Thursday, October 15, 2009

Off to Atlanta

Dear Virginia, while none of us exactly control what happens in life we are able to control how we respond...what we say and what we do. Love, Priscilla

This was a note that Priscilla wrote for her niece's high school graduation. It speaks to me now, in particular, as I prepare to join my cousin Lisa, her friend Melissa and my friend Meredith for the 3-Day Breast Cancer Walk in Atlanta next week.

If I could control what happens in life, Priscilla would still be alive. I would still have my stepmother, my confidante, my advisor and my friend. But as she aptly noted, we do not control what happens in life; instead, we are tasked with controlling our responses. Priscilla must have instilled this guiding principle in me because I am certain that I could not have handled her death without the knowledge that sometimes, things just happen.

Priscilla had such an adventurous spirit. She also lived healthfully, choosing to begin her day with a strange wheat germ/orange juice mixture and at least an hour of exercise. She lovingly tended her garden and she spent vacations hiking the mountains of Yellowstone. Six years ago, if you had asked me how long I thought Priscilla would live, I would have guessed that she would live well past 85, the age her mother Nell was when she passed away. But it was not to be: Priscilla was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2004 and she died in 2007 at age 62.

Hearing Priscilla's diagnosis was understandably devastating, and I'm not sure that I'm prepared to share with you how I felt when I learned that Priscilla's time with us was in jeopardy. What I will note is that while I wondered why this happened to a woman who had such appreciation for life, I didn't have resentment about her diagnosis. Again, Priscilla taught me well that life is unpredictable, unfair and sometimes undeniably difficult. What she also taught me, however, is that life is full of surprises, blessings and moments of pure delight. I was fortunate to experience many of my life's moments of surprise and delight with Priscilla, and I am fortunate now to remember these times with warmth and appreciation.

As I plan my trip to Atlanta, I am filled with anticipation. I know that I'll absolutely love spending time with friends and family, but I also know that I will feel pangs of sadness as I relive losing Priscilla. I hope that I will control my response to Priscilla's death in a way that would make her proud, expressing the range of emotion that the event will induce (both on behalf of Priscilla and the millions of others who are affected by cancer), yet also celebrating the spirit of the woman who inspired me to walk.

Life is unquestionably unpredictable, but when I think about Priscilla, I don't think about a life that was robbed from me; I think instead of a woman I was honored to spend 25 years getting to know and love. I'll spend every day of the rest of my life remembering her lessons and treasuring her friendship. Next week, I will walk humbly in her name as I cry tears full of memories.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


I posted Stage I: Air Loss on my 3-Day site, but I thought I would also share Stage II: Things Fly Away with you.

Poems written by Priscilla

Stage I: Air Loss

It took three days to lose the hair that brushed my waist, but it
wasn't vanity that made me cry.
That night, bare bald and holding the fallen strands of silver and
gold to my face,
I understand how my hair entwined me with the world.

My hair charmed the air and the air responded. It caressed, tumbled,
jumbled, twisted and sighed and left me night reminders of its origins
and passages -- and mine:

Salt and cedar spiked Mediterranean breezes;
Pungent eucalyptus carried by Pacific gusts;
Sweet aroma of Virginia peonies;
Sage-brushed winds of the Rocky Mountains.

Sun that backlit unruly tangles into spun gold, making me conspicuous
among twittering clusters of raven-haired Lebanese schoolgirls.

Hair blown back and sun bleached as a used race pennant on salty tacks
across Sydney Harbor.

Winter mornings in Vermont, shower-wet strands frozen to rigid cords
in the dash from college dorm to dining room.

The resinous odor of Yellowstone's pines that infused any tendrils not
kept under hat.

Stage II: Things Fly Away

I devour the poisons that slay cells indiscriminately;
I am the rerun, the one they say a prayer for.

Already some things have their own trajectory out of my life.
Home: sold.
Job: ended.
Habits: abandoned.

More losses come.

Once, when I could still charm the air,
it marked its passage in my hair.

