FALLing into Myself….

I have always been “open” to new things and ideas. There’s no better way to appear strange as a kid then to be open. When growing up, most kids thought of fall as a time to kick leaves or jump in a mammoth leaf pile, while I observed the metaphor that leaves are beautiful in their death- that the colors are most vibrant before they fade forever.

Fall is not my favorite season because it marks several things that are difficult for me. It begins the wait of an impending doom- Winter, and the bad weather to come. I am not a snow bunny and I’d much rather sweat than freeze. I hibernate in weather below 40- and walk around like the abominable snowwoman- barely seen with so many layers to keep warm that it’s assumed I am a bear, fat for the winter.

My late husband Kevin’s birthday is Oct. 20th, and so begins all of the birthdays, holidays and sad days without him until the anniversary of his passing on February 21. My birthday is on Christmas day. I’ve never minded having a Christmas birthday- except that the more Christmas gets out of control (see my blog Christmas Schmismis- (http://open.salon.com/blog/joames) the less I pay attention to that date, commercially, anyway.

But this fall, I had the chance to catch a documentary, WAKE UP as it aired on OWN on October 16th. This description is found on WAKE UP’s website:

WAKE UP (www.wakeupthefilm.com) tells the true story of Jonas Elrod, an average guy who one day suddenly began seeing and hearing angels, demons, auras and ghosts all around him. Perplexed by his new ability to experience the supernatural, he sets out on a soul-seeking journey to find answers to his mystifying situation. From physicians, religious teachers, scientists to mystics, spiritual healers and more, he humbly inquires “Why me?” He also fears being ostracized by his own God –fearing, southern Christian family, while failing to see the “gift” of his new found ability, that even his hometown preacher affirms could quite possibly be “God’s way of communicating with him.”

I don’t watch much television, but I was fascinated. I sat, fixated on the screen and the idea that some of us, when we least expect it, wake up to new experiences. Experiences which may seem foreign and uncertain one minute can bring us to greater understandings and teachings the next.

I watched every aspect of Jonas Elrod’s experience. He sees an acupuncturist. He prays in sweat lodges, he meditates and spends days in isolation, all to seek answers to why he sees and hears the things he does. He questions the reason for this new gift…. new curse of being open to spirits and visions.

Jonas’ journey is fascinating and inspiring. He tells it with such honesty and sincerity that you can’t help but be intrigued.

As I watched, my life analogy stirred and a piece of writing that I did a few years ago came to mind.

Here it is:

Have Faith; Your Life’s Plan Will Be Revealed

I first experienced God’s presence in my life in 1973 when I received the body of Christ. I was a skinny eight year old with hair that refused order and preferred hanging in unkempt strands. My First Communion dress was delicately and lovingly made by my proud mother; it was simple yet pretty, but lacked the sequence and glamour that surrounded me. I was not a sequence and glamour girl. I would have preferred to arm wrestle, dress and all, “those” girls or better yet, their older brothers!

Although petite, I somehow felt taller than my CCD peers. Father had told his Catechists that we might feel a light enter us and maybe feel different somehow after receiving Christ for the first time. I was only a child but my life changed forever that day. God’s light did enter my soul as Father said. Both His energy and will ran through my seventy-five pound body and nourished my soul as imperatively as the blood that nourished my being. I remember singing our closing songs in church with renewed strength and belief that I had possessed the abilities and energy to be or do “all things through him.”

I cannot explain how or why this happened. The feeling simply embraced me fully while I was singing and I have been God’s faithful servant, to the best of my ability, since that day.

So there, in St. Peter’s church, sitting in a pew between my mother and father, filled with God’s love, I felt empowered. In my child’s mind, this meant “famous.” I was certain that this vision included a glamorous role as a celebrity dancer, actress or possibly, writer and I vowed then to never settle for anything less.

God had entered my body and shared his light with me and this “little light of mine was gonna shine,” somehow.

I remember telling my family (and anyone who would stop to listen) at my communion party that I was now truly blessed. Few understood my excitement, hugging me with a check in hand- thinking that was the impetus for my epiphany. Others stared blankly as though, this weird kid before them, had finally lost it. With a milk mustache and remnants of roast beef between his two front teeth, my uncle muttered his support, “Good for you.” Whether they believed or not, that blessing and that day guided me into my forties and still remains the core of who I am to this day.

