Why 52 Women?

It's not all about lipo, hair color and botox...

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Meet Neal

I met Neal at a cheap motel in California.
It was a weekday, early, maybe 6 a.m. 
I grabbed some coffee by the kidney-shaped pool.

Neal sat at a nearby table, writing in a small spiral notebook. Except for a busboy, no one was around. I pulled out my brown leather journal. Neal spoke first, something about the blue sky.

Said he was in sales. Asked if I was a writer, that he wrote too, mostly poems. Then for some odd reason, I closed my journal, looked up at him and hesitantly explained why I had traveled 1,800 miles from home.

Thirty years earlier, my mother died and her ashes were spread in the Pacific. I came to celebrate her life, I said. I was nearing the same age she was when she passed.

Neal asked if I was nervous my fate would mirror hers.

My eyes welled with tears.

Neal smiled, but didn't say anything. 

The next morning, I headed downstairs for coffee. Every table was filled, but Neal wasn't there. An older Australian woman offered to share and moved her bags off an empty chair.

She said she was returning from a friend's European wedding. Said she stopped overnight in California to break up the trip. In the middle of her story, the sky turned dark.

Standing in front of the sun was Neal. He said he was checking out, late for his appointment, but wanted to give me something. He handed me four little pages, I recognized, he tore out of his small notebook. Still blocking the light, he asked me to read what he wrote out loud. I turned to the Australian woman, than somewhat embarrassed, I read:

At night,
I look to the heavens above and I wonder many things.
I think of what may be and often without answers, 
I feel a sense of loss.
So often I lament having to say goodbye so long ago while still in my youth.
There have been hard times when I sensed, but missed your physical presence.
That is still the case.
But today the cycle has gone round, the circle closed, and from this point, you are enclosed within.
You are no longer far away, but now especially near.
I look to the sky above and sense your presence and I realize you are not simply out there in the ethers.
I carry you within me and you are where I am.
I am that part of you left behind.
I will no longer feel an emptiness because you gave me life, you filled me up
 and now it is my turn to live my life where you left off.
The sentences, the stories you left are now for me to complete, not for you, but for myself.
When I am done, I shall be complete, with no missing parts, no unsung verse.
 And as I fill in the still blank pages of what will become of the story of my life, 
I sense you might read the pages in real time. 
And when I occasionally wish to seek your reassurance,
I shall simply look to the heavens above on a clear night, 
and I shall find it in the twinkle of your eyes 
and those who left before you as you all look down and smile upon me.

He signed it Neal Williams and included his email address. I never contacted him.

Two days later, I arrived at the beach later than planned. 
The sun sat like a smoldering thumbprint on the horizon and the moon hid behind a low cloud bank. In big gulps, the high tide swallowed the wide beach while a frantic wind whipped the wet grainy air against my bare skin. Halfway down the beach, I climbed over the sea wall and walked back to my car along the road.

I wasn't sad to leave. I knew it was time to move on. 

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Meet Heidi

Until Heidi, I'd never met anyone who dreamed of doing something for so long and when the chance came, she didn't let age stop her. As a young child, Heidi dreamed of ice skating.

Only one problem: In the deep south, the closest thing in her hometown and anywhere nearby, was a roller rink. So she made do, content to study every move her idols Peggy, then Dorothy, made on the ice. Then, in her tiny bedroom, she'd jump and spin in front of make-believe judges as they huddled on the edge of her bed and scored her own Olympic performance.

Through college and corporate life, through the early years of her marriage and the birth of her son, that dream simmered. Finally, on her 40th birthday and living in an Atlanta suburb, she laced on a stiff pair of blue vinyl skates and wobbled out to join a bunch of wide-eyed children for a group lesson at a suburban rink.

Her knees shook as she struggled to stand up straight. After a few spills, Heidi's instructor pointed her to a circle of middle-aged ice addicts. Together, her new soul sisters, met for early morning sessions and after work again to learn how  to waltz jump, mohawk turn, and sit spin. Off the ice, they supported each other through divorces, troubled children, moving and aging parents.

As if she knew its purpose, skating became Heidi's sanctuary, a place to unwind while raising her son, adopting Emily from China, moving to Nashville. It brought her peace after a hysterectomy and during her divorce.

