The Complexities of Speaking Simple French

002_joe-sorren_eden

Michael was kind, witty, gentle, and given to endless amusing quirks. He’d wear his tortoise-shell reading glasses at the very tip of his nose and, often, drive the long route home, simply because it was more scenic. And he’d respond often in casual French, usually in idioms or “buzz” phrases. He was neither a scholar, nor French, content with interjecting “Mais oui!” or “Zut alors!” or the beloved catch-all, “Mon Dieu!”

In the summer of 2001, he was quite ill. His disease had robbed him of any cognition — his ability to speak, practical motor skills, and a lifetime of memories and friends. Essentially, all he was indeed able to do was eat and walk, although both activities need qualification here. He no longer sensed any taste, only temperature … and he could no longer chew. Walking was strained because he was somewhat paralyzed on his left side, which meant that he dragged one leg while he held one arm. He had just turned 49, but no longer understood the concept of birthdays or their celebration.

Usually, he was incredibly good-natured and resigned to what was happening, if he indeed had an inkling as to such. His frustrations were many but he was nevertheless easily distracted. You can only imagine, friends, what his days were like: empty and void of an ability to express. I would make him as comfortable as possible and just pray that any torment would stay dormant and that he not be in any pain.

However, one such late August day, Michael was restless. He painfully shuffled from room to room, knocking things over as he’d brush by. He found a tool box, mustered the strength to lift it, and hurled it against a window … breaking the window and scattering nails and gadgetry all over the kitchen tiles. He knocked over lamps, books, mementos, anything within his strained reach. Whether from intention or accident, his anger was spiraling into fury.

I was finally able to calm him down a bit: I held him tightly so he could feel my heartbeat and hear the timber in my voice. I never really knew at what point his understanding of my words stopped, for his stares were ALWAYS empty. But talking at least gave me some hopeful comfort. I gave Michael his afternoon dose of thorazine and prayed that it would soon take effect and his rage, subside.

He followed me into the bedroom where I cajoled him into getting into bed, with my hope that he would soon be able to sleep. After ten minutes or so, he’d close his blue eyes and I would head back to the kitchen to start restoring order to the chaos.

No sooner was I on my knees, scooping nails, he walked in and approached me with a reluctant tremble. I took his hand, led him back to the bedroom, and again was able to get him ready to nap. Again, I waited and then returned to the mounting “clean-up” tasks in the other rooms.

Perhaps, my optimism was unwarranted as we repeated those “steps one-through-three” at least a dozen times. At that point, I got in bed next to him, urging him to just stay still for fifteen minutes. That was all I asked. I felt certainly that was all the time needed for the medicine to calm him enough to grow drowsy and, at last, sleep.

But, no! Fifteen minutes later, he stiffly sat up and started to head into the next room. I was beside myself. The day of frustration, bedlam, and such agony had awakened an anger in me. Before I knew it, I had forgotten my role as a dutiful, compassionate care-giver. I grabbed Michael by the shoulders and just yelled (as if in an unleashed last attempt):

“You need to get some rest, dammit. Stay in bed! What, am I speaking French or something?”

Terrified at my outburst, he looked at me and simply said: “Oui!”

We looked at each other and I held him. I couldn’t cry for he’d have no comprehension of “tears!” I just held him, assuring him: “I love you, Michael!” He quietly replied: “love”. I might’ve imagined an intonation but desperately needed to hear it.

Somehow we both understood that moment: each with so much to feel, to express, yet couldn’t.Those were the only two words he spoke at all that day. On many a day, he uttered none at all. And with those two simple words (seven letters, total), he was able to finally sleep as I regained my focus and hope … for that very long day.

“Oui.”

That, my friends, is the moment of joy or hope that I offer you today. This anecdote was never intended to incite melancholy or sorrow, but rather to emphasize the power of a singular instant. And this instant with Michael was both timely and wondrous as it gave us each a craved morsel of hope, dignity, and humor.

Michael passed away eight weeks later, surrounded by the dearest of friends and loved ones. He wasn’t scared, but I don’t think he knew why.

(Image: “Loud Sing the Hours of Eden” by Joe Sorren, 2010.)

Advertisements

With Neither Maize Nor Wattle

bal341676

I was reminiscing this afternoon and sharing with Henry my most memorable Thanksgivings. It was a broad task for sure. But I tried.

Best Food? 2001 at my sister’s. No one can best her Prime Rib and Brisket. And that year, we also had turkey and oysters and a lot of people.
I was extremely emotional because Michael died just a month earlier.

Most Fun Thanksgiving? 1989 at the house I shared with the anti-Christ. The day stands out because everybody was happy and mingled well. We had moved in two days earlier and I was up all night organizing all our new kitchen. The weather was perfect.

We danced, listened to music, hung out on the deck, and threw a frisbee with our sheepdog.
After folks started to leave, three particular friends, my sister and her husband each fixed a cocktail and secured a seat for ROUND 2.

Most Forgettable?  1974 at my mother’s. My Father insisted on coming over. They had divorced 8 months earlier and he was living in Dallas and in a relationship that he rekindled from 1951. He showed no interest in my sister’s first year in Middle School or my freshman year at UNC. As soon as our utensils were gathered on plates, Polly and I left. It was all just so wrong

Most exotic Thanksgiving? 1958 in DC, but my mother was in Minnesota where she worked for Eugene McCarthy.