These days, I dream of weaving a magic net with strands
Strong enough to hold what I cherish most.
Then realize that it is I who must become the net
Because what I want cannot be captured, bought or kept.

Through love, despite loss, I persist
in seining for the sustaining principles that can
guide me as I inhabit my shape-shifted world.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Back to Training

This won't be a very long post, but I do want to let all of my generous donors know that I'm still training. I've had a few setbacks along the way, but fortunately I'm back on track now!

Last Saturday, I walked 18 miles and got NO BLISTERS! I am having a little bit of trouble with my pinky toes -- they prefer to rest underneath my fourth toes, which causes some rubbing when I get up to the high mileage. I have two months to figure that part out, however, so I'm not going to worry about it too much just yet.

I'm very fortunate to have been "adopted" by a local Denver team. It's much easier to train when you have a group of wonderfully supportive men and women by your side. While 18 miles certainly wasn't a cakewalk, the time did go by relatively quickly because I was in good company. I'd like to publicly thank Tammy Urbach for organizing all of team Because We Can's training walks (among other efforts) and for allowing me to participate for the past several months. I'm sad that this weekend will be my last walk with Tammy's team, but I'm thrilled to be able to support them at the Denver 3-Day later this month! My sister will be visiting me in late August and we'll spend a day volunteering at the Denver walk. I can't wait to cheer on team Because We Can as well as all of the other motivated walkers who will arrive at camp seeking food, entertainment and lots of rest.

From now until the Atlanta walk in late October, I promise to keep up with my training. I don't know if I'll manage 18 miles on my own, but I did keep all of Tammy's route maps so that I can repeat some of my favorite walks during the next two months. :)

Monday, June 15, 2009

Training Update

I've put together a short update about my training efforts, which I e-mailed to my donors earlier today. I've also posted a version online for anyone who happens to be browsing and would like an update. You'll have to submit your e-mail address to receive a link to the document.

Click Here to Access the Training Document

Sunday, June 7, 2009

June 6, 2009: My Sister's Eyes

This is a guest entry. One of Priscilla's sisters, Roberta, wrote this about her thoughts on Mother's Day this year.

Mothers Day weekend was not too long ago. For many years now, I have spent Mothers day weekend in Nags Head with one of my friends at her mother’s cottage. May is a lovely time of year, the water too cold to swim but a time when the beach is relatively deserted and a pleasure to walk.

This year, like most years, I spent hours walking along the beach, smelling the ocean mist, feeling the warmth of the sun on my back, the tension of work being lifted and watching the sandpipers running back and forth trying not to get their feet wet.

This year, unlike previous years, I spent a great deal to time thinking about my sister Priscilla. I wondered why I could not recall spending time with her at the beach. My only memory of Priscilla was at Palm Beach, the year she gathered family together for a fabulous week at Kiplinger’s Bay Tree Lodge. I remember that beach excursion because Pris lathered herself from head to toe with SP60, wore a huge hat and had a linen shirt covering her arms. Her concern was that we were not to be on the beach between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., we had vinegar in the event that there were jelly fish in the water and, of course we brought many bottles of water to keep from dehydrating. She made her sun-worshipping sisters feel like they were going to have sun stroke at any moment.

This year, unlike previous years, as I walked the beach, I wondered what would have drawn my sister’s eye. Would it have been the color of the small moss colored rocks, the unusual shape of sea glass, the water rushing over tiny sand pebbles, a piece of drift wood, the sand print of a seagull, the white foam bouncing over the sand. What would have drawn my sister’s eye? What would she have stopped and admired. What would she have noticed, drawn my attention too, made me see.

This year, unlike previous years, I really missed my sister Priscilla. I missed the opportunities to walk the beach with her. I missed her eyes.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Sometimes I just have “A Day”

I have a friend whose mother passed away only two months before Priscilla did (yes, also from breast cancer). We were e-mailing this morning and she noted that certain days of the year are particularly difficult for her. This makes sense; in fact, last year my father and stepbrother had a hard time facing Mother’s Day without Priscilla. In my e-mail to my friend, I observed that I don’t experience a heightened sense of loss on any specific date. But I do sometimes have what I call “A Day.”

