Sunday, June 25, 2017

Julius Caesar in Under 50 Words

Because Shakespeare's play, written in 1599, about events that happened in 44 B.C., continues to be relevant, provocative, and news-making (every writer should be so lucky)...

And because it is clear to me that a staggering number of people are discussing Julius Caesar without having the foggiest idea what the play is actually about...

And because every once in awhile I like to take a break from writing and dabble in drawing, if only to prove to myself that my talents lie elsewhere...

I present: The Illustrated, Annotated, and Abridged Shakespeare's JULIUS CAESAR, in less than 50 words, with additional Cliff's Notes-like salient points after the text:

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Happy Father's Day Redux

Dad in Fort Knox, 1957 B.C. - Before Child.
Last Sunday, I took my dad out to the Mason Jar, the tastiest eatery in Berrien County. The place was packed, as we expected, so we browsed the adjacent artists' shops while we waited for our table.

When our time came, we took our time as we enjoyed a wonderful meal. When I picked up the tab, I said, "Happy Father's Day, Dad."

"Thanks," he said. "It's a good one."

We headed back to the car and came back to our homes.

I thought about my daughter, who has no father to celebrate this year. Also, since two of my uncles have passed away in the past three months, many of my cousins are newly fatherless.

I thought about how fortunate I have been to have a great dad -- one who may not share my political views, but who shares my odd sense of humor (and, really, that's often more important).

Dad and me. I'm 2 months old.
 When I was growing up, he always made sure to schedule his time off so we could all take a family vacation, spending solid amounts of quality time together as we traveled North America.

He and Mom welcomed WunderGuy with open arms when we got married. I think he misses Robert nearly as much as I do.

My dad has been married to my mom for 53 years. For the past 3 years, Mom's dementia has grown increasingly pervasive. She is now locked in her own unreachable waking dream, whimpering to herself and barely able to interact with the real world. Yet, every day, Dad goes and visits with her, spending hours by her side, making sure she eats a good lunch, listening to the radio, and doing crossword puzzles while keeping her company. Dad lives his love.

Eatin' oranges. Mmmmm!
Later last Sunday, when I got on Twitter, I was mildly surprised that Father's Day wasn't trending. The world is changing, my inner curmudgeon grumbled. Nobody makes much of a fuss over parents anymore.

And then... Because not a single person on my timeline had anything dad-oriented to say, the teensiest suspicion began to niggle at me.

Less than three seconds later, Google was kindly explaining that while Mother's Day was the second Sunday of May, Father's Day was the third -- not the second -- Sunday in June.

Oh dopey me!

"Hey Dad," I said, when I called him later. "Did you know it's not Father's Day?"

He started laughing. "You're kidding!"

As I related this story to my friend Stacey, she snorted. "You and my dad are in the same time warp. He gave me grief for forgetting him today. Didn't believe me when I told him it was next week..."

Well, now it IS next week. Now it IS Father's Day. I shall celebrate again with my father. We shall go to Dairy Queen and indulge in the wonder that is hot fudgey delightful dairy goodness.

We might do the same thing next week, too. 'Cause some dads deserve more than one Father's Day. And I'm lucky to have one of those dads.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Blog Reboot: The Next Post

I've been meaning to post an update for what feels like a lifetime. Some days I'll even log on -- then I'll see my last post, my final tribute to WunderGuy, and I'll feel all the energy drain out of me.

Nothing I want to write seems appropriate for The Next Post. Compared to losing Robert, everything seems trite. Unimportant. Frivolous.

I thought of closing up shop -- shutting the blog down and calling it quits. Some days I could muster no answer to the question of "What's the point?"

But there is an answer: Life goes on.

I can't be blog blocked forever. Robert may be gone, but the world continues to spin. So I'm going to take Robert's fix-all tech-guy advice. Whenever I would get stuck and grumble with frustration (I can grump with the best of them, let me tell ya), he would ask: "Have you tried turning it off and turning it back on?"

For the past 6 months, this blog has been turned off. Now it's time to turn it back on.

This summer, God willing, I've got plans to launch another blog. And maybe a newsletter (further bulletins as events warrant). This will remain up and running, but it's going to go through a makeover.

By my estimate, there are roughly 13 bazillion blogs and websites out there that dispense writing advice. More power to them. In the near future, I'm going to spend some time archiving and culling a lot of the posts from the past 12 years. I'll leave some of the most popular ones up. (This post on "How to Write a Foreword," for instance, is one of the first things you see if you Google the question. It'll stay.) I'll also continue to help new and struggling writers in my workshops and at Write2TheEnd. But I'm going to blog less about the writing process and more about the way-cool stuff I keep running across in my research for various writing projects.

