A Celebration of Life Leads to a Stroke of Insight

Image: Photo from Tanya Feke, left to right: Anita Couto (my cousin), Mandie Pippin (my cousin), Irene Couto (my great aunt), Alzira Mattos (my grandmother), Nina Brown (my mom), and Jewel Souto (my niece)

A Celebration of Life

My family celebrated the life of my great aunt on August 28th. Irene Couto was a 91-year-old proud Portuguese woman who traveled and lived all around the world.  She painted intricate artwork, preferably on porcelain, and dressed to the nines each and every day, always wanting to put her best face forward. She expected to be the center of attention and this day would be no different.

Family and friends gathered in New Bedford, Massachusetts to remember her vibrant life and weeks later they would gather again on the west coast. While I appreciated the nostalgia, gawking at black and white pictures of her past, and reveling in stories of her heyday, I would remember this day for a completely different reason.

Gathering Together

My maternal grandmother has throat cancer. You may recall my telling you in an earlier post. She was diagnosed with the condition, failed chemotherapy, and was placed on hospice. For those of you who don’t know, hospice care is intended for people who have less than six months to live. Time may be more or less, but the severity of her illness echoes in that short “h” word.

Little did we know my great aunt, her sister, would be the first to greet the pearly gates.

The loss of a family member is never easy, and you could see the hold it took on my grandmother. She arrived at the church for her sister’s memorial ashen in appearance. Granted, it was early in the morning and none of us were exactly looking perky. She wore a white blouse and dark pants, not the traditional black some would wear to a ceremony like this. This was a celebration of life after all, and black would never do.

My grandmother sat in the pew farthest from the altar with her son by her side. The energy it would take to make it to the front of the church would have been far too great. Other family members were scattered throughout the hallows of those church walls in a show of support.

Doctor in the House

After mass, family and friends gathered at my great aunt’s home to eat, talk, and reflect. It makes me smile to think of it. Her house had always been so ornate, filled with decorations and fragile tchotchkes, I had always been afraid to breathe too hard for fear of breaking something or leaving a fingerprint on a spotless glass. Now her home would be so full of people, it was inevitable that someone would bump into something and knock it over. It was the dawning of a new age.

My cousin Mac, Irene’s son, welcomed people at the door and ever the gentleman reached forward to help my grandmother over the threshold. While he had her in his arms, she suddenly fell and a call went up in the crowd. I had just parked outside and hearing the hullabaloo, I pushed my way through the crowd to my grandmother’s side. Seeing that she was nonverbal with eyes deviated to one side, I had an idea of what was in store.

Mac struggled to hold her up while I tried to bend her at the waist to seat her in a nearby chair. Our efforts were fruitless. Her body had gone rigid, and I nodded yes when a stranger asked if I needed help. Shaken as I was from what was unfolding and not exactly a weight lifter myself, I asked that he carry her to the bedroom where I could tend to her behind closed doors.

Stroke in Evolution

My sister followed, my uncle too. With the door closed behind us, with the sound of celebration continuing in the other room, I put on my doctor’s hat. I asked my grandmother to look at me. Her eyes remained fixed to the right. Putting my fingers inside her palm, I asked her to squeeze my hand but got response. I tried the other hand, the same. Her face was asymmetrical, her left lips drooping down compared to the right. Her heart rate was in a normal rhythm but weak, her breathing shallow. Both sides of her body were stiff as boards. I could not bend her arms or her legs.

“Should we call an ambulance?”

The question was not an easy one to answer under the circumstances. By agreeing to hospice care, she had agreed to “comfort measures only” for her cancer, meaning that she had declined heroic measures to save her life.

What I had first hoped was a simple fainting episode appeared to be a neurologic event, a stroke. There was no way to know what had caused it. The stress of the day? Her cancer? I had never talked to her directly about her wishes, but I knew she was a strong, proud woman who would not want to live her last days with a decreased quality of life, even if she was in hospice. She would resent every moment of it if there were some way to have prevented her from suffering what she would see as an indignity.

“Yes, please call 911.”

Saying Goodbye

My cousin Anita, my grandmother’s niece, came into the room then. We were at her mother’s memorial service, and she believed her own great aunt was about to die before her eyes. That is a lot to absorb in one day! She nudged me aside and took my grandmother’s hand in her own, interchanging English words with Portuguese as she spoke.

It was moving but overwhelming all the same. My sister and I looked at each other with tears in our eyes. My uncle Ritchie, my grandmother’s son, looked on helpless. Anita may have been doing the talking but this moment belonged to all of us. I felt like my heart was being sliced in two as it roared in my ears.

