the xanax diary

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

On Ken’s 50th Birthday

I’ve felt the pull of this day for a couple of weeks. Uneasiness and my social impotence returned, leaving me tired and usually in the desire of no one’s company. For someone as far down the path of grief as I consider myself, I’m more than a little surprised when I find an impending Ken-related milestone still throws a wrench into the works.

He would have turned fifty years old today. Fifty. Odd. Fifty seems so young to this forty-seven year old–let alone forty-five which was the last birthday he celebrated. Today would have been the day when he would have woken up to an email from Mama Jo titled “the day,” followed by a song-filled phone call from her accompanied by recollections of how she was hanging drapes when she went into labor–and really wanted to finish them before she went to the hospital. She’d remind him that by the time his dad came in from the parking the car, Ken had already arrived.

What a rush he was in to begin living, we’d always say. Which makes so much sense, as anyone who laid eyes upon him saw how much he savored life and how hard he fought for every day to experience it.

It’s funny to think that when he turned forty, we were living in LA. A few lifetimes ago, it seems. I surprised him with poems I’d asked friends and family to write about him. Some silly, some soulful, some a mix of both, he enjoyed the witnessing the creativity our peeps displayed when expressing their feelings for him.

The limerick I wrote for Ken for his 40th birthday.

The limerick I wrote for Ken for his 40th birthday.

On his 45th birthday we completed a “Ken-Do” Dictionary to surprise him with. He’d been re-diagnosed with cancer and I’d hoped seeing how much he was loved would bolster his strength and courage. Even better, we’d managed to surprise him with his brother and sister-in-law from Los Angeles. That birthday seems like only a few blinks of an eye ago. I’ll never forget the look on his weary and fatigued face when we walked into our back yard to have a cocktail to find Craig and Katie standing there, grinning from ear to ear. He was speechless. And for Ken, that was a feat!

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Since he died, I’ve marked this day with (among other things) taking home-baked goodies to the cancer where he received treatment, and to see beautiful Blanca, the sweetest (and Ken’s favorite) nurse. A new, state-of-the-art cancer facility had been built on the hospital campus and opened this past April. This was my first opportunity to see it, and I was lucky enough to get a personalized tour from Blanca who was rightly quite proud of it.

The new Creticos Cancer Center at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center

The new Creticos Cancer Center at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center

There are many reasons why I enjoy–and feel the need–to see Blanca. And I can’t explain all of them. Her spirit is so calm and joyful. She sees what most would consider to be such sadness and pain, yet she possesses a lightness that defies the disease that seemingly swirls around her. She is a connection to another time for me; a difficult time in some respects, but also a time that carries its own share of joys. When she laughs and smiles and mentions a “Kenny” memory, it’s both matter-of-fact and dazzling to me. That she has such powerful memories of one of thousands off patients she’s cared for over the years reaffirms all the things I know to be true about his character.

This year's treats were brownie cupcakes with chocolate ganache and flaked sea salt.

This year’s treats were brownie cupcakes with chocolate ganache and flaked sea salt.

Like last year, my friend Mindy was in town from Portland and accompanied me on my visit to deliver my treats, see Blanca and the new cancer facility. (Aside from the usual catharsis that spending time in the kitchen to bake for the nurses and staff provides), sharing this tradition with someone has begun to change it for me in the smallest of ways; to take it outside of myself and help me put it in some sort of context in terms of my life now. Without really realizing it, the day wasn’t just about marking Ken’s birthday. It was a day about love and fun and friendship and remembrance.

Most importantly, it was about life.

Mindy and Ron selfie toast after a job well done.

Mindy and Ron selfie toast to Ken after a job well done. Cheers!

A Hoosier Boy’s State of Mind

As my knees buckled, and my body careened to the hard cement at the top of the steps, I could hear the kid next to me saying, “Don’t lock your knees.” How do you stand for hours in the hot sun and not do that? As I lay crumpled on the scorching June concrete, I heard the kid say to the adult rushing to my pathetic rescue: “He locked his knees.”

