CAT Scans and Tuna Noodle Casseroles

Earlier this spring, I was invited to speak at the District Conference for the Ohio Child Conservation League.  The meeting was held at Kingwood Center and followed the theme of "Renewing Your Spirit."

As I mulled that idea around in my wee mind, I had images of the usual things people might do to revive or reinvent themselves:  increased exercise, taking a trip, going to a spa.  All great ideas, no doubt, but I wanted something more, something to offer that could renew the spirit for the long haul.

And so, I used my experience of writing, and the joy it has brought to my life, and spoke on the idea of renewing your spirit through creativity.

Creative, I know.

I started out my presentation by offering up three questions:

1.  Try to think of a time in your life when you felt really alive, a time you were excited about what you were doing.  Write it down.

2.  What do you need to feel that engaged again?

3.  What do you want your life to look like in three years?  Write down the first task in making that happen.

We talked about releasing the fear of uncertainty, and reframing our attitudes.  We did writing exercises that allowed lateral thinking.

We shared a home cooked meal and we laughed a lot.  I think we all left Kingwood feeling a little lighter, and at least considering the endless possibilities life has to offer.

And then, three or four weeks passed, and at the ripe age of 52, I was diagnosed with Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer.

Shocking?  Sobering?  Humbling?

Yes, yes, and yes.

At first, they said it was gastritis.  That was easy to accept.

But, we quickly progressed to possible kidney infection, and then possible kidney stone.  Oh, how I dreaded the thought of passing that out of my body.

But, the CAT Scan showed something different, and the PET Scan showed something more, and the biopsies were more than happy to cooperate with what we already knew.

It was funny, almost, when the doctor delivered the news.  They actually gave me an emesis basin, not the kidney shaped kind that could actually remind you of a kidney bean and make you vomit.  No, the new emesis basins are circles, two inches deep and five inches wide.  As if a container of such size could hold all that's inside me.

I am filled with emotion, from anxiety to zaniness.  It is a roller coaster ride of hope and despair.  It's easy to be scared, and hard to hand over control.  I have begun what feels like a surreal journey.  But, I must tell you, there is good news.

The good news is I live in a community of support.  I have received countless cards and e-mails, flowers and gifts.  Not a day goes by that I fail to find a treasure in my path.

Through both Mansfield Christian School and Mt. Zion Lutheran Church in Lucas, my family has been provided, and will be provided, with meals through the end of June.  Can you imagine?  Friends and people I barely know, walking into my kitchen with beef stew, salads, pies, Ho-Ho cake and beyond.

And, if you curl your nose up at Tuna Noodle Casserole, well then, all I can say is, you haven't had Joanie's.

People pray for me, with me, and lay their hands on me.  They renew my spirit, and I am thankful.  They help me to release the fear of uncertainty, and to reframe my thinking.

They remind me in every way, that He is still here.  He has not left me and will sustain me.  He is in charge.

So, let me end this column by asking you a few questions:

1.  Try to think of a time in your life when you felt really alive, a time you were excited about what you were doing.  Write it down.

2.  What do you need to feel that engaged again?

3.  What do you want your life to look like in three years?  Write down your first task in making that happen.

Now is the time.


A Mom's Most Valuable Gems

I have an old, handmade cupboard that stands about three and a half feet off the floor.  A hack job of sorts, it’s comprised of mixed woods, saturated in some kind of stain or varnish, maybe Golden Oak or Vermont Maple, or maybe both.

It’s not pretty.

It has a set of shallow drawers at its base, some of them with flimsy, divided compartments.  The top has two small doors that almost meet when you close them.  The doors hold six glass panes, two of which are also partially stained.  With Golden Oak, or Vermont Maple, or maybe both.

Go ahead and take a peek inside.  You’ll see three or four shelves, shelves that slant downward towards the floor.

I’m afraid it’s not practical either.

But, even with its imperfections, or maybe because of its imperfections, I love this piece.  I think it shows a lot of gumption.

