Traveler’s aid

UalIt wasn’t the first time I’ve been asked for help.  It probably won’t be the last.  This last trip, however, I seemed to be a magnet for travelers in need.  My first encounter was at the gate in Seattle on my way to Washington DC.  An older gentleman walked into the boarding area, moving slowly with his cane, and found a seat.  I was standing near him, doing a little people watching, waiting for the process to begin.  I hear him asking “Do you speak Russian?” in English.  I look to see who he’s asking, and it turns out it’s me.  I said that I didn’t but asked if he needed something.  He needed help figuring out if he had all the right boarding passes for his trip or if he needed to see the gate agent.  I looked at this boarding passes, and he had all 3 of them.  He was traveling to Moldavia by way of DC and Munich.  We got to talking about his trip and my upcoming travel to Russia.  He was a kindly man and a little nervous about flying.

He was also concerned about how to board – when would he know it was OK to go on the plane?  I told him to listen for his boarding group number, 4, and get in line then.  He was quiet for a while and I could see it was still not clear.  Then I suggested he board with me during Group 2 and I would say we were together.  It would allow him the time he needed to get on board without feeling rushed.  His face lit up and he gladly accepted.  On our way to the plane, he said “I prayed to God last night that I would find help today on my journey.  He sent me you.”  Touched, I said I was happy to help.  We went to our seats and off we flew.

On my return journey, I sat in the waiting area near an older man while I answered some email, ate a sandwich and waited to board.  They reviewed the process, again boarding by group number, and said we’d begin shortly.  I heard him grumble “I always seem to be in boarding group #5.”  I commiserated with him, and together we wondered about the logic of boarding the rows in reverse – as part of group 5, he was in row 28.  He was sure by the time he boarded, the overhead bins would be full and he couldn’t wait for his bag if it got checked – he was in a rush.  I got up to get in line for my group, and it dawned on me – he could get on with me and be able to not worry about the bag.  I assured him it would be OK – I’d done it before.  We chatted in line and I learned that he was heading to Seattle for a final visit with his brother who was recently diagnosed with stomach cancer that was inoperable.  His red rimmed eyes suddenly made sense.  He’d started out in New York and was making the long trip west to see his brother one last time.  I asked him what he did before he retired and he asked “What do you think I look like I did?”  I gave him a more thorough appraisal and said I thought maybe a writer, or a professor – a teacher of something.  He said “very good – I was a professor of medicine for 40 years at Stanford University Medical School.” Wow.  I told him I was sure our times there overlapped, although I doubted our paths would have crossed.  We boarded the plane then and he made his way to the back.

Settling in, I thought I’d done my good deed for the day and was ready to read and hopefully rest a little.  It had been a long day of meetings and I would be getting home after midnight eastern time.  A mother and daughter arrived and realized their seats were both middles on either side of the aisle in my row.  They were very anxious to sit together.  I knew the window seat was most likely going to be empty, as I’d checked right before we left.  Her daughter moved over right after the doors closed.  They were novice travelers, not having flown in a long time.  I asked if they were heading to Seattle to see family and learned they were from Georgia and they were actually on their way to Alaska.  It was a last minute trip, as she had just found out that her mother passed away.  I gave her my condolences and asked if it had been expected or if it came as a surprise.  It had been suicide.  She broke down then and told me how hurt she was by it.  I listened and knew that my time as a helper wasn’t quite done.  She needed to talk; I knew how to listen.  I told her that my mom had passed away 2 years ago on the 5th and I was on a plane to see her when I found out.  I let her talk and in the 6 hours it took to fly west, I learned her heart.  By the end, she was stronger, she felt better, and I knew it mattered.  She told me that her mom would have been pleased that she sat next to a person like me.  I asked her why and she said “She thought the world had become a cold place, full of people who only focused on their technology, who forgot how to be humane to one another.  You proved her wrong – you went out of your way to help me when I needed it.”  I felt good hearing that and told her that I could very easily have gone into my “airplane bubble” but that there was a reason we needed to connect – it was as much for me as for her.  It gave me more time to honor my mom and the relationship we’d had.

I am convinced that when I help others, I am really practicing the ultimate selfishness.  I feel good about myself and I enjoy the positive feedback.  My altruism is rooted in my own ego, really.  But as I look at some of these travelers and I think about my own parents, I always hoped someone would help them when they needed it – and I know that I think of my own aging and wonder if the world will treat me kindly or harshly.  I hope that by practicing small acts of kindness today that I sow some good karma for my future.  Again, a selfish motive, but an honest one.

