A Happy Anniversary

Today marks the one-year anniversary of my heart bypass surgery.

I am fully recovered and have made significant changes to my diet and lifestyle. I’m maintaining my weight at about twenty pounds less than before the surgery, and I’m exercising every day.  I’m feeling well enough that without calendars to remind me, I forget that I ever had the procedure.

When one of those significant dates arise, I look back on the events with a vague sense of detachment, like they happened to somebody else, and I have to work hard to remember what it was like falling asleep in the hospital bed the night before, with a nagging fear of never seeing my home or my family again playing in my head.

There are so many important things that we see, feel or touch every day that we don’t appreciate the value of until we are confronted with the real possibility that we may never experience them again.  The night before, when I thought of the things that the last time might have already come and gone for, it quickly became overwhelming.  From the helicopter seeds that take flight from the big maple tree just outside my back door to the sound and smell of bacon frying to the shadows at the end of the hallway that remain just beyond the reach of the midday sunlight, it didn’t take me long to realize that there were far too many things for me to list.

Now I am back to taking all of these things for granted again.  There are so many things that as I was experiencing them I swore I’d never forget that now, only a year later, I’ve already forgotten. And while I lament the loss of the heightened awareness I experienced through my little ordeal, part of me also celebrates the return of preoccupation and blindness to these things, because they are symptomatic of living. To be alive, in the present, is to not have time for such contemplation of the miraculous beauty that is always within our grasp.

Daily routine, the marrow of everyday living, seems trite and trivial compared to the revelatory truths that define the universe until they are taken away from us.  Only then can we see that the mundane is the most profound, and that the mechanics of living a life, the forces that prod us to go to work, to make out grocery lists, to even brush our fucking teeth, are the real things that matter. These are the things that keep a life alive, where dignity and truth reside.

I am so happy and grateful to be alive, for the opportunity to once again obsess over the trivial.

“The Sanded Down Moon in a Tar Paper Sky”

The thing about memories is they’re flat.  They’re like movies playing in our heads, two dimensional projections of moments from our past.

When you leave a part of your life behind, in your mind, that place stays constant and unchanging.  It remains forever as you last experienced it.  In reality we all know that’s not the case and the things we leave behind go on without us and change and evolve.

I left my job as an I.T. Manager in the Renal division of Baxter Healthcare more than three years ago.   When I look back at my days there, or try to imagine what my former co-workers are up to, I always go back to my office in the lowest level of the Renal building in McGaw Park, even though I know that Baxter has completely vacated and moved out of the McGaw Park campus, and the Renal division no longer exists, at least not as a separate entity.  All of that has happened without me, and as my memory recalls a place that no longer exists, so it is that I don’t exist in the world that has taken its place.

Memories of places are memories of people, too.  There are certain people who are part of the foundation of the worlds memories preserve.  Without these people, the place wouldn’t be the place.

Kathy C. was one such person.  She was on the periphery of my work, a member of the Quality Assurance department while I was a manager in I.T.  For thirteen years, her and I worked together, she making sure me and my team had followed all of the requirements and procedures for designing and developing validated systems, me asking her for guidance and interpretation.   Our relationship was often times adversarial and contentious, as she’d catch on to those instances where I tried to take shortcuts in the process, and other times where I’d argue that there was room for interpretation in certain steps, and that overly rigid adherence to the procedures only added unnecessary time and cost to the process.  Eventually, a mutual respect grew and deepened and a friendship developed.  We never completely buried the hatchet, as arguments would still ignite from time to time, but we knew and respected where the other was coming from; we knew each other well enough that we understood what made the other tick.  She learned that I wasn’t just a loose cannon looking to cheat and circumvent, and I learned that there was reason and intelligence behind her outwardly rigid façade.   Above all, we learned that each of us had a sense of humor, and we were able to make each other laugh.

I just found out that about a week ago, she passed away.  I didn’t even know she was sick.  Apparently, she’d been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer in March.  That’s all I know, and I don’t know how accurate even that is.  I just know that she is dead, and that a part of the foundation of my memories of working at Baxter has crumbled.

I wish I had known.  I wish I could have talked to her one last time, that I could have told the story about the time I told her new boss that Kathy was the quality “pro to call” (which is a hysterical joke if you understand the nuts and bolts of developing a validated system) one last time,  and shared one last laugh.  I wish I’d had the opportunity to tell her how much I respected her.

But that’s the case with every death.   We bury the dead and with them all of our unarticulated wishes, all of the things we left unsaid.  And we bury a little piece of those worlds we inhabited together.

As I write this, I’ve got music on.  Lucinda Williams is singing a Randy Crowell song, and the lyric “the sanded down moon in a tar paper sky” echoes in my head.  Maybe that’s all that memories are.  Maybe that’s why they can make us ache like they do.  Time is sanding us down.  The night sky of our memories may as well be made of tar paper, because we can’t feel it, we can’t walk out into it and feel its dew on our bare feet.

All we can do is squint and look out into those misty worlds and find the people and places that were important to us, and if we look hard enough, we’ll see them as they were, and understand why they were important.   And that’s the thing – what was important to us once will be important again.

It’s important that we remember this.



Their Brochures Seem Nice …

The process of settling down and starting a family is often referred to as “putting down roots.”   Roots are the part of a tree that is buried underground.   Roots in human terms usually refers to those relatives who are buried underground, our ancestors who came before us.  One of the reasons we bury our loved ones is to remind future generations of where they came from, who came before them.  

This leads me to a question that I rarely ask myself, but when I do, I never come up with a satisfactory answer.  It’s something that I really should resolve before too long.   The question is this:  where do I want to be buried?

