Tag Archives: Baltimore

In Baltimore, You Hear What You Expect to Hear

file541344101316The events unfolding in Baltimore–whether you call it a riot or an uprising–put me in mind of a lesson I learned in Baltimore eleven years ago on a broiling hot summer day when my heart and mind throbbed with fear.

There wasn’t much left of my rational brain at that point. Richard had been diagnosed with leukemia on June 30. He got blood and platelets the next day at the hospital where I work–just enough to get him healthy enough to fly. He took off that evening for Baltimore, for Johns Hopkins Hospital, where his treatment would begin as soon as possible.

I stayed behind for a couple of days to batten down the hatches and pack us both some clean underwear. I tied up loose ends at work, at home. I explained what was going on to everyone who needed to know, then I rushed north to Baltimore.

While Richard had been teaching at Loyola in Baltimore, I had fallen in love with the city. We rode water taxis across the Inner Harbor, dined along Second Street, walked the paths of Poe. So it wasn’t my first time in Baltimore by any means, but I didn’t know anything about the neighborhoods around Hopkins. Well, I knew one thing–“Don’t go there. It’s not safe.”

Rockwell House. My throat closes up just looking at the door.

Rockwell House. My throat closes up just looking at the door.

But now, in the world of leukemia, Johns Hopkins felt like an island of hope, the one place Richard might be safe again. His parents had booked us a small caregiver apartment at the Joanne Rockwell House, right on the edge of campus. Somewhere around Washington and Jefferson Streets. I tried to find it on a map this morning, but the building isn’t there anymore–replaced by newer digs.

A flight, a ride from BWI, dropping my things at Rockwell House, then hurrying to the hospital with my heart in my throat. Then the first slow hours of waiting in a room with Richard, the first few of the hundreds we would spend like that over the next 10 months. Waiting for a miracle in the worst neighborhood in Baltimore.

file000137091442On his advice, I left before sundown, so I could make it back to Rockwell House. Luckily, Richard’s mom had left some food in the minifridge. The only store visible from my window was a corner liquor store, plastered with booze posters.  A barren parking lot, owned by the hospital, gray buildings shuttered with plywood, and the liquor store. I felt like a traveler in a ship, looking out my porthole at a strange land.

Eight o’clock, nine o’clock. The summer sky grew dark. After so many days of panic and chaos, the time had come to be still. I stretched out on the narrow twin bed under the window and tried to let my brain and body catch up to each other.

Then just under the window, a few feet from my head, I heard several loud cracks. Someone shouted over the sound of POP POP POP POP from the parking lot below me.

This middle class white lady HIT THE FLOOR. With a quickness. I didn’t even watch The Wire at the time, but I knew what happened when you mixed a Baltimore liquor store, summer heat, darkness and shouting. I slithered across the floor then reached up to kill the overhead light. The cracking and shouting continued. I lay panting in fear on the linoleum floor and waited for the sounds of sirens. None came. I watched the window and waited for it to explode from a stray bullet.

Then a strange SCREEEEEEEECH cut the air, followed by more popping, but slower now. A green burst of light filled the window. I remember lying there on the floor and trying to make sense of it. Cop car lights aren’t green in Baltimore, are they?

In all the rushing to get to Richard, I had forgotten that day was the Fourth of July. And Americans shoot fireworks after dark on the Fourth of July. I eventually realized the sounds were firecrackers and bottle rockets and crawled up off the floor to watch out the window.

Those young men in the parking lot across from the liquor store that night were celebrating freedom the old-fashioned way–with some gunpowder and fire and laughter. An American tradition.

My tired brain, filled with fear and confusion, had heard gunfire and threats. That was what I expected to hear in that part of Baltimore.

So I ask you, when you watch the news, don’t just listen for what you expect to hear–look again.


Old Lady Old Lady Old Lady!!!

crosswalk womanI’ve been thinking a lot lately about mistakes and the way I punish myself for making them.  And of course it reminds me of a story…

When Richard and I were dating, he lived for a time in Baltimore while I was still in Georgia.  We traveled every other weekend to see each other.  One weekend, I flew to Baltimore to spend four days with him.  On Monday morning, he had a class to teach so the plan was for me to drive him to campus, drop him off, then spend some time exploring the city.  I was off-kilter and unfamiliar with everything that morning–his car, getting out of the garage, the neighborhood, the one-way streets around campus.  I was dependent on him and having to listen for instructions.  Following blindly.

Even more so, I was unfamiliar with the greater situation–being a divorcee who finds herself in love with a man who then moves to another state but wants to stay together.  That weekend felt like me trying out his life in Baltimore.  Friday night faculty party, Saturday exploring the Inner Harbor, Sunday lunch with his family.  The day before, Richard had driven into a lush old neighborhood of wide green streets and tall homes to show me a house he was thinking of buying.  A house that was way too big for just him.  I can’t remember much about it, other than it was more beautiful than any house I had ever imagined living in.  It was across the street from a house with a sunroom filled with yellow, green and blue parakeets and gray cockatiels.  I imagined walking my dachshunds past that aviary every day.  I remember that.  And I remember how he said, “I wanted to know what you thought about it.  If you liked it.”

So I was shaky and it was Monday and I had a lot on my mind.  We were about a block from his building when he told me to turn left.  I waited for the light to change and for a flock of students to cross, then I began to turn.

