Moon through the window My sleep habits are nothing to write home about. I think back to a time when I wasn’t wandering around in the middle of the …Three A.M. on Valentine’s Day Eve
Retrospective Part 1 : The Best Concerts
Today was my older sister’s birthday. She died last year, not long after turning seventy-six. In 2015, my older brother died, just short of his 72nd birthday. Neither of them reached the average life expectancies for women, age 79.1 or men, age 73.2, for people born in the U.S., as noted in the Harvard Medical School publication dated October 22nd, 2022. In a few months, I’ll be seventy-two. In my immediate family, the only person who exceeded the expected lifespan for people in this country was my mother. She was quite miraculous, surviving two cancers, wildly uncontrolled diabetes, ulcerative colitis and progressively deteriorating osteoporosis. A medical monstrosity with an incredible life force. So far, I’ve been far luckier with virtually no illnesses or conditions to rival my mom’s woes. But I know that life can change quickly for anyone, regardless of past health. My athletic husband, who exercised until the end of his life, and didn’t smoke or drink, has been outlived by so many people we know who envied him his fitness. So while I’m still here, I think about how that could rapidly change. So hoe about my life? I’ve been thinking back to different parts of it, especially those which I loved the most. For years, I’ve compulsively kept a record of my favorites, the books, the movies, the trips and the concerts. Why this need to document all this stuff? I have no idea. Is there a history gene? I don’t think so. But Michael also kept all kinds of lists, which included autobiographical information, concerts he’d attended, a movie catalogue of films he used in his history classes and on and on. Maybe there’s something in the water supply to our house. In any case, I’ve kept multiple running lists for a long while. Periodically I check them out, to see if I still feel the same about what’s on them. Do I want to add or subtract anything? For the most part, I they haven’t changed much, despite the increasing numbers of everything I’ve been tracking. The years go by with more seen, read or heard and yet the lists are mostly static. I guess magic happens less frequently for me these days. But about those concerts…
Despite growing up with economic challenges I was fortunate to see a few special shows during my teens. The ones that were most memorable for me were The Beatles and The Temptations concerts. When I was in college, I was lucky to be living in a community which supported multiple music venues. As a student I could take advantage of inexpensive tickets. I saw every kind of concert I could, from rock shows to blues jams to folk hootenannies to orchestras performing classical pieces. During Michael’s twenty-seven year period of co-owning a campus music store, we were in the enviable position of receiving tickets and backstage passes from the record companies which they passed out as bonuses for those businesses which sold large volumes of their products. In addition, we lived in a place conveniently within close range of multiple locations which were frequently booked by world-renowned performers. To say I lived an enriched cultural life is probably an understatement.
I hope that in the shorter time span stretching out ahead of me I’ll still attend incredible concerts which might make my all-time best list. And even if that doesn’t happen, I’ll always be happy and grateful when I’m sitting in an audience listening to live music. The special feeling of being personally engaged with an artist is magical. I worry about the continually escalating ticket prices which keep so many people away from having these unique experiences. The best parts of life should be available to everyone, not just the wealthiest among us. But who’s listening to my opinions? That’s a topic for another day. For now, for my kids and theirs, and anyone else who’s curious about my little slice of life, here are the most powerful concerts of my life. The ones that thrilled, inspired and evoked powerful feelings. I’m so privileged to have had so many magical moments in music world.
Renee’s best concerts in no particular order:
Robert Palmer – Quiet Knight – Chicago
Grateful Dead – Fox Theater, St Louis – October, 1972
Paul McCartney – Ft. Wayne County Coliseum, Indiana – June, 2019
Rolling Stones – Soldier Field – September, 2005
Keith Jarrett – Auditorium Theater – October, 1978
Mavis Staples – The Virginia Theater – April, 2016
Sonny Landreth – Krannert – September, 2013
Derek Trucks Band – Krannert – September, 2009
Farm Aid – Memorial Stadium – September, 1985
Bruce Springsteen – Assembly Hall – November, 1978
Joshua Redman – Krannert – September 11, 2001
Allman Brothers – Poplar Creek – August, 1980
Stevie Wonder – Rosemont Horizon – July, 1986
Natalie Merchant – Auditorium – December, 1995
Pete Yorn – Pageant – St. Louis – May, 2019
That’s a wrap for the concert thoughts. Next up : books.
And Just Like That…So Long, January
I can’t exactly remember when the passage of time shifted from what seemed to be gentle waves propelling me forward, to what now feels like rushing white water rapids, moving me along at a frenetic speed. Maybe that was back in my early 20’s. From that time forward, I wouldn’t have minded a couple of pauses to slow the sensation of barreling through my life. So many years gone by and yet, it feels like a minute. I can still recall everyone feeling weird about moving into the 21st century, all that Y2K madness, when some thought the world might end on December 31st, 1999. Now the third decade in that century is zipping right along. How can January already be over? And exactly what did I do in what seemed to be that relentlessly gray, dismal month? For most of my life I was pretty good at ignoring weather, figuring that something I couldn’t control wasn’t worth my attention. Maybe it’s the overall cultural feel, the mass shootings, the depressing politics, the endless Covid. I can’t say for certain, but in recent times I’ve been more negatively affected by the cold and sunless skies than ever before, a little like those people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder. I decided to have a look back at this past dreary January, to see if I actually did anything during the month. I know that on the first, I was watching a movie with my grandson, continuing the tradition we started last summer. In addition to the having the pleasure of his company, I get to introduce him to films from wide-ranging genres, including black and whites. One of my favorite activities.
