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Moving Forward

flagThis election season has been particularly painful. In fact, it’s been a real shit show. Sorry to put it so bluntly, but there you go.

Without the comic relief provided by social media and late night talk show hosts, I’m not sure I would have survived it. (Nick DeLillo, you’re a comic genius.)

Not that any of us truly made it through unscathed.

And now, as we wake up to the results…I’ll warrant a guess that I’m not the only one struggling to see how we’ll put this election behind us.

For the last 2 years, the political machine has perpetuated the idea that we are a nation divided. On every issue, it has pitted ‘us’ against ‘them’. I’m not talking about the candidates themselves, but the process. And now, after so successfully highlighting our differences – on every conceivable level – the election is over. The results are in.

And now, now we all have to get along again. For the politicians and late show hosts, this may be a game. But what happens next is real.

I don’t care who you voted for. I will never ask. (Although let’s be honest, from your social media posts, I can make a good guess.)

The question is how are we going to move forward together?

Whether you see this election as a set back or a victory, we are in this together. There is so much at sake. And we can’t afford to waste another second fighting one another.

So let’s start with this. A few things I think we can all agree on:

We all want our country to thrive.

We want our country to be the greatest nation in the world.

We want to raise our children in a world that is safe, and filled with opportunity.

We want the freedom to be true to ourselves and pursue our dreams.

We may not agree on how to get there, but can we at least agree on that?

Because in order to move forward, we need to rediscover that common ground. Our future depends on it.

Do you remember the words we recited every morning, as we stood facing the flag with our hand over our hearts? We weren’t just pledging allegiance to that flag, but to the republic for which it stands.

One nation under God. Indivisible. With liberty and justice for all.

I saw a truly inspiring post by Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick this morning, that struck exactly the right chord.

“I don’t understand the choice America just made. But I will continue to choose America.”

God bless the America.

 

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Stranger than Fiction

20160826_082336I’ve always had what you might call an overactive imagination. My entire life, I’ve made up stories in my head. But it wasn’t until two years ago that I ever thought seriously about writing them down.

Well, actually I’ve thought about it, daydreamed about it, most of my life. But for some reason I was convinced I I didn’t have what it takes to be a writer of fiction.

Even as I say it, I realize how absolutely ridiculous that is. But most limiting beliefs are. Like that meme that makes its way around Facebook every so often, of the horse tied to a plastic lawn chair. The caption is something to the effect of: Sometimes the only thing holding you back is in your head.

Two years ago, I decided to challenge that limiting belief. And on September 1, 2014, I started writing my first novel. Chris Baty’s No Plot, No Problem, was my guide through a month-long fiction-writing binge, where I endeavored to write 50,000 words in 30 days.

And I did. The result was an atrocious first draft of a novel that may never see the light of day. And yet, it was the most amazing thing I’ve ever written. I love every single word. Someday I’ll go back and make a serious attempt at editing it. But for now, just having written it is enough to make me pretty damn proud. (I have since finished 2 more first drafts, and am half-way-ish through a third.)

Now, writing a novel in 30 days is not for the faint of heart. There are days when trying to meet the daily word count almost does you in. Even worse was playing catch up if I missed a day. Or five. But then you have one day where you finally get out of your own way and the magic flows. It makes even the most difficult of days worthwhile.

For me, the process was even more exciting than the finished product. Because I discovered that, as much as I love reading fiction, I love writing it even more. It’s play time for me.

I know what you may be thinking. Here I am talking about how much I love writing fiction, but I’ve never actually shared any of it. Well, that’s about to change.

No, I haven’t landed some publishing contract. Not yet, anyway. But a girl has to dream.

I’m setting a new challenge for myself this month. My goal is to write fiction every day for 30 days. Rather than work on a serious project, like a novel or short stories, I’m going to play.

For the last couple of months, I’ve been stretching my fiction-writing muscles with a really cool writing exercise. I picked it up from Lawrence Block in Write for Your Life. It’s essentially a timed free writing exercise, but instead of using a topic as a starting off point, you use a sentence.

The first time I did this exercise, it blew my mind. As you may have gathered from my other blog posts, I tend to get in my own way a lot. But every time I have done this, I am surprised and delighted by the characters and storylines that reveal themselves with absolutely no conscious effort on my part. These aren’t fully formed stories by any means, although I do have a few nuggets that may become seeds for other projects. But they are so much FUN.

So for the next 30 days, I’m going to do one of my fiction free writes every day. And yes, I’m going to post them here.

