Blazing a Trail!

November is both National Caregivers Month and National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month and because I’ve been working hard to promote them, I’ll be very busy for most of this month!!

I was so looking forward to my annual Pre-Thanksgiving Rally with the RVing Women this weekend because it was going to be a great respite for me in the midst of a lot of work. I knew I needed to leave my favorite ladies for a few hours on Saturday to drive 90 minutes to Baltimore to accept the 2019 Trailblazer Award from Johns Hopkins Medicine. I was told I’d have 12-15 minutes for my “acceptance speech”, so I finished up my speech Friday night while hanging out in Joy and then practiced and timed it before going to bed! I was ready! I had reserved a rental car with Enterprise and they were to pick me up at the campground at 9am so I could head to Baltimore. That turned up to be much more stressful than I’d intended! Enterprise didn’t show up, but thankfully one of my RVing Women took me the 7 miles so I could get my car.

When I stepped into the auditorium at Johns Hopkins Bayview and got the first look at the award I was going to receive I realized how big a deal this award is! Kim came to support me and videotaped it too!

What follows is a transcript of the speech I gave as the recipient of the Trailblazer Award!

“I want to sincerely thank Johns Hopkins for this award, especially Andrea Nelson and her committee and to Jane Marks for being one of my greatest supporters over the last two years along this journey. I also thank my daughter Kimberly for being here and supporting me today. Family really is everything!

When I was told I’d been selected to receive the Trailblazer award I was really overwhelmed. I asked myself am I really a trailblazer? So I Googled trailblazers to get some perspective, and my favorite article I found on the subject was from NASA, which defined a trailblazer as a Leader who points the way, takes the risks, and changes the environment. The article added that Trailblazers have a vision for a different future, a faith that turns their dreams into reality, and a determination that cuts through barriers and obstacles.

After reading those words I’m thrilled to accept this award because it absolutely captures what I’ve strived to achieve from almost the day my Mom was diagnosed with dementia thirteen years ago. Back then I made many mistakes, though all with the mindset of getting any and everything that my Mom needed. While nothing bad happened to Mom as a result of some of my early mistakes, I knew I’d been lucky. I wanted to do everything I could to help other families avoid some of the mistakes I made and I wanted to change the environment by eliminating the stigma that typically accompanies the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Five years ago after learning everything I could about Dementia I began meeting with individuals and families in my home, work and church communities and then added giving presentations and keynote addresses at assisted living and memory care facilities, and at Caregiving, Aging and Alzheimer’s conferences all over the country. I’m stunned that I have earned more than 150, 000 miles on two different airlines and I’ve already forgotten some of the hotels I’ve stayed in. But I haven’t forgotten any of the people! I had no idea what I was doing at first, so much of it I just did on faith. But people responded to me in incredible ways –  I received standing ovations at the end of many of my presentations, and emails or handwritten notes from people letting me know how much I had helped or inspired them or people who burst into tears when I spent a few minutes with them, so relieved that they’d found hope when they didn’t believe there was any or because they realized that they weren’t alone in their fear of this disease and what it can do both to those with the disease and to those who care for them. These interactions, typically with people I’d met for the first time made it clear to me that this work is my calling. It’s what I was born to do, and will continue to do until I die.

The first time my Mom didn’t know who I was on Jan 3, 2014, my 55th Birthday. It was one of the worst days of my life, but since that time I have learned to be whomever she believes I am on that day. Two years ago she simply began calling me “very nice person”. I wish you’d known my Mom pre-dementia! Unlike me, Mom was an introvert but was kind and caring and a true lover of books! I wrote my first book Being My Mom’s Mom not only to help pay for Mom’s care, but also to capture in writing who she used to be.

After Mom forgot who I am to her I had visions of a world without Alzheimers and though it hasn’t come true as of yet, I believe there will be a cure, especially with the dedication and hard work occurring right here at Johns Hopkins and many other hospitals, universities and research facilities. Just as the NASA article mentioned, I am determined to cut through barriers and obstacles until a cure is found! My Mom raised me that way, to always help others and to fight for what was right. Until 3 years ago I had the best partner ever in that fight, my husband Tim who was so much more than a son-in-law to Mom. One of the blessings of dementia was that it allowed me to avoid having to tell Mom that her beloved Tim had died so suddenly. I may no longer have my husband and partner in this fight but I can tell you that he’s cheering me on in spirit. Though my Mom is certainly not the Mom I used to have, I see her almost every day and I find joy in being with her every single time.

