Progress report: Between the darkness and the dawn

 Darkness and light

I am ten months out from the race of my life (NYC Marathon) and eleven months past the loss of my life partner Bernice B. Wagner. This Progress Report finds me almost in the middle of a journey that I know began with despair and I hope will end with celebration. At this point I find it almost as difficult to asses my progress in training as it is my progress in the grieving process. It is possible that this mid point is the darkness before the light for both.

The ironies

Both processes, training and grief are laced with irony. In conversation with a friend (also grieving) I described a day spent crying and writing, almost in equal parts. How I put it to her, “I have never hurt so much and wrote so well in my life.” 

In conversation with a running pal I remarked, “I’ve never run so poorly and had so much fun in my life.”

The day spent crying and writing in equal pain, while inexplicable, can at least speak to a known premise that all good art is born out of pain. The running poorly and having fun will take a bit more fleshing out.  

I have been extremely fit for some time, give or take a few reps. Also I have laid in my base over a period of three years. Yet I am slow even for a near seventy-year-old man. There are some reasons. I have recently been diagnosed with arthritis in my right hip and have been nearly hobbled with a combination of hip and groin pain. The decline has been somewhat alarming. On November 11, 2011 I achieved negative splits over an 11K course, running the final two miles in the mid-tens. Two weeks ago I barely averaged a fifteen-minute mile on my long run, a twelve miler.
Why or how am I so happy? I’m surrounded by joyous opportunities. I belong to a running club, Run 4 It Endurance Training. The members are among the most dedicated, supportive and humorous people I’ve ever met. I am privileged to be working with the Pat Tillman Foundation, its mission: to invest in veterans and military spouses through education and community. I’m also on a Ragnar Relay Team made up of a bunch of delightful crazies. Our team, the Ragnar Blue Line Crew is working with the 100 Club of Arizona to provide support for the families of fallen officers. In addition to that I have a coach (Jeff Hall) who has squeezed enough drive out of these old wheels that just last week I ran the best eight miler I have run in several months. Nothing beats a good workout partner, though so I have to give Tough Mudder Sharon Campbell a play for pulling me through the last two miles of that run.

In wrapping this up I’m reminded of a Paul Newman Line from movie Philidelphia Story. About his life he said, “I’m not as good as I hoped to be, but I’m not as bad as I was afraid I was.” That is pretty much me mid-journey

Notes on Grieving: The lighter side of grief

Two guys girl-watching at a party
First Guy: What do you think of that tall redhead over there?
Second Guy: Not bad. I wouldn’t kick her out of bed for eating crackers.
First Guy: Crackers maybe but I’m telling you pal, you better draw the line at popcorn.
One of the most difficult challenges facing any of us who have lost a spouse or a life partner is what to do about the bedroom. It is half empty now and so is the bed we may have shared for many years. The precious intimacy of this shared activity is no longer available to us. So what do we do, sell the house, redecorate the bedroom, buy a new bed set? And how do we get through the night, sleeping pills, using only our half of the bed, sleeping on our partner’s side?
Or, like me, do you avoid the bedroom altogether and sleep in another room. Any course you take will become a part of the larger process of coming to terms with your grief. No two people grieve alike and time is often not as helpful as we hope. I am a year into the process. I have no solutions for your bedroom or any other part of your grieving. What I can do is share a concept and a story. The concept is simple, laughter is good for you. The story: Save me from the Black Hole! 
For months after Bernice passed, I couldn’t sleep in the master bedroom. I couldn’t stand the thought of her not being there beside me. I closed the door, permanently for all I knew, and set up camp in my office, which is equipped with a futon.
I thought I might stay on the futon forever. I had a good routine. Just sit in front of the computer until my eyes cross, then roll the chair over to the futon and flop. I’m ten feet from the guest bathroom and equidistance from the kitchen and the living room.
But as time passed I began to think about regaining control of my life. Moving back into our bedroom would be a good start. By this time I’ve been in and out of the bedroom several times but never the bed. The bed is the key, I thought. Climb back into the bed and get your life rolling again.
What you need to know about the bed is that, though low to the floor, it contains more mass than a Black Hole in space. When made up it appears flat, but closer observation reveals a slow moving flotilla of crocodiles. The bed is so big you could host an entire Tea Party on it. In fact, if I still have this barge when my Super Bowl XLVI party rolls around I’m going to use the bedroom for overflow, throw a tarp over the bed, prop up a dozen pillows and sit up to five guests in front of our 40” plasma TV screen, with snacks and drinks. 

