#1 Groundhog Day

I’m always excited when I find another person who truly gets Groundhog Day; similarly, I am annoyed when someone doesn’t understand the pure genius of it. Groundhog Day should only have two reactions: “Best inspirational movie ever made!” Or “I love that movie; it was hysterical.” Nothing less than that is acceptable in my eyes. Unfortunately, I get lukewarm reactions, or the question: “Really? Groundhog Day?” So, when I find someone who believes it is akin to a 12-step group for life, I feel like I have made a soul-connection with a kindred spirit.

I know. There are other outstanding, award-winning, inspirational movies that have greater acclaim than Groundhog Day; movies like Braveheart, Dead Poet Society, and Good Will Hunting are serious movies, about serious topics, delivered with intensity about characteristics we all want to emulate. Those movies are a few of my favorites, but they don’t beat Groundhog Day. How can I justify that? Simple: It is everything I stand for and want to teach my children and students about life, all bundled up in a hilarious 90 minute comedy. How can a comedy accomplish such a feat? That’s exactly my point.

Everything from the brilliant writing to the spot-on acting to the visionary directing creates the greatest life-lesson I have ever learned: I will metaphorically live the same day over and over again if I don’t find a way to positively contribute to society.

As Phil Connors illustrates so perfectly, we will never improve our lives by being selfish and manipulating people. That choice will contribute to the same-shit-different-day scenario. We can only improve our lives by improving ourselves in such a way that we help others, which then improves us as well as the quality of the lives around us.

What other movie has been able to accomplish that?

If you are still not convinced, let me take you through the plot structure of the movie, addressing the life-changing lessons as they occur.

The movie opens with Phil Connors, an egotistical weather man, reporting the weather. He believes he is a much bigger star than he actually is. He can’t stand that he has to drive to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania from Pittsburg to cover the Groundhog Day celebration . . .  again. He is rude to his colleagues; no one seems to like Phil, but they tolerate him. The new producer, Rita, is a kind-hearted woman who Phil slightly smiles at, but sarcastically claims, “She’s fun, but not my kind of fun.” Phil presents the idea that he’s too good for Rita. But in reality, Phil knows that a man like him could never get a woman like Rita; she is too kind and self-confident to fall for his lies.

As Phil, Rita, and Larry (the cameraman) are driving to Punxsutawney, Phil reveals that he is afraid that “Somebody is going to see [him] interviewing a groundhog and think [he doesn’t] have a future,” which, by the way, is a beautiful, ironic foreshadowing to what is about to happen: His interview with the groundhog is his only future for a very long time.

Phil, once again, displays his arrogance at the hotel; he objects to the lodgings because they were not up to Phil’s standards. Larry calls him a “Prima Donna.” Rita tells Phil she booked him at a lovely bed & breakfast. Phil is shocked but happily replies,

You know, I think this is one of the traits of a really good producer. Keep the talent happy.”

“Did he actually call himself the talent?” (Larry)

Like most people, Phil wants other people to believe he is important; for a brief moment he thinks he has succeeded, until Larry knocks Phil off the self-created pedestal.

The next day Phil wakes up to Sonny & Cher’s classic song “I Got You Babe.” He mocks the DJs, double-talks the kind guest, and passive-aggressively insults the elderly owner of the bed & breakfast: “Did you want to talk about the weather or were you just making chit chat?” When she asks about his checking out, Phil responds, “Chance of departure today, 100%.” Phil does not bother to hide his contempt for the town or its people.

The rest of the day doesn’t go much better. He ignores a homeless man; he refuses to engage with Ned Ryerson. He does a horrible job reporting on the groundhog. The high-lights of the day for the viewers are when Karma seems to get its revenge on Phil: He steps into an icy puddle; they try to leave Punxsutawney only to return because of the storm Phil said would not happen; he tries to take a hot shower, but there is only cold water. We chuckle because Phil gets what he deserves, a horrible day in Punxsutawney.

The exposition to Phil’s character is perfect. He is arrogant, rude, and cynical, and no matter how hard he tries to get respect, no one takes Phil seriously. As viewers, we don’t like him, nor should we. He is the guy we all love to hate and laugh at when he gets hit with the Karma stick. We don’t let ourselves see that Phil is merely covering up his insecurities with sarcasm and aloofness.

The rising action begins the next day when Phil starts the time loop; it should be February 3, but the day begins exactly the same as the previous day: The same song plays; he runs into the same kind guest; the owner asks the same questions. Phil starts to wonder if everyone is crazy or if he is having déjà vu. He tells the owner, “I’d say the chance of departure is 80%, 75-80.” When he questions Rita about the date, Rita thinks he’s drunk. Phil says, “Drunk’s more fun.”

When he tries to get an emergency line, they tell him to try tomorrow. He questions them, “What if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.” I don’t know why, but that line makes me laugh really hard every time.

He realizes that he repeated February 2, but no one else experienced the time loop. He breaks a pencil and puts it by the radio. The next day, 6 am hits and the song plays again: “Then put your little hand in mine, ’cause there ain’t no hill or mountain we can’t climb. Babe. I got you babe.” The pencil has returned to its unbroken state.

Phil now realizes the time loop is not a fluke. I love the sequences that follow this realization because I think we would all be tempted to follow in Phil’s footsteps, or at least daydream about how reckless we would be if we were presented with the same situation.

This time loop serves as the inciting action that activates Phil’s hedonistic choices, beautifully displayed in the diner while he eats donuts, drinks coffee out of the carafe, and smokes cigarettes. He decides he is “a god. Not the God…[he] doesn’t think.” His arrogance perpetuates this perception. He indulges in all pleasures because “If there were no tomorrow, there’d be no consequences. We could do whatever we wanted.”

After a number of superficial conquests, Phil sets his sights on Rita. He works hard to discover all of her likes and dislikes in order to manipulate Rita’s affection. It ends bitterly unsatisfactory when Rita slaps his face over and over again finally to exclaim, “I could never love anyone like you, Phil, because you’ll never love anyone but yourself.” To this, Phil responds with his first truthful statement in the movie: “That’s not true. I don’t even like myself.” It is at this moment that we finally understand Phil; his arrogance, his manipulation, his lies were all a cover-up for an insecure man who was merely trying to find something outside of himself that would make him feel valuable.

Failing to acquire Rita’s love, which would mean he was lovable, sends Phil into a suicidal tailspin: “I’ll give you a winter prediction. It’s going to be cold. It’s going to be gray. And it’s going to last you for the rest of your life.” His depression is palpable. Phil decides to kill himself and the groundhog, believing it will end the time loop. He says goodbye to Rita: “I’ve come to the end of me, Rita. There’s no way out now.” This begins the difficult suicide scenes. His utter desolation painfully displays across the screen. We think Phil will be a tragic hero; however, it is a false climax and resolution. Phil wakes up every morning at 6 am to the same song.

Watching him commit suicide over and over again shifts our emotional attachment to Phil. We no longer hate him; we now feel sorry for his despondency and want him to find a way to heal his pain.

