Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Ojai, How Are Ya?

Like most small town kids, I had a 25" console television in my bedroom when I was growing up. I was a shy, introvert who spent hours alone, entertaining myself. But no matter what I was doing, the boob tube was on, beckoning me into one zany adventure after another. I made many friends in the land of make believe. At the top of my list are two people: Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers.

Jaime (yes, that's how she spelled it) was one of my closest childhood friends. Steve Austin and I were tight too, but Jaime embodied much more of a fun contrast for me. Cute. Sweet. Funny. And could kick some Fembot or Bigfoot ass when called upon to do so. She could also chop vegetables faster than a Cuisinart and when faced with no can opener, could use her bionic fingernail to get at those baked beans. She was the whole bionic package. She, Steve and I shared many bionic adventures together. As a lazy kid, it was fortunate that in order to play "bionic", I just had to move in slow motion. This kid wasn't going to break a sweat!

I was giddy to discover Season 2 of the "Bionic Woman" was available on DVD in May, and I snatched it up as soon as it went on sale. Ken was sleeping more then, so after the house was quiet and kitchen was clean, I sat in front of my computer and watched a couple of episodes. It was like an emotional orgasm of childhood, bringing back the wonderment and security of childhood. In spite of the wonderful distraction it provided, something told me to put them away; and that they would better serve me later. Soon after he died and I found myself alone and never in great need of a distraction of bionic proportions, I pulled out those DVDs. And they served me well.

My obsession with Jaime made for a couple of my very favorite outings when we lived in LA. Always up for a day trip, Ken asked me one weekend where we should go. I didn't really know how far away it was, but I suggested Ojai, where Jaime Sommers lived in rustic apartment above the horse barn of Steve Austin's mother and step-father. (GEEK ALERT: They had also become her legal guardians when she was a minor because her parents died.) After the couple-hour drive, we explored the quaint town and had lunch. We took a drive out of town into the Ojai Valley and passed some beautiful olive farms. We drove through some tunnels that had been blasted through the mountains, and stopped to admire this subtle and beautiful waterfall.


Further down the same road we happened across a state camp ground. I'd never been a camper before I met Ken, and he'd taught me to love it. So we made plans to return later in the month for a long weekend. Little did I suspect that he'd hatched a plan to bring Kathy, one of my Chicago besties as a surprise. It's one of my favorite memories. My bionic obsession was well-known to Kathy. She revealed to me late in our friendship that while on a trip to Universal Studios in the late 70s, that she had been chosen from a tour group to be "Jaime Sommers" in a tug of war with several large burly men. In true Hollywood fashion--sound effects and all--she yanked the rope and dropped all the would-be assailants to the ground like potato sacks. It was extra special to share an evening under the stars with her in my beloved Ojai. It's funny to think of all that as I watched those episodes and felt the comfort of those few nights by the camp fire with Kathy, Ken and Q. It gives me just as much comfort now.

However, was it completely coincidental that I fell in love with a handsome hottie with a bionic leg?

The bionic theme continued at Ken's soiree--which took me completely by surprise--and only enhanced the experience in a very special way for me. During the prep for the event, my friend Terry presented me with a gift bag. Along with pushy Kathy, they both insisted I open the gift in front of them. Opening gifts in front of people is an IBS-inspiring moment for me. As an improv teacher once told me, I'm just not that good of an actor, and contrary to popular opinion amongst the rapscallions I run with, I don't (always) enjoy seeing people cry in disappointment. But this surprise made my heart leap.

In true 70's "women's lib" fashion, it's the Bionic Woman's Bionic Beauty Salon. No, of course, it couldn't be Jaime Sommers Covert Ops Training Center! Who the hell would buy that? Oh, wait…me. Of course, I would have begged for it if it were The Bionic Day Care Center (bionic pooping babies sold separately). But I think the point is Jaime had choices--a pink house coat or her tennis whites…hmmm…life is full of difficult decisions, no? And of course, a photo of pseudo-boyfriend Steve Austin is displayed prominently to remind Jaime why she has to be beautiful. And finally, in spite of the geek-known fact that bionic skin doesn't tan, there is a huge nuclear-powered sun lamp center stage at the salon. From the brilliant, in-touch minds of Kenner!

