In Celebration: a tribute

I’m often asked why I got into fundraising. I’ve heard it all, from “I couldn’t ask people for money” to “fundraisers are just glorified car salesman.” What people don’t understand is that there is so much more involved. We make connections, share stories, get to know one another and if the affinity for our mission is there, we make an ask, but it doesn’t stop there. We’ve built a relationship.

Fundraising is not just about the money. Yes, the dollars are important if we want to provide for the organizations we serve. Sure, we have goals to meet, but if we believe in the mission, see the impact and know we are making a difference, then pursuing those goals is easier, even more so knowing the next person we meet might become part of our life.

For me, it’s all about the people.  Since I began in this field in 2006, I’ve met some incredible humans. They’ve shared their personal histories, their life stories and many have become friends. I no longer work at WSU where my fundraising journey began, but I still exchange Christmas cards, have lunch, email and catch up when we can with some of the most genuine people. They’ve become a part of my life mosaic and for that I am blessed. One such piece of that mosaic is Duane Smith.

My first interaction with Duane was over lunch at Bella Luna. He greeted me, a stranger, with a hug then proceeded to show me a framed photo of his beloved “May Queen,” his wife. He shared with me about their journey with Alzheimer’s and how he cared for her in their home except when he had an appointment, needed to run errands, or attended a Shocker game, at which time he had a nurse or family member stay with her. When he spoke of her, you could see his love and dedication, you could hear it in his voice.

And, he told me about his volunteerism. He volunteered at the Ronald McDonald House, Meals on Wheels and the Alzheimer’s Association of Central Kansas where he was a guest speaker and helped other caregivers and in 2012, was honored when the Alzheimer’s Association created the Duane R. Smith Annual Caregiver of the Year Award.

He was inspiring, especially through the sharing of his motto, Continue to Celebrate! Duane told me he believed in celebrating life – all things, big and small. He told me we should not wait to just celebrate the big stuff and the milestones, or we might find ourselves holding a bag of confetti never to be tossed. He used to sign all his emails and cards in celebration of life and was tickled when I began to do the same.

After I left the WSU Foundation, we kept in touch although lunches were a bit harder to schedule. He moved his May Queen into an assisted living and soon moved himself into a retirement community. At every Shocker game (he was a season ticket holder for 50 years), he would come sit with me, my dad and husband and talk basketball, as well as catch up on dad’s golf game and ask about Brad’s business. But, a few seasons ago he had to move from his seat to the handicapped area and we would go to visit him at his seat, so he didn’t have to climb the stairs.

When I left WSU, a virus erased all my contacts in my cell phone and I was not able to call or email him, but he found me, sleuth that he was, at the Wichita Children’s Home. We had lunch on the day after his birthday and although he was no longer driving and was moving a bit slower, he was still sharp-witted, looking forward to the Shocker basketball season, and celebrating. We planned to have lunch again after the season started to compare notes.

Sadly, I discovered through an announcement by his daughter that Duane passed away on October 30 after an illness and hospital stay. I am heartbroken but take comfort in knowing he is with his May Queen, once again. And while I am saddened, my spirit also soars in having the honor of knowing Duane Smith. He inspired and more importantly, he celebrated. Duane always reminded me that people should be celebrated just as much or even more so than events or things. We don’t celebrate one another enough.

In his honor, I will continue to celebrate.  You cannot imagine the simple joy it can bring to sign an email or card with “Still celebrating,” “Continuing the celebration,” or “In celebration of you.” To celebrate means to praise, extol or eulogize, so I can think of no better way to pay tribute to Duane than to carry on his celebration, and I hope you will do the same.

Always in celebration,

Natalie, Your Mermaid of the Plains

For more about Duane, I’d like to share a story from the Wichita Business Journal when he was recognized as a Health Care Hero, as well as his obituary. Godspeed, Mr. Smith. Thank you for teaching me to celebrate all that life has to offer. Your champion spirit shall be greatly missed.






