family, grief, mom

My First Motherless Birthday

Today is my first motherless birthday.

The weight of those words has been lingering in the shadows, creeping up on me as the calendar page flips from August to September and the chill of fall permeates darkened nights. I’ve been pretty good at evading the thought as life returns to its natural state of busy: school begins, work begins, activities begin.

But that also means that birthday season begins and mine has arrived today.

My mom is gone.

Forever.

I am officially motherless on the day my mom gave me life.

——–

I have always loved celebrations. My childhood was a bit disjointed with divorced/remarried parents, but I remember those few occasions where my mom felt comfortable enough to open the door and host a birthday party for me and my friends.

They were carefully orchestrated events, mind you, as my mom was a detail-oriented planner and masked the dysfunction so beautifully not a single person knew what really happened in our home.

I remember my 6th birthday when I was allowed to wear a paper princess crown and pretty party dress. My mom and stepfather had been married for almost a year.

I remember my 9th birthday when I was allowed to have some of my friends spend the night. Even though I was “the new kid” in town, I was delighted to receive the “yes” RSVPs and my mom planned games with prizes for us to win.

It was the first, and only, birthday sleepover I remember.

I remember my 16th birthday when I was allowed to invite every single person from marching band into my home and was shocked when so many people wanted to attend. It was a night filled with music, laughter, and fun; I never wanted it to end.

When I turned 18 it was just my mom and I sharing a private meal at The Jefferson Hotel, marking my transition into adulthood and her separation from my stepfather. The bruises on her skin were no longer visible, but the lacerations on her life were open wounds. It was a pivotal birthday for us both. We were at the crossroads of change: mine filled with promise, hers filled with despair.

I wish we had taken a photo of us together that day.

As my childhood came to a close, I realized I didn’t have a single photo of us together on my birthday.

———

When I turned 21, we finally had someone take a picture of us celebrating my birthday. My mom was 39 years old, a recovering alcoholic, still picking up the pieces from a suicide attempt a year and a half before.

I am older today than she was in that photo.

No matter how crazy things were, no matter what was going on in her world, my mom always had a yearly tradition of calling me on my birthday, right at the moment I was born: 3:01 pm. If I didn’t answer the phone, she would leave a voice message, making sure I knew that she was thinking of me RIGHT when I came into this world.

As technology advanced, she would leave me Facebook messages, timing it just right so they posted exactly at 3:01 pm. It’s a sweet memory that makes my heart ache a little today, as I know there will be no more 3:01 pm messages from her.

———

When my mom turned 60, I returned the birthday blessings by taking her back to The Jefferson Hotel for their Champagne Brunch, just the two of us.

She didn’t drink the champagne, but laughed when I took a sip of mine. I remember my nose crinkling as I giggled saying, “I don’t do champagne either.”

It was 21 years after my 21st birthday; we made sure to capture the memory with photos.

As you can see, she was happy. Remarried. Retired. Radiant.

Her life had come full circle.

It was birthday joy in every way.

Three years later she was gone.

———

I credit my mom for instilling my love of reading. I was blessed to grow up in a home with endless access to books even though the public library and shopping mall were more than a half hour drive away. In fact, I think she was more excited by the Scholastic Book Order forms that arrived in my weekly school folder than I was, meticulously circling the books SHE liked then persuading me to read them, too.

One of our favorite stores was B. Dalton Bookstores, then Barnes & Noble, where brightly-colored book covers lined shelves from wall-to-wall, the library-themed ambiance quiet, subdued, respectful. I have been known to get “lost” in a bookstore a time or two; it’s my happy place filled with words and wonders that allow me to escape.

Bookstores remind me of my mom.

As my birthday approached, I was wondering if I would see some “sign”, some God-wink, some hidden message revealed to remind me that my mom is with me on my special day even though no longer here in sight.

I meandered through the aisles of Barnes & Noble, glancing at book titles, flipping through pages of books that caught my eye, feeling the alluring pull of solidarity that only an avid reader understands. That’s when a side display caught my eye:

It was a God-wink from my mom.