Make no mistake, I love my Bionic Beauty Salon. Watching the show recently--like watching it when I was a kid--enveloped me in a world where people could do things that were surprising, if not superhuman. It was a message that resonated with me--and still does. I'm no former-tennis-pro-turned-undercover-8th-grade-bionic-teacher-who-saves-the-world-on-a-weekly-basis-and-looks-vintage-doing-it, but my life--like everyone's--has been faced us with situations and people that we found overwhelming, yet somehow found a (perhaps surprising) way to overcome it. Hence, we are a little bit bionic. Watching Jaime kick some bootie reminded me that she was in a sense (as I imaginarily inserted my character of her younger brother Brody into all story lines), and as i watched them a few weeks ago, she was doing the same thing: protecting me--this time, emotionally. Focusing my mind on something so magical and fun and fraught with good memories made me feel so good and it placed a short moratorium on sadness. It's a weird connection to the kind of naive strength and ambition a kid can have--before society beats it out of him.

Now I have a little bit of Ojai sitting in my living room--as well as a huge target on my forehead for mocking by aforementioned rapscallions. Mock away. I have to brush Jaime's hair. Steve just called and said he was running over--at 60 mph no less. Ugh.


Monday, July 25, 2011

Lessons Learned in Zero Gravity


Getting back into the work groove has been good--for the most part. But it has offered its own set of challenges. Some days are still easier than others. The other day I had a "hiccup" that caused me to pause and look through my work emails for ones Ken sent me. Not smart. Tons of emails and several e-cards--which all still worked. All of them mentioned how much he loved me and how he couldn't wait to see me that night. We'd convene in the back yard with a glass of wine or martini and talk about our days and our goals and plans--and, really, just celebrate each other. So there I sat at work, reading those emails, feeling how present they were. And on a hot, muggy Chicago day--like the kind we used to sit down in after a hard day's work--there I was at work, knowing there was none of that to go home to. Another stabbing reminder.

It's what I've come to learn as a zero gravity moment: a moment of temporary disorientation where time seems to stand still and my stomach starts to make its why up into my throat. It's the harbinger of nothing good. For me the rest of the day was difficult because of that fateful decision to read those emails and the places they took me. I could feel my demeanor changing and I felt powerless to do anything about it--which made it even more frustrating. Thanks to a phone call later that night I was able to work through it and "shake it off."

The one good outcome of one bad day, is that all the rest that follow are great simply by comparison. There are choices I'm faced with everywhere I look; forks in the road, as it were. One path is the emotional "cutting" way, and is surely the fastest way to a bad day. It's a path I've taken out of habit and grief. Not taking that road in the past has felt like I was trying to ignore his memory. But as I've learned this past week that isn't the case, and it's okay--necessary, even--to take the other road. And that's how it needs to be for a while. It will be like learning a new, good habit. The path that should be taken doesn't focus on any negativity or sadness. It's a path of action--or at least distraction.

During the bad day at work, I had a huge burst of anger. It caught me off guard as well. I think it had something to do with dealing with "firsts" and this was the first time this particular situation was happening to me at work. I was able to sort of work through it; minimize it as I sat there stunned like a crash test dummie. Moments like that feel like gravity releases me and I begin to drift upward and then back--like riding a ferris wheel that's going super fast. It takes a lot of kicking and jockeying to get your feet back on the ground and to keep moving forward.

On the brighter side, the rest of the week and the weekend only involved taking the "correct' fork in the road. I'm pretty confident learning to navigate these roads is something that will get easier. But in the meantime, if anyone has a map for sale...

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Ken's "Leg"acy


This time last year Ken and I were spending a lot of time with his amazing prosthetist David and his team at Scheck & Siress at UIC. David created built the most mind-blowing prosthetic leg for Ken and after multiple fittings Ken was rocking it like--well, like only Ken could. (Click here for video. Both "high fives" are with David.) Two people who worked on David's team had leg prosthetics themselves which helped create a secure and supportive environment. Going there for fittings was more like visiting with friends than anything else.

I'd meant to donate the prothetic leg to David earlier, but I hadn't been ready to face actually doing it yet. Regardless of the good it would do others, it was still a piece of Ken for me--a really important one. Some of the best memories I'd had with Ken in the past year and half--and certainly some of his proudest moments--involved him using that leg. I'd emailed David previously to let him know I wanted to donate the leg, and followed up with him earlier this week to see if he'd be around on Friday for me to drop it of--as well as see if he could use Ken's wheelchair and some other medical equipment.