Now 52, because of skating, she created a business designing custom skating and ice dancing competition dresses.
Heidi with Diana, a 28-year old math college professor, wears one of Heidi's creations. 
Recently I went to watch Emily, now 10, compete in ice dancing with Robert, her and Heidi's master-level coach.

After, came Heidi's good friend, Sandy, a 66-year old grandmother. She sailed and spun (in one of Heidi's custom made creations) with Robert before her unfortunate finale.

Heidi was the last to perform with Robert in the Hickory Hoe Down.  

She didn't win. (Neither did Sandy.)  A 59-year old Vanderbilt professor skated off with first place.

But it didn't seem to matter. Heidi appeared content to have just skated.

Maybe this was her Olympics, the wind blowing her loose hair (Robert's trick to appear like she's going faster) and her parents, brother and daughter cheering her on.

This was her chance to fly. Winning would have just been the icing on an already great dream.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Meet Caron ("Ca-rown")

Another mucky gray sky.

 Not even 30 degrees outside. 

Felt sorry for myself. 

Missed my husband. My kids. 

To get out of my funk, hooked a leash on George and headed out the door.

Took my usual route, past Trader Joe's market, a favorite spot for homeless people to sell newspapers.

 Caron (pronounced Ca-rown) stood next to the telephone pole at the crosswalk.

"How ya doing?" 

"Great. Like your dog." 


Took a few steps - told MYSELF, "Don't get stuck talking. It's too cold." 

Then turned around.

"How's business?"

"O.K. Yesterday, not so good. Hopefully, today will be better."

Caron explained how she ended up selling these newspapers.
Caron lost her job at a fast-food restaurant. 
Then, lost her apartment. 
Now lives in a hotel.
 Pays $44 per night because she hates sleeping at the women's mission.
 "They make you pack up and be gone by 5 a.m. each morning with all your stuff." 

"You looking for a regular job?"

"Yes, but if I go job hunting, I don't make any money selling."  

"Do you have kids?"

"They're all grown. The youngest is in the pen."

"For what?"


"You look so young to have someone in prison." 
(I know, I say the dumbest things sometimes.) 

"I'm 51."

 "Ah, we're the same age."

Caron's red lipstick outlined her yellow teeth.

"Have a great day. I hope you sell lots of papers."

"Thanks, you have a great day too."
 "Bye George."

An hour later, stopped to pay $10 for her $1 newspaper, but Caron was gone. 

Haven't seen her since.

Hope that means she found full-time work. 

Want to thank her for shining some light on what's important in life.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Meet Ed

I never planned to feature a man.

Then I met Ed. Hours after we went our separate ways, I realized this total stranger had left such an imprint on my life, I had to share his story.

I work at a home furnishings store and last week, Ed and his wife Sue came in to buy a throw. Sue moved extremely slow as if she just got out of surgery and every step was pure agony. Ed patiently trailed behind as I guided Sue to the display tables. He stood nearby while she deliberated which color was best and whether she should even buy it.

"How long have you two been married?" I asked attempting to fill the time.

Sue smiled, but didn't answer. Instead, she looked at Ed.

"Fifty nine years," he said.

"Wow, what's your secret?"

I noticed Sue's vibrant blue eyes and silver white bob. Just a hint of mascara coated her lashes and she wore a soft pink lipstick. She had a chunky Grandma-type figure (short with rounded edges) and wore a white sweater set with tan high waisted pants and spotless white leather sneakers.

Again, Sue smiled at Ed, a lean silver haired Grandpa-type in a collared shirt, khakis and a navy canvas zip-up jacket. He looked down, smiled, then turned toward me as if I asked directions and he was trying to figure out the most direct route.

"A lot of hard work and a lot of prayin'," He said, adding, "Sue's had health issues."

Together, they ran down her ailments. Around 20 years ago, Sue slipped on black ice, fell down a flight of stairs and laid outside with a crushed ankle and her leg broke in four places.

"My hair nearly froze off," she said.

A few years later, Sue had a brain tumor and then surgery to remove it, followed by a heart attack and  surgery for a pacemaker. Most recently, she had a stroke that left her paralyzed on one side.

"That's been the hardest," Sue said slowly, explaining how she's had to learn everything all over again.

I looked over at Ed who was watching his wife. His kind eyes told what he never said, how he's learned to accept the changes, her limitations and find joy in the added responsibilities.

I'm a sucker for a good love story, but in an attempt to not lose control, I quickly changed the subject.

"How was your Thanksgiving?"

