Being Number Six

All my life, I have been referred to as “number six” by my father. Dad used numbers to describe me and my five older sisters whenever he spoke about us to others. Sometimes we would be at a party and he would call us over to introduce us to a friend.

Have you met Caroline? She’s my number five daughter. Caroline – come over here!

When my parents were first taking me to medical appointments to determine the cause of my disability, Dad always pulled out his wallet whenever the nurse or social worker expressed astonishment upon learning I was the youngest of six girls. Beaming with pride he would flip through the photographs in the plastic sleeves, naming us and offering a tidbit of information he felt important to share.

That’s Susan, number one. She’s pregnant with our first grandchild. And Mary Jane, number two. She’s studying to be a violin teacher.

Photo of six white women varying in age and their elderly parents. One of the women, the author, is seated in a wheelchair.

Dad always said he didn’t care what jobs we did when we grew up, as long as we we did them to the best of our abilities and helped others along the way. When he bragged about us to my orthopedic surgeon, he was as proud of Donna as he was of Sandy.

Smart girls, both of them. All of my girls went to college, and hopefully Denise will too. 

Dad had his favorite stories about each of us. When we gathered as a group for a family dinner or celebration, he would reminisce and share his memories with whoever happened to be around the table. It didn’t matter if you had heard the story many times before, you still laughed when he talked about the time he sent the “five girls” (how he always spoke about my sisters before the time I arrived) outside with a gallon of white paint so he could watch a football game in peace and quiet while they painted the fence. My mother arrived home later that afternoon to find my sisters had used an entire can of paint on just five feet of fence, but also on the grass, rocks, their hair and clothes.

You should have seen her face! She was fit to be tied. You girls were covered in paint.

I was an adult before I realized how much Dad had worried about me. As a child, I never knew he was anxious about whether I would become ill, or if my disability would shorten my life. Then last year at our annual DiNoto cookie bake, he took my hand as I was telling him about work and gave it a squeeze.

Well Niecie, I guess I don’t have to worry about you dying young anymore.

I was stunned, but tried to laughingly reassure him I was doing just fine and was now too old to be considered young if I were to die. While I squeezed his hand in return, I asked if he was still truly worried about me that much.

When you were little, they couldn’t tell us much about what to expect for you. I’m your father. I worry about not just you, but all my girls, all the time. It’s what dads do.

That was the last time I saw my father in person, the last time I held his hand, the last time he pulled me in for a hug and kiss.

Three weeks later, my phone rang as I was returning home from my early morning swim on a cold December morning. When the caller ID on my phone read “Mom and Dad” but Caroline’s voice came through the line, I knew something was wrong. Caroline’s voice cracked as she told me Dad had died. I don’t remember much of the rest of the conversation, probably because some of the other sisters were trying to call me and my phone kept beeping with incoming calls.

The day passed in a blur as I made plans to leave for a week in my hometown. I washed and packed clothes, wrapped Christmas presents and prepared cookie trays while fielding calls and texts from friends and family. Eventually I crashed in bed, exhausted from crying on and off all day. I fell asleep reviewing my mental list of what was left to pack in the morning.

I dreamed about Dad that night. He was getting ready for a fishing trip. I was a child, standing next to the pile of his gear, watching as he packed the back of his truck. When he was done, he slammed the tailgate. Turning to me, he smiled and tucked my hair behind my ear.

Don’t worry Niecie. I’ll bring back enough for all of us.

 

 

Out of the Mouths of Babes

Friday night was special. I spent the evening with family celebrating my great niece’s seventh birthday. Seven is a fun age, and her party was packed with things a seven year old girl would enjoy – pizza, new clothes for her doll, and a three layer cake covered with pink frosting and chocolate chips.

One of the reasons I enjoy family events is because of the laughter and love we share whenever we are together. Emily, the birthday girl, and her younger brother Evan who is four years old, kept us smiling all night. But it was an exchange that happened early in the party that continues to play in my head.

I was sitting with my sister Sandy when Evan approached us. Like most children, Evan is intrigued by my wheelchair. When he was younger, he was content to simply ride on my lap. Now he is determined to figure out how the controls regulate the various aspects of my chair, such as speed and seat elevation. Standing next to my chair, he displayed remarkable restraint keeping his hands at his side rather than reaching for my joystick. Suddenly, he turned his quizzical gaze to Sandy and this delightful interchange took place.

