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  • The Death of Elvis

    Forty-two years ago today, I was sitting in the lobby of a hospital in Tyler, Texas, swatting at flies. My grandfather was hospitalized with the emphysema that eventually would kill him, and my parents were in Los Angeles, looking again for a way to treat the chronic disorder that would contribute to my dad's death some three decades later.

    It was a typical, sweltering East Texas day in August, which was one reason the flies had moved indoors. I had ridden in the car some 30 miles from Longview with my grandmother and my aunt, hoping to see my grandfather. That was doubtful. Hospital rules prevented 12-year-olds from visiting patient rooms and he was not in any shape to come down to the lobby.

    So I sat there, bored out of my mind, killing flies.

    At some point late that afternoon, news started to spread that shook me to my adolescent core: Elvis Presley was dead at age 42.

    Adolescents in the mid to late 1970s were not supposed to be Elvis fans, and I certainly did not get any cool points from my peers. “Fat Elvis” had become a parody, a bloated yet hollow shell of himself even for those immersed in the 1950s Happy Days-Laverne & Shirley nostalgia of the time.

    But my peers didn’t understand what Elvis meant to me. At the time, I don’t think I understood why he meant so much.

    My dad and aunt were teenagers when my grandmother discovered Presley in his first appearance on the Louisiana Hayride. A year and a half later, on Dec. 15, 1956, my grandfather drove my grandmother (then 51) and my dad (then 16) the 60 miles east to Shreveport to see Elvis’ concert at the Hirsch Youth Center at the Louisiana Fairgrounds.

    I still have the program from that show, which remarkably was taped and released on one of the hundreds of Presley compilations in 2011. Listening to the low-fi affair still brings a smile to my face, knowing they were both there.

    My first rock and roll record was Elvis’ first album, bought by my dad in a record store on Ninth Avenue in Texas City. I remember sitting with my parents watching Aloha from Hawaii, the first show televised around the world via satellite. My first concert, at age 6, was an Elvis show at Hofheinz Pavilion. My second, at age 9, was his performance at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

    In a weird way, Elvis felt like a member of my extended family, although I was woefully short on accurate information. I hadn’t liked his last few albums, not knowing they were cobbled together by his label because he no longer enjoyed recording. I didn’t understand why he had not been able to recover from his divorce, not realizing it was in large part because of guilt over self-inflicted wounds. I didn’t connect the dots when my parents returned from a trip to Las Vegas in 1975, having been disappointed in Presley’s concert because he looked and sounded “bad” — code, as it turns out, for overweight and stoned out of his mind.

    All I knew, at age 12, is that people aren’t supposed to die at 42 unless they are at war or in some type of accident. People don’t die while sitting on the toilet in their bathroom, especially when they’re only five years older than my dad and six years older than my mom.

    We left the hospital that day and went to Gibson’s, one of those catch-all department stores not far from my grandmother’s house. My grandmother bought me “Moody Blue,” Presley’s last studio album that came in blue vinyl, and I played it on my aunt’s turntable that night.

    Today, in the words of music writer Bill Holdship, Elvis has “now been gone as long as he was here.” And I have remained an Elvis fan, albeit one who — with the benefit of information — is more discerning and less a blind member of the cult. While I separate the schlock from the sublime, I remain in awe of his talent and charisma. I also am grateful for the way he brought my family together on a common subject for a lot of years.

    In retrospect, I also can thank Elvis for introducing me viscerally to the concept of mortality at what now seems like so young an age. I didn’t realize it then, but Presley’s death was the first time I understood life can be more fleeting than you imagine. And it taught me, not for the last time, that you just have to appreciate what you’ve got.

  • RIP , Dr. Z

    When I was a kid, my uncle would let me read or give me his old copies of Sports Illustrated, a magazine I devoured because of the quality of its writing. Paul Zimmerman, aka Dr. Z, was one of SI's best — that's saying a lot — and one of the first bylines I looked for while dog earing a back issue.

    Zimmerman died yesterday at age 86, so I thought I'd share a sample of his work and humor by quoting from a piece on quarterback Dan Pastorini, the former quarterback of then woeful Houston Oilers.

    "A bright young quarterback on the worst team in the NFL. He’d get sacked five or six times a game, get his nose broken, teeth knocked out and wrists and fingers mangled—and the crowd would boo him.

