Friday, May 3, 2013


I recently read an article about a woman that I find to be very inspiring.  Her name is Kristin McQueen, and here's her story:

Ten years ago Kristin was diagnosed with metastatic thyroid cancer.  Since then, she has had fifteen major surgeries and has undergone various cancer treatments including radiation on her brain.  To date, she has finished seventeen marathons and nine full Ironman competitions.  She has continued to train during her fight with cancer, she says, because when she's out there on the road she is in control, not cancer.  I think that's pretty badass. 

Ironman is so much more than an endurance race," she says. "It is not about simply propelling myself 140.6 miles for kicks, it’s about challenging my limits and seeing what’s possible. It’s about reclaiming my body after five neck surgeries, two rounds of radiation, ten brain surgeries, and a slew of acquired physical challenges. It’s about not giving into all the limitations that cancer and its buddies have imposed on me, but viewing them as challenges that ultimately make the race even sweeter by overcoming them. It’s about going from not being able to open my eyes without getting sick, having difficulty sitting upright and being too weak to stand by myself to completing one of the ultimate tests of human endurance. It’s about raising money so that nobody else has to go through what I have. It’s about remembering those who have passed and honoring those who fight every day to live a 'normal' life despite a disease that tries to tear them down.”

As anyone who follows Ironman competitions knows, the Ironman Championship is held in October each year in Kona, Hawaii, and participants in the race have to qualify to enter.  It's "the big one," the granddaddy of all triathlons and one of the most rigorous events in sporting.

This year, the World Triathlon Corporation is giving seven athletes the opportunity to race at Kona though a program called Kona Inspired.  Each entrant in the contest has uploaded a 90-second video showing how their story relates to the theme of the contest, which is "Anything is Possible," and those who get the most votes will get to enter the race.  Kristin wants one of those slots.

If you are also inspired by this Ironwoman, here's how you can help, in three quick and easy steps:
  1. Watch this video.
  2. Vote for Kristin every day between now and May 7, 2013.
  3. Share the info on Facebook and Twitter and any other social media feeds you have - and email the link out to others who may not be into social media.  Ask everyone you know to vote for Kristin!

Kristin, sporting a "SUCK IT, CANCER" message during a race

For at least a dozen years before he got sick, my dad always called or emailed me ahead of time to alert me to whenever an Ironman triathlon was coming on TV so I could watch, and many times he called me on the phone during the race so we could talk about it.  Every single time I have watched an Ironman on TV, I have cried.  I don't mind admitting it; I find not only the talent but also (and probably especially) the dedication and just the raw guts that it takes to go the distance so awe-inspiring, but it's the stories of the back-of-the-packers that get me going every time.  Even if you're not an Ironman fan (an Ironfan?), you know the storyline: the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat. I'm not sure which trumps which: the tears of the competitors who realize they will not be able to finish - or the tears of those who are crossing the finish line.  Either way, I can't imagine watching the race without being affected by those stories.

My dad wanted so badly to finish an Ironman competition; just a few days before he got sick - which was just a couple of weeks before his debut Ironman - he said he hoped to finish the event in less than twelve hours but that he would be happy just to finish at all.  After months of training and miles and miles on the road and in the pool, his chance to compete in the Ironman-North Carolina in 2010 was stolen from him by cancer, so unbelievably sad and so damn unfair.  As Kristin says, "Cancer is bullshit!"

Kristin has succeeded in finishing an Ironman - in fact, nine of them!  Most people feel they are giving their all when they finish a 5K, even if they are 100% healthy; Kristin has far surpassed that, while battling cancer. By any standard, she is already an Ironwoman, worthy of great respect and admiration for her athletic accomplishments.  The championship race in Kona, though, is within her reach, and I can't think of anyone who better embodies the idea that anything is possible.  With our help, she can make it there.

Good luck, Kristin; cancer can indeed SUCK IT!  I look forward to watching you amongst the other participants in the race on TV in October.  I can guarantee that I'll be watching - and crying.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Grandmom's Safari Park Visit

In case the video from the previous post won't load right on your computer/phone/iPad ...

Priceless Memories

Eight years ago, my sisters, our husbands, and our children traveled from our corners of the country to meet at my grandmother's house in Alabama.  The day after we had arrived, our group of eleven piled into cars and drove across the state line to Wild Animal Safari in Pine Mountain, Georgia.

