented sabbatical house. Hippie-esque was how I’d describe the vibe of the event. The bride wore a long dress and the groom a cotton shirt with needlework flowers and vines sewn on the neckline and cuffs. The parents and most of the guests were mostly obliterated from imbibing a variety of alcohol and drug offerings that were being passed around like hors d’oeuvres. I remember the bride eventually vomiting in the front yard and professing that she really didn’t like anyone at the event.

I actually felt pretty relaxed and glad I could enjoy myself during another of my Albert droughts. At one point, I wandered into the back yard where I saw a male friend and Michael lying on the grass, their heads resting on a log. There was a space between them that looked just right for me. So I went over and laid down between them. As we looked up at the stars there was silence. But it wasn’t particularly awkward silence. In my drug-induced haze, I felt like these two males, not well-versed in the art of communication were sending their positive connection through me. They clearly  weren’t skilled at verbalizing.  So as I am wont to do, I started talking for all of us. They didn’t seem to mind. And as we lay there, I remember feeling that Michael was emanating these inexplicable wonderful feelings toward me. I didn’t know him at all but he felt familiar, soothing. I generally operated at a pretty speedy high energy level as I still do. He felt slow and relaxing.  As I write this, I’m still at a loss as to how to describe this unusual interaction that was all sensation, a subversive current of non-verbal dialogue that warmed me in a way that was so different from anything I’d felt before. Eventually we all got up and mingled with the rest of the guests but Michael and I stayed near each other.554F7623-EFF0-4627-8DDE-8230D30262B5

His girlfriend became furious with him and grabbed his car keys and took off in a huff. We wound up staying at the event until dawn, helping the host clean up and eventually, heading toward our mutual friend Mark’s house. I was supposed to leave that day to visit my parents in Chicago and was getting my ride from him. When we showed up, Michael’s girlfriend stormed in and proceeded to lambast him for his behavior the night before amidst this small group of people. Michael sat silently on the floor with his knees drawn up and his arms folded across them. I felt badly for both of them and tried to do a little damage management and counseling which produced nothing but negative feelings. Finally, I said I was going to withdraw. I barely knew them.  The only word Michael uttered was, “don’t.” I packed up and went to Chicago for a few days. 

When I returned I called my friends and asked them how to get in touch with Michael. I called him and asked if he’d please come and visit me because I liked him so much without knowing anything substantive about him. He came to my house that day and without the blur of any mind-altering substances I felt the same way about him as I did on the night of the wedding.2C5891AA-CC45-4F35-BDEA-8F350823A6A1

We talked for hours. I told him all about Albert and my problems and he told me all about his. Our level of comfortability and intimacy was instantaneous. We were best friends. Just like that. We began to spend a lot of time together. 

Within a few weeks, Michael moved into an apartment down the block from the one I shared with my roommate. While I seesawed through my relationship with Al, he and I spent long hours together, talking, listening to music, or just lying around hugging each other in the most comforting way. After awhile, I started feeling confused about the ease with which we were building this incredibly close friendship. Was this just friendship? How could I be wondering when I was still so deeply in love with someone else? Someone who made me crazy but who was still my desired life partner?

I decided to tell Michael that I wasn’t exactly sure of what was happening between us. His interpretation of that comment was that I wanted him to disappear. After a week or so of his absence, I went to his apartment to ask why he’d vanished. His life experiences had made him develop a rabbit hole that he plunged into when he felt criticized or threatened. He was sensitive and insecure. I learned that pretty fast. After convincing him that he’d overreacted,  I invited him to my place for our first fire of the fall. We picked up where we’d left off, growing whatever this unusual, magical bond was between us. I managed to keep my questions to myself.

23627c5b-647d-4005-8c76-fd60130f9305.jpegFall turned to winter. To escape the emotional turbulence of my life, I planned to go off on a European adventure with two friends in January. I felt that as the end of college was approaching and my marriage wasn’t on the horizon, I needed distance and a change of scenery to help me figure out what to do next. Michael volunteered to care for my dog while I was gone. Shortly before I left town, we were standing in his kitchen, cleaning up after dinner, washing dishes, laughing and chatting. He bent down to kiss my cheek but I’d turned my head slightly and his mouth landed partially on the corner of mine. I still remember the hot current that ran through me, leaving me stunned. That was the closest thing to sexual contact that had passed between us in the 5 months we’d been spending time together. 

There wasn’t opportunity to think about it as I left for Chicago within a few days to be with my family before leaving the country. I wrote Michael a few letters in a short period because I missed talking to him. No cell phones in those days. Then the weekend before I was leaving, he showed up at my parents’ place for one last visit with him and my dog. It was a surprise visit. I was pretty overwhelmed by it and even more muddled as I continued to struggle with my feelings for Al.C48992B8-D203-44BD-8DA9-49A097C23598

My friends and I had arranged through a rental agency to drive a car to New Jersey and then hop to New York for our flight. I spent the many hours in the car, thinking as hard as I could about what was happening to me internally. I realized that what had evolved between Michael and me, the friendship, the trust and the comfort were really what love was, not the explosive fighting/breaking up/making up cycle I was in with Albert. I loved Al,  but his being so unprepared for what I wanted had splintered me and made me feel unsafe and paranoid. So unhealthy. We stopped in Philadelphia to visit an old friend and while there and at a safe distance, I called Michael. I confessed that I was pretty certain that I was in love with him. His response? “Far out!” And then I went on to New York, boarded a plane and left the country for almost 3 months. 38CB2D82-18F5-4F9C-86F2-42EB19706C59

I was gone, away from the turmoil. The feelings stuck. And they grew. I wrote Michael letters and postcards every day while I was gone. Being away and immersed in new cultural experiences was really good for me but I missed our conversations desperately. My friends thought I was barreling forward at a crazy pace but I was going with my gut. Every time we arrived at a major city, I ran to the local American Express office where I could receive international mail. When  his replies were waiting there, I was buoyant. He was the first person to ever send me a telegram. We weren’t exactly writing love letters. Both of us were nervous because of the bomb I’d dropped when I left. But our attachment was real. I did write some letters that I never mailed. I was afraid I’d scare Michael when I was writing my raw truths. But I saved them. The fact is, I have all of our letters and postcards from that spring of 1972. We both kept every letter or note that we wrote each other. 

So on it went. I still struggled with my emotions for Albert. I have a deeply loyal streak and what I felt for him was real. But his inability to handle us was wearing thin. And Michael was moving into the core of me. 

I returned from Europe in April. After spending some time with my family, I went back to Champaign to collect the pieces of my life and decide whether to stay there or return to Chicago. The first person I saw on campus was Al. Within a few hours, I was with him in his apartment. I went to visit Michael and my dog. We were warm to each other but holding back. It only took a few days before I realized that  Al was uncomfortable living as if we were a couple. He was going away to grad school in California in the fall and I could feel that he wanted to maintain his independence. I was done. I packed my suitcase and went over to Michael’s place. He asked what I was doing. I told him I was going to move into his apartment for awhile. He asked where I would sleep and I responded, “in your bed.” We’d never even shared a kiss. The first night we just lay together and talked like we always had and finally passed out. Our transition from friends to lovers happened the next day. We never lived apart after that. I was 20 and he was 22. 91DAA666-C1AA-4BB2-A97B-2B5DBC83A819

As time went by, the relationship deepened. Our friendship was our go-to place. I’d never trusted anyone the way I trusted Michael. He routinely put my needs ahead of his own. Although I was emotionally battered and frightened of being hurt, I slowly began to heal, piece by piece. Within a year I was able to tell him every dark secret of my life, all my guilt, all my shames, all my wrongs. It was like shoving boulders off my chest. Being next to him felt like being gently sedated while still conscious. I’d felt for years that I could spin off into the universe but he provided a gentle tether, like the string on a balloon. He was magical. I used to imagine a zipper in his chest that I could pull down so I could slip myself inside him to be surrounded by the comfort. That ease was coupled with our growing passion for each other that was finally released after months of denial. 

