Christmas Stress Test 2017

I floated out of Northwestern Medicine’s Echo Lab, Stress Bay 3, onto the evening sidewalk four days before Christmas. All Chicago was scampering out of work, race-walking to the bus, flocking into Gino’s East and hurrying over to Michigan Avenue for holiday bargains.

Months earlier I’d run out of breath one block into my morning walk. My mind decided since I’d been overweight my entire adult life at seventy-one years old I probably had a deadly heart problem. The doctor ordered a stress test. Before I made the appointment I tried to heal myself with a no-salt, no-sugar, no-carb diet. The condition persisted. Then I thought God might heal me—if only I could remember to ask Him once in a while. In 110x70_what_causes_heart_palpitations_slideshowStress Bay 3, injections shot my heart rate sky high, my breathing stretched to its outer limits, then it all parachuted back down. The whole test took ten minutes. I figured if I didn’t have a heart attack after that, God had absolved me of my lifelong mashed potatoes intake.

Flying high down Superior Street toward the twinkling Magnificent Mile, I came upon a two-foot long sprig of red eucalyptus looking up from the sidewalk.

“Hmm, this would be good to put in the vase I just bought for Bill.” I scooped up the sprig and poked it down through the tissue paper in my Crate and Barrel shopping bag. Rounding the corner at Nieman Marcus I spotted more red eucalyptus sticking out of the cement urns in front of the store.

“Oh, good, I’ll just lift another bunch.”IMG_0504 (1)

And there it was. Ancestral habits. Within a block I’d turned from a scavenger to a thief.

Ripping down the street toward the Water Tower it occurred to me there may be some more items for Bill’s vase outside the stores on Rush Street. I found perfect branches of red plastic berries in the four planters on Quigley Seminary’s sidewalk. I took one from each pot. Lovely.

As I came up to Oak and Rush, I stopped myself from stealing birch branches from Barney’s pots because Oak Street Bank across the street recorded activity outside. I’ve binged on enough English crime shows on Netflix to know I didn’t want to get caught on the bank’s video.

And so within five blocks of finding out my heart is not going to kill me anytime soon, I became an all-out criminal.

The next day at coffee, I spilled the beans to a normal friend. He diminished the crime saying they throw all those decorations away after Christmas anyway—trying to let me off the hook or perhaps saving himself from admitting his friend is a thief. I shared my thievery at a 12-step meeting. We all laughed as we often do whenever someone is vulnerable enough about their character flaws to tell on themselves—no letting me off the hook in that room, where God allows for admitted imperfections.

Immortality, Interrupted: Lake Forest Eviction

220px-Barat-PereMy lawyering father would make a barrel of flimflam cash, move our family to a gilt-edged neighborhood and drink it all up within a year. He would sneak away on a business trip and a few weeks later my mother would wake my two sisters and I in the middle of the night, pack us into the car and drive to another state, another town, another gilt-edged neighborhood.

In seventh grade I entered my 11th school since I started first grade in 1952, the Academy of  Sacred Heart in Lake Forest, Illinois. I intended to shine in all subjects, especially my nemesis arithmetic, no matter what was happening at home. Experience warned me I didn’t have much time until the next midnight move so I crammed my head with Latin conjugations, algorithms, periodic tables, Romeo and Juliet, diagrammed sentences, the French revolution and the Gospel of Mark. At the end of the year the Mater Admirabilis Award (Mother Most Admired, another name for Mary), an Oscar-like trophy would be bestowed on an eighth-grader for her excellence in academics, sports, religious and civic activities. Her name would be engraved on a bronze plate and permanently fixed next to the previous winners. I prayed everyday for God to keep me in that school through the eighth grade so I could win that prize.

Sacred Heart nuns had been in Chicago since the 1860’s. Bishop Anthony O’Regan brought them from France to open a school at Rush and Illinois Streets, a mile from where I live now. They taught women leadership in society rather than social graces and homemaking. O’Regan moved the school to pastoral Lake Forest when hotels, saloons and brothels flooded the Rush Street neighborhood.

A hundred years later, French still permeated our activities. “Congé” (holiday) was a surprise day when schoolwork was suddenly replaced by a day of fun such as playing Cache Cache, a version of hide-and-seek. Congé ended with “Goûter” (to taste), a roomful of refreshments celebrating the winners of the day’s games. This joie de vivre coupled with the nuns’ love of God appealed to my awakening soul.

My teachers gradually increased my extra credit assignments to include tutoring, public speaking and sports. By the end of the 8th grade everyone knew my name would be forever on display in the trophy cabinet.

In the school bus on the way home from an ordinary day in early May, I thanked God for Sacred Heart and my soon-to-be immortality. The bus driver pulled into our driveway and slammed on the brakes. Furniture, clothes, pots and pans, bicycles – everything we owned clogged the pavement.

I told my sisters to stay on the bus, as if something dangerous was happening, until I saw my mother sitting on the couch with my 3-year-old sister Stacy. I needed to save her from a reality I didn’t understand. A sheriff blocked the front door. We were not allowed to enter. A family friend arrived to drive us to a downtown Rush Street hotel. A week later I was in another school, another town, another state.