Best Friends

Dear Michael,

When you died it would’ve been nice if you’d have found a way to leave my best friend behind. But you took him with you. Of course, since you and he were one and the same, I shouldn’t be the least bit surprised. And that is really unfortunate when I’ve had a few days when a best friend is exactly what I need.

You know, most of the time I’ve got my act together. My successful installation of the essence of us, into the core of me, generally suffices for the wear and tear of the daily grind. But every now and then there are one too many negative events. The cumulative effects of them feel too big and I feel frustrated, angry and overwhelmed. I want my best friend. If I can’t have you in the flesh, the habit of writing you letters that I developed almost immediately after you died will have to do. So here I go.

I started feeling rankled a few weeks ago, just before New Year’s. I bumped into that display of greeting cards you and I’d exchanged over the years, the one that was displayed at the museum exhibit of your life which passed for a memorial. I really think you would’ve liked how that experience was structured. Anyway, after that was over, I slept with that thing in our bed for about six months. Having some palpable evidence of us felt right and necessary to me. Eventually I moved it to your nightstand where it promptly got buried under an avalanche of photos, the ones I’d lifted from 45 years of albums and used to make the slideshow at your event.

I lost all control over chronology of those pictures when I assembled that slideshow, and for ages, I just let those photos sit there, too exhausted and lazy to refile them where they came from. Shortly after the two year anniversary of your death, I felt established in some of the new behaviors I’d developed for life without you. So I decided to attack the photo pile, several at a time and put them back in the albums, no matter how long it took. That’s when I unearthed the greeting card collection again and thought, huh. I hadn’t looked at it in awhile. So I opened it. I didn’t get past the first card.

You don’t get to know when you’ll be leveled by grief. At least I don’t. I was flooded by it, literally and figuratively. Not my normal. You know I’ve never been much of a crier. But I couldn’t stop and really, I didn’t think I should. I store a lot of anger and hostility by nature and these current times are feeding my rage on a daily basis. I’m furious at the governmental sideshow in this country, not to mention the blatant disregard for the need to address climate change. I spend too much time seething even as I try to make some sort of impact on my community, small though it may be. Holding in my sadness over how much I miss your company is not a viable alternative with all those emotions roiling around. The kids were worried about me when this round hit and wanted to help, but it’s hard for them when I can’t cope. It took me a couple of days to get myself back together. I thought of my mother and the twenty five years she spent without my dad. I’m telling you, I don’t want to replicate her experience. You and my dad, both gone at 67. Ugh. Sometimes telling myself how lucky I was to have had our relationship just doesn’t work. Yes, I’m sorry for people who weren’t and aren’t as fortunate as we were. But I’m also angry and jealous that some couples whose relationships I can’t respect, get to have the extra twenty years I thought we’d have. Not a pretty thing, but the truth.

So that’s one piece of this whine. For the most part I’m good at self-reliance and independence. I’ve always been that way, certainly when you were still here. I wouldn’t have wanted to be any other day. But sometimes it gets old, being the sole resource for everything all the time. We both know I’m not great at asking for help. After all the years of taking care of my mom at a time when she should have been a capable person, going down that road is not my first choice. But my competence is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it feels good to manage mostly everything on my own. Every now and then, though, it would be nice if someone would check in to see if I was alive. That hermit life I predicted for myself sometimes feels pretty real.

There are practical realities aside from emotional ones. Even though you taught me how to do a lot of things, there’s some stuff that’s beyond my skill level. I’ve done a lot to the house in the past two and a half years. I got a new roof and gutters. I also had the garage re-roofed in addition to siding it. Last summer, I signed a contract to have the house sided too. I’m still waiting for that contract to be fulfilled. The company which was supposed to do the job is family-owned and operated. The daughter of the owner had a medical emergency last summer which effectively stopped all work. When jobs resumed, mine was at the end of the line. First it was to be completed by November. That month came and went. A conversation with the contractor elicited an offer to take 10% off the price if the job wasn’t done by January 1st. That date also came and went. Two weeks ago, I started sending inquiries about dates by text and email which received no response. I finally called the office and was told l was still on the list and someone would get back to me with specifics. I’m still waiting. As you well know, a house built in 1893 has its issues. Our ancient kitchen drawers are getting ready to die. The middle one has caved in and won’t slide in and out any more. I emptied it and have an idea of how it might be repaired. I also know I’m not talented enough to do it. Same for a storm window in the blue room where a piece of wood has detached from the glass. The window is behind the large record rack you built. Lots of labor to get everything moved before making repairs. Groan. You could do all of this without blinking. Paying people to do these small jobs get too expensive which makes me very anxious. One thing after another. The garage door decided it didn’t want to stay closed. It kept going up and down, up and down, as if possessed. Fixed that problem after a process of trial and error. Then a carbon monoxide detector fritzed, over and over. I finally fixed that too. When a piece of the gear shift on my car fell off, I duct taped it but finally caved and brought it in to the mechanic for a legitimate repair. Endless chores. So wearing.

I know I need to push past the small stuff. After all, in the scope of things, what I’m moaning about isn’t much. My knees are so much better that I can walk for ages. You wouldn’t believe it if you saw me motoring along. I go to Meadowbrook for recreational strolls and take lots of photos. I’ve got projects. I’m knitting. I’m still gluing rocks onto paving bricks which I’ll place in the garden in the spring. I’m actually entering some pics in the park district’s amateur show. I remain in my book club and I’m starting three classes in a few weeks.

I even have a few trips planned. Even with all that, though, I’ve had lots of angst. Hideous cancer is happening around me to people I care about. That elicits confused behavior as I re-live our personal trauma and try to figure out what’s appropriate for me to do or not do. I’m anxious to help but I know I need boundaries. It’s tough for me to manage. So I decided to do some self-care in the midst of this mini-meltdown that kicked off this new decade. I found a forgotten gift certificate for a massage last week and quickly made an appointment for myself. Tuesday afternoon I headed there right after the pool for some welcome relaxation. I’d never been to this facility before. Instead of heading to a locker room to change clothes, that process took place in the same place as the massage. I’d never met the therapist who was asking questions as I removed my jewelry to expedite getting down to the treatment without wasting too much time. I put all the items in my pocket and stuffed my socks on top to keep my things secure. Then I had my massage which was really quite nice. When it was over the therapist left the room and I started getting dressed. I pulled my socks out of my pocket and all my personal items came with them. I instantly realized that my mother’s wedding ring, which I wear daily, in between the rings from our life, was gone. That was impossible. I started looking everywhere but I couldn’t find it.

