First to Fly

The world just got a little luckier, today; a little brighter. My oldest daughter, Emily, graduated from Mount Royal University this morning; her beautiful face beaming with joy. With this degree, she adds one more First to her list; one of many. She was the First person in my life that I ever worried about. I was told she had Intrauterine Growth Retardation when I was just 16 weeks along in my pregnancy; she just stopped growing. My OB/GYN told me there were only 2 possible outcomes: she would survive and be a midget (no joke), or she would not survive; my placenta was only working at 50% capacity and she wasn’t getting the nutrients she needed. He told me that we could induce labor when I had reached my 23rd week, and hope to give her the care she needed to thrive; but I had to at least get my pregnancy past 23 weeks because the state of Texas would not allow medical intervention for preemies born before that mark. With that goal in mind, I was put on total bedrest so she could have the full attention of my body and all the oxygen and nutrients that I otherwise would have used if I were up and running around. We played music on my tummy, I wrote and painted in my journal while talking to her, we read her poems, and I read books to her that I checked out of the library by the shelfful; all murder mysteries (I’m so thankful they had no negative effect on her). We watched every episode of Murder She Wrote and The Scarecrow and Mrs. King, from beginning to end. And I ate cheese; so much cheese. We can thank the Women, Infants, Children program (WIC) for all the blessed cheese, milk, and Life Cereal I could possibly consume. It worked. Every week, I had an ultrasound to check on her, and they gave me a sugary drink to get her to kick. I was told, if I could count 10 kicks in the span of one hour every day, she was doing ok. We had a C-section scheduled for the end of my 36th week, but days before the scheduled time, Emmy decided to jump out on her own; she was my First big surprise! She was my First child, and when I looked into her eyes, I realized that she was my First love as well.
My doctor laughed when he reported her weighing in at 6lbs 14oz; he said it was good she was a preemie, because if she had gone full term, she would have been a 10lb baby…all that cheese! It turned out that Emily was his First baby patient to bounce back so perfectly from IUGR; one more for her brand new list of Firsts.FullSizeRender

As Emmy grew, I followed the advice in all my baby books, preparing for every step. Well. Most babies start babbling “mama/dada” by 6 months and 2-3 word sentences between 18months and 2 years. They also typically begin walking around 9months. My baby? She started with the “mama/dada” and moved straight into full sentences. By her yearly exam, she hadn’t begun to walk, however, and I worried. The doctor looked me in the eye and reminded me, “Emily asks for anything she wants – she can clearly communicate to you…what motivation does she have to actually get up and walk to something she would like? She asks politely for the toy from her bedroom, and you run off to bring it to her. Stop. She won’t like it, but she will eventually learn that she needs to get what she wants by walking to what she wants. All will be well.”

FullSizeRenderShe learned her First little lesson in life; sometimes you have to get what you want by rising to your feet and pursuing it on your own.

Then we moved to California and I needed to work, so poor Emily had to go to Daycare for the First time, crying all the way; crying every morning. We eventually fell into a routine and a morning ritual that would calm her down by the time we arrived at the Daycare Center. Every day we would drive from our tiny apartment in Seaside, to the Daycare Center at the Defense Language Institute. Along the way, to distract her from her sadness, we would say, “Look, Emmy! There is the big tree! And as we passed it, we said, “Hi tree! Bye-bye tree!” “Look Emily, there’s the ocean! Hi Ocean! Bye-bye Ocean!” And our favorite was, “LOOK! The Car Tunnel!” As we drove through it (the last thing before entering DLI), we would call out to the lights in the tunnel, “Hi lights! Bye lights!” She learned that those things would remain there while she was in Daycare, and we could do the reverse routine on our way home. To this day, I’m not sure whether Emily does this or not, but I still whisper under my breath when driving through any tunnel, “Hi lights!, Bye lights!” Unfortunately, one of the worst Firsts she had to put on her list was that we worked such horrible hours in the hotel industry, and she was always the First to be dropped off at Daycare and last to be picked up. Through it all, though, she managed to keep her sunny smile and we enjoyed our days off together.

I was a bit overprotective of Emily. I remember when we met my husband, Markus, for the First time; he was shocked that I wouldn’t even let her climb the slides at the park. He proceeded, over the years, to teach her how to climb trees and how to ride a bicycle, She had her First adventures because he entered our lives. My girlie girl in the ruffled dresses suddenly became rough and tumble and trailed after him like a puppy. He became her First idol.IMG_5059

Eventually, after dating for a year, we flew to Markus’ hometown in Bavaria to meet his family. We were so nervous. The only advice his parents gave him before going to America, was “Whatever you do, don’t fall in love with an American Woman!” They’d had bad impressions from another American Woman through a different member of their family, and wanted to make sure Markus didn’t make a similar mistake. Well whaddayaknow, not only did he fall in love with an American Woman, but she was a Divorced American Woman…with a Child from her Previous Marriage. Oh the scandal! Needless to say, I was incredibly stressed, ready to jump down anyone’s throat who dared to say anything unkind to my baby. I shouldn’t have worried so. Emily worked her First magic spell that day at the Munich airport. One look at her, and Markus’ mother fell to her knees and exclaimed, “Call me Oma!” Emmy celebrated her 3rd birthday during that enchanting visit, returning home having wrapped each family member around her little fingers.FullSizeRender

Emily’s First time at a wedding was when we all got married. I say “we” to include her, because we recited our wedding vows to her, promising to love her always and to be a family together for the rest of our lives. I don’t know if she fully understood the solemnity of our promises; she spent most of the time swinging from our joined hands; about all that can be expected from a 3yr old.1935903_1236780639152_630307_n