He blurted, “OldladyOldladyOLDLADY!” and stomped his foot to the floor to pound the imaginary brake.  I thought he was having a stroke so I turned full on to face him and ask what the hell he was going on about.  As I kept turning.  He shouted, “STOP!” and that’s when I saw the old woman making her way across the crosswalk.  I slammed on the brakes.  She was about halfway across and the light had already changed on her.  I was still a good ten yards away, but she gave me the stink eye anyway and finished her trek.  Cars were honking at me from all directions.

I was so rattled that I had to pull over.  Richard wasn’t saying anything, just blowing a big breath out very slowly.  I burst into tears and sank into the steering wheel.  

“It’s OK.  It’s OK,” he said as I had a snot-slinging fit right there on the side of the road.  “I tried to tell you to stop.”

“No!  You kept saying ‘old lady old lady old lady!'”  If you want me to stop, you say “STOP!” I wailed.

“OK.  It’s OK.”

“I can’t believe I made a stupid mistake like that!”

And that’s when he LAUGHED.  “You didn’t make a mistake!  HITTING HER would have been a mistake.  You may not have seen her but you stopped in time.  You AVOIDED a mistake.  Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

crosswalkStill.  I couldn’t shake it.  That was 11 years ago and I can still see that woman in her tweed coat and it makes my chest tighten up to think how close I came to hurting her.  Eleven years, and I’m still stuck in that intersection because I almost made a mistake.

Do you ever do that–carry guilt from things you ALMOST did wrong?  That was one of the biggest differences between Richard and me.  I was so worried about doing anything wrong or hurting anyone or making a nuisance of myself that I spent most of my energy worrying over what to do and then worrying over what I did.  Being grown up is scary.  Being in charge of things like a car or a life or my own heart–that was all so overwhelming on that Monday morning.  He was more of a “well, let’s make the best choice then see how it works out–no harm, no foul” kind of guy.

Sometimes when I find myself wallowing in “oh, I can’t believe you almost did that,” I say, “Old lady old lady old lady” and move on!  

It’s All One Life

paddlewheel boat Baltimore

Black Eyed Susan in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor

One sunny Sunday afternoon in November of 2004, Richard and I took a walk down to Fell’s Point in Baltimore.  We sat on a bench by the harbor and watched the gulls dip and dive around the trash cans.  A bright white paddlewheel boat–The Black Eyed Susan–rocked against the dock.  I told him how the flower, black eyed Susan, always made me think of Van Morisson’s “Brown Eyed Girl.” I sang the chorus.

A pack of Cub Scouts climbed up to the bridge to ring the brass bell.  The sun was warm but weak.  I was glad for my jacket.   The boys rang the bell then chased each other down the ladder to the deck then the dock then across the brick courtyard behind us.  The sunlight sparkled off the diamond engagement ring that Richard had given me a few months before.  His grandfather Jack had given it to his grandmother Sadie in 1927 and she had worn it for 75 years.  Now he had given it to me as a sign of his trust in our commitment to each other.  We held hands and I remember thinking, “I’m really happy, right now.  Right here.”

Then a phrase entered my mind and it stayed with me for years:  “It’s all one life.”  It’s all one life.

Here’s the detail that’s missing from the scene I’ve described above.  Richard was feeling pretty good that day after his third round of chemo, but it hadn’t put him into remission.  He told me a half-truth that week, so as not to break my heart with disappointment and fear.  He said his doctors were calling it a “partial remission.”  It didn’t take.

We left the safe confines of the guest house on Johns Hopkins campus to walk down the hill to the harbor on a sunny day.  It was the first walk we had taken together outside in months.  I worried most of the way that his energy wouldn’t hold out or that we might need to find a cab to bring us back up the hill.  For years I had chased him all over Europe on our adventures together but now I was shortening my steps and slowing my pace so he didn’t tire too quickly.

Sitting there in the sun that day, I had a sense of wholeness about the whole situation.  For once, I wasn’t piecing it apart into the parts I accepted–the love we felt for each other, the joy of rambunctious kids, the autumn sun, the promise of a boat–and the parts I fought against–leukemia, chemo, guest houses, unknowing, weakness, change.  I had space in my heart and my mind in that moment for all of it.  It’s all one life.

Before that day, the mantra “it is what it is” had been helpful, but I could only use it as an antidote for each piece of information, each separate challenge that came our way.  It was a one thing at a time kind of mantra.  “It’s all one life” was a rare expression of wholeness and acceptance in that chaotic time, when every day, hour or minute might bring with it some blow to our life together.

After he died, I wondered, “If you could do it all over again, would you?”  My answer was yes.  Even with the horror of that year and the emptiness after he was gone, I wouldn’t have traded the good times in exchange for missing the bad.  To quote Garth Brooks, “I could have missed the pain, but I’d have had to miss the dance.”  Or with Fartbuster, after our divorce….I asked myself if I would have been better off never having married him?  These are impossible questions because changing one thread of my life would have put me somewhere else and I wouldn’t have heard the Cub Scouts ringing the bell aboard the Black Eyed Susan as Sadie’s diamond sparkled in the sun.  Even if my beloved was dying beside me.  

Domino Sugar Fell's Point

“Domino Sugar Love” by Andreas Kollegger via Creative Commons license

It’s all one life.  I couldn’t have been the mother who looked into my first born’s blinking eyes and whispered, “Hey!  I’ve waited my whole life to meet you!” if I hadn’t been the woman who brushed his eyes closed after they had left this world to look upon some other.   It’s all one life.  And I’m glad it’s mine.