My Leap List

Monday, September 12, 2016

Even Though We Never Met, My Brother Still Touches My Life

      32 years ago my baby brother Tyler died. 
 Although I never met him in life, he has touched my life and changed me for the better.  When I was 15 years old, my brother was stillborn because the cord wrapped around his neck.  My mom lost so much blood, her body kept shutting down.  The paramedics had to give her several blood transfusions and keep restarting her heart.  When  they  got  her to  the  hospital, they put her in intensive care.  She was in a coma for several weeks, and they weren't sure if she would make it.  
     Being the oldest, I did my best to take care of my brothers and sisters, but I was a poor imitation of my mom.  One day a relative I didn't know called and said, I just heard your mom died.  I am so sorry."  The caller was wrong, but I hadn't been able to see her yet, so I didn't know if she was going to die.  Every time the phone rang after that, I would shake uncontrollably.  
      The funeral for my brother was one of the hardest days of my life.  When my mom told us she was pregnant, I was angry.  I didn't want to take care of another brother or sister.  I even wished the baby would die so my life could get back to normal.  Now all I wanted to do was tell my mom and my brother how sorry I was that I had been so selfish.  My mom was still in the coma, so she couldn't go to the funeral.  Relatives kept telling me how much I looked like my mom and how proud she would be of me.  They didn't know how guilty I felt thinking everything was my fault.         
     Weeks later I finally got to go to the hospital to see my mom.  I still didn't know she was in a coma, so I was hoping to tell her what I had done and ask her forgiveness.  My mom's room was in the back of the ICU, so we had to walk through another room to get to her.  A man in the first room was strapped to his bed.  As I walked by, he said, "Please, little girl, come and untie me.  Please help me!"  I knew that would make things worse for him, but I felt miserable ignoring him and walking away.  My mom wasn't strapped to her bed, but her arms were tied to the railing so she wouldn't pull out the IV or respirator tubes.  She wasn't conscious, so I couldn't tell her what I wanted to say.  Seeing my mom in so much pain made me feel even guiltier.
     When my mom finally got well enough to come home, I was in a deep depression.  I couldn't stop thinking about death and suicide.  I stopped going to school because I was afraid my mom would die while I was gone and couldn't keep her safe.  I was in trouble at home for always sluffing school.  I couldn't sleep and when I did sleep, I had nightmares.  I felt guilty for wanting to do things with my friends when I should be taking care of my mom.  
     That spring, we went to California.  When we went to the beach, I walked down the pier and stared at the waves for a long time trying to decide whether to jump or not.  The water was beautiful and calling to me.  While I was standing there, I heard a voice.  I turned, but no was there.  I turned back to the water, but I heard the voice again.  This time it said, "What would it feel like to kill yourself and then find out your soul mate was still on Earth waiting for you?"  I turned, and no one was there, but a perfect white feather drifted out of the sky.  A sign from my guardian angel.  I walked back to my family hoping things would get better if I kept my faith and tried my best.     
  It turned out my guardian angel was right.  Today I am blessed to be able to help others through their darkness.  It is my way to pay forward my angel's gift of life.  Today I celebrate my brother and the lessons he has taught me about myself, life, forgiveness, and redemption.  I wouldn't be the person I am today without him.  Even though we never met, he still touches my life every day.  I can't wait to see him in Heaven and thank him in person someday.  Happy Birthday, Tyler.  I love you.  

