Saturday, July 18, 2020

Gracias

Gracias 

"I'm aware of the mystery around us, so I write about coincidences, premonitions, emotions, dreams, the power of nature, magic." ~Isabel Allende

As I walked into Timber Creek Regional High School for the first time, I gaped at the tall windows that provided the walls to the LMC. I recalled my own high school with it's lack of windows and orange carpeting from the 1970s. I had a feeling which I've only had a few other times in this life. It was a premonition that walking into TC was going to be a significant day in my life. I was lost on the way to TC, both figuratively and literally. I was caught between the tumultuous waters of my late teens/early twenties and the calmer, more confident tsunamis of my thirties. 

When I opened the glass door to the faculty meeting already in progress and hid nervously behind people whom I would repeatedly refer to as "family" for the next twenty years, I had just gotten off the phone with Patti Taricone, who directed me to Timber Creek where I was assigned to student teach, before the days of GPS and before Patti would become another mother/big sister/friend/counselor. Mae Robinson, TC's third principal in the fourth year since the school's opening on September 12, 2001, was speaking to the faculty, calling the year ahead "awesome" and the educators before her "awesome." It's funny to me to think that I heard Poly Alacqua's name before I had ever met Abbe, my closest friend, before I had officially thanked Patti for guiding me down the Black Horse Pike, before I ever stood alone in front of a classroom of freshmen to try to explain themes in literature and in life. 

Mrs. Robinson was introducing new faculty and highlighting veteran teachers. She said, "...and if you haven't gotten the chance to sit down and talk with Poly Alacqua, be sure you do. She's from Chile and has an awesome story." 

By now, I know a little of Poly's story, but a lot of her heart. A few years ago, Poly was my Secret Buddy. At Timber Creek, participating faculty anonymously buy each other gifts every few weeks. At the end of a few months of gift-giving, we throw ourselves a party and reveal to each other who has been providing little trinkets of love to whom. I have always been on the lucky end of the Secret Buddy assignments. As my Buddy, Poly gifted me, among other things, a necklace made from a Scrabble piece and a book with the pages folded into the shape of a butterfly. Magic. Her gifts are special and sit on display in my house. 

After my diagnosis, Poly sent a few cards. And few weeks ago, a book arrived on my door step. I opened the accompanying letter and read Poly's heartfelt well-wishes and her thoughts on the book she'd sent. I finished reading the 481 page novel, The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende on July 16, 2020. I know that will be a significant day in my memory always, because it is the day that I finished reading what has become this English teacher's favorite book of all time. 

C.S. Lewis wrote, "We read to know we are not alone." The House of the Spirits takes place in Chile, Poly Alaqua's and Isabel Allende's home country. The novel was translated from Spanish to English. Anyone who knows Poly knows that she is constantly translating her Spanish-speaking stories into English for her captive Timber Creekian audience. The novel is a beautiful story about forgiveness after unspeakable tragedy. I was surprised at how much I could relate to the characters who lived and died through a military coup in Chile in the early 1970s. We are not alone in our emotions or dreams. That magic is easily translated into a universal language, 

Timber Creek is a beautiful building, and it has my heart as much as my dingy 1970s high school in Toms River, NJ did. Polly speaks Spanish and understands my struggles in English. Our Secret Buddies are always revealed to us if we just show up to the party. 

So to anyone who knows Poly or has just heard her name, be sure to sit down and talk with her. I do not know her whole story. I plan to find out. I do know, however, that she is awesome. 

Gracias, Poly! 


Sunday, July 12, 2020

Shaving

Shaving


"Why is it I always get my best ideas while shaving?" ~Albert Einstein

Oprah is famous for determining her intentions before embarking on any new endeavor. She derived this notion from studying Gary Zukav's work in which he advises that we, as small vessels, line up with our "mother ships" or our inner-beings before doing anything. That way, we will always be lead on the truest course.  

