Burning Love

Burning Love

One fall afternoon in 1955, all the kids on the block raked their piles of fallen leaves off the lawns and sidewalks and into the street. Heaps of crinkled oak and maple mounded the curbside. The confluence of those sweet smelling deadfalls and autumn breath propelled us to kick up our feet and whoosh our sneakers through the piles. We’d shape more piles with armfuls of fly-aways, throwing half  in the air and half on the mounds.

In the evening, the whole block came out. Designated parents set fire to the five foot stacks of leaves, one by one. The kids wiggled hot dogs and marshmallows onto twigs and held them over the flames. We ran back inside to our kitchen, stuffed our charred dogs into buns, plopped mustard on them and ran back to stand around the fire and eat with our neighbors.

I went to sleep late that night comforted by communal joy. Early the next morning I woke up with a hacking cough and sneezing fits. By the afternoon I could hardly breathe. My eyes were so watery I lost focus.

My mother, who had two other children and was pregnant, wasn’t a reliable nurse. Two aspirin and bedrest was her usual answer to any ailment. We rarely saw a doctor.

Once, while sitting on the back steps, she witnessed me fall off my bike and scrape my knee in the driveway. She gulped down a bottle of Budweiser and said, “Don’t expect me to feel sorry for you!”

The morning I woke up hacking and sneezing, she moved my limp nine-year-old body into a second-floor room of my own at the front of the house, closed the curtains and set up a humidifier. No one was allowed in, except her. And the doctor. The verdict? I had an allergic reaction to burning leaves that kicked off a bout of bronchitis.

During the next three weeks my mother brought me Campbell’s soup and apple juice on a tray. She took my temperature twice a day and rubbed Vicks Vapo Rub on my chest and back. She never complained about my unrelenting loud cough. I cried myself to sleep in her arms and called for her in the night. She always came. 

My parents had too much to hide to ever become friends with any of our neighbors, wherever we lived. But one day, from my sick room, I heard her ask a neighbor not to burn any more leaves because I was sick.

I’m still allergic to burning leaves. In fact, I’m allergic to leafing out in the spring and falling leaves in autumn. The sheltered memories of kicking up leaves and smelling them burn evokes both sadness and delight of a community that smelt and felt the rush of the season at the same time in the same way.

But my mother ministering to my sickness is more than a memory. That one brief period taught me all I needed to know about healing love.

White Room Valentine

White Room Valentine

The all-white ceiling, walls, sheets and blankets, sealed the room in purity. My pain-free body, surrounded by downy pillows, laid on a pressure-sensitive mattress. A wall of windows showed off the unobstructed Chicago skyline three miles away. 

I had a new knee. 

“Ceramic,” said the surgeon, “like Corning Ware.” 

The nurse floated in, smiled, said my name and schooled me on the morphine drip. She set graham crackers and apple juice ever so carefully on my shiny spic-and-span tray, showed me how to operate the TV, and placed my phone within reach.

“Did my doctor put me on the VIP floor?” I asked.

“Oh no,” she laughed. “This is the floor for all the orthopedic patients. You just lucked out with the view.”

 The midday sun laid itself down on the city, my city, silhouetting the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Building. I drifted in and out as Lake Michigan peeked into the downtown streets and into my outstretched heart. Such joy. Comfort. Bliss. The phone vibrated at my fingertips, jiggling me awake.

“Hello? Regan? This is Joe.” 

Ah, my son. He’s calling to ask how I’m doing. 

“I hate bothering you like this. I’m in the hospital with my Dad. I don’t think he’s gonna make it.” 

I’d been divorced from Jim, the only man I ever loved, for about 45 years. We’d met in a Jersey Shore bar in the 1960’s. I lived and breathed politics. He was on scholarship at Princeton and was the first boy I knew who read the same books I did. He proudly proclaimed himself a Democrat when the rest of us were simply anti-war.


Lifeguarding in the summer, he loved the ocean, birds, rock-and-roll and beer. We were born for each other, but drinking and drugs destroyed our marriage. We divorced and I got help. Jim became helplessly addicted to marijuana. By the time he got help, his brain was fried. Between the irreversible brain damage and advanced diabetes, he could not survive on his own. Rather than house his father in a full-time care facility, Joe brought him to live with Joe and his family in a Chicago suburb.

I saw Jim once in a while—at Christmas, the grandchildren’s high school graduations, birthdays. He always recognized me and engaged in conversations about politics. Watching local news on TV all day left him thinking he lived and voted in Chicago.

“About the mayor’s race. Who should I vote for?” He asked. “I don’t like that guy Rahm.”

One last time Jim tried to shake off his dementia. He scheduled a cruise, making all the arrangements himself. Joe gave the ship’s nurse a detailed description of his father’s condition. She guaranteed his safety. But barely off the coast of Florida, Jim slipped into a coma and was airlifted to a Ft. Lauderdale hospital. He never recovered.

Joe and I talked until my painkillers wore off. Dusk overpowered the room. I banged the morphine pump, screamed for the nurse and wept for my long-ago lost love.