He finally reaches out to Rita with the truth: “I wake up every day right here, right in Punxsutawney, and it’s always February 2nd, and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Sadly, Phil reveals that he has become only a shell of a man: “It doesn’t make any difference. I’ve killed myself so many times, I don’t even exist anymore.” His truthfulness, even though Rita doesn’t believe him, strikes a chord with Rita and us. She decides to spend the day and night with Phil to see what happens. Close to midnight, she states a simple truth that proves to be the true turning point of the story for Phil: “Well, sometimes I wish I had a thousand lifetimes. I don’t know Phil. Maybe it’s not a curse. It just depends on how you look at it.” He responds with humor, “Gosh you’re an upbeat lady.” But it resonates. Is life really about how a person chooses to look at it?

Phil finally has the courage to tell Rita how he feels about her, albeit while she is sleeping:

“What I wanted to say was, I think you’re the kindest, sweetest, prettiest person I’ve ever met in my life. I’ve never seen anyone that’s nicer to people than you are. The first time I saw you something happened to me. I never told you, but…I knew that I wanted to hold you as hard as I could. I don’t deserve someone like you. But if I ever could, I swear I would love you for the rest of my life.”

There is nothing more moving than a man who admits he needs and wants to become a better person. We can all identify in some respect to the emptiness of the pleasure principle or the despondency of the same-shit-different-day futility. We all want to leave the emptiness behind, but how? The beauty of this movie is that it answers that question. We watch Phil become that better man–not by having someone fix him, but by making choices to fix and improve himself.

At 6 am, Phil wakes up alone again, but his awakening to a new life is obvious as soon as he opens his eyes. We see it acted out when he hands over all his money to the homeless man. Later that night, Phil sees him again, but struggling to walk. Phil brings him to the hospital where the old man dies. He demands to see his charts to know the cause of death. The nurse replies, “Sometimes people just die.” Phil says, “Not today.” My heart breaks as Phil’s compassion overflows for this man. He attempts to save the old man’s life in every conceivable way, but he fails each time. Instead of giving up, Phil puts his compassionate energy into making a positive difference with the people he can help.

The futility of life becomes a distant memory for Phil and us. I always ask myself at this point, who can I help today? How can I make a difference in someone’s life? When a movie helps us examine our own lives, it is a powerful inspirational tool, not just entertainment.

The last time loop sequence shows how Phil takes advantage of the newly realized gift of time he has received. He learns to play the piano, to ice-sculpt, and to speak French. His new purpose and vision of life is presented in his coverage of the groundhog ceremony: “Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life….I couldn’t imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.”

Although Rita is still the woman he loves, he sees his place in the community as his greater purpose. She asks him, “Would you like to get a cup of coffee?” He responds with “I’d love to. Can I have a rain check? I have some errands I have to run.” What should have been the attainment of his goal, Rita seeking his company, is only a benefit to his new life. Phil, asking for a rain check, shows he now has respect for himself and his purpose in life. Phil doesn’t need approval from anyone else; he, and he alone, completed himself.

Of all his “errands” my favorite is when he catches the little boy falling out of a tree. Phil hurts his back and the child runs away: “What do you say, you little brat? You have never thanked me! I’ll see you tomorrow.” This one errand shows Phil’s growth the most. The fact that he would do it all again for a child who is ungrateful shows his character shift from selfish arrogance to self-fulfillment: His reward is in the act itself, not in the praise.

Groundhog DayBy the end of the day Phil has helped just about everyone in the community. He has won Rita’s love because he is now a good man who believes in himself. We know the transformation is complete, the climax of the story, when he accepts his life as it is, with or without the time loop: “No matter what happens tomorrow or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now.” True happiness comes from unconditional acceptance of the path we are on and sharing that acceptance with others.

Unbelievably, the next morning the song plays again: “I got you babe.” But this time, Rita’s hand turns off the radio. Phil is in shock: “Something is different.” Rita wonders, “Good or bad?” Phil responds, “Anything different is good. But this could be real good.” He realizes that the time loop has ended. He has finally figured out how to move forward: “Do you know what today is? Today is tomorrow. It happened. You’re here.” We anticipate that Phil’s resolution will fill his days with happiness.

His final comment is my favorite: “It was the end of a very long day. Is there anything I can do for you today?” After a lifetime of wanting other people to do things for him, he realizes that doing things for other people brings meaning to his life. We know he will continue to live his life that way because now he wants to take care of Rita’s needs.

In our current world of entitlement and self-gratification, we need Groundhog Day now more than ever. In the words of Danny Rubin, the brilliant mind behind the script, the best lesson of the movie is this:

The absolutely worst day of Phil’s life took place under the exact same conditions as the absolutely best day of Phil’s life. The best day and the worst day were the same day. In fact, a whole universe of experiences proved to be possible on this single day. The only difference was Phil himself, what he noticed, how he interpreted his surroundings, and what he chose to do.

This is an extremely empowering message. It suggests that, like Phil, we need not be the victims of our own lives, and that the power to change our fate, to change our experience of a single day, rests within ourselves. No matter what cycle we are stuck inside, the power to escape is already present within us. . . .

The world changed because Phil changed. That means that the difference to us between a bad day and a good day may not be the day, but may be the way we approach the day. (How To Write Groundhog Day)

I hope I have helped you understand why Groundhog Day is my favorite movie. May it empower you to approach each day from this point on with a sense of joy and purpose.

Blessing #9: Memories of the Matriarch

Baba Vicky was the strongest, sweetest, smartest person I have ever met. I would tell her often, but she was too humble to accept my praise. Her reply: “I try my best . . . but how can you say that? I have broken English…I can’t read or write … I’m dumb . . .” and she would shake her head. I would tell her, “Baba, don’t ever say that! What you know about life, about people could fill a book. I have learned so much from you.” She would chuckle, and then grab my hand and give it a squeeze. She always had the softest hands. “You make me feel good,” she would say. “You make me feel good, too,” I would say back. After a brief moment of silence, we would fall back into our conversation.

She always gave me the best advice. When I talked to her about someone who has hurt me, she would tell me: “If you want to be forgiven for the mistakes you’ve made, you have to learn to forgive others. We all need forgiveness at some point in our lives.” I’ve tried to honor that advice, but it’s sometimes harder than it sounds.

When I told her I hoped to have a marriage like hers and Dedo Gus’s someday, she would tell me: If you want to have a good marriage, love him the way you want to be loved, and do what makes you happy. That’s how he will learn how to love you and make you happy. She had so much wisdom.

Her wisdom had humble beginnings. Velika Popovski (Kordovich) was born on March 12, 1921 to a couple in Bukovo, a small village outside Bitola, Macedonia. She was one of eleven children, but only five of the eleven survived to adulthood. They had a small plot of land with a few animals. Baba Vicky worked hard all her life: She took care of her siblings, worked the land during planting and harvesting seasons, and cooked and cleaned for her family. Wherever she was needed she did her job well. She completed a 4th grade education because that’s all that was available to girls in the village.

Her life changed, she would tell me with a smile on her face, the day Kosta Kordovich (Dedo Gus) came back from America. Everyone knew he was looking for a wife to take to America with him. Baba Vicky didn’t bother trying to get his attention like all the other eligible girls. She felt she was too plain and too poor to get the wealthy Kosta’s attention. That may have been what grabbed his attention in the first place, but Dedo Gus said, “I know quality when I see it.”

