the xanax diary

love, loss, healing and humor (in no particular order)

The Rule of Three


I recall that Ronda wouldn't keep her mits off me and i kept yanking my arm away from hers. And then the photographer told me to count to 3 or 5 and then he'd take the shot. He lied. I was only on 2.

I recall that Ronda wouldn’t keep her mits off me and i kept yanking my arm away from hers. And then the photographer told me to count to 3 or 5 and then he’d take the shot. He lied. Clearly, I was only on 2. l to r: Shelli, Ronda, me.

One day in sixth grade, my classmate Dusty asked, “Ronnie, do you know what the strongest geometric shape is?”

Though out of the blue, he seemed pretty confident about this topic–and the answer. I had no idea what he was talking about. I hated geometry and preferred spending time in my head thinking about important topics like recent storylines on “Battlestar Galactica” or “Charlie’s Angels.” But he was my friend, so I indulged him.

“No,” I replied.

“A triangle,” he said smugly. “Know why?”

I’m sure I shrugged. (The little know-it-all really could have skipped the question-and-answer-round and just gone right for the explanation.)

“Because it has three sides. And each side supports the other two.”

Ugh. Weird.

Weird or not. It stuck with me all these years (possibly as the most boring conversation I’ve ever been party to). But he was on to something.

A time-tested theorem, my two sisters, Shelli and Ronda*, have supported me through the ups and downs of life, as I have tried to support them. Three is a magic number in that regard. You can lean one way or the other, and a sibling will be there to right you. Though as children, it always meant–no matter what–every showdown came down to two-against-one. Each defeat was decisive.

Florida, 1972ish. I love this photo.

Florida, 1972ish. I love this photo. It captures the wonderment and excitement of seeing the ocean for probably the first time.     l to r: Ronda, Shelli, me

Aside from the usual teenage/young adult angst bullshit, we’ve always gotten along. As adults, I realize how fortunate I am to have these two–who have known me for my entire life. They are part of “my tribe”, the hybrid that develops as you grow up and create a chosen family to compliment one’s birth family.

These two chicks are very funny women, though I don’t think they fully believe me when I tell him by guffawing at something horrifyingly mean or cleaver they’ve said. I think we all share that in common. When life hands us lemons, our first instinct is to make fun of the lemons. Have a cocktail. (The lemonade comes later–unless it’s needed for the cocktail.)

My sisters have been married forever and between them I have several nieces and nephews. (I lose count.) In the last couple years, both have become grandmothers–which is a little hard to fathom. Growing up, our grandmothers were old. Always old, it seems. Wise and only sometimes shockingly irreverent. Where my sisters are…well…my age-ish…therefore young. Always young. Forever young! And forever irreverent!

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I look forward to going for a visit to my folks in the house the three of us grew up in. It’s the safest place I know of. Yet no one is safe from jabs, quips, zingers and pile on’s. Everyone is a potential target. Our parents. Each other. Their kids. Our shared childhood. It’s a free for all. And I love every second of it. I remember during my years with Ken, he would usually remain pretty uncharacteristically quiet while visiting my family, and remark on the drive home he couldn’t keep up with how fast the zingers were coming. And I was like “Honey, you gotta get in there and start swinging! You’ll hit something eventually!”

Last Christmas

Last Christmas. Notice the framed original photo from the top of the blog, along with our posed 80s senior pictures. l to r: Shelli, me, Ronda

There aren’t other people who know you like your siblings. The experiences of childhood are somehow more vivid than those of adulthood. And the shared memories and retelling of these stories makes them richer–more textured–each time we talk about those stories of growing up in the 70s in a small farm town with a dad who wasn’t a farmer. We were big city people (Hammond, IN) people who relocated to Hooterville and eventually became proprietors of The Dime Store of Broken Dreams.

Shelli was a hellion of a trailblazer who certainly made it easy to know what NOT to do by patiently reading the rule book she was handed then promptly burning it. Ronda–middle child–was a social butterfly who thirsted for and achieved social acceptance and popularity. The introverted TV-watching baby, I really wanted nothing more than to play with my best friend Carol down the street and when at home, be left alone to watch TV and eat candy.

Shelli usually indulged me. As her baby brother, she would go along with whatever dumb game I was playing. We had improv down pretty early. We made up a baby brother named “Freddie” while our grandma babysat us one time while our parents were away, and she began to believe us.

Ronda mastered the art of blackmail early on. This “Jan Brady” was no one’s fool. “I won’t tell Mom you did blah blah blah if you let me watch what I want on TV.” A painful trade for me, but usually worth it. “That’s blackmail!” I’d exclaim. “That’s right,” she’d reply smugly.

