Category Archives: Family

Musings on time, this week in my family’s history, and growth

Three years ago this week, my daughter Alyssa shredded her knee, severing her ACL, MCL, tearing her meniscus, and bruising everything above and below her kneecap. Through hard months of waiting, finishing the semester on crutches and a motorized scooter, surgery, PT, recovery, learning how to bear weight, learning how to dance, she persevered. Today she is again an amazing dancer. She is lovely and graceful, strong and passionate. Today she is a college graduate off on her own. So much has changed in 3 years.

Two years ago this week, I fell on the steps of Elliott Hall the building where I work at Wichita State University. I tripped and sprawled on the steps on my newly healed wrists. I sacrificed my right ankle, which I badly bruised, to keep from landing fully on my hands and arms, but it hurt. It really hurt. I sat on the steps and cried, injured and afraid. I was too shaken to move as one colleague walked around me on the narrow steps, the contents of my purse and computer case strewn all over the landing. Her disregard hurt worse than the fall, her ignoring me as I cried on the steps. The Elliott School’s administrative assistant Bill, the lifeblood of the ESC, came to my rescue. I was finally able to recover my cell phone, and I called him, crying, to come help me. He did. He picked up all my stuff, helped me stand, using my elbows, so he wouldn’t hurt my wrists, and helped me to my office. Today I am at the two-thirds point of an amazing yearlong sabbatical, three months of which I spent on a writing retreat in Florence, Italy. Today my wrists are healed and I can again do hot yoga. Today I am contemplating what I want to do with the next phase of my life. So much has changed in 2 years.

Six weeks ago this week, my son and I were robbed at gunpoint by a young man who kicked open our locked front door.  That day I had pink highlights put in my long blonde hair. For me hair is a toy. I’d worked on my website: http://DrDeborah.co with my friend Davis.  It’s still a work in progress, but that was a watershed day. I was happy and content. Then I was scared and threatened. Today, I have magenta and purple highlights in my long blonde hair thanks to the talented Jessica, and my son Stefan and I have moved into a new apartment, a lovely apartment. We are moving on with our lives. So much has changed in six weeks.

Time is an interesting thing. In the middle of rough moments it seems to stop, then drags so slowly when it finally begins to move again. In the beautiful, life affirming moments, time often moves so quickly. Time, as the cliché says, also heals.

This week has led me to reflect on the past, something I don’t do often, to examine the path that got me, that got my son and daughter, to where we are today. These events are simply a small part of our journeys.

I believe we have a choice about how we view the happenings in our lives. We can choose to view things as crises or adventures. As I reflect back on those three events and the emotions they raised, the ups and downs of negotiating them, I recognize our choices. None of us would describe ourselves as victims. We simply do not view things as crises. We are optimists. We do what needs to be done. We deal with what needs to be dealt with and we move forward. We learn and grow from our experiences.

We are stronger, as are my wrists, because of these events. We see the world differently than we did before, because of the events of this week over the last three years. I am inspired by the words of Anne Lamott on Facebook. Yesterday she wrote , “Life is a precious unfathomably beautiful gift; and it is impossible here, on the incarnational side of things”. I am inspired by Japanese Kintsugi pottery, the art of reassembling, of repairing, broken pottery with gold. We are each like a precious piece of pottery. The world tosses us about, breaks, chips, and often shatters us. We reassemble ourselves , often with the help of those who love us. We are remade, more unique, more different, more precious than we were before.

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Image of Kintsugi Pottery taken from: http://lakesidepottery.com/Pages/kintsugi-repairing-ceramic-with-gold-and-lacquer-better-than-new.htm

On Surviving and Thriving after an Armed Home Invasion

As many of you know, my son Stefan and I recently received a life lesson from a gun wielding home invader. Many people have asked for my story, so I’ll share it here.

