grief, kindness

Hearts of Hope

Friends, it’s been a really tough week. 

Last Saturday, as I was putting the finishing touches on my Braille kindness rocks, I received the phone call no one ever wants to receive.

It was my friend, Amy, who teaches students with special needs at our local middle school. She’s also the teacher of my sweet backyard neighbor, Ashton, who was in her care for the past five years. Even before I answered her call, I already knew it was bad news. Tears welled up in my eyes before I could even say hello.

“It’s Ashton. She’s gone.”

The sob that erupted from my soul was loud and ugly, as my body shook in complete and utter anguish. Even now as I’m typing these words, the tears are back again, reminders that my heart is still raw and aching over the loss of this sweet girl.

16 years old.

Gone.

No. No. No.

I spent the rest of the weekend in a daze, the sorrow enveloping me like a cloud of darkness, no light shining through. Painting provided a brief solace, so I picked up my paintbrush and sat at the table, staring at the supplies that were never put away after Saturday morning’s devastating news.

Kindness rocks.

Ashton loved the color pink. In fact, she had her own fundraiser and Facebook Page dedicated to her favorite color: It Comes in Pink. I counted the extra rocks I had in my container and was shocked at the total.

16 rocks.

16 years.

Oh my.

That was my sign. I needed to paint Kindness rocks for Ashton. I pondered for a bit about what to create, what message to send out to the world, then it came to me.

Hope

Ashton’s sixteen years were filled with hope and promise of embracing the joys in each and every day. When her parents, Chris and Laurie, received the diagnosis of Ashton’s condition at nine months of age, they were told she probably wouldn’t live long enough to attend elementary school. Niemann-Pick Type C (NPC) disease is extremely rare with only 500 diagnosed cases in the world and no known cure.

And their precious firstborn had it.

In their heartbreak, they made the decision to live life with Ashton to its fullest. Nothing was taken for granted. They watched their precious daughter’s body slowly succumb to the limitations of this disease, and yet they still celebrated life with exuberance.

They went on vacations. Played in the snow. Rode in boats on the river and sat along the shore.

They built a playground in the backyard then added a handicap-accessible swing. They built a ramp off the side of their deck when steps became too much to manage. They replaced carpet with wood flooring and added handles to hold in their bathroom.

When Ashton started to wobble when she walked, she received leg braces, which of course came in pink. When she needed more stability, she received a walker until walking was too much of a challenge. When the time came to transition to a wheelchair, she had to have the one in pink.

Her heart radiated love to everyone she met. She had an incredible sense of humor and often got the giggles at the most inappropriate things. She was a treasure to anyone who ever had the pleasure of being in her presence.

To us, she was simply Ashton. We’ve spent the past twelve years sharing a backyard and I’ve been blessed to see this sweet girl grow up. Her younger sister, Emily, doted on her, their bond of sisterhood stronger than many siblings I know.

Despite the challenges that constantly came her way, Ashton’s determination and perseverance were unmistakable. She showed us all the true meaning of hope and unconditional love.

For Ashton’s rocks, I chose yellow as the background to represent her bright smile and the joy that radiated from the twinkling in her eyes. I painted one pink heart on each rock with the word “Hope” in white, then added a little bit of glitter inside the heart, because Ashton was always a sparkle to anyone’s day. On the back I added “For Ashton” with the date that she became healed and whole.

Sixteen kindness rocks.

Sixteen hearts of hope.


On Monday morning, as I was putting on my makeup, I couldn’t believe what I saw on my brush: one perfectly formed heart staring back at me.

I had to smile at the little Godwink I received, as my heart was still so heavy from Ashton’s passing. It was as if Ashton was sending me a hug straight from heaven.


On Wednesday afternoon following the graveside service, Laurie shared a story with me about how she had gone for a quick run to clear her mind and her digital watch beeped, displaying one lone heart.

No numbers.

No words.

Just one simple heart.


Today we shared in a Celebration of Life service and were reminded again and again of Ashton’s impact on this world in her short sixteen years. Ashton’s physical challenges never stopped her from giving the most precious gifts to others: hope and love.

After the service, we returned home and when time came for afternoon dismissal of school, I walked to the corner of our street, waiting to walk my son home from the bus stop. A car approached and it was Chris, Laurie, and Emily returning home from the service. They stopped and rolled down the window and chatted a bit, as we often do when we pass one another in the neighborhood.