“I’ll get you back someday,” I swore to her, shaking my fist as she changed the channel away from something amazing like the New Zoo Revue.

And I just did. Boom.

However, no one protected me when I shot my squirt gun into the back of the television and it went off. Permanently. It was the old kind of picture tube TV with vacuum tubes with bright little dots shining that were begging to be shot with a water gun. It was our only TV at the time. A 13-inch black white. And when that TV went out, those two bitches were very clear that they were going to throw my ass to the wolves (meaning Mom). And they were not lying.

I decided my best defense was to go to my room and pretend I was napping. What mother in good conscience would awaken their sleeping 7ish-year-old baby boy angel?! Mine, that’s who. And not in the sweet-singing-voice kind I would get in the mornings for school. The scary-high-pitched-voice kind. I blocked out the punishment part, but before anyone knew it Dad came home with an 18-inch color television. You’re welcome, sisters. You’re. Welcome.

We each had our own journeys and trials to get through as we grew up and moved away. Our lives because busy with love, children, career. Each of us surely had our “dark time” when we were on the outs with the family. (Yes, Ronda. Fine. Except you.) But we figured out our paths which naturally led us back together. In a world where friends can sometimes fall away, these two friends are a permanent fixture in my landscape.

At least up until they read this.

Foot note:

*Though the name belies it, Ronda and I are not twins. My parents are just incredibly uncreative.

Grateful


I didn’t dread today. And that didn’t surprise me. It didn’t take me by surprise. And that didn’t surprise me either. I feel something very special. Ethereal. When I look at the date March 23. No matter what font it might be written in, it explodes In my mind’s eye with color, depth, texture, and enormity in every direction. 

It was Ken’s and my second and most meaningful encounter. After March 23, 2001 we were never apart again. Well, until he died on June 1, 2011, but I’ve come to understand we remain together in some very meaningful ways. 

I was recently telling a friend about how I can’t really define how many times per day I think of him because now he is just forever a part of me. We are connected as if a small part of him still lives inside me. And it does. In fact, a tiny part of him remains in all of us who loved him. 

I don’t have a lot to say about today–which in itself is telling. A part of me will always wish it could mean what it did for the ten incredible years we shared. Nothing could ever change my reverence for such an important day, but as time moves me forward, other joyous things might occur on this date. Like this:

Our last piles of snow a week gone, Kallie got a surprise of her “favorite thing” this morning.

I find gratitude and joy in the simplest moments and acts. I’m grateful I wake up happy in the morning; that I’ve been able to cultivate friendships and maintain healthy relationships with those I love. I’m grateful I had the kind of support and fortitude necessary to survive losing my spouse. 

But I’m most grateful I walked into that bar the night I did and that Ken and i connected. 

Immediately. 

Permanently. 

If You Build It, They Will Come (like it or not)


Ron Stempkowski:

One of my favorite posts…

Originally posted on the xanax diary:

I grew up in the church–or rather I grew up in a church. No, my parents weren’t a pair evangelical ministers–they were a pair of…other “colorful” nicknames throughout the years. I grew up in a church because my dad stumbled upon one for sale in rural town he’d driven through on his travels working for the state of Indiana. Unlike a normal person who would have just started a secret second family in this ideal isolated hamlet, he actually relocated my mom, two sisters and me to live there–after a bit of weekend remodeling.

I barely remember our previous house as little more than blurry snapshots in my head, taken by a one-year-old with a penchant for sneaking sips of grandma’s beer. But I do remember going to the new house on weekends to “assist” my dad and grandfather, and to marvel at the open space of the house and…

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About a Blizzard…or Two


The Northeast has been brutalized by snow since the start of winter. Last weekend, it was our turn in the Midwest. It snowed here in Chicago, leaving us with an average of about 20 inches of wet, drifting snow. To be honest, I was kind of looking forward to it…since it was really our first of the season. And because my Chow Kallie loves to play in the snow.

As we walked Sunday night, surrounded in all directions by white, I got lost…in another blizzard; one I wrote about four years ago. It was early in my blogging life–when I was writing about anything other than Ken’s second cancer diagnosis in as many years. It was undeniably a part of my denial process.

We got more snow in 2011. Over 30 inches, I believe. And I couldn’t enjoy it like I can today. Ken was hurting and was about to begin chemo and radiation again. His right shoulder had seized up. Back then, I figured it might have been damage from a fall he’d taken, and would require some physical therapy. Now, I’m pretty sure it was cancer.

