Posts Tagged 'relationships'

Ukulele Lady

Jackie’s daughter Sammy and I played our ukuleles last night.

I had picked up the uke only twice since moving from the big house on the hill eight months ago to the less grand tract house in mid-town. Prior to the move I had been more diligent, playing weekly with a pickup group at the library, and even marching in last year’s July 4th parade down Ojai Avenue.

Perhaps “playing with” is too strong a term. Most of the library group of six had more experience, more talent and just plain more everything than I did. Some members were kind and waited for me to catch up as their fingers danced slowly up and down the frets. Others were into themselves and left me in the dust wishing that the two-hour session would end before I collapsed from the pressure.

My favorite pieces, like the Banana Boat song made famous by Harry Belafonte, had no more than three chords, were slow apace and easy to sing. Fixated on learning the chords, I never realized that the uke had different strum patterns. I blissfully chose to ignore the prescribed ones and simply moved my right hand up and down as I wished, without regard to the proper strums selected by my more erudite companions.

Playing in the July 4th parade seemed like a good idea after I had carefully reviewed the two pieces that were to be repeated over and over as we marched a mile down the avenue. One of the tunes, George M. Cohan’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, made famous in the film with Jimmy Cagney, seemed like something I could handle. Only four chords and a melody, it was surely hard to screw up. Yet I did.

After three parade minutes of twisting my fingers into positions better suited to a Houdini escape act, I gave up. I spent the rest of the parade pretending I was strumming and, just to vary my act, occasionally waved the uke over my head as though it were a cheerleader’s pompom. None of the parade watchers knew the difference nor seemed to care. The crowd noise and horn blaring emitted by the fume belching antique car directly behind our merry group masked everything, especially the sounds emanating from our tiny ukes.

Ukulele is Hawaiian and means jumping flea. It is pronounced oo-koo-lay-lay, not you-ka-lay-lee. Its origin is largely attributed to the efforts of three Portuguese guys who landed in Hawaii around 1880. With nothing better to do, they fashioned this lightweight four stringer and, as evidenced by the number of young people schlepping it through airports and clogging up overhead baggage compartments, it has become a staple of hoedowns, block parties and late evening campfires where it can be played even while under the influence of various socially acceptable drugs.

Although shunned by the likes of concert violinists Jascha Heifetz and Pinchas Zukerman, the uke was embraced by Elvis Presley in his biggest movie, Blue Hawaii. The movie soundtrack that featured the uke was Number 1 on the Billboard Charts for twenty weeks in 1961. My personal uke favorite is Over the Rainbow, sweetly performed by the late Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, who, in physical appearance, might better have been a sumo wrestler.

Doing mother-daughter things in Santa Barbara, I was left alone at home to make dinner. Pasta ala Norma is one of Jackie’s favorites. Though uncomplicated, the recipe takes time. The star of the minimal list of ingredients is eggplant. It is finicky and must be treated with the same care given to a diva, to be sure it is neither over nor underdone.  I have made the dish several times and consider myself qualified to prepare it for important guests, like Sammy. Two packages of Southwestern Style chopped salad from Westridge topped with a tasty vinaigrette, matched with a loaf of bread from Lazy Acres, and a bottle of chardonnay gifted to us by friends, completed the menu.

It was 7:30 before we began our meal on the patio. It had cooled from the heat of the day and the setting was perfect. I thought the rigatoni pasta was a little large for the recipe, but the more appropriate ziti had been MIA from the Westridge shelves due undoubtedly to the limitations imposed by Covid-19. The ladies were effusive as they downed everything set before them. Satisfied with the accolades, I sat back as they cleared the table.

I was alone for some time while the noise in the kitchen abated. It finally grew quiet and I wondered where they were. Then I heard the quiet voice of Sammy’s ukulele as she cradled it and came onto the patio. Jackie followed unexpectedly with my uke and my lately abandoned song binder. “Oh, I’m not up to this. Another time. Soon. I promise.”

Jackie stayed on target. “Aw, come on. It’ll be fun. Do it for me. Please.”

Weakened by her charms, I opened the case and tuned the four strings. I flipped opened the binder.  All I Have to Do is Dream stared at me. I had practiced the poignant Everly Brothers tune a hundred times, especially when Jackie was away. I have never conquered the chorus that is maddeningly populated with too many E minor chords.

Samantha said, “Let’s try it.”