That is if the Bed doesn’t get me first. On my very first night back in the Bed I felt a malevolent presence. That presence has grown so powerful that I now believe it can cast spells, summons tornadoes, and even evoke the forces of outer space. Every night going to bed I fear for my very life. And yet I can’t sleep elsewhere. Nothing will have me, not the couch not the Futon. The spell of the Big Bed.

The only thing I have going for me is my mother wit. I know how the Big Bed’s evil force works; it turns my bad habits against me. Example, I employ a sleeping strategy that I call the Pitch and Pile. Pitch the sheets and blankets back and pile in. No problem. But Piling out, that’s where the forces of the Black Hole come in. As you know when an object such as a spaceship or a planet approaches the Black Hole Event Horizon the object is sucked in never to see the light of day again. I seem to be immune to the sucking in but nothing else in my little world is safe. I have lost socks, underwear, remote controls, novels, several sports pages, and a bunch of small change from my pocket. 

Piling in I bulldoze the covers over to make room for myself, then I grab any piece of bedding I can and pull it over me. But the Big Bed uses this constant pulling of random bedding towards me to create a tornado that won’t dissipate until every object on the bed is swirling around me and settling to the bottom. Soon the foot of the bed is thicker than a python and I can’t straighten my legs out.

Night before last my legs became the attack point for an assault that almost put me in the hospital. I suffer from leg cramps, specifically my calf muscles. Hardly a night goes by I don’t have at least one calf cramp, a cramp so painful that in the past I would wake up screaming, much to Bernice’s dismay. She is a light sleeper in the first place. Fortunately I have discovered a remedy: roll out of bed onto your feet and just stand there. The faster you roll out, the less pain you endure. The cramp will immediately release its iron grip, you shake it off and back to bed with you. But not if you have pulled-sheet-and-rolled one time to many, resulting in you being wrapped like a mummy.

When the cramp hit I didn’t scream because I knew I could easily take care of it. Only this time I can’t separate my legs to initiate the roll off. Now I’m screaming. Not only am I in pain but I’m doing a claustrophobia freak-out. In desperation I raise my lower half high above me and swing away from the bed with all my might. My upper body gets jerked along and I literally fly to attention. It’s like landing a jet liner; the first hit is just a bounce. And that’s what I did. I bounced once and flew head first into the adjacent wall. Knocked myself out. When I came to I was still mummyized but I couldn’t fight it any more. Wait for daylight to sort the mess out.  

Last night I’m watching the New York Giants whip the Green Bay Packers on my 40” plasma TV screen in the bedroom. I make some microwave popcorn, throw it in my big red plastic popcorn bowl, grab a beer, prop a pillow and bulldoze in. I was asleep before half-time.

Typical for guys my age, nature calls in the middle of the night. In the process of untangling myself from the sheets my hand brushes against a strange object. “Oh no. Oh please no.” I’m tapping on the overturned popcorn bowl. I feel around and my hand is rolling over layers of uneaten popcorn. 

 The next morning I have no choice but to strip the bed. Even I can’t sleep in a bed full of popcorn. The big kernels were easy to remove but the husks and the unpopped kernels clung like blood tics to the cotton fitted sheet. It was so bad I had to grab a broom, step up on the bed and sweep like an Olympic curler.

The Big Bed made its point. Get a new bed or die.  Something between an army cot and a queen. And tall enough I don’t need help getting out. Does anyone out there have a friend in the furniture business? 

Bernice and Garry: Prelude to a Kiss

Oh! How my love song gently cries
For the tenderness within your eyes
My love is a prelude that never dies
A Prelude to a kiss
Duke Ellington

In a single run I could play out the entire Bernice and Garry story and have time left over for speculation on exciting scenes to come, such as our first kiss. Sweetness and Light 

It happened the first time Bernice had me over for dinner. She was serving liver & onions. To this day I don’t know where she got the chutzpah for that. I thought I had made it perfectly clear that if I never ate liver again in my life it would be too soon.

