Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Grandma, 1929-2015

My grandmother died almost four weeks ago. I'm finally writing about it now.

For the last two years or so, she hasn't felt great. Not dying and invalid unwell, but just but bubbling right under the weather sick. She had troubles with her teeth and gums, had cataract surgery, and had been prone to dizzy spells for days at a time. Nothing to suggest the end was near.

The last few months, she'd been feeling more under the weather. I know my mother was somewhat worried, but nothing definitive was ever diagnosed. About three weeks before she passed, she suddenly had trouble speaking. Not being coherent, but her voice was affected. She went to the doctor who mentioned that the x-ray might be showing something on her lung pushing against her vocal chords.

This news sent my grandmother into what you could call a death spiral. She muddled through the next week, refusing to go back to the doctor to get bad news, barely being able to talk. I called her on a Wednesday and talked briefly to see how she was doing. She asked for us to pray for her.

That was the last time I talked to her. Ten days later, she was gone. The next week after our phone call, she had a lot of trouble breathing, and finally, she went back to the doctor. An MRI discovered a tumor the size of a peach on her lung. It was pushing on her vocal chords and also hampering her breathing. It's amazing she lived as long as she did with this thing in her chest. But it did explain her weight loss (down to 85 pounds) and the dizziness. Perhaps if it had been caught a couple years ago, there would have been something that could have been done (not that stubborn Grandma would have submitted to more doctor's appointments). Not this late. The tumor was confirmed on a Tuesday, she died in the wee hours of Saturday morning.

Grandma at least died in her own home. She was on morphine and not coherent for the last two days. The hospice nurse had told my mother that it seemed Grandma was waiting for something before passing on. Mom was going to have me call on Saturday morning to talk with her -- was it me she was waiting for? I don't think so. She had been resting with her hands behind my head, but when my mom found her passed that morning, one arm was extended out, as if she reached out her hand to someone. Maybe Grandpa, or one of her parents (her mom died when she was in grade school), or Uncle Tommy (her brother) or Aunt Stephy (her sister-in-law and good friend who had died last year), or even Jesus -- though she wasn't going-to-church religious, she believed.

Mom called me that Saturday morning to tell me Grandma was gone. I was taking the dog out when I got the call. I walked back inside and told Lori and the boys. After a little while, I walked to church about three blocks away to light some candles in Grandma's memory. I'm not that devout, but it just felt right. I was so sad, as I had been all week, knowing the end was near. As I knelt in front of the statue of Mary, I could hear a few people saying a rosary near the front of the church. It was oddly cathartic -- by the time I left, most of the sadness had washed away. I still felt bad, but not as achingly bad.

That was more than three weeks ago. I still get pings of major sadness that Grandma died. And I'm still going to write about her in this blog in the coming weeks. I picked out a star for her, something I can look at to remind me of her. It's going to drift out of the sky as summer rolls around, but I already am thinking about a constellation for Grandpa -- I'll have one of them year round. The tough part for me is that I didn't have time to prepare. Cancer patients might not die for years. Grandma wasn't feeling good for a while, but it suddenly got bad, the cause was discovered, and she was dead a few days later. In three weeks, she went from functioning to dying. It was all too quick.

When thinking about who she was waiting for, I hope it was my grandfather. They used to have a affectionate banter in which Grandma would ask if he wanted something, and he'd reply "I'm waiting." My sisters used to think Grandpa was so bossy, but in reality, it was something endearing for them, kind of a joke. They were married 28 years (he's our step-grandfather), but he died 10 years ago. I want to think he finally came for her and said "I'm waiting," which was what she needed to hear to let go and for them to be together again.

