I really can’t say how old I was when I started hunting for strategies to keep myself going through the hard times. When I was growing up, I felt well loved by my parents. But they weren’t big on planning. I always felt that they responded kindly to my problems. But they rarely offered a long range philosophical approach that provided a template, a framework that could be a go-to mechanism when things got tough. Early on in my life, I observed them being reactive to circumstances which came at them, rather than making an effort to circumvent a problem before it landed on their heads. I knew that passive style wasn’t going to work for me.
I wanted tools at the ready, a set of techniques I could employ when life was tossing situations at me that felt too big. Some people might say that’s being a control freak but I’d call it being prepared. Whatever your definition, I found that my approach worked better for me than that of my parents. I got really serious about finding workable problem-solving tools when I became a parent. I think it’s pretty common for people to try to fix those family issues that didn’t address what they needed in their own lives. I wanted to provide more options for my kids. I wanted to give them what I had to find for myself, some concrete plans to fall back on when things got hard.
As their baby days came to an end and day care started, the expansion of their world brought with it the problems incumbent on all of us as we begin to maneuver our way through new relationships and new situations. And everything that happens in our early life seems so important. Social problems, school problems and family problems all seem to roll into one giant ball that feels overwhelming. I began trying to come up with some reliable, accessible axioms that could translate into handling almost any situation. Over time, there were three specific problem-solving tools that became part of our family’s shared experiential DNA. The first was what I referred to as the five year rule. In the midst of emotional upsets, disappointments, failures and fears, I’d abruptly interrupt whoever was having the meltdown and ask if they could remember what happened five years ago today.
That question would break the flow of feelings and invariably, despite all best efforts to retrieve the memory, no one could come up with the specific event. Then I would remind them that this current tragedy, momentous as it felt right now, would one day be the memory they’d be scrambling to find, just like they’d just done in this moment. The five year rule is still a go-to strategy for all of us which we’ve extended to family and friends over the years. I added another little piece to it called the rear view mirror.
A metaphor for the rapid passage of time, the rear view mirror is a reminder that what looms ahead will soon be behind us, often before we’ve had the opportunity to fully process the now. I’ve always found this approach truly helpful. The mystique and excitement associated with big life events and emotional traumas so often sets people up for disappointment and letdown. The five year rule creates perspective and for our little clan, has created a framework for living in your moment and recognizing them as such, just moments. Transient and ephemeral, they lose some of weight the hard stuff forces on us, knowing that they’ll disappear into the past eventually.
A concrete way of my describing this is to think of the tapestries you see in castles, where new events are sewn in a progression over time. You can actually see the unfolding of history as a continuing process of life. I think this stream is satisfying and oddly comforting.
An adjunct tactic involves that big ball theory, when all of life’s issues get piled together into what feels like an overwhelming giant ball that’s rolling right over you.
I remember reading the Greek myth of Sisyphus whose punishment was to roll a huge boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down so he could repeat the task over and over. I spent and still do spend time trying to talk people out from under that ball of struggles. Breaking the overwhelming into smaller manageable pieces changes the way you feel pretty fast. I like using lists for this task so you can check things off, and feel more in charge of your life, more in control of things. I highly recommend adding items like brushing your teeth or going to the bathroom as part of the process. How rewarding to start a day with an accomplishment. Seriously, whatever works to make life feel manageable can be truly liberating.
My other frequently repeated mantra in our family has always been to try finding a little beauty in every day. So much ugliness is constantly thrust into our heads by the incessant news cycle that the mental load can be unbearably oppressive. I know this plan works. The other day my two adult children were working together as they often do, to provide comfort and support to each other as they do heavy lifting in their jobs. In the middle of their time together, they took a minute to send me a text with a photo of spring blooming trees taken as they walked to a lunch break. The note said, “Look, we’re appreciating nature.” I smiled as I was supposed to, noting that they were heeding my endless reminder to look around them to find that bit of beauty. The fact is, they do it all the time and I do too.
Spring is such a wonderful season for finding that bit of natural wonder. I need to remember that though May in particular is packed with events that remind me of my loves who are now gone and for whom I will always ache, it is still packed with beauty. I have physical tools of that trade that complement my mental tactics. I’ve been spending lots of time outside in my garden, planting and weeding, coaxing all my plants to bloom and whacking away at the uninvited volunteers who show up every year. There’s so much beauty here and I’m glad that I’ve made some of it happen. This morning my biologist son and I sat out in the backyard enjoying the perfect weather. He’s a bird expert and though I can identify a fair share of feathered friends that live in, or pass through my yard, I wouldn’t have known the American redstart, the red eyed vireo, the yellow warbler, the hermit thrush and the least flycatcher by their songs and movements. But he does.
What a lovely moment to share. We were soothing ourselves together, softening the edges of the day’s tasks. In return for his avian knowledge, I’m teaching him about plants and planning a cascading garden of blooms that last for months. A nice exchange of knowledge.
The other day, I spent some time with my youngest grandson watching an anthill and playing with a few before they tickled too much and we carefully pushed them off his arms and back to their crew. The little kids are off to a good start in appreciating the joy and fascination of the natural world. They’ll need those skills even more than we do.
I’m sore from all the work and scratched up but I love all of this and need it to offset the challenges of this time. I feel Michael with me as I work in our ground and miss his company and certainly his help. But I conjure his face like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland and see his kind, loving eyes on me as I move through the space which was our little haven.
