My Bucket List of Gratitude

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I’m creating my own kind of bucket list. Not the usual listing of things I wish to do before I leave this earth, but an accounting of the gracious drops of kindness that have filled my pail to the brim. Whether the contribution was a single drip from an eyedropper or gallons upon gallons of generosity, all have buoyed my soul, washed away hours of pain, and carried me through turbulent trials.

And so I have decided to make a conscious effort to recognize these not-so-random acts. Some were as temporary as the morning dew, but equaling as cooling. Others have been like IVs, injecting nourishment continually. A few were summer storms: electrifying, powerful, and brief. Whether their perpetrators knew it or not, each and every one made a significant impact. They quenched my drought in spirit and left me flooded with gratitude.


Item Number 1: Clean House – Warm Heart

My first story takes place when I was a young mother of two toddlers: Albert, age two-and-a-half and Nicholas, just past one. Our family of four was living in Washington State, about 1,000 miles away from most of our family in Southern California. In the 18 months since we had moved there, we had entered into a lovely circle of friends. We were in the early stages of a close, tight-knit relationship. Only time would tell if the stitches would unravel or interweave for a lifetime.

Albert had become very sick with what seemed to be the flu. We soon learned his rapid decline was due to Type 1 diabetes (T1D). He was initially admitted to the hospital for 10 days. Within 24 hours of returning home, he acquired the stomach flu again – a very dangerous situation for any T1D let alone a newly-diagnosed toddler. He returned to the hospital for nearly another week to get him stabilized.

During both hospital stays, my husband, Matt, and I took turns sleeping by Albert’s side. We would both spend our days there, alternating who would remain with him at night and who would go home to take care of Nicholas. Thankfully, one of our friends offered to watch Nicholas while we were at the hospital. Her youngest daughter was his same age and they were like two peas in a pod. While we were learning the perils of over or under dosing insulin, our younger son was enjoying an extended play date.

Needless to say, Matt and I were frazzled. Lack of sleep and worry were leaching away our composure. Fear shrieked through our minds as we relearned how to care for our first-born child. Not to mention we had a one-year-old confused by the prolonged absence of his parents. And the house – oh the house! It was one more thing not receiving a clean bill of health. Gazing at this noise and confusion was only ramping up my anxiety. I felt utterly inadequate and completely unable to do anything about it.

In between hospital visits, another member of our group dropped by to bring us dinner and see how we were doing. This particular friend was the meticulous one in our circle. You know the type – the person whose home is pristine – spic and span – downright gleaming. No dust bunny is ever allowed to propagate in her abode. You’d think the envy would evolve to hate, but it never does, because she is just that nice and charming.

When she arrived, I was perched among piles of laundry that hoarded every square inch of my sofa. Additional mounds of clothing engulfed my feet. Mortified, I shoved the heaps aside so she could sit alongside me. We chitchatted. She asked if there was anything else she could do. What little was left of my mental capabilities silently screamed: PLEASE – HELP ME CLEAN MY HOUSE!!! Still, I was appalled by the vision of her viewing the expanding black rings crowning my toilet bowls. “No, but thank you. We’re doing OK,” I lied.

She didn’t let on, but she didn’t believe a word I said.

The second hospital stay re-initiated the child care round robin. One morning, when Matt dropped off Nicholas, our babysitting friend asked him for a key to our house. “In case Nicholas needs some extra diapers,” she explained. Not realizing that I would be humiliated if anyone saw just how wretched a pigsty we were living in, he handed it over readily. The moment he left, our group commenced their latest escapade of kindness.

Up to this point in this particular trial, I hadn’t really cried. To me, it was a luxury I couldn’t afford. Honestly, I was afraid if I started I would lose any ability to function. So, I corked my tears and kept going.

