One of life’s hardest moments

When she was about 75, my grandma sat for a headshot at the nearby JCPenney photo studio. She sent 5-by-8-inch prints to her four sons and me, her eldest grandchild, with notes telling us, “This is the photo I want at my funeral.”

At the time, I was in my mid-20s and found Grandma’s funeral photo prep bizarre, if not macabre. At the service 15 years later, as she smiled from a framed print of the Penney’s photo placed alongside her casket, I was grateful for her foresight. Grandma in the photo looked like I most remember her, not as she did in her final years after diabetes had ravaged her body.

The notion that we will all one day die is something many prefer not to think about, conducting life as if death will never come. While that may provide some sense of comfort, it’s kinder to those who will carry on after us to be prepared.

But sometimes death comes like Carl Sandburg’s fog, on little cat feet, and there is no time to prepare.

The humor in Steven Pastis’ comic strip “Pearls Before Swine” is acerbic. Yet it’s the only comic that has ever left me in tears. When friends post about the loss of a pet on social media, I often accompany a photo of Pastis’ strip describing the sadness he and his wife felt when they had to euthanize their dog, Edee, who had cancer.

Certainly the loss of a pet is not as grave as the loss of a human. And, yet, the deaths of these creatures, who love us with a simplicity most humans are not capable of, often leaves owners with an acute ache tinged with guilt. We have all the power and sometimes we must make difficult decisions with that power. 

I adopted Goldie, the first dog of my adult life, when I was 17. I was 31 and the mother of two small boys when I had to put her down. It frustrated my then-husband when, for months after Goldie’s death, I’d randomly weep. What he didn’t understand is that grief is commensurate with love for the departed. 

On NPR’s late-afternoon show, “All Things Considered,” I once heard a piece by a woman who had an irascible hound dog who bayed unbidden, chewed furniture with abandon and frequently escaped for far-flung adventures. 

The woman’s description of her very naughty dog conveyed frustration, yes, but also her abiding affection for him. I suspect many commuters who heard that piece considered pulling off the road. Torrents of tears blinded my vision when the woman described putting down her once vibrant, then cancer-filled, dog.

Last fall I shared how my bi-black Sheltie, Lily, had disappeared for four days only to turn up in Cuyahoga Falls, easily 12 miles away. Lily was bred to be a show dog but was rejected because her coloring had too much white. 

It’s likely Lily spent much of her first eight weeks of life crated because while sweet, she’s a hesitant dog. Where my other dogs rush in to greet me, Lily’s always a few away from the fray, waiting for a quieter moment, avoiding competition for attention and affection.

While I was in Michigan with my youngest children this summer, their father, Max, took care of my three dogs. Lily developed a GI sickness the week before we returned and Max took her to our vet, who reasonably treated her for an intestinal bug.

Two days after we returned to Akron, I went to Max’s house and found Lily extremely lethargic. She was clearly dehydrated and decompensating. I rushed her to Metropolitan Veterinary Hospital. As they still have COVID curbside service, a vet tech carried Lily inside to obtain her vitals. The vet tech quickly reappeared at my car door. 

Lily, who’d turned 11 last month, had gone into cardiac arrest and died in the young woman’s arms before she’d gotten to an exam room. 

Where I had expected to help my dog with IV fluids and then determine the source of her illness, I instead picked out a cremation package while waiting for Lily’s body to be brought into the exam room so I could say goodbye.

Unlike Grandma, Lily left unexpected and without any preparations. That she didn’t suffer for long brings some measure of comfort. 

Meanwhile the two collars Lily wore remain on the passenger-side floor of my car where I placed them just before the vet tech took her inside the hospital. I don’t plan on moving them for a while.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, August 22, 2021.


Akron school mother breathes sigh of relief over COVID measures

As I listened to a voicemail from a News 5 Cleveland reporter at 7:20 p.m. July 26, my stomach dropped. She wanted to know my thoughts on Akron Public Schools’ announcement at that evening’s school board meeting — which was still ongoing. 

While I have written several columns critical of APS’s approach to education during the COVID-19 pandemic, I had no clue what the district just had announced. In fact, I hadn’t known to anticipate an announcement. 

