Sunday, March 15, 2015
For the last two years the old quote, “Pain is weakness leaving the body,” had been a lie. At least as far as I was concerned. Since my wife had died pain had been a festering, constant companion. A smothering, suffocating, life robbing presence that made great things small and joyful ones annoying tribulations. Today was different though, today I started on a new journey. I planned to be recycled with the new season.
When the soothsayer warned Julius Caesar to, “Beware the ides of March,” he was warning J.C. of his impending demise. If Cassius had brought that man before me he likely would have said something sounding a bit less ominous. Perhaps something along the lines of, “Beware the ides of March, John Powell, for today is the day of your rebirth and birth is always painful and bloody.” Though, truth be told, I wasn’t bleeding, just hurting.
Rebirth is a word that gets thrown about quite a bit. We all have times when we want to start over, hit the redo button, declare a Mulligan, but we really only get one chance at life. If we’re lucky we’ll make the most of what we’ve got or at the very least learn from our mistakes, and occasionally take inventory of who and what we are and taking arms against a sea of troubles, end them, at least to the extent all our old baggage allows us to!
In physics the phrase is, “What goes up, must come down.” This, of course, refers to gravity and its ubiquitous, universal and ceaseless pull on all things Terran. A seemingly contradictory bromide states that one must reach rock bottom before one can start one’s ascent. I was pretty sure I’d hit my personal rock bottom just over four months ago. Thanksgiving of ’14 I had come closer to extinguishing the sacred flame God set spark to on November 22, 1956 than I had ever thought myself capable of. Closer than I hoped to ever again come.
I had dabbled in depression for years but on November 27, 2014 I dredged to a depth so low as to find myself stuck in a PCB riddled slime that clung to my skin like the finest of mud baths one finds at luxurious spas. Ironically, depression started take the upper hand in our Greco Roman Tango when I suddenly went from Working Class comfortable to set for Life insolent. The inheritance we received after the death of my wife’s parents unglued rather than renewed me. Caused my compass needle to spin rather than my face to grin and came closer to neutering me than had the draining sands of life’s hourglass.
Eileen and I had dreamed of travel, requiescence, seeing the world. We’d imagined that wealth and leisure would bring us a huge increase in joy and satisfaction. If only. Unearned wealth was not panacea nor palliative but rather a stick in my craw that ulcerated and rankled, causing me to find faults in the everyday actions of my wife that I’d previously smiled and laughed at. Quirks once odd but endearing transmogrified into Brobdingnag irksome, tormenting and unnerving points of contention. My misery was tied to my lack of purpose and Eileen’s foibles provided me with a scapegoat.
Fortunately for us both the earliest of Christmas hours on that 369th day of 2012 brought us our own little young Jim Dillingham and dear wife Della reconciliation. Oh, Henry! Christmas brought me not only a remembrance of our Savior’s birth but, if not a rebirth of my own spirit and capacity to love, then at least a realization of the absence of and need for same. The problem with Eileen wasn’t Eileen but rather my need to adapt to new circumstances and use the wealth we had received to do good, while simultaneously enjoying ourselves. Halleluiah! Hark the herald, I heard angels singing on high. Christmas morning had been a grace filled turning point and I felt able to love and be loved again, a reality I had lost and longed for.
My revitalization was strong but my respite from pain very short lived. My father first descended into the nether world that was hospital and hospice and then died exactly one month after the Feast of the Epiphany, on 02/06/2013. His life had been both long as well as full and my brothers and sisters and I reassured one another that his passing had been a blessing, a removal of pain, a window opening that allowed his soul to soar while his body changed to ash and dust. It may have been, but with Carl’s demise my wife’s and my material wealth was again set to be bread cast upon the waters to return to us tenfold. My siblings and I would receive the profits of Carl and Jean’s busy, frugal lives and the absurdly large collection of shekels our parents had stored away against another deluge the size of which would likely have dwarfed Noah’s fame made our coffers bulge. My Earthly father turned out to be a saver the way our Heavenly one was savior.
Receiving “only” twenty percent of their accumulated largess, less taxes and lawyers’ fees, our personal fortune again doubled. The cliché, “Money can’t buy happiness,” was a phrase that I was beginning to understand ever more fully. Just as I was ascending from my blue funk Dad’s death was catalyst for a new bout with what ailed and tortured my soul. Iowa winters are hard enough without becoming orphaned in the middle of one. I became lugubrious beyond my previous level of melancholy and was again hard to please. Just as the end of winter was near, The End appeared. On March 15, 2013 my wife was killed in a car crash and I was left to carry on.
