The Man Who Walks His Dog to Wrigley Field

In the past half year, I’ve lost my wife, my brother and my dog.  I’ve wept with sorrow, then waxed philosophical.  I’ve put one foot in front of the other on the treadmill, then sat stock still staring at nothing.  I’ve ridden the rails between Chicago and Colorado, then lain wide-eyed, gazing at the ceiling I cannot see.  I’ve asked why me, then answered why not me.  I’ve never felt so much so deeply.

At the outset of this process called grieving, I wrote a reminder of “Things To Do.”  Number one on the list is “Get out every day.”  And every day means today, this uncharacteristically sunny and warm Sunday holding the promise of spring and the reality of spring training which quickens the pulse of we who follow America’s pastime.

So now I’ve harnessed my new dog for the pilgrimage to Wrigley Field.  Not for a game but to circle the park: Addison from Clark to Sheffield to Waveland to Clark to Addison.  That’s where I took my first Seeing Eye dog when I came to Chicago twelve years ago.  Sherlock and I made the trek to prove we could—and we found that the eighteen blocks I’d expected between home and the park stretched to double that because each block counted only fifty address points rather than a hundred.  But my miscalculation proved enervating because Sherlock loved to strut his stuff and I felt bold and eager for adventure.

So now Tundra and I are walking toward Wrigley Field to prove we can do it, twelve years after Sherlock.  But what I’m finding is a whole new ball game.  Twelve years and now the gray fog is thicker and darker.  My God, how I feel isolated, obscured and fearful—tortured by this progressive blindness.  And I’m dismayed how this reaction rises not from the street but from my soul.  “Is it hard to put your trust in your dog?” asked a third-grade sage once and I marveled at his wisdom.  And the answer lies with faith and trust.  I must not become frozen by fear.  I must keep my wits about me so Tundra and I make a team.

So now we’re at the spot, the Sheffield side of the right field wall, where Sherlock and I met the man who walked his dog to Wrigley Field.  We met twelve years ago and I haven’t seen the man or his dog since.  I can describe neither more than to say they sounded old.  The man said he walked his dog to Wrigley Field on game days so the dog could eat food off the sidewalk because there wasn’t enough food at home.  And I compared this to my abundance and my wish that Sherlock not scavenge sidewalk food.  And while I was inclined to pity the old man, he sounded happy enough and I figured he knew better than I what he needed.  And since the old man sounded happy enough, his dog probably was happy enough, too.

So now Tundra and I sit on the bench next to the statue of Ernie Banks or Harry Caray or a stick of Wrigley’s Spearmint.  I hope the old man and his dog join us today.  Not so he can tell me whose statue it is but so I can add to his story of how we do what we need to get by with what’s left for and within us.  And how what’s left is sidewalk food and the spirit that is never lost but remains to help us heal and grow.  Seems to me the old man knew about those sorts of things.

So now the sun is sinking and it’s getting chilly and Tundra and I are alone in shadows on the bench under the statue.  And the old man and his dog haven’t shown up.  Let’s go, Tundra, time to head home.  I hope we travel safely.  A mile and a half with who knows how many street crossings and sign posts.  And who knows how much fear and faith.  We got out today; we did what weeded.  Today, I’m just the man who walks his dog to Wrigley Field.

 

Playlist:

*Listen to any song by The Lumineers, a great sound from Colorado.

*Move to any song by Antibalas, an 11-piece African beat band from Brooklyn.

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Oh, My

The summer of 2019 found my wife, Mary, and my brother, Kent, on hospice care for cancer.  While I stayed with Mary in our home, I corresponded with Kent by email.  A week after Mary’s death, I sent this email to Kent.

*******

Oh, my.  Oh, my brother.  You say you are slipping.  Oh, my.  Oh, my brother.

You say you’ve taken some falls.  When Mary felt unsteady, she slid down the wall and sat on the floor.  I’d find her or trip over her and gather her and shuffle her to bed or plop her into her wheelchair.  What was I thinking?  I could have sat with her and held her and comforted her.  That’s what she needed.  I could have, but didn’t.

