Tag: Family

Another January

There are few certainties in life, but certainly January will always be a difficult month for me. It will always be the dreaded thirty-one days at the start of the year when grief reappears. When grief rattles my brain and reminds me of the final moments of my mother’s life on January 26, 2013, when grief introduced the real culprit: the void that took her place.

Strangely writing these sentences comforts me, just as writing From Fertile Ground–the story of my journey with grief–comforted me in 2015 when I needed it most. Just as reading this passage from my book (written nearly five years ago on January 27, 2015) comforted me this morning when I woke up at 3:30 and couldn’t fall back to sleep.

***

Chapter 12: Helen Came Home Today

My mother was cremated. About a week after she died in January 2013, I drove to pick up her remains.

When I arrived at the Illinois Cremation Society in Downers Grove, the attendant greeted me with a sheepish smile and carefully handed me the mahogany urn. You would think this experience would have cued tears and deep sadness within me, but it didn’t. Instead, I felt a quiet sense of purpose and a strange jolt of adrenalin. Maybe that was just another side effect of my grief.

Without hesitating, I tucked Mom’s remains under my arm, left the building, opened the passenger door of my 2012 Hyundai Sonata, and placed the container on the floor of the front seat. I couldn’t imagine the tragedy of putting Mom’s ashes on the seat itself and then facing the possibility that they might spill everywhere if I had to stop suddenly.

I scooted around to the driver’s side, opened my door, turned the key to start the engine, and sighed. This would be my final drive with my mother. Now some sadness was beginning to creep in.

Ironically, Mom never rode in this car when she was alive. I had bought it just eight months before, when she was already sliding deep into her physical decline. However, I remember one warm Saturday morning in the summer of 2012.

I was pushing Mom in her wheelchair, circling the Brighton Gardens grounds where she lived. She was wearing her powder blue baseball cap and green, cable-knit cardigan sweater. We completed one or two laps around the building and paused a few times to reflect and chat about my job, my sons, where I might be traveling next on business.

Before we headed back inside, I took a slight detour to the other side of the parking lot where my new car was parked. As we approached the car, I stopped near the right rear bumper and applied the wheelchair brake, so she could get a closer look within the limits of her macular degeneration.

We had a brief, but happy exchange:

“I bought a new car, Mom.”

“You did? What color is it?”

“Indigo.”

***

Tom and I still drive our 2012 Hyundai Sonata. It’s served us well over the past seven-and-a-half years. Most important, it got us to Arizona in July 2017 when everything else in our life seemed to go haywire.

Mom lived to be eighty-nine. Ironically, the odometer on our trusty indigo sedan is about to surpass 89,000 miles. I don’t know how many more years it will last. Though we change the oil regularly and do a decent job maintaining it, the upholstery is showing wear. The steering column creaks whenever we hit a bump. I need to take it to the dealer to check that out. It probably needs new shock absorbers too.

But other than a few hours of sleep, all isn’t lost. I have a good life in Arizona. Mom would have been happy for Tom and me … living in a warmer climate, sharing the joys and pains together, making new friends, holding onto those who’ve been with us all along the way, watching my sons evolve into the kind and productive adults their grandmother always knew they would be, telling my stories from the desert, coping with life’s misfortunes and maladies, doing my best to survive another January without her.

 

 

 

 

My Everlasting Christmas Wish

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In the darkest days of the final year of the aughts, Helen diminished like the decade’s December light. But from her cozy corner apartment at Brighton Gardens in Wheaton, Illinois, she and her prized African violets persevered. Collectively, they captured remaining rays through two windows. One faced west. The other north.

It was independent living of sorts for those like my mother, who had fallen physically or slipped mentally. Helen had done both. Her descent prompted my sister Diane and me to move Mom and her favorite belongings from her two-bedroom condo into smaller and safer quarters ten months before.

