December, Dermo and Dormancy

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You might think that excellent reports on a Monday from my cardiologist (“your blood pressure is good; your heart is strong; come back to see me in eight or nine months”) and gastroenterologist (“the polyps we removed during your colonoscopy were benign”) would be cause for celebration. You would be wrong.

At the end of the first Monday in December, I didn’t feel happy or relieved. I found myself in a funk. That’s because my dermatologist called on the same 3D-December Monday (cardio, gastro and dermo, oh my!) to confirm “the biopsy showed that you have  a patch of invasive squamous cell carcinoma on your left hand.”

Oh well, two out of three ain’t bad.

After I got off the phone with a skin cancer specialist, who explained the treatment options and assured me that my condition isn’t life threatening, Tom held my hand. He told me more of what I needed to hear. That everything will be okay. That we will get through this latest blip together. That it’s nothing compared with what happened in St. Louis on July 6, 2017. All for the chance to start a new life in a warmer home. To explore our sixties in the wide-open west of possibilities.

After all of this Monday mayhem, I needed to salvage some semblance of normalcy to the day. I needed to feel the fresh, creosote-laced air racing through my lungs. So I took a long walk alone. Along the cross-cut canal. Past the Papago buttes. Five thousand steps on a sunny-but-gauzy day restored my hope. It gave me comfort to see that none of the elements (not sun, not wind or rain) had affected these giant boulders. They were here long before me. Skin cancer or not, they will stand long after I’m gone.

In a separate attempt to rescue my day, I returned home to move our desert roses (aka adeniums). It was time to bring them inside to prepare for dormancy. I do this every December. I suppose, unlike the buttes, all of us living creatures need a little protection from the elements on certain days. Time to retreat. No water. No sun. Time to rest. Time to heal and rejuvenate.

Now it’s Tuesday. December continues in the Sonoran Desert. The sun is casting long shadows at sharp December angles. The adeniums are beginning their winter slumber in our sun room. Their leaves will fall soon and their branches will be bare. But new leaves will reappear in the spring after I carry my favorite desert flowers back outside to feel the warmth of the sun. To grow and bloom again.

Next Monday I will begin my own version of winter dormancy. It will be flecked with cancer treatments and holiday gatherings. Rather than surgery, I’ve opted for twenty pain-free sessions of superficial radiotherapy over the next several weeks. The procedure has a ninety-five-plus percent cure rate.

This course of action will allow me to continue my normal day-to-day activities … writing and exercising … and sing in two holiday concerts with the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus on December 14 and 15. Being on stage and performing alongside my gay friends will bring me joy. Tom will be in the audience. My son Nick will be too, along with his girlfriend Aida, her two children and about a dozen other friends I didn’t know in 2017.

Late in January 2020, I expect to receive good news from my dermatologist. Something positive and life affirming. Something like what the cardio and gastro folks have already told me. Perhaps that the Superficial Radiotherapy Treatments (SRT) have fully eradicated the skin cancer cells on my left hand.

Whatever transpires, I am a fortunate guy. Tom and I will begin a new decade in our Arizona home. Faithfully smearing on sunscreen and wearing broad-brimmed hats. Continuing to follow all of our doctors’ orders. Writing, healing and growing together. Watching our desert roses bloom and fade in our less-than-certain sixties.

What more could I ask for?

Flickers and Fedoras

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I wince when wires obstruct the buttes before me. I suppose it’s a part of life I must endure. Just like the car alarm blaring outside my backdoor as I write this sentence. It supersedes the mockingbird I prefer.

Even worse, the woman walking her fluffy dogs in the park. She ruins the encounter by wearing a red cap I can’t stomach. The same slogan is emblazoned on the canines’ collars. I’m too angry to make eye contact with her. I prefer a campaign to Make Red Hats Wearable Again.

Life is filled with such irritations. Yet, as November winds down and we Americans prepare to gather around tables of all shapes and sizes to proclaim our thankfulness with too much turkey, stuffing, football, pie and impeachment controversy, I am grateful for other things.

