The Sky is Pink

I grew up surrounded by superstitious people. I don’t know if the foundation of their peculiar beliefs was steeped in old folktales, religious teachings or plain old fear. But I do know that I had many eye-rolling moments in my life. I’ve had to work hard to fight the knee jerk ideas that surged up in me over the years, uninvited but socked into me by repetition during my childhood. Basically I was taught to be aware of the absolute worst possible outcomes of virtually any act I might undertake. I often felt that this paranoid education was just a sneaky way my parents had of keeping me safe. As long as I stayed close to home, avoided any experiences that posed the slightest risk of danger, all would be right with the world. My dad’s fears were usually manifested in controlling behavior. For example, my older brother was allowed a driver’s license but neither my mother, nor me, nor my two sisters had one.

Once, early on a weekend morning, my brother snuck my older sister out for a driving lesson. She crashed my dad’s one and only brand-new car, a blue Chevy Bel-Air, straight into a viaduct. The Bel-Air wasn’t insured. What was ensured after that fiasco was no daughter was ever driving a car. I found that embarrassing and unfair. At age nineteen, home from college for the summer and license-less, I had the audacity to sneak out the back door, go down the stairs and steal my dad’s car to practice driving by myself, through the heavy traffic of Chicago. This did not go over well. Nor did the fact that when my boyfriend had an injured knee that kept him from driving, I accepted his offer of taking his metallic-blue Hornet home, so I could visit him at my leisure and skip the bus rides from work. No license and no insurance. My boyfriend didn’t know that but my parents did and they were apoplectic. I was a brave and foolhardy young woman. It wasn’t until I met Michael that I confessed my secret. He was the one who took me to get my license after buying me a $150 white 1964 Chevy Impala. If you had a car you needed a license, after all.

My mom’s superstitions were unique. They too were based both on actual fear and also intended to be fear-inducing, but she was also cosmic and a little witchy. She frequently claimed that she had preternatural feelings about events, that she “knew” what was going to happen on a regular basis. She believed in her dreams and was constantly analyzing them for real world clues and portents of disasters or good things to come. When one of her “feelings” came true, it was hard to ignore her.

I think the worst thing she inflicted on me was during my first pregnancy. We had been trying to conceive for almost two years so when it finally happened I was thrilled and excited. As soon as I got past my first trimester, I started the happy activity of buying baby items – clothes, room furnishings, little rattles and stuffed toys. When I shared the fact that I was buying, she informed me with both anguish and solemnity that I’d cursed my baby. Her older brother Bill and his wife had ecstatically outfitted a room with all the incumbent furnishings when they were preparing to welcome their first child. That baby was stillborn and my mom believed that too much preparation was the underlying cause of that tragic death. As rational as I was, that was hard to hear. Even as I pushed back and proceeded under my own terms, there was always this little nagging voice in my head, whispering about curses. Fortunately my daughter was born healthy. I can’t imagine what I’d have felt like if anything had gone wrong.

Ironically, as so often happens when people mature, I’ve found that I definitely have elements of both parents in me and most particularly, my mother. I’m definitely not superstitious. I don’t think my dreams are predictive of anything but rather a jumble of visual and emotional elements that my mind is sifting through in ways I generally can’t fathom. But I think what I called my mom’s witchy side is active in me in ways that I don’t exactly understand, but which are often demonstrated in my daily life. I think I have a highly developed emotional, intuitive side which allows me to rapidly establish deep connections and insights into people. Sometimes those connections are intense and brief. However, when the relationships are sustained over a long period of time, I can sense things about those people across space and time. What I sense is of course informed by what I actually have learned about those individuals in the course of sharing experiences together. Whatever the explanation, I sometimes feel that there’s a lot of traffic going on in my head. At times, I have trouble sorting out where the feelings are coming from and definitely, from whom.

When I was younger, I spent a good deal of time trying to understand why this weird stuff happened with me on such a regular basis. But after awhile, I got used to myself. When I met Michael, we had an instantaneous connection and the reading of each other started immediately and lasted a lifetime. I still laugh when I remember him sending me emails asking me to be quiet because I was making so much racket in his head that he couldn’t focus on his work. And that kind of awareness was a two-way street. Even now, two and a half years since his death, I still feel his presence and the depth of our relationship all the time.

This is hardly a surprise to me. My mother was talking about this kind of stuff to me all my life. She started by telling me that when she died, she’d never really leave but would always be nearby, hovering and trying to keep bad things from happening to me. I took these statements with the proverbial grain of salt. But I feel her presence all the time too. And the oddest thing is that her old room in my house, which has been converted to a parlor and holds nothing from the time she lived here, still smells just like her. As a reality check, my daughter recently entered that space and came out saying, “can someone please explain to me why that room still smells just like grandma?” I found that reassuring.

I also spent all twenty five years of my mom’s life after my dad’s death with her. She would frequently start a conversation by saying,”I know you won’t believe me, but your father was sitting on the edge of my bed last night.” I never said I didn’t believe her, but rather that I had no explanation for what she felt was truth. I can’t say that Michael has been sitting on our bed, but I CAN say that I’ve wakened in the night from dreams in which his nearness was so powerful that my body couldn’t stay asleep. I have no idea why that happens. If I could deliberately conjure him, I’d do it every night. But I can’t. So I’m left to wonder at the lovely surprise of it and then just move on.

My kids have gotten used to me and my pronouncements during their lives. My daughter seems to operate with me on our own particular wavelength. When she was younger, she’d frequently express surprise at how I’d just know things about her or how I’d pop up at opportune times. When I would ask both her and my son about what they thought was the worst thing about me, they both answered that my invasiveness drove them crazy and that my constant “trying to bore into their souls” was pretty annoying. I answered that with an, “oh well.” It’s just a piece of who I am, a piece that’s just in me, uninvited but ever-present.

In the past couple of weeks, there was an incident with each one that illustrates the strong connection I have with them. My daughter was handling a difficult time at work and I knew she didn’t have time to talk with me. I sent her a quick text and many hours ticked away. Later that night, she had a moment to call me and tell me she was alright. All I wanted at that point was for her to get some sleep. But before we hung up she told me that she’d felt me with her all day. As well she should have because that’s where I was. The incident with my son was a bit more obtuse. He was at work before I was even awake. I called him to check in and say hi. When he picked up his phone, he said hello, a perfectly normal greeting. I, on the other hand, with no previous thought, said, “where it’s at, I’ve got two turntables and a microphone,” a line from a song by Beck. He quickly and rather suspiciously asked, “why did you just say that?” I told him I had no idea. He told me to put him on speaker and to look for a message containing a screenshot from his computer. A few seconds later that popped up on my phone. It was a list of songs including the very Beck song that I’d just quoted. I told him that I knew he thought that was odd but to me, it’s just part of the way things work.

