January 2, 2023

The cruelty of winter at Christmas stunned us. Snow and cold spread hellish suffering across one-third of the country down to the southern border. Courage, love, and grace were present. Good people stepped up to protect, rescue, and sustain victims, in Buffalo, Chicago, elsewhere. They will be needed again. Winter ends, the call on our humanity never does.

In these parts a stale chill hangs on. South Carolina doesn’t have Minnesota’s or Maine’s majestic icy blasts, instead a moist dreariness, bitter after dark. The roads are nearly deserted through the weak sunrises.

Our summers make even a humble dose of winter seem harsh. Here the brown zoysia sets off the evergreen shrubbery, bare crooked limbs of oaks and maples wave at dead landscaping. The once-forested lot at the end of our street was sold a month ago, a woodchipper appeared and turned the trees to sawdust, the hillside is left gaunt and bare. New homes are going up in the mud, testifying that as the economy booms, green space with street access faces bulldozers and concrete mixers.  

Meanwhile, winter cold every year turns Yankee minds to Florida. A young cousin is getting married near Orlando in a couple of weeks. We have family there, it will be a happy time.

I went to Fort Lauderdale in June 2019 for a memorial service, held on a suffocating afternoon. In the evening we scattered my cousin’s ashes in the surf.  Nine months later Sandy and I drove to Sarasota on the eve of the covid shutdown. We visited friends and family, took in the sea breezes, and saw a Yankees spring training game before the season was canceled. We ascended the scary Sunshine Skyway Bridge that crosses Tampa Bay, and walked on the beach on the Atlantic side.

Memories rush back, then slip away. At New Years, the time for recapping and anticipating, we’re looking at family birthdays, then a bleak litany of medical drills stretching across a dismal calendar.

Still, for the past week we filled the indoor hours with a cheerful topic, the “On the Road” theme: where to go next. Our son and daughter-in-law are heading to Key West. I’d like to go, to see Ernest Hemingway’s house with the cats, the Truman Little White House, the nice weather.

The ideas come, homing on someplace warm. We have family in southern California and friends in Texas and New Mexico. But we have not done anything about our stillborn plan for a family stay to a mountainside cabin, canceled twice three years ago because of covid. The family, me excepted, no longer is interested. What is there to do at for a week at a forest cabin except hike or read? Well, visit and talk. But I get it.

What about a trip to England? What about Hawaii or Alaska? A friend has been to Hawaii 14 times—fun trips, which he pulls off by shrewd management of frequent-flyer miles. We don’t have frequent-flyer miles, but we’ve watched several British detective series and beach travel shows. Others say, “just go,” but it always seems complicated. These places are far away. They then say that’s why you take an airplane.

Along with all the talk, an image haunts me: a fast-moving stream called Passage Creek, hundreds of miles from here. It flows a crooked northeast course 30 miles through the George Washington National Forest along VA 678, or Fort Valley Road, in the northwest corner of Virginia. The road bisects a semi-mythical place called Fort Valley. The creek joins the north fork of the Shenandoah River near Strasburg.

Just past a picnic spot called Camp Roosevelt, Fort Valley Road becomes Crisman Hollow Road, a rough gravel fire road that winds for seven miles through the silent forest. Occasionally tents and solitary campers can be seen along the creek. A lonely camper will show up, tending his fire, chopping wood.    

The creek flows past odd landmarks called Elizabeth Furnace, Veach Gap, and Gap Creek. The silence, the wooded denseness, the rocky, unforgiving ascents exert a mysterious hold that has endured for us over the years before we packed up and moved 500 miles south.

Winter nights can be bitter in those parts. Someday we will go back. Maybe we’ll go back.

Crisman Hollow descends to U.S. 211, the in a few miles west reaches New Market, astride I-81 in Shenandoah County. Luray Caverns, near Luray, maybe 15 miles from New Market, is the big tourist draw. Nearby is the site the Battle of New Market of May 1864, a minor Confederate victory, where Virginia Military Institute cadets fought with the rebels. 

A few miles east of Luray is a gateway to Shenandoah National Park, a place of unique beauty with a legacy of tragedy. To create the park in the 1930s the federal government expelled thousands of local farmers and miners from their hardscrabble settlements and land they had worked for generations.

