Personal

Six months on

Today it’s been six months since we lost Rana.

My therapist urged me to do something today to honor the day and honor Rana. I decided to write about her, about her funeral, and about how I’m doing. But first, this photograph.

Rana (then Ross), me, Damion, and Garrett, Christmas 2003.

This photo is from the last Christmas before Rana’s mom and I split up. Rana (still Ross then) a was a senior in high school. We were gathering for a family photo and someone pressed the button to grab this candid shot. I just love seeing this interaction between Rana and me. Just look at our faces. Those are two people who love each other and are happy to be together. I’m going to cling to this image today.

I don’t think about Rana every day anymore. But often enough something will remind me of Rana or our time together as a family, and I’ll be sad and irritable the rest of the day.

I’m still seeing a grief counselor, and will for some time to come yet. Yesterday we talked about Rana’s funeral, really plumbed the depths of that day. It helped me finally unpack and process it. It was difficult, of course, as the funeral for any loss like this will be. But that day I was the ex-husband in a room full of people primarily from Rana’s mom’s world, and I was very anxious about it. The end of that marriage was 100% my fault and 100% her fault; we both did very destructive things. What did everyone know? Was anyone judging me harshly?

I saw Rana’s biological father for the first time in 20 years, and a great deal of his family. I knew many of them a long time ago, because they were surprisingly open and welcoming to me. A couple times I even visited their farm in rural Illinois when we dropped off or picked up Rana/Ross for a long visit there. They treated me like family.

I also met some of my ex-wife’s new family for the first time. I wasn’t prepared for that, even though I knew it was going to happen. It was awkward for me.

I was extremely disappointed for my ex-wife that none of her family came. She has two sisters, and her father is still living. They live in distant states, but apparently none of them could figure out how to fly in for the funeral. As much as I worried about how I might be judged in that room, I judged her family very harshly for their failure to support my ex in this time of extreme loss and pain.

But the most surprising thing about the funeral was how much time my ex-wife spent with me. She sat with her husband during the service, which lasted all of 20 minutes or so. 75 percent of the rest of the time, she was either with me or within five feet of me. I had not spent that much time with her, or spoken with her that much, since 2004.

There’s no denying that we will always share an important and deep connection because of our children. Even though I didn’t enter the picture until Rana/Ross was 7, I was present and active during the majority of Rana/Ross’s childhood. I was far more involved than Rana/Ross’s bio dad was. So perhaps it’s not so surprising that my ex wanted to spend time with me. Because of that connection, I also was comforted to be with her.

But it was also challenging to be with her, because she was cruel and abusive toward me, especially in the last few years before we split. Appropriately, I’ve since maintained a strict separation of our lives and strong boundaries around our interactions — boundaries that on that day came tumbling down, if only for those couple of hours.

The last time I wrote about Rana I said that I was about to try an antidepressant. The first one we tried improved my mood considerably, but gave me strong anxiety at bedtime and made sleep harder to come by. The doctor added a second antidepressant that he said for most people reduces or eliminates those side effects. The combination is working well for me. I’m happier, I feel hope and optimism, and I’m brighter and more cheerful in the world. It’s the first time I’ve ever had SSRIs/SNRIs not lead to frightening, serious side effects, let alone work. These two meds absolutely make life a lot easier while I continue to grieve.

It’s ironic, I suppose, that this anniversary of Rana’s death falls on the last day of Pride Month. I wonder how she would have participated. I’d like to be able to ask her.

Rana lives on in my heart and mind, but isn’t there anymore to visit, call, or text. This is the most challenging thing for me day to day, knowing it’s not possible to reach out anymore.

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Signs of aging: Losing my hair

I was looking back through old photos recently and came upon this photo of my parents, my brother, and me on my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary in 2014. We had taken them out for a fancy dinner in downtown South Bend, and then walked over to the church where they were married so they could reminisce. My sons were along; one of them made this image of us sitting on the church’s steps. I was 46 in this photo. Dad was 73.

