I haven’t been agonizing about my milestone birthday–coming soon on July 6. But I am hyper-aware of the significance of turning sixty-five times two. (My husband and I were born on the same day in 1957, just thirteen hours and three hundred miles apart).
Sixty-five is both an age to celebrate–thanks to my new Medicare coverage I now pay nothing to refill my cholesterol medication–and a number to face with some trepidation.
Certainly, there is wisdom that comes with this station in life. That–and the daily company of my best friend–are the best parts of finishing another lap around the track.
In that spirit, on Independence Day 2022, I’ve assembled this random list of sixty-five thoughts … observations/reflections from the first six and a half decades of my life that came to me today as I walked the treadmill at the gym.
These items may or may not have significance or meaning for you. Either way, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t share what I’ve learned so far about this rollercoaster existence that is the human condition.
#1: I am certain that love and loss are close cousins.
#2: Travel broadens the mind and gives me greater perspective about my place in the world.
#3: I am more inclined to connect with spiritual souls than those with specific religious beliefs.
#4: A good therapist is always worth the money.
#5: It takes time for most of us to find our way.
#6: Once I began to really love myself, I found greater peace.
#7: Save whatever money you can. It will ease your plight later in life.
#8: Each of us is more valuable than whatever salary we earn.
#9: Listen to your inner voice. It’s seldom wrong.
#10: A good cry is both cleansing and necessary at times.
#11: Get enough sleep. It rejuvenates the mind, body, and soul.
#12: We all need a home … a safe place away from the storm.
#13: See a doctor asap if you don’t feel right.
#14: “I’m sorry” are two powerful and underused words.
#15: In spite of their troubles, both of my parents loved my sister and me with all of their hearts.
#16: On the other hand, family isn’t necessarily defined by where you came from. Sometimes it’s what you create with friends later in life that carries you forward.
#17: Depression is a real and frightening thing. Get help if you need it.
#18: Whenever I’ve shared my true feelings, I’ve built greater trust.
#19: Animals and nature soften the blow of life and make it sweeter.
#20: Tenderness and honesty are very sexy.
#21: Music — and singing — soothes and inspires my creativity.
#22: Children need love, guidance, and structure.
#23: Learning is a life-long odyssey.
#24: I was always meant to be a writer.
#25: A phone call with a dear friend can make everything better.
#26: Don’t give up on yourself. Sometimes the best advice is to simply get through the day.
#27: Divorce is a shattering personal experience.
#28: The best relationships provide you with enough room to learn and grow.
#29: The end of something is also the beginning of something.
#30: Humor and laughter are contagious and underrated.
#31: When you really open your eyes, you see beauty and serendipity in unusual places.
#32: College or a trade school education is essential to build a solid foundation.
#33: Flowers make me smile and brighten my world.
#34: Life is an open road of possibilities. Driving places can be great therapy.
#35: We all deserve love.
#36: Swimming keeps me happy and healthy.
#37: You need a good dermatologist when you live in Arizona.
#38: I love the warmth and solitude of the Sonoran Desert, but I’ll always be a Midwestern boy at heart.
#39: While math and technology confuse me, words and ideas light my fire.
#40: Ice cream always makes life better.
#41: Personal wealth isn’t defined by the amount in your bank account.
#42: I knew my husband was special right away. He has kind blue eyes.
#43: I have always loved being a dad … and I’m good at it. I’m a nurturer and cheerleader.
#44: My sons have added a dimension to my life that grows with each passing year.
#45: My mother was incredibly wise. She wrote detailed and encouraging letters to family, neighbors, and friends alike. My love of gardening came from her.
#46: My father’s enthusiasm carried me to parades and ballgames that brought me joy. Despite his personal pain, I now see the full measure of his best intentions.
#47: There is nothing wrong with sentiment. You need a dose or two of it to write a good memoir.
#48: I still miss the dogs of my past lives: Happy, Terri, Candy, Scooby-Doo, and especially Maggie.
#49: Being gay is a gift, not a liability. Being different has sharpened my empathy.
#50: I’m inclined to think 65 is the new 50 … at least I hope it is!
#51: I love holding hands with my husband in a movie theatre.
#52: The truth matters. That lesson applies to children and adults.
#53: The current state of our country–especially the violence–worries me.
#54: My heart is stronger than I realized.
#55: Nothing lasts forever, but I want to believe it will.
