For Barbara…

It’s never easy to hear that someone you care about has died, especially if you’ve kept that person alive in your mind for a long time because a good fiction is sometimes better (well, maybe not better, but certainly easier) than the truth. For more than four years I’ve told myself that my friend Barbara probably moved away from her apartment in Edina (Minnesota) in 2015 and forgot to send me her new address.

I met Barbara in the spring semester of 1996. I was finishing my degree at Augsburg College in Minneapolis and she was my advanced nonfiction writing professor. She’d come out of retirement to teach the course, however “retirement” for Barbara, then 70, was hardly like most of us imagine.

We became friends that semester, and when I moved back to Pennsylvania later that year, we began a once-a-year correspondence that lasted nearly twenty years. Every Christmas, we sent each other a letter detailing the events of our year. Some went on for pages, and hers often read like mini-memoirs. Hands down she led the more exciting life. She traveled the world, each year to a new country, and when she was 80, she climbed Kilimanjaro.

In the early 2010s, when she was in her late 80s, her handwriting became more difficult to decipher and her once long correspondence filled only the blank inside of a Christmas card, but her tone never changed. She was always upbeat and joy-filled, never a word of complaint.

Except for the sympathy card I sent her in 2011 after I read in that year’s letter that her cat of nearly twenty years had died, we didn’t respond to each other’s letters except at Christmas. That was part of the unspoken understanding of our friendship. We were bound and committed (almost in defiance of the pithy nature of email) to writing once-a-year epistles that were meaty, vivid, dense, and time consuming, both in writing and reading. I looked forward to her letters with almost childlike anticipation, the kind that Christmas invokes, and I always saved her previous year’s letter to refresh my memory before reading the new one. I also mentally crafted my letter throughout the year, noting the big stuff, of course, but more importantly, the little things, like the details of a moment working in the garden or rocking a grandchild, a habit she stressed all writer wannabes should adopt.

In 2015, I was excited to tell her that, at 52, I’d started a master’s program in composition and literature, and that my decision was largely based on her example of not letting age define her. My letter wasn’t returned to sender, but neither did I receive a letter from her. My first thought was that she had become physically unable to write anymore, so I resolved that I would keep up my end of the correspondence. In 2017, when again I didn’t receive a letter, I allowed myself to think, for a few seconds, that maybe she had died, but I chose not to find out. I kept her 2014 letter in my Christmas card basket, just in case, and I imagined she was living somewhere, perhaps in Ireland, with a new cat.

Writing the Acknowledgement page for my book* last week, I included Barbara, and in typing her name, I knew it was time for the truth. I wrote an email to the alumni association at Augsburg and they forwarded it to a professor in the English department, someone I knew vaguely from back in the day. In his email this morning, he confirmed that Barbara died in 2015 after several months in hospice care.

As I formally grieve my friend, I remember and honor the role she played in my writing life, not only through her teaching and encouragement, but in how she lived and wrote about her life. Her writing was exemplary, often a model for some of my columns and blogs. While she is no longer here in the flesh, her influence will be with me for as long as I write.

Still, I will always miss her most at Christmas.

* Tentative release date for my first book is December. I will have more information about it in the upcoming months.

This One Has No Title

Turned 57 on August 14.

As if 2020 hasn’t been weird enough, these last few weeks have been particularly weird. Maybe weird isn’t the right word. I’ll keep writing and see if a more appropriate word becomes apparent.

It’s been a hodgepodge of things – both that I’ve made happen and naturally occurring – that have kept me on my toes. First off, my liver has decided it’s not happy with my food and drink choices of the last year or two – and I don’t blame it one bit! – so I’m on the wagon, both nutritionally and in the imbibing department.

Not drinking alcohol is kind of weird since it has been part of my routine for years. I don’t miss it physically or psychologically, as in I don’t crave it. In fact, I have way more energy and I sleep better. It’s the social aspect of it I miss. Drinking sparkling water with lime, which I love, isn’t the same as sharing a bottle of wine with my partner or making and consuming homemade basil gimlets with my daughters.

The food part has been a more difficult adjustment than the alcohol. I prefer white rice over brown, white pasta over whole wheat, and ice cream over sorbet. I know, this isn’t how I used to eat; this isn’t the me you might have “met” back in the Lynn’s Weigh days. But over the last few years I’ve basically – honestly and in a nut shell – not cared. Perhaps it was the years of restrictive eating, perhaps it was menopause, perhaps it’s living with a foodie. Whatever the reasons, the choices were mine and the “blame” falls squarely on me.

