Monday, July 24, 2017

Riding the Roller Coaster of Life

One of my earliest recollections of going to an amusement park was as a camper at Camp Echo Lark.  Each summer, we would venture out from Poyntelle, Pa to Ghost Town Amusement Park in Moosic, Pa.  There was one ride that I used to go on over and over again – the roller coaster.  It is still one of my favorite amusement park rides:

  • The tick, tick, tick sound as you slowly climb the first hill with the anticipation of reaching the crest,
  • The sudden thrill of the first drop where you feel like you could lift off the seat and into the air,
  • The quick change of direction as you round the first bend, and,
  • The “I cannot believe we are finished” feeling when you pull back into the station. 

Today, there are more varieties than that rickety old wooden one – the quick start, the loops, and the corkscrews.  You no longer have to sit in a “car”, but can have your feet dangle or be in a position like you are flying.  However, it is still the same – you still have the speed at which you move, the ups and downs of the hills and you still end up back where you started!

There comes a time where we need to start moving on, whether it is “picking up the pieces”, focusing on the next goal or some further horizon.  While mass media would have us believe that all good things come to those that wait, the truth is, we need to put ourselves out there, gather the right skills and maintain an open eye so that when opportunity crosses our path, we can take it. We can step out of the stream of our ongoing life to catch our breath, recharge our batteries or reevaluate our lives; but inevitably, we have to be a part of the larger world to engage in life.

Some thought leaders say that we are a reflection of the last five people that week hung out with or that the last few books that we read impact our choices.  It makes sense, as these are the latest things that we have in our minds, the last bits of stimulation and the newest points that we want to emulate.  Basically, we tend to reflect the environment we have surrounded ourselves in.  The last few weeks have been an emotional roller coaster and it would be easy to sit in a dark room, hang my head and ponder (question?) the meaning of life.  Fortunately, I do not have time for this.  Aside from supporting family, I have to think about Bec moving off campus next year, continue to quietly provide encouragement in Gab’s search for a job and spend time with Debbie.  Not to sound like my life is a cliché, but we have things to do, places to go and people to see.  In light of these things, the small amount of time to sit in the corner and reflect, while important and healthy, cannot be the sum total of all of my future actions. 

I know that life is not some thrill ride, yet there are many thrills as we ride through life.  Almost all aspects of life have high points and low points.  Sometimes the peaks are very high and sometimes the valleys are very low.  Life is full of many different things: full of successes and failures; full of happiness and sadness; full of positive experience and negative experiences; full of good times and bad times; life and death.  And, because of the valleys in our lives, we get to appreciate the peaks that much more.  Like the roller coaster, there are times where we seem to end up back where we started.  I, for one, like back in Ghost Town, am ready to stay on that `coaster for the next go around, looking forward towards that first hill, and enjoying the thrill of the ride for as long as I am here.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Caregiver

When we marry, part of what the person officiating says is to the couple getting married, as part of the vows, is that this is “…in sickness or in health…”  These are important words to commit to the person we marry out of love and care.  We heard this a few weeks ago when Monica got married.  We heard this 25.5 years ago when Debbie and I got married.  We heard this 11.5 years ago when Jeff and Magda got married.

The picture above is of my brother, Jeff, who we are very proud of.  Jeff belongs to the small, and sometimes overlooked, category of people called caregivers.  My first introduction to this group of special people came when we used to walk in the Relay for Life.  A caregiver is a family member who regularly looks after a child or a sick, elderly, or disabled person.  The program spent time talking about the caregivers, had a caregiver speech and a dedicated lap for them to walk.  Today, I want to take some time on one special caregiver – my brother, Jeff.

Last week, I wrote about the loss of my sister-in-law, Magda.  During most of her battle with cancer, Jeff did what any caring, loving husband would do.  He searched out the best doctors to provide the best care for his wife.  Whether the doctor was local, in New York City, or even in Houston, they went to provide the best chances for extending Magda’s life.  Last May, while visiting my dying aunt (also of cancer) in Florida, Magda lost her balance and fell.  Unfortunately, this was a sign that the cancer she had been fighting had begun to affect her lower body, and after that, Magda no longer walked.

