The photo above shows Alice checking her camera before hitting the beach during our first time at Couples Weekend on the Coast under the auspices of the Aphasia Network.
A few weeks ago, I published a Post-It that Alice wrote before she and I engaged in a commitment ceremony. The outdoor setting with a running-water, rock-garden fishpond occupied by spectacular baby koi, a six-foot deep swimming pool and a 12-person-size, screened-in gazebo was made complete by 30 invited guests. Alice planned to feature me as the last man she was ever going to love.
Alice had a rough life, far greater than anything I ever experienced. Each of her children and grandchildren had it tough, too. Comparatively speaking, I was just a babe in the woods.
Perhaps I sensed my innocence in the commitment letter Alice asked I write before our commitment ceremony, deliberately scheduled to occur Sept. 24, 2011, one year beyond the day we met.
Currently, the Aphasia Network is holding its annual Couples Weekend, but, because stroke survivors and care partners are especially at risk during this pandemic, we began meeting this week in a virtual setting using the Internet program Zoom.
Everyone loved Alice, almost as much as she loved them, and the next 10 weeks will emulate the weekend event, the first camp since Alice’s passing. Students, educators, stroke survivors, care partners and staff members are clamoring for details about our love.
I watched an extraordinary video prepared by computer-savvy Mollie Wang, in which she sang and engineered pitch-perfect duets with Professor John White of Pacific University. The second and last song performed, “You’ve Got a Friend,” was written by James Taylor, Alice’s heart throb. At a meaningful moment in the song, an image of Alice appeared, and my heart flowed deeper than expected. Tears filled my eyes.
Today, I ran across the commitment letter I wrote to Alice on August 28, 2011. Shortly after Alice’s passing, I shared Alice’s commitment note here.
Since the Aphasia Network formally started its extended Couples Weekend celebration on Tuesday, the time is perfect to publish the commitment letter I wrote her. After all, it’s only fair, right?
As we witness the last hurrahs from Hurricane Irene’s visit to the Northeast, I recall the time George and I went streaking during South Florida’s version of the hurricane’s namesake in 1999. So much has changed since you became part of my life.
All my worldly possessions are now stored inside your house, a place you insist I call “ours.” My environs are surreal, far beyond any expectations. I feel out of kilter.
So far in life, my expectations as a writer have not borne fruit. In order to cope, I declare myself a musician first, a writer second. Somewhere in the scheme of things is my fallback identity as a limousine driver, bringing in the meager income I contribute.
Why do I try to defend myself from you, as if you are an intruder and not a friend? Have I grown terrified of life, reverting back to the frightened boy depicted in my nightmares?
I decided to write this letter, even without a pat ending. Perhaps I should write more this way using my subconscious, rather than wait until ideas ferment and scream to come out. Anything worth investing into a sit-down exercise at this computer should attempt to glean insights without a glossy finish.
I love you in ways I know little about; I break new ground with every step we take. I can predict nothing beyond tomorrow; is that what scares me?
I don’t know what you see in me; maybe that’s why you love me. Little of it makes sense. Just know I am trying to be true to myself and to our relationship. Everything else seems up for grabs.
The photograph above is the last image taken of Alice McCormick, and I am the lucky guy who took this picture. Alice and I were on the verge of returning home from the north side of Vancouver, Washington, where we “scored” a large package of Kirkland toilet paper during Costco’s senior shopping time. Twenty-four rolls, oh boy!
On the drive back home, Alice must have been musing about something, because she was notably silent. And once we sat down in the living room, she asked me to promise something. As I think about it now, I wonder if Alice knew she was close to leaving this gray-green planet.
“Mason, I need you to promise me something,” Alice began.
“Oh sure,” I responded. “What is it?”
“Mason, I want you to promise me that you’ll start writing again,” Alice said seriously.
“Well,” I said, “I’ve stopped [rideshare] driving. That means I have the time to do it.”
Alice looked into my eyes, and said, “Promise me.”
I mulled it over for less than five seconds, and muttered, “Yes, I’ll go back to my writing.”
Alice nodded to show her satisfaction, stood up, and went into the kitchen to put our Costco goodies away.
(Alice managed me so much that I was left few tasks in which to reciprocate. She simply wanted to witness me make a bona fide attempt before she took over.)
I look at the featured picture above and wonder what Alice was thinking about. In the almost 10 years living together, Alice was consistently good at concealing some pretty serious things.
I have no clue what Alice knew on the eve the day before I found her body wearing a faraway, wistful expression. (Alice would wake up early each morning to putz around the kitchen, cuddle the cat, open the blinds and gaze at the nearly 1,000-foot-high hill north of our development before coming back to bed.)
And now, I know I must write, I cannot screw around, I must make good to my promise, because Alice is all around, watching and guiding me. Dammit, I’ve already written one book, got it published, chronicled some major bands in concert (the Marshall Tucker Band, Heart, Norah Jones, Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen), and won the heart of Alice McCormick, a remarkable denizen of a historic Pennsylvania town known as Doylestown.
