Lover's Key, Florida

Lover's Key, Florida

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Monday, February 28, 2011

My Eyes So Soft

Yesterday was all about the past for me.  While sorting through one of my "junk drawers" I came across an index card with a name and telephone number on it.  Bub and Lou Ann  were friends and classmates when we spent a year in Portland, Oregon, a long, long time ago. It was Lou Ann's name on the card I found.  I had heard that Bub, her husband, had died a few years ago.  I dialed the number on the card, and Lou Ann answered out in Tacoma, Washington.  We immediately recognized each other's voices, but agreed that if we were to meet on the street we probably wouldn't know each other.  After a quick summary of our lives since that memorable year we spent together as students and friends, she gave me Dick and Peggy's telephone number.  Dick and Peggy were also part of that learning experience in Oregon.  I called their number, and had a delightful conversation with both of them.  Yet another reason to make a trip to the Pacific Northwest this spring.  My conversations with them filled me with nostalgia and happy memories of a time in our life when Gwen and I enjoyed  a great adventure along with our young family of John and Jeanne.

I'd been thinking about something Fr. Ben said in church recently: "We can't change the past, but we can change our relationship to it." When I was studying  in Portland, I heard a lecture by a psychiatrist named George Saslow, and he said something quite similar:  "We are products of our past, not prisoners of it."  Now, what does all that mean in my life today?  Obviously, I can't change the past.  Gwen fought the cancer for as long and as hard as she could.  I cared for and loved her the best way I knew how to do.  On November 12, 2010, at 8:40 p. m. she died.  I am a product of all that and so much more, but I need not be a prisoner of it. 

 She is gone, and I am here.  In spite of the diabetes and the cancer, she enjoyed life to its fullest for as long as she could.  She was proud of and loved with all her heart each one of our children.  Her three grandchildren held a special place in her heart and life.  She cared for and about everyone she knew. That's the legacy she leaves me, and I try each day to  maintain and cherish it. Is that a change in perspective?  Is that a change in my relationship to the past?  I can best describe it as an emerging understanding.  I don't know yet where it will eventually take me.  Steve, a friend I've met in the bereavement group I attend, sent me this poem.  It is powerful and it moves me and describes so well what those of us who have lost a spouse experience every single day as we struggle with our relationship to the past:

My Eyes So Soft

Your loneliness so quickly.
Let it cut more

Let it ferment and season you
As few human
Or even divine ingredients can.

Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My voice so

My need of God

Hafiz, 14th C. Persia
Someone will always be missing in my heart, dear.  Help me continue to listen to life with soft eyes. 

Sunday, February 27, 2011


It was a nice, easy Saturday afternoon and evening.  Watched the UM basketball game in the afternoon, they finally won a close game.  Sorted out a drawer full of  "treasures" from my career in the schools.  All those letters, cards, thank you notes; reminded me of the letters from Gwen; recollections of a life full of love and caring and the wonderful gift of being able to share all that with each other.

Last night it was kind of snowy.  I snuggled in the afghan that Gwen's friend Rene made for me and watched a movie--Ashton Kutcher and Kathering Higel.  Kind of a cute love story, of course, sad that Gwen wasn't here to watch it with me.  When I got in the car to bring the DVD back to the library I got that desolate feeling I sometimes get.  Gwen isn't there, in the seat next to me.  Even during the times when I had to help her do almost everything, including getting in and out of the car, it was still nice having here warm presence there, someone to touch, feel, kiss on the cheek, holler at me for accelerating too fast.  I wonder if anyone who has lost a loved one could ever have anticipated  how much all of those seemingly  inconsequential things would be missed.  I sure didn't.

Today I'll sing in the choir at the noon mass.  This will be a special day, the mass will be in memory of Gwen.  I think I'll always have this ache in my heart whenever I see the words Gwen and "in memory of"  in the same sentence.  I won't lose sight of what she did leave me:


Your beautiful handwriting
one of the many things
I loved about you.

I see it now
on envelopes addressed to me,
neatly in the corner:

Box 558
Gaastra, Mich.

No MI or Zip Code
not then
just beautiful handwriting.

What a treasure
I hold in my hand,
trace with my finger,

All you left behind
all that awaits.

John A. Bayerl, February 26, 2011

And I am thankful, dear, for the love we shared.  I know you want me to cherish the fruits of our love; the strength of our four children, the delight of three grandchildren, brothers and sisters, yours and mine, all the spouses, and so many friends, near and far.   Times like this it's good to cherish the pain along with the joy, and remember all it brought us.  All manner of things will be well.

Saturday, February 26, 2011


Sometimes, like last night, I feel as though I'm beginning to get a perspective on things.  (I know, that's always a mistake, to think that way.)  I attended the Huron/Pioneer basketball game at the invitation of Mae, my friend and former colleague.  Our Huron River Rats totally dominated the game, and I saw some other friends from the past.  It felt good to be doing familiar things.  That's the change in perspective.  Nothing changed except everything.

It's been a busy day, an hour at the gym, then a class at Arbor Hospice called Cooking for One.   I'm beginning to recognize some of the people at these events from other groups I've attended. We certainly aren't alone, it just feels that way. My friend,  Marie, was there, the one who translated Gwen's shorthand note for me.  She commented about Gwen's sense of humor.    A new idea I came away with was to remember to sit in Gwen's chair so the empty chair isn't always there as a reminder.  Also, one of the women said something about living a long life; I thought; I'm guaranteed to have a long life, every single day is so darn long. Anyway, it's nothing compared to the months of long days Gwen spent either sitting in her chair or lying in bed, never with a word of complaint. When it came time to have a hospital bed for her, she may have bent the "don't complain rule" just a little:

She didn't care for the idea
of  the hospital bed;
fought it like mad,
hated those rails,
didn’t want it in the house,
knew what it meant.

I didn’t like it either.

The bed meant so little
in the scheme of things.
It left the day after she did.
All it meant left with it.