My Journey to Fame Begins- NOT!

My mother was a dancer before I knew her well. Before she raised five children and worked as a waitress and spent her days cleaning, cooking and wiping noses, she was most at home on the dance floor. She made ballroom dancing look easy to romantic spectators with two left feet.

When I was nine I began my trek to become a famous dancer. I would put on my mom’s fancy gowns, her high heeled sparkling stilettos and do the foxtrot like the glamorous women of professional ballroom dancing that my mother and I admired. For many years I diligently took dance classes. But in my college ballet class, I came to the difficult realization that my legs are far too short to dance gracefully.  There was nothing long or lean or elegant about me.

Soon after this disappointing epiphany, I decided to focus on my goal to be an actress. I got my head shots done as recommended. I crammed in acting classes, considered a nose job and went for open calls. A few agencies seemed interested. I learned to work my facial features that can be considered any nationality and practiced my best “Joisey” accent. But the jobs for me were few and paid fewer more dollars that I paid out to get them. Next plan for me.

Life Happens

Meanwhile, I became a teacher, married my soul mate and soon learned that I was going to be a mommy. As a new mommy with late hours, I began writing, hoping to be published one day. This was my last shot at doing something meaningful- something for which to be proud.

But the only published work I saw was at school. It was my job as a teacher of Language Arts to teach writing. For every assignment I gave my students, I got busy writing. They enjoyed my writing and in between grading papers and disciplining ruffians, I got to write too. We even worked together to create a school newspaper. This was all fun, but it paled in comparison to being sold at Borders!

And then it happened, I gave up trying to be someone and decided to be someone’s wonderful wife, mommy, daughter, etc… My dreams would wait.

Praying for the Best, Preparing for the Worst

But remember, God had a plan for me and he made those plans known in 1995. Soon after our daughter Alina had turned two years old, my husband Kevin was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, also known as ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis). ALS is a neurological terminal illness that moves very quickly, leaving patients paralyzed and unable to speak. This news changed our lives forever.

God’s light was still strong and He empowered us to handle more than I ever thought possible. Still I pleaded with Him to give us a miracle. I prayed and asked for strength. I begged that my young husband would not die. But the miracle I requested was not granted.

Instead of living my dreams, I watched them die with my husband Kevin. He went from a strong athletic hero of 184 pounds to a paralyzed, ventilated, speechless hero of another kind- MINE. He, though, inspired me to live my dreams. HE, through God’s glory, was my miracle and my plan.

When Kevin lay in bed, unable to move, unable to speak, I danced for him to make him smile. I wore a fancy cocktail dress, put a rose in my teeth and performed my best way OFF-Broadway solo rendition of Chicago. I was his talentless entertainment.

When Kevin spoke of hope for the future, of goals and dreams, of having more children and more time, I was an actress. I made us believe that ALS would not cut his young life of thirty years short. That all of the things we planned to have together would still be. I lived each of his days in total presence- focusing only on his comfort and joy and making them the best.

Kevin died on February, 21, 2001. At his funeral, in front of more than six hundred people, I became a published writer. At Kevin’s request, I wrote with pride both his obituary and eulogy. God’s light kept me strong as I began my tribute. My husband Kevin asked me to write and give his eulogy. He told me that he wanted to see my beautiful face once again, making him proud. Even in his death, Kevin was still charming.

I did not cry. It was my last opportunity to honor the man that I loved; my last chance to make him proud. He, I hope, was.

All along, while I was busy making plans, they were already set. God had bigger plans for me then those which granted fortune or fame. And although I continue to have dreams and have not used my talents to make money, I used them daily to make a difference.

My role as a caregiver was my greatest achievement and I would not have settled for anything less.

As I reflect on my life and where I am this Fall, I am grateful to Jonas Elrod for his courage to produce Wake Up. I know that it will not change everyone, as we must find the reason to want to change and to make a difference. But for me, it’s another affirmation that I like who I am and where I am. And in a world that is uncertain, it’s nice to feel certain about something.

