Saying thank you for Sandra Wilgus

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sandra and joan

Sandra Wilgus, pictured a couple of years ago with her son David, daughter-in-law and my sister Jeanne; her grandson Sam and his soon-to-be wife Katy.

I confess to having a bit of a crush on Sandra Wilgus. She is my sister Jeanne’s mother-in-law — known for being kinda feisty, rather funny, very strong, filled with faith and, above all, for being a prayer warrior. When my son Charlie was in the neonatal intensive care unit 25  years ago after somehow being born with just two-thirds of his blood volume, Sandra went into action. In her matter-of-fact way, she told Jeanne she was focusing her prayers on Charlie’s brain.

A quarter-century later, Charlie’s brain is more than fine, as is the rest of him. And say what you will about what might have been the outcome anyway, I will always believe Sandra’s prayers helped get Charlie to the healthy state where he is today.

As I write this, feeling that familiar wave of gratitude, Sandra is in hospice care. She’s at the point in the transition process where her spirit is arm-wrestling her earthly body, jockeying for position in that alternately awkward, alternately graceful dance where the outcome is inevitable.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing; Sandra would be the first to tell you that, and to remind you that she’s ready and that she isn’t afraid. Her beloved husband died almost exactly three years ago, and while she’d have happily followed shorty thereafter, she’s  certainly not one for getting stuck in sorrow. She’s had plenty to find fulfilling: books to read, church to attend, friends to with whom to laugh and eat lunch and, above all,  family to cherish. She’s been healthy, upbeat, grateful — always willing to help anyone.

wilgus family

That’s Sandra in the middle on the couch, surrounded by — well, lots and lots and lots of family.

On New Year’s Eve, Sandra tripped while walking on the sidewalk and fell. Two passersby called her daughter Carol and then an ambulance. She seemed to be recovering without surgery, but then needed it. Afterward, doctors told the family nothing more could be done, and Sandra was moved to a hospice facility.

jeanne and sandra

My sister Jeanne helps her mother-in-law, Sandra Wilgus, celebrate another birthday.

Her immediate family — three children and spouses, plus grandchildren and great-grandchildren — has taken turns being with Sandra in the bright and airy room that overlooks a pond.  On Tuesday afternoon, Jeanne asked our sister Susan and me — we’ve both felt such a calling to see Sandra — if we’d like to come up.

We positioned ourselves on either side of her bed. Susan rubbed one of Sandra’s arms and I held her other hand. She woke up periodically, fully aware we were there. She smiled; she had her familiar glimmer in her eye. When Susan told her we were praying for her, this prayer warrior whispered a thank you and you could all but sense a wink as she added, “I need all the prayers I can get!”

After we left Sandra’s room, my sisters and I stood in the little waiting area next to the coffee maker. We talked about Sandra, wondering and marveling about the transition her body and soul were undergoing. We remembered the days leading up to our own dad’s death almost seven years ago. And we felt comforted — by each other, by Sandra, by faith.

So for life, for death; for all that comes before, after and in-between — and of course for Sandra Wilgus — The Grateful Runner says thank you.

Saying thank you for the smooth breath of relief

sunrise for blog post

When you work out regularly and try to eat right (mostly successfully, save for a daily serving of pita chips and a few spoon forays into the peanut-butter jar); when you try to focus on what’s good in the world (and usually succeed); when you regularly practice inhaling positives like courage and peace and exhaling negatives like stress and worry,  you kind of like to count on being healthy.

Or mostly.

Because, truth be told, there are no guarantees. You know that. I know that. And I especially know that after unexpected numbers showed up in a yearly blood test,  thus necessitating two similarly unexpected diagnostic tests two days after Christmas.

As I left the center following the second test, I ran into a friend I haven’t seen in years. We talked; she comforted and told me she would pray for me. When she texted me the next day and I shared my good news, she said she’d felt a peace about the outcome all along.

As for me, I alternated between wondering whether I should buy green bananas and feeling buoyed by a blanket of optimism and prayers from my sisters, their families, my son. I didn’t lose sleep; I did, though, wonder  were the news not good, how long before I’d start feeling bad (which I haven’t felt in the slightest). And, quite honestly, if my son would be able to get a refund for the fancy activity watch he gave me for Christmas.