It is my intention to thank everyone whose life I've touched before I leave this life. I have a very long life ahead of me; it has become apparent since my diagnosis that I have a very long list of people to thank. 

I have not blogged in some time because I have been quietly taking notes on whom to thank in my thank you notes. See what I did there? Ha! That kind of cheesy word-play reminds me of my sister, Lindsay Sommers. Some may joke that I have been keeping tabs on Lindsay since 1985, the second she was born. I like to think I've been keeping notes. I have so many notes stored up for Lindsay and I cannot adequately thank her in one simple blog post. So for today, as I continue to come up with ideas for more blog posts, as I reach my one and only goal in life--to get good at giving--I will simply thank Lindsay for the new razor she gifted me the other day. 

I wrote this poem years ago, but in honor of my new razor, I dedicate it to my sister, Lindsay: 

Suggestions for Skin 

Do not tattoo your ignored skin

That you must contort to read 

Or consort with the ever-lying mirror.

Tattoo the tiles of your shower. 

Clean the grout and your spine

And read the lines of philosophers 

Who stuttered your feet with fresh thought.

Streaks of soap scum may erase an 'E'

But a shower is more lasting

Than a human or a dog in a bath.

The words, the ink, will imprint the steam

And your day as you shave the stubble

From your last attempt... 


Friday, June 19, 2020

Trail Blazers

Trail Blazers 

"'Why do you have a cigarette lighter in your glove compartment?' her husband, Jack, asked her. 'I'm bored with knitting. I've taken up arson.'" ~Audrey Niffenegger, Her Fearful Symmetry

I'm a knitter. I'm a knitter now, but for a while I was a wannabe knitter. I always loved watching my mom knit. Her needles clicked and she held different notions between her teeth while the rest of the family watched TV. She was so involved and never bored. The idea of never being bored and having an end product, something to show off, is what made me a wannabe knitter. I am proudly a self-taught knitter. Why didn't my mother teach me? Well...she's left handed. And I would have totally driven her crazy with my stubborn frustration, so it was probably the best decision for both of us that she helped me buy materials and a how-to book and wished me luck. Now we have a shared talent and we do share it. We shop together and swap patterns and advice. 

For a little while I was a closet knitter. I'm only 39 now; when I learned to knit I was about 28. Knitting was not quite as cool as the bar back then, but in a "would you rather" game I would have, and still would, choose knitting. I met Michael when I was just 29. We met on December 30, 2009 but that part of the love story is a story for another time. Today, the important thing to know is that Michael's mom's birthday is March 21st. She turned 60 the March after I met Michael. So just about 3 months after I met him, I also met his entire family. Every cousin, aunt, uncle, second cousin, and family friend who is considered family, showed up to Theresa's 60th birthday party and I was Michael's new girlfriend. Full disclosure, I spent about an hour and a half with Michael's younger brother, Chris and his wife, Liz out to dinner a few weeks before, but I had never met anyone else in the family. I was terrified! I don't know if I have been that nervous at any other time in my life (and I teach freshman English). 

A few months later, Chris and Liz threw a BBQ at their former home in Pittman, NJ. Michael's older brother, Matthew and his wife, Eunice attended the BBQ. I walked in to Chris's backyard and...Eunice was knitting! I had found my people! It was that day that I became a wanna be Eunice. My now sister-in-law is one of the coolest people I know. I'm sure she'd never been bored a day in her life. She is the mother to three talented and kind kids. She makes Kim Chi from scratch. She built her kids' bunkbeds?! I used to admire the photographs of the shore I saw hanging in my in-laws' former beach home in Ventnor and one day I asked where they purchased the photos. I learned that Eunice was, in fact,  the photographer. It must be an older sister thing, because next to Stacy, my older sister, Eunice, my older sister-in-law, is the best gift-giver. This list goes on and on...

While Eunice has not taken up arson (that I know of) she definitely lights fires. At family gatherings Eunice is the one who not only packs up her three kids to travel from formerly South Carolina and now from Idaho, but who packs some well-informed opinions and debating skills. She has a wise wit to her advice which I both crave and accept on any topic. She has been lighting fires under my brother-in-law Matthew for years. 