After just a few days, Kosta knew that Velika was the woman he wanted to marry. His family was very upset. They felt that she was too plain and too poor for their son, especially when he had his pick of any girl he wanted. He refused to listen to their complaints, and Baba Vicky and Dedo Gus were married on November 13, 1938. Baba Vicky moved out of her parent’s home and moved in with Dedo Gus and his family. She knew they didn’t approve of her, but Baba Vicky was comforted in knowing that Dedo Gus loved her. His love helped her to hold her head high.

Shortly after they were married, Baba Vicky became pregnant. She earned the respect of her new family by working hard and not complaining. In August of 1939, Dedo Gus was told he had to leave Bukovo without Baba Vicky because of the turmoil in Europe. Her paperwork wasn’t ready, and WWII was imminent. Dedo Gus had earned his American citizenship, and if he did not leave the country at that time, he would lose it.

Dedo Gus left on September 3, 1939, and Baba Vicky gave birth to Ana, my mother, on September 4, 1939. Baba Vicky and her mother-in-law comforted each other and my great-grandmother depended on and loved Baba Vicky as if she had been her own daughter. The two women formed a strong bond. Baba Vicky was heartbroken that her husband had to leave her, but it did not break her. She stayed strong for her daughter. As time went on her in-laws looked to Baba Vicky for strength and guidance.

Six years had passed without a word from Dedo Gus. Everyone told Baba Vicky that Dedo Gus had forgotten about her and probably found another woman in America. She refused to believe the rumors. She refused to leave his family. After years of waiting and never giving up hope, she finally received all the letters he had sent her over that six-year period. Dedo Gus was alive and well, and waiting for her to join him in America. It took another six years for the paperwork to come through. In the meantime, Dedo Gus sent goods from America to his wife and daughter. They went from being pitied to envied in a few short months.

They eventually received visas and gained passage to America in 1951. Baba Vicky was excited to see her husband, and happy that her daughter would finally meet her father; but she was also scared. Twelve years was a long time. What if he had changed? What if he didn’t love her anymore? She also was not naïve enough to think he had been faithful to their marriage that whole time. She had no idea how she was going to face what awaited her in America, so she faced it head on, putting everything that happened in the past where it belonged.

I am blessed to have Baba Vicky as the matriarch of my family. Her story illustrates her strength and courage and how she became the woman I came to know and love. I am blessed that she shared her stories with me. I am blessed by the advice she gave me that still rings true today. But more than that, I am blessed by the way she lived her life. The lessons I learned from watching her reveal deeper truths than even her wonderful advice. These are the prominent memories of my beloved matriarch:

She put love in every meal she made. That’s what made it taste so good.

She always did her best job. She had pride in her abilities, so it didn’t matter what anyone else thought of her, which made everyone love her more.

She made everyone feel important.

She laughed at herself often; she knew life was too short to take herself too seriously.

She smiled every chance she could, bringing joy to those around her.

When she loved someone, she held his or her hand for as long as she could.

My grandmother, Baba Vicky, was an amazing woman. I miss her so much. She died a little over three years ago, but her mind left her a few years before that. During the last few years of her life, she didn’t remember much. She could recall things from her youth, but she didn’t remember who I was most of the time. I like to believe that during those last moments of her life, as we stood around her bed, God gave her back her memories, so she could see how much we all loved her. I placed my hand in her soft, frail hand, and even in her weakened state, I felt a tiny squeeze before she took her last breath.

I love you, Baba! I miss you. Thank you for the courageous decisions you made throughout your life that led you here, to America. Thank you for blessing me with your beautiful soul.

Blessings

Jump, Bubby. Jump.

Ian is a tough little boy. He runs fast, jumps high, and falls hard. If he cries, it’s because he really got hurt. His Cancer battle has made him stronger than I could have imagined, no thanks to me. My husband deserves all the credit for this one.

After Ian’s diagnosis, he needed to have a medi-port surgically placed in his chest. The port is a round device that stayed under his skin and connected to a major vein; it provided easy access to his blood stream for blood work and infusions during radiation and chemotherapy. The surgeon told us to keep Ian still and quiet for the rest of the day. He was groggy when he woke up, so I didn’t think it would be too difficult to keep him quiet. Ian had other plans. By the time we put on his seat belt, Ian asked if he could jump on the trampoline when we got home. I said, “Absolutely not!” Dave said, “We’ll see.” I promptly glared at my husband.

When we got home, Ian asked, “Can I jump, Mom?”

“No–”

“If you want to, Bubby.” Dave cut me off. I was furious. Didn’t he hear what the doctor said? How could he be so careless? I hissed as much in his face.

Dave stood his ground and firmly told me, “If my son wants to jump on the trampoline, he’s going to jump on the trampoline. Don’t you think he’d tell us if he felt sick or weak?”

It made sense, but I wasn’t ready to concede. “Fine. But don’t expect me to watch.”

“That’s fine. I’ll be out there with him.” He went out back with Ian while I stayed in the house and cried. I didn’t want Ian to get hurt. He had so much pain in his life already. How could my husband put Ian in more danger? Didn’t he realize that Ian’s life was so precarious right now? Didn’t he realize that the doctors couldn’t guarantee that Ian would see his fifth birthday?

And then it hit me. Dave realized it before I did. Dave wasn’t going to let Ian miss out on any experiences Ian was physically capable of doing. If his son wanted to jump, he was going to jump. How would I feel if someday Ian could no longer jump? How much pain would I feel if I denied Ian a chance to experience the weightless joy he felt on the trampoline?

I heard Ian squeal with joy as he said, “Watch me, Daddy!”

Dave’s response: “Jump, Bubby. Jump.”

I finally understood. I vowed to let Ian judge his own limitations from that point on.

It has been hard not to smother him with a mommy blanket, but I’ve kept my promise. Whatever sport or athletic activity Ian wants to try, we let him. It was hard watching kids throw Ian to the ground during jiu jitsu, but he laughed it off and would give it back. Once I did request that the coaches organize the players during hockey warm-ups because the other team was skating in the wrong direction, and Ian was knocked to the ground three times before the game had started. (I then imagined myself slapping the crap out of the man who told me Ian had to grow up sometime.) My instincts are to protect him, but Ian is tough. He shakes off most falls. I know it’s serious when he cries, and he rarely does that.

That is until yesterday. At his hockey game, Ian fell hard. He was lying on the ground, not moving. He was crying, loudly. The coaches turned off the game clock and had all the players take a knee. I have never seen them do that before. I ran to the rink wall and tried to figure out if I could jump it to be by Ian’s side. He was so far away from me. I couldn’t see if there was blood or a dangling leg. I imagined the worst. My husband walked over and stood by me; he rubbed my back while I tried to hold back the tears. Dave was calm, which calmed me down. After what seemed like an hour (probably more like two minutes), Ian stood up. Everyone clapped for him. I was holding my arms open, expecting him to skate to his mommy so I could comfort him. Ian shook his head and then skated to his position. I wanted to say “No. He’s hurt. Make him come to me!” But then I looked at my husband. Dave nodded his head in pride and approval. I conceded instantly. My heart sang out, “Skate, Bubby. Skate.”

