Nick


Nick1

Twenty seven years ago today, on a warm and sunny day, my wife called me at work and told me to get my ass home.  She was about to have a baby, our second.  A few hours later, around six o’clock PM if I remember correctly, Nicholas was born. From that point on, the world would be a better place.

Nick was born with a twinkle that has never left his dark eyes, like two stars that glow and shine in defiance of the otherwise black and empty void.  When he smiles, those stars ignite and light up the entire universe. From the beginning, he inherited the warmth and likeability that made my father, Nick’s grandfather, so unique.

From the beginning, he also had to endure the burden of being the most like his old man. It was bad enough that he had to look like me, even worse was that he seemed to think like me, sharing the same interest in sports and music, and the same sense of humor. I always felt proud when people would point to him and say, “He’s just like you.”  So proud that I bought into it, that I believed it.

It turns out that I was wrong.

nick3

Nick is better than me.

It’s taken some time, too long, really, for me to see this.  It should have been obvious.  But that’s me – I can be slow and dimwitted. For too long, because Nick was “just like me,” I projected my own insecurities and weaknesses onto him, bluntly pointing out “mistakes” he was making.  I thought I was questioning decisions he’d made, but it’s really not a question when you insist that you already know the answer. I regret my judgmental nature, and recognize that however much he is or isn’t like me, the journey he is on is his own, and only he alone can chart his course into the great unknown.

Now Nick is a full grown man, and on this, his twenty seventh birthday, I want to celebrate how much he isn’t like me, and how proud he makes me, and how much I love him.

nick2

 

Advertisements

The Temple of Air


One of my favorite books is The Temple of Air, a collection of interwoven short stories by the Chicago writer, Patricia Ann McNair.  The book continues to have an impact on me because of its profoundly rich and deep sense of place.  I’m finding that as I grow older my relationship to places, whether it’s where I come from, where I am, or where I might be going, is for some reason becoming more and more important to me. The stories in The Temple of Air all take place in the fictional and isolated small town of New Hope, Illinois, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the town I grew up in, Union Grove, Wisconsin

But it’s not the greatness of the book or Ms. McNair’s evocative prose or the nuanced and substantive characters she draws that has me thinking about her book tonight, although that’s where these things normally end up. Instead it is quite literally that last word in her title.

Air.

This is where things get a little bit weird, and where I’m going to reveal what a real flake I am.  But I swear, this is true and real, even though I know I can’t adequately describe it, and I have no idea what if anything it means.

About a year ago, I had triple bypass heart surgery.  Although I was 99% blocked in one artery, and about 90% in a couple of others, it’d be disingenuous to call it a near-death experience. But while it may not have been in the room with me, I think it’s safe to say that death was in the neighborhood, and was on his way, in his big, blue 1969 Impala, stuck at a light with his left turn signal on, waiting for the arrow to turn green.  He was close enough for me to feel his presence more acutely than at any other time in my life.  Fortunately, everything went well, and now the old ticker is just plugging along, and having missed his exit, ol’ death is back on the outbound interstate.

But here’s the weird part, and I swear it’s true.  Ever since the operation, I’ve had brief moments, about two or three times a month, where I feel the air in a way I’ve never felt it before. Usually it happens when I step outside. I feel its coldness or warmth, I smell it, I taste it, just like everybody does, just like I always have, only stronger and deeper. It becomes overpowering.

But it’s more than that. It’s very strange. When these moments occur, they establish a connection to something and sometime in my past.  Most of the time I can’t name when or where it is, but I get the sense that it’s connecting me to some point in the past, usually in my childhood, unlocking  a  brief moment where the air felt exactly like it does at that precise time in the present. Usually the flashbacks triggered in these moments are vague and shapeless, and impossible to make out the connection, but I feel it, and I know it’s just beyond my grasp.  A couple of times, they’ve been vivid enough to present to me, like a movie playing in my head, complete scenes.

The most vivid of these flashbacks occurred just a couple of days ago, on a warm March day when I stepped outside to let the dogs out.

