Tag: reflections

A Writer’s Plight and a Dog Named Lassie

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I try to write everyday. Sometimes, with other priorities–frequent doctor appointments, an aggressive exercise schedule, Tuesday night chorus rehearsals, Friday morning gentle yoga, spontaneous outings and coffee catch-ups with friends–there isn’t enough time for Tom and me devote to our literary pursuits or to simply escape the daily demands of our world. (Oh, perhaps you don’t know. My husband’s also a writer and film aficionado too.)

Anyway, we and our creative schemes … our true and false story ideas … persevere. That’s what it means to be an artist of any kind. You’re a romantic soul in it for the long haul and the creative chase. Familiar with both the trauma of the blank page and the exhilarating light bulb inspirations. Always pursuing that glorious day when your first or next book is finally published. For the moments when someone tells you he or she read your book, was moved by it, enlightened by its observations, chuckled a few times, and ultimately felt sad to see it end.

For all of these reasons and motivations, I like to keep my mind greased and oiled. A scribble on a sticky note. An entry in a journal. A brief blog post. One hour of writing and editing here. Two hours squeezed in there. A kernel of an idea that could only be a poem. A prolonged dive into a piece of fiction that needs nurturing. Three hours of uninterrupted time away from the world to expand and refine story ideas for a book about living in Arizona, which I hope to publish in the next year or so.

When I really tunnel into my writing universe, you’d be hard pressed to capture my attention unless our condo’s on fire, the St. Louis Cardinals are playing a game on TV or there’s a Breaking News item that is actually breaking and truly newsworthy.

Yet there are personal unplanned moments–life itself–outside the normal course of any day that take precedence. Like last Wednesday evening, when our neighbor Rhea called to say she and her husband Dan had made a difficult decision. They realized it was time to put down their beloved Lassie, a senior Sheltie with an indomitable heart and spirit. The dog with a checkered past had finally lost its fight with an inoperable tumor.

I didn’t take long for Tom or me to remember what it felt like to lose a pet, a helpless member of the family. Nearly twelve years ago, on Groundhog Day 2008, we made that same difficult decision when our basset hound Maggie succumbed to a series of seizures. We knew it was her time to go when she wouldn’t eat or lift her head to lick the pancake syrup off a plate on the floor. Just as it was Lassie’s time to cross the Rainbow Bridge on January 15, 2020.

So, on the morning of January 16 … a cloudy day in the Valley of the Sun after my seventeenth of twenty superficial radiotherapy sessions to treat that spot on my left hand which appears to be healing nicely … we stopped everything else in our lives for two minutes to arrive on Rhea’s and Dan’s doorstep, give them a few hugs, a plate of muffins, much-needed encouragement, and a pat or two for their remaining sweet Maltese named Mickey.

We were happy to be there for our neighbors in need. They’re full-time Arizona neighbors … an older couple in our community of snowbird friends … who hosted us for a  Christmas Day dinner last month and continually support my literary exploits. More important, they gave years of unconditional love to a forlorn and frightened Lassie after her previous owner had passed away several years ago and left the dog behind.

But true to their caring and considerate natures, Rhea and Dan stepped in and solved that problem. They rescued Lassie, helped ease her pain, lavished her with treats and kisses, adorned her fur with bows, and miraculously rekindled her trusting personality during her last years so that she would eventually approach and greet passersby and enjoy their company.

As you can see, as much as I need to continue to write about writing … and I will from time to time … what started as a story of an author’s quest to manage his time has really become a more meaningful tale about two dog lovers and the positive impact that an animal can have in an otherwise complicated and harsh world.

Here’s to all the courageous and compassionate animal lovers in our world. Especially Rhea and Dan, who gave late-in-life shelter to a Sheltie named Lassie: a loyal and lovable friend they will never forget.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Farewell, Ticket Stubs

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Tom gave me a ticket stub organizer for Christmas. It’s a handy, dandy place for me to keep and reflect on the remnants of events we’ve attended and enjoyed over the years.