Lonely but not alone, my daughter Shawn tried to pull me back from the edge of the Event Horizon and let me see light of day. I instead only saw that all was lost. Her return was a necessary and timely reminder that just as I was not alone in my sufferings, I too was not without parental obligations. I carried on, a wayward son sleeping single in a double bed, shuffling my feet in the proscribed steps of life’s dance but moving marionette style, feeling no rhythm and hearing no harmony. Alive, but not living, my lowest ebb arrived Thanksgiving morning at oh, so dark thirty, on November 27, 2014.
It was three a.m. and the gun may still have been warm and God knows I longed to scream to Him, my father, mother and departed wife, “Where are you!?” –but in my twilight time I sat alone in my basement, daughter safely ensconced in her second floor bedroom, and brooded. Brooded, argued, and temporized about being the master of my own demise. My wrists were pale in the low light and I have always been a fan of the color red. Sunk in melancholy reverie I stared inward to my core, contemplating my navel and thinking back to when I had feared my draft number popping up and earning me an all expense trip to the land of self-immolation.
I had missed being drafted and sent to Vietnam by college deferment and the span of a few weeks but memories of Buddhist monks setting themselves aflame in protest brought my wandering mind back to the woodstove that sat in the corner of my basement, the fingers of flame within beckoning me to open the door and play with man’s dancing red flower. Flower gardens provide flower garlands, a rose is a rose is a rose and a rose would smell as sweet by any other name. Surely the tormenting flames within me could be fought with the flames inside my wood stove? Oblivion had never had a sweeter song. I began to go create a check list for self-destruction when a tiny voice called out to me hawking spiritual self-immolation as an alternative to corporeal.
Instead of setting myself on fire I instead burned a shirt that Eileen and I had purchased just a few short weeks before our first, shared-as-a-couple Ides of March, way back in 1980. Devastated by how far my fall had progressed and how close I had come to self-destruction I left a text message for my younger and closest brother, Joe. Later that day, long after the sun had risen on what was November’s coldest day that year, the gray skies and snow having done nothing to lift my spirits, Joe contacted me and we arranged to meet in Las Vegas six weeks later. Our early January excursion had not gone as planned but I counted the trip as anything but failure. In Vegas I met a most beguiling young woman, a desert flower fifteen years my junior. Contact with her had renewed in me the flame of desire and extinguished, at least thus far, my need to feel miserable.
Jodi Flower was all that plus two bags of chips! We immediately connected on so many levels that it was unnerving. We hit it off and made plans to rendezvous in mid-May and, perhaps equally importantly, she had agreed to return to Eastern Iowa and race the Camp Courageous triathlon with me in August. Eileen had been five years my junior and had helped keep me young in many ways, including goading me into participating in half a dozen triathlons each summer and racing another six or eight running races throughout the year. Her death had brought the end of my triathlons and the last running event I had actually raced had been the 2012 Return of the Turkey Trot in neighboring Francisville. I distinguish between ‘racing’ and ‘participating’ because my daughter Shawn and son Max had cajoled me into signing up for Rapida Cedro’s July 4th Alliant Energy’s Fifth Season Race, the Especially for You 5K breast cancer awareness run and the afore mentioned Turkey Trot.
In previous years I had raced, fast or slow I had done the best with whatever level of fitness I was enjoying at the time, but Eileen’s demise had signaled the end of my competitive desires, or any desires for that matter. My drive had seemingly been shifted into indefinite ‘Park’ and I merely participated without enthusiasm or spiritual uplift my trifecta of July, October and November 5K runs. For ten years my children and I had raced these annually, competing with and encouraging one another along the route. I felt no healthful spark of competition and in my misery I was miserly with any encouragement.
It wasn’t just my spirit and enthusiasm that had fallen, my fitness and health had nosedived as well. My laissez faire discontent had let the free market demonstrate just how thoroughly a total lack of regulation can throw things out of kilter. In 2013 and 2014 my exertion levels had borne an uncanny resemblance to a sloth at siesta time. Flying to Las Vegas in January I had both bulging belly and bank account. The belly provided a convenient place to rest my arms and the bank account an electronic stage for my Silas Marner performance. I had racked up personal highs in bank balance, weight, body fat, blood pressure, cholesterol as well as blood sugar. I was a mess and Eileen would have been horrified.
I ‘rescued’ Jodi Flower from an angry and malevolently intended ex-beau and our romance started with an exciting encounter and stayed exciting the three days I spent with her. The mesmerizing Flower pulled back on the rudder of my downward spiral and with a single click of her spiked heels brought me back to an enchanted land. My interest in all things beautiful, which in her presence seemed all things, was again ignited. Once I met Jodi the only fire I was thinking of was the one Jim Morrison had sung about forty eight years prior to my trip to Sin City.
Even as we were off and flying I was leery of the ground below. I didn’t want Jodi interested in me because I was rich, I wanted her to fall for me because I am enriching. Rather than fly back and forth to Vegas on a weekly basis we’d made the decision to explore one another through skype, telephone, letters and other forms of long distance communication. She excited me and the holding pattern we had placed ourselves in did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for her. I was hooked.
