My Dear Friend

One of my best friends turned 50 this past month and this is what I wrote and read at her surprise party in Georgia:

My Dear Friend,

We are gathered here today to celebrate the birth of you-a tremendous person-nearly 50 years ago.

Donna welcomed me into her home in the mountains of Durango, Colorado just over 20 years ago.  She had met me exactly two times. Terry and I showed up on her doorstep jobless, with a truck-full of our meager belongings, and our insanely insane Rottweiler.  She didn’t blink an eye.  She opened the door to their home and asked, “How can we help?”

Those of us who have been fortunate enough to know Donna for a significant amount of time know this is just who she is.  She wears her heart on her sleeve.  There’s no pretending.  No falseness.  Like it or not, she will always tell you the truth.

Donna Breault is a (an):

  • Steadfast patriot
  • Intense athlete
  • Passionate animal lover
  • Faithful sister
  • Attentive aunte
  • Courageous daughter
  • Dedicated and devoted wife
  • Unfailingly loyal friend
  • Genuine human being
  • Unfortunately, Donna is also a lifelong Cowboys fan
  • And a don’t-piss-me-off-because-I’m-a-Jersey-Girl

There is no doubt in my mind, or anyone else sitting here in this very room, that the world is a much better place because you are in it.

 

 

Losing Dakota

“Don’t tell me you have a puppy in that truck with you!” I shouted into my cell phone.

”Um…no?” my husband replied. I could just picture his face, all innocent-like with just the right amount of guilt.

It was six days before Christmas and the house was far from puppy-proof. There were meticulous decorations hanging in nearly every room, extraordinary food was being prepped, and tediously wrapped presents had been placed under the tree. A puppy was going to make things difficult.

Terry and our daughter were supposed to ‘look’ at a litter of eight week old German Shepherd/Lab pups, not bring any of them home. I was very specific when we discussed this. We would talk more once they had spent time looking and we would then decide as a family.

“Do you want a puppy for Christmas?” my husband asked me two days before in the same tone as one would ask ‘Can you pass the ketchup?’. I was completely caught off guard. I had been begging for a second dog for several years but never got very far. Actually getting one, and a puppy at that, was not something I had expected.

A friend Terry knew from work had been gushing about his new litter of puppies for weeks. They were from his two favorite dogs and this was their third litter together. Terry had listened to him describe how friendly and sociable they all were and encouraged him to stop by and see them that weekend.

While working on truffles for Lexi’s teachers, I heard Terry’s diesel truck pull in the driveway and went to wipe my hands. Lifting the curtain, I gazed down into the cab of the truck and did not see a cute, helpless, little creature. There was only a polar bear-perhaps she was the size of a young polar bear-but there was no puppy in that vehicle.

Over the 11 years she lived with us, Dakota, aka Kota Bear, aka Bibby Bear, aka Baby Girl, enhanced our lives immeasurably. She was Lexi’s loyal play mate, Terry’s nurturing nurse, and my everlasting loyal shadow. Whether it be as the gentle wrestler on the living room floor, as the faithful caretaker, or the constant follow-you-to-every-room-no-matter-what-you-are-doing companion, she was one of the ‘good uns’.

I suppose if you have never experienced the kind of loss that makes you sob for hours on end, then you have never experienced the pure love a dog like Dakota can give you. It is the purest, truest, kind of devotion rarely found in us humans. If people behaved more like dogs, this world would be a much happier place-except for the whole butt-sniffing thing-I can do without that, thank you very much.

See you on the other side, My Love. Save me a seat on the warm, green grass next to you so we can relax together again one day …

An Eventful Day in First Grade

During Daily 5, students are busy at their stations while I do some assessments on sight words with individuals.  There are areas for Read to Self, Read to Someone, Work on Writing, Listen to Reading, and Word Work.  It’s a language arts block that I usually spend 90-120 minutes per day on when there are no other special activities such as assemblies, plays, or library time.   It usually goes fairly smoothly, minus some students who seem to enjoy making my hair turn gray.

