Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sin Miedos


For many years, I forged ahead, rarely worrying about much. I figured everything would work itself out eventually, so why waste energy on worrying. Then, for a multitude of reasons, the worries I constantly dismissed came unconsciously crashing down upon my shoulders. The stress of graduating college, the responsibilities of adulthood-primarily providing my portion of support to our family, and the daily routine of cystic fibrosis eventually became too much to handle. The worry overwhelmed my mind and body and affected my quality of life to the point where I often avoid any new experiences that could be detrimental to my health. My wife, Carly, has always been supportive and understands me better than most. While she empathized with my fears, she has constantly challenged my thoughts and perspectives throughout our marriage. In particular, she challenges my fear of the future and unknown. This has led to several healthy discussions, the most recent of which led to our trip to Mexico and what I would call a new beginning for me.

In the fall of 2008, we were invited to be part of a group trip to Mexico that was scheduled to leave at the end of February. Always the traveler, Carly was eager to head south for a warm winter vacation. When news of the trip reached my ears, my reaction was predictable. The worry showed instantly on my face. I came up with every reason not to go to Mexico: health, money, disinterest in traveling...You name it, I said it. The truth of the matter was that I didn't want to penetrate the boundaries of my comfort bubble. After an hour of spirited discussion, Carly relented and I silently rejoiced in my victory.

A few weeks later, we were at a friend's wedding, when out of my earshot a conversation arose regarding the impending trip to Mexico. The participants had imbibed in a few adult beverages, information was exchanged, and soon I was innocently confronted by some of my intoxicated friends. "Why are you afraid to go to Mexico? Carly said you are afraid to travel." I was caught off guard by the question and immediately became defensive and embarrassed. How did they know I was so afraid? I managed to change the topic with little resistance, but decided to wait until Carly and I were at home settling in to bed to mention the incident to her. She immediately apologized for saying what she said to my friends, but once again challenged my reasoning. "What I said was true, though. You are very afraid of many things. I don't understand it and it frustrates me. Honestly, I am sad for you." I tried to respond, but the words wouldn't come out. In my mind, my wife thought I was a coward. I know that she doesn't feel that way about me and never has, but her words made my heart ache. I decided that night to prove her wrong.

Within the next week we had booked our trip and all of our friends were pleasantly surprised. Our friend Kari teased me that I only booked the trip for Carly. While I wholeheartedly agreed with part of her statement, I did it for more than just Carly. I did it for our marriage. I wanted my wife to be proud of me. Most of all, I wanted to stop allowing my fear to control me. In the weeks prior to our trip south of the border I made the proper preparations. I went to doctors appointments, including a travel doctor, and made a list of questions and concerns I had about Puerto Vallarta. All of my doctors were more excited about Mexico than I was. The travel physician even said (in a very diplomatic and bedside manor-ish way) that my fears were a little ridiculous and my risks were no different in that part of Mexico than they were in the U.S.A. I still was not completely convinced, but left both doctors with less anxiety than I arrived with, which was a small step in the right direction.

The departure date was drawing closer, and though Carly's excitement and smile was enough to keep me peaceful on the outside, inside my fear overwhelmed my thoughts. What would happen if I got sick or hurt? There are days when I wonder if the doctors in the states knew what they were doing, but at least they had kept me on the right track. What the hell was going to happen in a foreign country, where my disease may have been as foreign to them as their language was to me? There had been many sleepless nights trying to answer that question on my own with little to show for it besides bags under my eyes.

I received an awakening few days before we left in the form of bad news. An acquaintance from high school, whom I recently reconnected with via Facebook, passed away from cancer. I hadn’t seen her in twelve years and can only remember a few brief but genuinely nice conversations. What really hit home was the rapid progression of her illness. She had been very open about her it, posting short but poignant updates on her progress. Then one day, I went on her page and saw a posting:

"Sabine passed away early Tuesday morning. Thank you to all her friends for their constant support and prayers."

The cancer consumed her, and though I am certain she battled valiantly, her body was not as strong as her spirit. I immediately thought of my sister Angela, who passed away from cystic fibrosis in the same manor. My eyes started to well up for my sister and for Sabine. I read several touching notes left on her Facebook page and secretly hoped that one day I would be remembered as fondly as she was when she left this world. I also wondered about whether she got to do everything she wanted to in her thirty years. A switch flipped on in my head and I decided I never wanted to ask myself that question. This trip to Mexico was no longer just a vacation to appease my wife and improve my marriage; this was a quest to improve the quality of my life and to face what I feared most...