A few historical markers and museum exhibits tell of their suffering. In the deepest reaches of the park, far from the picnickers’ trails are the remnants of their stone walls and dwellings, long overgrown. They are scars of injustice, hidden and forgotten.

No one I know is interested in these obscurities. I tell the stories and get polite stares. Memories of these places are fading, but remain as a hazy, ambiguous metaphor for whatever lies ahead. What lies ahead, above all, is a need for uncomplicated, indispensable human connections, the connections of love for those closest to us, for those who have propped us up, who are here, and everywhere.

Christmas Messages

December 26, 2022

Volodymyr Zelensky came to America and lifted our spirits. We talked cold this weekend. Zelensky and his countrymen know about cold. Millions of Ukrainians spent Christmas huddled in frigid darkness as Russian missiles demolish their power plants.

We were roughed up by a polar air mass for a few days. Here and there it was a frosty Christmas, in some places a brutally cold Christmas. Already, this morning, temperatures are rising.

In his few hours on U.S. soil last week, Zelensky challenged our willingness to persevere through hardship—the hardship his people endure while we entertain ourselves with homegrown political melodrama.

Some observers compared Zelensky’s speech to Congress to Winston Churchill’s on December 26, 1941, 81 years ago today. The Ukrainian president took office in May 2019, less than three years before Russia invaded last February. Churchill came to Capitol Hill seasoned by 40 years of British government service and two world wars. When Churchill spoke, not three weeks after Pearl Harbor, the German Luftwaffe had been bombing London for a year.

Churchill said: “The forces ranged against us are enormous. They are bitter, they are ruthless. … They will stop at nothing. … Here we are together, defending all that to free men is dear. … Twice in our lifetime has the long arm of fate reached out across the oceans to bring the United States into the forefront of the battle.”

America’s commitment to the war, he said, means that “hope has returned to the hearts of scores of millions of men and women, and with that hope there burns the flame of anger against the brutal, corrupt invader.

“In a dozen famous ancient states, now prostrate under the Nazi yoke, the masses of the people, all classes and creeds, await the hour of liberation when they too will once again be able to play their part and strike their blows like men. That hour will strike. And its solemn peal will proclaim that night is past and that the dawn has come.”

Zelensky, in his remarks, said: “We have artillery, yes, thank you. … Is it enough? Honestly, not really. … Your money is not charity. It’s an investment in the global security and democracy.

“In two days we will celebrate Christmas. Maybe candlelit. Not because it’s more romantic, no, but because there will not be, there will be no electricity. Millions won’t have either heating nor running water.  …

“But we do not complain. …We, Ukrainians, will also go through our war of independence and freedom with dignity and success. We’ll celebrate Christmas. Celebrate Christmas and, even if there is no electricity, the light of our faith in ourselves will not be put out. If Russian missiles attack us, we’ll do our best to protect ourselves. …

“This will be the basis to protect democracy in Europe and the world over. Now, on this special Christmastime, I want to thank you, all of you. I thank every American family which cherishes the warmth of its home and wishes the same warmth to other people. … Thank you all, from everyone who is now at the front line, from everyone who is awaiting victory.

“Standing here today, I recall the words of the president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which are I think so good for this moment. The American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory. The Ukrainian people will win, too, absolutely.”

Churchill may win the eloquence points. But Zelensky casts his war like Churchill’s: light versus darkness, freedom versus slavery, life versus death. We have seen the reports from the Ukrainian-Russian front, of the victims and refugees. Now, not a week later, the Ukrainian president’s voice in the House Chamber still rings clearly.

Zelensky taught hard lessons of courage and hope—all he can offer in exchange for the weapons he needs. It’s an unequal trade. He can get weapons elsewhere, but we could use a strong dose of whatever it is that has carried Ukraine through 300 days of Russian assault. We see pain, then hope.

As Zelensky flew home, we faced a cascade of unreality. The soaring heroism of the Ukraine’s leader is set off by the indifference—the cowardice—of dozens of Republicans retracing the steps of Neville Chamberlain. Still, Zelensky, a Jew, received 18 standing ovations from Congress. Trump hosted two antisemites at his home for dinner.