I bought a new hammock to replace our old one. The milkweed is in the ground to bring the monarchs here. I’m worrying about whether a few of my butterfly bushes have made it through the polar vortex and most especially, my tender new baby Kousa dogwood which is greening but bedraggled. If it survives next winter, I’ll have Michael’s name carved into a stone plaque placed at its base. I’m going to wait for that, remembering the five year rule and how I have a ways to go on my road. Putting my money where my mouth is, as my dad would have said. And trying to share a little beauty from my space out to the world.
The truth is Michael didn’t really want to get married. He was opposed to institutions on general principles. Institutions became corrupt. Indeed. I always wanted to get married, ever since I was a kid. I was always a careful, monogamous person. I may have been living in the free love period but I was stingy with myself and cautious. I didn’t want to look back on my life with regret. Except for the requisite adolescent crushes, I only loved one other person before Michael. If he’d been ready to make a commitment to me, I’d have been his wife. But he wasn’t ready. By the time he was, I’d become Michael’s best friend and then his lover. There was no going back. But what to do about my intransigent anarchist? I finally recruited my father’s health as a weapon in my quest for marital bliss.
In early 1976, after I’d been living with Michael for 4 years, my dad had a heart attack. Subsequently he required 5 coronary bypasses. His father had died of heart disease when he was only 39. Aha. I told Michael that my dad’s anxieties and stresses would be eased by my marriage. Not to mention the fact that we’d probably get enough wedding money to buy him a real vehicle. He wanted something he could use to haul wood and big stuff for his many building projects. We’d been through a lot of beater vehicles.
One white Chevy Nova was so pathetic that when we got pulled over by a police officer for an “out” taillight, he looked inside and told us to drive home and never take the car on the street again. The car had no floor. Mostly it resembled a Flintstones vehicle, when stopping was accomplished by dragging your feet in the street. Our house was full of car parts soaking in smelly fluids as Michael did his best to keep us in wheels. So the plan was hatched. From the beginning we faced multiple problems. I wanted to marry Michael – his attendant family was another issue.
His parents were truly dreadful people. They were arrogant and snobby. They were too obtuse to tangle with me directly but they were rude when they met my parents who were clearly not in the same social stratum they occupied. I was verbally dangerous in those situations. But Michael and I figured they wouldn’t be near us often and hopefully they would be a negligible side issue. Ah, the wishful thinking of youth. The next problem was my father’s religious conservatism. Michael and I were both atheists.
My dad wanted us to have a traditional wedding. We spent weeks interviewing all kinds of rabbis but couldn’t find any who wouldn’t mention religion in their ceremony. Michael would step on the glass but that was about it. The tension was high. Finally we settled on being married by a Jewish judge. It took awhile for my dad to be assuaged by this hat tip to our heritage but my more liberal mother helped us. I think she was just glad for the two of us to make our relationship legal. We wanted to keep things simple. After finding an officiant, my dad got a venue through a friend of a friend.
We were going to be married at the Executive House on Wacker Drive in Chicago. The ceremony and dinner would take place in a reception room on a floor I can’t remember. But dad had gotten us the penthouse for our wedding preparations and the wedding night. We decided to limit the guests to family members and close family friends to keep the tab reasonable and make sure we got the cash for the vehicle. Our friends back at home had planned a major bash with all our peers that fit in with our more relaxed (read debauched) lifestyle – casual dress only. We relied on family to take photos, passed on live music for canned elevator background noise for the ceremony and the dinner and hoped for the best. Oh dear. Michael’s parents had planned a rehearsal dinner at their country club.
I had no clue what to wear and wound up with something like a sari which had bright colors. Michael had a crazy green sport coat and an incredibly garish tie. We were driving his barely suppressed, angry, jealous sister to the event. She was the older sibling and as Michael put it, his parents had spent so much time making her life miserable that by the time they turned their attention to him, he’d already mentally locked down and was just waiting to escape. As we drove to the club, Betsy was simmering away and exploding at every opportunity. I remember her screeching at Michael about his driving – we just kept quiet and hoped to lose her in the crowd. Michael’s few relatives and his parents’ friends were there, along with my family. What a bizarre and stilted event. The food was terrible, the kind you’d eat a rubber chicken event. Although my parents did their best to be sociable, the group was split into two camps. Only Michael’s sister, who decided to make my mother her favorite for the night, most especially to irritate her own mother, crossed from one end of the room to the other.
I was incredibly uncomfortable. I overheard Michael’s parents talking about my weight which at the time was perfectly normal. But they belonged to the never too thin, never too rich crowd and I was self-conscious. Nothing anyone said to comfort me helped. We were supposed to spend that night at their house but between his sister and their attitude, we bailed and stayed in an alarming and cheap hotel near my parents’ place which was crawling with my siblings and their kids. I was twenty four years old and grateful that Michael and I had a solid friendship to help us navigate the tension. He wanted to have his family but they drove him crazy and made him furious. The morning of the wedding we parted ways until it was time for the festivities. I went shopping with my sisters to pick out my mini-trousseau which consisted of an emerald green negligee with a matching robe. It seemed kind of absurd as Michael and I had been together so long. But it was pretty and felt like at least a bit of tradition.
I’d bought my wedding dress off the rack at a funky clothing store for $50.00. It was kind of Victorian, with a high collar, a deep neckline and a bodice that laced up the front. I didn’t wear a bra. I remember thinking how funny that was – we were getting married but I was still me. We all motored down to the hotel in late morning. We had the penthouse suite for the day and oh, what a penthouse it was.
