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The Place That Reminds You Of That Time

If you’re like me, you have these moments in time where you know where you were when you received some difficult information. A conversation that stopped you in your tracks because it was just so overwhelming that you had to stop and take it all in because of it’s importance or because of the way it affected you emotionally.

This is a picture of the breakwater in Old Harbor, Block Island (Rhode Island). A shot taken in July of 2009. A few days earlier, I had had surgery for melanoma after being told by three different doctors that I “needed to get this removed quickly… now.” I was lucky to have a great group of physicians but the week had been really intense as a result of hearing the words “it’s cancerous and you need to have it removed now.”

Driving home after the first surgery, I was told that I would have the results in a week and we would decide where to go from there. But as I was driving, I suddenly became really overwhelmed with the events of the week and decided that I needed to be around my family. So when I got home, I called mom and dad who were out on their boat in Block Island. When I asked if I could join them, they said “Yes!” – very enthusiastically – and the next day I was back in the car, on my way from my home in suburban Maryland to New London Ct. to catch the high speed ferry to Block.

My visit with them had been nothing short of phenomenal. Dad’s huge hug when I stepped off the launch onto their boat. Followed by a hug from mom and a dinner of grilled swordfish, garden tomatoes and sweet corn on the cob. The rest of the week had been relaxing and I felt I had left the turbulance from the week before on the mainland – on the ferry dock back in New London.

In the middle of the week, I decided to go for a walk and ended up at the end of this breakwater – taking in the sounds of the foghorns and the waves brushing up against the rocks as I watched people wave to their loved ones who were headed back to New London.

I didn’t expect my cell to go off – but it did; disrupting the gentleness of the afternoon.

It was my Doc, the Dermatologist who reported that they didn’t get all of the cancer and that we would need to schedule more surgery. She informed me we would need to have a plastic surgeon operate because of the size and location of the rapidly growing mole on the back of my leg. – I agreed and within a few days I was back on the high speed ferry headed back to New London and subsequently back to Maryland.

The surgery was scheduled about a week later and I was pleased to hear that the results were good and the melanoma was gone. – One little mole I never saw that would have spread rapidly and killed me if I hadn’t had a very thorough physical by a phenomenal physician backed up by a highly skilled team.

Ya think ya know. – I always thought I would be fine and that I was in great shape. But this very small mole on a spot of my body that i would never have seen changed my life in a minute and made me realize that life is short, a loving family is phenomenal and a great team of physicians? – well – priceless.

And you just see a picture of a breakwater right?

A Legacy; A Quilt

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I still feel nauseous when I think about it.

Two years ago, when my mom died, the assisted living facility where she lived gave me 30 days to pack her belongings and move them out of her small apartment. As much as it seemed like 30 days was a long time, it wasn’t. As we had relocated to New England from Florida, a few months prior, some boxes remained unpacked as we struggled with the transition. I felt like I had completely lost my sense of “home” and couldn’t imagine how, at 86, she must have felt during this challenging transition.

But I realized I just needed to stay in her room at the assisted living place and finish everything while we also planned a memorial service for her and my dad. Some boxes were easy. Sometimes, I knew immediately what to keep and what to donate. Other times, when I would open a closet or a drawer or look at a picture, I felt the immense sorrow and grief that went with missing mom.

Every time I opened the door to her closet and looked at her clothes, I felt sick. My sadness went on for another week and became more uncomfortable until I knew I had to do something because I was running out of time.

I took all of her clothes out of the closet and separated the ones I could donate from the ones I knew I needed to keep because of all of the memories they carried with them. Slowly and meticulously, I went through piles and piles of clothes.

When people die, I heard that there are websites listed on the internet where you can make quilts out of clothes. As I skimmed from site to site looking, they all seemed robotic and impersonal. When I told one of the staff members at the assisted living place that I was thinking about this, she said: “I have a relative who makes quilts.. all by hand.. they’re beautiful; let me ask her”.

A few days later, she returned with a phone number and said, “she hasn’t made a lot of quilts but would be willing to help you; just call her.”

So as I sat on mom’s bed among the piles of clothes, I called her and introduced myself and asked her about her willingness to help me with a quilt. She agreed and told me about the quilts she would be able to make and asked: “are her clothes dark colors?”.