Tuesday, February 24th had been a really awesome day. I’d gotten gorgeous pink highlights in my hair done by the wonderful Jessica Shoenhofer. I’d spend 3 hours working with my friend Davis Sickmon on my website: www.DrDeborah.co. I was excited about how it was coming along. Stefan had gotten a haircut and was feeling better after his back injury several weeks before and his WSU classes were going well. I was excited to see him at the end of the day and share our stories.

I drove home, first singing along with the Pippin soundtrack playing in my car, then checking in with my friend Andrew on the phone. I was in a fabulous mood. I pulled into the driveway, flicking the button to open the garage door, pulled into the garage, shutting the door behind me. I got off the phone, got out of my car, unlocked the back door to the house, entered, dropped my purse on the floor of the mud room and called for my son.

Stefan called back. He was in the kitchen making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I entered the kitchen carrying my computer bag and dropped it on a chair at the table. Stefan and I talked about his sandwiches and my website, laughing and smiling. Then we heard an ear splitting crash, followed by a second crash. We looked at one another, startled and headed to the living room. Stefan was ahead of me rounding the corner. He turned around quickly saying “He’s got a gun”. We both moved back into the kitchen on either side of the table and the gunmen entered, his gun in his left hand out in front of him, pointing toward us. He pointed it at Stefan first, then me and demanded my bag. I picked up my computer bag and handed it to him, my right hand to his. I raised my hands. He took my bag and I told him to just take it and go. He waived his gun back and forth as he backed away telling us to stay in the kitchen. I told him it was all good and we weren’t going anywhere. As he rounded the corner, he told us that if we called the police, he’d come back and kill us. Then he left running.

I was aware of several things: 1) He wasn’t wearing a mask or covering his face in any way and the hood of his grey hoodie was back. I remember thinking, he has a reason to shoot me. I’d seen his face. So, I forgot what he looked like. (I will remember!) 2) When he asked for my bag I had this quick, smug insight that he thought my computer bag was my purse and that it was safely behind me in the mud room. It was a gift from my daughter and I was happy not to lose it. 3) For a split second he looked at my hands, raised. I wear a lot of rings, but he couldn’t really see them as my hands were up, facing him. I remember thinking, please don’t notice my rings. I only wear rings that mean something to me. I would have hated to lose them. I felt like Obi-Wan Kenobi. “These rings are nothing. You have what you came for. Leave now.” I thought. 4) I was amazingly calm. I could tell he was scared and my immediate goal became to get him out of the house as quickly and smoothly as possible. I didn’t even think this. I knew it. 5) My communication skills training kicked in without a beat. I wanted to appear cooperative and nonthreatening. 6) I felt the solidarity between Stefan and me. I saw us as surrounded by white light, the invader, like Pigpen from the Peanuts cartoons, preceded and surrounded by a grey dust cloud. 6) I thought that he, the invader, was new, scared, hadn’t done this before. I was worried that he might panic, but also glad that I might be able to get him to leave quickly. I wondered if this was a gang initiation.

After he ran out, Stefan ran after him and slammed the door. Then, I lost it. I mean I REALLY LOST IT! I have never had a panic attack before and I was crying, shaking, and hyperventilating. I was terrified. Stefan got me a chair, which we used to block the broken door, told me to sit down, and told me to call my friend Andrew. I couldn’t speak clearly. I was shaking and sobbing. Andrew asked if we’d called 911. I remember saying “Yeah, right, call 911. That’s what I’m supposed to do. Call 911.” I hung up and called 911. I couldn’t remember anything. I couldn’t answer any question the kind, steady, female operator asked me. She stayed with me on the phone until the police arrived. Stefan made me move back toward the middle of the house to talk with her, reminding me that the gunman had said he’d kill us if we called the police. I moved back, but never let Stefan out of my sight.  He was so calm and composed. He answered all the questions the operator, and then the police asked when they arrived. I was still in shock and could remember very little. I was amazed at Stefan’s poise and presence, his ability to remember details I had blocked. My friend Andrew soon arrived and when the police and the crime scene investigators were done, we grabbed bags and headed to his house. His sons waiting for us, had already made a place for Stefan and his computer in their game room. They all welcomed us with open arms. They made us feel safe. I will never be able to express my gratitude.