I’ve got dozens of stories like these, with both family and friends. When I discuss this topic with people, responses range from skeptical to enthusiastic acceptance. Some people have had similar experiences. Others look blank. I suspect that there’s some sort of genetic wiring that makes some individuals more prone to getting into spaces which have commonly been interpreted as being a sixth sense or ESP, extra-sensory perception. I can’t say what’s going on, except that for me, it’s been a part of my life for a very long time. My son-in-law, who is a chemistry professor and quite science-y, has engaged with me in very interesting conversations about what might be the source of my proclivities. We’ve discussed wavelengths and pheromones. He’s talked a lot about advances in technology that now allow for measurements and optics of things that were previously inaccessible. Who knows? Maybe one day, there will be a scientific explanation for the unusual connections that I feel. I’m not sure I’ll live long enough to see it. But I’ve grown comfortable with being outside the norm. I’m just myself and I’m good with that. There are those who would argue about this and perhaps say, “look, the sky is blue, so call it blue.” I expect I’d have to differ. Because for me, the sky is often pink.

Going There

For the most part, I write about the personal life, primarily mine, only intermittently including the lives of others. If they want to expose their inner thoughts, that’s their right, not mine. If my beloved husband was still alive, I’m not sure that he wouldn’t be appalled by some of what I’ve chosen to share on this site the past two years. He was an intensely private person who kept his feelings away from external scrutiny , with only a few others allowed into his private sanctum. We diverged on how much we allowed outsiders to see of us and that was fine. I honored his choices our whole life. But he never convinced me about the need for such secrecy.

Mostly, I think that people generally share more in common than they think. Although there can be vast differences between us, I’ve always felt that dialogue, although potentially conflictual, can often result in a better understanding of each other. Michael didn’t like confrontations but I don’t mind them. In the end, I think there’s a lot to be gained from airing opinions and exploring differences. Recently, though, I’ve come up against a wall. And I’ve decided to go there in this post. That place that you tend to stay away from to keep the peace. I’ve always known that I tend to be on the fringe of the mainstream, especially in terms of my political views. I’m comfortable in my space and have understood for the bulk of my adult life that my beliefs will set me apart from lots of people. I’ve been able to negotiate and get along in most situations. But the past few years, without the go-to comfort of Michael’s presence in my life, my tolerance for what’s going on with the other side of the political spectrum has worn thin.

It’s hard for me to separate the over-arching stress of Donald Trump’s election in November, 2016, from the stress of having Michael begin his ultimate decline from his cancer which began in January, 2017 and ended with his death in May of that year. All through that intense time, I was dogged by the jaw-dropping change in the political climate in this country of mine. I’ve lived through a lot of political times that were hard to deal with in my seven decades of life. Administrations that I hated. Unnecessary wars. Wretched domestic policies. But I truly wasn’t prepared for the utter devolution of the political norms that I’ve witnessed the past three years, culminating in this evening’s impeachment of Donald Trump.

An impeachment that’s unlikely to remove this deeply unqualified, misogynistic, buffoon from office. And the worst part is, there are millions of people who still support this person and are likely to vote for him again. This is incomprehensible to me. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as alienated from such a giant swath of my culture as I do now.

I’ve spent a lot of my adult life trying to understand the four years of civil year that tore this country apart less than two hundred years ago. I was always trying to comprehend what could make neighbors stand across a field from each other, blazing away with murderous weapons for four long, painful years. But now I see that the deep divides of the nineteenth century are still alive and well. I find it difficult to comprehend a healing process that can breach the broad and deep rifts that divide the political viewpoints of this time. And it seems that these challenges aren’t confined to the borders of the US.

Climate change is threatening every continent and the world’s response has been woefully inadequate. Fires rage out of control. Storms of the century are pronounced over and over again. Ice is melting and the seas are rising. Natural resources are squeezed dry while plant and animal species are disappearing at an incredible pace.

Against this backdrop, there are political disruptions around the globe. Governments pass laws that instigate mass protests. Profound prejudices against immigrants, “others,” are blatantly expressed, often through violence. Regimes are ruled in despotic fashion.

Refugees wander for miles to escape oppression, hunger and drought. There are bright pockets here and there. But I have profound concerns about my children and grandchildren’s futures. I don’t know what kind of conversations I could have with those so diametrically opposed to my views. But I do believe that it’s time to consolidate positive forces and work hard to oust the climate-change deniers, the racists who promote prejudice and mistrust, the misogynists who abuse women and members of the LGBTQ community.

I want to offer financial support to candidates and organizations dedicated to solving real world problems instead of fomenting them. I want to inspire younger people to get engaged and stay engaged in efforts to protect their future. I’m going there in my exchanges with the people who are aimed at creating a positive future that’s available to the many, not the few and privileged. I’m fed up with this oppressive dark cloud that’s been hovering over so many of us. I’m putting my views out there, for what they’re worth. I’m hoping they resonate with at least some people who will agree that it’s time to act instead of being overwhelmed by all the impossible-to-comprehend ideologies that have been promulgated in these recent years. I’m not exactly sure where I’m going to put myself but I’m going to find a space where I can effect change. I’m going there, into the space where the conflict lives and finding something to do. And I’m going to be glad that I’m not just sitting around feeling helpless and oppressed. Yup. I’m going there to try to change the world. One tiny corner at a time.

Chemo World – Chapter 7 – Be 278

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This rather non-descript lobby hides the portals into the radiation and infusion centers which are now part of our calendars, part of the new routine of our lives as we move through the phases of cancer treatment. Michael has already been through thirty rounds of radiation to his head and neck in the effort to contain what appeared to be a highly treatable Stage IIIA Merkel Cell carcinoma (MCC.) But the radiation only provided a delay for the insidious cancer cells which eluded his only post-treatment PET/CT scan a few months after completing his protocol. In the ensuing year, while being examined every three months in the general area where his first lesion had shown up, the MCC chose not to be predictable and match its typical trajectory of metastasis. Instead it moved surreptitiously through either his lymphatic system or his blood, which one we could never know, and deposited itself on his bones, seen commonly in only 10% of MCC cases.

Merkel cell carcinoma is a very rare disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the skin.

At the time, given that there were only about 1500 cases diagnosed annually in the U.S., the bone presentation was impossible to wrap our minds around. And it crept in without causing any symptoms. No pain anywhere. If we hadn’t begged for another scan, I’m not sure if the two-three month prognosis we received in November of 2013 wouldn’t have been even worse.

The radiation suite was on the first floor of the cancer center on the east side of the building. After the 30 targeted treatments to his head and neck, Michael had the classic loss of taste and appetite and burning of the skin which was expected during this type of exposure. Eventually his thyroid gland succumbed to the rays and he required a supplement to compensate for that alteration in his body. Then he appeared to return to normalcy. An illusion.

The chemo infusion suite was on the clinic’s second floor, where the doctors’ offices were, along with “procedure” rooms. Before any chemo would be given, a blood test was done in advance to make sure there were enough red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets available before the hammer of treatment dropped and did its indiscriminate destruction of anything in its path. A meeting with the oncologist to analyze that, and to address any other concerns was the first order of business on day 1 in chemo world. During that visit, we’d ask our questions and be given instructions about what to expect when, along with prescriptions for adjuvant therapies to help stave off some of the worst side effects of whichever particular cocktail was on the menu. And so began the meds for the anticipated nausea and the steroids to help reduce inflammation and increase appetite. Because of the strength of the chemo cocktail, an order for a Neulasta injection was ordered and would be given the day after a chemo round ended. That drug was intended to stimulate blood cell development in the bone marrow after the devastating effects of the treatment. We were told that there would be six rounds of this cocktail, administered for three straight days, every three weeks. After the first three treatments another scan would be done to see if there was any response to the drugs. If there was, the next three rounds would be given; if there wasn’t a response, chemo would cease.

