Category: Memoirs

All That Jazz

Ruminating from the threshold of Medicare eligibility, this is how I choose to remember my parents in their later years: content and seated side-by-side, listening to jazz in St. Louis on the banks of the Mississippi River.

If you’ve read my first book, you know Helen and Walter had a complicated and volatile relationship. But by the mid-to-late-80s–after the heavy lifting of jobs, child rearing, and the daily swirl of Dad’s bipolar rants–they found a more peaceful coexistence.

Together they rediscovered a love of Dixieland jazz under the shadow of the Gateway Arch. They tossed their metal folding chairs (latticed with yellow and white nylon strips) into the trunk of their sensible sedan, drove downtown, and evidently walked to this shady spot.

It happened just steps away from the cobblestones that led to the now-defunct Admiral Boat and historic Eads Bridge that still connects Missouri and Illinois. (If you squint, you’ll see them both in the background.)

I remember the faint giddy-up in my fading father’s voice over the phone. He described what he and Mom experienced … together … rousing, organic music played by happy people. Trumpeters, saxophonists, trombonists blaring on a summer’s day.

Best of all, all that glorious music was FREE. Products of the Great Depression, Dad’s and Mom’s frugality was baked into their souls. Thankfully, it transferred magically into mine.

Years later, as I gathered coupons for a trip to the grocery store with her in northern Illinois, my mother would smile with pride at me from under her floppy hat and announce, “You’re a good shopper, honey.”

I imagine my sister Diane took this photo. At the time, she lived near them in the St. Louis suburbs. I had already moved to Chicago in 1980 to launch my communication career and create a life with Jean, then my wife.

Busy in my late twenties and early thirties, I was happy to know of a positive change in my parents’ relationship, but I think I dismissed their newfound glee and meeting of the minds. Digging deeper, maybe I felt sad that I missed this better chapter.

Now that I’ve arrived at the station in life depicted in this photo–greater leisure time, protective hats, contentment, wisdom, and personal vulnerability–I see more clearly how tragic it is that we Americans dismiss the trajectory of our older citizens in favor of youth and vitality.

It seems like it should be the exact opposite. Other cultures figured that out long ago. Why is it we are so hung up on viewing the activities and lives of young people as more valuable? The Kardashians? Please!

It boils down to money, marketing, and economics. Companies know that many seniors–then and now–live on fixed incomes. They don’t have the disposable income they once did. But what a shame to diminish their worth and assign it a dollar amount.

This story–part nostalgic reflection, part rant on agism–was prompted by rejection. No, I wasn’t job hunting. Five months ago, I entered my latest book in a contest with Memoir Magazine. I had high hopes I might at least get some sort of honorable mention.

On Sunday, I received a cordial, strategically written email thanking me for my submission. Then the other shoe dropped. Though my set of whimsical-and-serious Arizona stories and flights of fancy made it through the initial review, it didn’t land on the short list.

I have to admit. I was crestfallen. I think I’m a damn good writer. I also realize the competition was stiff. I lead a relatively ordinary life with my husband. At this point, my life isn’t filled with drama. It’s my calling to write stories about what it means to age, what it means to be gay, what it means to exist and survive in this crazy world.

Yes, as my husband reminds me, there will be other opportunities, other contests to consider. But especially now (three weeks after testing positive for Covid and fortunately recovering) none of us knows what tomorrow will bring.

All of this brings me back to Helen and Walter … and all that jazz they enjoyed under the Arch in the 1980s. I suppose I’m better off just enjoying the moments of life as they appear, singing when I want to sing (I have a brief solo in my June concert with the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus), writing what I want to write, and caring less about accolades and awards.

I guess I’m better off giving thanks for the perspective that comes with aging. No matter whether the literary world or the greater universe ever recognizes what I have to say, I have my life. I have my voice. I have my writing.

Along the Back Fence: Part Two

As we cross through the middle of May, it’s time to share the conclusion of the story of Millie, my neighbor, and our relationship that spanned twenty years Along the Back Fence. This story first appeared in An Unobstructed View.

***

In the summer of 2016, I waved to Millie as I worked in my backyard. Frail and in her nineties, she was seated on a chair on her deck with Yolanda, her live-in caregiver, nearby.

Millie motioned to me to meet them by the back fence. With Yolanda at her side, it took a few minutes for Millie to navigate her way there. But there was never any doubt she would make it.

When she arrived, I leaned out to give her a hug and she rested her head on my shoulder. She told me she loved to admire the perennial blooms that came and went, but her gardening days were over. She simply didn’t have the physical energy for it anymore.