In truth, when I give of myself – my time, my ear, my boarding group – it really helps me honor and acknowledge the way I was raised and I appreciate my parents all over again.  They taught me well by being great role models and I intend to continue to follow their lead by helping where I can.  It’s good for my soul.

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Sad, But Still Kicking Butt

It hit me this morning as I got ready for work that I have something to be proud of.  A year ago, as Jan left us, I felt frustration about the fact that pancreatic cancer continues to kill so many every year.  There needed to be better treatment options and earlier detection available to change this.

On September 19, the House of Representatives passed HR 733 with a unanimous vote.  The name of the bill was changed from the Pancreatic Cancer Research and Education Act to the Recalcitrant Cancer Research Act of 2012.  A rose is a rose if it smells sweet, and this one does.  It is a step forward.

Representative Anna Eshoo from California was eloquent and heartwarming as she spoke about the need for this focus and of all the people we lost in the 6 years that this has been in work.  I had tears in my eyes hearing the unanimous vote in favor.  This is progress that matters for all.  It makes the trip to Washington DC with the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) last June just that much more meaningful and worthwhile.

The bill is now in the Senate, and we hope Senator Whitehouse has the same success as Representative Eshoo.  I’ll be watching on C-SPAN with the same rapt attention.  This is about the only thing that will get me to tune in to that station.

Dad and Jan would be pleased.  I am relieved and proud and committed to continuing to fight on their behalf.
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BREAKING NEWS! The House HAS PASSED #HR733! Senate still needs to pass. Thank your U.S. Rep: capwiz.com/pancan/issues/

My Sister, My Friend – One Year Hence

I need to mark her passing, but words fail me.   I’ve written a lot about her, what we meant to one another, and how much I miss her.  There isn’t much more to say.

I am still not really able to admit she’s gone.  She’s just been busy, or she’s been away – not really gone for good.  I feel her too much for that to be true.

Her family is well.  Her husband remarried and has remade his life with someone new.  Her son is finding his way, bouncing along with the resilience of youth.  I am happy for them.

I am sad still, unexpectedly so.  She was, to quote my brother, my first best friend.  She was one of the first to hold my hand and help me up.  My earliest memories are centered on her.  She was my benchmark, my ideal.

She left her mark on my heart, always telling me that mine was big enough to hold the world.  Tonight, it hurts knowing there is still a Jan-sized hole in the center.

Always in my heart, my sister, my friend.

Jan Marie Viele

1954 – 2011

Standing Strong

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I am not by nature a political person.  So it’s a little out of my comfort zone to go to Washington DC and meet with politicians.  I was there advocating  forThe  Pancreatic Cancer Research and Education act, and for that I’m willing to be uncomfortable. This is a promise I made to Jan last fall before she passed away and I am proud  to carry on the fight for both her and for dad.  This is the one thing I can do to help – and while it’s not much in the grand scheme of things, it gives me a sense of accomplishment. 

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There were almost 700 people from around the US this year, the most ever for the PanCAN organization.  I love the energy all these dedicated people have – it is an infusion of positive thinking and some serious power for good.  It does my heart good to look around and see the people who are willing to carry on the fight for those who cannot. 

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We are fortunate in our Puget Sound affiliate group to have some inspirational survivors who have a personal mission to help find treatments which could someday lead to a cure.  It is a huge boost to see them and hear their stories.  In particular, our advocacy coordinator, Maija Eerkes, is an amazingly talented and tireless lobbyist with our state elected officials.  She is a 6 year survivor and does not take it for granted that she has beaten the odds.  I have high regard for her abilities and know she is making a difference.

Being in a group this size takes a toll on me – I don’t like crowds, I don’t do well with a lot of noise and chaos.  This crowd is one I have to be in, however.  I put up with it because I want to be able to help. Whenever I found myself feeling overwhelmed, I took a deep breath, focused on why I was there and was able to keep going. Herding cats was part of the process, but I’m an excellent cat herder when needed.  I can wrangle with the best of them. 