Suddenly I saw myself, six or seven years old, on the front porch of our house in Union Grove, on a warm spring day. And I more than just saw myself, I saw the world, through my young child eyes and body, and everything felt different, except for the air, the air felt the same, it was my portal into the past. And I walked through the screen door into the living room of my childhood down the hallway into the bedroom my brother Don and I shared.  Don wasn’t there, our bunk beds along the near wall were empty. The plastic model of the Japanese Zero plane that Don had assembled hung from the light shade, suspended by a thread tied to its front and back that was looped over the shade. It was late afternoon, the pre-dusk shadows advancing across the room.  My little bones ached, so I lay down on the bottom bunk and stared at the mattress springs of the top bunk above me.

And then I was back, fifty years later, in the present.

The title and final story in The Temple of Air is about an adolescent girl who is painfully neglected by her divorced and hopelessly shallow parents, and how she is finally able, for at least a brief moment, to literally rise above her circumstance.  I was lucky enough to have no such hardships.  My childhood was nothing if not idyllic. It never occurred to me that there were other people who suffered tremendous pain and anguish. I took my good fortune for granted, and thought no more about it than I thought about the air I breathed.

Tonight I’m thinking that when my last story is told, when air is no longer available to me, I’ll kneel before  the aggregate of all the air I ever breathed in, and I’ll rise above but not too high, tethered to this world like a model airplane suspended from a ceiling light.

 

Guitar Hero


I’ve got  a Gibson without a case / but I can’t get that even tanned look on my face / Ill-fitting clothes, I just blend in the crowd / Fingers so clumsy, voice too loud

– Pete Townshend

When I was thirteen years old, after flirting with AM top 40 radio for a few years, I fell deeply in love with “hard” rock.  There was no such thing as “classic” rock at the time, because it was 1972 and rock was still in its infancy, and there was no nostalgic sentimentality attached to it by desperate middle aged, pear-shaped men hanging on to their youth by a strand of their combed-over hair.  That would all come later. In 1972, “hard” rock was still a young man’s domain, a ‘teenage wasteland,” its soundtrack the album orientated, FM radio music dominated by the churning chords and screaming riffs of electric guitars.

I was physically small and socially inept, painfully shy around girls. Every day I’d wake up in the early morning darkness of my room and wait for the ass-kicking that puberty would subject my ego to.  I remember being disappointed when my voice began to crackle and pop before the long awaited appearance of peach fuzz on my chin and my gonads.

It was a confusing time, as my older brother Don, who’d been my roommate for as long as I could remember, got married and moved out of the house.  He gave me, as a parting gift, probably the best and most used gift I’ve ever received: a poster of Raquel Welch from the movie One Million Years B.C. that would hang on my bedroom door for about the next three years. Needless to say, the poster turned out to be much preferred to the presence of my brother.

It was a lonely time, a time when the persistent perception of myself as a misfit was proven to be true.  Friends who were more socially adept were suddenly unavailable, spending time at parties and high school dances that I didn’t give even the first thought to attending.

A significant amount of time was spent in my room, listening to music, spent in my mind, in my fantasies – and it wasn’t just Raquel, either. In my fantasy world, I was strong and confident and funny, and as my album collection grew, so too did my Rock and Roll fantasy grow.

Where do you get those blue, blue jeans / Faded, patched secret so tight? /  Where do you get that walk oh, so lean? /  Your shirt and your shoes just right

 I developed secret crushes on countless girls, all beautiful, all popular, even though I was acutely aware that I had no chance with none of them.  No chance now, that is, none until I learn to play … electric guitar.

I became obsessed with the electric guitar. I’d listen for hours to the licks and riffs laid down by Hendrix, Clapton, and Page. I became a fan of David Gilmour’s sound and Pete Townshend’s stage theatrics.  I studied the photos in the album liners, how each player held their guitar, strapped low and loose, and the intensity that oozed out of their pores whenever they played a hot solo.  I remember watching the documentary Monterrey Pop, about the 1967 Monterrey pop festival. The Who closed out their set with “My Generation,” ending it with Townshend destroying his guitar in what was the perfect articulation of the rage and frustration I felt constantly churning in my belly.  It was possibly the coolest thing I’d ever seen, and I set my sights on getting a guitar and learning to play it, not smash it (for now).

So  I bugged my mom to buy me a guitar, and then I bugged her some more.  When that didn’t work, I tried a different strategy:  I bugged her some more.  Finally, she broke down and bought me a cheap, little acoustic guitar.  It wasn’t the Fender Esquire I’d been hoping for, but it was a start. I took it and a short instructional book my mom had also bought me into the darkness of my room, determined not to come out until I was legitimately bona-fided.