As they drove away towards their house, I caught a glimpse of the sun peeking through the clouded skies above.

There was a heart in the middle of heaven.

And another.

And another.

I fumbled to open my phone and take a photo, the shapes dissipating as quickly as they formed. I watched the clouds shift and slide across the sky and felt the slightest breeze wrap around me.

I believe Ashton sent us her own hearts of hope right in the moment we needed them most.

Can you see the hearts in my photo?

Can you see the hearts in those you meet?

Look harder.

They’re there.

In honor of Ashton Friedl, the family has asked for donations to the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Fund (APMRF) at Notre Dame which is dedicated to finding a cure for Niemann-Pick Type C (NPC) disease. For more information, please visit https://parseghianfund.nd.edu/it-comes-in-pink.


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education, grief, reflection

On That Day

 

On that day, I opened the door to my third grade classroom having no idea that our country would be under attack within the hour.

On that day, I marked attendance, taking for granted that every child would be present that day and the next.

On that day, I watched as students unpacked their backpacks and got settled in, waiting for me to teach them lessons they needed to learn.

On that day, I discovered just how important it was to be their teacher.


They were seven and eight years old. They had no concept of terror other than the make-believe monsters that hid under their beds and the shadows that played tricks on them at night. They slept with their favorite stuffed animals and baby dolls and wrote stories about cats and dogs, flowers and friends.

Our day was blissfully normal in every way. In Tennessee, school had begun a few weeks before; we were still getting to know one another. A knock on my door changed everything.

“A plane just flew into the Twin Towers. It’s on TV, but don’t let your kids see.”

Minutes later, I took the students to their specials class, then raced back to my room to watch the events unfold in real-time horror.

Another plane.

Fire.

Smoke.

Collapse.

Chaos.

Shock.

Students returned to class and I had to continue teaching as if nothing had happened. How could I begin to explain that day when I didn’t even understand it myself?

All I could do was hug my students a little tighter, a little longer, reminding them how important they were to me. I told each and every student that I loved them.

It’s been 17 years since 9/11 and I remember it like it was yesterday.

And each year, I receive a message from one of those eight year olds who sat in my class that day.

“Hey, Mrs. Letter. I hope all is well for you. I just wanted to say that every year I remember that day and I remember the conversation we had on the reading mat in your room. I remember the questions we asked and the confusion we all had at what was happening and why those “bad guys” would do such a thing, etc. but I also remember feeling safe in your classroom. I always knew that as long as I was in your class (even from wasps… which you taught us how to ignore when they fly in the portable) and I knew I was loved. Pretty vivid memories for a third grader but that’s the impact you left on me and I thought I’d remind you!”

Some years the message sent is long; other years the message is short and sweet. But for one day of the year we are connected again, teacher and student, with a bond that will never be broken. I am reminded of the life-long impact we have on our students’ lives with our words and actions, even in those moments of unscripted conversations that are raw and real.

We keep our students safe.

We remind them they are loved.

We put on our battle armor and shield our students from a world that is complicated and cruel at times.

On that day, I decided evil would not win.

On that day, I discovered love was louder.


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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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grief, mom, reflection

11 Months

 

Today marks 11 months since I sat on my mom’s bedside, held her hand, and watched helplessly as she took her last breath.

11 months since eyes that sparkle,

11 months since squeals of delight;

11 months of silent stillness,

11 months to write.

This time last year was the beginning of the end. My mom was in her final battle of a two-year war with lung cancer, trying desperately to fight with every ounce of strength in her soul. She was taking immunotherapy in a last-ditch effort to minimize the cancerous growth invading her vital organs, but with each treatment she endured, it made her body weaker and harder to breathe.

When my mom had her scheduled appointment in mid-April, the doctor recommended that she go straight to the hospital. “I’m a little concerned about your breathing,” he said. “I think you need to get that checked out right now.”

So my mom dutifully followed the doctor’s orders, her husband, Bob, driving her directly to the hospital following the appointment. Everyone expected her to have a breathing treatment or two, then to be released and go about her way.

My mom never returned home.

I started to write about our journey, even as death was slowly slipping from possibility to reality. It was a story told with words and photographs, capturing the turmoil of “not so great news” mingled with kindness, love, and memories.

As one week in the hospital lapsed into two, and my mom’s condition diminished from bad to worse, I took photos. Lots and lots of photos. I wanted to capture every memory possible.