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There were moments of pure bliss – hearing people share their stories, knowing how hard it was for them, and finding that they are supported and comforted is healing for both parties; seeing a survivor’s beaming face, announcing their latest scan results – all was still well; having people on the street stop us and tell us their story, their connection to pancreatic cancer, thanking us for taking up the fight. All these moments made the sore feet and exhaustion at the end of the day worthwhile.  I know that this is only the beginning of a more powerful coalition and that we will make a difference. 

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One thing that was astounding – in the group was a young man named Jack Andraka.  Jack is a 15 year old research scientist in the making who has developed a non-invasive process for detecting pancreatic cancer cells that is essentially 100% accurate, based on the latest test results.  He is the future for all of us – his out of the box thinking has moved us forward by leaps and bounds.  What we need to continue his work is funding.  And as I learned this week, pancreatic cancer gets only 2% of the total National Cancer Institute research budget.  Science follows money – if there are no research grants to fund the scientist’s work, they will find something else to study.  We need to keep Jack working on this – once he’s finished with college. 

I held Jan and dad in my heart and in my mind as I met people from around the nation and had sessions with our elected officials on Capitol Hill.  It is part of my mission to be a voice for Jan and Dad when they can no longer speak; it is a legacy of love and hope that I intend to continue.  Pancreatic cancer is the 4th leading cause of death among cancer patients and the survival rates haven’t changed in 40 years.  We need to change this.  As one of the authors of the House bill, Anna Eshoo said, “It’s in our hands, it’s in our power to do something about this.  In fact, we will.”  Let it be so.

For more information, here is the link: http://www.pancan.org/AD2012/

Remembering

Today is a day with multiple meaning.  It is my dear sister’s birthday and my first one without her.  She was there for me from the start of my life until last September and missing her is still a very real experience.  Although she is with me in my heart always, I miss our day to day connections in the earthly world.  June 7, 1954 was indeed a good day.

It is also my 16th wedding anniversary.  This day is a loaded one for me for different reasons and I have some very mixed emotions about it – grateful that we have come this far together (it is my first 16th wedding anniversary; I only made it to 15 last time…), sad about the loss of innocence that comes from our separation and challenges, and wanting to hold on to hope that the future has better times in store. 

All of this makes the day bittersweet and fraught with conflicting feelings and deep emotions.  I long for simpler times when I could call my sister and let her know she was being celebrated on her birthday; when I could remember our wedding day in Vienna with fondness and love, rather than thinking through what has happened along the way.  The truth is that life rarely stays simple for long.  We face challenges that test us and one thing I’ve learned is that I have to keep getting back up to try again.  I have done the best I can. 

I face today with hope and a heart full of memories – for all the good that I have known being Jan’s sister and having a genuine relationship with her as a whole person.  I look at the family I have created and supported and know that,  in this moment, all the effort it has taken to be here has been worthwhile.  None of it comes easily or without work, but the payoff is here, in the fullness of my heart.  I have much to be grateful for in spite of the fact my carefully laid plans have deviated from what I’d hoped for.  I gave back my “Captain of the Universe” hat and embraced instead the more humble title of human being.  Today, I am remembering that.

From my sister …. one year ago

Free Will

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(I must preface this with I am not a cat lady. Although this piece may make you nod your head and say “suuure….”, I really am a normal pet owning, pet loving person.  Not a cat lady.)

Will Feral came into my life almost 2 years ago.  He was a feral kitten, brought home by my daughter.  Wild as a baby raccoon and about as friendly, she left him in her room.  When I got home, she did the “Mommy, I found a kitten” routine.  Finding him in her room was a major feat – he’d hidden himself under her dresser and wanted to stay there.  Scratches, hissing and one bite later, he was placed in a large dog crate with litter, food, water, and a warm blanket.  He became a part of my life, inch by inch, working his way into my heart – this small gray ball of hissing fluff who wanted nothing to do with me.

Within days, my daughter left for college.  Will was still living in the crate, glaring at me whenever I came into the room.  Gradually, he came to trust me more.  Hissing less, he now let me pick him up (using heavy leather work gloves), wrap him in a towel and pet him.  I would talk to him and tell him he was safe.  In time, he began to purr.  All I’d read about socializing feral kittens said that purring was the turning point.  I texted my daughter “We have achieved purrage” and let Will know how pleased I was that he hated me less.

