Ghost of Christmas Past

Family photoBefore childhood memories surface of loading the station wagon with presents and heading up to Green Bay to spend Christmas with a gaggle of cousins, aunts and uncles, and my grandmas who cooked delicious meals and my grandpas who complained about all the ruckus, there is this memory:

I am six years old and my parents take my younger sisters, Kelli and Missi, and me to Gimbels department store in downtown Milwaukee. It’s an ornate corner stone building with storefront windows decked out in Christmas scenes. I stand in awe as mechanical reindeer tilt their heads and carolers blink their eyes and part their small, oval mouths in unison as the music, piped through speakers, reaches the streets. We walk in the store where Christmas trees and miles of garland twinkle with lights. I am pretty sure we have arrived at the North Pole.

Gimbels 2We have been promised a train ride, and I’m disappointed because we have to first sit on Santa’s lap for pictures. The line of parents and squealing kids wraps around the cosmetic counter. Missi, who is two years old, sees Santa and starts wailing. My dad utters, “For Christ’s sake,” before disappearing into the crowd of shoppers; leaving my mom alone to tend to the three of us.

After we cajole Missi through a tearful introduction and photos with Santa, it’s off to the train! My dad mysteriously reappears and up a crowded escalator we go. Another line, but this time my dad stays with us. He loves trains and above our heads an engine the size of a sofa followed by four or five brightly painted tin cars jerks and sputters along a metal rail attached to the ceiling by giant bolts. This is an engineering feat, my dad tells us. Kids wave from the train cars. They look scared. My sisters and I are wearing matching Holiday dresses my mom sewed for us. I yank on my white tights. I hate anything confining on my body. Watching the train circling above me, I want to tear off all of my clothes and run out into the cold. I can’t get on the train. It makes no sense to me. Trains belong on the ground. The line is moving and soon my mom will let go of my hand so that my sisters and I can ascend a set of white-washed, rickety stairs that will take me to my death. I pull on the cuff of my mom’s coat. She bends down and straightens the collar on my dress. “What is it?” she asks.

I point to the train. “I can’t go on that,” I say.

She is smiling. “Of course you can,” she says. “You’re a big girl.”

She gives me a little push toward the stairs. I am now in charge of my sisters. I look behind me. My parents are waving. Climbing the stairs brings me closer to the ceiling. I tug again on my tights. It’s very hot and I bite my lip to keep from screaming. You’re a big girl, I think as a lady in a white sweater ushers us into one of the little train cars. You’re a big girl, I reason as the car jerks and I hit my head against the icy tin. My sisters are looking at me. They will cry if I cry, and my parents will blame me for ruining Christmas. You’re a big girl. You’re a big girl. You’re a big girl, I tell myself until it’s over. Family Photo 2

Nearly fifty years have passed since that awful day, and yet I can still smell my mom’s perfume and see my reflection in my dad’s horned-rimmed glasses. It was the early 70’s. A scary time for people like my parents wedged between the moral codes of the fifties and those of a new generation. We were at war in Viet Nam, the summer of love at Woodstock was still fresh in people’s minds, and bands like the Rolling Stones and The Who were rallying young people to do unthinkable things. It would have been easy for my parents to tuck their little family away someplace safe until things cooled down, but instead we were encouraged to be a part of the world rather than hidden from it. We are living in scary times now, and part of me wanted to shut the doors on Christmas this year. Between the political rhetoric, the devastating wildfires in California, and my beloved border torn asunder, it just seemed easier to pull the curtains and turn off the lights.

But then there is Ron’s granddaughter, Ada; a little beam of light who is looking to us to make her world magical this Christmas. Tuesday she and I are baking cookies. I bought all the glitter and sprinkles I could find. We’ll drink hot chocolate and dance to Christmas carols. I can’t think of anything that would bring me more joy right now.

