Monday, December 26, 2011

The Christmas Entry

DSCN0751-2011-12-26-20-55.JPG
(My parents living room looks like a Christmas card, right?)

I woke up early this morning--and breathed a sigh of relief. The emotional gauntlet of my first Christmas without Ken was over! I never imagined having to experience one without him after we met in 2001, and after he died in June I dreaded December and all the holidays that surrounded it. An internal clock counted down the days with deafening silence as the year drew to a close.

But it was okay. Christmas wasn't just bearable, but it had many moments of happiness, laughter and joy. For me it was both surprising and expected. I don't think I could have fallen in love with Ken without possessing (or learning to posses) the much mentioned "journey" mentality. And likewise, I have found the "fake it 'til you make it" mentality to be just as important. Learning what to focus on and what not to focus on have been my stock and trade since Ken's re-diagnosis in 2009.

Spending Christmas with my family was truly wonderful. Though there was no snow to be seen, the Christmas spirit was present and accounted for in my childhood home. My parents possess an equal measure of realism, optimism and hard-boiled family loyalty that was served up on a platter of love for me to dine on. It wasn't just my determination to endure the holiday and somehow enjoy it alone--it was the determination of those in my family--the "birth" family who I spent the holiday with as well as my "marital" family who I spent the day with emotionally, as well as my "chosen" family of friends who thought of me, emailed or called me or Facebooked me encouraging words of love and support.

A true "win" for me this Christmas was after returning home to Chicago on Christmas Day (my family's annual celebration is on Christmas Eve), I uncharacteristically accepted an invitation from my friend Beth to drop by in the afternoon for a Christmas cocktail and spend time with her, her son and family. Usually preferring to keep my own company--particularly during times of emotional tumult and the innate difficulty of being without Ken--after considering the kind invitation, Ken's unmistakable voice said "why not?" And had he been here and we were spending the day together, he would most certainly would have wanted to go and spend time with her and her posse. Doing something new and social was right up his alley.

She lives nearby so I opted to walk--all the while stupefied that I was actually doing it. I knew Ken would be proud of me, which made the decision more steadfast in my own mind. Watching her 3-year-old son's excitement about Christmas and Santa reminded me so much of Ken's my nephews Jack and Nathan and Ken's own childlike enthusiasm. I held her 10-month old nephew as he played with some of his cousin's building blocks. While conversations went on around me, it felt like I was the only in the room, holding Isiah and watching Ian play. It was an ethereal moment I'll never forget. Moments like that haven't been uncommon, and feel like I'm suspended mid-air between my past and my present.

My walk home was slow and full of memories--not just of the Christmas I'd just left, but of ALL of them. From childhood to the nine Christmases I spent with Ken, in particular. Decorating our tree. Our annual holiday party. Christmas Eve breakfasts on the beach in Malibu with his family when lived in or visited Los Angeles. It seemed like a LOOOONG walk, and at times I wanted it to be over with--just like part of me wanted Christmas to be over with. What was so striking was walking home through the neighborhood without seeing another single person--except Santa, of course.

IMG_2302-2011-12-26-20-55.jpg

But Christmas is over. And I got through it--enjoyed it, even--with a little help from my friends, and Ken's ever-present voice in my heart and in my head.

Merry belated-Christmas.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Holiday Baking

Today had been marked on my calendar for weeks. "Holiday Baking." It's tradition I'd grow up with and then that Ken and I shared during our life together. But this year, I decided not to make any of our classic treats. It needed to be a whole new menu to expedient with. I'd also decided a while ago that the benefactors of my holiday treats would be the wonderful staff at the Creticos Cancer Center, where Ken was so lovingly tended to. I'd learned from my Zen cooking master how relaxing and focusing cooking/baking can be. And it lived up to its promise. I hummed Christmas carols and did my best in my pursuit of the elusive holiday spirit.

I've experienced brief flashes of it, though. Today while driving home from errands first thing, my mind drifted away from trying to inject me with the Santa Serum, and in a brief moment of not really thinking about it--and no doubt looking forward to baking and delivering my goodies, I felt it. For a split second. It was almost like being tickled suddenly. Then it was gone. That's about the fourth time it's happened. I guess thems the breaks when you are practically dry humping Christmas, molesting it to make it feel the way it used to.

While in the middle of holiday baking, I got an unexplained desperate craving for deviled eggs. I'd never made them before, and only had them rarely at get-togethers. But still I wanted them. And I all the fixings for them. After a quick clean up, I switched gears and prepped my eggs, excitedly getting out a piping back and tip to use to fill the eggs. They were tasty and I devoured each and every one of them. Then went back to baking.

The fruits of my labor:

DSCN0750-2011-12-18-21-25.JPG


I couldn't help but think of Ken and his pride in my new-found kitchen affection, and it makes me happy to know I'm going to deliver the bulk of it to a group of people who were instrumental in taking such great care of him. I'd like to think of it as a way of honoring him, and spreading some Christmas spirit even if I'm not finding it myself.

I won't stop trying to capture the spirit of the holiday, but even if it doesn't happen, it doesn't change my excitement about seeing my family, and beginning to look forward to 2012.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

An Anniversary Thank You

TXD_toast-2011-12-10-15-49.png

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the my first blog. During the intervening year--as I promised myself--I've written at least one blog per week. It's an accomplishment that fills my writer's heart with more than a little pride. When I began blogging in December, 2010 I told myself it was mainly to gain some exposure on the blogosphere and to begin building a public voice as a writer. But early on I knew I was fooling myself. Ken's illness and subsequent death has been a difficult journey. Were it not for my need to journal, to document, to express and share our journey together--and now mine alone--I would have been left far more damaged.

I admit without pride or glee I knew from the beginning of the bleak diagnoses there was something within me--maybe strength; maybe selfishness; maybe some measure of both--that wouldn't allow losing Ken to leave me used up and ground down. Of course Ken's eternal optimism and courage played a key role to that end. And my need alone to write this blog and to document my feelings on this journey was only part of the formula that kept me buoyant in such heavy water over the past couple of years. There have been so many people in our life together who showed unwavering kindness, grace and selfless beauty, and who played weighty roles in helping us deal with Ken's illness, and helping me cope with his death.

I couldn't think of a more appropriate anniversary gift than showing my gratitude. This is for you...

You celebrated with me during times of ground-swelling triumph, and you mourned with me during times of earth-swallowing sorrow. And you "let me be" during times of both--and all in between--because you know that's how I sometimes need to both celebrate and cope. My "apartness" is no stranger to you, yet you understand it--or at least accept it.

You wept with me during times of overwhelming despair during the last year, and you also found a way--when I was ready--to make me laugh until I cried with lung-wheezing abandon, sometimes at your own expense. You left me voicemails and understood I wasn't in the mood to talk. But you kept calling. Kept checking on me. Continued to send me love without reserve. You thought of me, and sent me strength. In spite of the hopelessness of the situation, you never stopped digging deep and finding hope and love to give to me.

You knew you couldn't experience what I was experiencing--though you begged to the heavens for the contrary to be true. You wished you could soar across space and time to get to me; to change events; to take away the pain. You selflessly turned down the volume of your own feelings in order to better hear mine. You comforted me with food; with words; with love and tenderness--sometimes without ever knowing me very well--or at all. But it never mitigated the love and compassion you drenched me with.

You picked up the slack at work--in addition to an already full workload--to assist during my FMLA absences, and to allowed me to focus on caring for my beloved, and sent me encouraging words and gifts, and instant messages of kindness and strength.

You helped me deal with a loss the likes of which I could never prepare for. You wept with me. You helped me. You loved me. You reminded me that death doesn't mean "the end" of everything. You supported me in blissful moments when I understood that, and in hopelessly lost ones when I didn't.

You texted, you Facebooked, you emailed. You sent cards, notes and care packages. You never failed to let me know that I had your support; that I wasn't alone; that I could reach out to you at any time of the day or night; that you would be there for me. And you were.

Though you tried with all that is you to understand the emptiness I feel and the hole left in my heart, you know that each grief is unique and unmatched. You never had to pretend to understand the complexity of my mourning. Because yours is just as complex.

You loved me in way that was both unique and universal in all the ways that is possible. You ignored your busy life in order to make multiple trips to spend time with Ken and to support me. You shook the martinis and manned the kitchen. You understood and valued the true meaning of fellowship and living in the moment.

Whether I have been able to tell you or not, you helped me on the journey I'm on to better understand what I've lost, but--more importantly--what I haven't, and there are good things yet to come. It isn't lost on me that Ken lovingly taught my destination-oriented psyche to embrace the journey. Like all journeys, this one comes with the bitter as well as the sweet. But it's being on the journey that counts. As I move forward into 2012, I know some important and exciting things await me. You are part of that goodness.

No one could have been so lucky as Ken and I were to have been surrounded by such loving and caring people. "Thank you" doesn't seem meaningful enough to let you know how grateful I am to you, but it's the only way I know how to do this; to thank such an elite and loving group for helping in ways that were kind, loving, and everlasting.

Thank you for your courage, love and support. I'll never forget it.