By the second month with us, Will lived in and out of the crate.  He’d hide behind and under things when I came into the room.  Sometimes, all I would see of him was his gray tail disappearing behind a chair or under the bed.  I would talk to him while I cleaned his litter box and refreshed his food and water. He would sometimes watch me cautiously, but mostly he stayed hidden.  He was wary, always keeping quiet.  It was how he lived outside and what had kept him alive.  He resisted my attempts to get him to play.  He was all about survival.

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Whenever I could, I would take the time to search him out, pick him up and hold him on my lap.  The gloves and the towel gave way to bare hands.  He would take food from my hand now and while he still hid and hissed, I could see his opinion of me had changed.  Finding him became a game and when I’d pick him up, it was by the scruff of his neck, like his mother would have done.  He relaxed then and seemed to know I meant him no harm.

At the same time he was learning to trust me, I was being tended to as well.  Will came into my life shortly after my dad died and while I was separated from my husband.  Holding this feisty, fearful kitten was therapeutic for me.  He helped me through some very hard times then and some yet to come. The times I spent holding him, telling him he was OK, petting him and caring for him gave me a lot of comfort.  It soothed my battered spirit in many ways, some of which I couldn’t even put a name to.  Will and I were helping each other.

One day in late November, after almost 3 months of living with us, I walked by the door to his room and heard him meowing.  He never meowed.  He hissed and spit, but meowing drew attention to him and he was not OK with that.  I opened the door and he was sitting there and began talking to me.  From that day on, he talked a lot.  Slowly, he began to have the run of the house.  I would carry him downstairs with me and we’d hang out together on the couch.  He explored the length of it, but never wanted to get off.  It was as if the floor was made of hot lava and he couldn’t walk on it.  The tide was turning, however, and within another month he was coming and going on his own.

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I was his person.  He claimed my room as his own.  He left his litter box and food in the other room, but he claimed a spot at the end of my bed and that was his turf.  When he needed to hide, it was under my bed.  When I came home and he could hear me, he would come to the top of the stairs and start meowing at me to come see him.  He was insistent.  Once I came up, he’d hop on his blanket and ask for a belly rub.  These were full body experiences for him – he would flop back and let me pet him until his eyes rolled back in his head.  He lived for those rubs.  Sometimes if I stopped too soon, he would try to grab my hand as I was leaving to let me know he’d been shortchanged.Image

The transformation was complete.  He was now a real house cat and lived a great life with regular food and love provided.  His green eyes matched the walls in my bedroom, and he liked nothing better than when I got in to bed than curl up on my legs to make sure I didn’t try to leave again.  Sleeping, I would feel him curled up behind my knees and felt comforted knowing he was right there.  We became quite a pair.

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One point I forgot to mention:  at no time did I want or expect to keep this kitten.  He was the third cat in our house, all of which were adopted by my daughter and her tender heart.  I had grudgingly said yes to cat #2 (but mommy, he needs a home – he’ll go to a shelter if we can’t take him!) and knew that 2 was the limit.  Will was meant to live with us only until he was able to be adopted by one of her friends who she was SURE would take him.  For the first year, Will was called “the cat that doesn’t really live here”.  It was a temporary living arrangement.

Then in mid-September of last year, when he’d lived with us for about a year, he somehow got outside.  He was gone overnight and I spent the next day frantically looking around for him, to no avail.  At dusk, I put up pictures with our number on them to let our neighbors know to look out for him.  About an hour later, he appeared on our deck and though still skittish, he came to me as I sat there waiting for him.  I scooped him up and he launched from my arms as I came inside.  He flew upstairs to his safe spot in an instant.  His purring and meowing let me know he was as glad as I was that he was home.  From that point on, he really lived here.  I knew in my heart that I didn’t want him to be anywhere else.

Feral cats can revert quickly if they are allowed back outside.  My reading told me that his brain would be triggered to the fight / flight mode almost immediately and that once they were in that mode, it would be as if they were never socialized.  I felt that Willie had chosen us over the wild and that he knew this was a better deal.  What’s not to love about regular meals, friends to play with, and belly rubs?  Not to mention, he hung out on a comfy blanket and had his own silk pillow sham to lounge on.  He had it pretty good.  He chose home.

Not long ago, it dawned on me that Will was the first kitten I’d raised since I was a teenager.  We’ve had a couple cats since then, but they were my children’s kittens and they weren’t as bonded to me.  Will was my cat through and through.  He liked my daughter (after all, she was his savior) and learned to like my husband.  He was cautious around just about everyone else.  He would spook at a new voice and retreated to his haven under the bed at the slightest provocation.  I’m sure some people just thought he was a figment of my imagination.  He was a ghost cat to many.