And lucky us, the friendship and the passion we shared grew. We managed to head in the same direction. During our first few years there were hard times, disagreements and doubts. Both of us had strong opinions. We bickered and clashed, trying to figure out if we could stay together. We were so young. But the foundation we built sustained us and eventually the rhythm of our life was steady and smooth. After a few years passed, there were no doubts left between us.  He was the magic for me as I was for him. We made each other strong. We fought for each other. F9441B61-F4DB-4466-8082-4C1D760F38DA

When he was diagnosed with his rare cancer and given his dark prognosis, we were devastated. We thought we had so many years left to enjoy each other. His parents were alive, in their 90’s. We felt robbed. But we found our way through those five challenging years and the fire never died. Neither did our friendship. We took turns helping each other and talking about everything as we’d done since the first night we met. Michael faced his disease with courage and heart. I was his advocate and constant companion. During his healthy days, we traveled and made memories. During the scary dark times, we held tightly to each other and clawed our way through terror.  We shared all of it. Our communication and passion sustained us until his last days when, finally communication and lovemaking finally ceased. Then I whispered to him, played our music and held his hand until the end.78DB6115-A414-47D0-9C22-62F0E32B5FA9

Now I am still writing him, the way I used to speak with him. Events and feelings are more complete for me when I direct them toward him. I know that what we shared was more than many people ever have in their lives. I recognize my greed for more, but I forgive myself. I also recognize that my ability to function well as I do is partially based on what we shared which still buoys me when I feel like I’m sinking. CF56F0E6-4CCB-4EB8-B57E-6EEA3AAC1BC5

Michael was my unicorn. My magical being. I remember our bad times, our fights and what habits he had that annoyed me. But mostly it’s the magic, still beating away inside me for as far as I can see. Saying it aloud helps me cope. Maybe it makes people uncomfortable. I can’t worry about that. What we had made me strong enough to know that now is my time to acknowledge how I feel. Maybe some person who reads this is in my shoes. Or maybe someone will be. This is my truth in this time. Don’t believe you have to be anyone other than yourself. I’m still hanging with my guy. And someone else’s rules and opinions don’t apply. 


Magic Dirt and Me


6D7AB0E6-E314-49AE-89E4-EBE0DB453125When I was growing up, my parents owned a house for about 5 years in Sioux City, Iowa. We lived there until I was seven. Dad was always at work, selling water conditioners and farm implements, a real leap from his city jobs. He’d gone into business with his brother-in-law after drifting from one unrewarding position to another in Chicago.

My Mom was juggling four kids and sometimes six when our cousins came to live with us. She was not happy living away from Chicago, being near my dad’s sister and her family, people she never really liked, and feeling like she was existing in a rural desert, so alien from her big city life. Mom always liked the action of city streets and all the people watching you could do. She liked the infinite variety. She was like that her whole life. Neither of my parents was much interested in the outdoors, although my mom appreciated natural beauty. She always mocked my dad for saying, if you’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen them all.

7F9E7050-FD21-4F87-B9AB-7812A50CB8B2I spent a lot of time outside. I was an active child, distracted from the big outdoor world only by reading. I mostly played with my younger sister and a plentiful group of neighbor kids. We made up stories and acted them out, held long games of hide and seek,  and played catch. But I had other interests. I remember standing  at the fork of 23rd and McDonald streets, the corner at which we lived, intently watching bees disappear into the blossoms of a tall stand of multi-colored hollyhocks. Miraculously, they re-emerged after a short time. When I stuck my face in the flowers after the bees left, I always wound up wearing a yellow nose. I didn’t know what pollen was back then. 

61074B15-43E5-464D-9A64-4DD8307FF3BBI also got my mom to make me an insect container, usually a pickle jar with holes poked in the lid. I filled it with twigs, leaves and grass and went off to hunt my favorite caterpillar. I didn’t know its name then but I never forgot what it looked like. This is the white tussock moth caterpillar, much more beautiful in this stage than as an adult moth. They were everywhere in Sioux City. Once I found one on a leaf in my current backyard which made me absurdly happy. If I stood patiently under a tree back then as a kid in Sioux City, I was often lucky enough to grab a tiny, slender, translucent caterpillar that was making its way to the ground, squiggling on a slender thread of insect silk. I’d catch these and watch them inch across my skin before letting them go. I loved the way they moved. 

My parents didn’t pay much attention to what my biological interests were. Mostly they talked to me about how dirty I always got. My dad was the source of the first ethnic slur aimed at me – Chief Blackfoot. I remember how I’d stand in the bathroom sink, holding onto his shoulder while he tried to scrub the mud from between my toes. 

8F37E4BD-6778-4DE6-9408-3ED570E9845BWe moved back to Chicago when I was seven. Mom was done with all things Iowa and dad’s venture into business was rather an abysmal failure. The house on 23rd Street was the last one our family shared. In Chicago we lived on the south side, on the third floor of an apartment building at 7746 South Cornell, right around the corner from my grandparents. The neighborhood was apartment-dense with a few duplexes tossed in between the talker buildings. There wasn’t much green. We had a little patch of dirt in front of our building. There was a ledge that you could sit on, just to the side of what was commonly referred to as the gangway. A true concrete jungle. Loads of kids poured out of those buildings for school and play. Our hide and seek games could include 20 children. We used a two block radius as our hiding boundary. We hid in basements and alleys, rather than behind shrubs or trees. We played kick the can in the alley a scant block from the Chicago Skyway, a heavily used road that in retrospect, seemed way too close for kid safety.572098C1-CC5B-47FC-86B3-DB6F3773A471

This was my city childhood. There was a vacant lot on my block where there were weeds and my new favorite insect, grasshoppers. I’d fasten my roller skates to my shoes, tighten them with a key and roll down to that lot to catch as many as I could. Then I’d sit on the ledge in front of our apartment building, putting them under a jar to watch them move about and spit their “tobacco juice.” Often I observed a group of them together.  Sometimes I’d dissect them with a small kitchen knife to see what their insides looked like. D43CE07E-DBE6-4699-8AD2-03D5D5454558.jpeg

Life went on. I was an urban girl. I rode the Jeffrey 5 bus and took the Illinois Central train with its wicker seats down to the Loop. Before college, I had a job downtown and a daily commute like so many others. Then I moved away to attend college at the big state school sprawled in the middle of the corn and bean fields of Illinois. 1F37357F-92C8-45E4-A606-A7F3A65057BA

Initially, I felt pretty alienated from my surroundings. I think the disparagement word of choice was “hick.” I was living among the hicks instead of the hip, urbane people of the city. But after my first two years, I got used to this town. The pace of life was slower and less hassled. After I left the dorms, I lived in houses converted to apartments. I had real yards. I got to have dogs.

I never went back to live in Chicago after my sophomore year. I stayed in Champaign-Urbana because I found that the easier pace suited my personality. My brain usually operated in overdrive and I came to realize that the relaxed surroundings and the ease of getting around was good for me.


Our last rental house, above.

When Michael and I moved in  together in 1972, we spent the next 4 years sorting out who we were and trying to figure out if we were going to make a lifelong commitment to each other. We moved from place to place, sharing houses with roommates and eventually, living on our own. We figured out we were going to make it which surprised us both as we started out at only 20 and 22. We got married in 1976. And we started looking for a house to buy, a place to settle down, a place to get ready to build a family. 


Me standing in front of our house in October, 1978, right after we moved in. The caption on the back says, “Our first house.” Who knew it would be our last house?

We found and bought our home in 1978. We didn’t have much money, but the house was broken into three apartments. We lived in the biggest one on the first floor and rented out the other two on the second floor to help with our mortgage payments. The interest rate in those days was 15 and 1/2 %. Sounds crazy now. It did then, too.