Unlike fifteen years ago, though, I’m not going to share my numbers or food woes, concerns or successes. I’m just gonna clean up my liver quietly and do my best to be a healthier fifty-seven-year-old (although I reserve the right to write around it here once in a while).

I bought a scale. I haven’t owned one in six years, and I haven’t been on one since October when I was last at the doctor’s office. You can’t weigh someone during a telemedicine visit, so I figured I’d better get one so I can update my doctor on my progress. Not that losing weight is the primary goal, but that’s what will ultimately happen in the long run as I “eat clean.”

I never look at the number on the scale at the doctor’s office, and I don’t look at the after-appointment summary which lists my weight, height, blood pressure, etc. I had a pretty good idea what I weighed, which I assumed has remained the same for years since all my clothes fit, but I needed to know the number. I looked up my last summary online and yes, it was what I thought. Not horrible, but a change will do my body good.

While my weight hasn’t changed, my height has! In my thirties, I was five feet, five and a half inches, and maybe a hair more. When I shrunk to five feet, five inches in, oh…2009 I think, my doctor ordered a bone density scan. Turned out that, in my mid-forties, I had the bones of a thirty year old. People shrink was the explanation my doctor gave me. Now, eleven years later, I am five feet, four and a half inches. Is it because I have new hips that I lost another half inch? If not, at this rate, I’ll need a car seat when I’m eighty!

Speaking of new hips, I officially own my left hip. I paid off the hospital today, thirteen months after my surgery. Not that I was worried that they’d repossess, but given this crazyass year, anything is possible.

Something I’ve noticed the last few weeks – as I’ve contemplated my liver and height and getting older – is that I’m more pessimistic than I realized, and I don’t think I can blame it on the pandemic. I’m not quite Eeyore, but I’m further away from the optimist I was at forty. I’ve noticed that at 3 a.m., when I do my worst thinking, I’m having even longer stretches of bad thinking before I break it up and remember that I can deal with / handle / change / work through whatever it is I’m turning over and over (and over) in my head at that moment.

For instance, last night I was all worried about the three-month subscription for smoothie powders my daughter bought me. Twenty different flavors arrived in the mail on Saturday. I was excited to try them, so I made one yesterday, mixing my milk of choice (an unsweetened nut milk) with the packet of powder. When I brought the bottle to my mouth, however, my gag reflexes went on high alert. I tried four times to drink it before dumping it down the sink. Maybe it was the milk I used, but if I’m going to try that particular flavor again, I’m going to need to bury it in something that will mask the smell, sort of like throwing lime on a deer carcass.

These powders aren’t cheap, and that was at the heart of my middle-of-the-night concern. “I don’t want to waste money. Oh, what’s the use, I’ll never get it right…” that kind of thing. But I just have to keep trying. That’s it. That’s the solution. Keep trying. Don’t give up before I’ve exhausted every possibility. You’d think I’d know that by now since that’s the solution to most obstacles we face in life.

Despite being old enough to get a ten-percent discount at Perkins, I’m not too old to employ new strategies for incorporating more positive self-talk than comes natural for me. I’ve enlisted the help of the Gratitude app. (You can find it on Google Play or the App Store. The logo is an orange square with a simple heart flower in the center.) It’s private, so no one can read your business, and it includes writing an affirmation every day. Today my affirmation was, “I am a writer, and today I will act accordingly.”

So here you go, a bit of writing that I hope, as always, will resonate with at least one person, because being alone in our thoughts and circumstances is a difficult way to live. I told you about my liver and height and the fact that it took me over a year to pay off a hospital bill because it helps to know, even if I don’t get feedback from anyone, that someone read through to the end, and maybe now they don’t feel quite as alone anymore, either.

I still haven’t come up with a better word than “weird,” so I’ll leave it at that. It’s been a weird few weeks, but nothing I can’t handle.

In the Fight of His Life

I didn’t have this on my 2020 Apocalypse Bingo Card. Last week, my 28-year-old stepson Andrew had a stroke.

While this isn’t my story to tell, and Andrew is an extremely private person, I want to raise awareness of a form of vasculitis called granulomatosis with polyangiitis (GPA), formerly known as Wegener’s. GPA is a rare disorder characterized by inflammation of the blood vessels, which can restrict blood flow and damage vital organs and tissues. Besides potential damage to the kidneys and respiratory tract, other serious complications may include vision or hearing loss, heart disease, and stroke. There is no cure, and patients with GPA will experience remission and relapse throughout their lifetime.

