The Honor of the Christmas Card in a Brand New Tradition

Christmas cards used to be a big part of our family tradition. They were always one of a kind, designed by Neil and I. For the very first one, we cut our faces out of a family photograph and pasted them on to hand drawn snowmen. We had such fun that we kept it up year after year.

One of my favorites was the five of us standing next to a row of life sized nutcrackers. Another was a regular appearing family photo into which an extra Colleen and Jackie were added. Everyone thought there were two sets of twins. One year we glued our faces into the windows of a black and white sketched camper that was decorated with festive red and green Christmas lights. Another favorite was our family pasted on to the back of the Grinch’s sleigh, with the Grinch himself copied into the driver’s seat. And I can’t forget the year that featured our faces hidden in a sea of toys in “Where’s Waldo?” fashion.
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Gifts to a Holiday Stranger

One Christmas Eve afternoon when our daughters were little, my husband was nowhere to be found, and I felt annoyed and inconvenienced. I was baking peanut butter balls and Christmas sugar cookies by the dozens, there were Santa gifts still to wrap, and I was behind schedule on the preparations for the Christmas Day Feast. As if that wasn’t enough, we were supposed to go to the family Christmas Eve service at church, which meant everyone had to be dressed and ready to leave the house by 5:30 pm. There was no way I could get it all done by myself.

As my anger increased it distracted me and made me careless. I burned two batches of cookies into black lumps of coal and had to throw them away. I called my daughters by each other’s names and didn’t even notice. I spilled my coffee all over the kitchen floor and traipsed through it in my white fluffy slippers. By the time Neil got home my holiday cheer was long gone. As his carefree face bounced into the kitchen, I noticed he was flushed and smelled faintly of alcohol. That was all I needed to explode. Continue reading →

The Christmas Pizza: Filling up on Joy

Between over-decorating, over-eating and over-spending, the Christmas season can be overwhelming. Add the stress of creating a perfect Christmas dinner and its easy to feel cheerless and exhausted. It doesn’t have to be that way, as I learned the Christmas Neil was in the hospital.

It was only three months after his diagnosis, but deep down we all knew it was his last Christmas. Things weren’t going well with his chemo, his appetite and energy were fading, and the team of doctors on his case bounced him back and forth because no one wanted to face the Christmas elephant in the room. In typical Neil fashion, he was excited about the holiday even in his hospital bed. I had no intention of leaving him alone, so there were no decorations at home other than the few I set up before he went into the hospital. There was no opportunity for shopping except for the gifts I managed to purchase on-line. Wrapping and Christmas cards? Nope. Not even Christmas dinner. Continue reading →

Me and the Miracle of the Pink Bear

“Why didn’t you quit?” a young medical student recently asked me. Her eyes suggested she could relate to the med school challenges I had just shared with her. “I knew being a doctor was what I wanted to do, and that made the difficulties just bumps in the road,” I explained. Later, as I thought about it more, I realized it was also because there were people along the way who made it worth all the struggles.

One was an 8-year-old boy whose cancer was advanced by the time I met him. Hospitalized for a bone marrow transplant at the university where I was an intern, his body had rejected the treatment, and he was dying. I was the one assigned to draw his blood every morning, and I was terrible at it. My only saving grace was that he was so sick he didn’t always wake up as I stuck and re-stuck every morning. Continue reading →

The Ghosts of Summers Past


From the time our children were babies, we vacationed on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. We rented the same house,  No Egrets in Corolla, year after year. It felt like our own summer house, and in fact, until they were teenagers, our daughters thought we owned it.

We enjoyed visits from relatives who came to relax with us on the beach. We celebrated birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. Neil and I sat out on the deck every night and talked about life, shared our dreams and made plans like it was New Year’s Eve. One year we came home to Virginia and remodeled our whole kitchen so it felt more open and beachy. Another year we decided to put in a pool so it felt like we were on vacation all summer. Another time we planned to bike more at home since we enjoyed it so much there. Corolla was where Neil encouraged me to write and I encouraged him to find work he enjoyed. It was truly one of our favorite places.

