Sunday, March 28, 2010

Travel is the best way to thinking

Speeding through the universe ... or at least Fort Wayne, Indiana (photo by Lon Horwedel)

I’ve been listening to the Moody Blues a lot these days. They were one of my mom’s favorite groups, and after she died last month, I pulled out a bunch of their CD’s and put them into my limited playlist rotation.

I don’t own an iPod. I don’t have a huge library of songs in iTunes. I don’t even own any fancy home audio equipment. I sort of do it the old fashioned way. I listen to one album at a time. And just about the only place I can listen to music these days is in my car, but that’s okay with me, I prefer it that way.

My album (or CD) of choice these days is the Moody’s In Search of the Lost Chord. More specifically, I keep playing “The Best Way to Travel” over and over. It was always my favorite Moody Blues song even though it was never a commercial success or even sung by their main singer, Justin Hayward.

When I was a kid I thought the lyrics were really cool, and the music was unlike anything I’d ever heard – a sort of synthesized racing sound made, I later discoverd, by an instrument called a Mellotron (played by the Moody’s key board player Mike Pinder, who also wrote and sings the song).

Speeding through the universe, thinking is the best way to travel.

The words ring as true for me today as they did when I was a little kid. My imagination seemed limitless back then, but today it tends to get bottled up by all of life’s demands … except when I’m on the road.

When I’m driving (alone that is, with no kids tuning my radio to that 95.5 crap) I can truly let my mind travel. The longer the trip, the more my mind wanders, getting peeled back further and further with every passing mile.

On a two-hour drive I’ll often win the lotto, pay off all my debts, put a new roof on the house and do some extensive landscaping before donating the rest to charity.

On a three-hour drive I’ll learn how to play guitar, become a rock star, then write an award-winning novel before winning the Masters or hitting a game-winning home run in the seventh game of the World Series.

Anything longer than four hours and I’ll really get carried away. Five hours or more and I’ll fall into a trance and instead of just “speeding through the universe” I’ll actually start to think about the universe … or at least my place in it.

If it’s sunny, the volume goes up. If it’s raining, the songs make more sense.  But my mind doesn’t care if it’s clear or cloudy; it races just the same.

I’ll picture myself old. I’ll picture myself young. I’ll forget about the here and now and think only of the past … and the future.

Nothing is off limits. Dreams and fears are given equal time. Just as many bad thoughts will pass through my head as good. And I don’t need a cell phone or kids fighting in the back seat to distract me while I drive - my brain does an ample job on its own.

I’m so adept at traveling with my mind while I’m traveling with my car, that my wife told me she never worries about me falling asleep at the wheel because she knows my racing head won’t let me. Turning my brain on is easy when I’m driving, but turning it off at night has proven more difficult, costing me countless hours of sleep each passing year.

I don’t see things changing anytime soon, these days I have more to think about than ever – and more to forget about too. But that’s okay, I know all I’ve got to do is grab my keys and head for a country road, because where The Moody Blues were searching for the lost chord - sometimes I’m just searching to get lost.

Thinking is the best way to travel.

Monday, March 22, 2010

It's Hard to Describe

It’s hard to describe the sound of the loud crash my mother made falling to the floor.

I can’t really put my finger on the look on her face as she struggled to live.

I couldn’t exactly say what color the ambulance lights were as they blurred on my rain-soaked windshield ahead of me in the darkness.

There’s no way I could replicate the way I felt when I saw my dad and my brothers crying at her bedside as she slowly gasped and twitched her way toward death.

How do you even attempt to put into words what comes over you as you feel the warmth leaving your mother’s body as you hold her hand, and stroke her hair, and close her eyes?

It’s impossible to exactly say what little detail we took care of at the funeral home that seemed the most trivial.

It’s anybody’s guess as to why I felt so happy most of the week while family members and old friends poured in from out of town to pay their respects.

The surreal quality of standing next to your mother’s lifeless corpse for hours on end as you laugh and cry with those same family members and old friends is a tough one too.