We don’t know how Andrew contracted this rare disease that affects just 3 in 100,000 people, but since July 2019, it has nearly cost him his life three times.

I have known Andrew since he was one and have been his and his brother Kevin’s stepmother since 1996. When his father and I divorced, we agreed that our blended family would remain the most important thing in our lives and we have honored that agreement for nearly ten years.

The last time I saw Andrew was a few weeks before Christmas. He and Kevin met me for brunch in Pittsburgh on their way home from visiting their father. Larry and Kevin tried to prepare me for how Andrew’s appearance had changed, but I was shocked to see my tall and once incredibly fit boy so thin and pale. His once robust appetite was reduced to a bit of yogurt and granola. That night, after their long drive back to central New York, Andrew was in renal failure. He has been on dialysis ever since and is on the list for a kidney transplant.

The stroke has set back that timetable, however. Right now, there are more pressing physical issues that he needs to address like learning to speak clearly again and walking unassisted. His mental health needs attention, too. While Andrew has maintained his sense of humor through much of this, he is frustrated and afraid. He is unable to work and is on long-term disability. Because of covid-19, he has no real social life. If not for his cat, Zelda, he would be completely alone most of the time. We can’t visit him in person, although his father, mother, and brother have been allowed to see him for a few minutes each day in the hospital this week.

My birthday is in mid-August and soon I’ll create a fundraiser for the Vasculitis Foundation on my personal Facebook page. If you’d like to make a donation directly to the Vasculitis Foundation, click here.  

If you’re interested, here is one of many blogs and columns I’ve written about my stepsons over the years: The Boys Are Back in Town. I love them both so much, and to see one of them suffering like this is incredibly heartbreaking. But thank you for reading. It helps knowing others are listening. I hope this finds you and yours safe and healthy.

Andrew, Kevin, and Larry having dinner at my house; post-divorce and still family
Uncle Andrew with baby Audrey
Happier times

Reading for Sanity

My twelve-year-old granddaughter Claire (who reminds me every time we talk that she will be thirteen in October) called me yesterday, and we talked about Nerf battles, bears in Yosemite, the view of the Grand Canyon from 30,000 feet, the difference between a highway and a freeway, and how the Interstate Highway System works.

Claire knows she can talk to me about anything and yesterday, those were the things.

Claire is a voracious reader, but she’d be bored by the books I read when I was a kid. I told her how I preferred teen detective Trixie Belden over Nancy Drew, but she told me that the new Nancy Drew comics are pretty good. I had always hoped that she would like the books I did as a kid, The Wind in the Willows, The Trumpet of the Swan, Ramona the Pest or the Henry Higgins books, but she likes more angsty, futuristic books. Throw in a little dystopia and she’s all in.

In non-pandemic days, I’m always up for emotionally challenging books, one in which the ending isn’t all tied up in pretty ribbons, and intellectually challenging books that ask me to rethink some long-held (and unearthed) belief or learned prejudice. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is an excellent example. I’ve tried reading a few more of those challenging books in the last few months, but I find that the emotional feels are exacerbated by real life. I read newspapers and news magazines and political commentary, and as part of my research for the memoir on grief, I’ve been reading academic papers on loss, bereavement, and the implications of not being able to see a loved one dead. All of that is enough of an emotional challenge right now. This makes reading for fun imperative.

Jennifer Wiener is one of my go-to writers for good endings, and by “good” endings, I mean satisfying; ones that don’t leave me in a heap of tears on the floor. I just finished Big Summer. So much fun! And Mrs. Everything is my favorite JW book to-date. It’s also recently been optioned for a TV show!

In an Instagram post, Weiner recommended books by several Black writers including Jasmine Guillory. I am currently reading her book The Wedding Date. Based on the first half, I will definitely read more Guillory books. Terry McMillan is another Black writer I love to read for that satisfying ending. Ever since How Stella Got Her Groove Back, she’s been a favorite.

Daughters of Erietown by the Pulitzer Prize columnist from Ohio, Connie Schultz, is one I didn’t want to end, and I hope Schultz has another book coming soon.

While the book, It’s OK to Laugh by Nora McInerny Purmort, is written as a series of essays about the life and death of her husband, is not the big downer you’d think a grief memoir would be. Also, Me by Elton John is a delicious piece of writing and includes some fun gossip about people in the recording industry whose names you’ll no doubt recognize.