If you knew my mom, then you knew she was passionate about many things: Boston Red Sox baseball, New England Patriots football and collecting frogs. (No, not real ones, they are way too jumpy!)

Every single birthday I made a point to give her something frog-related, whether it was a birthday card with a frog image or a quirky frog collectible she would proudly display in her home. Frogs were her “thing” and she made no secret of the delight she experienced when she received something, anything, with a frog on it.

This display made my heart so happy as I know it was a God-wink just for me. So many birthday bags lined up in a row, of all the birthdays I’ve had and those yet to come with one, lone, frog-themed bag on top, representing the one person who made all those birthdays possible.

Thanks for the birthday wishes, Mama. You made me smile.

Today I am 45 years old.

I am halfway to 90.

I am now the matriarch of my little family unit, making my own children’s birthday memories shine like the candle on my cake.

I am motherless, but my mother lives on through me.

Birthdays matter. 

Celebrate!


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education, family, kindness

Back-to-School Joy


It’s been a busy week.

Ok, let’s be honest. That statement above is probably the greatest understatement any educator has ever spoken about the first week of school. Busy? No. Busy doesn’t even begin to touch on the accelerated pace all families face when school begins. I’m sure many people would nod in agreement that back-to-school week is like no other.

Despite the frantic transition from summer to school mindset, I love this time of year. As an educator, it’s a time of unmarked potential – new students, new teachers, new opportunities to engage, enrich, and empower. There’s an unmistakable energy in the air that reminds us of our purpose and why we are called to this profession.

There is joy in returning back to school.

The first day of school marks a milestone moment for many. Scroll through your Facebook feed and you will see countless photos of students standing on their front porches, leaning beside mailboxes, holding signs and waiting for buses. There are smiles on children’s faces (well, most at least), as their parents pose and position them for the photo opp that will be shared on social media for all to see.

Back to school photos are tradition.

For the past thirteen years I have taken these photos, first with one child, then two, then three. They stand beside our mailbox, their growth marked by their height against the box.

They always have a backpack.

They always stand there awkwardly.

They always roll their eyes as I take too many photos trying to capture the best one.

This year I had one less photo to take.

As many of you know, my daughter began new adventures as a college student living away from home. Her first day of school started earlier than ours and it was the first time in thirteen years that I wasn’t a part of her day.

I didn’t help her organize her school supplies.

I didn’t help her pack her lunch.

I didn’t even get to capture that once-a-year moment of her standing beside the mailbox.

Then she sent me this:

There she is, my sweet college freshman, kneeling beside her mailbox on the very first day of school.

She remembered our tradition.

She remembered to take a photo.

She remembered me.

My heart was filled with joy!

Smiles.

Backpacks.

First day of school of pictures.

These are the traditions that last a lifetime.

As I sent my boys to school to start their 8th and 3rd grade years, I couldn’t wait to greet our students, too. With smiles on our faces and joy in our hearts, we greeted each and every child as they got off the bus with backpacks and lunchboxes in hand.

Waiting with our Assistant Principal, Mr. Davis, for the buses to unload.

This is back-to-school joy!

What traditions do you enjoy the first week of school? What brings you joy this time of year? How can we keep the smiles coming each day for our students and children? Comment below and share your thoughts! I would love to know how you find joy in the journey, too


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Cube Curiosity

Two months ago I discovered my oldest son has a hidden talent: he knows how to solve a Rubik’s Cube.

Now for some of you parents (and even teachers!) you may not think this is a big deal; however, let me add another detail.

We don’t own a Rubik’s Cube.

It all started when his younger brother came home to share the latest trinket he received from his friends. There’s a fair trade of bartering going on during and after school, so we’re always ooohing and aaahhhhing over his latest acquisition. On this particular day, it was a tiny cube with brightly colored stickers, a knock-off version of the classic Rubik’s Cube.

