Julie and Farewells

When I woke up this morning, my first thought was that today is Julie’s birthday. An easy one to remember since it’s the Fourth of July. The least I can do is to remember her before the fireworks begin.

I wrote this blog in 2019. Julie died in March of 2020, barely a day before Covid took over our world. Today her memorial service was finally held, more than two years after her death. The intimate presentations by her husband and friends, punctuated by selections of Julie’s beautiful writing, was powerful. As I sat on Zoom, watching it all, I sobbed and intermittently looked into my backyard, watching birds fluttering around, listening to their calls as the mating season has arrived. How I miss my wonderful friend who loved watching the chickadees visit the bird feeder on her back deck. Rich chose a selection from a note I wrote her, which appears highlighted below, in his eulogy. I feel the same way today as I did back then. Goodbye, dearest Julie.


I have a beloved friend named Julie. I’ve been lucky enough to have kept her in my life for about 50 years. We met in college. We were part of the revolutionary days of the late ‘60’s and early 70’s. We were anti-war, pro-women’s and civil rights and profoundly anti-establishment and anti-patriarchy. Julie was a warrior-poet. Erudite, well-read, sardonic and bitingly funny, she was my kind of person. She had the courage to head a slate of candidates who were running for office as an alternative student government at our university, with Julie as the chair. Everyone won but her. A more moderate male was elected to the spot which should rightfully have been hers. Hard times for women back then, despite some progress. Still hard times. I knew Julie before she married her husband Rich as she knew me before I married Michael. Today that seems almost as if we were friends in prehistoric times.

She was a few years older than me. I can’t find a couple of excellent photos of her from back in those days but I include a few blurry ones. She was very spirited and beautiful, along with all her intellectual firepower. Julie was a “townie,” born in the community where we both attended college. When she got involved with Rich who was a graduate student, she got a job and stayed in town while he was finishing his degree. They had a daughter who is few years older than mine.B9D44278-8654-4E14-BEFC-FD431D9CC944

When many of our friends made the post-graduation exodus to Chicago, we still had each other and I felt lucky that our two daughters, a few years apart in age, played in the same houses together. Eventually, Rich got a job at a college in Kentucky and they packed up and moved away. We wrote, frequently at first, and then less so. But it didn’t really matter. When we got together, we had one of those easy relationships that picked up where it left off, without any difficult transitions.7A32A9CD-FC31-46A3-95CE-D46E9B683E54

Eventually, they moved to Ames, Iowa where they still reside. They came back here frequently to Julie’s hometown for visits, her hometown where I still reside. Eventually her dad died which was a big deal because he was a department head at the University. I remember going to the memorial service for him which was crowded and blurry because of all the attendees. But I was there. As years went by, Julie’s mom ultimately needed living assistance and Julie moved her to Ames. Visits home decreased. Still we managed to stay in touch.A4A2FEE9-EEAA-4439-A1F9-962D0E1203C6

About 19 years ago, breast cancer showed up in Julie’s life at a pretty early age. It was one of the particularly nasty types, the Her-2 positive version which necessitated that she was blasted with treatment. She clawed her way through all of that and came out on the other side, for which all who loved her were deeply grateful. But about three years ago, cancer reappeared in her liver, the same breast cancer as the earlier one, with a slightly different mutation. How incredible that a cancer can lie dormant for almost seventeen years and then re-emerge in a new place and be so life-threatening. By that time, Michael had succumbed to his cancer and I was a free agent. Cancer can be such an isolating experience. I’d vowed to myself that I would make myself available to loved ones and friends who were going through treatments and hard times.

So I took off for Ames in fall of 2017 to spend some time with my old friends and give them support and empathy in their difficult situation. We had a wonderful visit and although we were uncertain about how effective the treatments would be, I hoped that I’d see Julie again. And that’s exactly what happened. She outlived her prognosis and actually did well enough to make a visit back here last year.

Other dear friends from Chicago joined us and we all were thrilled and hopeful that she would be one of those who’d beat the odds. She had such a good time that she talked about the possibility of moving back here and reestablishing a life in the town of her childhood. We continued to communicate and all seemed well. But suddenly things took a dark turn – the liver cancer metastasized and spread to her colon. An exploratory surgery unearthed too many bad spots splayed out everywhere and the only treatment  alternative was a “light” chemo, as if anything that toxic could actually be termed light. Her response was dreadful with her immune system getting hammered and making her vulnerable to virtually any opportunistic germ. Slowly she recovered from that.20E0A589-208C-4462-B286-AE351D8C92CB

During the US Open that year, she and Rich and I spoke before my personal favorite, Roger Federer’s, match on a Tuesday evening. We were all pretty lighthearted. But the next day, Julie began experiencing dreadful abdominal pain and was hospitalized. After scans and other tests, the doctors concluded that she had an intestinal obstruction which in the case of someone with her disease, was considered a death sentence. On September 7th, Rich sent out a note to family and friends saying that Julie had days to weeks to live and was being transferred to a hospice facility. He told people that if we wanted to plan a goodbye we were welcome to do that and transmitted a message from Julie expressing her gratitude for all the love she’d felt from those of us who’d been part of her life.09A932F1-D74C-4629-9C24-E21E3F828127

I sat stunned in my living room, not knowing what I should do. My knee replacement surgery was still pretty recent and an hours’ long car ride with my leg bent seemed like a terrible idea. So I decided to send Rich a note with the request that he read it to Julie who was being treated for pain while being fed through nasogastric tubing. I wrote this on September 7th, the same day I got this dreadful news.

My dearest Julie,

I have lain beside you in beds and on couches since we were so very young, when we were vulnerable and pained, and when we were angry and valiant, and  so “in your face,” to the assholes of the world. So I lay beside you now, in some ethereal form which should be wordless in reality, but is not in the case of you and me. I remember.

