Who says that everything I want to write has to make sense and stay in some sort of order? Trying to write the helpful book about coping with an orphan cancer is too grinding. Writing letters to Michael is easy. So is expressing my internal monologues. So that’s what I’m doing because it’s a relief from being orderly. So greetings from my stream of consciousness.
I have been outside all day. My yard feels enormous. Keeping up with it requires a big effort. It’s been awhile since I’ve been able to sustain an 8 hour work day in the garden. One replaced knee makes a considerable difference in endurance. Imagine how I’ll be after the next surgery this summer. Unstoppable. I hope.
I am not a poet. I love some poetry and some not much at all. But I wrote a poem, born of emotions I couldn’t purge from my body in any other way. Here is my non-poem stimulated by one note of one song on the headphones.
One note, I disappear into another time, barely breathing.
One note, an album cover, a bed, a body, panting, yet barely breathing.
One note, reality and memory collide, a visual extravaganza, wailing, yet scarcely breathing.
One note, an internal riot of feeling, gasping like beached fish.
One note, pain, love, gratitude, emptiness, how am I still breathing?
One note,I wouldn’t trade any of it, not for one easy breath.
And here is another weird little wordplay that helped me through a moment.
Oui can be aye.
Aye can be I.
I can be eye.
But we can’t be I.
I wish I was still a we.
Kind of bizarre, but I get to do what I want. After all this is my space and I’m not censoring. Back to the yard.
The garden is a mystery this year. Is it because of the polar vortex? My forsythia is greening up after showing none of its famous yellow blooms that always herald spring. Many of my flowers are coming late and some are not going to appear. I know because I crave their bursting life and color so much that I photograph them every year. They have gone the way of impermanent things, which is mostly everything in the physical universe. I am an unwitting phenologist, studying climate change in my little world. I am currently sitting in what was Michael’s massive vegetable garden, now a pollinators’ garden which is easier for me to manage. I don’t want to can tomatoes or pesto or salsa like he did. To me, those things are just for eating, not making. Although I’ve already planted a few tomatoes and a few peppers. I’ll always do that in honor of my boy.
This ground feels like us to me. We worked this earth together for a very long time. I cry here but I am also peaceful which is a hard state for me to achieve. I told my kids to remember that if they find me dead amidst the flowers, I went out happy. Back to the interesting spring, though. Returning in abundance are Michael’s perennial herbs. They are beautiful and fragrant. He always wondered if they’d die back eventually. Who knows? And just for you, my dead punster, no chive.
I feel guilty for still liking Michael Jackson’s music. What was once fun for grooving and dancing is now a quandary for me. Do we dispose of all their art when we discover that the artists did dreadful things in their lives? Does that tarnish their art to the point that it should be hidden, erased? Or did their deeds wind up informing their art in a circuitous way? I’ll never be able to sort through these dilemmas. I’ve been thinking that there should be one enormous “outing” day. On that day, every public figure who’s perpetrated a wrong against an innocent should be exposed and brought to task. These intermittent exposures that keep popping up in the news are so emotionally eroding. Morgan Freeman, Neil deGrasse Tyson. Ugh. Maybe getting them done all at once would be shockingly painful but then we could be done. If there is such a thing that’s done.
I am listening to a random shuffle of music on my headphones while I work. I am always wondering where all these song lyrics are stored. I’ve known every word of every song I’ve heard today. I think Brian Wilson is a musical genius. I hope neither Paul McCartney nor I die before I see him in June. I haven’t seen him perform live in 55 years. That sounds crazy to me. Now I am listening to My Sweet Lord by George Harrison. That stimulated a memory from back in 1971 when my friend Ted commandeered me while I was doing acid. He bought a dozen glazed doughnuts from Spudnuts, the sweet shop on campus and took me to his apartment. He put his new fancy headphones on my ears so I could listen to this song while he plied me with sugar and asked me questions about his girlfriend. All I knew was that I thought I could hear each individual track that George laid down in that song. When I hear it now, I still think I can separate each track.
Today I looked at a photograph from 1976 and realized that everyone in it was dead. My parents, my husband, my brother, my sister-in-law and my dog. An eerie thing to note.
My former sister in law died this week. My brother died four years ago. My great nephew sent me some videos my brother took of our family in 1976 and 1981. My brother had already sent me a copy of the 1981 film which features my newborn baby. I’d never seen the one from 1976. So many of the people in the film are gone. I was beautiful but I didn’t know it.
Even after 4 years with Michael who flattered me constantly, I still felt unattractive. Michael, thank you for fixing so many of my insecurities with your incredible love and support. I know we had a lot of clashes but I do remember your devotion. You told me we’d never have fought if it wasn’t for me being so opinionated and assertive. I still can’t figure out how someone who had so many insecurities as me could still be so aggressive. But I’m glad about it. You were right – I was always stronger then I actually understood. The reason I’m still here, I suppose, given that your doctor told me my risk of death from my caregiving of you put me at the highest danger I’d ever been in my life. Yes, I’m still here, reporting all these thoughts and feelings which are now flung into the void as you are not here to listen. Maybe…I still am wondering about where all this energy goes. I’m done working now.
I’m currently watching Notre Dame Cathedral burn in Paris. I remember being fortunate enough to visit there, to see the amazing art and feel the history ooze from the walls. I am not Catholic. Religion is irrelevant. Watching history erased is painful no matter what you believe. Some parts of the building may remain. Again, nothing lasts forever. Except what is intangible. At least for me.
