Bernice and Garry: Requiem and Godspeed

Today, 20 months after her passing, I find this memory, above all others, to hold the essence of the woman I knew and loved.

February 2009 My daughter Brett is here on her annual escape from the frigid climes of Detroit. While I was working (I retired from Rio Salado College in 2008) Brett spent most of her time hanging with Bernice. Since Brett was most interested in warmth and sunshine she fell right in with Bernice’s habit of spending afternoons in our condo pool. Bernice would read and Brett would lay out. Bernice’s job was to watch the clock and turn Brett every fifteen minutes. This scheme never produced a full-blown tan, but Brett at least acquired some light browning to show for her time in the desert.

This year was different. My being home more gave the three of us a chance to do more things together.
Sitting on west patio taking in a sunset
Brett: I thought you guys did a lot of hiking. I told my boss I was going get some exercise this time out.
Bernice: We’ve been slacking off. Making excuses. Too tired. Too old. Just too damned lazy really.
Brett: Bernice, I thought you hiked with your girlfriends.
Bernice: My main partner Dominica just up and quit on me one day. The rest of them are just too fast for me anymore. Can’t keep up. One girl died up in Canyon De Chelley. Right in the middle of the hike.
Garry: We’ve been doing North Mountain some.
Bernice: Your dad’s been doing North Mountain. I just hike around the ramadas at the bottom until he comes down.
Brett: Is North Mountain where I beat you running up that really steep incline?
Garry: Where you bushwhacked me you mean. I didn’t know you could run that fast.
Brett: I think you let me get ahead.
Garry: Like hell! You know I never let you girls (daughters Brett and Amy) beat me at anything if I could help it.
Bernice: You’re lucky he didn’t trip you, Brett. He hates to lose.
Brett: That was a good hike. I wouldn’t mind doing that again.
Garry: Hell, we can do it tomorrow if you want to.
Brett: You feel like doing it Bernice?
Bernice: I’ll go with you guys. I don’t know about the mountain. It’s been a while.
Next day the three of us hit North Mountain. Not early because Brett likes to sleep late on vacation. Heat not a factor given the time of year. Bernice is sporting her walking stick that she has used as far back as I can remember now. She seems eager to get started.
Bernice: I’m gonna be slow on these rocks. You all go on ahead. Wait for me where the road pitches in.
Brett: I’m not in any hurry. I remember this hike now. Like Camelback Mountain at first. Then the paved part gets really steep.
Garry: We’ll stay with you babe. We be the Three Musketeers.
Bernice: Make that two musketeers and one slowpoke.
So slow and steady we ascend the rocks. We take our first breather and our first water “where the road pitches in”, less than half-way to the top. Bernice is huffing a bit but still smiling as we banter.
Garry: So what you think Brett? Shall we run it?
Brett: Get real! I might run down if I’m not too tired.
Bernice: You two just take it easy. You may need your strength to carry me down.
The paved portion of the hike consists of long, sometimes nasty stretches of up, hidden from each other by switchback-like curves. Impossible to see what lies around the bend. After a couple of these stretches you start thinking that what lies around the bend might be the end of your journey. NOT! Brett and I are keeping a close watch on Bernice. By the end of the first stretch she has fallen silent. As we round the curve for the next stretch she seems to be searching the mountain’s rocky wall.
Bernice: I need to lean on something for a minute.
She finds an indentation with enough angle for her to partially sit. She settles in and takes a long drink.
Garry: You OK babe?
Bernice: (not looking at either of us) I can’t seem to catch my breath.
Garry: Your legs holding up OK?
Bernice: My legs are fine. Stop trying to talk to me.
Brett and I exchange nervous glances. Bernice seems to be shifting her focus internally, taking stock of her reserves.
Brett: We don’t have to do this today. Far as I’m concerned I already got my exercise.
Bernice: You came here to climb the mountain, you should climb the mountain.
Garry: I’m with Brett on this one babe. I say we ease back down the road and go to lunch.
Bernice: Do whatever you want, but don’t say you’re quitting on my account. I don’t want to hear it.
Brett gives me an “it’s up to you shrug”. I have nothing so we fall into a long silence. After a while Bernice brightens and breaks the silence.
Bernice: How you doin Brett?
Brett: I’m doin fine. So far. I just know it’s a long way to the top.
Bernice: Be even longer if you two don’t get moving.
Garry: You packing it in?
Bernice: I ain’t packing it out!
Garry: Well let’s just rest then. We got all the time in the world.
Bernice: I’d feel better if you two just went on without me.
Garry: You know we can’t leave you here.
Bernice: I don’t know why not. You been leaving me places for years. Always wanting to see what’s around the next corner, scrambling up places too steep for me.
Garry: That’s because I knew you’d be OK.
Bernice: You didn’t know, you just hoped I’d be OK.
Garry: But you always were.
Bernice: That’s my point. Why should now be different? I got water. Getting my breath back.
Garry: (treading lightly) I know you’ll be OK if you stay put. But you’ve never been good at that. How many times have I come back to the spot I left you and you weren’t there.
Bernice: So I get bored easy. I’m getting bored right now. Make up your mind. Are you gonna hike the damned mountain or not? Sorry Brett. Your dad can be aggravating at times.
Brett: No apology necessary. I’m with you on that.
Garry: (after giving Brett a scathing look) So you’ll head back down to the car?
Bernice: How about I just do what I feel like doing. Like I always do.
Garry: I worry about you falling on the rocky stretch.
Bernice: I worry about you falling off a cliff lookin at some lady’s backside.
Garry: Smile when you say that.
Bernice: (brandishing her walking stick) I’ll smile when I land this stick on top of your head. (she is smiling now)
Garry: C’mon Brett. We don’t have to stand here and take this abuse.
Brett: What’s this “we” shit Tonto?