I looked around at the piles of (mostly) shirts alongside me. “No,” I told her, “there are mostly bright colors; mom loved bright colors.” I hadn’t realized how bright the colors were, or how distinct some of the patterns were. But as I looked at them, my memories came flooding back. I saw the shirt she had on when we sat on the back deck of the boat cooking dinner as we looked out over the harbor in Block Island, and then one she was wearing more recently when we cruised around the neighborhood in our golf cart in Florida. I saw the one she was wearing when we sat together on a bench eating lunch as we looked out over the intercoastal waterway watching the dolphins. That shirt was a “must-have” in the quilt because of how beautiful that day was. Looking at the pile of clothes and remembering those days, I realized that, as sad as I felt, everything would eventually be okay. I wasn’t sure, I felt a little better, but I still really missed mom.

Mom and I with the “must have” shirt that I needed to have included into her quilt because of how wonderful this day was. The day I taught her how to take a “selfie” – best day ever!

“What should I do with the remainder of the clothes that I use or the ones that I don’t?” she asked. “Keep them,” I said definitively. I couldn’t explain why but the thought of some of mom’s bright colors going into making a quilt for another person – another family, seemed like a perfect idea.

Aristotle once said “the whole is more than the sum of its parts,” I felt that spreading all of the bright and dark materials, colors, and textures that mom wore broadened the perspective she brought to us all. When I ended my conversation with my new quilter friend, the intense sadness I felt became a little more manageable.

A friend had told me about a “fluff and fold” place about a mile away, so the next morning, I filled two large duffle bags with the clothes for the quilts and dropped them off. A few days later, when they were ready, I took them to FedEx and sent them to my new favorite Quilter in Virginia.

There were only two additional emails from the Quilter which followed our initial call. When she asked about an idea for a pattern, I sent her a photo I had of a quilt that mom’s grandmother had made for her. When we discussed size, I told her that a 60-inch by 60-inch quilt would be perfect and asked if she could make two of them, one for my brother and one for myself. I also told her to take her time as I wasn’t in a rush and knew that our loss’s most difficult memories were in good hands.

Six months later, I received an email informing me that our quilts were ready and on their way to my home in New Hampshire.

“I hope you like them,” she wrote.

Since sending her the two duffle bags of clothes, I had consistently thought the day I received them would be like Christmas morning. I knew I would receive a beautiful gift but had no idea how they would look.

They would be sent by a woman I’ve never met, who had agreed to preserve the legacy of someone she has never met whom I loved very much. Sometimes the world is impressive.

The quilts arrived in October. It was precisely like Christmas morning, and I couldn’t help but stare at them because of how beautiful they were (and are). I took pictures and sent them to friends as I was so impressed with the result. The hand stitching was lovely, as was the juxtaposition of color and texture in the materials used.

I told one of my friends, “it feels like I’m looking at a legacy in color and texture.” I remembered that poem, “The Dash,” about the quality of your life from when you are born until the time you die but in the form of the colors, textures, and fabric we wear.

When I think of all of the decisions I’ve made since mom died, having our two quilts made is one I will never regret. I challenge you to consider where your thoughts go the next time someone mentions the importance of “living your dash.” If you’re like me, maybe the subsequent thoughts you have will be more related to colors, texture, and the time you had that shirt on when you did that thing that you remember because it was such a great time.

Live your life; foster your legacy.

5:00am Wake Up Call

This photo was taken at around 5:00 in the morning in the summer of 2009. We (Mom and Dad who are sound asleep in the v-birth up forward) and I are on the boat in New Harbor, Block Island. Trey has decided that every morning he is going to wake up (around 4 and jump on my bunk because he wants to go outside to circumnavigate and perform a full inspection of the boat before anyone else wakes up).

The glitch here (and every morning that he does this) is that it’s very hard to open the sliders on the back of the boat without waking anyone else up. You sort of have to lift them – and then slide quietly to give Trey the space he needs – and then keep an eye on him because he’s walking around the boat without his little kitty life jacket on.

If all goes according to plan – Mom and Dad will remain asleep until (about an hour from this time) – Mr “Andiamo…Andiamooooh!” Aldo’s bakery delivery service – will come singing loudly in his boat while he delivers fresh baked goods to everyone anchored in da hahbah. This is the point he (loud singing guy who is somehow related to Aldo) will wake up dad who will mumble “oh jeez – that guy” and thus our day will begin.

