Monday, April 25, 2022

The Privilege of Growing Old

 I'm amazed these days at how readily one memory can spark another with so many criss-crossing connections over the years.

Reading the newspaper list "Daily Birthday" of celebrities, both major and minor, the other day, I noted that Johnny Tillotson turned 84. Even back in the day, Tillotson was a "B-List" teen idol eclipsed by Elvis, the Beatles, etc. But to some die-hard fans, he was the true king.

My friend Marie Traina, who was the president for life of his national fan club, was his greatest die-hard fan. She described herself as a "perpetual teeny bopper" and, indeed, maintained a youthful, enthusiastic attitude all her life -- whether she was singing Johnny's praises or cheering on Northwestern's basketball team or simply being a caring friend.

But there was a tragic twist to her story: Marie never had the privilege of growing old. She was murdered when she was one month shy of her 29th birthday.

Many other dear friends have passed away since, but Marie was cheated out of many more years of life than the rest of us. I've never stopped being sad for her and have never stopped missing her.

Celebrating my 77th birthday today, I feel incredibly blessed with years, life experience and the people who have brought so much joy to my life.

Beyond the predictable aches and pains and medical issues our advanced years can bring, there is so much to celebrate. 

Like what?

Being increasingly comfortable in our own skin. This is a time when we finally make peace with the imperfections of our bodies. When we were young and our bodies closest to perfection, we were, too often, relentlessly critical of ourselves. We thought we were fat when we weren't. We agonized over noses too large or teeth too crooked or hair that refused to conform to a bubble-do.

Too often, we had help from society in our scathing self-assessments. Briefly in my twenties, I pursued an acting career. At 118 pounds and 5'4", I was considered overweight by agents, casting directors and acting coaches. I was even cast in a comic role as the "Fat Dancer" in a musical revival. I hated my body and I wasn't alone. Not long ago, some neighbors and I were comparing photos taken in our twenties. We marveled at how beautiful we all were. But we didn't feel beautiful then. And what a shame we couldn't enjoy our singular beauty -- at any weight or shape or size.

It's easier now to relax and accept what is. There are many days when I actually do feel beautiful. There are many days when I can laugh about wrinkles and bat wings and other unmistakable signs of aging. I worry about and watch my weight only for health reasons. 

And I've come to realize that one's worth is intrinsic and has more to do with character than appearance. Didn't we always know that? But we didn't necessarily feel that level of self-acceptance back in the day. We're more likely to be blessed with that acceptance of ourselves as we mature into older age.

Being thankful for the health we do have. Very few of us have not had our health challenges as we've aged. I grew up from a sickly childhood overshadowed by bulbar polio and disseminated histoplasmosis that left me with severely scarred lungs. But in adulthood, I was blessed with robust good health and strength. I danced for many years. I got into running in my thirties. I've enjoyed gym workouts for decades. But there have been hints of new limitations in the past 20 years. I survived thoracic surgery to remove an esophageal growth and the upper lobe of my right lung in 2003. I survived a heart attack later that same year. And in 2020, a temporarily disabling accident kept me immobilized and in a wheelchair for nearly a year.

How wonderful it feels to have a reprieve: to be mobile again and able to walk, bike, swim and get back to the gym; to wake up feeling healthy and hopeful. I know what it is to lose one's mobility and to nearly lose one's life. I no longer take the ability to walk for granted. I welcome every day that dawns, knowing that everything could change in an instant.

Gaining perspective on what truly matters. With age and experience, we learn to filter out what doesn't really matter and to focus on what does. I used to obsess about professional success and getting ahead, building a platform, selling books. To be honest, I still care more about my continuing career than most of my peers, but I'm not obsessive to the exclusion of everything else.

I was talking today with my friend Chuck, a recently retired physician whom I have known for nearly 50 years. Our lives have been intertwined on several levels over the years -- an ill-fated romance when we were young, a successful professional partnership on four books, one of them a best-seller some years back, and an enduring friendship. I told him how I regretted often putting deadlines and other work priorities ahead of people who mattered to me. He sighed and said "I know...I did too..with too many. When it was the people who really mattered most." And we promised that we would focus more going forward on the loved ones in our lives. Some friends are way ahead on this one: I've happily watched some driven professionals of my youth becoming doting grandparents, insisting that these are the best years ever. 

Treasuring the loved ones of our youth and welcoming new people into our lives.  There is something quite wonderful about having family and friends one has known for years or a lifetime. There is only one adult from my childhood still living: Sister Rita McCormack, a nun who was my brother's first grade teacher and my special friend since I was 8 and she was 23. She turned 92 this past February and, despite some physical frailty, she is the same vibrant spirit who inspired and encouraged me as a child. We have morphed from being teacher and student to being dear friends. She knows how far I've come since then. I know what she has endured and how she has triumphed. 

The same is true of many lifelong friends -- some from grade school, high school and college and many from my first job at 'TEEN Magazine -- with whom I shared youth and a full list of "firsts", the highs and the lows, the life experiences and so much growth over time. 

Being in a marriage of 45 years is a particular pleasure. Bob and I see each other both as the lively 30 year olds we were when we met and as the gentler and wiser people we've become -- a kind of emotional collage that is both comforting and fun. 

Siblings can be immensely comforting, too, the age differences and even the spats of the past blurred by the joy of continuing to be there for each other. 

And it's a joy to welcome new people of all ages into our lives: not only the nieces and nephew who bring such love, hope and vitality but also our younger friends who are fun and supportive and patient and some new older friends who are a source of inspiration in aging.

