the xanax diary

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

Archive for the category “Memories”

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!


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. 



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


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.)

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 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.

Dear Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers


TO: Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers
CC: Oscar Goldman, Director, Office of Scientific Intelligence, Dr. Rudy Wells

It’s been a while, hasn’t it?

You might not remember me, but we worked together for a while back in the 70s (see photo). Though I wasn’t quite as well known as you two were, I held my own in areas specific to espionage, Big Foot hunting and Fembot control.

I was the youngest agent in Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI) history, if you’ll recall. Yes, my friend-and-sometimes-co-agent Chris was the same age, but I was 3 months younger. And he didn’t last very long in the Agency before shipping out after third grade to an “unknown assignment.” Without him, I was on my own.

You probably won’t remember any of our adventures together. I’m sure you had your fill with other young agents at the time, though none possessing my acute abilities in running in slow motion and making a wide array of bionic sound effects–from bionic limbs activating for super speed or strength or my right bionic eye zooming in on a target across the playground to the trill of my bionic ear filtering whispers throughout the lunch room. My skills were mad. And I can’t blame you for being just a little bit jealous.

It was a simple time back then, eh? We were heroes. The good guys. Doing work for a good and just government, using our abilities and gifts to the detriment of only those who would do us harm. Sure there was the occasional double agent–hell, sometimes it was even us! But it was for the best. We were always on the side of right. And there was never any doubt about it.

Sure, we all had unlimited expense accounts, government-funded sports cars and A-list wardrobes, but for cryin’ out loud, we were in constant and unending danger! It was the least our country could do for us. We could go to sleep in our horse stable lofts in Ojai one night, and be shipped off to East Berlin the next morning (remember when there were two Berlins??!)

I wonder if you miss those days as much as I do. Running around in bell bottoms and knits, hanging out at Callahan’s desk outside Oscar’s office while he finished a call with “Mr. Secretary,” cross stitching or creating macramé while Steve wailed and played the guitar with that sad mustache he tried for a while. Good times, my friends. Good goddamn times.

Wouldn’t it be fun for the three of us to get together sometime for cocktails and catch up? We could throw a few cars around and teach some cocky deserving misanthropes (e.g. Starbucks line cutters or people on the train who don’t give up their seat for the elderly) a lesson or two in kindness with some slowmo badass moves.

I would love to see you two again and rehash old times. Living in a world filled with so much gray, makes me long for the times of childhood-colored black and white. Sure, it may have been a more naive time. Or maybe the world was the same as it is now, just presented differently. No email. No 24 hour news cycle. No computers—except for the one Oscar would reference upon occasion. (Did you guys ever know what he was talking about?)

Drop me a line sometime and let me know.

Watch your back,

Agent Stempkowski

Falling in Love

Ron Stempkowski:

I considered writing something on this very topic. But my friend Matthew has (unshockingly) done a much more effective job at it than I could have.

Originally posted on gaydinosaurtales:

Two men holding hands  Spring finally arrived in New England just midway into April. We’d begun to doubt we would ever feel the sun’s warmth again. It was a brutal winter that took hold in December and simply would not let go. I was beginning to blame the fact that I am in the autumn of my years, which made it so especially nasty. But that was the general consensus even among the young. We have enjoyed some glorious days lately, putting a lilt into our walk and a grin on the sourest of faces. Everyone is in a better mood. Science may try to tell us it is merely the effect of the vernal equinox and some nonsense about the tilt of the planet on its axis. We all know the reality is Proserpina or Persephone, (depending on whether you follow the Roman or Greek religions), has been released from her six months…

View original 961 more words

Closing Time…

Good bye, Door Witch.

Good bye, Door Witch.

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end” are lyrics to a song I always found profoundly deep (and from which I took the name of this blog). There was a time when I had the blind luxury of pondering its meaning as I sang along in the car, but discovering I was living it during Ken’s illness and death was a true FML moment. For a while I found the song–and these lyrics–taunting, reminding me of something so painful and obvious. Now, I just find them indifferently factual.

