Phoenix

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Phoenix.

 

As I sit typing at 30,000 feet with a box of my favorite Uncles ashes at my hip a lot of emotions whirl through my mind. My husband has his head back with eyes closed gently as he sleeps with what appears like a smile on his face.  Uncle Jack met Sean twice. Once prior to being diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer, and again after a massive surgery to remove cancerous tumors, several chemo treatments, and many pounds of weight loss.

 

Cancer Sucks.

 

Looking out the window of the airplane I allow myself to be transported back to childhood. When I was little we would take the plane from our home outside of Phoenix, AZ to Harrisburg, PA where my parents were born. My grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and everyone apart from Uncle Jack and Aunt Wanda stayed in Pennsylvania. Uncle Jack was my father’s eldest brother. He was the adventure seeker, the entrepreneur, the successful businessman, and the one that ventured outside of the Pennsylvania homeland to set his stake in the west.  When the plane began ascending out of the Phoenix International Airport into the clouds I would loudly exclaim to my father “LOOK, A DUCK! LOOK, A TRAIN!, LOOK, a HEART!”, it seemed every cloud took on the shape of some incredible object. My mother would always want to give us Dramamine to get us to sleep and keep us from being airsick (which I had done my fair share of in those awesome little puke bags), I had learned to become clever and stick the pill to the roof of my mouth then take a drink. I would then proceed to wipe it out with a sneeze or a cough and crinkle it in a Kleenex or gum wrapper. I decided puking would be better than sleeping through the entire flight and missing out on all those puffy animal clouds.

 

 

My Uncle Jack was an adventurer, much like my dad. I think I happened to inherit the gene for adventure, and an entrepreneurial life from them. I found the need to explore, create, and share at a very young age. When I was waist high I went hiking with Uncle Jack on the desert mountains of Arizona.  The hike on the White Tank Mountains was my first hiking memory I can recall. I have glimpses of mental photographs and short video clips engrained in my mind. I have certain smells from the desert air, the bloom of the desert cactus, the beads of sweat under the bangs on my brow. The feeling of worn denim upon my skin shifting up and down as I carefully took each step. The memory of his big smile, white teeth, black perfectly groomed hair, and mustache. He wore Big sunglasses and was standing a few steps above me. My left foot was placed rather unconfidently on the gravely mountain surface as my right foot hovered to step upward onto the rock a few inches further up the mountain. I hesitated. “Come on Leenie, you got this, here, take my hand”, he said with his confident and suave smile. I reached out with a hand half his size and placed it in his as he gently pulled my body upward and I released the fear of my hovering foot and stretched it upward, placed it upon the earth and pushed off my other foot so I could join him. Step after step my small and sweaty hand stayed engulfed in his hand as he led me to the vista. My lungs filled and I saw the clouds full of hearts, and ducks, and trains, and rabbits. “Beautiful, isn’t is Leeny? I am proud of you” he said. “Thank you Uncle Jack”, I said.

I don’t know if we shared a sandwich next or some amazing culinary creation he had created and brought for us to picnic with on that mountain vista, but I do remember the climb up into those heavenly clouds full of hearts.  Years later I would return to Arizona as an adult to visit with my aunt and uncle and My uncle Jack would take me hiking once again.

 

This time, I was in my well into my adult years. He stopped intermittently to take a few drinks and catch his breath. We would stand atop the vista and look out, however I failed to see the hearts, and bunnies. I had recently gone through a divorce. “Leeny, look over there, do you see any ducks in those clouds?” he said, “No, Uncle Jack, I do not”, I said. He smiled. “Never stop looking and exploring for those cool clouds, ok?”.

 

I would later find out he had a mini heart attack that day while we climbed that mountain top.  He would recover, and I would start trying to find the hearts and ducks in the clouds again.

When he reached his mid-seventies and I was in my late thirties he fell stricken with pancreatic cancer. The same cancer had taken his mother, my yaya and it was a horrid and ugly way to transition out of this life.

 

When I learned of his cancer, I had already been through massive rehabilitation after a severe trauma which almost took my life. I needed to learn to walk again, and thankfully I also regained the ability to hike again. On my anniversary of my trauma my husband took me hiking in Vermont. When we summited, I looked out at the clouds and saw hearts, and birds, and a cloud that even resembled a Phoenix. I had reconnected with joy. I called Uncle Jack and Aunt Wanda that weekend to tell them about the hike, and the clouds, and that I loved them and to thank them for being in my life.

