It is one of my earliest vivid memories. I was standing alone in June 1962. Outside the west side of my childhood home in Affton. Looking north toward the street. Wearing my high-top Keds and cargo shorts with crazy pockets. One month shy of my fifth birthday. The wind raced past my crew cut.
Our three-bedroom brick ranch in south suburban St. Louis, Missouri appeared nearly identical to two dozen others on South Yorkshire Drive. With one exception. Ours featured a flowering pink crab apple tree with stair-step limbs I loved to climb and droppings that stained our driveway.
At that moment, a clear and welcome thought jumped unannounced to the forefront of my brain and lingered for a few minutes. It swirled through my consciousness.
“I am also different. I have important things to say.”
As I look back at that memory, I realize that on some level I must have known I was gay. Not the same as most of the rest of the boys. Maybe even special. It was an intuition. A gut hunch without empirical data.
I was a shy child. I stayed out of trouble mostly. I didn’t rock the boat. I obeyed my parents. Later, I listened to my teachers and dodged bullies in middle school halls. I had lots of fears and creative ideas. Unfortunately, I never voiced many of them.
Now–nearly sixty years later–the voice that was never fully realized in my developing years has found a forum of its own. This is my two hundredth blog entry since launching my site in May 2018. For you who follow me frequently–especially the handful who comment regularly–thank you for taking the time out of your busy life to read what I write.
Recently, the pace of my postings has slowed so I can devote my attentions to another creative endeavor. I am currently finalizing a collection of essays and fantasies about my life in Arizona. My goal is to send these to my editor in November and publish my fourth book early in 2021. Rest assured, I will keep you posted on the delivery date of my newest arrival.
I suppose my writing commitment (in blog and book form) is my way of making up for lost time. When I sit before my laptop, spin my stories, enter my words, and press the “publish” button, I feel as if on some level I am speaking for that “different” little child who stood on his St. Louis driveway and pondered the world’s possibilities and problems.
I keep writing because he and I have important things to say.
I was ready to turn my back on August. Forty widths of the pool under a dramatic partly cloudy sky helped me kiss the hottest month ever in the Valley of the Sun goodbye.
September began swimmingly.
In the 1960s on the first of September, Dad would shout “September morn” gleefully when my sister Diane and I walked into our suburban St. Louis kitchen for breakfast. It was a greeting his grandmother bestowed on him as a child. He loved it so much he embraced the tradition. Years later Mom adopted the practice when she woke us from our teenage slumber.
Dad thought September was the most beautiful month of the year. I believed him. The mornings and nights were cooler. The afternoon shadows longer. The hues and possibilities deeper.
If you followed September’s signs, they led you to the land of beginnings. Back-to-school shopping with Mom. A fresh supply of spiral notebooks, unopened boxes of crayons, striped shirts, blue jeans, and high-top Keds from Sears. A new teacher with new ideas in a new classroom. A mix of familiar and new-in-town classmates.
As a kid, I always envied Diane. She had a late September birthday. In my crew-cut brain, I fused it with the happy memory of a rhyme we chanted together: “September wears a party dress of lavender and gold.”
Even at sixty-three, seeing the first light in the Sonoran Desert on this September morn made me giddy. As Tom and I glided through the water, back and forth across the pool, it helped me to realize that newness is never far away on the horizon.
Sometimes we just have to search a little longer to find September’s first light peeking through the clouds.
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.
It was an endearment my gregarious father bestowed upon me, because I painstakingly pumped and stirred chocolate syrup of the same name into tall glasses of cold milk.
In exchange, I sat in awe as he gulped his coffee and savored his soggy Shredded Wheat. We loved each other, our playfulness, and kitchen table excesses.
Since Tom and I arrived at our Arizona home three years ago today–six days after a heart attack in St. Louis in 2017 on my sixtieth birthday–I’ve walked frequently with Walter’s memory.
Especially when I step aboard the treadmill to strengthen my heart muscle and consider that we both survived heart attacks in the same city.
In addition to Walter’s World War II army trunk, uniform, dog tags, Army Good Conduct Medal, honorable discharge papers, and war-time letters he saved from his parents and sisters, I am fortunate to possess disparate pages of my father’s poetry … along with the American flag from his funeral.