Brett and I take off at a pace we can’t possibly hold longer than it takes to get out of earshot.
Brett: You think she’ll be all right?
Garry: I’m more worried about me right now. You in a hurry or something?
Brett: Seriously dad.
Garry: I think she’ll be OK if she stays put. I’ve seen her like this before. She always rallies after a rest.
Brett: But have you seen her like this lately?
Garry: Not really. It’s like she said. I do the mountain and she does her loop. Then we go to breakfast. She’s been OK with that.
Brett: What if she doesn’t stay put? What if she goes down those rocks by herself?
Garry: Got to think about that. (We walk on in silence, assuming a more comfortable pace. Typically we meet folks coming down from the summit, alone, with a group, couples, people with dogs)
Brett: Dang! How come all these folks look so happy.
Garry: We’ll look happy too, on the way back down.
As we spiral toward our destination we take a few breaks to appreciate the view of North Mountain Park. To me the most scenic respite is the one just below the final short-but-brutal stretch leading to the towers at the top. Hikers can sit on a stone bench and enjoy a great look at the city as it spreads out far below. I told Brett that we could stop there for our last major break before starting back down.
Brett: Dad, look at that woman up ahead. Is she reading a book?
Garry: I’ll just be damned! She sure as hell is. Walking right on the edge too. That’s an insult to nature.
Brett: Maybe she just likes to get some exercise while she reads.
Garry: Exercise my ass. For two cents I’d shove her right off the edge.
Brett: You’re sick dad. I’m gonna tell Bernice you said that.
Garry: Speaking of Bernice, I wonder how she’s doing.
Brett: You think she’ll start down without us?
Garry: I’d make book on it.
Brett: You worried?
Garry: No, I think she’ll get to the rocks and hunker down and wait for us there.
Brett: (sudden exclamation) Dad, look. I see the towers. They don’t look too far.
Garry: They’re not. But the last 50 meters are vertical. Just when you think you got it made.
Shortly we arrive at the vertical. We stop. Look at each other
Brett: You’ve got to be kidding.
Garry: Hell no not kidding! You say “go”.
Brett takes two cheater strides and says go. We battle kneck and kneck to the top, then across the top to the big metal Warning sign hung on the chain mail gate that keeps folks from fooling around with the towers. We smack it simultaneously for a tie. After a five minute pant we start down the vertical, allowing gravity to pull us into a trot.
Brett: We gonna stop at the bench?
Garry: Let’s not. I want to get back to Bernice as quick as we can.
Brett: Good! Me too.
Leaning back to provide plenty of braking time should the incline pull us too fast, we descend the mountain. We round the first down stretch laughing and start into the second. Suddenly we put on the brakes and come to full stop. The figure coming up towards us is all too familiar.
Brett: That looks like Bernice.
Garry: It is Bernice. My God, she’s goin for the top!
Brett and I scamper like two kids to greet her.
Bernice: My aren’t we the frisky ones.
Garry: Hey, you. We were just streakin down the mountain to save you.
Bernice: Don’t need savin! Might need some pushing though.
Garry: You must have caught a second wind.
Bernice: More like a second opinion.
Garry: From who…whom?
Bernice: From myself. My first opinion was “put a fork in me”, I’m done. But every time I started to go back down something stopped me. (She lets the thought hang for awhile, conserving her energy.) 
Then I started thinking about all the times I did this hike. I would get tired sometimes but I never quit. She looks and nods her head at both Brett and me. Determined. Confident. Happy. Through with words.
Brett: You go girl!
From that point we move on in reverent silence, three companions on a mission. Me, ‘I’m thinking The Three Musketeers got nothing on us.’

Finally we reach the vertical before the summit. To our left is the stone bench and it’s accompanying view. To our right is the final challenge.
Bernice: I want to sit awhile on that bench coming down.
Garry: Gotta earn it first babe. It’s all about the sign now. What did we always say?
Bernice: ‘You don’t bang the sign you never did the climb.’ Let’s go!
Bernice reaches the sign, raises her hand and then pauses. Hard to say how long. Maybe seconds. Maybe years. Maybe long enough to remember every single time she declared this victory. At last she lays her hand on the sign, pats it and turns around. Invites us into her moment.

The three of us are sitting on the stone bench, Bernice in the middle.
Garry: I think I like this view of the city better than the one from South Mountain.
Brett: I remember that one. We drove up to the top, right?
Garry: Right. We called that our Chamber of Commerce tour.
Bernice: Funny how people remember different things.
Garry: How so?
Bernice: You guys remembering South Mountain. You’d never guess what I’m thinking about.
Garry: All the times you and Dominica did this hike?
Bernice: I miss Dominica. Our non-stop conversation. But that’s not it. You should know this Garry. Think night time.
Garry: We did this at night?
Bernice: Several times. Certain time of the month. (pause as she waits for my light to go on) Too slow. I’m remembering when several of us would hike all the way to this bench just to get a view of the full moon. Just hanging there over the mountains. So big and bright. So close you could almost touch it.
Garry: Oh my gosh! How could I forget. But you know what I remember most? How we all forgot to bring flashlights and we blamed Walking Ellie because it was her idea in the first place.
Bernice: I just remember how beautiful it was. How thrilling. (pause) You would have loved it Brett.
Brett: I’m sure I would have.

Bernice was in her 80th year. She would not do North Mountain again in her earthly form. On her birthday, the October following her death, we hiked eleven strong to a secluded space on the backside of the mountain to scatter her ashes. I have returned to that space alone several times since. Each time I’ve spoken my heart, told her how it was with me. Being without her. Bernice never spoke but somehow managed to lever the workings of my mind. The last time we met I shared this epiphany. Caught in the twilight zone between wanting to forget and wanting to heal, I came to the happy conclusion that the one thing I would never have to give up was loving her. I could keep on loving her and still have room in my heart to love others.

This is the final episode in the Bernice and Garry Story. I began telling the story as a way to work through my grief. At first I thought I was simply preserving Bernice’s memory for myself. But early on in the telling, I realized that my greatest need was to share our story with others. I wanted family, friends, the whole world if it was so inclined, to know that we once lived and loved and formed a beautiful partnership. In short, I began to approach our life together more as a storyteller, a writer. Perhaps I can be forgiven that because I am a writer. But as a writer, I’m still a mensch, a human being, a good person. It is the mensch in me that thanks you for reading this blog. I take your readership as an act of love, for both me and Bernice. It is the mensch in me that cannot say farewell. I can only say what is in my heart-Godspeed good souls, Godspeed

The Bernice and Garry story will remain available on the Run for Your Life blog. Still to come are new posts under Notes on Grieving and Progress Report. In the near future Run for Your Life will be included on my still-in-the-works website, Garryspeak. The website will include new blogs featuring all my writing projects. One to look for is my current novel, World Without Midnight.

