Saturday, December 18, 2010

To: Dr. E and Mama Judy. Thank You.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the people in my life who inspire me. Particularly the ones that went out of their way to be kind to a kid with who thinks entirely too much for her own good and needs to talk it all out sometimes. A kid that hasn't always been and probably never will be, problem-free. I'm blessed to have two mentors. Ladies I've known collectively for over twenty years. I might not always see them often, but they are in my thoughts almost daily and never cease to inspire me, make me laugh, lift me up, and challenge me to be my best self.

First up, Dr. E. Isn't she regal and beautiful? Look at that smile!

 I met her when she was the interim dean of the evening college at the university I attended. I stopped by campus for advising and she was the lucky duck who received me that day. Initially, I was intimidated, her office was filled with all sorts of interesting objects and she commands a room. At that point, I don't think I'd ever met a dean and I had no idea what that meant, but I knew I didn't want to piss her off. She was authoritative, but very warm. She must have smelled doubt on me, because mid-appointment she looked me in the eye, paused, and told me in no uncertain terms, that I could do, "it" -- get a degree. And then another one after that, if I wanted it bad enough. She made me feel smart. She shared her journey and her confidence with me. Her story is one of tenacity, hard work, and determination. She told me to keep in touch, because I might need a letter of recommendation some day. I couldn't believe that this woman, who had just met me, would not only take her time to share herself with me, but also extended the offer in to the future.

I'm no dummy, I took her up on her offer! Over the next few years, I visited with Dr. E many times. I took every single one of her classes that I could -- she's a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of Africa. We spent a semester together, doing an independent study and it turned out to be the most exciting and engaging course experience I've had yet. She didn't want me to just read, she wanted me to analyze and chew on the readings. We'd spend an hour or so each week talking about what I read, what it meant in the world, and what it meant to me. She taught me to think big. To consider being an agent for change where I saw a need for improvement. She didn't just talk about it either, in the time I've known her, she has done incredible things personally and professionally.  Once, she offered to babysit my girl so I could go to class. That's HUGE for a single-mom with less than two nickels to rub together. She has done pro-bono work assisting asylum-seeking women who are trying to protect themselves and their daughters from FGM (female genital mutilation). She's canvassed her neighborhood to encourage people to vote. She mentors. She teaches. She's a published author and coveted speaker. She wears a dozen hats on any given time. She's a single-mom to three lovely daughters. She has a fantastic sense of humor and a laugh that is so sincere and so genuine it's impossible not to join in the fun. She is kind and gracious, always.

About six years ago, I had a bad car accident and broke both my legs. Dr. E hand-delivered my medical leave paperwork so I wouldn't have to come to campus when I was all banged up. My house is forty minutes away from campus and no where near hers. She's listened to my struggles and celebrated my successes. She is always a source of light and inspiration. 

Many times, when I have felt like quitting, I have thought of Dr. E. Thought about how much she has invested in me and that she believed in me -- if she could do it, I could, too.  This past summer, I applied and was accepted to graduate school. Dr. E wrote one of my letters of recommendation, as promised so many years ago.

Much love Dr. E, much love. Thank you for ALL that you do, for me, for all your students at school and in life.

Then there's this lady, she's cute huh? She's exactly as fiesty as she looks, too. Her name is Judy and she's my other mother.

Once upon a time, in an industrial park, I worked in a building that peddled promotional marketing products and Judy worked there, too. She was an inventory buyer and I was her assistant. She used to get mad at me for bothering her too much during the day and would shoo me back to my desk. She was jovial and sometimes grumpy and absolutely, positively irresistible. 

Back then, I smoked, and Judy and I would take breaks together. Sometimes, she's break in to song; she loved to sing. Her passion made up for the wobbly notes in spades. She cussed like a sailor and told dirty jokes. At the same time, she could switch gears, jump in to any conversation and hold her own and then some on what seemed like any topic from classic literature to statistics. 

I found her fascinating and drove her absolutely crazy, but she loved me anyway. I was the punk kid that followed her around, tugging on her coat sleeve. Every once in a while she'd give me "the look", the one where I knew she wanted me to stop asking questions or rambling and practice being quiet. The look your mom gives you when she wants you to shut up.  

She been a tireless cheerleader in my efforts to go to school and I'm pretty sure threatened to kick my ass if I didn't finish. She taught me practical things like how to open a 401k and how to forecast inventory trends. She has always, always said, "You can do it, kid!"  

