Category: Survival

The Shadows of 2020

In spite of the promise of a new presidency here in the U.S., we live in the shadows of the pandemic. Even so, Tom and I choose to hang wreaths on our front and back doors to brighten our space and give thanks for all we have as Christmas approaches.

Like many of you, we do our best to help people in need. Sometimes our assistance comes in the form of a small end-of-year check to a worthy charity or a card for a neighbor who’s lost her father. But what do you do when the pain of an unexpected moment shakes you to the core?

Recently, we were driving to our community gym for our typical, masked hour-long workout. On the way there, we noticed a familiar figure on the side of the road. It was a young man walking toward us. He was pulling his suitcase on rollers behind him.

After we passed, we realized it was Nathaniel (not his real name) trudging south down Hayden Road in Scottsdale. He is a friend. Someone who has hiked with us, shot baskets with us at the gym, and (before the pandemic) visited with us at our home.

Nathaniel–a smart, sensitive, handsome guy–has endured several tough years. He’s fighting a drug addiction and has been in and out of treatment for it.

About six months ago, he fell off our radar. He no longer has a phone, so we lost touch with him. Now, unexpectedly, he reentered our lives, lugging the weight of his existence and his world in a two-by-three-foot container.

Immediately, Tom slowed down. We turned on a side street. We found our way back, pulled up next to Nathaniel, got out of the car, and approached. Nathaniel was worn and disoriented, but happy to see us. Over the following fifteen minutes, he told us he had been in jail for several days after an altercation with his family. He wouldn’t or didn’t describe the details. Whatever happened, the year is ending with him roaming the streets.

Tom and I offered to give him a lift to a friend’s home (where he said he was walking). But, after repeatedly asking if we could drive him there, Nathaniel insisted he needed to get there on his own. Eventually, Tom handed him several disposable masks for his protection and a slip of paper with our contact information, so he could reach us when and if he is ready. I gave him twenty dollars for food. He thanked us both and continued on his way.

After we drove off, the sadness and horror we felt materialized. I began to cry for Nathaniel. I imagined the sketchy existence ahead for him, wandering with a fierce addiction, flying solo without the security of a family, home or path to a reasonable future.

How devastated Nathaniel’s mother and father must be, watching their son’s life unravel. What if one of my sons were in the same predicament? What would I do to help him recover? I think the answer is everything, but I don’t walk in the shoes of his parents. I don’t know the history of Nathaniel’s trauma that has led him to a life on the edge.

After this episode and the constant uncertainty we all carry into the new year, it is impossible for me to put a pretty red bow on 2020. Yet the wreaths Tom and I bought remind me how fortunate I am to have a modest, comfortable home in a warm climate. There are so many like Nathaniel who don’t. They are hurting, lost, hungry and homeless.

None of us know what the new year will bring, but I try to maintain a half-glass-full perspective. I hope–under the guidance of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and a kinder, gentler and more humane administration–we can turn the corner as a nation in 2021. Because only when and if we address the growing needs of the Nathaniel’s of our world, our disenfranchised and discouraged citizens, will we begin to escape the darkness and emerge from the shadows of 2020.

The Cottonwood Trees

Four-thirty on the last Sunday afternoon of November. Sliced turkey breast, roasted root vegetables and ramekins of mashed sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce await in the fridge. Remnants of a holiday weekend.

Neither Tom or I feel like cooking dinner. We exercise and write instead. We will rely on the convenience of leftovers as sun-crafted silhouettes dance across the windowsill of our sunroom.

I just completed an hour-long walk along the Crosscut Canal that winds through Phoenix. I’m one of the lucky ones. Healthy (so far, at least). Thankful for the love and companionship of my husband. Close to a wide open outdoor space.

Today I walked the Crosscut Canal alone. It was just a few bicyclists, joggers, hikers, fishermen, and me. Scattered along the Papago Park trails. Some folks wore masks. Some didn’t. There was plenty of distance between us.

On the way back to our condo I paused to admire a group of cottonwood trees on the other side of the fence. They swayed near a shallow pond inside the Desert Botanical Garden. Brittle from the drought. But still they survive.