My grandmother was a librarian, my mother was an English teacher and my father was a professional musician.
I went to private school in Princeton, N.J., and do I have a tale to tell about being there! Imagine a boy from Miami thrust into an environment where Albert Einstein was known to stroll, and being schooled with fewer than 8 children per teacher.
Twenty years later, the managing editor, Gloria Brown Anderson, at the Miami News increased my workload until I had to drop out of Florida International University in the late 1970s. Anderson justified this tactic by confessing she did not want to have an unknown scholar destroy a “natural gift.”
In 2002, I wrote a book: Gulag to Rhapsody: A Survivor’s Journey, for Paul Tarko, who was imprisoned in the same Soviet workcamp later occupied by noted Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn. (After a literary agent showed interest, Tarko decided to self-publish.)
After promoting the book in Hartford, Connecticut, I discovered the Pennsylvania borough of Doylestown (30 miles south of Princeton), where I met Alice McCormick, although, in fairness, I say she met me. I have never been loved by anyone so unabashedly, so flagrantly, so wholeheartedly and so fairly. Yes, Kailey, you’re right, Alice was amazing!
So give a lot of credit to Alice for this decrepit creature I am becoming again. Every time I sit down to write something new, I’m fulfilling my promise to Alice. What comes from these slender fingers dancing over the computer keyboard is a celebration to that long-legged lady. Each phrase is a commitment, revisited over and over, checked and re-checked for readable style.
But here’s the amazing part: Alice made me a promise eight years ago. She said that when she disappears to an unnamed place, I would find a hidden message inside something I used, but a place where I seldom looked. She giggled when she told me.
Three days ago, in the top drawer of a small bureau in my writer’s office, where Alice had commandeered some of her possessions, I came across a Post-it note written by Alice, written on Dec. 22, 2011, approximately three months after our commitment ceremony:
I am honor-bound to follow up what I promised. Alice is all around me.
I have begun the book.
Members of the Aphasia Network created a GoFundMe page to support me during the time ahead. To see their message and hopefully donate, follow this link Alice was amazing
One thing about undergoing grief; some moments stand out more than others.
Take the matter of a tortoise-shell, short-haired cat named Chloe. With incredible claws.
She turned out to be praise-worthy, where once upon a time she looked scraggly, barely alive. You can read this website’s story about her adoption using the link at the end of the previous sentence.
For nine months, Alice adopted, fed and nurtured, brushed Chloe’s coat into something astounding, guided her bathroom habits toward the litterbox, and instructed the cat never to tip me off about how she was going to use our new, semi-plush carpet.
In that time, Chloe became a fully grown cat under Alice’s tutelage, and was taught “not to care.”
Then Alice passed over.
Almost from the outset, Chloe began performing her version of Mozart’s Urine Sonata.
Within two weeks, she awakened me by peeing loudly in the bedroom. On previous mornings, I discovered bathroom throw rugs tossed askew while I made morning rounds. Maybe I need to change all the kitty litter in the upstairs bathroom, I thought, so I took pains to make the litterbox immaculate.
Chloe took this gesture the wrong way. The very next morning, she shit on the bedroom carpet next to the window curtains. My eyes opened wide, I went ballistic and explored an option I previously considered blasphemous: take Chloe back to the same place where we adopted her, the Humane Society of Cowlitz County.
To understand the depth of my anxiety, readers need to consider my second wife. For 22 years, she became the woman with whom I intended to spend my life. We met in Miami in the winter of 1980 while I was attempting to get the city’s Bicentennial Park renamed in honor of John Lennon.
I was devastated by that tragedy. The night Lennon was shot, I was listening to the Miami Dolphins game against the New England Patriots in the Orange Bowl when an announcer breathlessly interrupted the lengthy commercial break after the third quarter to report John Lennon was shot and had died. When the broadcast feed of the game returned to the stadium live, it was impossible to tell.
The rowdy Orange Bowl home crowd had fallen silent.
As a Lennon admirer, my would-be partner stood by my side during a public show of grief, so I married her. I also married quickly, because I needed to heal from Wife #1, but that’s another story.
Wife #2 was carrying some work-history baggage, though, relating to animals.
She worked as a secretary at the Humane Society of Greater Miami where more than 90 percent of its intake animals were euthanized on site. As much as I asked her about that time in her life, she would shut down and give few details.
Back in the 1970s, Miami’s Humane Society became a dumping ground for unwanted animals where an onsite gas chamber was in frequent use. I visited the facility twice and felt an overpowering sense of doom walking past cages of desperate animals that sensed the Animal Holocaust awaiting them.
(A San Antonio reporter’s 2004 visit to that city’s Humane Society shelter is comparable to conditions I witnessed in Miami. Read that report here, if you have an ironclad stomach.)
Could I possibly be delivering Chloe to an unspeakable end of life? What kind of animal would do this?
I worried, frantically speaking at length with good friend Kailey Cox Wednesday night and cousin Margaret Thursday morning. I explained at length without saying what animal shelter care was like in Miami. Instead, I seriously castigated myself on the phone, imagining the worst possible results of an encounter at the Humane Society of Cowlitz County.
