Friday, January 10, 2020

Be kind. Be loyal. Believe that you are brave: Ongoing life lessons from the sweetest girl in the world

The sweetest girl in the world and I talked a lot. Or rather, I talked; she listened. 

We'd see the headlights of a car during our predawn walks, and I'd tell her, "Just think. That driver probably had been complaining about having to get up so early, and now can't wait to get to work or school to tell everyone, "I saw the sweetest girl in the world this morning!"

I'd fling open the front door after going for a swim or struggling through a spin class, announcing to her, "I thought about you the whole time I was in the pool/at the gym!"

If she was snoozing in the sun, I could only get three words out -- "sometimes a girl..." -- before she'd immediately rouse herself, not even waiting for the next words, "has to go for a walk. She just has to."

So we'd go. As if she hadn't heard it a half dozen times already that day, I'd remind her that she is indeed the sweetest girl in the world. Not only that, I'd say, "You're also the most loyal...the most kind...the most beautiful...the most courageous."

At times, she didn't believe the last one. Storms scared Angie, and she always seemed kind of embarrassed to seek shelter in a closet, or to not-so-casually stayed glued to our legs. 

But before we filled out each others' lives, she'd been deserted on a country road, where she lived for a week before being lovingly lured away by a wonderful rescue group. For those seven days, though, who knows what weather she endured while waiting for whoever dropped her off to return? 

So whatever her response when the barometric pressure rose or dropped or whatever it does before a storm, or however she huddled once it hit, I reminded her how much courage it took to stay put waiting...and that she never had to worry about storms or anything else again. Worrying was my job, I'd tell her, and I was very good at it.

We said goodbye to our precious girl two days after Christmas. Outside my window right this minute, the rain is so loud and the lightning so bold and I miss her more than ever. This is the first storm we've had since she died, and I want to look after her. To remind her that I do the worrying around here. To assure her, most of all, that she is most courageous girl I've ever known.

I may have been the one who did all the talking, but Angie had much more to say than I. She reminded me that it was OK to be afraid, and to turn to those we love when we need reassurance and comfort. 
And when I'd tell her she is the sweetest, the bravest, the kindness and most beautiful girl in the world; when I'd exalt her big heart and pure spirit, I'm realizing now that I was also reminding myself of the person I need to be.

Now that Angie has left this sweet earth, I miss touching her while talking to her. But we still have conversations. These days though, I'm the one who's listening.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

The choreography of CPR: How my co-workers at the Richardson YMCA saved a member's life

Nick Echtenkamp, Ashley Eger, Samantha Buehler and Mica Nix: The Y heroes who saved a member's life.

At the Richardson Family YMCA where I work two afternoons a week, my co-workers saved a man's life. 

That's what it all boils down to, this 10-minute choreograph of care and compassion; of knowing what to do and doing it without hesitation; of trusting your own instincts as much as you trust those of everyone surrounding you:

Saving a life.

That's what my supervisor, Mica Nix -- instrumental in conveying calm and breathing slow, steady breaths into a stranger's lungs -- told her husband and four children when she came home that evening.

"I wasn't sure what I'd say to them," she tells me later. "But when I walked in the door, I just said it. 

" 'You know what? I saved a life today.' "

Her husband cried. So, quite honestly, did I, and I wasn't even there. I'd been scheduled to work Tuesday; my shift would have started 15 minutes before an astute member noticed an older gentleman who appeared to be sleeping on the stationary bicycle. 

But I'd woken up that morning feeling lousy, so had called in sick. When I came in the next day, my friend and co-worker Ashley Eger -- who just happened to be working out on her day off -- told me what had transpired just 24 hours earlier.

Mica approached the man, noticed his tongue was out and he had no pulse. 

"I tried to wake him, but he wasn't responding," Mica says. "I yelled at Ashley to go get Nick."

Nick is Nick Echtenkamp, our executive director. He's been CPR certified for decades; has lost count of how many people with whom he's shared his knowledge. But this was his first time to actually perform it.