Nonetheless, she wanted to gift the only remaining rose bush in her yard to Tom and me, if I would dig it up from her side of the yard and find a place to transplant it in our backyard.

Though I didn’t know where we’d find room for the bush, I was touched by the gesture. I grabbed a shovel from the garage, wedged the toe of my shoe in the cyclone fence, and boosted myself over onto Millie’s lush lawn. Tom found our wheelbarrow and lifted it over too.

It took me nearly thirty minutes of digging before I could pry the stubborn bush out of the ground. But it finally succumbed. When I left Millie’s yard with the bush, I thanked her and gave her another hug and kiss on the cheek. We had come a long way from our early compost pile days.

“I love you guys,” she said.

“We love you too, Millie,” I assured her.

Before Tom and I moved the following summer, we waved to Millie a few more times from our backyard whenever we mowed our lawn and saw her perched on her deck, presiding over her floral-filled memories.

And the red rose bush–which we carefully transplanted alongside our driveway and propped up with tomato stakes and chicken wire–took root and bloomed before we departed.

We left it there for the new owners to enjoy.

It only seemed fitting.

***

In late October 2019, Kathy–another of our Mount Prospect, Illinois neighbors–called with sad, but inevitable, news. Millie had passed away, just a few months shy of her 100th birthday.

In May 2022, I fantasize that somewhere in a distant universe, Millie is preparing to serve up a Tupperware container filled with ambrosia salad for all her friends.

In reality, seventeen hundred miles west of my previous Illinois home, it is our Arizona neighbors who are about to be dazzled by a summer-long perennial display compliments of our double-red desert rose bush.

The arrival of this much-anticipated splash of brilliant color is something Millie would have loved.

Along the Back Fence

It’s not unusual for the proximity of neighbors to cause conflicts.

But often the bonds we forge with those next door–or in this case along the back fence–can add more texture and meaning to our lives than we once imagined.

Shortly after Tom and I moved west, I wrote Along the Back Fence about Millie–our Illinois neighbor from 1996 to 2017.

I’ve been thinking of her again recently, because the fifth anniversary of selling my Midwestern home is approaching.

This story first appeared in An Unobstructed View, a book about my personal journey from Illinois to Arizona in 2017 and an unexpected detour that awaited in the city where I was born.

In this world of turmoil and uncertainty, our best neighbors deliver color, comfort, and continuity.

I bet there’s a Millie in your life worth remembering.

***

Long before I arrived at my Mount Prospect home, Millie loved her garden and the hibiscus plants she and her husband had planted on the other side of the back fence.

But when I first met my neighbor Millie in the summer of 1996, her husband had been gone for a few years and the exotic flowers were waning too. She was alone and lonely in her mid-seventies, but not in a quiet and retiring way. There was plenty of fight left in Millie.

It wasn’t an auspicious start for the two of us. I had begun to create a small compost pile in the far corner of my yard. She wasn’t happy about it–too many decomposing grass clippings and small spruce branches in one place she thought. In her view, I had created a mess.

When she complained about the smell that had started brewing there, I scrapped the idea and placed the yard materials by the curb for the next trash pickup. I didn’t want to alienate Millie. I didn’t want to contribute to her unhappiness.

I don’t think we had much to say to one another over the next few months. Only a quick hello here or there as I pushed my mower around my yard, and she tended to her garden that wrapped around her detached garage.

Eventually, we broke the ice. From one side of the fence, she told me about her love of roses. From the other, I introduced her to my sons and then Tom. After that, we found firm footing.

By the fall of 1998, Maggie was in the picture. I remember Millie leaning over to pet our dog’s voluminous ears. Millie would cradle Maggie’s head on either side when the dog placed her paws along the back fence. “How is that Maggie today?” she would ask. Our droopy-eyed pet had won her heart too.

Over time, Millie got to know more members of my family. One summer afternoon, Tom and I decided to invite Millie over for a backyard barbecue. My mother was visiting us from St. Louis.

Both Mom and Millie were gardeners. There was plenty for them to discuss about the flowers they had grown, nurtured, and cherished over the years. Not to mention the yummy three-bean salad Millie had whipped together in a jiffy.

“Next time I’ll bring my ambrosia salad,” Millie told us. “Everyone loves it!”

And there was a next time the following year. Tom’s mom and dad joined us from the other side of Mount Prospect. Sure enough, Millie brought her signature salad of mandarin oranges, maraschino cherries, crushed pineapple, and shredded coconut to compliment the relatively ordinary burgers and hot dogs we grilled that afternoon.