Many of us have a scary train memory that creeps up during the Holidays. If you’re feeling a bit blue right now, you may borrow my mantra, “You’re a big girl”, while you search for that special thing that brings you joy this Holiday Season.

Gimbels

 

 

Every Breath You Take

green heartI had a health scare recently while in bed reading. A heavy pressure filled my chest, my arms went numb, and I broke out in a clammy sweat from head to toe. Given where we live, I knew it would be hours before I could make it to a hospital. As I lay contemplating my options, the symptoms disappeared. When it happened again a few days later, this time while on my bike, I was scared and called a friend and local volunteer EMT, Jared Fralie, who suggested a few options. My mom was in Scotland, and I had planned to go feed her cats in Sierra Vista later in the day. Instead of waiting, I took an aspirin and hit the road, promising Ron I would go to the hospital as soon as I got to town. During the two and a half hour drive to Sierra Vista, I felt fine and thought a trip to the emergency room was a bit dramatic. I called my sister Missi who is a paramedic, and a friend who recently had open heart surgery. Both agreed I shouldn’t wait until morning to see a doctor.

It was after dark when I arrived at the emergency room, which is in a busy, rural Trauma III hospital. The staff and medical team were friendly and accommodating, but this isn’t a heart center. As long as I wasn’t dying, there wasn’t much they could tell me. The no-nonsense emergency room doctor admitted me into the hospital citing an irregular EKG as the problem. I spent the night in observation where I was woken often to be poked and prodded. In the morning, I was delighted to have two of my former college students assigned to me, one a nurse, the other a CNA. I also met a young resident who asked a lot of question and then suggested maybe my problems were hormonal or maybe I had low blood sugar, and as he put it, “If you were my mom (Ouch!) I would tell you to eat a piece of candy.” At this point I seized the opportunity to use the ridiculous conversation we were having as a teaching moment. We went through my symptoms again and this time I asked questions. After we finished, he admitted he didn’t know what was wrong with me.

As I remained calm, the less civilized part of me wanted to throttle him. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for African-American and white women in the United States. Our symptoms can often be more subtle than that of men. We may complain of indigestion, or a sore back rather than grabbing our chests as though a locomotive has passed through our bodies. And yet, here was this young doctor parroting the long held attitudes and beliefs of his mentors—beliefs that diminish women in the eyes of the medical community. As recent as the 1970’s, I may have been given a diagnosis of hysteria  or melancholy and prescribed Valium. In 2018 I should expect more and was deeply troubled that, as a middle-aged woman, I had been systematically erased by archaic ideals and practices that date back to ancient Egypt.

I stayed in Sierra Vista for nearly two weeks while I gathered information and made numerous phone calls to find a cardiologist. But the real reason I didn’t go home was that I was afraid. I thought, if I have a heart attack at the ranch, I may not survive given the logistics. This is a real concern for people in rural areas. Country living isn’t for the faint of heart (No pun intended.) and statistics prove it. Our urban counterparts have a longer life expectancy and have more physicians and specialists available. Those of us out in the sticks have more occurrences of diabetes and coronary heart disease. Given all this fresh air and open space, you would think we would all be happy, but unfortunately that’s not true. Young people in rural areas are twice as likely to commit suicide, and we have a higher drug overdose rate than city folks.

Going home meant I would have to face some troubling realities in our rural community as well, and Jared was kind enough to help paint a picture. Our volunteer ambulance service has five EMTs, some with more skills and training than others. Two of them have full-time jobs and currently, one volunteer is unable to work because of health issues. If I had called 911, Jared estimates it would have taken fifteen minutes for the ambulance to get to our house, given volunteers were nearby and available. Depending on my symptoms, I would have been transported to the hospital in either Silver City or in Deming, both of which are an hour and twenty minutes away. Among Jared’s numerous responsibilities, he also has the authority to decide when to Airvac a patient. After he makes the call, it takes approximately forty minutes before a chopper lands in Animas and then another forty-five minutes for a patient to be airlifted to Tucson or to Las Cruces.

