Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Kiss, A Teddy Bear, and a Jake the Pirate Serenade

My little guy has become an expert at comforting his mama when I'm sad. Believe me that it's an expertise that I wish he didn't have to perfect at 3 years of age, but he has been learning about grief and mourning since he was 15 months old. Even then he had obvious instincts as a comforter. He would gently rub my shoulder or pat my back whenever I was upset or displayed some sign of missing Joe. His offerings matured as he did and three weeks ago, on the 2nd anniversary of Joe's death, his chosen method of comfort towards his mom was to give me some of his cranberries - his very precious cranberries - while we were riding in the car together.

This morning I was in my bedroom when I got the news that my friend and fellow CWA organizer Connie English had passed away. She had been in a car accident last Saturday along with her husband, Herman, who died at the scene. The tears just came and with them my son found his way into my room. He always seems to know the moment I start to cry. I don't think I will ever forget what happened next.

First he climbed up on my bed and told me he was going to make me feel better. He told me he was going to give me a hug and a kiss and then he did. After the hug and kiss he told me that he wanted to give me his teddy bear and then sing me a "Jake" song. Would I come into his room with him? Of course.

I was heartbroken, but somehow my little guy depositing his teddy bear in my arms and serenading me from his Jake and the Neverland Pirates CD was a "life rushes in" kind of moment. Just like when he offered me his cranberries 3 weeks earlier, there was no way I could ignore the earnestness of his effort. He wanted nothing more than for his mommy to be happy and for that moment at least I was proud and energized and blessed.

The day still went on. And it was hard. The reality is that I'm finding it incredibly difficult to talk about Connie in the past tense. It still feels so surreal that she is gone. That Herman is gone. That I won't see them at our next CWA Convention. Or on a dance floor. Or around Trenton. How is it possible that I won't have another chat with her about how her running is going? That we will never get around to running that race together we always talked about but never did. Today, time is the enemy.

I have no doubt that as stories are told in the coming weeks they will reveal the deep impact of Connie's work as an organizer. She was damn good at it and people loved her. I think that those of us who do this work often get caught up in the day to day and lose sight of the fact that what we do involves helping workers win big changes between the "before" and "after". That impact can matter greatly for workers for a lifetime and I believe we will see that Connie's legacy is particularly powerful.

For me, today was a day of refocus. There is a saying I've seen repeatedly over the past two years that has resonated with me that really hit home today. It goes like this: There will be a day when you can no longer do this...Today is NOT that day.

I never got to run a race with Connie but I did the one thing today that I know always helps when I need to clear my head and get my soul on track. I went for a run. Today though, it wasn't just any run and perhaps that is fitting. This was Week 1, Day 1 of my journey to qualify to run the Boston Marathon - a journey which will almost certainly take me more than one attempt and which could very well take many years. For as long as I am physically able, I will keep pushing on until I get there because certainly there WILL come a day when I can no longer do it, but thankfully that day is NOT today.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Dose of Hope from Jimmy V

Tonight I found myself at the end of a long work day in a hotel in upstate New York missing my son, wishing I could be with my Dad on his birthday, and overwhelmed with the instances of loss and pain surrounding me. It's been a dark week and I needed a dose of hope.

As often happens in these situations, I got it. And also as it often goes, I'm sure the person who directed me to it has no idea that he did. Our texts back and forth were nothing spectacular but they let me know to flip my channel to ESPN at about 9pm. The Florida Gators were playing at Madison Square Garden in the Jimmy V Classic. Not that I care that much about the Florida Gators men's basketball team, but I do know that Jimmy Valvano's speech from the Espy Awards in 1993 was one of the best speeches I've ever heard.

They replayed it before the Gators v. Memphis game started and I had a healthy, cathartic cry as I found that dose of hope. Then, I made a contribution to the Jimmy V Foundation.

I would bet that his speech might do the same for you if you are feeling a little December dark these days:

Thank you, Thank you very much. Thank you. That’s the lowest I’ve ever seen Dick Vitale since the owner of the Detroit Pistons called him in and told him he should go into broadcasting. 

The I can’t tell you what an honor it is, to even be mentioned in the same breath with Arthur Ashe. This is something I certainly will treasure forever. But, as it was said on the tape, and I also don’t have one of those things going with the cue cards, so I’m going to speak longer than anybody else has spoken tonight. That’s the way it goes. Time is very precious to me. I don’t know how much I have left and I have some things that I would like to say. Hopefully, at the end, I will have said something that will be important to other people too.

But, I can’t help it. Now I’m fighting cancer, everybody knows that. People ask me all the time about how you go through your life and how’s your day, and nothing is changed for me. As Dick said, I’m a very emotional and passionate man. I can’t help it. That’s being the son of Rocco and Angelina Valvano. It comes with the territory. We hug, we kiss, we love. When people say to me how do you get through life or each day, it’s the same thing. To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. Number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.

I rode on the plane up today with Mike Krzyzewski, my good friend and wonderful coach. People don’t realize he’s ten times a better person than he is a coach, and we know he’s a great coach. He’s meant a lot to me in these last five or six months with my battle. But when I look at Mike, I think, we competed against each other as players. I coached against him for fifteen years, and I always have to think about what’s important in life to me are these three things. Where you started, where you are and where you’re going to be. Those are the three things that I try to do every day. When I think about getting up and giving a speech, I can’t help it. I have to remember the first speech I ever gave.

I was coaching at Rutgers University, that was my first job, oh that’s wonderful (reaction to applause), and I was the freshman coach. That’s when freshmen played on freshman teams, and I was so fired up about my first job. I see Lou Holtz here. Coach Holtz, who doesn’t like the very first job you had? The very first time you stood in the locker room to give a pep talk. That’s a special place, the locker room, for a coach to give a talk. So my idol as a coach was Vince Lombardi, and I read this book called “Commitment To Excellence” by Vince Lombardi. And in the book, Lombardi talked about the fist time he spoke before his Green Bay Packers team in the locker room, and they were perennial losers. I’m reading this and Lombardi said he was thinking should it be a long talk, or a short talk? But he wanted it to be emotional, so it would be brief. So here’s what I did. Normally you  get in the locker room, I don’t know, twenty-five minutes, a half hour before the team takes the field, you do your little x and o’s, and then you give the great Knute Rockne talk. We all do. Speech number eight-four. You pull them right out, you get ready. You get your squad ready. Well, this is the first one I ever gave and I read this thing. Lombardi, what he said was he didn’t go in, he waited. His team wondering, where is he? Where is this great coach? He’s not there. Ten minutes he’s still not there. Three minutes before they could take the field Lombardi comes in, bangs the door open, and I think you all remember what great presence he had, great presence. He walked in and he walked back and forth, like this, just walked, staring at the players. He said, “All eyes on me.” I’m reading this in this book. I’m getting this picture of Lombardi before his first game and he said “Gentlemen, we will be successful this year, if you can focus on three things, and three things only. Your family, your religion and the Green Bay Packers.” They knocked the walls down and the rest was history. I said, that’s beautiful. I’m going to do that. Your family, your religion and Rutgers basketball. That’s it. I had it. Listen, I’m twenty-one years old. The kids I’m coaching are nineteen, and I’m going to be the greatest coach in the world, the next Lombardi. I’m practicing outside of the locker room and the managers tell me you got to go in. Not yet, not yet, family, religion, Rutgers Basketball. All eyes on me. I got it, I got it. Then finally he said, three minutes, I said fine. True story. I go to knock the doors open just like Lombardi. Boom! They don’t open. I almost broke my arm. Now I was down, the players were looking. Help the coach out, help him out. Now I did like Lombardi, I walked back and forth, and I was going like that with my arm getting the feeling back in it. Finally I said, “Gentlemen, all eyes on me.” These kids wanted to play, they’re nineteen. “Let’s go,” I said. “Gentlemen, we’ll be successful this year if you can focus on three things, and three things only. Your family, your religion and the Green Bay Packers,” I told them. I did that. I remember that. I remember where I came from. 