It had been an intense week, and all I remember about the photo I standing for before losing consciousness was the irritation in my dad’s voice when saw it months later, saying, “why are you always standing apart from the others?”

Well, I was about to pass out, actually.

It didn’t bother me. I was an outsider–an observing visitor–during those years. I was waiting for my real life to begin after high school just one year away. In the meantime, I did my best.

It was the summer of my seventeenth birthday, and no one was more surprised than I was to hear I was chosen as an alternate to attend Hoosier Boys’ State…considering I had no idea what it was or how I’d been nominated. (You couldn’t just “google” it in those days.) My parents were proud of me, and considered it to quite an honor. But I’m pretty sure they had no idea what it was either.

Luckily, being an alternate meant I didn’t ever have to find out, but would consider using it on college applications, if necessary. “Excuse me, but I was an alternate for Hoosier Boys’ State. Thank you.” However, I was soon notified that one of the “primaries” wouldn’t be able meet his obligation, and I would be able to attend in his place.

I had no idea what I was in for, but what I did know was that I was getting out of my tiny hometown for a week. It was an exciting prospect! Maybe I could change the part in my hair, speak with a Scottish brogue and go by “Scotty.” All possibilities were available, it seemed.

Hoosier Boys’ State was a seven-day session held at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, a city several hours south. (It’s also the city where orphaned Sissy, Buffy and Jodie were from on the 60’s TV show “Family Affair” before they went to live with Brian Keith’s Uncle Bill in New York City.) What sealed my excitement about going…no matter what…was that since neither of my parents were able to drive me, I was entrusted with my mom’s Buick to drive down on my own. It was by far the most exciting proposition that had ever come my way: complete freedom and independence with a car, a hundred miles from home. Whatever else was entailed didn’t really matter much to me. It would be worth it!

Hoosier Boys’ State was a mock state government. We were divided into two parties: federalists and nationalists. Each party established it’s own platform which was voted on by its members. We had campaigns, debates, and voting from precinct committeeman up to mayors of the cities, and ultimately governor of our (boys’) state.

And I was interested in none of it.

Politics still has a hard time holding my interest. More importantly, there was far too much social interaction required for politics. I was an acne-faced, insecure misfit with no desire to risk ridicule by running for a public office–in stark contrast to all of the good-looking, smooth-talking, sports-minded boys who were in attendance. However, there was another, ideal option for me: the fourth estate. I was editor-in-chief of my small town high school newspaper. And, even then, writing was a “go to” for me. I wouldn’t run in any of the elections, I’d cover them as part of the press! The social interaction of an interview was easy because the subject just talked about himself. Even better, I would be excused from all the required athletic and social activities! “Sorry, I have newspaper work to do. Thank you.”


Our daily paper, the Hoosier Boys’ State-Ment.

Those of us who decided to apply for a position on the newspaper gathered in a room, and depending upon what position we wanted, had to stand up (they were gonna get me talking one way or the other), talk about our experience and why we would be good at that specific role we’d selected. I still marvel at my young self getting up and giving my spiel on why I’d make a good editor (I was shooting for the mood and going for editor-in-chief), based on my experience from writing to editing to paste-up. There were guys there from much bigger schools with far more resources that were truly impressive. I figured I’d get assigned to report on one of the election campaigns.

The sponsor posted the assignments later that same day.

Boom there it is.

Boom there it is: Production Editor

I don’t remember much about the schedule for the week. Because I wasn’t a reporter or running for office, I was exempt. “Excuse me, I’m a Production Editor. Thank you.” My job happened after all the stories were submitted, editing them and preparing them for paste up.

I spent a lot of time with the other production editor, Jeff, and a kid named Chris who was one of the paste-up artists. We hung out for hours at the Hardee’s just off campus, talking about “Star Trek” movies of the day, and generally avoiding interaction with the others. We didn’t really fit in with the blood-thirsty, go-getters fighting for a state office. I was grateful (and, in retrospect, proud) that I’d managed to find a little tribe of my own kind of people, if even for a week.

