I Am Not Your Warrior

Okay, it’s truth time (again).

Here’s a natural fact: I’m quite adept at pissing people off. Yeah, like everyone else on Earth I’m totally guilty of flipping switches once in a while. But then there are those times when I’m not trying, and my words get twisted into something not intended. Through texts, blogs, and conversations, I’m totally guilty of raising pulses with a single bound. I have the gift of offending. Then again, maybe some folks are just always looking for something wrong? (Always the best way to find it.) Well, I’m about to piss off a whole legion of humanity with the following discussion. So if you’re easily piqued, come back when I’m talking about road trips, or something else less controversial.

Here goes…

Do you know what R-E-A-L-L-Y irks me? When someone with cancer is referred to as a “warrior.” Wait, it’s just women, isn’t it? Men are “fighting it with everything they’ve got,” and we women, well, we’re your warrior. Over and over and over again I see women with cancer being called warriors. “My best friend succumbed to cancer yesterday. She was such a warrior.” Or, “Be a warrior! Kick cancer’s ass!” I can’t tell you how many times this has been said or implied to me in the past nearly three years since my diagnosis. Here’s the kicker, folks. Hold your breath!!

I DON’T WANT TO BE YOUR WARRIOR!!!

Who started this shit anyway???

A tough question to answer, because when I put the term into a search engine I keep coming up with a PBS documentary by that name about a doctor named Judah Folkman who was a cancer researcher in Boston. Just reading a little about Dr. Folkman makes it obvious that it was not he who coined this overused moniker to label any and all women who are unfortunate enough to get the disease. Susan G. Komen seems like a much likelier source. Bless her heart, may she rest in eternal peace, and I hope she was and always will be a shining example of a cancer warrior, if that is what she wanted, if that was her intended legacy.

BUT I STILL DON’T WANT TO BE YOUR WARRIOR.

Back in September of 2019, when I had a weird bump growing out of my sternum and I knew a cancer diagnosis was coming, as unlikely and unfathomable as that seemed, I tried to head off the outpouring of emotions of others by requesting that I receive no sympathy, no questions, no assumptions, no sad faced emojis. I got all that anyway, and more: for some, I’ve become a figurehead of bravery and heroism. For others, a figurehead of pity, puppy dog eyes, and head shakes. I’m so sorry. Aww, you poor thing. But wait, you’re my hero. When all along, the only person I want to be is me. I’ve said this time and again: the struggle to be normal is real, and that struggle is exacerbated by the labels that have been hefted on me. Most are well-meaning. But for heaven’s sake, don’t label me to make yourself feel better about my “condition.” (Heard that before, too.) And don’t label me because you think that I somehow want to be a warrior. I accepted cancer as part of my life a long time ago, because I don’t have a choice. But I don’t accept the need for others to make me feel like an outcast, for better or for worse, because of an illness you wouldn’t even know I have if I didn’t tell you.

Herein lies the catch: even if the label is meant to be somehow complimentary, it still places me in a different sphere than you. Do me a favor, and let me still breathe that rarefied air of those without cancer. And please, for others walking this Earth with this shitty disease, (and have you noticed that there are more of us than ever?) be damn sure they want to be warriors before you adhere the label to them. Here’s a novel idea: ask how someone feels before you assume that they want to be warriors or heroes. Perhaps they just want to be who they used to be before cancer. Or as close to that as they can get.

Meanwhile, I will continue to wield a hiking pole in place of a sword.

Cursed, But Blessed!

I know, I know, it’s been a while since my last post. But if you’ve read enough of them you know that I love my summer road trips, and they keep me pretty busy. Not busy enough, however, to stop me from thinking about things that I’d like to blog about. Here’s one that popped into my mind as I toured California again for nearly three weeks. And if you don’t mind, I’m including snaps from my trip!

I don’t know how many times I’ve declared myself a “lucky girl.” The term just seemed appropriate, and it illustrated that I didn’t take the life I had (and the life that I still have) for granted. A good paying teaching gig, friends to travel the globe with, a few people who really, truly love me.

And then, cancer struck in the autumn of 2019, and just about the worst case scenario I could ask for was mine: Stage IV lung cancer. A curse for the rest of my life, which probably wouldn’t be much longer anyway. After a pretty good run of being a “lucky girl,” my time would wind down and I’d fade away, into the sunset. In like a lion, out like a lamb.

But wait. After seeking top tier medical care, things started to look considerably brighter. Nearly three years later, I’m still here. Not only that, I continue to do what I love to do. So the question looms: am I still a lucky girl? Am I luckier than lucky? Or am I truly cursed?

I think that all apply. Let’s talk about being “cursed” first and get it out of the way. That’s how I like to do things in life: saving the better stuff for last.

