Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Why I Cried at Safeway

Dear Top People at Safeway,                                      

I have lived all over the country and have called many grocery store chains my 'home' store. I currently live in the mountains of Colorado and my nearest place to purchase the food that keeps my teenagers alive is a Safeway store. To say I know the employees of your Evergreen Colorado Safeway store well would be an understatement.

Until today I've been very pleased by the service I get at my local store. I load up my digital coupons, buy what's on sale, and accumulate our much needed gas points. 

I adore the 'kid' who works in the fruits and veggies section, who always has a smile and never seems bored with stacking apples and re-filling packages of baby carrots. Just about every time I'm shopping, one of your employees asks me, as I'm roaming the aisles, if there is anything they can help me with. The staff at the deli counter keeps my family in great turkey and potato salad every week. And the check out gang is so familiar to me that they almost feel like seeing family every week.

But today your people surprised me. At least, one of your people did, and I feel that she represents the entirety of your staff.

This afternoon I had the usual overflowing cart and was just about done with my hour long shopping trip. On the long haul to the check out lanes I briefly stopped by the Easter section. As I stood there, contemplating what I should throw in the cart, a young woman wearing a Safeway shirt asked me, "Can I help you find anything?"

I'm used to this question. I almost said, no thanks. But I instantly decided that I could use a little help. 

You see, I was searching for some Easter candy to send to my son. He's holed up in some remote location in the Middle East, and will most likely be doing military exercises with his Army platoon on the day that the big Bunny comes to houses around here. I was really hoping to send him some Easter celebration in a care package, but one thing was tripping me up. I can't mail him chocolate. It has a good chance of melting before it reaches him.

So I was faced with packing an Easter care package that didn't have chocolate. No bunnies. No eggs. None of the fun stuff. I shared my dilemma with your employee. She spent a few minutes helping me track down some pretty good options. I thought I'd looked through it all, but she ended up offering some pretty decent substitution suggestions. Then she went on her way.

A half an hour later I had my full cart unloaded onto the conveyor belt, scanned, and re-packed into the cart. Except for one pile. At first I thought the check out woman had forgotten to add all of my Easter selections to my bill. I assumed she thought they belonged to the customer behind me.

When I asked, this is what she said, "No, we aren't charging you for this stuff. The young lady who helped you pick it out told me to suspend the transaction and let her pay for it...for your son."

I was shocked. But sure enough, after I paid for my family's groceries, I was handed a bag full of Easter fun, with no charge.

As a mom who has a son in the Middle East, sometimes holidays are hard. Even when I have three other children 'back home', the one who is not here is the one who weighs heavy on your heart. Especially when he's in a place that's not quite as safe as an Easter bunny's lap.  All I can do is send him care packages and spend a lot of time praying for his safe return.

The kindness your employee showed today means more than she'll ever know. I don't know if she has a family member in the military, or if she's just full of patriotism, but she sure made my day. And the day of my husband, who was as shocked and honored as I was, when I told him the story tonight at the dinner table.

When I got home, I shared this on my facebook page - this act of kindness that your employee did, to make me walk to my car with tears running down my face. Within an hour I had 57 'likes'. I wanted to let everyone know that there are good people (and good companies) out there, doing little acts of kindness that might not seem like much - but just might make one certain mom's day.

I'll be sending this letter to you and to my local store. I want your employee to know how much I appreciated her message to our family. And I want the rest of the staff of your store to know, just when I thought I couldn't feel more positive about my experiences there every week, one of them steps up to the plate and hits a home run.

One Very Loyal Shopper

Friday, March 28, 2014

Max is Lost

We got the call on the day after Thanksgiving, which also happened to be my birthday.

I was standing in a massive hotel lobby, surrounded by every one of my four siblings, their families, my one surviving pair of aunt/uncle, and my dad and stepmom. We were in the middle of a rare Johnson family reunion, taking turns standing in front of the three story Christmas tree the hotel had so beautifully decorated and we had so conveniently borrowed for the backdrop of our family pictures.

In the middle of all the joy, my friend from 'back home' was in my ear, saying, "Judy, I hate to tell you this, but Max ran away on Wednesday and we just can't find him."

This was not the call I'd expected. Every one of us had been worried that our elderly cat would decide to say his final goodbyes the minute we hit the road for Dallas. In fact, when my husband got the text from my friend, saying, 'Call me as soon as you can', I was sure that my birthday would from that day forward be associated with the day our beloved cat died. But the cat was fine. Still hanging out comfortably on his favorite folded up blanket. 

Instead, the dog was gone.

We still called Max our puppy. Maybe it's because we'd never had a younger dog before we got Max. We spent the kids' childhoods moving all over the country and a dog was a bit too labor intensive for our lifestyle. We got the cat from a shelter in the mid 2000s and knew we'd commit to the dog when the time was right. Then, after we'd settled in Upstate NY, and thought it was our last move, we'd adopted Kylie.

