Battle fatigue

Ron Mikulak, fussing with the fire in my backyard. He was forever fussing with things.

It’s been awhile since I’ve been able to sit down and write. It seemed as though my brain has refused to cooperate when I have something to say.

There’s been a lot to process. My brother-in-law died recently, after a long and painful illness. I watched him waste away just as my son did, and there was nothing I could do about it but try and keep him confortable and safe.

We die the way we lived. Whoever we are as we go through life is who we are as we lay dying, and Ron was no exception.

Ron was a brilliant and cranky man. Apparently, he was that way as a child, too. He loved spending hours fussing over model ships and airplanes while the other kids played baseball. He just loved fussing over things, especially food. He was an extrordinary cook, and an accomplished conversationalist. Dinners with Ron were always entertaining and delicious.

I was allowed in Ron’s kitchen to assist, but never to direct the preparation of a meal. It was, after all, Ron’s kitchen. So, when he told me to go ahead and bake brownies, with the only direction being, “If you line the pan with foil, you can lift the whole thing right out when it cools and then wrap it up,” I knew he really was dying.

As his strength ebbed, his incredibly well equipped kitchen became my domain. When things became too much, I escaped into the kitchen and fussed.

Ron was nothing if not tenacious. Not just stubborn, but determined. If something needed to be done in his mind, no one was allowed to rest until it was done to his satisfaction. He remained ambulatory through sheer force of will until days before he died. “If you don’t use it, you lose it,” he muttered as he stood, wavering, and grabbed his cane. “Let’s go for a walk around the apartment.” I was so afraid he would fall, and that would be the end. When I stop to think about it, I don’t think he would have minded if he “died trying” to walk.

Ron also had a legendary temper, and one of the largest vocabularies I’ve ever encountered. He could berate you with an eloquence that would leave you reeling more than the volume at which it was delivered.

Ron was never afraid to show his temper in public. He figured it it made him angry it must make others just as frustrated and he felt it his duty to put a stop to whatever bullshit was under his skin. He once stood up in a movie theater and declared the theater had shown enough previews and ads already and it was time to start the damn movie.

At a party once time, I was talking to an elderly civil rights lawyer about activism. His generation paved the way for the work I do today, so it was a rare pleasure. We sat in the corner talking until Ron came over and yelled, “Enough activism talk, already. Talk about something else! Mingle, for chrissake!” The room fell silent and Ron turned and went about his business, his job done. My new friend and I continued ouir conversation and no one ever mentioned it again because Ron did these things now and then.

But his intellect, his curiosity, his sense of humor and wit, his way with food — all if these made the temper worth it. Most of the stories I’ve heard about Ron’s temper are told with humor and deep affection. His former students (he was a high school English teacher and then a food writer) acknowledged he was tough, but also that he was one of the best teachers they ever had.

He married his beloved Annie, artist Ann Stewart Anderson, and they traveled. She really was the best thing that ever happened to him. She kept him on an even keel. She died in 2019, and Ron created a beautiful garden space outside his condo building in her memory. And under the plaque that says, “Annie’s Nook,” I want to add another: “Lovingly created by her husband, Ron Mikulak.”

Be thankful and stay home with family and friends

The Boyd kids and their kids, 1977.

Today is a day to reflect on the things we have.

I like to look to my late son for the perfect example. Both he and my sister, Ellen, who died six years ago, lived in the spirit of gratitude. They both embraced life, even as it was ebbing away.

“Every day above ground is a good day,” Ellen said often during the last weeks of her life.

Mike just said, “I love my life,” even as it was confined to a single room.

Our tradition here is to go around the Thanksgiving table and talk about the things we have to be thankful for: family, friends, a warm, safe place to call home, enough food, and of course, our Star Trek DVD/Blu-ray collection.

On Mike’s final Thanksgiving, he was thankful for my bread stuffing and chocolate cream pie, and the ability to take a nap after dinner. I was thankful for him; I still am.

I’m thankful for my surviving son and his wife and kids. Even though Danny and I have had our difficulties, he is a most precious gift to me.

I’m thankful for my sister’s son and daughter, who now torment and tease me, as I do them. I adore them both, and their children.

I like to spend this day and this weekend reflecting on these things, and thinking about people who have less than I do as I crochet hats and scarves to donate to them.

I never, ever shop on Black Friday.

I don’t need to shop local on Saturday because I do that all year long, and I ignore Cyber Monday.

Our holiday warmth has been co-opted by huge, greedy corporations, and we are led to believe that buying things we don’t need will make us happy.

It won’t.

My Thanksgiving traditions include watching “King Kong,” listening to Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” and being with people I love.

This year, it’s just me and Rob and our friend, Dee, for dinner. We’ll eat, enjoy a glass of wine and maybe even light a fire in the backyard fireplace (or as Dee puts it, “burn stuff in the back yard.”).

Instead of focusing on battling other folks to save a few bucks on things you don’t need, how about focusing on family? Our time here is so short, our lives so fragile and uncertain.

As I listen for the echos of voices now silenced, I am even more grateful for the ones still here. I choose to spend time with them instead of shopping.