At the Cancer Institute my friendly oncologist brought me back to my world. He read me the riot act, then proposed immunotherapy with one of those drugs advertised on the evening news shows watched mainly by old people. We’ll see what the insurance says.

The cold and snow punished two-thirds of the country, then dipped south. I duct-taped bubble wrap around the outside faucets, dressed in layers, and kept exercising. New friends offered good wishes that sustained us with extra warmth and the eternal Christmas message.

We did some Christmas shopping and stopped at a local diner for lunch. The server crew, wearing Santa hats or reindeer ears, made us smile. Through the weekend we put up with the lousy weather. Then the pale sun returned and we moved forward, in good cheer.

The Caregiver

December 19, 2022

Winter set in with cold rain. The mountains just north of here are gray through a white mist. Blizzards are raging in northern and western parts, we get a raw chill. We put up the Christmas tree, we put up the lights along the eaves. We lit the Advent candles.

Two Sundays before Christmas, we stopped in at the monthly church pancake breakfast. The large hall, decorated with lights and wreaths, was filled with round tables with chairs for eight, a few people were seated. We picked up our pancakes and tiny pile of scrambled eggs and looked around. We headed for the table nearest the coffee stand. A woman sat there alone, sipping coffee.

We set our trays down a couple of seats away from her. I walked around. “Hi, I’m Ed Walsh,” I said. “This is my wife, Sandy.” She looked up and smiled. “I’m Danielle. Nice to meet you.” She turned back to her coffee. I poured syrup on my pancakes. “This is very nice,” I said. Danielle nodded. “Yes, they do a good job. My husband Tom is helping the servers.”

People were wandering in, the line for breakfast grew longer. Four older guys dished the pancakes, eggs, and grits. People with trays drifted to the tables throughout the hall, filling in the empty ones. A few glanced our way but passed on.

“This is a regular thing,” Danielle said. “We come once in a while.”

“Are you from the area?” I asked, pushing my pancakes around.

“We’re from Syracuse originally, but lived in Pittsburgh for twenty years. We’ve been here two years. We really think of Pittsburgh as our home town.  So much life there, museums, culture.”

“It’s a great city, but it does get cold,” I said.

Danielle nodded. I guessed she was twenty years younger than me, maybe more. “Do you have family here,” I asked.

“My parents are here, they have a lot next to ours just outside Greer. I care for my mother, she has Alzheimer’s. She’s 85. My dad is 87, in perfect health. But he can’t, or won’t help much. They moved here to be near us, so I could care for her. So that’s what I do. I don’t get to many of these things.”

“She lives at home with him?” I recalled Sandy’s mom’s dementia. Before she went to assisted care she lived alone. She sometimes left the house and wandered the streets. Neighbors would call Sandy’s sister, who lived nearby, to take her home. Once she turned on the stove and forgot about it and nearly started a fire. After being admitted to the facility, she declined quickly. Within weeks she could not recognize her children. She passed eight years ago at 86.

Danielle looked away. “We asked Dad to find assisted care. He didn’t want to, but finally put her in a nice place. It had all the services she needed. But he didn’t like it. He said she was lonely. So he brought her home. He’s afraid of what happened to her. I do it all. Feeding, dressing, cleaning, bathing. He’ll help me lift her but that’s it.”

“What about other family,” I asked.

“We don’t have anyone else here. I have a brother in Syracuse. He’ll come down once in a while, if we want to get away for a few days. But if she has an emergency he can’t handle it. He’ll call and I’ll come back.”

“How is your mom?

“She’s late stage. She can’t move, she can’t really talk. I have trouble understanding her. I’ll have to leave in a few minutes. Dad can’t stay alone with her for very long.”

She glanced at me, then looked away, saying nothing. I wondered if she was thinking about her day: checking on her mom’s needs, listening, caring, dressing her, brushing her hair, and all the countless other little things that have become big things.

According to the National Institutes of Health, deaths from Alzheimer’s disease increased 145 percent between 2000 and 2019. The total cost in 2021 for health care, long-term care, and hospice services for people age 65 and older with dementia was about $355 billion. About 6.5 million Americans age 65 and older suffer from Alzheimer’s today. Barring medical breakthroughs, the number could rise to 13.8 million by 2060. 