These were the facts we were trying to absorb. Suddenly we were living back on the edge, an edge we thought we’d pulled away from for over a year. I go to my journals to see my exact thoughts:

December 2nd, 2013

Today, I feel deep despair. Tomorrow is the first day of Michael’s chemo. The idea of watching him be poisoned is shrouding me in blackness. Knowing how he will detest this process and how the degradation of his body will hurt him is unbearable. A part of me feels that he should try this, although I rapidly squash the tiny rays of hope that come uninvited. It is mostly that he seems too young and vital to just surrender himself to this evil cancer; there is no other course but to allow this toxic shit to make its efforts. But standing by and watching him suffer is too hard for me. I know this will change and that there will be things for me to do when he needs me. Yet, I feel my toes curling on the edge of a steep and jagged cliff, looking down, down into the type of abyss that has frightened me my whole life. Always clinging to the ground and trying to stay stable, that’s me. But I’m being dragged along here and I can’t run from it. What is left in my tank? I feel empty.

Michael’s first day of chemo arrives. We meet with the doctor who checks his vitals and labs before he orders the carboplatin and etoposide cocktail. The clinic pharmacist mixes the drug doses based on Michael’s weight. We head into the infusion suite where you can receive treatment in a large open room with other patients, or in a small private room. We always ask for privacy and are lucky enough to get one every time. The treatment begins with a nurse setting up an IV because Michael has opted out of getting a port which would allow the meds to be administered through the same place every time. I think the idea of having to see this sealed hole every day is more than he can bear. He wants to be able to forget what’s happening for short periods of time and he couldn’t do that with the port in his upper chest. I think the port would be easier but it’s his body, not mine. And our different approaches to life will be apparent as we navigate this experience. The nurses are warm and comforting. One in particular is the go-to person if inserting the IV is particularly tough. The treatment is a three day process. We go in around 10 am and start with an anti-nausea drip. Then the IV has a flush and we wait for the bags of chemo fluids to come up from the pharmacy. They are calibrated to drip in at a particular rate. The ticks of the machine counting and clicking becomes a soundtrack for treatment. The days can be very long. Meds can be delivered late. Nurses get tied up with other patients. Sometimes we’re there for seven hours. But we come prepared.

Michael and I have been too busy in our daily lives to watch many of the highly rated television series that we’d heard about so we decide to catch up while spending three straight days in the cancer center. He brings his laptop with him and we start plowing our way through the shows we’ve missed. When the sweet nurses come in to change his med bags they ask us what we’re watching. Things are a bit awkward if they appear at a moment when Dexter is plunging a knife into someone but, macabre as that may seem, it’s a distraction from thinking about MCC. We try watching Breaking Bad, but after a few episodes, Michael nixes that series as the main character has lung cancer. Too close to home.

There are three weeks between treatments. After round one, we are coming up on the winter holidays. For many years at this time, we’ve traveled to Starved Rock, a beautiful state park with hiking trails, bald eagles, and a lovely lodge with a big indoor swimming pool and hot tub. We’ve traveled there with both of our kids and over time, with their friends and sometimes with only ourselves. We decide to go, not knowing if this will be our last time to share that place of memories. Michael’s hair is already gone and his platelets are marginal but we trundle off with our daughter, son-in-law and grandson. The little guy has a cold and being in the vehicle feels like we’re in a germ factory but we’re living one day at a time.

The first night goes well, but it becomes clear that our grandson is feeling worse. While Michael is trying to push the thoughts of his illness below the surface, I am becoming increasingly hyper-vigilant and paranoid about random germs and the possibility of infection. At dinner, he orders a steak that is so rare it may as well have hooves and I begin rattling off the dangers of eating any meat that’s not well-done. Michael gets so angry that he gets up from the table and stalks away. This conflict will be revisited many times as I aggressively try to protect him while he feels I’m too pushy and overbearing. Trying to find the balance that fits both our needs during this impossibly stressful situation is tough. I try reminding myself that in difficult situations, people tend to become more like themselves than ever. No one is changing personalities. The powerful intimacy between Michael and me is strong but so are our very different approaches to problems. Chemo world highlights those and we have to struggle through our unwanted conflicts to remain a tight unit. No one can prepare you for these developments-you negotiate them as they arise and try to hurry as the clock always feels like it’s running down with no time to waste on stuff like steaks.

Round 2 of chemo takes place over Christmas. The cancer center is closed so we are sent to the cancer floor in the hospital for infusions. Being there is oppressive and deeply sobering. The inpatients are very ill and feel like our future instead of our now and we both want to get out of there as fast as possible. Michael finally gets a cold and I worry incessantly. But despite the respiratory issue and a lot of fatigue, his steroid, prednisone is having a positive effect on his appetite so he has no weight loss and happily, no nausea. But there is no way to know whether the treatment is being useful or not and the pressure is hard to take. Michael gets quiet and I try to allow him that. He is facing death and I am not. I turn to my journal.

January 14th, 2014

From 9 am to 2 pm, I was sitting next to Michael while he was being pumped full of carboplatin and etoposide. Now I am having a pedicure. I’m trying to be mindful of the fact that I’m alive and that my body is full up with stress. This week is insane. Three days of chemo through Thursday. The next two nights, our grandson will stay with us because our daughter is having her baby on Friday. I don’t know who to worry about first. I run around with Purell and Lysol wipes and sprays, making everyone wash their hands and stop blowing their noses into tissues that are randomly discarded. There’s so little I can control. Today the doctor showed us Michael’s diagnostic PET scan. It looked like someone had dipped a paintbrush in black paint and flung it all over his bones. We’ll know nothing until the scan after this, round three of treatment.

On January 17th, 2014, our new grandson was born. After November’s dreadful diagnosis, we weren’t sure Michael would be here to meet him. The round of chemo earlier in the week hit him like an avalanche. I’d dropped our oldest grandson at daycare that morning and went by myself to the hospital to be the first to meet the new baby besides his parents. So different from welcoming our first grandchild together. Michael eventually came to get his Neulasta shot and see the little one but his mood was dark and his fatigue profound. I knew he was thinking about not being around to watch this baby grow up. He went home and returned for awhile later, pulling himself together to hold the baby. The kids gave him “Michael” as his middle name.

On January 29th, Michael has the PET/CT scan which will show whether his nine chemo treatments have had an effect on the widespread MCC bone lesions. These scans are fraught with anxiety and are also peculiar for Michael. Because he’s 6’4″ tall, he has to be scanned in two parts as his body is too long for the equipment. He is exhausted and his blood counts have taken a beating despite the Neulasta injections. We have to wait until February 4th to get the results, to find out whether he is done with chemo or whether there are nine more infusions to come. While going through this process, I have taken a deep dive into researching all the science I can find about Merkel cell and about potential clinical trials and other treatment options. I can’t just sit with only one option. I realize that the community oncologists are not scientists or researchers. I also learn that clinical trials generally require that all other treatment choices must be exhausted before a person is eligible. This is my new job while Michael copes with the toxicity of his meds.

