My List of Grateful

This morning, while drinking coffee and bemoaning the coverage of the Thanksgiving Day parade (more floats, less guests!), I decided to fill one sheet of paper with what and whom I am most grateful. I could have filled more sheets, but since I need to getting prepping on that turkey, I limited myself to one.

My List of Grateful

  • My husband and friend, who loves me, puts up with me, protects me, and will lift me to the winds to fly, if needed- all unconditionally.
  • The greatest parents, ever. Who showed me what it means to love, to be patient, to be kind to others, and the importance of family. Oh, and sports.
  • My sister and brother, truly my best friends. The ones I miss the most, the ones I want to share everything, the ones I text throughout a sporting event and share photos of newly discovered beers. For our shared support, encouragement and belief in one another and for….well, everything
  • My family, especially my cousins. For our shared laughter, our shared memories, our shared adventures and shared love. I can’t imagine my life without all of my crazy cousins.
  • My nieces and nephews, part I (Andi, Holly and Jeff) and part II (Jaxon and Lexi), for allowing me to love you with the heart of a mother, for spoiling you, for watching you grow and become incredible adults (part I) and for allowing me a second chance, to watch you grow and rejoice in the fact I get to do it all over again (part II).
  • My sons- the Olmsted boys. For allowing me to be your second mother and forgiving me when I dropped the mom ball, at times. For filling my heart with love and joy and just when I didn’t think there was any more room, for bringing seven grandchildren within the blessed walls of my heart.
  • My friends- old and new (and future). For your love, loyalty, laughter, tears, hugs, and understanding. I could go on and on.
  • The women in my life, for those here and now and those who graced my life and have gone too soon. You are my reason, you are my hope, and you are my mosaic.
  • My job and the jobs before my ten-year stint with WSU. For providing me opportunities for growth, for learning, and to be able to enjoy this life and provide for others.
  • The love, companionship and memories of an old dog and the love, youthful reminders, and future memories of a new pup.
  • Music. All music.
  • Sports and how it weaves a magical thread of joy (and sometimes misery) throughout the lives of my family and friends.
  • My hometown, Wichita- the beloved ICT. For changing throughout the years, for being open to change, for providing us with community and the brave spirit of local entrepreneurs. The local breweries, the Coaster’s bicycle club, the incredible musicians, the talented artists, the continually changing landscape of this city…thank you.
  • Changing seasons. For the new beginnings of spring, the childlike abandonment of summer, the slowing down and appreciation of fall, and the soul-searching, rejuvenation of winter
  • Life. There are many who will never know this experience and many whose experience was too short. It is difficult, but worth the journey. How fortunate we are to be gifted this thing called life.
  • Thanksgiving Day. The day that inspires us to take the time to be grateful.

I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving and a long list of grateful!

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A Life Measured by the Soul- A Tribute to Jeffrey Lane Graber

The album was filled with glossy 4×6 photos. Photos of the red rose-bush tall against the wood fence; an upward shot of the aging basketball goal framed in Kansas blue sky, one single white cloud in the backdrop; a robin perched on the edge of the stone bird bath; a cardinal balancing among the branches of the juniper; a mug shot of Puggie, the gray muzzled pug dog. I never before realized the beauty of your backyard, the color, the life contained within its fences of wood, chain link, and evergreens. Later, I went home and sat on the back porch and gazed upon the everyday wonders of my own backyard. It was if I was seeing the green of the grass, the yellow of my mother’s daffodils, and the uneven gray of the patio for the first time.

My cousin Jeff was born with neurofibromatosis, an incurable disease which affects the development and growth of nerve cell tissue. The disease causes the growth of benign or malignant tumors, especially near the brain and spinal cord, as well as skin abnormalities and disfigurement. As a kid, I didn’t know the name of the disease, I just knew it limited Jeff, kept him from going with us to Joyland Amusement Park or to movies at Crest Theater. The disease attacked the right side of his face, rearing its ugliness when he was just a toddler, causing large, benign tumors to stretch and deform his appearance. Born in 1955, the medical field was still learning about the disease, working to understand its manifestations, and attempting to help patients live with the disease. His future was uncertain. We were told he might not live as long as the rest of us, his cousins. The disease was a mystery. The disease was selfish, keeping Jeff to itself. It was the first thing I remember ever hating.

As one of the cousins, Jeff was no different from the rest of us. We celebrated birthdays, read comics, and shot hoops for hours on the dirt court in his backyard or the makeshift goal at the farm. It was at the farm he experienced the most freedom. He helped bait hooks as we all fished, sitting along the old wood bridge, sneakered feet dangling a few feet above the creek. He swam with us in the large above ground pool, went on hikes with us through the pastures, spun us younger cousins on the tire swing, and played ping-pong in the damp basement of the old farm house. On the Fourth of July, we tossed firecrackers, lit smoke bombs, and waved sparklers. I’m certain he instigated the whole “let’s take the Black Cats and blow up cow pies.”

