If you need a true, inspiring story of survival to fill you up, pick up An Unobstructed View on Amazon for just a few bucks today. The paperback is less than three dollars. Happy reading!
It rained most of September 4, 2021, in eastern Missouri. Fortunately, scattered-but-heavy showers didn’t wash away our plans.
At nine a.m., Tom and I drove north thirty minutes from our room at Hampton Inn Valley Park to visit my cousin Phyllis and her family in their St. Charles, Missouri home.
After we exchanged hugs, Phyllis’ husband Tom prepared homemade blueberry-and-apple pancakes. We volleyed catch-up stories between the kitchen and family room, while their golden retriever Truman sidled up to Tom and me on the couch, placed each of his front paws in our laps, and stole our hearts.
For the next two hours eleven of us–spread across three generations–gathered around a rectangular kitchen table framed by angled windows and a lush backyard.
The two Toms, Phyllis and I represented the senior set. Amanda, Austin, Kelsey, and Bryant smiled and shared stories of their thirty-something, heavy-lifting, career-and-child-rearing years. They shepherded and cradled: three-year-old Ava, who danced around the table in her princess gown; adorable one-year-old Violet, who is learning to walk; and baby Brooks born in July with a head of hair.
It was a treat for me to spend time with them all, the entirety of my Johnson family connection that remains in the St. Louis area.
Thankfully, the reunion around Phyllis’ and Tom’s table superseded our previous encounter at an Italian restaurant in St. Louis on July 5, 2017. It was one day before I suffered a mild heart attack as Tom and I walked to Left Bank Books in St. Louis’ central west end to see my book of light-hearted Missouri stories on the shelf.
When we left St. Charles just before noon, I pointed our rental car southeast. Tom typed the address for Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery into his smartphone to find the most direct route to my parents’ graves.
Ironically, our most recent visit to the rolling hills of white marble grave markers on the banks of the Mississippi River was four years ago–the same day we last saw Phyllis and Tom. But on this occasion–September 4–we were in town on what would have been Dad’s and Mom’s seventy-third wedding anniversary.
I had hoped to stop somewhere for a small bunch of flowers to leave on their graves. That never happened. Instead, we arrived at the cemetery entrance empty handed, made two right turns and one left, drove past the chapel, traveled up a hill, and parked our rental car under a tree.
About the time we arrived, the rain paused. We walked a hundred steps or so to DD 355, where Dad and Mom are buried near a large oak tree. As Tom and I surveyed the grounds and knelt quietly, he spotted two acorns side-by-side on top of the wet grass on Mom’s side of the marker.
Before we left, I placed the acorns on top of the marker in honor of their wedding anniversary.
I suppose even in the solemn solitude of a cemetery the strength of our family ties endure and life goes on.
The midpoint of 2021 finds Tom and I spending the final night of our ten-day road trip in Page, Arizona. Tucked just inside the northern border of the Grand Canyon State, Page is home to Glen Canyon Dam, Lake Powell, red rocks, and painted vistas that roll and repeat across distant horizons.
By the time we step through the door of our Scottsdale condo tomorrow afternoon, we will have driven nearly 2,500 miles … Arizona to Utah to Idaho to Montana and back again.
Along the way, we will have captured hundreds of photos; discovered a delectable German bakery (Forschers) in Orderville, Utah, where we consumed apple and cherry pockets; walked along the greenbelt and roaring rapids of the Snake River in Idaho Falls; marveled at our first live theatrical performance since the pandemic (Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream) in Bozeman where we huddled with old and new friends on a blanket; and hiked around hairpin curves at magnificent Bryce Canyon National Park as a storm rumbled in the western sky.
Even with all of that (and much more I won’t detail here), the sweetest realization is conquering the twists and turns of life on a long road trip again. It is the first time Tom and I have ventured out to the highways and byways since I suffered a mild heart attack in 2017 in St. Louis on our shared sixtieth birthday on the way to our new home in Scottsdale.
Thankfully, this 2021 swing through the western states puts greater distance between the trauma of the past and the poignancy of the present. That brings me to the midpoint of 2021, where–tonight–the possibilities of post-pandemic, vaccinated life feel as endless as the Arizona horizon.
Though the road of life is paved with good intentions, it is often treacherous.