The scan results come in and the news is better than we expected. Some of the cancer has disappeared. Other spots in the spine and femur look worse but the oncologist says that the Neulasta shots cause a lot of bone marrow activity which confuse the images so he is recommending the next three rounds of chemo. He thinks that Michael may need transfusions to get him through, especially as we’ve learned that he’s apparently had a low platelet issue underlying everything else. But to me, this means 9 more weeks of life. The first infusion of round 4 happens that very day. From my journal: We are not a tragedy. I know that. Holocaust victims were a tragedy. Syrian children are tragedies as are Sudanese and millions of other ethnicities on whom horror and genocide are perpetrated every day. We are one unfortunate little drama. I know life is still filled with beauty. I know I’ll be interested, even when I’m lonely.

The fifth round of chemo is more punishing and wrests a deeper price from Michael. His fatigue is profound and he’s developed a reddish-black sore on the inside of his lower lip. A smaller response than other patients have, but nonetheless, difficult and hard to watch. This strong, endless partner of mine brought so low. I am unable to imagine his absence after 42 years together. I suspect I will feel like this until his decline is so staggering that I’ll finally understand that it’s best for him to leave me. The impossible. The cessation of dreaming. The absence of hope.

And then finally, it is March and the last three infusions are happening. We are old hands at this alternate reality now. We usually are in room 5 for the treatment. I know where to get the heated blankets, the water and the snacks. Michael’s veins held up and he only needed Deb, the magic nurse once to start his IV. Somehow he’s avoided transfusions. We’ve gotten current on our tv shows and some movies as well. At last, this chemo world is ending. We’ll have to wait several weeks until the beginning of May, to let his body settle itself after the assault of the toxic treatment, and then he’ll be scanned to see what worked or didn’t work. The scan is the day after our wedding anniversary, perhaps our last. I’m still researching and we are also desperate to squeeze something in the way of retirement together into our lives. On April 2nd, 2014, we drive to Indianapolis and board a plane for Tampa, Florida, en route to a fancy resort/hotel right on the Gulf of Mexico at St. Pete’s Beach. When we arrive, I am renting a car and looking at Michael who is pale and wiped out. But we’ve done a good thing. The trip is restorative, for both of us.

April 8th, 2014

I was really scared on our travel day because Michael looked so pale and exhausted. But each day, he has improved, has real color in his face and has relaxed so much. We slept late and ate brunch and then sat and read or walked on the beach. Michael eats a hearty bowl of clam chowder every day at the restaurant on the beach – the clams are a high-heme food to help restore his blood count. We doze and stare at the beautiful Gulf. Then we amble somewhere for dinner and afterwards, we lie in our bed, have sex, watch television and hold each other. We have managed to shove away the disease for this brief period. When grief and terror creep in, I am using all I have to push them away. I know when we go home tomorrow, everything will rush back in and this bliss will eventually slip away. But its sweetness and ease make it one of the best trips we’ve ever had, as with our heightened sense of being alive, we totally soak in every moment. Maybe it’s our last trip. I have no idea. But I won’t ever forget it.

We head home and make our way through the next few weeks. On May 1st we have a melancholy anniversary dinner. Michael gives me three CD’s he put together for me called “Love Songs for The Lovely Renee.” I cry at the care he gives me in the midst of his confrontation with mortality. The next day he is scanned and we struggle through the weekend to his Monday morning appointment with the oncologist. The doctor tells us the scan is clean. We are off the hook until August. Chemo. Check.

Two Days – Two Homes

If your life is working at its best, you can learn something new every day. If the time comes when that doesn’t happen for me, I don’t want to be here any more. So far, despite any and all adversities, I’ve been lucky enough to keep growing my knowledge, along with feeling the wonder that comes from never getting stale and bored. My last two days have been stuffed with little gems which in one sense are brand new to me, at the same time that they’re as familiar as a favorite old bathrobe.

My two days began with cloud photos, and then a familiar road trip north, from my home of fifty one years, to the home of the ten most formative years of my youth, Chicago. I can’t count the number of times I’ve made this trip between 1968, when I started college, and this weekend. These two days promised to be rich and full. My daughter had splurged on a wonderful gift for the two of us, plus my sister – tickets to see Hamilton, the groundbreaking musical about Alexander Hamilton, one of the United States’ “Founding Fathers.” The show is ending its long run in Chicago the first week in January. American history is one of my main interests and strong suits, although I know there are thousands of small incidents that are still outside my considerable stash of knowledge. My husband was also a history enthusiast who ultimately wound up as a U.S. history teacher, even developing his own class, Modern American History through Film and Music. He also taught government and prepared students for their Constitution exam which was required for graduation. Both of us were eager to see Hamilton but Michael died before we fulfilled that goal. As I drove through the countryside I could feel his presence as I so often do, daydreaming that whatever I experience without him will somehow travel through time, through the universe, through me, to some elusive space where he still resides, seeing what I see, feeling what I feel. I drove my daughter’s car while she rested, singing along to a playlist that was filled with the R&B of my youth which added a new layer to my reverie. These songs by The Temptations, The Supremes, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder and many more, were the soundtrack of my teens when I was growing up on the south side of Chicago. By the time we exited from the expressway onto Lake Shore Drive, I had effectively time traveled. As soon as I near the city, I sense an attitude and a donning of urban armor that I used more regularly when I was a resident of that big bustling place.

I remembered that when I was in eighth grade, we worked on a “Chicago Book,” and that we studied the city’s history and architecture. At that time, the Prudential Building was the tallest structure in the city. Looking at the famous skyline which now dwarfs that still visible, narrow tower, made me feel both nostalgic and excited.

We turned from the Drive to Michigan Avenue where I managed to snap a quick photo of the iconic holiday-decorated lions in front of the Art Institute. It’s been in its current location since 1893, the same year my house was built. Having visited there so many times, I can wander through that building in my head and look at what for me, are its most iconic artworks that still have as profound an effect on me as they did when I was young. I have prints of many of them in my home.

We turned off Michigan to find parking within walking distance of the CIBC Theater, constructed in 1906, the current home of the Hamilton production. We had a little time before we needed to arrive so we wandered around for awhile. I’ve had two knee replacements since the last time I’d been in downtown Chicago so I was able to motor along at a rapid pace,which was so delightful. I spotted the Berghoff restaurant, a Chicago institution since 1898 where we’d eaten as a family when I was a girl. My father used to work at the First National Bank of Chicago, long since absorbed by bigger banking concerns and now a part of Chase. But a clock tower from the original site has been preserved and I was glad to see it. Also still a presence is the Italian Village, a restaurant opened in 1927 when my parents were little kids growing up on the west and near north sides of the city. That place was out of their economic bounds back then but in the 70’s and 80’s, my dad got to treat himself to lunches there, his favorite place close to work. And then there is the Flamingo sculpture in front of the Federal building seen through a blizzard of holiday lights. Old eyes, new eyes. I was engaged in a visual memory feast.

Soon it was showtime. We headed back to the theater where a kind passerby took the requisite outdoor photo souvenir of the day.

We entered the building which retains the old-fashioned restored details of an earlier time. We climbed the stairs to our level where wonderful center balcony seats awaited us. I had a great chat with one of the ushers who’d grown up in the city not far from where I lived. After 4 steep flights of climbing, I, a champion at sweating, was dripping wet, but I’ve learned to live with it. After we were seated, that usher came and found me, presenting me with a fan from the production. You never know what your nemesis body function can do for you.