Sanjay Gupta, the neurosurgeon and CNN medical correspondent, in his 2021 book, Keep Sharp, says that 60 million Americans are caring for Alzheimer’s patients, more than twice the population of Texas. The deterioration of brain cells caused by buildup of destructive proteins, he writes, may begin for some in their thirties or even twenties.

In late November The New England Journal of Medicine reported on an 18-month clinical trial with a new drug, lecanemab, with subjects experiencing early-onset Alzheimer’s. The trial, in which 898 persons received the drug and 897 received a placebo, found “moderately less decline in measures of cognition and function” in those receiving the drug than in those getting the placebo. “Longer trials are warranted,” the researchers said.

But the drug showed serious side effects, including brain swelling, which forced some participants to drop from the trial. It’s given through an IV, meaning a visit to a doctor’s office. Large doses are required. So some modest good news, not a breakthrough.

We were strangers who strolled in for a quick breakfast. Danielle spoke quietly. “That’s my life,” she said with a little smile. For a few moments we said nothing. I looked up, her husband Tom took a seat between his wife and Sandy and me. We shook hands and introduced ourselves.

“Man, it’s dreary outside,” he said. “But it’s better than Syracuse. Last winter they had something like 60 straight days of cloud cover. I couldn’t take that. I like sunshine.”

“Me, too,” I answered.

Danielle finished her coffee. “I have to go,” she said. “Very nice to talk to you both.”

I watched her walk quickly toward the door, back to the rest of her life of giving to someone who may not know the person, her daughter, who had surrendered a part of herself for someone she loved, for no thanks, no recognition, but the certainty of love. And the love is all that mattered.

It occurred to me that Danielle’s life, her singular calling, her giving of herself to a deeply wounded person, enriched the lives of her father, Tom, her brother, and the rest of us. We can hope now that, when the time comes, and it likely will come, we’ll have our own Danielle.  

Young and Old

December 12, 2022

I squinted at the photo of one of the third-grade classes at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School in Ridgewood, N.J. It shows 38 children, the girls mostly smiling, the boys deadpan or wearing awkward grins. The girls, in their dark-blue uniforms with neat bow ties, sit primly at their desks, hands folded in their laps. The boys stand on the perimeter in jackets and ties.

One of the boys, with a blank expression, stands in the corner in the back row to the right of the teacher, who stares unsmiling at the camera. I looked at the other faces, then back at the boy in the corner. Yes, it’s me.

 It was 1957. Around then, a local builder erected a model of a concrete bomb shelter a few blocks from the school, complete with shelves stacked with canned goods. People walked inside, wondering about the protection it might provide against nuclear attack. Nineteen fifty-seven: 44 years before 9/11. Before Vietnam and the civil rights movement. Before the Kennedy assassination, before the Cuban missile crisis.

As I stared at the photo I recalled how we ducked under those desks during air-raid drills.

A few years ago another Mount Carmel alumnus set up a Facebook page for the school. Some folks look back on those days with affection. I’m not one of them. But my brother sent me the photo from the page, a fairly sharp one, of my third-grade class. We were eight years old when it was taken, using film, digital cameras didn’t exist.

I was blank on all but three or four names:  a girl who lived up the street from our family, another whom I stayed friends with until high school. One boy with bright red hair stood out in my memory, and another with a handsome little-kid smile.

A few comments appear below the photo. One woman, a member of the class with an amazing memory, filled in about a dozen names. I glanced from her list to the photo and made connections: this one is Linda, that one is Tom, and so on.

The photo is an image of children 65 years ago. What happened to them, where are they now? They’re 72 or 73, like me. No doubt some have passed from the scene. Their parents, and mine, were mostly in their thirties, they’re probably all long gone. The teacher, looking youthful in the photo, was fifteen or twenty years older than the students. Where is she?

My bare-bones memories of my elementary school classmates are from the later grades. The school kept the students in each of three classes together through eighth grade. We graduated, in full regalia, caps and gowns, in June 1963. Then we scattered. Most of the class went to the local public high school, I went to a nearby all-boys Catholic school. Some of us kept in touch for a while. New friends replaced the old.

Life moved relentlessly forward. I left Ridgewood, like many of the others. The world convulsed and transformed. As years turned to decades, memories of elementary school receded farther into the past.