Living fully in the present. Now that we know, with new clarity, that we have many more years behind us than we have years ahead, we have an opportunity to savor life anew. Whether it's the wind on my face as I ride my bike, the scent of jasmine growing outside my office, sudden affection from an often-aloof cat, the taste of a crisp salad or a juicy peach, the sound of a familiar song bringing happy or even bitter sweet memories, birdsong at twilight, a hug from a child, another chance to be kind... In short, everything that each new day has to offer, is an incredible blessing and a reminder that old age is, indeed, a privilege denied to many and that each day can be a celebration.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Magical Black Cats -- in Life and Memory

 I've always had a soft spot for black cats. When I was a child, we got our first cat -- a black Angora kitten we named Edie. Edie was a joy to all of us, but had a special love for my sister Tai, only a toddler at the time. Edie would wrap her paws around Tai's neck and hug her. She hugged Tai through some very tough times -- and losing her, when Tai was 14 -- was devastating. Tai and I have both had other cats through the years, all of them special, but our memories of Edie are everlastingly warm.

More recently, my husband Bob and I have treasured our own two black cats: Maggie and Ollie.

Maggie came to us during a time of sorrow. We had lost our beloved Timmy -- one of a bonded pair of brothers -- due to melamine poisoning during the pet food scandal in 2007. Timmy's brother Gus cried all night, every night, for three weeks until our vet suggested getting him a kitten to love and take care of. That kitten was Maggie and Gus loved her at first sight.



Bob felt a special bond, too. Maggie was a sleek, shiny Bombay, a black Burmese who had been dumped into rescue by a Beverly Hills breeder because she was such a homely kitten. She grew into a beautiful cat: loving, smart, kind and protective of Bob. When he would have epileptic seizures or night terrors, she would jump on his chest and put her paws around his neck. Once, when he had a seizure so severe that I called 911, she stayed on his chest, hanging on tight when the paramedics arrived even though she usually rushed to get under the bed when strangers would arrive at the door. Maggie was sweet to me and always seemed mindful that I needed love, too. But Bob was her most special human.


Ollie came to us seven years after Maggie -- a fortunate accident. I was in the L.A. area to promote my book "Purr Therapy" which was about the two cats -- Timmy and Marina --who had worked with me one day a week doing animal assisted therapy in my private practice. At one event -- Catoberfest in Santa Clarita -- there were rescue organizations offering animals for adoption. Taking a break from book signing, I walked outside and then I saw him. He was the poster kitten for unadoptable animals who needed financial support to keep living in rescue. His name at the time was "Herbie the Love Bug" and he was two months old, all soft black fur with a daunting past. He had been mutilated shortly after birth -- his right hind leg mostly severed. He also had a giant hernia. The newborn kitten had been thrown into a trash at the curb but was saved by his big voice -- a resounding yodel that never ceased to startle us -- that alerted a passerby who took him out of the trash and to rescue. He needed some expensive surgeries and was considered a long shot for adoption. I sent my husband a picture of him and Bob replied "Let's take him! Let's give him a good life!"


 We were able to keep that promise. Renamed Ollie, the little kitten survived three surgeries and never had another sick day. The most major of his surgeries involved the removal of the stump of his leg and his right hip. He was chasing lasers again three days after surgery. He could run like the wind on his three legs and jump as high as any of his feline companions. He loved to be cuddled, would come when called, purring as he jumped up to snuggle. He rushed to comfort me when my left foot was crushed in an accident in 2020, rubbing the casted foot and purring. He often was so busy saying a joyous "hello" that he was late to meals. He not only lived a good life, but also made ours better because he was with us. Someone's trash was truly our treasure.

There were times when we would look over at each other -- Bob cuddling Maggie, me cuddling Ollie -- and tell each other that black cats were magical and wonderful and that life was good.

Life is good, but also fragile. 

Maggie's health began to decline rapidly just as she was about to turn 14. She lost a significant amount of weight, suddenly looking skeletal. Always a very proper, well-behaved cat, she began to defecate outside the cat box. We cleaned up after her. We gave her special medication for her thyroid condition. And tried to love her back to good health. But love was not enough to keep her with us...and Maggie passed away in February 2022 just weeks shy of her 15th birthday.

There hasn't been a day that has passed without missing her. Our one consolation has been that our other cats have been healthy and are younger: Sweet Pea is 12, Hamish, 10 and Ollie, 7. I imagined enjoying Ollie's cuddles for many years to come and thought that he would most likely be the last of our surviving three to pass away.

Life can be surprising, strange and cruel.

I spent much of yesterday in bed, suffering flu-like side-effects after getting my second Covid booster shot. Ollie and his best buddy Hamish cuddled with me much of that time. I got up to feed them about 5 p.m. last night, noting that all three cats were eating their dinner enthusiastically. I returned to bed and fell asleep. When I woke up several hours later, I saw Ollie lying across the threshold of the bedroom door. I called to him, expecting his usual response: to make a running jump onto the bed and into my arms. But he was still. I moved closer. I spoke his name. I petted him and cupped his head in my hands. His neck was limp. His pupils were dilated. He wasn't breathing. Ollie was gone.

We were totally shocked. He hadn't shown any signs of illness or distress. He had had an ordinary day and a hearty dinner. Bob held him tenderly in his arms, telling him how much we loved him and what a wonderful cat he was. Part of this was saying "goodbye" but part was disbelief. How could he be so suddenly, inexplicably gone? Once again, we were quietly hoping love would overcome the inevitable. We checked and re-checked, hoping against hope that this was all a mistake, a misunderstanding, a bad dream. But he lay still in Bob's arms.

And so, in an instant, another magical black cat has become a memory. But, oh, what memories! And how blessed we were to have these two unforgettable black cats in our lives.