The interesting thing is, both Willie and I had to undergo a transformation to find each other.  He had to learn to trust me and accept that I meant him no harm.  I had to allow myself to care about him and let his love break through my barriers.  I sure as heck didn’t think I needed that.  But it turns out, I did.  He melted my heart in a way that gave me great comfort.  There have been times when he seeks me out when I’m sitting alone and snuggles up in a way that tells me I’m not going anywhere soon.  And the comfort of allowing myself that time to just be was enormous.  He took away some of the pain of losing so much from my life in so short a time.  He truly gave me a sense of peace.

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I lost my mother and then my sister this past year, both of whom met Will and saw him transform.  My mom watched him learn to navigate the couch when he was with me.  I explained he wasn’t ready to walk on the floor down here and she said that I “had strange pets”.  That was her last ever visit to my house and thinking of her comment always makes me smile.  My sister heard a lot about Will during our phone calls.  One time when I was really worn out, I told her I just needed to go home and relax.  She told me to get home curl up with the little guy who makes you so happy – and she was right.  Now, I hear her voice in my head often when I am spending some quality cat-enforced meditation time.

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The other day, the sliding door was open and only the screen was between the cats and outside.  One of the older cats used her claws and opened it.  All three cats went outside.  The other two go in and out all the time with no problem.  Will was the only one that was a true indoor cat.  I thought he’d come home like he did last time, but it’s been 6 days now and I don’t think he wants to.  There have been sightings of him at night, but he won’t come for food or offers of belly rubs.  He is indifferent to the calls we have made and the treats we entice him with.

I haven’t really seen him at all. He has become a ghost cat to me.  Last night, I put out some canned cat food hoping he would come to it and maybe I could capture him.  As I walked out on the deck, I saw two eyes glowing at me from over by the fence.  I grabbed the flashlight and carried the food over there.  He (if it really was him) was long gone by then.  I looked around, over, under and inside things, but no Will.  He doesn’t want to be found.

It feels like he’s telling me he doesn’t need me anymore – like he’s ready to choose his life in the wild over being comfortable at home – as if his life was missing something.  I get that, I really do.  He’s a grown male (neutered) cat and maybe he’s looking for adventure.  Maybe the call of the wild really was too much to resist.  Or maybe that part of his heart that opened up and learned to trust has closed as he slipped back into survival mode.  I don’t know.  All I know is that I worry about him, and I miss him.  I wanted him to choose me again.

But the lesson here is that I have to let go.  I need to accept that he’s going to exercise his free will to live as he wants.  If he does come home someday, I will be grateful.  I am sad that he is gone.  Every time I look out on the deck or in the back yard, I hope to see him there.  I continue to leave him food at night and leave the deck light on, just in case.  I go out several times a day to call for him.  I haven’t put up signs or pictures, because the odds of someone actually seeing him are low.  He knows that in order to survive, he hides until dark.  Then, and only then, is it safe enough to emerge.

I’m resisting this life lesson because I have grown to love him more than I expected to.  He was something that went right when so many things in my life were going wrong.  He was a lifeline for me when I felt overwhelmed.  He was the one that kept me company when I slept alone in my bedroom for almost a year.  I know it’s ridiculous to feel such sadness at losing him.  It is almost as though it has reactivated some of the pain from that period and my heart hurts.

I will get through this – that much I know.  I wish him well out in the world and hope that at some point down the road, he’ll remember that his life here was good and maybe, just maybe, he will decide to come back.  Until then, I will miss his chattering conversations with me, his warm, soft belly, and most of all, his loving acceptance of me at my best or worst.  You’re free, Will.  I hope in letting you go you somehow find your way back to me.

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UPDATE:  Will Feral has returned  home.  After almost 3 weeks in the woods, he finally showed himself to me on Monday evening about 6:30.  I was out looking again for him as we hadn’t seen any sign of him for days.  I was anxious and trying not to think about what I might find.  I was back in the in the greenbelt near a clearing and he was walking across it.  I called to him and he kept heading away from me, but toward the house.  He began talking to me then.  I circled back, trying not to spook him and then went to get some food.  I saw he was still by the last tree on the edge of the wood that borders our yard.  I put the food behind that tree and he came to it.  After eating a bit while I talked to him, I was able to pet  him.  Once I’d done that for a while, I picked him up by the scruff of his neck as I used to do when he was a kitten and brought him inside.  He was very skittish and acted feral again – hiding and hissing.  After a day and a half, he is very much back to his old ways – loving and happy.  He is extremely thin and looks like a shadow of his former self, but he is home and we are all happy for it.  Well done, Will.