I tell myself this is not about me, whether I did it right or would’ve if I weren’t blind.  This is about Mary; this is about you, my brother.  But so much begins and ends with me now.  I need to know what’s in the cupboards because I’ve become a household of one.  What is this?  Do I need it?  How does it work?  Man, I can’t even see it!  Use my gadgets, call the helpline.  Then I think, my God, do I run every phase of life like a business?  Arrange an aide for Mary, schedule the meeting with hospice.  The devil’s in the details and where’s the humanity?

But I’m OK.  I went with a friend to the Salvation Army and bought four table lamps, then to Menard’s for bulbs and shades.  I now have nine table lamps, five floor lamps and two nightlights in this apartment.  Even in daylight, I use them as beacons, like a jet landing at O’Hare.

Yes, I’m OK.  From what I hear and read, I’m functioning within normal limits for a person in my situation.  I read an article about depression, how symptoms differ: women withdraw and become listless; men get irritable and really busy.  I fit that profile.  I have projects and, when I run out, I think of more.

Oh, my, do I miss Mary.  I hear a comment and want to tell Mary and share a laugh.  Or she’ll come home from Goodwill and we’ll have a fashion show.  I’ve heard from so many people whose lives Mary touched and I hear the love in their voices.  I feel proud that I offered something she valued when she was so valued by others.  I feel joy that Mary told friends she was so happy being my wife.  And I am happy to hear how our laughter and joy were contagious.

I hope this will be a peaceful weekend for you.  I hope your vista brings you the same light, openness and connection that I feel from the vantage point that nourished Mary’s spirit.

Love,

Jeff

******

My brother and I continued to share thoughts and feelings until he passed away on October 24.  He was a good man.  He was always there for me.

 

Playlist:

“Goodbye” by Patti Griffin, from the album “Flaming Red”

“Goodbye” by Emmylou Harris, from the album “Wrecking Ball”

“Amazing Things” by Megon McDonough, from the album “Spirits in the Material World”

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We Talked It Over with Randy

This time last year, in the midst of the Polar Vortex, Randy submitted his letter of resignation as my Seeing Eye dog:

Dear Jeff,

we’ve been a team for nine years…

and that’s a long time in dog years.

We’ve walked 3000 miles…

and that’s a long road in dog miles.

I’ll turn eleven this summer…

and while I still have good eyes, good teeth and good hips,

I’d like to get off the street and onto the back porch.

Your best friend,

Randy

I read his letter to my wife.  “Sounds like you’ll need a new guide dog,” said Mary.  “But what will we do with Randy?  We don’t have a back porch for him anymore.”

“Right.  Big city high-rise.  Two dogs in an apartment.  Maybe he’d like to live with Jim and Joanne in the country.  He saw a deer up there once and he acted like he’d had a vision of God.”

We talked it over with Randy and we could tell he liked the idea of country life, with good people in a farm house with a real back porch.  But our roots had grown deep.  Randy had walked down the aisle with us at our wedding.  He had stolen the first taste of wedding cake—before it was sliced and served to our guests.  He loved us and we loved him.  Mary was the only person Randy would run to greet without stopping to plunge his mammoth head into the recycle bin to lick empty cat food tins.

Then things started happening too fast.  Mary’s cancer spread and her strength faltered and I trained with a new guide dog and, by spring’s end, we had two big dogs in a high-rise and Mary was on hospice and in pain and could barely stand up for falling down and I was exhausted.  And Jim and Joanne told us they would welcome Randy into their home anytime we wished.

We talked it over with Randy and decided to make a practice run to rural Wisconsin to reacquaint Randy with Jim and Joanne and their menagerie.  We got a friend to drive our car and rode three hours and Mary slept all the way in the back seat with the two dogs.  We had lunch and Randy bonded with the house dog and the house cat and everybody behaved and we rode home and Mary slept all the way in the back seat with the two dogs.

Randy spent most of June and July with Mary.  At times, he was draped across her legs and Mary had to tell him to move so she could get out of bed and, when she did, he followed her wherever she went.  And the unanswered question was when Randy would go to live in the country.

We talked it over with Randy and decided that Randy would stay with our family for the duration of Mary’s life, to be with her and see her on her journey home.  And then some.  And that’s what we did.  And as Mary slept more, Randy slept more.  And, at twilight on the last day of July, Randy was at Mary’s side when she slid into that deep pool.

August passed, day by day.  Labor Day weekend, we took Randy to his new home in the country, with good people and a real back porch.