I miss those days – and the challenge of keeping everything quiet until this point knowing that with Trey, all bets were usually off.

Not A Selfie – An Us-ie

“Usie” / S.A.Leys Photo

Teaching my mom to do a “selfie” or in this case, an “usie”. It’s almost been two years since she died and I miss her a lot. This is one of my favorite photos – not only because of how great she looks (and her smile) but how priceless it was that we got to spend the time with each other that we did.

A few months after she died, I went to Acadia National Park / Cadillac Mountain where she and my dad had brought my brother and I when we were little. I found myself getting frustrated as so many people were taking selfies that I went up to as many people as I could and said “please – can I take that picture for you?” thinking it’s always better to have arms around each other than it is to have them outstretched in front of you.

I took photos of over 25 families that day. I loved seeing the smiles on their faces.

And who wouldn’t love seeing a view like this with the people they love the most?

Enjoy your families this holiday season. Merry Christmas everyone.

My Touch of Glass

Corning Museum of Glass / S.A. Leys Photo

A few days ago, my friend Regina and I decided to take a “Nerdcation” to the Corning Museum of Glass in New York. It was two days of a really great time which took me back to those days when my parents used to put my brother and I in our car and drive to all of these great places: Expo 67 in Montreal, the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, United Nations and the Guggenheim museum in New York City, the Museum of Fine Arts and the New England Aquarium in Boston. We went all over the place, always had a great time and learned a lot.

Corning Museum of Glass / S.A. Leys Photo

I miss those days and have had the Corning Museum of Glass on my “places I really want to visit” bucket list. So I called Regina who agreed to come along on my nerdcation adventure. We purchased admission tickets, signed up for a few workshops as well as an exhibition and off to New York we went.

My assumption was that we were going to see a lot of glass right? I think I just didn’t get how extensive the entire museum was going to be along with, not only the texture of the glass and the abundance of art and sculptures we saw; it also was the design and display (lighting, placement) of all of the art we saw.

The workshops were also great – we went to the workshop where we could make our own glass necklace and the instructor walked us through everything that was occurring to the temperature and flexibility of the glass as we held it in our hands.

Corning Museum of Glass / S.A.Leys Photo

One of my favorite works of art was the one pictured above – it’s a chandelier which is made out of solar panels which are sculpted into butterflies. The lamp is fully powered by the butterflies.

Overall it was a phenomenal trip and somehow we made it through the entire museum in about a day. If you’re thinking of going, I would highly recommend signing up for a workshop or two while you are there – you will not be disappointed.

“Frame the Shot!”

New Harbor, Block Island
Photo by S.A. Leys

My mom is sitting on a white Adirondack chair on the lawn of the Narragansett Hotel in Block Island. On this day, our plan was to walk to the library and to our favorite gallery but because it had already been a long day, she told me she wanted to rest and sit for a minute and look out over New Harbor for a few minutes before we started up the hill towards Old Harbor.

“You should frame that shot” she tells me. I have my camera out and am trying to figure out how to get the best shot of the entire harbor. She tells me I should use the bushes that are in front of me to “frame the shot”.

The end result is the photo above. I didn’t think it was a great shot but because my mom was passionate about photography and this was something I was interested in learning, I kept going – taking photo after photo.

The stairs up to Jessie Edwards Gallery in Block Island / S.A. Leys photo

After a half hour or so of trying to get the best shot, we headed up the hill to the Jessie Edwards Gallery. It was one of my mom’s favorite places to visit because of the diverse backgrounds and styles of the artists whose exhibits were there. As we looked at each painting, mom would tell me why she liked it.

One of the things that always fascinated me was that she never discussed the paintings she didn’t like – she would find something good in all of them and then ask me which ones I liked and why. For the record, she also did this at the Island Free library when we would walk among the stacks and she would select 4 or 5 books to bring back to the boat with her. She would ask me about the authors I liked and why and I would tell her. – The funny thing was that her interests and the books she read would evolve and change a little over time but mine never did. She liked reading books by John Grisham or David Baldacci but as the years progressed, she developed a love for Nicholas Sparks. The authors I told her loved – Elizabeth Berg, Annie Proulx and Leslea Newman are still my favorites today.