On “A Day,” I miss Priscilla with that horrible achiness that to the best of my knowledge only comes when you experience significant loss. I had “A Day” last Tuesday. I was struggling to get my sewing machine to work. Jason and I were discussing how to replant portions of our backyard. I was e-mailing my mom about both sewing and gardening. I couldn’t get the cat to come close enough to cuddle. Somehow the combination of all of these activities thundered so loudly in my head that all of a sudden I had a breakdown. I just sat on the floor and cried. And cried. Jason came home and I cried on his shoulder. Then I cried some more until the dog came to lick up my tears (she’s a fan of salt). All I could think about was how much I miss Priscilla. I wanted the opportunity to be able to talk to her about sewing, gardening, cats, dogs, having a fabulous crafty mom in Maryland and so many other things.

One day last October, I had “A Day.” I was flying to California and I read a terrific book. While reading a particularly meaningful passage, I thought to myself, “Oh, I can’t wait to tell Priscilla about this!” I completely visualized the conversation in my head. And suddenly I realized that I couldn’t tell Priscilla about the book because she is dead. I’m not sure I can explain how that felt, but it wasn’t good. I was stuck in the window seat of a crowded airplane, inwardly struggling not to burst into a million tears. I had to gasp for breath, close my eyes and pull myself together.

I miss Priscilla every day. My friend is right: it gets easier with time. But when I have “A Day,” it’s hard. I long for ten more minutes with Priscilla. I long for one more conversation. I long to hold her hand again. I have to calmly remind myself that I wouldn’t have such deep longing if I didn’t have such precious memories. But it's hard.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Walking for Priscilla; Walking for Velcro shoes

This week I received an e-mail from the 3-Day that suggested I blog about training. Sorry 3-Day, but that blog would be pretty boring. I’m training, yes. I’m up to 6.5+ miles, which is a full 1.5 miles ahead of schedule. And as I spend most of the 6.5 miles either working my tail off on the elliptical or actually running on the treadmill, I feel like I’m at a decent place as far as training is concerned. I have until October to work up to three consecutive days of 20 miles anyway.

The point of all that is this:

When I started thinking about my next post for this blog, I was also sort of thinking about training. Suddenly I was hit with a very vivid flashback of my childhood: Priscilla liked to run. When I was five or six years old, she promised me a pair of Velcro shoes if I would start running with her. All the other kids had Velcro shoes and I badly wanted a pair of my own, which made this a particularly enticing proposition. I don’t remember how long our running experiment lasted, but I do have a memory of running around a lake with Priscilla. I can picture Priscilla’s long blond braid bouncing on her back while I struggled to keep up with her. She wore blue running shorts. I’ve probably glamorized the experience in my memory because I know that I’ve never enjoyed running.

At some point, Priscilla was given advice to stop running. At that time, she must have switched to walking as her primary choice of exercise. I do have lots of memories of taking long walks with Priscilla, mostly around various Arlington neighborhoods. These I did enjoy, and I’m sure that many family members have similar fond memories of walks with Priscilla. One walk stands out in particular; it was after her diagnosis and the weather was cool and brisk, although not yet cold. We left from Nell’s house (it was Priscilla and Dad’s house by then, but I’ll always remember Lexington Street as Nell’s house), walked up to Sharp Park and came back through lots of old houses on Ohio Street. Several neighbors along the way greeted Priscilla with a wave and mid-morning pleasantries. I felt comforted by this somehow, confident that Priscilla had established herself in a community so firmly that should she eventually die, her spirit would continue.

Walking with Priscilla was also one of those activities that was easy to do even when our walks were at a rapid pace uphill. Walking was about exercise, sure, but it was also about conversation. Walks were always peppered with commentary about our surroundings, questions about life decisions, and if you were lucky enough, lots of laughter. On Mother’s Day 2007, Priscilla and I took a walk around the block (this time in Boulder, not Arlington). Dad and I had spent the better part of that May shuttling Priscilla from one medical appointment to another, and that was only when she wasn’t in the hospital. She hadn’t been able to take a walk in some time. I remember feeling so encouraged by her spirit on Mother’s Day, delighting in her laughter when some neighborhood dogs blocked our path. We only made it halfway around the block, but we returned home with great smiles. One month later, we lost Priscilla.