 

Three years post trauma, I was given the opportunity to receive an ICU heroes award out in Phoenix for not only my survival but also the work I had done from a giving back standpoint and how I had used the trauma as a catalyst to do greater work, part of that genetic make-up I was blessed with from my dad and Uncle Jack. I sat beside Uncle Jack as he lay in a bed and handed him the plaque thanking him. His face was thin, his hair was gone, his eyes had narrowed, and his skin was bruised and pale. He did smile, and tell me how much he loved me and how proud he was, and thankful. I hugged him and I wept.  I told him I would be back soon and that I wish we could hike again together, tears rolled down his cheeks and he said, “me too leeny, and see clouds full of life”.

 

Uncle Jack passed on Valentine’s Day, with my father at his side. He held on for days with no food or water completely without voice and just occasionally letting out sounds or groans. Dad sat at his side for days and nights on end, reminiscing, telling him how much he loved him, and doing what family does. I will always have such high respect to my dad for those days, he was a man of his word. His love for his family flows deeper than I have words to express or bigger than the biggest puffy cloud (even the one that looks like an elephant).

 

Prior to Uncle Jack passing and while he could still speak he said he wanted his ashes to be spread in various places he loved, I knew then and there we needed to take him hiking to as many places as we could and let his ashes float up into the air like a phoenix into the clouds.

 

As I sit here in First Class (because that is the only way to fly with Uncle Jack), I contemplated getting a martini. I don’t drink martinis but I know he would like one. I thought about just sitting the drink on top of his ashes by the window.

Instead, I just ordered a coffee and took if black like he liked it. I decided not to be sad but to type away and reminisce, to look out the window with passion, energy, love, and the heart of that little girl who took her Uncles hand and stepped upward.

 

We love you Uncle Jack. T-1 hour till touch down in Denver, let’s do some hiking and see clouds, this time I’ll hold you up.  Thank you for teaching me the love of hiking as it is such a metaphor for this life. Always looking up, always looking forward, always ready to take that next step towards the vista.  7589_831775013511535_1510177330003670791_n

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“When life hands you a lemon”.

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Photo on 8-24-15 at 11.36 AM #5

Life changes in an instant.  You could be having the most perfectly wonderful time of your life, and BOOM, your holding a lemon.

The common phrase about life turning “negative” is that “When life hands you lemons, you make LEMON AID!”, Although I appreciate this notion, I always found it to be someone wasteful.

So, Im handed this sour and yet beautiful lemon and Im just going to juice it and drink it? What about the seeds?

With every negative AND positive thing that happens in our life, there are ALWAYS root causal factors.  Once we explore those causal factors and potential outcomes of how to move onward we discover the “seeds”.  If you like lemonade, certainly go for the initial hydration and let that temporarily satiate the negative.  Once the drink is over, then what?  This is when we must look further and find out how to make this lemon that was handed to us cultivate an eternal change.  The truth is, we will always be handed lemons, thus we will always be handed seeds.

I am a big fan of all things related to trees.  I find most metaphors in life can somehow be connected to trees.  This may make me sound like somewhat of a free spirited hippy, rather I have always found my grounding within tree roots.  Some of my earliest memories are exploring roots, trees, and nature.   It takes time to sift through life to sort out the “WHY ME”, feelings and not just pass them off and move on to the next thing.  We live in a society that can far too easily just make the lemonade and move on.  I consider that just slapping on a band aid.

If we are willing to take the seeds of the negative source and truly investigate them, connect with them, understand them (to the best of our ability), then we can plant them into the soil of life and trust they will grow. 

We all know that even our best intentions for growth, do not always turn out as we plan. The “elements” of this earth can cause our seeds to rot, or grow without enough nutrients, or perhaps wilt due to lack of rain.  The elements ARE life.  When we hold the seeds and place them into the prepared earth, we are also accepting a responsibility to OWN them, care for them and make sure we can help them grow until they are strong enough to thrive on their own.  We must always take responsibility for the seeds that we are given.

I fully understand that most of the time, the lemon is thrown at us.  We are sometimes blind sighted by the lemon and never see it coming. Regardless, once its in our possession we have to learn to make a choice that will cultivate growth and understanding.