               But I’m one
               I am one
               and I can see
               that this is me 
               and I will be 
               you’ll all see 
               I’m the one

 By now you probably know how this story ends, as it’s been told a thousand times before:  young misfit picks up a guitar, learns a few chords, and before you know it, he is transformed, a star is born, and neither his life nor the world are ever the same again. Well, that’s how it was supposed to end.

In reality, the ending to the story is a little bit different. I didn’t quite uncover the musical genius that was hiding deep inside of myself. Instead, I confirmed what my Mom already knew and validated her worst fears – the simple and sad fact that I had no intrinsic musical ability at all.  None. Zippo.

Stubby, little and inflexible fingers combined with laziness and a short attention span are not the ingredients for mastery of anything, let alone a musical instrument.  I remember the book first trying to cover a few simple chords, but that soon grew boring and struck me as the sort of thing a rhythm guitar player would need to know.  Screw that, it was lead or nothing for me, so I “taught” myself a couple of simple, one-string melodies and solos, slowly plinking them out as the fingers on my left hand moved from fret to fret, becoming unjustifiably impressed with myself when, for example, I stumbled upon what I took to be the melody for the old folk song, “Little Brown Jug.”

My enthusiasm for playing was exponentially greater than any propensity I had.  I say “propensity” rather than talent due to the rules of mathematics, as using the word “talent” would have resulted in a divide by zero error.  I remember sitting in our living room, torturing my mom with my playing, when I asked her, “What should I play next?”

“How about ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’?”

Impressed, I replied, “I didn’t know you were familiar with the Led Zeppelin song.”

“Led Zeppelin has a song called that?” she asked.

“Yeah, it’s on Houses of the Holy,” I replied.

“Oh,” she said, “I was just saying that you should play over the hills and far away.  Far, far away.”

“Very funny,” I said.

About this time I started babysitting on Sunday nights for a family that lived on the street, about three doors down, the Poisls.  One night, after the kids had fallen asleep, I called home and asked my little sister to bring over my guitar, so I could practice. There, in the quiet of the Poisl’s living room, I plunked away for about an hour when Mr. and Mrs. Poisl came home.  Mrs. Poisl enthusiastically reacted to the sight of me with my guitar.

“Do you play?” she asked. It was obvious that she loved music.

“Yeah, I get by,” I replied.

She pulled up a chair across from where I sat with my guitar, and with a big and happy anticipatory grin on her face, said “play something.”

“Okay,” I said, and delved right into my one string translation of “Little Brown Jug.”  As I slowly plinked and plunked away, I looked up in time to see the last glimmer of light fade from her face, as her smile transformed into the same pained expression I recognized from my mom’s face when she heard the same rendition of the folk classic. I stopped playing and said, “well, it’s getting ….”

“Late,” she said, finishing my sentence before adding, “Excuse me.”  Then she was up and out of the room, leaving Mr. Poisl to pay me and see me off.  After he shut the front door behind me, I thought I could hear, buried in the night mix with the crickets, the muffled sound of laughter from inside the Poisl’s house, but I couldn’t be sure.

One evening, about a week later, shortly after supper, my guitar and I were in the living room when I decided it was time to return to my bedroom. As I approached the hallway, my trusty guitar in my right hand, my oldest brother Mike, emerged from the bathroom.  We met in the hallway, which was a bit too narrow for Mike, me and my guitar, and as we bumped shoulders, Mike gave me an innocent brotherly push. I lost my balance and my guitar ended up pinned against the wall as my right elbow pierced the guitar’s top board, leaving a big hole in it.

“You broke my guitar!” I protested.

Mike mumbled something in return and left the room.  I couldn’t tell what it was he said, but it clearly didn’t include the words “I’m sorry.”

Devastated, I stepped into the kitchen, where my mom was doing the dishes.  “Look,” I said, “Look what Mike did to my guitar.”

She barely looked up from the sink, and glancing at the smashed guitar, said, “Oh, well.”

“’Oh, well?’  That’s it? You’re not going to yell at Mike?”

“These things happen sometimes,” she said, returning to her dishes.

