September 2019: Learning from the Greatest Generation
Life-Changing. Overcoming fear. Disciplined. Confident. Gratitude.
All words that come to mind when I summarize the past month of life and work. Not all words about me, but qualities I have witnessed in those around me and that inspire me to be better. I left off the last newsletter getting settled in Indiana and planning a trip to Idaho after my apartment in the Washington, D.C. area flooded with a near total loss. Sometimes life changes as quick as a hair-pin in the road and you must react just as quickly.
LIFE-CHANGING: Soon after publishing my last newsletter my 94 year-old Grandfather ended up needing an above the knee amputation due to a blood clot. Check out this post to learn more about both his and Zoe the Seeing Eye Dog’s heroics at the hospital. I have spent much of the last month at the hospital advocating for his care and at the rehab facility helping with his transition. We are hoping that he will be coming home to his house on Saturday. I have witnessed how universal design would be beneficial to an amputee. He will have a ramp to access his house and we have had to make some significant design changes to his bathroom for him to shower and use the toilet. Despite being aware of these needs before and taking note whenever I could, it is still different when you are planning on transporting a family member. I am sure we have missed something and it will be frustrating for him when he arrives home, but this experience is making me a better advocate. In my advocacy, I often talk about the over 20% of the population that is disabled, and the fact that being disabled is the one marginalized group that nearly everyone moves into (and sometimes out of with a broken bone, etc) during their lives. At some point, access issues are likely to affect you.
I could write an entire book about all that I have learned from being with him and my family during this process, and there is no place I would rather be. My Grandpa George is a WWII veteran and I have started listening to the Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw on our hour and a half drive to the rehab facility. It has forced me to reflect on his unique attitude, love of life, and perseverance. Are these traits unique to him, or are they part of this “Great Generation,” learned from war and the depression? Or both? Is it possible that the Greatest Generation’s mission and their sacrifice as a unit made it easier for them to accept and return home?
Turning FEAR into GROWTH: I believe that we will all face monumental events, to different degrees, that will push us to our limits of strength and courage. At these extremes, we have the opportunity or choice to push ourselves in places of fear and discomfort, places that we often wouldn’t go by choice. The qualities of courage, bravery, strength, and positivity are present in many of the disabled persons I know and I believe this is why. Any test has the possibility of forcing growth, planting seeds of gratitude, and building a new network of support.
Unique to him or his generation, I believe my Grandpa’s attitude is contagious and worth sharing at least a snip-it of his story. Read on if you need some laughter, gratitude, and inspiration for the week.
My Grandfather was drafted into WWII the day he turned 18 and was one of nine children. He was deployed to California soon after being drafted and then left on a navy ship. We believe this was his first time to leave Indiana. Somedays he will talk a lot about his experience in the war, but most of the time he shares sparingly. When I was in the middle school I had the opportunity to meet Eva Kor, a Holocaust survivor that relocated to our hometown; I remember talking to my grandpa about the meeting while we sat in the car waiting for my Grandma to finish grocery shopping. He told me several stories about his experience in the war. I don’t know if he remembers this day, but this was a formative experience for me.
These stories included the day several of the men fell off of the ship near the propeller and died and he was somehow spared in the accident and able to swim to safety. The day he found out that his dad died in a car accident when he was there and it was weeks after it happened. He told me stories about boxing on the ship and handed me my first pair of boxing gloves in his basement. I heard the names of his friends that never came home.
But, growing up, my siblings and I mostly heard about how much he loved coal mining. He started working in the mines at a young age and took me down into the mines several times as a young child. When he was 37 he was in a severe mining collapse where his back and leg were crushed and no one thought he would survive. He loved mining so much that he went back and worked the rest of his working life, despite experiencing another accident. He still talks about mining almost daily and encourages all of his grandkids to find jobs that they love. I met some of the men that worked for him and they would say your grandpa was, “a good man to work for.” “He was hard, but fair.” “He was a leader, I liked working for him.” “He always had a smile, even when it was hard.”