Wish she could have stayed,
even with the bed.
I miss her all the time.
All she meant.

John A. Bayerl, February 17, 2011

I do miss you, sweetheart, all the time, with all my heart.  Cute how you signed that note: Sleep easy tonight and I'll probably see you tomorrow.  Yours, Yours truly, Yours very truly, Very truly yours, Gwen. 

Friday, February 25, 2011


It should have been a pretty good day; up bright and early, a little snowy, but the drive to Clarkston High School wasn't bad.  The student teacher I observed did a great job of breaking a class of 50 students into manageable groups and teaching them about basketball skills.  On the way home I stopped in Novi for a visit with Dick and Mary, that always cheers me.  I read somewhere that to some people grief feels like fear;  not me, I feel sad and weepy.  And, I  know why I feel that way.  Clarkston High's  athletic teams are called the Wolves.  One of the walls in the gym where I was this morning had a beautiful painting of a pack of wolves.  Gwen was a friend to wolves, I remember some fierce arguments she and her dad had about them.  Barney, her dad, always took the argument that wolves would decimate the deer population.  Gwen saw them as part of the natural heritage of the U. S. and valued their preservation.  What a great memory, well worth the sad and weepy drive home.  Gwen was  fond of saying that our love was alway and forever:


Always and forever
is how she signed
cards and letters meant for me.

Today, when those words
are no longer
just a nice idea,
I am grateful
and thankful
and blessed
that she knew to write them.

She must have known
there would be days like this
always and forever

John A. Bayerl, 2-24-11

Always and forever brings me great comfort today, dear; tinged with a little sad and weepy.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


Yesterday was another of those bittersweet days that others who are immersed in the grieving process tell me to expect.  The memoir writing group I've rejoined went well; my  recollections of asking  Gwen's dad, Casismir, a. k.. a. Barney, for her hand in marriage and receiving a perfunctory response of "no" was well received.  In the evening John, Jr.,  Amy and I celebrated Brooke's 8th birthday at a restaurant in Brighton.  It was such fun to see the delight on Brooke's face when I was able to present her with a new bicycle.  The bittersweet part is knowing and remembering how much Gwen enjoyed that sort of thing.  I wrote on Brooke's birthday card that she will always be in grandma's heart.

All in all, it was one of those days that was tinged with melancholy, and I  missed my perfect partner more than usual.  There never appears to be any rhyme or reason to this, it just happens that on certain days I have a much more pronounced awareness that someone who occupied such an important part of my life is never ever going to be with me again on this plane of existence. On days like that I find myself  often touching the urn with Gwen's ashes, a tangible proof that she's with me, but in a different way.   It's tough, a reminder, again, of  the  intense pain inherent in daring to love deeply; the kind of love Gwen and I experienced when we found ourselves by losing ourselves in each other.  When I read that last sentence it really sounds kind of corny, but that does nothing to lessen the truth of it as we lived it.  I wrote a few lines about it:

I told her often
how much I loved her.
Miracle of miracles,
she always loved me back,
even more.
Every single time.

Who is to blame me for missing her
with this ache in my heart?
Every single day.

John A. Bayerl, February 15, 2011

The ache in my heart is my best proof that our love goes on,  dear.  In ways I cannot imagine, we will someday see each other again.

Good news!  A delivery truck just arrived with a supply of baby raviolis  from Dina Mia Kitchens in Iron River--Yooper soul food.  They are just like the cappellettis that Gwen's mom, Bertha, used to make.  When I opened the box I saw a five dollar bill on top of the invoice.  The woman who prepared the shipment was able to combine it with another, and refunded half of the shipping cost.  Nowhere but in the U. P., eh.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Winter Seeds

Today was one of those kind of days that we loved when we lived in Marquette--bright sunshine,  crisp air, snow, the eternal enemy, beaten into submission by the Toro, looking all white and pretty.  It also reminded me of the U. P. 200 Dog Sled Race.  Gwen and I helped out as volunteers, she, with her nursing background,  worked with the veterinarians, who made sure the dogs were healthy and treated humanely.  With my limited skills, I got to help park cars.  My fondest memory of that event has to do with when we were back at our home after the race had begun.  We lived south and east of Marquette in the town of Harvey, and the trail to Munising ran right through our back yard.  Most of the time in the winter we hated having the trail so close to our home because snowmobilers used it and would go racing through any time of day or night.  The dog teams were the complete opposite.  We would get a hot cup of coffee or cocoa and sit on our back deck to await their arrival.  In contrast to the roar of the snowmobiles, the pat, pat pat of the dogs' paws and the whisper of the sled's runners were all we heard as the team would glide by with the musher standing straight and tall on the back;  often, a light snow might be falling, adding to the ethereal effect. As I continue to review and relish my life with Gwen it is those kind of moments that I look at again, cherish and the carefully stow away.  The process of grieving involves having to do that with so many precious past moments, and, at least for me,  it's good to do that.

My brother, Dick, gave me a book of meditations by Teilhard De Chardin.  Seeming to fly in the face of what I just wrote about those fond memories, this quote appears on the front cover:  "The future is more beautiful than all the pasts."  Now that is comforting and hopeful.  Apropos of  finding myself reminiscing about winter, I found this meditation in the book that speaks directly to the twin topics of grief intertwined with hope:

Do not brace yourself against suffering.
Try to close your eyes and surrender yourself,
     as if to a great loving energy.
This attitude is neither weak nor absurd,
it is the only one that cannot lead us astray.
Try to "sleep" with that active sleep of confidence
     which is that of the seed in the fields in winter.

One of the songs we chose to have sung at Gwen's funeral  was The Rose.  We all know the final lines. . . .

.just remember,
in the winter,
far beneath the bitter snow,
lies the seed 
that with the sun's love
in the spring becomes the rose.