We moved in during the fall of 1978. The first months were spent reclaiming our space from years of rental neglect. We stripped wallpaper, painted and sanded floors. I’d started a new job that year and between these two life events, we were busy. Winter passed.9418B18B-918D-4EF7-993E-3412F3273B72

When spring came, we started to pay attention to the outside of the house. Constructed in 1893, it was easy to see that we had our work cut out for us. The building was one thing. But there was this enormous yard. So much dirt. More dirt than I’d ever been exposed to in my life. Dirt for Michael. Dirt for me. The size of our double lot was overwhelming. And overgrown. Essentially we’d bought a giant weed patch. The front yard was shielded from the street by a tangle of what were once honeysuckle bushes which had morphed into an impenetrable hodgepodge of volunteer trees. 

We had two dogs but no fence. We tackled the bushes and volunteer trees first. That was backbreaking work even for us late twenty somethings. But we got it done. Then it was time for the fence. Michael dug all the post holes and poured the concrete with the help of some good friends. He was big and strong enough to handle fencing sections on his own. These jobs took up our first summer or two. I cleared a little patch of dirt by the front porch, bordered it with bricks and planted petunias and marigolds. We were homeowners. Landed gentry. 

Years passed. In 1981, we had our first child. Another occupation,  coupled with our full time jobs and the always beckoning needs of the house and the yard. As we settled into our home, I felt the stirring in me of those long ago days in Sioux City, when I wanted to be outside all the time, exploring nature and getting dirty. And Michael, who loved food started thinking about vegetables and herbs that he could pluck from his own ground. 

Our soil was rich and dark. I realized that planting pretty annuals wasn’t going to be the right answer to turning our yard into a haven, a retreat that would soothe the soul after a long day. Michael confined his interests to the edibles and mowing the lawn. I always wanted to get rid of the lawn but I think his suburban upbringing made him feel that grass had a point. 

I took over the rest of the yard. My nickname was the human rototiller. I can’t describe what it was like to remove the amount of sod required to get me into my mud. I was sore, but I loved it. Getting to nothing but my own earth canvas was so satisfying. I watched all the worms wriggling back underground and knew I’d have good aeration for whatever I grew. But actually, I didn’t want to get too well-informed about what plants would do well and which flowers went best with which others. To me, that made gardening a job. I just wanted to enjoy the pleasure of mucking around and seeing what might happen. I called my gardening style hurling. Throw it in the ground and see what happens. 

Slowly the garden began to evolve. I didn’t like a manicured look but preferred a wilder affect. I began a garden journal almost immediately, pasting in photos of everything I planted, writing in when they went in the ground and when they disappeared. My historian side and my love of the dirt were good companions. I remember when I visited Monticello and saw Thomas Jefferson’s garden diaries. Mine aren’t that detailed but they work. And the inside joke of the spring in my family,  became my annual pronouncement that the forsythia was in bloom.AFD1EDEE-ABB7-4F0A-A5A8-9239FC75BCB4

Except for one stand of peonies and an old spruce tree, I’ve planted every shrub, every flower and every tree in my yard. Often my blooms are so big that people have said it feels like they’re Gullivers in Lilliput. 

I’ve sobbed as I planted away through the years for all kinds of reasons, from a bad Mother’s Day, to a fight with Michael, to a death in my family. I’ve dug blissfully away after buying a long-desired plant, after waking from a good night’s sleep and the warm embrace of my husband,  and I’ve experienced the flattery of having people come by my house with their cameras to photograph the results of my labor. 

I’ve coaxed butterflies, hummingbirds and bees into my space by dangling their favorite treats everywhere. I’ve created a habitat for birds so there is always song in the morning and throughout the day. My curiosity about certain insects has led me to read wonderful books which changed the way I see the world full of life in the dirt under my feet. 

When Michael died, I turned the bulk of his food garden into a refuge for pollinators, trying to help species which are endangered. So I’ve become a little more science-y than I was when I began my forays into the mud.

When I drive down my street and pull up to my driveway, I feel happy to see my garden, in all seasons. I’ve found a way to have interesting vestiges of my summer beauties that poke through the snow along with the evergreens. The connection between me and nature is profound. I find solace outside and an everlasting interest in the life I see around me. On my worst days, there is always a place to be, that for even a moment, relieved the pain and stress of grief and loneliness. 

The magic dirt is a gift to myself, the kind of gift you discover accidentally, in the course of daily life. This magic is free and asks for nothing. I’m grateful that I heed what’s right in front of me. I’m lucky to have the time to acknowledge what is often ignored by people when they’re too busy, too pressured or too distracted to pay attention. As long as I can dodder around, my dirt and all that goes with it will be my treasured companion.




The Layers

EFDDB421-5A14-467A-82F0-2444D61F2E80When I traveled to The Badlands almost a decade ago, I stood fascinated before the striated rocky hills, aware that each colored line, piled atop one another, was packed with millions of years of history. Oceans, forests, animals and insects were reduced to slivers of their former selves, weathered by age and time. When I’m out in new places I consistently look for rocks with those telltale stripes and their hidden secrets of former lives.

Those beautiful otherworldly landscapes came to mind recently as I’ve been probing my own layers. My layers are internal, unseen. But I’ve learned through experience that those layers exist, holding secrets and mysteries that I’ve concealed from myself. Much of what’s hidden has been done unconsciously. I think that all people paper over parts of their lives. Some of that happens because we simply can’t hold everything that’s happened to us in a constant state of awareness. Too much information, too much to handle all at once. But some of these layers seem to be a reflexive survival skill that helps us manage what’s often too hard to hold in our heads. Pain, stress, panic, despair. Those of us lucky enough to not be overwhelmed by the past, to stay present in real time, walk forward every day and remain functional. I’m one of those people. But I needed to start poking around in my layers so I could accomplish what I want to do. And I must say, messing around in what’s been pushed down by newer layers has been surprising and even unnerving.

Background: Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) is a rare, aggressive skin cancer. Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) is a rare disease as there are only approximately 1500 new cases annually in the United States, according the American Cancer Society.

I’ve been wanting to write a book about what it’s like to live through your partner being diagnosed with an orphan cancer, a cancer so rare that there isn’t much money or research directed at its treatment. I want to share our experience as spouses, as individuals, as patient and caregiver, because I think that people out there will be able to find some help and relief in learning about our journey. I think my direct style and my willingness to say what many people won’t, might benefit those going through the impossible range of thoughts and feelings that accompany the shocking transition from what was an average daily life to sudden chaos and ultimately, death.F1DC097F-EB6E-4AF2-BD58-C90CC43DDF7B

So far, I have a dedication, an introduction and a first chapter. But it’s been a confusing and rough slog, with the book going off in unexpected directions. I need to pause and reflect on what’s happening here. This isn’t a novel in which characters take on a life of their own, leading the author on a trip of discovery. This book is factual. I saved all of Michael’s medical records. I have all my journals which describe what happened to us. But I got stuck.13B9FA9D-C2F8-4766-AA7A-87FCC6CB53EE

Writing is a consistent part of my life. I have journals that go back 55 years. I can read myself growing from a child through my teens to early womanhood, adult life and my present. I always wanted to write a book but never dreamed that this story would be my topic. But life has other plans. I thought that I would start writing and refer to my carefully ordered notes which are chronological. But when I tried to start reviewing the material that marked the beginning of this trip, I backed away almost immediately. Although I remember in great detail how we learned about and began to deal with Michael’s cancer, I was too raw to look at anything that wasn’t objective. My entries about how I felt and how I perceived Michael’s feelings and my children’s feelings were beyond my ability to cope. That was several months ago. Instead of writing the book, I’ve been writing this blog, writing letters to Michael and writing more journal entries about my current life.