As Christmas 2009 drew near, I was befuddled. What could I give my nature-and-poetry-loving mother that she didn’t already have? My inner monologue told me to write something for her. To bridge the gap from my mid-sixties matinee memory of Mom, Diane and me seated side-by-side in a St. Louis theater. Hypnotized by Doctor Zhivago and scenes of Yuri at a desk penning poetry in the icy rural castle of Varykino.

Perhaps with a little inspiration from Boris Pasternak, I knew what to do. Far from the snow-covered majesty and drama of Russian landscapes and revolutions, I composed and framed a poem for Helen from the relative flatness of my Illinois home.

On Christmas Eve, Tom and I carried it with us to our family holiday. On December 24, it was our tradition to gather at my sister’s home, where she, brother-in-law Steve, Mom, Tom and I would savor thin-crust pizza and thick eggnog, devour delectable desserts, and listen to our favorite Christmas music.

As the evening progressed, we retired to the living room for the main event: our annual, round-robin gift exchange. As the unopened presents dwindled, I leaned down, plucked my gift from the pile, and handed it to Mom on the other side of the circle.

Seated in her wing-back chair, she paused and looked up at me before unwinding red tissue paper. Slowly Mom revealed the contents and examined the rectangular-shaped object. She mustered five words of amazement as she pulled the gift closer within the limitations of her macular degeneration:

“You wrote me a poem.”

During the last three years of her life, Helen propped the poem on a table near the door of her apartment. Across the room from the chair where she read, watched TV and eventually received breathing treatments to ease her congestive heart failure in her last days. I saw it there each time I left. I think it gave both of us comfort in her final days.

After she died on January 26, 2013, Diane and I divided her remaining possessions and re-potted cuttings of her African violets to place on the window sills of our respective homes. Naturally, I kept the poem. When I finalized From Fertile Ground (the story of my journey after Helen’s demise) in 2015, I found the right place to insert it in the book.

In 2017, the poem came with Tom and me as we made our way in our indigo Sonata on our westward odyssey. Today, it resides on top of a wooden file cabinet in our sun room near the back door of our Scottsdale home. It’s a place Helen never visited, but one she would have loved.

***

You Everlasting

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.

The polished gem of hopeful dreams.

Everlasting.

***

Ten years have passed since that tender Christmas Eve moment at my sister’s home. Mom will be gone seven years in January. The pain of her loss has softened considerably, though now it returns like an old familiar friend on holidays, birthdays and anniversaries to remind me how much I loved her.

Remarkably, a cutting of one of my mother’s African violets, which she nurtured during the last ten or more years of her life, continues to thrive with Tom and me near our southern-facing windows. Yesterday on winter solstice, it absorbed the heat of the Scottsdale sun. Its purple blooms on the shortest day of the year are evidence that sometimes … against all odds … life and love go on.

As Christmas 2019 approaches, perhaps you’re like me. Thankful for life today. Thankful for family and friends who bring joy. Thankful for the memories of those who’ve gone and the reminders they’ve left behind.

Perhaps this story of everlasting gratitude will give you comfort and strength as you prepare to celebrate with family and friends … as you remember those absent from your circle.

This is my everlasting Christmas wish.

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Standing in the Light

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On this marvelous Monday in the Valley of the Sun–basking in the afterglow of a weekend of holiday performances with my gay friends here in Phoenix–I’m struck with this truth-seeking irony. After stepping out of the shadows in my thirties and forties and standing in the light in my fifties and sixties, I’m finally comfortable in my skin. Yet, I find myself being treated for a spot of invasive cancer on my left hand.

Tom escorted me to treatment #4 this morning. Like the first three, it was pain-free. Just the rigmarole of driving back and forth, wearing a protective flak jacket and goggles, and applying Aquaphor ointment and sunscreen religiously. I can handle that.

Escaping the darkness of an inauthentic life was much more complicated. At fifty-one, I remember the fright of auditioning with Windy City Gay Chorus (WCGC) in Chicago. Even back then, Tom encouraged me to sing again, though it had been decades since I’d performed on stage. I needed a fun, affirming and creative outlet away from work and parenting responsibilities.

