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Untimely/Timely Goodbyes

It’s Christmas and the last thing anyone wants at Christmas time is a sad farewell to a friend.

On the other hand, when the hallmark of that friend’s life was a deep love of Jesus Christ, the very reason for Christmas, there is something sacred about her leaving this life at at this beautiful, celebratory season.

Dana Sue Kimball Israelsen died last Sunday at age 59 of lung cancer.

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She never smoked a day in her life and was never overly exposed to secondhand smoke.  Yet, two years ago, she was surprised by a lung cancer diagnosis. She miraculously beat it the first time, but it quickly returned “with a vengeance,” to use her words.

Her optimism in the face of a stage IV diagnosis was remarkable. She was sure she would survive it, but unexpectedly, after many chemotherapy and radiation treatments, she passed away last Sunday.

I knew Dana Sue when she lived in Washington, D.C. and we both worked on Capitol Hill, and then in the Reagan Administration in federal government jobs.

When I moved back to Utah, we lived only a couple miles from each other. And, when I heard about her cancer diagnosis, I reached out to her — knowing personally about the bewildering world of both the diagnosis and the treatment.

She had many questions, primarily about chemotherapy — what would it be like, how would she feel, what would her quality of life be like, tips for getting through it, etc. I wished I had better, more comforting answers for all her questions.

She went to her first chemo treatment armed with her usual sense of humor and threw a party for all the patients in the room with her.

As she explained the effects of the treatments — pain, uncontrollable night sweats, extreme hormone fluctuations, incredible anxiety, and more pain — I related to them all and sympathized with her. She joked that each session was like entering a torture chamber. I agreed and suggested she just count them down, rejoicing in each one being behind her.

I believed, like she did, that she would get better, bounce back, put cancer behind her, but in the end, it took her life.

She only had two requests for her funeral — 1) that it be short, and 2) that it be a celebration of her life. Her friends and family delivered on both requests, celebrating her life with one uplifting or hilarious story after another.

A friend told how Dana Sue once worked for Robert Redford and how her employment ended after she accidentally locked him in his barn.

A daughter told a story about when she was recovering from surgery and her mother went to retrieve her a pain pill. While walking down the stairs with a glass of water in one hand and her daughter’s post-surgery pain pill in the other, she stopped midway and forgot what she was doing and where she was headed with the pill, so, she popped it in her own mouth, assuming it must have been for her.

In this funeral, there was laughing, celebrating, and crying both tears of joy and sadness.

Dana’s best friend, Marianne, summarized her life by saying the one word that describes her life is “impact.”

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“Her life has been a series of impacts, large and small. She has not been one to sit on the sideline and watch. She has been the one right in the middle, thinking outside the box, problem-solving, making things better.”

The most notable comment made in her funeral by every speaker was that she lived a life devoted to Jesus Christ — always wanting to be found doing his will, his work.

Marianne said that while Dana Sue’s life looked charmed and perfect, it was far from it. She suffered just like everyone else, but as she searched for answers, she learned she could truly count on the Heavens.

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“She went to work. She did all she could to work out her challenges, but when she had done all she could, she turned to her Savior. That is where the tutoring began. That is when the time that she and her Savior spent together became her refuge, her safe spot, her resting place….She began to see glimpses of her purpose and the reasons for her challenges.”

Finally, Marianne quoted Dana Sue, who said, “I have learned that without hope you cannot fight this. Your doctors can give you facts, statistics, and calculated possibilities. But hope comes from within and it is a gift from above.”

“Hope is not denial, but the gift of hope blesses us with the state of mind to deal with the gap between what is and what can be. It can be life sustaining.”

She spoke of her love of God and Jesus Christ and said, “I know they they know me and know what my family needs. All these things will be for our ultimate good. My favorite saying is, ‘they will turn straw into gold as we look to them in all things.'”

So, in the end, Dana Sue’s Christmas season passing, while heartbreaking and sad, is sacred and beautiful, even joyful, as one of her daughters mentioned. For Christmas, her ultimate hope was realized — her straw was miraculously turned to gold as she ascended to where we all hope to go.

Thank you Dana Sue for the beautiful life you lived, for the inspiration you provided, and for the ultimate hope you expressed through your words and daily life — the hope that blesses us with the state of mind to deal with the gap between what is and what can be, which is the true purpose of Christ’s birth, and the pure essence of Christmas.

 

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Let the Decorating Begin…

It’s Black Friday weekend.

That means it’s officially Christmas.