Thursday, February 24, 2022

Toxic Impatience

The signs of increasing incivility have made the news during these pandemic years: the surly passengers on airlines verbally and physically attacking flight attendants, the confrontations in public places over masking, the shouting matches at school board meetings. I've seen hints of toxic behavior myself lately: the guy in front of me in a grocery line who swore not so quietly when the frail elderly woman ahead of him was taking longer to pay and exit than he would have liked; the Karen at a fast food restaurant who berated the frazzled young woman at the counter for pausing as she counted out her change.

And I had a close encounter with such toxic impatience this morning as I was driving my husband Bob to a Phoenix hospital at 5:30 a.m. for surgery. It was a cold, very dark predawn morning. Since the pandemic has limited our social activities including theatre going, I haven't driven any significant distance at night for several years. What I noticed this morning, with some alarm, was that my night vision has deteriorated significantly. I struggled to see lane lines, especially in the glare of oncoming headlights in the early morning commuter traffic to Phoenix. Usually a fast and confident driver, I stuck to the speed limit this morning and, on occasional sharp curves, slightly below the speed limit. 

On one of these curves, on a busy freeway interchange, it happened. A car roared past me on the right  shoulder of the road, just at the sharpest point in the curve. Then the driver cut in front of me and slammed on his brakes. I had to brake suddenly and hard to avoid a collision. Fortunately, no one was following close behind me. The toxically impatient driver, having made his point, sped off. And I continued on to the hospital, my hands uncharacteristically slick with sweat and shaking on the steering wheel. 

"Road rage," Bob said, exhaling slowly, his surgery anxiety temporarily secondary to his concern about our safety on the road.

It could have been catastrophic if I hadn't been able to stop in time, if the person behind me had been tailgating. I was driving my small  Honda Fit amid hulking SUVs and now was feeling suddenly vulnerable. I've driven this little car solo between my home in Arizona and Los Angeles many times, cruising comfortably at top speed among semi-trucks for the full 500 miles. But I've always taken my long driving trips during daylight hours sharing the road with truckers and vacationers rather than pre-dawn commuters. I've heard of road rage incidents, but have never experienced one until now.

I wondered how much time our road rager really saved by passing me and if making his point felt worth the considerable risk.

When we got to the hospital, we saw huge signs both in the admission and the pre-surgical waiting areas:


And I felt sad that such warnings were necessary.

When did we start getting so toxically impatient with rules and with each other?

When did some people decide to punish and terrify a slower driver rather than simply sigh and change lanes? When did common courtesy and civility in public places slip into churlishness and worse? When did compassion and respect for differences start to disappear?

I've been thinking about how much energy it takes to be angry and oppositional, to judge and humiliate rather than take a deep breath and try to understand.

Yes, other people can be annoying whether they're taking longer at the cash register or driving slower on the road. The elderly person walking slowly with a cane down a parking lot aisle can hold you up for a minute or two. The young mother with a screaming toddler in tow in a grocery line almost certainly wishes even more than you do that her child would calm down. Is an annoyance worth cursing, road rage, honking,  dirty looks or hurtful words?

What if we could, more often than not, manage patience and compassion? Would it ruin our day to let a mother with a crying child go ahead of us in the line? Or wait as an old person, walking heavily on a cane to his car, temporarily blocks our way to a prime parking spot? After all, most of us have suffered through our own past experiences with toddlers having public meltdowns. And most of us are or will be old someday. A bit of empathy can spare the nerves on both sides.

At the same time, knowing or imagining a raging person's back story can help us to calm down and move on. I'm trying to imagine how the day started for the person who risked our lives and his with his road rage this morning. Perhaps he was transitioning from a miserable home life to a job he hates, frantic to be on time. His toxic impatience may be making his life difficult at every juncture and rather than look inward, he blames everyone else. One could call him an asshole or a jerk. But angry labels can't fully explain such behavior or help to soothe one's spirit in the aftermath. 

Now that my hands have stopped shaking, now that Bob's surgeon has let me know that his thyroid surgery went well and that, after an overnight stay, he will be ready to come home tomorrow, I think about our earlier brush with road rage from a more measured perspective.

I need to see my ophthalmologist about my impaired night vision and avoid driving at night or in the predawn hours whenever possible. I need to forgive that rage-filled driver for my own peace of mind and be thankful that I have never encountered anyone like him before in my sixty years of driving -- much of it in fierce L.A. traffic. And I need to let gratitude suffuse my spirit: that I avoided the accident, that Bob is recovering, that I am safely home.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Happily Ever Before

In a lovely column recently, E.J. Montini of The Arizona Republic, recounted his first Christmas with his beloved wife many years ago when they were just starting out in life, too poor to buy lights or ornaments for their little Christmas tree. So they decorated it with popcorn strings and ornaments cut out of construction paper. And his wife, who passed away last year, always said that it was the best Christmas ever. 

As he braced himself for his first holiday without her, a reader who was also a recent widower sent him a comforting note. The reader told him that he had remarked to family members that, in his grief, he was convinced that there could be no "happily ever after." His young granddaughter piped up with "What about 'happily ever before'?" The concept resonated with him and with Mr. Montini, too, who found comfort in warm holiday memories of that long ago tiny apartment, the popcorn decorated tree and the love and hope that made his first married holiday so special.

The idea of focusing on our "happily ever before" in dark moments or as we age and lose so many beloved friends and family members as well as certain aspects of ourselves isn't a matter of living in the past. It is more like savoring moments from the past -- moments that may not have seemed quite so positive at the time -- to complete a warm and largely positive life summary that is comforting in the present.