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Time Marches On

“When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” (Kahlil Gibran)

These words gave me a great deal of comfort when my dad died two years ago.  They summed up how it felt to lose someone who brought you great joy in your life.  That joy is made all that much more poignant by the fact that it is now gone.

I’ve been struggling with a multitude of feelings this past week.  The simplest things, like going to the Hallmark store to buy a card for a coworker, left me feeling morose instead of uplifted.  I was hit by the fact that I would have been, in the past, buying all sorts of cards – a birthday card for my dad’s birthday today, a mother’s day card for my mom, an anniversary card for them both – and I felt my loss profoundly.  This time of year is a tricky one to navigate – lots of significant days to notice what has changed.  I miss my dad, I miss my parents, I miss my sister.  It comes to me in waves and I am reminded how fresh the wounds still are.   No surprise there, really.  Just a part of what it takes to get through this maze of grief. 

The card I bought was for our office administrator.   Wednesday was the Office Professional’s day, and in recognition of that, I took her to lunch and had a card for people to sign in appreciation.  One of the things I have done for the past several years is to buy a gift for each of the administrators on our floor.  It is a small gesture of gratitude for the work they do – even though they don’t work directly for me, they are always helpful and pleasant. One of them asked me why I do it – why do I go out of my way to do that for them?  And I thought about it and I realized that it was my dad’s doing.  He taught me to take the time to reach out to people and make the human connection.  He told me that when you do, you never know what it might mean to that person and more importantly, what it can do for you.  I explained that to her and was reminded again of the legacy my dad left.  It is one way I can honor him through carrying on his tradition and it feels good to continue to plant those seeds of caring whenever I can. 

Today, I saw some glorious trees bursting into their spring time best, glowing from the sunlight that hit them.  The sky behind them was dark and stormy, and the contrast of light and dark made the trees look especially lovely and vivid.  It struck me then – it is the contrast that made them so.  Light and dark, joy and sorrow – it takes one to make the other stand out. I am lucky to feel the way I did about my father and I miss him dearly.  He lives on in the seeds of kindness he sowed and I will continue on in kind, in honor of his memory.

All My Children

When I was a brash young thing, I told my mother that I never wanted to have children. I wasn’t good with them, children didn’t like me, and I claimed a moral superiority based on the overpopulation problem.  Mom didn’t mince words. She told me that was the most selfish thing she’d ever heard me say and that I was exactly the type of person who should be having children because I was bright, loving, and kind.  I was quite surprised by the vehemence of her reaction, but now that I have reached the same age as she was when she shared that opinion (read: blasted the hell out of me), I get it.  I really get it.

As it turns out, I did have kids.  I waited until I was 30 to start, but I have 3 wonderful children and wouldn’t trade being a mom for anything.  It is the one thing I feel best about and is an ongoing source of pride and challenge for me.  However, I have more than 3 kids now.  I have gathered others along the way.  I carry their pictures in my wallet and phone and their love in my heart.  I can count 4 more right away.

Alicia came into our life when she was 13.  She was a friend of my daughter’s in 7th grade and seemed to be both a privileged and troubled girl.  Through a series of events, she came back in to my daughter’s life 5 years later, a graduate of rehab, a daughter in tow, and in an unstable living environment.  She and Camryn came to live with us for a few months while they got back on their feet. My daughter was a sophomore in college by then and living at school.  I found myself back to life with a 2 year old in the house and all the fun and chaos that comes with it.  I saw in Ali a stern resolve to put the past behind her and forge a future that would give her daughter a more solid home life.  I didn’t mean to, but I ended up adopting them both in my heart.

My daughter also brought us my 3rd son, Josh.  She and Josh started dating when they were in 8th and 9th grade.  I assumed it would run the course like all junior high romances and last a couple of months, tops.  They dated until just last summer.  Josh spent a lot of time with our family from the age of 14 on, and I love him like one of my own.  He is a wonderful young man who has had to be self-reliant and the man of his house for way too much of his young life.  Now at the age of 22, he is living in his own place, working full time and finishing his second to last year of college.  I am so proud of him I can almost burst.  He has done well for himself.