September of 2012 had been my most recent triathlon date and my race had gone well. I’d shone on the course and shown in my fifty five to fifty nine year old age group. The fellows that I compete against are mostly lifelong athletes and anyone who thinks we old guys are just sitting in our rockers are off of theirs. We race, and I’d been quite pleased with my most recent previous performance. Of course, in the ensuing two and a half years the devil had had to buy bigger and bigger hand baskets in which to place my fat ass as I had gotten old, fat and despondent.
The day I’d come in third in my hotly contested age group I’d stood at a tic over seventy three inches and the scale just passed the 180 pound mark. My race times spoke for themselves and for the most part I felt spry and frisky. When I had flown out to Nevada in January my weight would have made Michael Constantine, aka Seymour Kaufman of ‘Room 222’ fame, proud because my weight matched the show’s room number. I had cultivated a case of what I call the G and B, aka gut and butt, and knew that if I wanted to finish anywhere near the same time ultra fit Jodi was likely to that I needed to turn my Titanic self around. I needed an intervention, and Jodi was it.
With the arrival of mid-March and the subsequent passage of two and a half months since our long distance wooing began, I had made good strides in recapturing a physical form that she would find easier to get her arms around. With her help I had created a regimen of healthful eating and fat burning exercise.
Winters in Iowa are a far from ideal time/space to train outdoors for triathlon. I was hitting the gym, swimming at a municipal pool semiweekly, running every three or so days on a treadmill and these changes in attitude had me slimming my latitude. Once late February arrived I managed to get in a few leisurely bicycle rides on an old mountain bike but I was itching to hit the pavement and see just how fast, or slow, I would go. The second week of March had come in like the proverbial paschal and I was committed to a high energy bike ride on this 59 degree, ten mile per hour wind out of the southwest, Ides of March day. I was certain that Eileen, were she alive to approve or disapprove of anything, would find this a grand commemoration of her passing.
On this second anniversary of my wife’s death Shawn, Max and a host of others had sent tender messages of sympathy to me either in person, text, phone call or via Facebook. Today I would not wallow in self-pity, rather I would take action. March 15th was here and I was determined to put rubber to the road as well as power to the pedals and go for a high intensity bike ride, Today I would test my mettle while riding my carbon fiber race steed. I was kitted up and ready to ride. Yahoo! Go, pardner! Bound and determined to squeeze back into the tux I’d purchased nearly forty years earlier this was one step of many I would have to take along the way.
Before setting out on my 16 mile, 25K, hilly for Eastern Iowa, high noon departure loop I sent a text to Jodi in Las Vegas. “Am leaving for bike ride. First in 30 months. May God watch over me! Will call when home unless fatigue stills my fingers from dialing your number. Love to you, Don Quixote.”
The end of high school had demarcated racing for purpose and racing for fun. I had hoped to earn a track or football scholarship and had, sort of. De Paw offered me a partial football scholarship that would have paid for much of my tuition to their fine institution. Trouble was I could live at my parents’ home and go to Michigan State for less than I could De Paw, even with their scholarship.
Once I quit worrying about how athletics could earn me money I stopped keeping performance records. In the 1970’s, eighties and early nineties I would look at my race results once they were compiled and see how I measured up against the competition but my scrutiny was as sparse as the information listed on the results. Name, age, finish time, ordination of finish place and perhaps an age group listing was all that race directors communicated to racers post-race and the time lag made receiving these results anything but post haste. With technology came welcome change.
Race results, split times, searchable records, Athlinks and a host of other data mines exploded on the scene. I still raced for fun but the new standards in records availability made my examination of who did what and how well something that filled some of my post-race time, and Athlinks allowed me to see records for millions of race participants worldwide. Jodi Flower’s achievements impressed and intimidated me. I was really glad Camp Courageous is a sprint triathlon because even though she lived in the desert Jodi’s swim records indicated she was a mermaid.
Noon on a blessedly May like day in mid-March in the Mid-West is not a time to head to the local bicycle trail if one wishes to go fast. Chances are that the Cedar Valley Nature Trail looked a lot like the D. C. Beltway at five in the evening- gridlocked. The country roads that lay north and west of Rapida Cedro were a much better bet if I wanted to make like a Mazda and go zoom, zoom, zoom so I headed north up Council Street with plans to make a loop of Tower Terrace, Feather Ridge, County Home and Center Point before returning to my house on Capris Drive.
I am not a metrics man. My bicycle sports no ergometer, no Power Tap hub nor Quark crank. I have a basic electronic speedometer, a ‘bike computer,’ in the lingo’s parlance, that tells me how far I’ve ridden to the hundredth of a mile, how long it took me to get someplace down to the second and calculates an average speed to point one mph for me. It even tells me just how fast I went downhill on a given ride. I resisted looking at my little handlebar mounted monitor until I was about three quarters of the way through with my ride. I glanced down, saw that my average speed was 18.0 mph and was not dissatisfied.
