Tag: Grief

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.

In the Aftermath

 

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Though darkness abounds,

There is an opening in the aftermath.

An ever-widening aperture of love and hope.

It reminds us to focus on who we are at the center.

Able captains of our bodies, minds and spirits.

Imperfect, yet free and unencumbered.

Seekers of light and truth.

 

By Mark Johnson

May 17, 2019

To Stand Tall

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The world has gone mad. Last week, I felt it personally.

***

On Monday at the gym, bully #1 sprayed venomous, hateful words at me in a weight-lifting room. He claimed I had usurped his space on a bench. He was wrong. It was vacant when I stepped in briefly. At any rate, I was smart enough to walk away from someone far more muscular.

I was also scared enough to recognize old wounds from my adolescence … bullying and humiliation in middle school hallways and locker rooms by larger, straighter, nastier boys who wielded the “F” word and ruled by physical intimidation without adult supervision.

Before I left the gym, I reported the incident to an employee. A few minutes later the reality of what had happened hit me. I cried in the car with my husband Tom by my side.

***

On Saturday at the local market, Tom and I had just bought scented soaps from a vendor. She’s a friend and single mother. I hugged her, knowing her children will be leaving soon for the summer to spend time with their dad.

Before we left, I stopped at a booth to enter my friend’s name in a Mother’s Day drawing. That’s when it happened. “Are you a mother?” bully #2 asked rhetorically. She covered the entry box with both hands and shook her head.

“No, I’m not,” I replied. “But a friend is. I’d like to enter her name in the contest.”

She scolded me. “Vendors aren’t allowed to participate.”

With all the sarcasm I could muster, I glared back and thanked her for “the pleasurable experience of meeting her.” My hair was on fire. I stomped away. Tom stayed long enough to tell bully #2 and her manager how rude they were. We both wondered if they would have treated us the same if we’d been a straight couple.

***

On Sunday, Tom and I missed our mothers. They both died several years ago. Naturally, we still feel the weight of grief. We always will on Mother’s Day. To find solace, we hiked to the Desert Botanical Garden in the morning. It’s one of our favorite spots to be alone with our thoughts. To see the cacti and succulents bloom. To watch the quail and ground squirrels skitter. To escape our worries and get lost in nature.

As we walked along a path, a six-or-seven-year-old boy and his extended family approached us. “Happy Mother’s Day,” he shouted gleefully. “Thank you. Same to you,” I responded with gusto. Instantly, the child stole my heart on a garden path in the desert. At least for a few moments, he renewed my faith in humanity.

Before Tom and I left the garden, we stopped to buy a desert rose. I wanted to pay tribute to my wise, garden-loving mother by planting new life in the sun on our back patio with two similar roses. I wanted to give us hope that one day we’ll live in a world with stronger leaders, who have greater compassion and desire to help protect young children like the one who greeted us with unbridled joy. Leaders who will fight against bullying, rather than foster it.

Until then, I need this third desert rose to remind me to remain true to myself. To continue performing with the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus, as I did on Saturday night at a benefit for the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence. To speak my mind as a concerned American, husband, father, son, neighbor, and gay man.  To stand tall in a world gone mad.

I’ll Be Seeing You

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On the afternoon of April 23, I wrote and sipped ice tea at Echo, an independent coffee shop in Scottsdale. I sat there, creating characters and spinning scenarios for a piece of fiction.

At some point, I became aware of the sounds in the room: my husband typing on his laptop across the table; the chatter of patrons; the whir of a barista grinding coffee beans; the soaring voice of Ella Fitzgerald cascading down upon us. It was her rousing rendition of I’ll Be Seeing You, an iconic 1940s tune my mother, Helen Johnson, loved. So much so that my sister and I chose to play it at her memorial service in 2013.

The irony of hearing the song on April 23 was that I had been feeling blue all day. I’d spoken with the manager of an independent bookstore a few hours before. She said she hadn’t recently sold any copies of my first book, From Fertile Ground, a three-generation memoir I wrote and published in 2016 about the grief I experienced after my mother’s death. The manager had decided to pull it from the store’s shelves. I could pick up the five remaining paperbacks at my convenience.

From a business standpoint, this isn’t unusual. Books come and go. Bookstores have a limited amount of space. They’re under intense pressure to maximize the revenue possibilities on their shelves and keep their inventory fresh to entice readers. Intellectually, I got that. But, emotionally, I felt something different. Disappointment. Sadness. Grief.

If you’ve lost someone you loved, you know what I mean. The wound of grief heals with time, but is ever present. As a character in the 2010 movie Rabbit Hole explains, grief is like carrying a stone in your pocket. Some days the stone is heavy. Other days the stone is light. But the stone is always with you and over time provides strange comfort. For me, that metaphor rings true.

To take it one step further, imagine if you wrote a book about the stone, as I did. You mustered all the energy and creativity you could to tell the tale of grief. About an adventure-seeking woman from rural North Carolina, who leaves the south and her hard-working parents. The woman finds a new-and-often-tumultuous life in St. Louis, where she builds a successful career, becomes a wife, mother, and grandmother. One day she retires. She decides to devote her time and energy to writing and sending a litany of letters about the lessons she’s learned to those she loves.