Certainly, I am fortunate to have the love and companionship of my husband. Both of my sons are finding full and meaningful lives. I live in a country (admittedly, one deeply divided right now) where I can express my opinions freely. In my sixties, I’ve discovered new friends and reliable doctors in a warm community. I have health coverage and a comfortable home. Many people don’t.

I’m also thankful for the little surprises that appear out of the blue. Like the gilded flicker I spotted during my walk along the canal. This large woodpecker, complete with a splash of red rouge on either side of his head, is native to the Sonoran Desert. In the stillness, he perched high above me on a branch for a full minute on Friday and looked down as if to say “You’d better pay attention to me. This is the good stuff of life.” So I did.

Then on Sunday. Another rare sight to behold. Tom and I were writing and reading in a local coffee shop when a handsome man entered wearing a black fedora. (Actually, handsome men aren’t rare in Scottsdale, Arizona. But fedora sightings are.)

According to the website “History of Hats”, this wide-brimmed hat made of felt first appeared in 1882 in the production of a play called “Fedora” by the French author Victorien Sardou. It was designed for actress Sarah Bernhardt. Over time, the hat became popular for women’s rights activists.

After 1924, fedoras were adopted by men as a fashion statement because Prince Edward of Britain started wearing them.  Somehow, soon after, they appeared on gangsters during Prohibition in the United States. In the 1940s and 1950s, you saw fedoras everywhere on the heads of manly men on stage and in noir films (Frank Sinatra and Humphrey Bogart). After that, the fedora fad faded. Informal clothing won the day.

In November 2019, without warning, one snazzy fedora resurfaced on the noggin of a smart citizen in a Scottsdale, Arizona coffee shop. Though I was pleasantly surprised, I was also observant enough to spot it in a sea of ordinary western, baseball and stocking caps.

Flickers and fedoras. I have so much to be thankful for.

A Fateful Friday Fifty-Six Years Ago

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For all of his eighty-five years, S.R. Ferrell lived an ordinary and unassuming twentieth-century rural life. Before the first rays of sunlight emerged each morning, my grandfather rose to milk the cows, tend to his crops, and complete a never-ending list of chores on his Huntersville, North Carolina farm. Every night before bed, until the day he died in 1985, the stoic farmer recorded his brief thoughts about the day (like the pages you see here from 1962).

Five years ago, as I perused his diary entries and told the story of my hard-working grandfather in From Fertile Ground, I discovered that many of the things S.R. wrote were rather mundane. But, every once in a while, I unearthed a hidden gem. A startling first-hand account of a momentous day in American history. Ironically, my grandfather was sixty-two … the same age I am today … when he wrote the following on November 22, 1963. It was a fateful Friday. Exactly fifty-six years ago.

***

I went to pasture to work up some wood and haul it to the house. Mr. and Mrs. P.E. Miller came this morning to get some strawberry plants. Then they went on to Charlotte. I hauled more wood in the afternoon.

President Kennedy, 46, was assassinated at twelve o’clock noon in Dallas, Texas. Lyndon Johnson is now president.

Partly cloudy. Warm. 56 degree low. 77 degree high.

***

While S.R. Ferrell was toiling on his farm in Huntersville and John Fitzgerald Kennedy was dying in Dallas, I was an innocent six-year-old schoolboy in suburban St. Louis in November 1963. Probably sitting at my first grade desk practicing my spelling.

I remember my teacher crying in the front of the classroom that day. As she tried to compose herself, she told us school would end early. Soon after, we filed to the cloak room to put on our jackets. We boarded our buses for our respective homes.

That weekend, I sat glued to the floor in front of our family’s black-and-white TV and watched Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald. And, in the horrific and historic days that followed, JFK’s three-year-old son saluted his father’s passing, flag-draped casket. That image may have been the most mournful of all.

We’ll never know how the world would have evolved if JFK had lived to write another chapter in American history. But somehow the world kept spinning and S.R. Ferrell kept writing. And I have the comfort of knowing that my grandfather’s account of November 22, 1963 is forever chronicled in Chapter 39 of From Fertile Ground. You’ll find it on page 157 of my first book.