#56: I am passionate and loyal … to those I love and those who love me.
#57: I’ll admit it. A St. Louis Cardinals win (or loss) can change the course of my day.
#58: I will always cherish the time I spent with my grandparents on their North Carolina farm.
#59: I was a committed employee in every job I ever had … and a damn good rollercoaster operator.
#60: I still keep the National Park Service uniform and hat I wore when I worked at the Gateway Arch.
#61: I still can’t believe I’ve written and published four books. Do I have another one or two in me?
#62: I love the meditative aspects of yoga … and recommend it to all heart attack survivors.
#63: At this stage of life, I look younger with shorter hair.
#64: Aging isn’t so bad most days, as long as I keep moving.
#65: I am thankful for the constant love and companionship of Tom, my husband.
My love of major league baseball qualifies as an obsession, especially when my favorite team–the St. Louis Cardinals–appears in the playoffs.
Tonight I’ll be glued to the TV, hanging on every pitch of the National League winner-take-all wildcard game between the redbirds and the defending 2020 World Series Champion Los Angeles Dodgers.
This love of Cardinals’ baseball runs deep through my bloodline. From memories of my father and me sitting together in the Busch Stadium bleachers in St. Louis in the 1960s to similar moments with my sons Nick and Kirk a generation later, watching the Cardinals and Chicago Cubs renew their rivalry from Wrigley Field’s upper deck.
Whether the Cardinals win or lose on October 6, 2021, my husband Tom (a lifelong Cubs fan) will endure this evening with Nick and me (on pins and needles) seated next to him in our living room in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Nick is joining us for the game and a dinner Tom has offered to prepare at our condo; Kirk will be rooting for the team wearing red from his apartment in Chicago; my cousin Phyllis (also a die-hard Cardinals’ fan) will be cheering from her home in St. Charles, Missouri.
This is just another chapter in October baseball and the rich history of the St. Louis Cardinals that has included eleven World Series championships (1926, 1931, 1934, 1942, 1944, 1946, 1964, 1967, 1982, 2006, and 2011.)
I’ve been fortunate enough to be alive for five of them … and even attended a game in the 1982 World Series, which I wrote about in Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator.
Will tonight’s game (with gutsy-and-crafty Adam Wainwright on the mound for the Cardinals vs. the Dodgers’ phenomenal pitcher Max Scherzer) be the first step toward #12 for the Cardinals in 2021 or simply an abrupt finale to a remarkable season that included seventeen consecutive September wins (a franchise record)?
Only time–and the actions of the players on the field–will tell. No matter the outcome, I’ll do my best to enjoy the game as it evolves at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
October 7, 2021 postscript: The journalist in me requires that I report that the Dodgers defeated the Cardinals 3-1 last night. Los Angeles outfielder Chris Taylor hit a game-winning, two-run home run off of Cardinals’ relief pitcher Alex Reyes in the bottom of the ninth inning. The dramatic hit broke a 1-1 deadlock and sent Dodger fans into a frenzy.
Thus, the St. Louis Cardinals 2021 season is over. Naturally, I’m disappointed the team I love and follow isn’t advancing to the next round of the playoffs. Nonetheless, Tom and I enjoyed the evening with Nick. My older son ensured we could “stream” the game from his phone to our TV when that was in doubt just prior to game time.
If your team is still in the hunt for the 2021 World Series title, I wish you the best as you continue on your October odyssey.
I’m packing away my red St. Louis Cardinals t-shirt (with the birds balancing on the bat) until 2022. Or, in the words of my younger son Kirk who sent me this text after the game, “on to the next fun thing.”
Now that I have a little more distance from Good Friday, it’s clear how painful it was to witness Gary, my neighbor, die of congestive heart failure right outside my front door. Especially because Gary and I see/saw the same cardiologist. (In case you don’t know, I had my own heart trauma nearly four years ago. My husband Tom was the one watching the calamity unfold that day, rushing to get me to an emergency room in St. Louis on our sixtieth birthday.)
At any rate, if you’re like me, you’ve experienced the wide swings of life. Joy and sorrow. Victory and defeat. Jubilation and devastation. I think the secret to contentment is expecting and accepting both ends of the spectrum, then finding your balance somewhere between the two extremes.
