What I’m Not Doing to Cope

Montrose Harbor is my place. Or it was before Mayor Lightfoot started cruising through the city, flip-flop in hand, telling clustering idiots, “Go home.” When the blues hit, when life sandpapered me raw, when I felt lonesome for my own company, I’d leave home in Rogers Park, hop off Lake Shore Drive at the Lawrence exit, and slowly tool through the long lakefront park to the harbor, say “hey” as I passed what we call the “llama tree,” and assure myself of a few things. Lake Michigan was still there. The crows were still there (they’d vanished one year, due to West Nile Virus killing so many, but their numbers have been recovering). The seasons were coming and going in their expected procession. I needed the reassurance. I needed the anchor in time.

The llama tree.

Some fifteen years ago, my wife and I started driving the length of the park in a repeating circuit before picking up our tot from daycare. It was a way to savor being ourselves — our lover selves instead of our parenting selves — until the very last minute. We cherished it.

Ten years ago, my wife (and first reader) suffered a life-changing head injury at work. For six months, she couldn’t remember that I’d read to her the night before. I’d been reading her to sleep every night for years. She slept twenty-three hours a day. She’s since fought, centimeter by centimeter, to regain her sight from visual disturbances (which she described as “a static of orange spiders in motion”). A year out, she struggled to regain the ability to read. To ride in a car without a towel over her face to avoid motion sickness. Her recovery has been slow and incomplete, and still she amazes me.

After this injury, she was unable function as an RN and our hard-hit finances kept me up nights. I tried to calculate how much we could get for our furniture, some of our books, and realized a giant, everything-must-go yard sale wouldn’t save us. I wished I could go back in a time machine and un-buy almost everything in our home. When I slept, I dreamt of trying to whore myself out and finding no takers. I dreamt of cutting off an arm and trying to sell it.

I’m prone to depression and the fevers of mental illness ran high around this time. Gail couldn’t come with me, but after making sure she didn’t need my help to and from the bathroom and she didn’t want anything to eat or drink, I’d kiss her and say, “I’ll be back.”

“Where are you going?”

“To see if the lake is still there.”

And she understood.

The Harbor. I fed my beloved crows, keeping a rough count so I could report back at home, feeling small if there weren’t any, thrilling if there were more than a half dozen. I outwitted the greedy seagulls (really, they are the gimme-est of birds). I watched goslings transform from bipedal clumps of fluff following their parents through the grass to mature, fully wing-spanned geese. I watched the waves, listened to the sailboats’ rigging clink in the wind. I would marvel at the green of the grass and wonder at the endurance of trees. I’d wonder what the fisherfolk were catching. When the barrels came out, I knew it was smelt season. I’d write. I’d practice blues harmonica (which gives me much more joy than it will probably ever give anyone who listens). I gaze at intervening distances. On misty days, I’d seek a horizon erased by gray. I sometimes got out of the car to sit on the concrete steps and glory in the wind and weather, but I mostly enjoyed all this from the shell of our automobile.

These sound like such little nothings. Even if I throw in the two hawks I once saw tussling over a fish, a solar eclipse, the grackles and starlings, a wild turkey, and the squirrels. Don’t forget the squirrels, who tend toward small and gray, but a few have hints of auburn in their tails, and if you’re lucky you’ll see one or two lovely black ones. Obviously, I have my favorites. With all this and all I am leaving out, it sounds, I’m sure, like humble pie, as most experiential wonders tend to do, but I can’t say it any clearer than this: urban nature kept my brains in my skull.

I could peel myself off the proverbial ceiling as long as I could visit this spot two, three times per week. More often if things were worse. Less, if our family hit a patch of (relatively) smooth sailing. I’ve counted on this spot as a personal anchor for the better part of two decades.

When word first came that Chinese officials had expanded the radius of the January 23rd lockdown of Wuhan, my wife said, “That’s coming here. We need to get ready to hunker down.” Everyone in our household has underlying conditions that increase the risk of serious illness should Covid-19 make it across our threshold. We quietly stocked up on essentials and braced ourselves. I took photos of the crows. Dug out an old file with the sound of rigging in the wind.

The police barricades have been up since 1995 — no, since late March 2020 — but it feels much longer. Spring and Summer came day by day, as we had little to do but watch flowers bud and trees go to leaf, instead of coming all at once in the times we’ve been too busy to pay attention. I pine for the sights and sounds around Montrose Harbor. I am waiting for the day (and praying when it comes, the shortsighted don’t spoil it with their maskless, clumping contagion shutting it down all over again). I’d like to have the windows down, but I’d keep them up if I had to (maybe with a little cheat or two to throw those roasted-in-the-shell peanuts my crawking Corvid friends so like). I’ll wear a mask; I wear one everywhere anyway.

Crows vs. gulls

Yes, I’m grieving. Yes, it’s tough. Still, I applaud the efforts of Mayor Lightfoot and Governor Pritzker to slow the spread of Covid-19. If only everybody understood a lifting of restrictions means going more places, but with masks and social distancing instead of a barefaced free-for-all, but that’s a whole different post.

The Foster-Montrose stretch of park is a self-contained gem and, as of this writing, pretty much off limits to anyone wanting to drive in. Not every park can be so easily guarded. Me, I’ve been making do with the Loyola Park strip of lake shore. While it helps to see the water and hear the waves, it isn’t the same. Give me sailboats clanging. Give me crows as I cuss the greed of seagulls.

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