Over the years our friendship and fondness grew. I came to know all the players in her family and learned about her history, which has had no shortage of challenges. Her joy, even in difficulty was inspiring. I also learned that Judy is an extremely generous spirit and has many, many times, quietly and humbly, offered her assistance to friends and family in need. Her humility and thoughtfulness is heart-warming.

In 2003, Judy started feeling sick a lot. She was having a hard time staying awake during the day and her voice was taking vacations without her permission...

 It was the big C. 
Cancer of the vocal chords. 

The tumor in her throat was the source of the gravely sounds and why sometimes her voice just disappeared. Forced in to early retirement, Judy had her surgery and started her radiation treatments. It was hard. Really hard. By that time, Judy and I were spending a lot of time together outside of work and had become pretty close. Her daughter lived a good distance away and often couldn't get in to the city and her son was out-of-state. Her best friend, Michael, and I spent a lot of time at the hospital with her during those days. With all the pain (which was significant) and all the challenges that are a part of the process, she always remained hopeful. She never lost her sense of humor. She never, ever, gave up. 

Those days with Judy changed me. I recall sitting with her and her daughter at the emergency room, she was so frail and barely breathing, I didn't know whether to pray for her to live or die. I'd never seen anyone suffer like she did. I couldn't imagine a way out of it, but her will was stronger than her body and with sheer determination and the help of some amazing doctors, she got better.

She helped me learn that it's truly an honor to be with someone when they are sick. That it's okay to look death square in the face and put one foot in front of the other and hope for the best. To be afraid and proceed anyway. Judy, taught me what courage looks like. For a girl who spent most of her life secretly terrified of death and illness, it was perhaps my greatest life lesson thus far. 

She was doing fabulously for quite some time. The trach tube was out, she had her strength back and then some and her enthusiasm was contagious. She's been brought back from the dead! It was a miracle to witness and I learned to experience joy in a new way. Every time I saw her doing so well, my heart would swell.

Then, the cancer came back. 

This time, her vocal chords could not be saved. The singing, cussing, joke-telling lady, would have no voice. N o   v o i c e. 
The thought overwhelmed me so much that I could not choke back the tears. She said it would be okay. She showed me courage, again. There was a small chance that she could learn to talk with a prosthetic piece and lots of speech therapy, but no promises were made. 

Clearly, they didn't know who they were dealing with. She made up her mind and that was that -- she would talk and in the mean time she'd write notes on a dry erase board and use the dirty-word flash cards Michael made. Treatment was very difficult. At one point, she had to go on a feeding tube because the swelling in her throat was so significant she could no longer swallow. A nurse started coming to the house regularly, then she became so weak she had to stay in a skilled nursing facility for a time. The trach tube was back, but now it was the permanent kind. Recovery has been slow and it's not really done yet. Yet, she persists.

True to her word, she talks. In fact, I saw her yesterday. She's been at home for quite a while now. No nurses. No feeding tubes. It's not easy for her, but she keeps trying anyway. Now, almost 70, things are harder than they were when she was a spring chicken. No field trips in cold weather - it's too hard to breathe and she's on a nebulizer, but like always, her body might be frail, but inside is a tiger -- Judy is a bad ass. Sharp as a tack, she does her crossword daily and is as funny as ever. Even with intermittent coughing and a voice that comes and goes (who knew my lip-reading skills would be so handy!), she still nearly makes me pee my pants with laughter. We have a Scrabble date, where she will crush me to bits, in about a week. She says we're going to go out to eat first before she kicks my ass. :) But the thing that impresses me the most, and always will is her heart. In all of her own suffering, she still thinks of others. She's not been feeling too swell lately and was bummed because she hadn't gotten her Christmas cards in the mail yet. She's old school, she always sends cards. Wonderful, funny, cards that always make me smile.

Yesterday, after a long overdue visit she said a bunch of stuff that made me cry (in a good way) and then wrapped it up with, "We need each other kid." She's right, we do. I'm really not sure what it is that I bring to the table for her, but I know my side is piled high with love and lessons from her.

Today, I am grateful for my mentors, Dr. E and Judy. You have touched me with your kindness, inspired me with your strength, and have brought immeasurable joy to my life. 

Thank you, for everything.

No comments: