the xanax diary

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

My Mom’s Personal Brand of Scariness

Ron Stempkowski:

Sharing this again from last year.

Originally posted on the xanax diary:

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!








View original 36 more words

Movies and Rentals and Bears, Oh My.

My ticket to living in Chicago was Blockbuster Video. I’d always dreamed of living here, and when I found myself working at a franchise in my college town after graduating (and having no real idea what I wanted to be when I grew up), I asked the owners if they knew of any openings in Chicago. Turns out, they did. And so I began working in a store in the northwest suburb of Hoffman Estates in the summer 1992.

Being summer, kids were out of school and video rentals were up. So, the store was staffed many of those same kids. They were a cast of characters who I still remember vividly. Dani the Princess. Brandy the Clown. Jean the Dim Bulb. Since I was new to Chicago and worked all the time, these kids fulfilled the social component of my life at the time. They were all lazy, and needed a lot of prodding to work at times, but they were all good kids. Many of them also came by on the nights of their formal dances to show me their dates and/or dresses/tuxes. They would fight over who would work the skeleton crew with me on Christmas Day because I was a pushover, and made it fun.

One afternoon there was a lot of excitement amongst the staff, proclaiming “That’s Mike” and “Mike is coming in.” I had no idea who Mike was, but everyone else on staff seemed well acquainted with him. There was quite a furor in the store as “Mike” looked for his movies. He was approached by staff and customers alike, I noticed from my perch behind the register.  When Mike approached me, I rang him up and asked, “Did you used to work here?” After he left, my manager Scott (I called him Scooter) pulled me aside.

“That’s Mike Singletary.”

That meant nothing to me. “Is he a rapper?” I shrugged.

“He’s a Chicago Bear…football.”

It wasn’t the only time I’d tangle with a Chicago Bear. Walter Payton’s (a name I was actually familiar with) kids were frequent renters. Our computer system allowed for notes to be placed on accounts to alert our team to problems. These notes could flash brightly to ensure they are seen. With the Payton family account, there was an ALL CAPS flashing note from Scooter, indicating we shouldn’t rent to the children in the family without a membership card. The kids came without cards, so I didn’t rent to them. I hated arguing with kids because they were almost always stupid, but I was a rule follower. I offered to the hold the movies they wanted to rent until they came back with a card. They declined and groused, then departed.

Later that busy Friday evening one of the workers told me I had a phone call. I sometimes had friends calling to see what my schedule was so we could plan to go out afterward. But it was it was a very high-pitched voice on the other end of the phone, handing me my ass about not renting to the Payton kids. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Payton, but your kids need to bring their membership card.” Click. It wasn’t Mrs. Payton. It was Walter. And he was coming to the store. To hand me my ass. In person.

I don’t want to sound too glib, but I was an assistant manager at a Blockbuster in the Chicago Suburbs. I wasn’t saving lives or getting paid “saving lives” wages. I’d put up with my share of snooty nearby Barrington Hills patrons, and went toe-to-toe with them regularly. Sometimes people made mistakes, or misunderstood or picked the wrong movie. You could tell when someone was genuine. And I was happy to credit their account. But in retail, you had your share of ass hats who were either looking to scam you, or had nothing better to do than harass you and question store policies. Apparently, Mr. Payton had nothing better to do. (Not to speak ill of the dead, Mr. Payton didn’t himself come back to the store, but apparently drove his kids back to the store with their membership card.) So, basically, he followed the rules.

Working in retail is a rite of passage that should be mandatory like military service in Israel. But it’s something that has to be done in your 20s when you’re young and resilient. Aside from the low pay and horrific hours, it was a time in my life when I had the most fun and the least sleep. I try to remember that time in my life when I get bogged down with work nowadays. Back then, I dreamt of having a job like the one I have now with weekends and evenings free–let alone working from home four days/week.

I’ve come a long way since moving to Chicago alone, a friendless stranger to everything. And I still have no idea who plays for the Chicago Bears. Or Cubs. Or Bulls. Or Blackhawks.

Please be kind. Rewind.