I sat on the sofa, showing my little guy how to twist and turn the cube to make three colors in a row (which is just about the apex of my knowledge when it comes to this gadget) when my older son plopped down beside me and asked the question that opened the door to discovery:

“You want me to solve that for you?”

I turned to him and replied with slight sarcasm in my voice, “YOU know how to solve a Rubik’s Cube?”

He smiled in that nonchalant way, as if we were chatting about a common task like making a paper airplane, and simply stated, “Yeah, sure. I know how to solve it.”

I laughed out loud. Such absurdity. In an instant I was thrown back to my own middle school years where I would go to my room, secretly peel off the stickers and rearrange them correctly to “prove” that I was just as smart as my friends (whom I later discovered were doing exactly the same thing as me!) I never wanted to admit defeat, the seed of perfectionism already planted deep in my soul.

My son shares many of my attributes. His unwavering confidence is something we tease him about; even though he’s only thirteen, he can be quite smug about his ability to do all things. This was no different.

I handed him the cube and watched as he turned the blocks this way and that. He paused, turning the cube around and continued again. Within minutes he handed it back to me, solved.

I. Was. Dumbfounded.

Then I was intrigued.

“How did you learn how to do that?” I asked in utter amazement. Keep in mind, we don’t own a Rubik’s cube. I had never seen him even hold one, much less solve it!

“Oh it was easy,” he shared, “I just memorized the algorithms.”

Sometimes I don’t give my children enough credit for the things they learn on their own. I still hold tight to that misconception that they need me to be their teacher. I forget just how smart they really are and assume that their knowledge doesn’t supersede my own.

Each day I see my child sitting on the sofa, eyes staring at his phone, earbuds dangling from his ears. My impulse is to fuss at him for wasting time watching so many YouTube videos and push him out the door to ride bikes with his friends like we did at his age.

The irony is that his friends are doing the same thing. They, too, are obsessed with YouTube videos and use it as their primary source for learning. They literally hold the world in their fingertips with one website URL, a global agency of collective learning available with a few taps on a digital keyboard.

When I was thirteen, I rode bikes. He’s memorizing algorithms. Just because his learning is virtual, does that make it any less relevant?

After 18 years of being a mom, I’m still learning from my children.

Over spring break my son received the ultimate challenge – to solve 36 Rubik’s Cubes in less than an hour. He not only accepted and completed the challenge, but had to do it twice because his oh-so-perfect mom who is also a technologist (that would be me), recorded the first round on slow-mo instead of time-lapse. Egads!

If you would like to see the Rubik’s Cube time-lapse video, click here. It really is quite impressive!

I’m happy to share that my son finally received a Rubik’s cube of his own to keep and now that the skill is mastered, he’s diving into other passions for the summer. Imagine if we gave every child the opportunity to seek out information and support their interests, to follow their own path to understanding. We might just learn a thing or two from them in the process!

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Prom and Graduation

If you know anything at all about my mom, you know she loves a good party.

Well, let me tell you friends… we partied it up each and every day while she was in the hospital!

On Friday, I told her of my plans. “Mom… I know you are doing everything you can to be here for every milestone moment… but I think it would be tons of fun if we could celebrate some things early! You need to mark your calendar right now for Sunday because we are going to have so much fun!”

She pulled out her phone and we both became painfully aware that the pain meds were taking their toll on her fine motor skills. She was struggling to open her calendar app as she marked her “agenda”. I wanted to respect her ability to do it herself, but it was heart-wrenching to watch her fingers not move the way she wanted.

It took about 15 minutes, but she finally completed the task, our special day marked with digital ink. I knew in my heart she would live to see Sunday, for no one would dare miss the excitement we had in store.

We were going to celebrate Prom and Graduation all in one fell swoop.

I spent Sunday morning in her hospital room sipping on our strawberry smoothies as we chatted about this and that. She was feeling a little loopy from her pain meds again (I SWEAR I did not spike her drink!), so I let our conversation drift away as her eyes became heavy again.