I use the cupboard as an oversized jewelry box, tossing bracelets, necklaces and watches onto the shelves, storing earrings in the divided drawers.  My most precious gems are contained within, symbols of what I hold dear.

There’s a string of nine plastic beads on a silky, yellow rope.  The middle bead is huge, like a small chunk of coal.  It is complimented on each side with four smaller beads, each deliberately placed to match the other side.  I can see the boy who strung them, a perfectionist early on, now, a young man who wears button up shirts to college.  He likes things a certain way, that one.

And, here, right beside my wedding band, is a metal disc, a pendant strung onto a piece of black yarn.  She attempted to engrave the piece, wanting to show me she had successfully conquered cursive writing all on her own, before reaching the third grade.  A heart is scratched onto the surface, and in perfect script, the word “Mom.”  Here is my over achiever.

What’s this?  A letter from the little one, thanking his father for giving birth to him!  Oh, how we laughed.  It’s not fair I stole it for myself, but it reminds me of his sweet, sweet, spirit.

And among the pearls, beside my father’s watch, I find a small red ribbon, frayed on the ends, with a tarnished safety pin in the center.  This doesn’t really belong to me either.

The ribbon goes to the boy for whom things came a little harder.  It represents tenacity and fearlessness.

The boy decided he wanted to use the diving board at the public pool, but to do so, he would have to pass the lifeguard's test.  He would have to swim the width of the pool.

I stood at the far side, cheering him on, praying he could do it.  He exhibited the ugliest form of freestyle on record, his arms windmilling, his head coming up every few seconds to gasp another breath.

But, he made it.  And with great pride, he pinned the required, red ribbon to his swimming trunks, and headed to the deep end.

He has shown me time and again, that all things are possible.

Yes, my most precious gems are in my jewelry box.  But, they're not diamonds, or rubies or anything of real value.  They are memories of four children who have enriched my life, four children who have shown me unconditional love.

These children aren't children anymore; they're all young adults making their way into the world.  Except, maybe for the little guy.  But, even he is way past knowing from whence he came.

My gems are reflections of four very different people, all who came with strengths and weaknesses.

They are imperfectly perfect, brimming with gumption.

It is my greatest privilege to be a mom to Ben, Mackenzie, Mitchell and John.


Separateness and Togetherness


Disclaimer:  There were no animals harmed in the development of this column, unless you count the bull elk, which was shot legally and with good intention.  The wolf spider is technically an arachnid, and in his divine creepiness, deserved to be crushed and pulverized, never to climb up the water spout again.

My husband and I recently celebrated 29 years of wedded bliss with a declaration of love and an exchange of gifts.

“Why don’t you take a week and go elk hunting in New Mexico?” I suggested.

He tearfully accepted.  “And for you, my Aphrodite, why don’t I take a week and go elk hunting in New Mexico?”

Then we made mad, passionate, pancakes and giggled with glee.

It was a win-win proposition.  Only the elk would beg to differ.  (May he rest in piece, peacefully, in my freezer).

Hubs and I don’t mind spending time apart now and then.  We find it rejuvenates the relationship and serves as a time for personal growth.

In his absence, I have learned to change a headlight, fill the wood burner and bury a dead dog, twice. 

I overcame my fear of the oil change, no longer concerned I will drive into the open abyss on the floor of the Quickie Lube.  I even utilized the “tip box” on the wall, to acknowledge the young man with the gauges in his ear lobes.

It said, “Here’s a tip. God gave you a certain amount of holes for a reason.  Why mess with perfection?”

I’ve cindered the driveway, pumped up tires, pumped up children. 

I think it’s fair to say, I’ve handled it with perseverance and dignity, that is, until….


This, my friends, is the one reason a woman should never be separated from her spouse. 

OK, maybe there is one more reason, and that would be Algebra. 