I’ll never forget the December day in 1993 when two stone-faced soldiers folded and pressed it into a triangle and handed it to my mother. In turn, she gave it to me.
There is one more keepsake from Walter, which Tom and I carried with us when we came west: this electronic GB Means Good Beer advertising sign. Walter the salesman salvaged it from his days peddling products for Griesedieck Bros. Beer in the 1950s.
In the early 1960s, 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 at my mother’s Missouri home. Then later, on top of my refrigerator in my Mount Prospect, Illinois kitchen.
Strangely, somewhere on the road between Illinois and Arizona in 2017–as I was mending from my heart attack on the passenger side–the wheel disengaged. Probably one too many bumps on the road, though it was cushioned in our backseat.
I wasn’t sure the sign would ever spin again, but in 2018 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 tell me the sign was working again. The following afternoon, Tom and I paid him and thanked him for his time and trouble. We brought the sign home.
We found a suitable place to display it on the top of our bookcase in Scottsdale high above my desk.
I plugged in the sign. I turned on the switch. The wheel turned. The blues, reds, greens, and purples bounced.
Stories of war, like global pandemics, aren’t only about those fighting on the front lines. There are the lovers, the brothers, the sisters, who worry and wait. They wonder about the worst and hope for the best.
World War II was winding down, while Walter’s older sister Thelma waited five long weeks in eastern Missouri for his next words. She didn’t receive his May 16, 1945 letter and photo of him linking arms with a somber Czechoslovakian girl until Friday, June 22.
Evidently, the Army bundled it with two others he wrote on June 10 and 12. The U.S. military transported all three across the Atlantic Ocean with a sea of other correspondence from service men and women stationed in Europe.
In 1945, Thelma was a single-and-sentimental-thirty-six-year-old secretary. By day, she worked at a branch of the Kroger Grocery & Baking Company in St. Louis. After completing her shift, she boarded the streetcar to 4218 Labadie Avenue on the north side of town. That’s where she lived in a modest, two-story, rented home with Louise and Albert Johnson, her mother and father.
My aunt was a gardening guru. A real rose and ballroom lover. Later, in the 1960’s when she and her husband Ralph owned a suburban St. Louis home, it was her ritual to lead us on a parade through her backyard to admire her flowers.
Through that gardening lens, I can imagine her coming home from Kroger on Friday, June 22, 1945, kicking off her shoes, flipping through the mail, and eagerly opening Walter’s letters while waltzing through her parents’ postage-stamp-size Victory Garden. That summer it might have been brimming with vegetables and herbs (perhaps even a few ruby-red roses) designed to supplement food rations and boost morale.
No matter how close or far my fantasy is from reality, I have in my possession proof that Thelma penned a rosy response to her brother later that night in an attempt to bolster his sagging spirit.
Here’s an excerpt of that letter, dated June 22, 1945 and postmarked June 26, 1945. She sent it via air mail from Chicago, Illinois. Incidentally, the Drake Hotel Thelma refers to, just east of North Michigan Avenue on Chicago’s Gold Coast, still operates today. It’s a few blocks south of Oak Street Beach, where Thelma and Vi likely tanned themselves that weekend on the shore of Lake Michigan.
Your fine letters of June 10 and 12 arrived today and found us happy and anxious for word from you. Also, we received today those wonderful pictures taken by you in Czechoslovakia. They are really “super” Wal and that little girl is a doll. Vi was here for supper and she too was pleased and happy by seeing you again … if only in a photograph. You look thinner, Wal–but as Vi said–he’s regained his figure and looks wonderfully handsome, younger, and really on the beam. We surely are proud of our dearest Walter boy, and justly so. I have the negative you sent in a recent letter and shall have it developed too … it looks like another Czech girl, right? …
Well Wal, Vi and I leave in the a.m. for Chicago and since the weather has taken a change for the good … we hope to have nice sunshine and a chance to get a tan on the beach and am sure we’ll find the “Drake” the finest hotel in Chicago as it’s accessible to everything …
I am enclosing some snapshots taken on Mother’s Day, Wal, and with them comes all our love to you, our dearest and most missed member. I hope you get to be around Paris for a while … so you can take it all in … and I’m hoping too you’ll be assigned to occupation forces even though it would delay our meeting it would ensure its being permanent when it did come …
With all the love of your loving but lonesome family and many thanks for the fine pictures (and I hope there’ll be more later–I can send film so just ask Wal and its yours) until a little later then its ever and always.
