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The "Wu Word" Blog

November 2016

Remember

In December 2009, I moved in all alone to my very first apartment.  Most of the neighbors in the portion of apartment complexes I live in are very chummy with each other, knowing each other for years and even family members.  Maybe surprisingly, I kept mainly to myself with only making friendly and surface chit chat when needed.  The one person I could not keep to myself from (even when I tried) was Joe. 
 
Let me tell you about Joe.  Joe was like the security guard of our apartment complex.  He was in his late 70’s when I first met him and he greeted people with his wide gap-toothed grin, caterpillar grayed moustache, and tufts of white hair that stuck up everywhere.  He always called out my name with a booming and lilting: “MAAARRRYYYY!!!”  He would belt to my friends who visited me, “Do you know that Mary is the best???”  Joe would also grill and drill my friends as to who they were and me as to where I was going and when I would be back home.  He was like my surrogate grandfather always watching out for me and others. After my hip replacement, Joe and I became particularly close and was one of the extremely few neighbors I turned to after the surgery to walk with me.  In his scuffed and torn sandals, he said softly,  “You are so nice to keep company to an old man as me.”    I would well up and respond as I struggled walking with him after my hip replacement, “Joe, I am the lucky one.  Thank you for walking with me.” 
 
As my hip improved and I was back to daily life, I rarely saw Joe because the routine and time crunch of having to do all the things you have to do doesn’t allow you to really stop and step back for a moment to enjoy the then and there.   I began to suspect that something may have been wrong with Joe when I would catch him huddled in his car in the freezing cold just reading a book.  I first felt a jolt of trepidation of Joe when he had rapped insistently on my car door just when I was driving out, causing me to nearly hit him with my car.   I rolled down the window, frightened and said: “Joe, you scared me to death!  Are you OK?  I nearly ran you over!”
 
The expression on his face made me freeze with fear.  His bright blue eyes were dull and he looked confused as to who I was and questioned hesitatingly: “Mary?”
 
“Yes, Joe, it’s me, Mary,” I said carefully.
 
His face contorted back to his familiar and friendly self and he said jovially, “I’m sorry I scared you.  Drive safely.” 
 
My heart was pounding.  It was like Joe was there, but not there.  I made a mental note to myself to try to get a hold of his wife who I rarely saw to check if he was ok.  But, what I meant to do, I never did.  The months went by and the seasons changed and Joe was still there in the back of my mind.   Especially, when he was never there to greet anyone anymore.  He seemed to have vanished into thin air.  I wondered if he had died, but I did not have his home number and I felt strange knocking on the door to speak with his wife who I did not know well at all. 
 
A few months ago, I finally bumped into his wife in our parking lot.  I could immediately tell and feel that something was wrong from her stooped shoulders and her sad face. I braced myself for the worst to hear that Joe had died, but she stunned me when she said: “Joe is in the nursing home.”
 
His wife went on to explain in shuddered despair about how her and Joe had been married for over 40 years and he was no longer the man he remembered because he was having trouble remembering and had become difficult and even volatile at times.  It is often easier to talk to the unfamiliar than the overly familiar as she was confessing to me. 
 
She appeared exhausted and in tears when she shared, “I don’t know if I made the right decision putting him in the nursing home.” 
 
I said slowly and pensively, “I don’t think we ever know if we made the right or wrong decision in life.  I think we make the best decision we possibly can when experiences in life forces us to.  We are only human, and can only do the best we can.  Be kind to yourself.”    
 
How strange that I was learning that Joe was losing his mind when he was more on my mind than ever before.   There is nothing more frightening to me than to lose my mind.  I can handle my body betraying me, but I cannot even fathom the thought of my mind turning on me with lost memories and moments to not even knowing who I am anymore, who I became from what happened in life, or who I was to begin with. 
 
I hugged Joe’s wife as hard as I could.  An ache formed inside of me for both of them.  I started to remember my times with Joe, making me miss him and hurt so much that I could cry.  Yet, I thought, how beautiful and wonderful that I can remember and hold on to the memories of Joe.  Remembering can hurt like hell, but not remembering is crushing in that you can only live in a body but no longer in your mind that has become your worst enemy and most lethal bully.
 
Recently, his wife came to me and asked, “Would you come to visit Joe with me sometime?  I showed him all the pictures of our neighbors.  The only person he remembers is you.”
 
“Me?”  I sputtered.  I was shocked, flattered, and extremely intrigued that Joe remembered me. What did he remember about me?  Did he remember what I remembered? 
 
On a beautiful autumn day with the dance of crimson and golden leaves twirling and swirling around us in a gentle and sweet breeze, his wife and I drove up to the nursing home.  His wife made small talk and said more than once, “It means a lot that you are coming here with me.”
 