Eighth grade graduation. It's a thing.
[Lately, I'm all about runaway slaves in eighteenth century America and Pickett's Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. Oh, and historical UFO sightings. Research FTW!]

So this post kicks off life post-WunderGuy. It's greyer. Lonelier. Some days feel like they are encased in fog, cloying, thick, and heavy. But there are good things, too. A partial list of Things That Make My World a Better Place:

* My kid. She is awesome and funny and lovely; she laughs at my jokes and joins in on loud, word-tripping renditions of the "Hamilton" soundtrack. Plus, she rocks the tiny kitty headband like no one's business.

* Dogs. Mine (I've got four -- all essential for my health and well-being) as well as others'. Kestrel's dignity, River's enthusiasm, Zephyr's devotion, and Major's pure silliness make every day worthwhile.

Friends. Friends who brunch, breakfast, and lunch are invaluable. So are the friends who share their cool artistic talents, who shame me into going to the gym, and who indulge in over-eating sugar-based foodstuffs to counteract that whole gym nonsense.

Sunshine. Do not mock me. I live in Michigan. We do not take the Golden Orb for granted. Rather, we celebrate it when it makes an appearance.

Chocolate. And raspberry sherbet. And Hot Tamales. And anything salted caramel or toffee.

Coffee. Some days all it takes is a hot cuppa to make life worth living.

Creativity. No one lives forever. But when we're gone, the work remains. Plus, nothing matches the creative high. Nothing.

Maybe you're in a place that could use a little life rebooting too. Maybe you feel like you've been turned off and are ready to power back up. If so, why not try making a list of things that make your world better? See if it helps you. And feel free to add to my list. We're all in this together.

Keep on keeping on. Here's to reboots...

Monday, December 12, 2016

WunderGuy vs. The Brain Tumor: The Finale

or: Elegy for Half of Me

Canoeing the St. Joseph River in 2009.
It's over.

On Saturday, December 3, shortly before 10 a.m., Robert, my husband of 28 years and my best friend for over 3 decades, passed away.

Robert had a great sense of humor, but he was never a great joke teller. Though one of our first dates including trading increasingly awful jokes, punch lines were never his forte. For years there has been only one joke that he told often and well:

I want to die peacefully, in my sleep, like my grandfather... (slight pause for effect)
Not yelling and screaming like the passengers in his car.

He got his wish. No joke.

On Saturday, the house was crawling with people who came to pay their respects and to keep me company.

The Hospice nurse came shortly after I called her. Though Robert had been unable to communicate or to respond for several weeks, I'd gotten in the habit of speaking to him as if he could understand everything that was going on around him. I had to resist the urge to introduce him to the Hospice nurse and explain to him the reason she was in the house.

The nurse pronounced him dead, signed an official-looking piece of paper, and then began a seek-and-destroy mission for Robert's meds. With my husband's body lying behind me, those of us who were alive and remained dumped his medication into a plastic baggie full of kitty litter to create a goopy toxic sludge.

I spent the day calling friends and family to tell them the news.

My gorgeous 20 year-old boyfriend.
Later in the afternoon, Bryan and Kendyll, came from the funeral home. They put Robert's body on a gurney and covered it with a black plastic body bag. The bag had a multi-colored quilt design on it; oddly homey. I remarked on it. "He didn't strike me as a red velvet type of guy," Bryan said, which made me realize that every time he gets a call, he has to make a decision -- red velvet or homey quilt? -- about someone he has likely never met.

Friends came, and kept coming, offering condolences, bringing cookies, asking what they could do to help.

On Sunday, the medical supply company came and retrieved Robert's hospital bed that had dominated our little living room and the wheelchair that was parked at our dining room table. In the space of a few hours, much of the trappings of this past year, the physical markers of Robert's slow demise, were gone.

Robert and I met in the early weeks of our freshman year at Andrews University. In those days, before cell phones, night owl me stayed up with some friends and prank called the boys' dorm. One of the numbers I called was Robert's. We ended up talking for over two hours.

The next day, as I was standing in the cafeteria line with my boyfriend, I heard "Hey Ami!" When I turned, a boy waved at me. "It's Robert!" Shortly after that, we started dating.

On our second date, he asked me to marry him. Which freaked me out. Of course I said "no"! I told him to wait a year, and if we were still together to ask again. We married four years later, the week after we graduated.