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

The inevitable

Meltdown. What else could follow a post titled “What-if Syndrome.” It seems it was a meltdown long in the making. The thing is we all need them. We survive them. We even learn from them. We just hate them when they are happening.

I’m sure it’s the loss of control we hate the most, because that’s what meltdown’s do, they take control leaving you to cry or sputter or scream uncontrollably. I’m convinced it’s all about survival. The body, the psyche, the spirit, can only take so much, then our physical and mental state melt into one blubbering mess. It’s all good. Really.

But just like anyone, when it begins, when I can feel this sensation deep in my chest, when my mind can’t seem to maintain a simple thought, when my mouth begins to open and shut as if I’m in need of air, and I can sense the tears pooling, I become angry at myself. I’m about to lose control. And I fight it. Even though I know the inevitable will happen, I still try to fight. That’s what I do. It’s what we all do, which only makes the meltdown worse. I know if I would just let it come, let the onslaught begin, it wouldn’t last as long and I wouldn’t be so exhausted when it was all over. After all, it does end.

So it comes. The tears, the sputtering, the rambling. Woe to the loved one nearest when the gates crumble. But I’m fortunate my husband is good at recognizing the signs, although he admits this one was a little harder to read, what with my newly “diagnosed” menopause. Was this just part of the transition or was this for real? Uh oh. For real. And he’s good at letting me fall apart. Holds my hand, tries to get in a good word when he can, waits patiently, brings me kleenex, and when the rambling subsides and all that’s left are the lingering, slow-motion tears, he offers what he can and hopes will help me back on track, or at least closer to the track.  He knows better than to think he’ll offer up magic words to make everything better, but can at least try to give me something to think about while my body and mind slowly recover.

He said quite a few things to me, something about always pushing, high expectations, maintaining three blogs, putting together a family reunion, working on a novel, worrying too much, but what I remember is this, “You’ve had a lot to deal with, including changes in career, changes at home, but especially your mother’s illness and with this has come an even greater responsibility when it comes to your family. This is a whole lot to carry with a back pocket full of ambitions.” In a nutshell, yes.

Okay. So I’m not where I thought I’d be at this moment in time. But who truly is? And if you are, I’m ecstatic for you. Truly. But what I found is my post touched a lot of women, many of whom are feeling the same as I am, many suffering through the symptoms of What-if Syndrome. That in itself, the comments, emails and messages, made the meltdown worthwhile. It’s funny how sometimes we think we are alone in our suffering, that no one could possibly understand what we’re going through, when someone says aloud, or in this case writes publicly, what they are feeling and boom. Not alone. So with each response I could feel my sense of balance return. It always does.

Am I back on track? Not quite, but I’m close. I’m writing again. Still caring for my family, but with an even deeper sense of pride at being given such responsibility. I’m still questioning my career path and that may take some time, but at least I’m okay with the questioning and I’m totally enjoying the research of new possibilities.

My advice is this: Don’t feel guilty for questioning. I think it’s when we stop questioning or stop searching, we lose the fight. And when you feel the meltdown coming, make sure someone you love is near, to just hold your hand or the box of kleenex, and to offer words of comfort, even if all you get from their attempt is a simple word or sentence, but just enough to keep you warm as you recover.

And remember, you’re not crazy, you’re not weak, you’re not alone. We never are. I have all those wonderful women who responded to thank for the reminder. I needed it.

Boots we hate to wear

When a longtime friend of mine was diagnosed with peritoneal cancer, her best friend told her not to give up, it was time to get out the boots, lace ’em up, and go to battle.  Her best friend already had hers on, laced tight.

We all have them. That special pair of boots stored in the back of our life closet. The ones we hope to never wear, but eventually we find ourselves slipping our hesitant feet into the unfamiliar confines. Or maybe we grab them angrily from the darkness, jamming our toes into the hard, unbroken leather, laces ripping between our fingers until we stand, stomping them harshly on the ground.