Like the majority of us, he even graduated from North High School, although he earned his degree while being tutored at home, having been pulled from the public schools when he was twelve. When my aunt and uncle sold the farm, Jeff’s outings became fewer and fewer, secluded to the house just a block from my own. Older than a handful of the cousins, Jeff became the family babysitter, but he was more like a teacher. He educated us on music, movies, and sports. He fed us Red Baron pizzas topped with his own special ingredients and the creamiest macaroni and cheese; served us cold Cokes in coffee mugs with tiny ceramic frogs hidden in the depths, and played board games with us seated around the kitchen island. He would tell us jokes, be stern with us when needed or threaten us with “tickle time” if we misbehaved. He taught us to appreciate the soundtracks to movies, corrected our song lyrics (no, it’s not elected boobs, it’s electric boots) and inherently provided the simplest of life’s lessons.

And as we grew up together, we transitioned from the babysitter and the babysat, to best friends and best cousins. We replaced Monopoly and Sorry with hours of Music Trivia and sipped our first German beers while sitting around that same kitchen island, eating Big Cheese pizza. We talked about books, cocooned in juniper trees on the front porch while listening to Casey Kasem’s Top 40 Countdown. The first time I heard Cheap Trick, I was sitting on the floor in front of his stereo, passing the album and liner notes back and forth, Jeff schooling me on the talents of Rick Nielsen and Tom Petersson. My sister may have sparked my love of music, but Jeff provided the kindling to ensure the flame burnt bright and long. He was one of the first in the family to own a stereo that allowed you to record albums to cassettes and he spent hours creating the perfect mix tapes, introducing me to Elton John and Led Zeppelin.

I often thought, and still do, that Jeff would’ve been an incredible radio disc jockey because he listened to every nuance of an album, read Rolling Stone magazine front to back, and was passionate about passing along his newfound knowledge, summarizing articles, and introducing the cousins to new music. It would have been a perfect job for him. And when MTV launched onto the music scene, my younger brother and I watched many a World Premiere with him, including Pat Benatar, Sting, and Van Halen. He would rate the videos, as we watched them over and over, Jeff always recording them to make sure we didn’t miss a thing. He loved those early days of MTV, especially the concerts. And in 1985, when the Young Ones crossed the pond, we watched many an episode at the Graber’s abode hysterical over the antics of Vivian, Rick and Mike. Jeff’s impression of Neal, his favorite, was spot on.

But, as the cousins grew older and became more involved in sports or school activities, and friends, our time spent with Jeff decreased. We grew socially, fell in love, went to college, moved away, married, and had children. Jeff stayed his course. He began babysitting the next generation. Later, he became the Commissioner for our family fantasy football league, keeping track of stats by hand, waiting for our phone calls to verify our standings, reprimanding us if we called too early before he’d had a chance to update scores following Monday Night Football. He would answer the phone, ‘The Commish, here.” Even after our family league disbanded, he remained the Commish, to me. But, the disease remained relentless, tightening its grip, and soon visits to his home became limited by his immediate family. Now living across town from one another, we kept in touch by phone, instant messenger, and later, Facebook. His birthday became the only day I would see him and the visits were brief, but he was never far from my mind. A song, a movie, a pug dog meme, and every Shocker game I thought of Jeff.

Neurofibromatosis is the disease, but it is not Jeff. It is easy to look upon his life from the outside and feel sadness and pity for a life so contained, but for us who knew and loved Jeff, his life was inspiring and profound, especially for us, his cousins. I know I speak for all of my cousins when I say that knowing and loving Jeff transformed our lives and embedded within our souls the gifts of compassion, empathy, and unconditional love. As children, we did not see the tumors, only Jeff, and at times, it was easy to forget about the disease until that moment when we would think or say aloud, “we should all go to the drive in,” or “let’s go to the game, this weekend.” It was then we hated the disease, as it stood between us and Jeff, separating us, pushing us away. Jeff was intrinsic to our development, educating us in so many ways, but for me especially, he taught me to realize and appreciate what I had in my own backyard. Jeff helped to recognize the beauty of that within our own fences, to look inside our windows and not just outside or beyond. So often, we look over the fence and long for what is not ours, while what is most important is sitting next to us on the porch swing, laughing with us at the kitchen table, and holding our hand.

