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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Lord Knows, I Can Change

Four months ago, my wife and I moved into “The Home.” Our mantra from day one has been, “This is going to take some getting used to.”  Yet we settle in—slowly, like mud in the Mississippi.  Big wheel, keep on turning.

Change occurs in celestial ways.  I track the path of the sun.  Not simply its ascent over Lake Michigan, but it’s daily arc across the sky.  A higher arc means less direct sunlight floods our southern exposure and I can remove my White Sox cap indoors.  Now picture this.  On the vernal equinox, the sun aligned with Chicago’s east-west streets and, in those solar-powered canyons, I saw my shadow for the first time in years.  I thought it was a stranger until I flapped my arms and found that what I only thought I was seeing was what I really was seeing.

Change comes in mundane ways.  Early on, I thought the upholstered chair and coffee table motif across from the elevators a quaint decorative touch.  Now I know the feng shui is not decorative but practical as I sit, rather than stand, waiting for the elevators to creep all the way up here to Floor 34.

Change occurs in human ways.  My wife and I are considered the “younger generation” by the octogenarians and beyond who reside in “The Home.”  Conversations glide or lurch toward common ground.  Our dog, Randy, has become the currency of exchange.  “What a beautiful boy/girl, and so well behaved,” say surrogate grandma and grandpa. Everybody knows Randy and, recently, some who greet him daily have even begun hailing my wife and I by name.

Change begins at a molecular level.  Not until I sang along to “Heading for the Light,” not until I lowered the headboard so the bed doesn’t resemble a guillotine, not until I heard a lady in the lobby say, “Nice man, nice dog,” did I begin to feel at home in “The Home.”

MUSICAL NOTES:  With apologies for the “Free Bird” reference in the title.  I lifted the line, “Big wheel, keep on turning,” from the song, “Proud Mary.”  George Harrison’s “Heading for the Light” is a 1988 song by The Traveling Wilburys (George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty, with Jim Horn on saxophone).

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Adjustment Reaction

The first Saturday after moving to “The Home,” my wife and I wake to find our car has been towed.  To reach the impound, we hike an hour north on footpaths tucked between Lake Shore Drive and Lake Michigan. Along the way, we find a hint of serenity—morning sun, gentle breeze, surf sounds.  A couple miles and a hundred bucks later, we find our car.

That first Sunday, we wake to find Randy peeing on the carpet.  We’re shocked.  Randy’s mortified.  “That dog’s been acting weird ever since we packed the first box,” I announce.  As we ride the down elevator, I itemize Randy’s annoying behaviors: pacing and panting, clinging and shadowing, hiding in the bathtub.

Stepping outside, we hit a wall of winter wind.  My breath turns to crystal and the steam from my ears to icicles.  I steer Randy toward the parkway to finish the business he started upstairs.  That the mud and abandoned dog turds are frozen solid provides sure footing but little solace.  Just as I aim my evil eye somewhere near Randy, I’m visited by the Dog Whisperer.

“You misunderstand Randy’s needs and you think only of your own,” she whispers (what else?) in my ear.

“You from PETA?” I growl.

“Never mind about me.  It’s you who needs to know and understand that Randy has lost everything that was his world.  He’s seeking comfort from the only familiar and nurturing things that remain, the only objects he loves—you and your wife.  Not only do you confuse love with dependence, you lay your own stress on him.  Wise up, you mutt.”

Back upstairs, I tell my wife of my visitation.  “Honey,” she says, “we’ve been here five days.  We’re all acting a little weird.  And Randy’s new schtick gets on my nerves, too.  But we’re all doing the best we can.  You can’t kick a dog for being a dog.  And you can’t kick yourself for being human.”

“That’s kind of what the Dog Whisperer told me,” I say.  “Except she called me names.”

“None worse than what we’ve called Randy recently.”

“Right you are.”

“OK then,” says my wife, ”we’re all in this together.  And we approach these new behaviors as a team, right?”

“Absolutely.  You can count on me.”

OK, then.  Your first assignment is to get the dog out of the bathtub long enough for me to take a shower.”

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People Like Us

Three months ago, my wife and I moved into “The Home,” in which 350 much older souls reside.  I asked my wife to be on the lookout for people similar to us, a couple we might pal around with.  Every time I ask her if she’s spied any prospects, she says, “Nope.  Not yet.”

Searching for people like us doesn’t imply we’re snobs.  No, we’re friendly and polite to all.  Nor are we ageist.  Heck, my mother is 97 and we’re still nice to her.  We have kindly impulses.  At the big Christmas dinner, we listened as Sarge the Hostess barked, “How many?” followed by a chorus of creaky voices: “One…one…one.”  When our turn came, we asked Sarge for a table for forty, so all the lonely singles could join us.