Saturday, September 10, 2016

      28 years ago, John asked me if I would spend the rest of my life with him.  Today we celebrated that day by attending the NAMI walk.  The picture doesn't show how thrilled I was John was well enough to go with me.  This is a huge change for us, and I am thankful for the doctor and the experimental medicine that made today possible.
      John has always struggled with severe depression.  I convinced him to go to the doctor for help and that led to endless medications that ranged from useless to making him hallucinate and become psychotic.  He dealt with this for 26 years of our life together.  There were some dark moments when I doubted either of us would make it out alive, but he never gave up on trying.  
     In those years Mandy and Nick joined our small family and faced their own battles.  Mandy spent a year cutting her legs with a razor blade and I never knew anything.  She wore long pants and hid her pain masterfully.  She finally told me because she was taking a ballet class and knew I would see her scars with her costume.  When I saw the scars, I was horrified at how much pain my precious daughter had gone through.  Two of the scars were so large and ragged, I was surprised that she hadn't bled to death.  The guilt of not knowing and not helping her were difficult.
     Nick faced his own battles with anxiety that became so severe he started seeing ghosts in 5th grade.  His doctor told me that was his way of dealing with extreme anxiety.  Panic attacks became regular occurrences in his world.  He stopped sleeping.  His doctor told me that I should prepare myself for having him develop Agoraphobia, the fear of leaving the house.  His struggles have worsened as he got older, and medication and therapy haven't helped him very much.  He is trying to finish his senior year online so he can graduate, but even that is difficult for him to do.  I am thrilled when he goes to the store with me or for a walk, but it's hard to see him white knuckling his way through it.  He hides in his jacket and takes keys or something to endlessly rub to keep his anxiety in check for the few minutes we are away.  At night his anxiety gets the best of him and he hears and sees things that aren't there.  It's scary for both of us.  He handles it with grace.  He still smiles, tells me not to worry, and has the kindest spirit of anyone I know.
     John and Mandy have been able to find medication to help them the past two years.  Mandy was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Bipolar Disorder.  The medication they gave her turned her life around.  She is now a happy, well-adjusted college student.  She works and goes to school and is dedicated to making a difference for others who have struggled.  Many people who experience bipolar episodes don't take their medicine because they don't like the way it makes them feel.  I am forever grateful that Mandy is not that way.  When she feels an episode coming on, she is quick to make sure she takes her medicine to stave it off.
     After years of trying every medicine available and not seeing anything work, John was ready to give up on even trying.  His psychiatrist asked me to come to John's appointment.  He told me that he had a medicine that was being used off label, but had show promise in some of his patients that didn't respond to anything else.  He needed my permission to give it to John because he didn't think John was able to make that decision for himself.  It has dangerous side effects and can kill you unexpectedly.  I couldn't believe I was being asked to make that kind of decision.  I cried for a while, but then I told him I wanted John to have the treatment because he was going to kill himself if things didn't change.  The medicine has been a life saver for him, even though it is a horrible experience for him every time he takes it.  I could see the change immediately, but he couldn't see it for a few months.  When we returned a few weeks later, John told the doctor that it hadn't had any positive effects and the side effects were horrible.  I had to interrupt and tell the doctor how much it was helping.  Within a few more weeks, other people were noticing the changes in him, including the dentist and the people at the store.  John has been so brave to keep taking it even though he hates it.  The medicine never reacts the same way, so he never knows what to expect.  Sometimes he gets sick, hallucinates, hears sounds, feels like he is dying, gets horrible headaches, etc.  But he does it anyway because he knows it will help him when it is over.  When the side effects wear off, he spends the next day with a bad headache, but then he has 3-4 days like a normal person.  
     I am beyond grateful for the past two years with him.  I was beginning to lose hope.  I finally told God that I couldn't do it anymore and I was putting it in his hands with faith that all would be well.  It has been a powerful lesson for me on faith and love.  Now I am practicing faith again and placing Nick in God's hands.  My prayers may not be answered the way I want them to be, but I know all will be well.  In the meantime, I am surrounding him with love.    
     For some unknown reason, or for the reason that nothing in life is coincidental, an email came from NAMI.  I don't usually open emails from people I don't know, but I felt compelled to open it.  When I read about the walk, I knew I needed to be there.  There is so much stigma for so many people in the world for so many things, and it makes me sad that people judge my family by their struggles without knowing where we have been.  It makes me sad many turn to suicide because they can't talk about their pain or struggles without feeling more isolated or alone when they are judged.  I wanted to be there today to represent the people who don't have anyone to speak for them.  When John said he would go with me, I couldn't stop smiling.  He wouldn't have had the interest or stamina to walk with me, even a few months ago.  It was an amazing anniversary to be able to hold his hand and walk on a beautiful fall day for a cause that we know so well.  With God's grace all things are possible.

Note - My family said I could share their stories in hopes it helps someone else.  