You probably aren’t surprised to learn I like this sort of thing. After all, I’m a memoir writer. Though early in 2020 the events of 2019 are indelible in my brain, it will really help to have a physical representation–a photo, a program, a ticket stub–something to jog my memory years from now.

I’ll need that physical representation when the nuances of personal and performance highlights aren’t as vivid and precise:  Kirk’s commencement at DePaul University in mid-June; the matinee performance of Hamilton we saw the following day in Chicago; the second time I sang The Star Spangled Banner with the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus on the field at an Arizona Diamondbacks ballgame; and our spectacular New Year’s Eve on the main floor at the Phoenix Symphony with friends Len and Adele.

But I have this sinking feeling that ticket stubs are quickly becoming passe. So 2019, you might say. Sure, they aren’t gone entirely. Yet I don’t imagine we’ll be seeing many in 2020 and beyond. I think it’s likely that someday in the not-too-distant future the ticket stubs of 2019 will become relics, dinosaurs, dust collectors. The “dance cards” of 1919. The “flash cubes” of 1969.

My hunch is based on a few recent online ticket purchases. One for a performance of Beautiful, The Carole King Musical at ASU Gammage in Tempe. The other for a Major League Baseball Cactus League game later in February in the Valley of the Sun. In both instances, physical tickets (to be mailed or picked up at Will Call) weren’t offered as an option. I was required to purchase mobile tickets and keep them in two separate apps on my phone in two virtual wallets where they can be scanned and accessed securely.

Of course, I recognize the value of mobile, as long as I don’t lose my phone. I also recognize I’m old school or old-fashioned. Perhaps just plain old. (For instance, it won’t astonish you to learn I prefer to read a book in hardback or paperback versus on a Kindle.)

Still, it feels like a loss. Say goodbye to our paper trail to the past for the sake of convenience and progress in the present. Rest assured, I’ll do my best to adjust, stay relevant and smile … while I hold onto what’s left. Torn ticket stubs. Melting memories. All of it.

When Life Gives You Lemons

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Generations have insisted there is something wrong with lemons: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. In other words, stop your whining and make the best of a bad situation.

I remember my demonstrative dad, a long-time salesman, declaring this in the 1960s. Perhaps he picked up this phrase from Missouri-born author and salesmanship lecturer Dale Carnegie’s 1948 book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.

Although, according to Wikipedia, writer Elbert Hubbard originally coined the phrase in 1915 for an obituary he wrote to honor Marshall Pinckney Wilder, an actor who overcame physical disabilities to lead a fruitful life.

Anyway, I know lemons are sour, but what’s so horrible about having a luscious lemon tree outside your front door? Nothing as far as this Midwestern boy can tell. It’s laden with ripe-and-ready fruits every January, cascading a clean citrus scent (think Lemon Pledge furniture polish), whenever I walk past it.

Last Saturday, I snagged eight lemons from our condo complex tree, reached to the top shelf in our kitchen cabinet for our juicer, found a lemonade recipe on line and made fresh lemonade. (By the way, in my previous lives … in Missouri, Illinois or even on my grandfather’s North Carolina From Fertile Ground farm … the climate would have never permitted this.)

Of course, I added more than a gallon of water and a cup and a half of sugar to the lemon juice to neutralize the sour fruit flavor. I poured it all into our retro Kool-Aid-style glass pitcher and found space in our refrigerator to let the liquid contents cool.

Then on Sunday, Tom and I, along with Nick and Aida (my older son and his girlfriend), each enjoyed a tall glass of cold lemonade to celebrate the fruits of our fortunate Valley of the Sun existence.

I love luscious lemons. When life gives you them (on neighborhood trees in January or otherwise), make lemonade.

 

 

 

What Remains

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I stroll past January leaves, what clings to deciduous trees.

I count the crackles and rustles, what whispers to be heard.

