Saturday, September 22, 2018

See You in September

September has always been a special month for me, partly because it is the month of my birthday, partly because it is also the month of the birthday of my oldest child, and partly because it marks what for most of my life was my favorite season.

During the past eight years, however, September has become even more special to me. I realized the other day that this will be the first one in eight years that I have mainly spent at home ... and as I reflected back on the past seven Septembers, I realized that, in addition to everything else, September has become a month of memories for me ...

On Alcatraz

As September 2011 dawned, I had just met Mark several weeks before. I had also been unexpectedly served with divorce papers. Mark had long planned a road trip up the northern California and Oregon coasts, and he asked me to go with him. It was a tough decision: my professional and family situations were precarious. On the other hand, I knew instinctively that this was an opportunity to follow my heart in a way that I had never done before. I chose to go, and as a result, my life was forever changed.

Wine tasting in Sonoma

Mark drawing "Mark Loves Joseph" in the sand on a California beach.

One of our all-time favorite pics together, on the Oregon Coast.

We hadn't been home long from this first trip together when Mark scheduled our second: a cycling trip in Europe the following September. I basically hadn't been on a bike since my mission days in the mid-80's, but never mind. Mark had confidence that I could do it, and after training hard the summer of 2012, we went.

One of the highlights of that trip was taking my partner back to where I had served as an LDS missionary 27 years before.

In the interior of Corsica during our bike tour there.

Cycling up to the Col du Galibier in the French Alps.

Our world was rocked the following spring of 2013 when Mark was diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer and he was given 3-5 years to live. As we recovered from the shock, we decided to have a commitment ceremony in late August, followed by a honeymoon to Maui and Japan in September. It would also be a homecoming for Mark, as he had spent most of the first 11 years of his life in Japan where his father was a Lutheran missionary.

On Big Beach on Maui prior to traveling on to Japan.

One of my most memorable birthdays: Mark took me to dinner at the Four Seasons on Maui and surprised me with what had become my traditional birthday treat - a piece of pumpkin pie.

The following September of 2014, we went on another bike tour in Europe, from Geneva to Nice. Afterwards, we went to Rome and Athens and did a week-long cruise of the Greek islands -- something Mark had long wanted to do.

One of my favorite pictures of us, during the cycling tour in France.

By the following September of 2015, Mark's health had begun to seriously decline. Nevertheless, we went on a six-week tour of Europe, visiting Venice and Rome, cruising in the Adriatic up the Croatian coast, visiting London, Amsterdam and Bavaria before concluding with a river cruise from Nuremberg to Amsterdam. It was a magical time for us.

In the Dolomite Mountains on a day trip from Venice.

With new friends on our cruise.

That was to be our last trip together. Mark died the following March of 2016. The cruise company that had organized the Croatian cruise was offering one in Tahiti the following September, so I went on that, partly in connection with the film I had become involved with, partly to see friends I had made the year before. It was one of my first forays into a world without Mark in it.

Upon returning home from that trip, I celebrated my birthday with eight of my ten children. It was to be one of my most special birthdays because of that.

Eight children, a son-in-law and two grandchildren. A wonderful evening.

Moving forward with life after Mark's death was one of the most difficult transitions I have made in my life. There was much I needed to process, much I needed to learn about myself, much I needed to ponder as I felt my way forward. I took up cycling again and went on a couple of tours during the summer of 2017. In September, I went on another gay cruise, this one from Rome to Nice. Afterwards, I ventured out on my own with several day trips from Paris, followed by a visit to Berlin where I celebrated my birthday with my friends Dan and Russ. 

With my friend Dan in Rome

Mont Saint-Michel in France

In Berlin on my birthday with Dan and Russ.

Now, here I am in September 2018, getting ready to celebrate a landmark birthday. As I look back on these past eight years, I feel gratitude for all that I have lived, for all that I have seen and for all--most of all--that I have felt in my heart. I'm grateful for the love I shared with Mark and for all that we were privileged to see, do and feel together. 

But I'm also grateful for the process I went through in the two years after he died and grateful for where I am today, ready for life's next great adventure ...

