Saturday, July 29, 2017

And Then, Our House Burned Down

On Monday evening, I started to fix dinner for my family. Halfway through, I went to my bathroom to grab something. (I don't even remember why). There were some grey wisps of smoke coming from the bottom of the sink cabinet. I was very puzzled, and started pulling out all the items in the cupboard to investigate. Nothing in the cabinet was on fire so I realized I needed to investigate in the basement. I thought perhaps our boiler was acting up. On the way to the basement, I mentioned to my son, Josef, that I thought we might have a fire. I was a little nervous, but wanted to get more information before acting.

I walked downstairs into our laundry room where our boiler is and saw more smoke, I crouched down to flip the emergency switch and then happened to look up. The door into the garage was cracked and I could see flames there. There was also a man in the garage shouting, "Your house is on fire!" There was a small fire on the workbench. He asked me to go get a fire extinguisher. Initially I agreed and started to get one, but my brain clicked on. I turned back and told the man that I had six kids and I had to get them out of the house right away.

I turned around and started running up the stairs, yelling, "The house is on fire! Get out of the house!" And then I dialed 911 and told the emergency service what was happening. I quickly ran through the house, turned off the stove and went outside. All my kids except Walter were gathered outside with the man who had been in my garage. I yelled, "Where's Walter?" and he came from the trees behind our house.

We were all startled and shocked as the fire amped up and explosions started happening. We moved farther away from the house and waited anxiously for the fire trucks to show. It felt like forever as the flames grew bigger, but eventually the trucks showed up and firemen jumped out and started getting their hoses ready.

It was so scary to watch. I cried in shock and fear as we watched everything happen. I called my husband and curtly told him the house was on fire and needed to come home right away. Later he talked to my son who assured him that we were all safe.

As the firemen worked I was hit with a ton of questions. First and foremost, they wanted to make sure that no one was still in the house. They also asked what kind of things we had in our garage. We answered their questions as they worked. They were very relieved that no one was in the house. Within 10 minutes they had the blaze extinguished and then worked on making sure there were no more hot spots in the houses.

My neighbors started showing up, checking on us, and offering us a place to stay. People called and texted and asked questions. Eventually my husband came walking up the road. He was stopped several blocks away and had to walk the rest of the way to the house. The kids and I were so relieved to see him.

Josef's friend, Sam, and her mother came to the house and asked if they could take the kids back to their house. It was getting late and we had no idea how long we would have to be there. We were happy to accept and the kids were taken care of.

We talked a little more to the man who had run into our garage when he saw the fire. His name was Michael Cola. He was kind to stop and help. He stayed with us most of the time. I got his phone number and plan to call him and send him a nice thank you.

Some of my friends that I work with on the PTSA for the high school called and checked on us and one of the women, Jenn Albano, started gathering donations, including diapers, for us. We had nothing but what clothes we were wearing. Half the kids had bare feet.

We waited for several hours as the emergency personnel worked. We answered so many questions. Eventually, two firemen took us through the house and let us grab a few things. It was really horrible. The house was covered in soot and debris. The firemen had knocked holes in the walls and ceiling and pulled out the insulation to check for any smoldering. Our home was totally unrecognizable. Brent and I searched all over the house for Winter's blanket and Jonathan's blanket. They both love their blankets and sleep better when they have them.

Then Brent and I got into my car, which was fortunately okay, and we went to pick up his car. We then drove to our neighbor's house to be with our kids. We had to shower right away because we had soot on our hands and arms. I was so shook up and couldn't stop shivering. It felt so good to get into a hot bath and warm up.

That night, several bags of clothing and toiletries were dropped off for our family. Our community has been incredible. Donations are being collected of clothing and household goods. At some point, we will collect them and be able to use them. Several people sent us gift cards and money. We were bombarded with offers of places to stay.

Brent and I discussed our situation. My parents and in-laws asked if the kids and I could go to Wyoming while Brent handled the details back in New York. The idea was very appealing because it would be a secure place to relax until we could figure out our future plans. But that had to wait until we found out more from our insurance company.