An hour later we had gone through a dozen songs. Samantha was kind, patient and made me feel welcome. She smiled real smiles, spoke heartfelt words, and had a good time.

Jackie proudly watched her daughter enjoy herself. It was reward enough and a respite from the struggle.

If I hadn’t worried about the neighbors calling the cops, we might still be there.

Maybe I’ve learned…

I was up at 4am  to take Jackie to the airport.

Still inky black outside. Added to my own questionable night vision, it made for a bit of stumbling around, light switch flipping, and getting my head on straight.

It takes 90 minutes to get to LAX when traffic is light. Given the corona virus reduction to the normal congealed traffic flow, we were confident that allowing a three-hour passage between our home and the boarding gate would put us there with time to spare.

Jackie checked her travel inventory three times before leaving the house. Smart phone, electronic boarding pass, driver’s license, hotel information and money…lots of it. Five hours of fitful sleep had little effect on her. Still beautiful and perky. We were stark contrasts in appearance and sparkle.

The eventual need for a parental trip to Eugene, Oregon was never in doubt. It was only when that was uncertain. Yesterday, Jackie heard from Sammy, her quarter-century-old daughter. She has been living for the last three months in Lost Valley, a forested facility that offers group living with food provided by the forest and gardens tended by the residents. No fats, sugar or gluten permitted here.

A wanderer seeking herself, Sammy has circumnavigated the better part of the planet. Tasting the offerings of Tucson, Ojai, Hawaii, and now Oregon, she was troubled by her inability to make a semi-permanent landing. Bright, capable, and likeable, her relationship with people was sometimes akin to that of the land.

Regular phone conversations between Sammy and Jackie were calm but often strained. Mother constantly sought ways to help daughter through the rough spots. Wanting to do it her way, daughter all too often rejected mother’s suggestions as being too directive. The desire for a closer mother-daughter relationship kept the mother perpetually engaged in searching for solutions and responding to daughter’s needs.

Yesterday was a turning point. Too difficult to go it alone, Sammy reached out for help. A burst of texts, phone calls and the involvement of others led to our 90-minute trip to LAX and Jackie’s arrival in Eugene four hours later. I am now at home in a quiet place that is much like a theater where one waits for the performance to continue. And for a happy Act One.

It’s been four months that Jackie and I have been living together, the last two as wife and husband. We have learned much about who we are, what we need and how much we love. Now we will add a third element to the equation as Sammy joins us. The relationship that Jackie and I have forged will assuredly undergo change.

I mentally list the possibilities. Some are funny. No more running around in my underwear. Muted sexual noises in the bedroom. Meals will taste different. TV programs will be vetted more closely. Laundry will require diligent sorting.

Some changes are serious and can have lethal consequences. Covid-19 will have three places to hide before pouncing to feast on one or all of us. Rules about visitors, how many and who they are, will need more analysis. Exposure to risks outside the home will be of greater concern.

Looking to share, I spoke with my daughter Nancy this afternoon. Willing to help in any way, she paused near the end of our conversation and said, “Who does this remind you of?”

“Steven, of course.” My son, talented and outgoing, he never met his potential. A gifted musician, he wrote, sang, and played a mean guitar. Dependent for financial support, he was nevertheless stubborn and unwilling to take parental advice. Calling us when in need. Usually avoiding us when happy. Concerned first with his own comfort, he marched to his own drummer. Against our advice, he spent the last months of his life looking for the magic bullet that would save him. He only found medical frauds willing to take advantage. I held his hand in his last week of life and I cried; he looked at me and tenderly said, “It’s okay, Dad.” It filled volumes.

I should have learned a lot from Steven. I should have learned how to give advice without sounding directive. I should have learned to let him live his own life, not mine. I should have been less argumentative and more loving.

Maybe I’ve learned. We’ll see.

I am my brother

My brother would have been ninety-three today.

Irv was born in 1927, two years before the Great Depression. I waited another twelve years for the economy to improve before emerging from my mother’s womb.

A twelve-year age difference was a bridge too far. We never played baseball together, developed sibling rivalry or did mischief that one would expect of brothers living in a Jewish ghetto on Chicago’s north side. I don’t know what he looked like as a teenager, nor do I remember hearing his voice echoing down the long wallpaper covered hallway in my parent’s second floor, two-bedroom apartment. I might as well have been an only child.