We were in the Omar Bradley suite. There was a full length painting of Bradley in his general’s uniform and a cluster of flags, the US, Chicago and a bunch of others. A nice romantic militaristic touch. The suite had 2 spacious bedroom and 3 baths. Our balcony overlooked Wacker Drive and the Chicago River. We leaned over and watched all the workers marching in the May Day parade and wondered why we weren’t marching with them. Michael and I were each very nervous. I was able to think my way through it but Michael thought it best to get mellow by smoking a little reefer. He was mellow all right. I was worried that he wouldn’t be able to stand through the ceremony. At about 4 o’clock, we went downstairs to do the deed.
My sister was my maid of honor and Michael’s best man was his dad. We’d written our own very modern, non-sexist and left wing vows. But Michael was so obliterated that he would just say whatever he could remember, most of which were my parts. After he’d stolen them, I tried to improvise as quickly as I could. The good news was that although annoyed, I began to have a little humor which relaxed me. We stumbled through the ceremony and then the judge, who had the personality of driftwood did his part. When he asked me, do you Renee I. Berger, etc., etc., it was so absurd I laughed out loud. And just like that it was over. Then it was time for a champagne toast and a little socializing before dinner.
Michael’s dragon lady grandmother was one of the most arrogant blue bloods I’d ever met. A dreadful woman. One time when Michael was vacationing in Florida he stopped by her home for a visit. She wouldn’t let him in her house because she didn’t like the length of his hair. Not too warm and fuzzy. I was standing with my father having a glass of champagne when she marched up to us. My dad said, “what a wonderful day this must be for you, living long enough to see your grandson married.” She replied that she was too young for such things and still had her own beaux to think about. Then she turned to me and said, “well, you might be all right but your family is a bunch of boors. Walking around with all those cameras.” Then she haughtily stalked off, leaving me pretty close to apoplectic. My dad told me to ignore her but I was too outraged. I put my glass down and went steaming through the crowd so I could find her and throw her out of the place. Michael had spied me from across the room and intercepted me. He begged me not to do anything at that point because he said it would kill his mother. I let him stop me but I was enraged.
When we sat down to eat I broke down in angry tears. I remember my mother saying, “tears of joy, tears of joy.” Right. My family rallied around me. And Michael’s father and godfather got the task of cornering his grandmother so she couldn’t say any more insulting things to anyone. Periodically my brother would stand in front of her and snap a few photos for fun. Eventually I pulled myself together.
Michael’s dad went up to my parents to apologize and told them that our dinner made theirs of the previous night look like garbage. That was true. My folks spared no expense and the meal was perfect. But it was a sour night. Everyone knew there’d be no melding of families. Our marriage would be one in which social distance and opposing values would make for challenging times for the rest of our life together. That night my sister and her future husband spent the night with us in our absurdly huge suite. After everyone disappeared, we had Uno’s Pizza brought in and we snacked and reoriented ourselves out of the conflictual parts of the day. We got back to ourselves. Unbeknownst to us my dad had ordered in breakfast for the next morning. I remember the looks on the room service guy’s face as he walked in and saw all the different pairs of shoes piled up at the door. He probably thought we’d had an orgy rather than a honeymoon night. My future brother-in-law took a picture of us on the chilly balcony before we left the hotel. We looked like we’d been through an ordeal but we were still together.
There was a brunch planned at Michael’s parents’ home but I refused to go. I called his mother and told her I never wanted to see her mother again. She apologized profusely, saying her mother had “always been that way.” I remember thinking that people who always were “that way” got to stay that way because no one ever called them out for their bad behavior. True to my word, I never saw her again. I went to my parents’ place while Michael drove home. He marched into their house and took his grandmother’s $200 check, threw it at her and told her to go home and buy herself some etiquette lessons. Then he turned on his heel and left to join me with my family. Life is so ironic. His grandmother came from old money and lots of it. But my immigrant grandmother, uneducated and illiterate, gave us the exact same amount of money as his grandmother. Mine didn’t write a check. She took it out of her freezer where it was wrapped in aluminum foil. My first brush with actual cold cash.
My uncle passed a kidney stone at my wedding. The little kids were all carted off by a babysitter, happily oblivious to the negative vibrations filling the room. My father let the bad stuff roll off of him while my mother wound up in one of her bouts of ulcerative colitis. I knew that Michael’s family would be a problem that wasn’t going away. But we were together and we were strong with each other. Our powerful bond withstood it all and lasted until the end of his life. And amazingly, beyond that. We got enough money to buy our new vehicle, the green Chevy Blazer. I learned how to drive stick shift in that big thing.
My dad lived on for another 13 years. He died too young, but was able to meet my two children who meant everything to him. When we came home, we had a rollicking wedding celebration that went down amongst our friends as one of the best parties ever. We were among the first of our friends to get married. The truth is, with all the bumps and challenges, I got to live my dream. And that is certainly more important than the weird wedding.
When I was in my first year of college, I started what I called an apocalypse notebook. I was seventeen years old. I found myself perpetually surprised by a seemingly endless string of newspaper headlines and stories that should make all the hair on your head stand straight up. And yet, while all these unimaginable tales were being spun in the news, regular life seemed to just go on. People were going about their business. While my hair was feeling peculiarly upright, I was surrounded by folks who seemed able to ignore what I found impossible to ignore, impossible to forget. After a while, I abandoned the project. I realized that keeping track of all the unacceptable happenings in the world was an infinite task. Giving it up was kind of similar to my accepting that I was never going to be able to read all the books in the world. I did that after reading a statistic which stated that on average, there were approximately 10,000 books published a day. Quite a reality check.