The therapist came back into the room and helped me look around. There is a shag carpet, variegated gray, directly under the massage table. Each strand of the rug is about three inches long. The slim little band wouldn’t be easily visible in that sea of nubbed material. The therapist suggested that perhaps I hadn’t worn it that day which seemed really unlikely to me. Every night I take my rings off and put them in the same spot on my dresser. And every morning I go back to the dresser and put them back on. But I couldn’t absolutely say that it was impossible that I’d left it that day. So I raced home and checked the dresser, the floor, the drawers, my pants pocket and even my socks. No ring. I ran back to the facility again. I waited until the room was open and then the therapist, another worker there and I ran our hands through that rug for twenty minutes. I found a paper clip but no ring. I dejectedly went home and proceeded to disassemble my house, my car and my purse one more time. The ring had literally vanished. Since then I’ve texted the place twice and emailed them my one photo of the ring. They haven’t responded. I think they feel like they’ve done what they could. Somehow I’m supposed to get used to the fact that I’ve lost this ring forever. How did this happen? I went to get a relaxing massage to defuse my bumpy beginning to the year and I lose one of the few things that has meaning to me. I know you’d say that stuff is stuff and you know I’d agree. But sometimes a material item is more than that. The kids told me that one time when you were driving them to Indianapolis to fly to Florida to see your parents, you’d realized that you left your wedding ring at home and turned around and went home to get it. On one of our last trips, you took off your ring and left it in one of the little dishes at the security checkpoint. You were miserable. Miraculously, I found it at the airport on our return trip, deep in the bowels of the Transportation Security Administration’s lost and found.

So you know how I feel. Bereft. I know that I’ll get used to this eventually. I know worse things have happened and can happen. But I wish you were here. Having you around always made the rotten things more tolerable. How about a nice, cosmic visit tonight?

The Cancer Treatment Quest- Chapter 9 – Be 278

In late August, 2014, we were headed to the University of Chicago to meet with Dr. Salgia, a thoracic cancer specialist. I couldn’t figure out how we wound up with him as there was nothing in his profile to indicate that he had experience with Merkel Cell carcinoma (MCC). I’d reached out to the University of Chicago dermatology department, specifically to those doctors who were heading up clinical trials for melanoma. As MCC was a skin cancer, I thought that there might be a possibility of a different treatment for Michael in their arena. I’d ramped up my research and learned about the new immunological drugs that were in various stages of development. After Michael’s cancer had survived both radiation and chemo, it seemed like we needed something different.

That “different” might be a targeted therapy that would assist his own immune system in attacking the disease. We’d gotten our local oncologist to send blocks of Michael’s tumor tissue to a genetic analysis facility in Boston, Foundation 1. We hoped to find some clues that would make him eligible for one of these new drugs. Daily, I was watching the Clinical Trials website which listed which trials that were pending or recruiting. I learned that one drug called Yervoy or Ipilimumab, had shown some positive results with certain melanoma patients. When a trial with that drug went from pending to withdrawn, I wrote the principal investigator to find out if the trial was pulled because the drug was useless. I was relieved to find out it was a financing issue instead. I was grasping at anything that was an option, other than resigning ourselves to another round of chemo which was unlikely to do anything but buy a little time. In any case, I couldn’t figure out how my inquiries had gotten us to Salgia, but up we went anyway, on a bright, sunny day.

Michael was asymptomatic despite having three glowing cancer spots on his skeleton. A more refined scan report showed activity on the spine, a rib and a hip bone. He was pain-free. We were anxious to hear what this experienced doctor might tell us. When we arrived, Michael went through a physical exam and a lengthy interview with a young resident. When Dr. Salgia came in, I asked him why we were seeing him instead of someone in dermatology. He informed us that he knew everything about Michael’s case. He’d come to the University of Chicago from Harvard. A former colleague of his from Harvard, now working at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, was one of the researchers I’d been writing about Michael. He’d forwarded all my emails to Salgia who wanted to have a look at this interesting case. The truth was, he didn’t have much to offer. The Seattle doctor was running a trial for MCC patients with a new immunological drug called a PD L-1 inhibitor. Essentially, that drug could interfere at the cellular level, with mutations that inhibited immune cells from doing their job. A much more individualized treatment in the category of what I called big science. But Seattle was far away and outside our economic wheelhouse. That trial would eventually become available closer to home. But for the present, Salgia asked us to forward him the genetic analysis of Michael’s tumor tissue when we got it and sent us on our way. In the meantime, I continued to share everything with Dr. Chris Bichakjian, the doctor at the University of Michigan who’d given us the second opinion after Michael’s initial diagnosis. This very busy man who we’d seen only once, had somehow turned into an attentive and trustworthy resource. He would remain on our team through everything.

We met with our local oncologist, Dr. Luyun, who decided he was going to scan Michael more frequently. In the meantime, I’ve found some articles that suggest that a big dose of radiation to each cancer hot spot can potentially have a cascading effect to hold disease progression at bay for awhile. He referred us to radiation oncology although our original team member in that specialty was gone, preparing for his own kidney transplant. We would be with Dr. Stanic for the duration of Michael’s treatment. Stanic seemed very smart and confident. While we were in a situation of no immediate intervention, we decided to skip town again, destination Lakeside, Michigan. We’d been traveling there every summer for years, staying at the historic Lakeside Inn and experiencing welcome relaxation there. We felt so lucky to get another chance to feel that again.

When we returned home, as we are between scans, Michael headed off for a camping/canoeing weekend with our son. I use this interlude to try finding some internal balance. Being engaged, full tilt, in the daily business of trying to be in the present, trying to appreciate the unexpected time we’ve had since the dire prognosis of November, 2013, is a huge challenge for me. Michael’s job is to stay focused on trying to keep his body as healthy and strong as possible as he faces mortality every day. I am his partner, his caregiver and his advocate. I feel isolated. I am climbing the mountain of emotions every day by using my intellect to transcend the writhing, terrified part of me. There’s not much available locally in the way of support for dealing with an orphan cancer. After poking around on the Internet, I finally find a MCC support group. You have to submit an application and agree to some rules before being admitted. After I join, I realize that the group administrators are all based in Seattle where the doctor I contacted about Michael is located. There are numerous heart wrenching stories posted but it’s not long before I notice that most of the exchange involves advising people who either themselves or their loved ones are recently diagnosed, should try coming to Seattle. The conversation I’m looking for which would focus more on emotional support and suggestions for undiscovered treatment options isn’t there. Within a week, after I initiate that type of discussion, I am informed that I am on probation as a group member. I am stunned, appalled and furious. I write a long point by point letter explaining myself but I realize that I’m actually banned from the group already. I was a member for eight days. Getting kicked out of a cancer support group was stunning. I did come away with one friend who missed me when I disappeared. Her husband,who was 10 years younger than Michael, would only have 15 months from diagnosis to death. But my online friendship with his wife Amy endured. One small comfort.

