The Ogilvie Arches

mcdonalds

I’ve resided in the city of Chicago nearly my entire life. A toddler’s stay in Virginia here, a college move to Urbana, Illinois there. And one exquisitely awful year wasted with the wrong man in Bensenville, a suburb next door to O’Hare Airport. Oh the noise, so unlike the sonic cornucopia of sirens, bus recordings and general boisterousness that are the soundtrack of urban living. The sky screaming of planes, the smell of jet fuel in the air. Roaring, toxic monotony – much like that relationship.

I’m a committed Windy City concrete jungler. Nevertheless, I’ve spent many years traveling the Metra commuter train lines that ferry suburban workers to and from Chicago’s downtown. The operation serves more than 100 communities with 11 routes and 241 stations, a few of which can be found well inside city limits. I have a lot of love for the Chicago Transit Authority for many reasons. It’s another story for another time, maybe a novella. But two things which a trip on the subway or elevated train is not: comfortable or permissive of personal space. With cushy benches that double as nap mats during off-peak hours, upper deck seating and a smoother ride, Metra delivers a generally preferable experience to standing crushed between sweaty bodies while hanging on to a piece of metal for balance.

And the Ogilvie Train Station, which serves as a hub for many North and West Metra lines, has a few cute shops, some valuable services and a pretty amazing food court. This third wonderland has provided the backdrop to many quick office lunches, drink dates and post-happy hour carb loads over the years. Several businesses sell portable adult beverages to go for one’s Metra trip. How can the CTA compete, I ask?

Anyway the food court offers meal options both healthyish…and not. For every Subway or salad venue, there’s a Taco Bell, Arby’s…and of course, a McDonald’s.

The Ogilvie Mickey D’s has been a curious emotional foci, a place I find myself after incandescent episodes of grief. It’s completely disproportionate to my overall McDonald’s experience. Normally I eat at a franchise maybe twice or thrice a year? But when I do, it’s statistically likely the incident will occur at the train station.

  • In spring 2011, I bellied up to the bar after a stranger than fiction near miss with my soon-to-be ex-husband. The intrigue found me hiding behind a train station dumpster, crouching low to the pavement to avoid being seen. Thus forced to engage. Every second of the standoff included acute awareness of juvenile, humiliating behavior. Others saw me and possibly had a few questions, but it wasn’t their eyes I feared. After abandoning defensive crouch, I ate my weight in French fries while waiting for the next train back to the safety of my bachelorette studio.
  • While battling acute migraine headaches between 2012 and 2015, a period marked by many shameful episodes of public vomiting, fried potatoes were often one of the few foods my body would accept. Ensuing visits to the train station McDonald’s counter, where I was oft and understandably mistaken for a hungover mess. There was an advantage to the confusion. On several occasions, I was allowed to cut in line because other patrons feared my sick.
  • In February of this year, I made half a dozen grief trips on the way home from my current employer. Regular readers of this blog, as well as those close to Bob and I personally, know that this was the month where we lost two of our beloved fur babies within a three week timespan. Dead of winter devastation. Daily movement and functionality were hard-fought battles. I began 2016 on a low-carb diet, losing 15 pounds, and kept the regiment up more or less until Memorial Day. But February contained several days without any other fucks beyond immediate survival to give. There were some Quarter Pounders with cheese at the train depot.
  • In April, Prince died. I left work that day around lunchtime, a grief-stricken, sobbing wreck grappling with shock over the loss of an artistic inspiration. Double Quarter Pounder with cheese while feverishly reading online coverage of the Purple One’s untimely demise.
  • I’ve already mentioned Memorial Day. The next day, Tuesday, I threw low carb diet and exercise routines aside upon learning that my dear friend Todd had died. We’d spent time together the previous weekend and he was perfectly well. Six years of unflagging support, sardonic wit, music and political discourse – gone without warning. I can’t even recall what I ate that day. I just remember feeling pulled to the same particular fast food counter on autopilot. Ingesting my emotions in a familiar place had by now become a source of comfort through complete internal chaos.