Boys’ State is sponsored by the American Legion. So, it was what I would term a “para-military” situation. We had to get up at something like 5 or 6 a.m. for reveille, eat breakfast within 30 minutes, then spend the first two hours of the day (it seemed) marching in formation on the football field. In June. In Indiana. Oh, and in jeans. NO SHORTS ALLOWED!

Hence, passing out.

Our early morning marching drills.

Our early morning marching drills.

Our last official day was a Friday. It was the last day we produced a paper. Saturday morning there was no reveille–just a breakfast followed by an official assembly and dismissal. By 5 a.m. that morning–long before breakfast was served–all of me left at Boys’ State was a puff of smoke and the sound of a car screeching out of the parking lot northward!

That week had been the longest I’d ever spent away from home on my own, and was important in that regard. It was a big challenge in terms of getting out of my shell and interacting with others–something that has never…er…still doesn’t…come easily to me. But I’d done it. As me. No brogue, no fun fake nickname, no false personality traits. Just a shy, skinny, uncertain introvert who had made it through the week in a strange place and figured out a few things.

Oh, and he passed out in public, too.

The Camping Connection

Camping checklist: Lantern, Percolator, Puppy...

Camping checklist: Lantern, Percolator, Puppy…

In the quiet moments of the early morning while camping, I relish in the connection I feel with Ken. Usually the first one up, I take great pleasure in the ritual of making coffee and readying the stove for breakfast once the others have emerged from their tents, scattered around two adjacent camp sites. It was Ken who first taught me how to camp, so touching–using–the things we bought together have great meaning for me.

I wonder if they always will.

And I sometimes wonder if I would be such passionate camper were he here to take on that role for the both of us.

My most recent outing with friends for the second time this summer was–quite unintentionally–to familiar territory for me. The friend who planned the trip wanted to see Wolf Park, a habitat for studying wolves located near both my hometown and my alma mater, Purdue University. (I have a connection with Purdue I was made aware of long after I’d graduated: Ken had gone there too. His last two years there were my first two.) In the four years I studied there in the [gulp] late 80s, I’d heard of Wolf Park, but had never gone to check it out.

Getting there was a path I’m intimately familiar with, having driven to my folks’ many times over the years since I’ve lived in Chicago. After a dog drop off and a quick visit with them, I headed 30 miles south to Lafayette where two camping two cohorts awaited, with one still yet to arrive later in the evening. The stretch of highway between my hometown and Lafayette was both familiar and foreign at the same time. Enormous wind farms stretched up in the fields along with the corn and soybeans. It seems like such a good use of the “great plains” that wasn’t an option when I was growing up there in the 70s and 80s.

Seeing the wind farms always reminds me of a time when Ken and I were at my folks for some holiday and the topic of these wind turbines came up. At the time, they had been springing up all over the area. In fields. In people’s yards in the country. My mom pondered aloud, “I wonder what you get for one of those in your yard” to which Ken (who generally stayed out of the fray with my family) shot back immediately, “probably cancer.”

I don’t love zoos, so I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about Wolf Park. It was interesting to hear about the habitat and the grey wolves that lived there. We, the audience, howled (I didn’t participate as a conscientious objector) in order to get the two wolves to howl. Once they did, we heard the coyote’s answering the howls across the pond, but never saw them. I’m glad for the memory of having experienced it, but I wouldn’t do it again.


It had been more than twenty years since I stepped foot on Purdue’s campus. I’m not sure I was old enough or wise enough to appreciate college when I was there. I’m grateful for the education, but I never really connected with “Boilermaker” pride–particularly in matters extremely important in Indiana: sports. The campus has at least doubled in size–if not more–than when I graduated in 1990. I took my friends on a short tour. It was a hot day, and Purdue itself would be worthy of a trip all its own.

But as I walked through the halls of the Purdue Memorial Union (where every student spends at least some of their day), I considered that Ken had walked down the same hallway all those years ago. And that we may have even unwittingly crossed paths, embroiled in our own wolds as we passed–unaware of our future together.