September 1, 2014

I just watched three American goldfinches drinking from my birdbath. Yesterday a hummingbird was drinking nectar from one of my potted lantana plants. Butterflies and bees are gorging themselves on my Mexican sunflowers, blue mist shrubs and anemones. The garden is alive with amazing critters. In the midst of my enormous anxieties about everything, I am grateful to be filled with wonder every day at the haven I created here.

Moving into fall, we are juggling trying to live our best lives while knowing that insidious MCC is parked in Michael’s body. We see Dr. Stanic for a consultation which turns into the preparation for a blast of radiation to the active cancer spots. At the next appointment with Dr. Luyun, he asks if the burning has begun. He also reveals that when Michael was initially diagnosed, he’d wanted to do adjunct chemo but was outvoted by the surgeon and radiation oncologist. Michael and I are disturbed by that revelation because we’ll never get to know if the cancer burden in his body back then was small enough that it might have been wiped out. Retrospect isn’t a good friend when you’re dealing with cancer. We’ve already been wondering if we’d swapped dermatology appointments in 2012 if the MCC could’ve been caught before it metastasized. Then there was the long interval between scans – if caught sooner would things have gotten so dire? And now this window into the disagreements within the team has been revealed. We realize that surgeons want to cut, radiation oncologists want to burn and medical oncologists want to prescribe systemic treatments. Knowing the vulnerabilities of the treating doctors helps inform future choices. For now, radiation is happening. Dr. Luyun says Michael is still too healthy to be degraded by more chemo. He says, “you don’t want to be an interesting patient, but you are. You shouldn’t be here.” The tumor board says, more power to you.” He suggests that the cancer is indolent, slow-moving and aimless, causing little pain. A rather peculiar description for this aggressive killer, in my opinion.

We have learned a few more critical facts. The Foundation 1 genetic analysis came back and revealed that Michael’s tumor tissue had 5 mutations, 2 of which are being addressed in clinical trials, primarily with oral chemo. We will send that to Dr. Salgia for his analysis. We also have discovered that metastases to bone exclude patients from clinical trials as they are not considered “measurable.” This news is very depressing. The MCC experts feel that a clinical trial is where Michael belongs as he is still healthy enough to deal with the often daunting side effects of the treatments. However, a conversation with Dr. Stanic reveals that he saw and measured soft tissue involvement along the blazing spot on the rib. He’s not a big fan of clinical trials that are risky and make patients guinea pigs who can get remarkably ill. We take that view with the proverbial grain of salt. We take his marked scans and say thanks, knowing that we’ll be the ones making the choice for what comes next. Shortly after this consultation we heard from Dr. Salgia who has a suggestion for a targeted therapy for one of the genetic mutations, coupled with another drug which is supposed to help sustain bone health. He recommends that we proceed with the radiation and if there’s a change in Michael’s status, to begin his recommended regimen.

Michael and I process all this information. At the end of September, we head to the Apple Pork Festival in Clinton, Illinois. We’d come upon this event decades earlier on a weekend drive through the back roads of central Illinois. We went for years but after a trying time there with our four year old daughter, we’d forgotten about it. Going back felt wonderful. Being in the crowd on a hot day, listening to music, looking at the wares of local artists while downing funnel cakes and lemon shake-ups pushed the cancer away.

Michael had the radiation treatments in October. They were primarily uneventful except for some discomfort he felt lying on the metal table. We are doing our best at living a normal life, spending lots of time with each other along with our kids and grandkids. I watch Michael systematically working his way through his lists of things to do. I find it instructive. I continued looking for the next treatment steps which I know are inevitable. I believe that the clinical trial in Seattle is branching out into the midwest. If it does, we think it’s the best next option. Michael still is very strong and healthy which seems crazy but is true. The oral drugs or second line chemo would definitely be a beating. Remaining vigilant and watchful about what the MCC experts think is right seems like the best plan. There are more scans at the end of the month. We decide to leave town again, this time heading for Pere Marquette State Park. We stay in a lodge which is very similar to our winter refuge, Starved Rock.

October 20, 2014

The trip to Pere Marquette was so wonderful. The weather turned pleasant, mild and sunny, and the autumn colors were spectacular. The lodge food was good and we had the pool and hot tub to ourselves most of the time. We hiked in the woods although my version of hiking is pretty pathetic given the state of my knees. It was very quiet and peaceful; the views of the river from the bluffs were grand as were all the aquatic birds including white pelicans.

As usual, being away lets me momentarily set aside MCC and being with Michael who looks and feels so good, is normal and comforting. I have to watch it though, because I can’t be lulled into complacency. I know I can’t take another hit like last November’s diagnosis. The hits will come but I’ll be more prepared. No more blindsiding.

We went to Grafton which is a cute little town and drank local wine on a terrace overlooking the water. We went to Alton where the Lewis and Clark expedition kicked off. A nice mixture of nature and history. I didn’t want it to end. On the way home we stopped at a decent barbecue place for dinner and headed straight to the movies before going back to the house. Squeezing out every second of normal that we can get. But reality is still right here.

October 27th, the next scan. Describing the anxiety which looms between the actual imaging and the results is almost impossible. We try to stay in our moment but knowing that your daily life can change in an instant is hard to carry. Teetering on the brink is torturous for me – Michael’s stoicism is a well-practiced skill for a man of his age. But he gets dark and withdrawn. We are both doing our best, most of the time. We’ve learned to schedule the follow-up appointment for the day after the scan. And there isn’t much new. Everything is stable with the three radiated spots still too irritated to know if they responded to treatment. None of the doctors want to introduce any treatment when Michael is so stable. The dissonance between the nature of his cancer and his apparent wellbeing are disconcerting at the very least. I ponder the holes in his immune system along with his strength and longevity genes. The mystery of life is very big.

The retired life is very much on my mind. I am wanting to give Michael his dreams as much as I can. A life-long, diehard Cubs fan, and a former baseball and softball player, I remembered how much he’d always wanted to go to Cooperstown, New York to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame. He is worried about the finances but I insist that we go. And whoosh. We are suddenly driving east. We’ve decided that we’ll go to the Hall of Fame and also to Hyde Park, home of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Despite all the cancer fear and distraction, we both maintain our interest in history. We drive through the beautiful Adirondacks and Catskills, through the Hudson River Valley, crossing the river on the Rip Van Winkle bridge. There is an absurdly beautiful Vanderbilt residence along the way.

Michael really enjoyed the Hall of Fame. Both of us were fascinated by Hyde Park and the giant lives that both Roosevelts lived. Places like that are thought-provoking and help provide at least a momentary perspective on our places in the world.