Now, autumn leaves have fallen, holidays have come and gone and we’re into a new year.  Jim and Joanne tell me Randy’s doing fine.  He’s become a therapy dog to their rescued but fearful hound, Lucie.  He respects Daisy, their old cat who rules the roost.  He’s found his place in his new pack.  That’s what dogs do.

I miss Randy.  I miss his easy-going ways.  The new dog misses him, too.  She’s taken to playing with the youngest cat.  She’s found her place in the new pack.  That’s what dogs do.

We all miss Mary, whether we live in the city or the country.  We carry her love and energy.  And I think we always will, wherever we are.  That’s how we sustain ourselves when loss brings sorrow.  That’s how we’re getting by.

Playlist:

You’ve Got a Friend” by Carole King or James Taylor

Fall on Me” by REM, from the album, “Life’s Rich Pageant”

Days” and “Young and Innocent Days” by The Kinks

 

These past posts can help fill in the back story of Randy:

*New Souls for Old, 2/13/13

*Randy 24/7, 2/20/2013

*Randy’s Petting Zoo, 2/27/2013

*Big Fish Story, 6/3/2013

*Dog Days, 6/15/2013

*Underworld, 11/11/2013

*Rehearsing for a Mugging, 11/09/15

*I Don’t Ride with Animals, 12/05/16

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Elevator Music for the Soul — A Flashback

Mary and I are in the elevator in the senior high-rise we’re learning to call home. We’re having trouble adjusting to this place. It’s so different from the home we knew.  At this moment, we’re witnessing the mayhem of octogenarians jousting with their walkers and wheelchairs.  Mary can see the chaos; I can only hear the sound of metal striking metal, the occasional “Ouch!  Watch it!”

Mary and I are leaning against the back wall of the elevator.  And Mary is leaning against me because her cancer is sapping her strength.  Now Mary lays her head on my shoulder and says, “It’s all right…Jeff is here and that makes it all right.”  And she says this aloud but not loudly, just loud enough for other sounds to stop.  And I put my arm around Mary and hold her to me.

We stand at the back of the elevator.  And I think, “This is it.  This is what it is all about.”  To be honored by one whom I honor, for whom I strive to be a better man.  And as much as I love and am loved by one special person, I have this leap, this knowledge how I can make that difference, right here, right now.  One stop at a time, each rider trundles off.  And to each, I say, “Have a pleasant day.”  And some pause, then wish us the same.  Not all, but some.

And now it’s just Mary and me.  We lean against the back wall of the elevator.  Mary leans against me.  Her head is on my shoulder.  My arm is around her.  And we know this moment, this time  together, won’t last.  But right here, right now, it’s all right.

 

Playlist:

Romeo and Juliet” by Dire Straits, from the album, “Making Movies”

Poppy Red” by Richard Thompson, from the album, “Sweet Warrior”

A Rum Tale “ by Procol Harum, from the album, “Grand Hotel”

Don’t Forget to Dance” by The Kinks, from the album, “Come Dancing”

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Laughing Fit to Burst

As my wife’s cancer progressed, as her prognosis dwindled from months to weeks, she slept sixteen, eighteen hours a day.  One evening, toward sunset, as Mary dozed, I lay beside her, wondering what in the world would happen next.

I scanned the bedroom.  Everything was different.  There were new things, hospice things, what they used to call “sick room” things.  Nothing was the same, the same as before.  Mary’s favorite cabinet, the one with five drawers, the one she refinished, was way off in the corner, not along the wall where it had been before.  And I started to think about how the bedroom would be down the line, when the hospice things were gone.  And I knew what that implied.  It implied that Mary would be gone, too.  And I didn’t want to go there.

But I kept coming back to how things had been before and how they would be afterward.  That cabinet, the one Mary liked so much, I bet that would look fine centered under those two paintings, the one being the portrait of Mary at fifteen, the age we were when we met, the painting they tell me the artist got her blue eyes just right.  Was there room for the cabinet there, where I could clear the cedar chest at the foot of the bed without cracking my shins?

So, I began putting the bedroom together again.  How about that chair?  That table?  Was there room along that wall?  In that corner?  I slid off the bed, careful not to disturb Mary, and fetched my yardstick from the other end of the apartment.  My yardstick, the one with the bump dots at twelve and twenty-four inches, the one I can measure height, width and depth to an accuracy of plus or minus two inches without being able to see a thing.