It was my turn to stay home with Nicholas. The moment I unlocked the door, I knew something was amiss. Instead of the dirt and mildew aroma that usually wafted a greeting, I was welcomed by the delicate scent of pine sol. The disheveled cache of clothing was neatly sorted and folded. The soiled apparel that had overflowed every bedroom hamper was now Downy-fresh and stacked alongside. Everything sparkled – including the toilets! Right in the middle of my kitchen table was a vase filled with fresh-cut flowers. I took one look at that arrangement, collapsed to the floor, and sobbed.

That moment of release is forever tattooed in my memory. It is the point in time I cling to when I am overwhelmed; when I suppose I am alone. Without waiting for me to ask, my friends sensed what I needed and went into action. They saw through my desperate bravado. They cut through the grime and the grit of the situation. By cleaning my house, they wiped away part of the chaos and polished my sanity. I am forever and for all eternity, grateful.

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Welcome Back: A 70s TV Gram

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Image by Karen Arnold

When I was a young child, we moved from our little house on the prairie to what my parents dubbed the “wild kingdom” of Ohio. My best friend, Rhoda, lived next door and had migrated from the streets of San Francisco. She had hair of gold, like her mother. That girl got what was happening in our hotter-than-Vegas neighborhood. She knew why McMillon and his wife were at odds with the Partridge family. She understood why the Waltons disapproved of Alice’s courtship of Eddie’s father. She explained to me what made Mork and Mindy such an odd couple. Just entering into the age of double digits, we would have long hart to harts about our cute neighbor, James, age 15. Nibbling on chips, we’d sip soda, and listen to WKRP in Cincinnati.

Laverne and Shirley were our buds at school. Something always happened whenever we got together. In the corner of our homeroom, Room 222, we first learned the facts of life from know-it-all Phyllis. Our sassy pal, Maude, lived with her nanny and our professor, Dr. Quincy. Maude claimed to know all about love, American style and exclaimed Phyllis should get her mouthed washed out with soap for getting her facts wrong. Donny and Marie wholeheartedly agreed.

For P.E., we learned Kung Fu from Mr. Kojak. We had yearly assemblies where Trapper John, M.D. informed us what to do in a medical emergency. Captain Barney Miller explained how we should duck and cover should S.W.A.T. ever show up at our school. Our principal, Ms. Mary Tyler Moore, would do anything she could to make our dreams come true. “C’mon! Get happy!” she would chant to us. That schoolhouse rocked!

When Rhoda and I were feeling a bit daring, we’d journey a few blocks over to spend time with the McCloud twins, Starsky and Hutch. Their parents were hippies, thus their unusual names. Those boys were making their way the only way they knew how. Sometimes, they would try to get us to play what they called “the newlywed game.” We knew enough to realize they were just trying to catch a glimpse of our hee haws.

Those were happy days with our friends and family. I was one of four girls and we had four brothers. My mother, a true wonder of a woman, always wanted more kids. “No. No!” my dad would bellow. “This is it! Eight is enough for this mod squad!” We would all laugh in unison at his attempt to be hip.

It wasn’t always good times, though. Our friend, Chico, and the man next door feuded with Mr. Sanford and his son, Logan. “Run!” we exclaimed when we saw Logan walk out of his house, carrying a loaded baretta. He wanted all of us, especially Chico, to switch neighborhoods. After he fired into the air, the gun smoke floated away like a fish drifting through the ocean. I often wondered what became of him.

We got inside as fast as we could. “Wait ‘til your father gets home,” my mother counseled. “He’ll know what to do.” Later that night, our father explained that Logan had been involved in something called Operation Petticoat during the Korean War. The experience had left him a bit “mashed in the head,” as my dad put it. “Best to keep our playtime all in the family yard,” he declared.

During summer sleepovers, we would try to scare each other with tales about the mysterious white shadow cast by the ghost and Mrs. Muir. Our Saturday nights came alive when we ventured out with the Dukes of Hazzard Street. That didn’t sit well with our mutual friend, Beverly. “Hillbillies!” she would call the boys. “I’d much rather hang out with the Jeffersons or Bob Newhart. Now he’s an incredible hulk!”