It might be inferred (because accurate) that 2016 has been a challenge. Separately and together, Bob and I have had a lot of loss to experience and process. Certainly the complexity of it all has spilled over into our personal dynamics. Though we’re stronger and more bound than ever in our second year, the Terrible Twos aren’t just a toddler thing. Last month was hard. And of course it included an Ogilvie McDonald’s culinary therapy session. For whatever reason, I took a picture of the marquee and posted the image to Facebook with the caption “I’ve given up on life.” I suppose it was a cry for some kind of compassion and community during a moment of weakness.

My friend Meg observed, “the Ogilvie McDonald’s is a ‘special’ kind of giving up.” I knew exactly what she meant. What’s a more anonymous, pulsating and lonely experience than a train station? Add a toxic, fatty, solo meal to the mix and one has all the trappings of bad fiction. I don’t write bad fiction. I don’t write fiction at all.

I think the unreality of the scene keeps me coming back. It’s not the real Becky. It’s not my life. Those visits to McDonald’s represent a false sense of willful control during delirium, a way to organize tragic events that are lawless and messy. It’s a second’s consolation, an indulgent, fleeting fullness before beginning long, empty grief work.

Remember to Let Him Into Your Heart

Jude

In February, Bob and I were dealt a cruel karmic slap with the loss of two of our three pets in just a few weeks. The concurrent deaths of Dino, the 16 year-old fluffy kitty and Meko, 80 pounds of Rottweiler warrior princess, ripped a hole through our home and our hearts. Wounds from which we’re still recovering.

I can admit now, with some degree of shame, that my own grief had a few additional layers. I’m a caretaker at heart. And Dino and Meko were notoriously needy – Deans with his numerous food and body temperature issues, Meeks destroying the kitchen, bathroom and/or laundry room at the first hint of a thunder storm. She was also truculent at best with other dogs, her attitude not affected whatsoever by the arthritic hips that made her unlikely to win a fight. She just didn’t give a shit. I miss my girl.

The dual loss of those two complex fur babies left a pragmatic vacuum in my world. On his worst day, Bob is more capable than most people. He’s the one who makes things work and keeps them running. In return I silently move the empty beer bottles to the recycling bin and clean the lint trap in the dryer. And while I always loved all three of our pets equally, it took a long time to discover what use, if any, Jude had for me. Bob and the cuddly, drooly Australian shepherd have been together for eight years. They have their routines and language. Bob, the standard bearer for reserve, shoots beams of puppy love from his inner core directly at Jude. It’s the warmest, most adorable light. But it was hard at that time not to feel like an interloper, an intruder into a perfect dynamic.

These feelings became increasingly painful as I struggled with newfound time – time no longer spent cajoling Dino to eat more or playing defense between Meko and every other canine walking the neighborhood. I resented Jude for the change. Throughout his own mourning process, Bob moved closer to Jude, with the confused, lonely dog reciprocating. And I was bitter. I missed my babies and the only one left had a perfect union with my partner from which I felt estranged. Why was he the one that lived?

With the benefit of time and perspective, it’s horrifying to confront the shape into which I allowed grief to contort me, however temporarily. After several weeks of uneven sleep and a waking gnashing of teeth, a simple idea occurred. Perhaps I could actually try getting to know Jude. True we’d been living together in the same menagerie for eight months, but I suddenly saw that I never gave him much thought. In part because of high maintenance devotion to Dino and Meko, and also yes, because of the perfect circle that Bob and Jude formed without me. If my nature is that of a caretaker, it’s also sharing space with an insidious pride. Missing love for fear of rejection.

Once I realized it was stubborn foolishness preventing a closer relationship with Jude, I made an effort to be more hands-on. Yes, he and Bob have their routines but we can have our own. I concede that initial attempts were infused with sad wistfulness. But with dedicated repetition, Jude and I finally got acquainted. The knowledge and understanding is reciprocal. He learned that I don’t like to be leapt upon at walk and dinner times like Daddy does. I figured out that a certain high-pitched whine means a digestive bomb is about to explode. But I still have time to open the back door because Jude hates having accidents in the house. Minus the dog hair and drool, my pup can be kind of fastidious. He is every bit as complex as his siblings were. I just had to look.

There are activities in which I can engage Jude that were not possible with Dino or Meko. Like taking long walks, sometimes three or four miles weaving through the neighborhood streets that are my past, present and future. On Mother’s Day, I awoke in tears, missing my pets more acutely while indulging in an annual bout of self-pity. It’s been well-documented that my own mother’s love was withheld. But it was a beautiful Chicago day and I wanted to treat myself to a positive experience. I decided to take Jude on a trek to see the only apartment building where I remember living a happy, healthy life with my immediate family.

