Saturday, March 28, 2015

News about Friend Grief and AIDS

It’s that time of year again! 

I’m pleased to announce the 2015 update of Friend Grief and AIDS: Thirty Years of Burying Our Friends.

Each year about this time I update the resources and statistics in my book. That's one of the advantages of publishing today - nothing ever has to be out-of-date.

You can find the updated ebook on Kindle, Nook and Kobo. The updated paperback will be available in about a week.

If you have a previous version, just go to the AIDS UPDATE page here for new information on the epidemic.

And as always, 25% of the retail price is donated to one of my favorite organizations in the fight against the epidemic: Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Laurel: A Guest Post by Fred Eberle

Lauren Cronin & Fred Eberle
I’ve known Fred Eberle since 1989, when I was on staff at Chicago House and he was one of my most dedicated volunteers. He is, without a doubt, one of the most talented, generous, thoughtful men I’ve ever known (he's blushing right now, trust me). I’m so pleased that he agreed to share this story of one of the most important friendships of his life.

My friend, Laurel was…a force of nature.  When she entered a room her energy and charisma filled the space. Laurel Cronin was a brilliant actress and director, and when she was onstage it was hard to watch anyone else. It wasn’t that she intentionally pulled focus; she drew it to her. From the first moment we met, it was as though we could finish each other’s sentences. I don’t know if I believe in past lives but, if they exist, I know Laurel played a significant part in mine. 

Laurel directed the first play I did in Chicago after returning from college.  It was a community theatre production, and her creativity and ability to motivate her actors made it a memorable experience.  We both went on to work professionally in Chicago, and our multi-level relationship lasted for nearly 20 years. 

We had one falling out that resulted in a loss of contact for 2 years. I know neither of us thought it would be the end of our friendship, but pride or stubbornness kept either of us from making the first move. One day I heard that she had walked off stage and passed out in the wings.  Without thinking I picked up the phone and asked what she needed.  The ice was broken and we were finally able to reconnect and move forward. 

Immortalized by Al Hirschfeld
Her illness was diagnosed as a kidney issue and, with some time, medication and a change in diet she was able to resume her career.  A casting director invited her to come out to L.A. and within a month she was cast in the supporting role of Liza (Wendy’s housekeeper) in Spielberg’s film, Hook. That opened every door and you couldn’t turn on the television without seeing Laurel in shows such as Murphy Brown, Brooklyn Bridge and a supporting role in Julie Andrew’s short lived sitcom, Julie. She also had roles in films including A League of Their Own, Beethoven and House Sitter (which got her a feature story on Entertainment Tonight as a “scene stealer”). 

In May of 1992, Laurel was in town and we met for lunch just before I left for a season of summer stock at the Peninsula Players in Door County, Wisconsin.  The season would run through early October and, when it was over I was invited to come and stay with her in L.A. She offered to show me around and introduce me to her agent and managers.  I thought my future was set. 

One morning, as I was heading to rehearsal, I got a phone call. It was Laurel telling me that her illness had returned and she was coming back to Chicago to have a kidney removed. Her spirits were good and she was determined to get back to work as soon as possible. Things seemed to be going well until the pathology reports came back and it was discovered that she had been incorrectly diagnosed. The problem was a malignant tumor hidden behind the kidney. 

The day after I got home from Wisconsin I called and her mother told me Laurel had been moved to the hospice at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.  I visited several times but was still in denial about what was coming.  One afternoon, on the way to a theatre fundraiser, I decided to stop in for a quick visit.  When I got on the elevator I heard footsteps and held the door and Laurel’s friend, Bridget got on. She said “I’m so glad you’re here. She’s dying.”

The reality finally hit me. I stood at the foot of her bed with two of her best friends and watched as Laurel’s mother held her hand and tearfully told her it was okay for her to let go.  We were so amazed by her instincts that it took a moment for us to realize that the tortured breathing had stopped. Laurel was gone. 

In the years since, not a day goes by that Laurel is not in my thoughts. I was a product of the era when we were taught that “men don’t cry.”  Even during sense memory exercises in acting class I was never able to produce a tear.  Since that day at Northwestern, I cry at the drop of a hat. I think that's a good thing. I guess that is just one of many things for which I owe Laurel my thanks. 

Fred Eberle is a former professional actor and director. He spent nearly 2 years in the original production of  Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? Fred currently works as a Concierge and Event Planner, and. sits on the Advisory Council for Concierge Preferred Magazine. He also co-hosts the magazine's quarterly web cast, ¨Unlocking Chicago¨.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Brain Injury Awareness Week

For most people, March 17 is a day to celebrate being – or pretending to be – Irish. For me, though, it’s the anniversary of a day that changed my life.