I was in love with Elton John and Bernie Taupin when I was a kid, much to my father’s dismay. By the time I was twelve, I had bought or been given Goodbye Yellow Brick Road; Rock of the Westies; Greatest Hits Vol. 1; Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player; Mad Man Across the Water; and Caribou. When I wrote a report on Elton John in sixth grade (we had to write about someone famous), Dad told me he didn’t want me buying any more Elton John albums because EJ was gay. I had no idea what that meant, so I asked Dad, “What’s ‘gay’?” He walked away and never brought it up again, and I continued to collect Elton John albums.

Our county library is open again and is offering Grab ‘n Go service. I have three books on reserve to pick up on Saturday: The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal, Beach Town by Mary Kay Andrews, and Still Life by Louise Penny. I want to start reading the Chief Inspector Gamache Mystery series before it comes out on Amazon Prime Video. (Do you prefer to read the book first and then watch the show, or vice versa?)

Anyway…back to Claire for a moment. Whenever her name comes up on my cell, whether it’s a phone call or text, it makes my heart skip the same way it did the day she was born. I am still in awe of her, in awe that she exists and is part of my life. Sometimes, like now, when I think too hard on it, I get to crying a little. We play Battleship on Facetime, but it’s not the same as real life. What I wouldn’t give to hug her and to have her spend the weekend. But…I will take what I can get: phone calls, texts, Facetime, appropriately distanced visits.

While these days seem like forever, they will not last forever.  

In the meantime, read for your sanity, read to lift your spirits. And listen to Steve Martin play his banjo!

Writing Out Loud

I started writing him a letter today, but I remembered when someone suggested years ago, right after he died, that I go to a card shop and pick out the Father’s Day card I would have chosen for him for his first Father’s Day. I didn’t do it because it felt silly and because I refused to live in a fantasy in which I bought him a card and maybe a tie and he would open it while he bounced Carlene on his lap, and then I serve him a slice of his favorite cake, German chocolate…

OK, so maybe that’s probably what would have happened if he hadn’t died, but he did die and my feet are planted firmly in reality. No “what ifs” pass through my lips.

Bruce and yours truly, Christmas 1981

But here’s what I wish I could tell him: I’m writing a memoir about our life together and his death and its impact, and while it’s mostly about me, it’s also about him. At times he’s a protagonist and at others, he’s an antagonist. I mean, I know he didn’t mean to die, but nonetheless, his death makes him seem like the bad guy once in a while.

We’ve all been in those two-way conversations that should be three-way conversations in which you’re talking to someone about someone, about what they did or didn’t do that was funny or embarrassing or pissed you off, and they weren’t there to defend or explain themselves. This is a little what writing this book feels like. How do you tell the truth about someone who isn’t around to correct you?

I’ve been thinking about how, at this moment in my life, writing this book, Bruce has book-ended my entire adult life. I met him when I was seventeen and he became everything to me, and here I am, nearly forty years later, putting him front and center again. What I don’t want to do is turn our life into a Glamour shot, blurring it and making it more beautiful than it really was. But since I can’t talk to him, I’m talking to you. Writing this out loud is helping me see things more clearly, holding me accountable to the truth, at least the truth as I remember, and it keeps my feet grounded in what was real then and what is real now. So a big thank you for reading! I feel better already.

To See, Change, and Unlearn: Confronting My White Privilege

In therapy, I was taught that the key to effective communication is through “I” statements. They are meant to relate the speaker’s needs and/or feelings to the listener, as opposed “you” statements, which are usually accusatory, blaming, and contain negative attributions about the listener.

Whites/people in positions of power have a long history of using “I” statements when communicating with minorities, but not in a therapeutic manner. “I need you to listen to me/do what I say/talk this way/behave this way.” And the “you” statements…oh, yes…the “you” statements. They continue to spew like spit off the lips of the ignorant and the hate-filled. As a nation, we really suck at communication with minority groups in general, and particularly people of color.

In the last ten days, I’ve heard a lot of well-intentioned white people using a lot of “I” statements, asserting their needs and feelings about the death of George Floyd, Amy Cooper’s ridiculous actions in Central Park, and, of course (and perhaps especially), the protests, riots, and looting. Mostly, they want people of color to know that they aren’t like those police officers. They aren’t like Central Park Karen. “I need you to understand that I have black friends, I had a black doll when I was a child, I work with black people…” and on and on, and people of color roll their eyes because they’re used to hearing how good we think we are, how we “get” it, when really, do we?