Legend has it that my father invited all of his friends who were from Germany, Italy, Kenya, and other points in between. After cocktails, everyone went into the dining room to eat. I was sound asleep on the sofa in the livingroom.

I woke up at some point … and crawled and toddled all around the room. As I advanced I looked into each glass and ate the garnishes. I happily dined on mainly cherries from Manhattans and olives from Martinis. I also finished each drink.

When dinner was over, my father and guests returned to the livingroom and found me sound asleep. Okay. Okay. I had passed out on the previously mentioned sofa.

The rest of the day unfolded as one would expect. Yes, my mother was livid when my Father confessed about a month later.

Finally, my most earnest and better prioritized Thanksgiving? 2011. Jon was recovering from a life threatening illness and I had recently had yet another heart attack.

Life had quickly become fragile. Nonetheless, we celebrated our union and found that, yes, we actually could afford a leg of lamb.

It is now four years later. Jon is much better but ridden with ailments of being almost 70. I’m still waiting for a heart. Henry is almost 13. He is your typically lazy tom but would even “turn pussy tricks” if it meant an entire turkey slice might fall to the floor. Since I am “projecting” with this post, we’ll just say He hopes that the turkey slice cascade to the floor. And that Claudja and Hermione are watching some football game.

We will share Thanksgiving with: my sister and her gentleman suitor, my niece Sara and her husband, my niece Sophie and her husband, and my niece Aubrey. My sister’s ex-husband, his wife, and young son will join us.

I will not try to understand the unfortunate inclusion of the latter nor will I let it interfere with the joyous part of the day. It may very well be the last time we are all together.

I am confidant to assume that we’ve each already endured a questionable, perhaps grossly dysfunctional Thanksgiving.

“Receive” will thus be Thursday’s Groucho Marxist “Word of the Day”. (К сожалению об этом.) I intend the word “receive” to invoke that 70’s and 80’s serendipitous suggestion for welcoming a positive karma.  We’re nonetheless surely due for a Cohen-esque Perfect Day.

And if not? Groovy. Bring it on, My Friend. Bring it on.

(Image: “The Small Village Torzhok” by Konstantin Ivanovich Gorbatov, 1917.)

Acceptance Seems to Suit Me

Untitled-thinker

Young Man, it’s beginning to look as though we made it. The ideal lover must’ve skipped a few decades. I found him waiting for me when I neared fifty.

I no longer remember the litany of traits that he absolutely had to possess. Nor  do I recognize the unshaven, long-haired man who sternly looks back at me when I blow the dust off my razor.

Those previous relationships did little to prepare us. That’d be doubly so if the scorekeeper knew that my mind’s eye no longer compares or ranks or bandies the random regret around the sunroom.

Love gave my decades their Smiling Faces.

As he listens to NPR in the next room, my Beloved is wailing, albeit internally: “Oh, woe is me!” or “Oh, woe is he!” The over-enunciated names, the coy smiles, the romantic affectations no longer matter.

The anti-Christ is unable to fill my water glass with that delightful and most Southern of familial combinations. Guilt. Fear. Desperation. Dread. Emptiness. Of course, those feelings linger. I reckon that they always will. They, however and hardly ever, grab a chair and bully me with unspoken intentions.

My heart has reclaimed all of those well-intended moments from that ever-so-sweet sweet Icelandic boy.

The bigger, more boastful loves need neither resolution nor amends. The players are gone, having packed up the world before today and, perhaps, stacked boxes inside one of those millennial “Pods”. I don’t care. I can’t care

My heart only has room for today. And I’ve already given Jon any “Power of Eternity”.

I am ready for the ceremony and its pomp-less jubilee.

That would, of course, refer to both my pre-transplant and my post-transplant hearts and my ability to call them up for circumstance.

Young Man, save a seat for me near the front. Acceptance

(Image: “Untitled [Thinker]” by Esao Andrews, 2006.)

Come On In, Dear Boy. Have a Cigar Box

d4d2d1f63e8b2ae23ada6f764a07a434

Each year, on and around Labor Day, it was again time to shop prudently for school supplies. Those of you who were obsessive pre-pubescent scholars know well that rush. A shot of some euphoric, sublime, and self-organizational adrenaline would take hold of one’s entire being. Margy, the aforesaid mother in my silly musings, and I would go on a cigar box hunt.

The discarded boxes were covered on all sides with some great lithographic illustration, often depicting two people sharing an old Havana moment. The heavy cardboard boxes came in all different sizes, of course on the smallish side. And they were perfect for storing pens, pencils, quills if you must. One might also hide a small toy or memento inside.

It was indeed a treasure box hunt. We made the rounds asking tobacco merchants if they had any “obsolete” Macanudo, Padrón, or Oliva containers. Ultimately, our search was usually rewarded with a gem, albeit with a lingering, sweet tobacco fragrance.

I would always select a spare box … just in case a replacement was in order. In the event of torrential rain or unseemly acts of playground aggression, I’d be back in business as soon as I got home and grabbed a YooHoo. Being prepared in such a way is one of the 1,047 invaluable tenets that the daunting Daughters of Charity at St Pius X preached.

And I survived. Once as I completed Freshman Orientation at UNC, I quickly welcomed redemption, rehabilitation, and recovery from my many years of parochial school and lessons of self-deprecation.