If you’d meet my mom today, she would crack you up! As horrific as this disease is, there’s a lot of humor too, because Mom’s wit is as quick as ever! Let me give you a few examples. This past Feb right after her 90th birthday she escaped from her group home and after a couple of blocks she fell into a ditch. Believe it or not she was fine but they took her to the hospital to get her checked out. I rushed to the hospital and when I saw her I asked “so you went for a walk by yourself huh?” She answered “no, I haven’t been for a walk in a long time.” So I asked “then how did you get here to the hospital?” Without a moment of hesitation she pointed to the two EMTs who brought her there and said “they asked me to go ride a ride with them and I said ok”. The EMTs burst into laughter, but how could you not!!

Two weeks ago I had Mom with me as I was signing the coloring books you’re receiving today.

Mom looked at her picture on the back of the book and also noticed my photo next to hers and asked in an exasperated tone, “what are you doing on the back of my book?” I burst out laughing and replied “your book? You wouldn’t even have a book if it wasn’t for me!!” I just shook my head! And then just the other day I arrived at the group home where Mom lives to sign some paperwork just as they were loading the residents into their bus to go get ice cream. Mom waved goodbye to me and the caregivers. I waved back and yelled into the bus “have fun Mom see you when you get back”. She replied “I may go somewhere else, I’ll let you know if I’m coming back”…she’s just a hoot and I’d do absolutely anything for her!

In closing, please know that I‘m going to use this Trailblazer award as extra motivation to keep moving forward in this fight, so be on the lookout for me! I’ll be using my faith and my determination as I continue to speak around the country, and as I continue to participate in fundraising walks and as I continue to go to Capital Hill to beg Congress for more research money! Though I’d never previously thought of myself as a Trailblazer I promise you that I will uphold this title proudly from this day forward! My Mom Doris and I Thank you for this recognition from the bottom of our hearts! Though Mom can no longer remember much of anything, this is a day I will not forget! Thank you all!”

After my award was presented I was congratulated by so many people during lunch and as I personalized the copies of my coloring books that I had signed in advance of the caregiver conference of hope. When I left the auditorium and got in my rental car to head back to Lancaster, PA I burst into tears! The tears were a mix of pride that my work in the fight Against Alzheimer’s is recognized and appreciated, and joy of receiving such a prestigious award, and of sadness that Tim wasn’t here to celebrate with me! During our Thanksgiving dinner last night where my beautiful award was on the display, even the RVing Women acknowledged my awards with loud cheers! I sold quite a few coloring books as well!! It was simply one of the most extraordinary days I’d had in years!

I have three big events this coming week! There’s a caregivers conference in Harrisonburg VA, a luncheon event for Johns Hopkins and a dinner event at a memory care facility. The following week I’ll be in Baltimore County for a caregiver event and in Dover, DE for the Alzheimer’s Association. It may seem like a lot, but when you’re blazing a trail it takes work!! I’m definitely up for the challenge and I’m so proud of this work and the opportunities I’ve been given!! I’m truly Blessed!

What’s That Noise? Oh,… It’s Life!

My house has been dead silent for more than 3 years, especially the upstairs part of the house. There were few sounds unless me or the TV made them. When Kendal visits, there is always laughter and joy, but as soon as she’d leave, the silence returned. Tim was 6 ft 2 inches tall, and when he walked around the house, you knew he was there. The floor creaked in spots when he walked, but the greatest sounds were his laughter.

People have always said I don’t need a lot of sleep, and while that is true, a good night’s sleep has been hard to come by since I’ve been alone. It’s possible that that’s all about to change. After 5 1/2 months of renovation, I officially became a landlord this week when my renter moved into the top floor of my home on Thursday. I don’t think she moved much in on Thursday as I didn’t see any furniture and no car was in the driveway. But I knew she was here because I heard the sound of footsteps above my head. I remember smiling broadly though at the time I didn’t really understand why. It was a long week so I went to bed fairly early on Friday night. One of the last things I remember before falling asleep was the creaking floor caused by footsteps. The next thing I knew I woke up Saturday morning feeling better than I’ve felt in a long time. I felt rested and calm and UNAFRAID. I’ve never liked the dark and I believe that living alone scared me a little. So the sound of footsteps Friday night brought me a peace I hadn’t known since July of 2017. How much peace did it bring? I was shocked when I looked at my FitBit and discovered that I’d slept 8 hours and 5 minutes last night. I don’t know the last time I slept that long.