Lying about his age, Irv joined the army in 1944, never saw action but managed to develop a life-long relationship with tinnitus, one of several genetic dysfunctions that I shared with him. His army service was brief, some of it spent in Japan and Korea. He learned photography, took those skills home after the war and relied on them for years by chronicling life cycle events for others. I remember a picture of him in his army uniform and jauntily positioned cap. He was this handsome, bright-eyed guy who wore a natural smile as though it was ingrained in his DNA. He was better looking than me. People constantly mistook me for the older brother. He never corrected them.

He disdained the free college education offered to veterans, instead opting to get married, have children, divorce twice and finally land Jeri, the love of his life. In the early years, my parents were uncomfortable with Irv’s lifestyle, lent him money, but never offered advice that would have been immediately forgotten. Comparing me to him often led them to believe that I must be the older one.

At twelve, I baby sat for his daughter, Sharon. At seventeen, I regularly borrowed Irv’s Studebaker, that quirky looking, bullet nosed, dimly remembered two-door coupe with a stick shift. Four years later, he was in the bridal party that joined me with Ila. I still hardly knew him. Meaningful conversations were non-existent, and togetherness was largely a function left to family events to which he was usually late.

Irv’s second marriage was done on the rebound. Like the Studebaker, Anna-Marie was quirky. If he had asked me, I would have said don’t do it. But he didn’t ask, and life went on until the quirkiness lost its glamour.

Irv was a salesman who was honest and compelling. He sold mirrors, a process that was dependent on being invited into the customer’s home to measure walls and select styles. It was during one such adventure that he met Jeri, promised her unbounded love and did so for the rest of his life.

Ila and I moved to California and visited our Chicago relatives two or three times a year. My father became ill and was hospitalized. Irv was there to help our parents. It was as though he had turned a corner in his life, met his elder brother responsibilities, and took them on without looking back or complaining.

I was in California and of little help. My father died and our mother was alone. Irv visited her daily. He ran errands and delivered groceries for years until dementia took its toll on her. She entered a succession of facilities that included independent living, assisted living and fully assisted housing. Irv continued to watch over her while I made limited appearances. Her death finally freed him from responsibilities that he had willingly endured, while I continued to feel guilty by my self-limited role.

He aged and, like our father, developed macular degeneration. He gave up golf, driving, reading and other daily activities that we take for granted before they are taken from us. He needed assistance walking. His trips with Jeri to visit us in California became more difficult. During those trips he gradually displayed a loss of memory and an inability to perform certain functions. Sitting with him while he tried to add a column of numbers proved too much for him. He cried and I saw my brother in what had once been the role played by our mother.

The years he spent caring for our parents had also developed a closer bond between us. Our age difference now meant nothing. Conversations became more meaningful. Aging and illness were freely discussed. We looked at each other and knew what the other was thinking just by the expressions on our face, the tilt of our heads or the rolling of our eyes. We liked the same foods. We both lost our hair. Our laughs were identical. People still thought he was the younger one.

Luckily, I had chances to pay back the kindnesses that he had heaped on our parents. And I took them. I also aged alongside my brother and caught glimpses of what our parents must have suffered.

I look in the morning mirror and see Irv. I see his handsome, smiling face. But like Dicken’s Scrooge visiting the future, I also see what may yet come. I am concerned about my eyesight and daily test my ability to read road signs. I lay in bed in the early morning and silently count backwards from one hundred by seven; I dread making a mistake. I add columns of numbers without a calculator. I have more difficulty completing the New York Times crossword puzzle and wonder if maybe Will Shortz just made it tougher without telling me. I stupidly transform minor irritations into complicated medical cases that can only be treated at the Mayo Clinic.

I am becoming my brother… and I love him even though he will always look younger than me.

Happy birthday, Irv.

Lunch with Yoram

Yoram, my good friend from the Upper Ojai, and I celebrated our still functioning lungs with lunch at the Ojai Café Emporium. We often go there when we’ve exhausted other venues. The food is tolerable, the prices manageable and the waiters are especially kind to old people.

I ordered a small-size Famous Ojai salad. Reputedly containing bits of turkey, I had trouble finding them amidst an oversupply of bacon bits. The quite tasty molasses muffin and two pats of room temperature butter made up for the missing turkey chunks.

Yoram had no trouble decimating a generous tri-tip sandwich surrounded by a large clump of sweet potato fries. He washed it down with several glasses of Arnold Palmer iced tea and lemonade that mentally challenged my own bladder control.

