Symbiosis

We celebrate 20 years this week. Not all that impressive compared to friends who are reaching milestone anniversaries, easing into matriarch/patriarch roles while adding more chairs for grandchildren at holiday tables.

We’re in a different place because it took us a while to find each other. I got sidetracked by a promising first marriage that somehow lost its way. Brian was busy running a high school band program and helping to care for his father who became disabled from a stroke. We crossed paths at the christening of a friend’s daughter and then ran into each other again at a choral concert. A few weeks later, a friend called me and said, “Would you think about …” and I did, and I went, and there were roses left at my front door on a holiday I thought I would never again have a reason to celebrate, and we figured out that we were pretty good together, and we still are, 20 years later.

roses

Symbiosis is defined as the “interaction between two different organisms living in close physical association, typically to the advantage of both.” Ah yes, we interact as different organisms. Brian moves through life like the golfer that he is—deliberately and thoughtfully and can occasionally over-think something to a fine point. He would prefer to sleep in on days when he doesn’t have to be somewhere. He loves drum corps and jazz and the Orioles.

I am into books and writing and food and tend to move, shall we say, efficiently. Let’s just get ‘er done starting at 7 AM. No lingering in pajamas. But then don’t start a project or an important conversation with me after 10 PM which is when the other occupant of this home is ready to sit down and get to work.

The spaces I inhabit for the most part are neat and tidy little worlds (yes, I will admit to some mild OCD tendencies) whereas Brian’s desk and car tend to be littered with extraneous papers, golf balls, and what I call “snivels” –various scraps containing once-important phone messages and notes which never seem to find their way to the trash can.

We have vastly different concepts of when to apply the brakes in traffic. Playing scrabble on my phone prevents me from making what I think of as helpful driving suggestions, as well as reducing the number of times I brace for impact.

When it comes to music, give me baroque, classical, anything that’s structured. I start to twitch five minutes into a jazz improvisation, and I can never understand why drum corps must always be so loud? 

Brian 5-27-13

I will never, ever play golf.  I cannot envision myself in those cute little skirts and pastel polo shirts, and the coordination required to swing a club?? Not going to happen.

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His family says I taught him to spend money. Point taken. I think I’ve done an excellent job with that. I am a when-in-doubt-throw-it-out person when it comes to food while he will reverently keep an opened container of Fischer’s caramel popcorn on the shelf for months. (“Smell it, it’s still good.”) I won’t even mention the contents of his refrigerator when he was single.

But none of that matters. The second half of the definition is where the magic lies. “Typically to the advantage of both” “A mutually beneficial relationship.” Oh my, have I benefited. From living with someone who knows how to fix almost anything. Who will take the dogs out in the middle of the night when it’s pouring rain or clean up their puke, wielding the spot-lifter with gusto at 2 am while I stay warm in my bed. (Who also has been known to climb up on an extension ladder to clean out the gutters during said rainstorms with me standing at the bottom yelling, “Do you have to do this now? You’re not getting any younger.” but that’s another story.)

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Who gave up attending his family’s church to worship with me after I explained to him that to a cradle Episcopalian, other denominations feel like Lions’ Club meetings. Gotta’ have liturgy. Who would compose pieces for my middle school strings when I needed something to fit a concert theme. Who gently corrects my rhythm on choral music because, well, sometimes I have a little trouble with that. Who never gets upset when there’s no supper because I’ve spent the entire day writing a story.

 

Ten years ago, we buried my dad in October and his mother two months later.  One expected, one not. Both parents loved the fact that we were together. Our happiness made them happy in their last years. We looked at each other going to the cemetery after his mother’s funeral, thinking “How can we be in the lead car of a funeral procession again so soon? We have no siblings, so we were nearly annihilated ourselves in the months that followed, coping with estates and the bureaucracy of death.