On St. Patrick’s Day, 2009, I was sitting at a red light when I was rear-ended (no alcohol involved). It was not the first time it happened to me, but this time turned out to be very different. I became one of the 2.3 million people who suffer a traumatic brain injury each year.

The car sustained very minor damage. I had terrible head pain, but again, I didn’t think much of it. That evening, I was nauseous. I assumed I was just upset about the accident. I know full well the signs of a concussion, but it just didn’t occur to me that that was a possibility. I even took a nap, and later slept through the night.

The following morning, nothing had changed: I was still nauseous with a severe headache. But when I called the insurance company I had trouble writing down claim numbers. Later, I was driving again when I realized something was very wrong. I felt like I was in a fog. I couldn’t focus. I pulled over and called my doctor, who directed me to the closest emergency room.

Six hours, a handful of x-rays and a CT-scan later, I was released with a neck brace and an order for an MRI. I kept asking if I had a concussion, and no one would answer, until the doctor who signed me out finally said, ‘well, you certainly have the symptoms’. Eight Tylenol a day and “take it easy” were my only instructions.

When we think about head injuries – if we do – it’s normally in the context of professional athletes or members of the military. But thousands of people each year who are not football players or soldiers suffer traumatic brain injuries from falls in the home or car accidents.

Those around me were used to me operating at a certain level of competence. No longer.

Initially, the effects were obvious: nausea that lasted a couple days, a neck brace I wore for a week, a severe headache for six weeks. I didn’t drive for a month, and even then, not on the highway for another week or so. I didn’t feel confident at all about my reaction time or ability to focus on the task at hand.

I couldn’t read: partly because of the headaches, but also because I couldn’t retain what I read. Watching TV posed the same challenges: I couldn’t remember characters or plot lines.

When I talked, my headache got worse. I could say two, maybe three sentences without having to stop because the pain spiked. Talking also made me short of breath. I had to almost whisper to avoid pain.

I thought I couldn’t remember things, but in truth, they never stuck in my head to begin with. They weren’t there to forget. Someone would say something to me and I’d nod and agree, when in fact, by the time they finished their sentence, I had no idea what they’d said. I was constantly reminded of things I had no memory of hearing the first time.

My sense of direction failed me time and again. My handwriting was difficult to read. I found myself having trouble writing certain letters. Sometimes the act of writing was difficult to control, resulting in a wild-looking scrawl.

After a year, I gave up a 15 year, award-winning sales career. I couldn’t remember prices or procedures consistently.  I made stupid mistakes submitting orders, costing me money out of my own pocket. That added to my stress, which increased my confusion, which added to my stress.

Six years later I feel the effects to some extent almost every day. If I can control the stress - a big “if” - I have a truly normal day. If not…not. I’m still reminding those around me of actions that can trigger problems for me. But I’m resentful that I’m still reminding them. I know they’re tired of dealing with this, but they have no concept what it’s like to be me.

A brain injury is “invisible”. You wouldn’t hesitate to sympathize with a person whose arm was in a cast, or who had to use crutches. But because others can’t see what you’re dealing with, you can find yourself the butt of jokes – even from those close to you.

You may have a friend who has suffered a brain injury. You may even have made jokes about it, and I imagine they smiled when you did. But I can assure you that they died a little inside.

Because I didn’t pass out or fracture my skull, my concussion was not taken seriously by my doctors. What care I’ve had has been mainly self-directed. I will be forever grateful to the people I’ve seen for cranial-sacral therapy and the wonderful staff at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

I won’t lie: I cried a lot. I grieved for what happened to me. I grieved for the woman I would no longer be: the dependable, multi-tasking, entrepreneurial over-achiever. It took months, but I accepted that I was different now: no more multi-tasking. As it turned out, that wasn’t all that bad.

About five months after the accident, I was suddenly able to start on the book I promised my friend Delle I’d write. My creative side – long dormant – was unleashed. So I guess I owe something to the nasty little man who rear-ended me: a new career.

I hope you’ll take the time to check out this link about Brain Injury Awareness. And next time you talk to a friend who has suffered one, forget about jokes. Ask “how are you doing?” And listen. It will mean the world to them. Trust me.

Brain Injury Fact Sheet

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

National Women and Girls' HIV/AIDS Awareness Day

I was on staff at Chicago House when we opened the city’s first hospice for people with AIDS in January, 1990. At that time, there was only one funeral home that would accept the bodies. Nursing homes and stand-alone hospices refused anyone dying of AIDS. Sympathy was extended only for those who contracted the virus in a way that defined them as “innocent victims”: blood transfusions or birth.

It was a beautiful old house near the lake shore, donated to our organization. The doctor who lived next door was opposed to it, but once he understood that people would arrive in an ambulance and leave in a hearse (unlike crowds lined up for the overnight shelter he imagined it to be), he calmed down. No record exists of how adamantly he opposed the drug house across the street.

