This past 4th of July, my daughter was hosting a barbecue. She invited me and asked if I’d do her a favor and make cole slaw, one of my house specials. I was happy to oblige but also a little anxious. I haven’t done much in the way of food preparation since Michael died. When I went to check my cabinets for vinegar and mayonnaise, I was amazed to see cobwebs draped over the shelves. I was slightly embarrassed, but mostly bemused. When Michael and I would discuss his death, we often wound up on the topic of food. “What are you going to eat when I die,” he’d ask. I’d say, “Raisin bran and cottage cheese and pineapple. No worries.”
I didn’t know how close to the truth that really was – I think I’ve only turned my oven on twice since he died in May, 2017. Once was for Thanksgiving, a dinner I’d hosted for 35 years. Thanksgiving was Michael’s favorite holiday. Over the years I’d worked out my menu and had the planning and preparation down to a smooth operation. But every year as I got older, it got harder. My creaking knees and sciatica made the long hours challenging and physically expensive. When Michael died, I told my kids that I was passing the torch I’d inherited from my mom. My daughter and son-in-law took on the event, requesting sweet potato pies from me and again, the slaw.
When my son came home for a break from his post-doc, I made him his favorite quiche. That’s it. The two times I’ve turned on the oven. I’ve used the burners on occasion to make the chicken soup my kids love. I also wanted my grandchildren to taste what was the traditional warming food that my grandmother and mother made, the steaming soup that made everyone feel happy and homey.
I spent a lot of years being the primary cook in our family. Michael grilled burgers, chicken and steaks but I cooked most of our meals and tried to create interesting recipes. I never loved it the way some people do. I was decent in the kitchen but never deeply invested. Both of us liked to eat but in his late 30’s, Michael’s love of food changed from enjoying it to and cooking it. He planted a huge garden, so he could cook with fresh ingredients and can the rest for use all winter.
Besides the requisite tomatoes and tomato sauce, there was delicious salsa. Perhaps the best treat was the pesto which he froze in ice cube trays, popping out one or two in the cold months for pasta, pizza and bruschetta.
He started buying and reading lots of cookbooks. The first challenges were finding recipes for his favorite foods, adapting and tweaking them, until at last he made a meal that rivaled a restaurant special. He started with simple foods like chili and ribs, fooling around with spices and ingredients until he’d made his own unique flavor. I can’t remember how long he took to create his perfect barbecue sauce. Then came other marinades and basting sauces. Eventually he built two different spice racks for the kitchen to store his herbs, spices and endless oils and vinegars.
As his interest grew, he collected cookbooks and spent hours reading, selecting and sorting recipes, starting with appetizers and salads through main courses, and eventually moving to desserts. Because he was arty, his food presentation was beautiful, full of color and garnishes. I sit in our home, remembering stuffed mushrooms, caprese salads (only when fresh tomatoes were in season, mind you) and marinated cucumbers. I can hear him pounding away with his mallet, flattening chicken breasts for chicken parmesan and hear the vegetables flying up and down in his wok as he flipped them for stir fry. He perfected deep dish Chicago style pizza and incredible kabobs which were laden with meats, vegetables and fruit. He baked bread. His two favorite desserts were a moist gingerbread based on a friend’s recipe which he adjusted to his taste, and jam kolaches that his paternal grandmother baked when he was a small boy. The joke around here was that we’d eat lunch and had barely cleared the table when he’d say, what do you want to do for dinner? Trying to stay lean was impossible for me. He was a foot taller than I was and could eat without ever really gaining weight. For me, it was always a struggle. I’d tell him that I simply couldn’t keep up with him, but he would tempt me and was loving enough that no matter my weight issues, he was always happy with me. I was lucky/unlucky in that way.
As time went on, except for my few treasured specialties that my family loved, I left the kitchen to him. I’d watched what happened with my mother when my dad died. She’d stopped cooking almost immediately, not interested in making the effort for herself. She ate simply, mostly food that required no preparation. I was pretty certain I would mimic that behavior. I’d rather read a book. During Michael’s illness through our five year journey, his ability and desire to eat came and went. He was sad when he couldn’t eat and glad when his appetite returned. During the hard times, I did my best to cook and coax him into eating but the fact was, he mostly enjoyed his own food more than most of mine. Luckily, there were good times throughout that period.
And his great desire to stay alive made him drink the protein supplements loaded with nutrients so that he never physically diminished to the place where many terminally ill patients wind up. When he was well, he continued to experiment with food, but he was mindful that with his dire prognosis, this couldn’t go on forever. Ever the historian, he decided to codify our house specialties, mostly his, into a genuine menu. He spent hours designing this and while at the time, I laughed at him, I truly treasure these creations which honored our life together and make a gift to our kids and grandkids. I never figured out some of the crazy nicknames he assigned me in our life but Barnacle is indeed one of them. Of course, my son sometimes calls me crowbar, so apparently this is a familial eccentricity.