Perplexed, I said, “If I didn’t know better, I might think you’re glad Mike broke my guitar.”

She remained silent, her hands in the sink and her head down, hiding what I could swear was a smile

 

 

 

Best Friends and the Notorious Doctor X.


The first best friend I ever made was in the third grade, a kid named Ryan Michaels. I’d made friends before, playground or at school friends, but never close enough to have them over to my house or to go to their houses. Ryan was a goofy little kid, skinny and pale with thick rimmed glasses that never seemed to sit straight on his nose. In school, he was quiet and reserved.  His clothes were always worn and dirty, with holes worn through the knees of his jeans. Ryan had already been to my house a few times and met most of my family by the time I went to his house for the first time.

dr x

The notorious Doctor X

Ryan lived in an older part of town, in a big, two story house. It was one of the oldest houses in the neighborhood, with white paint that was peeling under its peaked eaves and window panes. The gravel driveway came in off of the street and turned left into the parking lot of a big church that stood next door. It was an early autumn afternoon, warm and overcast. Ryan invited me in, and he poured me a glass of milk as I surveyed the surroundings. Unlike the house I lived in, which was a new 60s style ranch, built just three years earlier, Ryan’s house was older and bigger, with cracks in the plaster and late afternoon shadows that cast a dim heaviness to the daylight that streamed through the windows.  His dad was home, a big and unshaven man with a big belly that stretched the white t-shirt he was wearing. He walked into the kitchen, crumpling an empty can of Old Milwaukee and throwing it in the trash can before opening the fridge and grabbing another, while Ryan and I stood at the counter, drinking our milk. I remember he looked at us, and didn’t say anything before exiting the kitchen. Then Ryan and I were going outside to play again, only this time we were going  out the backdoor. On the way out, we passed through a small room with a couch and a black and white television that was broadcasting “All Star Wrestling” on the Milwaukee UHF station, channel 18. Ryan’s dad was sitting back on the couch, sipping his Old Milwaukee and watching the same show that my older brothers and I watched from time to time, with wrestlers like Da Crusher and Doctor X. We’d watch and laugh at how fake it was and at the people in the audience, a disproportionate number of whom seemed to be elderly women, who thought it was real.

We went back outside and ended up in the turn-around driveway in front of the big old house, playing with matchbox or hot-wheels cars in the gravel. It must have rained sometime in the days before because puddles filled in the potholes in the driveway.

“Yeah, just a few weeks ago, me and my little sister had to get our stomachs pumped,” Ryan said, matter-of-factly.

“You had to get your stomachs pumped?” I’d never heard of such a thing. It sounded painful.

“Yeah,” he said, “we were playing house, and we drank some puddle water.”

“Why would you drink puddle water?” I asked.

“We were pretending it was beer,” he said.

. . .

Not long after that day, Ryan and I began to drift apart. I guess it’s like that when you’re small and you’re learning how to get along with people, when you don’t know yourself let alone anyone else well enough to know if you have anything in common. It’s pot luck, pure random chance that determines who your friends will be.  More than anything it’s location, as kids from the same neighborhood, the same block, are more likely to discover each other and remain at least geographically close enough to maintain contact. Ryan and I were from different neighborhoods and lived vastly different lives.

That day in his driveway would turn out to be the only time I “went over” to Ryan’s house.  After that day, I am left with only three more vivid memories of Ryan Michaels.

The first was a couple of weeks later, on Halloween. Our teacher, Miss Hoppi, was an elderly substitute who’d been hired for the year to take the place of our assigned teacher, Mrs. Smart, who’d been recently diagnosed with cancer (she would, in fact, die about a year later, after we’d gone on to the fourth grade). Anyway, after our long awaited Halloween party, Ryan and I and a couple of other guys were standing in the hallway talking. I, apparently already the critic, was complaining about the lameness of Miss Hoppi’s party, when Ryan let me have it.

“What are you talking about?” he demanded, his voice getting louder. “It was fun. You just don’t like Miss Hoppi, that’s all.”

. .  .

The second memory occurred about two years later, when we were in the fifth grade.  Ryan and I had already drifted apart, and were in separate classrooms, so we didn’t see each other much.  We’d always say hi when we passed each other in the hallways, so it wasn’t like we were mortal enemies or anything.