Now, I’m measuring wall space and floor space and I’m sliding the yardstick up and down and left and right and now I think, am I doing the right thing here?  Am I disrespecting Mary?  Am I an insensitive monster or what?  And I have this vision that Mary is lying there, with one eye open, just, well, regarding me.  Yes, regarding me.  So, I look over my shoulder and, of course, I can’t see whether she’s got one eye open or not.  So I wait for her to say something.  Something like, “Jeff, are you going to measure me, too?  See how much space you’ll have when I’m out of here?”

And if Mary had been awake, if she had been regarding me, if she had said what I think she would have said, then we would have laughed.  We would have laughed fit to burst.  And we would have traded stories about the old western movies where there’s gonna be a hanging at sunrise and the undertaker measures the outlaw the night before so they’ll saw the coffin boards long enough to fit him.  And then we’d tell more stories and laugh some more.  And then Mary would have fallen asleep again.

Laughter, that’s what we had.  At the end of Mary’s life, we didn’t have a lot more than that.  So we made that be enough.

Playlist:

Amoreena,” by Elton John, from the album, “Tumbleweed Connection”

Waiting in the Weeds,” by Eagles, from the album, “Long Road out of Eden”

Happy Together” and “She’d Rather Be with Me,” by The Turtles

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Sliding into the Deep Pool

My wife’s name was Mary.  Mary lived with metastatic breast cancer and, though cancer has taken her life, her spirit remains within me and, I believe, within the hearts of so many people she touched with kindness.  As her days dwindled to a precious few, Mary expressed no bitterness, no self-pity—only dismay that “I keep waiting to feel better…and it’s not happening.”

Cancer proved a relentless, rapacious force.  It sapped Mary’s stamina.  It stifled her outrage at Donald Trump.  It quelled her ardor for the Cubs, particularly Cubs with “cute butts.”  It silenced conversations with friends and stilled her fingers from clicking the “Send” button.

Near the end, when I learned that hearing and smell linger as death approaches, I surrounded Mary with flowers and the sound of music.  Then I lay next to her, held her hand and, as twilight fell on the last day of July, felt Mary slide into that deep pool.

Now, these stories, this blog called Jalapenos in the Oatmeal, always has been and continues to be focused on blindness, on my life as a blind man.  Four years ago this Christmas, I wrote about how I became Mary’s in-home caregiver after her surgery.  Last Christmas, I wrote about how our respective prognoses led us to move into LSD, the Place, the senior high-rise with the view that nourished Mary’s heart and spirit.

This Christmas, I write how Mary and I found the toughest part of caregiving came when Mary could no longer speak and I could read neither her facial expressions nor her body language.  I write how we relied on touch.  And I write about how I know there were times when I zigged when I should have zagged and did Step 2 before Step 1 and I write about how we did our best with what we had and as what we had diminished, how our enjoyment of one another endured, how our laughter was never silenced.  ”The best thing about being married to a blind man,“ Mary once told a friend, “is that, on days I don’t look so good, he won’t even know.”

Now, I write about the care we received from a Certified Nursing Assistant, an angel named K, who treated Mary with love and dignity.  They found joy in simple things—multi-colored manicures and mini-makeovers.  K described to me how Mary chose a different shade of polish for each fingernail and made a face at blue eye shadow.  Then, when K told me how brightly Mary smiled at the sight of me, my heart filled with joy.  And I swear I can see how beautiful Mary was that day and always will be—with a touch of color on her cheeks.

People say my wife was a breath of fresh air, that she was a shining light.  But I say no more metaphors.  She was a woman named Mary and she wanted only to be the best woman, the best person she could be.  Mary was my wife.  She was my best friend and confidante.  But I did not possess her.  Where our lives intersected, we found love and laughter.  Mary inspired me to want to be the best I could be.  And I was at my best when I supported Mary in becoming the best she wanted to be.

A times, each of us hated cancer and blindness.  Together, we tried to accept the unacceptable and bear the unbearable.  Our bond was that no challenge would divide us, that no tragedy would defeat us.  That I am writing these words is a tribute to Mary, a commitment to her spirit, a testament to the process of life and death and the recognition that energy is never destroyed, rather, it is transformed and eternal.  That last is not a theory; it is a force I feel living within me.