Some time has passed.  I decided I was ready to have another go at reading everything that happened since 2012. What stunning revelations. I recall that the morning Michael died, I texted his oncologist to let her know he was gone. After only about twenty minutes, she called to extend her condolences. But she also gave me a lecture about how in the next six months to a year, I was going to be at the highest risk for my own  death than I’d ever been in my life. She strictly instructed me to get past the funeral arrangements and then do nothing but sleep, eat and exercise for the foreseeable future. She’d seen me in my relentless advocacy for Michael, staying at the hospital with him for 32 days and nights, never going home, and endlessly tending to his needs on all levels. I was with him round the clock for months with little downtime or respite from what was happening to him, to us. And I wanted it that way. I’m a planner by nature, an anticipator. I’m always down the road, trying to imagine whatever might be needed, trying to avoid unnecessary problems. Most importantly, I’d learned long ago that I didn’t want to live with regrets, wondering if there was something I might’ve done that could’ve prevented something dreadful from happening. I knew what I was doing at the time. But I had no inkling what the magnitude of taking on Michael’s disease really was for me. It simply needed to happen.


Since he’s been gone, I’ve been grieving, as is natural. In my mind, I’ve gone back to the 40 years we shared before we were struck by Merkel cell carcinoma. I hunger for the normal years when we worried about our kids, money, jobs, family problems. I remember how much fun we had and how we loved being with each other. The puzzle pieces that fit perfectly, the way we sank into each other’s comfort. And I remember how much we battled each other, we two opinionated characters who could quibble about anything. That’s the life I’ve been inhabiting since last May, after he died.

So it was shocking to me when I started reading the almost daily entries in my journals. The weeping. The arguing. The despair. The struggles about him not wanting to eat while I forcefully pushed him to keep at it. My moving forward at my usual breakneck pace while Michael edged slowly on, annoyed at my speed and resentful of me imposing my style on his. The desperate clutching of each other’s bodies as we tried to hang on to every second of life together. The years’ worth of trips that we squeezed into the moments when he was healthy enough to travel, trying to live the most compressed retirement we could grab before the cancer caught him again. And again. We tried hard to keep life as normal as we could with our kids and grandchildren. We pared down our social life so we could all be together as much as possible. On and on we went for over 5 years on the wild rhythms of life and death.

As I read, I remembered it all. But I’ve tried to seal off how awfully hard it really was, how debilitated I became as time passed and we both eroded from the strain. I read an entry in which my daughter called me a cockroach, that creature which has survived no matter what had happened to stomp it out. And I thought, is that really me? Is that how I was built, to crawl through fire and ash and emerge, battered but somehow intact on the other side?

As hard as being without my great love is, I am after all, still here. I didn’t die, like Michael’s doctor told me I might. I know I’m not the same person as I was before Merkel cell became part of my world. As many other events necessitated, I’ve altered and adapted to what the world has put in front of me. But in this brief period of time since Michael’s death, I didn’t know that I would rapidly build new layers inside of me, that softened the harsh reality of what we lived through, particularly during his final months. My joy in life is subdued. I still lean heavily on the bond we shared that grew and grew for our life together and flourished so much that it’s still alive inside me. Perhaps it’s the primary reason that I felt stunned at the distance I’ve put between me now and me then. That powerful relationship has trumped the agony of our cancer adventure. I find that what came before is the space I’ve been occupying and has changed my perception of the dark time.

A new layer added to the myriad levels of me. I’m grateful I have the documentary evidence to analyze myself, the way geologists study the physical world. Because my interior is as laden with complexity as those hills which have intrigued me. More territory to explore. Time to proceed to my next chapter.

By The Numbers

B18BC5C9-4231-443B-B526-917EA96B54DCThe other day, I got a call from a dear friend who was feeling broken hearted. She’d heard that a teenaged boy who’d spent his whole life struggling with neuroblastoma had finally succumbed to his cancer. This friend’s granddaughter had been diagnosed several years ago with an uncommon cancer, most frequently diagnosed in adult males. She was treated and has been in remission for several years. She, and the boy who died, had crossed paths through a community of parents whose children have life threatening illnesses. The families help support each other and are active in trying to help their kids experience enriched lives as they proceed through their grim treatments. Losing one child is a loss for all and a reminder of the fragility of life for everyone in the support group. The potential for living the same future death is never far from anyone’s minds.

114DB89D-AF47-49D0-AA0F-C34078B43BEEMy friend called me because she knows I’m experienced with the ups and downs of being with a loved one whose cancer ebbed and flowed, living from scan to scan, wondering always when the next doctor’s appointment would bring good news or bad. Living in a state of hyper-awareness is hard to describe. The edges of life have an eerie textural glow, as if they’re old celluloid movies which look unusually bright, but could suddenly ripple away and burn, erasing all images. No fabulous technicians are working in an archive to restore and preserve the one and only copy of the person you love.

0A9C8AED-320C-4D6F-A3F4-8945667FE301I tried to console her with my limited means of coping. I am not religious. I don’t believe in an afterlife, a heaven, or a better place than the world I occupy. I’ve always thought that a belief system like that would be an easier option than mine, one that could make the empty spaces feel less lonely. But I don’t. That route doesn’t work for me. I have lots of questions about what happens to the energy of a person who dies. What happens to their wavelengths that bounce into space, wavelengths that are now considered to be scientific realities? What’s a parallel universe? Why do people feel they’ve been visited by those who are no longer here? I imagine I will ponder those ideas for as long as I can think. I have no notion what answers may be discovered in what remains of my own life. These are my private, personal intellectual meanderings.  But my practical side is where I turn when confronted by the sadness of a friend who mourns a dead child and who fears for her own granddaughter and what may come down the road. I’ve figured out some approaches to the fear and the sadness. So I share what works for me.8D3A2E90-656F-42BD-8036-042F11590682

When I realized the limitations of what I could know in the future and what I could do beyond the present, I made some adjustments that help me. I know I can’t go back and have a redo of anything.I need to be alive in the moment, as often as is humanly possible. I can’t stop the inevitability of death, for myself, for anyone. So while I am in the now, I try to squeeze the absolute best experience that I can make out of even the smallest daily events. I told my friend that whatever she can give her granddaughter to enrich her current life is the best that she can do for her. That can range from sharing a sweet treat to a hug to a special  trip that will make unforgettable memories. Do it today. And don’t waste time in anticipatory grief which is a monster.


When my husband was well, we squeezed little bits of magic into every day and night. Although nothing can fill the space left by his absence, I am comforted to know that while he was here, our awareness of the significance of “now” was a daily imperative. And there is great comfort in knowing that you did your very best at living under the constant presence of death.

Situations like the one of the little boy always remind me that my life isn’t tragic. Rather, it’s what average people can expect at some point in time. Tragedies are what happen to little kids who haven’t had the opportunity to experience the richness of life. Tragedies are the people who live in the wrong place, caught between political power struggles that can snuff them out in an instant. Tragedies are having to live starving, physically, emotionally and intellectually, accidents of genetics or circumstance. As I frequently remind myself, and anyone I can get to hear me, perspective is everything. That leads me to my current processing.


When I was growing up, I didn’t like math much. After elementary school, algebra, geometry, trigonometry and beyond were not high on my list of pleasures. But oddly enough, my adult work life took me to a place where every day, I conquered what were the daunting mysteries that befuddled and frustrated me as a kid. And now, I find living by the numbers to be my most helpful skill in guiding myself through the challenges of my unanticipated widowhood and grief. So here they are.


1) Today is the 406th day since Michael’s death. Somehow I’ve lived all those days when I wasn’t sure I could survive one. I still mostly feel and look like me, despite missing him constantly. I didn’t know I had 406 days left in me.

2) I started writing Michael letters about three weeks after he died. He was my best friend and confidante. Nothing felt real until I shared it with him. To date, I’ve written him 160 letters. For me, they’ve been marvelously cathartic. Some are whiny, some informative, some sexy, some pathetic and some angry. I highly recommend writing letters as a way of remembering your journey. At the end of my day, I feel relieved to pour my thoughts toward the person I most trusted in this world. I still wish he was here. But the notion of him with me is sustaining.