I have fond memories of life at 2367 Columbo Lane. I wouldn’t trade those days for anything, not even six million dollars. Man, we sure did enjoy our childhood! We approached life one day at a time. We developed roots. We lived our lives based on the words of my father, Charlie: “Angels,” he would call us, “You can be whatever you want to be: rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief – it’s all up to you.” Those were the days!


This piece contains 72 television show titles and 9 theme song lyrics. Did you catch them all?

A Mother’s Tale: Shielding and Letting Go

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Photo Credit: Flckr Commons

Once again, it was thrust upon us.

My sons and I were watching television and soon realized “IT” was going to be part of the storyline. Our lighthearted summer romp through The Hamptons was referencing a significant anniversary in the life of its main characters, a pair of brothers. Being the shrewd (and somewhat rabid) TV viewer that I am, I was able to quickly deduce the meaning of the upcoming fictional date.

Intuitively, I scrutinized my boys’ expressions to see if they had caught on. One of them readjusted his relaxed posture to more formal pose; the other shifted a bit in his chair. What used to take effort had now become instinctual. A narrative meant to tug at the heartstrings of most viewers was going to twist and turn ours. All three of us braced ourselves accordingly.

It had been 25 years since the death of their (the main characters’) mother.

“Shit!” I thought for seemingly the thousandth time. For a few years after we lost my husband, I would sidetrack my boys’ attention away from the television when such a plot development occurred. Sometimes, I would “accidentally” change the channel. “Oops!” I’d exclaim in my best, pseudo-innocent voice. Such tactics can only work for so long.


Wonder Woman Bracelets

Source: Giphy

The difficulties escalate this time of year.  My maternal eye views every Father’s Day themed commercial as a dart aimed squarely at my children. I would like to stand in front of them like Wonder Woman, deftly deflecting the onslaught of paternal imagery with a PING! and a POW! of my magic bracelets.  I’d encase both of them entirely in chainmail, if possible, to repel the wily projectiles that made it past me.

Regrettably, I haven’t always made the best decisions when it came to exposing my sons to unsuitable material. Case in point: I took both my sons to see the movie, ‘The Express’ mere months after losing their father. It was a film about Ernie Davis, the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. We were a football-obsessed family, so this should have been an enjoyable, but relatively uneventful weekend outing. What I carelessly overlooked is that Davis dies shortly after being drafted by the NFL. Of leukemia!!! Not my wisest parental decision.


I know it’s completely unrealistic, but I have often fantasized about a process where a cable customer could create a personalized warning system. A subscriber would enter whatever topics offended their sensibilities or damaged their emotional well-being. Shows would be subsequently scanned and customized alerts would appear when necessary. In the case of our household, they would read:

Caution, the following content contains scenes either depicting or referencing the death of one or more parent.

VIEWER DISCRETION IS ADVISED


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In the movie, ‘A Knight’s Tale,’ it is a woman who constructs the breastplate that best guards the heart of Sir Ulrich. It is lightweight, flexible, but durable. He is able to joust without unnecessary constraints. I used to be my sons’ blacksmith. The sole designer of their shields. But they are now young men. They must forge their own suitable armour.

In the end, the hero of the movie winds up being overburdened by his defense mechanisms. His metallic safeguards, no matter how accommodating they once were, become too rigid for him to continue. The newly christened knight discards his gauntlet and faces his final opponent unmasked, unshielded, and exposed.  Ultimately, he is victorious over the enemy that challenges his rightful place in society.

Whatever fortifications my sons select – whether they are walls, moats, or armour – it needs to be an individual choice. It is up to them to determine if they want to erect barricades. They alone elect whether to build them up or tear them down and when. As much as I may desire to, I can’t protect them anymore.

And so, tonight we will turn the TV on again. Will our viewing choices be friendly to our little family? Maybe. Maybe not. A strong fatherly lead could induce a wave of melancholy in my sons. A commercial featuring an affectionate husband might strike a chord with me. It’s impossible to predict. Unless we choose to live a life of solitary confinement, complete avoidance is impractical and not at all feasible. We will each weigh our options. We will measure our selections against our defenses. Hopefully, at least for now, we won’t be found wanting.