Oh, let me not forget to mention another First…On the morning of our wedding, I went to get my hair done, and on the way home suddenly fell ill. I may or may not have pulled over into the parking lot of a 7Eleven and, being too embarrassed to get sick on the pavement of a parking lot, I barfed all over the inside of my car. I made it home, a smelly mess; shaky and feverish. Markus cleaned up the car, cleaned up his bride-to-be, dressed Emmy, fixed up her hair, and whisked us away to Monastery Beach, in Carmel, to be married by our good friend Colette. At the wedding dinner at Il Fornio (fancy for the 3 of us), I sat, white as a sheet, while Emily and Markus tucked in and devoured their meals. All of a sudden, Emily sat up and picked up the barf baton, and she ran with it; right there in the restaurant dining room. Markus made it almost to bedtime before he succumbed. I
think we had only one day off before returning to work, and we spent it taking care of each other; in sickness and in health, indeed. I could say that was Emmy’s First family drama, but I decided to pass that over, and instead chose: First Time Learning What Not to Say. That weekend, I brought my car to the car wash and asked them to detail it. I was in the middle of pointing out the gunk in the gaps between the gear shift and the seats, when little Emily popped her head in the door and squealed, “YAH! We gotta clean that UP! Mama barfed ALL over the place – it was SO GROSS!” I wish I could say that was the First and last time Emily has made me want to laugh (or cry!) and the last time I’ve wanted to pretend she was someone else’s child because of her “oversharing.” We’ll not reminisce about the pitchers of “Painkiller” potion that we imbibed in the Caribbean, after snorkeling last year, and the cute young man that enchanted her…and how she thought she was whispering her admiration of him to us, as we trailed behind him back to the ship, but she forgot to turn down the volume…ahhh, good times.

 

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More relevantly, Emily’s First day of school was epic. Markus and she walked to the elementary school just a couple of blocks from our house, a few days before school started, just to get the lay of the land. She was hopping up and down from excitement. One of the classroom doors was open, with a teacher working inside, and Markus told Em, “This is a kindergarten classroom – this might even be YOUR classroom! Doesn’t it look fun?” Emily, jumping up and down, “oh yes! OH YES!” The teacher came to the door, smiled at Emily, and asked her, “What is your name?” And Emily, in classic Sound of Music style, marched one step forward, said, “Emily!” and marched one step back, grinning her front-teeth-missing goofy grin. The teacher, Ms. Wendy Tuffli, fell in love with our silly girl, and after they went home, she did her own marching into the school office and told them, “That girl? Emily Something? I want her.” They transferred Emmy into her class, and Ms. Tuffli became Emily’s First teacher. You should have seen the glorious look on Emmy’s face on the first day of school, when she found out who her teacher was. Ms. Tuffli was Emily’s First inspiration (and Goddess to be worshipped). She was not only someone Emily adored; but she was, and still is, the ideal teaching model for Emily to aspire to be. I hope that one day in the future, a few days before school starts, when Emily is getting her own classroom ready, she gets a knock on the door from Ms. Tuffli.  That would make another perfect First day of school for Emily.

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Emily’s First time becoming a big sister happened while she was in kindergarten. She adored her baby sister, Hanna. But again, another unfortunate First came along. Emily caught the chicken pox and passed it on to 2 week old Hanna. Emmy had head-to-toe itchy scabs, but Hanna only got one giant pock mark on her jaundiced forehead; it made us giggle to see them together.

Emily met her First lifelong friend, Natalie, while we lived in California. They met at the swimming pool and it was friendship at First sight. We actually moved to Pacific Grove because of that little lady. They both went to Forest Grove Elementary School together, and celebrated their First Communion together. Last year Emily flew out to Arizona to cheer her on as Natalie graduated from university. First Besties are the best Besties.FullSizeRender

Before we moved to Pacific Grove, we also have to note that Emily had her First, and only, Around the Corner Friend. My friend, JJ, lived around the corner from our house, and Emily and her daughter, Emma, played together almost daily. We called them Em&Em. JJ introduced us to the Friendship Sandwich, and the girls shared their First friendship sandwich together; a very cool thing. You take a giant loaf of French bread, like a baguette, cut it open and load on everything you could ever dream of in a sandwich. Then, the 2 friends chow down on their respective ends of the sandwich until they meet in the middle. It was a big hit in our house.

This might be the best First of all. From the time we married and I changed my name, Emily was the only one left in the house with the surname Pierce. For a time, her birth father permitted us to hyphenate her last name, after she became sensitive to the family name differences while learning how to write in Kindergarten. But instead of making things better for Emily, things became harder for her. Hanna was born…Johanna Treppenhauer. Then Simon was born…Simon Treppenhauer. She grew sadder and sadder. Back in preschool, one day, one of the preschool teachers insisted that Emily needed to refer to Markus as her “Stepdad,” instead of “Papa Markus.” Emily argued that  she had 2 Papas: Papa Scott and Papa Markus; and what was a Stepdad anyway? After the complicated list of all the proper labels for different members of families of divorce was explained to her, and after being told that, according to her stupid stupid stupid preschool teacher, Papa Markus was not actually blood-related to her, she came home a sobbing mess. Why wasn’t she blood-related to Papa? What WAS blood-related, anyway?! Was Papa not her Papa because he was a Stepdad instead? That was Emily’s First heartbreak. I can’t say I reacted well. There was much inner-cursing of the preschool teacher, much outer crying for the loss of happy innocence. We tried to tell her that labels were not needed in our family, and that Papa was Papa because of the love in our hearts, but she could not be consoled. Sudden I remembered my father, when I was little, swearing himself as Blood Brother with a close friend, and the ceremony that was involved. I jumped to my feet and cried, “QUICK Emmy! Peel your knee scab! Markus, peel that scab on your arm!” And I grabbed their limbs and squished them together, scab to scab. Gross, but effective. I now pronounce you Blood-Related. And that alone could have been the best of all. But there is more. When Emmy was in kindergarten, things began to develop into a very difficult and messy situation with her birth father. She began to have nightmares after a couple of years. When we could not find a way around things, we took legal action to protect her. In the end, her birth father gave us permission for Markus to adopt her. She was turning 10 at that time. She spoke to her birth father and thanked him for giving her the greatest birthday gift she could ever have asked for; to be able to share the same last name as her brother and sister, and to finally feel 100% part of the family. Emily’s First day as a Treppenhauer was a great day.FullSizeRender

Years passed, our family grew, and we moved to Hawaii. The Big Island was the First place we ever lived where Emily blended in – she had a wonderful 5 years there, living like an island girl, making friends and loving the sun. I think she may have left a large part of her heart back there.