And as my love of photography increased, my love for books came to include photography magazines and National Geographic because of how beautiful the photography was. And with each lesson from mom, I kept practicing and practicing to become better at an interest we both shared.

It’s been a year and a half since mom died. Every time I frame a shot, I think of her and that bright sunny day we spent together walking to Old Harbor _ Block Island.

Newport Bridge (framed by a porch on Washington St.) / S.A. Leys Photography

The Beach House – Anna Maria Island

The View at Beach House Restaurant

I think God works in mysterious ways. We went to the Sandbar for dinner a few nights ago and were told there was a two hour wait. We drove to the Beach House (where the picture on the beach above was taken – from the deck of the restaurant) and waited for only 30 minutes. I thought the discrepancy between the two restaurants was interesting as they both have really exceptional food.

Then I thought about the last time I was at each restaurant. Mom and I were at the Sandbar about two years ago. She had had a doctors appointment and we went for lunch afterwards. It was a hot day but we sat outside at one of the tables in the sand under an umbrella and had a wonderful meal.

At around 2p I said to her “we should go” as it was close to the time she usually took a nap. “No, we don’t have to” she said “we can sit here a little longer.” Sitting there watching my 85 y/o mom in the sun enjoying the beach in the background brought me back to my childhood when we spent many summer days at 2nd and 3rd beach back home in Rhode Island with our closest friends. It was like that – a wonderful summer day with mom looking really happy as she wiggled her toes in the sand while sipping on her iced tea.

The last time we were at the Beach House was a few years before that when Dad was still alive. The four of us went out for dinner (I think it was close to a time when I was flying back to Maryland and we wanted to have one last night out). Like a few nights ago, we sat outside on the deck – but back then, we were a family. I had my camera and wanted a family picture of the 4 of us – which the waiter agreed to take. It was the last family photo we had taken.

So as we sat there the other night watching that beautiful sunset, I heard the woman behind me say “We should get a picture of the three kids”. I turned around and asked her “can I take a picture of all of you?” to which she said “certainly – but we need our other son and he’s at the bar”. At that point our buzzer thing went off and she said “don’t worry, go have a nice dinner” but I said “if I see him, I’m coming back!” Sure enough he walked by our table and back to where his family was sitting so I walked over and said “okay – let’s go”. The 7 of them – mom and dad, their three children and their partners stood together with that beautiful Florida sunset in the background as I took their picture and encouraged them to “scrunch!” – which they gladly did. They thanked me and I went back to our table to have dinner. – Retrospectively I think Dad sent us to the Beach House to “pay forward” our family photo.

As I looked over at the 7 of them enjoying their dinner and each others’ presence, I thought about how quickly life can change – as it did for our family so many years ago. One day we’re having a great dinner together and then Dad’s 25 year battle with cancer worsens. Mom’s ascending aortic aneurysm grows and shortly after celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary, dad loses his battle with cancer and 3 years after that mom dies from pneumonia. So many of her friends – and her Cardiologist all said “thankfully it wasn’t the aneurysm”. Mom died the way she wanted to go as she frequently said to me “pneumonia is a friend of the aged – it usually takes you at night when you are sleeping.”

When you’ve worked in an ER as I have – and as she has, and several of our friends have, every day you are reminded that life can change in a second. You see the most loving families gather around a loved one as they die or have the critical conversations about the decisions they need to make or how to navigate the road that lies ahead. You see hands being held, hair being stroked and the “I love you’s” which are never easy to hear because of how intimately personal the conversations that accompany them are.

Life can change in a second.

Watching that family the other night I was very tempted to tell them “pay attention to this time you have and this love and legacy of your family” – but I didn’t – for a few reasons – you know, they would have thought I was nuts and honestly, it would have been weird right? – and a heck of an interruption to a wonderful dinner on a beautiful evening. But on nights like that I wish we all could put our cell phones down a little more and look into each other’s eyes when we spoke to them. I wish we had more intimate conversations with our friends to let them know how we feel about them instead of just keeping on and going along.