Evan: Aunt Sandy, where’s your wheelchair?

Sandy: I don’t have one.

Evan: Why not?

Sandy: Because I don’t need one yet. Maybe someday I’ll have one.

Evan: (looking delighted and excited, and clapping his hands) Then you’ll be twins!

The three of us laughed as Sandy picked up Evan for a hug. The party continued, with pizza, presents and cake. But Evan’s comments stuck with me and caused me to reflect as I boarded the bus to go home.

At four years of age, Evan already knows that a wheelchair is a cool piece of equipment. He does not view me with pity. He does not perceive a wheelchair or a disability as being a Bad Thing, with a capital b and capital t as said by the late, great Stella Young. Of course, he doesn’t understand all the intricacies of life with a disability because he is just four years old. But he understands critical information other nondisabled adults seem slow to grasp, such as:

  1. I am my own person.
  2. My wheelchair is not the worst thing in the world, or a reason to shy away from me.
  3. I do not have a poor quality of life.
  4. I am capable and competent.

Evan is not unique in his abilities. All of my nieces and nephews, and now their children, have been exposed to my wheelchair and my disability their entire lives. They have all developed a level of disability cultural competency through their interactions with me, a disabled family member. This has created a level of comfort with disability at a young age in many of them which their peers may not have developed.

When I am with my young family members, I don’t hear negative comments about disability. I don’t hear pity. I don’t hear insensitve or ableist comments like the ones I hear from strangers on a regular basis, such as:

You manage that thing pretty well!

Slow down – you’ll get a speeding ticket!

You got snow tires for that thing?

You’re so pretty for someone who uses a wheelchair.

Oh, you work?!

And my personal ‘favorite’…

I don’t know how you manage. If I had to use a wheelchair, I’d kill myself.

My young family members who have been exposed to my reality as a disabled woman say different things. They say things like:

That man has a red chair like Aunt Denise’s!

Maybe you could drive us to skating when you get your new van Aunt Denise.

Will you read to me Aunt Denise?

We put the ramp down for you Aunt Denise!

And my personal favorite…

I love you, Aunt Denise.

If my young nieces and nephews can understand disability is not the worst thing, why can’t more adults figure it out?

The Citrus Peeler

This past weekend I sobbed because of a citrus peeler.

You’re right. It really wasn’t the fault of the peeler. But the sobs snuck up on me when the peeler was in my hand, so it’s a convenient excuse.

Wait, you don’t know what a citrus peeler is?

A citrus peeler is a plastic tool used to help peel citrus fruits. I know, you got that from the name. It has a sharp cutting hook on one end that can be used to slice through the skin of an orange, or in my case yesterday a grapefruit. The other end is a thin, slightly curved, flat piece of plastic which can be used to peel a section of peel away from the fruit. You use the cutting edge to make slices down the sides of the fruit, then peel the sections away with the peeler.

A blue plastic citrus peeler.
My citrus peeler.

Do you need a citrus peeler to peel an orange or grapefruit? Of course not.

However, my father used to swear by his peeler. From the first time he brought one home around the time I was ten years old, he rarely peeled an orange without it. He enjoyed his citrus peeler so much, he bought an extra just in case his trusted peeler broke.

When I was a teenager, Dad would grab his citrus peeler and an orange at night when we sat on the couch to watch Jeopardy! together. We would share the orange while I shouted out answers, trying to beat the contestants. Sometimes, mouth full of fruit, I would frantically wave my hand at the television, moaning when I knew the answer but the contestants got it wrong. Dad would laugh and shake his head.

If you ever make it on the show Neecie, don’t bring any food.

Yesterday, I sat watching a movie, a half peeled grapefruit in my lap, sticky citrus peeler in my hand, and it hit me. I eat fruit this way because of my father. Without warning, the memories of shared snacks came at me.

Grief is sneaky like that. You can be perfectly calm, doing something mundane like peeling a grapefruit, and all of a sudden you find yourself unable to breathe because your insides are being twisted by a crushing vice. I feel as if it waits for you to delude yourself into thinking you’re managing. You’re in your routine, coping as best you can, not mired in overwhelming feelings of loss, and BAM! Like a coiled cobra, grief lashes out and strikes, the venom paralyzing you in a heartbeat.

