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It’s a Little Bit Funny, This Feeling Inside

I was so excited to see the Elton John biopic, Rocketman.  Months seemed like years.  I wouldn’t say I’m a fanatic.  I don’t even know all his songs, but the songs I do know and love move me.  When I was a teenager, I confiscated my parents copy of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and sat in my room listening to my favorite songs from the album over and over.  I didn’t know about Bernie Taupin then. I just loved the songs and Elton John’s beautiful voice, and when I listened, I didn’t feel so alone. 

There is a scene in the movie where Bernie is listening to Elton bring Your Song to life.  I sat there and cried.  It wasn’t Elton, it was the look on Bernie’s face when his creation became so much more that moved me to tears.  His poetry was given life and he knew it would be shared with the world.  As I writer, that is my dream.  I want my writing to be part of the living.  They knew they had created something amazing.  It’s eternal. Every generation knows it.

There are days that writing is hard and I can’t find the right words to string together. I have come to appreciate the lyrics of Your Song – “I sat on the roof and kicked off the moss. Well a few of the verses, well they’ve got me quite cross.” There have been more days than I would like to admit that I’ve sat in front of my computer feeling quite cross. When the words I struggle to write fit together just right, I know the “sun’s been quite kind.”

I found myself crying a lot during the movie.  It triggered me.  Elton felt unloved by his parents and uncertain whether he would be loved at all.  The ghost of that feeling lives inside of me and haunts me once in a while.  It used to be alive and well in every cell of my being, crushing and breaking me and drilling a space in me that will always be empty.  As a kid, I knew there were people who loved me, but feeling loved and being loved are not always the same thing. 

And then I found someone who truly loved me and helped me build a bridge over that empty hole. I can peer down into the darkness, but I don’t fall in.  There are danger signs all around it telling me to watch my step.  Sometimes I dangle my foot over the railing just to tempt fate, but then I stand up and walk over the bridge into my happy life.  As an adult, I know my parents did the best they could, but they were lost in their own black hole of brokenness.  And I am far from a perfect parent.  I have made plenty of mistakes, but I did the best I could do so my girls would never feel unloved.

Back to Rocketman.  I loved it.  It wasn’t perfect, but life isn’t either.  Elton put his broken, brilliant life on the big screen for all to see.  If we could all be as brave.  Thank you, Elton and Bernie, for keeping me company.

Family · Magic moments · Vacation

The Most Magical Place on Earth

My sweet Lori having the most magical time of her life.

I spent the last week in the “Most Magical Place on Earth.”  In three days, I walked a total of 19 miles and spent hours that felt like days standing in lines for three-minute rides.  My feet definitely did not feel magical.  If it were possible for feet to throw up, they would have hurled all over Disney World—Exorcist style.  And it certainly wasn’t magical walking around in wet underwear after a torrential downpour.

For me, the magic wasn’t parades, princesses, or pirates.  It wasn’t food shaped like Micky Mouse ears, the iconic castle, or the fantastic fireworks extravaganza. The magic was the pure excitement spread across children’s faces when they ran up to hug Micky or Cinderella and asked them to sign their official Disney autograph book.  These characters weren’t characters at all— they were absolutely flesh and blood real.  Seeing families in matching shirts with their official designation as big brother, little sister, mom, dad, or grandma was magical—bright red shirts with Disney script announcing their 2019 family vacation.  Listening to families laugh together while waiting in long lines was magical.  They transformed a frustrating, endless wait into time together as a family—laughing, reminiscing, debating which super hero is the best of all time.

The most magical place on earth is wherever my family is, whether it’s Disney World or home.  It was nothing short of magic seeing my youngest daughter after three long months away and finally holding her close to me; watching my daughters hug each other like their lives depended on it; seeing my daughter and her daddy watch a Blazer playoff game together in the hotel room; grabbing coffee with my Starbucks buddy; all the quiet moments; the laughter, even at my expense; standing in line together waiting to ride something amazing while wearing 3-D glasses; and knowing my family is happy and healthy. 