One of the most entertaining memories I have is of a conversation I had with my son several years ago. We were driving to Bed, Bath and Beyond to get his apartment supplies and I was ranting about some political issue or other in my usual growling, aggressive way. He looked at me and said, “Mom, you’re just a little middle-aged woman and no one is afraid of you.” I laughed so hard. I reminded him that my verbal skills were pretty intense and that people should be very, very afraid. But truly, looking at myself through my kid’s eyes reminded me of what a very smart therapist once told me. She said that having a friend or family member attend a client session was always enlightening because patients can often present themselves as only one or two-dimensional characters. Having another person throw a different angle into the mix helped the therapist see the client as more fleshed-out, more three-dimensional. The truth is, my kids see me in the context of “mom” and all that goes along with that. Generally, I think that’s the way things ought to be, with clear boundaries between parents and children. I know that because some of those boundaries were absent during my childhood.
During the earlier part of my life, when I didn’t have kids to worry about, I am pretty certain they wouldn’t have described me as a benign little woman. And they certainly wouldn’t have described their tall, imposing father that way. Many of our peers referred to me as the “angel of doom” and Michael as the guy who “loomed” in a menacing way.
I want them to know some of our ancient history now that they’re in their 30’s. I think the somewhat innocent, non-threatening countenance which they saw in me served me well back in the days when I was a renegade. Yup. I would state with certainty that both Michael and I led quite the renegade existence for a period of time during the 10 years we shared before we had kids. I’m still the same political renegade I was back then and Michael was too, until the end of his life. We each had FBI files that we got through the Freedom of Information Act. They were heavily redacted but very real. We toned ourselves down when we became parents. We needed to be here for our kids and that changed everything. For us, the possibility of going to jail became a deterrent for certain behaviors, different from our political protest days. We took more risks back in those old days.
Finding the impetus that turned both Michael and me into renegades is pretty simple. We certainly came from different political backgrounds. I was raised in a liberal household. My mother attended a socialist elementary school and as a child, marched through the streets of Chicago, singing the Internationale. My earliest memories of political discussions involved listening to my father express support for Adlai Stevenson. He said the American people would be too threatened by an “egghead” like him and that they would prefer someone average, or less than average, someone not intellectually intimidating. Stevenson lost in a landslide.
Supporting underdogs was a strong family tradition. Personal styles were more complex. My dad was a real straight arrow, a rule follower. My mom was devious and a bit slippery. They both felt badly that as kids, my siblings and I grew up under economic duress. Their youths were hard times and finding financial security came slowly. That didn’t really happen until all of us kids were out of the house. My dad plugged away at a variety of jobs and my mom worked intermittently and was mostly stressed and anxious. I remember our phone ringing and hearing her say, “I’m sorry, my mother’s not home-can I take a message?” Her unique way of deterring bill collectors. When we moved from Iowa to Chicago I was just seven but my older siblings were teenagers. They had a hard time fitting into the wealthier more sophisticated world of the big city. I watched their struggles and saw my mom trying to help in her own way. She bent the rules a lot. I don’t really know what my brother and sister thought of her efforts. I remember what I thought. When I was a kid, we’d go down to the Chicago Loop and look around the fancy department stores.
We’d be in a dressing room at Charles A. Stevens and she’d tell me she couldn’t afford the cute cotton skirts I tried on, but that I could easily shove them into my waistband, zip my coat, and walk out the door with no one the wiser. Mom was a kleptomaniac but I didn’t really get it back then. I never had the nerve to do that. She was a little scary but also a funny companion. She blurred a lot of the edges for me in terms of what was right and wrong, who was the parent and who was the child. While in high school, I was mostly a good kid because I worried that my folks were overwhelmed by the trouble my siblings had adjusting to their new lives. But my coping skills evolved into a bit on the edgy side as I got older. One of the worst things I did was cutting 60 high school PE classes, unheard of for an honors student. The school let me keep my student council position and I was still inducted into the National Honor Society, but I had to make up all those classes in my senior year. On swimming days, I swam three times and was soaking wet for hours. When it was all over, I walked into the PE office and dumped my gym suit straight into the garbage can in front of all the teachers. I also cut other classes and wrote fake passes to get my friend Fern out of hers so she could be with me. We borrowed her brother’s black Buick convertible and tooled down Lake Shore Drive, singing along to WLS radio, chomping White Castle burgers before heading back to school. We learned sign language so when we sat near each other we could talk without speaking out loud. That drove poor Madame Audet crazy, but she couldn’t actually punish us because we were quiet.
As student council treasurer I occasionally helped myself to a few spare dollars when I was broke which was all the time. When I was fifteen, I finally got a job working in a file room at Lerner’s department store. That helped. After my senior year, I got a new job at the Cook County Credit Bureau. One of my memorable acts there was to go into the enormous file room and pull all the negative credit reports on my parents and tear them to shreds. Yes, my sneaky, feisty worried mom did have an impact on me. She told me inappropriate stories about the sly stuff she pulled as a kid. By the time I was off to college, my dad was calling me weasel while my mom was calling him Honest Abe. I was primed for trouble, although, thankfully, I was a thinker first, impulse-taker second. By my sophomore year, dressed in a beaten-up brown leather army surplus bomber jacket and black leather boots, I arrived at school, ready to try all new things.
Michael grew up in a conservative, wealthy suburban household. Privileges were doled out based on how well the kids toed their parents’ line. His mom and dad had a scripted view of how their kids would turn out, discounting their personal traits in favor of what they planned. The classic recipe for disaster. Michael was a born rabble rouser who was constantly pulling pranks and getting into hot water at school and with his parents. I think he was really creative. However that creativity was coupled with a hot temper and a relentless desire to prank virtually anyone. He put a garter snake into his teacher’s desk as fifth-grader. He liked throwing rocks a lot and those, along with baseballs, had him paying for broken windows frequently.