 

 

Sunday in the Garden

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I found her there. Perching precariously on the tip of a branch. Pausing between blurs. Anna’s Hummingbird in profile. Protected by the boughs. Far from lies, denials and assaults. Nature’s truth, peace, hope and gentility. Carefully preserved. Free for one more day. Safe on a Sunday in the garden.

Cardio and Dermo and Gastro, Oh My!

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It’s a frightful moment from the classic 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy and Toto are flanked by the Tin Man and the Scarecrow. The new friends are stepping ahead. Walking down the yellow brick road. Making their way toward Oz. Preparing to cross a dense forest. Suddenly aware of previously unforeseen dangers. Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

I can’t imagine a more perfect metaphor for life in your sixties. You’ve earned every bit of progress along the yellow brick road with the ones you love at your side. You can see the trees before you on the path you’ve chosen. But collectively the tall, sturdy and majestic trees form a dense forest. It’s often beautiful. Sometimes daunting. It can cloud your ability to know what’s coming next. Without notice, you find yourself fending off all sorts of maladies. Cardio and Dermo and Gastro, Oh My!

Quickly, you discover how important it is to build trusting relationships with crackerjack doctors and specialists. In my case, this happened in a new city. I still remember the first step. Tom and I had just left St. Louis in July 2017. While he drove us to our new home in Arizona, I sat on the passenger side with two fresh stents in the left side of my heart and a brand new cell phone in my right hand.  From somewhere in Oklahoma, I was calling potential cardiologists in Scottsdale, Arizona. Searching to find the right person to help me recover from a mild heart attack.

That was just the beginning. Eventually, I found the right guy. He was covered under my new insurance plan through the Affordable Care Act (thank you, Barack Obama). I see him (not Barack … my cardiologist) and my primary care doctor every six months.

But I don’t like playing favorites. Since then, I’ve also found a dentist, ophthalmologist, dermatologist and gastroenterologist to round out my preventive healthcare SWAT team, poke me in uncomfortable ways on a frequent basis, and brighten my days. I believe they are all doing their best to keep me healthy for another day. Another year. Hopefully two or three more decades of moving down the yellow brick road in Scottsdale.

You can see why I identify with Dorothy’s dilemma. Of course, I try to relax, remain optimistic and mindful in the face of a family history of heart disease and the latest colonoscopy results. That’s why, beyond the positive effects of my regular exercise routine (walking, hiking, treadmill, stationary bike, elliptical, swimming) Tom and I participate in a “gentle yoga” class every Friday morning.

This morning, when I approached the mirror on the wall in the room at the Scottsdale Senior Center where the yoga magic happens, I saw two familiar faces on either side. Nancy, one of my new Scottsdale friends, on the left. Tom, my husband, on the right.

We each stretched our muscles. We assumed our tree poses. We did our best to stand tall in the unknown forest. To find our edge against all odds. To push our limits without wavering on the yellow brick road of life.

 

 

Oh Very Young and Less Fortunate Men

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At this stage of life, I have more time and space to reflect on the fragility and inequities of life. When I hit the trail for a hike or catch a glimpse of the jagged edges of Camelback Mountain, I sometimes ponder the plights of less fortunate men and less developed versions of the man I’ve become.

Recently, without notice, a Sonoran time machine swooped down and transported me from the desert. Back to south suburban St. Louis and my blue-denim-bell-bottom memories. Jerry and Joey (not their real names) lived near me on the same cul-de-sac street and the Oh Very Young prognostications of Cat Stevens looped through my brain.

Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?

You’re only dancin’ on this earth for a short while …

It was a weekend morning in the spring of 1974. I sat at the kitchen table, finishing up my last few bites of scrambled eggs and toast. My over-worked and under-appreciated mother washed the breakfast dishes. Over one shoulder, she blurted a provocative and unexpected question in my direction: “Mark, did you know Jerry is a practicing homosexual?”