Christmas watch 2018

My son Charlie gave me this nifty watch for Christmas

Those hours of uncertainty reminded me how life can change in an instant. How one phone call, one pivot, one touch of a doctor’s finger on a page of numbers that make no sense to us non-medical types, can jostle, if not totally alter, your world forever.

My doctor wants me to have a follow-up blood test in a couple of weeks to see if the wayward number has dropped. As tempting as it is to fret about that, I’m instead focusing on trust; replaying in my head her reassuring voice on the phone the morning after my tests. I’m also taking particular solace in the radiologist’s conviction everything was so fine that he didn’t suggest repeating the test to make absolutely certain.

The results revealed nothing; they could just as easily shown something serious. I realize that — just like I know (or know of) healthy people whose lives are sideswiped by a scary medical diagnosis. And thus I am, in the most humble, knees-on-the-floor sense of the word, awash in gratitude.

So for sunrises that have taken on new layers of awe, for pita chips and peanut butter that taste head-shakingly scrumptious, for stalwart sisters and for outcomes that allow my breath to flow normally again…The Grateful Runner says thank you.

Saying thank you for falling in love all over again

Mountain reflection Oct 2017

There is something to be said about going somewhere different every year. About being transfixed by new sights; mesmerized by new sounds. About gasping at scenery you’ve only seen in photographs; about watching the sun rise and set from any number of heavenly horizons.

And yet there is also something calming and breath-releasing about showing up at the same place every year. About knowing you could find your way almost blindfolded, but you want your eyes open: To memories evoked in every turn. To tweaks of scenery depending on how the clouds and sun and stars align, and the angles at which you see them. To feeling like you’re where you belong, and where you are meant to be.

You arrive and unpack and feel almost giddy with possibilities. Maybe this will be the year you climb higher or hike further than you’ve ever gone before. The year you’re not afraid, or at least don’t mind if your heart beats like it will come right out of your chest.

Or maybe it will be the summer that you just stay still, ogling this sweet, sweet earth from what surely is one of the most beautiful vantage points in the entire world — or at least within 15 hours from home.

COLO sky 2017

That is where my family and I were this summer and last summer and almost too many summers before then to count.  And where, God willing, we will be for many summers to come.

Though I have other trips in the making, this is my given, my rock, my crazy quilt of comfort. Where I take slow and deliberate breaths from deep within — not minding at all when the exhale gets caught on a sob of gratitude and of remembrance.

So for familiarity, for tradition, and for falling in love all over again, The Grateful Runner say thank you.

 

Saying thank you for canine wisdom

Angie MOJ July 1 2018

When you’re an older dog with years on this sweet earth under your collar, you gain wisdom that will long elude your younger yapping counterparts.

You learn, for example, that standing up and lying down take more time than usual, but they’ll happen. That squirrels may still get your attention on a walk or out the window, but their lure in your life has dissolved like stray bits of kibble that make their way into your water bowl.

That you may wake up before dawn, but you really can just stay in bed for awhile. What’s the rush, anyway? The back yard isn’t going anywhere.

That when you think you can walk forever at the pace of your much-younger self, you might tire out on the way home. Which is fine; when’s the last time you took a few moments to check out the flowers in a neighbor’s yard, or to touch noses with a fellow canine you’ve only seen in passing until now?

And while you may not rush to greet your loved ones as quickly as you once could, that doesn’t mean you love them any less. (It probably means you love them more).

When you give your heart to an older dog — like I have 11-year-old Angie, the sweetest girl in the world —  you gain from her wisdom. You learn not to rush; what good does it do? You learn to stop and smell — well, nothing like the aromas her amazing and sensitive nose picks up, but maybe some honeysuckle that eluded you when you ran by earlier.

Mostly though, Angie teaches me that every day is new, every morning filled with promise. Yesterday is, well, yesterday, and tomorrow — despite our lists and expectations and what we’d like think — is no covenant with the future. But here we are in this very moment, and off we go.

So for sunrises and smells, for faith in today and renewed determination to give it my all  — and for the beautiful and loyal companion whose wisdom continues to guide me…The Grateful Runner says thank you.