So 3-Day, when I think about training, when I think about the purpose behind the 60 miles I’ll walk in October, I think about Priscilla’s spirit. I think about my stepmother and I think about my best friend. I remember that as a child, I watched Priscilla do her crazy floor exercises with hand weights, leg lifts, and three towels. Now I do my own set of crazy exercises in preparation for three days of honoring Priscilla’s spirit, surrounded by friends and family who will walk with similar memories of their own loved ones.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Yellowstone: What an adventure!

Dad stopped by for a visit on Saturday afternoon. (It was a lovely, sunny day in Colorado and we sat on the back porch watching the dog play in the backyard.) He had just returned from a camping trip in Utah and was catching me up on the details. At some point during our conversation, he recalled the summer that he, Priscilla and I vacationed out West for two weeks (summer of ’95 maybe?). Let’s just say that I was less than enthusiastic about a hiking and camping vacation. I greatly preferred our trips to the beaches of North Carolina and Florida, which featured amenities like running water, toilets, beds and privacy. This hiking and camping trip featured tents, streams and BEARS.

Yes, that’s right: BEARS. One painful day of this trip, we hiked up Slough Creek in Yellowstone. (You can see pictures of this hike at my picasaweb; we took the first portion of the hike again in October 2007 as a way to remember Priscilla.) We were warned of "high bear activity" at the ranger station on the way into the park, but Dad and Priscilla considered this normal and so we proceeded. I don’t recall the specifics of the first news of bears, but I think it might have been when we encountered another family that wanted to share our campsite because they had seen a bear at theirs. I know that at some point, we actually saw a bear up the ridge and it totally freaked me out. It was bad enough that I couldn’t use a blow dryer on the trip, but I was not about to spend several nights with BEARS. We abandoned the Slough Creek portion of the trip the next morning. I do have fond memories of the trip back down to the car: Dad fished while Priscilla and I lounged under some trees, alternating between napping and reading in the park's gentle breezes.

I was not the only person with a minimally enthusiastic experience on this particular trip. While Dad and I were chatting over the weekend, he shuddered when he remembered the night that we shared a tent sleeping in the wrong direction. Priscilla thought it would be preferable to sleep so that the tent was wider than it was long (not exactly how the tent was made to be used) – this way, three people could sleep without physically touching each other. She and I made out better in this deal than Dad did, however. I’m pretty short, so losing a few inches of length didn’t matter much to me. Dad’s a good seven or eight inches taller than me though, and the poor man slept all smushed up like a pretzel that night. He was in pain the next morning.

I only accompanied Dad and Priscilla on the first week of the trip. I headed back to Arlington, where Nell greeted me at the airport. Dad and Priscilla spent another week (maybe two) in and around Yellowstone. The trip must have greatly improved after my departure because it became an annual backcountry adventure for Dad and Priscilla. In a letter that Priscilla wrote to my father in 2004, she thoughtfully shared:

"...One of the most wonderful things you did for me was to take me to Yellowstone. The places we explored and the natural beauty and power of the place are one of the highlights of my life…
Even our home and the rewards of our garden in bloom did not connect me to America. That emotional sense of being in 'place,' of belonging to the earth, to a land, to country, really came to me in Yellowstone. The thing I owned least in all the world felt the most like mine. The wildness and utter impossibility of possessing it is what made me love it."

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Learning to love food

Once a week, my parents took me to the Chinese restaurant up the street for dinner. I looked forward to the one night my father would come home and not feel like cooking, although if it was a Thursday and The Cosby Show was coming on, I would try to rush us through dinner so that I wouldn’t miss a minute with the Huxtables. Priscilla always preferred moo goo gai pan, and she and I together would frequently talk Dad into moo shoo pork. His favorite dish was probably pork chung king, or maybe Mongolian lamb. Anyway, the weekly visit to Peking Pavilion was our tradition and I grew up eating really good Chinese food. My dad still makes the best fried rice I’ve ever tasted.