Holy crap. I can’t believe I just promised that.

To pull this off, I’m going to need your help. Each of my 30 entries will require a starter sentence. Yes, I can pull them from other sources, but it will be so much more fun if you’re involved.

So if you’d like to lend a hand to my little endeavor, please post your submission in the comments below, on Facebook, message me, etc. You will, of course, get a shout out – and my undying appreciation – if I use yours.

And bragging rights, of course, if there are any to be had.

This all sounds like madness to me at the moment, but I’m committed to it now. Wish me luck!

xo

M

Let It Be Easy

 

Let it be easy_1

Let it be easy. That’s my mantra for today. It’s not a plea to the universe but a reminder to myself. Step out of your own way, Melissa. Stop worrying and overthinking. It doesn’t have to be hard.

I haven’t always believed that. In fact, for most of my life all I’ve needed is a single, solitary negative thought to set me off on a downward spiral. One thought compounded into twenty, all reinforcing The Awful Truth.

The world’s against me.

I’m not good enough.

No one respects me.

I’ll never accomplish anything.

I can’t get anything right.

I’m a fraud.

I should make that a drop down menu so you can pick your own poison. Because we all have one or more of these “truths”, don’t we? That negative core belief we go back to time and time again. We just keep reinforcing it, over and over again.

But here’s the thing: Those Awful Truths aren’t actually true. And that inner voice? It can be your best friend – or at least an enthusiastic sidekick. You just have to train it to build you up rather than tear you down.

That voice inside you is a mimic. And what it’s been mimicking is the limiting beliefs you’ve internalized about yourself from the well-meaning people in your life that have been filling your head with you-can’t-you-won’t-you-shouldn’t-you’ll-never-you-have-to-do-it-this-way bladdy blah blah from practically the day you were born.

They meant well, always trying to protect you from harm. Save you from getting hurt. Prepare you. Teach you. Set you up with ‘realistic’ expectations. But what we absorb in the process is that our lives have to follow a certain pattern. It’s ok to have dreams, but you shouldn’t really expect to reach them. That’s why you need that nice, steady accounting degree to fall back on.

Well, $^%& that.

Do you know how to spot the people who don’t have limiting beliefs? They’re the ones out there doing what they love and absolutely killing it. They’re the ones who have determined what success means to them and are going after it.

I’m sure every one of them would tell you that, at points in their journey, people have told them that they’d never get where they wanted to go. That they’d never achieve their dreams. But you know what? They nevert believe that kind of trash talk. Because they believe in themselves.

While people are telling them that their dreams were impossible, their inner voice is saying, “You’ve got this!”

Your inner voice can do the same.

As for mine, I’ve been putting her through something of a positivity boot camp. She still tries to steer me back to those Awful (Un)Truths every so often, but I’ve discovered she’s fairly easy to distract. She’s rather partial to flowers, and absolutely loves the water. And as I’m taking in the beauty around me, it’s easy to be grateful for all the love and blessings I have in my life.

And if you’re anything like me, when you’re steeped in gratitude, reminded of my blessings, everything seems easy.

Let it.

 

 

“Let it be easy” is a nugget of insight I gleaned from Notes from the Universe, a daily dose of (often humorous) inspiration and enlightenment delivered direct to your inbox from the brilliant minds at TUT.

 

 

 

Happy Birthday, Pops.

My dad, Fred Stagnaro, and I at my cousin Elizabeth's wedding in 2008.

Me and my first hero and lifelong best friend at my cousin Elizabeth’s wedding in 2008.

Today is my dad’s 82nd birthday and I wish more than anything that he was here to celebrate the occasion.

It wouldn’t matter if we spent the day on the golf course, or had dinner at his favorite restaurant, The Silo. Maybe just a few friends over for cocktails. There would be cake, of course. Because in my dad’s eyes, no meal was complete without dessert. (Yes, even breakfast.)

I try not to count the months or years since he left. Instead, I remind myself that he’s with me every moment of every day.

Time has passed, of course. Four years and change. And I miss him no less today than I did in those first few heart wrenching moments when I realized he was gone. When I wondered how the clock could continue to register the passing of time when my world stood absolutely still.

That feeling of soul-crushing sorrow has mellowed to an ever-present dull ache. The sadness still finds its way to the top at times. Usually at the most unexpected – and often inopportune – moments. It’s all part of the healing process, I know. And I barely apologize for it anymore, mostly because I am so very grateful that these emotions are bubbling up rather than festering inside.