My final child is also my oldest.  Graham is 27 years old.  He is my sister’s son and clearly doesn’t need day to day parenting.  I still plan to be his surrogate mom whenever he needs me to be.  Losing one’s mother doesn’t mean you stop needing a mom.  I know that all too well.  I often think of asking my mom about something only to remember I can’t and it hurts again.  I made a promise to Jan that I would be there for Graham however he needed me – a listening ear, an advice giver, a butt kicker – and that promise won’t waver.  He is my 4th son, my slug baby and a part of my heart.

I found out I was pretty good at this mom thing.  It came fairly naturally to me, and for that, I credit my own mom.  She was good at it too – not perfect, not by any stretch – but really, really good.  Mostly, she loved us and showed us that love through her words, her actions, her cooking, and her rules.  She kept us in line if needed – and with five kids, it was often needed.  I also had a great father to model after and from him I learned patience and hearing the whole story before jumping to conclusions.  Both of those skills have served me well over the years.

I think I am enjoying this phase of parenting the most.  Yesterday, I looked around the Easter table and saw 4 of my 7 kids sitting there.  Ali and Cam were with her dad’s family and Graham was in his new home in Chicago.  I had just heard from them both and knew they were well and happy.  I felt blessed beyond measure to see what wonderful people these kids have become.  I wanted to bottle that moment to save for when I am old and grey(er) because I know that it’s just a fleeting thing.  But even fleeting, it is what I have been working toward since that first day they told me I had a son and I was a mom.  It’s all been worth it – every bit of it.  Thanks, Mom, for saying to me what I needed to hear when I was a young know-it-all.  Once again, you were right. I get it now.

Rebuilding

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On the banks of the slough near our house, there are almost always great blue herons around.  They like to fish in the shallows and they are a frequent sight overhead as they fly to and from their feeding grounds.  I have always loved seeing them overhead as they pass by.  There is something both elegant and primeval about their look and they are a startlingly large bird.  That they can sustain flight is truly a marvel of avian design and engineering.

My daughter identifies with these birds and sees them as her power animal, a guardian of sorts.  When my dad died, she said they reminded her of him.  Then mom died, and as herons are often together in pairs, it feels like they are watching over us.  Since herons are birds that mate for life, that seems appropriate.  Now, when I see two flying overhead, I say hello and send up a quick prayer for my parents.  They have become totems for me, too.

Over the past few months, there has been some interesting activity in the trees by the slough.  For the first time in all the years I have been walking out there, the great blue herons are building nests in trees that are very central to the park.  I have counted seven nests in these trees and have seen about 14 birds perched in the branches.  This has caused quite a few people to stand, stare upward and comment on what is going on above us.  Quite a few people, like me, have been snapping pictures.  It is making bird-watchers of a lot of us and has given me a lot of joy.  It feels like a rebirth is underway.

As I drove away yesterday, I thought of the parallels between the year that has passed and the importance of rebuilding.  Seeing these fragile nests clinging to slim branches makes me nervous for the eggs that will eventually inhabit them.  They seem so flimsy a strong wind could blow them away.  The herons are still adding sticks to them each day, so they must want to secure them, too.  I know that I can’t help them do it – I can only be an observer and my worrying about them is pointless.  They are the experts and they will do what they know works, following patterns in their DNA that was long ago imprinted.  They rebuild their nests each year and they are bringing forth the next generation.  They are doing so in the face of stacked odds – predators, illness, lack of food, and worst of all, siblicide.  If one chick becomes larger and more dominant, it “nudges” the others out of the nest and has all the parental attention to itself.  That ensures its survival – but is not so great for the others.

My own rebuilding continues to make me stronger.  Day by day, I feel myself reclaiming what is important to me and being able to stand up more solidly.  My new normal is becoming more than just an expression; it is how I feel and what I have to work with.  I still think of calling mom, dad, or Jan regularly.  Other times, I’m surprised that I haven’t thought of them being gone in a while – and I feel bad for not feeling bad.  Mostly, I am feeling good about making my way forward and finding out how I need to be without them.  It is a daily adventure, but one that isn’t as painful as 12 months ago, 6 months ago, or even a few days ago.

