When I’m 64…

Let me preface this by saying that I do not think 64 is old at all, lest I receive angry phone calls from my parents. I’m sure if The Beatles were to write that song today, they’d adjust the age to be 84, maybe 94? After all, the life expectancy has raised almost 10 years since 1967 when that song was written. 

Growing up, I knew my mom was a nurse, specifically a rehab nurse, but I didn’t quite know what that meant. What I did know is that she worked in a nursing home and there were a handful of times when my brother and I visited there. We’d meander through the building and poke our noses into some of the rooms or wave to those residents sitting in the halls. Everyone was always overjoyed at seeing two little kids. Some would give us pieces of candy, others would mistake us for their own grandchildren and call us strange names. 

I became accustomed to old people and that distinctive nursing home smell. It didn’t bother me, though it unnerved others. Whereas some tread hesitantly, I was nothing but comfortable in their presence. 

To fulfill service hours in high school, volunteering at the local nursing home seemed like a natural choice. I helped with activities for these residents: leading Bingo games, reading stories from Chicken Soup for the Soul, watching movies, painting nails or parcelling out snacks. I’d listen to their stories – and such stories they had to tell! I marveled at the lives they’d led and the experiences they’d had. 

Joe was a regular on manicure day and had no shame about pampering himself, even as a man. He’d once been a bartender and always believed it was important to be well-groomed, especially if you were serving the public. He’d leave the community room with a clear coat of polish on those days. Or there was Frances who would grasp my hands and swing them back and forth singing, “you are my sunshine, you are my sunshine.” Esther told me about living in Austria during the war and Hilda lovingly shared the accomplishments of her children and grandchildren. 

Even those whose memories were elsewhere and past the point of verbal speech would still grab hold of my arm or hand and gaze longingly into my eyes. That was always enough. Those moments took my breath away and made me blink back tears. 

All of these dear people in full mental capacity or same variation of its loss were just searching for connection. To know that someone still cares. 

On family days, I’d always wait with bated breath, praying that everyone received visitors. I’d struggle to understand how anyone could just forget about their relatives living here and I’d try to fill in the gap when I’d see one of my activity regulars sitting alone. 

I worry about my elderly loved ones today who struggle with their health and loneliness, a feeling that any of us can empathize with, no matter our age. I worry about the days when they are no longer in my life and think about all that I’ve learned from them. I chastised myself on Monday for not regularly calling my grandma who always took me shopping when I was little, was home waiting for me after school with paczkis on Fat Tuesday, knitted me scarves, hats and leg warmers, attended my dance recitals, and shared her joy of jigsaw puzzles with me. I don’t call because I worry about her which is a ridiculous reason not to call and I worry about the day when I won’t be able to call her. I was fortunate enough to know two great-grandmas, two grandpas and two grandmas…and now this grandma, my Grammie, is the only one still here.

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Me portraying an old lady

I hope that when I’m 64, 74, 84, 94 or even 104 that I keep living, loving and fighting. I admire 90-something year old Irene who despite being blind, ran errands and kept such a busy schedule the planners for her birthday party couldn’t keep it a surprise as intended. They had to tell Irene about it, just to find a date she was free and could attend. Or 80 plus year old Helen who had once been a nun but told fantastic, dirty jokes. Or my Polish great-aunts who kept dancing well into their 90s. 

Yes, sometimes I think about the creases that don’t completely fade on my forehead or the faint lines on my face. Those will all likely deepen by the time I’m 64. New wrinkles and more lines will appear. But I’ll wear each one proudly, Botox be damned. And I’m going to call my grandma. 

 

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Anything Can Happen

“But now I’ve seen it through/And now I know the truth/That anything could happen/Anything could happen” – Ellie Goulding, “Anything Could Happen”

This week was absolute rubbish. To speak more bluntly, it sucked. There are countless reasons as to why it received such an unfortunate distinction. Work, work politics and work frustrations are a few of those reasons. Truthfully, I’m sure the sinus cold that latched onto my immune system Sunday evening didn’t start the impending week on a promising note or win it any favors, either. My head was the weight of a 20-pound bowling ball, I was tired and mankind left me utterly disgusted and frustrated. Naturally on a week reeking of trash that needed to be thrown out three days ago, rude and insensitive people were everywhere.