I took photos as friends and family visited with my mom. I took photos of flowers delivered to her room. I took photos of her so I could hold on to one more smile, one more moment of joy. I took photos of us together.

On Monday of her final week, my mom suffered unimaginable pain. Her throat was closing in, every swallow “like rubbing alcohol poured over an open wound.” Those were the doctor’s words because at that point, my mom couldn’t speak.

Actually, she couldn’t do much at all as her movements were hindered from the pain medicine and her lucid moments were becoming nonsensical. She had lost the dexterity to hold a cup in her hands so we were feeding her tiny ice cubes from Sonic and hoping she wouldn’t choke in the process. We finally had to resort to swabbing the inside of her mouth with a small sponge soaked in water.

The evening before, I asked if she wanted me to sing to her, reaching for an old hymnal I had used in my days of singing with a church choir. She closed her eyes and nodded, so I sang. By the time I finished the second verse of Amazing Grace, she had fallen back to sleep.
It was the first and last time I ever sang to my mother, just me and her. It’s a memory I will never forget.

That Monday was a horrible, horrendous day. The doctors told us there wasn’t much more they could do, but hospice couldn’t take over until we agreed to have my mom moved to another facility for care. We were at a crossroads, an impasse. My mom was on high flow oxygen, maxed out to the greatest level she could endure. To remove her from this machine for transport would most likely end in fatality. They wanted us to make the final decision.

We were caught in the quagmire of one department committed to helping people heal and renew with the other committed to helping people die with dignity. All the while, my mom suffered in the bed before our eyes. It was by far one of the most excruciating days I have experienced as a child caring for a parent.

That evening, as I was about to leave for the night, not knowing if I would ever see my mom again, she sat up in bed as if struck by a bolt of lightning. She opened her eyes and lifted her shaking hand, pointing at the notepad and pen lying on the table near her bed.

My mom was always a note taker. As a secretary, she had taken countless notes of tasks to complete, documents to preserve, and general notes of this and that. She loved little spiral journals with colorful pens that could easily glide across the paper. She was extremely proud of her meticulous handwriting.

Over the years I’ve received several letters from my mom. Some were penned in anger and frustration; others filled with passionate perspectives she needed to share.

But my mom couldn’t write anymore. She couldn’t even hold a pen.

And yet… there she was. Sitting straight up in bed, pointing to her pen and paper. I opened the journal to a blank page and uncapped a pen. She grasped it, her hands continuing to shake as she scrawled lines across the page.

I leaned over to catch a glimpse of what she was writing, still in shock and amazement that she was sitting up with the pen in her hand, when I realized she was actually writing words. They were disjointed and repeated, the pain meds and cancer-ridden body struggling to get the thoughts on paper, but they were there.

Words.

Real words.

With real purpose.

My mom was writing one final letter to me.

 

 

 

 
“I love you more than anything, if these are my last words. Love, your Mama.”
 
This is when I broke.
I hugged her and thanked her for being my mom and choosing to bring me into this world so many years ago. She whispered three simple words as I took another selfie with her. My heart was paradoxically broken and complete.
These were the last words my mom ever wrote on paper.
 
Three days later she was gone.
 
Today, as I mark the milestone of 11 months on the calendar, I remember the power of words and the incredible gift of photos to capture all of life’s moments for generations to come.
Never underestimate the gifts you have to share with your loved ones and the world around you.
Take your photos.
Write your letters.
Make sure people know they are loved.
For these are the moments that matter.
 
These are the moments that live on.

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education, grief, ITRT, kindness

Kindness Rocks for Parkland

 

There are times in life where we can’t begin to imagine the global impact of our actions. We are focused on our one moment in time, doing what we do, thinking, “That’s it! Mission accomplished. On to the next thing.”

We have no idea how far our seeds can scatter.

Two weeks ago we celebrated Random Acts of Kindness week (#RAKweek2018), a global celebration of kindness promoted by the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation. As part of our year-long “Passion for Kindness” initiative, we decided that Valentine’s Day would be a perfect day to dive into a new project – scattering seeds of kindness throughout our school to remind people that they matter.