At 11 am on April 16th as I walked toward the Longview entrance, Chloe and I were intercepted and steered to a side door for cats, when another staff member in personal protection gear guided us back to the original entrance, and my heart sank. These people are desperately confused, I thought, and everything inside was going haywire.
Carrying Chloe within her cat carrier, her woeful howling announced our entrance. Tears were creeping out of my eyelids, and I peered around my coronavirus mask. We were “socially distancing,” but I thought how damned inappropriate it was to be “social” around would-be executioners.
How inaccurate my apprehensions turned out to be! These folks were here because of love for animals. The Humane Society of Cowlitz County turned out to be an adoption center where virtually all animals wind up being adopted by locals. The revelation I discovered yesterday is each Humane Society can be as different as night from day. It’s characterized by its citizenry.
Looking at the sunny side of life, Chloe is on the verge of becoming the ideal outdoor cat within the same wild environment in which she survived, gave birth and was neutered before Alice and I adopted her in a condo development prohibiting outdoor cats. Alice brushed her daily and treated her like the queen both of them were, and Chloe grew fat in respect and stature.
Chloe’s aptitude for barn use is off the charts. She can dispatch all kinds of critters with her uncut sharp, long claws, and she knows how to be wary in an environment of bear, cougars and maybe Sasquatch. By being adopted with Alice’s constant care, Chloe’s warrior royalty should be at its prime.
Inside the Cowlitz County’s Humane Society building, I could not have been treated better – and neither could Chloe – by hard-working, blue-collar ladies who live by a no-kill policy, except for creatures at death’s door. So now I feel an amazing sense of relief, colored by the firm, yet gentle, way I saw its staff handle animals.
Have fun, Chloe. I’ll miss you, and so will Alice.
But somehow, I suspect I might miss Chloe more.
Members of the Aphasia Network have begun a GoFundMe page to support me during the time ahead. To see their message and hopefully donate, follow this link Alice was amazing
Five and a
half years ago, I, Mason Loika (climate-change refugee from Miami), and life
partner Alice McCormick (a true Philly girl) moved “Westward Ho.” We
left a historic Pennsylvania town — Doylestown – to wind up in Longview,
Washington, 50 interstate miles north of Portland, Oregon. Longview has quite a history, but currently the
sleepy town remains below the radar.
between Mt. St. Helens and Washington’s spectacular Pacific Coast, the
self-contained industrial-residential town runs alongside the Columbia River,
and was founded by timber-baron R.A. Long. Next to downtown is a magnificent, Japanese-styled,127-acre
Lake Sacajawea, where residents wear their casual best to stroll – or show off
their dogs’ pedigree – around a 3½ mile maintained gravel trail. (Lake
Sacajawea is named after a Shoshone woman who guided Lewis and Clark west.) Longview’s
population and that of sister town, Kelso, totaled 50,000 in 2017.
In September of
that year, Alice and I bought a roomy two-bedroom condominium in Longview next
to a manicured golf course, leaving three years of price-predatory apartment developments
and unforgiving traffic in Portland, Oregon.
The Portland metro
area incorporates Vancouver, Washington (not Canada), and has obscenely grown –
over 2.4 million residents. Once, pedestrians
felt safe crossing city streets, but today population centers all over the West
are bursting at the seams. Everywhere, people are increasingly crowded together. Much of what ruined Miami when I grew up is
happening today in Portland, and an unexplained number of Florida license
plates can be observed.
five years, I kept the financial wolves at bay by driving for Uber and Lyft in
Portland. Nowadays, Alice and I live a
better life in Longview, although I continue “ride-share” work in
Oregon. We have good neighbors in our newfound socially interactive community, and,
after closing my garage at night, a neighbor offers me a solid toke from a
well-stacked pipe containing some of the finest locally grown agricultural
here, y’all! So we don’t have to lead
double lives to protect our right to partake.
Surrounded by the greenery on a nearly 1,000-foot-high, properly populated
hill north of our development, this could be our forever neighborhood, limited to
whatever Creator decides to gift us.
And mercy of
all mercies, musicians get work here.
I’ve already touted Teri’s Restaurant, which keeps getting better. Teri now reserves Friday nights for local
bands to perform in her two-story saloon-style roadhouse, just perfect vibes
for performing musicians to jam together. And on the coast recently — Long
Beach, Washington – a recent weekend event celebrated “Oysters and
Jazz.” Mmmmm. Sustenance for the
body and soul.
continues to manage me, occasionally making progress with her stroke-affected speech.
Each year our closest buds in The Aphasia Network host two weekends at a Methodist
church camp on the tip of a scenic peninsula on Oregon’s pristine coast. We
attend regularly, and – especially – treat each other like family. (During
breakout sessions, caregivers discuss relationship concerns with their group
apart from their respective stroke survivors who simultaneously participate in
activities designed to simulate everyday chores and challenges.)
around at the Aphasia Network staff – nurses, professors, occupational
therapists, speech therapists, students, and executives (who don’t act that
way), – we delight at how one musically astute professor appears to be attached
by the hip to a guitar, with which he schedules bonding hootenannies with invited
amateur musicians. This is, simply put, glorious territory for an elder inhabitant
of Planet Earth to traipse about.