We had a doctor’s appointment the morning after the blizzard. Exactly four years ago today, actually. And our car was hopelessly buried off the alley that hadn’t been plowed–and would never be plowed. It was hopeless. Ken, however, was not. So we called a cab. But when he arrived he wouldn’t come down our street because it was…well…impassable. I didn’t have such a zen attitude at the time. I remember being furious. Ken was in a wheelchair for the most part–because of pain issues. And I didn’t know how we could possibly be able to get to the appointment. Most of the city was still shut down.

In true “Ken-do” fashion, he grabbed his crutches while i brought the chair, and we began to navigate down the unplowed sidewalk. The average snow depth was 2 feet. I was so worried he’d fall. And that I wouldn’t be close enough to help. It was one of many days during that time I recall knowing I was being pushed to my limits as a caregiver. And just had to keep pushing. It was also one of the lessons I began to learn: don’t worry about how we’ll get to the doctor’s office, just worry about how we’ll get to the end of the block.

Don’t worry too far ahead. It never helps.

Then we experienced what we termed an “It’s a Wonderful Life” moment.” A woman on our block I’d never seen before ran over to us from across the street and introduced herself as Ashley. She surmised we were trying to get the cab waiting on the corner. She yelled to another man down the block–by name. Sam. A firefighter, she told us. They knew each other and without much adieu, they got in front of us and began shoveling a path as we moved down the sidewalk. Gleefully and purposefully. It was a heartening. And I’ll never forget it. Or them. Or the the gifts they gave me. Reminded me of. Hope. Kindness. Selflessness.

If only I could have embraced those traits on the trip home. Which was worse. We couldn’t get anywhere near the corner from where we’d been picked up. Due to idiots who shouldn’t have been on the road. (And I cursed each and every single one of them–to their faces–out as I helped Ken navigate back to our abode.) He was trying to calm me down. Typical for him. To see me distressed and do what he could to abate it.

It was one of our last great adventures together. We talked about it many times. And laughed. And laughed. And he never failed to get a kick of out the language I used on the last leg of our journey home.

When I returned from my trip down a snowy memory lane the other day, Kallie and I kept walking and playing. I didn’t dread the snow. And I know I know how lucky I am to be able to say that.

 

A Spot of Tea


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When I’m feeling a little under the weather, I drink hot tea. I don’t really like it under any other circumstances. I remember my mom drinking a lot of it when I was growing up. And still does. For me, back then it was mostly a warm, dark vehicle for tons of white table sugar.

I’m lucky. I don’t get sick very often. Sometimes, even before I realize my throat is getting scratchy or I’m sounding a bit nasally, I seek out the little “Colonial” (as I call it) tea cup and saucer. I have two of each. They were Ken’s, though I berate myself for not knowing their genesis.

I panicked for a split second the other day. When I realized I wanted tea. (Also cluing me in that I wasn’t feeling great.) I couldn’t remember where the cups were. Still packed away? Did I donate them in my hellacious urge to purge before moving last year? Would I do that?!

Then I thought for a moment, and had a pretty good idea where they were. And I was right. I made myself a cup and carried the steaming beverage by the saucer to the coffee table and bundled up on the sofa with Kallie nearby.

There is comfort in those two cups. More than anything herbal Lemon Zinger can provide. An emotional salve imbued with the sweetest of memories. I can so easily picture Ken, sitting and sipping tea out of these cups. It was his preferred tea receptacle, too. I mean, they ARE tea cups, afterall.

The cups are dainty, fragile and stained. A lattice of cracks in the glaze decorate the bottoms and sides of each cup uniquely–yet confirming they are a pair. That they belong together.

Ken’s hands were large. spider-like. Yet skilled. Capable of minute and dainty motions when called for. Like when he would sip tea, holding the tiny handle of the cup, pinkie out. Sometimes, overexaggerating the gesture for my benefit. And sometimes–when I would spy him out of the corner of my eye–he did not–just enjoying the ritual that he’d created for its own sake.

As I still do. (Though my pinkie will not stick out no matter how hard I try.)

Dear Universe #2


Dear Universe,

It’s been a while since my last letter. I was thinking about you the other day; trying to understand the mixed-bag-that-is-you as I sometimes attempt to do.

You’re so unpredictable and formidable, and sometimes so cruel. Being kind-of-a-bitch is your thing. I get it, though I must admit I struggle with accepting you as you are. I want to change you. I would bet most people you know want to change you. Take a hint? In fact, you’re becoming quite the cliché.  Aren’t you even a little embarrassed about that? Something you might really want to spend some time thinking about. Just a suggestion.

I know our relationship has had its ups and downs, but it doesn’t mean I don’t care. We have a connection I can’t escape. Who can? You’ve reminded me over and over that I am “not the boss of you” literally 403 quadrillion times since forever ago. Again, I get it.