Saying thank you for tuna fish and peas on toast

TFP on toastA couple of weeks ago, my sister Jeanne sent a text to our sister Susan and me:

“I think I’m going to make tuna fish and peas on toast for dinner. Anybody want to come over?”

That dish hasn’t been on my plate for way longer than I care to admit. OK, decades. Lots of them. But as is the case with those who have shared a childhood and thus, a lexicon,  I immediately wrote back: “What a wonderful offer! Alas, though, I’m going to settle in with some chicken fricassee.”

Susan’s text popped up a nanosecond later: “Had it last night. Chopped meat patties smothered in onions sounds good to me.”

These dishes — along with favorite spaghetti and favorite-meat sandwiches — were mainstays in the Barker family’s culinary repertoire. (Chicken fricassee, to clarify, was a can of chicken a’la king served over Minute Rice).

We didn’t give any more thought to what we called these meals than we did to the more mundanely named meat loaf, or to chicken potpie — Swanson’s frozen, please, and only served when our dad (whose disdain for poultry I just figured every male shared) wasn’t home for dinner. Excuse me; I mean supper.

Flash forward several decades to Friday night. My day at work had been long and not particularly cheerful; thus, I wasn’t in the best of humor. I got home, planning to have dinner with my son Charlie. He was at the gym, which I quite understood. But couldn’t he have gone earlier, so he wouldn’t be getting home at 8:30? Like I said, I was kind of crabby, and we (who never argue) had the slightest tiff when he was on his way home.

But just as  he pulled up, six words popped into my head, six words that cheered us both up and, I daresay, rescued the evening. The words?

TUNA FISH AND PEAS ON TOAST. (Or five words, if you make tunafish one word).

“That sounds great!” he said when I made my announcement.

I resisted the temptation to add tomatoes or spices or mushrooms; it had to be authentic. I even made sure the toast burned just a little, so it would even smell like a Barker childhood meal. Charlie loved it — the taste, the tradition, the wave of heady nostalgia that rescued his “mother” (the quote marks are his) from the doldrums and connected us in yet another way.

So for love expressed in familial vernacular; for favorite spaghetti, for favorite-meat sandwiches and, of course, for tuna fish and peas on toast…The Grateful Runner says thank you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saying thank you for the squeeze of a stranger’s hand

3M 3

The evening after the Dallas Marathon, in which I ran the half portion and my son Charlie the first leg of the relay, we signed up for another 13.1-mile race. We had each had a wonderful race and a wonderful day, and wanted to prolong that feeling of euphoria.

We chose the 3M Half Marathon in Austin, which took place on January 21. Turns out I had to defer my registration because of nagging behind-the-knee issues, but was so excited to be there and to cheer Charlie on. I was tracking him as he ran, so every five kilometers, my phone would beep with an update. The first notice was of his 8:22 per mile pace, which was faster than he’d anticipated.

“C’mon, Charlie!” I whispered as I did my own walk through downtown. “Keep it up!”

He’d slowed down by about 20 seconds by the time he crossed the 10K marker; at 15K he was even slower. i really wasn’t all that concerned; he hadn’t put in all that many miles, but he was confident so what else could I be, too? Besides, his predicted finish time was just at two hours, which I figured would make him feel somewhere between disappointed and comfortable.

When the estimated finish-line crossing time appeared — 9:35 a.m. — I scooted over to the State Capitol to wait for him. That time passed, then 9:40 and 9:45. Finally, I saw him. I waved madly and called out his name. He hobbled over to the wooden barrier separating runners from spectators.

“My foot is killing me,” he said. “I almost didn’t make it the last three miles, but I knew I’d be so mad at myself if I didn’t finish.”

3M 1

 

He couldn’t even hobble to the medical tent, which was maybe 30 feet away. So I found him a wheelchair and a volunteer, who pushed him in so he could get treatment. I wasn’t allowed in, but he texted me a few times with updates. They were icing it, he told me in one; waiting for the doctor, he said in another.

After about an hour, the doctor came out to say he probably pulled a muscle in his foot, and he needed to stay off it. Not that he had a choice; he was in awful pain. A few hours later, when we were finally home, he elaborated on what had happened when he was in the tent being treated.

3M 2

“I’m sitting there with my foot wrapped in ice,” he said, “and a woman comes in with really bad cramps in her leg.” She climbed onto the table right next to where Charlie was sitting. When the medical technician started to massage her legs, “you could tell she was in agony,” Charlie said.