Gwen loved roses.  I am beginning to feel spring emerging in my soul; soon it will be time to awake from that "active" sleep of winter and  work in Gwen's Garden in the back yard. You can bet there will be a rose bush, dear.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


I try always to keep clear my primary purpose in making these postings.  It is to honor the memory of my dear wife Gwen.  I find, however, that at times, rather than a memorial commentary per se,  they take the form of a memoir.  This posting will probably fall into that category.  It's unavoidable, to talk about Gwen is to talk about me, we were pretty much inseparable all of our life. In a talk on transformational love Msgr. Zenz made a statement that "when we fall in love we find ourself by losing ourself in the beloved."   It helps me to understand my grief to think about how Gwen and I, early on, really did lose ourselves in one another.  I'm sure we didn't talk about it in that manner.  It was more like the note I talked about yesterday where she says, "I can't think or concentrate much tonight because you give me too much to think about myself."  This is an extremely self-confident, cocky young woman, 19 years old, who is making this statement.  I remember it well.  Love, real love, can be scary.  It's such a leap of faith.  What we both learned, of course, is that when you fall, you fall forever, at least, that's how it was for us.

The first five years of our marriage were an exciting adventure to say the least.  Year one we spent the summer in Marquette where I attended summer school.  (Also, this was our "honeymoon".)  In the fall we moved to Ann Arbor where I attended the UM and Gwen worked as a secretary in the Dietetics Department at the Veteran's Hospital in Ann Arbor.  It wasn't all work, she also became pregnant with our first child, son John.  Year two we spent in Reedsville, Wisconsin, where I was the "Guidance Man" in the schools and Gwen gave birth to our daughter Jeanne.  Year three we were in Portland, Oregon, where I completed a year of graduate studies and Gwen participated with me in many of the group activities that were popular at the time; "sensitivity groups" come to mind.  That year we discovered "the pill." Years four and five we lived in Flint, Michigan, where I served as guidance director for the Westwood Heights Schools and Gwen worked as a substitute teacher.  Early in year five Gwen gave birth to our third child,  Michael, and, later in the year,  I secured a position as a counselor with the Ann Arbor Public schools.  In the fall of that year we moved to Ann Arbor.

In order to earn money for a down payment on a home in Ann Arbor I spent the summer of 1968 working as a security guard at the Chevrolet Stamping Plant in Flint.  The job paid very well, but I filled in for vacationing permanent employees, which meant I worked weekends, holidays and the late shifts, 3:00 p. m. to 11:00 p. m. and sometimes 11:00 p. m. to 7:00 a. m.  Gwen was left with the task of keeping the household running.  She had now reached full maturity and become a most beautiful woman in spite of having given birth to three children; I could tell by the way men looked at her when we were out together. I remember feeling some occasional pangs of jealousy when I had to leave her alone at night although she never gave me the slightest reason to doubt her love.  Maybe it was more like I've discussed before, I was jealous of myself. I wanted only to continue to be worthy of that wonderful woman.

One task I had as a night watchman was to  spend four of the eight hours of my shift assigned to a little guard house in a field next to a place where trains enter the property through a gate in the cyclone fence.  My only job was to remain alert and, if, as occasionally occurred, a train came through the gate, I would write down the number of the train and the time it arrived.  Remaining alert was the challenge, I was not allowed to read,  listen to a radio, talk on the telephone or do anything that might distract me from my primary duty which was to wait for that next train to come down the tracks.  No one had said anything about writing, so I did a lot of that when I pulled duty guarding the railroad tracks.  Looking back now, I can see that it was a blessing in disguise because it forced me to slow down the crazy pace of life I had been pursuing and reflect on the important things in my life, and my beautiful wife Gwen was number one on that list.  It was then that I wrote this lengthy reflection on the love of my life.  I found it in its original, written in pencil on a yellowed sheet of paper from that guardhouse by the railroad tracks:


How strange it seems, but it’s true
to be married five years and awake one
day to discover
that your love for your wife is real,
and to feel in your heart what it means
when you say you love her,
to know and to feel that this woman
is your commitment, not just for now,
but for always,
and to know that this love that you feel
will grown stronger and more beautiful through
all of your days.

Does this mean that you did not love her before?
That for five years and more you’ve been
living a lie?
I think not, for it seems only right
that, if love is to grow, its earlier
imperfections must die,
and be recognized as such and nothing more,
lest they smother the tender new love and
prevent it from bearing new fruit,
which too must be harvested and planted anew,
so that new love may again appear while the
love that bore it remains mute.

So you ask her (your wife) to understand
that this new you who’s come into
her dull routine life,
seeks only to say words to her
that you’ve said before and will say again
to her, your wife,
that with each time she hears them again,
the man who speaks them is a little more
devoted and true,
and he’s learned a little bit more
about what it means when a husband
tells his wife “I love you.”

John A. Bayerl,  circa 1968

After I shared this with Gwen, I put it away to be typed later.  Now, almost 50 years later, I finally got around to typing it.  It means as much today as it did then, the evolving and growing love that I shared in the poem didn't die with her.  She's reading and loving those word again, just as I am.

Monday, February 21, 2011


I keep finding these things.  One day last week it was a note that Gwen had written to me, entirely in shorthand.  She had written the note while we were studying together in the library at what was then Northern Michigan College, it is now a university.  She was in her second year as a business major and I was in my last semester before beginning student-teaching as a business teacher.  We both knew shorthand, she was way better at it than I.  Although I taught shorthand to farm kids in the U. P. 48 years ago, I don't remember a word of it now.

The longer I live, the more convinced I become that there are no coincidences.  I have been attending a bereavement group sponsored by the hospice that served Gwen and me.  A member of that group is someone I know through church who recently lost her husband.  In our conversations I had learned that she teaches shorthand at a local community college.  Lo and behold, I find this note, in shorthand, from Gwen, and my friend Marie volunteers to transcribe it for me.  It was close to 50 years ago, but as I read Marie's transcription of Gwen's note, I remembered with total clarity that night with Gwen in the library.  I'm listening to some "Oldies" music as I type this, the song being played right now is the old Jimmy Dean song, Big Bad John.  Gwen's note is addressed to me as Big Bad John.  True, it just happened.  Sure makes it easier to believe in miracles.

