Blood Red Days

            Children aren’t supposed to get sick.  Romanticized images picture little darlings running, jumping, climbing, laughing, living life as freely as a butterfly flitting from flower to flower.  Even in prayer, when most solemn, those cherubic faces glow with rosebud color.  So it should be, forever and ever.

            Unfortunately strange diseases invade, causing any possible varieties of illness.  Most we understand.  Tonsillitis, ear infections, colds, cuts, bruises, and even the occasional broken bone fall into that realm.  Kids are susceptible to germs, primarily because they play with “germy” things, and so we expect them to fall ill. But we pray that those times are few and far between.

            When your four-year-old child’s urine turns the color of burgundy wine, however, the only normal reaction is fear.  So it was for my husband and I when it happened for the first time to our six year old daughter. 

            When it occurred, we tried not to panic so as to not alarm our daughter. What we did do was make phone calls followed by tons of doctors’ visits.   We began with our regular pediatrician who thought the bleeding was caused by a bladder infection. The prescribed dose of antibiotics seemed to work.

But then it happened again. More antibiotics were given. And then the same thing, over and over.

 We were referred to a urologist who was used to treating senior citizens who would willingly allow tubes and prodding. He had no experience with a five-year-old.

Our daughter fought him with the strength of an army, clenching shut her legs and refusing to budge. I didn’t blame her. I thought the doctor a little too interested in seeing what was between my child’s legs.

At my insistence, our pediatrician referred us to a pediatric urologist/oncologist.  Imagine the fears those words triggered. Oncology. Cancer. Curable or not? We didn’t know or understand what was happening or what the doctor would do. How he was going to make the determination as to the diagnosis? The person setting up the appointment offered no reassurance, but because the bleeding continued, we went to his office.

By the time we finally got to see him, months had passed. The color of her urine had deepened to a deep, dark red. It was frightening, not only to us, but to our daughter. Even a small child understands that urine is not supposed to be that color.

            For my daughter’s sake, we put on happy faces, attempting to disguise our deep-seated fears.  When she was out of visual range, we allowed ourselves to cry.  Of course, we prayed.

            There were days when her urine was a healthy golden color and so we tried to convince ourselves that she was cured. That the newest round of antibiotics had worked. We wept with joy and gave thanks to the Lord.  But the space between those times slowly shrunk until it was pretty much guaranteed that we would see red, and only red.

            Even the strongest antibiotics had proved to be ineffective, and so the pediatric urologist ordered x-rays to search for the still unknown cause.

            We went to Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, California, one of the finest hospitals in the Bay Area.  For the exam, our daughter was placed on a cold, metal table.  She was given huge quantities of liquid to drink.  The x-ray machine was lowered until it hovered above her lower abdomen.  She was told to urinate, right there on the table, in front of five total strangers.  She couldn’t do it and I didn’t blame her.

            They inserted a tube to allow the urine to flow.  Pictures were taken.  We went home and waited, impatiently, to hear the results.  When they came, we were terrified and confused. Because of the way her bladder was constructed, it was unable to fully close.  Surgery was recommended to insert a tube to narrow the urethra.

            Shortly after the recommendation we drove to Children’s Hospital in Oakland, arriving just as the sun was beginning to peak over the hills.  It was a peaceful scene which helped to somewhat ease our nervousness. It was short-lived, however, for immediately after completing the required paperwork, our daughter was whisked away by an efficient, yet friendly nurse. 

            My husband paced the floor of the waiting room, talking to himself.  I prayed, placing my daughter’s life in God’s capable hands. 

            This operation was a success. Her bladder would now allow her to control the flow of urine. However, during the surgery, the doctor discovered that her ureters did not enter the bladder at the correct angle.  Not only that, but the flaps that prevented urine from moving into the kidneys were missing.  Another operation was planned.

            Despite the negative news, my husband and I eagerly took our little girl home, hoping that at least there might be some reprieve from the tinged urine.  It was not to be.

            Within hours after getting her settled, her urine had turned from a healthy golden hue to a blood red, bone-chilling liquid.  Several phone calls later, another trip to the doctor’s was scheduled.  She was again put on a regimen of antibiotics, hoping to stem off any invasion of germs that might interfere with the next operation.

            Good Friday found us, once again, in the waiting room of Children’s Hospital.   My husband paced while I pretended to read.  Both of us turned our hearts over to the Lord, begging Him to watch over our daughter. 

            In the midst of one of many recitations of the Our Father, I felt a gentle touch on my right cheek.  A calm washed over me, settling in my heart.  I nodded, and whispered, “Thanks.”  My eyes filled with tears of joy, and a smile burst through.  I knew, then and there, that everything would be fine.

            When the doctor came to us still dressed in his surgical greens, he was smiling. While he was looking inside our daughter’s bladder, he discovered a blood vessel that was weeping, something it was not supposed to do. He cauterized it, forever stopping the flow of blood into her bladder.

            Because of the severity of the operation, however, she had to spend a week in the hospital.  It was scary for us. Imagine how frightening it was for her, spending nights without her parents nearby. Our sons stayed with a relative so that my husband could go to work and I could go to the hospital.

Every day she got stronger and her urine became clearer.  I gave thanks to the Lord for giving my daughter another day of life.

            Those were trying times, for sure.  I had no choice but to rely on my faith, as even the most highly trained, respected pediatric urologist had had no idea what was wrong.

Even years later, I still believe that the Lord stood by, watching, whispering advice in the doctor’s ear.  How else did he find the exposed vessel, the incorrectly seated ureters, the missing flaps, and the enlarged end of the bladder?