At the Hyde Park gift shop, I find myself most interested in Eleanor and the principles she championed in the midst of challenging personal issues. As our trip is coming to a close, I can feel that both Michael and I are struggling to hold ourselves together. We are heading back home at just about a year from the dreadful November diagnosis of 2013. He’s already outlived his prognosis. We are gamely living our best lives but we are eroded. I’m inspired by Eleanor and I buy a magnet to bring home.

Our last stop is Niagara Falls. Michael has been there before but I haven’t. While I stand marveling at the power of the water, Michael tells me that when he was a young boy, living in Rochester, New York, his family visited the Falls. At one point, his father lifted him up and dangled him over fence, as if to drop him. At that point in his life, it was the scariest thing that ever happened to him. The symbolism isn’t lost on either of us. We’d managed five trips in this perilous year. We were headed toward another Thanksgiving that we didn’t think we’d get. Scary times were still ahead.

No Cancer Story Today

Just when I think I’m going to proceed smoothly, step by step through Michael’s orphan cancer story, I screech to a halt and am unable to string any words together. At this moment in time, I have two friends who are caught in cancer world. One has been in hospice for about five months. She is waning into the inexorable end of life that awaits when treatment options run out or fail. The other friend has been rudely jolted out of a lengthy remission and is now preparing for part two of an aggressive intervention which began last week. I reach out to their families and make myself available in whatever capacity I might fill, if only as a listener who can hear what goes along with these painful times, the profound emotions and the helpless feelings which afflict those who walk this road with their loved ones. I can do that.

But when I sit down to read my journals, emails and notes for my next chapter about Michael, I can’t do anything. I know it’s my PTSD, the dramatic internal response to the years of erosion I experienced during the rollercoaster of cancer treatment. Just last night, I was listening to a news report that announced the great news that cancer deaths are down in this country, particularly in melanoma and lung cancer patients. All that really means is that the introduction of targeted immunotherapy drugs is prolonging life for some patients. It’s misleading. Michael lived for awhile longer with one of those drugs than he would have without it. I’m grateful for that. But he wasn’t cured. I need to step away for a bit. Despite being in two and a half years down the road, I still need to take a cancer break.

So I’m going to write about other things today. I don’t know about you but I always feel like I’m behind. Behind, pulled in too many directions, too much to do. I also feel pressured to get things done as fast as I can, because after getting used to the knowledge that untimely death is real, I know every day could be your last. I’ve scratched a lot of items off my to-do lists but there are big jobs just sitting there staring at me. I decided the time had come to hit my closet that’s still full of clothes I no longer need or want. Time to sort things out, eliminate and brutally assess what used to belong but doesn’t any more. I reached all the way to the back and pulled out the first item, a zipped bag. I had a pretty fair idea that it contained my wedding dress, put away when I was a twenty four year old kid. 

Before my wedding, I’d been living with Michael for years. We were taking our time, getting to know each other, making sure that if we made this move, we’d do it right and stay together forever. We were also practical – we needed a decent vehicle and figured that wedding money would go a long way toward acquiring one. So we decided to do a streamlined ceremony, just family, few frills, maybe register for a few pots and dishes, and spread the word that we were looking for cash. We weren’t totally crass, just down to earth. After considering everything, buying some ridiculously expensive dress that I’d wear once seemed pretty absurd. White was out too. There was a moderately upscale fashion boutique in our local mall called Brooks. I decided to take a look at the evening/party-ish styles they had in a small section at the back of the store. And there was this dress. It was cream-colored with painted blue flowers. I thought it looked romantically Victorian, with a high collar and a plunging bodice which laced up with a satin ribbon. The sleeves and skirt were sheer with delicate designs at the cuffs. It had major swirl. It was perfect for me and I scrounged up the fifty dollar price. The dress was actually the favorite part of my wedding day, aside from marrying Michael. His family and mine were like oil and water and I most particularly detested his old-monied grandmother who considered herself superior to virtually everyone. I carried lots of sour memories from that day. But we were able to get the money we needed to purchase our new vehicle. We had the ceremony and a dinner, went back home and later, had a big bash with our friends. Then I zipped the dress away. I didn’t know anything about preserving such a fragile item but I did put it in a dark bag thinking that maybe one day I’d pass it on to my daughter. That ship sailed. My daughter was eight inches taller than me and not close to appreciating the type of style that was most attractive to me.

When I unzipped that bag, I hadn’t seen the dress in forty three years. I was prepared for seeing a moth-eaten, shredded moldy-looking thing. Imagine my surprise when I pulled it out and found it in pristine condition, looking exactly the same as it did the day I put it away. I spread it out on my bed so I could examine it for awhile and remember everything, feeling all the feels. I figured I would take a few photos of it and then bag it up with the other items next in line for discarding, still lurking at the back of the closet. But as I straightened it out, setting it up to get the best pictures, I felt myself getting more and more attached to it.

I was thinking about how irrational I was being. I have two grandsons. There’s no likely legacy for this dress that I can even begin to imagine. Still, even after taking the photos, the dress stayed on the bed.

I decided to take a break and tackle the next task, the last drawer in my four drawer file cabinet. That was another overdue task – I’d managed to thin out three of those drawers and thought the last one was nothing but empty hanging folders. Surprise, surprise. When I pulled it open, I found a big bunch of files which I couldn’t recall having put there. And I hadn’t. Evidently, Michael had decided to appropriate some of my space with his “unable to let go” stuff. I pulled out a bunch of them and brought them into my bedroom, sat down carefully next to my wedding dress and began sifting through these unexpected treasures. Michael, the gift that keeps on giving.

I found newspaper articles dating back to his days at the Record Service. I found all the mock-ups of his city council literature that he designed for his campaigns for alderman. I found all his statements of economic interest that he was required to file during his twenty years as a public official. I’d forgotten that he served on the cable commission for our city when cable was first a “thing.” I did remember the plan commission and the food bank board. But then there was the Campustown 2000 task force. Decades of public service.

There were legal opinions for when he worried that his votes might be construed as conflicts of interest because I worked in a government office. There were funny notes between the beleaguered Republican mayor and Michael over the crazy behavior of the one Republican alderman on our city council. An entertaining folder was that which contained all his hilarious satirical letters to people who annoyed him, on both personal and political levels. But the best discoveries were photographs and contact sheets that were set aside, maybe for sorting in his free time which never came.

After he left the music business to become a teacher, the years were so packed with his joy at finding his vocation that these files never again crossed his mind. So now I had a new project, sifting and sorting through these treasures, a new poignant and sweet assignment. My wedding dress hung on a rod in front of me so I could look at it for a time. Then I zipped it away again and put it back in my closet.