Sticking to our usual routine, we quickly disposed of our critical analysis of the recent Oscars show, had a Trump inspired dissertation on “what is this world coming to”, and offered a brief synopsis of our latest physical complaints, headed by our growing inability to remember just about anything.

The conversation moved on to wives, or in my case, about-to-be wives. Men are somewhat limited in this subject. For example, I have often told Jackie that men never talk about having sex with their wives, or anyone else for that matter. Women, I am told, can spend an inordinate time on that subject which often includes frequency (sometimes none), ability to maintain erections (sometimes none) and the size of the male member used during the act (sometimes accompanied by admiring oooohs and aaaahs from those women in attendance.)

Men are more often focused on living conditions in the home. To that point, Jackie and I have just completed the first month of living together in sin. It’s been a bit of a challenge accommodating to each other’s way of keeping house. That we are still in love is testimony to our ability to stay strong and laugh at what might otherwise be an early termination of a perfect union.

Usually it’s the small stuff. The garbage disposal for example. When I lived in the Upper Ojai, I had the joy of dealing with an anemic septic system. After several lessons in humility, and being unsure of the cause of my problems, I studiously avoided putting anything through the garbage disposal. I became a happy guy with multiple bags of trash that were dealt with by assigning that responsibility to E.J. Harrison and Sons, our local mafia connected, but ever so helpful, sanitation engineers.

Free-will advocate Jackie believes that anything not breathing is a candidate for the disposal. And in some cases, not breathing is optional. I began our home-buddies’ relationship by whispering suggestions to her that might help reroute the trash from the disposer to the compactor. And then the disposer died, probably from too much gluten-free trash. We installed a new one that made the house shake with abandon. This disposer had no enemies. Wood planks, concrete blocks and railroad spikes were no match for the new beast in town.

Dazzled by its prowess, I gradually participated in, and then reveled in the wanton destruction of anything that did not move. Jackie and I bonded in our love for the once-despised machine. We had dodged a bullet in our relationship.

The washing machine was another stress producer. I had replaced the old machine inherited during the purchase of the Andrew home with a very white, very tres chic matched set that looked like it was begging to be used. My old wash day habit included waiting until there was only one pair of unsullied Kirkland boxer shorts left in my dresser drawer. I had it timed perfectly so that I could go from weekend to weekend before refreshing my supplies. Water and soap conservation led my reasons for avoiding too-often machine processing.

Jackie never has soiled clothing in her possession for more than eight hours. A machine load to her often includes one cute pair of black Lululemon yoga pants and a loose fitting, yet revealing, top. That’s it. Like the garbage disposal, I decided that it was better to join ‘em than to fight ‘em.

Her daily journey to the laundry room now includes one pair of my shorts, a t-shirt and one pair of white socks. Because I have but one t-shirt to contribute, it returns clean to the top of my shirt drawer where it is worn again the next day. People at the athletic club think I’m destitute because I wear the same t-shirt every day. To help justify the frequent natural resource robbing wash cycles, I occasionally contribute a large green bath towel to the load. You could eat off it. Yet another bullet dodged on the way to marital bliss.

Other challenges exist as we head toward formal matrimony in just thirty-nine days. The proper protocol for thermostat setting is a work in progress as I try to accommodate to temperatures that would challenge an Emperor Penguin. TV shows, especially those mind-numbing series depicting inane, beautiful young men and women, currently populate the hit list in our home. Gone are those special programs that challenged my mind such as Ant-Man versus Wasp, Bad Boys 2, Ninja Assassin and The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl.

But, despite the odds, I’m confident she’ll come around to my way of thinking. Right after hell freezes over.

Wash Day

I’ve been in my new house for almost four months. It’s been a bit of an adjustment.

…Traded one hundred and ten oak studded acres for a tenth of an acre and a mulberry tree.

…Abandoned two hundred stately olive trees and adopted one miniature citrus.

…The Topa Topas, formerly blessed with a 360-degree view, are now a mere snippet of their former stature.

…Car and foot traffic have multiplied a thousand-fold.

…The chirping of birds and the howling of coyotes has morphed into the squeals of young children.

…Earthly possessions have dwindled to a precious few to accommodate the loss of three thousand square feet of living and storage space.

…Traded an eighteen-minute drive to town for an eighteen-minute walk.