    “It’s like being in a street fight with six guys," Pastorini said, "and everybody’s rooting for the six.”

    RIP, Dr. Z.

  • Eulogy for a Writer

    “As a writer I believe that all the basic human truths are known. And what we try to do as best we can is come at those truths from our own unique angle, to re-illuminate those truths in a hopefully different way.” — William Goldman

    If you took away all the writers I’ve met and seen over the years, all the novelists, essayists, screenwriters and playwrights I’ve admired, and left me with just the work of William Goldman, I probably would be OK with that.

    Goldman died today. He was 87, with a six-decade career that saw him pen acclaimed novels and essay collections, win two Academy Awards, and have his plays produced on Broadway. To sum up, his life was not a bad gig.

    He may not be a household name, but chances are you’ve seen or read his work — the original screenplay to “Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid”; the adaptations of “All the President’s Men” and “Misery”; the novels and screenplays for “Magic,” “Marathon Man,” and “The Princess Bride.” His books on writing for the movies — “Adventures in the Screen Trade” and “Which Lie Did I Tell?” — are indispensable.

    This is where the professional summation ends and the personal one begins. What I liked most about Goldman was his sense of humor, in large part because it was so similar to my dad’s and (hopefully) my own.

    I distinctly remember seeing “Butch Cassidy” with my father when I was a kid. One of his favorites, he could quote many of the punchlines, and “Think you used enough dynamite there Butch?” always brought a smile to his face. This was in the pre-cable days of mid-1970s, and network censors failed to fully take out Robert Redford’s “Ohhhhh … shiiiiiit!” during the waterfall scene.

    I turned to my father with the, "Did you just hear what I just heard?" look and he smiled. It's the first time I remember hearing profanity in a movie.

    In 1999, a special edition came out on DVD for the movie’s 30th anniversary. Even though I didn’t have a DVD player at the time, I bought it and watched it on my computer. It took me back to those days of sitting on my couch late at night with my dad, and I called him the next day to excitedly tell him about the “extras” on the DVD. 

    Several years later, when Ben was 8 or 9 and just getting into acting, the first “adult” movie I showed him was “Butch Cassidy.” The mix of humor and action helped turn him into a third-generation movie fan.

    Another memory: Ninth-grade World History class, taught by Mrs. Selman. At the start of the year, she told us she would read a book to us on Fridays. Many in the class rolled their eyes as she opened Chapter One of “The Princess Bride” and started acting out all the parts of Goldman’s cheeky fairytale; by the end of class, we could hardly wait until the next Friday.

    Years later, I don’t remember a thing about World History, but I will never forget Mrs. Selman reading that book, or seeing the tagline on the back jacket of her tattered paperback: “What happens when the most beautiful woman in the world meets the handsomest prince in the world, and he turns out to be a son-of-a-bitch?”

    It still is one of my best memories of high school.

    As these things can do, the news of Goldman’s death sucker punched me as Jill and I drove to Pittsburgh to see Emma. Our youngest daughter is performing this evening in an unofficial kickoff — or continuation, depending on your opinion — of the professional and familial tilt-a-whirl that doesn’t slow down until Nicholas gets married next February.

    With our kids now (almost) fully grown, we’ve been trying to simplify. We’ve gotten rid of or stored most of the things from our old house in moving into our empty nest. Kate, now a big movie fan herself, has most of the posters that were up in our old basement.

    The one movie poster in the new house — “The Princess Bride.”

  • The Bandit's Summer of '77

    As a 12-year-old overweight, socially awkward kid, I spent most of the summer of 1977 in a movie theater. My dad’s illness — spasmodic torticollis and dystonia — was at its peak four years in, and my parents continued to go from place to place looking for someone to help him.

    My parents spent a month that summer — the summer of “Star Wars” and Elvis’ death — in Los Angeles, where my dad was getting treatment. That meant that my sister and I went to Longview, where my parents were raised and where my grandparents still lived.

    Like many, I used movies as an opportunity to escape my woes, especially during those tumultuous middle school years. I saw “Star Wars” — who didn’t? — shortly after the movie was released at the end of May. But another film released that week captured, and kept, my attention, despite being shot in only 16 days on a $4.3 million budget.

