education, family, mom, reflection, writing

For the Love of Reading

“What kind of books do you like to read?”

I have to laugh when I hear someone ask this question, especially to children. Many will answer with a series or author name; a few will respond with a genre. Some will stare blankly with a shrug of their shoulders indicating disinterest in the question altogether. Even in elementary school, students have begun to label themselves by reading ability or interest. Have you ever heard one of these responses?

“I don’t like to read.”

“I’m not a good reader.”

“Reading is boring.”

My earliest memories of books revolve around my mom who was an avid reader. While we never had a formal bookshelf in our home, she would have stacks of books in her closet, under the coffee table, and in various bags in our spare bedroom. I can still see her now, curled up in a corner of the couch, covered in a blanket, hardback book opened with crisp, new pages waiting to be turned.

My mom’s passion for reading trickled down to me in small and meaningful ways. Unfortunately, my love for reading was a late discovery, as I was a product of the Red Bird, Blue Bird, Black Bird grouping of a decades-old educational system that judged my reading ability by lower-level comprehension questions and oral fluency peer comparison. According to my report card, I was an average reader. According to my passion, I was a skilled and reflective orator, retelling and correlating storylines to life lessons, emphasizing inspirational character traits with each story shared.

Since that time, I have easily read hundreds of books in a variety of genres that shift depending on my own life stages. No one requires me to take a test to prove my learning and I am freed from narrow constraints that dictate my reading selection.

I can read any book, at any time, without judgment or expectation.

I am a life-long reader.

From one of my first and favorite novels, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, to the humorous and sometimes horrific insights of Iggie’s House and Blubber by Judy Blume, my early teen years found comfort in learning about people’s experiences: their highs and lows, successes and failures.

In high school, I discovered biblical inspirations, marking my favorite quotes with colorful highlighters that occasionally bled through the other page. Handwritten notes with personal references in the margins reminded me that I am wonderfully made and bound for greatness. I was drawn to personal narratives shared in Daily Guideposts, providing inspiration 365 days of the year. Many of those verses and stories still come to mind today when I face trials and tribulations of living in an imperfect world.

In college, I bought a kit to build my own two-leveled bookshelf. It was made of cheap particle board and a bit wobbly, but it was mine. I quickly filled it with Shel Silverstein poetry books like Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic and treasured young adult novels like Where the Red Fern Grows and Bridge to Terabithia. I vowed to never watch a movie until I had read the book first.

In my twenties, I found great escape in the twisted tales spun by Stephen King and Dean Koontz, developing empathy for characters like Christopher Snow in Fear Nothing. Then my interests took a complete turnaround when I transitioned to motherhood, with a focus on baby board books like Guess How Much I Love You capturing the unexplainable love I had for the newborn baby rocking asleep in my arms.

I read to my child.

For my child.

With my child.

As I had more children, I made sure each had a bookshelf in their bedroom. The first was built by my husband, a simple 2′ x 4′ storage space crafted from pine and custom-sized to fit baby books, which was passed along to each child as they arrived. When a child outgrew the baby bookshelf, another one would appear in their room, magically filled with early reader books, graphic novels, and other books I had found at yard sales or Goodwill.

While there may not have been money to purchase name-brand shoes or the newest game console, there was always money available for books. From Junie B. Jones lamenting her first grade woes to Jack and Annie sharing their treehouse adventures, I tried my best to pass along my mother’s love for reading to her grandchildren.

Years later, when that same mother who sparked my love for reading faced her greatest battle of Stage 4 lung cancer (at the same time my mother-in-law was battling Stage 4 colon cancer), I turned to books like Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant to guide me through my loss and grief. On the day after my mother’s death, I received a package on my doorstep: Driving Miss Norma, the book my mom had pre-ordered for me as a Christmas gift six months before.

Even after her death, my mom was encouraging me to keep reading.