I drummed my fingers on the laptop, wondering whether to “google” some of my fellow third-graders. Sandy shook me out of my reverie, it was time to drive over to the nearby YMCA for a luncheon put on by her Active Older Adults group.

The tables were set up in the gym on the basketball court, each with a cheerful poinsettia-and-holly centerpiece. We checked in with the host. She handed us a complimentary raffle ticket. “Happy Holidays,” she smiled.

I looked around in a daze, as if hurtled through a time machine. This was seniors’ world. We fit right in. We moved through the buffet line, another lady ladled stuffing, mashed potatoes, and turkey and gravy on our Styrofoam plates. We found seats and chatted with another couple. They mentioned they had been in a retirement community, but moved out, unhappy with the rising maintenance fees. We nodded.

We turned to watch the Carolinians Senior Jazz Band tune up. The Band was a dozen guys, white-haired or bald, wielding trombones, saxophones, clarinets, some wearing Santa hats. The bandleader waved his wand and they struck up the music, a medley of old favorites, “Frosty the Snowman,” “Jinglebells,” and so on.

The bandleader added a few quips between numbers. Midway through he said, “There’s some people we have to be thankful for. No, not the politicians—the veterans.” We all applauded. The band played through the four service hymns, the veterans in the crowd, most of the men, stood for their hymn. I stood for “Halls of Montezuma” with one or two others. More applause. A lady got up and sang a dreamy “White Christmas.” The audience gently tapped feet.  

I thought again of my third-grade photo. Those smiling faces, after all these years, now would fit in here at the Y with the Active Older Adults. I looked around the room, not a soul under 65. All of us were here for an hour of Christmas cheer, relaxing after years in the workforce, with families, personal achievement, but also health and financial problems, hardship and tragedy. Experienced with life.

All of us once were eight-year-old third graders. Life flashes by, and here we are, a long, long way from 1957. Somewhere around the country, maybe even here in this state or this city, some of those classmates are sitting in another YMCA gym enjoying a holiday lunch and a seniors’ band. But I probably wouldn’t recognize them. And they wouldn’t recognize me.

Yet the photo makes me happy. We were little kids, excited about getting our picture taken. It made us, somehow, immortal in our cheerful, mischievous childhood. In the photo, above the lined-up kids, student art projects hang on the blackboard. That was our world for a moment of our lives. We laughed and played and tried our best to get good grades, while our parents shielded us from the world as long as they could. We tried to keep them happy, to do what was expected. Life was simple and good.

And here with the Active Seniors, it’s still good. We’ve all slogged through the world, not always cheerfully, through good times and hard times we never dreamed of in third grade. But we’re sitting with our coffee and pumpkin pie, enjoying this time with each other. After all, it’s Christmas.

Eat and Run

December 4, 2022

One day in mid-September 2018, at the wheel of our van along I-10 somewhere in south Texas, I glanced in the rear-view mirror. I saw someone I didn’t recognize, an old guy wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap, but not much of a face. His cheeks were thin and drawn. He looked hungry.

In 2012 Scott Jurek, the elite trail runner, published Eat and Run, his memoir/cookbook. He described how he shifted in his early running years from a Midwestern farm diet heavy on beef, pork, chicken, and wild game to vegan. One cold Minnesota night, after a day of skiing, he tasted vegan chili cooked by a friend. It was so good, he wrote, that he converted. Then he continued to win races. He featured the “Minnesota Winter Chili” recipe in his book.

I don’t know how many aspiring trail champions became vegan after reading Jurek’s book, but I was one of them. About the same time our daughter Laura gave us a vegan cookbook, Veganomics, for Christmas. That Christmas morning we picked out a recipe for a mango casserole. We found an open grocery store and bought some mangos and the other ingredients. The finished product was delicious.

I started reading up on the benefits of a plant-based diet and looking at recipes. We learned to make kale and chickpea salad, a black bean and corn dish, lentil burgers and lentil “meatloaf.” Sandy stuck with chicken while I cooked tofu, edamame, seitan, and other plant-based protein sources. I ate gardensfull of kale, solo, since no one else in the family would touch it. Then pinto beans, red beans, cauliflower, avocadoes, along with peanuts, walnuts, almonds, cashews. If dinner was plants-only, the more exotic, the more obscure, the better I liked it.   