    It was called “Smokey and the Bandit.”

    My dad was a big Burt Reynolds fan, as were a lot of people in those days. Reynolds was riding a streak of hits — albeit with the occasional flop — that made him the top actor at the box office for seven straight years. And he was a popular guest host on “The Tonight Show” that my dad — and mom, when she could stay awake — watched religiously.

    With shades of Three Stooges slapstick, “Smokey and the Bandit” is not art, but it hit my then-12-year-old self squarely in the demographic. Anyone could see the chemistry between Reynolds and Sally Field, my summer of 1977 crush. And it had other “classic” elements: Jackie Gleason’s “sumbitch”; Jerry Reed admonishing his basset hound, Fred, while providing the movie’s theme song (“East Bound and Down”); and the Trans-Am, which my dad was later inspired to buy in his first non-Cadillac move.

    I watched “Smokey and the Bandit” 15 times that summer, either at the Cargill Cinema in Longview or at the Tradewinds in Texas City, where it played on one of the theatre’s two screens for eons. For a long time, one of my prized possessions was an original one-sheet from the movie.

    Reynolds continued to do some interesting work after “Bandit,” which was the second highest grossing film of the year behind, well, you know. By the mid 1980s, though, the hits stopped coming. With minor exceptions — TV’s “Evening Shade,” the Oscar-nominated “Boogie Nights” — his career went on a slow fade to black.

    Today, Reynolds died of a heart attack at age 82, half a lifetime from the movie that made a 12-year-old boy laugh and laugh at a time when I really needed it. Thanks, and RIP.

  • RIP, David Cassidy

    RIP, David Cassidy, aka Keith Partridge. My wife, Jill, and countless others are mourning your passing.

    In honor of "The Partridge Family" star, here's one of my favorite covers by one of my favorite artists: Paul Westerberg's version of "I Think I Love You."

    And here's another I found while looking for the Westerberg cover: Cassidy and his brother, Shaun, doing a duet from the Broadway show "Blood Brothers." Wish I'd seen this one.

  • Glen Campbell Memories

    Random memories after hearing the news of Glen Campbell’s death: Small snippets of his variety show on my parents’ TV. Seeing his albums in my dad’s record collection. Hearing of his friendship with Elvis, who covered many of Campbell’s biggest tracks, and his association with the fabled Wrecking Crew.

    Telling people that I wasn’t named after him, noting that my first name had two n’s and not one. Thinking it was a big deal that Galveston, just a few miles away from Texas City, was immortalized in a song. True Grit, Rhinestone Cowboy, Southern Nights. And of course, Wichita Lineman and Gentle on My Mind.

    The demons and drugs that bedevil so many artists, leading to his four marriages, eight children, and DUI arrests. The Alzheimer’s diagnosis that, like ALS and other diseases, rot your mind and/or rob your body.

    The poignancy of his final years. A biography that would make a great country song.



    As many of you know, I’m a huge Paul Westerberg and The Replacements fan. Campbell’s last album — Ghost on the Canvas — is named after a Westerberg song that he covers. I’ve shared the video, in which Westerberg appears, at other times. But it’s appropriate to share again.

  • Life: Fragile, Unfair, Everlasting

    Tonight, my 18-year-old son is performing for a paying crowd in his first Broadway show as an adult. About 50 miles north of Syracuse, the family of one of my high school classmates is mourning the loss of their 18-year-old son, an aspiring musical theatre performer who was killed last week in a head-on collision that was not his fault.

    Life is just not fair.

    Like many of you, through Facebook I’ve become reacquainted with many people I grew up with but haven’t seen in years. Chuck Leikham and I went to the same high school; he is best friends with David Watson and his wife, Mary, who I’ve known almost as long as I’ve been alive.

    Chuck and his wife, Kristen, have three children and live in Adams, N.Y. He has been in the military for much of his adult life, and now is assigned to Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Like many families in the military, they have endured long separations from each other.

    Their son, Parker, was deciding between colleges in Michigan, where he planned to pursue a career in musical theatre, when the van he was driving was struck head-on about a quarter-mile from his home. Parker had performed in local, youth, and school theatre since he was in second grade and had just finished a starring role in his school’s production of Beauty and the Beast the weekend before the accident.