It’s so important to know where you are. I know where I am right now. How do you go from where you are to where you want to be? I think you have to have an enthusiasm for life. You have to have a dream, a goal. You have to be willing to work for it. 

I talked about my family, my family’s so important. People think I have courage. The courage in my family are my wife Pam, my three daughters, here, Nicole, Jamie, LeeAnn, my mom, who’s right here too. That screen is flashing up there thirty seconds like I care about that screen right now, huh? I got tumors all over my body. I’m worried about some guy in the back going thirty seconds? You got a lot, hey va fa napoli, buddy. You got a lot.

I just got one last thing, I urge all of you, all of you, to enjoy your life, the precious moments you have. To spend each day with some laughter and some thought, to get your emotions going. To be enthusiastic every day and as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Nothing great could be accomplished without enthusiasm,” to keep your dreams alive in spite of problems whatever you have. The ability to be able to work hard for your dreams to come true, to become a reality.

Now I look at where I am now and I know what I want to do. What I would like to be able to do is spend whatever time I have left and to give, and maybe, some hope to others. Arthur Ashe Foundation is a wonderful thing, and AIDS, the amount of money pouring in for AIDS is not enough, but is significant. But if I told you it’s ten times the amount that goes in for cancer research. I also told you that five hundred thousand people will die this year of cancer. I also tell you that one in every four will be afflicted with this disease, and yet somehow, we seem to have put it in a little bit of the background. I want to bring it back on the front table. We need your help. I need your help. We need money for research. It may not save my life. It may save my children’s lives. It may save someone you love. And ESPN has been so kind to support me in this endeavor and allow me to announce tonight, that with ESPN’s support, which means what? Their money and their dollars and they’re helping me-we are starting the Jimmy V Foundation for Cancer Research. And its motto is “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up.” That’s what I’m going to try to do every minute that I have left. I will thank God for the day and the moment I have. If you see me, smile and give me a hug. That’s important to me too. But try if you can to support, whether it’s AIDS or the cancer foundation, so that someone else might survive, might prosper and might actually be cured of this dreaded disease. I can’t thank ESPN enough for allowing this to happen. I’m going to work as hard as I can for cancer research and hopefully, maybe, we’ll have some cures and some breakthroughs. I’d like to think, I’m going to fight my brains out to be back here again next year for the Arthur Ashe recipient. I want to give it next year!  

I know, I gotta go, I gotta go, and I got one last thing and I said it before, and I want to say it again. Cancer can take away all my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever.

I thank you and God bless you all.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Deep Darkness and Budding Hope

The past 48 hours have left me emotionally full and only one tiny step closer to being "ready" for Christmas. (We finally put up the little Christmas tree tonight!)

My church, which I have attended since birth, has been going through a difficult 3 year transition since our long time pastor retired.  So difficult in fact that on more than one occasion I have thought about leaving the church and that on a regular basis over the past 3 years I have sought my spiritual growth from other spaces and places. On Friday night, we had the opportunity to meet, for the first time, the woman who our Pastor Nominating Committee had selected to be our next pastor. Throughout the weekend there would be opportunities to meet her and then on Sunday morning she would lead worship. Afterwards, our congregation would vote on whether to officially call her as our next pastor (spoiler alert: WE DID!). 

I started my research on her as soon as her name was announced last Sunday, but it wasn't until I met her Friday night that I really started to believe that this church which I have called home since birth may not actually be pushing me towards the door.  In spite of the frigid temps outside, there was great warmth inside and the discomfort I have felt so regularly in my church over the past 3 years was slowly starting to melt away. After spending an hour and a half in that space meeting and greeting I left with a peace that something good was finally brewing at Kingston Presbyterian. I cried some tears of relief and joy on my way home.

I was lucky enough to start Saturday off with an appointment with my favorite massage therapist before heading off through some light snow flurries to my last race of the year. I joined my cousin and her husband for the Mistletoe 5k at the Mercerville Fire Company in Hamilton, NJ. It was 28 degrees, snowing, and a little windy. A month ago I finished a Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trot in similarly cold weather in 25:17, definitely not a personal best but respectable considering the hills, the cold, and the fact that I hadn't run since November 9th. I wanted to do better on this run and finish out what has been an incredible year of racing by running a strong last race. But it was cold and snowing and the first mile the wind was blowing right in our faces. Oh, and I hadn't run since the Turkey Trot.
With my cousin and her husband at the Mistletoe 5k
Thankfully, I had a good playlist (that's really all you need, right?) and a Santa hat to keep me warm. There were also a couple of guys who seemed to lose their steam along the way and it's always fun to pass someone on your way to the finish line. So my playlist kept me plugging along even while the snow was coming down harder and harder.

Rise Today - Alter Bridge
Overcomer - Mandisa
Shut Up and Drive - Rihanna
Roar - Katy Perry
I Don't Wanna Stop - Ozzy Osborne
A Cut Above - Avery Watts
Lose Yourself - Eminem

I wasn't too far into Lose Yourself when I crossed the line - in 24:40something (official results aren't up yet, but I did apparently get 2nd in my age group). I had finished race #17 in a year that saw me complete my first (and second and third and fourth) half marathon(s) and my first full marathon. I had run a strong race in the snow to add to other races which I've completed in the sweltering heat, the punishing wind and the dark of night. I felt accomplished after this race because of the whole year of racing that came before. I am a different person now than I was before in so many ways. Knowing what I have accomplished this year makes me look forward to next year with tremendous hope, even in the midst of the deep darkness that is winter.

I have an awesome friend who has been taking good care of me, especially over the past few months and I'm glad that she has been encouraging me to step out of my comfort zones. Earlier in the week, she went clothes shopping with me and kept making me try on smaller and smaller sizes until I actually bought clothes that fit. (I'm still in disbelief by the way.) On Saturday night, she made plans for me to have an honest to goodness adult night out and it was a blast. The four of us didn't do anything special (unless you count discovering how poor of a capitalist I am by playing Monopoly as special) but we took advantage of being snowed in and drank some beers and laughed together. It was one of the best nights I've had in awhile and I'm thankful to my parents who held down the fort at home with the little guy while I enjoyed myself.

It wasn't until about 7:30am Sunday when I heard the horrible news. It flipped my weekend upside down and reminded me once again that our moments here on earth are incredibly precious. I learned that Connie, a friend and fellow organizer, had been in a tragic car accident the night before. Her husband, Herman, who had been driving, died at the scene and she was in the hospital fighting for her life. When I think of Herman and Connie I think of pure love. Of best friends. Of dance partners and life partners. He was a shop steward in CWA and she is an organizer with the Union. Herman was a wonderful man and Connie was his match. Needless to say, I went to church this morning with a very heavy heart.

I have been in a constant state of crying out to God for Connie's health all day today and I know from her Facebook wall that I'm not the only one. In church, I passed along a prayer request and asked the rest of my congregation to join me. Rev. Sharyl Dixon, our candidate for pastor preached and led our worship service. During her sermon, I finally started to feel at home in my church again. As she prayed and lifted up Connie's health and Herman's grieving family and friends, I was overwhelmed with God's presence there. I felt a level of care in that space that I have found to be intermittent at best over the past several years. I felt like there was a rebirth of sorts in our faith community. The waiting is finally over and now I feel something that I haven't in quite awhile...hope.

