A Wedding, Two Funerals, and A Hurricane

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This summer has left me forever changed in ways more dramatic than I might ever have imagined. It began innocently enough with a visit to New Orleans with grandson Ian. He saw my favorite city with a new set of eyes that were innocent and inquisitive. It was the history of the place that fascinated him more than even the food and entertainment. He was particularly entranced with the World War II Museum which filled him with wonder and so many questions. I suppose that in many ways the day that we spent reliving the drama and importance of that era when was the beginning of a circle of life that left me profoundly different by the end of my journey through the warm lazy days that have heretofore represented fun and frolic to me, but would no longer be so simple to consider.

After our sojourn in New Orleans we travelled to Cancun for the wedding of two of our favorite friends, Tim and Dickie. We learned just how powerful love can be and that how it cannot be narrowly defined. We also went on a journey back in history to study the Mayan people and their glorious civilization that had been quite advanced in its time. It humbled us to learn of the ingenuity of mankind, but also to understand that the upheavals of life and how we humans react to them have the power to take down or raise up even nations.

We had scheduled so many more amazing travels for July and August when our world was shaken to its very foundation. My husband Mike had a stroke on July 3, and it was as though the earth itself had stood still. Nothing really mattered to me other than Mike’s health and I was thankful that he was still alive and that I would have more time to convey my feelings for him. I suppose that from that exact moment forward I quit taking anything for granted. I became more attuned to the colors and sounds and people all around me. I rejoiced each day when both Mike and I arose. I reveled in even the smallest bits of joy that came our way. Somehow I found myself caring little for things and greatly appreciative of relationships and love.

Mike and I shared a viewing of a partial eclipse of the sun rather than than the total one that we had planned to witness. I suppose that I should have been disappointed that we were not able to travel to Wyoming for the event, but having the pleasure of sitting with Mike in a park watching the little piece of wonder that we were given was more than ample for me. I felt that our day together was truly glorious just because we had the gift of being together. Whenever I thought of what might have been, I felt frightened but mostly grateful for my blessings. Each new day was glorious, but I had little idea that an even greater test of my endurance lay ahead.

As the summer drew to a close my two eldest grandsons readied to go off to college. We celebrated at our favorite Cuban restaurant, El Meson, in the Village area of Houston near Rice University and the Medical Center. It was a beautiful night in which we enjoyed knowing what fine young men our Andrew and Jack had become. It was yet another reason to be thankful and our hearts were filled with joy.

Later we had the privilege of having our twin grandsons Ben and Eli at our home while their parents helped their older brother to check into his dorm at Texas A&M. I was charged with helping the two boys to complete a project for their English class and we worked quite hard for an entire Saturday. I woke them up early on Sunday so that we might finish and still have time for some fun before their parents returned. Just as I had hoped we found ourselves with enough free hours that we were able to go bowling at the Main Event. Later that evening we played a rousing game of Scrabble with no holds barred, and Eli literally blew us all away with a remarkable score. We laughed and felt so good that I once again found myself silently saying prayers of thanks for such precious moments.

Then came the threat of hurricane Harvey. It seemed that because the eye of the storm would be so far away we would be in little danger. There were predictions of massive rainfall but somehow that didn’t seem to be much of a problem, and so we decided to stay in our home. On the first day after the hurricane made landfall we spoke of the hysteria of the forecasters because their promises of floods appeared to have been premature. We were much more saddened by images of the devastation in Rockport, Texas, one of our all time favorite camping spots. It was not until the evening that the rains began and kept going and going and going for three solid days leaving forty three inches in our neighborhood alone.

We began to hear dire reports of friends and family members whose homes were taking on water. The television stations showed us live pictures of familiar places that looked like ocean front property. More and more people that we knew were evacuating, sometimes in the middle of the night. Suddenly I became fearful because it was apparent that if my husband had another stroke there would be little that we might do to get the help that he would need. Those three days became a kind of terror for me. I watched the rain and the street in front and the yard in the back, ever vigilant and unable to sleep lest I might need to get Mike to a medical facility. I cared not about any of the things in my home, but only about my husband and his safety. I realized that I was going to do whatever it took to get him through.