Looking back, what were the events, the people, the situations that were challenging at the time that now spark joy as you look back? In the past, what made you feel comfort? Who brought love to your life? What and who made you laugh? What have you learned from adversity? When you view the long narrative of your life -- the pleasures, the disappointments, the devastating moments and the learning experiences -- what is your overall feeling?

Tapping into our "happily ever before" moments may be especially useful now as we head into our third pandemic year, perhaps impatient with restrictions, perhaps yearning for that time before that seems increasingly distant. We have a choice between comparing then and now and finding the present wanting or letting the lovely memories and perspectives of life before give balance to our lives at a challenging time. We have a choice, too, if our "before" times were rough, between clinging to the sorrow that was and allowing it to overshadow the joy that could be or focusing on the positive aspects of life in the past.

For many of us, our lives have been bittersweet, with an abundance of ups and downs. If we can look back and find the joy between the pain, the humor that can bring light to some dark times, we may find more sweet than bitter in both past and present.

I know.

Growing up with a mentally ill, abusive, alcoholic father was not easy nor was it fun having a mother who was too frightened and passive to protect my brother, sister and me from abuse and too focused on my external imperfections ever to know me well. But for all the stress and tears and frightening times, I remember my father's humor, charm and genuine caring during his sober moments and my mother's enthusiasm for my dreams and her encouragement of my close relationship with Aunt Molly, my father's bright, career-oriented sister who never married or had children but whose life was incredibly full. My brother Michael, sister Tai and I never knew which version of our father we would encounter when walking in the door, but we agree that we would not have wanted to grow up without each other or without our sometimes caring, sometimes distressing family of origin. We remember laughter as well as pain, intellectual curiosity and impassioned discussions as well as moments of despair and a sense of being loved amidst the chaos and terror of our shared childhoods.

There is baggage, to be sure, but there is so much else, too: an appreciation for nuances and the complexity of human beings and an inclination to keep moving ahead. None of us were tempted to extend our adolescence as some do, living with parents into young adulthood, putting off learning to drive, not focusing on the future. We were out into the world and on our different life paths early on. We worked our various ways through school. And eventually we all found ourselves in helping professions: my brother as a physician, my sister as a nurse and myself as a psychotherapist and writer of self-help books and articles. We look back on an increasingly distant past as a time filled will humor and horror, valuable life lessons, and guerrilla training in resilience and in compassion.

As I contend with the isolation and intermittent loneliness of the pandemic, I am comforted by both present realities and warm memories of loving relationships. I treasure family relationships and those of friends, especially those relationships stretching back in time to a shared youth. My loved ones all live at a distance, all in different states. The visits we once enjoyed have been precluded by pandemic realities, but we're warmed by the memories we've made together: long talks with my treasured friend Mary; celebrating some holidays and life in general with my beloved friend Tim; laughing with and enjoying the support of my college friends Georgie and Jeanne and their wonderful husbands; sharing so many feelings and experiences with Pat, my friend since kindergarten; savoring the Maui surf with my sister Tai, who remembers our time together there as "the absolute happiest week of my life!"; delightful discussions with my brother Mike, fun times with his wife Jan and his children Maggie, 12 and Henry, 9, who are growing up to be truly good people.

I also enjoy happily ever before memories of relationships lost: my cousin Caron, whom I loved and admired all her life; my first serious boyfriend Mike, a wonderfully kind and gentle man whom I took for granted fifty years ago and whose upbeat letters and quiet emotional support I have missed greatly since his death in 2018; the caring and enduring relationships with three college roommates Cheryl, Lorraine and Lorene who all died way too soon; the joy of singing with my friend Marie, who taught me to open my throat and my heart in song, and who, tragically, was murdered while still in her twenties; and Elizabeth Swayne Yamashita, my most demanding college journalism professor who became a lifelong mentor and beloved friend.

Especially now, as I face the losses and limitations of aging, I find comfort in my long marriage with Bob and in our memories of our younger selves -- memories of getting up before dawn to run several miles together, of discovering each other's favorite music together, of adopting our first cat Freddie who was a great life companion for seventeen years, of making a home together. It is immensely comforting to be with someone who remembers my young, vigorous self who could run for miles and who danced into young middle age. And he can laugh ruefully with me at the present surprise of our age-related limitations.

I find new pleasure in remembering challenges of the past. My first post-college job as a writer and editor at 'TEEN Magazine felt like a distinctly mixed bag at the time. I loved my co-workers -- the best ever -- and the readers. I loved the writing, the travel and the people I met along the way. But, at the time, the pay was painfully low and I was mortified to be working for a teenage girls' magazine when so many of my journalism classmates from Northwestern were working for more respected publications -- like my friend Tim who spent some years early in his career as White House correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. However, I've come to realize over the  years that 'TEEN was exactly the right place for me to start a career that has focused on psychology and health. Some of my most treasured relationships are those that began at 'TEEN. My first book -- The Teenage Body Book -- which was a best seller in 1979 and has endured through updates including the 2016 edition -- came directly from my work at 'TEEN. Robert MacLeod, 'TEEN's publisher whom I found strange and a bit chauvinistic in my short-sighted youth, has taken his rightful place in my heart now as a generous mentor in my career.

And I think "What a blessed life I have had and have to this day!" 

The comfort and wisdom gleaned from our "happily ever before" times can help us through the uncertainties of the present. This is a time of political and philosophical divisiveness. It is a time of a pandemic that threatens our health and our lives. It is a time, for many of us, when most of our lives are in the past with less time left in the future to continue to savor life and new discoveries and to watch with wonder as new generations come of age.

And yet...add up the blessings of the happily ever before times and our imperfect present: we have lived more joyously than not, more fully than we once imagined possible. And we have loved, enjoying so many complex and wonderful variations of love in our lives!