“I asked her, ‘Do you want to squeeze my hand?'” She nodded gratefully, tightly grasping his outstretched hand until her pain eased a bit.

After a few minutes, Charlie’s foot pain suddenly reached a wave of almost unbearable intensity.

“It hurt so badly I thought I was going to cry,” he told me. (This, let me add, from someone whom I’ve seen cry maybe twice since he was about five years old.)

“Then out of the corner of my eye, I saw her holding out her hand and I squeezed it,” he said.

When Charlie left the medical tent, he was able to manage a smile as he held high the medal he’d fought for more than three miles to earn. By the next afternoon, his pain was minimal. Now, a week later,  Charlie has a hard time even imagining the intensity. But he does remember the warmth of empathetic fingers and of an empathetic heart.

So for stubbornness, for smiles, for the squeeze of a stranger’s hand…The Grateful Runner says thank you.

 

Saying thank you for the most basic of miracles

 

anna-me-3.jpg

My beloved niece Laura gave birth on January 12 to a daughter named Anna Louise, the third of Laura and her husband Eli’s children. Three children! How could this be possible? I remember the day 31 years ago when Laura was born. I even remember what I was wearing, for crying out loud.

Although with Anna’s birth, I am technically a great aunt four times over — Laura’s three, and my second niece Julie’s can’t-get-enough-of-him whirlwind son Fielding — I simply can’t call myself that noun. It brings to mind wrinkles far deeper than mine, skin that smells like pancake makeup, and droopy bosoms underneath loose paisley print dresses.

So instead, I am Lolly, christened by Julie and worn proudly by enough-about-me. Let’s move on to Anna.

When my sister Jeanne, Laura’s mom, sent the first photo from the delivery room, I was mesmerized, my awe of life and of babies and of possibilities especially deep — and it tends to be deep anyway.

Maybe it’s because Anna and I are members of the 12 Club — my birthday is February 12; hers, January 12. Maybe it’s because I just needed a baby fix; after all, it’s been a whopping 16 months since Fielding was born. Or maybe it’s simply because reminders of life and of love come along at precisely the time that, for whatever reason, we need them.

At the hospital, I touched Anna’s softer-than-a-horse’s-nostril (Jeanne’s comparison) hair.. I cradled her longer than I could probably have held a weight her size. I ogled her sleeping face while questions jostled around in my heart: “Who will you be, little girl? What will you sound like? Who will you love? What books will you beg to hear, what songs will make you giggle, what will you do to make us all laugh when we know we shouldn’t be laughing?”

I remembered how, when the sun rose on my walk this morning, I had a wave of wonder to think that this was Anna’s very first sunrise, the dawning of a new day and of her life ahead.

Ah, the world awaits you, sweetheart. And I can’t help but feeling that because of you and your siblings and cousins — those related by blood as well as those merely linked by having 10 tiny fingers and 10 tiny toes — it also awaits anew the rest of us.

So for you, baby girl; for giddy anticipation of what’s lies ahead; for the reminder that for all life’s complications and craziness it is, at its most basic, a miracle…The Grateful Runner (a.k.a. your Lolly) says thank you.

fridge Anna

Saying thank you for what’s over that hopeful horizon

happy new year my leg hurts

I run. That’s what I do. It’s how I start my day, and it’s what I think about — preparing mentally (how far, how fast?) as well as practically (what will I wear?) — before I go to bed.

I run until I can’t. Which is where I am now. For the last year (and to be honest, for off an on a couple of years before) my the back part of my left knee has been giving me trouble. I had an MRI last August, but by the time I returned home from Colorado and had a follow-up appointment, I felt fine.

“Great!” my orthopedist said, adding that he had planned to call in his colleague, who is a surgeon. “We just want to see you if you’re hurting.”

I ran the Turkey Trot and the half portion of the BMW Dallas Marathon. Both races went well; I felt wonderful and happy.  

But the twinges I’d had a week before the half developed into more. Two weeks later, I was really hurting, so went back to the orthopedist. This time, I talked to the surgeon, psyching myself up to hear his pronouncement. He examined me after a physical therapist had done so, and their conclusion was the same: My hips are out of alignment, which is causing all that ruckus behind my knee. True, I have a torn meniscus, but if that were the problem, they said, I’d never have been able to run those races.