Oddly, that cigar box “rush” continued to come around every Labor Day, until I was 25 or so. Of course, I kept all of those obsessive urges in check. I best appear well-acclimated to adulthood.

Flash forward. Flash forward through my years with the anti-Christ. Flash forward through my dalliance with the Icelandic twenty-something. Flash forward through those enriching years with Michael … and his last year of deteriorating. Somewhere, I started smoking cigars.

As I would peruse the vast selection, I realized that the tobacco purveyor would have many, many glorious boxes. They were ideal for storing sewing accoutrements, receipts, batteries, and of course pens, pencils, quills if you must.

A cigar box is also perfect to store all those moments of memories that are too burdensome to carry around all day.

There is one such box on my desk, hidden behind my monitor Miranda. Yes, I do still name every appliance or electronic “thing-a-mabob” under the tin roof here at Marklewood.

That’s where I hide my quills from the pusses when they’re on one of their frequent, naughty, and curious escapades of “not-so-careful” rambunction.

Thank you, Pink Floyd.

Such are the Days of Our Lilies

IMG_2603
As spring sneaks into the yard from the brambly woods in the back, one thing is certain. We will have flowers soon, probably of some new cross-bred curiosities of Roses, Lilies, Impatiens, as well as Henry’s and my favorites, Lobelia and Nasturtia. The Lilies, of course, are of the garden or glade varieties, not what we in these genteel parts call “Ditch-lilies”.

I have lived out here in the hinterlands of outer Raleighwood for almost thirteen years. I had two dozen peony bushes in the back yard, mostly white and yellow, and a few black ones to confuse folks when we had outdoor parties. They would’ve survived neither the drive nor a new home. I never even confessed to my perennial confidants that the dirt at Marklewood is actually NC Red Clay, with a smattering of added topsoil where needed.

Thank God for the invincible 4′ Cast Iron plants I bought, perhaps fifteen years ago, from my dear friend Peggy. She was my plant guru and wholesale contact, but she passed away the season immediately before both my father and a close lifelong friend had passed away. I shall stop with that as to keep any melancholia sealed until another day … except that despite neglect and drought, they still thrive. Perhaps, if I’m not having health coverage issues in April, I shall quarter them. The yield would be a majestic overstatement of twenty-four plants that would span just shy of 100 feet.

I am rambling I know. It is late and I’m overwhelmed with thoughts and words and artwork tonight. Some hot tea while I decompress would be perfect.

The image I included here is of a painting by the iconic French actress Leslie Caron of “GiGi” and “Lily” fame. I always found her to be lovely and shy and genteel and compassionate and … Oh I wish I could find a better word that sweet! I like the almost childlike innocence of the flowers and the torch-like hand holding them, as well as the blue hues.

Tonight I shall think about my Columbine and roses that now dress their beauty for a family of four.

“I sit at the window and watch the rain,
Hi-Lili, Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo.
Tomorrow I’ll probably love again,
Hi-Lili, Hi-Lili. Hi-Lo”.

Sharing the Unspeakable

roseatespoonbills

“See how the sacred old flamingoes come,
Painting with shadow all the marble steps:
Aged and wise, they seek their wonted perches within the temple.
Devious walking, made to wander by their melancholy minds.”
(William Butler Yeats)

When I lived in Ft Lauderdale, I would often sit at the end of the pier. My daydreams hopscotched from one ponderance to another. Usually my thoughts were based in neither rhyme nor reason, as I had readily allowed myself to be completely engulfed in a beachy lifestyle.

Yes, I was unshaven and disenfranchised, but I nonetheless still read books and ate green vegetables with lots of gusto and lots of butter.

Of course, I’d always have unspeakable, unsharable, and unshakable visions. Despite my fervent intent to remember the more salacious details, they’d linger on my mind entirely of their own making. The imagination is a skilled marksman, though a strategist of uncommon reason.

My responses would most often be out-of-control and inappropriate in an untimely, unseemly manner. One, referring to myself, can’t always control the awkward stares, unflattering jaw-dropping, and overstated erections, as it were.

But at some point, my imagination would once again become fixated on one of the Universe’s great concerns: What if the world were caught up in the damnation of an aerial apocalypse?

I’d then see pelicans as winged zombies and flamingos as the regal protagonists. Blue Herons were always some wise and gentle force of arbitration.

Flash forward to a more reserved, calm, and even-keeled version of myself. I am no longer given to drop a jaw or allow a stare to halt the spin of my world.

I, however, still experience the random erection. Thankfully, it no longer requires a grand and heralded introduction.

And I haven’t walked along a pier in twenty years.

Holiday Raids, Regrets, and, Sadly, No Reynolds Wrap

Most_Disturbing_Manipulated_Images_Ever__5Barry had always flown the six continuous shuttle taxis between Albany and Springfield. The airborne noise had finally eked his compliance. His days of fighting someone else’s ever-so-veiled pointed banter, alas, have found closure. At age 51, Barry was tipping his pilot’s cap one last time. His anxieties as an underplayed carrier, after-midnight errand boy, and a mute, blind, and deaf witness were humming their swan song.

His restless days worrying about the endless many projects requiring signatures and initials on court bound papers were dwindling: Barry’s replacement, his roommate Nippy, was to begin at 8am Monday and by week’s end, he’d be in Antigua nursing premium Mai-Tais and gorging on Rock Point oysters and Bay lump crab meet. He’d be alone but, at age 51.