We transformed our Innovation Lab into two work stations:

Kindness Posters/Hearts of Gratitude – Students could create kindness posters to display around the school or write notes of gratitude for staff members

Kindness Rocks – Students could paint inspiring messages on rocks to hide around campus to be discovered by others

Our planning caught the eye of our local news station, WTVR Channel 6 news, and Rob Cardwell visited our lesson to showcase it on their Building Better Minds segment. It was an exciting day for us as we have continually expressed to our students the importance of sharing their story with the world and using digital communication for good. Now we had an opportunity to make it happen for REAL!

We began our lesson by revisiting the progress on Jet Stream Jax’s Peaceful Hearts Playground, as our students had donated coins in the fall for the Kind Coins campaign to rebuild school playgrounds following the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. We zoomed in to the photos Barbara Gruener provided of their kindness rocks and peeked at her Flipgrid to see an example of the messages they painted on their rocks. We also talked a bit about how kindness rocks have been used in our local community with #rvarocks on Twitter and RVA Rocks Facebook Group.

The students spent the next forty minutes creating and collaborating; it was a delight to show our visitors how seamlessly we incorporate our state-mandated content of reading and writing with character development, social emotional learning (SEL) skills, and the 5C’s of successful life skills. Our rocks were set aside to dry and we made plans to hang our posters and share our hearts of gratitude later in the week.

 

 

 

That afternoon the world learned about the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Another school shooting.

Flashbacks to Sandy Hook.

#26acts.

Now there are 17 more.

I. Can’t. Believe. This. Is. Happening.

_____________________________________

As an educator, my sweet little world of kindness came to a crashing halt.

Again.

I wrote a bit about my feelings in my I Can post as the tragedy swirled in my brain. The next day it was business as usual in my elementary school, but I felt the weight of the horror pressed against me, a dark cloud suffocating the joy from the day before. I wanted to do something, anything, to share kindness with this school community who would be forever changed by the events on Valentine’s Day. But what on earth could we do to possibly help them?

Kindness rocks.

I brought the idea to Mrs. Madison and her students to see if they would be interested in donating their beautifully painted kindness rocks to another school that might need a little reminder of hope and love and joy. They readily agreed.

We did not talk about the tragedy at hand; but rather, we talked about the impact kindness has when it is scattered and shared with others. We imagined what it would be like for others to find our rocks and how they could keep the rock as a reminder of kindness or hide it again for someone else to find.

“Can we make more rocks, Mrs. Letter? So we can send them some AND keep some here?”

More rocks.

More paint.

Hope and love and joy.

 

_____________________________________


Say their names” was a constant whisper on my heart. I decided to make seventeen of our rocks memorial rocks, one for each of the lives lost on that day. As I added their names to my bullet journal, I lifted up a prayer for each of the families whose pain was greater than I could bear.

On the back of each kindness rock, I added their names then wrote encouraging messages on the remaining rocks. I captured each rock using Flipgrid (Code: 5ea50c) so anyone who finds a rock with #kind4MSD on the back could leave a video response in return.

 

 

My assistant principal, Mr. Davis, posted the Flipgrid on our school’s Facebook page, which caught the attention of my district. They, in turn, created a video compilation of the memorial rocks to post on our district social media sites.

MES Facebook Post

 

HCPS Facebook Post

The next morning, our rocks were mentioned on the news.

By a different news station than the one who had filmed our lesson the week before.

The seeds of kindness are scattering.

_____________________________________
 

In times of complete and utter helplessness, we often feel paralyzed, like there is nothing we can to do make a difference, no action we can provide that will make things better. I felt that immobilization for a solid week before I realized that all the tools I needed to show compassion were with me the entire time.

Kind words.

Kind actions.

A heart to comfort the pain of another.

We are sending out our kindness rocks to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School this week in hopes that when they arrive, someone at the school will hide them around campus to be discovered by students and staff. We will check our #kind4MSD hashtag periodically to see if there are any updates or posts from others or perhaps it will spark more kindness rocks to be created and shared around the world!

Be the good.

Share in kindness.

Inspire others.

_____________________________________

On Tuesday, March 6, WRIC Channel 8 News in Richmond, Virginia, showcased our kindness rocks during their 6pm broadcast. On Wednesday, March 14, WTVR Channel 6 News showcased our kindness rocks during their Building Better Minds segment at 6am and 6pm.

Follow Tamara on Twitter or connect with her Passion for Kindness Facebook group to join in the fun of sharing kindness. Tamara is also writing a book about kindness with Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc. to share her kindness journey with the world!

