Tag: Love

Escaping the Labyrinth

It’s my sister’s birthday. Soon she will open the card and presents we sent her. I will call her later today to wish her well. To tell her I love her.

Like every relationship, ours has had its ebbs and flows. But Diane and I are the only ones left from our family of origin. The only ones who remember the best sounds of our St. Louis childhood–Dad slurping his breakfast beverages through the overflowing Coffee Hound cup we gave him or Mom sifting red and green sprinkles on sugar cookies shaped liked reindeer, candy canes, stars and Santas.

After our mother died in 2013, Diane and I each retreated into our individual darkness. We had worked together closely to care for her during her final years and months, but after Mom was gone I wasn’t sure we would escape the labyrinth of pain and grief or come out the other side whole. It wasn’t that I doubted our love, but we both had to find our personal paths to heal from the devastating loss.

For me that meant writing about it and sharing my observations in From Fertile Ground. Diane wasn’t keen on the idea. She preferred privacy. This difference between us–and the resulting grief-induced friction–was unexpected for me, but with time I realized I needed to respect my sister’s point of view. To this day, she rarely reads what I write.

In June of 2017, right before Tom and I left Illinois and moved to Arizona, Diane drove from her suburban Chicago home to visit with us on our backyard deck in Mount Prospect. I decided to give her the concrete birdbath that had been Mom’s, hoping it would remind her of the shared love we had for our nature-loving mother.

A few weeks later–on the way west–I landed in a St. Louis hospital after a heart attack. I called my sister to tell her what had happened. To hear her voice. To hear her love. That conversation was the turning point toward greater understanding.

In early September, Tom and I received a card from the American Heart Association in the mail. To acknowledge Tom’s and my sixth wedding anniversary, it told us Diane and Steve (my brother-in-law) had made a donation to the organization.

After I opened the card and wiped the tears from my eyes, I realized Diane and I had escaped the labyrinth of grief. Our relationship had emerged on the other side of the shadows. There was light on the horizon.

Garden Shadows

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It’s become one of our beloved desert traditions. For the past three years on July 26th, Tom and I have walked to the Desert Botanical Garden.

Actually, we visit this physical and psychological oasis, tucked inside the easternmost edge of the Phoenix city limits, a few dozen times in a typical year. Because of the pandemic, only recently have we been able to return.

Twice in the past month–early on Sunday mornings–we arrived at a reserved time, stood as an electric eye scanned my phone confirming our tickets and membership, and entered behind our protective masks.

We love the stillness of the garden. The proximity to our home. The majesty of the saguaros and cardon cacti. The exotic succulents. The spiky boojum trees. The dazzling desert roses. The prickly pears in bloom. The tranquility and color of the wildflowers in spring. The harvest of the herb garden in summer.

The chatter of desert wrens, thrashers, woodpeckers and hummingbirds. The playfulness of the ground squirrels. Lizards pausing to do push ups on the trails. Bullfrogs croaking from a pond. Plentiful cottontails in the thicket. Occasional coyotes, long-eared jackrabbits, and road runners scurrying by to say hello and goodbye. Yesterday we spotted the latter two.

Most of all, it’s the connection to the natural desert landscape–and memories of those we’ve loved and lost–that draws us back. That’s where July 26th becomes significant. Yesterday would have been my mother’s ninety-seventh birthday.

Helen, a lifelong gardener and lover of nature, never joined us here. But it was a place she would have enjoyed for all of the reasons I’ve listed.

It’s a natural choice for Tom and I to come here each year on her birthday to acknowledge her past place in the world. To remember her shadow. Her legacy. The love and lasting positive impact she had on my life. Tom’s life. My sons’ lives. My sister’s life. All of our lives.

Of course, her physical shadow disappeared seven-and-a-half years ago. But Tom and I have carried the gardening mantle forward here in Arizona. Just as my sister Diane does at her home in Illinois. At this point, it’s our turn to appear at the front of the line in longevity, visibility and vulnerability.

So there Tom and I sat on Sunday. Casting our shadows in the garden on July 26, 2020. Pausing under the trees to reflect on how many we’ve loved and lost … four parents … and how far we’ve come together.

Doing our best to enjoy each day in spite of the turmoil that surrounds us. Taking cover from the pandemic under the shade of our broad-brimmed hats. Absorbing the comfort and magic of nature just outside our door.

 

Unexpected Fireworks

Sharing a birthday with a friend is a cosmic coincidence. When that friend is your husband–and to this day you remain stumped by the irony of being born in the same year, too–it’s an annual exercise in splendid serendipity.