Four years ago this week, Tom and I accepted an offer on our Mount Prospect, Illinois, home. As we approached another milestone–our shared sixtieth birthday–we crossed the threshold into a new chapter and stepped closer to the warmer life in Scottsdale, Arizona, we dreamed of.
Though we planned extensively, nothing could have prepared us for the tumultuous turns we would navigate together on the way west in July 2017.
Published in 2018, An Unobstructed View, chronicles our journey. Here’s what one reader had to say in April 2020:
“This wonderful and uplifting book reads like a compilation of short stories, but it is beautifully woven together to demonstrate all interconnections that make up a community and a family. The book also pays tribute to people who may only be in our lives for a short time and emphasizes that a brief encounter does not diminish significance.
Mark’s story is one of courage. Courage to start a new chapter in life, and courage to move forward with optimism even when life throws the ultimate curveball. His journey will take you through his love of baseball, the joys of owning a dog, and the challenges of being a gay man. Although these are only a few of the anecdotes he explores, you’ll quickly notice that the book is well poised to connect with a large readership.”
After the past year we have endured, all of us are weary survivors. If you need a dose of inspiration and gratitude, download a Kindle version of my book on Amazon. It’s just ninety-nine cents through May 8.
What have I missed most over the past year? The spontaneous moments that spring from nowhere. And, let’s face it, going nowhere pretty much describes what we have all experienced from last March to this one.
But, like the daffodils of March which I imagine are aching to bloom again in Illinois, the feeling of going nowhere is turning into the possibility of going somewhere as flickers of normalcy return.
My cousin Phyllis, who lives in Missouri, texted me a fun Happy St. Patrick’s Day message yesterday afternoon. It always brightens my day to hear from Phyllis. Her mother and my father were twins. We share lots of fond, long-ago, St. Louis memories.
Over the past nearly-four years, Phyllis and I have stayed in touch (via text mostly) since Tom and I last saw her and her family in person in St. Louis. Strangely, I suffered a heart attack in St. Louis the day after we dined with my cousin and her family. Tom and I were on our way west to our new home in Scottsdale when our entire world turned upside down.
Anyway, the texts back and forth between Phyllis and me are bursts of positive energy: wellness check-ins; holiday greetings; news and photos of her adorable granddaughters; snippets of stories about our beloved St. Louis Cardinals; exchanges about the weather in the St. Louis area and Scottsdale; and anecdotes about the latest developments in my writing universe. But, over the past four years, we have rarely spoken on the phone.
Yesterday, after our latest text exchange began, I decided to change things up a bit. I needed more. I needed to hear Phyllis’ voice. So I called her. We shared stories of our recent vaccinations and our grown sons. We laughed a little. We also complained about the state of the world that worries us. Our conversation felt deeper and more complete than the text exchanges. I realized after the fact how much I’ve been missing these kinds of conversations.
As all of us have retreated during twelve months of a global pandemic for our own protection, perhaps we have retreated too much. Perhaps, though we live in a world where we have the ability to text each other, we have created too much social distance between us and those we love. After all, we are human beings. We are social creatures. Even if we can’t touch each other, we need to feel as if we can. Our voices are instruments for making that happen.
A second example of me trying to recapture some spontaneity in my life happened this morning. I drove to Eldorado Pool for my morning swim. The pool was rather busy, but I spotted my friend Frank. He offered to share his lane. I thanked him and jumped in.
Before March 2020, Frank is someone I saw two or three times a week at the pool. We always traded random stories. This usually consisted of our favorite Scottsdale restaurants or our past lives on different trajectories in the Chicago area. Frank and I frequently connected on the fly in the stream of life. It was never planned. If it were, I think it would have felt less human, less important.
Of course, when our world shrank in 2020, there were no Frank-and-Mark encounters. When the pool was closed and the winter weather lingered longer than expected, that passing-friendship aspect of my life evaporated. Now that the weather is warming up, I expect to see Frank more regularly. We will share more of our foodie stories, pounds we need to relinquish from our pandemic doldrums, and the burgeoning construction activity in south Scottsdale that is growing up around us.
Yes, the thousands of lives lost due to COVID-19 are the worst of all. But the little moments, which comprise the mosaic of our lives, have been missing for far too long.