Which is how I found myself crying over a grapefruit yesterday, holding a sticky citrus peeler. And once the floodgates opened, they didn’t close.

After Dad’s death in December, I knew eventually I would have a melt down. I thought it might happen on his birthday in January. When it didn’t, I thought maybe I’d break down when I next visited his grave. I never expected it to happen on a Sunday afternoon in March while I peeled a grapefruit.

I’m sure it will happen again. I wish I could say that it won’t. But grief doesn’t work in neat, predictable patterns. Next time it may be something other than the citrus peeler. I hope it is, because I’ve cried enough tears over that!

 

30 Days of Thanks Day 29 – Donna

I share many traits and have many similarities to my five older sisters. People tell us we look alike, sound alike and talk alike. We all played musical instruments and were active in school music groups. And we all love to read.

My sister Donna is one of my regular reading buddies. Donna is fourteen years older than me, and I’m certain she is one of the reasons I love to lose myself in a good book. I often joke that my older sisters taught me to read at a young age because they were tired of reading to me. Donna would come home from college and I would pounce on her, begging her to play with me or read to me. Often, playing involved Donna curling my long hair, partaking in a tea party, and then reading as many books as I could convince her to read.

Donna and I regularly swap book and audiobook recommendations. Donna understands that a good book can be a valuable escape, and I have done my best to escape a great deal this past year. I told her about Tina Fey’s Bossy Pants, which I listened to during my stay at Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital. She told me about a Jack Reacher mystery. We discussed Daniel Silva’s characters on the phone while I was recuperating at home. She mailed a copy of a book about a group of friends who start a cookie swap.

Donna lives in Florida, so I see her about once a year. Our visits are never long enough, but Donna does a wonderful job of staying in touch because Donna is the best card giver in the world. I don’t know how she does it, or how much time she must spend looking through the racks of greeting cards to find the perfect card. But, she always manages to get cards which are just right for every occasion.

This year, Donna sent me funny cards when I was in the hospital and needed a laugh. Then, one day when I was particularly low, a note of encouragement showed up with her return address on it. Sometimes Donna’s cards contain newspaper articles she has read which remind her of me. She surprised me with a clipping about a friend of mine, a former Ms. Wheelchair Florida, who lives about an hour away from her home. The penguin bookmark she sent me is inside a book next to my bed.

Five years ago, Donna flew up for my nephew’s wedding in Ticonderoga, NY. After a beautiful fall day on the shores of Lake George in the Adirondack mountains, I followed Donna and our sister Sandy into town where we had reservations at a local hotel. What followed was an adventure that still cracks us up – involving a convenience store restroom, men dressed in British Redcoats a la the American Revolution, the three of us sharing a king size bed at a Super 8 Motel, and getting lost in the village. We still laugh until we cry when we talk about the night we spent a weekend in Ticonderoga. I bet you she’s laughing right now after reading this.

Donna always makes me laugh. She brings so much humor into my life, making me realize there is always a reason to smile even when facing difficulties and obstacles.

Thank you Donna, for being a bright spot so frequently this year. I love our book discussions, even though my “to read” list grows every time we talk. Your little gifts make me think of you, bringing you closer to me even though you live far away. I am grateful you are not just my sister, but one of my dearest friends. I do my best to emulate your generosity and compassion for others. I just wish I had time and patience to find perfect cards for you. This post will have to do for now.

A woman seated in a wheelchair wearing a long pink dress and a pink shawl sits next to a woman wearing a black dress. The woman in the wheelchair has brown hair and is wearing glasses. She has a camera on her lap. The woman standing next to her is holding a glass and a blue shawl.

30 Days of Thanks Day 26 – Mary Jane

Today is the annual DiNoto Cookie Bake, a day my family gathers to start our holiday baking. I have written about our annual tradition before in this post. The day started in 1990, while I was living in Australia as an exchange student. My mom was missing “her baby,” so my sisters Donna and Caroline suggested they join her for a day of baking cookies. Twenty-six years later, we still gather on the Saturday after Thanksgiving at my sister Caroline’s house.

My late sister Mary Jane loved baking with her sisters. When we gathered together each year Mary Jane made the Russian Tea Cakes, pecan shortcake balls rolled in confectioner’s sugar, and the chocolate thumbprints, a recipe from our Grandma DiNoto. Mary Jane’s Russian Tea Cakes were perfection – buttery goodness that melted in your mouth.

