Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Birthday Milestone


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 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.

(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.


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


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.