When married and the times are good, it is easy to live by the wedding vow “…in health…”, however, the true mettle of the relationship is tested at times when “…in sickness…” is unfortunately added the couple.

Jeff immediately learned how to move and, at times, carry Magda.  You see, years ago, in one of her surgeries, Magda had ribs removed.  While this resolved the crises at that point, she was left with constant pain.  Moving her, Jeff always had to consider how to place his arms.  My brother still needed to work, so for the month of July and August, he had daytime help – Gab (proud of her for helping).  As the summer ended, and the need to still work, Bec (proud of her) helped find and hire an aide.  Even though Jeff was the around the clock caregiver, he still needed to work and run errands.  Last year, Magda wanted to do a girls trip to Aruba.  Debbie (proud of her), was the caregiver on the trip. 

The sad thing about cancer is that, unless you are in remission, you continue to deteriorate over time.  This meant that Jeff had to take on more roles.  Laying in the same position, whether a bed, a chair or a couch, can lead to sores.  Jeff had to become the nurse.  Over the last six months, I cannot begin to list out the different things that Jeff learned in caring for Magda.  It had reached the point where no family member could help for more than a few hours.  For Jeff to go on an errand, play hockey, have band practice, etc., someone had to be with Magda.  Jeff went above and beyond what most people would do for a spouse.  Caregiver, aide, and nurse – due to the level of care provided, he learned to survive with little sleep.  When we had band practice, there was the walkie-talkie on the music stand and the running up between songs to check on Magda.  Towards the end, Debbie, or other friends would sit with Magda so that Jeff could play, as this was much needed down time for him.

When asked about bringing in more help, Jeff responded, “I want to spend as much time together as we can.” That is devotion; that is the commitment one makes in the wedding vows when they say “…in sickness or in health…”  Jeff tended and cared for Magda right up to the end.

As a family, we are all pulling together to care for the caregiver that gave so much of himself, in a truly selfless manner.  We still need Jeff in our lives.  I do not yet know if there is a cure for a broken heart, a salve to ease the pain of loss, or an ointment to make happy memories not bring on tears.  What I do know, is that like the way Magda leaned on Jeff, it is now time for Jeff to lean on us.  We are proud for the example that he provided and we will be there for him while he goes through the tough road ahead.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Another Angel Got Her Wings

Somewhere, on June 28, 2017, a bell rang a 10:41 am.  “Every time a bell rings an angel gets their wings,” was the famous line said by the angel ZuZu in the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  So, I know a bell rang somewhere.

Growing up, my parents had a clock in the foyer of our house that needed to be wound every couple of days.  When it ran, it kept great time.  You could tell when it was time for the next winding, as the clock’s time started to slow down.  All one had to do is take out the clock key, insert the key into the slot on the clock’s face and after a few twists, the clock was back on track.  Without someone to help (wind) the clock, it would slowly wind down its life, getting slower and slower until it stopped completely.

I remember meeting Magda about 30 years ago.  She was part of my brother Jeff’s group at Fairleigh Dickinson University.  I know that after they graduated, Magda, while still Jeff’s friend bounced in and out of his life.  Then one day, she was back in and then like a spark, their friendship rekindled at a higher level.  I am always amazed at stories where two people knew each other and then years later fall in love.  Someone recently pointed out to how this story validates the old adage - If you love someone, set them free; if they come back, it was meant to be.  It was great to see my brother so happy and Magda was truly a great addition to our family.

They say that as humans, we understand the concept of time and our movement through it.  However, we only really know and live in the now.  Yes, we have memories of what came before (filtered through our own prisms) and expectations / desires of what is to come.  But at the end of the day, we live in the now.  Magda believed in living life to the fullest, even after being diagnosed with cancer, even after the surgeries, even after the chemo, etc.  She still traveled, went to concerts and really lived life.  In Magda’s shortened life, I would venture to say that she experienced more now moments than some people live in a full lifetime.