That knowledge is one of the ways I know that true healing has and is taken place. Another is that my memories are no longer tinged with so much loss and longing. I can take them out, one at a time, like favorite toys from a childhood toy box. I can cherish them and feel the warmth and joy of love and gratitude for the amazing relationship I had with my dad. Because I am truly, truly blessed to have had him as one of my best friends.

Funny, I never thought to call him that before. But he was. He was also my hero, my coach, my mentor, my conscience, and my consigliere. Both my biggest critic and my biggest fan. And the one person in the world I ever worried about letting down. The person I always wanted to prove myself to. Am still trying to prove myself to, if I’m completely honest.

That sounds silly, I know. But my dad was larger than life in so many ways. And he left very big shoes to fill.

I realized not long ago that it isn’t only grief I’ve been carting. There’s a pocket of guilt deep inside me.

I moved home, you know. So I was there with my parents for the three years my father battled cancer. I’ve always said I had no regrets about that. But I do. Because while I was there physically, living day to day with my parents through all of it…Well, I just wasn’t always there mentally. Far too often I retreated, either upstairs or to another world entirely. One where sickness hadn’t found its way inside our family.

Could I have researched more? Fought more? Advocated for his care more? Yes, I probably could have. But what I really wish I’d done is spent more time holding his hand. Because it was only in his last month with us that I realized how he himself craved the touch of others after he had spent so long withdrawing from it. That withdrawal was his way of making it easier on us, so we didn’t know how much pain he was really in.

As I sit here, fresh tears spill down my cheeks. There are more to shed, I know. Because cancer leaves scars on everyone, not just those who battle it first hand. Someday, I’ll be ready to let that pain see the light of day. But not today.

Because today is your day, Dad. And I’d give anything to split a piece of chocolate cake with you. Nothing fancy. One of those frozen Pepperidge Farm cakes will do. Mom probably has one in the freezer waiting.

There’d be a side of Breyers ice cream, too. Natural vanilla, of course. Or Neapolitan in a pinch.

After all, that’s the standard Stagnaro birthday celebration.

See, look at me. Sitting here with a smile on my face, thinking of all the birthdays we’ve celebrated like that over the years.

How very grateful I am for all of those memories. And for you, Dad. With me every day, in my heart and thoughts. And in my near-constant cravings for chocolate cake.

Happy Birthday in heaven, Pops.

Love you & miss you more than I could ever say.

xo

M

 

Raindrops on Roses

2016-05-24 09.36.18

The weather has shifted over the last few days. In a blink of an eye our beautiful spring has abandoned us, leaving us in the midst of a scorching hot summer.

It’s not the heat I mind so much, but it’s sidekick, humidity. It soaks into my bones, saps my strength and we won’t even get into what it does to my hair.

So you can imagine my delight when I heard rumblings in the distance yesterday afternoon. I love a good thunderstorm, especially if it serves to break the heat. (Which, granted, had only been upon us for about 48 hours, but still…)

At first the storm was more bluster than substance. The skies darkened, thunder rumbled…and a spattering of heavy raindrops fell. It was entertaining, to be sure, but didn’t really have the impact I was hoping for. (There was no breeze to speak of, and humidity was actually climbing.)

It was in the middle of this lackluster display of Mother Nature’s might that I looked out the window and started jumping up and down with glee. The rosebush outside my kitchen window was blooming!

Now, I should say that while many flowering plants thrive in the sea air and tropical climes here on the north coast, roses are not one of them. I’m not sure if it’s the soil or the salty air, but they struggle while others shine.

One of the few exceptions is this rose bush, sheltered on the leeward side of the house. With minimal care, it blooms year round. And I’m absolutely enamored by its velvety hot pink roses.

I’m not ashamed to admit I wept openly two weeks ago when I returned home to find that Armando had taken a rather heavy hand to it while pruning. While I knew it was the best thing for it, it still broke my heart to see this regal plant so diminished in size.

Within a few days, though, Armando was proved right. The decimated bush seemed to grow a foot of new growth overnight, and its fresh new limbs were loaded with buds. I’ve watched it every day, waiting for those buds to open.

So when I noticed, in the middle of the storm, that one of those buds had chosen to unfurl, I raced outside to get a better look. Because that’s what you do when you’re slightly obsessed. To my delight, I discovered perfect raindrops clinging to its delicate petals.

Raindrops on roses.

Yes, they truly are one of my favorite things.

And Julie Andrews makes a good point, doesn’t she? About changing your mindset when you find yourself mired in negativity.