The last few days have been a whirlwind of meetings. Several adjusters have toured our home and given their professional opinion about what needed to happen next. The good news is that the structure of the house is still in good shape. Unfortunately, smoke damaged all our possessions and very few items can be salvaged. We rescued a few things but the majority of our possessions will be replaced. The bad news is that it will take at least 7-9 months before the house repairs are completed. We are in the process of looking for temporary housing. We also learned that the fire was most likely caused by some battery chargers we had plugged in. We had Ryobi and Craftsmen battery chargers for tools like a cordless drill, leaf blower, weed whacker, etc.

Our family feels extremely grateful to all our neighbors, friends, and total strangers who have reached out to us. Several of my children's school teachers, principals, and school staff reached out to us personally to ask about our needs and welfare. I didn't even realize how much we have become a part of the community.

We are very sad about what happened, but feel so grateful that we made it out safely. Things can be replaced. It also feels good that so many people have reached out to us, making us feel wanted, loved, and cared for. With all that support, we are going to be okay.

Several people have asked about my scrapbooks. They sustained smoke damage and have some soot on the tops of the pages. However, I think if I pull the pages out--the most important part--we can do some things to remove the smoke smell and preserve them. If we can't salvage the pages, I can always photograph what I made and have prints made. I have 10 years of photographs backed up digitally in a couple of places. I also photographed nearly every layout I made in the last five years. Additionally, my older photos were stored in secure plastic boxes, so I hope that most can be recovered.

There were three news articles about our family and the fire. Most focused on Michael Cola and his role. He was very brave to stop and help and we are grateful to him. The only quibble I have is that I am the one who got my children out of the house and I had realized that we had a fire before I even saw him, but otherwise, the articles were okay.

WABC 7 News

Westchester 12

Friday, July 7, 2017

Walking on the Path of Uncertainty

Yesterday I received some difficult news at a doctor visit. I have routine eye exams because plaquenil, the medication I take to keep my lupus in check, can cause some rare and irreversible eye damage. These eye checks are meant to catch any problems quickly before they become too severe. The ophthalmologist asked me how long I had taken plaquenil and when I told her that I have taken it for 13 years, she got very serious. While I currently have good vision and she isn't seeing any negative effects, she said the risk of eye damage was much greater after being on the medication for so long. She was going to recommend to my rheumatologist that I stop taking plaquenil and start other treatments.

This is very disturbing news as plaquenil has allowed me to lead a very healthy, normal, active life for the last thirteen years. In fact, lupus patients who take plaquenil long-term show better health and life outcomes. They live longer and experience lupus much less severely than patients who don't take plaquenil. Additionally, other lupus treatments, like prednisone or immune suppressants have much worse side effects and problems than plaquenil. The current recommendation is to have regular eye exams and stop treatment if any problems are noticed.

This leaves me in quite a quandry and anticipating a very important conversation with my rheumatologist. I don't want to stop taking plaquenil nor do I want any vision problems. I am not certain what the future holds and I feel worried what will happen.

While pondering this today, I felt impressed to listen to a talk from the podcast BYU speeches. I came across the talk, "Waiting upon the Lord: The Antidote to Uncertainty," by Dr. Erin Holmes.  It was just what I needed to hear. It reminded me that I am not walking this path alone, that God is with me, and that there are lessons to be learned in this time.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

An update

It has been a long while since I posted on my blog; I will get to that in a bit with whatever piecemeal explanation I can give. My heart and body have been begging me to write and I have started at least a half dozen posts and deleted them all. Words come out haltingly and stuttered, meanings are half-uttered, and I falter, unable to continue. I am starting to get back to the point of wanting to cry all the time, for no apparent reason, so my body tells me it must come out, imperfect and ridiculous as it is.

Last summer the bottom of our world kind of dropped out. I found myself fighting an uncomfortable depression and while trying to cope, things happened in my family. I can't go into specifics because they involve others and I must respect their privacy. What I can say that it probably isn't as dark or as awful as you might be imagining, but neither was it exactly rosy. It took my husband and I a few months to sort of grasp what was happening and since then we have been on this mad dash to find help and a cure, if you will. As we have faced challenges in our immediate family unit, tragedies of various degrees have struck our siblings and their children. All this to say that we have been through a lot of hurting.