Sitting on the bed in our hotel room, my face pale, and a hunk of bedspread clinched firmly in each hand, wasn't fooling anyone least of all my wife. "You don't have to go, babe." she stated sweetly as she placed her hand on top of one of my clenched fists. I emphatically replied that I was going on this excursion, but I needed time to come to grips with being dangled on a cable high above a Mexican forest with nothing between me and the ground below but a small and frequently used harness wrapped around me that was no bigger than a pair of tighty–whitey underwear. Let me digress...

Days earlier we touched down in Puerto Vallarta right around noon. The flight down was typical. A little motion sickness, but that is something I have always dealt with. The hotel was nothing special either. An all-inclusive that made you feel comfortable, yet driven like cattle as they moved you from venue to venue. Eat, drink, swim, drink, eat, drink, sleep. As a human bovine, I was waiting to be driven into a dark room and be sent to that "big pasture in the sky." Thankfully, this was not the case, and my friends and I soaked up the lethargic vibe with great pleasure. My worries seemed to melt away in the atmosphere with the help of a strawberry daiquiri or two. I was almost in a state of total relaxation when I was reminded of our activity for Tuesday. We were going on "Los Veranos Canopy Tours”: Fourteen individual cables of varying distances and heights, the highest being 1200 feet above sea level. Once you started, there was no stopping. Your only option was to cross longer trenches and ascend higher. I headed to our room determined, but terrified.

From the moment I woke up Tuesday, I was pacing like a tiger in a cage . I couldn't sit still if my life depended on it. My adrenaline and emotions were off the charts, so much so that tears would spontaneously stream down my face and I would quickly wipe them away before anyone could notice, not that they couldn't tell I was nervous from the groove I was wearing in the floor from pacing, but I still had to attempt to save some portion of dignity.

During the bus ride to the canopy tour, Carly kissed me softly on the cheek and whispered in my ear that she was very proud of me. This meant the world to me because it reaffirmed that she was aware of how hard this really was for me. I was very calm for the rest of the ride until the brakes squealed loudly, the door swung open, and a large bald man with a Cheshire cat grin hopped on the bus and joyfully exclaimed: "Hola, amigos! I would suggest you use the bathroom down here, because if you don't there are none up in the trees and this may scare the poo-poo and pee-pee right out of you!". Little did he know, I packed a pair of underwear just in case. Seriously, I did.

While being fitted for my harness, one of the guides - the self proclaimed "Skinny Monkeys" - tried to calm my fears. "You nervous, amigo?" I told him I was scared to death, but “Sin Miedos.” He looked at me, the nervous gringo, smiled and said "Cojones!", cupping his hands below his belt. Earlier in the week, I had watched Kindergarten Cop on TV at the hotel in English with Spanish subtitles. For some reason Arnold Schwarzenegger said "No Fear" which appeared in the subtitles as "Sin Miedos". I proclaimed that as my mantra for the trip and will be forever grateful to the Governor of California for his assistance. I only wish it was from a cooler movie of his. I will admit that I am still thoroughly entertained by Kindergarten Cop.

The presentation of the safety rules was of a humorous nature. They joked about falling, getting stuck in the middle of the cable, and rubbing our helmet-covered heads on the cable in the midst of explaining the proper techniques and procedures. Unfortunately, my selective hearing turned on, so I only heard the terrifying jokes and completely missed the important parts as my eyes welled up with tears of fear. Luckily, the guides were going to be at each station and would review what to do as we needed. With that, we headed up a long, uneven, man-made staircase, which I nicknamed the "Stairway to Heaven", because if the endless stair climb upward in the humid Mexican forest doesn't kill you, the trips across the multiple ravines just might. When I reached the top, gasping from exhaustion (There are many days when I am at home in Minnesota that can barely make it up a flight of stairs, so this damn thing nearly killed me!), I saw the first platform and realized the stairs weren't the only thing about to take my breath way. This was it. I stepped up to the launching point and was hooked on the cable that headed for what seemed like miles toward the following platform. I looked below me (very stupid) between the gaps in the planks and saw how high it was. In my head, I kept repeating "Sin Miedos, Sin Miedos", and only stopped briefly because the guide made a terrible joke about not remembering how to use the equipment. In my head I told him to go fuck himself, but stopped short of saying it out loud since he may have to save me at some point during the day. Here we go! Sin Miedos...Sin Miedos...

