Sunday, November 27, 2011

Things I Know After the First Big Holiday

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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

(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


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.