In fact, I’m sure we did.

The Purdue Bell tower.

The Purdue Bell tower.

As for being back at my college and in a town I lived in for several years, returning to the campground was my favorite thing. There are fewer treats than sitting around a glowing campfire, surrounded by darkness and the sounds of nature’s tiny creatures calling to one another, delighting in s’mores, laughter (and cocktails!), then crawling onto my puffy air mattress in the little dome tent Ken and I shared, putting in headphones to block out aforementioned creature chatter and falling asleep to a movie on my iPad.

Ahhh…roughing it, indeed.

Dawn breaks over the campsite.

Dawn breaks over the campsite.

Pondering on What Comes Next

Visiting Claire Santa Monica in 2012.

Visiting Claire, Santa Monica, 2012.

Friendships can begin in the unlikeliest of places, perhaps as a reminder that good things can happen even in the darkest of circumstances. I’ve written before about meeting author Claire Bidwell Smith before the success of her first book, a memoir of grief about losing both her parents before she was twenty-five. She was Ken‘s and my grief counselor while he was home for hospice for what turned out to be the last eight weeks of his life.

Our friendship was forged during a time of great tumult and pressure–for me. Perhaps that makes it different from other friendships. Somehow stronger, tougher, more resilient. Without need of constant care and tending. I feel a connection to Claire that is unique; special. Ken is a part of our friendship. He is why our path’s crossed, making it innately remarkable.

Claire’s second book, After This, came out recently. It’s an exploration about different beliefs of what happens to us after we die. Like her first book, Rules of Inheritance–which I devoured in a day, it ties into a topic I’m all too well versed in: death/grief. As a psychologist and grief counselor, it’s one she’s intimately familiar with, and again, it’s the reason we came into each other’s lives.

Claire left her job with hospice and moved to Los Angeles shortly before Ken’s death in June of 2011. Since his family lives there, I try to find time to visit with her when I’m in town. I saw her and her daughters about a year ago when I was there to mark the occasion of each of my nephews’ graduations from eighth grade and high school.

Earlier in the year, I was excited to see she would be coming back to Women and Children’s First Bookstore in Andersonville to do another book reading/signing this past week. She had done so back in 2012 to promote the first book. I remember that cold Friday night in March. I wasn’t a year out from Ken’s death and still mostly keeping to myself. I was living a very different life then. I don’t think I invited anyone to join me at the reading. It was something I wanted to experience alone. But three years later found me sitting in the bookstore and sharing the experience with three friends, listening to Claire read an excerpt and talk about her book.

Part of her research in writing it was meeting with psychic mediums like John Edward and James Van Praagh. She also met with a Chicago-based medium and “intuitive consultant” named Delphina. I remember her telling me about the experience when we met for drinks just a few months after Ken died in 2011 when she delivered a message to me from him she’d held since they day she said good bye to him.

After Claire read and talked about how the idea for this book came about, she invited Delphina to speak about her process, the concept of connecting with “the other side” and about skepticism. She was a vibrant and bold character, gesturing wildly, cracking jokes and making fun of herself at every turn. She wasn’t what I expected, and her quirkiness caught me off guard.

When she asked the audience if we would grant her permission to do a reading (depending on who contacted her from the spirit world), we all agreed. But I got very nervous. My heart started pounding, and though I kept a smile on my face, one of my friends told me she could tell from the flush in my face that I was anxious.

Having so recently dealt with Ken’s death and trying to figure out grief, my life and what happened to Ken–happens to all of us–after we die, I’ve tried to build a framework that can be applied to all situations–which is difficult at best. I had a “best case scenario” with Ken. We knew he was going to die. He knew it, accepted it and led us down the path with incredible grace and humor. Nothing was left unsaid.

For all the work I’ve done to accept what was happening and to love and grieve him, I have to believe that if anything comes after this life that it’s not connected to it; that Ken isn’t floating around worrying about me or his parents or nephews. I need to believe that if there is more, then it involves exploration and adventures and creation, untethered by what has been left behind on this earth.