            While the likelihood of her bleeding to death had been slim, she could easily have died of kidney failure.  If we had known about this earlier, we could have acted sooner.  For some reason, the Lord kept her alive long enough for medical science to rise to the occasion.

Faith kept me sane.  Faith allowed me to put aside my fears.  Faith was my constant companion. That operation solved the problem which allowed our daughter to grow up into a college graduate, wife and mother.

A Change in Pace

Life takes on unexpected turns when you move from one state to another. Imagine growing up in the rural Midwest, then one summer finding yourself in fast-paced California! Not only is the weather drastically different, but the style in which people speak and think is faster than you are used to. You are lost and a bit confused by all the changes.

I made the move from slow-paced life in Beavercreek, Ohio to fast-paced life in the San Francisco Bay Area at the end of my freshman year in high school. It was not an easy adjustment.

            Beavercreek was a primarily rural community. While our home was in a planned ranch-style neighborhood, we were surrounded by family-run farms. Country roads meandered from one farm to another, often not revealing the new farm until going around a turn or climbing up what passed for hills.

Two-lane highways connected country roads to the bigger cities. The closest to us was Dayton, a confusing metropolis of tall buildings and tons of cars. Many of the streets were much wider than in our tiny community, so wide that cars could park on each side and still leave four lanes for travelers.

The one thing that we didn’t have there was freeways except for when you got far enough away from town.

            Because of the rural lifestyle, things moved slowly. There was an understood etiquette to conversations.  All conversations had to be nurtured, just like a farmer watching her tomatoes grow.

You began with a discussion about the weather, then moved on to price of goods. After that you could bring up current events and the health of both families. Along with the pace of conversation, there were rules about food and drink.

When someone entered a home, drinks were offered and chairs provided. Food was often given, but not always. If a tray of cookies came out, for example, you could take just one. No more even when the tray was put in front of you a second time.

Once company was comfortable, legs were crossed and everyone relaxed. Nods and smiles occurred at appropriate times.

Those were the rules. Only after all that could you get to the actual point, the real reason for the visit.

            I grew up believing that this was the way everywhere. That it was rude to simply state the primary concern without the initial song and dance. Relationships had to be nurtured to be valued, and friendships were maintained by following the prescribed course of affairs.

Talking slow was imperative. This was how I grew up and so this was how I spoke. I politely listened to what was said, internally pondered my response, and only after taking time to construct well-chosen phrases did I respond. No need to rush.

            I was comfortable in that life. There was never a reason to hurry. Things would get done in their own time and place. So what if the lawn didn’t get watered today. There was always tomorrow. You didn’t see the neighbor in the morning? Go visit in the afternoon.

When you did visit, plan on staying for an hour or two. Play games. Build forts. Climb on the swing sets. Play a game of kickball or softball or toss a football around. Hang outside in the shade in the summer or gather together under a blanket in the winter.

            Race from one place to another? Unheard of, even as kids. Sure we rode bikes up and down the country roads, but always with caution, looking out for tractors, trucks and random pieces of rock. Besides, we really had nowhere to go except to the corner market and it was a long way away, so why hurry? The candy would still be there.

Life moved at a scheduled pace that almost nothing could disrupt.

            In the summer of 1964, my parents sold our house and most of our belongings, packed up the station wagon with what little we were allowed to keep and hit the road. Even though money was short, we took a leisurely drive, stopping to admire roadside memorials, hanging bridges, canyons and mountains. We hurried through the desert until some flaw in the engine slowed us down.

            Imagine the shock upon arrival in California. Smog enveloped the freeway and filled the care with a nasty smell. Traffic was miserable. Most of the time going north we looked at brake lights that came on then went off, on then off as we crept along.

When we finally got to our uncle’s home in Orange County then an earthquake rocked the world. Literally. Trees swayed. Roads buckled. We knew about tornadoes, but had never felt anything quite so terrifying. Almost as one, my family fell to our knees and cried while my cousins laughed.

In a way it was appropriate to begin life in California with an earthquake as it symbolized a dramatic beginning to a huge change in life.

            We left southern California and rented a home near Sacramento. It was miserably hot, the house was not air-conditioned and we knew no one.

There was a strip mall a short walk away along an extremely busy road. If we had the money, my mom would walk there with us and buy us each a cone. It was so hot, however, that the ice cream would melt before we could finish it off.

California was a bustling place in which it seemed as if everyone was in a hurry. There were places to go and things to do and no time to think about it. Make up your mind and act. It didn’t matter what decision you made, just make one. No leisurely discussions. No warming up to the topic. No weighing your options. Choose now without sitting back and reflecting on it.

            I was not prepared for this life and so adjusted poorly. I made no friends up in Sacramento, so it made no difference to me when we moved to the flats of South San Francisco. This rental was a miniature house. The bedroom I shared with my sister was so narrow that we had to have bunk beds and share one small dresser. Turned sideways, if you extended your arms, one touched the bed, the other the dresser.

I enrolled in high school expecting to take the same types of classes that I had taken in Beavercreek.  Back there it was easy to choose classes: there were two tracks, occupational and academic. There was limited list of options. I’d write down what I wanted without bothering to peruse course descriptions. I simply complete the bloody form and was done with it.

In California I had many options to choose from. Several kinds of English and math. A variety of science and history classes. Lots of languages to choose from, but not the Latin which I had taken in Ohio.

            In Ohio we had no lockers except in the gym. In California we had to walk up and down the rows until we found an unclaimed locker. With the counselor tagging along. There was no time to walk up and down and weigh the benefits of this one over that one. Pick one and move on to the next task.

