A Fortunate Father & A Rainbow Connection.

Lou Gehrig has been on my mind a lot lately.

No, not because his birthday is coming up on June 19; a birthday he did not live to see in 1941, when he would have turned 38 years old but didn’t, because of a progressively debilitating disease called Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), or more commonly known now as,  “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”

Gehrig gave his farewell address to baseball—after playing 16 spectacular seasons with the New York Yankees—on July 4, 1939, before a packed house at the old Yankee Stadium, two weeks after his diagnosis with the disease.

The Yankees’ “Iron Horse,” who set Major League Baseball records for consecutive games played and grand slam homeruns which stood for decades, told the nearly 60,000 people in attendance that “ I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot of life to live for.”

Then, speaking in a strong and steady voice at a stand-up microphone behind home plate, Gehrig spoke the words etched into the minds of millions of men, especially, when repeated by Gary Cooper portraying Gehrig in the movie “Pride of the Yankees,” just one year after Gehrig’s death: 

“Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

No, Gehrig’s been on my mind, because consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

At age 75, I’m not battling against a serious disease, which many good friends are at much younger ages; I’m not mourning the death of a spouse or partner, as several of my college friends have found themselves doing over the past few years; I’m not caring for a precious family member with dementia, watching helplessly as his or her mind just slip slides away.  I am grateful each day for still standing, as we walk through the eye of many storms each day, and mindful of my responsibility to use my mental and physical health to help those I love.  I am acutely aware, that although I may feel like one of the “luckiest” men on earth right now, there are countless others without such good fortune.

Preternaturally optimistic, I was raised by a mother who lived her 92 years with Polio, and was ever grateful that her paralysis wasn’t much worse, and that she didn’t  “end up in an iron lung,” like many of the other children she saw on her visits to Polio wings of hospitals.

I also suspect that having both of my parents take their last breaths in my arms has something to do with perspective. Every time I am about to complain about a personal issue, I think of that.  It has a great leveling effect.  So many other people have so many more daily life-and-death issues weighing on them—whether in war zones, or just struggling to survive—than I do. 

Still, there are certain things that knock me for a loop, and remind me clearly why I have thus far been, largely, spared.  Sure, I attempted suicide when I was a college freshman, but I survived, determined to do all I could to save others from being sucked into the belly of that sandworm, like in Dune. 

I wrote about my suicide attempt seven years ago in my book, Tightrope: Balancing a Life Between Mario Cuomo and My Brother,” and then again, just a few years back on both Substack and Medium, in an article entitled, “Reflections of Suicide: Living to Write About It.”  My purpose in writing about my suicide attempt was to show other young people struggling with questions of their own existence, that things can get better; that you can survive and grow, help others live their lives, and improve the lives of other humans around us, by sharing your story, and listening, listening, listening to theirs.

Little did I foresee that the greatest test of my own experience with depression and attempted suicide would come from our oldest granddaughter, a brilliant, compassionate and beautiful child, born with her own unique set of health challenges.  On the nights we kept self-harm watch for her, and held her hand to comfort her to sleep, I understood clearly that my own experiences had simply been preparation for that moment.  No matter what she did or said, I saw and heard her with great clarity, and understood that despite a lifetime of professional achievements and high level personal connections, this was what I had been put on earth for:  this moment, this child, this circumstance, this role—to save and nurture this child’s life.  I saw myself as clearly as I saw her.   We were, as she would frequently say, “soulmates.”

This weekend, after six months away, my granddaughter, now 15, came home from a residential school out of state, where she has shown enormous personal growth, courage and tenacity.  For her, for her father, and for her grandmother and me, it’s been a long six months. 

I missed taking her “thrifting”, and standing back and observing her get lost in the pleasure of meticulously picking through rows of clothing, kibitzing with the sales people with the wildest hair styles, until she found just the right piece to try on.  When she fell in love with vinyl records, I delighted in taking her from record store to record store, in search of the newest releases from Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, Boy Genius, or Taylor Swift.  To me this was Nirvana, and for her, there was such comfort in the soothing rhythms of the search.  We both loved it, and part of me wanted it to last forever.