Tonight PadLo and I will have a toast to Ken's unyielding spirit, to the unmatched support and love of our friends and family, and to the first anniversary of TXD.

Cheers, my friends. To honoring the past and to all the good things yet to come.

Oh, PadLo!
OHPADLO-2011-12-10-15-49.png

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Searching for Christmas

DSCN0705-2011-12-3-13-05.JPG

As much as my brain is so wanting to get into the Christmas spirit and feel all the wonder the season implies, my heart…just isn't. I have been working my ass off to continue with traditions that Ken and I shared. Every day together was special, but the holidays were even more so. Sharing them with him, and relying on his inexhaustible optimism leaves me feeling a bit…lost…again. I knew Christmas would present its challenges, but though I thought the "what if" in me had calculated all the permutations of potential sadness and had designed "work arounds" I knew I was fooling myself to some extent, but was prepared to be surprised.

Last weekend after I returned from California, I pulled out the three components of the pink, shimmery Christmas tree I bought for Ken in 2009 and assembled it, placing it in the spot it stood in last year. The Christmas spirit has been elusive this year--as anticipated. But I've kept trying to kick start it with favorite holiday movies and plans to do some baking other holiday-inspired activities. Also, in considering Ken's personality and spirit, I know he'd want me to do what I could to "feel" Christmas. I've kept telling myself, "I've lost Ken. I can't lose Christmas too." And I think that's what fuels my rampant need to get into the spirit--this year more than any other.

I yanked out all the boxes of Christmas decorations--boxes I'm certain Ken packed away as the more patient and far more effective packer. If they were sitting in the middle of the living room, I'd have no choice but to pull out the decorations. Not so much. They sat in the middle of the living room for a week. Apparently, my "work around" was to just not go into the living room.

But this weekend was "it." Like it or not, I was going to decorate that tree!!! I had a plan. And a new tradition to start: ordering a ton of Chinese food, watching a few of my favorite Christmas movies and decorating the tree on Saturday night. To help along my Christmas spirit I got a surprise text from my sister and brother-in-law who were not only visiting Chicago for the weekend, but were seeing a play just four block from my place. I was delighted to hear they were so close and met them for drinks after the show ended. We had a great time, and laughed a lot--as usual--and anticipated the hijinx of our family's Christmas together.

Later that night, food ordered, my decorating plans were put on hold due to a defective string of lights. A fruitless trip to CVS, put my plans on hold until today when I was able to go out--first thing--and pick up some strands of blue lights. After heating up a plateful of Chinese deliciousness, I set out to accomplish my tree decorating task. Bittersweet and even a little haunting, I went through the boxes and pulled out the decorations for the tree. Time stopped as I held the very first ornament in my hand. It was a difficult moment. Memories of decorating with Ken flooded back--particularly last year. It's like when people say their life flashes in front of them. My life of Christmas memories with Ken deluged my brain. Knowing I didn't have a choice--and as experience has taught me--I surrendered to the feelings and sat down by the tree head-in-hands and sobbed until my skull ached. Acknowledging my grief and expressing it are important--as is decorating my tree.

Once my "grief burst" passed, I set to the task of placing the ornaments. And has been the case for the past two Christmases, I can't look at that pink, shimmery tree without smiling. It's whimsical, bright and unconventional--like Ken. As "Love, Actually" played in the background I lost myself in the art and mathematics of placing ornaments (which include the special one pictured below). It wasn't as joyful as it was comforting and somehow satisfying. Honoring tradition.

DSCN0716-2011-12-3-13-05.JPG

Once I was done, I ventured up to Lincoln Square to the Christkidl Market. How's that for some holiday cheer? My determination to force Christmas down my own throat has pushed me beyond my own comfort zone limits. Well, almost. When I got there and realized--unlike the Christkindl Market downtown--this one was one was under a giant, hot, sweaty, tent stuffed with people (and strollers). I made my donation and one round then immediately exited. But I managed to do a little shopping at the quaint shops in the Square, listening to my Christmas playlist on my iPhone. Like my quick trip to Ribfest this summer--and, really, like venturing out and doing anything I wouldn't normally do, I gave myself an "A" for effort then headed home.

Besides, it's about the journey, not the destination.

My tree…

DSCN0702-2011-12-3-13-05.JPG

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Things I Know After the First Big Holiday

IMG_2114-2011-11-27-17-47.jpg IMG_2011-2011-11-27-17-47.jpg

I spent thanksgiving in Southern California with my in-law family. As much as I was looking forward to the trip, part of me was dreading it--the "unknown" part of it. I didn't ever want to have to celebrate a holiday without Ken. I wasn't sure how it would go. And that was scary.

As much as I would have liked to avoid it, the holiday--as did my trip to Cali--loomed closer every day. But the closer it came the more excited I got. Not necessarily about the holiday, but to see family and friends. It was an important trip. Weighty. And in my eyes would set the tone of future trips--of which I would expect there to be many. But denying my underlying "what if" methodology I took the trip day-by-day, and sometimes moment-by-moment.

The last time I'd been to Los Angeles was with Ken for Xmas of 2009--just after we learned his cancer had returned and a hemipelvectomy was our greatest, best hope. We knew we wouldn't be traveling for quite some time. (Though Ken shattered expectations--and probably records--in his recovery and flew out six months later to surprise his dad for his 70th birthday.) It was a weighty trip as well. Punctuated by an early flight home to tend to our ailing 16-year-old Chow Chow who died shortly after our return. Hurried and scarring in ways we didn't have time to address at the time.

But on this trip spending time with my friends and the family--particularly my nephews--was a powerful and positive reminder that life continues, and joys and laughter abound in some of the most unremarkable moments. I learned perspective is a powerful thing. To lose it, devastating. To have it, extraordinary. And we must experience both at times in our lives. I learned still can party until 2 AM (though the price paid the next day is greater than I recall it being.)

I was reminded that family bonds don't change and, in fact, strengthen in the wake of loss, and that I will always have a home in LA. I learned that we are all resilient because it's who we are and as much as who we have to be. I was reminded that in spite of what I may have lost this year, I'm the luckiest man in the world and have more to be thankful for than I could ever express in words.

This trip also reminded me of some things that used to be so normal--visiting family--but haven't been normal in the past year or so. I'm grateful for every moment spent with Ken and that so many friends and family made it a priority to do so as well. But it feels good to spend time with the family...just because. Without the vice grip of some impending darkness. A return to a normality that isn't really normal at all…yet.

On the flight home, looking at photos I'd taken on the trip, something occurred to me: PadLo was a unique creation on his own, but became something special and worthy once Ken loved him. The same can be said for how Ken's love changed my life incalculably. And seeing PadLo hanging out with other unique creations made sense to me. Ken will forever be the reason I came into his family--now, my family. And the members of that family all experienced loving and being loved by him. They are all special and worthy, too.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Stuff of Dreams

IMG_1993-2011-11-17-19-21.jpg
(PadLo is ready to hit it!)

I've only had a handful of dreams about Ken since he died--and against all my hopes, they didn't start until the last couple of months. I suspect my subconscious knew I wasn't ready. My remembrances of the few dreams have been non-specific. Sometimes when I crawl into my flannel sheets at night I whisper to the empty spot on his side of the bed "I hope I dream of you tonight."

This was the case the other night. Right before bed I'd been thinking about our (it feels weird to write "my") annual Christmas card. Up until last year, we created the cards ourselves from concept to post office. We'd sip martinis in our back yard on balmy nights in June or July and begin brainstorming ideas. Though I toyed with the idea of creating a card for this Christmas, I knew it was wiser to purchase them, taking some unnecessary pressure off what I knew would already be a challenging holiday season. I went through photos of Christmases past. Of course it was tinged with a little sadness, but it also bathed me in some wonderful memories.

After I'd gone to bed and expressed my hope, I turned over--my back against his side of his bed. As I was drifting off I felt a gentle tap on my side. Nothing alarming. I didn't even flinch. I don't know what it really was. Did I do it? Or did he? Whatever the case, it was comforting and I continued on my journey to sleep. Though that had never happened before, I had experienced smelling his scent once as well as Q's one day in the car. Some things aren't worth questioning.

The next morning when my alarm went off I snoozed it as usual a couple of times. It was drifing in and out of dream state when I heard Ken's melodious voice calling to me from the living room. Again, it wasn't alarming, but it was surprising. I knew it was impossible, but I wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth. When I walked out into our dream living room I dragged the quilt from the bed behind me. Ken was lying on the couch. I asked him if he'd been cold sleeping on the couch. His face was angelic and sweet. He didn't open his eyes as he shook his head--that he hadn't been cold--he grinned knowingly and opened his arms for me cozy up next to him. I nestled in next to him, pulling the quilt over us.

Then the alarm went off again--yanking me away from him. I woke up heartbroken. It HAD to be one of those dreams that I remembered in technicolor detail. The joy of dreaming of him and seeing him was eclipsed by the illusion of it all--that was waking up without him and without my head buried in the between his shoulder and cheek. I was "off" for several days following and just today felt I should share the story with miring myself down in sadness. I put my work aside for a while and thought about what had happened and acknowledged the complex cocktail of emotions.