Instead of trying to comprehend the madness of the world at large and trying to consume every thought that’s been written, I’ve spent my lifetime sifting through what are the big questions for me. The older I get, the more introspective I become. I’ve got some answers to a number of my big questions. But there are still a lot of things I don’t understand. What I’m learning is that I probably won’t ever know how some things work and that more questions keep piling up every day.
I’m trying to accept that and go with the flow or rather, my flow. I’m coming up on my wedding anniversary which is May 1st. That date starts my most emotionally daunting six weeks of the year. Squeezed into that time are the anniversary, Mother’s Day, the birthday of my oldest and deceased friend Fern’s birthday, my birthday, the anniversary of Michael’s death, Michael’s birthday and finally, Father’s Day. It feels like a lot. Lots of memories, lots of absences, good times coupled with dark times. I find myself trying to gear up to tick each event off the list so I can get to the other side. One thing is certain – these personal events wouldn’t make it into my apocalypse notebook.
Today, I would be entering the latest news about another AR-15 attack in a house of worship. And most certainly I’d take note of the fact that certain areas of pigs’ brains have been revived after being dead for hours.
“A dead pig’s brain was brought back to life, sort of…” USA Today
My life is trivial in comparison to those things. I suppose I’m better at handling things than I was a year ago. I’ve parsed together a semblance of a new life, one which still needs work, but is better than just feeling disoriented and empty. I’ve definitely had the type of recovery associated with the passage of time. I’m more in control of my emotions on a daily basis. Still, I haven’t gone through those orderly grief steps, at least not in the order they’re supposed to happen, according to the seemingly hundreds of books about the topic.
I’m not sure I’ll ever get past some of the landmarks that mean you’ve made progress. I suspect that’s partly because I had no expectations of what it would be like to be widowed at my age. Michael’s parents outlived him by 30 years each. We always thought he’d be around a very long time. And then suddenly we knew he wouldn’t be. We talked about it a lot. He’d ask what I thought I’d do after he was gone and I truthfully told him I had no idea. He wanted me to be happy and freed me to resume a life with another partner. I kind of thought he was crazy then and now I feel that even more. I had no idea I’d be so uninterested in new partnership.
I think being a mate was the only thing I ever really wanted in my life. And I was very successful at it. I don’t believe lightning would really strike twice in that arena and having been so happy, I feel really done with that part of life. I miss who I had but I don’t believe I would be content with anything less than who he was to me. So I’ve turned my attention to other interests. The other unexpected thing is that I still keenly feel Michael’s presence all the time. That has become one of my big questions. I didn’t know what I’d feel like when he was gone. I really don’t feel he is as gone as I expected him to be. I know people who’ve processed their pain faster than me and have moved on with other relationships. I know people who’ve filled their lives with projects and commitments that keep them occupied from morning until night. I instead still feel very married and ok about it. I remember the old James Stewart movie, Harvey. He was a large rabbit who accompanied Stewart’s character wherever he went. No one could see him but Stewart. Yeah, that’s me.
The other day my sister asked me if I was going to just isolate myself on my wedding anniversary and feel all my feels. I realized that I wasn’t planning to celebrate or mourn. So often I feel Michael’s presence with me during my days that I’m not thinking of any plans to fill in the gaps. Am I making that up? I don’t think so. It’s one of the unexpected surprises and one of the big questions I haven’t figured out.
I realize that I’m still wearing my wedding rings along with other rings Michael gave me. Taking them off never occurred to me. I feel like a nun who wears the ring marrying her to Jesus. The symbols of our life together feel permanently affixed on my hands. I’ve seen movies and read articles about the rituals people go through to remove those symbols. That’s ok with me but it feels irrelevant to my choices. I didn’t know I’d be this way. I’m having lots of thoughts about how time works and what effect my desires have on it. I want Michael to be in my dreams at night. Often he is, and we are doing normal things, chores around the house, our famous bickering, all pretty familiar and feeling very “now.”
The other night I had the most peculiar dream experience I can remember. Most of my dreams are pretty mundane, what to write on a grocery list, what I want to plant in the garden and so forth. Rare for me are the wild adventures with people chasing me or being in another universe with monsters and such. I was lying in bed awake and worrying because I knew Michael was mad at me, in the way he’d be when we were very young. He’d stalk out of the house which drove me crazy. He was an avoider and I was a confronter. I managed to break him of that habit by packing a small bag with everything he’d need for a few days, leaving it by the closet and telling him that next time he wanted to go, to just grab the bag and leave. Nipped that behavior in the bud back then. But this time he was definitely gone and in Chicago. I was worried that he might hop a plane to go see his sister in California. I’d had no calls or texts from him and I felt frantic. So I decided to text him and tell him to come home so we could work things out. I was thinking I was glad I remembered his phone number because I knew it wasn’t in my contacts. I reached for my phone and then suddenly realized that I’d been sleeping. Grabbing my phone woke me. I was really confused. It took a few minutes to sort things out and remember that Michael was dead. I found the whole thing so surprising that I sat up to write it all down so I wouldn’t forget by morning. Fat chance of that. I felt like I’d been stuck between dimensions. That’s not an average thought for me and I found it both unnerving and interesting.
I started thinking about my mother. My dad was the same age as Michael when he died, just sixty seven. My mom lived almost 25 years without him. She never got past him. They were really in love their whole lives. I think their relationship reflected the difficult parts of their early years and that it lacked maturity in many ways. But there was no doubt that they had big love. My mom was sad and wistful about my dad for the rest of her life. She would frequently say, “I know you’re not going to believe me but your father came and sat on the bed with me last night.” She was strongly convinced that she had regular visits from him and her mother. When she probed me about whether I believed her I told her I couldn’t say one way or another if what she felt was real. But as I try to understand why Michael feels so here, I wonder about how parallel my world seems with hers.