There is still much to share with readers. While Alice and I cocoon to avoid the coronavirus, Creator has decreed this time of fear and worry as a prospective blessing. Or as Jim Morrison once sang in “Light My Fire,” there’s “no time to wallow in the mire.”
There’s no easy way to view the end of another being’s last breaths. Nevertheless, in providing hospice care, we fulfill our responsibilities.
Alice and I drove Millie, ever complaining about our Ford Escape’s motion, to
Cowlitz Animal Clinic, here in Longview, Washington. The well-regarded clinic sits on a wide
commercially zoned highway with little weekend traffic. Because it was Saturday, we appeared to have
the clinic almost entirely to ourselves.
history here: A month before we moved to Longview, Millie disappeared from our
cramped Somerset West (Portland) apartment for 17 days. Somehow, our tabby feline was found by a
respectable homeowner more than a mile away, a fortuitous happening.
uneventful months with us in Longview, where we kept her indoors (and to our
neighbors’ delight) Alice walked the cat several times a week outside on a
leash, Millie was deemed to have diabetes.
Skeptical about treating her with daily insulin shots and frequent
bloodwork; Millie was already down to skin and bones. Less than six weeks later, even after
changing her diet from Meow Mix to Iams, she was on the doorstep of wasting
away — literally.
This visit to
the clinic was made tolerable by a sensitive doctor of veterinary medicine,
Kayleen McLain, who shared a professional sense of grief with us, especially
while trying to find a vein — any vein — to administer the needed dosage to
send Millie away to a permanent dreamland.
some as we said goodbye to her spirit, but found comfort once we noticed the
serene look as she passed over. We did
not mourn long, because doing so would hinder Millie’s journey to “the
I once read
that bonding with an animal comes with a limited contract: One of you will go
before the other. After that, life goes
probably why, at the moment we returned home, Alice cleaned up Millie’s area
from visible memorabilia. Today, Alice
is gardening outside, watching for hummingbirds, working up a sweat, and
encouraging new life.
Millie was a
great companion. We dare not weep,
because we would be crying only for our loss.
We will not be selfish.
After beginning childcare duties on May 15th with the YMCA of Southwest Washington in Longview, Alice McCormick received the following email from the facility’s executive director on June 7th:
The Y’s Rainbow Corner “has some concerns about your communication skills with kids and parents [emphasis added]. Because you are still in the 90-day probationary period, she [the Rainbow Corner’s director] is letting you go because she does not feel like this is a good fit for our members.”
Alice never returned an invitation to speak further to the Y about its decision, so I pressed Alice to forward me the terse communiqué. Once she did so (after two months), I wrote directly to the Y’s executive director who in turn refused comment to me, her life partner, or to anyone other than Alice.
My wife, Alice, can hold a conversation, but lacks the verbal pathways to do so eloquently, which self-explains her recalcitrance to hold a formal conversation with Longview’s YMCA about such an important matter without my participation. Therefore, no further communication is anticipated between us and, accordingly, I spoke with Alice to relate her impressions, and here are some of them.
Inside Longview’s Y
The childcare room in Longview’s YMCA was touted as a “Rainbow Corner,” but painted only with a stark white color. No accompanying artwork, such as that appearing in Doylestown, PA.’s YMCA (where Alice once worked), is part of the color scheme. Half of the children’s toys were, in some way, in a state of disrepair.
The Rainbow Corner’s director expected Alice to continually consort with a mentally challenged co-worker, whom the Y was proactive enough to hire. However, the assignment convinced Alice that her speech aphasia was considered by her superiors as another form of mental incompetence. Not one person volunteered to be Alice’s trainer or a confidante.
I could go on, but Alice and I have no plans to be mean-spirited. But something happened here, and we won’t be silent about it.
Alice excelled in the field of special education and served as a substitute teacher for four years in the Philadelphia School District, no mean feat. She is an elder, an experienced parent who nurtured five children and one grandchild through childhood, teenage angst and later development. These skills remain intact.
Alice’s speech suffered significantly after her stroke in March 2015, and she found out what anyone here who does not speak American English fluently innately knows: She has become a second-class citizen. As I once quoted Hungarian film star Paul Javor in my book, Gulag to Rhapsody: A Survivor’s Story, “The less English you know, the more likely it is that people will spit on you.”
Alice deserved better than what the Y’s mission here exudes. Working with infants and toddlers provided Alice an opportunity to offer attentive caring, a safe atmosphere and love. This mission doesn’t require her to speak much. When wide-eyed children look up at her (because Alice is considerably taller than her peers), they feel love.
