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Happy Birthday, Dad

Once upon a time, I had a perfectly, imperfect father who loved me like a daughter, not just a girl his son brought home one day. He didn’t have to love me—he was under no obligation whatsoever. He didn’t even have to like me, but he did. We were fast friends. We understood each other because we chose better lives for ourselves when we could have easily repeated what we saw as children. We were both sassy, strong, and stubborn. Above all, we both loved his son beyond belief.

I don’t even remember calling him Pete. He was always Dad. He showed me what unconditional love looked like; what it felt like to be the center of one’s world; and the value of love, loyalty, generosity of spirit, and tradition. No one would have blamed him for being a cold-hearted cynic, having lived a life no child should. But he wasn’t. He lived his life with an open heart. He was compassionate and incredibly generous, sometimes anonymously, expecting nothing in return. He was quick and clever and made me laugh.

Dad wasn’t perfect, but he held his broken pieces together as long as he could—long enough to raise children anyone would be proud of; love and spoil granddaughters in the best of ways; celebrate a Super Bowl win with his biggest fan; read every book he could get his hands on; create traditions celebrating family; and change me in ways I didn’t think were possible. His body broke and we lost him way too soon. It was the only time he hurt me and I feel the pain to this day.

I see him in my loving, hilarious husband, my sweet sister, my sassy and generous daughters, and his fiercely independent granddaughters. I see him in the best part of myself.

We lost him almost fifteen years ago, but sometimes it feels like yesterday. Today would have been his 81st birthday, but I celebrate him every day.

Happy Birthday, Dad.

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Those Aren’t Pillows!

Every year, my family watches Planes, Trains, and Automobiles the night before Thanksgiving. We spend the rest of the year cramming movie quotes into our normal conversations. We know every scene so well we start laughing before the hijinks even happen. We quote lines a split-second before Steve Martin and John Candy deliver them with perfect, comedic timing. We all have our favorite scenes.

The movie is hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time, just like life, sans musical score. The freeze frame of John Candy at the end while “Every time You Go Away” plays in the background brings me to tears. Every. Single. Time. John Candy left us way too soon. This year, I know the song will rip out my heart because my youngest daughter is unable to join this year’s viewing and the Thanksgiving feast the next day. Thankfully, she took the tradition with her and will be watching three thousand miles away.

I can’t remember exactly how and when this tradition started, but I can’t imagine my life without it. We’ve added loved ones to the viewing party and tearfully said goodbye to others; we’ve watched during years of celebration and good fortune and years that tested our mettle; we’ve watched during different stages of our lives that allowed us to relate to the movie in different ways. It’s so much more than a movie—it’s family, treasured moments, laughter during difficult times, and our steadfast friend.

I don’t know what the next year will bring for my family, but I know without a doubt, we will gather to watch Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and laugh for 92 glorious minutes.  “Gobble. Gobble.”

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From Snow Skis to Wheelchair

Me and my Superman, Mark V. King

I’m sure when you woke up this morning, you took a deep breath, swung your legs out of bed, and started your day. All on you own, without thinking about it, without worry. We take our breath for granted. We trust that our bodies will do everything we need it to do to keep us alive. That’s not true for everyone. Imagine you are 16 years old, no worries in the world, loving life, hanging out with friends, and being adventurous. Imagine going fast – skiing, riding your motorcycle, driving. Now, imagine your 16 year old body dropping to the ground unable to move or breath on its own. In an instant, Mark King’s life changed forever. An accident left him with C-1 quadriplegia and dependency on a ventilator because his body doesn’t do what it needs to do on its own to keep him alive. At the age of 16, he was given one hour to live in 1980. That was almost 40 years ago.

He is Superman, if Superman needed a ventilator to breath. His super powers are defeating the odds, inspiring others, helping people understand how to talk with people with disabilities, and advocating for those with disabilities. He has helped shape the services and supports available to those living with disabilities, has testified in front of the Oregon State Legislature, has served as a Commissioner with the Oregon Home Care Commission, and now serves on the Oregon Disabilities Commission. He lives his life with compassion, generosity, and humor. He chooses to live. What’s your excuse?

Mark tells his story in his newly published book, From Snow Skis to Wheelchair, available now on Amazon. Unless you are a robot, you will cry (or try not to), laugh out loud, celebrate his victories, be inspired, and never take your breath for granted again. And that 16 year old boy, he was a little troublemaker.

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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.

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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.