The cottonwoods have become a benchmark for Tom and me. Majestic, tall reminders of life on the edge. “Let’s walk to the cottonwood trees and back.”

Today as I strolled past them, their shiny yellow and green leaves flickered in the fading Sonoran sunshine. I shaded my eyes and gazed up looking for reassurance beyond the breadth of their branches. It was the same comfort the cottonwood trees provided in March, May, July, September and October.

I left the canal path with the certainty that the cottonwood trees will be there in December and beyond. Because that’s what nature does. It endures past holidays and pandemics. It reminds us to do the same.

A Gift to Ease Your Grief

As COVID-19 cases climb and shadows of worry and anxiety cast doubts, we stew in our numbness. We attempt to process the depth of our grief. It has no bounds.

Here in the United States, we prepare for a thankless Thanksgiving Day 2020 minus more than a quarter of a million Americans–gone, but not forgotten–who sat at tables beside us a year ago. Our hearts ache for them and their families.

Seven years ago grief consumed me as the first Thanksgiving after my mother’s death approached. Tom and I decided we needed a holiday getaway from our then suburban Chicago home. We needed to shake things up. To begin a new tradition in a place that wouldn’t spark the rawness of Midwestern memories.

Both of my sons loved the idea. They decided to join us for an extended Thanksgiving weekend in the Arizona desert. It felt as if the odds were against us when Tom developed pneumonia after raking leaves on a frosty early-November Illinois morning. But, remarkably, he rebounded quickly. We kept our plans to fly west.

On Thanksgiving Day, Kirk, Nick, his friend Stephanie, Tom and I dined outside at the Tempe Mission Palms Hotel. We enjoyed turkey and stuffing, seated around a courtyard patio table shaded by an orange tree.

Three months after that November 2013 trip, I retired from corporate life and began to feel a calling to write about my grief. I soon discovered that by honoring and answering my creative impulses, I could ride through the waves of tears and numbness and emerge whole on the other side.

As strange as it sounds, grief became the fertile ground for my writing journey. In 2016, I published my first book, From Fertile Ground. It tells the story of three writers–my grandfather, mother and me–and our desires to leave behind a legacy of our own distinctive observations of our family, our loves, our losses, our worlds.

In honor of Thanksgiving and those we’ve loved and lost, you can download a free Kindle copy of my book on Amazon from November 21 through November 25.

I hope reading it will inspire you (or a friend who is grieving) to find your fertile ground. To discover your voice. To channel your creativity. To emerge from the numbness. To tell your unvarnished story. Perhaps even to leave behind a brief review of my book online.

Thankful

There is nothing idyllic about life in November 2020. The best we can do is wash our hands, wear our masks, keep our distances, hug (only metaphorically) and pray for our loved ones, apply regular coats of hand sanitizer, disavow false claims of voter fraud, limit our exposure to anxiety-producing news items, contribute to our favorite charities, and find a way to keep living.

Even in this dark period, I continue to sing with the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus. Most of our rehearsals have been conducted via Zoom technology. Recently, we have divided ourselves into small groups of seven or eight for in-person rehearsals on Mondays, Tuesdays or Thursday nights.

I show up on Thankful Thursdays to practice holiday music. It’s a scene from a sci-fi movie. Individually, we check our temperatures at the door, fan out ten or more feet apart across a large room, wear masks and an additional layer of protection behind a face shield. Our artistic director and accompanist (also behind masks and shields) proceed to lead us from afar. The experience is as remote as it sounds, but in 2020, it’s the best we can do.

When rehearsal is through two hours later, we spray our chairs with disinfectant, turn the lights off in the room, walk out the side door into the Phoenix moonlight, return to our cars separately, and drive home.

We are rehearsing one of my favorite songs, Thankful (words and music by Carole Bayer Sager, David Foster, and Richard Page), for our December online performance. It’s a stirring piece I first performed in Chicago as a member of the Windy City Gay Chorus in 2012. It gave me goosebumps then, but the message is more universal and relevant eight years later.