On Palm Sunday, I found myself savoring an author’s dream come true. I was reading passages from my latest book to an attentive audience and signing copies in our community clubhouse. Five days later on Good Friday, Gary collapsed outside his and my condo. A few minutes later, he died in my grasp.
For the next two days–through Easter Sunday–I felt out of sorts and sick to my stomach. I was searching for my equilibrium, battling side effects of shock, and absorbing the protective properties of my second COVID-19 vaccination, as more requests for my book came via texts and front-door visits.
On Monday, I began to find some semblance of my equilibrium. I knocked on my neighbor Bob’s door. He and I had been there with Pat (Gary’s wife) when her world came crashing down. “Milwaukee Bob” (Pat calls him that because that’s where he and his wife Barb live most of the year) is adjusting to what he witnessed too.
Though it is the fig tree Bob and I stood beside, giving Gary and Pat comfort and support in the trauma of that Good Friday moment, he and Barb bought a copy of my book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree. They weren’t able to make it to the book signing and reading on Palm Sunday.
On Tuesday morning, I exchanged hugs with Gary’s daughter, Andrea. She had flown in from Chicago with her husband and three children to comfort her mother Pat. Through tears, Andrea thanked me for being there for her mother and father. Her family’s spring Arizona vacation (planned before her father’s demise) was transformed into a mix of grieving, coping, swimming, and horseback riding. Her dad’s remains will be interred in Illinois at a later date.
It is Wednesday night now. I feel stronger again. I realize the tender result of Gary’s sudden death … that, through care and happenstance, I will be bonded to Bob, Pat, Andrea, and her family for life. This morning Tom and I joined a handful of friends for yoga in the park. Between ten and eleven o’clock, we stretched and posed on our mats. I felt the caress of a cool southern breeze under the shade of a tall pine tree. I heard the needles of the pine whisper and the call of the mockingbirds above us. I assumed my tree pose. I felt nature cradle me. I swayed, but found my footing on uneven ground.
The 1990s were a tumultuous decade for me. I survived a divorce in 1992 and my father’s death in 1993.
Beyond those two cataclysmic personal events and my desire to remain a constant force in the lives of my young sons, I struggled with the elephant in the room: how to love my emerging gay self in an often uncompassionate, unaccepting and unenlightened world.
In my thirties and early forties, the risk of being rejected by my family and friends–because of who I am and who I love–produced monumental anxiety and fright. It tore at the fabric of my sense of security and belonging.
Slowly, with the support of two skilled therapists and a small circle of trusted friends, I came to realize that I needed to come out to my sister, mother, sons, colleagues, friends and neighbors to grow and flourish as a human being.
There was fallout from my decision. Some ex-friends dropped me along the way. But with time, patience and understanding, the people who mattered most in my life adjusted. They loved me more for being me. As a late bloomer, I discovered an authentic life.
After I came out to my mother over the phone in the late nineties–I lived in the Chicago area; she lived in the St. Louis suburbs–she wrote me a letter which I included in my book From Fertile Ground about my journey after her death.
“My main concern is how very difficult your life is and has been because of your sexual orientation. That is a big load to carry. Thank heaven you can now share it with those who love you!”
Remarkably, after this breakthrough, our relationship grew. It became far more genuine and meaningful. With time, I introduced her to Tom, my future husband. She learned to love him like a second son.
Today, on National Coming Out Day, I’m sharing this story with the hope that at least one person (someone struggling with sexuality or gender identity) will feel less lost and less alone.
If that is you, I encourage you to breathe deeply, find professional support if you need it, trust your instincts and–only when you are ready–come out. Live authentically. Find your true life. The truth will set you free.
One more thing. Be prepared to continue coming out every day for the rest of your life, because even though you would prefer to sky write the words “I am gay” for the world to see at the same moment, life is never static. Plus, you can only change hearts and minds if you are visible and unrelenting.
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.
In August of 1970, I felt I had lost my father. The trauma of his World War II emotional scars, heart disease and bi-polar diagnosis had consumed him. My thirteen-year-old self-consciousness and his fifty-six-year-old discontent didn’t know what to make of each other.
It seemed like the only thing Walter and I shared was our love for the St. Louis Cardinals. Muggy but mighty moments together in the bleachers of Busch Memorial Stadium. Watching Bob Gibson dazzle and dominate National League hitters in the sixties, while Lou Brock stole bases and our hearts.