He and a few friends slit the tires of the assistant principal’s car in high school – he reported his sister for that crime. Unsuccessful blame-tossing, I might add. He put excrement on teachers’ car windshields. Oh my. A wild child. Michael was older than me. My classmates who knew him told me stories of his escapades when they lived in a fraternity house with him for a brief time. The most infamous tale involved his fraternity brothers piping a telephone conversation between Michael and a girlfriend into the house so everyone could hear them. His response was to go into the basement and tear out the entire phone system. A mutual friend of ours told me that the first time he ever saw Michael, he was throwing bottles at the basement wall of that same fraternity. He moved out of there pretty quickly.
We were living in parallel universes in those years from 1968 to 1971. We had mutual acquaintances. Both of us were deeply opposed to the Vietnam War and were demonstrating, exploring and thinking. I was hanging out with a pretty intellectual crowd and read a lot of philosophy and political theory. My dog Herbie was named after Herbert Marcuse, a prominent philosopher whose rejection of capitalism was popular among the US student left. Michael was reading Abbie Hoffmann’s “Steal This Book.”
Neither of our approaches precluded the other’s. We were both living in “the alternative” universe, us against the establishment. In college, I finally did shove things into my waistband, although I was collecting books for my personal library instead of cotton skirts. I thought books should be free. After moving into an apartment with a mattress so infested with fleas that I was covered in bites from head to toes, a few friends and I slipped into an apartment building site and grabbed a mattress, still wrapped in paper, balanced it on the roof of a car and toted it home. Flea-free at last. Mattress free too.
Aside from those adventures, I was a pretty serious scholar, especially outside of school. My habit of cutting classes stuck – I skipped them all on my first day of school. I can’t say I’m proud of my habits but I was certainly pleased to be traveling to the beat of my own drum. Michael was busy practicing guerrilla theater. When our Senator, Ralph Tyler Smith came to visit campus, Michael was in the group of hippies who presented him a cake on the steps of the student Union, with blazing joints in place of candles.
In 1971, I went off to a massive anti-war demonstration in DC, avoided capture by the Capitol police and returned to campus to get myself arrested for obstructing a Marine recruiting station in my own student Union. Meanwhile Michael was arrested for running an American flag upside down on a pole in front of the Auditorium on campus. He was also arrested for punching an Illinois State Police officer who hit him in the back with a billy club as he was walking away from a demonstration. His mom found out about that one in the beauty parlor when someone under the dryer next to her showed her the Chicago Tribune with Michael’s name in an article. I always told my parents about my political activities. Again, we came from very different places.
Neither one of us suffered long-term consequences from our arrests. My case was tried by both the university and a civil court. The university allowed each student a few minutes to make a statement on our own behalfs. My dad wrote me a letter stating that he’d learned from me and my peers that the war was wrong and that he supported my actions. Michael’s parents told him to get over his hippie days and move on like so many of their friends’ kids had already done. Eventually all our charges were dropped.
We both sampled a variety of drugs. The first time I ever smoked marijuana I did it alone in my dorm room, making sure I could handle myself and not be out of control. Michael was imbibing things called Grey Thunder and purple dippledomes. I have no idea what they really were. I decided that I should introduce my younger sister to drugs in a safe place before she left for college. My inappropriate mom wanted to try as well. My dad said we had to stay home where we’d be safe and not in danger of getting caught by the police. When Michael’s parents found his stash during a visit they flushed it down the toilet and told him to never bring anything home again.
In 1971, our paths finally crossed and we made an instant connection. By April of 1972, we were living together. One of the first things political things that happened was that Michael and his crew were going to try to blow up the little federal building in our community. He sent me away from their planning meetings so I wouldn’t be implicated and wouldn’t know anything if he got caught and I was compelled to testify. I was petrified. Ultimately the whole thing fizzled but at the time it was pretty intense.
We called our neighborhood “liberated territory.” Everyone seemed to have dogs who roamed around freely. We lived across the street from a drug counseling center called Gemini House. That place was for the people who had serious drug issues. We reached out to Vietnam vets and tried to help them readjust. A block away was an alternative commercial complex called Earthworks which sold foodstuffs, had a garage run by “peoples’” mechanics, and at different times, housed a bike shop and a restaurant called Metamorphosis. Down the block in the other direction was a print shop that was the resource for printing radical newspapers and posters for alternative events. That shop eventually turned into Salsedo Press which relocated to Chicago and is still in business.
In the midst of that bustling neighborhood was convenient store called the White Hen Pantry. I don’t really know how they stayed in business as the surrounding residents freely lifted virtually everything from their shelves and meandered right out the front door.
In the meantime, the activist community was busy creating guides to help people develop lifestyles off the establishment grid. A publication called the Earthworm helped people find all types of daily needs services. Record Service, begun in 1969, and which ultimately became the business where Michael worked for 27 years, was beginning to generate income, some of which was devoted to a community fund to support services like the newly formed Frances Nelson Health Center, a facility for underserved patients.
Eventually we moved to a different neighborhood renting a home with several other people to try communal living. We knew a few roommates well but we needed more to afford the house. We wound up with some peculiar folks, especially one couple in which the man was violent toward his female partner. We threw them out.
There were lots of pets and political meetings in that house. A raucous environment. Michael sewed a flag that he hung in front of an archway that led to the garage. The flag was black with a red fist in the middle to cover all the political views from anarchy to communism that were shared by the housemates. During our stay in that house, Michael and one of his friends pulled off an amazing heist. They snuck up to the top floor of the undergraduate library which housed a bunch of retired furniture that was formerly used by the board of trustees. They selected a velvet-cushioned throne chair and in the middle of the night, they lowered it out a window and brought it home. We lived with that chair for a long time.