Hours of talking and sorting and handholding. Speaking of love and sadness and mysteries of this difficult world. Gales of laughter through the worst of times. The gifts of our language which we acquired on the journey of this life ring loudly in my head. Julie the poet. I could listen to you for hours and you listened to me, a master of graffiti, as we found the right word that would resonate for whatever was the urgency of the moment.

I have not left you and you will not leave me. Whatever are the crevices that our bodies hold for those who come along and somehow wriggle into the fabric of our person is the place I am in you and the place you are in me. Even when we are converted to ash or dust, that space for each other was settled long ago.

I wish you release from every type of pain. You’ve suffered better life’s challenges because your will came from a place of love. For as long as I am a corporeal being I will lift your banner and try to ease the pain of your dearest family. I treasure what we’ve been able to share in recent years, an affirmation of what is unbreakable and forever. I love you, Julie, for now and always. Thank you for being a gift in my life.



I thought this would be the last communication between me and my old friend and I was terribly sad. But as days went by, there were changes happening with Julie. She decided she wanted her feeding tube removed as it was interfering with her ability to feel close to people. That happened, and eventually, she progressed from a tiny amount of liquids to more solid food with no significant adverse effects. After days in hospice went by, she was able to have her IV pain meds replaced with other forms of delivery and got strong enough to get around without her walker. By September 23rd, Rich informed us that Julie was going into hospice at home where she could look at her own trees through her windows and have the comforts of her own space as she walks down the narrower road to the end of life.

People were invited to visit and on September 26th, I felt good enough to climb in the car for a seven hour drive to see my friend. That was a longer trip than I expected due to construction and traffic and I worried that Julie might be too tired to relate to me. And sure enough, within about 45 minutes of my arrival, her eyes were closing. So I thought I would give her what I could in silence and darkness. I must have a peculiar pheromone, one that my family calls my special sleep “juju” that acts like a sedative on most people. I climbed into Julie’s bed and she put her pillows in my lap, snuggled under a blanket and allowed me to gently massage her until she passed out. And I sat there for about three hours sending my quiet love and empathy to her as she rested.

The next day she felt pretty well and between appointments with hospice people and her daughter coming over, we chatted and talked about everyday life, old memories, death, cancer and everything in between. I slipped out for awhile to have lunch on my own and to give Rich and Julie some downtime and quiet space. I also wanted to find some sweets and fruit that the nurses were recommending for extra calories to provide strength. A lovely cafe with a bakery helped me feed myself and bring in treats that I hoped Julie would enjoy. We stayed up later last night, squeezing as much time in as we could get. But everyone feared that the full time company could prove too exhausting and that she might totally crash today. She said she felt better than she’d anticipated and we talked some more about the big ideas of life with a few light notes tossed in for fun.

Finally the time came to leave as I had a long drive ahead of me, and Julie was scheduled for the aspects of hospice that include visits. Time is a valuable commodity. So we had what might have been our final embrace. Julie is fragile but wept with strength while I held on to myself as I learned to do during all the practice I had in grieving Michael during his day by day decline. I have no idea how long Julie will stay alive or if I’ll have the chance to see her again. This time of my life, as is true for all of us who are aging, will be filled with losses. I feel as if chunks of my history are being carved out of the tapestry that winds out behind me. Of course I have the peculiar combination of pain and the gift of memory which I hope I retain as long as I’m alive. There’s doesn’t seem much point in being around if you know nothing of yourself. But for now, I hope that visiting Julie while she is still cognitive and aware was the gift I intended it to be. It was hard for me. I’m still too close to Michael’s death so I relive that time in moments like this. I’m not sorry I did it though. Love is love and love is pain and pain is love and all is a jumbled mess. At least that’s how I see it. F2153451-61A9-44B3-9B62-2C78E68D5684

A Surprise Confession

The pool. Again.

Slightly over a month ago, I wrote about the fact that this pool where I swim daily, weather permitting, is a place where I do some of my best thinking. But I’m not always silently pondering away. There are these random conversations which spontaneously occur with the people sharing your lane. On most days, someone is usually swimming right next to you. Over time, the regular swimmers begin to engage, especially when we see each other, not only at the outdoor pool, but also at the indoor one, which is open for the length of a school year, from late August to late May.

Me at a different pool.

Despite the fact that a lot of people are around, and that kicking and splashing are pretty noisy activities, the pool can be surprisingly intimate. In the locker rooms, people get naked, both before and after wearing flimsy swim garments that outline their bodies, including their private parts. Most often, a nude stranger is showering next to you. Locker rooms also have toilets. That’s a whole lot of intimacy going on right there. Personal chatting doesn’t seem like such a big deal then, comparatively speaking, in such a literally stripped-down environment.

The indoor pool.

Over the years, I’ve certainly done my share of conversing with a fairly sizable group of people, connected only by our common choice of swimming as a primary exercise. When I first started logging my regular laps at the outdoor pool, I was only in my twenties. Back then, I was usually in the company of my friends or Michael, so I primarily socialized with them. Most of my other conversations were brief and limited to casual comments about the water temperature or the weather. As years went by, I wound up coming to the pool on my own. I noticed, and was noticed by the faithful who showed up every day. I remember one person telling me she was sure I was a lawyer after eavesdropping on some of my chatter. I haven’t figured out exactly why but maybe I was argumentative. Someone else thought I was a teacher. We all listened to each other. Over time, we habitual swimmers, governed by the hourly limits of lap swim schedules, would wind up chatting as we daily made our way through our routines. Back in those days I met and talked with Nina. She was a fascinating woman who spent her youth in Scandinavia hiding from Nazis. She moved to the U.S., married, had kids and became a newspaper columnist. By the time we met, she’d already been through breast cancer and at that current moment, was grappling with ovarian cancer. I’ve never forgotten her telling me that the nurses on the hospital cancer floor told her that fatter patients did better with chemotherapy than the skinny ones. I thought that was such a comforting tidbit. I told her about my family and she admired my breaststroke steadiness. I looked forward to our regular interactions. She’s been dead for about eighteen years now. But she’s alive in my memory. As years passed, people with whom I’d been side by side for many years are now gone. The passage of time exacted its price from some of those water lovers.

