A Thank You Letter for Thanksgiving

Giving thanks at Thanksgiving is customary; giving gifts is not. But a gift is exactly what I got from my daughter.

Addy wrote me a thank you letter and, really, what better gift could anyone ever ask for?

Dear Mom,

Thank you for giving me the gift of life and exposing me to the most beautiful parts of it. Thank you for protecting me. Thank you for accepting me. Thanks for my perfect little sister. Thank you for the most beautiful, magical childhood I could have ever asked for.

Thank you for being so strong for us when I know it was hard for you. Thank you for showing me how to not only survive excruciating pain, but thrive through it. Thank you for being such a good example.

Thank you for teaching me that nirvana is a twenty-dollar campsite and some breakfast burritos in a beautiful place. Thank you for teaching me how to read and write English and music. Thank you for teaching me how to teach. Thank you for teaching me how to love. Thank you for teaching me how to truly live.

Thanks for singing to me. Thanks for taking me to the beach. Thanks for dinners at your house even though I’m in college. Thanks for the hikes. Thanks for the ukulele. Thanks for finding Jim. Thanks for all the Christmases. Thanks for taking pictures. Thanks for having dogs.

Thanks for being you.

Love you,

Addy

Addy's Thank You Letter

Cooking with Addy

Four Sons Plus a Sister

fatigues

Six-foot-four walks through the door

In fatigues, fatigued

Fists tight, jaw clenched

Tears in eyes

Looks down on three-foot-ten

Counts to ten

One son, one of four

Plus a sister

Looks up to his father

Tears in eyes

Sorry he swung at a teacher

This son, one of four

Plus a sister

Angry, on the edge

Because dad went to war

Mom lost it, lost the kids

Four sons

Plus a sister

Then needed to be fostered

Dad came home

PTSD in his bags

No wife, no mother

For four sons

Plus one sister

Two sons

Plus one sister

Back with dad

No job, little income

Parenting experience near none

Another son, a toddler

Back home now

One father, four kids

Trying, struggling

Dads Group, therapy

Coping strategies

Visitations with the mother

Until this mother

Becomes another

No show

One father, four kids

The littlest son

Is yet to come

Fatigued father

Breathes now

Uncurls fists

And scoops up

His son

This one son

And hugs him

To his fatigued chest.

I Finally Get Veterans Day

I don’t remember anything about Veterans Day from my childhood. I don’t recall talking about it at school. Don’t remember knowing what a veteran was. Don’t come from a family of many vets. Can’t think of anytime before adulthood when I saw Veterans Day on the calendar or thought twice about it when I did.

And, to be honest, for most of my adulthood I didn’t pay it much attention. I’m sure I had to get beyond early adulthood, beyond those years of finishing college and starting my career, getting married and raising a family, to have the time and energy to focus on what was going on around the world. To weigh what life must be like in other countries compared to what it is like here. And to really appreciate that.

Whenever the opportunity presents itself, I talk to my students about how fortunate they are to live in America. We talk about our freedoms and our quality of life. We read about people who came to America looking for jobs and other opportunities. And, especially, we talk about the free education available to every child in America. I want my students to realize that not all children around the world get to go to school and that the reasons many of them cannot is because their families cannot afford it. Or that not every child has equal opportunity. I want them to treasure and embrace the free education that is available to them and to never, ever take it for granted.

But I don’t talk too much about the price that was paid for our freedom, for our way of life, for our country which much of the world envies. It’s complicated. It’s confusing. It can be too much for seven- and eight-year-olds.

But this year we had an event at our school that provided the opportunity to teach my second grade students about Veterans Day – what it means and why we celebrate it.

A teacher at our school – who is also a mother of a veteran just returned safely from Afghanistan – organized a veterans celebration on our campus. Students and staff invited relatives who currently are, or did, serve in the United States armed services. Students brought in photos of their vets and these were displayed on a big red, white, and blue Wall of Fame. The staff at our school cooked up an impressive breakfast for the 40 veterans who attended that day. Then, the veterans, easily distinguished by their uniforms, the staff, parents, and the entire student body gathered at the flag pole shortly after school started.