I read this excerpt penned by Dr. Seuss for the book “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” and the last two lines encapsulated by mood and the week to a tee:

“You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed.

You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead.

Wherever you fly, you’ll be the best of the best.

Where you go, you will top all the rest.

 

Except when you don’t.

Because, sometimes, you won’t.”

Yes, Theodor Seuss Geisel, I couldn’t agree with you more. Sometimes you won’t at all be the best or the greatest at anything.

Now, before you stop reading this in distaste because you think I’m using this platform as an opportunity to complain about my week, wait…

Unexpectedly, late this morning my mobile phone buzzed displaying a number I didn’t recognize. I answered that unknown number with brief hesitation, fearing that it was a wrong number or someone trying to sell me something. Quite the contrary. 

That call changed my day, maybe even completely altered my rubbish week. After I said goodbye to the caller and we disconnected, I walked outside and stared at Lake Michigan. The clouds were going to break soon and the predicted downpour and thunderstorms would come…but not yet. The lake was calm; the sky was calm; the world was calm. I was absolutely oblivious to any activity – if there was any – happening around me. All I felt was peace. The water and the moment had me hypnotized. I meditated, prayed and reflected. 

I thought about how things can seem pretty bad, hopeless even. It feels as though you’re all alone in this crazy world, aimlessly searching to make everything right in your life. Then, all of a sudden, you’re given a glimmer of hope and it changes everything. I realized – and believed – that anything can happen.

Awesomely enough, a few moments after that revelation manifested in my soul, the piped-in music that plays in the area in which I was standing changed tracks. The next song that played was Ellie Goulding’s “Anything Could Happen.”

Coincidence? Perhaps.

ImageBut sometimes in life there is no such thing as coincidences. It’s something more powerful than that. It’s divine order, it’s all of the puzzle pieces in the Universe fitting together exactly as they were always meant to fit and be. 

I’m not sure if anything will come of that phone call but I promise you that it was a gift. My eyes and heart opened with the understanding that even in the midst of this rubbish week and just when I think it’s just me out here and who really cares one way or the other about anything and people are telling me to lower my expectations, someone, somewhere cares. The Universe, God, Spirit tells me: “Anything could and can happen. Get ready.”

Oh, I’m ready. I’m ready for it to happen. 

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This Side of Joy

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The picture on my bookshelf

Tucked away on my bookshelf is a picture of me when I was maybe three or four-years old sitting in an armchair and smiling broadly, holding a doll. My haircut is a bit awful, styled in a bowl-shape and there’s a substantial gap between my two front teeth. Yet, I can look past the questionable hair and bad teeth because all I really see is a positively happy girl whose smile is genuine and infectious. 

I wish I could remember that day, that moment in time, to understand the origin of my happiness. Was it the person behind the camera taking the picture who made me smile so? Was it because I was holding a toy? Or was it just because I was in a home where I was fortunate enough to be safe and loved? The answer could have been all of these, or none of these. Truthfully, it really doesn’t even matter. It’s the adult me that wants answers and needs to know how that little girl could be so happy. 

My mama sometimes tells me a bit wistfully how happy and joyful I was as a little girl and this photo must be proof of that. Growing up, I was always playing dress-up and make-believe with my brother, friends and later the dog when we finally got one, forever an actress with a wild imagination and flair for the dramatics. 

I’m sure it was inevitable that darker forces would chip away at the unbridled childhood joy. I mean, no one can be that happy forever, right? 

Now as adults we rarely have time for joy, fun or play. Our lives are stressed and full of obligations, complications and an endless “to do” list. So, when joy manages to find us, it takes us completely by surprise. Early August, joy knocked me off my feet…nearly quite literally…

I was in the middle of a hectic week at work thanks to a large-scale event. Nerves and tensions were running high. I’d had a moment earlier one particular day that week where I was unintentionally snippy with someone, driven by a need to eat and drained of energy. I apologized but I still felt bad about it. 