I hope reading these lyrics will bring you a little peace. It’s a mental space I will travel to when I sing this song from behind my mask tonight. Even with all the pain and heartache in our lives, we have to believe we will get through this.

There’s so much to be thankful for.

***

Some days we forget to look around us. Some days we can’t see the joy that surrounds us. So caught up inside ourselves, we take when we should give.

So for tonight we pray for what we know can be. And on this day we hope for what we still can’t see. It’s up to us to be the change and even though we all can still do more, there’s so much to be thankful for.

Look beyond ourselves, there’s so much sorrow. It’s way too late to say, “I’ll cry tomorrow.” Each of us must find our truth; it’s so long overdue.

So for tonight we pray for what we know can be. And on this day we hope for what we still can’t see. It’s up to us to be the change and even though we all can still do more, there’s so much to be thankful for.

Even with our differences, there is a place we’re all connected. Each of us can find each other’s light.

So for tonight we pray for what we know can be. And on this day we hope for what we still can’t see. It’s up to us to be the change and even though we all can still do more, there’s so much to be thankful for.

Maricopa

With every TV update of returns or refresh of election news coverage on my smartphone, I hold my breath.

Will this be the moment? Will Joe Biden arrive in the land of two-hundred-seventy electoral votes and officially become president-elect of the United States? Though my anxiety runs laps in my buzzing brain, he waits patiently. Ready to calm the turbulent waters. Steady a sinking ship. Steer our nation out of this dark age. This endless nightmare.

Diligent workers and volunteers in previously mostly disconnected swing states–Georgia, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Arizona–count unprocessed ballots. Anonymous state and local officials sit and stand. Doing their jobs while cameras scrutinize from above.

They are not our healthcare heroes in hospitals. Fighting COVID-19 on the front lines. Working to save lives that teeter as new cases escalate each day. However, they are just as heroic. Unfettered Republican and Democrat openers, scanners and sorters tabulating mailed-in ballots from distinct counties: Chatham, Dekalb, Fulton and Gwinnett in Georgia; Alleghany, Bucks, Chester, and Montgomery in Pennsylvania; Clark in Nevada; and Maricopa in Arizona. The list of counties and ballot counting goes on.

I live in Maricopa County. The gigantic land mass was named after the Maricopa Native American tribe, who originally lived along the banks of the Colorado River.

Maricopa is the fastest growing county in the United States. It encompasses the greater Phoenix metropolitan area and is home to four-and-a-half million diverse people.

Republicans and Democrats. Young and old. Poor and rich. Straight and gay. Employed and jobless. Citizens of all religions or none at all. Hispanic, Asian, white, black, and Native American people living in the vast Sonoran Desert.

As the final votes are tallied and reported in Maricopa County and elsewhere, this process will end some day soon. We must disregard unfounded claims of fraud and distractions from the White House and accept and celebrate the election outcome (whenever it arrives).

I believe all of us in Maricopa are stronger if we embrace our differences in this wide-open space of grand beauty, dry heat, and burgeoning possibilities. The same can be said for every Maricopa, every diverse American community, no matter the climate or terrain.

With Thanksgiving less than three weeks away, it’s time to give thanks to our democratic process, open our hearts and minds to our neighbors, and look forward to writing a new chapter under Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. If we follow their lead, we can unite.

Our future as a nation depends upon it.

Small Potatoes

I’m not a wily weather forecaster, sage soothsayer or tenacious tarot card reader. Just someone (like you) who is alive in 2020. Trying to stay healthy and sane. Hungry for certainty.

In times such as these, I wish I were a premier prognosticator. Not a pollster. I’m done with that margin-of-error stuff. I want news of actual results from the future.

Of course, the outcome of the presidential election is at the top of my list. Along with the arrival date of a reliable vaccine. But I also want to know if and when it will ever rain again in the Phoenix metropolitan area. After our hottest summer on record, we’ve gone months with no more than a few errant drops of natural moisture.

At least the days are cooler. On this morning’s walk, I wore a sweatshirt and long pants for the first time in seven months. The temperature was seventy degrees. Yes, I am a desert rat.