Bernice and Garry: Adventures in Paradise

The Triad
The electric arcs across the great Prongs of our Life-Triad are strong, brief and luminous. And so it is with memories. There for us to see but gone before we can touch them. (author)

Prong 1 Bernice Becomes a Champion  
Prong 2 The Dreaming Pool  
Prong 3 Grammy

“Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?” Mae West

Bernice Becomes a Champion: Garry’s Scheme
Setting: Security Checkpoint, Detroit Metro Airport
Time: Four years before 911
on the way to Phoenix to join Bernice “for good”
Security Officer #1: (stretching his beefy body up to bolster his barely average stature) Sir, step over here please.
Garry: Is there a problem?
Security Officer #1: I need you to tell me what this is. (“This” was an eight pound shot-put with rubber coating to allow for indoor competition. Red in color.)
Garry: Oh, that’s a shot-put. Bought it for my girlfriend.
SO #1: Sir, I don’t know what a shot-put is. I need you to tell me exactly what this device is used for.
Garry: It’s used in athletic competition. You throw it, or “put” it. Whoever puts it farthest wins. Do you ever watch the Olympics?
SO #1: (rolling the suspicious object over in his hands) Sir, I’m going to ask you a very serious question. There is a seam in this object. Obviously sealing two halves of a container. And there is something inside this container. (shaking the orb inches from his ears) I can hear moving parts. What’s inside?
Garry: OK, let’s go with the seam first. It’s a seal for the two halves…
SO #1: Sir I know what a seam is. What I don’t know is what the seam is holding together. You need to tell me what’s inside immediately.
Garry: Shot. Like in a shotgun shell.
SO #1: Shot? As in shooting? As in gun powder and explosives? (eyebrows raised to hairline) Sir I need you to dismantle this device immediately. The airline considers it your private property. That makes you responsible for its content. Attempting to bring explosives onto an airplane is a Federal Offense. I have the right to confiscate this item. I’m advising you that failing to follow my Directive will result in your immediate arrest.
Garry: Arrest? Are you kidding me? I’m getting arrested for a shot-put? (suddenly there is a second Airport Security person taking an oblique stance less than three feet from me.)
SO #1: (to the newcomer) I have instructed this individual to dismantle. Take a look before you relinquish possession to him. (Hands hands the ball to SO #2)
SO #2: (tall, slender, not imposing. Turns the ball slowly in his hands, bringing all his powers of deduction to bear) Heavier than it looks. Dam strange thing to have in your carry-on. I’d advise you to open it like he said. Nobody needs to get arrested and nobody needs to get hurt.
Garry: (hurt, did he say hurt?) There’s no way I can take this thing apart, but I’m telling you it’s nothing but a heavily coated ball filled with…BB’s to make its weight.
SO #2: BB’s?
SO #1: BB’s! A dirty bomb! Could be filled with BB’s and God knows what else. Secure this individual and his properties. I’ll get a supervisor over here ASAP. (Walks off with exaggerated pace, speaking urgently up his sleeve.)
Garry: I hope you guys have a sense of humor. You’re gonna  need it.
SO #2: We get paid to take these things seriously. (pause) For what it’s worth, I hope you’re right.
Within minutes SO #1 returns with Supervisor, compact middle aged Afro-American woman with authority written all over her face.
Supervisor: Sir, I need to see your driver’s license. (after a brief glance, hands it back to me) Mr. Cox, I’ve been asked to take a look at your carry-on item. (looks at SO #2) This the item? Let me have a look.
SO #1:
There is something inside that thing.
Supervisor: And you think I’m going to shake it to find out?
SO #1: No mam, of course not. Should I notify the police and request bomb detection personnel?
Supervisor: This looks like a shot-put to me. Used to throw one just like it back in the day. This a shot-put Mr. Cox?
Garry: Yes mam, for my girlfriend.
Supervisor: (smiling, starts to hand it back to me then checks herself and hands it off to SO #1) You can return the item to Mr. Cox. (To me) Next time put it in your luggage.
Garry: Yes mam. (As I turn to retrieve the rest of my carry-on items I glance at the two SO’s. SO #1 is staring blankly into space. I can’t be sure but I think SO #2 just threw me a wink. Whatever, I suddenly experience an overwhelming urge to hit the restroom to check my pants for fall-out).

Bernice Becomes a Champion: The gift that keeps on giving
Setting: Phoenix @ Shadow Mountain High School track

Bernice: What in the world made you buy me a shot-put?
Garry: Well, what else do you buy a woman who has everything?
Bernice: What made you think I would want this thing.
Garry: More like I want you to have it. It’s a ploy on my part to keep you coming to all my track meets.
Bernice: Between Detroit and Phoenix I’ve already been to God knows how many of your races.  Why would you think I would stop now?
Garry: I don’t know, insecurity I guess. It’s just that I listen to my track buddies talking about their wives and how they feel about sitting around in the stands, bored, waiting for their husbands’ events. I actually heard one of their wives say, “I really don’t get what all the fuss is about. A bunch of old farts chasing around after each other. Not my idea of a good time.”
Bernice: Garry, you know I don’t like it when you compare me with other women. You love this track stuff, you’re going to do it no matter what. If it makes you feel any better, being here with you is better than being left at home.
Garry: Nice try, but I still think you need a personal buy-in.
Bernice: OK, but why this?
Garry: Because you’re a natural. You’re dirt strong and you’re athletic. I think you could be really good at this. Hell, I think you could be a star.
Bernice: Well you drug me over to this…what do you call this I’m standing in?
Garry: The throwing circle.
Bernice: So show me what to do with this cannonball thing.
Garry: I thought you’d never ask.
Due to my lifelong love affair with track and field, I know the techniques required for most events. For Bernice I chose the old-school, back to the foul line, bend, take three gathering steps forward, turn and release approach. After several impeccable demonstration throws, Bernice has seen enough.
Bernice: Look, I don’t see myself doing all that. Why can’t I just stand sideways, hunker down and come up throwing?
Garry: I guess you could. But you won’t throw it as far that way.
Bernice: Just give me the ball and let me try.
She takes about five throws in the manner she described. After each throw I cheer her on and offer priceless critique.
Bernice: You know what? This isn’t going to work. If I’m going to get into this, I need to get a real coach. Like I did with my race-walking.
She did just that. In her search she came in contact with the great ASU middle distance runner Cliff McKenzie. Cliff recommended a young woman who was currently doing throwing events for the ASU track squad. After a couple months training Bernice was ready for the circuit.

