A Breather

This summer, a week before leaving for Santa Barbara, J⁴ spoke with a man who had had a near-death experience.  He flatlined 7 times.  The man told J⁴ that he had seen God and that it was beautiful “on the other side.”

After telling me the man’s story, J⁴ said,

“I want you to know that I’m at peace with dying.”

The summer before, in 2016, J⁴ survived malignant pleural effusion, a complication of lung cancer. Doctors predicted a 3-month life expectancy.

“If I’m going to die, I want to spend my last days at the beach.”

Her angel-of-a-husband, QCJ rented a house on a cliff overlooking the ocean in Santa Barbara.  They invited their family and my family for a week-long vacation. It was an incredible week.

In my wildest dreams, I never thought we’d make it back to the beach this year, but we did. J⁴ fought every single day of the 365 days, battling and overcoming the coughs, the fatigue, the treatment failures, the chemo, the radiation, and the depression. She assures me,

“I accept I drew the short stick with this cancer card,

but I’m not done.”

She keeps moving – onward and upward – hoping for a miracle and defying the odds.

And because of J⁴’s perseverance and optimism, we’re back in Santa Barbara this year.

We’re in a different rental house with a modified group of family, but we’re back at the beach and still have J⁴.

One afternoon while J⁴ rested by the rental house’s pool, I went out to photograph.  I google-searched a stairway to the ocean that I had seen while doing some travel research on Pinterest.  I used my Waze app to lead me to the stairway’s access,  hidden in between two homes in a Santa Barbara residential neighborhood.  With my 40+ lb camera bag on my back and wearing my street clothes and shoes, I headed down the path toward the stairs. As I approached the stairs, I saw a male runner ascending the stairs toward me. He was in great shape, yet as he passed me, I could hear his heavy breathing.  He was out of breath but still running.  I second-guessed my clothing and longed for my running shoes and workout pants/top.  The stairs were steep and numerous. This was going to be a workout for me, too.

As I descended, I noticed the people who headed up the stairs. Some had beach chairs and towels, so I presumed the steep staircase was the only exit option from the beach. Many took a break on a long bench located midway on the stairs. Below, I could see surfers slowly paddling their boards close to the shoreline, resting before heading back out to sea.  It seemed, at the moment, everyone was taking a breather.

I took photos while I made the journey down toward the water. When I reached the bottom, I, too, took a breather.

At the bottom of the steep stairs, I eyed the staircase. I had no choice but to climb in my uncomfortable shoes and with my heavy backpack the 270+ stairs back to my parked car. I knew I’d be out of breath – that the hike up would be strenuous, but I also felt confident I’d make it, possibly breathing heavily, but it’d be doable. I closed my eyes and acknowledged with gratitude my lungs that would ultimately get me to the top. I couldn’t help but think of J⁴, exactly where she should be, resting, taking a breather, by the pool and not with me at the bottom of this intimidating staircase.

That’s what happens when someone you love is challenged.  You feel the hurdle with them, and as your compassion grows, you acknowledge the simple acts we so often take for granted, like hearts continuously pumping blood to our organs and lungs expanding and contracting without thought.  We may feel occasional stress, but we don’t face a death sentence.  For most, a walk up a staircase is not life-threatening. However, when someone who used to walk with such confidence, speed, and grace, now struggles to walk a city block, we become aware. We recognize the gifts of living – of one more staircase, one more triumphant, one more day, and are humbled when we draw the long stick, allowing us one or more years!

*******

Yesterday, I went with J⁴ to her oncology appointment.  Her CT scans revealed the current chemo drug is working! Her lungs have 50% more room for oxygen.

J⁴ has triumphantly turned a death sentence into a life sentence, and we’ve all gotten a breather from worrying about her every breath as she moves forward and lives –

Next time you take the stairs, when you’re out of breath and agitated with the climb, take a moment for a breather – a time out to be grateful for breath, for health, for compassion, and for life.

And remember it’s our attitudes that shape our abilities to climb and to withstand precarious altitudes!

Positivity and hope heal – I’ve seen it firsthand “on this side!”

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Heaven on a Stick

Don’t blame the fence, blame the gardener.

White picket fences don’t just happen.

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“That’s heaven on a stick!”