It was Breonna Taylor’s murder on March 13 that brought me back to the table, and by table I mean the place of learning about racism and white supremacy and acknowledging my role in it. It’s a table I never should have left, but because I am not a person of color, I have the privilege of forgetting about that table because I don’t live every day having to prove myself worthy of health care, justice, housing, or even my life because of the color of my skin.

I’ve learned more in the last three months by shutting up, listening, and reading than I ever would have defending myself with my personal experiences with the black community, and the only “I” statement I want to offer to people of color right now is: I was wrong. My silence equals complicity, and I am sorry.

My intention, when I speak of race, especially with people of color, is to be mindful of “I” statements that seek to assert my need for others to understand me. Instead, I will ask questions like “How can I…(help, participate)”, “What do you need me to…(understand, change)”, “Where can I…(donate, volunteer)” and “Who should I…(contact, read)”. I want to change what I didn’t know I needed to change, to see what I didn’t know was inside me to see, and to unlearn what my comfortable privilege has taught me.

A helpful resource for me has been the 1619 Project: “It aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”

A friend shared this resource today from Smithsonian Magazine, “158 Resources to Understand Racism in America.” I’ve only had a chance to read through it briefly, but links to the resources and articles are embedded in the chapters: Historical Context, Systemic Inequality, Anti-Black Violence, Protest, Intersectionality, and Allyship and Education.

Today is Breonna Taylor’s birthday. She would have been 27. If you’re interested in donating money to her family’s Go Fund Me account, click here.

Please, join the table. Stay. Don’t leave like I did. I truly believe we are on the brink of positive change in this country. It’s been messy and violent, and it will most likely get messier, but please, please, don’t give up.

“Normal”

I talked to my milkman Wednesday, and I’m sure we’ll talk again tomorrow. He’s the only person I talk to in real life on a regular basis other than my partner Jim and a guy named Ben from Martin’s who puts groceries in my Jeep every other week.

Each week, the milkman, also named Jim, stands a few feet off the front stoop and I open a window and we talk through the screen, about eight feet apart. He’s a nice guy, 30ish, and married with a young daughter. He lives in the country and is wickedly sarcastic, not that the two are related. I think I’d like his mother from the stories he tells about her.

During our last conversation, he asked if I’d heard about the customer at the Johnstown Walmart who was cited and fined for spraying Lysol on lettuce. No, I said. We rolled our eyes.

He told me about the bear that startled him in the early morning as he walked out to his car to go to work. I told him about our bear and how he has figured out how to open our garbage can, despite the bungee cord.

Except for talking through a screen, our weekly chats are about the only somewhat pre-March 12th normal thing I do anymore. Our conversations are always light and ordinary, but on recent Wednesdays, for those ten or fifteen minutes, I feel the importance of ordinary. While the rest of the world feels uneasy and scary, there’s always the milkman, delivering milk and sour cream and butter. His schedule tethers me to what’s left of the rituals that ground me.

Birds are like that, too. They are predictable, rhythmic, and steadfast.

I’ve maintained at least one bird feeder everywhere I’ve lived, thinking, “Oh look, I’m helping birds,” which is silly really because they’ve managed to survive for millions of years without humans throwing out birdseed and peanuts and mealworms. This spring, though, they probably did need a bit of help. We had several nights of below-freezing temperatures the first two weeks of May and a birding friend told me that the cold meant no bugs were flying around for them to eat and that bird feeders are their emergency food pantries. So, yes, in a way I was “helping” birds, but mostly it’s for selfish reasons that I feed birds.

I need birds. I need their physical beauty and the beauty of their flight. I need their songs. Their voices fill the void of the so much quiet of these days, especially the difficult ones. Also, they behave like humans – bitchy, testy, helpful, picky – so that I don’t miss humans quite as much. A Blue Jay calls for his mate that he’s found food. She arrives and chases away the Cardinal, who doesn’t return until the coast is clear. The male Oriole chases away his mate from the orange half he’s enjoying and she flies off to the suet feeder. He decides he wants suet instead and so she goes to the orange until he decides that the orange is his favorite after all…and on and on it goes.