My holiday present from son and daughter-in-law was a mid-week trip to Starved Rock State Park. Initially I was ambivalent about going there. For almost 25 years, our family had spent a few days in that wonderful place, usually during December. We started out as our family of four. Over time, that group expanded to include our kids’ boyfriends and girlfriends, ultimately husbands and grandchildren until eventually contracting to just me and my husband. A memory-laden location, I hadn’t been there since December, 2016, the last trip I had with Michael who died the following May. My trepidation proved unnecessary as the days away from home were a welcome break from my routine. I’m glad I can still enjoy those special shared spaces on my own.
A good antidote to dreary weather is diving into garden catalogs. I wasn’t able to resist the plant with the great name, which also promises to bloom almost anywhere while attracting bees and butterflies. I ordered three of them which should show up in early spring. Pigsqueak. Really?
My daughter-in-law and her mom bought me a beautiful orchid last November. I’ve never been able to keep one alive. I’ve been nursing this one along, hoping to break my jinx with this species. Blooming indoor plants are bright spots in winter.
On the rare days when the sun broke through the monotonous gloom, I hustled out to a favorite spot just outside the city limits. The plowed fields offer perfect backdrops for sunsets and clouds vistas. I’m always interested in the color permutations offered up by the sky. Except for the days when weather makes driving hazardous, I spent a bit of time shooting photos out there.
I’m now on a regular babysitting schedule with my granddaughter. The truth is, I have no way of knowing whether she will be the last baby I get to know on an intimate basis. Her presence, always interesting to me, along with the constant snuggling that’s part of caregiving, is an unexpected pleasure. Infancy flies by so quickly. My January included these special moments.
For much of my adult life, when movie award season rolled around, I’d already seen most of the films that were critically acclaimed. During the last few years, I haven’t kept up with new releases the way I once did. But this past month, I’ve made an effort to catch up with some of the ones I’ve missed this year. And, after considerable thought, I’m going back in time to revisit old favorites that I haven’t seen in a long while. January was a good month for movies.
As the death procession which accompanies average aging rolls on, January included the sudden and unexpected loss of my friend Stafford. Before we converted our three apartment house back into a single family dwelling, Stafford lived in one of the units upstairs. For a couple of decades we were in each other’s lives on a regular basis. We attended his wedding. He was around for my young kids and popped back in and out after he moved away. Each one of the deaths I’ve experienced in the past few years feels like an era ending. Lots of shared times come rolling out of my memory. My mom died with none of her peers left alive, only her children and grandchildren. I hope my trajectory doesn’t mimic hers. Too lonely.
My youngest grandson turned nine. I attended his birthday party. My son-in-law created a birthday cake with his current spirit animal, a scorpion. Every year the cakes reflect the kid’s’ personal evolutions. I appreciate the frozen moments in time. And the incredible cake-making talent.
One of my sustaining hobbies is photographing the birds who visit the feeders in my yard. Unfortunately my feeders attract a significant number of what I call rats with tails, the squirrels who populate my garden along with the more desirable visitors. I have a grudging admiration for them as they are highly intelligent, athletic problem-solvers who are utterly relentless in their pursuit of free food. I also hate them. As a holiday gift, my daughter gave me a camera trap which is activated by any movement in close proximity to its lens. I have gotten some great bird photos. But the majority of pictures are of the dastardly squirrels, walking up the siding on my house, scraping the paint off the wood trim and being otherwise completely annoying as they lazily eat the readily available bird seed.
I’m continuing to work my way through old VHS tapes, digitizing those which are still salvageable. I feel so lucky to be experiencing the unique time travel moments, when I get to remember what was happening so long ago. I take photos of certain moments as I watch the old film scroll across my computer screen. The first four pictures below are from 1976. They were taken in my parents’ Chicago apartment and in my brother’s home. I was 25 years old. My grandmother is the white-haired woman in the pink house dress. I still have that dress, hanging in my closet upstairs. My brother, seated next to her, was not yet totally lost in his mental disorders. The next two are from Thanksgiving in 1976. Michael went to his parents’ house that year, the last time he spent Thanksgiving away from my family. I chose to experience my favorite holiday traditions with the people who made me comfortable instead of awkward. I didn’t ever regret that choice. My one Thanksgiving with Michael’s parents was a cold dismal affair. I learned fast – once was enough.
The following two pictures are from 1987. A close-up look at my sweet son, well before he could even walk. And a profile shot of my handsome husband which still arouses all kinds of emotions in me. Despite all my scientific beliefs, the mystery of this one true love situation I find myself in is undeniable. Do I believe that most people don’t necessarily mate for life? Yes. But apparently I’m not most people.
