Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

Opposites

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

When I was a little girl, special time with my mom meant drying the dishes after supper while she washed them. We would chat about the day’s happenings, who I tagged on the playground, whether I would try out for the track team in the hop-skip-jump or the softball throw. We discussed all topics relevant and extremely important to a grade-schooler.

Many times we practiced the multiplication tables or reviewed my spelling list for the week. When I didn’t want my mom to know I hadn’t studied my spelling words, I begged to play the “Opposites Game.”

I think my mom made up the game; I’ll never know for certain. My mother said a word and I said its opposite.

Mom—“What’s the opposite of hot?” Me—“Cold.”

Mom—“Up?” Me—“Down.”

Mom—“Over?” Me—“Under.”

It was my favorite word game because I could always come up with the right answer. North? South. Right? Wrong.

I was Brilliant!

Sometimes, when my mother wasn’t too tired after her long day scrubbing floors at the nursing home, she’d challenge me. “What’s another opposite for the word ‘right’?” she asked one day.

Scientific opposites

I scrunched up my brows in confusion. “What do you mean? There’s only one opposite for right, ‘wrong.’ Right?”

Mom smiled. “I can think of another.”

I thought and thought and asked for a hint.

She motioned a letter in the air. “You write with your right hand… ”

I was only seven and had to process that clue. The homonyms puzzled me. Was it a trick question? I shrugged my shoulders.

Mom continued. “And some other people write with their other hand. Their…”

“Their LEFT hand,” I shouted.

She nodded. “Right!” she said.

TRIUMPH! I was brilliant again.

I learned a lesson that day. Sometimes the opposite of “right” is not “wrong.” A heady lesson for a child. The lesson stayed with me. Sometimes lurking. Sometimes in my face.

A New Millennium—A New Perspective

When my own daughters were young, we had an updated version of “special time.” Dishwashers replaced hand-washing the supper plates. Sometimes the evening meal was taken on the run with burgers from a fast food restaurant. (I know. I shake my head, too.)

Thankfully, we still had plenty of time to talk about life. While commuting. To school. Home again. To after school lessons. Home again. You know the drill.

In the car, I tried to play the Opposites Game with Kellini and McKenna. They loved it. Me? Not so much.

Don’t get me wrong, they were exceptionally good at it. One of the two always came up with an answer. It’s just that the world seemed more complicated than it was when I was a child. I couldn’t find it in my heart to paint the world in opposites anymore.

For instance, sometimes the opposite of “man” isn’t “woman.” It’s “boy.” The pairing of “husband” isn’t always “wife.” In some families my children knew, the couple consisted of two “husbands.”

I couldn’t tolerate the idea that my children would think the opposite of “black” is “white.” Many people would suggest the world exists in shades of gray, but I believe in a beautiful rainbow of colors.

I’d come to realize from my own experience that sometimes the opposite of “love” is not “hate;” it’s “fear.”

Those realizations took all the fun out of the Opposites Game for me and I didn’t play it after that initial drive with my girls. They were disappointed. I held steadfast and soon made up a different game, called “Holidays” where I jumbled descriptions of holidays and the girls corrected me. Great fun for small children.  Later, I substituted a game where they could learn Spanish vocabulary.

Words Hold Power

I didn’t want to be responsible for setting up dichotomies in a child’s mind. Those are the ideas that stay with a person. Words are powerful. Repeated often enough words shape thoughts and mold attitudes.

It’s best to consider carefully the words we use so we build bridges, not walls between people – or between cultures. It’s dangerous when people believe they live at opposite ends of the world. I’ve traveled enough to know that despite growing up in different climates, continents, societies, or religions, we all love our children the same.

We know there is a whole range of experiences and realities between “success” and “failure.”

It’s a matter of perspective, isn’t it, between “trash” and “treasure?” It’s those different perspectives I choose to explore with my children.

All or Nothing

To this day, I struggle with the dichotomy of “all” or “nothing.” As a recovering perfectionist, it’s been a life-long battle for me to adjust my perspective to include the infinite possibilities that aren’t at one end of the spectrum or the other.

HOW much for those jeans?

When Kellini was twelve, she learned not to see things in absolutes. A few short days after Christmas, she wanted to go to a pricy clothing store to shop for jeans. I pointed out that I’d just given her two new pairs of jeans for Christmas. She responded by stating they weren’t the “right” kind of jeans. The ones she wanted were at Abercrombie and Fitch.

Convinced she hadn’t even tried on the jeans and knowing I wasn’t about to spend that kind of money for clothes she would out-grow in six months, I held my ground.

She committed three critical mistakes.

Mistake #1 – Kellini said, “Fine. Then I’ll ask Dad to buy them for me.”

I knew Allen would have my back on that one. I countered with, “How many times has your dad reversed my decisions?”

Kellini snorted and rolled her eyes. (The answer was “zero.”)

Mistake #2—Kellini said, “You NEVER buy me anything!” She punctuated that with Mistake #3. She slammed her bedroom door.

I sighed, made myself a cup of tea, and planned…

Kellini’s Lesson

For three months I made Kellini’s statement “you NEVER buy me anything” a truism.

When we went to the grocery store and she slipped something into the cart that only she enjoyed, I sighed and shook my head and pretended I was as tortured as she. “Kellini, your sister and I don’t drink Diet Coke. Since I NEVER buy you anything, you’ll have to put that back on the shelf.”

The scenario played out several times in that long, three-month period until her birthday in April.

It was as much a lesson for me as it was for her. I came to realize just how much I spoiled that girl. Younger sister, McKenna, learned from Kellini’s mistake and never made that same error.

All I had to do to get the girls to rephrase their “always” or “never” declaration was to sigh and ask, “Do you really want me to make that a true statement?”

“Good” vs. “Bad”

Another seemingly contradictory idea is “good” and “bad.” How often have I labeled a situation using one of those words? A “bad” day, a “good” critique, “bad” traffic, a “good” meeting. As if declaring it one way or another made it so.

It’s possible to tag anything with those terms: medical test results, an association with someone or something. It’s even acceptable to label PEOPLE that way. She’s a bad student. He’s a bad… “fill-in-the-blank.”

For many years I’ve studied a philosophy that asks me to see all things as “good.” All experiences and relationships have value. The most valuable lessons are wrapped in discomfort or pain. While not easy, I’ve grown the most from difficult experiences as long as I can find ways to appreciate them.

Putting Theory into Practice

Maybe that’s how Allen and I have stayed good friends, business partners, and co-parents for these past 10 years.

People often ask, “How do you do that?”

I’ve heard several versions of “Do you know how rare it is to get along with your ex?” and “I could NEVER do that.”

For once, Allen and I chose differently from the “all” or “nothing.” We had too many people counting on us. Too many common links. Two wonderful daughters. Two loving extended families. Many friends in common. Two growing businesses.

Cake and ice cream. Yummy!

We were committed to making our divorce work.