3) I’ve also written 149 personal journal entries. I’ve been writing in journals all my life so this is nothing new. But they’ll provide an invaluable resource for my children and grandchildren after I’m gone. I’m hoping that I’m answering all the questions they’ll have about the past. Personally,  I don’t have those resources and have been left wondering about many parts of my family history for years. My mom and dad told me never to put anything in writing, always worried that somebody would get the goods on them and bring them harm. I blew off that idea long ago. My parents clearly weren’t historians.


4) Since last June, I’ve gone swimming 326 times. I feel like I’ve gotten physically stronger. I was pretty spent after my years of caregiving. It’s good to know that you can still make a kind of comeback after being driven into the ground at an older age. After my knee surgery who knows how I’ll be?

5) I’ll admit that I don’t have an accurate count of how many hours I’ve spent being with or talking with my children and grandchildren. But I can say that even when I’m exhausted and feeling like a hermit, I pull myself out of the fatigue and do it anyway. Time is moving fast and I can’t ever get back what’s behind me. Do it now. FD40D9C0-F370-45A8-8B04-C21C82C8CF8D

6) I’ve played 9839 games of Words With Friends. I’ve tied in 24, lost 1202 and won the rest. I’m trying to keep my brain active. And I really love words.

7) My working hours in my garden average about 15 a week. I used to be able to crank out 8 hour days. Now my knees can’t keep up with my desire. But if I’m not working,  I sit in the garden and watch the sky, the insects and the animals who share my habitat. Those are some of my favorite hours.


8) I read a book a minimum of one hour a day and usually more than that. For a long time during Michael’s illness, I had trouble concentrating on anything but articles and short blurbs. Books are a necessary component of my days. I’ve read 37 since Michael died. I’m working on upping that number. Reading the impossible news with astonishment every day has cut into my book time. Another challenge to becoming balanced.


9) I listen to music at least 2 hours a day in a variety of formats. Music nourishes my soul. I starve without it.


10) I’ve been to 32 movies in the theater since Michael died. I’m not sure how many I’ve watched at home. One day I’m going to try to make a list of all the movies I’ve seen in my life. I’m not sure I’ll have enough time to accomplish that.

11) I’ve been to two political demonstrations in the past year. I donate to two of my favorite organizations monthly and have made individual donations to worthy causes 13 times. I believe in staying politically active and as engaged as possible. I can’t get rolled over by the sideshow that is our current state of affairs. Doing my little piece is as necessary as breathing.


So those are some of the things I’ve kept track of since my world changed forever. Maybe it’s a bit compulsive. Maybe it’s weird. I don’t really care. I’m just finding my way through all the shocks I took in a six year period of time. WhenI my brother, my mother and my husband died. Plus I experienced an estrangement from my sister and the death of two dogs. I’m doing my best to manage. Feels like it was a lot. But I know that other people have gone through worse and infinitely more horrifying times.

The counting helps me. More importantly, what I’m counting helps me. I hope my efforts give someone else ideas about handling their burdens. One, two, three….

Starting With Rage

Throughout my life with Michael, my rage was a frequent topic of conversation between us. He worried about my health. He also couldn’t understand how rage was my first line response to virtually any situation that I thought was unjust or morally reprehensible. Me neither. When I read an article or see a news story that rubs me the wrong way, I’m immediately furious. I can’t stand anything that smacks of unfair. And I start expressing myself right away, often with inflammatory statements or snide jabs. The frustration is unbearable for me. I’ve been living angry for as long as I can remember. Here we are, he wearing his history hat, standing in front of one of the icons of this country.97DD26D1-8D19-4863-8BAF-741558A4B8A1

When he was alive, things were easier. He oozed some inexplicable sedative effect through his skin and when I was next to him, I eventually was able to defuse my all-consuming heat and function in a more reasonable frame of mind. But he’s not here now. So I have to find other ways to stop myself from spontaneously combusting.A386E783-0492-49CC-8B4B-AC375E9BF589

I’ve visited this topic before on this site. I was devastated by Donald Trump’s election. Although not a devoted Hilary follower, I was looking forward to experiencing life with the first woman president. The future under her administration looked reasonable, if not the most perfect fit for some of my fringe views. Certainly she looked great compared to the ringmaster buffoonery of her opponent.4CAA0F64-32E4-463D-B8CE-ADCA0B3F7F6D

My family all watched the election returns together. As it became clear that what seemed impossible was going to become reality, our moods ranged from disbelief to despair. There was crying and wailing and attempts to maintain calm by Michael and me, who remembered living through other seemingly unsurvivable administrations. We were distraught too. And we had no idea that within weeks we’d be facing the end of Michael’s survival luck. Death was closing in on him. I’ve wondered many times if we would all have been able to manage our grief any better without the overarching dark cloud of Trump’s manic, unstable and over the top domination of the news cycle during those months. While I remained Michael’s medical advocate, as we spent those 32 days in the hospital with him undergoing barbaric last ditch treatment, when he was confused because of the cancer advancing in his brain, my children and I couldn’t take our eyes off the train wreck of the presidency. The young nurses and techs who got close to us, slipped into our room after their shifts ended,  to discuss their disbelief in the seemingly endless flow of random decisions, crooked Cabinet members and tromping on widely held social values under the auspices of “making America great again.”5018BEC5-AD72-45C9-914D-EA397B0AB085

As I thought back on all my historical knowledge, all I heard were the echoes of fascist voices of the past. And watching those white supremacist haters come into the light was truly terrifying, although not surprising to me. There have always been groups meeting in the shadows and committing hate crimes. Trump’s presidency empowered their emergence into the light.FC450D5C-792E-4C73-A992-CD3FCF7DEECF

And while I struggled to give Michael his dying wishes, to have one last good day, to end his life in our home, I was stewing away with anger at the injustice of seemingly everything, watching Trump rapidly dismantling as many of Obama’s signature accomplishments as he could. Worrying constantly about the potential for a nuclear disaster, the denial of climate change and the rolling back of protections for clean air and water. The shocking racist attitudes and the incendiary commentary. I remember watching him say, look at my African-American over there during some speech and thinking, we’re in a time tunnel heading backwards at breakneck speed. Young black men are unsafe on our streets. An absolute horror. Lynching in the modern age.  My list of furies could go on for pages but that’s not where I want to go with this piece.3D89C3C5-FB37-4FFE-BE05-E81E1BCE71D5I know what I believe and I can  back it up with historical reference. Today, I pondered the calamitous recent decisions of the sitting Supreme Court and what they will potentially do, especially if the smug hypocrite Mitch McConnell, who blocked an Obama appointee with glee, turns on his own argument and pushes a candidate through before the midterms.  I went to my bedroom, my safe place where Michael’s presence feels particularly strong. I started scanning my bookshelves where the ones I love best remain, even after purging our library as I try to go minimalist. I found my beliefs there. The sham being perpetrated on Trump followers does not change what is real.8C6F9547-340F-4C6D-AAF9-ACF4E7E75915

1) Trump is a racist. He is advocating returning to a time when whites dominated people of color. His attitude toward Hispanic people and Muslim people is appalling. The courts are curtailing voting rights, letting gerrymandering fall where it may and making it impossible for fair representation.  He is reflective of the thieves who came to this country and wrested it from Native Americans. The white people who came here committed genocide and stole land. The survivors of that devastation were robbed of their culture and forced to be trained as knockoffs of their conquerors. Read a book. I think of the weary Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce and share a few of his thoughts below.

“We did not know there were other people besides the Indian until about one hundred winters ago, when some men with white faces came to our country.”

Chief Joseph

2) As a country, we are moving toward oligarchy. The enormous economic gap between the 1% and everyone else grows larger every day. Trump admires and meets with dictators. He declares himself the only person who can make America great again. He is anti-labor and pro-ownership. That attitude is blatantly clear. Just listen to his speeches about what NFL owners should do to their players. Read some labor history.  Yeah, I know all about the bad stuff associated with some unions. But you don’t scrap what made livable conditions for millions of people, unionists who bled for a reasonable work day, a fair wage and to not be owned by their company. Read about it. And think.