The lump in my throat was much bigger than I expected as I looked out over the hundreds of people gathered in the church and tried to sum up my 45-year relationship with my mother in five minutes or less.

The weight of my mother’s casket was lighter than I thought, as my brothers, my cousins, and my son, walked her slowly toward the waiting hearse outside the church.

The echo of the bagpipes bouncing “Amazing Grace” off the giant oaks, walnuts, and maples that surround Riverside Cemetery seemed very unfamiliar.

And I’m not sure when it was during the week - maybe the loud crash, maybe her last breath in the hospital, maybe the first time I stepped foot back in the empty house after she died, or maybe visiting her grave later in the day after her funeral - but somewhere, at some point, my childhood died as well.

It’s hard to describe.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Mother's Cancer - Part III - The battle ends

Mom's grave the afternoon of her funeral. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

My rain-soaked windshield blurred the ambulance lights as it drove further and further out of my sight in the murky darkness down Berlin Road on a cold and wet, March morning.

My mother was in the back of that ambulance, but I’ll be damned if I could keep up, or even wanted to try, as it navigated Berlin Road’s twisting turns and rolling hills en route to the highway. I’d heard too many horror stories about people getting killed in car accidents on their way to the hospital, and I wasn’t about to become one of them, so I tried to calm myself and stay within the speed limit, hoping my mother would still be alive by the time we arrived at Firelands Hospital in Sandusky.

Within minutes I could no longer see the ambulance lights, but I knew where I was going. I was born in the same hospital nearly 45 years earlier. Now I was heading there for an entirely different reason.

The horrible crashing sound that had jolted me awake no more than 20 minutes ago, and the sight of my mother sprawled on her bedroom floor struggling to breathe, were burned so clearly into my brain I couldn’t seem to think.

The events of the morning kept playing over and over in my head. I was supposed to take my mom to the Cleveland Clinic to start her fifth week of radiation treatments, but we never even made it to the car. The radiation and the chemo had left her very weak, but there was no reason to believe things wouldn’t get better. She had a feeding tube in place, so we (my family) were hoping that would solve any nutritional issues, and she was past the halfway point in her treatments, so we were hoping that would help raise her spirits and give her the necessary mental boost she would need to take this thing to the end.

But we also had our doubts. When I arrived home that Sunday night I was shocked to see how far my mother’s health had declined in just two weeks. The constant bombardment of radiation had changed her saliva into a thick, ropey enemy that forced her to keep a suction hose near her at all times to help keep her airway clear.

When I found my mom on the floor, she had a scared look on her face as mucous ran from the corner of her mouth. My father called 911 as I tried to get my mother onto her side and clear her airway. It was 5:40 in the morning, and my body had just gone from deep slumber to massive adrenaline rush in a heartbeat.

I asked my dad to hold mom on her side so I could run downstairs and grab the suction machine. Seconds later I tried to find an electrical outlet so I could plug the machine in, but by the time I found one, my mom’s eyes were rolling back in her head.

Once I flipped on the machine and began clearing the mucous and blood from her throat, my mother regained consciousness. With my father’s help, we got her onto a chair where she continued to clear out her airway on her own. I then made the mistake of telling my mother an ambulance was on the way, prompting her to curse at me.

“Why the hell did you call an ambulance?” She snapped hoarsely, “I need to take a bath.”

For a brief moment I thought, “Okay, that’s my mom, things are going to be just fine.”

But things weren’t fine at all. When the EMT’s arrived five minutes later, my mother lost consciousness again, only this time we were there to hold her in place so she wouldn’t crash back to the ground.

Now she was in the back of the ambulance somewhere in front of me in the darkness as I fished for my cell phone to start making calls to my two brothers, Lance and Duke, and my sister Dina.

My brothers were in town, and after a few tries, I got in touch with both of them and soon they were on their way to the ER, but my sister Dina, who lives in Denver, didn’t hear the phone ringing at what, for her, was four in the morning.

Moments later I was at the ER where I ran into one of the EMT’s already loading the stretcher back into the back of the ambulance.