Our engagement photo.
I suffer from Only Child Syndrome: I have enormous personal space and I enjoy being alone. Robert: not so much. He was the first person I was ever able to spend 24 hours with and not get totally sick of. For the past 10 years, with the exception of his hospital stays, we've spent practically all day, every day together. I never got tired of him.

The funeral home provided a form for me to fill out that helped Bryan craft Robert's "official" obituary. In a few short paragraphs, it mentions his education, his profession, his church involvement, and his hobbies. I approved it and they posted it. In a way, that's all there is to say. But the those few paragraphs don't do justice to my guy.

For instance, there is no mention of the fact that though he liked super spicy food, really hot stuff gave him the hiccups -- and that always made me laugh.

He had a true geek's love of all things Star Trek and Star Wars. C.S. Lewis, Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, Isaac Asimov, Terry Brooks, and Eoin Colfer were all quotable friends. We had such a shared repertoire of books and TV shows and movies that we practically had our own language of references and in-jokes. (One friend called it "Hendrickson-speak" and lamented that, though she understood every word we said, she had no idea what we were talking about!) I miss that.

I miss his bright blue eyes, his beautiful smile, his easy laugh, and his calm, genuine presence.

Robert was always warm, always generous, always honest, always real. He was my WunderGuy.

I will always miss him.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Crisis Cure

Earlier this month, my dear friends Barbara, Kathy, Kim, and Lisa put on a Reader's Theatre event to benefit our family as we deal with the fallout of WunderGuy's rapidly failing battle with this last brain tumor. I presented "The Crisis Cure" as part of the event. Here's the video:

The following is an updated version of that piece...


It’s mid-June. My husband, Robert, who had his fourth and final brain surgery at the end of January, has been home from the hospital less than two weeks.

Robert’s right side doesn’t work very well. He can’t walk more than a few steps, and that only with assistance. He thinks he can do more, so he randomly gets up off of the wheelchair or bed or toilet, only to crash to the floor. I’ve learned the medical description of  this is “his brain writes checks his body can’t cash.” He literally must be watched every moment of every day. He can feed himself, brush his teeth and use the urinal. His speech is limited. He sleeps 2 or 3 hours at a time. So I sleep 2 or 3 hours at a time. We are in crisis. We’ve been in crisis all year, it seems.

Obviously, given our situation, we are top-tier candidates to invite to a sushi party. Which is exactly what our friends Dana and Jeff Johnston do.

It doesn’t matter that they have to figure out a way to cobble together a ramp so Robert’s wheelchair can navigate the steps into their house. It takes five people, all crowded around my man, grabbing various pieces of his chair, heaving and pushing and pulling up two sets of stairs, but we find a way. 

The Johnstons go all out. The table is packed with big bowls of sticky rice, green sheets of nori, tofu, eggs, julienned carrot and squash and cucumber, pickled burdock root, marinated mushrooms, avocado slivers, and more. Little bowls of dipping sauces, ranging from salty to spicy, complete the set up. We take turns using the square bamboo mat, each assembling his or her masterpiece of flavors, then rolling it, slicing it, and passing it around for everyone to sample.

We roll and eat and laugh and talk for two hours. The whole time, I am thankful for my blessings: thanks to my friends, crisis is averted for awhile.

It is the end of July. Robert is on his second round of experimental chemotherapy. The docs aren’t suggesting that it will reduce the existing brain tumor. We just hope it will slow the growth. 

Robert can feed himself, but it takes effort. He can brush his teeth. He gets confused and mistakes the urinal for a waterbottle. So he wears briefs at night. I have learned to say “briefs” instead of “diapers.” I get up once or twice a night to change him. We are still in crisis.

Clearly, what we need is an arty party.

Which is exactly what my friend Kelly Smith (who had the audacity to move away because she found gainful employment elsewhere) brings when she visits. In addition to delicious homemade pesto and bread, she totes a stack of coloring books and a rainbow of colored markers and pencils. We sit at my dining room table and hang out and catch up; exactly as we would do if there weren’t a hospital bed taking up most of my living room floor and if my husband weren’t incapacitated. It’s not a way I’ve spent many Sunday afternoons in my life, but it’s the most normal thing I’ve done in months.

“This is wonderful,” I say, my mouth crammed full of chocolate banana bread. “Exactly what I needed.”

“I wasn’t sure,” Kelly confesses. “So I Googled ‘What To Do For a Friend in Crisis.’ It said, ‘Don’t ask what to do. Just do something. Something specific. Something you’d like if the situation were reversed.’”

Crisis cured. For now.

It’s August. Not only did the experimental chemotherapy not work, there is some indication that it contributed to two possible brain bleeds. No more chemo. No more experiments. No more... anything. The docs are out of options. They talk about hospice, but we’re not ready to go down that road yet.

Most of the time, Robert can still feed himself, but it takes forever. I brush his teeth. I bathe him. I dress him. He wears briefs all the time now. He no longer launches himself out of his chair or his bed, thinking he can walk. He no longer walks at all. The crisis continues. 

And yet...

Nick volunteers to watch Robert while I take our daughter to school so I don’t have to figure out a way to get him up and dressed and out the door first thing in the morning.

Thanks to Wendy, a surprise delivery brings eight big boxes of necessities to our door: briefs, exam gloves, mattress protectors. And I am overwhelmed with gratitude. Because, believe me, nothing says “I love you and I’ve got your back” like absorbent disposable underwear and diaper wipes.

Stacey, my roommate from college visits from Ohio and chucks her diet so we can spend a weekend self-medicating with chocolate.

Karen, whom we haven’t seen in years, flies in from California to spend time watching silly shows and reconnecting.

Alyson sends me two 10-pound shipments of high-end “bougie” coffee. A devout Mormon, she wouldn’t know good coffee if it scalded her. “I didn’t know what to get, but knew you drank decaf,” she said. “So I got some of every kind of decaf they had.”

Other friends help in ways too numerous to count.

Some sit with Robert so I can get out of the house.

Some are willing to make time in their busy schedules to meet for coffee or breakfast whenever I can get away for a moment.

Some send notes of encouragement. Some call to chat.

Some pray without ceasing for healing. For strength. For courage. For peace.

 Some collude together and plan a benefit for our family and talk me out of my initial prideful skepticism and into the idea.

Maybe they Googled “Crisis Friends” as well. Because each one helps part the clouds that hover overhead to let the sun shine through.

It’s the beginning of November. Robert cannot shift his own weight. He cannot feed himself. He cannot hold himself upright. He cannot hold a conversation. He responds best to “yes / no” questions – and even then, you have to double- and triple-check his answers to be sure of what he means to say. Often, the words he says make no contextual sense. He literally must be told what muscles to use to swallow his meds or to open his hand. Some nights he is so restless he gets no sleep. Sometimes he gets so frustrated he bellows with rage. Barring a major medical miracle, he will not improve, but will, instead, continue a slow but steady decline.

I have learned when someone calls and asks “what’s happening?” not to answer “my husband just literally pooped in my hand as I was changing him.” Despite what they may say, people don’t really want to know exactly what’s going on. Instead, I say, “Same old, same old. What’s up with you?”

Because I know we are not alone.

You see: we aren’t the only ones in crisis. Since mid-June, a dear friend has discovered he has advanced Lyme disease seriously affecting him both mentally and physically. Another friend is this close to needing a liver transplant. One person has been looking for work while simultaneously battling debilitating back pain. A client has a teenaged daughter who is terminally riddled with cancer. Everybody is going through something. No one escapes this Earth unscathed.

People are reading this who are not currently experiencing the Perfect Life. They are dealing with problematic medical tests, worrisome relationships, housing concerns, career issues, mental health challenges, loneliness, pain, and loss. Maybe one or more of those things is affecting you right now. If it isn’t, I bet someone you know is.

We’re all stewing in one big Crisis Crockpot. So what do we do?

Amazingly, Google is right. Just do something. Reach out. Connect. Be there. Do the thing you wish someone would do for you.

Don’t say “let me know if there is anything I can do.” Because when my hands are killing me from lifting a 200 pound man who has forgotten how to use his legs and I haven’t had a shower in two days and I really – really – didn’t know a single human being could possibly produce that much urine, frankly, there is nothing I can tell anyone to do to make things better.

I certainly would never say: “send me gourmet coffee,” or “text me a goofy picture of your cat,” or “bring over a bunch of tie-dyeing materials and let’s have a party.” Yet, when my friends do those things, they are exactly the things I need to keep crisis at bay for awhile.

Crisis is a part of life. It’s the price we pay for existing. But if we’re lucky, we don’t go through it alone.

Puppy Therapy: River won't leave Robert's side.
It’s today. My husband has not been out of bed in two weeks. He can no longer reliably swallow. To get him to take his meds, I have to depress his tongue and pull it forward, hoping he will swallow, but not choke or aspirate. It's all I can do to get any food into him. Boost and applesauce and pureed vegetable soups are keeping him alive... but we all know it's not for long. We prayed that he wouldn't pass away on Thanksgiving, and he didn't. But things aren't looking good for him to still be here by Christmas.