When she was halfway through 10th grade, we moved to Banff. Her First time in a foreign country; her First time learning the importance of being diplomatic (“Whaddaya mean I can’t loudly argue with my social studies class about America? We’re GREAT!”). And another not so great First. For the First time, Emily struggled with school. She struggled so hard that she started to hate it. It took just one inept teacher, and the damage was so bad we worried she wouldn’t make it to university. Not surprisingly, Emily decided to take a gap year before going on to college. She felt so awful about school. I may have thrown a few tantrums about her decision. In hindsight, it was good for her to take that break. She worked in town and tried to save for college, all while growing bored and looking forward to the changes university would make for her life. Then, Markus was transferred to Jasper. All of a sudden, Emmy would have to live on her own for the First time. This was also the First time our family had to move to a new town, leaving one of us behind. Broken-hearted, we still urged her to stay where she was and to see it as practice for living at university in the Fall. She was brave. She was braver than I have ever known her to be.

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And she did it! All of a sudden, it was Fall and her First day of school all over again. I drove down from Jasper to help her move into her dorm. Car packed to the ceiling, we made that journey together. I thought I couldn’t possibly be prouder of her than I was that day.MqfU7WEHRwybSiJSyEVl9g_thumb_48b3

I’ve never been more wrong. Today, I look back at her life and think, “she’s accomplished so much! How can she ever top this?” But she already has. Through Emily’s shining example of perseverance in the pursuit of a higher education, I have been taking my prerequisite classes for nursing school, with a goal to start next year. Markus is going to enroll in university this Fall, to work towards his MBA. Hanna is finishing up her first year at the University of Washington. And Simon will begin his Junior year in high school this Fall, with an aim to start university in 2019. There is going to be a brief moment over the span of the next two years when all of our lives will align, and every single member of this family will be enrolled in a university at the same time. Emily is my First inspiration. I know this seems like a lot just to say, “Happy Graduation,” but there is so much more I didn’t even have time to include. One day, I want the opportunity and time to sit down and write out all the bright details of her wonderful life. From her giant gap toothed smile on the first day of kindergarten, to this, her beautiful, serene smile on her last day of school; what a transformation. Whenever that time comes, I just know there will be a mountain of new adventures to share with the world. Emily will be off to her Master’s program at the University of Calgary in the Fall; one more First day of school. Please join me in my cheering: BRAVO EMILY!!!

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Stupid Tits and Other Cruel Childhood Memories

Here is another pain in the ass assignment I had to write for my intercultural communications class.  I’m not sure I count this as writing, because after panicking about doing this last-minute, I decided to follow my son’s sage advice, “Relax Mama, don’t stress.  You don’t have to work so hard on it like usual.  It’s ok to do some half-assed work once in a while.”  I don’t know what dark place this memory barf came from, but it turns out I was a giant asshole when I was a kid…

English was my first language.  I grew up surrounded by many foreign languages, however, listening to my Chinese mother exclaim, “PAH-suh-woah!” when I would jump out and surprise her.  Literally, it means “scare-death-me.” The equivalent of “You scared me to death.” Or she would rub her tummy before a meal, roll her eyes and say, “Woah UH suh la!”  Again, the words literally meaning, “I hungry died.” The equivalent of “I’m starving to death.”  Because I was raised hearing the language formed in that way, I didn’t find it confusing. I just had to dial back my thinking to very simplified word combinations. The thing you say when you see a person after a long period of time – “Long time no see!”  That is a literal Chinese translation, “How jo bu-jen!”  We regularly spoke a hybridized version of English and Chinese in our home.  In Chinese, the Chinese language is called, “Jung-wen.”  We called our special language “Jung-glish.”    When I began to learn Chinese formally in school (unfortunately with my own mother as the teacher), I rebelled in teenage fashion and used my English to twist the Chinese.  Many Chinese words are homonyms; they are pronounced identically, but with a different tone to indicate the different meaning.  The casual word for Father (the equivalent of “Dad” in English) is “Baba”; with the emphasis on the first syllable. And the word for the way children say “poop” is also “baba” but the tone drops down and up on the first syllable and then the emphasis is on the last syllable.  Speaking Chinese is like singing a language. Unfortunately, meanings can be easily changed with different tones, and the “Ma” for mother can turn into “Ma” for horse or “Ma” to mean scolding. So as a teenager with an American attitude, being forced to suddenly transform into a proper Chinese daughter, complete with filial piety, I made horrible jokes like, “Dad was in a race and he stepped in dog poo as we are cheering him on. ‘Go Baba Go!  OH NO, Go-baba!  Go-baba!’” My parents were not amused. When we were young, we were cruel. My mother would lose her temper and start yelling at my sisters and me; and while she spoke fluent English, she never could say one word properly.  She never could say “stupid.”  It was always “stupid-tit.”  She would yell that we were acting “stupid-tit!” and my sisters and I would drolly reply, “Mom. We aren’t tits.”  I kick myself every time I remember those times.  Her accent (pg. 273) was strong in my early childhood, and we looked down on it, thinking the reason must have been because she didn’t learn her English well enough.  Later on, she would look me straight in the eye and say, “Considering I was born Chinese, I would say my English is pretty damn good. English is actually the most difficult language to learn in the world.  And it’s not just the words – sometimes I just don’t get you Americans. Be careful before you judge.”

 

Now the tables have been turned.  It is 40 years later, my mother is no longer living, and I am married to German man who spoke no English when we first met. He and our oldest daughter actually learned their English together when she first started speaking.  He is fluent now, and my German has not progressed past the level I learned in boarding school 35 years ago.  When I write letters to my mother-in-law, I pass them to my husband to proofread, and I always see in the corner of my eye, his shoulders begin shaking as he tries to suppress his laughter.  “WHAT!” I huff. He wipes tears from his eyes and giggles, “Honey, your letter is so cute…like it was written by a kindergartener!”  I felt just like my mom must have felt.  German has words like “Wintersturmwonnemondwende”.  It means “Delight at the changing of the seasons.”  They crammed all the individual words together; it literally means, “Winter-Storm-Bliss-Moon-Turning.”  Languages are complicated!  And as the NPR broadcast Shakespeare Had Roses All Wrong pointed out; when learning a language, we are not just learning the words, we are “learning whole cultural systems.” My stupid teenage antics were perfect examples of what not to do with my newly learned Chinese language; as I matured, I learned to be more mindful (pg. 289).  I learned to treat the language with the dignity that the Chinese people have for thousands of years.  I grew to appreciate the synergism between Chinese and the culture that my mother was attempting to share with me. I was the younger generation that was disappearing into the American culture, and she wanted to use her native language to pass down her culture to my generation (pg. 266) before we lost our ties with our heritage. The information learned in this chapter, teaching us about mindfulness (pg. 293) with learning new languages, explaining how words can be misinterpreted for many reasons, and how to be aware of conversation taboos (pg. 293) would have been quite useful in teaching the teenage version of me how to use my second language competently in an intercultural context (pg. 293)