My parents looked like they were 30 until they were 50, when they started to noticeably age. Even then, through their 50s and 60s they passed for a decade or more younger. They passed that trait down to both of their children. I was routinely carded in bars until I was in my late 40s. My co-workers were surprised when I mentioned recently that I’m 54; one said he would have guessed 40. Bless him.

We were also a family of full, thick hair. Here’s a photo of us with our Aunt Betty from when I was about 14, and Dad was about 43. But you’ll notice that his hairline is clearly receding.

Dad’s hair began to noticeably fall out starting in his 40s. It fell out unevenly, starting over his left temple and slowly working itself back. Here’s Dad in 1991 when he was 50, that hair-loss pattern in progress.

Meanwhile, a bald spot appeared at his crown. Then his hair started falling out over his right temple, eventually reaching the bare crown. It left him with a tuft of hair in front, right in the middle. You can see in the first photograph how he handled that: he left that central tuft long and combed it straight back to reach where his hair resumed again at his crown. He then slicked it all down with Vaseline hair tonic, which was made mostly of mineral oil. It wasn’t a great look on him, but there wasn’t much he could do with that hair pattern.

As I cruised through my 40s with my hair intact, I thought surely I’d escape Dad’s fate. Here I am at age 47 with a full head of hair.

But after I turned 50, my hair began to thin at my crown and recede over my left temple, just like my dad. I didn’t realize how much hair I was losing until early in the pandemic. I didn’t feel good about sitting in my stylist’s chair, so I bought clippers and gave myself a buzz. Only then could I see that my crown was nearly bare, and the hair over my left temple was thin all the way to the crown. I was losing my hair in the same pattern my father did. (I hate how I look in a buzz cut, but I don’t know any other way to cut my own hair.)

In my early 20s I swore to myself that as I aged, I would accept it in peace and with grace. But then with very good fortune I looked young for the next nearly 30 years. As I headed into my 50s I noticed gray hairs finally starting to show up and noticeable wrinkles forming on my face. Weirdly, my eyebrows became thin and faint. I certainly didn’t celebrate these changes, but I didn’t rue them either.

But when I saw how clearly my hair was going away, I freaked out — and I broke my promise to myself. I immediately tried Rogaine, and used it for nine months, but it had no effect. My dermatologist then prescribed Propecia, but the side effects were unpleasant and frustrating so I gave it up right away. I had no choice but to accept my hair loss.

I mourned for several months. I loved my hair! It was hard to come to peace with losing it.

Here’s a photo of me from the year I turned 40 that I especially love. I was at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on a field trip with my older son’s third-grade class. My son took my camera and made this portrait. I love it first because I see my enjoyment of my son in my eyes. But I also like it because my hair looked straight up terrific. I was wearing it a little long then, something I did off and on from college to my early 40s.

I now accept that little by little the top of my head will come to look like my dad’s, and I increasingly won’t like how I look. I never liked how Dad styled that front-and-center tuft, but I am no smarter than him and can’t see a better way. Maybe I’ll try shaving it. But fortunately, progress is slow and I won’t have to cross that bridge soon.

I’ve been very fortunate — I’ve had an extra long run of youthful good looks. I won’t complain anymore. But it feels good to get this off my chest.

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A growing family fleet

For a few days in early June, my wife and I technically owned five cars.

I drive this 2013 Volkswagen Passat. It is a terrific car — comfortable, powerful, well-handling, built like a bank vault. I get the impression all mid-sized sedans are as good these days. Just as we perfected the sedan, automakers are discontinuing them to make room in their factories for more SUVs. As a dedicated car owner and driver, I’m displeased. But that’s a rant for a different post.

My car reflecting a sunset
Canon PowerShot S95, 2019

My wife drives this funky and fun 2017 Kia Soul. I wish it were a tighter handler, and I wish its seats were more comfortable on long trips. But its small size makes it easy to maneuver, and it’s good on gas.