I wish I could tell you I had an epiphany as I flew through the air with greatest of ease. Hell, I wish I could tell you my life flashed before my eyes. It didn't, and I apologize to those I love, but I thought of no one...except my Dad. Not even him really, but of a joke he makes all the time. For a large portion of his life he was a siding, roofing, and window contractor. Consequently, he has been on ladders, roofs, and countless other high places and has fallen off of these things a few times. When people ask him what it is like to fall from so high up, he replies, without fail: "The falling is the fun part, it’s the landing that hurts.” The entire fourteen runs I barely made a sound, looked straight ahead, and had that one random thought. I also will happily admit that, while I shed tears on every single run, there was no need for extra underwear I packed. The last run was a tandem race run and I was pitted against my wife. She smiled at me and, even though my face wasn’t as telling, my heart smiled back. We shot down the run (which she won, like she always does) and I ran off the platform and placed my hands to my knees. I survived and I was thankful to have my feet on the ground again.

One fear had been faced and I was proud, but the worst was yet to come. Before we went on the trip, I noticed pictures on the website of people holding squirrel monkeys, parrots, and...snakes. If there is one thing I fear more than heights, it's snakes. Ever since I had a snake put down my back in kindergarten, I have a petrifying fear of snakes. I find them amazing and watch documentaries about them all the time, but I could never get near one without almost passing out. Fate had given me the opportunity to face two of my greatest fears in one day! I had to do it. I didn’t want to do it, but I had to. I walked over to the animal sanctuary where I first saw the very territorial squirrel monkeys. After I passed, they peed on someone and then started to bite each other. I had to put my developing fear of squirrel monkeys on the back burner though, because that was when I saw it: A six foot burmese python crawling on the ledge next to me! I don’t know why, but I didn’t feel the passing out sensation that normally occurs when this happens. Maybe my adrenaline was still so high from the canopy tour that I past the point of normal rationale thought. Regardless of the reason, it was time to face fear numero dos.

I told the guide who was handling the animals to please put the snake on me, but to stay close since I was deathly afraid of them. He obliged and gently set the snake across my shoulders. This was a million times worse than the canopy tours and I cringed when he told me to hold its neck right behind the head. The snake felt like a dried out dish scrubbing sponge and I was immediately intimidated by the shear power that this animal possessed. It was like one giant muscle writhing and twisting on my neck and shoulders. I knew it was time to be done when the lower half of the python started to wrap around my inner thigh and leg, so I politely asked the guide to please take the snake off of me. His reply: “No Hablo ingles, senor.” When he didn’t take it, I was tempted to drop it, but thought better of it. Even though I was afraid, I still had respect for this living creature and wished it no harm. I am sure it was not fond of me either and would much rather be hunting in a tree than on my shoulders. My voice tensed up like a twelve year old choir boy and I asked him once again - in a soprano tone - to remove the snake from my body. He smiled and slowly unwrapped it from my torso. Fear number two was faced and I was free from its coils.

You might be asking yourself if I enjoyed either experience. I am not afraid to say that I did not enjoy either. Put yourself in my place: Face your two biggest fears within a span of 3 hours and see how well you hold up. If you notice, I did not say I conquered my fears. I am still afraid of both things, but I am proud of myself for facing them and at least I know that if I had to do it again, I could do it and survive.

Before this trip to Mexico, my life had become a caricature of what a life well lived should be. I am disappointed in myself for taking this long to realize how ridiculous I was being, but I attribute it my human instinct to protect myself that may have gone into overdrive. I will still be cautious in the future, but won't let my fear prevent me from living my life anymore. I would like to end this post by thanking my traveling companions for their support and picture taking skills, my friend Sabine and sister Angela (peaceful thoughts to both of you), and especially to my wife. Thank you for winning most of the arguments, popping my bubble, and loving me unconditionally.

Peaceful Things,

Josh

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

To Whom It May Concern: Tribute To Those Who Have Passed Away



Hello long lost stranger,

I’ll never get used to seeing you. I can’t predict when you will appear, much less who you will take back with you. Is there something that will redirect your focus? Even though you make me wiser and appreciate all that I have, I wish you would stop hurting me, those I know, and those I don't. Please stop coming so early on in life and bringing the pain in tow with you. Come later, for instance, when we have been here for seven or eight decades and most of our lives are fulfilled. Come after we have said our goodbyes, made peace with those we’ve wronged and those who we feel have wronged us, seen what we’ve wanted to, and skipped what we didn’t. Come after we have loved and been loved. At least come after we have attempted to fulfill our dreams. I know that is not how the game works, but it doesn’t stop me from wishing I could change the rules.

Peace be with those who have passed away. May I have the honor of seeing you again someday. Until then, my memories of you – be they many or few – will ease the pain. I wish you happiness wherever we go from here.

Peaceful Things,

Josh

"I Got The CF", But I Could Have It A Lot Worse


One of my greatest lessons in humility thus far came at the same time as one of the most awkward and funniest moments in my life.