Dazed and Confused: Enduring an Emotional Concussion

Grief by Sarah Gath

A little while back I was having a heart-to-heart with a close friend.  Within a period of six months, he had lost both his stepfather and his mother. Dealing with his grief was becoming increasingly difficult. “It’s like I’m in a constant haze,” he explained. “I can’t seem to comprehend or complete the most basic of tasks.” “Makes perfect sense to me,” I replied. “You’ve been emotionally concussed.”

As a dedicated football mom, I am quite familiar with the physical ramifications of a brain bouncing inside a skull like a pinball. For four years, I ran the high school sidelines. I knew the signs of a concussion and subsequent protocol. It was my task to make the calls to 911 and/or an unsuspecting parents more times than I would have preferred. There were the instances when the brightest kids on the team had no idea what day it was. Sometimes, the athlete would drift in and out of consciousness, complaining of an intense headache when he was briefly coherent. Then there was the kid who acting as if he was happy drunk. We needed to assign him a babysitter to keep him from frolicking back onto the field.

When my own son had his first concussion, I witnessed the day-in and day-outs of such an injury. A designated “math kid,” he couldn’t add 2+2 for nearly three weeks.

The NFL, FIFA, International Olympic Committee, and other sports organizations look for numerous symptoms when assessing a possible concussion. Besides a persistent headache, these include:

  • Feeling slowed down
  • Nausea / vomiting
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue / low energy
  • Sadness
  • Nervous or anxious
  • Feeling “in a fog”
  • Feeling more emotional
  • Difficulty remembering and/or concentrating
  • Irritability

Due to the recent outcries (and lawsuits) over the long-term damage of repeated concussions, both the NCAA and NFL have revised their guidelines regarding possible brain injuries suffered either during practice or competition. With the general medical consensus being that the more severe damage occurs when an athlete returns to play too soon (before the brain has had adequate time to heal) many injured professional and collegiate athletes are now mandated to refrain from competition until he or she has demonstrated satisfactory cognitive function. A secondary concussion suffered by an athlete who resumed competition too early can result in catastrophic brain injury.

Putting aside the debate on whether or not the sports community is doing too little too late to prevent brain injuries – what are the correlations between concussions and emotional trauma? Or overwhelming grief? In my own personal experience, and in the lives of those whom I’ve consulted on the matter – plenty.

Photo by Kevin Dooley-Originally in Color

Photo by Kevin Dooley-Originally in Color

Some say I’ve had more to “deal with” in my life that most. I might take issue with that conclusion, but I can’t dispute the facts: My son was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes at age 2 and a half. He was in and out of the hospital for nearly a month. My father-in-law was stricken by colon cancer and was forced to go on dialysis due to a tainted batch of chemotherapy. My husband donated one of his kidneys to save his father’s life. Some years later, my husband was diagnosed with leukemia, underwent a stem cell transplant, almost lost his eyesight, and eventually went into cardiac arrest and died a few years later. Personally, I have been affected by debilitating endometriosis, infertility issues, rheumatoid arthritis, and breast cancer to name a few. I guess my plate has been full for quite a while.

In many of these instances and others, my emotional circuitry was fried. Most of the time, when I needed to function despite of my circumstances; any and all sentiment was suppressed. I went numb. Other times, I sparked like an overloaded transformer, singeing those closest to me with blistering words and scalding outbursts. With my sideline sports history, you think I would have recognized the signs of something a little more serious than “feeling down” or being “overly sensitive.”

It’s been said that emotional trauma is stress run amuck. According to the American Psychological Association and the National Center for P.T.S.D., the symptoms of emotional trauma include:

  • Detachment
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Fatigue / low energy
  • Extreme sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Feeling “in a fog”
  • Feeling out of control
  • Having trouble concentrating or making decisions
  • Loss of intimacy
  • Eating disturbances
  • Memory lapses
  • Irritability
  • Feeling distracted

When you compare the symptoms of emotional trauma to those of a brain injury, they are almost identical.
Hence – emotionally concussed.

