family, travel

Sweet Exploration

Do you remember what it was like to be “footloose and fancy-free?” Yes, that’s a cliche and to be honest, I’m not even sure what fancy-free even means, but that phrase brings instant memories of my younger years: Kevin Bacon, 80’s music, and a LOT of memory-making with my friends.

Now that I’m a mom of a college student, I have to remind myself that my daughter is creating her own “footloose and fancy-free” moments which may not mirror mine. We are completely different in so many ways. Extrovert/Introvert; my cup is fueled by crowds, she needs quiet time to decompress. One thing we share, however, is the joy of traveling.

Last week Katrina showed me a map of our state with key locations marked from east to west, north and south. “I’m going on a road trip with friends,” she announced, “We’re going to see which place has the best ice cream.”

 

If I could freeze this moment in time, I would capture it in my heart forever. The joy on her face, the excitement in her voice, was absolutely priceless. She didn’t need her mom to help her make decisions of where to go or how to get there. She was embracing a spark of exploration and making it happen. Her joy was my joy.

It was an 11-hour road trip across the state of Virginia with six stops along the way. From waffle cones to paper cups to milkshakes with straws, the girls tasted their way on the sweetest journey of their teen years. Take a peek at the video below to see their adventures!

In the book Live, Love, and Explore, Leon Logothetis shares his experiences of traveling around the world, meeting everyday people, and living life to the fullest. One of the many lessons he shared along the Way of the Traveler rings true:

Once you start being yourself, you’ll be happy wherever you go.

What makes you happy? What brings you joy? When was the last time you felt completely enraptured with the life you lead? Whether it’s walking along a path with a gentle breeze or taking an 11-hour road trip with friends to decide which shop makes the best ice cream, make your memories now. Carve out time to do the things that lift your spirit and soothe your soul.

Embrace life and all it has to offer. Do something a little crazy, just because it makes sense to you. Even on the busiest of days, take time for yourself and connect with those moments that make you whole.

Breathe.

Smile.

Love.

And if you happen to find yourself near the place where I-64 and I-81 converge, take the road less traveled and visit The Split Banana, Co. I hear they have really great ice cream.


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family, grief, mom, reflection

On The Day My Mother Died



Today is the day my mother died.

The date has loomed on the calendar like the storm clouds of an impending storm, much like they did last year. The only difference between this year and last is knowing when the rain would fall and hearts would be shattered.

Several times in this year of mourning, I have tried to write about my mom’s final days and it’s been tough. Really tough. The emotions leave me raw and vulnerable, sometimes even rendering me speechless with no words to share.

But we all must learn to let go. We can’t keep hanging on to the past, no matter how we might try to change those events now frozen in time.

Today is the day my mother died.

__________________________________

One year ago today I awoke with a start, a panic of unknown proportions as I saw that I had missed several text messages from my mom’s husband, Bob, urging me to come to the hospital as quickly as I could.

I threw on jeans and a shirt, slid my feet into a pair of flip-flops and raced out the front door.

No makeup.

No contact lenses.

I didn’t even brush my hair.

See, when death taunts you each and every day, you must always be ready for the call. What I looked like didn’t matter a bit. There was a very real possibility my mom would be gone before I could make it to her bedside.

I drove to the hospital with tears flowing, knowing in my heart this was it. This was the day my mother would die. All the words had been spoken. All the love had been shared. It was time to say my final goodbye.

I was a wreck.

When I arrived, there was an empty parking space right at the entrance to the hospital. I parked and raced inside. It was truly like a scene from a movie: my long hair flowing behind me, my flip-flops flapping with each step as I ran with all my might. People walking in the halls stepped to the side, my path completely cleared like the parting of the seas.

I ran like I had never run before. I took the stairs so I didn’t have to wait on the elevator. I threw open doors and ran down the third floor, not caring for a moment who stared at me as I flew by.

Her door was partially shut. I literally slid into her room as I rounded the corner, completely out of breath and terrified at what I would discover.

She was there.

Sitting up in the bed.

Smiling.