Aware of what it meant to return to the ranch, I needed to know with some certainty I was out of the woods. So before I left Sierra Vista, I went for a hike in the Huachuca Mountains and gave it my all racing up and down rocky trails. In the end, I felt pretty good. Good enough to pack up and head home, yet I still worried. Ron was on an elk hunt, which meant I would be alone for a few days, but I wanted to get back to my normal routine and the dogs were getting antsy after being cooped up in the city. When I got home, I was greeted with another reality as two startled rattlesnakes scared me half to death. After barricading myself and the dogs in the house, I contemplated the heart monitor I was prescribed to wear. Is it worth it living out here, so far from town? I don’t know any more.

The last couple of days have been cold and stormy. Today the sun came out and with it dozens of finches that have flocked to the feeders I filled this morning. They will be with us through the winter trusting that the tall lady wearing flannel will keep them fed. For now they are a good reason to stay here. If they can survive the storm, so can I.

The Brown-Headed Cowbird Requiem

Marty and BethMy Uncle Marty, my dad’s only sibling, passed away this week surrounded by family in his home up in Wisconsin’s Northwoods. Ron and I went back a few weeks ago to see him knowing the end was near. Marty was the keeper of our family stories. He had a knack of filling in the missing pieces with the best versions of our ancestors and of ourselves. This meant that sometimes the facts were altered like the broad strokes of a paintbrush hiding the dark colors with something brighter and better for all of us.

Unable to make the funeral, I yearned to be connected, so I picked up where Uncle Marty had left off. One of the last stories he shared was about our family’s history with Abbott Pennings, the founder of Saint Norbert College in DePere, Wisconsin. In Marty’s story, Abbott Pennings was a dear friend of my great-great- grandparents, Louis and Pheilomen (François) Colburn. Sometime in the late 1940’s when Louis was an old man, he donated his house and land to the college. The house was turned into a primate lab. Years later it was torn down, and no one seems to remember exactly where it once stood. Over the years I have collected other snippets of information. We were the distant relatives to Enos Colburn who has a park named after him in Green Bay. My great-grandfather Bearl Colburn was an inventor. My cousin Chad is the spitting image of our fifth great-grandfather, Jean-François d’Amours, Sieur de Courberon born in Kamouraska, Quebec in 1791.Jean Francois d'Amoiurs, Sieur de Courberon Past that I didn’t have a lot of information about my Colburn relatives. I grew up immersed in my mother’s big, fun-loving Irish Catholic clan. The Colburns by comparison were quiet, polite people consisting of my Uncle Marty and Aunt Linda and their two kids, my cousins, Tracy and Chad. My grandparents Bud (Heath) and Evelyn Colburn are long gone. Bud had a brother, Lee, and a couple of kids, but I only met them a handful of times. My grandma Evelyn was an only child. I remember her mom, my grandma Mamie, but she died when I was young. There were also two sisters, Verna and Glad, Bud’s aunts, who lived together in Milwaukee in a tiny house on 91st Street with a calico cat named Cookie. I loved all these people dearly, but with the exception of an occasional visit, they required little of me. I didn’t feel the sticky, messy glue of family when I was among them. Marty with his stories, colorful language, and sometimes raucous behavior made him the unlikely super hero that held us all together. In recent years, with the addition of nieces and nephews, and Marty’s frequent calls, I am grateful to the rekindled relationships I have with that side of the family, and with my sisters and their children.

ChadWithin an hour of researching my ancestors online, I traced them back to the early 1500’s, Paris, France. My great-great-great grandparents, Theodore and Célina (Desmarais) D’Amours de Courberon, came to the United States from Quebec to Redford, New York in 1852 (where our family name was changed to Colburn) before they made their permanent home in DePere shortly thereafter. They had twelve children. I learned that Enos Colburn was my great-great grandfather Louis’s nephew. Enos grew up with seven brothers and sisters. The family was huge. A few more searches and I discovered there are still over 100 Colburn relatives living in and around Green Bay. I called my dad to give him the news. He was quiet, which is his nature. Then he said. “My God, I’m seventy-eight years old and didn’t know any of this.”

