Because the important moments in life just don’t fit in a status update! I started this blog when I was training for my first ½ Ironman, (70.3 miles) to record what I hoped would be growth and progress but ended up being a huge learning experience. Although fitness is one of the key ingredients to a happy life, it certainly isn't the only ingredient. My blog has evolved to document growth, progress and setbacks in other areas too. From my surprise proposal in Rome and wedding in the fall of 2013, to Mom's devastating stage IV cancer diagnosis and death 2 weeks after I found out I was pregnant. Who knows what shape it will take, but thanks for being along for the ride.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Calls to Heaven

It's been almost six months without Mom and the loss I feel in her absence is not any less than it was in the beginning. If anything, there seems to be a greater void now than there was in those first few critical days, weeks and months because it's been longer since I've seen her. Having a previous interest in grief counseling (read some of my work here), I know that there is no right or wrong way to grieve, just as there is no time limit to the grief. I dismiss E.K. Ross' individualistic idea of working through stages with the goal of "getting over it" or "moving on" with a life separate from the one person who has always been the closest to me. Why on earth would I do that? Instead, I seek anything that helps me feel close to Mom and keeps her a part of my daily life. I talk about her, and I like it when people ask me about her.

One of the many things I miss is our phone calls. I spoke to Mom every day of my adult life, often twice a day. I always looked forward to calling her, even when I had nothing to say, because she was always so sweet and so happy. I never called and found her stressed out or upset. Certainly she must have been at times, but she never let on. She was never down or in a bad mood, and never nagged or told me what to do. Heck, she never even gave me advice, unless I asked. She just listened, laughed and asked me about my life. So since her death, I sometimes speak out-loud to her while I'm driving, as if I'm making a call and she's on the other line.




When I called her the other day, I felt like I had nothing to say for the first time. A little embarrassed, I apologized to her, and explained that because she now probably sees and knows everything that's going on in my life, maybe even before it happens, I didn't have much to update her on.

So I just listened. Don't worry, I don't actually hear her voice (though I wish I did) but rather, just imagine what she would say. I realized that a lot of our conversations were just about the mundane details of life, yet they held so much meaning to me. Why is that? What is it that I miss so darn much about those calls? What could I learn and apply to my life right now that she taught me?

With tears starting to trickle down my face, I realized what I missed: her positivity. Mom never burdened me with with her worries, fears or complaints. She never had ulterior motives with her questions and she never spent a second being judgmental or questioning my plan or ideas, no matter how crazy some of them must have seemed at the time. She supported and encouraged me. She asked me things about my life with a genuine interest and curiosity, because she cared, loved me unconditionally and wanted to know what was going on in my world. With Mom, I could always completely be myself and be loved and accepted. I never had to try and act a certain way. I always hung up the phone with a smile on my face, and a full heart.



About to become a Mom myself, I started to think and wonder how I could be more like this; more like my Mom. I want to have the type of relationship with Autumn that Mom and I had. I want her to look forward to calling me when she's older too, and not just call me out of a sense of obligation. So how do I cultivate this now? The answer was simple and apparent: I start being that way with everyone in my life, also like Mom did. Mom was one tough cookie, the toughest person I have ever met, but she did it in the softest, sweetest way imaginable. Like her Mom and her Mom before her, she endured so much but did it with a heaping serving of grace, and with a smile.

When my Dad would come home from work, she never vented or burdened him with her troubles or worries, even when I know that times were difficult. This is not to say she didn't have real conversations and discussions with him, but there was probably a time and place for it, away from us kids and not first thing after he walked through the door. The first thing she always did when my Dad, brother or myself came home was pleasantly welcome us, give us a snack, and ask about our day...1950's style. Now that's how I want to be. For Nathan, and for Autumn.

