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 2014 and Plans for 2015: Nurturing Life, Relationships, Writing and Adventure

As I reflect on 2014, I am amazed at all that has happened. In May, my son graduated from Butler County Community College with his Associate of Arts degree. In May, I began a 1 year sabbatical leave from Wichita State University. In September, I embarked on a sojourn to find myself as a writer in Florence, Italy that lasted for 3 months. In December, my daughter graduated from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas with a Bachelor of Arts degree majoring in Psychology and minoring in Communication.

This year has been a year of completion, a year of pondering, a year of strategic planning. It has been a year in which I claimed my identity as a writer. (You would think that given all I’ve written and published over my academic career, that would have been self-evident, but, at least to me, it was not. It is now.)

I have developed some passions this year that I will carry into next year, many of them finding voice here, through my blog.

Here are my insights and commitments for 2015:

Health, wellness, relationships, and end-of-life

  • We do not talk about the messy parts of injury and illness in this culture. It might be helpful if we did, making those who go through such experiences feel less alone and isolated.
  • We do not talk about the nuts and bolts of managing the end of a life. Negotiating relationships with family and friends, negotiating relationships with health care providers, negotiating relationships with insurance, the military, employers, pension plan providers. We don’t talk about all the time consuming sorting and organizing and paperwork, (Did I mention the paperwork?) necessary to nurture someone through the end of their life. We all die. Culturally we as a society and we as individuals are often unprepared for this eventuality.
  • We struggle with the notion of death with dignity and who gets to make choices at end of life. Witness the media furor over Brittany Maynard’s decision to end her life when the symptoms from her brain tumor, originally diagnosed as a grade II Astrocytoma, was later diagnosed as the deadliest form of brain cancer, Glioblastoma Multiforme, a cancer that often leads to intense pain, debilitation and death within a year.

These are areas I will continue to write about in the coming year. I have plans for a manual for end-or-life caregivers on the nuts and bolts of helping a loved one and preparing for what comes after. It will take the form of a book with examples which illustrate questions, and worksheets to assist caregivers in negotiating difficult decisions and preparing for communication with critical people. It will be practical and easy to use.

Healthy relationships

  • Culturally we too often make the end of a marriage a confrontational, adversarial situation when it doesn’t have to be.
  • We redefine a relationship that ran its course as a mistake that never should have happened. This view disregards the positive aspects of the relationship before it was time to end it.
  • We focus more on problems than mobilizing strengths when trying to deal with critical issues in families and relationships. This is often an energy sapping, limiting approach that keeps couples and families mired in the past and unable to build the future they desire.

I will continue to write about these issues as well. I ultimately plan to publish a book for the general public on building the relationship you want. Based on over 25 years of research with couples in romantic relationships, and my experiences working with actual couples in relationships, I believe I can offer a unique perspective on building relationships that meet partners’ needs and moving on should it be the healthy decision to do so.

I will also present a session on this topic at the Fifty Shades of Faith: Intimacy, Sexuality, and Spirituality Conference sponsored by the CAVU Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma on February 21. I am excited about the opportunity to bring this workshop to the public. Here’s a flyer for that event! All are welcome!

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Hunger awareness:

  • If we bring the power of our best and brightest to bear, I believe we can end hunger in our lifetimes.

I am honored to have been there at the start of the PUSH – Presidents United to Solve Hunger collaboration and at the launch event at the United Nations in December. I am committed to continuing and building the WSU Hunger Awareness Initiative. I am committed to providing my support to building local, state,  national, and global context appropriate, hunger efforts. This month, I will complete a draft of a manual on how to start a statewide hunger dialogue that builds on our experiences in Kansas with the first one. I do this work as a Visiting Faculty Member at the Auburn University, Hunger Solutions Institute. I am honored to be affiliated with this amazing group of people.

Of course, I have other writing projects with wonderful collaborators that I am in the process of completing as well. As I look forward to the 8 months remaining on my sabbatical, I am excited and prepared.

On the personal front, I will continue to nurture my health and relationships, spending time with family and loved ones, scheduling adventures and get-aways, and working on remaining mindful and sustaining the calm I developed in Florence. While I will not elaborate on all that is included in my personal life here, it deserves much more than what appears here as a footnote to my professional life. Personal/professional  balance remains one of my strongest commitments for 2015.

Onward!

Happy 2015!