I can’t figure out if I’m going to change and eventually go back to a more traditional eating style, when I might want to actually cook, instead of quickly assembling tuna salad or eating cereal. The kitchen is the last place I want to hang out in my house. The plants in it are still alive and I have dried sprigs of rosemary and thyme hanging where Michael left them. But I wonder if that room will ever feel like so lived in as it did when Michael’s zest for food was vibrantly alive in our home. Our house is very old with nine foot ceilings. I can see spots up there above the island where he would sling ingredients with his sloppy, reckless style that always made me crazy. His food definitely left a wake behind its preparation.
The other day, my grandson was in there with me, looking for the snacks that I keep on hand for the boys. He asked, “Grandma, what are you going to do with all grandpa’s spices? You certainly aren’t going to use them.” His observations feel right, although I’ve yet to empty all the shelves. I guess I’ll wait awhile longer to see how I feel. I do hear that kitchen calling out. I’m just not sure it’s for me.
During the years after my father died, I spent a lot of time with my mother. We’d always been close. Our relationship got more complicated after dad’s death. She’d always had a power figure in her life, one she could love and resent simultaneously. I felt that was because she was so childlike, mostly like a teenager with street smarts and the ability to rebound after tough times, but also in need of a grownup figure because she was unsure of herself. Unfortunately, I unwittingly walked into the power figure role, responding to my dad’s requests that I do the things for her which he’d done, which she should have been able to do for herself. It took me a while to figure out this inappropriate relationship. I should have been able to view her as my mom but ultimately we writhed around in our role reversal with each of us wanting what had been written out of our family script before we understood it was happening.
The best times we had were when we could come together to do something neutral, like working on our family history. She’d inherited my grandmother’s photos. She also had random postcards and letters, written in languages neither of us could read, perhaps Yiddish, or Polish or Hebrew. We started out relying on her excellent memory, poring over the photographs and trying to establish who everyone was, where they might be. This was a complicated process as my maternal grandparents were first cousins. In addition, my grandfather had an earlier teenaged marriage, eventually annulled, but which nonetheless, produced a child.
We managed to identify and label many pictures. While we worked my mom told me stories of how when she was a child, the letters and postcards would come from Europe. My grandmother was illiterate, but my grandfather wrote back to these faceless authors, often enclosing one or two dollars in his letters. Mom would mail them for him. But she said there wasn’t much conversation about her family, just snippets of stories that she recalled. She was left wondering what happened to these relatives she never saw. The only one who appeared in her life was her half-brother, Benny, who my grandfather somehow secured passage for, out of Poland during the 1930’s. By the time she was an older teen, the letters and postcards stopped coming.
I was busy during those times with mom, raising my family, working, leading my life. I made attempts to find translators for the letters and postcards, but always seemed to hit walls which made me set them aside. Intermittently, I looked at the faces of the unidentified people in the photos, searching for family resemblances. I imagine most if not all were lost to the Holocaust in World War II.
My mom is gone now, along with all her siblings. Although my cousins have some stories from her brothers, my uncles, I think that she shared more than they did or rather, more than perhaps they knew. Now my husband is gone, as is my brother and I’ve found myself mulling over how to solidify the known family histories to pass on to the next generations.
Through a random conversation with a visiting scholar from Poland, my son-in-law created a bridge that has finally connected me to a professor in Berlin who says she can translate all of my postcards and letters. They are fragile with age but I’ve digitized them so they won’t be lost. I’m hoping they reveal the identities of the ghosts from the 1930’s, shedding light on those who vanished without any of us really knowing how they connect to our world.
I’ve also had my DNA analyzed and have been contacted by people who are somehow related to me. Talking with them and tracing roots will take a long time. I was amazed to discover that 14% of my genetic code comes from outside Central Europe and that within that percentage are ancestors who arrived in the US in the early 1820’s. Decoding those mysteries will take a long time. I’d always thought that the earliest my relatives arrived in this country was just prior to World War I.
When I look at family photos, I’m keenly aware of how many people have already vanished from my life. Many are dead. Others are estranged. What was once the foundation, the underpinning of my life looks so different now than it did two decades ago. That reality applies to friends as well as blood relatives. What seemed so unassailably real and concrete can disappear, sometimes slowly and sometimes in a flash.