Once Joe Biden was inaugurated, I went on a much-needed news diet. Since Donald Trump’s candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination became ascendant in 2016, I took in the daily news like I was drinking from a fire hose. 

I was not alone. During the Trump administration, unprecedented numbers of people from all political persuasions turned to their favorite news outlets. Subscriptions to the New York Times, for instance, doubled. Fox News, CNN and MSNBC all experienced ratings bonanzas.

A news diet, however, is not the same as going news free. I still get daily newsletters from the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. But I don’t read them as closely, nor do I open as many embedded articles, as before.  

And, unlike last year, during the six weeks this summer when my youngest children and I lived in a small camper in my parents’ driveway in Michigan, I didn’t stream WKSU while cooking dinner. Instead, I listened to music and kept blissfully not up to date.

Which is why my first thought when hearing from the reporter was, “Uh-oh, I’ve missed something important.” 

During the past school year, I advocated for Akron Public Schools to reopen for in-person instruction in some measure, particularly for children with individualized education plans. In mid-March, they finally did, after an entire year of remote-only learning.  

Now I was afraid the district was going to reverse course, as it had last July, and return to remote-only learning. 

Luckily, my fear was off mark and I sighed with relief when I learned Akron schools will reopen for in-person instruction this fall with protocols in place to minimize the spread of COVID-19. 

Class sizes will be reduced to no more than 24 students — a decision any public school advocate can get behind. With any luck, this class-size cap will remain in effect after COVID-19 precautions are no longer necessary. 

And, as with last spring, the district will not require students to wear uniforms this year. The benefits of uniforms in K-12 public schools is mostly anecdotal and several studies have shown uniforms have no effect on performance. Four of my five children have had to wear uniforms — none liked it and all now eschew collared T-shirts. 

But the point that is perhaps most controversial, and probably why I was asked my thoughts by News 5, is that masks will be required of everyone inside APS buildings. 

Yes, we are all tired of masks. And, yes, as a fully vaccinated person, I have enjoyed a dramatic reduction in mask wearing this summer.  

However, I unequivocally support Akron Public Schools’ decision to require masks to be worn indoors.  

The delta variant of COVID-19, which is far more transmissible than other variants, is spreading rapidly in the United States. And it is 2.5 times more likely to infect children than the original variant. 

Currently, vaccination is not required of Akron Public Schools’ employees. In addition, we do not yet have a COVID vaccine for children under the age of 12. As soon as one becomes available, hopefully most eligible children will receive it. You can be certain that my youngest two will. 

But until then, it is important to protect all children from unnecessary exposure to COVID-19. This is especially true of children like my daughter Lyra who has Down syndrome. There is now a large body of evidence that people with intellectual disabilities are significantly more vulnerable to the effects, including death, of COVID-19. 

And yet I want Lyra to attend school in person precisely because her intellectual disability made last year’s all-remote learning little better than a disaster.  

The benefit of mask wearing in schools has been widely reported, including in this New York Times piece from July 29: 

“A study of schools conducting full in-person instruction in Missouri, where mask use was required and 73 percent of schools enforced distances of three to six feet between students, found that secondary transmission was rare.”  

Supporting our schools means being willing to honestly respond to decisions the district makes. Last year I was highly critical of how long Akron Public Schools remained 100% remote in light of the evidence that schools are low-transmission centers when appropriate safety protocols are followed. 

Heading into the 2021-22 school year, I heartily applaud Akron Public Schools for making the wise decision to reopen for in-person instruction while putting in place all reasonable and responsible measures to ensure the safety of everyone in the buildings. 

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on August 8, 2021.


Peruvians understand risks of COVID. Why don’t Americans?

The battle with COVID-19 seemed to round a corner last spring. Multiple vaccines were authorized for emergency use, which many Americans eagerly received when eligible. Then, as COVID infection rates began dropping, many restrictions were lifted.  

In mid-May, the CDC announced that fully vaccinated people need not wear masks in most situations. After a year of masking up, it felt odd not to wear one — for about 10 minutes.  

