Love and loss are universal human conditions. If we feel the first, we can’t escape the grief associated with the second.
I wrote You Everlasting in December 2009. It was a gift for my eighty-six-year-old mother.
I remember the surprise and delight on her face that Christmas Eve, after she slowly unwrapped the framed contents in tissue paper cradled in her lap.
“You wrote me a poem,” she said quietly.
In 2016, three years after she passed, I published the poem in From Fertile Ground. It is a book inspired and informed by grief.
Today, on the tenth anniversary of Helen F. Johnson’s death, the time is right to share it again.
The imagery of flowers, trees, and animals comforts me. The verse provides much-needed continuity from her past existence to the reflections and influences that live on inside me.
The poem reminds me of that wise, nature-loving woman, who carved a resilient path for me to follow.
I still feel her presence today and can smile with the knowledge that, though she left on a frigid-in-Illinois, January morning in 2013, I carry the warm memories of her in my Arizona desert life in 2023.
Perhaps these words will prompt memories of your own loved ones, who are gone but never forgotten.
You are the comfort of nature. Eternally pressed.
The first magnolia petal of spring.
The last gingko leaf of autumn.
The determined orchid that flourishes.
The lingering annual that endures. Perennial.
You are high and low tide. Remarkably present.
The hidden, tranquil meadow.
The crackle and thump of fresh melon.
The dancing firefly in a warm Carolina sky.
The soulful howl of a January hound waiting by the gate. Undeniable.
You are the simplest wisdom. Gracefully proud.
The tender touch of summer days that melt but never fade.
The breaking dawn of blues and greens forever in my memories.
The resilient path carved and captured in my heart.
When Tom and I moved to Arizona in 2017, we were immediately impressed with the library system here in Scottsdale.
It consists of four library locations spread south to north through our community to cover the ever-expanding patronage of transplants from other places. Each is a book lover’s haven with artistic touches built into the architecture to reflect the landscape of the desert southwest.
Closest to us–the main facility–is Civic Center Library in Old Town Scottsdale. It’s a place my husband and I frequent to browse the stacks for something new or familiar to read. In the past, before Covid, it’s also where I participated in the Local Author Book Fairs.
What neither of us anticipated (until last fall) is that on a chilly-for-the-valley Monday–the twenty-third day in the twenty-third year of this millennium and five-and-a-half years since we called Arizona our permanent home–Tom would realize a lifelong dream there.
He would begin to lead a free, eight-week film series and discussion, stand in the Civic Center auditorium in front of sixty attendees (friends, acquaintances, neighbors, relative strangers, and film lovers) and share his deep knowledge and passion for iconic films from 1967-1977.
It’s an era characterized in the American film industry as the New Hollywood. A period of controversial, counterculture attitudes that would personally define and shape his love of film and its ability to combine art form with social statement.
But as I sat in the front row to watch Tom welcome library patrons and see the first installment of the series (A Decade Under the Influence, a provocative documentary chockful of film clips and interviews with directors, writers and actors from that era) it was Tom’s moment that mattered most.
He has always imagined the thrill of owning a small theatre. Of showing films from that era–and classics like the Best Years of Our Lives from our parents’ generation–to inform and entertain those who may or may not be familiar with them.
We don’t have the financial ability to do that. But we do have friends and connections in our community (thank you, Glenn). In this case, they aligned magically to put Tom in touch with library management and help make his dream bloom and grow in the desert.
During and after the program Monday evening, I could feel the buzz in the auditorium. Many came up to thank Tom for sharing his film expertise and personal anecdotes. Not to mention a handy dandy packet of fun facts and background information about the films, which Tom happily prepared and the library staff copied and distributed.
I expect that many of the sixty who attended will be back for the second film on January 30. They’ll certainly be there to see Bonnie and Clyde, the jarring, graphic, and spectacular film about the Barrow gang and Depression-era Texas.
I imagine they will also return to hear Tom’s film insights.
Note: If you live in the area and would like to attend, the film series runs from 3 to 6 p.m. on Monday nights until March 20, 2023, at the Civic Center Library, 3839 N. Drinkwater Blvd. Registration not required. Space is limited.
The program is a free eight-week class about original, creative films from the Hollywood renaissance. A look at how filmmaking evolved after relaxed censorship and rating systems gave filmmakers freedom to explore new subject matter and styles of cinematic expression. Discussions and screenings each week are led by Tom Samp. All films are recommended for mature audiences.
I take a blood thinner; therefore, I bruise easily.
So, for instance, if I’m putting away dishes in our cupboard after dinner and bump the top of my hand on the corner of the cabinet, I am sure to leave that mundane household experience with a souvenir–an immediate red patch that will last a few days in the afflicted area.