Some states, not mine, are opening up everything, and people are flocking to shops, restaurants, bars, and nail salons, many unmasked, because they say they want to feel “normal” again. My normal is that it will be a while before I am comfortable eating in a restaurant, getting my hair cut, or having a pedicure. I’d like to go to a baseball game, and I’d especially love to embrace my family and snuggle with my granddaughter as she sucks her thumb and fingers her blankie and chats about a friend I don’t know or the bug she found on the ceiling. But right now, normal is in my backyard. It’s chatting with the milkman once a week through a window screen. It’s watching Jeopardy at 7:00 and playing Battleship via Facetime with another granddaughter. It’s texting with my daughters and friends about their days.

This is in no way to say that my life right now is some Xanadu-like existence. Please don’t think I don’t think about the paycheck, or how to put food in the cupboard or pay the phone bill. Normal – no matter how we define it, and whether we like it or not – is fluid. It always has been, but it’s especially fluid now, and we can’t afford to seek the normal we once knew, to look the other way, as though there isn’t a presence looming over us, an invisible “what if.”

Deep breath… It’s so easy to get caught up in all the chaos, noise and chatter, right?

My hope is that, for even a few moments during your days, you can find normal and ordinary in the view of a bird, a social-distancing chat with a friend (or milkman), or even in your own breath.

I really mean this…namaste (you are divine, and don’t let anyone tell you you’re not).

Care in the Time of COVID

In a recent poll,fifty percent of Americans said that the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health. My guess is the percentage is much higher because, you know, denial. “I’m fine!” is our trained response to “How are you?” even when, or perhaps especially when, we ask ourselves.

I’ve been thinking about what it means to care about people in the abstract and people we know up-close and personal, including ourselves, and how we can’t effectively have one without the other. When I saw a recent photo of a large, white (and unmasked) man screaming in the face of a state trooper in Michigan during a protest against government mandates put in place to flatten the curve, my initial response was, Wow, what a jerk! and then, after some time to think, I wondered, What do we have in common?

Take away his disregard for the health and safety of those around him, I saw a person whose actions were motivated by fear (both rational and irrational) and not by an overarching compassion for humanity. “The government can’t tell me what to do!” is not born out of anger. Anger itself originates in fear, and in this case, fear that the government can, and will, tell people what they can do.

There will always be folks who lose their shi*t and those who keep it together no matter what crisis they’re faced with. While I am often the former, I live with the latter, one such folk who keeps it together. Even though Jim feels the underlying emotional impact of the uncertainty right now, and the fear of “What if I get it?” and the economic toll it’s having all around, he expresses his fear by caring about people, not screaming in their face.

Here’s what I mean. You know when you’ve reached the end of your rope and you can’t type another word or read another word or watch another minute of news? I reached that place on Friday. I couldn’t think anymore. I needed to talk to Jim. I slipped on my shoes, grabbed my cane, and started walking across the yard to the garage, gathering emotional steam along the way.

The dog had run out of the door ahead of me and she announced my impending arrival.  Jim appeared in the doorway and his smile quickly turned to concern.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, and all that pent-up fear disguised as anger came tumbling out.

“I miss my kids, I miss my grandkids, my knee hurts, and I’m a horrible writer!”

He wrapped his arms around me and I sobbed into his sweatshirt for what felt like an hour. When I started to pull away, he pulled me closer, and I cried even harder.

“You did the right thing coming out here.” He knows I would stew in silence, or make mountains out of mole hills that had nothing to do with what was really bothering me, kind of like the protester.

We sat down and devised a plan for a social distancing visit with my daughters and the grandkids the next day. There was nothing we could do about my knee except talk about it, but acknowledging that it’s messed up and needs to be replaced helped untangle the abstract fear I have of never walking again. As for being a horrible writer, I know this is not true, but the fear in that statement is that I’m not good enough and that I’ll never be good enough, and saying it out loud lay bare that fear, too.

Listening, saying “I hear you,” can mean so much anytime, but especially now.

It doesn’t mean fears go away just by saying them out loud. But saying them out loud to someone who cares takes them down to their bare bones and they become more manageable. Solutions become more clear. Or if there are no immediate solutions, we can better eke out a way to handle the fear rather than deflecting it on to other people.

I’m heartened to see, in contrast to protesting, so many people demonstrating their care for others through their gifts and talents, their livelihood, and through simple random acts of kindness (even wearing a mask is an act of caring). Something I look forward to almost every evening is poet Billy Collins’s twenty-minute poetry reading/mini lecture on Facebook. Instead of watching it on full screen, I like to read and sometimes participate in the comment conversation that streams up the page. I feel less isolated, even for a short time.