While we continue to wear our masks and shout with joy at the realization that the pace of vaccinations is increasing rapidly, it’s time we paused, breathed deeply, and began to recapture the texture of our lives.
Personal experience tells me that the pressure and immediacy of a frightful, life-changing moment–for instance, a mild heart attack accompanied by breathlessness and radiating left shoulder pain while traveling cross country–can make it virtually impossible to imagine a longer view, a brighter sky, an optimistic outcome.
But with the passage of three years and one month (living inside a 2017-to-2020 cradle of colluding Russian-nesting-doll years, arguably the most tumultuous and troublesome period in American history since the Civil War), I find myself crossing a metaphorical threshold into a more promising personal dimension without an obstruction in the foreground.
This realization flooded my sixty-three-year old brain and body on August 18, 2020 as I scribbled sentences on the lined pages of my emerald-colored spiral notebook. The inspiration for my ramblings was prompted by a visit with Dr. B, my cardiologist, the day before.
August 17 began swimmingly. Forty laps alongside Tom in our condo pool, followed closely by a thirty-minute session (yoga for writers with Adriene on YouTube) in front of our flat-screen TV. The motion and stretching were successful in quieting my mind before an 11:10 a.m. appointment with Dr. B.
At 10:30, I stepped out on my own in my flip flops into one-hundred-degree heat. Opened the driver’s side to our indigo Sonata, started the engine, and tapped the windshield wipers to remove a thin layer of grit from a dust storm the night before.
It was a short and simple journey into Old Town Scottsdale, but one I’d stewed over since a August 5 echocardiogram orchestrated by Laney on the other side of the Valley of the Sun. It was her job to test the condition and pumping capability of my heart. Glub glub … glub glub … glub glub.
Some of the sting surrounding this follow-up appointment had already subsided on August 10 or 11, because a nurse in my doctor’s office emailed saying they had uncovered “no emergent concerns” from the procedure. Dr. B would discuss my course of care moving forward at a August 17 consultation.
Still, like any once-burned patient with a history of heart disease or inquisitive journalist digging for the full scoop, I wondered if there were more variables they weren’t ready to share with me. More I needed to fret over. The phrase “course of care” left too much room–too many what ifs–for my unbridled imagination and anxiety.
Like many other moments in life, the hardest part was waiting.
Once I arrived at the three-story office building, I parked facing east, slid our silver sunshade across the windshield, climbed three flights of stairs in an outdoor atrium rather than trusting a slow elevator, checked in at the front desk of Cardiovascular Consultants, Ltd,, and waited to be summoned.
“120/80 … couldn’t be more normal,” Dr. B’s nurse checked and confided my blood pressure, once I was situated in a straight-backed chair. As she left me alone in the room, I thought of Tom and all we had endured and accomplished in the previous thirty-seven months together.
Selling our home in Illinois. Saying goodbye to family, friends and neighbors. Moving ourselves and our essential possessions seventeen hundred miles west. Scurrying into the emergency room of Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis on our sixtieth birthday. Resuming our journey four days later with the help of a capable medical team in the city where I was born.
Buying new furniture for the living room of our Arizona condo. Traveling to Ireland and feeling the air rush through my hair on an open-air Dublin bus. Helping Nick recover from a serious knee injury on a basketball court. Cultivating new friendships in Arizona.
Finding new creative outlets and avenues to sing, write and screen our favorite movies. Climbing to the top of a church in Munich, Germany to behold Bavaria without a worry. Gazing out the window of a Vienna cafe and soaking up the baroque splendor inside The Ring.
Bonding with cardiologists, dermatologists and gastroenterologists. Standing between my thirty-something sons at the Local Author Book Sale at the Scottsdale Public Library right before COVID-19 shuttered the world. Surviving the chaos and fear of a global pandemic and a misguided presidency. Doing our best to stay connected to family and friends. Escaping to the mountains of Flagstaff to breathe the pine-scented air.
All of it, and the memory of my mother and father (both long gone, but never far away) flashed through my mind’s eye in a five-minute window as I stared at the blue and green tiles in an innocuous space waiting for Dr. B.
After he knocked and entered, he delivered the news I had waited for. More than I hoped for actually. Certainly, more than I imagined. He glanced at the July 2017 images from St. Louis and compared them with those of August 2020 in Scottsdale. He told me the Arizona echocardiogram showed my heart is functioning normally.
