Category: Survival

On Uneven Ground

Now that I have a little more distance from Good Friday, it’s clear how painful it was to witness Gary, my neighbor, die of congestive heart failure right outside my front door. Especially because Gary and I see/saw the same cardiologist. (In case you don’t know, I had my own heart trauma nearly four years ago. My husband Tom was the one watching the calamity unfold that day, rushing to get me to an emergency room in St. Louis on our sixtieth birthday.)

At any rate, if you’re like me, you’ve experienced the wide swings of life. Joy and sorrow. Victory and defeat. Jubilation and devastation. I think the secret to contentment is expecting and accepting both ends of the spectrum, then finding your balance somewhere between the two extremes.

On Palm Sunday, I found myself savoring an author’s dream come true. I was reading passages from my latest book to an attentive audience and signing copies in our community clubhouse. Five days later on Good Friday, Gary collapsed outside his and my condo. A few minutes later, he died in my grasp.

For the next two days–through Easter Sunday–I felt out of sorts and sick to my stomach. I was searching for my equilibrium, battling side effects of shock, and absorbing the protective properties of my second COVID-19 vaccination, as more requests for my book came via texts and front-door visits.

On Monday, I began to find some semblance of my equilibrium. I knocked on my neighbor Bob’s door. He and I had been there with Pat (Gary’s wife) when her world came crashing down. “Milwaukee Bob” (Pat calls him that because that’s where he and his wife Barb live most of the year) is adjusting to what he witnessed too.

Though it is the fig tree Bob and I stood beside, giving Gary and Pat comfort and support in the trauma of that Good Friday moment, he and Barb bought a copy of my book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree. They weren’t able to make it to the book signing and reading on Palm Sunday.

On Tuesday morning, I exchanged hugs with Gary’s daughter, Andrea. She had flown in from Chicago with her husband and three children to comfort her mother Pat. Through tears, Andrea thanked me for being there for her mother and father. Her family’s spring Arizona vacation (planned before her father’s demise) was transformed into a mix of grieving, coping, swimming, and horseback riding. Her dad’s remains will be interred in Illinois at a later date.

It is Wednesday night now. I feel stronger again. I realize the tender result of Gary’s sudden death … that, through care and happenstance, I will be bonded to Bob, Pat, Andrea, and her family for life. This morning Tom and I joined a handful of friends for yoga in the park. Between ten and eleven o’clock, we stretched and posed on our mats. I felt the caress of a cool southern breeze under the shade of a tall pine tree. I heard the needles of the pine whisper and the call of the mockingbirds above us. I assumed my tree pose. I felt nature cradle me. I swayed, but found my footing on uneven ground.

New Light

We have endured so much over the past year. We have watched the numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths climb, then fall, then climb and fall, then climb and fall again.

We have distanced ourselves from one another to survive. We have led shrunken lives. We have felt constant anxiety. We have agonized over losses. We have worried for loved ones, close neighbors, mere acquaintances, and total strangers.

I’m not a religious person, but I have been praying this pandemic would end. I have looked to nature for signs of hope and recovery. I believe we can learn a lot about ourselves and our world simply by observing the animals and plants around us.

So, when I spotted this mourning dove–looking west and bathing in the afternoon light earlier this week outside my front door–it captured the essence of how I feel. I’m ready to look ahead, especially now that Tom and I have received our second Pfizer shots. That happened yesterday on April Fools’ Day, but there was nothing foolish about getting vaccinated to protect ourselves and those around us.

I’m grateful for science. I’m grateful for the thousands of health care workers who have risked their lives to save others. I’m grateful for the volunteers who waved us ahead to the next station in line. I’m grateful for the nurses who put shots in assorted arms every day and send us on our way.

On this Easter weekend, I’m grateful for new light. It is replacing the long darkness of a dreadful year.

The Texture of Our Lives

What have I missed most over the past year? The spontaneous moments that spring from nowhere. And, let’s face it, going nowhere pretty much describes what we have all experienced from last March to this one.

But, like the daffodils of March which I imagine are aching to bloom again in Illinois, the feeling of going nowhere is turning into the possibility of going somewhere as flickers of normalcy return.

My cousin Phyllis, who lives in Missouri, texted me a fun Happy St. Patrick’s Day message yesterday afternoon. It always brightens my day to hear from Phyllis. Her mother and my father were twins. We share lots of fond, long-ago, St. Louis memories.

Over the past nearly-four years, Phyllis and I have stayed in touch (via text mostly) since Tom and I last saw her and her family in person in St. Louis. Strangely, I suffered a heart attack in St. Louis the day after we dined with my cousin and her family. Tom and I were on our way west to our new home in Scottsdale when our entire world turned upside down.

Anyway, the texts back and forth between Phyllis and me are bursts of positive energy: wellness check-ins; holiday greetings; news and photos of her adorable granddaughters; snippets of stories about our beloved St. Louis Cardinals; exchanges about the weather in the St. Louis area and Scottsdale; and anecdotes about the latest developments in my writing universe. But, over the past four years, we have rarely spoken on the phone.