“Is my mom still alive?” I asked.

“Oh yeah, she was talking the whole way here.” He said.

Inside, I found my mom somewhat responsive in room #5 of the Firelands Hospital ER, and within 15 minutes, my father and two brothers would arrive. The doctors told us they thought my mother was having a heart attack and they wanted to run a catheter up into her heart to check for blockage. By that time, the adrenaline that had been rushing so efficiently through my body had begun to retreat, and I felt like I was going to throw up. I had to get out of the room and get some fresh air.

I wasn’t gone long before a frantic nurse rushed out to the ER waiting room and called for me, and my brother Lance, to return to my mother’s room. When we got there, my dad and my brother Duke were crying at her bedside. The doctor told me she was crashing and there was nothing he could do because she had signed a “do not resuscitate” order.

Duke urged her to fight; I pulled down the covers to find her hands. I took one of her hands in mine and told my dad to take the other. Lance rubbed her head as she fought to breath. I called Dina again and this time she answered. I can’t imagine how shocked she must have been when the first words out of my mouth were, “Dina, mom’s dying, if you want to say goodbye you have to do it now.”

I don’t know if my mom could hear it or not, but Dina was crying on the phone as she told my mother she loved her. I whispered in my mom’s ear that I loved her too and that “God doesn’t want to spit you out this time, this time he wants to keep you.”

Rather than urging her to fight any longer, we now all urged my mother to "just let go" … and she did, albeit not a Hollywood death. It was slow, and painful, and hard to watch. The last gasps of air were brutal - the involuntary twitches even worse.

But we were lucky, my brothers and I. We had come full circle with my mother. We were standing in the same hospital where she gave birth to all of us, and now we were there with her when she died. 

I didn’t cry much, but I know I will in the coming days and weeks - probably when I go to pick up the phone to call her and remember she’s not there.

But she is there.

She’ll always be there.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

March Madness: Earl Boykins, high fevers, and one horrible Catholic!

Eastern Michigan's Earl Boykins is hugged by teammate Derrick Dial during EMU's magical run in 1996's March Madness, which included an upset win over Duke. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

A week ago, a friend asked on Facebook (sadly, the main means of communication these days) “What NCAA March Madness moment was the most memorable for you?”

Obviously, any college basketball fan knows there have been a ton of incredible March Madness moments over the years, but for me it was an easy question. The only strange thing was, my moment had very little to do with basketball.

It was the March of 1996 and my life was about to totally change for the better. In less than three weeks I was getting married, and for the first time in my photojournalism career, I was lucky enough to get assigned to cover the NCAA Tournament.

You’d think I’d be ecstatic, but in truth, I was freaking out because I’m Catholic, and as any Catholic knows, there are a lot of rules involved with being a Catholic … a lot. And one of those rules is you can’t get married until you participate in a marriage counseling seminar. This didn’t seem to be a big problem at the time my future wife Julie, and I scheduled the seminar for mid-March, but then both Michigan and Eastern Michigan University made the NCAA Tournament, which threw a total monkey wrench into the works because the first round of the tournament was the same weekend as our seminar.

Rather than call Father Burke (the Priest who would marry us) and inform him of my situation, I opted to try and do both the tournament and the seminar.  Since Michigan was in Milwaukee playing a Friday/Sunday schedule, that was out of the question. But Eastern was in Indianapolis on a Thursday/Saturday slot, and their first round game was against the Duke Blue Devils. I figured there was no way little old Eastern stood a chance against mighty Duke, so my plan was to drive to Indy, shoot EMU getting creamed by the Blue Devils on Thursday, then head back to Ann Arbor in time to go to my pre-marital seminar.

Of course, things don’t always go as planned, as I found out the night before I was set to leave for Indy when the glands in my throat began to swell and I started to get the chills. An hour later I was busting the thermometer with a 104-degree fever so I had Julie call my boss to tell her I couldn’t go to Indy. My boss told me not to worry; she’d get someone else on staff to take the slot, but an hour later my boss called to inform me there was no one else who could go.