Your loving sister,
I’m not sure if Walter, my father, ever made it to Paris that summer. But when Thelma wrote her letter six weeks after V-E Day, there was the frightening possibility he would be shipped east to help fight the war still raging in the Pacific Theatre.
Instead, he returned to the United States on the U.S.S. Monticello in July 1945, carrying his dog tags, nightmares, a foot locker filled with possessions, and a fistful of family love letters. Dad received his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army on October 11, 1945.
This is one of the photos Thelma enclosed with her June 22, 1945 message. Thelma–the ever-exuberant, flower enthusiast–is on the right, smiling behind her corsage. Violet, my father’s twin sister, is on the left. On the back, Thelma wrote:
To our dearest brother Walter with all the deepest love of his adoring sisters
You know me by now. My propensity to slide back and forth in time. I see an object or hear a sound and I find myself suddenly tumbling through space. Perhaps, I’ve fallen for a Irwin-Allen-directed remnant from my childhood: the 1966-1967 TV show, Time Tunnel.
The series begins in 1968. The U.S. government has given a group of scientists–devotees of Project Tic Toc–one final chance. After years of research, a U.S. senator tells them they have a mere twenty-four hours to prove their untested time tunnel works and will allow man to travel safely through time. (Incidentally, it’s located deep beneath the Arizona desert … possibly not far from where my desert rose is poised to bloom in the searing heat.)
In a last ditch effort to save the project, Dr. Tony Newman (dashing James Darren in a tight green turtleneck) and his sincere scientific sidekick Dr. Doug Phillips (tall, dark and handsome Robert Colbert) spin from one time period to another.
Their colleagues beneath the ground at mission control work breathlessly to “get a fix” on their location and beam them back home. This becomes the team’s quest after Tony’s attempt to salvage their time tunnel goes terribly wrong. He lands on the deck of the Titanic in April 1912, just before it hits an infamous iceberg.
As you may have guessed, Doug travels back in time to rescue Tony. He succeeds and they escape before the ship sinks. But each week we stay tuned because they are destined to be catapulted into another time frequency fraught with disaster and drama.
This lengthy backstory is my way of telling you I’ve felt myself spinning through time (albeit above ground in Arizona) over the past six weeks during this pandemic.
To help alleviate our anxiety and keep our bodies and minds in shape, Tom and I have fashioned a primitive, throw-back, 60s-style home gym.
Our hand weights, yoga mats and basketball might as well be at-home props–a chair, a broomstick, a couple of cans of green beans–which Jack LaLanne (the original modern fitness and nutrition guru) might have suggested my mother use at home in 1960 if she didn’t have the right equipment.
At any rate, in 1960 three-year-old me sat cross-legged, sucking my thumb and transfixed. The organ music on The Jack LaLanne Show blared. Jack smiled, twisted and shouted wearing his zip-up, one-piece jumpsuit and ballet slippers. Inhale, exhale.
My thirty-seven-year-old mother leaned back to the floor in her pedal pushers and began kicking her heels up and down toward our suburban St. Louis ceiling. She was following Jack’s lead. A bicycle to the sky. Peddling from a tripod position.
Sixty years later, I imagine Jack would be proud of us all. Though our beloved gyms and fitness centers are closed, we’ve cobbled together stay-at-home fitness tools to keep some semblance of our pre-COVID-19 physiques. The ones that have expanded a little in the middle due to sumptuous meals consumed at safe distances behind closed doors.
Oh well. If the gyms stay closed for too much longer and the girth of our bodies gets out of control, there’s an easy solution. All we have to do is keep walking and continue our yoga practice on the sun room floor. Inhale, exhale … Namaste.
If that doesn’t work, I’ll channel Tony and Doug. “Get a fix” on 2019. Step into the time tunnel. Prepare for a trip back to the world we once knew … gainful employment, physical closeness, dining out with friends, life without masks … far away from the trauma of 2020 and the mind-numbing news that keeps us spinning through time.