The walkers.

The two Joans both died. One Joan was a surprisingly robust woman, considering she’d had multiple sclerosis for many years. She needed a walker for stability and wore interesting water gloves for warmth and also, to improve her grip on the bars that eased her way into the water. She was what I’d call forthcoming, even blunt. She talked about her preference for her son over her daughter and shared details about her life with her deceased husband, Bob. She was a person with blatant prejudices; we tangled with each other about her racism and anti-semitism. Not your average pool talk. I found her honesty refreshing and was pleased that in her late seventies, she was still able to rethink some of her views. She used to visit Florida for part of the winter. One year she left and didn’t return. The other Joan was a tiny, frail person who sometimes seemed like she could drown at any moment. But she managed to pull herself up and back in the water, all the while with a hostile eye on the newbies who sometimes parked themselves in her favorite lane. Joan continued to swim even as she declined into dementia. Her daughter Susan came to stay with her, loyally bringing her to the pool even as her energy and focus waned. Eventually the aquatics managers were alarmed about her delicacy and requested that Joan discontinue her swimming. One day she stopped coming. I saw her being walked around the neighborhood but ultimately she passed away.

Some came with their canes.

Gisela, another elderly cancer survivor, continued to lower herself into the pool during her treatment, seeking the forgiving relief water provides to those in pain. So did Pat, so friendly and sociable, who shared the good and the sad stories about her youth and her current life as a loving wife, mother and grandmother. Her pool life was abruptly ended when a post-surgical leg abrasion turned into the wound which wouldn’t heal. So much for immersion in water. The rest of us still miss her company.

My daughter was tutored in math by Jerry, who in his 80’s is still a swimmer at the outdoor pool.

Recently I’ve realized that there’s been a shift in my position in the pool age hierarchy. Those of us in our early seventies have moved up to the “oldest” level, with so many of our former swimming mates now deceased or unable to attend. Jerry, the math tutor now in his eighties, still shows up intermittently with his wife, Joyce. Aside from them, the only other regular elderly attendee is Jack, now eighty-nine years old. Until two years ago, Jack would always come with his wife Emmer, to whom he’d been married for well over sixty years. They shared a remarkable story. They’d both been married before each other, to partners who had each died tragically when they were in their twenties. Jack and Emmer were single parents, who met and fell in love, ultimately recovering from their shared grief to build a new family. Sadly, Emmer died almost three years ago. Before that, I mostly talked with her in the water, sharing stories about our kids and talking about medicine and science. Emmer always had her bright white hair done in an impeccable style, never putting her “do” in the water.

Emmer always used on of those swim noodles to prop herself up as she paddled along. She’d had cardiac problems for several years and had gotten through a recent heart ablation, intended to stabilize her heartbeat. Her doctors were somewhat reluctant to proceed, given her age, but she cheerily went forward, always an optimist. I remember one hilarious interaction we had the summer before she died, when I realized she’d left her swimming supplies behind as she made her way to the locker room. I picked everything up and ran to the locker room where I found her, still getting ready to leave. I came in shouting, “Emmer, you’ve forgotten your noodle,” which made both of us laugh really hard. At that moment she was smiling with her perfect hair, emitting the scent of baby powder which she applied after every swim. That was the last time I ever saw her.

Jack – from Facebook.

Jack is now my oldest pool buddy. We usually share a lane at the outdoor pool during the three days a week he now permits himself, rather than five. He’s being cautious about not overdoing his exercise as he tries to protect his shoulder, which has gotten delicate in recent years. Aside from our shared appreciation for swimming, I think it’s unlikely that we’d ever have crossed paths. Not only is he seventeen years older than me, but we are diametrically opposite in terms of our fundamental beliefs. Jack and Emmer shared a deep fundamentalist commitment to religion which I do not. In addition, Jack is politically extremely conservative while I am at the opposite end of that spectrum. On the few occasions when we’ve exchanged ideas on those topics, our differences were immediate and obvious. Rather than engaging in conflict, we instead have chosen to chat about more neutral issues, always polite and I think genuinely wishing each other the best, as we make our way through the world, absent our deeply missed life partners. But apparently there is something about being in this exposed state that can elicit the most unlikely statements from people. At least that’s what happened a few days ago. I mentioned to Jack that my recent experience of caring for my granddaughter had added a dimension of physical contact to my life that I hadn’t had in the six years since my husband died. Getting accustomed to endless days without touching another human being is daunting after decades of body closeness. I think it’s generally agreed by those in all corners of the medical profession, that physical contact is an important and necessary factor in maintaining mental health.

Me and my granddaughter.

Jack quickly piped up and said he really missed his physical contact with Emmer. He talked about the comfort of her wonderful body. He stated that even though he thought she was where she was supposed to be, he wished he could still be with her. I was fascinated when he went further, talking about how he still fantasized about her at night, wondering aloud why he doesn’t see many articles about the long-lasting sexual drives that can still accompany a person into old age. As he lives in a senior citizens’ assisted living facility, I asked him if he ever discussed this topic with any of the other people who lived there. He said that he’d never discussed this issue with anyone and seemed a bit embarrassed to have mentioned it. I immediately responded that I thought his feelings were normal. Although I’m sure there is wide variation between people regarding their sex drives, I’m certain that more older people are sexually active or at least interested than some might imagine. I know I am. I found myself wondering out loud about how the commonly shared parts of life, like sexuality and death are still so off-limits in normal discourse. I know that if I bring up my own still-alive feelings that many people look positively squeamish. I was glad Jack felt comfortable enough to express himself to me although the irony of having this devoutly religious man unburden himself to me, his opposite, about such deeply personal feelings, was not lost on me. The good news is there was no subsequent awkwardness between Jack and me after our exchange. We even referred to that conversation again in the course of our recent swims beside each other.