Like most teens, I was bound up with insecurity. If I’d been less repressed, more freewheeling—or at sixteen had an ounce of awareness or comfort with my budding gayness—the idea of “practice” sex with an older boy down the street would have intrigued me. But at that moment I had no clue how to respond to my mother’s audacious question. I just shrugged my shoulders and muttered something like “Yeah, I think I’ve heard he might be.”

It didn’t occur to me that she might be fishing to learn about my sexuality. I just knew Jerry’s mother had died when he was young and his father, brothers and sisters had been left to make sense of her early exit. Whenever I walked by the front of their home, I saw the heaviness of their hearts had caused the foundation and the trees around it to sag.

I’ve written a lot about my mother. She was smart, resilient and courageous. Many years later, she left me with her legacy of wise letters. But back in the 1970s, we weren’t approaching that. We were nearly three decades away from the profound sense of respect and understanding we would construct during her eighties and I would witness  the love and deep regard she felt for my future husband and me.

Anyway, in the 1970s I was a withdrawn teen and she hadn’t yet sharpened her sensitivity. More specifically, like most parents then (and sadly many now), the implications of homosexuality and the image of two men engaged in mutually satisfying love frightened her. The word homosexual cast a shadow of shame, discomfort, darkness and isolation. Of course, without knowing it, I was absorbing the uninformed views about gay people coming through all sorts of channels–parents and neighbors, aunts and uncles, classmates and coaches, media and popular culture, etc. 

I will never forget that trauma. Pushed and bullied down middle school hallways. Labeled a faggot for wearing my favorite purple sweater vest, a gift from my mother. As you might surmise, I learned it was best not to wear purple or pink or challenge society’s narrow mold of masculinity in the 1970s. It would take decades for me to love myself and create an unapologetic life as a gay man comfortable in pastels.

This is a prelude to tell you that, in addition to my personal sexual identity struggles, I felt sad and angry hearing and seeing Jerry and other young gay men ostracized for their nature, mannerisms and social awkwardness.

I don’t know where Jerry lives or anything about his adult life in 2019. But I now realize Jerry was a trailblazer. I owe a lot to the Jerrys of that time. Despite neighborhood chatter and suspicions, they were courageous enough to risk ridicule. To be true to themselves in the 1970s.

***

The story of Joey has nothing to do with societal pressures, sexuality or suburban mores. It’s a cataclysmic tragedy.

Joey was the blonde boy who lived next door. We were the same age. As youngsters, from kindergarten through fifth grade we waited for the same bus at the end of our street. He loved to roughhouse with his golden retriever when he came home from school. In sixth grade—lunch boxes in hand—we walked together to a new elementary school, built to handle the overflow of Baby Boomers.

Throughout the 1960s, once school ended in June, Joey and I raced to the top of the street with our  neighborhood crew to play baseball in a vacant cemetery lot. We stayed there until our mothers or fathers stood on their front porches, cupped their hands to their mouths, and called our names for dinner.

In high school, Joey and I went our separate ways. I didn’t feel our connection any more. He was a mechanical guy. I wasn’t. I had a knack for stringing words together. He didn’t. He loved tinkering under cars. I loved singing on stage. While he developed a passion for playing the drums, my interest in the clarinet waned. In August of 1975, we continued down divergent paths. We left home for college at different Missouri schools.

Through it all, I felt no physical attraction for Joey, but I envied his apparently idyllic Please-Don’t-Eat-the-Daisies family life. Complete with the faux-wood-paneled Country Squire station wagon parked in their driveway, which I watched them load annually for summer vacations. Joey’s family seemed to embody the ideal of suburban happiness:  two friendly and well-liked parents, two popular daughters who went on to become cheerleaders, two masculine and mechanically-inclined sons.

On a horrific Saturday in May 1976, everything changed. I came home from my seasonal job as a roller coaster operator at Six Flags and found my mother sobbing on the living room couch. She told me Joey had been killed in an accident. He was riding shotgun without a seat belt on the way home from his first year at college when the car he was in collided with another vehicle.