Have you ever considered rebranding? Like getting a cosmic makeover? Yes, you have a pretty well-known reputation, but it’s based on things like randomness and chaos and surrender. Wouldn’t it be fun to change it up and be known as “fun-loving” and “peace-mongering” and “generous”? Who knows? Maybe you could even score a date. I hear Mother Nature is single again. (And based on her record of late, she really needs to get laid.)

Just something to think about. From a friend.

Speaking of our relationship, don’t think I haven’t noticed how inequitable it has been over the years. I adapt to your whims. I maneuver through the twisted gauntlet you lay before me. And yet you seem unaffected by even my grandest of intentions. I have often wondered if you’re doing it on purpose. A punishment.

But when all is said and done, I know it’s just your nature. And I should expect no more or less. Since you don’t have feelings I know it isn’t intentionally to hurt me. In fact, if you had feelings, my rages against you would have ground them into a fine paste by now. Then where would we be? What good would a blubbering and broken universe be? (Though I have long fantasized about it.)

To be reminded what a jerk you are, is to also consider all the goodness you’ve shepherded into my path. I have as much to be grateful for–thanks to you–as I have lost because of your seemingly reckless behavior.

Shame on me for letting it be easier to recall the ills you’ve hurled at me rather than being grateful for the balmy goodness I have basked in.

You can be real a dick, for sure. But I still wish you well, and know that our journey together is as eternal as…well…you.

Awkweird Dating Tales


One of the cruelest ironies of dating is that you really can’t talk about the politics of dating with a person you’re on a date with—yet he is the one person who (theoretically) understands most closely what you’re feeling in that moment. But, ultimately, it would be like sharing your cards or detailing your “tells” with your opponents at a poker table. It simply isn’t done…by me, anyway.

But as a dater—someone who believes love is possible for me again—it’s a hazard of the practice. Dates are like interviews–as a recent date pointed out (and shouldn’t have.) We all know they’re interviews. It can literally go without saying. And should.

“I know immediately,” my date said about knowing if a date feels “right.” “I have a good feeling about this,” he continued smugly, talking about our date.

This date?!

I had a feeling about it too. A dissimilar one. (Which, of course, I didn’t share.) We both knew something immediately. Unfortunately, we knew two very different things.

This date was extremely painful. The further we got into it, the more he told me how handsome I was. (Yes, everyone loves to hear it, but once does the trick. More than once is “awkweird”.) And the more I wanted to desperately figure out where the fire alarm was located so I could set it off on the way the bathroom and then sneak out during the chaos. (In his defense, who wouldn’t be attracted to such maturity?)

He kept finding and verbalizing our similarities. (I said I was introverted. He lied and said he was too. No one who talks as much as he did could possibly be introverted.) And saying how well we’d get along. I kept thinking, “We’d get along better if our burgers would arrive and this date could end.“

Oh. The high fives. Every time I said something funny or witty, he would toss his head back, burst into laughter, then hold his hand in the air for a high five. Funny and witty is my jam. So, there were a lot of high fives. A lot. (And I’ll admit many of them were not deserved.) More awkweirdness.

He’d already broached the subject of kissing at dinner after disclosing he was a “social smoker.” (Deal breaker on its own.) I asked if he needed to step outside to have a cigarette. (Fuel for a date-ending fire.) He replied something like “one has to weigh the options in case there is a kiss at the end of a first date.”

Ugh. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.

When he offered me the breath strip, I almost didn’t take it. To send a message. But I took it, thinking he was accelerating exponentially and without regard for signs clearly lit on the side of the road straight into a brick wall of awkweirdness. And part of me wanted to watch it happen.

He insisted on giving me a ride home which meant the date was to continue for a potentially awkward 10 minutes more. It lasted a little longer when he missed a turn onto my street. Then upon finding my building, wide-eyed in the darkness, I wondered why he was backing into a parking spot. I mean, how could you NOT tell from the very quiet ride home that this date was already over? I’m not that good of an actor, I’ve been told (by one of my Second City improv instructors, no less.)

He unbuckled his seatbelt and turned to me.

What?! Are we on the same date?!

I smiled awkweirdly and said plainly, “there will be no kiss.” He, of course, understood with incredible unfettered eagerness.

“I’ll leave the ball in your court,” he said.

At dinner, I’d unintentionally revealed that I found it annoying that someone would contact you after a date to tell you they didn’t think you were a good match. (This has happened to me.) To me, not contacting the person after the date said the same thing with less effort or fuss.

He agreed wholeheartedly.

Perfect.