I hear both my grandmother’s and my mother’s voices in my head frequently. I don’t know why. If I’m conjuring Michael just because I miss him so badly why can’t I do it at will? Recently I’ve read some interesting ideas about time. Most people view time as linear – we’re born, we grow up, we die. But there are different views.
A scientist from MIT wrote a book a few years ago about the “block universe” theory, in which time travel is possible and that time doesn’t really pass. This theory posits that all our experiences of birth, life and death are present out there somewhere. Wormholes may exist. There are physicists and philosophers in Time Study institutes around the world trying to address these bizarre concepts. Getting your head around this kind of stuff is a challenge. But aren’t all belief systems that firmly put forward such things as afterlives, reincarnation and the like equally bizarre? I really can’t differentiate between the faith and the science.
What I do think is that human beings have been on a quest to make sense of life and death forever. I don’t expect to live long enough for any ultimate evidence to be presented to me as scientific fact. I wish I could know why I feel the unusual things I feel about Michael and why I hear mom and grandma saying things in my head that make me laugh out loud. I’ve just decided to go with it all. For me it’s no different than having someone call who you were thinking about a few seconds before they rang. There’s another theory floating around about how our brains are connected by an intranet, this one put forward by neuroscientists and psychologists. What do I know? I guess we all select what works for us. I’ve always felt I have some kind of radar thing going on in me. A prescience, sometimes good and sometimes lousy.
Just like the movie, The Sixth Sense, I hear, rather than see, dead people. I hope this isn’t alarming – I’m pretty sure I’m harmless. At least to date.
In the meantime, I stare down my wedding anniversary. I lived with Michael for 4 years before we married. So for me, this will be our 47th year, 48th including the six months of friendship that preceded our romantic involvement. We always talked about renewing our very alternative vows but never got around to it. I guess if I’m still counting the years, I’m still celebrating.
I remember our 25th anniversary. Our life was changing. Michael was leaving his music business after 27 years and beginning his career as a teacher. We were broke but in classic fashion, we decided as we only lived once, we’d take a cruise. There were Mayan people in Tulum, Mexico who would make a commemorative calendar date on parchment as a souvenir.
Instead of a birthday, we chose our wedding date. I’m so glad about that. I still have the red rose Michael managed to get on the ship when we had our romantic dinner and he gave me a ring I still wear.
So, however strange or confusing it all may be, I’m just going to keep my mind open to the mysteries and hope they hang with me for the rest of my life. As Michael would have said, “It is what it is.” He was always interested in pretty cosmic ideas. He read a lot of science fiction and thought about the possibilities of time travel.
I gave him a clock for our first wedding anniversary. How appropriate. I have an art piece he gave me for another anniversary. It’s a couple entwined in each other’s arms. Yes. Feels like forever and across dimensions to me.
I go to the pool four to five days a week. I’ve been doing it for a long time, well over 40 years now. When I was in my 20’s, I only swam during the summer. My community had a beautiful outdoor pool which was recessed so deeply in the ground that you couldn’t imagine you were in the middle of a city.
All you saw were trees and hillocks, birds flying overhead, native plants and butterflies. You could have a conversation with praying mantises walking along the sidewalks. Bees buzzed, dragonflies dipped into the water, and the occasional frog cooled off right next to you. I used to go on my lunch hour with a couple of girlfriends every day. Michael joined me periodically. They got wet and put in a few laps but I was almost always in the water.
Swimming outside reminded me of how it felt growing up in Chicago by Lake Michigan. I was the only water person in my family. I always wanted to be in the water. I loved the way it felt, even when it was freezing, both stroking my way through it or bobbing in it like a cork, always buoyant. Michael could never float. He’d sink to the bottom while I lay on my back enjoying the feeling of lightness, the sky above me and a sense of freedom so different than being bound to the ground. I’ve always been an outdoor person, fascinated by the earth and its many wonders.
As a kid I played outside all the time and learned to find peace and solace in open spaces. Water elements enhanced those feelings. I’ve been immersed in lakes, rivers, oceans and even retaining ponds when they were the only wet places available. Yeah, me and water. After swimming outside every summer for 30 years, our outdoor pool developed electrical issues which became dangerous. New pool designs had been studied by our local park district for a long time. The ultimate decision by the park commissioners was to close the pool and spend the next few years implementing a design for a new aquatic center. I was so devastated.
Although I’d availed myself of the YMCA pool during early morning hours when my kids were small, I’d confined my swimming to vacations during the off-season and depended on Crystal Lake Pool for my summer bliss. I’d been at it for such a long time that I sunk into a unique type of mourning, mourning a space rather than a person.
Meanwhile our school district and park district had collaborated on an indoor facility located just a block from my house. Swimming indoors wasn’t remotely appealing to me but I realized that exercising regularly was mandatory as I aged and my knees started to crunch. I knew that I needed the water, not only for pleasure but also for survival. So I held my nose, acted like a grownup and started attending the lap swim hours for adults. After a time, I got accustomed to being there. The south wall of the pool building is all windows so there is still a sense of outdoors that filters into what is otherwise an enclosed space. I was purposeful in my lap swimming and also in water jogging, most especially when I was still working full time.