Here’s a true story.  I’m standing outside the elevator, holding the door as residents shuffle in. When it’s my turn to board, I tap left with my cane—clank. A walker.  I tap right—thud.  A shoe.  I sweep left to right—clank, thud, clank.  Then a man’s old voice growls, “Well, are you going to get in or not?”  I squeeze into a corner. The door slides shut.  I wait a beat.  Then I say, “Sir, I use this white cane so I won’t bump or crowd anyone.  Sometimes, this process takes a few seconds.”  I refrain from adding, “you jackass.”

As we rise, silent but for the whoosh of displaced air, I recall the words of one seasoned resident: “If you didn’t hate old people already, you will soon.”  And, though I’m not feeling the love here and now, I admit my part in this elevator transaction—I hate being the straggler, the one taking too long.  And, with an effort, I forgive myself for being imperfect and the old man for being impatient.

I burst into our apartment, eager to tell my wife about the mean old man.  But she gets the drop on me.  “Honey, I’ve been watching our neighbors squirm, trapped inside their twisted bodies and I see and hear how chronic pain changes mind, mood and personality.  Living in pain would rob my spirit of joy.”

“I believe I just encountered such a soul,” I say to my wife. “A man whose words offended me and whom I judged harshly.  I forgave him but he did touch a nerve in me, a nerve that causes me more pain than his words—the pain of my blindness, of feeling less than.  Maybe less than is how he sees his life.  Maybe he’s bitter.  Maybe he’s just a jackass.  But that’s not for me to judge.  God knows, I get nasty when I feel tortured by blindness.”

“God knows you do,” says my wife.  “and I forgive you for it.  Just like you forgave the man in the elevator.  Because there’s so much more to you and him and all of us than our limitations.  Aging is wicked. What annoys me now is what I fear I’ll become.”

We’ve learned our lesson for today.  Here in “The Home,” My wife and I will still seek another “younger” couple who looks like us, acts like us and thinks like us.  What we find is a multitude of brittle bones and feeble bodies—all of which I can’t see anyway but all of whom I must not overlook.  If we seek only similarities while judging based on differences, if we dismiss those who shuffle behind walkers or get pushed around in wheelchairs, then we miss the chance to connect with, well, people like us.



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Living on LSD

Lake Shore Drive.  It’s my street.  It’s my beat.  I’m the new kid on the block.  The new kid with the Seeing Eye dog.  We explore our turf, venture a little farther afield each day.  We surf the sidewalk up Belmont to Broadway, then down Diversey ‘til we hear the hum of the Drive, which we use, like sailors use the North Star, to get our bearings.

LSD is on the move, coursing through this City of the Big Shoulders.  It’s in our bloodstream, flowing into Route 66, that two-thousand-mile motorway that winds from Chicago to L. A.  Convertibles, fins and fender skirts, sunshine and Ray-Bans.  see the USA in your Chevrolet.  On Lake Shore Drive, you see shoreline and skyline.  On Route 66, you get your kicks.

These visuals, these Kodachrome roadside attractions, attest to my imagination of life where the action is, or was.  Today, from my catbird seat on floor 34, LSD drones, rumbles and, occasionally, wails.  It’s a hissing snake when it rains, a muffled sigh when it snows. It vanishes in the fog.  It bears two rush hours each weekday and yields to bicycles one day per year.  Day or night, rain or shine, it keeps rolling, keeps humming.

That is, until the blizzard of ’67 or ’79 or Groundhog Day, 2011, when the Drive shifted into Park, when White noise became a whiteout.  Nine hundred vehicles abandoned.  The #147 Outer Drive Express bus marooned in a snowdrift.  Drivers stranded in their cars.  National Guard rescue vehicles, silent as cats, prowled side streets.  That was then.  Now, it’s again the time of the season for a big snow.  I’m ready.  My vantage point from floor 34 implies omnipotence, implores intervention to save lost souls.  From this height, and given eyesight, I could pick up stragglers with tweezers and lift them to my lair, above it all.

While others sense Lake Shore Drive as it zooms past between white lines, I don’t drive the Drive, Bike the Drive or walk the Drive.  And when I scan LSD, I see neither the immovable object nor the irresistible forces acting upon it.  Yet, I am humbled to be a tiny part of perpetual motion and the aerodynamic flow of energy.  At street level, LSD is my audible reference point, my backdrop for navigating my new neighborhood.  Up here on floor 34, listening at my open window, LSD gives me a sense of place, my place as a small figure in the big picture.