We speculated why his immediate family had been cut off from the Colburns. He said that when his dad, Bud, was born, my great-great grandma Pheilomen snatched him up and brought him to Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church to be baptized. “You see, Norma, my grandmother, was protestant,” he said. “She didn’t want my dad baptized Catholic. This caused quite a problem in the family.”

After that the two women never got along. It makes sense that Norma circled the wagons around her small family leaving her husband’s people behind. I don’t think my Uncle Marty knew much of this, and though I’m happy I was able to share it with my dad, I feel it came too late.

While the sorrow of my uncle’s passing catches in my chest as I water the garden or cook a meal, a flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds have settled in the orchard, scaring off all the other birds. Cowbirds are parasitic. A mama cowbird either eats or kills an egg or two in perhaps a sparrow or a dove nest, then she lays her eggs leaving them to be incubated then raised by the unsuspecting mama bird. But there is another way to look at this. Cowbirds are like the character, Philip Nolan, in Everett Hale’s short story, “The Man without a Country.” In the story, Nolan, a US Army lieutenant, renounces the United States and is sentenced to live the rest of his life in exile aboard US Navy warships. In some cosmic way, God, Mother Nature, or whomever you may pray to, exiled the cowbirds to a life without a nest to call their own. Without a home, Nolan lived the rest of his life with deep melancholy for what he had lost. The cowbirds have found a way to survive as outsiders looking in. I understand these sentiments all too well.

Most of my family is still in Wisconsin, cold country dotted by forests and farmland where lakes freeze in the winter, and rivers cut their craggy paths into the earth like veins. As a kid I complained about the weather and swore one day I would move someplace warm. In my late twenties, I followed through with my threats and moved to Arizona, to the Sonoran Desert with its thirsty earth and vegetation armed with stickers and thorns, blistering sun, and rattlesnakes coiled in the parched grass ready to strike. There is beauty and danger in both places. I was born into one extreme only to seek out the other.

The days are getting shorter and as I reflect on family and my role in it, I feel so very far away from home. My body has never forgotten the change in seasons, the explosion of red, orange, and red wine leaves lighting up trees this time of year, the cool nights, the hunger for stew and mashed potatoes. I miss Wisconsin to my core and yet I belong here, too. Going home means leaving the desert, a place that has settled in my bones alongside the dark, cold winters of my childhood. I would long for the mountains, the sunsets, the open spaces if I left. Marty’s phone calls kept me tethered to another life and to possibilities. I miss him. Right now I feel like a woman without a country, a cowbird without a nest.

Photo #1- My Uncle Marty and me

Photo #2- My fifth great-grandfather, Jean Francois d’Amours de Courberon

Photo # 3- My cousin, Chad

Border Talk 6

Illegal Warning SignMy friend Kirsten Allen and I drove up to the Huachuca Mountains, which butt up against Mexico in the Coronado National Forest in southeast Arizona. It was eleven o’clock when we parked at the Brown Canyon trailhead, gathered our gear, and headed out on a day hike. I’d forgotten to bring a hat and felt a bit ill-prepared when Kirsten produced a snazzy, purple boonie hat from her pack. Binoculars at the ready, we spotted our first bird just a few minutes into the hike. It was going to be a good day.

Kirsten is the publisher and editorial director at Torrey House Press in Utah. She was in town as a guest presenter at the annual Cochise Creative Writing Celebration in Sierra Vista. We were taking the day to unwind after the event. The weather was perfect, the conversation easy, and we were excited to explore the area.