Bernice Becomes a champion: Deja Vous all over again
A postcard from when we were still getting to know each other back in Detroit
Dear Garry,
Having a wonderful visit with the kids. Drove to the (Oregon) coast and down the beaches. Very beautiful and green & lush. weather finally turned warm and & sunny & I’m enjoying that. Tomorrow going to Seattle & then LA. I’m relaxing a lot & exercising too little & enjoying it all. Miss you
Love Bernice

Once more with feeling
Bernice: OK now you’re going to have to help me work this thing out. What’s your grand plan again?
Garry: Well, it’s a triumvirate. First weekend we do a National track and field meet in Canada. Second weekend we do a National meet in Spokane, Wash. The third we do an International meet in  Track Town USA, Eugene, Oregon.
Bernice: I’ll never make three weeks. Let’s skip Canada. So it’s Spokane and Eugene, OK?
Garry: I can live with that.
Bernice: Good, because I already figured out how we could do the two meets in the states.
Garry: So you don’t really need my help?
Bernice: Of course I do. Well, maybe I just need you to listen to my plan. But I do need you to go along with it. Heart and soul. The only way I want to go.
Garry: The only way we should ever go.
Bernice: Right! So here’s how I see it. We’ll start in Valencia (Ca), Sandi and Jody and the girls (Nicole & Kelly). Spend two, maybe three days with them. Then we’ll drive up the Coast Highway to Portland Oregon and spend time with Patti, Patrick and Garrett. From there we hit the road for Seattle to see Ellen and Zach. Then Spokane, then Eugene. I’ll have to call the girls and see just how much time we can spend with each of them.
Garry: Wow! This is a dream come true. The great Pacific Coast Road Trip!
Bernice: You’ll love the Oregon Coast. It’s beautiful beyond words.
Garry: Pretty sure we’ll both love it. Thinking about that postcard you sent me. But you know what’s going through my mind? California Redwoods. The great Redwood Forest. Wanted to see them since I was a kid and read this western comic book where the bad guys were holed up inside a big ole redwood.
Bernice: I think what I have to do is get a tighter time frame. So we have time to play it by ear. Stop wherever it suits our fancy. I’ll get on the details. You just make sure you do your job.
Garry: Which is what, exactly?
Bernice: Get your car ready. I’m not sure if your little Escort can handle the trip.
Garry: Little Red can handle it, trust me.
Bernice: Can I tell you something?
Garry: Anything.
Bernice: I’m nervous about the track meets. I bet those national girls are awfully good. Will there be a lot of people watching?
Garry: Oh yeah. Lotta people watching you kick booty. (a sly grin on her face?)
Center stage in this Odyssey was the galvanizing effect Bernice’s audacious choice of event had on her family. Every daughter, every son-in-law and every grand child insisted not only on a demonstration of her prowess, but also the chance to have a go at it themselves. Back yards teemed with kids and grown folk throwing, grunting, cheering and jeering. The part she seemed to enjoy most was the inevitable teasing she got.

“Are you sure you can throw far enough to clear your toes?”
“Grammy, are you going to wear one of those tight spandex outfits?”
“Bernice you gotta learn to grunt. You don’t even squeak?”
“Are you sure anybody your age actually does this?”

Through it all she smiled and laughed and lapped up the attention.

USATF National Masters Track and Field Competitions Spokane Washington
Masters Track & Field athletes compete in five year age groups. Bernice was in the 65-69 group.
Images: Bernice in her que waiting for her fourth attempt. Ordinarily a fast starter, she is out of the money at this point. Her usual stoicism in the ring has been replaced by a constant shifting of weight from foot to foot, a head down glower, and some serious deep breathing.
Event Marshal: Wagner up!
Images: With the slightest of nods, Bernice pivots off a foot shift and moves deliberately into the throwing circle. Into her standing position. A look out across the throwing vectors. A beat, and into her crouch. Deeper than usual. Locks her throwing elbow into her side. Tighter than usual. Free arm reaching skyward, straighter than usual. Up hard out of the crouch and the ball flies. Later Bernice would say, “I knew it was a good one. I could feel it all the way up from my toes.”

The interminable measuring wait. Finally the formal distance announcement, followed by a sizable wave of appreciation from the crowd. Bernice leaves the throwing circle with a small, satisfied grin. Ultimately the throw stands up, good for a National Silver Medal.

WAVA (now called the World Masters Championships) International Track and Field Competition Eugene Oregon
Hayward Field stadium full to capacity. Big time buzz around the shot-put venue. Some serious lady athletes chatting, back slapping, plowing through their warm ups. Even from my vantage point in the stands they seem bigger and more resolute than any ladies Bernice has gone up against thus far. Bernice herself has found a swagger I didn’t know she had. She’s strolling through the ranks of her competitors, shaking hands, laughing at somebody’s joke. Me I’m hoping she’s getting stoked  on the supercharged atmosphere because she doesn’t seem much interested in warming up.
Image: Bernice is wearing an extra large WAVA T-shirt that extends nearly to her knees. The officials start the competitors roll-call and Bernice comes out of the shirt. Holy Batman! Spandex has nothing on this girl. She has opted for a form fitting, one piece, powder blue bathing suit with aggressive white stripping. I know distance belies age to a point, but from where I stood she looked like a blond bombshell about to go off.
Image: Bernice is far enough down in the throwing order that by the time she steps into the ring I have reconciled myself to her bodacious outfit. Talk about casual. If she were carrying a book in her hand instead of a shot-put she could be strolling down a beach somewhere. She does three relaxed squats in preparation and suddenly rips through her toss in a blue blur. Her momentum leaves her standing on her tip-toes to avoid stepping over the foul line. She recovers in time to see the throw and slaps her thigh in satisfaction. Not waiting for the measurement, she steps out of the ring and gathers up her shirt. Waits for her ball. Takes it and strides through the ranks. Normal. Find a spot to rest until her next throw. Instead she continues on through the crowd, across the track, and heads up into the stands towards me.
Garry: Bernice, what the hell are you doing? (she just grins and hands me the ball) You can’t leave the competition like that. You’ll be disqualified.
Bernice: (with a shrug and a grin) That throw was good enough, I don’t need another one. If they beat it they beat it.
Garry: It was pretty damned good. Looked better than Spokane. But Sweetie, you have to tell the officials you won’t be taking another throw.
Bernice: OK, see you in a few minutes.
“That throw was good enough, I don’t need another one.” Good enough for another Silver Medal, International this time.

