Mostly stuff about my own family, but if you’re interested, feel free.
Hjalmar Georg Lundstrom
He was my Mother’s father, my Grandpa, and your Great Grandpa. He was born in the Houtskär region of Finland in something like 1885. His Dad died when he was very young and he and his brother had to work hard from an early age.
- He was a fisherman and a carpenter and came to the United States around 1903 to stop being a fisherman and to escape being drafted into the Russian army.
Lesson 1: At all costs, avoid being drafted into the Russian army.
- He found my Grandma Aina Helena Sundburg when they were young and poor and working in Brooklyn. She was a maid and he was a carpenter living in a single men’s barracks (different world). Grandma didn’t take him seriously – they dated – they didn’t date – and dated again. She finally went back to Finland to consider her options. He showed up to be with her. They got married and had six kids.
Lesson 2: If you want something, prove it.
- Once he had a mishap and cut off the end of his nose with a circular saw. He walked over and picked it up out of the sawdust and taped it back on with electricians tape. It healed. No problem. Just a little white scar around the tip of his nose forever after.
Lesson 3: Fuck it, move on.
- He designed and built houses, had six kids, wrote poems and played the violin.
Lesson 4: Get busy.
- He died at 95 years old, asleep in his bed.
Lesson 5: Die at 95 in your sleep, my boy.
It’s just a snippet out of context and it won’t mean much to you, but for me, this is like finding a shred of an ancient scroll in a clay pot: Thrilling, but poignantly incomplete.
I love bedtime stories. Listening to the voice of someone I love telling me a story at bedtime carries me along like a gentle river, and the moment of drifting off is exquisitely easy. It’s unburdened by the thornbush of anxious thoughts where we so often find ourselves after turning off the light. I also love reading bedtime stories. If there was some way that 17 year old Isaac would allow it, I’d be happy doing it now. It’s a very sweet way of being together and sharing a world. I always found it relaxed him into naturally talking about what was happening in his world. This was never the reason for reading, just a very nice side effect. Nothing else allowed him to confide his feelings and concerns so easily. We’d pause the story and explore his situation for a while.
Between the days of reading baby books and the days of reading novels, I nightly made up stories out of thin air. He was very small, but old enough to understand and love a detailed, wide ranging story. He initiated it with a passionate request that I make up a story. I suppose it went on for two or three years ( I didn’t have him full time, but often). If you imagine doing this it feels daunting and doomed to failure. Waiting for a story to collect in your head is useless. The opposite of telling a story is worrying about what story to tell. The secret is to simply begin. Obviously you need a character or situation as the first domino but you can grab one off the endless racks surrounding us and just jump.
For Isaac, who was shocked at a story about his early flashes of brilliance. Here are a few early memories of your shining mind.
First I wanted to mention two very early things.
In the first you were about 18 to maybe 20 months old, that’s a toddler. You had started walking a few months before. Your favorite form of travel was me picking you up and carrying you around. You started to talk a couple of months before this. We were in the backyard at your Mom’s old house, I was carrying you. It was a beautiful evening with a royal blue sky and a big, nearly full moon. You pointed your tiny hand and said “Moon climbing up the sky…” In case you don’t get it that’s amazing. One night not long afterwards, your mom was driving you home from day care and you were of course strapped in the back seat and said “The night is dark and lovely” You have your quirks my boy, but you have serious gifts too.
I have always been fairly bouncy and youthful. I’ve also always been vain and deeply in denial about getting older. 2 years ago, my health nosedived in a way that went from sad to frustrating to terrifying. It started with sudden arthritis bad enough to stop my aerobic routine and make keyboard and mouse use agonizing. If you know me, you know that means a lot of every day was agonizing. I rationalized that I am getting older and that I’ve earned any repetitive motion injuries with 2 decades of thoughtless ergonomics. I sucked it up.
I started having a lot of stomach trouble but it was gradual enough that it never clicked into the foreground. Whatever was happening, it messed with my energy levels. It messed with my sexuality. It messed with my sleep. I had a hundred odd little complaints. I rationalized it all as me getting old. My optimism decayed, my demented confidence that women still think I’m hot went with it. It turns out that a lot depends on that delusion for me. You might as well remove my thyroid or my knees.
I love moving, I love walking. Suddenly one day there was a tightness in my chest when going up a big hill. Over the next year, it got worse and worse and worse. All the joy in my life began to shrink and dry up like a waterhole. I was imprisoned on a small island. Walking to my classrooms the chest pain would become crushing and terrifying. I wasn’t tired or out of breath, just being squeezed by something that would pop me like a bubble if I kept moving. Worst were the weird middle of the night chest pains that seemed to come from nowhere. I think they made me the loneliest I have ever been.
It’s harder to explain how I rationalized and lived with this. The minute I took this to the doctor I would be admitting my normal life was over forever and I’d be off on the horrible “older guy with heart trouble” ride I’ve watched lots of people go on. I would be transformed into a patient. I also knew that my ADHD meds would be instantly canceled and I began to consider a future where I would never again feel awake and motivated.
It was like my only remaining decision was where to crash my plane.
My ADHD (and its co-morbid buddies, anxiety, depression and brain fog) got worse. I was overwhelmed by smaller and smaller challenges. “Nope, can’t check the email. I sure hope nobody sends me anything important ever again”. And no wonder, life was filling up with fearful choices with sad outcomes. Game over, man. Suddenly everything that would simply be kind of a downer ordinarily became text from my obituary. No girlfriend? He died alone. House dirty? He died amid his clutter and unwashed dishes. Unsatisfied creatively? He failed, period.
