I Adopted Some Moms

Deployed moms. One in the Army, one in the Air Force. Usually, I take whoever is next, but this time was different. This time I went looking for the moms. I won’t tell them why. I’ll just send letters, care packages and be upbeat. But I figured I could tell you.

Pre-missing my own mom

Last year my mom had a stroke. Turns out she has a chronic brain bleed and a small aneurysm over the area of her brain that controls speech and memory. Apparently there is no treatment, cure, or expected progression. She could be fine or get worse. She could have more strokes. Or not. No one knows.

She’s doing better now but we live in different states and over the phone, I can hear what’s missing. I hear the blank spaces for words she can’t find and events she can’t recall. I feel like I am losing her very very slowly. And joining a club I don’t want to belong to (I have friends with parents who have Alzheimer’s and other challenges).

Sometimes I fear that the space between us will one day be more than miles. It will be a gulf that all the love in the world can’t cross. And she won’t know us. Then some days I just feel incredibly grateful for where she’s at now.

This pain of current and possible separation makes me want to DO something. But what can I control? I can try to lessen the ache of separation for some other mother and child.

Pre-missing my daughter

I get that this will sound silly. But my daughter is going to sleep-away camp for the first time for three weeks this summer and I’m not ready. SHE’S ready. But not me. This will be the first time we’ll be apart this long. I never went to camp as a kid so this is a foreign idea to me.

Also, I’ve been a single mom since she was five. Yes she sees her dad, but she’s with me most of the time. We’re a team. Although one member of the team could clean up more but, she’s my super girl. I dread her empty room. And I can’t imagine not getting the daily details of whatever good, annoying or LOL things happened. She jokes that she’ll have some of her stuffed animals have “sleepovers” in my room while she’s gone to help me. I laugh but part of me is considering it.

So what can I do about this? I can remember to have perspective. Yes it’s okay to miss Sofia. But I need to remember that other moms are separated from their kids for much longer and for much more serious reasons. Maybe a good way to keep that top of mind is to ease their time apart.

Mom on the brain

Strength is a beautiful, wonderful thing. But lately there have been days when I don’t feel so strong. When I wish someone would scoop me up and “mom” me a little. Make me a grilled cheese sandwich, bring me a soft blanket, snuggle on the couch and tell me everything’s going to be okay.

So how can I feel better? I think giving to others makes us more joyful and stronger inside. Taking action—the act of caring—is its own reward. And, since I’ve had “mom” on the brain and in the heart, I figured adopting these troops who are moms would be a good step to take. For them and me.

My daughter's handprints when she was two years old.

My daughter’s handprints when she was two years old.

© Gina left the mall, 2016

I Supper Love You

“I supper love you too,” Sofia whispered and smiled as she ran towards the school doors to start her day. This moment with my daughter made me think of one my soldiers and an amazing letter I received from his family.

Supper and separation

Sofia had meant to write, “super” a few years ago in her note to me, but I’m glad she didn’t. This error has turned into a special saying for us. Of course, in high-profile, high-stake situations like the 500-ft radius around her elementary school, she says it quietly so the other kids won’t hear. This occurs right after she drops my hand a block early so no one sees because she is, “too big to hold hands” and only does so to indulge me.

I-supper-love-you

The note I came home to one day

At this “supper” moment however, my heart ached because I was pre-missing her. My daughter is with me most of the time but she had an upcoming trip with her dad (my Ex). Let me be clear—I am in no way comparing this separation to the separation of deployment. But when I feel the tugs on my heart, I can’t help but think of our military families and all that they sacrifice. My next thought is one of gratitude for all the time I do have with her and safety I enjoy with her.

While I was in this frame of mind, I received a letter from a military family. The dad is a soldier and has been missing home very much. For some reason, it has been even harder this deployment to be away from the children and this has led him to make a big decision. When his current enlistment is up, he’s going to leave the Army so he can spend more time with his kids. His wife shared this news and added something wonderful:

In support of his decision and because of the amazing gift he has given me by allowing me to stay home with our kids all these years, I have started my own home-based business. I am working my butt off so I can take over as the primary income and my husband can enjoy time at home with our crazy kids like I have.

I laughed in happiness for them and also thinking of the occasional transitional challenge of going from warrior-leading-men-in-combat to stay-at-home dad, “ordering” small children around. I know he will do great. But I will be very disappointed if there are not some funny stories along the way.

When I read how his wife wanted to give him the same gift he gave her, I wanted to cheer them on and cry at the same time. He’s endured and achieved a great deal in his Army career. I’m proud of him and happy that he’s recognized when he has done enough and that he’s brave enough to take on a completely different kind of platoon. I can’t wait for his days to be filled with “supper” love moments and more.