Because of the life that I’ve lead, that, by the way, I made for myself through sound decisions and hard work, I’ve been the target of what the world now appropriately calls “haters.” A perfect term! And regardless of how the world coaches you to handle “haters,” there’s only so much vitriol you can take before is starts to stick. When “haters” touch on every aspect of your life, from your body, to the way you travel, even to what you have in your freezer, the hurt sinks in deep. When these individuals not only hurt you, but also the people you love most in the world, the sorrow becomes unbearable. You would hope that the hatred has stopped since I got cancer? It has not, and in some ways it has only gotten worse, since I not only have to deal with this disease, I have to deal with them too. Between cancer and them, I would honestly rather deal with cancer. At least cancer can be controlled for periods of time. The nasty humans that I’m talking about don’t ever stop the abuse and the pain. On top of all this, I’m dealing with the death of the only person I could really talk to about my illness, and about their sickening way of treating me. The past few months have been incredibly trying, and sometimes I’m not sure that I can go on, or that I want to go on, or that I want to keep doing well.

But then…I think of all the things that I’ve done in this life and how there are so many other things I want to experience before I leave this world. And in spite of this disease, I can still do them! Herein lies the blessing. I may have the deadliest cancer at the deadliest stage, but lung cancer has treatment options that other cancers don’t have, treatments that sometimes allow patients to live normal lives for many years. Thus far, I fall into this category. I’ve maintained my lifestyle of hiking, biking, and traveling, something that my oncologist has said has contributed greatly to saving and extending my life.

The past three years have not been easy. Radiation, scans, medication changes, progression, side effects, haters. But I’ve had a lot of fun too. I can’t say that I haven’t. And as always, I’m not seeking sympathy. I’m just putting my feelings out there, trying to write on topics of interest, and hoping that maybe I’m helping someone who has the same issues.

So you see the confusing life that I lead now. Then again, I have lead that same confusing life for decades. Great love, crushing adversity. Loss, and luck. Extreme sadness, extreme joy. Sometimes, all at once.

Some days I wake up feeling like crap and I tell myself, “I can’t do this anymore.” But then I think of the two family members who still love and need me, I think of some of the great friends I have, I think of my sweet bunny Muffin, and my traveling and writing and hiking, and I say, “Okay, I’ll keep trying to get through this.” These days, I’m looking for a fresh start. Have to keep moving forward for that.

Cursed perhaps, but blessed more.

No Fake News: A Week with COVID19

Ahhh, what a date with disaster it has been! The one I’ve avoided for over two years. It has lasted all week, but I’m told I got off rather easy (so far), because for some people it just drags on and on and on…

I’ve walked hand in hand with cancer for several months now, have made peace with it in my own way, have learned to live and thrive even as it tries to hold me down. But I avoided “the other one” like the damn plague. Walking the other way, wearing a variety of unfashionable face coverings long after the style had gone out for most, scheduling four brief sessions of preventative acupuncture to try and keep it at bay. But it got me anyway.

Where was it? At graduation downtown, where several hundred folks went maskless indoors? Or the next evening at the Paul McCartney concert, where several thousand went maskless with the Green Giant behind? Maybe it was even at my place of employment, where many children and adults were able to make their own decisions about masking over a month ago, and the lion’s share chose to bid adieu to the pesky virus-catchers.

I kept wearing protection when and where I had to. So it’s tough for me to pinpoint where I stumbled. But stumble I did, and ended up with the dreaded COVID19. The misunderstood COVID19. The fake COVID19? Oh please, folks. If you can somehow still believe this, let me tell you beyond the shadow of a doubt, the global pandemic is not just some charade created to make some guy with orange hair and a mouth that needs to be permanently silenced actually shut it. Don’t put yourself in danger of being unvaccinated and getting sick just to perpetuate that lie. Believe me, a four times vaxxed sickie, I get it now how dangerous this virus really is.

Perhaps I got it because of all the unvaccinated Americans buying into conspiracy theories and other political nonsense drifting around. I’m trying not to be angry that I now have this to sort through in addition to cancer and the sudden death of my dear sister Marie, whose love and support would be much appreciated right now. But let me tell you, it’s damn hard not to think about “what could have been,” had we all not just gotten our shots and achieved herd immunity.

Now, instead of posting hiking pictures of beautiful landscapes, I can post fabulous telltale images of trying to live through another health scare.

I was probably in a pretty good position to get the menace. Not only have I been exhausted and moving at a pace too quickly for a human being with my health background to move (guilty!) I’ve also been under extra stress as well as mourning for Marie. So when I got the sniffles last Friday I took special note and made sure I got a good night of sleep with my fingers crossed that I’d sleep the symptoms away.

No such luck.

Saturday, and I gave myself a home test. From the very beginning I knew that I would get my first positive result. That little line next to the “T” has never come close to rearing its ugly little head at me. But it was loud and clear that day. Now it won’t go away. I was recently told that after infection, someone can test positive for up to ninety days. Yay, more stuff I never wanted to know. As if cancer didn’t already give me lots of unwanted knowledge.