When I read the note she wrote that night so long ago I get a mixture of feelings that is part complete emptiness and sadness and part profound joy at  remembrances of our young love.  And it was very, very young, it could not have been more than three months since we had first met.  The weekend before we had attended a party, and, without going into too much detail, afterward we had connected at a physical level that left no doubt that there was something special, almost electric between us.  This is what she talks about in her note.  Powerful stuff indeed.  What a gift to have this tangible reminder (It's in her own handwriting, more correctly, shorhandwriting.) of such a tender period in our love.

I suppose it could be argued that  it's unhealthy to come upon these reminders of something that was so long ago and fixate on them.  I don't think so.  Just today I came across some Jello cups in the pantry, lime Jello with pineapple in it. Gwen loved it, and I had stocked up on it just before she died.  My remembrances of how much she enjoyed it as I fed her that Jello are no less tender and visceral than are the ones of that night in the library at Northern almost 50 years ago.  Today, in the New York Times BOOK REVIEW,  two books authored by grieving widows were reviewed.  One by Joyce Carol Oates and the other by Michelle Latiolais.  I can't bring myself to read those kinds of books yet.  My own grief is still so beyond my grasp and understanding that I can't find the energy or time or, indeed, the desire to want to read about the grief of another. I can listen to others tell me about their grief, I just can't read about it.  It's their grief, not mine.  If I've learned anything since Gwen's death it's that grief is totally personal.

 Where am I going with this?  Oh, yes.  A quote from the book by Michelle Latiolais caught my eye:  "One wants what one has loved," she writes, "not the idea of love."   The young, tender love that Gwen and I shared in the library that night is the one I miss and want, and it is no different in substance or meaning in my life than is the love we shared as I spooned green Jello with pineapple into her mouth four months ago.  That's what grief is like, missing all of that.

Three of Gwen's best friends from high school have invited me into correspondence with them.  As is the case with all things having to do with her past,  it is such a joy to have them introduce me to the Gwen I didn't know.  One of these friends told me about a letter she had gotten from Gwen telling her about me and that she had "fallen in like" with me and that she knew it would only get better.  It sure did, and that was what was going on when she wrote the note in the library.  I don't think my poem does it justice, it only gives a flavor of what that beautiful moment was like:


Northern Michigan College
 is printed at the top of the paper

The rest of it is in shorthand.

My friend Marie teaches shorthand
at the community college.
She transcribed the note for me.

Here’s what it said.

Tuesday night, 8:30
the two of us, sitting at a table
studying in the library
one of our first dates.

She wonders, in shorthand,
what I’m thinking about.
About her specifically.

She says I give her too much
to think about.

Let’s talk about John and Gwen, she says,
Remember last weekend?
How could I have forgotten, she asks?
I’m confused, don’t know what to think.

I remember last  weekend.
Remember it exactly, the night we fell in love.

(Around that time
she had written this to a friend:
I’m “in like” with John,
and it will only get better.)

There, that night, in the library;
 she knew it had gotten better.
We had fallen in love.
That kind of news takes some getting used to.

The last shorthand symbol she wrote in that note
is the one that means yours.
She knew.

John A. Bayerl, February 21, 2011

I miss the one who wrote me the note about new love, not the idea of that love.  Ideas can't keep me warm on a snowy Sunday night. Thank you for the shorthand note you wrote that night in the library, Sweetie, and now I'm going to have some green Jello with pineapple in it.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


Last Sunday, when I went to sit in the pew at church, I spotted a sheet of paper on the floor.  I picked it up.  It was the first page that had been torn out of one one of the hymnals.  ALL WILL BE WELL,  it said at the top.  It's from The Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich.  C. S. Lewis quoted it his book A Grief Observed, I remembered reading it in there and finding great comfort in the words of the complete quote.  Yesterday I had the good fortune to attend a workshop by a singer/songwriter named John Angotti.  He said this, and it stuck with me, "Sunday is all about Monday."

All will be well
and all will be well
all manner of things will be well.

When I saw that piece of paper on the floor I didn't have to lean over and pick it up, but I did.  Sitting next to me, Gwen would poke me and tell me to pick it up.  She hated clutter.  I picked it up, the last line of the hymn caught my eye:  And so we pray to trust in the hope that all manner of things will be well.  Had that been written today, it would read It's all good.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


There are those days when it's all I can do to roust myself out of bed.  It's not depression, it's just a feeling that, as and old friend of mine from England once described it, "it might be easier to wallow in the dirty bath water than to step out clean."  It's that kind of thing. What's the point? I ask myself.  Some of my friends call it cocooning.  I don't know about that.  Aren't there butterflies inside cocoons?  I see only the caterpillar.

O. K., snap out of it!  Sit on the edge of the bed.  See her smiling at you from all those pictures.  She wants you to enjoy the rest of your life.  She'd like to be here with you.  God had other plans.  Is that so hard to understand?  I once heard someone once say that there are only two ways to faith, joy and suffering.  Enough of the suffering, get those feet on the floor.  Don't postpone life.  Go find some joy:


I lie in bed and watch
as sunshine brightens her smiling picture;
 and I think about postponing today;
like a baseball game,
postponed because of sunshine,
and my wife’s not here
to enjoy it with me.

Sounds pretty good to me,
until I remember
sooner or later
postponed games have to be played;
 as part of a doubleheader.

Do  it twice?
I can barely do it once.
Forget it.
Play ball!