Julie pleaded with me not to make the trip, but I told her if I was going to be miserable anyhow, why not be miserable in a car headed south down I-69? Who could argue with logic like that? Certainly not Julie, who just shook her head and realized she might be making a big mistake in three weeks.

After a sleepless night of repeated fevers, I got up, packed my car and headed for Indianapolis, fully expecting to be back in Ann Arbor in less than two days. The four hour trip to Indy is so boring, you’re better off having a high fever when you make the drive – at least it’s something to keep you occupied.

When I rolled into town, I tried to get out of my car only to find my legs didn’t work so well anymore. I was extremely weak and dizzy, but somehow I managed to heave my gear and my luggage out of my car and up to the front desk of the hotel where I promptly began infecting most of central Indiana with whatever virus it was that I was carrying. I would find out later that Indianapolis is a marvelous city, but at the time I found out sleeping the rest of the afternoon was equally as marvelous.

By morning light my fevers seemed to have passed. I managed to eat something for the first time in two days and I began feeling hopeful that I wouldn’t pass out on the floor of the RCA Dome sometime early in the first half of that afternoon’s game. What I didn’t expect were the delusions left behind by the high fevers, because while I was shooting the game, I could swear it looked like little Earl Boykins, all 5’ 5” of him, and the rest of the EMU team was blowing out Duke.

Now, I knew this couldn’t be, I even asked the photographers next to me if I was seeing things right. They assured me I wasn’t delusional; EMU was, in fact, kicking Duke’s ass. I started sweating again; only this time it had nothing to do with a virus. I was sunk. Eastern would play again on Saturday - the same day as my pre-marital seminar - and I was stuck in Indy!

I called Julie to inform her of Eastern’s victory – she wasn’t happy. I called Father Burke to inform him of Eastern’s victory – he was happy … that is, until he found out I was in Indy and I couldn’t get back for the seminar on time - then he wasn’t happy.

For three hours I played phone tag with Father Burke from my hotel room pleading with him to let me get married without attending the seminar. He called a higher power (maybe the Pope?) but the church wouldn’t budge. No seminar, no marriage.

This wasn’t good. We had the church booked. We had the reception hall booked. We had the caterer booked. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Eastern was supposed to lose!

I got on the phone with Father Burke one last time to beg some more. He’d known Julie his whole life, but he’d only known me for a few months, still, he seemed to like me, and he certainly felt for my predicament, so he let me strike a bargain. I could stay in Indianapolis and shoot EMU’s second game if I promised that Julie and I would attend the very next pre-marital seminar held at St. Francis in mid-May - a good month and a half after we already were married.

What Father Burke didn’t know (and I wasn't going to tell him) was that Julie was three-months pregnant at the time (hey, give me a break, we already had the wedding planned four months before I got her pregnant). This wasn’t a huge problem, but come mid-May it definitely was a tad awkward strolling into our “pre-marriage” seminar very much “post-marriage” and with the glow of Julie's pregnancy showering down around us.

But a promise is a promise, and I kept my word to Father Burke becoming, perhaps, the only Catholic in the history of Catholicism to be married to a pregnant woman without the benefit of pre-marriage counseling - or the blessing of the church! 

As for Father Burke, he could only scratch his head in confusion when my daughter Olivia was born later that September.


Friday, March 5, 2010

Creature Comfort

Slee rises from the melting snow in the flower bed alongside our backyard shed. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

Most kids fear they have monsters living in their closets or under their beds. I have one living in the backyard outside my bedroom window… literally.

He’s been there so long now, I sort of take him for granted, but he still freaks out the neighbor kids when they come over to play.

I created my monster 23-years ago in a dusty, ceramic studio on the ground floor of Siegfried Hall at Ohio University. Like most of my ceramic projects, he wasn’t meant to be a monster at all; he just sort of turned out that way.