My symptoms never really got worse, because I arrested them before they could, or that’s at least the way I’m thinking of it. I made calls to my medical team in Boston and got on Paxlovid, the latest wonder drug that seeks to stop the virus from becoming life threatening. No ventilators for this girl! Unfortunately, the drug, or perhaps the virus itself, caused some horrible side effects for me that have left me dizzy, unsteady, and exhausted. I’ve spent five days in bed, cursing the New England sunshine and listening to the traffic of those who are blessed enough to still stand up and walk, something that has become a major challenge for me. After combating some serious pain over the past six months, I’m aching again. I had to stop taking Paxlovid because of the side effects, and spend my Tuesday afternoon and evening in the ER to be sure the virus drug wasn’t having a drug interaction with the pill that is killing my cancer. My active life has ground to a halt.

All because of a virus that is supposed to be fake.

Honestly, I don’t know how many times I can “start over,” only to come up against another setback. Please send positive thoughts.

And I never turn down a good prayer.

In Memory of Marie

It’s been a while since I posted. I’d like to say that it’s because I was having the time of my life, but that would be as far from the truth as I could get. More accurately, I was remembering and celebrating the life of my beloved sister Marie, who passed suddenly and unexpectedly, but peacefully and without struggle, on May 17, 2022.

I would like to share some pictures of Marie, as well as the eulogy I wrote about her that I read at her service. Please read a little about the life of my eldest sister:

Marie was a complex person. Intensely private, brilliant, and with a photographic memory. But the most important and sometimes overlooked aspect of Marie’s person was the breadth and quality of her heart. Today, it’s cliché to say that our loved one always put others before themselves, but in Marie’s case, this is the absolute truth.

Marie dedicated her professional life and a large portion of her personal life to taking care of others. When those she loved were ill or hurt, she was ill and hurt too. Yet she did her best to find escape and contentment in her books, music, and foreign language studies, and on frequent trips to Boston, the city she loved.

Gaining Marie’s love and trust was a tough thing, but if you got it, it meant something. She would never betray you and would be your staunchest supporter. She had an undying belief in what was right and would carry it out, even when it wasn’t in her favor.

Marie was never a lover of animals or nature until later in life, when she took particular joy in our niece Amanda’s flowers and dog children, as well as photos from my frequent globetrotting. She also became a stellar bunny babysitter while I was away, another example of her willingness to help others, even if it was out of her comfort zone.

I was diagnosed with the deadliest cancer at the deadliest stage two and a half years ago. Marie was with me every step of the way, always ready and waiting a text away for scan and blood test results, even when she couldn’t be right there with me due to aggravations like worldwide pandemics. Thanks to her love, medical miracles, sheer will, and intense love of life, I am still here today. But back in 2019, Marie once said to me, “I don’t know what I’ll do without you.” Now, it’s me that has to live without her, and I don’t know what I’ll do. We took care of each other in life. In many ways, we will take care of each other in death too.

Marie was extremely modest and would not want me to go on and on about her. I can see her sitting sheepish and uncomfortable while I sing her praises. So rather than make her blush, let me finish by speaking directly to her:

Marie, I am sick, lost, and lonely without you, more than you will ever know. But I’m at peace too, knowing that you’re now free from pain, sorrow and worry. Your heart was immense, and like our beloved mother you were too good for this world and how it treated you. I love you and will love you and miss you forever, until we meet again.

SLEEP PEACEFULLY, DEAR SISTER!

About Traveling

Hey, this will be my last post for a few weeks. Vacation time is nearly here, and I’m heading back out on the road again. Which makes this the perfect time to write about one of my favorite subjects, for the first time in a while: Traveling!

I always find it so weird when people make it sound like there is some “right” way to travel. That you, as the subject, have to travel in some certain way to be a “traveler” and not a “tourist.” That there is some time frame that you have to spend in a place to make it worth your while and to satisfy others that you successfully “saw” something or somewhere. That one person’s way of traveling is superior to another person’s way of traveling. Last thing I knew, travel was supposed to be fun, like an ice cream sundae, with a learning experience on top, like a shiny red cherry, if you so choose to have one. Then again, maybe a trip is simply an escape from the rat race.

Social media is full of “influencers” who will have you believe that their way of traveling is not only better than yours, but that it’s easy and they’ll show you how to be like them, for a price. You can trot the globe while taking odd jobs like bartending and teaching English as a Second Language. Thanks, I got over working in bars when I was twenty-five, and I teach people’s kids every day and love sending them home at 2:15pm, no questions asked. I like my good paying job with paid vacations. I’d pay to see pictures of those “influencers” doing one of their real jobs in between the glossy shots from the pristine mountain top in New Zealand and the beach in Mexico. I want to see the “influencer” mixing a White Russian and looking picture perfect. Really.

Thank goodness for the unfollow button! I recently had to use it on one of the better known globe trotters that I had been following for a couple of years, because she was being pretty insulting to someone else’s way of life. What the heck happened to live and let live?

The other thought that I don’t agree with is that in order to travel in a worthwhile way you have to go to a foreign country. Make no mistake, I love exploring places outside the United States. I’ve done more than my fair share. But in a pinch, and let’s face it, we’ve been in quite a pinch since March of 2020, I’d take a road trip to the American West above all other traveling. I’ve ticked off forty plus countries thus far and have every intention of ticking off more in my own fashion once I deem it safe for me, but give me that road trip every time. It should come as no surprise that I’m heading to the American West this next trip too! I can’t WAIT!!