So that was January. Many small moments that make up a life. They’re not nothing, nor are they everything. I’m going to see what February brings, if I’m still alive and all goes according to plan. Meanwhile, here a few interesting cloud formations I photographed during the first month of 2023.
Notes From the Cancer Journals
Currently, I’m wrangling with myself about whether or not I should toss away the contents of my journals, which now span many decades. I go through this thought process periodically. The journals, along with the 821 letters I’ve written to Michael since his death, are not necessarily worth reading, at least by anyone but me. In fact, in one of the little notes I wrote him was this little gem:
I’ve been reading all my old journals. What a painful slog. Seems like I’m either embarrassed or depressed, or occasionally enlightened, bewildered or exhausted. I realize I wrote a lot in code over the years so no one could figure out what the hell I was talking about. I’m not even sure I know what I was talking about. There’s an occasional really great zinger or insight. Also a lot of drivel.
I’ve concluded that growing up takes a lot longer than I thought. I expect most people never really make it and don’t even know that.
Re-reading that note made me laugh. I’ve always been pretty good at self-criticism.
As I leafed through all these pages, I landed on some from the five year cancer experience Michael and I lived through before he died. Almost all of that experience remains vivid in my memory, including many of thoughts I wrote as we made our way, day by day. What I wrote still resonates with me. Maybe someone who is living that life would benefit from reading the bits and pieces of that time. I’m still here, albeit a modified version of who I was before traumatic time which began in 2012, accelerated at the end of 2013, and eventually ended in 2017. Except it never wholly ended as I will carry that experience with me forever. In any case, here are some snippets from the cancer journals.
April 8, 2014
Where to start? This Wednesday will be the day when we would have been starting chemo again. Three weeks ago Wednesday was day one of M’s 6th and final round of his first cycle of chemotherapy. That following Sunday, he had his last Neulasta shot, the stuff that supports his blood marrow so his immune system wouldn’t tank completely from the toxic treatment. He rested, had some bloodwork which showed shockingly low platelets on the 1st of April, and met with the doctor. His next scan, which will tell if this poison has accomplished anything, is set for May 2nd, a Friday, the day after our wedding anniversary, which is not as symbolic as I sometimes imagine. We meet with the doctor the following Monday, May 5th. Doomsday? More life? Who knows?
And yet, somehow on April 2nd, we boarded a plane in Indianapolis and headed south, to The Grand Plaza Resort on St. Pete’s Beach, the Gulf Coast of Florida, one of our favorite places. Today is our last day here. It’s the only day it rained, but it’s still warm enough and the gulls are calling, the waves are rolling and we sit on our 9th floor balcony together, soaking in these last moments of our trip. We have lived it like Groundhog Day, sleeping late, eating brunch, sitting in our semi-sheltered corner by the pool, alternating between chairs and a chaise lounge. The first day we rented a cabana on the beach, but decided as it was only yards from the pool, to not spend the extra money every day.
I was really scared on our travel day because Michael looked so pale and exhausted. While waiting to process our rental car paperwork, he sat in a wheelchair, looking ghostly. Had I killed him?
But each day he has improved and has real color in his face and has relaxed so much. Every afternoon, he ate a hearty bowl of clam chowder poolside, a high heme food to build up his hemoglobin, and I ordered frozen lime daiquiris while he downed a gin and tonic. We read, dozed or stared at the beautiful Gulf. Unbeknownst to us our hotel was a wedding destination and every afternoon through early evening, we watched a parade of brides, grooms and all their families and guests, march themselves down to a canopy and chairs chosen for their particular ceremonies. Clothing styles ranged from extravagantly fancy to simply casual. We speculated about which ones would last and which would end. Both of us were a bit wistful for that more innocent time when we first made the decision to make our commitment. Who knew how anything would turn out? We certainly weren’t thinking about cancer back then. Ah well…Our hotel had a beach bar called Bongo’s and every afternoon there was live music which has for the most part, added to the lazy ambience of this place. After an afternoon outside under our big umbrellas, we ambled somewhere for dinner. We had a great time at Spinners, a rotating rooftop restaurant on the floor of the hotel, expensive but with gorgeous views of the Gulf. Afterwards, we lay in our bed, watching tv and holding each other. Miraculously, managed to carefully maintain our intimacy, through all the chemo, and impossibly, shoved the disease away for this brief period. When I felt it creeping in with its incumbent grief and terror, I have used everything I’ve got to push it back. And for the most part, I’ve succeeded.
I know when we go home tomorrow, everything will rush back in and this bliss will eventually slip away. But it’s sweetness and ease make it one of the best trips we’ve ever had, as with our heightened sense of being alive, we totally soak in every moment. Maybe it is our last trip. I have no idea. But I won’t ever forget it.
April 14, 2014
I can’t count how many hours I’ve laid in bed next to Michael in the morning while he sleeps, me wide awake, his arms around me, me sweating, stretching my toes and ankles. Feeling his body, listening to his breathing. Not wanting to miss a minute of the rest of our life together.