I'm grateful for such a vivid dream, but on the eve of the holiday season--when emotional volumes are turned up normally--it serves as a cautionary tale that grief won't take a holiday. I'll continue to navigate the gauntlet while working and pursuing my goals and entertaining welcome distractions and dealing with my emotions while trying to regain equilibrium. It's like learning to juggle while maintaining balance on a seesaw.

As difficult as the holidays will prove to be I'm still looking forward to them as much as it's a part of who I m and who Ken and I were together. Learning to celebrate what knowing him and loving him has given me rather then celebrating with him in the flesh isn't an impossible task, but one that will take some time and some skill to achieve. On the brighter side, I spent last weekend with my family celebrating my parents' 50th wedding anniversary and head off soon to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with Ken's family (just as much "my" family, and differentiated only for the reader's understanding), as well as get in some quality time with a couple of close friends.

With my best "ken-do" attitude, I'll take it one day at a time, and try to focus on spending time with those I love--and be grateful for it.

You'll be the first to know if it goes in a "different" direction.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Towels, Trips & the Hope Diamond

IMG_1589-2011-11-6-10-43.jpg

It's hard to remember a time I didn't live in Chicago. The city feels as much like a treasured friend as the corporeal ones I've made since moving here twenty years ago. It offers a comfort and a feeling of "home" like no other place I've lived. I consider it a city that hasn't gotten so big for its britches. It's colorful, accessible and livable.

When I was growing up in rural Indiana I always anticipated living in Chicago. And though I made one or two trips here up through high school, my first introduction to "a big city" was a pre-college trip my dad took on the weekend before I started at Purdue University. Somewhat of a reward and a definite adventure for us to experience together.

I was doing some spring cleaning/purging recently and I found myself--of all things--staring at a stack of bath towels. I needed to go through them and get rid of the older ones. It was while going through the stack of older towels I ran across a couple of striped ones that weren't as threadbare as I would have expected for their age.

The day before I was to leave on my weekend adventure with Dad, my sister presented the eight towel set to me along with a long-gone brown plastic laundry basket. I don't know why the memory is so vivid for me. Maybe because I thought by having my own set of towels I was really an adult. I was going away to college on my own where I'd be responsible for laundry, grocery shopping, cooking and all the other mundane aspects of adulthood. I looked at the towels, trying to fathom how they stuck with me--or rather I stuck with them--over countless apartment moves, including two cross-country ones. These towels were twenty-five years old and as not much of a pack rat I hadn't been able to part with them. But in thinking about the memories surrounding them my mind was flooded with images of pre-Chicago and pre-who-I-have-become me; before I'd met most (though not all) of the amazing friends I have or the experiences I've had since then; before I'd met Ken and realized a life and a love that most people only dream of. A very different me in most respects.

Going to DC was not only a thrill in itself, but it was the very first time I'd ever flown. I remember my dad not being so thrilled with the concept though he'd flown many times before, but when the engines revved and we were all pressed back into our seats during acceleration I felt a rush of excitement--like this feeling was what my life had in store. It was a rush I've never forgotten and can still give me goosebumps upon reflection.

While in the nation's capital we spent an entire feet-aching day exploring the Smithsonian. My brand new zero-support brown leather deck shoes did me no favors that day. But my dad was adamant that we see every single thing we could while we were there. Imagine my "delight" when I realized the famous national museum wasn't just one large building, but a freaking campus of many! But they were indeed chock full of important things--like Archie Bunker's chair from "All in the Family". The biggest treasure (literally) I laid my eyes on was the Hope Diamond. I had been mesmerized by a TV movie a few years earlier detailing (and perhaps dramatizing) the history if its owners and the fates that befell each and every one of them. For months after seeing it I had fleeting thoughts that its curse may have rubbed off on me. "What if…" has been with me for a very, very long time.

One day we walked around the capital and White House and monuments. I saw a man lying on the sidewalk and looked over at my dad who didn't break his gate--like it wasn't unusual. We got closer and closer until I eventually had to step over the man. I said, "Did he have a heart attack or something? Should we help him?" I turned my head back to look at him as my dad answered. "No. He's homeless. Keep walking. We're almost there." I'd never remembered hearing the word "homeless" before. Everyone in my little home town had a home to go. I'd seen "Stone Pillow" but I didn't actually think it was "real". Plus, it starred Lucille Ball, so I figured it was just some kind of comedy I didn't understand. Seeing that man lying on the grating was so profoundly sad and so indelibly etched in my memory. It was a loss of innocence I couldn't possibly understand at the time. It was an introduction to the big city and a glimmer the world that was yet to come.

At the hotel my dad had befriended a man and his wife who were visiting from Verona, Italy. (Where Romeo and Juliet lived!) The husband didn't speak a word of English. Neither did his wife, but she did speak Spanish as well. I'd had four years of high school Spanish and our conversations were painful and filled with lots of nervous, time-filling laughter. But it did offer its moments brilliance when I realized I had gotten my point across to them. Over the course of the weekend my points became shorter and shorter. "How are you to day?" to "Good morning" to "Hi. We good. Bye." They were of course more patient and sublime than I would imagine an American being in their position. "Do you speak English? Does ANYONE HERE speak English?! UGH!"

Anyway, long story short…I kept the towels.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Birthday Milestone

DSCN0621-2011-10-30-18-16.JPG

It wasn't until late last night while snuggled on the couch that it occurred to me that PadLo's birthday was sometime in October. I checked out ohpadlo.com and realized not only was I correct, but I was in the waning hours of his very birthday! Considering I was pushing the boundaries of my bedtime I promised we'd celebrate today--which we did: tacos and cupcakes all around!

PadLo came into our lives as gift to Ken from our family in California. (And created by a very talented friend of the family.) Ken and PadLo bonded immediately. It didn't take long for Ken to build the website, detailing his and PadLo's adventures. PadLo accompanied us to all of Ken's chemo and radiation appointments. Once after arriving at the Cancer Center, I followed Ken with our gear to a recliner in the Infusion Room where he'd receive his treatment. We passed another "regular" on the way who greeted Ken warmly (as they always did) and asked "where's your friend?" Without hesitating, Ken motioned to me and said "he's right there." "No," the man said, "not him." We immediately realized he was referring to PadLo--who had become a familiar plaid face around there. In my haste to pack up for a day there, he was the one thing that still sat on the counter, waiting to be picked up--and he was. As they set Ken up for infusion, I drove home as if I'd left a small child home alone in a room full of razor blades and loaded firearms. He meant so much to Ken and I wanted him to be snuggled tightly next to him as soon as humanly possible.

In many ways PadLo filled some of the gap that had been left after our Chow Chow Quantum died in late 2009. We imbued PadLo with many of the same mischievous traits that we inferred from Q's unique and intelligent personality. Ken had been Q's papa for the entire sixteen years of her life, and losing her was more than difficult. Last year PadLo was a welcome addition to our family, and a wonderful vessel for Ken's limitless imagination.

Likewise, PadLo symbolized Ken's spirit of heart, his bravery and his whimsy--which is what he continues to represent for me. I haven't yet worked up the gumption to create a "PadLo Adventure", but when I'm home he's usually never far from me. He sleeps with me on occasion and has accompanied me to my bereavement support group, several coffee shops and even a weekend spent at my folks. There are plenty more travels in PadLo's future.

He's a treasured friend, and sometimes I feel guilty because he doesn't get the kind of attention from me that he reveled in with Ken. But it's a perfect metaphor for how we learn to adapt and keep moving forward even though things are different--and remember to uphold family traditions (even if it is one day late!) No, I didn't make the cupcakes, but I did sing "Happy Birthday".

Whimsy still lives in my house.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Taking Down Summer

Today was another gift from Mother Nature. It was clear, sunny and warm--particularly for late October. I made a list of the tasks I wanted to complete today during the course of the week on the dry erase board hanging in the kitchen. Ken and I used it as a "vision board" of sorts to keep track of current creative projects and write down ideas for new ones. I still use it for that: blog ideas, reminders and to track the last book I read to encourage myself to read more. A small square I drew in the middle lists things I would like or think need to be accomplished.

One of the items on the board had been daunting me since I wrote it. And I suppose that's why I put it there. To keep it on my mind and to passively bully me into doing it. "Take down canopy frame." Since moving back to Chicago five years ago, it signified the end of summer and served as the harbinger of winter's approach. Unfailingly, Ken was the one who took the initiative in the spring and in autumn to set up or take down the canopy. Though the sun has been too low to hit the backyard for weeks now, I ignored the black aluminum frame as I walked through the backyard to and from the car.

But today was the day. I didn't know when it might rain again, so like pulling a bandaid off, I set out to do it quickly. But it just never works like that for me. Plus, the accordion action of bringing it down took longer than I would have hoped. As I moved from pylon to pylon in turn, pressing the release buttons, my nostalgic mind unavoidably drifted to the breezy day in May when I set up the canopy with the help of my sister-in-law Katie--and under Ken's supervision. She had come for a few days to visit--one of many she and my brother-in-law and nephews were able to make, knowing our time with Ken was going to be limited.