Here’s a secret about me that makes me different than the garden variety social media travel giant: I love coming home and I love being home, too. The pandemic gave me an excuse to stick close to home and explore my own backyard more. I always said that “someday” I’d do that more and, well, I didn’t expect cancer and COVID19 to give me the opportunity, but I’ve had a heck of a good time! I’ve always scoured New England in between bigger trips, but not like I have in the past two years. In my favorite movie of all time, Dorothy Gale went to great lengths to find out that her heart was in her own backyard. My heart is still and always will be in the American West, but New England is pretty cool too.

Before my cancer diagnosis I spent the better part of twenty years earning my keep as a special education teacher and traveling on school vacations. Maybe taking an extra day or two on either side to make my time away longer, or even escaping on a long weekend. Now that I haven’t done it for a couple of years I realize that it was exactly the way I wanted to travel. Make my money, pay for a trip, enjoy where I was without having to worry about work, and come home to earn money for more fun. After my diagnosis and through the COVID19 storm I continued my exploration as best as I could. Slowly, I’m getting my travel life back on track, though I’ve decided I want to do things and see places that I didn’t take the time to do and see before. Cruises and islands are of high interest, while twenty hour flights to the other side of the world are not really a priority. Oh, and more road trips, of course! Always more road trips!

In short, the Bucket List is officially made. It was time.

And so, I continue to explore as I see fit, and I am unapologetic.

Travel and let travel.

The Value of Extending Life

Recently, I was dealing with the very real possibility that my beautiful sister Jeanne, who has been battling health issues for more than a decade now, was going to lose the fight. Jeanne is the strongest lady I know, and is one of three people in my family that has had to overcome great odds to continue to draw breath. (My niece Amanda and I are the other two, in case you wondered!) Her struggles brought up a wide array of issues, as any health struggle does, but even more for her because Jeanne is disabled. As her sister, co-guardian, and staunchest supporter, I have to be her loudest voice. I also have to be very tuned into whether she’s getting a fair shake or not. More often than not, I am relieved to report that Jeanne does get a fair shake. I’m even more relieved to report that Jeanne pulled through her ordeal and is steadily working her way back to being herself. But it was oh, so close.

So close, in fact, that talk of DNR (do not resuscitate) orders and extending life beyond Jeanne’s comfort was at a maximum. The conversations got me thinking about the value of life and extending it, something I know a little bit about, considering I’ve been living on borrowed time for two and a half years after my lung cancer diagnosis. In those two plus years I’ve traveled and hiked and continued my teaching career and experienced life as fully as possible while also dealing with my illness and a worldwide pandemic. Are those valuable accomplishments? Is my life worth extending? Is anyone’s life worth extending? How about Jeanne’s? Who’s to decide this?

I’ve never been in the position to “pull the plug” on the life of a loved one. I don’t know what I would do. I’m neither fully for or against life support or abortion, but form an opinion based on specific circumstances. No one was making a value judgement about Jeanne continuing on, but some of the things being said struck me as leaning toward her not being able to regain her former status. Jeanne was a different person for months, with few observable signs of deterioration other than somber mood and exhaustion. Because she’s nonverbal, knowing what is going on inside of her can be a mystery. At one time she would make gestures and other outward indications that she was not well, but this time she didn’t. So a major issue festered until it was nearly too late to help her. Several days went by with her life hanging in the balance, major decisions being made, and opinions being shared. Much of what was being said made me uncomfortable, not to mention hollow and grief stricken. Life without my dearest earthly angel was unfathomable, empty. I didn’t and don’t want Jeanne to suffer. But I also wanted her life to matter, to be sure that it did and does, and for her to be able to continue the fight, if that was what she chose to do.

I spoke to my personal guardian angels and put a message out into this plain of the universe: the real decision belonged to Jeanne. If she wanted to fight, she would fight. And Jeanne wanted to fight.

I never stopped believing in her and the value of her life.

My Hero!!

Jeanne will never be able to do the things I can do. Nor will she invent electric cars or send rockets to Mars. She isn’t going to end racial discrimination or cure cancer. Most of us aren’t either. Jeanne will help with household tasks, listen to oldies on her stereo, get her nails done, go for haircuts and for rides to look at bodies of water. She’ll take part in simple activities but will revel more in the attention she’s getting. Most importantly, she will be cherished by a few dedicated family and staff members that adore her.

When I saw her in the hospital, where she lay for nearly a month, the “old Jeanne” seemed lost forever. She was unresponsive, far away, so often on the brink of leaving us. I feared for her and for us, feared that we would cross the line of making her stay when she wanted to go, of dragging her through yet another ordeal that she had no chance of making it through. But the thought of seeing the “old Jeanne” kept me praying for her safe passage back to life.

Jeanne may never do any of what I wrote above, but damn, she’s a survivor in the most incredible sense, and has offered more miracles than most people walking the planet.

Jeanne made it. Jeanne taught a lot of people a lesson about survival and the human spirit. Jeanne is quickly becoming the “old Jeanne” again. Just the way we love her.