I’m glad I’m still swimming. On the days when there’s no company I’m happy to buzz along in my own head, thinking away. I still visualize Michael when I’m in the water. I’m like Jack, still interested in my absent partner. I’m glad that I’m approachable, even to the most unlikely people. Life continues to be surprising in so many ways. You never know what someone in the next lane might confess to you. And that’s what keeps me interested in tomorrow. For anyone who’s curious, here’s an article about sex and the elderly. Very enlightening. Being old may not be what some people think.


Curiosity at 3 A.M.

An annoying photo Michael took of me from our bedroom window many years ago – me returning from the grocery store before he was even out of bed.

I’ve been trying to recall the point in my life when I stopped sleeping well. According to my parents, I was born a champion sleeper and stayed that way for my young life. My older siblings were so disruptive in the night that when I came along, regularly conked out for twelve hour stints, mom and dad took turns checking to make sure I was still alive. As I got older, I made do with fewer hours. I was also an early riser, preferring that quiet part of the day, when I often felt like the only conscious person on the planet. I was always awake before Michael and both my kids, even after my son, who was a dreadful sleeper, altered my steady rest forever.

Michael, asleep with one of our dogs, before we had kids.

Before anyone in the house had blinked sleepily awake, I had run all my errands, gone swimming and walked the dogs, getting back home in time for breakfast with the family until we took off for work and school. I’d never thought about this over-achieving routine as part of a life strategy. I think my internal clock was simply predisposed to this early morning schedule.

Michael and my daughter who snuck into my spot after I was long gone.

During our early years together, Michael and I quickly realized that his night owl tendencies did not align with my “up with the songbirds” habit. Over time, job requirements and kids helped us gradually adjust our schedules so that we could usually go to bed at the same time. As we got older, we both pushed ourselves to stay up a little later, anxious to spend our time doing things rather than sleeping. I found I could manage on about six hours of eyes closed. Michael needed more, so he supplemented with naps between work and dinner.

Michael catching an afternoon nap with our oldest grandson after getting home from teaching.

Ironically there started to be times when he was encouraging me to turn in earlier. I’d found that I needed the evening hours for fitting in all my interests, the ones that had nothing to do with any other people or obligations outside of myself. I started pushing myself to have a number of hours of discretionary time which equaled those committed to work when I was in my fifties. Sleep seemed like an unfortunate waste of time. I knew all about the connection between a good night’s rest and good health. But I pushed those boundaries anyway. Then, during the course of Michael’s cancer, his circadian rhythms kept changing, leaving me to adapt to his wildly unpredictable hours so I could be with him. Always in need of sleep when he was healthy, he passed out at every available opportunity.

Michael sleeping in the chemo infusion center.

I learned to be awake at any hour, especially in the middle of the night. I was always surprised at my ability to be lucid, no matter what time I lurched into consciousness. I realized that I would have been a great medical resident, those people who are required to function at a high level no matter how tired they might feel. Alas, that ship has sailed. In any event, after Michael died, my new hyper-alert schedule, conforming to nothing like “normal,” stuck. Now, over six years later, I’ve become a night person, in a way I could never have imagined. If I’m lucky, I can get five uninterrupted hours of sleep. Even after days when I’ve been swimming and doing heavy gardening, I only seem to manage a little over four and a half hours on a regular basis. Of course I get tired. But if I squeeze in a nap for an hour and a bit more, I feel rejuvenated and ready to keep going.

Classic photo of Michael and my son sleeping.

All that morning energy which I’m still able to muster when I wake, is at night transformed from the physical realm into a mental one. Maybe it’s the darkness. Or more just the stillness. There are no birds singing at midnight or beyond. I can hear an occasional vehicle going somewhere, or a siren or a faraway train whistle. But mostly I hear nothing but my own thoughts. I don’t listen to music at night. I let myself drift.

My daughter asleep on my bed.

I know I should follow all the suggestions for getting a good night’s sleep like turning off all screens, performing relaxing nighttime rituals like taking a warm bath, and avoiding stimulation. But the most innocuous activity, like watching a movie or reading a scientific article can suddenly and unexpectedly pique my curiosity. That dead-of-night interest leads to exploration which I know I should avoid until the next day. But there’s something so satisfying about being in the quiet, discovering something new that feels like it’s filling a previously unknown gap in my education. I know that sounds ridiculous. I honestly have no idea why my restless quests for more knowledge feel so important. I think to myself, “ what possible practical purpose do these deep dives into some offhand topic have in the long run?” I’m not going to teach them to anyone else, except perhaps in a casual conversation. Do I need more random facts taking up space in my brain? Am I just an older version of that kid who once thought I’d be able to read every book that was published? For a long time I thought I could, until I read somewhere that on average, there are about eleven thousand books published daily in the great big world. Another bubble burst. While I engage in these internal debates, I often hear my mother’s voice intoning one of her favorite adages, “no one can hurt you as badly as you can hurt yourself.” I’m sitting here in the night, thinking I should go to bed while digging for new information on the thought of the moment. I actually have an example that perfectly illustrates my behavior.

Me holding my oldest grandson.

A while back I started thinking about how despite the fact that I love movies, I’d never actually taken any classes about film, film history or film criticism. One of those subject areas that never quite fit into my formal education although in real life, it’s probably a tossup between how many books I’ve read and how many movies I’ve watched. I took plenty of classes about books and literary criticism. Maybe because I viewed books more seriously than movies? Were movies just a frivolous form of entertainment that didn’t have much to do with my view of what I could do with them as a career or vocation? I really don’t recall giving these ideas much thought until I was well into my adult life. Regardless, I wanted to learn more. After spending months with my eldest grandson, introducing him to films that had never crossed his radar, I wound up taking a class on the similarities between Alfred Hitchcock the director, and Edward Hopper, the artist. I really enjoyed it, learning more about Hitchcock and the fact that he directed several silent movies before the ones I knew well from my youth. I found an excellent example of one, The Lodger, which was so fascinating that I launched into digging out more of those films I hadn’t seen. I also got interested in directors. I hadn’t realized how much I’d never known was out there. I’ve been fascinated to see how well these gems have held up for almost a century.