When we got there, we found out that there were 15-passenger vans available for rent to drive through the park - and the vans were zebra-striped!  We knew it would be much more fun for all of us to be together in one vehicle to travel amongst the animals who roamed free over the many acres there.  We paid the admission and the rental fee and then headed towards our Zebra Van; as we were boarding, my brother-in-law Peter walked over carrying a giant bag of animal feed.  He said it was a better deal to buy in bulk instead of purchasing individual containers of food for each of us to feed to the animals in the park.  I will never forget the look of wonder on Grandmom's face when she saw Peter carrying that huge bag; she laughed excitedly as she took her seat in the van and then said, "The animals sure are going to LOVE us!"  

Somehow it worked out so that my brother-in-law David took the wheel in the van - some of the time with my niece Daly on his lap - and with my daughter Molly in the passenger seat in front.  The rest of us sat on the bench seats in the back with our windows rolled down, ready to feed the animals as David slowly drove along the gravel road, stopping frequently as wildlife approached the van.  

There was a great variety of animals in the park, from antelopes to zebras.  We all had a blast, including and maybe especially Grandmom, who smiled ear-to-ear the whole time that we were there and laughed hysterically when a big slobbery bison leaned in through the window and tried to lick her in the face!

We had such a good time there that day that a couple of years later my husband, my daughters, and I went back to the park with Grandmom.  The second time, when it was just the five of us, she was moving much more slowly than the first, and we just drove through the park in our car since we were a much smaller group.  After we had driven through the safari part of the park on our return trip, we went in the gift shop.  Grandmom, who, as I've mentioned, lived on a very tight budget, thanked us for taking her and for paying for her admission, and then she said she wanted to buy a souvenir for us to take home.  Always the practical thinker, she picked out a pair of salad tongs with a zebra carved into the handle of each one.  When she gave them to me after she had paid at the counter, I noticed the price tag said $19.99.  That was a lot of money for a person of her income to spend on a non-necessity, I knew, and she knew that I knew it.  I looked at her, thinking that I should decline the gift and try to get her to return it, but then she said, "Thinking I was going to be able to take a vacation somewhere this summer, I had some money saved. Today has been as good as any vacation, and I don't need anything else, so please accept my gift."  

The zebra salad-tongs, today

A few weeks before, Grandmom had stepped into a hole in her backyard while hanging clothes on her clothesline and had broken her leg.  My dad had tried for years to get her to let him buy her a dryer, but she insisted that it was a waste of money and she didn't need it.  After all, she said, she had raised a family and had lived without one for eighty years, and who could argue with that logic?  When she had fallen, she laid in the yard, unable to get herself to a phone, for about an hour until her next-door neighbor pulled up in his driveway and saw her.  He had called the ambulance and then my dad, and my parents had come to be with her while she was in the hospital.

When I'd called the next week to check on her, she told me that she had a walking cast on her leg and that she would appreciate some help with a couple of things so she hoped we could come to visit her soon.  Of course, I arranged to get there as soon as I could, worrying that things must really be dire if this independent woman needed help taking care of herself.  When my husband, my daughters, and I got there, though, we found out what she actually wanted help with, and it wasn't technically self-care: she wanted assistance with pulling her refrigerator out from the wall in her kitchen so she could do her scheduled quarterly cleaning behind it and with cleaning up debris that had fallen into her yard.  Other than that, she had it covered, she told us, and so we did those chores and then decided to head to the Safari Park the next day.  (Side note: Grandmom had told us to put any limbs, sticks, or leaves from her yard on the curb across the street from her house instead of in her trash can, but I had dumped a bucket of semi-wet leaves in there anyway, thinking it didn't really matter.  As we walked out to the car to leave for the park the following morning, she cooly lifted the lid of her garbage can and peered inside, and then she said, "Somebody put debris in here!"  I had to admit that I had done it, and she said, "Well, next time remember to put all of that stuff on the curb where it's supposed to go; that's what I do!"  Ouch!)

We had a lot of fun on our return trip to the park, but not nearly as much as we'd had the first time when we had gone as a big group.  I have treasured those salad tongs since that day, though, remembering fondly both of our trips there with Grandmom and remembering how she so generously spent her vacation money to buy them for us.

Several years after our second trip to the park, Grandmom had a stroke, and her physical and mental decline began.  Many, many times when we visited her after she was in the nursing home, we talked about how much fun we'd had at the Safari Park; in fact, when her condition had progressed to the point where she couldn't carry on a conversation, we often described things from the day when all 11 of us went in great detail, in an effort to help her to remember that wonderful day and to help her to focus on a much happier time.  