Yet, we both knew, this routine could not substitute for a school/learning routine, in a supportive environment that could accommodate her unique talents, personality and needs.  We talked about anything that crossed our minds, without judgment, knowing that there was nothing either one of us could ever do, that would jeopardize the other’s love.  We created a very safe space, and we both cherished it.

Through all of her ups and downs, my “soulmate” always expressed a strong desire to go to college, to be a therapist—since so many had helped her—or, an animator or artist, because that gift came so naturally to her, and often served as a great elixir.  We knew that as 9th grade began, things would need to become more structured, and targeted toward her academic and therapeutic best interests.

When she left for school, which we both agreed was best, I was lost.  For weeks, I struggled to find my purpose again, immersing myself in my writing, fiction and non-fiction; learning the music of her favorite groups, and scouring the news for items about everything that interested her.  Still, my son, our granddaughter’s father and a writer as well, sensed that I needed something more.

He came up with a tangible “project” for me, to redesign and re-landscape his front and back yards—something I had been badgering him to do for years.  I proposed doing a desert landscape, knowing that, once completed, it required the least care for him and that my granddaughter, when she returned, would love the succulents, cacti and rock-gardens I was envisioning.

Gardening had always been a great stress reliever for me, from my long days of working in government, media and public health, and from the excruciating tension between my brother’s life and mine. To get lost in the simple pleasure of gardening connected me back in time with my mother, who also loved it, but was unable to actually garden because of her Polio paralysis in one arm.  In practice, I became her “good” arm in the garden.

Serendipitously, at the same time I began this project, the New York Times ran an article on “Why Gardening is So Good For You.”

The article focused on the good exercise results of gardening (“Gardening gets you moving again,” and the mental health benefits (“Gardening does wonders for your mental well-being.”)  For me, the effects in both cases were terrific and tangible.

Over the course of my six-week landscaping project (timed to culminate over Father’s Day weekend), I lost five pounds, dropping to my lowest weight in a decade.  Each day I moved shovel by shovel of blue/grey gravel—12 Cubic yards in all—to give me the clean desert palette I needed to design from at my son’s Sonoma County, California home. 

While I started the project as a Father’s Day Gift to him (which came in ahead of schedule and way under budget) it morphed into a fun and creative design project to have finished in time for my granddaughter’s first visit home from residential school in six months.   Each Blue Agave I planted in a symmetrical line, was intended to bring a smile to her face when she saw it, since she previously found their weed-wounded yard to be “sad.” 

I repurposed thousands of dollars of unused “river rocks,” strewn on the side of my son’s home, finding enough of them to create several rock gardens, including a Pride-colored Rainbow of Rocks, at the lower bottom of the front yard.  Since my oldest granddaughter proudly identified as part of the LBGTQ+ community, I knew this would make her smile.

To add to the joy of doing our “Rainbow Rock Garden”, our youngest granddaughter, aged 8 ½, spray-painted most of the rocks for me, and came up with the inspired notion of placing the Rainbow on a “cloud” of white rocks, since she said, “whenever there are rainbows, there are clouds.”

For days after, I was humming Jim Henson’s “The Rainbow Connection,” a song which he wrote for Kermit the Frog, in The Muppet Movie, in 1979, just ten years after Stonewall, and four years after our son was born.  Over and over again, the Spotify in my mind kept playing the lyrics to me, in Kermit’s pure innocent voice, while our youngest granddaughter and her grandmother worked on the colorful masterpiece:

Someday we’ll find it,

The Rainbow Connection,

The lovers, the dreamers and me…”

I could not stop looking at our finished Rainbow Rock Garden, laughed at the sight of our youngest granddaughter draped in a smart-looking smock carefully spraying-painting each one, and smiled when I thought of the look of wonder our oldest granddaughter would have when we welcomed her home.

I am, without question, the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

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