I play Words with Friends on my phone, pay bills, check Facebook, look at the clinical trials website. I feel glad that I’m doing it, knowing that when he’s gone, I’ll remember this and it will comfort me when I’m desolate.
He doesn’t like so many of the tv shows I enjoy, so to stay in the same room in the evening, I watch my stuff on an iPad with headphones. I couldn’t do this any other way. I don’t want to squander one second.
Our personal relationship has somehow gotten more intense, despite all his treatment. We are both still hungry for each other and I marvel that it’s this way after 42 years.
I’ve been doing all the studying, giving him synopses of what I’ve learned while he stays in his body, trying to strengthen himself. But he asked me to share some of the articles and studies I’ve been reading. So I sent him one and last night, he read one of the comprehensive Merkel cell papers that I’ve been perusing for awhile. The survival numbers in it are so discouraging that I immediately could tell he’d read it. He was instantly very down, crushed by the same dark feelings I’ve struggled with constantly. I don’t think he recognized how awful it’s been for me to be knowing all this stuff. I, in turn, have been so amazed that he is able to set it aside, even for a minute, which is clearly what he’s been doing. We as always, approach things quite differently. I hope it wasn’t a mistake to send it to him.
Reality Check – I Just Can’t
In the three years before my mom died, I moved her three times, once into my house, once into assisted living and finally, into a nursing home for the last seven months of her life. I never thought that could happen. Each move was intense as I had to keep paring down all her possessions while trying to keep her as comfortable, secure and content as possible. She couldn’t quite grasp what the challenge was for me. My mom’s transitions were taking place in the middle of Michael’s cancer. I thought I’d go mad trying to balance everything. After my experience with her, I became obsessed with not wanting to put my kids through anything similar. So I started planning how I might make their lives easier than mine by tackling the downsizing of my possessions while I was still fit and able. However, I’ve learned that some goals are harder to achieve than we think.
I can’t remember how long my mom hung on to my dad’s clothes after he died. She used to talk about how handsome he looked in his suits. During their lean economic times, dad wore the same jacket and slacks to work every day. When their financial life improved, they used to to go a very stylish men’s shop in the neighborhood, Saper’s, where dad would get fitted for winter suits and summer suits. Tailoring was done right there in the store where a personal stylist helped select color-coordinated shirts and ties. Dad’s part of the closet was like a beautiful artist’s palette, the suits lined up in dark blues, grays and tan clusters, punctuated by pastel peach, yellow, robin’s egg blue and lilac shirts with starched collars and multi-striped ties draped over the hangers. I don’t know if mom just needed them to be there or if she periodically took them out, smelled them, or wrapped herself up in them, the way sad partners do when they miss the touch of their people. After some years passed she was finally able to let them go. I remember thinking that I couldn’t understand how a closet full of clothes provided her such solace. I couldn’t imagine that I’d ever feel that way. Of course that was at a time when I was positive I’d be gone long before Michael, based on our family histories. The best laid plans…
Within a week of his death in late May 2017, I scooped up almost all of Michael’s clothes and donated them to a local charity. I had my kids choose a few items for themselves, something that reminded them most of their dad, while I kept some comfortable T-shirts for myself to snuggle in when times got rough. The truth is, Michael left me a mourning quilt assembled from pieces of his clothing. He had it made over three and a half years earlier, shortly after we received his unexpectedly dire prognosis, a year and a half after we’d hoped he’d been cured. I had no idea the quilt existed. Having received this surprise right after he died made eliminating his wardrobe significantly easier for me than it might’ve been otherwise – mom only had three months to ponder dad’s absence before he was gone, while Michael and I had five years to struggle with the concepts of death and absence.
In any event, I knew Michael wasn’t his clothes and I didn’t much care what he wore. His half of our closet remains empty except for some ties which I keep thinking I might turn into an art project, and a couple of matching jackets with our names and the logo of his business embroidered on them, vestiges of his music store days. They fall into the “I just can’t” category. No one was as surprised as me to discover that I would have a that’s-off-limits attitude when the time came to get rid of “stuff.” I thought I had all the materialist business sorted out long ago. For years I’d been thinking about how I’d manage dealing with the accumulations of things that were part of building a life, especially one with the same person with whom I occupied the same living space for decades. The additional internal pressure I felt about not wanting to saddle my kids with the detritus of our lives while they grieve is big for me. And yet, during the past six years, I’ve surprised myself with the absolutely irrational thought processes which have informed my decisions on what stays and what goes. After I emptied the clothes closet, I turned my attention to all of the shelves Michael had built to house his burgeoning collections. I pared down the spice racks in the kitchen. Between the two of them I now have eight empty shelves. I was never the adventurous, ambitious cook that Michael was – who needed all those random bottles? However, I found myself unable to part with a couple of his own concoctions for his favorite recipes, simply because I couldn’t stand tossing away anything he’d created for himself. Logical? Not exactly. So there they sit, all these years later.