To All the Loud Girls

In the fourth grade our teacher, Mrs. Fisher–with her flaming orange hair and clown red lipstick applied liberally outside the lines of her lips would say things like “whatever rattles your cage” and warned a dim classmate to stop pulling out his own hair otherwise he’d be “bald as a billiard ball.” (Like any of us knew what billiards were.) She was like a small town version of Lucille Ball–but scarier.

My best friend Carol and I were having an imaginary pie throwing fight at our desks in the back of the class room–during class. Mrs. Fisher obviously didn’t appreciate the disruption, and used her own brand of discipline to teach us a lesson. She ordered us both to come up front to opposite sides of the classroom and demonstrate for the class what we’d been doing. So, we did. Bashfully at first. But as experts at slinging imaginary pie and wiping imaginary cream from our eyes, the uproarious laughter from our audience…er…classmates fueled our performance to comedy gold. It was one of my first comedic performance experiences (which probably led to my studying at Second City years later), and I couldn’t have asked for a better co-star.

I think it all started with Carol. She lived down the street from me in the small town where I grew up. By end of second grade we were best friends. The first of only a few people in my life to ever hold that title. And when I look back, I realize there is a pattern to my female friendships. Carol was the first loud girl.

I spent a lot of time at Carol’s house playing and eating supper. Both parents worked full-time, and Carol’s grandma lived with them to watch the kids after school until the parents got home. All towheads, she had two older brothers, and a younger and brother and sister. They were always in each other’s business and usually slapping or punching one another without compunction, traditionally from older sibling to younger sibling. I remember lots of vain pleas for mercy followed by uproarious crying.

We didn’t play like the other kids in the neighborhood. We pretended. That was our thing. “Let’s pretend…” began most of our afternoons together. We liked to be young singles living in the city. We had apartments, cars, and impressive jobs and oppressive bosses. Other times we incorporated our favorite television shows into our pretending: we were extra siblings on “Eight is Enough” or younger siblings of the cops of “CHiPs”. Our bikes criss-crossed the neighborhood, the nearby creek and town cemetery being most frequent destinations for our adventures.

Carol was attractive because she daring, and usually flamboyantly disregarded the threat of punishment–whether at home or at school. She thought nothing of pushing down another kid who was being a dick–to me or anyone else. She was unbelievably funny–whether she knew it or not. She was my greatest alley in the neighborhood where there many alliances–most of them bigger or meaner than ours was. But we managed to avoid most of that drama and continue on with our pretending.

But it didn’t stop with Carol. It’s where it began. I’ve always been attracted to women who push back, express their feelings, are irreverent in their views and observations. These are the woman who I remain friends with today. All loud girls. Loud girls aren’t passengers. They are drivers. Obviously, they’re not quiet, but they don’t necessarily scream at the top of their lungs either. You know who they are and what they’re saying–even if they’re silent. Controlled chaos swirls around a loud girl. Nurturing and powerful, loud girls get shit done.

I haven’t seen Carol in years, though my mom sees her and her mom from time to time, but she is present and accounted for in the fondest and most innocent memories of my childhood. I love that my first best friend was a loud girl.

The Ebb and Flow

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Examining my life–observing it–and writing about it have been a staple for me since starting this blog in 2010. I think it’s what writers do. We tell stories–whether fiction or our own. For so long it’s been second–almost, first nature–to document my journey. Oddly, it was Ken’s illness and death that acted as a lens of sorts, focusing my writing. It’s a gift that is so very “him.”

As a writer, I’m certain I spend too much time in my head (and at my computer)–as was pointed out to me by a date upon our first and only meeting a couple of months ago. It didn’t bother me that he was right, it bothered me that within an hour of meeting me, he felt compelled to tell me this. That date will go down in my history is a slow motion train wreck that couldn’t end quickly enough. I think I even began dragging it out, knowing he was as ill-at-ease as I was. Just to punish him. Ah…dating.

Sometimes I feel like I get bogged down in living my life within the framework of loss. Marking milestones and anniversaries in Ken’s life or our life together. But what it really is, is finding the balance between moving forward in my life while remembering and honoring my life with Ken. It’s like playing a game you’ve never played before. Every rule is new. Some are common sense. And others don’t reveal themselves until you breach them.