Though both of us wore masks, I’m sure he could see the amazement and joy in my eyes when he said, “It’s almost as if you never had a heart attack … I don’t need to see you until another year passes, unless something comes up.”
As I left Dr. B’s office, relief flooded my body. I texted the news to Tom and told him I was on my way home. We would celebrate with a mini-staycation at the Hotel Valley Ho in Scottsdale, a vintage mid-century, sun-drenched resort flecked in tangerine and aqua. As good fortune would have it, August 17 was the day we met in 1996.
For two days and nights, we were desert rats living the high life. It was almost as if none of the trauma of three years before had happened. But we knew it had. Now we could put it further behind us in the distance of the palms in the Grand Canyon State.
All of us hope for a longer view, a lengthier life with greater possibilities. But it’s out of our control. The best we can do is love more. Hate less. Eat right. Exercise regularly. Listen to the advice of our doctors. Be grateful for today. Endure the heat of a desert day. Embrace the twilight of our fading hours. Deliberate over dazzling sunsets.
Enjoy the luscious fruits of our lives as they appear without ever really knowing what tomorrow will bring.
“The desert, to those who do listen, is more likely to provoke awe than to invite conquest.”
Joseph Wood Krutch–author, naturalist, and conservationist
Quote adapted from The Voice of the Desert, 1954
Photo of Desert Botanical Garden by Mark Johnson, 2014
Tom and I arrived at the Cardiovascular Consultants office in Glendale at 10:30 a.m. on August 5. About fifteen minutes ahead of my scheduled echocardiogram.
Though my vital signs during my regular checkup two days before looked good (110/70 blood pressure, normal EKG) I’ve been feeling a little fatigued. That’s likely a byproduct of my medication and the world we’re living in, but Dr. B. prescribed the procedure just to make sure my heart is pumping as it should.
As I entered through the glass doors, Tom hugged me. Only patients with masks were allowed inside the office space. His plan was to find a safe coffee spot nearby and wait until I called him.
I checked in at the front desk and answered all the expected questions. The attendant scanned my forehead. No temperature. No COVID-19 symptoms of any kind. When she asked, I told her I hadn’t traveled outside the country lately (though I wish I had) or gone on a cruise.
Laney, the technician, called me in promptly. She asked me to remove my shirt and lay on my left side on the exam table with my arm folded under my head. She pasted nodes to eight or ten places on my chest, smeared gel across my upper torso and began to apply a wand to various spots.
Hold your breath … breathe. She scanned one area. I heard my heart pound and echo through a machine. Glub glub … glub glub. Over the next twenty minutes we repeated this rumba at least twenty times–Laney scanning and prompting like a teacher, my heart responding like an obedient student reporting for class and waving his hand (“I’m here. I’m here!”) on the first day of school. The device danced across my chest.
Then, after a few moments of shifting on the table to find a comfortable position reclining on my back, Laney’s magic wand scanned a few new places. Down to my upper rib cage and up to my throat with my head extended back.
Through it all, there was no physical pain. By 11:15, I had dressed, called Tom to pick me up and checked out. I’ll see Dr. B. again on August 17. He’ll have the results.
Of course, I feel anxious. Who wouldn’t? Especially because this experience brought me back three years to a hospital gurney in St. Louis and a similar echocardiogram procedure with Jacob, a different technician. Fear and apprehension ensued. But, I need to remind myself, my heart was experiencing trauma in July 2017. It isn’t today.
Now, thirty-seven months later and twenty-five pounds lighter, I’m a leaner, healthier guy with An Unobstructed View and a quieter life. Even so, I wait and wonder. I’ve been having strange dreams like many of you.
Two recent ones had me back in the corporate world working without a clue of what to do. Or shuffling around the condo searching for my misplaced blended bifocals, normally reasonable perspective and vision of clarity.
Such is the trauma of COVID-19 in a country with a president who doesn’t want to take responsibility for any of it. Still I’m fortunate when compared with most of the world. I swim. I walk. I write to stay whole. I don’t have to worry about the demands of a traditional job. I stretch out on my yoga mat and unwind. I keep breathing. I listen to the regular rhythm of my beating heart. Tom and I are there everyday to love and reassure each other.