There have been good and bad days over the last several weeks. We both went to see a crisis counselor. That at least helped us know that what we were experiencing was normal and what we might expect over the next several weeks. I was supposed to leave the day after the invasion to visit Alyssa in Las Vegas, but I couldn’t leave. I had to feel safe first. I had to get my feet back under me. I will finally go to see her next week. Stefan and I have found a new place to live with better security. We’re getting back to normal. I wouldn’t say we’re thriving yet. Our biggest hurdle is packing our house to move. I still get tightness in my chest whenever I go there and the idea of spending hours there packing is almost more than I can stand. That said, that part will all be over soon. We are moving forward!

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Reflections on Hunger, Graduation & Insights 3 Weeks after My Return from My Writing Retreat in Florence

It is 3 weeks since I left Florence, Italy. These 3 weeks have been a whirlwind. When I got home, I had a two foot stack of mail to wade through. I finally got to that last night only to realize that there was another 3 foot stack in my son’s room. Note to self: Figure out how to reduce junk mail in my life. Even though there was a lot of junk, there were some important things in there as well, business that must be taken care of. Today has been about catching up on all the things I missed while I was away. My 3 month writing retreat in Italy fed my soul in a variety of ways, teaching me things I hope to be able to sustain here.

So why was my return a whirlwind? Aside from the typical issues with reentry, a couple really huge things have happened since I came home.

Hunger Awareness

After my return, I almost immediately went to New York for the presentation of the PUSH – Presidents United to Solve Hunger initiative at the United Nations.

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The Economic and Social Counsel of the United Nations, New York

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With Jan Rivero of Stop Hunger Now

That short trip, from December 8-10 reinforced for me the importance of the WSU Hunger Awareness Initiative we’re building. I do not believe one size fits all in hunger response. As a community-based researcher and engaged scholar, I believe that solutions must be tailored in collaboration with communities and responsive to the dynamics of communities and cultures if they are to be effective and sustainable.

Although Wichita State University has not signed the alliance, it was a thrill to witness the 60 + universities who have partnered in this effort to bring the power of universities, administrators, faculty, staff and students, to bear on ending hunger. The creative energy of the academy, for those part of the alliance, and for those who choose to act independently, will lead to innovative solutions to hunger in both the short and long-term. We will play a pivotal role in ending hunger in our lifetime.

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The inaugural group of University Presidents committed to the PUSH alliance

It was inspiring to see the power, insight and energy of all involved in this event. The alliance was invited to return to the UN in September to report our progress in line with the UN post-2015 development planning. Amina Mohammed Special Advisor of the Secretary-General on Post-2015 Development Planning delivered Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s message to the assembly. Here’s a link to his statement: http://www.un.org/sg/statements/index.asp?nid=8272

University Graduation

On December 12, I left for Nevada to prepare for my daughter’s graduation from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas on December 16. I’m not sure I’ve attended a college graduation in which I was not a faculty member in academic regalia since my own graduations. It was interesting to be on the other side. I loved the efficiency, the pomp, and circumstance of the UNLV ceremony.

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Matthew Gob, Mary Elton, Robert Reisch, Stefan Ballard-Reisch

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Alyssa with the Gob family

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Mary Elton, Alyssa, Andrew O’Leske

Surrounded by family and friends, I felt pride and admiration for my daughter, as dressed in her scarlet robe, she processed into the Thomas and Mack Center, found her seat, walked to the stage, received her diploma, and returned to her seat.

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Proud Mommy and the Graduate

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Proud Daddy and the Graduate

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Proud Brother and the Graduate

I was the first person in my family to graduate college. For me education has always been a ticket to fulfilling my dreams. I wanted that for my children. While college graduation was not expected of me, it was of my children and here was my daughter, completing her degree in psychology and communication in only 3 ½ years, the same rate it took me to complete mine. I look forward to what comes next for her. Her journey is only beginning.