She was an elderly, pure bred poodle, as sweet as the day is long. We had five great years with her and finally lost her, mainly to 'old age', just after we uprooted from NY and made the move to Colorado. She was never energetic. She was more the type who loved curling up with you to watch movies. Or sit next to you on the front porch, enjoying the weather. When we took her to meet the new vet in CO, and the doctor asked us how Kylie was doing on her 'daily hikes', we had to hold back our laughter.

Kylie was not a fan of the minimal one loop around the block, much less a hike through the many open meadows and mountain trails we now lived in the midst of. She'd been bred for years, before we'd found her at the shelter. She was a tired ole girl and just wanted to relax away the rest of her life. So we loved her up for her last years on the planet.

Not soon after we buried Kylie's ashes next to one of our favorite local trails, we found Max. 

Or, more accurately, I went to work one Saturday morning and came home a few hours later to reports by the children along the lines of  'we found this great dog and dad said we might get him!' This was a bit of a surprise, as we'd just had a family meeting the week before, and the hubby had decided it might be good to settle into our new Colorado life a bit more before we decided what kind of dog we'd get next. 

I guess a week was enough 'settle' time, because, while out running errands that day, they'd seen this precious floppy eared soul sitting at the back of the enclosure in the middle of a pet adoption fair.

Max and his siblings has been born to a farmer's dog and were barely tolerated. After a few of Max's siblings got hit by cars on their remote country road, the neighbors called the local shelter. Max was just over six months old and not sure who he could trust in the world. But he was calm, and he was loving, and he seemed to need a bunch of kids as much as they needed him.

I met him the next day, as the kids brought him to the Rec Center where I work. I'm a mama, deep in my soul a mama, so all I could see was another little creature who needed some nurturing. I was game.

We had so much love and life to share with Max that we intimidated him a bit in the first few weeks. We had to remind each other to give him space, give him time to trust us.

He slowly learned that the warm bed would be there every night and the tasty food would fall into his dish twice a day. He loved his crate, filled with soft pillows and blankets by his new fan club. It took him a bit to learn that we were trustworthy. By the end of one day he would be snuggling on the couch with one of the kids and by morning he'd seem to have forgotten that we were his new forever family. But we were patient and showed him over and over again that we weren't going anywhere.

We made endless memories, in the year and a half that we became his and he became ours. 

On a good day he'd get in a two hour hike up mountain trails with one of our teenagers, then a second one when Dad got home and needed to be outdoors to shake off too much time at a desk. With great gusto he'd run frantic circles around our back yard, sometimes chasing a ball and sometimes just chasing his own spirit. 

He quickly picked up on the 'keys' cue and whenever any of us went to run errands he sat up tall by the side door, eyebrows raised, ears perked high, seeming to ask with facial expressions alone, "Do I get to go too??"

He was happy to just go along for the ride. He never minded hanging out in the truck or minivan while groceries were selected or library books picked out. He loved just being out, seeing people coming and going across the parking lot, smelling the unique smells that every part of town inhabits. It was an added bonus if the trip ended up at 'that stoplight', the one that led to the dog park a few miles from home.

For the first time in our kids' lives, they had a true puppy. A dog who could be riled up by a raised eyebrow or pitch change in their voice. A dog who ran twice as fast as they did, but always circled back to find his people before the trail got too long. A dog who held promise of many more years of memories.

When I first heard the news that Max had run away I was not surprised, especially once I heard the details of his escape. We'd told my friend that Max didn't need a leash when he was in our yard. The weather in November is chilly enough that he's motivated to do his business and get back inside. So on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, a day after we left town, she came over to our house and started the routine of taking care of the animals.

She opened the sliding back door and watched him run to his favorite spot in the back corner of our yard, the place where the woods begin. She sat quietly at our picnic table, waiting for him to finish his business. Once he was done he looked back at her.

He held her gaze for a long minute, then he turned and ran.

I have no doubt that it was nothing that my friend did wrong. She fed him exactly as we'd told her to. She tried her best to pet him and love on him, when he'd allow her to get close, which wasn't very often. She is an animal loving person and has the skill of knowing just how much room to give him. But when he looked back and saw her sitting at that picnic table, something in his brain clicked.

His family was gone. And he had the wide open woods in front of him. He was going to go find them.

By the time she ran down to her house and got her car, he was long gone.

She spent the next 48 hours, including much of her own Thanksgiving holiday, searching high and low for our puppy.  With her own teenagers riding along to keep her company, she drove the mountainous roads in our town. She called every shelter, vet and sheriff's department she could think of. She called friends who live locally and begged them to be on the lookout for a very lost, probably cold and hungry puppy who was just looking for his kids. And then finally, she knew she had to break down and call us to let us know he was gone.

Through the rest of our reunion we tried not to think about the fact Max was not at home. We tried not to think about the fact it was cold out and, in our town, he had about as much of a chance of being found as he did of just being hopelessly lost in the wilderness. We all knew that he was not the trained hunting dog who would naturally know how to forage for food and create shelter. He was our puppy, who was born in a barn,  and neglected until he came to our house, where he was promptly spoiled rotten.