DISCIPLINED: When he found out that he was going to have his “good” leg amputated (the one that he had feeling in, not the one injured in the mining accident) he wanted all of the information on his options and then it was clear he wanted to be alone. The next day he had “yes” written on his leg and proudly, but with a few tears, said that he had decided he was going to have his leg amputated. He wanted to live and he didn’t want to lose both legs attempting to save one. He didn’t lament, but said it would happen in a few days. He was strong and ready. I observed that this fierce strength helped those around him, especially my dad and mom, feel better, almost cheerful about what he was facing. This attitude did not change as he was wheeled into surgery or even after he came out of surgery with loads of pain. He repeated out loud, over and over, “it will get better” and indeed, it did.
CONFIDENT: One of my favorite moments from my time with him was his first day in rehab. The therapist had grandpa stand for the first time. There was a long mirror in front of him and he asked him to stand tall and look at himself. He did and he smiled and said, “I look good!” I took a deep breath and a few tears rolled down my face. I could not have agreed more. I work with so many individuals with disabilities who lose their confidence and self-worth when they become disabled because society tells them to do so. I wanted to bottle up everything that just happened in that moment and share it with the world. It was such an uncommon and beautiful response. I felt grateful to witness that moment and proud to be his granddaughter. My second and almost equally favorite moment was when he asked if he would be getting a blade leg to run on! All of the therapists say they want to spread his attitude at the rehab center before he leaves. I was not surprised when NPR published a story this week that said that optimistic people live on average 15% longer than those that are not optimistic.
ACCOUNTABILITY: He checks daily to make sure I am getting my cycling and weight workouts in for my important December track race and reminds me that he is doing four hours of rehab daily, so my workouts should be at least that long. He never misses his rehab and has his list of “home” exercises by his bed, which he has been reprimanded for doing too many times a day. This isn’t a new trend, but he is a gold star good habit setter. Daily, he asks me how much of my book is written and how much profit he will be getting! He says he has a book to write if he can find the time or maybe someone to help him.
All of my time with my grandfather has reminded me the importance of GRATITUDE. I had the opportunity to study mindfulness based stress reduction when I was at Harvard and a major component is gratitude. Gratitude has been especially meaningful in difficult times of my life and I practice it as part of my writing and meditation process. I think that my grandfather’s gratitude has developed through extreme life experiences and prayer, but it is strong and as contagious as his smile. Check out this post I wrote about my grandfather’s gratitude and how it rubbed off on me. I hope this is one quality of my Grandpa’s I can carry forward and pass on to others.
One of the things I was most grateful for last month was the 12th anniversary of my pancreas transplant. It is always a bittersweet day for me. My life changed drastically on the day of the transplant, as did the lives of many others, including those of my donor’s family. I have faced many unexpected challenges since my transplant, including my vision loss, but am grateful every day for the gift of life and all of the things it has given me, including Zoe, new experiences, and new friends. Please make sure you are registered as an organ donor and read my post about my transplant anniversary here. I am also grateful that my illness and experiences in the medical system have made me knowledgeable and allow me to help others. There were several insurance and “normal” hospital failures post-surgery and I it is gratifying to put my knowledge to use for someone like my grandpa.
With the encouragement of family, Grandpa and Coach Wenzel, training is back on track after losing time due to my apartment flooding, moving, and helping with Grandpa. I am excited to be working with Common Ground Crossfit in Terre Haute to build more muscle and fitness and am grateful that cyclist Joe Van Denberg has carved out time each week to get me on the bike outside. I am stronger and looking forward to increased intensity in my workouts and we move towards my next big race in December. Special thanks to one of my pilots, Carolyn Defoore, who sent me some of her old kits to help replace what I lost in the flood. I continue to be grateful for all the people the tandem community brings into my life.
We hope you enjoyed this different kind of newsletter this month. I often have the ability to write about my work, but rarely have the ability to write about those who have inspired and enabled me to do what I do.
Music and Meditation are important to me, and it’s how Zoe and I start our day. Each newsletter, we will be highlighting a song or piece from our mindfulness practice that we want to share.
This month we've got The Good Life by One Republic on repeat and Glorious by MaMuse. These are two songs that always sing “GRATITUDE” as I am celebrating the gift of life on my transplant anniversary.
What are you listening to this month? Post a pic or video and tag #ZoesPack.
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We are putting our plans together for the fall. If you are interested in having me speak at your workplace, at a conference, event or an event for Disability Awareness Month in October, please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org