I am still sad and awaiting word on Connie's condition, but there is a profound difference in knowing that the faith community I call home is one where I once again feel I can go with both my deep darkness and my budding hope. 

Somehow that meant I found the strength to decorate the little Christmas tree tonight. 

This year, Domani was old enough to help so he "unwrapped" the ornaments and helped pick out a spot on the tree as I told him the story about each one. Some, like the ones with photos of Joe or a Mets logo didn't need any explanation, but he was quite interested in the ones from when he was born or the ones from Aunt Jen that had our names on them. I might need to be concerned, though that he seemed to know right away who Peter from the Family Guy was and seemed completely unfazed by the fact that the Peter ornament is naked except for a strategically placed gift. His father's son, I guess.
The little Christmas tree all decorated for 2013!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Rise Today

I've cried a lot already this week. And it's only Wednesday.

There was lunch at my parents' house on Sunday after church. We had pizza with my parents, Karen, Chris and Catherine, just like we have done many other Sundays, but this time there was a sad cloud hanging over the house. It was our last Sunday lunch there since the house is about to be sold. I remembered Sundays long ago in that house with my grandparents and the whole extended family and then more recent family dinners with Joe and the new babies in the family. I started crying in the kitchen as the enormity of it all began to sink in.

There was my office at work on Tuesday, still unpacked from when I switched offices just before Thanksgiving. My stress level had peaked and my mind was really wondering what it would be like to throw my computer out of my 3rd floor window. I started crying as I sunk into my chair while feverishly trying to organize the files I needed for the next day - all well after everyone else had already gone home for the day.

There was the car this morning on the way to take Domani to my sister's house. I started crying when he said that he missed his Daddy. He replied by saying "I'll find a way to help you stop crying Mommy...here's a cranberry."

There was New York Penn Station this afternoon as I was walking to catch my train and listening to a couple of new tunes that Justin had suggested to me. Who would have guessed that Watch Over Me by Alter Bridge is such a powerful little song. It caught me completely off guard and I started crying as I was walking down to Track 4 for the train to Newark.

There was the cemetery this evening before I went to help facilitate our last grief support group of the fall at my church. I started crying as soon as I sat down on the bench in front of where Joe is buried. I sat listening to some tunes and cried a lot. And then I turned to a song which has been inspiring me again and again for the last month. It was helpful.

Rise Today
The wind is blowing cold
Have we lost our way tonight?
Have we lost our hope to sorrow?

Feels like we're all alone
Running further from what's right
And there are no more heroes to follow

So what are we becoming?
Where did we go wrong?

Yeah, oh yeah
I wanna rise today
And change this world
Yeah, oh yeah
Oh, won't you rise today
And change this world?

The Sun is beating down
Are we ever gonna change
Can we stop the blood
Come on now! 

Our time is running out
Hope we find a better way
Before we find we're left with nothing

For every life that's taken
So much love is wasted

Yeah, oh yeah
I wanna rise today
And change this world
Yeah, oh yeah
So won't you rise today
And change... 

This world
Only love can set it right
This world
If only peace would never die

Seems to me that we've got each other wrong
Was the enemy just your brother all along?

Yeah, oh yeah
I wanna rise today
And change this world
Yeah, oh yeah
Oh, won't you rise today
And change this world?

Tomorrow is 2 years since Joe died. Tonight I changed the ringtone on my morning alarm to Rise Today for a little added inspiration. I have to go into NYC for work, a particularly challenging trip given that it will take me right to the neighborhood where Joe received many of his chemo treatments. Perhaps it will be a "Rise Today on repeat" kind of day. Maybe I will even need some cranberries from Domani when I get home.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

What I'm Not Doing This Holiday

For the first time in as long as I can remember I didn't make the sweet potato casserole this morning. I decided a few days ago that it was just too much. There's a lot going on in my life right now and I won't go into it all here, but I think the real reason I decided to skip making the sweet potatoes is because last year I used salt instead of sugar.

I know that probably seems like a silly reason, but I remember so clearly how my Grandpop was happily eating those sweet potatoes right up until one of us took a bite and realized that something was VERY WRONG. It didn't take us long to figure out that the white stuff in my unmarked container was salt and not sugar and my morning of peeling and mashing and mixing and baking was in the garbage can before you could say Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Grandpop seemed unfazed. He complimented me on them regardless and said how they are always delicious and then moved on to the other things that were still on his plate. 

He died on May 31st of this year and I miss him so much. So this morning after I ran a Turkey Trot 5k I stopped by the cemetery and recounted the story through a flood of tears. If there is one thing that I have learned over the past two years since losing Joe it is that  I must listen to where I am at and be respectful of what I am capable of on any given day. Today was not going to be a sweet potato casserole day.

So I'm glad that last night I emailed the sweet potato casserole recipe that I use to my mom. I think she plans on using it and I'm sure she will not confuse her salt with her sugar. I doubt, though, that any of us will be able to eat it without thinking of Grandpop and how different our Thanksgiving table is this year. And that is perfectly ok. After all, Thanksgiving is about being thankful even if that is for some wonderful memories.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Anne Luck-Deak, Marathoner

In some ways I think the reality is still sinking in. I did it. I ran all 26.2 miles. I completed the journey during which I raised over $5,000 for the American Cancer Society and I crossed the finish line with a smile on my face and more joy in my heart than I could have ever imagined. Not only did I do it, but I enjoyed every minute of it and I've already set my next marathon goal. (More on that in some future post.)

As almost always happens when I race, I woke up before my alarm. In this case, that meant about 4:30am since the Team DetermiNation bus was scheduled to leave for the start area on Staten Island from just outside Central Park at 5:45am. It was a good thing we lucked out with an extra hour of sleep and that I had mostly adhered to my "lights out" time of 11pm the night before. I came back from our Team DetermiNation pasta party inspired, but with a terrible migraine, so I had been concerned about my ability to get any sleep before the race. Thankfully, I had gotten a good night's sleep on Friday (I'm told that's the key anyway) and I slept off my migraine for a good hour before my pre-race prep and my actual bedtime.
Inspiring view from our Team DetermiNation Pasta Party of the
 Empire State Building lit up for the Marathon
By the time my morning wake up rolled around, I was actually feeling pretty good and as ready as I was going to be for my 26.2 adventure.

I posted this photo on Facebook before leaving for the Marathon.
My friend Scott who had already been more than hospitable during my stay in NYC hopped into a cab with me to make sure I made it over to my Team DetermiNation bus without any problem. I arrived in plenty of time and was on my way to Staten Island by 6am.

Many thanks to Scott for playing host to me & my
parents for the weekend.
I was able to catch at least another half hour of shut eye on the bus and then it was through all the security measures to gain entrance to the start area at Fort Wadsworth. Everything was so organized and the race officials and volunteers were a proper measure of enthusiastic and serious. I couldn't believe I was actually there and I couldn't have been happier to finally find the Charity Village area!

In our Team DetermiNation tent we had hot coffee, shelter from the wind, and inspiration beyond measure. I was able to spend time hanging out with my friend Melissa and her husband Paul - fitting since Melissa is the reason I found myself at the start line that day. There was a beautiful banner in the tent which featured photos of many of our loved ones who motivated us to run with the Team - it included a photo of Joe, Domani and me from our trip to LBI in July 2011. Then, not long after Melissa and Paul had left to join their Wave, in walked Kate and Alena who I had trained with in NJ. It was so nice to see them and share hugs and take photos together in advance of our own starts.
With Melissa under the bridge after checking my bag

Posing with the "I'm Racing For..." banner in the Team DetermiNation Tent
I thought that the morning hours leading up to my start time would drag on, but the truth is that the time just flew by. Before I knew it, our coach Ramon was announcing that it was time for those of us in Wave 3 to make our way over to the start corrals.

