Love and loss are universal human conditions. If we feel the first, we can’t escape the grief associated with the second.
I wrote You Everlasting in December 2009. It was a gift for my eighty-six-year-old mother.
I remember the surprise and delight on her face that Christmas Eve, after she slowly unwrapped the framed contents in tissue paper cradled in her lap.
“You wrote me a poem,” she said quietly.
In 2016, three years after she passed, I published the poem in From Fertile Ground. It is a book inspired and informed by grief.
Today, on the tenth anniversary of Helen F. Johnson’s death, the time is right to share it again.
The imagery of flowers, trees, and animals comforts me. The verse provides much-needed continuity from her past existence to the reflections and influences that live on inside me.
The poem reminds me of that wise, nature-loving woman, who carved a resilient path for me to follow.
I still feel her presence today and can smile with the knowledge that, though she left on a frigid-in-Illinois, January morning in 2013, I carry the warm memories of her in my Arizona desert life in 2023.
Perhaps these words will prompt memories of your own loved ones, who are gone but never forgotten.
You are the comfort of nature. Eternally pressed.
The first magnolia petal of spring.
The last gingko leaf of autumn.
The determined orchid that flourishes.
The lingering annual that endures. Perennial.
You are high and low tide. Remarkably present.
The hidden, tranquil meadow.
The crackle and thump of fresh melon.
The dancing firefly in a warm Carolina sky.
The soulful howl of a January hound waiting by the gate. Undeniable.
You are the simplest wisdom. Gracefully proud.
The tender touch of summer days that melt but never fade.
The breaking dawn of blues and greens forever in my memories.
The resilient path carved and captured in my heart.
I take a blood thinner; therefore, I bruise easily.
So, for instance, if I’m putting away dishes in our cupboard after dinner and bump the top of my hand on the corner of the cabinet, I am sure to leave that mundane household experience with a souvenir–an immediate red patch that will last a few days in the afflicted area.
I haven’t always been ultra-self-conscious about the condition of my extremities. It’s only lately–in my sixties with thinner skin on my thinner body–that I’ve become aware of my aging hands and, of course, my mortality. They go hand in hand.
Since I’m a writer and rely on my fingers, wrists, and hands to write these sentences on my laptop, I’m fortunate not to have arthritis in my joints–in my hands.
My sister Diane seems to be the one in our family who has inherited that painful component of our mother’s DNA. Particularly in her hips, knees, and feet.
Diane is sixty-eight-years old. She doesn’t read what I write. We live seventeen hundred miles apart. She in Illinois. Me in Arizona.
Even so, I love my sister. I always have and will. Tom and I visited her and Steve (Diane’s husband) for an afternoon last October while we were in the Chicago area. In this age of Covid, we recounted all the things we are thankful for.
Diane will always be my only sibling, my only big sister. We talk and text occasionally. I worry about Diane’s physical wellness and longevity. We’re the only two remaining in our family of origin, since Mom passed away ten years ago.
Diane also is the only other person who remembers the nuances of our St. Louis childhood, our homelife (good, bad, and indifferent), our difficult plight as a family after Dad’s heart attack in 1962, our mother’s resolve in her fifties and fragility in her eighties, our mother’s aging hands.
I came across this photo of Mom’s folded hands from Christmas Eve 2008. That night, we gathered at Diane’s home in Illinois to celebrate the holiday and open gifts. Mom would live to share another four Christmases with us.
It’s a cropped image and not the clearest, but when I saw it, I was reminded of Mom’s age spots and blemishes that grew with the passage of time on her fair, loose, thin skin. The rough patches on her hard-working hands go back in time to her rural southern roots in High Point, North Carolina, and fifty years in St. Louis, Missouri, which I chronicle in From Fertile Ground.
In her final nine years living in northern Illinois, our mother had this habit of clutching a tissue in her palms. She often hid an auxiliary one in the arm of her blouse or sweater. If you look closely, you can see it peeking out of the sleeve of her heather-flecked turtleneck.