As we made our way to the corner of Byron and Leavitt in North Center, I saw that what had very recently been a solid, well-cared for brick edifice, was now a huge empty lot. For sale. Sun shining, 80s tunes blaring through my headphones, I wanted to sit down and weep. The positive memories of my childhood were literally a crater. But I couldn’t indulge the impulse. I had Jude with me. Instead I leaned forward on the construction fence and placed my forehead on the metal plate, as if to absorb the good times from the vacant ground by osmosis. Jude sat on my feet with his hairy warmth. It was calming. Exactly the anchor needed in an out of control moment.

Our walks are now a regular feature – my activity with Jude. We wander through parks and I let him drink water from my cupped hands. I know to avoid food wrappers and garbage cans as if they are landmines. My spoiled doggie is still a rescue pup at his core. If it has aluminum foil, he’ll eat first and ask questions later. He knows I like a brisk pace and thus he rarely pulls me toward others strolling with their own pets (though we both know he’s dying to sniff their rears). He’s not just Bob’s dog anymore. There was always room for three in the circle. I just had to let myself join.

From Five to Four

From Five to Four

“Grief does not change you…It reveals you.”

― John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

If you’ve followed my adventures since I began blogging seven years ago, you know that many of them after fall 2013 involved Dino the Wondercat. I met him through an old friend when the kitty was 12 years old, and adopted him at 14 after the same friend moved to the Philippines. Throughout the course of our relationship, the tiny gray and white ball of fur with the light pink nose never topped six pounds. His smallness in no way prevented Dino from being one of the most handsomely demanding animals the world has bequeathed. Head scratches, love and constant warmth were high on the list of orders. He had his own heating pad. About food, Dino could be prickly and high maintenance. We had numerous conversations about it. I would alternately plead and threaten. He would listlessly yawn by way of answer.

It was love at first sight and for eternity. I adored my beautiful, little old man. We were a contented duo until a year ago when Bob, Meko and Jude entered our lives. Neither Dino nor I were entirely sure how we’d take to dogs and a strong, silent marathon man. Very quickly we wondered how we ever lived without them. And we became the five fingers of a hand – capable of moving individually, but better and more flexible as a unit.

At the start of the New Year, Dino was 16 and a half years old. Slower certainly but no less cute and plucky. After we moved in with Bob and the pups last June, Dino enjoyed a consistent second wind at his back – exploring the hallways and recesses of his new home, teasing the dogs and forming a particularly charming bond with Bob. Dino would often “help” my partner with the laundry, climbing hills of clean, warm clothes and stepping on Bob’s feet as he tried to sort piles. The two boys developed a call and response routine. The sometimes skittish Dino grew quite verbal, engaging with the human love of my life in soft-spoken dialogue.

The comedian Louis C.K. once labeled the adoption of a pet “a countdown to sorrow.” His painful humor hits at an essential truth of animal love. They return it so unconditionally and so well, yet they remain with us a relatively short time. In Dino’s case, I knew the era we’d enjoy together would be particularly brief. Always so kitten like, due to his tiny stature and sweet visage, but already 14 when he came to dominate my studio apartment.

We had two and a half wonderful years. But Dino could not live forever and with much anguish, Bob and I laid him to rest nearly two weeks ago. In the end, he was very ill, suffering a stroke and kidney failure. However in a cat’s dodgy way, compounded by Dino’s own perversity, he seemed just fine. Until he wasn’t. One Monday morning moment he was walking toward his Daddy for a perfunctory cuddle. The next second he’d fallen off the bed and was paralyzed. I did not witness this instantaneous end of our baby as we knew him. That cross is Bob’s horrendous one to bear alone, and there’s tremendous regret on that point. I want to share everything with him – including the terrible stuff.

I suppose if there’s a bright side to Dino’s loss from our family, it’s realizing that. I learned so much about the strength of mine and Bob’s relationship and our commitment to supporting each other in the hours and days following Dino’s collapse. In our shock and grief, we were nonetheless a well-oiled machine of solid decision making, emotional sharing and affirmation of our love for one another. My partner and I have been together almost exactly a year and we’ve encountered some tough spots, rather gracefully, but this was our first devastating blow. I’m twice divorced and walk in front of a trail littered with broken, dysfunctional bonds. I have failed, and been failed, in crisis.