I can’t wait to spend time together as a family.  I’m not sure when I will get to see my youngest daughter again in person and hold her tight.  I know it will be magical when I do.  I better get our red shirts ready.



personal growth

Why I Write

I’m standing in front of you naked and showing you every wrinkle, sag, imperfection, and fat roll.  There’s no hiding behind baggy sweatshirts, makeup, or control top underwear.  I’ve given my secrets names and lit a candle so you could see the dark places within me.  I’ve exposed my soft underbelly and I’m vulnerable to your sharp jabs.  This is what it feels like when I share my writing, but I do it anyway, because leaving the words bouncing around my insides is more painful than the fear of releasing them.

I’m an emotional writer.  I want you to feel what I write.  I want you to sink into the environment I’ve created and live there.  I want you to feel angry, frightened, joyful, and hopeful. I want you to face your foes, fall in love, and breathe deeply after the wind has been knocked out of you.  I want you to forget you are reading a story.  You are the story.

I started writing as a kid.  It was my escape from the pain and fear I felt every day at home.  I would share my stories with my best friend, Adrienne.  She was my biggest fan. I wrote until I didn’t anymore.  I stopped after my dad read my diary out loud to me and I heard all the words I wrote in secret spill out of his angry mouth.  I knew the words hurt him.  My words became painful to see and hear so I kept them inside after that.  I let fear and vulnerability shut down my creativity.  I didn’t write again until I was an adult with a mortgage, two children, a full-time job, and overwhelming exhaustion.  I wrote here and there and stuffed the pages away.  I wrote on the back of fast food bags and napkins and left them isolated and hidden from the world.  I wrote a thousand words of nothingness and stopped before they became anything other than broken thoughts and false starts.

A dear friend presented me with the opportunity to submit a short story to a new online literary magazine called the Fictional Café.  It was accepted and became the first story published on the site.  All Things Buried is a story about hope in a hopeless situation.  I started writing it as a teenager and didn’t finish it until I was in my mid-life.  It was terrifying to share but it set me free.  I’ve been writing ever since.  Here’s the link to the story that started it all:  https://www.fictionalcafe.com/all-things-buried-by-jenny-cokeley-4/.  I hope you enjoy it and become the story.

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A Little Ditty ’bout Mike and Jenny

Someone asked me this week how my husband and I have stayed together for almost 30 years.  There’s no secret or luck, my friends.  We invest in our relationship every single day.  There’s no resting on our laurels, phoning it in, or taking a day off.  We work at it, but it doesn’t feel like work because we enjoy being together.  We dig one another.  We genuinely like each other and find each other interesting.  We are fans of our relationship.  His face is my screen saver and he keeps a 29 year old picture of us in his wallet.  Don’t get me wrong, our relationship isn’t perfect. We are flawed human beings incapable of perfection.  I’m so grateful to be in an amazingly imperfect, loving relationship with my best friend.

Mike and I are opposites in a lot of ways.  He’s a calm, steadfast, neat, organized, rational saver.  I’m a little tornado, an emotional, impulsive, creative dreamer.   He’s a night owl who has trouble falling asleep.  I’m an earlyish bird who can fall asleep in a middle of a conversation.  He has a loud laugh that comes from deep within.  I laugh on the inside.  He’s not a huge fan of PDA, but I make him kiss me in the middle of Target anyway.  He keeps me grounded and I encourage him to fly.  He is a fantastic verbal storyteller and I’m a writer. He’s the driver and I’m the trusty navigator. We are strong and weak at different times so we are always there to catch each other when we stumble. He’s an optimistic ball of anxiety and I’m a deep pit of depression and pessimism.  He’s quick to forgive and I hold a grudge. But we love each other for our differences.

We are the same where it counts—our values and priorities, our love of home and family, and our love for other imperfect humans in this world.  We are kind and generous to others, as well as to each other.  We make decisions together (except when I spent $3,000 dollars on Mary Kay without telling him).  We talk it out after I try giving him the silent treatment. We are equals in our relationship and give each other 100%.  We are Team Cokeley.

Mike and I laugh a lot (when I’m not irritable and moody)—with each other, at each other, and through the most difficult, dark times.  We share inside jokes.  I cheese sandwich you, Mike.  A lot of our conversations are pieced together with movie quotes.

We understand romance isn’t always about grand gestures.  It’s also little things like holding hands in bed while watching T.V.; stealing kisses in the kitchen; Starbuck surprises; leaving a towel out for the morning shower; making sure we never run out of toilet paper; running errands together; and remembering to pay off the credit cards (except when I forget to pay Mike’s, but that has only happened a few hundred times).  Romance is about saying I love you every day, making sure there are kisses goodbye, texting during the day just to say I’m thinking about you (and your hot body).

