- Well we busted out of class, had to get away from those fools, we learned more from a three minute record baby than we ever learned in school…you say you’re tired and you just want to close your eyes and follow your dreams down…well we made a promise we swore we’d always remember …no retreat baby, no surrender… “No Surrender,” by Bruce Springsteen
Hello, friends. Tonight’s brew as I write is a perfect porter called “Henry,” made by Transient Artisan Ales in Bridgman, Michigan. Henry may have made an appearance here before, because he really is the phenomenal winter beverage. Strong, coffee-ish, meant to ward off chills, induce hibernation, and of course, take the edge off. I could use a little de-edging, couldn’t you? Uh-oh, you’re thinking. Here she goes again. In all fairness, it should be clear by now that my blog is probably more like a therapy diary than a stream of literary masterpieces, but I don’t apologize. It’s good for me to write something other than my novel-in-the-making. And I appreciate all seven to maybe twenty of you who are reading this. I really do.
I have a sneaky suspicion those lyrics above have also made a previous appearance here, but I’m too lazy to check and besides, it shows how meaningful they are. When I you-tubed Bruce to get a refresher of the song, it was a clip from the 80’s. Bruce is famous for talking about a song before singing it, which I love, and he said he wrote the song because of his friendship with bandmate Steve Van Zandt. He said, “I don’t think life means much if you don’t have dreams. This song is for one of my best dreaming partners, Stevie.” This blog entry is about one of my best friends and dreaming partners too, and her name is Diana. Danusia, (Duh-noosh-a) if you want to know her Polish nickname.
I met Diana probably in second or third grade, but we became good friends in fourth. We were placed in a “high-level” reading group (and it’s a sad but true fact that I reached my pinnacle of school accomplishments that year. Never again was I high level anything, unless you count band). We were with three other boys in the reading group: Jack Peterson, Mike Kjergaard, and Dave White, and I can safely say it was the most memorable year of my mostly forgettable K through twelve education. We had a dynamic teacher, Mr. Harrington, who created classroom stations in which he let us perform plays, watch television, and make art. The creme-de-la-creme was when he took us CAMPING at the end of the year. Can you imagine taking twenty-something fourth graders on such an excursion? We loved it, and him. But what I loved even more was finding a lifelong friend in this sweet, extremely shy, curly blonde-haired little Polish girl.
I can’t pin down exactly why the bond seemed immediate and lasted beyond that fateful year. We did both love drawing, reading, and playing with our Sunshine families (they were like Amish Barbie dolls, with babies and long calico dresses). We literally spent hours coloring houses and horses and I would give anything to have kept some of those beauties. We never were together in the same class like that again; instead it was random classes like English or gym. I can’t begin to detail here all the school-age memories involving her, as there are so many, but we agree on one unwavering truth: neither one of us would be the person we are today, had it not been for the other.
She says that I saved her back then, but from what I still don’t know. Maybe I shielded her from a few things, maybe I knew she was sensitive and naive’ and she needed someone to have her back. As for me, I believe being exposed to her family at a young age opened my nine-year-old-mind to the concept that different could be wonderful. I tasted and gorged on foreign food like pierogi and other dumplings, pastries that defied all description, all while being fascinated by this rough, guttural-sounding language that rolled off my bilingual friend’s tongue effortlessly. I learned later that her mother Czeslawa had been a cook in Poland, and I was a more than willing customer. Her parents were the classic portrait of the immigrant’s story; smart, persistent, and the hardest-working people on the planet. They left a Communist regime for a better life, enduring challenges the average Joe could never understand. (How would you like to learn English by watching the game show, “The Price is Right’?) And unlike so many natural-born citizens here, Augustin Kras and his wife revered and respected the country that offered opportunities they could only dream about in their homeland.
