Tag: Grief

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Anyway, in the 1970s I was a withdrawn teen and she hadn’t yet sharpened her sensitivity.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?

For All the Soldiers on the Hill

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Every year at this time thoughts of my father resurface. Mostly because Veterans Day is drawing near. Dad served during World War II in the Battle of the Bulge. But also because he died in the eleventh month of the year. A second heart attack took him on November 26, 1993. It was the day after Thanksgiving nearly twenty-six years ago.

Now that I live in Arizona, it’s less convenient for me to visit Walter Johnson’s grave at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery south of St. Louis. But I have no difficulty summoning vivid recollections of him from afar.

I remember a tender moment between us sometime in the 1980s when he asked me if I liked the idea of him one day being buried in a national cemetery alongside other soldiers who’d served during the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War. (Unfortunately, the list goes on.) I told him I thought it would be the perfect, peaceful resting place for him. A proud patriot. A man who loved his country. A citizen who served it to the best of his ability.

Over the years, I’ve been inspired to tell Dad’s story. This unfulfilled poet of good intentions–this complicated, compassionate and troubled comrade, deeply affected by the horrors of war and bipolar disorder–appears in all three of my books in various forms.

Recently, I came across a poem in a file of prose I’ve written over the past thirty years. At the time I penned this one in 1996, my grief for Walter Johnson was fresh. I had just visited his grave. I was searching for answers. Still reeling from my failed first marriage. Doing my best to raise two young sons. Finally coming out of the closet. Beginning to connect the disparate strands of my emerging life.

As it turns out, the passage of time (along with greater understanding, acceptance and forgiveness) helped me heal my wounds, find my path, and build an integrated life. I’m thankful for that eventual transformation. Walter wouldn’t have understood all of it, but he would have kissed me on the forehead and loved me anyway. He would have cheered me on during these late-in-life writing years I’ve been fortunate to find.

I’m grateful for the poetic propensity that came from this one particular soldier. Yes, he is long gone. His physical remains rest under the shade of a large tree not far from the banks of the Mississippi River. But his imperfect imprint will always appear in my writing. This is for him.

***

The Soldier on the Hill

I talked with the soldier on the hill today,

We sat, we cried, we laughed, we prayed.

The bells rang true, the trees stood free,

A breeze swept past to welcome me.

 

Shadows filled the landscape then,

Tempers rose without his pen.

Snowflakes fell, the grass turned green,

All without a change of scene.

 

Now the soldier rests with them,

Hand in hand—all blessed again.

They greet another trailing soul,

Who makes the journey past the knoll.

 

August 27, 1996

***

More broadly, I’m thankful for all of the soldiers on the hill. Many of them lost their lives in battle and had little or no time to discover a path or realize their dreams. We must always honor their service and sacrifices, past and present.

So Long, Old Friend

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“Just wanted to tell you that Millie passed away.

She was ninety-nine years old. What a life.”

Tom and I received this text today from Kathy, a close friend and neighbor who lived two doors north of us in Mount Prospect, Illinois. The community was our home until July 2017.

Millie, another of our neighbors, was an ever-enduring matriarch. She lived one block over. Directly behind us for two decades. Evidently, she died a few days ago.

I remember Millie fondly, tending to her flowers along the back fence. She was one part avid gardener and rose lover, one part suburban dynamo, one part cantankerous character.

Millie left a lasting impression on my family and me. So much so that I wrote Along the Back Fence, an essay about her and our relationship. It became a chapter in An Unobstructed View, my book of reflections on the meaning of my Illinois life.

Millie didn’t quite make it to her one hundredth birthday, which would have occurred in early January. But as a tribute to her and long-lasting neighbors everywhere who enrich our lives, I choose to celebrate as if she had.

Here’s my story and an image of a rose I captured across the sidewalk in another neighbor’s yard in sunny Arizona.

So long, old friend.

***

Along the Back Fence

Long before I arrived at my Mount Prospect home, Millie loved her garden and the hibiscus plants she and her husband had planted on the other side of the back fence. But when I first met my neighbor Millie in the summer of 1996, her husband had been gone for a few years and the exotic flowers were waning too. She was alone and lonely in her mid-seventies, but not in a quiet and retiring way. There was plenty of fight left in Millie.

It wasn’t an auspicious start for the two of us. I had begun to create a small compost pile in the far corner of my yard. She wasn’t happy about it—too many decomposing grass clippings and small spruce branches in one place she thought. In her view, I had created a mess. So when she complained about the smell that had started brewing there, I scrapped the idea and placed the yard materials by the curb for the next trash pickup. I didn’t want to alienate Millie. I didn’t want to contribute to her unhappiness.

