Category: Survival

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

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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.

 

Riding High in Gatlinburg

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In August of 1970, I felt I had lost my father. The trauma of his World War II emotional scars, heart disease and bi-polar diagnosis had consumed him. My thirteen-year-old self-consciousness and his fifty-six-year-old discontent didn’t know what to make of each other.

It seemed like the only thing Walter and I shared was our love for the St. Louis Cardinals. Muggy but mighty moments together in the bleachers of Busch Memorial Stadium. Watching Bob Gibson dazzle and dominate National League hitters in the sixties, while Lou Brock stole bases and our hearts.

But beyond baseball, the schism between my father and me was more than a “generation gap” (a phrase you never hear any more). It felt as if a grand canyon–a dark and sinister abyss nothing like the Arizona wonder four hours north of me by car in my sixties–existed between us.

As Dad pursued my love, validation and respect, I withdrew further into the fear and anxiety of my crowded teenage closet. My sister and mother felt the weight of Dad’s unhappiness and family drama too.

Yet, fifty years ago with Walter behind the wheel of our boxy Chevy Biscayne, the Johnson family from the St. Louis suburbs (Walter, Helen, Diane and Mark) threw caution to the wind and set sail on a summer vacation.

Our destination? Huntersville, North Carolina–seventeen miles north of Charlotte–where we would spend a week with my mother’s family on the rocky-but-fertile ground of my grandparents’ farm in the Tar Heel State.

Past the midpoint of our journey, we drove up and around the hairpin curves of the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Dad guided our clunky sedan into town, where we were welcomed by the grits and glitz of Gatlinburg.

Spontaneously, soon after we parked, we decided to board a ski lift (technically, the Gatlinburg Skylift) into the August mist. Mom and Diane boarded first. Dad and I trailed behind, climbing over the tall trees shrouding Crockett Mountain. I don’t remember much more about the day. Only that it felt as if the four of us had escaped our troubles into the clouds of Tennessee for a few hours.

More than five decades have passed. Since 2017, I’ve more closely identified with my father and his plight, because of my advancing age and our shared mild heart attack experiences separated by fifty-five years.

The grief for Dad has felt more palpable to me in the past three weeks, because the baseball team we loved and cheered for in the humidity of St. Louis summers–the team I still love today–has suffered through a COVID-19 outbreak; to date ten players and eight staff members of the St. Louis Cardinals have tested positive for the virus.

When the outbreak first appeared in late July, the team quarantined in a Milwaukee hotel for several days before heading back to St. Louis to live in isolation in early August, like so many ordinary citizens in a country consumed by viral hot spots.

During that time, the other twenty-nine Major League Baseball teams played on. But the St. Louis Cardinals sequestered themselves for more than two weeks, hoping for a string of several consecutive days of negative testing, which would clear them to resume their season on the field.

As the Cardinals season went dormant, I felt depressed. A portion of my past and present life had been pealed away and thrown in the dumpster. It was as if the last remnant of the troubled father I loved (a man who fought for his country and died in 1993) had been stripped away and laid to rest. His team. My team. Our team had become another COVID-19 casualty.

Finally, the fog–like a Gatlinburg mist–has begun to lift. This morning Diane sent me a text from her suburban Chicago home. “Cards driving forty rental cars via I-55 to Chicago … Playing fifty-plus games in forty days. Hope you’re feeling better. Love you!”

Indeed, on Friday, August 14 the St. Louis Cardinals are driving in separate cars from St. Louis to Chicago to resume their baseball season on Saturday. After a seventeen-day hiatus, Dad’s, Diane’s and my redbirds will resume their baseball season on August 15. They will play a doubleheader against the Chicago White Sox and a third game on Sunday, before a five-game set (including two more doubleheaders) against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.

The Cardinals will begin the long climb back with a new batch of young players from their farm system on their roster and a veteran, big-game pitcher–thirty-eight-year-old Adam Wainwright–on the mound. He’ll start Game One in the Windy City.