Partners in Paradise
When I rejoined Bernice after my 9 month sojourn in Michigan, we started our new life with a vengeance. Bernice was retired and I was the next best thing, unemployed. Better still, I was drawing unemployment from the Detroit Public School System. I was free as a bird and could pay my own way, at least for awhile. Our future was finally now.

Bernice wasted little time filling me in on the routines she had already established in my absence. Hiking with the club, regular pool days with our building 8 buddies, morning and evening walks along the golf course, and random searching for the perfect happy hour and the best Friday night fish establishment within easy driving distance. On the weekends that we didn’t do all day hikes, we would catch the latest movies. Evenings at home would start with wine or beer on the patio followed by one of Bernice’s twenty-minute dinner specials. After dinner we would read or watch a favorite TV show.

The Dreaming Pool (1)
Every day after leaving the scorching water pool deck and slogging maybe 30 meters back to the condo, we would shuck our swim-suits and lie naked in the spare bedroom. The room had a twilight ambiance created by closing the blinds to soften the blow of a raging sun. With our bodies supported by pillows and a soft carpet, we would day-dream in hushed tones content to let evening roll around whenever it felt like it. We called the room our Dreaming Pool
Bernice: Sometimes I think this is the best part of the day.
Garry: I feel like I’m on vacation.
Bernice: You are on vacation.
Garry: No, I mean like a permanent vacation. Sort of a never-ending holiday.
Bernice: You’re not planning to go back to work?
Garry: It’s in the back of my mind. Planning would be a stretch.
Bernice: Back of your mind is good. Leaves room for today. For us. (pause) You know how I’m always kidding you about being a dreamer? I don’t know why. I think it’s what I like best about you.
Garry: Are we talkin’ daydreams or lifedreams here?
Bernice: Lifedreams. The ones you’ve shared with me. Back when we were getting to know each other. Your years in the theatre, living on bread and relish sandwiches, hustling 24/7, fighting for rehearsal space, eeking money out of tiny budgets, but still bringing the show in. Your salad days. (pause) I have a confession to make. I used to daydream about those days. Used to pretend that I was part of that life.
Garry: Funny, when I was telling you all that stuff I wasn’t thinking dreams.
Bernice: I know, you were trying to impress me. And it worked. But even then I had this question in the back of my mind. Why did he stop? Why isn’t he still doing what he loved?
Garry: Well, one answer would be he liked to eat. He liked to have a roof over is head. He wanted to at least marginally take care of his kids.
Bernice: I get that. I even get that at one time you thought Adult Ed was the ideal backup plan for someone trying to make it in the theatre. But I also get that by the time we started seeing each other you had come full stop.
Garry: I don’t know full stop. But I was ready for a serious break. The whole field of performing arts is a struggle for anyone. I was starting to look at the handwriting on the wall. If I was gonna make it, I woulda already made it, that sort of thing.
Bernice: Don’t take this the wrong way, but I think you just stopped trying.
Garry: You’re starting to lose me
Bernice: No, I think I’m starting to find you. Do you remember telling me the story about you wanting to quit your lousy Babe Ruth baseball team because your manager was a drunk and the team was playing lousy and your sponsor still hadn’t come up with any uniforms?
Garry: Like it was yesterday.
Bernice: And what did you mom say?
Garry: Something like she wasn’t gonna let me quit the team because I’d never been a quitter…
Bernice: Right, she said you had never been a quitter and you never would be. So here’s what we know about you. Your dreams will never die, and quitting on them is just not in you.
Garry: So what are you saying?
Bernice: I’m saying that you’re lying here with me, a beautiful woman in a lovely condo with no financial worries. Your kids are doing good. Sayin’ maybe it’s time for us to get after your dreams. The two of us. The stars may never line up like this again.
Garry: What about your dreams?
Bernice: I’m living my dream. Doin’ everything I want, when I want to. The only thing could spoil my dream is an unhappy partner.

So I took the shot. I signed with a talent agency and found early success with a string of commercials and two Indy films. When I joined up the agency was half modeling, half talent. But early on the handwriting on the wall revealed that the money seemed to be in the modeling game. After a couple of fat years the agency fazed out the talent side of the operation altogether. I was on my own without an agent in a secondary market. Adult Ed to the rescue. In the waning moments of my film career I was invited to join a prestigious Rio Salado College Leaning Center that partnered with the ground breaking Maricopa Skills Center. I felt good about the opportunity to earn a little money while coming up with a new game plan to crack the commercial market. September 2012 I’m still working on that game plan.

The Dreaming Pool (2)
Garry: So Ms Wagner, where do you see yourself in five years?
Bernice: (eyes closed) I hear Lake Louise up in Canada is one of the most beautiful spots on earth.
Garry: I see us white-water rafting down the Colorado river.
Bernice: I don’t know. Those rapids are dangerous. I don’t swim that well.
Garry: You kidding? You swim like a fish.
Bernice: Oh right, you’re the one who doesn’t swim so well.
Garry: What about famous cities.
Bernice: OK, I’ll take famous cities for $500.
Garry: You’ll take a poke in the booty and like it.
Bernice: OK, London. I’ve always wanted to go to London.
Garry: New York City for me. Then maybe Rio de Janiero.
Bernice: I’ve already been to New York. Never had a desire to go to South America.
Garry: Fair enough. So we do London, should we add Paris to our Junket?
Bernice: No. Just London. (pause) Can I tell you what I really have been thinking about?
Garry: Please!
Bernice: Hiking the Grand Canyon.
Garry: Really?
Bernice: Really. Hike down to Phantom Ranch. Get a big steak with corn on the cob for dinner. Lay out and look up at the sky after sundown. Fat stars filling up the whole sky. Hike back out the next day. Maybe run up to Laughlin after. See a show, play some slots. (pause) Think I can do it?
Garry: Do what, hike the Grand Canyon?
Bernice: Yeah, I’ve heard it can be a rough hike. I ain’t no spring chicken.
Garry: What, Mt. Lemon wasn’t rough enough or Mt. Williams with the wind blowing our shorts off. Hell Squaw Peak is rough enough for your average thirty-year old.
Bernice: You’re right. I can do it. Guess the real question is, can you?
Garry: You’re my hiking guru. You tell me.
Bernice: Not sure I’d bet money on it, but you’re starting to get the hang of it. You got time.
Garry: I got time, meaning…
Bernice: Meaning I’ve made reservations to overnite at Phantom Ranch this coming March. I want to give Sandi (daughter) a special birthday present. Something she can share with Jody (son-in-law). Get us a nice place to stay on the Rim. The four of us do the hike. What you think?
Garry: Think you just blew me out of the water.
Bernice: I mean do you like?
Garry: I love!