I am a middle child. So is Michael. He's the middle of three boys and I am the middle of three girls. My older sister, as you may have read, works in medical research. Michael's older brother is a pulmonologist. Michael is a firefighter and I'm a teacher. Michael's younger brother, Chris, is the head pastor at his church in Reading, PA. My younger sister, Lindsay, is an elder at our church in Haddonfield. Seeing a pattern? Anyway, Michael and I both look to our older siblings for, among other things, medical advice. Whenever, we are worried about a diagnosis or a major medical issue, we call Matthew or Stacy. A week after my daughter, Emerson, was born, Michael started having a bad reaction to a medication he was given for his brain tumor. With a newborn in my arms and a crying two year old hugging my legs, I called Matthew. Matthew and Eunice live in Idaho, but Matthew directed me as to how to handle the situation and kept me calm. He organized how to get Michael to the hospital and directed his parents as to Michael's care while he made arrangements to fly to New Jersey in time for Michael's surgery. He waited with me in the waiting room and slept in Michael's hospital room for a week. Eunice is the coolest person I know, but Matthew is the calmest. If Eunice ever gets arrested, she need not fear. Matthew will know what to do. 

I am currently sipping one of the teas that Eunice sent me in the mother-of-all care packages. Michael informed me this morning of Matthew's take on several of my test results from Penn. I laugh when I think of myself at 29, shaking as I walked into my mother-in-law's 60th birthday party. I have felt like family every day since. I adore my big sis, Eunice and my big bro, Matthew.

Thanks for showing us the way, Matthew and Eunice. We can't wait to see you in Idaho. 

Monday, June 1, 2020

Love Is Love

Love Is Love


"We rise and fall and light from dying embers, remembrances that/hope and love last longer/And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be/killed or swept aside..." Lin-Manuel Miranda

Growing up, I looked forward to hearing from my uncle, my mother's older brother, every holiday. On Thanksgiving or Christmas or Easter, I would twist the rotary phone cord around my fingers as my Uncle "Butch," known to most as Chuck or Charles, would check in on my sisters and me. We didn't actually see Uncle Butch much as kids, nor do we see him a lot now; however, if anyone asks if we are close to my uncle, the answer is, "Of course!" And it's because love has nothing to do with how often we see each other.

I take great pride in having already taught my daughter, Zoe, about death. It happened by accident, but I will say, it was a happy accident. Who knew my, at the time, 3-year-old would be so enthralled by the Netflix original film, The Little Prince? The classic French tale by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, is nestled inside a modern-day story of a little girl whose mother's type-A multitasking is robbing her daughter of the messy, amazing, and necessary trials of childhood. Of course, at the end of this --in my opinion-- brilliant remake, both protagonists, the original character of the Aviator and the new character of the little girl, must grapple with death. Both characters realize that a dead loved one's body "...will be like an abandoned shell. [And] there is nothing sad about an old shell." Both protagonists realize that love does not depend on physical bodies.

In quiet moments of play, unsolicited, Zoe often reiterates her understanding of the themes in The Little Prince. She says, "Even when I can't see you, I still love you."

To be clear, my Uncle Butch is alive and well. He and his husband Paul live in New Hampshire. They have lived far from New Jersey my whole life, and while my husband, Michael, and I did visit them for a fabulous week of dining, sight-seeing, laughing, and relaxing during the summer of 2013, we don't see them often. Regardless, my uncles, Butch and Paul, have supported and loved me since the day I was born.

Throughout my life, Uncle Butch has given me several heartfelt and significant gifts. For our wedding, he gave me and Michael a vase from Tunisia, his French-speaking mother's, my Mamina's, birth country. Yesterday, I received a thin golden band and a letter explaining that the band had belonged to generations of my family members. He meant this band to show me that regardless of whether they are alive or dead, generations of my family are loving and supporting me.