The humidity hasn’t completely broken, but you’ll be happy to know the storm did realize its full potential last night, and I have a feeling it isn’t done with us yet. But I don’t mind, because my roses seem to love it.

Now, please excuse me while I try to get the Sound of Music soundtrack out of my head. I’m tempted to start singing and, well… You might not want to stick around for that.

Las Cucarachas

I woke up this morning to find a giant cockroach dead next to my bed. It put a smile on my face. Especially when I realized it was still in its death throes. Never in my life has the suffering of another of God’s beings caused me such satisfaction.

Now, in general I’m pretty live and let live when it comes to creepy crawlies. But everyone has their limits. And therefore, I cannot extend to the freakishly large roaches indigenous to the tropics. Nor centipedes. Nor egg-sack carrying spiders. Or ticks. Or…ok. Perhaps I’m not quite as ‘live and let live’ as I make myself out to be.

Which is why I called Armando in to fumigate about 32 ½ seconds after I arrived home from Cabrera.

No offense to the beautiful seaside community of Cabrera, with its stunning coast line and close proximity to some of the most amazing beaches on the North Coast

No offense to the beautiful seaside community of Cabrera, with its stunning coast line and close proximity to some of the most amazing beaches on the North Coast

For the record, I had not seen any roaches in the house. It was Cabrera’s fault. Well, not the lovely seaside town, but rather the apartment Andry had arranged for my stay there.

It was nice enough, despite the damp. The problem was, it was already occupied. Although, in true horror-movie fashion, we were blissfully unaware of this fact when we arrived.

In retrospect, the signs were all there from the very beginning. Like the remains of what looked like a prehistoric monster in the bathroom. And the large cane spider who was so curious about our dinner preparations, that he decided to watch the whole thing from a vantage point above the dish drainer. But you know, you take those kinds of things in stride after a couple of years in the Caribbean.

I should mention that I wasn’t feeling myself when we arrived in Cabrera. I thought myself overheated from the drive and overwhelmed by the mildew smell in our accommodations. It wasn’t until I got into the shower – and the cold water was actually painful against my scalding hot skin – that I realized there was more to it.

You'll be happy to know, the worst of my fever was gone by the time May 9th rolled around. We had an amazing anniversary.

You’ll be happy to know, the worst of my fever was gone by the time May 9th rolled around. We had an amazing anniversary.

The 72+ hours that followed were a roller coaster of high fevers and crushing headaches. The timing couldn’t have been worse. Our anniversary was but a couple of days away, and the whole point of me being in Cabrera was to spend some long-overdue time with my husband, whose job has taken him away from home since the beginning of February. Oh, and my biggest client was getting ready to go live on three new websites. So I was working around the clock on top of everything else.

Some time in the middle of that first night, I got up to get some water. In a feverish haze, I rounded the corner into the kitchen/living area and hit the light switch.

There are a few universal truths ingrained in us from a young age. One of them is that when you turn on the light, things that lurk in the dark – creepy crawlies, evil spirits, etc. – are supposed to scatter. Yeah, well not these $*&#^#!

Have you ever wandered into a real locals bar by mistake, and all the heads swivel in your direction? Well imagine that, only with antennas.

Even in my delirium, there was no question who was trespassing on whose domain.

I don’t know how many there were, because I didn’t have it in me to count. (There are some places my brain just refuses to go.) Suffice it to say I was outnumbered. And to get to the refrigerator, I’d have to put myself in the middle of this platoon of king-sized cucarachas. I glanced at my feet and fervently wished I’d gone for Andry’s tactical boots rather than my own flimsy sandals. The odds were definitely not in my favor.

With one last, longing look at the refrigerator, I did what any intelligent woman would do in this situation: I backed slowly out of the room and hightailed it back to bed.

The light? That stayed on.

And once I got home, I wasn’t taking any chances. Let this be a lesson, little cucarachas. This is my domain.

Welcome to my Dominican life!

One more beautiful shot of Cabrera. It really is an amazing place. Cockroaches and all...

One more beautiful shot of Cabrera. It really is an amazing place. Cockroaches and all…

The Panty Raid

I knew something was wrong the minute I walked in the door and saw the gold tissue on the floor. I use the delicate paper to wrap some of my rarely worn jewelry. Which had been safely stashed last I checked.

Oh God, I thought, we’ve been broken into.

I followed the trail into the master bedroom, where I found the bag that had once contained that tissue-wrapped jewelry ripped open. Its contents, along with half of my wardrobe, were strewn across the floor.