The drive back to Colorado, from Texas, was a long one. The letdown after a much anticipated vacation with people we love and rarely get to see was punctuated by the fact my friend had not called to say that Max had been found. The quiet cell phone meant he was still out there, somewhere.

We got back on Saturday night. We found his crate, along with his water and food bowls, carefully placed on our back patio, by my friend who was hoping he'd just come back home when the hunger got the best of him. She said some nights the food would be gone by morning, but that doesn't mean much when our trash cans are regularly scavenged by bears and other wild animals.

She continued to beat herself up, blaming herself for his escape, even though I continually reminded her that she'd done everything right. Our puppy was just not interested in the basics of care. He wanted his kids. And there wasn't much she could do to stop him from going to find them. Once we got into town, I told her to leave the hunt to us. She'd done enough, tortured herself enough, and it was time to let us put in some detective work.

Sunday, which normally would have been used for unpacking and watching football, my youngest son and his daddy drove all the same roads my friend had been driving, hoping that hearing their voices would bring Max out of his hiding place. They hiked all the trails at his favorite dog park. They called shelters and sheriff offices. In the middle of the night Sunday I was laying in bed, staring at the ceiling, praying that in the end we would just find out, either way, what had happened to our precious boy. When it became apparent that sleep would not come, I got out of bed and made my way downstairs.

I checked the back porch. Crate still there, door open. Food and water dishes, still full. I opened the sliding door just a crack and whistled. A few times I called his name, trying not to wake the neighbors, but still reach as far as it could go into the woods behind our house. No rustling. No energetic little brown dog running toward his warm home.

I signed up for a Craigslist account and posted a heartfelt plea, along with an recent picture of Max in both the lost and found and the pet sections. I also scoured the 'found' listings, hoping that I'd stumble upon our boy. Lots of pit bull mixes and Chihuahuas, but no medium brown dog with floppy ears. I went to the back door, called for him one more time, then fell into a fitful sleep on the couch that is nearest the door where he just might reappear.

The most heart breaking part of the experience was helping my youngest son handle his grief. Max was his friend. Max was the loving constant in his life, when older siblings were pushing too many of his buttons. I cried along with him on Sunday night, as he sobbed to me, "But I was supposed to grow up with Max!"

A big part of his grief came from the not knowing. His mind immediately went to the worst case scenario. "I can see him in my mind, curled up in the wild...cold and suffering!" he cried to me.  I assured him that there was just as much chance that someone had found him and was still trying to figure out who to call so we could be reunited. I hoped it was true.

As I snuggled up with him on my king sized bed on Sunday night, trying to help him drift off to sleep while Dad and his older brother did one more lap around the dog parks and neighborhood roads in the dark, I found myself telling him stories of the day I felt my deepest grief, the day I lost my mom. I told him about the days after she died, a handful of years before he was born, and how deeply sad I'd felt. He held my hand as I cried new tears for her, understanding for the first time these stories of a grandmother he never knew.

On Monday I found myself searching for him in the woods along the road as I drove to the grocery store. Maybe he was somewhere in those shadows, hunkered down, waiting us out. Maybe he was injured, just a short distance from home, and unable to even hobble the short distance to help.

Once back home I went to the back door and whistled, calling his name, a few times every hour. Part of me wanted to believe he truly was 'okay'. That he was in someone's house, being fed, maybe bathed, before they drove him to the shelter, where we'd find him. But part of me knew that sustained temperatures in the teens, along with wind gusts in the high 70s didn't make for a very friendly climate for a skinny dog surviving in the woods.

My older son went to his college classes on Monday, then spent the rest of the day driving around Denver, visiting every shelter he could find, hoping to see a familiar puppy's face. He came home tired and defeated.

We all went to bed on Monday night with heavy hearts. What we didn't know was that we wouldn't sleep for long.

Just after midnight I awoke to my daughter's voice, screaming, "He's BACK! Max is BACK!" Within seconds of sitting up in bed, there he was, running down the hallway to our bedroom. It was hard to imagine it wasn't a dream.

My husband, Max's favorite hiking buddy, sat up and said, "Max?" in a surprised voice. 

It was all the encouragement he needed. Two seconds later a very dirty, smelly dog had jumped up on our bed, a place he was never allowed before he got lost.

There was much petting and grinning and pronouncements of "I can't believe he's home!" 

He was home. Smelling like a dead animal and thinner than we'd ever seen him, he was home.

My daughter had been asleep when a scratching sound woke her up. Then she heard a tinkling sound, like dog tags clinking against each other. On a whim she climbed out of bed and made her way to the back door. And there he was. He'd found his way home.

In the days after, as I slowly introduced his system to healthy food, we had hints of his trials. Apparently he had not found a friendly person to feed him and protect him from the wind. He coughed up several piles of pine needles and bark. After a very long bath (with two 'repeat and rinses') he made his way to his cozy crate and sunk down into the fluffy blankets. He slept away most of two whole days.