For more information on kindness rocks read this post by Rachel Moravec, visit #rvarocks on Twitter, or connect with RVA Rocks on Facebook.


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I Can

Today was a difficult day.

I arrived at school, the hearts of gratitude created by our students still sparkling on my table, their endearing messages and sweet sentiments reminding me of our kindness lesson the day before.
 
Before.
Students entered the building and several peeked in the Innovation Lab, seeking me out, smiles and open arms reaching for the hugs they receive each day on the way to class.
To an observer, it was a typical day.
To an educator, it was anything but.
My heart is heavy.
I feel guilty that I could tuck my kids into bed last night when others faced empty bedrooms.
I am heartbroken that there are students in this world who feel so unloved, filled with so much pain, tortured by so much hate, that taking the lives of others is acceptable in their minds.
Today I looked around at the students entrusted to my care and made a point to show them respect.
Show them patience.
 
Show them love.
In times like this, I feel completely overwhelmed and helpless. Who am I to think I can change the world? How could one little act of kindness truly make a dent in all these horror stories that fill each news channel I see?
I can’t fix yesterday.
I can’t bring back lives lost.
I can’t ease the pain of a grieving parent, nor can I mend the broken heart of a family who will never see their dad again.
But instead of focusing on the cant’s and can nots, I will chose to embrace I can.
I can call a student by name with a smile.
I can stop in the hall and listen to a story a child is bursting to tell.
I can remind students that they matter, that I care about them, that they have value and worth in my eyes.
I can choose to believe in the good and the power of positivity.
I can believe my planted seeds of kindness will one day sprout into a heart of compassion and empathy for others.
I can look for the good in others and trust that the ripple effect of your kindness and my kindness and the kindness of many will spread far and wide to make this world a better, safer place to live.
I can.
 
And so can you.

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grief

Resilience

I started this blog post in April and never finished it, the pain too raw to share. I was in the midst of watching my mom deteriorate, her body weakened from the throes of terminal cancer. As I sat by her bedside, watching her rest, I began writing about my #oneword17 – resilience.

On January 1, I knew it would be a tough year. I had watched my mom undergo two rounds of chemo with a third on the way and the outlook was pretty grim. I knew I would need to be strong for her, strong for my kids, strong for the family.

Resilience was the only word that came to mind.

I tried to write about resilience as the storms of life swirled around me, but the breadth and depth were too much to describe with accuracy. It seemed like every time I caught my breath, I was swept away again, continuous tidal waves of chaos and heartbreak.

In May, after she passed away, I was in a fog for a bit as my beaten-down spirit struggled to keep up with all the “lasts” of my daughter’s senior year.

Prom. 

Dance Recital. 

Tennis Tournament.

Show Choir Performance. 

Graduation.

Two months later, I sent that same sweet girl to college, the first of my children to fly the coop.

The transition from a family of five to a family of four “with one away at school” was odd; my Momma’s soul was happy for my daughter’s new opportunities, but despondent by the new normal. It took a few weeks to adjust – resilience once again pulling me through.

Then I got the news that my Uncle Garland had passed away.

Another funeral.

Another paralysis.

Another rising again.

I threw myself into the new school year, helping to transform our traditional computer lab into an Innovation Lab. I quickly discovered that shifting a cultural mindset was much more complex than purchasing foldable tables and bean bag chairs.

Now here we are, the start of the holiday season and my world is busy, too busy actually. Last week I was faced with several project deadlines with limited available time. Being a recovering perfectionist, I battled the “must be 100% perfect” mentality as I stayed late at work each day then continued my work at home long after the boys were in bed.

We had Reading and Math night where it was standing room only in my Mission to Mars activity station. Four rotations later, I lost my voice. The next evening I drove three hours west to join others on the VSTE Conference Committee with four full days of non-stop action from morning to night.

With no voice.

This morning, as I was packing up to head home, I got the message that my cat died.

Friends, I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

This time last year, I was rushing home to visit with my dying mom. The year before that, I was rushing home to visit with my dying mother-in-law. Now the cat is gone and I’m rushing home to console my children while my heart is mourning, too.

Resilience.

The act of falling down flat on your face and figuring out how to pull through and start again.

And again.

And again.

It’s been a tough year, but one thing I’ve learned from my #oneword17 is that I am tougher than I ever thought I could be.

I just need a little break to rise again.