On Friday I dropped off the keys to my apartment–the last home I shared with Ken. It was ours together for 5 incredible years that linger constantly in my day dreams, and mine alone the last 3–which are more like a blur than anything else. Part of me feels like a traitor–abandoning the final remnants of a shared life that is over. And that’s exactly what I am. I have to be. I had no choice.

I haven’t been able to grasp many words that describe what it feels like to move away from the last home Ken and I physically shared together. From a place which I experienced some of the highest highs of my life, and–without a doubt–the lowest lows I hope to ever have. Having the keys to the old place for almost two months after moving gave me plenty of time for visits back to an address that will forever retain a tiny fraction of my heart. Because there it knew great love and nurtured a marriage. And there it was fractured. And it was there it mourned and cursed the universe. And it was there it began to heal…with the help of the tiniest puff of black fluff.

Going back there to collect the few things I have left was a little sad. It’s only a hull now. All signs of what a cozy home, filled with love, it was are gone. Though each room stood stark in its emptiness, for me each one brimmed with memories Ken and Quantum and our friends. To think a stranger could walk into the apartment and not know the love and the lives that occupied it makes me sad, and even a little angry.

As much as I thought I’d made peace with moving, this week reminded me of the ever-changing learning curve of the grieving process. I’ve had times when I was cranky and out of sorts. And it wasn’t until I verbalized it (well, texted it) to a friend that I figured out it was because this week punctuated the time I spent on Cuyler Avenue; that it was coming to an undeniable level of ending. There is no going back. Ever. As much healing as I’ve done, moving has certainly scraped up some well-scabbed wounds.


On my final visit on Friday afternoon I followed the suggestion of my friend and fellow blogger Matthew (his blog is one of my favorites) when we last spoke. He recalled the last episode of the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” and how I would have to do something similar, walking around and turning off all the lights. I liked the ceremony of it. And it seemed like it would offer some closure. And it did, as much as anything else.

It’s time for me to turn the page–to see what happens next. And it feels like the right time. Along with my belongings, I packed up all the memories–the good and the not-so-good–and brought them with me. The new chapter I’ve begun–living in my new place–is filled with friendship, laughter, fun…and always Ken, embedded in my brain and my heart and urging me forward.

There seems to be a force of gravity, pulling me–not just away from my old life–but toward a new one.

Bring it.

The Emotional Rub

As stated in my previous blog, the place I’m buying is smaller than my current apartment. I haven’t really packed much yet. It’s been a lot of going through things and deciding what will/will not be making the journey to the place/my new life with me.

And therein lies the chafing emotional rub.

Early in the process of looking at condos and deciding on one to put an offer on, I knew I needed to thin things out. Early attempts resulted in short circuits and overloads ending in project abandonment. When things got serious, and I knew I’d–in fact–be moving, I knew I had to psych myself up for this ardent task. I had the luxury for the past two-and-a-half years to have the room not to have to think about downsizing. And I’m certain two-and-a-half years ago I was incapable of tackling this kind of task at all. That time is swiftly coming to an end. And I’m ready for it.

I won’t allow myself to move myself into a new place, packed to the gills with boxes and keepsakes and things I have an emotional entanglement with if they don’t make sense for me to have. It’s time for new beginnings. But that begs larger issues for me about mementos. What’s the point of having boxes of things I never look at out a sense of responsibility to Ken and our life together? To simply possess them doesn’t seem meaningful enough. And seems almost to be insulting to both in my mind.

What I’m learning is there are some keepsakes that are untouchable. Certainly. Absolutely. But so many others are things I feel a sense of duty to retain. Out of guilt. Horrible guilt. And history. And habit. It can feel like I’m throwing my old life away. Intellectualizing to the rescue! I consider the fact he doesn’t truly care what happens to his one-time belongings. I consider the fact that were the situation reversed, I certainly wouldn’t. I consider the fact that were he still here we would probably change things up and unload some of the stuff we currently have to make room for the new stuff we’d collect. And I try to consider the fact the most important mementos ares remaining and of those, the most impregnably precious ones are in my head and in my heart. And both of those are moving to the new place with me and Kallie.