Nonetheless the week passed in a healing, rejuvenating atmosphere. Except for the curiosity that was quickly building over Miss Smoot-Steins assurance that she’d redeem the roundtrip weekend ticket he had left for her. Between “romps”, they were to fantasize about the many parts to their redemptive stance. Again postponed yearnings had been stirring in both Barry and Deana’s loins. A pungent and greasy unfulfillment cloaked Barry’s ode and attempts be cheerful. His “Finger Lake” resilience had melted.

Curious and “stood up”, and numbed Barry unlocked the door to the emptiness of Albany, his dusty pre-War flat, and his yet unnamed puss who was nearly five. He fed the puss and turned on the television to catch his favorite shows. He walked into the the kitchen, recalling all the goodies he’d had roasted before his departure. Deana wanted to box the hot oil sesame noodles and take them home.

She left shortly thereafter, forgetting some of the tightly boxed “to-go” goodies. Barry searched the icebox hoping to stumble upon a marinading head roast he had been hungry for all week long. There on the top shelf squeezed between the spring mustards and 2% milk was a platter with a human head resting upon its optical center. What a perfect Sunday treat for Barry and Nippy to share if not devour!

Barry had realized that the head was uncovered and unprotected, naked on a chipped yet colorful Meisen platter, which Barry unearthed only on holidays. Anger and fury seized and redirected the words he was spewing: “Damnation. Let’s just go to Dairy Queen, Crackle Barrel, or even Denny’s. I’ll leave the tray outside. Perhaps the cats, dogs, coyotes, and raccoons will find satisfaction in the unexpected feast.

Nippy and Barry arrived home just after 10pm, unable to sip tea, inhale some amyl nitrate, or even slowly savor ons genteel and dainty peppermint truffle.

The outdoor brood, however, was still on the front lawn … nibbleless and still well-groomed from Barry’s attention that morning, Barry was facing another sad cranial roast, perhaps his last.

Nippy reached into the 50lb bag of Royal Canine food … healthy, easy to digest, and a rare opportunity to feel appointed, anointed, and sprung from the “jointed!” He dished a huge, if not “Pelican State” helping into their bow.

Barry quietly stormed inside — SLAMMING and bolting the door. (I readied for bed where I’d pray to the muse of syntax and spelling and nibble some Lorna Doones.)

Whispers in the Crisper: A Perfectionist’s Self-Defense

I have spent the greater part of my life either trapped in the throes of my own perfectionism or indeed wallowing in the wake of those who seem to embrace (if not celebrate) imperfection. Unfortunately, the latter scenario has included lovers, partners, friends, co-workers and perhaps a parent or two. Finicky, obsessive, anally retentive, neat-freaky, compulsive, persnickety … all have been often used to describe me; and not always with fondness of intent and kindness in delivery. Sadly, admittedly, and voiced only in a whisper, I can no longer recall much of my earliest years or else my first mention of “greater part” would certainly be upgraded to “entire”.

Of course, my own analysis bears quite different results. I insist vehemently, although most often in private, that such tidiness is pragmatic, time efficient, and thrifty. A well-organized refrigerator yields fewer jars of moldy green olives; avoids cartons of expired milk; and is never stocked with unnecessary and duplicate, if not triplicate, jars of tasty coarse mustard.

When it is categorized, colorized, and tidily otherwise merchandised, there is little chance that any of its chilly contents will ever turn up as “long lost” or forgotten. In any preferred case, there is significant financial and, consequently, time savings. Further, grocery lists become near obsolete as one becomes more in tune with what is “on hand” just by peeking inside to note gaps or, as in my case, by a quick mental visualization.

The same organization process is true with closets, desk drawers, medicine cabinetry, nightstands, even glove compartments. Less time is required to locate most anything, unless of course one has a partner or spouse, as I do, who subscribes to the other school of thought. Understandably, now that I am fifty-five, it is no longer a preference but, instead, a way of life. It is the endless back-tracking in the behaviors of a “non-believer” that indeed waste time and money. Yet, those non-believers never change. They simply scoff and chuckle at what they call “neurosis” at what I, and my fellow enthusiasts, would simply call correct procedure. Oy.

As a designer both in inclination and by trade, I might plead the aesthetic value of my perfectionism. Bookcases are less-cluttered, with their contents always clustered by type and age, and alined by size and thickness. A three-hundred year old leather-bound manuscript simply isn’t placed beside a paperback copy of “Exodus”. A self-help tome might have issue with sharing real estate with a naughty Chatterly, in spite of its orientation and amorous leanings. And certainly some books and texts serve best from an unmarked and well-secreted box.

Kitchen cabinets are simply more appealing, dramatic, and (YES) efficient if glassware is arranged carefully by type and spices are alphabetized. T-shirt drawers are much more attractive if the t-shirts are all folded the same, correct way … and stacked in deference to color and degree of formality. Even the interior of a dishwasher is less of an eyesore if all the dishes are turned in the same direction and the flatware is separated by type and purpose, with sterling never permitted to co-mingle with stainless. As a child, I interpreted the phrase “like little soldiers” as a badge of honor, worthy of a warm and fuzzy moment.