My thoughts drifted to other areas of life, areas people usually complain or worry about. "Talking" to Mom reminded me that none of those things are really worth getting upset about either. Really, who cares about money? Yet it is the number one thing couples fight about. While growing up, we lived on just my Dad's income, and there were short periods of time when he was out of work. I remember having a yard sale so we could order pizza, eating military MREs, and I remember that big block of government cheese. Did Mom complain? Nope, never. So now, though Nathan and I may be "broke" for a week or two following large purchases or a vacation, I have to keep it in perspective and remember that it's really not that bad. It's only money, and we're not going to go hungry or be out on the street. Heck, we're not even going to loose our cable. Why waste time and energy worrying? Mom didn't. She knew life was too short for that.

Most importantly, this call to Mom also helped me remember that everything is going to be fine with me being prepared - or not, gasp! - for baby Autumn. Having just completed my baby registry, I was beginning to worry about what I was going to do if we could not afford to get everything on there; everything we "needed." But after my call to Mom, I remembered looking at my baby book, which I found in the garage in early March, where Mom recorded everything she was given when I was born. It was a fraction of the stuff I'm hoping for. Heck, most of what I registered for didn't even exist back then. I seemed to survive just fine without a pack-n-play, fancy ergonomic carrier or a diaper genie to individually seal each diaper.


Here's what Mom received when I was born.
All of my registry items are great, but I have to remember that Mom has already shown and given me all I really need for when baby Autumn arrives: Her positive outlook, toughness wrapped in sweetness, grace, a smile even when it's tough or I'm tired, a whole lot of patience and love, love, love. Everything else is really, when it comes down to it, unnecessary, isn't it? Who cares if you have the fanciest nursery on the block and every baby comforting machine on the market if you're stressed out and complaining to your husband all the time?




Sunday, March 15, 2015

What's in a Name, Part 2: Our Autumn

We have chosen a name for our baby girl! This posting was written by my husband Nathan, who explains how we went about choosing the perfect name for this little girl that we both already love so much. 
A major part of planning for a family includes selecting names for the next generation.  Choosing names can be a difficult decision that brings disagreement between the parents, and can bring or deny the child of many opportunities.  Often times Megan and I were tempted with more obscure names, or names that reiterate family lines.  I often told Megan that she could choose the girl's name and the boy's name would be left to me.  People who know me know that I am a sucker for tradition, and any boy that may have been would only have one of three first names: James, Charles, or Earl.  Megan only protested slightly to this arrangement, and the point was moot since we discovered we were going to be having a baby girl after two rounds of IVF. 

Once Megan and I found out that we were going to have a baby girl, we started in earnest to find a girl's name.  Megan and I approached this process differently. Megan had been exploring girls names for a while and had a favorite.  I took a different path I listened and reviewed a few name books and rejected some names immediately based off previous experience with the name; as a teacher there are a few non starters. As a more traditional person, trendy, popular names gain little favor with me.  Names that cleared these first two hurdles were put into my slow cooker (brain) and left for awhile until they were brought to a simmer.  While in my slow cooker, names would go into the first process of just being there.  That is, did they, over time, begin to stand out from the other countless names offered from books, friends, and school rosters.  

Once a name had been simmering for a while, I would usually have a few other names to think about at the same time.  I would continue to analyze the name, looking for negatives and positives, and how such a name could affect my future daughter.  Through this process, a few names made it to the end, and one name edged out what was to be my runner up, Josephine. 

I fell in love with the name Autumn.   Let's start with the negative, it maybe too obscure, and its definition means born in Autumn, which my Autumn will not be.  The definition originally kicked the name out of the list of possible names, but over time the name kept coming back to me.  Over time, the name Autumn came to mean much more to me than born in Autumn.

On my nightly walks, I kept thinking about Autumn. I began to think about the season of Autumn.  Once my thoughts began to focus on the name Autumn, I dismissed the first concern that some of my friends had pointed out; the Autumn was too new-age.  Perhaps Autumn is not popular, but I suggest that it is anything but new age, and it certainly isn't trendy.

