the xanax diary

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

Garden Variety Blog Post


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I planted my garden last weekend. Really, more potted than planted. Gone are the days of the sprawling garden in the backyard yard of the apartment on Cuyler Avenue, and figuring out what to plant and what would require the least amount of attention and considering what Ken might have appreciated.

My new “garden” is a 6 foot by 6 foot patio, surrounded by a manicured garden maintained by my condo building’s landscapers. Of all the items on my checklist for buying a place, a large outside space wasn’t one of them–nor could I have afforded one either. It’s not in my nature to tend to nature. (I blame my parents. You should too.) Plus, moving in the dead winter certainly didn’t conjure thoughts of springtime and planting. It was months after I bought that the snow receded enough to reveal what and how big my patio actually was.

I woke up early on Saturday morning and set out on my task of buying herbs to pot in the five that had been left behind by the previous owner. I had been looking forward to it–to actually doing it, and the tradition of doing it. I have a weird “laziness” that takes great comfort doing things or going places in the same way each time–even if it’s not faster or easier. Something about nostalgia and not having to really think about what I’m doing. Being on autopilot. But without really planning to, I changed my tradition. Different home store which begat different route which begat some different herb choices.

He wasn’t with me this year. Ken. Like he had been the last few years. It was just me, meandering through the aisles of Home Depot. Just me. But it wasn’t sad. It was just…normal. Well, that’s not entirely true. Ken is always with me. I think about him far too many times a day for him not to be. But I didn’t defer to him or his imagined choices as I have in past years. I was in control, and it felt easy. Previous years brought more insecurities in hoping I’d chosen the right things to plant in his/then my garden.

It felt different year. Though not really at the time. But thinking back. It was different. Because I wasn’t doing it to honor any memory of a shared life, or Ken’s incredibly green thumb. It was for me. Because I like having fresh herbs to cook with. It’s my tradition, planted firmly in the one Ken started, no doubt.

It’s a small win on the grief path–as so many of them are, but nonetheless important. I knew moving from the apartment we shared together to a new place–my place–would be good for me in more ways than acquiring home equity. I was right. Letting going of some of the old ways of doing things–out of necessity–has been…freeing for me. It’s not like I chose to change them. I had to. What remains is a very tiny slab of outside space that I think he would have appreciated, and that I love to use–for what I hope is going to be a glorious summer to make up for the frigid deep freeze of a winter we suffered through.

Stop by and join me for a cocktail, won’t you?

My Extraordinary Photo Shoot


 

My greatest dream since age thirteen–when I discovered my love of writing–was to be a published author. Back then, I wanted to be a novelist, creator of gripping, over-the-top dramatic best sellers. Non-fiction essays held little interest for me outside of mandatory English assignments. What could possibly be interesting about non-fiction? It seemed so…limiting.

I could never have imagined the piece that got me a publishing credit would not only be an essay about my life, but one about the extraordinary oncology nurse who I encountered while she treated the love of my life–who was dying of cancer. It’s all at once triumphant and crushing–like I wasn’t careful enough what I wished for.

Though my essay didn’t win the competition I wrote it for, I was surprised and honored to be notified that it had been selected to be in a book of essays on the same topic: extraordinary healers, oncology nurses who touched people’s lives. What happened next was extraordinary in itself.

CURE magazine, the sponsor of the book, sent photographers to take photos of all the authors and the nurses they wrote about. So, on a cold winter day in January (very cold and very wintry in Chicago this year), I went to the Creticos Cancer Center, where Ken received innumerable treatments, to meet with our extraordinary healer, Blanca, to have what we described with a grin and wink as our “photo shoot.”

It just at the beginning of the shoot when Heather, the photographer, began asking us about Ken–something that took me off guard. Since I’m usually the one to bring him up, I’m somehow prepared for it. I’ve practiced enough and it doesn’t echo with sadness the way it used to. As she casually started asking about Ken and Blanca’s and my recollections of him in the very same room where we sat, my eyes widened in an attempt to keep them from filling with tears. I was at a familiar crossroads I hadn’t seen in a long time. I had to make a decision to anchor firmly in the present, and not let myself drift into the loving, comfortable and painful past. When I had a spouse. When I was in love. When my life was different.

Blanca talks to me about Ken (Kenny, actually) every time I see her, but sitting next to her, listening to her–watching her–talk about him was one of the most profound experiences of my life. She spoke of him with such reverence. “Kenny made an impression on everyone he met. I think it was one of the reasons he was here,” she said, matter-of-factly. Her words rang true with me. It’s a truth about him that is fundamental and undeniable. Anyone who knew him would agree.

Blanca is a source of light–as a nurse and as a human being–a very humble source of light. And one so obviously deserving of the title “extraordinary healer.” When asked about her favorite memories of him, she had a hard time narrowing them down, but talked about how crafty he was and how busy he was when he was there. I’d completely forgotten about the burgundy scarf he worked on while getting treatment and how often Blanca would comment on how beautiful it was, and that he’d gifted it to her when it was complete–which, of course, she still has and treasures. Of all the thousands of patients she’s treated there, I was touched (and not completely surprised) she had such vivid memories of Ken. He, too, was a source of light. Maybe that’s why the connected so well.

Blanca talked about how I come by the cancer center a couple of times a year and bring homemade baked treats for the nurses and staff. She told the photographer, “we’re grateful he remembers us.” How could I forget these incredible people or how drastically Ken’s and my life changed there–regardless of how difficult it was at times? No doubt some people might find it traumatic to go back there time and again. Completely understandable. But for me, someone who hasn’t had cancer, going there for purely social reasons is somehow a means of control of a long-ago situation I had no control over. It’s never easy for me to walk into that building, but I’m compelled to do so. Time and again. Like scratching at an old wound on hope that someday it will be tough enough to stop hurting.

Part of the reason I still go there is for Ken, of course. I love that they remember him–from the admin staff to radiology technicians to the nurses. I love that in our collective memories he lit up the place like it was a circus when he was there. And when I go there to make my care package deliveries, it sort of lights up again. People loved his spirit. And I hope I never get tired of reminding them of it.

Emotionally speaking, this photo shoot was a pendulous experience–as so many of them are for me when it comes to the subject of Ken, his illness and death. I found the photographer they sent to be very warm, kind and genuinely curious about the essay. During the course of the hour-or-so when she took 160 photos of Blanca and me, she asked all kinds of questions about Blanca, and her long and esteemed nursing career. And she asked delicately worded questions about Ken, too, that somehow made the experience very personal because it was the three of us together again: Ken and Blanca and me. And I loved that.

All photos were taken by Heather Eidson, and are used here with permission of CURE magazine, where you can check out more information on Extraordinary Healers: Volume 7.

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…

View original 961 more words

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.

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