Happy Birthday Dear Friend!

Last Saturday I attended a gathering of about 40 folks who were invited to a surprise 60th birthday party for my longtime friend, Margie.  Her husband had pulled off the nearly impossible feat of actually surprising her with this lovely dinner, where her immediate family and her closest friends with their significant others, lied in wait for her arrival.

I met Margie on the first day of 5th grade when I moved to a new neighborhood and was attending a new school.  She was that angel who welcomed me and we became best friends.  For the next two years we rode bikes or walked to school together, had sleep overs, cheered peewee football, and had the carefree childhood you could have back then.

When we went to Junior High (the Baby Boomers equivalent of Middle School) we merged with the other elementary schools in our area and I learned to “share” Margie with the new girls.  We became this great group of friends who stayed close through high school, college, and were in each other’s wedding.  Almost 50 years later, here we are.

Quite a few of us, including Margie, went out-of-state to college and worked elsewhere for a time, but eventually returned to Florida and this same community. The husbands are mostly from other towns and states, and were brought into this circle through marriages and children, many who have grown up together.  These special guys have formed long-time friendships as well.

The dinner party was pretty boisterous and then the toasts began.  Her sister, children, and their spouses all were charming with their expressions of true love and appreciation for this gift of a “Gigi” they were blessed to have.  Her husband choked up recounting how they met and when she agreed to “have him”  (set up by a friend and her husband who was this ex-football player’s roommate at Florida). Her “newer” friends told of how she had nurtured and inspired them. Then it was our turn.  There was our gifted one-woman of a show, who was her college roommate.  Wearing one of their sorority jerseys (a little tight she proclaimed but she could still get it on!), she read a hilarious poem depicting their escapades in high school and college at Clemson University.  I got to toast her and claim the “official longest friendship in the room”.  Seven of us performed a song and dance tribute to Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t she lovely”  changing the words to describe our friend. Yep.  Sixty year-old women sporting wigs (brunette in her honor) and performing a show that took multiple rehearsals to get it right.  Now you see the “love” required to participate in this kind of behavior!

So who is this person that has generated such love and devotion (and she was horrified, by the way because she is usually the “giver”).  My friend, Margie, is the most unselfish, and truly genuine person I know.  She is the one we all have called on for help and advice.  She is the organizer of food and duties when we lose a loved one. She is the one you can laugh with until your sides hurt horribly or you wet your pants.  She  is the devoted daughter, wife, friend, mother and grandmother we all strive to be.  This is just second nature to her, without any hint or expectation of acknowledgment .  She is genuinely that good.

One of the husbands,  who was sitting at our table, leaned over to me with huge tears in his eyes and told me this.  He said he had watched our group’s friendship through the years with utter amazement.  He grew up in the military and moved seven times during his school years.  The fact that this group of friends has such history and loves each other to this day, still amazes him.

Thank you Margie for the gift of friendship you have given to me all these years.  I am a better person for knowing you.

image

Trying to Keep the Glass Half Full


I have always considered myself “happy”…as in I tend to see the glass half full, not half empty.  I’m not saying I have had a perfect life, and I have my “sob” stories…but all in all, I tend to feel happy!  I loved my childhood, my family, and my life in general.  I have been blessed to not have a tendency to dwell on the unpleasant stuff.  I guess I have been able to see the “big picture” and all in all, it’s been a great ride.  I had a great career for 20+ years (then had an opportunity to enjoy a “second” career), I’ve been married over 27 years (after an early divorce…see not perfect), and I have two great young adult kids (drove me nuts at times, but don’t they all).  I also have had the ability to “go for it” when I want to pursue something new.  Now I could go and dissect each of these areas and find plenty of not so great issues, but that’s not my inclination.  I basically, feel blessed.

But… and here it comes, I have to admit…my happiness is being challenged. I read recently where someone mentioned a “sadness” had crept into their life.  All the family and friend’s difficulties and illnesses…the declining health of an aging parent bringing home the inevitableness of it all.  I had to admit, I feel “sadness” more often, and it is not that familiar to me.