The madness of March is history. What will this stay-at-home April bring? Certainly more meaningful memories.
At 9 p.m. Central Time on Monday nights in 1970—fifty years before the contagious COVID-19 stunned and stymied our world—a kooky comedienne with a toothy smile and infectious laugh captured my twelve-year-old heart and creative imagination. Her name was Carol Burnett.
Born April 26, 1933–in the depths of the Great Depression–this legendary actor of stage and screen first tasted success with her Tony-nominated Broadway performance in Once Upon a Mattress in 1959. Soon after she appeared as a regular on The Gary Moore Show. My exposure to her madcap comedic skills began on September 11, 1967. That’s when The Carol Burnett Show debuted on CBS-TV.
Through the spring of 1971, the network ran the hour-long variety and sketch comedy format opposite two popular programs: NBC’s I Spy; and ABC’s The Big Valley. (Later in the seventies, as the show gained a larger audience and momentum, CBS moved The Carol Burnett Show into its Saturday night lineup following four other prime-time powerhouse comedies: All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Bob Newhart Show.)
Back in 1970, after I finished my homework on Monday nights, the lights on stage came up around Carol and were transmitted through our Zenith color TV in suburban St. Louis. Long before I first imagined taking flight in my dusty desert time machine, she proceeded to field questions from her studio audience and lead me and thousands of other viewers across the country on a metaphoric and comedic joy ride.
Every week we sat mesmerized. We watched Carol and her creative troop–Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner … and later Tim Conway–perform their magical TV mayhem. Together they represented creative constancy in my life.
At that time, Dad worked the night shift as a custodian for a government agency in St. Louis: sweeping and mopping floors; cleaning toilets and urinals; emptying waste baskets. It was a life of late-night drudgery my father, the ex-salesman and unfulfilled poet, couldn’t stomach and never dreamed of—especially when the rest of the world had Carol and the hilarity of her As the Stomach Turns weekly soap parody at their disposal from the comfort of their living room couches.
But like clockwork, at 9:30, Dad called during a break from his janitorial job. He craved a creative escape too. He wanted my color commentary on Carol’s show. The ringing on our kitchen phone was my cue to fill in the comedic gaps. I stretched the curly cord into the living room and translated Carol’s hour-long variety show into something positive that might sustain him….at least for one night.
To put this in its proper personal perspective, Dad felt he was missing the important moments in life: a traditional schedule of evenings at home with his wife and children watching Carol’s shenanigans. All for the sake of a weekly paycheck and a job that clogged his ego like a stopped-up toilet.
As far as Walter Johnson was concerned, there was nothing else remotely funny about 1970. The Vietnam War was raging. Nixon was president. That was awful enough. Especially for a life-long Democrat.
I’d like to think our phone exchange during his break and my play-by-play of Carol’s comedy sketches and crazy Bob Mackie costumes he missed helped transform his melancholy spirit. Ironically, over the course of Burnett’s career, she frequently reprised the role of a soulful scrub woman, who cleaned up after everyone else went home. It was Burnett’s tattered-but-enduring character, which became her show’s symbol of humor, heart and humanity.
Just like the rotary phone that rang on our kitchen wall, I never imagined the show would one day disappear. But on March 29, 1978, after eleven seasons and 279 episodes (notwithstanding another nine episodes that aired in the fall of 1991) the curtain came down on The Carol Burnett Show.
In the mix, the Vietnam War ended. The troops came home. Nixon resigned in 1974. I graduated from high school and went on to college in 1975. Dad did his best to complete his night-shift janitorial duties.
In August of 1976, at sixty-two-years old—the age I am now—he retired from a job he despised but tolerated to contribute what he could to the well-being of our family. Remarkably, my father lived another seventeen years, despite his struggles with heart disease and depression.
“I’m so glad we had this time together, just to have a laugh or sing a song. Seems we just get started and before you know it, comes the time we have to say so long.”
At the close of each of her shows, Carol Burnett sang this familiar tune, tugged on her left earlobe, and signed off. Evidently, it was a signal to her grandmother to let her know she was doing okay.
I loved it all. Carol’s shenanigans, her show, her sidekicks, her song, her signal, her sentiment. Dad did too. Everything she represented … her physical humor, uproarious laughter and wacky demeanor … sustained us through difficult times.