That was the last of our three-bean-and-ambrosia-salad moments with the older set. The seasons passed and so did our parents–Tom’s dad in 2012, my mom in 2013, Tom’s mom in 2015.

But Millie survived them all. She heard about each of our losses along the back fence. It gave me comfort to meet her there, though our encounters became few and far between as her own health–her own surefootedness–declined …

***

Rest assured, I’ll share part two of this story later this week.

Reentry

On Tuesday, April 26, 2022–the day Vice President Kamala Harris tested positive for Covid without symptoms–I did too. But with symptoms: fever, headache, congestion, and fatigue.

Ironically, it was also about the same time Dr. Anthony Fauci declared we had crossed the pandemic bridge and entered an endemic world, where the disease rate is at an acceptable or manageable level.

At that moment, I don’t think I believed him. There was nothing acceptable about the situation for Tom or me. As you might suspect, my husband soon developed the same symptoms.

For the following week, Tom and I took turns playing nurse, while pumping a flurry of fluids, acetaminophens, decongestants, and attaboy encouragements.

We slept sporadically, texted my sons and our sisters, cancelled plans with friends reluctantly like two men waving from a desert island, and zapped each other endlessly with our digital thermometer–up to 102.3, down to 99.6, up to 101.2, down to 100.2, finally back to 98.6.

We rode out the storm together, quarantining in the privacy of our cozy desert condo. Two kind friends left wonton soup outside our front door, as they were dealing with their own trauma of repairing their car so they could drive east. Back to their home in New York.

Another sweet neighbor placed a bar of chocolate on the mosaic tile table between our two wicker chairs. I snatched it as soon as she left. She knows about Tom’s dark chocolate addiction and my wedding vow in 2014 to keep him supplied with a bottomless supply of it.

Through it all, I think you could characterize our Covid cases as mild, though my anxiety flew through the roof for seven days. I shuddered to think what the outcome might have been.

What if we hadn’t been fully vaccinated and boosted twice? What if I could never see Tom’s smiling face again or gaze into his beautiful blue eyes that nearly match the bluish-gray t-shirt I gave him that doesn’t fit me anymore?

***

About a million Americans have died of Covid complications.

We are two of the lucky few. But this isn’t a story about luck. It’s about truth and science.

The vaccinations we lined up for protected us, kept us out of the hospital, and forestalled any notions of two more premature deaths. By following the science and getting inoculated, we dodged two bullets. The universe rewarded us exponentially by giving us more time together.

This morning it feels like we are both back to normal. We’ve been symptom free for several days. We returned to the gym for the first time in nearly two weeks. I mounted the treadmill. Tom opted for the elliptical. I smiled as I watched Tom exchange his hellos with a community of patrons and familiar faces.

But earlier in the morning–when I leaned out the front door to water our succulents under the fig tree–there was a defining moment with an extraordinary animal, which I won’t soon forget.

Our feral friend Poly, the community cat that has lived on the fringe of life for a long time, meowed and came closer to me than she ever has. After a brief photo opportunity, Tom handed me the bag of cat treats and I sprinkled a dozen or so on the sidewalk.

Once I closed the door, Poly left the shelter of our eaves–safe in her own moveable, quarantining bubble–and approached the kitty kernels.

Unceremoniously, she glanced up at me as if to say, “I understand how you feel, all worried and frayed. But you’ve made it through. You’ll get by. You’re a survivor. Just like me.”

324 and More

Today marks four years since I began my blogging adventure and obsession.

When I launched this website May 4, 2018, I wanted to promote my books and develop a greater literary presence online. Over time, that goal has been superseded by a desire to share topical stories about the extraordinary, meaningful moments and people that cross through one ordinary life.

It’s been no simple task nurturing my creativity in this chaotic world. Blogging has given voice to my memories, ideas, values, observations, and opinions. More than that, in my sixties it has become the organic structure I need to stay sharp, sane, hopeful, and whole.

Most definitely, blogging was my salvation during the height of the pandemic. The whimsical and serious tales I spun at my laptop became fodder for my fourth book about two gay men forging a new life in the Sonoran Desert.

This post is #324. That’s an average of eighty-one stories per year or nearly seven each month. Written at all hours of the day and night. Concocted in all sorts of moods: happy, sad, angry, reflective, devastated, and triumphant.

Thank you for joining me on this circuitous journey. If you follow me, you know I often share poetry. Frequently, I like to include photos that ignite and inspire an idea that might otherwise never have surfaced.

For nearly thirty years, I’ve written poems and stashed them in an expanding file. It’s a body of work that encompasses the highs and lows of six-and-a-half decades and chronicles the profound role nature plays in our everyday existence.

