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.
Completed on this day fifty-seven years ago, the Gateway Arch served as a catalyst for St. Louis’ mid-twentieth-century renaissance.
The six-hundred-thirty-foot-tall structure was then, and still is, that gleaming stainless-steel phenomenon and symbol, soaring above and beyond the banks of the Mississippi River. It replaced a sagging riverfront packed with dingy brick warehouses and smokestacks.
It is impossible for me to reflect on this city I love–the place where I was born which now bears little physical resemblance to what I remember half a century ago–without acknowledging the magnificence, continuity, and meaning of the Arch.
In late 1965 shortly after a construction crew finished the project, I stood directly underneath it with my parents, looking straight up from the base, running my palms across its smooth-and-shiny skin. It would be decades before sapling trees would grow tall enough to create this park-like atmosphere you see here.
For three summers–1977, 1978, and 1979–I worked underneath, around, and inside the Arch as a history interpreter for the National Park Service. It was a fabulous job for this then-twenty-year old idealist and history buff.
I gave tours in the Museum of Westward Expansion, talked about the city’s founding as a French fur-trading post in 1764, and played color commentator for wobbly visitors as they gazed across the Missouri and Illinois horizons through tiny windows at the top of the Arch.
In those days that federal landscape was defined as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, because the Arch was built as a memorial to Thomas Jefferson and recognized St. Louis’ pivotal role in the westward expansion movement.
Of course, the concept of westward expansion conjures sometimes-controversial overtones in this era. Of white settlers moving west to push Native Americans from their land.
But no matter your point of view about U.S. history, the Gateway Arch constitutes an architectural marvel at the very least and a symbol of pride for St. Louisans past and present.
In 1947, Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen won a competition with his Gateway Arch design. His concept included reflecting pools on the ground to soften the sharp edges of the monument that carves its path through the sky.
Unfortunately, Saarinen didn’t get to see his masterpiece completed. He died September 1, 1961, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, while undergoing an operation to remove a brain tumor.
But the rest of the world watched with wonder four years later. When construction workers–dancing on the edge of the sky–inserted the capstone piece to connect the north and south legs of the Gateway Arch, St. Louisans breathed a sigh of relief and welcomed their brighter-and-shinier identity.
Fifty-seven years later, I understand the surrounding trees have matured, and the Arch grounds have been connected more seamlessly with the rest of the downtown area.
And the Gateway Arch itself? It’s still standing and an inspiring site to behold.
Tom and I are visiting family in the Chicago area. We have timed this perfectly. The trees have welcomed us with brilliant color, igniting autumn’s Midwest memories of cold mornings, October goldenrod, crunchy leaves, and warm windswept afternoons.
Sunday’s touch of soreness in my right arm–from Saturday’s latest Covid booster–didn’t deter me from capturing 5,266 steps along the Crosscut Canal and this blue-sky, north-facing view of Camelback Mountain from the bridge.
It was the calm I needed and inhaled to organize my thoughts. Away from the world but planted firmly on it. Serenaded by a few distant Sky Harbor departures, slow stream of bikes buzzing by, and family of Gambel’s quail rushing down the embankment for Sunday brunch.
August has always felt like an insufferably hot way station between the sparkling summer playground of July and autumnal possibilities of September. In short, it is my least favorite time of year.
If this is your birthday month, I apologize. But, after the scorching temperatures of July 2022 in the Northern Hemisphere, we have landed squarely in the dog days of summer. September can’t come soon enough.
Even so–nearly a month after celebrating my sixty-fifth birthday–I am in the pink. I realize this is an old-timey phrase that describes the essence of feeling fit, but I don’t care. I’m a pretty traditional guy with a love of language.
According to Investopedia, “in the pink” first appeared in the late 1500s in a version of Romeo and Juliet as a reference to an excellent example of something.
Somewhere along the way, the expression evolved into a health-and-vitality reference that my parents both used. At any rate, if the phrase was good enough for William Shakespeare to include in his classic play nearly 500 years ago, it’s good enough for me.
I’m not saying I have the vitality of fifteen-year-old me pictured here in pink in 1972. But, aside from typical muscle aches after yoga or an intense workout at the gym, a new-found intolerance for gluten, and the normal forgetfulness that comes with my new Medicare status, I generally feel well for a guy who survived a mild heart attack five years ago.
And I still have a thick head of hair, though it no longer falls in my face. At this stage, I wear it short. Often under a hat to please my dermatologist and protect my fair skin from the intense rays of the Sonoran sun.
I also remember the ribbing I received from classmates for wearing this pink shirt (and other closely related pastels) back in the 60s and 70s.
At that moment in time, I wish the current much-older-and-wiser Mark Johnson could have magically appeared through an adjacent door to counsel fifteen-year-old me.