I’d see a few people that I knew and we’d greet each other and perhaps exchange bits of conversation. But when I retired, some of the urgency about getting done with exercise and rushing back to work lessened. I switched my swimming hours from early morning to midday, just as they’d been when I was young. Eventually I realized that every day, the same crew of people showed up, including one person I used to see back in the day at Crystal Lake pool. As we swam beside each other, it seemed inevitable that we’d begin to converse. That woman was Pat who remembered me from the old days. She told me that back then, she thought I must be a lawyer because I seemed assertive in the water. I thought that was funny. I had no ideas about her career but discovered that she was a nurse. After a relatively short time, we learned about each other’s families and interests. Pat loves to read, and we had many conversations about books that led us to current events and personal issues. Next I met the “Joans.” The first Joan had MS and I remembered seeing her at the outdoor pool. I thought she talked too much but as a retired person, I was more willing to have a listen. Joan was both smart and provincial. She made anti-Semitic comments in my presence and I confronted her about them. She didn’t really know she was saying anything offensive and we worked that out. I learned about her husband’s death and her twin children who didn’t get along. The other Joan was older and very fragile. She was pretty territorial about her lane space and had a sharp tongue. At 90, she is still swimming although it’s scary to watch.
There is a couple named Emmer and Jack, both of whom had spouses die in car wrecks when they were young, leaving them with children. They found each other and have been married for many years now. Then there is Stephen, a retired cell biologist who’s a famous activist in our community and his wife Viki, who I knew from a community Spanish class where we’d met years ago. She was an art teacher in addition to being a talented painter. Ruth, who is 82, had a son who lived on my block and hired my daughter to babysit for his children. All of her grandchildren wound up as students of Michael’s. Laura is a retired special education teacher whose husband has been living with lung cancer for just under 30 years. Her father had Merkel Cell cancer like Michael although he was much older when he got it. He lasted three years. When Laura’s husband Glenn began to relapse, I was able to share information about a new drug and DNA testing that I’d run across while researching Michael’s illness. Merkel cell cancer behaves most like small cell lung cancer so I was surfing lung cancer groups for new information. That crossover research helped extend Glenn’s life. How amazing.
Walt swims almost every day. He is one of the few older single men who swim. His wife died of an aneurysm at work, slumping over her desk and being gone in an instant. Then there is William the taxi driver who’s been struggling with lung cancer for several years. He’s bringing an oxygen supply with him to the pool these days. Everyone is afraid when he seems to get stuck on the opposite side from his tank. But somehow he manages to get back across. I think he’s courageous. I’ve met a lot of people like Lori whose kids were Michael’s students. Fran is the wife of a lawyer who grew up on the south side of Chicago when I lived there. He was a heartthrob and pretty much still is. Mary Lee is a transplanted Texan, a former teacher and a widow. She is soft-spoken and sincere and deeply concerned about our current political landscape. And there are other swimmers like David who used to work for my husband back in the days when he owned his music store.
Perhaps the best pool surprise for me happened several years ago when Debbie, an old friend I’d known since the ‘70’s, suddenly strolled in. Within a matter of days, we established an intimate friendship that was based on a shared history from long ago, the fact that her children were also Michael’s students, and the simple fact that we just seem to blend together in a comfortable, secure way that feels as if we had no time gap between us. Ever.
I’m mystified by what goes on in that pool. People share the most intimate details of their lives with each other. Most of us never share any time outside the pool. But there are confidences and tears and hugs exchanged. Everyone checks on everyone else. There is a grapevine of information at play. Some of us are friends on social media. Some people find social media beyond their mental wheelhouses. The older people have faced challenging health issues and family deaths. Parents who fail and go into nursing homes are commonly shared topics of conversation. We talk about joint replacements, cancers, blood clots, kidney stones and heart disease. The water carries us all along at our different rates of speed. All this information is exchanged as we are almost naked. Is that part of this pool vibe? That as we are fundamentally so physically exposed, the emotional exposing becomes the next logical step? These people feel like a different kind of family to me, with lots of benefits and none of the hard parts. But what is true is that everyone checks on everyone else when something major happens. We exchange emails and texts and have shared lunches. When Michael was sick, Laura brought my favorite cookies to the hospital and when my knee was replaced Debbie brought cookies for my kids. And the vibe doesn’t stop with the swimmers. We also have our relationships with the young people who staff the pool, the managers, the cashiers and the lifeguards. Over time, they’ve gotten used to us as we have to them. They know our names and when we show up. If I miss a day, Quentin worries about me. I have long, interesting conversations with Bri, Ally, Jennifer and Leslie.
When I came back to the pool after Michael died, I was physically and emotionally embraced. I listen to them and give motherly advice. I guess it’s easier to take because I’m not their real parent. When Pat returned after cancer surgery, she was greeted with genuine warmth and affection. For the most part, we are all really different from each other. But everyone loves the water and we all have proprietary interest in the pool for our own very different reasons. My son’s first job was actually as a cashier there, one who arrived for the 6 am adult lap swim crowd. That was 16 years ago. Some people have vanished. The older ones may have died or gotten too infirm to come. The younger ones probably have moved on. My friend Melissa is a summer swimmer like I used to be – we share a lane and discuss art, music, politics and our personal lives which overlap although I’m a few years older. The pool people have their own little universe and I am in it. As I assess my life and what’s important to me I realize that this water business has given me more than physical health and strength.
I am part of a culture there which is non-ageist, non-sexist and freely available to anyone with a smile who’s willing to share a few thoughts for a brief part of a day. How civilized. There’s no telling how we’d all be outside our common love for the forgiving ease of the water. It doesn’t really matter. I’m reminded of those pillows you see sometimes, the ones that say, “ what happens at grandma’s stays at grandma’s.” The water vibe is like that, a safe zone. I never stop thinking while I’m there but each stroke lets me release some angst and feel lighter. Just like all the pool people doing the same thing, lane by lane. Pool vibes. Glad I have them.