My heart hammering in my chest, I tried to take stock of what was in front of me. A quick inventory revealed that my random assortment of purely sentimental pieces appeared to all be present and accounted for. Which was a relief to be sure.

It was then that my attention was drawn to a pile of sodden fabric. I stooped to inspect it more closely and it clicked. It was my favorite pair of panties.

Or at least, what was left of them.

I was equal parts relieved and disgusted. This wasn’t a burglary at all, but a panty raid. And not the first, either.

I thought I’d found the perfect hiding place for my underthings to avoid further incident, but these perverts were craftier than I thought.

I turned to face the culprits who, at that very moment, were yipping excitedly at my heels.

Puppies.

They’re lucky they’re cute.

The culprits, Monstro and Pechita.

The culprits, Monstro and Pechita.

When you know, you know.

My first glimpse at the beach in Monte Cristi, Dominican Republic.

My first glimpse at the beach in Monte Cristi, Dominican Republic.

It all started with a trip to Monte Cristi. I was nearing the end of my second trip the DR, and my friend Elena insisted on taking me to what she promised was one of the most beautiful beaches on the North Coast, and quite possibly the world.

Elena enlisted José to drive us. The same José, a retired policeman turned taxi driver, who had picked us (Mumsy, Kathie, Nona, Julie and myself) up at the Santiago airport on my initial trip to the DR that January. Just as he had on that night, José brought his friend and former partner along for the ride.

“Our bodyguards,” Elena joked, as we headed out early that morning.

The ride to Monte Cristi and back again took us through the Dominican Republic's central Cibao valley.

The ride to Monte Cristi and back again took us through the Dominican Republic’s central Cibao valley.

But I wasn’t so sure. Oh, this young cop was nice enough, if a little shy. The problem was that he’d already made it known that he was interested in me. And, while I thought I’d made it pretty darn clear that I wasn’t interested in him, well… I had a feeling it was going to be a long day.

And, sure enough, it didn’t take him long to make his initial play to hold my hand. I swatted it away with a laugh and a bit of an eye roll. The activity in the back seat did not go unnoticed by Elena and Jose.

“When you get married, I want to be the best man,” Jose said, grinning at us in the rear view mirror.

That little prediction earned another eye roll from me.

But at some point during the day, my attitude started to change toward this man, whose name I didn’t really know. Was it Andy? André? Only later did I finally come to understand it was Andry.

IMG_1626Maybe it was how seriously he took his role as my bodyguard. Or how he insisted on coming in the water with me, even though he was clearly uncomfortable with the size of the waves.

Or maybe it was when I noticed the color of his eyes exactly matched the surf pounding around us.

Or when I went to use the public restroom on site, only to discover I had been a bit too generous with my emergency stash of tissues. (You’re welcome, Elena.) And he handed me his shirt. An offer which I found incredibly chivalrous, but declined.

Or maybe it was the beach itself, with its steep rock walls and terracotta sand. It was stunning and we had it all to ourselves. (It still blows my mind that this place barely makes the foot notes of most guidebooks, because it is without a doubt one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.)

Maybe it wasn’t one thing, but rather an accumulation of all of these small items that set the carefully constructed wall around my heart to crumbling. All I know is that at some point the attention he was paying me stopped being bothersome. And on the return trip, when he reached for my hand, I wasn’t so quick to brush it away.

That night, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stop thinking about him. And the next morning, I woke up with a poem rattling around my head, waiting for me to spill it out on paper.

I did. And then I did something completely crazy: I translated it into Spanish and shared it with him.

José, our best man, looks on after we said our (first set) of I Do's.

José, our best man, looks on after we said our (first set) of I Do’s.

The following day, March 26, we had our first official date. It was another trip with José and Elena, this time to Playa Grande in Rio San Juan. It was another gorgeous beach, and yes, I dragged him into the ocean with me again.

A little over a year later, on May 9, 2015, Jose’s little prediction came true. And yes, he was Andry’s best man.

Here’s the poem I wrote that long ago morning, when I knew I’d found someone special.

Because when you know, you know.

#

Lost in the moment…

 

Your voice rolls over me

smooth and seductive

like the surf.

It’s not the words,

but the cadence,

I understand.

 

Your fingers trace lazy circles

and I shiver,

shy like a school girl

with her first crush.

 

The brush of a kiss

on my temple,

feather soft,

draws my attention to your eyes.

 

Grey-green

against the caramel of your skin

I’d lose myself there,

if not for the tug of a smile

on those perfect lips.

 

Would they taste like salt

from the sea?

