Love and loss are universal human conditions. If we feel the first, we can’t escape the grief associated with the second.
I wrote You Everlasting in December 2009. It was a gift for my eighty-six-year-old mother.
I remember the surprise and delight on her face that Christmas Eve, after she slowly unwrapped the framed contents in tissue paper cradled in her lap.
“You wrote me a poem,” she said quietly.
In 2016, three years after she passed, I published the poem in From Fertile Ground. It is a book inspired and informed by grief.
Today, on the tenth anniversary of Helen F. Johnson’s death, the time is right to share it again.
The imagery of flowers, trees, and animals comforts me. The verse provides much-needed continuity from her past existence to the reflections and influences that live on inside me.
The poem reminds me of that wise, nature-loving woman, who carved a resilient path for me to follow.
I still feel her presence today and can smile with the knowledge that, though she left on a frigid-in-Illinois, January morning in 2013, I carry the warm memories of her in my Arizona desert life in 2023.
Perhaps these words will prompt memories of your own loved ones, who are gone but never forgotten.
You are the comfort of nature. Eternally pressed.
The first magnolia petal of spring.
The last gingko leaf of autumn.
The determined orchid that flourishes.
The lingering annual that endures. Perennial.
You are high and low tide. Remarkably present.
The hidden, tranquil meadow.
The crackle and thump of fresh melon.
The dancing firefly in a warm Carolina sky.
The soulful howl of a January hound waiting by the gate. Undeniable.
You are the simplest wisdom. Gracefully proud.
The tender touch of summer days that melt but never fade.
The breaking dawn of blues and greens forever in my memories.
The resilient path carved and captured in my heart.
I take a blood thinner; therefore, I bruise easily.
So, for instance, if I’m putting away dishes in our cupboard after dinner and bump the top of my hand on the corner of the cabinet, I am sure to leave that mundane household experience with a souvenir–an immediate red patch that will last a few days in the afflicted area.
I haven’t always been ultra-self-conscious about the condition of my extremities. It’s only lately–in my sixties with thinner skin on my thinner body–that I’ve become aware of my aging hands and, of course, my mortality. They go hand in hand.
Since I’m a writer and rely on my fingers, wrists, and hands to write these sentences on my laptop, I’m fortunate not to have arthritis in my joints–in my hands.
My sister Diane seems to be the one in our family who has inherited that painful component of our mother’s DNA. Particularly in her hips, knees, and feet.
Diane is sixty-eight-years old. She doesn’t read what I write. We live seventeen hundred miles apart. She in Illinois. Me in Arizona.
Even so, I love my sister. I always have and will. Tom and I visited her and Steve (Diane’s husband) for an afternoon last October while we were in the Chicago area. In this age of Covid, we recounted all the things we are thankful for.
Diane will always be my only sibling, my only big sister. We talk and text occasionally. I worry about Diane’s physical wellness and longevity. We’re the only two remaining in our family of origin, since Mom passed away ten years ago.
Diane also is the only other person who remembers the nuances of our St. Louis childhood, our homelife (good, bad, and indifferent), our difficult plight as a family after Dad’s heart attack in 1962, our mother’s resolve in her fifties and fragility in her eighties, our mother’s aging hands.
I came across this photo of Mom’s folded hands from Christmas Eve 2008. That night, we gathered at Diane’s home in Illinois to celebrate the holiday and open gifts. Mom would live to share another four Christmases with us.
It’s a cropped image and not the clearest, but when I saw it, I was reminded of Mom’s age spots and blemishes that grew with the passage of time on her fair, loose, thin skin. The rough patches on her hard-working hands go back in time to her rural southern roots in High Point, North Carolina, and fifty years in St. Louis, Missouri, which I chronicle in From Fertile Ground.
In her final nine years living in northern Illinois, our mother had this habit of clutching a tissue in her palms. She often hid an auxiliary one in the arm of her blouse or sweater. If you look closely, you can see it peeking out of the sleeve of her heather-flecked turtleneck.
These are the little personal idiosyncrasies that only a sibling would remember. They don’t matter in the grander scheme of things, but they do when it’s your mother and you still love and miss her after ten years of living without her. And you realize that your own mortality creeps ever closer with every blogpost.
Sure, I stay active–mentally and physically–and will continue to mount the treadmill several times each week to keep my heart strong.
But there is no denying the evolving appearance of my spotted, aging hands. They are looking more like my mother’s every day.
On March 25, 2023, I will participate in the Phoenix-area Heart Walk, sponsored by the American Heart Association.
If you follow my blog, you know I am a heart attack survivor. You may not know that both of my parents died of heart disease: Mom on January 26, 2013 (almost ten years ago); Dad on November 26, 1993 (nearly thirty years ago). Both Helen and Walter appear frequently in my published stories.