We all watched, solemn and serious, as two men in uniform raised the flag against the early morning light. The silence was broken with the singing of the national anthem. I couldn’t see the person who was performing, so I watched my students instead. As they double checked to make sure they had the correct hand across their chest. As they focused on keeping their eyes on the flag, just as we do each morning during the pledge. As they refrained from talking or wiggling or joining in on the singing. As my throat thickened and my left hand moved to cover, in that crucial motion, the emotion building on my countenance. Upon that final note, I let out a loud whoop, as I would at a baseball game or most other gatherings where the national anthem is sang, realizing a second too late my faux pas. Several of my students turned and looked at me, standing behind them, utter shock and disappointment on their faces. How disrespectful, Ms. Bergen.

A few days beforehand the students had carefully penned a Dear Veteran letter and I had them role play going up to a total stranger veteran, with their hand out, ready for shaking, and say, “Thank you for your service to our country.” This opportunity – to shake a veteran’s hand and present the letter they wrote – was what they all were really looking forward to.

As the flagpole ceremony ended, I brought my class around to where the veterans were lined up. They walked down the line, so obedient, so respectful, so in awe. And I watched each and every one of them approach a vet, hand out, letter ready.

And I knew then how important Veterans Day was to me.

As we walked back to our classroom, I heard one student say to her friend, “Man, that made me get tears in my eyes.” Back in class, we had a quick discussion about the emotion we felt during the ceremony. Most students concurred; they had almost teared up.

And I knew then how important Veterans Day was to them, too.

Veteran Letter 3

Veteran Letter 2

Veteran Letter 1

That Last Photo

I suppose I knew at the time that my dad would never go home. In order to do so, he had to learn to walk again after having his toes amputated due to infection. He didn’t have the strength or balance to sit up, couldn’t hold the phone or even twist his upper body to answer it, and needed help eating. He hadn’t made much progress at the physical rehab place. Yes, I’m sure I knew he wouldn’t be going home.

Still, when my daughters and I visited him in Bullhead City, Arizona – where he had chosen to move many years earlier, distancing himself some 600 miles from any family – I encouraged him to keep trying. He had been back and forth between the hospital and rehab several times. He had endured three back-to-back surgeries, the doctors trying to save his toes, his feet, his legs from a staph infection. “Work on your upper body strength so you can get yourself in and out of a wheelchair. Then you’ll graduate to a walker and you’ll be able to go home.” I knew this would take months. I was pretty sure he didn’t have months.

During all this time in the hospital, my dad went through major alcohol withdrawal. He was an alcoholic for nearly 60 years. My entire life.

All those years of drinking, the surgeries, the alcohol withdrawal, the various medications – dementia was setting in and he was suddenly looking very old. His face was ashen compared to the usual state of robust red I’d always known him to have, his always broad and muscular shoulders so narrow now beneath the clean navy t-shirt he wore, his legs shrunken with atrophy from being in bed for three months. His left leg was in a brace, his right foot heavily bandaged, the amputation beneath not healing well.

It was his hair though that kept getting my attention. At age 78, it was still blonde, as were his whiskers and the hair on his chest and arms. He hadn’t had a haircut in a while and, at about an inch and a half, the freshly shampooed, fine strands were longer than I had ever seen them. Except for the occasional bed head – and it was a short bed head – my dad’s hair had always been neatly parted on the left side and combed down while wet. I chuckled that day at his longer, slightly unruly hair.

The day we visited, my dad was mostly coherent, mostly making sense. We asked about his care, caught him up on our trip to Arizona, commented repeatedly about his hair,  joked around. That’s what he was good at, joking around. He was in a good mood. I asked if I could take some pictures of him and he said, “Oh, yes,” and perked up even more. I took a few shots and then the girls asked if I wanted a picture of him and me together. Of course, I did.