You see I wasn’t exactly Rodin when it came to clay (unless Rodin was a demolitions expert) because it didn’t matter if my piece was hand built or thrown on a wheel, somehow I always managed to turn something as simple as an ash tray or a candy dish into a lethal piece of C4. In fact, I was so adept at accidentally trapping air pockets into clay that none of my fellow students dared fire any of their pieces with mine for fear their precious vases, bowls, or flower pots would end up as nothing more than mosaic fragments scattered about the floor of the kiln.

Amazingly, despite my aptitude for destruction, a few of my projects somehow managed to come out of the kiln in one piece. Oddly enough, these pieces usually weighed in around 35 pounds. Once I discovered my “extremely large” ceramics projects had a much higher survival rate, it led to a whole string of massive works. My gigantic creations in clay sure seemed like a good idea at the time, but it kind of backfired once I realized I actually had to take them home at the end of the quarter.

Thus began a slow migration of my incredibly heavy masterpieces, one carload at a time, from my rented house at Ohio University, to the front porch of my parent’s home four hours away. It took the better part of the school year to finally heave the entire haul, all 1,500 pounds of it, safely north and out of my sight. 

For whatever reason, my mother didn’t seem to mind, and once she recovered from her hernia after moving the stuff into is new home, she actually grew fond of my work - especially the monster figure that started out as a bust of myself before morphing into more of a Sleestak-like creature from Land of the Lost, due to my lack of ability.

It actually did look like me at first, but because I used such a large volume of clay, once I got past the shoulders and up to the head, things went a bit awry. The weight of the wet clay made the skull begin to sink inward, prompting me to try and stabilize it with modern technological advances like wads of crumpled up paper towels, hair dryers and props made from broken broomsticks.

But it was no use. By the time my clay had become leather-hard, the head of my bust was so misshapen it looked more like the Elephant Man than it did me, so I did the only thing I could think of – I added a forked tongue and some fangs, and then I slapped on some green glaze and turned it into a monster. The only thing left was to fire it in the kiln, which sounds easy enough, but if you think my finished projects were heavy, double the weight for the unfinished ones.

My instructor wasn’t sure if my “slightly larger than life” monster/bust could even be lifted, let alone fit in the kiln, but with the help of the entire class, we carefully extricated the beast from its three-week home on the worktable, slowly loaded it onto a Radio-Flyer wagon, and then rolled it toward the kiln.

To be safe, they shut down Siegfried Hall for the day in case things went horribly wrong during the firing process, and after we crammed my monster bust into the kiln, I hopped on my bike and rode as fast as I could to my house on Mound Street a mile and a half away, where I sat on my front porch and watched for mushroom clouds to appear on the horizon.

A day later, we all returned to find that not only was Siegfried Hall still standing, but the kiln had miraculously held as well. Slowly, we peeled opened the kiln door and found a brilliant, green monster greeting us with a forked-tongue smile. It was far cooler than I ever could have expected.

In the years that followed, Slee (as we took to calling him) became a cult hero in my hometown, especially during Halloween when my mother would put glowsticks inside his eye sockets, making him even more eerie.

Then one day, apparently when my parents realized the weight of my works had begun to damage the foundation of their porch, my mother told me I should take Slee back to Michigan and give him a new home.

My wife wasn't as enamored by my artistic talent as my mother. She wanted nothing to do with poor old Slee, but I couldn’t just throw him away. Because my wife feels sorry for my taste, she compromised and let me put him up against our backyard shed were he now acts as a scarecrow, a snow gauge and a comforting site whenever I gaze out our bedroom window.

Unfortunately, the last few years haven't been too kind to Slee. His forked tongue and one of his fangs were busted off by a wayward baseball last summer, and his incredible density has sunk him several inches into the earth. But he’s still my favorite work of art and I always smile when I picture the face of the archaeologist who unearths him from the flower bed next to our shed 1,000 years from now.






Monday, March 1, 2010

The End of an Era

Ann Leidy, center, holding a photo of her late husband John, is surrounded by her children, from left, Ellen, Liz, Peter, Mary, and John, Sunday afternoon in front of the John Leidy Shop in downtown Ann Arbor on its last day of business. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

John Leidy couldn’t have known it would have been like this. He couldn’t have known that hundreds of townsfolk, and quite a few from out of town, would stop by and pay their respects to the gift shop he started back in the late fall of 1951 as it closed its doors for good this past Sunday after 58 years in the business.