– Mrs. Jane Young, my first boss.

Mrs. Young liked perfection.

One Saturday in 1985, I arrived to work at 8 AM, and Mrs. Young gave me the day’s instructions.

“I’d like you to organize and display all the sterling silver and crystal in the display cases.”

She pointed to the hand-carved, mahogany, floor-to-ceiling shelving behind the waist-high, enclosed glass jewelry sales cabinets.  I knew from a prior conversation that Mrs. Young adored the cabinetry since it was a family heirloom and it was the primary design fixture of her family-owned jewelry store.

With no further instructions, she left for the day.

To say I was intimidated, at age 16, handling the fine silver and crystal and placing the valuables in the gargantuan, cherished cabinetry, is an understatement.

I worked a straight 8 hours, right through my lunch hour. I remember being a nervous wreck the entire day –

Am I leaving fingerprints?

Is that too high?

Does that look good next to this or does this look good next to that?  

Is this lighting going to help this sell? 

Fifteen minutes before the 5 PM close, Mrs. Young entered the store.

Arriving in her blue, crisply-ironed pantsuit with a silk, floral scarf tied at her neckline, she, an ex-NYC runway model, was exquisite looking, and she, herself, downright intimidating.

She gazed at the shelves, inspecting the design, and as I recall, after only 2 minutes or so, she looked me in the eye and gave her appraisal,

“This looks like crap. Now let me show you how it should be done.”

We worked overtime, transforming what I had made look like crap into what Mrs. Young expected and envisioned.

And on that day, I learned a valuable life lesson.

We may think we know what perfection looks like, but it takes more than hard work.

It’s takes listening, learning, accepting criticism, and paying attention to detail, plus a whole lot of practice.

It also takes heart, respect,

and a whole lot of desire,

and if it has true value and worth

we may have to focus for an entire day – maybe even weeks, months and years –

if it’s going to be deemed

“heaven on a stick!”

“That’s heaven on a stick!” (not “that looks like crap,”) has stuck with me since my inaugural design day in Mrs. Young’s jewelry store.

Mrs. Young left her perfect mark on me, and I credit Mrs. Young for teaching me a secret of sales –

how do you make others want what you have?

Invest in good gardeners.

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Proud as a Peacock

The tour bells rang at Filio, indicating the gardens were closed.  Being a photographer, always in search of the perfect golden-hour light, I was a straggler.  The sun was still too high in the northern California sky for my liking. I left, disappointed I hadn’t been able to capture the garden’s beauty in complimentary light, but accepting, to exhaust, that I’m a rule follower.

The sign on the closed exit gate read, USE SIDE DOOR WHEN LEAVING AFTER HOURS.  I exited through the archway of the door with my head down, disgruntled, and stuffing my camera equipment into my backpack.

However, as I learn time and again, we don’t decide when we’re finished. It’s the crazy, little surprises in life that break all the rules and tell us to carry on –

Entering into the side door, used for exiting, the Fioli resident peacock, strode up like a VIP on a red carpet, looked at me, stopped, opened its canopy of fabulous feathers, turned around and showed me its booty and then sauntered right past me and into the closed gardens. The peacock looked back at me, summoning me to join it on the other side, and I followed.

And there we were, back on the inside, after closing hours, with me, fiddling to get all my equipment back out of its storage and shooting this scene of a bird who’d broken all the rules –

Something someone would do who’s

AS PROUD AS A PEACOCK

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Privacy, Please

She kept her personal life close to her heart; for if she revealed too much, she might be exposed to scrutiny, or worse yet,  feel vulnerable and out of control.  These discomforts only added to her pain, so she opted to shut out friends who tried to get too close. We wanted to help, but we knew that knocking repeatedly would only cause her more grief.

The few allowed in are weeping

now that she’s died too young and is permanently sleeping.

We, on the outside, wish we could’ve done more, but respecting her wishes,

we find comfort, trusting that giving space to people who prefer privacy is often granting peace.

And isn’t the gift – to rest in peace – what we desire to give to

those who’re in immeasurable pain?

Not everyone has an open-door policy, and that’s ok.

Respecting others’ wishes –

IMG_4162“Privacy, Please”

Let her rest in peace.