I have never met my mother's and my Uncle Butch's mom. She died of colon cancer in her early 40s. We would have called her Mamina. My children call my mom, Mamina. I'm certain my Mamina is loving me still.

Speaking of never having met someone who loves me, my Uncle Butch's best friend Michael, has also showered me and my family with love for many years. Michael has prayed for me and my Michael through  a brain tumor, childbirths, and now cancer. He sends cards and many thoughtful, generous gifts. His gifts always look professionally wrapped, and are as beautiful in meaning as they are in appearance.

Over the past week, I have been thinking a lot about how to teach Zoe and Emerson about this world and its complicated realities. Luckily, passed on from generations before them, my mother, uncles, and their friends have engrained in me that, "...love is love is love is love..." and that love transcends orientation, gender, race, skin color, distance, and death.

Thank you Charles Motta, Paul Hynes, Michael Bogdanowicz, my Mamina, and my children's Mamina for proving "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye."




Thursday, May 28, 2020

And [You] Will Fix [Me]

And [You] Will Fix [Me]

"Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand." ~Mark Twain, American author and humorist 

I did that thing during this quarantine. The thing where you go into your car and scream and cry. You too? Don't worry. I'm okay. (So are you.) I'm dealing with a lot of side effects from the chemotherapy. Sometimes I start thinking, "Is this forever? Will this pain/irritation last the rest of my life?" And the answer is...maybe. I start panicking and lose sight of my blessings for a while. On one of my scream-in-the-car drives, I suddenly had the urge to listen to an old album I used to listen to in the early 2000s: Rush of Blood to the Head by Coldplay.  At a stop light, I found the album on YouTube Music and drove until I had listened to every track. Music, as you know, brings so many memories. For me, this album brought back some miserable memories. But...I stopped screaming and crying because I realized something very clarifying: I'm here in 2020 looking back on a very difficult time in my life, which means I got through it. That too did pass. 

I graduated high school in 1999. I left for Rowan University late that August and I have never felt more lonely. I was lucky enough to have been randomly roomed (depending on whether you believe in randomness...I don't) with Colleen Petersen. This post, however, is not about Colleen; she will get her own post. This post is about Colleen's best friend who also left her hometown of Bergenfield in late August 1999 to start school at Rowan University, my friend, Cheryl Capobianco now Cheryl Bormann. Colleen and Cheryl grew up together in North Jersey, but had the good sense to intentionally not room together when they came to Rowan. That way they would automatically meet two people. Colleen met me, her roommate, and I then met Cheryl. 

I always attempt to motivate my high school students by telling them that college is one of the best times in life. And it is...in hindsight. College for me was time to act out all of the teenaged angst that I spent the previous 6 years building up. As Colleen and Cheryl would put it back in 1999: I was a hot mess. I was socially awkward and emotionally frayed. There is not a day that goes by, even now in 2020, when I don't thank God for these 2 women, who loved me through it all. 

Once Cheryl and I spent a whole day cracking up. I have no memory of what made us laugh so hard, but it really doesn't matter. As an English teacher I conduct a popular assignment called, "Writing Territories" in which students listen to me talk about topics important to me. While I babble on about my life, I encourage them to write down topics that pop into their heads. They draw from those "territories" for the rest of the year. I always mention some of my favorite days. I have been teaching for almost 16 years, so I've recalled that day of side-splitting laughter at least 16 times. That laughter was so important. 

I don't see Cheryl in person much now because she is in North Jersey being a super mom to her two awesome kids, while I'm down here in South Jersey with my amazing kids. But again, the distance doesn't really matter. Cheryl's influence in my life is obvious. We loved thunderstorms, specifically the first thunderstorm that indicates the start of summer weather. I still think of Cheryl when those ominous clouds roll in each year. We loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer so whenever I feel like I'm kicking ass, I think of Cheryl. We once ran through the streets of Philly in a snowstorm shouting, "Merry Christmas ya old Building and Loans!" so whenever I watch my favorite movie, It's a Wonderful Life, I think of Cheryl. We learned a whole dance routine in a hotel room above the casinos in Atlantic City, so whenever I dance, I think of Cheryl. We went to a Coldplay concert together and somehow got lost on the way home. It took us 3 hours. We laughed the whole ride. 

