Tag: Aging

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.

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.

Turning Stuff into Wisdom

I’ve learned a lot in my sixty-four-plus years. Sometimes it feels like my brain is a swirling repository of “stuff” … data and memories.

On other days, it feels like I’ve found meaningful ways to synthesize my life experiences and relationships. Then–voila–I discover they have morphed magically into wisdom.

I’m not sure exactly when this wisdom thing began to kick into high gear, but probably in my fifties after my mother died. Then, certainly again at sixty when I suffered a mild heart attack. In both cases, I had to find my way back to the surface to breathe again and survive the depths of despair.

Most definitely, it is the challenging aspects of life–loss, fear, anxiety, discrimination–that prompt me to more forcefully explore, verbalize and share my opinions and feelings … not the happier, even moments.

I’ve been thinking about this because I have a few friends/relations who are dealing with difficult stuff. One is grieving the loss of a significant loving relationship while trying to find his way in a new job; the others are navigating the precipitous physical decline of two frail parents.

In both situations, I am there to provide empathy and support. I imagine these individuals feel as if they are lost in a dense forest without a compass. Yet, I suspect, the clouds will lift eventually. On no particular schedule, light will begin to filter through. Hope will reappear.

One day, the internalized aspects of loss and pain will spring from the ground like crocuses emerging from the frozen ground of winter. And, a new batch of wisdom will be born and saved for the next difficult encounter of life.

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.

Almost as If

ValleyHo2_081720

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.

 

Garden Shadows

GardenShadows_072620

It’s become one of our beloved desert traditions. For the past three years on July 26th, Tom and I have walked to the Desert Botanical Garden.

Actually, we visit this physical and psychological oasis, tucked inside the easternmost edge of the Phoenix city limits, a few dozen times in a typical year. Because of the pandemic, only recently have we been able to return.

Twice in the past month–early on Sunday mornings–we arrived at a reserved time, stood as an electric eye scanned my phone confirming our tickets and membership, and entered behind our protective masks.

We love the stillness of the garden. The proximity to our home. The majesty of the saguaros and cardon cacti. The exotic succulents. The spiky boojum trees. The dazzling desert roses. The prickly pears in bloom. The tranquility and color of the wildflowers in spring. The harvest of the herb garden in summer.

The chatter of desert wrens, thrashers, woodpeckers and hummingbirds. The playfulness of the ground squirrels. Lizards pausing to do push ups on the trails. Bullfrogs croaking from a pond. Plentiful cottontails in the thicket. Occasional coyotes, long-eared jackrabbits, and road runners scurrying by to say hello and goodbye. Yesterday we spotted the latter two.

Most of all, it’s the connection to the natural desert landscape–and memories of those we’ve loved and lost–that draws us back. That’s where July 26th becomes significant. Yesterday would have been my mother’s ninety-seventh birthday.

Helen, a lifelong gardener and lover of nature, never joined us here. But it was a place she would have enjoyed for all of the reasons I’ve listed.

It’s a natural choice for Tom and I to come here each year on her birthday to acknowledge her past place in the world. To remember her shadow. Her legacy. The love and lasting positive impact she had on my life. Tom’s life. My sons’ lives. My sister’s life. All of our lives.

Of course, her physical shadow disappeared seven-and-a-half years ago. But Tom and I have carried the gardening mantle forward here in Arizona. Just as my sister Diane does at her home in Illinois. At this point, it’s our turn to appear at the front of the line in longevity, visibility and vulnerability.

So there Tom and I sat on Sunday. Casting our shadows in the garden on July 26, 2020. Pausing under the trees to reflect on how many we’ve loved and lost … four parents … and how far we’ve come together.

Doing our best to enjoy each day in spite of the turmoil that surrounds us. Taking cover from the pandemic under the shade of our broad-brimmed hats. Absorbing the comfort and magic of nature just outside our door.