Climbing out of bed at 6 am. on August 6, somehow I felt more rested. Out the door by 7, walking in Vista del Camino Park in 84-degree temperatures, the air felt cooler and lighter than the previous two torrid months. Miraculously, there was a break in the oppressive heat overnight. Could this be a harbinger of hope in an otherwise grey world?
Strolling with Tom, it felt like a September school day morning in the early 60s back in suburban St. Louis. When I carried a lunch box to the bus on some days or thirty cents in the pocket of my jeans to buy a hot meal in the cafeteria. The days were longer. Life was simpler. Or at least my childhood memory tells me so.
But in reality, we had the Cuban Missile Crisis and our duck-and-cover drills in our classrooms in case of a nuclear attack. Then, later, JFK’s assassination. Then, Martin’s and Bobby’s. Those worries, the unrest in the streets, and the anxieties in the recesses of our consciousness kept us occupied after completing our spelling and math workbooks.
Now we have the unrelenting pain of a global pandemic. Our COVID-19 children and grandchildren will always remember social distancing, hand sanitizing, that displaced feeling of not knowing when/if/how school would resume, and the masks they wore in 2020.
No generation gets by unscathed. We scrape by through difficult times and do the best we can. We relax and reflect through more tranquil years. When we’re strong, we go on without ever feeling ill or vulnerable. We work long hours and make everyday sacrifices for those we love. We say goodbye to parents who lived full lives and friends who died too young.
Then life shifts for no apparent reason. We find ourselves visiting doctors, bonding with cardiologists behind masks, waiting for the heat and oppression to lift. We find ourselves hoping for fewer casualties, more job opportunities and financial aid for the disenfranchised, a lower infection rate, normal echocardiogram results, a trustworthy president, and a reliable vaccine that nearly everyone will agree is the right thing to do.
We find ourselves taking each day as it comes, waiting impatiently for the good news we deserve.
The dusty attics, dog-eared scrapbooks, and forgotten files of our past don’t always provide answers about mysterious deceased family members. But often they are all we have, once those who remembered them are gone too.
I have no memories of Albert Edward Johnson, my paternal grandfather. Just second-hand stories about the man with slicked-back blonde hair who died when I was three. Random photos and puzzle pieces that, when connected, leave me with an unsubstantiated picture of Albert. Tales of who he was, where he lived, what he believed and what he aspired to do.
Based on a patchwork of anecdotes, passed down from my parents, aunts and uncles, apparently this is the man I never knew.
Albert, an idealistic boy, was born in Duluth, Minnesota on January 10, 1884.
His mother Sophia Amelia Danielson and her family immigrated from Stockholm, Sweden when she was a teenager. They lived in Quebec, Canada for a few years before traveling to Minnesota. His father Bernt Franklin Johnson was born in Breen, Norway. Sophia and Bernt met and married in Duluth and had six children (Dan, Ben, Josie, Jenny, Albert and Carl).
When Albert was ten years old, he and his family moved to Anniston, Alabama where his father operated a grocery store on a Native American reservation. I don’t know what prompted them to move more than eleven-hundred miles south in 1894. Perhaps they simply needed gainful employment or were tired of the cold.
Subsequently, around 1900, the family moved to East St. Louis, Illinois, where the Johnson men worked in the meat packing houses. Evidently, the job didn’t suit Albert’s sensitivity. Helen, Albert’s daughter-in-law and my mother, told me the shrieks of the slaughtered animals were too much for him to bear.
Albert was a health-conscious and athletic young man: an amateur wrestler; Mississippi River rower; and cross-country racer. According to family members, he competed in the 1904 Olympics marathon in St. Louis. I have no proof he participated, but I choose to believe it.
In 1907 or 1908, Albert met and married Anna Louise Sendke in St. Louis. They raised three children: Thelma and twins, Violet and Walter (my father). Albert wasn’t home much during Walter’s childhood years (1913 to 1925). I’ve always wondered where his travels took him and who he met along the way.
According to my dad, Albert valued intellectual stimulation, political discourse and philosophical conversations. At some point (in the 1930s perhaps), Albert–a lifelong Democrat–pursued a career in local politics. He ran for state representative twice, but lost both times.
