No ordinary Tuesday, but eleven moments (5:05 to 5:45 p.m.) captured as the end of the first day of the eleventh month draws near in our south Scottsdale neighborhood. Displayed in reverse order. Clearly, what the Sonoran Desert lacks in vibrant fall foliage, the sky delivers with kaleidoscopic splendor.
It’s my sister’s birthday. Soon she will open the card and presents we sent her. I will call her later today to wish her well. To tell her I love her.
Like every relationship, ours has had its ebbs and flows. But Diane and I are the only ones left from our family of origin. The only ones who remember the best sounds of our St. Louis childhood–Dad slurping his breakfast beverages through the overflowing Coffee Hound cup we gave him or Mom sifting red and green sprinkles on sugar cookies shaped liked reindeer, candy canes, stars and Santas.
After our mother died in 2013, Diane and I each retreated into our individual darkness. We had worked together closely to care for her during her final years and months, but after Mom was gone I wasn’t sure we would escape the labyrinth of pain and grief or come out the other side whole. It wasn’t that I doubted our love, but we both had to find our personal paths to heal from the devastating loss.
For me that meant writing about it and sharing my observations in From Fertile Ground. Diane wasn’t keen on the idea. She preferred privacy. This difference between us–and the resulting grief-induced friction–was unexpected for me, but with time I realized I needed to respect my sister’s point of view. To this day, she rarely reads what I write.
In June of 2017, right before Tom and I left Illinois and moved to Arizona, Diane drove from her suburban Chicago home to visit with us on our backyard deck in Mount Prospect. I decided to give her the concrete birdbath that had been Mom’s, hoping it would remind her of the shared love we had for our nature-loving mother.
A few weeks later–on the way west–I landed in a St. Louis hospital after a heart attack. I called my sister to tell her what had happened. To hear her voice. To hear her love. That conversation was the turning point toward greater understanding.
In early September, Tom and I received a card from the American Heart Association in the mail. To acknowledge Tom’s and my sixth wedding anniversary, it told us Diane and Steve (my brother-in-law) had made a donation to the organization.
After I opened the card and wiped the tears from my eyes, I realized Diane and I had escaped the labyrinth of grief. Our relationship had emerged on the other side of the shadows. There was light on the horizon.
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
Between 2004 and 2009, Helen stood patiently on her third-floor condo balcony and waited for the fleeting color to appear near the end of each day.
Her inanimate accomplice was one of those disposal Kodak cameras from Walgreens. It soothed her shutterbug sensibility.
Nature photography was the perfect hobby for a woman in her eighties, who loved art and the clockwork of the calendar and the seasons.
Earlier in her life, she worked too hard to find the time to anticipate and ponder the legacy of sparkling sunsets.
But, as the remaining rays in my mother’s life flickered on the northeastern Illinois horizon, she found comfort in the hues that came and went.
Like a National Geographic photographer on assignment, she felt it was her duty to capture the most vivid color of each passing day.
Whenever Tom and I walk west after dinner toward the Papago Park buttes, I feel Helen’s anticipation … how she might have felt if she’d seen the Sonoran sunsets of our sixties.
During the last few years of her life she asked, “Do you think you and Tom will retire in Arizona?”
It gave her comfort to know we might fall in love with the western sky.
After the heavy lifting of our responsibilities was through, she could imagine our stunning sunsets … the colors, lights and textures.
She could dream of the golden hour after she was gone.
It doesn’t matter if shadows stretch or fears fly,
If breezes blow or mountains move,
If blossoms bloom or battles blaze,
If dreams delight or courts connive.
In January, July or November,
Or somewhere in between,
You will remind me what was,
What is and what shall be.
Written by Mark Johnson
January 26, 2020
Despite the hellish Arizona heat (which has had me in a funk) and the general absence of much-needed monsoon rains this summer (more on that later), there is something stunning and cinematic about living in the desert southwest. Big skies. Jagged mountains. Spiky saguaros. Red rocks. Dazzling sunsets.
I realize I may get a few eye rolls here from a pragmatist. Or someone who’s lived in the Valley of the Sun for his or her entire life. But remember. I’m coming at this from the perspective of having spent thirty-plus years of my life in relative flatness. Namely, northern Illinois, where you can drive for miles and know you’ll never see a rise in the grade of the road.
Evidently, I’m not alone in recognizing the allure of a western landscape. Case in point: Hot Rods to Hell. It’s a rollicking road trip film about a middle-aged couple, who decide to leave behind the civilization of the east for an overdue escape to the desert in the west.
As the 1967 flick begins, traveling salesman Tom is recovering from a car accident that has injured his spine. Fortunately, he survives mostly intact. But he’s left with jittery nerves and a chronic back ailment. Tom and his wife, Peg, decide the best antidote is to leave their Boston home. They opt to spend their later years operating a motel in the California desert. They figure it will be a quieter existence and the dry heat will be good for Tom’s back.
It all makes sense, right? But they encounter a few problems on their way west. Tom (played by a haggard Dana Andrews, who’s nearing the end of his rope and career) and Peg (portrayed by a frantic Jeanne Crain, who must have needed the money desperately) are derailed on their journey by a band of teenage hoodlums.
The carousing kids crave controversy, drag racing and Tina. She’s Tom’s and Peg’s shapely, seventeen-year-old daughter. The terrible teens become fixated on the idea of trying to drive Tom and his family off the road. Apparently, just for the thrill of it and the chance for a rendezvous with Tina.
It would be criminal of me to spoil the ending of this overwrought, drive-in disaster, because it is a super-suspenseful spectacle that devolves into scene upon scene of jaw-dropping, delicious, B-movie mania. However, be forewarned. This desert debacle includes a cameo appearance by Mickey Rooney, Jr., and his band, (yes, Mickey had a son … and his son had a band) performing poorly in a seedy club that just happens to be on the premises of the motel, where Tom and Peg will soon become landlords.
At any rate, if you follow my stories, you know that, beyond the fact that my husband’s name also is Tom, there actually is a thread of thematic truth to be salvaged here. (Even though, my Tom doesn’t have a back problem or a nervous disorder; we have no plans to buy or manage a motel hideaway; we don’t have a teenage daughter; my name isn’t Peg; and I my friends tell me I look nothing like Jeanne Crain.)
When Tom and I packed up our car and traveled west in July 2017, my surprise heart attack in St. Louis nearly ran us off the road like a pack of hell-bent, drag-racing teens frantic for on An Unobstructed View. But, like Tom and Peg, we survived the experience. Now in my wide-eyed sixties, I write poetry. I dodge crazy Arizona drivers. I tell screwball slice-of-life stories. I bask in the dry heat. I swim outdoors to keep my heart pumping.
And, when torrential rains boil over the mountain peaks and spill into the valley, I savor the monsoon storms. Like the one that blew in last night unexpectedly. Blowing dust and bending palm trees. Igniting the atmosphere. Lighting up the sky. Dumping an inch of rain on the parched Phoenix area. Reminding me as I drove home through the shadowy Papago buttes that these “bonus” years in the desert southwest after that fateful road trip are an ever-evolving chapter in a story that’s far from flat.