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Graduation Love and Light

     I was so proud to walk with these people at graduation.  It was the proud culmination of over four years of intense highs and lows that only they understand.  This moment completed a life-long goal to get my doctorate degree.
     As a child I used to love to swing.  I would close my eyes for a few minutes so when I opened them, everything looked so amazingly bright and colorful and new.  One day I did this and saw myself as an adult standing next to my granny and my paternal grandmother that had passed away.  They didn't speak to me, but I heard the voice in my head say I was going to graduate with my doctorate.  I didn't know what that even meant, but it stuck with me as a goal I needed to accomplish.  I started this journey six years ago without a clear understanding of what I wanted to do with it or what I wanted to get a doctorate in.  I didn't want to be an administrator, but thought I might open a school for at-risk kids.  When Jameson committed suicide, I left the doctorate program and went to another school to get my administrative license.  The job I didn't think I wanted seemed to be the best way to help as many kids as I could.  After achieving that goal I returned to school to finish my degree.
     It has been one of the biggest challenges of my life, but has made me a better person.  I've learned that I am my own worst enemy.  My perfectionism makes me procrastinate until the last minute because I know I will need to spend hours to get it right.  My self doubts and feeling it won't be good enough keep me from giving it my all.  There were lots of dark moments when I thought of giving up, feared failure, and wondered why I was doing this.  I still don't know why this was something I needed to do, but I've learned not to question the quiet messages that come in silent moments.  Life always has a way of working exactly the way it is supposed to be when I stop trying to force my will on it.  I have a different idea of myself and what I am capable of doing.  I have a deeper understanding of commitment, perseverance, and, hard work.  I think more deeply about things now, and I am more compassionate for people doing hard things outside of the parts of the days I share with them.  I also feel proud of myself and that is a feeling that has been fleeting before.
Mandy says I look different now.  I think I see it in this picture with my sister.  It's one of the only pictures I truly like of myself.
     Mandy and John went with me to the Lantern Festival that night to thank the angels, send love to Jameson and Marissa, and wishes for the future.  It helped heal the places in my heart that I had kept too busy to grieve.  Joining thousands of people sending their thoughts, wishes, and hopes into the night sky was a powerful moment that changed me.  There is power in community and power in sharing symbolic moments together.  Watching all of those lights illuminate the darkness was a sacred moment that touched my soul.  It was the perfect ending to honor the journey and people that brought me here and celebrate the beginning of the next chapter of my life.

Out of the Darkness Alchemy

    In ancient times people were fascinated with the idea of alchemy - the ability to create gold from baser metals.  We were looking outward for a secret that is only found within us.
     The moments of darkness and light make us human.  No matter how we try to avoid them, they are inevitable parts of being alive.  It is scary in the darkness.  Sometimes it seems so real we forget who we are and that there is anything more than these powerful emotions.  The darkness and base emotions weigh us to the Earth until we forget we are spirit with wings to fly.  I have lost loved ones in this place.  I almost lost myself.
     These times are blessings in disguise because they lead to deep transformation within.  Without the forge, we cannot become more than what we are.  Our challenge is to transform the darkness into something bigger than ourselves.  When we choose to illuminate the darkness and learn its lessons, we become spiritually aware.  A spiritual transformation to gold.  Our light becomes a beacon for others struggling in the darkness.  
     It is both heartwarming and heartbreaking to join thousands of others who have been affected by suicide in a walk to raise money and awareness.  We share the heartbreak of losing someone we love in the darkness.  Rather than joining them, we shine a light and transform our loss into a beacon to lead others out of the darkness.
     This picture represents my transformation.  The shirt represents the efforts of my friends and family to raise $175 to help others know they are not alone.  The feathers were found yesterday during my walk.  They represent the angels in my own story.  You can read my story  here if you don't already know it.  The beads are also symbolic.  All of us selected the colors that represented our path to this place.  Mine are blue, green, and purple.  Teal represents my family members who struggle with depression and suicide.  Purple is the loss of my friend and of my students.  Green shows my own struggle as a teenager.
     Joining  a community brings me healing and a greater understanding of what I need to do in this life.  I am thankful that Mandy and John were feeling well enough to walk with me this year.  Although Nick was not at a place where he could join me, I know he was there in spirit.  I was also blessed to be joined by my friend Robyn who experienced this loss a few months ago.  There is nothing more powerful than hearing people's stories, holding hands for a moment of silence, and feeling the overwhelming power of love.      