I don’t mind helping my 8th grader with his homework, but I took Algebra prior to the Carter administration.  Herein lies the root of the problem.

My son is still under the impression, however, that I know things. 

He tells me:  Chris pays 29 cents to have digital prints made.  Debbie bought a printer for $180, and including paper and ink, can make digital prints for 14 cents.  The question is:  How many prints will they have to make to have spent the same amount of money?

I asked, “Are Chris and Debbie in an intimate relationship?”

“Why?” he asked, “should that matter at all?”

I explained, “That would guarantee a lot more X’s and O’s in the equation.”

“This is Math humor?” 

“I know it’s lame,” I said, “but this stuff is too hard.  Ask me something easy…like, who lives in a pineapple under the sea?”

“OK, Mom, who lives in a pineapple under the sea?”

“SpongeBob SQUARED pants!  Get it?”

“Can we call Dad?”

How quickly we forget who breastfed us for 14 months.

We opted to text Dad, our algebraic dilemma delivered to cyberspace. 

To our surprise, he answered right away, as if he was in the next room. 

And, suddenly, life seemed a bit better, a little easier.

I messaged him back, “29 years ago, I married the groom and the best man.  Please come home soon.  I think the spider had siblings.”

(Click this link for a little fun). 

Jennifer is staying out of the basement.  You can write to her at

What's In A Name?

"What's in a name?  That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." - Romeo and Juliet

I heard that quote for the first time circa 1976, in Mr. Carroll's English class.  I was humming "Smoke On The Water," and thinking about a date with the quarterback, when Mr. Carroll inquired:
"Miss Phillips, what does Juliet mean by this?"

"Got me, Mr. C., that Juliet was one intense chick."

Shakespeare was not my strong suit.

I have a better idea now, that Juliet was telling us a name does not define you.  But, had she hung around for a few more centuries, she might have thought differently.

I read a piece on the Global Post recently, that the New Zealand Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages is cracking down on parents who get too creative when naming their kids.

Names that are banned from the register include Lucifer, 89, and Adolph Hitler, names that one might generally reserve for incontinent pets and fruit flies.

Did the parents think this through?

"Lucifer, honey, now put down that pitchfork and come to dinner!"

"Mom, for the 666th time, I am busy!"


"89, I'm going to give you until the count of 3, I mean, to the count of 89, no, 88, and then I'm coming in!"

"But, Dad, I'm going number two!"

I did not come from a family known for its creativity when naming children.  Starting with my grandfather, and ending with my nephews, we have no less than five Johns, four Matthews and three Davids.

Not Catholic, just passionate Protestants.  And, apparently, dull ones at that.

Australia's Herald Sun reports that, down under, parents have requested and been denied permission to dub their children Duke, Mr., Messiah, Baron, General and Judge.

Sweden, too, has its visionaries.  A name denied there was Brfxxccxxmnlpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116, somehow pronounced Albin.

Leaves me to wonder, wherefore art thou, Romeo?

Growing up "Jennifer," I had a unique name, at least until the 1970 movie "Love Story" hit the screen.  Much to my mother's dismay, "Jennifer" became the single most popular name for American girls, and remained so until 1984.

The website will give you some idea how common your name is in the United States.  It provides statistics on your first name, your last name, and the two of them together.

I am told there are 1,046 Jennifer Grahams.  I know one of them, a lovely woman from the Boston area that I met through the writing world.

Yes, she, too, is a writer.  A talented, talented writer, who would never use the word talented twice in one sentence.  We correspond regularly via e-mail.

Jennifer (the other one) says getting an e-mail from me is like having an out-of-body experience.  It's odd to see a letter in her box from Jennifer Graham

I agree that it is confusing, especially since I frequently e-mail myself with reminders for the week, things like, "dental appointment Thursday at 9 a.m."

I opened an e-mail this week, a notation to self, and was pleasantly surprised at my own wit and talent.  I was intelligent, funny, politically correct.  Pride suddenly transformed into depression, as I realized the narration was written by the other Jennifer Graham.