Life will never be as it was before the pandemic. Some things we’ll miss, while others are best left in the annals of history. That’s the nature of change. But I was mistaken in thinking that the world was settling into a post-pandemic new normal. 

In early summer, the delta variant swept across the globe, and it didn’t skip the United States. By late July, as families prepared to send students back to school, COVID outbreaks once again began to rise.  

Today, COVID infection and hospitalization rates in much of the nation are now as high as they were last December. Masks are back, as they should be. 

When K-12 schools in Summit County opened this fall, only one district, Akron Public Schools, had a mask mandate for everyone in the buildings. That number quickly rose to 11 of the county’s 17 districts after exposure-caused quarantines kept many staff members and students at home. 

Instead of the pandemic ending, we must now protect ourselves against perpetual rounds of new COVID variants until enough humans on this planet have received the COVID vaccine to achieve herd immunity. 

While traveling last month from Lima to Machu Picchu, I found that Peruvians take COVID very seriously, and for good reason.  

While many things in America’s health care system need improvement, Peru’s seems almost nonexistent by comparison. When the original variant of COVID swept through Peru, hospital beds were hard to come by, and oxygen even more so — a plight common in many developing countries. 

When compared to 205 other countries, Peru ranks No. 1 in COVID deaths per capita, with 6,114 per million. That is more than double the COVID death rate of Hungary, the second country on the list.  

COVID vaccines first became available in Peru in May and, as of August, only citizens ages 39 or older who lived in urban areas were eligible to receive them due to limited supplies. 

All Peruvians, except in remote mountain villages, wear double masks both indoors and outside. On public transit, including the buses and trains I took, face shields are required along with double masks.  

And hand sanitizer use is ubiquitous. Not only is it required before entering any premise, most people wear sanitizer bottles strung on lanyard necklaces. They spray their hands, their masks, their clothes and each other with unabashed regularity. 

Peru has no anti-vaxxer or safety-protocol-resistance movements. The first months of the original COVID outbreak devastated the country. From that lived experience, Peruvians understand that the risks of contracting COVID are far and away greater than any risks associated with vaccination.  

Does the luxurious belief that our health care system will save us should we contract COVID (a notion no Peruvian can entertain) contribute to some Americans’ entitled resistance to following safety protocols and getting vaccinated? 

The only way this pandemic will stop disrupting daily life, including economically, is for widespread vaccination to occur. Globally, this means rich nations like ours need to aggressively obtain and dispense vaccines in developing countries from which new variants will otherwise continue to arise and spread. 

Meanwhile, back in the States, 179 million of Americans have been vaccinated with so few significant side effects as to be statistically zero. But in a country of 331 million, the U.S. vaccination rate is only 54%, which is not high enough to neutralize a disease. 

Like many, I have loved ones who are vaccine hesitaters. Last spring, my three eldest sons wanted to stage an intervention for someone in our family who is a hesitater with an autoimmune disorder. But I doubt that would have persuaded this person to get a COVID vaccine. 

Instead, our loved one finally got vaccinated because someone they respected kept admonishing everyone to do so: the pastor at their church.  

This year it was masks off in May, back on in September, but I don’t think it’ll become a regular seasonal switcheroo. Remember when white shoes and shorts were fashionable only between Memorial Day and Labor Day? If you broke that rule, however, nobody died. The same is not true of COVID safety protocols. Just ask any Peruvian. 

Mask mandates likely will remain in place all year for the foreseeable future unless the world comes together to achieve widespread vaccination rates and thereby herd immunity for COVID-19.  

Which new normal do we want?  

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, September 26, 2021.


Music transports us through time

In 1984, I took a Greyhound bus from Arizona to the East and back. At the time, round-trip bus tickets weren’t restricted to specific dates. So along the way I stopped, visited friends and family for a few days, then hopped on another bus. I did this in Chicago, northern Michigan and Dayton before returning to Tucson, Arizona, where I was living.

Spending several days on a bus was mostly unmemorable. What stands out is the music of Kate Bush, an English artist with a haunting voice. I listened to her album “The Dreaming” nonstop on my Sony Walkman while reading “Christine” by Stephen King.