John A. Bayerl, February 19, 2011

 I'll keep finding the faith, dear; through the suffering, and the joy, There's gotta be a butterfly in there somewhere.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Before The Deadly Diagnosis

Those of us who have lived with someone who was diagnosed with cancer will never forget the bravery of those for whom we were blessed to be caregivers.  I would never dare to claim to know what it was really like for Gwen to have been told she had a cancer that was incurable.  I think that only those who receive such a diagnosis can know what that feels like to the depths of their souls. I could see that it brought out the best in her.  She fought it with everything she had.  People give me a questioning look when I tell them that I never ever heard her complain or ask "why me?" It's true. She was too busy doing everything she could to live the best way she knew how to do. The cancer forced us to evaluate every day just how we were going to live fully with her diagnosis.  She never shrank from that task, and those of us who miss her every single day must do the same as we ever so slowly learn to live without her physical presence.

 We were always saddened when we heard stories about survivors who, when confronted with the cancer diagnosis, simply quit.  There are people like that.  They have a right to make that choice, of course. Similarly, just last night I heard a story about a young man who served for several years as the primary caregiver for his mother who was diagnosed with cancer.  Shortly after his mother was diagnosed, his father left, stating that it was "too painful for him to watch his wife die."  As his son said, "b. s."  At the risk of sounding arrogant, the pain I felt as I bore witness to Gwen's brave battle, came nowhere near what she taught me, her children, grandchildren and so many who knew and loved her, about living, and dying, with class and dignity.  She and I had a discussion about this on her birthday back in 2009.  This is what I wrote about it:

                                                                         BEFORE THE DEADLY DIAGNOSIS

We are grateful for,
and appreciative of
the quality of life we own,
the gift of each day,
the opportunity to live life
to its fullest.

Was life, just life,
ever so real, so near, so present,
indeed, so important,
before the deadly diagnosis?
Is that what it takes?
How sad.

John A. Bayerl,  October, 2009

Maybe that's what I miss most of all my dear; each day hearing you say, with actions more than words, c'mon, John, we can do this.  I have to remember how grateful you were for something as simple and basic as having your teeth brushed.  In the end, it's all so much more simple than we can possibly imagine.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


Shortly after Gwen died I had this image that my life was like wading in a trout stream.  In this stream was this huge boulder named Gwen where I could sit and rest, eat a sandwich, enjoy the sun, marvel at the beauty of the water lilies and be safe at night if need be.  Then one day, out of nowhere, came a huge wave that carried the boulder out of sight, around a bend in the stream.  I became trapped, barely afloat,  in the huge hole left where the boulder had been.  The relentless current now slowly fills the hole, it's a slow, painful process, the silt and debris that washes into the hole is washed away almost immediately.  Each day, only a little bit sticks. I know that over time the hole will be filled and I'll be able to walk where I once struggled just to keep from drowning. But, I remind myself, the boulder remains around a bend in the stream.

Three years ago Gwen gave me a birthday card that I keep close at hand.  On the front was an abstract picture of  water gently flowing in an arc, aptly titled A Bend in The River.  Inside the card she wrote this:  John, The love of my life!!  I will miss you terribly someday, but I'm hoping we get to spend another of your birthdays together and I get to make a German Chocolate Cake again. And she signed it:  Love always, XOXO, Gwen.  I'll miss having her bake that cake on my birthday later this year.  I usually was the one who took the time to make the coconut pecan frosting; I'll even miss doing that. Someday I'll have to write a poem about that boulder in the river, today, my life is more like trying to be more with less:


It should be easy;
learning to be more with less.
So much I cared for is gone.
Less to do, more time, should be easy.

If it were just money, or things,
that would be easy.
Can’t even add them up,
the things I no longer have.

What do I do with the memories,
her smell on my pillow?

I keep telling myself
there must be a way to do this,
be more with less.

John A. Bayerl, February 14, 2011

I'm  more complete thinking about that boulder around the bend in the river, missing me.  Thanks for all you did leave me, sweetheart.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


In any family, there are all sorts of unwritten rules.  Gwen was the master of them.  Amy reminded us about when she and John spent their first Thanksgiving with us and Gwen asked her if she would like to take home some stuffing from the turkey.  At that point, she told us, John took her aside and said, "She's not asking if you want stuffing; she's asking you how much stuffing do you want."   I felt her presence on Valentine's Day as I prepared to share a meal at John's house. Earlier in the week I had sent Valentines to each of the children and their spouses and the grandchildren. I could almost see her checking each item off the list--valentines for everyone, cherry pie for dessert, a little gift for Brooke. . . . Good job, John.  That was Gwen's way.

Yesterday was one of the  days each month when our house is cleaned.  I,  spent the morning picking up and straightening out everything in sight.  I had to get the house nice and neat for the cleaning ladies.  There were places to go and things to do, and I thought about leaving the house a mess.  I couldn't do it. She is with me still, and she would know.

Throughout her illness the unwritten rule was that we are never going to give in to the cancer  She would live life, on her terms, to the fullest.  A rule she never broke, even at the end.  Two weeks before she died, she was still wondering about other treatment options.  She asked if she should call the kids and tell them that she  was at peace with knowing that the end was near.  I told her that they knew.   She did call Mike to tell him that she was OK, that was the nurse in her.  I look at her picture at the top of this page, taken three years ago.  It is someone who is busy living and loving:


Her last birthday
with us
we went to a movie,
Secretariat, she loved horses.

Sitting next to her,
there in the theater
seeing her in real life
she looked so shrunken
too small for the seat.

I saw bravely beautiful.

Wanted so much
to protect her
from what lay ahead.

I could not, of course.

Like all who shared her love,
all I could do is watch
as she showed  how to do it all.

John A. Bayerl, February 15, 2011

Thank you, honey bunch, for all those rules we try so hard not to break--especially the ones that really matter; about family, and being brave and loving deeply to the end.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


This morning was my bereavement group sponsored by Arbor Hospice.  A very interesting mix of people, all with loving tales to tell of those they've lost. It's for eight sessions; today was the fourth.  I asked whether that meant we were now half way better.  It doesn't feel like that to me.  My relationship with Gwen goes on, it's just different now.  It was better when I could reach out and squeeze her hand, or kiss her on the neck.  This different isn't better, it's just different.  I imagine I'll re-think all this several more times until it finally begins to feel right.