Kia at 40mm
Olympus OM-2n, 40mm f/2 Zuiko Auto-S, Kodak T-Max 400, Rodinal 1+50, 2020

You might recall that we bought one of our sons a 2005 Ford Escape last year to help him launch into independent adulthood. I didn’t mention it at the time, but he’s had an incredibly rough last ten years. Some of it was his doing and some of it wasn’t, but if I told you all he’s been through you would be amazed that he’s still alive.

Escape
Nikon F50, 50mm f/1.8 AF Nikkor, Kodak Max 400 @EI 200, 2021

Early this year someone rear ended the Escape hard enough to give our son a serious concussion. It also totaled this SUV, which is a crying shame because it was really terrific to drive. Even though he got a fair price for the Escape from the other driver’s insurance, his concussion affected his ability to work and soon he ate through all of that money just paying bills.

He plans to sue for lost wages, but that takes time and he’s in a pickle now. Even though his concussion was improving and on more and more days he was able to work, he had no way to get there. He was falling further and further into a financial hole. So we went looking for another used car for him. We soon found this 2002 Mercury Mountaineer, which set us back $2700.

2002 Mercury Mountaineer
Yashica-D, Kodak Gold 200, 2022

This well-equipped SUV drove ponderously, but it made up for it by having a near-luxury interior that included a third-row seat. It had only 150,000 miles on it, low for its age. I checked all of the things I know to check on a used car, and drove it, and it seemed solid.

The next day I drove it up to the BMV to transfer the title. On the way back, I had to put my foot to the floor to accelerate quickly on a short Interstate on-ramp. Something went BOOM! — and then it ran roughly and lacked power.

Sidebar: When you own old cars, you need an OBD II code reader. Just because a check-engine light is on doesn’t mean whatever’s wrong is worth fixing. I drove my old Toyota Matrix for at least 60,000 miles with a problem with the variable-valve timing system. It was going to cost twice what the car was worth to fix it. The car ran fine. When check-engine light lit for that problem, I just attached my code reader and turned the light off.

My code reader is this little dongle you attach to the OBD II port under your dashboard. It syncs over Bluetooth to an app on your phone that scans the car and shows you all of the codes in play.

When I connected it to the Mountaineer, it threw 17 separate codes. Lesson learned: bring the code reader whenever you evaluate a used car. Sure, the seller can use a code reader to turn off the codes. But you have to know that is a thing and own a code reader to be able to do it.

Most of the Mountaineer’s codes were for minor things easily and inexpensively fixed. Two were concerning: two cylinders were misfiring. That probably was worth fixing, were it not for two more codes: failure of two transmission bands. I feared the worst.

I limped the Mountaineer over to my mechanic. He’s helped me eke out long lives from several over-the-hill cars I’ve owned. He drove it, and checked the codes, and poked around a little under the hood. Then he called me. “Jimmy,” he began — and he only calls me Jimmy when it’s bad news — “It’s not good. Replacing those bands isn’t too awful bad, but 90 percent of the time when I do that, I find serious transmission damage that you can fix only with a new transmission. These Mountaineers are especially prone to that. [He’s right. I looked it up.] That’s a $4,000 bill. If I did the band work, we’re looking at north of a grand, which you’d have to pay only for me to find that the transmission is junk. This old car just isn’t worth it. It’s really time for you to move on here.”

Play the sad trombones.

When I picked up the Mountaineer, my mechanic said, “I’ve got this 2007 Honda CR-V here. I’ve been tinkering with it as I’ve had time, fixing everything that needed fixed. That wasn’t much, because these cars are incredibly reliable. I own one and my wife owns one. I almost never see CR-Vs come through here, and when I do it’s invariably something minor. This one’s a little beat up, and it has 225,000 miles on it. But it’ll go another 100,000 miles easy. I’d sell it to you if you’re interested.”