Hamilton. I’ve been thinking about this brilliant experience since I saw it and expect to be mulling it over for a long time. I know who this person was but the depth and breadth of his history, juxtaposed with all his peers and their issues, still so relevant to today’s issues was just mindblowing. Matters of race, entitlement and power, addressed in amazing rap riffs, along with a hugely talented multi-racial cast was just stunning. I think that any piece of performance art that makes you hungry for more knowledge is above and beyond entertainment. The composer and author, Lin-Manuel Miranda is brilliant, a creative genius who I know is actively involved in critical issues of our time. I’m thinking that this experience is among the top ten events I’ve attended in my life. And my brain is bubbling with new ideas about what to learn next. After Hamilton, the three of us met up with my son and his girlfriend at one of my favorite restaurants in the city.

While my daughter and sister headed back home, my son dropped me off at my niece’s house in Evanston. There was another big event coming my way the next day. In addition to a breakfast with my kid, his girlfriend and her parents, I was getting ready for a reunion with an old friend I’d known since elementary school, through high school and college. Danny. The truth is I’d had a crush on him since I was ten years old. An early Machiavellian strategist, I plotted out how to become his indispensable friend as we grew up, waiting to make the big romantic move when we were older. We had a bit of a time together on and off in our junior and senior years of high school but the truth was, we really weren’t suited to be anything other than platonic with each other.

We continued our friendship throughout college – I even visited him once in my junior for several days to see if there was still any fire left between us, but mostly there was only fizzle. Eventually we fell away from each other and moved on into our adult lives.

Danny’s life wound up taking him into the world of the ex-pat, living first in Germany, then in Switzerland. He had a wife and three kids and spent his time traveling the world writing environmental policies for different countries. After a time, I lost track of him, but every ten years or so, I’d find out something about him from our closest mutual friend with whom I’d always stayed in touch. The last I’d heard was that he’d gotten divorced, had a new job with an international health foundation and had met a new woman whom he’d married. My life got more hectic and intense after my early retirement to provide child care for my first grandson. I’d been at it a year and a half when my mother’s health took a steep decline. She’d moved in with us, and then in one of those life-changing moments in 2012, my husband was diagnosed with a rare cancer. For the next five years, I rarely thought about Danny as I juggled my roles as a caregiver for so many people.

My grandson headed to day care and my mom to assisted living. She died in 2015 and I spent the next two years riding the cancer rollercoaster with my husband who died in May, 2017. I spent the remainder of that year mourning, recovering and planning a celebration of his life in December. When 2018 dawned, it occurred to me that it had been 50 years since high school graduation. Through social media, I started to chat with some old friends about having a reunion in Chicago. I still can’t quite figure out how I wound up taking on a lot of the planning, but I did. And while trying to get the plans solidified, which included finding classmates, I thought about Danny for the first time in a long while. I asked our mutual friend if he could track him down but he too had lost touch. He seemed to think it was possible Danny’d died but I just couldn’t believe that. So I started doing internet research and eventually found him, working for another international cancer organization and living in Thailand. I wrote him an email and to my surprise, we started a regular correspondence. I was the recent widow and he had fallen away from his only living relative in Chicago. He wasn’t going to be able to attend the 50th high school reunion but was interested and curious about it. Over time he re-established contact with our oldest mutual friend, submitted information to the class reunion questionnaire and requested photos from the event. That was a great success which came and went.

The reunion was over, but Danny and I kept writing. We were in regular contact for a year and a half when he told me he’d be attending a conference in Orlando at the beginning of December. He decided to do a quick layover in Chicago and was hoping I could drive up to see him and our buddy, Rich. I realized that his arrival was the day after I was going to see Hamilton. Pretty fortuitous timing. So of course I agreed. All he wanted was some deep dish pizza and our company. My two days in Chicago were suddenly chock full of interesting experiences. I realized I hadn’t seen Danny in 49 years. After Hamilton, and meeting my son’s girlfriend’s family, I would be attending a mini-reunion with a few elementary and high school friends. A collision of all different parts of my life. I’ll admit I was nervous. I didn’t have a car so Danny got a rental at the airport and volunteered to pick me up at my niece’s house to drive us both to Lou Malnati’s, a great spot for Chicago style pan pizza.

I was a little nervous. Forty nine years is a long time. Would our faceless online communication translate into real time when there’d be no way to edit what we shared? When he arrived at the door we looked at each other with big, silly grins as we searched the new version of our faces for who we’d been so long ago. But I’m delighted to say that our transition into the now was really fast. As we drove off together, part of me felt so normal and homey. Both his parents and he had lived in the neighborhood where I was staying and we’d driven together countless times before through the darkness, on our way somewhere, talking about life, the future, big ideas and little ones. We’d always gotten along and within minutes I could feel the rhythm of that long ago time, when I could look at his face and read his emotions. He was kind and courtly, smart and funny as we went to join a small group of friends we’d known as children. We had a lovely evening. For me, it was a surprise to not only feel the comfort and ease of acceptance by these people, but also to feel that Chicago is still a home to me, and all that is implied in that. I suspect a part of me will always belong there, to that city which informed my early development. To have a group of people who let me enter that space so seamlessly is a great bonus.

Last night when Danny dropped me off he asked me to send him the photos I’d snapped because he was too distracted to take any. I sent them in an email, along with a note before I went to sleep. When I woke this morning, he’d sent a note from the airport thanking me for them, saying he’d had a super time and also thanking me for coming back into his life. I was so touched. I don’t know if or when I’ll see him again. But that’s ok. I know we’ll still write. As I stood on my niece’s porch last night, taking pictures of a beautiful sunset, I thought about how lucky I was to feel like I had two homes, when so many have none.

All weekend I said that my two days had felt kaleidoscopic, colorful, spinning from thing to thing, leaving me with a lot to digest. But when my son picked me up this morning to drive back to my “home” home, I took some pictures of the beautiful clouds in the sky, looking up as I do most days. And I recognize that it’s the same sky over my head always and that despite life’s challenges, I’m lucky to have had what I had and to have what I have.

The Living Spaces #2 – Chicago Girl – School Days

When we moved to Chicago from Sioux City, Iowa, I had already completed first grade. Evidently the Chicago School System wasn’t sure that the education I’d received to date was adequate. So, I started school in first grade again at Horace Mann School on the south side. I didn’t think much about it. I was meeting new kids and enjoying myself. After about two weeks, though, my teacher had figured out that I was ahead of my classmates and one day, I was told to gather my things as I was moving to a new room. Instead of being with Miss Becker, I would be with Miss Krutza. I was basically terrified but my older sister was brought down to explain that this action wasn’t punitive but rather a good thing. So off I went to second grade. Back in those days there was a popular trend of having bright kids do three semesters in two. After one term in second grade, I was moved to a class where the second part of second grade was combined with two semesters of third grade. I discovered this was an honor and I was very glad to be part of this elite group of students. We were accelerated. I had no idea that meant losing valuable childhood time. Nor did I understand for awhile that designations like that were so hurtful to excluded kids. I was proud of being pulled out of regular class activities to sit in the special reading group. We had books called readers which were accompanied by workbooks whose colors matched. That year the set was a deep lavender with a yellow stripe. My teacher’s name was Miss O’Brien. She said funny things like “Cripes all Friday,” and “By Cracky.” One time while she was stapling construction paper to our bulletin board, partially turned to us students and partially to the board, she accidentally stapled her hand. All part of elementary school excitement.