I can say that it has been, without  a doubt, the worst school year we have ever experienced, individually and collectively. I have spent more time on the phone with school staff and have been on the receiving end of an incredible amount of support and help. My husband and I have spent more hours and days than we would care to searching for solutions and help in our community. We have tried different things, all with varying degrees of success and failure, but mostly failure.

I didn't want to write about any of this until it was over, done, finished, we made it through this trial, but such isn't the case. I have no idea how long this will continue or if it will ever end. I am not comfortable or great with uncertainty, even though I understand, intellectually, that is often the total sum of human experience.

So in the midst of this trial/challenge/life experience that I am being so vague about it, it is maddening, we have also experienced miracles in the moments we most desperately needed them. Miracles from talking to the right person who could give us help and advice, peace after a violent storm, kindness from friends, prayers answered. I started taking yoga and exercising at a gym, which has helped with the stress and tension.

So there you go. I'm not sure what else to say nor if I achieved anything with this, but I feel a little better, so there is that.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Rooted and Restless

Yesterday my husband and I closed the deal on a new window set for our living room and two sliding glass doors for our kitchen and study. While feeling trepidation about the cost (windows are expensive) we knew the work needed to be done. I awoke this morning thinking about the new windows and the cost.

My back deck and backyard a week ago after a big snowstorm.

My Facebook and Instagram feeds this morning were full of exciting and beautiful pictures. One friend is currently on a pilgrimage in India. My cousin shared a witty anecdote about backpacks and the differing personalities between she and her husband as they navigate life in Sri Lanka. Another friend who currently lives in Prague was visiting Dubai with her husband and shared beautiful pictures of the skyline there. As I looked at those pictures, I felt deeply envious. I know the rush that comes from trying to figure out a challenge in a foreign country. I know the awe one feels when encountering ancient and exquisite architecture. I know how alive I feel when living in a new country and how fascinating it is to learn about that new country and culture.

A view of Caeaserea in Israel from the amphitheater. This was one of the most interesting places I have ever visited.

Suddenly my window purchase felt boring, mundane, and settled. For what we just promised to pay, we could have easily made the trip to Sweden that we have been longing to take for several years. The conflicting parts of my personality raged up and clashed. We bought our home three and a half years ago after years of dreaming and hoping about home ownership. I get a happy little kick in my heart when I pull up my driveway and park. I have spent hours outside mowing the lawn, raking leaves, weeding flower beds, and tending to our vegetable garden with varying degrees of success. We are trying to set down roots in our community through volunteer projects, school involvement, and meeting new people. My kids are settled in their schools. At the moment, we plan to stay for at least a few more years yet.

My hydrangea bush/tree was out of control with incredible blossoms last summer. The butterflies and bees loved it. It was absolutely magical. 

But there is another part of me anxious and bored, longing for adventure and excitement abroad. It is the part of me that is only partially appeased with trips to the city to explore a museum or a trip upstate. It is the part of me that complains that I haven't gone anywhere or done anything-despite two trips to Wyoming, two trips to Kentucky, a trip to Albany, a few trips up to the Adirondacks,a fun weekend in Cleveland, and a cool little trip to Philadelphia last year. I am traveling plenty. It doesn't help that ten years ago we were living in Israel and five years ago we were in Riyadh. So putting in new windows in comparison with exploring ancient cultures seems kind of lame.

Enjoying the pool in Riyadh. 

I know the antidote to all of this is gratitude, but I want to indulge in a little envious dreaming of foreign climes. I really hope that we get another opportunity to travel and live overseas again.

Do you ever feel torn between two very different lives? How do you negotiate that?

Thursday, January 5, 2017

2016: A Year of Lessons

For the past couple of weeks, I have waffled back and forth whether or not to write a 2016 review post. The latter half of the year was... interesting. December knocked the stuffing out of me and sadly culminated in the passing of my husband's dear nephew. As a family, we have shed many tears this month both individually and collectively. I didn't know what I could write about this year that wasn't overly depressing. Ultimately, I am a chronicler of life, and that includes documenting the difficult as well as the joyful. Of course, I carefully curate what I share online, but I also want to be authentic and it would be disingenuous to gloss over some of the stretching moments we've had. To that end, here is a review of our 2016.