These are the little personal idiosyncrasies that only a sibling would remember. They don’t matter in the grander scheme of things, but they do when it’s your mother and you still love and miss her after ten years of living without her. And you realize that your own mortality creeps ever closer with every blogpost.
Sure, I stay active–mentally and physically–and will continue to mount the treadmill several times each week to keep my heart strong.
But there is no denying the evolving appearance of my spotted, aging hands. They are looking more like my mother’s every day.
On March 25, 2023, I will participate in the Phoenix-area Heart Walk, sponsored by the American Heart Association.
If you follow my blog, you know I am a heart attack survivor. You may not know that both of my parents died of heart disease: Mom on January 26, 2013 (almost ten years ago); Dad on November 26, 1993 (nearly thirty years ago). Both Helen and Walter appear frequently in my published stories.
Obviously, heart disease is personal for me and millions of American families. I hope you will consider making a donation to support ground-breaking research that keeps hearts beating and enables other unsuspecting victims of heart disease and stroke (like me) live longer and write new chapters.
As an added incentive, if you click the link below and donate $30 to the American Heart Association, I will sign and send any two of my books (your choice) to you. I’ll pay the postage and include two of my personalized bookmarks.
Nearly ten years have passed since she passed January 26, 2013.
As this seismic anniversary of my mother’s death approaches, I feel a degree of grief’s numbness reappearing.
The time is right for me to sprinkle this space with reflections on Helen F. Johnson’s life: how much I loved her; what I learned from her; and why I still miss her.
I watched my mother grow in wisdom and shrink in physical presence–simultaneously–in her final ten years.
In those poetic moments–especially 2004 to 2009 when we visited at her condo in Winfield, Illinois–the two observations felt incongruent as we sat side by side on a park bench reflecting on her love of family, nature, photography, and letter writing.
But they don’t anymore.
Now that I’ve surpassed the midpoint of my sixties–favoring the quietest moments of life over all the rest–I see and feel the same transformation happening within me.
I’m far more inclined to record the moments that happen around me, because–like her–I have the time and the interest. She has left me an invaluable gift: a recognizable path and impulse to emulate.
My life has changed immensely since she died. I’ve retired from corporate life, married Tom, moved across the country, survived a heart attack, lost forty pounds, written four books, endured Covid, and built a new life in the desert.
Yet, it is when Tom and I spend time with my sons Nick and Kirk–her only grandchildren–that I am most aware of how long she has been gone and how much she loved us all.
They were both in their twenties in 2013. Searching. Unsettled. Preparing to launch. On the cusp of new personal discoveries and adventures. Since that time, they’ve traveled, found new loves, new jobs, new homes.
Kirk is now nearly 34; Nick almost 39. How she–a lover of plants and trees–would have loved learning that her oldest grandson stopped by our condo last Friday to pluck grapefruits, oranges, lemons, and tangelos from our citrus trees.
Or that Nick coached a Boys and Girls Club basketball team last year.
Or that Kirk traveled to Vanuatu with the Peace Corps in 2014 and more recently has found his counseling stride in a small practice in Chicago … helping patients who’ve experienced some sort of trauma.
Over this past weekend, Tom and I watched Milo and Miley (a friend’s two Shih Tzus) again.
The dogs are sweet, lovable characters. But I needed a little time to escape on Sunday to my thoughts and devices. So, I drove to Chaparral Park and walked around the lake for about an hour.
As I rounded a bend of pine trees which Tom and I love, I spotted an older man. He sat quiet, content, and alone on a park bench.
Seeing him reminded me of the moments my mother cherished in her eighties, pondering the world from a park bench. She could simply sit, enjoy the shade of the trees, read the newspaper or gaze at passersby.
Or she could wonder about the lives of her children and grandchildren … long after she was gone.
It’s been another challenging year for many. We won’t soon forget the previous twelve months … brimming with health concerns, natural disasters, social upheaval, global traumas, political shenanigans, and inflationary woes.