I’m in awe of this woman!!

My sister Marie, Jeanne, and I

Dear Mr. Truck Driver…

See? I got your attention. Now you think that I’m about to give my opinion on the trucker convoys in Canada and the U.S. However, that isn’t the focus of my blog. Instead, I’m going to write about a recent experience I had with a trucker on the the Massachusetts Turnpike, otherwise known as I-90, locally known as “the Pike.” From my house due East, the Pike is a dull stretch of seventy miles of highway to Boston, and where bad behavior is at a maximum.

Before I zero in specifically on my good trucker buddy, let me first reiterate a frequent complaint of mine: Some people just lose their cotton picking minds when they get behind the wheel of a moving vehicle. Where does common sense go? I just don’t get it. It certainly seems that all anger, frustration, and power tripping is released on fellow drivers. Stupidity is at an all-time high. Messing with the lives of others becomes some sick game, all in the name of getting one car length ahead of someone else, or in a preferred lane before someone else does.

Okay, now let me tell the story of my favorite trucker in the world.

On Monday, March 14, 2022, I was heading to Boston for my monthly check-in at Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Yeah, you got it. I have cancer. I’m being treated for cancer. I’m not going to Beantown to party, or see the Red Sox, or to an art museum Truth is, I’d rather be working than going to Dana Farber Cancer Institute. I’m going because I have to. If I don’t go I’ll die. I’m tired on said day, and it’s early in the morning. I’m minding my own damn business, going 70 miles per hour in the center lane the way I always do. Other drivers fly by me, getting nowhere faster than me. I know that. They apparently don’t.

I pass a trucker going at a reasonable pace, and take note of it, because I like to see truckers who don’t think they own the road, who don’t think that just because they’re bigger they’re better. This 18-wheeler, from a company that will be named below, was inconspicuous, as all trucks and cars are until they do something off the wall. This one was a few minutes away from doing just that.

Back in the center lane after passing a few vehicles that were going a little slower than me, I settled in. Ten minutes go by, and suddenly Mr. Inconspicuous Trucker is right behind me flashing his lights at me. As a general rule and as a longtime driver with a clean record and hundreds of thousands of miles on all over the United States of America, I don’t allow other drivers, whether they’re bigger than me or not, to decide how fast I go or what lane I drive in. So I don’t budge, which only serves to piss off Mr. Trucker. My line of reasoning is this: There are two more lanes to move into. Use them if you don’t like my driving.

He doesn’t see things my way.

His next move is to start tooting at me and swerving. Then, the worst thing of all: Tailgating. In a tractor trailer truck that can’t stop quickly should I need to put on my brakes for something. But I held my ground, and so did he. I took out my phone and made a video going over my shoulder, showing the lights of this shithead glaring in my rear window, as well as how close he really was to me. Close enough for someone to reach out my back window and touch him.

I get it, you’re saying, just move for him! It’s your own fault for not moving! Here’s where we’re different. It’s against my principles to cater to a moron like this, particularly when I’m not doing anything wrong. And here’s the funny thing: He finally passed me, and then we got tangled up in stop and go traffic. So I had plenty of opportunities to take pictures of the company name and license plates, and Mr. Trucker got nowhere from his dangerous behavior. Just for good measure, he indulged in the ultimate in blameless behavior, and hung his phone out the window to take pictures of me. Imagine!

I eventually lost him, went to Dana Farber, and got all good news. But this experience sat heavily on my mind and still does.

Did I call Goulet Trucking in South Hadley, Massachusetts? Yes, after I read some pretty nasty reviews that indicate that this is a company that really doesn’t care what their truckers are doing. Daryl, the fellow I spoke to, didn’t seem too interested in me, but I asked him to tell my trucker friend some of the items I’ve already expressed above: I was going to Dana Farber. I have cancer. I was going for treatment. If I don’t go I’ll die. This already sucks enough. Why did he have to make the experience even suckier?

You never know who you’re messing with, what they’re dealing with, and how you’re making them feel.

I did the only thing I could. But I know that it won’t do a lick of good. Mr. Trucker will go out and terrorize someone else. Then someone else after that.

This experience brings up a point that surfaces more and more often now: When we’re blatantly mistreated, who can we really turn to if a clear crime has not been committed?

And the bigger question: Can we all just act like decent human beings instead of total brainless careless asshats?

Who’s to Blame?

I feel like I’ve covered this subject in at least one other blog, but it’s worth discussing again.

The subject? Blame.

Whenever I turn around I hear someone else trying to get out of taking blame for anything, even the smallest mishap. As a teacher, this happens countless times per day, and it isn’t always my students denying wrong doing. I’m sorry hasn’t gone down with a fight, it died a quiet death when my bad and I didn’t do it came along, hand in hand. I’m sorry went so quietly, we didn’t see it going. We couldn’t give it a proper funeral. Rest in peace, dear words.

I’m sorry does make an appearance every so often, like a portrait of a long gone family member or lover, but it is usually not very satisfying. Unless it comes from someone whom is an upstanding and sincere person, it reeks of contamination and denial. In this case, I’ll take silence. Even the middle finger works better than a fake I’m sorry.