    By all accounts, he was a terrific talent and beloved by the community and his classmates. A lineman on his high school football team, he was on the school’s “Whiz Quiz” team that won an international championship in 2014. He also was known for wearing bow ties.

    Two days after Parker’s death, a community candlelight vigil drew more than 800 people to the South Jefferson High School stadium, where his parents and siblings released 18 balloons in honor of his life. A local video company showed up to record the event, and after letting the family know they had a drone to capture the proceedings from overhead, his mother asked the crowd to make a bow tie for her son. The result shows the incredible outpouring of love and support for Parker and his family.

    Tonight, as we celebrate Ben’s opening preview of Tuck Everlasting, a show with beautiful music and the theme of eternal life, we’ll also say a prayer for a family that has lost its own shining star.


    Note: The family is trying to get Ellen DeGeneres to wear a bowtie in honor of their son and is asking for support from their friends on Facebook. Chuck wrote today that his son “loved her show and has much in common with her. Parker was all about love and tolerance.” To write in, go to

  • History Lessons Redefine Meaning of Family

    I’ve always loved history. It started with memorizing the presidents when I was 8. My elementary school was named after Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and I asked my mom who they were.

    “Why don’t you look it up,” she said.

    So I did.

    This was in the early 1970s, smack dab in the middle of the Watergate years, when you found your history not on Google or Wikipedia, but via the encyclopedias that were on the shelf in my parents’ house. My father was ill, and I found the encyclopedias just as fascinating as the sitcoms that were on perpetual reruns in our living room.

    I’m sure my parents had to be a little relieved, given I was taking an interest in history at a time when our nation’s faith in institutions was crumbling. It’s a faith that has continued to steadily erode as we’ve become more and more polarized amid promises of not leaving children behind, of restoring dreams, of rebuilding trust.

    Over the past few months, as the kids move closer to leaving the nest and as the challenges of my finding a new career remain relentlessly daunting, I’ve become increasingly aware that 50 looms. And I’ve started looking at history through another lens — the last almost half century that has been my life. 


    This spring, my older son, Nicholas, was asked to assist with the set design for Elon University’s production of “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches.” I had seen the production in Texas in the mid 1990s, and the subsequent miniseries on HBO.

    “Angels,” like “The Normal Heart,” is set in the early days of the AIDS crisis. The latter, written by Larry Kramer and revived for a Tony Award-winning Broadway production in 2011, is an urgent call to action. “Angels” has the same impact, although the style is less documentary and more allegorical.

    Watching “Angels,” which is set in 1985, and the Elon actors performing it, I was transported back to that era. As I told Nicholas, I was around the age of the actors — 20 — when the play took place, and I was reminded of how much had transpired in a single generation.

    I remembered the fear and lack of understanding about AIDS and HIV, how it was first dubbed a gay cancer and the gay plague. I remembered when Rock Hudson, an actor my father greatly admired, announced on his deathbed that he had AIDS. And I remembered how uncomfortable I felt when our president — Ronald Reagan, who most in my family voted for — refused to officially acknowledge AIDS as a public health concern until two years later.

    I remembered the absolute lack of understanding or compassion many people of my and previous generations had, especially living in the South. I remembered seeing people waste away in the arts district in Houston, where I lived in my early 20s. I remembered the controversy over Ryan White, the child who contracted HIV and later died of AIDS from a blood transfusion.

    I remembered how, living in North Carolina several years after White’s death, it was difficult to get my former boss to support me in writing a story about a high school student who died of AIDS after contracting HIV from a blood transfusion.

    That child, Brian Hare, was part of the first drug trials for AZT. When he died at age 18, he weighed just 45 pounds.


    The other night, my daughter Kate and I watched “Dazed and Confused,” Richard Linklater’s film about the last day of school in a Texas town in 1976. The ensemble movie, which launched what seemed to be 1,000 acting careers, is not awash in nostalgia for the era. The title fits; these kids are truly dazed and confused. Some want to grow up while others don't, but their afraid either way.

    I was struck by our different reactions to the movie’s candid depiction of hazing, which is considered abhorrent today but was part of the norm in many similar towns back then.  Mine was somewhat muted, even as it brought back memories of being bullied as a kid. Kate could not bear to watch.

    “I can’t believe they did that to each other,” she said. “Why?”