The Kansas wind blew loud and strong the day we took turns sprinkling soft Kansas dirt over the small box in the ground which held the earthly remains of Jeff. It seemed at times we might topple over and roll comically down the hill of Calvary Cemetery, one last prank by our cousin whose bag of tricks included “tickle time” and “the Cucuy.” I could almost hear his boisterous laughter over the wind and afternoon traffic on Kellogg. Jeff would’ve celebrated his 60th birthday on December 18, defying the age expectancy given to him by his doctors so long ago. As we drove away from the cemetery, I thought of Jeff and his life, his world filled with movies, National Geographic magazines, the roar of the crowd through the speakers of his radio, and music, lots of music, and the love of cousins. It was then I understood the strength and forcefulness of the wind that sad day. Jeff is free. Free to see the sunset over places he learned about between the pages of those magazines. Free to gaze upon the ocean waves. See his beloved Yankees. Hear the roar of Shocker Nation in Koch Arena.

Forever a part of our lives, our souls, the intrinsic make up of our being, but free. Finally, free.

Thank you, Commish.

“If I could reach from pole to pole Or grasp the ocean with a span, I would be measured by the soul; The mind’s the standard of the man.”

– (adaptation) Isaac Watts- False Greatness

Blood Circle – A Tribute to My Best Friends

I am often envious of those whose friendships have endured since childhood, even high school. My brother is a prime example, as his circle of buddies has remained intact through the years. From the relationships he began in little league and junior golf to junior high and even as a high school transfer, his group of guys, while somewhat scattered between Arizona and Kansas City, has endured college, relocations, marriages, children, even death. And throughout this legacy of friendship, I have benefitted greatly in adopting (and being adopted) by a team of little brothers, whom I love.

But, what my brother has is rare, I believe. Maybe it is my innate independence or possibly, I’m not as wonderful a friend as I believe myself to be that results in my circle not being so intact, if there is a circle at all. Oh, I have friends, people whom I love and care about and worry over. Maybe we don’t see one another very often, once a month, every four to six months, once a year, but they are never far from my mind. And, should they call in need, I would leave work or hurry into the darkness of night to provide assistance or comfort.

Or maybe, it’s because as a child, I didn’t need best friends because I had my cousins. In a family of 48 first cousins, I was always surrounded by relatives my age or close to my age, especially my mother’s family. My mother and her siblings lived within blocks of one another, except for one family in California, so that Wedgewood Street, Waco, Market, Somerset and Manhattan, even Martinson (which was across town), became extensions of my childhood home. We walked to school together, shared birthday cakes, hunted Easter eggs, fished along the banks of creeks at the farm, rode bicycles, took up entire rows at movie theaters, huddled in basements during tornados, stayed up all night during sleepovers, babysat one another, became roommates, took trips, sang and danced at concerts, and eventually, stood stiffly in rented tuxedos or scratchy new dresses during weddings.

When I was younger, I was always surprised or found it odd that others didn’t spend much time with their cousins. Some didn’t even know their cousins, let alone go swimming with them. I cannot imagine a life without my cousins. Even now, as I type, I’m picturing my life, from childhood to present, sans relatives and all I can imagine is boredom and bleakness. As I sort through the photos of my childhood birthdays, if I were to erase the cousins sitting at the kitchen table waiting for me to blow out the candles, well, that would leave me, my little brother, my sister, and in a few photos, one child from my school whose name escapes me.

Maybe I would have had more traditional friends, maybe not. In our family, being blood means putting up with one another’s eccentricities and imperfections, which we may not understand, but we endure or ignore for the love of family. Others outside the blood circle would probably not be so patient or kind. One thing I know for certain is that I would be a different person. All of my cousins have provided a piece to the puzzle.

Each February, I am more aware and appreciative of my family, since we celebrate seven or more (remember, there are a lot of us and sometimes I forget) birthdays this month. February brings to memory piñatas and games, and later, themed parties and lots of beer at a small house in Riverside. Ours is a circle made different only by the means in which it is held intact, by time, by memory, by blood.

“An ounce of blood is worth more than a pound of friendship.” –Spanish proverb

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A Grateful Heart

Thanksgiving 2014 is in the books, as they say. It was a quiet day, spent with my husband and parents. Call me crazy, but I somewhat missed having too many people in an already crowded and warm kitchen, precariously stacked dirty dishes, having to place dibs on one of the bathrooms, and the beautiful din of voices drowning out my carefully selected music playlist. But, when family is spread through the Midwest and in the furthest southeast corner and almost the furthest southwest corner, one expects a few quiet, thoughtful and quickly cleaned up Thanksgiving meals.