A few hours later, I was at a new post and feeling slightly rejuvenated when I saw the person walk past me with a friend of mine. I rushed up to her to apologize again and as we were talking, my friend who was with her slammed into my side. I think I stared wildly at him for a moment with a look of “what the heck are you doing?” but then started shoving him right back. The crowds parted around us and for a minute, maybe longer, maybe shorter, it was just us: me versus him in a mini wrestling match. The rest of the world slowed down or just froze around us. And it was awesome because it was fun. And spontaneous. It was pure uninhibited joy. For that brief moment in time, I felt like a real kid again, goofing around with my friend. Honest, it was the highlight of that week. 

We want to remember the joy instead of wallowing in the pain or the hurt in our lives. The joy uplifts us and gives us the courage to tackle the rest. Sometimes the joy is fleeting, but when it grabs hold, it’s absolute magic. 

I’m trying to reclaim the joy that little girl felt in that picture. There are cherished moments, like that day at work a few weeks ago, that bring me closer to it. And then there are my intentions to be living, working, breathing and dreaming a life of purpose that make me believe I can achieve it. 

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Life, Back Then

A few weekends ago, I found myself in a car driving on familiar interstates taking me west and south. I felt the same excitement crossing over the Mississippi River (the best part of the trip), the same disdain at seeing the “Welcome to Iowa” sign and the crazy awesomeness of stopping at the I-80 Truck Stop – “the largest truck stop in the world.” Once upon a time, I had memorized every town and exit on these roads, nearly navigating them on auto-pilot. As the exits disappeared behind me in the rear view mirror, I knowingly smiled at towns called What Cheer, Amana and Dixon, just to name a few. These signs acknowledged me as an old friend, welcoming me back, whispering in the wind, “why have you been gone so long? Where have you been?” 

I’ve been gone for more than ten years living elsewhere now, I silently replied. 

I was a willing companion on this trip, always game to go anywhere, everywhere. The ultimate destination was Kansas City on the Missouri side by way of Des Moines, Iowa for my friend’s former roommate’s wedding. 

For four years during college I called Des Moines home. I’d had a few friends from Kansas City and spent several enjoyable weekends there, visiting Worlds of Fun amusement park, the Renaissance Festival and haunted houses like The Beast. 

I was intrigued to see my college campus and Des Moines again. In preparation for the trip, I Googled familiar restaurants and hangout spots including Stella’s Blue Sky Diner. Stella’s was a kitschy, 50s-style diner and quirky because of the way the wait staff served malts and shakes. They’d pour the creamy mix from a tin cup into a glass you held on your head. Or, if you were feeling a little more adventurous, you could lay on the formica floor, glass perched on your forehead and malt clumping into your glass from the waitress standing above you on a vinyl chair. 

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My sister at Stella’s Blue Sky Diner

But Stella’s, like a few other places I’d once patronized are sadly shuttered. It made me kind of sad as I read this on Google. I guess I expected Stella to still be around, waiting for me. 

Turning off I-80 for I-235 into the city of Des Moines itself, it felt strangely like coming back home. 

I drove my friend around Des Moines, pointing out this place and that, telling stories here and there. The streets were all more or less familiar: more so to the 20-year old me and less so to the 30-year old me, like I was looking at the world in a haze through smudged glasses. Everything had changed: new buildings on this corner, old ones gone on that corner. How could I not expect the city to grow and change? It needed to, of course, just like I needed to move on after those four years had passed. Yet, I remembered it the way it was all those years ago, frozen in time. And I guess I expected it to be that way still.

The nightclub I used to frequent with my friends was still there. Everything there was (for the most part) exactly the same. Same smell, same mirror on the back hallway, same bathrooms, same familiar feel. The big change was how quiet it was for a Friday night. The place was always packed, but back then it was one of the few clubs in Des Moines. With a  revitalized downtown, a Riverwalk and a nightlife district, I’m led to believe that business may have suffered some. I hope that it will remain there for years to come, and not fade away like Stella’s has done.  

