She’s been gone nine-and-a-half years. I no longer feel the frequent weightiness of her loss. But on this day–what would have been Helen Johnson’s ninety-ninth birthday–I do.
My mother was a lifelong gardener and nature lover. So, this morning–as a symbolic gesture–Tom and I walked the Desert Botanical Garden. It was quiet and muggy there; just us, a few other couples, and a parade of random reptiles doing push-ups on the concrete path before scampering off.
Grief is a tricky thing. If you’ve lost someone you loved (and who hasn’t?), the discomfort appears as an uninvited clunky extra, who wanders on stage to disrupt a scene … only to vanish until the next anniversary, birthday, favorite song, or serendipitous moment.
As a soothing balm, I have kept the treasure trove of hundreds of letters my mother sent me. They represent a lifetime of her wisdom–her pain, joy, uncertainty, pride, denial, and acceptance. It only became wisdom and the catalyst for my first book, because she had the foresight to share it.
Perhaps the image of her–sitting at her desk or dining room table composing another letter–is her greatest gift of all to me in my literary, later-in-life years.
Out of her death and my grief, I was able to comb the beaches of her life (and mine) and make sense of it. Her letters–like this joyous one from 1999, which I included in From Fertile Ground–are the meaningful shells that washed up on shore and remain.
July 11, 1999
I really enjoyed your visit! It is good to see you happy and at peace. The fact that you plan to end your group therapy indicates a confidence in your life’s path that is reassuring. I wish for you continued growth and success in every area of your life. The next 20 years should be your best!
The boys are growing up. Nick seems to have recovered some of his old verve and displayed more of the child of old than I had seen in a few years. As he matures and charts his own course as a man, more of that lovely, lovable child nature will return and be revealed to his family members. Kirk is still an adorable rascal and much fun to have around. Enjoy it. Everything can change quickly …
Love to you and the boys. Hello to Tom.
Two years before, in the fall of 1997 while vacationing with her sister Frances, Mom wore a light blue hat in this grainy photo. She scoured the South Carolina shoreline for seashells and shark teeth. She marveled at the way the ocean’s high and low tides polished their sharp edges.
Twenty-five years later, I marvel at the wisdom and intellect my mother shared and left behind. It is her letters and my love for her that linger.
Around the age of fifty, Tom and I nurtured our creative ritual.
On cold Chicago-area Sunday mornings, we bundled up and drove east from Mount Prospect to the Barnes & Noble in Evanston to browse books and movies, sip coffee, play Scrabble, and imagine “what if.“
Fifteen years later, I’m living on the other end of the temperature spectrum. Today, in the oven-like heat of this Sonoran summer, we drove to Barnes & Noble on Val Vista Drive in Mesa, Arizona. It’s about fifteen miles from our Scottsdale condo.
Remarkably, they’re stocking my books on their Local Author and Biography shelves. It feels like I’m living a dream come true.
If you’ve ever doubted your ability or passion (as I certainly did when the grind of life had worn me down), don’t give up. It’s never too late to carve a new creative path.
We live in an over-inflated, over-heated, over-zealous world.
There is plenty of blame to go around. In my mind, greedy politicians and media conglomerates are two of the biggest culprits. The worst of them scream at us through our screens to woo us over and over. All for the sake of personal swagger and the almighty dollar.
I do my best to follow the important developments in the world and tune out the bluster, though–in this summer of 2022–that is virtually impossible in the United States of America.
That’s why I typically pepper my blog with stories of sweet cats, eavesdropping cacti, brilliant sunsets, lazy lizards, and personal reflections. However, I’m over-exposed and need to rant.
A simple drive down the street here in Scottsdale, Arizona (and I imagine in most American communities) snaps me back to the realities of the day.
We are surrounded by political signs and crack-pot endorsements on street corners in advance of our August 2 primary. Unfortunately, a fierce monsoon storm here on Sunday night didn’t obliterate them all. The best thing I can do is vote. My husband and I performed that democratic duty–early–on Monday.
Of course, the bluster of our society isn’t confined to politics. On Tuesday night, I tuned in to watch a few innings of the MLB (Major League Baseball) All-Star Game. The over-produced coverage on Fox assaulted my sensibilities. Over-hyped celebrity ballplayers wearing mics for in-game interviews over-shadowed the action on the field. It bored me.