The best part about floating between grades was being able to meet kids both older and younger than me. I liked school. I had big crushes on two blonde boys, Scott McKenzie and Blair Alden. I was bigger than they were so I’d chase them down on the playground and wrap my arms around them so they couldn’t move. I guess that was the beginning of my aggressive style. Probably the most significant event of that part of my life was when I was eight and I broke my nose in P.E. class. I was afraid of tumbling. I didn’t like the sensation of being upside down.

The gym teacher had a long row of mats lined up on the floor. I stood in line, waiting my turn, growing more terrified by the second. Thinking fast, I told him that I couldn’t put my head on the mats because I was wearing bobby pins which would hurt me. I still remember his disdainful look. He told me to take the pins out of my hair, run to the desk in the corner of the gym, lay them down and run back to the mats as fast as I could so I could start tumbling. So of course, I did, my heart hammering as I tried to figure out what was worse, tumbling or being in trouble. The floor was waxed and shiny.

I ran as fast as I could, slipped, fell and slid face first into the corner of the desk. I can still feel the astonishing pain. I stood slowly, trying to gather myself, mostly embarrassed by the whole situation and trying desperately to not cry. Our gym outfits were navy blue shorts and white blouses. I was dizzy and confused, wondering why I felt wet when I wasn’t crying. Looking down, I saw my white shirt soaked in blood which was pouring out of my nose. The teacher got me and took me to a side room off the gym and began mopping me dry. I had to take off my shirt which was mortifying. Even worse, someone went to my locker to get me something else to wear. All that I had was a pink sweater which was missing buttons – he safety pinned those open places and sent me back to class. That day I was having lunch at my aunt and uncle’s house. There was no cafeteria in our school and my parents couldn’t get me and my sister for lunch, which they usually did. We were settling down to tuna sandwiches with lettuce and tomato on pumpernickel bread, exotically cut in triangles instead of the usual mundane halves. And there were pickles and chips. I was about to sink my teeth into the sandwich when my uncle walked into the kitchen and said, “now that’s a broken nose if I ever saw one.” My heart sank. Broken meant fixing and if I hated anything more than somersaults it was doctors. Late that afternoon my mom took me to a heinous individual named Dr. Weiss. He pushed and poked my face as hard as he could, asking if it hurt me. I lied through my teeth but to no avail. He scheduled surgery for me the following morning, promising me that no needles would be involved. Right. I was allowed to eat whatever I wanted for dinner and chose a bag of Tootsie Rolls. The next morning I was trundled off to the hospital where I was immediately stabbed with a “hypo.” That’s when I learned that grownups couldn’t be trusted. After the operation I got my little self together and bartered my way home instead of staying in the children’s ward that night. I slept on the couch at home which to me was a big treat. My nose had a cast on it, held in place by two bands of elastic which wrapped around my head. When I went back to school, the kids called me “horse face.” For the rest of my young life, I was embarrassed by my nose and certain that anyone seeing my profile would never be able to love me. The growing pains of childhood.

I spend a lot of time with my family during my elementary school years. We are together every weekend, my parents and my siblings, my grandparents, my aunt and uncle, plus cousins. We go to Rainbow Beach for picnics. No one goes down to Lake Michigan except for my younger sister and me. I teach myself how to swim in that cold water and dodge dead alewives in the sand. I become aware of problems in my family starting when I was about age ten. Friction between my older siblings and my parents becomes obvious as the teenagers butted heads with the authority figures. I am eight years younger than my brother and a little over five years younger than my older sister. They are unhappy and my mother in particular is very stressed and often sick. My brother eventually leaves home and college because of a young love gone sour and winds up enlisting in the Air Force for 4 years. My older sister, who keeps a lot to herself, eventually graduates from high school and goes away to college. I am observing all these dynamics and I decide to be as little trouble as possible to my mom and dad and to protect my younger sister. Maybe I was born with an old soul, a moniker I’ve heard from the grownups. All I know for certain is that I want to develop good coping skills. It appeared they’re required for a happy life. I am always looking ahead.

I really like school. I work hard at perfecting my penmanship by writing my letters in Miss Kittle’s little notebooks which show the proper forms for printing and cursive. I read all the time. I like to go through sections of the library, reading all the books in biographies, all the books that are part of a series.

I like historical biographies and sports biographies the best. I read mysteries and books about animals and nature. Eventually I am put in a special program which meets in the library and is focused on reading for speed. We get a machine that fits over our books and slowly drops a black screen over the text. The goal is to keep ahead of the screen. There’s a control which speeds up the pace of that slowly falling screen. Eventually, there is no speed on that machine which can keep up with my reading. We are tested for comprehension. I do well and am not conscious of the fact that this exercise will be a gift for the rest of my life.

For the most part, I like my teachers. Mrs Masterton and Miss Brennan are my favorites. Both are English teachers. They are strict and demanding which works for me. I can place myself in their classrooms in my memory more than half a century later. Mrs. Masterton had a bad temper and sometimes humiliated kids. Once she made Milton Berns sit in a corner with a dunce cap. I felt terrible for him. But I still was glad to learn from her and glad she wasn’t mad at me. Miss Brennan smelled wonderful and had a gentler nature.

Generally I get along well with my classmates. I am keenly aware that many of them have economic advantages that I don’t. I realize that I’ll have to use other tools to get along in the world. Some friends and I start a club called “The DOLL’s club.” That stood for Delta Omega Legga Lambda. We were droll. The truth is that I wasn’t a very clubby person. Excluding people from private societies felt wrong to me. One day, two members, Barbara and Betty, were supposed to play with me after school. Instead they trapped me in the hallway of my apartment building and beat me until they got tired of it and left. I didn’t defend myself, but I learned a lot about people from that experience.

I grew quickly. I was truly embarrassed by it. I started my period in 5th grade and felt ashamed. I wore an undershirt over my bra but the boys took their rulers and pushed it under my backstrap and laughed at me. By the time I am twelve I am my adult height. There isn’t much to do about it except move forward. Frequently, I like trying on the grownup style. On weekends, I put curlers in my hair, wrap an apricot-colored chiffon scarf over them and walk around the block. I parade past the older guys who are polishing their cars. I pretend I have somewhere exciting to go later and that they’re admiring me. How embarrassing. Sometimes depending on the family financial situation, I go to the beauty parlor to get my hair done. I read movie magazines with all the gossip about people like Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher. When I come out of the shop, I look like I’m forty years old.

From 5th grade on, I develop a crush on a boy which lasts all the way through high school. I still lead a normal life with interest in others but it’s pretty clear to me that my nature is set on being a “one person” person. I’m modeling on my mom and dad who despite bumpy times, always seem really in love with each other. I decide I want that too.

In seventh grade, my class is participating in the science fair. I am very serious about my project which is a study of the circulatory system. I shape a heart out of the clay you can fire in a kiln and paint the chambers, valves, veins and arteries in the appropriate red and blue colors. Then I fashion a standing three poster folding display which has drawings and explanations of how things work. My piece de resistance is supplied by my dad who pays a visit to the Chicago Stockyards and brings me a cow’s heart floating in formaldehyde. I won first place amongst seventh-graders and am automatically entered into the city fair where my project takes second. I felt pretty good about myself that year.