So, you see my friends, it’s not luck, except for our incredible chemistry, but don’t worry, I will spare you the details (unless you want them, you perv).  

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If You Think I’m Sassy, Let Me Introduce You to My Grandma Shirlee

Every time I hear Tiny Dancer, I think about my Grandma Shirlee.  She wasn’t a dancer or even tiny for that matter.  She didn’t marry a music man or count headlights on the highway.  She did, however, have a pirate’s smile—a wonderful, crooked smile.  If you want to know where I got my sass, Shirlee’s to blame.  She was a short, strong, sassy woman who spoke her mind.  She was a feisty red head with a bit of a mean streak and a wicked sense of humor.  She was the leader of the tribe and the glue that kept the family together. She was one of a kind, that Shirl of mine.

My grandma was a lover of books; a Trivial Pursuit cheat; a dining room table pinochle champion; a wig wearing smoker with asthma; a hard worker; horrible housekeeper; and a fantastic cook. She wouldn’t hesitate to stab your hand with a fork when you reached across the dining room table.  Trust me.  She also had the biggest heart.  She opened her home to us when we didn’t have one; she helped raise her sixteen-year-old daughter’s little girl; she cared for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities with such love, compassion, and dedication; and she gave people a million chances when they deserved none. 

My grandma passed down her love of reading to me.  Every week, we’d go to the used book store and fill paper sacks with romance novels she devoured.  I loved going with her and losing myself in a maze of books.  She always had one on the dash or her car and another stuffed in her purse.  “You never know when you’ll have to wait,” she’d say.  Maybe I became a writer because she loved books so much.  I wish she could have read my words.

Shirlee forced me to play cards with her and watch musicals for hours—Mame, Gypsy, The King and I.  I think she believed she was Mamma Rose.  I would do anything to be held captive by her again and play pinochle with a mixture of fear and enthusiasm.  That lady was serious about her cards.

I was holding Shirlee’s hand when she died.  I am so grateful I was able to share that moment with her. No force of nature could have moved me from her bedside.  I kissed her cheek and thanked her for being my grandma.  And just like that, my Shirlee was gone. 

Grandma Shirlee’s sassy, stubborn spirit and strength lives in me, my daughters, Shirlee’s daughters, and my sister. We are strong, independent women just like Shirlee. If you push us, we dig in deep. We pick ourselves up when we get knocked down – every single time. We just keep moving forward because we decide which direction to go. It’s the legacy of a red head with a pirate’s smile.

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My Sweet Grandma Alice

My most treasured memories of my childhood involve running errands with my Grandma Alice.  It didn’t matter where we went as long as we were together.  She was my safe place and when I was with her, I felt loved, carefree, and happy.  Being seen and heard at Grandma’s was joyful.  I could totally be myself around her and she loved me for it.  Maybe I was her safe place, too.

Grandma and I would run errands for hours.  There was always a stop at a garage sale.  We’d go to the bank so she could secretly squirrel away money in her wallet and purse.  We spent a good hour at Pic-N-Save or Woolworth’s searching through treasures we didn’t need.  We would drive hours to Long Beach to drop off a check she could have easily mailed.  On the way home, we stopped by Alpha Beta for groceries and after, I watched her fry fish in her old cast iron skillet while she held a warm Pepsi in one hand and a cigarette in the other.  I didn’t even like fish but hers was amazing.

Grandma had such a gentle spirit.  All the stray cats in the neighborhood loved her almost as much as I did.  She wasn’t perfect, but we were perfect together.  I’d like to think the good parts of me are because of her.  She never showed me the part of herself that was broken.

After my sweet Alice passed away, a poem poured out of me.

Kiss Me Goodnight

Grandma, I’m tired

And ready for bed

I’ll snuggle beside you and

You’ll scratch my head

Sweet dreams, I love you

Tuck me in tight

Give me my teddy

And kiss me goodnight

Grandma, I’m tired

And have to head home

Waiting for me are

Girls of my own

I don’t want to leave you

I’d visit all night

Hand me my coat

And kiss me goodnight

Grandma, you’re tired

And ready for bed

Grandpa is waiting

To Heaven, you’re led

Grant me one wish and

I’d hold you so tight

I’d lie down beside you

And kiss you goodnight

With all my heart, I want to jump in Grandma’s car again and disappear for hours.  Now, I cherish every time my daughters run errands with me.  I get to share something special with them.  It probably means more to me than it does to them, but they go anyway and I love every moment.