“It means a lot that you are letting me come with you,” I said.
 
She paused, “He has his good days and bad days.  Please don’t be offended if he doesn’t remember you or if he is not as you remember him.” 
 
It was funny and interesting to me when I hear people say that they want to be remembered a certain way—and usually in the best way, brightest light, and happiest of demeanors.  I think we all wish to be remembered for our best rather than our worst, but if it wasn’t for the bad and worst memories of us and us remembering the bad and the worst then how would we come to value the treasured and happy memories?  How would we ever learn?  How would we develop compassion and kindness if it wasn’t for the painful and most hurtful of memories of people at their weakest and most vulnerable points that they may not want to be remembered? 
 
In my mind, I replayed my dear and treasured memories of Joe.  The memories were even more vivid as we walked the shiny corridors to where his room was.  He was in a locked and clamped fetal position when we first went in the room.  I was immediately cautious, uncertain, and scared, but told myself that I would be okay with however Joe would be in whatever way he would be in—whether he remembered me or not and depending on what he remembered of me or what he didn’t remember of me.  This was all about Joe and what he remembered.  This had nothing to do with me. 
 
Although he was an old man, he looked like a sweet and sleeping baby in the bed.  He only looked a little older.  His eyes fluttered open at us.  Those same child-like and innocent eyes that welcomed everyone with such warmth and joy.  I knew this was Joe.  The Joe I remembered.
 
He sat up slowly and blinked a few times to look at me and then broke into his signature gap-toothed smile and exclaimed: “Mary!”
 
I could not believe he remembered me.  More than that, I was shocked that he was the Joe I remembered with greeting everyone in the nursing home in his friendly and happy way.  It was a quiet and simple afternoon of him eating green beans and mashed potatoes in the company of his newfound friends and life.
 
At the end of his meal, he looked to his wife like a little boy and asked: “When am I going home with you again?”
 
His wife paused and said, “Remember what we spoke about that this is your new home.  Do you remember that Joe?”
 
He did not say anything.  I had a feeling he remembered, but he did not want to say this memory aloud as the reality was too raw and real.  I felt the sting of sadness for both of them in that moment in time, wondering if they were replaying and remembering moments in their over 40 years of marriage.   I rewound to another memory with his wife saying to me in the car before we arrived here at the nursing home: “He asks me when he is coming home.  I used to lie to him and say ‘soon, Joe, soon.’  Now, I can’t lie anymore.  It isn’t right and fair to him or to me.”  When she said that to me, I thought most people want you to say what they want to hear anyway. 
 
I was overcome by how powerful the mind and memories are to making us who we are.   What would you do or how could you function if your mind betrayed you?  What was your earliest memory?  What distinct memories do you have that have formed you?  Are there certain memories you would wipe out if you could?  What would you like to be remembered for?  How do you want to be remembered?   
 
When we went back to Joe’s room and his wife and were about to leave, he smiled so bright so that his mustache curved up: “Mary, thank you so much for coming.”
 
I looked down at him.  I grasped his smooth and gnarled hands.  He seemed so young and old to me at the same time. I thought how fragile he was and how we all our and how we just needed a bit more kindness and patience in this world and life.  People are so scared and terrified of pain and sadness when they are what brings us and brings out great kindness, beauty, love, and compassion.  
 
“I hope to visit again.”
 
“That would be great,” Joe said. 
 
Joe’s grip squeezed my hand harder.  I asked him, “Can I give you a hug?”
 
His eyes lit up.  “Of course!”
 
He reached up to me and I leaned down to him to give him a gentle embrace.  

I was so sad and happy to have this memory and time with Joe and all the moving moments and memories with people to make me who I am today and going forward.   I am thankful to remember.
 
Keep smilin’ until we meet again,
Mary ;-)

 

Freedom

On twilight of election eve, I went to a friend’s wake.  I did not know her so well.  She was an active member of the organ donation/transplant community, her own community as a soccer coach to children, and beyond her inner circle to reach and affect the lives of so many others.  Long and thick cascades of honey brown hair and twinkling brown eyes, she was a picture of beauty.  You would never guess that she was so ill and had her first heart transplant at 17-years-old.  Now, she was dead at 27-years-old. 
 
The last time I saw her was when we went to Albany to speak with legislators about specific agenda items to help the organ donation/transplant community.  We bumped into each other in the restroom and she looked at me in her mirrored reflection, “I bought your book.  I’ve been meaning to get your autograph.” 
 
I was surprised, humbled, and extremely flattered that all I could stupidly muster was, “Wow, thank you.” 
 
She giggled and smiled brightly, “I’ll get your autograph next time for sure.  Let’s go out there now!”    
 