In March 2010, a giant door swung open before me. I mysteriously and joyfully found myself singing with WCGC. Later that year I went on to perform in my first holiday concert with the renowned gay chorus … one of the founding gay choruses in the United States. At that point, I couldn’t have imagined I would develop lifelong friends there. Men and women I would share the stage with for seven years. Friendships Tom and I have carried with us across the miles to Arizona.

Now a new chapter standing in the light of the western sun. After yesterday, I’ve completed ten consecutive years of holiday performances. Seven as a tenor two in Chicago with Windy City followed by three more with the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus (not withstanding a brief blip as a baritone).

Here in Arizona in a new choral community, I’ve befriended another sixty or so men of all ages and backgrounds. Some of them have stood by me (literally) while I recovered from a mild heart attack. For others, I have willingly given hugs and a listening ear as they fight to create whole and meaningful lives no matter whether their families of origin love and accept them or not.

On stage yesterday in my black tuxedo and red bow tie, grateful for the friends and family members who came to see us perform, I gazed out from the top riser into an enthusiastic audience of four hundred or so. Like a Rubik’s cube with all the right answers aligned, the clarity of the last ten years clicked into place.

The Phoenix Women’s Chorus, a talented group we perform with from time to time in Arizona, was singing on the apron of the stage. They repeated this lyrical refrain from “Stand in the Light”, a song written by Stephan Moccio and Lauren Christy (arrangement by Roger Emerson).

To stand in the light and be seen as you are.

This phrase captures the essence of why I sing with a chorus of gay men. Why I need to be a part of this community in an uncertain world sometimes fraught with surprising discrimination. More broadly, why the LGBTQ choral movement continues to matter for those of us who lived in the shadows for too long.

We must continue to step out of the darkness and sing for those less fortunate. With proper protection and plenty of sunscreen, we must all stand in the light and be seen as we are.

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Flickers and Fedoras

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I wince when wires obstruct the buttes before me. I suppose it’s a part of life I must endure. Just like the car alarm blaring outside my backdoor as I write this sentence. It supersedes the mockingbird I prefer.

Even worse, the woman walking her fluffy dogs in the park. She ruins the encounter by wearing a red cap I can’t stomach. The same slogan is emblazoned on the canines’ collars. I’m too angry to make eye contact with her. I prefer a campaign to Make Red Hats Wearable Again.

Life is filled with such irritations. Yet, as November winds down and we Americans prepare to gather around tables of all shapes and sizes to proclaim our thankfulness with too much turkey, stuffing, football, pie and impeachment controversy, I am grateful for other things.

Certainly, I am fortunate to have the love and companionship of my husband. Both of my sons are finding full and meaningful lives. I live in a country (admittedly, one deeply divided right now) where I can express my opinions freely. In my sixties, I’ve discovered new friends and reliable doctors in a warm community. I have health coverage and a comfortable home. Many people don’t.

I’m also thankful for the little surprises that appear out of the blue. Like the gilded flicker I spotted during my walk along the canal. This large woodpecker, complete with a splash of red rouge on either side of his head, is native to the Sonoran Desert. In the stillness, he perched high above me on a branch for a full minute on Friday and looked down as if to say “You’d better pay attention to me. This is the good stuff of life.” So I did.

Then on Sunday. Another rare sight to behold. Tom and I were writing and reading in a local coffee shop when a handsome man entered wearing a black fedora. (Actually, handsome men aren’t rare in Scottsdale, Arizona. But fedora sightings are.)

According to the website “History of Hats”, this wide-brimmed hat made of felt first appeared in 1882 in the production of a play called “Fedora” by the French author Victorien Sardou. It was designed for actress Sarah Bernhardt. Over time, the hat became popular for women’s rights activists.

After 1924, fedoras were adopted by men as a fashion statement because Prince Edward of Britain started wearing them.  Somehow, soon after, they appeared on gangsters during Prohibition in the United States. In the 1940s and 1950s, you saw fedoras everywhere on the heads of manly men on stage and in noir films (Frank Sinatra and Humphrey Bogart). After that, the fedora fad faded. Informal clothing won the day.

In November 2019, without warning, one snazzy fedora resurfaced on the noggin of a smart citizen in a Scottsdale, Arizona coffee shop. Though I was pleasantly surprised, I was also observant enough to spot it in a sea of ordinary western, baseball and stocking caps.

Flickers and fedoras. I have so much to be thankful for.

A Fateful Friday Fifty-Six Years Ago

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For all of his eighty-five years, S.R. Ferrell lived an ordinary and unassuming twentieth-century rural life. Before the first rays of sunlight emerged each morning, my grandfather rose to milk the cows, tend to his crops, and complete a never-ending list of chores on his Huntersville, North Carolina farm. Every night before bed, until the day he died in 1985, the stoic farmer recorded his brief thoughts about the day (like the pages you see here from 1962).

Five years ago, as I perused his diary entries and told the story of my hard-working grandfather in From Fertile Ground, I discovered that many of the things S.R. wrote were rather mundane. But, every once in a while, I unearthed a hidden gem. A startling first-hand account of a momentous day in American history. Ironically, my grandfather was sixty-two … the same age I am today … when he wrote the following on November 22, 1963. It was a fateful Friday. Exactly fifty-six years ago.

***

I went to pasture to work up some wood and haul it to the house. Mr. and Mrs. P.E. Miller came this morning to get some strawberry plants. Then they went on to Charlotte. I hauled more wood in the afternoon.

President Kennedy, 46, was assassinated at twelve o’clock noon in Dallas, Texas. Lyndon Johnson is now president.

Partly cloudy. Warm. 56 degree low. 77 degree high.

***

While S.R. Ferrell was toiling on his farm in Huntersville and John Fitzgerald Kennedy was dying in Dallas, I was an innocent six-year-old schoolboy in suburban St. Louis in November 1963. Probably sitting at my first grade desk practicing my spelling.

I remember my teacher crying in the front of the classroom that day. As she tried to compose herself, she told us school would end early. Soon after, we filed to the cloak room to put on our jackets. We boarded our buses for our respective homes.

That weekend, I sat glued to the floor in front of our family’s black-and-white TV and watched Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald. And, in the horrific and historic days that followed, JFK’s three-year-old son saluted his father’s passing, flag-draped casket. That image may have been the most mournful of all.

We’ll never know how the world would have evolved if JFK had lived to write another chapter in American history. But somehow the world kept spinning and S.R. Ferrell kept writing. And I have the comfort of knowing that my grandfather’s account of November 22, 1963 is forever chronicled in Chapter 39 of From Fertile Ground. You’ll find it on page 157 of my first book.

 

 

Cardio and Dermo and Gastro, Oh My!

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It’s a frightful moment from the classic 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy and Toto are flanked by the Tin Man and the Scarecrow. The new friends are stepping ahead. Walking down the yellow brick road. Making their way toward Oz. Preparing to cross a dense forest. Suddenly aware of previously unforeseen dangers. Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

I can’t imagine a more perfect metaphor for life in your sixties. You’ve earned every bit of progress along the yellow brick road with the ones you love at your side. You can see the trees before you on the path you’ve chosen. But collectively the tall, sturdy and majestic trees form a dense forest. It’s often beautiful. Sometimes daunting. It can cloud your ability to know what’s coming next. Without notice, you find yourself fending off all sorts of maladies. Cardio and Dermo and Gastro, Oh My!

Quickly, you discover how important it is to build trusting relationships with crackerjack doctors and specialists. In my case, this happened in a new city. I still remember the first step. Tom and I had just left St. Louis in July 2017. While he drove us to our new home in Arizona, I sat on the passenger side with two fresh stents in the left side of my heart and a brand new cell phone in my right hand.  From somewhere in Oklahoma, I was calling potential cardiologists in Scottsdale, Arizona. Searching to find the right person to help me recover from a mild heart attack.

