the xanax diary

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

My Favorite Part of the Day


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:


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.

The Rituals of Christmas

It seems this time of year holiday traditions are somehow more romantic. The Christmas traditions I shared with Ken are still very important to me. We really delighted in the season. Ken had a childlike giddiness that was infectious. It was impossible to be a Grinch at Christmastime with him around. For me, Christmas continues to be magical. It’s my first Christmas in my new place, and I’m looking forward to bringing some old traditions here and making new ones, as well.

First on the list is to decide where to put the pink Christmas tree.

New Tradition: decorate the mantle with Hermey!

New Tradition: decorate the mantle with Hermey!

The Christmas cards I’ve sent since 2011 have been store-bought, but during the prior decade, Ken and I designed and executed construction of our cards–from concept to creation. (See photo gallery below.) Brainstorming usually began sometime in the midst of summer over cocktails on our patio or in our back yard where it morphed and changed from one thing to another before being finalized sometime in November. Actual construction would begin on the weekend of Thanksgiving. Someday, I’ll have the spark to create my own cards again. Someday.

I have so many memories of Christmas with Ken. Some mundane. Some supreme. But one of my favorites is below. It’s from our 2007 card (which was a DVD) and shows “outtakes” from our video shoot. We’d originally planned a talk show format, but couldn’t work it out. This was funnier.

I’m grateful to be in a place where watching this brings me the joy of the season, and the joy of being with Ken.

Mom’s Classic Halloween Poem

Every year my mom sends us kids and her grandkids this Halloween poem she made up when I as just a kid (so around 40+ years this poem has been around). I remember we had an assignment in third grade to write a Halloween poem, so I saved the time for TV watching and handed hers in instead. (Sorry, Miss Gick!)

This wasn’t a terrifying poem, but Mom recited it with such conviction that you couldn’t help but wonder what her coven designation was–as she was most certainly speaking from experience. Although at the part where the cackle begins is when she’d tickle me silly. Enjoy.

Happy Halloween!















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

…and many more


Milestone dates regarding Ken don’t ambush me or fill me with dread…much. Or at least like they once did. I’m usually prepared for them–particularly the important ones. Birthday. Our anniversary. Or the anniversary of his death. And, really, as time passes and I keep pushing forward in my life, they seem to hurt less. Really, though, what I think is happening is my tolerance for the pain is higher. I’m just used to it.

This past weekend was Ken’s birthday. He would have been 49. It’s marked on my calendar, though it hardly needs to be. I know it like it’s my own. I can still picture the day. Waiting for him to come home from work, martini ready to be shaken. Making whatever he wanted for dinner. Watching him open birthday cards and a presents, and talking to long distance well-wishers on the phone. Laughing and kissing him, reveling in the joy and fun of his pre-semicentennial birthday while making mental notes and listening for clues of what he’d like for next year’s milestone celebration.

If only.

This year I marked the occasion as I have done since he died. I baked up some cupcake love, wrote out a thank you note, and journeyed to the cancer center where he received treatment to see the nurses–of course, Blanca, in particular. And thank them. For all they did for him, and all they do. Period.

My friend Mindy was in town visiting from Portland. It wasn’t really planned to coincide with Ken’s birthday. It just worked out that way. So, on one of our day excursions, she came to the cancer center with me to deliver the goodies and meet the very famous Blanca–someone she’s heard about since Ken received treatment there.

It was really fun. And special to have her there with me. Ken adored her as well. And she was a pylon for me during his illness. Back then the two-hour time difference allowed me to ensure Ken was sleeping before making a call that would be too late locally. To ramble. Or blubber. Depending on what I was feeling that day. Mindy, like so many of my nearest and dearest, allowed me to lean on her. And taking her to the cancer center felt completing in some way. A tiny measure of closure for one of the many journeys swirling around in my head.

It always feels satisfying to honor a tradition I started in his name. It’s still not always easy to go there. But, as I’ve written before, I feel it’s something I must do. I’m compelled to. Out of a sense of…something. A sense of Ken. It’s a part of me that wants to remember all of it. The good and bad. It’s what life is about–as much as I would prefer it to be only about the good, there can’t be any such thing without the other.

