Thursday, March 10, 2016

Some girls wear little black dresses... Some girls sport little red vests

I'm 31 years old. I'm technically verging on 32 (but that is a thought I won't entertain for more time than it takes to type this sentence). To put this into perspective: When I was born it was "morning in America" with Ronald Reagan as the President of the United States. It cost $2.50 to go to the movies. The first Apple Macintosh computer went on sale and the ColecoVision Console sold for just $129.99. Also, Stevie Wonder hit the air waves in full force with "I Just Called to Say I Love You" (a legitimate jam still to this day). 31 years is a really long time. People get 30 years in prison for killing someone because that's the amount of time it takes to "think about what you did." It takes Saturn almost 30 years to orbit the sun (which I follow up closely with how long it takes me to run a mile these days). So many things can be accomplished in three decades yet when I say my age I think of all the things I have yet to accomplish.

Yesterday was my first time as a Red Cross "captain" in charge of her own disaster response team. That meant I was in charge of driving the vehicle (they truly didn't think that decision through properly); I was responsible for the well-being and safety of my team (again, they had to be short on volunteers); and I was to make all of the big and final decisions (including how many hugs I deemed necessary for each storm victim). When the team assembled and we got into the vehicle I was asked by a timid voice in the backseat, "Do you know how to drive safely in the rain?"

The "K-Team"
(Because all our names started with "K" and I'm clever like that)

Me? Ha! Is that question directed at me? Girl please. I drive with a life vest in the front seat if there is the slightest chance of a drizzle. I am ten and two the entire way and I talk to myself, constantly, about how well I'm doing with every mile marker I pass. Sometimes I put my flashers on just to let other driver's know that it's raining and I'm driving in it. Then I realized that this girl had known me for about 4 minutes and everything that makes me who I am was a complete mystery to her. So like any good, composed and professional disaster captain would do I began telling my life story... Instead of teaching her how to fill out the paperwork she would be using for the very first time.

I only had about 45 minutes and it was pouring rain so I skipped the parts about it being a really hot summer in New York the July I was born and I passed over my headgear phase and botched haircuts. (They were too young to know the trauma of 7th grade when you ask for a "Rachel" and instead you get a mullet). I told them about the Nashville Flood in 2010 and how that's when I realized volunteering was my life's passion. I told them about the pure destruction and devastation that I witnessed but also the beauty (and itchiness) of sandbagging the Cumberland River. I told them about responding to fires in the middle of the night and singing old NYSNC songs with a girl in a shelter who was scared. I told them about Tuscaloosa and the tornado outbreak on April 27, 2011. I told them about the immense joy you feel when you help someone but how sometimes you go out to the truck to physically sob where no one can see you because your heart hurts so badly. I told them about my last deployment after Christmas and how I rang in 2016 inside a recreational center on a cot surrounded by tornado victims.

I told them all of these stories to let them know: Although I fear it on unhealthy levels... I will drive (and do so safely) in the rain. That this one day of volunteering that they signed up for was going to change their lives forever because you can't just do a day. Like a can of Pringles, once you start you can't stop. And how the destruction they were about to see for the first time would be the equivalent of a punch to the stomach and a slap to the face at the same time. But the only way to get over the initial shock is to walk through it, find someone, and hug the ever-loving-hell out of them. I told them to prepare them. I told them my story so they knew that the person entrusted with their safety and well-being (again, not the brightest idea) had been in their shoes before. I told them because in retelling my embattled history with Mother Nature... I reminded myself why I was wearing that red vest.

I did not tell them my story expecting to hear the words that came out of the backseat when I was finished... "Kristen, I don't know how old you are but you've lived a crazy life in the short time you've been on this Earth. And I think you're my new hero." I immediately let out a nervous and embarrassed laugh and said, "That's crazy talk. I'm 31 so I've had plenty of time to go head to head with disaster. I really want to be Kelly Clarkson when I grow up because she's one of my heroes. And I am pretty sure I will go through an entire First Aid kit before we're done out here today so I'm in no position to be anyone's hero. But you're incredibly kind. And I'm incredibly lost. Seriously. What town am I driving to again?"