And then he was back. His energy was back. His joy was back. Our Max was back.

The day after he returned we had temperatures that fell below zero and many inches of new snowfall. We all recognized that if he hadn't come home when he did, he probably wouldn't have made it. The conditions were just too brutal.

But he did make it. With whatever God has in heaven that protects the creatures of the earth, our Max was watched over and led home at just the right time.

Our puppy thought he could find his kids, after they dared to leave him for more than a day. He ran and ran and struggled and struggled. But in the end all it took for him to find them was the simple act of finding his way home.

Back to that sliding door that leads to the place where he is loved.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Trading Up

It's been my crusade for over a decade now, and it's finally catching on. When I was doing research about the option of cutting off my foot I had very few resources to pick from. The internet was a baby and mostly full of company websites. The library had zero books on amputation or amputees. Through Amazon I found a doctor's manual, showing what an amputation surgery looks like, and exactly three books about extreme sport amputees.

But I knew I'd never be an extreme sports enthusiast. I was just a mom who wanted a more active life so I could stop missing out on my kids' lives. I needed to hear stories about people who traded in their bad limb and, in turn, received a normal life.

On January 12, 2004 I finally got rid of that twisted foot. Three months later I got my first leg. I was amazed by the energy return I felt from my left side when I walked. I'd dragged that old foot around for so many years I'd forgotten what even gait felt like.

Ten years later I still have no regrets. On the rare days that I get frustrated with some of the logistics of having this metal leg, I just think about how life would have been if I'd chosen not to amputate. Those mental images are enough to remind me that I'm in a pretty good place.

Ten years later, the perception of amputees has totally changed. When I was a kid, people didn't know much about amputees. They were generally seen as old men in wheelchairs who'd lost their legs in Vietnam. I have amputee friends who have been without their limb since childhood. They had a much tougher road than I did. I got to hide my disability in a well strapped in shoe. And then when I finally got brave enough to get rid of it, society was fascinated by the bionics I wore.

Ten years later I'm seeing references on television about how being an amputee isn't that big of a deal. On the show Modern Family, the sister is kidding the brother that his minor leg injury might mean they need to cut it off. His reply goes something like, "That's okay...then I could get one of those cool running legs!"

Ten years later I have a young, strong lifeguard kid at my work telling me about when he accidentally shot himself in the leg last year. He knew it was bad (it was a hollow point bullet) but on the ride in the ambulance he kept telling himself it would be okay if he lost his leg, because he knew he'd get a perfectly functioning artificial leg. Life would go on.

A lot has changed in ten years. But my specific crusade still has a long way to go. I'm personally aware of the hundreds (thousands) of people who are struggling with the option of elective amputation. They have severe leg or foot injuries that will never heal. They will be in pain and/or have terrible mobility for the rest of their lives. They've had dozens of surgeries to repair the damage and there is no more hope.

Choosing to just cut it off was not on the table ten years ago. But today it can be. Within six months they will be active again. Of course if they started out with two healthy legs, they will never find a prosthetic leg that is exactly like a healthy real leg. But they will find a leg that is much better than the one they've been stuck with.

And they will have a chance to get good, smooth, pain free gait back. As much as the idea might horrify their loved ones, the option is a good one.

This morning I pulled up Hulu and watched an episode of Grey's Anatomy. A friend had told me about it's story line. I never watch this show so I'm glad she gave me the heads up. In the episode, a young girl who was born with club feet has decided she's done with surgeries. She just wants to cut it off and start over. 

This was my mantra for most of my life, "Why can't we cut it off and start over?"

This episode was literally my story. At first the doctors are not ready to give up. They've been operating on her for three years and to them, cutting it off is complete failure on their part. But once they see the picture from the patient's side, they get it. They get that giving this young girl a set of prosthetic legs will open up her world.

She was never going to have straight, pain free feet. But if they let her choose the metal and plastic feet she was seeing in the media, at least she'd have a chance at a very normal life.
For years I had doctors telling me I was not a candidate for amputation.  Many of them said to me, "It is pink and it has a pulse. We don't cut off 'healthy' limbs."

They could never hear the part about my frustration of being left on the couch while my family went on adventures, or having to adjust our plans because 'mom can't walk that far'. I wanted to scream at them, 'Doesn't that count for anything?'

I was so pleased to see a mainstream show a very legitimate case about elective amputation. I have big dreams. I'll keep plugging away with my message and maybe someday those two words will be more understood. I'll keep writing posts, submitting articles, talking to doctors, and slowly I'll get the word out. Who knows where we could be, ten years from now.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Why I Wore My Seahawks Shirt To Work

It was all fun and light hearted in the weeks before the big kick off. 

This team that I had loved for most of my life was finally headed for the Super Bowl. This team that never seemed to make the papers. This team that no one ever paid attention to. This team that just kept plugging away, season after season, even when they mostly had marginal seasons. I loved them anyway and was the loyal fan, wearing the jersey, and snatching up any Seahawk trinket I found on sale (Seahawks stuff is generally found on the clearance racks). Now they were finally headed to the big game and I could not have been more excited.