Please check out Jonas’ work at http://wakeupthefilm.com/.

http://www.youtube.com/user/wakeupthefilm?feature=mhum

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The Gift of Motherhood

My Amazing ChildrenMotherhood is a gift that I always wanted to open.  As a little girl, I rocked dolls to sleep and hugged any baby, plastic or real, within my reach.  My sister Kate, thirteen years, older, had her first child when I was seven years old.  I remember the night she and my first niece came to visit.  It was two am and I was sound asleep. They had flown in from Florida on the red eye.  I had twin beds in my room- which I shared with another sister Kim.  Kim had a sleepover with her friend so I welcomed the chance to have baby (and mommy), all to myself.  Kate sat on the bed, turned and propped up her feet.  Her baby was a bundle of pink.  I wanted to jump up, to see my sister and her marvel but knew that if I made a peep, I would get in trouble for being awake.

 A shawl graced my sister’s shoulder and enveloped her baby closer; they were one body still, a circle of love, nearly one month after delivery.  I did not say a word.  Kate gingerly touched her baby’s face and hands.  She smoothed the bundling and closed her eyes too. The baby was suckling and content.  I drifted back to sleep knowing within hours, I would be a part of that love.

 From then on, I wanted three children.  By age ten, I would tell my mother the possible names for my children. Madison, Taylor, Justin,  Alexander? Being too young to be a mother, I did the next best thing- babysat.  By the time I was in high school, I spent more time with children than peers.  At college in the 80s, I was a nanny for hire.  Nannies were the newest additions
to families in need of helping hands. The job was perfect while I was training to be a teacher.  Read great books.  Hold little hands.  Feed curious minds.  It confirmed my desire to have my own children and gave me the chance to apply my skills.  Little did I know then that I would have three children one day, but the births of two of those children wouldn’t involve any labor pains for me.  There would be much greater pains at stake.

 By the time my husband Kevin and I were expecting our first child, I was 26, and had the rhythm of motherhood down.   I
would lie in the tub, belly afloat, book prompted open to the warn pages of Eric Carle or Maurice Sendak.  My novice husband
found this early literary intervention, humorous.  I enjoyed making my baths a daily ritual, loud and encompassing in our small home- giving him little escape and reason to tease.  “She’s gonna say book before mom and dad,” he’d joke.  But the books
bounced with affirmative kicks-she liked her mommy’s animation.

When Alina was born, we were elated.  I held all 8 pounds and three ounces of her on my belly and took a good look. She was absolutely perfect. Since she rarely slept, we had quality play time. She was cute, curious and clever.   We were blessed with a miracle and found her ability to dominate any activity and every part of our home, funny.  How could something so small take
up so much time and space?

The summer that Alina turned one, something strange happened. Our family took a bike ride on a warm June
day.  Alina was happy in her baby seat, on the back of Kevin’s bike.  We were turning a corner and suddenly, there was crying.  Kevin, then thirty years old, had lost control of the bike and he and Alina went crashing to the ground.

Later, when we were home, I nursed Alina to sleep.  She was calm and peaceful; I was a wreck.  It was then that I knew that I would never nurse another child. She was going to be an only child.  It was a mother’s intuition. Kevin was sore, but more than his injured elbow and knee, was his dignity, “What happened?  Why did I fall?  It was impossible for me to keep the bike
up.  Something is seriously wrong. I hurt our baby and I feel awful.”

We made a doctor’s appointment right away.  Our family doctor then sent us to  a sports medicine doctor.  The look on his face was disconcerting.  “I’m not sure, said the doctor after several tests, “but you might want to see a neurologist.”

Eight exhausting months later, Kevin received a diagnosis: Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis- better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS is a neuromuscular disease – which means, it damages the cells that control muscle movement.  Muscles are needed in every human function.  Walking, talking, digesting, breathing. ALS causes these muscles to weaken, making simple tasks, impossible.  And it’s terminal.

Sniffles and silence accompanied us home.  I held on to the words of one of the nurses.  “You are your own percentage,” she had said to Kevin, with a hug. “You can beat the odds.”  These few simple words became our mantra for six years before Kevin lost his battle with ALS.

I lost my composure that evening when I held Alina.  She would be progressing, learning to talk, run and potty, Kevin would be regressing into total dependence- unable to do the simple tasks she was mastering.

Kevin’s battle with ALS ended in 2001.  Alina was eight years old.  I was 35. My hopes and dreams were placed with my husband in his coffin.