Life After Cancer Blog

 

Miracles Never Cease

This past week Ian had a checkup with his oncologist. We already knew his February MRI came back clear. We don’t sleep much until we get the results, so the doctor called us as soon as he received the scans. Every time Ian has an MRI we worry that it will reveal something abnormal. I doubt we will ever be comfortable with Ian’s checkups, but a clear MRI scan is cause for celebration. What we didn’t anticipate at his checkup is Ian’s doctor’s shock and enthusiasm over the results.

It has now been two years since the completion of Ian’s Cancer treatments. It snuck up on us. This anniversary marks a significant decrease in the likelihood that the Cancer will come back. The doctor was amazed. Because of the rarity of Ian’s tumor (no child has ever had this type of Cancer before), he never would have predicted this outcome. He kept asking, “Are you sure there are no problems or concerns with Ian’s health?” Our resounding answer: None!

This is nothing short of a miracle. For those of you who have been reading about our struggle from the beginning, do you remember when I asked all of you to pray for Ian not to have the consequences the professionals told us were bound to happen? If Ian had to be one in a hundred-million to have this Cancerous brain tumor, then could he be that one in a hundred-million not to have brain damage or learning disabilities? Could he not be confined to a wheelchair? These consequences were normal for a child with any kind of brain tumor, not to mention a rare, Cancerous one. Could he please just be a normal boy after every difficult treatment he had to endure? Ian has confounded the odds.

The doctor was expecting Ian to have at least some developmental issues. Immediately following Ian’s treatments, it was difficult to determine if Ian’s brain had suffered. He was only four when he was diagnosed, but now, at seven, we can measure his mental, physical, and intellectual growth. How does he compare? Ian is reading and passing his math and spelling tests, keeping up with his classmates. Not only can he run and jump, but he is excelling at hockey. In five short months Ian learned to skate forwards and backwards, and he is now scoring goals. He just joined a club hockey team and is able to keep up with the children that have been skating for a year or more.

The other consequence that we have to watch out for is the damage the radiation treatments may have done to his body. His pituitary gland and other vital organs may have been affected. It isn’t until children reach puberty that doctors know for sure if anything has been damaged. It will be another waiting game for those long-term results, but the recent blood tests show no damage whatsoever at this time!

Our prayers have been answered. Ian is one in a hundred million!

Life After Cancer Blog

The Alchemist: Introduction and #1 Personal Calling

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist

An alchemist is a person who changes a common substance into a substance of great value.

I knew before opening the book, I was going to love what was inside.

As a matter of fact, after I read the introduction, I knew The Alchemist was a book I needed to slowly digest, not devour, like the three-day, no-showering ingestion of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hollows. The Alchemist, as simple an allegory as Plato’s “Parable of the Cave,” is filled with meaningful quotes that I could have easily overlooked, if it weren’t for the author’s introduction to his book.

#1 Personal Calling

These words caught my attention:

we all need to be aware of our personal calling. What is a personal calling? It is God’s blessing; it is the path that God chose for you here on Earth. Whenever we do something that fills us with enthusiasm, we are following our legend. However, we don’t all have the courage to confront our own dream. (v-vi)

I read that on Christmas Day, 2011. The Alchemist was a Christmas gift from my daughter Nicole, and the timing couldn’t have been better. I was dealing with some devastating things in my life. I felt like everything I had hoped for with the New Year had just turned to dust in my hands. I was trying to hold my emotions intact because I didn’t want to ruin the holidays for my children.

And then I read those words. My eyes filled with tears. I looked around the room to see if my family saw my emotions. I was safe. I read them again. I don’t believe in coincidences, only God-incidences. He had my attention.

I already knew what my “personal calling” was. I have been called to be a teacher; I have no doubts there. All jobs and experiences throughout my life have put me in teaching positions. I started babysitting at ten (The world has changed, hasn’t it?). In all of my restaurant jobs, I became a trainer. In college, before I started my education classes, I worked in the tutoring lab. It was something that came naturally. Now, as a high school English teacher, I know I am fulfilling my personal calling. Teaching fills me with joy; my students rejuvenate me. I’m passionate about making a difference in children’s lives, and they reward me by telling me that I have changed them for the better. I could never stop being a teacher.

But something has been missing. While teaching is my passion, writing is my dream.

Some of my earliest memories are of writing stories, poems, lyrics (with ridiculous melodies)—and loving how it felt when someone connected with my words (on those rare occasions that I would share them). As an adult I have written novels, plays, scripts, and poems, some of which I have shared with others, some no one else has ever seen. I love writing, but I’ve kept it as a dream, too afraid to make it a reality.

While holding The Alchemist in my hands that Christmas morning, that’s what made my heart ache. I was just about to make writing a reality. The New Year was supposed to begin with my new travel blog; my husband, son, and I were going to take our dream baseball trip during the summer of 2012. We would be on the road for 32 days, visiting all 30 baseball stadiums, and ending with the home-run derby and the all-star game: 32 games in 32 days. That’s how 32in32.com was created. But that dream ended as I watched what I thought was my reality melt away. I can’t go into what happened without hurting people I love, but trust me, it’s painful.

I read Coelho’s words again. The last sentence struck a chord: “However, we don’t all have the courage to confront our own dream.” It echoed in my head as I started to question why my dream had to end. That question was then replaced with, “Why are you giving up? Don’t be a coward.” It suddenly became clear: Making my dream a reality could not be contingent upon my circumstances. My circumstance was just an excuse to give up on my dream, again. Coelho’s words made me see that. I would not give up. I refused to be a coward another second longer. With The Alchemist to guide me, I promised myself I would find a way to make being a writer my reality.

The Alchemist Posts

Blessings 5-8: My Closest Friends

I’ve always been a one-person friend. I may have had a number of girls I hung out with, but there was always just one girl I truly considered my friend at different times in my life. I also had a lot of guy friends, and at times I felt closer to them than I did to my one close girl-friend, whoever that may have been at the time. But I never had a “best” friend—that one girl who I shared everything with and she with me. I had a few friends that came pretty close (I’ll share about them in a later blog), but they always had someone else who seemed to be closer to them than I was. I felt like I was missing out on an important part of life.

I’m not sure why I never felt comfortable in a group of girls/women. Part of it might have been my upbringing (the girls-don’t-have-value upbringing), but the other part was the trust factor. Women have such a hard time not thinking about each other as competition that it makes us do horrible things to each other. We try to steal boyfriends from each other or talk badly about each other behind one’s back. I wish I could say I was innocent of doing those things or having them done to me, but I can’t. I think that’s why I always stuck with one person—fewer people involved in the betrayal.

A turning point in my friend-perspective came when I had my daughters; I had to learn how to be a mother to girls and raise them to love themselves and respect each other. Having girls helped to heal part of my soul as well; I realized what a blessing it was to be a girl: Only girls can express their love for the beautiful without being mocked; only girls can show their enthusiasm for life by screaming—whether they are happy, scared, in love, or in hate (what a grand way to release emotions); and only girls can openly cry for all the same reasons with the same results. Suddenly, I was surrounded with dresses, ribbons, flowers, hearts, giggles, screams, whispers, notes, and tears—and I loved every moment of it. Because I love my girls, and I finally loved being a girl, I was ready to be a real friend to myself and other women.