The term of Autumn is more innate and tied to the basic nature of man than most any other name I can think of.  Autumn is a season, but it is also much more. When I explained my meaning behind the name Autumn, Megan, who originally liked the name, fell in love with it even more.

During human history, man has been tied to the seasons.  In Winter, the masses would huddle together, struggling to survive in the cold harsh conditions, relying mostly on their stores of food.  In Spring, life begins to renew and you work to plant your crop for the future.  In Summer, you tend to your crop and perhaps towards the end of summer, you can start the harvest.  And, in Autumn, as the heat subsides, yet Winter has not arrived, the harvest continues and comes to an end. Autumn is the time you have worked all year for; a time when you sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Autumn On the Hudson River-1860-Jasper Francis Cropsey

Autumn is a time of plenty. The seed that was sown months ago, and tended to for the majority of the year has come to reward the owner many times over.  This is my Autumn.

My  Autumn is my reward.  My reward for the years I worked, the years I went to school, the years I looked for my Mrs. Swanek,  and the for all the years and all the efforts that were given by my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. to me and to the future generations.  Everyone who has gone before me in my family worked hard for her, my wife and I struggled to meet her, and there was a time in the Winter when my wife and I were unsure that we would ever see our Autumn.  My wife and I continued to work hard through the winter, tended to the crop in the Spring, and in a few months, our Autumn will arrive.  

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Kismet: London, not Venice

Sometimes, the best laid plans go to waste. And sometimes, those plans are derailed for reasons unknown to us at the moment, with better ones waiting to be revealed.

We were relaxing in the American Airlines Admiral's club at the Chicago, O'Hare airport when our names we called over the paging system. Nathan disappeared for awhile, while I continued crocheting, ready to board our business class seats to Madrid within the hour, and then continue on to Venice, Italy, a place we had been dreaming about for months. 

After about 10 minutes, Nathan came back and silently walked up to me, looking really upset. All he said was "Umm, you need to follow me." As we walked to the counter, I knew it was bad news. We're probably not sitting together, I naively thought. Or at the very worst, maybe we're flying coach. As we approached the counter, he let them do the talking.
I'm really sorry, but you will need to return home. You cannot enter Italy because your passport expires in March. It needs to be valid for a full 90 days after your expected return date.
I was too in shock to be upset. Valid 3 months after we return?! That makes no sense. I stood there, bewildered, and said But we can't go home. Is there a manager I can speak to? Well, he was the manager and there was nothing that could be done: It was a rule of the entire European Union, not the airline. So I did what any pregnant woman about to be denied a babymoon would do. I started crying. The silent type of cry that produces lots of tears and really lets people know you're serious.

We couldn't do an emergency renewal because it was a Saturday, and Monday was a holiday. If we had been sent out of the lounge and left to fend for ourselves, not only would we have not been able to go anywhere else (last minute tickets are always outrageous!) but we could have lost all of our miles being used and had to pay for the return, because the trip had technically already started. But the staff of American Airlines, specifically Doug Dean, Cheryl Krajnovic, Tami and Isolina Conception were amazing. Isolina even brought me some of her almonds while she helped us on the customer service call. 

The entire European Union was out, but within an hour, we had our choice of a few destinations, including Australia. All I could think about was the 85 degree weather there and my suitcase loaded down with cold-weather clothes. Buying new clothing can be fun, but not when I have to shop maternity and they would only fit me for a few more months. The only upside to going to Australia would have been the fact that Nathan offered to turn all of his jeans into cut-off short shorts, and rock them like no one's business.

London, England? Well, it had the same weather as Venice, and was not officially in the EU, so we could enter. Even though we had each been there before, separately, it seemed to be the best of our limited options. They held the aircraft at the gates waiting for us and when they drove us to the gate, we boarded immediately. 