"Mica and I just fell into step," he says. "She did A and I did B. Then I'd do A and she'd do B. We just knew what to do. You go over it and over it and when the time comes, everything just kicks in."

Meanwhile, Jessica Miller, who works at the front desk, called 9-1-1. Ashley and another member named Chris moved a half-dozen exercise bikes out of the way so Mica and Nick could lower the member to the floor to start CPR. 

"The bikes weren't heavy," she says thoughtfully, as if the enormity of it all is just hitting her, "until we moved them back."

Samantha Buehler, program director of family programs, got the AED from the wall; the machine did its calculations, determining the man needed CPR, not an electric shock. Sam handed Mica a mask from the red bag holding the AED.

Nick, meanwhile, had assessed the situation: Were the man's airways open? Yes. Was he breathing? He was attempting, but it wasn't working. Did he have circulation? He had no pulse. 

So Nick put one of his hands atop the other and began staccato, rhythmic compressions on the man's chest: One-two-three-four-five...Mica counted till he reached 30 and stopped. Then she took a deep breath, exhaled her air into the man's lungs, and did it again.

Nick's turn: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5...30 compressions. Now Mica's. 

After two rounds, the man started coming to; he began breathing. He opened his eyes.  

"I held his hand," Mica says. "When he regained consciousness, he squeezed it and smiled. I'll never forget that."

Everything she'd been taught, everything they'd all learned, everything they had practiced in their subconscious over and over and over -- all kicked in. The paramedics arrived; the ambulance took the man to the hospital.

"It all worked out," Mica says. "It all worked out where we were. I think God puts people where they need to be for them to help. Everyone figured out what their role was."
We never know, do we, what will happen from one moment to the next and change our lives forever. We could trip on a curb and crack our head on the sidewalk. We could turn a corner and meet the love of our lives.

Or we could go into the YMCA to ride a stationary bike for a half hour and have a heart attack.

On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in October at a small YMCA in Richardson, Texas -- where everyone who works there is CPR certified -- that's just what happened.

My heart still pounds at the thought of it all. And thanks to these amazing people surrounding me and surrounding one special elderly gentleman -- his heart is still beating, too.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Thanking my son Charlie on his 26th birthday for never saying, "Please stop writing about me."

The first time I wrote about Charlie for public consumption, he was a newborn. Needless to say, he had no objection. 

Twenty-six years and probably millions of words later, he has yet to ask me to stop. For that, and for oh so much through the years, I thank him. 

Here's a sampling of what I've shared about him through the decades; in other words, what he's amicably gone along with. They start when he's in high school, about the time I started this blog. I wrote others in The Dallas Morning News, which, sadly, I think are lost for the ages. 

So I'll focus on what I have, and hope you enjoy them as much as I savored writing every word.

My apologies for getting a little carried away!

On getting his head shaved (for the first time)

On muddying up with a friend

On relying on relay partners

On not having another (whew!)

On being a friend and a brother

Saturday, July 20, 2019

When your first friend from first grade gets married, how you could be anywhere but there?

The kid on the right got married last week. The one in the middle was his best man. 

Lee Hanig (whom I have long thought of as my son) and Charlie (who really is) have been friends since first grade at St. Mark's School of Texas. Charlie's last name starts with a G and Lee's with an H, so there ya' go. 

The boys remained close through lower school and middle school, playing on the same or opposing sports teams; going on birthday campouts at my parents' farm (where the picture above was taken with my other all-but-son, Luke Smith); laughing and whispering and being total goofballs.

Then after Lee performed at the ninth-grade orchestra recital, he told Charlie he was leaving St. Mark's to attend Booker T. Washington School for the Performing Arts. Charlie, who did not inherit even a sliver of his mother's crying gene, cried and cried. 

"It shattered my world," he says.

The next few years, the two played a little club volleyball together and both worked at The Purple Cow restaurant. Keeping up a friendship while in different high schools and having different interests, though, is challenging. Their college choices were thousands of miles apart; their experiences about as spread out, too.