In taking someone with me to visit, maybe I can change how I feel about going there, but I’m not truly sure that will ever happen. What I do know–or at least hope–is that it speaks well of him that I still go. That is important to me. And reminds those who treated him for just a minute of his laughter and smile and good humor during his treatments. And that I–and our entire family–are grateful to the nurses for their untiring dedication to him and to their profession.

Baking these creme-filled cupcakes is always a challenge. I baked them the first time i April of 2010 to celebrate (what we thought would be) the end of Ken's chemo treatment.

Baking these creme-filled cupcakes is always an emotional challenge. I baked them the first time i April of 2010 to celebrate (what we thought would be) the end of Ken’s chemo treatment. Note to self: bake something else next time, for cryin’ out loud.

Since Ken’s birthday was on a weekend (when they are closed), I went to the cancer center a couple of days before. When his actual birthday arrived, it felt good that I hadn’t waited for a momentous day to come and have its emotional way with me, but rather been proactive, rendering it somewhat impotent–emotionally speaking.

Kind of like giving grief the finger.

The Outlook Time Travel Trap


There is a trap I fall into every so often when I’m working in the office. (It never happens when I’m working from home.) An electronic pack rat, I’ve kept most of my Outlook email since 2006. I know. I know. That’s a lot of email. But things are cyclical at work and I sometimes need to refer to something old to create something new. And I’m lazy–trying to decide what might or might be useful in the future. Just keep all of it!

It’s during these moments when I need skip back in time to 2009 or 2007 to look for an old document or piece of information, I’m overcome with the crippling desire to see one of Ken’s emails sent during that time. My stomach turns itself inside out, but I’m powerless to stop myself. I click the “From” column to sort by sender.




I’m almost sickened by it–how much it hurts. Like picking off the proverbial scab–but for the 10,000th time. (Shouldn’t I know better?) As I scroll down the screen, my heart and mind ache for a time when he was here. And healthy. To a time my life was so effortlessly complete.

And much I want to go backward, and reply to one of his goofy emails and sign it with “love you. see you at home.” I want to leave work–carefree and oblivious–to head home to make dinner with him and talk about each of our days, and share a martini.

It’s not quite like it used to be though. There were times in those first months I frittered away hours reading through now-seemingly-irrelevant email strings between us, taking great pleasure–even more pain–in them. It was a form of self-torture. To force myself to hurt, as if to scream repeatedly at myself “He’s gone! He’s gone!”

From this vantage point, it seems like such a cruel thing to do to myself. Over and over. But it’s a trap. An emotional magnet that even now is hard to withstand. It’s a slice of a happy time in my life, excised and suspended. Like a piece of art to be pulled out and admired upon occasion. The kind of art so staggeringly beautiful, it makes you cry.

The trap is a little different for me now–some almost-three-and-a-half-years later. Now I only read one or two. Okay, maybe three. To test myself, perhaps. To see if it still hurts as much. To see if I long for him and our life together any less. To see if I can right myself from an emotional tail spin.

It does.

I don’t.

I can.


The Old Camping Percolator Rides Again!


Two years ago, I was saddened–bothered, even–when I found an old camping percolator and cups while trying to do some organizing in the old apartment. It had been a punch-in-gut reminder that I’d never camp with Ken again. I’d never be able to enjoy the thing he introduced me to again with him–or without him, for that matter. The memories and the loss tugged at an already fractured heart, so. I tucked that percolator away near the rest of the camping supplies and didn’t think about it again until I moved in January. Even then, it still bugged me that I’d never get to use it. For Ken. And for me. I even considered getting rid of the camping stuff since I was moving to a smaller place. But I didn’t. Couldn’t.

The percolator had been a gift from my friend Kathy to Ken after she camped with us on our iconic Ojai trip in 2005. She saw what we had for making coffee: pouring boiling hot water out of a tin pan into a coffee filter, teetering on top of a glass pitcher–as not ideal. Dangerous even. I’d only done it a few times and always burned something: my hand…my leg…Ken’s hand…Ken’s leg. It wasn’t pretty (unless I was lucky enough to splash on the prosthetic one.) The percolator was ideal. And vintage!

In all the ways life can give you unpleasant surprises, she can be just as good at delivering sweet ones. I made a new friend last year. Someone who camps. And when we found out that the other camped, we threw around the idea of getting out of town for a long weekend to do so. So, we did just that a few of weekends ago.