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1926). Photograph: BFI

In the past year I’ve watched lots of these movies and highly recommend them. I include some stills from other particularly great choices.

Janet Gaynor, George O’Brien in the film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927). Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive
The Passion Of Joan Of Arc
Don Juan with John Barrymore and Mary Astor.

Turner Classic Movies (TMC) regularly runs silent films. Recently I noticed that they appeared to be showcasing documentaries about notable individuals who in the early days of cinema, made significant contributions to the industry. Again, I had no real knowledge about any of them. The other night I watched a film featuring one of those unknowns, at least to me, the biography of one Carl Laemmle. Laemmle, an impoverished Jewish immigrant from Germany, came to America to seek his fortune like so many others. But at age 40, he had yet to find success. A move to Chicago and his exposure to nickelodeons changed his life. He built a career in silent film as an innovator, clashing with Thomas Edison who wanted a complete monopoly over the movie industry. (I never knew about Edison’s heinous history on undermining labor. That is another rabbit hole for me to dive into some other time.) Laemmle wound up moving to California and founding Universal Studios, renowned for its pop horror films which built on the work of German expressionists from a decade earlier.

Carl Laemmle – photo credit – Journal Register.
Universal – Grand Opening Poster 1915 Universal City 005

Laemmle, became known as Uncle Carl, essentially by treating his employees like family members. This dynamic character also encouraged his female employees to take on assignments typically viewed as the men’s domain.

“So he gave workers already on his lot — including actresses, seamstresses, costume designers and other female employees — a crack at writing and directing short reels and feature-length movies. Lois Weber, often called America’s first female director, produced and directed a slew of films for Laemmle, many about controversial women’s issues such as abortion, divorce and sexual freedom. Her work was so popular that she became the highest-paid director at the studio and directed 100 films. Weber hired an assistant, Frances Marion, whose scripts were so good that Mary Pickford chose her as her official scriptwriter. Marion finished her career with 130 scripts to her name.” LA Times.

I just had to order this book about this woman I’ve never heard of before.

“If you were female, Universal was Shangri-La.” LA Times.

“There is this telling statistic about Uncle Carl’s company: During the heyday of Universal’s silent era, there were 30 female directors and 45 busy female screenwriters on the studio payroll, arguably the most in history.” LA Times.

Who knew any of this great stuff?

But there was more to learn about Carl Laemmle. In 1930 he produced All Quiet on the Western Front, the anti-war film which drew broad acclaim in the U.S. However, Germany saw the film as an affront. With the rise of Hitler and the right-wing National Socialist German Workers’ Party, Laemmle wound up permanently exiled from his native country. As the prejudice against Jews in Germany increased, he waged a campaign to save as many people as he could, taking on the limitations of the U.S. government along the way.

Laemmle with one of the people in the 300 families he helped escape from Nazi Germany.

Hollywood’s Unknown Rescuer

Before Schindler’s List, an L.A. studio boss saved hundreds of Jews from the Holocaust.


The moon at 3 a.m.

The Laemmle story is one of those things that keeps me awake. Not about current events, politics or climate change, not about my garden, my family or missing Michael, no – at 3 a.m. I find myself thinking about Carl Laemmle and Thomas Edison and now, Lois Weber. I go off on these tangents on a regular basis. All the logic in the world about sleep and health are irrelevant compared to the curiosity in the dark of night. What’s next? I have no idea.

My granddaughter asleep on me a few days ago.

I thought it would be appropriate to end this post with a photograph of me sleeping. But there aren’t any. I’ve asked everyone close to me if they have one and they don’t. The irony…

I’ll Have the Memorial, With A Side of Perfection

Irish American Heritage Center

Last September one of my old friends from college died unexpectedly. A vital dynamo who, a while back, had powered her way through a delicate surgery on a large brain aneurysm, she was thought to be fully recovered and in good health. At the time she died, she was caring for a sister suffering through Stage IV colon cancer. Life and death, can be wildly unpredictable. Her wide network of friends were largely stunned and unprepared for the shocking news. I set myself the task of writing her obituary which in the end, was abbreviated to a shorter version. She’d never married and had no children. As everyone who loved her was so overwhelmed by her death, planning a memorial took some time. An event was finally organized by a half-dozen intimate friends who’d known her for decades. This past weekend was selected for a gathering at an Irish community center in Chicago, a nod to Pat’s ethnic roots. I asked my two kids, who knew her well, to accompany me for the day. Both of them wanted to return home the same night to get back to their families, so it was going to be one of those long-day road trip deals. I always thought of these quick turnarounds as my being briefly packed in a container, unpacked in a couple of destinations, and then repacked for depositing back home. That was the plan for Saturday.

Chicago skyline.

I’m always surprised when I hear myself referring to Chicago as my hometown. But that’s still how I feel about it, despite having gone away to college when I was just seventeen. I only returned to live there for two summers between my freshman and junior years, before establishing my permanent residence in the town where I’ve spent the bulk of my life. I was born in Chicago, but at age eight months, my parents moved our family to Sioux City, Iowa for the next seven years. We moved back to the city when I was ready to start second grade, even though it took a few weeks for my Chicago elementary school to recognize that my having completed first grade in the backwater of Iowa wasn’t a reason to make me repeat that year. In total, I only lived in Chicago for ten sequential years. But I visited family and friends frequently, especially before my parents moved to live near my family back in 1986. Only a few hours’ drive from home, going there to take advantage of the vast cultural offerings of a major metropolitan area, not to mention the delight of Lake Michigan, wasn’t a big deal.

The dreaded Chicago expressway.