There is one other important piece of information I need from the future. Will that Carlo, mid-century chair (saffron upholstery with brass legs) Tom and I ordered ever arrive or is it lost forever?

I will now proceed to share the details. While in the throes of the global pandemic, we have been making a number of improvements inside and outside our condo: painting and carpeting our bedroom and den (check); casting our votes for the November 3 election (check); replacing our interior doors (happening this coming week); buying and receiving a stone-colored Carlo mid-century couch for our living room (check); and welcoming a lovely and comfortable chair into our refashioned den (???).

After a minor hitch, the couch from West Elm arrived on October 17. Ryder (the people West Elm contracts with) were supposed to deliver the chair before that. But I got one message telling me the truck had broken down and we would need to reschedule. We did that. Then I was told by Ryder they had misplaced our beautiful chair. An angry outburst ensued. Our chair was likely somewhere in a local warehouse and didn’t make it on the truck for the rescheduled date.

West Elm later told us the chair had been found. So we rescheduled the delivery a third time … last Thursday. The chair never arrived. I’ve had two or three additional intense conversations (with various Ryder folks and two West Elm managers).

Now it is Sunday, October 25. Two months until Christmas. I’m done with the angst. I have entered a Zen stage with the missing chair. Maybe it will arrive. Maybe it won’t. West Elm assures me they will get to the bottom of this and make it right in some fashion. I believe them, but I’m not holding my breath. Worst case scenario? I’ll get our money back.

After all, in the scheme of things, the mysterious case of a missing chair is small potatoes. As a new surge of COVID-19 cases crosses our country and November 3 approaches (finally), all I really want for Christmas is a blue tsunami, a new president, a reliable vaccine, a day or two of rain for the Valley of the Sun, and the end of this 2020 madness.

Is that asking for too much?

Escaping the Labyrinth

It’s my sister’s birthday. Soon she will open the card and presents we sent her. I will call her later today to wish her well. To tell her I love her.

Like every relationship, ours has had its ebbs and flows. But Diane and I are the only ones left from our family of origin. The only ones who remember the best sounds of our St. Louis childhood–Dad slurping his breakfast beverages through the overflowing Coffee Hound cup we gave him or Mom sifting red and green sprinkles on sugar cookies shaped liked reindeer, candy canes, stars and Santas.

After our mother died in 2013, Diane and I each retreated into our individual darkness. We had worked together closely to care for her during her final years and months, but after Mom was gone I wasn’t sure we would escape the labyrinth of pain and grief or come out the other side whole. It wasn’t that I doubted our love, but we both had to find our personal paths to heal from the devastating loss.

For me that meant writing about it and sharing my observations in From Fertile Ground. Diane wasn’t keen on the idea. She preferred privacy. This difference between us–and the resulting grief-induced friction–was unexpected for me, but with time I realized I needed to respect my sister’s point of view. To this day, she rarely reads what I write.

In June of 2017, right before Tom and I left Illinois and moved to Arizona, Diane drove from her suburban Chicago home to visit with us on our backyard deck in Mount Prospect. I decided to give her the concrete birdbath that had been Mom’s, hoping it would remind her of the shared love we had for our nature-loving mother.

A few weeks later–on the way west–I landed in a St. Louis hospital after a heart attack. I called my sister to tell her what had happened. To hear her voice. To hear her love. That conversation was the turning point toward greater understanding.

In early September, Tom and I received a card from the American Heart Association in the mail. To acknowledge Tom’s and my sixth wedding anniversary, it told us Diane and Steve (my brother-in-law) had made a donation to the organization.

After I opened the card and wiped the tears from my eyes, I realized Diane and I had escaped the labyrinth of grief. Our relationship had emerged on the other side of the shadows. There was light on the horizon.

Harsh Elements

Though September’s seventy-five-degree mornings are beginning to offer cooling relief from the Phoenix-area heat, the fire barrel cactus outside our back door is sunburned.

Fortunately, it’s still spiky, spunky, and nosy–always leaning to one side to eavesdrop as neighbors walk to the Crosscut Canal for an early morning stroll.