It was exciting to gather the camping gear and prep it for actual use! I hadn’t disturbed most of it which was last lovingly packed away by Ken’s hand after our trip to Ojai. It was a litmus test of sorts. I wondered if I would be opening a not-yet-healed wound. Though always nostalgic to see things and touch things he touched, I was mostly excited and impressed by all the things he’d thought of (toilet paper, aluminum foil, salt and pepper and on and on). He took great pleasure in being prepared and in taking care of us. And even now, he still made my first foray back into camping easier. He’s still taking care of me.

Sure, it took a little more time to set up the tent and required another person (thanks, José!) to actually make it happen, but, hey, it had been more than a decade since it had been unfurled (except the week before camping when I freaked and tried to set it up in my living room…unsuccessfully…due to space constraints.) But it was in perfect condition and felt as cozy as it ever did. Although the last time I slept in it, there was no such thing as an iPad and streaming Netflix to lull me to sleep. (I really know how to rough it!)

I wondered if this camping trip would be difficult. It’s easy for me to fall down Ken-laden rabbit holes when doing things so closely associated with him. I wondered if it would be sad. Or hurt. Or make me miss him all the more. Fact is, all those things happened. And happen regularly. You can’t share what we did and not long for it…forever. But, those feelings don’t hijack and derail me much anymore.

This trip was fun. And exhausting. (I can’t remember the last time I spent any time whatsoever on a bicycle.) But mostly fun, and it served as a confidence-building reminder about the healing effects of time. And how far I’ve come. No doubt, Ken is always with me. In my mind and heart and memory. He still weighs in on important decisions I contemplate. He still surprises me when I blurt out something he would have said or stumble across a photograph I’d forgotten about. He’s with me in ways I can’t even articulate.

For me, this was another iconic camping trip. And certainly not my last.


So, about that Time I Worked at DreamWorks for a Week…


While channel surfing the other day I caught an old interview Oprah was conducting with Steven Spielberg at his Indiana-Jones-themed Amblin Studios. I thought for a moment about my one week temping there when Ken and I moved to Los Angeles in the early 2000s.

We both daringly quit our jobs in Chicago, though Ken got a different job with same company within the first two weeks of arriving. I, on the other had, had quit my administrative job and was having a bitch of a time finding a full-time job. Or any job for that matter. So I signed up with multiple temping agencies to try to get some work (and $cratch). It was feast or famine, as it usually is with temp agencies. But eventually an obscure agency in Burbank called me and told me about an opportunity at DreamWorks. Finally! My then-entertainment dreams were finally going to come true!

I had two best friends when I was growing up: Carol from down the street, and television. (Not necessarily in that order.) Being a part of making it happen would fulfill a long-held dream! I mean, it was basically destiny playing out. Driving onto the Universal lot was impressive and thrilling. People were walking around in varying kinds of costumes. Others were being jetted around on golf carts. Large pieces of sets were being wheeled between airplane hangar sound stages. It was like being on a freakin’ movie set!

All cars driving on to the lot were subjected to searches from stem to stern. Guards walked around each car with long poles with mirrors attached at the bottom looking under the car. It was humiliating as I was driving a piece of shit 1991 Ford Taurus that I really didn’t need examined any more closely than necessary. I was afraid one of the guards was going to make me pull over and walk over and tell me “just walk away from the car, sir.”

Amblin was located in the hills above Universal City. Still is, I imagine. Once you left Universal City proper there was a long, winding road that lead to a compound of adobe-looking, Indiana Jonesy buildings with an additional security protocols before being buzzed in the gate.

I got a tour of the compound as my mind tried to wrap itself around all the information being thrown at me. All I can safely remember is there was a building across the courtyard where lunch was served every day. Free lunch. And free snacks. All day. Everything there was free. There weren’t vending machines, just kitchenette areas stuffed with snacks and drinks (and probably gold).

It was an admin job that I was hoping would lead to my career in Hollywood, or at least be something interesting to me. Wrong. It was as the assistant to the Head of Corporate Affairs for DreamWorks SKG, and individually for (Steven) S(pielberg), (Jeffrey) K(atzenberg) and (David) G(effen). It was a fast-paced politically-charged office. Everyone talked a mile a minute. Like the West (Coast) Wing.