Valentine's Day has come and gone.  Be good to yourself, they tell me, so last night I made myself a nice steak dinner.  It was good, but I felt really stupid sitting there and eating it all by myself.  I won't do that again.  Now, Sunday night John and Amy and Brooke had me out for dinner.  That was good.  John is a great cook, and he prepared some fish he had caught through the ice just the day before.  Yummy.  The drive out there continues to be a bittersweet experience for me.  Gwen and I always enjoyed that ride.  It was a long enough ride that we had time to talk over thing without all the distractions of being at home and I always felt a strong sense of loving her and her loving me.  I tried to capture a little of what that felt like:


A familiar country road
at night
made special
by sheer ordinariness   
Dare I say sacred?

The big hill always surprised us
just by being there.
Look, the lights of Brighton
and Howell, and I think that’s Novi.
All twinkling and sparkling
in the cold clear night.

So beautiful.
You would say.

Comfortable silence.
down the hill
toward the freeway
and that life.

I reach out
you take my hand
squeeze it between your knees.

No need for words.
Tonight, tears.

John A. Bayerl, February 15, 2011

I loved how she would take my hand and rub it and then squeeze it between her knees.  No words were ever necessary.  For right now, that's what it's like to miss someone you have loved so fully and completely for all those years. Somehow it helps me to write about it.

Monday, February 14, 2011


Yesterday I attended a luncheon at The Cancer Support Community of Southeast Michigan. Gwen and I attended support group meetings there throughout her illness.  Several of our friends were there.  I ran into a couple of  friend of whom Gwen was quite fond, and they hadn't heard that she had died.  Those are always tough, moving moments.  I was filled with emotion at seeing Gwen's name in gold on a leaf on their tree of life.  Bonnie commented that Gwen was so well known and loved, as shown by the outpouring of contributions in her name.

This morning I spent a pleasant hour observing a student teacher from NMU teaching a gym class of fifth graders in Dexter.  He's really good, and it was fun to watch.  Then, home, and get ready for the my work out; in honor of Valentine's Day I wore my bright red, fleece Land's End sweatshirt, being careful not wear my grey sweat pants.  Those two colors, scarlet and grey, just don't look well together, I wouldn't be caught dead wearing them.  The sweatshirt warmed me on the outside.  After the gym, off to the grocery store to get a few things.  While there, I bought a little bouquet or red and white flowers.  They look nice on the mantel, adds a little festive touch. 

OK, I admit it, I'm trying to "be positive", but, Valentine's Day sucks.  There's no other way to put it.  Still, I know that Gwen want m to keep on trying to be as happy as I can be, maybe even get a box of chocolate-covered cherries.

I know this too; the best cure, no, not cure, response to grief is love.  I had a nice dinner with John and Amy and Brooke last night, that was filled with love. Tonight I have a spirituality support group meeting from 6:00 to 7:30.  Lots of love there. I've heard from many old friends and former students today, especially  heart warming was an e-mail message from a high-school friend of Gwen's who just checked in to see how I am doing. I see Gwen's hand in all of this. I also found a valentine Gwen sent me way back when.  There is something so comforting still about seeing her words.  She wrote, "It's a good thing you can't see yourself reflected in the mirror of my heart.  You would be conceited."

Quite fitting, I think, for Valentine's day, although I wrote it in November, is a tiny little poem I wrote for Gwen back in 1962.  She said she loved it.


It’s hard for me to believe it’s true
each time I hear you say
I think about you night and day
and whisper I love you.

In a letter to Gwen,
November 20, 1962

As true today as it was then.  Happy Valentine's Day, sweetheart.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Several years ago, when I was an adjunct lecturer with the Leadership and Counseling Department at Eastern Michigan University, Gwen and I attended the wedding of a former student .  The Apache Wedding Blessing (It was a Unitarian wedding.)  that I've posted below was printed on the back of the wedding program.  Like other gifts Gwen left behind, I found it tucked away in a basket filled with memorabilia.  I remember discussing it with her, and specifically the last line about entering into the days of our life together.  We did try to keep that sense of adventure alive in our relationship, even during the days of her illness when she was always ready for the next outing, trip or visit with friends.  Early in our love we vowed to make the most of the days of our life together, and we did.

Shortly after Gwen's death I received this from a friend, a priest, who is now in Rome: " . . .  being with Gwen in a new way - the memories, the sense of her presence, the trust in her presence before our God."  And so it is with Gwen and me, still spending the days of our life together, just in a different way.


 Now we will feel no rain,
for each of us will be
shelter for the other.
Now we will feel no cold,
for each of us will be
warmth to the other.
Now we are only two persons,
but there is only
one life before us.
Let us go now to enter into
the days of our life together.

Tomorrow is Valentine's Day.  I will remember that Gwen sent me 48 valentines.  And, the black silk panties.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


Today is another of those days it isn't necessary to mark with an X on the calendar.  At 8:30 tonight it will be three months since Gwen died.  I am certain that, for her, life has changed, not ended, in some profound way that is beyond my comprehension.  When people ask me where the words that I write come from, I tell them that they're from Gwen and God.  It's that simple and what I believe with all my heart.

Gwen will always be alive in my heart, of that I am sure.  Those who got to know her quickly became her friend; that's just the way she was.  Those she befriended are now a constant gift from her to me.  Each time I answer the phone and its one of her friends "just wanting to know how you're doing", I feel her presence.

I have heard from her best friends way back in high school, nurses she worked side by side with,  my family members, members of our Faith Community, friends from our Marriage Encounter days, my golf buddies, so many friends from the past, and, more recently, friends from support groups we attended. I'm sure there are many more I haven't mentioned, and, I cherish each one of them.  It's what keeps me going on mornings like this when I remember the events of that night three months ago.  I have the TV on as I write this, the white noise of a life alone, and a commercial that she and I enjoyed so much just came on.  It's the one where the little white dog worries about losing his treasured bone and the singer in the background sings about trouble.