The Aphasia Network is our advocate
People with aphasia are not mentally deranged or incompetent. This is plain wrong. The pathways through her brain were interrupted by a stroke and must be rebuilt through years of therapy and practice so she can feel confident to communicate as well as the rest of us. Alice manages me, and I’m not easy.
Two weeks ago, I broke this sad news to over 100 stroke survivors, care partners, occupational and speech therapy students and instructors at our Aphasia Adventure Weekend on the Coast. Now I share it with the readers of this blog.
Today, Alice freelances by occasionally cleaning people’s apartments. She only works for those who treat her (and me) the same way. Unfortunately, Longview’s YMCA does not meet Alice’s standards. The neighbors in our condo association do.
We remain hopeful that an aphasia awareness campaign will open new doors for people who suffer the debilitating effects of a stroke. For survivors and their care partners, more education and interaction with the outside world needs to be done.
As much as I expressed love for Alice when entering our civil ceremony seven years ago, I love her in a deeper way now. All her struggles inspire me to match her courage. Every little thing she does for me behind the scenes gives me an air of organization. Alice’s dedication to my wellbeing is akin to the Portland (Oregon)-based Aphasia Network’s ever-expanding programs.
Yes, we are exceedingly grateful, and our gratitude is only matched by the unmitigated embrace of support offered by our delightful extended family.
Thanksgiving is a time when one is supposed to feel grateful. This year, though, I believe my gratitude is far more abundant than at any other time in my life.
One particular cause of such supreme gratitude is our condominium unit and the community we now live in. Alice and I thank my cousins, Margaret Johnston and Carolyn & Jeff Levin, for investing in our vision, transforming us into stewards of a beautiful property overlooking the mountains of Washington. If it were not for them, our place would not be as spectacular as the view.
24-unit condo community with a view
Take a peek outside my second-floor writer’s office window. That’s one of several mountain ridges in the distance where a few developments punctuate the landscape. Frequent rain events during the fall/winter obscure their top-of-the-mountain view more than ours, which encourages a certain personal, snobbish feeling of superiority. And during an occasional burst of heat during the summer, a smaller ridge to the southwest shades our valley community an hour before dusk.
Inside the Loika/McCormick home
Our living room has become an audiophile’s wet dream. The television is mounted on the wall and the audio connected to my Bose surround-sound system. Before we moved in, Reid Rasmusson, a local Longview painter and stalwart resident who has knowledge of our building’s architectural history, applied several coats of paint to the entire apartment. What stands out is how Alice directed Reid to reinvent a cranberry-red wall into a more-aesthetically pleasing olive-brown accentuation to an artistically constructed fireplace. An added attraction, thanks to Bose: the acoustics are outstanding.
Therefore, one wouldn’t blame Alice for reclining on our six-month-old sofa toward the entertainment center. But that’s not her usual position. Alice lies in the opposite direction, sharing my outside view, but the downstairs window position aligns her 6-foot frame next to a riot of greenery. Already, Alice is adding her creative touch to the outside backyard.
(Our cat, Millie, complains loudly every day of wanting to go outside and explore. But we hear that bobcats, cougars and coyotes prowl about, so we admonish Millie for expressing reckless desires and keep her inside.)
After Reid finished painting, the carpet people showed up to execute our carpet and flooring plan. Every old piece of carpet was discarded in favor of a tan-colored replacement, with a luxurious feel and look we enjoy today. The carpet installers were finishing up barely moments before our movers were scheduled to arrive. The movers? That’s a different story, and a future post will detail the story of that near-disaster.
One particular view of the upstairs railing reveals light shining through the upstairs bathroom. (We have 1½ bathrooms, by the way.) That’s sunglare coming through the bathroom skylight. That’s cool, isn’t it? A skylight for the bathroom? Oh yeah, try to get that in a condo in Portland!
A feeling of community
Our digs are so splendoriferous that I hesitate to include the generosity of spirit from our neighbors. Nevertheless, I’m dutybound to report our next-door neighbors meet two criteria: quality and congeniality. Terry and Carole Sumrall introduced us to a restaurant they favor: Fiesta Bonita Mexican Grill and Cantina. Of course, our journey turned out to be a late afternoon on Halloween, so the tradition in town conjured up a wannabe for the Village People instead of a waitperson.
Other neighbors are equally generous with their time and talents. Already, Longview is full of revelations, and the history of this town is worthy of more national attention than it gets. This is a true community, and my future writing here may reveal what I call “living in a Gentile kibbutz.” I only wish I didn’t have to drive to Portland to buy whitefish salad, a proper bagel and latkes. Or cheese blintzes! A full story about Longview, Washington will appear in a future post, or perhaps be contained in the book I committed to when moving West.
Teri’s Restaurant is what’s happening
The photo at the top of this post was taken by one of the employees at Teri’s Restaurant in our newly adopted hometown. Besides a continuous dedication to provide restaurant fare a cut above the standard, Teri’s is a hubbub for local musicians and their groupies. (No age requirement to become a groupie.) We met a dean from Lower Columbia College (in Longview, naturally) who got on one knee in front of us to encourage Alice to return to work for child care. How is that for a welcome?