We shared a study. The drawers in his desk are empty. I placed photos on the shelves which once housed school books and all his lesson plans, along with piles of resource materials for his classes. One tall oak unit with adjustable shelf heights is now virtually empty. I don’t spend much time in that room so its somewhat hollow feeling isn’t a big factor in my daily life. In any case, those empty spaces remind me that I have been able to get rid of some things.
Thankfully, I convinced Michael to unload his massive vinyl and CD’s collection, acquired over 27 years of owning that music store, before he died. The room where that was housed, with floor to ceiling shelves, is frozen in time. A few months after he sold everything, including almost all the racks, he got really sick. That room became our hospice space, with a hospital bed and a recliner for me. After Michael died, I used the room as a sorting station for the hundreds of posters and miscellaneous music items he left behind. One side of the room still has a full shelving unit of books and memorabilia. The other side has one mostly empty remaining unit and a big blank wall. I got stuck in that room, out of energy for figuring out what’s next for the space. Ideas are still spinning, though. Maybe one day I’ll implement one of them.
Of course this dilemma I’m in is not simple. The half-emptied spaces in my house are a little weird but not weird enough to put the brakes on purging more stuff. The real obstacle is that lots of what I unearth as I make my way through my house, not only holds my interest, but also stimulates both my memory and my wistful sentimentality. Reason and practicality are quickly relegated to the background as I indulge myself in all the feelings stirred up by each object, most of which I’m sure won’t hold much allure for my family. Maybe. For example, how can I part with the shelves of Grateful Dead CD’s, lovingly accumulated by Michael the Deadhead, basically laying out a timeline of all the concerts he attended over so many years? Throw away history? Not me.
I still haven’t been able to unload a single bottle of his hot sauce collection, still lined up on the unit he built just for them. Their names still make me laugh – Spontaneous Combustion and Evaporate Your Eyebrows, for example. Michael was no more these bottles than he was his clothes but I just can’t dump them. My attempt to feel less wacky about them has been to add some photos to the shelves which proves I’m not preoccupied with the sauces. Right?
I’ve found comic books stashed in unexpected places, after I thought I’d dispersed all of them. Are they worth anything? Who knows? I find the idea of exploring that route exhausting. So back on the rack they go, right next to all the DVD’s of old television shows that I didn’t know we had. I’ve told myself that Michael probably used some of them in the film and history class he taught, but maybe he just needed to have them because he loved them. Whatever the case might have been, for now they’re also in the I just can’t pile.
Of course it’s not all about Michael. After my mom died, I found envelopes with my dad’s handwriting on them which were filled with old postage stamps. Evidently there was a time during his retirement when he decided to have a hobby, unusual for a guy who spent most of his waking hours studying the stock market. I bought some stamp collector storage books and neatly filed them away. So of course I have those. Then I found a bunch of old slides from my mom’s family and from my life in the early ‘70’s. At some point I got an old school handheld slide projector and then promptly stashed everything in a drawer. I found those items in my current digging and sorting activity. I’m keeping them for a future project. So many future projects.
The I just can’t pile is getting hefty. Beatles books and Beatles singles collections. Autographs and Michael’s meticulous music compilations, all in chronological order. A missed box of unopened cassette tapes. A couple of storage tubs filled with cards and letters stashed for the past fifty-five years, the length of time since I left home at age seventeen. I even have two ceramic sculptures that I made when I was twelve.
The walls of my house are crammed with photos, posters and art. Even after giving each of my kids part of Michael’s button collection, I still have two full displays. I love all this stuff and yet, am relatively certain no one will want any of it after I’m gone. What a quandary.
I still have tubs of my son’s things piled up in his old room and in closets, which I’m hoping to have him remove from my space. Their disappearance might help me feel like I’m making progress toward my goal. While he’s living like a minimalist, my house is his storage unit. I actually find that somewhat entertaining.
That goal of mine keeps getting deferred as I dither around confronting the fact that my intellectual plans don’t necessarily coincide with my emotional needs. Recently I decided that in order to stay sane, I’d have to forgive myself for my internal conflict. I’m just going to do my best which will likely be imperfect in one way or another. Sometimes you just can’t let it all go, despite your best intentions. And that’s the way it is.
Among the Loose Threads
Today I did something I haven’t done in a very long time. I took a six hour class about James Joyce’s Ulysses. I read that dense, complicated novel a couple of times when I was young and in college, had a seminar focused solely on that fictional one day wander through the streets of Dublin. My professor was an Irishman whose attic classroom floor housed a miniature model of the city. We students could truly visualize the movements of the book’s characters, in a’70’s version of a virtual stroll. I’ve always remembered that unique experience and even recall a few lines from the book itself. I don’t know if I really understood the whole thing, or even if that matters. What stuck with me was the rambling stream-of-consciousness writing style and the recognition that in the course of a single average day, a person goes through countless experiences, thoughts and emotions, many of which are so minute that they barely register in our minds. But they’re in there somewhere. I’m fascinated by this subterranean activity which our brains manage, along with the basic requirements of existence like breathing and digestion, to name a few. How does all this work? I know I have a background conversation with myself which goes on constantly, below the surface of my daily life. Then there are all the little tasks I perform, the humdrum ones requisite in an average day. Do most people make note of the laundry-folding, dish-washing, toilet-flushing, bill-paying parts of their time while they’re thinking of something else? Or is it those small jobs which get all their attention while quietly, in some other space they’re wondering how long they’ll be alive? I can’t really say. For today, I’m going to allow myself a disjointed ramble before all the loose threads in my head wholly unravel and slip away. A brief respite from the relentless, massive problems of the world.