When I met the charming, and quite delightful second-in-command (Little Cheese) she made the job sound like one of those make-it-what-you-want kind of deals. What it ended up being was nothing related to the business of show, but rather in dealing with DreamWorks and S, K and G’s stances of political and charitable issues. Even more jaw-droppingly, not only did I have to answer the phone, but had to remain on the line for the entire conversation and take notes, then hand write them into a log book which was normally on Big Cheese’s desk. It was stressful because I never familiar with who was calling or the topic they were discussing. I was terrified every time the phone rang. And gravely relieved if he wasn’t in his office so I could just take a message like a normal person.

And then Laura Dern called.

Now this one I knew! I connected her to Big Cheese and (for a change) gleefully remained on the line to hear some good old-fashioned Hollywood chit chat. I never saw “Blue Velvet” but “Wild at Heart” was a kick, and who didn’t love Dr. Ellie in “Jurassic Park”?

The conversation I was privy to was odd. LD had concerns about the environment. Passionate concerns. Almost concerningly passionate. She wanted to help the environment and wanted to “drive a Prius like Leo” [DiCaprio]. Keep in mind, this is 2002-2003. I thought it was a weird question. Ken and I had bought a Prius right after we moved to LA. I wanted to interrupt and suggest she call a Toyota dealership, not the head of corporate affairs for a movie studio. Just a thought.

Bottom line (and probably not surprising): she sounded like a kook. (The car I last heard she drove ran on vegetable oil. Good for her.)

Another morning, I was the only one in the office. Big Cheese was traveling, and Little Cheese was running late. The good news here is that if someone called, I just needed to take a message–unless they asked for his voicemail. I always hoped they’d ask for his voicemail. They rarely did. But it was still mercifully easier than listening/taking notes to a twenty-minute phone call.

The first call of the day was from Kate Capshaw (Mrs. Steven Spielberg) who I loved. Still do. The British press had gotten wind of a horse she’d purchased there and wondered if she would keep in the UK or bring it to the US. Hardly a hot button issue in my mind. But since I was familiar with matter at hand–and the only in the office when Mrs. Boss Lady called–I handled it, figuring I would be rewarded for stepping up.

I was not.

In fact, I was chided for not just taking a message. But who cares! If I had it to do over, I’d do the same thing. I got to talk to Kate Capshaw (who, by the way, at the beginning of the phone call, asked me my name–recognizing I was new–and welcomed me) for ten minutes. She basically loved me. A dinner invitation and life-long friendship were inevitable.

In spite of becoming best friends and confidant of KC, I could barely keep up on taking notes on the host of conversations I eavesdropped on. My IBS kicked in as soon as I left for work in the morning. Answering the phone became an exercise in terror. And I was filled with dread when turning in my notes to the Big Cheese at the end of the day.

Thankfully, after my week, they filled the job with an internal candidate. I’d miss the paycheck, free food and the excitement of driving through Universal every day, but wouldn’t miss being as on edge as I was. Thinking back on it now, it could have been a pretty fun job, but the “me” back then didn’t have the confidence or wherewithal to figure that out.

At least it left me with my solid friendship with Kate Capshaw–once she FINALLY accepts my friend request.

So, I went to the DMV the other day…

“I think it’s a little strange she doesn’t have an ID,” I said as I passed the tenured, buffoonish security guard about the nurse pushing an elderly woman at the Secretary of State (DMV) office downtown the other day.

The “nurse’s” eyes burned into me and he waved his hands dismissively as I passed. She and I had tangled earlier. She was lazy and probably non-credentialed.

She and the security guard were both idiots. But then again, I’d willingly walked into a Bizarro Universe of the Secretary of State’s office to finally comply with the law and update my address on my driver’s license. I’d been meaning to do so since I moved in January, but since I rarely go downtown, it kept slipping my mind.

Passport and gas bill in hand, I wouldn’t be one of “those people” showing up bleary-eyed and bewildered about identification requirements. I had my facts and brought the proper documentation. Maybe this wouldn’t have to be a painful experience.