Why not end 2022–or start 2023–on a positive note with a light-hearted escape? From now until January 2, for only ninety-nine cents, you can download a copy of my book Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator on Amazon.
It’s a universal collection of tales that focuses on my love of family and pop culture. A nostalgic series of twenty-six funny and poignant essays about growing up in St. Louis in the 1960s and 1970s.
The final story in the book, A New Year Resolution, fills me with hope and the warm, comforting possibilities of life even after seemingly awful things happen.
I wrote it as a testament to the good citizenship of my father and mother, who did the right thing on a cold January morning more than sixty years ago.
It wasn’t an unpleasant sound that stirred my brain before 5 a.m. It was a light desert wind filtering through our tubular chimes that woke and evoked me and distant sounds. Reassuring, comforting ones from suburban St. Louis.
Mom was always the first one up.
From my middle bedroom–a connecting space with two doors wedged between the hall and kitchen–I could hear her creaking on linoleum, shuffling in slippers, opening drawers, turning on the dial to the radio, reaching into the refrigerator, sizzling bacon in a skillet, placing the kettle on the stove, and pouring hot water over a teaspoon or two of instant coffee.
Then, at night–when the day was done–it was the splash of rain and swirling sensation of fallen leaves on the metal awning outside my bedroom window that soothed me. Or Happy’s soulful howl, craning his neck as he responded to the calls of other dogs in the neighborhood.
As I huddled under the covers on a twin bed, these sounds beckoned me to sleep. Now, as I remember them and write about them on my laptop, they exist and endure.
Certainly, the memory of them gets richer because they have been gone longer. They rise to the top like the cream of milk, while what happened yesterday might easily be forgotten tomorrow.
I would be lost if I couldn’t listen and remember the sounds of the past. In the moment they were invisible, fleeting footprints. But they echo in my thankful memory … lasting reminders of the texture, meaning, depth, people, and love I hear and remember.
I confess. Like many independent writers, I dream of dozens of rave reviews online from readers and a steady stream of royalties.
But that rarely happens. Most of us are not that fortunate. It doesn’t mean our books aren’t worthy of praise and financial rewards. It just means that it is difficult to remain visible and compelling without a marketing budget. The literary competition runs wide and deep in the Amazon distribution ocean of new and old releases.
Even so, behind the scenes–when someone buys one or more of my books on Amazon–royalties appear on my author dashboard and land magically in my checking account a few months later.
It isn’t the amount that makes me happy. (It’s usually a trickle, no more than five or ten dollars, though in a rare month the dollars can spike higher.) It’s the acknowledgement that someone continues to derive value and meaning from one of my “very creative, heart-warming stories.”
That phrase in quotes is the way the staff at Barnes & Noble in Mesa, Arizona describes my books on their shelves. When I saw this, I felt honored because the motivation for my writing comes from my heart and the myriad of emotions–love, loss, happiness, discontent, hope, disappointment–we all feel.
Recently, a development director with the American Heart Association (AHA) in Arizona asked if I would be an Executive with Heartto help raise money for their 2023 campaign. Without hesitation, I said “yes.”
Technically, it runs from February 1 through March 24 and concludes with a Heart Walk in the Valley of the Sun. But on “Giving Tuesday” this year (November 29) I will donate the $200 in book royalties I have earned in 2022 to the AHA to help support the fight against heart disease and stroke. An anonymous donor will match that amount.
Ironically, in the coming few months, I will remember both of my parents who succumbed to heart disease. My dad died after suffering his second heart attack on November 26, 1993. It was the day after Thanksgiving twenty-nine years ago. My mother passed on January 26, 2013–nearly ten years ago on a frigid Illinois morning–due to congestive heart failure.
In their honor, I will increase my $200 donation to the AHA by $10 for every purchase of An Unobstructed View between now and November 29. In case you don’t know, the book is a personal account of my transformative journey with Tom, moving from Illinois to Arizona in 2017 and navigating a frightening detour in St. Louis in between. It’s my heartfelt story of survival.