A Little Snippet of Family History and My Culture

I had to write a few paragraphs in my Intercultural Communication class, today.  The question was assigned by my teacher, a unicultural white woman, who, surprisingly, continues to mistakenly believe that all of her students come from families of one race, one religion, one culture, and who remain in the same town they were born in.  This is not the first time I have had to step away from the herd and be the odd man out. Would the real 3rd Culture Kids please stand up, please stand up, please stand up…

“Question: Identify two elements of your culture’s history,  Think of: the geography of the locale you were enculturated, historical events within your culture, myths, heroes (not marvel/comic), or stories that have impacted how you think and you see the world today.  Analyze the impact of these two elements on your psyche today.”

This is what I wrote (pg references were just to terms in the textbook):

Elements in my personal culture’s history exist due to a blend of cultures: Chinese and American (Midwestern United States). Although raised in different countries, in entirely different circumstances, both of my parents shared the values they placed on strength in the face of adversity and family as the center of all in the face of change; these are the values I have continued with my own children.

Both of my parents’ constructions of worldviews (pg 195) could trace their origins to their individual cultures’ histories (pg 195) and the emphasis they placed on behaving to make our ancestors proud.  Although raised as an American living overseas most of my life, and possessing a culturally differing perspective of historical events than my mother and father had, I share these values due to the independent, protected environment we built around our family as we travelled.

From my mother’s perspective, she was born while the Nationalist Party was in control of the government in China.  When the Communists rose up in revolution, both of her parents (my Nai-Nai and Yeh-Yeh) dedicated that part of their lives to serving as spies for the Nationalist government.  My mother spent the first 10 years of her life on the run with her parents, or hiding with her sisters and brother; sheltered by relatives or friends of the family while my grandparents were undercover.  When the Communists took over, my mother, her parents, one sister, and her brother were able to escape to Taiwan. Her oldest sister chose to stay behind with her husband and was subsequently tortured, which haunted my mother until the day she died.  My mother was only 10 years old at that time, but she vividly remembered her parents’ passion to fight against a government that would choose to imprison the academics, the artists, and anyone who did not follow Chairman Mao. Coming from a family of nobility, they all had to start from scratch in Taiwan; my mother publishing news articles and selling her paintings to pay her way through university.  Through it all, as many Chinese did and do, she was fully supported by her family; they were her world. On the other side of the world, my father was raised in the Midwest; Davenport Iowa.  His family, like many Americans, had ancestors who were part of the early settlement of America; his great great aunt was one of the first women to take advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862.  She staked a homestead in Wyoming, persevered, and against all odds successfully gained ownership of the land.  That land has been passed down to each generation on my grandmother’s side since then; shared equally by siblings. Today, shared by my father, aunt, and uncle, the former homestead is uninhabitable marshland; its monetary value only existing in mineral rights. However, its historical and cultural significance in our family is invaluable.  When I cried as a child, tired of moving to different countries for my father’s job, I was admonished and told, “We are a family of nomads and pioneers; your ancestors survived being uprooted; they grew stronger with each experience. You have brave blood!  And anywhere you move, you are home.  Your family makes it so.” I never truly understood until I grew older.  Only as an adult could I fully appreciate the past and how it helped me to establish my own identity.  It was one thing that I could draw strength from in a world full of uncertainty and change. It was unique and nobody else could lay claim to it; it made me feel special.

Today, I am continuing the legacy; the history and my family’s unique culture that I share with my children.  We also travel the world for my husband’s job.  And each time we move, when one (or more) of my children is sad or rebellious, I tell them, “Be strong.  Your family is made of nomads; strong pioneers who might be frightened of change, but still they fight to survive. You are never alone; we are each other’s best friends until you make more friends in our new home.  Home is not a geographical place; home is where your family is.”

 

Do as I Say, Do as I Do

There was a teenage boy walking to his bus stop just a few hundred yards from his house. In the distance, he could see a boy his age pounding a folded umbrella on the head of another teenage Asian boy, who had his arms up to protect his face, begging the boy to stop.  Running as fast as he could, the first boy reached the bus stop when the umbrella broke because it was hitting the Asian boy so hard. The first boy grabbed the umbrella away from the hitter and flung it as far as he could so the hitter would leave the area to get it. He asked the Asian boy what happened, and the Asian boy replied that the hitter was boasting about the greatness of Trump and the Asian boy said that Trump was racist, misogynistic, and would be a dangerous president to have (this was the day before the election).  The hitter apparently could not come up with a coherent response so he angrily began hitting with his umbrella. The first boy asked, “why didn’t you fight back? You needed to protect yourself!” And the Asian boy replied, “My parents taught me to never hit; to not fight.”

The bus then arrived and everybody started boarding.  The bus driver told the hitter that he couldn’t bring the broken umbrella onboard  due to safety issues.  The boy cried, “But I only JUST broke it!” And the Asian boy piped up, “BECAUSE HE WAS USING IT TO HIT ME.  He was attacking me at the bus stop!”  The bus driver said nothing; did nothing; just waved the boys to their seats.  The first boy was dumbfounded that an adult in a position to right a wrong; whose job it is to make sure school children are safe, said nothing at all.

When they arrived at school, the first boy encouraged the Asian boy to report the incident to the school, since they didn’t know if there would be more aggression from the hitting boy wanting to finish the job he started.  They walked to the school safety officer (a police officer assigned to the school) and the Asian boy said, “I was just assaulted by another boy.”  And the first boy said, “I witnessed it.”  And the school proceeded to do exactly what they were trained to do.  They interviewed the boys, had the boys write out statements, identify the aggressor through photographs in the yearbook, then the Asian boy was sent to the nurse while the school contacted his parents to report the incident.  The first boy got a tardy slip and he went to his classes and finished his school day.