There comes a time in life, I am learning, that things begin to “pile up”.  Here I am, at the Baby Boomer cusp of turning 60, and I am living out a dream of owning property where I can have horses in my life again.  I have born and raised my children. My oldest (son) has graduated with a viable degree and is working and supporting himself.  My daughter is thriving and making straight A’s at a competitive University, and is in a great relationship with a guy we love.  I am grateful and have much to be thankful for.  The counter balance, however, is that simultaneously I am witnessing the reality of evolving life.

There is the beautiful long-time acquaintance gracefully battling lung cancer, that has recurred and spread.  There is my sister-in-law (she lives on the opposite side of the country) who is juggling my failing mother-in-law (we moved her from assisted living here to where my sister-in-law lives so they could spend some last years together) and her husband who is now battling a difficult cancer. My 87 year-old mother needs increasing attention.  After my Dad’s death in 2012, we got her house sold and she moved to an independent senior high rise that she is enjoying, but she gets lonely.  On top of these scenarios, I have been watching my close friend of 30+ years, lose the life as she knew it, over the past year and a half.

In September of 2013, I noticed my friend Debbie was “forgetting” things. Every recent thing. She is newly divorced, has no adult children or living parents.  It would be her close friends and far away siblings (who live in the Northeast and are decades older) who would be trying to navigate this crisis.  After many hospital stays, and insistence on our part (after researching and forcing the doctors here to “hear” us), she was finally diagnosed with a rare form of Auto-immune encephalitis. (Anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis). Her antibodies had attacked the two frontal lobes of her brain.  By a miracle, we found information on the internet, and a book  just published in 2012 chronicling the experience of a young New York Post Journalist, Susannah Cahalan, who had experienced this nightmare.  The book,  entitled “Brain on Fire” takes you through her journey.  She, with the determination of her wonderful doctor, Dr. Souhel Najjar, eventually recovered.  Dr. Najjar has been trying to help spread the word of this rare and often misdiagnosed disease.

Through the help of a newly formed advocate group out of North Carolina, The Autoimmune Encephalitis Alliance, started by families and patients affected by autoimmune encephalitis,  we got Debbie admitted into a treatment program through Mayo Clinic.  After four, two-day trips to Mayo clinic with her, and treatment carried out here at home, her prognosis came back bleak.  Her treatment stopped the anti-body attack, but her brain’s two frontal lobes (responsible for short-term memory) would be permanently damaged by the brain swelling from the encephalitis. My friend’s Debbie’s life as she knew it is over.  Her new life consists of waking up every day with her intelligence and long-term memory intact, but “feeling fuzzy”, having to relearn through detailed notes, what has happened to her.  If you have watched the movie, 51st Dates, you get the picture.

Debbie had a successful business.  She was a youthful 62 year-old who water skied on our lake every day.  As I live two doors down, I have taken on a lot of the responsibility of helping with the  “managing” of her life. We have been unsuccessful with her allowing anyone to live with her permanently.  She is fiercely independent, she runs off any of her siblings attempts to stay with her, or have her with them.   I get a lot of the “panicky” phone calls when she forgets where her keys are, her house alarm gets set off, or she is reading her notes on her new reality.  My frequent weekend trips to the farm and horses help me to maintain a balance.  But the texts and sobbing phone calls are always within reach.

Her beach condo has been sold to give her funds to live on, as she has been unable to work for the past year and a half.  The business is now shut down.  Her house is on the market, and the courts have had to establish rules for guardianship.  Through all of this, I have had to walk her through this nightmare almost daily, and help her understand why this has happened to her.  She is a fighter, and every day wills herself to “beat” this thing.  Remember, her most recent memory is about two years ago, when she was vibrant and working.  She has to relearn every day this nightmare that has become her new life.  How this will all end up, and where she will live next is still unknown.  The saddest part for me is that she always believes, after relearning of her condition, that she will recover.

I am trying to accept the things I cannot change, be grateful for all the good stuff.  Trying to keep that glass half full.

Brain_on_Fire_Susannah_Cahalan