As I approach my 65th birthday in July, I feel an impulse to publish a collection of my most vivid poems. Would such a chapbook interest you? As you ponder that question, I hope you enjoy reading this verse.

When I wrote it May 7, 2016, Tom and I were Midwesterners–more familiar with blooming iris and peonies than spiky cacti and monsoon rains.

As an Illinois resident on the threshold of more change than I could imagine, I wanted to remember the imagery of past Mays.

My, our world has changed.

***

May’s Bouquet

Arriving welcome, clean and fresh, reflecting skies grow amorous.

Crisp at dawn, bursting through, captured by a mother’s view.

Blooming iris, sweet repose, ducklings lined up in a row.

Bounding blooms, fast and pure, veiled peonies pink allure.

Reaching high, bred for speed, stretching out to take the lead.

Calm til dusk, an even pace, ushered in the rain’s disgrace.

Gliding up, curling flow, blowing wishes afterglow.

Tempers flare, to dash away, majestic days of May’s bouquet.

In May 2017, I gathered this bouquet of fragrant iris from our Illinois garden and placed it on our table.

Pivot Point

As friends flock north and east, mockingbirds replace them. Stationed high in palms, they announce April is ending. Below, something bright is blooming.

We have reached our annual pivot point. We teeter between welcoming warmth and undeniable heat. There is no turning back to milder yesterdays.

Even in this age of escalating temperatures and worries, nature reminds us we are strong survivors. In a vast, blurry land of thorny problems, we shine.

On April 28, 2022, the Moroccan Mound cactus outside our door bloomed for the first time.

Ablaze

Through the weekend, the Tunnel Fire has burned 21,000 acres just north of Flagstaff, Arizona. But a few hundred miles south, the Valley of the Sun is ablaze in a kaleidoscope of color. In April’s final week, blooming wildflowers, cacti, and desert roses–and a resilient reptile–answer an age-old question. Yes, despite our warming planet, rare beauty remains in the Sonoran Desert.

Reality Check

This morning it was seventy-nine degrees at nine o’clock. Perfect for a swim. Forty lengths of the pool kept me whole. David trudged along beside me for most of it.

My neighbor–about ten years my senior–strides through the fluid to stay strong. He has difficulty walking but can do it more easily in the water.

The buoyancy provides the resistance and support he needs to keep going. Whenever I see him there, we smile, and exchange “good mornings” and I admire his tenacity.

Age and vulnerability have been swirling through my mind lately. Part of it is simply the frightening world we live in. The other component is the knowledge that I will turn sixty-five in July.

Tom and I have already enrolled in Medicare. Our cards came in the mail last week. We will meet with a broker in the next few weeks. She’ll help us select a Medicare supplement plan.

I feel a weird combination of relief–for having made it this far–and anxiety knowing what tomorrow will bring. I imagine some of you who read this will understand that both feelings can coexist on a daily basis.

The crapshoot of advancing age affords us a degree of wisdom to spread around if we choose to … and the accelerating sensation that we are riding on a runaway wagon traveling downhill. We had better make the most of the wild highs and bumpy lows on the journey.

I’ve always considered myself a relatively patient and understanding person. An active listener too. Sometimes I lean too far out over the tips of my skis (no, I’m not a skier, but humor me with this metaphor) and push too far outside my comfort zone. Soon after, I realize I’ve extended beyond my emotional limits. That’s when I become brittle and abrupt.

I am more this way now than I was as a younger man. I don’t know why, but as I write this sentence, I remember seeing this quality more prominently in my mother as she aged.

I had a boss thirty years ago who liked me more whenever I revealed this cut-to-the-chase attribute. She came to me whenever she needed a “reality check.”

Melba enjoyed knowing that I was willing to bend to make things work. But she could count on me to tell her when all of us on her team were about to break or that the latest corporate flavor-of-the-month boondoggle sucked.

However, others who experience this trait are surprised by my forthrightness. Think of it as kindness turned callousness if you push me too far, especially if it involves someone I love.

Something sudden like that happened on Saturday. Tom and I were at the gym, doing our regular hour-long routines of ellipticals, weights, and treadmills. An acquaintance there, someone we see frequently, approached my husband. Tom was in the middle of his workout.

This individual (I’ll call him Gabe) has an odd-and-unsettling habit of telling Tom that he doesn’t like him. It started out as sort of a running joke between them. But over time the joke Gabe recycles has worn thin. Tom wasn’t in the mood for it Saturday. He told Gabe so.