One day, while getting ready to go to lunch, my classroom and Ryan’s found ourselves in the hallway at the same time, when I came upon Ryan, who was quite animated in telling a couple of other kids about how he and his dad had gone to an all-star wresting show in Milwaukee the night before. He was showing off the event’s program, which included autographed photos of all the stars, including Ryan’s favorite, the masked Dr. X.

“Ryan,” I said, “don’t you know that’s all fake?”

“It is not!” he said.

“But it is.” I felt embarrassed for my former best friend.

“No, it’s not!  My dad says so. He told me!” he said, getting louder and more animated .

“But it’s fake,” I insisted.

“Shut up!” He was screaming now, and crying.  “Shut up!” he continued, long after I had done so, screaming louder and crying harder each time.

. . .

The final memory I have of Ryan Michaels was in June of 1977, about a year after we graduated from Union Grove High School.  It was a rainy Saturday afternoon. I was in town, driving west on Highway 11, about four blocks east of Main Street, Highway 45, when I saw Ryan, alone, dressed in his white Navy uniform, walking,  headed east, soaked through to the bone, with a big grin on his face, raising a Budweiser to his mouth, laughing at something unknown.

I remember thinking to myself that he looked like a ghost.

. . .

Sometime, a year or two later, I can’t remember exactly when or how, I learned that Ryan was dead. I think it was a car accident, but now I’m not sure.  It’s been more than thirty five years and my memory isn’t what is used to be.

But the image of Ryan walking down Highway 11 in the rain in his Navy whites is as vivid as those of the other ghosts that haunt my memories. It’s as if they’d all occurred just yesterday, which, I guess, they really did.

Maturation


There’s no denying it, I was a weird kid.  I always knew that about myself, but as I grew into adolescence, the middle school years, it started to bother me. I wasted a lot of time trying to figure out why, going as far back as I could remember, that I always had the feeling that everybody else knew something that I didn’t, that they’d been privy to a secret that forever eluded me.

Looking back on it now, it’s obvious. Because of where my birthday, November 4th, fell in relation to the cut-off date for determining when a kid would start school (at the time, November 30th), I was nearly a year younger than most of my classmates, and younger than all but one kid in my class.  This might not sound like a big deal, but when you’re in seventh or eighth grade, a year can make a big difference. The maturation process for boys, both physically and emotionally, is hyper-accelerated in those years. It was like a gun was fired and the race began, everybody sprinting out of the blocks, while I lagged behind, clueless, wondering who’d been shot.

Physically I was always one of the smallest kids in my class.  I remember in tenth grade, I was five foot two and weighed 94 pounds, lighter than all but two in my phy-ed class. Football was not an option. I did okay in little league baseball, but that was because it used a different cutoff date than the public school system used, so when I was twelve, I was playing with other kids who were a year behind me in school but the same age during the baseball season.  You’d think that it would have occurred to me that this was the root of my problems, that the reason I played baseball so well was because, unlike school, I was with kids my own age. But that lightbulb never went on, even in the endless hours I spent trying to figure out why I didn’t fit in with my classmates.

My immaturity wasn’t limited to physical realms. I was emotionally immature as well, manifesting itself in behavior that ran from extremes of manic inappropriateness to near catatonic states of sullen brooding. All the standardized tests showed that I was well above average in intelligence, yet I was a terrible student, plagued by a short attention span that had I been born ten or twenty years later with would have likely led to chemical treatment.

I had two older brothers, six and four years ahead of me, who when I was growing up never seemed to have any problem fitting in.  I always looked up to them, and silently wondered why they were okay and I was such a mess.

At some point I became an unabashed sports fanatic, following the NFL and Major League Baseball and the NBA religiously. I loved playing them all in backyard or driveway games in the neighborhood.  My two best friends at the time were also classmates, Danny M, who was a truly gifted athlete, and Joey H., who was blessed with the gift of being movie-star handsome.

In sixth grade, we all tried out for the basketball team. Try outs were after school and finished on a Friday right before my birthday with a big scrimmage game.  I remember I didn’t play well in the scrimmage, so I wasn’t surprised on Monday morning when they posted the names of who’d made the team that Danny and Joey’s names were listed but mine was not.