During that same period, Albert tried his hand at motivational speaking and received an honorary doctor of divinity degree. The public speaker you see here (standing on a stool in an athletic shirt in the foreground of a Depression-era, Milwaukee, Wisconsin gathering eighty-eight years ago on August 3, 1932) believed one should choose a career or path that maximized his or her greatest innate skills.
In his own words from a stained 1943 “Biodynamics: The Science of Power” handout he must have used in one of his lectures, “we will not be happy, healthy or successful unless we choose as our life work some line of endeavor towards which we have a strong biological tendency.”
In the 1940s, Albert, the man who earlier in his life only rarely brought his son with him on trips north from St. Louis to Chicago or Milwaukee, wrote and sent encouraging letters to Walter overseas to bolster his spirit as he fought in the Battle of the Bulge near the end of World War II in Europe.
During the last several years of Albert’s life, he and Louise lived with their eldest daughter Thelma and son-in-law Ralph at their home in north St. Louis County.
I vaguely recall sitting on the edge of Albert’s twin bed in his empty room in the early 1960s soaking up the silence. It was a few years after my grandfather, the one-time athlete, fell on the steps of a restaurant during the holidays, broke a hip and succumbed to pneumonia.
Albert died on December 30, 1960 at age seventy-six.
Until this moment, at age sixty-three and one month, I’ve never considered the collective attributes and personality traits of Albert and my three other grandparents–Louise, Sherrell and Georgia–and how they may have shaped the calling in my life: that of a late-in-life creative writer.
But as I think about each of my grandparents, I recognize their DNA strands coursing through me: Sherrell Ferrell’s love of nature and From Fertile Ground journalistic sensibility; Georgia Ferrell’s love of animals, gift of gab and laughter; Louise Johnson’s sense of personal loyalty and soap-opera storytelling drama; and Albert Johnson’s quest for intellectual stimulation, personal fulfillment and public discourse.
I don’t believe each of us is simply a product of our biological past. We are each unique human beings … like snowflakes that fall and add irreplaceable texture to the sky. But I do think these varied qualities and preferences may have shaped my direction and influenced my choices on life’s path more than I’ve previously realized.
Of course, what you read here is all mine: ideas, opinions, stories and experience. But history, both personal and societal, counts for something. It informs my stories about the power of nature, animals, relationships, family, diversity, sensitivity, and social justice. Because there is at least a little bit of all four of my grandparents–Albert, Louise, Sherrell and Georgia–in me.
You might say I’ve had a “strong biological tendency” to be a writer and storyteller all along. It’s written in my DNA.
July 2020 was the hottest month ever recorded in Phoenix, Arizona.
To beat the heat, on the first day of August, with another day of 110-plus-degree temperatures looming, Tom and I retreated indoors to Fashion Square Mall in Scottsdale to accumulate five thousand steps.
This is the same mall where in any other year we could have imagined taking in a matinee on a similar scorching summer Saturday.
But not in 2020. Even though the sign above the escalators declares “See You at the Movies!”, the only bodies standing near the entrance to the Harkins Camelview multiplex were a cluster of zombie-like faceless and maskless mannequins in a nearby store window. Everyone else in the mall knew better. They were wearing masks.
The good news is Tom and I are the proud owners of about three hundred of our favorite films. We can watch any one of those in our living room or select something online, via Netflix or cable to occupy our time in the comfort and air conditioning of our home.
But we still miss the experience of sitting in a movie theater together. Sharing a medium-size popcorn (no butter, please). Guessing how many trailers will run across the screen before the featured film plays.
It will likely be at least a few more months before that happens again. I miss the regularity of these sorts of mini-escapes at the movies away from life’s painful breaking news.
I’ve also longed for the return of major league baseball. Now, only a week into the abbreviated season, at least six members (three players and three staff members) of my favorite team, the St. Louis Cardinals, have tested positive for COVID-19.
The league postponed the Cardinals/Brewers games in Milwaukee on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. After an outbreak on the Miami Marlins squad a week ago, the 2020 season appears to be in jeopardy.
In the life-and-death scheme of things, I realize movies and baseball games pale when compared with 155,000-plus deaths in the United States and historic job losses.
But we need entertaining escapes to keep us all sane. Otherwise, I fear we’ll end up like the mannequins in the store window. Stiff. Still. Staring blankly into an empty space.