With Kate, Alena, & Coach Ramon just before leaving for the Wave 3 Corral Start
We watched from just outside our corral as the first wave started across the bridge and it was spectacular. I alternated between watching the big screen that was set up in the start village and the bridge itself which was directly in front of me. I just couldn't believe I was actually there and that in less than an hour it would be me going across that same bridge starting my first marathon.

Watching Wave 1 cross the bridge from just outside our Corral
The next 45 minutes passed quickly as those of us in Wave 3 made our way into the start corral and maneuvered our way past all of those waiting for a last minute bathroom break. I was in the corral with Lindsey, another Team DetermiNation runner and I was so happy to be sharing the start experience with her. We ditched our outer clothing along with the other items which would go to Goodwill just before moving out of the corral up towards the bridge. Much of what happened next was a blur except for the moment when they started playing New York, New York and it seemed like the whole crowd started singing along. It was the first time along the marathon route that I got teary, but it wouldn't be the last. What a thrill it was crossing that start line after that send off!

The first two miles were exciting but so windy that I found myself wondering what NYRR would do if all of our bibs flew off our shirts at the same time and landed in the Hudson. I spent most of mile 3 dodging outerwear that had been thrown to the ground haphazardly and by mile 4 I finally felt like I was in a groove, attributed mostly to the great spectators in the Brooklyn neighborhoods. I found myself running towards the sides of the course, taking my time and high fiving anyone who offered - but especially all the kids. I was having a grand time and enjoying everything about running in NYC.

I was able to ride the crowd to keep a cool and steady pace through Brooklyn and into Queens, periodically relying on my random shuffle tunes to provide a little pick me up here and there. Then came that 59th Street Bridge. I had been warned about it. Several friends, including my Team DetermiNation coach, had explained it in detail. I had done all my hill training, but it was still tough. I tried to remember everything I had learned. I went to my race mantra - You + God = Enough - which was written on a rubberband around my wrist (thanks to a tip from my sister Naomi). But mostly, I just kept my eyes forward and thought of Joe.

Then, after what seemed like an eternity, I could tell that I was finally running downhill. As I could see the bend that would lead me off the bridge and into Manhattan, I heard the first few bars of Don't Stop Believin' come through my earbuds and there was just no stopping the tears. The timing could not have been more perfect for what that song meant to me and for that moment in the marathon. It wasn't just a good running song, it was my Joe calling at a critical moment and it played as I ran past the Team DetermiNation photographer and it continued as I waved at everyone cheering outside Memorial Sloan Kettering where Joe received care. It was one of those moments in life when everything moved in slow motion. I felt like I was the lead actress in my very own perfectly scripted movie. Running just doesn't get much better than that.

Not sure exactly where this is, but one of my
favorite photos from during the marathon.

About 20 blocks later at around mile 18 I came upon the first spot where my parents and Scott were waiting to cheer me on. All along the course, I had plenty of people cheering for me by name (thanks to my parents who helped iron my name on my shirt), but there was something really incredible about coming up on Mom & Dad and Scott yelling for me and seeing Mom with her neon sign that said "Go Anne". It was just the extra boost I needed to press on towards the Bronx.

Somewhere around mile 20 I got another much needed boost when I caught up with Melissa and Paul as they were running through the Bronx. It was so nice to see them and run beside them as I surpassed that 20 mile mark and ran what with each step became my longest run ever.

Once we re-entered Manhattan via the Madison Avenue Bridge I could feel the excitement welling up inside. Five miles to go and the crowds were awesome. I was starting to feel tired and I knew the difficult incline at Mile 23 was coming up. In my mind, I was counting down the streets until 91st where I knew I would once again see my parents and Scott. Somewhere along the way I walked through my first Gatorade stop, stretching out my legs a bit as I walked. Hearing spectators along 5th Avenue cheer for me by name kept me going throughout that very difficult Mile 23, but I knew that I would need an extra boost to finish strong.

As I approached 91st Street and spotted that familiar neon sign I made my way over to my mom and gave her a big hug. She was crying. I was crying. It was another one of those slow motion moments (and not only because I was exhausted!) I will remember hugging my mom during Mile 24 of my first marathon for the rest of my life and I'm sure that every time I think about it I will smile and tear up just a little.

The special Mile 24 hug

After  the hug, it was into Central Park I went for some beautiful scenery and, yes, a few more hills. I walked my way quickly through one more Gatorade station and then somewhere around Mile 25, it was random shuffle to the rescue again as I was treated to a little Pearl Jam. What better song to round out my first marathon than Alive - with just enough grit to push me out of Central Park and onto 59th Street where I ditched my earbuds in exchange for the cheers of what seemed like a neverending throng of spectators. That final stretch was fabulous and as I rounded the bend at Columbus Circle I felt every emotion in the book well up inside me. Five months of training and fundraising and the finish was right there. People were cheering. Big signs counted down every 100 yards for the final stretch. And then I was there. A finisher of my first marathon - the NYC marathon.

Crossing the finish line
In my mind, I had a goal of finishing the marathon in 4 hours and perhaps in even less than 4 hours. I didn't do that and I had a feeling from early on that I wouldn't. Perhaps if I were able to run with a 4 hour pace group (there were none available in my slower corral) I could have done it. Maybe if we all weren't dealing with the wind being so tough that day it could have been different. But really, what it came down to for me was that I wanted to enjoy every minute of my first full marathon. I joked with friends and family afterwards that if I hadn't spent 7 minutes and 25 seconds high fiving kids in the outer boroughs and hugging my mom at Mile 24 then I could have gone sub 4 and there is more than a grain of truth in my jest. Looking back though, I wouldn't have run this race any other way. I loved the energy. I loved the love. And I loved taking it a bit easy and soaking it all in. There was something truly wonderful about this race this year in this city. And I'm not ashamed that I cry every time I think about it. I got to run my first full marathon in memory of my husband Joe in a City that was special to both of us with a Team that was more supportive than I could have imagined and for a cause that is close to my heart. Nothing can top that for your first 26.2.

Thank you, New York City, and thank you to all of my friends, family and donors who have supported me on this journey. You were with me for every mile.
Showing off my bling

The NYC Marathon version of "Where's Waldo"...where's Anne?

My donation page for the American Cancer Society will remain open for the next few weeks so if you have not made a donation yet, but would like to there is still time. Thanks again for the overwhelming support you have given me - it has been inspirational beyond measure.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

On Marathon Eve

When Joe and I met up with my college friend Christon at a Cracker Barrel off Route 95 on the way home from  Hilton Head, SC in the summer of 2009 I would never have imagined this day to be in my future. But, in many ways that lunch planted the seeds which now find me 1 sleep away from running the NYC Marathon after smashing through my $5,000 fundraising goal for the American Cancer Society (ACS). I'll never forget how in awe I was that day listening to Christon talk about how she trained for her first marathon and also how obvious it was that crossing the finish line had changed her powerfully. 

When Joe was ill with cancer 2 years later and in what would be his final months of life, Christon ran the NYC Marathon with ACS' Team DetermiNation and raised thousands of dollars for the American Cancer Society, honoring Joe with every mile she ran. Three months after he died, I turned to running as an outlet for my grief and found in it so much more.

Tomorrow morning, I will wake up at a crazy hour and board a bus full of other Team DetermiNation runners bound for the start line of the NYC Marathon. Just typing that gets the tears to well up in the corners of my eyes. Since that very first text message conversation with my friend Melissa in April during which she started "recruiting" me to run the marathon, it has been an amazing journey.