Images: Hikers know that often as not climbing down a steep trail can be harder on the body than climbing up. Unfortunately Bernice proved to be a case in point. After maybe a half mile down the South Kaibab, Bernice’s knees began to hurt. At first “like the dickens” but soon “every step I took was like an icepick in my knee.” Fellow hikers noticed her plight and offered everything from ice packs to pain pills. I never knew so many hikers carried drugs. If memory serves she did avail herself of some supped up Tylenol.

What a difference some grub and beer, an evening under the stars and a good nights sleep can make. Bernice totally had her mojo back as we lit out from Phantom Ranch at 6am the next morning. Footbridge across the Colorado River and up Bright Angel Trail. At Indian Gardens we split our foursome. Jody was anxious to get into a power hike, and I felt up to the challenge. Sandi and Bernice would stay together and meet us at the rim.
Bernice: Garry, you remember your promise. When you guys get to the top, you turn right around and come back for me. You promised to push me on up if I needed it.
Garry: You got it Sweetie. Hope you won’t need it though. I’ll be pretty tired by the time I get back to you.
Turns out “pretty tired” wasn’t the half of it. Jodi was fit and forty and on a mission. He clearly meant to kill me with his pace. Later he would say, “All you had to do was tell me. I could have slowed down.” Yeah right. Like you didn’t know the old buck never asks for quarter and the young buck never grants it. I did go back for Bernice, but only after Jody and I had grabbed a shower and a snack back at the hotel.

One of the striking features of a hike up Bright Angel is the sharp contrast in weather conditions. On this day, it was balmy around the Colorado River bottom and snowing on the South Rim. By the time Jody and I started back down to meet the girls a thick fog had set in. Oncoming hikers were preceded by the colors of their caps and jackets long before their bodies jumped into visibility. I counted 16 switchbacks before I saw a bright orange nylon jacket like the one Bernice had wisely packed.  Could be her. As she slowly rose out of the mist the ball of orange grudgingly revealed a splotch of white. Bernice’s face, upturned, grim to infinity, with droplets of moisture hanging off the end of her nose. She did not smile when she recognized us.
Bernice: You said you would come back for me.
Garry: I did. I’m here.
Bernice: You should have found me a long time ago.
Jody: Bernice, what did you do with Sandi, push her off a lookout point?
Bernice: (not amused) Her back is killing her. Some young fellows offered to take her pack and wait for her at the top. She insisted I go on. You better go find her.
Garry: So babe, you still want me to push you.
Bernice: Hell yes I want you to push. You shoulda been pushing me way before now.
To her credit Bernice thanked me for the pushing she did get and admitted that for the most part she was no worse for wear. She was seventy-two years old at the time.

Memorable afternoon with Bernice and her pool girlfriends, maybe six years into Paradise:
Don’t remember whether I actually overheard this conversation or Bernice told me about it later.
GF 1: These girls today, they have so much surgery no telling how old they are.
GF 2: Not important how old you are, just what you look like.
GF 3: I wouldn’t mind a few nips and tucks. I’m such a flabby Abby.
GF 4: I just want to get rid of some wrinkles and some crows feet.
GF 5: You can do that with Botox you know.
Bernice: I don’t think I’ll bother with any of that. Garry likes me just the way I am.

From daughter Ellen: (circa 2012) Here is what I can tell you about Mom and the grandkids.

She loved being a Grammy. I think more than being a mom.
When (son) Zach was 4 I started going to conferences 2 times a year. She would arrange her vacation time and go with us. She took care of Zach in the morning while I was at meetings and then the 3 of us would play in the afternoons.
Memorable trip: We went to Fort Lauderdale for Benjamin’s (Ellen’s nephew) bar mitzvah and then Mom, Zach and I went down to the Keys for a few days. We had a great time in a small hotel on the beach. I remember that it was Mothers day weekend 10 years ago, I took her to dinner at the Westin Hotel in Islamorada. We had dinner in the restaurant way up high looking out into a jungle with water on both sides watching the sun set. It was wonderful.

From daughter Patti: (circa 2012) When I think of her visits though what I remember is all the time she and Garrett sat together in the recliner and read and talked…hours each day.

Memorable trip: For Garrett’s 13th birthday, we went to Hawaii. We took a helicopter ride, went whale watching and snorkeling and then there was the adventure of the coconut. She and Patrick found a coconut on the beach. I begged them to leave it behind but they were determined to open it up. Well, I never smelled anything so foul as that rotten coconut milk and the two of them covered with it. It was a long drive around the island that day.

From daughter Sandi: (circa 2012)
Memorable visit: Whenever my mom came to visit (Sandi, Jody, and granddaughters Nicole & Kelly), we always looked for fun and adventurous places to go hiking. In our town, often there would be streams of water that you had to cross at some point during the hike. On this particular occasion, I recall there were several crossings involved. At each one my mom would say – “Oh, I hope I don’t slip into the water.” Finally, after about 3 attempts at crossing, she said “Oh screw it, I’m just going to walk through the water.” the funny thing was that she never complained about her sopping wet feet for the duration of the hike. Everytime I go hiking, I think of that experience and a smile comes to my face. I have to thank her for giving me the love of hiking!