What I’ve blissfully realized lately is that I’ve been too busy actually living and being engaged in my life to write about it. It isn’t really a surprise as much as a reassurance that I’ve reached a place at one time I could never imagine as possible. In some ways it feels wonderful, and other times it’s hard to believe I haven’t always felt like this. I can’t help but think of it a kind of sign that I’m entering a new phase of my journey.

As I work harder to get back to blogging weekly–and figuring out what exactly I’ll be blogging about–I’m curious to see what this new phase will bring. What I know for certain is I’m not in the same place I was a year ago, a month ago or even yesterday. And it feels right.

Living in the Birthday Present


Today is Ken’s birthday.

Of all the annual milestones throughout the year, this one hurts the least because it’s said in the present tense. It is Ken’s birthday. Not was. I welcome any opportunity I can speak of him in the present tense. It will always be the anniversary of his birth on September 21, 1965. And–luckily for both of us–some thirty-odd (very odd, some would say) years later our paths crossed–setting us down an amazing and important path together. Part of that journey ended on June 1, 2011. But not all of it.

In keeping with my tradition over the last three years, I baked a double batch of homemade “Hostess Cupcakes”–replete with creamy filling–and delivered them to my lovelies at the Creticos Cancer Center. I made them the first time in April, 2010 when Ken finished–what we thought at the time–was a “preventative” round of chemo to share in the Infusion Room with the nurses, staff and other patients to celebrate the occasion and to thank them for all they’d done during our visits. I remember what a big deal Ken made about the cupcakes, proudly bragging to anyone who passed by that I’d made them. That’s my connection to making them.


I’ve probably only made them once since he died–and maybe three or four times total–since that first batch. And as I was making them the other night, I remembered why. Making these cupcakes is equal parts complicated (the recipe), painful (my heart) and therapeutic (my psyche). It’s impossible to make them without thinking about that first time; about the pervasive mood of excitement and celebration I felt in the kitchen, knowing the nightmare of the past six months was about to be a distant memory. This time here were some chin-quivering moments spent in my kitchen–as there are. As there has to be for me.

But in making them again, I’m changing the narrative. Along with the memories I have of making them that first time to celebrate Ken’s completion of chemo, there are also memories over the past three of years of seeing the nurses and staff, the smiles and laughter–with Ken and without. And the satisfaction I feel in returning every year at this time (as well as around Christmas) in honoring his memory, and–regardless of the outcome–the importance of the treatment he received there.

I freely admit there is some kind of emotional payoff in going to the cancer center strictly for social reasons, knowing I can stay for as little or as long as I want without any ties to receiving any of their professional services. Part of the trek is wanting to show gratitude to these incredible people who perform a job I could never dream of doing so professionally and kindly, but also a way of maintaining a connection to my old life–our old life. It’s not something I need as often as I used to, but it’s still something I need.

When Ken began receiving treatment there, it initially felt more like going to a distant aunt’s house: at first, foreign, cold and uninviting, but over time, we began to get more comfortable, and eventually walked in owning the place. Ken’s undeniable presence and charm settled for no less. He never looked forward to receiving treatment, but always to seeing the faces there–and entertaining them. For me, it was a respite from being solely responsible for his well-being, so my memories there are–for the most–fond. Mostly because Ken was such a positive source of goofiness and fun no matter where he was.

On this day, I want to share a new page on my blog. It’s aptly called About Ken, and as you’ll read, it’s a place where I’ve shared some photos and a little information about him. My own little virtual “Helen Zatterberg Park”.


Honoring a Hero of My Heart…Part 2

As I wrote last week, bad stuff happens. But just a couple of days later I was reminded of something quite the opposite. I received an email about an essay I’d written for the “Extraordinary Healer” Award competition for CURE Today Magazine. I knew I hadn’t won, but was happy to present the subject of the essay, Blanca–Ken’s most beloved oncology nurse during chemotherapy–with the essay to give her an inkling of what she meant to him and what she still means to me, our family, and all the other patients she–and all the nurses at Creticos Cancer Center–so lovingly cares for.