Food was pretty important in our family. Both my father and Priscilla were excellent cooks. Dad usually cooked weeknight meals after work, but Priscilla was the Master Chef for all holidays and special events. She was also a supremely talented baker – she made me the most gorgeous birthday cakes that were decorated like something you would see in a high-end bakery. Priscilla put exceptional effort into her cooking and she wanted us, understandably, to appreciate this. We were expected to dress in formal attire for holiday meals or birthday celebrations, and I was taught impeccable table manners at an early age.

At first, I didn’t know any differently and I did as I was told. As I grew up, however, I became more reluctant to put on a party dress for Thanksgiving. Some years I would purposely spend Thanksgiving with my mother simply to avoid all of the pomp and circumstance of Thanksgiving With Priscilla. The food wasn’t as elegant, but the atmosphere was definitely more relaxed. I guess that for most things in life there is a happy medium. I probably should have learned to apply this to holiday meals, but one of the benefits of having divorced parents is having options at holiday time.

Once I was old enough to have a say in the matter (probably around the time I obtained a driver’s license), I always split Christmas: morning/stockings/presents with Dad and Priscilla, afternoon with Mom at my aunt and uncle Lani and Larry’s house, and eventually dinner and/or dessert back at Dad and Priscilla’s. Priscilla made these incredibly gooey cinnamon yeast rolls every Christmas morning. They were so sticky and delicious! She always made two options – as a child, I strictly avoided the ones with nuts, but as an adult I learned that the nutty rolls were small gifts from heaven.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Nell, Priscilla's mother

My time after school was usually spent at an extended day program on school property. Some days, I was allowed to leave early (thank goodness – no one liked extended day) to go to Nell’s house. I was supposed to practice piano or help Nell with household chores, but more often than not we watched The Brady Bunch or The Facts of Life instead. Nell politely told me that my performance on the piano was improving, but I suspect I will live the rest of my life without someone noting my natural musical inclination. Nell and I had so much fun together. She was my truest confidante, and I could tell her all about my problems, secrets or delights.

I remember once being so angry with Dad and Priscilla: after a birthday party weekend graciously hosted by Priscilla, Dad insisted that I vacuum the basement. I gather that my first effort was less than sincere, and he yelled and screamed at me to vacuum again. I stubbornly holed up in my bedroom instead. When he and Priscilla left the house for some reason, I sneaked out and vacuumed again – this time with a genuine effort to pick up every speck of dirt on the basement floor. After all, I was bored and anxious to rejoin the family in the rest of the house. Dad returned and I shyly apprised him of my latest effort. He was not impressed and he insisted that I had not actually vacuumed a second time. That was it! I returned to my bedroom and called Nell, sobbing. The next day, I went to her house after school, still fuming. She hugged me, assured me that I was in the right, and dismissed my father’s actions as typical parental tyranny. I’m pretty sure that was the day that I decided Nell was my best friend.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Second grade with Dad and Priscilla

Dad and I bonded over baseball. We loved the Orioles with a similar passion as Priscilla had for the outdoors. Once I had sufficiently prepared myself for school in the mornings, I liked to check the sports section of The Washington Post and memorize the box score from the previous night’s baseball game. You could have asked me anything and I would have been able to tell you, even when I was only in second grade. While I certainly enjoyed The Cosby Show and other age-appropriate television, Dad and I spent most of our nights watching Mel Proctor call the Orioles’ games. I’m not sure what Priscilla thought about this; she never said anything one way or the other. She may have simply appreciated the respite she could take in the evenings when Dad and I left her alone.

Priscilla loved to read, and I really mean loved. She had a passion for the written word that I have never encountered in anyone else. She found true delight in the pages of books and she was always recommending something to read to someone. Once Dad and I had settled in for an evening on the basement sofa with the Orioles, Priscilla would remain upstairs and usually she would read in bed. As a child, Priscilla encouraged me to read books by Jil Ker Conway and I poured over pages about Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst, active leaders in the suffragette movement. Priscilla passionately wanted me to learn more about educational and intellectual interests and although they were not-so-coincidentally her own interests, I know I benefited from her persistent support.