Suddenly there is a crash and a bang. It happens in the Read to Self area which is also the station farthest away from where I do my assessments.  I look up and quickly realize that one student accidentally pushed a basket of books onto the head of a student who was laying on the carpet, quietly reading.

Now-let me stop right here. The student who was on the carpet was quietly reading to himself-he was focused and attending to the task while not bothering other students. How do I know this? Because he is the kid that is ALWAYS off task and talking non-stop. He is the one that constantly tears apart erasers, leaves his snack everywhere except in his mouth, sticks pencils up his nose and interrupts me with ridiculous, totally off-topic statements. I did not need to look up and survey the scene before the carnage-I just knew…

So, anyway-I wait for a blood curdling scream because the kid who pushed the basket is yelling, “I DIDN’T MEAN IT!!! I DIDN’T MEAN IT!!! I’M SORRY!!! I’M SORRY!!!”

Stop-I am waiting for the blood curdling scream because the kid who pushed the books is not one to EVER apologize. He just goes about his business and is completely clueless if he hurts someone’s feelings or flat out runs a kid over. Knock a kid to the ground as he barrels through a crowd of people-he doesn’t even know there was a crowd of people never mind the little kid he bowled over. I KNOW it is not good…

I look at my normally-inattentive boy sprawled on the carpet and seeing him hold his hand on his face, I gracefully glide over to him with a box of tissues (OK-maybe I hurdled a few desks in record time but it was graceful. Really).

Blood. Lots of it, too. Just pouring out of this kid’s nose and all over his hands. No wonder my other clueless wonder is so afraid of getting in trouble for once.  With complete poise on my part, I gracefully escort Bloody Child to the nurse (Perhaps I am half-dragging him-hard to recall).   While I hold a huge wad of tissues over his face, I realize that he has not cried-not even a little. His hands are covered in blood and the once white tissue is a scarlet mass over his face. It’s a wonder he can even breathe.

I make small talk down the hall as innocent by-standards look on in horror and whisper behind our backs.

“You know, I can’t believe what a trooper you are! You are so brave! I never knew anyone braver than you. You deserve a medal!” I gush just hoping this kid lives long enough to hand him off to the nurse. I figure that once he is in her care, I’m off the hook.

I leave him in the capable hands of our sweet school nurse, take a deep shuttering breath, and head back to class with my heart beating a bit slower.

Class resumes like nothing happened and I nearly forget about my bloody friend. During the math lesson, the students are engaged in a fun hands-on activity that requires tons of oral directions. We are deep in the throng of this mind-blowing lesson when in walks my student.

I smile and continue teaching when he heads straight for me and I cringe. He’s wearing a clean shirt that is entirely too large for him. All I can think of is:  Did they call his mom? Are we being sued? Am I fired???

“Hey, buddy! What’s up?” I squeak out.

Wait for it…

“Can I have my medal now?”

And yes-he is completely serious.

The Hosta

I garden.  A lot.  My husband would say it is too much work for me but some days I think it is not enough.  I find connecting with the earth a powerful act filled with responsibility.  It gives us food, fuel for heat, and a habitat for the wildlife.  My ideas sometimes get the best of me and I tend to start things then realize it is much more time and effort than I originally anticipated.  Regardless, it is part of who I am.

We live on a 10 acre farm-something I always wanted.  In my younger days I was a horse kid.  I didn’t just love them-I needed them.  I’d like to think they needed me, too.

After years of begging my parents and proving my abilities through lessons, I was the proud owner of a beautiful Arabian filly.  She was wild, opinionated, and full of sass.  But she was also sensitive, loyal, and incredibly smart.  That horse raised me.  She and I became one being for over 18 years until her long battle with heart failure took her from me.

When we bought this farm over 12 years ago, I dreamed of having horses again.  Never had horses living with me at home-we always needed to board them elsewhere.  This new place was my chance for that.