Mary Jane joined us for the last time at cookie bake five years ago. She arrived with her youngest daughter Karen that Saturday morning, shortly after Mom had finished the first tray of her oil cookies. Before Karen even had even removed her coat, Mary Jane had her apron out and was asking Karen to tie it behind her back. A few minutes later, Mary Jane’s oldest daughter Sara surprised us when she arrived with her family.

That last year Mary Jane, who never ate cookies during our annual cookie bake, tested each and every type of cookie we made, smiling her enjoyment with each mouthful. She rolled the Russian teacakes in sugar, put mini chocolate chips in the chocolate thumbprints, and gave directions to Karen when Karen helped fill the kolachki cookies. Other family members stopped in throughout the day and many photos were taken. It was the last time all six DiNoto girls were together as Mary Jane died one month later.

Cookie Bake 2012, the first year we baked without Mary Jane, was emotional. More than once, we had to take a break to shed a tear or offer each other a hug. But, that year was also full of joyfull moments like watching Emily, Mary Jane’s granddaughter, having a tea party with her Noni, my mom, or laughing when Mom put an apron on Sara’s husband Will. We did our best to soldier on as Mary Jane would have wanted us to, knowing the day has never really been about the cookies. It wasn’t until after lunch that we realized nobody had made Russian teacakes or chocolate thumbrints, the recipes Mary Jane had always been responsible for at our annual Cookie Bake.

Mary Jane was admitted to inpatient hospice a month after Cookie Bake. I spent several hours at her bedside each day for the week she was a patient. As I helped her eat soup the second night, she told me she had always wanted to write a book about her sisters. I sat with tears streaming down my face, her strong hand clasped in my weak grip, listening to her talk about her writing dreams. Then she asked me to make her a promise.

You have to do it for me. You have to write it. Promise me you’ll write the book. And stop crying!

It took me a couple of years to work up the courage, but this year – a year of one challenge after another – I am finding refuge in writing. I have an outline, and I am spending time each day writing some of our sister stories. I hear Mary Jane’s quiet voice in my head encouraging me to write, and I’m doing my best to honor her spirit and the promise I made.

Thank you Mary Jane, for helping me find a purpose for my writing. I hope I tell our sister stories in a way which would please you. I am grateful for the chance to share memories which keep us connected. Although many of them cause me to cry at my keyboard, they also make me smile. We all miss you so much every day, but especially today – a day you always enjoyed when we were together.

Today, as we measure flour, sugar and butter, we remember we are surrounded by that which can never truly be measured. Love and support from family and sisters mean more than the confections we create as a group. We carry on with traditions, relishing memories while welcoming new bakers into the fold. Mary Jane’s son and daughter-in-law are joining us today for their first Cookie Bake, reminding us part of our dear sister is still with us whenever we gather as a group.

Mary Jane and Denise - Photo of the author, a woman in a wheelchair, and her sister. Both women are wearing green Santa hats and holiday aprons over red shirts.
Mary Jane and I, matching and sporting aprons made for us by our sister Donna. Photo courtesy of S. DiNoto.

30 Days of Thanks Day 24 – Caroline

Until I was born, my sister Caroline was the youngest DiNoto sister. I usurped her position as “the baby” when Crinnie, as we all call her, was eleven. Because she is the closest to me in age, and the only one of my sisters who has always lived in our hometown, I spent more time with her than my other sisters while growing up. Now that we are “grown ups” (I use the term lightly when applied to me), I am proud to call her one of my closest friends.

Over the years, Crinnie has taken steps to ensure I am able to remain fully involved in our family activities. In 2007, when I fell and injured my leg, she bought a fully electric hospital bed so I could recuperate at her house over the Thanksgiving holiday. That was the first year I spent Thanksgiving with her and her husband’s extended family, a tradition I have continued for nine years now.

When Crinnie and her husband Paul built their new house in 2008 on a country road outside our hometown, they incorporated visitability and accessibility into their plans. Their house has a ramp, accessible toilets, pedastal sinks, wide doors, lowered light switches, raised outlets, lever door handle sets, and other modifications which make it a wonderful refuge for me.