My cousin Eliot’s birthday was this past week on January 10th. He committed suicide when he was only twenty-seven, having been in a mental health struggle since his mid-teens. I always write his sister, my cousin, now the only surviving member of her family, on January 10th. She told me that I’m now the sole person who contacts her on his birthday – to everyone else he is forgotten. Sad, sad, sad. How could I forget that boy, only eight years younger than me, although back then, the gap felt wider? He was part of my youthful landscape, at all our family gatherings from his earliest years to the end of his life. One time he told me that he knew I understood him well because we were so alike. I shrank back from that statement which felt deeply unnerving. I was empathetic, but never fully experiencing or sharing his dire emotional place. I still ponder how that time arrives, when a person’s internal balance shifts so profoundly that relief from devastating, unremitting mental pain is more desired than anything life has to offer. He missed so many possibilities, this bright demonized young man. I started sorting through old photos to remember him and suddenly found myself staring at my own siblings before any breakage happened between us. Half of us are gone too. All the losses. All the losses. Sad, sad, sad.
Aside from the preponderance of my time which I spend alone, I am mostly with young people. When you had a partner but now have no partner, social structure changes. Most of my friends who occupied my adult life are still paired. With rare exceptions, I no longer feel comfortable among them, in my role as the “third person.” Their lives are still within the couple realm and since the beginning of the pandemic, contact diminished greatly anyway. Aside from the few individuals, mostly the women, with whom I occasionally share a meal, I am primarily in the world of brief contact. This happens with those I call the satellite people who work in spaces in which I place myself, like the lifeguards at the pool, or the wait staff at a favorite restaurant. With them I have friendly, short conversations. Incidental interactions. The rest of my companion time is spent with my children and their children. Or my sister. Or my children’s friends. Or the young people I’ve found along my way. Like the lovely young woman who helped clean my house and who babysat for my dog, and over the years, became part of my personal life. The time is limited by our various obligations along with the intermittent isolation required by endless Covid. I’ve pushed away a significant number of my peers in the almost six years since Michael died, people who were once seemingly permanent fixtures in my world but who frequently disappointed me, hurt my feelings, or were otherwise simply alien to me. I don’t have the patience for draining relationships like those any more. I don’t miss any of them. I wonder why I was involved with them at all. Partially because of Michael. He was more likely to ignore the annoying behavior of people than me. Now I no longer compromise myself. Anyway, being with younger people keeps my mind nimble. I’d like to stay that way, as long as I’m still hanging around.
Almost every day since her birth, I am close to my granddaughter’s face, locked in eye contact with her. Babies on the cusp of daily discovery can make those intense connections, without any shyness or discomfort. Those direct looks so often become diluted with age, when eye contact can become a mere glance. Aside from my own babies and theirs, I have only stared for hours on end into Michael’s eyes, and his back into mine, as we silently explored our magical connection with each other. When we were young we did that for hours.
I can still look at him that way even though he is long gone. At least the corporeal part of him. So strange, I’m not like this but I’m like this. Grounded and yet floating in space. But back to this baby. When I see the mutable expressions on my granddaughter’s face as she sleeps, or even while she’s awake, her mind is clearly roaming through a whirl of emotions which play across her features, I am suddenly thinking of Proust. Remembrance of Things Past, or rather In Search of Lost Time, his staggering novel about the exploration of involuntary memory. And I’m wondering what we really know about the brain. How can this little baby in her small universe already display such feelings? Was she born with components of memory? Or are the sets of human feelings simply innate, coming to the surface in her subconscious mind and expressing themselves rapidly during sleep? All of which seem like impossible contradictions. I am so curious, so, so curious. Is she feeling what she appears to be feeling? Is she dreaming? What do infant dreams look like? Or sound like? Tiny sounds are coming from her now. Are they part of her sleeping mind? Or are they all part of her rapidly developing consciousness? I’ll never know the answers to all my questions. I do know that this phase of life is endlessly fascinating to me. How can people think that little ones are boring?
February’s arrival will mark three years since I was last sick. That’s when I had still-unnamed Covid, during which I felt more dreadful than I ever have felt with any previous illness. I am left without much sense of smell which has both up and down sides. I can’t smell any wonderful aromas which is rotten, but I also don’t smell anything rotten which is sort of okay. When I want to complain about that, I tell myself to bite my tongue. So many people are suffering far worse consequences of this malady, up to and including death. Yes, bite my tongue. And speaking of biting my tongue – are there any new phrases which have yet to be written? Seems like every time I mutter one to myself, I find out its origins are almost always Shakespeare or the Bible. Have I ever said anything original? Who knows?