I’m attending my 50th high school reunion next month. There will be people who’ve remained in my life since those old days and others I haven’t seen since I was thirteen years old. During the past 15 months since my husband’s death, I’ve been on a journey, historical, emotional, and intellectual, trying to make sense of what makes a family, what makes a life. So many of those absent people were lost, not just to death but to irrational hatred, misunderstandings and focusing on what divides people instead of what unites them. I’m still looking at those lost but as with almost everything, that exploration has unearthed the found.
My found family is not based in blood. The new family that has grown to fill some of the empty spaces in my life evolved through what are the critical values Michael and I built into the structure of our relationship and the values for our little family of four. Tolerance, friendship, unconditional acceptance, steady support and love. Through our forty five years together as we wrangled with life and faced its challenges, we always came back to rest on these principles. Even when I’m lonely for Michael, the solidity of our intentional ideology lifts me.
And because our children were willing, engaged participants in a mutually agreed upon world view, our home became a refuge for a broader network of young people who were intrigued by our brand of family. All subjects were on the table. Kids were treated with respect and acceptance. Maybe the most important thing that happened in our home was genuine interest in what you felt and what you thought. What I don’t think either Michael or I thought much about, was the idea that as years went by, some of kids in this younger generation were sticking around, growing up and integrating themselves into the fabric of our family. During the months since his death, these friends, once just kids, have provided an amazing network of support for me. I’m still “the mom,” but our conversations are wide-ranging and there is an equal exchange of feelings and ideas. What I find most remarkable is how easy it is for me to express myself and to feel the same acceptance from them that we once offered when they most needed it.
I find this experience to be transformative for me. The shared conversation that’s grown over decades has created an unexpected comfort net for me that can only be described as familial. Now we’re talking about their lives as parents, about their experiences with their families of origin and the balancing of their lives, their work, their aspirations.
Essentially I find that I’ve got new family, people who care about what happens to me and want to give back for whatever we provided for them during the precarious years of their youth. I think Michael would be comforted to know that whatever we shared with each other and our kids has spilled over into this part of my life and provided relief from the empty spaces left by those who are gone. My found family has rallied around me to visit and support me and has made space for me in their lives. The multi-generational nature of this crowd of people suits me. I think that being locked into a single peer group is stultifying on multiple levels. Being around younger people is like breathing fresh air, feeling alive. I’m grateful for the emotional sustenance. Coupled with those family members who are still here, my old friends and my network of this accidental family, I’m finding the strength to continue to cope with the rugged road of grief.
My life with Michael is validated by the knowledge that what we shared still reverberates through this world, beyond our children and grandchildren. I marvel at being the center of the coalescence of figuring out the mysteries of my family’s past and all who were lost, with the recognition of the family I’ve found along my way. Life is full of surprises.
The other day I watched a spider crawling up the shower wall. The walls are solid marble or fake marble, but nonetheless, slick when wet. The little thing would make a little progress, slide back down and then start over at a new spot. The same behavior over and over. It was still struggling away when I got out of there and moved on to the next part of my day. But the image of its efforts remained in my mind. An epiphany popped up. I realized that I’ve essentially been doing the same thing as the little spider since Michael died. Making some progress in trying not to drown in grief, slipping back down the wall, and then trying another spot that might be less slick.
While pondering this little metaphor, I realized that long ago I’d unwittingly set myself up to have a particularly terrible time with grief. As a teenager, I somehow got myself into the mindset that the really good times were the ordinary moments that a person experiences in everyday life. I saw lots of momentous events come and go. Many of them were overrated and disappointing. There was so much pressure in trying to create a perfect event. In my life I saw people fighting over lackluster parties, weddings and funerals. Nothing ever turned out according to plan. I remember the graduations which were so fraught with expectations that fizzled as the graduates had anxiety attacks and family members jockeyed for a place of importance in the success of the graduate.
On my eighth grade graduation day, my baby cousin died and my parents couldn’t even attend to see me march in my sister’s prom dress, with my honor roll pin in the middle of my dangling blue and white ribbons. I’d barely turned thirteen. But I was thinking away, trying to figure out how to squeeze a little joy out of every day, rather than counting on the big life events for happiness, for joy. I was going to demystify the big deals and go for the small ones.
I became skilled at finding the nuggets of good, some tiny, others larger. How about a cloud? A flower? A painting? Perhaps a bird or a beautiful insect. Putting my feet in waves at the beach. Eating when I was insanely hungry. A song. An unforgettable line from a book. A scene from a movie. An embrace. A dizzying kiss. A loving pat on the ass. This was the stuff of true joy. Not all those things I was taught to wish for, to dream of, to set as my goals. My joy was inexpensive and easily accessible. Sometimes a few seconds were enough. An hour was stupendous. I developed my theory about coping skills. I knew that life was constantly challenging, that everyone had to cope with unexpected or unanticipated problems. So what was logical to me was that the people with the best lives were the ones who’d developed the best coping skills. I would be one of them. And the little daily joys were paramount in helping me cope. I spread the word to my family and anyone else who would listen. The itinerant lecturer, as my beloved son wryly tagged me.