He couldn’t have known that a store stocked with inanimate table settings, crystal, porcelain, and other fine gifts, could be filled with such warmth … but it was. 

How could it not be?

The store was built on the premise of customer service, and anyone in Ann Arbor who knew John Leidy, will gladly tell you he was the kindest man you’d ever want to meet. And that goes double for his five children, including his youngest daughter Liz, who took over the store after her father’s death in 1993.

If Liz Leidy Arsenault isn’t the friendliest woman you’ve ever met in your life, then you just haven’t met her yet. Liz refuses to do anything but smile, and if there was a hint of sadness at the demise of her and her father’s store, she kept it to herself.

Which isn’t to say there weren’t plenty of tears flowing as several hundred patrons, friends, and even passers by, stopped into the John Leidy shop one more time to both pay their respects, and hopefully snatch up one last elegant plate, cup, ornament, or piece of crystal, to help keep alive any spark of memory from the little store on Liberty Street they all loved so much.

As a testament to John Leidy, all of his children, not just Liz, were there to bid adieu to the store. His sons John and Peter, and daughters Ellen and Mary, joined Liz and their mother Ann, to meet and greet all those who came to say goodbye, as they said goodbye themselves.

Liz peeks in the storefront window at all the messages left behind by loyal customers.

It’s been a tough stretch for Liz, starting in 2006, when half of the shop closed due to the sagging business climate, and ending Sunday, when a combination of the changing times and the economic downturn made it all but impossible for the shop to remain viable.

It wasn’t an easy decision for Liz to close the store, one that I’m sure cost her and her siblings several nights of sleep, but she had no idea how tough it was going to be on her store’s loyal customers.

“I’ve become everyone’s therapist.” Liz said, noting that every day since she announced the store was going to close a little more than a month ago, patrons have been pouring in asking her “what are we going to do?”

Messages left behind.

“I feel sorry for the older folks,” she said, “because this (the store closing) really makes them feel old.”

As one despondent customer put it, “This was the only place I could go to find such special items … and now it’s not going to be here.”

Worse yet was the daily barrage of customers asking Liz what she “was going to do,” or the false confidence they tried to instill in her by assuring her that no matter what her next endeavor, it was sure to be a huge success.

The gestures were nice and heartfelt, but as Liz put it, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

None of that mattered on Sunday. Not the uncertain future. Not the amazing past. The only thing that mattered was the here and now - the nieces and nephews, the brothers and sisters, the long-time loyal customers, and the even longer-time loyal employees. This day was for them. A closure of sorts, or at least a memorial service with really, really nice table settings for sale.

Bagpipes played. People laughed. People cried. Peter and Ellen sang a medley of songs with John Leidy- inspired lyrics to tunes ranging from “These Are a Few of My Favorite Things” to “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

It was all fun and good until Fred Sleator, husband of Lyn Sleator, an employee at the shop for 41-years, walked out the front door with a ladder in hand, and started taking down the letters of the John Leidy sign from above the main display window, until all that was left was a shadow of each letter.

The finality of it all was too much for Ellen, who cried as she hugged her niece Hannah, while gazing at the store front - Hannah still clutching the letter “h” handed to her moments earlier by Sleator.

Ellen Wilhite and her niece Hannah, fight back tears as they watch the John Leidy sign being dismantled.

John sat inside the store, looking out the front window with an expressionless face. Mary and Peter milled about and took photos. Ann clutched a picture of her late husband taken off the wall from inside the store. And Liz Leidy Arsenault did what she does best, what she always does - she smiled, only this smile was a tinged with a hint of sadness.

The end of an era had come, and it was happy, and it was sad - and it was everything in between. And you knew it signaled much more than that, and you knew it was important, even if you couldn't pinpoint why. But whatever it was, you knew one thing for sure - after 5 o'clock on Sunday, things would never be the same.