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.