Although I can’t stand the traffic and congestion of the city, I love so many of the neighborhoods and landmarks which are the stuff of my memories. I suppose those early formative years of life always have their own special place in our minds. In any case, despite going to the city last weekend for what I’ve been referring to as the “macabre march,” (referencing the frequent deaths that are happening at an accelerated rate at this point in my peer group,) I still wanted to enjoy my favorite sights and my favorite foods while having a look at places from my past. After all, I’ve navigated lots of deaths. Life keeps happening despite them. Mixing grief with a little joy feels alright to me. I knew I would be having the profound thoughts that always wash over me when I reflect on my history with the deceased, not to mention the marvel at being with so many with whom I’d shared moments in time. This profound memorial, packed with people, some of whom I haven’t seen in over fifty years, and many, twenty years or more, was interestingly juxtaposed on top of what for me, was also the most perfect 10 hours I’ve had in a long time.

Me and my kids

Michael and I both wanted to build a tight family and that’s exactly what we did. Of course we had our share of bumps along the way but mostly, after the kids got through their adolescent sibling stuff, we got along really well. I think all of us felt lucky that we didn’t have any huge differences which can sometimes cause family members to fall away from each other. Both Michael and I experienced some of that in our families of origin. We were so glad the schisms didn’t repeat themselves in our nuclear family. On many occasions we had these times when being just the four of us felt so special. A long road trip to New Mexico back in 2005, right before our son started college and our daughter settled into her marriage, was incredibly special for all of us.

Photos from our 2005 road trip.

As the years passed, our kids developed their lives. Most often, our gatherings included more people, rather than our small family unit. Before I invited them to join me for the memorial, I realized that we hadn’t spent much time alone together since the three of us kept our bedside vigil around Michael during the week before he died, back in May, 2017. When we got in the car on Saturday morning, my daughter was planning on working, her laptop fired up and ready to go. But my son, who was driving, convinced her without much coaxing, to just enjoy this rare time alone together. You know that great feeling of easily being on the same wavelength with someone? When it’s so effortless and relaxed? That’s how the drive to Chicago felt. We sang together, joked around, reminisced and even made group phone calls to some friends we all loved. An exquisite couple of hours that just flowed along. When we got to the city, we headed to one of our favorite restaurants in the area called Greek Town. We had a delicious slow lunch. All of us were sorely tempted to head down to the lakeshore while I had a serious urge to stand in front of Buckingham Fountain which I haven’t seen for awhile.

Buckingham Fountain

But we dutifully headed off to the memorial, the main reason for our trip. We each went through our own sets of emotions as we socialized with people who were part of our shared past during the years when a large number of family friends vacationed together every summer during the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s. I experienced the kaleidoscopic feelings that occur when I’m in the midst of a large group of people, with limited opportunities for more than a few moments of talk, before moving on from one to the next. During the singing and speeches part of the memorial the three of us sat together which was really comforting and meaningful for me. I do miss Michael at these events. I know each of my kids could have been doing something else with their Saturdays, rather than hanging out at a funeral. As the child of a mother who required way too much attention, I rarely ask my children for anything that interferes with their own interests. Their willingness to support me in this moment felt really special to me. I was glad I came to honor my old friend’s memory. But having them along was just the best.

We didn’t make the photo as we were headed for a long drive home. But this was the group who attended the memorial. Photo by Alex Halkin/Mark PoKempner.

Before we headed home, I prevailed on them one more time. We weren’t too far from the last place my parents lived before moving away from Chicago. I realized I hadn’t been there in over thirty years. During that time, lots of changes had occurred, one of which was the re-routing of the street to one-way, now headed north, along with the establishment of a cul-de-sac at its end, blocking the former entry to a main street artery. I was so surprised, but of course, times do change. My son pointed out that I was probably in a very small group of people who remembered how things looked on that block, way back when. That’s true about any place that’s evolved, I imagine. My oldest friend and her husband recently visited me in the community where we all once lived and where I still live, fifty-plus years later. They told me they couldn’t recognize the place. More interesting thoughts about life’s passages, emanating from the memorial weekend.

This apartment building was the last place where my parents lived in Chicago before moving to join my family in 1986.

On the way home we stopped for burgers and fries, which we ate as we zipped through the dusk. I probably thanked both of them a dozen times for turning what could’ve been a dark event into a lighter one, not to mention expressing the joy I felt, in having a ten hour uninterrupted stretch of time with them once again. Just us. I always feel Michael in moments like these, reminded that we were so lucky to produce these wonderful human beings. I had a perfect time.

Sunset from the highway.


The foreign dignitaries following JFK’s funeral cortege.

I wish there was a dream guidebook that magically explained the underpinnings for virtually every mysterious reel that I often remember the minute I open my eyes in the morning. In last night’s memorable episode, I was thinking of how many foreign heads of state I could identify back in November, 1963, when so many showed up for John Kennedy s funeral. At the time I was twelve. When I woke, I was immediately beset by this awful feeling that currently, I know hardly any prime ministers or presidents of countries around the world, while I can still name quite a few from six decades ago. Now just what does that mean? Why am I giving a minute’s thought to such random bits of knowledge? I can’t help but think that there are a zillion people who not only can’t name a single one, but could care less about such an irrelevant subject. I’m not sure why I do, at least enough to challenge myself to make a couple of world leader lists for a brief moment this morning. Maybe because I’m thinking about how fast time seems to be moving? That it’s harder to keep track of all the moving parts in the great big world? That my brain has less room for all the random facts I used to feed it? That I’m beginning to lose my memory? Who knows? Maybe a little of everything.

Changes by David Bowie

As I mulled over this unexpected train of thought, I found myself humming David Bowie’s lyrics from his song “Changes,” originally released as a single in 1972 from his album, Hunky Dory.

Strange fascinations fascinate me
Ah, changes are taking
The pace I’m goin’ through

Turn and face the strange
Ooh, look out, you rock ‘n’ rollers
Turn and face the strange
Pretty soon now you’re gonna get older.

Me holding my brand-new niece in Frankfurt, Germany, 1972 and the two of us last weekend, 51 years later.