Adventures in Paradise: Prologue To An Era
Living Room of our condo. Bernice in her spot at the end of the couch, feet on her leather foot rest. Me in my easy chair that nobody likes to sit in but me.
Bernice: So this is the big year?
Garry: All our years are big. What’s special about this one.
Bernice: I’m talking about your retirement, silly.
Garry: Oh that little item.
Bernice: Little item? You have been dying to retire since you were 62 and now you can and that’s a “little item?”
Garry: No, it’s huge. I never thought it would happen.
Bernice: Do you regret not retiring at 62?
Garry: Not really. Least not now. I didn’t hate my job. And I trusted your judgement.
Bernice: Always with my judgement. My advice. My guidance. I’m about sick of all that. Did you ever think what not having you home those three years meant to me? What it cost me? So you hadda work three more years. Big deal. Just business as usual for you. Me home alone. Half my friends moved away or dead. Every day between the time I read the poem you left in the morning and the time you came waltzing through the door in the evening…fixin my smile.
Garry: I’m sorry. I always thought you smiled because you were glad to see me.
Bernice: I was dammit! But that smile you like so much? You need to know there were days I had to work pretty hard to get to it.
Garry: Guess I never thought of that. I should have. What can I do…
Bernice: Finally he asks! (pause) Not much you can do. I just had to get it off my chest. OK if we just move on? What I’m interested in now is what we’re going to do with the time we have left.
Garry: Be together for one thing.
Bernice: That’s one big thing for sure. But there’s more to it than that. I’m getting older. My health is not what it used to be. You’ve said you would take care of me and I believe you. But you have to understand, I need more than you. I need my girls. They want to take care of me too. And you have to let that be alright. Sometimes you act like they’re intruding when they show their concern for me.
Garry: I didn’t mean…
Bernice: You didn’t mean for it to show. Well, it did but that’s not important now. What’s important now is for you to get what I’m saying. Let it sink in. Let what I’m telling you now be important to both of us moving forward. (long pause) And one more thing, we’re gonna  be doin some traveling babe. No more summers in Phoenix. I’m not going to be a prisoner in my own house ever again.  So start thinking about where we can spend this summer coming up.

Bernice and Garry: Bernice takes a year

Our final destination would be the city of Phoenix and the two-bedroom condo in a dreamcicle colored condo complex called Anasazi. This would be the best homecoming of all. This would be the home we would make together, the home that would last us for the rest of our lives. Bernice and Garry: Journey West

July 1996
Locale: Squaw Peak (as it was known in 1996 when Bernice and I first hit Phoenix). Since renamed as Piestewa Peak In honor of Army SPC Lori Ann Piestewa, the first Native American woman to die in combat in the US military, and the first female soldier to be killed in action in the 2003 Iraq War.

Imaginary conversation: (if Jeff Foxworthy were the clerk in the Circle K across the street from our condo in Anasazi)
Clerk: You’re going to do Squaw Peak in July and this is the all the water you’re taking? That will be $4.37 please. Thank you. Here’s your receipt and here’s your (Stupid) signs. Pray you don’t get trampled to death when you fall out.

Actual Conversation:
Clerk:  (not Jeff Foxworthy) You folks planning on doing a little hiking today?
Garry: Yeah, thought we might try Squaw Peak.
Clerk: You might be starting a little late for Squaw Peak. This time of year (July) most folks want to get started between 6:00 and 6:30.
Garry: (upon exiting the store) Guy doesn’t know what kind of shape we’re in.
Bernice: Looks like we won’t get to Squaw Peak until 8:30. (Taking a slug from her 16 ounce water bottle) We should still be ok.

Two hours later….
Bernice: (shortly after she slid down the bedroom wall onto her butt) Go get Ellie!
Garry: What’s she gonna do?
Bernice: She’s a nurse. Go get her.
Garry: What should I say is wrong
Bernice: I don’t care, tell her I broke my leg. Just go get her. (as I head for Ellie one door away). Heat exhaustion, tell her heat exhaustion.

In the years following, Bernice would do Piestewa Peak for breakfast. Ok, maybe lunch. She and a girlfriend would do a smaller peak, North Mountain, daily and would top off their week with the Big Kahuna.

Phoenix Rising August 1996

We are sitting on the back patio, drinking some Two-buck Chuck, all the rage at the time. Beyond the golf course we can see Camelback Mountain, bigger even that Piestewa Peak but just another of Bernice’s conquests.

Garry: You know, this whole desert thing takes some getting used to.
Bernice: How so?
Garry: Well for openers, the weather. There ain’t none. The sun shines everyday ad naseum. It never rains.
Bernice: It rains.
Garry: Okay, maybe once in a blue moon it rains like hell and causes flooding and idiots get stalled in big puddles they weren’t supposed to drive through in the first place. But that’s not rain. That’s a downpour. I’m talkin cloudy, rainy days. Days that make you want to stay indoors and work puzzles.
Bernice: We have stay indoors days.
Garry: Sure because it’s a hundred and hot in the shade if you can find any. I mean what’s the difference between summer and winter out here?
Bernice: Plenty difference. Summer it’s hot twenty-four hours a day. Winter it’s pleasant in the daytime and very cool in the evenings. Early mornings can be downright cold.
Garry: Ok, how about storms. Good old-fasioned thunder and lightning, winds blowing down powerlines, lawn chairs in the neighbors yard storms.

Bernice: Oh we’ve got them alright. They’re called monsoon thunder storms.

Garry: Sounds like a solo piece for the Oboe section.

Bernice: Bassoon section would be more like it.
Garry: Know what the worst thing is? Those damned doves. That coo they have. It’s the most mournful sound I ever heard. Makes me feel empty as a drum.
Bernice: I don’t think it’s the doves, babe. I think you’re just homesick.

Garry: I haven’t been homesick since I left home for Air Force Basic Training. As far as Detroit goes, I said my goodbyes. I’m good with being out here instead of back there.

Bernice: Different kind of homesick. Maybe not a place you miss, but something important you lost.

Your work relationships. Students, teaching friends, friends from you sites. The feedback, the reeognition you’ve recieved. All a big part of your life for a long time. Gone.


At the time Bernice and I hooked up, my daughter Brett and I had a standing dinner date every Wednesday. Growing up, Brett spent weekends and summers with me and the rest of the time with her mom. This worked out ok until Brett approached her teens. At that point she began to develop her own weekend agenda. She needed more personal space and more hang time with her friends. Weekends one-on-one with dad clashed with that agenda. I understood Brett’s need for more control over her own life; I just didn’t want to relinquish regular contact with her. Impasse for sure. Brett’s mom, Eileen, to the rescue:

Mom: Why don’t you two have dinner together like every Wednesday or something.