Statistically, half of you are in the pandemic-is-having-a-negative-impact-on-your-mental-health camp. Or as I said earlier, probably more than half. How are you taking care of yourself? That is both a rhetorical question and a genuine inquiry. I might not know you, but I care.

 

A Love That Could Never Be

I didn’t know much about him because I chose not to, but I do know that Lee Wold’s favorite song was “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane. I assumed it was because he heard it on one of several tours of duty as a Green Beret in Vietnam and not because he had tried LSD, but it was only a guess because he didn’t like to talk about Vietnam. The only time he brought it up was when we watched a documentary about the war and he recognized himself – a young, thin man with dark hair and regulation black-rimmed glasses, like many of the man-boys in the film – jumping off a helicopter in a clearing near the jungle. I asked him if he ever killed anyone and he said yes, that was his job, but he didn’t elaborate and I didn’t press him. 

A year before I met him, I was nineteen. I had a baby, and then a few days later my husband died. After the practical dust settled, I found a job pouring 3.2 beer and planting trees at a nine-hole golf course. I tried college for a few months until the bill arrived, and I dropped out and found a job in the mailroom at Musicland’s headquarters. I was still squarely in the midst of grief, but I had done everything I could to run away from it, naive to its power, how it changes shape and beckons you, like a stranger with candy, into its car, and you let it abuse you and take everything and it gives nothing in return. 

My crazy jumpy grab at anything to feel normal again led me to an Advanced First Aid class at the American Red Cross, the first step in fulfilling my childhood dream of being a paramedic, although how practical that was being a single mother and barely twenty years old wasn’t something I considered.

That’s where I met Lee. He was the instructor, a serious man, and handsome in a Mr. Rogers kind of way, only without the smile. Always distant, guarded, and very precise, Lee never joked. Or if he did, you weren’t sure if you should laugh or not. Like Churchill described Russia, Lee was a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. 

The first time he asked me for a date, he was sitting at a table grading tests and I was standing over him, waiting to ask him a question about bandages or CPR or something else that I don’t recall. And I also don’t remember if he looked at me or not, but the question was asked and I felt…even now I can’t find the right word to describe it. Shocked? Confused? Excited? Never mind he was the instructor and shouldn’t have asked a student on a date, but whatever it was I felt, I said OK, and he wrote down my phone number. I didn’t tell him I had a child and he didn’t tell me he was twice my age. 

On the night of our date, he brought me a bright red tropical flower. An anthurium, heanthurium-red called it, from Hawaii, where he was born and raised. I’d never seen such an exotic flower, not in Minnesota in February, and especially not one so boldly sexual.

On my hip was my eleven-month-old daughter. 

“This is Carlene,” I said. 

“She’s beautiful,” he said, smiling at her. He exuded a genuine warmth that no one in class would suspect he possessed when he lectured on wound care or how to rescue someone who was drowning. During the next few months, he fussed over Carlene and me, but I grew increasingly frustrated with his perception of me. For instance, he always told me I had pretty green eyes, but my eyes are mostly blue. Lee saw what he wanted to see, and I couldn’t change that. In the end, I needed an emotional connection he wasn’t able to give, and by the time I learned I was pregnant, we were no longer seeing each other. 

He reluctantly, yet with a sense of obligation, relinquished his parental rights, although I brought Cassie to see him a few times when she was a baby. When she was five, I was remarried and we moved out of state. He got married and had three sons, although he promised his wife he wouldn’t tell them about their sister. I continued to send him photos of her every year, and a few times when I visited Minnesota, we would meet for coffee and I would catch him up on her life. One year he gave me a Pooky plush toy (Garfield the Cat’s teddy bear) and asked me to give it to her. I wasn’t a big Garfield fan, but he and Cassie were. Humor, in this case, was nature, not nurture. 

Lee re-met Cassie when she was sixteen. We agreed to meet at his office, and we spent an hour of uncomfortable moments of him telling Cassie it was my fault he didn’t get to know her, and that he loved her and he loved me and that he always did, like he thought somehow Cassie could heal his heart, if only she could get me to listen to him. We left, exhausted, and his future communications with Cassie were sporadic, and with me even fewer. 