When the rain finally stopped and moved away from our city after dumping fifty one inches across a one hundred mile wide area I was emotionally drained and filled with conflicting emotions. I cried for all of the souls whose worlds had been turned upside down. I sobbed for those who had lost their lives and their homes. I felt lucky that Mike had made it through the days and nights in good condition. I laughed that we had stayed home from camping trips and the eclipse lest he be in a situation in which he might not be able to receive immediate medical care, and ironically for three days we had essentially been trapped on a kind of island with so much happening all around us that we were actually quite alone. I had to praise God for caring for us and for giving me the strength and the calm that I had needed to weather the storm.

Last week our city began to attempt a return to normalcy in earnest. Children returned to school. Adults went back to work. There were actually days that felt so much like the glorious beginning of fall that has always made Houston a kind of Chamber of Commerce postcard. Only rides around town reminded us of the horror of what had happened. Still we had to be happy that we were able to meet with great friends for a brunch on Sunday. We were grateful that we got to visit Mike’s father on Monday and see that he was doing well. Then our week was punctuated with the sorrow and celebration of the lives of two incredible women who had died. I think that perhaps more than any other event their funerals impacted me with a realization of what is truly most important as we live out our days.

Both of these beautiful souls had lived through those harrowing events of World War II that we had studied in New Orleans with Ian. One of them had resided in England. She met her soulmate during that conflict, an American GI. The two of them fell in love and he took her back to his home in Texas where they had seven children that they raised in a home filled with love and goodness and faith in God. The other woman had been born in Italy but eventually immigrated to New Orleans where she too met the love of her life. They also wound up in Houston in the same neighborhood where I grew up. They had four children who would become dear friends of mine. Both women were devoted to their families and required very little in the way of possessions or wealth to be happy. They sacrificed for family and felt honored to do so. In the end they were in turn loved and adored by their children and their friends.

When I attended the two funerals I was accompanied by people that I had known since I was quite young. We had each accumulated a lifetime of stories and memories, but somehow we knew that those women had demonstrated to us how to truly get the most out of life. I felt a sense of peace and a feeling of understanding that has all too often eluded me as I have fought to accomplish rather than to relate. I saw that these women had always realized that titles and bank accounts and possessions were not the things that define a life well lived, but rather the moments when we touch hearts. Somehow I understood that in spite of the topsy turvy nature of this summer, it had been magnificent because it had opened my eyes to how I need to embrace each moment that I have. Somehow I am all the better for what I have learned from that wedding, the hurricane and those two funerals.

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Urban Exploration

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I vividly recall a Sunday afternoon of long ago when I was still a child, an innocent with longings for adventure. I was exploring the neighborhood by my grandmother’s house with a few of my cousins. We had ventured a couple of blocks farther away from the area where we usually confined our play, taking advantage of the daylight and the fact that our parents were busy visiting with Grandma and didn’t notice our absence. Our intended destination was to get as close as possible to the mountains of gravel and sand that stood like exotic behemoths on the grounds of Parker Brothers’. We were hoping that we might actually be able to climb on the manmade peaks if we were clever enough to find a way inside the fence that guarded the the mounds that beckoned us. Ours was childhood excitement on a grand scale, and we set forth on our expedition feeling rather courageous and a bit guilty that we were leaving without first consulting with our parents.

We had not gone far when we encountered an abandoned home sitting seemingly in the middle of an urban industrial zone. It was easily as eery as any haunted house that we had seen in horror movies with its peeling paint, broken windows and overgrown yard. We were fascinated by the structure and agreed almost without uttering a single word that we must learn more about the strange place. We carefully waded through the weeds and inspected the structure from all sides, moving along a three hundred sixty degree path near the foundation of the once noble building.

It was a two story house that surely had been a show piece in a neighborhood of tiny bungalows. Our grandmother’s place might have fit easily inside the cavernous space. We whispered our theories of who might have lived here and why they had decided to leave, but mostly we discussed whether or not we should dare to go inside. The open door beckoned us, but our knowledge of fairytales and the trouble that envelops children who are careless gave us momentary pause. Eventually our curiosity overcame our caution, and we crept quietly and slowly past the threshold and into the unknown void.