I have a never-ending ritual of self-forgiveness as I decide to give away, donate or get rid of things that aren’t donatable, releasing myself from them. I even have a little incantation of sorts that I say to verbalize and distract myself to unbind me from these inanimate things. These things that are not Ken. Or my love for him or our life together. They are things that were important to him or us at some point. The page must be turned. And room must be made for new things, new memories, new stories, new adventures. All the while coddling the old ones.

When I try to look at this situation as a sociologist might, I marvel at the connections we have to things that we feel represent something important. In the wake of the death of a loved one, I think those connections are magnified and multiplied. Letting go of things has never been terribly difficult for me. My things, anything. But many of these things were Ken’s, and pre-date me and our life together. I try to wonder what he’d want me to do with them; what should come next for these treasures.

Letting go of what I decide to let go of is the only decision I can make. What happens to them next is up to fate–and out of my hands. I’m released from them. I’d like to think some handsome young actor will pick an item or two up at the charity shop and take them home to his eclectic abode–like the last handsome young actor did–and eventually share them with his boyfriend when they build a life together.

Also, distracting myself with stories like that really helps.

Moving day, here I come!

Full Steam Ahead

I’m moving.

Aside from the Christmas cheer in the air there is also one of excitement. For change. And an equal measure of dread for the same. The normal dread of change. As well as the other kind: the kind that finds me packing up and purging things from my life with Ken in the apartment where we lived together the longest. Saying goodbye to the place where we said goodbye. Not an easy task.

I remind myself of lots of things. Constantly. This isn’t–in fact–the place where we said goodbye to each other. That is a timeless, placeless place that is forever galvanized in my memory. It’s protected. It’s part of me–not this apartment. It’s in my DNA.

My apartment is bigger than my new place. So I’ve begun purging before I commence to packing for the move in January. As a collector, Ken saw value and art and beauty in many things…in a way that I don’t. Part of yin and yang. I remind myself that these things aren’t Ken. And giving them way or donating them doesn’t diminish him, his memory or my love for him.

I remind myself that I’m saying goodbye to this apartment for the best of reasons. As a long-time renter, I’m purchasing my first place. And it’s just two blocks away in the neighborhood I love so much. I’ve loved it since I first moved here as a bachelor  in 1999. It’s the neighborhood as much as my apartment that are filled with memories of Ken and even my life before him.

I try to remind myself how excited Ken would be that I’m buying a place, and know that he would love the place I picked: a beautiful timber loft with lots of light in an old converted factory that built the first movie cameras used in Hollywood’s early days. As an actor, I think he’d particularly appreciate that.

Today I was going through some bookshelves to thin them out. He was a collector of books, as well. I can’t remember the last time I’d looked through any of them. As I sat on the guest room floor (a luxury I won’t have in the new place) with Kallie lying nearby keeping an eye on me, I made a stack of “keep” and “donate”. And I ran across a couple of gems.

I'd completely forgotten I'd given Ken a book for his birthday about "It's a Wonderful Life" (one of his favorite movies).

I’d completely forgotten I’d given Ken a book for his birthday about “It’s a Wonderful Life” (one of his favorite movies).

A book titled "Courage" from a neighbor on the block when he had his below-knee amputation in 1982. I think people have always been drawn to him.

A book titled “Courage” from a neighbor on the block when he had his below-knee amputation in 1982. I think people have always been drawn to him.

Valentine's gift from Aunt Anita when Ken was two-and-a-half. I just received a Christmas card from her and Uncle Don last week.

Valentine’s gift from Aunt Anita when Ken was two-and-a-half. I just received a Christmas card from her and Uncle Don last week.

I found several books with inscriptions. They are indeed treasures and will remain on my bookshelf.

In spite of all my reminders, I’ve surrendered to the fact that going through some of these treasures–and leaving this place–is difficult. And it has been at times. But it’s also been joyful. The good memories far outweigh the bad. The happiness trumps the sadness. And there is a pervasive feeling of “I don’t belong here anymore”. In this place. It’s time for a new one. A new chapter.

Ken was all about the journey, and I’ve heard him rooting for me constantly since I embarked upon this one.

I’m moving…forward.

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