Hero. That's a word used to describe police officers and firefighters who run towards danger while others run from it. That's a word used to describe members of our military who dedicate their lives defending our country. That's a word used to describe doctors and nurses who save lives and scientists who find cures. That's a word used by Mariah Carey in one of her greatest songs to date. I'm not a hero. A hero is fearless. I volunteer because I'm so incredibly scared of natural disasters that if I didn't put on the red vest I would never come out of my safe place. I'm not a hero. I'm a hot mess who thinks if she hugs enough people, hands out enough water, throws enough sandbags and sets up enough cots in a shelter that perhaps she can officially erase the scars that the Flood and the April 2011 tornadoes made. It's a coping mechanism. It's not heroism.

The destruction that I drove my two brand new volunteers into was both flooding and tornado damage. As we walked through the yards, stepping over debris (falling into puddles... seriously, I warned them), covering our noses from the scent of wet sheet rock and the fumes of chainsaws, I watched closely as they came face to face with their first storm survivor. I watched as they stood in what can only be called "a doorway" where once a house stood. I saw the tears well up in their eyes but they didn't let a tear fall. I heard them ask all the right questions and provide the correct answers as to how we could help and why we were there. And then I saw them reach out to hug the older woman who simply said, "I'm alive. We're alive. I didn't think we would make it but we did. So we're going to be ok. Everything is going to be ok."

As we walked away from what was once somebody's home, I asked the two girls, "Are you ok?" And they answered that they were overwhelmed but felt like they had just did something that changed their life. I simply told them that not only were they warned I would at some point during the day fall flat on my face but also that they wouldn't be the same people by lunch that they had been at breakfast. And as we walked up to the car, climbed into our seats and shook the rain off our clothes I looked in the rear view mirror and said, "That woman you just met... That's a hero."

The rest of the day went according to plan. We assessed damage. We drove down the wrong roads and made numerous u-turns. We handed out supplies and we administered hugs. We cursed the navigation system and we repeated, "Tell no one this happened back at headquarters, got it?" I tripped over debris and failed at walking on water and they took notes and soaked up all the on-the-field training they could get. And when our work was done for the day we headed back to headquarters. I looked at their faces. They were tired. They were hungry. And they were changed. Just like I knew they would be... Because I was.

In my 31 years on this Earth maybe I have seen more disasters than most. Maybe floods and tornadoes and Jim Cantore like to follow me around for no other reason than they truly have nothing better to do with their time or energy. If I think of my age and what I haven't accomplished yet I start to think I'm living life incorrectly (financial stability, a family of my own, lasagna in the oven rather than paperbacks, a published book, a 401k, and less band-aid usage). But then if I think of my age and what I have accomplished I start to think that maybe I'm living life my way. Where the unpublished book, the car seat-less SUV, the microwaved dinner, the coins in a coffee can labeled "savings" and the Cosco-sized First Aid kit are the perfect bookmarks to this chapter in my life. Chapter 31... (With Chapter 32 quickly approaching).

My family is filled with heroes that wear a badge or a stethoscope. I wear a red vest. I am not a hero. Heroes run into danger while I run into my safe place. Heroes give their all without seeking anything in return. I give my all but thrive on the feeling I get when I give a hug. I'm not a hero... I'm a survivor. 

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Sweetness of X's and O's

When I received the phone call that my sister was being sent to Labor and Delivery early and it was almost time to meet my sweet nephew, I raced to the hospital breaking every motor vehicle law along the way. I had already packed my "hospital bag" which had everything from a change of clothes and a toothbrush to every make/model of a phone charger and coloring books to pass the time. (Little did we really know how much time was going to pass!) I got to the hospital with one mission: Do everything I possibly could to make my sister comfortable and to ease any form of stress that the two expecting parent's could experience. Also, not to cry. I can hug and cry like it's my profession. But there is a time and a place Kristen. Keep it together. 

I went into the room expecting chaos yet found my brother and sister completely calm and ready to tackle this thing called "having a baby." As the night carried on parent's left to get sleep and I was reconsidering my career choice as I had conquered reading the peaks/dips on the monitor and unplugging/plugging in all the wires and tubes after every bathroom break. (Then the thought of administering needles or seeing blood cancelled any ideas I may have briefly entertained!) 
Ice Chip Getter and Contraction Monitor Coach

When the nurse came in to tell Lindsay it was time to get some sleep before the big event the next morning I knew it was time for me to "go home" and get some sleep myself. But that's just not in my nature of course. So I told one person I was sleeping at my parent's house and another I was sleeping at my brother's house. And then, like a colonist from long ago, I said goodbye to the parents-to-be with a kiss and a hug and set up camp in the waiting room for the night. I moved around furniture, declared ownership of the television and settled in for the night. They would never know I was out there but if they needed me... They wouldn't have to wait more than a second for me to come to them. 