Birds flew freely inside the rooms through holes in the roof that allowed the sun to serve as lighting. Cobwebs decorated corners and dust served as carpet on the floors. The scene was at once serene and frightening. There was something oddly disturbing about the elegance of the architecture overgrown with neglect. We surveyed our find with a kind of reverence as though we had unearthed an archeological dig, noting the features of the rooms and using clues to determine who we thought might have lived there. Then we saw the staircase leading to the rooms above us and we were overcome with desire to venture into an area that we somehow understood was taboo.

Like Ulysses of old, the siren call of those stairs overwhelmed all of our common sense, and we began our dangerous trek up the wooden construction that wobbled under our feet as though it was ready to collapse from the weight of our bodies. It was a precarious path on rotted wood that snapped now and again beneath our feet, but we were determined to overcome our fears and reach our destination, and soon we were peering into a strange world that made our hearts beat so rapidly that we felt the pulse of anxiety in our throats. There before us stood evidence that the house was still very much in use. The trappings of civilization were all around.

A mattress lay on the floor with the imprint of the person who used it still visible. A dirty pillow lay at the ready for nighttime slumber. There were changes of raggedy clothing, packages of food items, a comb missing many of its teeth, and other artifacts of human civilization strewn on the floor. It startled us to see the humble possessions of some unknown occupant and we quietly wondered who might be the inhabitant of this strange world. For the first time we felt like trespassers, and determined that we must quickly leave lest the owner of the habitat return, but first one of the more daring among us decided to get a closer look at the scene. He stepped gingerly inside the room while we watched him from the safety of the stairs. As his confidence grew he almost danced as he reported on the things that he was viewing. He threw caution to the wind which was ultimately his fatal flaw, for without warning part of the floor beneath his feet collapsed, and he listed to the right as his leg disappeared into the hole. We rushed over to pull him from danger and with fear overcoming us ran screaming back down the stairs and directly out into the yard.

Our eyes were as big as saucers and we were hardly able to catch our breaths because we had suddenly come to our senses and realized that we had overstepped our bounds in invading the property. We were overwhelmed with a desire to get back to the safety of our grandmother’s house as quickly as possible, and without uttering a single word we also took an oath to keep the details of our transgression a secret that our parents would never know. We ran as if someone was in pursuit, and only laughed at ourselves when we were standing safely on Grandma’s porch.

We never returned to the old place again. Somehow we had quenched our curiosity about that house and never again discussed it. We eventually made it to the gravel mountains on another day and were chased away by a security guard who warned us of the dangers of our explorations. As we grew older we became more circumspect and shuddered at the risks we had taken as children. Still, the memories of our urban explorations would fuel a curiosity in me that never quite went away. I continue to be fascinated by abandoned locations whether they be houses or buildings or manufacturing sites. My imagination takes flight whenever I encounter the remains of mankind’s folly. Such places might be found just about anywhere, and while I am now far more respectful of the shrines than I was as a child I still long to get a closer look and to know the stories of what happened.

In my travels I stumble upon such ruins now and again. New Orleans is a particularly good city in which to view the remains of former dreams, and I rarely fail to drive past what was once a thriving amusement park that now stands empty as a kind of homage to the devastation of hurricane Katrina. In the heart of San Antonio there is an old Catholic school that is overrun with weeds, mold and graffiti. Near Jefferson, Texas is a steel mill that is rusting to the ground. There are so many locales that once held the hopes and dreams and laughter of people whose tales I would so like to hear. Now the structures are shells of their former glory, caverns of uselessness except as keepers of a silent history long past.

I recently learned that urban exploration is a kind of hobby for a number of people. There are photographers who specialize in revealing the beauty and artistry of forgotten structures. There is something quite lovely in catching just the right angle of the remains of another day. We humans are as fascinated with the anthropology of modern man as we are of the ancients. I am one of those who searches for such things with a fascination that began long ago on a lazy afternoon when my cousins and I were daring adventurers. My curiosity lingers to this day.

  

What Did You Do This Summer?

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“What did you did this summer?” It’s a question that will no doubt be repeated many times in the coming weeks as schools open and students return to classrooms once again. I’ve answered that query countless times, but only once has my answer held as much transformative impact as it does for this particular summer.