In Ohio the teachers handed out the textbooks. In California we had to stand in line at the bookroom with our class schedules in hand. The needed books were handed to you in one huge pile. You weren’t allowed to flip through the pages to make sure you got books that weren’t ragged or marked up.

Next we had to buy gym clothes. Back “home” as we said for many years, gym clothes were purchased at a store. Not here. We stood at another window and gave the sizes needed. Handed over the money. No thinking about room for growth or checking to make sure there were no holes or loose threads. Just do it and get out of the way.

            I thought enrolling in school was hurried, but nothing compared to how conversations moved. People talked so fast that I seldom understood what they were saying. They didn’t wait for a response, either. If you said, nothing, they’d move on.

More than once I was left standing with my mouth hanging open and words still wanting to come out…with no one there to hear.

It didn’t take me long to internalize that conversational niceties were unnecessary in California. You said what was most important and then moved on. It was difficult for me to do because my social mind doesn’t work that way, so I made very few friends. Not just that first year, but over my many years of living here.

            The fast pace affected all areas of life. When looking for a rental home, we found that if we dallied in order to find the absolutely best home, the first one would be gone when we went back. Once my parents figured this out, they chose the next decent home at first sight.

While it made do, it was an old, smelly cramped house on a narrow dead-end street. One benefit was that it was within walking distance to school. Another was that it had a big backyard, big enough for us to toss a ball around. Thankfully we only lived there about a year.

            I missed the meandering country roads. In California people drove fast all the time, even in neighborhoods where children were playing in the street. They’d slow at stop signs, but just barely. When making a turn, they’d creep to the intersection, appear to take a quick look, then be off.

Lane changes required tremendous skill, timing and guts. Thankfully most streets were laid out in straight paths and led logically from one place to another. If they hadn’t been, I’m not sure my parents would ever have let me learn how to drive.

            There were positives about our new home.

In Ohio we had to drive miles to get to a movie theater. In California we had several theaters close to home. In Ohio we worried about snow and ice, tornadoes in the summer and torrential downpours in the spring and fall. Here we had sunny days practically all year long.

In Ohio the nearest store was four miles away, and it was just a little country market. To get to a supermarket, we had to drive into Dayton, which meant making it a day trip. Here we could go north or south, east or west and within a few blocks find a shopping area.

In Ohio, our little Beavercreek did not have a downtown. South San Francisco did. In Beavercreek there were few sidewalks and lots of dirt lots for parking. In California you parked along the side of the street or in huge lots. In Ohio you drove from store to store, but here you walked.

            I missed Ohio. The open fields, the rambling roads, my few friends. But life in California had so much to offer that I quickly let go of all that tied me to my country roots. I fell in love with California’s natural beauty, quick access to beaches, and the nearly endless stretch of hills and cities. In less than a year I was so in love with the Golden State that I realized that I would never go back to that slow pace of life.

I had become a California girl.

On Death

            There is no quicker way to end a pleasant conversation than by bringing up the topic of death. Beyond the saying of requisite condolences, we don’t really know how else to respond. Death touches us all eventually, but interestingly enough, we have never mastered the art of talking about it, despite the fact that we all will eventually die.      

There are many terms to describe the process of dying; passed away, late, no longer with us, moved on. For some reason we find all of these terms more palatable than the simple word, dead. We try to sweeten it up, either for the benefit of the sorrowing ones, or to mask our own discomfort.

            Some of us are lucky enough to go peacefully and quickly. We are alive one moment and gone the next. No lingering, no suffering, just blessed peace. Is it part of our genetic makeup? Are some of us destined to die with our dignity still intact? Science might not have the answers, but maybe it will someday.

            It is interesting how far we will go to avoid the topic, yet our media is inundated with gory images of death. Every day the news is filled with stories about children caught in the crossfire, families killed in horrendous car accidents, fatal home invasions and violence deliberately enacted on the targets of unsuppressed rage. We watch and listen, but seldom discuss.

            Movies and television programs thrive on the study of death, almost to the glorification of the act of killing. Almost every night, on every channel, there are police scenarios, crime scene investigations, mentalists who look into eyes and can determine guilt, and gang-style organizations that wreak havoc in our cities. Video games allow players to reenact, over and over, the countless deaths of perceived enemies, not just in the act of war, but of those who simply have the audacity to cross our paths.

            Has all this made us immune to the reality of death? The permanence of death? There is that possibility. How often do we cry over the news? Probably not all the often. We might shake our heads and bemoan the loss of life, but do we truly mourn, deep inside, for those unknowns who have left us. Until death becomes personal.

            An elderly woman, full of life, yet living in a residential care facility, dresses every morning as if she is going out for the evening. Neatly pressed dress, hat, white gloves. She goes to the art room to participate in a class. Sits down. Keels over. Just like that. Quiet, peaceful, with dignity intact.

            A man in a skilled nursing facility who can still walk and talk, gets up one morning and slips. As he falls, his head strikes the metal bed. He dies immediately, with his family wondering what happened even as they are spared watching his mind vanish and his body crumble.

            There are those who linger, caught in a never-never-land of oblivion. Their hearts continue to beat, lungs to breathe, organs to process, yet there is no one home. They are force-fed in order to keep them alive. But is it living? Does quality of life count for anything?

            As we age, death becomes more of a reality. We develop conditions. We are hospitalized. We have surgery. We learn again to walk, talk, eat, be human. But we know and understand that we are dying incrementally every day. No matter how much we exercise, eat the right foods, abstain from the vices of drugs and alcohol, our bodies fail us by degrees. We hope that our end is not near, that by taking care of ourselves that we are postponing what is to come.