If the Cardinals are able to finish their season, they will complete fifty-five contests in the following forty-four days. It will require a herculean effort by a team with a rich history. Eleven World Series championships, more than any other National League franchise.

No matter how this version of the Cardinals perform, I feel the tide of hope returning. Seeing them back on the baseball diamond will feel like a victory. Plus, Diane and I will still have each other, our bittersweet memories of family vacations, and a string of glorious years to recall cheering with Dad for Gibson, Brock and the Cardinals.

Now, our 2020 team is about to take the field to restore a little of sanity to our world. As they do, I have the memory of Dad and me side-by-side on a yellow chairlift. Him with his trusty Daily Word magazine of inspirational thoughts tucked in his shirt pocket. Me smiling, but brimming with worry as I gripped the lap bar tightly.

In spite of our differences then, Dad and I had much more in common beyond baseball in 1970 than I knew or ever imagined. Together, we were fighting for survival. Riding high in Gatlinburg.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hold Your Breath … Breathe

Tom and I arrived at the Cardiovascular Consultants office in Glendale at 10:30 a.m. on August 5. About fifteen minutes ahead of my scheduled echocardiogram.

Though my vital signs during my regular checkup two days before looked good (110/70 blood pressure, normal EKG) I’ve been feeling a little fatigued. That’s likely a byproduct of my medication and the world we’re living in, but Dr. B. prescribed the procedure just to make sure my heart is pumping as it should.

As I entered through the glass doors, Tom hugged me. Only patients with masks were allowed inside the office space. His plan was to find a safe coffee spot nearby and wait until I called him.

I checked in at the front desk and answered all the expected questions. The attendant scanned my forehead. No temperature. No COVID-19 symptoms of any kind. When she asked, I told her I hadn’t traveled outside the country lately (though I wish I had) or gone on a cruise.

Laney, the technician, called me in promptly. She asked me to remove my shirt and lay on my left side on the exam table with my arm folded under my head. She pasted nodes to eight or ten places on my chest, smeared gel across my upper torso and began to apply a wand to various spots.

Hold your breath … breathe.  She scanned one area. I heard my heart pound and echo through a machine. Glub glub … glub glub. Over the next twenty minutes we repeated this rumba at least twenty times–Laney scanning and prompting like a teacher, my heart responding like an obedient student reporting for class and waving his hand (“I’m here. I’m here!”) on the first day of school. The device danced across my chest.

Then, after a few moments of shifting on the table to find a comfortable position reclining on my back, Laney’s magic wand scanned a few new places. Down to my upper rib cage and up to my throat with my head extended back.

Through it all, there was no physical pain. By 11:15, I had dressed, called Tom to pick me up and checked out. I’ll see Dr. B. again on August 17. He’ll have the results.

Of course, I feel anxious. Who wouldn’t? Especially because this experience brought me back three years to a hospital gurney in St. Louis and a similar echocardiogram procedure with Jacob, a different technician. Fear and apprehension ensued. But, I need to remind myself, my heart was experiencing trauma in July 2017. It isn’t today.

Now, thirty-seven months later and twenty-five pounds lighter, I’m a leaner, healthier guy with An Unobstructed View and a quieter life. Even so, I wait and wonder. I’ve been having strange dreams like many of you.

Two recent ones had me back in the corporate world working without a clue of what to do. Or shuffling around the condo searching for my misplaced blended bifocals, normally reasonable perspective and vision of clarity.

Such is the trauma of COVID-19 in a country with a president who doesn’t want to take responsibility for any of it. Still I’m fortunate when compared with most of the world. I swim. I walk. I write to stay whole. I don’t have to worry about the demands of a traditional job. I stretch out on my yoga mat and unwind. I keep breathing. I listen to the regular rhythm of my beating heart. Tom and I are there everyday to love and reassure each other.