We wanted to make sure you always had a place to come home to.

This year, Crinnie made it possible for our parents to see me while I was in the hospital. Our elderly parents do not drive the distance from our hometown to the city where I now live. Crinnie brought them up to visit me twice – once right after surgery and again while I was at Sunnyview Rehabilation Hospital.

Mom wants to see her baby, so I told her I’d bring them up on Sunday. Is there a room we can use for lunch?

Crinnie, Mom and Dad arrived after my physical therapy, just before noon the following Sunday. Knowing pasta is my comfort food, Mom made a dish of rigatoni, meatballs and sauce. Crinnie made a delicious salad, and the four of us had a lively picnic in the patient lounge. For three hours, I was able to escape from the reality of rehab as we talked and laughed. And just because I’m in my 40’s doesn’t mean I don’t feel better after a hug from my mom and dad.

Eventually, I returned home to face the reality of a new way of doing all my daily tasks. My restrictions meant I was no longer able to use a regular toilet, and required the purchase of a specific bedside commode and transfer board. I told Crinnie I would not be able to come visit and stay at her house without this equipment, unless I found a way to safely use a regular toilet.

Well, can’t we just order what you need? Tell me what to get so you will be able to stay.

Crinnie ordered the commode, and learned how to transfer me using my new transfer board. This allowed me to double the locations in which I could go to the bathroom – my home and her house. It also allows me the opportunity to join the family feast once again today for Thanksgiving, and means I don’t have to miss the annual DiNoto Cookie Bake this weekend with our parents and sisters.

If you are a regular reader and comment on this blog, you have seen Crinnie’s comments. She is by far the most frequent commenter here, which makes sense as she has always supported my writing since I was a child. I know I can count on her honest feedback whenever I call to read her a work in progress. She is a great editor, often catching irregularities I miss or offering suggestions for improvement. Crinnie first heard this post when I read it aloud to her last night while she was busy preparing food for today’s feast.

Crinnie – thank you for being one of the best big sisters a girl could ask for. Your sacrifices this year have kept me involved in family activities, which has helped the healing process. I know from my disabled peers this does not always happen in families. I appreciate all you do to assist me with daily activities whenever I stay at your “inn on the hill.” Your support and love make my world a brighter place, and I can’t think of a better person to recognize with this post, the 300th post on my little blog.

Two Caucasian women smiling at a camera. The woman on the left is wearing a blue v-neck dress under a black cardigan sweater. The woman on the right is wearing a white turtleneck under a purple cardigan. Both women have brown hair and glasses.

30 Days of Thanks Day 13 – Susan

 

Susan is the oldest of my five sisters, eighteen years older than me. Although all six of us resemble one another, she is the sister I am closest to in appearance. I don’t have to wonder what I will look like eighteen years from now. I just need to look at her. Although, I’m fairly certain I already have more laugh lines and wrinkles than Susan does. If I were to say that to her, I know she would respond by telling me I’m not applying my eye cream correctly with the third or forth finger of my hand. Susan has helpful hints for just about everything.

Susan has always supported me with cards and letters of encouragement. When I was an exchange student she sent me a card telling me that whenever she missed me, she just had to look up at the moon and remember I would be able to see the same moon too. After hearing me talk about a difficult clinical practicum in college, she sent me a letter reminding me of the importance of both good and challenging experiences that help shape us into the professionals we become. As soon as I announced I was trying to make it back to Australia, Susan sent me monthly cards and letters with gifts to help me prepare for my trip. She may not remember all those letters, but I have drawn strength from them.

When I came home from the hospital in February, Susan told me she planned to come for a visit. I was overwhelmed with everything life had thrown at me – a new way of doing all of my daily activities, new Personal Assistants, the loss of independence, and the reality that I would need to move out of the apartment where I had lived for twenty years.

Don’t stress about me coming. I’ll just show up, cook, and help you organize!

Sure enough, Susan arrived one Saturday morning with enough groceries to feed a small family and a smile. Within an hour, we had both eaten breakfast, a pot of tomato sauce was simmering on my stove, and she was ready to help me tackle the overwhelming pile of clutter covering my dining room table.

We spent the day organizing my mail and receipts, talking about everything and nothing, laughing over cups of coffee. Susan made me two pans of lasagna, one to have for dinner and one to freeze for later. She listened without judgement as I shared my fears about all the changes in my life, and handed me tissues when I cried over our afternoon tea.