In memory of Pinky

 


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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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grief, mom, reflection, travel, vacation

Survivor’s Guilt

This month has been blur. Two weeks ago, my family and I traveled to Florida for the kickoff of an amazing vacation. We spent a day at Legoland then visited Sea World before boarding a Disney cruise ship to sail the seas with eleven additional family members (16 of us in all).

As many of you know, I’m a cruise gal. I love being whisked away to a different location with the taste of salt in the air, the ocean teasing me with its brilliance right outside my balcony door. I love being pampered (who doesn’t?) and enjoying a few days of not cooking dinner, not making my bed, not being the source of entertainment for my children. It’s a time for rest, reflection, rejuvenation. Even being disconnected from WiFi and cell service is a blissful change to my normally hectic world.

We plan our cruise vacations years in advance. The anticipation that builds prior to vacation is one that rivals birthday parties, holiday gift-giving, births and weddings. We talk about the activities we can’t wait to do. We reminisce about experiences from the last time we cruised. We imagine what will happen the next time we travel.

I take hundreds of photos during our cruises. They are my souvenirs, more precious than any t-shirt or postcard you will find. They remind me of beauty. Kindness. Peace. Joy.

But now, as I’m scrolling through all the photos from our vacation, I feel the need to add another word to that list: Guilt.

See, the cruise we took this year was a gift from my father-in-law, in memory of my mother-in-law who passed away March 2016. They wanted the extended family to have something to look forward to after she was gone, so they arranged for this vacation with everyone together.

Everyone except for mom.

My in-laws have cruised before. In fact, we invited them to share in our own cruise vacation in 2010 when my youngest child was only ten months old. We had a fabulous time making a lifetime of memories that week. Even today, we tease my now seven-year-old how Grandma and Grandpa searched the entire ship for a hot dog bun to appease him. Not the hot dog itself. The hot dog bun.

But now it’s different.

My mother-in-law is gone and we are still finding our own ways to heal from that loss.

During this cruise, we visited various ports. As we traveled to the same locations we had shared with her, I could feel her presence in so many ways. Oh, the memories that flooded my heart as we toured the aquarium at Atlantis and strolled the walkway at Castaway Cay! I felt her whisper on my shoulder from the gentle Caribbean breeze and her love from the warmth of the sun. Even at dinner I found myself lost in the conversation as I remembered the way she would smile and laugh at our reflections of the day.

We had an amazing vacation. Now we are home, re-acclimating to our everyday lives, and I am compiling the photos to share.

But now it’s different.

My mom is gone, too.

This trip had nothing to do with my mom at all as this was a celebration with my husband’s family. In fact, the loss of my mom was never mentioned by anyone the entire week. It wasn’t the focus of the trip, therefore it didn’t rise to the surface of conversation. It may have been the proverbial elephant in the room or perhaps not even a thought; either way, it wasn’t discussed. I briefly referenced her in a passing conversation about childhood memories, but that was it. My mom, her life, her death, were topics only for me to dwell upon.

Now here I am, pouring over hundreds of photos, wondering, “Who do I share these with now?”

Survivor’s guilt is real.

It’s only been two months since my mom’s death and I’m still riding the roller coaster of grief. I am paralyzed by the weight of sorrow as I remember the joy I experienced last week. How could I have allowed myself moments of fun on the heels of my mother’s demise? Why am I deserving to be blessed by the generosity of a family-funded vacation? Who really cares about my stories anyway? Why even share this with the world?

I am quickly learning that grief and guilt are seatmates in the cargo space of my mind.

So bear with me a bit as I navigate these crashing waves and searing riptides. My heart is still mending and I may seem a bit disconnected at times.

This coming week I will share stories from my cruise with parallels to my experiences as a mom, an educator, a daughter and friend.  My goal this year is to be more transparent in my reflections, so I thought this would be a great place to start. For those of you still sifting through the pain of loss, perhaps these stories will help us heal together.

I can’t share my stories with my mom anymore, so I will share them with you.


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grief, mom

One Month

It’s been exactly one month.
One month since she held my hand. Once month since I heard her laughter ringing against the walls. One month since I kissed her cheek. One month since I watched her take her final breath.
The pain is real.
I have replayed her last day with us so many times in my memory that one month feels like yesterday. The numbing shock of expected demise is now an aching grief. I try to write about the memories from our final week together and my fingers simply can’t type out the words.
There have been times in this past month where I have literally been paralyzed by grief. For those who know me well, this is quite a surprise because I am always on the go, a quintessential Pollyanna who always wears a smile. However, this month has been different. It’s been a month of mourning; her loss creating a pang of sweet sorrow in my heart. Her memory wraps itself around me like a warm blanket on a chilly morning. I feel her love and strength flowing through my soul and I can already see how her life and death has changed me.
 