    I tried to explain that it was a combination of misguided tradition (“They did it to me so I’m doing it to you”), adults conveniently looking the other way, and the acceptance of misogyny in a small-town environment. I thought back to my own childhood, to the bullies on the football field with limited tolerance for someone who wasn’t very talented, but wanted to be accepted.



    Given the snail’s pace at which change occurs, especially in the political arena, the move toward public acceptance of gay rights and same sex marriage over the past decade has been nothing short of remarkable.

    It’s also long overdue.

    This month marked the 10th anniversary since same-sex marriage was first legalized in Massachusetts, but the movement has taken off since 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that part of the reprehensible Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional. Since, President Obama and many other elected leaders have said they support marriage equality, and polls show the same is true among a majority of Americans.

    Jason Collins became the first openly gay player in the NBA this year, and the St. Louis Rams made history when they drafted Michael Sam, who had come out to his University of Missouri teammates last summer and to the world before the NFL draft. Ironically, Sam grew up in Hitchcock, a small town only a few miles from my hometown of Texas City.

    Covering Hitchcock for the local newspaper several years before Michael was even born, I knew of the Sam family. They were, in Michael’s words, “very notorious in the town that we lived in. Everyone would say, ‘There goes those damn Sams.’” Three of Sams’ seven siblings are dead; two are in jail.

    Sam was fortunate. He found an extended family, thanks to a supportive football coach and a local banker who took him in and treated him as “just another son.” He channeled his anger and confusion and put it into football, graduating as an All-American after coming out to his team. Now, as he tries to make history, he has another supportive coach and team behind him.

    That these developments, albeit in the form of baby steps, are taking place in the professional sports world is a welcome surprise. But they also show times are finally changing.

    Gay couples now can marry in 19 states and the District of Columbia, and lawsuits have been filed in 30 others; only North Dakota has a same-sex marriage ban that has not been challenged.

    My children are part of a generation that is far more tolerant and accepting than mine was in many, many ways. They are the ones asking “why?” and not accepting the pat, go-to answers.

    Yes, we have bullies who take privilege in power.  Yes, we have great economic disparity that continues to this day. And yes, racism is still out there, 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education — another momentous event in history that marks an anniversary this month.

    But thanks to this generation of teens, and the ones surely to follow them, many have stopped asking why and are starting to take action.


    The best gift my parents gave me can be summed up in a few words: “We don’t want you to grow up with our prejudices.” My dad said that to me years ago, and it has stuck with me as a son and as a parent.

    Another gift came from my second family, the couple I grew up across the street from in Texas City. They informally adopted my sister and me, later calling our children their grandchildren. They opened their doors to one and all each Thanksgiving, welcoming co-workers and friends who did not have anywhere to go.

    Thanksgiving remains my favorite holiday, for just that reason.

    This week, as the film version of “The Normal Heart” premieres with an all-star cast on HBO, another show is being performed eight times a week in New York. It is a remarkable new play by Terrence McNally called “Mothers and Sons.”

    The four-character, single act play tells the story of Katharine Gerard (a wonderful Tyne Daly), who lost her son, Andre, to AIDS 20 years before. Still angry and bitter about his death and his lifestyle, she arrives on the doorstep of her son’s lover, Cal, who is now married to Will, a man 15 years his junior. The couple has a 6-year-old son.

    The play, which is the first on Broadway to depict a married gay couple, is part history lesson, part eulogy to the era so vividly depicted in “Angels” and “The Normal Heart.” It is a wonderful piece of work from McNally, who has long written about gay issues, and his husband, producer Tom Kirdahy.

    Both believe that the crisis they went through a generation ago should not be forgotten. They believe so strongly in the show and its subject matter that they have made all tickets $30 for audience members under 30 — a steal in New York.

    “First it will be a chapter in a history book, then a paragraph, then a footnote,” Will says to Katharine toward the end of the show. “People will shake their heads and say, ‘What a terrible thing, how sad.’ It’s already started to happen. I can feel it happening. All the raw edges of pain dulled, deadened, drained away.”

    I saw “Mothers and Sons” with my friends Bernadette and Ginno, who was Ben’s guardian on the “Billy Elliot” tour and is part of our extended family. Ginno, who is gay and in his mid 20s, is part of the generation that does not equate AIDS with a death sentence. And as he gets older, he becomes more interested in what helped bring him to this place in life.