The first summer after he died, I could barely face our own house without him, let alone the beach house. Last summer, I started to feel a yearning for the coast and the sand, but couldn’t bring myself to go. This summer I was ready. Continue reading →

Two Songs: ‘The Circle of Life’ and ‘We are Family’

Twenty-two years ago, my baby sister got married and recently I  reminisced about little snippets of that day.

I remember my sister’s beautiful dress and how sweet and young she looked. I remember mixed look of pride and hope and worry on my parents’ faces. I remember Neil sneaking outside to take a few quick puffs on his cigarette anytime an opportunity presented itself, meeting other relatives over their common vice. I remember Gina twirling and twirling with abandon on the reception dance floor as her dress flew in wide circles around her. And I remember dancing a bit crazily myself with my sisters to the immortal words of Sister Sledge: “We are family. I got all my sisters with me…all the people say can they be that close?”
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Sometimes The Best Prayers Are The Unexpected Ones

I didn’t start out to pray. I just wanted some exercise to help settle the thoughts that swirled in my head. I decided to walk the old train track trail behind my house, where it follows the river along the cliffs. I was not in a hurry, and took my time. Gradually my breathing slowed to match the easy rhythm of my pace. And then something wonderful happened.

I saw God on my walk that day. Continue reading →

What To Do When You’re Stuck On The Rock Wall Of Life

We were guests at a Memorial Day celebration. Children ran around laughing and playing, and adults sat chatting and sipping cool summer drinks. Curiosity captured the crowd’s attention when a huge truck backed up the long, narrow driveway. As everyone watched, the drivers got out, adjusted some mechanical gadgets, and slowly raised a huge, portable rock wall.

The kids swiftly lined up to give it a try, and with the complete fearlessness most children possess, scrambled to the top and rang the bell of success. There wasn’t really anything to be afraid of since they were all belted into place, and three people could climb side by side and talk to each other, so gradually the adults tried it, too.

“Come on; let’s go get in line,” Neil urged. “No, you go ahead without me.” I had all sorts of good excuses: I don’t have the right shoes, I forgot my sunglasses, I have to help the hostess, but as I watched everyone else having fun, I gradually convinced myself to try it.

With all the nerve I could muster, I started the climb. The belt wrapped around me like a diaper so there was no way to fall. Yes, I thought, this is fun and safe! Concentrating on each foot and looking closely at the wall’s indentations in my path, I slowly made my way up. I specifically avoided looking down just to prevent any sudden panic and within a few minutes I made it to the top and proudly rang the bell.

“Woo hoo!” My daughters called up to me. “Way to go, Col!” Neil yelled. I enjoyed my success and the fabulous view of fields and farmland until I realized there was a line below me waiting for a turn. It was time to go down.

Oh dear, it was time to go down. Continue reading →

Love the Life You Have (Not the One You Wish For)

“I can’t wait until I retire,” my friend said at lunch one day. “Then I can do all the things I want.”

img_2035-jpg“ I can’t wait to finish the semester,” my nephew said during my visit. “Then I can relax and enjoy life for a while.”

“I can’t wait till this chemo is finished,” my patient said at her appointment. “Then I can get back to normal.”

We’ve all said things like this, haven’t we? We’ve all imagined how much better the future will be when we get past the present.

My house is quiet these days. My two younger daughters are away at college and my oldest is married and building her new life. My empty nest is far emptier than I ever imagined without Neil to share it. I often find myself saying, I can’t wait till the girls come home so the house feels alive again.

The other day I came across the very famous Scripture reading from Ecclesiastes that talks about a time for everything. Our lives have seasons just like the weather does – the college season, the work season, the retirement season.
This is my empty nest season. Continue reading →

When You’re Down in the Dumps, Look Up

Buddy's looking up!It was one of those negative days where everything was annoying. The birds were loud and woke me up early. The coffee didn’t brew on time and tasted stale when it finally did. The exercise class was harder than usual and I barely kept up. The toilet upstairs hadn’t stopped running after the last flush and used up all the water in the well. The cat and dog had gotten into a fight and as a result the cat got sick in the bathtub. Worst of all, Neil wasn’t there to listen to me complain. Continue reading →