In 2002, my mother sent an article from the Pocono Record.  It described how Tina Singer Ames wrote a book, What Did You Learn Today?  for her children Nora and Adam, and her husband, Warren.  It was beautifully crafted in hopes of helping her children, as well as other children, understand ALS.  It was also a gift from Tina to her family to cherish for the rest of their lives.  Tina was  diagnosed with ALS in July of 2000 and died in December six months later.

 

People talk about falling in love, a lot.  Usually stories focus around couples and how they meet. Falling in love can happen with children too and it did when I met Nora and Adam.  I was working as Director of Communications for the ALS Hope Foundation in Philadelphia.  I had arranged a children’s day- a day for children of ALS patients and grandparents to have fun and forget.  I ordered fifty copies of What Did You Learn Today? Warren, Nora and Adam Ames arrived with the books.

Warren was friendly and respectful.  He and I had a lot in common and talked freely about our losses.  We missed our soul mates.  We cried a lot.  We felt empty. But it was his children- Nora and Adam initially, who I couldn’t seem to forget.

Adam was seven years old.  His hair was disheveled and his laces untied.  His face was that of an older child, concerned.  Nora was 11, tall and svelte- nearly my equal in size.  Sweet and endearing.  I immediately felt their loss like a pull in my stomach.  I wasn’t
sure if I wanted to vomit or run.  Instead, I pulled them both close to me, into my arms. Sat them on my lap and tried to give them, briefly, a mother’s love, my love.  I wanted to let them know that they would be ok.  Their eyes, though, said differently, we need our mommy.

That afternoon, I fell head over heels in love with Nora and Adam. Warren was dating someone so I invited all of them to my home for dinner.  Dinner was nice.  Warren “forgot” to invite his girlfriend.

Then he ended his relationship.

We met at the park.  We met at the zoo.  Whenever we were together, we were whole.  A man, a women and three kids who enjoyed being together and having fun. We were all sad independently, but when together, we managed smiles and laugher.  Surprisingly, Warren and I had very similar parenting styles.  Tina and I had similarities too.  She worked with children, so did I.  She was a child’s advocate, so was I.  She wanted the best for all children, so did I.

One day, after a dinner at Friendly’s, I asked Warren about Tina’s response to her diagnosis.  He looked at me, tears running down his face.  “She,” he paused, gained his composure and whispered, “she said, before she collapsed to the floor,” but who will raise my children?

It was then and there, in the parking lot of Friendly’s, that I knew I was chosen to raise Nora and Adam.

People ask me frequently about my relationship with my step-children and how we’re so close.  It is very simple really, so simple that I have no elaborate answer.  I have never viewed Nora and Adam  as step-children, but as my children. My maternal instincts, the ones that were sacred to raising Alina, were sacred to raising Nora and Adam also.  I have loved them equally and unconditionally.

Love and faith are the two main ingredients needed to raise children in a blended family and in any family.  Let love guide you in your parenting and never differentiate your children negatively.
Always celebrate the wonderful qualities each child brings to the group.  Have faith in your maternal instincts and
their strengths.

This best Mother’s day, Adam, now seventeen, gave me a handmade card.  It read, “God could not be everywhere, so he invented mothers.”

Then he added, “Thanks for being everything to me.”

Does love get any better than that?  Does motherhood?

I did not give birth to Adam or Nora, but every part of my soul thinks I did.  And no one can tell the difference.

The Great Escape

The Great Escape Women

The only time I rise before 6 AM better be for a good reason, and this was.  My alarm buzzed annoyingly at three AM and I awoke, cheerful and giddy as if I had slept twelve hours instead of a mere two.  It didn’t matter though, because I was going on vacation. It was strange waking and driving through the darkness of odd hours-hours filled with quiet and inactivity. Hours of uncertainty and loneliness.  It’s even stranger to embark on a plane  without your family- three kids and a husband. But I did. I left my family for a great escape with three amazing woman.

I love my family, so it wasn’t that I needed to escape them.  What I really needed to escape was “the race”.  Most days I hit the ground running and then race all day to get things done.  Some of my sprints are important, like work and groceries and bills.  Others are annoying, like cleaning up dog vomit, changing the cat litter, and scrubbing toilets. I am the one in my family who does such things and it was nice for once, to know that I would leave the daily grind back in New Jersey for four days- where it would wait for me until my return.