And the truth is, I was right. That skill set served me well the bulk of my life. I could adapt fast and twist a negative to a positive just by glancing around my environment. I made a great first responder to all bad news. The queen of silver linings.
During Michael’s five years of the cancer rollercoaster, we squeezed what we knew would be our limited retirement into every moment of good health. We traveled as much as we could and saw grand geological vistas and beautiful oceans. We saw wild horses running on the beach and dolphins leaping into the air. We ate delicious food. We savored holding hands in the movie theaters while we shared popcorn.
We listened to live music and ate funnel cakes at funky festivals. We went to museums and saw powerful art. We worked in our gardens and read books next to each other. And we lay in each other’s arms every night. All the coping skills which made the tough stuff of life more manageable. We did the best we could.
Since he’s been gone, I’ve felt flattened out. I’ve done some fun things. I’ve spent time with my loving children and grandchildren. I’ve had my close friends get closer and be present for me. I’ve traveled and appreciated natural beauty. I’ve taken classes and gone to concerts. I’m out there in our garden which still looks so beautiful. But I haven’t felt joy. All those small things I found to create havens on the darkest of days added up to what joy felt like to me. I stopped looking for the big events long ago. Putting my feelings into such weighty and tenuous events was the opposite of joy to me. And I’ve missed the feeling. Michael’s constant presence was the underpinning to my zest for life. I didn’t really understand that. I knew we had what we called big love. From our very beginning to his end, we were enveloped in each other and nothing, not the worst of times or disagreements, ever touched the powerful intensity of what held us together. I still ponder that bond every day. I even stole the title of a book about Claude Monet I read recently, which accurately described how we felt for each other – the mad enchantment. That comes close to the description of us. But that lives in a private space in me. I can go there when I want to and I can feel us. But what about now?
I have many passions and interests. I like spectacles. I love the Olympics. I love the Triple Crown even though I worry about the horses. I love awards shows.
I also love Roger Federer, the GOAT, the greatest of all time.
I’ve watched Federer play tennis since he was a boy, mostly because I’ve been watching tennis for a long time. There are few sports I don’t like. Over the years I’ve had so many people tell me they think it’s odd that I’m so interested in all the competition and negative energy that’s so often present in the sports world. I get it. I see it. But I love sports anyway. I got started by loving to play sports myself, even though I was embarrassed and humiliated by some of my skills. When I was a kid, I was teased about my ability to hit a softball and toss a football. The boys called me “moose.” The Chicago White Sox had a lefthanded player named Moose Skowron – hence the terrible moniker. In eight grade, a lot of kids wrote to me as moose in my autograph book. When I showed it to my son, he cried at the meanness of people as he imagined me as a young pained girl.
But I stayed interested. I sat with my father when he watched sports on television and I learned a lot about all of them. And I went further and found favorites of my own. I was so happy that my kids were both great athletes and spent happy hours watching them excel.
But Federer. As he evolved and matured, I marveled at his athletic grace and beauty. So light on his feet and so natural. He worked on himself and erased his early bad boy behavior and became a calm, contained presence on the court. A welcome relief from some of the “enfants terribles” who are so prevalent among the many players. Best of all, he grew a social conscience. With the millions he earned he started a foundation which is dedicated to educating impoverished children. This year alone he’s started over 80 schools in Zambia. If you look him up online, you can see pictures of him sitting in the dirt with children crawling all over him. He plays with them and stands in front of chalkboards teaching them. Federer.
My family and friends tease me mercilessly about my devotion to this famous stranger who exemplifies so many good qualities to me. They call him my boyfriend. I know who my boyfriend was and still is – my Michael. But…
During Michael’s last months in 2017, Federer was returning from a six month layoff because he’d had knee surgery. In January, 2017, he was returning to competition in the Australian Open. He is considered old for tennis now. He was 36 then. Michael had gotten clean scans from the doctors but I knew he was sick. After 45 years of living together, I knew him well enough to recognize a problem. But I couldn’t prove it. We were arguing. At odds. During the Australian Open, I sat up late through the nights to soothe myself by watching Roger play. And miraculously he won. My happiness carried me through the beginning of Michael’s end which began at the end of that month.
Michael died in May, 2017. Suddenly I was alone in our home. But coming up in July, there was Wimbledon. Federer pulled off another miracle and won that tournament too. His success helped bookend the hardest months of my life.