In the lounge at Heathrow, Nathan booked a great hotel in the Covent garden area that was actually reasonable, while I bought tickets to see War Horse at the New London Theater. We made our way to the hotel, slept and freshened up and then found a great local pub, Shakespeare's Head, a place that we would end up at 7 more times over the next 8 days because the food was good and we could get two meals for under 20 pounds. McDonald's was almost as expensive there.

On the off-chance she was free, I called my Mum's sister and left a voicemail letting her know that we unexpectedly ended up in London, and asking if she had time to get together, to possibly see where Mom grew up. My Mom lost touch with most of her family over the years since she left after getting married at 19. I had only met her sister once, when she came to America when I was 12. We had only spoken on the phone twice, once after Mom was diagnosed, and once after she died. I wasn't even sure she still lived near London.

A few days went by. Nathan and I had an amazing time exploring the city on foot, with minimal use of the Underground until I was too tired and needed it. We walked past the London Eye, over to Big Ben and Houses of Parliament, to Westminster Abbey and through Hyde Park. To Buckingham Palace and back. We explored the British Museum, had dessert every night, went to the Tower of London, Harrod's and on a Jack the Ripper walking tour. Through all of this, we enjoyed the time just to ourselves, something we haven't had in over seven months.


Outside Westminster Abbey on Ash Wednesday
Nathan said that after his first trip over 10 years ago, he never needed to see London again. But on this trip, he saw the city in a different light and can now see himself returning. We talked about bringing our daughter back, and found some souvenirs for her: a musical Peter Rabbit, My First Paddington Bear, Paddington Visits the Palace book, a baby carriage ornament from Buckingham Palace and two bodysuits from Westminster Abbey; one with the Union Jack, and one with a crown.

We had just booked our weekend plans, The Changeling, a 17th century play all by candlelight, at The Globe and a tour of Windsor Castle when she called. My Aunt was free to give us a tour of where Mom grew up! And she could do it the one last free day we had. That night, I went to bed a bit nervous and excited. I was worried it would be too sad or emotional, and mostly just wished Mom was coming along with us. And with the help of my imagination, it felt like she was. I imagined her by my side, with her arm around my waist and mine around hers, as we so often did those last few months when the brain tumor robbed her of her balance.

Wearing the cross that holds some of her remains, we took the tube to Paddindton Station and from there, caught a train into Reading. The train ride only took 30 minutes, and I realized that Mom always saying she grew up "30 minutes outside of London" was indeed accurate. 

We arrived at the station and after sitting out front for a few minutes, my phone rang and it was my uncle Mark! I had not seen him since I was two when he came to visit my Mom with my grandmother Lilly. That was the first and last time I met her, and she brought me a gollywog. Turning around, there he was, all grown up, walking with Anna. Some hugs and introductions to Nathan, and we were on our way.

The day could not have been more perfect. I was hoping to just see one house Mom lived in, but they planned so much more. First up: visiting the grave of my grandmother Lilly, and my great-grandmother, Mary. 


Mary mangan
Died Feb 15 1965 aged 66

Lilly sheehan
Nov 2 1993 aged 65
While our baby's first name has changed a few times, all along we have been planning to give her the middle name Mary because that was my Mom's middle name and also his aunt's name. I didn't realize that my Mom's middle name was Mary after her grandmother until I stood here, at her grave. Anna and Mark left us alone there for awhile, and I prayed for them and to them, thanking them for raising such a wonderful, beautiful, loving and kind person.
Mary Mangan with my Mom, Paula Mary DeWitt (Mangan)
Next up: the very first place Mom lived when her Mum and grandmother emigrated from Ireland with her in tow,areound a year old. I had no idea that the three of them lived in one bedroom. Not "rented a one-bedroom" but actually lived in just the bedroom. We aren't sure which room it was, but it is one of these rooms, in an old Victorian on Castle Hill. It would be just around a year until they could afford something better.
1st house (actually a room)

















I imagine the stigma they faced, just two women and a child. I know at least one person who judges that now, let alone back in the early 1950's. What strong women they were to up and leave like that, seeking work and a better life for little Paula.