While scientists continue to debate the sequence of physiological events that produce emotion, the central nervous system is still considered to be the mastermind behind whatever we are feeling on any given day. When your CPU (your brain) has been strained to the upper reaches of its capacity, there are bound to be ramifications; much like the recently-documented cases of broken-heart syndrome, where excess amounts of stress hormones damage the heart. If the traumatic events happen in succession, the damage can be devastating.

Severe emotional distress can make you feel like you’ve been hit upside the head with a 2×4. Stunned and dazed for a moment, it might take you a moment to regain your bearings. If you are stuck repeatedly, or if the blow hits you just right, that “moment” can take days, months, or years.

Cool Texture by Ryan Houston

Cool Texture by Ryan Houston

Sports enthusiasts and ER personnel are frequent users of instant ice packs. These portable plastic packets are filled with a powdered chemical. Inside that is another pouch filled with a liquid chemical or water. When you squeeze and/or shake the packet, the inside pouch pops and the two chemicals react. As you are holding it, you can feel the reaction progress through the packet as it slowly turns completely cold.

Your brain can act the same way under extreme stress. Too much and Kapow!, your inner composure is burst, oozing into your surrounding grey matter. Soon, your synapses are cooled and your temperament is frozen into a mechanical and barely functioning tranquility. Your cognizance is in “Safe” mode.

As with an athlete, those who grieve run the risk of returning to life’s playing field too soon. Jobs, family, and friends may expect you to bounce back faster than you are ready. You, yourself, might be overly ambitious and presume you are prepared to get back in the game when you are far from it. Resuming strenuous, or even normal, activity before you are recuperated can be highly detrimental.

There is no pharmaceutical quick fix for a concussion — or grief. In reality, giving a brain injury patient certain analgesics can cause more harm than good. Aspirin or ibuprofen can thin the blood and exacerbate a brain bleed.  The best prescription is physical rest, mental relaxation, and time. Unfortunately, in the era of instant gratification, we are loathe to allot ourselves suitable amounts of any of them.

When my husband passed away, I was offered numerous agents to help me “cope:” one pill to help me sleep, another to boost my spirits, still another to help me get through the day. I declined them all.  I was wary of becoming dependent on any type of mood enhancer. More importantly, I didn’t want any agent to either dilute or dull the experienced trauma. To me, doing so would only delay the inevitable. I needed to experience the rawness – the full brunt of anguish – in order to get through it.

This is not to say that I always followed my own “sage advice”—far from it. I suppressed a lot of the grieving process, telling myself there were things that needed to get done, kids to take care of, other family and friends who needed to witness my composure so they could get on with their own lives. In my warped opinion, time was too precious and not worth the expense.

It's time to relax and unwind: Vinoth Chandar

It’s time to relax and unwind: Vinoth Chandar

Recently, I have had to go on short-term disability due to a persistent illness. I have to wonder: Is my body finally saying enough is enough and forcing me to slow down? Have I ever taken the time or done the work to truly rehabilitate? In the past few months, I have been able to experience quiet and search my soul, expand my creative writing, and enjoy more time with immediate and extended family.

If I had continued to be deemed physically fit, would I ever be emotionally well?

I am unsure if Emotional Concussion is listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Manual of Mental Disorders. I doubt if I am the first one to coin the term.  I only know it accurately encompasses the symptoms of grief my friends and I have confronted. It helps to realize that we are not alone in this condition. We are not suffering from a rare, orphan disease.

We are not losing our minds.

With over 2.5 million deaths occurring each year in the U.S. alone; there are tens of millions of left-behind loved ones who currently and will continue to grieve for years to come. Acknowledging that we have been battered and bruised – that we need a breather – is the first step. It is crucial to heal our minds and our hearts, create our new normal – restore our sense of self.