Friday, September 7, 2018

What I Learned About Love on Santorini

My friend and I were sitting in an open-air restaurant with commanding views of the blue Aegean below us. Despite all the throngs of people wending their way up and down the main shopping street of Oia, a town at the northern end of the Greek island of Santorini, a sense of peace and tranquility surrounded us as we gazed at the water.

I had wanted to return to this place where, four years earlier, Mark and I had visited an art gallery and bought a beautiful reproduction of one of the frescos found at the archeological site of Akrotiri at the southern end of the island. My friend, Craig, had wanted to return to a crystal shop where he had, also four years earlier, purchased a necklace for his partner. We had therefore decided to set out together that morning from our cruise ship to visit this place that was special to both of us. I was, perhaps fittingly, unable to find the art gallery, but we did manage to find the crystal shop and had each purchased a piece of jewelry as a souvenir.

Now, we were sitting in the restaurant, enjoying a glass of wine as we awaited the arrival of my friend's partner from another part of the island. We smiled as a string of donkeys was led down a path next to the restaurant.

As my friend and I talked, the subject of my recent re-entry into the world of dating came up. Craig had met Mark six months before he died, but hadn't had a chance to get to know him. "I'm sure," Craig said at one point, "that Mark told you before he died that he'd like you to be happy, to eventually find someone who you could share your life with."

I looked at Craig and smiled. "Actually," I replied, "no, he never said that. We never had that conversation." A puzzled look crossed Craig's face. I smiled. "That was one area," I continued, "where he simply couldn't go. He never said those things to me because frankly he just couldn't handle the thought of me being with someone else. It was too much for him."

This wasn't the first time someone had made the assumption Craig had made. I think it's part of the story people make up in their minds about people who have a terminal illness. I understand it.

What I didn't say to Craig is how, during the months -- and years -- after Mark died, there were times when I had mourned this inability of Mark's to let me go and wish me well, to leave his blessing upon me to eventually find happiness with someone else. I also came, only fairly recently, to realize how this had held me back from "getting back out there" because I carried feelings of guilt and not wanting to hurt Mark's feelings, even though Mark was no longer here.

Oia: Homes and hotels cascading down toward the hillside.

As I sat there in the moments following my response to Craig's statement, gazing off toward the Aegean, I thought about yet another realization I had come to only a week or so before I had left for Greece ... 

The love that Mark and I had was profound, rich ... and rare. Many, many people expressed this to me both before and after he died. "Most people never experience what you two shared," was a not uncommon statement. What I didn't realize until 2-1/2 years after Mark's death is that those statements had contributed to a belief I carried deep within me that they were right ... and that I would never again find love, for my ability to do so had died with Mark. Furthermore, during those dark months after he died, I could only see the love that he had proffered me, not the ability within me to love freely and deeply, as I had done with him. In those lonely times, I saw not the possibility for me to attract deep love, only the absence of the love I had felt from Mark.

These realizations had only come after I had finally reached a point this past June where I decided two milestones had been reached in my personal development that told me I was ready to start dating. First, I felt I was strong enough in myself, in my sense of self following the deep enmeshment that existed between Mark and me during the three years following his diagnosis, to contemplate entering into another relationship. When Mark died, I didn't know who I was. It took a while for me to find myself. Secondly, I felt like I had grieved completely what had disappeared from my life -- Mark and my relationship with him -- in order to allow me to enter into another relationship without comparing it to what Mark and I had or to compare another man to Mark. 

Me, Rafi and Craig in Oia

All of this flashed through my mind as I sat in that restaurant in Oia. And then it came: Suddenly, I felt Mark's presence in my mind, and the realization burst open there that he had continued to progress, wherever he is, and that he was now in a place where he could joyfully and lovingly wish me well in finding someone to share my life with. There was also a note of apology that he had not been able to do this while he was still here. But the love that I felt from him during that moment, the earnestness of his desire that I find happiness with someone else, more than compensated for any regret or sadness.

A huge smile on my face, I turned back to Craig and shared with him what had just happened, and later, with his partner, Rafi. My heart was singing. Perhaps I would have come to the realization I had just received somewhere else at some other time; but I couldn't help but feel that I was meant to receive it there, among friends in a place that had been special to Mark and me. I knew that this alone had made my trip to Greece worthwhile, and I returned home a changed man.