© Gina left the mall, 2014

The Season of Getting

If you’re lucky, this is the Season of Getting. I don’t mean getting big-ticket items like luxury cars. Although you are lucky if you’re friends with the couple in the Lexus commercial who spend untold hours making giant red bows for their auto-gifting.

What I’m talking about is the feeling you get when you do something nice for someone who can’t repay you or even thank you. Often what you receive in return is greater than what you give. That is the beautiful irony.

Four years ago I received a request that I still think about. Partly because it makes me appreciate what I have, and partly because of the way my daughter Sofia responded. I’ve mentioned some of this request once before, but it still warms my heart. I’m still “getting” something from this.

The request

My infantry company is deployed to a remote outpost in Afghanistan. We spend most of our time in a very remote outpost living and working with the Afghan National Army, living a very meager existence. We don’t have showers or running water. We live twenty men to a tent, and live out of the back of our armored vehicles, or from our rucksacks. We are very far from home. Anything you could provide my Soldiers would be greatly appreciated. Some of my men do not have families in the States who can support them. Our communication back home is infrequent and unreliable. Letters and packages are our lifeline, and the only way we know that we are not out there alone. Nobody wishes for the end of war more than those of us who fight in them, but we are determined to finish what was started, and honor those who have served and fallen before us by completing this mission the best way we know how. Your support is invaluable. Thank you.

Our response

We decided to send one box of hygiene items and one of snacks. But to me, the most valuable things in those care packages were seven pieces of pink construction paper. Each one was a letter from Sofia. Each one, “had to be different!” This is a fine plan until you consider that Sofia had only recently learned to write.

As she made a mistake, she would crumple the paper in frustration. She asked me to help. She told me what she wanted to say, I wrote it down, and she copied it. Then she drew a picture. It was usually a heart or a butterfly. Or butterflies with heart bodies. Or both. This was a long, slow process and she really worked hard. I still have the “dictation” she gave me:

1. You are the most greatest hero in the whole wide world. Love, Sofia

2. Thank you for saving the world. Love, Sofia

3. I miss all of you, every single Soldier. Love, Sofia

4. I hope that all of you do not get hurt. I love all of you for saving the world. Love, Sofia

5. Thank you for being brave. Love, Sofia

6. Thank you for protecting us from the bad guys. Love, Sofia

7. I super miss all of the Soldiers. Love, Sofia

After I mailed it all, I imagined these troops receiving it. Maybe a few of them even folded up the pink letter and carried it with them. I imagined that when they finally did get to call home, they got to tell their loved ones that many strangers cared and sent them mail. I imagined what it must feel like for a parent or spouse to know this. Or maybe we just gave one of these guys five good minutes when he needed it most.

No matter what the actual impact, just knowing the real possibilities and potential ripple effect lifts my spirit. Of course our goal was to lift theirs.

The perfect gift

I will never forget how much care and effort Sofia put into this. It will always be something special we did together. So, as the last-minute holiday shopping commences, I hope you too are getting something wonderful—the gift and reward of kindness. However you choose to do it, it will be perfect. And if you need a red bow, you can have one of mine. 

red bows

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Giving Thanks to a Soldier, a Friend, and a Stranger

If you have thanks in your heart but don’t have the words in your pen or keyboard, I invite you to use some of mine. Why? Because it has come to my attention that some people hate writing. It could be just people I’m related to (especially at homework time) but I suspect they are not alone. That’s why I’ve jotted down a few words that may come in handy this week for anyone that needs them.

There are many things to be grateful for. Such as the fact that there are too many to list here. So my joyfully incomplete list includes three people you may wish or need to give thanks to on November 28th: a soldier, a friend, and a stranger.

Soldier

Somewhere, thousands of miles from home, there are Soldiers, Airmen, Marines, and Sailors you’ve never met who would do anything to keep you safe, up to and including sacrificing their lives. They raised their hand and took this on. However, choosing this life doesn’t make their hearts less vulnerable. If anything, they appreciate the moments with their loved ones even more. Everyday things like reading to your child at bedtime become like treasure.

I know you’ve probably heard the words, “remember the troops” a thousand times. Possibly a few of those times were me. But the truth is that it’s important they know they are not alone.