But beyond baseball, the schism between my father and me was more than a “generation gap” (a phrase you never hear any more). It felt as if a grand canyon–a dark and sinister abyss nothing like the Arizona wonder four hours north of me by car in my sixties–existed between us.
As Dad pursued my love, validation and respect, I withdrew further into the fear and anxiety of my crowded teenage closet. My sister and mother felt the weight of Dad’s unhappiness and family drama too.
Yet, fifty years ago with Walter behind the wheel of our boxy Chevy Biscayne, the Johnson family from the St. Louis suburbs (Walter, Helen, Diane and Mark) threw caution to the wind and set sail on a summer vacation.
Our destination? Huntersville, North Carolina–seventeen miles north of Charlotte–where we would spend a week with my mother’s family on the rocky-but-fertile ground of my grandparents’ farm in the Tar Heel State.
Past the midpoint of our journey, we drove up and around the hairpin curves of the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Dad guided our clunky sedan into town, where we were welcomed by the grits and glitz of Gatlinburg.
Spontaneously, soon after we parked, we decided to board a ski lift (technically, the Gatlinburg Skylift) into the August mist. Mom and Diane boarded first. Dad and I trailed behind, climbing over the tall trees shrouding Crockett Mountain. I don’t remember much more about the day. Only that it felt as if the four of us had escaped our troubles into the clouds of Tennessee for a few hours.
More than five decades have passed. Since 2017, I’ve more closely identified with my father and his plight, because of my advancing age and our shared mild heart attack experiences separated by fifty-five years.
The grief for Dad has felt more palpable to me in the past three weeks, because the baseball team we loved and cheered for in the humidity of St. Louis summers–the team I still love today–has suffered through a COVID-19 outbreak; to date ten players and eight staff members of the St. Louis Cardinals have tested positive for the virus.
When the outbreak first appeared in late July, the team quarantined in a Milwaukee hotel for several days before heading back to St. Louis to live in isolation in early August, like so many ordinary citizens in a country consumed by viral hot spots.
During that time, the other twenty-nine Major League Baseball teams played on. But the St. Louis Cardinals sequestered themselves for more than two weeks, hoping for a string of several consecutive days of negative testing, which would clear them to resume their season on the field.
As the Cardinals season went dormant, I felt depressed. A portion of my past and present life had been pealed away and thrown in the dumpster. It was as if the last remnant of the troubled father I loved (a man who fought for his country and died in 1993) had been stripped away and laid to rest. His team. My team. Our team had become another COVID-19 casualty.
Finally, the fog–like a Gatlinburg mist–has begun to lift. This morning Diane sent me a text from her suburban Chicago home. “Cards driving forty rental cars via I-55 to Chicago … Playing fifty-plus games in forty days. Hope you’re feeling better. Love you!”
Indeed, on Friday, August 14 the St. Louis Cardinals are driving in separate cars from St. Louis to Chicago to resume their baseball season on Saturday. After a seventeen-day hiatus, Dad’s, Diane’s and my redbirds will resume their baseball season on August 15. They will play a doubleheader against the Chicago White Sox and a third game on Sunday, before a five-game set (including two more doubleheaders) against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.
The Cardinals will begin the long climb back with a new batch of young players from their farm system on their roster and a veteran, big-game pitcher–thirty-eight-year-old Adam Wainwright–on the mound. He’ll start Game One in the Windy City.
If the Cardinals are able to finish their season, they will complete fifty-five contests in the following forty-four days. It will require a herculean effort by a team with a rich history. Eleven World Series championships, more than any other National League franchise.
No matter how this version of the Cardinals perform, I feel the tide of hope returning. Seeing them back on the baseball diamond will feel like a victory. Plus, Diane and I will still have each other, our bittersweet memories of family vacations, and a string of glorious years to recall cheering with Dad for Gibson, Brock and the Cardinals.
Now, our 2020 team is about to take the field to restore a little of sanity to our world. As they do, I have the memory of Dad and me side-by-side on a yellow chairlift. Him with his trusty Daily Word magazine of inspirational thoughts tucked in his shirt pocket. Me smiling, but brimming with worry as I gripped the lap bar tightly.
In spite of our differences then, Dad and I had much more in common beyond baseball in 1970 than I knew or ever imagined. Together, we were fighting for survival. Riding high in Gatlinburg.