I am now in a season of enriching my educational practice with books like Teach Like a Pirate, Blogging for EducatorsBe Real, Make Learning Magical, Lead Like a Pirate, The Path to Serendipity, Lead with Culture, Professionally Driven and Social LEADia (and so many more – this paragraph could be a blog post in and of itself!) I am discovering the joys of reflective practice and learning from educators who stretch my thinking with their encouraging words.

I can also hear a new whisper on my heart:

“Write and share.”

In the journey from reader to writer, I see the interconnectedness of both, how words consumed and internalized are woven together into expressions and examples bursting forth to be shared. I have learned from writers before me how to scoop up fragments and phrases and mold them into visual experiences that unfold inside a reader’s mind.

To write well, you must be well read.

I am still perfecting my craft as a writer as I share blog posts like this, sparked by writing groups like #CompelledTribe who challenge me each month to keep writing, keep sharing, keep developing.

This time next year I will be an author myself with others holding my book to read. The thought is nearly incomprehensible. I am humbled to join the Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc. crew as an honorary pirate preparing for her maiden voyage. I can almost see in my mind’s eye my mom sitting on her sofa, wrapped in a blanket, reading my book A Passion for Kindness, her eyes brimming with tears of joy.

It’s a journey that will soon come full circle.

In celebration of #NationalBookMonth this October, I challenge you to share your experiences with books that have made an impact on your life. You may be surprised to discover that your words of reflection may inspire someone to add a new book to their collection! If you share a post, tag me, too – your words inspire me as well!


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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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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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RAK Week 2018 – The Gift

Today is the start of Random Act of Kindness week in the US! I’m so excited!! Promoted by the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, based out of Denver, Colorado, this is a week-long celebration of kindness ending on National Random Acts of Kindness Day (February 17). The week spans over Valentine’s Day which is a perfect holiday to show the world a little extra love and joy.

I absolutely LOVE this week, because the RAK Foundation does such great work in showcasing all the different ways people around the world are being kind. (For this year’s RAKs, check out the #RAKweek2018 hashtag on Twitter!) As a RAKtivist, it’s my joy to share my experiences with the world!

Yesterday, as I was making my final plans for all the little ways I would show kindness this week, a package arrived at my door. I looked at the return address and saw it was sent by a dear childhood friend. I vaguely remembered her asking for my address a while back, but I hadn’t given it another thought at the time.

I carefully opened the package and pulled out a handwritten note with a tiny silver box, taped shut. It’s not very often that I receive gifts like this, so I was equally perplexed and intrigued.

My heart started beating faster as I opened the handwritten note, tears filling my eyes even before I got to the bottom of the page.

My sweet friend,

I’m so proud of you! Your constant love for others shines and inspires me. It’s time for me to pay-it-forward with a RALLY – a Random Act of Lasting Love for You! My newest project if you will, has been taking older antique/vintage watches and turning them into something new. So far, I have only done things for family. Who am I kidding – we’re Secret Sisters, we’re family, too! You’re the first that’s not “blood.” 

As you embark on this new journey, I wanted you to have something special. Though time marches on (the watch case) – look to the stars in the heavens (the white stones inside the case) – and your sweet mother is smiling down on you (the garnet to represent her birthstone.) It’s delicate – not an everyday piece. Clean with a silver polishing cloth. It’s 14kt gold filled – most of the vintage cases were then – so don’t get it wet if you can help it. 🙂

Enjoy! 

With love,

Jennifer McMillen

Friends, there are times in our lives when the kindness of others is so overwhelmingly beautiful, so pure and real, that you honestly feel like you are being wrapped in the loving arms of God himself.

I share this story with you today to inspire you to listen to the whisper on your heart.

Go.

Do.

Don’t wait for the perfect time, the perfect place, or the perfect way. Just follow that prompting and make it happen. You just never know how important your act of kindness will be for someone else!

What my sweet friend, Jennifer, couldn’t possibly know (nor anyone else for that matter) is signing my first book contract with Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc. this past week was more than a dream come true. It was my mom’s dream as well.