In a terrible twist of fates, the team we were facing in this important game happened to be the home team of my friends and neighbors. Just two years ago we moved to the sunny state of Colorado, where the Broncos fans had closets full of orange garb. They didn't take much notice to the new girl, who preferred to wear green and blue. 

Until the season unfolded and suddenly we were facing each other at the Super Bowl. Then the ribbing started.

I started to wear my team gear to work, as I sat at the front desk of our local Recreation Center. As the Orange streamed through the doors on the way to basketball practice or swim meets, they would make comments and pretend to be insulted when they noticed my not-orange. 

They were all very confident that I was the one that would be wiping tears from my cheeks when February 2nd rolled around. They seemed to think it was 'cute' that there was a Seahawks fan in the midst.

One little boy was downright confused. After seeing my Shaun Alexander jersey he did a double take and said, "...but that's not our team." It had never occurred to him that those Hawks might have fans too. Fans who lived in Colorado.

Bets were made. Not bets involving money. Bets involving wearing the winning team's jersey and gift cards to Qdoba. I have been a Payton Manning fan for many  years. To say I wasn't a bit nervous about the guy who'd set many records in his fifteenth season of being an iconic quarterback would be a lie. But I was just proud that my guys earned their own way to the dance and knew they had a decent shot of holding that Manning guy back for a bit.

Then the game happened. My team won. No, my team didn't just win. We played the best game we've played all year. We ran on all cylinders. We held back a team that is filled with talented, top shelf players. And by the middle of the first half it was pretty apparent that we might have a shot at that trophy.

I was pretty much out of my mind. I kept turning to my boys and saying, "Is this happening? Is this really happening?" I couldn't believe we were not just winning, we were dominating. 

And then I could hardly comprehend that we'd WON.

It didn't take long to realize my new dilemma. My Seahawks had just won the Super Bowl, a game that the Broncos were pretty confident they'd take. And a game that my local friends were very confident they'd take. I was now the local enemy. While I saw the celebrations in Seattle, thousands of fans in green and blue high fiving, and screaming, and congratulating each other, I realized I'd feel safer in my Colorado home if the doors were immediately locked.

I knew my days of wearing my Seahawks gear into work were over. I was the one to hate. It just made it more tricky that my prosthetic leg was covered in Seahawks logos. I'd never be able to wear shorts again. Super Bowl losses this big are not forgotten in weeks, or even months. People in Colorado will never forget that they lost the Super Bowl of 2014. And they'd never forget who took it from them. I had instantly become a closeted Seahawks fan.

As the week wore on it started to make me kind of mad. I'd waited for over 30 years, never knowing if my team would ever win this game and now that it had happened I couldn't celebrate. I couldn't be loud and proud and wear out the gear that hung in my closet. If we lived anywhere besides Colorado I'd be congratulated every time I ran into someone I knew. 

But now I had to just hang my head and pretend it had never happened, or risk angering the people around me. I couldn't put a Seahawks sticker on my car and not risk vandalism. I couldn't hang my 12th man flag in front of my house without fearing retribution. I was not a Broncos hater. I was just a crazy Seahawks lover. It wasn't personal. But I knew they'd forever hate me anyway. It just didn't seem fair.

My work week starts on Wednesday. I put on my standard issue Rec Center shirt and headed in. My plan was to just keep my mouth shut and scrape whatever joy I could from the online celebrations I kept seeing on my Seattle related facebook feeds.

Then a surprising thing happened. The Broncos fans started showing up and asking why I didn't wear my gear. They high fived me and told me congratulations. Some of them pretended to be mad but would then break out in a grin and say, "Your team played awesome..."

I was a bit confused until one of the orange-est of them all said to me, "We're not mad at you. Your team played great. Our team didn't. You didn't rob us from a win. We didn't play well enough to take it from you."

I was blown away.  They didn't hate me. They recognized that the better team that day had taken home the rings. The fans of the Orange showed as much class and grace as their quarterback, Manning.

So on Friday I wore my green shirt to work. It has a big Seahawks logo across the front. All day long I got more high fives and a couple of 'we're with you's from a few other closeted Seahawks fans in our area. I kept waiting for the anger, the hostility and the rudeness, and it never came.

I underestimated the fans in Orange. They love their guys, they love their team. They fill that stadium with joy and energy every single time a home game is played. They had an amazing season, watching their 'new' quarterback show the world that a true champion can come back from a huge medical issue and be better than ever.

They get geared up for big games. They bring out the jerseys, bumper stickers, stocking caps and t-shirts. Their kids are all in, wearing the gear to school and volleyball practice at the Rec Center. They are a motivated bunch.

But they are also a classy bunch. They recognize good football and get frustrated when things don't go their way. And when the scoreboard is not their friend they do the right thing. They pound their fist on the arm rest of the couch and storm up to the kitchen for a consoling snack. 