The fire department arrived and the paramedics shortly thereafter. While we placed oxygen on her, I relayed the necessary information to them. By this time, my grandmother had started to show signs of improvement. Her right side was no longer so stiff though her left side remained immovable. She could look at me when asked. She could mumble and nod yes and no. A tear streamed down her cheek.

“Grandma, I think we should take you to the hospital to see if we can help you. Is that okay with you?”

She nodded yes.

I watched the paramedics carry her away in a seated chair through a crowd of her sister’s mourners. I watched them raise her into the ambulance, and I watched the ambulance drive away without a siren or flashing lights.

The celebration of life continued inside. Mac sang a song with his guitar in his mother’s memory.

A Reason to Celebrate

Let me say that watching your loved one take ill before your eyes is an emotional experience. When life and death are at stake, it is outright crippling. I am happy to say though that my grandmother pulled through with flying colors.

The hospital team says she did not have a stroke but she did suffer a “mini-stroke”, also called a transient ischemic attack. This simply means that she had decreased blood flow in the brain, but her signs and symptoms resolved within 24 hours. There would not be permanent changes to her brain. Even more encouraging, her strength improved so much over the first few hours that she stormed into the hospital hallway to demand she be discharged back to her nursing home.

She was always a feisty one!

A week later, I visited with my grandmother again. She smiled a big even smile, facial droop long gone, and thanked me for coming. She pushed herself up from her seat to give me a hug. The rigidity a distant memory. It was amazing to see her this way, and it humbled me all the more.

“Tanya, I plan to live a lot more years yet.”

In fact, she was even wondering if maybe she should get married again!

Go to the Party

You would think I would be accustomed to loss. As a family doctor, I care for people from the beginning to the end of life. It is what I have been trained to do, but I still struggle with it. I tend to focus on what more I could have done to have eased someone’s discomfort, to have made someone’s life better.

When loss is more personal, I question myself even more. Did I visit my loved one enough? Did I call enough? Did I connect enough? Did I, did I, did I?

My great aunt had a memorable celebration of life, but we should celebrate our lives every day.

We have to remember to appreciate the moments we have when we have them. Too often things are taken for granted. My grandmother continues in hospice, and one day she will pass. I do not want to wonder if there was any more I could have done to make her happy. I want to celebrate her life with her NOW, not when she cannot attend the party.

Don’t Make a Resolution, Start a Revolution

Image from Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), Miramax.com

Join the Club

If you are like hundreds of millions of people around the world, you made a resolution for 2017.

Good for you!

Good for me, too!

I mean, look what it did for Bridget Jones! At first, she mocked New Year’s resolutions, sarcastically telling Mark Darcy she wanted to cut down on drinking and quit smoking, all while holding a mimosa and cigarette in either hand. It was the sting of Mark’s rejection after the fact that made her realize that maybe, just maybe, she lacked that little something special in her life.

It is not that we need to change for other people — no thanks! It is more that we need to be comfortable in our own skin, proud of who we are as individuals. We all have room to grow, and Bridget took the lead in turning her life around with some fresh resolutions.

Putting It on the Line

I am not saying that Bridget is my role model exactly. After all, I am hardly one for drinking and certainly never one for smoking. I am, however, one to see when I need a good kick in the pants. Taking her lead, I dared to up the ante with not one, not two, but THREE resolutions this year.

To experiment more in the kitchen. I have always dreamed of being a chef. I am fascinated by shows like Chopped, The Great Baking Showand Top Chef. My 10-year-old son shows an interest in cooking too. How great it would be to encourage that curiosity in him!
To get and stay fit. I ran a half-marathon last year but not in dazzling fashion, i.e. I was sick as a dog at the end of the race. I felt utterly humiliated. My goal is to get into shape this year so that I not only feel good about my body but that I can beat my 2016 half-marathon time and hopefully run a nausea-free race.
To write a book. I have done it before and I will do it again. It can be hard to stay on task with writing a book. There are more than enough distractions in my life from my kids to work. Words have an impact and I want to share them with the world.

Will you join me in making a resolution of your own?

Good News, Bad News

Data shows that people who make a resolution are 10x more likely to reach their goals than those who don’t make a resolution. And why not? We see the potential for change, and we plan to take action.

We are on our way!

Except when we aren’t.

It is easy to make fun of New Year’s resolutions and for good reason. After two weeks, only 71% of people are still on track with their goal, and that number drops to 56% after six months. The bad news? Only 8% of people actually reach long-term success! Yikes!