The Brown Canyon trail is both hilly and rocky, and though I wouldn’t try it on a mountain bike, it makes for a great hike. At a water trough where the trail splits, we continued on rather than head back to the truck. About three hours into the hike we came to the Hamburg Trail and Brown Canyon Trail intersection where new trail signs had recently been posted. Up until then I had felt confident of where we were, but now we were faced with several choices. We were down in a canyon where it was difficult to determine cardinal directions. The path to our left was narrow and crossed a dry riverbed of rocks. The trail heading right was wide and well-maintained. I hadn’t been up that way in a couple of years and told Kirsten that my gut said we should take the groomed trail.

We started off and were soon climbing. The grade increased every few hundred yards then descended and crossed the stream. I thought as long as we followed the river, we would find our way out. The sun dipped, filling the canyon with moving shadows. At some point I realized my gut had betrayed me. I was in unfamiliar territory. Kirsten and I stopped and discussed our options. We’d been hiking for hours. To go back the way we came meant spending a great deal of time navigating the trail in the dark. There was also the matter of returning to a spot where I knew we might run into illegal crossers from Mexico. We checked our phones. Kirsten didn’t have a signal. The little hiker on her Google map hadn’t moved. My phone had service, but was low on battery. I called my husband to see if he could text us a map. It was hard to describe exactly where we were. We both had spotty service. “Face the setting sun,” he said. “Stick your right arm straight out from your side. Hike in that direction.” I was grateful to hear his voice and for the instructions.

Canyon walls surrounded us. Looking up, trees glowed from the cliffs, and we assumed the sun was behind them. We each stuck out our right arm and continued uphill in the direction we had been going. When we had climbed high enough to nearly reach the tree line, we stopped again to take in our surroundings. This time we saw the last bit of sun hanging in the sky. Facing the sun, I again stuck out my right arm. Kirsten and I knew instantly we had been hiking in the wrong direction—and had been for two and a half hours. Kirsten was out of water, and I only had enough to ration. We were no longer interested in bird calls or the trees that had previously caught our attention. It was time to get the hell out of there.

Something happens to the psyche when the sun goes down. Vulnerability bubbles to the surface clouding rational thoughts and the ability to make good decisions. Checking my watch against the setting sun, I knew we would be faced with new challenges when we reached the trail intersection, the place where I had made the mistake of taking us in the wrong direction hours before.

Heading north down the trail, we noticed an open backpack and a camouflage shirt turned inside out. I told Kirsten to keep moving. She isn’t from the borderlands, but she understood the danger. We were not afraid of the dark, lions, or bears, rather the two-legged creatures who travel the mountains at night carrying dope on their backs. I texted Ron, Found evidence of smugglers. Get us out of here! However, I didn’t send it. On one hand it seemed ridiculous to be so afraid. On the other, I imagined someone jumping out in front of us and me hitting send before my phone and backpack were taken at gunpoint. I imagined helicopters flying overhead with spotlights shining down on us and Border Patrol agents calling out our names. I imagined a stranger’s hand over my mouth, a deep voice whispering, “cállate.”

After a traumatic fifty minutes, we arrived back at the Hamburg Trail and Brown Canyon Trail juncture. It would be another hour before we reached the parking lot at the Ramsey Canyon Preserve, where I hoped we could fill our water bottles before walking another two miles on a county road to my truck. The sun was long gone before we came to a spot on the trail I recognized. It was a steep climb out of the riverbed over large rocks. I’d left my glasses in the truck and still wore my prescription sunglasses along with Kirsten’s headlamp to navigate the trail. Kirsten’s sunglasses remained perched on the brim of her hat and our binoculars dangled around our necks. Our hips and legs ached as we hurried up the trail after the sound of snapping branches startled us.

A text came in from Ron. If you’re not down by 8 pm AZ time, I’m sending in troops. Seriously. RSVP receipt of this message. I hated being the damsel in distress. I hated that primal fear all women wear like a second skin. We were on the border at night in a mountain range known for illegal traffic. Feeling exposed and small, I kept my head down. Kirsten seemed lost in her thoughts as well.