My first words to my mother on the day of her death were, “What the hell, mom?!?”

Yes. You read that right. I actually cursed at my mother on the last day she was here.

Her laughter was priceless.

__________________________

 

I sat on the side of her bed and hugged her, telling her how happy I was to see her.

She was alive.

I made it.

She didn’t die without me.

We knew. Oh, how we knew. Today was the day.

May 4th.

May the 4th be with you.

 

_______________________

The night before, we had signed the hospice papers. I was packing up my things to watch my daughter’s final tennis match when Bob called me out of my mom’s room to add my signature to the page we had fought so hard to have. She would be removed from heart rate monitors and other unnecessary medical equipment so we could focus on easing her pain instead of monitoring her health.

As I crossed the Ts in my first and last name, the hospice nurse touched my arm. “Now that your mom is under our care I need to tell you… she doesn’t have much time.”

Shock.

Bewilderment.

“Excuse me… what?”

Not much time.

Death was already marching down the hall.

_________________________
Bob and I decided we would not stay the night. We wanted to give her the opportunity to pass away alone, should that be her choice. We knew of others who waited until that exact moment when everyone left the room to slip away; we didn’t want her to linger a moment longer than necessary.
My mom was in pain.
Her body was no longer working the way it should.
It was time to start letting go.
___________________________

On the day my mother died, she texted Bob at 3:58 AM. She had already lost the dexterity to hold a pen or cup and yet… in the wee hours of the night, she was able to locate her phone, unlock the passcode, open her text messages and tell Bob that she loved him.

This was his sign to come.

 

____________________________
The hospice nurse told us the night before that if we had family members that wanted to see my mom, they needed to come soon, preferably in the morning. So that’s what we did. We called our closest family members that evening and broke the news of her final demise.
The morning of my mother’s death began with a party.
Because… well, that’s just how we do things in our world.
My Dad and his girlfriend Cindy arrived. As he entered the room, my eyes filled with tears because, see, this is my full circle of life. These two people created me. There is a history between my mom and dad, with many years slashed in red, bound with turmoil, anger, and angst. Yet, with the passage of time, old wounds were healed, past grievances mended, and hearts reconciled.
 
When my Dad leaned in close to hug my mom, a part of my heart was healed as well.
_____________________________
My Uncle Buddy and Aunt Kathy arrived as did Bob’s son and we stood around chatting about old times and fun memories that made us laugh. I even had a high school friend whose father was in a room a few doors down pop her head in to say hi and we invited her to stay at our makeshift celebration of life.
My mom was hilarious, cracking one liners like a stand-up comedian on stage. How could she even find the words? How could she even tell the stories?
On the day my mother died, she gave us the gift of  joy.
_______________________________
After about an hour, her energy began to wane, her words began to slur, and her eyes started to shut like all the days before. It was her last hurrah. Each person in the room took their cues like a carefully orchestrated play, the final act halfway through. They hugged my mom, said their goodbyes, and left this space, knowing they would never see my mom again.
Bob and I remained the entire day.
______________________________
In the afternoon, the reverend arrived to check on her as she slept in the bed. He prayed over her, a final blessing bestowed on her frail, weak body.
He knew her time was near.
________________________________
Her favorite oncologist, Dr. K stopped by in the late afternoon, the shock on his face at her quick demise transparent for all to see. My mom loved Dr. K. She begged and begged for him to visit her, to call her, to talk to her, anything at all, but we never heard a response.
Until he showed up at her door.
On the day of her death.
I believe she couldn’t let go until she had one last moment with him as well.
________________________________
The nurses changed shifts. Those that had spent the day with us came back for a final goodbye. My mom adored these nurses. They adored her. They took such amazing care of her during her brief stay. One nurse even brought in her baby boy cradled on her hip:
“I believe when someone dies, a part of their spirit lives on in those who are near. I want my son to soak up her spirit. There is so much love and joy in this room.
 