Farewell 2014…I’ll miss you!


I published my previous post without thinking that I still wanted to write about 2014. But I’m a sucker for the statistical fireworks show WordPress.com puts on for me.

So, we’re a few days into 2015. I rang in the new year in bed. Not because of any tragic reason—though I am a those who subscribe to leaving amateur night to amateurs. To be honest, I was kind of sad to see 2014 go. It was a good year; one fraught with exciting firsts for me.

Becoming a homeowner was the biggest event (financially and emotionally) for me. It was exciting and terrifying at the same time, signing a stack of papers for two hours–all pretty much promising the same thing: pay my mortgage or suffer the consequences.

It was a double-edged sword as I moved out of the home Ken and I shared for five years, then I alone for almost three. It was a place filled with so many fun memories, and the obvious sad ones. But the good far outweighed the bad. It was also the place I began my new journey anew (and figuring out how Ken still fit into it). It was the place to which I brought a 9 lb. Kallie home, and it was a place surrounded by the first yard she frolicked in.

It was my home for eight years–longer than any other as an adult–and though I know it’s been completely gutted and renovated, it’s frozen in time for me. It will always be the apartment withe orange and yellow kitchen that Ken and I painted together with the back yard lush with angel trumpets, sunflowers, and the purple blooming hosta.

Sitting in our back yard after the AIDS walk in 2007 with my friend Mark's then-puppy Rocco.

Sitting in our back yard after the AIDS walk in 2007 with my friend Mark’s then-puppy Rocco.

As for the future, I love my little purchased home, nestled just two blocks from the old rented one.

Another fun first was returning to camping, something Ken introduced me to when we first met. A friend and I went to Door County in Northern Wisconsin last summer. It was a beautiful backdrop for something I wasn’t sure would ever happen again. And I loved every minute of it. There will definitely be more camping trips this summer.

2014 marked the first time since a 1983 trip to Mexico with my family that I left the borders of our nation. In August I went to Montreal for a long weekend. The city itself was charming and seemingly European to my starry Midwestern eyes. It was a great introduction to traveling for someone who prefers familiarity and home.

Mexico. 1983. Mr. Personality is on the left.

Mexico. 1983. Mr. Personality is on the left.

2014. Montreal.

Montreal. 2014.

So, 2014 was a good year. And 2015 is filled with hope and promise. Hopefully, there will be more exciting firsts ahead. But I’d gladly settle for some decent seconds.

2014 in review


Starting this blog 4 years ago to write about all the things I was feeling saved my sanity. It’s one of my proudest accomplishments…to date. And though I didn’t break any records writing this year, it didn’t stop the WordPress.com stats helper monkeys from preparing a 2014 annual report for me.

Bring on 2015!

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,600 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

My Favorite Part of the Day


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There seems to be a point in the day by which everything is measured. Sometimes it’s anticipation of a stressful meeting at work or excited anticipation of a special event. But those are the exceptions. A creature of habit–desired habit, needed habit–there is a baseline in my day which is essential, it seems, to maintain order, balance, sanity. It’s the point in the day when I know I can relax, kick off my shoes (emotionally speaking), let my hair down (figuratively, of course) and hoard a little peace that may have been missing my (work) day.

Like many of my fellow Chicagoans, I take the L to work most every day. I used to love taking it. Then stopped needing to. So on the infrequent trips to the office, I drove. Now I love it again. I read, write, watch a movie or even nap (it’s a skill). Zoning out on the train is the perfect way to shake off a busy day and prepare to transition into an evening at home.

As I stood on the platform in the loop the other day, looking forward to my favorite part of the day (which I’ll get to, I promise), I realized I stood on this platform thousands of times throughout my employment in the loop–beginning in 1998. Many of those times, my favorite part of the day was something quite different. When I was younger, I hurried to meet friends after work up in the neighborhood. Or was excited to get home and get the weekend started. Years later, I was tired and longed to get home to Ken and Q. Then after his death, just wanting to get home and close the door behind me. To disconnect form the outside world.

What’s currently my favorite part of the day? Coming home to this face on the sofa, greeting me with sleepy eyes:

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I should qualify that coming home is my favorite part of evening. The morning is usually started off on the right foot with this:

Kallie slithers into my warm imprint as soon as I get up. And is usually ready to play.

Kallie squirms into my warm imprint as soon as I get up. And then challenges me to do something about it.

But in spite of the Ken, Quantum, Kallie (say that tree times fast) and whatever I might look forward to in the future, I wonder if my favorite part of the day is right there on that platform, eagerly anticipating…whatever I have in store for me at home.

And appreciating it in the present.

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