Diana, of course, wanted mothing more than to fit in and have American parents, while I probably would’ve traded my white-bread life for her mother’s carb-fest cooking in a heartbeat. We knew absolutely zero about appreciating what one had right in front of them. Then, at least. Eventually, as it is known to do, adolescence and young adulthood came. It came with all its’ hurts, brutalities, and yearnings for a future outside of the po-dunk small town we felt trapped in. We’d lose ourselves in romance novels and fantasize of the perfect existence, without weird or mean parents or boys (who morphed to men) that crushed us and let us down. Unsurprisingly, the solution and solace for our youthful pains was music. Specifically, Bruce’s.
The man could tell a story like no other, express every passion and agony you ever felt as if he were inside your head. We were clueless, hopelessly insecure and dramatic, but his lyrics were a lifeline telling us that maybe we weren’t alone in our struggles. Somebody out there GOT US. If you’ve seen the movie “Blinded By the Light,” (highly recommend!) the main character’s tale is exactly how we thought about Bruce and his music. He was a savior in the form of a record, and we held on for dear life. We listened to my brother’s copy of “The River,” over and over, Bruce’s mournful cries echoing our own. I’m pretty sure my brother bought me my own vinyl so he could get his back.
He followed us even as our paths diverged after high school. I fled to Texas, to live with a mutual friend and “experience” all that I thought had been denied to me at the ripe old age of nineteen. In reality it was waitressing on the night shift, wild partying, and scrounging for change in the couch cushions to eat lunch. Fun, I guess, but not sustainable, and I missed my friends and home. One day I got the mail and nearly passed out. It was a postcard from Diana with a picture of Bruce on the front, and on the back she’d written, “I’ve got tickets to his Alpine Valley, Wisconsin show, and one of them is yours if you want it!” My heart jumped in my chest like I’d been raised from the dead. I knew without hesitation I was going and wouldn’t have the money to return. I scraped together all the cash I had, hugged my thankfully understanding friend, bought a greyhound ticket to Michigan City, Indiana, and never looked back. I wish I still had that postcard.
The concert was magical, in all the ways it is to see your idol in the flesh. This was the summer of 1984, right before the peak of his “Born in the USA” fame, and venues were not sold out yet. Our seats were way off to the right, with sky high speakers sitting in front of four empty rows ahead. There was a tiny platform to walk out around them, and he did just that. He walked around the speakers, singing, and he smiled and looked right at two girls jumping frantically, delirious with joy. For those brief seconds our lives were complete.
Nobody believes us when we say this happened, that we made eye contact with The Boss, but it did, and we KNOW it did. It’s sealed in our memories like King Tut’s tomb, a pivotal picture that neither time nor illness can erase. It’s right up there with saying “I do,” or seeing our babies for the first time. Golden highlights to treasure.
Sadly, time marched on, careless of such sentimentalities, and so did we. Diana had a firm vision of herself as an FBI agent, and went off to Michigan State University to see it through. As it happened, she came pretty close, with a degree in criminalistics and a fulfilling job as a forensic toxicologist. She was CSI before it was ever CSI on television. Meanwhile I stumbled around, envious of her drive, determination and fierce intelligence, and wishing I had those traits too. I’d followed her and our other friend to MSU, somehow managing to graduate and then promptly becoming pregnant. Needless to say this resulted in a wide U-turn, a turn I would still take again but it had consequences in terms of my attention. Funny how adulthood has a way of screwing with childhood declarations. Those pesky events like geographical distances, marriages, jobs and babies help kick them to dead last in priorities, and when you swore you’d never let months go by without seeing each other, suddenly it’s years. There were school reunions, though, something many people scoff at and find repulsive, but we looked forward to them. We could finally have a reason to meet up and revive bonds once more. I know I’m incredibly grateful for those times.