I think you get my point, my friends, and agree that I plead a worthy argument. Of course, it is a losing one and always has been … at least in my humble world. It surely seems so even with my dear Jon, who consistently makes every effort to give me joy and to acquiesce wherever appropriate, worthwhile, and beneficial. He would argue that it really doesn’t matter where in the icebox that foodstuffs are indeed placed. I counter that world order is compromised if sodas are in the crisper or if condiments are askew.

But I do so detest the shallow argument and now see an alternative wisdom in a revised pragmatism. Now that time passes at such a whipping pace, I now through caution to the wind, label-makers be damned. I shall spend my last few (hopefully) decades just enjoying my life and my loves, though “cringe” may yet become a future “mot du jour”!

However, I shall have no explanation should I revert to ways of my childhood. Those memories seem now forever lost, and no witnesses remain who can attest to my youthful predispositions. I can only pray that my inclinations for such resolve are indeed innate … as I no longer have a back-up plan in place.

 

(Images by Alex Gross)

The Good Neighbors

Tea-Shop

In my over three decades since those grilled cheese college days, I have moved nearly a dozen times. With each new address, I rarely even met my neighbors, let alone made an effort to know them. That never bothered me: I was raised in a family of complicated drama and tormenting dysfunction. Communing with the “folks to either side” always meant relinquishing privacy and risking the reveal of damning family secrets. Neighbors seemed created simply to water plants and feed pets while on vacation or fill in gaps at holiday festivities. Of course, there is an exception.

In 1993, I returned to Greensboro, where I had spent my formative years … at least since age ten. I had been long gone since my young adulthood, and was at my once home. I was emotionally ravaged, nearly broke once again, and at yet another crossroads. However, I am (if nothing else) both scrappy and a survivor … in practical and creative measure. By that Christmas, I was general manager of an extremely popular and eclectic eatery, involved in a meaningful and rewarding relationship, and relearning how to receive the joys of the Universe. It was that very night, the grandest of holiday eves, that Michael asked me to move in with him. I did. And that’s where this neighborly tale begins, my friends.

Our neighborhood was a relatively Bohemian, diverse, and well-maintained enclave of primarily “twenties” homes. The street itself was sloped, lined with magnificent but overly-needy Pin Oaks, with a graduating view of the downtown skyline. The panorama at the street’s bottom was a lush and willow-dotted park, best suited for frolicking pups, children’s ball games, and the occasional festival. Our house was on a corner, leaving us really only one other family of any consequential proximity: Richard, Libby, and their daughter Bailey.

Michael was already friendly with the Smiths, but I was obviously new to the dynamic. Perhaps, because we were always having cocktails, entertaining, or reading mail on our porch (while they were engaged similarly on theirs), it was a natural and quick transition for me. By spring, we often shared pertinent details and intimacies of our lives as well as our latest gardening efforts. It seemed as though most everyone in Westerwood took spring plantings extremely seriously. Richard and I were no exception. Libby and Michael certainly appreciated our efforts, frequently assisting, but clearly had to acquiesce to our compulsive, creative, and sometimes convoluted craft.

Although Richard and I probably spent more time “communing” in our yards, it was probably Libby whom I really got to know. It was easy. While Richard seemed always pensive, reserved, and methodical, his wife was what I call a “gentle Type A”! Our outward sensibilities, love of witty naughty banter, and appreciation of pop and social cultures were beyond aligned. Further, truth be told, we were both more likely the household “diva” type to our jokingly “long-suffering” and patient husbands. I jokingly called her “Libbatory”, in that Southern manner that Michael savored and she despised. At his most casual, Richard was always “Dr. Smith”!

It wasn’t long before the Smiths became more than neighbors as we surreptitiously peeled any remaining layers of formality. They survived our various stays in the hospital, family dramas (usually in-law-inspired), and overall eccentricities, as we survived theirs. Of course, they managed to stay healthy, trading hospital stories for those of dealing with a pubescent, increasingly hormonal daughter … a situation that easily trumps most.

Our house occasionally became a haven, a safe house for teenage rebellion or similar squabbles … as I came to Libby rather often to report the latest misbehavior of Michael’s judgmental and often ill-intended family. Before long any family get together seemed hollow without the Smiths. Our lives had become gently intertwined. The phenomenon didn’t even dissipate when Michael and I had a picket fence built enclosing the front yard. We could rest our coffee cups on a picket while we chatted or, more often: Libby could balance her red wine glass upon that whitewashed apex, as I did my customary evening highball.

Life had definitely started to approach perfection. By the winter of 2000, Michael and I had renovated parts of the house with our slightly odd “stamp”; I was in my fifth year as the manager of a successful design and retail firm; and we had phenomenal next-door neighbors … the latter I had always viewed as some television-era quasi-suburban myth. Needless to say, change again loomed. The almighty forces of the Universe sat upon their billowy thrones, wreaking rhetorical havoc with our lives. Michael became extremely ill.

Shortly after the Bushes held their White House-warming fete, his doctor phoned me with the prognosis. I had to tell Michael, because his doctor was located three counties away and time was now a crucial factor. His brain was rapidly succumbing to tumors which would ultimately rob him of everything, every iota of cognition, and eventually life itself.