I was in a group recently at work and someone mentioned they’d heard I’d had a rough year, so I told them that I’d lost 3 important people from my family over a span of 17 months.  This time, instead of the usual sympathetic comments or words of understanding, someone actually said “Oh – you think that’s bad, my dad just disappeared one day.”  And I almost started laughing.  Since when did grief become a competitive sport?  All I could do was rein in my urge to say “WTF?” and channel my sympathetic ear, asking him what had happened.  Turns out it was years ago, but it must still be a source of pain for him.  I walked away, shaking my head at how people can be, but knew I was making progress.  My pain is there, but it has had a chance to be acknowledged, shared, and respected.  In doing so, I don’t need to use it to one up anyone.  I would truly hope for no one to have to experience a series of loss like I have.  It’s not for the faint of heart.

I am hopeful that each visit to the slough will show me that this new heron colony is thriving and they are successful in launching this season’s new chicks.  I admire them for their boldness and wish them well in their efforts.  I will be watching.

Fast Friends

Recently, a friend shared this picture with me. It is from 1967 and we were all about 8 years old. I look at it and at once am transformed back to that young girl, surrounded by friends, safe in my two piece, no worries of body fat or style, just being happy. I love how that picture makes me feel. I see myself as I was and feel content. That it connects me to this person still is huge. We have been friends a long time.

One thing I have come to realize over the past decade is that friends who have been with you for a long part of your life journey are precious beyond measure. They are more than just people who know you; they are your link to your former self and all you’ve lived through. They’ve kept a part of you that you might have thought lost, but when you are together, it is reflected back at you through your shared memories. I believe this, more than anything else, makes them not only important in your life, but essential.

I have been lucky to have gathered some very amazing people in my life along the way. I have never been one to have a lot of friends, but those I have are in my life for a reason. Sometimes I know immediately that someone is a person I need to know better, sometimes it’s just good luck. Who would know that a friend made on the first day of second grade would be one of my lifelong friends? Or that the young woman placed into the room across the hall from me freshman year would be a person I talk to at least once a week today? Sometimes fate just makes it so. Sometimes you have to reach out and connect. Either way, finding those people who enrich your life and are there for you regardless of time or distance is what makes life’s journey worthwhile.

I was even luckier to have been born in to a family with some ready-made friends waiting for me – and a couple more to follow. I have great memories of growing up the middle in a family of 5 kids and always having someone to scheme or dream with. As we became adults, I found that my brothers and sisters were more than simply my relatives – they were also people I would seek out as friends. We enjoy each other’s company and humor and time spent together is always better. Our family gatherings are often exhausting because we are laughing so much of it. It doesn’t take much to get us (or keep us) going.

At my 50th birthday party, I looked at the list of people who had been invited. There were friends from just about every significant point in my life – elementary school, junior high, high school and college. Friends made at my first job out of college, and several other career stops after that. My siblings were represented, my own family with my three kids were there and cousins who have become true friends. I was touched – each person represented a different part of my life, but as a whole, they represented all of the experiences I have had to make me who I am today. It was an overwhelmingly good feeling to look out at that room full of people and memories and see how I had been blessed.

There have been times I’ve met someone and I knew instantly that this was a person I needed to connect with. I have, over time, gotten better about just saying that to the person and acting on it rather than leaving it to chance. I trust my instincts now and am very intentional about honoring them when they happen. In the past few years, I have made several new connections and am so very glad I have. Age or proximity is not a limit – simply knowing that I can be fully myself with the other person is the main thing.

When Jan passed away, I knew I would be feeling bereft, lost without her in my life. One thing I didn’t know was that Jan had a plan laid out and was going to leave a couple of angels to watch over me. I inherited two of her very best friends, and those two women fit right in to my life like they had always been there. We have been able to support each other through the loss, and that’s how we’ve been able to make it. I didn’t know Jan had that all worked out for us, but she did and it has been another big blessing.

I read something the other day about “everlasting friends”, the kind that you don’t have to see often to be close to, but that when you do pick up the phone to call them, you are able to instantly be reconnected at the heart level as if no time at all has passed. And those are the kind of people I want in my life. I could go on about the power of female friendships and how much they matter, but I think the real key is that these friendships – whether with women or men – connect us to humanity and provide that sense of belonging that we all crave. It doesn’t take a large number of people to give one that feeling, but having the right people in your closest circle makes for a rich life indeed.