In the nearly 40 since, whenever I hear Bush’s music, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, I immediately think of the novel’s ’58 Plymouth Fury possessing its owner and terrorizing the townspeople of Rockbridge, California. It’s creepy.

Music competes only with fragrance in its power to instantly transport a person to times past. That’s why couples fondly recount “their song,” one that reminds them of when they first fell in love, and class reunions play tunes that were popular the year the celebrants graduated.

The Beatles canon takes me back to my earliest childhood memories living in inner-city Chicago with my young dad and his hippy entourage. Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” conjures the darkened high school gymnasium where my friends and I hoped to be in the arms of our crushes for that 12-minute slow dance.

“Time” by The Alan Parsons Project makes me think of the sun and sand on Lake Michigan Beach where, in the summer of 1982, I unfortunately thought it a good idea to work on a tan.

Long ago on NPR, I heard a story in which a man rued the fact that he listened to pop music as a teen while his wife grew up with parents who played jazz, blues and classical music. As a result, he knew all the words to “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” whereas his wife could sing along with Billie Holiday’s entire catalog.

The takeaway was to give some consideration to the music played when children’s brains are at their peak memory-building capacity. While I’ve never specifically curated the music we listen to, my kids have grown up exposed to far more musical genres than the poor man in that NPR piece.

In 2007, soon after I left my three sons’ father, I took them on a cross-country road trip. We brought with us just four CDs, including a mix made by a friend. That limited musical repertoire resonates with each of us to this day. Recently, my son Hugo, who is now 24, told me one of the songs, Emmylou Harris’s beautifully depressing “Red Dirt Girl,” marks the end of childhood for him.

After the road trip, the boys and I had a few hardscrabble years. I discovered Damien Rice’s album “O,” which I exclusively played in the car for months. As odd as it may sound, Rice’s plaintive melodies buoyed my boys and me as they acknowledged that life is sometimes complicated.

This past spring, we watched an extended live performance of the album’s song “I Remember” and remember we did.

This has been quite a year for the irrepressible Jon Batiste, the music director and band leader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. He’s won an Oscar, Golden Globe and Critic’s Choice Award for composing the music to Pixar’s fun, yet serious film “Soul.”

But it is Batiste’s latest album, “We Are,” that scores with my youngest children, Leif and Lyra. The tracks are a joyful mix with a dash of sadness that pull from jazz, pop, funk, rap, gospel, Motown and classical music.

My two littles have been attending day camp in northern Michigan since mid-June. At 8:15 each weekday, as we pile into my car, 8-year-old Lyra cries out, “Our friend, Jon Batiste!” while 11-year-old Leif connects my iPhone to the car and starts our friend’s album.

When the New Orleans Gospel Soul Children choir launches into the title song’s refrain, “We are the golden ones, we are the chosen ones,” Lyra is right there with them belting it out in the back seat.

When I pick the children up at the end of the day, Leif immediately restarts Batiste’s album. We’ve now listened to it so many times, Leif’s begun analyzing the structure of the songs.

“I like that bit, you know like video-game music bits, that’s in the song ‘WHATCHUTALKINBOUT,’ ” he recently told me, accurately referring to the recognizable sound of 8-bit music found in retro video games. I hadn’t noticed until he pointed it out to me.

There’s no way to know how Leif or Lyra will recall “We Are” and what memories it will one day evoke in them. But that they will, I have no doubt. And what splendorous music to have lodged in one’s long-term memory.

My children and I cannot recommend enough giving the album, along with Batiste’s recent interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, a listen.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on July 25, 2021.


Driving around in my new automobile

“Are you excited about your new car?” friends asked me for several days. It wasn’t that I wasn’t, it’s just that for more than a week after I’d chosen it, I’d yet to see the car I was hoping to buy.

Boy, buying cars sure has changed since I last purchased one in 2003. That was my five-speed Toyota Matrix that, even in its jalopy latter days, drove like a peppy horse who seemed forever excited to have me hop behind the wheel.