Life has a funny way of changing your perspective.  Once we settled into our home and enrolled Lexi in the local school district, I felt something different about this property.  It was once a 10 acre farm where neat rows of corn or soy were sown in the heavy, clay soil.  Now it was a mass of weeds and bare patches that bothered me.  That’s where it all began.

Several of my flower beds are Memory Gardens-things planted in memory of a loved one lost.  There is one large round garden in memory of my mother.  Her peonies are planted there-the same ones that once belonged to her father over six decades ago.  Easy to say that one is my favorite one.

I have so many favorite plants I but at the top of the list is the hosta.  So easy to grow, comes in tons of different varieties, and a true die-hard in our harsh Michigan winters.  Instead of sending flowers to funeral homes, I send a card with a note saying something will be planted in memory of the deceased.  It’s a kind of living headstone in my eyes. I frequently plant the “Patriot’ hosta in memory of veterans who have passed.  There is even a Patriot Garden here complete with patriotic stones and flags.

Last year, our neighbor and friend, Jim, passed away.  He was a husband, father, grandfather, and fierce Marine.  I purchased a Patriot hosta to plant for him in our Patriot Garden.  Unfortunately, I forgot to put it in the ground before the winter hit.  It was left outside next to the vegetable garden upside down in its plastic pot.  It was a traditional Michigan winter-deep, harsh cold temperatures with long, dark months to drag it along.

In the spring I discovered my mistake and was appalled at myself.  Though my intentions are always good, I sometimes take on too much.  The garden, the animals (minus any horses), my husband (who struggles with the after-effects of a TBI), and my teaching job often overwhelm me.  I felt like I let Jim down.  I was convinced it was dead.  That’s when I noticed what had happened.

The leaves had started to grow from under the edge of the pot. Somehow, the roots were still viable and the sun had warmed them enough to stimulate life.  I was stunned.  How remarkable, I thought.  The petals were a bit twisted and faintly colored where the sun did not reach them yet but it was most certainly alive.

Humans tend to crumble and fall at the slightest setback.  Lose a job?  Cry the week away.  Boyfriend break-up with you?  Rebound to the next guy.  House you wanted to buy fall through?  Keep living at home for the next 10 years.  Not the hosta.  It survives the most difficult situation and then thrives despite it.  It holds on in the darkest, coldest of times and comes out stronger than ever.

I’d like to feel like I’m a bit like a hosta.  Life has not always been easy but I feel stronger and better for it.  After losing Dad, Mom, and almost losing Terry I was seriously tested.  My beliefs changed, my perspective changed, and my needs changed.  I spent months battling depression, guilt, and self-doubt.  Some days, I barely got out of bed.  It was not unlike being under that black plastic pot while winter battled my soul.  But as the seasons change, we grow and heal.  The things that could shut us down actually bring us new life.  Perhaps I’m just a twisted, faintly colored version of the old me.  I think we all are…

The Emergency Room

I search frantically for the hospital that I only heard of an hour ago. Oakwood Southshore. Why would they bring him here if it was so far away from the accident site? Don’t get me wrong. I am thankful they did not take him to the closest hospital. That one is not known for the highest of patient care so that makes me feel marginally better. Trouble is I can’t seem to locate it and I’m afraid if I don’t get there soon, I will start to cry.

Sitting at a light, I am beginning to panic. No signs for a hospital and I am unfamiliar with this whole area. I spot a small ice cream shop and tear in the driveway. I dash from the car leaving it running-door wide open. Inside, people are laughing and enjoying their cold treats. Don’t they know something terrible has happened?

I desperately search the brightly decorated room for a sign of help. A man in his mid-fifties catches my eye and holds my gaze. Approaching him quickly I pant, “Do you know where Oakwood Southshore is? I need to get there immediately.”

He must notice my frazzled appearance but says nothing. I am still in my pajama pants and old tee shirt from school. It was PJ day today and I never even changed when I got home. My hair is coming out from a loose bun and I’m sweating.