Melissa: When your head feels better I'm going to try to talk you into running the NYC full with us. So that's a thing that will happen.
Me: This fall?!?!
Melissa: Shhhh. Your head hurts. This isn't really happening. It's a dream. Zzzzzzzzzz. (Yes, this fall.)

And, now here I am sitting in Joe's friend Scott's apartment in NYC having just finished my last run before the big race and all those question marks and exclamation points hardly seem like they were necessary. The fall deadline was, after all, not such a big deal. I had a kick ass training season which included Team Determination runs along the towpath and hill repeats at Rutgers, muggy and buggy training runs while traveling for work in Florida, and a whole bunch of fun races with friends and family.

I had the thrill of watching as family and friends, co-workers and acquaintances, people I knew from long ago and even some complete strangers donated to the American Cancer Society through my fundraising site. And I cried tears of joy and sometimes empathy as I read through the countless heartfelt messages people sent me along with their donations and at other random points in my training. I have the most amazing people in my life - people who have spurred me on to the verge of this truly amazing thing.

Last night I was still $585 away from my goal of raising $5,000 for ACS and the honest truth is that I wasn't sure I would hit it before crossing the start line. And then this morning came and with it the unbelievable email that popped up in my inbox around 8am - Congratulations! You have reached your fundraising goal!

And once again, those tears of joy and gratitude. Then, as if I needed more proof as to how fabulous you all are, the donations kept rolling in and are well over $5,100 as of right now. 

As I exited the subway at 53rd and Lexington to walk to Scott's apartment my random shuffle dealt me the perfect song at the perfect moment (I'm sold on random shuffle for tomorrow, by the way, Justin). I was standing at the spot where I had taken Joe for his chemo treatments many times over and looking at a bunch of emails with donations to ACS. The song was Faded by The Afghan Whigs and I have never felt more in tune with the direction of my life than I did right then. This is exactly where I am supposed to be and exactly what I am supposed to be doing. As only happens in the movies, the song ended just as I arrived at Scott's apartment.

Thank you, thank you, thank you. Thanks for supporting me. Thanks for loving on Domani. And most importantly, thanks for remembering our Joe - and for your simple, but powerful acts to build a world with less cancer and more
birthdays. Tomorrow I will run mile after mile after mile thinking about all of that and all of you.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

NYC Marathon Training Update - 25 Days & Counting

After more than 5 months of fundraising and 3 1/2 months of training, I am $211.40 away from my minimum fundraising goal for the American Cancer Society and 25 days away from running the NYC Marathon. It's been quite a ride.

I have run over 360 miles in training.

I have watched my time in 5k races go from a 28:16 before my marathon training started to a 23:29 in my most recent race. I knocked almost 20 minutes off my half marathon time from March to September. I have completed my first ever 20 mile run.

On Sunday, I will run my final race before the marathon - an 18 miler on LBI that starts at one end of the Island and ends at the other. If you told me this time last year that I would be doing an 18 mile race I would have looked at you like you had two heads, but here I am trying to figure out whether I will do it at a 9'10" minute pace or if I can pull off something under 9.

I will run LBI with my friend Melissa. It's the same day that our friend Malinda will be running the Chicago Marathon. With that kind of high mileage, it's almost a guarantee that at some point that day all three of us will be listening to an Afghan Whigs song and running, sort of fitting given that it was those two things that brought us together around this time last year. I'm so thankful for these two amazing ladies who have inspired me and laughed with me and cried with me again and again since we first met.
With Melissa (left) & Malinda (center) after we all PRed at the Rock N Roll
Philly Half Marathon, 9/15/13
And looking back over the last 5 months I have realized that the most wonderful part of this ride has really been all of the support I have received along the way. The encouragement I got from each "A donation has been received..." email. The pure pleasure of chatting with a friend on a training run. The acquaintance who will tolerate my running stories about the snakes I saw on the towpath or the blisters I have on my feet. The fact that people from every corner of my life have reached out in various ways to express their support and excitement for this upcoming race and my fundraising efforts. 

So far I have received 68 donations totaling $3,588.40. I know that Joe would be so proud of all that we as a community have accomplished together.

I'm running the NYC Marathon with Team DetermiNation in memory of Joe.
Here we are with Domani at LBI, July 2011
I have one day left to raise the remaining $211.40 and up until I run the marathon to hit my goal of $5,000 raised for ACS. Given the amazing support I have already received from friends, family, co-workers, and even strangers I have no doubt that it will all come together. Then, on November 3rd, I will bask in all the excitement that is the NYC Marathon as 4 months of training comes together across 5 boroughs and 26.2 miles. It's going to be fabulous and I would be thrilled to see you somewhere along the course. Thank you all for being a part of my journey.

To make a donation to the American Cancer Society through my NYC Marathon fundraising page visit http://bit.ly/19BmD17.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Rock n Roll Philly Half Marathon

I'm still on a high from last weekend. Maybe it was the fact that on Saturday morning I beat my personal best 5k time by more than a minute. Or that on Sunday morning I not only met my sub 2 hour goal in the half marathon, but crossed the line in 1:51:30. Or maybe it was that I did it all with my two best mother runner friends recording their own PRs in both races. Of course, it could have also had something to do with getting to go to my first ever regular season Giants game on Sunday afternoon - even if it was only to watch Eli get picked off endlessly in the end zone. 

If I were being completely honest though, it would mostly have to do with the great company I had for the weekend - a friend who made 3 days pass like 3 minutes and whose visit left me happier than I thought possible. Cloud 9 is a place I wasn't sure I would ever occupy again when Joe died in December 2011. But somehow, I have found myself recently with more and more cloud 9 moments and I'm so thankful for them.

My friend Erin shared this image about two months ago during what was a tough time for me and it has stuck with me and inspired me in different ways ever since. When I read it again before the Philly weekend started I realized just how far I have come in all aspects of my life - physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually - in just the last 6 months.

Marathon training has done wonders for me in each of these areas, but it hasn't been just running that has brought about these changes in me. It's been a few key relationships that I have taken time to make sure I maintain come hell or high water in the midst of a busy schedule. It's been making sure I say bedtime prayers with my little guy and get to spiritual direction once a month. And it's been a more conscious effort to track what I feed my body and my mind. Oh, and really, really, really trying to get some sleep.

All of that is to say that I was in a good place coming in to the Rock N Roll Philly Half Marathon weekend. My goal was a good 5k race on Saturday morning for the Undy 5000, a fundraiser for the Colon Cancer Alliance and then my very first sub-2 half marathon on Sunday morning. The weather forecast was looking good. My mother runner friends Malinda and Melissa were in town for both races. My friend Justin had come in for the weekend and my training had been going so well. I had been steadily knocking time off my 5k races all summer. I had a feeling it would happen again - I just had no idea by how much! 

Malinda held her speedy title of the group and hammered out the 5k race in a very impressive 22:38, taking first place in her age group. Melissa and I tried to keep her in our sights and managed our own personal bests - I finished more than a minute better than I did just two weeks before in Maryland coming in at 23:29 and Melissa was not far behind me at 24:34. We took 2nd and 3rd in our age group (until as a postscript two women finished WAY later but with faster times and pushed us to 4th and 5th, not sure Melissa even knows this...BOOOOOOO!) Regardless, it was awesome fun and there's not much like being able to walk around all day saying you won the race (even if you didn't technically win the race). As far as mother runners go, we felt pretty powerful and certainly ready to kick some half marathon butt.