Sunday, April 24, 2016


My sister and my grandma's hands.  Love.  
      I have never been old enough to be trusted with the fragile gift of watching someone I love grow old.  My grandma has long since forgotten my name and the memories we have together, but somehow she still knows me.  Yesterday she asked me if we were the same age.  When I told her we were, she said, "I thought so.  I knew we were special, special friends."  I hold her hand and brush my cheek against it so she won't see my eyes fill with tears.  The memories have slipped away from her, but they live on in me.  
     Every time I see her, she asks me where I live.  She asks again every few minutes.  I thought she was just searching for a question she used to ask people when she met them.  I've been trying to think of an answer for her since she doesn't know where anything is anymore.  I came up with a favorite line when she was in the hospital and tried it again yesterday.  "I live by you, so I can come see you all the time."  Usually she says, "Oh, do you like it there?" and our words continue on.  Yesterday she looked at me and said, "But where do I live?  I don't know where I am.  I don't know why I am here.  But I'm trying to be good so I can go home."  My eyes filled again.  How did I not realize what she had been asking me all of these days?  And how do I answer the profoundness of the question in words she can understand?  There are so many times I look at the world and think I don't know where I am or what I am doing here, but I am trying to be good so I can go home again.  
     She used to tell John how much she loved him and how good he was to her because he took her to the George Strait concerts and bought her t-shirts and Cokes during the show.  Yesterday she looked at him and then at me and said, "Are you married?"  When I told her I was, she asked me if I had kids.  I told her I had two.  She asked if I was happy.  When I told her I was, she said, "Good.  That makes me feel so much better.  That makes me feel 110% better.  Now I can get better and go home."  John started to cry and I rubbed her hand and wondered at all the times she has held my hand through my life.
      When I look at her hands without seeing them I see her unconditional love for me, her strength, and endless movement - crocheting, cooking, fishing, playing games, and clapping when she laughs.  Somehow in the years I was focused on my own life, I never saw her hands beyond what I needed them to be, even as an adult.  I remember a Christmas a few years ago where I was mostly focused on my kids and the holiday rush, but I still noticed that she didn't want to let go of my hand.  My brother moved so I could sit by her and she could keep holding my hand.  When I left, she held both my hands while she continued to talk for minutes more.  Ever the impatient one, I kept trying to let go so I could gather my kids up and go home.  Later there was the concert where she slipped her hand in mine so she wouldn't get lost.  I couldn't wait to find our spots so I could hold someone else's hand.  Moments that I didn't notice her need for me and what she was saying any more than noticing my kids always grabbing up my hands.  It barely registered more than a sweet annoyance.
     Now I see her and instantly grab her hand and can barely stand to let go.  I see the spots and the wrinkles and the transparent lines underneath her paper thin skin.  I am such a slow learner at the important lessons in life.  Most people I know don't believe in reincarnation, but I can see that at the rate I learn, I need several more lifetimes to catch up with everyone else.  Luckily God has given me one more day to hold this beautiful hand I love so much.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Year of Golden Repair and the New Year of Meraki

     In 2014 my life broke apart, but on New Year's Eve, I declared 2015 to be my year of Kintsukuroi or Golden Repair.  I vowed to focus on the beauty of the golden repair and not demean myself for breaking.  This year the cracks made life challenging especially when not feeling smart enough and my perfectionism threatened to keep me to from finishing my dissertation.  Thankfully gold made the broken places stronger.  The gold shone in the support of my friends and family when I wanted to walk away.  There was gold in the eyes of the children that loved Olaf.  It was in the words, "Congratulations, Dr. Cooke."  It shone in the acts of kindness everyone did for my birthday.  I found it in sharing the summer concerts with my daughter, and in the laughter of the kids I see at work.  It was always in serving others.  

     This year ushers in Meraki.  It is a Greek word that means to do something with soul, creativity, or love.  It is when you leave a piece of yourself in your work.  This is the year of living life to the fullest; of leaving a piece of me in everything I do and everyone I meet.  Here is to the new adventures that await in 2016.  

Friday, December 25, 2015

Blessed on a Homeless Christmas

     John struggles with mental illness that changes names with different doctors and medications and diagnoses.  It lies somewhere between an atypical version of bipolar with severe depression to schizophrenia.  The truth is so much more than the labels.  I have learned so much about what it truly means to love someone because of loving him.  In moments of weakness he tells me that he knows he would be homeless if it weren't for me.  It has nothing to do with me, but so much to do with his illness.  But in my weak moments, I know how easy it would be to let go.  I understand all too well why many people with mental illness are left on their own.
     Long story that my friends and family already know to explain why today meant so much to me.  I was lucky to have the chance to help deliver clothes to the homeless shelter today.  There were almost eight inches of snow on the unplowed roads and my car doesn't have snow tires.  John wasn't feeling well.  Holidays are rough for him, sometimes.  There were so many reasons not to go out today, but I wrapped my arms around him and told him, "Remember how you said you would be homeless without me?  I have to help the others who aren't so lucky because we are so lucky to be here."  Without a word, he got up and got ready to go.
     We stood out in the snow and running water for an hour.  It was cold, my boots leaked and my feet got soaking wet, and my hands were numb, but my heart was full.  Everyone was so grateful for us just being there.  One woman told me that we were sent from the Lord to help them today.  I found shoes for a man and helped him bag them.  He told me that this was the best Christmas he has had in a long time.  Another woman wrapped the pink scarf we brought around her little girl and asked her if she liked it.  The little girl smiled shyly.  A man told me how happy he was because he was going to go call his daughter.  When I asked him about her, he told me that he loves her very much, but sometimes the alcohol wins over a phone call.  Then he smiled and said, "But today I don't have alcohol so I am going to call my daughter."  He was looking for clothes in her size to give her for Christmas.    
     Today reminded me what Christmas means.  I am so blessed to have enough to share with others on this holy day.  Here's to many more years of love, peace, and light for all of us on this beautiful world.