Wednesdays sounded good to Brett and me so that became our plan. It was a good plan and we stuck to it all through Brett’s high school years.

August 1996
Garry: (from his poolside perch at sunset over Anasazi) Are you sure you’re ok with my going back to see Brett through her senior year?
Bernice: Of course. As long as you behave yourself.
Garry: Meaning what?
Bernice: Meaning I won’t tolerate any backsliding.
Garry: (bemused) Backsliding?
Bernice: You know what I mean. Don’t go back to your bar life. And don’t be having any girls in our apartment (Clinton Township, MI) either.
Garry: Girls? What girls?
Bernice: Ok, girl. Don’t be flirting with Flo down the hall.
Garry: I’m down with that. Both counts. Straight arrow. Scouts honor. (easy promises since I’ve never seen a bar that could hold a candle to Metro Beach and Flo was 92 and smoked two packs of cigarettes a day.)
Bernice: And call me every day.
Garry: That could get pricey.
Bernice: Save your money.
Garry: Not exactly my long suit.
Bernice: Don’t I know. Three times a week then. Final offer. Take it or leave it.
Garry: I’ll take it. (pause) Thank you for letting me do this, babe. It means a lot.
Bernice: I’m not through here. I don’t intend to spend Thanksgiving alone. I expect to see your smiling face at my table.

Bernice Steps Out October 1996

Bernice: (Sitting on her patio with her coffee and crosswords, phone in hand) Hey birthday boy!
Garry: (remote control in hand, searching for a University of Michigan football game) It’s not my birthday. It’s your birthday.
Bernice: It’s our birthday month, remember?
Garry: (finding his game) Right. I knew that.
Bernice: What you doin?
Garry: I was about to watch a U of M football game.
Bernice: Well, turn the sound down and talk to me.
Garry: (Obliging) Ok, there you go. Just you and me now baby.
Bernice: You and me and the football game.
Garry: I won’t look. I missed the kickoff anyway.
Bernice: So, what you been up to.
Garry: Up to no good whenever I get the chance. You?
Bernice: Oh boy, where to begin. I’ve joined a hiking club. Great group of gals. Guys too. I’m in a book club with my new best girlfriend, Ellie. I call her Walking Ellie so I don’t mix her up with my sister Ellie. Walking Ellie’s in the hiking club. Boy what a hiker! Let’s see, oh and I’m ushering at the Civic Center. Don’t like the set up much. Not like Detroit. They insist on paying me so they can tell me when to work. But it gives me a chance to explore downtown. What else?  W Ellie and I go to movies in the afternoon. I love that. Then I go to Anasazi affairs with sister Ellie. Bunch of old folks, but we have fun. The rest of the time I just hang out in the pool with my Building Eight neighbors. We really fill up the pool. Such talkers! I guess that’s about it.
Garry: That’s it? I thought you were going to stay busy while I’m gone.
Bernice: You funny. (pause) I miss you like crazy.
Garry: I miss you too Sweetie.
Bernice: You do? You sure? You don’t sound too excited to hear from me.
Garry: (turning game off) I miss you all the time. Especially at night. The apartment feels so empty. I really get the blues when one of our shows comes on TV. Miss sitting on the couch holding your hand. Miss snuggling with you to get us off to sleep.
Bernice: I’m sorry. Sometimes I get scared that you won’t be coming back.
Garry: I’m coming back for Thanksgiving. I already booked my flight. I’m coming back cause you’re the best thing ever happened to me. I’m not gonna let that go.
Bernice: (trying to sound like the brave girl she had been all her life) Ok Sweetie. I’ll be waiting for you.

February 1997
Bernice: Garry, guess what. You know I told you I was going to try out race walking? Well I did and I won a meddle.
Garry: Did you race walk or power walk?
Bernice: Oh race walk. The are very strict. If you break form they disqualify you.
Garry: Wow, a medal. That is so cool. I’m really proud of you.
Bernice: Thanks. You still running?
Garry: You bet. I’m doing Masters Track and Field. I’m on a team. You remember the Motor City Striders, the long distance club I belonged to awhile back? Well they have a track team and I run the 400 meters. We go to this indoor college track and race every Friday. All comers. They put us old guys in with the kids. I haven’t won a danged thing yet.
Bernice: You will. If you get in really good shape you can race walk with me. You won’t beat me though.
Garry: I might.
Bernice: How?
Garry: I’ll cheat.

May 1997
Garry: I’ll never get out of here. Between packing and trying to sell your furniture I can’t keep my head on straight.
Bernice: You having a tough time, Sweetie?
Garry: I am. Unloading this furniture is a real pain.
Bernice: Well, sell what you can and give the rest to Goodwill. But don’t wait too long. Maybe Brett can help you. Don’t get discouraged.
Garry: Brett will have to help. I’m giving her the couch and the home entertainment system. She may not want them, but I’m going to store them in her mom’s basement.
Bernice: (after a long silence) Are you really coming out here?
Garry: What in the world would make you think I wasn’t.
Bernice: I don’t know. Sometimes I just get the feeling you aren’t coming.
Garry: I came out for Thanksgiving, Christmas and spring break didn’t I?
Bernice: I know but that’s not the same as coming out here for good.
Garry: I am coming out there for good. I’m coming out there for the rest of my life. It’s all I’ve thought about for nine months. You just be ready for me. I’m gonna want to hug you for a week at least. Ok?
Bernice: (Sounding small and far away) Ok, honey.

October 1997
There is a cool breeze on the patio and Bernice and I have been planning our birthday month celebrations. All of a sudden Bernice interrupts the flow.
Bernice: Oh wait. There’s something I’ve been meaning to show you. (She scurries into the house and in minutes returns holding a book of some kind)
Garry: What you got there?
Bernice: I’ve got this lovely diary that Ellie (sister) gave me right after you left to go back to Detroit. I want you to look at it.
Garry: Sure. (I take the book and see the inscription on the inside front cover) “You are starting a new life. Use this book to record your adventures.”
Bernice: Wasn’t that sweet of her?
Garry: (Hesitantly) But Sweetie, there is nothing in it.
Bernice: Oh yes there is. Look at the very first page.
On the front page in her quaintly irregular handwriting was the one and only entry in the diary. It read simply,
 “This has been the best year of my life”

Over the years I have often wondered how much or how little I contributed to the best year of her life, being absent for most of it.