He smiled for that picture. Something he hasn’t done in years.

DFH

Yes, I suppose I knew that my dad wasn’t going home. And that this was probably the last time I would see him. Though he was slightly confused and a little paranoid and, I’m sure, albeit being discreet, sad and scared, I was enjoying him in a way I never had before. He was, for the first time in my life, completely sober.

He wanted us to rub his legs. I got on one side, Addy on another, and we massaged his withered thighs. I knew Addy was a little uncomfortable with this. Admittedly, I was, too. I thought back to my girlhood, when my dad was always looking for one of us kids to give him a back rub. I would intentionally do a poor job, hoping he would choose my brother or sister the next time. But this time I gladly did it. And I regretted having not touched this man enough times in my life. In his life.

Amy, my youngest, sneaked away to a chair in the corner of the room. When I looked at her, she gave me a barely noticeable yet loud and clear shake of her head. No. Do not ask me to take a turn rubbing his legs.

I understood. And I didn’t ask her.

As my dad got sleepy and we three began to feel the emotional strain of the day, I started mentioning that we would have to go soon. After a while, the girls said goodbye to their grandpa, a man they hardly knew, and left the room.

Then it was just him and me. And yes, I’m sure I knew that he would not learn to walk again. That he would not be going home. That this would probably be my last trip to Arizona.

“Well, dad, I’ve got to go…,” I said. I wasn’t at all sure how to leave the room.

He immediately started in with some story. I smiled, shaking my head, thinking of all the times over the years when I’d rolled my eyes at this same scenario. It was usually when I was on the phone with him. I’d have to get going and I’d say so and he’d ignore me and just keep talking, not wanting the phone call to end.

I took one backward step toward the door. Then another. I had to get out of there. Why, I’m not sure. Why couldn’t I stay longer? Why didn’t I stay until he fell asleep? Why didn’t I rub his legs some more, his hair? I could have rubbed his hair and put him to sleep, like I had so many times with my children.

Tears pooled. I had to go before he saw them. Had to go while I was thinking positively about his sobriety, his hair, the notion that he might get stronger and go home and I could come back to Arizona and visit him again.

“I love you, Dad,” I said and quickly turned and walked out the door.

“Come back!” he yelled, with more vigor than I expected him to have. Then, a few seconds later, and sounding more resigned, “In here.”

Blurry eyed, I went as fast as I could down the hall, pass the nurses’ station, through the lobby, to my girls.

They looked at me, crying and running to get out of there, and I could see the concern, nearly horror, on their faces.

“Oh, mom,” Addy said, and they each took one of my arms and hustled me outside.

My dad’s health steadily declined and I did not return to Arizona before he passed away. When he was close to going, when he could no longer speak but the nurses were sure he could still hear and understand, I called and said what I needed to say and what I thought he needed to hear.

I’ve looked at the picture of him and me together, several times a day since then, and though it was taken at a sad time during his most unhealthy days, it makes me laugh and feel good. In this photo, he is alive and sober and smiling and I’m clearly enjoying those last minutes with my dad.

A Morning at the Lake

Highline Lake

Just past sunrise

With my training partner

We swam in shimmery water and bouncy raindrops

Rode along freshly-showered farm roads laced in sunflowers and blooming rabbit brush

And trotted ourselves up and down the lakeside trail and across the dam

To the finish line

Week seven of training

Next Sunday’s the real deal.

Highline 1

Highline 2

Highline 3

Highline 4

 

A Rotary Youth Exchange Blazer Story

The day had arrived. The day I was looking forward to and dreading all at the same time.

I was in charge of one of the big suitcases and the rolling carry-on while she wheeled the other big suitcase and shouldered her overstuffed backpack. We followed the signs to Lufthansa and entered the ticketing/check-in line. After months of learning, checklists, paperwork, to-do’s, and last minute errands, we realized then that she still wasn’t ready.