This year, I was casting around for something to anticipate, some pleasure to distract me from my absence of joy. On a whim, I thought, what if once in my life I could see Roger Federer in person? What would that feel like? I decided to buy tickets for the Western Southern Open, a run-up tournament to the U.S. Open that Roger had won several times. He’d skipped it last year but I figured, what the hell? If not now, when? A four hour drive from home? You bet.
I anxiously waited to see if he would decide to play the tournament. He’s picking and choosing, now 37 and not likely to take as many chances with his body as he did years before. It could be this one or Toronto. He chose this one, in Cincinnati, Ohio.
I arrived here on Saturday night and Sunday went to the tennis venue to watch a few early round matches, but also to see Roger practice. I’d been told that the practices were almost more fun than the matches. I carefully found his practice court and planned my strategy of arriving early enough to be close to the fence which keeps the public at bay. With knees due for replacement, I needed a strategic plan.
I arrived at the site to get near the front and experienced the hot, sweaty crush of his many fans, jostling for a good view. I spent over 2 hours on legs that felt like lead. But I was determined that this was my one shot and that mind over matter is a thing. I kept my eyes on the entry gate. And it suddenly swung open and he appeared.
Is there such a thing as levitation? That’s how I felt. There he was, in my real life, breathing the same air as me. And then I had the pleasure of watching him swing his racket and float on the court which is what he does. I have photos and videos to prove it. I was there. And I felt joy.
I still feel it. Tomorrow I’ll get to see him play a match right in front of me. I’ll keep that with me the rest of my life.
And more importantly, I’ve learned from a little spider and a famous tennis player that I can modify my skills for life as its demands require me to do, in order to experience more of that joyful feeling I thought was gone forever. Different joy. But joy nonetheless. I don’t know what comes next. But a little more hope has inched through my internal seal, through the door I thought might be closed forever.The Colors of Joy – Arran Skyscrapers – Penny Gordon-Chumbley
Today, this song, written by Michael’s beloved Grateful Dead, comes to mind as I wrangle with my conscience on my own, in his very apparent absence. I am down to myself on this road. Though I still hear him in my head.
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung
Would you hear my voice come through the music
Would you hold it near as it were your own?
Perhaps they’re better left unsung
I don’t know, don’t really care
Let there be songs to fill the air
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow
If your cup is full may it be again
Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow
But if you fall you fall alone
If you should stand then who’s to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home
I find myself in the midst of a conflict of social platforms, WordPress and Facebook. This note is not for those who have chosen to follow my blog by getting notifications through their email. Rather, it is for those who read my meanderings on Facebook. This is a test to see if I’ve circumvented the issue that’s been created. Please bear with me, friends, while I test my intellectual mettle against the power players.
Michael died 422 days ago. That’s only 2.65% of the 16,425 days we lived together. Apparently at about 365 days, the grieving partner is supposed to have recovered to the point at which, along with participation in normal life, the capacity for joy returns. I guess I’m an underachiever.
The truth is, this second year feels harder than the first. The fatigue, the shock, all the activity associated with a life’s end takes up a lot of time. I’ve been incredibly busy since Michael died. My lists remain undone at the end of each day. Always more to do. The legal business is done. I threw a big bash to celebrate the rich, complex life Michael lived. Now I’m deeply involved in planning my 50th high school reunion. Those are the objective realities. I’ve taken classes, traveled by myself, created art and started a grief support group. In certain ways I’m the poster child for the median time for societal standards of recovery from grief.
But what is actually of note is that none of these activities has allayed the deep pain I feel. The novelty of Michael’s absence is so over for me. I’m done with it. I’ve proven that I can deal with it. Check. Now, I’d like him back. Right away. Yesterday. A pretty unreasonable stance, I know. I still can’t believe I don’t get to see him or speak with him again. One more hug.
By this time, most people who are still partnered up have stopped thinking about what daily life is like for me. Adapting and moving on is what’s supposed to happen. I appear to have done that. I’m doing life, too, just like them. But the crushing empty space where Michael is supposed to be is always right in my face and on my mind. A constant awareness. I’m not prostrated by grief every day and I’m not crying all the time. Still, the ache is always present, and no amount of my letter writing or my occasional good dreams can fill that chasm.
I try to think about the future. Michael and I had time to discuss what might happen to me. He wanted me to be happy. He wanted me to share my energy with someone, to not be lonely. As I listened to him, he knew I was looking at him in disbelief. Another intimate relationship for me? Unimaginable.