“Didn’t your mom make liver and onions?”
“She also ate calf brains for breakfast. What’s your point?”
“My point is you haven’t had my liver and onions.” 
She had me there. Besides I was tickled to be invited. 

It was like dessert come early watching Bernice hustling around the kitchen in tight-fitting blue jeans, bending and wiggling through her preparations. It reminded me of the time my buddy asked me, “What’s so hot about this new girlfriend of yours?”
Without missing a beat I replied, “You mean besides her hot body, pretty face and steel trap mind? I’d have to say it’s the way she sits a chair.”

He laughed but I wasn’t kidding.

I first noticed this fetching phenomenon in the GED classroom we sometimes shared. Bernice was thin, almost angular and if it weren’t for a certain nonchalance in her gait and a shy sway of the hip…let’s just say sometimes I wondered about her true proportions. 

I got my answer one evening after Rose (my aide) had cleared the students out. Necessary because the library was adamant about closing at precisely at 8 pm. I’m sitting at a table finishing my attendance reports when Bernice sidles up and puts her hands on the back of a chair.

“Mind if I join you?”
“Mind if I watch you like a hawk,” I thought to myself

She took my smile for invitation, pulled the chair around in front of me and began her sit. My pixel calibration had her moving in super slo-mo as I shamelessly objectified her body from the waist down. A nano second after her knees bent, her hips began their drop. And as she lowered to a point infitesimally close to the seat my predatory gaze caught a glimpse of the heretofore hidden amplitude of her derriere momentarily displayed in all its innocent glory. Underneath it all, this was a woman of substance.

Back in Bernice’s kitchen the moment of truth has arrived. I’ve already settled on my strategy. Suck it up and eat the damned liver & onions. Be positive yet economical in your praise when asked how you liked it. Once you get to know each other better, you can ask that L&O not be a part of your meal rotations. 
As we look at each other across the table I’m reminded of the time Bernice returned from her Phoenix vacation… looking vibrant, tanned,bright eyed, and more that a little mischievous. Like maybe we were sharing asecret or maybe she knew I was dying to be let in on her secret.

I have knife and fork in hand, a look of relish pasted on my face, ready for one more deep breath before I dig in. Then I notice Bernice is sitting there, hands resting on the table, the mischievous look still on her face.

“What” I remark, genuinely confused.

“No what,” she replies. “It’s our custom to let the guest go first.”
“Right. Well you know, my family we just dig in.” I start to do just that but the look stops
me mid-dig.
It’s Bernice’s turn to say, “What”.
“You have a look on your face.”
“It’s just my natural look.”
“Right,” I say to myself. “Natural like a fox.”

 To my delight, her liver & onions are delicious, totally devoid of the sharp smell, strange texture, and spoiled meet taste I normally associate with the dish. What a relief, and what a joy to see the smile on Bernice’s face every time I compliment her cooking.

Bernice signalled the end of dinner by folding her napkin neatly and placing her hands palm down on the tablecloth. “I think we should have a glass of wine and watch the sunset.”
“I’m down for the wine, but you don’t have a western exposure.”
“No, but I have some floor to ceiling dinning room windows. Don’t worry, you won’t be disappointed.”
“What’s that supposed to mean,” I wondered.

We stood and sipped our wine and watched the play of a diminishing sun on the grassy commons before us. It was Friday and we talked about the week we’d had. As we talked our free hands found each other. Then we fell into a reverie of sorts, connected yet wandering in our own thoughts. 

It was Bernice who broke the spell by letting go my hand.

“How long has it been since you were with someone, like a serious relationship?’
“It’s been awhile.”
“I divorced my last husband.”
“How long ago.”
“Divorce is divorce. You know, final. I want to know about you.”
“Like if I’m on the rebound or something”


“No. The only thing I’m rebounding from is going broke with my TV show.”

That made her smile.

“Are you finished with your wine?”
I nodded. She took the empty glass from my hand, turned and walked the glasses over to the dining room table. When she came back to me she still had that “I know you’re dying to know my secret” look. But the look had softened. She stopped just short of me. Then with a shy, self-deprecating smile, she beaconed me to her.  

With one seamless motion she pulled my body into hers, looked into my face and gently kissed me on the lips. Her secret, both our secrets really, had at last been told. In that tender moment we consummated our love and made a sea change in our lives.