“Amy!” I fake scolded. “Where are your luggage tags? You were supposed to write them out long before we got here!”

“I know. I forgot. I didn’t have my host family’s address.”

“What do you mean? It’s in your paperwork. Get it out.”

Down came the backpack and out came an envelope full of the documents she’s supposed to travel with:  names and address of her first host family, the Rotary club in France that will host her, passport, birth certificate, permission to attend school, her insurance policy, parental permission, travel itinerary, and several other items. We pulled out the one with her host family’s address and I read it to her as she wrote it on the tags. She was nervous and her handwriting was atrocious, almost illegible.

As we fumbled with the tags and reorganizing some of her documents, a young girl got in line behind us.

“You can go ahead,” I said, scooting over the two suitcases I was in charge of.

She smiled and wheeled on past us, all of her luggage neatly stacked on a rolling cart.

“Mom,” Amy whispered, “do you think she’s an exchange student?”

“She might be,” I said. “I just don’t know why she’s all alone. It seems like someone would come to the airport with her.”

Once we felt organized, I told Amy to put her official Rotary blazer on so I could take her picture. All of the kids in our Rotary District – District 5470, the southern two-thirds of the state of Colorado – as well as all students going abroad through any of the United States Rotary clubs are supplied a black blazer. They exchange and collect pins and proudly display them on their blazer as they progress through their year abroad.

Amy gave me a look. I knew what it was about. Yesterday, as we were loading up to leave our home in Grand Junction and drive to Denver–where she’d be flying out of–she said, “Mom, what should I do with this blazer? I hate it; it’s so ugly. I mean, why don’t they just tell us to go buy an attractive, well-fitting black blazer that we actually like instead of SURPRISE! HERE’S THE UGLIEST BLACK BLAZER WE COULD FIND FOR YOU!”

I laughed out loud. Both of our emotions had been running high for the past two weeks as her departure day loomed and both of us had had a few outbursts and good cries over nothing, really. She wasn’t being ungrateful or disrespectful to the Rotarians who had helped her get to this point, just open and honest and funny. We all know that a heavy, black, too-big, too-constructed blazer is not what any teenage girl wants to wear, let alone travel in or meet their new families in. They want to wear comfort clothes and something in which they feel attractive and that represents the way in which teenagers dress in the country they’re from.

When my laughter subsided, Amy gave me a pouty look. “Mom, I’m scared I won’t be funny in France. I mean, how can I be funny when I don’t even know the language?”

“Honey, I think that anything you attempt to say in French will probably be hilarious. You’ll be plenty funny and interesting.”

photo 3

I got the official departure photo and then helped Amy neatly fold the blazer and tuck it into her carry-on. “You should probably get this out right before boarding the plane and wear it for at least a little while on the plane. It’ll help other exchange students notice you, if there are any others on your flight. And make sure to wear it when you layover in Germany and maybe when you land in France. You’ll be safer in it – airport personnel are probably familiar with these blazers and they’ll know you’re an exchange student and a minor – and people will be less likely to mess with you.”

We then went to the counter, just as the other girl was finishing her check-in. “Hey, are you with Rotary?” she asked, looking hopeful. “I saw your blazer.”

“Yeah!” said Amy. “Are you?”

“Yes. I’m going to Croatia.”

“Where are you from?” I asked, knowing she did not live within District 5470. Croatia is not one of the 20 countries that students in District 5470 can exchange to.

“Boulder,” she answered.

“Are you here alone?” I asked, feeling at once both a little sorry for her and also that perhaps I wasn’t letting my daughter be independent enough.

“Oh, my dad’s here. He’s parking the car or something.”

“Are you traveling through Germany to get to Croatia?” I asked her. If so, that would mean she’d be on Amy’s flight.

“Yes, I’m on the 5:30 flight.”

“Cool,” said Amy, her eyes lighting up. “So am I!”

She gave the ticketing agent her passport and as he finished up his work, he asked, “Any seating preferences?” Not knowing exactly what that meant, Amy responded with, “Umm… no, I don’t think so.”