That day in May, I braved hamburgers on the grill (comfort in the kitchen doesn't translate to comfort with the grill for me) and the three of us sat around the table under the shade of the canopy, talking, laughing, and enjoying each other's company. It's a memory that is emblazoned in my memory in stingingly vibrant colors. It was such a lovely day. It was as special a day in May when I erected it, as it was a reverent one when I took it down today.

burger-2011-10-23-17-57.jpg
(Ken was so impressed with the burgers and so expert at being in the moment, he snapped a picture of his.)

Our backyard has been a place of so many happy times--far more in quantity than the sadness that eclipsed everything this summer--and almost every single one of them included Ken. I haven't spent much time back there in the past few months. It's just not the same. Nothing is the same--including me. Time and healing on the journey are showing me that change is just that: change; and it sometimes defies being measured as "good" or "bad". In spite of what I may want, change is inevitable, and something I'm working to embrace--or at least despise less.

There are other kinds of change in the air, as well. I attended a writers' meet up last week at a coffee shop a couple neighborhoods away. It was really very exciting to me--just going and doing something new on my own--a feat that usually causes a great amount of anxiety. It involved mostly just heads-down writing on your own project, but ends with a really informal social component where all of us attendees just sit around and talk. In spite of my initial fears, it was the part I enjoyed the most. It felt like a pay-off for my bravery. I gladly accepted it, and am looking forward to the next one.

As for the back yard, next on the dry erase board list: "clean up garden", another dreaded nail in summer's coffin. More change. More time. More healing.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Dinner with a Friend

I received an email last week from Kathy Buckley. She is a stand-up comedienne and motivational speaker, and she was someone Ken loved very much. They met in 2004 when we lived in Los Angeles at a Disability Showcase for CBS, and in my recollection it was love at first sight. I remember him telling me about their first meeting and her brazenly honest approach to life. She was somewhat of a mirror to Ken--neither of them looking at their disabilities as inabilities. Anyway, her email indicated she'd be in town and wanted to know if we could get together for dinner. It was really excited to hear from her, and even more so to be able to visit with her.

I remember all through Ken's illness I received a phone call every so often from Kathy--calling not to check on Ken (because they communicated regularly)--she was calling to check on me. I had never actually connected with her, but would try to send her an email to thank her for the call and update her on how I was doing. In March when Ken was in the hospital before being released to come home for hospice, she had called me. I was stressed and emotionally stretched to my limits. I had left Ken at the hospital with visiting friends to come home to coordinate the removal of a really unsatisfying massage chair I'd bought for him and the delivery of his hospital bed, oxygen concentrator, and all the accoutrements of hospice. Kathy's call came while they were putting together the hospital bed. I felt so bad that I'd never been able to talk with her live, so I answered, thinking it would do me good to talk with her. I think I got out, "Hi, Kathy" before I completely broke down--unable to utter another single word. After a few moments of my complete inability to get out one single discernible word, she told me she very sweetly told me she loved me and that maybe it would be better we spoke another time. I did my best to reply in agreement before hanging up and stumbling to our bedroom where I curled up on the bed and let myself completely unravel for a few brief minutes, but picking myself up, washing my face and heading back to the hospital.

Ah, memories!

I'd had a couple of "dark" days before I met Kathy for dinner. I'm certain part of it was anxiety about seeing her and just not knowing what to expect. Could I comfort her if she needed to express her feelings about Ken's death? Would be both be messes? Or would I just not know what to say to her? In trying to figure out why I was feeling so uncertain, I thought a lot about Ken's journey-oriented attitude--one I'm trying to adopt when possible--and considered that sometimes my feelings can be too complex to be "figured out". In those cases, it's been more "fake it 'til you make it."

When I arrived at the hotel and walked through the slowly turning automatic door, I could see her face, smiling from her perch on a table in the middle of the lobby. We hugged hard and long. She engenders such love, light and peace, I felt like I could have just melted away in her embrace. I haven't physically seen Kathy since April 28, 2006, when Ken and I had a small "going away" gathering at our apartment in the San Fernando Valley before we moved back to Chicago. She and Ken had kept in regular touch with each other, and he'd been able to see her on a trip or two back to LA since we moved. They'd had regular phone conversations up until shortly before his death.

Kathy is a unique combination that is sublime and so full of light and love mixed with bawdy and audacious humor. My time with her didn't lack anything. It's a strange thing to find yourself friends with people who were Ken's friends. They were mine too--by proxy, but I was never the main caretaker of those relationships. That's another facet of loss that I'm learning to deal with. So many people reached out and supported us during the past two years, and I'd like to be able to connect with each of them--whether in person, email or snail mail card--but it doesn't always occur to me to do so, and doesn't always seem possible. I guess it's just daunting. Or maybe I'm doing enough or as much as I can. Regardless, my visit with Kathy was as colorful as Kathy herself is.

In anticipating our visit, I felt more like I was going to visit with a friend of Ken's, but as I lost track of my multiple neuroses, I knew I was sitting and talking with a good friend of mine. I was happy she brought up Ken and we were able to talk about him, lovingly and harassingly. I told her (and she agreed) that he would be so happy to see us sitting together, talking, harassing and loving each other. It felt so right.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Season of Change

Autumn is afoot. There is no doubt. The rich golds, oranges and reds are beginning to top most of the trees--in spite of the 80-degree weather we've been having the past week. It's always been my favorite season dating back to childhood when my internal clock told me the new TV shows should returning like swallows to Capistrano and I could catch up with the happenings of my small screen friends. But fall in Chicago is always something special. Like the city is putting on one final show of it's regal colors before closing up shop for the inevitably long winter. Like most Chicagoans, I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. For now, I'll enjoy the weather and the colorful flora on my walks through the neighborhood.

IMG_1969-2011-10-8-11-06.jpg



Autumn is the one season that means "change" and signifies the end of something in a more meaningful way than the others. I know some of the members of my bereavement support group have expressed an extreme distaste for this time of year, though I'm sure part of that includes the impending holidays and the difficult firsts that await us. I can understand their feelings, but I still love this time of year--holidays notwithstanding.

Rather than "spring cleaning", it's this time of year when I feel the need to declutter and organize. I was doing some organizing and rearranging recently. I've been pretty careful not get rid of anything of Ken's--aside from a few donations of items with no sentimental attachment and gifts to particular people he knew. I'm in no rush to go through all his things and make difficult decisions, though some days it doesn't seem as overwhelming as others. When I decided it was time to get ride of a futon frame and mattress in the "guest nook" I was hit full force by something I wasn't expecting. The frame pre-dated Ken. I bought it in 1998 when I lived in an awesome studio apartment in Lakeview on Cornelia and LSD. Ken and I bought the sweet mattress (with springs!) after we moved LA and were living in my brother- and sister-in-law's guest house. It was a bed we shared for almost a year (until we moved to a bigger place and it became our couch). Our precious Chow-Chow Q napped on it with each of us, and countless loved ones and guests have nestled into it after long, lovely evenings of chatting and cocktails--both in LA and in Chicago.

Just the thought of getting rid of it stopped me in my tracks and emotionally punched me in the gut. I got so upset about it I started crying as I stood there staring at it. It was truly a pathetic scene--only in the sense that I'd brought it on unnecessarily all by myself. Once I got a grip and calmed myself down, I placed a moratorium on getting rid of anything that upsets me and makes me cry! Later that day I spent some time really thinking about it and trying to figure out what exactly about that futon caused me to flip my lid. And I figured it out after some deep soul searching (and a martini or two): my "old" life--the life I lived, loved and shared with Ken--is slipping away a little bit each day.

Yes, I have memories and keepsakes that will never leave my possession, but the basic premise of my life has shifted and like footprints on a beach, the tides of time will wash over them repeatedly until they're gone. It makes me profoundly sad. Grief and loss comprise so many things. Coming to terms with the fact that a future I'd expected and eagerly anticipated has evaporated is among one the most difficult aspects to deal with. It's like running toward a lush mirage that disappears once you're close enough to taste the live-giving water. It's a jungle of emotions that take a while to navigate through--sometimes hacking away with a machete, and sometimes painstakingly unknotting the chaotic feelings by hand, or sometimes knowing a change of direction is the best approach to keep going.

On the flip side, I do experience moments--and days--when I'm excited about the future as I pursue my writing aspirations and relish in the relationships I have with family and friends--and with myself. Though I don't know what my "new normal" looks like, I can say with some certainty that I'm not there yet. Time alone, spent clicking away on the keyboard or experimenting with a new recipe in my kitchen are the times when I feel most centered and comfortable.

Intellectualizing still has its benefits. I know what I have to do, why I have to do it, and that Ken would want nothing more than for me to move forward in pursuit of my passions and dreams--which now include some of his, as well. To me "moving on" sounds heartless, but "moving forward" is something we all have to do no matter what our situations are; it's what we all have to do--"just keep swimming," as Dory so aptly sang in "Finding Nemo." Just keep going. There is no alternative.