Sunday, March 21, 2021

A Year Ago This Month -- Was It Only a Year Ago?

A year ago this month, the world shut down. It felt unprecedented but very temporary at the time. "By summer," we told ourselves. "By summer this will be over." We had no idea.

 By March 8, 2020, there had been 539 officially diagnosed cases of Covid-19 in the U.S. and 22 deaths. On March 8, 2021, there have been 28,771,749 officially diagnosed cases of Covid-19 in the U.S. and 540,973 of us have died. 

 We have lived a year of fear and isolation, of uncertainty and virtual connections. We have seen rampant political cynicism, heightened political polarization and a violent challenge to a smooth transition of power in Washington. We've seen racism exposed in all its ugliness and we've seen it challenged with new resolve and a flicker of cautious optimism that so many wrongs can be corrected at last. We've also salvaged hope in the form of vaccines that will, at the very least, sharply curtail the death toll from Covid-19. 

We're looking to summer and then on to fall for some return of normal. And yet, what will the new normal look like? What parts of pandemic cautions and customs will we keep? What have you learned from this memorable year?

 Here's what I've learned: 

 I've learned that technology can bring us together as well as keep us apart. We've all complained in the past how our smart phones and tablets have kept us apart, diverting our attention as we avert our eyes from each other to text or surf the internet. But sometimes technology can keep us connected -- in our work, in school and for doctor's appointments -- when it's too scary to leave home. 

A year ago this month, I saw my last in-office client for what we thought would be a few months and a year later, I have no immediate plans to resume in-person, in-office therapy. In addition to my private practice, I had been working three days a week for two telehealth companies since October 2019, so felt at ease with the technology of virtual therapy sessions as I transferred most of my private practice clients to a special online platform. 

 A few chose to halt therapy sessions for a time rather than go online "because this is just temporary and I'm not comfortable with technical things." We're still waiting, of course. And in the meantime, some previously in-office clients can't imagine going back. The last client I saw in person a year ago recently told me that "I was skeptical at first but now I LOVE online therapy. No dressing up, driving 20 minutes and hunting for a parking place! And you've had a chance to get to know my new kitten!" 

 Yes, I've found it as easy to bond and communicate with clients online as it was in the room with them -- and I do get a chance from time to time to have a sense of their homes, meet their pets and an occasional child or spouse who drops in briefly to say "hello." It is a different, but generally positive, sense of intimacy. 

 As life has unfolded in the past year, I've found new comfort and joy in having a partner. 

 Several months before the pandemic shutdown, in January 2020, my left foot was crushed in a freak accident. I had surgery to reconstruct the foot with metal plates and clamps in February last year. Then in March 2020, I visited the doctor's office to have my temporary cast, post-surgical dressings and stitches removed from my foot and a new, more permanent cast applied. In pain from the stitches and the swelling, I had both anticipated and dreaded this appointment. But, as with the pandemic, I had no idea, on a smaller scale of course, just how bad this could be.

 I took a deep breath as the doctor began to upwrap the bandages, increasingly bloody as the layers were peeled away. I looked over at my husband Bob and saw his eyes widen as my foot emerged from the bandages. My heart began to race. 

 Bob had been at my side throughout the long ordeal since my injury and surgery -- helping me with the most basic daily rituals from using the bathroom to bathing in the early days after my injury and surgery to lifting me and my wheelchair out of the house and into my office twice a day, taking over all household tasks, organizing grocery shopping expeditions and offering comfort during times of pain, sleeplessness and frustration. He never complained or ignored the faintest sign of my distress, sometimes just sensing my pain from a quiet intake of breath. He never saw himself as a hero. "I'm just doing what a good spouse is supposed to do," he would tell me. "I love being able to help you. I know you'd do the same for me." Still, I remained grateful on a daily basis. 

 Now, in the doctor's office, he left his chair in a corner of the small examining room and came over to me as I reclined on the table. "Close your eyes," he said, taking my hand. 

 The doctor had been shaking his head. "Get a surgical packet," he told his assistant quietly. Then he turned to us. "I'm going to remove the stitches now," he said. "But I'm also going to have to do a little more surgery here. You have a large area of necrotic tissue on the top of your foot. I'm going to have to remove that layer of skin before we can put the new cast on. I'm so sorry. But it's absolutely necessary." 

Bob tightened his grip on my hand. "Take a deep breath," he told me quietly. "Let's go to Maui together. It's morning and we've just finished breakfast at the Sea House on Napili Bay. We're walking on the beach. Look how the sun is sparkling on the water and those beautiful blue, translucent waves. Smell the scent of flowers in the air -- jasmine? Plumeria? Breathe deeply and just savor that scent. Feel how warm the water is as the waves wash over our feet..."

 I imagined and hung on as I focused on Bob's words, the images and the memories that helped to block out my pain and fear. And I was immensely grateful to have a partner who knew just how to help me through this latest challenge. 

 The procedure finished, the doctor's assistant was building the cast on my foot and leg. I opened my eyes and looked at Bob. "You did so well," he said quietly. "You were so brave." 

 Tears filled my eyes as I struggled not to cry. Bob knew my fears of medical procedures and pain that are rooted deeply in a sickly childhood of battling polio and another life-threatening illness. And he knew just what a comfort this guided imagery escape would be. It felt so good to be known so well and comforted so sensitively and expertly. 

 A year later, I am largely healed from my ordeal -- walking, back to sharing household tasks, back to our old life in so many ways. But I am immensely grateful and still especially moved as I remember that day -- was it only a year ago -- when I realized anew the blessing of being known and loved so well. 