Of course, no matter how many books I sell, I am grateful for my writing and the satisfaction it gives me. I will always have my book as a chronicle of Helen’s life, death and legacy.  I will always have my memories of writing it. Capturing the universal story of love and loss that permeates every life. Hearing from friends and strangers who enjoy reading it. As a writer, this is what I’ll hold onto even as we live in a society of constant distraction that overemphasizes the latest superhero movie and undervalues the historical perspective, humanity and truth in books all around us.

As Mother’s Day approaches, this is the most meaningful part of the stone metaphor. This is what I choose to carry with me:

I still love you, Helen. There is comfort knowing that I’ll be seeing you and your fading blue eyes in my writing. For as long as I’m in the world, I’ll be seeing you in my grief.

***

To learn more about  From Fertile Ground, listen to my podcast interview on The Authors Show.

 

 

 

 

 

A New High Point

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There is a definite rhythm to writing. When it’s working, it’s as if you are conducting the full breadth of a finely tuned orchestra. But, when you are out of rhythm, you might as well be stomping on the toes of your favorite dance partner. It’s that painful.

At any rate, in January 2016—eighteen months before my husband and I moved to Scottsdale permanently—we escaped suburban Chicago to snowbird in the warmth of Arizona for a few precious months. I remember being concerned about messing up my writing rhythm. To complicate matters, I was fully immersed in the editing of my first book, From Fertile Ground, and unwinding the unending grief for Helen Johnson, my mother. I didn’t yet have a defined space for my writing or Helen’s past influence in our Arizona condo. I needed a trusty desk, like the one that supported my laptop in Illinois, and a few artifacts that would remind me of the mother I loved.

My husband Tom was sensitive to my dilemma. So, on a Tuesday morning a few days after we arrived in Scottsdale, we set out to find a suitable writing surface. We didn’t want to spend much. So, we opted to explore thrift stores in the area for a wooden desk that could fit under the window in our sunroom. It faces south.

I suppose I felt a little like Goldilocks as she searched for the right bed. Our first few stops produced nothing promising. The desks we encountered were too clunky, too small, too rickety, too ugly, too … wrong. I hadn’t found the one that was just right. But we decided to try one more place before calling it quits. We pulled into the Goodwill store on North Scottsdale Road.

Once inside, we filed our way up and down aisles of discarded ceramics, leftover lamps and sagging upholstered chairs. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a slightly scuffed, mid-sized, mid-century wooden desk. It was just the right size to fit in my creative space. The right price too—twenty dollars.

Tom and I flagged down a clerk. He helped us process the order and arrange for the delivery of our newfound desk. I paused to run my fingers across the desk’s smooth finish and pull open the top drawer. That’s where I discovered a small embossed plate with an ironic identifying inscription: Alma Desk Company, High Point, North Carolina.

In case you aren’t familiar with High Point, the town is the home furnishings capital of the United States. It also happens to be the birthplace of my mother. Here’s the remarkable part. At the time I found the desk in a resale shop more than two thousand miles from her birthplace, I was in the midst of completing a book about grieving Helen’s loss. Certainly, this was a prophetic signpost I couldn’t ignore. It was the right desk, blessed by the writing gods and—perhaps in some cosmic way—endorsed by my furniture-loving mother from the south.

I was convinced that this connection to Helen’s past would be the injection of continuity I needed to complete my book about her in Arizona, even though she never visited the Valley of the Sun. She never stood in awe of the spiky Sonoran saguaros. She never ambled down a quiet path at the Desert Botanical Garden on a Sunday morning to hear the mourning doves coo on crooked branches of Palo Verde trees. She never saw bighorn sheep climb to the top of this butte in the Phoenix Zoo and gaze east.

In this season of renewal, it feels right to acknowledge that my mother’s undaunted spirit and a sturdy High Point desk have helped sustain my creativity in Arizona. They–and a bighorn sheep standing tall in a much too complicated world–are with me on my writing journey.

Joy … and Sadness

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A real day in a real life is comprised of the crisscrossing realities of joy and sadness. Strung together like a tangled knot of Christmas lights, they are the twinkling highs we crave blended with the burned-out bulbs we’d prefer to avoid.

Today, in the span of the same hour, I found myself composing an enthusiastic message to one friend in Arizona, who’s celebrating her sixtieth birthday, while offering condolences to an acquaintance in Illinois. He is my oldest son’s boyhood friend who had just lost his mother (also in her sixties) to cancer.

The combination of these two events gave me pause to consider how difficult it is to balance the highs and lows of life. Many of us spend a good deal of time contemplating tomorrow–saving for a college education, plotting for the perfect job, scrimping to buy a comfortable home, orchestrating the trip of a lifetime, preparing for a secure retirement. Yet, somewhere–way back in the recesses of our psyches–we know the day will come when the loss we experience will dash all of our plans. It will predominate everything else in our lives. Our grief will be all that matters.

So, on this day–March 22, 2019–I wish Kathy a spectacular sixtieth birthday in the Valley of the Sun. And, for Ryan, I send my love and deepest sympathy across the miles as he reconciles the joy of his mother’s kind and generous life with the sadness of her passing.