…Carried Westridge groceries home like a bag lady, instead of tossing them in my trunk.

I’d like to say that I love my new home. But that would be stretching it. With few exceptions, love at first sight only occurs in novels and movies. Rather, true love tends to be a long-term developmental effort. And, once achieved, love often changes into something more practical. Like a warm pair of socks or a favorite sweatshirt.

Jackie is an exception. My infatuation turned into love early in our relationship and it continues unabated today, two months before our March wedding.

Jackie loves her own house. Like her, it is petite and beckoning. Situated amid the oaks, it is an Arbolada gem. Two bedrooms and one bath, it suits her like a soft, well-worn pair of slippers. Her mother’s possessions flit throughout the miserly twelve hundred square feet. A delightfully warm jacuzzi and a garage-dwelling-sauna provide comfort to her at the end of the day. On warm summer afternoons, the cushioned patio chair welcomes her and offers a glimpse of sun through the overhanging branches of a magnificent ancient oak larger than her house.

For what seems an eternity, I have worked tirelessly to wean her from her very special place and bring her to my home. I succeeded last week when her cherished possessions were moved unceremoniously from her beloved home to my yet to be loved house.

We are in an adjustment period. Opening multiple kitchen drawers to find the right utensil. Trying to sleep through the night in a room that has been meticulously decorated with her familiar artwork. Trashing many of my old possessions that have been deemed superfluous to our new lifestyle. Learning to operate the over-optioned washer and dryer. Flipping multiple light switches to find the right one. Quietly rising in the early morning hours so as to least offend a sleeper trying to squeeze out a few more minutes in a warm bed.

My house comes complete with mysterious sounds including strange clicks, periodic creaks and its own brand of noise produced by the unfamiliar, temperamental two-zone heating system. The house also has another eerie habit…the movement of objects by an unseen hand.

Angelica, the cleaning lady arrives on Monday and includes a bit of laundry in her repertoire. Wishing to stay out of her way, I generally vacate the house and find something to occupy myself while the premises are being made presentable. Evidence of Angelica’s prowess includes a clean smelling, sparkly interior, shiny wood floors and a spotless stove. She uses dozens of cloth towels that are cleaned in my washing machine at the end of her day.

I came home yesterday and was surprised to find that the washing machine had been moved forward from its usual position leaving an irregular foot-wide gap between the wall and it. My initial reaction was that Angelica had moved the machinet in order to clean behind it. I called her to verify my suspicion but was assured that she had not moved the beast. It took all my strength to slide it back into its proper position.

Still wondering about the mysterious Maytag movement, my thoughts turned to Ila, my first sweet princess, who has been gone more than two years. Her ghostly connections with me following her death often include the appearance of objects in unaccustomed places. I attribute those events to her displeasure with me, her concern with something I had done, or just a reminder that she is still part of me. Could this most recent occurrence have something to do with Jackie’s arrival? Perhaps, but Ila had never moved something as massive as a two-hundred-pound washing machine. Pausing and thinking more rationally, I dismissed my initial conclusion.

And then the toilet overflowed.

Because of you

I flew Contour Airlines from Santa Barbara to the Bay area this weekend to celebrate my buddy Harry’s 80th birthday. Two months older than me, Harry and I have been the closest of friends for more than sixty years.

I highly recommend the Santa Barbara airport and Contour Airlines. Arriving mid-afternoon on Friday after a forty-five-minute easy drive from Ojai, I parked in the half-empty long-term parking lot, took a five-minute walk to the Spanish influenced terminal building and found the airport nearly deserted. I thought that perhaps I had missed an Ebola evacuation announcement.

I got my boarding pass from a very friendly Contour employee and made my way to the dreaded TSA security gauntlet. I was one of two people in line. The super-friendly supervisor asked if I would mind being a guinea pig for the new TSA employee at the screening monitor. With time to spare, I did my civic duty and opened my toiletries bag, watched it being hand searched, worried about what illegal or embarrassing item I might have forgotten about, zipped it back up without incident, and was thanked for my participation.

With little to do in the cavernous terminal, I casually sauntered over to the customer-less Peet’s Coffee kiosk, grabbed a cup of dark roast, sat in a very comfortable chair, played with my Spell Tower game and waited for boarding to begin. Boarding started when promised, and the plane departed and landed on time in Oakland. It was nirvana.