    Over the past three years, we have talked frequently about the challenges we face — mine as a husband and father and his as a single man. We even shared a Thanksgiving dinner together in our (still missed) apartment in New York, complete with my entire family and friends who didn’t have anywhere else to go that year.

    That’s a piece of my history that bears repeating.

  • Life With ‘The Situation’

    “Well, we’re back in our situation again,” my aunt said.

    It was Christmas Day — her 72nd birthday — and she had spent it eating alone at an IHOP in Central Texas. Her husband of 42 years was in a psychiatric hospital, and sadly, this was not the first time.

    I can count on my hands the number of times I have spoken to my aunt — my father’s older sister — since my grandmother died in the late 1980s. It was around that time that my uncle and I nearly came to blows over the handling of my grandmother’s illness, and at that point I pointedly walked away from two people who had a long-term influence on my childhood.

    A bit of background is necessary: My father became ill when I was 8, and for major portions of my childhood, I spent summers and school breaks in Longview, the East Texas town where my parents were raised. My aunt and uncle lived 10 to 15 miles from my dad’s parents, and I spent much of my time going back and forth between the two houses.

    Reflecting on that time, memories flash by like 15-second commercials from childhood, with yellowed and sepia tones. I remember sitting in a boat belonging to my aunt and uncle, hands on the steering wheel and making sputtering sounds with my lips as I imagined being in a high speed chase. I remember fending off the dirt dobbers, the flying bugs that nested in the homes they built in the ceiling corners of their carport. I can see my grandfather working in the huge garden he set up in their backyard, his skin leathered and tan in the years before he became tethered to oxygen. I remember the Dallas Cowboys games and my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration at their house, my grandfather dying then.

    And I remember the confrontation.


    As I write this, my uncle is in a different hospital. His physical “situation” — my aunt’s word to describe his state at any given time — is not good. He has blood clots in his leg and in his lungs that are life threatening. And then there is the mental illness, about which my aunt is reasonably matter of fact.

    “He gets on these kicks,” she said on Christmas Day. “He gets revved up and he starts having fears and hallucinations. He gets paranoid. He can’t slow down. He can’t sleep. He’s all agitated and revved up, and then he starts being belligerent. I had to take him over there because I couldn’t have handled him when he is like this.

    “So,” she said with the voice of someone who has been through this countless times, “we’ll get his meds straightened out and then everything will be OK for a while, or at least until he has another one of his episodes.”

    My uncle was formally diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2000, but he had shown signs of erratic behavior for at least two decades prior. Anxiety could make him extremely demanding and overbearing. At one point, he took a two to three week leave of absence from his job “due to nerves.” He retired in the mid 1980s, even though he was only in his 40s. No one knew, or spoke of, the exact reason why.

    “We were so dumb. I didn’t even have a clue what they were talking about,” my aunt said. “As he got older, it got worse, and when he turned 60 it completely got a hold on him.”


    I abhor violence. I don’t like TV shows or movies that glorify or wallow in it. However, I do understand primal instinct. The two fights I got into at school growing up were with people who said cruel (and not well thought out) things about my parents.

    And no one, absolutely no one, could say anything about my grandmother or cast a vote to prolong her suffering. End-of-life decisions are extremely personal, and when my uncle — during an extremely stressful point in time just days before her death — tried to take control and made a number of statements about what my grandmother “had to do” and what we “had to do” for her, I started to snap.

    And just as quickly, I walked away. Self preservation demanded that I not stay involved with someone who put me in a primal state.

    I kept in touch with my aunt and uncle through my parents, who served as intermediaries. We exchanged Christmas cards. Occasionally, and usually at my parents’ behest, I would call to check on them.

    This year, after my mom told me about my uncle’s latest meltdown and that my aunt had to eat alone on her birthday because he refused to see her, I decided to reach out and call her at home. After all, it was Christmas, and I had a confession to make.


    The conversation lasted 90 minutes. I asked questions and took notes, writing down parallels between some of my uncle’s episodes and those of my daughter, who also is bipolar. Their situations are different, in part because of age and gender, and in part due to the fact that no mental illness/disorder results in the same experiences.