Now that I am going on 4 years post trauma, I look upon my spiritual lemon grove and smile that the trees are upright and they are finally beginning to bear flowers. I have taken on the eternal responsibility to CHOOSE to be the keeper of this grove and use these lemons to remain sustainable even once I have passed on.

Today, think about what your lemon in this life might be. Do you have a lemon? If you are “lemon-less” no worries, it will come.  As long as we live upon this earth we will encounter negativity that will stop us in our tracks.

Today, think about how you will open your hands and care for the seeds once you have drank your lemon aid and allowed it to settle within your being. Remember life is an immensely beautiful gift and often the gifts are contained deeper than what you first notice. Take time to make a grove.

                                                                     

Limitations- Raw and Unfiltered.

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Merriam- Webster Dictionary defines limitation as this:

Limitation: 

: the act of controlling the size or extent of something : the act of limiting something

: something that controls how much of something is possible or allowed

: something (such as a lack of ability or strength) that controls what a person is able to do

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Over the last several years I have had numerous limitations set.   Prior to October 8, 2011 I had brain surgery for a severe  Chiari malformation (mine is a type III), a diagnosis of Lupus, and a diagnosis of Cryoglobulenemia.  

I also went through a divorce, had a nervous break down, and remarried my high school sweet heart.

(No major changes or anything.)

After my Chiari surgery, I needed to learn to balance again when I walked.  I had to learn how to cite my arms and legs properly and retrain my brain as to where my body parts were located.  I feared I would never eat without dropping my food, drooling, or missing my mouth. My limitations at that point were bound around severe pain, swelling in my skull, balance issues, and coordination.  Over time my chiari symptoms that were present pre-operatively began decreasing and with that, my abilities to eat, walk, and have spatial referencing reinstated increased.

The hurdle of overcoming brain surgery was significant, however the limitations that were involved before surgery had become so debilitating I was ready to try to have my life back. I fought through those days at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital and my case was so significant that they use the surgery video when teaching the neuro students at Columbia.

With Lupus, I learned when to push my limitations and how to take care of myself properly with nutrition, holistic care, exercise, sleep, and stress reduction.

With Cryoglobulenemia, I learned how to maintain my body temperature be consistent with exercise, and monitor my skin for any changes.

When October 8, 2011 happened, I had already heard many friends and family members say: “Oh, Colleen, you are DONE going through major things for a long, long time”.

This was not the case.

Since that date almost 4 years ago I have learned to walk again several times, I have learned to eat again, how to breathe again, what it feels like to learn to speak again, write again, brush my teeth, and how to go to the bathroom.   I knew my limitations two months post trauma were severe. I knew walking would prove challenging, never even considered the option of running or cycling again. I had so much skin loss that the thought of even bathing was such a distant dream that I never imagined I would ever swim again.  Throughout each phase of this process to return to “normalcy”, I have needed to push my limits in order to step one more step, stand on my own five more seconds, chew a piece of solid food, and cry more and more tears until I could decipher basic math again.  When a person is saved from death and brought back to life, EVERY thing that one does is exceeding a limitation simply due to the fact that they are alive.

I have been told countless times that I am an “Unexpected Survivor” by medical staff who cared for me throughout my critical phase.

This brings me back to the original point of understanding limitations. “When we persevere and triumph through obstacles, we are given a power to understand how truly capable we can become.”  ColleenKellyHospital

As we begin to understand that we CAN defy the odds, it creates a drive within us to PUSH even further.  For those of us that are Type A personality athletes, having the PUSH drive is a blessing and a curse.

Defying my obvious limitations has been part of what has allowed me to not only survive but to thrive. Prior to this trauma running was hard, triathlons were hard, let alone throw a broken body in the mix and try them again.  I had never completed a half marathon, Olympic triathlon, half Iron Triathlon, or marathon before October 8, 2011.  When asked why I took a leap in distance events POST trauma, I said “Well, I lived”.

Suddenly things that once limited me, (lupus, chiari, cryo) became trivial. I SURVIVED being run over by a freight truck so I had the capacity to do much more than I ever knew my body was capable of, or did I?  I dealt with pain on a scale I never knew one was capable of handling, I went through surgery after surgery and relearn basic skills over and over. I could be resilient, or could I?

Here is where understanding (or trying) to understand my limitations has become muddied.  I am GOAL oriented. Seems most Type personalities are that way.  I need a strong GOAL to work towards so that I can accomplish it, check it off and then GROW even more.  When is enough, enough?