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 Death and Dying: On the Importance of End-of-Life Conversations

End of life decision making is hard. End of life conversations are hard. They require, among other things, acknowledgement of the inevitability of death. In American culture, we are often not comfortable with that, even in the last precious moments.  I have had these conversations with my children since they were adolescents. They know if there is no hope I can be myself again, I don’t want any extraordinary measures taken. They know quality of life is more important to me than quantity of life. They know I wish to be an organ donor. They know I wish to be cremated. We have negotiated where my ashes will be spread when they’re ready to spread them. I hope that when the situation arises, this knowing will make things easier for them.

End of life is a personal matter for the person dying. It is also a community matter, a family matter, one that impacts and is influenced by loved ones who will be left behind. Dying happens in relationship, and the members of those relationships often have very different outlooks. In relationship, some are more or less ready to let go than others. Some are clearer on outcomes, more realistic about expectations. Some hope for miracles, that things are not as bad as they seem. Some hope that something can yet be done.  Some have strong beliefs and preferences. Health care providers are often less helpful than they could be about prognosis at these times, or, perhaps, loved ones hear, in providers’ words, what they have the ability to hear.

Death happens in relationship.

My father died over a decade ago. The memory of his last days is still as vivid today as it was then. For the last days of his life, all five of his children were by his side. My brother fixing things around the house, my sisters and I taking turns caring for Dad with in-home hospice support, all of us supporting Mom.

Because I could, it fell to me to have the end of life conversation with my Dad. Dad was already in hospice care, so extraordinary measures were no longer a question. What he wanted after death was. It was hard to make myself have this conversation. It felt final, like an acceptance of his inevitable passing. My heart hurt.  But I believed it was important. I believed that if he had desires, they should be honored if possible. I’m a crier at the best of times, and I didn’t want to cry when we had this talk. I finally decided that my crying didn’t matter and that I would do the best I could.

One afternoon, when he was having a good day, a particularly alert, pain-free moment, I climbed up on the bed next to him. “Dad, can I talk with you about something?”  I asked. “Sure, honey”, he said. “What would you like to have happen after?” I asked. He seemed surprised by the question. “After what?” he asked. “After you’re gone”, I replied, stroking his hair. “Would you like a funeral Mass? Would you like to be cremated or buried? Would you like to be buried here or in Westfield (Indiana, his birth home)?” “Do you think we need to talk about that now?” he asked. “We can… Or we can wait… Whatever you want…. I just wanted to offer you the chance to tell me if there’s anything particular you’d like.” “Well, I haven’t thought about it.” he said. I waited, quietly. “Well,… I asked Dick to be a pallbearer… So buried, I guess. I never thought about cremation… I don’t want to be far away from your Mom or Jennifer, so I think buried here is best… I’d like a 21 gun salute and the presentation of the flag at the cemetery. And I’d really like you to sing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” at the funeral. Aside from that, it’s up to you all.” “Dad, I don’t think there’s any way I’m going to be able to sing at your funeral.” I laughed. “I can be the lector at your Mass, though and do the readings. Would that be ok? I promise I’ll find someone to sing for you.” “Ok. I hope we don’t have to worry about this for a while yet”, he said. “Who do you want me to notify after you pass?” I asked. He listed family and friends, some old co-workers. “I think your Mom has all their numbers”, he answered. “Ok.” I said.

The first question was the hardest. As the conversation unfolded, each question got easier to ask. We got more comfortable talking with one another. We still held these issues in the realm of the future, even though it was clear that the future would not be long in coming. I snuggled into his side for a while longer. We were just quiet, together.

Later, I told my mother, sisters and brother what Dad had said. I asked if there was anything they wanted to have happen. I asked if anyone wanted to help me plan things. I made a list of who I needed to talk with and did some preliminary research on funeral homes. I talked with his parish priest and with people at the cemetery. We contacted the military to see what was needed in order to plan the 21 gun salute. We made a list of people we needed to call with phone numbers. I asked Mom who she wanted to call and who she wanted me to call.

When Dad passed, we moved quickly. This was not an easy time, but it was easier because we all knew Dad’s wishes and everyone had been able to have input into planning his funeral and burial. My task was simply to carry out my Dad and our family’s wishes to the best of my ability.

Having had this conversation in advance saved distress and disagreement after Dad’s death. Had we tried to make decisions then, without knowing his wishes, I am certain our heightened emotional state would have made things much more difficult. As it was, everything went smoothly and according to plan. I was lector for Dad’s funeral Mass and selected the readings myself. A young woman with a lovely voice sang “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as we left the church for the cemetery, where Dad received the requested 21 gun salute, and Mom was presented with the American flag.