    “It’s the strangest mess,” my aunt said. “Everyone has so many different forms of this.”

    She went on to describe how and what happened when my uncle’s “situation” became worse, how she has been on a decade long series of cycles that start with emerging paranoia and isolation, followed by anger and depression, then hospitalization and renewal.

    “I don’t know what causes this, but I know that when he becomes anxious about everything, he can’t do anything about it,” she said. “For a while, he just knows that he can do something better than everyone else, and he will drive that point into the ground if he has to, just to get his way.”

    What I appreciated most was my aunt’s candor — a trait I had not realized she shares with my grandmother. And what emerged in the conversation was her great strength in the face of mental illness. Why didn’t she leave him?

    “He’s a very kind man when he’s not all caught up in this, and it’s not something he can help,” she said, referring to his “crazy episodes” as blackouts. “When you get to know him, you know he’s not like the person he is when he’s in one of those states. I’ve just learned that the meds only hold him for so long, which means when they don’t work that he’s going to have to go to the hospital and stay for a while.”

    I told her about my conscious withdrawal from them, explained my reasons for staying away, and said how guilty I felt. “I do understand,” she said. “This is not an easy thing to deal with — for anybody.”

    Our relationship felt renewed by the end of our talk. She expressed her concern for Kate and — here’s that word again — our “situation.”

    “Fortunately, things are different now,” she said. “It used to be that people who went to a psychiatrist had a bad reputation, but now we know that they’re getting treatment for something they can’t help. It’s not something we expect to have in a child, or in a spouse, but they can’t help it. They just can’t.

    “You can help them, though, and others, too, by being open about all this,” she said, not knowing how much she had helped me — on her birthday.

  • One Piece at a Time

    “The story of our lives. Written page by page. Careful what you write. You gotta read it all some day.”

    When I was a child staying at my grandmother’s in East Texas, inevitably I had to take food to Mrs. Douglass’ house.

    I viewed this as penance for some yet-to-be-committed sin, in part because Mrs. Douglass and I had nothing in common and I was not interested in a career in the pharmaceutical industry at age 11. At this point in the story — Mrs. Douglass was a white haired, frail widow in her early 80s — conversation revolved around the variety of doctor’s appointments and prescriptions she was taking.

    Mrs. Douglass was inevitably polite — although bitter about her lot in life, it seemed to my childhood self — and she always seemed to enjoy my visits. The pattern rarely deviated: I sat on the couch and, after a 30-second description and acknowledgment of the home-cooked meal my grandmother had made, listened to her describe her various ailments and what they prevented her from doing. After 15 or 20 minutes, I was escorted to the door and told to come back soon.

    “I never want to be like that,” I told my grandmother more than once.

    She nodded, pursed her lips slightly, and gave me a half smile.


    “You can give away some things. That you never will get back. One piece at a time. And you never will get them back.”

    My father-in-law is 80. Over the 15-plus years I’ve known him, the conversational window has narrowed considerably. At one point we could talk about photography; recently he barely looked at the pictures I showed him, even though most were of his grandchildren. At another, he could provide you with a dissertation examining the merits vs. the weaknesses of any sport involving the University of North Carolina. Now he barely talks about his beloved Tar Heels.

    The relationship Jill and her brother have with their father is fractious, prickly, and tense. This is nothing new, but rather an extension of feelings that have been there since childhood. The undercurrents of lives that constantly overlap and occasionally intersect are never far from the surface.

    Jill (I know) and her brother (I’m sure) have spent countless hours trying to figure out the enigma who is responsible for their place on this planet. And while it’s not my place to say what they think, I believe it comes down to this: Don’t mistake gratitude for kindness.

    Like Mrs. Douglass, Bob’s life seems to revolve around two things — his visits to the doctor and the various prescriptions that he is taking to extend his life. He too is bitter, so focused on those things that he doesn’t seem to care about much else.

    Recently, I drove to Boone as part of a Virginia/North Carolina trek that also involved parents’ weekend at Nicholas’ college (more about that in a separate post). Jill and her brother are trying to see Bob at least once a month and this gave me an opportunity to help.

    Bob appeared grateful. He appreciated my taking him to the doctor and taking care of the things he has on a never-ending list. He talked of wanting to leave the assisted care facility to return to his house full time, although he’s not in good enough health for that to happen.