 ________________________________
When the sun started to set, my cousin Amy arrived and she had an opportunity to say goodbye as well. She stayed for a bit as light turned to darkness, then rain started to fall.
Bob realized the front doors would close at 9:00 PM and we would have to exit the back of the hospital then walk all the way around the perimeter of the facility to get to our cars later. He decided to move his car to the back entrance so we wouldn’t be drenched when it was time to leave.
Somehow we knew we wouldn’t be staying the night.
Somehow we knew we would have to carry all her things home.
Somehow we knew.
_________________________________
A little after 8:00 PM, I was overcome with emotion.
I knew.
 
This was it.
Through my sudden tears, I asked Amy to leave, a rush of apologies and incoherent sentences trying to explain the urgency of the moment. She quickly said goodbye with tears in her eyes and then there were two.
Me.
My mom.
Together.
_________________________________
 
For the first time in her entire 23 month battle with cancer, I told my mother she was not allowed to die.
 “No way did we come THIS far for you to die when Bob is gone.”
“Don’t. You. Dare.”
“You can hold on just a little longer, Mama. C’mon now. Just a few minutes more.”
I stared at the clock above the doorway in complete panic mode, praying desperately that Bob would return before she took her last breath. The minutes ticked by as I held her hand and watched her face, willing her with my mind to hang on until he arrived.
I don’t think I could have survived the guilt had she left this world with me by her side and not him.
__________________________________
When Bob walked through that doorway, I felt such a relief in my soul, that I knew God was with me the entire time. Her time was here, but so were we.
“I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
 
__________________________________
 
Nurses arrived again, but this time it was to unhook the high-flow oxygen tube and replace it with an oxygen mask.
We watched the inside of the mask cloud with her breath, then clear when she inhaled.
We kept waiting for the breath we knew would cease to come.
__________________________________
Bob held her right hand.
I held her left.
We sat and waited, both whispering to my mom how much we loved her.
___________________________________
She took a breath.
Exhaled.
Clouded mask.
Nothing more.
____________________________________
9:01 PM.
May 4, 2017
She’s gone.
___________________________________
This year of firsts without my mom has been heartbreaking. We tried our best to make her final days complete with celebrations of love, but there were still so many milestones that carried on without her.
How does one heal a broken heart?
 
By loving those still here every chance they get.
Never miss an opportunity to tell someone you love them. Don’t turn down an offer to connect with an old friend. Live your life to the fullest, embracing each and every moment with the joy and exuberance of childlike wonder.
Make memories. Be silly. Do things that will create funny stories that will be shared for years to come.
Be passionate. Be kind. Be you.
Love yourself.
Love others.
And know that your life has meaning for those around you.
Be the star that sparkles in the darkness.
And when the darkness comes your way?
Shine even brighter.

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First Birthday in Heaven

Today is my mom’s birthday.

In my memory, she is frozen in time.

Vibrant.

Laughing.

Joyful.

Alive.

In my first motherless birthday post from September, I described some of the birthday memories my mom and I shared over the years. One of my favorites was from her 60th birthday where I surprised her with a birthday brunch at The Jefferson Hotel. Her radiant smile and infectious joy is what I miss most from that day.

 

In this year of firsts without her, each day is a reminder:

Time is short.

Small acts matter. 

Life goes on. 

Today I wanted to put a little joy in this world by doing a few acts of kindness to celebrate my mom’s special day. We had an unexpected day off school – the sixth snow day this month – so I decided to make a quick run to the grocery store up the road and sprinkle some kindness while I could.

My first stop was the little Starbucks kiosk where I asked the barista if I could buy a drink to be given to the next stranger who ordered one. He looked at me a bit perplexed, so I glanced at his name tag and tried again.

“Hi Eric. I’m doing small acts of kindness to celebrate my mom’s birthday today. She passed away last year, but I wanted to add some joy to the world in memory of her, so I wanted to buy a stranger’s drink. Can you help me with that?”

Another barista named Keayanna overheard our conversation and shared her experience with acts of kindness.

“Somebody did that for me once. It completely changed my day.”

Eric was still a bit skeptical, but I persisted, determined to make someone else’s day brighter. “What’s in it for you? Are you sure you don’t want to order something for yourself?” At this point, I was laughing. I couldn’t wait for him to experience the joy of playing a role in someone else’s kindness surprise.

