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.”

For 9/11, do something life-affirming

What are you doing today? Are you sitting at your desk trying not to think about the horror of this day 11 years ago?

I think about it a lot. I lived in suburban New York and my husband worked at a trade magazine just 12 blocks from the World Trade Center. He watched the buildings go down.

We don’t watch any of the television specials. Seeing it live was enough for my husband.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t remember. My Sunday school kids asked my how God could allow something so terrible — many of them had friends who lost a parent in those buildings.

I told them that God gave humans free will and this is what some humans do with it.

So what do we do to memorialize those who died? Building a memorial is one thing, and it’s important for us to have a place to go and ponder what happened.

But what about today, 11 years later? Should we still be angry, shaking our fists and vowing to wipe out every member of Al Qaida?

I don’t think that does anyone any good.

I’m giving blood this afternoon.

My friend Thom bought coffee and doughnuts and brought them to the fire station to say thanks to the people who are there every day to keep us safe. My friend Byron is celebrating her niece’s birthday with special fervor.

Today is a day to reach out in that same spirit we all felt the day after the attacks. We can all do something in that spirit.

Here are some thoughts:

  • Give blood. Someone always needs that.
  • Sign up to volunteer at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen and listen to the stories of the people there.
  • Donate to a food pantry or volunteer there.
  • Sign up to spend a day working at Habitat for Humanity. You have no idea how cool it is to drive by a house you helped build and know as family finds shelter there.
  • Volunteer at an animal shelter. Some shelters have shifts for cuddling kittens to socialize them. Some need help walking the dogs so they will be exercised and not as hyper when people come to see them.
  • If you see a homeless person, smile and say hello. It’s something to celebrate when most people look right past you as they pass and then someone recognizes your humanity.
  • Donate to a charity. Nonprofits do a lot of good work and funding is harder to come by than ever before.
  • Buy coffee and doughnuts for your local fire department, or better yet, if you have time, bake something.
  • Thank a cop, a firefighter, a soldier, a social worker, a nurse, a teacher … these people all work hard to make our society a better one.

Do something other than dwell on the lives lost; honor them instead by dwelling on how you can make some lives a little better while you’re here on this planet.