“You are very close. Go straight through this light and turn left at the apartment complex. Follow the main road all the way to the end,” he gestures with his hand the way. “The Emergency Entrance is on the right. This way you avoid the Michigan Left further down this road.” He smiles gently as if he understands my need at this moment.

I want to explain what has happened. To tell him my life has changed so drastically in the last hour. He seems ready to listen, calm and patient. It would be nice to get a waffle cone filled with chocolate chip mint, sit and watch the cars drive past, and pretend there is no rush. I spot my car door open and run past him, thanking him briefly.

The lot is smaller than I expected. I see an open spot and dart in. Both hands on the top of my steering wheel, I rest my head on the backs of my hands. This is where he is and I have no idea how bad it is.

I peer up at the entrance doors and see Thelma, Jimmy K.’s wife waiting for me. She looks regal as ever-perfectly groomed and looking like she is ready for Sunday services. She is expecting me, I know. We spoke several times on the phone already.

I gather my purse and phone and make my way across the scorching hot parking lot. Thelma opens her arms to me and I fall into her. She is petite and slight but stronger than she looks. She holds me close and gently guides me inside where I sign the “Permission to Treat” form and show my ID to the receptionist.

Thelma leads me past a general waiting room and to a smaller room off to the side. The contemporary artwork on the walls and dark grey utilitarian carpeting are probably meant to speak ‘comfort’ but it all makes me feel terribly out of place. This is a room where people get bad news.

I am shocked to look up and find it is filled with people who are talking and clutching one another. Harley jackets and American flag bandanas are mixed with what I recognize to be Ford work clothing. We are only miles from where he works and it appears word has spread quickly.

There are not enough seats it seems and my anxiety rises. There are many faces I know but some I don’t. All communication and movement stops when I step into the room with Thelma. Eyes are glued to me filled with pain and sympathy. All I want is to see my husband and take him home. This is not what I bargained for.

What You Don’t Know: Phone Calls

The First Phone Call:
To my closest friend, Sheree.
“Well, hey there” Sheree says in an upbeat, chipper voice as she answers my call that day. This is always her regular greeting to me when on the phone.
“Hi.”
“What’s wrong?” she says in a quiet, strained voice.
She knew. She knew by my soft, brief greeting that is far outside my norm when talking to her. She felt the fear I was trying to keep under control. She knew how bad things were without me saying a word.
The Second Phone Call:
To Terry’s parents, Ron and Mary Jo.
As I dialed the number I realized that the speedometer on the Edge read 62 MPH. It was a 45 MPH zone. As much as I needed to be with him, I refused to be the reason someone else needed to see a loved one in ICU tonight. The cruise control was clicked down to 51 MPH.
“Hel-lo?”
“Hey, Pop. It’s Michele”, I say in a low voice, trying to sound more confident than I felt.
“Oh!” He is surprised because it is normally Terry or Lex who call the house in New Jersey. I sense Terry’s father is genuinely surprised to hear from me.
I am relieved it is him who answers the phone. He is a tough, six-foot-four Army veteran. We have always gotten along well and have a mutual respect for one another. I can hear my mother in law, Mary Jo, talking in the background. She has been fighting health issues for many years. She is even tougher than Pop but her health is not as good and I worry this phone call will send her reeling.
“Hey, Pop-I have to tell you something.” I suck in a deep breath and hold back the tears. I know they will take their cue from the way I act. If I’m hysterical, it will send the rest of the family into a tailspin. “Pop, it’s Terry. He was in an accident –on the bike.”
I honestly do not remember what his reply was. This call was so painful for me. Telling parents that their youngest son was almost killed less than an hour ago literally tore my heart out. I tell them I will call back in an hour with more details. I will know more then, I say. We hang up.
The Third Phone Call:
To our sixteen year-old daughter, Lexi.
Text from home sent before I got in the car: CALL ME ASAP
Nothing.
I call her phone. Three times. The call goes to voice mail. She is getting her senior pictures done and probably does not have her phone on her. I call anyway because I need something to do besides drive blindly down a pothole infested road at this moment.
Text from a stop sign on the road: HELLO???
Nothing again. This is wrong I know. I should not be texting from behind the wheel but this is truly an emergency. Doesn’t make it right.
I check my speed again and try to breathe. I hadn’t realized I was holding my breath. Pick up the phone, I will her. It doesn’t work.

