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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.

Rain

On the first morning of autumn, September’s long-forgotten-and-seldom-seen sister dropped in from beyond the buttes.

Unreliable rain interrupted an eight o’clock swim. She had ghosted us all summer. Promised her return. Teased us with phantom forecasts.

She stayed for ten minutes. Long enough to soothe freckled shoulders, heal parched souls, and cast a creosote cocktail over the palms.

Her intoxicating personality was the change we needed to silence the sameness. To swim and dance again under the clouds of our desert dreams.

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.

The Pursuit of Happiness

In late October 1997, I traveled from Chicago to Cleveland to co-facilitate a diversity training course for managers of a large financial institution.

Charles was the lead consultant on the project. We had teamed up before. He was black and straight. I was white and gay.

I felt inspired, watching him begin the session, explain the merits of an inclusive workforce, and preach the business rationale for embracing diversity.

The idea was to challenge the bank’s managers to respectfully acknowledge and maximize the differences of employees: skin color, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities, religious and cultural beliefs.

By maximizing the mosaic of its differences, the company would be better equipped to create a more collaborative, welcoming culture that would produce happier employees who could more effectively understand and reflect the needs of diverse customers. I believed every bit of it. I still do.

Charles’ dark skin color was obvious, but perhaps my sexual orientation wasn’t. I typically didn’t divulge my gayness, unless the training warranted it.

At one point, a male manager stood up. He said he believed gay people were immoral. He thought they didn’t deserve respect or equal treatment.

The room of forty managers and two facilitators froze. Somewhere inside, despite my anger, I mustered the words and focus to break the silence and challenge his thinking. Essentially, I said something like the following:

“I’m gay and I don’t believe I’m immoral. I can assure you there are lots of gay employees you work with you, who feel the same way. If they don’t feel respected here, they’ll take their talents elsewhere.”

The manager sat down and mumbled a few comments under his breath. The training continued. Charles smiled. He took the training reigns and proceeded without missing a beat.

It was a watershed moment for me in my personal development and professional life to have the opportunity to defend myself–all LGBTQ people, really–and feel the support of a trusted colleague.

In 1997, I never imagined that one day I would live in a country where it would be legal for two men or two women to marry each other. I never imagined I would have the opportunity to marry the man I love. But, remarkably, it happened.

On September 6, 2014, Tom and I were married before about sixty of our family and close friends. It was a shiny, crisp afternoon in Illinois.

Our sisters walked us down the aisle. Though she was ailing, Tom’s mother made it. She wore the paisley silk scarf we bought for her in Florence, Italy.

Tom and I were surrounded by sunflowers, smiles and a few tears that day. Six years have passed. Though all four of our parents have been gone for five years, with every passing season–with every highlight, loss or moment of vulnerability–our love has grown deeper. I’m thankful for that.

Despite marriage equality in the United States, we now live in a country with a president who believes it’s “un-American” to be different. A few days ago he directed the White House Office of Management and Budget to prevent federal agencies from spending money on diversity training.

I don’t know where this chapter in American history will lead us, but I have faith this dark period will end soon. We are a country founded on the notion of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all of its people.

Even with all of the hateful comments of the past four years, I think the majority of Americans still believe in freedom and equality. We’ll find out in November.

September Morn

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I was ready to turn my back on August. Forty widths of the pool under a dramatic partly cloudy sky helped me kiss the hottest month ever in the Valley of the Sun goodbye.

September began swimmingly.

In the 1960s on the first of September, Dad would shout “September morn” gleefully when my sister Diane and I walked into our suburban St. Louis kitchen for breakfast. It was a greeting his grandmother bestowed on him as a child. He loved it so much he embraced the tradition. Years later Mom adopted the practice when she woke us from our teenage slumber.

Dad thought September was the most beautiful month of the year. I believed him. The mornings and nights were cooler. The afternoon shadows longer. The hues and possibilities deeper.

If you followed September’s signs, they led you to the land of beginnings. Back-to-school shopping with Mom. A fresh supply of spiral notebooks, unopened boxes of crayons, striped shirts, blue jeans, and high-top Keds from Sears. A new teacher with new ideas in a new classroom. A mix of familiar and new-in-town classmates.

As a kid, I always envied Diane. She had a late September birthday. In my crew-cut brain, I fused it with the happy memory of a rhyme we chanted together: “September wears a party dress of lavender and gold.”

Even at sixty-three, seeing the first light in the Sonoran Desert on this September morn made me giddy. As Tom and I glided through the water,  back and forth across the pool, it helped me to realize that newness is never far away on the horizon.

Sometimes we just have to search a little longer to find September’s first light peeking through the clouds.

Birdland 2020

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When Nick called on Wednesday afternoon to tell us the air conditioning in their Tempe, Arizona home was out, I could hear the desperation in my thirty-six-year-old son’s voice.

He and girlfriend Aida had found a hotel room nearby for themselves, Aida’s teenage children (Mia and Tony) and Yorkshire terrier (Bella). But they needed a cool space for African grey (Zumra) and colorful conure (Kiki) to mark time until a wayward AC replacement part could be identified and shipped in the middle of a pandemic.

“Bring ’em on over,” I said. Tom, the ever-loving animal lover, nodded in agreement. “They’ll be comfortable here in our sun room.” We couldn’t imagine two exotic birds toughing it out, panting and squawking in a ninety-seven degree house in this endless, torrid Sonoran summer.

Without a hitch, we shouldered the feeding and watering responsibility. Surrogate parents (or possibly grandparents) to a couple of feathered gremlins who gazed at us through the bars of their cages and produced an errant squeak here or a flurry of acrobatic activity there. Simple, rhythmic reminders of where we were living for three days and nights: Birdland 2020.

Our featured performers dazzled us by carefully plucking multi-grain wafers, plantain chips, and sliced green grapes from our palms (without severing our fingertips with their impressive beaks), while balancing like circus performers on high-wire perches.

The only sideshow acts missing were a shouting ringmaster, dancing bears, freshly-spun cotton candy, and an oily carnival barker manning the carousel, as calliope music blared from the boombox in our living room.

Of course, the complete circus spectacle described here existed only in my storytelling imagination. Though on Thursday night, extra-curricular activities DID include a monsoon storm raging outside as Zumra and Kiki twirled and Joe Biden unfurled a  passionate speech. All of it summoned the rain and hope we had missed for months. No … years.

Now we are empty nesters again. Nick and Aida picked up Zumra and Kiki on Saturday evening. Their entire entourage is holed up in a larger, more comfortable apartment for the remainder of this week as they wait for permanent resolution on their uncomfortable AC odyssey.

All isn’t lost. Tom and I have the marvelous memory of two exotic travelers. Flapping, but unflappable. Unaware of the mayhem in the human world, Zumra and Kiki flew in and out in August, graced us with their plumage, and stole our bird-loving hearts.

While outside hummingbirds, mourning doves, mockingbirds, finches, desert wrens, and lovebirds brighten our world in Arizona every day. If we remember to look and listen, they remind us that nature is king, no matter who lives in the White House.

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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.

 

Last Light

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“The desert, to those who do listen, is more likely to provoke awe than to invite conquest.”

Joseph Wood Krutch–author, naturalist, and conservationist

Quote adapted from The Voice of the Desert, 1954

Photo of Desert Botanical Garden by Mark Johnson, 2014

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.