            But what happens when we are touched by death? Do we cry? Wail? Pound our heads against the wall? Climb into bed and bury ourselves in our covers? Or do we realize that others need us to be strong, to support them as they accompany us through the grieving process?

            We walk through this life with others standing by our sides. Holding our hands. As good citizens we must be there to listen, to hold, to comfort, even when we are hurting inside. After all, isn’t that what we hope for when our time comes?

Thoughts About Life Before Death

            This morning an author was sharing her work on the radio. She’d thought a lot about death and dying, but especially about the steps between independence and reliance on others.

            She said that the idea of moving on to an afterlife didn’t scare her: it was what came before.

            Her words hit home.

            I am a person of faith. I believe in a heaven in which God is waiting for me. He will welcome me with open arms, bring me into His fold where I will live with all kinds of angels. It will be a place of intense colors, smells, and sites. It will be warm day and night and while walking the paths I will encounter family, friends and others that have been waiting for my arrival.

            Heavenly, right?

            The author being interviewed had treated her body well over the years. She’d watched what she ate, consumed very little alcohol, and early on incorporated exercise into her daily routine. She’d run marathons and belonged to a gym for many years.

            She hoped, believed, that treating her body well gave her the opportunity to live long without being a burden to loved ones.

            Her comments made me think about my past. I did not exercise regularly until well into my forties. I learned the game of soccer by watching my own kids play. My daughter’s coach was so horrible that the parents “fired” her, then made me coach. I knew nothing about the game, but I loved research. I read book after book on rules, conditioning and game play.

            I did not sit on the sidelines and shout: I ran, dribbled, passed and thought up new and different “games” to keep my players interested.

            I signed up for coaching classes and learned to be a referee. Once I was licensed, I “reffed” an average of four games a weekend while still coaching a girls’ team and rushing to see my sons play as often as possible.

            To understand more, I joined two adult teams: one co-ed, the other women only. I practiced with both and played one game a weekend on each team.

            As time passed, I felt my overall conditioning improve. I had never been a runner and still wasn’t, but I never stopped moving whether on or off the field.

            My kids swam in a competitive summer league. I took them to morning practices and stayed for their lessons. Watching them taught me how to swim. From barely being able to swim freestyle, I learned backstroke and breaststroke. From not being to complete a lap without stopping, I became a lap swimmer.

            At one point we sold our membership to the pool. For years I had no place to swim while at the same time injuries had kept me off the soccer field. The lack of exercise, combined with a series of surgeries, prevented me from taking up new forms of exercise, and so the weight piled on.

            Well into my fifties I heard of a community indoor pool near my place of work. I could get up early, drive the thirty minutes to get there, get a little exercise, shower and arrive at work on time. At first I only walked, back and forth, back and forth, while in the other lanes swimmers swam in “circles”. I so wanted to join them, but it had been years since I’d done anything like lap swimming.

            Bored with walking, one morning I slipped under the lane lines and joined the moving crowd. I was not the fastest, but not the slowest either. My asthma kicked up, meaning that I’d have to pause after every two laps to rest. I’d go on, each week pushing myself to do more and more.

            Then something happened and the pool had to close for repairs. I had no place to go.

            During this same time I had joined a neighborhood gym. I dropped in almost every afternoon and most weekends. I fell in love with the elliptical and stationary bike. Many of the machines didn’t work for me, but I used those that did. Wanting more, I hired a physical trainer. Big mistake. I don’t believe he’d ever worked with an old lady with double knee replacements. No matter how many times I told him I couldn’t jump or run upstairs, he didn’t believe me. He browbeat me into doing things I didn’t think I could do. He brought me to tears. But I kept paying him for three months before I finally walked away.

            About three years ago a new gym was built not far from my home. It had an indoor three-lane pool and tons of machines. After touring a nearby affiliate of the same company, I signed up. Why? The clientele looked like me: old, out-of-shape women and men. None of the burly, sweaty jocks of my old gym. This looked like a place where I’d fit in.

            When the gym opened I began working with a new trainer. He was gentle and kind. He understood senior citizens and listened to me when I said I couldn’t do something. He gave me exercises and routines that I could do on my own.

            My confidence grew. I lost a little weight, just enough to get brave enough to swim. It felt great to be back in the water, but I was moving much more weight than before. I was slow, slow, slow. But persistent. Each few days I added two more laps. In time I was able to swim a full mile!

            I still go to the gym, still swim, still use the machines.

            About two years ago I ran into a friend from my soccer days. We began hiking two days a week. It was hard at first. Some hills nearly killed me. I’d have to give up and turn around, embarrassed that I couldn’t keep up with my friend.

            Now we are equal partners, routinely hiking 8-10 miles tow to three days a week.

            What all this is about is that right now, I am in the best shape of my life. Like the author mentioned earlier, I take care of my body. I eat healthy, exercise regularly and keep my mind sharp.

            I hope, I believe, that all this will pay off as I add on more years. In three months I will turn seventy-two, but I don’t feel that old.

            At that age my mom looked and acted old. She was the epitome of the wizened old lady. Her face was pitted with wrinkles and her back and legs were weak. She couldn’t walk through her flat neighborhood or meander through a store without frequent stops. Her mind was failing, a precursor to the dementia that eventually took her life.

            I’ve read, just as the author has, that mental and physical exercise keeps us vibrant longer. I hope that she’s right. I want to be alert and independent as long as possible. I don’t want to be a burden to my family. I want to die with grace and dignity intact.

            There are things I don’t know the answer to. For example, will my years of inactivity impact how long I can function independently? I’ve heard that smokers lose years of life, but can gain some time back by quitting.