They recommended lots of physical therapy, which I’ll start on Tuesday. Surgery wasn’t even mentioned, which made me all but burst with relief and delight, right there on the examining table.

“You can’t even imagine,” I started to say to the surgeon before catching myself. “No wait; I bet you can imagine how excited this makes me.”

He laughed and nodded. “I’ve worked with a lot of runners,” he said.

My leg still hurts; I’m not sure why I expected it to be pain-free just because surgery wasn’t mentioned. But I am ever so thankful as I hold onto the reassurance I heard twofold during that appointment that I will indeed run again.

So for good news, for hope, for a leg that hurts but one day will again carry me far…The Grateful Runner says thank you.

Saying thank you for sweetness and stillness on see-your-breath cold mornings

Angie. Brr

This morning was freezing. Well below freezing, to be exact. Single-digit windchill, when you get right down to it. So I, who will run or walk (as leg issues are relegating me to these days) in just about any form of weather, was ever so content to ride my stationary bike.

Not so Angie, my four-legged companion. I let her out in the back yard, hoping a taste of the frigid would make staying inside all she would consider doing. Silly me.

So when the sweetest dog in the world wants to go for a walk…when she stares at you with THOSE EYES…when she looks longingly at the front door…when you can all but hear her promise she will always be there for you…what can you do but dig around for the warmest hat in the house, two pairs each of gloves and socks, and head out?

The air was still and cold and bone-penetrating; the morning, achingly beautiful. Not one soul was on the street. Just us — shivering me holding the leash of, at that very moment, the happiest, most grateful and most delighted girl (to say nothing of the sweetest, which bears repeating) in the entire world.

We weren’t gone long; still, it took me awhile to defrost, and I didn’t take the hat off for another 20 minutes. Maybe I was still cold, or maybe I was just holding onto the moment.

So for stillness, for sweetness, for being beyond smitten with a four-legged gift whose zest for life knows no bounds…The Grateful Runner says thank you.

Saying thank you for 2017

thank you

So here we are, teetering between years once again, a big toe still in 2017, a heel and toe box (to use a running shoe vernacular) hovering excitedly above 2018. We’re in the midst of a breathless game of Red Rover: As a new year calls our name, we glance over our shoulder at what seemed a pretty good place to be until right this very second.

For me, it was a pretty good place. Nothing spectacular — no falling in love or publishing a book or discovering what exactly I want to be when I grow up. And that’s AOK. I found beauty and rejuvenation in moments, in the mountains, in time spent with those I love.

A leg ailment combined with laziness kept me from signing up for a race most of the year. But in November, I ran the Turkey Trot; in December, the Dallas Half Marathon — sharing the delight in those miles with my son, who ran them, too. He and I hiked together in Colorado; I had game nights with my mom and wine giggle gatherings with my sisters, who had a surprise birthday party for me in February — coincidentally, the same month I was born (insert wink here).

I moved into a new house. I almost made it to church every Sunday (a few times even before the sermon started), sitting in my favorite pew with my favorite chapel pals. I started taking a barre class. I squeezed my eyes shut and leaped out of my comfort zone, landing in a week-long fellowship with the National Press Foundation, where I met some really smart and nice people who are now my friends.

I laughed and I cried. I crossed paths with more special people. I said goodbye to some I didn’t want to say goodbye to — a beautiful man I wrote about on Easter Sunday; a beloved and courageous colleague. I marveled, five years since his death, that my dad is still at the heart of every moment in which I find joy. 

I was reminded, time and again, what a difference the smallest of gestures, the sparsest of words, the tiniest tweak of a situation can make. And especially how being just a little bit kind can change a moment, a morning, an entire attitude — perhaps even a life.

Before that last sigh of 2017, that final exhale that will push us over the midnight edge to begin our breathing on the other side, I just wanted to remember way more than I can ever write down. Much will come to me when I wake up tomorrow, or when something in the new year reminds me of something in the old.

Meanwhile, for every step, every sunrise, every star, every bit of wonder that leaves us wide-eyed and secretly sneaking a peek for more…The Grateful Runner says thank you.