Still, friends are friends; brothers (which is what Charlie considers Lee to be) brothers. And months without communication, they discovered, can be finger-snapped away by sharing a cabin in Colorado.

The first time Lee went with us to the YMCA of the Rockies, he and Charlie were a month away from third grade. The most recent was two summers ago.

As a hiking kid, Lee amused us with his lollygagging, all the while licking on giant lollipop for sustenance. As a hiking adult, he sped up a little, switching to one giant baguette to sustain him for miles- and hours-long hikes. Charlie's backpack, on the other hand, was crammed with thick meat-and-cheese sandwiches, fruit, protein bars.

My family has always adored Lee. He is so...Lee. 

I can't remember him calling me, my sisters, brothers-in-law or my mom by anything other than our first names. While in Colorado with us, he immerses himself in the general hilarity of game nights; does jigsaw puzzles by the hour to the delight of my mother. He plays his guitar and sings with no prodding, also to the delight of my mother.

Lee played the guitar at my niece Julie's wedding, which was held at the Y of the Rockies. Lee is the one who told my mother that yes, we could stop at a dispensary ("I'm curious," Mom said) to just look around. But he put his foot down at her buying a lollipop and most certainly at trying to take a plant on the plane home ("I just want to see if I could grow it.")

Charlie last saw Lee almost two years ago. Charlie had stopped in Boston, where Lee and his then-girlfriend Fran lived, on the way to visit my brother and sister-in-law in Maine. 

When Lee and Fran got engaged earlier this year, he asked Charlie to be one of his groomsmen.

Charlie initially said a resounding yes. But this year has been kind of tough for us financially. Charlie's part-time job doesn't leave much for extras, and a month ago, he had to pay $700 for his car's air conditioning to be fixed. I was laid off in January and couldn't be much help. 

So Charlie called Lee to tell him he wouldn't be able to swing a trip to Boston. I knew Charlie was disappointed, but he assured me it was OK. He'd record a toast; Lee's mom Deb said she'd make sure it was shown at the rehearsal dinner.

Then around noon on Saturday, 18 hours before the wedding, I read the toast Charlie had sent me. It made me cry. I called my sister Susan and read it to her. And maybe one of us said it first; maybe we said it in unison. But the crux was this: "Charlie has to go to Lee's wedding."

So he did. We found a fare that wasn't outlandish and Deb said Charlie could share a hotel room with her brother. Charlie and I dashed out and found a suit on sale; alterations were completed by 7 p.m. Charlie boarded his flight 12 hours later and arrived in Boston four hours before the wedding to be Lee's best man.

Deb and Fran knew Charlie was coming, but Lee didn't. In true Lee fashion, he didn't seem all that surprised. But during the ceremony, Charlie told me, Lee turned to him and quietly said, "I'm so glad you're here."

And in a Facebook note the next day, Fran wrote: "Lee was so happy Charlie was there."

So there you have it. No moral here, unless it's that elbow to your ribs reminder: No one knows you as well as your childhood friends. I started to say "other than family," but maybe they know you even better...and maybe that's because they are family.

What else can you do but make sure those mountains and miles and laughter and tears and teams and games and sandwiches and baguettes -- that they all count for something. Something strong, something beautiful, something everlasting. 

And you go ahead and spend money you don't have; you say thank you to a couple of loved ones for being so generous. Because this is one of those times when you just have to be there. For friendship. For brotherhood. For love. 

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Seizure-ing the day

For a few weeks, perhaps a month or so, after my son Charlie had a seizure and spent three days in the ICU, I kept a keen, not always subtle, eye on him. That wasn't hard, because he wasn't allowed drive for three months and thus, was in my passenger seat a lot.

His neurologist -- whom we adored anyway, but even more so because he gave us good news -- was all but certain Charlie wouldn't have another seizure. But in the hospital last year, those days and nights, heart-lifting though they turned out to be, also had plenty of scary moments. Plus, being a worrier in general, I sometimes had to bite my tongue to keep from asking, "Are you OK?" too many times within a day.