"Great," Sue said.

"We had 18 people over," Ed added.

"Who cooked?" I blurted out before out before I could can catch myself. "I mean, did everyone bring something?"

Sue just smiled and looked at Ed.

"I did the cooking," Ed said. "I learned how in the army."

Ed made chicken, stuffing, potatoes, macaroni and cheese, broccoli, sweet potatoes, turnip greens and at least five other dishes, along with a coconut cake.

"The only thing I can't make is biscuits. The dough sticks to my fingers," he said, mimicking how he wipes the dough off.

Hours later, I recognized the gift Ed left behind.

He reminded me if you're married or committed to someone, the secret to aging gracefully together is three-fold. Savor the good. Accept the "whoa-I-never-thought-I'd-be-doing-this" parts. And third, find joy in the every day things, the simple little stitches that bind your souls.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Meet Laura

Laura, center, with her children (L to R) Ted, Will, Seth and Betsy

     Laura looks healthier than most people her age, yet she lives with a chronic illness that requires her to visit the local hospital once a month for the rest of her life. If she didn't, she would die. 
     You would never know it looking at Laura or even spending time with her because Laura chooses to not let her illness define her. Along the way, she's also learned to trust pain and not be afraid of it. 
     In August 2006, Will, one of Laura’s four children, was home from college and noticed her feet were swollen. Laura, an active Realtor, professional school fundraiser, and wife of a minister, stopped long enough to check her blood pressure. The reading was normal.
     At 49-years old, Laura didn’t think much about it. For years, she’d taught swim lessons and coached teams. She was an avid walker and took yoga and weight classes. She knew little aches and pains, even swelling, sometimes come with daily exercise. Laura also knew she was more tired than usual, but she attributed it to having two children still at home and in high school. Betsy, her only daughter, was in her senior year.
     However, two weeks later when her symptoms didn’t go away, she consulted a doctor. Both her white and red blood counts were dangerously low. Her red count should fall between 39 and 45.
     “Mine was 26. You start losing brain cells at around 22 because you don’t have any oxygen. You can go into cardiac arrest,” she explained.
     Her white count should fall between 5,000 and 8,000. “Mine was 2,000,” she added.
     The next day, Laura and her husband drove to a specialist. On the way, Laura started to have a heart attack. Her heart was pumping too fast. They made it to the hospital where she was admitted for testing and days of poking and prodding.
Laura with Kenny, her husband of 29 years. "Getting sick was the best thing for our marriage," Laura said. "Kenny was just a rock star - all the shots, all the things he did - twice we took a break for a week from all the doctor visits and treatments. One week, he took me to a movie every day. He kept our head on for us. He kept things stable and calm."
     Two weeks later without a diagnosis, she was sent home. Kenny learned how to to give her shots every day. Nothing made her better. She felt like she had the worse case of mono. Everything ached. Just walking the 20 feet from the house to the car zapped her energy.
     Over the next eight months while doctors tried to diagnose her symptoms, Laura was admitted into the hospital 14 times, endured 14 blood transfusions (one every three weeks) four bone marrow aspirations (“craaaazy” painful, she said), received three rounds of chemo, participated in numerous experimental treatments, and had her spleen removed.
     Not surprisingly if you know Laura, she was never alone. Besides Kenny and the children, throughout the journey, she’d wake up and find hospital staff – doctors, nurses, and technicians – praying beside her bed.
     In the end, Laura discovered not only had she been exposed to tuberculosis while living overseas but worse, she was born with a compromised immune system.
     “I don’t have two components in my immune system,” she said.
     If left untreated, Laura could have died. Now once a month, she gets up early and drives herself to the hospital. For 10 hours straight, she sits quietly in a chair surrounded by other patients, some, just days from death, while an IV drips her missing blood products into her vein. Then she drives herself home and spends the next 12 hours sick to her stomach.
     This procedure has become part of Laura’s life but it doesn’t define her. She trusts God’s plan although she continues to challenge her body.
     Nearly two years ago, after getting her doctor’s approval, Laura and I trained for our first half marathon together. Each week, we’d text each other to confirm our walking times before meeting. One day, she didn’t respond. 
     “Where were you yesterday?” I asked as we race walked our 8-mile course along the river and through old town, past mothers pushing babies in carriages and elderly couples strolling in silence holding hands.
     “Oh sorry, it was my hospital day,” Laura said.