Around noon, I left the hospital to head home and get my daughter ready to see her Grammy. We spent 30 minutes curling her hair and another 15 minutes creating a fancy “up-do”. She put on her Prom dress for the first time since it had been altered the week before.

Her Prom night isn’t until May 20, but I just knew in my heart my mom would be gone before then.

We arrived at the hospital and I felt like I was escorting Cinderella to the ball. My eighteen year old daughter walked through the halls, her head held high. You would never know that she is shy and reserved by watching her walk through the hospital that day. It really was magical to watch! People stopped in their tracks, admiring her, clearing the path for our steps. We stopped along the way and took a few photos before making our grand entrance into my mom’s hospital room.

Oh, how I wish I had recorded my mom’s expression when Katrina walked into the room. She was in the bed chatting with her childhood friend, Kathy, and her eyes just lit up at the sight of her granddaughter all dressed up for Prom.

 

 

 

My mom kept saying, “Wow” and “You are so beautiful!” as she admired my daughter’s attire. “I knew you would have a purple dress!” (Purple has been Katrina’s favorite color since she could draw with crayons.)

Katrina twirled for her, the chiffon overlay swirling gracefully around the silk layers underneath. Katrina even showed my mom her silver heels with the diamond rhinestones, knowing they both share a love for really cute shoes.

As more visitors arrived, Katrina and I slipped out of the room to get dressed for graduation. In perfect timing, Katrina had received her cap and gown at school when my mom first entered the hospital. Although we were still missing the NHS drape, the Beta cord and the Hanover Scholar purple tassel, we had enough to make it feel like a real graduation day.

 

 

 

 

I offered to play the graduation march on my phone, but we simply hummed the tune as Katrina walked in. Again, my mom’s eyes shone brightly – proud, awed, speechless.

And with one final hug to say goodbye, my mom knew she hadn’t missed a single milestone.

Check back soon for our next story as we celebrate my mom’s final week on earth. Her funeral will be Saturday, May 13, 2017. If you would like to donate to “Dottie’s Final Act of Kindness” campaign, please click here.


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I Radiate

 

It’s been a tough week.

Really tough.

Several of you who follow me on Facebook and Twitter or subscribe to my kindness blog might know that my mom has been battling cancer. She is twenty-two months into a journey that, without treatment, would have ended in two.

My mom is a fighter.

She was hospitalized last week with breathing difficulties and since that time she’s gotten worse. We have always tried to celebrate joy in the journey as shown through my blog posts Yellow Brick Road (8/13/15) and Taking Care of Business (4/29/16) as my mom has wanted to share her experiences with terminal cancer publicly, the good and the bad.

This week was filled with both.

I have known my mom for 44 years and in that time I can attest that she is a spitfire in spirit. This week she had to make some really difficult decisions that brought tears, sadness, and heartache. One might think that this is where the story ends, but oh… it’s only the beginning! We have already lived countless moments of joy and I want to share more stories with you.

On Wednesday, my mom was strong and courageous. We celebrated by making orange sherbert smoothies in her hospital bed at the suggestion of her favorite nurse, Jessica. She drank three cups! This was an amazing feat to accomplish as her appetite is non-existent these days and it’s very difficult for her to swallow.

We also love to take selfies.
Thursday was her first day of radiation treatments. She has already finished three complete rounds of chemo and tried immunotherapy. She will have one treatment each day for up to ten days, as long as her body can tolerate the side effects. I wanted to do something extra special for this milestone so I asked my friend Holly if she could print “I Radiate” on something my mom could wear. As a bonus, I asked if she could add a sunshine image, too.
This proved to be a tricky task as my mom has many tubes attached to her body, so a printed t-shirt wasn’t a viable option. Holly searched all over town to find a cap she could use, but alas, no such luck. It was in the midst of her travels that Holly found the perfect item to personalize: a delicate necklace with a heart cut-out and sunshine charm to the side:
But the best was yet to come… when you turn over the little sunshine charm, you have my #oneword for 2016:
Joy
 
 
Holly then insisted that I take this necklace as a gift for my mom, and ultimately for me, so I will always remember the joy in the journey. She wanted nothing in return but moments of memories to share.
My mom couldn’t wait to wear it around her neck.