Next, I turned my attention to the music. In the fall of 2016, I’d finally prevailed upon Michael to sell our massive collection of vinyl and CD’s. Although I listened avidly to lots of it, I wasn’t close to being an expert on the value of everything he’d accumulated after 27 years in the record business. His knowledge was encyclopedic and was infinitely more sophisticated than me in terms of what it was all worth. During the years when he was in school picking up all the education classes he needed to teach, he’d sold some of his collectibles on Ebay. We’d also had music garage sales to supplement our income during that time when he was an income-less student at age 50. All I could think of was how ill-prepared I’d be to sell those 7500 items during the grief I knew would follow his death. So to make things easier for me, he unloaded almost everything. Note the almost. He was always fooling around with his computer, burning CD’s of one sort or other. The truth is, I didn’t pay much attention to his music projects, although he mentioned lots of ideas he wanted to make real. I remember one on his list to make a collection which included every song with a single woman’s name as its title. I’d usually just roll my eyes at that stuff.

When he died, I spent a long time sorting through what he hadn’t sold. I found all kinds of collections he was assembling at the same time he’d been getting rid of the bulk of the music. I laughed when I saw how many covers he’d found of “Who Do You Love?” and “Mona.” Those were high priorities on his list of things to do. Music going out the front door and coming in the back one.

Sorting out and eliminating the accumulation of all this stuff takes a long time. I know that there are certain things I’m never going to part with because I simply can’t. Looking at them, seeing Michael’s art work evolution on his CD’s, marveling at his consistency in humor and musical growth is too precious. I still haven’t looked thoroughly at everything, and listening to what he left behind could take more years than I have left. One thing is certain. Michael left me a lot of life. Immersing myself in it is like being wrapped in a comfy blanket. I’ll get back to the cancer story eventually. I still think it would honor Michael and benefit people who might face the same life-changing situation that was thrust upon us. One day soon, I hope…

History Lessons

No one has asked me my opinion. I’m not writing about cancer or grief or memories. I just feel compelled to share these thoughts. Right now, in the middle of a relentless onslaught of challenging news, I am thinking of ways to cope. Acts beyond my control threaten to start wars. Climate change, so clear to me, isn’t receiving the critical attention it needs for all the wrong reasons, led by ignorance and greed. I need a road map to help myself keep from being overwhelmed by all this, without tuning out completely. For me, this is not the time to look away. Actually, for me, there is never a time to look away. As a resident of our planet, I feel a responsibility to pay attention to what’s going on, both locally and internationally. The truth is, that despite being thousands of miles away from some of the most visibly stressed parts of the globe, we are more interconnected with each other than we’ve ever been. And we are having an impact on what binds us together or what tears us apart, whether we’re aware of it or not. I remember living through many scary times. I remember being as angry back then as I am now. It’s hard to keep all the issues and events of the past straight, especially when we feel unsettled and upset. But we have history. We can turn to it for balance, to see how we got here. Then we can take whatever steps we’re able to do in our little lives to affect the direction we’re going. To make a difference. To live mindfully and with purpose. To not feel powerless and overwhelmed. I hate those feelings and I’m looking to push them away, to not feel victimized.

Maybe the big picture feels like too much. I know it sometimes feels that way to me. Taken as a whole, the political problems, social problems, climate problems feel like a giant ball about to roll over me. And that’s without taking into consideration the business of daily life and personal issues. The only way to cope is to break that big ball into smaller, manageable pieces. I’ve always felt that if we try thinking critically, we can find a way to make small changes that are meaningful, even in the microcosm. Multiple microcosms eventually add up to that big picture. At least that’s what I think. So how to go about this process?

I look back. I analyze. I try to learn about what happened in the past, to find whatever logical incident or series of them led to the next event. Some people think looking back means you’re not moving forward. I don’t agree with that. I think examining the past informs both the present and the future. Being both retrospective and introspective can prove insightful, helping to unearth strategies which apply to now. Recently I’ve been trying to reorganize my life’s photos. Sorting through them has been instructive. I see patterns and consistencies. I was taking the same type of pictures in my twenties as I take now. I like sky, clouds, bodies of water, horizons. Although over forty years old and faded, through these old photos I recognize the historical thread of a need to acknowledge perspective, to appreciate my place in the universe. A big sky and an endless horizon remind me that I am only a tiny piece of the world around me. The soaring mountains and fabulous landscapes which have survived for millenia haul me back from the anxiety-producing headlines of the day. I see that certain problems are simply too big and beyond my puny power. That vantage point helps me understand what is actually within my power. Respecting nature, and trying to learn how the marvels around me evolved, gives me direction. I want to be a conservationist. I want to create habitat for the creatures who share this planet. I marvel at the remarkable geological conformations I’ve seen, trying to comprehend that the striations I’ve seen in a place like the Badlands is actually an historic era, a time of water and forests, long since squashed by time into nothing but a thin line in the beautiful hills in front of me.

With that understanding, I realize that I have things to do in the present. I can donate money to organizations and candidates who want to preserve what I want to preserve. I can sign petitions and go to demonstrations. I can teach my grandchildren what I know and try to instill similar values in them. I can engage myself with young people whenever possible to inform and influence them. I can have purpose in the part of my life where I engage with the tangible, physical world.

Then there is the more esoteric life that concerns beliefs and attitudes about the socio-political events which are currently happening in our culture and abroad. Looking back helps with that as well. In looking through that big stack of photos, I realize that our family was always getting educated about the history of our country. While we vacationed for pleasure, we made room for exploring how this nation came to be, going back to Jamestown, York, Williamsburg and Washington. We went to Mount Vernon, Monticello, Montpelier and The Hermitage. We saw the hallmarks of slavery. We read the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. We went to Civil War battlefields from Georgia, Virginia and Tennessee to Gettysburg. We viewed the death toll of war at Arlington National Cemetery. We saw the Capitol, the National Archives and the Supreme Court. As a family, we shared these experiences and hashed out our political views. For us, politics was not something that had little to do with us on a personal level. Politics is how you lead your life. I am infused with my political ideology and I try to live in a way that reflects that ideology. So did my husband and so do my kids.

The history I’ve studied has shaped me and also gives me plenty to do. I can donate money and time to causes and candidates whose views seem correct to me. That means they will provide benefits to the community at large. Locally, I’ve served my community as a volunteer and public official, as did my husband when he was alive. I’m still making a contribution of my time. I try to be vocal and to engage in dialogue that’s aimed at creating a principled and fair society. Some of the issues seem small but taken as a whole, their benefits can add up to significant improvements for many. Going back in time, exploring the past, developing a world view and trying to implement it are a way of coping with the dystopian political climate that has become the norm in my country during the past few years. I was by no means satisfied with my culture during past national administrations but now, we are living in times that are unrecognizable to me and diametrically opposed to my understanding of what we are supposed to be. I don’t intend to fold up and disappear. I want to remain present and unwavering in what I think is a moral, principled approach to this mad hodgepodge of governance. I want to stand with those who feel the same way as me and wrest control back from those who have twisted our country into something that doesn’t reflect the lessons of the past. Except the bad lessons. Being aware of history as it happens is a remarkable sensation. When what we observe is positive, that awareness can feel enriching, elating. The discovery of the polio and smallpox vaccines must have felt that way. I know the signing of the Civil Rights Act felt at least like the beginning of a wave of positive change. The correlating awareness of a negative trend has the opposite effect. Watching the dismantling of environmental laws, laws which reinstate discrimination against women and minorities, and the absence of respect for science and intellect are deflating and despair-inducing. These times demand an examination of history along with the determination to resist what you know is deleterious to a just society.