That’s saying a lot, because–if you follow me–you know I’m a die-hard baseball fan. More specifically, I root for the St. Louis Cardinals. This passion flows back to the 1960s, sitting in the bleachers with my dad with my transistor radio and watching legendary players perform on the field.
My fascination and fixation with baseball was all about the relative innocence of escaping into the strategy of the game, wondering what might unfold next. In 2022, that sense of mystery has vanished.
Maybe this is really a story about what it feels like to grow older. To see the world through wiser, more questioning eyes. To demand more from our polarizing politicians, fragmented society, and ever-posturing media outlets … while the world I once knew evaporates before me.
I’ve always known I am overly sensitive–overly aware of my fair skin and frailties. According to my dermatologist on Tuesday, a cancerous patch of squamous cells (removed from the top of my left hand in mid-June through minor surgery) has over-healed.
Evidently, I was too good at smearing Aquaphor lotion on the wound, so he froze the scar tissue. It will fall off in a few weeks, and my life in the desert will go on with another chapter of survival in the books.
On Wednesday evening, I joined a group of my Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus friends at a funeral home in Mesa, Arizona.
We sang a beautiful arrangement of Over the Rainbow. It was our way of saying goodbye to Cy, our friend and long-time chorus member, who passed away recently.
It was an evening of tears, funny stories, and reflections–a tribute to a man who lived well, sang beside us, and fought hard.
It was also a good reminder for me to do my best to tune into the important stuff of life. To embrace what really matters each day. To keep doing it over and over again as long as I can. Because none of us knows what tomorrow will bring.
Mid-July numbers on the trail at 6 a.m. in the Sonoran Desert don’t lie. Ninety-one degrees, heading for a sizzling Saturday high of 115.
Eleven lizards, three hummingbirds, two Gambel’s quail, and one cottontail endure in the heat. They skitter by before Tom and I complete our 4,200 steps along the canal and drain our water bottles to stay hydrated.
When we arrive back home, two lovebirds greet us. They add a splash of color on the feeder I gave my husband one year and ten days ago on his sixty-fourth birthday. Soon they fly off for another adventure.
Have we been hexed by the heat? Not in the way you might think. Unless you consider one adorable, black-as-midnight kitty the protagonist. Her name is Hex.
An exclusively indoor cat, she lives down the lane. My husband and I are caring for her until tomorrow, while our neighbors Bri and Steve cruise in the Caribbean.
Ironically, sitting for Hex has been a pleasure cruise on land–without cocktails. She tumbles and dances on the cool tile of our neighbor’s condo. We feed and water her daily … and play lots of games. She chases curly doodads, bouncy balls, and a wire thingy with wooden bars attached to the end. What a life!
I’m certain she muses in her tiny brain … “Let’s play more. Toss that. Oh, and I want to curl around your legs and run the gauntlet through my flexible tunnel before you leave. Then, I’ll be sure to eat what you left. I’ll find my way back to the tray by the window. I’ll pass the time. I’ll dream. I’ll watch the birds fly by.”
Yes, it’s summer. I’m definitely ready for it to be over. But at least I have this cat tale to share. It’s a reminder that we can never allow the hexes happening in the heat of the moment all around the world to overshadow the joy of animals–inside and out.
Though sometimes the critters that cross our paths may appear dark like Hex, they brighten our days. They conjure our best instincts. They ignite hope for a better tomorrow.
It had been decades since I’d traveled by train for pleasure. All those Illinois years (on and off from 1980 to 2014) riding the Metra to jobs from my homes in the northwest suburbs to Chicago’s Loop don’t count.
But for four hours on July 6, 2022–our sixty-fifth birthday–Tom and I rode the rails for fun on the Verde Canyon Railroad in central Arizona.
Close your eyes and imagine twenty miles of track, trestles, curves, Cottonwood trees, Verde River bends, one tunnel, and a stretch of close quarters near jagged cliffs between two small towns: Clarkdale and Perkinsville.
Along the way, we moved back and forth from the cool comfort of our coach (featuring a champagne toast in a plastic cup and nifty snack pack of fruits, meats, cheese and crackers) to an open-air car.