But, lucky for me, they know where to place their frustration. And they don't hold it against the girl in blue and green who sits at the front desk of the Rec Center and helps them sign their kid up for dance class.

I'm proud of my Bronco loving neighbors. I really am. 

But I'm still not risking the bumper sticker on the back of my Suburban. 

At least not until the Broncos win a Super Bowl of their own. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Another Reason Why I Love My Hawks

The article that intrigued me came out in August of 2013. A reporter for ESPN wrote an indepth feature on how Pete Carroll's coaching style was different. Very different. If you haven't met me, let me introduce myself. My name is Judy and I'm a crazy Seattle Seahawks fan. Pete Carroll is the Seahawk's coach. And, as it turns out, he does things the way I think they should be done.

In Alyssa Roenigk's ESPN article she gave me a behind the scenes peek at what kind of coach the Seahawks were working with. What she described thrilled me, but also scared me. 

Was it possible to go against the hard core way football has been coached for decades, and still have a winning team? 

In August of last year, as Coach Carroll's plan was still basically in beta mode, all I could do was cross my fingers and hope.

Ms. Roenigk described an atmosphere of support and encouragement (imagine that). After having a bumpy ride as an NFL coach, then being knocked down to coaching on the college level, Pete Carroll had been making notes to himself for years, hoping and praying he got a chance to coach in the big time again. He knew if he got a second chance, he'd do it differently.

Just like in effective parenting, Carroll had never felt like yelling and demeaning players was an effective way to motivate them. He decided that he'd try a more radical, upside down approach. 

Why not accept the fact that his players were people? People who sometimes didn't get enough sleep, or had troubles at home. Why not bring in a specialist on meditation and teach his guys to be more in touch with themselves? Why not insist that everyone in the organization, from the top specialty coaches to the guys sweeping floors, be affirmative? He did all of that and more.

This change started on day one of his tenure as coach. In his very first team meeting he made a subtle request that said a lot more to him than any stats sheet could. He simply asked the players to get up and change seats, to get a new perspective. 

Matt Hasselbeck was the quarter back at the time and he remembers it this way. "One guy in the back of the auditorium didn't switch seats. He was a big-money guy, a starter. And he was gone a week later. Pete didn't care about the seats. He just wanted to know who was with him."

The way he picks his players also employs a new strategy. He looks for the guy who is good at his position, but also has a positive demeanor that will fit with his philosophy. Not all players appreciate the more touchy-feely style of coaching. So my coach needs a roster of players who are open to a new way of thinking. 

One trick I especially love, which I should try on my teenagers some day, is the deliberate turning off of the air conditioners in the team buildings, just to see who the complainers are and then helping them with their attitudes. I think his players might fare better than my kids would. He has also taken prospective players bowling, to see how they handle winning and losing, at a game that has nothing to do with a leather ball.

His changes shook up the way things were run all the way to the place where players went for nutritional nourishment. Carroll not only has experts on staff to help players get the right kinds of foods in their diet, he has set up the cafeteria with signs bearing suggestions about which foods would pair best with the one in front of a player. Not only are their fruits and vegetables grown locally on organic farms, the food waste from the cafeteria goes to a nearby chicken farm to be fed to chickens that will then, in turn, be served to players.

Practices and team meetings are set up to be hard work, but also fun. 

Carroll has a DJ on the side of the field at team practices, and the meditation expert is often seen walking through the players on the field, just in case anyone needs a reminder to be settled and in control. Carroll allows players to be themselves, as long as they do their jobs when it counts. And if they don't? There is no yelling and berating. There are meetings where changes are made in a respectful way and players are asked, "What do you think is keeping you from playing your best? Let's fix it"

Who would have thought we'd see the day where we actually desired to be treated like a six foot six, hard core football player when we're at work? Carroll's guys go to a pretty desirable place when they leave home to 'go to work'.

He had no idea if it would work, or if he'd just create a locker room full of soft pansies, but he was determined to try it. He insisted that his players work a yoga routine into their training schedules. He hired physiologists to be available to any players who might need an ear. Instead of seeing how tough a rookie was by allowing hazing, he worked hard to make them feel like an important part of the family, right away.

Doug Baldwin, a Seattle Seahawks wide receiver, likes the way his coach does things. In a Sports Illustrated article, written by Doug Farrar, he spells it out.

“I think the perception of football players and football coaches is that everything has to be structured in a sense that it has to be hard and difficult and there’s no fun — football is not supposed to be fun,” he said. “That’s just not the case. I think that the teams that are the most successful are the teams that have fun doing what they’re doing. It just goes against the grain of what the perception is of what football is supposed to be. It’s not supposed to be fun, it’s supposed to be hard and rigorous and you fight for your wins. Here, we have a fun time practicing, we have a fun time in our meetings, and that ultimately leads to us having a fun time out there on the field game day — which I think contributes to our success.”

Richard Sherman, one of the Seahawk's cornerbacks and one of the best at his position in the NFL, agrees with his teammate. In the same Sports Illustrated article he explains his perception of his coach.