He rang up my purchase and handed me the receipt which I taped to the back of my handwritten note. I passed the note back to Eric and said, “Just give this to the next person who orders a drink and let them know it’s free!”

I walked away empty-handed, but filled with joy.

My free coffee note

 

Eric and Keayanna at the Rutland Kroger sharing kindness with others.
My next stop was the bakery. What’s a birthday celebration without cake? I saw a woman at the counter placing a cake in her cart and without hesitation I went up to her and introduced myself.
“Hi. My name is Tamara and I’m doing acts of kindness in celebration of my mom’s birthday today. Since she passed away last year, I can’t buy her a cake… would it be OK if I blessed you instead by purchasing the cake in your basket?”
The woman looked back at me in surprise then said, “Are you sure? That is so nice of you!”
I walked with her to the checkout line as she shared with me that her husband had lost a parent this past November. “It’s too fresh to really talk about it…” and no more words were needed. She shared that her husband, Jimmy, was having a tough time today with it being his first birthday without his mom. I knew exactly how he felt.
It was obvious that she and Jimmy needed this act of kindness today.
And what joy! Jimmy and my mom share the same birthday and Jimmy shares the same name as my grandfather. Some coincidence, huh?
I paid for her cake, returned it to her cart, then we went our separate ways. My heart was lifted yet again.
The birthday cake for Jimmy

 

Purchasing Jimmy’s cake with my handwritten note
The remainder of my trip to the store was leaving little surprises for others to discover. What kinds of things would I have bought my mom on her special day?
Ice cream treat.
 
Nutter Butter cookies.
 
Flowers.
For each item, I included enough money to purchase the items with more handwritten notes attached. It brought me such joy to imagine how my mom would squeal with surprise had she discovered such acts of kindness during a mundane chore of grocery shopping.
“What would you do for a Klondike bar?”

 

My surprise hidden in the frozen foods section of the store.

 

Doesn’t cost much to make someone smile! (Yes, I included change for tax, too!)

 

Maybe a child will find this one! (Hopefully not a child with a peanut allergy!)

 

My mom always loved flowers, big and small.
As I finished up my grocery shopping and headed to the self-checkout lane, I had to laugh when I saw the number above:
Of course.
Today is January 18.
My mom’s first birthday in heaven.
Happy birthday, Mama.
 
My last birthday celebration with my mom – January 18, 2017
So much birthday love! Mom and Bob – January 18, 2017
 

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Bakery Birthday

 

One of my favorite memories from our day in New York City was the kindness surprise shown to my sister-in-law, Dee. We had been walking around the city in 14 degree temperature, our faces numb by the chill of the wind with hands long since frozen in our gloves. Our legs were stiff, but our hearts were happy as we approached our final destination: Carlo’s Bakery.

Now if you are a fan of the TLC show Cake Boss, you are probably familiar with Carlo’s Bakery, known for their sweet confectionery delights. It’s a tiny little bakery on the corner of 8th Avenue and 42nd Street right along the fringes of Times Square. (There are other locations in NJ and around NY, but this was the closest to our travels.)
The place was PACKED! Just trying to open the door was a challenge as people were lined up from wall-to-wall, but it was exciting to finally mark another item off our must-see bucket list!

 

They had a small glass window where you could peek in at the bakers and cake decorators as they prepared items for purchase. Oh, how I wish photos could capture aromas! There is no sweeter smell than that of freshly baked treats!

 

 

The cases of delicacies stretched across the entire front of the store. Cakes. Cannolis. Cookies. Brownies. What a perfect place to celebrate a birthday! Such an endless array of options!

