Though the road of life is paved with good intentions, it is often treacherous.
Four years ago this week, Tom and I accepted an offer on our Mount Prospect, Illinois, home. As we approached another milestone–our shared sixtieth birthday–we crossed the threshold into a new chapter and stepped closer to the warmer life in Scottsdale, Arizona, we dreamed of.
Though we planned extensively, nothing could have prepared us for the tumultuous turns we would navigate together on the way west in July 2017.
Published in 2018, An Unobstructed View, chronicles our journey. Here’s what one reader had to say in April 2020:
“This wonderful and uplifting book reads like a compilation of short stories, but it is beautifully woven together to demonstrate all interconnections that make up a community and a family. The book also pays tribute to people who may only be in our lives for a short time and emphasizes that a brief encounter does not diminish significance.
Mark’s story is one of courage. Courage to start a new chapter in life, and courage to move forward with optimism even when life throws the ultimate curveball. His journey will take you through his love of baseball, the joys of owning a dog, and the challenges of being a gay man. Although these are only a few of the anecdotes he explores, you’ll quickly notice that the book is well poised to connect with a large readership.”
After the past year we have endured, all of us are weary survivors. If you need a dose of inspiration and gratitude, download a Kindle version of my book on Amazon. It’s just ninety-nine cents through May 8.
Like many of you, I know grief. It is that clumsy, unwelcome house guest we imagine will never leave.
When it arrives, grief dominates our lives. It keeps us awake at night, saturates our sensibilities, zaps our strength, and slows the progression of time.
At its onset, grief feels like a heavy stone we must carry in our pocket. A character in the 2010 dramatic film Rabbit Hole describes it that way. With time, we grow accustom to the stone. We become grateful for the stone, because we realize it is all that remains of the person we loved and lost.
One day, without expecting it, grief is less heavy, less present. The achiness has packed its bags and moved on. We aren’t sure why or where it has gone–maybe down the hall, across the street, or into the next zip code. But grief is never far away. It returns to comfort us on milestone days: birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries.
Grief appears on regular days too. It leaves little reminders to certify our humanity and frailty. It lingers in the cool air and warm sunshine of a spring day. It hangs in the lyrics of an old nostalgic tune, I’ll Be Seeing You, sung by Peggy Lee. It grows on the window sill in the perennial bloom of an African violet.
It’s been eight years since my mother died at age eighty-nine. January 26, 2013 was a bitter morning in the Chicago suburbs, meteorologically and personally. About 2 a.m., my sister Diane called with the news.
Immediately, Tom and I bundled up and drove twenty miles south (from our home in Mount Prospect to Mom’s third-floor apartment at Brighton Gardens in Wheaton, Illinois).
That morning I kissed my mother’s forehead and patted her hand one final time. As my husband and I left the building, a full moon dominated the frozen sky.
Grief moved in with us that day. At the time, I didn’t know it would repurpose itself and transform from a stone to a familiar fog to a blanket of possibilities.
But grief is cagy. It can be an enemy or an ally. It became my muse, the catalyst for my creativity. With grief by my side, between 2014 and 2016, I wrote and published From Fertile Ground.
Over the past five years, friends, acquaintances, and readers I will never meet in person have posted heartfelt reviews. They have told me how the story of my grief–and my grandfather’s and mother’s written legacies–helped them examine their lives, process their sadness, and restore some semblance of hope.
Writing the book was my catharsis too. Like the final line from the Peggy Lee tune which describes my feelings of loss perfectly–“I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you”–the pages of my book are permanent evidence of the grief I felt, which diffused with the passing of eight years. On days when I need confirmation of what 2013 to 2016 felt like, I can pick up my book and remember.
After our wise, nature-loving mother died, Diane did a kind thing. She divided up Mom’s African violets–one a shade of pink, the other a purplish blue–for the two of us to carry forward and display in our respective homes.
The plants originated in St. Louis in the 1980s or 1990s. They traveled to the Chicago area with Mom in 2004 when she moved north to be closer to us in her final years.
In July 2017, when Tom and I left Illinois and moved to Arizona, we wedged them in a laundry basket in the back seat of our Hyundai Sonata. Ultimately, we deposited them on our southern-facing window sill in Scottsdale.
In 2019, the pink African violet died, but the lone one is a survivor. It captures the warm rays of the Sonoran Desert sun. It blooms every winter and has chosen this week–eight years after Helen Johnson left the world–to dazzle us once again.
When I examine the vibrant blues and greens the plant offers, it eases my mind. It reminds me that memories of the mother I loved and her lasting impact are never far away. That the mind-numbing initial waves of tears and grief led me to a softer reality, which is bearable, tender, and life affirming.