“I don’t care about your passport, sir. We have your driver’s license. I need another bill to prove your address.” (And he was the nicer of the two attendances.) The other one was an old guy who shrieked for elderly, pregnant or disabled persons to come to the front of his line. (How many people do YOU think said they were pregnant or disabled to get the front of the line?) And he kept trying to draw standard family relationships between people standing in front of him–incorrectly. “Is this your grandma? No? Is this year aunt? No? Your great aunt?” Great balls of fire! It could be a family friend, a teacher, a babysitter, or even a Foster parent. Unless you have probable cause this woman and little girl are involved in a current Amber Alert, just keep the line moving!

When I returned from stepping out to get a signal on my iPad to pull up my electric bill account, the “nurse” was pushing the old lady outside of each of the two lanes where everyone else was queued. But stopped in a place where there was no way around her.

“Excuse me,” I said, assuming “nurse” would push the chair up just a few feet (she had at least twelve feet in front of her). But instead, she released her grip from the wheelchair handles, turned to me, hands raised–I’m sure it’s a position this little delight was used to–as if to say “be my guest.”

“Just go around her!” the guard bellowed at me.

“How?” I replied super calmly and kindly (I’m sure.)

After passing address confirmation muster, I was assigned a random number, reminding me why Jesse White was still the Secretary of State. His name was everywhere, including on the “meat counter” number I’d been given. And I thought “Who would want to have their name associated with this shit show?”

I mean, really, Jesse White? Really?

I mean, really, Jesse White? Really?

It was sitting there when the guard ushered “nurse” and woman over to himself to give them his personal brand of unskilled attention. It was obviously the woman in the wheelchair who was there for some reason, but when the guard asked the nurse if she was carrying any ID, she conveniently didn’t speak English, shrugged and said “no.” A healthcare “professional” in charge of the care of an elderly woman, bring her downtown Chicago didn’t have a purse or a fanny pack. Nothing to carry an ID or a wallet. Like a pocket. Weird.

When my number was called, I reported to window 7 (after kindly informing the guard of my concern for “nurse’s” identification) for another surly encounter. He seemed less impressed by my online account look up, as he copied both my gas bill and electric bill account numbers down. Then again, maybe it’s standard operating procedure to scribble them down on a scrap piece of paper.

The one bright spot was when he informed me I was within the time period when I could renew my license. (It didn’t expire until next year.) Oddly, I had to consider that for a moment. I last renewed it in 2011, just a couple of weeks after Ken died. I went to a different facility and it was a different experience altogether. But I was somewhat in shock, and I remember sort of floating through the whole experience–detached from it. Quite unlike this experience.

The surly attendant said the only test required of me to renew was vision. I opted to go for it. He brusquely motioned me   to the countertop machine adjacent to his station. The kind you press your forehead against to make it work.

“Do you have anything wipe this off with?” I asked, annoyed.

“Nope,” he replied without even looking at me.

Usually very compliant and a taker of the path of least resistance, I felt unable to comply. Not unwilling. Unable. I leaned over to the machine–hand covering my forehead–and completed the required two tests without so much as a disgruntled word from Happy Gilmore.

Thirty dollars later, I was out the door. With a picture I actually liked.

A lot has changed since I renewed my license last time. Then I was still in deeply grieving and only focusing on what was right in front of me. Long lines didn’t bother me. Poor customer service was usually greeted with a smile. The lessons I’d learned about life and death and what was truly important were fresh and clear in my head. My temper’s fuse grew long and damp.

Apparently, it has dried a little. And maybe shortened a tad. I’m not always great at reminding myself to step back, take a breath and focus on something positive.

Much like buying a car, I think it’s difficult to deal with the DMV and not feel like you’ve been screwed over. But this time, I’d won. Then I walked out, checking over my shiny new card and realized that surly had used my complete address–including unit number–which I don’t recall them usually doing, and something I prefer them not to do.

I’d won…ish.

The Graduate

Jack (center) and Nathan (right) making pancakes with Uncle Ken - Oct. 2002.

Jack (center) and Nathan (right) making pancakes with Uncle Ken – Oct. 2002.

When I met my nephew Jack he was 5, the older of Ken’s two nephews via his brother and sister-in-law. This past weekend he graduated from high school–an emotional event on its own. But packed an added punch knowing Ken wasn’t watching next to me, beaming as I know he would have been. I’d prepared as I much for it as I could. I knew he was there in all of our hearts and minds. When all else failed, I reminded myself what a gift it was to come together as a family to celebrate such a happy milestone in spite of the incumbent–albeit, intermittent–sadness that accompanied it for me.