I flashbacked to her last words she said to me and that the last time I saw her was the last time when I drove in unfamiliar and uncharted territory to the funeral home.  I did not even know who her parents were and what they looked like.  What would I say to them about their daughter who I barely knew?  What do you say when it comes to death?  You would think now that I knew what to say and do with death as many of my friends have died waiting for a transplant or due to complications after a transplant as well as working at a cancer center.  All I knew was all that I could and would do is reach up and hug them as hard as could, as there are times there are no words and silence and an enveloped hug will speak volumes.   
 
Along the way to the funeral home on a narrowed dirt and pebbled path that my car Perry was struggling on, I stumbled across an old-fashioned farmhouse.  Something told me to stop and so I did.  As soon as I stepped foot in this farmhouse, I was intoxicated by the delicious and divine scents of berry pies and cider donuts, awed by pleasantly plump apples, and grinned at the bright orange pumpkins and root vegetables that greeted me.   Somehow, I felt my friend’s presence in there.  I also felt very ‘American’ in there.   
 
I wish I could explain what “American” feels like, especially since most people identify me as Asian when they immediately see my outer appearance.  My father said if I was born in China with all the health problems I’ve had then I would be dead by now.  He rarely speaks of his times during communist China, but speaks of ‘The American Dream’ of working hard to reap the rewards rather than given any free favors.  He only briefly shares that imprisonment or killings would have happened in China if anyone dared to speak anything against the government.
 
I can’t explain how ‘American’ feels, but the first word that always touches my tongue is “Freedom.”  Freedom to speak your view without getting ostracized, attacked, or even killed.  Freedom and free to be a woman where I can show my face and not cover it out of shame or fear.  Freedom is a very precious gift, but comes at extremely high and heavy costs.   Lives lost and sacrifices made when fighting for freedom for themselves and others.  Responsibility and ownership of that freedom.  Is anyone ever really free?  What does freedom or free actually mean?   Maybe, nothing really is free and a price cannot be put on freedom then.   What is the price of freedom?  What does ‘American’ mean to you? 
 
That night, I knew my friend who laid peacefully in her casket and fought a good fight in life to be free of her health struggles had led me there to this farmhouse.  All I know is my father and his sacrifices and courage to leave a country with what he knew would harm and maybe even kill him and his future led me to this country.  And, that election eve night, I was led to Church to pray for peace, hope, and unity for this country.  

When I left the Church that night, the last glimpse I saw was the American flag tucked protectively and proudly near the crucifix that.  I am still proud and embrace that red, white, and blue flag that forever reminds me of my father’s sacrifices and so many sacrifices that many have made for this country and how lucky I am to live in a place that is as free as it can be.  

I am still proud to be an American-Born Chinese.  

Keep smilin’ until we meet again,

Mary ;-) 

Bamboo

My Stepmom gave me my very first bamboo plant. 
 
I was rather apprehensive when I was first given this precious gift as I had already managed to kill off all my houseplants.  I liked to chalk up the death of all my plants to my overly warm and even hot apartment, but the truth is that I’m known as a plant killer than lover with having overwatered and not watered at all. 
 
“There’s no way you can kill it,” she said to me.
 
I named it “Lucky.”  I placed “Lucky” on the windowsill and followed my Stepmom’s instructions not to overwater it.  Every morning, Lucky seemed to greet me with his thriving rich green leaves and sturdy stalk that was unbreakable.  He did not talk or walk, but seemed to speak and ‘move’ in volumes with growing under my non-green thumb.  He was my green buddy! 
 
My parents say that bamboo is the most hardy and versatile plant out there that is food for pandas and even people as bamboo can be cooked in a variety of yummy ways, material for buildings and even musical instruments, and has medicinal qualities.  My friend has said to me, “In life and especially when we are no longer in our comfort zone, we have to be like bamboo: Be simple, bend, and do not break.” 
 
Comfort zones came up yet again on my recent month-long health debacle when my body had somewhat become the shape of a question mark.  It was a fight for me to stand upright, dress, and even walk to the one place that could provide my body with relief: The swimming pool.  Nonetheless, I had forced my body to match my mental gusto to go to the pool just about every single day as the water would wash over me with comfort and joy. 
 
On one particular day, I heard a woman’s robust and loud voice carry to where I was in the corner of the locker room to her saying to someone on the phone: “Comfort zones are cruel.  They stop you from growing, learning, doing, and going.  You get stuck.” 
 
My ears perked up.  I could not make out the rest of her conversation or her story as I was in too much pain at that time to really focus, but it has made me contemplate about myself that I was the poster child for the comfort zone.  I had never purposefully chosen to remove myself from comfort zones of familiarity and stability.  I was the ultimate creature of habit.  And, I thought: “What is really wrong with staying in my comfort zone?  If I am happy then isn’t that all that matters?” 
 