I thought to myself, I am going to be one of the 8%, but what can I do to assure success?

So I came up with this plan.

Make a Resolution, Start a Revolution

We need to think of our goals not as resolutions but as revolutions. A resolution is an idea. Ideas are great but simply wanting something is not going to make it happen. A revolution, on the other hand, is an action plan. It sets the path for our success.

How do we start a revolution?

Tackling a huge project can be intimidating, especially if we only see rewards far off in the future. This is where breaking our goals down into bite-sized pieces can come in handy. By offering up more opportunities for success, we get positive reinforcement that inches us towards the grand prize. Momentum inspires us to keep going.

More than that, we need to think about how to plan those bite-sized pieces. We can take our revolutions FAR if we are flexible, accountable, and real.

Planning My Revolution

Being flexible is not easy for everyone, but hey, sometimes life gets in the way. Things happen and we may need to cope with an illness, a loss, or some unforeseen tragedy. If we set goals that can only happen if everything goes exactly right, we are asking for trouble. We need to build in a bit, but only a bit, of laxity.

Accountability is the easy part. By telling you today what I hope to achieve, I am putting myself on the line. You can hold my feet to the fire, or my ego could be squashed if I did not live up to expectations. Good thing I am not going to fail!

Finally, it’s time to get real. What we want can blind us to what the real world has to offer. Sure, I could set a resolution to write a New York Times best-selling novel this year, but all I can do is write the book. The market and hopefully my future fans will decide how popular the book becomes. We should only set resolutions that we can actually control. The rest is a bonus.

Tripling Down on the New Year

I am proud of my resolutions but even more for my revolutions. For one, I decided to avoid daily goals. I wanted to build in flexibility that kept me on my toes but accounted for the busy life I lead. I see these goals as realistic, and YOU make me accountable!

— To experiment more in the kitchen. I will try a new recipe at least twice a month and hopefully will learn new cooking techniques in the process. Expect to see my successes and failures along with pictures along the way.
— To get and stay fit. I will exercise at least 150 minutes per week. It is time to put my Fitbit to good use.
— To write a book. I intend to set a writing goal of 1,500 words per week. At that pace, I should have a completed work by the end of the year.

A week in and so far I am on track.

See you on the other side, Bridget!

You Say Goodbye and I Say Hello

Image: © Masson (Fotolia.com)

The Past, Present, and Future of the New Year

“You say goodbye and I say hello
Hello hello”

The Beatles always had a way with words.

Simple and true, their lyrics capture the essence of the new year. Some people look forward to tossing the old year to the curb while others look to the promise of a new beginning as the clock ticks past midnight. At first read, it sounds as if everyone is on the same page: out with the old and in with the new. But there is a distinction.

Those who put an emphasis on the bad that has happened in the world, their perspective may be somewhat jaded. Those who put an emphasis on a fresh start, they may be more hopeful for things to come.

Where do you stand?

The Past: Say Goodbye to the Old Year

“I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello
Hello hello”

The new year brings with it an opportunity to reflect on what has happened in our lives –the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Lives were lost, and loved ones took ill. Family members and friends passed away. Innocent lives died amidst the melee of terror and war. Faces that we have come to admire on the world stage left us behind for the pearly gates.

People may have suffered personal failures, fallen short of goals, or suffered from abuse, disease, or broken relationships. Politics also ran rampant. The ugliness of presumed right and wrong divided people. Beliefs were challenged at every turn without many people listening to each other. Prejudices reigned and hate spewed. Crimes were committed, many of them violent, causing people to fear for safety in their communities.

When we look at life this way, it can seem an outright dystopia, distrust of our fellow man almost palpable. It can be too easy to give up hope surrounded by that degree of helplessness. In that vain, why not blame the year as if Father Time had a vendetta against us? Many people are doing just that.

Good riddance to a bad year!

The Present: Remember the Good

“You say yes, I say no
You say stop and I say go go go
You say goodbye and I say hello
Hello hello”

But we cannot let lamentable times dictate our lives. While we may have experienced cringe-worthy moments in the past year, there is always good to be found.

Some people died but many survived –cherish your loved ones. Some people took ill but many became well –keep faith in recovery. Millions of children were born –hope for a brighter future.

Charities reached out to help the poor, needy, and less fortunate. People rallied together for causes, fighting against censorship and discrimination, fighting for freedom and human rights. Technologies improved our ability to prevent and treat disease. Poverty decreased worldwide.