Over the next six months, the Smiths were there as Michael lost his ability to speak, remember, drive, dress, bathe, or do most anything that required cognition on any level. Naturally, Michael and I became increasingly isolated as he deteriorated, but I always knew that Libby and Richard were but a few feet away. I felt safer and less alone. Then Michael died.

Life was far from idyllic. I lost my job, my employer folded and moved to Charlotte, and I lost the house. Michael had refinanced our home when he was first sick and the mortgage was three times what I could afford. He didn’t have health insurance and the house no longer had equity. And I didn’t have Michael.

That next summer, many of my neighbors chipped in and helped me sort, pack, and load nine rooms and two lives of furniture, collections, and artwork into a large moving van. I was on the cusp of a spontaneous move to Raleigh.

As I drove up my street that balmy night, I sobbed and gasped like a young child being sent away. I knew what a blessing the Smiths had been to me. In retrospect, I figure the Fates knew that I was going to need such people in my life.

Today, order has once again been restored to my life and I rarely see them. But each day as I recount that last summer in Greensboro, I naturally think of them. I now view them as the only neighbors I have ever really had. The others, both before and since, were just “folks next door”!

If Dr. Smith should perchance read this humble recollection, I trust he’ll forgive my syntax and narrative digression. I fear he is aware of neither my disdain for proofreading, nor my alternate moniker … “Prometheus Unposted”!

(Image: “Tea Shop” by Patrick Hughes, 2012.)

Tuesday Mourning Redux

tumblr_mpw9xeySdu1qcwhbgo1_500

Like most everyone who was of school age or older, I too will always remember that morning, twelve years ago. True, it was a profound loss of any innocence onto which we collectively had always clung. For me, however, like many parents or folks entrusted with the care of someone precious, that feeling was exacerbated by an inability to shield or protect our loved ones from the phenomenal loss: of life, societal morale, and most traces of ingenuousness. We were all at once jaded, scared, and mortal.
My partner Michael was in his final stages of a dreadful cancer that had ravaged his cognitive abilities, rendering him unable to comprehend, remember, or for that matter, even talk. That morning, as every media outlet turned its focus to the terrorist attacks, I phoned home from work to make certain that the person caring for Michael (while I was at work that morning) shielded him from the television. I then quickly closed the studio, locked the door, and rushed home.

Neighbors had stopped by to discuss the tragic current state of events and had my friend occupied at the door. I greeted everyone in passing and proceeded inside to check on Michael. But, as fate would surely play out, he was standing in the den with the television on and turned to graphic news coverage. Somehow he had accidentally pressed the power button and there he stood, frozen, as CNN aired footage of panicked civilians plummeting to their deaths … choosing such a gruesome death over incineration.

Michael had no understanding of the attack or the various crashes. He no longer had an understanding of the world, nor politics, nor even hatred. He was essentially a 6’3” three year old, terrified by the horrific visual … and unable to turn off the television. It would have been too kind of the Universe to allow him a second mistake with the power control!

I turned off the television and put the clicker out of easy reach. The house was still, except for the silent whimper that had seized this grown man. I held Michael and tried to calm him down, painfully aware that he would never understand the turn of events and the implications and the change that would surely ensue.

About that time, my friend and two neighbors came in, well aware of what had so quickly transpired. They turned their attention to Michael for, at that very moment, he was our charge and priority. Upbeat, they engaged Michael in some menacingly silly “romp and play” that directed his confusion towards the present … companionship, safety, and love. Their forced merriment aptly did the trick as, before long, we were all on the porch eating homemade peach cobbler.

I smoked a cigarette as I realized that sometimes the Universe simply lets us down without warning, justice, or easy fix. Thank God for friends for they give us hope when all else fails.

Michael probably never again had another visual or memory of that morning. He passed away a month later. But for me, the most heart-wrenching memory of that September day was seeing Michael’s terrified and disoriented face as he absorbed that footage. Everything about that day had an inescapable realism — and it was shrouded in death. There were no answers ever to be found, only mourning.

None of us will ever forget.

Speaking French

002_Joe-Sorren_EdenMichael was kind, witty, gentle, and given to endless amusing quirks. He’d wear his tortoise-shell reading glasses at the very tip of his nose and, often, drive the long route home, simply because it was more scenic. And he’d respond often in casual French (usually in idioms or “buzz” phrases) as he was neither a scholar, nor French: “Mais oui!” or “Zut alors!” or the catch-all, “Mon Dieu!”

In the summer of 2001, he was quite ill. His disease had robbed him of any cognition, his ability to speak, his practical motor skills, and a lifetime of memories and friends. Essentially, all he was indeed able to do was eat and walk, although both activities need qualification here. He no longer sensed any taste, only temperature … and he could no longer chew. Walking was strained because he was somewhat paralyzed on his left side, which meant that he dragged one leg while he held one arm. He had just turned 49, but no longer understood the concept of birthdays or their celebration.

Usually, he was incredibly good-natured and resigned to what was happening, if he indeed had an inkling as to such. His frustrations were many but he was nevertheless easily distracted. You can only imagine, friends, what his days were like: empty and void of an ability to express. I would make him as comfortable as possible and just pray that any torment would stay dormant and that he not be in any pain.

However, one such late August day, Michael was restless. He painfully shuffled from room to room, knocking things over as he’d brush by. He found a tool box, mustered the strength to lift it, and hurled it against a window … breaking the window and scattering nails and gadgetry all over the kitchen tiles. He knocked over lamps, books, mementos, anything within his strained reach. Whether from intention or accident, his anger was spiraling into fury.