What’s the hardest place in the world to get another human to accept blame? I’ve been a lot of places, and in my opinion, there is no geographic location where an individual is more likely to say the two golden words. There are decent people everywhere, and there are crappy people everywhere. But I do believe this: if you are fortunate enough to be one of the aforementioned upstanding individuals out there, you live your life and treat others in a way that make it unnecessary in most cases to apologize. Sure, there will be times when you make a mistake (everyone does) because no one, as the saying goes, is perfect, and you will have to speak the calming words that you still have at your disposal and didn’t forget like most have. But you aren’t in the business to need them on a regular basis. You’re better than that. Precious people like you are everywhere in the world. The rest of us just have to find you.

One day several years ago I started to wonder when people started to dislike each other. Was it after World War II? The Civil War? The Industrial Revolution? When? Or was it in my lifetime? The 70’s, 80’s, 90’s? Perhaps it was my childish mind, or the fact that I had a lovely childhood, at least until my father died in 1977, but the 1970’s were still good years. Maybe it was the 1980’s, which were crazy fun, but also brought in technology that would eventually separate us and make us feel safe sitting behind a computer or later, a cell phone, treating each other badly. Whenever it was, we’re in big trouble now.

I try not to live my life around the news. I don’t watch TV and have not for years, but I do read headlines. I don’t read statistics either, but those headlines tell a lot of stories. Crimes against people based on skin color are well publicized. But has anyone taken note of the fact that crimes against helpless children of any and every color are skyrocketing? And against women of any and every color? Mass shootings are nearly an everyday occurrence, to the point that they’re easy to scroll by to get to something more gory. Can you hear the “I didn’t do it” ringing out through the bold print?

I’ve been around the world and around the country largely by myself. I’ve survived cancer and the deaths of the people I love most in the world. I’ve never lived in fear. But let me tell you: the things that I see going on around me make me not want to meet new people. I love and have big appreciation for the intentionally small circle of family and friends that I trust with my life. I plan to keep things just the way they are.

After several paragraphs of complaints, the question must now loom: Do I know how to apologize? Yes, I do. Do I apologize when I’m wrong? Yes, I do. Do I apologize when I feel someone has wronged me just to make peace? No, I absolutely do not. Shouldering blame for something that someone does to us doesn’t help anyone. It makes us feel like dog poop, and it makes the guilty party feel vindicated, and like they can continue their sucky behavior. Don’t do it. Because you already feel wronged over something you didn’t do, and the actual wrongdoer now has an open door to do it again and again. And will.

Let them. Save your honesty and integrity for someone who knows how to return it. You won’t be sorry. You won’t have to be.

The Real Meaning of Christmas, Part Two

Last week I posted the first part of a Christmas tale I wrote back in 2006. It was more popular than expected, leaving me to think that maybe I should continue to make more of my old fiction writing public. You can read the first half of the story here. What follows is part two. Enjoy!

THE REAL MEANING OF CHRISTMAS (CONTINUED)

Christmas morning came. Toni awoke to the sound of Hannah rummaging around in her room; when she opened Hannah’s door, she found the six-year-old filling a white tall kitchen garbage bag full of toys: stuffed animals, Barbie dolls, musical toys.

            “Honey, what are you doing?” Toni asked.

            Hannah looked like a little grown-up as she turned to her mother and said, “I’m findin’ all the toys I don’t play with no more to bring to the kids less lucky than me.”

            Toni was so taken by her little daughter’s gesture, she did not even correct her iffy grammar. Instead, she asked herself, Oh, how have I done so well with this child, how, in spite of being a single mother literally left at the altar when I was five months pregnant?

            Toni backed away from the door, realizing that her six-year-old knew more about compassion than even she did. Her daughter was outdoing her! This thought made her rush into her bedroom and throw open the closet door. She looked with derision at all the clothes that she was saving because she might wear them “someday,” when she knew very well that that day would never come, and that there was someone out there who could be wearing those clothes that just hung there, going to waste.  She went to the kitchen and got her own tall kitchen garbage bag and filled it with clothes.  She was thrilled by the exhilarating feeling of unburdening herself of the clothes and filled another bag. 

            “I’m ready, Mommy,” Hannah’s voice came from her doorway.  She turned to see that Hannah had her full winter gear on and had a bag over each shoulder, like a mini Santa Claus.

            “I thought we were going to have breakfast and open one present?” Toni reminded her.

            “But Mommy, this is so much more important.  Can’t we get there early and be waiting for them?”

            “If that’s what you want, honey.  Let Mommy get dressed.” 

            “I’ll be waiting out front.”

            “But it’s so cold!  Maybe you should wait in the kitchen.”

            “No, it’s okay.  I’ll wait out front.”

            Toni knew that this was Hannah’s way of saying that she was ready and didn’t want to wait for her mother to waste time. So, Toni didn’t. She jumped into some warm casual clothes and met Hannah on the front steps ten minutes later. There was only a little snow on the ground but it was bitterly cold.  Hannah’s nose was red, but she appeared unfazed by the weather. Obviously, the child was on a mission. It was Toni who complained to Hannah about the cold as they defrosted the car, whose backseat was piled with their garbage bags full of “gifts.” 