Later on that night, over dinner, the boy told his parents what had happened.  They had all just been discussing how many of the boy’s friends said they liked Trump, but when the boy pressed them about their views, it turned out that they were just parroting their parents and didn’t truly understand the dangerous consequences of Trump becoming president.  Then the boy said, “This happened today…” and the story about the bully at the bus stop came out.  The parents were shocked; the father wanted to contact the school, while the mother worried about how the Asian boy was doing.  The boy insisted that his Father not call the school, because he thought the Asian boy’s parents would be causing enough fuss.  The boy worried about the repercussions of his intervention.  He wondered if the bully boy’s parents owned a gun.  He planned to have another friend drive him to school the next day, just in case the school did nothing to punish the aggressor and he was waiting at the bus stop wanting revenge.  Both parents did this:  they praised the boy for being brave; for standing up and doing something; for not being afraid in the moment, of the bully, and protecting someone who could not help himself.  They told him they were glad that, even though he was strong enough and he really wanted to, he didn’t throw the bully on the ground and fight him; that defending yourself is different from using the bully’s type of violence to pound him into the ground.  And they talked about how the other kids at the bus stop stood around watching the whole thing and didn’t even say anything.  The family talked about how similar Trump’s rise to power was to Hitler’s, and how many of Trump’s followers were very similar to Hitler’s followers.  They worried about history repeating itself, and how easy it would be for people like the bus driver and the other kids at the bus stop, to look the other way while a bully was hurting someone who could not protect himself.  They talked about how quickly something can escalate into violence when people with violence in their hearts are given permission to act out their aggressions on others.  They ended their day going to bed with worry in their hearts, for the possible future that could throw their country against the world and against their fellow citizens; a frightening future that could reach into their home and put them in danger.

This didn’t happen in an inner city neighborhood; this didn’t happen to a stranger that I never met, whose story is far away and hard to care about.  This happened in a prosperous suburban neighborhood in the whitest county in the nation’s 20 most populous counties.  This happened here, just steps from my house.  The boy walking to his bus stop was my 16 year old son.  He was brave; did everything we ever taught him to do.  He stood up for what was right and defended someone who was being attacked by a bully.  But he was outnumbered at that bus stop.  There were many other kids who witnessed the bullying before my son could make it there and intervene.  Why didn’t they do something?  Parents, why aren’t you telling your children to speak up and take action?  Why aren’t you sitting them down and having this SPECIFIC conversation about standing up to bullies?  As parents, why aren’t we being good examples to our children by practicing what we preach?  Post-election, we now have a bully that will be in charge.  He will most likely advocate and encourage other bullies to attack the vulnerable in our country.  It is up to us to protect the ones who can’t fight back.  It is up to us to get involved in our government and do what we can to resist the dangerous changes. And let me add to the phrase we all know so well, “If you see something, say something, and DO something.”

Studies have shown that it only takes ONE person to speak up in a dangerous situation to move others to join them and defend what’s right.  I am speaking up right now.  Join me.

 

Guten Nacht, Schlaft Gut, Bis Morgen…

One of Markus’ earliest childhood memories began by his begging his Papa for them to go camping together. Nobody in the family had ever camped before, but Papa loved his son so much, he asked to borrow a tent and other equipment from a neighbour, and he and little Markus headed out from their Bavarian home to Papa’s favourite hiking spot in Northern Italy. It turned out that there were no campgrounds to be found, so Papa went into a Bed & Breakfast and charmed them into allowing Papa and Markus to set up the tent in the hotel garden so they could “camp.” A little boy’s dream came true because his Papa’s heart was big enough to leave his comfort zone to make his little boy happy. And true to Papa’s jolly nature, he and the innkeepers remained good friends their whole lives.

One of Emily’s earliest childhood memories is of her Opa (Markus’ Papa) standing with her in his living room, classical music blaring out of the stereo, while they both held sticks and “conducted.” He would affectionately scold her for walking barefoot in the house, without her “Schlapfen” (slippers) to keep her from catching cold.  Every night, he would give Emily “bussies” (kisses) and say, “Guten nacht, shlaft gut, bis morgen.”  “Good night, sleep well, see you in the morning.” At Christmas, he would disguise himself as Saint Nicholas and tell the children all the good things about them, and how they should improve the next year; little Emily stared in awe, totally believing. Markus’ whole family learned English for us, and Emily (a toddler) did her best to “teach” them. She had a special word she made up: Bootanana. Opa would ask, “Emily, what is Bootanana?” thinking he could increase his vocabulary. Then, Emily would point to a chair, “That is Bootanana, Opa.” And then she would point to the window, “And that is Bootanana.” And to Opa’s nose, “And THAT is Bootanana. Everything is Bootanana!” And then they would laugh and laugh. Opa absolutely adored Emily; so much so that I wondered if there would be any love left for brothers and sisters. But when Johanna and Simon came along, he overflowed with even more love. His heart just grew bigger.

One of my earliest memories of Paul (Papa/Opa) is hearing his booming laughter. Markus’ big sister Steffi would make silly jokes, and the whole family would burst into laughter, Paulie’s (pronounced “Powlie”) face would turn beet red, all the way up to the top of his shiny bald head, as he fought to catch his breath between giggles, tears streaming down his face. Sometimes, when he would call us on the phone wherever we were living, he would say something just to make me laugh, because he said the sound made him happy. He loved his God, he loved his family, he loved to laugh, he loved his music, he loved his FC Bayern futball team, he loved his wine, he loved his food. He loved.

Today, Opa slipped away from us, leaving behind aching holes in our hearts. After a painful and confusing time of struggling against his glioblastoma and his Alzheimer’s, he fell into a deep sleep, never to awaken. Throughout his life, the strength of his faith stayed true and unwavering. To the end, I believe he was comforted with the knowledge that he would be loved all the way to Heaven. And in Heaven, he would be healed and strong again. Our loss, Heaven’s gain. We miss you, Opa. You will always be loved.  Guten nacht, shlaft gut…

Today is Just a Day

Mothers’ Day has always been a day of conflict for me. When I was a little girl, and my elementary school teachers would help us make cards and gifts to bring home for that special day, I always presented them to my mother, heart bursting with pride, hoping she would see how much I loved her by how much glitter I glued on the construction paper. Of course, my mother was an artist, a world-renowned artist. “Thank you, that’s nice” was the best I could hope for, and one raised eyebrow at my stick-figure drawings told me my artwork was not so nice. I recall most of my time with my parents filled with my yearning for a mom and dad like my friends’ moms and dads; parents who enjoyed their children and who wanted to be parents. My parents always reminded us that #1 all three of us girls were meant to be boys to carry on the family name, and #2 my mother was especially careful to let us know that she never wanted children (we interfered with her blossoming art career) but she did it to make our dad happy. My childhood heartbreak gradually hardened in my teenage years, into a resolve to find or make a family that would love me as much as I loved them. I stopped paying attention to Mothers’ Days because the only mothers I ever met who I wanted to thank, already belonged to other people like my friends. Oh, how I coveted their moms. My best friend Kirsten’s mom even let me call her Mom while we lived in Shanghai. For years, that gave me the greatest comfort.