Yesterday, after our latest text exchange began, I decided to change things up a bit. I needed more. I needed to hear Phyllis’ voice. So I called her. We shared stories of our recent vaccinations and our grown sons. We laughed a little. We also complained about the state of the world that worries us. Our conversation felt deeper and more complete than the text exchanges. I realized after the fact how much I’ve been missing these kinds of conversations.

As all of us have retreated during twelve months of a global pandemic for our own protection, perhaps we have retreated too much. Perhaps, though we live in a world where we have the ability to text each other, we have created too much social distance between us and those we love. After all, we are human beings. We are social creatures. Even if we can’t touch each other, we need to feel as if we can. Our voices are instruments for making that happen.

A second example of me trying to recapture some spontaneity in my life happened this morning. I drove to Eldorado Pool for my morning swim. The pool was rather busy, but I spotted my friend Frank. He offered to share his lane. I thanked him and jumped in.

Before March 2020, Frank is someone I saw two or three times a week at the pool. We always traded random stories. This usually consisted of our favorite Scottsdale restaurants or our past lives on different trajectories in the Chicago area. Frank and I frequently connected on the fly in the stream of life. It was never planned. If it were, I think it would have felt less human, less important.

Of course, when our world shrank in 2020, there were no Frank-and-Mark encounters. When the pool was closed and the winter weather lingered longer than expected, that passing-friendship aspect of my life evaporated. Now that the weather is warming up, I expect to see Frank more regularly. We will share more of our foodie stories, pounds we need to relinquish from our pandemic doldrums, and the burgeoning construction activity in south Scottsdale that is growing up around us.

Yes, the thousands of lives lost due to COVID-19 are the worst of all. But the little moments, which comprise the mosaic of our lives, have been missing for far too long.

While we continue to wear our masks and shout with joy at the realization that the pace of vaccinations is increasing rapidly, it’s time we paused, breathed deeply, and began to recapture the texture of our lives.

Sweet Acacia

It’s not quite spring, but changes are brewing in the Sonoran Desert and elsewhere. Like a gusty, forty-mile-an-hour wind that rattled our bougainvillea and stripped palm leaves last night, there is something new stirring in the air.

Maybe hope is returning, in the form of fluffy, tangerine-colored balls dangling from branches. The sweet acacia trees have begun to perfume the Valley of the Sun.

Through much of the year, these shrubs prefer to stretch horizontally with little fanfare. But when the blossoms appear, they take center stage through the scent that intoxicates desert paths.

The tiny blooms remind me how much my life has changed from the pink-and-white magnolia trees of the Midwest. As a child in Missouri and an adult in Illinois, I watched as singular warm days of spiky temperatures in March and April seduced them to bloom early, only to be tricked by a later frost or snow that browned the petals.

Hope is appearing on the horizon in other forms. My sixty-six-year-old sister just texted me a masked photo of her seated after she received her first vaccination in Chicago. I suppose I’ve been worried about her, because I shed a few tears as I studied the image. I could glimpse the smile in her eyes, though her face was obscured. As more of us get vaccinated–and a storehouse of worry is released–I expect a river of previously pent-up emotions will flow around the world.

On Tuesday, Arizona expanded the COVID-19 vaccination sign-up process to include those 55 and up. Right after noon, Tom and I agonized over our laptops. We kept refreshing like feverish slot players at a casino grabbing the bar for another chance at a jackpot. After an hour or so of hand wringing and cursing, we were lucky to crack the code of online registration.

We are scheduled for the first round of vaccinations on the morning of March 11 at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, just a few miles from our home. I don’t expect to enjoy the prick of the needle in my arm that day. It won’t come close to the alluring scent of the acacia trees or the thrill of a few more friends stopping by to purchase signed copies of I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree.

But, like millions of others around the world, I’m fine with minor inconveniences and discomforts. Small side effects from a life-saving vaccine–miraculously tested, approved and produced in less than a year–will pale with the prospects of dodging COVID-19.

Yes, I’m more than ready to board an express train to a freer and more promising destination. I suspect you are too. I’ll see you in the sweet land of fortunate and grateful survivors. We’ll be there, like thousands of others, smiling from behind our masks.

Return to Eldorado

Though the title might lead you to believe otherwise, this is not one of those dusty western stories. You know, where the good guy returns to the scene of the crime for revenge against the villain and they duel it out in front of a saloon?

Instead, this is a much simpler, quieter tale about one man–me–beginning to take his shrunken life back a day after the United States surpassed half a million COVID-19-related deaths. (Incidentally, if you are like me, you are wondering if the decline in new cases and hospitalizations are harbingers of the waning days of a global pandemic or a mere lull, a mirage in the desert that has seduced us to believe some of us may actually escape after all.)