Aside from the amazing work David does for Scheck & Siress, he also volunteers his time for an organization called the Range of Motion Project (ROMP) which goes to third world countries or disaster areas to fit people with prosthetic limbs. It was this organization to which I was donating the leg. Ken was riveted as David talked about he and his team going to Haiti after the earthquake, and upon our last visit David was preparing to go to Guatemala. If Ken were still here, I'm positive he'd be accompanying David and team to Central America for their next visit (volunteers are welcome).

I hadn't seen David since Ken's and my last visit there in September of last year for another fitting and more practice--though by then Ken had taken the leg home and was using when he could. David had let me know he wasn't able to attend Ken's soiree because of his patient load, so I was looking forward to seeing him, yet with most "firsts" since losing Ken there is a bittersweet edge to be dealt with. Some of my happiest memories were in those basement offices, and going there alone to see people who he'd had such an affinity for (and vice versa) was daunting.

I knew he'd be busy with patients, but after I dropped everything off, David made time to come out and speak with me. After we hugged, we talked for a few minutes; about the soiree; about how I was doing; about how he was doing. He looked the same as the last--and every time--I saw him. His face and body language engender trust and kindness. He thanked me for the donations and went on to tell me a few things that I found--and still find--utterly amazing.

He has a new patient via ROMP who he will be donating his time to. This young man (20 years old) from Poland recently had a left hemipelvectomy (same as Ken--which is a very rare surgery), and with no insurance will benefit from the use of Ken's leg. Those of you who know me (and my last name) know that I'm Polish, but Ken was actually more Polish than I am. Not sure if that means anything, but I, no longer a believer in coincidences, found it interesting. David went on to say this young man is of similar stature to Ken, so adapting the leg for his use should be of little concern. Even more, he generously offered to send me photos of the fittings as they progress so I can see Ken's leg as it morphs into this young man's leg. I am thrilled beyond words to share in this experience. Without infringing upon the recipient's privacy, I'll do my best to share photos from time to time. So many things feel right. It's obviously meant to be.

It wasn't until later that evening where I had to take another step I hadn't expected. A prosthetic leg was a part of Ken--whichever one it was--since I'd know him. There was always one in the house whether he was using it or not. And now it was gone. So many hopes were pinned on that leg. For a while, it was what made what he'd gone through "okay" in many ways. Just that there was a prosthetic for him after such drastic surgery was astounding--let alone how quickly he adapted to using it. The day's events made for quite a difficult evening for me. But as a friend pointed out it was another step--another journey--which in the end helps me to continue to process my loss and to grieve.

Aside from my moments of sorrow, knowing how thrilled Ken would be to know his leg was going to someone who could make good, long use of it offers me great comfort. David felt similarly in saying he felt the timing was uncanny, and it was Ken saying "here you go, kid", and I don't disagree.

I so look forward to the journey via photos of this young man is embarking upon--with a charmed piece of Ken to help him find his way.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

For Your Weeding Enjoyment...

I received a cheeky text from my friend Samara earlier this week that began "Ronny, Ronny, how does your garden grow..." to check in with me. But it presented a big, daunting question: how does my garden grow? After enjoying many hours with friends and family in recent weeks, sitting in the backyard, the answer was "it grows out of control with weeds." Even the herbs, planted in pots looked a little singed after so many hot days and ne'ery a thought of watering them until I had a "holy sh*t!" moment. I couldn't help but think of Ken and how lovingly tended to the garden when I was watering. And while working to figure out my new "normal", my mind spun repeatedly, thinking about the garden.

So, this morning, I decided to take action. I armed myself with a do-rag (a la Ken) and these tools...

I began a three-hour weeding frenzy the likes of which my lower back and knees had never known. It was satisfying and cathartic. Yanking out deeply rooted interlopers proved to be a great release--almost enjoyable. I knew Ken would be proud--and most like dumbfounded--by my single-minded drive to eradicate anything that didn't belong there. I'm certain my amateurish eye to all things green pulled out beauties that belonged, but I'm even more certain that anything that didn't belong was abruptly dislodged and tossed, limp and lifeless, onto the hot sidewalk until I bagged up all the refuse and put it by the garbage.

In my mind's eye this garden is Ken's--as it always has been. He planned, tended and cultivated it year after year. But there came a point during my work today, eyes stinging from the sweat streaming into them, that I began to consider thinking of this garden as my own. It's a thought that hadn't ever really occurred to me before. But perhaps like my recent affinity with cooking (another Ken specialty) that I might take an interest in gardening. Nothing ambitious to start with. But I have a lot of blank soil to fill in, and even I find it a little hard to believe that I'm kind of excited about going to Home Depot to see what might catch my fancy.

This project was enjoyable in a few ways. Most obviously, it's good to be busy and productive no matter where you are in your life. Secondly, it's a meaningful way to connect with Ken, honor him and the home we made. And last but not least, growing pretty things is just cool--as is growing herbs that I love to cook with. Did I love the hellish alien creatures that were dislodged from their dark and cool hiding places? No. Do I think they are going to collaborate and stage an invasion of my bedroom while I sleep in order to kill me? Most likely. Did I entertain elaborate snake scenarios? Definitely. Will I look at purchasing venom-proof gardening gloves? Hellz yes!

It will take some time to get into the mindset and rhythm of caring for my garden, but I'll take today as a superb victory. As I sit here in the backyard typing this blog, I feel a sense of satisfaction that I'm certain Ken felt often, but for me it's new. I feel like I earned the right to sit back here and look around in the twilight at my plants. I feel proud.

Here is the proof that all you haters have all been waiting for.







Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Once Upon a Time...

When you're truly happy in your life, and loving it, that's when things get even better--at least in my experience. I'd spent my twenties dating unsuccessfully and lamenting the fact I didn't have a boyfriend. It became my "schtick." Most all of my friends were coupled, and making fun of my singleness became my way of coping with it. When I turned thirty I opened myself up to meeting someone online--the advent of computer dating. What followed were a string of disastrous--albeit, funny dating experiences. (Blogs to follow!) About a year later, something changed in me. I looked around my life and realized how lucky I was. My choosy nature had surrounded me with a close knit group of friends. I had a job I excelled in, and I'd completed a long-standing dream of attending Second City's two-year improv training program and conservatory. My life was full and happy, and my dreams were mine for the taking.

On this cold night in March I treated myself to a night out to a little neighborhood bar near my apartment. The bartenders were friendly and the crowd was usually chock full of smiling regulars. It was unlike the bars on Halsted in that it was tiny and tucked away in quiet Ravenswood. I remember it was unusually crowded that night and I was lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time in order to get a seat at the bar. One of the bartenders hooked up me with a cocktail (probably a cosmopolitan), and as I sipped it I surveyed the people around the bar, not really looking for anything in particular. Just being. My eyes caught sight of a handsome man sitting further down where the bar turned. He looked familiar. And did I say handsome? Woof!

Then it clicked. It was Ken. This night wasn't my actual first meeting with him. I'd first meet him a couple of months earlier (January 12 to be exact). I happened upon him that night as he sat alone against tiny bar that lined the wall, drinking a beer and scribbling on a piece of paper. Imbued with the confidence only a vodka-tonic can instill, I sat down next to him and asked what he was writing. I slid the paper away from him and toward myself and boldly read it--or rather pretended to read it. (Hey, I was just looking for an "in", people.) We enjoyed some playful banter which somehow led the conversation to theater. He was an improviser himself. I remember being so excited to have someone to talk with about improv. I never performed professionally, as he did, but the thoughts, comments and experiences we had were common. However fun that night was, it somehow went off the rails for us through a series of misunderstandings. We parted that night abruptly, and though I was sad that it hadn't worked out more to my satisfaction, I relied on my new outlook to get me through. It apparently wasn't meant to be.

Or was it?

Now, back to March 23. When I saw Ken I immediately thought he'd have no interest in me--or might not even want to catch sight of me. Yet I couldn't help but gaze over at him from time to time. He was playing darts with some other guys and seemed to be having a good time, undaunted by my sneaking glances. A little while later, I passed him as I headed to the facilities. He stopped me, said "hello" and re-introduced himself to me. "I remember you," I said, nervously then excused myself to finish my mission. It was an awkward exchange, but I realized "hey, he's not angry with me." That thrilled me. I noticed a while later as he played darts, he was dealing with a very drunk admirer who he clearly had no interest in. When he walked past me again he said as much. This was it! An opportunity to use my improv skills--something we had in common. I told him I'd help him out, and just waited for him to give me "the signal" (a la Carol Burnett tugging on her ear lobe.)

I fortified myself with another cocktail and soon glanced over to see him giving me the sign. I swilled what was left in my glass and boldly marched over to Ken and the perpetrator. Voice low and fuming, I posed as the loyal--and deceived--boyfriend. My tirade sent the ne'er do well transgressor onward to his next victim as he lilted away quietly (like any plant under my care) during our "lovers' quarrel." I grabbed his hand, proclaiming "we need to talk!" and pulled him around the corner out of sight of everyone. "Was I butch enough?" I asked, covering my mouth in the most (intentionally, right?) feminine fashion I could muster. Ken didn't just approve, but lauded my performance with gratitude, his trillion dollar smile, and a drink. We spent the rest of that night talking, laughing and sharing our thoughts, dreams and non-stop laughter.

Seven years later at my 40th birthday party, Ken surprised me with many things. One of the main surprises was asking guests beforehand to write a scene about how each of them met me--then act it out. He wrote a scene the described what I described above. It was a wonderful celebration of our meeting. I actually have that scene--all of them, in fact--on DVD: another gift he gave me. I watched the DVD of the party on my birthday last month. I wondered it if it was the right thing to do, but it so was. I was all smiles--just like I was that very night and at my party. Watching him and my friends re-enact that meeting is an inexhaustible source of joy for me.

As for the "real" meeting, my life was forever changed after that night. Ken and I were together from that point forward. All of the natural fears in getting into a serious relationship assuaged naturally over time, and we just melted into a single unit: the kenron scandal. Yes, we still had our individual identities, but together we were bigger than the sum of our parts. Thinking of that night and this blog as I type it leaves an undeniable smirk on my face. The magic of that night lingers around me.

Thank you for suggesting I write about it, Claire.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Floating, Sinking and Bobbing


Today didn't suck en total. It was my first day back to work with the soiree just a jumble of warm and loving memories. That part feels good, right and fitting. But getting back into what used to be my old schedule feels...meaningless. Ken provided meaning, support and context in my life. I had a moment at work today where I thought to text him to check on him--as we always did. That a slow burn, realizing he wasn't there t receive them. Investing in someone so completely is one of the keys to a successful relationship. But what am I supposed to do now? Half of me has been forcibly ripped away. No more yin to my yang.

I guess what I've struggled with today is something I'll struggle with for a long time. What is my purpose now? Loving him and sharing a life was purposeful--supremely so, but then becoming his full-time 24/7 caregiver was a purpose I never anticipated, and one that wasn't easy on any level, but it was such an important purpose. It was the most important purpose I'd ever embarked upon. Making him comfortable. Engaging him in coversations. Cooking for him. Soothing him. And loving him.

I feel the empty in my life growing. Along with it the paralyzing feeling I mentioned in my last blog. I don't have any momentum to propel me forward. Inertia is my enemy, and I'm not sure I'm equipped to combat it. I've walked around the apartment in a daze, asking aloud "where are you?" How can a person filled with life and vivacity just suddenly not be there anymore? Obviously, I know it can happen, but it can be a real bitch to reconcile. Where did all the love we had for each other go? Is it like energy, which can't be lessened in quantity. If that's so, where is it? Is it around me, and I'm just too mired in grief and confusion to see it? Even as I write this, I know the love is still there. I have felt it--even from within the memories I cradle gently in my head. But it's not coming from where it used to come from.

Ken and I had grown into a one-stop-shop communication hub. We talked about everything good, bad and ugly. Along the way he became my very best friend and champion. Everyone should have a champion. Now I have none. It's not inconceivable that I will once again become my own champion and probably fulfill some of the needs I have that I got from Ken, but that hardly seems as interesting as sharing those experiences with another person outside yourself who knows you better than you know yourself.

