Birthday #8

Jack Sebastian Koller. May 27, 2009-October 5, 2009.

Ugh. It’s been a tough day. It remains that way. Every, damn year. I mistakenly used to think each year the day might get easier, but I’ve come to accept that it can’t. 

His loss will always bear an immense amount of weight. Instead, I just prepare for that fact and let the tears flow and my heart twist itself into knots until the storm passes.

The only things I tell myself now are, “it’s okay to grieve”, “it’s okay to be angry”, “it’s okay to be strong”, “it’s okay not to be”.

I am gentler on myself, I stay inside, I reflect, and I cry. He has made me a better person, for that I am grateful, but I’d still give it up to have him alive, safe from harm, and happy.

I imagine he’s happy where he is, free from suffering. I imagine him talking to me some times (even though he died before he could utter his first words). He reminds me to be patient, to be more kind, to be more loving. 

I say he made me a person because I oblige and I do these things to honor him.

Rest In Peace, Jack. You are loved.

Quote of the Day: Thomas Edison

When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this: You Haven’t.

Ten years ago, we thought my mom had exhausted all possibilities in her fight against Chronic Lymphatic Leukemia (CLL).  For nearly ten years prior to that, she had gone through various rounds of treatments to rid herself of an incurable type of cancer, which usually doesn’t affect people until their in their 80s (and living another 5-10 years is a perfectly acceptable timespan). At the time of diagnosis, she was in her 40s.  I blame the fact that we lived near the Rocky Flats Plant, a nuclear weapons production facility, but that’s a conversation that I will save for another day and another rant.

There came a point during the course of my mother’s treatment when her medical team determined they had expended all options to mitigate the disease and the only option was a stem-cell transplant (what you would probably know better as a bone-marrow transplant).  Next steps were to find a matching donor – someone with the same DNA markers of her immune system which needed to align with my mom’s.  Likely candidates include siblings, but hers’ did not.  Enter Miracle #1, a donor with 10-out-of-10 matching markers – someone young and eager to be of service.

Her transplant date was set for December 2006.  Knowing the severe and life-threatening complications she faced, we gathered as a family on Thanksgiving to wrap her in love and send her off to MD Anderson with as many prayers as we could say in those few short weeks.  But, the transplant was delayed, not once but twice, because she was retaining fluid and her heart began to fail.  No-one was able to determine why she took a turn for the worse, the medical team was at a loss, and after the 2nd delay, her transplant physician said that they had done all they could, but she was not healthy enough to survive a transplant.  It was time to go home, they told us.

Enter Miracle #2, my mother’s uncompromising and warrior-like spirit.  If anyone wonders where my stubborn streak comes from, and you think it couldn’t possibly be from my sweet, compassionate mother, let me assure you – you are dead wrong.  Tell my mom she can’t do something, I double-dog-dare you.  She was not done, she was not going home, something in her rose up, in defiance of fate, and vowed she would be there to see her children grow up, to become a grandmother, to see the world, and to live.  We both made a vow that her defiance would not be in vain.  As her advocate, I ripped the medical team a new a$$hole to find out why my mom had suddenly accumulated 60-lbs of water weight and why she suddenly had developed congestive heart failure when her heart had been healthy her whole life.

Turns out, she was having an undocumented type of allergic reaction to sulfa, and she showed dramatic improvement within 48-hours of switching her medications.  We then worked for the next 3-months to help her build back the strength she had lost, so that when we walked back into the transplant physician’s office in late March 2007, he said she was ready.  You would have thought we won the lottery, and in a way, I think we did.  Odds were stacked against her in every way, but on April 4, 2007, she received a new lease on life.  The road to recovery was not easy, mind you.  Post transplant recovery was full of frightening twists and turns, but the warrior put her chin down and dug her heals in.  Every day, we meditated on the healing power within her, on the strength she had to endure, and on the ability to absorb the love that surrounded her on this journey.

Enter Miracle #3, a decade has gone by and today we celebrate what transplant patients often refer to as her re-birthday.  It is hard to describe the profound ways in which this process has affected me, or the gratitude that I hold for the selfless act of her donor (whom we have had the amazing opportunity to meet and get to know), but seeing those you love go through something, rather than around it, evolves your view of the world.  Every time I have an ache, or a pain, or want to complain, I remember, my mom turns 10 today.

Kicked into Mindfulness

Most of the long-term homeless struggle to maintain sanity, while some of them never really had it to begin with, and many of them fall somewhere in the spectrum of genius. My ex-husband’s father was homeless. I met him once in the desert, just outside of Las Vegas. It had been 15 years since anyone had heard from him, and most of his family had all but given up hope that he may still be alive. He was bi-polar and schizophrenic, so he often traveled between worlds of consciousness. In one of his more lucid moments, he reached out to his son to congratulate him on his upcoming marriage.  We were engage at the time, how he knew this without having spoken to any of his children in over a decade, still amazes me.  Nervous and eager to reconnect with his father, we made the trip out to the middle of the desert, to visit him in his shanty.

It was full of wonderful, crude inventions that he had fashioned out of garbage, or leftover parts, in order to survive the brutal summers, and frigid winter nights.  We saw him several more times over the next few days, to feed him, buy him clothes and supplies.  We mostly just wanted to spend time with him, since we didn’t know when he would slip back into a different reality, then my ex would lose his father all over again.  As we were getting ready to head back to Denver, he hugged us both, as though we were his only anchor into this world, then looked at me intensely and said,  “You’re either crazy because you’re homeless, or you’re homeless because you’re crazy.”  I thanked him for sharing his time with us, for reaching out, and for letting me be a part of his experience.  I assume he has since passed away, and we are long since divorced, but I still think of him often.