As Tom and I prepare to cross into an odd-numbered birthday year (sixty-three, but who’s counting?) in an even-odder, even-numbered calendar year, the timing is right to share this excerpt from An Unobstructed View. You can purchase the whole story through any major online retailer.

***

… Tom and I first met on a muggy Saturday night in August 1996.

I had attended a fortieth birthday party for a friend in Chicago. After it was over, I couldn’t bear the idea of going home directly–walking into a silent house. I decided to stop at Hunter’s instead.

When I entered the room around nine o’clock, I was anxious and lonely. The bar was dingy and silent. There were a dozen other men scattered throughout the place. I wasn’t at all comfortable being there. I had been to Hunter’s just once or twice before.

That night I remember feeling two vastly different emotions: hopeful I would meet someone and fearful of the darkness. But I decided to fight my fear and stay for a few minutes anyway to quiet my nerves. I bought a drink at the bar and planted myself on a stool for an hour or so.

At some point, I got squirmy and decided to stretch my legs and look for the restroom. As I crossed the room, I spotted a handsome man with brown hair. He was wearing a plum polo shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots.

Our eyes locked. Sparks flew. I felt I knew him, though we had never met before. I was dazzled by his smile, but needed to make a quick pit stop first. I smiled and told him I would be right back.

When I returned, we introduced ourselves. His name was Tom. He told me he was born in Chicago, but he and his family–his mom, dad and sister–had moved to Mount Prospect in 1960, when he was a toddler and suburbia was just beginning its sprawl.

Tom and I decided to find a spot on the patio in the open air to get to know each other further. We talked about our favorite movies and held hands for three hours at a table in the relative darkness barely illuminated by the flickering flame of an ordinary votive candle. I felt another electric charge.

When Tom confided that his birthday was July 6, 1957, I wondered if he was feeding me a line. I needed proof and asked him to show me his driver’s license. Once he did, we reveled in the serendipity of our shared birthday experience.

We basked in the glow of irony … stumbling into another thirty-nine-year-old gay man who entered the world on exactly the same day, discovering another Midwesterner who realized there would always be a personal celebration two days after the country’s supply of Fourth of July sparklers and bottle rockets flamed out.

Shortly after 1 a.m., Tom and I walked to our cars in the parking lot and kissed goodnight. Though there were no pyrotechnics blazing across the sky above us at Hunter’s, there was a different kind of combustion in the air between us.

We vowed to meet later that morning for brunch at a restaurant near his Schaumburg condo. And we did. It was just the beginning of our fireworks story …

The Golden Hour

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Between 2004 and 2009, Helen stood patiently on her third-floor condo balcony and waited for the fleeting color to appear near the end of each day.

Her inanimate accomplice was one of those disposal Kodak cameras from Walgreens. It soothed her shutterbug sensibility.

Nature photography was the perfect hobby for a woman in her eighties, who loved art and the clockwork of the calendar and the seasons.

Earlier in her life, she worked too hard to find the time to anticipate and ponder the legacy of sparkling sunsets.

But, as the remaining rays in my mother’s life flickered on the northeastern Illinois horizon, she found comfort in the hues that came and went.

Like a National Geographic photographer on assignment, she felt it was her duty to capture the most vivid color of each passing day.

***

Whenever Tom and I walk west after dinner toward the Papago Park buttes, I feel Helen’s anticipation … how she might have felt if she’d seen the Sonoran sunsets of our sixties.

During the last few years of her life she asked, “Do you think you and Tom will retire in Arizona?”

It gave her comfort to know we might fall in love with the western sky.

After the heavy lifting of our responsibilities was through, she could imagine our stunning sunsets … the colors, lights and textures.

She could dream of the golden hour after she was gone.

 

 

February, Fathers and Sons

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I am forever a father. A son too, though the earthly connections to my parents ended seven years ago. Still, I choose to embed the themes of both father and son dynamics in my writing. I believe those roles and identities are rich with possibilities and pitfalls. They remind us of our past, our present, our place in the world.

Knowing my thematic propensities, recently Tom gave me a thoughtful, funny book that explores both sides of the equation. I’ll confess Michael Chabon’s stories Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces captivated me from the start–chronicling the escapades with his style-conscious, adolescent son Abe on their Paris Men’s Fashion Week odyssey–until the end when we learn of Pops, the doctor, and the author’s observations of his dad. That left me in tears.