My day with Susan was a perfect cure for what was ailing me at the time. She was a calm presence when I was feeling chaos and out of control. She was the voice of reason when I was spouting off about worse case scenarios. Susan was, as she always is, strength when I was weak.

After Susan left, I realized that our day together was the first time the two of us had spent an extended amount of time together alone. We see each other at family gatherings, but other than our day together this year, I have never spent any time with Susan without other family members present. Part of this is due to the age difference – Susan got married and moved out of our parents’ home when I was nine months old. Some of it is due to geography – Susan has lived in another state since I was ten years old. My disability also limits our time together because Susan’s house (though lovely) is not accessible, and I cannot travel as easily as I once did.

Yet, Susan is one of the women I rely on and admire most. She is there whenever I call to listen when I just need to vent, or to help me problem solve when I am ready for action. I don’t know as I have ever told her that, so I am glad to be telling her now.

Susan – thank you for making time for me, not just this year but every time I need a big sister and a friend. You have always believed in me, and have never been shy about telling me to dream big. You are a woman of kindness and generosity. Your passion for social justice and your devotion to education and literacy for all serve as examples to those us who look up to you.

All of my life, whenever Dad was annoyed by my stubbornness, he would look at me with exasperation and say, “OK, Susan.” As a child, I was put off by this, constantly correcting him that I wasn’t Susan, I was Denise. Teenage Denise probably rolled her eyes at Dad while sighing in a huff. Adult Denise sees it differently.

Susan, you are determined, dependable and not afraid to speak your mind or take a stand for the values you believe in. If Dad sees those qualities in me when he calls me by your name, I think I’m doing the right thing.

Two women wearing glasses smiling. The woman on the left has short brown hair with bangs, and is wearing glasses and a turquoise shirt. The woman on the right has her arm around the woman on the left. She has short brown hair and is wearing glasses and a black shirt with a teal shawl. She is holding a wine glass in her other hand.

30 Days of Thanks Day 11 – My Favorite Veteran (and Veterans Everywhere)

You were so kind earlier this week when I wrote a repeat post about my mother. I decided to push my luck and focus today’s gratitude post on my wonderful father Sebastian, or Sam as he is known to everyone. Yes, I’ve written about him before. Rather than repeat what I have already written, I hope you will read this post or this post to learn more about him. Most of what I know to be true about service to others, I learned from Sam.

My father taught me everyone has the capacity to be of service, to do something to improve their community or the world. Dad served my hometown as a Rotarian, a businessman and as a member of the Knights of Columbus. He volunteered to serve senior meals to seniors who were sometimes younger than he was. Dad drove his friends from church to and from medical appointments.

For almost thirty five years, my parents hosted an annual picnic on Memorial Day weekend. To the frustration of my mother, who would be planning details, Dad would invite people to the party up until the day of the event. It was not uncommon to be walking out of church with him, encounter someone and hear him say, “Whatcha doing on Sunday? We’re having a picnic and you should come – just bring a dish to pass!”

Mom would sigh, and I imagine she was mentally calculating if she had enough paper plates and napkins. Dad wasn’t concerned about the details. He is the type of person who doesn’t want anyone to not have a place to gather with others. Dad’s hospitality is what many of my friend’s comment on when they ask me about my parents.

Dad involved me in his community service when I was young. In elementary school, I accompanied him in the afternoons when the Rotary club painted the Scout House. In high school, I worked at his side scooping ice cream at the annual General Clinton Canoe Regatta, my hometown’s one big event. I sold tickets at the church chicken barbecues which were held to raise money for various projects.

Thank you Dad, for encouraging me to do whatever I can to help those around me. Through your example, I learned the value of commitment to the service to others. You taught me that everyone can do something, and that even small acts can have a large impact.

Today, a day we honor Veterans who have served our country, I would like to express my gratitude my father (who served in the US Army), my uncles, my brother-in-law, my nephew, my cousins, and my friends who have served or are serving. Thanks to you, and millions more, I am able to enjoy the freedoms and rights I take for granted. I appreciate the sacrifices you make for your country and its citizens. I may not always agree with my country’s policies and positions, but I always have the utmost respect for the men and women who willingly don the uniform each day and perform their tasks with professionalism and integrity.