But the normally green skin of my old friend has turned to yellow. Matching the pot it resides in. More than fifty days of summer sun exposure in one-hundred-ten-degree heat will do that to you.

It isn’t practical for me to rub Aloe Vera gel on my plant with the piercing personality. That’s an especially bad idea for an avid gardener on a blood thinner. The spurting blood from my fingers would splash on our sidewalk.

Instead, Tom and I have shrouded it with two pieces of gauzy black cloth. This cactus shield of sorts (like a veil for an old Italian woman in mourning) should help it recover over time.

If I could, I would wrap the whole warming world and the body of every person in this protective material (along with a required mask, of course).

My scheme would give everyone a chance to breathe, grieve and heal away from harsh elements: devastating fires, thick smoke, high winds, swirling hurricanes, global pandemics, crippling anxiety, and one particularly- problematic-and-pontificating politician.

If only it were that simple.  

Nineteen

September 11, 2001, began as a sparkling, late-summer day in Mount Prospect, Illinois. It was the Chamber-of-Commerce kind I wanted to bottle and save to replace a coming cold-and-dreary, twenty-four hours in February, when Chicago snowdrifts and endless grey skies surely would pile up on our long driveway.

Carefree Kirk and I left our home on North Forest Avenue shortly after 7 a.m. Ten minutes later, my twelve-year-old son skipped out the passenger side of our green Saturn sedan, slammed the door, turned his head, and waved goodbye as he scampered toward the entrance of Lincoln Junior High School.

Neither of us knew the magnitude of the destruction, numbness, mayhem and tragedy that was coming within the hour that day. Horrific images from New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pennsylvania–cities forever fused by the news of the planes that crashed there and thousands of innocent lives lost.

It’s been nineteen years since that defining series of moments: shattered glass, toppling towers, and gut-wrenching grief–even for those of us fortunate not to have lost a loved one in the madness.

It feels longer than that to me, because during those nearly two decades we’ve endured a heaping helping of natural disasters (remember Hurricane Katrina?) and social unrest through the viewfinder of an unrelenting news cycle.

A generation of children born in 2001 have since graduated from high school and gone off to college, begun trade school or entered the work force. Certainly, they can Google what happened on September 11, 2001, but they don’t have the emotions of the moment to draw from or the experience of witnessing the deep sadness and disarray as the images cascaded across our TVs on a loop.

Kirk is thirty-one years old now. A school counselor. Living in Chicago. Guiding children (in person from behind Plexiglass partitions) through the pitfalls and dramas of their evolving lives. This is their tragedy of now: a global pandemic, a fractured republic, a nation on fire. This is their stream of difficult defining moments.

No matter what transpires on September 11, 2020, it will shape the choices they make, the lives they lead, the stories of survival they tell, the votes they cast one day–at eighteen, nineteen and beyond–as the next generation trailing in queue opens its eyes to a new day.

Almost as If

ValleyHo2_081720

Personal experience tells me that the pressure and immediacy of a frightful, life-changing moment–for instance, a mild heart attack accompanied by breathlessness and radiating left shoulder pain while traveling cross country–can make it virtually impossible to imagine a longer view, a brighter sky, an optimistic outcome.

But with the passage of three years and one month (living inside a 2017-to-2020 cradle of colluding Russian-nesting-doll years, arguably the most tumultuous and troublesome period in American history since the Civil War), I find myself crossing a metaphorical threshold into a more promising personal dimension without an obstruction in the foreground.

This realization flooded my sixty-three-year old brain and body on August 18, 2020 as I scribbled sentences on the lined pages of my emerald-colored spiral notebook. The inspiration for my ramblings was prompted by a visit with Dr. B, my cardiologist, the day before.

***

August 17 began swimmingly. Forty laps alongside Tom in our condo pool, followed closely by a thirty-minute session (yoga for writers with Adriene on YouTube) in front of our flat-screen TV. The motion and stretching were successful in quieting my mind before an 11:10 a.m. appointment with Dr. B.

At 10:30, I stepped out on my own in my flip flops into one-hundred-degree heat. Opened the driver’s side to our indigo Sonata, started the engine, and tapped the windshield wipers to remove a thin layer of grit from a dust storm the night before.