But here’s the thing – after that disappointment, in a rare display of maturity, I started working my ass off, practicing my ball handling and shooting every night in my driveway, putting in literally hundreds of hours, so that the following year when try-outs came around, I was ready and confident. When they ended, on my birthday, the Friday night after the big scrimmage in which I scored eight points on four for five shooting and grabbed a couple of rebounds, I went home certain I’d made the team.  At home there was birthday cake and the gift of a brand new Spalding basketball waiting for me. And Danny and Joey came over and we all knew that the three of us had all made the team.

Late the following Monday morning, between second and third periods, and we’re all crowded around the bulletin board reading the sheet of paper with the typed names of who’d made the team. I quickly find Danny and Joey’s names. Soon the crowd disburses but I’m still there, looking for my name until I finally accept that it’s not there. When I do, I start crying. I try to stop myself but I can’t, and I’m late for the beginning of my next class, Science, my eyes red and puffy as I make my way to my seat.

Danny and Joey spend the rest of the day telling me how unfair it is, how I should have made the team, but, as sincere as I know they are, it doesn’t help.  I go home and shut myself in my room and brood, finally venturing out just before supper time. As I walk down the dark hallway I can hear my oldest brother, who for some unremembered reason I was fighting and not on speaking terms with at the time, in the living room, talking to my mom, when I heard him say:

“There’s no way Joey’s better than Dave.  No way.”

I stopped and quietly went back to my room. For some reason it felt important not to reveal that I’d heard what he said. I think it was because if he didn’t know I was listening, then he wasn’t saying it for my benefit, just to make me feel better. He’d really meant it, and that meant everything to me.

Clarity


This morning, while walking laps around the gym to cool down after my workout at the cardiac center, it occurred to me that I felt great.

I’ve done enough whining and moaning on this site about my experiences with Parkinson’s disease and my heart bypass surgery nearly six months ago. Like most people, I easily get lost in self-pity from time to time and wallow in the “poor me” depths that I frequently sink into. These moments are real and demand to be dealt with, else they become all consuming.  But it’s just as important to acknowledge those times, temporary though they might be, when the pain and discomfort subside. It’s these moments, when one’s vision isn’t clouded by disease, that clarity is available. We just need to prod ourselves to look for it.

As I walked my laps, I looked out the big second floor window onto the Kenosha neighborhood below. It’s a modest, older working class neighborhood, with unpretentious two story houses and bungalows, most built in the forties or fifties, the streets lined with mature oak and maple trees.  The leaves on the maples are just beginning to change, small bursts of orange that explode and sparkle against the deep green backdrop of the leaves that haven’t changed yet, reminding them that transformation and death awaits. It was a brilliant morning, the sun shining bright and the sky bright blue splashed with specks of white clouds. Through the plate glass window, I could feel the warmth of the sun on my face, and I could see the breeze make the leaves on the trees tremble and shake. It was all perfect, the sun, the sky, the leaves, and the traffic, the cars in the street driven by everyday people living everyday lives, too busy and preoccupied with everyday minutia to be aware of the beauty and wonder that is all around them, and it struck me that that was okay, that there is beauty and wonder in the minutia as well.

My laps complete, I went downstairs and walked outside, where I was greeted by the cool autumn air and the crisp breeze that was blowing out of the north.  I drew a breath of fresh air deep into my lungs and marveled at what a wonderful thing it is to breathe, to taste clean and pure air, to feel my lungs expand and contract. I’m alive, and for a moment I knew, I comprehended, what that meant, and it meant everything. I was grateful for everything that had ever happened in the almost fifty seven years I’ve been on the planet, and everything that happened since the dawn of time, all the random circumstance and chance that brought me to the sidewalk outside of Kenosha Memorial hospital at 9:41 this morning. And I was grateful that my heart still beat beneath my chest, and for the moments yet to occur that I will be fortunate enough to experience.

My oldest brother, Mike, took his own life nearly five years ago. I am warmed by his memory, what a great guy he was, and how important of a part of some of my best moments he was.  At the same time I am haunted by his absence, and by regret for things that I wish I’d done differently. I wish I’d recognized the pain that drove him to suicide, and more than anything, I wish I’d told him what a beautiful and perfect part he was of a world so beautiful and perfect that one is free to breathe in its essence every minute of every day.