I'm tearing up typing this because, although her pain is gone, and she's back with Grandpa, I miss her. I hadn't seen her in two years, and I still feel guilty about that. The last time we visited, Ben declared how much he loved Grandma's spaghetti, and she gushed so much about it that she made it again for him two days later before we went home to Utah. I was her baby 40 years ago, and Ben looks so much like that me it must have meant a lot for her to cook for him. Her legacy lives on, in our hearts in the sauce Lori wants to make once a month, in the joy of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren and, especially, in the eyes of Ben -- the same brown eyes she had, her daughter has, and I have.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Spring breakin'

The boys are on spring break, for the first time with me working full-time. The week should be interesting.

My plan this week is to do as much with the boys as possible while still getting enough work done. I jumped ahead with some work over the weekend so I don't have to work a full 40 this week (I'm lucky that my schedule is flexible). This should be a good test for the summer, when the boys' schedule goes really bonkers.

I worked for a few hours this morning, then took the boys to the park while I ran with the dog. We met some of their friends there, and I drove all four to our house. The boys got an instant playdate, and I was able to work for three more hours. Then it was Michael to swim practice, the friends back to their house, and Ben to baseball practice, where I worked another two hours. So on this first spring break day, I managed to work 7 hours, run, and hang out with the boys a little.

Tomorrow, we may go for a hike in 80-degree temperatures (the cooldown is coming Wednesday). My goal is for the boys not to watch TV all week. So far, so good.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Songs That Stuck: If You Were Here

I was reading an interview with Molly Ringwald tonight about the 30th anniversary of "The Breakfast Club." I tried explaining to Michael why it was such a great movie and that John Hughes, who directed it, filmed so many of his movies in Chicago. When I see tributes to Hughes, I feel sort of lucky that the settings of his films -- mid-'80s, north suburbs -- mirrored the time I was in high school in the north suburbs. I want to believe there is a special connection with the teens growing up at that time, in that place.

No song quite exemplifies that connection for me than "If You Were Here" by the Thompson Twins. For those not in the know, this is the song that closes out "Sixteen Candles." The mood of the song is a perfect ending to the movie, masterfully setting John Hughes fans up for even more impactful combinations of music and scene in his later movies (think "This Woman's Work" in "She's Having a Baby" or "Oh Yeah" at the end of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off").


The funny thing is, I have rarely listened to "If You Were Here" outside of the movie. I couldn't sing you every lyric, and honestly, it's not the best Thompson Twins song out there (I'm going with "Love on Your Side"). It just sounds amazing in those closing credits, to the point that I don't turn off the movie). I hear it, and it feels so '80s, and new wave, and alternative, and sweet, and electronic, and mellow, and North Shore, and teen ... that I just want to close my eyes and remember visiting my godparents' house in Glenview in 1985. Or running on the North Shore trail with my cross country team in high school. Or dreaming of a girl I liked 30 years ago who lived in Deerfield who I never had a chance with. Or driving with my friends up the Edens Expressway. Or working at my uncle's school in the summer of 1989, taking my bike every day through the green streets of Northfield.

Granted, this wasn't quite my world because I lived in the city and only went to school in Niles. But for a certain subset of teens, it felt like John Hughes was making movies for us and just us. "If You Were Here" captures so much of that. It accompanied the sweet conclusion to the movie that was more in line to what most teens felt rather than the dumb sex comedies of the 1980s. And it just sounded great -- on so many levels.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Eight years of blogging

I started writing The 43 in May 2007, meaning I'm coming up on eight years on this blog. I am happy it's lasted this long, and wish I had more than 664 (665 after I hit publish on this post) entries over that time. I am running into a slight problem: I'm forgetting what I have and haven't written about. With one goal being telling stories of memories, over eight years, I've written some that I'm ready to write again simply because it's been six years since I did so and it simply escaped my brain. My post on "Against the Wind" yesterday was a prime example -- I was surprised that I had written about the same thing years earlier.

Here's what I'm thinking: The memories are powerful enough for me to write about over and over, or I need to delve a little deeper beyond the obvious recollections. Have I written about the month of May in which we moved and Dad drove me to my old school every morning? Or about our trip to Wisconsin Dells in 1979? Or that first wickedly cold winter that Lori and I spent together in 1994? I know I haven't posted about my family's 1984 Florida vacation (though I did about or first trip in 1982), and that's on my radar since I missed the 30-year anniversary of it last spring. 