(I also had the support of my mother, another voracious reader. One Christmas or birthday, my mom bought a handheld Donkey Kong game for me. When we opened it, it did not work properly. Mom asked me if I wanted to exchange it, or return it and spend the money at Waldenbooks instead. I chose Waldenbooks.)

Having developed these reading habits at an early age, I rebelled at the dinner table. Most nights we ate in front of the same basement television (our only tv set) that would later showcase the Orioles and watched the McNeil Lehrer NewsHour. Sometimes I would tune in with Dad and Priscilla, but most nights I chose to read a book instead. Then I might head off to the bathtub, book in tow. I was so thankful when Priscilla contracted a remodel for my bathroom – the new bathtub had these wonderful handles that were perfect for resting my arms while reading. I don’t know if she designed it that way intentionally, but I like to think that she did. She was very observant and while this characteristic did not always manifest in an outward display of generosity, Priscilla did quietly do the most unselfish, considerate things.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Some of my earliest memories

Priscilla was introduced to me when I was four years old. She had long blond hair that she wore either in a braid or in a bun on top of her head. She liked flowing dresses and she didn’t really like underwear, although she wore it because it seemed like something she should do. Priscilla and my father married when I was five and I grew up living with them.

The first year of Priscilla and George’s marriage we lived in the house my mother and father used to own in Maryland. I was a brat who was still adjusting to life with divorced parents, and Priscilla was primarily responsible for my upbringing. She didn’t know many people in Maryland other than my father’s friends, and while no one ever said as much to me, I suspect many of my father’s friends were members of my mother’s family. The situation was more than mildly challenging for her and within a year, we had moved to Arlington, Virginia.

Priscilla still owned a house in Arlington, only about a mile from where her mother lived. She was renting it out, however, so we lived with Priscilla’s mom Nell the year that I was six. I started first grade at Nottingham Elementary, the school two blocks down the road.

I don’t remember all that much about the year we lived with Nell except that one night my father asked me if I wanted to take a bath. Ever pleasant and agreeable, I said “No.” Dad had a quick temper and started yelling at me. Priscilla sided with me and told my father that because he had given me a choice, he should honor my response. I was a sobbing mess, but Nell held my hand and walked me downstairs to bed. That was the way things started – over the years a pattern developed where Dad and I would argue (though we'd always make up), Priscilla would play peacemaker and I could count on Nell to make me feel better.

By second grade, we had moved to Priscilla’s house, which was thankfully free of renters. I was supposed to switch schools, but evidently my parents thought I had endured more than enough changes in the past three years and they kept me enrolled at Nottingham. There weren’t any buses to my neighborhood because I lived in a different school district, so this meant that someone was responsible for arranging my transportation to and from school each day. Most days Priscilla would drop me off at the morning daycare program, but some days she thought I should walk. It was hardly an arduous distance, but I was stubborn and not interested in doing something that no other kids were doing. To soften the torture of forcing me to actually get some exercise, Priscilla left me at the house of a friend who only lived a few blocks from school. The problem was that Priscilla never called ahead and several times my friend had already left for school and her parents were startled by my presence.

That was the kind of woman Priscilla was – she knew what she thought was best and she didn’t really concern herself with ancillary details. She had a keen sense of adventure and she was afraid of very little. She loved to spend as much time as possible outdoors and an early morning walk was a true delight for her. I, on the other hand, loved staying inside. All I wanted to do when I woke up was be alone and maybe read the newspaper before school.

Why I'm here

I'm walking the 3-Day in Atlanta this October with my dear friend Meredith and my cousin Lisa. We're on the "Wii Kinda Fit" team and we've each committed to raise a minimum of $2,300 in order to participate.

My cousin Lisa has an absolutely terrific blog that she's posted to her fundraising page, and she inspired me to publicly journal some of my memories of my stepmother here I am.