The rest of the day went by quickly. A trip to the race expo to pick up our numbers and do some shopping. Lunch from Reading Terminal Market where we had also eaten the day before. A visit to hang out with Domani and watch some college football. A tasty but noisy dinner at Pietros. Then, it was time to finalize the playlist on my iPhone and lay out everything I needed for the morning - and I had to do it all by 11pm because apparently I had a lights out bedtime for optimal sub-2 performance. Although I was stressed trying to get everything done and I was not confident by 11:10pm that my playlist was exactly the way I wanted it, I went to sleep. This was the first time I have ever gotten a restful night's sleep before a race. I think it paid off.

Rock n Roll Philly Half Marathon Playlist

I Need You by Scrawl
Don't Stop Believin' by Journey
Roar by Katy Perry
Hurricane by Bridgit Mendler
Enter Sandman by Metallica
Feathers by Coheed and Cambria
Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen
A Cut Above by Avery Watts
Everlasting God by Jeremy Camp
Fountain and Fairfax by The Afghan Whigs
Shout at the Devil by Motley Crue
Girl on Fire (feat. Nicki Minaj) by Alicia Keys
Holding Out for a Hero (Glee Cast Version)
The Edge of Glory by Lady Gaga
Kickstart My Heart by Motley Crue
I Don't Wanna Stop by Ozzy Osborne
Shut Up and Drive by Rihanna
Fight for Your Right by Beastie Boys
Gasoline by Audioslave
Superman (Glee Cast Version)
Sweet Child O' Mine by Guns N' Roses
Titanium (feat. Sia) by David Guetta
The Warrior's Code by Dropkick Murphys
Funky Cold Medina by Tone-Loc
Solidarity Forever by Vayizaku
Gold on the Ceiling by The Black Keys
Friday by Rebecca Black
Black Betty by Ram Jam
Turn on the Water by The Afghan Whigs
Lose Yourself by Eminem
Shut Up and Drive by Rihanna (yes, it's a repeat)
A Cut Above by Avery Watts (yes, it's a repeat)
You Shook Me All Night Long by AC/DC
Big Foot by Chickenfoot

I didn't need anything past Turn On the Water because I finished the race in 1:51:30, much faster than I thought possible when I set out on my sub-2 mission. Melissa, God bless her, hung with me the whole time and even pushed me when I hit my mental wall right around mile 11. We maintained an average pace of 8'31" for 13.1 miles on a Sunday morning in September and we will talk about that morning with huge smiles on our faces FOREVER.
These are the smiles we will have FOREVER.
Photo from right after we crossed the finish.
We grabbed all the water and chocolate milk and Gatorade and bagels we could get our hands on in the finishers area, found Melissa's husband Paul and then went off to find Melissa's mom and kids and Justin. Of course, before we left we posed for some triumphant finisher's photos!

I know. I look way too cool to have just run 13.1.

Yep, we're still smiling.
Poor Justin had to listen to me randomly say 1:51:30 for the rest of the day. I couldn't help it. Even a week later it still seems a little unbelievable. I guess it will stay unbelievable until the next race - when I do something I didn't think I could possibly do. Mark your calendars for October 13th, people. That's when I will run the LBI 18 miler. Oh boy!

You would think that running a half marathon would be enough for one day, but in my world of "Do what you love and do it often" you would be wrong. So, after the half marathon, we took a quick triumphant mother runner photo in the lobby of our hotel and then Justin and I were off to the Manning Bowl back in NJ.
Melissa, Malinda, and Me after running for PRs in the RnR Philly Half
Obviously, I was wearing the shirt of the wrong Manning brother, but we had fun anyway. It was my first ever regular season NFL game so I was mostly able to overlook the fact that the Giants had a complete meltdown. We enjoyed our seats. The weather was beautiful. And we were watching the Manning brothers play some football. We also got to watch Bill Parcells receive his Hall of Fame ring in a special ceremony at halftime which wasn't nearly as exciting for Justin as it was for me. In fact, I'm pretty sure there were some not so nice words being mumbled under his breath while Parcells was speaking. At least we didn't hit any traffic on our way out since the Giants fans were kind enough to clear out early as the loss became more and more lopsided.
Giants v. Broncos 9/15/13 - Section 204
I read the Life poster again at the end of the weekend after I had returned to the rhythm of work with the excitement of the race weekend and Justin's visit behind me. The part that stuck out the most to me then was the end - "Life is short. Live your dream, and wear your passion." I feel like I have learned this lesson well in my 35 short years and I am finally doing it with gusto. I also know that nothing makes me happier than when I can take others along for an exciting adventure - whether it's running a race, taking a trip, or something even more life changing. I know I'm blessed to be able to do that and I don't plan on stopping any time soon. We get this life once and I, for one, love living it.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Technologically Advanced Grief

If Joe were still alive there would be no way that I would ever be allowed to write this post. He was much too shy and private for even this watered down version. But then again, if he were still alive there wouldn't be a need for me to write it.

Over the course of the past week, I have dealt with a facet of widowhood that I'm pretty sure was not a part of the paperwork just a generation ago. It started in March when I got the first notice from the Sperm & Embryo Bank of NJ that the annual storage fee on Joe's "account" was coming due. It's no small fee - $575 a year - to maintain the vials that were stored just prior to the start of his chemotherapy treatments.

Last year, when I got a similar notice 3 months after Joe died, I knew that it was too soon for me to make any decisions about what to do so I paid the storage fee and let it leave my mind.

This year's notice was perfectly timed to arrive just in time for my 35th birthday. It contained all the instructions I needed on how to transfer the account officially into my name (by this point they received notice Joe died) and the various options of continuing storage, donation, or destruction. It probably goes without saying that I wasn't very interested in dealing with "this" issue at "that" moment in my life. Between my birthday and my biological clock the emotions were just too overwhelming. 

So, to the bottom of my TO DO pile it went. 

Several subsequent notices always seemed to arrive when I was too busy at work or just too overwhelmed in general so they joined the initial one at the bottom of my TO DO pile. 

Before I knew it, the calendar was showing August and those nice people at SEBNJ finally decided I needed a kick in the pants. It was the "pay within 15 days or we are sending this to collections" notice that arrived a few days before my scheduled vacation time for work. I knew that I had run out of time and added "SEBNJ" to my already lengthy TO DO list for while I actually had some time off from work.

On Monday, August 5, I called SEBNJ and managed to hold it together through the 5 minute conversation with a nice woman named Sandy. She expressed her sympathy for my loss and explained to me what I needed to do in order to transfer the account officially into my name and then to officially give permission for them to destroy the vials if that was going to be my decision. She said that she would email me the instructions she had just given me along with all the necessary paperwork. After we hung up I cried.

Does anyone realize that this decision feels a little bit like your husband DYING AGAIN? There's this piece of him (that I happen to know helped create a pretty damn amazing kid not so long ago) that's still here. On earth. With me (sort of). And I'm completing a NOTICE OF DESTRUCTION for it?!

But then, I caught sight of a photo of Joe I have in the house and I pictured what he would have to say about all of this. While we didn't talk specifically about what would happen to these vials if he died, I knew my husband and the relationship we had. Every time I have contemplated this issue I have come to the same conclusion and have had the same visual of Joe laughing and saying "what are you crazy? Don't give them any more money. You have a life to live with Domani."