My husband was a participant in a group called the American History Teachers’ Collective. They engaged in conferences, seminars and presentations which focused on a wide variety of topics during the many years he was part of it. Scholars and authors were brought in to share their areas of expertise. He would come away from those gatherings motivated and brimful of new ideas to share with his students. Those who think looking back is a stodgy old business are wrong – those studies are energizers which stimulate new thoughts and actions. Just what we need in time like these. The photo above was cut from a tee shirt from the AHTC and is sewn into the mourning quilt Michael left for me after his death.

Something else I’ve got a decent history of is my garden. I’ve been keeping a garden journal for many years, noting all the plants I’ve put in, the ones which have lasted, the ones that have disappeared. I didn’t realize that I was studying phenology, the observations of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, most particularly involving climate along with plant and animal life. I’ve been photographing everything that blooms to keep an easy to track visual record.

I’m trying to create a welcoming habitat for birds, insects and small mammals, free of chemicals, with an abundance of food and protective foliage. I’m making a safe space in my small corner of the world. After a polar vortex last year clobbered many of my plants, I struggled to rejuvenate the nectar supply by replacing what I lost. So far, this winter has been relatively mild and I’m noticing early buds on plants that are happening too early. Some of my overwintering birds like juncos were here for a short while but have since vanished. There are flocks of robins that are a bit too early. In my years in my home, my safe planting zone has gone from “3” to “5.”

This past May, I was given a tropical container plant that bloomed and thrived for months. As fall approached, I figured it would die back. But it didn’t. Finally in November, I decided that anything that wanted to live that badly needed to come inside. It’s still alive, green and lush. Will it make it back to April? I have no idea. But adapting and evolving is necessary as we face new challenges.

So that’s today’s set of thoughts. I hope that they resonate out there. I’m going to make the most of my time on this planet, tiny mote of life that I am. And I’m going to keep my mind focused on how much there is to work for that’s still alive and beautiful.

The Brief Retirement – Chapter 8 – Be 278

With Michael’s “clean” May, 2014 scan in the books and the next one scheduled for August, we turned ourselves to the task of trying to live a normal life within the constant awareness of the cancer cloud that was now our ghostly companion. Michael had turned 65 and was finally Medicare-eligible. In the United States, the financial aspect of cancer is a whole other companion that makes its presence known in the midst of the physical and emotional struggles.

Every day of the infusion process, coupled with the cost of the chemotherapy drugs, amounts to a staggering number of dollars charged. Without insurance, you are definitely bankrupt and perhaps ineligible for treatment. With insurance, depending, on what type you have, you can still go broke. In Michael’s case, the out-of-pocket costs were challenging. The terminology applied to chemo as a specialty drug, which meant extra payments in terms of his prescription plan, was definitely infuriating. The implication was that chemotherapy was a luxury choice. But the costs didn’t totally break us. With a cold eye toward the money part of cancer world, we chose a Medicare supplement plan, Part F, that would cover the portion of treatment that basic Medicare would not. That would include future infusions. One worry off the list.

Then we turned our attention toward how to treat time. The daily nonchalance of planning ahead had effectively been stripped from our life. Thinking about plans for the future was over. We were grateful for the reprieve from treatment but were keenly aware that every healthy day was a bonus after the previous November’s dire prognosis. We knew the cancer was still lurking at the cellular level in Michael’s body. Both of us were grieving the loss of our long-anticipated retirement. His family tree was populated by people who lived long into their nineties. I’d always thought it would be me who died first. In any event, we both thought we’d have at least a decade or two ahead of us. That future was gone. Our post-chemo trip to Florida had been magical. We both felt like as we long as we stayed there, we could block out all the scary real life issues. There had to be a way to get more moments like those. We made the decision to cash out part of his life insurance policy, pay off some bills and hit the road, whenever his health allowed it. We would squeeze our retirement into every spare minute we could wrest away from his disease.

But first, we had some issues to deal with at home. A close colleague of Michael’s who was diagnosed with gastric and esophageal cancer the previous September was failing rapidly. He’d asked Michael to assemble a music playlist for his memorial which Michael was happy to do. But he wept for his friend and also for himself as he anticipated a life cut short, too early. Too early. When this fellow teacher died a scant week later, we attended that memorial which fell on my birthday. Both of us felt like so many eyes were on us as Michael still stood tall, while his friend had succumbed to his cancer in only ten months. A difficult, painful day loaded with glimpses of the future. But when?

We also helped our daughter and her family out when she had surgery on a cartilage-damaged knee. Being there for them in our normal parental roles felt normalizing. We babysat for the grandkids and contributed meals and comforts. For short times we could forget the anxiety lurking in the background and just be.

I was still spending time on research, poring over scholarly articles, writing doctors who were principal investigators on pending clinical trials, and searching for news on any promising treatments. I even started gathering documents and scanning photos to prepare for a slideshow that I’d need for Michael’s celebration of life. My intellect and my emotional sides ebbed and flowed daily as I tried to simultaneously stay present while preparing for what I felt was the inevitable. A harsh way to exist, but the best way for me to keep my head above water.

We decided to make our next retirement trip a drive to the Outer Banks in North Carolina. The St. Pete’s Beach trip was a way to get Michael’s toes back into his beloved Gulf of Mexico, a place packed with many happy memories for him. Now we were headed somewhere neither of us had been before, still with the water component we both loved, but a place which for me, was one I only wanted to share with him as a first-time experience. My eagerness to go was obvious and Michael didn’t want to disappoint me. But I learned that his heart wasn’t really in it.

June 24th, 2014

We’re here in the Outer Banks on the northern beaches of Corolla. It is truly beautiful here. I enjoyed the drive down, especially through the Blue Ridge Mountains which are majestic and ethereal. But the drive was very long and seemed to really take it out of Michael. His affect feels negative although he says he’s having a good time. He sleeps a lot which has always been true, and most especially since his chemo. But I worry that it may be a sign of his disease returning and it puts a damper on my spirits.