So what about this guy has blotted out all thoughts of another companion? I know plenty of people who find a new person to be with, perhaps not with the same feelings, but still, someone to share the rest of what’s ahead in life. The thought of that is alien to me and completely undesirable. I never think about it. Why? I am fixated on my husband. Who was the real magic Mike? Why is his hold on me still enormous, his mystical presence so powerful for me? I remain very married.
I knew the first day I met Michael in 1971 that something big had happened to me. That was most interesting because at the time I was madly in love with my first real deal, Al. The guy who made mincemeat out of my heart and reduced me to a neurotic, sniveling mess for a few years. When I read my journals from the years we spent together, I feel humiliated and barely recognize myself. I was very young and didn’t have the strength to divest myself of what in retrospect, was a toxic, immature relationship.
I think I was always looking for big love, even as a kid. Though my parents led far from a perfect life, their obvious passion and support for each other became my role model. I looked around the world of the late 60’s and chose to be very cautious in my personal life. I didn’t want to make a mess and I didn’t want to look back with regret on bad personal choices. So I was very careful before giving my heart away. I had high school boyfriends and one in particular that lasted through my freshman year of college. But that fizzled out. Those loves were baby steps. When I began my sophomore year, I was unattached, open and still pure, holding on to my virginity until I met the guy I was going to marry. I may have been the last innocent I knew in those years of “free love.” I was holding out for the brass ring.
I’d met Albert briefly at some street dance as a freshman. What I remembered most about him was that his dance technique mostly resembled the consequences of sticking your finger in an electric socket. I forgot about him. But in October of 1969, when I ran into him on the south portico of the student union where he sat strumming his guitar, I felt a spark. Through the next four months it was the classic spark turning to a flame. I was still holding onto myself with a significant amount of caution. On New Year’s Eve that year, when he brought me home from our evening out, he whispered, “Just for tonight, I love you.” Talk about a red flag. I should’ve run the other way immediately.
But I was dazzled by this guy, mostly by his oversized brain. He was incredibly bright and for the first time in my life, I was with someone who didn’t find my intellectual ability intimidating. That’s not the same as liking it, however, but I didn’t understand that then. Ten months passed, many of them tempestuous. We argued a lot but I thought the up and back was worth it. True love. We would expand each other’s consciousness and grow. I thought I’d found my life partner. I was nineteen years old. Finally I felt ready to commit myself to this guy I figured I’d marry as soon as we were done with college. I was ready to take the big plunge. I had sex for the first time. Things didn’t get any calmer. I spent most of 1970 and 1971 in a devastating emotional ride of breakups and makeups. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t concentrate. I lived on one track, trying to keep my dream of being like my parents, one lover for life, alive. I disgusted myself.
In 1971, I finally dated someone else besides Al. He didn’t like that much and we continued our torturous journey, splitting apart and rejoining. He had a lot of random encounters with women while I stayed as true to myself as I could, being with only one other person who I inadvertently tormented as my heart was always somewhere else. I still feel badly about that. I never did “casual” very well. I always thought it was a superfluous waste of my time.
I didn’t trust Al, ever. I knew that he wasn’t ready for what I wanted. He always told me that I functioned as if there was only the all or none hypothesis. I think he was right. I thought I could force him to be ready for a committed relationship which was a huge mistake. So I limped ahead with my self-esteem in shreds. I had trouble concentrating on school and was buffeted around by the swirl of unsettled feelings.
I decided to focus on politics. I was active in the anti-war movement, the women’s movement, the civil rights movement. I made different friends. I wasn’t in the best mental shape but I wasn’t lying on the couch with the vapors, either.
In the summer of 1971, I was working, living in my college town and hanging out with people in the alternative community. I was invited to a wedding that August. The day before the wedding, I was at the home of some friends who had made the wedding cake. People were coming in and out to have a look at it. A couple walked in the front door, the man a very tall, thin person with auburn hair, a big red mustache and a beard. I was introduced to Michael for the first time. I’d heard of him before. He was infamous for tearing out the telephone system in his fraternity house after his “brothers” rigged a way to eavesdrop on a private conversation he was having with a girlfriend. He moved out of the fraternity shortly thereafter as his personality and that lifestyle were a mismatch. When I’d heard that story three years earlier, I’d pictured him as short, dark guy with glasses who’d been bullied as a kid and had developed a persona with an agitated affect. When this long, mellow string bean showed up, I remember laughing to myself about how wrong perceptions can be.
The next night, I attended the wedding which took place in the backyard of a rented sabbatical house. Hippie-esque was how I’d describe the vibe of the event. The bride wore a long dress and the groom a cotton shirt with needlework flowers and vines sewn on the neckline and cuffs. The parents and most of the guests were mostly obliterated from imbibing a variety of alcohol and drug offerings that were being passed around like hors d’oeuvres. I remember the bride eventually vomiting in the front yard and professing that she really didn’t like anyone at the event.