When eighth grade arrives, I am twelve years old. I will turn thirteen just before I graduate and go to high school. This year is filled with transitions for me. I’ve caught up with the kids who are chronologically a year older than me. I’m angling for a social position, trying to be a cool kid without losing my friends I’ve made along the way through the previous years. I vow to never be what my friend Fern and I call “fair weather friends.” I met Fern in second grade and she and I will be friends for life. I am doing well in school until I bump into the wall of what’s called the “new math.” It’s weirdly theoretical and I can’t follow the concepts but somehow I can intuit answers. Miss Young, soon to be Mrs. Colegrove, accuses me of cheating as I work a problem at the blackboard and find the right answer with the wrong method. I am utterly humiliated and am put off math for a very long time. All my other classes are fine, though, so I have plenty of time to focus on social issues. My friends and I spend time bent over a Ouija board searching for answers to our questions from the beyond. I go bowling at the Pla-Mor bowling alley on 71st Street and have an average of about 100. I am a good athlete and can smack a softball and send it a mile in addition to being able to really toss a football. Back in those days, girls’ sports were pretty much non-existent. The boys teased me mercilessly and called me “moose” after a ball player on the Chicago White Sox. I am mortified and angry. But I still play.

I want to be adorable and attractive but I also want to be myself, smart and strong. This dilemma causes problems. I worry about my weight all the time. I get invited to a swimming party and have never shaved my legs. My mom is in the hospital and I’m too shy to ask my dad for help. I take a razor and pull it across my legs, dry, and cut myself so badly that I don’t swim in the heavily chlorinated water. I hate my glasses and try going without them whenever possible by pulling on my eyelid for visual clarity. I go to fortnightlies which are dances attended by everyone in our 8th grade classes. I am always relieved when I’m asked to dance. We even have dance cards which feel like an archaic relic of the past. I can do a mean cha-cha-cha. The year seems to fly by. I am treasurer of my class and I collect the money for our year-end autograph books. I put the money in a mint-green wallet and somehow lose it. Fourteen dollars gone. I’m so scared to tell my parents because I know money is tight. Another unforgettable moment.

As the year wraps up, I have good and bad experiences. I win two prizes in the President’s Fitness Program which is mandatory in our school. I am on the honor roll and am a play leader for the younger kids at school. When I graduate, I’ll wear blue and white school ribbons with my blue and gold honor roll pin in the middle of them. We do a stupid vote for the best feature of every kid in our class. I want to be known for my beautiful blue-green eyes. Instead my best feature is my teeth. I don’t have braces so I guess that makes them special. I try not to be disappointed but I am. I try to take all the “good luck in football and baseball” notes from the boys in my autograph book in stride. I even try not to mind the fact that my graduation dress will be one that my older sister wore to a prom. Graduation finally arrives and I’m excited. But as mother announced to me early that morning, my graduation had been marred. My baby cousin Iris died that morning of a childhood infection that would never have killed her in modern times. My parents can’t come to my special day because they need to be with my aunt and uncle. I think I aged that day. Elementary school has ended along with some of my innocence. High school awaits me.

Opposites

If you’re born into a world without a ready source of food, do you know that you’re hungry? Or is it that the gnaw in your belly just “is”? Do you have to know fullness in order to recognize starvation? I suspect that you can’t know one without knowing the other. The dynamics of experience are dynamics of contrast. We recognize what is opposite of something else and unless our environments are truly neutral and repetitive, we live by noting the dynamics between converse elements.

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I read a lot about dialectics, mostly philosophical and mostly political. These days, I’m thinking primarily about the processes of life and what you can expect to learn when you engage in anything, love, work, social interactions. What is a likely result of participating in virtually anything is a heightened awareness of the wide range of feelings you can expect to experience as the pendulum of life swings along.

It is the evening before Thanksgiving day. All my contributions for tomorrow’s family dinner are made. I spent the night with my children and the newest generation, my grandchildren of blood and choice. We were enjoying ourselves. I was keenly aware, as always, of my husband’s physical absence, but it was my daughter who suddenly said, ” dad should be here, dad should be here.” Her face was sad and disappointed.

Both I and my beloved son from another mother simultaneously replied that he was here, would always be here with us. And that’s true in the sense that I always feel, that the power of what our love built is still alive and sustaining. Nevertheless, we’d all still like him here in the flesh, talking with us, hugging us and telling his old man jokes. Could any of us have anticipated the palpable absence of his person before he was really gone? I don’t think so. We all are figuring it out as we go along, and only the richness of what came before informs that vacant space we feel now. The price we pay for love is a given and is exacted by life. There are losses every step of your way through this world. Grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, siblings, lovers and spouses. The horror for those who lose children. To experience life’s joys, you can expect life’s sorrows. You can opt out of it all, if you don’t want to be subject to the chaos of feeling. If you never have a pet, you never have to feel the pain of losing it. And so it goes, on and on. You take risks or you don’t.

As I ponder all this, I’m sitting with my mourning quilt on my lap. When Michael got his dire prognosis, he somehow had the presence of mind to realize how lonely and devastated I’d be after he was gone. So he set himself to the tasks of trying to leave me with tangible evidence of us that would remind me of what we had for a lifetime. This quilt is made from pieces of his clothing which he snuck out of the house to give to the person he commissioned to make it. Photos of our family and snippets of his passions and interests are screened on or sewn to it. Shirt pockets were stuffed with his business cards from all his jobs along with personal notes for me and our kids. We each got a pewter tag, seen below, to remind us of him. Mine is on my keychain and I carry his note in my purse.

He made me three CD’s, adding the artwork, which commemorated our love through music we’d shared. And he designed a piece of jewelry for me, inscribed in his own handwriting, a testimony to our forty five years together. Things are things are things, but now and again, they are so much more than that. I feel great solace from his efforts to provide sustenance for me in his absence. As years are going by, he remains with me in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.

My life is still a good life. I have love and friendship, health and wide-ranging interests. I can take care of myself in all ways and have my independence. What is opposite from my life with Michael is that he is no longer at the center of my daily existence. I’m continuing to adapt to that disparate feeling after leading the bulk of my life so differently. But I appreciate how lucky I’ve been to have experienced the richness of my primary relationship and the intimate bonded family we made. Everyone is not so lucky. Although I’m selfish enough to wish we could’ve died together after another 25 years, I’m unselfish enough to know that the world is filled with people who are in infinitely worse shape than me. That’s always been true and always will be. What I can say is that if you stay conscious about how life works and if you want to ease the future pain of your loved ones, you can do something about that, right here and right now. No one gets to protect anyone completely from what goes along with experiencing life’s highs and lows. But you can provide comfort that lasts forever. These are my late night thoughts before tomorrow’s Thanksgiving tradition, missing Michael, with Michael, harboring the opposite feelings inside me for what I imagine will be the rest of my life. The risks were worth it. No regrets.

A happy holiday to those who celebrate it. And who are trying their best in this world of conflicts.