This time when I went slack, and my significant other joined me, the experience was awful but strangely healthy. I’ve never felt so understood. In hindsight the observation seems relatively naïve but the certainty of a partnership can go a long way in soothing a broken heart. We turned toward each rather than away or against.

Dino is gone from our daily lives, but neither absent nor forgotten. After we returned from the vet’s office and cleaned out “Dino’s room,” once again known as the laundry and guest space, Bob embarked on a photo project. The result is what you see above – a collage of our favorite digital snapshots featuring the departed bambino. My partner printed, mounted and hung them on the section of the laundry room where his litterbox once stood. Dino remains king of the throne. We would have liked the doggies included but in eight months of trying, we could never get two energetic pups and an itty bitty kitty to sit still together for a frame. Go figure.

When Bob and I find ourselves in Dino’s room at the same time, we gravitate toward the family photos and without words, sink into a long embrace. We know what we’re feeling without speech. We miss him. We’re sad. But we have one another. Always. We suspected it I’m sure, but losing Dino made our essential togetherness as clear as his constant demands for attention.

In Memory Of Aai (March 20, 2012)

I looked for a photo in my personal archives that I could share with anyone who stops by to read this post, but unfortunately the prints in the wedding album from December 2007 are all that I have. Today I experienced a loss which dredges up so many difficult, conflicting emotions. A formidable woman in physical stature (almost 5′ 10″) and strength of character passed away after a long illness, my former grandmother-in-law, Mrs. Sudha Sarwate. I only knew her as “Aai.”

I am no longer married to my ex-husband Aditya but the funny thing about divorce is, you may split with your partner but family is forever. When you enter into and build a romantic relationship of any type, your mate’s loved ones are part of the package. With the right chemistry and symbiosis, they can infect your heart and soul in ways you never imagined. I firmly believe that one of the most gut-wrenching side effects to ending a marriage is losing a whole network that provides you with an identity, a place where you belong. The experience becomes more profound when you have gone without strong kinship for most of your life.

Aai was always the one to create a sense of security for her family. She was an impressive individual in so many ways – a working middle-class mom in India long before that was common practice. Moreover, she earned the degree that established her as an educator and school principal after marrying and becoming a mother. Here in the U.S. we take that sort of upward mobility and personal growth for granted, but keep in mind that this occurred in a Third World country in the 1960s. She was a pioneer without ever making a big deal about it.

The statuesque Aai broke with convention in many ways, while always making clear to her family and the society around her that husband and children were priority #1. Preceding our marriage, my future father-in-law suspected that, regardless of the language barrier (she spoke very little English, and I no Hindi), Aai and I might have a mutual understanding.

I respected her energy, the ability to balance work and home without complaint, immensely. She in turn welcomed a gauche American girl into a traditional family with open arms, and knit her a sweater for the “cold” Raipur nights to boot. We picked out the yarn to make it at a street vendor. I am staring at that burnt orange wool sweater with the hole I have been meaning to get mended as I type.

She was a loving and devoted family woman who never lost her thirst for learning. I tried to grasp Hindi while she took English lessons, and Aai of course, well into her 70s, rendered the paradigm that memory deteriorates with age laughable. I couldn’t keep up with her.

Several months before I met her in person for the first time, Aai lost her beloved husband of over 50 years, Waman Sarwate, the grandfather-in-law I never had the chance to know. Already beset with heart problems, Dada’s passing in 2007 shook this rock solid woman. In subsequent times of crisis or illness, it was not unusual for Aai to verbalize a wish to “go to” him. I know she was disappointed by the marital separation and eventual divorce that Aditya and I chose, the first in the family history. The regret of that additional burden brings pain.

While I feel personal grief, and sorrow by extension for my ex-husband, former in-laws and extended family, I am relieved that her physical suffering is over. I do not consider myself a religious woman but I hope Aai is at peace, reunited at last in some way with her beloved Waman.

I wish there were a way I could let Aai know how much her acceptance, love and positive example meant to me. This feeble post is the most I can offer now.