the xanax diary

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

Incredible Feets of Astonishment


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A gigantic part of Ken’s identity was his left leg…er…lack of one. After having it amputated below the knee when he was a teen was life-defining–and I’ve written before–it sent him down the path of becoming the most inspirational people I’ve ever known–let alone loved. “Feet” played a big part in his life, and in turn, mine. His one-man show about his journey with cancer was called “My Foot Left”…as is his website that I haven’t touched. He had a Grey’s Anatomy tattoo of a leg on his upper left arm, illustrating the various medical lines of amputations (pictured above.) It was such a part of his identity. Because he chose it to be.

So, it’s no wonder as I settle into my new home, continually rearranging and organizing, that I stumble across lovely reminders of Ken and his sense of humor. He owned his differentness–loud and clear. Mementos of that bring a smirk to my face. I was cleaning off a bookshelf (and desperately looking for distraction) and came across Tickle Toes, a Simon-like game he found for something like $2.97/each on Amazon.com when we lived in Los Angeles. He put his contact information on the bottom and left them as gifts with casting agents. Anything to stand apart, right? Ours lay around the living room and always got played when company was over. I put mine back into the living room after I found it, and played it for the first time in I-don’t-know how long. Check out the video. I crushed it.

I found a piece of pretty card stock, lined up with I-Zone photos of the left legs of his friends he took back in the aryl 2000s. It was going to part of an art project that didn’t happen because of some material limitations at the time. He was going to have them placed on the “bucket” of his prosthetic leg. Ironic. Funny. Irreverent. And all very Ken.

Ken himself and Quantum in the center top row. I'm first left second row.

Ken himself and Quantum in the center top row. I’m first left second row.

I pulled an old jewelry box off the shelf to look through, wondering what sort of feet I’d find in it. The ring I discovered was surprising. At first I didn’t remember it at all, but the more it sank in I recalled it from early on in our relationship. The inner track with the foot prints, spins independently. And is obviously horribly tarnished and way too small for me.

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When I moved into my new place during the dead of winter, I was in a bit of a daze in some respects. Aside from moving itself being a stressful task, moving away from such a special place with so many memories made it even harder. Plus, Chicago’s winter was particularly harsh and unforgiving this year. I just needed to get things into the new place and put them somewhere. Stumbling across any artifact of Ken’s transports me for a split second to another life that seems at the same time so long ago in many respects, and like yesterday in just as many others.

Like any place you’ve lived and thrived, it’s a place I love to visit, though I know I no longer live there. I sometimes wonder if I didn’t purposely hide some of these relics away to find and reflect upon sometime in the future. Whatever the case, I have no doubt more “feets” lie ahead for me.

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…

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Lucky Thirteen


It made me more than a little sad yesterday when I looked at the calendar–as I do every day–and realized it was the anniversary of when I met Ken, intertwining our lives. Thirteen years ago. A lifetime ago.

I feel an emotional distance from this milestone date that filled me with glee when he was here and echoed inside my empty heart after he was gone. Like some kind of safety gate has come down, keeping me from getting too close to it. A means of protection time has granted me, I suppose. I have the ability to breach the gate. I used to do it all the time. But I don’t choose to fall down the rabbit hole much anymore.

There was a time when these milestones approached me ominously, filling me with dread and painful reminders. Now they seem more like nostalgic pangs than anything else. Almost like it these key dates belong to someone else. And I’m just an observer. A passer-by nodding at them in acknowledgment and politeness.

I long ago made as much room in my head as I already had in my heart for Ken. I hear his voice as clearly as I hear my own (as well as all the other “voices.”) Especially when I catch myself saying something he’d say or doing something he’d do. Usually, he occurs to me in flashes of familiar encouragement. Or when one of our old inside joke occurs to me, I smirk to myself and think of him. It’s still “our” inside joke. It can’t be taken from me.

This week I bought a new grill for the small patio I have at my new place. The last grill we bought was in 2008, dubbed “the grill of Ken’s dreams,” was falling apart, and way too big, anyway. So, it didn’t make the move from the old place with me. That was back in an old life that didn’t require me having to put anything together–a time when I wasn’t solely responsible for every aspect of my life.

The grill of Ken's dreams. 2008.

The grill of Ken’s dreams. 2008.

I’d managed to buy the grill, fit the gigantic box just barely into my car, get it home and into my condo–all on my own. The instructions cautioned that at least two people put it together. Great. I need a date just to assemble a grill. With two people, the instructions said it would take about 50 minutes. With 1 person (and a disinterested Chow Chow supervisor), it took an hour and twenty minutes–sans a single curse word. I thought how much fun it would have been to put together with Ken, and how proud he’d be of me as I dug around in the tool box. He made everything more fun. He certainly made living with cancer a lot more fun than I would have thought possible.

I’m not even sure what I want to say about the anniversary of our meeting. Fact is, I live a different kind of life now. One that doesn’t leave me in my own head as frequently as it used to. One that doesn’t irritatingly remind me what I had and what I lost. My present and future hypnotically hold my gaze. Thinking of him is something that happens many, many times every day. Punishing myself by wanting to live in the past–drenching myself in futile thoughts–may have been appropriate early in my grief journey but hold little interest for me now.