            Does this work for exercise? Because I’ve been working out seven days a week for years now make up for thirty years of no exercise?

            I certainly hope so.

            While I am not afraid of death, I am doing everything I can to stave off the effects of mental and physical decline. I pray, attend church, read, write, meet with various groups of friends, follow a weight-loss path, watch television, go out for meals and attend movies and plays. I talk to my adult children and my grandchildren. I do things. All kinds of things. And love my life, live my life, to the fullest.

            Perhaps this will make the difference. I certainly hope so.

Spring Awakening

            I am often slow to come to an awareness of things about me. While my eyes are open as I go about my day, I keep personal feelings tucked safely away. Therefore, I miss the obvious.

            For example, I might be so focused on the menu that I fail to register that friends have ordered and what they have ordered. I might not like the appetizers that they’ve chosen, so my mind races ahead trying to figure out if I am going to be expected to share the cost even though I won’t take one bite.

            Did she just order a salad and that friend a complete entrée? Or was I mistaken? I don’t want to choose the chicken parmesan meal if everyone has soup. Or soup if they order the chicken.

            Today was a perfect example of how long it takes me to process where I am and what to do.

            I had a reservation at the gym to swim. It’s a three-lane pool, and since it reopened, we’ve only been using lanes one and three. My slot was lane one, my favorite.

            When I arrived, lane three was occupied with swim lessons! I almost turned around and left. Eighty pounds ago I would have been embarrassed to swim with parents hugging the walls. I knew, sensed, that they’d all be staring at this fat old lady slapping her way across the pool. My huge, baggy arms made a whomp, whomp sound when they hit the water, something so intriguing that no matter how hard those parents might try, they wouldn’t have been able to ignore. On top of that, the sight of my huge body waddling onto the deck might have repulsed them!

            As I stood at the check-in desk contemplating what to do, it dawned on me that I am no longer that fat old lady. The eighty pounds have been gone for two years and the cosmetic surgeries that I had last year removed the excess skin from my arms and waist. I had no reason to be embarrassed, no excuse for not swimming.

            I changed, and before walking out on the deck, stopped and looked in the full-length mirror. The image startled me. Am I really that thin? Is my stomach really that flat? Are my arms really that small?

            I nodded. Yes, yes and yes. I am all those things and more.

            With my head up I strode onto the deck. I put on my cap and rinsed off. I sat on the top step and slid my feet into my fins, then pulled the goggles over my head.

            I took off, counting one, two, three, four, my arms coming up and then plunging back in, no sound except the bubbles escaping my nose. Back and forth I swam, with newfound confidence.

            I was a swimmer. A real, actual swimmer. A woman who looks good in her new body. And it made me proud.

            Now if I can hold on to that awareness, my life will be so much better.

Misconceptions

            It’s all too easy to formulate theories based on first impressions. I know that I was judged many times over my life, and in most cases, the opinion-formers were probably right.

            My parents dressed me in old-fashioned, homemade clothes. The fabrics and styles weren’t right for the times. They made me where black and white saddle shoes when others had moved on to loafers. With a penny in the slot, no less.

            So here I am, wearing skirts down to my shins, long sleeved blouses with vests on top, and those godawful shoes. Picture me walking the halls of my high school. Add to that, my hair was never in style and I wore wing-tipped blue tinted glasses.

            First impressions? That I was a nerd or poor or both. And they would have been right on all counts. No misconceptions there.

            When I was a teacher, I became aware of what happened when a new student entered the room. One: all heads turned. Two: some students averted their eyes while others gaped. Three: students sitting near an empty desk either looked welcoming or recoiled. Four: once the student was seated, almost everyone stared, trying to determine whether or not those first impressions were correct.

            New students arrived all throughout the school year. I decided to turn first impressions into what I hoped was a valuable lesson. I talked about what goes through a person’s mind when someone new appears. I asked my students to generated ideas. They were extremely adept at doing so, as long as I was the one recording words on the board.

            Once we had covered the board with ideas, I had them write. Something. It could be an original story or something they had witnessed.

            Students are incredibly perceptive. They can also be open to suggestions. Because of our idea-generating discussion, what they wrote touched on how first impressions can not only be wrong, but can also be damaging. Many of my students, who all had learning differences that made reading and writing challenging, had been subjected to negative impressions that colored their school experience.

            In my own life, I have tried not to allow myself to fall into the misconception trap, but it’s hard. A tall, gangly man stumbling down the street? Not a danger to me, right? But why is he stumbling? Could he be drunk or ill? Disabled in need of a cane? I could give him an entire story based on first impressions.

            How many of us, seeing a young man of an ethnicity not our own, formulates impressions that cause us to cross the street or grab our purse tight to our bodies? We tell ourselves that we are not racist, that that’s not the reason we were fearful, but if not fear-based racism, what is it then?

            Recently I was hiking in a local park with a friend. We are used to bicyclists and other hikers. We know that people with dogs also hike the same trails. But when we heard motors approaching, we were taken aback. What could be causing the noise? What could they be doing?

            When we made out riders coming up the hill, we both said, that can’t be legal. We froze in place, wondering what to do. We have never seen a ranger hiking the trails, neither of us had a phone, and the reception is poor anyway.

            We had both decided that whoever these riders were, they were doing so illegally. Our first impressions matched. We just didn’t know what to do from that point forward.

            Then the riders popped out from around a turn and it became obvious that our impressions were completely wrong. Every rider was from some form of police unit. There were officers in police uniform, in sheriff’s uniform and in park greens. They saluted us in greeting as they passed.