Because death happens in relationship, end of life conversations are important. Not easy, but important. End of life conversations smooth the way for both the person passing and those left behind. Conversations that might not have happened otherwise can happen. Decisions that might be contentious later can be less so because the wishes of the person dying are known. I do not assume that all the conversations I have had with my children will prepare them for my death. I do not assume even that I will feel the same when the time comes that I do now. I do believe that we at least have a starting point for decisions, a roadmap should we never have the opportunity to revisit these topics.

In our culture end of life conversations are often awkward and uncomfortable. It helps if we can make them more routine. It makes it easier when we know a loved one’s wishes. End of life conversations protect the desires and preferences of the person dying and the feelings and relationships of those left behind.

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.

The Florence Journals: On Leave Taking and Gratitude

This morning I sit at my window as a gentle mist wets the street below. The soprano in a nearby apartment is running her scales as the construction workers across the way toil to renovate the gutted 6 story building which I am told will house tourist apartments. This morning I’ve been sorting and organizing, preparing to pack. On one hand, it’s hard to believe that my 3 month sojourn is coming to an end, on the other, I miss my children and my friends. It will be nice to come home.

Sorting and organizing has led to reflection and recognition of so many things for which I am grateful. I am grateful to have a job that acknowledges and values the need to take some time to reflect, to plan, to learn, to write, tasks we often do in a rushed fashion as we negotiate the day to day, year to year realities of serving as university professors. I am grateful for the small gifts I brought with me, reminders of my friends back home, the lovely necklace and earrings my new friend Julie gifted me for my birthday the Sunday before I left, the cashmere scarf my friend Craig gifted me years ago from his trip to Peru that travels with me everywhere I go just in case, the gorgeous journals and fountain pen my friend Andrew gave me along with the mandala to help with meditation and reflection.

I am grateful for those carrying on the important “things” I left behind so that I could let them go. To Michelle and Brenda for carrying the hunger awareness torch and taking our hunger initiative to a whole new level. To Matt for his vision and constant support. I’m grateful to Stefan for taking care of my turtle, to Apple for inventing FaceTime which has allowed me to hang with Alyssa and Andrew. I’m grateful to T-Mobile for giving me a mostly reasonable phone plan so that I can hear Stefan’s voice when I’m missing him or just need to check in.

I am grateful to the family who rented me my dream apartment. It is more than what I hoped it would be. The brick floor and stone wall, the arched windows, the proximity to the Ponte Vecchio and the Uffizi Gallery are exactly what I wanted. The hike up the steep cobble-stone street, an added bonus that my lungs and thighs have greatly appreciated. This apartment is not perfect. If I sit on the bed wrong, it collapses. There are few lights, so the apartment is very dim at night. The air conditioners leak water on the floor. The construction workers across the street are incredibly loud from roughly 7:45 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. The intruder alarm on the construction site goes off when it rains at night. The shrill voiced foreman yells constantly and there is much more drilling and pounding on metal than one might expect. Even with all this, I love this place.

I love that someone nearby plays classical piano every so often. I love the sound of the soprano running scales and singing arias. I love that a merchant tunes her radio to play 70s, 80s, and 90s pop music seemingly on cue whenever I feel a bit homesick. I love that in the window across the way, a blue globe graces a table.

I love that in 3 months, local shopkeepers recognize me and wave and smile as I walk by, the man at the pizza shop, the man at the wine shop, everyone who works in the coffee shop, the staff at the cafes I frequent. They have all made me feel very welcome.

I love the simplicity of my life here. I love cooking from scratch with fresh ingredients purchased that day or the day before from merchants at street kiosks or the Mercato Centrale. I love that if I don’t feel like walking, I can shop at the Conad grocery store just down the hill from my apartment. I love that I have the time to troll the streets, to write, to draw, to read, to be.

I love that I have walked this city for 3 months and not put a dent in all there is to see here. I have not yet taken pictures of the icons that adorn alcoves in many buildings. I have not begun to find all the shops, churches, museums, and gardens, or explored all the windows, doors, and gates that grace this city. I love the color in the kiosks in Il Porcellino square and outside the Mercato Centrale where shopkeepers sell souvenirs, leather goods, and gorgeous scarves. I love the aroma of the chestnut roaster. I love the beautiful marzipan fruit and pastries that beckon from the windows of patisseries. I love the beautiful fresh flowers available throughout the city at daily street markets. I love the smell of coffee roasting.  I love the carousel in the Piazza della Repubblica, the piazzas in front of the Duomo and Santa Croce and the Romanian gypsy string quartet that plays there sometimes. I love that when entering a piazza I might find a street festival going on. I love strolling the Ponte Vecchio in the evenings, listening to street musicians and observing the masterpieces of the chalk artists that will be washed away by midnight, only to be replaced by new works of art, generally copies of the masters, the next day.