The entire time she was battling cancer, she would check in periodically and ask, “How’s that book coming along? Have you written any more lately? What chapter are you on?” Each time, I answered with another excuse, a side-step to avoid the mother-daughter lecture of being brave and having confidence in my writing. It wasn’t until she was lying in a hospital bed days before her death that I promised to write the book that was planted in my soul.

A book about kindness.

A book for me. 

A book for you.

 A book for her.

And now, I have this little reminder from my kind and thoughtful friend to celebrate a promise fulfilled.

 

Celebrate kindness! Embrace the joy of doing nice things for others! This is a week to be the good and share the joy! And, if you happen to be on Twitter Monday night around 9pm EST, you can join me in the #tlap chat as we talk about the heart of kindness! Can’t wait!

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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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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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Four Months

Today marks four months on the calendar.
Four months of silence.
 
Four months of “after.”
 
Four months of missing my mom.
 
I’m reminded of her often, especially when I notice something unexpected. Since she passed away in May, I have become more attuned to those moments, pausing to soak them in and smile, gentle reminders that I’m not alone.
Today there was a flutter of activity outside our back window. Three different birds chose to perch on the railing of our deck while several hummingbirds fluttered near the feeder, reminding me that it needed a refill. Two woodpeckers climbed around a tree, their bright red heads bobbing back and forth as they pecked at the bark on the side.
It was a peaceful morning, no sadness, no regret, just a calm understanding that today was four months after her passing.
A little later, I was talking about her final week as I poured some cereal in a bowl. My eyes were drawn to the biggest bran flake I had ever seen when I suddenly realized it was another God-wink to me from my mom: the bran flake was shaped like a heart.
Sometimes we just need a little reminder that we are loved. As always, it was perfect timing. How can you show someone you care today?
Life is short. Share kindness and love each chance you get. You really can transform someone else’s day!

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College Bound

The car was packed so tightly even a sardine would feel cramped. From floor to ceiling there were boxes. Labeled trash bags. Plastic crates and zip ties. One tennis racket, eight pair of shoes and a newly purchased umbrella for the rainy days to come.

Towels.

Pillows.

Blankets.

Backpack.

And one little girl heading off to college.

 

 

Her brothers wrapped their arms around her one last time, the youngest one shouting, “Huggy!” It was a spontaneous moment of joy as they embraced and smiled for the camera.

They say, “Life passes in the blink of an eye.” Oh, my friends, how true. I used to roll my eyes whenever my mom would warn me about the inevitable passage of time. How could I possibly envision this day when my sleep deprived body could barely stay awake to change a newborn’s diaper or when my teething toddler cried for hours at a time? And what about all those nights where she would end up sleeping in my bed, her small body quick to fall asleep against the warmth of mine while I lie still listening to the sound of her breath?

Or how about all those swim lessons where she would sit on the side of the pool, only dangling the tips of her toes in the water as she stubbornly refused to get in? (She did learn how to swim, eventually.) Somehow, in the blink of an eye, she grew up. Became a teenager. Survived braces. Went to prom and graduated high school.

My little girl is 18. 

Heading to college. 

And I’m just along for the ride.

Saturday was surreal. As we drove to Christopher Newport University we took selfies in the car. Talked about trivial things. Joked about how much fun college life would be. She sat in the back, a small smile on her face as she listened to her music and stared through the window, the tree-lined interstate blurred by the flow of traffic.

Today was the biggest milestone moment of my daughter’s entire life.

Nothing will ever be the same.

The drop-off was smooth and efficient as dozens of upperclassmen met us at our car, unpacked all her belongings and took them to her room. Everyone was smiling. Upbeat. Joyful. You could see the student volunteers were happy to be back to the place they now call home.

We didn’t have to lift a finger. 

They did all the work for us.

 

 

We grabbed a quick bite to eat then began unpacking and setting up her room. The most difficult part was adjusting the height of the beds as the furniture was packed so tight in the room there was nowhere to move. Thankfully the dads were with us, so they pulled out their tools and used hammers and socket wrenches to get the frames adjusted. Then it was time for the moms to step in and help make the beds while the girls unpacked and put their things away.