This evening I took my cousin JoAnne out for a birthday dinner. When we returned from dinner, there wasn’t a parking space to be had in front of my house and a moving truck was in the driveway. Clearly my renter’s furniture had arrived. We did some brief introductions and I learned my renter is one of six siblings and they grew up in SC. As I retreated to my lower level home and settled in for the evening, I couldn’t stop smiling. Above my head my renter and her siblings were laughing and talking as they moved pieces of furniture around. It was glorious chaos and I loved it. These are clearly people who love each other. I haven’t heard sounds like that since the Veneys last came over for Thanksgiving dinner. This house used to be loud … Tim laughing uncontrollably over nothing, which caused me to laugh harder… Tim telling a joke and starting to laugh before he even finished the punchline. Tim yelling at the tv during sports events or movies and me yelling along with him.

For me, hearing my renter move furniture and laugh with her siblings is something that’s been missing in my home for a long time. For me, it’s not noise – it’s life! When I first thought of renting part of my house almost two years ago, my only goal was to use that money to fund my travels. Who knew that one of the greatest benefits would be that in Tim’s favorite part of the house the floor would creak again, and there’d be laughter again. I’m grateful for my renter, and I thank God that my house is alive again!

 

A Few Minutes Can Change Everything!!

I had such a great plan for this weekend!! I worked part of the day yesterday and got home right on schedule at noon! JOY was all packed and ready for our weekend adventure. I had one issue at the house I needed to resolve (what else is new with this renovation) but I was hoping to be on the road by 12:45pm heading to Chincoteague Island, VA to have a blast with my RVing Women friends! My map app ETA was 3 hours and 18 minutes, which is not too bad for a Friday afternoon.

But I didn’t leave home at 12:45 and those extra 33 minutes added to my departure time changed everything! I wanted to fill up at the Royal Farms near my house because they have the cheapest diesel fuel. My goal was to be out of the gas station and on the road by 1:40 at the latest.

The road to the Royal Farms has two lanes and lots of curves. I was heading along doing a few miles over the 40 mph speed limit when a Range Rover appeared out of nowhere right on my bumper. Coming towards me in the other lane was a Potato Chip delivery truck. I sped up a little in attempt to put some distance between me and the Range Rover. As I did so, the Range Rover darted into the path of the delivery truck and then quickly jumped in front of me! Whoa!! Ever try to stop at 24 foot RV in a second? The truck driver and I quickly made eye contact likely both thinking this situation may not end well.

As I was still trying to process my life flashing before my eyes, not one, not two, but three county police cars appeared with lights and sirens going, clearly in pursuit of the Range Rover. I did everything in my power to steer JOY out of harm’s way as did the truck driver. I still don’t understand how we all avoided hitting one another. When I arrived at the Royal Farms a couple of minutes later to get my gas, I was still shaking so much from the incident that I could barely get the gas in the tank. I thought to myself “I hope this isn’t a bad sign for the weekend”…. but it was!!

I left the Royal Farms at 1:45, which I didn’t think was too bad until I looked at the map app again!! My ETA was now 5 hours and 19 minutes… WHAT???? An entire two hours longer?? GEEZ!!! But I got on the beltway with lots of hope that I’d sing along with my great playlists and the time would speed right along even if the traffic didn’t.

Tim and I always had one rule for camping, and that was to never arrive at the campground after dark because trying to set up in the dark could be a dangerous nightmare. I was thrilled that at 6:28 when I was supposed to arrive there would be enough daylight left for me to set JOY up without any problems!

With just 17 minutes to go to the campground, I received a text and a voicemail from two different RVing Women friends. I knew right away this wasn’t going to be good. “Where are you?” was the question. I answered. I was 5 minutes from the “bridge” which is the only way to get onto Chincoteague Island. It was suggested that I pull into the Royal Farms (Yep another Royal Farms) right before the bridge and call them back. I learned that there was some serious tidal flooding and there was talk of closing the bridge!! Oh NO!! I was a mere 13 minutes from all of my friends and the relaxing weekend I had planned!!

I was asked if any closure signs were up or if I saw any police officers or Dept of Transportation workers at the beginning of the bridge. I didn’t, so I proceeded onto the 7 mile bridge hoping I could beat both the darkness and the rising tide!! It was an epic fail. I got to the end of the bridge where there is a traffic light to turn left… all I could see was a lot of water, as opposed to the dry road I prayed would be there.