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It’s time to deck the halls with boughs of holly and all that other fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la.

We just have one slight decorating dilemma…

For the last few years, Doug’s niece, Teresa, a professional decorator, has decorated our house for Christmas.

And, we have absolutely loved it.

Two years ago, she visited us in Virginia and brought suitcases full of ribbons, garlands, giant snowflakes, and other holiday surprises, and made our house look like a Christmas wonderland.

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Teresa uses our decorations but adds her own flourishes…

We tried to help, but we quickly learned it’s best to stay out of the way when she does her decorating magic.

First, because she works super fast and doesn’t need us getting in her way.

And second, she’s a professional decorator and she knows what she’s doing.

She didn’t need us saying things like, “Wait, are you sure you want to put that 7-foot tree on that table? Or isn’t that too much ribbon?”

“Trust me you’ll love it,” she patiently replied, as she kept working at a breakneck pace.

And, she was right.

We definitely loved it.

We’ve learned it’s best to just be her quiet assistants and fetch the lights, hand her the ribbons, and dig the Santas out of the storage bin when she needs them.

Unlike me, she doesn’t stop, think and debate where to put something because she has a crystal clear vision in her head that she’s trying to bring to life.

 

 

Last year, while we were in New York City for a weekend in December, Teresa came into our new home in Utah while we were gone and secretly decorated the entire house.

When we came back, it was just like when Dorey, Brian and Susan walked into their fully decorated Christmas house at the end of my favorite Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street.

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It was spectacular and magical.

She was our Kris Kringle.

The problem is now that we’ve been treated to such luxury by Teresa, we can’t decorate without her.

After two years of her Christmas magic, we’re spoiled.

So, we essentially begged her to do it again this year.

Just one more time.

She agreed even though she is crazy busy decorating other houses for real, professional clients.

In our excitement this year, we thought we could help her out by giving her a head start.

So we pulled out all our Christmas boxes.

Then, we just stood and stared at everything, feeling completely overwhelmed.

“Where do we begin?”

“What did Teresa do last year?” Doug asked.

We started looking through old photos to see how she did it.

“Well, it looks like she put the Dickens’ carolers on the mantle, but I don’t know how she got the garland and ribbon to look like that,” I said.

“Maybe we should call her,” Doug said.

“We can’t call her. She’s decorating a million other trees for paying customers,” I said.

“Then, maybe we should just wait for her to do it all. I’d hate to put stuff out and then have her redo it. That would really waste her time,” Doug said.

“Yeah, we are probably doing her a favor by doing nothing,” I agreed.

 

So, here we sit in our house full of boxes waiting for Teresa because suddenly we don’t trust ourselves to even put a simple caroler on the mantle.

Oh, Teresa, Teresa, Teresa, what have you done to us?

We probably have an unhealthy dependency on her now, but, the thing is, we don’t want to break ourselves of it because we like it.

It helps us get in the Christmas frame of mind.

And like Kris Kringle said in Miracle on 34th Street, “Oh, Christmas isn’t just a day. It’s a frame of mind.”

Teresa is like our Kris Kringle, and she helps us get into that Christmas frame of mind.

 

So, we’ve decided it’s best to just wait…

We’re doing her a favor, right?

So, from now until Tuesday, we will be like giddy children awaiting Santa’s arrival.

And on Tuesday night, we will be like Dorey, Brian and Susan — running through the house admiring every perfectly placed pillow and Dickens’ caroler, and quoting Susan, “I believe. I believe. I believe!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Welcome to the 60s

Well, hello 60.

Cue the Hairspray music, “Welcome to the 60’s.”

 

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Photo by Thomas Curryer on Unsplash

Yes, I’m 60 years old.

Doug planned a little party for me and announced in the invitation that “Her age has finally caught up to her era.”

My age now represents my era of hippies, women’s lib, The Beatles, peace, flower power, countercultural activities, revolution, and protests against social norms.

So for my 60th birthday,  I had a little countercultural, revolutionary experience of my own.

Call it an epiphany — like a little firework that went off in my head and illuminated something simple, but inspiring for me.

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It happened a few weeks before my birthday at an LDS Public Affairs Women’s Outreach Team event in the Relief Society Building on Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City.

I was listening to some remarkable women talk about the good, charitable things they are doing to make the world a better place.

I looked around the historic room in the Relief Society Building at the portraits on the wall of the past LDS Church Relief Society Presidents, and was surprised at the emotion that swept over me.

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Portraits of the Past Presidents of the Relief Society adorn the walls.