I wondered what it was like to go to school there now. Downtown Des Moines looked more exciting now. Maybe these kids were more at home than I was that first semester of freshman year; whereas I wondered if I’d made a mistake choosing to go to university in Des Moines and not Los Angeles or Chicago. How did I wind up here amongst the corn? I remember wondering what I’d gotten myself into as a I sat in my first Journalism class in Meredith Hall and a large handful of fellow students admitted that Des Moines was the biggest city they’d ever seen. Eventually, for better or for worse, Des Moines became my home.

Saturday morning as we said good-bye to Des Moines and drove on to Kansas City, nostalgia overwhelmed me. I stupidly thought I’d never fall victim to it. It was grandparents who were nostalgic as they reminisced about when the price of milk was only 25 cents and delivered by a milkman or how they had to walk to school in the wind, rain and snow, unlike us kids now who got to take a bus. 

The past and memory is a deceptive and conniving convention. How we remember things is always markedly more perfect, lovely and flawless than how it was when we were actually living life in that moment. We are the directors of our memories, capturing times and moments in our lives when we may have been younger, more vibrant and the world was full of possibility…or at least, that’s how it seems to us now, in our mind’s eye. 

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Life, on Purpose

ImageWhen I was 11 and Emily was sick, I’d pray fervently in the confines of my bedroom each night that I could trade places with my sister. “Please, God,” I’d plead. “Let me be sick and let her be OK.” I’d close my eyes tight and wait patiently, hoping to hear soft jingling fairy bells like I’d heard in movies right before something wonderful happened and find everything transformed, just as I had prayed. 

But it never happened. I’d open my eyes again to see that nothing had changed. The room was still as it had been. I didn’t feel any different. No bells. No magical music. 

I’d go to sleep then, resentful, alone and ignored – God wasn’t listening to me or my prayers. Maybe I wasn’t praying hard enough? Maybe Heaven didn’t believe me when I said I wished I were sick instead. But I spoke and prayed truthfully. I meant it. 

All these years later, I’ve never forgotten that 11-year old’s prayer. I realize that it was unrealistic and such a switch was never in the realm of possibility or probability. It doesn’t matter, though. Wishing, praying and wanting it to happen was real and life-altering. I am still here…so now what? If I’m still here, it must be that I have a purpose and a reason to be here. It became my life’s motto and my personal mission to discover that purpose. 

Yet, what is that reason, that purpose? 

I’m certain I’m not alone in this journey of discovery; there must be others who ask themselves the same questions I do. Self-help books are plentiful on this topic, so it’s further proof that I’m not the only one. 

A few weeks ago as I browsed through the aisles at Barnes & Nobles, I picked up a copy of Martha Beck’s “Finding Your Own North Star” in the bargain books section. I’d made a mental note that it was one I should read when it first came out and now it sits on my bookshelf waiting and teasing: “Claim the life you were meant to live.” 

What does that look like? I’m not entirely sure. I hope it doesn’t look like this, though.

At this moment, I’m still searching for the insights and the answers. I’m all at sea, set adrift, merely tackling daily drudgeries without any meaning. I secretly worry and grow fearful: What if I’m all that I’m ever going to be? 

What I am now is not the dream I had for myself at 15 or even 18. Those dreams seem like they were from another lifetime ago, when I was younger and more hopeful, when I truly believed that I could do anything and everything…until the rest of life got in the way. Why did I ever think I was somebody special, that I’d be scouted and act in movies or have published a few novels by this age? I haven’t found any new dreams since I abandoned those teenage ones and have truthfully been scared to dream ever since. Is it worthwhile to evolve those into something new and to try again? Reconnect with that youthful hopefulness? 

With over seven billion souls on this world, I understand that not everyone can discover the cure for cancer, be a movie star, a top athlete, or Nobel Peace Prize winner…nor does everyone want that for themselves. Being a parent, having a family, owning a business, traveling, or just having enough food on the table may be purpose enough for some. That’s the funny thing about purpose. It’s personal. It’s what you make of it for yourself. 

I am guided by the desire to live my life on purpose and with purpose. If I don’t do something great or meaningful with my life, I feel like I’m letting myself or my sister down. 

I am still here…so now what? 