In my pink fantasy, he would simply have said …
“Never hide. Stand tall. Forget the haters. Be proud of who you are. Wear whatever colors you want. One day you will find your way. You will stand on stage. You will sing songs. The pain of the past will fade. You will raise two sons and live your own definition of masculinity. You will meet a man, fall in love, and marry him one day. The two of you will move west and create a quieter life. You will choose to wear pink again and again–and do it in style. You will survive. You will discover an open, authentic life. You will write books. You will tell stories. You will even write lyrics in your sixties. You will rise above the fray.”
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.
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.
Though he has been gone since 1993–taken by a second heart attack a week before his eightieth birthday–my dad still appears in fading photos on the walls and shelves of my Scottsdale condo … and in memories I carry.
Like an earnest anthropologist combing for clues, I’ve kept Walter Johnson’s history and story–his highs and lows–alive. He lingers on the pages of all four of my books. The journalist and the son in me believe I’ve done right by him.
In spite of his traumas (World War II shellshock, bipolar rants, and heartache), I’ve long ago put Walter’s pain to rest. It no longer consumes me in my sixties.
It has been replaced by abundant compassion and appreciation for the man he was in his forties: enthusiastic, fun-loving, loyal, and truly patriotic.
I don’t think I’ve ever uttered or written the following sentence, but it’s time I did: I have never doubted my father’s love for me.
I certainly see and feel it in his eyes in this (now vintage) photograph my mother captured of Dad and me.
More than six decades later–in these desert-dwelling days I never imagined in my Midwestern life–I link the joyous and boundless expression on Dad’s face with a keepsake Tom and I wrapped carefully and brought with us in the backseat of our Hyundai Sonata when we came west in 2017.
It’s an electronic GB Means Good Beer advertising sign, which Walter the salesman salvaged from his days peddling products for Griesedieck Bros. Beer in the 1950s.
In the early 60s before his first heart attack, Dad turned on the sign when company came over and we ventured into our basement. Long after he died, the sign’s magical light-and-color wheel spun and bounced a range of hues on a knotty-pine shelf downstairs in Missouri. Then later, it danced on top of the refrigerator in the kitchen of our suburban Chicago home.
Strangely, the wheel disengaged in 2017–somewhere on the road between Illinois and Arizona as I mended from a heart attack on the passenger side.
I wasn’t sure the sign would ever spin again, but I found a trusty repairman named Bob in Phoenix. He opened the back of the rectangular sign and tinkered with it. He told me he could reconnect the wheel to the track. I left Walter’s beer sign in Bob’s capable hands.
Bob called two days later to say the sign was working again. The following afternoon, Tom and I paid him. I thanked him for his time and trouble. We brought the sign home and found a suitable place to display it on the top of our bookcase in Scottsdale.
I plugged in the sign and turned on the switch. The light-and-color wheel twirled. The blues, reds, greens, and purples bounced, just as Walter had…
It comforts me to know that on Father’s Day–or any day–I can flip the switch in one simple motion. I can reignite the love I still feel for my father and remember his best intentions.
In an instant, I can remind myself that Dad is with me on my journey.
It’s rare for me to rise to witness morning’s first light. But, at 4:45 a.m., I was thirsty and warm.
I peeked from our den window through the Sunday slats of our vertical blinds to see a line of doves welcome the day.
I heard the clock ticking in the hall, then reclined on the couch to check the news feed on my phone.
Soon after, I heard Tom stir. Bleary eyed, he staggered into the living room to check on me.
We resolved to soothe our parched throats with cold water from the fridge. That’s what you do in June in Arizona. You hydrate over and over again to endure the heat of the desert.
By 5:30ish, we had summoned enough energy to pull on our shorts and socks, tie our shoes, grab our floppy hats and sunglasses, and step toward the alley that would lead us to the Crosscut Canal and Papago Park.
Just outside our door, our neighbor Glenn happened by with Mason and Katie, his two gentle-giant Newfoundlands, tugging him along.
We exchanged good mornings. Tom patted and stroked Mason’s long back. Katie and I locked eyes. Most of the puppy’s brown fur has turned black. Soon she we will be full grown.
We said our goodbyes. Tom and I continued walking west. When we reached the canal at 5:45, my phone told me it was 84 degrees–on the way to 113 by late afternoon.
Scorching, yes, but any person in their right mind knows to stay inside (or at least cover up) when the heat spikes. June isn’t a month to be savored in the Sonoran Desert. It’s simply one to survive.
By 6:00, we had walked past a few joggers and the full length of the fence that separates the canal path with the Desert Botanical Garden. We decided to stop and turn around.
The sun was beginning to bear down. I paused, peered west, pulled my phone from my pocket, and captured the saguaros waking in the morning light.
On our return trip, a few monarchs danced and perched on the milkwood near the fence line. Tiny lizards skittered by as we chugged water from our bottles.
We retraced our steps, crossed the pedestrian bridge, welcomed shade from the Roadrunner apartment complex, turned the corner down the alley, and headed east to our cozy two-bedroom condo.