Hello Ron,

I’m with CURE Media Group and wanted to let you know that we’ve selected your essay nominating nurse Blanca V. to run in our Extraordinary Healer book. Thank you so much for submitting it! When you have a moment, could you send me an email confirming the spelling of your name as well as a your address and a good phone number for our photographer to reach you. We’d love to photograph you with Blanca.

Also, attached are two releases for you to sign and return to me (either by mail, email or fax) that allows us to run the essay and the photo of you (my contact information is below). The book will come out in early 2014…

As I read this email, my eyes began devouring it faster and faster. The friction was so great, my eyes began “watering” to help lubricate them. It was a “do-over” of sorts. And the world would yet meet Blanca and hear about where her life journey and Ken’s intersected, resulting in a kind of magic I could never have hoped for. I was gushing (remember “dry eyes”)…for both of them…and that a little bit of their story would be “out there” for the world to see.

Another significant little piece of this puzzle involves adding “published” to my writing resume–something I’ve dreamed of since I was 13–for a reason I never could have imagined–or wanted, for that matter. But it’s for a reason I couldn’t be prouder of.

I can’t help but think that even now he keeps surprising me with gifts.

Ken with Marie (l) and his girlfriend Blanca (r) after what we hoped at the time would be is only round of chemo. They both took great care of him. April 30, 2010

Ken with Marie (l) and his girlfriend Blanca (r) after what we hoped at the time would be his only round of chemo. They both took great care of him. April 30, 2010

with Blanca and sis-in-law Katie on a social visit to the cancer center. May 13, 2011
with Blanca and sis-in-law Katie (& PadLo) on a social visit to the cancer center. May 13, 2011

Fast and Slow…at the same time

I wish I'd bought a "Dammit Doll". I could have really used it.

I wish I’d bought a “Dammit Doll”. I could have really used it.

I was minding my own business, singing my lungs out along with Pandora on the way home from dropping off my friend Mindy at O’Hare when I saw the oncoming Nissan SUV swerve into my lane, clipping the back of the Jeep in front of me. “Certainly, she’ll correct her trajectory since she has already hit another car,” I thought rationally as she continued further into my lane, slamming into the front quarter panel of my car, scraping all the way down the driver’s side.

Holy shit. It was my first auto collision. I don’t like to use the word “accident.” It somehow extricates the idiot driver of blame. As I looked at her behind the wheel, milliseconds before she hit me, she was looking down, not forward. I don’t know what she’d been doing moments before, but I’m certain driving wasn’t her only–or main–priority.

We were in city traffic, so as she came toward me, I didn’t think I was going to die, but I was certain I was going to be pissed off. I was correct on both counts. But, like a friend posted on Facebook (thanks for the blog title, Cholley) as the collision occurred, it happened both very quickly and in slow motion at the same time. Seeing her car coming at me and being helpless to stop it was sickening. But in hindsight is something I’m well-practiced at.

After I pulled over, and sat in my car, unable to open the driver’s side door, like everyone else in the same position, I was dazed. In shock. I grabbed whatever papers were lying on top in the glove compartment, and crawled through to get out the passenger’s door. The woman had pulled over on the opposite side of the street and came over to check on me and the driver of the car in front of me. “Were you texting?!” I blurted at her. She denied it, but I didn’t apologize for asking or how I asked. She didn’t deserve my respect or kindness, but after my initial question, I decided to work in concert with her to follow the rules, get everything documented and get the hell out of there.

Shortly after the police took my statement then were putting the report together at their cruiser, I felt like I was watching everything from some other vantage point, not above, but nearby. As I stood by my car, staring blankly as the rush hour traffic crawled past, people driving by looked at the damage on my car, then over at me, thinking the same thing I would have: “Thank God it wasn’t me” and “What a handsome hottie! Woof!”

According to the mechanic, this is $10k in damage which will take a month to repair.

According to the mechanic, this is $10k in damage which will take a month to repair.