 

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When Everything Changed

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My favorite picture of me and Emily

“Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some stay for a while and leave footprints on our hearts. And we are never, ever the same.” – Unknown

She was born on Thursday, July 12, 1990. Today she would have been celebrating her 23rd birthday, but instead died two days shy of turning five months old. She was my sister Emily Anne and her life and death is the most defining moment in my own life. It was when everything changed. 

The real miracle of life is that each and every one of us makes an impression on this world and impacts it and one another in some fashion. Although Emily was only with us for a short time, she left an indelible mark upon not only my family, but upon friends, acquaintances and strangers who may have only heard her name prayed about in church. 

I was only 11; my brother not yet nine then. That Thursday, I was teaching a safety class to kids. When a close family friend came to pick me up after class instead of my parents, I learned the sister I’d always wanted had been born, weighing just 2 pounds, 14 ounces. I was elated, but things weren’t quite right. Emily was about ten weeks premature, sick, in an incubator and breathing with the help of a ventilator. She was given the Sacrament of the Sick multiple times in her short life. It would seem that every time Emily made leaps and bounds of progress, a short while later she’d suffer some major setback. 

A few days after she was born, tests revealed that she had Down Syndrome. The news of this didn’t make a difference to me. If anything, I was more defiant and protective. Since the day of her birth, I promised myself that when she grew up, I’d defend her every step of the way. This new revelation only made that determination more resolute. 

When she was sick, my brother and I were allowed to visit as much as we wanted. When Emily’s health improved, our visits were restricted to Sundays. Sometimes I elected not to go to the hospital and all these years later, the self-blame and judgement has slowly begun to dissipate and I’ve started to forgive myself for the decisions made by a frightened 11-year old girl. The nights my brother and I had to spend at a neighbor’s house I called “The Terror Nights.” I guess we all spent much of those five months in a constant state of terror, haunted by the fear of the unknown. 

Even in the most extreme and harrowing cases, mankind demonstrates resilience and proves that we can fight like hell to survive and thrive. But, sometimes the struggle becomes too much or there comes a time when we just don’t want to fight anymore. On December 10 of that same year, Emily decided the fight was over and she slipped away into the night. 

Adolescence suddenly became a lot harder. Support from friends was strong at first, but faltered. I was different because I had a baby sister who died. Every single belief or thought you ever had is suddenly challenged and tested and my religion was no exception. My own parents’ faith was admirably steadfast throughout. They’d put Emily’s life in God’s hands.

My child’s mind saw it differently. At 11-years old, I wrote this in a journal: “I was upset because we’ve been praying to God for a long time to bless our family with another child. And now that we have our Emily she is on the verge of dying. How could you possibly trust God when something like this happens?”

As I write this piece, I realize that for the first time, I’m sharing a story that even those nearest and dearest to me haven’t really heard. Sure, they know I had a sister named Emily. They know she died and didn’t live very long. But beyond that, how do you sit down and tell someone the details? That’s not very easy. I think I harbored many of these details and buried those emotions away from everyone, including myself. My sister’s death is the deepest loss I’ve ever felt and truly cut to the core. After that, nothing was the same and could ever be the same again.

What I know for sure is that now Emily’s with me every day. I imagine her to be as stubborn and precocious as I am and have no doubt that she is, since she was so strong-willed in life. And I think our roles reversed. Just as I made a promise that I’d defend her after she was born, she is now the one who’s standing up for me, supporting me every moment of my life. I’m grateful to know that she’s there in my corner. 

Happy Birthday, Emily! 

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It’s Raining In My Tent

Christmas 2011 I was gifted “The Calendar of Awesome” for 2012, a tear-away version of Neil Pasricha’s blog and best-selling books. Every day would offer a moment or observation to make you reflect, maybe smile, or admit “yeah, that IS pretty awesome.” At the very least, it made me consider that just living each day and experiencing life from the extraordinary to the mundane is incredibly awesome. 

However, the entry for April 2 made me take a step back and seriously rethink the sanity of the calendar’s creator. On this particular day, I flipped the page to read these words:

“The sound of rain from inside a tent.”

I became so unnerved and enraged by this entry that I ripped the page from the glue binding it to the calendar and tore it to shreds. The combination of “rain” plus “tent” do not equal “awesome.” Rather, this sentiment should be found in the Calendar of Emosewa. Yes, that’s awesome spelled backwards and as the opposite of awesome, would describe things that totally suck. 