This week has been tough, but I’ve had amazing moments of kindness shown to me and my mom. Her husband, Bob, and best friend, Debbie, bought her new pajamas. She has more candy and crossword puzzles than she knows what to do with and I brought her new pens to write with because we share the same obsession for school supplies.

She got to eat an authentic Boston Lobster Roll from The Continental Westhampton (one of the few items still left on her bucket list.) She has a frog stuffed animal by her side and flowers along her shelf. She even received a precious frame from a friend that included a photo of her and her husband with a quote she posted on Facebook Monday evening: “No Negative Thoughts Allowed.”

 

                                               
Her Facebook post on Wednesday was sweet and sincere, welcoming “short friendship visits.” One person who stopped by on Thursday was a dear friend of mine from high school, Pam. Three years ago to the day, she and I took smiley faced balloons to hospital patients in memory of her mom who had passed away years ago; this year she brought one to my mine.

My coworkers have shown kindness in a multitude of ways. Several have reached out with offers of transportation, food, and “call me if you need anything” emails and texts. My boss has been amazingly kind and understanding. Krista and Suzi covered my bus duty two days in a row and Kim oversaw my Open Lab time on Friday so students can put the final touches on their Kindness Passion Projects.

I even received an email from Ellen, who was home recovering from surgery. I had signed up to bring her family a meal on Friday; she politely reached out on Thursday to refuse my meal so I could take that time to spend with my mom.

Because time is precious, especially now.

And who could resist spending time with a lady who radiates from inside and out?

Today we choose Joy.

 


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Save and Spend

“Mommy, can you help me count my money?”

My seven year old is obsessed with numbers. He loves to count, even multiply, doing much of the math in his head. It makes me chuckle sometimes because his older brother was the same way (and still is for the most part.)
Instead of stopping my chores, I challenged him while he waited. “Can you think of different ways to make a dollar? Put them in groups and I’ll be there in a bit.”
A few minutes passed as I finished folding laundry, then he came running back into my room. “I’m almost there! I’ve got $7.50!”
The excitement in his voice switched my priorities in an instant. The laundry sat on my bed, not put away, as I followed him into his room. On the floor he had neat little stacks of pennies and nickels, all grouped correctly: 10 pennies in a stack with 10 stacks together; 10 nickels in a stack with 2 stacks together.
I checked his math; he was right. $7.50 in coins!
“How much more money do you need?” I asked. He pondered for a moment, then jumped up just as excited as he was before.
“I need $2.50 to get up to $10! I bet I have that in quarters!”
He pulled out his small quarter collector and counted each quarter inside. “Mommy! I have $3.00 in quarters! That means I will still have fifty cents left!”
In less than twenty minutes, my son not only realized he could use the coins he’s been saving to buy a Lego toy he’s been eyeing up, but he also mastered some pretty impressive math for only being in second grade.
We put his $10 in change in a ziplock bag then put the extra pennies and nickels back in his bank to start saving again.
We went to Target and he found his toy. As we approached the checkout line, I was curious to see how the self checkout worked. (And, let’s be honest, I figured it would be an awesome random act of kindness to NOT make the cashier have to count out 200 pennies, 60 nickels and 20 quarters!)
You can image our joy when we discovered the tiny coin slot in the self checkout machine! Our little guy was able to “spend” each and every coin he brought.

 

It was fascinating to watch the computer count down the money he had inserted and show how much money still  needed to be paid.