“Well,” I started, “is there any chance you could seat her next to the young girl who just checked in? The one in line in front of us? They’re both minors and they might feel more comfortable sitting together.”

“Sure,” he said. “I can do that.”

We were plenty early to the airport, but Amy was too nervous to have lunch or look around in the shops. So we made our way to the security area and plopped down on some seats there. I asked Amy how she was feeling. She seemed okay. I felt okay myself, compared to what an emotional mess I’d been the two weeks leading up to this point.

The line going through security looked long and I guessed the process might take about 45 minutes to an hour. After a while, when it seemed like it was probably time for Amy to make her way to her boarding gate, I said, “Hey, maybe I can stand in that line with you. That’d give us a little bit longer together.”

The woman in charge of the entrance to the line said it would be fine, that I’d just have to exit the line when they started checking boarding passes. “Unless, of course, you get randomly selected for Pre Check.”

“Pre Check? What’s that?” I asked.

“Oh, we randomly select some people to go through a faster security line. You don’t have to take your shoes off.”

“Okay,” I said and we started winding our way through the serpentine straps used to create and manage a line of people. We didn’t go more than 20 feet before a man said, “Pre check. This way.” We veered off to the right into a different line.

I guess we were randomly selected, I thought. Amy was the one to notice. “Interesting. Everyone in this line is in a family. Look at the babies and kids. And us. The other line is all men. Nice random selection.”

I had it in my mind that I would be with my daughter for about 45 more minutes before I had to say goodbye to her once and for all, but the Pre Check line was only about two minutes long. The time was now. “Oh my gosh, Amy, we have to say good-bye now. Are you good? You okay?” I pulled her in for a hug.

“Mom, I’m sad,” she said, and started to cry a little.

I was sad, too, but tried not to let it show. “Don’t be sad, be happy. Go have the time of your life!” And I let go of her. And I walked away. And I cried, but not as badly as I thought I would.

I had to go upstairs to level two to exit the area. When I got up there, I realized I could look down on the security lines. So I found a quiet spot and stood looking over the railing, scanning like crazy to locate Amy. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t figure out where that Pre Check line was. Or maybe she had already gone through it.

I glanced at my phone, it being in my hand, and saw a notification from Facebook that Amy had mentioned me in a status update. What? How? I thought. She’s in an airport security line. I opened it up and there was a picture of me standing on level two, looking for her. Randee Bergen spying on me it said. What? She saw me and I couldn’t see her? I wish I was spying on you! I wish I could see you one last time! I thought. Or, maybe not. Maybe this is for the better.

photo 2

I exited the airport and went to find my vehicle in the parking area. Should I leave? Was it okay to leave the airport and head back to Grand Junction when she had more than an hour to sit at her gate? What if her plane didn’t show up or wouldn’t be able to take off? Maybe I should stay.

But I couldn’t. I drove away.

When I stopped to get gas, I texted her. Are you at your gate? Have you found your friend?

Yes, I”m here, but I don’t see her anywhere!

You will, eventually. I love you!

Not too long after that, there was a text from Amy. I found her and guess what? Her name is Amy!

Crying, I typed. No, that wasn’t texting language that I typically used; it was something Amy would have said. It usually meant happy tears, oh how special, how meaningful, something like that.

Then I added a smiley face and pushed SEND.

photo 1

 

Triple Play Day

Hey, do you want to do anything fun this evening? Bike riding? Pickleball? There are only so many summer evenings.

Jim texted back. What say you pedal down to Sherwood Park and we’ll toss the frisbee around for a while? That’ll give you one of those triathlon days you like.

That sounded fun. And Jim was right; that would be two more exercise opportunities for the day on top of the hiking I had done early in the morning.