Dealing with physical manifestations from a trauma, is only the foundation of work that has been prepared for me. I must also learn to deal with the PTSD, and how my psychological well-being has been effected. I must learn how to limit myself within a sensible measure as to not cause more harm, rather to strengthen and be pleased with where I am and celebrate those moments.  I’ve learned that for most trauma survivors, there is a yearning to DO as much as one can, all of the time, because we have learned too painfully how quickly life can be taken away.

I have outgrown almost all of my limitations at this point.  I am now at a point of pondering the horizon and asking myself, “How much further, faster, and longer, do I want to go?”.  Most importantly, I need to ask myself “WHY?”.

We all have reasons for WHY we push our own daily limits in this life. I am learning as I continue on this journey that sometimes surpassing a limitation and then basking in the celebration of that accomplishment, and working to become as strong and resilient in that one accomplishment at a time is enough.  God created this temple that allows me to sit here and type this blog that I’ve worked on sporadically throughout the day. I believe in his infinite wisdom, compassion, and love he has allowed me to surpass any “limitations” that were presented to me to show me how mighty and strong this temple truly is.

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May we always examine our own limitations, and choose growth and strength over pride and harm.  My hearts desire prior to 10/8/11 was to complete a full Iron Man distance triathlon, and that desire is more present now than ever.  My limitations are also present.  Accepting that we need to honor and take care of ourselves in the midst of battling our own race is humbling, and takes an incredible amount of courage.  May I accept my limitations, with courage, and honor  myself where I am on this journey.  May I never accept defeat, yet always celebrate each limitation that has been defeated.

Finding Strength in Vulnerability

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I have not blogged in a long time. My life had begun getting so busy with surgeries, healing, training, talking, participating, racing, more surgeries, and internal discussions with my soul that I had started to become disconnected with my ability to process my emotions through this medium. I recently had surgery #29. I completed my first marathon in Lehigh Valley, PA and then went on to having my left side opened back up to have three expanders placed. One in my lower leg, one on my upper thigh, and another on my left butt cheek. The surgery left me back in a wheel chair for sometime and in immense pain. I had to face my own vulnerability all over again with seeing my left side cut again, and bleeding and oozing for weeks. The expansion process was grueling and twice a week for over a month I went in for injections into the three ports of my leg. They slowly injected saline to inflate the expanders bags under my skin and allow me to “grow” new tissue. At three years post trauma my body had grown all the new skin back, however the skin was badly scarred and incredibly vulnerable. In the one year I had sepsis twice. IMG_1536IMG_1192

The goal of the expansion surgery was to be able to grow new tissue through slowly stretching my skin from inside out and then have all of my newly developed skin be cut out so they could stretch my more sustainable skin over affected areas thus reducing my chances of infection. When January came around I was back under anesthesia for another 6+ hours and when I awoke my leg was bound together with multiple drain tubes. The pain was excruciating. I came home far too early and had home health nurses work with me over the next few weeks on wound care. My new leg looked like I had a butterfly of scar left in the stitching. IMG_1815IMG_1745

The pain had me back on crutches for some time so the skin could heal and my depression began spiking again along with PTSD and nightmares of the trauma. I began waking up night after night screaming as my nerves were regenerating and the pain throbbed through my left side. Once again, I was vulnerable.  Help was needed for all of my basic care.  In a few weeks I began lifting for strength, and then as the skin became totally healed over I started spinning, and then light jogging and swimming.   The fascinating thing about this journey that I continue to discover every day is that when we are most vulnerable we are most open to allow ourselves to grieve and release emotion, pain, and the feelings associated with feeling dependent.  As those exhales continued to happen I found I had no choice but to accept help. I had to accept love, support, and care.  As an athlete, and a stubborn Irish/Greek chick Ive found that allowing myself to be in places of discomfort have forced me to grow in ways I never anticipated.   We are now seven months out from my last major surgery. I would like to say that Im no longer vulnerable to infection now that my leg has finished healing, however that is untrue.  Two weeks ago I was back in the hospital facing a severe infection.  I lay in the ER sobbing with anger and despair.  The surgeon looked at me and reminded me that I will forever be compromised as my vascular and lymphatic system was horribly damaged,  AND I am strong, resilient, and capable.  Would I have fully understood the latter sentiments from him had I not been vulnerable?   What a beautiful metaphor has been created. My body needed to have the damaged and affected areas “pruned” off in order for healthy tissue to grow, AND Even with healthy tissue and pruned branches I can still get “sick”, How true for life!  When we become vulnerable in various situations in life, we must learn to extend our hands and accept help. We must learn to accept compliments, love, and growth from others. When our bodies become nourished we can gain the strength to shed those branches of doubt and negativity so that new shoots can grow that are nourishing to our beings.  Powerful stuff. Will we get damaged again with these new shoots? ABSOLUTELY.  As long as we live, we will become vulnerable.