After a year of communal living, we moved out on our own. In 1973 and 1974, Michael and I both had jobs and continued to be active in the alternative community. We worked with a group of people to start a new community newspaper called the Prairie Dispatch.
We learned how to do everything from layout to developing film and printing photos. We had legitimate press credentials and covered a visit by Richard Nixon to Pekin, Illinois with the other journalists. We astounded ourselves, rubbing elbows with famous reporters. Through the paper, we tried to expose local corruption and environmental mismanagement while continuing to resist the war and to fight against racism and for equal rights. Michael had a “Junk of the Week” feature to point out trash issues.
While working on the paper, I also worked at an alternative high school for kids who had problems in the public school system and at our local park district trying to find jobs for teens.
Michael became an owner of Record Service along with everyone else who worked there – it was considered a worker-controller collective in which everyone had a voice in decision-making. Through a small tax per album, the store was a source of support for progressive organizations in the community. It was also a lot of fun. When the Grateful Dead’s Europe ‘72 album was released, Record Service was closed to the public while all the workers got high and listened to the album. By the time the store opened, there were lines of customers stretched around the block.
Meanwhile we were having our own personal adventures. One day, our dogs, who were still running as freely as they did in our old neighborhood, were picked up by animal control and transported to the dog pound. A very unpredictable neighbor tried to stop their arrest by pointing a shotgun at the local dogcatcher. That was scary. Michael and a good pal snuck out to the pound during the night and released all the incarcerated dogs. Unfortunately, all but ours were strays with no tags. The police came straight to our house while Michael quickly loaded both pups into his truck and took off for Chicago to hide them for awhile. Dogs on the lam.
I was left to deal with the police and turn the tables on them, asking how they could have lost our pets who were in their custody. Like I said, we were young renegades in our early twenties. Feels like eons ago.
We had lots of fun. We went skinny dipping at a nearby State Park, floating around on blowup rafts which our dogs popped with their claws as we laughed and sank into the water. We never got rich but got great rock and roll concert tickets and backstage passes from the record companies. We went on camping trips and tried to be responsible stewards of the land which housed us. Periodically we availed ourselves of easy pickings, furnishing our apartments with furniture left thoughtlessly about, and even walking out the doors of restaurants with stools that were particularly appealing. As time went on and we matured we became slightly more tame.
I was the first to recognize that as we moved into marriage and planning a family that we needed to reign in our behavior. Michael was a little slower with that. He was the guy who figured out how to acquire free premium channels on television by climbing up the pole in the backyard when cable tv arrived and the wiring was above ground. I talked him into reversing that trick after awhile. Eventually, despite our unchanging political views, we became more sedate in our daily behavior. After the kids arrived, aside from downloading music and films through the Napster-type sites on the internet, we cleaned up and became integrated into a pretty typical, average lifestyle.
What never changed was the fact that the political system in which we lived was never a real home to us. To this day, I still feel like an outsider in that regard as did Michael. I don’t like the inequities of our society any more now than I did fifty years ago. The renegade title still applies to me although I no longer operate outside of legal bounds. But I’m very noisy about what I think and still ready to protest. It’s hard to believe how far there is to go.
Our political system is a failed entity in terms of my values and I expect to depart this life without ever changing my mind about that. My kids grew up thinking they were in a normal household and I guess that was true. But we were outlaws hiding in plain sight. Our offspring look at the political world in pretty much the same way we did. No rebellions on the domestic front. Now they simply know we weren’t as average as they once thought. Mom and dad, but a bit off the beaten path. I’m not a bit sorry.
I’m not supposed to be writing this piece. I’m deep into another blogpost that’s been practically writing itself, about an earlier time in my rambunctious youth. But as life does its thing, buffeting us around in random, unexpected directions, I’m now off on a temporarily different track.
As the weather has gotten considerably warmer, I’m turning my attention to the list of outdoor chores that’s been growing steadily for months. I live in a place that’s too big for me, both inside and out. Four of us used to live in the house and now it’s just me, unless you count Michael’s constant invisible presence. The house, built in 1893, has ten rooms, two bathrooms added twenty years later and a basement. Built on sizable double lot, there was room for us to build a double garage.
Beginning in 1930, when the Depression likely dictated that the maintenance of such a large residence was too expensive for a single family, it was converted into three apartments. In 1978,when we moved in, we lived on the first floor. As our family grew, we eventually reclaimed the whole house. Its condition was reminiscent of the home featured in the 1986 film, The Money Pit, the story of a young couple’s efforts to restore an old home.
Over the years, we poured in a lot of sweat and cash, recreating a home to replace the broken up set of rooms suited to transient students attending the local university. As I approach the end of my seventh decade, I find it overwhelming to maintain. Ordinarily, I would think that downsizing would be the wisest approach at this time, selling and moving into a smaller more manageable place. I’ve thought about the possibility of returning the house to a partial rental state, maybe finding some quiet graduate student to move in and reduce my responsibility to this demanding space. But yet, I do so dearly adore it, despite frequent feelings of being enslaved by the sheer amount of chores and repairs which are and will be endless. There is no real “done,” except for perhaps a few brief moments.