Can I still be in the now if I don’t listen to podcasts? My commute from upstairs to downstairs to outside is pretty fast. When I took long roadtrips, I listened to books on tape but even then, I opted mostly for music. Am I old-fashioned because I prefer reading rather than having someone talk to me about almost any topic? I’m usually busy thinking. Music is energizing, stimulating, an accompaniment to my thoughts and emotions. Would listening to a story be better? I don’t think I’m going to jump on this bandwagon. I have to read. I have to listen to music. My mind’s exercises. I don’t feel well if I don’t do both of them every day. Maybe that makes me old school. Don’t care. The only rules I care about now are the ones I make for myself. How luxurious.
My friend Chris and I were exchanging messages about all the deaths of our old friends. Although he isn’t a big fan of his work, he sent me a Philip Roth quote. “Old age isn’t a battle – it’s a massacre.” Sometimes life feels that way as we older people navigate our way to the head of the line. When all those ahead of us are gone, no more buffers between us and the inevitable. And today, another phone call, kicking off the new year, and another friend gone. Goodbye, Stafford.
One foot in front of the other. That’s what’s real, at least for me.
A Lot Happened – Part 2
My mother told me long ago that I’d inherited “farmer” genes from my grandmother, her mother, who apparently could coax almost any plant to burst out of the dirt. She always grew African violets indoors. When she and my grandfather lived in a house with a yard, she grew a richly layered garden of flowers and vegetables. Whether or not it’s true that there’s a farmer gene in my family, I really don’t know. The fact is that I feel drawn to working in my garden whenever weather permits. Despite an occasional failure, for the most part I’ve had a lot of success growing perennials, trees and shrubs on my lot, some of which are now almost forty years old. The dense foliage I’ve planted provides a habitat for birds, small mammals and the pollinators whose survival is so threatened. I draw intense satisfaction from feeling that I’m still making a difference in this world, small though that it may be. For me, making a positive impact is important, especially as I age. I think ideas about retaining relevance are quite personal. For me, it’s staying connected to the issues of the times. Climate change is certainly one of those.
I spent most of July 2022 splitting my daylight hours between the garden and the pool. I always listen to music while I work, marveling at the Pandora algorithm, which tosses a mix of the familiar and the new through my headphones. Ironically, I’m aware that having almost five hundred favorites on three separate playlists is a bit excessive, but I guess excessive is how I roll when I really love anything, from people to songs.
During the pandemic, driving into the countryside, which is a scant ten minutes from my house, became a balm for soothing the occasional restlessness I felt at being confined. In July, that stir-crazy feeling had the unanticipated benefit of allowing me to take some great photos of beautiful skies and animals. I learned that despite being geographically limited, you can still find a sense of freedom in nature. Examples from my wandering include a late afternoon moon, a mourning dove perched on a fence post and a gorgeous sunset.
August brought spectacular blooms to the garden. The hot dry weather continued as did my incessant watering. The giant dinner plate hibiscus was as advertised and more, bigger than a person’s head. But there was more going on than flowers. My whole family trooped off to watch my son play basketball in a summer league. Watching him play was always a great pleasure for me and after many years, nothing had changed. My daughter’s best friend and work colleague, along with her family, were part of our Covid bubble, the survival trick that helped so many isolated families navigate the isolation. Basketball games with the all the kids was part of our socializing, along with rollicking dinners. Chosen family is one of life’s bonuses.
For the second year in a row, I had the thrill of watching monarch butterflies mate right in my garden. A sight like that brings a tiny ray of hope for the future. A bit sublime.
Not so sublime was the grinding death rattle of my 31 year old central air conditioning unit during blazing hot weather. After an attempt at a repair came the recognition that a five digit fix was at hand. Buying a new a/c unit, which of course necessitated a new furnace to handle the modern fixtures, was one of those unpleasant reminders that you can unexpectedly spend a lot of money without ever leaving your house. Hopefully that will be the last home maintenance disaster for awhile.
Toward the end of the month, my daughter and I headed up to Chicago to celebrate her birthday. My gift to her was attending the Immersive Monet experience, a fascinating presentation of animated paintings set to music. Whenever I make the drive up to the city, I always at least partially feel that I’m going home. I actually only spent ten years of my life as a city resident. But they were my growing-up years which left deep impressions on me. I don’t ever want to live in such a busy place again although I’m always glad to visit my favorite old haunts and restaurants. The incomparable skyline and the lake are quite simply the best.
August ended with me still recording time’s passing with photos of all the beautiful creatures who visit my yard. Another ongoing treat was the film project I started with my eldest grandson this past year. I get to be the person who offers up movie choices from the 1930’s forward to right now, to my still inexperienced but interested companion. Challenging him to watch “old school” black and white gems and quiet films, devoid of action heroes and deafening soundtracks, is fun for both of us. He’s making a list of his top ten films which is quite fluid as he sees more every week. I highly recommend sharing movies with kids. This project is good for both of us.