FB_IMG_1524405550300It wasn’t until Kirsten and I reached the preserve around eight o’clock that something wonderful happened. Hungry, thirsty, and exhausted, our friendship transcended into new territory—a sacred place where teasing and giggles rescued us from our fear. We had weathered the storm, conquered our demons, slayed the dragons, and we had done it together. This was our war story. Depleted of any pride, we knocked on the door at Ramsey Canyon Inn where a kind gentleman from Michigan gave us a ride to my truck.

All the amazing adventures of my life have been unintentional. I prefer making plans to avoid surprises. In the desert summer heat I carry sunscreen and a cooler of ice filled with plenty of cold water in my truck. I stuff a blanket and jacket behind the seat when the weather turns cold. My hike with Kirsten may have been harrowing, but it reminded me I need to leave room for the unexpected. I would have missed out on so much had the day gone as planned.

 

 

To Arm or Not to Arm

No-Gun-Drugs-School-Sign-K-4030On October 4, 2006, in the wake of school shootings in Colorado, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, Frank Lasee, R-Green Bay, state Representative, recommended teachers carry guns in schools saying, “I want to end the turkey shoots that go on in our schools … I don’t suggest [arming teachers] is the only answer or the silver bullet to solve all our school violence problems, but it’s part of the puzzle of making our schools a safer place for our children.”

Frank is my cousin and friend. The news traveled through our family like a brush fire. Most of us were shocked and so were people in law enforcement and education. The idea seemed foolish.

Fast forward a few years, and in a textbook I ordered for my creative writing class, I found an editorial piece by Warren J. Bowe called, “Guns for Teachers.” It was in response to Frank’s proposal. Here is what Bowe wrote:

Finally the Republicans have found a meaningful way to support teachers. As both a teacher and a citizen, I spotted the win-win logic of Representative Frank Lasee’s proposal immediately. Not only would schools be safer, but the billions added to Wisconsin’s economy by a new school gun industry would be a great windfall for the state.

With more than 60,000 teachers in Wisconsin’s public schools alone, such a law would help both mom-and-pop gun shops and the big retailers. Specialty products could include guns manufactured in school colors or engraved with school logos. Gun accessories will bring in additional revenue. I would need an everyday holster as well as one for such special occasions as parent-teacher conferences, concerts, athletic events, etc.

While this proposed legislation is way better than that supporting the shooting of feral cats, a few kinks would need to be worked out. For example, would the state taxpayers fund the law, or would teachers have to pay for the heat they pack? Would there be a special ammunition budget? Would we be given extra in-service time for range practice? Could we implement merit pay for those of us who are crack shots?

And more important, how threatening would a student need to be before we get to shoot them? In the interim, maybe we could just start hitting them again.

Bowe’s essay may poke fun at Frank’s idea, but there is also merit in what he writes. Like Bowe, I am a teacher and can no more imagine guns in schools than I can armed guards in churches. But unfortunately that is the course we are on, and it won’t solve the problem. Since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, there have been over seventy mass school shootings.

The shooter is often characterized as someone with mental health and behavioral issues. Others have been bullied in school or have come from broken homes. Columbine shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were described as geeks and nerds. The Sandy Hook shooter, twenty-year-old Adam Lanza had emotional problems and violent tendencies. The police had been called to Nikolas Cruz’s house twenty-three times. Cruz is the most, recent school shooter who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. He had been terrorizing neighbors and classmates for years.

Having guns in schools is an example of fighting fire with fire, and though this might work in a controlled burn, this one-size-fits-all approach to a complicated problem is not only impractical, it is dangerous. Joking aside, Bowe’s questions merit consideration. Would taxpayers pay for guns in schools? Would teachers willing to carry guns receive compensation? After that, the questions turn to more serious matters. Are teachers fired for refusing to work in schools where there are guns on campus? Do parents have a say in whether or not they want guns in their children’s schools? What are the consequences for teachers if, in a gun related situation, they kill an innocent child or school employee? What is protocol if a student assaults an armed teacher and takes possession of a gun?