For those not a member of my faith, the Relief Society is the women’s organization of the Mormon church — the largest women’s organization in the world. Its purpose is to strengthen faith in homes and families and to relieve the suffering of those in need.

I feel deeply proud to be part of an organization with such a noble purpose.

And for a brief, beautiful moment in that Relief Society room, I felt apart from the world around me — separated from the news of hurricanes, political unrest and acrimony in the world.

I felt wrapped in something warm, uplifting, and powerful.

I looked around the room and saw a group of strong, compassionate, remarkable women — most of them working or volunteering for nonprofit associations that benefit other women, and I was struck by the immense value they add to the world.

I wondered if I was worthy to be in that room.

I listened to Sharon Eubank, the new first counselor in the general Presidency of the Relief Society, and the director of LDS Charities, a humanitarian organization that provides generous assistance to millions of people around the world.

Am I that dedicated? I wondered.

I certainly don’t have her large sphere of influence.

But, then the thought came to me — concentrate on your own sphere of influence.

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During the brief few hours I spent in that beautiful and historic Relief Society building, I felt uplifted and strengthened by the women around me and had a profound “countercultural” experience.

A simple message floated into my mind that said, “Be Like Them.”

I looked around the room at the portraits of past presidents, and into the faces of so many remarkable women I admire, and thought, “Yes, I want to be like them.”

I think the reason this epiphany hit me so powerfully was that I was … brace yourself … somehow, without even realizing it, comparing myself to other women and feeling like I should step up my game to be more like them.

I’m ashamed to say, I was thinking about their beauty, their clothes, their careers, their brilliance, their vacations, and even their beautifully decorated Halloween porches.

I didn’t even realize I was doing it until I felt that nudge to try to rise above those types of comparisons and strive to become more like the women in that room.

That little voice basically schooled me, saying,  “Hey, you’re capable of so much more. Why are you envying the woman with gold spray painted pumpkins on her porch?”

The message was so clear: Set your sights higher.

To me, that meant strive to be a quality woman, a woman of true faith and real substance.

It meant be more serene, accept yourself and your life and be happy; settle into yourself, embrace your role and find your own beautiful obsessions, which aren’t found in your closet or in the mirror or in the finest craft or furniture stores.

These qualities  — serenity, acceptance, increased faith, contentment — aren’t found in having more things like gold pumpkins on my porch.

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I’m hoping this new insight will last, that it will be etched in my psyche because aspiring to be a better person from the inside out actually seems within my reach.

It also brings more peace into my life than say, wanting to be taller, which would in turn make me thinner, which, unfortunately is not going to happen in this life.

 

Patricia Holland, one of my favorite inspirational speakers, said,  “I believe that as women we are becoming so concerned about having perfect figures, or straight A’s, or professional status, or even absolute motherly success, that we are being torn from our true selves. We often worry so much about pleasing and performing for others that we lose our own uniqueness, that full and relaxed acceptance of ourselves as a person of worth and individuality. Too many women watch helplessly as their lives unravel from the core that centers and sustains them. Too many are like a ship at sea without sail or rudder, tossed to and fro… until more and more of us are genuinely, rail-grabbingly seasick.”

The solution to this seasickness she says is finding “the steady footing and the stilling of the soul—by turning away from the fragmentation of physical preoccupations … and returning instead to the wholeness of our soul.”

Now, that feels countercultural — focusing on the wholeness of the soul instead of frantically obsessing over keeping up with everyone around me.

This is my welcome to the 60s.

If I can focus on improving the wholeness of my soul, the 60s might feel pretty darn good to me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In Honor of October

In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month, I am reprinting this blog I wrote in response to a salon.com “open call” on the question, “What can’t you bring yourself to throw away?” While it’s a sad reminder of a period of my life I don’t want to revisit, it’s also a reminder that breast cancer is real, and still affecting far too many people. Let this be a reminder that screenings and early detection saves lives. Early detection definitely saved mine.

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It sits on the top shelf of my closet, inside a box, where I don’t have to look at it.

Most days I don’t even think about it.

I store breast cancer in my closet.

It comes in the form of a wig.

Not just any old wig — a custom-made, human hair wig that fit perfectly over my smooth bald head for nearly a year, giving the false impression to the world that I was in good health with a mane of beautiful blonde hair.

When a friend was diagnosed (the first in a series of six friends in four years since my diagnosis), I offered it to her as a gift.

I was done with it because it just shouted, “Cancer!” to me.