It had been nearly a year since I swam laps at Eldorado Pool in south Scottsdale. It exists about a mile from our condo. Before March 2020, it was a place I frequented three or four times a week. Of course, COVID-19 was the villain or at least the culprit that has kept me from going there for nearly twelve months.

Today, on Tuesday, February 23, 2021 I returned to this place that soothes and energizes my body and spirit. I wrote a new chapter gliding in the water. That consisted of thirty minutes in lane eleven of our thirteen-lane, Olympic-size, community pool.

I was one of about a dozen swimmers in the pool at ten o’clock this morning. We were a lucky twelve, cupping our hands to push through cool water under sixty-five-degree blue skies, far from the snow and bluster that has consumed most of the United States recently.

There were a few familiar faces, like Frank’s. He smiled, asked how my winter has been, and if I’d been working on a new book. His question reminded me how long it had been since we had talked, how much we hadn’t discussed, how little he knew of I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, and how much I had missed the connected pieces of my life … like swimming in a community pool, trading stories face-to-face with friends, realizing that the few added pounds around my middle can be shed easily by recapturing this strand of my life a few times a week. One lap at a time.

My swimming is over for the day. Now, outside the pool, I hold my breath–like most of the rest of the world–and wait. I am one of those under sixty-fivers (just barely) ready to be vaccinated, ready to schedule it as soon as I can, ready to recapture more strands of my life, ready to return to a world that once felt familiar.

I’ll Be Seeing You

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.

A New Day in History

As a memoir writer, I usually look for clues from the past to enlighten the present. Or signs from nature, such as the cottonwood trees, which I gravitate toward on my walks on the edge of the Desert Botanical Garden. Even in mid-winter here in Arizona, they cling to their brown autumn leaves as they touch another blue Sonoran sky.

No matter what happened yesterday or the day before — or which leaves hold on, fall, or decompose in the desert sun — January 20, 2021 is a day unto itself. It is a twenty-four-hour period filled with residual pain and new possibilities.

Despite the intense security required in Washington, D.C. to stage the inauguration of our forty-sixth president, the deed is done. Joe Biden is now our president; Kamala Harris our vice president. She is the first woman — the first woman of color — to hold this high office. That is something grand to celebrate.

Yes, the years, months and days leading up to this have been marred by a failed presidency, political upheaval, social distress, a January 6 insurrection, and the awful reckoning of more than four hundred thousand lives lost in the United States in one year to this pandemic.

But the light flickering in the sky above the cottonwood trees on this day feels different to me. The atmosphere on the steps of the U.S. Capitol is also new. There is unity in the messages, diversity in the images, and poetry in the air.

Finally, at least for one day, we have something to be proud of again as a nation. It is a new day in history.

From Crab Apples to Lemon Trees

In June 1962, a month before my fifth birthday, I stood alone outside the west wall of my brick childhood home. I wore my high-top Keds and cargo shorts with crazy pockets. The wind raced past my crew cut.

Our three-bedroom ranch in south suburban St. Louis appeared identical to two dozen others in the neighborhood, except ours featured a flowering pink crab apple tree with stair-step limbs I loved to climb.

In the shade of the branches, a clear thought jumped to the forefront of my brain. “I am different. I have important things to say.” The idea lingered and swirled through my consciousness.

As I look back at that vivid memory—one of my earliest—I must have recognized I was unlike most of the other boys. At that young age, I must have known I was gay. I must have begun to identify a need to share my thoughts and tell my stories one day.

Since that moment, I have lived at least four lives—shaped by local geography—and written four books. I have played in the red earth of North Carolina, navigated the rolling hills of Missouri, survived the flatlands of Illinois, and discovered the peaks and valleys of Arizona.

I never imagined I would live and write in my sixties in the rugged landscape of the Sonoran Desert, but the trail of life has led me here to the threshold of publishing my fourth book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree. It will appear on Amazon (in paperback and Kindle versions) in late January or early February. Of course, once it is available for purchase, I will let you know.

In the first three years of my Arizona residency—2017 through 2020—the Grand Canyon State has enriched and shaped my life with natural beauty, profound uncertainty, and joyful humor. My goal was to reflect all three in this book, and develop a larger narrative about a gay man and his husband fulfilling their dreams, reflecting on their experiences, hoping to survive a global pandemic, and aging in a bold landscape.

If you are drawn to the themes I explore here on my blog and in my books—nature, family, community, heritage, human rights, humor, love, loss, health, truth, diversity, and creativity—I think you will enjoy reading my latest book.

Of course, nearly six decades have passed since I stood by that flowering pink crab apple tree I loved as a child. It has been replaced by the citrus trees that surround Tom and me in our sixties in our Scottsdale condo community. But the value of memory and storytelling is that I can remember the most important trees, past and present. I can choose to honor each of them.

Little did I know that one day a luscious lemon tree, thirty feet outside my front door, would inspire me to write and share the broader stories of my Arizona life.

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.