I wonder, reluctant to break

the spell of this perfect moment

even for the pleasure

of finding out.

 

MS March 25, 2015

 

Perdido en el momento…

 

Tu voz me vuelca

suave y seductor

como el surf.

No son las palabras

pero la cadencia

entiendo.

 

Tus dedos traza círculos perezosos

y tirito,

tímido como una muchacha de la escuela

con su primer amor.

 

La caricia de un beso

en mi frente,

suave como pluma

me llama la atención a tus ojos.

 

Gris-verde

contra el caramelo de su piel.

Me perdería

si no fuera por el tirón de una sonrisa

en esos labios perfectos.

 

¿Saben a sal

desde el mar?

Me pregunto, reacio a romper

el hechizo de este momento perfecto

incluso para el placer

de descubrir.

IMG_1667

Farrell Family Favorites: A tribute to a favorite uncle and his amazing daughter

Two of my favorite ladies!

Two of my favorite ladies!

I opened Facebook today to find two of my favorite ladies smiling back at me. I was so excited to see that my cousin Coleen had chosen one of my favorites from my wedding day as her new profile picture. It’s a candid of Coleen and Mumsy, in their respective roles as maid of honor and mother of the bride, taken as we were waiting to be collected for the beachfront ceremony.

As I looked at those familiar faces, smiling back at me, I felt so incredibly blessed. I am blessed. Blessed to have found the love of my life and made it official before family and friends on what would have been my parents’ 56th wedding anniversary. And blessed, also, to have these two amazing women in my life.

For the last 40 years, they have cared for me, comforted me, supported me, cheered me on, laughed both with me and at me, and helped me celebrate all of life’s milestones – big and small. And even though we’re a few thousand miles apart at present, we all carry each other in our hearts every day.

In a family of 35 first cousins, it’s a dangerous thing to go picking favorites. Difficult, too, since the Farrells are a pretty amazing bunch. But Coleen and I have always had a special bond. The fact that more than a decade separates us in the roster of Farrell descendants has never been a factor.

It was Coleen who dropped everything and drove from New Jersey to Syracuse the night before my surgery a few years ago, so that Mumsy wouldn’t be alone during those tense hours.

Fun in Philadelphia for AFSP's Out of the Darkness Overnight walk to prevent suicide.

Fun in Philadelphia for AFSP’s Out of the Darkness Overnight walk to prevent suicide.

Who walked 18 miles from dusk to dawn with me to raise money for suicide prevention, a cause that has hit both of us far too close to home.

Who, quite literally, held my hand to keep me sane when a nasty infection in my leg had to be lanced. It was painful, yes, but worse was my fear that it would keep me from making it back to the DR in time for my own wedding! (Something I probably wouldn’t have been able to do if not for Coleen’s sister Jean, who diagnosed the problem and started me on a course of strong antibiotics before sending me to the clinic.)

It was she who moved heaven, earth and the passport office in order to stand up with me on my wedding day.

That’s just a sampling really, of the thousand and one ways she has been there for me over the years. This despite all of the challenges life has thrown at her along the way. You’d never know it though, the way she’s willing to drop everything for everyone around her.

While we have always been close, it was during my father’s illness that we went from being cousins to sisters. She, her husband Steve and their three phenomenal offspring (Jillian, Bret and Eric) were such a comfort to my dad during those three long years he battled cancer. And by a comfort, I mean an excuse to shoot off automatic weapons, adventure out on 4-wheelers or snowmobiles and engage in epic Wii tournaments. They brought a lot of love and joy to a man doing his best to hide his Stage IV cancer from the world. And they’ve helped us find the strength to get through even the most difficult of days leading up to and since he took his last breath on January 26, 2012.

Through all of that, I vowed to myself that I’d do the same for them if ever they faced a similar situation. That unspoken promise was put to the test this year, as both Steve’s mom and then Coleen’s father, my Uncle Bill, fell ill.

It has been difficult to watch both from afar, knowing there is little I can do from this distance. But I know that’s nothing compared to what they and our families have gone through.

I vividly remember the night of August 30. As I tossed and turned, I was overwhelmed by thoughts of my Uncle Bill. I finally gave up trying to sleep and decided to write down all the memories swirling around my brain. I was determined to tell him just how much he meant to me and to all of us Farrell cousins that had been privileged to grow up in his shadow.

My mother has seven brothers, but only one big brother. He was everyone’s big brother, in fact. I can’t imagine the pressure he felt – the responsibility he had – being the oldest of 12. At what it must have been like to lose his younger sister Agnes at such a young age. To have been closer in age to his mother, than to his youngest siblings well before the last of the litter, my Uncle Tim, came along.