We shifted our focus to our children. We told them they didn’t have to choose “mom” or “dad.” In fact, because they were only 8 and 10 years old, we framed it in a familiar way. For their birthday, they didn’t have to choose “cake” or “ice cream.” We explained, on special occasions they could have both. Both desserts. Both parents present.

It was easy, really. We thought of what was best for the children. Together, as parents, we attended after-school sporting events, parent-teacher conferences, high school orientation, college visits. Together, as a family, we celebrated birthdays, Christmases, and graduations.

In 1997, I wrote and Allen delivered the eulogy at the memorial services for my older brother. Some years later, even though we were no longer married, we repeated our roles for the funerals of my younger brother and my mother. I couldn’t have imagined things any other way.

Even Weddings

Coincidentally, within months, Allen and I remarried different people five years ago. Each of us wanted small weddings—only the girls, and essential family members.

Yes, we attended each other’s wedding. In fact, with the exception of his mother at his wedding and one step-daughter and two grandkids at my wedding, we were the only people in attendance. Our daughters were our witnesses.

Wedding of Alden and Teryl

Allen chose an amazing woman in his current wife, Vivian. I chose an equally amazing person to be my husband, Alden.

Our spouses understand it doesn’t have to be “all” or “nothing.” Marriage or divorce. Love or hate.

We respect one another. Support one another. Take up the slack when necessary. The children benefit when both sets of parents, both families get along.

We ALL benefit. We make that an absolute and true statement every day.

McKenna’s Commencement

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

McKenna's Senior Photo

Daughter McKenna graduates from high school in a couple of weeks. We’re excited for her journey ahead. She’s committed to attending Creighton University and has been accepted into their School of Nursing. Even though she’ll be going to college in her home town, she’ll stay in the dorm to fully integrate into campus life. Her dad and I are very proud of her and the path she has chosen to pursue.

Before letting her go, I must take time to reflect on how she came to be our daughter.

You might have read how Allen and I adopted McKenna’s older sister, Kellini. When we decided to find a sibling for our first-born child, it was as though McKenna dropped from Heaven into our laps.

Best Christmas Present EVER

We learned of McKenna’s impending birth through a relative of a friend while we were visiting Allen’s family in West Virginia for Christmas 1993. Our friend explained that the birth mother was working with an adoption agency in New England, but we still had a chance at the baby since the mother was considering an open adoption and preferred one with a West Virginian.

Score one point for us because of Allen’s heritage.

Score another point because our friend, Rob Adkins, was an attorney and could steer us around legal bombs while his wife, Rhonda acted as our liaison with the mother.

Within days, we snagged an interview with McKenna’s birth mother, “Sheila,” who was still ten weeks away from her due date. We drove six hours out of our way home to have a face-to-face talk with her. We met in the home she shared temporarily with her brother and his family.

Our Audition

It took considerable effort to look rested, which I wasn’t after having spent the holidays 1000 miles away from my own bed and bath in the home of my in-laws. Don’t get me wrong. I dearly love Allen’s family. And they dearly love me and Kellini. But taking Christmas on the road with a 20-month-old toddler is challenging at best.

I recognized this meeting with Sheila for what it was—a calculated risk. Unlike our interview with Kellini’s birth mom, this young woman could actually watch our parenting skills and base her decision on our actions.  Even if she did choose us, she would have over two months to change her mind. There were no guarantees.

Adding to our family was worth the risks.

Soon after the introductions, Kellini broke a toy belonging to Sheila’s niece.

Deduct one point from our parenting score sheet.

We offered to replace the toy, silently worrying if the gesture could legally constitute a bribe. Sheila and her sister-in-law, “Bonnie” declined our offer.

Damn the courts; we’d send a new toy from Omaha anyway. We planned to mail it in a box wrapped in plain, brown paper along with the “birth mother letter.”

Prize Winning Story

For those of you unfamiliar with open adoptions, this letter is a résumé adoptive candidates write to sway the birth mother and secure an interview.

The letter is a sales tool, of sorts. It introduces the adoptive parents listing our parenting philosophy, financial health, and emotional commitment to the baby. It’s generally used as a first step in the open adoption process.

I had to rewrite our “standard” letter to reflect the fact we’d already met Sheila. It was the hardest revision I’ve ever made. I agonized over the wording for three days. Finally, the edits were complete and approved by Allen—this venture’s Managing Editor.

I’d decided a typed letter was too formal. Handwritten was best and my penmanship was decent, so I felt confident. I used special bond lavender paper with little butterflies in the upper corner. During our visit, Kellini had told Sheila that she loved butterflies. I’d made a mental note of Sheila’s smile.

Because of handwriting errors, I recopied the letter twice. I wanted the document (and me) to seem perfect. Each time my penmanship got shakier. Finally, I gave up. Stuffed the letter in its matching envelope and stuck it in the box with the new toy. Convinced I was in a race with the adoption agency, I shipped the package to West Virginia using FedEx. Overnight delivery.

Six years old at Disneyworld

We Waited

I wanted to call Rhonda, but Allen stopped me. Pressure, even via casual inquiry, was not a good tactical move, he said. I acquiesced and tried not to get too excited. At least this time, I had Kellini to keep me busy.

If we didn’t get chosen for this baby, we had the best gift already. Our sweet Kellini Anita. Her smile kept me going the three weeks it took to hear back from West Virginia.

In late January, we had Sheila’s decision. She’d chosen us to be the adoptive parents. I cried with her on the phone. She promised to call when the baby was born. I promised we’d come ASAP to West Virginia because she wanted to be sure the baby had an advocate before she left the hospital.

Sheila went on to say she wanted nothing to do with the baby. She wouldn’t be holding it after delivery; didn’t even want to know the sex. She couldn’t imagine giving away a child after she’d had a chance to bond with it.

Who was I to judge the method she chose to protect her feelings?

Kellini meets her sister. She still didn't get it.

Getting Ready for Baby

We prepared by shifting Kellini out of her crib to a “big girl” bed. Maybe it’s easier to explain this upcoming change to kids when you have visual aids—i.e. an expanding belly where the new baby brother or sister is growing. Kellini did NOT get it.

On Friday, February 11, 1994, Allen and I dropped Kellini off for a sleep-over with my mom so we could celebrate Valentine’s Day early. When we arrived home at 10:00 p.m., a message waited for us on our answering machine. Sheila was in labor.

What! A month early?

We had no number to use to return the call since cell phones weren’t common then. So we had to wait. In the meantime, I called the airline to book reservations for immediate departure to West Virginia. I got the airline recording instructing me to “hold for the next available agent.”

I sat in the kitchen with the phone glued to my ear for twenty minutes. Finally, I pushed the speaker button so I could hear when the agent came on the line. I ran to start a load of laundry and grab the suitcases.

Allen had gone to bed. See how perspective fathers are calmer even when focused breathing and ice chips aren’t involved?

Convinced I’d made all possible arrangements, I went to bed at 2:30. Fitfully, I tossed until I gave into exhaustion and fell asleep. I didn’t rest soundly since I waited for the phone to ring announcing the birth of our new son or daughter.