Apple iPhone 12 mini, 2022

Margaret and I drove it, and it drove and handled like a car with 200,000 fewer miles on it. We worked out a deal for $4100 and I brought it home.

At about the same time, our son ran into more setbacks. His choices ten years ago put him in a deep hole, and the climb out has been long and full of earned and, increasingly, unearned consequences. An unearned consequence landed on him a few weeks ago, and him needing a car is on hold for now.

Our daughter was driving this 2010 Ford Focus.

Focus
Argus A-Four, Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros, 2018

It had been Margaret’s car, but when we bought the Kia we sold the Focus to our daughter for a nominal sum. She was just starting her adult life and needed a car. She named the car Fred, and she proceeded to ride Fred hard and put him away wet. I took him for a drive and found him to be very, very tired, with 196,000 miles on him. I hoped we could squeeze another year out of him.

I drove Fred to my mechanic, who found the front brakes to be beyond shot, the front sway bar links to be worn out, and the motor mounts to be cracked through. He said that otherwise the car is in okay shape. He didn’t recommend replacing the motor mounts as this would cost us a lot in labor for little gain other than a reduction in noise and vibration. But he could do the brakes and the sway bar links for a reasonable price, and if we did that we ought to be fine. I said yes. The car’s tires were near the end of their useful lives, so I had Discount Tire put on the least-expensive tires they offered that would fit.

We decided that the CR-V will go to our daughter. We’ll be the First Parental Bank and Trust — she’ll buy the car from us on a zero-interest two-year term. We are taking Fred in trade. She’s already named the CR-V Henry.

We’ll pull Fred into the garage and leave him there until our son is ready. Then we’ll give that car to him. We hope he’ll be steady and able to replace Fred when the time comes.

Meanwhile, I sold the Mountaineer to a junk yard for $420.

That’s five cars. The reason I say I technically owned five is because I haven’t yet transferred Fred’s title to me. But the deal is made and it’s just a matter of me going to the BMV.

It’s been quite an adventure buying all of these cars. I’ve learned some important lessons the hard way. But we feel good about being able to help our kids through the rough-and-tumble years of gaining their full independence.

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The sad state of my childhood home

The neighborhood I lived in until just after my ninth birthday was crammed full of kids. I counted 31, not including my brother and me — and that was just on our street. So prolific were the parents up and down our street that they all called it Rabbit Hill.

The houses were small and plain. Mom once told me that the homes were manufactured, the pieces brought to the site on trucks and assembled in place. There were a handful of floor plans, all repeated throughout the neighborhood. Ours was the second-to-largest floor plan at just under 900 square feet.

During my 1970s childhood, these houses were about 20 years old. The owners took pride in them, and Rabbit Hill looked good. Here’s a photo from about 1971, looking up the hill. I’m the boy in the blue shirt. The house I lived in isn’t visible, but the yard is; we kids are just about to walk in front of it.

Photo credit: Judy Dieu

I have just one photo with our house in it. I shot my first roll of film in August of 1976, just a couple months before we moved out of that house. Meet my childhood friends Christy and Brian. Our house is in the background.

Christy and Brian

We sold the house to a family who lived in it for some number of years. They sold the family to someone who rented it out for the next 30 years.

Lots of the houses on Rabbit Hill became rentals during these years, and the neighborhood declined. I suppose it was inevitable.

In 2010, the elementary school I had attended held an open house after an extensive renovation. My brother, his childhood best friend, and I all met in front of our old house on Rabbit Hill and walked to the school from there, for old time’s sake. I photographed the walk and shared the images here.

I drove down our old street when I was in South Bend in March. The trees were all bare and the Zoysia grass was all characteristically brown, which didn’t cast the properties in the most attractive light. But it looked like some homeowners were once again working to make the most of their properties. Our old neighborhood might be seeing a bit of a renaissance!

Then I came upon our old house, and I was shaken by how bad it looked.