Still there are other things to consider before arming teachers. If every school in the nation is armed against potential shooters, how does this prevent mass shootings? On October 2, 2017 sixty-four-year-old Stephan Paddock  shot fifty-nine people at a concert in Las Vegas wounding 500 others. Twenty-six-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley opened fire inside a small Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas on November 5, 2017. Are all public spaces to provide armed guards before we feel safe?

With character profiles of mass shooters being as varied as their targets, bringing about social change seems a more reasonable solution than a teacher strapping on a Colt .45. When I was a kid, we were taught in school that littering was wrong. A commercial ran on television where an American Indian paddled a canoe through a polluted river with the slogan, “Keep America Beautiful.” When I was in the fifth grade our teachers taught us the health risks of smoking. Kids got the message and begged their parents to give up cigarettes. Had we started a gun reform program in schools after Columbine, we would have a generation of people in their twenties with very different views regarding gun ownership and gun laws. Some may argue educating kids would take too long, and that something needs to be done now. I agree. Schools can be made safer without guns. It is time that school boards and administration, teachers, parent, kids, law enforcement agencies, mental health professionals, and lawmakers come together to create safe schools. It is also time that we educate our children about the dangers and proper use of firearms.

It is twelve years since Frank Lasee caused quite a stir with his support for guns in schools and now we have a President who is in favor of this short-sighted idea. Earlier this week, big businesses like Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart  agreed to no longer sell high-powered rifles and have raised the age of gun buyers to twenty-one. Money talks and corporations like Enterprise Rent-A-Car, MetLife, and United Airlines have cut ties with the NRA. It is time for change. It is time for well-informed conversations and new gun laws.

 

 

 

 

Room 231

My sister Kelli’s appendix ruptured and there were complications, so I went back home to Wisconsin to be with her. I arrived Saturday night and went straight to the hospital in Green Bay. I’m a teacher by trade, not a nurse. I felt inadequate and clumsy as the nurse did her best to maneuver around me. When the she left the room, Kelli said she needed to use the bathroom. I rushed to her aid and quickly learned I wasn’t following procedure. Her IV equipment had to be unplugged from the wall, the cords had to be arranged correctly, and the IV stand needed to face Kelli in such a way that she had access to a handle to lean on. She was in tremendous pain. I worried that if I didn’t work quickly, I would add to her suffering. In the bathroom, more procedures. She needed help arranging the IV stand, sitting on the toilet, and completing personal tasks. Back in the room, I forgot several of the steps it had taken to get her out of bed. My sister’s husband and my cousin stood by looking on like bystanders at the scene of an accident. I had no idea what I was doing, but nonetheless approached each task with gusto.

Once Kelli was seated on the edge of the bed, it was my job to lift her legs and gently swing them with her body as she reclined onto the bed. Before doing this, I saw that the sheets were crumpled. I knew Kelli would be more comfortable if I smoothed them out and tucked them in. From somewhere I heard Kelli’s pained whisper, “I need to lie down.” I ignored her as I tugged on the damn sheets. Again she pleaded with me, but I was hell-bent on making her comfortable. Finally the sheets were in order, and I gently lifted her legs. When it was over, my cousin asked if I still planned to take an EMT class I had been talking about. I said that no, I had decided against it. “Good,” she said. “That’s a good decision.” I looked over at my brother-in-law who nodded in agreement.

I am the woman who gets things done, takes control, makes snap decisions, plans events, and manages a home and a career. I went out into the hall and noticed the plaque on the wall— Room 231. I am the oldest of four girls. The Colburn girls. It is my birthright to take care of my sisters, and I have done my best—doling out advice, smoothing over arguments, keeping in touch, but there wasn’t a thing I could do for Kelli. I had shown up unannounced and she had cried; thrilled to see me. That would be enough. I was there to be with her, not to do for her.