            Imagine if we had allowed our misconceptions to report unauthorized riders? We would have been humiliated when some form of law officer arrived, only to change our story that only law officers had been riding through the park! We concurred that it was most likely some type of training exercise, then went on our way.

            Misconceptions happen all too often. Many times, they cause tragic events, such as shootings or chases down busy streets. Sometimes store owners perceive individuals as potential threat and call for backup, only to find that all the people wanted was cold drinks and snacks. Imagine if the police had stormed in with guns drawn! Someone might be dead, all because of misconceptions.

             There is a lesson to be learned here. We do need to check people out for potential threats to ourselves and others, but we also need to allow ourselves to change those impressions as soon as we realize that there is no threat.

            This also applies when someone new enters our space. Instead of ruling out the person as a possible friend, lets give the person a chance. She might be lonely and frightened. He might be a gentle giant. She could love books and movies and he might enjoy the same video games.

            First impressions often lead to misconceptions that deprive us of new friends and new experiences.

            Don’t let that happen.

Fascination with Trees

I can’t recall a time when I was not drawn to trees. They amaze me. Day after day they change. Imagine something that grows taller and wider at such an incrementally slow pace that it is invisible to the eye.

They change with the seasons. Some burst into new life when the sun begins to shine in spring. Tiny green buds sprout forth, signaling the wonders that are to come. Those buds become leaves. All kinds of leaves, in all shapes and sizes and colors.

When I was young I collected leaves, especially the ones that from maple trees. Such broad leaves! So green in spring and summer, but when fall arrived, they morphed into shades from red to orange to brown. I loved them all.

I miss maple trees. They grew in the woods behind our house in Ohio, but not here in California. It was disappointed to discover that I would most likely never see them again.

It wasn’t just their leaves that I loved, but their seed pods. They were shaped like wings and if you tossed them as high above your head as you could manage, they would twirl down to the ground. I did this over and over, season after season, never growing tired of the display even well into my teen years when I should have moved on to other things.

In Ohio all trees shed their leaves in the fall and remain bare throughout the cold winters. Even when quite young I understood that winter was a time of rest, a time to store up energy to be ready to burst into action at the first sign of spring.

It was the same for me. In the winter I huddled inside where it was warm, venturing outside only when bundled from head to toe. Some days my breath froze on my eyebrows and hair, my teeth chattered and I thought my fingers and toes would crack and fall off.

We moved to California after my ninth grade year. The seasons here are not as differentiated as in Ohio. What we call winter is nothing to people who live in the Midwest, North or East, for there it snows and temps can drop well below freezing. Here I think it’s cold if it is below sixty.

Because our seasons are not as sharply delineated, not all trees go through the autumnal changes. Looking out my window right now, I some trees are just beginning to grow buds, some have sprouted their leaves, while many stay green throughout the year. Flowers have been blooming like crazy for weeks now and low-growing bushes are covered with leaves.

In time, all but the fir trees will lose their leaves. It is a good thing, as even in California trees need to rest, to be still so as to prepare for the wonderful gifts that are to come.

Trees that produce fruit amaze me. They are so generous, so thoughtful, even when their human caretakers are less then vigilant. Day after day apples and pears and oranges and other wonderful things ripen, all for us.

Some fruits require a little work to get inside. Some don’t. I tend to love fruit that you can bite into and have your mouth filled with sweetness, the juice spilling onto your chin. Every time I eat an apple or pear I am thankful that I am blessed with having such a marvelous thing to eat.

When I go walking around my neighborhood and see fruit growing on trees, I want to reach up, pull off just one and take a bite. But I don’t. I don’t know how needy the owners are. Perhaps that apple is their only sustenance of the day. Perhaps the orange is their only access to vitamin C. I would not want to steal that treasure from them. So I walk on.

In our neighborhood there are not as many trees as when we first moved in forty years ago. Some have died. Some have been taken down by their owners. Some removed by the city because their roots were growing into the pipes. I miss all the once grand, sprawling trees that hung out over the road creating a marvelous canopy! So beautiful. Now gone.

We get to drive through forests on our way north and east and south when we get into the mountains. I love to look at the trees, how magically they grow out of rock and cling to the sides of granite cliffs as if they were meant to be there. When the sun shines on them they are a wonderfully deep green.  They sing with life! And when you get close enough you can take in their rich aroma, like sticking your head in a cedar chest from long ago.

When they are covered with snow it is a picture straight from Christmas cards. I imagine myself riding on a horse-drawn sleigh under their boughs and having dollops of snow fall on my head as I lean back laughing. I have never done this, but nevertheless I can place myself in the scene.

When I was young I did not wear glasses. Trees frightened me because I thought each and every one would fall on my head, killing me. In fourth grade my teachers demanded that I get glasses. I remember the bus ride home, looking out the window and seeing that the leaning trees no longer leaned! It was a miracle.

These are the reasons that I love trees. Not only do they defy the passing of time, but they stand tall as a reminder of all that they offer us. Beautiful colors and tasty food. I hope that I will never lose my ability to appreciate the wonderful gift that each tree is.

A Dose of my Own Medicine

I don’t consider myself the mask police, but I am aware of who isn’t wearing one when I’m out hiking.  When such an individual approaches, I make sure mine is on properly, but I don’t correct their behavior. Likewise, I say nothing when I’m at a store or the gym and catch someone wearing theirs incorrectly. It seems that the most common error is not covering the nose.

Perhaps they don’t realize that we send droplets into the air with every exhalation. But, rule are rules, right?

I have reported a few individuals at the gym and have requested that staff walk the gym floor on a regular basis to ensure compliance. My health and that of others is at stake.