This month has been surreal.
My thank-you notes still sit on my desk, the envelopes unmarked. I can hear her voice nagging in my head: “I did not raise you like that. You need to write those thank you notes because it’s the right thing to do.”
Her voice makes me laugh, then cry.
She’s right. I need to write the thank-you notes. I need to press on, move forward, stop sitting stagnant in my grief. The world isn’t going to stop for my mourning, nor should it. We all experience sadness and loss in our life at one time or another.
I am no different than you.
Today I’ve reached the one month mark and I’m surfacing from the crashing waves to take a breath. I feel the virtual veil of woe lifted and I can see the world around me with a deeper clarity than before. It’s time. Today is here. Let’s get this party started.
One way we decided to honor my mom was to create a GoFundMe page as a final act of kindness for her and today I have the privilege of blessing every single nurse who works on the Third Floor – Oncology Department at Henrico Doctor’s Hospital – Forest Campus.
For those who are just catching up with our story, my mom has battled Stage 4 Small Cell Lung since June 2015, a journey of highs and lows. On April 20, 2017, she was hospitalized so doctors could “do something about that breathing,” but she never left. On May 4, 2017 she passed away in the same room she entered two weeks before.
During her time at Henrico Doctor’s Hospital, she received the best care possible for her deteriorating condition. Each and every person who entered her room had a smile and kind word to say to my mom. She often remarked that it didn’t matter that this hospital was a half-hour away, on the other side of town. This was HER hospital. These were HER people.
And now they are mine as well.
Each day she would have a new crop of faces to greet her. “Good morning, Mrs. Shaver! How are you feeling today?” While I know it’s part of their job to greet the patient each morning and afternoon, I think we all knew there was something a little different about my mom.
She wasn’t just a cancer patient. She wasn’t here for a quick fix.
She was dying.
As my mom prepared for the final stage of her journey, these amazing people were her entourage. We designated them as her “personal concierge staff” as they made arrangements for her to have the best experience during her stay. We put on “sparkle lip gloss” (petroleum based Chapstick) and wore our “party clothes” (pajamas from home) so we were always ready for any new people to meet.
They made her feel like a superstar.
They took time to greet us and get to know us, asking about our other family members. They offered us makeshift beds and tried their best to lighten our load. They even stopped to smell the flowers, literally.
They helped us create a room of joy and laughter. They didn’t chastise us when we delivered a dozen Duck Donuts to the woman who had “no food by mouth” listed on her sheet. (Ooops, sorry! We truly didn’t know that was written until later!)
They turned a blind eye as we brought yet another person into my mom’s packed room to celebrate upcoming events we knew my mom would miss. (I think she may have broken the hospital record for the most visitors on a daily basis.)
They helped us prepare for the stages they knew were to come. They were honest, kind, and compassionate. They listened to our fears and hugged us when the words wouldn’t come. They offered creative suggestions to ease my mom’s pain, like making hospital smoothies with orange sherbert ice cream and ginger ale when the pain of swallowing became too difficult a task to bear. They even allowed me to bring in a wine glass for my mom to drink from (which is pretty funny when you realize my mom was in Alcoholics Anonymous for almost 25 years!)
They treated my mom with respect and dignity and when the time came to say goodbye, they came in together as “her crew” and posed for one last memory-making picture before their shifts changed for the night. One nurse even brought her seven-month son just to “soak up a little bit of the joy” as we celebrated our final moments together.
My mom adored these nurses so very much. Her eyes always lit up when they came into her room.
Alex. Jessica. Sara. Ellen. Audrey. Shannon.
We learned their names because they mattered to her;
 
We learned their names because they they mattered to us.
Today, one month later, I am surprising all 23 nurses on the oncology staff with a photo card of me and my mom drinking strawberry smoothies, one of the last drinks we enjoyed together. Attached to the photo is a Starbucks gift card so they can share in our joy with a strawberry smoothie, too.
It’s been exactly one month of mourning.
Now it’s time to live.

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