Eighteen miles in an hour is not fast but I was coming off the longest hiatus from sport that I had ever experienced. I’d settle for whatever I achieved but I’d be content to achieve a 3:20/mile pace for a bit over fifty two minutes. Hell, that’d make me proud at this stage in the game! Did I mention that the breeze was out of the southwest and that I had headed primarily north? For the last eighteen minutes or so of my ride the wind, my level of fitness and sadly fatigue all took their toll. I finished my 15.7 mile ride in 52:50 with an average pace of 17.8 mph. I was far from disappointed in my performance.
Once home I rolled my cycle into the house, stored it in my basement workshop, showered, grabbed a bite and checked my muted, vibration off cellphone. I was pleased to see a text from Jodi that read, “Go get ‘em, Barry Allen! Make America proud! Call me when you get home, I’m free until noon my time.”
Noon in Las Vegas was still forty minutes away and I was ecstatic to see this last bit of message. Jodi had tacitly made clear to me that while she was available to talk, text, Skype or email 24/7 that this unlimited access was not without preamble and protocol. She ‘serviced clients’ all times of the day and night and responded far more graciously when I prearranged a phone call than she did when I simply dialed out of the blue. She picked up on the second ring. “John! You survived! Or is this a cop who found your phone in a jersey pocket on your limp, still warm corpse?” she teased with a laugh.
“Hey, good looking! Survived? Hell I led the bottom half of the class. How are you?” I joked in return.
“Great. It’s nice here. Should hit the low eighties and be calm all day. I think I’ll hit the bike this evening. How’d it go?”
“It went well enough, far better than I’d feared and almost as good as I’d reasonably hoped for. Not at twenty miles an hour yet but I expect to be there long before I drag your comely carcass around Monticello, Iowa.”
“Drag my ass and comely, you do say the sweetest things. Uhm, how are you otherwise? Holding up?”
“So far so good. Prayerful meditation this morning, breakfast with Shawn before she headed out to enjoy the day, spoke with both Max and Jamie earlier and got messages and voicemails from a host of well-wishers including all my immediate family. I am well and think I’ll remain that way throughout the day. Thanks for asking.”
“I’ve been thinking about you. Worrying, even. Glad you’re okay. Looking forward to seeing you and D.J. in another month. How’s Shawn doing?”
“She seems great. Was heading over to be with that Taylor boy. Seems like a nice enough kid. You have any specific plans with your son yet? How is D.J. anyway? Does he know anything about me yet?”
“Nope, fine and nope. I’m planning to let him in on you when I see him next month. I’m pretty familiar with Indy, lived there long enough. We’ll play it by ear,” she replied.
“Sure, sure. I understand. It’s not as though he’s going to meet me anytime soon. Have you zeroed in on an arrival date here?”
“I’m thinking Saturday the sixteenth. Do you have any specific plans?” she asked coyly.
“Yep. To spend as much time with you. Speaking of which-”
“Stop. I don’t know yet. We have a month and we’ll see how Shawn and Max are doing, what vibes they send your way, so keep your eyes, ears and heart open to opportunities to feel them out, they may want to open up to you, you know.”
“Yes, I do know,” I answered. “I will. And I hope you’ll spend a night or two here in the house before heading east. Seems silly for you to drive all this way to sleep in a hotel a mile away when you can have my whole blessed basement all to yourself. It’s nice down there, even has its own wood stove, not that I think we’ll need it in mid-May.”
“Leaning that way, dear. Just give it time.”
“If only I could save that shit in a bottle,” I replied whimsically.
“If only,” came her sweet reply.
Our conversation went on in a warm, supportive, bantering fashion for 45 minutes when she said, “I’ve really got to go now. Can I call you late tonight? Might be well after midnight my time?”
“Sure, sure. Anytime is a good time for you kiddo. I’m gonna’ take a nap, work on my love story and get some house work done. Just call me when you can,” I answered sincerely.
“Will do, John. I’m really glad you’re having a good day; I was worried,” she said softly.
“Don’t worry about me, I’m a cold war kid, I was forged in fire and tempered in fear. Thanks for worrying, you are a peach.”
“I know, I know, ripe, juicy and ready for plucking. Good-bye, sweetie. Take care.”
“Bye, my little chickadee,” I said, ending with, “enjoy your paradise,” before disconnecting. I looked forward to Shawn’s return later that day, getting some writing done and the promise of more time talking to my angel from Sin City. Hell, it even looked like Eileen was smiling down on me today, watching my back and guiding my hands. Sometimes life is sweet.