 Now, in our post-vaccine euphoria, the new "firsts" feel strange and tentative. I got my first haircut in many months today. As I sat in the waiting area, an older man, socially distanced from me, reached over and touched my shoulder. He smiled through his face shield. "It feels so nice to touch someone," he said. "I hope you don't mind." I didn't. 

 I look forward to hugging friends and family. How will that feel? Will it be safe for them? Will we be so accustomed to elbow bumps that a hug will feel incredibly awkward? I look forward to rediscovering the joy of reaching out to and hugging those I love. 

 We've all gained new insights in this year of solitude and adversity -- whether from the fallout of a global pandemic or from personal challenges. 

 We've learned what's important -- and what's not -- in our lives. 

 In the time before the pandemic, Bob and I enjoyed a number of meals out each week. It has been a year since we've eaten in a restaurant and we're fine with that. While it might be nice to have a weekend breakfast out or a special dinner at our community golf course view restaurant from time to time this year, we're mostly content with simple, healthy meals at home. 

 In the time before, we felt pressure to be more social. Now we're more at ease with solitude. It will be wonderful to see good friends again after all this time, but we treasure quiet time as well to pursue our various interests. 

 In the time before, we tended to take good health for granted and the spectre of mortality was dark but distant. Now we know, with new clarity, how fragile life can be. We've lost neighbors to Covid and other health crises in the past year. Family members have become frail and my dearest cousin recently died. We've felt newly vulnerable. Even though we now have the comfort of being fully vaccinated against Covid-19, we're not making any asssumptions. We are embracing good health and the habits that make this possible with new fervor. 

 There are some joyful possibilities on the horizon -- going back to the library, the gym and the community pool, the chance to travel to see family and dear friends once again and maybe even to go to Maui once more to smell that perfumed air and feel the warmth of the waves for real. 

 But now, more than ever, there is gratitude for what is and for the blessing of love -- being known and loved well -- expressed by family and dear friends remotely or, in Bob's case, at close range through this painful, unprecented year.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

The Joy of the Dance

 There are many stories within a life story. When I reflect on the life of my beloved cousin Caron Hill Roudebush, I remember so many stories of her dance through life with humor, strength of spirit, unconditional love for family and friends and joy in each day.

There is the story of her birth on May 7, 1940, in the sunny front bedroom of a house in Burlington, Kansas. She was the first child of Evelyn Curtis Hill and Elmer Hill. Their landlady had welcomed them as a couple but said she didn't like to rent to families with young children. Caron's birth changed her mind: she fell hopelessly in love with the winsome dark-eyed baby girl and happily helped to care for her. The family would eventually move to Kansas City, however, where Elmer was hired as a mechanic for TWA. Her mother, who had a brief career as a teacher before her marriage, was a loving stay at home mom to Caron and her younger brother Jack.

Caron spent many happy days of her childhood visiting our grandparents' farm in Toronto, a small eastern Kansas town that was still thriving in her childhood. Caron had so many memories from those days, far more than the rest of the grandchildren who were born after World War II. She was the only grandchild to know and love her Uncle George. They played together on the farm and he adored her, writing to my mother that she was "the cutest, most beautiful little girl ever." Caron went to the train station with our grandparents to see him off to war in July 1944. She and Grandma burst into tears as he boarded the train. They held each other on the drive back to the farm, weeping together as Grandma moaned "I'll never see him again."  Four months later, George was shot down over Germany, dead at the age of 24. Decades later, the memory of Uncle George waving and blowing her kisses through the train window as she cried would still bring tears to Caron's eyes. 

As we played and danced, sharing secrets, stories and dreams throughout our childhoods, Caron was so much more than a cousin to me. She was like a wise and affectionate older sister who told me she loved me every time we talked and, throughout my life from childhood to my ungainly teens and all the decades beyond, she told me that I was beautiful.


                                                      Caron, Jack and me with our grandparents


                                                   Caron, newly in love, and me in 1955

She was the beautiful one, though, even winning a local beauty contest. And she was popular in high school with a great group of friends who called themselves The Divas and vowed to be friends for life. (They kept that promise!) But the most beautiful aspect of her life -- a wonderful love story -- began at the end of their freshman year when she and Bud Roudebush discovered each other.

She was giddy in love when she came to spend the summer of 1955 with us in California, to help out after my sister Tai was born. She wrote to Bud every day as I hung over her shoulder. Sometimes, but not always, she would let me read his replies. Once she wrote him a note with all the words for "Unchained Melody", a hit song that summer: "Oh, my love, my darling...I hunger for your touch." We eagerly awaited his reply and laughed when it arrived: 'Caron! What happened to you? Did you fall on your head or something?" Even though the memory of that unique mail exchange faded for them, "Unchained Melody" became their special song for decades to come.


                                               Caron and Bud as high school sweethearts

Caron's high school days were a blur of parties and dances and just hanging out with Bud and The Divas. She begged her parents to let her drop out of school and get married. They insisted that she finish high school and attend a secretarial course first. She and Bud were married on February 15, 1959. After a tour of duty with the Air Force, Bud worked as a surveyor while Caron was a stay at home mom to their children Cescilie, Aaron and Jason. She returned to work as a school secretary to help pay for their college expenses. Even with the inevitable challenges of life -- raising three bright, lively and resourceful children, then watching the nest empty -- their love only grew.


                                             "You and Me": Their Favorite Picture Together

As Caron and Bud danced and loved and grew through all the transitions of their lives together, Caron never stopped exploring, learning and triumphing over obstacles along the way. After her kids finished college, Caron began taking classes at a local community college, finding herself drawn to a scientific curriculum. She had a perfect 4.0 gpa and was surprised when her advisor told her that she had earned enough credits for her Associate's degree. That graduation was very special to her.