I hope in time I'll have a better understanding of how my life with Ken will fit into my "new" life--whatever that will look like. Uncertainty abounds in such a way that I'm learning to find it less and less frightening. What I do know for sure is as irrevocably as losing Ken has changed my life, loving him shaped it--even more.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Good Kind of First

IMG_1949-2011-10-2-09-54.jpg



Since I DVR everything I watch, it's rare that I catch a commercial--which is why I'm so out of touch on pretty much everything. But the other day I was distracted while watching the boob tube and forgot to fast forward through the commercials. There was an advertisement for the movie "50/50" with that kid--who is hardly a kid anymore--from "3rd Rock from the Sun" and Seth Rogan (who I have a comedic crush on). When I realized the movie's description was encapsulated as a "comedy about cancer" I knew that was going to be the first movie I'd ever seen alone. It seemed appropriate and even something a little stronger than that--though I'm not sure what word would describe it accurately. Ken found comedy during even the darkest parts of his journey. It's not that cancer itself is hilarious, but sometimes life that happens around it--in reaction to it--most definitely can be. I think having a sense of humor about anything gives you an elasticity that is necessary in times of great pain and turmoil. It keeps you from going rigid and shattering into countless jagged pieces.

The weather that day was odd. As I walked up Lincoln Avenue to the Davis Theater, there was a huge patch of cloudless open sky with the sun beating down on me, the kids practicing football and the group of old Eastern European men playing Bocce Ball in Welles Park. But on all sides of us tall, threatening clouds were stationed--waiting for the sun to take a powder, it seemed. It was a striking visual on a scope which unfortunately my iPhone couldn't properly capture. But it's another note that will forever help make this day memorable for me.

I was catching the last matinee and figured there would only be a handful of people able to get home from work so quickly in order to make a 5:30 pm show. I'd purchased my ticket online as added insurance that I would actually go. (I hate waiting in line or dealing with people if I proactively take care of it online.) To my surprise there were about thirty people in the theater to see the same movie. I think I was secretly hoping for fewer people "in case" I was blubbering, but I'd have to trust that the darkness of the theater would be enough camouflage to hide the identity of "the cryer."

Once I was sitting there waiting for the movie to start, I wondered "now why is it that I have never seen a movie by myself?" I actually couldn't figure it out because I was pretty excited--even about seeing the previews. Again, not watching commercials I don't even know what movies are coming out. But for a few long minutes before the movie started I could see enough to notice I was the only solo person there. And the couple behind me were clearly on a date and speaking to each other in low, hushed tones. Though my solo-movie phobia predates Ken, I was struck by what a shared experience movies had been for me, and that I didn't have anyone's hand to squeeze during a touching or scary part or to speak to in low, hushed tones--though I used to.

"Stay in this moment."

"Stay in this moment."

"Stay in this moment."

The movie was pretty much everything I expected and hoped it would be. Ken could have written it--and starred in it. For me it was filled with "familiar" moments. I laughed a lot. I cried a lot--sometimes during "insignificant" parts that I don't think many people would understand as touching or emotional. But by the end, the entire theater was filled with sobs and sniffles--as you might expect. At one point the woman in the row in front of me was crying so hard and for so long I felt a great relief in knowing I was clearly not the hottest mess in the theater. Thank you, lady. Thank you.

After the movie ended, I reached into my backpack to pull out tissue I was too hesitant to get during the movie because of the noise the Velcro closure would have made when I ripped it open. As the lights came up there was a symphony of nose blowing, throat clearing, and congested laughter.

This had been a shared experience, after all.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

As The Birthday Approaches

It's impossible to no think of Ken…period. But as his September 21 birthday approaches, he's on my mind more and more. It's not all sad, in fact, thinking about this weekend one year ago brings nothing but a smile to my face. I'd arranged for a couple of surprises. We were both working full days at home at the time because he was receiving daily radiation treatments. As 5 pm loomed closer, I became more and more excited. After work, we always headed out to the backyard for cocktails (for me) and mocktails (for him since we were under the impression he couldn't partake. I went out first with our drinks and sat them down on the table, but just around corner of the back of the house two Californians were eagerly awaiting to perpetrate the surprise. Ken was an expert at pulling surprises. They were alway magnificent and multi-layered. Pulling them off on him I'd learned over the years was almost impossible. But I think we had him.

I went back in to wheel him up the ramp. He was undoubtedly dealing with pain in spite of the narcotics. At this point he was just happy to be spending the evening with me. But as I moved him to the table and his head lifted to look at the yard, his gaze was drawn to the back corner of the yard where his brother Craig and sister-in-law Katie jumped out and yelled the proverbial "SURPRISE.' I wish I'd had the presence of mind to take a photo of his reaction. It was beyond shock, yet the corners of his mouth began lifting. We had done it! He couldn't believe they were here, and even more, he loved it that they were here, and probably even more excited that I'd collaborated with them to pull this one over on him. I remember how moved he felt, and how grateful. He hugged them both for a very long time. It's a moment I can relive on demand. It was so special and full of so many meanings. It's treasured.

IMG_1034-2011-09-18-22-26.jpg

We sat around outside and talked and laughed A LOT. I made chili and cornbread that we ate al fresco as we continued our fun fest. It was an amazing day. I don't think he could have been any happier if he tried.

Knowing Mr. Body in Motion, the question was posed as to what he wanted to do for his birthday. So the next day we set off for the Lincoln Park Zoo and its neighbor the Lincoln Park Conservatory (which has always been a preferred destination for him.)

IMG_1841-2011-09-18-22-26.JPG

We spent the entire afternoon there there, exploring and observing the animals before heading over to the Conservatory to check out the fauna. It was a perfect day for him. We all too great care of him. I remember feeling how nice and safe it felt to be out traveling with him with Craig and Katie serious back up. The four of us have a very strong, loving, and humorous bond.

The rest of their visit we just hung out and cooked and fed our faces and talked and laughed. Our time together is always easy and always filled with laughter.

The one last surprise I had to present to him was a book I'd been putting together for months called "the ken-do dictionary" as an homage to his body-in-motion attitude. I'd solicited words from friends and family that could be used to describe him. And no one disappointed.

Slide01-2011-09-18-22-26.jpg



Click the graphic to see the book.



Nostalgic by nature, I've been thinking a lot about that weekend on this anniversary. I'm so grateful that Craig and Katie were able to come. Ken (and I) had a wonderful time with them (as usual). It was a weekend I'll never forget and will probably think about a lot. I'm not sure how I'll feel on Wednesday, but I have taken the day off and am hoping to mimic some of the activities we did last year.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Different Kind of Date Night

IMG_1919-2011-09-12-21-20.jpg



Monday was one of those busy days at work, but every time I checked the clock on my computer, it read "6 hours until your appointment at Gilda's Club" or "2 hours" or "30 minutes." I had the made the appointment at my previous meeting on Saturday. I'd arrived early and was chatting with Sabrina, a lovely girl personing the front desk. I meant to ask her if she was a worker or a volunteer. Next time. Though I expected to sit down and kill some time on my iPad (probably over-detailing this very experience in my journal) but Rebecca, the Program Manager at Gilda's club did not surprise me when she immediately came to collect me and bring me to one of the upper floors to "interrogate" me.

We cozied up in a pretty chic little room and hunkered down for the questions she had to ask me as part of becoming a me member. I was disappointing there was no spanking machine involved. She told me these were questions that were designed by Gilda herself's therapist. She advised me they may seem vague, but I think we got through it without much trouble. Without a doubt they were difficult to answer. What is going well in your life? What isn't going well? Loaded questions as far as I am concerned. It was obvious the questions were designed to determine a certain state of mind--just so the facilitator knows what he/she is dealing with.

After finishing our questions and talking about all the services available to me--and there are many. Some weekly. Some monthy. I'd researched the groups on the website and already knew what I wanted to do: to attend the Wednesday evening Bereavement Group. Since they don't accept new members without the class being in a place to be able to do so, Rebecca thought--out of the blue--that Sept. 21 would be the first date I should attend my first group. Sound familiar to anyone? I literally gasped when I looked at my calendar on my iPad. It was a sign that I relaxed into. I'd be starting my bereavement group on what would have been Ken's 46th birthday. Sort of a fitting gift.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Gilda's Club

PastedGraphic1-2011-09-10-12-19.jpg


I attended my initial New Member Meeting at Gilda's Club on Saturday. And I was pretty nervous about it. I entered through the Iconic Red Door and was directed to a holding room where 5 women were waiting for the same meeting I was. The facilitator moved us into a larger room and we handed in the paperwork we were given to complete. We went around the room, giving our name what brought us to the Club. I felt a little guilty that I was the only in in attendance who wasn't currently living with cancer, but she reassured me that there were plenty of services that would apply to me. As I looked around at all of them, I just thought how brave they were to facing what they're facing and smart enough to come a safe haven like Gilda's to get support.