Some years are joyful experiences filled with an endless litany of delights. Other years are filled with growth opportunities, some pleasant and others painful. 2016 was a growth year for our family and in the spirit of sharing wisdom, we would like to present some of the lessons we have learned both collectively and individually.

1) Hard work and effort doesn't always equal "success" but often the journey is more important than the end anyway.

Trent isn't the most athletic kid in our family and yet, he has persisted in joining the wrestling and track teams at his school. He hasn't won a race yet, and more often than not, he gets pinned during his matches, but he continues to keep trying his hardest. He may not be successful in the traditional sense by winning, but I think he is learning more important lessons about endurance, perseverance, and personal effort.

Josef's first love has always been basketball. He joined a city league at the end of 2015 and played on a team that consistently won. Sadly, at the end of the season, his team lost by a point in the championship game. It was a hard blow, but he recovered from the disappointment. In the fall, he joined modified soccer and worked as hard as he could. Soccer isn't the most natural fit for him, but he worked hard regardless. In the winter, he tried out for the modified basketball and came close to making the team, but fell short. Again, I was impressed with Josef's resilience as he dealt with that disappointment.

2) We have to endure what we don't always understand.

Poor Walter has struggled mightily with some unrelenting health challenges. We still don't have answers or relief, but he continues to do the best he can in the situation. I have been less than patient, anxious to find help for him. There are times I am so frustrated with the situation and the lack of answers and relief. I think Walter has been more patient and enduring than I have. I know well from experience that patience and endurance count for a lot and most things don't last forever.

3) Treasure time with family and friends.

This summer we broke from our usual pattern of visits to Wyoming and came over the 4th of July. (Usually we go every two years. Because we visited in 2015, our next visit wasn't slated until 2017, but we broke with tradition and went anyway.) I'm so glad we did. We had a wonderful time with a huge reunion with Brent's family. I saw many of my sisters and my parents. On the way home, we took the long route to see Brent's sister and her youngest son, Tucker, who was recovering from surgery. We also saw my great-uncle Bud at a McDonalds for an hour. I'm so glad we took that detour because that was the last time we saw both Tucker and Uncle Bud. Uncle Bud passed away in November and our sweet Tucker died in December.

My sweet Uncle Bud was quite old and was ready to go home to his wife who had died a few years earlier. He was such a good man and important part of my life. He showed me a lot of love and kindness as I grew up.

The day after our beloved Tucker died, we packed our car and drove three days to Wyoming to be with family for the funeral. It was unbelievably difficult and sorrowful, but being with Brent's family was the most important thing. We mourned together and also held onto the hope of family. Tucker left a legacy of kindness, happiness, joy, and I have resolved to carry that forward in my own life.

3) When life is hard, don't try to get through it alone.

I have been so overwhelmed with all the help we have been given this year. Friends online have reached out to me in private messages, phone calls, and encouraging words when I struggled. Friends brought us dinner when we needed it. When we left, friends took care of our bunnies and cat. School teachers, guidance counselors, school psychologists, and the staff at our pediatric office have done all they could to offer help to our family and offered counsel, advice, and suggestions when we didn't know what to do in certain situations. In times like this, knowing so many people care about us has made a tremendous difference.

4)) Celebrate the triumphs and joys in life--the big and small moments.

Brooke had an amazing year and has continued to develop her talents. She has no fear of performing and performed her role as Annie in the elementary school musical with perfect confidence. It was absolutely delightful watching her on stage singing "Tomorrow". This spring, she has a small role in "Shrek, the Musical".

Jonathan and Brooke did great at their swimming lessons and worked so hard to improve their swimming skills.

We took some delightful trips to Philadelphia, Albany, Connecticut, Wyoming, the Adirondacks, and Kentucky.