We enjoyed our time, yesterday. Brad and I cooked most of the meal, with mom providing her always requested stuffing, sweet potatoes, and even one of her jello-whipped-cream desserts (which she provides each year, insisting it’s because one of us kids requested, but none has). We watched football, snacked, I showed them the most current photos of family via Facebook (it’s during those moments I’m thankful for that social media monster), prayed thoughtfully, ate peacefully, then sat in the living room sipping wine and talked about Thanksgivings gone past. After pie and coffee, my parents went home, leaving us to sit by the fireplace, finish the wine, and watch a movie. I felt very serene when I fell into bed.

So, this morning, as I forgo the smoke and mirrors of Black Friday, opting instead to lounge in my plaid pajamas, sip coffee from the Spice Merchant and prepare my Christmas décor plan of attack, I’ve decided to continue the serenity of yesterday and thank those who fill my heart with gratitude.

  • My Parents: I am blessed with such amazingly, good-hearted, hardworking, parents. I’ve said it a million times, but a million doesn’t seem enough. They have given me such a strong foundation on which to grow as a woman.
  • My siblings: My sister and brother are my best friends. My life would be so empty without them. They are my comfort, my heroes, my partners in crime, and all that is good within me is due to growing up with the two of them.
  • My husband: I was sixteen when I announced I was never getting married or having children, but when one meets the person who is meant to share your life, well…things change. He provides me with the essentials to a life well lived. He makes me laugh on a daily basis, something he promised to do on our wedding day. He gives me such strength, more than he possibly knows or understands, as I want to be a better woman because of him.
  • My nieces and nephews: My sisters three kids, who are no longer kids but incredible adults and my brothers little ones who are just beginning the journey. They provide such a light in my life. I’ve had the honor of sharing the early years with my sister’s children and while I had to watch them grow up from afar, they’ve made me so proud. And now, there’s a great-nephew added to the mix. Joy. While Andrea is no longer with us, she remains a constant in my life. As for my brothers little ones, they make my heart soar with their innocence and the mysteries of their futures. They give me hope and excite me with the prospect of their lives.
  • My stepsons: Remember that whole “never having children” proclamation? I’ve had the privilege of sharing in the raising of my husband’s sons and known the immeasurable love of three young boys. I’ve watched them grow into young men and raise families of their own. I don’t think they’ll ever realize how thankful I am to them for providing me with the blissfulness of a mother’s heart, something I thought I would never own. They changed me and all for the better.
  • My mother-in-law: She is emotional, forceful, strong, intelligent, passionate, witty, and inspiring. I know many women who despise or “put up with” their mother-in-laws, but I can honestly say I won the lottery with mine. What a blessing she is to have in my life. Everyone should have a Betty.
  • Being born into a Mexican heritage: And no, not just because of the food. I’m proud of my heritage and while it has brought hardship to my parents and a few of my other family members, it has also brought such richness. My mother’s family, indigenous to Mexico, and my father’s family from Mexico and Santander, Spain, provide history and a sense of belonging. While my parents did not continue all of the traditions, I’m grateful for pinatas, the smell of Mexican sweet bread on a Saturday morning, the singing voices of my aunts and uncles, my mother’s memorized recipes, Mexican Independence celebrations in the streets of Newton, the cadence and warmth of a language I never learned to speak, and family. Lots and lots of family.
  • Which segues into cousins: I have forty-eight first cousins and have no idea how many second, third…at this point, who’s counting. I was fortunate to grow up with many of my cousins. Together, we blew out the candles on homemade birthday cakes, opened Christmas gifts on Christmas Eve, cowered in basements during tornados, walked to school, played hide and seek, went sledding down the small hills along the river on snowy Thanksgivings, attended concerts, took road trips, cheered together during NCAA tournaments, and passed down those same occasions to the next generation. I’m always stunned to learn of people who don’t know their cousins or haven’t seen their cousins in years. My life would be so different without my cousins and it is a life I do not want to ever know.

Family. It is family that completes my life. While there are many things I am grateful, I know that none can match my love of family. Sure, at times they drive me crazy, but that’s what makes family so worthwhile. With family, especially mine, there is unconditional support, unconditional passion, and unconditional love, mixed with a lot of laughter, some acceptable nosiness, a little forgiveness, and just the right amount of foolishness.

George Santayana once said, “The family is one of nature’s masterpieces.” I am truly grateful for the family artistry that is mine.

Day #29 of Wild and Exciting Little Things: Sport Texting

My family loves sports. It’s what we do, what we know, and what we love. My parents are big sports fans, so of course, my sister, brother and I continue to carry the torch.

But, with my brother in Kansas City and my sister in Illinois, I miss watching games with them. Thank goodness for texting. I can watch a game knowing my siblings are watching the game and that I will be receiving their reactions to said game.

Some examples of our sport texting:

– OMG. Did you see that play?

-YES!!!

-Yeah, yeah!