 

 

 

 

My personal favorite – the black and white cookie – a shout out for all the Seinfeld fans out there!
Every now and again there was a worker who would hop on the corner of the checkout stand and shout to the crowd in a fun and jovial way. The crowd would shout back and for just a moment you forgot that you were in a crowded city of strangers – everyone felt like family.
As the line inched forward, I tried to plan out my birthday surprise for my sister-in-law. I pondered what to do to make her day even sweeter when another worker approached me to take my order.
“Do you do anything special for birthdays?” I asked.
It was a simple inquiry, one without expectation, but the smile on the worker’s face let me know that he had an idea of something he could do.
“What’s her name?” he questioned.
“Her name is Dee and today is her actual birthday!” I replied.
I pointed to my sister-in-law in her long red coat, her attention drawn to the cupcakes in front of her, and the worker nodded, then returned to the business of placing my order.
I had no idea what to expect, but there was an energy of anticipation as I waited to see what, if anything, would happen.
I didn’t have to wait long.
Without warning, the other worker hopped back on top of the counter again and shouted to the crowd.
“Anybody in here have a birthday today? Where’s Dee?”
I fumbled with my phone as I tried to capture all the fun of the moment, my sister-in-law completely surprised as the entire shop wished her a happy birthday. I panned around and the one thing that struck me about all the strangers packed like sardines in this tiny bake shop was this:
Everyone was smiling.
Smiling. 
It was a simple act of kindness, from Carlo’s Bakery to us, but – wow – what an impact it had on our day! Check out the video to see it all unfold!

Their kindness continued as they made special arrangements to meet the needs of my niece who has a peanut allergy. Then, when Dee’s name was called to pick up her purchases, they presented her with an extra cannoli – free of charge! What a delightful birthday surprise!

Shortly after our visit to Carlo’s Bakery we made the long trek home with our sweet treats to share. Our joy continued the entire way; a reminder that we mattered, even in a crowded corner bake shop in the city.

Check back throughout the month of January when I spotlight various acts of kindness in the city. I would love for you to comment below with your experiences, too! 


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Cotton Candy Skies

 

My daughter coined the phrase first, her tiny hand tucked neatly in mine as we walked on the sidewalk near dusk. “Look, Mommy!” she squealed, her face glowing with excitement, “God made cotton candy skies!” My eyes turned upward as we stopped in our tracks, the view so breathtakingly beautiful all we could do was watch in hushed amazement as the colors swished and swirled against each other, a vivid masterpiece of brilliance that dissipated as quickly as it began.

Even though she was only five, her metaphor resonated with me and for more than a decade we have repeated the phrase each time we see a sunrise or sunset that shimmers with shades of pink, purple, and blue.

Cotton candy skies are rare as they only occur for a few moments and not shown every day. They are easy to miss if your focus is on other things. This morning as I was writing in the shadows of my living room, my attention was drawn from the words on my laptop to the window on my left. From the corner of the glass, I caught the darkened sky filling with layers of pink and knew the sun was starting to rise. Immediately the laptop was put aside as I raced to find shoes and a coat, unlocking the door to view the sunrise from the middle of my street.

This morning’s sunrise was spectacular!

As I stood there staring at the incredible shades of light, I became hyperaware of the sights and sounds around me. I heard the birds chirping in the distance and saw leaves fluttering to the ground. I gazed at the bands of color stretching across the sky as the morning sun peeked through the distance.

There were no cars.

No people.

Just me with the cotton candy sky.

It was exactly what I needed to start my day.

This month Theresa Holloran has been sharing her insights from The Zen Teacher: Creating Focus, Simplicity, and Tranquility in the Classroom, written by Dan Tricarico. It’s been a joy to see her favorite sections of this book and her reflections on the passages. Today’s post came from page 120: “Find your happy place. And then go there as often as you can.”

Today I am thankful for the small moments that fill us with childlike wonder and fill our hearts with gratitude. I spent a few moments in my happy place and it completely transformed my day. How will you start yours?

As we transition into the holiday season and fill our calendars with activities and events, I challenge you to find your happy place.

Look up.

Embrace the stillness.

Breathe.


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Lego Lessons


“Mommy, will you play with me?”

His eight-year-old voice rang in my ears as I finished the sentence I was typing, my manuscript interrupted yet again. I could feel the urgency to swish him away with my hand, knowing if I could just write for a little bit more I could finish this chapter. I was so close! The words were flowing so well! Just a half hour more and I could take a break.