Or maybe I’m just having a good day.

New grill. New dreams.

New grill. New dreams.

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.

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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!

2013 in review


The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,800 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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.

My Third Blogiversary


I can’t believe it’s only been three years I’ve been pouring my heart out into the ether of the internet. It seems like I’ve always been blogging. It certainly saved my sanity during the insanity of the last few years. But it also has served as a venue for sharing my brand of humor. I’ve linked a couple of my favorite blogs below to mark the occasion.

The Dime Store of Broken Dreams

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

The Unflattering History of Sports (and me)

Thanks for reading.

The Story of the Pink Tree


Ron Stempkowski:

I put up the sparkly pink tree the other day and watched “Love, Actually” while decorating it. This Christmas is extra special because it’s the last Christmas I’ll spend in this apartment–the last place I shared with Ken. Though moving forward is ever-important, I can’t help but look back on the memories with this tree this time of year. Here’s the story of my beloved pink tree…

Originally posted on the xanax diary:

Fact: It’s impossible to be in a bad mood while decorating a sparkly, pink Christmas tree.

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[There is a magical quality about this tree that attracts Chow Chows beneath it's shimmering boughs. Quantum - 12.05.09]

It feels like this tree has been a part of our Christmases forever. But it only became a part of the holiday tradition in 2009. And it was sort of borne out of the beginning of a very challenging part of our lives. Two days before Thanksgiving that year we’d received definite news that his cancer had returned. He’d been having pains in leg since late summer. He even told me months earlier before tests had even been run, he knew it was the cancer. “I’ve had this pain before,” he told me, standing in our bright orange and yellow kitchen. “I know what it is.” Larry Sunshine, King of Denial–brushed it off in hopes…

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His Foot Left, But the Show Went On


I was going through a book case earlier this week and ran across this:

The bible I painstakingly created to use for running the light and sound for Ken's one-man show "My Foot Left."

The bible I painstakingly created to use for running the light and sound for Ken’s one-man show “My Foot Left.”

The very first time I met Ken in January of 2001, one of the random things we shared in common was our improv training–though his was far deeper than mine and really just a component of a much broader acting arsenal. But it was unique and bonding nonetheless. As I learned more about him and his acting credits, he would reference “my show” from time to time. I would ask “what show?” and he’d reply matter-of-factly, “my one man show.” It was about his then-thirty-year journey with cancer, beginning with his below-knee amputation at age 15 of his left leg. He talked about it with such fervor, commitment and frequency, I thought it was something he’d put together and performed already. But that wasn’t the case. It hadn’t been performed yet.

I’d long entertained dreams of getting the gang together and putting on a show in the old barn, and began asking him questions like “what needs to happen to get this going?” He would tell me, and we’d talk it out and figure out next steps. He enlisted many friends in his creative orbit who helped him move his one-man show closer to being a reality. He asked a few of my friends to lend their voices for some voice over spots in the show. I didn’t escape the fun either. Ken asked me to run the lighting and sound board in the little theater on Halsted where the show would be performed. And so I did, wanting to be the kind of boyfriend who supported (shitting my pants each and every week for two hours including intermission, running something that looked like it could launch space shuttles.)

Eye-catching and a little dark, I loved the fliers that were made to advertise the show. I still have several in the back of my bible.

Eye-catching and a little dark, I loved the fliers that were made to advertise the show. I still have several in the back of my bible.

Hearing Ozzy Osborne’s “Crazy Train” blasting out of the Jimmy John’s in my office building’s lobby recently took me back to that tiny little theater in summer of 2002. The song played during a pivotal and memorable moment in the show. And while I had no idea what I was doing in the booth, so much was riding on my not messing up. Ken’s was such an important story to be told.

Terrified or not, it was exciting to be a part of such a creative collaboration. It was the first time of many Ken lovingly pushed me out of my comfort zone, leaving his own performance in potential jeopardy. Years later during the months he was home for hospice, I was so far away from my comfort zone, I couldn’t even find it with Google Maps. But there was great worth in each experience, and none more profound than those last months we spent together, defining our own “normal.” And none more fun than helping him bring his one-man show to fruition.

My love of organizing and office supplies saved my ass.

My love of organizing and office supplies saved my ass. I also cross-referenced the lighting and sound cues with a spreadsheet I created.

And for four Sundays in August of 2002–our last month in Chicago before moving to Los Angeles for four years–“My Foot Left” starring kenan derson (Ken’s stage and eventual Screen Actors Guild name) was performed in front of packed and eager houses. I can still feel the urgency, excitement and anticipation when I think about those weekends of workshops and tech rehearsals. The performances were a nerve-racking two hours that seemed to move in fast forward motion. Watching him tell–show–his story made me gush with pride and love for him. He was a doer and a teacher, and it was never more clear to me than during these performances.

Collaboration was something that came easy to us. And something we did often for the ten years we were together. The sense of pride I feel in helping with this production is probably unparalleled thus far in my life. And it’s an experience I think back so fondly on. One of the aspects I treasure the most is working with our friends to put the show together. He depended upon us. And we delivered.

Below is an abridged video (~one hour) of one of the performances from that summer in 2002.

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