Fortunately, Carol Burnett lives on at eighty-six. So do the best moments from her comedy sketches on her Carol Burnett and Friends shows that appear in syndication.
Remembering her fearless foolishness and mischief on April Fools Day is helping to lighten my spirit today as I work to make sense of another dark chapter in our world.
Thank you, Carol Burnett … I’m so glad we had this time together.
When my mother died in January 2013, she left behind a little money in an account. It was earmarked for charitable purposes only.
Over the years, my sister and I distributed small amounts to organizations in her name. Some money went to children’s charities; other stipends supported research to eradicate dreadful diseases.
With time, the account dwindled. The fund faded to the point where fees were beginning to gobble up money that would be better used by a charity. Seeing the dollars decline was something like witnessing the effects of the macular degeneration that clouded Helen Johnson’s vision late in life.
Today, after processing the final grant from her account, I imagined my mother sitting outside with me on a spring day in Wheaton, Illinois, where she lived her last few years. The daffodils bloomed as she modeled her freshly painted nails. It was a luxury she wouldn’t have dreamed of earlier in life … born of the rural South, a child of the Great Depression that left most families in turmoil, scraping to make ends meet.
Somehow, Helen survived all that. She left North Carolina at age twenty-two with two friends. She found a job in St. Louis, Missouri, just as World War II was ending. She met Walter Johnson. They married and brought two children into the world.
Helen went back to work after Walter had a heart attack in the fall of 1962. The next few years were lean ones for our family. Over time, Helen built a career and found ways to keep us afloat.
She and Walter had a tough time of it, but somehow they managed to stay together. They scrimped and saved. She retired in 1987. He died in 1993. She lived on, nurturing her family and flowers. Eventually, she said goodbye at 89.
Now, here I sit. Remembering my wise, kind and resilient mother. Knowing that the money she left behind will put food on the tables of hungry families in 2020, support the planting of shade-producing trees, grant a wish for a needy child, care for healthier hearts, and allow a few disadvantaged citizens to raise their voices proudly in an uncertain world.
On this sunny and breezy, seventy-degree day in the Sonoran Desert, I celebrate the life of Sherrell Richardson Ferrell. (He preferred S.R. Ferrell, because he thought it sounded more dignified.) March 9 would have been my maternal grandfather’s one-hundred-and-nineteenth birthday.
S.R. was a mountain of a man, who loved his Huntersville, North Carolina farm. I still remember him climbing the creaking steps of his back porch. Coming in from tending to his cattle and crops. Removing the broad-brimmed hat that shaded him from the Carolina heat. Swatting horseflies that followed him through the screen door. Mopping his brow and grabbing a bar of soap to wash the red earth off his massive arms and hands.
On the surface, it would seem S.R. and I had little in common other than our blood line. He was born in 1901 … a straight-and-practical, stoic Republican, who lived his entire life in the rural south. I was born in 1957 … a gay-and-artistic, emotional Democrat who made a living in a major Midwestern metropolis before escaping to the desert.
But after reading his fifty-two years of diary entries five years ago … a chronicle of every day in his life from age thirty-two in 1933 until his death at age eighty-four in 1985 … I know now we will always share our grief for Georgia Ferrell (his wife and my grandmother) and our writing impulses to leave behind a trail of our divergent lives.
Neither S.R. or I imagined that I would write a book about our journeys. That I would tell the story of a third writer between us … his oldest daughter Helen, my resilient mother … who left the south, survived her traumas and kept writing her wisdom-filled letters to ensure her family would remember her world and intellect.
But it is all clear to me now. More than any other, From Fertile Ground is the book I was meant to write. It is the story of all three of us finding our paths, loving our families, making our way against the odds. It is a story I was meant to share with the world.
During our visits to Huntersville in the 1960s, my sister Diane and I chased the peacocks that patrolled the farm. Inevitably, each time we returned to the St. Louis suburbs, we left with a few prized feathers and another batch of memories of our Grandpa Ferrell.