Obviously, heart disease is personal for me and millions of American families. I hope you will consider making a donation to support ground-breaking research that keeps hearts beating and enables other unsuspecting victims of heart disease and stroke (like me) live longer and write new chapters.
As an added incentive, if you click the link below and donate $30 to the American Heart Association, I will sign and send any two of my books (your choice) to you. I’ll pay the postage and include two of my personalized bookmarks.
Nearly ten years have passed since she passed January 26, 2013.
As this seismic anniversary of my mother’s death approaches, I feel a degree of grief’s numbness reappearing.
The time is right for me to sprinkle this space with reflections on Helen F. Johnson’s life: how much I loved her; what I learned from her; and why I still miss her.
I watched my mother grow in wisdom and shrink in physical presence–simultaneously–in her final ten years.
In those poetic moments–especially 2004 to 2009 when we visited at her condo in Winfield, Illinois–the two observations felt incongruent as we sat side by side on a park bench reflecting on her love of family, nature, photography, and letter writing.
But they don’t anymore.
Now that I’ve surpassed the midpoint of my sixties–favoring the quietest moments of life over all the rest–I see and feel the same transformation happening within me.
I’m far more inclined to record the moments that happen around me, because–like her–I have the time and the interest. She has left me an invaluable gift: a recognizable path and impulse to emulate.
My life has changed immensely since she died. I’ve retired from corporate life, married Tom, moved across the country, survived a heart attack, lost forty pounds, written four books, endured Covid, and built a new life in the desert.
Yet, it is when Tom and I spend time with my sons Nick and Kirk–her only grandchildren–that I am most aware of how long she has been gone and how much she loved us all.
They were both in their twenties in 2013. Searching. Unsettled. Preparing to launch. On the cusp of new personal discoveries and adventures. Since that time, they’ve traveled, found new loves, new jobs, new homes.
Kirk is now nearly 34; Nick almost 39. How she–a lover of plants and trees–would have loved learning that her oldest grandson stopped by our condo last Friday to pluck grapefruits, oranges, lemons, and tangelos from our citrus trees.
Or that Nick coached a Boys and Girls Club basketball team last year.
Or that Kirk traveled to Vanuatu with the Peace Corps in 2014 and more recently has found his counseling stride in a small practice in Chicago … helping patients who’ve experienced some sort of trauma.
Over this past weekend, Tom and I watched Milo and Miley (a friend’s two Shih Tzus) again.
The dogs are sweet, lovable characters. But I needed a little time to escape on Sunday to my thoughts and devices. So, I drove to Chaparral Park and walked around the lake for about an hour.
As I rounded a bend of pine trees which Tom and I love, I spotted an older man. He sat quiet, content, and alone on a park bench.
Seeing him reminded me of the moments my mother cherished in her eighties, pondering the world from a park bench. She could simply sit, enjoy the shade of the trees, read the newspaper or gaze at passersby.
Or she could wonder about the lives of her children and grandchildren … long after she was gone.
It’s been another challenging year for many. We won’t soon forget the previous twelve months … brimming with health concerns, natural disasters, social upheaval, global traumas, political shenanigans, and inflationary woes.
Why not end 2022–or start 2023–on a positive note with a light-hearted escape? From now until January 2, for only ninety-nine cents, you can download a copy of my book Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator on Amazon.
It’s a universal collection of tales that focuses on my love of family and pop culture. A nostalgic series of twenty-six funny and poignant essays about growing up in St. Louis in the 1960s and 1970s.
The final story in the book, A New Year Resolution, fills me with hope and the warm, comforting possibilities of life even after seemingly awful things happen.
I wrote it as a testament to the good citizenship of my father and mother, who did the right thing on a cold January morning more than sixty years ago.
Everybody’s waitin’ for the man with the bag, cause Christmas is comin’ again.
I’ll be singing this lyrical line with my Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus mates this Saturday and Sunday on stage in Tempe, Arizona at the Galvin Playhouse. (Go to http://www.phxgmc.org for tickets.)
“Man With The Bag” is a jazzy, Christmas mash-up, artfully arranged by David Maddux. It’s the second number of Act II, a mix of frolicking, silky, reflective, fun, inspiring, and sometimes-bawdy music in our “Twas the Night Before Christmas” show.
If I sound excited, I am. This will be my thirteenth consecutive holiday concert: seven with Windy City Gay Chorus in Chicago; six here in Phoenix.
Singing Christmas music in my fifties and sixties with two diverse community choruses of gay men has somehow rekindled the wonder and anticipation of my childhood.