That was just the beginning. Eventually, I found the right guy. He was covered under my new insurance plan through the Affordable Care Act (thank you, Barack Obama). I see him (not Barack … my cardiologist) and my primary care doctor every six months.

But I don’t like playing favorites. Since then, I’ve also found a dentist, ophthalmologist, dermatologist and gastroenterologist to round out my preventive healthcare SWAT team, poke me in uncomfortable ways on a frequent basis, and brighten my days. I believe they are all doing their best to keep me healthy for another day. Another year. Hopefully two or three more decades of moving down the yellow brick road in Scottsdale.

You can see why I identify with Dorothy’s dilemma. Of course, I try to relax, remain optimistic and mindful in the face of a family history of heart disease and the latest colonoscopy results. That’s why, beyond the positive effects of my regular exercise routine (walking, hiking, treadmill, stationary bike, elliptical, swimming) Tom and I participate in a “gentle yoga” class every Friday morning.

This morning, when I approached the mirror on the wall in the room at the Scottsdale Senior Center where the yoga magic happens, I saw two familiar faces on either side. Nancy, one of my new Scottsdale friends, on the left. Tom, my husband, on the right.

We each stretched our muscles. We assumed our tree poses. We did our best to stand tall in the unknown forest. To find our edge against all odds. To push our limits without wavering on the yellow brick road of life.

 

 

Oh Very Young and Less Fortunate Men

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At this stage of life, I have more time and space to reflect on the fragility and inequities of life. When I hit the trail for a hike or catch a glimpse of the jagged edges of Camelback Mountain, I sometimes ponder the plights of less fortunate men and less developed versions of the man I’ve become.

Recently, without notice, a Sonoran time machine swooped down and transported me from the desert. Back to south suburban St. Louis and my blue-denim-bell-bottom memories. Jerry and Joey (not their real names) lived near me on the same cul-de-sac street and the Oh Very Young prognostications of Cat Stevens looped through my brain.

Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?

You’re only dancin’ on this earth for a short while …

It was a weekend morning in the spring of 1974. I sat at the kitchen table, finishing up my last few bites of scrambled eggs and toast. My over-worked and under-appreciated mother washed the breakfast dishes. Over one shoulder, she blurted a provocative and unexpected question in my direction: “Mark, did you know Jerry is a practicing homosexual?”

Like most teens, I was bound up with insecurity. If I’d been less repressed, more freewheeling—or at sixteen had an ounce of awareness or comfort with my budding gayness—the idea of “practice” sex with an older boy down the street would have intrigued me. But at that moment I had no clue how to respond to my mother’s audacious question. I just shrugged my shoulders and muttered something like “Yeah, I think I’ve heard he might be.”

It didn’t occur to me that she might be fishing to learn about my sexuality. I just knew Jerry’s mother had died when he was young and his father, brothers and sisters had been left to make sense of her early exit. Whenever I walked by the front of their home, I saw the heaviness of their hearts had caused the foundation and the trees around it to sag.

I’ve written a lot about my mother. She was smart, resilient and courageous. Many years later, she left me with her legacy of wise letters. But back in the 1970s, we weren’t approaching that. We were nearly three decades away from the profound sense of respect and understanding we would construct during her eighties and I would witness  the love and deep regard she felt for my future husband and me.

Anyway, in the 1970s I was a withdrawn teen and she hadn’t yet sharpened her sensitivity. More specifically, like most parents then (and sadly many now), the implications of homosexuality and the image of two men engaged in mutually satisfying love frightened her. The word homosexual cast a shadow of shame, discomfort, darkness and isolation. Of course, without knowing it, I was absorbing the uninformed views about gay people coming through all sorts of channels–parents and neighbors, aunts and uncles, classmates and coaches, media and popular culture, etc. 