But what I saw Delphina do in delivering messages from the deceased to other people present at the book reading was pretty compelling in another direction. She talked to three different people in the audience for whom she received messages. Each of them nodded meaningfully as Delphina delivered the messages. There were no denials. No corrections. No skepticism.

Part of me was terrified that if there is indeed a spirit world who communicates via people like Delphina, that it would be just like Ken to put me on the spot and deliver some grand, inspiring and funny message. Or maybe that’s what I hoped: to be proved wrong with a message from him. Regardless, it didn’t happen. Maybe there was no need for a message to be sent to me; nothing left to say. We are connected in a way that is immutable, and I’ve never been encouraged to explore in a way that might challenge that.

My friends and I had some interesting discussion at dinner after the event about the topic of what comes after we die. All different opinions and perspectives and experiences. It was fascinating and fun. It’s something we have all been touched by, and something we will experience ourselves. I think talking about and listening to different ideas is the important thing.

But I’m not ready to see an “intuitive consultant” quite yet.

A Case of the Birthdays

Friends, Memories and Birthday Cards.

Friends, Memories and Birthday Cards.

Yesterday was my birthday. And I woke up to—and enjoyed-all kinds of well wishes all morning. But like most milestones Ken was on my mind. Not in a sad way. Just in the way I carry him with me way. Of course, it’s impossible not to remember his fondness for ensuring I had a special day from the moment my head lifted from my pillow, until it collapsed drunkenly back into it. Birthdays celebrated with Ken were delightful and special.

Birthdays are meaningful days for most people. As they should be. Entering this world is a miracle. And it’s a day you’re reminded how many people are so ecstatic that event took place. It’s a day where you are unabashedly celebrated for being you. And just being. Period.

Mine falls two weeks after Ken left this world–a temporal fact I regarded as a curse. Particularly in 2011. I remember that first year—that I didn’t want to hear the words; that if Ken couldn’t wish me a happy birthday I didn’t want to hear it from anyone. It was a devastating reminder of what I’d lost and probably guilt-ridden way a way of punishing myself for living. Rather than hearing them as the affirmations they were intended to be.

Subsequent birthdays have gotten easier. More fun again, as they filled up again with friends wanting to take me for drinks or dinner; to celebrate with me. To celebrate me with me. And most importantly, I wanted to let them.

Triteness and working through survivor’s guilt, and the benefit of time have made birthdays fun again. And thanks to my family and friends, I’m already looking forward to next year.

My team at work suprrised me with cupcakes for my "30th" birthday--which means I was hired when I was 13.

My team at work surprised me with cupcakes for my “30th” birthday–which means I was hired when I was 13.

Dear Ken

My love,

June 1, 2015 means it’s been four years since you left this world. No matter how much time passes, it doesn’t really make sense to me. Our life together is so vivid and textured, it only seems like a blink of an eye since we met, let alone fell in love and lived 10 incredibly happy years together. I hope it always feels that way.

I’ve learned a love like ours is too powerful—too potent—to stop or fade away. It can’t be contained by time or space. It’s enduring. Eternal. It’s not even about missing you more times per day than I can count anymore, it’s more about how you are a part of me; how in some lovely and seemingly small ways, I still have you with me. Just like you told me.

I still mourn the loss of you and our life together. I still get angry and sad that you’re gone; that I’m single and pushing forward on my own. But those times have become private, smaller moments when I see or experience something that reminds me of you. I try to honor us and what we had by speaking of you unabashedly to friends or strangers if it feels right. So many of the things we learned from each other are still applicable today. And I try to share the value of our experiences with others.

I don’t feel tethered by grief as I have felt in the past. My feelings about this day are more nostalgic and reverential than sad. (See previous years 2014, 2013, or 2012.) People have asked me why I’d want to mark this occasion as I have every year–whether publicly or privately. I say not because it was a difficult day, but because it was an important one. For you. For me. For us and our family. My world changed, and it’s worthy of marking.