A quick apology
Please excuse the delay in getting this post written. There were plenty of chores for me to take care of, not to mention the time I wasted while being hooked on DishTV during this college football season. Yes, I am still functioning, sometimes badly, on the aftermath and life after a bladder removal surgery.
But I am far more than just alive, and I’m married to an Amazon woman who sets a pretty high standard for how she looks after me. That’s why every time she allows herself a genuine smile, my heart continues to go pitter-patter.
Dr. Seuss said, “You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep, because reality is finally better than your dreams.”
On her birthday in March of this year, Alice told me, “This year, don’t buy me anything. Instead, please, please get me a house.”
Alice realized the bloom had fallen off the Portland Rose City. We started looking around and found a two-story townhouse for sale in Longview, Washington, next to a public golf course. The photo above shows the crown jewel of Longview: Lake Sacajawea, a former channel of the Cowlitz River turned into a picturesque manmade lake, surrounded by 67 manicured parkland acres. Live music fills the air on six consecutive Thursday night concerts.
Alice and I were in a difficult spot, because we didn’t have money for a down payment. We were caught up in Portland’s rent crisis, and each year an increasing amount of money was being squeezed from us to rent a tiny 900-square-foot apartment next to a major freeway.
Mason Was a Navy Reservist
Thinking about my Uncle Eddie McCormick, though, led to an overdue realization. During the early 1960s, Eddie convinced me into joining the Naval Air Reserve. As far as the Armed Services were concerned, I was not a “man’s man.” This was especially true after I took the Navy’s aptitude test and set a new record for LOWEST score in mechanical ability. Eddie suggested I join the Naval Air Reserve’s six-month active duty group known as “Weekend Warriors.”
During that era, I was subject to the draft. So I enlisted as a preventive move and served six months of active duty – from October 6, 1960 until April 5, 1961, followed by 5½ years of active reserve duty spending one weekend a month at Jacksonville (Fla.) Naval Air Station and serving two weeks active duty during the summer. Most of those two-week tours took me to Guantanamo Bay, but my experience did not include combat, thank God.
After my discharge, I discovered legislation that disqualified 1960s reservists who served 180 or fewer days active duty from receiving VA benefits. This was a strike against six-month reservists, and I harbored resentment about the limitation of opportunity and expressed it to Uncle Eddie a few times.
Embracing a Revelation
Eventually, I found my niche as a broadcaster turned journalist, and regarded my military service as irrelevant history. My military history soon became relevant as I wracked my brain figuring out how to finance a condo purchase. I don’t remember how a flash of brilliance overcame me, but somehow I started counting my days of active duty from October 6 through April 5. That added up to more than 180 days, it was 182.
Oh my God, the commander at Jacksonville Naval Air Station must have mustered me out two days late. I was qualified!
Realtor Tami Cheatley was super-skeptical about VA financing, though, shunning it with a passion, but the Veterans Administration proved it was there for us. It recognized Alice and me as a married couple, and acknowledged my service. Oh yes, the VA did exact their pound of flesh, requiring me to document numerous explanations of every black mark our credit suffered over the last seven years.
We needed to get files from years past, copies of court judgments, visit the IRS, give every possible explanation for any bump in the road we experienced in life. But we did it, and today, on Eclipse Monday, we closed on the sale.
As we celebrate our hard-won victory today, I acknowledge what Uncle Eddie did for by getting me into the Naval Air Reserve. And I dote on his memory. So congratulate us, for today Alice and I became homeowners in a quiet, desirable neighborhood.
I survived four rounds of chemotherapy without one bout of nausea. My oncologist, Dr. Daniel R. Gruenberg, observed that I endured chemo better than 95 per cent of other patients who undergo the same cancer-killing infusions. Score one for the Loika and Johnston genes!
What lies ahead, though, is a surgical date with urologist Dr. Daniel Janoff, ostensibly in mid-November, to remove my bladder and prostate. A second opinion with a different surgeon seems to be all that lies between consciousness and a scalpel as I cross my T’s and dot my I’s. What will life be like without the essential tools of procreation? What will the effect be on my creative spirit?
Bladder Surgery, Cannabis Oil or Both?
Alice is opposed to the surgery. She monitors my daily intake of cannabis oil, reputed to keep cancer cells at bay, in hopes I will change my mind and follow that approach instead.
I disagree, even though I have more questions than answers. Sufficient evidence is being gathered that documents what Alice has learned: Cannabis oil helps fight cancer, but marijuana remains nationally labeled by the Drug Enforcement Administration as a Schedule 1 substance. Because it’s been so vilified by law enforcement, in vitro observations in the laboratory remain the only medically factual evidence. Sufficient data must be gleaned through future human trials to learn precisely how much cannabis oil is needed to keep a high-grade cancer at bay.
The future suggests more-informed treatment options will be available for the next generation. In the meantime, though, I suspect my bladder’s integrity is compromised beyond repair, and enough successful bladder-removal surgeries have been performed that the prognosis is good for me to aggravate the world for years to come.