The other major consideration in staying here is that I have the gift of living across the street from my daughter and her family. Who would be crazy enough to move away from the people who chose to stay so close? Not me. I’ve budgeted funds to help myself with the jobs that I hate the most, lawnmowing and housecleaning. In addition to normal maintenance, the tasks of going through a lifetime’s accumulation of stuff remain, after an initial flurry of activity I initiated and then abandoned, right after Michael died. The recent inviting weather which drew me out to prepare for this year’s garden reminded me that it was time to begin attending to the some of those deferred jobs. The other day after a couple of hours in the dirt, I decided to begin purging some of the piles in the garage. I
For the last two years, short of driving vehicles in and out, and occasionally retrieving a shovel or a rake, the garage has remained untouched since Michael’s death. His work tables are cluttered. He was working on projects that were left undone. There’s a mostly finished cornhole game he was building for our grandsons. I can’t move it – it’s too heavy. Once finished, I expect it would last for many years, just like the climbing structure he built for our kids about 30 years ago.
That thing is still sturdy and is now the host for my climbing honeysuckle vines, the delight for hummingbirds and the safe zone for the other backyard birds who are permanent residents. Michael loved wood and was a self-taught carpenter. The first bookshelf he built in 1976 is still in use in our house.
Over the years, he built display racks for his music business, racks for cassettes, CD’s and vinyl albums which ultimately filled three stores. Then he modified his design plans to build smaller units for our personal collections along with more bookshelves which eventually filled four rooms in our house.
He fenced the backyard and roofed the garage. Back in the times when cars were simpler than the computerized vehicles of today, he regularly disassembled carburetors and engines. There were years when the carburetors floated in murky fluids on the kitchen table. My son-in-law, another wood lover and tool aficionado, commented that he was surprised at the great number of automotive tools that he saw amidst Michael’s wood tools, the saws, routers, planers and clamps.
As years went by, Michael turned his attention to what he called his idiomatic art projects. A person with tongue-in-cheek humor and the kind of jokes that make people groan, he started to create 3-D versions of the idioms and phrases which are part of the commonly shared vernacular. He managed to complete 15 of those, leaving behind a list of more than a hundred more that he hoped to finish. While remembering those funny Warhol-ish pieces and looking around at the piles in the garage, I realized that he had created a legacy that extends beyond his life.
The question of how we make a mark on the world has always interested me. As a person who worked primarily with numbers and computers, I wondered if after my death, there would be any tangible, creative remnant of my life that existed beyond my stay on this planet. I felt like there might be nothing but a paper trail which I produced at work, unsigned and ultimately consumed into the anonymity of the computers which governed my office. I mulled over why this should matter? For me, I identified the need to somehow transmit into the void that I was here, I had an impact, I once existed. I think that impulse is relatively common. Lovers carve their initials on trees. The concrete worker traces a name and date into a square of sidewalk before the wet dries. Caves and walls along river beds bear the silent testimony of those who scratched their lifestyles into rock, fulfilling a desire to leave a permanent mark that transcends time.
I took cognitive steps to leave my mark in the form of knitting, making jewelry and drawing. My writing, too, will pass on to my family. I’ve been deliberate about making these choices. They are part of my intellectual process.
As I looked around at Michael’s work space, I realized that what he’d done was fueled from an organic need to create. His head was stuffed with ideas – making them real was limited only by the time constraints of living a pretty traditional lifestyle where a job defined a great deal of what he could get done in limited time. My process about legacy was mentally driven while his stemmed from a visceral internal impulse to make his ideas tangible. I stood at one of his work tables, ready to plunge in and eliminate some of what he’d left behind.
There were a few painted and stained pieces of wood which I assumed would be supports for more of the idiomatic art. I wondered how he would go about translating the language into the physical. Our minds worked so differently in this area. I wish I could have seen how he would solve his dilemmas.
As I sorted things by type, I unearthed unexpected surprises. The first was a two inch thick rubber banded stack of old credit cards, both his and mine, going back 40 years. I remember him asking me for expired ones which I gave him without questioning why he wanted them. Many of the issuing banks no longer exist.
They were next to a box of old phones. And then there was this overflowing metal tray, filled with old bolts, washers and other bits of metal that I can’t identify.
To top those finds off, I found two big boxes of old comic books. The comic books were always a bone of contention between us. His parents had dumped his childhood collection when he left for college which made him sad and bitter. He began collecting again when we first started out together in 1972 and ultimately, had so many boxes they needed their own closet. In a house which was originally built without closets, I found this use of the few that he built in to be a ridiculous waste of space. Most of them had no value as they weren’t protected by in preserving sleeves. So he finally parted with them, ostensibly recycling them all. Except he didn’t. I found boxes stashed in the garage. I gave my eldest grandson a big stack, threw away the ones that were badly damaged and found myself unable to part with the rest.
I know I’ve unearthed not just a bunch of stuff to be discarded but rather ideas and plans that never came to fruition. I’m fairly certain that the credit cards and phones were likely to be some projects that would illustrate a point that he wanted to make with his students, some comment on history and contemporary life. All the metal objects and the comics were clearly going to be some mysterious art that I can’t ever figure out. As with his complex line drawings that he made throughout his life, the end result was never what I expected.
My garage is packed with unfulfilled creative impulses. I know I can manage to part with them sometime soon. I’ve got the photos to remind myself that today’s technology allows me to peek into private recesses of Michael’s private interior landscape. This offputting chore has turned into a posthumous gift from him to me. An unexpected turn in the road which is how life works. Doesn’t it?
Yesterday the Mueller report dropped with completely unsatisfying results. Mueller started his probe before my husband died. For two years, it, and the national political nightmare, has been draped over my personal grief. When I heard the news I felt myself sinking. Next I found out that some medical test results I was expecting are lost in the morass of my clinic. After waiting for weeks, I get to wait again. That’s frustrating.