Finally, I grew up and had the baby I always dreamed of loving. The moment our eyes made contact, I felt hit with a bolt of lightning; THIS was what I was meant to do, to be the most loving mother to this baby girl. Every single bad memory of my family took a back seat to my new priority. As a first time mother, I had very little to help guide me. Not only were my parents completely disinterested in being grandparents, I was quite certain any grandmotherly advice was useless, coming from a woman who never wanted her own children. As my baby grew into toddlerhood and her independence grew, little conflicts arose. Tempted to lose my temper in the face of tantrums or naughty behaviour, I always stopped myself with one thought, “What would my parents do?” A very twisted version of What Would Jesus Do…whatever the answer, I made a deliberate choice to do the OPPOSITE. My parents would have spanked a toddler who drew on the walls, spanked a child who wanted to wear her underwear on the outside of her pants, spanked a child who talked back. My father always told us that children were cabbages until they were old enough to carry on an intelligent conversation. I chose to learn about the concept of Time Out, let my child choose her own clothing, and learned how to use my words. I am sure it was much more frustrating and time-consuming to do it the long way, versus the shortcut of beating. But I have very clear memories of the leather belt with moons and stars cut into it, that would beat my bare legs and bottom until those moons and stars were imprinted on my flesh. I will never forget the fear and dread when my father would tell me exactly how many smacks with the belt I would get; most of the time in the double digits. I would know it was coming because if I talked back or lied or did anything wrong in my mother’s eyes, she would screw her face up in rage, point her finger at me, and scream, “Just WAIT until your father gets home!” And when I was a teenager, and the only thing I did was roll my eyeballs, as teenagers do, she didn’t even wait for my father. Her teacup full of hot green tea would come flying at my head. Maybe that’s why I became a goalie in soccer in high school; I learned to not flinch in the face of flying objects, to take the impact on my body, and to keep going.

As the years passed, the negative connotations I associated with Mothers’ Day slowly faded. Gradually, Mothers’ Day ceased being about my mother, a reluctant mother. I started to see that it was a day about any human being, man or woman, who CHOSE to care for another. My own children brought me homemade cards of construction paper, glue, and glitter, on the breakfast tray in bed. I have saved every one of them. My oldest, Emily, ever since she could write, has written silly poems and hilarious rap songs. I cherish every one of them. Even when I went into labor with my youngest, Simon, little Emily made colourful little posters to tape on the hospital room wall to cheer me on, “Laber is Fun!” I still have that little poster, misspelling and all. “Laber” isn’t all that fun, after all, but this family sure is. Last year, my husband cared for me and the children while I battled breast cancer; he became the best example of a mother I have ever known. I look around my life, and there is no more room for bad feelings on Mothers’ Day.

This morning, for the first time, I woke without my husband and my oldest child on Mothers’ Day. Markus is out in Seattle, working hard to make a new home for our family to move to next month. Emily is in Phoenix with her best friend to celebrate her graduation from university. Feeling slightly sorry for myself, I opened my eyes to find my two younger children, Hanna and Simon, holding a tray of breakfast and a coffee in a Love Cup. “Happy Mothers’ Day, Mama, we love you!” A feast of eggs and kale and onions, and their happy faces beaming at me while I ohh’d and ahh’d. Simon told me, “My gift to you is that I am going to scoop poop in the yard and mow the lawn!” And they both promised to help me clean the house for company tonight. That’s a minor miracle right there. I opened my email, and there was a letter to me, from my Emily. Not her usual funny rap or poem, this is what she wrote:

“Hi Mama Bear!

This isn’t my usual rap, because I felt that I had a lot to say that wouldn’t be very easy to rhyme. It’s Mother’s Day! You’ve gone through three “labers,” none of which could have been all that fun. You’ve raised one semi-adult who has so far managed not to perish out in the real world, one sassy teenager who loves to shock us all with her rebellion and independence, but who will one day undoubtedly shock us with incredible success, and also one hilariously weird boy who has the exterior of a hardened thug, but who’s insides are filled with love and an amazing sense of kindness. On top of all of this, you work hard to maintain the most beautiful marriage that I have ever seen.

When I was first processing that you had been diagnosed with breast cancer last year, they were some of the scariest feelings I’ve ever felt. First off, what kind of universe did we live in if someone as caring, sweet, and undeserving as you could possibly be dealt an early entry into Heaven? I realized we had all taken you and everything you did for us for granted; something I still sometimes catch myself guilty of. You are the only constant I’ve had in my entire life and I’ve literally known you for forever. How am I supposed to ever be expected to navigate through this stupid world without you to call and complain to? Without you to cry and scream and vent to, without hearing your 100% honest advice on something as small as what to buy at the grocery store, all the way to making life-changing decisions that I’m too weak to deal with on my own? That’s why when you were diagnosed, I never really considered it an option that you could ever disappear from my world. Nothing was strong enough to take you away from me, because you are mine and I couldn’t let that happen.

This was a very idiotic and naive approach to your newly discovered cancer. Because I wiped away this possibility, I did not embrace the seriousness of your illness, nor how important it would be for me to move back home. Even when I finally did, I look back and see how little I contributed to the family, how much more I could have done to lessen the burden of your surgery and healing. I know I can’t make that time up to you, but I am sorry for being a noob.

I have so many amazing memories of times we have shared. Obviously we have had some really bad times, horrible screaming fights and sometimes deafening bouts of silence. You’ve said before that you have blocked out most of your negative memories from your childhood, because they were too painful to keep around. But I think that the reason I remember less of the bad and all of the good is not because the bad is so bad, but because the good is so great. You and Papa have given us such an amazing life, full of the most love and laughter out of family I could ever imagine. I love when we’re all out for dinner, and half the conversation is purely brought-up memories that make my mouth burst out with laughter, and my heart burst with all the love we all share.