Fast forward nearly twenty years to last Sunday.  I was heading out to a meeting and, as usual, I was running late. Scott was downstairs, cleaning my car (because he’s awesome, what can I say?) and was talking to a man holding onto the handlebars of his bike. I was irked because I knew that I was going to get pulled into a conversation, which would make me later than I already was. This man was asking for some sort of favor and I didn’t have time to get pulled into the issue, but he turned to me and smiled so wide, the corners of his eyes turned up.  He stuck his hand out and said, “My is name is Kaleem. How are you?”  I shook his hand and smiled, still anxious that I was late for my meeting.

BKS Iyengar believed, “the body needs tough love to be kicked into mindfulness.” Although, I think that everyday life will usually do it for us. Living downtown, we meet a lot of homeless people. We know their daily migration habits, which bus bench they will be sleeping on in the morning, and where they like to spend their afternoons.  We know which ones need new shoes and who just acquired a new rain coat. Occasionally, they ask for money, to which I always reply no, but I am happy to buy them lunch, their bus fare, water, etc. I will not, however, enable them to use money to buy drugs or alcohol to further aid in any more suffering they may want to inflict on themselves, but I am happy to help them with a hand up. Most of the time, they are not an annoyance, unless they are threatening me with harm. They are human beings who are a part of our community.

After shaking hands, Scott said, “he’s got a hell of a story.  Kaleem, will you share what you told me?”  He was proud to say that he had just started a new job a couple of days ago, hence why he was wearing his uniform.  He had gone to college after high school, but there were no jobs in his field, so he’d been living on the street.  Today, he needed $12, so that he could stay at the hostel, wash his uniform and take a shower.  It’d been a few days, and he was afraid that he was starting to smell so bad that they might fire him, but he wouldn’t get his first paycheck until the end of the week and couldn’t afford to lose the first job he’d had in nearly two years.  His eyes gazed down, ashamed that he couldn’t make ends meet, ashamed that I may be offended by his smell.

In my hurry of misappropriated priorities, Kaleem reminded me that being present for those who are suffering is one of the most sacred responsibilities we have as one another’s keepers.  I remembered that same look when I said goodbye to my father-in-law, so I broke my own stupid rule, reached into my wallet and handed him a $20 bill.  I probably would have given him more, but it was the only cash I had on me at the time.  So what if the story was true, or it wasn’t true, it was his truth and that was all that really mattered.  I hope the $20 gets him through to payday.  More than anything, I hope that he felt better knowing that someone listened, saw him as a fellow human being, and treated him with compassion.

Thank you, Kaleem.  I needed that kick back into mindfulness.

Quote of the Day: Frank Sinatra

“If you don’t know the guy on the other side of the world, love him anyway because he’s just like you. He has the same dreams, the same hopes and fears. It’s one world, pal. We’re all neighbors.”

Wonder when Chump will learn this….

Travel Log: 9/11 Every Day

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I took this photo on my last visit to NYC, in February 2015. It was the first time I had been to visit the site of where once stood the Twin Towers. I remember exactly where I was on 9/11 when the news came in that the first plane had hit the building – in my car, driving to work, listening to the R&B/Hip-Hop station. I quickly switched to the News/Talk station and they were not discussing it, so I flipped back to the other station. I was thinking, “you gotta be a dumb MF to hit the biggest building in NYC. How do you not steer clear of it?” And that’s when the station’s announcer brought news of the second plane hitting the buildings and I knew, I knew that it was intentional. My heart hit my stomach as I raced as fast as I could to the office to get in front of a TV. My co-workers were glued to the only TV we had in the office, which I think was all of 10″ big. We stayed there for the next couple of hours and screamed, reaching for the TV, trying to stop the towers from falling. 

We watched the news for the next couple of hours, learning about the plane hitting the Pentagon, and the heroes on Flight 93 who sacrificed their lives to down their plane in a rural part of PA, crying and holding onto one another – just hoping that this was a movie, and thousands of innocent people didn’t really just lose their lives. It was my boss’ birthday, so we went to lunch to celebrate. We just sat there, the only ones in the place, eating in silence. The next several hours we helplessly watched the TV as people searched frantically for anyone left alive. We went home that evening and held our loved ones tightly.

I’m not sure how much we’ve really recovered as a nation, from such a great loss. While our economic system seems to be thriving, we have greater income inequality than ever. We wanted to feel safe, so we willingly allowed our government to invade people’s most private moments of their lives. We have become so fearful as a nation that we can no longer allow people to have views different from our own, as we see it as an affront to anything that we hold dear. And we hold too tightly. We have become a divisive nation, in our government, in our schools, in our homes. We have become a bitter nation, void of compassion for our fellow humans, for our land, our seas, or our Mother Earth.

“You either get bitter or you get better. It’s that simple. You either take what has been dealt to you and allow it to make you a better person, or you allow it to tear you down. The choice does not belong to fate, it belongs to you.” – Josh Shipp

I hope we one day decide to get better. To choose love, and grace, and freedom of suffering, and the causes of suffering, for all living beings. This is the America I believe in. This is how I will honor those who have fallen, each and every day.