Childhood home

The windows are all new, at least, although replacing the plate-glass picture windows with two sash windows just looks tacky. I wondered if perhaps this meant that the previous longtime landlord had sold the house. So I went looking on Zillow and found that the property had indeed sold at the end of last year. See the listing here. The photos from inside are shocking to me. Next to nothing has been done inside since we moved out. The carpet has been replaced with vinyl flooring throughout, all of the closet doors have been removed, and everything has been painted white. But everything else, down to the handles on the kitchen cabinets, are exactly as we left it in 1976. I’m betting the wallpaper in the hallway is still there, under that white paint. Here’s a view from inside the house in 1971 showing that wallpaper, with a glimpse of the kitchen.

I know this is just a structure, and that times change, and that whoever owns this house is within their rights to care for it as they have. But I feel bad about what’s befallen our old house just the same. Rabbit Hill was truly a magical place to grow up, and I hate to see the magic lost.

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I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille

Where I work, the company pays for every employee to have a professional headshot made. We’re supposed to use it internally as our email and chat avatar, and we’re strongly encouraged to use it as our LinkedIn profile photo. The company will also use it in PR should I ever do something PR-worthy.

My second headshot came back from the photographer the other day. It’s my second because I didn’t like the first, which was made shortly after I started with the company early last year. The photographer had me smile big, but that narrowed my eyes to slits, especially my right eye as that eyelid droops a little.

I asked for a second chance and got it in April. I told the photographer that I’d be doing a closed-mouth smile in several shots so that my eyes could be seen. This was a chance for me to wear my Irish tweed jacket, which I bought in Ireland. I love that jacket!

Here’s the image I chose. My eyelid still sags, but I’m just going to have to get over myself.

The photographer converted the image to black and white and sent that along, too.

His conversion washed out my forehead a little, so I brought the color image in to Photoshop and did my own conversion. I got skillz.

I’m not sure why the photographer chose to tell me about his kit, because he has no idea I’m a hobbyist photographer. But he showed me his big full-frame Nikon DSLR and said that he was experimenting with it for portraiture. He normally used that camera for architectural work, he explained, and an APS-C DSLR for portraiture. I didn’t get a good look at his lens; I wish I had. I should have asked. I’ve dabbled in portrait photography and have yet to figure out the focal length I like best for it. But anyway, his kit delivered terrifically sharp images. In the original full-size images, at 100% magnification the stubble on my face is sharp as a tack.

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The fog lifts

I was in a fog for almost two months after Rana died. I just didn’t know it until it lifted.

Foggy trees
Nikon N8008, 28-80mm f/3.3-5.6 AF Nikkor, Kodak Tri-X 400, 2017

Actually, I thought my fog had lifted after the first two weeks. It turns out that was abject shock. Once that cleared away, the fog set in.

Thank heavens my job didn’t demand too much of me when I returned to it. My new boss was busy setting the stage for some changes he wanted to make, and asked me only to manage the team managers and make sure the in-flight project delivered at the end of the quarter as scheduled. The teams were handling their work well. It took only a light hand on the tiller to keep things on track.

That was a relief, because I was so tired all the time. Because I worked from home most days, I could get away with taking a 30-minute afternoon nap. I wasn’t able to function after a certain time of day without it.

My diet also went to crap. Unrelated to Rana’s death, I started counting calories and exercising more to try to lose the 15 pounds I gained during the pandemic. It’s been working, slowly; I’m down five pounds since January. But I’m eating a lot of junky frozen meals to do it, and when I’m out for a meal I reach right for pizza and cheeseburgers.

I’m reading a book on grief called Life After Loss, and it tells me that the naps and bad diet are incredibly common among grievers.

I got a grief counselor right away. I have the Director of HR at my company to thank for that. I had been trying unsuccessfully to find a counselor — it’s crazy how booked up they are these days — when the Director of HR reached out to see how I was doing. When I told her I was having trouble lining up a counselor, she swung into action and somehow got me an appointment with a grief counselor for that Thursday. She even had the company prepay my first ten visits.