At 5:30 a.m., I jumped up with a start. I realized I hadn’t disconnected the call I’d made to the airline. The telephone had been off the hook all night long!

I ran to the kitchen and grabbed the receiver. Disengaged the speaker feature. The “on hold” music still played. Since I’d worked for years at a hotel reservation center, I mentally calculated how much money the airline had just lost in unproductive “talk time” during the past several hours. Then I hung up the phone and waited for the call from the delivery room.

Had I already missed it? I paced. Made coffee. Paced some more.

I tried to awaken Allen, but he was having none of my panic attack. He instructed me to rouse him when I had news. I can now look back and appreciate his judicious delegation of worry.

Sheila’s sister-in-law called at 6:30. My heart stopped. We exchanged pleasantries and Bonnie passed the phone to Sheila who congratulated us on the birth of our new daughter.

No Time to Cry

I woke up Allen.

We went into commando mode. Time to move the troops. Allen finished packing. I called the airline, then called my mom who assured me she would have Kellini bathed and ready to travel by 8:30 to be picked up on our way to the airport for our 10 a.m. flight.

Allen called his mom to notify her of our impending arrival. We would stay with his parents for the length of time it would take to process the initial legal papers to adopt McKenna Frances—as we’d already named our beautiful new daughter.

Maw-maw Hager didn’t have time to cry either. She needed to get her house ready for a newborn. She’d have to borrow a bassinet, run to the store to buy diapers. What size, she wanted to know.

Now, here’s the deal. We were doing all this hoop-jumping with only a birth mother’s promise and faith in our commitment to become McKenna’s parents.

All that shook loose and tumbled to the floor when we walked into Sheila’s hospital room and she was holding the baby, feeding her from a bottle. A quick glance around and my eye caught two baby presents and the crumpled wrapping paper they’d been wearing when delivered.

It was as though the universe had taken my joy, dropped it into a blender, and pushed the start button. Had Sheila changed her mind? Would we be returning to Kellini with an empty car seat? How could we explain to a toddler that she wouldn’t get the baby sister we’d promised her?

I took a deep breath and forced a smile. Greeted Sheila and Bonnie.

Sheila put aside the bottle, fumbling with the baby as an inexperienced mother does when shifting a newborn. I wanted to jump over the bed rail to support the baby’s head. Nervously, I waited for Sheila’s cue how to proceed.

She beckoned me, held up the baby and said, “I’d like to introduce you to McKenna Frances Hager.” She kissed the baby and continued, “McKenna, meet your mom. “

She passed me the infant and I held our daughter for the first time. Silent and petite, she barely moved in my arms. I wanted to rip apart the receiving blanket to count fingers and toes and to smell her newborn freshness.

I Refrained

Sheila later explained the gifts were from friends who had mistakenly assumed she’d keep the baby. She gave Allen the new diaper bag and bibs and then warned us. The birth father had shown up at the hospital, looking to take the baby home with him.

It was still Sheila’s intention to give us McKenna because she was in no position to care for her. She had no job. No home of her own. And neither did the birth father, “Clark.” But because she didn’t want McKenna to go to Clark by default, she wouldn’t sign the papers relinquishing her parental rights unless guaranteed McKenna wouldn’t end up with the birth father.

For three days we commuted back and forth the three hours each way from Allen’s parents’ home in Huntington to the hospital. (Kellini stayed with Allen’s sister, Anita, who’d taken time off from work to watch her favorite niece.)

The birth father requested to meet with us. We did so in a hospital conference room. Clark was a tall, boldly handsome man. He was soft-spoken, young (21) and really confused about the decisions and consequences facing him.

At one point Allen and I were paying for the services of three attorneys all sitting in different cities trying to untangle the legal aspects of the case.

Several times, our own attorney advised us to walk away.

Feeding McKenna in our hospital room.

When we weren’t in courtrooms or on legal conference calls, we fed, rocked, and bathed McKenna. The hospital had given us an empty room on the maternity floor and brought McKenna to us whenever we asked. In a quick heartbeat I’d fallen in love with her and had no intention of leaving her behind.

While we could choose whether or not to take our attorney’s advice, we knew we had to follow the law. West Virginia had a 72-hour waiting period after a child’s birth before the parents could relinquish their rights. Increasingly, our chances of obtaining legal claim to McKenna seemed to diminish.

The drive back to Huntington those first two nights was excruciating. For three hours in transit we discussed our options and McKenna’s future—with and without us. And we cried.

On the third day, the hospital was anxious to discharge McKenna since she was healthy enough to be released. There was still adoption paperwork left to sign. Finally, at 5 p.m. all interested parties assembled in one crowded conference room in a small law practice off main street. Attorneys for the birth mother and father were present. Our attorney was on stand-by in Omaha.

Then Clark requested one last private meeting with Allen and me.

Oh-oh

As the three of us shuffled down a narrow hall, I wondered, what now?

At 6’3” he towered over me in a tiny room filled with filing cabinets. He cleared his throat. “Mrs. Hager,” he started, “have you spent a lot of time with the baby in the last few days?”

“Yes,” I answered, fighting back my fear.

He took out a 5 X 7, black and white photo printed on heavy matte stock paper. He handed it to me and explained, “This is a picture of me right after I was born. Does the baby look like me?”

I took the photo and stared at it through misty eyes. McKenna had the same dark complexion, the same dark hair. Her eyes were the same shape as Clark’s.

“Yes, she looks a lot like you.” I offered the photo back to him.

He shook his head and refused it. “No. You keep it. For McKenna. Give it to her when she’s old enough and tell her it’s from me.”

It was the most precious gift anyone could have given our baby.

I barely kept myself together through the signing of all the paperwork in the attorney’s office. The rest of the day and the next two days until we boarded the plane home are a blur. Thankfully, we have photos taken by Allen’s family commemorating the important “firsts” of those hectic days.

The drama was worth it

Later this month, as we celebrate McKenna’s achievements—graduation, honor roll, many scholarship offers—I will hold in my heart special gratitude for the sacrifices and selfless decisions of her birth parents. I’m sure they both will be thinking of her and wishing her all their love and many blessings for the future.

Kellini finally gets it. Christmas 2011.

Motherhood

Saturday, April 21st, 2012

Sweet baby Kellini

I have eight daughters.

Yes, you read that correctly—eight daughters.  They entered my life in non-traditional ways.

The first one, Kellini, came very easily in April of 1992.  Only forty-six hours of hard labor.  That’s the span of time between the phone call we received from the obstetrician an hour after he delivered her, and the minute I first held her in the adoption attorney’s parking garage.

The first forty hours after notification, her dad and I tried not to get too excited.  We’d been down the road before with babies who had been promised to us, but never delivered.

We had a nursery filled with new furniture that we’d purchased when I’d convinced myself (and almost convinced Allen) that the woman we talked to during a freak snow storm in October 1991, was going to give us the twins she was carrying.