One way to remember them is to send a thank-you with coffee through Cup of Joe (COJ) Below are two options if you’d like to do this but need some ideas on what to write:

1. Simply replace the underlined details with your own.

Dear Service member,  My two brothers, sister-in-laws, their kids, my parents, and 2 dogs are all headed to my place for Thanksgiving and then sleeping over. Along with my family (husband, 2 kids 1 dog, 1 cat, 1 turtle) this is the recipe for craziness. The very best kind. Sure, every dish may or may not turn out perfectly. Someone may or may not fight over the X-box. But this much is certain: we are grateful for your help in making this day possible. Because of what you do, we have the freedom to be together in safety. Thank you for this on Thanksgiving and every day. Sincerely ___________________

If you’re not hosting the dinner, you can change the opening to reflect your plans, “We’re headed to _________”

2. Copy or change as you like.

Dear Service member, It is Thanksgiving and you may be far from home, but you are not far from our thoughts. It is your service, and that of your brothers and sisters in arms that allow us to gather at the table, free from fear. Not everyone in the world enjoys this amazing gift. So, I wanted to take a moment to say thank you. Please tell your family that my family thanks them as well. Sincerely_________

Each cup of coffee you send costs $2. You can even send just one.

A friend 

My family is spread out from NY to the Pacific Rim (that’s geographic, not cinematic.) For me, Thanksgiving usually means heading to Nancy’s house on Long Island. If you’re headed to a friend’s and want to include a note along with the wine or pumpkin pie you’ll be bringing, here are my words:

Dear Nancy,  Just wanted to say thank you for including us and making us feel like family. Knowing we have a place to call home for the holidays means more than I can say. Not having to cook for five hours is also pretty exciting too. Thank you for all of it. You rock. xo, Gina

A stranger 

For the first time ever, I’m traveling ON Thanksgiving Day. I’m taking my daughter Sofia to Florida to see Grandma and Grandpa. For the journey through La Guardia Airport, we’re bringing a bag of candy to share. It’s for the Policemen, TSA agents, gate agent, flight attendants or whomever we meet. Maybe they wanted to work, maybe they got stuck with the shift. Either way, there are probably slightly more desirable ways to spend a day devoted to family than x-raying a stranger’s carry-on luggage. Plus, since holiday travel can be stressful, any drop of kindness is probably a good thing.

This time, the words we’ll use are simple and what I wish for you and those you love:

Happy Thanksgiving!

Some of the candy we'll give out at LaGuardia Airport on Thanksgiving Day

Some of the candy we’ll give out at LaGuardia Airport on Thanksgiving Day

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Finding My Place In The Healing Process

Jessica Allen was at her desk working when she got the call. It was January 22, 2011 and the voice on the other end was telling her what happened to her husband Chaz. While on a dismounted patrol in the Zhari district of Afghanistan, he stepped on an IED, instantly lost both legs and broke his elbow. Nothing would be the same.

The Allen Family at Ground Zero.

The Allen Family at Ground Zero. (photo credit, Team Allen)

When I hear about something like this, my heart aches and then I hope and pray the family does well in their recovery. That’s generally the extent of it. I mean, I’ve never met them in person. I don’t live in their town. I’m not a doctor. I can’t build them a wheelchair-friendly house. I don’t have a place in the healing process. Or do I?

The movie and more

When I found out about the documentary Comedy Warriors, (famous comics teach wounded warriors how to do stand-up to help them heal) I thought that was something special. I wrote about it. Jessica saw the post and emailed me. She said in part, “I wish you could meet all the Heroes I have been blessed to meet. They are so inspiring…. Rob Jones, the double amputee featured in the film, was at Walter Reed when my husband was. We were able to see him run for the first time.” Jessica also shared the links below about her family:

www.facebook.com/GoTeamAllen

AdventuresOfTeamAllen

I’ve been following along since July and I’ve learned a few things. I’ve seen Jessica and crew cheering Chaz and others on. I’ve seen an, “off-road” wheelchair that looks pretty amazing. I’ve read some of the hard parts too in her blog. Then there’s a whole separate category of stuff I just never thought of, like body temperature. You lose both your legs, that’s a lot of biological real estate. Your body is used to maintaining 98.7 for a bigger area. It takes years to adjust. In the meantime, Chaz feels like he’s burning up.

I found it inspiring that Jessica did more than just try to heal her own husband and family. She tries to help as many families as she can through her work at Yellow Ribbon Fund (YRF.) So after reading, learning, and cheering them on, I wanted to know more.

My questions

ME: What 3 things do you wish people knew or understood?

JESSICA:

-Just because someone is missing limbs, they are still quiet capable of living a great life. Do not pity them for what they’ve lost. Instead celebrate them for what they have overcome.