Then there is the steady streams of spam phone calls pouring into my supposedly opted-out telephone, day in, day out. I finally got a service to field them all. I get to listen to the recordings and decide if the caller should be permanently blocked. The most recent one was threatening lawsuits against me and my entire family about some mystery tax liabilities. Pity the people who get intimidated and respond to these predators.
This is modern life. Flooded with news, bureaucratic incompetence and trolls trying to score money from cowed innocents. Well. I’m not going to let any of this weighty, exhausting garbage steal my moments in the present. I’m getting my spring. I want it and I need it. So here goes.
At last, spring seems to be getting ready to settle in and send this relentless winter on its way. I’m aware that I choose to live in a place where four seasons are the natural cycle. I’ve always been a fan of two, fall and spring. Summer and winter, not so much. My thermostat runs hot, both physically and mentally. In summer, I’m in a constant battle with sweat. I’ve always found it embarrassing and uncomfortable. I can usually be seen with a visor to absorb the water pouring down my head and rolling into my eyes, and I usually have a towel slung over my shoulder.
My arrogant blue blood mother-in-law would look down her nose at me as I mopped myself from head to toe and announce, “WE don’t sweat.” A swipe at my peasant heritage, I suppose. Winter presented more complex problems. I knew it was cold and dressed appropriately but would quickly get too warm and start unzipping and pulling off all the layers. My sister told me that her vision of me in winter was coat open, flapping in the wind, mittens off and socks rolled down in my boots. When I was a kid, I remember the joy of the first warmer temperatures of spring. The cool air still bit my skin, but I would be barelegged in my cotton dresses as I strolled to school, feeling free and unencumbered by the weight of winter’s demands.
I always spent as much time as I could outside, playing in the streets and alleyways of Chicago until dusk came or my mother called out, whichever came first. As time has gone by and my life has changed, the advent of spring means getting back into the garden, digging in the dirt. I guess that’s still a form of play for me. With the wild weather events of the past few years and my firm belief in the science of climate change, I worry for the future of this planet. I’m watching my garden for signals of change. Recent springs have been a mixed bag. A year ago today, I went with my family to a March for Our Lives demonstration. The weather was brutal.
I’ve compared photos of my garden over the past several years. A bit of everything has been tossed at my space in terms of weather extremes. My snowy photos conceal perennials which were ready to pop, only to be submerged under inches of snow.
Then there are the ones in which everything seems perfect, the blooms popping up exactly when the packaging said they would. For those of us who plant on an optimistic timetable, hoping that new flowers will emerge just when the earlier ones are dying back, that cascade of color is the gardener’s victory.
Some people scoff at climate change theory because they think that as long as there is cold and hot we’re ok. But that’s not how it works. The intensity and frequency of the winter storms are the issue as will be the intensity of summer heat, dryness and/or rains. I’ve heard a lot of comments about hundred year storms. Except they’re coming regularly in each season. The hurricanes and cyclones in recent years have been increasing in frequency and intensity. Floods, fires and mudslides have been cataclysmic in many areas. There’s very little that I can do our there in the big world to contend with these issues. So I’m focusing on my small part of the world.
I’ve finally gotten outside long enough to check out my perennials. Some are emerging slowly and others seem to be following an average trajectory. For the past two months, I’ve been alarmed about a drop off of birds at my feeders. That seemed directly related to the polar vortex that stuck around in the Midwest for what felt like eternity. But of course, the vortex, like, everything else, passed. The birds are back in force. Today when I came home from running errands there were multiple species enjoying a midday meal.
I think that for what’s left in my lifetime, the “all things must pass” adage will be true. I hope for the sake of the ones who come after me that the planet is not beyond redemption and that brilliant, tactical scientists and their supporters will find ways of recovering what’s already been lost. If not recovery, then at least a new approach that will preserve the diversity of the natural world. For now, all I can do is enrich the space that I’m lucky enough to own.
I’m planting and feeding and creating habitat for as many creatures as I can entice into my yard. I want bees and butterflies and hummingbirds. I want my perennial milkweed to return this year so I can draw the many monarchs who visited last year. I want the other butterflies as well.
Actually I want as many birds as I can get. I want lots of insects. I know they’re vanishing at an incredible rate and that without them the underpinnings of the a healthy ecosystem are at risk. I have at least a dozen praying mantis egg sacs dangling from shrubs in my garden.
I hope what I’m doing will provide them the sustenance of the other “pest insects” they eat so they don’t turn to the pollinators I’m enticing. The balance is complex and delicate. So yes, I’m getting my spring. I’ve reminded myself that Michael would be so thrilled to have even one extra day. The last thing he’d want is for me to squander what’s good and within my control, for things that deplete me and about which I can do almost nothing but brood. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be out in my dirt.
How strange that it’s only recently, as I approach the two year anniversary of his death, that I realized that I’ve had my last romantic, sexy kiss. I can’t say exactly when it happened. I know it was during the last months of his life. As his cancer spread, we shared kisses and affection but there was a different feel to that time. I was too busy trying to keep him alive and safe to identify the last time we shared the kind of kiss that made us pull back from each other, feeling dizzy, somewhat dazed, looking into each other’s eyes and marveling that after 45 years, we could still feel so weak-kneed with each other. Now I’m thinking about so many kisses, the kisses of a lifetime.