The last time that I felt as changed by events was when I entered the fourth grade after my father died. I wasn’t doing very well then. I was still quite afraid of what the future might hold for my family.. Everything was so uncertain and my faith that all would eventually get better was severely shaken. Our family would prove to be up to the task of moving forward with only one parent, and I would learn how truly strong we actually were, but it would take a great deal of time for me to realize that. This year’s ringing of the school bells marks another moment when I have been severely tested, but this time I have enough confidence and wisdom from experience to understand not only that I will be alright, but also that I have found a newfound contentment that comes from the certainty of knowing what is most important.

I am the first to admit that I am a planner and control freak. I’ve already placed appointments on my calendar for December. I like to have routines and keep things flowing smoothly. Deciding how I was going to spend my summer was no exception. I wanted to take my grandson to New Orleans in June because he had never been there. Our trip was indeed quite successful, but it was only the beginning of all the wondrous things that I was prepared to do, including experiencing a grand adventure traveling to Cancun and attending the wedding of a very dear friend. That particular journey was so incredibly exciting and made even better by the pleasant emotions that I shared with others who attended the ceremony who also happen to be quite important to me. I returned from my trip filled with joy and so many stories. After such a remarkable excursion I might have been content to spend the rest of my summer at home, but I had planned for so much more to come.

After spending the Fourth of July holiday with all of my children and grandchildren I was slated to relax for a week in a lovely Texas state park with friends Monica and Franz. Then I was traveling to Colorado to meet up with my brother and his family so that we might drive together to Wyoming to observe the total eclipse of the sun. I already had purchased the special glasses that I would need for the viewing, and I was beyond excited about that once in a lifetime event. I had no idea just how radically everything that I had scheduled would change, but it all did.

On July 3, my husband had a stroke as many of you who regularly read my blog already know. The thing is that as soon as I saw him lying on the floor unable to get up, with his mouth and eye drooping, nothing else mattered to me but the fact that he was still alive. If I had been required to give up every single material item that I own to keep him with me, I would surely have agreed to do so. As it was his symptoms disappeared within minutes and he is doing well these days even though he is not yet out of the woods. We’ve been mostly tied down to the house and our days have been rather quiet and uneventful. Because there is an increased chance that he will have another stroke within the first ninety days after the one that occurred in July we have cancelled all of our out of town plans, and it doesn’t bother me at all.

What I did this summer is change. I don’t want anything other than to enjoy the moment that I happen to be experiencing. I am finding happiness in the most ordinary activities, and I am so filled with love that my heart is fairly bursting. I have had the time to take stock of my blessings and they are many. I feel like a newlywed with my husband. After almost forty nine years of marriage I admit that I had been taking him for granted, but now I treasure every second that we are together. I like to hear the sound of his voice, and things that sometimes irritated me before now seem quite adorable.

I have also learned to appreciate the challenges and struggles that my friends endure. I find myself thinking about the shut-ins and the widows, those fighting illnesses and those who are afraid and uncertain. I am no longer as ignorant of their feelings, nor as cavalier about how brave they are. I have a new found respect for those who are wounded are marginalized. I have realized in a very spiritual way that nothing on the face of this earth is ever more important that its people.

I have enjoyed my interactions with friends and family as never before, and in the process I have remembered and appreciated those who helped me to become who I am today. I have had many thoughts of my departed mother and mother-in-law, and my only regret is that I never truly thanked them enough for the love that they showered on me. Now I understand how important it is to let people know exactly how much I care about them, not tomorrow but today.

I am like a whole new person, and it feels so very good to be me. I have found a contentment that is peaceful and fulfilling. I know that God is with me and that I have never been alone nor ever will be. I may be tested again, and my worst fears may come to pass, but I will be okay. This is what I learned this summer, and what a glorious time I have had reaching this destination! 

Of Swamps and Other Watery Delights

ultimate-swamp-adventuresWe crowded together under the canopy of a flat bottom boat along with visitors from all over the world. It seemed a strange thing to be able to do in the middle of a bustling suburb of New Orleans just minutes away from the French Quarter. Under the shadow of concrete levees and three huge pumps we slowly drifted into a swamp filled with delights from Mother Nature hidden from the raucous tourists who flock to this strange below sea level area.

Cypress trees shaded the water and provided perches for the egrets who lounged on the protruding knees. Imported lilies triumphantly grew in spite of human efforts to rid the area of the plants intent on choking out all other forms of life. Maples and other trees lined and shaded our passage way as we drew farther and farther away from the signs of civilization. The only sounds were that of the motor on our boat and the occasional squawking of the feathered population. It was a strangely heavenly place in spite of the alligators lurking under the surface.