For bitter cold winter trail races in Virginia’s Massanutten Mountains, Sandy would cook gallons of Jurek’s chili to serve at the finish. The runners lined up for seconds and thirds. For years afterward they called her the “Chili Lady.”

Veganism evolves, though, not just as a diet preference, but as a mindset, a philosophy. Avoiding animal-based foods, sauces, soups, and seasonings becomes a full-time job. Dining at restaurants or as a dinner guest becomes a tiresome routine of “No, thanks.” Even friends get impatient. I soldiered on, vegan. A few folks asked me about my weight.

In May 2018 I entered the Cruel Jewel 100-miler in Georgia, but dropped 20 miles short of the finish. In June I finished the CIA-OSS 50-mile night run in Virginia with a good time. Then I felt sick. The family doctor did some basic tests, then launched me on my summer of urology—interviews, x-rays, tests, more tests.   

In August we started on our long-planned cross-country road trip. Early on the day we left town I visited a local medical imaging clinic for the MRI the urologist had ordered.

The plan was to see the country along U.S. 50 and historic Rte. 66, America’s great back roads. While we cruised across West Virginia and Ohio the urologist looked at the MRI image. Two days later, he called. He wanted a biopsy. We flew home, I had two.  I was heading for an operation with a funny name, nephrectomy, removal of the left kidney. We flew back out West to pick up the van and headed home, interstates only. That’s when I looked in the mirror.

The kidney procedure was scheduled. Then, more cancer.

The Scott Jurek case for the vegan diet works for him and lots of others. The fundamentals are simple: avoid meat and meat products. Eat nuts, grains, legumes, seeds, and vegetables in the ingenious, near-infinite variety they can be prepared. Dozens, maybe hundreds of vegan cookbooks, magazines, journals, and websites educate and inform the novice and veteran. They eat pizza and lasagna, chili, pancakes, and dessert prepared with vegan recipes.

The devoted vegan knows about food, its sources and ingredients. Meat and meat-derived products are the ubiquitous products of giant corporate conglomerates. And your local church’s summer picnic or civic club’s chili night probably isn’t offering vegan options. Most non-meat burgers, hot dogs, turkey, chicken, even while shaped and colored like the real thing, taste like sawdust or worse.  

The vegan, no matter how experienced living in the world of meat, is still thinking about and planning, almost constantly, the next meal, and explaining, almost constantly, the vegan way. He toes the line between lobbying for a healthy diet and acting like a food snob.

Determined vegans produce stories. Years ago I worked with two vegans. One showed up at the office on a cold winter day in a fake fur coat. The other accused her of surrendering to the fashion sense of the animal-killing world. At a long-distance trail run, one runner, a vegan, declined to eat the food offered along the course. She dropped out midway; her support bag, filled with her homemade vegan meals and snacks, weighed more than 60 pounds.

I kept losing weight and shifted to a less-scrupulous vegetarian diet. But the sicker you are, the more calories you need. After five years of no meat, at a restaurant I ordered chicken, then stared at it. I took a bite. It tasted like chicken. At the end of that meal I felt satisfied, no longer looking forward to the next snack.

Following two surgeries, chemo, and radiation, friends and neighbors brought us food, mostly meat-based, heavy, nutritious. For a while I ate two bowls of a friend’s homemade chicken soup for breakfast. A neighbor offered a Korean beef dish. Others delivered thick meat lasagna, casseroles, fish dishes. I ate hamburgers and cheeseburgers. I regained some weight. Then we landed in South Carolina: more surgery, more radiation.

At some point someone asked to borrow the Veganomics cookbook, I handed it over. I moved away from the chickpeas and kale, which is cheap and is sold in big bunches, more than one person can consume while it’s fresh. It’s probably cheap because most people don’t like it.

We’re back to a near-normal American diet. Sandy still makes the winter chili, which still is delicious. I sometimes mention her “Chili Lady” days. And lately, as I read yet another article about the obesity epidemic, now afflicting kids and teenagers along with the middle-aged, I recall my vegan years. I felt pretty good in those days, if skinnier. I still say: eat your vegetables.