“He’s not soft, but he’s easygoing. He’s loose. As loose as you can get out there. He allows his players to be who they are within the confines of the team, as long as it doesn’t hurt the team, he allows guys to be themselves. If you’re a reserved guy that’s always focused, that’s always locked in that like an Earl Thomas is, he allows you to be that guy and be locked in 100 percent of the time. If you’re a loose guy and you dance at practice like I do, he allows you to be that guy. As long as when you’re on the field you do exactly what you’re supposed to do."

The players aren't the only ones catching Carroll's vision. The Seahawk's assistant head coach, Tom Cable, used to be one of the aggressive coaches. He welcomed the new approach and has realized something very important.

He had this to say in the Sports Illustrated article: "If I go ballistic on a guy because he dropped his outside hand or missed an underneath stunt, who is wrong? I am. I'm attacking his self-confidence and he's learning that if he screws up, he's going to get yelled at. If you make a mistake here (under Coach Carroll), it's going to get fixed."

I'm a lover of football and a lover of my Seattle Seahawks, but I'm mom before all of that. I appreciate a coach who will call his players to be the best they can be on the field, while also supporting their efforts to be the best they can be off of it also. He's a dad himself so he appreciates respecting his players' time with their families in the course of a busy football season. He knows firsthand the importance of not missing a three year old's birthday party.  

It's a great example to my own children, about leadership and seeing others as part of the human race first, above the title they may or may not hold. I'm proud that this is my team, and my team's coach. 

And as for the concern I had in the back of my mind about how a program run on encouragement and total support could fare in the NFL, I didn't have long to wait, to see what the answer would be. 

The Seahawks had the best season they've ever had, in their 38 year history, starting with winning all four of their preseason games, then finishing the regular season by winning 13 and losing only 3. 

Two days ago they won their Division Championship against a pretty tough San Fransisco 49ers team. Their next stop is the biggest game in American football.

As for Coach Carroll, and the file full of notes he made to himself while he waited for his second chance as an NFL coach, he sums it up pretty well for me.

"I wanted to find out if we went to the NFL and really took care of guys, really cared about each and every individual, what would happen?"

Well Coach Pete, you have your answer. You make it to the Super Bowl.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Ten Years

Ten years. It's a long time. It's a short time. It's long enough to make a newborn turn into a lightning fast soccer player. It's long enough for two married people to figure out if those vows are going to stick. And it's long enough for a person to forget what life was like with two flesh and bone feet.

I had my amputation surgery ten years ago. On January 12, 2004 I limped into a hospital in Bountiful, Utah, and climbed up onto a gurney. As I looked down I could see two bumps sticking up from the light sheet that covered my body. Two feet that were attached to my legs. The two feet I was born with. And I knew that within hours the left side of that sheet would lay flat.

But somehow I wasn't scared. It might be hard to believe, but I was actually excited.

I had lived with a foot I hated for most of my life. Too many times in my childhood I'd look down at that twisted foot that wouldn't let me do what my friends and siblings were doing, and I'd curse it. Stupid foot. Why can't you just be straight?

As the mother of young children I'd find myself sending hateful thoughts to my left foot. Was it too much to ask that I could go shopping for groceries, haul them home, put them in the cabinets, and not be so worn out that I'd have to sink into the couch for the rest of the day? Dragging that foot, eventually strapped to a brace, took all my energy. There was limited time to be the mommy I wanted to be.

Another day, another disappointment. Jeff is packing up the van for a fun hike through the local park. It's common knowledge that I won't go. I'll buy a Sunday paper, or find a good library book, and I'll wait in the van for them to emerge from the forest. With pink cheeks and excited stories to tell, I soak in their joy. I'll be the audience, allowed only to watch, not to join in on the stage. The only hiking pictures I have to sift through in the future are those of them putting on their tiny backpacks and then the occasional shots of them climbing back in the van.

By the time I found myself on that hospital gurney, wrapped in a breezy gown, I was ready. Ready to get rid of that foot that was nothing but trouble and sadness to me.

Now it's ten years later. A decade has passed since I woke up from that surgery and instantly lifted the sheet to make sure Dr. Hess had taken enough. I wanted more than just my withered foot cut off. I needed some of my leg taken too, so I could have clearance for the exciting prosthetic feet I'd been eyeing.

He'd done a great job. I healed quickly and moved on with my life. By Easter I was walking on my own, fairly well. No cane or crutches. I was wearing a dress with sandals. The first time I'd worn sandals in two decades, now that I had a regular foot. I posed for a picture at church with a friend who had just finished her chemo treatments. It was a milestone day for both of us.

That summer we toured the Red Rocks of southern Utah and I was part of the fun. I hiked up the trails to stand under the large arches. I'm in the pictures. No longer held back.

I've tried a lot of fun things in the past ten years. I was learning to ski on the first anniversary of my surgery. For the next two years I skied almost every Friday afternoon, with Jeff by my side, encouraging me with every turn.