(ten minutes later)
My phone rings that funny tone I loaded for only her calls. It usually makes me smile. but not today.

“Hey, Mom! We were doing our pictures by an old red barn. It is so cool. You would LOVE it! It is old and run down but totally something you would like. I can’t wait to see the pics.”
I let her ramble on a bit. She is nearly breathless with delight.  I don’t want to end her pure joy at this moment. I wonder if either of us will ever feel happy again.
“Hi, Honey. I need to tell you something.  It’s not good.”
Silence. She is waiting.
“Daddy was in an accident. On his bike….”
“ARE YOU KIDDING ME??????” she screams into the receiver. “ARE YOU &*$#@!^ KIDDING ME?!?!?!?!?!?!” she chokes out.
“No, honey. I would never kid you about something like this. He’s hurt and I really don’t know how badly. They say he is talking but can’t remember what year it is. I’m on my way to the hospital now. Do not come here. I will call you when I know more. Promise you will not come here.” I say this with false bravado.

She needs me now. I can’t fall apart. I’m pretending I’m in charge of the situation even when it could not be further from the truth. She needs to know everything will be fine even though I have never been so afraid in my while life. ”He will be OK ,” I lie because I have no idea if it’s true or not. I lie because I have to save her especially if I am losing him.
“Yup” she says to me. It is her classic ‘I don’t want to listen but I will’ voice. ‘
“OK. Love you…”
“Love you too, Mom…Let me know soon, OK.
“OK”                                                                                                                                                                             “Promise?” she sobs.
“I promise.” At this moment I will promise her anything. Maybe it will save us all if I do.

The Day After

June 15, 2014

So as I think about tomorrow being Father’s Day I am not mourning the loss of my own dad like most years in the past. Today I am ever so thankful to be able to hold the hand of my own daughter’s dad. Yes, it is raw with road rash and somewhat cooler than normal but it is still attached to his battered body. As I listen to him breathing steadily next to me I am still reflecting on the events of yesterday.

Looking forward to having our guests, MeLeah and Jim, I was busy washing sheets for their stay before the week-long southern ride they were all about to embark on the next morning. I realized after they left to meet my husband for a Welcome Home parade in Monroe, that my worst fears had just come true.

Noticing I had a missed call, I checked my voice mail and heard a somewhat garbled message from someone who sounded vaguely familiar. Something told me to call him back.

“Hi, this is Michele. Who is this? Couldn’t understand your message.”
“It’s Jimmy K.”
“Sorry. Who?”
“Jimmy K”, he says louder and slower this time.
“Oh, hey Jimmy. I thought you said you were Kevin somebody. What’s up?” I quip as I decide I can definitely load more sheets in the washer.
“Terry’s been in a wreck”, he says hurriedly.
Thinking I can fit some more pillow cases I ask again, “What? I can’t hear you well, Jim.”
Clearing his throat he says again, “Terry’s been in a wreck. Happened on Telegraph. On his way to escort that soldier coming home. He’s at Oakwood hospital. Wasn’t his fault….”

When someone tells you that the news of an event can make all the air leave your body, it is exactly like that. I have fallen from horses and had the wind ‘knocked’ out of me but this is something bigger-like I would never be able to draw breath again. It seemed like hours but it is merely seconds when you notice you can breathe again. Your mind goes blank like you are standing on a stage in front of hundreds of people and have forgot your next line. You have no sense of time or space. Your hands begin to shake uncontrollably and when you notice that, you come back to your senses. Things need to be done and you know they won’t get done standing in front of the half-filled washing machine.