Rest is not a dirty word.

Epilogue to: What About Meredith?

Once upon a time, she was me…

ICYMI: Here is the link to my previous post.

Well the two-part season finale has come and gone. IMHO, Grey’s conclusion was honest, and perceptive throughout both episodes. Not only regarding Meredith, but those surrounding her, including friends; his sister, Amelia; and even April Kepner. In fact, the episodes could have accurately been entitled “Portraits of Grief.” How one handles the loss of a loved one is not an A-to-B-to-C progression. It is multifaceted. It has twists, turns, and double backs. It rarely stays the same.

Of course, we were riveted by the young couple and their unborn child involved in a horrific accident: Can they be rescued? Who will be the hero? Will they survive? Romance in all its complexities was portrayed by the Richard-Catherine story line: How do two, strong-willed individuals compromise enough to commit to one another? But the underlying current was grief — in all its guts and glory.

We soon learn the Meredith packed up the kids and slipped away in the middle of the night. Gone for a year, we are shown snippets of how her friends deal with her absence. At first they are worried, then frantic. A little pissed off; most of them resign themselves to Meredith being Meredith. What she, the new widow, failed to understand is a concept that took me a while to realize: you are not alone in your loss and are now a role model for how to grieve. Your closest companions, family, in-laws, and colleagues have lost someone as well and are unsure of how to handle it. They need to see that you are OK, that you are coping, moving on — surviving — before they can as well. In a twisted way, their lack of composure is comforting; at least it was for me.

It demonstrated that my husband’s life resonated with others, that he mattered, that he wouldn’t be forgotten.

This is not to say I don’t admire Meredith for her selfishness. I am actually jealous. Her kids aren’t of school age. She had the financial resources to disappear. It was a luxury that few widows have, but secretly crave. All in all, it was a perfect metaphor for the sense of suspended animation you are in for a least a year. The world continues to rotate; life goes on, no matter how enveloped in grief you are. She was able to get off the infamous carousel for a while and just breathe.

Amelia’s grief demonstrated how loss is dealt with when it is initially denied. As the damaged sister, she had her walls in place. She’s been through this before. (father, lover, baby) She didn’t need any help. She was just fine, thank you. Only when she teetered on the edge of losing sobriety, did she finally cry out for support. As I hoped Grey’s would do, she angrily confronts Meredith about not having the chance to say goodbye to her brother. My husband had three sisters, just like Derek Shepherd. Only one was able to speak her farewell to him at the hospital. This was a moment in time that was of utmost importance to her and would have devastated her if it was prevented.

Meredith’s reaction was equally revealing. She breaks down in tears after Amelia leaves. Why such a response? Did she feel guilty? Unjustly accused? Probably a little bit of both. But in that scene, the audience is shown a key component of grief. 365 days— whether they are in reality or the television universe — are but a moment in the life of a widow. Emotions can well up and over at any time. They may or may not make “sense.” Every so often, they are uncontrollable.

Even April and Jackson were caught up in the cavalcade of grief. After losing their child, April runs off to a combat zone to channel her anguish, leaving Jackson behind to grieve alone. She comes back recharged, but different. “I like the new April,” Bailey tells a skeptical Catherine. Jackson later tells April that while he is happy for her new sense of purpose, he did and continues to feel abandoned in their supposedly shared heartache. Dealing with the loss of a loved one, especially a child, is partially a cooperative experience. When someone in the grief collective opts out and decides to go it alone, the rest are left feeling forsaken. The processing of their sorrow may be incomplete. Will their marriage survive this trial? We are left to ponder for the duration of the summer.

These story lines aptly portrayed the ripple effect of death. Losing someone close to you, whether it be a treasured friend or cherished loved one, affects everyone differently — but continually. Grief is both private and public, intimate and communal. It is ugly in its brutality and beautiful in its poignancy. Bravo Grey’s Anatomy. Thank you for getting it right.