I was finally able to calm him down a bit: I held him tightly so he could feel my heartbeat and hear the timber in my voice. I never really knew at what point his understanding of my words stopped, for his stares were ALWAYS empty. But talking at least gave me some hopeful comfort. I gave Michael his afternoon dose of thorazine and prayed that it would soon take effect and his rage, subside.

He followed me into the bedroom where I cajoled him into getting into bed, with my hope that he would soon be able to sleep. After ten minutes or so, he’d close his blue eyes and I would head back to the kitchen to start restoring order to the chaos.

No sooner was I on my knees, scooping nails, he walked in and approached me with a reluctant tremble. I took his hand, led him back to the bedroom, and again was able to get him ready to nap. Again, I waited and then returned to the mounting “clean-up” tasks in the other rooms.

Perhaps, my optimism was unwarranted as we repeated those “steps one-through-three” at least a dozen times. At that point, I got in bed next to him, urging him to just stay still for fifteen minutes. That was all I asked. I felt certainly that was all the time needed for the medicine to calm him enough to grow drowsy and, at last, sleep.

But, no! Fifteen minutes later, he stiffly sat up and started to head into the next room. I was beside myself. The day of frustration, bedlam, and such agony had awakened an anger in me. Before I knew it, I had forgotten my role as a dutiful, compassionate care-giver. I grabbed Michael by the shoulders and just yelled (as if in an unleashed last attempt):

“You need to get some rest, dammit. Stay in bed! What, am I speaking French or something?”

Terrified at my outburst, he looked at me and simply said: “Oui!”

We looked at each other and I held him. I couldn’t cry for he’d have no comprehension of “tears!” I just held him, assuring him: “I love you, Michael!” He quietly replied: “love”.

Somehow we both understood that moment: each with so much to feel, to express, yet couldn’t.Those were the only two words he spoke at all that day. On many a day, he uttered none at all. And with those two simple words (seven letters, total), he was able to finally sleep as I regained my focus and hope … for that very long day.

“Oui.” 

That, my friends, is the moment of joy or hope that I offer you today. This anecdote was never intended to incite melancholy or sorrow, but rather to emphasize the power of a singular instant. And this instant with Michael was both timely and wondrous as it gave us each a craved morsel of hope, dignity, and humor.

Michael’s Last L’Chaim

8

A dozen years and a million dreams ago, to the week, my oldest niece celebrated her Bat Mitzvah in grand style. Three hundred guests gathered on the roof of a skyline landmark for an elegant sit-down dinner, copious libations, and dancing until the wee hours. For Sara, it became a memorable send-off to an adulthood of promise and hope. For my partner Michael, however, the evening was his last such affair, if not his last ”night out”.

Many of you now know of Michael’s illness. His disease ultimately robbed him of all cognition and ability, before he eventually succumbed. His doctors had prepared me that his condition could change dramatically one day from the next, and to always be prepared for the worst.

As he dressed for the evening that Saturday, he no longer could shave himself, chat on the phone, or remember most of his friends and family. He could neither maneuver the studs for his shirt, nor secure his cummerbund. He was, however, still able to drive. Just past seven, we were “en route” downtown with Michael at the helm … as I gazed out the passenger window.

The venue filled quickly. Two friends met us there so they could help me steer Michael away from any awkward moments, such as those when trapped in ”cocktail repartee” with a stranger. Although he could to a degree still talk, he had lost over 95% of his vocabulary; didn’t always comprehend the most basic of subject; and was given to occasional inappropriateness. We were successfully able to guide the conversations, so that Michael never got angry, frustrated, or felt unnecessarily self-conscious. He savored the two dirty Bombay martinis that night, but I’m not so certain that he still had the taste for them.

When it came time to be seated for dinner, the four of us were joined at a large round table with a half dozen people that knew us, and were well-apprised of the sensitive issue at hand. While everyone anticipated the lavish six course feast, Michael looked up at the stars. At each place, was a silk butterfly, handcrafted by an Israeli artist.

One by one, however, everyone at our table got up and leaned over to Michael at help him feel included and at ease, asking simple ”yes or no” questions, and rubbing his back. When the main course arrived, Michael beamed when he saw rare lamb chops, as that was his favorite. I nonchalantly  cut the meat for him, since he wasn’t dextrous enough to manage a knife … but he was thrilled nonetheless. After dinner, as our waiter took our orders for cognacs and coffee, Michael just played with his butterfly, managing to secure it to his lapel. By the time the dancing started, everyone at our table had given him their butterfly keepsake.

Since Michael had lost any interest in dancing or music, we took turns sitting with him, while the rest of us danced and gathered for toasts. When it finally came time to head home, he had accumulated a pile of butterflies, as word had gotten out and everyone wanted to make the evening as special for him, as it was for my niece.

As we got into the car, I put a basket of at least a hundred winged, gossamer mementos in the back seat, rolling down my window to take in the brisk May night air. Michael tapped my shoulder and proudly said: ”fun!” When he could indeed articulate, he rarely spoke in full sentences anymore. But we were both happy and content, and I was relieved.