After we were told about all the services they offered their members (all of them cost members nothing), she took us on a tour of the four floor facility. It was quite lovely and they clearly put a lot of thought and experience into the design. The vibe there is very calm and very warm. After that we made our appointments for our one-on-one customized membership plan, to determine which services would serve us the best. Mine in Monday at 5:30. In the meeting I'll be placed into the appropriate group or groups I want to join and give a twelve week commitment to attend. I'm kind of excited about it. Looking forward to it--even.

The experience certainly put me in a good emotional place for the rest of the weekend--a big contract from last weekend. I think it feels good when you are actively taking steps to address grief.

Thanks, Ms. Randor!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Visiting Old Friends--the Good, the Sad and the Memories

Last week I decided to bake some cupcakes and take them to the staff at Creticos Cancer Center, where Ken received his treatments and we were constantly as dazzled by the tenderness and humor we found there as they were by Ken's positive attitude and undeterred sprit. I hadn't seen any of them since I was there with Ken and his folks for a social visit in April. I'd been there to see my therapist once since he died, but wasn't up for a round robin of visiting everyone. I'd planned on going before, but this time I was somehow more "ready".

The cupcakes I made from scratch were ones I'd taken there before. I remember the first time was a celebration for Ken's "initial" (and at the time "only") chemotherapy treatment. It had been hard on him, and I definitely wanted to celebrate the achievement with those who knew that best and who lovingly treated his body and his spirit. I brought them again once or twice more for fun. Ken and the staff alike loved them. And I always love making them. They're homemade Hostess cupcakes, and they're amazing--and always will be to me. Click the picture below for the recipe.

IMG_1675-2011-09-8-20-23.JPG

I saw most everyone I'd hoped to see, though a few people weren't there, and on our last social visit in April we'd learned his wonderful oncologist had accepted a position in the suburbs. As wonderful as it was to see all the faces I saw, I think anyone who knew Ken or had been with him on a visit knew his one great love at Creticos was Blanca, an angelic soul who works in the Infusion room, administering chemotherapy. She wasn't there when I first arrived, but after I made some more rounds she'd returned and I got to see her. It was truly wonderful. She always has a smile on her face, love in her voice and a positive attitude. I think in many ways she and Ken were kindred spirits. I was always happy to take a back seat to her and Ken's dynamic duo when we were there.

I was surprised how I wasn't nervous to see everyone, and that I didn't get emotional while there--although that did take some effort on a few occasions. It was great seeing everyone, but it was odd being there alone--not even being able to go home to tell Ken of my visit. Even odder. But it felt good, and like a step in the right direction. After spending some time visiting and delivering my home baked goodies, I headed home. As I walked to my car I felt a great sense of relief--and accomplishment.

But shortly afterward I began feeling a little "off". It was like my axis got bent, throwing off my very rotation. It was basic, but hard to pinpoint. It was some kind of emotional backlash. I should have expected it, but I didn't. It felt like my grief was rabbit hole and I was tumbling ass over feet. It pushed my missing him into hyperdrive and sent it into orbit. I pulled out some of his writings and looked at photos. "Stop torturing yourself, Ronald," I muttered out loud more than once. But even as I caught myself with a tentative grip from continuing my fall, I'd pry my own fingers off. My emotional compass was whacked. I felt lost.

In going through some things I found a percolator our friend Kathy had given to him for us to use when we went camping, I was slammed with the realization "I'll never go camping with him again." Something I suppose that should have been obvious. But it wasn't. In some ways, it was like losing him all over again. Losing him in general was one thing, but there were so many specifics I hadn't considered. I was missing him so much, the hurt and the anger were palpable. When I thought back to last summer--after everything he'd gone through, we were supposed to be able to go camping or traveling--with his new prosthetic.

I'm learning how precarious and layered grief can be.

I started reading some of his writings later that day. I guess I was looking for something he's written for me. Or just something that will connect me to him. He is here everywhere in our apartment--that he and Kathy picked out prior to our moving back here from LA.

The next day I was driving home from Target after spending a gift card on some fun kitchen implements but still thinking of Ken and missing. Then out of nowhere--with the windows of the up--the car was filled with the scent of wet Chow (our beloved dog Quantum was a Chow Chow and departed from us December 29, 2009--a few weeks before Ken's surgery). The car smelled EXACTLY like it did when we'd drive home with Q from spending the day at the beach where she would run and play in the foamy surf. It was odd and certainly unexpected, but felt intentional--directed, somehow. I can't explain it because it only lasted for a minute.

Our girl loved to play in the surf, always resulting car ride full of pungent "wet Chow". Below is a pic of Q from August of '04, romping on the beach in Malibu.

Picture006-2011-09-8-20-23.jpg

Though it took most of the Labor Day weekend to process and work out of my funk, the past week has been difficult. But I get that is okay as I worked toward my "new normal". After my wonderful experience at work last week with a co-worker who kindly and openly shared his experience in losing his partner, I realized I was ready for a new level of support. My therapist told me months ago to seek out a spousal bereavement group and I know I'm ready to do so. I'm planning on going to Gilda's Club on Saturday for a "New Member Meeting" which entails meeting with a counselor to personalize a plan to help me take advantage of the services they offer.

Another step in the right direction.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Generous and Welcome Gift

As I've written before since Ken died, "firsts" are difficult--both figuratively and literally. It was June 1st when Ken left us. Today marks the three month anniversary of losing a man who brought a texture, depth, dimension and a sense of play to my life that will forever be unmatched. My head knows those things didn't leave with him, but my heart has very different and stubborn opinions about that. I couldn't help but think of him today--and thinking about the day when I lost him. All the emotions and some of the pain surged back; however, today was also one of those days I was able to mitigate it and not let it take me over. Solemn, but not parlayzingly sad.

I think part of the reason I had the control I had is because of a wonderful experience I had yesterday. Something unexpected, but welcome happened. I went to a luncheon yesterday for my group at work. I had misgivings about going at first because I was afraid that--though well-intentioned--I would feel overwhelmed by well-wishers who knew of Ken's illness over the past year. But a I sat at my desk, he spoke to me in a way. "Why not?" echoed in my head, and I somehow felt empowered and decided to go. It was late enough in the timeframe when I arrived that it wasn't very crowded, but the few people I saw were so sweet and kind, talking with me and asking about how I was doing. It wasn't upsetting in the least. It was reassuring…and just lovely.

When I finally sat down to eat my lunch, a co-worker came over and asked very politely if he could sit down with me. "Of course," I said. I didn't know him well or work with him directly, but whenever I saw him we always exchanged pleasantries and smiles. He asked how I was doing and expressed his sympathies for me and my loss of Ken. He told me we'd both been in his prayers and that I continue to be. Then, the conversation took a turn I never would have expected. He shared with me that several years ago, he'd also lost his partner. It had been more sudden than my situation with Ken, but as we talked I'll never forget how I began to feel--in a "good" way. For the first time ever since losing Ken, I was talking with someone who knew EXACTLY how and what I was feeling. And it meant a great deal to me. It was a mixture of sanity and depth of understanding I'd never felt before.

I'm lucky to have the friends and family that I have to lean on and grieve with, but what I found stunning was that someone--with no emotional stake in me--would be so brave and so generous to share such a life-altering loss with me. It didn't necessarily surprise me, but because I didn't know him that well, I found it utterly kind and courageous. He spoke from a perspective that I have only seen glimmering mili-seconds of, but I found it comforting and reassuring nonetheless. I hadn't been having a bad day, but this experience turned my day into something exceptional! My mood for the rest of the day was light and positive and encouraged. In spite of the fact this is a blog, it's difficult to explain all the nuances in words.

In addition to all the people in my life--at home and at work--his act of selflessness in discussing something that I know I couldn't possibly talk about now with any level of comprehensibility, sort of…how do we say…"restored my faith in humanity." When someone who doesn't know you that well goes out of their way to share something so private and potentially painful in order to help you deal with your own personal hell, it swells one's spirt. It goes back to "connecting". Our loss connected us on a level that isn't something you ever aspire to, but it offers a comfort that is unparalleled.

I think what is remarkable--not coincidental--is that I was in a place where I could receive that kind of generosity and know what to do with it. I hope I am that kind of person someday. To be able to reflect on and discuss this heart-wrenching loss with kindness and compassion in order to help someone--whoever it is--deal with it or see it just a little differently. To help them heal. To give hope.

It's hope we all feed on and what we all need.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Belonging

It's not often I'm able to get together with four of my closest friends--at the same time. The last time all five us were together was at my birthday a couple of years ago, where Ken orchestrated two of them who came the furthest (St. Louis and Los Angeles) as surprises. Alan, Kathy, Retta, Tina and I comprised "the A-List"--what we named ourselves when we met while studying at Second City--and they have been constants in my life ever since. We share the "wrongest" pleasure in harassment of each other as much as we are fiercely protective of one another. Having grown up the outsider in many ways, and the one who found "apartness" so appealing, the A-List was the first group I ever felt like a belonged to. It was my tribe…finally and effortlessly.