Then I clicked open my letter.

It said, "Check for chin hairs."

She's making me look really bad.  I may have to change my name.

To be or not to be Jennifer Graham, that is the question.

A Mailbox With Great Returns To Sender

We've lived in Lucas for almost 17 years, ample time for most folks to figure out the local post office closes every day from 1 to 2 p.m.

And yet, when I need to utilize the mail services, more often than not, I find myself standing at their door, in the afternoon, somewhere between 1 and 2.

The worst part is, it always surprises me the door is locked, a case perhaps of brain being shipped, but not delivered.

Or, maybe it's just that sometimes we miss the obvious, mostly because our attention is focused elsewhere.

For the past two summers, we've spent a week at Wrightsville Beach, N.C.  Wrightsville is a four-mile stretch of beach island, just east of Wilmington.  The community of 3,000 or so also includes an interior island called Harbor Island and pockets of commercial properties on the mainland.

For me, it's the perfect balance of activity to toes-in-the-sand relaxation.  There are ample restaurants and shopping, museums and miniature golf, but the crowds are minimal and the traffic flows smoothly.  The beach itself is the main attraction, whether you're fishing off Johnny Mercer's Pier, surfing, kayaking or just soaking up sun.

It was in this stretch of paradise that I happened upon another one of life's surprises.

During a morning walk to the end of the beach- a walk I've taken at least a dozen times- I noticed something out of the corner of my eye.  There were strings of shells hanging off driftwood in the dunes, glass bottles and trinkets atop a foundation of wood. 

I heard my friend Nene's voice in my head:  "It bears investigation."

It was a mystical spot, and for a moment I felt like I was intruding- and yet there it was, right on this most public beach. 

As I got closer, I saw that atop the foundation sat a plastic mailbox, the plastic covered in wood strips, and marked ever so clearly, "God's Mailbox."

God's mailbox?  When did this get here?  I certainly had never noticed it.

I hesitated in opening the box, but felt I had to.  Inside was a community notebook, filled with prayers of adoration, contrition and thanksgiving.  The dates on each page of the notebook were evidence that the mailbox had been there longer than I had been going to Wrightsville.

The prayers spoke of heartbreak, love, hope and all the weaknesses and strengths of the human condition.

A young girl asked God that she might be skinny.

A man expressed gratitude for the memory of his father, who was with him last year at the beach, but has since died.

A military wife shared her fear in an upcoming transfer, having lived in the area for several years.

A boy prayed his father might marry his teacher Ms. Heather, because she would make a lovely step-mother.

Others provided words of comfort and prayer to strangers they will probably never meet.

I can describe it only as beautiful, that people are so willing to offer up all they hold inside, that these prayers are lifted to Him for His greater glory, all smack dab in the middle of the sand.

I'm no longer sure the beach is the main attraction at Wrightsville.  It's possible God's Mailbox was there first, and the beach arrived as a mere accent.

I made my way to the mailbox every day.  It gave me pause to pray for others, and to express what was in my heart.

My letter simply said:  "Dear God, Thank you for reminding me that you are everywhere, whether we choose to see you or not.  Thank you for caring, for listening, and especially for having an open door policy."

Even during 1 and 2 p.m.

Debating The Existence of Sasquatch

When my children reached an age where they could start dating, I was all for it.

I welcomed every Tom, Dick and Harry that my daughter brought home. 

I embraced every Emily and any other young woman who gave even a glimmer of hope that my son might, eventually...well, move out.

I was the mother of all mothers, nurturing young lives, encouraging love, counseling as needed.  Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Helicopter parent?  I was the Queen of Hover Flight.

I welcomed them, fed them, conversed about their dreams and possible futures with my children.  Their offspring would be my offspring, a pooling of protoplasm bound to change the world.

I fell in love with each and every one.