So after dinner the check came and the waiter told us that the cost of our chowder was covered by “some people” – the family I had taken a photo of. As we left, I thanked them for the “wonderful chowdah” and they thanked me again for the wonderful photo. – which brings me to my last point (I know – I can hear ya – end this long post). – I’m becoming more frustrated with the whole “selfie” thing. Because I know for sure that while a photo from an outstretched arm can be fun, the photos of entire families with their arms around each other are so much better. So if you see an opportunity to help a family out, ask If you can take the photo for them and just say “scrunch up”.

If I Loved You

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Settling into a new career endeavor has not been easy this last month. Lots of new information and people and processes as well as a new place. It’s a huge learning curve that has me slowly moving forward step by step. But every once in awhile mom and dad show up in the most interesting ways.

Most everyone who knows my mom will tell you that she does not excel when it comes to carrying a tune. I remember many cold days singing into her ear so she could get the tone (and key) right as we sang together on the chairlift whenever we went skiing.

I always love listening to music. When we were in Florida, whenever she took a nap, I would put music on softly while I was reading or tidying up around the house – usually after lunch as she would rest until an hour or so before dinner.

One day – a few months before we moved back to New England, mom came in after her nap and sat in her chair listening to the music that was playing. Around this time her short term memory was not great – she wouldn’t always be able to remember what she had for dinner the night before or lunch earlier in the afternoon, but her longer term memory – from her childhood would sneak through quite frequently.

On this day – the music was Chris Botti and Paula Cole singing their beautiful rendition of “If I Loved You” from his “Italia” CD. Initially, as she started listening, mom said “I always wonder what this song is about; does she love him?”. After speculating a little, she soon started singing along to the song – on key. Able to remember all of the lyrics. It was the coolest thing to just sit and listen to her as she softly sang along with Paula Cole. I was astounded that she was able to remember everything about the song while also remaining completely on key.

So usually when I go to work in the morning I leave the music on for Nate and Callie – the soundtrack from mom and dad’s favorite music that was usually on whenever I visited them in Florida or on the boat in New Harbor. It’s an iTunes playlist that has 750 songs that if you played consecutively would take more than two days to complete. It’s also always on “shuffle” – god forbid Nate and Callie should have to hear all the same songs in the same order so random is good.

Today after a long a day of many meetings, I open the door to the apartment at exactly the same time that the first few notes of Chris and Paula’s “If I Loved You” started playing. I just sat on the sofa with Nate and Callie and sang along – ending with a “Hi Mom, Hi Dad” and a little conversation with them about my day.

Lately I’ve learned that grief doesn’t always show up with sadness – sometimes, like today, its more of a peaceful reflection of some great moments in time that stay with us and arrive to brighten our day.

Manchester Monday Morning

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Grace Episcopal Church, Manchester, N.H.
Photo by S.A. Leys

Grace Episcopal church in Manchester is probably one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen. This morning we had to move our cars to get plowed out so I thought I would run some errands while I was at it.

Early in the morning it was so beautiful with the abundance of snow on the trees and the roads. But then the wind picked up and by the time I took this, the snow had blown of the roofs and steeples around the city.

Early on after I moved here, I found the best place to take photos was the top deck of the parking garage at the hospital (which I think probably made their security team – and cameras – a little nuts to see a woman walking around on a parking deck with no cars except for mine and looking at the different views – hopefully they also saw my camera..)

Anyhoo, if you listen to the news, Manchester is noted to be one of the more challenging places of the country as it relates to addiction, but they are definitely working on elevating resources and care as a lot of funds have come this way and extended north into Maine. Adcare got a contract in Maine and the hospitals seem to be working together to address care in their ER’s. There is hope – but I wish it could have gotten here sooner for this pretty little city.

There is a program here that aims to keep high risk adolescents and teens off the streets by teaching them how to ski and having workshops about teamwork, responsibility, integrity and addiction prevention.

How did I learn about this?

One day I was at the gas station filling my car and there was a guy at the next pump filling up his chevy truck. “Why a Chevy and not a Ford?” I asked him (I have a never ending curiosity about why people buy the cars they do). “Loyalty” he said. And then told me about the program that he developed to help high risk kids stay out of trouble and make good responsible decisions. He also told me that Chevrolet had donated (!) a total of 7 trucks and SUV’s to his program so the children and adolescents could get to the slopes. He also told me the company he works for (Pepsi) also contributed to his program.

There’s good in the world but there’s also a long way to go. Step by step right?