But isn’t it a bitch to know my cancer was caused by chemicals added to American tobacco products to make cigarettes addictive, but such deadly tobacco products are still legal to purchase over the counter? Whenever I see a sizable segment of the population huff and puff cigarettes here in Portland, I shudder at the future human cost.
Marijuana as Cancer Therapy
In the meantime, how many lives have been trashed through the enforcement of archaic marijuana possession laws that incorporate “Reefer Madness” propaganda into a ban on love, peace and happiness? DEA’s diehards dispute current scientific studies with the same fervor as climate-change deniers.
One great thing about living in Oregon: Medical and recreational cannabis is legal here. Also, I now possess a valid Medical Marijuana Card. That means my consumption can be discussed openly.
You might notice from recent photos that my hair has thinned considerably, although Dr. Gruenberg promises it will return. Because I prepared for bouts of nausea, without any occurring, my weight is up 15 pounds! Where’s the irony in that?
Local farmers are perfecting the process to completely remove THC from cannabis, because it’s been found to be a legitimate pain reliever. But more data is needed to let cancer sufferers make informed alternate decisions that avoid surgery. And I refuse to consider radiation.
In the meantime, what about Alice?
Alice’s Speech Continues to Progress
The woman who accosted me romantically six years ago is doing fine, but tremendously bored. Some aspects of her stroke, though, have become a godsend. Because of those invested in her therapy, as well as fellow couples comprised of a stroke survivor and caregiver, we occasionally encounter people who deal with the same issues. Most of them are well educated and a joy to be around.
We met a few of those at Alice’s aphasia camp that we attended on the Oregon coast the last weekend of August. In addition, while Alice took a nap, I sat in a rowboat while two nubile physical therapists took over the vessel using muscle power and shoulder grease galore. Should I feel ashamed to accede how idealistic, determined women can flaunt how much they are in better shape? Before we left the dock, I bragged how well I could row, but I proved useless.
Alice Steers ‘Betsy’ Into a Pole
One last piece of news: Alice tore up our Ford Escape’s right-hand front panel against a two-foot-high yellow pole to avoid a tractor-trailer swinging its load wide. For six days, our Ford Escape has been sitting in a repair shop waiting for The Hartford’s adjuster to approve its own surgery. It will take a couple weeks before I can Uber again, so Alice and I are pinching pennies accordingly.
In the meantime, I can use this time to sit in front of my computer and write. This post on my blog is long overdue, and I thank everyone for being patient while I find my writer’s cap again.
Pragmatically, I feel guilty about not making money to pay all the medical bills that are piling up, but I feel emotionally satisfied that I can renew my former identity as an author. Who can say what the future will bring?
All photographs on this post, except for ones in which Alice appears, were taken by Alice McCormick. She’s a real talent, if I say so myself.
I once experienced serendipity in 2000 while driving from San Francisco to Ashland, Oregon. What a treat! Every town where I stopped was hosting its own music festival. That’s serendipitous.
My second encounter? Alice and I were chosen to participate in The Aphasia Network’s Couples Retreat weekend with 11 other couples on the Oregon Coast from March 4th through the 6th. But wait, when did I realize Alice’s 72nd birthday would coincide with the glorious finish of this pilot program?
In a bona-fide camp environment, the roaring ocean only a few hundred yards away provided a healing sound experience.
What a concept.
On Sunday morning, Alice received a slice of birthday cake – only one candle atop representing a life brightly burning – and over 50 staff members and students, plus survivors of aphasia and their respective caregivers, sang out Alice’s praises in the time-honored “Happy Birthday to You” refrain.
The meaning of that emotion-packed morning brought tears to many students’ eyes, and I vowed then to salute The Aphasia Network with this website post for giving my dear one the greatest birthday gift of all: unqualified love.
A little history should add perspective to Alice’s birthday weekend. Immediately after Alice McCormick endured her stroke a year ago (March 11, 2015), one of her children wanted to fly out here and size up the situation. Alice feared such a visit could threaten her independence. And as Alice’s caregiver, I am duty-bound to defend her. She manages me very well, so her wishes become my commands.
Many people consider the loss of instant coherent speech to be a sign of incompetency. That’s not true. Yes, aphasia affects the brain, but only the interior pathways. Mature, informed thoughts must blaze new trails to communicate themselves in speech or writing. That’s why Alice’s nonverbal command structure today uses gesture more than ever. Survivors of brain injury must skirt ill-informed behaviors of well-intentioned family members who can turn an agile mind into a vegetable garden.
It’s up to me to keep a protective shield around her. That’s my role as caregiver. (And if there should be any doubt as to how together Alice is, take a careful look at the photos gracing these words of mine. Her talent as a photographer is well on display, with the caveat that students at the Retreat took photos of the two of us together.)
Off to the Coast
After a frenzied bit of packing Friday afternoon, March 4th, I drove the Ford Escape affectionately known as Betsy toward Tillamuck and the rugged Coast beyond. After we turned onto the main Coast throughway, the pavement swept us through an Oregon fishing town perched next to a placid bay. Looking beyond the bay, we could make out ever-building waves of the ocean beyond.