 

Even his older brother got in on the fun, helping him to push the coins in faster and faster.
Through trial and error we learned that when the light is green everything works great. When the green light disappears, however, you have to wait a few moments as the machine finishes counting the inserted coins.
Finally we were done. My children got to experience saving and spending in a new way, all of which emphasized math skills.
For those of you wondering, “What about the dimes?” we have a separate saving system for them. We are saving our Dimes for Disney!
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Virtual Reality in College Recruitment

If your child is college bound, their junior and senior years of high school are crucial for making the grade and showcasing your hard work to attract the eye of college admission officers.

Now that my daughter is completing her final months of high school, I feel like I could write an entire book on all the tasks we had to complete as parent and child. (Who knows – maybe I just might write that book after all!)
We’ve visited the college campuses. We’ve listened to the energetic tour guides and walked miles in the summer heat. (Fun fact: I was a college tour guide more than 20 years ago!)
We’ve scoured the websites, attended informational sessions, and marked each email that has arrived in our inbox. We’ve sent the RSVPs, met the college representatives and even been spoiled with a reception at The Jefferson Hotel.
It’s no surprise that college recruitment is a big business; after all, schools need you just as much as you need them. What has been fascinating to me is the ways in which the colleges and universities woo you.
We’ve received handwritten notes, refrigerator magnets, pens and pencils. One school provided a personalized parking space with my daughter’s name for our tour and a T-shirt and cup when the tour was done.

 

Today we received a unique surprise: an invitation to see the campus using virtual reality (VR).

As a tech integrator, I know that virtual reality has been a growing buzzword, even from my early introduction using Aurasma for student book talks. With the advent of Google Cardboard and 360 degree cameras, the world really is at our fingertips as we can walk, stop, and look. In fact, just last week I worked with a fourth grade class as we explored the surface of Mars using the Nearpod app and a class set of iPads.

Even with those experiences, I was completely surprised when my daughter opened a small package from one of her preferred schools today. Inside was a letter explaining the basics of virtual reality and a Google Cardboard viewer with the school’s logo printed on the front.

 

We downloaded the VR Showcase app, put the Cardboard player together (much easier than assembling Ikea furniture, I might add), and placed her phone inside.
Immediately this beautiful college campus appeared in the background with options as to what school we wanted to explore.
All I can say is… WOW!

Talk about stepping up your game! My daughter walked around our living room and down the hall pointing out the buildings of her future home. She was already impressed with this school, but this was like icing on top. Now she can “see” exactly where she will spend her next four years from the convenience of her bedroom.

She was even able to showcase her new school to her Grandpa when he stopped by for a visit:

Educators, times are changing and the colleges are keeping up. They have Twitter hashtags and Facebook groups. They want students to showcase themselves in digital portfolios using the ZeeMee app and now they have discovered how to use VR to attract the best of the best.

Are we doing all we can to prepare our students for these experiences?
I would love to hear your thoughts! Comment below or reply on Twitter – let’s learn and grow together!

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Rolling Down the Hill

 

When was the last time you rolled down a hill?

Wait. Maybe I should ask a different question first.

Have you ever rolled down a hill?

This week I watched my thirteen year old son help a five year old in his first attempts at rolling down a hill. Now, this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill backyard hill, mind you. Oh, no. This was a massive hill. Huge. Towering. One that leaves you out of breath as you try to climb the entire thing while still standing vertically.

Then you get to the top and look down.

Imagine the fear in the five year old who has never done this before. Imagine the confidence of the thirteen year old who only remembers the exhilaration of the ride. How can the two bridge this gap?

Click here to see it all unfold if the video above doesn’t play.

Sometimes as adults we have to get out of the way and let the learning happen. It might not be perfect, it might not be the way we would have done it, but it’s learning just the same.

It counts.

It matters.

It’s important.

I loved watching my child coach my friend’s son. He explained what would happen. He emphasized the positive. He guided him in the process. He watched on the side as the younger boy tried his own technique. He celebrated with him when he was done.

Both boys ended up at the bottom of the hill; both were smiling, happy, and proud.

And I was a proud Momma, too.

My son, Daniel, and I leaving Maymont Park.

 


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