The next place we saw was where they moved after they saved up enough to get out of the one room, and then where they were living when my grandmother met her husband, Johnny Sheehan, also an emigrant from Ireland. 


2nd house
3rd house

























Finally, a few streets over, the house where they all lived at and raised their five other children, Johnny, Michael, Julie, Anna and Mark. This last house is where Mom was living when my father was courting her.



4th and final house


Street view

As you can tell from the street view, all the houses look the same. But I remember Mom saying my grandma painted her door red, and was talked to by the housing council who did not appreciate the originality.

Already, it was an amazing day, but what they had in store for us next was incredible. Down the street and to the left is Christ the King Catholic Church at 408 Northumberland Avenue, Reading RG2 8NR. This was where my Mom and Dad were married on August 9, 1969 but also, as I learned that day, where my Grandmother and Grandfather were married. For years, I knew my Mom's and Dad's wedding picture, with them standing in a doorway. But i had never seen her parent's wedding photo, also in the same spot. My Aunt Anna had an 8x10 of this photo to give me, and it made our visit there all the more meaningful. The church was even open that Friday afternoon because they were setting up for a concert, and we were able to walk down the aisle, imagining the excitement nervousness Mom and Dad felt when they were doing the same.
Lastly, we were off to visit my grandfather. This was to be my very first time meeting him. I knew it would be hard. Eight months earlier, he suffered a stroke while walking to meet his Irish friends at a pub and had lost his ability to speak. Anna and Mark entered the room first, and told him someone special was here to see him, Paula's daughter, Megan from America. I entered the room and after he saw me, he began weeping. You have to remember that is a strong Irish man who never spoke about his feelings and was probably never caught crying his whole adult life and now here he was, breaking down. He held onto my hand tightly and alternated between trying to communicate and crying. Tears fell as I thanked him for being such a good father to my Mom. Asked if I looked like her, he nodded and griped my hand tightly. We told him our daughter's name and when asked if he liked it, he nodded and tried to say yes. When I asked if I could take this photo with him, he reached his hand up to make sure he smoothed his hair down and nodded yes.


Meeting my grandfather, Johnny Sheehan, for the first time. Born in Castleisland, Ireland in 1932.
Looking into his blue eyes made me keenly aware of how quickly time passes. How I wished I had visited him just one year prior, when he could have had a pint and a laugh over his stories, like he did with my Mom in this photo below so many years earlier. But still, here I was with him and for that I will always be grateful. If you have family in far away places, go visit them now. These memories and photos are something that cannot be bought. The tendency to be practical or frugal can sadly win out, and once they're gone, you can't change your mind. 
L-R: Bartender, Alan Bride, my Grandfather Johnny Sheehan, my Mom Paula DeWitt (Mangan)
Leaving was tough, because its not like I could say see you again soon or, ever. We left his room and all sat down in the common area of the nursing home. Night had fallen, and my heart was full with everything that had transpired that day. But there was one final surprise left in store for me. Anna brought photo albums, and told me that I could take any of the pictures I wanted. I paused when I saw a wedding photo of my Mom and Dad that I had never seen.





Another book was filled with baby photos of me, that my Mom sent to her Mum. But one gem stood out, and tears began flowing as I held it. This photo of my Mom holding me at three days old melts my heart, and is something I will always treasure. The love and care that she wraps me in with her arms is almost tangible, and when I look at it, I can feel it. I hope to take a similar one of our daughter, and hang them both in the nursery.


In all, it was a much more meaningful trip than Venice ever could have been. More than one person has told me that it was meant to be and I believe them. A few years ago, I laughed at the old adage everything happens for a reason. But situations like this trip make me think there is something to that. None of this would have been possible without the help of those American Airlines staff and I wish they could know just how much their help means to us both, for all the years to come, and one day, to our daughter.


Mom, making a wish

Mom, with her cats
At 18 months, with my gollywog that my grandma brought me