Climbing out of bed at 6 am. on August 6, somehow I felt more rested. Out the door by 7, walking in Vista del Camino Park in 84-degree temperatures, the air felt cooler and lighter than the previous two torrid months. Miraculously, there was a break in the oppressive heat overnight. Could this be a harbinger of hope in an otherwise grey world?

Strolling with Tom, it felt like a September school day morning in the early 60s back in suburban St. Louis. When I carried a lunch box to the bus on some days or thirty cents in the pocket of my jeans to buy a hot meal in the cafeteria. The days were longer. Life was simpler. Or at least my childhood memory tells me so.

But in reality, we had the Cuban Missile Crisis and our duck-and-cover drills in our classrooms in case of a nuclear attack. Then, later, JFK’s assassination. Then, Martin’s and Bobby’s. Those worries, the unrest in the streets, and the anxieties in the recesses of our consciousness kept us occupied after completing our spelling and math workbooks.

Now we have the unrelenting pain of a global pandemic. Our COVID-19 children and grandchildren will always remember social distancing, hand sanitizing, that displaced feeling of not knowing when/if/how school would resume, and the masks they wore in 2020.

No generation gets by unscathed. We scrape by through difficult times and do the best we can. We relax and reflect through more tranquil years. When we’re strong, we go on  without ever feeling ill or vulnerable. We work long hours and make everyday sacrifices for those we love. We say goodbye to parents who lived full lives and friends who died too young.

Then life shifts for no apparent reason. We find ourselves visiting doctors, bonding with cardiologists behind masks, waiting for the heat and oppression to lift. We find ourselves hoping for fewer casualties, more job opportunities and financial aid for the disenfranchised, a lower infection rate, normal echocardiogram results, a trustworthy president, and a reliable vaccine that nearly everyone will agree is the right thing to do.

We find ourselves taking each day as it comes, waiting impatiently for the good news we deserve.

 

Movies, Mannequins and Mall Walking

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July 2020 was the hottest month ever recorded in Phoenix, Arizona.

To beat the heat, on the first day of August, with another day of 110-plus-degree temperatures looming, Tom and I retreated indoors to Fashion Square Mall in Scottsdale to accumulate five thousand steps.

This is the same mall where in any other year we could have imagined taking in a matinee on a similar scorching summer Saturday.

But not in 2020. Even though the sign above the escalators declares “See You at the Movies!”, the only bodies standing near the entrance to the Harkins Camelview multiplex were a cluster of zombie-like faceless and maskless mannequins in a nearby store window. Everyone else in the mall knew better. They were wearing masks.

The good news is Tom and I are the proud owners of about three hundred of our favorite films. We can watch any one of those in our living room or select something online, via Netflix or cable to occupy our time in the comfort and air conditioning of our home.

But we still miss the experience of sitting in a movie theater together. Sharing a medium-size popcorn (no butter, please). Guessing how many trailers will run across the screen before the featured film plays.

It will likely be at least a few more months before that happens again. I miss the regularity of these sorts of mini-escapes at the movies away from life’s painful breaking news.

I’ve also longed for the return of major league baseball. Now, only a week into the abbreviated season, at least six members (three players and three staff members) of my favorite team, the St. Louis Cardinals, have tested positive for COVID-19.

The league postponed the Cardinals/Brewers games in Milwaukee on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. After an outbreak on the Miami Marlins squad a week ago, the 2020 season appears to be in jeopardy.

In the life-and-death scheme of things, I realize movies and baseball games pale when compared with 155,000-plus deaths in the United States and historic job losses.

But we need entertaining escapes to keep us all sane. Otherwise, I fear we’ll end up like the mannequins in the store window. Stiff. Still. Staring blankly into an empty space.

Iridescent Scales

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You survive … no, thrive … scampering from shadows to shade, shimmering across scorched soil, ignoring what lies and lurks before you, replacing fears and pitfalls with truth and tenacity, imploring less reptilian ones to follow the flicker and flight of your iridescent scales.