3) What about women’s struggles? Second class citizens since this country was conceived. Already there have been hard fought battles for fair pay, equal  treatment under the law and control over their own bodies. And still, the struggle continues. Consider the #metoo movement. Still necessary in the 21st century. With an even more conservative Supreme Court, women’s rights, still far from just, are again in the sights of the patriarchy which as Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated, has kept its foot on women’s necks. My youth was spent watching friends who chose to have abortions leave this country or take terrible risks trying to get one here. I myself would never have wanted an abortion for a baby conceived while in a relationship. But had I been assaulted or alone, I might have thought differently. No matter what the circumstances, I can’t imagine trying to interfere with a woman’s right to choose. Now Roe v. Wade can again be in the crosshairs of those who believe they can dictate individual rights based on their own beliefs. The founders’ intent was to create a society of tolerance. Now, if you’re not in a certain religious or political club,  you run the risk of having your beliefs rammed down your throat. I can only imagine what those people who wrote the constitution would think of how it’s been twisted for the convenience of a privileged minority. And how do I even begin to imagine the fragility of the LGBTQ community which daily stares down prejudice and hatred?E150DD41-9266-4AF0-AE53-600A2789430A

I think it’s everyone’s responsibility to speak out about what’s going on in this dystopian new culture in which more government employees have been fired, charged with crimes and cheated the American public in what is basically the blink of an eye. I share a quote from George Washington which still rings true today. 8BDAB139-A860-46F6-AFA7-2F29C5FFB443.jpeg

I intend to stay vocal and loud. I intend to share my views with the people who ostensibly represent my interests in Washington. I will sign petitions, donate money to worthy organizations and march when my knees can manage it. I will not be quiet because times feel desperate. These times require people to dig deep and not let themselves be cowed by all the media noise. I don’t choose to lose my personal power and strength to this crowd of bullies. I watched my husband have his life stolen by cancer. He tried to thwart that bully every step of the way for over five years. Certainly, when I can see what’s right in front of me, I would be a coward to just let it all happen while I stand mute, watching these dreadful changes which will affect my children and grandchildren’s lives. Nope. I refuse. If you don’t like what I have to stay, exercise your right and don’t read my posts. I’m in charge of this space.




29C26B2F-B5DF-4211-8B78-EB07CFA2851AEvery now and then, the way I look surprises me. I’ll glance at my hair and think, oh that’s right, I no longer color my hair. I did it for a long time and drove everyone around me crazy,  talking about whether I should continue to do it or not. I can’t remember when I began to feel that being grey was something to be avoided. My hair was changing, age-appropriately. I wasn’t particularly concerned about it. But I colored it anyway. For years, I paid an absurd amount of money to have it done and when that annoyed me, I dyed it myself. I dreaded doing it. What a pain in the neck. I was so relieved when I stopped it. I felt more like what I think about myself as a person. Nonetheless, I’m still taken aback on occasion when I see my salt and pepper topping, wondering how quickly it seemed to happen.

0D979964-A1AE-4BF5-BBE2-D0F79E41A09EThen there’s my skin. Genetics have to play a significant role in how wrinkly you become. I spent and still spend a lot of time outside in the sun, swimming, gardening and I spent years doing dog-walking. But my face remains pretty smooth. I’m oily there. The age shows in my arms which are developing that crepey appearance, fragile and dry. And my neck is becoming saggy and foldy. Hah! There’s an app for that.





Lots of apps, really, if you have the money and the inclination. In our youth-oriented culture, there’s no stone unturned in developing injections, surgeries, serums and creams that can turn back your clock and have you looking decades younger than you really are. And in a culture that places so much emphasis on looks,  it’s not a surprise that the multi-billion dollar anti-aging industry is booming away with boomers like me. There are supplements you can buy which promise to keep your brain elastic and younger than it actually is, in addition to new medical research which ostensibly slows the aging process. If you starve yourself, you can hold off the clock. I know I’m just skimming over what’s on the market or what may soon be out there. The thing is, I don’t care about any of it. I’m not saying that I deliberately want to look old or pitiful or any other negative, unacceptable ways. I’ve just learned to let go of the worries about it. I don’t care about how people think I look. More importantly, I don’t care if I’m getting older. It’s the natural order. My husband would have given anything to live and age beside me. Cancer squashed that desire. But I’m here and I feel incredibly relieved to be free of the societal burden that hangs  over our self esteem. Things are tough enough without worrying about appearances. How about thinking about what’s inside instead of what’s outside?


I’ve been aging since I was born. Just like everyone else. When you’re little, there’s no thought given to the process. What happens just is. After awhile, as you develop consciousness, you become aware that as you grow there are milestones to reach.

I remember when my son learned to tie his shoes. He stood up and said, there. Now I can tie, zip, button and snap. I’m all done. Such a wonderfully simple view of growing up.

But complications emerge. So much to learn, so much out of reach. You can learn to ride a bike, to swim, make a sandwich. Get a driver’s license. Register to vote. As the independence desires grow and you tick these goals off your list, restlessness and impatience become issues. In our house we talked a lot about learning the rewards of delayed gratification. And we talked about not rushing,  because childhood goes fast and is actually the shortest part of your life. Truly the only time when if you’re fortunate, you can be carefree. Because independence and freedom also carry responsibilities which can begin to weigh you down, not long after you arrive in adult life.  Once you recognize the gifts of being older, you spend all your time striving to acquire those gifts. You want to get to the place where you can have a car, buy a drink legitimately, have sex, make your own decisions, free from your family’s rules and imposed structures. You can travel wherever you want if you have the time and money. You can be your own person.

These are the glory years, that is if you’re lucky enough to have good health and the means to enjoy them at your disposal. But those years don’t seem to last long. No sooner do you arrive in that long-awaited spot when you are suddenly nostalgic for your carefree youth. What a surprising conundrum. Suddenly you find yourself feeling like time is going too quickly and you want to slam on your brakes and make it slow down. You start to feel like you’re getting old. You’re not as energetic or fast as you were when you were in your teens or twenties. You don’t bounce back as quickly when you stretch yourself beyond your limits. Worries become part of your daily life. Bodies begin to change. Although men have more muscle mass than women, both sexes reach their physical peak as young adults or anywhere from their late 20’s to early 30’s.

So on top of all that, we add the insecurities of having the wrong exterior. We’re not beautiful enough. Not thin enough. Not sexy enough. Too little hair. Too freaking old. Shoved to the margins of life as youth surges past you. Now how in the hell did that happen? I remember times when I wanted to hide from the world. Bad complexion. Bad haircuts. Too much fat. No shorts allowed. Wrong nose. No outdoor work when someone might see you at the wrong angle. Ugh. What a waste of energy and time.


I think aging is a gift. The kind of gift that’s sort of like a whoopee cushion – a surprise, a sly nasty poke, but a gift nonetheless. For someone like me who experienced many deaths that happened too early in life, I’ve been trying to find the way to appreciate the fact that I’m still here, while struggling with the newfound deficits of getting older.891D2B38-D221-4C2F-93EC-C87C3D8F261C

Knowing that we live in a youth-oriented culture isn’t rocket science. There is no amount of time in which I could imagine listing all the products, the potions, the miracles out there which are all aimed at the notion that aging can be avoided, averted, delayed or perhaps stopped altogether. With 3D printing available, medical advances, cryogenics, and some hard work, you can actually believe that you can maintain your youth longer than has ever been possible. The quest for the fountain of youth goes back a long way and is considered a worthy goal. Maybe it is. In my lifetime, not so much.