I don’t do water that’s outside of the boundaries it’s supposed to be contained in, and as most of you know, I can’t swim! Sheer panic set in right away! One of my friends stayed on the phone with me as I turned around to go back to the Royal Farms! Water was inching up and onto the road and was supposed to get even worse as the night wore on. I had almost 6 miles to go to get back to the safety of the Royal Farms. I was terrified and in tears, but made it thanks to my friend!!

I accepted the fact that this trip I had looked forward to all summer (the island has wild horses if you aren’t familiar with it) wasn’t going according to plan. I parked JOY and got ready to spend the night in the Royal Farms parking lot.

Now how great are my RVing Women friends?? REALLY GREAT!! They called, texted, offered to come to the Royal Farms at 1am at low tide when the water would be gone to escort me to the campground and even ride with me or to drive JOY there for me!! Who does that?? This is why I love these women! I was devastated that I was so close to yet so far from my friends on the island, but I know we will have many more exciting trips together in the future!

Around 10pm I had finally calmed down enough to try to rest. I stretched out on my couch and fell asleep. Unfortunately the sleep didn’t last long! Right before 11pm a large group of teenagers (15 to 20 kids) in 3 cars pulled up in the Royal Farms and parked at the pumps where there is always music playing. But they didn’t just pump gas and go!! To drown out the Royal Farms music they turned their music up to the loudest volume possible and began dancing around the pumps…they were screaming and laughing at the top of their lungs and then jumped onto the hoods and tops of their 3 cars to dance. I realized at that moment that I hadn’t remembered to park JOY in a manner that would allow me to quickly escape the gas station. I put the key in the ignition and sat on the floor behind the driver’s seat in the event I needed to drive off quickly if they decided they wanted to try to dance on JOY’s hood. This impromptu party went on for almost 90 minutes!!! When did Royal Farms become a party venue?? The kids weren’t drinking or smoking, just being teenagers in the loudest volume possible and it was annoying (though I know we all did dumb stuff as teenagers too)! You just can’t make this stuff up!!

Needless to say, this morning I was never so glad to see the sunrise in all my life! I had prayed that the water would be gone in the morning so I could join my friends, at least for a few hours but it was not be! I rode back across the bridge and the water was still there and was potentially going to occur again this evening as well!

I’m off on Monday for the holiday but have an event on Sunday with Mom that I don’t want to miss, so it wouldn’t have been smart to risk my safety or getting stuck on the island until Monday. Now that I’m sitting at home there are new warnings coming across my phone for flooding and riptides for tonight so I’m grateful that JOY and I are home safe and sound!

While I’m disappointed that I don’t get to spend a great weekend with my amazing RVing friends, I truly appreciated the fact that I was able to see a glorious sunrise this morning! I can hear Tim saying “well done baby and great decisionmaking”!

I’ll have to make some different memories this weekend but I’ll never forget the memories I accidentally made involving two Royal Farms locations over the last 24 hour period of my life. Life really can change in just a few minutes. I was able to avoid a serious accident close to home and a potential water emergency far from home! Memories aren’t always good, but they always teach us something! I hope you all have friends like Meg, Lee, Marsha, Laurie and Brenda who aren’t just around for the fun stuff, but who generally love and care for you too! Thank you ladies, love you all!

Are You Happy?

Last week on the eve of my much anticipated trip to Paris, my two favorite retired Metropolitan Police Department (DC) members, Alvin Brown and Mike Ross came to my house to see my recent renovations. We had a great time and they loved the way I’ve transformed my basement into my new living area! Before leaving, Alvin, who was the best man at our wedding, asked me a question that I’ve been processing ever since. The question was “are you happy?”

It seems like a simple question, but it most certainly is not, and though I said Yes after an initial pause, I’ve thought about my answer constantly since. So many thoughts have flooded my mind! Prior to Tim’s death I’d rarely driven myself to the airport to go on Alzheimer’s speaking engagements in a fight against this disease, and I certainly never carried books with me for book signings. But In the three years since Tim’s been gone, I’ve driven myself and flown to countless cities, carrying or mailing in advance all of my books. In the last year alone I’ve made so many new friends on the road as they’ve come to my presentations. These friends have emailed and called me, friended me on Facebook and even mailed me motivational cards or letters which I’ve added to my JOY folder (a folder on both my phone and in my filing cabinet containing inspiring notes and messages to lift my spirits in my down days). I’ve authored three books to date and Mom is now 90 years old is thriving at Lifesprings Eldercare. I’m incredibly proud about both those things, as would Tim be. So in terms of my confidence and success in writing and speaking and advocating and caring for Mom, I’m incredibly happy!