Occasionally one of the sharp toothed critters surfaced in hopes of garnering attention and a marshmallow from our guide. They came in all sizes and personalities. Some seemed to smile at us and others growled to chase us away. Now and again the our calm was intruded upon by other groups riding in obnoxiously loud airboats complete with guests shouting and cheering in what seemed inappropriate behavior for the almost sacred feel of the swampy environ. I was always relieved that they sped away quickly, vanishing into the undergrowth of one of the tributaries.

It was a cloudy day which somehow made our journey more spectacular. Without warning the sky opened up and a heavy downpour beat out a cadence on the roof of our conveyance. The spray soaked our shoes and spattered on our legs. A group from California jokingly asked what the precipitation might be, feigning an ignorance born from months of drought in their home state. As the laughter receded the questions centered on what hurricane Katrina had done to the watery preserve on which we floated. Our guide explained that it had been saved from any damage other than that from the power of the winds that blew through the trees.

On what should have been a hot and humid day we were cooled by a steady breeze and the continuous falling of raindrops. Somehow it seemed to be perfect weather for our exploration. Thankfully ours was a rather quiet and respectful group of humans who displayed our awe for the glorious sights we were seeing with silent reflection.

All too soon our tour was over and we were disembarking with a far better sense of our own places in the grand scheme of things. Our guide had helped us to understand that we are in many ways only visitors on our planet and as such we have a responsibility to leave it as pristine as we possibly can.

Next to the business offering the swamp adventure we had just taken was an open air fresh seafood market. In stalls lining a huge parking lot there were bins filled with shrimp and crabs just delivered from the boats we had seen in the harbor. We were taken by the friendliness of the vendors and their knowledge of how to cook and preserve the lovely gifts from the sea. We purchased five pounds of exquisite shrimp from a woman named Jerri whose Cajun accent delighted us as much as her warm and open personality.

One of Jerri’s customers was a man who had lost most of what he had owned in Katrina. His wife and children had moved to Houston and never returned. He still lived and worked in New Orleans and commuted back and forth on weekends between the two cities. He was unceremoniously proud that his daughter had just graduated from high school with honors and had received a full scholarship for college. In between guiding us in the selection of the best shrimp and explaining how to use it, he boasted that his girl wanted to be a doctor and had the smarts to achieve her goal.

That night we boiled some of the shrimp and froze the rest in the manner prescribed by the helpful folks at the market. There was something so special about sitting in our trailer munching on the lovely pink seafood while reliving the day’s remarkable events with our grandson Ian. I can’t say that I have ever in my life tasted better shrimp but I wonder if the gloriousness of our experiences had somehow colored my impressions.

I’ve got more of the shrimp that we purchased just waiting inside my freezer for a planned celebration with my family later this week. I’m certain that as we enjoy it I will think back on that lovely day in the swamp when I somehow felt an unlikely kinship with the beauty and the glory of a place so unfit for human habitation that it had managed to survive even as people carved up the surrounding land, sometimes damaging it with their hubris. It was a hidden world where things were as they should be, and it felt just right. The seafood market also spoke of a different kind of era when vendors gathered in a public place to hawk their wares in a friendly and intimate kind of business agreement. There was time to talk and get to know one another while making deals that made everyone feel good. Somehow we had stumbled onto a perfect day that we will undoubtedly never forget.

Keep On Trucking

Burning-HouseOn Good Friday I was preparing food for our family’s Easter celebration when a heavy cloud of dark smoke suddenly poured from my oven. As I ran across the room to turn down the heat a small flame erupted in the bottom corner of the appliance. I called for my husband to come help with the situation and just as he raced down the stairs an inferno engulfed the entire cavity. We reached for the fire extinguisher that we store in our pantry but when we attempted to open the oven to apply the fire retardant it was latched shut. Our only option was to yank the appliance out of the wall just enough to create a small crack that allowed us to spray away. Luckily our efforts worked and the blaze was soon out leaving behind a rather nasty mess and an oven that was undoubtedly ready for the scarp heap.

In the same week my daughter was happily driving her new car when she approached a red light. Of course she halted as required but sadly the youngster behind her was so busy texting that he didn’t notice that the traffic was at a standstill. He plowed into the back of her auto with full force. Her beautiful car was a shambles of its former self.