The amenities were a nice touch, but not enough to keep us contained. We spent most of our ride outside. That’s where we welcomed unfiltered access to stunning views and stimulating conversation.
Dianne, our assigned interpreter, and Austin, an operations coordinator, provided color commentary as Tom and I guzzled small bottles of water to forestall dehydration in the ninety-plus-degree heat.
With Dianne’s direction, I managed to snap a photo of a Mastodon footprint in the rocks below on my Sony digital camera.
It is evidence of prehistoric life in the old, old west … many centuries before copper smelting and mining, and even longer before one smooth glide through nature carved its initials on the memory of our milestone birthday.
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.
This season of triple digits in Arizona–followed by a few days of overdue, soaking monsoon rains–is the perfect time to rummage indoors through personal, vintage photos.
The best of them, like peering into the Grand Canyon, leave me with a mix of joy and insignificance. They tell stories about humanity before I entered the picture.
I’m fortunate to have accumulated photographic treasures from both sides of my family. Some of them, tattered and faded, date back to the early 1900s.
I don’t recall seeing this image from July 1955 before. I imagine one of my maternal grandparents captured it on their Huntersville, North Carolina farm. Sixty-six years later, I stumbled across it in a forgotten album. Today, on July 26, 2021, it is speaking loudly through the sepia tone.
If she were alive, the woman on the left (my mother, Helen Ferrell Johnson) would be celebrating her ninety-eighth birthday today. In 1955, she held my sister Diane on her lap and celebrated her thirty-second birthday with her sister Frances (cradling her first born, Michael) and brother Jim by her side in her original home state.
Mom has been gone since 2013. Grief has taught me there will be days like today when I miss her smile, wisdom, perspective and resolve. Fortunately, thanks to the passage of time, the abyss of grief–the Grand Canyon of loss–subsided in 2015 as I wrote.
When you love someone, grief is the price you pay. It is everlasting, sometimes surprising, but often predictable. Photos, birthdays, anniversaries, and specific songs (I’ll Be Seeing You sung by Peggy Lee) provide the cues.
What makes this photo a rare find is that I have just a few images of my mother and her adult siblings together. Helen left North Carolina right after World War II to begin a new life in a bigger city … St. Louis, Missouri … where she and Dad met, married, settled, raised Diane and me, and discovered their share of happy, challenging, and unbearable moments together.
Jim and Frances stayed to build their lives in the Tar Heel State. They were teenagers on the farm in the late 40s. In the 50s, Jim and Frances (born in 1930 and 1932 respectively) left the nest, but returned frequently to this front porch that faced west. They met and married partners, traveled a few miles down the road to raise their families, and remained near their parents.
What I love most about this photo is the sense of possibilities and optimism in the eyes of Helen, Frances, and Jim. The wear and worry of life hadn’t yet entered the picture. By the mid 60s, Helen had two children. Frances had three. Jim had two. My grandparents loved all seven of us grandchildren. We now lead disparate lives.
Mom loved her brother. He was a friendly, handsome man, who loved to fish, hunt, drink beer, and smoke cigarettes. Unfortunately, the harsh realities and complexities of life had a way of catching up with Jim. In 1987, he died of lung cancer at age fifty-six. When she learned of Jim’s passing, it frightened her. Mom saw his demise as a harbinger of her own mortality. She retired immediately after returning from his funeral.
Frances still lives in North Carolina. She is the most significant personal connection I have to my southern roots. I spoke with her a few months ago. She isn’t the spitfire she once was, but is content with her husband in their Davidson, North Carolina home.
Like all of us who remain, Frances is thankful to have survived the pandemic. She is looking forward to her ninetieth birthday, which she will celebrate January 1, 2022. In 2015, two years after Mom died, I traveled south to see Frances. At that time, we needed to see and hug each other to escape the throes of grief.
My quest to rediscover my southern family and find comfort with Frances ultimately became fodder for From Fertile Ground, my first book. It’s the story of my journey and grief told in part through the writings my grandfather and mother left behind. If you’ve lost someone close recently and are living with the fog of grief, I hope you’ll pick up a copy of my book. Reading it may soothe you.