*  Carl Sandberg, in his 1914 poem, “Chicago,” coined the phrase, “city of the big shoulders.”

*The song, “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66,” was written by Bobby Troup in 1946.  Artists as diverse as Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby and the Rolling Stones have covered it.

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Above the Tree Line

I knew, before stepping foot in this apartment, that if my wife could gaze east and see nothing but lake and sky, then scan south along the Outer Drive to the Drake, we’d take the place.  And I knew, if I could envision what I know is out there, recreate the scene I saw as a young man but can’t see today, we’d take the place.  That’s how simple it was, how we arrived way up here, on floor 34, above the tree line.

The view is awesome—so I’m told.  My wife tells me how azure blue or bottle green or steely gray is the water today, how the whitecaps rise and fall.  She describes the buildings that form the skyline.  I conceptualize.  I construct blueprints.  I remain a visual person.  I paint my canvas.  I place figures against the background which I do see—the light.  Oh, the light—it’s light up here even on gloomy days.  All these free-range lumens ward off Seasonal Affective Disorder—so I’m told.

I can see the world from here.  If I stand, nose to the window wall, my visual field wraps around me.  I last saw this wide forty years ago at the Shedd Aquarium, where I pressed my nose to the aquarium glass and watched a gar, the fresh-water cousin of the barracuda, glide past and counted every scale on its skeletal frame, like I’d counted cars on a long, slow, freight train.

Do you see how, having had sight, I default to the visual?  If I can “see” it, I can feel it.  I wonder if or why I rely on recreating every scene visually in order to legitimize it.  Up here, above the tree line, I open the window and become oriented to my surroundings by sound.  Wind. Traffic.  I’d thought I’d hear waves, not cars.  One of these nights, toward the wee hours, when the city is fast asleep, in a storm churning this Great Lake, I’ll hear the waves.  And see them.

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Moving up in the World

I’ve been away.  Not “away” like far, far away.  Not stuck in writer’s block.  I’ve not been sick, nor has my wife. We’re not entirely well but not sick either.  No, we’ve been busy.  Busy moving into this retirement community, this senior high-rise.  Call it what you will—we simply call our new home, “The Home.”

Our plan had been to move when we turned 75 and were sick of painting the house and shoveling snow.  Moving now, at 68, acknowledges our uncertain medical prognoses and our likely need for a hand sooner than later. Seems we’ve picked the right place.  In our new home, the average age of residents is 83.  Most need extra help.  The elevator capacity is measured, not in pounds, but in walkers, wheelchairs and, in my case, a Seeing Eye dog or, taking up even less space, my white cane.

Friends and family call ours a proactive move.  Just in case.  On the safe side.  Prepared for the future.  We concur.  But moving, the act itself, has been more stressful than we’d imagined.  My wife and I concluded that ours had been such a happy marriage simply because we hadn’t moved.  We swear never to do it again.

So, it looks like we’re in for the long haul.  That is, after we unpack.  As my wife wanders room to room and says, “I can’t find anything,” I meander among boxes, saying, “I can’t see anything.”  Organization is our daily duty; an occasional “I’ll get it!  I know where it is!” becomes celebratory.

We’ve been told that help is just a phone call away, even to change a light bulb.  That’s a bit extreme, but when I asked the housekeeper to show me the trash chute, she grabbed the bag and shouted, “That’s my job.”  I wonder if she’d unpack for us, too.

All this old people stuff begs the question, “Have we become our parents?”  Nope. My dad   called retirement homes either “God’s waiting room” or “Death’s waiting room,” depending on how bleak he felt.  That’s sad, because it shows he’d lost his love of people, lost his character as master of ceremonies. He died in his den, on hospice, without setting foot into the “waiting room.”   My mother, characteristically in opposition to my father, immediately emptied the house—except for her clothes, a place to sit and a place to sleep—and moved to a retirement home, where she remains after a decade. She has friends.  She sees life, death and drama.  The turnover rate is high among her age group.  She has learned to face change philosophically.

My wife and I are adjusting to the change in lifestyle and schedule.  At dawn, we mix with the Prunes-for-Breakfast Club.  At eight a.m., when the doors to the Fitness Center open, I’m there for my walk on the treadmill. The mail arrives at three.  By six, my wife and I put our computers to sleep, feed the animals and dress for dinner.  As we stand at the hostess station waiting to be seated, my wife whispers, “Looks like we’re not the only diners wearing pajamas under our evening clothes.” By nine, when I walk Randy the dog for the last time, we’re often the only footsteps echoing across the lobby.

Moving to “The Home” signals a new phase in life, a new story.  This is Chapter One.  More to come.

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