It was around Christmas time of 2000 and I was out and about on a Saturday doing some last minute shopping. Of course, there were no parking spots to be found close to the mall except for the handicapped permit spots up front. At the time, I had a permit at my disposal and used it sporadically at best. I never used it unless there were multiple others parking spaces available, or I had to use the restroom (which is a symptom of my illness and an all-to-common occurrence in my day). This time was neither of those reasons. This was a “I am annoyed with Christmas shopping and the B.S. that goes with it” time, so I decided to use my privilege in a selfish manner and sped through the parking lot to the open permit spaces.

After I got out of my car, I felt a small amount of karma come down upon me and bite me on the ass. A conversion van pulled up in the spot beside mine and the driver’s side door opened. From out of the vehicle stepped a burly, lumberjack-esque looking fellow who was built like a condominium with legs. I opened my mouth to ask him why he was parked there when he looked healthy, but hesitated. I had a similar experience once when I was in his position and decided to reserve judgment (not to mention the fact the guy could crush me with his thumb.). It was a wise move because when "Paul Bunyan" slid the side door open, out emerged a wheel chair lift, followed by the passenger. I couldn’t help but knowingly gawk at this man as the lift made its decent downward. He was wearing faded neon orange Zubaz with a stained white undershirt that barely protruded from beneath his tattered and torn brown leather bomber jacket. His face was as worn as his jacket and I would politely describe as a cross between Gandalf the Grey and Jack Sparrow. An oxygen tank hung from the back of his chair with small clear tube that began at the tank and disappeared with in the confines of the man’s disheveled beard. On the side of his chair hung a bag and it also had a tube attached to it, which lead to an area that made it quite clear what was filling the bag with yellow liquid.

Immediately I turned away, hoping that he didn’t notice me openly staring at him. As it turns out he did, and sneered at me and I nervously smiled back and headed toward the mall until I heard his voice utter one sentence:

“I got the cancer. What do you got?”

I stopped dead in my tracks. I knew that he was talking to me and I couldn’t help but smile. I like the fact that he asked the question. He just wanted to know what my reason was, and I respected that. He didn’t yell at me or chastise me; he just wanted a simple answer. So I gave him one even though at the particular time I was not using my permit for its intended purpose.

“I got the CF.”

His sneer left his face and was replaced with a blush of embarrassment. He took a deep breath and sadly sighed out “I’m sorry.”

I was flabbergasted. He felt sorry for me?!? This man - who looked like he might fall apart if I tapped him on the shoulder and who was clearly nearing the end of his days on earth - empathized with my struggles. I was amazed and humbled. Even though my mind felt like it was in a multi-car pile up, I managed to eek out something along the lines of “no need to apologize” while I uncomfortably chuckled and occasionally let out a full on belly laugh.

“Cancer Guy”, his friend “Paul Bunyan”, and I casually chatted as we headed into the mall, and then went our separate ways. While we were shopping, we would occasionally cross paths and he would yell “HEY CF GUY! HOW ARE YA?!” I would reply “GREAT, CANCER GUY!” The people in the mall were mortified, but we both just laughed. I think we had the same sense of humor about life and even though we met briefly, we had a bond and respect for one another that was a once in a lifetime moment. We never got each others real names. Our nicknames for one another were like a secret code word in a club of two members. I never saw him again after that day and cannot imagine he is still here, though he seemed like a pretty tough son of a bitch and would not be surprised if I ran into him.

I think it is my favorite story to tell, but it may be one you had to be there for. "Cancer Guy" taught me so much in such a short time about how life could always be worse and that I need to try to be peaceful with the awesome things I have in my life. Trust me, I struggle with it every single day. Incidentally, I have since let my permit expire and – though I need it even more now than I did then – I think I am going to hold off on getting it again for a while so I can appreciate my mobility while I have it.

Peaceful Things,

Josh

The Little Things & Simple Pleasures


A long time ago I decided that major milestones, while very important, are not the benchmarks of my life. It became very important to take notice of the little things in life after I lost my sister. She was rarely able to participate in the big things during her short time here on earth. She never had a real boyfriend, never went to prom, never got to look at colleges, the list goes on and on. What she had to do instead was find things in her daily life that made her happy and share the little joys that we all take for granted far too often. I wanted to know how she felt, so I started to take notice of the "little things" in my life. Here are some of them…

Any Morning With My Wife And Dogs.

Mornings in particular are difficult for me nowadays. I usually don’t feel well and will end up in back in bed soon after I attempt to start my day. Before Carly leaves for work, she always makes a point to lay beside me for a few moments and give me a few kisses on the forehead. This is usually followed by my two rambunctious puppies climbing all over me and lick my face to let me know they're ready for “Dad” to get up and start the day. My wife and my “furry alarm clocks” remind me how blessed I am to have a family that loves me. Not everyone is so lucky.