Now that we are fully vaccinated, we went on our first trip out of Alameda County over the weekend to visit relatives. They live in an area that resists compliance with any laws, so I was not surprised to encounter folks not wearing masks of any kind. It made me both angry and sad. It’s one thing to not care about your own health: it’s entirely another to not care about what you might inflict on others.

Coming home Tuesday we stopped for lunch at a fast food restaurant that had tables outdoors. My fingers got quite messy. When I was finished I tossed our trash and went inside to clean up. A woman, who appeared to be in line, waved her hand in a circle when she saw me. I assumed she meant she wasn’t in that line, but the one for food.

As I washed my hands, I glanced at myself in the mirror and discovered, to my embarrassment and horror, that I had not put my mask on before entering!

I made a promise to myself that I will no longer look askance at those who are not compliant. After all, they might not be aware that their mask had slipped, or like me, had simply made a mistake!

One Lucky Lady

They say that cats have nine lives.  Through some quirk of nature, I must have some “link” to those lives, for I’ve gone through four already.  That’s about as lucky as a person can get, I suppose. 

Sure, I’d love to win the lottery, but that requires buying a ticket.  I could go to Las Vegas, Nevada and throw money at the slot machines, or go to the horse races at Golden Gate Fields and bet on a long shot, but those things seem unnecessarily wasteful.

I don’t play Bingo, Scrabble, or cards, so you’ll never see me entered in a competition.  Pool is not my game either.  The only contests I enter are for authors who love to throw good money away on entrance fees.

 Some things are worth much more than money.  Family, love, satisfaction, shelter, food, friends, and employment rank right in the top ten.  Simply having the good fortune to still be walking on this earth is about the luckiest that anyone could possibly be.

It’s equivalent to finding the golden ticket in the chocolate bar, or watching the long-shot horse cross the finish line well ahead of the others.  Every morning that I arise is my lucky day.  Every evening when I’m able to climb under the covers is another opportunity to count my blessings.

Once you’ve faced Death and emerged victorious, nothing can compare.  Four times I’ve walked away, knowing that Death had called my name and I had had the fortitude to stare him in the face and say, “Heck, no.”

About ten years ago a common cold moved in to my lungs.  It had the nerve to take up residence, and stubbornly refused to leave.  The sniffles turned into a full-blown, fever-induced hallucinogenic excursion into the netherworld.  Weakened by its ravaging forces, I was unable to motivate my combat troops to erect a formidable defense. 

Night after night I coughed my way through the lonely hours.  Food refused to stay down, and fluids ran right through, stopping only long enough to gather random reinforcements along the way.  Awareness took a temporary vacation, leaving me in an imbecilic state.

Eventually the battle reached a critical point.  As I pretended to sleep, each gasp was like playing a “cat and mouse” game. That’s when something bizarre occurred.  I floated.  Yes, I literally floated above my reclining body.

Looking down, I knew that I was dead.  My chest did not rise and fall.  No fluttering of eyelids or twitching of fingers.  A coldness drifted upwards as a pallor overcame what I thought of as simply, “my body.”

My husband slept peacefully next to my corpse, unaware that I was no longer there.  My heart broke, thinking of the devastation that this would cause him, and I cried, “No!” 

I fought to break free from my insubstantial self, screaming silently that my time had not yet come.  I closed my eyes and literally willed myself back into my body, one part at a time.  Fingers.  Toes.  Legs.  Arms.  Chest.  Head.

My eyes opened, and I was back.  Joy flooded my thoughts, and I knew, then, that I was victorious.

Much later someone told me about out-of-body experiences, and that it was possible for someone to defy death.  That was life number one.

Life number two was taken five years ago when a chronic asthma attack landed me in the hospital for eight days.  Every breath was a fight.  My lungs gurgled, and the feeling was much like that of drowning.  The specialists gathered about my bedside throughout the day argued as to what to try next.  Nothing worked. I weakened by the hour.

Six days in, I begged my husband to call our children.  I wanted to hear their voices one last time before I died.  Yes, I said that, for I believed that my end had come. 

One by one the calls came.  I was so weak that all I was capable of doing was whispering, “I love you.”  That night, at peace, I readied myself to die.

When morning came and I was still there, I cried.  Another day of fighting for every breath, of coughing so hard that my ribs were sore, did not appeal to me in the least. 

When the crew of doctors gathered this time, one of them suggested antibiotics.  After the first injection, my fever broke.  Within hours air began to fill my lungs, the coughing subsided, and Optimism walked into my room. 

Two days later I went home, grateful to be alive. 

Within five months I returned to the hospital with another chronic asthma attack.  Because the specialists knew what was happening, they began the antibiotics immediately.  Once again, I cheated Death.

My fourth life disappeared when the car I was riding in slid off a snow-covered Interstate 80, thirty miles west of Salt Lake City.  Normally the road is crowded with huge semis traveling at seventy-five miles an hour.  For some bizarre reason, none were near us as the car swerved in and out of lanes. 

Time stood still as we drifted to the right, heading for a ditch.  The car seemed to float off the road, down the hill, and over the clumps of weeds.  When we stopped, we were right side up, perpendicular to the interstate.  My daughter, the driver, and my granddaughter, riding in the back seat, were unharmed.

Within minutes rescuers arrived.  One was so kind as to drive the car out of the ditch.  Shaken, we returned to the highway, knowing that we would exit at the first safe-looking ramp.

On our journey home, we passed two similar accidents.  Both vehicles had flipped over as they slid off the road.  Both had landed upside down in icy water.  Both had fatalities.