Over the next several days, I sat with my sister where the sub-zero temperatures, daily tasks, jobs, social media, and other mundane distractions were checked at the door. Sometimes she slept and sometimes she wanted to walk around the nurse’s station. We watched awful television and when she was up for it, we talked about how she was feeling. The human body is a remarkable organism. Fevers and a high white blood cell count told us she had an infection that needed to be addressed. Debilitating cramps came on without warning like sirens alerting nurses she was in pain. Bed sores were a reminder we are creatures meant for locomotion.

Kelli is at home now and doing better. I am doing better, too. Room 231 reminded me I cannot control everything. I am limited in my skills and influence, and that it is enough to just love the people in my life.

 

 

A Christmas Pass

220px-How_the_Grinch_Stole_Christmas_coverA cartoon in the November 27th issue of The New Yorker shows a woman entering her living room where her husband is sitting on the couch with his laptop open. The caption reads: I thought I would wander around, vaguely forgetting what I was just doing until the Presidency is over.

Oftentimes I feel alone in my feelings. The cartoon, along with recent stories from friends, gives me comfort in knowing I’m part of something bigger. It’s the holidays. I should be suffering from sleepless nights and bloating brought on by cookie dough and binge eating. But no, I’m well-rested and have lost two pounds since Thanksgiving.

The malaise I’m experiencing is insidious and instead of humming Silent Night while waiting in line at the grocery store, I find myself tapping my foot to Mr. Grinch replacing the lyrics with something more appropriate:

You’re a mean one, Mr. Trump.

You really are a heel,

You’re as cuddly as a cactus, you’re as charming as an eel, Mr. Trump,

You’re a bad banana with a greasy black peel!

I’ve gotten as far as hanging lights from the wood beams in the cabin. At night it looks like a Christmas wonderland. By day, it’s business as usual. But here’s the thing. I don’t care. I haven’t done much shopping, party planning, or baking.  Christmas cards? Forget it. I don’t even have a turkey in the freezer. The Christmas-loving perfectionist in me is taking a pass this year.

New Yorker Cartoon

But there is more to this. Out of  the political ashes rises the Phoenix, or in this case, the meaning of Christmas. Without the hustle and bustle, I have plenty of time for friends and family. This past week I took a trip to Washington with a dear friend and her family where I learned something about fine wine and Leavenworth, a little Bavarian-esque town tucked away in the Cascade Mountains devoted to keeping the Christmas spirit alive. I spent an afternoon decorating Christmas cookies with our three-year-old granddaughter who took such delight in her creations, she took a bite out of nearly every cookie she decorated. My husband and I bought ourselves a hot tub for Christmas. It’s our new go-to place at the end of the day. A place where we can relax and chat about whatever comes to mind. My mom and I are hosting a Christmas Eve dinner for folks who don’t have family nearby, and it reminds me how lucky I am to still have my mom. So many of my friends have lost their parents.

Leavenworth 2Instead of running around checking things off an impossible holiday to-do list, I have had time to reflect on this past year. We had a bumper crop of apples but few pomegranates. These mysteries keep me connected to God and faith. I received a card from someone who means everything to me. Her gesture gives me hope for the future. I have made some new friends and said goodbye to some old. Sometimes it’s okay to let go. Another year has gone by, and I haven’t sold my manuscript. Patience and tenacity are virtues I struggle with. We lost our little dog, Kipper, and the three baby owls I had come to love. Grief is powerful. It’s easy to get stuck. A friend shared her love of bird watching with me. Through their songs I have learned there is delight in little things.

Here it is, the morning of December 22nd.  The dogs and cats are fed and resting. Little birds are vying for their perches out on the bird feeders, and I’m still in my pajamas. Life goes on. This Christmas I am looking forward to a good meal with family and friends followed by midnight Mass. Leavenworth