The next morning, I got up at five: my only private time was whatever time I could steal before he awakened. Michael got up after eight, having slept soundly, I’m sure from all the excitement and activity of the previous night. He stumbled into the office, leaning over to kiss me on my forehead. He didn’t say anything as I took his hand and led him into the kitchen to prepare his breakfast and give him his morning medications.

On the island was the basket of butterflies. He pointed to them and looked at me puzzled and befuddled, unaware of their meaning or origin. Moreover, my heart fell to the tile floor as I realized that he had lost whatever remaining verbal skills he had.

I wanted to sob, but couldn’t … not even allowing the swell of such a tear. I fixed Michael pancakes, smothered in butter and ginger syrup, and went back to our bedroom. I knew that he now could no longer drive, so I went to locate his car keys and secure them. After he finished eating, I sat with him on the porch and took a deep, focused breath. I then had to tell Michael about the driving, afraid of an angry outburst, one that might overpower me. But when I was finished, he patted me on the head and kissed my cheek, nodding in agreement. I don’t think he fully understood but he knew to trust me.

I put the butterflies away as I did with almost everything that created confusion or feelings of inadequacy, loss, or frustration. Another obstacle was just ahead, as I’d need to  let his mother, who had yet to accept Michael’s illness, know of the latest developments.

As I had feared, the Bat Mitzvah was a turning point in his degeneration. We never again went out at night or, for that matter, much during the daytime. His health declined rapidly over the summer, with his body finally giving out in October.

Tonight, I came across one silk butterfly as I rummaged through my desk in search of an old document. I smiled as I vividly remembered Michael’s touching memorial service and how a few days later I drove Michael’s car out to the cemetery and scattered the remaining silk butterflies over his grave.

I closed my desk drawer and went outside, sat on the front stoop, and sobbed into the brisk June night air. One of the cat angels confided in me  and shared a secret of the Universe. Michael’s soul is soaring and en route to some grand angelic cotillion.

(Image: ‘The Jeweled Lady” by René Magritte, 1947.)

Tea for Two, Three for Coffee

TeawithmeandheandI.jpg.scaled.500

“Long away and far ago,” I was the paradigm of a modern and obsessive metrosexual nester. I meticulously tended to home design projects and was a compulsive gardener of the alpha variety. Michael and I hosted formal dinner parties probably twice a month, impromptu ones several times a week, and maintained the neighborhood hub for after-work cocktails. Everything in my world had to be just so. Everything.
     Ten years ago, however, that all changed. Michael, our house, my job (which I loved), and my motivation withered away on October 16, 2001, the day that I tightly locked my front door to Hope. The following year, my relationship with Jon took unchartable flight, with my ultimately moving to Raleigh. But I had changed. Jon and I quickly bonded and created a strong and authentic relationship. All the while, I relearned how to receive joy and just be happy.
      However, I no longer possessed any desire to entertain, maintain a spotless home, or spend the wee-est of morning hours re-arranging accessories or rehanging artwork. I simply wanted to enjoy Jon’s company and bask in the soul-warming comfort of not being alone. As Jon was likeminded, we quickly communed with dust and cobwebs. Of course, Jon’s four year struggle to regain his health and my two heart attacks in the past eighteen months have indeed aggravated the situation. At best, there may be two hours a week that the situation here doesn’t seem overwhelming.
     Accordingly, except for our immediate family members, only a handful of friends have even been inside the house: our friend Patrick and his partner Brian who helped nurse Jon back from his wasted state of 126 pounds, Jon’s friends Julian and David, and Janet. Janet is a goddess of compassion and, along with my sister Polly, helped me prepare the house for Jon’s return from a three week hospital stay. Except for my friend Marty, who moved back to Iowa years ago, I haven’t felt comfortable introducing friends from “my odd world” to the neglect and decay that seemingly permeate almost every cranny and crook of this “old barn”.
     Providence, however, changed all that and forced me to accept the trust and concern of my friend Laurie. Wanting to peruse my collection of humidors, in an attempt to find the perfect gift for her other half, she pressed the issue. Yes, I acquiesced and, around noon this past Monday, we were sitting with Jon at the garden table, enjoying coffee and chatting as if she had been over many times before and as if I had not an iota of hesitation nor flush of embarrassment.
     The issue was all mine and no one else’s. Laurie cared about her friends, Jon and Mark, and simply wanted to help jumpstart our motivation. Four hours later, upon her departure, I sensed a veil of sadness lifting from my nest. I had been foolishly holding tightly to the arrogance and destruction of perfectionism, paralyzed by the wither of denial.
     Of course, by sunset, I was already planning her return visit. My mind, then, without any prompt other than probably depression-induced nostalgia, turned to my both my mother and grandmother who both experienced similar changes around age fifty. And by the time I went upstairs to join Jon, I had deconstructed some of the mysteries concerning those two and understood them with a new clarity, vantage, and forgiveness.
     The unexpected perk to Laurie’s visit is that she’s coming over next week to accompany me on a new adventure, taking much of the overflow of furnishings to a consignment shop. On that note: does anyone have desire for a gilt Chippendale mirror, a pair of Louis XIV bronze urns, a majolica humidor, or any early Roseville pottery?
     And if you should find yourself in the neighborhood, please stop by for a robust cup of fresh coffee or one of Jon’s many exotic tea blends. The curse is indeed lifting.
      Hallelujah.
(Image: “Tea with Me and He and I” by Ray Caesar, 2012.)