Fountain of Youth – Ancient GreeceA671FCCD-AF62-41A0-971F-63B73CED9BBF

The fact is that aging is living. You’re birthed and then immediately set to the task of growing older. If you’re lucky, that process is one of nurture. You’re fed, clothed, hugged, protected. People guide you and teach you new things constantly which will help you in your aging process. Evolving is a good thing. Except there seems to be a point when you go too far. For us lucky ones, who are born healthy, grow healthy, develop healthy,  there seems to be a place where subtly, that ever-changing process becomes more of a negative than a positive. For women, that seems particularly true. At some point, women age out of what is considered the most desirable pit stop on life’s journey. And from our earliest years, the message about becoming less than prime is very clear. What’s thrown in our faces are ways to cover up the aging process, before you’re relegated to the trash heap. F3AC94F5-DBE8-4DE6-9D87-DFDB230F5B9B

You become invisible in the culture unless you manage to foil the tricks played on you by the gift of growing older. I suppose there’s biology at work here. The most basic tenets of why we’re here is to reproduce. Once menopause shows up and estrogen takes a walk, the battle for youth becomes a steep climb up a seemingly endless rugged mountain of changes that remind you that your best days are behind you. That is, if you let the cultural norms dictate what you do with this new phase of life.


Remember all that grows finer with age? Wine, cheese, whiskey? Trees, tortoises, bird songs? Love, devotion, sexual skills? Those count, don’t they? Well, so do our minds, our vocabularies, our insights. I’m still growing my intellectual firepower. I’m growing my feelings and trying to share them in a way that will impact the world. I don’t want to be on the junk heap and I don’t intend to be pushed there. One day I may fall victim to the ravages of senility or Alzheimer’s. But not now. As long as I’m still breathing I want to be a multi-dimensional person. I want to learn something new every day. I want to appreciate what is beautiful. I want to speak out about politics and immorality. I want to hang out with young people. I want to push for change. And I want to lend a hand or a shoulder or an ear to someone who needs a break. So who cares about my hair color or my wrinkles or my aging past reproduction? The most valuable parts of me are right here, right now. Decades have gone into growing them. A lot of effort, a lot of coping and a lot of strength I didn’t know was in me.EC5DB53E-9A5C-4B59-9DF1-26EF338A50EE.jpeg

I feel relieved. So much time wasted on what means so little. I’ve sat at three deathbeds, of the people who meant everything to me. My parents, who brought me into this world, and my beloved husband who walked through forty five years with me. None of them gave any thought to the superficial aspects of this world as their lives ebbed away. I don’t intend to waste one second of the time left to me. If anyone who reads this can let go of at least a bit of self-judgment over issues that don’t matter, this will have been worth my writing it.



Stunned : The Sneak Attack

F7A6DA44-FC95-44D2-B2D9-4548BD64EBC8So you’re going along, leading your new life, adapting to the fact that your partner of 45 years died and has been gone for over a year. And you’re really working your tail off at building positive experiences and living the way you want and facing reality like a totally evolved adult. And then, wham! Without even the tiniest hint, you are instantly stunned, bowled over by the fact that your person is never coming back, that you will never lay eyes or hands or anything else on your lover, your best friend. Now how the hell does that happen?02CEF7AF-D36C-467A-BC3D-CA77AE540A77

I get it when you suddenly hear a song that was meaningful in your relationship or you’re looking at photos that bring back memories. Then the progression of remembering turns to wondering why and what if, and there’s some kind of logic there. Something you can understand. But this minding your own business, thinking about what you have to do today thing, when there’s no direct stimulus that would reasonably help explain the sudden shock and desolation is pretty unnerving. And unfair, I might add. Ambushed. What a dreadful feeling.

I’m always trying to face things head on-that’s my style. The first thing that popped into my head when this most recent hammer dropped? A few quotes from one of my favorite books. When I read it years ago, I had no idea how apt these two passages would be for me at this stage of my life. 79CF08FC-802F-4930-96E6-D07511B17509

“..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.”

Although the words move me and reflect me, for now, they won’t do for providing solace and a path forward. Instead, I find myself pursuing a different direction. I’m thinking about the phrase “taking the waters,” and how that applies to me at this point in time.AEE72E81-3510-4819-9F9F-2834E6C7D078

Taking the waters is an ancient concept, positing that immersing oneself in mineral springs, pools and the like would provide healing and rejuvenation. The practice and reference can be found in literature from multiple cultures and eras. For me, water has been a go-to place since I was a child. And now, I’m looking back to where that attraction began and contemplating that comforting reliable space. 

28B5CAFE-276C-48CF-851D-87BC81BD9CCBI discovered swimming when my parents moved back to Chicago from Sioux City when I was seven. Lake Michigan was inexpensive entertainment. Our spot was Rainbow Beach which was relatively close to our apartment. We carted lawn chairs and blankets to the grassy area west of the beach. No one in my family was much interested in the water but me. My mom wore a bathing suit but my dad sat on a chair wearing long pants and sometimes, even a lightweight sport coat. They’d both grown up in the city on the edge of this gorgeous lake but were too busy scrabbling to live to spend any time near the water. Back in those more innocent days, a kid could go alone from the park down to the water and that’s what I did. I stood watching the swimmers carefully and copied their movements as best I could. What a glorious feeling. The lake was really cold but I didn’t care. I’d stay in the water until I pruned and my lips turned blue, excited when my uncertain movements took me from one spot to another. I was hooked immediately. I didn’t care about the stinky, rotting alewives that lay along the shore. Whatever happened to them wasn’t going to happen to me. Most of my early water time happened in that lake. Occasionally, my parents took us on an excursion to a city pool. I remember going off the high dive at the Wicker Park pool, an almost unimaginable feat when I, whose fear of heights is now legendary, would do almost anything to enter the water.

In high school, swimming was a component of PE class. I remember we wore swimsuits made of a material that felt  rough, that the suits were baggy,  and that you got either a red or blue one, depending on your skill level. I didn’t love our pool or the class. What I did love at that time was summer, when a nearby motel allowed people to pay a dollar a day to spend unlimited hours at their outdoor pool. Before I had a summer job, I split my time between The Thunderbird Motel and Rainbow Beach. My skin was bronzed and my hair turned auburn.B3997346-691F-4378-A3A7-B3400CB44F47In those formative years, I just loved what I loved. As I evolved from child to young adult, I started a deeper thought process,  probing inside myself, trying to understand what I felt and what I wanted. I was seventeen when I went to college. I had no inkling then that I would spend the rest of my life in this university town, a place plopped in the middle of corn and soybean fields where the only body of water was a skimpy little creek filled with widely varying and questionable items. I’d left my lake behind. But in time, I found the pools, first the ones on campus and then, the city pool, the one destined to become the pool of my life. The water continued to be a source of peace and lightness for me. As I swam along, slowly and steadily in my classic tortoise style, my hurt, my rage, my confusion and even my positive feelings went quiet. I can scarcely describe how unusual the internal drifting stillness felt, so in contrast to the relentless focus which is my dominant mental state. I began to learn that my water time was my meditation time, a state of mind that was more organic to me than I imagined.

But I am getting ahead of myself. At twenty, I met my husband, a water person like me. We roamed together, looking for swimming spots. We skinny dipped in gravel pits and farm retaining ponds. We found lakes a few hours from home and emerged from them with green slime caught in our toes. As we moved further into our life, our travels expanded and there were hotel pools, more lakes and finally oceans.

We glided in the waves of the Atlantic and Pacific. We spent countless hours in the Gulf of Mexico and swam with the wondrous creatures of the turquoise Caribbean. We carried our lovemaking into these waters, surreptitiously joining with each other under the surface. We managed a few pools as well. These were rapturous moments that sway in my memory. Unforgettable.

When we joined old friends and their families in a communal camp setting for several years, I swam the lake while Michael helped the kids with the water sports. I don’t believe I ever rode the jet skis we rented. Occasionally, I rode in the boat to spot the people who were water skiing or tubing. I canoed once.  And I sat or stood on the dock to help the little ones learn to fish or skip stones. But for me those sweet summer vacations were about the swimming, usually by myself.