            They hardly spoke on the drive to the shelter. As they neared, they saw a small line of homeless people had begun to form, their breath almost freezing in the air, their clothes not nearly warm enough to battle the elements.

            “Mommy, they look so cold!  Do you have any winter coats in those bags?” Hannah asked, her little nose wrinkled but warm-looking.

            “No, honey.  No winter coats,” Toni answered, distressed by the memory of the two down-filled jackets she had left hanging in her closet because she had made a split-second decision that she would wear them again “someday” after all.

            It was then that Hannah reached under her coat and took out her piggy bank in the shape of Eeyore, the sad donkey from Winnie the Pooh that they had bought on a trip to Disneyland the previous year.  It was their routine to fill it with spare coins and bills until they couldn’t fit anymore, then they transferred the money to Hannah’s small but growing bank account.  Toni knew that Eeyore was close to being full.  Usually, they had about twenty-five dollars in it by the time they made the transfer.

             “I didn’t want you to be mad at me for bringing this so I hid it ‘til now.  Can we go and buy somethin’ warm for them?  It’s full and I wanna share it.” The child shook the bank for effect.  It was all too much for Toni at that point; tears started rolling down her face and she grabbed Hannah and squeezed her tight. Hannah hugged her back, though Toni knew she did not understand her mother’s tears.

            Toni put the car in drive and told Hannah to find her wallet in her purse and see how much was in it. Hannah did as she was told, though Toni felt her reluctance; Hannah knew better than to go into her mother’s personal belongings unless she had permission.  Hannah took out a handful of small bills and announced that her mother had twenty-two dollars.  Toni made a deal with her daughter: they each would spend ten dollars to buy some nice, hot coffee, tea, and hot chocolate for the people less lucky than them. That way, they would both still have some money leftover. Hannah agreed and they proceeded to the nearest coffee shop and bought as many cups of hot liquid as they could for twenty dollars.  Then, they went back to the shelter; several more people were gathered, waiting for breakfast.

            Hannah was out of the car with the flat box of hot drinks in her little, glove-clad hands almost before Toni could get the keys out of the ignition. Toni only watched from the driver’s seat as the old men smiled like she was a tiny angel sent from heaven and the women patted her head and took a warm drink. Pride was hardly a sufficient word for what she was feeling as she watched her baby; she was learning something about compassion that even transcended what her parents had taught her so many years ago. 

            Not wanting to steal Hannah’s spotlight, she waited until the girl had handed out all the drinks, then she pulled the bags of clothes and toys out of the back seat of the car and brought them over to the gathering crowd. Together, she and her baby girl handed out second-hand gifts to the spellbound poor and homeless that truly looked like they were seeing Santa Claus. Watching their faces, Toni knew that she had not seen sincerely thankful people since those family Christmases so long ago. Suddenly, those days seemed closer, and the real meaning of Christmas was evident for her again. Just as she knew, it had nothing to do with SUVs or Super Soakers or even a million tiny lights on a fabulous tree.  She had found the real meaning of Christmas again and a six-year-old girl whom she had given birth to had helped her to do so.

            Long before they entered the shelter to help serve breakfast, they had won the hearts of the people less lucky than them.  Other volunteers pulled up in shiny SUVs and ran in at the last minute, laughing and talking about the warm fireplace they had left or the piles of presents waiting to be unwrapped. In those final moments, another small miracle took place: Marcy showed up with a huge platter of delightful, homemade pastries. She was dressed to the nines and was in a terrible rush, but Toni hugged her, seeing the satisfaction in her friend’s face for doing a good deed. 

It was a perfect morning now, with the presents and Marcy’s kindness and the hot coffee and the fresh food on the shelter’s stove. Toni and Hannah giggled and joked and felt good about the miracles already performed, while French toast and bacon sizzled and the aroma wafted through the air and the doors were finally opened and the homeless folks entered the shelter already smiling, with toys for their children and warm drinks in their bellies and the smile of a little blond angel on their minds. And mother and daughter waited, Toni with a spatula, her daughter with a stack of paper cups to fill with orange juice, while bells chimed and carols played and real, true Christmas joy filled the rooms of the shelter.

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Merry Christmas.

Thank you for reading!

The Real Meaning of Christmas, Part One

While writing my last post I was reminded of a short story I wrote long ago, and decided that I was going to post it here. It took some searching to retrieve it. It’s that old! The title? “The Real Meaning of Christmas.” I wrote it in 2006. What a long way I’ve come as a writer since then! Yet, for the sake of posterity (or something like that!) I’ve decided to publish it largely as is, other than removing some annoying spacing issues. Because it’s nine typed pages long, I’ll share it in two parts. Look for part two next week!

Without further ado, here is an old story that’s short on style and long on meaning.