I am blessed by the four women who have chosen, for some unknown reason, to be my friend. Now that they know the Perils of Pauline, I wonder if they have considered running in the opposite direction when they see me coming; I’m grateful they haven’t. Jamie, Karyn, Sandy, and Sona have helped me through my personal struggles by being my stronghold. Without their presence in my life I would have surely fallen—and not gotten up. They have supported me through the tears, the anger, and the fears. God intermittently placed them in my life throughout the past nine years, knowing I would need their love and strength now. What’s interesting is that they are all so different; the only thing we have in common is that we are English teachers. They have different backgrounds and different perspectives, but their commonality is their immeasurable support.

Counting my blessings has been helpful beyond belief. I have found reasons to be happy in the midst of some dark times. I fear, though, that creating this list somehow presents the idea of a hierarchy, which couldn’t be further from the truth. My blessings surround my day-to-day living, and whether I write about my #1 or my #32 they are all important to me and help me get up in the morning. That concept is true with my closest friends as well. I could never rank them because they each help me in unique ways. I decided to write about them in alphabetical order to keep the list neutral.

Blessing #5: Jamie

Jamie and I have been friends for almost two years now, but we made a jump in our friendship last year when she started coaching my daughter’s tennis team. We worked on a fundraiser together, which did not do as well as we had hoped (Does anyone want to buy a Liberty bag?). Through that interaction we started leaning on each other for support in other areas.

One of the most endearing things about Jamie is how much she loves my son Ian. It goes beyond the children-are-adorable love; it’s genuine, and Ian knows it. He adores “Ms. Jamie.” She has helped me out a number of times by picking Ian up at school when I’ve had after-school meetings. Ian loves those days, and Jamie loves spoiling him. She treats him like family, and I cannot thank her enough for that. It has been very hard for me not having family near me, especially to help me with Ian. Jamie fills that void perfectly.

Of the four, Jamie is the friend whose personality is the closest to mine as well. Our emotions are out there for all to see: We laugh loudly; we cry openly. We also feel each other’s joy and pain so deeply that it creates knee-jerk reactions, like when she called me crying one night about a situation at school and I was trying to decide which person I was going to knock to the ground first. She reacts the same way; Jamie hates people she has never met because they have hurt me. She’s the sister I never had.

Jamie understands my passion for writing because she is a writer as well. She has encouraged my writing so much so that I have been able to share it in this forum. We also have a crush on the same man: Adam Levine. We joked about how we would turn into love-sick teenagers if we ever saw him out somewhere. That image became the subject of a script I just started writing called Searching for Adam. I couldn’t imagine sharing that fantasy with anyone but Jamie.

I am blessed to have a friend who understands me and my inner child so well. I am thankful that in the short time we’ve known each other that we have let each other in to that guarded place not many get to see. At the end of this month, Jamie will be moving to Germany. I can’t stand the thought of losing her presence in my life, but I’m thankful that I got the opportunity to have her friendship, her sisterhood, even for a little while.

Jamie, thank you for your friendship; thank you for the strength you have imbibed me with; thank you for being my blessing.

Blessing #6: Karyn

Karyn was my first friend at Liberty. I met her at the English Department Christmas party a few weeks before I started teaching in 2003. I remember feeling overwhelmed meeting everyone at once. For some reason I immediately gravitated towards Karyn. I’m not sure if it was her congenial smile, the fact that she gave me her phone number in case I needed something, or that she was the most recognizable person in the crowd with her long, curly red hair. Whatever it was, I felt an instant connection. What I didn’t realize that first day was that my soul somehow knew Karyn would be an important person in my life.

Whenever something happens to me, my first thought is: “I need to talk to Karyn.” She has a unique combination of logic and compassion. She is able to understand both sides of an ordeal almost instantly, and not prejudge either side. She sees things logically, yet is compassionate enough to know that a difficult situation is more than who is to blame: She knows both sides are hurting. Karyn logically points that out to me so I can see things clearly. She has invaluable advice that has truly made me a better person.

Her logical mind never lets her get overly emotional about anything. It’s so nice to have someone tell me—who tends to have overly emotional reactions to everything—to take a deep breath. The one time I appreciated this more than any other was when my husband called me about Ian’s brain tumor. All I could do was scream; Karyn hugged me, made sure I was sane enough to drive home, and took care of my classes for me.

Even though she sees things so clearly, she never tells me what to do. She clarifies things, suggests things, and shows me love and support, but never insists on a course of action. She knows that ultimately, the decision is mine; Karyn will be my friend no matter what decisions I make. It’s comforting to have unconditional friendship like that.

Besides having her friendship, I am blessed by her intelligence. Karyn is truly the smartest person I know; she knows a lot about–everything. She is well-read and uses her knowledge in the classroom, as well as in every day conversations. I feel smarter after being with her. She is also very witty. A number of times I find myself laughing at something she said five minutes earlier. What happens instantly with her takes me about four minutes to decipher and another minute to realize just how funny her comment actually was. Another layer to our friendship is our devotion to the Denver Nuggets; we love our team whether they win or lose.

I am blessed to have such a friend. We are like yin and yang: The complementary opposites that are interconnected and interdependent. We balance each other and are greater together than we could ever be apart.

Karyn, thank you for your friendship; thank you for keeping me grounded and logical in illogical situations; thank you for being my blessing.

Blessing #7: Sandy

Sandy and I have an interesting start to our friendship. When Ian was going through chemotherapy, I wanted to find a substitute teacher who would cover my classes a week at a time every cycle to keep some consistency for my students. Two teachers came highly recommended from the district office: Joel and Sandy. I called Sandy first, but had to leave a message. I called Joel; he answered and agreed to be available for me when I needed him. When I hung up with Joel, Sandy called back. She was disappointed that I had already made an agreement with Joel, but she was kind and wished me well with Ian. In the few minutes I spoke with her on the phone, she left a strong impression. Three weeks later our department was looking for another full-time English teacher to start immediately. I thought of Sandy and gave the hiring committee her phone number. They liked her instantly as well. Looking back, the whole situation was perfectly orchestrated. Even though in the midst of it, Sandy felt like she lost an opportunity to be my substitute, by not answering my initial phone call she ended up with the better deal. Our English Department definitely did.

As the year went on, Sandy and I found out we belonged to the same gym and started hanging out by the pool. She has children close in age to Ian, so as Sandy and I grew closer, our children became friends as well. Becoming her friend was the easiest choice I’ve ever had to make; conversations flow so easily with her. She also has a calming presence that starts with her smile; it lights up the room and reveals her generous and kind heart. She’s the hospitable hostess, even when she is not at her house. Wherever we go she makes people feel welcomed and important.

Sandy was instrumental in helping me take the next step as a writer as well. Before things changed for me this past December, she was more confident than I was that my writing dreams would come true. She said she felt it would happen for me in her heart. She blessed me then with her assurance. Then, when I thought I had to give it all up, she wouldn’t let me. She encouraged me to stay on the path and to use the number 32 as a symbol for my dream. I have gladly taken her advice.