One of my favorite pictures of another of my favorite ladies, Aunt Cecilia.

Our angel, Aunt Cecilia.

He would also be the first to go off to join the Navy and, later, to start his own family with the talented nurse who nursed his father back to health after losing his leg in an accident on the tug boats. This last was his coup de grace, in my opinion, because Aunt Cecilia – like her daughter Coleen – is a walking angel in my eyes.

It was from Uncle Bill that I learned to appreciate the Pecan Sandie above all other commercially available baked goods. And I’d wager I’m not the only Farrell cousin that swore never to get a tattoo after being weaned on the story of how he contracted hepatitis from those he’d gotten in the Navy.

Uncle Bill’s family newsletter, Farrell Family Facts, drew something of a cult following among my college friends. A few even angled for invitations to the Farrell Family Fun in the Sun Social, another brainchild of my dear uncle. And when it came time to plan a Winter Break trip to the sunny Florida Keys, a pit stop in St. Augustine to visit Uncle Bill and Aunt Cecilia was considered a given.

This is how I'll always remember Uncle Bill, dancing with Aunt Cecilia.

This is how I’ll always remember Uncle Bill, dancing with Aunt Cecilia and finishing each other’s sentences.

He was recovering from a stroke at the time, and my mother wanted a full report on his progress. But what I remembered most was how he and my Aunt Cecilia finished each other’s sentences. Not out of necessity, but out of habit. I thought to myself at the time that someday that’s the kind of relationship I’d like to have. And I do, with Andry. Although, granted, my fledgling Spanish may have something to do with that. (A topic for another blog, I promise.)

The last time Uncle Bill was at our house, he mentioned that visit to me and I was so touched. Until I realized, that is, that the reason he remembered it so vividly had more was because Liz and Melissa, my traveling companions for the trip, were both close to six feet tall.

It was these memories and more that I endeavored to put on paper that night. It was just a first draft, which I intended to polish up in the morning. I never got around to opening that document again, though. Because at a little before 6 a.m., a message came through from Coleen.

“He’s gone,” it said.

And with that, I knew I’d already said my goodbyes without realizing it.

It reminded me, though, how important it is for us to show our love, appreciation and gratitude while we can. So this isn’t a eulogy for the dead, but an ode to the living. Because he does live on in each and every Farrell.

Coleen, I love and appreciate you more than you know. You are not just my cousin, but a true sister and friend.

To you, Aunt Cecilia, Billy, Timmy, Jean, Cecilia, Terry and your families; My mom and the rest of the Farrell siblings; and rest of the extended Farrell clan – I send all the love in my heart and strength in my body. Because I know that even now, especially now, we reel from the loss of the man who was at once husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, brother, uncle, sailor and friend.

Uncle Bill, I hope heaven welcomed you with an unlimited supply of Pecan Sandies and old Hollywood movies on-demand. Don’t let my dad and Uncle Rich take your last nickel at cards. Give Mom Mom a kiss for all of us.

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A Project Chenango Redux: Chenango’s Drug Problem and more

A picture perfect summer day in Chenango County.

A picture perfect summer day in Chenango County.

In August, when I pitched the Project Chenango series to The Evening Sun’s publisher Dick Snyder, I was more than a little nervous. I remember sitting home, waiting for his final decision with no small amount of trepidation. I wasn’t so much nervous that he’d turn down my proposal, but rather if I could deliver the series as promised.

Endeavoring to tackle a community’s biggest issues and challenges in 10 installments is no small task. Nor is doing so in a way that is at once raw and honest, as well as compassionate. Add in a couple of thousand miles (and an ocean) between you and your source material and…well, you get the picture.

So, yes. When I got the green light, a small frisson of fear ran through me. But that was nothing compared to the exhilaration. I love a good challenge. And here was a way to give back to the community I loved. Because for all its grit, I felt it had the potential to be a catalyst for positive change.

What I didn’t anticipate was how it would change me, and my perspective.

Throughout the course of the series – which grew from the 10 installments I initially proposed to 14 in-depth pieces thanks to The Evening Sun’s Managing Editor Ashley Babbitt – my eyes were truly opened once more to our community’s many challenges. Here I was seeking out first hand accounts of the substance abuse issues, the poverty, the economic issues, the housing crisis, the aging infrastructure and more. It was heavy stuff. But at every turn, I was also reminded of the strength and resiliency of the people who call Chenango home.