Close your eyes and travel back in time. Music or not, you remember that giddy Christmas feeling.
For me, it happened annually with my sister Diane. Decades before the advent of fake news, we stood on opposite ends of our fake, cardboard fireplace in suburban St. Louis. No doubt, as we posed for this photo, Perry Como crooned a holiday tune on the hi-fi.
Anyway, in December 1962–yikes, sixty years ago–we were waitin’ for the man with the bag in the dining room of our modest brick home without an actual fireplace. But that didn’t deter our keen imaginations or exuberance. In fact, it nurtured them.
I don’t know what happened to that fabulous fireplace I leaned against years ago. I doubt that it survived to see 1970.
But Diane and I are still here. Yes, much older and definitely wiser. She lives in Wheaton, Illinois, with her husband; I live in Scottsdale, Arizona, with mine.
I mailed a small box of gifts to her recently, and her package will arrive here before Christmas. But it is the gifts of music and memory that I cherish today … and the thought of just the two of us–way back when–waitin’ for the man with the bag.
The Thanksgiving holiday weekend in the U.S. is winding down. All over America, houseguests are preparing to pack their bags, return home, and file away memories of time with friends and family.
Our three-day adventure with Milo and Miley in our Scottsdale condo is drawing to a close. While our friend Austin visited family in Colorado, his lovable, ever-licking Shih Tzu pups followed us around the house, slept with us, tumbled on the floor, paraded on leashes near ripening fruit on citrus trees, and–occasionally–barked at passersby.
They even got to meet and play with Kirk and Nick my thirty-something sons, who joined Tom and me on Thursday for turkey, green beans, mashed sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, apple crisp, and World Cup viewing/prognosticating in our humble abode.
To be sure, the holidays are all about family. I’m thankful Tom and I had time with my sons. But it’s also about the furry friends (permanent or otherwise) that grace our lives, make us laugh, wake us at 5:30 … and even attempt to practice morning yoga before they return to the comfort and familiarity of their forever home.
Miley and Milo couldn’t quite get the hang of downward facing dog, but they sure enjoyed licking my face while I stretched on our sunroom floor.
It wasn’t an unpleasant sound that stirred my brain before 5 a.m. It was a light desert wind filtering through our tubular chimes that woke and evoked me and distant sounds. Reassuring, comforting ones from suburban St. Louis.
Mom was always the first one up.
From my middle bedroom–a connecting space with two doors wedged between the hall and kitchen–I could hear her creaking on linoleum, shuffling in slippers, opening drawers, turning on the dial to the radio, reaching into the refrigerator, sizzling bacon in a skillet, placing the kettle on the stove, and pouring hot water over a teaspoon or two of instant coffee.
Then, at night–when the day was done–it was the splash of rain and swirling sensation of fallen leaves on the metal awning outside my bedroom window that soothed me. Or Happy’s soulful howl, craning his neck as he responded to the calls of other dogs in the neighborhood.
As I huddled under the covers on a twin bed, these sounds beckoned me to sleep. Now, as I remember them and write about them on my laptop, they exist and endure.
Certainly, the memory of them gets richer because they have been gone longer. They rise to the top like the cream of milk, while what happened yesterday might easily be forgotten tomorrow.
I would be lost if I couldn’t listen and remember the sounds of the past. In the moment they were invisible, fleeting footprints. But they echo in my thankful memory … lasting reminders of the texture, meaning, depth, people, and love I hear and remember.
It was laundry day. So, this morning, Tom and I grabbed our pouch of wooden clothespins and walked five hundred steps or so to the landing behind our condo clubhouse.
For the next five minutes–shielding our eyes from the penetrating sun–we stood on the concrete there, hanging our just-washed, delicate shorts and shirts on the community clothesline to dry in the desert breeze.
Call me old fashioned. But I don’t mind doing this. In fact, I enjoy it. Especially as fall approaches and the air begins to cool.
More important, the plastic-coated clothesline connects my present life to my past. It represents the resiliency I’ve watched, absorbed, and carried forward.
It reminds me of the family members I’ve lost, but still love, and the survival instincts they instilled in me sixty years ago. What follows are excerpts from my book, Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator.
It was my second week of kindergarten, and I was just beginning to adjust to a new routine. On a warm and breezy mid-September afternoon in 1962–September 13 to be exact–I left my Mesnier School classroom and stepped aboard my regular bus for the trip home.
Within ten minutes, the driver arrived at the top of South Yorkshire Drive. She opened the door and several of us scampered down the stairs. I waved goodbye to a few remaining classmates still on board.
The driver closed the louvered door and pushed ahead. I meandered home. It was no more than a five-minute walk up our block and our driveway. Then, in an instant, a breathtaking late summer day transformed into an early fall for our family.