I don’t think we had too much to say to one another over the next few months. Only a quick hello here and there as I pushed my mower around my yard and she tended to her garden that wrapped around her detached garage. Eventually, we broke the ice.  From one side of the fence, she told me about her love of roses. From the other, I introduced her to my sons and then Tom. After that, we found firm footing.

By the fall of 1998, Maggie was in the picture. I remember Millie leaning over to pet our dog’s voluminous ears. Millie would cradle Maggie’s head on either side when the dog placed her paws along the back fence. “How is that Maggie today?” she would ask. Our droopy-eyed pet had won her heart too.

Over time, Millie got to know more members of my family. On one summer afternoon, Tom and I decided to invite Millie over for a backyard barbecue. My mother was visiting us from St. Louis. Both Mom and Millie were gardeners. There was plenty for them to discuss about the flowers they had grown, nurtured, and cherished over the years. Not to mention the yummy three-bean salad Millie had whipped together in a jiffy.

“Next time I’ll bring my ambrosia salad,” Millie told us. “Everyone loves it!”

And there was a next time the following year. Tom’s mom and dad joined us from their home on the other side of Mount Prospect. Sure enough, Millie brought her signature dish of mandarin oranges, maraschino cherries, crushed pineapple, and shredded coconut to compliment the relatively ordinary burgers and hot dogs we grilled that afternoon.

That was the last of our three-bean-and-ambrosia-salad moments with the older set. The seasons passed and so did our parents—Tom’s dad in 2012, my mom in 2013, Tom’s mom in 2015. But Millie survived them all. She heard about each of our losses along the back fence. It gave me comfort to meet her there, though our encounters became few and far between as her own health—her own sure-footedness—declined.

In the summer of 2016, I waved to Millie as I worked in my backyard. Frail and in her nineties, she was seated on a chair on her deck with Yolanda, her live-in caregiver, nearby. Millie motioned to me to meet them by the back fence. With Yolanda at her side, it took a few minutes for Millie to navigate her way there. But there was never any doubt she would make it.

When she arrived, I reached out to give her a hug as she leaned in to rest her head on my shoulder. She told me she still loved to admire the perennial blooms that came and went, but her gardening days were over. She simply didn’t have the physical energy for it any more. Nonetheless, she wanted to gift the only remaining rose bush in her yard to Tom and me, if I would dig it up from the side of her garage and find a place to transplant it in our backyard.

Though I didn’t know where we’d find room for the bush, I was touched by the gesture. I grabbed a shovel from the garage, wedged the toe of my shoe in the cyclone fence, and boosted myself over onto Millie’s lush lawn. Tom found our wheelbarrow and lifted it over too. It took me nearly thirty minutes of digging before I could pry the stubborn bush out of the ground. But it finally succumbed. When I left Millie’s yard with the bush, I thanked her and gave her another hug and kiss on the cheek. We had come a long way from our early compost pile days.

“I love you guys,” she said.

“We love you too, Millie,” I assured her.

Before Tom and I moved the following summer, we waved to Millie a few more times from our backyard whenever we mowed our lawn and saw her perched on her deck, presiding over her floral-filled memories.

And the red rose bush—which we carefully transplanted alongside our driveway and propped up with tomato stakes and chicken wire—took root and bloomed before we departed.

We left it there for the new owners to enjoy.

It only seemed fitting.

 

 

Saturday at the Library

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Some of my earliest and most vivid “learning” memories happened at the library. To be precise, it was the Tesson Ferry Library in South St. Louis County in the 1960s. I remember finding quiet comfort there with my mother on autumn Saturdays. I don’t recall the titles we checked out, but my sister and I always left with two or three books in our arms. Stories to be read at home. Books our busy mother often read with us.

At that point in life, I never imagined I would become an author. Or that some fifty years later the manager of acquisitions at the St. Louis County Library would call me (on my deceased mother’s birthday) with happy and fortuitous news. The library had purchased four copies of From Fertile Ground, my book about the grief I felt after the loss of my mother.

Now in my sixties, local libraries in Arizona deliver a dependable dose of quiet continuity. They connect my early days as an eager reader with my later days as a memoir writer … and provide community outlets for me to connect with avid readers.