There was a moment, standing there when I thought “should I call someone?” But why bother anyone? Particularly since I was okay, and just needed to coordinate logistics in getting my car towed and getting the police report. I’m good at that. And not particularly good at asking for help or relying on other people except in dire circumstances–which I realized very quickly wasn’t this one. I wasn’t the first person this happened to, and most importantly, I was okay.

I wish I could say even for a split second I thought about calling Ken–as has happened so many times in the two years since he’s been gone–but I didn’t. I was painfully aware of the fact I didn’t have “a person.” I couldn’t help but think if I’d been badly hurt, who would be notified and who would go back to my apartment to take care of Kallie. Food for thought for sure, but for another time.

On the brighter side, I’d already dropped my friend off and I wasn’t hurt, and the police arrived in about half an hour and worked quickly. As soon as they concluded and handed me my copy of the police report, AAA was arriving on the scene to tow my car to the dealership. As annoying as it is, I won’t have my car for a month but am in an idiot-funded rental until it’s ready.

It was an odd experience, but I’m happy with how I handled it and myself. It served as a reminder from the universe that shit still happens. Although I whole-heartedly hope the idiot woman who hit me goes straight to insurance premium hell. (She was already driving on a ticket, so I think there’s a pretty good chance her wallet has begun burning already.)

My new favorite cup. I bought it earlier this very same day. It's colored with the train lines of the "L". Is the universe trying to tell me something?

My new favorite cup. I bought it earlier this very same day. It’s colored with the train lines of the “L”. Is the universe trying to tell me something?

Easy Like Sunday Morning

There is part of me that has great appreciation for easy, quiet days–particularly bright, early summer mornings. It’s these kinds of mornings when it’s never clearer to me how lucky I am to be who I am and to have what I have and to love whom I love. I greedily devour times like this and steep in all the goodness in my life–which, of course, includes Kallie. She has her own way of expressing the same types of feelings:

It’s always striking to me that when I’m up and out–either walking Kallie or for a drive in the car–that a city the size of Chicago gets up late on the weekends–like everyone else. We didn’t see a single soul on our walk this morning. After we got home, I made Kallie’s breakfast and took off to the lakefront with a cup of coffee.

Any lover of Chicago can appreciate the quintessential view of downtown offered by nearby Montrose Harbor. I love to go there every so often and sit in the quiet as early morning fisherman  arrive to patiently await their day’s booty. There is something very profound offered by great bodies of water. I can’t help but feel insignificant, as well as gratitude and peace. It’s a place Ken and I visited upon occasion, beginning after his surgery in the winter of 2010. We never got out of the car, but you don’t have to in order to take advantage of the view. Topping my gratitude list, I thought of him while I was sitting there this morning, reflecting on all things and nothing at the same time.

I love living in this city, and I love living a life that feels more and more normal every day.

Coins Only, Please

I forgot to mention in my previous entry something else that struck a “Ken chord” with me that contributed to my “ken-do-it-iveness” last weekend. In the alley where I found my new (and fabulous) coffee table, I saw a shiny penny gleaming up under the reflection of one of the alley lights. It made smile and shake my head as I reached down to pick up. Filthy, no doubt, but something Ken did unfailingly. It long pre-dated me, but after we got together whenever we’d be walking and he would find a coin on the street, he’d reach down, pick it up, examine it for a moment, then proudly present it to me. It took some time before I gratefully accepted such a random (and again, filthy, offering), but it was one of things that made him “him”, and I grew to love it–and expect it. There have been dozens of occasions since he died that I have picked up a coin, thought of him and our little ritual, and tucked it into my pocket.