I had another reason to be grateful when Diana (yes, again!) snagged tickets to see Bruce and the E-Street Band on their 2016 tour. She didn’t send me a postcard, because this time around I actually had a phone and a number she could call, but I was just as excited as the first time. They were tickets IN THE PIT, which meant we couldn’t sit down, but we could possibly get close to the stage. And by God, we did. We fifty-somethings muscled and elbowed our way up there and guess what? During the song ‘Badlands”, we shook Bruce’s sweaty, clammy hand, and we touched his famous motorcycle boots. She cried, and I laughed and hugged her. It was another precious moment sent straight to euphoric memories storage. We’d come full circle, making physical contact with a musician who’d brought us so much, and brought us together as well. Not to mention, the gift of another three and a half hour marathon concert. How many sixty-five-year-olds do you know who can put it out there like he does, night after night? Hell, you can’t even get today’s performers to fork over an hour and a half, and that’s with an intermission. And I’ll bet they’re not agile enough to precariously maneuver around speakers so they can acknowledge screaming teenage fans, either.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago. Our very good mutual friend Tracy called to tell me tests had detected a tumor in Diana’s brain. More tests and surgical removal followed, and I was gripped with a need to be close to her. Yes, to make up for all the lost time the years had stolen, but to also lend support in any way I could. I had always admired Diana’s strength. This time I wanted her to lean on us, her friends. She did, and God willing, will continue to.
I visited with her and her family, and did what I do, which is get groceries and cook. They were all profoundly, even ridiculously, grateful. Their reactions made me feel validated, like maybe I had skills after all. I mean, obviously you acquire knowledge as you get older, but you downplay it by assuming everyone can do the same things. Not so. Not everyone has the time or desire for such, and these differences are what makes the world go round.
We had lots of long talks, and she was close to tears much of the time, apologetic for all manner of things, most of them imagined. I told her she had nothing to be sorry about. I had probably retreated more over time as I watched my friends’ careers and bank accounts skyrocket, while I changed diapers and achieved nothing. I felt judged for my choices, but it was more in my own head than in reality. At some point, thank God, I learned that life comparisons are not only toxic but completely misleading. We all have our crosses to bear, do we not? The proof is in that MRI or x-ray bearing bad news. The irony here is that Diana’s profession has been all about death. Murders, suicides, car crashes, child trafficking, child abuse, cancer, heart attacks, strokes. You think of a way to die, she has analyzed it, and much of it not pretty.
She has seen the sad math of the statistics regarding her type of cancer. Everyone who loves her has. but for right now they are only scary numbers. She’s a scrapper, and she’s stubborn as hell. We’re hoping it serves her well in the battle ahead. As you might guess, the lyrics of “No retreat, no surrender,” have loaded meaning now.
Over coffee in her spacious and bright living room, we reminisced. We laughed at our younger selves, how arrogant our worldviews were, and how life itself takes care of that. We talked about more bucket list dreams. She wants to finish seeing the handful of states she’s yet to visit, I want to go to Alaska and out west to the Grand Canyon. One thing at the top of the list is to take families and friends to New Jersey and do our own “Blinded By the Light” pilgrimage. We’ll hit all the big Bruce spots. The Stone Pony, especially, because if we’re lucky, we’ll hear real live music. He’s been to known to pop in there impromptu, in case you were unaware. I don’t need to tell you what this would mean if that were to occur on our watch.
Whenever a crisis like this hits, I think most of us are shaken into finally believing that tomorrow isn’t promised. We make vows to stop procrastinating, to stop waiting for the ideal time to quit the job, move, have the baby, and as soon as life returns to normal they’re abandoned. Until the next loss, the next regret, and it’s back to the same old platitudes. If we really want to honor the person we miss or are in threat of losing, we stop talking and DO the thing, whatever it is. Take the trip. Say yes more than no. Forgive people and move on. Say what you need to say and walk/run/ travel while you still can. So what if a few, if not many, of those decisions might be clunkers? We learn and let go. We don’t become paralyzed by fear. Hard to do but so worth it in the end.
Friends, I hope you have, or have had, at least one dreaming partner in your life; a relationship or relationships that withstand benign neglect and the cruelties of time, in whom you can reveal your truest, most imperfect self and feel safe, and loved, and who can make you laugh or cry until your sides hurt. If so, count yourself as blessed.
Now, you’ll have to excuse me. I need to google who’s playing at the Stone Pony this summer, and as we know, the trip isn’t going to plan itself. Wish us luck that we will all be in good form for it, and maybe, just maybe, we get a glimpse of our working-man musical hero one more time.