Now take a look at your own situation. Do you have a roof over your head? Access to food and water? Clothes on your back? Shoes on your feet? The love of family and friends? Every relationship is an opportunity to grow. We have so much when we look closer. Blessings surround us.

In modern times, we often want more than we actually need. It is okay to strive for more but, now more than ever, we need to appreciate what we have.

The Future: Say Hello to the New Year

“I say high, you say low
You say why and I say I don’t know
You say goodbye and I say hello
Hello hello”

This is not to say that we have to give a thumbs up to hard times. Of course not! The past can leak into the future with unintended consequences. We will address those issues when and if they arise, but until then, we have today and a dream for a better tomorrow.

An optimist looks to the new year with hope. They understand that what has happened is past, and looking back is not going to change that fact. They understand that the time has come to let go, to shift from being reactive to proactive to the world around us. Rather than rage against what we see as a personal or societal injustice or waiting for success to drop on our doorstep, we must look to our strengths and take steps that actually make a difference. Sitting back does not get the job done.

Believe it or not, it is not the old year’s fault. It is how we chose to deal with the time we had that impacted the most on our lives.

I, for one, will not be sad to say goodbye to 2016, but it is more because I see the promise of the future not only in 2017 but in the years to come. How we see the world is how it will treat us. I prefer to see the good and remember with fond memories those we have lost.

Happy New Year!

Why Party Favors Matter (They Don’t)

Image: © millefloreimages (Fotolia.com)

What Birthdays Are All About

Like most people, I love the gratitude and togetherness of a Thanksgiving meal. As a Catholic, a Christmas noel (a birthday celebration all its own) brings joy to my heart. Love on Valentine’s Day. Honor on Memorial Day. Pride on Labor Day. You name the holiday, and it is sure to stir an emotion. For me, birthdays are the very best time of year.

Birthdays are your own personal New Year, a road to new beginnings paved just for you. Think about what that means.

Your first breath in this world came without any judgments or preconceived notions. In those first moments, it didn’t matter if you were a boy or a girl. Your demographics held no weight. Potential beamed “yes”, “yes”, “yes” in a “no”, “no”, “no” world. Your very existence on this Earth was a miracle. There is freedom in that.

In time, however, all that changes. Society gradually conditions you to think in certain ways, and people start to place limitations on what they think you can achieve. Some of you may have fallen in line with those false beliefs while some of you courageously overcame them. The world is not always kind, but you can stand tall for what you believe in.

A birthday is your chance to rekindle that first breath of freedom. It is a renewal of YOU, a celebration of YOU. As much as people cringe at adding another year to the tally, birthdays go beyond numbers. They are a reminder to appreciate life and grab it by the horns.

Party Favors Are a Joke

A birthday is a gift unto itself but try telling that to a child. For them, birthdays are often about parties and gifts and balloons and cake. While that is certainly one way to celebrate the big day, not everyone can afford such extravagances. That does not make one birthday any less valuable than another.

Materialism should not be the main event, but it rears its ugly head time and again, even among party guests. Take party favors. Most every year I “forget” to buy party favors and my husband gets all twitchy that I have not purchased any. It gets to the point where he will leave the party to buy random trinkets from the nearest party store.

“It is what I remember as a kid. It is what they all expect. You don’t want to disappoint them,” he says.

And THAT is where the problem lies, my friend.

Most of the time, party favors are a bunch of cheap plastic junk or candy tossed into a cheap plastic bag. The kids find amusement for 10 minutes at best, and it all eventually finds its way into the trash. To me, it feels like I am buying these kids off to play with my child. It isn’t enough that I invited them for an elaborate play date to have fun and enjoy food, cake, and music.

Apparently, the celebration is a bust if there are no party favors to go along with it. What does this teach our children? That you cannot celebrate someone else’s happiness or wish them well, that you always have to make a grab for something yourself first? Or is it that the parents of the party goers want their money’s worth for the gift they bought MY kid? Or is it a status symbol of sorts — the cooler the party favor, the cooler the kid, or worse yet, the cooler the parent throwing the party?

The Real Birthday Gift

Party favors are only one part of the birthday racket. The size of the party comes into play too. The bigger the better, right? The more gifts, the more the birthday boy/girl is liked by others. The more expensive the gift, the more clout for the gift giver. I have had parents buy my child expensive presents I would never buy myself. Everyone is so eager to one-up the other that the whole point of a birthday gets lost in the shuffle.