Sometime before we met, he wrote a very short piece called “Coins” which I’d like to share here. I think it gives some insight to his audacious creativity. He appreciated thinking about things differently. It, along with a few other pieces–along with other types of media–can still be found on his website. I’ll update it as a memorial site–someday.


by kenan derson

I keep finding money. I walk through the streets and find coins. Supposedly they are good luck. Yet I wonder: how did these coins get there? As my mother would say about the myriad articles I left about the house, “Well, your . . . books . . . or . . . your . . . glasses . . . or . . . your . . . wherewithal certainly didn’t sprout legs and walk out of the house.” And that makes me think further. How does SHE know? How does she know this didn’t happen? My meager little possessions are not where I left them. It is perfectly plausible for things to grow appendages and leave. What, I ponder, what reason could a copper, nickel, or even, even a silver coin have that it would venture out into the world on newly sprouted limbs, only to shed them once it found a comfortable new location? Such as the sidewalk under my feet. The grassy area between the walk and the gutter . . . or even in the street itself where it could be run over by a passing vehicle before reaching its nirvana. Having its legs and pods ripped off. Stranded. It is quite possible too, that coins can only become bipedal once in their lifetime and if they don’t get to their promised land, they have to live out the rest of their existence in sadness. Poor penny. Non-fulfilled nickel. Disparaged dime. Quandaried quarter. Perhaps this is why I find them. Why I rescue them. I quite possibly am bringing them to a new plateau. I nurse their wounds by holding them in my hand. I lift their spirits when I pass them to the hand of another human. I cannot spend them or barter with them though. This would be an insult as if I yanked off their legs on my own self. No. I place them in a vessel on my mantle. My reward from them for my efforts? In their own silent voices the remind me things are okay. So maybe I don’t know the catalyst of their leg sproutage. Maybe I don’t need to know. In fact…I do not. I am satisfied that they simply did make their journey to my feet. I have never misplaced my leg . . . and . . . I’m curious . . . if I ever did . . . would it . . . sprout . . . coins?

A Ken-Do Weekend

After dinner on Friday night, I decided to indulge myself with a sundae from Margie’s Candies, an old timey ice cream shop is a few blocks away. All their treats and ice creams are homemade, super decadent and delicious. I hadn’t been there in years. I walked down a less-traveled side street to get there. It’s the same little street Ken and I used to take to walk to the little neighborhood bar where we first met and used to go to on occasion. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d taken this street and it was chock full of really lovely memories. We used to find a rock and take turns kicking it the entire way there–and  sometimes on the way back, too.

We also saw a rabbit pretty much every time. This time was no exception. The walk was filled with thoughts of Ken, our walks and our life together. Then I came across a one-legged pigeon, standing on the sidewalk. Like Ken, it had no left leg. It was odd. But in a lovely way.


On my way back home with my turtle sundae, I cut through the alley behind my building–something I often do when coming from that direction. I couldn’t wait to get inside into my cool air-conditioned apartment and eat my melting indulgence. But as I hurried down the alley I noticed a couple of tables that had been discarded, sitting by someone’s garbage cans. Three things to know 1) I have long considered getting rid of my huge coffee table in favor of something smaller/simpler 2) thanks to Kallie’s surgery the idea of spending money on furniture didn’t thrill me and 3) Ken was DIY dumpster diver of the highest caliber.

My apartment is dotted with DIY projects where he transformed someone’s trash in our treasures. It was much more his area of interest than mine. I usually let him undertake them on his own, but there were a few times I was involved. He always welcomed my input or collaboration, but understood it wasn’t my thing.

Ken had so many traits I admired–intrinsic ones that were just baked into him. Kind, curious, creative don’t even begin to scratch the surface. I think it’s natural–at least for me–to want to keep some of those traits in my life. The easiest way I can  think to do that is by doing some of the activities he used to do: cooking, gardening and some DIY projects are a few–none of which do I claim to do as well, mind you. But he always appreciated effort over result. So after I devoured my sundae I crept back out to the alley and put the tables into my back yard to “consider” doing something with them.

After breakfast this morning I decided “something” was gonna happen–without really know exactly what. I went to Ace Hardware in my hood and picked out some paint, a brush and some supplies. Not a big deal for most people, I’m sure, but I’ve never initiated such a project–except for maybe dying some curtains for the bedroom and doing my best to maintain the garden. This was a little more exciting than either, and–something that not only would Ken heartily approved of–but something that felt surprisingly natural to me.

I zenned out for about three hours, working on this little project. And to be sure, there are plenty of mistakes and many flaws but, I’ve noted some “lessons learned” for next time. I have an old dresser (that Ken “rescued” from the very same alley several years ago) that is really just asking for it.

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