It was a short and simple journey into Old Town Scottsdale, but one I’d stewed over since a August 5 echocardiogram orchestrated by Laney on the other side of the Valley of the Sun. It was her job to test the condition and pumping capability of my heart. Glub glub … glub glub … glub glub.

Some of the sting surrounding this follow-up appointment had already subsided on August 10 or 11, because a nurse in my doctor’s office emailed saying they had uncovered “no emergent concerns” from the procedure. Dr. B would discuss my course of care moving forward at a August 17 consultation.

Still, like any once-burned patient with a history of heart disease or inquisitive journalist digging for the full scoop, I wondered if there were more variables they weren’t ready to share with me. More I needed to fret over. The phrase “course of care” left too much room–too many what ifs–for my unbridled imagination and anxiety.

Like many other moments in life, the hardest part was waiting.

***

Once I arrived at the three-story office building, I parked facing east, slid our silver sunshade across the windshield, climbed three flights of stairs in an outdoor atrium rather than trusting a slow elevator, checked in at the front desk of Cardiovascular Consultants, Ltd,, and waited to be summoned.

“120/80 … couldn’t be more normal,” Dr. B’s nurse checked and confided my blood pressure, once I was situated in a straight-backed chair. As she left me alone in the room, I thought of Tom and all we had endured and accomplished in the previous thirty-seven months together.

Selling our home in Illinois. Saying goodbye to family, friends and neighbors. Moving ourselves and our essential possessions seventeen hundred miles west. Scurrying into the emergency room of Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis on our sixtieth birthday. Resuming our journey four days later with the help of a capable medical team in the city where I was born.

Buying new furniture for the living room of our Arizona condo. Traveling to Ireland and feeling the air rush through my hair on an open-air Dublin bus. Helping Nick recover from a serious knee injury on a basketball court. Cultivating new friendships in Arizona.

Finding new creative outlets and avenues to sing, write and screen our favorite movies. Climbing to the top of a church in Munich, Germany to behold Bavaria without a worry. Gazing out the window of a Vienna cafe and soaking up the baroque splendor inside The Ring.

Bonding with cardiologists, dermatologists and gastroenterologists. Standing between my thirty-something sons at the Local Author Book Sale at the Scottsdale Public Library right before COVID-19 shuttered the world. Surviving the chaos and fear of a global pandemic and a misguided presidency. Doing our best to stay connected to family and friends. Escaping to the mountains of Flagstaff to breathe the pine-scented air.

All of it, and the memory of my mother and father (both long gone, but never far away) flashed through my mind’s eye in a five-minute window as I stared at the blue and green tiles in an innocuous space waiting for Dr. B.

After he knocked and entered, he delivered the news I had waited for. More than I  hoped for actually. Certainly, more than I imagined. He glanced at the July 2017 images from St. Louis and compared them with those of August 2020 in Scottsdale. He told me the Arizona echocardiogram showed my heart is functioning normally.

Though both of us wore masks, I’m sure he could see the amazement and joy in my eyes when he said, “It’s almost as if you never had a heart attack … I don’t need to see you until another year passes, unless something comes up.”

***

As I left Dr. B’s office, relief flooded my body. I texted the news to Tom and told him I was on my way home. We would celebrate with a mini-staycation at the Hotel Valley Ho in Scottsdale, a vintage mid-century, sun-drenched resort flecked in tangerine and aqua. As good fortune would have it, August 17 was the day we met in 1996.

For two days and nights, we were desert rats living the high life. It was almost as if none of the trauma of three years before had happened. But we knew it had. Now we could put it further behind us in the distance of the palms in the Grand Canyon State.

All of us hope for a longer view, a lengthier life with greater possibilities. But it’s out of our control. The best we can do is love more. Hate less. Eat right. Exercise regularly. Listen to the advice of our doctors. Be grateful for today. Endure the heat of a desert day. Embrace the twilight of our fading hours. Deliberate over dazzling sunsets.

Enjoy the luscious fruits of our lives as they appear without ever really knowing what tomorrow will bring.