I've done a variety of hikes. No Kilimanjaros. Just the kind of hikes that matter to me. Down an easy trail, with the people I love ahead of me and behind me. Ending up at a waterfall in Vermont or a bluff in New York. There are many pictures now, of me on hiking trails. 

Something I'd never dreamed of while I sat back in that van, reading my Sunday paper.

I've written a book and had it published. It was started just weeks after my surgery, when Jeff set me up at the computer, and found a nice resting place for my bandaged up stump. I had been frustrated during my pre-surgery research, that there were no books out there about regular amputees. In fact, there were only about four amputee books on the market back in 2004. They were all about super athletes. I was impressed, but not really encouraged that I'd find what I imagined on the other side of this surgery. I wanted to hear from an everyday amputee. Maybe even a mom, or a dad, who just wanted more mobility and found it.

Since I have some history with writing, I dived in. Chapter by chapter I wrote, edited, re-wrote, had friends read and make suggestions, wrote some more. For the next eight years I chipped away at that manuscript. As my new amputee life was unfolding, I'd go to my computer and get down what it was like in the earlier days, before my new leg snapped onto my body, so I could share with other amputees what my journey looked like. For a few months it would be filed away, as life got crazy. My kids were turning into teens and I didn't have as much time to write.

Then it would call to me, as yet another stranger would approach me in public and ask, "How did you lose your leg?" and "My son/daughter/mother/father just lost his leg. What advice can you give me?"  

I would be reminded how important it was to get an amputee book out there.

Finally, one year and three months ago, it was done and published. Now when I get the questions I can hand them a card. It will take them to my website, that has many helpful links and several essays. It can say so much more than I can, when I only have a handful of minutes with a stranger in public.

I've sledded on icy hills in New Hampshire and Utah with my kids. I've gone along with the gang, on almost every adventure. There are still days I stay back, when Jeff and the boys want to do serious hiking in the mountains around us. But when they come home I'm ready to tackle the challenges that are more my speed. Walking a trail at the dog park, talking about our day.

And, to be honest, just as important to me, is the simple things I can do. Now that I have energy return on my left side, I walk more evenly. Both sides are participating. That means I can do an overflowing cart trip to the grocery store, haul it to the car, unload it at home and still have plenty of energy left to do what the rest of the day calls for. Making dinner. Throwing in laundry. Keeping up with the tall teenagers who live in my house. My leg does it's part and gets me through my  day. I'm never whole body exhausted when it's time for bed, like I used to be every night before I got this metal foot.

It is truly hard to remember what it was like to stumble along on that deformed foot. The only real reminder I have is the phantom pain ache I sometimes feel, coming from that foot that is no longer there. I can curl the toes on that foot, in my brain. And sometimes it aches like it used to when I was so hard on it. But it's not really there. So I rub my stump or shake it out, and the ache is gone. The foot is gone and the agony is gone. Missing out on my kids' lives is gone.

I've been the lady with the prosthetic leg for a decade now. Most of my kids only know me as an amputee mom. And to them it's perfectly normal for a mom to have to take off her leg in the middle of a hot day, and wipe out the sweat, before continuing the hike. For my now 13 year old, he literally has no memory of me as a two legged mom. I've always been there for him, with my metal foot to keep up with what he dished out. My older three have faint memories. They remember the surgery more than anything. The feeling that this was a big deal and not knowing what to expect on the other side. Moms are solid and constant. Moms don't lie on hospital beds and get their limbs cut off.

But it didn't take long for them to see that I was still their mom. Still the same person. There were long afternoons of card games while I sat on my bed, waiting for the incision to heal. We snuggled and watched movies. Curled up together and read books. There wasn't anything scary about a cast and a mom with a shorter leg.

Then I was up and around. They thought the leg was actually pretty cool. Robots and Super Heros had this kind of stuff. My youngest spent the greater part of his three year old year hanging out in an office filled with fake hands and feet, as my prosthetist made adjustments to my leg.

Life happened. Day after day. We moved from Utah to New York, then New York to Colorado. And I was 'just the mom'. I continued to buy groceries, mix them up for dinners, change loads of laundry, and sign school papers. I was not defined by my artificial limb.

I quickly acclimated to the title of amputee. For so many years I'd tried to hide my disability and once I had my new leg I found I was proud to identify with the amputee community. Finally I had a title I could hang on to, a title people understood. And, lucky for me, by the time I had my surgery, amputees were no longer scary and weird. We were intriguing, wearing interesting hardware.

I've had a pretty good ten years. I've grown into my title and tried to represent it well. I know I'll never walk perfectly but I love working on my gait in public, showing the world how normal it can be to have a prosthetic leg. I love working out at the gym, showing others how wonderful my leg is and what it allows me to do.

I look forward to the next ten years. I have some personal goals, but what I've learned along the way is that life can surprise you. I can't wait to see what I'll write about ten years from now, when I've held this title of amputee for 20 years. 

It's going to be amazing. I just know it.