I wrote about her friends:


Friends who knew you
remind me of things
you said or did,
tell me things
I didn’t know,
about how cute you were
when you told of getting away with stuff
like going for a ride in the car
without my knowing.
Or, without letting your dad know
that you left the emergency brake on.

I thank my friends.
It’s not like having you here
where white lies matter.
But it helps.

John A. Bayerl, February 12, 2011

I see more clearly now why we loved that commercial.  Try as I might, I couldn't keep my treasure safe.  Trouble. . .

Then again, none of us can keep our treasure safe that way; not even our most precious one.

Friday, February 11, 2011


Gwen loved shopping.  Even during her final days, when she was barely able to sit herself up in bed, she would ask me every day when we were going to go do some Christmas shopping.  To say that I was never particularly fond of shopping would be an understatement.  It wasn't the shopping so much as her inability to make decisions that would frustrate me.   And, of course, even after the decision was made and the item  purchased and taken home, it was important to keep the receipt because there was a good chance it would be returned.  (How she ever decided to keep me around for 47 years is beyond my understanding.  I suppose it's because I didn't come with a receipt.)

A  particularly poignant memory of a shopping experience with Gwen came to me when, shortly after her death, tucked away in a drawer, I found some costume jewelry from Macy's.  It was a pair of clip-on earrings and matching necklace.  Immediately, it brought to mind a particularly frustrating shopping experience.  Last summer,  Gwen had decided that she wanted to wear earrings and a necklace when she was lying in state at her wake.  (Yes, we did talk about that sort of thing.)  She had worn pierced earrings all her life, but the holes in her ears had grown over, so we had to find clip-on earrings.  Not an easy task, as I discovered after pushing her in her wheelchair through most of the stores in the mall that sold jewelry.  We finally found something that pleased us at Macy's. She then put them away somewhere safe, and I forgot all about them when the time came to use them.  My daughters found very nice jewelry for her to wear at her wake, but I was so disappointed when I came across the earrings and necklace we had searched for so long, days after her funeral.   And, even more upsetting, I had lost the receipt, and wasn't able to return them.  This poem isn't about the jewelry, it's about a coat we found that Gwen loved immediately, but  she thought was way too expensive--those Yooper roots run deep:


 Her expensive black leather coat
still hangs in the closet of our bedroom.
We debated so long
before buying it
at a little shop in Kerrytown.

It’s an awful lot for a coat, John.
It’s handmade by poor peasants in Paraguay, Gwen,
and you look so nice in it.
I  only had to take it back once
before she decided to keep it.

I thought I might give it to
some deserving poor person.
On second thought,
I’m deserving, aren’t I?
I’m keeping it.

John A. Bayerl, February 11, 2011

I knew that part about being made by poor peasants would get to her; she was always on the side of the underdog.  When I'm finished with this posting I'm going to find that jewelry and put it in one of the pockets of the  black leather coat. She did look so nice in that coat.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


This morning, when I awoke, I lay there for the longest time thinking that  I would declare a do nothing day.  Maybe, I thought, I've been trying to do too much.  I'm stuck, and I admitted it.  Yet, I know others who have survived the deaths of their spouses, and they seem to be doing just fine, moving on.  It's just that this particular person, me, doesn't want to do that yet.  It seems somehow disloyal and almost profane; even though I know that in time I will join the ranks of those who have moved on.  Not yet.

I have pictures of Gwen everywhere, some are as recent as a few weeks before she died; some are when we first met.  They all serve as reminders of specific times and places in our life that have taken on such increased meaning and importance now that my perfect partner is gone.  I know that at some point I will pack them up and put them away somewhere safe and let my kids worry about what to do with them when I die.  The picture Gwen had taken when our engagement was announced in the newspaper held my attention this morning.  I could feel her steady, sexy gaze in the most loving of ways.  Yes, it is a sexy gaze. (My dad loved this picture; I remember him picking it up and kissing it.  Like father, like son.)   This is a picture that I suppose my kids and grandkids must look at and think, come on, that's way too sexy to be my mother, or, how could that be my grandma, she was old and wrinkly?  In the photo she's bare shouldered, wearing some sort of fluffy white thing, hair perfect, and her clear blue eyes look out at me even now in the most reassuring way.  Love will see us through; that's what she says to me, even now.  These word came to me:


Today, more than usual,
I miss her so much.

Back in September, 1962,
she signed  a letter like this:

I love you so much
I just can’t explain,
but you make my life complete.

Those are her exact words.
I loved seeing them then
as I do now,
knowing full well
what it’s been like
making someone’s life complete.

She spent her life
explaining her love to me.

Today, more than ever,
it’s hard letting go of that.

John A. Bayerl,  February 10, 2011

The thought occurs to me that it would be so unfortunate if I were to find it easy to let go of that. She continues to complete my life, as always, in her own way.   This won't be a do nothing day after all.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Preparing for Angels

I awoke this morning thinking about the important role Northern Michigan University has played in my life.  Unlike most of my siblings,  I was more "mathematically challenged", otherwise I too may have found my way to Michigan Tech.  Instead, I enrolled at  NMU, and it was there that I met Gwen and graduated with a teaching degree, ironically, with a minor in mathematics.  Then, in 1998, I was presented with the opportunity to take charge of the K-12 Michigan School Guidance and Counseling Program at NMU.  Neither Gwen nor I were quite prepared to retire at that time, but we decided that this was an adventure we couldn't pass up.  Besides, living in Marquette would give Gwen the chance to be near her parents and sister in Gaastra, and her brother in Rock.  I had always felt a certain loyalty to NMU and was excited at the opportunity to contribute to my profession.  I began my duties at NMU in June, and, in order to be fully eligible for  retirement benefits, Gwen had to continue in her role as an OR nurse at the Kellogg Eye Center, part of The University of Michigan Hospitals, until her birthday in October.  I was expected to meet classes on weekends, so, Gwen drove from our home in Pinckney, near Ann Arbor, to Marquette each weekend.  Whereas 36 years earlier it had been I who drove from Birch Creek to Gaastra each weekend for a year in order to be with the love of my life, it was now Gwen's turn to reciprocate by driving from Pinckney to Marquette on the weekends.  This was for only four months, but the mileage involved more than makes the case that it was Gwen who got the short end of that stick.  As was always the case with her, she never complained and was excited at the opportunity to begin another adventure.  It is not lost on me that  my present grief is eased by these memories of the time Gwen and I did have together.