At the same time, this year has been really difficult for me. There was the year long process to get me 7 dental implants and the now 8 month saga of trying to close a hole in my left retina and an accompanying eye infection that just doesn’t want to go away. I worry if I’ll ever regain normal sight in that eye and putting a couple of things in place, just in case my sight worsens. It’s when I’m in pain and afraid that I feel the most alone and unhappy.

The other part of my frustration and anxiety this year has been the almost now 5 month renovation process I’ve done in my home. The goal was to create a more livable space, including a kitchen so I can live in my basement and rent the upstairs to finance my camping trips. The project started off horribly, with lots of mistakes that amounted to more than double my budget. I knew there’d be challenges in a renovation, but they miscues and my mistakes overwhelmed me. I learned so much during this process including the valuable lesson of how to bounce back from misfortune and poor decisions. I’ve wondered every day of this process what Tim would be thinking and saying as this saga has unfolded. There were moments (days actually) that I cried uncontrollably. These have been some of my most unhappy times.

Even though the experience had been incredibly expensive, I’ve learned more about my house and my capabilities than I ever thought possible and for that I’m grateful. I wanted to just cut my losses and give up so many times, but friends kept me going even when I didn’t want to. A pretty low time for me for sure. But the good news is in the new few weeks the process should be totally completed and a renter is already interested. The most amazing outcome of the renovation was the design I wanted for my patio and path to the street of intertwining orange and blue bricks as a symbol of the love that Tim and I shared. It truly exceeded all of my expectations.

My travels for fun are still what makes me happiest, so this year was amazing in that regard… of course my outings with my RVing Women are all awesome and I depend on those to keep me uplifted, but it was my trip of driving alone to and from Maine and meeting Larry and Barbara up there to enjoy a week with me that I count as one of my greatest accomplishments. Tim would be more than proud. And my current trip to see my friend Louise and have her show me around Paris and now Marseille that we arrived in today was the greatest end to my year of celebration of turning 60. Experiencing France again is exhilarating, but tinged with sadness at times without Tim. These trips confirm for me that I’ll continue to travel for as long as I live even if I do so alone! Nothing feeds my soul like traveling and seeing new places and things!

One of the things that is most concerning to me this year is the loss of some friends who mattered to me. I’m not even exactly sure what happened to these relationships but in all honesty I have to take a long look at myself because at times I think I push people away or I simply walk away when they disappoint or hurt me. I think I’ve had enough hurt so at present I seem to give people one chance with me. With all that’s happened this year, I’ve been too tired and preoccupied to try to repair some of these relationships, especially considering the fact that some people are only meant to be in your life for a period of time and maybe that time was just over. I’m grateful to Wendi, Louise and Kris and all of the Gilweski family for being there every step of the way this year, and I wouldn’t have gotten this far without them.

So here’s the bottom line…I’m thrilled that I’m content with myself, with where I am in my life and with what I’m doing in my life. I’m not looking for love and could certainly be happy alone for the rest of my life…. and though people keep asking me when I’m going to start dating, it’s taken me three years to be able to articulate that I’m likely going to choose to be alone. This trip to France has given me lots of meditation time and I haven’t done one minute of work (except on myself) and I’m proud that I’m doing this for myself….I’m starting to see the light!

So YES Alvin, I’m not only HAPPY …. I’m THANKFUL and BLESSED too! So for all of you reading this, I’ll ask you what Alvin asked me. Are You Happy?

When a Clean Slate Feels Really Messy!

We’ve all been given a clean slate in life at some point. It’s a chance for us to erase the past and start over, hopefully avoiding some of the pitfalls we’d encountered before.

Today, I came home from work and walked into what I’d call a clean slate. The renovation of my house that has been going on since early May and has progressed to the point when the upstairs of the house is being painted a beige color in prep for potential renters arriving.

My reaction to the color beige was instantaneous!! What happened to the orange walls in my old bedroom, and Tim’s prized burgundy and gold walls in our office in honor of his beloved football team and the bright color in our dining room? I kept blinking as if the colored walls would return if I blinked enough times!! What had I done? Had I erased all of the color from my life with Tim?