June 26th, 2014

Today started out better. We got up for breakfast, swam, read and sunned. In the afternoon we took a two hour hummer beach ride to see the wild horses of Corolla. We came back sticky and covered in sand. We had a conversation which devolved into an argument because it was clear that Michael is doing this trip for me rather than us. I feel like this was ill-conceivedit’s hard for me to enjoy myself if he isn’t as happy as me. He suggested that we do some sightseeing which made me feel better than I thought, but still, this is not the same kind of trip as our St. Pete’s Beach idyll. A disappointment. Id hoped for one more perfect interlude before facing the next scan in August. I wish I had more clarity about what he’s thinking…

July 3rd, 2014

So we are home. The last few days of the trip were very fine with wonderful weather and much lazing by the pool and the beach. We ate at every restaurant on our list and even got the famous homemade Duck doughnuts which are freshly made and topped with the treats of your choice as you watch. Driving home was long but beautiful. The weather was perfect and the Blue Ridge, Alleghenies and Appalachians were glorious and majestic, dazzlingly green and lush. For awhile you can forget climate change and deforestation. Even cancer.

We came home tired and a little disoriented. We celebrated the 4th of July with friends. We tried to establish a daily groove, but the next scan was looming large and was hard to ignore. Michael became dark and somewhat flat. We worked in our garden, went to movies and exercised.

Then, for the second time in as many months, we were faced with another death. Our longtime neighbor had been struggling with a lethal leukemia for six years. He’d survived two bone marrow transplants and was constantly threatened by GVHD, graft versus host disease, a rejection of donor marrow. On July 9th, we were outside in our driveway when our friend’s son came racing out his front door, shouting that his father was on the floor, unconscious and covered with blood. The wife and mom in their crew was abroad at a family wedding, having felt secure that our friend was in stable condition, certain that he’d be fine in her absence. He failed suddenly and declined in less than 24 hours. Michael, my daughter and I were at his bedside, alongside his sons when he died. I felt that I was at a dress rehearsal. Absent his wife, I made arrangements with a funeral home and helped prepare for the bereft widow’s return. The following two weeks were consumed by helping assemble the funeral arrangements. That gathering took place on a blistering hot rainy day at the end of July. In the midst of the furor, Michael, in a burst of gallows humor, decided to make a cremation mix CD for his own end of life. I was a bit taken aback but thought better of it as I recognized that in our own ways, we were trying cope with what seemed inevitable, especially in light of the two cancer deaths that were so close to us.

August arrived with a bang, a literal one. As we were rolling through an intersection, a young student in a large SUV ran a stop sign and barreled into the side of my car. No one was hurt but starting the month with a crash felt like a bad sign. After all, the scan had happened the day before. The accident felt like a bad omen. The days until the scan result appointment dragged, as did the long time we ultimately had to spend in the waiting room. When we finally saw the doctor he told us that three spots were lit up and active on the scan, one on each hipbone and one on the spine. He wasn’t sure of what the next step should be and amazingly, encouraged me to push on with my research and seek more opinions while he would continue to monitor Michael with scans.

I begin sending more inquiries to doctors across the country to track down treatment options. Some of the physicians and I were now on a first name basis. I felt surreal much of the time, as if I was operating way beyond my pay grade but I did it anyway.

August 17th, 2014 Ever since the scan results, I’ve been racing full-bore against time, trying to find a place for Michael to be. A place that will offer some hope for more time. I have researched and researched until my eyes feel like they’re falling out of my head. After calling and emailing and reading and thinking, we finally have an appointment at the University of Chicago with an advanced cancer specialist named Dr. Salgia. I know nothing of his work other than that he has a good education pedigree. I don’t know if he has any tools in his arsenal that are different from anyone else’s. He is not on the list of Merkel Cell folks who think Michael’s best chance is a trial with a PD L-1 inhibitor that is yet unnamed. And that trial is far from home. As I look at Michael next to me, now strong and robust, it is impossible to understand that this poison is taking over his body. I practice thinking of his absence but it is too hard. Our journey forward is unimaginable. He has told me beautiful things these last weeks. Last Friday we went on a staycation at a hotel where we napped and lay close together. That night, at a wonderful dinner, he gave me a pendant he’d designed months ago with a local jeweler. It is engraved in his own handwriting, my life, my love, my heart. Gut wrenching but beautiful and a treasure to hold forever.

A few days later, our garage is broken into and Michael’s beloved and long sought-after bike is stolen. He feels broken, defeated. But we decide to replace it and damn the expense. He finds an identical one in Iowa and will drive there on the weekend to pick it up. But first, we drive to the University of Chicago, looking for a new plan.

Just Ordinary

I know this is day one of a new decade. It’s also the third anniversary of me starting this blog. Like so many others, these days are laden with expectations. I’ve been thinking about how we humans imbue so many of our days with meanings that elevate them beyond what is simply an average twenty-four hours. There are the holidays that are omnipresent like New Year’s and Christmas. Each religion has its special holy days with their incumbent suppositions of behaviors and emotions. Then there are the individual ones like birthdays and anniversaries, laden with anticipation of acknowledgement, gifts and special treatments.

One of the lessons I learned during the five years of dealing with Michael’s cancer came from his daily mantra: I woke up this morning so it’s a good day. We tried hard to incorporate that attitude into our daily lives. Sometimes we did better than others. Being present is definitely more challenging than it seems. I’m getting better at it all the time. One of my goals is to demystify those expectation-laden days and turn them into ordinary ones. For example, there are occasions when if you’re single, you feel like an outsider, as if everyone but you fits the protocol. I can only imagine what it’s like to live a lifetime that way. After all, I’m just adapting to being on my own after years of companionship. Instead of feeling excluded, I’m looking at these moments as if they’re just part a normal day, when any bit of beauty, any momentary pleasure is sufficient. Being partnered or not is irrelevant. Instead of experiencing the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, there can be a middle which provides a sense of contentment and wellbeing. I haven’t perfected this approach to my life yet but I’m working on it.

My best friend is nature. Music and reading are close seconds. This triumvirate helps ameliorate grief and rejuvenate my spirit. The increased mobility provided by my knee replacements has helped me access more places which are restorative to me. So before I return to chronicling the navigation of cancer, tales from my life and internal musings, I give you some views of the pleasure of just ordinary days. Clouds, sunsets, trees and the like. The little things which in the end, are everything.

A Cosmic Realist

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

As the year’s end approaches, I find myself doing what so many people do, evaluating what I did and didn’t do these past months. For the most part, I feel like I’ve done as well as I can do. I’m still angry that Michael died. I’m in the third year of this unexpected and undesired widow business. The fact is, that after 135 and a half weeks of his absence, I still turn to him to lay down my emotions and thoughts. I’ve found no other outlet that provides the peace I’d feel after he absorbed my confidences.