I actually felt pretty relaxed and glad I could enjoy myself during another of my Albert droughts. At one point, I wandered into the back yard where I saw a male friend and Michael lying on the grass, their heads resting on a log. There was a space between them that looked just right for me. So I went over and laid down between them. As we looked up at the stars there was silence. But it wasn’t particularly awkward silence. In my drug-induced haze, I felt like these two males, not well-versed in the art of communication were sending their positive connection through me. They clearly weren’t skilled at verbalizing. So as I am wont to do, I started talking for all of us. They didn’t seem to mind. And as we lay there, I remember feeling that Michael was emanating these inexplicable wonderful feelings toward me. I didn’t know him at all but he felt familiar, soothing. I generally operated at a pretty speedy high energy level as I still do. He felt slow and relaxing. As I write this, I’m still at a loss as to how to describe this unusual interaction that was all sensation, a subversive current of non-verbal dialogue that warmed me in a way that was so different from anything I’d felt before. Eventually we all got up and mingled with the rest of the guests but Michael and I stayed near each other.
His girlfriend became furious with him and grabbed his car keys and took off in a huff. We wound up staying at the event until dawn, helping the host clean up and eventually, heading toward our mutual friend Mark’s house. I was supposed to leave that day to visit my parents in Chicago and was getting my ride from him. When we showed up, Michael’s girlfriend stormed in and proceeded to lambast him for his behavior the night before amidst this small group of people. Michael sat silently on the floor with his knees drawn up and his arms folded across them. I felt badly for both of them and tried to do a little damage management and counseling which produced nothing but negative feelings. Finally, I said I was going to withdraw. I barely knew them. The only word Michael uttered was, “don’t.” I packed up and went to Chicago for a few days.
When I returned I called my friends and asked them how to get in touch with Michael. I called him and asked if he’d please come and visit me because I liked him so much without knowing anything substantive about him. He came to my house that day and without the blur of any mind-altering substances I felt the same way about him as I did on the night of the wedding.
We talked for hours. I told him all about Albert and my problems and he told me all about his. Our level of comfortability and intimacy was instantaneous. We were best friends. Just like that. We began to spend a lot of time together.
Within a few weeks, Michael moved into an apartment down the block from the one I shared with my roommate. While I seesawed through my relationship with Al, he and I spent long hours together, talking, listening to music, or just lying around hugging each other in the most comforting way. After awhile, I started feeling confused about the ease with which we were building this incredibly close friendship. Was this just friendship? How could I be wondering when I was still so deeply in love with someone else? Someone who made me crazy but who was still my desired life partner?
I decided to tell Michael that I wasn’t exactly sure of what was happening between us. His interpretation of that comment was that I wanted him to disappear. After a week or so of his absence, I went to his apartment to ask why he’d vanished. His life experiences had made him develop a rabbit hole that he plunged into when he felt criticized or threatened. He was sensitive and insecure. I learned that pretty fast. After convincing him that he’d overreacted, I invited him to my place for our first fire of the fall. We picked up where we’d left off, growing whatever this unusual, magical bond was between us. I managed to keep my questions to myself.
Fall turned to winter. To escape the emotional turbulence of my life, I planned to go off on a European adventure with two friends in January. I felt that as the end of college was approaching and my marriage wasn’t on the horizon, I needed distance and a change of scenery to help me figure out what to do next. Michael volunteered to care for my dog while I was gone. Shortly before I left town, we were standing in his kitchen, cleaning up after dinner, washing dishes, laughing and chatting. He bent down to kiss my cheek but I’d turned my head slightly and his mouth landed partially on the corner of mine. I still remember the hot current that ran through me, leaving me stunned. That was the closest thing to sexual contact that had passed between us in the 5 months we’d been spending time together.
There wasn’t opportunity to think about it as I left for Chicago within a few days to be with my family before leaving the country. I wrote Michael a few letters in a short period because I missed talking to him. No cell phones in those days. Then the weekend before I was leaving, he showed up at my parents’ place for one last visit with him and my dog. It was a surprise visit. I was pretty overwhelmed by it and even more muddled as I continued to struggle with my feelings for Al.
My friends and I had arranged through a rental agency to drive a car to New Jersey and then hop to New York for our flight. I spent the many hours in the car, thinking as hard as I could about what was happening to me internally. I realized that what had evolved between Michael and me, the friendship, the trust and the comfort were really what love was, not the explosive fighting/breaking up/making up cycle I was in with Albert. I loved Al, but his being so unprepared for what I wanted had splintered me and made me feel unsafe and paranoid. So unhealthy. We stopped in Philadelphia to visit an old friend and while there and at a safe distance, I called Michael. I confessed that I was pretty certain that I was in love with him. His response? “Far out!” And then I went on to New York, boarded a plane and left the country for almost 3 months.