Talking it out with the counselor has been helpful, but I have plenty of people to talk it out with. What has made counseling valuable is the questions the counselor has asked. They’ve been innocent little curiosity questions that have caused me to explore my thoughts and feelings, often for hours or days after the appointment.

She also had me write a letter to Rana. I was surprised how much anger came out in it. I started it with, “How dare you do this to all of us?” Writing the letter was enough for me to process a great deal of those challenging feelings and let them go.

It was after I wrote that letter that my fog lifted and my feelings started to settle. Rana is no longer on my mind all the time. I feel some energy returning. Not all of my energy, and still not most of my willingness to deal with the everyday challenges life throws my way. The little things that go wrong irritate me disproportionately.

My whole life I’ve lived with some level of general anxiety. I’ve worked it over with any number of therapists and I’ve improved that all I’m likely ever to. I will always feel on guard against some threat. Thanks to the work I’ve done on myself, it doesn’t cause me distress and I’m able to do the things I want to do. But last autumn, intense pressure at work pushed me to burnout and my anxiety kept spiking. Sometimes it caused me to freeze up and not be able to act. That was new.

So I visited my doctor, who tried a medication called BuSpar. It’s supposed to be a wonder drug for anxiety, but it gave me up-all-night insomnia. She discontinued it, prescribed me some Klonopin to use when anxiety was strong (with no refills, because that stuff is habit forming), and referred me to a psychiatrist.

Twenty years ago as my first marriage was falling apart I was deeply, dangerously depressed. Under a psychiatrist’s care I tried antidepressants for the first time. Every last one I tried had crazy, ugly side effects. The first day I took Zoloft, for example, I straight up passed out, just fell over unconscious, and was out for something like eight hours. I tried and abandoned eight or nine different drugs in rapid succession, each with some new and frightening side effect. It was a horror show.

The doctor finally tried lithium, which is normally prescribed for bipolar disorder. It gave me no side effects, and put a floor under my depression so I could function. It didn’t make me happy, but at least it made me not want to drive my car into a bridge abutment anymore. I took it for several years, until the worst of that time in my life was over.

When this new psychiatrist started talking about the various antidepressants that also have good effect on anxiety, I interrupted him right there and told him about my history. He said, “Ah, you’re treatment resistant then.” He described a number of options that didn’t exist 20 years ago. One is transcranial magnetic stimulation, which uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain and alleviate depression and anxiety. Another is ketamine, which is primarily used as an anesthetic and also illegally as a party drug. Administered in small doses as a nasal spray, it is said to have incredible positive effect alleviating depression and anxiety. The third option is genetic testing to determine which traditional psychiatric medications do and don’t play well with your genetic makeup, and with the enzymes that are and are not present in your system.

The first two options were very expensive and time-consuming, so I tried the genetic testing. The results made me laugh — every last antidepressant I tried 20 years ago was not recommended for me based on my genetic profile. I lack a couple of key enzymes that would let me metabolize most of those drugs. So the doctor steered me toward a medication that my test results said should interact well with my body.

I hope this medication works. I am depressed since Rana died. Between low mood and anxiety, I really don’t want to do very much. I get through the things I absolutely must do, but not much more. I’m grateful that my new boss at work has recut my job responsibilities — I was carrying far too much before, and now my job is do-able by one human being. The things I’m responsible for now, I am good at and enjoy.

You might be wondering how I keep publishing here six days a week. Some of that is sheer stubbornness — I’ve kept this schedule all these years and I don’t want to stop now. But most of it is that I know from experience that to keep depression from getting worse, I must keep doing the things I enjoy. I make myself do them. So I’m still getting out there with my cameras, still writing about the things that come to mind, still working on my next book. I don’t feel terribly creative right now, and so far this year I haven’t produced anything (words or photographs) that feel like great work to me. But I know that keeping at it is part of keeping myself together, and that I’ll start producing satisfying work again in due time.

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