THE REAL MEANING OF CHRISTMAS

Not everyone loved Christmas, especially Toni. She shuddered every fall when the end of November approached because now, for six unbearable weeks, she would have to deal with all the things about Christmas that she hated. Her friends would be chattering about what new toys and gadgets they would be going broke to buy their children. People in their shiny SUVs would be stressed out and driving at breakneck speeds to the next shopping mall to whip out a plastic card and add to their already enormous debt.  Christmas trees would be on the tops of cars and in the beds of pick-up trucks, only to be unceremoniously dumped in a hidden ditch in the backyard once the finest balls and light strings were removed and the expensive presents unwrapped. Some people would light up their homes until absurd dates, well past New Year’s in a silly, futile attempt to keep alive a holiday season that most people had forgotten the meaning of anyway.  She refused to be a part of it all, falling out on the mania that surrounded the holiday that was supposed to represent the Birth of Christ. Instead, she longed for the Christmases of her youth when her parents were alive, when her sisters still talked to her, when people still cared about each other enough to know that love and happiness could not be bought.  Still, she had to keep up some kind of front, because now Hannah was old enough to be excited about the holiday. Somehow, some way, regardless of how much she dreaded the season, she had to make it worthwhile for both of them, to make it special in some way. 

            “Why don’t you spend it in Aruba?” was the worldly suggestion of her friend Marcy, who thought all problems on earth could be solved through the spending of money and a call to Carnival Cruises. Toni did not know whether she was serious, being that Marcy was in a pile of Super Soakers and video game equipment when the suggestion rolled off of her tongue, likely without previous thought. In fact, Toni almost knew that Marcy wasn’t thinking by her harried, pre-occupied tone that accompanied a certain annoyed look. 

            Toni wished that Marcy had not mentioned Aruba. For a split second she wished, too, that she had not visited Marcy at all, as Marcy was one of those people who “loved” Christmas and equally “loved” to spend money on material comforts.  Marcy had always been a bit pretentious and since marrying a self-made millionaire she had only gotten worse. But Toni knew that deep down inside, Marcy had a good heart and Toni still loved her dearly, even if she had to put up with a ridiculous comment every now and then.      

“Actually, I was considering volunteering to feed the homeless,” Toni said.

            “Oh, that’s nice baby. Hannah can stay and play with Amber and Jim-Jim,” Marcy grinned, speaking of her spoiled children.

            “Oh no, I’m going to bring her with me.”

            Marcy was stopped in the tracks of her Super Soakers.

            “Baby, you’ve got to be kidding. You’re going to bring that perfect child to feed dirty, grimy homeless people?”

            “Maybe you should come with me and bring Amber and Jim-Jim,” Toni’s tone was slightly condescending in that she pronounced the children’s names in the same baby-talk way that Marcy used whenever she spoke of them.

            Marcy didn’t even notice.  “You know I have a huge lunch to plan. I don’t know how I’m going to do it without going to that awful shelter.” Marcy rolled her eyes with silly self-importance. Toni knew that Marcy loved her role as town hostess and savored it when her guests bragged about her parties until the next one.

            “Well, we’re going just the same.”

            “You should give Hannah a choice. If she doesn’t want to go, she can stay here and help me cook. She loves to help her Auntie Marcy cook, you know!”

            Toni was relieved that Marcy had finally said something that made sense. She was right: Hannah should have the choice.  Toni would talk to her daughter.

            She tentatively approached her flaxen blond daughter while she was in her room playing dolls. Lovely Hannah, who Toni was trying to lead through her first years of life with compassion for other members of the human race, looked at her expectantly. “Go ahead, Mommy.  What do you want to talk about?”

            Toni was comforted by the patience of her little girl. Sometimes, Hannah was so serene that she made Toni feel like she was the daughter. She began: “Christmas is coming.  Next week it’ll be here.”

            A shadow fell over the little girl’s face. “Mommy, do you have enough money to buy me presents? Because if you don’t, it’s okay. Some kids in my class aren’t gonna get many presents ‘cuz they don’t have no daddy like me and their mommies can’t ‘ford nothin’ for them.”

            Toni didn’t know whether to be horrified that her daughter was thinking such thoughts or to be proud that she was so unselfish.   Hannah had everything within reason that a child needed and wanted, and Toni would always keep it that way, but Hannah was not spoiled or unappreciative. Toni had simply taught her what her own parents had taught her: to not take anything for granted.

            “No honey, it’s not that at all!  I wanted to ask you if you wanted to do something special on Christmas morning.” 

            “What?” 

            “I want to go and feed homeless people at the shelter downtown.  Do you want to come with me?  If you don’t, you can stay at Auntie Marcy’s.”

            “You mean feed people less lucky than us?” Hannah’s eyes widened.

            “Yes.” Toni had used that line on Hannah many times when they had passed the shelter and had seen people out front or on their way there.

            “I wanna go Mommy. We can open presents after?”

            “How about we open one before and the rest after.”

            Hannah smiled widely.  “Yeah!” She tossed her arms around Toni. “Mommy, I can’t wait to feed the homeless people that are less lucky than us.”

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Look for the conclusion next week.

Thanks for reading!