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And then there was the night Brian spent alone in a Manhattan hospital with only God to talk to. I was in the ICU with eight pints of New York blood coursing through my veins because I nearly bled to death during spinal fusion surgery. But we soldiered through that one, too. At home, he walked the floors with me on nights when the post-op pain was so excruciating I couldn’t sleep. We’d sit downstairs in the dark because the recliner was the only place I could get comfortable, and listen to the hoot owl in the trees in the backyard. He was my spotter as I did laps around the dining room table, learning to navigate with a straightened spine. Fixing my back was the hardest thing I ever did in my life and I couldn’t have done it without him. And much to his relief, all that New York blood did not turn me into a Yankees’ fan.

NYU hospital

I feel like I’ve been the main beneficiary in this deal. I can’t bring myself to even contemplate the terrifying prospect of what life would be like without this man beside me.  So, thank you, Brian, for this most glorious symbiosis, this “close union of two dissimilar organisms” this “cooperative relationship,”… this incredible marriage. Happy Anniversary.

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Calliopes and Such

I recently received a forwarded email from someone looking for pictures of an old trolley car that was being restored. My father was a railroad and transportation historian and had hundreds, if not thousands of pictures and negatives in his collection. This individual wondered if I still had any of them, which I don’t, since they were all sold at auction.

He went on to share fond memories of my dad and mentioned that he plays the steam calliope that toddles along through the Halloween parade held in my hometown the last Thursday in October. Wow. My father died on the night of that parade ten years ago, and I will never forget the eerie sound of the calliope a block or two away playing “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In,” which my dad would have loved. This gentleman played it that night and went on to say that he would be thinking of my dad when he played it in this year’s parade, bringing sudden tears to my eyes.

Most of us who have lost a loved one can tell stories of odd things that happened when that person passed. An appearance of their favorite wild bird or an out-of-season butterfly fluttering by the window. An extraordinary gesture from a nurse or caregiver. A last cuddle with a family pet.  Waiting for the arrival of a child who lives far away, or a spouse to leave the room, before he or she moves on to the next world.

A friend of mine received a cryptic text message the day after her father’s funeral that said, “in heaven now” with no identifying number. A hospital floor nurse caring for my husband’s aunt sang “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” to Aunt Marie, not knowing that it was her favorite hymn. When my husband was a little boy, the phone rang just as he and his family were preparing to go away. As his father picked up the phone, Brian thought, “Uncle Dick’s dead.” Uncle Dick, who was like a beloved grandfather to Brian, had collapsed and died while buying a newspaper at the drugstore.

People who know me will confirm that I am a skeptic, firmly rooted in reality. No “woo-woo” stuff for this girl. I remember one of my high school boyfriends took me to his Pentecostal church for a New Year’s Eve service where people gave testimonials, including one where a woman claimed she saw Jesus in the mist coming out of her vaporizer. We Episcopalians tend to play our religion cards close to the vest and are not given to testimonials, especially on New Year’s Eve. I glanced over at my date that night and thought, “This relationship has no future.”

But I am also a person of great faith, so I am not in a hurry to write off these odd occurrences as strictly coincidental or the product of an imagination overwhelmed with grief. I like to think of them as times when the Holy Spirit gently places an arm around our shoulders and whispers, “I’m just going to send you a little message that I’m here and that it’s all going to be ok in the end. Just hang on, I’ll be in touch.” Even those of us who are non-believers must admit that things happen which simply cannot be rationally explained by science or circumstance.

Late October always brings back memories of the end of my dad’s life. Sitting in his bedroom listening to the relentless drone of the oxygen machine. Every time I open the refrigerator, seeing that box of medication intended for his last hours; the one containing the Ativan and the extra morphine vials, discreetly provided by the hospice staff. The dining car bell he used to summon his nurses, now silent for days on the bedside table. Reading the words of Evening Prayer with him at bedtime as he barely whispers the Lord’s Prayer, dry lips struggling to form the syllables. Late night phone calls from the nurses reporting on his respiration and physical signs of impending death.