You are the coolest, funniest, most welcoming and biggest hearted mom (and person) I have ever known or even heard about. Even without ever meeting you, my friends give you rave reviews. I’m so sorry it took me so long to realize that I chose the best possible person to not only raise me, but to be my very best friend. I love you the most and I hope you always know that.

Happy Mother’s day Mama!!

Love,
Emmy”

Mothers’ Day is not a happy day for many people. But I believe you do not have to settle for what Life dishes out to you. If you can survive to adulthood, you can make the changes you need to find happiness. Leave the bad behind, or if you choose to keep it in your heart, use it to make your life better. There are some shitty moms out there getting some pretty damn good love from children that deserve more. Stay strong, kiddos. There is love out there, and it doesn’t have to come from your bio mom. If you can’t find it, you make it yourself. The more love you make, the more love just bubbles up and overflows.

This is it. I am here. I made it. I am the mother I always wanted, with the children I always wanted, in the family I always wanted. Dreams do come true. Happy Mothers’ Day to those who can, and I wish a Future Happy Mothers’ Day to those who will make it so down the line.

Walking and Loving Each Other Toward a Cure

I wrote this 7 years before my own diagnosis, while we lived in Hawaii.  It still feels good to remember.  And it feels good to have such loving friends who mustered up a team to walk together in Calgary, in my name, last year.  Whether we find a cure or not, this togetherness and love is always a good thing:

Saturday, March 17, 2007, I forgot many things. I forgot my nephew’s birthday, I forgot it was St. Patrick’s Day, I forgot it was my husband’s only day off, I forgot myself. The only thing I could remember was that I was going to try something very important that day – I was going to try to stay up from 6pm until 6am on Sunday, and to walk in memory of Mom, to walk in support of Aunt Barbie, Doreen, Debbie, Jon, and all the other cancer survivors being helped by the American Cancer Society.

My friend, Doreen, just finished her chemotherapy for breast cancer. She is blessed in many ways: that she has a huge family on this island, that they surround her with love, that she received support and education from the American Cancer Society during her diagnosis and subsequent treatment, and that she is STRONGER than her cancer. Her family decided to form a team for the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life. They used Doreen’s middle name for the team: KA’ILILAUOKEKOA’OKALANI. In Hawaiian, this name means “The Heavenly and Precious One.” If you ever had a chance to meet this warm, loving woman, you would understand how fitting that name is. She has over a hundred relatives on this island, hundreds of friends, has a demanding job as the Director of Human Resources at the Fairmont Orchid Resort, and a husband and three children, yet anytime you have a chance to speak with her, she seems to slow down the spin of the planet so she can spend time with you and give you her total attention.

Cancer really threw things off balance for Doreen – all of a sudden she had something in her life that she couldn’t approach in her usual way. Her usual way is to handle things almost single-handedly, to open another section of her heart and make room for one more thing, for one more cause. This time, she realized that it would take all her strength to fight the cancer. All of us around her, accustomed to leaning on her, had to adjust and ask her to lean on us. Her incredible husband and children, after years of Doreen taking care of them, stepped right into their new shoes with such grace and strength – more blessings for Doreen. And Doreen’s extended family – wow. I feel so awkward and happy at the same time when I am with them because I am not blood-related, and come from a smaller family, yet I always yearned for such a bustling, crazy, laughing family such as hers. It reminds me of childhood visits to Taiwan – aunties and uncles, cousins, sisters, brothers, everyone talking and laughing at the same time, playful teasing, drinking, eating, the closest arms grabbing and comforting any crying babies… To be included on her team was such an honor!

On Saturday night, as we all gathered in Kamehameha Park for the 10th Annual Relay for Life in Kohala, I looked around a sea of light blue Team Ka’ililauokekoa’okalani t-shirts, and realized that Doreen had the largest team! With her family, her husband’s (Malone) family, her best friend’s family, and mine, our team came to about 75 people. Doreen’s shirt was purple – all the survivors wore purple shirts. She topped off her outfit with a black-and-white polka-dotted bandana and a great big smile. As part of the opening ceremony, the survivors took the first lap – it was heartwarming to see them smiling and walking with their arms around each other. The “track” was set in a large green field, surrounded by huge, feathery trees that swayed in the gentle wind. Little white paper bags marked the boundaries of the track, with a set of bags spelling out the word “HOPE” in the middle of the field. These were luminarias that people could buy in memory or in support of loved ones. Markus, Emmy, Hanna, Simon, and I bought a candle each for Mom, Aunt Barby, Doreen, Debbie, and Jon. With Doreen’s family candles, we ended up taking up a large part of the circle. Our team was so big we were given two batons to walk with (we were called K Ohana Team I and K Ohana Team II). While those who held the batons walked, the others strolled around the track, visited with family under the series of tents erected for our team, ate our potluck dinner, danced to the live band, browsed the booths, and set up camp. The children ran around like crazy people and played on the playground. Markus and I held hands and talked while we walked around the track in the beginning – that was our date night Later in the evening, the stadium lights were dimmed and the Luminaria Ceremony began. The candles we had purchased to honor our loved ones, were blessed and lit and we carried them to the little white bags we had marked with our loved ones’ names. Call me crazy, but Mom was there. I carried her spirit to that little white bag, and her candle stayed lit until I blew it out in the morning. And it rained – it poured. Only Mom’s and Jon’s candles stayed lit. One of the Uncles and I re-lit our candles whenever they blew out, but we never had to worry about “Nai-Nai” and Uncle Jon. After Markus and the kids went to sleep, and I began to walk in earnest, with the baton in my hand, those little lit baggies kept me going. I would circle the track, reading the messages that different people wrote on their bags.