The powerful thing about vulnerability is that it provides us the opportunity to be empowered, enlightened, and to truly listen to ourselves and each other.

Tonight, I will participate in a triathlon relay. I get to cycle (woohoo!).  I have completed a few triathlons including half iron distance since my last major surgery, however only as an Aqua Bike or as a relay.  I am still working on building my strength back in my left side so I can transition from the bike to the run effectively.  I am continuing to grow, learn, listen, and accept help and kindness from others and my own limitations. I am continuing to learn that STRENGTH has many faces and one of them looks defenseless and weak however the even when the exterior is limited the heart and soul will always persevere.

When you feel vulnerable, remember that even when you need help you are strong. 5893

Stay rooted throughout the seasons of this life my friends.  Remember to shed dead branches so that new shoots can grow.

The Trinity

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trinitySt. Patricks Day is among us.

The day celebrated because Christianity was brought to Ireland.

The trinity became famous for its beautiful knot work symbolizing the trinity of Christ.  Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit are symbolized in a beautiful ever flowing loop. The trinity also stands for birth, life, and death and the ongoing flow.  Birth brings life, and through life we find death. With all death comes life, and so the trinity continues.

Our family is a great deal Irish. We are also rooted in faith.  Our roots may not have always been the sturdiest of roots in our family tree, but they have never completely uprooted. They always held strong onto faith, onto the trinity.

Today, I have the opportunity to complete the “trinity loop” thus creating that ongoing beautiful soul and spirit of perseverance.

The Hartford Marathon created the Trinity races as a fun way to earn three medals that would create a beautiful clover. I have had the pleasure of running two of these events thus far and completing my third today. Completing the trinity. Completing the loop of my family, the forever turns and twists that keep us together.  From birth to death, and then birth again. We are all family.

My father has been in the hospital the last few days requiring several units of blood until they could control some internal bleeding.  Two and a half years ago, I lay in a coma requiring countless bags of blood so that my life could be brought back, to continue living. In some ways, October 8, 2011 allowed me to be born a second time. My heart beat had stopped. The trinity loop had ended up at the top point, and then blood donations flooded into my being allowing my trinity to continue along its beautiful, rooted, path of life.

My fathers life has been spared again from the trinity of life.  The vital blood that allows our heart beat to continue is alive and beating because of the family of donors we will never know.

These races are far more to me than another finish line.  Every race I run is part of the trinity.  Every race I run unites the trinity.  Birth, life, and death happen every second of every day.

Tomorrow, I will wrap my arms around my parents.  I will embrace the beautiful trinity of our family, the never ending Kelly blood.

Breathe in. Feel that?  You are in the living part of the trinity.

Here we come O’Hartford.

Birth, Life, Death, then birth again.. and so, I run on.

2014 is the year to publish a book

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Happy New Year!

It is 2014, a beautiful time to shed old limbs and grow new shoots.

In the process of my writing today, my soul has cracked open numerous times reflecting on the incredible power and strength of God. Through writing my two upcoming talks and working on some excerpts for my book I found myself once again questioning God. why did I live through such a traumatic ordeal when others die and lose so much more, and often much younger. As my fingers clicked into my keyboard my heart opened to the fact that my number just wasn’t up. None of us are immune. Only the creator of the universe knows our day and time. In a way, that awareness is a beautiful release. We can not live our lives constantly waiting for trauma to fall upon us, we must live like we are dying. As morbid as it sounds, learning how to die allows us to learn how to live. Does that make sense? From the moment you were born, you not only began growing, but you also began dying. The only thing that is constant, is nothing. With the knowledge that nothing is constant, the beautiful knowledge of change unfolds before us. We are changing every single beautiful second. We can not avoid the inevitable, we can live life as beautifully and with as much zest as possible while on this planet..and in doing so, we will learn how to die.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0QOFMti6jfM