I dated a bit but in November of 1969, I met Al, the guy who within four months, despite my best attempts at self-control, became the first person to light a deeper spark in me. Now his kisses I remember. For the first time, I wanted more, to cross over into the most intimate of sexual exchanges. I fell madly in love with him and thought I’d found the one, despite the fact that we argued constantly and rode the miserable rollercoaster of breaking up and getting back together over and over. He was too young and too scared to be in a committed relationship and rightly so. But I was so sure we belonged together. Eventually, in my junior year of college, at age nineteen, I became what I was pretty sure was the last virgin with radical politics to give in and finally have a significant sexual relationship. I don’t regret that. I thought we’d be together forever which was naive and painful. We hurt each other a lot and eventually, I was able to move on and start seeing other people. Still, I never regretted that my first love was someone who meant everything to me. As I tried to get past Al, I met the person who as a kissing partner, was probably the best natural match of my life, Dennis the golden boy.
We finally kissed each other and the rest as they say, is history. It took a little while to fit our mouths together as our shapes weren’t the perfect fit. But we made that happen and practiced for the rest of our lives.
A little over two years ago, I was watching Michael changing in front of me. I knew he was really sick. But we were befuddled. He’d had a clean PET/CAT scan right before Thanksgiving so we were unaware of a covert, stealthy Merkel cell cancer recurrence that was traveling up his spine and crossing into his brain. Things moved fast. I’d noticed a few odd things in December, 2016. He had a rare episode of terrible vomiting after eating one of his favorite meals of mussels and scallops with linguini. There was a moment when I was making mashed potatoes in the dead of winter and he suggested that I bring in some chives from the garden to flavor them. What could he have been thinking? His behavior was riddled with irritability. He had loss of appetite. His circadian rhythms were off – he started going for walks at night instead of during the day.
He started slipping away. He was angry at my incessant nagging about his eating and drinking. I finally got him in to see our radiation oncologist who diagnosed the wasting condition, cachexia, common in heavily treated cancer patients.
He prescribed medications for symptoms. But Michael wasn’t taking any treatments. By the time we got home that afternoon, I was calling back saying I disagreed with the diagnosis. We were sent on our way to oncology. The oncologist was very thorough, very cautious and very wrong. She ordered scans and blood tests which showed negative for disease. We were told Michael was cancer-free on Friday, January 27th, 2017 and he was given appetite stimulants. We crawled our way through the weekend. Monday was a difficult day. Michael wasn’t hungry and barely ate, consuming about 500 calories. I was following him through the house, trying everything to get him to eat. By evening we were on each other’s last nerve. He went upstairs early, feeling annoyed. I felt terrible. I went up to see him and apologized, explaining that I was just trying to help him maintain himself. I told him I loved him, kissed him goodnight and went back downstairs to watch the news, to distract myself from my growing terror. About half an hour later, Michael appeared and told me he felt confused. When I asked why, he asked me if I’d just left him. When I replied, of course not, he broke down and cried. We huddled together on the couch while I comforted him and got him to drink a bottle of Ensure.
We decided to watch the news together, an activity which was familiar and usual. The focus that night was on the Muslim ban and the screen was full of demonstrators at airports across the country. Michael gazed at the television and asked what was happening. When I replied that what we were watching was a response to the Muslim ban, he asked, what’s a Muslim ban? This question from my current events and history obsessed husband? We went to sleep and when I woke early Tuesday morning, I used all my persuasive powers and leaned on Michael’s trust in me to convince him we had to go to the hospital to search for a real answer to his problems.
On January 31, 2017, we headed to the ER in a desperate attempt to get a proper diagnosis. That day he had his first brain MRI. By late afternoon we were told he had central nervous system lymphoma which had infiltrated his brain meninges and was invisible on PET/CAT scans. This was another error. What was there was recurrence of the Merkel Cell cancer which kept popping up in him after 5 years of treatment. So few patients with metastatic Merkel Cell lived long enough to get that presentation so the radiologist couldn’t identify it. A hearing problem he’d complained about for weeks earlier was caused by tumor tissue. He’d been taking antihistamines for what was purported to be fluid buildup. What a shocking transition from a diagnosis of no cancer to brain cancer in just 4 days. He was immediately admitted to the hospital where we spent the next 32 days. He was given 4 weeks to live, absent treatment. Most people would have gone directly to hospice. Michael lived for 17 weeks. He took hideous whole brain radiation, a barbaric treatment, and eventually, was put back on Keytruda which had been stopped a year before. I’ll never know what would’ve happened if he’d continued that drug which brought him back from the brink of death in 2015. He became more incompetent but still remained himself in deeply essential ways. When I played him music that was special to us, he was responsive and aware. He refused to give up the possibility that he might still survive and showed the stubbornness which was one of his classic characteristics. Still, he mourned his own loss and thought in terms of how much he’d miss his family, his life and all things left undone. We loved him hard and he loved us back. He was a beast. As his brain was overcome by diseased , he lost his ability to utilize technology. When I’d try to stimulate his mind, he kept referring me to the “red notebook” which he said had the answers to all my questions and which I eventually found. It was packed full of thoughts and plans and dreams. He’d written an outline for an autobiography, one he’d never be able to write. I decided to interview him, so he could share his memories and know that his experiences wouldn’t be forgotten. Oh, the stories he told. How he could still access those tales made me marvel at the strands of memory that are deeply tucked into our brains and which, when woven together, make us who we are. Even if that brain is inundated with disease. It’s my labor of love to make sure his stories are codified for the future. Since the beginning of time, human beings have made an effort to be remembered. The following words are for our children and grandchildren. They are my version of Michael’s petroglyphs. They’ll know him forever. And so it begins.