Gwen and I both agreed that the decision to live in Marquette for those years was one of the best we had ever made.  She made friends there and was able to spend time with her family.  This became particularly important  when her mother, Bertha, was diagnosed with leukemia, which eventually led to her death. As for me, I loved every minute of my time with NMU.  The faculty and staff readily accepted me in spite of a lack of clarity about role and status.  I look forward to seeing many of them this summer when I plan to teach a course on campus with my son.  My fondest memories of this whole experience are those of my students, many of whom are an important part of my support network now. I was blessed with being able to work with students who were  mature in their professional aspirations  and excited about learning.  Their enthusiasm, commitment, and creativity made every weekend with them fun and exciting.  I am thankful to Gwen that she so readily saw that this was something I needed to do and did everything she could to help me.  It was during this time that I wrote this poem.  Bruce, one of my multi-talented students, also made it into a song.


late in December of
my sixty-third year on earth,
I stood alone beneath the ironwood tree,
near the southern shore of Lake Superior.

in that awful silence
and the clean, crystalline cold
I heard the sound of snowflakes
arranging their warm, intricate patterns
on the withered, shivering oak leaves of autumn.

Preparing for angels.

John A. Bayerl
December, 2000

Thank you, Gwen, for always being there for me, and for, even now, helping me prepare for angels.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


Those of us who have attended support groups for years (I attended, not one, but two bereavement groups this morning.) frequently hear about two things, quality of life, and the new normal.  Gwen and I certainly enjoyed a quality of life that was in some ways quite remarkable, in spite of her disease.  We traveled and visited with friends and relatives and were spared all that goes with a prolonged stay in a nursing home.  We also talked about how much more meaningful these adventures would have been were we in full health.  I remember Gwen's doctors talking about how treatment of the cancer would improve her quality of life.  And, it certainly did add several months to her life.  Months that she and I, as well as her family and friends enjoyed to the fullest.  But, to call that quality of life is perhaps misleading, at least from the perspective of those who must live under whatever conditions the treatments and the disease may impose.  To me it was more like a judge saying to a prisoner:  "I am sentencing you to five years in jail, and you will die before you complete the sentence; but, we'll put you in a really nice cell and treat you well."

After her diagnosis, we were also told that we would adjust to the new normal.   Since her death, I am told that I am once again going to adjust to a new normal.   I get it, I know that when my Sweet Gwen died my life would be unalterably change forever.  My goodness, we knew each other for 50 years, and every single day we loved each other the best way we each knew how to do. I resist being told to expect a time when not having that will be normal, no matter what kind of qualifier is placed before the word.  To me, the reality is that the new normal is never being normal again.  That's what it's like, at least for me.  I wrote a little bit about this:


It finally happened,
 one of those new normal days
 I was toldI would be having;
breakfast with friends
hour at the gym
back home before noon.

I needed something
that was in the room downstairs,
felt Gwen’s presence there
as I always do.
Lay on the bed.

Stared at the ceiling,
the same one she saw,
and I cried
and I cried
and I cried.

That's the new normal.
John A. Bayerl, February 8, 2011

As I re-read this, I sensed my continuing ambivalence about these topics.  Some days, like today, it's "Gosh, I wish I didn't even have to think about these things."  Then, I remind myself that the time we did have with Gwen was largely attributable to her indomitable spirit and sense of hope. She knew what matters.

Monday, February 7, 2011

If you're ever going to love me.

Watching the Packers win the Super Bowl was bittersweet for me.  Gwen wasn't particularly a sport fan; that is, unless her children or grandchildren were involved.  I do, however, have many fond memories of the two of us watching the Packers play; especially Sunday afternoons on the couch in the family room in   the house in Gaastra, watching on black and white TV. More often than not, she would ask to put her head in my lap and be asleep before the fourth quarter rolled around.  Although my children joined me with frequent Text messages throughout the game yesterday, it wasn't the same as having those moments with Gwen. Of course, those times are gone, none the less, longing for the past persists.

Gwen's and my dear friend for so many years, Elise, returned to California today, but before leaving she and I had breakfast together at a restaurant we often met at  named Afternoon Delight. She commented on the irony of the restaurant name, but it was a favorite place for us to enjoy time together.  As we said our farewells this morning, Elise hugged me, kissed me on the lips and said, "Be strong, John, and don't forget we love you a lot." During my tearful walk back to my car, I was reminded of a poem that I found folded up in Gwen's wallet.  I copied it and  sent it to friends and relatives. I has special meaning to me now in light of Elise's parting words, and because her words so reflected what Gwen told me she expects of me after she is gone. This is the poem:


If you are ever going to love me,
love me now, while I can know
The sweet and tender feelings,
Which from true affection flow.
Love me now
While I am living.
Do not wait until I’m gone
And then have it chiseled in marble,
Sweet words on ice-cold stone.

If you have tender thoughts of me,
Please tell me now.
If you wait until I’m sleeping,
Never to awaken,
There will be death between us,
And I won’t hear you then.
So, if you love me, even a little bit,
Let me know it while I am living
So I can treasure it.


On the day of Gwen's death I remember kissing her on the neck and saying "I love you". As she always did, she whispered back, "I love you more."