The hospice had room for five people, and when we welcomed the first group, the room on the first floor, to the left of the front door, was occupied by a woman of color.

She’d been infected with AIDS by her husband, an IV-drug user, and though he was somewhat healthy, she was dying. She despaired of what would happen to her children, who would be left with her husband and later, presumably, foster care. As I recall, there were no family members willing or able to step up and ease her mind. Later, a friend of mine would start a stand-by guardianship program for women with AIDS – similar to open adoption – that would’ve allowed her to choose a family for her children, reducing her stress and giving her a little peace. But that happened too late for her.

Over thirty years since the start of the epidemic, AIDS is still looked at by many as a disease of punishment: for being gay, for being a drug user, for being promiscuous, or all of the above. But AIDS has always behaved like any other virus: it doesn’t discriminate.

From the beginning, there were services directed to gay men (still disproportionately affected by the epidemic); few focused on women. It was a sad joke in the old days that “women don’t get AIDS, they just die from it.” That’s because until the women of ACT UP waged a fierce campaign to change the definition of how the virus presented, women with AIDS weren't properly diagnosed.

In 2015, there are great advances in both treatment and prevention, but for many women, they are not practical or affordable. Women may be in abusive relationships or in a culture where they are not allowed to insist on using protection during sex. They may not have access to effective prevention and treatment. Or they might just feel uncomfortable walking into a clinic with “gay” in the title.

Human nature being what it is, there are always those who believe they are invulnerable to any consequences, particularly when it comes to unprotected sex. That explains why AIDS and other STIs are on the rise among senior citizens: when unplanned pregnancy is no longer a threat, the effort to prevent sexually-transmitted infections fades.

Luckily, there are organizations that are doing remarkable work to address the vulnerability of women. One of my favorites is The Red Pump Project, which focuses on educating African-American women on the options available to them. Fully 84% of new infections among women are through heterosexual sex. And even in 2015, a woman in the US is infected with HIV every 47 minutes.

I know a number of women who are long-term survivors, but I don’t know many women who died of AIDS. That woman at Chicago House was the first, and it had a profound impact on me. Anytime someone passed judgment on a gay man for being infected, I called them on it with the proof that the virus doesn’t discriminate. You can’t have it both ways: you can’t say it’s a punishment for some and not for others. A virus is too stupid to pick and choose.

So today, I hope you’ll check out The Red Pump Project and other organizations in your community that are reaching out to women, particularly women and girls of color, at risk for infection. There’s a lot of stigma attached to AIDS – still. But it can be eliminated with education and awareness. Find out how you can help yourself and your friends. 

And #RockTheRedPump.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

"You have been - and always shall be - my friend"

Nimoy at Phoenix Comicon
Unless you live under a rock, you know that actor Leonard Nimoy, the Vulcan first officer Mr. Spock on the original Star Trek series, died at the age of 83. And though he was surrounded by his family when he died, they were not the people the media reached out to first. They were not the people his long-time fans wanted to hear from. They wanted to hear from his friends.

Most of those who were interviewed were former cast-mates on Star Trek, along with others who worked with him in his impressive career on stage, television and film. Many found it challenging to express their grief for a man they counted as their friend for decades.

Not everyone – even celebrities – can be eloquent when a friend dies. I’ve written about the backlash against Paul McCartney’s “It’s a drag” comment after John Lennon was murdered. He attributed his words to the shock of hearing the news just hours earlier. There are those now criticizing William Shatner, Nimoy’s co-star on Star Trek, because he honored a previous commitment to appear at a fundraising event rather than attend his friend’s funeral.

I guess I’m less inclined to criticize, because I don’t know what’s in their hearts and minds. But I found it instructive that those who knew him best focused not on his work, but on the man. Bear in mind these are “official” statements. I’m sure more will come later:

“We will miss his humor, his talent and his capacity to love.” – William Shatner

“He was a true force of strength and his character was that of a champion.” – Nichelle Nichols.

“His most enduring quality was his kindness and his desire to make you the most you could be.” – Steve Guttenberg

“My heart is broken. I love you profoundly, my dear friend. And I will miss you every day.” – Zachary Quinto

“Today the world lost a great man and I lost a great friend. You taught us to ‘live long and prosper’ and you indeed did, my friend. I shall miss you in so many ways.” – George Takei

Even the astronauts on the International Space Station – and remember, that many of them were inspired by the ideals of the original Star Trek series – paid tribute to Nimoy and his unique character on the show.

But perhaps the best tribute to Nimoy – the best compliment for any friend – is the line from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Spock is dying. His friends are not only unable to save him, but forced to watch him die. And though Spock was resistant to expressing any emotions, he manages to tell Kirk, his closest friend, “I have been – and always shall be – your friend.”

Why don’t you say those words to someone today?