My wife to be, Ila, and Harry’s intended, Judy, were girlfriends at Chicago’s Boone grade school in the late forties. I started dating Ila during her high school senior year and, coincidentally, fell in love with Harry. The four of us remained inseparable until sweet Ila died in 2017.

I was Harry’s roommate at the University of Illinois. Studying metallurgy, Harry endured long hours of study, late nights, and early morning risings. He had this annoying habit of setting the alarm clock well in advance of his required wake up time, and then employing the snooze feature of our clock in order to bag several ten-minute naps. Even though I could have slept later than Harry, I suffered through his chronic, snooze habit in deference to his extended study nights.

Never lazy, Harry had several temporary jobs during summer vacations. Working in the Café Brauer snack-bar at the beach, he honed his not inconsiderable people skills, now in daily evidence at Noah’s bagels in Livermore, by ogling the girls who made the mistake of thinking that he was not a letch. Another summer vacation job tested Harry’s skills as a house painter. Unwilling to take the time to laboriously mask the crevices between the window and its frame, he simply made them un-openable by painting them shut at the home of my future in-laws. His follow-up job was unsealing the windows.

Graduating college and tearfully forsaking the life of a house painter while pocketing his newly minted PhD in material science, Harry began working at Argonne National Laboratories in Chicago’s southern suburbs while Ila and I set up shop in the northern suburbs. The distance between us, although minor by today’s freeway standards, tended to limit our time together.

In 1967 I accepted a job in San Francisco and we resigned ourselves to maybe seeing each other once a year. However, six months later, Harry called me and excitedly announced that he had taken a position with GE and was moving to the Bay Area. Now we could be, as nature intended, together once again. Unfortunately, I had just accepted a position in Southern California. And that’s how things have remained for over fifty years.

Though three hundred and fifty miles apart, we celebrated holidays, vacations, bar mitzvahs and other life cycle events together. Ila’s difficult illness limited those events and our time together lessened considerably. When Ila died, Harry stayed with me for days while I tried to cope with the emptiness. As always, being together was enough. Conversation to fill the vacuum was unnecessary. We had, years before, developed an alert system whenever we had something to say. Harry would reach over and touch my wrist announcing he was about to speak. I would stop whatever I was doing, straighten up and look alert. And I would listen.

Many years ago when the number of our face to face meetings was diminishing, Harry began to call me every Monday night at 7:30. A call to assure himself that everything was ok. A call to announce that he cared about me. We usually don’t have much to say during these calls. A “How are you” and “What’s new” followed by “I’m fine” and “Nothing much” often ends the call almost before it begins. But the warm feeling of reaching out lasts for the rest of the evening.

Harry’s eightieth was held in a Chinese restaurant near his Livermore home. His continuing concern for me was in evidence when we were blind-sided by the traffic and were fifteen minutes late. As we pulled into the parking lot, my cellphone rang and Harry said “Where are you? Everyone else is here.” I had been missed.

About forty people were there. Mostly old friends and close family. Many faces were familiar, but they seemed to have aged faster than I had. Harry, contrary to his preferred seat of the pants approach, had prepared some detailed remarks about the event and the people there who had touched his life. I blushed when he seemed to spend an inordinately significant portion of his presentation reminiscing about our time together.

One at a time, about half of the guests rose to say a few words. Harry’s wit and sarcasm took center stage in their remarks, and all offered anecdotes that highlighted his lasting friendship and his uniqueness. When it was my turn, I found myself stretching to say something important. Yet I found that what seemed important to me may have sounded trivial to those at the tables.

I recalled an evening in our senior year when, as a rite of passage, and surrounded by a horde of onlookers, Harry had to serenade Judy while standing outside her dorm. He had memorized and practiced that Arthur Hammerstein song for weeks on end in our small room; I could have delivered it in his stead. When his time came, he couldn’t remember the beginning of the song he had labored on as though it was his doctoral thesis. He had asked me to be his best man and I was standing beside him. He frantically leaned over to me and said, “What’s the words?”

I touched his wrist and whispered in his ear, “Because of You.”

Feeling mortal

According to Merriam-Webster, the word mortal means causing or having caused death. After the events of the last seven days, I more fully understand what it means.

When I was younger, I played a silly game with myself. I’d think of my age and calculate the percentage of my life still ahead of me. For example, when I was twenty-five, I figured I’d live to the conservative age of seventy-five. So, I still had two-thirds of my life to live. It was comforting.