My distaste for party favors baffles my husband, but I prefer to teach my children values. What he perceives as a harmless gesture, I see as feeding unnecessary expectations to our children. Many people complain that younger generations behave with a sense of entitlement, and doesn’t feeing obligated to give more and more only add to that?

If it really means something to you to give party favors, more power to you, but be honest with yourself about why you do it.

More than anything I want my children to be happy. Happiness does not require money or “things” and it sure doesn’t require party favors. Do I give my kids parties and presents on their birthday? Sure, I do, but I do not go overboard. I do not want them to equate goods with what is good.

Birthdays should not be about impressing others but about impressing yourself with the hopeful year that lies ahead. Birthdays should be about being with loved ones, if you are so lucky, and making memories to treasure for years to come. I want my children to appreciate the real value of the day. Being alive and reaching out for their dreams. If this is not what it’s all about, then no one has a sense of value anymore.

The Never-Ending Hunt for Golden Eggs

Image: © Gstudio Group (Fotolia.com)

The Expectation Trap

If someone looks upset, I ask what’s wrong and *gasp* actually mean it when I ask if I can help. I hold the door open for people in public places. Sometimes I even pay for a free coffee for a stranger in line at a cafe. These are the simple things that make me feel good as a person.

But there are plenty of things I take on that don’t make me feel so good, that feel like more of a burden. These are the so-called obligations that are really expectations in disguise.

All my life people have pushed, i.e. “inspired”, me to step out and do more. While their encouragement may have started out with good intentions, to incite me to be better, it has evolved into an expectation trap. Once people see what you can do, they expect it, and even demand it, from you all the time. There is rarely any let-up.

That would be fine and dandy if those expectations allowed me to work towards things that brought me joy, gave me satisfaction, or instilled hope. Instead, I often feel coerced to do things I would rather not. People volunteer me for projects or guilt me for not stepping in. Too often I find myself doing things for everyone else, leaving less time for the things that bring personal meaning to my own life.

Just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean you SHOULD.

Too Many Eggs in the Basket

I don’t mind working hard. In fact, I do not think I could live any other way. I would feel I am letting myself down and that is really the only person I have to impress.

The trouble is I am still a people pleaser at heart. I like to help. I delight in seeing people smile. I thrive on the high I get from making someone else’s life a little bit better. But let’s not sugar coat it. I am looking for validation. I am trying to prove my self-worth.

Because of this, I take on more than I should, whether it be at home or work, and I know I am not the only one. “Too many eggs in the basket” syndrome is all too common. When you carry too many eggs, the basket grows heavy. Your arms strain to lift it up. At some point, you will drop the basket and all those precious eggs will crack.

It is a relentless pressure to do more, to be more, but what happens when it all falls apart?

Finding Your Golden Eggs

Don’t let it get that far.

The trick (and what a trick it is!) is to lessen the load. You need enough eggs to engage you but you also want a basket light enough for you to skip around and enjoy everyday life.

To begin, take an honest look inside your basket. Are there any rotten eggs? Rotten eggs are toxic. Toss them out.

Are there any eggs that don’t appeal to you? You do not have to toss them out per se. Respect that they matter to someone you know and delegate them back to their proper owners.

Are there any eggs that you didn’t put in the basket yourself? People will sneak up and add eggs to your basket without your permission. Hand them back and say “no thank you”.

If you are lucky, you may find a golden egg in the mix. Golden eggs have value. They mean something to YOU. Hunt down as many golden eggs as you can find. There won’t be many and that’s the point. These are the ones you want to nurture and polish. These are the substance that makes life special.

Hatching New Ideas

I find myself at a point in my life where I am physically and emotionally tired. Overwhelmed by guilt or fearful of disappointing others, I have added unwanted obligations to my to-do list time and again. In the end, I have only disappointed myself for not chasing my own dreams.

I am ready to let go of that way of thinking. I already am validated. I am worthy. Weaning my basket hasn’t been easy but I have removed a few bad eggs already, have delegated a few more, and am buffing up a handful of precious golden eggs, my writing among them. Each egg is full of promise, a new idea waiting to hatch.

Focusing on what really matters, on what drives me forward and truly inspires me, has energized me. Now I see possibility in most everything. I can now help others in ways that *I* find fulfilling and meaningful, even if they do not fall in line with the expectations of the past. It is refreshing to feel that I do not have to sacrifice myself for the betterment of everyone else.

I am feeling much lighter these days. If you see me skipping by one day, feel free to wave. I may ask how you are doing, I may hold open doors for you, and I may even buy you a coffee. These are the things I want to do. A lighter basket has given me that freedom.