Twenty years ago, when Kellini came into our lives, adoption was very different than it is now.  Consider that statement to be my assumption because I haven’t been part of anyone’s adoption journey for the last thirteen years.   One thing is certain; there was no internet, no email, and no Facebook available to us.

Back then, we told everyone we knew that we were looking to adopt a baby.  Allen worked at a hospital and diligently networked with the doctors there.  Not only did we advertise in the Omaha World-Herald, but also in strategic newspapers nationwide.  I tried to write a clever ad that would tug at a pregnant woman’s heartstrings.  It started something like “Teddy Bear wallpaper lines the nursery, but the crib is empty…”

It didn’t seem cheesy at the time.  The ad was one of three columns of similar appeals in our local newspaper.  Every Sunday, the classified page started with column after column of notices from couples looking to adopt.

Do You Want Fries With That?

We even worked up the nerve to pull aside the pregnant teenager who cashiered for us at a fast food restaurant.  Based on the evidence—no wedding ring, her distressed look—we took a calculated risk that we wouldn’t get tossed out the door by the police.

Sure, it was a hopeful act of two desperate people.  We convinced ourselves it was in the baby’s best interest.  Many people do crazy things in the name of love.

I’ll never forget the conversation.  The teen was amazingly open with us, telling us that she had considered giving up her child for adoption.  Until her brother was murdered the previous month.  Swallowing hard, she said she couldn’t give up her parents’ first grandchild after they had just lost their own son.

Even as I write this, I can still see the pain and grief on the woman’s face.  The burden of her loss and her decision to keep a baby she was unprepared to raise was apparent in her slumped shoulders.

Allen and I NEVER again stalked a pregnant woman. And we never gave up hope we would eventually become parents.

My Baby Hope Chest

Some of you might remember a time when girls received cedar-lined hope chests upon high school graduation.  My mother had one.  The idea was simple.  A young woman would place family heirlooms along with bargain household goods she might buy to use in her first apartment.  I inherited my grandmother’s cedar chest and stuffed it with linens and dishes—just in case I moved out before marriage.

The nursery became my baby hope chest.  Some of the dresser drawers held cute, unisex outfits I’d collected in the ten months we’d been searching for a child to adopt.

I’d picked up a tiny T-shirt on a weekend adventure with my two girlfriends to San Diego.  It was primary blue with a dolphin on the front.  Appropriate for a girl or a boy.  That same weekend, my friends and I visited Psychic Melinda who had an office across the street from the restaurant where we dined.  She charged me twenty dollars and told me I’d never have a child.  I paid an extra twenty buck to argue the point with her.

That’s when I bought the dolphin T-shirt.

Occasionally, I’d run across a sale on baby paraphernalia and I’d pick up a bib, blanket, or a sleeper.  I washed them and arranged them in the drawer in preparation.  I KNEW I’d be a mother someday, some way.

Allen tried to dissuade me from getting too far ahead of myself.  I don’t know if he thought it would jinx us or whether he didn’t want to see the day when I’d become discouraged by looking at the loot in my “baby hope chest.”

Finally…

The call did come and it was from a reputable source—a doctor.  He said the birth mother would contact an adoption attorney who would notify Allen.  The steps proceeded as planned.

We meet Kellini in Larry Batt's office

Kellini was born on a Tuesday.  The birth mother wanted to meet with us at the attorney’s office on Thursday morning.  If she approved of us, we could have a baby sleeping in our home on Thursday evening.

The possibility was as scary as it was exhilarating.

What if the young birth mother didn’t like us?  Conceivably, she could march out of the attorney’s office, return to the hospital to collect her baby, and we’d never hear from her again.

The meeting with Kellini’s birth mom went well, albeit there were many emotional and strained moments.  We felt confident enough that she would sign the papers relinquishing custody that we dashed to the store to buy a car seat, a battery-powered baby swing, and bumper pads for the crib.  (I said it was a different era.)

As nervous, expectant parents, we also purchased a high chair.  (Don’t roll your eyes.  We didn’t know any better.)

Neither Allen nor I had an appetite as we ordered lunch at the Flakey Jakes (now Fuddruckers) next to the USA Baby store.   A cooler head prevailed as Allen refused my appeals for him to call the attorney, Larry Batt, to see if the mother signed the papers.

An eternity passed before the call came from Mr. Batt.  We had many papers to sign at his downtown office before he would leave us to pick up Kellini from the hospital.

Grammy was surprised

During his absence, we phoned our employers to notify them.  We called my mom and asked if we could drop by her house later to visit.  We surprised her with Kellini at the door.  She cried.  We phoned Allen’s parents from my mom’s house.  His mom cried, too.

A Friend’s Wisdom

My daughters came to me in non-traditional ways—through adoption and by marriage.  I believe most mothers would tell you the mother-child bond grows in the heart, not in the womb.

I worked with Paula Hansen for five years before I left the corporate world to become a full-time mother upon Kellini’s birth.   Paula is one of those perfect friends.  She’s warm, funny, compassionate, and wise.  She’s one of those eternal friends I’m blessed to have.  Even if we haven’t seen each other for years, we can pick up a conversation as though we had started it yesterday.

For a while, Paula and I swapped updates on our struggles with infertility.  We cheered each other on as only women will do.  She dropped out of the race when she and her husband became pregnant.  Upon returning from maternity leave, Paula shared with me a profound truth.  In a hushed voice, as if telling a secret, she explained that falling in love with your child doesn’t happen all at once; it’s a process.

My maternal love started with a desire to be a parent when I married for the first time in my twenties.  That desire didn’t end with my divorce three years later.  On the contrary, the yearning grew until at age thirty-two and still single, I discussed artificial insemination with my OB/GYN.  I dumped the doctor after he advised me to lose fifteen pounds, find a husband, and go about parenthood the natural way.

I took a practice run at motherhood when I adopted my dog, Tavi.  As many young people do, I called her my baby.  Even shared my angst with my colleagues at a Department Managers’ meeting the day Tavi was in surgery to be spayed.  Unprovoked by me, that story got recorded in the meeting minutes as the entry, “We wish the best for Terry’s daughter after her recent surgery.”  I thought it was funny until the company President pulled me aside to offer his condolences.

At the risk of alienating my dog-loving friends, I have to confess.  Owning a dog is NOTHING like being a mother.  Believe me when I say I never cried when Tavi got her rabies shot.  Yet, the first time the pediatrician poked Kellini’s chubby thigh with a needle, her cries stabbed straight through to my heart.

HAPPY 20TH BIRTHDAY, KELLINI. I LOVE YOU.

To Be Continued…

In future essays, I’ll explain how our other daughter, McKenna, came to Allen and me.  That was a bumpier labor and delivery, but then don’t all babies come to their families in their own, unique ways?

I’ll explain how my six step-daughters came into my life.  Full-grown, lovely, and competent women, my love for them continues to grow.  The love is not based on biology nor was it built during their childhoods.  Nevertheless, my love for them is a cherished part of me.  It nourishes and enhances the love I have for their father, my husband, Alden Lee.