There was no telling what had caused everything to go a little haywire in Charlie's brain. Maybe it was stress. Maybe exhaustion. Or, as Dr. Ronald Bell, his neurologist, said, "sometimes it feels like an act of God."

We non-medical types stopped trying to figure it out, stopped starting our sentences with, "I wonder if it could've been..." We just stepped back and let time pass. Charlie was given the OK to drive. He moved back to Colorado, where he immersed himself in working and in hiking as he had for the two previous summers.   

I loosened my grip on those remembrances and worries I had grasped so tightly, gently wrapping each in a box labeled "yesterday." I knew where they were, but unless something jolted my memory -- brushing up against the shirt I was wearing the morning Charlie had his seizure, perhaps -- they simply stayed in their little cocoon.

They began rustling just a little when Charlie moved home from Colorado in January. He was taking classes at TWU, studying to become a personal trainer, working about 30 hours a week at a German delicatessen. He was going to the gym after work, getting home around 10, eating late, and getting less sleep than I wanted to know about.

The week of July 4, Charlie was scheduled to work seven days in a row, and I could all but hear the jostles of that wrapped-up box of remembrances and worries. Charlie was exhausted; too tired even to exercise, which was so unlike him. July 3, he started work at 6 a.m., had barely 20 minutes to eat his lunch, and got home around 4:30. 

A couple of hours later, while I was having dinner with Mom and my sisters, he called.

"Did I work today?" he asked. And then, "Do I work tomorrow?" And then, "I don't remember driving home."

I left the table and rushed home. At first Charlie said he felt better, then complained of a headache and threw up. I called his internist, who said, "Something's not right." 
A wiped-out Charlie awaits test results while camped out in the rather chilly ER.
Charlie, his dad and I spent five hours in the emergency room, where Charlie had a CT scan and a huge IV dripped its contents into his body. We came home well after midnight and, I confess, Charlie slept in my bed and I slept on the floor next to it.

Five days later, we went for a follow-up appointment with his neurologist. Dr. Bell told us stories of his trip to Ukraine, and gave us a primer on European and Russian economics. We were held rapt, as we had been every time he came to Charlie's hospital room -- never in a hurry to leave; always a wealth of brain talk and fascinating stories. 

All this to finally say that Charlie is fine. Dr. Bell attributed Charlie's symptoms to heat stroke and to dehydration. Take breaks at work, he told Charlie. Sleep more. Make sure you drink plenty of water.
Charlie and Dr. Ronald Bell, his neurologist, sharing good news.
On the way home, Charlie -- who has been a bit in flux about what he wants his future to hold -- told me he has decided to return to Colorado. I am, quite honestly, thrilled. 

His decision, I believe, is a thank you of sorts -- to God, or perhaps to fate. To the stars. To the universe and, of course, to our beloved voice of calm and bearer of good news, Dr. Bell. 

What each or all of them bestowed upon Charlie is way more than an all-clear. Instead, it is a nudge, a wink, an admonition: To go where your heart is. To pursue what moves your soul. To revel in what quenches your spirit. 

So what better way to express utmost gratitude than to do just that?
Charlie, delighted to be 13,560 feet above sea level.
My carefully wrapped and stowed-away collection of worries has been silent since Charlie's follow-up appointment. And as tempted as I am to lug to the dumpster this box that only I can see, I'm instead going to let it stay where it is. 

Those three days in ICU were wrenching. Without a doubt, I have never, ever, ever been as scared in my entire life as when I found Charlie unresponsive after he had his seizure. I pray we never have to go through that again.

But you know what? It happened. And we came through. So I'm keeping that box, which holds more love and grace, more caring and smarts that I will never quite grasp. For that, I am beyond grateful. 

Which is why you couldn't begin to pry that crazy box from my soul, and certainly not from my heart.