I was gone, away from the turmoil. The feelings stuck. And they grew. I wrote Michael letters and postcards every day while I was gone. Being away and immersed in new cultural experiences was really good for me but I missed our conversations desperately. My friends thought I was barreling forward at a crazy pace but I was going with my gut. Every time we arrived at a major city, I ran to the local American Express office where I could receive international mail. When his replies were waiting there, I was buoyant. He was the first person to ever send me a telegram. We weren’t exactly writing love letters. Both of us were nervous because of the bomb I’d dropped when I left. But our attachment was real. I did write some letters that I never mailed. I was afraid I’d scare Michael when I was writing my raw truths. But I saved them. The fact is, I have all of our letters and postcards from that spring of 1972. We both kept every letter or note that we wrote each other.
So on it went. I still struggled with my emotions for Albert. I have a deeply loyal streak and what I felt for him was real. But his inability to handle us was wearing thin. And Michael was moving into the core of me.
I returned from Europe in April. After spending some time with my family, I went back to Champaign to collect the pieces of my life and decide whether to stay there or return to Chicago. The first person I saw on campus was Al. Within a few hours, I was with him in his apartment. I went to visit Michael and my dog. We were warm to each other but holding back. It only took a few days before I realized that Al was uncomfortable living as if we were a couple. He was going away to grad school in California in the fall and I could feel that he wanted to maintain his independence. I was done. I packed my suitcase and went over to Michael’s place. He asked what I was doing. I told him I was going to move into his apartment for awhile. He asked where I would sleep and I responded, “in your bed.” We’d never even shared a kiss. The first night we just lay together and talked like we always had and finally passed out. Our transition from friends to lovers happened the next day. We never lived apart after that. I was 20 and he was 22.
As time went by, the relationship deepened. Our friendship was our go-to place. I’d never trusted anyone the way I trusted Michael. He routinely put my needs ahead of his own. Although I was emotionally battered and frightened of being hurt, I slowly began to heal, piece by piece. Within a year I was able to tell him every dark secret of my life, all my guilt, all my shames, all my wrongs. It was like shoving boulders off my chest. Being next to him felt like being gently sedated while still conscious. I’d felt for years that I could spin off into the universe but he provided a gentle tether, like the string on a balloon. He was magical. I used to imagine a zipper in his chest that I could pull down so I could slip myself inside him to be surrounded by the comfort. That ease was coupled with our growing passion for each other that was finally released after months of denial.
And lucky us, the friendship and the passion we shared grew. We managed to head in the same direction. During our first few years there were hard times, disagreements and doubts. Both of us had strong opinions. We bickered and clashed, trying to figure out if we could stay together. We were so young. But the foundation we built sustained us and eventually the rhythm of our life was steady and smooth. After a few years passed, there were no doubts left between us. He was the magic for me as I was for him. We made each other strong. We fought for each other.
When he was diagnosed with his rare cancer and given his dark prognosis, we were devastated. We thought we had so many years left to enjoy each other. His parents were alive, in their 90’s. We felt robbed. But we found our way through those five challenging years and the fire never died. Neither did our friendship. We took turns helping each other and talking about everything as we’d done since the first night we met. Michael faced his disease with courage and heart. I was his advocate and constant companion. During his healthy days, we traveled and made memories. During the scary dark times, we held tightly to each other and clawed our way through terror. We shared all of it. Our communication and passion sustained us until his last days when, finally communication and lovemaking finally ceased. Then I whispered to him, played our music and held his hand until the end.
Now I am still writing him, the way I used to speak with him. Events and feelings are more complete for me when I direct them toward him. I know that what we shared was more than many people ever have in their lives. I recognize my greed for more, but I forgive myself. I also recognize that my ability to function well as I do is partially based on what we shared which still buoys me when I feel like I’m sinking.
Michael was my unicorn. My magical being. I remember our bad times, our fights and what habits he had that annoyed me. But mostly it’s the magic, still beating away inside me for as far as I can see. Saying it aloud helps me cope. Maybe it makes people uncomfortable. I can’t worry about that. What we had made me strong enough to know that now is my time to acknowledge how I feel. Maybe some person who reads this is in my shoes. Or maybe someone will be. This is my truth in this time. Don’t believe you have to be anyone other than yourself. I’m still hanging with my guy. And someone else’s rules and opinions don’t apply.