My Dog, Tavi

Sunday, April 1st, 2012

Lately, I’ve had the privilege of helping my nephew and niece (Andy and Elizabeth Myers) as they expand their businesses. I’m excited to be their coach because it takes me back to the time when my own business partner, Allen Hager, and I started Right at Home.

At Allen’s suggestion, I’m guiding Andy and Elizabeth through the steps outlined in Michael Gerber’s book, The E-Myth Revisited. His book was on the best-seller list in the 1990s and the concepts were never truer than they are now. Gerber explains the Entrepreneurial Model for successful business development.

For this week’s assignment, I asked Andy and Elizabeth to look for examples of exceptional customer service. They are to document their experiences to discuss at our next meeting.  Yes, I used to be a corporate trainer.

Back in the day, we called this process “benchmarking.” Since I’ve been entrenched in writing fiction for the last decade, I couldn’t say if this term is still used. (Maybe my corporate training friends could leave a comment below to let me know.)

Aristotle

Because Andy’s and Elizabeth’s businesses relate to using intuition, I often quote Aristotle, the Father of Metaphysics, to illustrate a point. Today’s quote is, “Character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion.”

Just the other day, I was reminded of a personal instance of exceptional customer service.

I ran into the veterinarian who cared for my two dogs and two cats for over 17 years. She is Dr. Barbara Teter, co-founder of The Pet Clinic in Omaha, Nebraska. And although my last pet, dog Henry Hager died five years ago, I’ll never forget the extraordinary service I received at Dr. Teter’s office.

I recall several fond memories of The Pet Clinic. The front desk staff had a wonderful way of greeting patients. They called clients by “Mr. or Mrs.” Everyone was pleasant. The office was kept exceptionally clean.  They had free treats for the pets. The technicians were patient and tender with reluctant animals. All this was remarkable enough, but what sealed me to Dr. Teter’s practice forever was the response she had to the emotional call I made letting her know it was time to euthanize my dog, Tavi.

Tavi and me

My Beloved Dog

I adopted Tavi from the animal shelter when she was three months old. She was a German Shepherd/Golden Retriever mix with some other breed combined that kept her a slim 25-pounds. She was sweet, a little timid, and as fast as a greyhound.

Tavi was the first “unflushable” pet I ever had. Growing up, my brothers and I begged for a dog, but my parents didn’t want long-term pets. So we made do with temporary animals—fish, sea horses, a hamster, and a bird.

I had no clue how to handle a dog, so I read books and employed a trainer to help me. A former Marine, he’d trained German Shepherds for years. His regimented methods seemed harsh, but I used them because I didn’t know any better. (Where was “The Dog Whisperer” when I needed him?)

Tavi and I mastered housebreaking very quickly, which puffed up my confidence.

Until…

I left my fiancé, Allen Hager, in charge of Tavi when I went out of town on business. While he was at work, Tavi ate a couch. Well, only the back side and one corner.

This prompted another visit to the dog trainer. We began kenneling Tavi when we weren’t home until she was older and more settled.

At seven months, we left a calmer Tavi to roam free in the house while we went to dinner. She ate half a sofa cushion. Thankfully, it belonged to the partially eaten sofa. We flipped the cushion over and no one was the wiser until we had a houseful of post-wedding guests and one of them re-flipped the cushion for a more comfortable seat.

Eventually, Tavi settled down to become a wonderful family pet. We adopted dog Henry to join two cats, Calvin and Emily, completing our animal family.

Our daughters Kellini and McKenna came later. The girls adored the pets and our family was complete.

Doesn't Tavi look regal?

Sadly…

When Tavi was fourteen, she developed kidney failure. My marriage was on the rocks and I confided in Tavi more than anyone else. I wasn’t ready to let her “go,” so Dr. Teter taught me how to give Tavi IV infusions to flush her kidneys and keep her hydrated. Allen and I gave Tavi the infusions three times a week. That, along with a special homemade diet of rice, eggs, and hamburger kept her going an additional five months.

But she was suffering. Finally, I came to realize I was being selfish, only prolonging the inevitable. Tavi relied upon me to give her relief and I’d let her down.

I called Dr. Teter. I told her that it “was time.” Told her that I worried because this was going to be the first family member Kellini (age 10) and McKenna (8) were going to lose.

Dr. Teter offered to come to our home, after hours, at the end of her shift, to put Tavi down.

You can imagine my relief not to have to drive my beloved dog to a clinic, walking her through a lobby full of strangers. I knew I’d be a mess of emotions and no doubt I’d break down into sobs in the treatment room. This offer was heaven-sent.

I prepared the girls and myself for the event. On her last day with us, we snuggled with Tavi non-stop. I swear she knew what was going to happen and she showed her gratitude for my decision by playing more with us that day than she had in the several weeks before. She even raced ahead of Henry to chase a squirrel up a tree, giving us a glimpse of times past when she was a puppy.

Too soon, Dr. Teter arrived at 10pm. She explained the procedure. Slowly. Calmly. She didn’t rush us. After we all had said our good-byes, I sat on the couch, cradling Tavi on my lap.  Dr. Teter kneeled by my side to administer the final injection. It was a sad but peaceful end. A private one shared by our family. It was the environment we’d needed to say farewell to our beloved friend.

I’ll be forever grateful to Dr. Barb Teter for the caring she showed and the dignity she allowed us. When it was over, we wrapped Tavi in a special blanket my mother had croqueted and Dr. Teter took Tavi with her.

Over the years, I’ve wondered how many similar house calls Dr. Teter has made. Obviously, she didn’t have to extend herself to us. Certainly, it would have been more comfortable for her to have euthanized Tavi on the examining table in her office. During office hours.  But she’d come to our home and into our hearts with a special gentleness. She’d made Tavi’s transition a loving and humane lesson for our daughters.

For that, I’ll be forever grateful.

And I would never take an animal anywhere else for treatment. Because no vet’s character could be more persuasive than that of Dr. Barb Teter.  No professional could have shown more dedication.  My family and I could not have been treated any better.

Aristotle also said, “A true friend is one soul in two bodies.” If you’ve ever had a dog, you know the deepest meaning of this quotation.

 

Below is the link for Dr. Barb Teter’s practice at The Pet Clinic.  While Dr. Teter will always be my favorite, all the veterinarians there are exceptional.  They’d have to be.  Because they work alongside Dr. Teter.

http://www.myvetonline.com/thepetclinicpc/general-information.html

Read to Remember–Part I

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

www.alz.org

The first time I worked with a person who had dementia, I was a caregiver for Right at Home. Allen Hager and I founded the company in 1995 with the mission to keep the elderly living independently in their homes for as long as possible. I often took a shift with a client if a caregiver called in sick.

I met Mrs. S, on a beautiful Saturday in May. Our company had been hired to take care of her husband who had cancer and had recently become blind. The family warned us that sometimes Mrs. S didn’t remember to give her husband his medications.