I completely anthropomorphized my Matrix. I spoke to her when I drove, when I was a passenger and when walking by her in the garage. She also regularly received love pats on her dashboard, roof and hood.

Nor was I alone in fetishizing that little car. My first two sons, Claude and Hugo, each had a tour of duty with the Matrix, both learning how to drive her stick shift when they were 15. Claude took her to Ann Arbor his last year at the University of Michigan; Hugo took her to Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, when he worked there.

But none of us get out of here alive and that includes our beloved Matrix, whom I donated to WKSU in 2019 after she needed yet another round of repairs that would cost more than her value.

Since moving to my own house last summer, I have continued to retrieve my possessions from my former partner, Max. We were nine years in the same house and my middle-age brain isn’t so clear on what’s mine and what’s his. Other things I didn’t think to collect until I needed them, such as gardening equipment this spring.

Meanwhile, I continued to drive Max’s Toyota Sienna while he drove his Prius. My plan was to buy a car of my own in the fall after my teaching gig at the University of Akron resumed, along with the paychecks.

My schedule was fast-tracked, however, when last month Max was in an accident in which nobody was injured, but his Prius was totaled. He needed his minivan back, which meant the time had come for me to buy a car.

I loathe car shopping. In fact, I’m not a fan of shopping at all. You’ll never find me spending an afternoon wandering in and out of mall stores. I know what I like and don’t need to squander a day looking for inspiration. Most of my clothes I buy online and used.

I guess it should come as no surprise that that’s how I bought my car.

The Matrix left big tires to fill, but that was my goal. Last summer, when my son Claude bought a 2019 VW Golf (manual transmission, you bet) with only 3,000 miles, he told me it reminded him of our Matrix.

Looking online at Golfs, I quickly realized I wasn’t so much beholden to a particular make and model as I was to a four-door hatchback with a manual transmission.

Holly Christensen is the proud owner of a 2020 Hyundai Venue.

Rather than spending ungodly amounts of time in dealerships, like I did 18 years ago, I chatted online with a representative at CarMax, a national used-car sales chain. In short order, I was introduced to a vehicle I’d never heard of: a Hyundai Venue. It sits a little higher than the Matrix, which I like, but is otherwise very similar.

CarMax located a 2020 Venue with a six-speed manual transmission and only 1,100 miles (methinks the first owner struggled with the stick shift) in Kenosha, Wisconsin. No matter, CarMax will ship a vehicle to a store near you for a reasonable fee.

But I didn’t commit right away.

First, I drove another 2020 manual transmission Venue at another dealership in the area. Even driving conservatively, given the salesperson seated next to me, I liked how it handled. I made an offer, but the dealership barely budged on the price.

So I pulled the trigger and paid to have the Venue in Kenosha shipped to Cleveland. As soon as it arrived, a friend drove me to CarMax to meet what I hoped would be my new car.

“The people in the car next to us looked at you with fear as you peeled out of the stop light,” my friend told me as I checked my new baby’s peppiness.

And like the farmer in the movie “Babe,” I whispered to my eager new girl, “That’ll do, love, that’ll do.” We drove home soon thereafter.

Name suggestions are welcomed.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on July 11, 2021. I’ve since named my car “Emma Peel.”


A challenge worth the effort

It was the coolest thing I’ll never do again.

“Can you go to Peru with me next month?” asked my college bestie, Jen, in mid-July. Pre-COVID, she had booked a trip to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, but then Peru closed to tourists. When it reopened this summer, Jen was ready to go, but her travel partner’s passport had expired.

First, I confirmed that my children could stay with their father while I was gone. Then, after weighing the pros and cons, I decided this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and told Jen it was a go.

Ignorance can blissfully forestall doubts. I didn’t research what a four-day hike to Machu Picchu entailed. I figured it was like walking the Great Wall in China — mostly flat with gentle inclines.

I learned the truth the night before our hike began when our guide, Alex, met with me and the other member of our group, RJ, a 22-year-old recent graduate from Duke University. Jen was not at the meeting because earlier that afternoon she was felled by a GI bug.