I recall the quest of the fallen, what paths they chose to follow.

I know which stories are true, what remains in the autumn of life.

 

By Mark Johnson, January 5, 2020

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

My Everlasting Christmas Wish

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In the darkest days of the final year of the aughts, Helen diminished like the decade’s December light. But from her cozy corner apartment at Brighton Gardens in Wheaton, Illinois, she and her prized African violets persevered. Collectively, they captured remaining rays through two windows. One faced west. The other north.

It was independent living of sorts for those like my mother, who had fallen physically or slipped mentally. Helen had done both. Her descent prompted my sister Diane and me to move Mom and her favorite belongings from her two-bedroom condo into smaller and safer quarters ten months before.

As Christmas 2009 drew near, I was befuddled. What could I give my nature-and-poetry-loving mother that she didn’t already have? My inner monologue told me to write something for her. To bridge the gap from my mid-sixties matinee memory of Mom, Diane and me seated side-by-side in a St. Louis theater. Hypnotized by Doctor Zhivago and scenes of Yuri at a desk penning poetry in the icy rural castle of Varykino.

Perhaps with a little inspiration from Boris Pasternak, I knew what to do. Far from the snow-covered majesty and drama of Russian landscapes and revolutions, I composed and framed a poem for Helen from the relative flatness of my Illinois home.

On Christmas Eve, Tom and I carried it with us to our family holiday. On December 24, it was our tradition to gather at my sister’s home, where she, brother-in-law Steve, Mom, Tom and I would savor thin-crust pizza and thick eggnog, devour delectable desserts, and listen to our favorite Christmas music.

As the evening progressed, we retired to the living room for the main event: our annual, round-robin gift exchange. As the unopened presents dwindled, I leaned down, plucked my gift from the pile, and handed it to Mom on the other side of the circle.

Seated in her wing-back chair, she paused and looked up at me before unwinding red tissue paper. Slowly Mom revealed the contents and examined the rectangular-shaped object. She mustered five words of amazement as she pulled the gift closer within the limitations of her macular degeneration:

“You wrote me a poem.”

During the last three years of her life, Helen propped the poem on a table near the door of her apartment. Across the room from the chair where she read, watched TV and eventually received breathing treatments to ease her congestive heart failure in her last days. I saw it there each time I left. I think it gave both of us comfort in her final days.

After she died on January 26, 2013, Diane and I divided her remaining possessions and re-potted cuttings of her African violets to place on the window sills of our respective homes. Naturally, I kept the poem. When I finalized From Fertile Ground (the story of my journey after Helen’s demise) in 2015, I found the right place to insert it in the book.

In 2017, the poem came with Tom and me as we made our way in our indigo Sonata on our westward odyssey. Today, it resides on top of a wooden file cabinet in our sun room near the back door of our Scottsdale home. It’s a place Helen never visited, but one she would have loved.

***

You Everlasting

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.

The polished gem of hopeful dreams.

Everlasting.

***

Ten years have passed since that tender Christmas Eve moment at my sister’s home. Mom will be gone seven years in January. The pain of her loss has softened considerably, though now it returns like an old familiar friend on holidays, birthdays and anniversaries to remind me how much I loved her.

Remarkably, a cutting of one of my mother’s African violets, which she nurtured during the last ten or more years of her life, continues to thrive with Tom and me near our southern-facing windows. Yesterday on winter solstice, it absorbed the heat of the Scottsdale sun. Its purple blooms on the shortest day of the year are evidence that sometimes … against all odds … life and love go on.

As Christmas 2019 approaches, perhaps you’re like me. Thankful for life today. Thankful for family and friends who bring joy. Thankful for the memories of those who’ve gone and the reminders they’ve left behind.

Perhaps this story of everlasting gratitude will give you comfort and strength as you prepare to celebrate with family and friends … as you remember those absent from your circle.

This is my everlasting Christmas wish.

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