I looked up from my laptop and saw him standing there, his small hand holding out a Lego figure that matched the illustrations on his favorite pajama pants. When my eyes raised up to meet his, I knew in an instant how I would spend the rest of my morning.

Instead of writing about kindness, I needed to show kindness to my son.

He guided me to our staircase as he explained the rules of his game.

“Mommy, you sit on the floor over there. You get to put Lord Garmadon anywhere you want, but you’ve got to stand him up. I’m gonna sit up here and slide down the Lego Ninjagos and we’re gonna see who knocks him down. It will be awesome!”

The excitement in his voice was infectious. He was proud of himself for creating a game we could both play and he was certain he would win the first round. I set up Lord Garmadon and one by one he slid his Lego figures down the base of our banister.

 

Round 1: Complete failure. 

All the Lego Ninjagos were scattered on the floor and steps, yet Lord Garmadon was still standing in all his fierceness. According to the rules of the game, my son and I couldn’t swap roles until Lord Garmadon was eradicated from his reign over the others. He had to try again.

And again.

And again.

After the fourth trial, his frustration started to show as he exclaimed, “How can this be so hard?” He started to tinker with his strategy. He tried to slide them along the edge. He removed and added weapons. He tried head first, then feet first.
We moved Lord Garmadon to a new spot on the floor, a little more to the right, a little farther back, noticing that this is where most of the Lego people would land after taking flight from the banister. Still no luck knocking him down.

 

And then it happened.
SUCCESS!
Lord Garmadon fell backwards and my son’s joy reverberated from the stairwell. He did it! He really did it!
We switched roles and now I was charged with guiding the Legos down the banister. It didn’t take long before my son started offering suggestions for improvement.
“Move that guy a little closer to the edge, Mommy.”
“If you have him hold the nunchucks, they might fly out and hit him when he lands.”
“No, Mommy, don’t take his hat off. If his hat flies off and knocks him down, it still counts as a win.”
We were teammates, helping each other with tactics and strategies. The teacher in me recognized all the things he was learning in his game: the correlation of force and motion with gravity, the mathematical insights of angles, the scientific experiments of cause and effect with dependent and independent variables.
Persistence.
Analysis.
Grit.
But to him, we were just playing a game.
 
We continued taking turns setting up Lord Garmadon and knocking him down, our game increasing in difficulty as our technique improved. We set him up behind obstacles and used the opposite banister to launch. We had dozens of trials, even more modifications.
His older brother came downstairs, observed our game, and promptly stated, “That’s impossible. You can’t knock him down from there.” That declaration sparked a rush of denial, an urgency to prove him wrong.
It wasn’t impossible.
 
We just needed to improve our attack.
We tried again.
And again.
And again.
And then…

 

We mastered our game!
I was reminded of valuable lessons from our Lego time together:
 
It’s OK to lose the first time you try.
 
A quick win from the start would have shortened the length of our game, but we learned so much more by trial and error. The failures and mistakes showed us what didn’t work, thus narrowing down options for strategies that might.
Embrace the power of “yet”.
Carol Dweck states in her TED Talk “The Power of Believing You Can Improve” (as well as her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success) that children with a growth mindset engage deeply and embrace the challenge of accomplishing something just outside of their reach. They discover an error, process it, and learn from it. I saw this first-hand with my child and his Lego game. Even when the bouts of frustration started to creep in, he didn’t shut down and throw a tantrum. He understood completely that he hadn’t mastered the game yet.
 
Sometimes we need to listen to the whisper on our hearts and make time for things that matter. 
I didn’t finish writing Chapter 8, but I can always get back in the groove later. I may never get another opportunity to battle Lord Garmadon with my son. He is growing older and there will come a day where he doesn’t play with Legos nor want his mom to join in his fun. It’s important to recognize opportunities to be kind to others (even our own children!), to say “yes”, to shift our priorities, to strengthen our relationships.
Today my passion for kindness was for him.
 
And like a boomerang, that kindness bounced back to me.

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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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