Winter and Jonathan still snuggle and love on me and are the cutest kids. And, you could never be as excited about a swimming suit as Winter is.

4) Challenging times don't last forever.

If you are human and have any kind of interaction with other humans, you know that tough times are naturally going to occur. When I was younger, it was hard to see that they would someday end. I'm really happy to have enough experience that I know bad times don't last forever.

Brent has had a tough time at work with a difficult manager and co-workers. He was patient and persevered. This year, he moved to a new group with a much more supportive and helpful manager. His co-workers are interested in teamwork and collaboration instead of back-stabbing competition. He feels like he is really part of a team really trying to work together--they even play ultimate Frisbee a couple times a week at work which makes him really happy.

5) Families can be messy, difficult, and ridiculous and that's ok.

We don't have a perfect family. We fail a lot in our relationships with one another. I fail a lot as a mom. My biggest challenge as a mother is how much I want to control things to make them perfect, but trying to do that just about broke me. So I'm embracing a messier life (and snapchat) as a parent and as a person. Learning to let go is also great because that gives more time to pursue some personal goals. In mid-January, I begin a genealogy certification course online through Boston University. I'm excited for the challenge and the opportunity.

6) Love is everything.

It's cheesy but it is the most true thing I know. The love I have felt from Brent has sustained me this year. He is an amazing man and I couldn't ask for a better partner through this crazy journey of life.

Love for family, friends, neighbors is probably the most powerful tool we have to carry us through in this crazy world. 

My love for God and the love I have felt from Him has probably been the greatest blessing I have experienced this year.

Thanks for letting me share these random, rambling thoughts with you. I hope you have had a good year filled with good things. 

Come what may in 2017, it's going to be alright.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Wondering Wednesday: The Things We Do

A new FB friend recently posted a picture from a book she is reading about a young African American student going through the process of integration into a white school. Integration has been on my mind lately as I listened to a podcast about integration and its positive impact on education for the African American community. I also read a lengthy piece in the New York Times about integration at an elementary school in Brooklyn. Something about my friend's photo and the ensuing conversation pricked my heart a bit.

My husband and I went house hunting for our first home in April 2013. We had saved money for eighteen months while living as expats in Riyadh. When looking for homes, we found many homes within our budget and size needs in a community that has a diverse population, a reputation for bad schools, and more crime than other areas. This community also has a reviving downtown with interesting restaurants, art galleries, and small local businesses. I will admit that the thought of living in that community made me uneasy. The first time I ever ventured there almost 10 years earlier, I didn't feel safe in the town and the thought of living there made me uneasy.

Just a few miles away, there was another town/village that was much more rural (more like my hometown in Wyoming) that was much less diverse, with much better schools. We found a home that we lived in this community and settled in.

In contrast, some friends of ours with a similar expat background and lifestyle, purchased a home in Cleveland in a struggling diverse area, with an up and coming art and music scene. They chose to send their daughters to struggling schools with the intention of being a positive influence to their community.

It feels easy to justify our decision to purchase a home in the less diverse neighborhood--using the excuse of schools. While that is initially true, perhaps I am being dishonest to myself about my own prejudices/fears. Whether I like it or not, I have unwittingly/wittingly contributed to segregation and poor education outcomes for African Americans. I exercised my white middle class privilege in choosing a better school for my children.

Coming to this realization is uncomfortable to me. I am not quite sure what to do about it. I think I need to do a better job of being more welcoming to the minorities in my school community. Certainly, in the future I can be more thoughtful about where we live and what responsibilities our family has to the greater community. I also need to educate myself about segregation and why segregated schools for African Americans do so badly.