We all know about the law of attraction, yet to see someone that unconsciously embodies that spirit is amazing to see.  Magda had the natural ability to be friends with everyone she met.  For the holidays at their house, we never knew who would be invited as a new friend.  A close friend tells the story that every time Magda visited, she would come with a well packed handbag filled with gifts for whomever she was visiting; plus a few extras just in case, as Magda did not want anyone to feel left out.  This is a great analogy showing how giving, loving and caring of a person Magda was; everyone that knew her has an experience, an expression or a simple Magda moment that they carry with them.  She was full of life, loved living it to its fullest and encouraged others to do so as well.

Magda was a strong, brave person who found a way to stare death in its face and continue to live a full life and, sometimes, exhausting life (especially to an outside observer).  A number of years ago, during one of the battles she won, she told Debbie in all seriousness not to be fooled, one day she would no longer be here.  FIFTEEN YEARS - through which she had numerous surgeries, chemo, radiation, etc. – she always had the brave face on, always was concerned with others, always lent a helping hand, and always gave us wonderful stories to remember her by.  

There is the theory called the Butterfly Effect, simply stated that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can be felt around the world.  I had the chance to see this in practice.  Over the weekend, one of Magda’s friends had reached out to her friends in the global community – the Middle East, Europe and South America.  Everyone felt the desire to connect celebrating this person that touched them so deeply.  At 12:00 pm, New York time, a global moment of silence was held.  I could feel the chill up my arms at what this meant, the impact of a single person on the lives of others.  This was a most amazing moment to behold and a true testament to what Magda meant to so many people.

The hands of time finally caught up to Magda.  The doctors could no longer find the right key to wind Magda’s clock back up.  And as with the clock in my parent’s foyer, this precious being slowly wound down.  Though I am crying as I write this, I know Magda showed us how to live and to focus on what is important.  She is at peace now, no more quiet suffering.  Thank you for being a part of our lives…You will be missed, but gave us so many wonderful memories that you will forever live on in our minds and in our hearts.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Monica Got Married

The tropical breeze and gently crashing surf in front of us, the young couple stood together and the vows about to taken.  What an idyllic scene!  I sat there holding Debbie’s hand with Gab and Bec sitting to my right.  For that moment, things were great!

Life is busy.  It is good that I enjoy the work that I do, enjoy the volunteering, and enjoy most all of the things that fill my days.  I do not work with an eye to my next vacation and focus on where we are going to travel next.  We all remember the Eveready bunny that kept on going and going.  However, even the Eveready bunny must use up its battery’s life.  While in the midst of my daily routine, I do not always realize that I am wearing down, and need to recharge.

Monica got married.  The first few days we were saying, I cannot believe Monica’s getting married!  We were there as a family.  I make no bones about loving my family, being together and enjoying each other.  It has been two full years since we took a family vacation away.  Yes, I have been to Florida a lot this past 15 months, but these were not vacations – these were visits tending to a sick aunt, a quick visit to my father, and tending to him when he was sick.  Debbie and I had a few long weekends, but not a family vacation where we were off the grid.  This vacation, we were in Jamaica – off the mainland and not easy to contact to us - A true vacation.

We have known Monica and her family for a long time.  When she said they wanted to marry in Jamaica, we said we were in.  Not only to support her on her new adventure, but also to take a family vacation to somewhere we have not been to.  When the opportunity made itself available, we jumped at the chance to turn this into a family vacation. 

Being off the grid meant no work to pull me from the downtime, a chance to reacquaint ourselves together, and the time to recharge our batteries.  We had the chances to eat together, swim together, enjoy the swim up bar, and enjoy cocktails together.  We always enjoyed the vacation time when the girls were young; there is a clear difference spending time with them as adults.  Yes, it was great! 
After the completion of the ceremony, we turned our heads a noticed a rainbow in the sky - truly a wonderful symbol.  As our last morning approached, we looked back at the pool with the ocean beyond.  This was a beautiful place, where we got to watch two young people start their journey as a married couple, enjoyed some native foods, and most importantly, spent time as a family to relax and enjoy time together.  As the ensuing months come, I will keep in mind the importance of vacation and the opportunity to spend it with my family.