Spring flowers were blooming outside that day, but inside I was numb and devastated like everyone on our block. One cruel moment had ended Joey’s life and transformed his family’s home from the center of happiness into the epicenter of grief.

A few days later my mother, father, sister and I attended Joey’s wake. I didn’t know what to say to his bereaved father and mother. But I summoned a few inadequate words and gripped their brittle arms as we passed a pair of drum mallets stretched across Joey’s closed casket. It was frightening evidence of teenage mortality.

In 1980, I moved to the Chicago area. Whenever I returned to St. Louis to visit my parents and boyhood home, I thought of Joey and his family. Scampering in their yard with their dog as they prepared to load up their station wagon for the next trip. When Joey died, that era ended. Soon after, the rest of the family moved away.

Forty years have come and gone. Joey is on my mind again.  Perhaps because he didn’t live long enough to pursue the next path at the base of rugged buttes. His Oh Very Young life ended back in the rolling Missouri hills without any chance to explore the west or have a spouse to share it.

Somehow, through good fortune, I’ve lapped his lifespan more than three times. After surviving a heart attack on my sixtieth birthday, I’m rounding the bend on the fourth lap here in Arizona.

For all the Jerrys and Joeys who have come and gone, I must keep telling my stories. I must make the most of the extra time I’ve been granted.

Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?

For All the Soldiers on the Hill

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Every year at this time thoughts of my father resurface. Mostly because Veterans Day is drawing near. Dad served during World War II in the Battle of the Bulge. But also because he died in the eleventh month of the year. A second heart attack took him on November 26, 1993. It was the day after Thanksgiving nearly twenty-six years ago.

Now that I live in Arizona, it’s less convenient for me to visit Walter Johnson’s grave at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery south of St. Louis. But I have no difficulty summoning vivid recollections of him from afar.

I remember a tender moment between us sometime in the 1980s when he asked me if I liked the idea of him one day being buried in a national cemetery alongside other soldiers who’d served during the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War. (Unfortunately, the list goes on.) I told him I thought it would be the perfect, peaceful resting place for him. A proud patriot. A man who loved his country. A citizen who served it to the best of his ability.

Over the years, I’ve been inspired to tell Dad’s story. This unfulfilled poet of good intentions–this complicated, compassionate and troubled comrade, deeply affected by the horrors of war and bipolar disorder–appears in all three of my books in various forms.

Recently, I came across a poem in a file of prose I’ve written over the past thirty years. At the time I penned this one in 1996, my grief for Walter Johnson was fresh. I had just visited his grave. I was searching for answers. Still reeling from my failed first marriage. Doing my best to raise two young sons. Finally coming out of the closet. Beginning to connect the disparate strands of my emerging life.

As it turns out, the passage of time (along with greater understanding, acceptance and forgiveness) helped me heal my wounds, find my path, and build an integrated life. I’m thankful for that eventual transformation. Walter wouldn’t have understood all of it, but he would have kissed me on the forehead and loved me anyway. He would have cheered me on during these late-in-life writing years I’ve been fortunate to find.

I’m grateful for the poetic propensity that came from this one particular soldier. Yes, he is long gone. His physical remains rest under the shade of a large tree not far from the banks of the Mississippi River. But his imperfect imprint will always appear in my writing. This is for him.

***

The Soldier on the Hill

I talked with the soldier on the hill today,

We sat, we cried, we laughed, we prayed.

The bells rang true, the trees stood free,

A breeze swept past to welcome me.

 

Shadows filled the landscape then,

Tempers rose without his pen.

Snowflakes fell, the grass turned green,

All without a change of scene.

 

Now the soldier rests with them,

Hand in hand—all blessed again.

They greet another trailing soul,

Who makes the journey past the knoll.

 

August 27, 1996

***

More broadly, I’m thankful for all of the soldiers on the hill. Many of them lost their lives in battle and had little or no time to discover a path or realize their dreams. We must always honor their service and sacrifices, past and present.