On the night before Grandmom died, as my mom was sitting with her holding her hand, my sister Jennifer called Mom's cell phone and asked Mom to hold the phone up to Grandmom's ear.  Although Grandmom had been unresponsive for several hours before, as Jennifer again tried to use her words to paint a picture for Grandmom of that great visit, Grandmom smiled and her breathing pattern became more relaxed, and I have no doubt that that happy memory was one of the last things on her mind as she transitioned out of this life.

"Not too many people can say they've been kissed by a bison!" Grandmom said. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2013


Following is a guest post written by my sister Nancy:


I've often heard that word but have never felt that I had an appropriate time in my life to use it, until 6 weeks ago. 

Giving birth on March 24, 2013, to my firstborn was hands down both the most amazing and the scariest thing I have ever experienced.  I had envisioned the moment of his birth in my head many times over the previous 9 months and it always played out perfectly, except for one crucial part ... my dad wasn't present.

The day I found out I was pregnant, even with as much excitement as I felt, I remember thinking to myself, "This sucks - it's so unfair that my dad won't be here or ever know his 7th grandchild."  I tried not to let myself dwell too much on that fact over the months ahead, but always in the back of my thoughts I felt very bitter.

On the day of my son's birth, I tried to keep it together so as not to make the special day sad, even though Dad wasn't there, but to make sure it was memorable.  I grasped tightly to one of my dad's handkerchiefs (or "hankies," as he called them) during my entire labor process.  I kept hearing my oldest sister saying to me "Remember this, remember this!" and I wanted to focus on especially that.  My whole life I strived to make my dad proud of me and he always told me that he was, and I know without a doubt that he was with all of us in that delivery room that day at the exact moment of my child's birth and that he was so proud of me, my mom, and my sisters knowing that life really does go on - just not always the way we envisioned that it would.  There was complete joy and happiness, and there were big smiles again in our lives and yet another legacy to carry on the family name. 

The nurses allowed Nancy to wear her Brain Cancer Awareness bracelet during the entire labor and delivery process.

I look forward to having Crosby's aunts, uncles, cousins, and Gran-Gran telling detailed stories in honor of his Gramps so that my son will know my dad.  I've decided that I'm not going to waste precious time being mad or even bitter that Dad wasn't physically there for that big moment in my life; instead I will embrace the fact of all the people I love most on this earth were by my side. 


Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Memories and Exit Ramps

Traveling along the highway of life with a luggage rack loaded with grief, it often seems there are endless reasons and opportunities for taking an exit ramp, as situations and conversations bring forth memories from previous experiences related to pain and loss.  I try to keep my eyes focused only on the space illuminated by the headlights directly in front of me, but sometimes things on the side of the road or off in the distance catch my eye, and looking at and even following those sightings cannot be avoided. There are lots of things along the way that I didn't think I was going to have to face - some of which I hadn't even be aware before I'd traveled this very road - and, once I was and once I did, that we didn't think I was nearly strong enough to traverse. The triggers that force me to exit for pit stops can come from varying sources - reading about or hearing about someone else with a similar story, being asked for advice related to my own struggle, or even just watching others about whom I care go through a trial like my family has since the time when my dad got sick.

Interestingly, I think, at some of those exits are emotions that are strangely unlike those I felt while I was beginning my own journey down this rough part of the road, in this construction zone of sorts.  I remember the feelings of powerlessness, sadness, confusion, and anger from during that time, but, looking at it at this point through my "things may appear smaller than actual size" rearview mirror, especially if I am able to offer anything at all to someone else from this vantage point, makes me feel strong and useful, ... a Silver Lining I suppose, one that I hope translates into a benefit for someone other than just myself. 

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been slowed in the right-hand lane as I've watched my friend and her family bring her father to hospice care on Friday two weeks ago and then say goodbye to him on the following Wednesday, the exact time frame that my family had with my dad.  I remember how in my family's situation there was so much to do, an overwhelming amount of things in fact, and then there was nothing.  I know all too well the pain and the helplessness and the feelings of such utter loss and despair that they were feeling as they prepared for the funeral, and I remember how I thought things couldn't get any harder but then how in many ways it seemed like they did after I went home after the memorial service and found my job and other responsibilities waiting for me.  After my dad's illness and his death, it felt like the emptiness, the loneliness, and all the other emotions were something with which I didn't think I could cope or even survive, but somehow I found a way, as I know my friend and others in her family will too.