Several weeks ago, Alyssa asked me how it felt to watch her grow up and become an adult.  I told her I had been watching her grow on this trajectory since she was born and that I loved every moment of her development. This is true. While many parents seem to view college graduation as the end of something, for me, it is simply a step into the next phase of her life, an important, momentous step, but a step nonetheless.

I stayed in Las Vegas with her until December 19th to help her prepare for the holidays. She won’t be able to come home due to her job, one of the realities of having adult children, but I wanted her to be fully stocked with food, household items, a full tank of gas, etc. before I left her. We’ll FaceTime Christmas morning and open presents together. The amazing advances in technology allow us to be together even when we can’t physically be in the same place.

What have I learned?

The last 4 months have been amazing in so many ways. The last 2 days since returning from Las Vegas, have allowed me to reflect on a number of things and I have several insights into myself:

  • I’ve learned that I value peace and calm, a more measured approach to my life. I gained this in Florence on my writing retreat. I know that to sustain this, I will have to consciously nurture the patience I have been developing since I broke my wrists slightly over 2 years ago, and reinforced over the last 4 months. I will have to be conscious of my desire to live my life mindfully. This will require scheduling time to walk and work out. I’ve performed at a C- level on this so far since my return. I’ve succumbed to a lot of fires. Fitting walking in as smoothly as I did in Italy will be important to maintaining this balance. I realize that this will require planning. It will also require saying “no” when “yes” is the wrong answer and remembering that because I “can” do something, doesn’t mean I “have to”, and because I care about someone doesn’t mean I have to agree to their requests. Still working on this one.
  • I’ve learned that I write all the time. And while much of the writing I have done since I got home has been directed toward grant applications for organizations I care about, email messages to friends and family, feedback to colleagues planning conferences, it has also been consistent with the two books I outlined in Italy. It’s a new approach for me to realize how often in my daily communication with others, I engage topics of importance to my writing. That said, I need to again make time to write in a focused, directed manner in order to continue to advance these and my other projects. Because I am living them, this is easier than it might be.
  • I spent 3 months largely in seclusion, a unique experience for an extrovert. I am back and the pull of social engagement is very strong, especially at this time of year. I need to remain mindful here as well. I need to make time for myself to continue to nurture this work that I am doing while engaging the world again as an extrovert.

Into my family:

  • It took my friend Andrew to point out to me that BOTH of my children graduated from college this year. My son earned an associate’s degree to go along with his theater certificate in spring and my daughter graduated with her bachelor of arts degree less than a week ago. I am so proud of both of them.
  • I have 2 very capable, independent, strong adult children. I am so honored to be their mom and I look forward to what the future (and our present together) holds for them.
  • I’ve learned that I can love as much 5000 miles away, as I can 19 hours away, as I can in the same house. That’s cool!

Reflections: On my worst (and best) Thanksgiving ever

Let me say first I LOVE Thanksgiving! It is my favorite holiday of the year. I love to make a big dinner for my family. For us there are traditional “must have” foods: monkey bread in the morning, and for dinner, turkey, homemade stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole with fried onions on top, 7-up salad, homemade bread, cherry cheesecake and homemade pumpkin pie. Without these foods, it just isn’t Thanksgiving.

At least that was the case until two years ago on Thanksgiving. I had fallen the month before at my favorite academic conference. When I fell, I broke both my wrists. The weeks leading up to Thanksgiving were difficult ones in a variety of ways. I was learning how to be helpless. I was accepting with as much grace as possible that someone else had to do absolutely everything for me. I was dealing with incredible pain.