I will never forget that trauma. Pushed and bullied down middle school hallways. Labeled a faggot for wearing my favorite purple sweater vest, a gift from my mother. As you might surmise, I learned it was best not to wear purple or pink or challenge society’s narrow mold of masculinity in the 1970s. It would take decades for me to love myself and create an unapologetic life as a gay man comfortable in pastels.

This is a prelude to tell you that, in addition to my personal sexual identity struggles, I felt sad and angry hearing and seeing Jerry and other young gay men ostracized for their nature, mannerisms and social awkwardness.

I don’t know where Jerry lives or anything about his adult life in 2019. But I now realize Jerry was a trailblazer. I owe a lot to the Jerrys of that time. Despite neighborhood chatter and suspicions, they were courageous enough to risk ridicule. To be true to themselves in the 1970s.

***

The story of Joey has nothing to do with societal pressures, sexuality or suburban mores. It’s a cataclysmic tragedy.

Joey was the blonde boy who lived next door. We were the same age. As youngsters, from kindergarten through fifth grade we waited for the same bus at the end of our street. He loved to roughhouse with his golden retriever when he came home from school. In sixth grade—lunch boxes in hand—we walked together to a new elementary school, built to handle the overflow of Baby Boomers.

Throughout the 1960s, once school ended in June, Joey and I raced to the top of the street with our  neighborhood crew to play baseball in a vacant cemetery lot. We stayed there until our mothers or fathers stood on their front porches, cupped their hands to their mouths, and called our names for dinner.

In high school, Joey and I went our separate ways. I didn’t feel our connection any more. He was a mechanical guy. I wasn’t. I had a knack for stringing words together. He didn’t. He loved tinkering under cars. I loved singing on stage. While he developed a passion for playing the drums, my interest in the clarinet waned. In August of 1975, we continued down divergent paths. We left home for college at different Missouri schools.

Through it all, I felt no physical attraction for Joey, but I envied his apparently idyllic Please-Don’t-Eat-the-Daisies family life. Complete with the faux-wood-paneled Country Squire station wagon parked in their driveway, which I watched them load annually for summer vacations. Joey’s family seemed to embody the ideal of suburban happiness:  two friendly and well-liked parents, two popular daughters who went on to become cheerleaders, two masculine and mechanically-inclined sons.

On a horrific Saturday in May 1976, everything changed. I came home from my seasonal job as a roller coaster operator at Six Flags and found my mother sobbing on the living room couch. She told me Joey had been killed in an accident. He was riding shotgun without a seat belt on the way home from his first year at college when the car he was in collided with another vehicle.

Spring flowers were blooming outside that day, but inside I was numb and devastated like everyone on our block. One cruel moment had ended Joey’s life and transformed his family’s home from the center of happiness into the epicenter of grief.

A few days later my mother, father, sister and I attended Joey’s wake. I didn’t know what to say to his bereaved father and mother. But I summoned a few inadequate words and gripped their brittle arms as we passed a pair of drum mallets stretched across Joey’s closed casket. It was frightening evidence of teenage mortality.

In 1980, I moved to the Chicago area. Whenever I returned to St. Louis to visit my parents and boyhood home, I thought of Joey and his family. Scampering in their yard with their dog as they prepared to load up their station wagon for the next trip. When Joey died, that era ended. Soon after, the rest of the family moved away.

Forty years have come and gone. Joey is on my mind again.  Perhaps because he didn’t live long enough to pursue the next path at the base of rugged buttes. His Oh Very Young life ended back in the rolling Missouri hills without any chance to explore the west or have a spouse to share it.

Somehow, through good fortune, I’ve lapped his lifespan more than three times. After surviving a heart attack on my sixtieth birthday, I’m rounding the bend on the fourth lap here in Arizona.

For all the Jerrys and Joeys who have come and gone, I must keep telling my stories. I must make the most of the extra time I’ve been granted.

Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?