I’ve had more than my share of experiences to argue otherwise. I grew up camping and have definitely slept in more campgrounds than hotels. As a baby, I got my start in tents until my parents eventually upgraded to a pop-up camper. There are many happy memories of summer vacations sleeping in the great outdoors, not to mention campfires, toasting marshmallows and eating s’mores. 

It only seemed appropriate to suggest on one long-distance call to the U.K. that we register for camping equipment as wedding gifts. Nine years later, we are on our second tent. The reason behind the purchase of the second tent? Rain. 

In 2006, we took our first tent on our first long camping expedition to Kentucky and Tennessee. Keeping a wary eye on ominous darkening grey clouds pressing in closer overhead, we pitched our tent in a campground a few miles away from Mammoth Caves, Kentucky. Working quickly, we zipped up the door and sought refuge from the storm in the rec house. As we ate our sandwiches, I grew increasingly anxious as the rain fell in droves. A fellow camper crashed through the door of the rec house soaking wet and declared that tents were down. I raised my eyebrow in panic, wondering about the state of our tent. 

When the skies cleared enough for us to venture out to our site and survey the damage, it was with great relief to find our tent still standing. Further inspection showed the only damage was a few cracks in one of the cross poles that we repaired and reinforced with duct tape. 

That trip cemented my hatred for rain – the mountain deluges we endured in Tennessee were some of the most powerful, sudden rainstorms I’d ever seen. 

I suppose a light drizzle upon the canvas may be relaxing, but when the drizzle becomes a downpour and it’s you marooned in a tent with a plethora of paper towel rolls and a flashlight as your only means to combat the elements, I’d say relaxation is the furthest thing from your mind. You become stressed and worried, convinced that you’ll be found floating miles away inside your tent. You glare and mutter menacing threats at other campers tucked safely inside hard-body trailers who are much less vulnerable against the rain and the storm than you in a tent. 

Most of the storms we’ve encountered come at night. I curl up in my sleeping bag, listening to crickets chirping, leaves rustling. All is calm. All is quiet. The next moment, I’m violently torn from slumber as thunder cracks and my husband shines a flashlight on every corner of our shelter, searching for the dreaded puddles. 

After one too many rainstorms, our second tent boasts a “bathtub bottom” with seams off the ground. This is helpful, but still not foolproof. 

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The floodwaters dissapating outside our tent.

I woke one morning in this tent after a restless stormy night. Putting my hand on the ground as I rolled off the air mattress, I feared that we’d been sleeping on a waterbed. The earth beneath us sloshed with every step as we walked gingerly towards the tent door to peer outside. We were in the middle of a flood. There was so much water that a quarter of our car tire was submerged. 

So, I turn back to that Calendar of Awesome and say respectfully, that yes, although I’m inside the tent and not outside in the rain, I assure you: there’s nothing awesome about this at all. 

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We All Fall Down

Not quite a year ago, I pushed a seven-year old girl on a swing and froze. My low back had seized up and it felt as though I was being crushed under the weight of a brick house. I couldn’t walk; I could barely move. Crawling would have gotten me anywhere faster. It was the first time I felt absolutely helpless: if someone attacked me in the state I was in, there was no possible way I’d be able to fight back. 

Exercises and rehabilitation for over a month helped put me – Humpty Dumpty – back together again. The pain went away and it was out of sight, out of mind for nine months. It made me think for a moment that maybe it hadn’t been real. 

And then it came back with a fury four days before I was scheduled to leave on a much-needed escape out of state to Miami. I was devastated. This could not be happening to me now! I went into overdrive to enlist a team of doctors, massage therapists and medicine to eradicate the pain and make me whole again. Or, well enough to be able to enjoy a respite in the sun. And somehow, I was well enough. The tide of pain ebbed away almost as quickly as it had come in.

Until one Sunday in June it happened all over again. I couldn’t stand or walk straight. Walking was perilous, too, because one step out of place stopped me dead in my tracks as shockwaves ricocheted around the source of my discomfort. Rather than a proud 6′ tall woman, I shrunk into a wizened, bent old lady. I was in a sorry state both physically and mentally.