And so the next day, I faxed over the documents to change the account to my name. After a couple of days, I made the arrangements to have the Notice of Destruction notarized. It was Sunday and I'm quite sure that Domani had no idea what was going on when we went to visit our family friend after church. He was more talkative than normal and I was feeling peaceful after being caught by the hymn Trust and Obey during church. There was something about it that brought me calm in spite of my fears of the future. Many of those fears are wrapped up in my current relationship situation that has left me questioning whether I will actually find someone who is as interested in me as I am in him, whether I will find someone who wants to have kids, and whether any of that will happen with the timing that would make it all possible. That was what was weighing on my mind on Sunday just before I signed the Notice of Destruction and why these words especially got to me:

Not a shadow can rise, not a cloud in the skies, But His smile quickly drives it away;
Not a doubt nor a fear, not a sigh nor a tear, Can abide while we trust and obey.

Not a burden we bear, not a sorrow we share, But our toil He doth richly repay;
Not a grief nor a loss, not a frown nor a cross, But is blest if we trust and obey.

But we never can prove the delights of His love, Until all on the altar we lay;
For the favor He shows and the joy he bestows are for them who will trust and obey.

I thought of other dark periods in my life and what it felt like then to be unsure of the future and then I realized how richly I was blessed out of that darkness. There was no question in my mind that this was the right decision, but I needed the courage to do it in the midst of uncertainty about my own hopes and dreams for the future. 

On Monday, August 12, I sent the notarized Notice of Destruction to SEBNJ. That night I had a helpful conversation with Joe's mom which brought me even more peace about the decision. Today, Thursday, August 15, I received a letter from SEBNJ acknowledging its receipt and specifying my pro-rated balance due. After opening the notice, I cried at the finality of it. Domani was there to give me a sweet hug and kiss and to "make me smile" as only he can do. Thank God for that kid.

So, now as the clock ticks past midnight and the date changes to August 16, I'm thinking back to this day 5 years ago when Joe and I were married. There are more tears as this has been a hard week and getting through tomorrow won't be easy. But I'm also right now remembering the "conversation" I had with Joe and smiling just a bit about the fact that I'll be using the balance of the money I won't be paying to SEBNJ this year to take Domani on the road for a Mets game in September. I think Joe would approve.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Five Days of Baseball Heaven in NYC - All Star Game 2013

We went back to Citifield this past Saturday for the first time since the All Star break and the only way I can describe it was surreal. You see, the five days that began with Fanfest and ended with the All Star Game on Tuesday night were about as close to baseball heaven as I think I will ever come and it was strange returning to "our" ballpark for "just another game". We had a lot of fun at Saturday's game and thankfully the Mets managed to squeak out a win against those rival Phillies, but it all just made me think wistfully of the events of the week that had just passed. I found myself glancing up towards section 510, tearing up at the leftover ASG signs and souvenirs, and flipping through the photos in my phone from the various events and games. It was no contest - those five days and everything that came with them were simply some of the most fun I've had in the last year and a half.

On Friday, I was able to bring Domani along with his cousins and his Uncle Derek to the All Star Game Fanfest at the Jacob Javits Center in NYC. We assumed that we would spend a few hours there and then have to sweep the bored kids away and return home, but we ended up spending the WHOLE day checking out as many of the exhibits as we possibly could and having a blast together. We each posed for our very own baseball cards and practiced our aim by *attempting* to throw baseballs through tires (we even got a few in). I got my ASG program autographed by John Franco. The kids got free baseballs, beads, and balloon animals/flowers/swords. We got to see items on display from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and got our picture taken with the World Series Trophy. We ate lunch and snacks and, of course, bought souvenirs. We packed an awful lot into 6 hours.
That smile is me visualizing the Mets bringing this to Queens in a few years (2? 3?)
Ya gotta believe, right?
Joe would be proud of his niece's Mets shirt for sure.

Posing for a quick photo by Matt Harvey's "locker" at Fanfest
Saturday had its own All Star Game festivities although this time it was off to Prospect Park in Brooklyn with my cousin Mike for the ASG 5k. We had an awesome cheering section - his girlfriend Kristin and my friend Scott - and despite the humidity I managed to beat my previous best 5k time by more than a minute and a half, finishing the course in 26:41. It was a fun race and I'm so glad I got to run it with Mike who I don't get to see very often. We already have plans to tackle another 5k soon and although I'm sure nothing will quite compare to getting a send off from Mr. Met I see another PR in my future as the weather cools off.
With Mike after the race

After the 5k I had time for a massage with Nancy before our church's annual Blueberry Festival. And then it was straightening up the house and very little sleep in anticipation of an early morning run to the Philadelphia airport to pick up my friend Justin who was flying in for the rest of the All Star game activities. We picked him up a little before 9am and could only coax Domani away from the airport by reminding him that we were going to Citifield. It was Sunday and that meant the Futures game and the Legends & Celebrity Softball Game. I was a little nervous about driving in to the game since I had been getting basically daily emails from the Mets telling us that we should take the train, but I figured that since we were traveling with a full car, including the little guy it was worth attempting the ride in. In the end, it was the easiest drive in and out of Citifield I've ever had. (Which was more than made up for on Saturday when some guy who wasn't paying attention sideswiped us on 278 in Brooklyn while we were driving home from the Mets v. Phillies game!)

Sunday was a hot day and we were relieved to discover that even though our seats were high up, they were under cover. We had a nice view just off to the right of home plate and were mercifully out of the hottest rays of the sun. As a result, we were able to tough it out through the Futures game AND the softball game that followed. It was a great afternoon and special because I was able to bring Domani along, but my favorite part was when the Mets legends were announced for the softball game. I couldn't help but think how much Joe would have loved watching Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Mike Piazza and John Franco take the field in that moment and I was especially moved by the tribute to Gary Carter, who passed away from brain cancer last year. And of course, it didn't hurt that Piazza got himself a nice little homerun so we could cheer like old times. So much fun!

At Sunday's games with a sleepy Domani
By the time we got home on Sunday we were all pretty tired, but it wasn't long before Justin and I were on our way back to Citifield for the Home Run Derby. After a scary incident with a parking deck elevator that just about closed with Justin's arm in it (welcome to New Brunswick!) we made the rest of the trip in without any problems (the problems would come on the trip home!)

I wasn't quite ready for the emotional roller coaster, though, that was waiting for me upon my arrival at Citifield. As I stepped down from the train station stairs and walked towards the stadium there was a VFW vet selling poppies and I immediately thought of my Grandpop. I walked around a little aimlessly as I felt the tears start to well up in my eyes - thinking of him, thinking of my Grandmom who was the biggest Mets fan of all in our family, thinking of those two things together. I was just thankful to have a friend there with me and somehow it helped keep me from completely losing it. But then, for some cosmic reason I will never understand, there was more. 

We walked inside the stadium and no sooner had we scanned our tickets and passed through the turnstile then we were handed a bag with goodies. One thing - a lanyard to hold our ticket - was pretty exciting as Justin had just been talking about buying one the day before. And now...no need - FREEBIE! But in midst of the lanyard excitement I noticed something else...Stand Up 2 Cancer was EVERYWHERE. There was a table in the Rotunda. There was a sign in our bag for us to fill in the name of someone we "stand up for". There was a guy (or a gal, I honestly can't remember) in a SU2C shirt thrusting a marker at us so we could write in the name on our sign. Damn it, I stand up to cancer every day. Every day when I get out of the bed that I used to share. Every day when I look in my son's eyes. Every day when I kill a stink bug or take out the garbage or empty the basement dehumidifier. Why do I have to do it here TOO?! I grabbed the marker, took a deep breath, looked around the Rotunda at this place we didn't get to visit together for nearly enough years and wrote his name. Once again I was glad I had a friend with me because that was one long escalator ride and subsequent walk up to our seats.