When I was fifty, I figured I had used up two-thirds of my probable seventy-five-year sojourn on this planet.  Since I was not a believer in the afterlife or of a micro-managing deity, it gave me little comfort to feel closer to the end than the beginning.

I’ll be eighty in a couple of months. And I no longer play that game.

When I was much younger and working for a living, I’d, more often than not, be the youngest person in the weekly staff meeting. Now younger people offer to carry groceries to my car in the Von’s parking lot, others hold open the door for me at the athletic club, and I’m always respectfully addressed as “sir.”

Last week I was driving up Sulphur Mountain Road to my house in the Upper Ojai. It had rained earlier in the day and the bone-chilling combination of high humidity and low temperature made me shiver. Even the car heater wasn’t good enough. The thick, dark cloud cover added to the dank conditions that were usually only found in Dracula movies starring either Bela Lugosi or Gary Oldman.

About a quarter-mile from my driveway, the road was partially blocked by three police cars and a troop of officers. They seemed on break, just standing idly by with their hands in their pockets, as though waiting for something to happen. I slowed the car and stopped alongside the patrol cars. And one other car that looked strangely familiar.

My neighbor Ron’s sons, Eric and Max, walked toward me. I rolled down my window and asked what was going on. Eric said “That’s my father, lying on the shoulder, covered by the yellow plastic tarp. He died here about thirty minutes ago.”

You’ve probably felt like this before. Someone says something that is so incongruous that, at first, you don’t fathom its meaning. Then it sinks in and, depending how close you’ve been to those involved, you experience some level of shock.

Ron had been our good neighbor for nearly twenty years. We had eaten together, shared stories at neighborhood parties and helped each other overcome life’s roadblocks. An inveterate and former pipe smoker, Ron had been ill for some years and his death was ordained. Nevertheless, its abrupt end on the muddy shoulder of the road he had traversed hundreds of times was unexpected. I thought he might go on indefinitely, despite the lung disease that eventually brought him to ground. I’ll miss him.

Earlier that same day, I had attended the weekly creative writing class at Help of Ojai. For many months, I’ve spent Thursday mornings listening to the stories, poems and life experiences crafted by a dozen or more gifted writers. I also offer my own brand of writing to those who are kind enough to listen. The two-hour weekly session ends with a sometimes agonizing quest to identify a restaurant that eight or more of us can abide. It’s a challenge that, at times, is more difficult than getting past the constructive criticism leveled at us by the incisive, grammatically correct class participants.

Creatures of habit, most of us regularly occupy the same seats at the large, square table, unless one is tardy and confronted by a full house. I sit next to Johan who generally is one of the first people to arrive.  Reared in South Africa, Johan offers insights into a country that only a native can tell. In truth, his writing is occasionally difficult to warm to and he is often bestowed with criticisms that are well-meant but which can also be disheartening. His ability to absorb these barbs is often tested, and I find myself caring for his fragile ego.

Last Thursday I found myself confronted by an empty chair on my right that is normally staked out by Johan. About ninety, his absence due to a cold or minor ache or pain would normally be unremarkable. Nevertheless, I did feel an eerie vacuum created by the empty chair. I missed his repartee, his signature hat and his cellphone that seemed to have a mind of its own, demonstrating it every so often by interrupting various readers with its strident, irreverent sound. At times, I thought Johan would strangle the offensive device. We ended our class and trooped to Ca’Marco for lunch…without Johan.

The next day, Friday, I arrived at Help of Ojai for my morning bus driving shift. Tina, a delightful woman who schedules the bus trips, said “I’m sorry about Johan.” My first thought was that he had been struck down by the flu or some other malady that laid him low, maybe even hospitalized. After telling Tina that I didn’t know anything about Johan, she told me that he had passed away the day before. I immediately visualized the empty chair and said, “I just sat next to him last Thursday.” And I thought, how could something like this happen so quickly, without so much as a by-your-leave. Without warning, a last good-bye, or another reading of the 123rd paragraph of his novel.

The passing of Ron and Johan on the same day caused me to focus on my own mortality. I suppose that’s normal. To measure your years alongside theirs. To think about the fickleness of death. To realize that life is fragile. To cause us to seize the opportunity, that we might otherwise delay if we were immortal. But, blessedly, our mortality brings with it the urge, even if momentarily, to do before we cannot. To love with all our heart. To be loved.

Maybe I’ll start that counting game again.


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