Michael’s Autobiography Outline
1) Early life
2) Da Kids
3) Record Service years
5) High school hijinks
6) The Revolution
9) Diving and Skiing(Water)
10) Life in C-U
11) Grammar school and Junior High
12) Me and Renee on the road
13) Cars and Bikes
15) The Crook
18) The Pretend Hero
19) Boys’ Trips
20) Barnacle – One of Michael’s peculiar nicknames for me. “The partner I never dreamed of, the smartest person I ever met and probably the most loyal.” That’s what he told me while I interviewed him. Sigh. Lucky me.First, I’ll share the stories he was able to tell me. Then I’ll try to fill in his outline from what he told me during our life together. Here I go.
When Michael was about 2 and ½, he had pneumonia. He was living in Shaker Heights, a suburb near Cleveland. He said he lived in Shaker Heights twice as a little kid. They lived on Tamalga Drive. He was sick enough to be hospitalized. His parents left him alone in the hospital. He woke in the night and climbed out of bed and was wandering around. He wound up in the surgery area. The staff put him back in his bed and restrained him by his hands. This was his first real memory and it haunted him. My poor boy.
Michael and his family lived in Fairport, New York for awhile. Since his dad was a salesman, he moved a lot in his early years. He remembered that he had an awful case of mumps there with both his cheeks hugely swollen. His parents bought him a giant box of Nestles’ chocolate bars to make him feel better. Hard to chew and swallow, though. He remembered that the backyard there had a big brick grill that was built into the ground. So the Mr. Grill thing and his barbecue skills were stimulated early.
When Michael was 4 or 5 years old, he lived in St. Paul, Minnesota. He remembered a canal and that his nursery school was located next to it. I suspect the canal was actually the Mississippi River. He thought all the boats floating by were very cool. There was also a freight line near his house. His dad used to take him to the freight yard to look at the trains. Sometimes they walked through the yard to watch the fast freights roll through. Maybe that’s what fostered his lifelong love of trains. Michael also remembered that they lived in a small house – behind it was what he referred to as a “giant wood.” Maybe it just felt that way because he was little. He thought it was very scary, but went exploring there. He called it the two-headed woods. I have no idea why. Maybe the trees made it look that way.Story 4)
Michael loved clouds. One of his favorite pastimes was staring up at them, looking for animal shapes. I don’t think there was ever a time when he didn’t see one. Half the time I had no idea what he was seeing. But that was ok. He believed they were there.
When Michael went to visit his maternal great-grandparents, they took their very expensive Ming vase and hid it in the attic since they were sure he’d destroy it. They were so wealthy that they had upstairs and downstairs maids. There was a button in the dining room under the rug and when someone needed anything from the kitchen, they’d step on the button to summon the staff. Hard to believe. They also had a chauffeur who lived in the basement. Michael used to go down there to talk with him. Fraternizing with the help at an early age. This chauffeur loved to eat Eskimo Pies, chocolate-covered vanilla ice cream squares. He save all the shiny silver and blue wrappers and built a tall pile of them which he held together with a rubber band.
Michael’s maternal grandmother remarried after the death of her first husband. Her second husband owned a farm in upstate New York. Michael remembered being able to sit on a tractor there and going for a ride. That maternal grandmother was born into a family who lived in Erie, Pennsylvania. They owned a clothing business. More on them later.
When Michael was 4 or 5, his family rented a house during the summer in Cape Cod. The house was on a country lane – down the lane there were farms and cows and open fields. One afternoon, the family got on a little boat and went into Boston. What Michael remembered most was stopping for sandwiches. His was butter and jelly and he thought it was delicious and exotic. A little boy memory. In the house on Cape Cod there was a basement. The owners had a rocking horse down there. Michael snuck down there and brought the horse into the yard where he played on it all summer.Ludlow School – Shaker Heights, Ohio
Back to Shaker Heights. When Michael was 5, that’s where he lived, in a small house on Euclid Avenue. Upstairs on the second floor, there was a secret entrance to the attic. Michael could get it open if he climbed on a toy chest near the door. Forbidden fruit. Michael attended kindergarten at Ludlow School, the same one that his mother attended, even being in the same room she was in at his age. The room was shaped like an octagon. He got in trouble in that grade because he couldn’t draw a heart.
On top of that, he had a lisp which required speech therapy. The center of town was called Shaker Square, a transportation hub. His parents pinned an identifying note to his jacket and he caught the bus by himself at Shaker Square to attend his speech lessons. A kindergartner alone. Typing this makes me want to cry, even though I’ve heard the story many times. Being quiet was a lifelong Michael trait that became understandable after learning about this tough challenge for a little kid.
In first grade, Michael was living in Wilmette, Illinois, a northern suburb of Chicago. His family lived on Lake Avenue, which was a very busy throroughfare. He rode his bike to Harper School down a narrow street behind his row townhouse, to be safe from all the traffic. One day when his parents were out of town, he was riding his bike when he crashed into the back of a parked car. He went to school anyway. At naptime, a girl next to him started screaming because apparently he had blood dripping all over the side of his face. His parents were out of town so his babysitter, Mrs. Woodhead, took him to the hospital where he got stitches. When his parents came home they were freaked out because his whole head was bandaged. He also remembered that Mrs. Woodhead kept asking him about whether he’d had a BM. He didn’t know what a BM was-his parents called them uh-oh’s. Figures (editorial comment).
Still at Harper School in first grade-Michael was best friends with three boys, a kid named George, one named Jimmy Bell and another named David Parkhill. Together they formed the ABC’s Woman Hater’s Club. He said the club didn’t last long. Editorial grin.
So there we have it -the first installment of Michael’s memories, written exactly as he spoke them to me, with a few opinions of my own tossed in for perspective. There are more stories to share but I can only do this in small doses. Watching someone so ill dig deep into his confusion was a remarkable experience for me. Unforgettable.