What is it about June? In 2017, we packed up our Illinois belongings and prepared to head west. Tom captured this photo of me taking pictures from the window of the smallest bedroom in our then Mount Prospect home the day we drove away.
Three years later, also in the sixth month of the year, we’re shuttling personal possessions back and forth to paint our two Arizona bedrooms. It likely should have been something we’d done before now, but a mild heart attack, cardiac rehab, our creative impulses, general social upheaval, and other home improvements took precedence until June 2020.
This shall now be known as Day One of the Cucuzza Verde and Sprout Sherwin-Williams-color-branded era of our bedroom lives. The former and deeper green covers the masonry bricks running north and south through our condo. The latter and lighter complements with a soothing shade on the other three walls of each room. We also plan to paint our living room and sun room later this year. Colors? Still to be determined.
Following is an excerpt of An Unobstructed View, our story from three Junes ago. (My book about our journey is available through major online retailers.) At times, it’s still difficult for me to imagine the amount of change we endured to make it to Arizona and create the warmer and quieter life we want. The life we deserve in the colors we prefer.
It’s still a work in progress and too messy now to share photos, but our cozy little condo–with a ripening fig tree on the north side and a few containers of blooming desert roses on the south–is definitely our home.
Despite the triple-digit heat right now, it’s where we belong (plus a few cooling getaways to northern Arizona) in June, as well as the other eleven months.
As June began, I realized we were living at the intersection of Practicality and Continuity before we headed west.
There were possessions, which required careful thought and consideration. Tom decided to gift his father’s four-foot-tall German stein to his sister for sentimental reasons. I made arrangements with Kirk to pick up our oak pedestal kitchen table–a Johnson family heirloom–for his new apartment in Chicago.
It was difficult for me to part with Mom’s concrete birdbath, because Tom and I loved to watch the sparrows, finches and robins splash there in the rose garden in the corner of our backyard.
Even so, I gave it to my sister. I wanted to leave her a loving reminder about the respect for nature that runs through our blood and the nurturing way we partnered to care for our mother in her final days …
Before we left Mount Prospect, we hoisted my father’s World War II army locker into the trunk of our car. A smaller box of gardening items housed a pared-down collection of treasured ceramic pottery pieces my mother created and a jagged, red-speckled, five-by-seven-inch chunk of granite from my grandfather’s Huntersville, North Carolina, farm.
I wanted to deposit this small reminder of fertile ground from my childhood in a large terracotta pot with a prickly pear cactus Tom and I had planted outside the backdoor of our Arizona condo.
In the back seat, we nestled our African violets and peace lily in a laundry basket next to a clear, square plastic bin of items too precious or fragile to entrust to the movers: box #27 in Tom’s journal identified as Wedding–9/6/2014.
With our marriage memorabilia positioned in its proper place, it was time to bid farewell to Mount Prospect and depart for Scottsdale in our stacked Sonata.
As we passed the house keys to the new owners, we decided to spend six nights in area hotels. We both felt the tug of gravity from our life there. We needed time and space to say so long to Chicago-area family and friends.
On July 5, 2017, after a goodbye breakfast with Tom’s sister, we were set to soar from suburban Chicago. It was the last day of my fifties. The last day I would call Illinois my home. I didn’t know it also would be the last day of my pre-coronary life.
Sometimes, long after a chapter is written, lived or buried, you unearth a grainy photo and analyze it more closely. It prompts you to consider what you suspect, but will never really know. That the truth of war, like global pandemics, is often too painful for the traumatized to reconcile, resolve and recount.
Who was the Czechoslovakian girl posing in May 1945 with my father Walter A. Johnson, a sergeant in the 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Division? What became of her in those days after Nazi Germany surrendered? What happened to her parents? Did she have siblings? Were they split apart by the war? Did they ever reconnect? Did she have nightmares about death and destruction like the ones my sensitive father carried back with him from Europe?
I’ve fabricated my own scenario about the photo and Dad’s handwritten message on the flip side. Maybe Walter simply wanted to share a harmless, tender image of his war experience with his parents, Albert and Louise, and his older sister Thelma … without acknowledging the bloodshed.
Perhaps he needed to pretend that everything in his world was all right even if it wasn’t. To imagine that in the madness of war he had been able to put his arm around and comfort at least one lost soul in the land he would leave behind. Even if it wasn’t his own.