I was also dealing with the fact that my daughter, who had a job in retail, and who was a student at UNLV, a 19 hour drive away, was not going to be able to come home for Thanksgiving. I was trying to cajole, persuade, manipulate my son into accepting my plan that he and I should fly, or drive, to Las Vegas to be with his sister. I was desperate! Our going to Las Vegas was completely unrealistic on a lot of levels, not least of which was my physical incapacity, the exorbitant price of airfare just days before the holiday, and the fact that there was no way I was up to a 19 hour drive. But I just couldn’t handle the idea that we would not all be together for Thanksgiving.

This was a very emotional time during my healing process. The day before Thanksgiving my daughter messaged me and asked me for the recipe for 7-Up salad. As it turned out she was going to be able to have Thanksgiving dinner with some friends in Las Vegas after all. I did not respond well to this request. In fact, it made me cry. I no longer have the text messages that we sent back-and-forth. Stefan typing for me or me voice texting. But I know they went something like this. Me: “Wait! I thought you had to work all day on Thanksgiving! But I want you to come home and be with us! I miss you! :-(” Alyssa: “Mom, I just get to have dinner. I don’t have the whole day off. If I could come home I would. I can’t. You know that. So will you give me the recipe or not?” I gave her the recipe. “Stefan”, I began after Alyssa hung up the phone. “Mommy, we’re not going to Las Vegas”, he replied gently. I burst into tears. It’s hard to cry with both your wrists in splints when someone else has to wipe your tears and hold the Kleenex to help you blow your nose. I felt hopeless.

As it turned out, this was my best Thanksgivings ever!

I was moping around the house on Thanksgiving Eve when Stefan told me he had to run an errand. “Ok”, I replied without much enthusiasm. I don’t think I even offered to ride along. “It will take me a while. I have several stops to make”, he hollered from downstairs. “No problem”, I replied. “Be safe. I love you.” I curled up on my bed in the dark and waited for him to come back. I think I dozed off.

When Stefan got back he hollered up the stairs, “Hey Mom, I’m back. Can you come here a minute. I have something to show you.”. “Ok, I’m on my way”, I replied. As I turned the corner of the staircase I saw my beautiful daughter sitting on the couch. She jumped up, “Surprise”, she hooted. I burst into tears. She ran across the room and wrapped her arms around me. “I didn’t mean to make you cry; this was supposed to be a good surprise”, she said. “It’s a wonderful surprise”, I sniffled. “These are happy tears”. I rested my head on her shoulder as she wrapped her arms around me. Stefan wrapped his arms around both of us and we just stood there, happy to be together.

Alyssa had gotten the whole weekend off, purchased her plane ticket, and collaborated with her brother to surprise me. It was the best surprise I could have imagined.

That weekend, Alyssa took over my care, helping me shower, dress, brush my teeth and hair, manage the bathroom. She fed me with ease. I felt her love, care and compassion. I observed her learning, at her own rate, how to care for me, as I learned how to relax into her rhythm. I was still emotional at times, but incapacitation, pain medication, happiness, and holidays will do that to me.

We ended up having an amazing weekend. It quickly became clear that I had made no plans for Thanksgiving dinner and that I couldn’t cook anything. Alyssa said that was no problem as she and Stefan had decided we were just going to spend the weekend making our favorite foods and hanging out. She said, “You can tell us what to do, Mom, and we’ll do it!” We focused on comfort foods. I stood in the kitchen, or in the dining room looking over the counter, giving instructions. We made macaroni and cheese, 7-up salad, and monkey bread. Everything was delicious.

We snuggled in bed together and watched movies and all the episodes we could find of “Once Upon a Time”, Alyssa’s favorite show. I slept a lot. I would awaken to the sound of Alyssa and Stefan’s laughter or quiet talking. I would either smile and drift back to sleep, or wake to spend time with them. I was still on pretty heavy pain medication most of the time. But I was surrounded by the two people I love most in the world, my children. I thank my daughter for doing all she did to be with me, and her co-conspirator, my son, for giving me the best Thanksgiving ever.