Cheryl is far from carefree and yet she is somehow never overly dramatic. She forgives easily and lets things go, and what's left is her practical, honest, fun-loving self. For over 20 years now, I have considered her one of my closest friends and looking back, I remember the laughter, which considering my 20s is really saying something. And that is completely thanks to Cheryl. 

Cheryl sent me tea, a mug, and card reminding me of several other hilarious times in our friendship. But...underneath the laughter and in between the lines in her card, are the moments when Cheryl is holding my hand, crying and screaming in the car with me. Our lives, mine and Cheryl's, have had some heartbreaking moments. We have seen each other through family issues, breakups, arguments, and panic attacks. And now she's seeing me through cancer. I know I will remember the laughter and that will be because of Cheryl. They say it's the best medicine, by the way.  

I forgot the date last week on May 20th. I didn't forget her birthday, but I'm quarancrazy and just didn't realize it was still May or that I was still on planet Earth. Sorry, Cheryl! And sorry about that whole Sopranos thing. 

Love and laughs. Mwa!


Sunday, May 24, 2020

Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?

Do You Wanna Build a Snowman? 

"I know my sister like I know my own mind, you will never find anyone as trusting or as kind..." ~Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton

Our hero today is a petite, but strong female with brown hair that falls right below her shoulders. Her brown eyes can pierce you with a stare that makes you instantly realize your mistakes, but can also reveal her witty sense of humor if you accidentally catch her off-guard with a clever pun. She is known as a dynamic orator by those whom she works with; however, on her journey many have assumed she was shy and quiet. They have underestimated her. 

Harry Potter never wanted to be a hero. Book after book, Harry simply seeks friendship and family, but he is thrust into the position of having to save the world from the evil Voldemort. Katniss Everdeen, from The Hunger Games, just wanted to care for what remained of her family in District 12, but she was compelled to do the right thing and ends up overthrowing not one, but two corrupt leaders. Scout in, To Kill a Mockingbird, levels a group of angry rioters by simply being her heroically kind self to Mr. Cunningham. 

Our hero today, Stacy Woyciechowski, didn't choose to be my big sister. 

Needless to say, this school year has been rough, but early in December, on a rainy and cold day, I took my daughter to her first movie: Frozen II. I was thrilled that Stacy was able to work out her extraordinarily busy schedule to bring her two children, Ryan and Leah, with me and Zoe as we watched the animated sequel to Frozen I, a long-time family favorite. At the beginning of the film, I turned to Stacy and said, "This is about us," and understanding my meaning, she replied, "Yeah, I know." I didn't know the whole plot of the movie when I said that, and not every aspect applies, but Anna sings, "I follow you around, I always have..." and that sentiment alone can encompass a huge, meaningful part of my relationship with my sister. 

Much to her dismay, Stacy is my compass. I play a mental game and ask, "What would Stacy do?" with practically every decision I make. I don't always listen to that voice and I have made some terrible decisions in my life; however, I credit the majority of the good ones to my sister. Stacy is thoughtful and kind, hilarious and talented, but her most prominent quality is her sense of integrity. "Integrity" pops up on my freshman vocabulary list and I always explain it to my class like this: Integrity means doing the right thing even if no one is looking. 

At her wedding, I gave some version of the following speech: There's an old Harris family story in which, one Easter morning, Stacy, Lindsay, and I came downstairs in our Sunday best and my dad remarked, "There's the smart, beautiful three." We said, "Stacy is smart. Jessie is beautiful. And Lindsay is well...three." But truthfully, any smarts and beauty that Lindsay and I have come from Stacy's influence. 