We drove past an inviting lake and my GPS turned us onto an inlet-hugging quiet road toward Edwards Lodge, the assigned gateway where a team of dedicated Aphasia Network professionals welcomed us into a slice of heaven that I now call the Haven.
As soon as we walked inside, two charming students – Tiffany Tu (occupational) and Rachael Furtney (speech) – enthusiastically introduced themselves. These two bright motivated souls were to be our constant companions and seemingly cater to our every whim. Alice may have required a full-blown stroke to have such dedicated overseers, but never mind. These two women were shining beacons reigning over our newly opened lighthouse of life.
Our first evening was filled with introductions, and we oriented ourselves to the lay of the land. Tiffany and Rachael easily located our assigned sleeping bunks in the Herron House; then we gathered back into a nearby dining hall and met key staff officials.
An entertainment program was led off by Savel Sobol, a student who doubles as a nightclub comedian, whose humor captured the audience’s breathless attention. We caroused some with Professor John White, Ph.D., who led the entire group into a rousing sing-along. As the evening wore on, we acknowledged our gratitude to Aphasia Network team leaders Suzanne Gardner and Lisa Bodry who share camp administrative responsibilities, while continuing to be feted by a potpourri of support personnel who kept the good vibes flowing. We were treated like VIPs.
Our trip to the Coast was accompanied by mostly cloudy skies, and an onimous weather forecast called for stormy conditions. To Alice and me, though, the sound of a confused sea with breakers rolling across the adjacent beach was a seething, soothing series of rolling sound. On my side of the bunk beds, I dropped off quickly.
A New Day Breaks
However, Alice did not fall asleep until late into the night, due to a barely-there mattress, and as daybreak unveiled itself, she was unable to rouse herself into consciousness. I meandered off to the Carrier Dining Hall for a sausage-and-pancake breakfast, confided in Tiffany and Rachael, who instantly, merrily concocted a wake-up invitation of steel-cut oatmeal and black coffee to gently prod Alice back to the land of the living.
To keep at ease, other staff members reassured me that Alice was happily regaining her steadfast form, and soon Tiffany and Rachael escorted a beamingly happy McCormick partner into my Saturday morning. Lo and behold, the sun was shining, and we sneaked off to the beach to view the glorious Coast in its active ebb and flow. We were elated to discover partly sunny skies. Could it be possible a beach bonfire was still on the afternoon menu?
Back at Edwards, Professor White led a frank, no-holds-barred discussion unveiling a myriad of tools and toys to reinvigorate sexual communion between couples. Hoo boy, the couple across from us appeared shocked, and subconsciously the power of erotica was building in my libido. I looked at Alice lasciviously.
After a back-to-the-basics macaroni-and-cheese lunch, guitars, percussive instruments and voices gave the beach a hootenanny effect, romantically accompanied by a modest bonfire on the beach with only a few nuisance sprinkles of rain to ignore. Yes, it’s true, more than a few random urges of forbidden pleasure were awakened by the female in my life.
Everything that passed from then on seemed like a blur. I joined other caregivers in the Smith House to compare lifestyles while Alice was spirited off to join other aphasia sufferers whose task was to prepare appetizers for all to share. Wary of any needless weight gain, I sampled a few, but didn’t fill up.
That was wise, because we savored a sumptuous teriyaki chicken dinner at the Sherlock Lodge, while our companion music-makers kept the entire company enthralled.
As I said earlier, romance was already in the air, and when we reached our bunk beds, it overflowed. Some mischievous, but sentimental, elves had strewn rose petals (a la the movie “American Beauty”) in and around our sleeping quarters along with a small bottle of champagne. Oh man, was love in the air.
But a practical look around the confined spaces of our bunk beds sobered up this surfeit of romanticism. If we could twist ourselves around in one particular position, I reasoned, we might be able to enjoy naked pleasures. But at what cost? How would we drive back home if my ardor put us in traction?
Cooler heads prevailed, thank goodness. But on Sunday morning, before we left this Haven, I confessed to all within earshot how susceptible I was to “elves” who inflicted the inspiration of unpracticed acrobatic moves in a noisy enough closed space that certainly would have disturbed other couples in Herron House.
Sunday morning breakfast did not disappoint. A full serving of bacon, scrambled eggs, hash browns preceded Alice’s birthday cake celebration with enough get-well wishes to fill the entire Pacific Ocean. Tears seemed to be participants’ only defense against their earnest hearts.
We walked to the beach once again, and admired driftwood brought onshore during high tide. We took one good look before turning our backs on Oregon’s greatest charm to revel more on Alice’s big day.
Alice’s 72nd birthday proved to be something special we never could have created by ourselves. Our hearts were lifted – and so were our spirits – by a glorious weekend on the Coast, all made possible by the guiding geniuses at The Aphasia Network.
We love what they do, and how they support us. Our weekend was serendipity personified.