The Halloween parade lurching along past the house on the night that he died. Thumping drums from the bands, flashing lights from the floats and police cars. Streets blocked off delaying the arrival of the hearse, the funeral director apologetic as he appears at the door. And as the gurney bearing my father’s body is carefully maneuvered through the hallways and doors, off in the distance, the calliope plays its haunting recessional.

 

Reunion

Nine of us have come together for a reunion weekend in a little town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, an enclave of upscale homes nestled along the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. We were freshmen in the same hall of a dorm at a small college in south central Pennsylvania in the fall of 1975.  Something about that first year away from home bonded us, despite different majors and the fact that a few of us transferred to other schools. After graduation, we scattered to our respective lives, gathering at Christmas until the babies and the jobs and the buffeting of life made even that too hard to do.

Nancy is our cat-herder, the one who fans the flames of friendship, who will not relinquish her hold on this crowd of aging freshmen. Who mows down our excuses of why we can’t get together, sending relentless emails until we all just give up and say, “Ok, ok, Nance, we’ll come.” She prods our slightly resistant and oh-so-busy souls into spending a weekend with people we haven’t seen in years. Part of her motivation is “We’re turning 60 and we need to this. Now!”

We’re all a bit shopworn these days. Illness, tragedy, and painful relationships have etched lines on our faces and carved scars on our body, both physical and emotional. Only one of us still has living parents. Several of us love someone who is struggling with addiction. One of us has dedicated her life to caring for a special needs child, whose disabilities resulted from the colossal ineptitude of a drunken obstetrician. Another recently shouldered the burden of both her parents’ final days and tells sad and beautiful stories of that journey. In the past year, one of us fought a grueling breast cancer battle and won. We celebrate her return to health.

After a Friday afternoon arrival filled with awkward hugs and “We can’t believe we’re finally doing this,” and “Look at this incredible house,” we discover we cannot stop talking. I didn’t realize until after the weekend was over, that no one ever turned on a TV and we barely looked at our phones. Our time is spent fully engaged with each other. Years of bottled up stories and feelings pour forth and maybe it’s easier because we rarely see each other and there is no one to judge. We feel safe with people who shared our first days away from the security of our parents. It’s as though we all went home for a forty-year weekend and can’t wait to tell everyone what happened while we were there.

A group of us spends Saturday in the harbor village, picturesque and crowded on a gloriously warm autumn day. We shop and then eat lunch in a crowded bar. The waitress snaps a picture of us huddled together in our corner booth. We take a boat ride on the river followed by mid-afternoon ice cream cones and a wine-tasting. We talk about where we’ve traveled and where we still hope to go. Cathy wants to go to Scotland and so does Marge and maybe they will go together next summer. There is a surreal quality to the day, like we’ve just been whisked into some kind of time warp, grown-up versions of those wide-eyed freshmen, together once more.

Rather than going out to restaurants, Nancy plans lovely candlelit dinners on the screened-in porch. Our faces are bathed in flattering light, crystal tears from both laughter and sadness sparkling on our cheeks. Someone places her phone in a bucket to amplify the music from Pandora’s 70’s station. We drink wine and eat crab cakes and broiled salmon. The second night one of us suggests we say grace, so we clasp each other’s hands and thank God for the food and renewed health and the opportunity to be together after all these years.

We leaf through old picture albums, marveling at our young faces in the yellowing photos. Our long straight hair with feathered bangs. Boyfriends with 70’s moustaches sporting pastel tuxedos with giant lapels.

“Remember that guy? Who was dating him? Isn’t he the one who dumped buckets of water in our room that night? No, that was someone else. He’s the one who threw Pam’s stereo out the window when they broke up. Remember when I got written up the first week for letting guys in the girls’ bathroom? Ruthanne, why were you always in your underwear? Oh my God, look at those dresses. I wonder whatever happened to that girl who had the sideburns? Was she the one who kept the rat in the cage? It wasn’t a rat, it was a hamster. His name was Thurber. Remember he’d go rolling down the hall in his little plastic ball?”