Strength


The first night I was home, I didn’t sleep well.  I was back in my own bed, after a week in the hospital. My wife had fluffed up my side of the bed with extra pillows so I could lay on my back with my head raised, like I did in the hospital. I still had a lot of pain in my chest from the incision, and moving was difficult and painful.  I had a walker positioned next to my bed, and we left the bathroom light on, so I could find my way if I had to pee during the night. Just in case I couldn’t make the journey to the toilet in time, there was a little plastic bottle on the edge of the bed, just like the one’s I’d mastered in the hospital.

I still had a great deal of pain in my chest from the bypass operation, but the pain pills I was on plus all the preparation of my wife made me feel as comfortable as possible.  Despite all of this, and despite the thrill of being in my own bed again, it took me a long time to fall asleep.

I laid there on my back, and I could see my wife beside me, sound asleep, and I could feel the rising and falling of her sleeping breathing, and I became aware again that she is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.   And I watched her sleep, deep and peaceful, and I started to become drowsy, but I wouldn’t let myself fall asleep.  It was too perfect, the dim light from the bathroom, her face, her hair on her pillow, and I just wanted to lie there and absorb it all.  More than anything, I didn’t want to fall asleep, I didn’t want to close my eyes, because I was afraid that if I did, I might not open them again.

I’ve been home now for about three weeks. I’m recovering. I go to cardio therapy three days a week, where, under the close supervision of an outstanding staff of therapists, I follow an exercise regime designed to increase my stamina and strength. I’m learning about changes I have to make to my diet and lifestyle. I’m still weak and a little sore from the surgery, but every day I’m getting stronger.

It’s been drilled into us for thousands of years, it’s a part of our DNA that the male is supposed to be the physically stronger of the sexes. We are the hunters and gatherers, we are supposed to provide for our women. And you can laugh all you want at these sexual stereotypes, at how outdated and primitive they are, but deep down, we all recognize some fundamental truth in these cliches.  Men are the physically stronger of the genders, while women tend to be emotionally stronger and more sensitive.

But what happens when a man loses that strength?  When he becomes weak, and when the woman needs to take care of him? It can be quite a blow to the already fragile male ego.

My wife and I have been married for almost thirty four years now. There hasn’t been a day in those thirty four years that I haven’t realized she is much stronger than I am. And that’s never bothered me.  I’ve drawn strength from her strength.

The source of any strength is our capacity to love. Love is the reason we fight death, love of life, love of family, love of a partner. It’s what makes life meaningful and worth living.

They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  What makes me stronger is the fact that I love my wife, and that she loves me, too. Love is cumulative and irreversible. Once experienced, it stays forever, absorbed by the soul.

So while my muscles might be weakened and my stamina shortened, I am already stronger than I was before the surgery, thanks to the love of my wife and family and friends.  So what if I can’t lift anything greater than twenty pounds, I carry this love with me every moment of every day, in every breath I take.

And it’ll be there when I open my eyes tomorrow morning, weaved into the lining of my soul and riding on the shafts of sunlight that stream through my window shade.

Thank You


Just over two weeks ago, on April 7, my chest was cut open and blocked arteries were bypassed by sections of veins cut from and taken from my legs.  The day before, I experienced pains so severe that I thought this might be it, this might be the end.

Today, I had a follow up appointment with Dr. Stone, the heart surgeon who quite simply saved my life.  Nearly all of the incisions, the several cuts to my legs and the deep channel down the middle of my chest, have either healed or are well on their way to completely healing.  He told me that other than lifting or pulling or pushing ten pounds or more, all restrictions are lifted.

I still have some pain and tightness from the incision in my chest, but even that’s improved to the point that I’ve scrapped all the prescription pain pills in favor of the occasional Moltrin.   I still have ten weeks of cardiac rehab (I go three mornings a week, and am in the middle of my second week) to complete, so I am by no means a finished product just yet.

Still, it boggles my mind how far I’ve come in these fifteen days since I was sliced open.  It’s taken a team of nurses and doctors, led by Dr. Stone, as well as the kindness and support and aid of friends and family.  I owe these people everything, and intend to start the payback by taking the rest of my recovery as seriously as possible. I have no choice -it’s going to take a mighty strong heart to express the love and gratitude that these remarkable people have all earned.