Still, thanks to our friends, we are not in crisis at the moment. Rather, we are overwhelmed with their kindness. Their caring. Take it from me: that is the crisis cure.

Friday, October 28, 2016

WunderGuy vs. The Brain Tumor (Part III)

Fred refuses to quit. Wish he'd just give up and skulk off to shrivel up and leave us alone.

Recently, Robert's brain tumor is causing his entire body to spasm into the equivalent of a giant, human fist. He juts his head forward, perching his chin on his chest, stretching his neck. He cranks his knees up to his nose. Then, as the tension in his body builds, he bellows like a bull stabbed by a matador.

Imagine the joy that permeates our house when this begins at, say 3 a.m.

We're trying the gamut of things from meds to alternative options to try to help him relax. Because we've all discovered: if Robert can't sleep, can't nobody sleep.

I've learned a few things in the last month. At the top of the list, I've learned what extraordinarily bad taste it is to begin a conversation with "Have the doctors given you a time frame?" As if I am able to mark on my calendar "Should be a widow" on a specific date. As if I would want to.

I've learned that if you want to connect with People Who Get Things Done, blogging is an effective tool. Not long after I posted the last update, in which I related my abysmal meeting with some local Hospice representatives, a higher Hospice muckety-muck called me. We chatted a bit and she put me in touch with someone who coordinates a different branch of Hospice volunteers. It all sounds very promising, but nothing has actually happened yet. Still: yay, blogging!

I've also learned to be less prideful. I've always been very good at doing things on my own. I'm an only child. I'm a Virgo. I'm a Midwestern farm girl. I am the epitome of "I've got this." But I am discovering that if others offer to help share the load, it is a great blessing to let them.

When dear friends wanted to set up a GoFundMe for Robert's medical expenses, I balked. I'm not big on the idea of asking people for help. There are lots of folks worse off than we. But then my friend Paul set me straight. "Get over yourself," he said. "People might want to help and have no idea what to do -- because, really, there is nothing they can do. This gives them an outlet." So I squelched my pride. And I have been overwhelmed -- truly steamrolled flat -- by others' generosity.

That generosity is currently in overdrive. The same friends who did the GFM campaign are hosting a live theatrical reading event on November 6, here in Southwest Michigan, to benefit our family. I can't even wrap my brain around how much work and energy and time and effort these wonderful people have put into doing this. When eventually, I'm on the other side of crisis (I believe this will happen. Someday.), I want to remember this and pass it on.

And I've learned that there is no such thing as letting go gracefully. Nor should there be. Life is worth fighting for. It's bright and messy and sharp and sweet. It's an uneasy ratio of exhilaration and boredom, punctuated by both joy and pain. Robert's brain is shutting down. I hate this. Most of the time he cannot even reliably answer "yes / no" questions. But he will respond to some things on autopilot. If you say "How are you today?" He'll say "Great."

Some days I find myself saying "I love you" just to hear him say "I love you, too." On those days, I don't care whether he knows what he's saying or not.

A week ago, my friends Wendy and Aaron watched Robert so I could get out of the house for a little while. When I returned, Wendy said Robert had woken up from a catnap and been a little weepy. This was so unusual, I asked him if he remembered that. He did. I asked if he remembered what made him cry. He smiled: "I had a dream. I dreamed I was healed."

Ah, my love. May all your dreams come true.

Monday, October 10, 2016

"My Father's Grandmother was Native American"

Recently, my uncle made a DVD of a bunch of old family movies and sent it to my father. There, for the first time, I saw my great-grandmother -- a Native American woman I had heard about my whole life, but had never seen a picture of.

Throughout the country, there is a strong push to have Columbus Day renamed "Indigenous Peoples Day." Here's why I would support such a change...


My father's grandmother was
Native American.
No one knows
What tribe she was from.
To hear Dad tell it,
His grandfather married her
Because he loved her,
Never mind how much it
The rest of the family.

I have seen her:
A thin woman
In a faded print dress.
The grainy
Sixty-year old
Super 8 film
Renders her skin
The same shade of gray
As everyone else's.
And yet--

When she died,
The family refused
To even name her
In her obituary.
To the best of my knowledge,
She has no tombstone.

My father spent years
Trying to follow
That branch
Of our family tree.
But it is long gone,
Leaving a hole in the sky

As every branch does
When it falls.
My father,
Eighty-one years young,
Remembers her.
And every time I look in the mirror,
My Great Grandmother peers back at me.