Black and white photo taken circa 1946 of a young caucasian man wearing a uniform of a private in the US Army.
My favorite veteran.

30 Days of Thanks Day 8 – Dolly (and voting)

Yes, I’ve written about my mother before and you should definitely go read this post about her if you haven’t already. Caroline, or Dolly as she is known to everyone, is the one woman most responsible for me becoming the person I am today. Many people say that about their moms, and they probably mean it with as much sincerity as I do.

I’m choosing to thank my mother again today because it is Election Day here in the United States. Today, FINALLY, we get to vote in one of the most contentious elections I have witnessed in my 43 years. I plan to vote, as I do every year, because I am a firm believer that if you don’t exercise your right to vote, you forfeit your right to complain about the outcome. I have Dolly to thank for my interest in the electoral process, and I don’t know as I have ever publicly acknowledged her role in this aspect of my life.

I learned about voting because I watched my mother vote. My mother, a first generation American, the child of Italian immigrants who moved to upstate New York for a better life, voted every chance she could. Mom voted in all the major national and state races each Election Day, taking me with her in the afternoon to polls located at the Town Hall before we then went to join Dad at the annual Rotary Club Election Day pancake dinner. I always tried to get Mom to tell me who she voted for, but she never revealed her choices.

The ability to cast a private vote is a privilege. I won’t tell you or anyone else how I voted.

So, as a child I never knew how my mother voted although I asked all the time. When she took me with her to the polls, I never accompanied her into the voting booth. Even when she voted on the school budget in the spring, I never went into the booth. I suspect I know how she voted in those elections though.

Never vote against the school budget, Denise. Never vote against better education. 

I don’t know if Mom followed her own advice about the school budgets, because of course she never told me how she voted when I asked. I suspect her status as the parent of six students in our local public school, and her role as an employee of the school district, may have influenced her views on the school budget but I’ve never asked her.

I am a registered voter because as soon as I was 18, the legal voting age, my mother took me down to the Town Hall so I could get the forms to register to vote. Mom parked the car on Main Street, in front of the Town Hall, so I would not have to walk up the incline from the parking lot behind the bank. She held the door open for me, letting me hold her arm for balance as I crossed the threshold. I don’t remember the conversation with the clerk as we asked for the form, but I could tell from the tone of her voice Mom was proud to be bringing “her baby” to this rite of passage.

I quickly started to fill in the boxes, pausing when the form asked me if I wanted to register for a political party. I had never really thought about whether I would want to affiliate with a political party, and was unsure if I wanted to check the box. Mom tried to give me advice as she looked over my shoulder.

My father always said you register Republican, vote Democrat. You should register Republican.

And just like that, I knew what to do. I checked the box marked Democrat because 18 year old me with an attitude was NOT going to do anything my mother told me to do!

Walking to the car, I asked Mom if she really believed you should register for a party, but vote for the opposite one. Now that I was registered, would I finally gather some insight as to how she voted?

Denise, you know I never tell anyone how I vote! It’s private!

After she retired, Mom signed up to work at the polls on Election Day through the local League of Women Voters. For many years, she worked almost every Election Day, all day, at the polls until her mid-80’s. I was not surprised by her response when I asked her why she decided to volunteer her time to do this.

People fought and died so we could have the right to vote. That privilege is the reason so many people like my parents came to this country. Now I can do my part to help the process.

Thank you Mom, for teaching me the importance of being an engaged citizen. Your example showed me how easy it is to become part of the political process. I know I am involved in advocacy now because I understand the value of my vote.

 

If you are a registered US voter, I hope you exercise your right to vote today. Like Mom, I don’t need to know how you voted – just that you did you part!

 

30 Days of Thanks Day 3 – Sandy

In the past, when I have written thank you posts to my sisters, I have always written about them as a group. This year, I decided they each deserve their own gratitude post. Prior to this post going live, they did not know I was planning to do this. Susan, Donna and Caroline – you’ll have to wait your turn. Sandy gets to be first this time.

I am close to all of my sisters, but Sandy lives the closest to me so I see her the most frequently. She is listed as my emergency contact most often, and is usually the first person to get a phone call if something happens to me.