Feedback started pouring in before the ink had even dried on the first installment. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t do my needy little ego good to hear that people were happy to see my byline again, even on a temporary basis. But it was so much more than that. I was excited by how eager people were to learn more about the realities our county and its residents face. And I was deeply touched by their compassion, particularly following the second installment.

Even though the working mother of three whose story I shared in Chenango’s Working Poor wasn’t identified by her real name, I was still nervous that she’d be criticized or abused. Particularly in The Evening Sun’s online 30 Seconds forum. But I needn’t have worried. Her story was met with compassion and support on all fronts. I didn’t see one negative comment.

And what’s more, word trickled back to me some weeks later that the piece had prompted new dialog about the topic of the working poor. That was welcome news, since that same week I also learned that “Diane” had lost her food stamps because her most recent raise put her around $20 over the threshold. It wasn’t lost on me that, while the state deemed it enough to disqualify her from the benefit program, it wasn’t nearly enough to buy groceries for her family.

I feel so privileged that “Diane” trusted me with her story, as did so many others during the course of the series – people who both live Chenango’s challenges every day, and those who are dedicated to doing something about those issues. I hope those stories helped open the eyes – and hearts – of readers as much as they did mine.

Going into the series, I felt I had a good handle on Chenango’s challenges. But it didn’t take me long to realize that much had changed since I last covered a beat for Chenango’s hometown daily. It took me about 5 minutes into my first phone interview, in fact.

The voice on the other end of the phone was District Attorney Joseph McBride. A knot built in the pit of my stomach as we discussed Chenango’s Drug Problem. It was a knot that got bigger as I spoke in turn to Norwich Police Investigator Mike Purdy, Jim Everard of Chenango’s Drug Treatment Court, and finally to Donna Wood-Craig, who has made it a personal mission to bring the drug problem to light in the community.

Heroin had just begun to rear its ugly head in Norwich during my days as a staff writer. I remember the first overdose, and how it snapped us all to attention. Now, less than five years later, it has become an all-pervasive issue across Chenango, and much of the Northeast. I’ve lost count of how many overdoses I’ve heard of over the last few months alone.

One of the things that sticks in my mind the most was a conversation I had with Chenango’s Public Health Director Marcas Flindt the morning the piece came out. We had been unable to connect prior to my deadline, so I wasn’t able to include the shocking statistics he shared with me about the sharp increase in new Hepatitis C cases in our county. Historically, Chenango recorded less than 10 new cases of Hepatitis C in a given year, he told me. Now, that number has skyrocketed to the triple digits.

A week later, an acquaintance ranted on social media about how drug users can get fresh needles at a pharmacy without showing ID, while she had to show hers to buy a decongestant. How quickly we have forgotten another epidemic spread by dirty needles.

The public health crisis posed by heroin use is only aspect of this issue. There are many more – from the nature of addiction itself, to the heroin epidemic’s roots in the pharmaceutical industry and the way in which opiate painkillers were overprescribed and the wave of Suboxone abuse that is following in its wake. There are lives, families and, little by little, entire communities being destroyed.

But all is not lost. Not yet, anyway. Because there are people who care; people who are working to affect positive change. And as I mentioned earlier, Donna Wood-Craig is one of them.

When I spoke with her in August, Donna mentioned a project she was working on with a young woman who is a recovering addict. Their goal, she told me then, was to help open the eyes of the community to the extent of the drug problem in Chenango County.

The result of their efforts is a Community Forum to take place from 6:30 to 8:30 tomorrow night (Tuesday, December 1, 2015) at Guernsey Library in Norwich.

The event, sponsored by Opportunities for Chenango, will feature a panel of experts to include recovering addicts, family members, addiction & rehab specialists and members of law enforcement.

If you want to learn more about this problem with poses such a threat to our community, if you want to be part of the positive change needed to turn the situation around…GO.

Because if there’s one thing I learned from researching and writing the Project Chenango series, it’s that Chenango may have more than its fair of problems…But it’s still HOME.

The Project Chenango Series

Introduction: What Does the Future Hold for Chenango County?

Chenango’s Drug Problem

Chenango’s Working Poor

Developing Chenango’s Workforce

Creating and Keeping Chenango’s Jobs

Chenango’s Small Businesses

Chenango’s Health Care Crisis

Chenango’s Housing Market

Agriculture in Chenango

Tourism in Chenango

Chenango’s Aging Infrastructure

Educating Chenango

Leading Chenango

Chenango’s Future