So, while I have never won a grand monetary prize, I have won my life four times.  For me, that is luck enough for any one person.

Opening My Eyes

When you have very little, even the smallest thing can change your life. It often doesn’t matter what it is, it’s the ownership that allows us to see ourselves in a different light.

For most of my growing up years living with my family I felt inferior to my siblings. My brother Bill, who was a little more that a year older, seemed to bask in my mother’s attention. I understood that my father didn’t often see the good in my brother, no matter how hard he tried to gain approval.

My dad was a natural athlete: my brother was not. Bill signed up for Little League. He wasn’t good enough to get on a team. My dad was so angry that he lashed out at league officials, but no matter how obnoxious my dad was, Bill didn’t get placed on a team. My dad found out that he could pick up all the boys (yes, only boys could play back then!) that had been rejected and set up practice times with them.

My dad got busy, spending night after night making calls. When he had called every boy and got enough to make a team, practices began. I was allowed to tag along. Every time a ball went wild, it was my responsibility to retrieve it. Because theses boys had terrible skills, I spent almost the entire practice time, day after day, wading through thigh-high weeds gathering all the stray balls.

 I ended up with a such a severe case of poison ivy that I couldn’t bend my legs without being in pain. It did not deter me.

After weeks of practice, my dad arranged preseason games with organized, uniformed teams. His boys did not lose every game. When they did lose, it was not by the huge margin that the other coaches expected.

My brother was not the best player nor the worst, but he had an unusual style for running the bases. He never slid, but always arrived bent over with his butt facing the crowd. People snickered. My mom and I laughed.  My dad was embarrassed. He tried to teach my brother how “normal” boys ran the bases, but it didn’t change a thing.

What was important was that my dad took a group of players that no one wanted and made them into something valuable. In fact, two of his players made it onto the all-star team at the end of the season.

About the same time doctor shows were popular on television. Every doctor appeared in the typical “doctor” shirt, a white, short-sleeved button-up the shoulder shirt.

On a shopping trip to the nearest five-and-dime, I saw a display of doctor-shirts on a rack just inside the door. To my surprise, they had one in my size. Something I did not expect due to being quite overweight. It was marked down, but still too expensive, so my mom wouldn’t buy it for me. When my mom registered my dismay, she agreed that I could earn the money to buy one.

I set to work pulling weeds in the vegetable garden, picking blackberries along the border between our house and the woods, which gave me an outbreak of poison ivy, and cleaning my brother’s room which meant picking up dirty underwear off the floor.

As the days passed, I kept my fingers crossed that the shirt would still be there.

When I finally had enough saved, on the next trip into town, I was allowed to accompany my mother. With money safely stored in a little pouch tucked in y shorts pocket, I prayed for the entire thirty-minute trip.

I was so anxious that I could hardly breathe as we opened the doors to the store and walked in. The rack was still there. The shirt in my size was still there, now marked down even more. With joy I pulled it off the rack and carried it through the store, cradled against my chest. I refused to put it in the cart no matter how much my mom insisted.

As soon as I got home, I tried on the shirt. It was perfect! It fit just right. It made me look like the television doctors. It was a tad thin. This was before I started wearing bras, so my nipples showed through.

After washing I hung the shirt in my closet and saved it for special occasions. I took it off it food was involved. When school began several weeks later it was the first thing I wore. Picture me getting out of our car and striding across the playground. See my squared shoulders and confident step. Watch me as I approach classmates, expecting glowing comments about my wonderful shirt.

Now erase all that from your mind. The shirt was so out-of-style that everyone laughed. It was an awakening to me. The shirts were on the clearance rack for a reason: no one wanted them. Add to that my humiliation when I was teased about not wearing a bra.

That was the last time I wore the shirt.

I share the two different stories for an important reason: growing up means not just physical growth. Our bodies change, yes, but so must we change our awareness of ourselves in the world.

My brother might not have been a great baseball player, but later in life he discovered a love of swimming. He enjoyed it so much that he put in a backyard pool so he could swim every day. He taught his daughters how to swim and supported them through lessons and team practices. Like Bill, they were all excellent swimmers. At one time the girls were featured on the cover of a magazine as Olympic potentials. None of them did make it on a Olympic team, but they did swim for their respective colleges.

My shirt did not win me the admiration and acceptance of my peers, but it did teach me that theme-related items have a shelf-life. As a parent I never made the mistake of dressing my kids in no-longer-popular cartoon characters or out-of-favor styled clothing. As a mother I couldn’t afford the latest styles for myself but I could sew something similar.

As a child my clothes were usually hand-me-downs that were often stained. My kids never wore stained or torn clothes. My teenage clothes were sometimes too tight or too long or made from the wrong fabrics or designs. While my kids’ clothes might have come from thrift stores, they dressed like everyone else their age.

We learn a lot of things growing up if we keep our eyes and ears open. Chasing baseballs taught me the element of the game, something I still appreciate today. Watching my dad coach taught me what it takes to teach a sport, something I carried with me when I became a soccer coach.

Listening to my teachers exposed me to the good and bad of education. I admired and respected the teachers who saw me as the awkward, insecure child that I was masking the intelligent capable student who could go on to college and excel. They showed me what good teachers do, skills that I took into my own classrooms.

Throughout my adult life I have tried to keep my eyes open. Each time I experienced something for the first time, I lodged it in my mind, sorted by what worked and what didn’t. Those things that worked, I tried to repeat; the ones that didn’t I put away.

Imagine what kind of world we would have if everyone opened their eyes to what’s happening around them. Imagine the difference it would make in people’s lives.