-Are you wearing your lucky shirt

-I just burned my new shirt

-I just burned my brackets

-I might throw up

-Moooose!!

-Da Bears!

-Stupid Bears

-Da Bulls!

-Can you believe this?

-How was that a foul?

-Since when is that a strike?

-Shit.

-CHIEFS

-Ugh. I quit.

-That. Was. Amazing.

-I can’t stop smiling.

-Go Shox!

-SHOCKERS!!

-I heart Fred (Van Vleet)

-Are you still awake?

-Who needs sleep!

-Did you see that??!!

-Who are these announcers?

-Mom just called. They saw it too!

-Dad just called to check on me. I’m still pissed.

-OMG, everyone is texting me!!

-Just opened a beer

-Whew

-Sigh

-Cheers

-Gnite

-Nite

-Love you

Simple, brief, filled with capitalized letters and exclamation points, but I love receiving and sending them. I can’t watch a game without them. And by “them,” I mean my sister and brother. But, if I can’t sit at a table with them at The Other Place in Overland Park, or The Foundry in Naperville, or in the living room of my parents home, then texting is the next best thing. With each buzz of my phone, I know they are watching with me, cheering with me, cursing with me, laughing with me, and sulking with me. But, most importantly, they get it. Only a sports fan can truly understand another sports fan

I’m so grateful my sports-loving parents raised sports-loving kids.

The Matriarch(s)

My family is my foundation, my rock, my catalyst, my comfort, my soul. I have been blessed with amazing parents, who not only provided (and continue to provide) unconditional love and guidance for me, my sister and brother, they have proven to be role models to many, from cousins to neighborhood children.

A few years ago, I posted about my amazing mother, Martha. Since then, she has amazed us with her determination in healing from a very bad fall in August. While she is slower to get around, continues to deal with a lot of pain on a daily basis, and has become hesitant walking in crowds, her physician and orthopedic surgeon praise her recovery as “remarkable for a woman in her eighties.” My mother is tough, inside and out.

And she has handed down that toughness to my sister, Shirley. My sister is eleven years older than me, so she has been more than a big sister; she has been a second mother. Her innate ability to nurture and protect has endeared her to her own children, as well as her little sister and even littler brother. When I am with my sister, I feel comforted. Not many people can bring comfort to others by just their presence, it is a gift. Maybe this sense of security comes from our life together, but I believe my sister emanates an aura of comfort. If her aura could be captured in a photograph, I think it would appear to the eye of the beholder as whatever brings them their greatest comfort, like a warm glint of sun through the leaves. For me, her presence is like a familiar blanket, one I’ve carried since childhood, its plushness still evident within the worn threads. I know every inch of this blanket, from the tattered corner to the blue-black stain from a ballpoint pen. It smells of my childhood and careful washings and from 688 miles away I feel its warmth.

I was proud and somewhat jealous of my sister when I was a young. An incredibly beautiful young woman, she was adored within our family and community. I considered her royalty even before she was crowned queen during the Mexican-American tournament. And yet, she remained untouched by the attention, always with a soft smile, ever caring of me and my brother. We shared a bedroom until the day she married and moved from the home. Thinking back, I can’t imagine how she shared a full-sized bed with a little sister for almost ten years, especially one who hated to brush her hair and whose pet hamster escaped and found its way to her big sister’s pillow in the dark of the night. But, she did. And while she claimed the room by painting its walls in red and navy blue stripes, including the shelves that held her bronze incense burner and eight-track tape player, I never felt as if I were intruding. As a matter of fact, I can’t imagine a childhood without falling asleep listening to The Moments or Love Unlimited Orchestra, even with the ca-thunk of the eight track player as it switched from one channel to the next, and the soft form of my sister next to me in the bed.

When she married and moved out, I was excited to have a room to myself, especially since my dad and Uncle Louis had built an addition to our two-bedroom home that included a bedroom for my parents, a recreation room with fireplace and a much-needed basement. That bedroom for my parents meant my brother and I would have our own rooms. I’m pretty sure I was picking out wallpaper as my sister walked down the aisle of Our Lady of Perpetual Help church. But that night, lying in bed in the dark, the shelves empty, as well as the tiny closet, I never felt more alone.