I can still smell the popcorn and hear Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” blasting out of our rooms.

We all hug each other for real when we leave on Sunday, the awkwardness gone. We’ve dived beneath the surface of brief emails and chirpy Christmas letters. We’ve been at the bedsides. Watched a beloved family member struggle with whatever substance has them in its evil grip. Sat across the desk from a doctor or attorney delivering bad news. Seen the sinister shadows on the x-rays, sat in the reclining chair while the life-saving drugs drip into our veins. Reassured a parent, lost in the haze of dementia, as they ramble on about something that happened years ago.

We are powerful sisters. We are women who will listen patiently to each other’s stories. Forever. Who laugh and cry together about the past and stride bravely into the future, ready to take on whatever it brings. Who, despite the years and miles of distance that separate us, will always be there to place a gentle hand on an elbow when one of us is groping blindly in the darkness. Like a college freshman in her first weeks away from home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gym

“Oh my God, are you Gussie’s daughter??” The teacher looks at me with a pained expression. “Wow. Who would have thought it?”

High school gym class. Ninth grade. Klutzy incompetent me whose spine was just beginning to twist itself into what would be spectacular scoliosis forced to shoot basketball drills with nary a swish through the hoop. Back in the days before self-esteem was a revered educational buzzword. So humiliated I can still remember the incident forty years later.

I just came back from another work-out with Randell. He is a tall, strapping black man who encourages my sixty-year old body (now supported by a spine fused with metal rods and screws) to plank and press and lunge and row. I do it because I am so damned thankful to have a pain-free, somewhat straightened back. I do it because Randell is kind and funny and doesn’t make me feel terrible about my athletic ineptitude. I do it because Randell likes to show me off, pitting my plank-holding prowess against some of the big-gun athletes at the gym. I usually win. Imagine. Me. Having something to show off in a gym.

My mother was a health and physical education teacher. Five foot nine and 120 lbs. A rail. Her movements were lithe and flowing and she could play any game, hit any ball and before she became depressed and alcoholic, was the epitome of the word vivacious. She often substituted at the local high school so all the staff members knew her. Hence the shocking revelation that there appeared to be no genetic connection between her and her clumsy, slightly overweight daughter once the doors of the gym slammed shut.

Five years ago, I screwed up my courage and walked into the big corporate chain gym near my home. I went to the training desk, shoved copies of my x-rays toward the young man behind the counter and said, “This is what my back looks like. I can’t twist, I can’t lift weight lying on my stomach and I can’t run or do anything with hard impact. Other than that, I’m good.  Can you help me?”

He looked at the x-rays and then back up at me and said, “I have to tell you I have never seen anything like this before, but I think there are some things we can do.” His name was Jesse. He was a beautifully muscled soft-spoken physical education major who couldn’t find a teaching job. Jesse wanted to work with elementary children but he got me instead. Not all that different.

We started with the treadmill and planks, the simplest floor exercises. One day upper body, the next day lower body. I learned a new vocabulary—cardio, abs, core muscles. Chest press and shoulder press and pec fly. Jesse helped me maneuver myself onto the machines. Legs awkwardly positioned. Hands flailing at pull cables. He gently suggested I might want to find some new attire after I showed up the first few times wearing those long shiny track-suit type pants. Uh, ok. Oops. Never shopped for clothing with the linked u and a symbols before. Do they make those in my size? They do.

I kept going. Jesse moved away with his girlfriend and I got Trip as my new trainer. Heard he was tough. One of my friends said he had her crying one day. Trip did push harder, but he got me to a stronger place. He used to pull out a deck of cards and assign an exercise to each suit. I would have to do as many reps of the exercise as the number on the card and get through as many cards as possible. Face cards and jokers were wild and exhausting.

Trip introduced me to the “bosu ball,” a torturous half cylinder on which you balance yourself and then do squats and presses and well, whatever you can manage teetering there like a trained seal. No matter how many times Trip showed me how to do it, I could never get off that thing without having to grab onto him, both of us laughing.