Even as we wander in the dark through the depths of this global pandemic, there is strange comfort knowing grief will always be there in some form or another to acknowledge our past, present and future losses. Because if grief never appeared, we would discover a harsher reality … that we never loved at all.
Thank you, grief, for filling the void. I’ll be seeing you.
Sonoran Desert December days dazzle. Gone are dreary skies, icy gusts, swirling flurries, clanging Salvation Army bells, and busy Windy City sidewalk years wearing topcoats and backpacks. Still earlier, shedding St. Louis jackets and stocking caps. Hanging them on cloak room hooks before school started. Dreaming of holiday cupcakes and Santa’s flight trajectory.
Arizona’s anonymous set designer has replaced them. Sparkling sun burns off the chill of the morning. A neighbor’s pink rose blooms and brightens the walk. A flock of chirpy lovebirds dash away on cue like pent-up kids scampering out the door for recess. Playful palms shimmer and brush the sand from the sky. Granting the splendor of December revisited.
It was an endearment my gregarious father bestowed upon me, because I painstakingly pumped and stirred chocolate syrup of the same name into tall glasses of cold milk.
In exchange, I sat in awe as he gulped his coffee and savored his soggy Shredded Wheat. We loved each other, our playfulness, and kitchen table excesses.
Since Tom and I arrived at our Arizona home three years ago today–six days after a heart attack in St. Louis in 2017 on my sixtieth birthday–I’ve walked frequently with Walter’s memory.
Especially when I step aboard the treadmill to strengthen my heart muscle and consider that we both survived heart attacks in the same city.
In addition to Walter’s World War II army trunk, uniform, dog tags, Army Good Conduct Medal, honorable discharge papers, and war-time letters he saved from his parents and sisters, I am fortunate to possess disparate pages of my father’s poetry … along with the American flag from his funeral.
I’ll never forget the December day in 1993 when two stone-faced soldiers folded and pressed it into a triangle and handed it to my mother. In turn, she gave it to me.
There is one more keepsake from Walter, which Tom and I carried with us when we came west: this electronic GB Means Good Beer advertising sign. Walter the salesman salvaged it from his days peddling products for Griesedieck Bros. Beer in the 1950s.
In the early 1960s, before his first heart attack, Dad turned on the sign when company came over and we ventured into our basement.
Long after he died, the sign’s magical light-and-color wheel spun and bounced a range of hues on a knotty-pine shelf downstairs at my mother’s Missouri home. Then later, on top of my refrigerator in my Mount Prospect, Illinois kitchen.
Strangely, somewhere on the road between Illinois and Arizona in 2017–as I was mending from my heart attack on the passenger side–the wheel disengaged. Probably one too many bumps on the road, though it was cushioned in our backseat.
I wasn’t sure the sign would ever spin again, but in 2018 I found a trusty repairman named Bob in Phoenix. He opened the back of the rectangular sign and tinkered with it. He told me he could reconnect the wheel to the track. I left Walter’s beer sign in Bob’s capable hands.
Bob called two days later to tell me the sign was working again. The following afternoon, Tom and I paid him and thanked him for his time and trouble. We brought the sign home.
We found a suitable place to display it on the top of our bookcase in Scottsdale high above my desk.
I plugged in the sign. I turned on the switch. The wheel turned. The blues, reds, greens, and purples bounced.
Sharing a birthday with a friend is a cosmic coincidence. When that friend is your husband–and to this day you remain stumped by the irony of being born in the same year, too–it’s an annual exercise in splendid serendipity.
As Tom and I prepare to cross into an odd-numbered birthday year (sixty-three, but who’s counting?) in an even-odder, even-numbered calendar year, the timing is right to share this excerpt from An Unobstructed View. You can purchase the whole story through any major online retailer.
… Tom and I first met on a muggy Saturday night in August 1996.
I had attended a fortieth birthday party for a friend in Chicago. After it was over, I couldn’t bear the idea of going home directly–walking into a silent house. I decided to stop at Hunter’s instead.
When I entered the room around nine o’clock, I was anxious and lonely. The bar was dingy and silent. There were a dozen other men scattered throughout the place. I wasn’t at all comfortable being there. I had been to Hunter’s just once or twice before.
That night I remember feeling two vastly different emotions: hopeful I would meet someone and fearful of the darkness. But I decided to fight my fear and stay for a few minutes anyway to quiet my nerves. I bought a drink at the bar and planted myself on a stool for an hour or so.
At some point, I got squirmy and decided to stretch my legs and look for the restroom. As I crossed the room, I spotted a handsome man with brown hair. He was wearing a plum polo shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots.