 

 

Later in the day, Rich worked on getting the cable set up for the TV and syncing the printer with the girls’ laptops while we hung framed photos and other decorations around the room. It was an all-day work session for the parents, but I didn’t mind one bit.

My daughter wanted me there.

I was needed.

It was my last chance to be a full-time mom, helping my daughter settle in.

Many people write letters to their children when they head to college, leaving them in sealed envelopes somewhere in their child’s dorm room. I didn’t want to leave a sappy letter or card that might make her feel worse reading it and I most certainly didn’t want her to pine for her family back home. Instead, I chose to jot down a few reminders and pieces of advice on post-it notes as we were driving to the school, then I hid them all around her room as I helped her unpack.

 

 

 

As the sun began to set and the last frame was hung, it was time to clear the packing materials, take some final photos, and say our farewells.

 

 

 

She walked with us to our car. Our parting was brief – a hug that was a little longer, a little tighter followed by, “This isn’t goodbye, but see you soon!”
Then she walked away towards her dorm and we sat there a few minutes more, caught in the wonder of it all.
There were no tears.
 
No sadness.
 
Only the reminder that no matter where she goes, she will always be our little girl.

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Eight Months Late

 

I have a confession to share.

This post is eight months late.

We are two-thirds through 2017 and I’m just now writing about my New Year’s Resolutions. Want to hear the best irony of all?

My #oneword for 2017 is resilience.

Go ahead. Laugh. It’s OK! It really is funny! Eight months after choosing the word that would be my focus for the year, I’m finally finishing my post.

Even I am laughing now. Oh, the irony!

Resilience.

In 2014, I started connecting with others on Twitter and engaging with a global network of educators. As 2014 rolled into 2015, I was inspired by Tony Borash to write three things on a post-it note to focus on for the new year and make the list public for accountability. I took a risk by sharing my goals on social media. Unfortunately, I lost the post-it note but kept plugging away just the same.

As 2015 came to a close I was off to a decent start with my writing and several people in my PLN encouraged me to reflect on my goals to guide me into goal-setting for the next year. I will forever be grateful to Greg ArmamentosCraig Vroom and Jennifer Hogan for connecting me with #compelledtribe which provided accountability for my writing reflections.

In December 2015, I heard Dean Shareski present about Joy in the Classroom at the VSTE Conference and instantly knew that joy would be my #oneword goal for 2016. My mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer a few months prior and my mother-in-law had just been accepted into hospice. I knew I needed to keep a joyful mindset to get through the challenges ahead.

2016 was an incredible year. I spent time making memories with my mom. I embraced my love for kindness by writing a grant proposal for Kindness Passion Projects and celebrated with jubilation when it was fully funded. I transformed a corner of our school’s laptop lab into a Tiny Tech Cafe for collaboration. I met friends for dinner and played board games with my children. I tried to bring joy to other people’s lives as well as I continued blogging about random acts of kindness.

And even though there were times of grief and challenges (my mother-in-law passed away in March 2016), joy was found in even the smallest, quietest moments.

Then came the mountain that would spill into 2017. The only word that kept swirling in my mind as we packed away the Christmas decorations and blew our party horns for the new year was resilience.

It would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This has been a year of undeniable turbulence. On a personal level, we have endured heartache after heartache as we watched my mom fight her cancer battle to the very end, passing away in May, shortly after my Uncle Garland was placed in hospice care. Now Uncle Garland is gone and we are once again crashing on the shore of grief.

Our local community has grieved their own losses: parents burying children; wives becoming widows.  My social media feeds are overflowing daily with negativity, despair, despondency. I am watching my world change before my eyes and at times I feel like everything is beyond my control.

Now global attention is pulled to Charlottesville, just an hour from my home. I am paralyzed by the horror of the world in which I live.

Then I am reminded about my #oneword for 2017: resilience.