    His charm with others not close to him remains intact. The person who has cut his hair for years spoke of his wit (and his love for Carolina sports). As he shuffled through the lobby, where a community band honked through the “Gilligan’s Island” theme at a 5:30 dinner concert, a couple of his fellow residents perked up, said hello, and waited for his acknowledgment. He gave them a nod, but didn’t sit with them.

    Meanwhile, his temper simmered just below the surface, and he struggled not to bark or bellow. His temper, while infamous, is not something his children talk about, and you can tell he struggles to control it.

    On more than one occasion, I’ve heard Jill mention that her father is not a kind man. I didn’t see it fully, however, until this visit, when I realized all along that I had mistaken gratitude for the kindness I had hoped to see.

    “You need a strong heart. You need a true heart. You need a heart like that in a world like this. So you don’t get faithless.”

    Four years ago, on Sept. 11, my second “mom” passed away. In many ways, she had died 3 1/2 years earlier.

    If you follow this blog for any period of time, you will discover that I had two sets of “parents” — my biological ones and Fran and Bill, who lived across the street from us growing up. We moved into my childhood home on 22nd Avenue in Texas City when I was 4, and my parents became fast friends with the couple across the street and one house over to the left.

    Much more than my parents, Bill was my personal familial enigma, although unlike Bob we reached a much more peaceful resolution in the end. With my mom facing a much more difficult juggling act (work, kids, sick husband) than any of us knew, I often turned to Fran for advice and support.

    And Fran freely dispensed it, in what my mom called her “Yankee” way. (Ironically, it took me a while to realize that mom’s definition of Yankee includes the south side of Chicago.) Fran was always quick with an opinion and never afraid to share it, whether it was about my choices in music or literature. Unlike my grandmother, she didn’t partake in the rock and roll era (more about that in a future post, too).

    Like my father, Fran had health issues for much of her adult life, and it took me some time to realize just how much she relied on Bill for everything. Without children of their own, all they had was each other, even though they treated us like their kids.

    Fran marched in lock step with her Catholicism, never missing a mass and politically aligned largely with its beliefs. But after Bill died in 2004, she started questioning everything, including her own belief about the end of life.

    One afternoon, during one of my 14 trips to Texas in 2007 to see my dad in the hospital, I stopped by Fran’s house for a visit. She was using oxygen, largely confined to bed or her chair.

    Like Bob and Mrs. Douglass, most visits with Fran at the time were conversations about doctors, her various caregivers, and her medical treatments. The conversations had narrowed so much that a person I once could talk to at any time ran out of things to say in just minutes.

    But on this mid-May day, we sat in her bedroom, went through pictures of the kids — unlike Bob, she remained interested — and talked about life’s trivia. She even endured a song I could not get out of my head at the time — Jon Dee Graham’s “Faithless.”

    She put her head back on her chair and listened, eyes closed.

    “In the deep blue dark down under. Tell me what you’re thinking of…”

    She smiled.

    “The things we find. The things we lose. The things that we get to keep. Are so damn few. And far between. So far between…”

    She teared up, but rebounded at the conclusion.

    “You need a strong heart. You need a true heart. You need a heart like that in a world like this. So you don’t get faithless.”

    For a moment, she seemed more confident. “That’s how I feel on so many days,” she said. “I get so frustrated. It’s so easy to do.”

    Fran told me how much she enjoyed the visit. I gave her a kiss and let myself out. In less than four months, she was dead.


  • Family Stories

    When I was growing up, my parents were storytellers. And sadly, I gave them no shortage of material.

    Because they were both teachers, they loved to note how I mangled grammar and pronunciation. Of course, reminding them that I was a toddler at the time didn’t help.

    “Garwhineits” was Weingartens. “Maimee Farceame” was Mainland Pharmacy. And there were others. But the biggest story — and I think one of my mom’s proudest moments — was when she learned I could read.

    “Ford,” I said as the drove past the local car dealership. I was just 10 months old, and at that point, my academic career had nowhere to go but down.

    I never understood why I heard these stories over and over again, except that I knew they found them funny and interesting. Now I realize that they were reliving a time that was not terribly complicated, a period from the first few years of marriage before my dad got sick and before life became a series of doctor’s visits and medical bills.