I thought I was ready for this but I clearly was not. Three painters were smiling at me as if waiting for me to give the seal of approval for their great work of getting the walls primed. But I couldn’t give my approval right then… all I could see were beige walls, a proverbial clean slate to my happy life in bright colors with Tim! I quickly ran down to my new area in the basement of my house and cried!!

After a few minutes, I looked around at all the family photos in my really cool new space. My three decades of memories in this house started to flood back!! Thank God!! I started to relax, I took some deep breaths and I went back upstairs.

The painters had begun to paint again. I told them what a great job they were doing. Then I stood back and just looked around. I could still smile at the memories we made in Kendal’s room, and at the dining room table during Scrabble tournaments even if the paint color was different now.

I realize that the new walls are just that, NEW. They don’t represent an eraser as I felt when I first walked in. Now I believe that those walls are a blank canvas ready for me to add my own color for the next part of my life. It may be messy and frustrating, funny and sad, yet also filled with love and joy! My blog title, Conquering Life says it all for me at this moment…I may not know what the future holds for me but I’m going to conquer it like I do everything else! I can’t wait to see what bright colors will eventually fill my life and replace this boring beige! Maybe this clean slate will be a great thing after all! And Tim would definitely approve!

LEGO Bricks Are So Much More Than Child’s Play!!

Yesterday I spent the day at Generations Crossing one of my favorite places, where they provide daycare for children and adults together. I was there thanks to my great friend and Generations Crossing’s Activities and Outreach Coordinator Glennette Poland, who I met five years ago at an Alzheimer’s Association conference where I was speaking. As soon as the conference was over, she sent me a Facebook friend request and we became fast friends, sisters even. I’ve chatted a lot with Glennette over the years about how I use LEGO bricks in teaching, training and teambuilding sessions and as one of my stress-reducing tools.

This past January, Glennette invited me down to Harrisonburg, VA to provide an in-service training session for the teachers and other staff and of course our time included a session of LEGO Serious Play. For my new friends, LEGO Serious Play is a methodology using LEGO bricks that helps organizations, teams and individuals communicate more effectively. It’s a powerful tool and is great for teambuilding and learning more about the folks you live or work with. The session I did at Generations Crossing was such a great success that Glennette asked me to come back this summer to do a day-long LEGO event for four different groups. The groups are the pre-k kids who are 4-5 years old, the school aged kids who are 6-9 years old, and the adults who are ages 18 and up with a variety of health issues that require them to have assistance during the day. The fourth group I’d be working with was an Intergenerational session with the kids and adults working together. So the first thing I wanted to do for the day was to select a theme that I believed everyone would like. That theme was a “village”… the village was to include beautiful gardens with trees, flowers and plants and houses and other structures to make the village complete. Glennette loved the theme when I shared it with her a couple of months prior to the event. 

During the prep for this event I learned so much about myself. I have thousands of LEGO bricks stored in 4 huge bins, 2 small containers for smaller pieces, and 1 huge container with “plates” used to build the LEGO models on. Since I’d be working with very young kids, and adults with a variety of health issues the first thing I wanted to do was to sort the bricks and remove ALL of the small pieces from the bricks that would be used by the young kids and adults in attempt to prevent any choking hazards. It took me more than 14 HOURS over several days to complete that task. As I sorted the bricks, I thought of all of the times Tim and I used the hours on our camping trips out in nature to build some amazing LEGO pieces. Tim’s creative imagination was almost identical to mine. I’ve had people offer me money for some of the stunning pieces he created right before his death, but none of them are for sale. Those memories of us didn’t make me sad at all, and as I held some of the little bricks in my hand I felt uplifted by the bright colors that fill each bin. Of course, I also thought a lot about my Mom during the sorting, primarily because those little bricks are the only connection I have with her. Whenever I get the LEGO bricks out for her, she immediately starts clicking them together, and that dreaded blank stare of dementia melts away and she focuses on making a house, “so she can go home”. I love all of the LEGO time I spend with Mom!! It reminds me of all of our old memories of building together when I was a kid. The sorting of the bricks brought me a lot of peace. 