Our eyes locked. Sparks flew. I felt I knew him, though we had never met before. I was dazzled by his smile, but needed to make a quick pit stop first. I smiled and told him I would be right back.
When I returned, we introduced ourselves. His name was Tom. He told me he was born in Chicago, but he and his family–his mom, dad and sister–had moved to Mount Prospect in 1960, when he was a toddler and suburbia was just beginning its sprawl.
Tom and I decided to find a spot on the patio in the open air to get to know each other further. We talked about our favorite movies and held hands for three hours at a table in the relative darkness barely illuminated by the flickering flame of an ordinary votive candle. I felt another electric charge.
When Tom confided that his birthday was July 6, 1957, I wondered if he was feeding me a line. I needed proof and asked him to show me his driver’s license. Once he did, we reveled in the serendipity of our shared birthday experience.
We basked in the glow of irony … stumbling into another thirty-nine-year-old gay man who entered the world on exactly the same day, discovering another Midwesterner who realized there would always be a personal celebration two days after the country’s supply of Fourth of July sparklers and bottle rockets flamed out.
Shortly after 1 a.m., Tom and I walked to our cars in the parking lot and kissed goodnight. Though there were no pyrotechnics blazing across the sky above us at Hunter’s, there was a different kind of combustion in the air between us.
We vowed to meet later that morning for brunch at a restaurant near his Schaumburg condo. And we did. It was just the beginning of our fireworks story …
What is it about June? In 2017, we packed up our Illinois belongings and prepared to head west. Tom captured this photo of me taking pictures from the window of the smallest bedroom in our then Mount Prospect home the day we drove away.
Three years later, also in the sixth month of the year, we’re shuttling personal possessions back and forth to paint our two Arizona bedrooms. It likely should have been something we’d done before now, but a mild heart attack, cardiac rehab, our creative impulses, general social upheaval, and other home improvements took precedence until June 2020.
This shall now be known as Day One of the Cucuzza Verde and Sprout Sherwin-Williams-color-branded era of our bedroom lives. The former and deeper green covers the masonry bricks running north and south through our condo. The latter and lighter complements with a soothing shade on the other three walls of each room. We also plan to paint our living room and sun room later this year. Colors? Still to be determined.
Following is an excerpt of An Unobstructed View, our story from three Junes ago. (My book about our journey is available through major online retailers.) At times, it’s still difficult for me to imagine the amount of change we endured to make it to Arizona and create the warmer and quieter life we want. The life we deserve in the colors we prefer.
It’s still a work in progress and too messy now to share photos, but our cozy little condo–with a ripening fig tree on the north side and a few containers of blooming desert roses on the south–is definitely our home.
Despite the triple-digit heat right now, it’s where we belong (plus a few cooling getaways to northern Arizona) in June, as well as the other eleven months.
As June began, I realized we were living at the intersection of Practicality and Continuity before we headed west.
There were possessions, which required careful thought and consideration. Tom decided to gift his father’s four-foot-tall German stein to his sister for sentimental reasons. I made arrangements with Kirk to pick up our oak pedestal kitchen table–a Johnson family heirloom–for his new apartment in Chicago.
It was difficult for me to part with Mom’s concrete birdbath, because Tom and I loved to watch the sparrows, finches and robins splash there in the rose garden in the corner of our backyard.
Even so, I gave it to my sister. I wanted to leave her a loving reminder about the respect for nature that runs through our blood and the nurturing way we partnered to care for our mother in her final days …
Before we left Mount Prospect, we hoisted my father’s World War II army locker into the trunk of our car. A smaller box of gardening items housed a pared-down collection of treasured ceramic pottery pieces my mother created and a jagged, red-speckled, five-by-seven-inch chunk of granite from my grandfather’s Huntersville, North Carolina, farm.
I wanted to deposit this small reminder of fertile ground from my childhood in a large terracotta pot with a prickly pear cactus Tom and I had planted outside the backdoor of our Arizona condo.
In the back seat, we nestled our African violets and peace lily in a laundry basket next to a clear, square plastic bin of items too precious or fragile to entrust to the movers: box #27 in Tom’s journal identified as Wedding–9/6/2014.
With our marriage memorabilia positioned in its proper place, it was time to bid farewell to Mount Prospect and depart for Scottsdale in our stacked Sonata.
As we passed the house keys to the new owners, we decided to spend six nights in area hotels. We both felt the tug of gravity from our life there. We needed time and space to say so long to Chicago-area family and friends.
On July 5, 2017, after a goodbye breakfast with Tom’s sister, we were set to soar from suburban Chicago. It was the last day of my fifties. The last day I would call Illinois my home. I didn’t know it also would be the last day of my pre-coronary life.