-Caregivers are the silent heroes of our war. They sacrifice so much and so often go unnoticed.

-There is so much left to be done. It takes a nation to heal a hero. We must find our place in the healing process and help them heal.

ME: What is your biggest challenge now?

JESSICA: Balancing everything. I work full-time for YRF. YRF alone is a lot. We help so many people. As soon as one project is complete we are hopping to the next one. In addition, I still run my tax business. We homeschool our girls. I am a Girl Scout leader. And I still try to volunteer where ever I can. It’s a lot to juggle.

ME: What is the best thing to come out of this?

JESSICA: We are finally a family. Chaz missed our oldest daughter being born. Then he was gone for over half of her life. She never really had a chance to get to know him and threw up walls every time he came around. Our youngest daughter accepted him from the beginning. But the oldest was just a little different. Now we are together all the time. We have truly been able to get to know each other. We have had more fun that I ever knew you could have. We’ve gone on so many adventures together. The gift of time together has just been amazing!

Chaz playing with the girls in the park.

Chaz playing with the girls in the park. (photo credit, Team Allen)

Team Allen reaching the top

Reaching the top! (photo credit, Team Allen)

My place

Jessica’s response about all of us healing a hero struck me. I never thought of having a place in this process. So I tried to imagine what that could be.

I believe strongly that awareness and empathy matter. No one wants to feel misunderstood or alone. For our wounded warriors and families, this is especially true. So maybe I could try to help increase that kind of healing by sharing their story. Maybe this is the place I could serve.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

He Said, “Send Anything”

My first thought for Sergeant J’s care package was: PIRATES! This is because I learned that Talk Like A Pirate Day is coming. I figured eye patches, Pirate Booty popcorn, pirate cups, plates, and whatever else a deployed pirate might need. Then I checked the date and it’s on September 19th. Damn. My box wouldn’t make it to Afghanistan by then because mail delivery takes at least two weeks. My pirate idea was scuttled. Instead, I could do a theme I’ve done before or simply no theme. “Anything” is pretty open. Almost too open. So I kept thinking.

I looked up other strange holidays for inspiration and learned of National Bacon Day. Sounds fun, but it’s not an option because you never send pork products to the Middle East. I would also never send related items like bacon-scented soap and bacon-flavored dental floss (real products.) While they are technically not bacon, why walk around smelling like contraband? Toss in whiskey shampoo (also real) and you’ve got a recipe for trouble. Sadly, Bacon Day didn’t get me any closer to a care package idea.

It’s A Girl!

Then I found out that Sergeant J’s wife just gave birth to a baby girl! Wonderfully, they now have two little girls. Conveniently, it also made my job easier. I decided to send him a box of every pink candy I could find to celebrate the arrival of his sweet baby girl. I thought it would be fun for him to share with his buddies.

I put my daughter Sofia in charge of selection. She was literally “kid in a candy store” happy about this and went off-mission only slightly. When she discovered non-pink gummies shaped like Mario, fighter jets, and dinosaurs, she insisted that he had to have them. Then she continued her treasure hunt. We avoided anything chocolate because “chocolate season” is between November and April (other times of the year are too hot and it would melt.)

Doing this with Sofia was very special to me. I used to have her help me a lot. But one day she was writing a letter to a soldier and I looked over her shoulder. It said, “I wish I could trade places with you.” With tears in her eyes, she told me she was afraid he would get hurt and worried about all of them. I took the pen from her hand. Then I let her decide if and when she wanted to help. After a long break, she got involved again. Each time, it touches my heart.

After all the candy she picked out for Sergeant J, she found one small lollipop she wanted for herself. Of course I said yes.

Pink candy care package for soldier. It's a girl!

I put a list of contents. But good luck matching them all up.

Baby on the way, civilians on the case

Soldiers’ Angels has a group of volunteers that love to help deployed families celebrate their bundles of joy. It’s called Top Knot. I pulled the info below from the Soldiers’ Angels site and Top Knot also has a facebook page. I shared this with Sergeant J in case he and his family would like to sign up.

Top Knot is a nationwide network of service clubs and Angel individuals who sew, knit and shop to create gift baskets for infants and expectant mothers in military families. Deployments are difficult on the entire family unit, but even more so when that family is expecting or has an infant child. Our mission is to commend the women and children at home for their strength, to let them know we are proud of their sacrifices as well as their husbands’ and fathers’, and most importantly, to do what we can to support them during the emotionally challenging times of deployment.