One of Walter’s old army buddies–Corporal A. W. Donahue from Holyoke, Massachusetts–apparently knew him well. He wrote this in Dad’s pocket-size My Life in the Service book:
“The best-natured and biggest-hearted guy I’ve met in the Army is my old pal, Walt Johnson.”
Though I’ll never really know what happened seventy-five years ago in Europe, I am fortunate to read and hold this record of my father’s true nature, along with a short stack of family letters written and mailed from St. Louis and Chicago in 1945. The handwritten and typed sentiments would help keep his spirits afloat, when he thought he might be destined for another round of duty in the Pacific. Fortunately, for him and me, that never happened.
In the coming days, I’ll be sharing excerpts of at least one of the letters he received from Thelma. It was just like him to tuck them in his foot locker and bring them all home.
When I look around me, it feels as if I’ve popped the lid off my space craft, poked my head outside, and discovered that I’ve landed on the face of the moon. How is it possible that this warm and dry space, these buttes and saguaros, this vast sky and terrain exist just steps from my modest home?
This is … far and away … a better life than the one I imagined. Especially when I recall a doctor in St. Louis telling me he’d discovered a blockage on the left side of my heart in 2017 on the way west. I couldn’t have predicted that personal scare. Or the global fright of this pandemic that has suddenly increased the value of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, protective masks, social distance and personal space.
What’s my point? Rarely does life turn out the way we expect it will. Sometimes it’s better. Sometimes it’s worse. Sometimes it’s just different. Like five years ago this week. Kirk, my younger son, was on the other side of the world volunteering for the Peace Corps on the Vanuatu Islands. I was worried about his safety and well being, because a natural phenomenon was swirling and creating havoc. This is what I wrote on April 9, 2015:
Kirk is on a plane heading back to the U.S. from his Peace Corps assignment in Vanuatu. It’s been a wild ride for him — and even more so for the citizens of Vanuatu — since Cyclone Pam made a direct hit on the islands in mid March.
Perhaps there is a blessing in all of this. Kirk was able to go back to the island of Tanna, where he had been living and teaching children for the past 15 months. Sadly, much of the island was decimated and seven of the villagers lost their lives. However, he reconnected with his host family, whom all survived, and shared an Easter service with them before saying goodbye.
I can’t begin to express how proud I am of Kirk for the positive differences he has made in the lives of people on the other side of the world. This Peace Corps experience will live with him forever and though I will never meet his host family I am certain they were touched by his generous spirit, warmth and kindness.
Fortunately, since returning to the United States, Kirk’s built a good life. He received his Master of Education degree in 2019. Last fall, he landed a job in the Chicago area as a school counselor. In late March, the day before he began to shelter in place like thousands of other Chicagoans, he moved into a new apartment. He’s even kept in touch with some of his Peace Corps friends, who’ve scattered across the country since 2015.
Like all of us, Kirk is now living through another round of upheaval. The good news is I can connect with him online, over the phone, and via text. Last weekend, he took Tom and me on a virtual tour of his new space. Like five years ago, I am relieved to know he is okay physically and doing his best to adapt to this precarious situation. But, I still worry about his well being and that of his older brother Nick, who lives near us in Arizona with his family.
Tom and I see Nick more frequently. Before the world went on lockdown, we were able to squeeze in a few impromptu episodes of basketball at a safe distance at an outdoor court in Tempe. But now Nick might as well be living on the moon. We don’t expect to be with each other for a while. We’re all sheltering in place. Clamoring for the close-range contact. Hankering for the hugs, handshakes and high fives. Remembering the movie nights and mostaccioli. When will we be able to share those again?
With all that we’re missing and the Easter holiday coming this weekend, I felt the need to be together in some fashion with my immediate family … Kirk in Chicago … Nick, Aida, Mia and Tony in Tempe … Tom and me in Scottsdale.
So, on Sunday night, we’re having a virtual, non-traditional gathering. I call it Pie Time, but we’ll be sharing our favorite desserts … fruit pies and carrot cakes … from our respective homes. Thanks to Zoom, we’ll be able to see each other’s faces online. Hear our laughs. See our smiles on the screen.
It won’t be a perfect Easter, but we’re alive and well. We’ll be together in 2020. Like every other family, celebrating or not, we’ll be doing what we can to get by. Far and away. Hoping and praying for good health without knowing what tomorrow will bring.