Alex explained that we would be hiking the 26-mile pilgrimage route (there is an easier, equally old, commerce trail) up and down the Andes Mountains to the ruins of Machu Picchu, a 15th-century Incan city. He also gave me a list of medicines for Jen, including Cipro (10 500 mg. tablets for $8), which doesn’t require a prescription in Peru.

Soon after I returned from the pharmacy, I, too, became ill. When a van picked us up at 4:30 a.m., we weren’t sure we’d make it through the day.

In hindsight, Day 1 of the trek, with dirt trails and relatively gentle inclines, was easier than what was to come. The trailhead is 8,500 feet above sea level. By day’s end, we had hiked 9 miles and were 11,000 feet above sea level.

Looking back, the 26-mile Inca Trail is rugged as far as the eye can see in Peru.
Looking back, the Inca Trail is as rugged as the eye can see

But Jen and I were weakened from the GI bug, which, combined with the high altitude, made the first day seem like the hardest. Depleted of fluids, my body absorbed all the many ounces of water I drank that day, making bathroom breaks unnecessary. (I know, not medically advisable.)

That night I skipped dinner and was asleep by 6:30.

On Day 2, we resumed hiking at 6 a.m. and I reached the unfortunately named Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest peak of the trail at 14,000 feet above sea level, by 9:37 a.m. On the way up, hikers from the two other groups on the trail slowly passed me. Most were in their 30s and they frequently muttered, mantra-like, “Oh, my God, this is killing me.”

On Days 2, 3 and 4, the trail is rock paved. But the stone stairs erected 700 years ago have been rendered mostly akimbo by erosion over the intervening centuries. As a result, the mountain passes look like resting avalanche flows. Steps are anywhere from 2 inches to 2 feet high. And while going down was easier on the lungs, it was also terrifyingly treacherous.

Not surprisingly, RJ was the fastest hiker of our group. Jen was the slowest and, like a good shepherd, Alex would start out with RJ and then stop and wait for Jen.

This left me in the middle and frequently alone. I practiced walking meditation, listening to the sounds, smelling the fragrances, feeling the breezes as each erupted and passed.

As often happens when the mind’s nonessential chatter quiets, emotions arose. I found myself weeping over the abrupt death of my sweet dog just days before I departed. I also wept at the ineffable joy of reuniting with my first love this past spring.

But most of all, the child of mine who has been sitting on my heart much of this year grew heavier. My right hand, still clutching my walking pole, often pressed between my breasts when I stopped to catch my breath. Sobs occasionally escaped. Until recently, I sided with the dutiful child in Parable of the Prodigal Son. I’m now wiser. A child returned is cause for great celebration.

Persevering on the Inca Trail was an effort of mind over body. When climbing up, I often focused on my feet, for the view ahead was daunting. Periodically, I’d stop to take in the sensorially rich microclimatic diversity of the Andes. The trail starts in a desert that reminds me of the Catalina Mountains near Tucson, Arizona and ends in a cloud forest jungle.

“Take the four-day hike, they said. You’ll see many Incan ruins, they said. You’ll be too tired to walk 5 feet off the trail to look at them — Oh, that they didn’t say,” Jen riffed after we’d hiked 12 hours on Day 2, and we giggled like two crones. Older than any of the other four-day hikers by a decade or more, the exertion of hiking 26 miles up and down higgledy-piggledy trails left us a bit loopy.

But we did it, never falling behind schedule.

When we arrived at Machu Picchu mid-morning on the fourth day, it was jarring. Not the archaeological site, but the throngs of tourists, all shiny clean, wearing makeup and perfume, who’d arrived by bus that morning. Their guides told them to let us pass, these hikers who spent “cuatro dias y tres noches” making the pilgrimage to the sacred site.

How often in life do we tell ourselves we could never do something when in fact that’s just an excuse to avoid challenging situations? How much might we grow — physically, mentally and emotionally — if we forgo continuous comfort for even a few days?

When I ran for a connecting flight on the way home, I noticed I didn’t get winded. My 55-year-old lungs had developed new capacity for pulling oxygen out of the air in just four (physically taxing) days. Every arduous step along the Inca Trail was worth the effort.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on September 5, 2021.