A short while later, Gabe approached me. He knows Tom and I are a couple. Sheepishly, he leaned in to admit he thought he’d pissed off Tom. As my discomfort intensified, I continued to plod along on the elliptical. I tried to switch the subject with Gabe. I asked how he was.

I need to digress. Probably every time I’ve talked with Gabe (in the four years I’ve known him) he has bent my ear and told me his life is a shambles. He’s dealing with lots of significant issues I won’t go into here.

I feel compassion for him, so I’ve listened figuring things would one day get better. But they haven’t. In all of that time, I can’t remember him asking me about my life.

Anyway, Gabe left, but circled back later to tell me–again–how miserable his life is. In a flash, my patience vanished. I felt used. Disrespected. I took a breath. I knew I was way out over my skis. I needed to find a way to rescue myself. I was not the therapist he needs.

It was time for a verbal reality check between Gabe and me. Especially after what I had seen transpire between Gabe and Tom out of the corner of my eye fifteen minutes before.

The words that flew out of my mouth were something like “You’re not the only one with problems. Look around. Every person in this gym (I pointed around me) is dealing with shit.”

Gabe was dumbfounded. He told me to stay away from him. That won’t be a problem.

***

It’s been difficult for me to let go of this experience. I know that I was angry with Gabe for his behavior with Tom. On some level, I was defending my husband. But I also feel guilty for being so brusque with him. Clearly, he needs professional help.

At any rate, I need to own my part in it. I was tired of being a doormat for his bipolar banter. I felt I had to save myself.

If you’ve read any of my books, you know why. My father was a loose cannon. More aptly, he had intense mood swings and unresolved traumas from his WWII experience.

Around 1970, Dad was diagnosed as bipolar. This came after years of trial-and-error treatments, shock therapy, and prescription medications. Our family lived with his emotional illness for decades without answers or relief. At times, it was devastating. It was our dark reality.

As a child, I felt trapped in the same house with Dad whenever his outbursts would appear. He was intensely unhappy, and it spread to my mother, sister and me.

Frequently, Dad resorted to verbal abuse. Less often, physical violence. Throwing shoes at me. Punching his fist through a bedroom door. I was scared, but–at the same time–I loved my father.

Sometimes, even as an adult, these old issues reappear. Writing about it helps (and remembering the counsel of my own therapist) but maybe I will never entirely get over the feelings of anxiety from my earliest years. Maybe I will always live in fear of crash landing in a snow drift with my skis tangled and limbs broken.

Bottom line: it is my worst nightmare to be near someone volatile. Someone who has no boundaries. As uncomfortable as I feel about my exchange with Gabe, I had reached my limits with him.

In a world of sadness and pain, I couldn’t remain silent any longer. I had to speak my truth and restore my power. I think that’s what survivors do.

***

Here’s my reality check.

It’s 3 p.m. on April 19, 2022. The heat is on in Scottsdale, Arizona; it’s now ninety-seven degrees.

I’ll never snow ski; I’m too afraid of speed and broken bones.

Dad’s been gone nearly thirty years.

Gabe’s problems are his to untangle or not.

I have my own life to maintain and manage.

I am living in the Sonoran Desert with my kind husband.

We are the new recipients of Medicare cards.

Together we’ll see what the future brings.

It All Began in April

In this season of rebirth, I am reminded of my transformative journey that began five Aprils ago.

***

I should have known better. Life had taught me there was nothing certain about any journey.

I had already navigated the ups and downs of my St. Louis childhood, struggled along as a single dad, shed illusions of a straight existence in favor of an authentic life, and retraced the path of my mother’s life from fertile ground.

Yet, I didn’t expect the journey I was about to embark upon with my husband–waving goodbye to one home and resurfacing in another–would prove to be as circuitous.

By the fourth month of 2017, Tom and I had drawn up the details of our dream. We would sell our home in northern Illinois; escape the cold; move to Scottsdale, Arizona; and live in the desert permanently. We wouldn’t be denied.

It all began in April with the physical trappings of certainty. We were locked into a familiar pattern of cool and damp Lake Michigan air with only a ray or two of sun filtering through the clouds. But as we prepared to leave behind the permutations of our past, we also knew there was heavy lifting to be done.

Before we could leave the Midwest and say goodbye to our Illinois family and friends, we needed to sell our home in Chicago’s northwest suburbs.

***

What you just read is a portion of the prologue from An Unobstructed View. If you find yourself intrigued and pondering your own personal transformation, my third book will have special meaning for you. Download a free copy on Amazon through Monday, April 18.

One simple request: once you are through, please take a few moments to post your review.