Hearing about how you are perceived in the world is always interesting. During the past few days I’ve heard a number of comments about myself from friends. I believe the comments are valid within the limits of what they can hear or see. I know that what I’ve been told comes from a positive place, a supportive place intended to make me feel good. So I accept them in the spirit with which I think they’re delivered. One person told me I had a “larger than life” personality. I think that’s a compliment. I don’t feel it inside myself. I think I just expose more of my thoughts than a lot of people so my expressions seem outsized. My perception is that I’m more like, than not like, most people. I just have fewer filters. Another dear friend told me that she thinks I’m significantly less angry than I was a year ago. I’m coming up on the second anniversary of my husband’s death. I don’t feel less angry.
I feel less obvious about what I share. Those are two entirely different issues. To a degree, I’ve adapted to this undesired single life. I keep myself busy and I know how to behave in socially acceptable ways. But that’s only one dimension of me. Inside, I have deep crevices that I’ve always had and despite my facility with language, I am stumped at how to describe those places. Crashing waves of feeling live there. They are my undercurrent.
Anger is an active component of those spots. I’m angry every day and often irrational. I think it’s unfair that people whose relationships aren’t as good as mine should still have their partners when I don’t. I think it’s wrong and unjust and that I got robbed. Unproductive thoughts? Yes, but so what? I think them. I also think everyone has those private, dark places. Maybe I’m projecting but I doubt it. I think gaining access to them eludes many of us. Going as deep as you can get with yourself is hard and sometimes ugly. I’m okay with that. I live in a pretty honest place. I have an old friend who called me the truthsayer. I don’t think that was flattery. I think she wished I’d shut my mouth.
Another couple of friends who are traveling, sent me a picture of a statue that reminded them of me. It’s a metal sculpture of a person called “Overflow” that has letters and thoughts pouring out of it. They said they both thought of me immediately. This “overflow” idea is not a new behavior for me. I’ve always been full of ideas and words but for the bulk of my life, they were absorbed by Michael. He was my anchor, he was my sedative. He gave me what I needed in order that relax.
In ways that I can’t explain I’m still actively involved with him in that interchange. My letter writing to him that I began right after he died is still going strong. Until I’ve written him my thoughts I feel undone. As if I haven’t completed my process until I’ve shared with him. It’s mystifying. I’m definitely living in the present. I’m engaged with “now.” But internally, I’m still interacting with Michael.
I don’t know how to account for these peculiar sensations. When I dream, if he’s not actually visible, I feel his presence. Sometimes that’s enough to sustain me for a while. But don’t get me wrong. I miss the corporeal aspects of us. I miss my sex life.
Our connection was big and successful. It helped me unwind and just be. Having it be over is hard to accept. We managed through five years of his cancer to sustain our sexual contact. How very lucky considering the side effects of chemo, radiation and the array of other drugs plied during our journey. We both benefited from our consistent intimacy and experienced joy in the midst of the terror and the emotional erosion caused by daily fear.
Doing that for many years is indescribable. I’ve experienced fast deaths. I’ve felt the shock of the phone call death announcement, that’s a shock to your whole being. I’ve sat by the deathbeds of my parents from a few days to a few weeks. But there is nothing like the rollercoaster of living with your life partner, who’s afflicted with a terminal illness, for many years. I knew I would be permanently changed by it and that became my truth. While in the midst of it, I could feel subtle internal shifts. I wasn’t sure how they would manifest themselves over time. At other significant, major moments in my life, I’ve gotten similar signals. Eventually they altered parts of me as the normal changes that occur as a life that’s lived fully generally evolves. For now, what feels most clear is that I’m all out of fresh love. I haven’t been able to love my past two dogs. I care for them and make their lives better but I can’t seem to find the big love that I did before. I don’t think I can feel that again except if my son has a child. I still love my family and good friends. But I emptied so much of myself into Michael and me. We remain deep inside me, entwined in that intensity. I feel it every day. I call out his name each night before I sleep. He is my first thought in the morning.
I carry a photo button of us, a note from him and his little laughing Buddha that was his good luck charm in my bag every day. I wear the gold heart necklace with his loving handwritten message inscribed on it. He had enough vision to have a mold made for it in case I should ever lose it. He knew I would never be able to forgive myself if that happened. No one knew me the way Michael did, even my family and closest friends. Our connection was immediate and frequently nonverbal. I think that would surprise most people who’ve known me for a time. But it’s my truth. A large piece of me is a deep well of silence. Michael and I mostly felt each other silently and used words when necessary. But much of our constant exchange of information was quiet. I still wonder at the magic of it. Yet, even with that intense and beautiful connection, I always knew that there would be small places in each of us that the other could never access. As well as we can know anyone, I’m not convinced that anyone knows everything about the ones we love, the ones with whom we share our love and trust. What bits make us wholly ourselves contain tiny mysteries in the end. I’m exposing parts of my mystery just by writing this note. But no matter who reads this, I remain intact and whole in my deepest recesses. The emotional and intellectual connections I had with Michael are alive in here. I don’t know why nor did I expect to feel this way. As he would say, “it is what it is.” I don’t think I’ll ever be at peace with his dying too soon for me. Even when I’m aware of the great gift I had, even as I know that people are suffering unfairly from much worse situations than mine, I still get to be pissed off. And I am. I’m just doing better because I can and because I still mean something to my children and grandchildren. I hope I don’t get too old and sink into the mire of forgetting and being useless.