All of this is a prelude to say I’m excited and proud to be exhibiting at a Local Author Fair this Saturday (1 to 4 p.m.) in Mesa at the Dobson Ranch Library, 2425 S. Dobson Road. Authors from across Arizona will be there exhibiting, selling and signing their books. I love these opportunities to talk with readers. To hear about the kinds of books that interest them. To share my stories and memoir writing tips.

If you live in the area or happen to be visiting the Valley of the Sun, I hope you’ll stop by to say hello and spend part of your Saturday at the library.

After Grief Swallowed Me Whole

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In October 2015, I was a fixture in front of my laptop. I spent endless hours painstakingly polishing the final draft of my first book, From Fertile Ground. It’s the story of my journey after my mother’s death in 2013.

With help from a trail of letters and diary entries my mother and grandfather left behind, writing renewed my spirit. It led me out of the darkness and propelled me forward. After grief swallowed me whole, I finally reemerged and rediscovered sunlight at the end of a numb and winding road.

Intuitively, I realized I needed to share my story openly with the world. That of a gay man, loving husband, devoted father and grateful son searching for answers. I dreamed it would help others find a new path and navigate their way through grief.

Not long after I published From Fertile Ground in February 2016, friends and strangers began to post reviews online. They described how they were moved by the book and its lessons of love and loss. My dream was coming true.

By the end of 2017, things had gotten rather quiet. That’s what happens with books and creative accomplishments. They come and go no matter how much you want them to linger. They flash across the sky like shooting stars and then fall off the radar.

Fortunately, every once in a while, there is a glimmer or twinkle to remind you of their importance long after they first appear. That happened last week when I read a new review posted on Goodreads and Amazon … a review that reminded me why I decided to publish the book in the first place:

“This book is a life compass if you are experiencing loss or disruption in your family.

From Fertile Ground came to me at precisely the right time in my life. Mark’s perspective and reflection helped me to navigate loss and disruption in my own life. I pulled from his examples and experiences to temper my feelings and expectations. I ultimately gained a great deal of comfort and reassurance from his novel, and I continue to think back on it often as my life continues to evolve.

Throughout the book, I enjoyed getting to know Mark and his family. They are relatable people demonstrating courage, compassion, and love. The poem he wrote and included that was a tribute to his mom was one of my favorites. I also really enjoyed seeing his relationship with his children evolve from childhood to adulthood.”

This is the kind of glorious feedback that motivates me to keep sharing stories. To shine a light on truths … both personal and universal. To bring a little love, inspiration, comfort and reassurance to a world that really needs it. To devote time each day to my literary passion. To pen the next poem and dust off that fictionalized piece that I keep going back to. To live the life of a writer. It’s what I was meant to do. It is my fertile ground.

Still Counting in September

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“What greater thing is there for two human souls than to feel that they are joined — to strengthen each other — to be at one with each other in silent unspeakable memories.”

George Eliot — English novelist, poet, journalist and translator

***

George Eliot had it right. Memories are a powerful human connection. Without a moment’s notice, we can be transported back to a person, time, and place. Often, this happens as we complete our simplest daily activities at home in the kitchen. Pouring a cup of coffee. Biting into a crunchy apple. Stirring a pot on the stove. Or, in my case, counting and depositing pills into a tray.

On the surface, this may seem like a purely clinical exercise. But it was something significant I did for my mother during the last several years of her life as her macular degeneration worsened. As her dementia deepened. Every other Saturday morning, I drove twenty miles from my home in one Chicago suburb to hers in another. Each time I counted out two weeks worth of medications for her.

Of course, our visits consisted of more than medication administration. We shared late breakfasts, early lunches, short walks and longer stories about our lives and love of family and nature whenever her health and the weather permitted. Neither of us ever imagined I’d  write about our journey years later in what became From Fertile Ground.

Yesterday in Arizona, as I was filling my own tray of medications for the coming week, I was reminded of those intimate Saturday mornings with my mother. Sorting her pills in past Septembers. Doing what I could to help sustain her life for another two weeks as the late summer light in northern Illinois produced elongated shadows.

Of course, it was all worth it. I would do it all over again. But at least now I have the memories to savor. At least I’m still counting in September.

 

So Many … So Much

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So many prickly problems … so many souls in pain.

So many sleepless nights … so many losses in vain.

So many fallen tears … so many wasted years.

So many bodies bleeding … so much ghastly grieving.

So much defiant distraction … so much compliant inaction.

So much to do for the many … so few who are willing to do.

So much for the sake of our children … if we don’t see it through.