Putting My Shoes On After Wearing Bowling Shoes


I am not a big fan of bowling, so I rarely get to experience this “little thing.” Those times I do are worth the wait. After wearing those bowling shoes for two hours plus, I feel like I am walking on 2 x 4’s. So at the end of the evening, when lights come up and we sit at those alley tables, my feet slide into heaven. It’s like walking on pillows for the next few minutes as the sensation goes up and down my legs, the pain in my back disappears, and all is right with the world. I also find myself thinking of when I was a kid shopping for new shoes. My feet were two sizes apart due to a mild case of cerebral palsy and spastic diaplagia, so we often had to buy two pairs of shoes. As I got older, one foot was in adult sizes and one was in kids sizes. I used to be embarrassed by this until I found a place that donated random pairs of shoes to mission trips in third world countries. The gentleman who ran this operation showed me some pictures of children with one leg, but they had the coolest looking shoe in town. These are children who rarely see - let alone have access to - comfortable shoes. My embarrassment melted away. To this day, I wonder if they get that same sensation when they put their new shoes on for the first time.

Weekend Summer Mornings

It doesn’t really matter what I'mm doing at the time. It could be yard work, it could be fun getaway with friends and family, or it could be sitting on the porch in my pajamas. There is something very peaceful to me about those mornings. I just take it all in. Often times I will sit there in silence and listen to the cars pass by, the birds in my backyard, even just watching my dogs tear around the yard. The world is so simple and peaceful then. I wish I could save those moments for times when I really struggle so that I could inject a small dose of serenity back into my day.

Kids

I love kids. Most have a curiosity and honesty that I have come to appreciate deeply. Here are a few gems that have made me laugh:

1.I was watching my friend Randy’s five year old kid, Alex. He came over for the afternoon and I fed him lunch; just a basic PB & J with a side of chips and glass of milk. He gulped down his milk first and then started to munch away on his sandwich. Half way through, the peanut butter started to stick to the roof of his mouth. He grabbed his empty milk glass, held it up and said: “Hey Josh, help a brother out!” It was very hard to hold in my laughter while trying to explain how to properly ask for more milk.

2. I worked at a daycare during college. During my time there, I got sick and was put on home I.V. antibiotics. This meant there was a huge tube protruding from my arm and was not easy to hide from the kids. Instead, I decided to take the time to sit down with the kids in a group and explain to them why I had this thing in my arm and answer any questions they might have. I got the normal stuff like “Does it hurt?”, “Is your arm going to fall off?”, and a bunch of other questions. The final question was the best one of all. This little fellow with glasses and a “Jimmy Neutron” T-shirt stood up and asked: “Can you put Kool-Aid in that thing? If you could that would be awesome!”

3. Last summer, Carly’s family from Nebraska came up for a long weekend. One the family members was a sweet young lady named Rylee. I swear, she was the most energetic nine year old I had ever met. She was always asking questions, very observant, and always willing to voice her opinions. It had been a long weekend running around the Twin Cities and toward the end I was pretty exhausted. On their last afternoon in town we stopped by the park to have some lunch and Riley came and sat by me. She tapped me on the shoulder and said: “Josh, are you okay? I noticed you aren’t talking a lot and you never stop talking, so something must be wrong.” I smiled at her and told her I could say the same thing about her. She just rolled her eyes and gave me a big smile.

Conversations With My Mother

We talk at least twice a week and have lunch pretty often. During those conversations we’ll talk about nothing and everything all at once. We drive each other crazy, but are always there when the other needs a sounding board. I have seen too much in my life to take those conversations - or our relationship - for granted. She is a major part of who I am and I am very lucky to have her.

Blasting My Music With The Windows Rolled Down In The Early Fall

No better time of the year than a crisp fall day to cruise the streets. Normally, I have oldies going, but sometimes I’ll make a playlist to remind me of people that I care for. Music is great therapy.

Last but certainly not least…

Whenever Someone Thinks About Me

This could be inviting me to something, calling me up to see how things are going, sending me an email saying “I heard this song that reminded me of you.” That says something about my relationship with that person. The fact that I have made a big enough impact on their life that they would think of me during their busy day or include me in their plans is a privilege. Thanks for the honor of the moment.

“Simple pleasures are the best. Yes they are.”
Bobby McFerrin from the song “Simple Pleasures.”

Peaceful Things,

Josh

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Peaceful Things ~ Josh
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