I introduced myself to Mr. and Mrs. S and let them know I was happy to fill in for their regular “girl” Suzie. I offered to make lunch and straighten the kitchen. Mrs. S wanted to visit first and invited me to chat with them in their living room.

We had a delightful conversation. Mrs. S told me all about their grown children whose portraits lined the walls. She explained their son was “biological,” while his older two sisters had been adopted. Trying to make an emotional connection with her, I explained that my husband and I had also formed our family by adopting our two daughters.

She asked their names and ages and was curious about their adoption stories. We had a pleasant chat. All the time I wondered why Allen had misinformed me. This woman was sharp as a Cutco knife. She pulled dates and names from her memory just as quickly as a college history professor.

I made the couple lunch, laundered their sheets, guided Mr. S through his daily exercise routine and took him for a walk.

www.RightatHome.net

When I returned to the office I asked Allen if Mrs. S had been misdiagnosed.

“She doesn’t seem to have any symptoms of dementia,” I reported.

“Just wait,” Allen replied. “And don’t let her send you home early. She has a habit of trying to dismiss caregivers before the end of their shifts.”

Two weeks later, I again had the privilege of working with Mr. and Mrs. S. The trees were in full bloom and the couples’ mid-town neighborhood was alive with people tending their gardens and lawns.

Mrs. S greeted me at the door. I re-introduced myself, reminding her I was from Right at Home and that I had worked with her two weeks ago. She enthusiastically invited me in and bade me to sit with her and her husband in the living room. She brought me a cup of tea.

During our chat, she asked about my two daughters. Without any prompting, she retold details of their adoption stories. She politely asked about Allen. We had a lovely ten-minute chat. Then without a verbal hint or physical cue, she stared at me, smiled, and asked, “So what’s the nature of your visit with us today, dear?”

Ding-ding-ding-ding-ding.

In the time it took for her to take a sip of tea, she didn’t know me. She’d forgotten who I was and why I was sitting on her sofa. Her instant confusion slapped me into reality. This was a stark example of the ravages of Alzheimer’s Disease.

I had other opportunities to work with clients who had dementia. Our company provided around-the-clock care for Mrs. G in her apartment in the independent living tower of an upscale retirement village in Council Bluffs, IA.

Mrs. G was an absolute joy. She told me of her travels to Asia. How she raised her two daughters alone after she divorced in the 1950s. She reminded me that a single-mother was rare in mid-century Omaha. But she had flourished, managing an apartment complex, later buying the buildings to secure steady income for her family.

She was an amazingly accomplished woman. One, now tethered to an oxygen tank because of her decades of smoking. Little by little I saw what happens when the brain is deprived of oxygen. Over the months I worked with Mrs. G, she lost her vivid memories. Her recollections of the life she’d built with her two daughters vanished. She always recognized me when I came, but forgot who I was when she discussed me with other caregivers.

I have to admit, sometimes her comments made me laugh. Like when her regular day-time caregiver, Marlene, told me that Mrs. G questioned why I left Allen and Right at Home to go build houses with Jimmy Carter and Habitat for Humanity.

“Why would Allen let Terry go?” she wanted to know.

Clara Eva Oswald

An Example Closer to Home

Clara Eva Oswald, my wonderful mother-in-law has dementia. We began recognizing the symptoms shortly after her husband died three years ago. Like in many cases, “Grandma” (as everyone calls her) can’t recall recent events, but her long-term memory remains intact.

Thank goodness she can remember me or she might be calling me by my husband’s ex-wife’s name. You see, I came to the Oswald party late, having married Alden just five years ago.

Grandma only remembers events that happened over three years ago.

So, she doesn’t recall the birth of her last three great-grandchildren. We do have to laugh though. Every time we talk about Ashley, who is two years old, Grandma wants to know who Ashley is. When we explain she is Cyndy’s and Don’s youngest child, we see the wheels turning in her head.

Then wide-eyed, Grandma exclaims, “Cyndy has FOUR kids?”

Grandma can’t believe it. She’s astonished every one of the hundreds of times we tell her. Cyndy has four kids.

Grandma now lives in Iowa with our daughter and son-in-law, Kathy and Larry Harvey and their two children, Melanie and Jacob. Grandma’s life is beautiful. Kathy and Larry take marvelous care of her and include her in all their activities. Grandma goes to soccer games, school plays, friends’ game night, and band concerts in the town square. She greets Kathy’s students who arrive every morning for the pre-school class in the Harvey home.

And when Alden talks with his mother and asks her what she’s been doing, she can’t recall. She denies ever going fishing with Larry and can’t remember last weekend’s visit with Cyndy and Don.

“Cyndy has FOUR kids?”

I guess Grandma lives the way many people claim they want to live—in the moment. She always enjoys the concerts, baseball games, and walks in the park. She smiles and claps her hands to the beat of the music. Win or lose, she hugs Melanie and Jacob after their ball games.

Grandma’s life is full. She really enjoys her days. She just can’t form new memories of her activities. She can’t recall those recent, amusing family reunions or simple, quiet afternoons. So, sometimes she gets sad. Sometimes she feels abandoned by her husband who isn’t there anymore. She frets over where Kathy is even when she’s gone only twenty minutes to run to the grocery store.

Life, even a good, safe, care-free one, can be tough for a person with dementia. Sometimes it is for Grandma.

In my next blog, I’ll tell you about the Read to Remember Campaign—my effort to raise money for the Alzheimer’s Association. And I’ll let you know how you can help.

Grandma wears many hats.

Iowa State Fair reminds her of NY when she was 20

At a basketball game with Larry and Jacob

 

Grandma wants to wear Jacob's volcano project as a hat

Kathy, Melanie, Larry, Jacob & Grandma

 

Mothers and Daughters

Saturday, March 24th, 2012

Kellini today

My daughter, Kellini, is home from college on Spring Break. It’s always a treat to have her home. She loves staying in her own bedroom with private bath. She’s giddy over unlimited access to the washer/dryer and is thrilled with our well-stocked pantry. She appreciates these things even more than she did when she lived with us.

Kellini says we treat her like “a princess.” Of course, we do. Even more than we did when she lived with us.

In between the normal mother/daughter activities like shopping, eating out for lunch, and getting pedicures, we’ve had fun promoting the release of my book, Still Kickin’.

Kellini has always supported my writing career which started ten years ago when she was only ten. Huh, as I wrote that, it occurred to me it’s probably hard for her to remember a time when I didn’t shush her as she approached me working at the computer, talking to the people in my head.

I didn’t allow Kellini to read the first few manuscripts I wrote. They were rated PG-13 and I didn’t want to have to explain the romantic scenes between Jenna and Kenton in his glass-blowing studio—novel number two, I think. Or the angst of Sage, Nikki, Marissa, and Jennifer as they worked out their extra-marital affairs, love triangles, family of origin issues, and step-parenting fiascos in book number three.

Manuscript number four hit pretty close to home since the women in that book struggled with identity crises. Each one of the three main characters was some version of me working through my own loss of identity—loss of marriage, loss of role as a business woman, struggles of dealing with an empty nest as I shared custody of my daughters with their father.