Of course I am losing a bit of everything. Everyone who lives long enough will experience the chipping away of ourselves. I can’t remember the last time I was impatiently waiting for time to move faster, when it seemed like everything I wanted to do, was never going to finally, finally be here. Not any more. Instead I’m now usually amazed at how an event that’s out ahead of me, is in my rear view mirror faster than I can say Jack Robinson. Will anyone reading this have any idea when that expression was commonly used to describe something speedy? I’m surprised it popped up in my head, although I remember my parents using it frequently when I was growing up. Ah, even old adages fall away. In the immortal words of Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast.” Don’t I know it. Suddenly, there are more gray hairs, wrinkles, wisdom spots, as my dermatologist calls them and different aches and pains. I feel like I’m constantly replenishing my pill box organizer when not long ago, I was surprised I took any pills on a regular basis. What a blur.

Changes are always happening whether we’re conscious of them or not. I try to practice staying in the moment, especially when I appreciate what’s happening in that instant. The other day I ate my first peach of the summer. They’re only available for a limited time, so I always want to make sure I really notice how they look, feel and taste when they’re available. But I must say I didn’t notice when my toes began to shift, when arthritis twisted them to the point that certain shoes which once felt comfortable, now do not. I know there was a process happening back there somewhere, but I guess it was either too subtle or I was too busy to notice. I often think about the countless cellular changes that are quietly happening in my body, somewhere below the surface. After all, I’ve been using it for decades now. It’s been humming along through all kinds of stresses, physical, emotional and environmental, while it works to keep up with what I’ve done with it and to it. The years will exact their price which will suddenly make their presence known – the need to sit down periodically, instead of working for five hours straight in the garden, the urge to take a nap, the lure of a comfortable chair instead of the night out on the town.

To date, I think my ability to adapt is one of my strongest assets. But it’s hard to anticipate what challenges the changes coming toward me will require. When will I be unable meet certain demands? So far I’ve been doing fine living by myself. Sometimes the physical labor of managing a big house and yard is daunting. In a world where I didn’t live right across the street from my daughter and her family, I might’ve already moved on from my home of almost 45 years. Maybe not. I do love it. My contingency plan is to move downstairs to the first floor if climbing steps becomes an issue. I suppose I could get surprised by a more sudden bodily decline. We’ll see.


I think about how people are forced to adapt to impossible situations in an instant. Natural disasters occur every day, upending lives. And then there is the devastation caused by war. For those who survive these cataclysmic events, I’m certain there is plenty of mental degradation carried forward for a lifetime. And yet, we all know that throughout history, trauma hasn’t always wholly destroyed its victims. Recently, I’ve thought many times about the four children who were found alive in the Amazon forest, after surviving a plane crash and witnessing the death of their mother and two other adults. Yet they managed to stay alive for 40 days. They have a formidable recovery ahead of them in every way. Still I find stories like these hopeful, despite the challenges ahead. After all, perspective is everything. What are my minuscule adjustments to change, relative to those of people with psychological and physical mountains like theirs to climb?

My seven month old granddaughter, sprawled across my lap, napping.

I’ve always said that if time travel was possible, I’d never go forward to see what’s ahead of me in this world. I know about the inevitability of change. I have no illusions that it’s avoidable, nor do I want it to be, as some changes are necessary and desirable. But I’ve experienced my share of anticipating some changes that have been harsh as well as unstoppable. Now, when I know one of those less welcome events is on the horizon, I practice enjoying the good times that I still have, right up to the time they’ll end. I’m in one of those periods right now. I’ve had the great pleasure of helping care for my newest grandchild, a little girl, since her birth just over seven months ago. Ever since Michael died, gone over six years now, I’ve felt that I would be unlikely to experience any type of new love, except perhaps if my son, my youngest child, was to have a baby. I’d spent so much of my emotional capital during the five years of Michael’s cancer experience that I couldn’t imagine I had much left for starting over with anyone. Except for perhaps a baby, an innocent, with no baggage and no agenda. I was lucky that this little girl, who could be the world’s easiest infant, indeed peeled open a whole fresh corner of feeling that I’d hoped was still available in me. Being with her has been an utter pleasure, one of life’s special treats. Lucky me.

My granddaughter yanking my hair.

However, this unlimited time with her is coming to an end. My son has accepted a job in Colorado starting at the end of September. He and his family will be pulling up stakes to start this new chapter in their lives. Of course I’ll be able to visit them and they will come home as well. Nothing, however, will ever replace this very special time, though, and in truth, this little girl will have no memory of all the time we’ve spent together. Those memories will exist in my mind and in the numerous photos and videos that will be part of her future. Creating lasting memories, the best part of technology, in my humble opinion.

My daughter asked me the other day if I was going to be okay after this move takes place. I laughingly reminded her that I’d only known the baby for under a year, and that if I’m okay living without Michael after our 45 years together, I’d adapt to this little girl’s absence. Of course I’m going to miss them all, my son, daughter-in-law and my precious little one. For me, this will be another exercise in adjusting to the ch-ch-ch-changes of life. I’m going to enjoy these last couple of months, cry when they’re over, and find my way to moving forward. Because that’s what I do.

Birthday Boy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cancer and Trans and Drought, Oh My!

My favorite place for thinking.

How many years have I been making my way up and back, up and back in the lanes of this pool? I’m not exactly sure. This particular pool is actually the third version of itself at the original site. The first one was built in 1927 and was still in use when I showed up for my inaugural swim in the late 1960s.

The original pool

I didn’t become a regular until the mid-1970’s. Luckily for me, through its subsequent iterations, I worked close by, so a noon swim made for a great lunch hour. A new structure was built in 1980. When I was pregnant with my kids, I was grateful for the cool escape it provided, not only at lunch, but after work and on weekends. I lived without air conditioning back then, in a steamy-hot summer climate. After my kids and grandchildren showed up, we all took advantage of this beautiful facility which, despite being in an urban location, has always felt “away” from town and its associated hustle atmosphere.

With the grandkids at the pool – 2016.