 I imagine them black, bold, shining. Stitched in prayer, heeled in faith, polished with hope. I first wore mine when Andrea died. I laced them up slowly, scrunching my toes against the firm insoles, pushing my ankles against the unyielding lateral sides of the boot. At times, they hurt my feet and I wanted to take them off, toss them aside. But I didn’t. Those boots got me through one of the worst times of my life.  Three years later, I reached for those boots again when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. The boots were slightly scuffed from the previous battle, and sadly more familiar, less uncomfortable. There was no hesitation in slipping them on and while they were brushed with fear, they were re-laced in determination.

Just recently, I put those boots away for what I’d hoped was a very long time. I knew I’d need them again, just hoped it wasn’t so soon. Then on Friday a family member was diagnosed with acute progranulocytic leukemia. When I reached into the closet for the too familiar footwear, it wasn’t with fear nor anger, but a weariness. It took me a while to step into those old boots, but when I did I felt their protective high sides, their stability, and was glad to have them.

Even now, sitting at my desk, I can feel their weight around my slippered foot and I’m comforted. Today, I wondered how many people I encountered were wearing their personal pair. The tired-eyed cashier at Dillons, the elderly man sitting in the pew in front of me who just lost his wife, the woman lost in thought in the car next to me. And had they been wearing them long. I imagine some wear them for years at a time, thinking they’ll never take them off, while others still have yet to smell the new leather, the hard rubber sole. Maybe if we imagined everyone around us in these boots, we’d be slower to judge, slower to anger, more compassionate of strangers.

After all, we all own a pair. They’re at the back of our life closet, tucked away. Sometimes we get a glimpse of them when reaching for something else and we pretend not to see them. But they are there. They are reliable. They get us through. We just hate to wear them.

Inspired, yet uninspired

Not sure how that happens. To be inspired. Yet, uninspired. I’ve been inspired by many things as of late. By the crazy rain storm that positioned itself last week directly over our house. While it poured for an hour in our neighborhood, most of Wichita experienced only droplets of rain. Then the temperature dropped 20 degrees. It was beyond wonderful after 100+ degree weather.  My inspiration? I put on jeans to go out for dinner. Jeans.

Then there was the excitement of this band in town.

I’m still not sure what was more fun. The Dave sightings throughout Wichita (“just saw Dave’s bus in front of The Hyatt…Dave’s at The Anchor…), the pre and post parties, or the concert itself.  All of it made for an exciting and inspiring 24 hours. I giggled in search of Mr. Matthews and his band, I smiled and enjoyed the company of family and friends, and I danced.

Then there was the Sunday of bicycle riding with family. An entire day spent on bikes along the river, outrunning a storm, spending a few hours in Merle’s watching the downpour while hogging the jukebox and drinking cold beer, then riding again but with the temperature a crisp 15 degrees lower. As is common with our bike rides, we gathered friends along the way. And at one point I gazed across the patio at my family and friends, our bicycles parked haphazardly along the patio railing, and I was overwhelmed with the simple joy of it all.

And on Tuesday..

Yes, Norah Jones. We sat in the fourth row, on the aisle, with friends who had shared the DMB experience and were continuing the musical ride. The stage was blue-dark, lounge-campy, and a perfect setting for a perfect performance. You could almost smell and see the wisps of cigarette smoke in the stage lights and hear the clink of Martini glasses. Norah’s voice was ethereal at times, bold at others, always Norah. The band was amazing. Amazing.  And as we streamed out into the humid evening, I felt pity for those who missed such a show, and inspired that from this moment forward I would not miss out on such experiences.

And yet, I’m uninspired to write. Writing has taken a back seat to the day-to-day experiences of what is my life without classes.  Life without classes, research, book lists, workshops, presentations. Just life. Life with family, friends, music, deck lounging, wine sipping, beer drinking, bike riding, movie watching, book reading, coffee breaking, dog walking, dog blogging, Facebooking, lunch dating, nap taking, game watching  life.

With this, I am inspired.