My sister married and began a family of her own, eventually moving to Illinois. We made many family trips to Illinois and I stayed with my sister for weeks at a time during the summers. She raised three children, built a home, and created a large circle of friends, all the while remaining in touch with family and friends back in Wichita. I continued to admire her, how she settled in Illinois after a few bumpy initial months, rooting herself and her children, and tackled the everyday tasks of being a good mother with her own mother so far away. She was the cool mom, the one who invited neighbors over to sit in lawn chairs and splash their feet in the baby pool while their children played in the yard. She wore leopard print, loved shoes, and took a limo with friends to see Prince during his Purple Rain tour. Her Halloween parties were legendary, as well as the hand sewn costumes she created for herself, her husband and kids. And when I moved to Illinois shortly after graduating from high school, our relationship reached a different level, as we became good friends. We shared many a beer, popped popcorn to watch Knot’s Landing, drove to the city of Chicago to hear local cover bands, and danced on our chairs during a John Mellencamp concert at the Rosemont Horizon. When I returned to Wichita five years later, my chest ached for weeks with the absence of her.

Her life has been full, but also tragic. My sister has faced what no mother should ever experience and that is the loss of a child. Andrea, her first, left us on Christmas Eve 2007. There are no words, no sentences to describe the anguish or the hurt, the pain we still carry. And as our family lives with this grief, I still cannot imagine the grief my sister carries. I can see the sadness in her eyes, sometimes hear it in her voice, but my mother’s strength she inherited fills her and carries her so that while she is incomplete, she remains a constant to her other children, Holly and Jeff, as well as her husband, Mark. I’ve read many people do not survive the loss of a child, be it their marriage, their relationships, their own being. But, I never doubted my sister. As she stood upon the shakiest of ground, she remained a comfort to the rest of us, forever that glint of light through the leaves.

So, on this Mother’s Day I pay tribute to my sister, my second mother, my best friend. She has a grandson now, a little boy she cherishes and who has brought back that soft smile to her beautiful face. He is an energetic ray that illumines her family. And one day, he will recognize and understand the comfort of his grandmother, how she blankets him in ease, assures him like the Sponge Bob nightlight in his bedroom, warms him as the fuzzy slippers he wears to bed. She will be the rhythm of his life, her heartbeat against his own as she rocks him to sleep. Just as she has been to me and to all whom she has touched, nurtured, comforted. Hers is a quiet strength and one I cannot imagine being without.

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The Lesson

My last unfinished post was in July. I was working on a piece about my recent one-week conference with the Oral Health Kansas Dental Champions Leadership program and members of the Kansas Leadership Center. It was a somewhat stressful, slightly confusing, but incredibly inspiring week and I’d decided, after a week of digesting, possibly a bit of regurgitating of what I’d learned, to write about the transformational event.

Then, life happened. While in San Antonio, visiting her brother who’d been placed in Hospice care, my mother fell and broke her left femur and left shoulder. While she is in relatively good health and active, she is 80 years old. Needless to say, I left for San Antonio those first few days of August to be with my parents as my mother underwent surgery, was moved to a specialty hospital for three weeks of rehabilitation and to keep my father company and busy. I drove to and from San Antonio alone, came back briefly to Wichita to begin the transition in my department with the new dental residents, and returned to San Antonio with my brother to take the long drive, now made longer as we broke up the 12-hour jaunt into two days, stopping every two hours to get my mother out of the car to walk . During this time of commuting and arranging, I also contacted a friend of the family to being renovations to make my parents bathroom handicap accessible, filled out paperwork for a home grant for said renovations, tried to keep up with work through email and phone, and held on desperately to my mind.

Luckily, my brother and sister were able to help, my brother coming down from Kansas City and taking the long drive to Texas to bring mom and dad home, and my sister and brother-in-law arriving from Illinois and stepping in the last week of August so my husband and I could keep the vacation we’d planned months ago. So, by Labor Day I’d settled into the “catch up” groove at work, continued to check on my parents on a daily basis, and finally turned off the auto-pilot. It was at that moment, the moment I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, I realized that while I’d been in survival mode the past five weeks, I had learned much about myself and my life. Much.

I learned that I can’t always go it alone. I’m one to take a situation and take charge (I get this from my mother) and not want anyone else to intervene. I call this my “I Got This” mode. I discovered I’d been lying to myself. I didn’t “have” this. I needed help. And when I was too stubborn to ask for it, it came all on its own, much like Christmas even though the Grinch had removed all the wrappings.

.It came in the hundreds of offers by email, phone and Facebook to help. It came in unsuspecting envelopes from friends and family who knew the commute, the living arrangements in San Antonio and the unexpected medical costs would be a burden. It came with family members offering up their homes en route, cooking meals for my brief stays, texting me during the drive to make sure I was okay. It came with my family in San Antonio, who were carrying the anxiety and grief of knowing their father was spending his last days with them, and yet, coming to our rescue, offering us a place to stay, a ride when we needed it, a visit to the hospital to encourage my mother.  It came with the arrival of my siblings, both from long distances and both carrying patience and concern, not just for my parents but for me. It came from my supervisors at the university who told me to go and take care of my family and not worry about work, and it came from my staff who stepped up and did their very best to ensure I did not return to any messes or issues, and proved to me they could carry the torch in my absence. And it came in the morning walks I had with my father, the walks to relieve the stress from our bodies and minds, the walks to talk about the familiar (sports, family, food), the walks to remind us of normalcy. And it came from my mother, fighting to heal, forcing herself out of the hospital bed to take tenuous steps with her quad-walker to show me she was going to go home, not to worry, she would be fine and that I would not have to carry her burden, the burden of being the one to take charge, at least, not for long.