I miss you every day, my sweet Alice.  Thanks for letting me ride shotgun.

compassion · older adults · personal growth · Uncategorized

Tales from the Nursing Home: Margaret

When Margaret was younger, she wasn’t a striking woman.  She had deep-set eyes trapped behind think-lens glasses, a long, off-centered face, and a bit of an overbite.  She couldn’t stop a man dead in his tracks or even earn a second glance when she walked into the room.  She was a quiet woman with a gentle demeanor who faded into the background.  She had a serious stride that hid any trace of playfulness or grace.  She wore a dab of rouge and a touch of lipstick, never red. 

I did not know Margaret when she was a young girl or even during her mid-life.  She was an 89-year-old woman whose thick chestnut hair turned to white wisps and deep grooves encircled her mouth and spread across her face.  Her legs could no longer support her slender body and she spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair she could slowly propel when she wasn’t overcome with fatigue. 

When I met Margaret, she lived in a world of confusion highlighted by brief moments of clarity that added frustration and loneliness to her life.  Her husband of fifty years suffered a heart attack several years back and they were never blessed with children, although they tried.  Margaret’s friends were long gone, not that she could remember their names.  She would ask me why the Lord hadn’t taken her yet.  She felt she had lived a good, Christian life.  She prayed every night she wouldn’t wake up.  She didn’t view death as something to fear.  She was ready, but had to wait.  It wasn’t her decision.

Margaret would often come to me in tears.  She felt ashamed and embarrassed that she showed such emotion.  As a minister’s wife, Margaret had always been the shelter that protected others from the harsh realities of life.  She had no time to cry for herself when she had to wipe away the tears of others.  She had to push away her own feelings of insecurity and doubt while she smiled sweetly and offered encouraging words of advice.  As a girl, she was told to be strong and never show her weakness with tears.  It wasn’t until dementia began to tighten its grip that she was forced to acknowledge her loss and loneliness.  I sat with her, held her hand, wiped her tears, and spoke softly.  That’s when I realized Margaret and I were alike.

One of my most vivid and touching memories of Margaret was seeing her sitting in the dining room after all the other nursing home residents had left.  In front of her, the memories of her life were scattered across the table revealing the Margaret I had never known.  With every picture she touched, she came alive as memories flooded her mind. 

When I first saw her sitting at the table, I was overcome with sadness.  This wonderful woman had nothing left but a table full of distant memories—her childhood home; her brother carrying her on his shoulders; her wedding day.  The pictures freed her from confusion, if only for a little while.  It was my youth that did not allow me to see that these pictures were Margaret’s shelter. Her smile lit up the room and my heart.

The moments I spent with Margaret validated my life’s purpose.  Like Margaret, I became a shelter to those in need of love and comfort, often pushing away my own need for compassion and understanding.  When I held her hand, we were both comforted.  The soul of a woman in her early twenties was intertwined with that of a woman in her late eighties.  She showed me the treasures hidden behind white hair, wheelchairs, and bewilderment.  To me, Margaret was a beautiful woman.  Her beauty was revealed in her comforting touch and soft voice, her caring spirit and sincerity, her generosity and goodwill.  I can honestly say she was the most beautiful woman I have ever known. 

I was on maternity leave with my first child when Margaret passed away. I didn’t get to hold her hand and say goodbye to her.  I’ve carried her picture with me for twenty-five years.  I look at it every day and it reminds me to be compassionate and comforting to others.  Everyone needs a hand to hold and an encouraging word once in a while.  Margaret knew that better than most—my beautiful, sweet Margaret.

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Empty Nester

 My nest is about to be empty.  One little birdie left little by little—I’ll be home by eleven” turned into midnight that turned into tomorrow that turned into “Can I come home to do my laundry?”  The other little birdie is jumping in one fell swoop—no time to hop when she can soar.  What’s a momma bird to do when her little birdies no longer need her help to fly?  I have to have faith that I did what I could to help my girls fly, or at least how to survive a crash landing. 