I watched my mom do that and remember her endlessly asking me why she was still here. I always answered her, beats the hell out of me, mom. I don’t know why her battered body kept going. I don’t want to follow in her footsteps. The night she died, she fell silent. Her eyes were open and she kept moving her hand in front of her face as if trying to push aside something that was blocking her view. She didn’t say a word and I’ll always wonder what she was doing. Right before her last breath, she squinted in what looked like a cognitive physical response, like a “huh?” I’ll never know what any of it meant. Just like I didn’t know how I’d feel after Michael died. He gave me permission and encouragement about moving on and finding companionship because he loved me and didn’t want me to be lonely. Oh well. I couldn’t have told him we’d still be hanging out two years after his death.
Soon May will come. Our wedding anniversary is May 1st, May Day, which we chose to honor International Workers who fought hard for the rights of working people. Living our political views is what we wanted to do. That month is full of birthdays and celebrations which are now overshadowed by the day of his death, May 28th. But that is a story for another day.
Who says that everything I want to write has to make sense and stay in some sort of order? Trying to write the helpful book about coping with an orphan cancer is too grinding. Writing letters to Michael is easy. So is expressing my internal monologues. So that’s what I’m doing because it’s a relief from being orderly. So greetings from my stream of consciousness.
I have been outside all day. My yard feels enormous. Keeping up with it requires a big effort. It’s been awhile since I’ve been able to sustain an 8 hour work day in the garden. One replaced knee makes a considerable difference in endurance. Imagine how I’ll be after the next surgery this summer. Unstoppable. I hope.
I am not a poet. I love some poetry and some not much at all. But I wrote a poem, born of emotions I couldn’t purge from my body in any other way. Here is my non-poem stimulated by one note of one song on the headphones.
One note, I disappear into another time, barely breathing.
One note, an album cover, a bed, a body, panting, yet barely breathing.
One note, reality and memory collide, a visual extravaganza, wailing, yet scarcely breathing.
One note, an internal riot of feeling, gasping like beached fish.
One note, pain, love, gratitude, emptiness, how am I still breathing?
One note,I wouldn’t trade any of it, not for one easy breath.
And here is another weird little wordplay that helped me through a moment.
Oui can be aye.
Aye can be I.
I can be eye.
But we can’t be I.
I wish I was still a we.
Kind of bizarre, but I get to do what I want. After all this is my space and I’m not censoring. Back to the yard.
The garden is a mystery this year. Is it because of the polar vortex? My forsythia is greening up after showing none of its famous yellow blooms that always herald spring. Many of my flowers are coming late and some are not going to appear. I know because I crave their bursting life and color so much that I photograph them every year. They have gone the way of impermanent things, which is mostly everything in the physical universe. I am an unwitting phenologist, studying climate change in my little world. I am currently sitting in what was Michael’s massive vegetable garden, now a pollinators’ garden which is easier for me to manage. I don’t want to can tomatoes or pesto or salsa like he did. To me, those things are just for eating, not making. Although I’ve already planted a few tomatoes and a few peppers. I’ll always do that in honor of my boy.
This ground feels like us to me. We worked this earth together for a very long time. I cry here but I am also peaceful which is a hard state for me to achieve. I told my kids to remember that if they find me dead amidst the flowers, I went out happy. Back to the interesting spring, though. Returning in abundance are Michael’s perennial herbs. They are beautiful and fragrant. He always wondered if they’d die back eventually. Who knows? And just for you, my dead punster, no chive.
I feel guilty for still liking Michael Jackson’s music. What was once fun for grooving and dancing is now a quandary for me. Do we dispose of all their art when we discover that the artists did dreadful things in their lives? Does that tarnish their art to the point that it should be hidden, erased? Or did their deeds wind up informing their art in a circuitous way? I’ll never be able to sort through these dilemmas. I’ve been thinking that there should be one enormous “outing” day. On that day, every public figure who’s perpetrated a wrong against an innocent should be exposed and brought to task. These intermittent exposures that keep popping up in the news are so emotionally eroding. Morgan Freeman, Neil deGrasse Tyson. Ugh. Maybe getting them done all at once would be shockingly painful but then we could be done. If there is such a thing that’s done.
I am listening to a random shuffle of music on my headphones while I work. I am always wondering where all these song lyrics are stored. I’ve known every word of every song I’ve heard today. I think Brian Wilson is a musical genius. I hope neither Paul McCartney nor I die before I see him in June. I haven’t seen him perform live in 55 years. That sounds crazy to me. Now I am listening to My Sweet Lord by George Harrison. That stimulated a memory from back in 1971 when my friend Ted commandeered me while I was doing acid. He bought a dozen glazed doughnuts from Spudnuts, the sweet shop on campus and took me to his apartment. He put his new fancy headphones on my ears so I could listen to this song while he plied me with sugar and asked me questions about his girlfriend. All I knew was that I thought I could hear each individual track that George laid down in that song. When I hear it now, I still think I can separate each track.
Today I looked at a photograph from 1976 and realized that everyone in it was dead. My parents, my husband, my brother, my sister-in-law and my dog. An eerie thing to note.
My former sister in law died this week. My brother died four years ago. My great nephew sent me some videos my brother took of our family in 1976 and 1981. My brother had already sent me a copy of the 1981 film which features my newborn baby. I’d never seen the one from 1976. So many of the people in the film are gone. I was beautiful but I didn’t know it.