30 hours. My sister was in labor for 30 hours. That's 30 episodes of Law & Order: SVU or a road trip to Nashville 3 times or listening to George Strait's "Amarillo By Morning" on repeat 720 times. There was nothing easy about her labor process and there was definitely nothing easy or textbook about her delivery process. There is a groove worn into the hallway floor where I paced for 2 hours, back and forth, waiting for someone (anyone really- a doctor, nurse, aid, janitor) to come out and tell us that everything was ok. I made a promise to myself a long time ago that I would never sit anxiously and wait for a boy. From the minute the text came that it was time to push to the minute we finally had someone tell us what was going on I never once let go of my phone or stopped looking over my shoulder to see if someone was going to walk out those locked double doors. When the doors opened and my brother emerged I could tell two things: He was exhausted and something wasn't right. I could only imagine what my sister was going through back in the delivery room. But I smiled and ran up to him to congratulate the new Daddy. 

Hours went by as we waited to hear when we would finally get to meet this little baby who took his sweet time coming and then was rushed away for tests and observation. When the text finally came that he was ready to meet his anxious family... I was the first one allowed in the room to see him. I basically sprinted to the hospital room in record time. I opened the door, washed my hands, and pulled back the curtain to see my sister holding a chubby cheeked baby boy in her arms. My brother had a camera out to record my reaction of seeing my nephew... My Godson... for the very first time. As he was placed into my arms I wasn't prepared for the reaction I was about to have myself. 

Love at First Sight
As I held Xander William O'Hare for the first time I cried. I thought about all the moments in his life I was going to share with him: His first story book... his first laughs... his first baseball game... his first words... his first Christmas morning... and his first St. Patrick's Day. I thought of all his games that I would be ejected from by umpires and coaches. I thought about the laughs he would give me and the smiles he would put on my face. I thought about the murder I would happily commit if anyone ever tried to harm him. I thought about how proud I was of his parents. And I thought about how my life changed in a single second when I kissed his forehead and knew that I was asked to play a role in helping raise this little baby. It was more than a job... it was an honor. In just one look he had become one of the most important people in my life and my sense of purpose was renewed. He would learn about God and about right from wrong. He would learn about respect and love. But he would also learn about curve balls, frosting and the adventures in story books from me. 

The next several days all blended into one another. Xander got to go home but he went home in a special bed that required someone to watch him 24/7. I obviously took the night shift in hopes that the new Mommy and Daddy would get a chance to at least attempt to sleep. My chair was pulled up to his crib and I watched him for hours (illuminated in blue) and sang him songs. It seemed that each song I sang though was by Joey + Rory. And it struck me right through my heart. I was looking into the face of a brand new life while I played songs sung by a wonderful woman, wife, mother and friend losing her own. 

The irony nor the haunting beauty of the moment wasn't lost on me. As one beautiful life entered this world another was soon to leave it. And I knew that I had to make sure that as his Godmother I taught Xander not only the beauty of every day but also how short life truly is. We need to appreciate the small things and find beauty in the rough days. We need to live our lives so we have no regrets and can say we did everything we set out to do. Every sunrise is a reminder that we have a fresh start and every sunset is an acknowledgement that we made it through another day. There will be really bad days and broken hearts and there will be fabulous days filled with laughter. The secret to life is to find the balance and beauty in it all. 

Xander will never experience the goosebumps you get when Joey walks up on stage and starts to sing. He will never hear her laugh or walk the land on her beautiful Tennessee farm. He'll never taste her peach cobbler or see the light in her eyes when she talks about the love for her husband or her daughter. But I had the opportunity to do those things and I will take those memories and those lessons she taught me and I will pass them on to him. Because as I write this Xander is doing things for the very first time while Joey is doing everything for the very last. The birth of Xander has brought so much joy to my heart while losing Joey has broken it. But truthfully, I'm learning to live again as I say hello to a new life and goodbye to an old soul. There's a lesson to be learned in all things. 

And for someone who loves her sweets: Sometimes the sweetest things in life don't always come in a container with a spoon... Sometimes they can be found even in the saddest of moments if you just look hard enough. 

*This video was made for Xander after he successfully made it through his glow worm phase... Joey helped sing the words to express what we all felt those few days...*