I’ve learned a few things about resilience these past eight months. I’ve learned that strength requires weakness. Confidence requires insecurity. Resilience requires silence.

Paradoxes. Mind shifts of opposite truths shared by a common thread: Improvement.

Usually I’m one who is always willing to share my thoughts. I jump in with two feet and figure things out as I go. This year, however, it’s been different. The silence has swirled around me; the crashing waves of fear, insecurity, doubt, and heartache mute for the world to hear. How does one recover from events that push you down? How can you rise above.

Resilience requires silence.

Resilience takes time.

Reflection.

Perspective.

Change.

Action.

Improvement.

Communication.

Resilience is proof that nothing will keep you down.

As I tug on the knotted rope that reaches the top of each hill, I am reminded that resilience requires work. Focus. Commitment. Determination. An unwavering belief that things will turn out OK.

In one week my world shifts again. Monday we will celebrate the life of my Uncle Garland while saying goodbye for the last time. A few days later, I will pack my car with my oldest child’s belongings as we drive her to college, one last hug and kiss before she spreads her wings to fly. Then I will shake the sand from my toes and trade my flip-flops for heels as I head back to work for my 21st year in education.

Change is inevitable.

Resilience is what keeps us going.

Instead of focusing on things that bring me down, I want to shine the light on rising up. I want to model this for my children, my students, my co-workers, my friends. I want them to see that there is always hope in the darkness, but we have to share the light for others to see.

Eight months late might just be right on time.


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Be the Change

One of the reasons I love connecting with other people on Twitter and Facebook are the inspiring messages they share. This morning I was delighted to read a TBT post from Four O’Clock Faculty, reminding us that small moments matter.

I am a keeper of small moments. 

I celebrate everything!

As many of you know, my oldest child is heading to college in a few weeks. She is the first grandchild of my mom and dad to begin such an endeavor; it’s a game-changer for my entire family. My daughter is a self-professed introvert and very private, so you can imagine the levels of angst that accompany such a milestone event. One of her greatest worries is having to share a room with a stranger.

Thankfully, a close friend of hers also received acceptance to the same university and Leadership Program, so the girls quickly agreed to be roommates. They each requested the other when completing acceptance paperwork and assumed they were good to go for the first year of school. They picked a color theme for their room, purchased coordinating comforters, and started to make plans with furniture arrangements and who would bring what the first week.

We always hope for smooth transitions, but sometimes we encounter rough seas.

My daughter’s university creates fall schedules for freshmen students based on survey questions answered through their website. During a week-long campus orientation in June, she received her schedule and discovered a required class for her leadership program was missing. She was also placed in a different Learning Community than her requested roommate, thus making it impossible to be paired with her for the upcoming school year.

Talk about angst! Not the way we wanted to start off a life-changing experience!

We were directed to Student Services where we met Eric Sutton. We shared our concerns and he was quick to agree that changes should be made and he could help. His smile reassured us that everything would be OK.

It wasn’t a quick fix.

My daughter had to drop a class to add the Leadership class. Her friend had to change multiple classes to get into the same Learning Community. They both had to appear in person to verbally agree that this is what they wanted to do to be roommates.

It took time. 

Energy.

Effort.

Compassion.

Eric offered several options for course substitutions and continued to work with my daughter’s friend throughout the summer until she was satisfied with her schedule. His commitment to excellence and his friendly communication was the epitome of quality customer service with a personal touch.

We felt like he really cared about our children.

Yesterday the university released roommate selections and we discovered the girls were paired together as roommates. You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief! No more angst about who would be living in the same room for a year and no need to return dorm decor!

I immediately composed a letter to the university president, commending Eric’s work ethic for going above and beyond to help us with our dilemma. I also made a copy to send to Eric. Maybe he can add this to his own “Smile File” to remind him that his work is meaningful and small moments matter.

We need to recognize the small moments.

We need to act on those whispers on our heart.

We need to say “thank you” and “please” and show our appreciation for others.

We need to be the change we want to see in the world.

 

 


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