It reminded me of my own father, Walter. How he coaxed me to tag along in 1962 when he got his hair cut. I was his number one son. At least that’s the way he introduced me to waiting patrons at the cosmetology college. Each time we went I feared Walter would force me to agree to a buzz cut from a boisterous barber, who snapped his cape like a matador and plucked black combs from tall jars of blue disinfectant.

I went along with Dad’s scheme anyway. I cowered behind his high-waisted, pleated pants before he stepped up into a swiveling chair for a cheap trim, a quick shave, and a dose of baseball banter between square-headed men wearing starched white shirts and boxy black-framed glasses.

In reality, I was Walter’s only son–four-year-old Bosco. It was an endearment he bestowed upon me, because I painstakingly pumped and stirred chocolate syrup of the same name into tall glasses of cold milk. In exchange, I sat in awe of my gregarious father as he gulped his coffee and savored his soggy Shredded Wheat. We loved each other, our playfulness, and kitchen table excesses.

Though Walter has been gone for more than twenty six years, I was thinking of him as I finished reading Michael Chabon’s book last weekend. Then, in the same two-day period, along came a fresh chapter of my own fatherhood. Both of my sons, Kirk from Chicago and Nick from Tempe, came to support me on Saturday in my literary life at the 7th Annual Local Author book sale in Scottsdale.

Behind the scenes, they’ve been there since 2014 when I waved goodbye to corporate life. Rooting me on to explore this late-in-life literary fantasy that has become a reality. But Saturday was different.

I stood before Tom. First he took my photo in front of my table. Behind my three books. Later when Kirk and Nick arrived, I stood between my two adult sons. I remembered how far we’ve come since February 1992 … when my own fatherhood felt it had shattered in pieces … when their mother and I told them we were divorcing. I was moving into a new home. They would spend half of their lives with each of us.

Fortunately, in 1992 I had the gumption to stay in their lives and love them. We built a life together. Then Tom came along in 1996 and, over time, they learned to love him too. Together we stood by Kirk and Nick as they grew.

And then, suddenly on Saturday, they were standing by me.

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What Shall Be

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It doesn’t matter if shadows stretch or fears fly,

If breezes blow or mountains move,

If blossoms bloom or battles blaze,

If dreams delight or courts connive.

In January, July or November,

Or somewhere in between,

You will remind me what was,

What is and what shall be.

 

Written by Mark Johnson

January 26, 2020

The Firsts of Fatherhood

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It was nearly midnight on January 24, 1984, when I held him for the first time at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Illinois. My son, Nick, had just been born on a bitterly cold night in Chicago’s northwest suburbs.

His mother and I fell in love with him at first sight. His peaceful expression after a difficult labor. His tiny fingers and toes. His shock of dark hair that would soon turn blonde. I adored every bit of my firstborn son.

Today, on Nick’s thirty-sixth birthday, a lifetime of firsts are flooding my brain. Perhaps it’s because I know how far we’ve come in three and a half decades. Climbing the winding ramp to the upper deck at Wrigley Field. Watching him kick a soccer ball at two and, at five, size up his little brother Kirk when he came home from the same hospital. Marveling as Nick drained clutch three-pointers on the basketball court.

In later years, Nick and I endured more complicated chapters. Finding our way together after his mom and I divorced. Telling him I was gay. Introducing Tom to him and Kirk. Seeing the four of us bond over a comedic basset hound. Surviving testy teenage years. Driving Nick to the University of Iowa for his freshman year.

More recently, I’ve gotten to see Nick stand by Tom and me on our wedding day, say goodbye to his grandmother, sort through his career options, follow his dream and pursue a new life in Arizona, find crutches when he tore up his knee in 2017 (two months after I suffered a heart attack), campaign for a democratic senator in Arizona, and pick grapefruits, oranges and lemons from our condo trees this January.

In 1984, I never imagined any of these chapters … any of these firsts. Or that Nick and I would each leave Illinois and end up living ten miles from each other in the Arizona desert. But that’s where our lives have led to this point … far from the arctic cold of northern Illinois.

This morning, as Tom and I drove home after our gentle yoga class, I called Nick to wish him a happy birthday. I could hear happiness in his voice. He was out for a long walk on a beautiful day in the Valley of the Sun.

A beautiful day, indeed. Nick is my son.

 

Another January

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

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

***

Chapter 12: Helen Came Home Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We had a brief, but happy exchange:

“I bought a new car, Mom.”

“You did? What color is it?”

“Indigo.”