As we became closer, I discovered that we had a lot in common. We are devoted to our families; we are passionate about our profession; and we have a shared faith in God. Her faith is part of who she is; it comes out in how she talks to people, her dedication to everything she does, and her loyalty to family and friends. After years of being friends, we just discovered we share the same life verse: ” ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ ” (Jeremiah 29:11). That verse helps us to walk in faith together, no matter what comes our way. There is immeasurable comfort knowing one of God’s warriors is praying for me during difficult times. I know when I can’t utter cries for help, Sandy is whispering in God’s ear for me.

Sandy, thank you for your friendship; thank you for your supplications on my behalf; thank you for being my blessing.

Blessing #8: Sona

Looking back at the last nine years, it is amazing that Sona and I are such good friends, considering my first two years at Liberty. At first, Sona was the last person I wanted to befriend. She seemed bossy, arrogant, and rude; but, of course someone like me would have had that impression of her. I was a push-over, insecure, and a people-pleaser.  Over the years, Sona’s true qualities revealed themselves to me in the most amazing ways. Not only has she stood in my corner during my battles, but she has also helped me become a stronger person.

What I thought was bossy at first was really a strong, independent woman who was not afraid to show it. She is a natural leader; as our department chair she is the perfect liaison between teachers and administrators. She is not intimidated by their position, and she treats the department with respect. Sona knows how to take the reins of a new directive and make things happen; she delegates easily and knows who to ask to get the job done correctly.

What I thought was arrogance was really substantiated confidence. I was raised to believe that we lived in a man’s world and I had to know my place. (I guarantee Sona is rolling her eyes at that comment [am I right?]). Sona is brilliant, a great teacher, and the most organized person I know. She color-codes our English courses and can have the majority of our teaching schedule worked out before we look at it, making sure everyone in the department is happy. At one point in her life she wanted to be an accountant, but then switched to teaching; so it’s no wonder she created a financial budget that changed the way I look at my income. I was thrilled to know that we could pay our bills and save for the nonessentials, something we were never able to do before.

What I thought was rudeness was really a woman who has boundaries and knows how to establish them. Boundaries for me, a female child of an alcoholic, were a foreign concept. Sona showed me what healthy boundaries look like, and that it’s okay to form them. She lets me know when I’ve crossed boundaries too, which only serves to strengthen mine. Being a push-over is a distant memory for me now.

I am so happy she came to my house that first girls’ night over five years ago. She went from colleague to fierce friend in a few short months. Without Sona, I don’t know what I would have done during Ian’s Cancer treatments. While we helped Ian battle his Cancer, Sona helped us battle the financial war by organizing and participating in a number of fundraisers for us. She had a Lia Sophia benefit and invited friends of friends of friends—basically strangers—into her home to help us. She collaborated with another colleague and students to have a silent auction at school. Those two events brought in thousands of dollars to go towards hospital bills.

Sona and I also have the added benefit of having children who are buddies. Ian loves her son Reece; he was the perfect playmate when Ian couldn’t be around a lot of children during his treatments.

Sona is the woman who stands in the ring with me at the end of each round, encouraging me to stay strong. She can’t fight my battles for me, but she has given me the training I need to fight with confidence and strength.

Sona, thank you for your friendship; thank you for your strength and courage; thank you for being my blessing.

My Circle of Friends

All four women have made me a better person. I know I can count on them for love and support. We laugh together. We work together. We strengthen each other. They make me want to be a better friend. We haven’t always agreed about things, but our friendships are strong enough to withstand it. I wouldn’t change a thing about them. They are exactly what I need.

In my younger years I looked for friends who were just like me, so I could feel better about who I was. No wonder I was so lonely. No one could do that for me. I had to do that for myself. This awareness has made me think that having a “best” friend needs to be redefined. Best implies having one friend that fulfills all of my needs. I have learned that I have to be my own best friend. The greatest way to take care of myself is to surround myself with people who bring out the best in me, people who are willing to give the best of themselves to me, people I want to give the best of myself to.

Shouldn’t that be what all of our relationships are about?

These women have given me so much. I am a better person because of them. I have more to give to others because of them. I am blessed because of them.

Blessings

Blessing #4: The Man, Not the Father

Blessings

My father was a wonderful man, but a horrible father. Most of my childhood memories are negative. I know there are other memories besides the criticisms, the beatings, and the drunken rages, but I have a hard time accessing them. I’ll try to remember a nice family dinner—there had to be tons of them—but every time I do, I see the skillet flying across the room, intended for my mother, but hitting my brother instead. I’ll try to remember a time when we all laughed together—but then I’m reminded of his laughter as he kicked me while I was rolled up in a ball, protecting myself.

I don’t want these memories to have control over my life anymore. I know there was more to my father than what those memories tell me. Even though there are at least another dozen or so memories—some worse, some better—than the two I shared, I know my father loved me. I told myself for the longest time that he must not have loved me enough to stop himself from behaving brutally. I don’t believe that anymore. I believe he loved me as much as he possibly could. The problem was there was a disconnect in my father’s mind and heart; his own difficult life contributed to it.

My father was born in Macedonia, a former republic of Yugoslavia in 1934 or 35. I wish I could tell you the actual date of his birth, but records were not well-kept back then. He also lied about his age to enlist in the navy. I believe we celebrated his birthday in July for a number of years, then November later in his life. The funny thing is my father had forgotten the actual date of his birthday as well.

Other people have told me that as a child, my father was devastated at the death of his own father when he was a young boy. Dedo Vele (my older brother is named after him) was a well-loved and well-respected Macedonian patriot, probably one of the reasons my father enlisted in the navy when he was 15. Like all war veterans, my father must have been tainted by the cruelty of war, not to mention being exposed to them at such a young age. Later, my father illegally crossed the Greece border and was placed in a POW refugee camp for about three years. This is where he became a polyglot; he not only learned all the Slavic languages of Yugoslavia, but he also became fluent in Greek and Russian. (After moving to America, he became fluent in English as well.) When I became an adult, he told me how he became a boxer. When he was serving time, the guards took all his possessions and left him barefoot. The guards would have boxing matches with each other and prisoners for privileges and the stolen possessions. My father watched them fight for months before entering the ring, shoeless. The guards laughed at him, until he beat his first opponent. He won a pair of shoes as his first prize, but never wore them in the ring. He continued winning barefoot, but gave away his prizes to fellow prisoners. His philanthropic attitude made him a favorite with POWs, as well as the guards.

His philanthropy expanded beyond the prison walls. He always gave more than he had to family and friends. If someone came to the house and needed $100, my father would find a way to give it to him, even if it were in pennies. We seemed to have a slew of long-term visitors to our house as well. All they needed to be invited as a guest was to be Macedonian. I guess he gave what he didn’t have to his children, in a way, through the pipe dreams he filled our heads with. He really wanted to give us the pool and the vacations; I think he was more disappointed in himself that he never fulfilled those dreams than we ever were.

The one moment that convinced me of my father’s love was the day I told him I was pregnant and I wasn’t getting married. He didn’t yell at me or tell me he knew this would happen to me or tell me to get an abortion. He cried; he hugged me tightly; he said he was sorry for my pain through his own tears. He wanted to talk to the boy who did this, to make him marry me. I wouldn’t let him. It was that day that I found out about my half-sister. He had done the same thing to a young woman before coming to America. He had a picture of his other daughter and brought it out to show me. He cried some more. It was with this heart that he loved and adored his first grandchild, Nicole. He was a better grandfather than I could have imagined.