Looking back, writing the first four of my (deservedly unpublished) manuscripts was not only good practice to hone my storytelling skills, but also a cathartic experience for me. I look at those years of writing as a free supplement to the concurrent hours of expensive therapy.

At last, I didn’t make my life journey the center of a story and I sold manuscript number five, Luck of the Draw.

Eek. Again, an epiphany

Truth be told, Luck of the Draw was exactly a reflection of my life at the time. The heroine of the story, Amanda Cash, was in pretty much the same place as I had been when I wrote the book. She and I were both trying to help our mothers during their health crises and final declines.

Amanda was me, except younger and thinner. Amanda’s mother, Clara, was inspired by my own mother. Throughout the story, Amanda works desperately to tell her mother how much she loves her.

Now I realize, I was on the same journey as Amanda. At the same time.

I started writing the book soon after my mother entered a skilled nursing home. As much as we wanted to keep Mom at home, her physical needs were more than we could handle. She had emphysema caused by years of smoking. She was hooked to an oxygen tank 24/7 and had numerous other health issues related to her COPD—Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.

Between visits with Mom, I emptied and sold her home of 45 years, took over her finances, accepted legal responsibility for her, and I wrote Amanda’s story, which was—

—My own story

The premise of Luck of the Draw is also tied to my mother. When Kellini was born, I reconnected with my mom in ways only two mothers can do. I asked for her advice as I hadn’t since I was twelve years old. Many of these lessons took place as we watched Kellini play in my mother’s front yard. My childhood playground.

It was at that time, my mother and I started playing the lottery. She gave me a dollar and I added my own buck to buy two chances. At first, I had to drive across the river to buy the lottery tickets since Nebraska didn’t join the Powerball pool until Kellini was older.

G-ma and Kellini at the zoo

We never won “big,” but we always got our money’s worth. Over and over we discussed all the dreams we’d fulfill with the millions of dollars we would split 50/50 when we won.

One day, when Kellini and I visited, Mom had big circles under her eyes. She admitted she hadn’t slept a wink because the lottery jackpot had toppled over 100 million dollars and she worried how she would spend her share.

“A fortune like that could ruin a person’s life,” she’d said.

Amanda Cash has to decide how to distribute a 200 million dollar lottery jackpot to deserving people. To whom would you give $200,000,000?

Distributing a fortune wasn’t my dilemma while writing the book. Sure, I spent many sleepless nights while I figured out the plot, sub-plots, twists and turns, and relationships of Luck of the Draw. But my biggest challenge was how to show Amanda’s infinite love for Clara.

How does a daughter honor her mother’s love?

Back to my own daughter, Kellini. And the story of our time together this week. We had to decide how best to promote Still Kickin’, and by proxy, Luck of the Draw. A natural fit came to us over crab cake wraps at lunch. We needed to schedule book signings in retirement villages and skilled nursing homes.

I always seek Kellini’s advice on wardrobe, make-up, and hair when I prepare for any professional meeting. Skidding hangers along clothes racks in my closet, she approved of my recent purchases of sweaters, blouses and slacks in the new spring colors. She has natural talent as a stylist.

When Kellini was four, she declared her intention to become a heart surgeon. She also planned to cut hair in the evenings and on the weekends. It’s good to have fallback skills when you plan a career as a cardiologist.

In middle school, Kellini decided to become a fashion designer. This involved watching endless hours of “Project Runway,” arranging sewing lessons, and numerous trips to the fabric store. I learned from Kellini that my signature color is coral, complemented by a bright pink.

After tweaking my outfit, Kellini and I launched our quest. Soon, I had secured a commitment for a book-signing at The Bookworm, the coziest independent bookseller in Omaha. (Check back to my website for announcement of the date and time.)

The next stop for Kellini and me was the skilled nursing facility where my mother had lived the last year of her life. Mom had made many friends at Brookestone Village, but I didn’t hold out much hope that anyone would remember her since she’d passed away over four years ago.

Janie, the Life Enrichment Coordinator, hadn’t worked at Brookestone when my mother lived there. She patiently listened to my pitch for Still Kickin’ and how many of the scenes in Luck of the Draw were written after visits to my mother’s courtside room at Brookestone. Janie quickly committed to a book event for me close to Mother’s Day in May. (I’ll announce the details soon.)

Kellini and I had mixed feelings stepping through the automatic doors at Brookestone. They still have the baby grand piano in the lobby. They still have fragrant bouquets of flowers and complimentary lemonade and cookies to greet visitors.

The receptionist is new, but she is as friendly as the one who worked there four years ago. She’s accompanied by her well-trained and gentle dog, Target, who is a wonderful addition to the Brookestone team. Kellini and I snuggled with Target as we waited for Janie.

G-ma, Kellini, and me

Business completed, my daughter and I left, noting the ducks swimming in the brook outside the exit. It was a perfect spring day—sunny with a hint of a breeze. But the air felt heavy with the unspoken words that hung between us. We didn’t get to share a complimentary ice cream cone with Kellini’s grandmother, Frances Myers, who was my best friend and the best mother ever.

I took a deep breath of the fresh spring air. In my mind, I blew kisses to her and whispered, “I love you, Mom.”

~~Post Script~~

One month before she passed away, I read the unsold manuscript of Luck of the Draw to my mother. While nurses scurried in and out of her room, over the drone of her oxygen concentrator, Mom listened. Sometimes, she dozed to the sound of my voice. When she was alert, she laughed and cried in all the right places. After the last paragraph, she gave the story her “thumbs up.” It was the best critique I’ve ever had.

¡Pura Vida!

Monday, March 12th, 2012

I dedicate this blog to my familia tico in Costa Rica: Flora, Mayi, Jessénia y William, and Gaudy.

Pura vida literally means “pure life.” It’s similar to the Hawaiian word, “aloha.” The ticos, as Costa Ricans call themselves, use it as a greeting and sometimes as a goodbye. It’s also used as an exclamation of celebration and joy.

I met my Costa Rican family in 2003. I took my two daughters, Kellini and McKenna (then ages 11 and 9) to a language school in Heredia, Costa Rica to study Spanish. I wanted a total immersion experience and opted to stay with a host family.

The Hidalgo Family

We won the lottery when the school assigned us to the home of Flora and Nicolas Hidalgo. We called them Mama and Papa Tico.

Mama and Papa Tico have three accomplished daughters. The young women were in their twenties, unmarried, and lived in the family home. Rounding out the family were four dogs, two talking parrots, an aquarium of fish, and miniature hens in the back yard.

When our airport shuttle pulled into the front courtyard, lush with vegetation and an avocado tree, I thought the school had made a mistake. The home looked like a hotel. It had two stories, six bedrooms, three bathrooms, two kitchens, a formal dining room, three living rooms, a combination chiropractor office & massage therapy room, and a beauty shop.

The family has remodeled the home over the years to accommodate life-style changes. And now the house is even bigger. The massage therapy room is gone since the middle daughter, the chiropractor, married, and then moved away with her husband, the young judge. The hair salon moved next door when the youngest daughter, who had been a financial analysis for Coca-Cola decided to balance her life and spend all her working hours managing her hair salon. Recently, that daughter married and moved to Mexico with her husband.

The eldest daughter, Mayi, still lives in the home. She earned a law degree, but decided she liked teaching better and became one of the many marvelous teachers at the school, Centro Panamericano de Idimoas, affectionately called CPI.

Mayi is the only person in her family who speaks English and my girls started referring to everything as Mayi’s. Mayi’s house. Mayi’s street. Mayi’s avocado tree. Now, Mayi’s job is as the assistant director of CPI.

Mayi and I have become good friends. She visited the U.S. for the first time in 2004, and stayed with us. We look forward to her return in October for her second visit. She’s an extension of the Omaha Chamber of Commerce as she asks all the students who stay with her family, “Have you ever been to Omaha? It is the most wonderful city in the United States.”

Sadly, Papa Tico has passed away. Mama Tica still hosts students who attend CPI. Only the luckiest of all students are assigned to Mama Tica. She and I quickly became good friends. Because we were close in age, she asked me to call her Flora.

Our Costa Rican Adventures

We had many marvelous adventures in Costa Rica. My younger daughter, McKenna, helped gather eggs from the miniature hens every morning. One day she sneaked a pecan-sized egg to school in her shorts pocket. Playing at recess, she accidentally smashed the egg. The teachers comforted “Mickey” as she cried and cried, proclaiming (in Spanish) she had lost her future baby chick. She learned a new phrase that day. Estoy muy triste. —I’m very sad.

Another day, on our walk home from our morning classes, we stopped at a small mom & pop grocery store. The girls picked out some snacks, while I snagged two cold bottles of Pepsi from the cooler for Flora and me. At that time, Pepsi was rare in Costa Rica. I marveled at the bottles, the likes of which, I hadn’t seen since I was a child. Instead of the plastic, 20-ounce bottles we have in the U.S., the Pepsi came in tall glass bottles reminiscent of the 1960s.

I was pretty darned proud of myself for being able to converse with the shop owner in Spanish. I set my Pepsi bottles on the counter. When he asked if I wanted the sodas in a bag to go, I casually answered, “por supuesto,”—sure.

While I helped my daughters on the other side of the store, the owner bagged my sodas. When I returned to pay for our items, my Pepsi bottles weren’t on the counter. Instead, he handed me two slender plastic bags filled with the cold drink. He’d stuck a straw in each bag, and closed them tightly with rubber bands.

Later, at home, Flora and I laughed as she explained one of our several cultural differences. Many of the school children cannot afford to pay the small deposit for the recyclable glass bottle, so the owner puts the soda in a “to-go bag.”

In Costa Rica, most of the streets remain unmarked which made it a challenge for me to navigate. There are no house numbers in Mayi’s neighborhood or the surrounding towns. Instead, their addresses are a form of description. For instance, Mayi’s address is “150 meters east of the church in San Lorenzo. The house with the avocado tree.”

I couldn’t tell you what happens if the church burns down or the avocado tree dies.

Comida Típica

The food is wonderful in Costa Rica. Students gather with the family around the table for meals complemented with plenty of home-grown pineapple, guava, papaya, and avocados. The comida típica, or “national dish,” is called gallo pinto. It’s a combination of rice and black beans seasoned with fresh cilantro and other spices. It’s delicious. And versatile. It’s appropriate to serve at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Flora, who has never learned to drive, buys her fruits, vegetables, meat, and fish from vendors who drive regular routes through the neighborhoods. Many times, she bakes the family’s breads. Mayi has a side business making special-occasion cakes, which are beautiful, as well as delicious.

Costa Ricans like to take showers in cold water. Yes, cold water. To accommodate the students, Mayi’s family has installed an instant hot water, on-demand system in the bathrooms. Mayi and Flora still prefer cold showers.

In the central valley, where Mayi lives, houses do not have air-conditioning. It’s not needed. Daytime temperatures in the summer reach 85ºF, falling back to 70º at night. Most of the time the windows remain open and there are no screens. Occasionally, a gecko climbs the wall, but flying insects aren’t a problem in the cities. I never found out why.

Once, when we walked home from school (a mile from Mayi’s house) we got lost and encountered a roadside Colombian bakery. The pastries were light, sweet, and yummy. My daughter, Kellini, claimed they came straight from Heaven. The panedería remains one of Kellini’s favorite places.

On the same route, we saw a Nebraska Furniture Mart delivery truck parked in the back yard of a small home. I never knew the Mart had such an expansive territory. Flora couldn’t explain that weird coincidence.

Souvenir plate

Life Lessons

In our month-long visit to the Central American country, we learned many things:

1) Costa Rica disbanded their army in 1948, putting their tax revenue into education, healthcare, and the arts, instead.

2) Their secession from Spain was bloodless. One of the few Latin American republics that can claim that.

3) They have the most diverse eco-system on the planet and many biologists come to study their plants and animals.

4) They have dozens of active volcanoes.

5) They grow the best coffee in the world. Okay, that’s my opinion, not necessarily a fact. Still, it’s true to me.

6) They are quick to point out, rightly, that they are also Americans—Central Americans. They call us, estadounidences—meaning “people from the United States.” Wish we had a simple word like tico to call ourselves.

7) Oh… and we learned Spanish.

White-faced monkey at Manuel Antonio

Iguana, sunbathing at the beach

We took many tours:

1) We descended on a narrow path to the pool of a twenty-story waterfall. The girls swam. The climb back up was murder.

2) We saw Costa Rica’s most active volcano, Arenal, and swam in the thermal springs below it. When the volcano erupts, it sounds like thunder.

3) We toured a butterfly farm. It’s a huge industry in Costa Rica. The farmers harvest chrysalis from many butterfly species for export to zoos all over the world.

4) We toured a coffee plantation and learned the history and process of growing coffee for export. Brit coffee is the premium brand. Papa Tico was a coffee farmer and he sold his beans to Brit.

5) We visited the Pacific coast and toured the National Park, Manuel Antonio. In the wild, we saw monkeys, parrots, caimans, and iguanas. Along our path, in the trees overhead, we took photos of a sloth and a python.

6) On later trips, we zip-lined through the jungle canopy and McKenna bungee jumped off a bridge into a fifteen-story river gorge. Three times. Yes, she is courageous.

On our flight home, I asked my daughters, separately, to name their favorite part of the trip. I expected to hear “swimming in the ocean,” or “laughing at the monkeys.”

Without hesitation, both girls said the same thing. “My favorite part of Costa Rica was staying with our familia tico.”

That sealed it for me. Our trip was a complete success.

Until next time….¡Pura Vida!

Te amo, Mayi. Abrazos a todos.

For information about studying Spanish in Costa Rica, click CPI. It’s listed under My Favorite Websites–at the top right.