Meanwhile across town a friend went to bed admiring the wood flooring that had just been placed in his home. He was proud of the dramatic and lovely change it had made in his abode. When he arose the following morning expecting to see the gleaming planks he was instead greeted to a most disastrous sight. Water covered the area that had looked so wonderful only hours before, ruined by the overflow from a toilet that had run all through the night.

Each of these incidents were maddeningly inconvenient and costly. It would take days, even weeks to repair the damage that was so unexpected, but eventually all would be set right once again. All three of us were fortunate to have the ability to overcome our disasters, unlike so many whose lives spin frighteningly out of control. While these examples were fixable they demonstrate the importance of keeping the events that occur in our lives in perspective.

My house didn’t burn down as it might have. My daughter walked away from her accident unscathed. My friend’s home was not flooded so badly that it was rendered uninhabitable. Sadly I know people who have faced far worse.

One of my aunts who was in her nineties at the time watched helplessly as her home burned to the ground, eliminating everything that she owned including irreplaceable family heirlooms and treasures. I have known several people whose loved ones have died in car accidents, including myself. I have friends who used to live in New Orleans who came home to total devastation after hurricane Katrina. Such losses are indescribable. They haunt the psyche for years and leave scars that tend to quietly inflict pain. 

We all want to think that we have a modicum of control over our lives but reality demonstrates time and again that the possibility of the unexpected happening is always there. At any given moment our lives might be thrown into utter chaos. We don’t dwell on such facts because we would be immobilized with fear if we did. Instead we go about our daily lives sometimes sweating a bit too much about the small stuff instead of focusing on our blessings. We take the food on our tables for granted. We forget to tell our family members and friends how much we love them. We grumble and complain.

Of course my husband and I were upset over the prospect of having to purchase a new oven and repair the damage to our cabinetry. We certainly might have used the money in other ways, but once the smoke had settled so to speak we began to realize how fortunate we were. Had we both been in another room our kitchen might have been far more damaged, perhaps even destroyed. In another time in our lives we might not have had the money to purchase a new oven and would have had to scramble to find a way to fix the problem. As it was, we had just received a tax refund that essentially covered the costs.

My mother lived on the economic edge for most of her life but she nonetheless always remained optimistic. She used to brag that God loved her so that He somehow took care of every problem that arose for her. Such was her faith that she told us when we were children that she had a money tree from which she would pluck funds when they were needed. She herself lived without an oven for several years because hers had quit functioning and she did not have the funds to get a new one. Rather than complaining she made do until she had accumulated enough to get a new one. She joked that by the time she finally had a way to bake again she realized that she really didn’t need to roast or broil. She didn’t allow herself to worry over things that were in reality inconsequential.

The truth is that there are people on this earth who will never have an oven or a car or a wooden floor. They live in places racked by famine, disease and war. Their lives are so out of their own control that they only have the freedom to exist, and sometimes even that liberty is taken from them. We on the other hand enjoy luxuries that we take for granted, worrying over problems that in reality don’t matter as much as we may think.

I am an admitted control freak even though I have learned time and again that so much of what happens is beyond my reach. The only thing over which I have total power is my own attitude. I can choose to stew over the randomness of occurrences or I can choose to roll with the punches and take the actions needed to set myself aright. There is little point in crying once the milk is flowing across the floor.

I take heart from the courage of the incredible people that I know such as the mother whose six month old son was diagnosed with leukemia who kept a smile on her face throughout her years long ordeal. I think of the friend whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver. She has channeled her grief into counseling others and spreading healing by sharing her own story. I marvel at the woman who had to reinvent herself after hurricane Katrina at a time in life when she should have been retiring comfortably. I am daily inspired by a former student whose brother was murdered and her fight to bring justice for him and all individuals marred by violence. I think of a dear friend who daily cares for a husband sidelined by a severe stroke and dementia. All of these individuals have risen from the ashes of their circumstances in triumph. They have found new meaning for their lives and new appreciation for even the smallest of blessings just as my mother always did.

I know not what challenges will come my way. None of us ever do. My only hope is that I will find the inner strength and positive attitude that will allow me to keep my footing and keep on trucking along. It is after all the best that we might do regardless of the circumstances.