With each passing year, I continue to find more fertile ground from the photos and writings my mother and father left behind. Reexamining them and rediscovering their importance reactivates the love I feel for imperfect–yet beloved–family members. They shaped my past and the memories of them still inform my present.
Possibilities pose on the shelf of creativity. In the sculpting hands and firing synapses of the committed artist, a wedge of alabaster, foreboding canvas, or blank page evolves into something profound and present, provoking the imagination of those who linger and remember.
If you are a betting man or woman, fours are wild today. Four double-red desert rose buds are primed to burst on our back patio; this sixty-four-year-old writer (who has written four books) swam twenty-four laps at Chaparral Pool this morning; and July 12 is the fourth anniversary of Tom and me arriving (finally) at our Arizona home after a hospital stay in St. Louis.
Dad would have loved the synchronicity–the magical, random alignment–of these fours. He was a numerology freak. Like me, he also was a dreamer, poet, sentimentalist, Cardinal-baseball lover, and heart-attack survivor.
My father never met Tom. A week shy of his eightieth birthday, he died before my husband and I began dating nearly twenty-five years ago. I don’t think Dad would have understood our relationship, but he would have continued to love me anyway.
I also believe he would have loved Tom’s smile, enthusiasm, and youthful spirit … and marveled at my resolve to create an authentic life with a soulmate, while raising Nick and Kirk and living long enough to see my two young sons evolve into intelligent, critical-thinking, thirty-something men.
Most of all, Dad would have admired–possibly envied–the free-flowing, simple, yet meaningful life Tom and I have built in our sixties in the warmth (okay, intense heat) of the Sonoran Desert. After surviving my heart attack blip four years ago, we have our health and plenty of time to exercise, write, read, reflect, and nurture friendships.
Tom and I no longer have to worry about the demands of holding down regular/traditional jobs or living up to narrow standards prescribed by somebody else. I realize what a privilege that is, even though there was a time in my previously closeted and discriminated life when I felt I would never find a path through the labyrinth.
Yesterday, four of us gay friends who met in Arizona in 2017 and formed an impromptu book discussion group in 2018 … Brian, Mike, Tom and me (plus Andy, a longer-term friend living in Chicago who joined the conversation via Facetime) … gathered, talked and laughed in the friendly, freshly painted confines of our Scottsdale den/guest room. We were there to exchange ideas and mixed reviews of The Days of Anna Madrigal, first published by Armistead Maupin in 2014. It was our first book group discussion since sometime in 2019, months before the pandemic began to ravage the world.
As I reflect on the three hours we spent together Sunday … critiquing various aspects of Maupin’s novel that I think missed the mark, recounting our original fascination with Maupin’s Tales of the City characters on Barbary Lane and the resulting PBS phenomenon in the 1990s, catching up on our own personal lives, telling summer stories of travel, and sharing brunch after surviving the dread of 2020 … I am especially thankful for friends such as Brian and Mike, who entered our lives in Arizona. Our Grand Canyon State friends have enriched our world after the St. Louis storm.
No matter how hot it gets in the Phoenix area this summer (110, 111, 112 degrees, and so on) … or whether the monsoons finally materialize and spill promised moisture into the Valley of the Sun this week as forecasters say they will … the lead of this personal story is the beauty of our desert roses, our mutual investment with new neighbors and friends between 2017 and 2021. During that time, we have come to love a whole new batch of people (and they have loved us) in our first four years in Arizona. It is a dream come true beyond the friends and family we continue to love in Illinois and Missouri.
From various avenues–literary, yoga, choral, gymnastic, canine, and cinematic–new Arizona friends and acquaintances have helped us heal, renewed our spirits, made us laugh, and stretched our creative sensibilities to new heights. I certainly didn’t see the breadth of this late-in-life resurgence coming from my precarious station in a hospital bed in St. Louis on July 6, 2017.
Dad would have loved these literary bonus years after the rises and falls of our midwestern life … these days of desert friendships and roses for Tom and me. Like the rousing song from Bye Bye Birdie, which played on the transistor radio next to Dad’s hospital bed as he recovered from his own St. Louis heart attack in September 1962, I’ve still got A Lot of Livin’ to Do.