September began on a sad note. I received a call from my oldest friend Maurine, who told me that another one of our crowd, Pat, from way back in college, had been found dead in her home. Ironically, at the time she was caring for her sister, who was coping with the effects of Stage IV colon cancer and its treatment. A few years ago, Pat had survived a complex and delicate surgery on a large brain aneurysm. Her death was still shocking and unexpected, despite that prior history. Our circle of friends who’ve stayed connected for over 50 years were all stunned. Way back in 1972, I went to Europe with Pat and Maurine on a backpacking trip. We didn’t bring a camera and of course had no cell phones. I don’t have a single photo of just the two of us from any point in our life together. We weren’t as close in recent years as we’d been when we were younger, but we were in touch for most of our lives. When Michael died, she made sure she was present for his celebration of life. They’d been friends for years, too. Some time before he died, she’d invited him to speak with young teachers she was helping train in Chicago, an experience he really enjoyed. At one time back in the day, Maurine, along with Julie, Pat and I were a feminist foursome. Now Julie and Pat are dead, well before the average life expectancy for women in this country. A sad and sobering thought. I managed to write an obituary for Pat after gathering some current information about her life from more friends and colleagues, to supplement my knowledge. Someone established a website where that was posted, the least I could do for Pat. Oh, how the losses keep piling up.
If I learned anything from the unexpected deaths of the year, living as well as possible was probably the key takeaway, not exactly a new revelation but a reminder that life is short. I headed up to a great getaway spot in Wisconsin to enjoy a change of scenery, along with an indoor and outdoor pool, and even a bonus massage. My younger sister came with me. With my older sister’s death earlier this year, we’re now the only members left from our original family of six.
The garden was still thriving as the seasons shifted. My ever-evolving touchstone. Meanwhile my daughter hosted a baby shower for my son and daughter-in-law. That event drew family and friends we hadn’t seen in a long time. The warm weather allowed for open doors and outdoor time as we were endlessly mindful about the omnipresent Covid.
I’ve lived long enough to know that everything comes to an end. Endings can br really hard for me. I’m not sure if I was born with the tendency toward profound loyalty or if I developed it over time. What’s true is that once committed to someone or something, I have a deep-seated tendency to stay that way. And so it is with Roger Federer. I found his personal story both interesting and appealing. As a teenaged phenom, he was periodically temperamental and obnoxious on the tennis court. Identified as a potential number one player by his young coach Peter Carter, he struggled with self-control. After the untimely death of his 38 year old coach in a tragic car accident, he was powerfully motivated to alter his behavior. The flashes of his brilliance turned into a steady string of successes. Aside from his beautiful tennis style, his human grace was for me, the best part of his game. No more temper tantrums for him. After he began winning major tournaments in 2003, he established himself as a philanthropist, building schools in impoverished countries in Africa, and supporting charitable programs from food distribution to athletic clinics around the world. Married to the woman he met as a teenager with whom he now has two sets of twins, traveling the tennis circuit with his parents in tow, what wasn’t to love? After twenty years of enjoying watching Roger, whose presence got me through some tough times, he is gone. I cried when he played his last match. I’ll move on as I always have. But I doubt that I’ll ever love another athlete the way I love him. Isn’t life surprising?
When Michael and I were young and broke, we spent our days off work driving along backroads, exploring. We discovered a few wonderful small town festivals that we ultimately attended annually, drawn by delicious, inexpensive food, interesting craft displays, flea markets and music. After we had kids, we attempted to bring them with us to these events but they were never quite as interested as we were. Decades later, after Michael got cancer, during his remissions we rediscovered our old haunts and were happy to experience the same good times once again. Except for steeper prices, we felt lucky to attend.
I hadn’t been back to the Apple Pork Festival since 2016. Sometimes I get nervous about revisiting the sites of great times I shared with Michael. My kids convinced me to go again this past September. We had a great time. There’s nothing like a lemon shake-up and a funnel cake on a warm early fall afternoon.
October came along. My kids and I attended the Pride parade in our community. I think we all felt that the atmosphere at this event was the best we’d felt en masse in a long time. Virtually every age group and political stripe was represented in this festive gathering. I’m glad to live where I live.
My daughter-in-law and I went to the local apple orchard for cider, pumpkins, taffy apples and fresh apple cinnamon doughnuts. I cooked a big Yom Kippur dinner for the family, glad to note that despite being lazy about preparing food, I still can produce a memorable meal.
As the days of October passed, I soaked in the last of the summer flowers along with the straggling butterflies. Despite the flagging garden, I’ve always been a fan of the riot of brilliant colors which are the last hurrah of fall before winter dispenses with leaves for the next six months.
My old friends who had relocated to Canada in March returned for a visit in October. Seeing them was a great comfort to me, considering the losses of the past year. More than ever, I’m reminded to spend time with the people you love. “Make every minute count” is my motto.
October’s end brought the delight of the successful transfer from decades-old VHS tapes to a digital format, allowing me to extract still photos from the previously unseen videos. I got to see precious photos of my children from their early childhood, along with never-seen photos from my son’s appearance in the 2001 National Spelling Bee. Seeing new pictures of Michael and me was a fabulous bonus from this buried treasure.