For many years when winter break began, we took our kids to Starved Rock State Park, a place for hiking and watching bald eagles, if you were lucky. For me the lodge there had the critical main attraction, a large indoor pool, a hot tub and a sauna, completely glassed in so that while you swam, you could see nature scant yards away. One amazing December day, we arrived with a blizzard minutes behind us and as I swam lap after lap, I watched the snow fall steadily, piling up in great white heaps while the warmth of the water embraced me. These were trips we shared with our children, telling stories, breaking news, relaxing and tightening the bonds of our little family unit. As they grew older, sometimes we went alone. But we also expanded our crew to include girlfriends, and eventually our son-in-law and grandchildren. We went there in the midst of Michael’s chemotherapy. And it was the last healthy trip he had the month before his cancer ran amok. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to go back there. I think I prefer to have the memories from those times remain encapsulated. I often wondered why I was the only person in the pool in the morning, up and back, up and back, not understanding why people hadn’t figured out this lovely feeling they could have so easily. I was lucky. That book is closed.

But the pool of my life is none of what I’ve described. Our local pool was called Crystal Lake. In my mid-twenties having a car and a job allowed for mobility. Crystal Lake was a lovely city park with mature trees, playgrounds, the lake, bridges and pavilions. The pool was further north and built in a depression in the land. Surrounded by trees and prairie plants, with street sounds muffled by the landscape, it was easy to feel that you were far from an urban area. No hustle bustle here. The pool was an oasis. I started attending with a couple of women friends who worked with me. I swam the most, my friends doing a few laps  while I stayed in the water. Eventually, Michael joined us there periodically. He was a beautiful swimmer but lazy – he’d do a few lengths and then snooze on a lounge chair. When he got too warm, he’d rejoin me. What a treat to hold each other in the midst of a work day. The good life. Every summer I looked forward to the Memorial Day opening. Over time, my companions came and went. I kept going, every day unless the skies opened and lightning interfered. I swam through my first pregnancy in that pool. I was so enormous that the lifeguards were terrified I’d go into labor on their watch. They had a baby betting thing going, trying to score cash off my giant belly. That didn’t happen. But my babies did arrive eventually and they learned to swim at Crystal Lake Pool. When they went to day camp, they swam there a few times a week. Some of my friends moved away and new ones joined me. Michael, too, along with my sister and my mother, who sat on the side, dangling her feet in the cool water. We had family picnics there after work on hot evenings. I can see us sitting under one of the umbrella tables, plum juice dripping down the kids’ chins, going from the baby pool to the big pool, my shoulders sore from catching my little jumpers who were never bored after doing the same activity a hundred times. I remember when I made my daughter take a stroke clinic which she hated but did anyway, developing into a talented swimmer. Watching her go back and forth was almost as much fun as doing it myself. Eventually  I joined the park district citizens’ advisory board so I could stick my two cents into any conversations about aquatics. Our parks director was more about parks than water. I wanted to advocate for investing in a community pool. Finally, the time came when the pool malfunctioned and it was time to tear it out, to start over with a new type of aquatic center which was more modern, with the bells and whistles that would attract more patrons and perhaps, break even financially. I was shell shocked even though I knew it was coming. Thirty years of life had gone by and that pool was part of my peace and joy. I mourned.

In time, I realized that fitness was a year round necessity and finally joined the indoor aquatic center so I could swim year-round. I acclimated because that’s what you do in order to survive and in time, was grateful to have a facility that I could use regularly. But my heart yearned for that feeling of swimming outside and escaping all the noise, both internal and external.

When the new outdoor aquatic center finally opened after almost 3 years, I went to check it out. I felt overwhelmed and alienated by all the noisy buckets, bells and slides meant to attract families and be more current than the old fashioned pool design I’d known for so long. I decided that the indoor pool would do and that except for spending time at the new Crystal Lake with my grandchildren, I’d keep my distance from this zooey place. But circumstances change. When Michael’s cancer came roaring to life last year, I stopped swimming in January and stayed by his side until his death in late May. He needed me and I needed to know that I’d done every last thing I could for him. I also wanted every single second that was left to us. When he died, I was whatever is beyond fatigue and exhaustion. After a few weeks. I realized that I needed to start moving before my body turned to total mush. I hadn’t realized how much muscle tone I lost during those months. Although I was always moving around and sleeping so little, the lack of regular exercise had caused all round atrophy. My doctor said that for every week of exercise that I’d missed, I’d need three weeks to begin to recover my strength. Suddenly I was looking at a year of weakness, something I’d never considered. Adding to the dilemma was my overwhelming sadness and grief.

If I went to the indoor pool, all the people that knew about my life would be waiting with sympathy. I knew that instead of working out, I’d be spending my time trying not to cry most of the time. I decided to go back to the outdoor pool, hoping to swim in privacy, not having to talk with anyone. The first couple of times I arrived for lap swim were disastrous. Friends I hadn’t seen in a long while were there and they all knew about Michael. Everything I tried to avoid was happening anyway. In addition, I couldn’t believe how weak I felt-every stroke was an enormous effort. I finally decided that the safest thing to do was to swim in the middle of the afternoon, when the pool was filled with screaming kids and I could disappear into the chaos while seeing virtually no one I knew. I thought it was a bit humorous that for so many people who had children and grandkids, that being around them during pool hours was like doing hard time. After a few weeks, I did bump into some friends, but not often. More importantly, I grew stronger, physically, mentally and emotionally. By the time Labor Day weekend rolled around, traditionally the last days of the outdoor season, I felt strong enough to go back indoors and pick up where I’d left off before Michael got so sick. And that’s exactly what I did. Over the fall and winter months, I reinstated my routine and faithfully moved on with my recovery.

But as spring approached and summer loomed, I found myself thinking more and more about wanting to swim outdoors. Taking the waters came into my head. I remembered how great it was to backstroke, looking up at the sky and the clouds. Watching hawks, turkey vultures and herons sail overhead as they moved toward the lake and scanned the ground for food. Dragonflies hovered constantly and bees droned along, attracted by the beautiful flowers and landscaping designs that surround the deck area. My pool pass needed renewing and I opted for the outdoor pass in addition to the indoor one. I’ve been going for a few weeks now. And indeed, I’m taking the rejuvenating, healing waters. As I glide up and back, I’ve been astonished to find powerful visual memories emerging, unelicited, from deep down in my body. I see my children, my daughter in a one piece suit with a single ruffle, diving off the side into her dad’s arms. I see my son, toddling gingerly through the kiddie pool, his arms uplifted, making sure someone was always nearby to grab his hand. I see my friends, laughing, joking and gossiping as they lay on the chaises, lazily watching me move along. I am powerwalking with my adult daughter in the shallow end, my sister nearby. I am telling a work acquaintance to stop talking to me about business when I’m in my vacation mode.

And I see Michael everywhere. I can see him diving. Swimming a whole length underwater and popping up right next to me. I can see the way his hair parts after swimming the crawl. Him smiling at me as he watches me swim length after length. I can feel how he pulled me toward him and walked around the water with me, clasped together in one of our happiest places. And I can see how much he loved being able to be there with our kids and the little boys, an experience he feared he’d never have. I don’t feel sad. I feel embraced. Every vision has a light quality to it, a shimmery glow that makes me smile, that brings comfort. My whole life happened at this place. My youth,  my life partnership, my friends, my babies, my family. It looks different but it’s in the same physical place and how I feel while immersed is the same drifting meditative sensation that I’ve had while swimming, always. The sneak attacks will come again. There can be no doubt of those ambushes as my love for Michael remains so alive. But I’m going to take the waters, whenever I can. To carry me through until the next time.C1AE13CC-EC17-4AA4-A294-EF805853D238A62360BA-E69F-44A6-82DD-65184A5C82D14A9A9C22-2B80-4943-B05B-977FAE59ECBE