I do a lot of my best thinking when I’m in the water. Maybe the repetitive motion of the breaststroke creates a good backdrop for mental processing. The endorphin release during exercise probably helps too. In any case, as I move along on the days when no one else shares my lane, I quietly ponder the issues which are foremost in my mind. Recently, I’ve been back on the cancer track. I suppose it’s fair to say that I haven’t been wholly off the track, not since both my parents were initially diagnosed with cancer back in 1989. I think it’s likely that for most people, once that initial confrontation with the “C” word happens, the world tilts a bit. What was never thought about floats through the mind on a regular basis. In my case, back then, my mom survived but my dad died within a few months. I was in my 30’s, a young mother, forever changed. One repeated experience that made an indelible imprint on me was constantly feeling that people around me were often so uncomfortable with confronting cancer, that I, in the midst of my struggles, was someone to be avoided. I frequently felt distant and much more isolated than I’d expected. I made up my mind back then that in the future, I would always go toward people in similar situations, making myself available during those most challenging times. Over the years, I’ve had ample opportunities to step into the lives of people coping with cancer, both patients and their families. Initially, I was a person who could simply be present, who could listen to the hard parts of grappling with both the disease and with loss. After Michael’s rare cancer was diagnosed and my role as an advocate and researcher became known, I turned into somewhat of a consultant. I’m an amateur, but I accrued wealth of knowledge in our quest to leave no stone unturned, during Michael’s effort to survive as long as possible, with a decent quality of life. Years after his death, I’m still engaged in this role, offering what I can to people in need.

An empty lane, the best place to think.

I still keep track of the latest treatments for cancer, particularly the targeted therapies which are more specific than chemotherapy. I’ve learned about the “ibs” and the “mabs,” the suffixes you see on the names of cancer drugs advertised on late-night television, in those commercials that are simultaneously hopeful and scary for people looking for longer life. Those suffixes refer to the different drug families, mostly monoclonal antibodies or small molecule inhibitors which interfere with the disease on a cellular level rather than clobbering all cells like traditional chemotherapy. One of those drugs, pembrolizumab or Keytruda, prolonged Michael’s life, pulling him back from the brink of death. He was a lucky responder. But traditional chemo came first. For most people chemo is still the first line of treatment. I recently read this frightening article, published in the Washington Post.

The root of the drug shortage crisis, most experts agree, is related to low profit margins on generic drugs, an overreliance on foreign manufacturing, increasing quality risks and brittle supply chains. “These drugs that are in short supply are not the blockbusters that pharmaceutical companies make big bucks from. They’re older, generic injectable drugs that companies don’t get a huge profit on.” Washington Post.

I find it tragic to think that in an era when progress is being made with new treatments, that corporate greed will deny traditional chemo drugs to people. Some might be cured or have their lives extended until they can move into the next level of alternative therapies. That’s how Michael lived years longer than anyone thought he could. Right now I’m sharing what I know about these issues with two people who have loved ones who are sick. There’s so much frustration with our medical system and the pharmaceutical companies. I think about all of this as I swim along.

On the way to the pool, back in the day.

The other day, I was sent off into another train of thought after a conversation with a fellow swimmer with whom I’ve chatted occasionally, over the course of the past few years. After seeing the same faces over time, swimming regulars tend to find out each other’s names, exchanging greetings and bits of information as a matter of course. On this particular day, the person next to me had mentioned that a recent surgery had made the pool off-limits for the past few weeks. We were discussing swimming strokes; protecting the back from injury was this person’s current focus. I asked if the just completed operation had been on the spine. The response I got was, “no, I’m trans, and I just had top surgery and so it’s important that I keep my back straight.” I admit that I was surprised at the public admission of such a personal experience, especially at a time when there is clear hostility toward people who are living in a way that apparently threatens others. We both continued our swimming but before I left the pool, I mentioned that I was glad I was considered safe enough to hear this person’s news. I don’t know what pronouns are being used by this individual, whose sexuality was not something I’d ever given a moment’s thought. I’ve thought about this a lot. For the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone is interested or concerned with other people’s lifestyles or choices, absent any deliberately hurtful actions toward others. Who cares about these private matters which have nothing to do with them? For me, there are lots of other looming threats which are considerably more impactful than people’s personal, private lives. I remain mystified by those who are adamantly opposed to freedom of choice and what simply “is”.

The cracked earth all around my community.

On the subject of truly threatening issues, I’ve been worrying my way down my pool lane with climate change weighing on my mind. Where I live, we’ve had our second consecutive year of spring drought. Except for the garden parts of my lot which I’m watering daily, the ground around me is hard, dry and cracked.

The tall upright yews at the back of my yard, habitat for scores of birds. They were shedding so many needles that I’ve been watering them daily for the first time in over 30 years.
Needles which have fallen from the yews.

I grow vegetables and herbs in my garden, but even more important to me, is the habitat I’ve been creating to beckon birds and insects into my yard, with a special focus on the threatened pollinators. Right now, I’m lucky to live in a place where so far, there’s been no need for water rationing. And I can still afford to pay my increasing bill. But I fret about what lies ahead if the powers that be continue to pretend that climate change isn’t the emergency that is right here, right now. We need aggressive action to slow down this process which is barreling forward.

Right now, I’m coaxing milkweed plants and butterfly bushes to keep growing, to pop open their tasty blooms for all the bees and butterflies which depend on them. Currently, the bees are wading through the drops on the ground from my watering, as well as dangling themselves in the birdbaths alongside their feathered friends. Even though rain would rob me of my pool time, I wish for it every day. Maybe it can fall before or after I finish my laps.

Don’t get me wrong. I do have fun when I swim, and always feel better when I’m finished. But I’m not one of those people who can ignore all this big stuff to focus entirely on myself, not even for an hour. Maybe in my next life…

Six Years Gone – Still Feels Impossible

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

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


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

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

Michael and our kids, during his last remission.

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

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

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

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

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

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


When nothing is working.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The cover of the original book I read.

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

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

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