It might impress you how fatalistic I can be, and not in a good way.
The only reason I finally flushed my ADHD meds and went to the doctor was my son. Me dropping dead would destroy him. As little as was left for me personally by sticking around, I couldn’t possibly allow this to happen if I could avoid it. Of course my doctor was horrified at my story, and of course, all the things I passionately don’t want were prescribed, planned and scheduled. I went for the cardiac stress test and my blood pressure was so high they wouldn’t do the test because it might kill me. They did still charge me $150 though.
My ADHD was then untreated and exacerbated by emotional stress. I limped through my work. I became a flake with a short temper and increasingly frequent crippling angina pain. This way, ladies.
But I kept feeling that something was being missed and one day it came to me in an instant. A couple of years before she died, my Mom told me that she had been diagnosed with hemochromatosis.
All of these “You’re just getting older” problems were symptoms caused by a mutation of a gene called HFE which is most often the cause of hereditary hemochromatosis. Hemochromatosis causes your body to absorb too much iron from the food you eat. Excess iron is stored in your organs, especially your liver, heart, and pancreas. I was being slowly poisoned to death by iron. Each symptom was a different system in my body expressing its toxicity.
The genes that cause hemochromatosis are inherited, but only a minority of people who have the genes ever develop serious problems. Signs and symptoms of hereditary hemochromatosis usually appear in midlife. Treatment includes regularly removing blood from your body. Because much of the body’s iron is contained in red blood cells, this treatment lowers iron levels. The menstrual cycle protects women with hemochromatosis until menopause, when symptoms sometimes emerge.
I’m not out of danger yet but my prognosis is good. I expect I’ll be showing real improvement soon. If there’s a medical lesson in this story it’s about assumptions on the patient’s part as much as those held by the doctor. I looked at most of these symptoms and just assigned them to the “unimportant background noise” bin when every single one of them alone and as a group was a foreground signal. I didn’t want to sound like a whiny little bitch when talking to my doctor so I didn’t say “My joints hurt and I feel foggy and I have little sores in my mouth oh and my HEART HURTS so much!”. I didn’t want to sound like Grandpa Simpson. I wanted to tell my doctor a clean, coherent story that reflected well on my ability to tell such stories. I didn’t want to sound dumb or heedless of how busy he is and that desire to impress might have killed me. Just as there aren’t really any such things as “drug side effects” but effects we don’t choose to focus on because it’s not part of the narrative, there aren’t necessarily trivial symptoms, just ones that seem that way.
Thanks, Mom, for saving my life 17 years after you lost yours. I remember how emphatic you were in explaining it to me. That’s why the memory finally resurfaced and led me to safety.
Not such a happy time. Florida. No friends. Heat like a beating. Lawns watered with sulfurous well water. A four mile bike ride to the worst school I had ever seen. 35% dropout rate: They called them “dysfunctionals”. It smelled like broccoli and peanut butter. They hit kids with a wooden paddle to punish them 1. There was no fresh air. The windows were permanently sealed slits of frosted glass. Kids had desperately scratched at the windows for a glimpse outside. A social studies teacher talked about how black people had better natural rhythm in the course of teaching class. I started to curl up and surrender inside. I began bringing a novel every day and refusing to participate. Then a four mile bike ride back.
1 One fond memory: My Dad called the principle and told him if he ever used that paddle on me he’d come straight over and use it on him.
I didn’t know that at the time but one day the principal called me out of class to say: “I’d just like to reassure you that we will never use the paddle on you.”
Some memories of when my son was little.
I suppose these range from around age 4 to 8 or 9.
- The other day I said “Sometimes I wish life could be more interesting and surprising.” Isaac said “If you mean you’re tired of the same old thing all the time, I’m with you.”
- Streaming a very funny anime (Sgt. Frog.) on Netflix with Isaac. Isaac says: “Have you noticed that every anime has hot teenage girls in it?” me: “Um. yes.”
- The other day I was reading to Isaac and he looked up at me and said: “And the winner of the longest nose hair award is…my Dad.”
- Isaac complained about the cutesy little notes his Mom puts into his lunchbox so today I slipped a note in there that said: “Did you forget about the amazing space lizards?”
- Isaac: “Dad, where did crows eat before there were burger joints?”
- I spent the afternoon playing video games with Isaac and when I grumbled about needing to get some work done he said “Lazy Butt!” and I said, “Well you should know, you’re a chip off the old butt.”
- It was a beautiful warm spring-like day. Isaac and I went out to the beach, turning over rocks in the low tide zone, finding hundreds of little crabs. We picked up a few on our shovel and they tried to fight us. As we were leaving he said: “I guess we gave them some great stories to tell their grandchildren.”
- Over at Isaac’s school celebration for Winter vacation. A woman came over to help me open the beverages I brought. She said, “Oh, by the way, I’m Mikey’s mom.” I said, “Hi, I’m Isaac’s mom!” She noticed a beat before I did.
- Isaac put refrigerator magnets together that said: “So I pounded an elaborate bitter goddess”. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
- The other night Isaac started painting a big piece of styrofoam all sorts of weird colors, with glitter here and there. He said he was making decorations for April Fools Day.