When I fell in January, Sandy was the first person I called. At least, I tried to call her. She had her cell phone turned off. Lying on my bedroom floor, writhing in pain as I waited for the ambulance to arrive, I attempted to search my contacts for Sandy’s work phone number. Who memorizes phone numbers these days? After two minutes of unsuccessful searches, I gave up and called another sister.

Caroline, I need you to call Sandy. I fell, and I think I broke my leg. You need to reach her and tell her I’m going to St. Peter’s. Please, just call her and tell her to meet me there.

Thinking over our relationship, I often call out for Sandy knowing she’ll come to my side if she can. Since I moved to the Albany area twenty-five years ago, there have been far too many of those phone calls.

I took my medicine and it’s making me fuzzy. I don’t think I can safely stand to finish getting dressed. Can you come over early to help me before you take me to the dentist?

My child language development class needs kids so we can practice administering tests. Would you let us test the boys?

My wheelchair stopped working in the middle of the intersection of 7th Avenue and 33rd Street. David helped me make it to the train at Penn Station, but can you meet me at the station at Albany to help me get home?

My PA isn’t able to help me go to bed/get out of bed/go to the bathroom/take a shower. Do you have time to help me please?

I have to bring cookies to my friend’s party. Can you help me bake tomorrow night?

I can’t stand being home alone. I’m driving myself crazy wondering why he said it’s over. What are you doing tonight?

Here’s the thing about my wonderful sister Sandy – she never turns me down. Even when I have a broken leg, and I can’t stop crying, and I keep snapping at her because I’m scared and in pain. Sandy is always there, doing whatever she can to make things better.

When I was admitted to the hospital in January, I was initially put on the orthopedic unit. Unfortunately, the electronic beds on the unit did not have controls mounted where I could reach them. I asked for a handset to control the bed, knowing I would need to move frequently to try to be as comfortable as possible and to reduce the risk of pressure sores. It was late at night and I was told I would have to wait until the next day to get a handset so I could operate the bed independently.

While I started getting angry, protesting this restraint, Sandy calmly asked the nurses for a recliner. She spent that first night in the hospital next to my bed in a plastic hospital recliner so I would have someone instantly whenever I needed to move or reposition my body. If I had to guess, I woke her up at least every twenty minutes to move my legs, my head, my foot, my arm, the pillow – you get the idea. I also cried, complained, and whined about the pain. I doubt either of us truly slept that night, but my memories of the exact events are rather fuzzy because I took as much pain medication as was allowed. The one thing I am certain of is that Sandy’s presence made it possible for me to make it through the night with fewer tears and less discomfort.

About ten years ago, Sandy and I started having discussions about our healthcare wishes. Knowing Sandy was listed as my emergency contact, I asked if she would be willing to act as my health care proxy if at any time I was unable to make my wishes known. At the time, I don’t think either of us suspected she would be called upon twice in the next ten years to be my advocate and relay my wishes to medical providers. But both times, Sandy did exactly what I would have wanted her to do even if it might not have been the choice she would have wanted to make. I couldn’t ask for anything more from one of the people I trust to act on my behalf should I be incapacitated.

Sandy has been a source of strength and positivity throughout my life, but I have appreciated it even more this year. She has been with me every step of the way as I worked to recuperate from my injury and regain my independence. Sandy brought me junk food when I was craving a burger, and homemade soup when I had a cold. She drove me to our hometown for family gatherings even though she really doesn’t like driving my van, and learned how to transfer me in a new way in case I needed her to help me at home.

Sandy continues to be one of my roll models, acting as an example of the kind of woman I want to be when I grow up. She juggles many balls – work, family, volunteer activities, friends, and more – but rarely do any of them drop. I’m sure she’s rolling her eyes now as she reads this, thinking she has me fooled.

The truth is, Sandy does a great deal to make life easier for those around her. I’m blessed to count her as not just a sister, but one of my best friends. Sure, I probably would have made it through this year if she were not a part of my life. But, I would not have laughed as much, dreamed as big, or reached for higher goals.

Thank you Sandy, for always being there, for letting me be me, and for loving me even when my clutter gives you heart palpitations and my lack of organization makes you crazy. I love you.

The author and her sister Sandy. Sandy is seated on the left, wearing a blue v-neck sleeveless dress and a pearl necklace. On her right sits a woman wearing glasses, an aqua v-neck sleeveless dress, glasses and a black necklace.