I hope you’ll purchase a copy for yourself or a friend. When you do, you will fill my heart with joy and benefit others–like me–who are building strong hearts and longer, more meaningful lives.
Over the next few weeks as we celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States, I encourage you to also give thanks for those you love and those who love you … and the heart that beats inside you every moment of every day.
It was laundry day. So, this morning, Tom and I grabbed our pouch of wooden clothespins and walked five hundred steps or so to the landing behind our condo clubhouse.
For the next five minutes–shielding our eyes from the penetrating sun–we stood on the concrete there, hanging our just-washed, delicate shorts and shirts on the community clothesline to dry in the desert breeze.
Call me old fashioned. But I don’t mind doing this. In fact, I enjoy it. Especially as fall approaches and the air begins to cool.
More important, the plastic-coated clothesline connects my present life to my past. It represents the resiliency I’ve watched, absorbed, and carried forward.
It reminds me of the family members I’ve lost, but still love, and the survival instincts they instilled in me sixty years ago. What follows are excerpts from my book, Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator.
It was my second week of kindergarten, and I was just beginning to adjust to a new routine. On a warm and breezy mid-September afternoon in 1962–September 13 to be exact–I left my Mesnier School classroom and stepped aboard my regular bus for the trip home.
Within ten minutes, the driver arrived at the top of South Yorkshire Drive. She opened the door and several of us scampered down the stairs. I waved goodbye to a few remaining classmates still on board.
The driver closed the louvered door and pushed ahead. I meandered home. It was no more than a five-minute walk up our block and our driveway. Then, in an instant, a breathtaking late summer day transformed into an early fall for our family.
I saw my mother standing just beyond the backyard gate. She was wearing a sundress, lost in thought, uncoiling clean, damp towels and sheets from a laundry basket. Happy, our beagle-mixed hound, was out of reach too. He was sniffing the ground and frolicking miles away, it seemed, along the back fence.
“Your father’s had a heart attack.” Mom recited her words slowly and deliberately, like a woman treading deep water searching for a longer breath.
I didn’t comprehend what she had to say. But it couldn’t be good news, I thought as she plucked wooden clothespins from a pouch. She was working to keep her ragged emotions and the flapping sheets in check, preparing to clip wet linens to parallel plastic-encased clotheslines that stretched east and west across our yard.
Soon we walked into the house with our empty white-lattice basket, and I learned more. Dad had become ill on day two of his new job as a porter at McDonnell-Douglas. He was helping a coworker lift an airplane nosecone. Suddenly, he felt a sharp pain in his chest. He was rushed to Deaconess Hospital on Oakland Avenue near Forest Park. That’s where he would recuperate for the next month …
Each time we visited Dad, he was bedridden. I couldn’t comprehend what could keep my father lying in one location for so long–unable to toss horseshoes, fly kites, or drive us to parades or ballgames. But Dad insisted he would rebound.
Like the popular song from Bye Bye Birdie that played on the transistor radio near his bedside, Dad told me, “Son, I’ve Got a Lot of Living to Do.”
The next decade was difficult for our family. Watching Dad drift away physically and emotionally, filled me with anxiety. He never recovered fully, though the man who fought in World War II and the Battle of the Bulge soldiered on until his death in 1993.
Meanwhile, my mother kept our family afloat financially. She went back to work in March 1963 and did her best to balance life at home and in the office. When she died in 2013, she left behind a legacy of wisdom that I cherish and share.
Watching my parents toil produced a silver lining. Seeing them tread deep water for all those years gave me something I never imagined: the will to face my own personal challenges, standing tall as a proud gay man, and surviving my own heart attack on my sixtieth birthday.
Of course, it all began in the suburbs of St. Louis in September 1962. That sagging clothesline swayed. But it never snapped.
And, here in the Sonoran Desert in 2022, another clothesline sways 1,400 miles west.
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.