I drove the two hours to Harrisonburg, VA on Sunday morning so I’d be well rested for my day-long event with the four groups. Glennette took me to dinner and we had a marathon girls-bonding session! What a great treat! I didn’t get a lot of sleep Sunday night as I was reviewing my plans in my head for the day, and I prayed that everyone would love the plan for the event. I arrived with my huge assortment of LEGO bricks around 8am, in plenty of time for the first session at 9:30. I started with the school-aged kids and shared what we’d be building for their hour-long class. I gave them the choice of building items for the garden or structures for the village. Some of them immediately latched onto the garden theme and others created a variety of buildings. The teachers and I watched them build and provided assistance when needed (including settling an argument over a LEGO piece that two kids wanted) and were fascinated by how much time each took to decide what to build. The two greatest surprises were from the young girl who built a boat to drive people around the village via the lake AND the young girl who was building an outdoor grill and pool attached to her house which needed a refrigerator!! When she asked me how to make a refrigerator I told her to use her imagination and she did, and the results sure did look like a refrigerator!! The group was told that after they finished their pieces (some built multiple things for the village) they’d carry them out of their classroom to the table that had been set up with the LEGO plates and they’d each decide where to place their models. They all had to find just the right spot!!! As they finished their portion of the village they all said thank you to the “LEGO teacher” and I got many hugs.

There was then some minor sorting and the trip with the bins to the next classroom for the Intergenerational session with the kids and adults. I’ll be honest and say it was very emotional for me watching the team of kids and adults first plan what they were going to do (and actually LISTENING to each other) and then starting to build. They took turns placing the pieces carefully and smiling and laughing with each other. Though I’d worked with both kids and adults in the past, it was never at the same time. Watching them was a great reminder for me of the importance of accepting others just as they are. It was so cool to watch the kids help their adult teammates if they had trouble putting the bricks in the right places, and it nearly brought me to tears. So that we’d be able to immediately tell which models the Intergenerational group had built, I used a special set of bricks called LEGO Architecture which are all-white bricks. The kids and the teachers helped to place the awesome creations into the village. The open spaces were starting to fill in nicely and the village was coming together!!

There was then a two-hour break during which I had a great lunch with the staff and did another round of mad sorting to get ready for session with the 4 year olds (Glennette and a wonderful young lady who showed up for work early, helped me to sort). After their shortened 1 hour nap due to our session, I gave them their task of building trees or flowers for the garden. Because of their ages, I demonstrated for them how to make a simple flower and tree and they built to my verbal instructions using they pieces we gave them. Once they had the basic process down, they started making their own creations. I’ve never seen such beautiful flowers and trees! One young boy immediately began making a bee hive to help the plants and flowers… Just WOW!!! I think this group had the most fun!! They kept saying to the teachers “I hope the LEGO teacher likes what I built”. They all proudly held up their creations and were thrilled that they would get to place them into the village. They did a very orderly march to the table (we carried some of their creations to ensure they made it safely all the way to the table). Watching them carefully place their creations was mind-blowing! The village was almost full now, but there was still one more group to go!

The adults then had another opportunity to build, this time alone and with the brightly colored bricks! They tackled their task head on. One gentleman had assistance from his wife, who clearly was having as much fun as her husband!! They built structures as the final part of the village. The smiles on their faces just melted my heart! The surprise of this group was the woman who picked only the red, white and blue bricks, so I started giving her just those colors. Just like my Mom, she said “thank you” every time I gave her more bricks. The other surprise was from the gentleman who didn’t want to participate in the Intergenerational exercise, but got right up and came to the table when I came back to work just with the adults. His structure was the biggest and the best and even included a LEGO flag. When the adults got to each go out to the village and place what they had built we took pictures of their reactions. There were broad smiles and awe and wonder at the huge village in front of them!! They pushed their walkers and wheelchairs around the entire table so they could see everything. It just warmed me all over!!!

But the best part of the day was when the family members of the kids and adults came to get them and each child and adult got to show off what they had made!! The children of the adults just beamed!!! “You made that??” they asked the parents or spouses” “YES” came the proud answer from their loved one. I haven’t had a moment that proud in a long time!!! LEGO bricks are so much more than a toy, on this day they were both a bonding and learning tool and brought together young and old alike both to create a village and to admire what was created. It took an hour for Glennette and I to break down the village when it was time to go home. That part was so sad!! While my plan had worked to perfection and had exceeded my every expectation, the greatest lesson I took from the day was the fact that I got out of my comfort zone and taught a several hour LEGO session, which I hadn’t done since Tim’s death (it’s what I was doing in NY when he had a stroke in front of me and then died 6 days later). I also learned that I should definitely do this again as it was energizing for me! I learned so much watching the kids learn AND also what it means to be part of a team. The teachers and staff at Generations Crossing are second to none. Their leadership is outstanding and everyone seems happy to be there!! But how could you NOT be happy working in a place where the mission is to provide love and care to kids and adults? It really does take a village to do great things when caring for others. I’m thankful that Generations Crossing has allowed me to become part of their village!!