I saw my mother standing just beyond the backyard gate. She was wearing a sundress, lost in thought, uncoiling clean, damp towels and sheets from a laundry basket. Happy, our beagle-mixed hound, was out of reach too. He was sniffing the ground and frolicking miles away, it seemed, along the back fence.
“Your father’s had a heart attack.” Mom recited her words slowly and deliberately, like a woman treading deep water searching for a longer breath.
I didn’t comprehend what she had to say. But it couldn’t be good news, I thought as she plucked wooden clothespins from a pouch. She was working to keep her ragged emotions and the flapping sheets in check, preparing to clip wet linens to parallel plastic-encased clotheslines that stretched east and west across our yard.
Soon we walked into the house with our empty white-lattice basket, and I learned more. Dad had become ill on day two of his new job as a porter at McDonnell-Douglas. He was helping a coworker lift an airplane nosecone. Suddenly, he felt a sharp pain in his chest. He was rushed to Deaconess Hospital on Oakland Avenue near Forest Park. That’s where he would recuperate for the next month …
Each time we visited Dad, he was bedridden. I couldn’t comprehend what could keep my father lying in one location for so long–unable to toss horseshoes, fly kites, or drive us to parades or ballgames. But Dad insisted he would rebound.
Like the popular song from Bye Bye Birdie that played on the transistor radio near his bedside, Dad told me, “Son, I’ve Got a Lot of Living to Do.”
The next decade was difficult for our family. Watching Dad drift away physically and emotionally, filled me with anxiety. He never recovered fully, though the man who fought in World War II and the Battle of the Bulge soldiered on until his death in 1993.
Meanwhile, my mother kept our family afloat financially. She went back to work in March 1963 and did her best to balance life at home and in the office. When she died in 2013, she left behind a legacy of wisdom that I cherish and share.
Watching my parents toil produced a silver lining. Seeing them tread deep water for all those years gave me something I never imagined: the will to face my own personal challenges, standing tall as a proud gay man, and surviving my own heart attack on my sixtieth birthday.
Of course, it all began in the suburbs of St. Louis in September 1962. That sagging clothesline swayed. But it never snapped.
And, here in the Sonoran Desert in 2022, another clothesline sways 1,400 miles west.
Few films adeptly tackle the subject of aging. (Sure, it isn’t sexy or glamourous. But, if we’re lucky, it’s something we all must learn to navigate and accept.) Harry and Tonto is the exception.
Released in 1974, the movie–directed by Paul Mazursky–tells the story of a seventy-plus, stubborn-yet-vulnerable, retired teacher and his trusty cat Tonto. They are forced to leave their Upper West Side New York City apartment after their building is condemned.
Their odyssey leads them from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles (with a few fascinating side adventures) in search of a new home.
This is much more than a road trip movie with a stellar supporting cast: Ellen Burstyn, Larry Hagman, Chief Dan George, Melanie Mayron, Geraldine Fitzgerald, and others.
It explores the complicated relationships and conflicts that come with family, as well as the sometimes surprisingly rich and meaningful connections we form with strangers across the generations, who cross our paths without warning.
If you read my blog regularly, it shouldn’t surprise you that I love a story about an old man and a cat. (After all, I’ve come to discover the clever ways felines weave in and out of our desert community on any given day.)
It’s really the tenderness of this film, not just the cat, that cement this as one of Tom’s and my favorites in spite of its dated references to 1970s pop culture. Over the years, we’ve screened it six or eight times. We watched it again over the Labor Day weekend.
For instance, there’s a scene where Harry is required to confirm the identity of a long-time friend–a man with no family–who has passed unexpectedly.
Harry arrives to view the body and ensure his pal gets a proper burial. The stark sadness of the situation and the real emotions that surface touch me every time I see it.
As you may have guessed, Tonto’s co-starring appearance–and the tight bond between man and cat–is a symbolic device in the story that gives it depth. The animal is a sounding board/alter ego for lonely Harry, whose wife (Annie) has died years before we meet them.
Because of the cat’s existence and place in his life, Harry finds a way to safely articulate his fears and dreams … and, as viewers, we get a front-row seat to their narrative, homelessness dilemma, and a cast of colorful characters who lead them to unexpected places and realizations.
In 2022, it’s rare to find a contemporary film with both the heart and art of Harry and Tonto. But that doesn’t deter us from digging into our personal archives to find this gem.
Rest assured. There are no spoilers here regarding the outcome. Just gratitude for Mazursky and crew who–nearly fifty years ago–crafted a film that skillfully explores the unvarnished truth about aging.
Best of all, it’s a creative and emotionally honest tale about the adventures of a man and his cat.