She gladly accepted it.

I was exuberant to let it go, like excess weight falling off my body, making me feel lithe, agile, and aloft.

Within days it showed up on my doorstep with a note: “Sorry, it didn’t fit.”

I held it cautiously like a snake I might pick up with a long, sturdy stick to keep it far from me until it could be tossed back into the woods where it belonged.

I could give it to the American Cancer Society, I thought, or just stuff it in the trashcan …

I didn’t have to keep it, but old ominous sayings ran through my head like, “If you get rid of it, you’ll need it.” Or, “If you keep it, you’ll never need it again.”

So I kept it, granting it a cancer-fighting power that would protect me from ever having to be caught up in the maelstrom of a cancer war again.

I tried to give it away at least three times, but it kept coming back with comments about it being too small.

Stupid small head anyway, I thought, as I marched upstairs to store it for the last time.

I climbed up on the stool, reached for the designated floral hat box on the top shelf of my closet, and stuffed it back in there for permanent keeping.

I worried that it kept coming back as a sign that I needed to keep it to ward off cancer.

Whatever works, I thought as I walked back downstairs.

Storing a wig in my closet is a small price to pay for being cancer-free.

I know this is insane, but old wives tales or not, I’m keeping that wig forever because getting rid of it makes me feel as naked, vulnerable and afraid as the day I looked into the mirror and saw a bald woman reflected in the glass, and realized it was me.

Change, Friends, Home

10 Lessons about moving

I keep a five-year journal , a charming little gem that allows me to write five-line entries for five years.

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Every day, it tells me exactly what I was doing the previous year on the same day.

My daily entries from last year at this time included :

  • Last visit to our home in Virginia. That house is packed with memories. Not sure I can handle any more tears or goodbyes.
  • Signed our closing papers and hit the road for Utah. I can’t believe it.
  • Staying in Missouri.
  • Just outside Denver.
  • Arrived in Utah at our new home. Stood on the deck and marveled at the beauty.
  • Roughing it with a folding table, two lawn chairs and an air mattress until the moving van arrives.

As I read these entries, I thought about everything that has happened and changed in our lives in the last year.

Here are 10 lessons I’ve learned:

  • While moving is a major life decision and a big risk, it turned out to be easier than I expected.
  • At a going away party last year, a wise millennial friend said, “Don’t compare Utah to Virginia/D.C. Just take Utah for what it is.” Best advice ever.  It’s not better or worse. It’s just different. (Thank you Jason McDonald.)
  • There is beauty everywhere. While I love the green, lush world of the East Coast,  I love the spectacular mountains and scenery of Utah.

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  • Being near family is better than I imagined.
  • My Virginia friends are still my friends. I’m grateful for phone calls, texting, social media, and lots of visitors. fullsizeoutput_942

 

  • While I miss the vibrancy and closeness of the Mormon church community in the DC area, I’ve learned there are unique cultural challenges and tests of faith in different places. Again, one place is not better or worse. It is just different.
  • Going to the Outer Banks is still worth it. Even if we have to fly, rent a car, and go less often, it’s definitely still worth it.
  • Making new friends doesn’t mean I’m forgetting my old ones. I can cherish old friends and still make new ones. In fact, it’s essential. We all need friends — near and far.
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Reuniting with old high school friends — “You always go back to the people who were there in the beginning…”
  • Another wise friend who has moved many times in her life told me to give it a year to adjust. She said it takes a year to find doctors, hair stylists, dentists, favorite grocery stores, etc. and to feel comfortable in a new house, new neighborhood, new community. She said not to judge whether I like it until a year passed. She’s right. It requires some patience to rebuild your life in a new place.
  •  Finally, I’ve learned that being happy is a choice. So, I’ve decided over and over to be happy, and guess what? I am.

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Is it wrong to love a funeral?

One of the advantages of being “home” is being able to attend important events like family weddings and funerals.

 

We’ve lived away for so many years that we’ve missed most of these key family events.

While it sounds morbid, I’ve been reminded of how much I love a funeral.

 

I’m not talking about the heartbreakingly sad funerals for people who suffer from tragic, untimely deaths, I’m talking about funerals for people who have lived long, full lives and are ready for the next step in their journey.

We went to one of these funerals last week for Doug’s Aunt Marge who was 102 years old.

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Marjorie Turner Stevens

A hundred and two years old.

Now, that’s a long, full life.

This was not a depressing, mournful event. It was more like a happy celebration of life, family, and faith.