Twenty years later, I stood at his grave site. I was filled with pain and regret. I had stopped talking to Tato (Dad in Macedonian) for six years before he died. Ian was born about 4-5 years into that silent treatment. I never called my father to tell him that he had a new grandson. He found out about Ian through my older brother. My brother told me he cried. I remembered all those things as I stood at the fresh mound of dirt. I wasted all those years being angry. I could never hear his voice again or let Ian talk to his Dedo Johnny.

During this trip to Macedonia with my brothers, I found out a lot about my dad from my cousins. One story they told me was about his stubbornness. My father had a number of strokes later in his life that eventually led to his death. The second to last stroke left him paralyzed on his right side. Most people would have been confined to a wheel chair with this condition. Not my father. Tato sat, but behind the wheel of his car, and a standard car at that. After his funeral people told me about his treks around town using his left foot for gas, clutch, and break, and his left hand to shift gears and drive. I still chuckle whenever I think about it, and then wonder at how he didn’t kill himself or others while driving that way. He was so determined. People offered to drive him, but he wouldn’t accept their offers. He wanted to be his own man, on his own terms.

Another story was from a month before his death. My dad was at the casino, his home-away-from-home; a woman in the casino had walked by when my dad heard two men speaking Greek. They were being vulgar about the woman and my father told them to stop, in Greek. One of them asked, “Who’s going to make me? You old man?” My father must have looked old and frail with his paralyzed right side. Those men laughed at my father. Within seconds Tato had somehow gotten out of his chair, knocked the one man to the ground, and had the other by the throat. All my father could say between gasps of air is “Yes.” The security guys had to carry my father out of the casino because he could no longer walk, while the obnoxious Greek men stared in awe at the crippled man who just kicked their asses.

Jovan Galovski was a man who battled his demons publicly and privately. We had a difficult life with him as our father, but he infused us with qualities that made us who we are. I don’t regret my past, but I do regret my memories. I want to remember my father as the man he was–his spirit, his strength, his defense of the defenseless–not the father. I want my children to know these things about him because that’s what he would have shown them. He would have only shown them the best of himself. I’m sad that he couldn’t show me his best during my informative years, but it’s part of my life; it’s how I became me. I am choosing to take the best parts of who Tato was and prune the rest.

I am blessed by my father because I wouldn’t be here without him; I wouldn’t be me without him.

Blessing #3: My Mother’s Heart

Photo by Carol Linn Hawkins
Photo by Carol Linn Hawkins

Everything I have learned about love came from my mother. Even when it doesn’t make a lot of sense to give, she gives to a loved one without batting an eye. I attribute this to her tender heart; however, one does not become tender without a lot of pain (meat is tenderized by beating it).

Ana Kordovich (Galovski) was born in Bukovo (a small village in Macedonia) on September 4th, 1939. The day before her birth her father (my Dedo Gus:) was called back to America because of the turmoil in Europe (WWII was on the horizon). If he did not return at that time, he risked losing his hard-earned American citizenship. This led to a 12-year separation. During those war years, everyone suffered. One significant memory was when she and my grandmother had to escape an Italian invasion by quietly walking through an ice-cold river up the mountain.

Because my mother didn’t have her father present, children in the village taunted her with vulgar names. It left a permanent scar. She and my grandmother were finally able to get government approval to join my grandfather in America right before her teen years began. She struggled with learning English at first, but quickly caught up and earned high grades in high school. In her twenties, she met and fell in love with an incredibly handsome man; they married before she truly knew what she was getting into. As handsome as he was, my father had a darkness in him that equaled his looks.

It wasn’t until I became an adult and heard these stories that I was able to understand how incredible my mother truly is. With all this pain in her past, how did she not become bitter? Once I became a wife and mother, I better understood what motivated my mother.

When I was younger, my mother’s high-spirited yells used to embarrass me at my brother’s soccer games: One time she actually had a referee throw a whistle at her, telling her to do a better job. About four years ago, a volleyball referee almost threw me out of a game for yelling at him about a ridiculous call against my daughter. Now, I know that my mother’s love for her children forced her immediate defense of their being wronged, no matter where, no matter whom.

In my teenage years, I judged her for staying with my father for so long: He was abusive, an alcoholic, and a gambler. I wondered how she could be so weak. Now, I understand her choices had more to do with her love for a man who could be kind and gentle and charming most of the time; more to do with her love for her children and the fear of their growing up without a father in their lives; more to do with the hope that my father would become the husband and father in our lives that she so longed for. She refused to give up on him, not out of weakness, but out of love and compassion and hope. Like my mother, I believe in the vows I made, promising to love, honor, and cherish, in good times and bad.

When I went to college, I thought I was so much smarter than my mother and her high-school degree. All I knew is that she worked for an insurance company. Later, I discovered that she started as an assistant, worked her way up to an account executive, and built up her own insurance book of business. Not only was she smart, but she had a strong work ethic, an understanding of personal relationships, a respect for individuals (not the size of their wallets), and a faithfulness to her word and the needs of her clients. (The spirit of those qualities I have tried to emulate as a teacher.) The most amazing things she has been able to accomplish with her high-school degree are surviving a divorce, raising three children on her own (all of which went to college), pay off her house, bail her children out of financial set-backs, and still have enough to provide for her grand children.

My mother is a blessing not only to me, but also to so many people. She lovingly gives to others, even if they don’t deserve it. However, because my mother loves with a tender heart, she gives grace, rather than justice. My brother jokingly put it this way: If Mom saw that one of us needed a shirt, not only would she take hers off to give it to us, but she would chase down the person walking past her, pull off his shirt and give it to us, so we could have a back-up plan.

My mother’s heart is larger than the average heart: It has the propensity to love deeper, give greater, and forgive fuller than any heart I have ever known. I am blessed to have been raised by such a woman; I am blessed to have been given so much from this woman. I pray that my heart will grow to an abnormal size, so I may bless others the way she has blessed me.

Blessings

 

 

Blessing #2: God Gave Me Nicole

Blessings

I don’t regret my past. It’s made me who I am today. People are shocked when I say that after hearing about my less-than-ideal upbringing: My father was an abusive alcoholic; I was beaten many times during his drunken rages. Also, as a girl, I had less value in my European family than my brothers; when I was sixteen, I randomly met a man who knew my dad for ten years and had no clue that I existed. He said, “I knew John had two sons, but I never knew he had a daughter.” Those are just a few reasons that I grew up as a shy girl with very little confidence in myself.

It took me until I was in college to consider myself even somewhat attractive. I found it quite surprising when I received any attention from the opposite sex, but I liked it. What I also discovered is that college boys liked me a lot better when I’d been drinking. Unfortunately, it started a vicious cycle of drinking and falling in love with the wrong boy. I ended up binge-drinking and binge-chasing someone who only wanted me for one thing…that is until I met Dennis. Dennis and I went out on dates; I met his parents; I hung out with his friends: I was his girlfriend. It was the first time I knew how that felt. I had never been so happy.

But then, we heavily celebrated my 21st birthday–I didn’t remember much. A few weeks later I discovered I was pregnant.