Today ran the gammut. I floated. I sunk. I bobbed. Like a flotation device swirling freely in the current. I don't have any answers, and I suppose I don't need to. I'm told they'll come to me in time. I wish they could come from him. And I wish he could brush his hand on my cheek. And I wish I could hear his laugh and see that trillion dollar smile person-to-person. I don't believe ghosts but in this case, I'm perfectly willing to be haunted (in case anyone non-corporeal is reading this.)

But aside from my ridiculous fantasies of seeing him--truly him--again, the substitute will entail a lot of work for me. Looking inside and digging out the meaning and purpose of my life--a life I never asked for or wanted; not this way. They say time heals all wounds. And from my limited experience I know it to be true. But if anyone has a time machine I could borrow, let me know. I could use to travel forward two years or five years and have this aftermath well behind me.

Or, more likely, I'd travel back to March 23, 2001 to meet Ken all over again.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Finding a New "Normal"

Today felt like the beginning...of something. With Ken's Memorial Soiree a jumble of fond memories and feelings, today the remnants of my out-of-state family left to return to their lives in California. There was nothing standing between me and my future. It was a good day overall. Cleaning, laundry and prepping for heading back to work per a traditional work schedule tomorrow. But it was also a bit...paralyzing. I've learned to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. If it weren't for losing Ken, today would have been the day things went back to normal. But, now, what is normal? My new normal.

I know I'll figure it out as I go, but as a planner, it's a bit unnerving to have to erase a planned future and begin re-imagining it from the ground up. It wasn't that I didn't have my own goals when Ken was alive, but he played an integral part in all of them--particularly in being the foundation on which I could achieve them.

Today is Independence Day. What an ironic holiday. In many ways it's just the third one I've had to endure...along with my birthday and the second anniversary of our getting married in Iowa. This one might just be the most difficult. It was this weekend last year, that Ken had healed in nothing less than a miraculous fashion from his hemipelvectomy surgery in January and had come through a "preventative" and devastating round of chemo a few months later with flying colors, a positive attidude, and some dear friends at the Creticos Cancer Center--our home away from home during treatments. Tonight as I hear the neighborhood fireworks crackling, and flaring in the sky, I'm reminded of a night like where he and I grilled outside and enjoyed many martinis while talking, planning, laughing and loving each other. We'd been through a war, and by all accounts at the time, we'd won. Now THAT was an Independece Day if ever there was one (okay, aside from the original one).

I remember he wheeled around the neighbor like Speedy Gonzales as we moved to get better vantage points of the night's temporary stars that abounded. The feelings and memories of that night are emblazoned in my mind. It was truly one of the best days we'd had post-surgery. He was in charge of the grill, and I was in charge the martini shaker. Like then, lightening bugs sublimely lit up all around us. And we marveled at them--as he always had. I mean, c'mon, a bug whose but lights up? High couldn't have been easy for any of them.

After dinner, we went for another wheel around the neighborhood. Ken was feeling strong and powerful--and he certainly looked the part--so he propelled himself forward like a hummingbird darting from flower to flower along the craggy sidewalks. I highly discouraged "drunk" driving, but he insisted he would be fine. The state of the art wheelchair came with more fails safe's than Fort Knox. So off we went on a gorgeous July night around the neighborhood. And it was on this trip, we had quite an adventure. Part scary and part hilarious.

Click this link to veiw.

In typical Ken fashion, he dusted himself off, get back in the chair and we continued on for another 40 minutes. He gently reminded me to please make sure the anti-tippers I removed were put back on his chair. He was remarkable in that respect--and in so many others. "Why not?" he said, to which I had no argument. The next day in spite of the tire burns on his arms, he wanted to go to Halsted Street and go to a couple of bars. And we did so. I video taped a lot of that journey, and I watch them with such great pride--for both of us. The video is a testament to how Ken's mind worked. His tolerance for pain was higher than most, and all he wanted to do was take a walk around the neighborhood with his husband to checkout fireworks you can only see in Chicago. Doing any of that with me was possible for him--but meaningless.

He's still teaching my lessons, and I'll be a start student. He left me with much more than he took. And that's just something I need to keep reminding myself about. You can feel free to remind me as well.

Before I sign off, I wanted to recommend a new blog for your reading pleasure, started by a good friend of mine. Check it out and make some comments. I have no doubt she'll give us a lot to think about:

Make tomorrow an amazing day.