There he sat. Alone with his thoughts. Gliding in his chair like a prehistoric blogger. Recording the highlights of his day in his diary each night before bed. Hoisting his sore body out of his rocker. Placing his diary back on the mantle. Climbing the winding stairs to his bedroom for another chance to do it all again the following day.
This morning Tom and I took a hike with John and Sharon, good friends visiting from St. Louis. We walked portions of the Tom’s Thumb Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in north Scottsdale.
As we followed the switchbacks up and down the trail, it dawned on me that I am now nearly the same age S.R. was when I chased his peacocks and vacationed on his farm in 1962 and 1964. When he taught me to milk the cows. When he brought his ripe cantaloupes and melons in from the fields to prepare them for market.
Of course, S.R. never hiked this rugged mountain path. He never visited the sand and sun of the Arizona desert. Neither did Helen. They both preferred the cooler air, the green-and-misty escapes to the Smoky Mountains, the more fertile ground.
But there is comfort knowing that my grandfather’s lineage, his Scotch-Irish tenacity, his southern roots, his physical strength, his propensity to write, and his unmistakable Ferrell nose are with me on the trail of life.
Arizona’s Crosscut Canal connects Scottsdale, Tempe and Phoenix. Depending on the day and the immediate weather, it can carry a trickle of water or channel a deluge of monsoon storm drainage into a network of other canals that irrigate surrounding communities in the Valley of the Sun.
One stretch of the canal winds between Camelback Mountain on the north and the east-west artery of Indian School Road on the south. It’s just steps from the office of Omni Dermatology where, since December 9, I’ve been meeting Amanda (and Claudia, her holiday replacement) three times a week for superficial radiotherapy treatments to bombard the invasive squamous cancer cells on my left hand.
Today was treatment nineteen. I’ll be happy to see it end Thursday morning with session twenty. Certainly, I was ecstatic to hear Dr. R tell me yesterday that my hand has healed beautifully. Still, I’ll admit a strange sense of sadness is creeping into my soul. That’s because I will no longer share stories and perspectives with Amanda.
During each session, we’ve chatted as she applied gel to the back of my hand, rolled a detection device across my skin to monitor the regeneration of healthy cells, taped a square of metal with a hole in the middle over the suspicious spot, placed the blue flak jacket, matching collar and protective goggles on me, and lowered the radiotherapy “gun” until it was secured against my skin.
In the grand scheme of things, perhaps Amanda’s stories were designed initially to distract me from the real reason I was there, the real anxieties I felt at the end of last year. But, over time, we’ve gotten to know each other intimately.
For instance, we’ve engaged in conversations about her son’s ski team excursions to northern Arizona, the identifying southern lilt in her voice that came from her Georgia roots, her part-time job as a real estate agent, my passion for writing and staying relevant in my sixties, and her hope to celebrate her approaching fortieth birthday in Hawaii with her husband. Just today, she told me she purchased my first book From Fertile Ground and was excited to read it.
Shortly after her book-buying revelation, Amanda excused herself for a minute. She left the room. Left me to my devices. Hit the radiotherapy switch. Then, forty-five seconds later–after the quiet hum of the machinery had ended–she reentered the room.
“Just one more measly treatment,” I muttered as she gathered my protective gear.
“It’s so funny you would say that,” Amanda laughed. “Measley, with an additional “e”, was my maiden name.”
At this juncture, I realized the connections before me. The mystical and idiosyncratic language of our lives. The canals in the desert. The tributaries that run through our human interactions without us really ever understanding how and why.
I felt the same synchronicity in St. Louis on July 6, 2017. That’s when Jacob, an EKG technician at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, ran a device and cool gel across my chest. As he performed his duties to determine the magnitude of the obstruction on the left side of my heart, I felt safe in Jacob’s hands. Evidently, he felt secure too, because in the following thirty minutes that day he shared his life story with me … that of a new father protecting his infant son and trying to adjust to a sleep-deprived schedule.
Perhaps because I’m more aware of my mortality in my sixties, I’m predisposed to pondering these present moments … what it felt like to connect with Jacob with my life hanging in the balance … what it will feel like to meet Amanda for just one more “measly” or “Measley” superficial radiotherapy session.
No matter the reason for my acute awareness, I’m ready to put this cancer scare behind me. I’m grateful for what lies ahead along the canal that trails through my desert life.