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.
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.
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)
Everybody’s waitin’ for the man with the bag, cause Christmas is comin’ again.
I’ll be singing this lyrical line with my Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus mates this Saturday and Sunday on stage in Tempe, Arizona at the Galvin Playhouse. (Go to http://www.phxgmc.org for tickets.)
“Man With The Bag” is a jazzy, Christmas mash-up, artfully arranged by David Maddux. It’s the second number of Act II, a mix of frolicking, silky, reflective, fun, inspiring, and sometimes-bawdy music in our “Twas the Night Before Christmas” show.
If I sound excited, I am. This will be my thirteenth consecutive holiday concert: seven with Windy City Gay Chorus in Chicago; six here in Phoenix.
Singing Christmas music in my fifties and sixties with two diverse community choruses of gay men has somehow rekindled the wonder and anticipation of my childhood.
Close your eyes and travel back in time. Music or not, you remember that giddy Christmas feeling.
For me, it happened annually with my sister Diane. Decades before the advent of fake news, we stood on opposite ends of our fake, cardboard fireplace in suburban St. Louis. No doubt, as we posed for this photo, Perry Como crooned a holiday tune on the hi-fi.
Anyway, in December 1962–yikes, sixty years ago–we were waitin’ for the man with the bag in the dining room of our modest brick home without an actual fireplace. But that didn’t deter our keen imaginations or exuberance. In fact, it nurtured them.
I don’t know what happened to that fabulous fireplace I leaned against years ago. I doubt that it survived to see 1970.
But Diane and I are still here. Yes, much older and definitely wiser. She lives in Wheaton, Illinois, with her husband; I live in Scottsdale, Arizona, with mine.
I mailed a small box of gifts to her recently, and her package will arrive here before Christmas. But it is the gifts of music and memory that I cherish today … and the thought of just the two of us–way back when–waitin’ for the man with the bag.
‘Twas two weeks til our concert, we rehearsed all day long,
Me wedged in the back row, ‘tween Keaton and Imran.
With AIDS quilts surrounding on walls of despair,
Warm carols we sang with humor and flair.
Away from the rain in the Valley of the Sun,
Seven hours in one room, so much work to be done.
Then, out of our mouths, pure tones pranced and did gather,
They sprang into lush chords, Marc’s heart pitter-pattered.
Santa Baby, Underneath the Tree, Mistletoe and Holly,
Shaping these and a dozen more made all of us jolly.
These next frantic weeks will fly faster than reindeer,
Fine-tuning, tweaking, “More hot tea for my throat, dear.”
Then, the lights will come up.
The joy will appear in the faces out there.
And the smiles will bounce back.
They will double and bloom in this season we share.
On Saturday, December 3–two days after World AIDS Day–I gathered with about fifty of my mates in the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus for an all-day rehearsal at the Parson’s Center in Phoenix. Led by artistic director Marc Gaston, our chorus will perform its holiday show (“Twas the Night Before Christmas”) on December 17 and 18 at the Galvin Playhouse, 51 East 10th Street in Tempe, Arizona. For ticket information, go tohttp://www.phxgmc.org.
Sadly, today is another day that 2,396 Americans will lose their lives to heart disease — America’s #1 killer.
I know the personal pain of heart disease. If you follow my blog, you know I’m a heart attack survivor. (I wrote a book about that trauma, which happened on my sixtieth birthday).
Fortunately, by changing my diet, losing weight, exercising regularly, practicing yoga, sharing my story of survival, and following the recommendations of my cardiologist, I now lead a much healthier life.
I also remember our family’s difficult plight after my father suffered a heart attack sixty years ago at age forty-nine. Though he lived another thirty years, he was never quite able to regain the vigor and enthusiasm of his pre-coronary life.
This year and next I am focusing my fundraising and volunteering efforts to help the American Heart Association (AHA), culminating with the Phoenix-area Heart Walk on March 25, 2023.
Today–on this Giving Tuesday–I’ve already donated $250 to the AHA (which includes the 2022 royalties I have earned on all four of my books).
Join me in making a difference by clicking on the link below and contributing to the Phoenix Chapter of the American Heart Association. Until midnight tonight, every dollar you give will be matched to be worth twice as much.
The dollars you give will go to important scientific research that will help save the lives of babies born with heart defects and adults coping with life-threatening heart disease.
I really do believe that our hearts beat as one when we share our time, money, and talents. No matter which charities you chose to support, thank you for the difference you make in your community on this Giving Tuesday … and every day.