Linda, Heather, Kristen and I met at the Atlantic City airport, at the ungodly hour of five AM – half asleep but full of hope for what we all needed- rest and relaxation.

Smiles.  Hugs. Yawns.  We needed coffee as a group and boarded the small plane at 6:45, feeling as though we had been up for days, not hours. None of us was sure how the weekend would unfold. Would the weather be nice?  All of us mothers, we normally didn’t have two hours to ourselves, let alone four days. Would the kids be ok without us? While we were about to fly to South
Carolina, I wondered if the one hour transition would allow less worry and more piece of mind. Could we leave the worries of schedules and wash and carpooling kids in New Jersey?

I really hoped so, for each of us.

The plane landed safely in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina before nine.  Eighty degree weather caressed our faces as we emerged from the airport, tired and stiff. We rented a car, a roomy Hyundai Sonata, dark red so it never hid from us in the parking lot.

The Sonata took us first to Wal-Mart, where we purchased food to nourish our bodies- – grapes, apples, bananas, water and then even better food to nourish our souls- Oreos, biscotti and hot chocolate.

With enough food for four days, we travelled to Linda’s condo on the beach, where we were immediately made to feel at home.  Her condo is newly refurbished and colorful.  There’s a balcony and from six floors up where we were, we could see schools of fish and a horizon of boats.

Soon after we plopped our groceries and luggage at the condo, we suited up and headed to the beach. The beach was peaceful and the sound of the ocean lulled us into naps. They were short though, because we had much to talk about.

There was the normal stuff that fills conversations, work and diets and hair colors.

But, there were greater issues to share.  All of us are survivors.  Survivors of divorce, of loss, and of disappointments. Of things that would put some people to bed, for months.

Still, we went to the beach with all of our pain- years worth- years that have been hard to us.  We went to the beach with worries for our children as they face life’s challenges.  We went to the beach praying for those we love who are in need.

And on the beach we sat and supported each other. There were no judgments or harsh words.  No arguments or tense voices.  It was safe and inviting. It was warm and breezy, and our conversations were carried out to sea in waves.

We talked late into the night.  We laughed over silly things and giggled like our younger selves long after we should have been asleep. It was carefree; joyous.

And although we tried to escape life for a few days, our cells phones rang, and we were needed.  Ten hours from home and we still helped our families find frozen dinners, uniforms and phone numbers.  We kissed boo boos over the phone and even made doctors’ appointments.

On one of the days, we visited Brookgreen Gardens.  A National Historic Landmark, Brookgreen has more than one thousand sculptures artistically displayed throughout fifty acres of plush gardens and impeccably maintained grounds. We walked and talked and took pictures.

There was a gigantic grasshopper who smiled for the camera.  The boys would love to see the enormous, squirmy creature.  There were butterflies unknown to us but more colorful than Monarchs. There were flowers with fragrances worthy of hand blown glass bottles.

Brookgreen was a wonderful culmination to our great escape.

We left South Carolina on the fourth day, late at night, anxious to hug our families.

I drove home, once again, in the darkness of odd hours-hours filled with quiet and inactivity. Hours, only days ago, filled with uncertainty and loneliness.

On the hour drive home, in the wee hours of the morning, I thought of my dear friends and couldn’t remember what loneliness felt like. My friends were no longer with me, but somehow, I still felt secure, supported and loved.

There was nothing fancy about our stay at Myrtle Beach.  We did not get pedicures, massages or new outfits. We did not go scuba diving or dancing.

It only took one ingredient to make a great escape, great women.

Can’t wait till next year.

"For the Boys"

The Gentle Man

You are my gentle man

As we walk holding hands, through time,

I am guided by your gentle ways.

Soft spoken, soft hearted,

You quiet the clamor of life.

The worry.

The doubt and sadness too,

Have dulled to whispers.

Soft footed,

As though you’re cotton,

You guide us,

To sacred ground and honored earth.

Through places where God resides,

and loving hearts beat strong.

Where hope lands softly

On injured souls

Then flies among the

Monarchs and God’s angels.

You,

Are my gentle man.