Life does not work out for anyone to stay in their comfort zone permanently that can and will be cruel and debilitating in the long term.  Comfort zones are disabling and creations for weak character.   Comfort zones are a stop sign to improvement, learning, growing, and teaching you more than you can possibly be. 
 
 
Life circumstances always forced me out of my cocooned comfort zones to test and strengthen adaptability and adjustment.  I fought and even felt like a failure all too many times with my mind and body rebelliously and angrily reacting.   It was always extreme for me of stubbornly staying in my comfort zone or reacting very badly when taken out of it by unnecessarily fighting and wasting my energy.  I’ve learned along the way that you choose your battles and some are not worth fighting for when you will lose more than you will gain.  I’ve also learned that it is the little and bit by bit that makes the best difference in the larger than life and long haul.  I have always chosen to stay put and planted, but now I am trying to be like bamboo:  planted in my roots and values yet always adjusting and adapting as life calls for it. 
 
What cocoons have you created for yourself that were broken?  How did you react?  Have you ever purposefully removed yourself from comfort zones?  At what point are we happy with what we have as opposed to there being more and supposedly ‘better’ or ‘worse’?  Is happiness mainly from our comfort zones?  Are you like bamboo when removed from your comfort zone? 
 
As for Lucky, I am sad to report that he passed away, but he lived longer than any of my green plants and thrived in all kinds of environmental changes.  My green buddy taught me and continues to teach me a lot. 
 
Keep smilin’ until we meet again,

Mary ;-) 

A Place of Peace

In Portuguese, there is a word “Saudade” that briefly and loosely translates into “Longing,” but it means much more than this.  In this one word lays a combination of hope, regret, wishes, desires, hurt, pain, and, most of all, a certain yearning for and of peace. 
 
For the life of me, I do not know how to even say the word and I even had to double check the spelling on Google.  I am not 100% sure if I even translated it right and apologize in advance if I am wrong.  I learned about the word in a recent book I read which, oddly, took place in India and then France and no mention of Portugal.  But, I digress.  The author explained that we search for peace, but he interprets peace is “being” in the moment of that place in time anywhere and everywhere even and especially amidst chaos and discord.  It is about being true to core of you even when the situation and people will lure you into otherwise. 
 
This past month and, actually, this past year has been very much “Saudade” for me.  I’ve done more looking back in order to go forward.  I’ve had many wishes, what ifs, and wonderings.  I learned long ago to never regret, but that doesn’t make it any easier to ever really forget.   The main point of “Saudade” was a place of peace, though, so this one word made me ponder my places of peace.  I’m talking about GOOD places of peace—not drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, binging on food.  If I were to take this on a literal context, I have three physical places of peace:
 
·         One is in water when I swim and my body is finally free of pain for a little while
·         Second is in the sky at one of my favorite parks where I can stare up at the sky all day from puffy white clouds to a starry night if I dare go out there in the dark
·         Third is a recent phenomenon on land, which would be Church
 
Where are your places of peace? 
 
In this past month, I opened the doors of and stepped foot into the local Church more than I have in 34 years of my life.  The Church has become one of my main places of peace because it was the only place that permitted me to practice their piano there.  I heard church bells chime.  I listened to a pipe organ play.  I glowed in fascination at natural light shining through stained glass windows, making a kaleidoscope effect.  I sat in silence with complete strangers who clearly have their own crosses to bear from the way they crouched on their knees and clasped their hands in prayer pose.
 
In all these places of peace, my vision was obscured and I envisioned in my mind and in my spirit everything that has happened in the past to led me here and now to then keep going.  In all these places of peace, I closed my eyes to the outside world to look inside myself.  Isn’t it funny how we actually ‘see’ and understand more when we close our eyes? I find that we actually look more than we see, we hear more than we listen, and we touch more than we can really feel because things and people in life can hurt too much—even hurts like hell.    I think we all need a place of peace not necessarily to escape to when tough times hit, but a place to regroup, rejuvenate, refresh, recharge, and reignite ourselves to better handle and manage the situations at hand and ourselves.   It is when we are in our places of peace that we can understand that as bad as it can get, it can get even better. In the meantime, as much as I experience the modge podge collage feeling of “Saudade,” I strive to never lose my core sense of self and to be at peace wherever I may be. 
 
It is the place where our eyes our closed, our inner selves are open, and our minds are free.  When have you experienced “Saudade”?  How is it possible to be so empty and so full at the same time in a place of peace?  Can you be at peace in whatever situation?  Tell me about your place(s) of peace.  How did it become your place of peace?  Where is/are your place(s) of peace? 

 
Keep smilin’ until we meet again,
 
  

Mary ;-) 
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