First, to be clear, wherever I end up being buried, I’d prefer that it not happen until I am indisputably dead.  Please, make sure that no voodoo witch doctor has put me under a temporary spell, or worse, that I am not the victim of some administrative foul-up and buried alive, while some dead guy keeps getting my monthly AARP magazine.   I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a simple double check.   It can be as easy as having me fog a mirror, or pinching my arm, or showing me a photo of Megan Fox. 

Once it’s been verified that I am indeed dead, the question remains:  where should I be buried?  Like planning a new business, determining a final resting place comes down to three things:  location, location and location.   I’d like to be in a shaded and dry spot – I’d prefer not to be in a flood plain, for example.  I’d also like for it to be relatively quiet  – there is nothing I hate more than the sound of interstate traffic whizzing by.   Not that it is going to keep me awake or anything.  Most importantly, I’d like to be buried where family and friends can visit me, where there is at least someone familiar with the name on my headstone.   I’d rather not be buried with anonymous people who are complete strangers – I’m afraid that in death, I will be just as self conscious and shy as I was in life, and it’ll take too much out of my eternal afterlife getting to know the strangers in the plots next to me.   In fact, with my luck, I’ll probably end up buried next to an insurance salesman. 

So, just as my daughter is searching for the right college, I need to determine the right cemetery.  Like college, I’ll have to make sure I can afford the fees and meet the entrance criteria, which usually consists of being dead, while many of the better cemeteries also demand affiliation with a religion.  I do not belong to any church.   In addition, any hopes of an athletic scholarship are unlikely, because one, I am not much of an athlete, and two, most cemeteries have cut basketball from their programs.  So the list of eligible cemeteries has narrowed to a few candidates.

The first option would be the Gourdoux family plot in the Saint Francis of Assisi cemetery overlooking the Chippewa River in the northwestern Wisconsin community once known as Flambeau.  This would make sense because it is where many of my ancestors are buried, starting with my Great Grandfather, Alex Gourdoux,  who came from France to settle in the area in the late 1860s.  My grandparents and many of my other relatives are buried within the reach of the late afternoon shadows cast by the family marker.  This is some of the prime real estate in the entire cemetery, under a massive old oak tree and a stone’s throw from the church.  The problem is that in order to qualify for this location, you have to be Catholic, which is why my Mom is buried on the other end of the cemetery, in the non-Catholic section, where she waits for my Dad to join her under the headstone with their names, with the date of my Dad’s death waiting to be filled in.  

Despite being non-Catholics, Flambeau makes sense for my Mom and Dad’s final resting place.  It is only a couple of miles from where my Dad grew up, and about a mile away from where they first met on a New Year’s Eve in 1950 or 1951, and just down the road from where they lived for the last 12 years of my Mom’s life.    It would make some sense for me to be buried somewhere near my Mom and Dad, because before I was anything else I was their son.

The problem is that I never really lived in the Flambeau area.  We lived in Chetek, about 20 miles away, the first two years of my life, before moving to Milwaukee in 1960, and then moving to the small town of Union Grove in Southeastern Wisconsin in 1962.  As picturesque a location as the Flambeau cemetery is, it somehow doesn’t seem right to be buried in a community that you never really lived in.  

That would leave as the next option the Union Grove cemetery, in the town I lived in from the ages three to 18, and again from the ages 21 to 22.  This would make sense as it is the place where I grew up.  

The problem with Union Grove is that I moved out for good when I got married in 1981.  My parents left in 1983 when my Dad retired, and slowly the remaining Gourdouxs left, too, the last ones about ten years ago.  Not a single Gourdoux is buried in Union Grove, and it wouldn’t make sense for me to be the first.  It’s been thirty years since I left, and I have long lost contact with anyone who might still live there.   Once upon a time, it was home, but not anymore,

In 1984, my wife and I moved to Pleasant Prairie, where we still live.  Over the years, we have added on to the house, and we raised our children here.  It has been everything one could ask for in a home.

Pleasant Prairie, though, like a lot of  21st century suburban communities, is what they refer to as a “bedroom community”, meaning that most of its residents commute to  work outside of town.   This has been true for me, as for 24 of the 27 years we’ve lived here I worked in Illinois, and the other three years I worked in Milwaukee.  This means that most of the friends I’ve made over the years have been co-workers who don’t live in Pleasant Prairie.  While for years I was involved in the community as a youth league coach and met many wonderful parents, few lasting friendships have been made. 

Being a “bedroom community”, Pleasant Prairie is largely comprised of housing developments and an industrial park.  There is no downtown, and most shopping is either done in Kenosha or Illinois or at the outlet malls that have been installed near I-94 to cater to Chicago and Milwaukee shoppers.   Instead of neighborhoods, there are subdivisions.  We live on a one-way street that was one of the earliest housing developments in the town, having been converted from farms about sixty years ago, but it really isn’t much different from the modern subdivisions that proliferated and consumed most of the remaining farmland in the 1990s.

One thing the village planners seemed to have overlooked, when approving all of the new subdivisions, was what to do with all of these people when they die.  I am unaware of a public cemetery anywhere in Pleasant Prairie   Designed for workers who drive great lengths to their jobs every day, apparently it is expected that when dead, they make one last commute to wherever their final resting place might be.

So the issue remains unresolved.  It strikes me that, as society becomes more mobile and families are more spread out, I am probably one of many who have the same question.   The old you get buried where you lived paradigm seems like it was designed for a simpler time.   Everything seems to be more complex these days, even death, and the simple concept of leaving behind a marker to be remembered by, to prove to future generations that you were once here, is no exception. 

Maybe the answer lies in technology.  Maybe I could be buried on the internet, dead but on line in a virtual grave in a virtual cemetery.    This way, not only could acquaintances from all stages of my life easily visit me, but the 1,000th visitor could win a free weekend in Vegas.

It turns out my life had meaning after all.