Those two months, well, I could write a book about those two months, but what has stayed with me, what has lingered in my mind, what I think about at night before I fall asleep, is how I’d been lying to myself. I’ve been never fully in charge. Which meant  my mother, our rock, the one we rely upon to lead and carry us, well, she was never fully in charge, either. How did I not see this? From one who always says that one does not succeed alone, but needs the support of others, how had I failed to recognize that in those moments, those “I got this” moments, it was “We got this.” Because, even when we step up and do take the lead in a situation, whether we realize it or not, we are taking everything we’ve learned from others, everything familiar and comforting from others, everything we rely on from others to take the initial action. When people think, “I can’t really help, but I can call or text or send a message on Facebook, or send a card, or take charge of “my own situation” or open my doors, send over a meal, lead a prayer at church, whatever it is they decide to do is part of the charge. It is part of the “got this.”

So, if you are reading this and were part of my “Got this” in August in September, I apologize it’s so late, but thank you. I couldn’t have made it through those few months without you. Wait, WE couldn’t have made it through those few months without each other. Thank you, not just for what you did but for what you continue to do and for what you taught me. I promise, this is a lesson I will never forget.

An interval

An incredible woman in my life recently lost her father. That one sentence tells you everything, without any history, without specifics, because it is enough to know that a girl, no matter her age, has lost her daddy.

I’m going to share something with my friend, something I’ve shared with just a few others, something that helped me when the realization finally hit that my niece was physically gone, forever. Something that continues to help me.  A poem.

I discovered the poem a week or so after Andrea died, at a time when the weight of her death felt like a slow, wet suffocation. I grieved the day of her death and the days that followed as we prepared for her memorial service, received guests, looked through photos, nibbled at the random casseroles brought to the house by friends who followed the long tradition of feeding those left behind.

But, the real hurt doesn’t begin until later, when your friends have returned to their normal lives, as a matter of fact, the entire world moves on, and you attempt your own normal.

That’s where I was when I discovered this poem. While I no longer read it weekly, I still turn to its lines, its simple words, to ease my mind and heart. It’s become a guideline on how to live without someone, how to remember them, how to honor them, how to hope. Whenever I share this poem it is with the hope these words will also guide them through the hours, days, and years living with the ache within their heart.

My beautiful friend is strong, willful, smart and kind. She delivered her father’s eulogy, opening with “I am my father’s daughter.” Yes, she is, but she also is her own force, her own woman. I know there will be days when she will imagine hearing his laughter in a crowded room, recognize his smile on the innocent face of her child, or smile when the iPod shuffle stops on a familiar song. And it’s during these moments I pray she knows he is always with her, always near, just around the corner.

Death is Nothing at All

Death is nothing at all.

I have only slipped away to the next room.

I am I and you are you. Whatever we were to each other, That, we still are.

Call me by my old familiar name. Speak to me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me.  Pray for me.

Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without effect. Without the trace of a shadow on it.

Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same that it ever was. There is absolute unbroken continuity. Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?

I am but waiting for you. For an interval. Somewhere. Very near.

Just around the corner.

All is well.

-Henry Scott Holland

It’s not sports, it’s family…or I yam what I yam.

This past Sunday, before I headed to a bridal shower, I checked the battery on my phone, checked the time for the AFC/NFC playoff games, and posted on Facebook something about reminding myself that not every woman schedules her life events around the NFL, college basketball and other sports calendars.

I’m the woman who set the date of her wedding the first week of November during non-conference play of college basketball, still-early in the NBA season, and at the non-crucial, non-quite-playoff-decision time of the NFL. From mid-November to mid-June, there are too many Holy Days of Sports, as in Valley play, the NFL playoffs, the Super Bowl, the MVC tournament, the NCAA tournament, the Masters, the NBA playoffs…well, the list goes on.

Just how bad is it? When a family member recently announced their wedding was going to be March 16, I blurted, “Wait, isn’t that the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.” Luckily, the tourney starts the following week. As for the family member, they weren’t offended; they’re used to it, as is all of my family, including my husband.