I love cappuccino, fresh pasta, panna cotta, and the creamy sweetness of gelato. I love the bridges over the Arno River and how each has its own personality, its own unique vantage point on the city. I love the Piazza Michelangelo, the hike to which is one of the most grueling and rewarding walks I’ve taken, because the vistas at the top are breathtaking as the beauty of the city of Florence lies at your feet. I love the lushness of Boboli Gardens in the center of the city.

I love Emma and Iris who have welcomed this vagabond traveler, I am grateful to Marco, Jennifer, Katerina, Alex, Luca, and Marzia who have offered me a second home here and treated me like family.

There is so much that I am thankful for. I am thankful for you, dear readers who have read my blog posts, commented on or liked them, or my pictures and posts on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. You have made me feel connected to community even when I am 5272.5 miles from home. I will end this homage to gratitude now as a cappuccino at Iris’s coffee shop with Emma awaits. This has been such an amazing adventure. A presto!

The Florence Journals: Florence in the Rain

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There is something magical about Florence during a warm autumn shower. I open my windows wide to listen to the sounds of the rain dancing on the cobblestones below. My apartment is 30 steps up from the street, on the first floor, in the Costa San Giorgio. Narrow and steep, the street is home to connected 3, 4 and 6 story buildings which magnify sound. The click clack of tourists’ footsteps echo in the closeness. Voices come to me quiet and muffled. I hear the muted strains of violin music from an apartment nearby.

The streets call to me, at all times, but especially in the rain. I walk for hours, stopping to smell, to look, to touch, to taste, accompanied by the soft pitter patter of the rain on my umbrella. The warm, gentle breezes, far different from the harsh, driving winds of Kansas, ruffle my hair, my shawl, my rain jacket. In the rain, I am drawn to the River Arno, now a muddy brown, the richness of the riverbed disturbed by the wind and rain. I walk to the Ponte alle Grazie and look back toward the Ponte Vecchio which seems a brighter golden yellow in the subdued light.

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I walk the center, experiencing the colors on the Ponte Vecchio and the Via Tornabouni, where Monte Blanc pens, Tiffany jewelry, Gucci, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Roberto Cavalli clothing and accessories sport the season’s newest colors and styles. The brightly colored umbrellas of tourists a sharp contrast to the rich greys and browns of the streets. I walk into the Coin Department store where a young sales clerk invites me to a sink to try the newest shower gel and salt scrub. I visit the Swarovski crystal department and look at bracelets. I leave the store and head toward the carousel in the Piazza della Repubblica, still now, in the rain. I walk to the Red Bookstore where I decide to sit for a while to read.

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After a brief stop, I’m reading the newest Bridget Jones book by Helen Fielding called Mad about the Boy and her writing makes me laugh out loud every few paragraphs, so I don’t feel I can stay in the bookshop long for fear of disturbing other readers, I again hit the streets.

I head toward Piazza Santa Croce, water running down the trough in the center of the rain soaked street. Bright, welcoming lights from shop windows beckon. I reach Santa Croce Piazza and stop at the Finisterrae Pasticceria to look at the lovely pastries. The last time I was in, I sampled a delicious, rich, dark, creamy sipping chocolate, offered by a barista whose eyes were the same chocolate color as the drink he handed me. I settle on a cappuccino and 4 bite-sized cream puffs, one chocolate, one hazelnut, one crème, and one pistachio. The same barista hands me a cappuccino with a lovely flower design and three sugars, in contrast to the usual one. He remembered how I drink my coffee. I like that. I sit at a table across from the pastry and gelato counters and page through an Italian newspaper. The pastry bites are light and flavorful. The cappuccino warm and bitter.

When I leave, it is dusk and the rain has stopped. Everything is wet, shining, and washed clean. The soles of my shoes squeak on the wet stone streets as I head to Caffé Giacosa for aperitivo. I may have a wine spritzer tonight, but my real draw is the luscious, buttery olives, the spicy corn nuts, the tapenades, and the carrot sticks. I have been away from my apartment for 5 hours. Time flies as I troll this city spontaneously deciding minute by minute where to wander next.

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I walk home, up the steep street to my apartment. Tomorrow it’s supposed to rain again. Maybe I’ll walk to Piazza Michelangelo to get a panoramic view of the city and then to La Carraia on the Ultroarno side of the Arno River near the Ponte alla Carraia for the best gelato I’ve found yet. Who knows where my feet will take me.