My life is changing, ready or not.  For someone who thinks she isn’t a control freak, I am, and I am freaking out.  Empty Nester. My life has passed by so quickly—I couldn’t wait to leave my parent’s nest, build my own, and fill it with birdies.  What’s next?  Mid-life crisis?  One would have to admit they are middle-aged.  Why would I do that when I have a good friend named denial?  Denial and I are very, very close.  She tells me I look as good as I did in my twenties, that my clothing size is still in the single digits, and it’s OK to lie about your weight on your driver’s license.  I love her.  For some reason though, she’s not sugar-coating this.  It’s going to be heartbreaking and painful, but also exciting to see my youngest daughter set out on her own adventure and fulfil one of her life long dreams.

I believe I’ve taught my daughters to be brave, strong, and willing to take a risk for something they truly believe in.  Now it’s time for me to do the same.  For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer.  My mom bought me my first typewriter.  It was old and clunky and I wish still had it.  I don’t think she will ever know how much that act of love meant to me.  It gave me freedom.  It’s time to write, write, write. And if you ask me if I’m writing, and I say no, please firmly, but lovingly ask me to get my shit together.  This empty nester has work to do!

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Tales From the Nursing Home: Ellen

It was always dark in Ellen’s room.  She insisted the curtains remained drawn at all times.  She was one of the few nursing home residents who could afford a private room.  No one knew much about her.  Her room offered no clues about who she was before she moved into the facility—no pictures on the walls, no visitors, no small talk.  The only thing that belonged to her was an over sized, faded blue chair that sat in the corner of her room.  That chair swallowed her tiny, crooked body whole.  A healed tracheotomy left her with a grating whisper of a voice that spoke of people trying to kill her and hide her away.  Her vigilant gray eyes followed every noise and shadow. I tried to pass her room as quickly as possible, but she summoned me with her abrasive voice and long, bony finger each time.

The staff elected me to sit with her the day she lay dying in her dark and uninviting room. I saw death sitting in her blue chair waiting while she labored to breath.  Ellen’s mouth was wide open, her eyes shut.  Her hands had already turned a bluish-gray.  I wrapped my hands around hers—I was her last connection to her lonely, frightening world.  The life in my youthful hands could not save her, only comfort her.  The moment she died, I could feel it.  I was happy for her because she was finally free.

After twenty-five years, I still think about Ellen.  At times, the thought is almost overwhelming.  During a miraculous moment in time, my hands touched both life and death as she passed between worlds.  The soft sound of my voice was the last sound she would ever hear.  The last thing she would ever feel were my hands as I held her.  Ellen was my first.  Since then, I’ve held many hands because no one deserves to die alone. Thank you for that gift, Ellen.

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Grow Old with Me, Even When the Best to Be Isn’t That Great

Image result for pictures of old couples holding hands

I was hired right out of college as a nursing home social worker.  I was 21 and pretty clueless about most things.  I had never worked with older adults—no one close to me had been seriously ill or died, I had never seen what it looked like to survive a stroke, and I had never seen the devastation of someone being consumed by dementia.  My first day on the job, I met sweet Ida.  The next day she died.  It was like that for the next four years.

Working in the nursing home was a crash course in life—I learned more than I ever expected. I learned that no matter how much you want to save people, you can’t, but you can hold their hand, listen, and be kind. I also learned that you can’t change dysfunctional families—things don’t get better when someone moves into a nursing home, it magnifies all the cracks in a relationship. Loveless marriages continue, siblings blame each other, the daughter with poor boundaries who can’t say no continues to say yes even though her heart aches each time.  I also learned that people do the best they can until they can’t do it anymore, and that’s when they need grace and to hear everything is going to be ok, even when you know what’s ahead.

The greatest thing I learned about was the incredible love partners share when one can only visit and the other has to stay.  I was newly married when I started working in the nursing home.  I didn’t know then what I know now after 25 years of marriage—we change, but as long as we embrace and accept those changes together, love never leaves.  I witnessed it day after day—the wife who visited her husband who no longer recognized her face, but recognized her touch; the husband who brushed his wife’s hair while he sang to her; the spouse who came at dawn and left after dusk every day. Till death did them part.  It’s the kind of love I want in my marriage.

I learned more working in the nursing home than I did in college or since.  I earned a master’s degree in compassion and caring about people.  It helped me be a better person.  I will also remember sweet Ida, Joe, Margaret, Elsie, and Agnes.