I was devastated when he changed his mind about marrying me. I had to move in with my mother as I prepared to become a mother. I felt the scarlet letter burn my chest as some of my family members were so disgusted and embarrassed by me that they couldn’t look at me. The day I told my dad was the first time I ever saw him cry. Thankfully, I had a few people who stood by me and supported my decision to keep my baby.

Those nine months slowly changed my life. As I felt my baby grow, I felt my confidence grow as well. I started thinking about the kind of woman I wanted to be for my child. Who I was at the time would not be good enough. I knew I had to make changes.

Nicole Marie Galovski was born on July 9th, 1987. I held her in my arms and fell instantly in love. She had big blue eyes and platinum blond hair. She seemed to respond instantly to my voice. I cried from pure joy, the first I had experienced in my life up to that point. Nicole was perfect, and I couldn’t understand how I could have anything to do with something so angelic.

The transition from me to us came with its challenges, but Nicole and I weathered them together. I continued to live with my mom, so I could provide a safe, loving environment for Nicole. Even though I had a college degree, I didn’t apply for any teaching jobs. I couldn’t imagine putting my baby in daycare, so I watched children out of my mother’s home during the day and worked in a restaurant at night and on the weekends when my mom would be home to watch Nicole. I made plenty of mistakes, but I learned from them so I could be a better mother.

Even though those days were difficult and far from perfect, I wouldn’t change anything about them. Nicole changed my life for the better. Her presence in my life removed me from the downward spiral I was in. I hate to think about the life I would have led if it weren’t for Nicole. She became my reason for living, not just existing from one intoxicated state to another.

People have told me over the years how proud they are of me for not choosing abortion and saving Nicole’s life. I am extremely thankful for that decision as well. But the truth is, Nicole saved my life. I was on a destructive path that only a miracle could alter; Nicole was that miracle. God gave me Nicole so I could get and stay on the right path. I’m nowhere near where I should be, but I’m definitely closer to the person God created me to be because of Nicole.

Nicole is a grown woman now. She is strong and confident and witty and beautiful–everything I wanted her to be because it was everything I wasn’t at her age. She lives two thousand miles away from me, but she still keeps me on the right path. A few months back she wrote me a letter in response to a difficult situation I didn’t handle very well. Nicole lovingly pointed out my mistakes, and added, “you’ve told me everything I’ve been doing wrong for 24 years (and I hope will continue to do so), and that has helped me out more than anything else; it’s changed me for the better even if it made me mad initially.” I appreciated her perspective and her candor. She saw that I had stepped off my path and lovingly brought me back–again.

That letter marked the day our relationship changed: We now come together as two women who have an unbreakable bond, even though we don’t get to spend nearly enough time together. I am blessed because God chose me to be her mother. I am blessed because God gave me a reason to walk away from my painful past and to walk towards a life of unconditional love.

The perfect illustration for those early days with Nicole: Blake Shelton’s video “God Gave Me You.”

Cause God gave me you for the ups and downs
God gave me you for the days of doubt
And for when I think I lost my way
There are no words here left to say, it’s true
God gave me you
Gave me you

32 Blessings and Blessing #1: Ian Is Alive and Well

Blessings

To say my life has been difficult the last month is an understatement. In early December I was humming a sweet tune while I traveled along the path of my dream life; then, I was yanked out of my reverie and forced to see a different reality, one filled with lies, betrayals, and pain. I can’t even begin to tell people all the stressful, painful experiences I’ve had to deal with, without betraying people I love, so I won’t. You’ll just have to trust me.

Two and a half years ago, I was confronted with life’s precariousness with Ian’s Cancer. His battle taught me not to put my dreams on hold and to fight courageously for every precious day. During that time I fought to stay optimistic. Some days were easier than others, but as Ian recovered successfully, I felt confident in my future. 2011 was filled with good news: My son was healthy. My daughters were living out their dreams. My husband and I planned our dream baseball trip. And I was finally going to become the writer I knew was inside of me with a travel blog.

Then, in December of 2011, I found myself chest-deep in muck. Muck that other people threw on me. Muck that I received for trusting people I loved and cared about. Pessimism filled my ears and heart–but only for a short time. Even in the midst of the pain and anger, I knew that I could never be a cynic. That kind of negativity hurts my soul. And frankly, being cynical is a coward’s mantra: “I don’t want to believe in the goodness of humanity because it will hurt more when they disappointment me.” That cowardice is equivalent to the people who are afraid to try because it’s better to fail for not trying, than failing after throwing their hearts into it. I’m not sure if I have earned the title courageous, but I’m more afraid of being a quitter. If I quit, I will definitely lose. I don’t like those odds.

But how could I move forward when the future I saw so clearly had drastically changed?

After the tears and initial shock were over, I had to look at which parts of my dreams and goals I had to let go of, and which parts I refused to give up on. Our baseball trip was no longer a possibility, but I could still fight for the dream of being a writer. That’s how “32 in 32” added the subtitle: “Keeping the Dream Alive.”

I also had to do something about the physical pain the stress and shock were doing to my body. I started using my treadmill and exercise videos in the mornings. I haven’t missed a day in almost three weeks. It did wonders for the constant stomach flips, and it helped me think clearly.

Now that I took control of the things I could control, I had to find a way to be and stay positive. As cliché as it sounds, I had to count my blessings. It kept me from falling into despair. With that said, my first official blog series for 32 in 32 will be “32 Blessings.” I encourage you to count yours.

Blessing #1: Ian Is Alive and Well

Two years ago, Ian just turned five. He was bald, thin, and fragile. Today, Ian just celebrated his seventh birthday. He is Cancer-free and his surgery and treatments are just a distant memory. What greater blessing is there?

He loves his first-grade teacher and is making friends in our neighborhood. I was a little worried about his brain development this past semester. He wasn’t reading, and no matter what I did with him, he just wasn’t connecting the letters and sounds. I was afraid that he might have some brain damage from the surgery and radiation. However, on December 16th, Ian asked if he could try reading a book to me. It was as if something finally clicked in his brain. He started reading and sounding out the words without any help from me! No one was more surprised than Ian. He giggled with excitement: “I’m reading! I’m actually reading!” Since then, Ian is rarely without a book in his hands.

Physically, it’s as if he never had Cancer. Ian started playing in-line hockey in September. He picked up skating very quickly and is now learning how to handle the stick and puck, scoring a few goals already. I’m starting to learn the ins and outs of being a hockey mom. The first lesson is to always bring a water bottle with a long straw! The second lesson: The fall looks worse than it actually is.

Ian also played coach-pitch baseball last summer. He studied jiu jitsu for seven months and learned how to swim. He likes practicing parkour around the house, neighborhood, and anywhere he can find walls to climb up, jump on, jump over, or kick off from. I think sometimes Ian’s Cancer was a way to prepare me for the physical craziness I was going to have to accept as his mother: I had to face the possibility of Ian not being able to run and jump and play, so I could accept any athleticism he chooses to pursue.

We are looking forward to this summer when he can finally join basketball and football camp.

It’s amazing that doctors once thought he may have learning disabilities and may not be able to run and jump and play like a normal little boy. One thing is for sure, whatever the future brings, we are thankful beyond words that Cancer is a distant memory for Ian.

No matter what difficulties I have in my life now, it can never compare to the blessing of having Ian in our lives, healthy and strong.