I made sweetie's favorite chocolate cake, just because.  I took honey boy's phone calls, every afternoon, just to hear him talk about my daughter and how he might make her happy.

We played Twister.

No one dared to question my commitment, and so it came with some degree of surprise when my power train failed.

One weekend I hosted an out-of-state, vegetarian girlfriend.  She was big on green beans and rich desserts. 

Unfortunately, she was here the same time as the "I'm allergic to all tomato products" boyfriend.  He didn't like any vegetables, wasn't big on pork or pancakes, and tried to avoid all milk products.

It was "Hell's Kitchen" in its finest hour.

And, it was about the time the girlfriend asked if she could stay for nine days over the holidays, and the boyfriend said my meatloaf would surely give him diarrhea, that my propeller came off.

"Loose stool, my friend, is a fact of life.  Now man up and eat!"

"And you, you with the spinach between your teeth, allow me to introduce you to my buddy, Mr. Hampton."

The times, they were a changin'.

But, still, the breakups were hard.  I've never seen so many tears.

"Mom," my daughter pleaded, "please stop crying."

So, I gave up on emotional investment and established new rules.

"Kids," I said, "I'm done with the meet and greet.  I don't want to know, feed or play board games with your dates.  In fact, don't involve me at all, unless there is a planned wedding, invitations printed.  I simply cannot stand the pain."

I wanted to mean it.

And then along came Sasquatch, a bipedal humanoid who has purportedly dated my daughter for six months without a sighting.

She says his name is Jared.  She says he's a psych major, a stand-up comedian, a hard-working man. 

I pretended not to care, but four months into their relationship, my hubby said we'd better have a look-see.

"We need to know who we're dealing with," he argued.  "He could be an ax murderer, a transvestite, or, God forbid, a Democrat."

At first Jared was working too much, three part-time jobs we were told.

A free weekend developed, but Jared had a family commitment.

Then had had to travel out of state for an "American Idol" audition.

Yeah, right.

The excuses kept coming.  Jared did not.

Jared has not.

Man or myth?  Local legend or genuine creature?

More information is needed.  After all, I have a dinner menu to plan.

End Of A Season

The other day, I watched your first soccer game.

As you ran down the field, you held your arms straight down to your sides, as if someone had glued them to your torso, and propelled yourself forward with all the momentum your chubby legs could muster.

You explained later, "The coach said we couldn't use hands."

"Ah," I said, "you are a good listener."

A group effort, the team traveled en masse, following the path of the ball like a swarm of bees.  It was collective chaos- cleats, shin guards and giggles, in motion.

I doubt any of you knew where you were headed.  Not that it mattered.

The crowd roared anyway.

And your dad ate popcorn.

The other night, I watched another soccer game, young men with long limbs, under the lights.  They played with determination and fervor, strength and purpose.  They worked as individuals within a team, each understanding his position and contribution.  Each knew where the ball needed to be, and had the notion as to how it might get there.  It was fast and physical play, any sacrifice worth the victory.

You jumped to head off the ball.  Your opponent had a similar idea.

"Ah!"  I yelled.  "Watch the teeth, Buddy!"

The crowd roared.

Your dad ate popcorn.

And just like that, 15 years of soccer have come and gone.

Truthfully, it was a lot of dirty socks, sack lunches and sitting in the rain.  It was a lot of driving and eating hotdogs for dinner.  It was the unidentifiable odor of a gym bag.

It was a grand privilege.

We didn't see the lessons as they came, but they are clear now. 

You learned far more than the skills of the game. 

You learned that sometimes it takes years of practice before experiencing the results of achievement. 

You learned that just because you are tired does not mean that you quit. 

You have listened and recognized greatness is something you grow into.

Thursday evening, your dad and I will proudly escort you across that soccer field, a tribute to a senior in his final game.

Indeed, a season has ended.

You will move on, setting new goals to achieve.  Set the bar high.  You know where you are headed.  Take
the ball and run with it!

We are still cheering you on.