My husband and I now work with Randell. Brian has 18 per cent body fat, the metabolism of a twenty-year-old and a nasty history of stroke in his family. His cholesterol numbers continue to improve, he hits a golf ball further and has gained weight from building muscle. Brian plays a gigantic tuba in a drum corps and Randell had him lunge around the gym with it one day to learn the best way to support the instrument without injuring his back. Randell accepts you for who you are and where you are in physical ability and offers a way to live better.

I wish I could say I am one of the “before and after” pictures featured at the training desk as an inspiration for new clients, but my appetite and metabolism continue their long-standing argument and appetite always gets the last word. And to be honest, I am unwilling to punish myself with seven-inch dinner plates and steamed kale just to come down a size or two. I still have chubby arms and too much belly fat but considering my mother was already dead two years at the age I am now, I can live with my middle-aged flab.

Here’s what I’ve learned at the gym. I have learned not to feel intimidated by the spandex queens in their skin-tight tanks and perfectly made-up faces. (Although, really, you’re going to sweat for God’s sake.) I have learned not to make eye contact with the elderly gentleman whose gym shorts are the closest thing to a speedo I have ever seen outside of a swimming pool. I have learned to admire the man in a wheelchair who comes in with his caregiver and works his upper body like an Olympian. He makes me want to fall on my knees and weep with gratitude for what I have.

I’ve learned I need the security and anonymity of working individually with a trainer or on my own. Groups of women Zumba-ing and stepping and spinning scare me right back to high school. Early damage sets in hard, like concrete. I have learned it’s humbling to do things you’re not particularly good at and things you don’t necessarily enjoy and it doesn’t always have to be a big win. Sometimes just chugging along week after week and then hearing a doctor say, “Hmm, your bone density has gotten better,” is enough.

I will always be far happier in a comfy chair with a good book than pedaling away on a machine. I will never be thin and I will most certainly never be an athlete but the last five years have taught me that I too have a place in the gym. I have a favorite locker and I know how to work most of the machines. Some of those clothes I bought with the u and a insignia on them are starting to wear out as are my sneakers. I can structure my own work-out with a balance of cardio and strength training. Occasionally I show someone new how to start the treadmill.

Jesse and Trip and especially Randell have slowly, slowly coaxed that long-ago broken adolescent out of her hiding place and onto the mat and the rower and even the bosu ball. They have convinced her that she is capable and strong. That her body despite its imperfections is powerful and worthy of care.

I am Gussie’s daughter and my current record for holding a plank is four minutes. Wow. Who would have thought it?

Second Act Stories

I think of writing as my second act. After a first act as a public-school music educator, I have raised the curtain on a writer who has been patiently waiting backstage for a long time. She is cautiously stepping into the spotlight, well aware that there may be a few flubbed lines and miscues, but she’s excited to finally be on stage.

Writing has always been trying to get my attention, but I got (happily) side-tracked into music. I spent 34 years teaching strings in a wonderful school system in south central Pennsylvania where I’ve lived my entire life. I’m still a musician, teach one day a week at an urban charter school and love choral singing. But now, at last, it’s time to write.

My topics will be random and written from the perspective of someone who’s never been this old before, so there may be a touch of nostalgia. I want to capture some of the things that drift by us on a daily basis and hold them fast for a moment. I hope to make you think and make you smile and say, “Oh, yeah, me too.”

I will probably write about my husband, my pets and my church, all driving forces in my life. There may be an occasional rant but I’m not here to promote any political agendas, although my left-leaning tendencies may peep through from time to time. I have no special skills to share. I won’t tell you how to dress or lose weight or when to plant your tomatoes. I just want to learn to write well and these blogs, to use a musical analogy, are the scales and etudes, the groundwork needed before attempting a concerto.

You, my readers, are my teachers and I invite your feedback, positive and otherwise. Curtain up. Welcome to Second Act Stories.