Stacy, my hero, doesn't like to be my or anyone else's moral guide. She is fun-loving and can belt out a Broadway show tune better than most. She is quick-witted and punny. She watches several guilty-pleasure TV shows. She reads both popular fiction and research studies. She is a sports mom who also makes sure her two wonderful children relax and smell the roses. She is devoted to her kids' guinea pig, lizard, and gold fish. She supports and  parties with her husband. She is hands down the best gift giver; she took me to high tea for my 21st birthday, which sounds odd, but is one of the most memorable experiences I have. She doesn't think about her influence on me or Lindsay; we know she has always wanted to just be our buddy. But...she is our hero as she always does, "...the next right thing." 

Stacy has suffered some tragedies in her life, but since she is a natural-born leader, she has always been the shoulder for everyone to lean on. I know she sometimes just wants to cry and have someone else take the lead. Over the past few weeks, I have received several cards (and 2 mugs) that say: "You've Got This!" I want everyone, but especially Stacy to know, that it's true. I've got this. Emphasis on "I." Dear Stacy, you don't have to worry. You don't have to take charge. You don't have to research. You don't have to throw anyone a shower. You don't have to do anything but know that because I have followed you around my whole life, I know that I've got this. 

Happy Birthday, sis. I love you. 

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Snapshots from a Front-Line Hero

Snapshots from a Front-Line Hero

"It's comedy and tragedy. It's St. Jimmy. And that's my name and don't wear it out." ~ Green Day 

If you've known me for a while, you likely know I used to have a cat whom I named Jimmy. Jimmy was a gift from my friend Jen Pavelik whose family had named the cat Lewis. I renamed him and will ever be tormented by Sue Nordone and Jen for this move; however, I had a few good reasons. The first reason I couldn't call the fat, gray cat Lewis, is because I had an ex-boyfriend named Louis. That wasn't going to work. The second reason I named the cat Jimmy is because I was really into a Green Day album titled American Idiot on which Green Day invents a sort of off-color saint and calls that character St. Jimmy.

The first night I had Jimmy at home, he hid behind the washing machine in my apartment and meowed all night. The second night and practically every night after, he slept in my bed. Jimmy and I were a match made in heaven. He comforted me when I cried (which if you know me you know is a full-time job). He was friendly to everyone. I often used to say he was a dog trapped in a cat's body. He played fetch. He was the ultimate snuggler. Jimmy had stomach cancer and passed away in 2018. He was a beloved part of my life for almost 13 years.

When I got married, Michael invited a group of medics whom he'd know from his years in EMS. We seated the medics at a table near the bar. They lived it up. The table still posts inside jokes they made during our reception. Among those at this party table was a man named Jimmy Parker. Michael has known Jimmy since approximately 2004 when they worked together as medics for Virtua. I became friends with Jimmy when Michael and I started dating in 2010. Instant friends.

Jimmy Parker was the easiest friend I've ever made. When I was home alone as Michael would be working 24 hour shifts, Jimmy would often stop by to drop off a bottle of local wine. He'd join me and Michael for homemade pasta and "gravy." He'd keep Michael connected to the world of medics with stories that were surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly) similar to my tales of teaching. Jimmy is hilarious and full of heart. I guess it's the name.

When I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, Jimmy started texting me 2 photographs a night. Every. single. night. Without fail, Jimmy texts two beautiful photos with a short description of what that photo means to him as he battles his own woes. Some of the photos are meant to make me laugh or smile. All of the photos are inspirational and beautiful. Many bring me to tears. These are photos that Jimmy himself has taken. He either has them stored on his phone or he takes them the day he sends them. They are now a beloved part of my life. I was officially diagnosed on April 1st, so I have received almost two months worth of photos. I cannot include all of them here; however, I will show a few that mean the most to me.

I would be remiss to not mention that Jimmy is reporting to work every day as a medic at UMDNJ during the global pandemic. I'm sure he is exhausted, but still finds a second every day to think of me.

Thank you, Jimmy, and happy EMS appreciation week.