Through the rain, we kept walking. I purposely didn’t wear a watch – only wore Mom’s wedding ring. I didn’t want to keep track of the time in minutes, I wanted to keep track with memories. So I don’t remember what time it was that I walked my first set of 25 laps, and I don’t remember how long it took me – I was only able to mark the laps with the little rubber bands that the nice old man getting wet in the rain gave me. Every time I passed him, I would hold out my baton, he would snap on the rubber band, I would smile and say “thank-you” and be on my way. And I don’t know what time it was when I was waiting for a team member to finish her walk so I could walk again, and it was raining, and I sat next to Doreen under a watertight tent. She was all snuggled up in a warm blanket, on a sea of pillows on top of a cot. We watched her elderly parents walking side by side, slowly around the track, never faltering, walking for the love of Doreen. With tired eyes, she smiled and told me lovely things about her family, and about her husband and daughters, while her mischievous son snuck his way onto the cot, like a dog at the end of the bed. She told me about her treatment, her upcoming operation to remove her uterus, and how her hot flashes come at such un-opportune times like in meetings with the hotel General Manager…and how she would have the urge to rip off her hat or scarf, but didn’t want to shock the poor man with her bald head. And as we speak, she has another hot flash, and looks so uncomfortable there with her wooly hat on. I told her to take it off and cool down, that I think she is beautiful without hair. So she shyly takes off her hat, and she is just that – beautiful. I don’t know what time it was, but she was eventually tucked in by one of her sisters, and went to sleep. I nervously made my way to the outer tent, where her husband and the other hardier folks were staying awake. They are joking and laughing, speaking so quickly in the local style, so I can only understand half of what is being said. They are very kind, though, and offered me a Nos – an energy drink. Woo! That is when I ran off to do my next set of 25 laps.

It rained on and off throughout the night. We were constantly either taking off or putting on our little ponchos. I finally got kind of sick of that, so I just walked through the occasional showers – it was refreshing. Somewhere along the way, I was in the middle of my 3rd set of 25 laps, when I found myself really slowing down- my hips started creaking…. Sleep deprivation…Malone was a few yards ahead of me…I had been passing people with my speed walking all night long, so I thought I could pass him with no problem. Ha. I never caught up with him Then, Doreen woke up – someone told me it was about 5am, and that the closing ceremony should be beginning, with awards, and the final lap. Doreen took the baton and walked a long time with her sister-in-law. Slowly, but surely, she and her fuzzy white hat made their way around that track – I lost count how many times she went around – it looked like she was having a nice long talk with Malone’s sister.

Finally, we were all called to the main tent, and awards were handed out – so many I can’t remember. Best costume, most money raised, team that walked the most, individuals who walked the most…I actually won something! I walked 60 laps, the most on K Ohana Team II. Woohoo! One lady raised about $14,000! Including donations I expect in the mail, I raised about $400. Humble beginnings. I hope to double that next year.

Finally, we all stumbled out of the main tent, to do our final lap, and found ourselves greeting the sunrise. By then, things felt very strange and fuzzy…I don’t know if it was the good feeling in my heart, or the lack of sleep, but I left with the determination to do this every year. When my mom got sick years ago, I was a selfish teenager. When she got sick again, I was a selfish adult. I did next-to-nothing for her. All my good intentions amounted to little more than a few trips to chemotherapy with her, a few visits to her house, and in the end, long letters sent from my home in Hawaii. When my friend Debbie got sick, I prayed for her, but she lived down the street from me, and I still did nothing to help. When my friend Jon got sick, I prayed for him, I took care of his children or his dog while my friend Georgie, his wife, flew to Honolulu to be with him for his treatment, but that only happened a couple of times, and they live right next door. When Doreen got sick, I vowed to do more, to make a difference in her life, to be there to help her to the doctor, or cook for her, or whatever she needed. I only ended up taking her to the doctor once, I never cooked, and I never cleaned. I asked myself, when am I ever going to grow up and do what I say? When am I ever going to do more than talk or write? On Saturday, for the first time in my life, I feel like I made a real difference in the world. It looks so stupid in writing when it is on this piece of paper, but even though that $400 was just a drop in the bucket when you look at the $25,000 price tag for one chemotherapy treatment, my presence did something. All of us gathered on that grass on Saturday night, we put something out there in the world – a pulse of love so great – it was felt by others. I saw it in Doreen’s eyes as she slowly looked around her and saw the warm hearts all gathered in one place for the love of her. I saw it through the filter of my own tears as we lit our Luminaria and thought about our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, friends – it was on each of our faces as we quietly walked around and around.

It has been days since we walked together. When I came home, I slept for a whole day, not speaking except to help the kids with the essentials. I found myself not able to express myself – it was as if those 12 hours had taken more than my physical strength. I could only remember the night inside of my head, couldn’t talk about it, almost as if the memories were too precious to let them escape from my lips. This morning, I realized that if I didn’t take the time to write this, to share this, I would be doing what I have done all my life – I would have all the good intentions of helping without actually putting those thoughts into action. I can’t do that anymore. I need to share this experience with everyone, because it is important. I know it is annoying for people to ask for money to help causes. I felt the same way. I don’t expect my efforts to cure cancer. But the American Cancer Society does more than fund cancer research. They help the victims with the cost of medicines, with the cost of transportation; with loving counseling for the victims and their families…these are things that anyone might need someday. Nobody is expecting a huge donation. We are all regular people with other needs in our lives. But a good friend with a newborn baby managed to send $20. Just the action of finding an envelope and stamp and putting that together is huge, considering our E-society. And Simon, my little boy, age 6, earned $3 helping me with laundry, and put it into my donation box, instead of his piggy bank. Markus’ family in Germany sent actual Euros in an envelope – the bills just fluttered out when I opened the letter. My big sister couldn’t wire money from Australia, so she sent it via PayPal. So resourceful, these people with loving hearts and active intentions. And my next-door-neighbor? The friend who I didn’t have the wherewithal to help? His family walked over a check for $100. My best friend, over the ocean, whose own Mom died of cancer, sent me a donation in honor of both of our moms.

As for me, I am sure I will continue to be lazy when it comes to putting my good intentions into action. I am sure I will make everyday commitments and fail in some way. I am sure I will continue to procrastinate when it comes to doing what I must. But in one way I have been changed forever. The love that was shared on Saturday night, by Doreen and her family, by the cancer survivors, and by their supporters, that is permanently in my heart. That love makes me stronger – it strengthens my resolve. I am going to continue to help. Even if I don’t have a lot of money to donate, I will donate my time. I will walk again. Next year, I hope the team is even bigger. And if any of you are able to make it, I hope you will walk with me. Do it for someone you love, do it for someone you don’t even know. Just don’t forget to do something, no matter how small.

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