One of the last times I “talked” to Lee was in 2015, when I sent him a text message as I decorated my Christmas tree on Cassie’s birthday, December 12. I was listening to the Moody Blues’ CD December. The song “A Winter’s Tale” reminded me of our relationship, at least from my perspective, and I shared it with him. He wrote back saying he still wished things had been different. I couldn’t share his wish, as I was the one who let us go thirty years earlier and even now wouldn’t change my decision, but I thanked him, as I always did, for our daughter, and told him that I couldn’t imagine life without her. He said neither could he. 

Lee finally told his sons about Cassie, because you know secrets, the big ones don’t stay secret forever. Cassie met them a few years ago, and their love for each other is as genuine as if they’d known each other from the days they were born. Lee seemed happy to have them all together in his house, even though he expressed that happiness in his passive-aggressive, detached way. 

cassboys

Lee died on Friday, alone in a nursing home, but thankfully in his sleep. He hadn’t remembered anyone or anything for several months. He took with him secrets no one could unearth, and emotions he couldn’t share. But I know for certain that he loved his daughter, his sons, and me in his own enigmatic way that we will never fully understand. May he finally find that peace that was stolen from him years ago, and rest knowing that we loved him, too. 

 

Let’s Do the Time Warp. A Photo Time Warp.

Over the last several weekends, I’ve been (finally) sorting through photos from each of my daughters’ photo albums, the ones I started when they were born. When they grew up and moved into places that weren’t dorms or student housing, I gave each of them their photo album, then in late 2018, they gave them back to me because I promised to have them digitized. They sat in a box in the garage until…well, let’s just say right now I have no excuse not to get this project done.

As of today, I’ve sorted through each photo, and in the process, I came up with my own weird Dewey Decimal System for categorizing them. What is abundantly clear is that for every one photo of Cassie alone (the younger), there are five of Carlene (the older). Part of the reason is the wholly different circumstances in which they came into this world (see “Twin Daughters of Different Fathers”), but mostly it’s because, like many parents, second children – when they are young, at least – simply aren’t photographed alone as often as their older sibling was. Besides, even if I wanted to take a picture of just one, they were almost always together.

Kids3
Carlene (left), 4 and Cassie, 2

It’s not just faces in photos that make them special or memorable. In one photo I found, my mother – who is talking to someone outside the frame – is holding one-year-old Carlene on her lap in my grandmother’s apartment. They are formally dressed. There’s an unlit cigarette in an ashtray on the kitchen table and a bit of red wine in a water tumbler. I know it’s wine because it’s next to my mother. Within the frame is the side of Grandma’s refrigerator, decorated with cactus and cowboy magnets, gifts no doubt from her sister, my great-aunt Martha, who wintered every year in Arizona. I was able to deduce that the photo was taken in February 1984 on the weekend of my grandma’s eightieth birthday celebration. My dad and his brother, her only children, bought her a curio cabinet and each of us grandchildren and grgirlpigeat-grandchildren – about 10 of us at the time – bought her curios. I remember I chose a small figurine of a child dressed in coveralls and riding a pig. My husband had died the year before and I wanted something that represented the memory of us: Carlene, him and me raising pigs on a farm not far from my grandmother’s apartment. This memory led me to eBay and to the exact figurine and $7.50 (including shipping) later…it will be here on Friday.

Just as one photo can make you smile, another can bring up a worry you’ll never forget. This is definitely one of them:

CarleneBurn

My little sister, who was nine, is holding up Carlene, who was about fourteen months, on her bike. Notice the thick bandage on little Carlene’s hand. A few days before, I was in the bathroom putting on makeup while my curling iron heated up. Carlene toddled in, and before I knew she was there, she grabbed the curling iron. Just typing that makes me sick to my stomach. She screamed, I screamed. I grabbed her and ran to the kitchen to put her hand under cool running water. As she cried, I called the pediatrician’s office (I’m surprised they could hear a thing I was saying) and they told me to put her hand in ice water and get her to their office as soon as possible.

When we got there, Carlene was staring out the window, and her cries were now a staccato-breath whimper. The doctor carefully opened her hand and the poor thing had first and second degree burns on her palm and halfway up her little thumb and index finger. I didn’t cry because I didn’t want to scare Carlene any more than she was, but I assure you I felt like the worst mother in the history of motherhood. In the days that followed I didn’t let her out of my sight, and she fell asleep in my arms every night to me whispering “I’m sorry.”

Looking at so many photos is bound to send anyone down a few rabbit holes and into a time warp coma. But going through my girls’ photos has helped focus my attention, if even for a few hours, on a time that wasn’t always perfect, but isn’t right now.

Kids5
Oh, the cuteness!