"Imagine!" she told me. "I'm smart! In high school, I was too focused on being in love and getting married to care about academics. I wouldn't change a thing, of course, but it's nice to know officially that I'm smart!"

 She was also graceful and strong, studying Hawaiian dance, exercising daily and giving her eldest grandsons a run for their money in basketball sessions. When I visited in 2007, Caron, 67 by then, was nursing a broken arm, suffered when she leapt into the air to make a successful jump shot and then fell during a fiercely competitive basketball practice with her teenage grandsons. She had just as fiercely fought  and won a battle against breast cancer some years earlier and now she glowed with good health. She was dedicated to healthy eating, exercise and lifestyle changes, having given up her longtime smoking habit as she entered midlife.

Bud, in the meantime, focused on his long-time interest and talents as a photographer, particularly enjoying capturing Caron's growth from teenager to grandmother with special love. He also took some breathtaking photos during their travels -- to see hot air balloons in New Mexico, ride a train through the Rockies, explore the Egyptian pyramids on the backs of camels and the beauty of the countrysides and capitals of Europe during several trips abroad. Winning a small state lottery in midlife had enabled them to plan for both financial security and fun. We all rejoiced in their good fortune, happy that they had a chance to travel the world together while still healthy and active.

By 2010, Caron began to experience unmistakable symptoms of COPD. As her condition worsened, Bud finally retired to take care of her. 

As her dependence on him grew, he was careful to honor her independent spirit. One morning when I was visiting in 2013, Bud, Caron, her brother Jack and I were sitting around having coffee, talking and laughing. Bud finally looked at Caron and said "You know, Caron, I'm enjoying our conversation so much that I'd like to go into the bathroom with you when you take your shower so we can continue our talk. Would that be all right with you?"

She smiled. "Why yes," she said.. "I would like that very much!"

We all knew that Caron couldn't shower without Bud's assistance. Yet, he always made it her choice to have him accompany her. 

We talked a lot about the past -- our past, our mothers' pasts -- during that visit. I teased Caron gently about the many artifacts from the old farm that had landed in her home: our grandparents' bed in the guest room, the small children's chairs on the hearth that had once belonged to our mothers and then later to Caron and Jack when they were small.

We had made many trips back to the tiny town of Toronto by then. Our last trip there together, in 2013, brought up wistful memories: the ice cream parlor where grandma would take us for special treats and the small town library where our Great Aunt Floss held forth as librarian, story teller and town news conduit, the hardware store initially owned by Uncle Elmer's family. The hardware store, the library and the ice cream parlor were all shuttered by 2013. In fact, all of the town's storefronts were empty. Toronto School, a magnificent brick building, stood gleaming in the late spring sun -- but it had been empty for years. Caron, Jack and I looked at each other and sighed.

On our journey to Toronto that year, we drove through Burlington and parked in front of the house where Caron was born. It had held up well and sported a new coat of paint. Caron looked at that house, at the windows of the front bedroom where her life began and she sighed once more. "So many memories," she said quietly.


                                              A joyous life together even in their later years

In these later years, Bud has taken over the housework and cooking as well as caregiving. But Caron's mind was sharp and she was fully engaged with family and friends. Reading my memoir, "The Crocodiles Will Arrive Later", shortly after its November 2020 publication, Caron told me that she wasn't shocked to read about the terror and chaos caused by my father's mental illness and alcoholism, but she found it immensely sad that my brother, sister and I had lived through so much pain. "I hope you know that you had no part in your father's unhappiness no matter what he told you," she said. "We're all responsible for ourselves. We decide what kind of life we're going to have, what kind of day we're going to have each morning when we get up. And I hope you know, too, that I love you very, very, very much!"

I told her that I loved her, too, and was so proud of her for making it to 80 -- something she had not been sure she could manage. It was an age landmark that had eluded our mothers and their sister Ruth. My mother died at 67. Aunt Evelyn and Aunt Ruth had passed away at 79. I told Caron that she was an inspiration.

Being an inspiration took a toll: Caron was in and out of the hospital four times in the past year with a variety of health crises, including a coronavirus infection that was not Covid-19, but that proved a grueling ordeal nonetheless. "You kicked the coronavirus' butt!" her son Jason told her as she left the hospital. Caron laughed ruefully and replied "But I think it took a big bite out of mine!"

Through it all, Bud has been by her side, holding her as they listened to their favorite music and danced in their hearts with a lifetime of warm memories. Bud never complained, only expressed his joy and good fortune in spending so many years with the love of his life. 

During the challenges of the past year, the Garth Brooks song "The Dance", especially the last two lines, held special meaning for him:

My life is better left to chance.

I could have missed the pain, but I'd have had to miss the dance.

They danced an imaginary dance as they held each other, quietly celebrating their 62nd wedding anniversary on February 15.

Time moves on steadily, relentlessly. And there are so many losses along the way.

Jack recently returned alone to Toronto to walk the deserted streets we ran through joyously as children, fully immersed in the delights of a town where everyone felt like -- and often was -- family. Now the small family farms have been gobbled up by sprawling factory farms. A dam project 60 years ago that was supposed to make Toronto a water wonderland and tourist destination simply devoured more farmland and devastated the local economy. Now the town's demise is nearly complete. Jack walked past houses and stores that were not only shuttered but were also collapsing. He was astonished to see that Toronto School is being demolished and its bricks sold as souvenirs of a past we'll never see again.

Caron's joyous dance through life, ended on February 26. She took her last breath, gently, quietly, with Bud holding her hand.