I haven’t always been ultra-self-conscious about the condition of my extremities. It’s only lately–in my sixties with thinner skin on my thinner body–that I’ve become aware of my aging hands and, of course, my mortality. They go hand in hand.
Since I’m a writer and rely on my fingers, wrists, and hands to write these sentences on my laptop, I’m fortunate not to have arthritis in my joints–in my hands.
My sister Diane seems to be the one in our family who has inherited that painful component of our mother’s DNA. Particularly in her hips, knees, and feet.
Diane is sixty-eight-years old. She doesn’t read what I write. We live seventeen hundred miles apart. She in Illinois. Me in Arizona.
Even so, I love my sister. I always have and will. Tom and I visited her and Steve (Diane’s husband) for an afternoon last October while we were in the Chicago area. In this age of Covid, we recounted all the things we are thankful for.
Diane will always be my only sibling, my only big sister. We talk and text occasionally. I worry about Diane’s physical wellness and longevity. We’re the only two remaining in our family of origin, since Mom passed away ten years ago.
Diane also is the only other person who remembers the nuances of our St. Louis childhood, our homelife (good, bad, and indifferent), our difficult plight as a family after Dad’s heart attack in 1962, our mother’s resolve in her fifties and fragility in her eighties, our mother’s aging hands.
I came across this photo of Mom’s folded hands from Christmas Eve 2008. That night, we gathered at Diane’s home in Illinois to celebrate the holiday and open gifts. Mom would live to share another four Christmases with us.
It’s a cropped image and not the clearest, but when I saw it, I was reminded of Mom’s age spots and blemishes that grew with the passage of time on her fair, loose, thin skin. The rough patches on her hard-working hands go back in time to her rural southern roots in High Point, North Carolina, and fifty years in St. Louis, Missouri, which I chronicle in From Fertile Ground.
In her final nine years living in northern Illinois, our mother had this habit of clutching a tissue in her palms. She often hid an auxiliary one in the arm of her blouse or sweater. If you look closely, you can see it peeking out of the sleeve of her heather-flecked turtleneck.
These are the little personal idiosyncrasies that only a sibling would remember. They don’t matter in the grander scheme of things, but they do when it’s your mother and you still love and miss her after ten years of living without her. And you realize that your own mortality creeps ever closer with every blogpost.
Sure, I stay active–mentally and physically–and will continue to mount the treadmill several times each week to keep my heart strong.
But there is no denying the evolving appearance of my spotted, aging hands. They are looking more like my mother’s every day.
On March 25, 2023, I will participate in the Phoenix-area Heart Walk, sponsored by the American Heart Association.
If you follow my blog, you know I am a heart attack survivor. You may not know that both of my parents died of heart disease: Mom on January 26, 2013 (almost ten years ago); Dad on November 26, 1993 (nearly thirty years ago). Both Helen and Walter appear frequently in my published stories.
Obviously, heart disease is personal for me and millions of American families. I hope you will consider making a donation to support ground-breaking research that keeps hearts beating and enables other unsuspecting victims of heart disease and stroke (like me) live longer and write new chapters.
As an added incentive, if you click the link below and donate $30 to the American Heart Association, I will sign and send any two of my books (your choice) to you. I’ll pay the postage and include two of my personalized bookmarks.
Nearly ten years have passed since she passed January 26, 2013.
As this seismic anniversary of my mother’s death approaches, I feel a degree of grief’s numbness reappearing.
The time is right for me to sprinkle this space with reflections on Helen F. Johnson’s life: how much I loved her; what I learned from her; and why I still miss her.
I watched my mother grow in wisdom and shrink in physical presence–simultaneously–in her final ten years.
In those poetic moments–especially 2004 to 2009 when we visited at her condo in Winfield, Illinois–the two observations felt incongruent as we sat side by side on a park bench reflecting on her love of family, nature, photography, and letter writing.
But they don’t anymore.
Now that I’ve surpassed the midpoint of my sixties–favoring the quietest moments of life over all the rest–I see and feel the same transformation happening within me.
I’m far more inclined to record the moments that happen around me, because–like her–I have the time and the interest. She has left me an invaluable gift: a recognizable path and impulse to emulate.
My life has changed immensely since she died. I’ve retired from corporate life, married Tom, moved across the country, survived a heart attack, lost forty pounds, written four books, endured Covid, and built a new life in the desert.
Yet, it is when Tom and I spend time with my sons Nick and Kirk–her only grandchildren–that I am most aware of how long she has been gone and how much she loved us all.
They were both in their twenties in 2013. Searching. Unsettled. Preparing to launch. On the cusp of new personal discoveries and adventures. Since that time, they’ve traveled, found new loves, new jobs, new homes.