Convinced that I was slowly breaking down, it struck me during this time of incapacitation that I was the very antithesis of “Six Feet Standing Tall.” My anger bubbled over at this weakness in my back and in my body, maybe even translating into some sort of lack in myself. At a massage appointment a few days into the agony I was feeling, tears flowed uncontrollably down my face. The pain was so intense and I was unbelievably frustrated. I couldn’t hold back my sobs. This has robbed me of a regular yoga practice for a few months now and I subconsciously live in fear that the pain in my back will return at any moment and I’ll be immobilized. It seemed as though this time was by far the worst.

I apologized for my outburst. In response, the therapist said: “Stand tall. Fight through the pain. Force yourself to stand straight, breathe through it and know that you are brave and strong. This hurt does not define you.”

And so several times that night and for the rest of the week, I would do just that. Stand. Breathe. Fight. Be strong. Be brave.

I imagined myself some sort of warrior princess.   

The evening of the first full day of the pain, a strong storm passed through Chicago. The skies turned greyish-green seemingly in a matter of minutes, the rain drove in sideways and the wind violently rattled trees and branches so much so that a hearty maple across the street from where I lived snapped in half like a twig. The weight of the tree crushed a wrought iron fence as it fell and broke a window. 

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The broken maple felled after the storm.

After my massage, I stared at that tree as did so many of my neighbors who came to photograph it before it was finally removed. I thought about that poor tree and the California redwoods I’d fallen in love with and designated as the symbol of my blog, “Six Feet Standing Tall.”

The day I visited Muir Woods on the outskirts of San Francisco, I listened to a park ranger reveal that I was in the forest on a very auspicious October day. It was the first day it had rained since March. These ancient towering trees need up to 500 gallons of water every day to survive and they’d gone seven months without nourishment from the skies. It’s a true miracle that they are even standing at all since they must be reliant on other water sources and on their fellow trees.

Staring at that broken tree, I stopped to remember and thank those redwoods for being such an inspiration to me. Unlike that maple caught in the storm, I will try to continue to struggle against this pain. It is no part of me. I find that a glimmer of fight still burns within me. I refuse to be felled.

Be strong. Be brave. Be six feet standing tall.

No, be as tall as those magnificent California redwoods who teach us all a lesson of strength and survival.  

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The Domestic Life, or Overwhelmed in the Aisles of Trader Joe’s

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A delicious meal cooked by a professional chef and not by me.

One of my proudest moments in the kitchen was back in college. Friends and I agreed to put together a potluck for Easter Sunday. I had volunteered to make a ham, perhaps only to impress my boyfriend John visiting from England. As soon as I committed to cooking the ham, I instantly regretted doing so, realizing the gravity of the situation: I had not the slightest idea of how to make a ham. It’s even more daunting for someone who subsisted mostly upon pasta and red sauce (no meat) for an entire semester. To this day, the mere thought of pasta and red sauce turns my stomach queasy. 

In the end, and much to my surprise, the Easter ham was delicious – juicy, marinated in 7-Up and topped with pineapple rounds – all thanks to a few panicked phone calls to my mother both in the grocery store to figure out which ham to purchase and in the kitchen baking it. 

Fast forward some years later and boyfriend now husband mercifully does all of the cooking, partly because he’s actually good at it and also because he knows what he’s doing. Unlike me.

But every month he travels out of town on business and I’m left to my own devices. On these days, I make dinner plans with friends, grab take-out or make sure the freezer is stocked with fool-proof options. Ham miracle aside, my culinary repertoire is rather limited. Mac and cheese? Sure! Pierogies? Of course, I’m Polish! I have a recipe for a spinach salad I make on holidays and I can whip up a mean version of an Egg McMuffin. And that’s about it.

One particular disastrous month by myself, I tried to cook a “mushroom and egg pasta,” also known as a mushroom carbonara, from a vegetarian British cookbook. The recipe said to add beaten eggs to the cooked pasta and the hot pasta would “cook” the eggs. That night when I went to bed, I was fairly certain that I had salmonella poisoning.