Growing Pains!

I can’t believe it’s been almost two months since my last post. Truth is, I lost my voice for a bit, having experienced lots of growing pains and I knew that anything I wrote would make me cry. Almost everything makes me cry these days and that’s really unusual for me. It feels like forever since I returned from Maine, but that’s when these growing pains made their way into my life. The renovations to my house that would enable me to move into my basement and rent out my upstairs while I travel around in JOY began before I headed to Maine and were in full swing when I returned the day before Memorial Day. This was my first renovation project and I’m told lots of things go wrong with projects like this, but this was one of the most painful processes I’ve been through. I’ll spare you the details but I cried almost daily, feeling like I had failed miserably in pulling off my dream. It certainly didn’t help that the third anniversary of Tim’s death was fast approaching and I kept wondering what he’d think of this project. The project is finally completed and I moved forward fairly quickly today in moving to my basement. That brought on tears of joy and of sadness. Shedding half my life’s stuff to fit into the basement is painful, but I felt lots of growth as I put stuff into three piles, 1) move to the basement 2) give away or 3) throw away. I’m guessing that over these last two months I’ve had more trash than I have had in years and I’m sure the trash and recycle folks are happy the renovations are done too! But I feel lighter emotionally now that all the piles have been sorted.

Giving away more of Tim’s things brought more tears, and the feeling that the more I give away causes me to lose the rest of his physical presence and existence in my life and our home and that was hard. All of the things I’m giving away will help many people but it certainly didn’t lessen the pain. On the anniversary of his death on Wednesday I headed to the cemetery in 90 degree heat and had a conversation with Tim about all of the growing pains I’m experiencing and how hard this has been for me. The sun was beating down and I don’t think there had been a breeze all day, but seemingly right on cue I felt a breeze on my face. I believe that Tim was letting me know that everything was going to be ok and I’m doing a really great job.

I’m hoping this crying phase will be short, and though I know you can’t always control your emotions this phase has really surprised me. I cry at happy endings and sad endings of my favorite tv shows, I cry when I put a piece of furniture together that I didn’t think I could, and I cry when select a color for the basement that isn’t orange. Most of the tears have been shed as I’ve found a special card or trinket that Tim gave me as I’m sorting through stuff, but can’t remember what year he gave it to me.

I realized this week reading a blog series on the Beatitudes by Paul Roberts Abernathy that I’m growing a lot!!! I’m focused on being and becoming authentic and maybe the tears are part of the cleansing I needed to do as I grow into the person I am now without Tim. And maybe the tears have also been helping my retina in my left eye which I learned in February had developed a hole and a significant amount of inflammation that threatened my vision in that eye. I’ve been doing three eye drops four times a day since February but learned on Monday that I should be done in three more weeks. The doctor said he’s “stunned” with the progress in my eye and I’m thoroughly relieved that I’m going to be ok. On Tuesday I had a really great afternoon with Mom and we “vacationed together” through a travel magazine picking out places it would be fun to visit. Mom usually doesn’t remember anything for longer than two minutes, but after a few hours with her as I headed to the door to leave Mom said to me “don’t forget to bring my suitcase when you come back so I can pack for our trip”. Of course I got to the car and cried, but I’m not sure if they were happy or sad tears. Last night even after being sick most of the day I headed down to the National Mall to view the 50th anniversary celebration of the Apollo 11 astronauts walking on the moon. Everyone on the Mall cheered as the astronauts took their steps as if the event was happening for the first time yesterday. And YEP I shed a tear or two, but I certainly wasn’t the only one.

When I go to basement in a few minutes, for the first time most of my belongings will now fill that space. I’m still finding places for things and still throwing things out. Part of my growth is realizing that I can put anything anywhere I want and that it’s ok. Funny that I’ve been living alone for three years now but am still growing into being comfortable with the decisions I make for myself and my space. It seems so much easier to make decisions at work and for Mom, but what I think I’ve learned over the last two months is that every decision I make doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to make me happy! That’s enough for me!!