Once I was over the initial shock of having SU2C as a constant fixture for the night I decided it was actually a nice thing. The moment when they had everyone stand up with their signs was moving and it was a special way to think about Joe during an event that I know he would have loved. There was nothing like being a part of the Citifield crowd cheering for David Wright when he was announced or watching Yoenis Cespedes smack homer after homer during his 17 home run first round. I've enjoyed many home run derbys from the comfort of my couch, but there was just no comparison to this experience. The ballpark felt electric and I knew I was lucky to be sharing it with my cousin Mike, my Uncle Kevin and Justin. The whole night was so much fun, even from up in the "cheap seats".

David Wright is announced at the Home Run Derby to a cheering crowd

With my cousin Mike and Uncle Kevin
Citifield at sunset on the night of the Home Run Derby, 7/15/13

The journey home that night was a rough one. We had taken the LIRR to Citifield with ease but as we approached the station to take the train back to NY Penn Station it became obvious that something was definitely wrong. As it turned out, the 7 train was shut down due to a fire on the line so EVERYONE was trying to take the LIRR. Thankfully, I had something to distract me while we were waiting on the platform for the train - Matt Harvey! During the Derby, a friend had emailed me the YouTube video of Matt Harvey interviewing New Yorkers about Matt Harvey, so I took this as a chance for a good laugh. I ended up watching the video that night, once the next morning, and several times thereafter, laughing until I cried each time.

If nothing else our ride back to Penn Station was entertaining as a group of drunks on the train serenaded our car with their own stirring rendition of the national anthem. Unfortunately, even the dose of patriotism didn't help us make it to NY Penn in time for the earlier train to NJ so we ended up having to wait until 1:20am to head back to Jersey. The only upside was that it gave us some time to get a head start on our planned adventure for the next (really SAME day) - APPLE PHOTOS!

I call this my "1am crazy" Apple photo.
With the Boston Red Sox Apple at the Party City on West 34th.
Note the Home Run Derby LANYARD. So exciting.
We got home well after 3:30am and eventually got some sleep. Then, it was time for the All Star Game Apple Adventure. In celebration of the ASG being in NYC there were decorated apples placed throughout the city - one for each MLB team, one each for the Brooklyn Dodgers and the NY Giants, one for each of the two leagues, and one for the ASG - 35 in total. There was an Instagram contest running which you were entered if you posted at least 15 photos with the apples so Justin and I set that as our goal. (We found out after the fact that the contest ended Monday at noon, but oh well!) We had just about 3 hours from the time we arrived in NYC until the time we met Karen and Derek, the rest of our ASG crew, at NY Penn, but we managed to pay a visit to all of the following apples:

1) Boston Red Sox - Party City 223 West 34th Street between 7th & 8th Avenues
2) Arizona Diamondbacks - Modell's 1293 Broadway at 34th Street
3) Chicago Cubs - Staybridge Suites 340 West 40th Street between 8th & 9th Avenues
4) NY Yankees - Modell's 234 West 42nd Street between 7th & 8th Avenues
5) Chicago White Sox - Toys R Us 1514 Broadway at 44th Street
6) Miami Marlins - Grace Building West 43rd Street at 6th Avenue
7) Brooklyn Dodgers - Grand Central Terminal at 42nd Street
8) New York Giants - Grand Central Terminal at 42nd Street
9) Houston Astros - Westin 212 East 42nd Street between 2nd & 3rd Avenues
10) Milwaukee Brewers - Office of the Commissioner 245 Park Avenue at 46th Street
11) Toronto Blue Jays - Intercontinental 111 East 48th Street at Lexington Avenue
12) Seattle Mariners - Nintendo 10 Rockefeller Plaza at 48th Street
13) NY Mets - SNY 1271 Avenue of the Americas between 50th & 51st Streets
14) Detroit Tigers - Duane Reade 1657 Broadway between 51st and 52nd Streets

We also went by the NYC Public Library to see the Apples from the National League and the American League, but they had already been removed. As it turned out they had been taken to Citifield so that the players could sign them. All of the apples are now being auctioned off (including the league ones signed by all of the ASG players) here. As a bonus at the library though we did get to see their Honus Wagner baseball card so that was definitely worth the stop. The card, by the way, was much smaller than either of us imagined it would be (just in case you were wondering).

So, without further ado...a sampling of our Apple pics...

My attempt at a badass pose with the Brewers Apple.

No, Justin, the Miami Marlins Apple does not need security.

Corporate branding at its best/worst.
Geoffrey jumped right in this photo.

If I had a broom, I would have been sweeping this Apple away.

Ah, finally I get to pose with the Mets Apple!
I can't believe I actually took a picture of him doing this.
After our Manhattan Apple Adventure, we headed back to NY Penn Station to meet Karen & Derek who were arriving at 5:30 to join us on the LIRR train to Citifield. The four of us together made for a fun crew - Derek for the Red Sox, Karen for the Yankees, Justin for the Marlins and me for my Mets - a perfect balance between American League and National League with some good rivalries thrown in. Once we arrived at Citifield, there was the disappointment of not getting another lanyard (What? NO All Star Game LANYARD?!) and then, after having a beer with Derek and Karen it was up to good old section 510. I could definitely feel the emotions welling up as I looked around the stadium at all the fabulous orange and blue and took in the beautiful night. We were at the All Star Game. At Citifield.

The pre-game ceremony was tough for me, mostly because every piece of it made me think of Joe. I always get a little choked up during the National Anthem at baseball games, but there was definitely something special about this moment that really got me. Karen noticed and I'm glad she was there to give me a hug like only a sister can. When Tom Seaver aka "The Franchise" came out to throw the first pitch the tears were freely flowing because at that point I couldn't help but put myself back in my living room watching the final pitch at Shea Stadium with Joe in 2008. We were newlyweds and of course had no idea what was ahead for us, but my eyes were filled with tears then too as we watched Seaver throw that final pitch to Mike Piazza to close out play at the stadium where we had made so many amazing memories together.

Tom Seaver prepares to throw out the first pitch.
When Seaver threw that pitch to David Wright before the start of the All Star Game it did feel like Joe was there too. All those memories we had from Shea and then Citifield were somehow wrapped up in that moment. I have found many paths for healing in the midst of my grief since Joe died and baseball has definitely been one of them. For that, I am thankful beyond words. A ceremonial first pitch and a hug from my sister - two simple things that made a big difference on a night I will never forget.

And then, the game actually started! I can't begin to describe how exciting it was to watch Matt Harvey start the All Star Game at Citifield, even if he did start it by giving up a double and then hitting Robinson Cano. I'm glad he was classy about it and that he settled down for the rest of his appearance - giving us 3 strikeouts to cheer for and not giving up any runs. I do love me some Matt Harvey. And some David Wright. On a night that was short on hits for the National League, our hometown hero managed to notch the 2nd hit for the League, giving all of us in orange and blue a little something to cheer about. Even though I was a little disappointed that the American League pulled out the win, I'm glad that the 4 of us watching from section 510 got to see some good moments.

Justin saw his lone Marlin pitch a perfect 6th inning.

Karen got to watch Mo Rivera pitch in what will most likely be his last All Star Game ever. Derek got to say that he sat while everyone else stood while Mo Rivera came out to pitch in what will most likely be his last All Star Game ever. 

We all had a great time.

With Derek

With Justin

With Karen

And just like that...it was over much too quickly. The American League won 3-0. It was time to catch the LIRR back to NY Penn Station and wait again for the 1:20am train back to Jersey. Another late night that was well worth the sleep we sacrificed.

Justin and I did manage to nab our final Apple shot after the game when Karen snapped a photo of us next to the All Star Game one outside the stadium. We may have missed the contest deadline, but at least we got our 15.

With Apple #15 at Citifield!