I've been in contact with all of them in one way or another always, and in particular, since Ken's cancer returned last year. I was checked upon and double-checked upon; I have called, texted and emailed while I vented or cried or ranted. I can imagine there may have been communications among the four of them I'm not even aware of. So, it was with great relish that I looked forward to the four of them converging on my apartment this weekend for a long-anticipated and much-needed reunion. There have been few times in recent months where sorrow isn't something that I have to actively combat. The time spent with the A-list is one of them. I remember noticing that in between laughter and conversations and jabs; that I felt transported and "normal" and loved. During the time I spent with them I didn't feel empty or missing anything. I was whole--complete in every way I needed to be--and loving every single second of it.

There is a power and an energy that is purely magical when the five us are together. And though the anticipation sets the bar high, the actual time together always exceeds expectations--and boundaries. There are certain things that can be counted upon in such cases: ripping on each other mercilessly, mad laughter as a result thereof, and the same reminiscences about "the good ol' days". Old stories shimmer like new with long-forgotten nuances, uncovered and embellished.

I was excited to have company so I could get busy in the kitchen and try out some recipes I've had ear-marked for quite a while. Feeding these people I love so much, and hearing their voices and laughter fill my back yard all afternoon and evening--then my apartment as we moved indoors later in the evening--filled me with a sense of peace and security that was both familiar and foreign. Knowing I have these people in my life with their non-stop love and unfailing support of me is great source of strength.

In spite of the fun of the weekend, Ken was never far from my mind--as always. He loved the A-List--perhaps an acquired taste for spouses to manage--and he appreciated what I had with them; and what they gave me. When it came to having company, Ken was the master chef, getting creative and delighting in serving tasty morsels to our guests. I'm sure that's at least part of the reason why I did too. Doing things he loved makes me feel connected him. Honoring him in even the smallest of ways makes me happy. He loved our friends and he would have loved seeing all the goodies I made: Lemon Blueberry Buckle, Blue Cheese and Walnut Crackers, and Goat Cheese and Sun Dried Tomato Profiteroles.

I wish I could feel the way I did this weekend every day--especially in light of an impending Monday. It's impossible to come off such a high without wishing he were here to end the weekend with, talking about all the verbal debauchery, reliving it and laughing at it. Regardless, it was undeniable that Ken was here this weekend; inspiring me to get excited and creative in the kitchen (not to mention to sweep the patio--something he did without prompting every time we had company). He was also here in another very special way. Our friend Bruce competed in the Chicago Triathlon today in memory of his sister-in-law and Ken. It was a beautiful gesture that is so fitting of Ken.

He was definitely here this weekend--just not in the way I wish he were.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Writing and Rambling

blogphoto-2011-08-25-17-57.jpg

I have always loved the idea of sitting at a coffee shop and clicking away on the keys of my Mac to some stunningly witty piece I was working on, but in truth sitting alone has never held much fascination for me. Alone at home is one thing. Alone in public has always been quite another. Same with restaurants and movies. I've still yet to see a movie alone, but is still something I hope to accomplish.

The lure of writing outside the house is just that--to get away from the same old distractions and finding new ones seems attractive! But today I knew I needed to get away. It had been a difficult day. I had Ken on the brain and couldn't stop punishing myself with photos, words and memories. "Dosing" myself seemed a bit out of my control. What set it off was getting a call from Costco that the old video tapes I'd dropped off in July had been converted to DVD and were ready to be picked up. I barely remember hanging up the phone and driving there, I was so entranced by the idea of seeing and hearing Ken. One tape in particular detailed our move to Los Angeles in 2002. We packed up our lives, our Chow and each other and drove for nine adventure-seeking days in our Geo Metro. It was the boldest thing I'd ever done.

As I watched the DVD, no tears. Just a unshakable grin on my face, hearing and seeing him and my beautiful puppy Quantum. I'd forgotten the nitty gritty details, but what I could see was we were clearly in love and obviously excited about the future. I so clearly remembered how secure and safe being with Ken made me feel--from the get-go. He just had a way of handling change--and always did. He could take the edge off of any new situation for me and make it okay. It's still hard not to feel that sadness when I think about that particular benefit of loving--and being loved by--Ken. Everyone wants to feel safe and loved. And I did in spades.

In spite of almost talking myself into writing at the patio table, after work I grabbed my Mac and some supplies and headed over to a coffee shop nearby that we'd always talked about trying out. And it's from there as cars glided by from the stop sign on the corner that I wrote this blog. I saw some beautiful pooches parading by, teasing me with their "shiny hineys". I watched two friends part company on the corner as I gathered one was moving far away. They both kept it "light" but it was clear they were both quelling a lot of emotion. It was an interesting exchange to watch--objectively. And I was happy to play no part in it. She had chunky glasses and purple hair. He had a close-trimmed beard, and by the way he flamboyantly called her "guuuurl" was pretty much gay. I imagined he'd finally saved up enough money to transfer to a Kinko's in San Francisco--the "mother land." Clearly, I have tools for keeping it "light" too. Damn my distraction-seeking imagination.

I spent about an hour going through our book--which I compiled in hard copy the other night from things we'd both written--and edited some parts I'd written a while go. I also tried to work on how it will be organized. It's exciting but daunting, and getting out of the house to begin tackling it was the right decision. I unwittingly became one of "those" people who sit outdoors at coffee shops and talk too loudly on the phone to compete with the traffic whisking by when my friend Beth called me to check in on me.

After two hours I was chilled sitting in the shade, and decided to pack it in to head home. I felt accomplished that I'd finally gotten away. It did make a difference in my ability to focus, and I'll do it again. Unfortunately as I walked home I realized I no longer had possession of my wallet--which I'd had when I bought my cup of coffee earlier. So I did an about face and headed back to the coffee shop. I'd called on the way, and she'd found it--on the ground under the table I'd occupied.

Clearly, I have some packing glitches to work out before I make my next coffee shop appearance, but taking a page from Ken's book, shit happens, but it's how you handle it that determines its weight in your life.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Some Assembly Required

Last year after Ken had surgery and was recovering from 12 weeks of chemo, we were optimistic about the future. So much so, I decided to write a book, documenting everything he and I had gone through. As a chronic journaler who keeps a detailed calendar and diary, I had plenty to draw upon. I began pounding away at the keyboard in the evenings--sometimes in my office if he was sleeping--and sometimes sitting on the couch with him in the living room as we watched TV and talked. When I explained what I was doing, he said he wanted to write a book about it too. He'd already written a one-man show called "My Foot Left" that was well-received by audiences in Chicago and Los Angeles. I suggested we collaborate. It's something that we've always done well together. To get him started, I sent him what I'd written so we could figure out if I was going in the right direction or if we needed to make some tweaks.

As the summer wore on and August approached, bringing with it another diagnosis that ultimately had no curative measure, the book fell to the sidelines for both of us. I still journaled--a lot--but I thought I knew the ending to the book I was writing and went very much along the lines of "they lived happily ever after…" Endings in general were something I stopped thinking about it. We were both facing one that we didn't want to come.

In recent weeks I've looked over the draft I started because I was ready for it became important to me again. To tell our story…to tell Ken's extraordinary story. After meeting with Claire last week, and receiving so much encouragement from her to continue pursuing this, it has been in the forefront of my mind.

So, this evening, I pulled out the external hard drive that I'd recently pulled most of the documents from Ken's computer onto and sat on the couch going through them. Never really regarding himself as a writer, I was stunned by the prolific amounts of writings I found--many of which I'd never seen before. It stung a little bit at first, but mostly it was fascinating and made me so proud. That he'd knowingly or not, left so much of himself in these writings to help me tell our story. I could hear him read each and every word, and it made me smile.

I was overwhelmed trying to figure out how to organize all the potential pieces that would be included but I set up a system that will work for now. Once I have most of what was on his computer, I'll go back to structuring and seeing how it would best serve the story. Aside from that, I have old diaries of both of ours to go through which I'm kind of excited about in a very I-shouldn't-be-doing-this kind of way. But as a journal, I know there is gold in them there mines.

But my mood all evening was focused and happy as I worked to gather the pieces he'd written. It's exciting that I can still do this for him--for us, and share something that has to be shared. It's not so much I feel that I owe it to him, but that I owe it to myself in order to honor him and his extraordinary outlook and legacy. It will take a lot of time to put it together, but it's a project I'm really looking forward to tackling and doing it well.

Another way, I suppos, I can make sure he isn't forgotten--if that's even possible.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Connecting

I have to admit while I was walking up Lincoln Avenue to the Tiny Lounge last evening I had butterflies in my stomach and was filled with a medley of feelings that ran the gamut. I was excited to see Claire--like "date" kind of excited, perhaps not knowing what to fully expect or maybe expecting too much. But the grin on my face and the fast pace of my step reminded me to let everything else go and love the anticipation of seeing a good friend.