Kirk is now nearly 34; Nick almost 39. How she–a lover of plants and trees–would have loved learning that her oldest grandson stopped by our condo last Friday to pluck grapefruits, oranges, lemons, and tangelos from our citrus trees.
Or that Nick coached a Boys and Girls Club basketball team last year.
Or that Kirk traveled to Vanuatu with the Peace Corps in 2014 and more recently has found his counseling stride in a small practice in Chicago … helping patients who’ve experienced some sort of trauma.
Over this past weekend, Tom and I watched Milo and Miley (a friend’s two Shih Tzus) again.
The dogs are sweet, lovable characters. But I needed a little time to escape on Sunday to my thoughts and devices. So, I drove to Chaparral Park and walked around the lake for about an hour.
As I rounded a bend of pine trees which Tom and I love, I spotted an older man. He sat quiet, content, and alone on a park bench.
Seeing him reminded me of the moments my mother cherished in her eighties, pondering the world from a park bench. She could simply sit, enjoy the shade of the trees, read the newspaper or gaze at passersby.
Or she could wonder about the lives of her children and grandchildren … long after she was gone.
It’s been another challenging year for many. We won’t soon forget the previous twelve months … brimming with health concerns, natural disasters, social upheaval, global traumas, political shenanigans, and inflationary woes.
Why not end 2022–or start 2023–on a positive note with a light-hearted escape? From now until January 2, for only ninety-nine cents, you can download a copy of my book Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator on Amazon.
It’s a universal collection of tales that focuses on my love of family and pop culture. A nostalgic series of twenty-six funny and poignant essays about growing up in St. Louis in the 1960s and 1970s.
The final story in the book, A New Year Resolution, fills me with hope and the warm, comforting possibilities of life even after seemingly awful things happen.
I wrote it as a testament to the good citizenship of my father and mother, who did the right thing on a cold January morning more than sixty years ago.
On Saturday and Sunday, I stood on stage at the Galvin Playhouse in Tempe, Arizona, with about forty fellow members of the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus.
From the tenor two section of the top riser, I was dressed in black pants and my snazzy, solid-red holiday sweater. I was ready to raise my voice, have fun, open my heart, and bear my soul for two large, enthusiastic audiences there to see and hear us perform our ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas show.
As you might expect, I was amped up. My energy and emotions were running high. On stage or not, the holiday season can spur a range of feelings–from joy, hope, and peace to sorrow–for each of us.
Often, the music we hear or create is the catalyst for our state of being. It reminds us of who we are, who we love, who we’ve lost, where we’ve been, where we are, and maybe even foretells where we’re going.
Like life, this was a holiday concert that included a little of everything: luscious chords, soaring solos, a tribute to Hannukah, hot men wearing sparkly vests, a surprise tap dance underneath the tree (in the ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas parody I wrote for the show), a caped gay superhero, a Christmas Can-Can not to be believed, sexy Santa Baby, assorted musical mash ups, and inspirational tunes.
The program was a delight to perform, and the crowds loved it. I felt thrilled and honored that about thirty family members and friends attended. One of them was Jeff.
Over the past three years, he and his husband Dave have become close friends for Tom and me. We’ve met for dinner frequently. Watched movies and played games together. Laughed and swam in their backyard pool. Shared funny stories from our past lives.
In March, Tom and I were honored to join Jeff and Dave and about thirty other friends to celebrate their fortieth anniversary. In October, they drove to Barnes & Noble in Mesa to be there for my book signing. Dave was a regular reader of my blog. He brought up my writing frequently. Each time, I was touched.
On Sunday morning, between the two holiday concerts, Jeff texted to tell Tom and me that Dave passed away Saturday night. He succumbed to complications of muscular dystrophy–a disease he lived with for many years. It confined him to a wheelchair, but–in the time I knew Dave–his disability never dampened his kind spirit, playful energy or warm smile.
I’m sad and stunned. I will miss my friend. On Sunday, as I sang Grown Up Christmas List on stage, I thought of Dave and all he must have endured. That song usually makes me cry anyway, but when I saw others in the audience tearing up, I fought hard to hold it together.
Of course, Jeff knows Tom and I are there for him as he grieves the loss of his long-time husband and loving companion. We will check in on him frequently.
This is just the latest personal reminder to sing and dance. Hug and kiss the ones you love. Fight hard for your convictions. Stand tall in the face of adversity. Raise your voice. And, if you are dealt a difficult hand, find a way to accept the unacceptable.
As a tribute to Dave, what follows is the full text of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (A Gay Love Story), which I wrote for the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus in July 2022.
It’s a parody, which Tony Crane and Tim Gorka (who played Uncle Gabe and Nephew Jay respectively) performed masterfully during our show in Tempe over the weekend.
Had he seen it, Dave would have laughed out loud and loved it.
Rest in peace, my friend.
‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (A Gay Love Story)