On our wedding day, I was upset because I’d forgotten to record the memorial service for Walter “Sweetness” Payton, who had died earlier that week. My favorite running back of all time, his service at Soldier Field began just as I walked down the aisle. Always aware of my obsession with the Chicago Bears, Brad understood how I’d determined our wedding date, was accepting of my orange and blue foam Bears claw and the horns I don during Bulls games, so he was not shocked when I surprised him and the boys with tickets to see one of Michael Jordan’s last games at the United Center. And as for my stepsons, while I’m not sure they ever became used to it, they definitely found humor in hearing me yell and scream at the television, especially when they were outside and my cries would carry through the open windows. I like to think I had some influence on them as Sloan is a Bears fan and Ian a …Packer fan (no, I have not disowned him), or maybe, like me, they didn’t really have any choice.

As a child, I thought all families watched sports, together. I thought it was the norm that my mother threw annual Super Bowl parties, I mean, didn’t every mother stay up late to cook the night before the big game, invite family over, take bets, then hush everyone in the room during the National Anthem? Didn’t every family attend or play in basketball tournaments from Biddy Basketball to the Mexican-American tournament? And while I realize my parents attending a college basketball tournament on their honeymoon is out of the ordinary, I figured a lot of families took vacation during the NCAA tournament, buying tickets to specific regions and spending their days watching the Spartans, the Orangemen, the Fighting Illini, the Bruins and the like.

It was high school when I realized I might be different. Most girls my age went to North High football and basketball games to meet boys, while one of the main reasons I was in marching band and pep band was so I could get into all the games for free. I admit, I was occasionally distracted by a boy or two and I enjoyed both pre and post-parties, but I loved watching the game. And as I entered my twenties and moved to the suburbs of Chicago, I became even more distracted by music, concerts and more boys, but that didn’t keep me from seeing Michael Jordan when he still had hair, or trying to stomp the warmth into my frozen feet at Soldier Field, or getting a sunburn at Wrigley.

When I moved back to Wichita in 1990, I realized what I’d been missing the most, my family and their love of sports. Now, in Chicago I had my sister whose blood runs blue and orange on any given Sunday in fall, but back in Wichita I had my parents whose fanaticism had deepened, pushing them to attend the baseball and basketball games of second and third generation cousins. I had my crazy female cousins to spend every Sunday with me at Players during the NFL season (we even had our picture in the paper one Super Bowl Sunday) and at whatever bar was showing a Bulls game.

And, my father and I had our Shockers. My dad took me to my first WSU men’s basketball game when I was seven, but when I returned to Wichita our love of Shocker sports reached rafter heights. I became a season ticket holder and have enjoyed every minute of every game sitting next to my father, whether in Koch Arena or in D.C during the Sweet Sixteen, or the Scottrade Center in St. Louis during the MVC tournament. It’s something I cherish, always. And it’s also why my mother often tells others, “Yes, Oscar and Natalie don’t miss a game. Sometimes I think she should’ve been a boy.”

But, as I’ve grown…more experienced, my passion for sports has continued. I could blame it on beating a bunch of boys at their own fantasy sports games, or the fact my Shockers are very much contenders, but I have to say it’s because sports as a whole is the pulse of my family. Our passion and following of the game has kept us close, kept us strong. Some would say that watching sports is not true family time, but I would disagree. We don’t just watch, we talk, we discuss, we share, we cheer, we lament, but most importantly, we’re together.

And, we’re together even when we’re a part. Because I might be watching the game at home, screaming at my television as is my custom, or at a sports bar, or in another city but I’m forever connected to my family because as soon as the play is over or the basket made, I’m texting my brother, sending a message to my sister on Facebook and calling my parents, “Did you see that? Can you believe he made it?” And they know exactly what I’m talking about. Exactly. We’re forever connected, anywhere, anytime.

It’s who we are. It’s who I am.

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Giving Thanks

For the first time in three years I am looking forward to this holiday season. The past three years have been tough, especially during the holidays. It began in November of 2007 with my husband losing his job, then Andrea passed away that same year on Christmas Eve, and each season following has been weighted in fear and sadness.

I’m not sure what sparked the change this year, except it was intiated by my mother’s good news. Her lymph nodes were benign. No cancer. The breast cancer contained. Following her excited phone call with the much anticipated news, I didn’t cry, but I could feel my heart swell and overflow with a gratefulness I’d forgotten.

And so this Thanksgiving morning, my heart abounds with thankfulness. And I remembered a quote I’d read some time ago:

“We tend to forget that happiness doesn’t come as a result of getting something we don’t have, but rather of recognizine and appreciating what we do have.”

Sometimes it takes a crisis to remind us what is most important, even when we think we’ve known it all along. And for me, the most important blessing in my life is family. When it comes to family, my cup overflows.

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