 

Postscript.  Here are some songs I played for Mary as daylight dimmed to twilight:

“I’ve Been High” by REM, from the album, “Reveal”

“I’m Not Throwing away My Shot,” Original Broadway Cast of “Hamilton”

“September Song” by Frank Sinatra and many others

“Now and Forever,” by Carole King, from the album, “Essentials”

“Ask Me No Questions” by The Bangles, from the album, “Doll Revolution.”

“Lilac Wine,” by Jeff Buckley, from the album, “Grace.”

 

 

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Above It All

The aroma of coffee leads me to my wife, perched on the window seat, thirty-four floors above it all.  She’s taking in the view that brought us here, the view that nourishes her.

“How’s it looking?”

“I’m in the midst of a great white cloud,” she says.  “And I’m feeling kind of ethereal.”

“And I’ve come to report that, down at sea level, it’s The Great Lakes Palm Sunday hurricane.  Sideways rain, full-frontal gale.  Randy wasted no time, bless his heart—squat, pee, sidestep, squat, poop, head for home.  He knows when the hard rain falls, there’s no sense getting soaked.”

“Thick white fog,” my wife says.  “I wonder if this is what Eternity looks like.”

“I want more from Eternity than thick white fog,” I say.  “I want faces, sailboats, sunrises over the lake.  Thick white fog I’ve got—all day, every day.”

“I hope you get your wish,” she says.  “And in this lifetime.”

“Thank you.  What’s your wish?”

“I want to feel like myself again.  I want to be eager for every coming day.  I want simple pleasures—food that nourishes, sleep that renews.”

“And I hope you get your wish,” I tell her.

And then my wife says, “Honey, how did we get here?  Together, in this beautiful place with the beautiful view?  We have each other, we have love, we have so much.  We have gratitude.  We take nothing for granted.  Here we are, with the American Dream.  But we’ve also got what America fears most: America’s couple with blindness and cancer.”

“It makes me wonder when I hear two things: everything happens for a reason and you’re never given more than you can handle.  I wonder but I neither argue nor explain.  It just comes down to living with things and sometimes living in spite of things.”

“Do me one favor, Honey,” says my wife.  “never say I lost my battle with cancer, that I put up a good fight.  There’s no winner or loser.  I’m not fighting, even as I grit my teeth and question all that has instilled faith in me.  I win as I live with it.  It’s going to put us in our place and that’s humbling but it’s not losing.  That’s a tough lesson and it’s part of the life we’re living.”

“Honey, I’d like to have a refund of all the time and energy I spent fighting blindness.  I’d invest it in acceptance.  Fighting never brought me much serenity.”

“So, all you want is time?” asks my wife with a chuckle.  “I’m a little short at the moment.  But if you get me a banana and the Sunday Trib, I’ll read you the sports page.”

As I prepare my wife’s breakfast tray, I hear her call, “You gonna go crazy on the treadmill this morning?”

“You mean, am I going to break into the song only I can hear?  The answer is yes, definitely.”

“Please don’t sing that ABBA song in front of all those old people.”

“You mean, ‘Superper Trooperper?’”

“And are you going to do that one-armed flourish like you’re conducting the orchestra?  That scares people.”

“Do I embarrass you, dear?  Just make believe you don’t know me.”

“Oh, but I do know you,” she says.  “And to know you is to love you.”

“I wish you could walk with me today, Honey,” I say.

“Go get ‘em, Tiger. You have many miles to go.”

So today I walk for two.  I have miles to go.  Miles to go before I sleep. And, before the weight of this cancer, this blindness, this beautiful and terrible life brings me to my knees, I walk on the treadmill, walk and walk until “Once in a Lifetime” takes me across the finish line.

Accompanying Music:

Precious,” Pretenders, from “Pretenders” (“I was feeling kind of ethereal”)

Ask Me No Questions,” Bangles, from “Doll Revolution” (treadmill warm-up)

Lost and Found,” The Kinks, from “Think Visual” (treadmill)

When the Water Falls,” by Collective Soul, from “Collective Soul” (treadmill)

Once in a Lifetime,” Talking Heads, from “Stop Making Sense” (treadmill finale)

 

 

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