I first met Claire Bidwell Smith on March 31--the very heady week after Ken came home from the hospital for hospice care. Luckily for us at the time she the grief therapist with Advocate. She and Ken connected instantaneously on her first visit. It wasn't only because of their connection that I felt a connection with her as well. Watching, seeing, and feeling the energy in our house when she was here could inspire nothing less than the most sublime confidence--something I couldn't help but lack. At a time when I was frayed, exhausted and sometimes actively ignoring despair, Claire's visits offered a satisfaction and a security that--at the time--was rare for me. Ken loved spending time with her. And the three of us spoke more than once that had we met under different circumstances we would have become good friends. Yet the three of us knew, in spite of the circumstances--not because of them--we did became friends. Some connections are undeniable.

Claire visited with us weekly during Ken's home hospice days until she left her role as grief counselor to move to LA with her husband and daughter. I'll never forget the last time she was here--to say goodbye to me--and even more impossibly--to say goodbye to Ken. He understood she was leaving and was excited for her, but of course, he was having a difficult time with saying goodbye to someone he loved, knowing he wouldn't live to see her again. I'll never forget that day: May 26, 2011, a week before he died.

I always remember answering the door when Claire came over. My day was muddled with household tasks caring for Ken, and living only for the next moment, but always when I saw her, there were milliseconds that went in slow motion in my mind's eye where the tension in my shoulders eased and the comfort I felt in knowing how much Ken loved her and loved spending time with her assuaged my fatigue and gave me joy. If I left them alone in the front room, I inevitably heard exuberant laughter following shortly afterward. It was like the sound of brightness.

Not having seen her since that day in May made me wonder if I'd burst into tears and cry hysterically--or intermittently--when I met up with her. My "what if" had to wonder: would it be more painful than blissful? Did I see something that wasn't really there in my pre-grief? Would our only connection be loving and losing Ken? Not surprisingly, the answer is a complete, resounding and vehement "NO!" My affection for Claire is the real deal, and when I came upon her at the outdoor seating area where met I couldn't wait to get to her and squeeze her hard. And I did.

The next time I actually thought about my emotions about seeing her, I was sitting with a close friend, talking seriously, joking bawdily and smiling unabashedly. As my old "what if" habits watched me connecting with Claire as I would with any of my close-knit circle of friends, we both talked about how much we loved and admired Ken, and how there was no way he wasn't someone watching us together and loving it. Claire is a writer--an amazing writer. Aside from being an avid reader of her blog, a personal memoir about her journey with grief after losing both of her parents comes out on February 2, 2012. Her fearlessness and honestly in sharing parts of this journey has inspired me since she told us about on one her visits with us this past spring. There is a subtly in her wisdom that I value and greatly admire.

Over a glass of Chardonnay and appetizers, Claire recalled the last time she'd seen Ken on May 26, and shared a private moment with him. She knew it was the last time she'd see him, yet in her role as care giver and friend, she asked him if there was anything he wanted me to know when he was gone. She typed what he said verbatim on her iPhone and saved it in her email to wait for the right time to share with me. Last night was the night. She forwarded me the email as we talked. And as much as I was curious and almost desperate to connect with Ken via this message, I've only recently learned to "dose" my mourning in order to spend my time in the present--with my friend Claire.

After I hugged and kissed her twice, and told her how much I love her, I walked back down Lincoln like I was in a race. I couldn't stop thinking that when I got home, I was going to be able to connect with my husband with words he spoke to Claire on the day etched in my memory. It was exhilarating and terrifying. But for me emotional fear is hardly the terrorist it used to be. I purposely slowed my pace about half-way home and enjoyed the beautiful warm night air, the starry skies above, and the memories I'd made with Claire--with thoughts of many more to come.

Once home, I poured myself a glass of merlot and sat in the back yard, surrounded by memories and the garden he once so passionately tended.

Deep breaths.

Eyes welling.

Chin quivering.

And I read aloud these words Ken wanted me to hear, to give me comfort after he was gone:

I still am.

Together we still be. We're still here. We still exist together.

My heart surged and re-broke a thousand times as I repeated the words over and over, as if chanting them to conjure him physically or spiritually. My vision blurred until I couldn't read the email anymore, though by then I knew it by heart. My voice fell silent. I was dumbstruck by these words, Ken's beautiful intentions, and the loving messenger who had delivered them to me when I was ready to hear them. I surrendered to my emotions and utter blithering, and slumped in the chair, head tilted to the stars. I felt the weight, love and honor in his words to me. It was a solemn moment and ineffable moment.

Then the river of tears eased. These words embodied what I have never stopped believing. It was another affirmation that we had been of the same mind. It was a connection to Ken that I knew was always there, but hearing these words--spoken back on that day when he was so sad about so many things--I could love hearing them (or at least be able to hear them) as I continue to love and honor him and our life together. Understanding what we were together, and what we continue to be together is a cornerstone of the journey I've set out upon. No, it's not the same. It can't ever be. And it will be a long time before I'm okay with that. But this experience--just like loving him--was something extraordinary. And something not to be ignored.

Sometimes you can wake up on Tuesday morning and muddle through the day, all the while aching for something that's lost to you. And sometimes you can go to bed that very night, knowing things you never imagined you'd have the privilege to know.

Ken was always giving me little gifts, and that hasn't changed.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Going Home

IMG_1848-2011-08-14-15-07.jpgPadLo was up and ready for an adventure! So after securing him into the back seat, we set off for my small hometown in Indiana for a weekend visit.

There was a time when my dramatic storyline-driven teen self regarded my hometown as Alcatraz Island, my house as the actual prison, and my parents as tyrannical co-wardens. I was the wrongfully imprisoned character. But those days and feelings waned long ago. As I matured (and I use that term loosely), I grew to realize how lucky I was to be raised in that little rural town and even luckier by those two over-worked and under rewarded people. I never dreamed I'd so look forward to going there to visit. Driving into town is like running into the embrace of an old friend.

I’d been talking about getting out of Chicago for a while, and finally took the opportunity to plan a weekend getaway to my home town to spend some “down” time and relax with my family. There is something strong and protected about the house I grew up in. I knew I couldn’t completely escape pangs of sadness, but I was definitely in a place--physically and emotionally--where it couldn't get the best of me.

It was the first time ever, as I left Chicago that I didn’t feel a little morsel of regret. My connection to Chicago is immutable. It’s where I “became”, and leaving it usually incites even the tiniest bit of anxiety in the pit of my stomach. But not so on this trip. I was all smiles as I slugged back my home brewed coffee and belted out the vocal stylings of whomever was playing on my iTunes play list. PadLo joined in on the verses he knew.

When I arrived early on a beautiful August afternoon, I grabbed my overnight bag and PadLo then headed inside. I was a little surprised no one greeted me outside since I arrived pretty much right on schedule. I put my things down inside and still didn’t encounter anyone. I walked to the back of the house and saw my parents and one of my sisters sitting on the deck, talking. I felt such a sense of peace and comfort that I actually stopped and watched them for a few minutes. I loved seeing them gesturing and laughing with each other. It was one of the memories that I took the time to etch into my brain.

Dinner was ready by the time my other sister arrived. One of my favorite parts of the day was sidling up to the raised bar in the kitchen where we sat and ate like we did growing up. It was the first time in recent memory that it was just the “Original Five” of us, and it was a really special. Lots of harassment and laughter shared over the table were just as delicious as the steak and farm fresh corn on the cob.

Going back to Remington was meaningful in more than just seeing my family. There is a happiness that existed within me that pre-dated Ken--well, it predated most every other part of my life since I lived there since I was two. It was important for me--and it felt really good--to connect with it.

I’ve always been nostalgic, and taken great comfort in warm memories of the past. Over the past weeks I’ve tried to connect with happy times before I met Ken--not to ignore or deny him, but more to illustrate and remind my sometimes fragile psyche that my life is full of many different kinds of happiness, and in working through my grief, there will be more happiness to come.

After my sisters left, my mom drove me around to town to show me the sights that I don’t think I’d seen for more than twenty years. In the intervening time, I’d arrive at my folks and never get out to see anything else, so I was really eager to see what other parts of town looked like. We drove past the old town park with the same curly-Q slide I used to play on as a child; the new elementary school that was demolished and rebuilt as soon as I left it (coincidence?); and of course we drove down Ohio Street (the main drag) and passed the dime store of broken dreams (pictured, now an antique store, but with the same black and white marble running under the display windows).

DSCN0346-2011-08-14-15-07.JPG

On this visit I spent a lot of time floating aimlessly around the pool with my mom and sisters as Dad looked on from deck. My mom and I engage in friendly oneupmanship while my sisters act as sometimes-willing targets. Mom told the stories we’ve heard over the years of how she and my dad bought what used to be a Baptist Church and converted into a home that housed five people, two dogs and innumerable visitors and gatherings. More comforting and happy memories while making new ones.

I spent a lot of time not feeling sorrow--and it felt good. The dynamic of my immediate family is undeniably funny, good-natured and ever supportive. They all take my harassment and quick wit in stride. But when the five us are together, there is something that feels so comforting and loving about it. I felt protected and cared for. And I felt free to experience whatever emotions I had, though fun and laughter easily dominated.

Everyone should be so lucky to have such a wonderful family--and one that gave and continues to give me such unbelievable fodder for blogs!