What are your thoughts about this? 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Travel Tuesday: On Immigrants

Yesterday, my friend, Colin Ray posted the following on his FB page:

shares a Batha, Riyadh moment.
I find myself waiting for the tire alignment on the Subaru. I got a whole set of bushings, and now need to have wheels aligned. (Did you see how I did that, just casually mentioning "bushings" as if I have always known what they are? See also "aligned".)
My favorite felafel place has been shuttered, apparently for failing a health-sanitation inspection. This seems to happen a lot to my favorite places.
So I had to walk a bit further, to the foul (no, not "fool"!) place. Another customer in line struck up a conversation with me, albeit with difficulty since my Arabic is even more non-existent than his English. He asked where I was from - "Ameriki."
I could not at first even understand the food choices. He helped me order. Then I went to pay, but the place did not have change for a SAR 50. (About $15.). My fellow customer - his name was Sultan; he is Saudi, from the south, near to Yemen - insisted on paying for my dinner.
People sometimes ask why I feel so strongly about immigration issues. Part of it is probably because I (and most of my friends and colleagues) buy into the free-market idea of the benefit of mobile labor.
But the primary reason, I am sure, is that I have been an immigrant almost all my life. And this positive interaction typifies what I experience. At birth in the UK, I was granted UK citizenship, although my parents were just American students/visitors at the time. From 6 to 18 in Nigeria, I was generally shown overwhelming hospitality. Cameroon. Netherlands. Japan. Saudi Arabia. The same. (Yes. There are sometimes bad experiences. Life is like that.)
So . . . that is basically why I bristle at suggestions of targeting or blaming immigrants. I want them to have what I have experienced.

I loved Colin's comment and thoughts about being an immigrant. It was so powerful that I wanted to share my own thoughts and experiences.

I am not nor have I ever been an immigrant. But I have been an outsider and an expat in three different countries.

I know what it is like to:

  • not understand a word of the language being spoken around you.
  • not understand the rules and bureaucracy of  the country in which I reside.
  • not understand the cultural norms and unwritten rules for conduct.
  • have someone speak super slowly to me like I am stupid.
  • be criticized for being a foreigner.
  • struggle and grapple with a language that is not my native tongue.
  • worry if I will be a target of harassment or violence because of my nationality.
  • feel isolated and alone because I am an outsider.
  • experience and learn about a new country and culture.
  • visit a country in the middle of turmoil and revolution.
  • eat new and different food.
  • make friends from my new country.
  • be the recipient of kindness when my ignorance of the custom and cultures was obvious.
  • be generously taught and instructed in new customs.
  • be the recipient of gracious hospitality as a foreigner.
  • talk religion with people from a very different religious tradition than mine.
  • make friends with people from different countries and religions.
  • discuss politics across borders.
  • have a baby in a foreign country.
  • go without a car in a foreign country.
  • learn how to use public transportation like a boss in a different country.
  • invited friends from different countries and cultures to my home and share a meal together.

Life as an immigrant isn't easy. It doesn't come with a free ride or doors opening automatically for you. It can be incredibly isolating and lonely. It means overwhelmingly difficult work. It means swallowing pride and doing humble jobs.

I have friends who were highly trained and skilled workers in their home countries who immigrated to the United States for better opportunities for their children. Now they work at daycare centers, cleaning house, moving, mowing lawns, scrubbing dishes at restaurants, etc.

I am really concerned with the rhetoric about immigrants that I hear from my fellow American citizens. The words from our president elect about immigrants are deeply distressing and alarming. With the exception of Native Americans, every single American citizen is a product of immigration. They came to the U.S. for the same reasons immigrants coming to the States today, for opportunities, safety, religious freedom, and for a dream of a better life.

Our immigration system does not function well. The laws are complicated and confusing. Immigrating legally requires money, access to lawyers, and extreme patience. I want to see immigration reform to make it easier for people to get work visas so they can work legally and pay taxes. Improved immigration laws would also likely reduce the human traffickers that prey on the vulnerable and feed into sex slavery, slavery on big farms, and abuse in other industries.

I think that immigrants in the United States need to follow our laws (even when they conflict with their religious or personal beliefs), learn English, and pay taxes.

I think we in the U.S. need to deport immigrants who have committed crimes in their home countries or on American soil, provide English courses for free, crack down on employers who knowingly employ illegal immigrants, crack down on organizations that traffic immigrants.

Most of all, I want Americans to stop being so darn nationalistic. Immigrants bring vibrancy, energy, and new ideas to our country. Extend hospitality and friendship to immigrants. I think doing so makes us a better, stronger nation.