Our dedicated volunteers knit, crochet, sew, quilt, and design blankets, booties, hats, onesies, bibs, and many more homemade gifts. We also assemble and deliver gift baskets full of goodies such as bottles, diapers, onesies, pacifiers, washcloths, grooming kits, and more. Additionally, we make sure to remember Dad by sending “It’s a Boy!” or “It’s a Girl!” bubblegum cigars to wherever he is stationed.

Anything goes

According to my holiday research, National Punctuation Day and Hug A Vegetarian Day are both right around the corner. If I knew that Sergeant J felt strongly about either commas or broccoli lovers, I would try to find a way to make those themes work. In the absence of such knowledge, I’m feeling good about the pink candy idea. Although, I know this soldier would appreciate anything.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

A Few Good Moms

There are more amazing moms out there than you can shake a stick at (but don’t run with that stick or you’ll poke an eye out!) With Mother’s Day coming up, I wanted to introduce just a few of the incredible military moms and spouses that have touched my life. Also, I hope you don’t mind, but I wanted your help surprising my mom.

Surprise

A few weeks ago, I was asked to participate in a project about moms. You had to make a self-recorded video talking about a mom who inspired you and one attribute from a list. I chose my mom and “strength.” She doesn’t know I did this. Or that it was shown at an event. Or that I’m sharing it here. Regular readers of this blog know that I don’t usually focus on me. And that I’m a little camera-shy. So this is sure to be a surprise.

Military Moms

About 1% of the country is active duty and if you add all vets, that number gets up to around 6%. With such a small population, you may not know a military mom or spouse. So allow me to introduce some of the incredible women I’ve met:

Mrs. K– Her first child was born after her husband deployed and she handled that whole first year solo. Now she has two kids and soon must prepare them for his upcoming deployment. When I first met her is when I realized that families serve too. I wrote a post about her.

Dee– Her husband was a Marine that served in Vietnam and 3 of her 3 sons have served in the military: Marines, Navy, Air Force, and one is still serving. She never sleeps soundly when they’re gone. She prays daily for all in harm’s way, not just her own.

Ginger– Both of her daughters wound up marrying soldiers. She didn’t raise her hand to serve but you can bet she’s done her share of worrying and making care packages. Oh, and flying to wherever in the world she had to in order to meet new grandchildren.

Jenn– Her huband has PTSD. He told me that after a rough period, he begged her to leave him, just take the kids and go have a better life without him. She said no. That she loved him and couldn’t imagine being without him. He also said, “no offense to anyone else…lol, but I think I have the most wonderful wife in the world.”

Other Jenn–  I was delayed at the airport for hours along with Jenn and her daughter. We started as strangers and left as friends. Jenn has a lightness about her and an awesome sense of humor. I think her ability to laugh at what is absurd or even herself is helpful in all kinds of stressful situations, such as her husband’s many deployments.

“Mrs. Noba”– Like a few people on this list, we’ve never met in person. She’s a fellow blogger that writes about many topics including having a child with autism and, at times, her life as a military spouse. What I love is her fearless spirit, sometimes dark humor and honesty.

Abigail– Combat Medic and mother of 3, she is one of thousands of moms who serve in the military. When I was missing my daughter for a few days, I got a “perspective check” when I received her letter. She would not see her children for a year.

Denise– An Air Force Mom who volunteers at the USO and cares for all troops the way she hopes someone would treat her own son…counting on the sisterhood of motherhood. I wrote a post about her.

Gold Star Moms– I met one at the USO when I was with Denise. The name refers to a mom who has lost a child in service to our country. I’m not sure what the right words are when a mom’s worst fear has come true. I remember one year at a Veterans parade when the Gold Star Moms went by, one of them said back to the crowd, “No, thank YOU for not forgetting.” My way of not forgetting this Mother’s Day was to donate to their organization.

Snowball express– This charity helps “create hope and new memories for children of our fallen military heroes.” They do special things for these kids and their surviving parent. So I sent them something too. Giving to charity is not part of my normal Mother’s Day “shopping,” but maybe it should be.

Sandra Beck and Robin Boyd– two moms and hosts of Military Mom Talk Radio. They devote their time to finding programs and sharing ideas that help military families. I met them when they interviewed me. I love how they support anyone who has a good idea that can help. If you know of something that makes a difference, please reach out to them.

Thanks Moms

To all the women who can make another human being feel loved and give them the certainty that they are worthy of being loved…and all our military moms and spouses who do this during difficult times and long seperations, I give you my heartfelt thanks. On Mother’s Day and every day.

flower's for Mother's Day

Photo courtesy of Tinyspitcracker

© Gina left the mall, 2013