There have been ups and downs in the intervening years, but I think I find myself in a good place–in all respects. It wouldn’t surprise you to know that though my life is fairly social, I still need my alone time. Though as you would be less surprised to know that my alone time involves a furry Chow Chow. (Something you would know about.)

You would recognize and love most of the faces who are in my life. You’d also get along famously with the new ones—particularly the ones who push me out of my comfort zone—a place you felt ridiculously comfortable and a place I try to remind myself I belong once in a while.

You’re the voice I hear in my head—whether it’s your silky radio voice or that of one of your myriad goofy characters—the one that propels me forward and encourages me. I hear you when I’m running. I hear you when I’m pushing myself physically or creatively. I hear you when I try things or do things you enjoyed. Like using chop sticks or when I’m camping with friends. I hear you when I’m sad or when I’m disappointed, comforting me. I hear you when I’m gently doling out relationship advice to our friends. You are the best parts of me. And as time passes, I see that more and more clearly.

Time moves me forward whether I have wanted it to or not. It’s that taken time to figure out—to continue to figure out—the role you still play in my life and my world. But sure as I am that you would be proud of me and the life I’m living, I’m just as certain June 1 will never be like any other day of the year for me.

You are still as loved as you are missed.



On the Unlikely Subject of Running


I ran my first 5k recently. It was an amazing experience. For me, it was the return of…something. A break-through of some kind. One of the small victories that reminds you of the achievements you’re capable of. If you push yourself. It’s a sense of accomplishment I can’t say I’ve felt in a long time.

The first race I selected was in my neighborhood. It seemed like the perfect inaugural run. No transportation or chaos in order to get there. I walked to the starting point, wearing my shirt and number, people running past me wearing theirs. (We get it. You like to run so much you’re running to the starting point of the run. Sheesh.)

The atmosphere in the neighborhood was electric. And intimidating. I’d only run 5k three times in the couple weeks leading up to the event. Two miles was (and still is) my current minimum run. Additionally, I run alone with music. So running in a group of thousands was both scary and exciting to me. I never expected to be a runner or love it as much as I do. Unlike the epic fails of my youth. It’s true that it’s an addiction, of sorts. If the weather is decent, I get itchy to get out and get in my run in.


Once the pistol went off, it took a while for those in front to get moving so those of us in back could do the same. It was immediately different from my runs before. Though it was me alone, it wasn’t. I was part of something bigger. A trite metaphor for life but a needed reminder. We all the same goal: to run and have fun.

As I started running, my head burst with thoughts of Ken. About how much he would have loved to run. About how he would have found a way to run with me—and make it look somehow so easy. About how he would have cheered me on and how proud of me he would have been. And how all of that, in fact, happened. Because he is a part of me. With me, he was a participant in this undertaking. My journeys are shared with him. My triumphs are his, too. Always.

As my run progressed I focused on the ground before me and the people around me. It was a fun, new experience to sprint around slower moving groups as our path weaved around the streets of Ravenswood. (That happens rarely when running alone.) Likewise, it was a little humbling to have moms and dads whisking past me, pushing baby carriages. But the pervasive feeling of the run was so joyful. The streets of the neighborhood were lined with people cheering us on. I have to say, it really helped to spur me forward. It made it an “our” thing and not a “my” thing. For someone who can still hesitate to be social or join, I found it freeing.

I didn’t push myself on the run. I’d been advised to take it slow and enjoy it–which I did. Until the end. When I saw the finish line and pushed hard to get there as fast as possible. It was an exhilarating way to end my milestone first 5k.


Crossing the finish line was surreal. I couldn’t believe I’d actually spent the last half hour running to finally make it to the end! Beyond the finish line was chaos. Thousands of people milling around, celebrating. I’d met my quota for excitement for the day. I grabbed a bottle of water and banana from one of the free stands and walked home. Slowly. Very slowly.

Next 5k is June 11!

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!


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.


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. 



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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