The triathlon idea started with day trips to Glenwood Springs, where I would choose a hike or a run, ride my bike down the canyon, and then swim laps and relax at the world-famous Glenwood Hot Springs. This was an individual event, made up entirely by me, and done at my happy pace, which included having lunch between legs and reclining in a chaise lounge with a good book between laps. The whole point was not to go my fastest and get the event over as quickly as possible, but to fully embrace and enjoy each aspect of it, making it last all day and taking pictures along the way.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

So I met Jim at the park that evening and we tossed the frisbee back and forth in the low, late evening sunshine. To add some oomph to the workout, we did what we always do with a frisbee or a ball, we counted how many times we could get it back and forth to each other without dropping it. This extra challenge of throwing more accurately and running to catch throws that were slightly off got our heart rates up. At first, we did 18 in a row. Then 19. Then 26. And our record for the evening was 56. Fifty-six tosses back and forth with the frisbee never hitting the ground.

After, we sat in the cool grass. “Good idea, Jim! I forget how fun it is to throw a frisbee.”

“Good exercise, too,” he said. “I’m going to feel this tomorrow. All the bending over and reaching and sudden bursts of running.”

“You know how in your text you called this a triathlon day? I was thinking we should come up with a different name. Triathlon implies swimming and biking and running. But, really, any exercise counts. Even the work you do all day long at your job.”

“But the three different things is what’s important,” he said. “I think it’s a good goal to shoot for every day. It doesn’t have to be three big things, like your all-day Glenwood Springs triathlons. It could be walking down to the farmers’ market, paddling around the lake. Anything.

I pondered my locale and exercise tastes and all the options, especially in the summer months. “Yeah, Jim, there are so many fun things to do around here–hiking, trail running, walking, mountain biking, road biking, pickleball, racquetball, swimming laps, open water swimming, kayaking…”

“Frisbee,” Jim added.

“Yes, frisbee. And this would remind us to play more often. Plus, things like strength training, push ups, stretching.”

“Yeah, just stretching at some point in the day. It wouldn’t be that hard to get three things in.”

“And most of this stuff is fun. I’m thinking triple play, make it sound fun, like a triple play day.”

“Triple Play Day.” Jim tested out the sound of it. “I like it. Because most exercise is fun. Or it should be. People should try to find exercising options they enjoy, that make it seem like they’re playing.”

“It’d be really good for me,” I thought out loud, “to try to do triple play days as often as possible, especially when winter rolls around. I always slip into this horrible thinking that I need to be home and safe and locked in my house once it’s dark. And in the winter, that means 4:30. And that’s not good. It’d be great if I had a reason to go and do one more type of exercising. Go to the gym. Walk around the block on a snowy evening. Whatever. It would just help me change my mindset.”

“Yeah, we should keep it in mind. Think about it every day. See what happens.”

“There’s also housework and yard work. They’re not exactly fun…”

“For some people, they are,” Jim interrupted.

“Agree. And, even if they’re not fun, they’re rewarding, once you’re done, and that makes them fun in a different sort of way. So they’d be included. Included in this idea of ‘playing.'”

“What about long runs or climbing a 14er or something like that?” Jim asked. “Would that count as three things?”

“It should.”

Jim thought for a minute. “I’m thinking it shouldn’t. I mean, the whole point is to get in the habit of doing three things each day. To ask your body to do three different types of activity. And even if you do a biggie, you can still come home and stretch or vacuum or pull a few weeds in your yard.”

“I agree. Plus, it’d be too easy to start counting more intense exercise as two or three things for the day and then the whole triple play concept would be lost.”

I went on a week-long road trip right after I had this conversation with Jim. It was a good opportunity to test whether back-to-back, ongoing triple play days were a possibility. Some days were easy, like the day I went for a short run around the lake where we camped and then later that day played hard in the ocean and then took a long walk down the beach. Triple Play. Other days, the ones with seven hours of driving, were more difficult. But I could always get in some walking, some stretching, some isometric exercises while sitting in the driver’s seat. It was on my mind, a new challenge, so I made sure I did it. And I liked it.

Triple Play Day.

Triple Play Day copy

 

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