My mother has often wondered where she went wrong with me and why I can’t hold my own in the kitchen. I offer no excuses or apologies, but have no desire to immerse myself in the culinary arts.

Then, for about a week last year, I suddenly had to step up to the stove and cook because John was recuperating from a surgery. The pressure was on.

My first meal was Baked Shells: shells, marinara, ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, bake. I set a plate in front of John and looked expectantly in his direction. The best he could manage was sliding a few shells around and taking two bites. He apologized that he couldn’t eat more, but the pain medication had taken away his appetite. I understood, but I felt rather disheartened. I mean, I cooked this. I was proud of it. 

The next night, he suggested that he’d prefer to have a few things and just “graze.” To answer this request, I assembled an American’s best attempt at a Ploughman’s: sliced apples, cheese, bread and chutney. I also made a salad of cucumbers tossed in sour cream and dill, an old recipe I remembered of my mom’s that I always liked. 

Evening after, I felt totally spent. I was out of ideas. My repertoire and creativity in the kitchen had run dry. Standing in Trader Joe’s, I felt dizzy as I wandered aimlessly up and down the aisles. I couldn’t fathom how to put the offerings I saw before me into a meal. I felt overwhelmed and a bit inadequate, not to mention frustrated.

I called home and snapped at John as I stared at the sushi rolls. “I think we have some shrimp in the freezer. Let’s defrost that and have it with cocktail sauce.” I know I can’t mess that up. 

That suggestion receives a less than enthusiastic response. “So, what do you want to eat, then?” 

He’s not sure; he just wants to nibble on a few things. When I ask “like what?,” he doesn’t know. 

I tell him that we have a myriad of leftovers in the fridge and why doesn’t he just pick and choose something to eat from there? He starts to imply that if I run to Jewel, I could pick up whatever Jewel has that Trader Joe’s doesn’t stock. Now I’ve run out of patience. I’m not going to Jewel. I’m in this grocery store and I’m not going anywhere else. 

That night, I made myself an Egg McMuffin. I think he reheated the Baked Shells. 

I apologized later for losing my cool with him on the phone in the grocery store. I understood he was sick and not feeling well. I was trying to help the best I could. I’d just run out of steam. 

When he was finally up and moving around again, I sighed with relief. I was off the hook and out of the kitchen!

That week made me realize I’ve probably been taking John and his meal preparations for us for granted and I resolved to be more grateful. So, it is with extreme admiration that I acknowledge anyone out there who can skillfully manage their way around a kitchen.

Maybe someone out there can teach me how to make a mushroom carbonara with no fear of salmonella poisoning? 

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Thief in the Night

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Me with my Isabel, 2001 – 2012

Death came unexpectedly and uninvited into our lives one week this past October. All around us leaves blazed brilliant fiery shades of red, gold and orange. By its very nature, autumn represents a fading away of life, of the earth getting ready to rest ahead of a long winter. I guess if Death was going to come, this time of year supported His presence. 

Yet, I was still resentful of His return. I mistakenly thought we were rid of Him for quite a while or that He’d gone away for good this time. An impossibility, I know, because as I much as I try to ignore it, He’s never far away, just lurking slightly out of reach. No, sad but true, He and I are old friends, although I use that endearment of “friend” loosely. We’ve met before and undoubtedly we’ll meet again. 

This time, He made me angry. The heavy presence in our house stirred polarizing emotions in me. I want to hate Him so much and I really do. I fear Him coming to snatch away the ones I love, like a thief in the night, like right now.

I didn’t invite you here, I shouted. How dare you even be here? Go away!

But He did not listen. As much as I despised Him, a choice had been made by someone other than myself who asked for Him to come. She was ready, even though I wasn’t. As I watched her, I hoped that she wasn’t suffering. I prayed that she would just let go and for Death to come take her, if that’s what she wanted. It was too late to turn back and close the door on His face. I would be strong for her now and hide my tears. The time for weeping would come soon enough.  

Now He’s retreated and gone away to cast shadows on other lives. Our house is quiet now, too quiet. All that remains is the sadness, the emptiness, the heartache, the loss. 

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