The pain of her loss is great. We will miss her forever. But there is music in warm memories and warm memories in music. Oh, what a dance of joy, love, laughter and courage Caron's life turned out to be!


                                                      Bud's photographic tribute to Caron

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Letting Go

 Amidst the headlines announcing the deaths of legendary actors during the past week -- Cicely Tyson, Christopher Plummer, Cloris Leachman -- there was a smaller news item noting the death of yet another actor: Mike Henry.

Mike Henry was a former football star at USC and with the Los Angeles Rams before turning to acting. He starred in three Tarzan movies, was Junior in the "Smokey and the Bandit" films and appeared in a number of other films, television shows and plays onstage in Los Angeles. Our paths crossed in 1972 when we both were cast in a revival of the Broadway musical "High Button Shoes", a production starring Gavin MacLeod, during his tenure with "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and before he became the captain of "Love Boat."


In the 1972 revival of "High Button Shoes", Gavin MacLeod is in the foreground,
Mike Henry is in the back row, second from left. I'm in the back, third from right, with only
my right eye and a portion of my hat visible in this photo taken during a performance.


A backstage photo of me during "High Button Shoes"

It has been decades since I let go of my acting career and aspirations, but the announcement of Mike Henry's death took me back to another time and place when I was a twenty-something actress known professionally as Kaylin McCoy because there was a "Cathy McCoy" already in the union and I wasn't allowed to use a name -- such as my full name "Kathleen" -- where anyone might be tempted to call me Kathy. So I combined my first and middle names Kathleen Lynne to be Kaylin, though no one ever called me that except Gavin MacLeod. It was a painful time for him,  long before he discovered the comfort of religion. He was dealing with the end of his first marriage and, while appearing in "High Button Shoes", he had fallen in love with Patti Steele, the choreographer for the show, who would become his second wife. Gavin would occasionally sit beside me at cast parties and sigh "What does all this mean, Kaylin? What do our lives mean, really?"

And I would look at him, at bit embarrassed, shake my head and say I didn't know. 

I was in my own cocoon of pain -- in the process of making the decision to let go of my passion and my dream for an ongoing career as an actress. I was beginning to realize that, while I liked acting, I didn't like the business. I knew that, as a young character actress, my chances were slim in L.A. for a sustained career. I didn't have the looks, perhaps not the talent nor the drive to carve an ongoing niche for myself in acting. I had seen enough highly talented, middle-aged actors hanging onto their dreams well past the time when there seemed to be any chance of success. I didn't want to be one of them and was equally passionate about writing. In fact, I  was making a steady, if modest, living primarily as a writer. The rationale for my choice to quit was clear, but still it hurt to think of letting go of a dream I had nurtured since childhood.

It would be another year before I actually quit -- and during that time I did a few voiceovers and another play "Dylan" in the role of the one woman even Dylan Thomas, serial womanizer that he was, didn't find attractive. That show was a great way to end my brief career: I loved the play and everyone in it and even got a nice review in Variety ("a delightful young character actress"). I walked away without regret and have rarely looked back.

But Mike Henry's death this week took me back to that time as I remembered his gentleness, his kindness and his generosity when we worked together. He hosted several cast and crew parties during the run of the show at his lovely Valley pool home. And one night toward the end of the show's run, he was my hero. 

Someone had knocked a fire extinguisher off the wall backstage and it had sprayed a small spot of foam that no one, including me, had noticed. Getting ready to dance onto the stage for the curtain call, I had slipped in it, dislocating my left knee and falling hard on my right hip. I slid onto the stage area and, in my shock, got up, took a bow and exited, only then starting to feel the full brunt of my pain. In a moment, Mike was in the dressing room with a bag of ice and a first aid kit. Patti helped me remove my tights and put her arm around me as Mike sat beside me, my left leg in his lap. He popped my knee back in place, iced it with one hand, wiped my tears with a tissue in the other hand, and then taped my knee so expertly that I never missed a show. "You're going to be okay," he said, looking into my eyes with such gentle reassurance that I believed him at once. 

Sadly, life didn't turn out quite as okay for Mike. In 1988, he retired from acting due to neurological symptoms that stemmed from repeated concussions during his football days and from Parkinsons disease that doctors thought might also be due brain trauma caused by football. He suffered for 32 years of neurological decline, a fate made bearable in large part by the presence of his devoted wife Cheryl, who was by his side for 36 years and who described him in an interview after his death as "a lovely, lovely man."

Yes, he was. Although I never saw him again after "High Button Shoes" closed, I have always been grateful for his kindness. And I quietly said "Goodbye" in my heart to this lovely man, a sweet memory from a past I let go nearly 50 years ago.

Traveling back in my memory to that time has made me think once again of Gavin's question "What does this all mean?"

From the vantage point of age, life means so many things -- and letting go is a prominent part of this meaning. 

It means letting go of the dreams that no longer serve to advance one's growth as a loving, giving person and finding new and better dreams. 

It means making a habit of forgiveness, not holding onto grudges and even political divisions, giving others the benefit of the doubt and remembering to forgive yourself, too, for being hopelessly human.

It means paring down your life, as time goes by, to the essence: what soothes your soul, what brings joy and fulfillment, what enables you to contribute in significant ways to the lives of others. 

It means rejoicing in the successes and the happiness of others as well as your own blessings.

It means embracing failures, disappointments and setbacks as learning opportunities. 

It means living with gratitude for what is and what was, for friends and family who have been fellow travelers through all the phases and transitions of your life.

It means treasuring all the love in our lives -- including love that didn't last and love that has been constant, love that we've received and love that we've given, love expressed with gentleness and kindness that endures in our warm memories and brings joy to our lives in this moment.