Today, I’m lost in thought about screen-and-stage legend Judy Garland, a film she starred in that sparked my early imagination, a recent experience that renewed my love for live theater, and a song, Get Happy, she made famous.
Forget your troubles, come on get happy, you better chase all your cares away. Shout hallelujah, come on get happy, get ready for the judgement day.
Beginning in 1959, and throughout the 60s, it happened only once a year: CBS aired a special TV broadcast of The Wizard of Oz, the magical MGM film released in 1939.
Like thousands of Baby Boomers across the U.S., my sister Diane and I waited impatiently for the annual ritual. We sat cross-legged, mesmerized in front of our RCA console. We squealed with delight and fear when a ferocious cyclone swept Dorothy into the Kansas sky. In short order, she, Toto (her loyal dog) and their house landed with a thud somewhere over the rainbow.
For those precious hours, Diane and I absorbed and memorized every fanciful song, image and character–the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, the Munchkins, the Flying Monkeys–Dorothy encountered along the yellow brick road. Though our TV projected black-and-white images only, our imaginations manufactured the scenes in vivid color.
As the years passed, we recited every iconic line of dialogue–“I’ll get you, my pretty … and your little dog, too”–uttered by the Wicked Witch of the West. Whenever she appeared in a puff of smoke, it shook us to the core. But we always knew she would melt in the end, thanks to a handy bucket of water on a ledge and Dorothy’s resourceful decision to grab it in a crucial moment.
Knowing that delicious outcome, and that Dorothy and Toto would ultimately make it back home to Kansas safely, made watching the film one of the happiest and most enduring memories of my childhood.
Looking back, I think it was Judy Garland, playing Dorothy, who captivated me most. Her sense of wonder, innocence, tenacity, good citizenship, pizzazz, and beautiful voice filled the frame. I don’t think there is a more stirring, iconic moment in film than Judy singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
Of course, children and adults can watch The Wizard of Oz whenever they want now. But, in the 1960s, the film’s relative inaccessibility, imagination, and message … that it was possible to find happiness and peace “right in my own backyard” … was a shared experience and sense of idealism that no longer exists.
Isn’t it ironic that, in an age when virtually any film or music is available anytime, we are barraged with a mountain of images and problematic news–pandemics, politics, and Putin–that shock our sensibilities and clog our ability to bolster our happiness?
2022 marks the centennial celebration of Judy Garland’s life. (She was born June 10, 1922; died June 22, 1969, at age 47.)
To remember and relive her remarkable film, stage and song legacy–amassed in less than five decades–crooner Michael Feinstein has produced a masterful ninety-minute show, called Get Happy!
On Sunday, March 20, Tom and I were in the audience for Feinstein’s dazzling evening performance and multi-media program at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. It included renditions of many of Judy’s favorite tunes, along with seldom-seen-or-heard images and stories from her life.
About midway through Feinstein’s stellar performance, he paused to tell a story about Judy Garland in 1941. That year, at age nineteen, she bought her parents (who came from modest means in Grand Rapids, Minnesota) a home.
Judy recorded tapes of herself singing to her family in their home, but for years after her death mysteriously those recordings couldn’t be found. Remarkably, Feinstein had the opportunity to visit the home and discovered them in a hollow wall. He played one of those for us as a black-and-white image of a teenage Judy Garland, posing in a tailored suit, filled the screen above the stage.
The song Judy was singing, I’ll Be Seeing You, brought me to tears as I held Tom’s hand. We were seated on the aisle in row Q. Judy never recorded it professionally, but the tune was one of my mother’s favorites. So much so, that Diane and I chose a version of it to play at Mom’s memorial service in 2013.
As Judy Garland’s bright and soaring voice filled the auditorium Sunday night, I was transported back to the early 1960s and the happiness I felt watching The Wizard of Oz.
Mom was curled up on the couch. Diane and I were glued to the floor in front of our RCA. Together we followed Judy’s voice and steps stride for stride.
We were on our annual adventure somewhere over the rainbow.