In addition to having the perspective from inside the rawness of the grief, I now have somewhat of an idea of what it felt like for those around me in those early days of peregrination; it feels like running in place or maybe like being on a scavenger hunt of sorts.  There is so little that can be done to ease the pain of those who have been forced to enter onto this highway; the best I can try to do is just to ease off the gas pedal in my own vehicle to let them merge into my lane, to give them a nod of acknowledgement, to let them know that they are not alone.

"There is a sacredness in tears" ~ Washington Irving

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Hitchhiker, Part 1: The Gift of the Story

As I have learned since my dad went on ahead, one of the greatest gifts that can be given to someone in grief is talking to him or her about their loved one: telling a story that involves the person who has died, sharing something you remember about that person, or talking about a quality that person had or a deed he did that you appreciated can be a priceless treasure.  It doesn't have to be a significant account; sometimes something funny or unique that person did is just what the person who is grieving needs to hear.

Not long after my dad died, my mom, my husband, and I went to the Mid-South Grain Association meeting in New Orleans, or simply "Mid-South," as my dad called it in general conversation.  Dad was in charge of organizing the convention there every February, and we went after he died to represent him in a way.  My mom kept up with the administrative duties that she had assisted Dad with for many years, but, as I came to find out, it was as helpful for us to be there amongst many people who had known Dad for years - some for decades - as it was for them to have Mom filling in at the registration desk.

The highlight of the trip for me was listening to one of my dad's long-time friends and previous coworker talk about some of Dad's antics from "back in the day."  Some of the tales I had heard before, mostly from Dad himself, but others I had never heard, and I felt comforted by all of them; it felt almost as if I was getting a piece of my dad back for just a little while.

Like a lot of people, Dad was a work hard/play hard kind of guy.   But the thing that I think made him unique in that area - at least from what I have gathered from seeing him interact with people professionally and from listening to what others have said about him in a business context over the years - is that he was often able to make the work environment fun for himself and for others.  For starters, he never hesitated to laugh at himself, and his interest in everyone around him was genuine.  Never did he miss an opportunity to say hello to or to compliment or express interest in someone else; the way he assumed that pretty much everybody had good intentions somehow seemed to result in that becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.  He delighted in clowning around when time and the situation allowed; I don't know that he learned about the benefits of fostering a positive work environment in a formal setting, but he certainly applied the principles all the same and always seemed very popular with his employees because of it.

"Cotton Row" on Front Street in Memphis, Tennessee

Here's the story that my dad's friend told us from back in the early 70's, when my dad worked at a company with an office that was located in downtown Memphis:

One Friday, some of Dad's clients had come to Memphis from out of state, and he was in charge of entertaining them that night.  My mom had driven with my sisters and me to her parents' in Nashville for the weekend, and Dad was planning to drive to meet us there late that night after he had taken the customers out on the town.  He worked until closing time and then met them at a restaurant down the street from his office.  As the story goes, the dinner turned into more of a party than Dad had expected, and when it was over he returned to the office since he had parked nearby.  Evidently, he was trying to ward off the headache he thought he'd be getting the next morning and so he walked over to his desk to get to his bottle of aspirin.  Unfortunately, though, the floors were in the process of being redone, and Dad left footprints on the adhesive backing that had been laid down in preparation for the tile that was going to be installed the next day.  Apparently there was much laughter the next morning and later some friendly ribbing about the fact that everyone could tell who the culprit had been since the tracks lead straight to his desk, where several aspirin tablets were spilled on the desk, and then back to the exit door.  

As Dad himself later told the story to his friends and coworkers, after he'd gotten into his car and then started driving on the interstate headed towards Nashville, he realized that he'd had too much to drink to be driving.  As luck would have it, soon after that he saw a hitchhiker on the side of the road. Necessity being the mother of invention (and of innovation), Dad pulled over and rolled down the passenger-side window to ask the guy if he could drive and where he was trying to go.  "Sure, I can drive," the guy said, and then he added, "I'm hoping to get to Nashville tonight."

"Well, get in, then," Dad told him, probably smiling from ear to ear and thinking he had struck gold. "I'll be asleep in the back; wake me up when we get there!"

I doubt he told my mom about the details of that trip for quite some time after it happened, and it wasn't until after his death that my sisters and I heard the story.  I could picture it happening though, and hearing the tale was a much-appreciated gift, one that I will always treasure.  And it wasn't Dad's last interaction with a hitchhiker either, ...

To be continued ...