I should go ahead and repeat myself, even on accident, and not delete the old or the new post. I want to get to the next 665 faster than the first.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Songs that Stuck: Against the Wind

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In an effort to jumpstart the blog a little, I’m starting a feature I had been considering for a while. “Songs that Stuck” will highlight songs embedded in my brain that hold special meaning, often taking me back to a certain moment in time. There are so many that inspire such a rush of memories that I’m hoping that recording and reflecting those feelings will cement their importance.

Here’s the first, and it’s one I’ve mentioned in previous post from long ago: “Against the Wind” by Bob Seger. It was released in 1980 and was popular that summer, which is one of my favorite summers from my youth. And hearing it again generally takes me back to that summer, but a different summer is why it as stuck.

When I was 13 in 1984, we visited a resort near Lake Geneva for the Fourth of July, and being uninterested in water sports and being a sullen 13-year-old, was bored. I only brought one cassette with to listen to on my Walkman, and “Against the Wind,” taped off the radio a couple months earlier, was on contained on it. I bet I listened to the cassette three or four times during our two days there, and I think I was rewinding the song to hear it again a few times as well. For some reason, it was striking a chord with me. Take the opening line:

“Seems like yesterday, but it was long ago …”

By summer 1984, right after grade school had ended, I already had started becoming nostalgic for my life just a few summers earlier. The songs were taking me back, and this being perhaps the only oldie on the tape, sparked my general memory machine for 1980, which was such a fun summer.

But being a moody teen, another line jumped out at me:

“I’m old and now and still running, against the wind”

Somehow, at 13, the realization that the years were going to fly by was settling in. Thirty-one years later, I’ve accepted that reality, but I think in 1984, I was shocked to fully realize it. The piano, the acoustic guitar, Bob’s restrained sadness as he sung, all brought the message home in a surprising way for a kid two months away from high school.

I still love the song, which doesn’t make me sad. Many of Bob Seger’s songs have the same running theme, and maybe that’s why over the years, I’ve come to appreciate his work. I guess when I hear it now, I feel wise. As my newspaper career progressed, another line stood out:

“I’ve got so much more to think about. Deadlines and commitments. What to leave in, what to leave out.”

That lyric stood out working as an editor, faced with deadlines and commitments, making decisions about what to leave in and out. And of course, the running against the wind is a cross country reference – Bob was a runner in high school, so I relate there as well.

I took Ben to see Bob Seger earlier this month. Lori didn’t want to go, but I knew Ben would have a blast. “Against the Wind” was the first encore song, and it sounded great. Ben knew it was my favorite, and he just sat and listened rather than try to dance (which he did for much of the show).  I wonder if he will come to the realization of the song when he’s young like I did or when he’s older. I hope when he does, he feels wise instead of sad.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The March of time

I've had so much to write about this month and not a lot of time or energy to do so. My grandmother died, my dad visited, and we went to Pocatello, Idaho, for a basketball tournament in successive weekends. Bing, bing, bing, and here it is, a week before April. Grandma's death hit me hard, and I didn't want to write and yet did at the same time. The urge not to won, helped by everything else that was going on. And I'm going to write about her, and the basketball tournament, and Dad's visit, and everything else.

We got through Pocatello, and now it's time to be a little more extraordinary. Work is still a bit crazy, but the best and worst of March has passed. I found a star that I'm looking to every night and thinking of Grandma. It's Sirius, and it's easy to spot, off to the left of Orion's foot. I've been catching it and pondering everything I want to do but haven't accomplished, or even started, yet. Unfortunately, I'm going to lose it here in a couple months, but I'm already thinking about picking one for Grandpa, gone 10 years in September. Every extraordinary endeavor has a very beginning. I'm calling this post that beginning. And I'm looking forward to what I do tomorrow.