What Turns Up

The past few days, I’ve been ruminating. Ruminating while sorting through piles of paper in my house. Thinking about Thanksgiving which I took over from my mom when I was thirty. I’d just had my daughter in late August that year and felt like I’d really arrived in my adult life. My whole family came down from Chicago and we packed a lot of people into this house. I’d gotten really sick with the flu but I didn’t care how much fever I had – I was doing this no matter what I felt like. And so began a tradition that was maintained until Michael died in 2017.

I was already tired of the whole production. I can’t count how many hours I spent preparing for this one day, and during the last seven or eight events, things were tough. My knees were bone on bone and all that time on my feet was expensive for my body. When Michael got sick, continuing with the annual dinner was heavy with emotion, always wondering if this one was the last one for him.

In November of 2017, just a few months after he died, I handed the tradition baton to my daughter and my son-in-law. This year will be my third Thanksgiving out of my house.

I’ll bring a few of my specialties to their place but now I’m a guest. That’s just fine with me. While going through a lifetime of papers, I realized that I’ve kept all my Thanksgiving prep notes and plans. We often had 25 people here and the quartermaster in me had a battle plan. Maybe one day, I’ll be able to pitch them into the recycling.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking that now I’m a matriarch. I’ve actually been one for a long time because my mom never quite managed that role. Thinking about how you slide into different positions in your family is always thought-provoking. So many people who all shared the same table are gone now. Some spaces are forever empty while others are filled. When I think back, I recognize the role shifting that was in play long ago, but most of the time, none of it was discussed. The transitions just slid into place, as if we were all puzzle pieces whose little knobs finally found their proper fit. At least for a time.

I’ve been trying to focus on the positives in my life these past few days, a socially appropriate attitude for this holiday. Mostly they are little things which in my view are what make up the bulk of our lives. I seem to be transitioning into a place where I’ve almost completely internalized the powerful connection that I still feel with Michael. I see him, I hear him and I feel him all the time. That love is a source of strength for me along with its aura of mystery that radiates through me. I don’t understand it at all but my daily functioning is improved. I’m engaged in an interior dialogue with him which feels comforting. Today I went to the grocery store, one of my most detested chores. I’ve always tended to overbuy. As I stood unpacking the bags in the kitchen, I was mystified by how many packages of cheese I’d bought. I suddenly heard Michael’s voice saying, “so, was there a big sale today? You couldn’t afford not to buy all this?” I laughed out loud as that conversation had happened so many times in the past. I’m glad I have these vivid memories.

I’m also glad that the Walgreen’s clerk knows my name and I know hers. I’m grateful to have relationships with all the young pool employees who listen to my stories and let me mother them. I’m grateful that two people, one of whom is a dear old friend and another who is a total stranger who only knows me through reading this blog, took a moment to send me a New York Times article about my beloved Roger Federer. And of course, I’m grateful for my family and friends and for the fact that after 15 years, my two knee replacement surgeries have erased the dreadful pain I’d tolerated for so long. Another great joy has been unearthing incredible relics from the paper mountain I’ve been climbing. You never know what might turn up.

In what feels quite serendipitous, while thinking of my first Thanksgiving hostess job, begun right after I became a mother, I found a small brown travel journal I’d bought in 1980 for a trip Michael and I were taking that October. The trip was suggested by my obstetrician as a break from our attempts to conceive. We’d been trying for two years and I was really discouraged. Although my mom never had problems with fertility, other women in my family did and I suspected I was in the same boat. My doctor said that before we started fertility testing, a trip away from the constant monthly pressure might help relieve stress which could be getting in the way of pregnancy. So we planned a driving trip to Colorado, a combination of camping, national park visits and a little luxury on the side. I was twenty nine and Michael was thirty one. Most of my journaling during my life was done on notebook paper or legal pads so finding this little book was quite a surprise. I remember this trip well. I’d never been in the mountains before. Going in October promised to be a great choice as kids were back in school, meaning that the places we’d visit would be less crowded than they were during the summer months. We left home early on October 1st, 1980.

We were headed to Redstone, Colorado, population 94. Our destination was the historic Redstone Inn, once a large rooming house and lodge for miners working in the surrounding mountains. We drove through Aspen and Vail to get there, the scenery spectacular and lit with fiery fall color.

Our room was old-fashioned, no phone, no television, no radio. The first night, we unpacked, explored a bit, had dinner and turned in early as we had a busy schedule planned for the next day. We woke up, had breakfast and went for a stroll before getting in the car to check out McClure’s Pass which was incredibly beautiful. In the afternoon, we’d scheduled a two hour horseback ride up into the mountains with a guide. We were taken up into the clouds on narrow paths, surrounded by aspen trees. We saw a hidden mansion of a mine owner and were enjoying the scenery, almost at the end of our upward climb when my stirrup got caught on a branch that struck my horse, causing him to rear and toss me off. Michael’s horse reared too but he held on as the guide scrambled to get control of mine. I was stunned and in severe pain, feeling around in the fallen leaves for my glasses which had flown off my head. I realized that I had no choice but to remount and get back down the mountain to the stables. Each movement of the horse was a jolt to my aching body but I made it. My dismount was more like falling and Michael was shocked that I could barely move. I got in bed and he went to find a dusty tube of Ben-Gay that I slathered on myself. The next day I sent him off for a hike while I lay still trying to read a book, High Tide at Gettysburg. What a crazy detail to remember. One more night in Redstone and then we headed off to the closest hospital at Glenwood Springs where I was examined, x-rayed and given muscle relaxers and painkillers. With the rebounding ability of youth, I got myself going, determined to keep on course with the trip. We did our laundry and then drove to Marble to see a partial ghost town and old marble quarries.

Then we went off to Telluride where we explored the town and then went off to pitch our tent in the San Juan National Forest. I was pretty impressed with my resilience and enjoyed being out in the crisp fall air, cooking outside and being alone. We read by the light of our Coleman lantern at night and had a wonderful time, thanks to those handy medications. From Telluride, we moved on to Mesa Verde National Park. We camped there and were delighted to climb out of our tent in the morning to see deer wandering around our front yard. We explored the pueblos and ruins and read about the history of the vanished people who once made a life there.

Our next stop was Ouray, Colorado. We drove the incredible Million Dollar Highway where at one point my speed was so slow that Michael woke from his nap because he thought we’d stopped. That road is one of the most challenging I’ve ever driven.

In Ouray, we stayed in a hotel. We ate at a delicious restaurant called the Bon-Ton which served Italian fare. We tasted Mondavi wine from California for the first time at that place. Ouray was an engaging town which we strolled through for a day. We eventually signing up for a jeep tour of Engineer Mountain, just under 13,000 feet and a challenge for me as I’m not fond of heights or bouncing along on them in an open-sided vehicle. We did it though and I managed to grab a few rocks which I still have today. We finished our wonderful trip at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National monument, another remarkably beautiful place. I still have the brochure from there, a far cry from the glossy ones you can pick up at any national park today. Then we headed home. Despite my unfortunate accident we had a wonderful, relaxing trip. Within a month of that trip I got pregnant. My doctor was right – we needed to break a stressful pattern. How incredibly lucky were we. My daughter was born the following summer, just a few months before I took on Thanksgiving for what would be a 35 year stint as I unwittingly shifted to being a matriarch. As I work my way through the paper history of my life, there’s no telling what will turn up. Old feelings, new understandings. On I go. Happy thanksgiving to those here and those always near.