As the wife of a rider, I know that this call can come in to me one day. It is my fear each time he starts that beautiful, throaty engine. I so love hearing that same sound coming down our long dirt driveway when I know he is returning home safely. Today would not be that day. The empty barn I so lovingly cleaned just one day earlier now lies empty. It is so surreal. I just expect that the Big Blue Girlfriend will be there and I am so sad she is not.

So on this eve of Father’s Day, I will rejoice in the life I have yet to live with the father of my beautiful child. I will hold that mangled body for as much time as I am allowed. I will love this man with everything I have even though I know he will ride again.

The Big Blue Girlfriend

I met with the Big Blue Girlfriend today. For the entire thirty minute ride to the garage, tears steadily streamed down my face stopping only for a short conversation with my principal regarding work stuff and, of course, questions about Terry’s recovery. I flipped the switch from diligent wife to responsible employee back to diligent wife in seconds. Of course, I had multiple offers for rides and company all of which I politely declined. This was something beyond personal, beyond private. I can only describe it as a spiritual necessity. And I had an overwhelming need to do this alone.

Once I knew where she was I felt an incessant drive to get to her. I needed to know how this mass of metal made it through this ordeal. Still not having the police report, I was grasping for answers so, perhaps, I could start putting the pieces together and figure out what had really happened.

She was standing, almost haughtily, in a gravel parking lot beyond a locked security gate. Hidden from view by shiny black canvas, I imagined the place she rested to be so much larger and isolated. In fact, the yard was nestled in a residential neighborhood just off the same highway where she went down. The smell of oil and grease penetrated the hot, sticky air. It was almost 90 degrees, yet, I had a distinct chill in me.

After a quick conversation with the owner of the company, I was told the gate was unlocked and where I would find my quarry. Carefully trudging through the gravel drive, I forced myself to breathe steadily. Taking deliberate steps, I slowly strode to our designated meeting place. Without pausing, I strode into the lot and was stunned at what I saw.

It was not the large pile of debris from the crash site next to her that astounded me. It was not the twisted and bent pieces of metal which were covered in mud that stopped me cold. Nor was it shredded pieces of fiberglass from the tour pack that drew my eye. It was what I found, neatly placed, on Terry’s seat.

Coyly smiling up at me in his Army fatigues, was a picture of Sargent Michael Ingram, Jr. His handsome face adorned the scuffed dog tag that had been hanging around Terry’s neck at the time of the accident. Again, time and space seemed not to exist at that moment. I sucked in my breath and held it for a moment. Here was my answer as to how Terry survived such a horrific crash. Mikie was there.

I was told that the debris field was over 250 feet wide. The bike bounced across the highway after the crash and slid into a ditch full of murky water next to the road. Terry slid and tumbled over 100 feet across the hot asphalt. His belongings, including $47 dollars that had been on the bike, were spread over the newly sown cornfield. Friends of my husband who rolled onto the scene say they did not know it was him lying on the pavement due to the amount of blood covering his face. By all rights, I should be a widow on this day yet I am not.

As I sifted through the mud covered belongings, I found the bright red shirt (it was Red Shirt Friday, after all) that had been cut from his unconscious body. I also came across his vest with some patches over 25 years old. Many of the wristbands from past rides still hung around the handlebars. The bright yellow duck that had a home on the left rear antenna was gently collected as well. With scissors in hand, I crawled under the bike to find both Guardian Angel bells still hanging with zip-ties beneath.

I stood in front ofThe Big Blue Girlfriend and gave her my thanks. Skimming my hand over the fairing, I rubbed her scuffs and bruises gently. I cried when I leaned over the place where the windshield once was and hugged her. I told her I loved her even though I never showed it. The entire time, I held Mikie in my dusty hand.

To all my friends who feared I was approaching this ordeal by myself, do not fear. I was far from alone. From the moment I walked into that junkyard, I was flanked by a brave young man who was taken from this world too soon and a broken but still beautiful bike that is unlikely to see pavement again…