Ken loved both of these now-young-men without distinction, but Jack, the older, was born in Chicago before the family moved to California, allowing them to spend a good deal of time together when he was very young. I can remember hearing about Jack (then called Jack Henry) from almost the first moment I met Ken. He was always full of stories and photos to share of that bright face with sparkling blue eyes.

See? Sparkly? Jack with Ernesto (his class's mascot on a trip to Disney Land with Ken and Me. Dec. 7, 2001. A day that will live in infamy.

See? Sparkly? Jack with Ernesto (his class’s mascot) on a trip to Disney Land with Ken and Me. Dec. 7, 2001. A day that will live in infamy.

As his only nephews, Ken was a loving and involved uncle–particularly when we lived in LA, and he had access to them. He loved helping them with their homework or with a puzzle and most memorably with building whatever Lego monstrosity they got for Christmas. I feel such pangs of nostalgia as I think about Jack graduating from high school, and how I–all of us–so wish Ken were here, delighting in his pride and love for Jack.

In addition to his graduation, Jack participated in a bridging ceremony, a marking of his transition from youth into young adulthood in the Universalist Unitarian church. The grandparents and I (the only living uncle) were asked to speak, sharing a lesson, a wish or a memory for Jack.

Public speaking terrifies me. I guess it terrifies most people. It’s a fear I clearly have no interest in conquering. On top of that, Ken was a cool-headed, satin-voiced performer who would have relished the opportunity to wax lyrical about Jack, his love for him and how proud he was of his accomplishment. I struggled with serious vs. humorous deliveries–starting and scrapping draft after draft. I knew I couldn’t say what Ken would have said. Or what I thought Ken would have said. Like it or not, I had to speak for me, knowing Ken would have supported it. And trust that the message I shared was somehow shared–from both Ken and me.

I put a great deal of pressure on myself to try to come through with something that would speak to something Ken would have said, but I knew I could never deliver it like he could. Where Ken relished an audience, I reviled one. Luckily, I was able to look at Jack, who was seated away from the audience, during my address.

I didn’t have to think long about it before knowing what I wanted to share with him. (It reads better here than my quivering voice recited it in front of the small audience of family and friends.)

Ignore the audience. Just look at Jack. Just Jack!

Ignore the audience. Just look at Jack. Just Jack!

Hello. I’m Jack’s uncle Ron.

I just have a couple of lessons to share with you, Jack.

The MAIN message I really want to give you is “Enjoy the Journey.”

I know it’s a really exciting time–and possibly overwhelming at times. Like life itself, it can be–and I think is supposed to be–fraught with challenges, both large and small. But a lesson your uncle Ken taught me OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN was to “enjoy the journey”. For its own sake. Not for where it leads. It’s not always about getting there. It’s about the joys and challenges you face along the way, and how you face them.

I hope you can always take the time in your life–no matter how busy, exciting or challenging–to be present in the moment–both extraordinary and seemingly mundane. There is something of value to be learned within each of them.

The second lesson I want to share is: beer bongs are not as much fun as they sound.

(Pause for laughter.)

At least he laughed.

At least he laughed.

I love you and I am so proud you.

Over and out.

Over and out.

I don’t think I knocked it out of the park. But I did step up and swing. And for that I’m proud of the effort and coming through for such an important event. I’ll never stop wishing Ken could be a physical part of all of our family’s milestones–particularly the ones involving Jack and Nathan. Our family’s future. But in my heart, he’s so effortlessly involved. He’s a part of me, and so ingrained in me, and I’m sure, in all of us. And in the fabric of the family.

To add insult to injury, my younger nephew Nathan had the nerve to graduate from eighth grade the day before his brother graduated from high school.

Hilarious photography of Nathan and me courtesy of his brother Jack.

Hilarious photography of Nathan and me courtesy of his brother Jack.

Nathan's "revenge" seemed to involve my ass rather than an unflattering pic of Jack.

Nathan’s “revenge” seemed to involve my ass rather than an unflattering pic of Jack. I was the butt of the joke…again.

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