Today is Earth Day, and my normal impulse is to rail against the selfish and thoughtless harm that humans, in their greed and self-absorption, have enacted on this amazing planet. But while those sentiments may be true, this year I’m also aware that I have benefited from the incredible capacity for kindness and caring and love that is the best of human nature, and I’m reminded that we’re all in this thing together. I am convinced more than ever that we can and we will fix this planet, and that we can overcome our petty differences and do what is right for each other.

Whatever I can do to help – well, sign me up.

Sunday Morning


Saturday was hustle and bustle, my daughter home from college for a short weekend, my sister driving down from Oshkosh to visit, my brother-in-law over and doing yard work for me, and my oldest son having flown in from the twin cities. It was a beautiful and warm spring day, the sun shining and the sky blue and cloudless.  In the late afternoon, my wife prepared a big dinner, and my mother-in-law joined us.  And there was laughter and smiles, the whole day was just about perfect, and it wound down into a quiet and comfortable night.

Sunday morning arrived with more sunshine pouring through bedroom window shades.  We woke up and my wife helped bathe me, patting down my sutures, and helping me get dressed.  We were up and about while my son and daughter slept in, and as I ate oatmeal for breakfast, I looked out to the living room to where my wife sat, in her reading chair, the morning sun bright behind her. She reflected and glowed, and it struck me how perfect everything –the oatmeal, the sun, my sleeping son and daughter, and my wife – is, and how grateful I am for this chance to still be among them.

Each day I’m getting stronger. The scars are healing and the pain is lessening. I’m being very careful not to overdo things, not to do anything that would jeopardize a full recovery. I am doing my breathing exercises and taking my medications and following all of the instructions I’ve been given.

I have to be very careful because there are such heavy demands on my heart, there is so much for it to love, so much perfection and beauty to appreciate, that not one beat can be wasted.

Coming Home


Last Thursday, I missed the first big spring storm of the season. It occurred without me, and it left behind a fresh layer of dark green on the grass, and gave birth to flowers that popped up from the softening earth and blossomed and bloomed. It’s an annual rite of passage, the announcement that spring is here to stay, and that the warm air and the music of songbirds will be the norm for a while.

I’d heard the rumble of its rolling thunder in the night, but I couldn’t look out my window to see its driving rain, the puddles that formed on the sidewalks, the sudden creation of backyard rivers and lakes. All I had was sound, the sound of tumult and violence, and the driving waves of rain against my window. Beyond the window was a foreign darkness that revealed nothing to me.

I was far from home, in a foreign place. According to Google Maps, the distance from the hospital bed I laid in and my home was only fourteen minutes by car.  But measured in terms of where I was and where I’d recently been, I may as well have been galaxies away from home.

Home is an apparition, a state of mind, a moment in time, longing, things lost. It’s familiarity and comfort, it’s the aggregation of all we care about and love. It’s illusory and tangible, both real and fabricated. It’s memories suppressed and exaggerated.  It’s sacred.  It’s the place we all hope we’ll return to at least one last time.

Last Tuesday, I had emergency triple bypass heart surgery, after checking myself into the ER on Easter Sunday with bad chest pains.  I came home yesterday after just over a week’s stay in the hospital. There was a period of time that I wondered if I’d ever see home again. In fact, on Monday morning, the pains were so severe that I actually had the conversation with myself, the conversation that asks the questions, what if I die, right here and now?  What if this is it?

During the operation, they cut about seven gashes in my legs, to harvest the vein segments they’d use to bypass the heart arteries that were as much as 99% clogged. The gashes in my legs look harsh and violent, but are nothing compared to the one that runs deep and wide from the top of my chest to my abdomen.  But as I began healing, it became clearer that I would recover and make it home again.

My wife took me home yesterday, in the middle of a bright and warm spring Monday afternoon.  I marveled at how, while I was away, the landscape had transformed from brown and dead winter grasses to the bright green and growing carpet that now covered the ground.  And it occurred to me that a storm that had taken place in my heart had transformed me, too, driving seeds of rebirth and regeneration deep into my moist soils.

Spring is birth and growth, promise and opportunity. Home is the place where these things are realized, where they come into fruition.  Home is the reason for spring, and the place where we rest our souls and nurture our beating hearts.