Friday, August 26, 2011


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


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


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).


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!

Monday, August 1, 2011

My $2k T-Shirt

In an effort to gain more exposure as I writer, I joined a couple of blogger/writer-driven sites: technorati and blogcritics. Yesterday, I submitted a blog to blogcritics and I just received notification it was published today. It's not my strongest effort. In fact, I fully expected to get some feedback on edits that needed to be made. I'm really excited to see an article and my byline on a site that I'm not paying the fees for! Check it out!

Article first published as My Two Thousand Dollar T-Shirt on Blogcritics.


Every so often I stumble across a neatly folded red t-shirt tucked way back in my closet when I'm organizing or looking for something. I'm always compelled to unfurl it, unfailingly get lost in memories. It's my two-thousand-dollar t-shirt. I've never worn it. I'm not even sure I've ever washed it, but I have considered having it framed because of the price.

In spite of the sage words of my grandma, I never liked to stand out, preferring a safe place huddled in the masses. It wasn't that I didn't know how to sparkle--intentionally or not--but that there was no expectation of it. I had developed a quick wit over time and by my mid-twenties knew when and--when not--to use it.

I began hearing "you should do stand up comedy" around that time. Though I didn't have anything against the idea, I had no concept of how to begin. Besides that, it looked terrifying. Alone. On stage. Dying. Being heckled. Scary stuff that I wasn't ready for.

But I had the benefit of living in the home of The Second City. And as I heard the "stand up" comment more and more, I began to understand that it was a misunderstood by many people to mean improv comedy. A couple of years later my bestie and I began to consider seriously signing up to take classes at the venerable improv comedy institution.

Once we decided it was time to pony up the two-hundred dollar fee, we reported to 1616 N. Wells on March 15, 1997 (and still it feels like only a couple of years ago). My nerves were atwitter and my IBS was went beyond teasing me to blatant torture. It was a sensation that never let up as class approached each week. It was terrifying--only in the way something that exciting can be.

It was during the two years of weekly three-hour classes that I learned--or perhaps--remembered to be fearless. Unlearning how to think on stage and rather than act, react; figuring out "the game" of the scene each time. I learned how to trust my stage partners and to heighten the scene in accordance with the rules set forth by the progenitors of the very stage on which I was standing. I had three different weekly sessions which took place on the hallowed Main Stage, where the likes of Belushi, Nichols and May, Carrell and Fey performed.

Attending classes at Second City was without a doubt one of the most special and defining experiences of my life. It was the scariest and smartest decision I'd ever made. It ever-so-slightly changed the direction of my life, and my perspective as well. What I experienced each week in class found its way into every aspect of my life. The teamwork I learned caused my performance at work to increase exponentially. I began to look at "problems" as "challenges", where the key lay with finding the game. Improv became a metaphor for life.

The satisfaction and intensity of being fearless on a weekly basis propelled my life forward at an accelerated rate. But I have to say, it wasn't the most valuable gift by any means. Aside from "graduating" Second City with a sense of accomplishment, I left with four of the closest friends I've ever had. As I look back on my tenure there, the rules I learned on stage give way to the long-lasting and harassing friendships that were formed while learning them. At the time in your life where most people aren't in the position to make new friends, I made some incredible ones. Another reward of fearlessness.