I could never have imagined that I’d still be writing him letters, still be feeling surges of love and lust when I think of him or when I look at photos of him. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve gotten much better at living with grief as my companion as time has passed. I’ve found ways to be engaged in life and I’m actually pretty busy with projects and hobbies. I don’t cry much any more. But I’m getting through my third set of holidays on my own and being me, I’m continuing my intense inner cogitation about death and life and what everything means. The brain that keeps on ticking. Although I had no idea how I would adapt to being single after those 45 years of being a life partner, I must say that the fascinating internal shifts I’ve experienced during Michael’s absence, have been simultaneously, totally surprising and incredibly normal. I mean his “sort of” absence.

His body is definitely not here. Somehow, though, without my being conscious of the process, the essence of him, and what that is when it’s with me, seems to have taken up permanent residence in my body. He’s basically just here all the time. I feel alone occasionally but not lonely.

It’s ironic because he told me many times, and wrote me on that heart I wear around my neck every day, that he’d be with me forever. I just didn’t think he meant that literally. This development has been subtly evolving after the initial shock and devastation from his death. I have a hard time finding language to adequately describe this interesting state of being. And I ponder what accounts for me being able to accept this other-dimensional dynamic I appear to have going on with him. It certainly isn’t in keeping with my usual grounded, realistic approach to life. How does this fit with my practical self? I’m able to make room for this mysterious connection without blinking twice. As Michael would say, it is what it is.

I think there have been clues all along in my life. Despite being the least romantic of the two of us, I could never deny the power of the intangible connection I’ve felt with him and a handful of other people in my life. And despite my appreciation for facts, for science, for critical thinking, I realize that at the very least, my literary leanings have always been a window into my openness in accepting things that are outside the mainstream.

Let me explain. I love to make lists. I’ve gone beyond the task-oriented ones of the past. Since Michael died, I’ve been keeping lists of all the books I’ve read and all the movies I’ve seen. I have lists of his funny quotes, goofy nicknames and favorite movie stars. I’d been thinking of trying to make a list of every book I’ve ever read. Every movie, too, but mostly every book. What a daunting task that would be. I suppose the first ones would be the Dick and Jane series which I can actually remember from my school days.

I have photos of myself as a toddler, turning pages of books I can’t identify. But I can visualize Dick and Jane with Spot and Puff, having their daily small life experiences. I can’t imagine how many books I’ve read through the decades. More interesting than the number of them is which ones have stuck with me over the years. There are some that I read dozens of times when I was a kid. I can quote text from those verbatim. And then there are the ones which were so powerful affective that they instantly felt like part of me, that were instantly unforgettable. Many years ago, I made lists of the twenty five books and twenty five movies I’d take with me to a deserted island. Despite having piled hundreds of new titles in both categories, the top group has never changed. And the book category is led by One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, master of the magical realism genre. I’ve read lots of books from this genre, books filled with characters who could float above the earth, stay silent for years, predict all types of events and who didn’t die, but simply got smaller and smaller as time passed.

When Michael and I decided to reduce the massive number of books in our house, I held on to those as essential. I still needed them to be in my space and knew I would read them again. I still think about them. I’ve identified with their characters. I’ve felt like Tita in my kitchen, attempting to infuse what food I’d be preparing with all of my emotions and good health. These are the books that live with you and stay your whole life. Those reads are just an intimation of my capacity for the unexplained cosmic part of my life. But I think they’ve been an indicator of my openness to the inexplicable. In reality, I still sleep on my side of the bed. I don’t feel the need to sleep in the middle to prove anything to myself. I still wear my wedding rings because for all practical purposes, I’m still married. That’s how I’m rolling along and I’m good with it. I know what works for me.

But aside from those intimate reflections, there are the other pieces of my life that show up on my lists. I’m not happy with my book consumption this year. I’ve only managed an average of a book and a half per month. Writing has eaten into my reading time. I’d like to read more and I need to do something about my time management. Lately I’ve been reading three books at a time, doing a chapter or two each day in each one. My list seems endless and time is growing shorter. Big sigh.

I’ve taken eight classes during the past two years ranging from Jazz Masters to Molecular Biology. I’m signed up for three more beginning in January. I’ve seen 68 movies in theaters, the last of which was “Little Women,” which took me back to the days of reading the same book multiple times. I got to see some fabulous concerts, Pete Yorn, Jeff Tweedy, The Indigo Girls and last, Paul McCartney. Live music is rejuvenating.

I was fortunate to have taken four trips this past year. One was in early January to stay with old friends on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

The second was a long road trip to the East Coast with my son, which passed through 12 states and beautiful Acadia National Park.

The third was my long-coveted trip to Glacier National Park, a dazzling place which makes me fear the damage of climate change.

And the last was a trip south with my sister, as I work toward my goal of seeing all 50 states before I die. I only have a handful left to see and am hoping to knock that aspiration off my to-do list.

I became bionic this year – I had my second knee replacement this past July. I am now the proud owner of two Stryker Triathlon joints and moving pain free for the first time in over 15 years. I’ve recovered a normal gait instead of my penguin one and have taken to supplementing my swimming with long walks. This is an incredible gift.

Although I wish I could take a stroll with Michael-in-the-flesh, I’m grateful to be moving freely and intend to make the most of these knees while I can. I’m going to love gardening in the spring, bending when I need to and being confident that I can stay balanced while I work. I had a great year in my yard, despite losses to the polar vortex in January. I’ve already hustled to replenish the areas that took the worst hits. I’m looking forward to getting back into the dirt.

The last focal point in reviewing this year is this blog. My whole life, I’ve scribbled away, filling notebooks with reminiscences, ruminations, poems and tirades. I rarely shared any of it although I always felt I had things to say which might resonate with at least some people. When I launched myself onto this platform on January 1st, 2018, I wasn’t sure what I was going to say or how a blog worked. At the very least, I hoped to codify some life events and memories for my family. Beyond that, I had few expectations.

Life is full of surprises. I’ve heard from old friends that I’ve known since I was a little girl. People I’ll never see have sent me comments and notes that are both heartfelt and heartening. I have subscribers although that’s hard for my to wrap my mind around. Perhaps the most amazing thing that happened to me this year as a result of this blog, was receiving an email from an unknown reader. She told me she was worried about my spirits with the holidays looming. So she forwarded me a New York Times article about Roger Federer to lift my mood. I couldn’t believe that anyone would have remembered that I was his fan, much less bothered to do something about it. So I’ll keep at this. I’m part way through the story of living through Michael’s orphan cancer and part way through the stories of my youth. Then there’s what’s happening in real time. I suspect that if I run out of words, I’ll have run out of me. Happy New Year. And thank you.