There was laughter, hugging, reminiscing and story telling. There were reunions of cousins, aunts, uncles, and siblings.

And there was joy — a lot of deep, down-to -the-core joy and appreciation for being part of a sprawling family with a noble heritage.

Doug’s aunt lived in the little town of Holden, Utah where the current population is about 375 people.

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Doug and his family walked around the cemetery and pointed out graves of ancestors — Mormon pioneers whose stories of courage and faith are legendary.

As we drove around this cozy little hometown, I heard stories about water fights with Grandma, trips to the only store in town to redeem pop bottles for penny candy, and sleepovers on the back porch.

Doug mentioned “The Holden Effect” and said he’d like to learn more about how that little town has affected so many people with roots there. I enjoyed feeling the “The Holden Effect” while there for just a day.

I think this effect has more to do with the people and the families that have lived there than the actual place. Its the family memories in that quaint little town that create the special effect.

We loved being immersed in the warm pool of familial love in Holden, and felt the truth behind Henry B. Eyring’s words that “When our hearts turn to our ancestors, something changes inside us. We feel part of something greater than ourselves.”

 

A core Mormon doctrine is that family life is eternal and that after this earth life, we will be reunited with those we love. This helps ease the pain of goodbyes and provides hope for future reunions.

I always leave a Mormon funeral feeling a renewal of my faith in that doctrine.

While standing at the burial site on a small hill overlooking the town, I was struck by the fact that even though we go through life forging countless relationships, in the end, our big lives and our big circles of friends shrink down to a strikingly small number of mostly family members standing together near the casket, saying goodbye.

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It’s an interesting phenomena in today’s world that we can amass and stay in contact with hundreds or even thousands of friends through social media,  but in the end, how many of them are the kind of friends that will show up (and travel!) to our funerals?

No matter where we go in life, and no matter how much we contribute to this big, wide world,  it’s the contributions we make to our families that matter most.

If we’re lucky, we have a few cherished friends that are like family. I’m blessed with some of those friends. And, I hope they are around to attend my funeral.

But, for most of us, it will be our family members standing at the pulpit paying tribute to our lives, extolling our virtues, laughing at our quirks, and retelling our funny stories.

Being reminded of that truth is one of the reasons I love a good funeral.

 

 

 

 

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What’s on your summer bucket list?

On the cover of the recent Conde Nast magazine Traveler, there was this:

We Live for Summer

That caught my eye because it is so true.

Winter is finally over. The snow is gone. The temperatures are hot and delightfully dry; and in Utah, evenings are refreshingly cool and comfortable.

Oh, there are the occasional temperature extremes, some rain, and wind.

But, still, it’s summer, and it’s time to plan some fun.

Many years ago, we gathered with some friends and brainstormed what we wanted to do for the summer.

We made a list — outdoor concerts, road trips, theme parks, festivals, fairs, celebrations, and cookouts.

Oh, how I love a good list.

list-2389219_1280.pngThen, we narrowed it down to the things we wanted to do most, and worked to make it all happen.

We bought tickets, divided up responsibilities, and wah-lah. We had a summer to live for.

We still look back and say, “Remember that one summer?”

We remember it as the summer we didn’t let slip away; the summer we actually did all the things we loved.

Since we’re newbies here in the Great State of Utah, Doug and I have made a very long summer bucket list; and we’re quite busy checking things off of it.

We’ve already experienced the exhilaration of riding in and driving a Razor RV with my niece and her dirt bike racing husband, who did his best to give us a “tame” or beginners mountain experience.

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IMG_6386I may have looked like Pig Pen from the Peanuts cartoons, but boy, we had fun.

We checked off a local baseball game — not the Washington Nationals — but a summer baseball game nonetheless…

We attended an outdoor theater where the best seats in the house were lawn chairs that cost $14; and we smiled through an impressive, high-energy production of Hairspray.

We discovered a few new hiking trails with spectacular views.

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IMG_7910Next up is to explore some hikes with waterfalls and wildflowers, eat at some new outdoor restaurants, attend a Shakespeare festival, volunteer at an arts festival, and, of course, squeeze in a trip to the Outer Banks, among other things.

 

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Summer officially starts tomorrow, Wednesday, June 21.

So you better get planning if you want to have an unforgettable summer — you know, the one you always remember as “that one summer.”

It will be over before know it.

So, get busy.

Make a List.

Then, share it with me.

It might help us make our Summer 2017 bucket list a little longer and a lot more fun.

Happy summer.