***

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

This Bow’s for You, Tyler

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On the last day of the last year in a decade of euphoric highs and historic lows, I learned that Tyler passed away. Complications from cancer took my friend, who lit the stage with a wide and tender smile.

Five years ago, Tyler was my tenor-two singing comrade with Windy City Gay Chorus (WCGC). We stood in the light together and performed for two years in our tuxedos in Chicago … and on one other impromptu occasion at the GALA choral festival in July 2016 in Denver.

Even though he had moved to the Cincinnati area with his husband the year before, Tyler rejoined WCGC in the Rocky Mountains for our showstopper finale performance of I Love You More, the beautiful and haunting signature piece from Tyler’s Suite.

I remember hugging Tyler that day … welcoming him back on stage to sing the piece we had rehearsed, cherished and performed together the previous year. (Ironically, it’s a tribute to the life of another Tyler … Tyler Clementi … the Rutgers University student who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge in 2010 after his roommate used a webcam to capture him sharing an intimate kiss with another man.)

After our mile high performance with WCGC, I recall a darker day … perhaps two years ago … when my friend Tyler, about twenty years my junior, posted a message online saying he was battling cancer.

Over the next year or so, we traded messages two or three times. I followed his progress on his blog. Sent warm wishes from Arizona. Rooted him on as he faced his cancer treatments. But that musical moment in Denver … on July 6, 2016 … was the last time I would see him.

This morning I cried as I read the message Tyler’s husband posted online. Telling us Tyler had lost his battle with cancer on December 30, 2019.

Tyler is gone … but never forgotten. Bright. Engaging. Sweet. Handsome. Enthusiastic. Talented. Adventurous. Ever-optimistic. That’s the Tyler I’ll remember standing by me in Chicago and Denver.

This bow’s for you, Tyler.

 

 

 

 

Recasting Life’s Resume

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I’m boarding my dusty desert time machine again. Back a mere six years to the end of another odd-numbered year. 2013 was the last full year of my gainfully employed life. When I still claimed consulting colleagues and commuted to a confining cube in Chicago’s Loop.

Though I now earn a pittance stringing words together, I don’t miss the corporate skin I shed. In my sixties, storytelling from the desk of my cozy Scottsdale condo or a nearby coffee shop is a better fit. It quenches my quest for creativity. It placates my sense of purpose. It validates my voice. Plus doing it on my terms means I don’t have to kowtow to a boss and a set of corporate standards.

That got me thinking about how we Americans define ourselves on resumes. Often, the words we use describe things we’ve accomplished or labels we’ve become accustomed to. Certainly not who we are. Not what makes us tick. Not what we dream of or what nightmares we’ve endured.

Let’s face it. Most of us have survived significant traumas. Maybe we’d be better off if we touted our tenacity. If we recounted our rebounds from setbacks. If we honored our innate interests and abilities.

The biggest events on my trauma resume read something like this: divorced in 1992; fatherless in 1993; motherless in 2013; survived a mild heart attack in 2017. Of course, those seismic events don’t account for the day-in-day-out stress of single parenthood and a thirty-four-year corporate career juggling assignments and clients.

The good news is I’ve cleared all of those hurdles and discovered a fair amount of positive energy to counterbalance the traumas: finding and nurturing a committed twenty-three-year relationship with my husband; parenting two boys into their thirty-something adulthood; singing on stage with other gay men from 2010 to 2019; realizing a second career as an author beginning in 2015; writing and publishing three books since; and continuing to tell my stories from the wide-and-warm space of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert.

All of this is a giant preamble to tell you that I ran across my circa-2013 resume this week from my days as a consultant. I found it on one of my many flash drives. Near the top, under the “Career Overview” heading, it reads:

Results-oriented, strategic consultant with deep expertise in organizational change, employment branding, talent and rewards communication, diversity and philanthropy.

This is how I described myself on paper as an associate partner with Aon Hewitt six years ago. There’s nothing technically wrong with the words here. They accurately described my work experience and knowledge as a consultant who ran between meetings, collaborated on countless conference calls, and massaged executive egos.

It’s just that the statement is gobbledygook. It didn’t describe the man I was then. Certainly not the man I’ve become. So, even though I’m not in the market for a new job in 2020, I decided to take a crack at recasting my resume. How would I describe myself today in real-life terms in the same number of words? Maybe it would read something like this:

Sixtyish survivor, storyteller and truth-seeking author, who writes about the magnificent, mundane, messy and meaningful moments of life.

Ah. That’s much better.