I haven’t known Erin Miller for very long, a year or so maybe. For some reason, she invited me to be friends on Facebook. We have much in common really, in spite of our 17 year age difference. Life experiences bring people together, commonalities make us close. I guess that’s what happened here.
I lost my son Shane in 2009. Erin lost her son Chad Miller in 2014. Our boys lived completely different life stories. Shane lived his life with a diagnosis of Cerebral Palsy and all the fullest, most challenging pieces of what that means. Chad lived life large as a very talented hockey player, and athlete. But what they had in common was mothers who adored them, families that loved and supported every step of their short lives, friends whose lives were forever altered when the unthinkable happened. The devastated Moms they left behind were also a common thread in the fabric of the story of their lives. Women whose lives were forever altered having lost such huge pieces of their hearts.
Although Facebook connected us, we didn’t actually meet until late last fall, after the launch of her foundation #MillerStrong17. Before we escaped the harsh Canadian winter by heading south, I messaged Erin when I was heading into Winnipeg. We met and the connection was instant and deep, as we realized our shared experiences.
A couple of months ago, Erin sent me a page from Chad’s journal. She hadn’t known that he kept one until after his death, but in discovering it, she’s received an ongoing gift of words, wisdom and love from him. The page she sent to me told of his love and admiration for his Mom. How ‘Strong’ she was. About her having had him when she was only fifteen. Of all she did and gave to ensure that he had the amazing life he was living. Of her strength in being able to ‘keep giving love, and giving life’ regardless of the circumstances of their lives or what people might believe. Erin asked if I might be able to write a song reflecting some of what he had shared through his own words. The result was my newest song, simply titled ‘Strong’.
‘Strong’ is in honor of Chad, but is a tribute to every single person who has walked through the fire and come out on the other side. Singed by the flames of life, altered by events and in reality, changed forever…but ‘Strong’ because of it.
There was a time I really hated when people would refer to me as strong. “You are so strong, being able to handle having a child with a disability. You are so strong in the way you supported your loved ones through cancer and their eventual deaths. You are so strong to be able to share your experiences. And the ultimate….what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…or the Big Guy only gives you what your’e strong enough to handle.” There comes a time when you just want to shout ,ENOUGH ALREADY! I really don’t need any more strength!
But in reflection, strength has been the gift that has allowed us to come out the other side of the imaginable. It’s what’s allowed us to offer hope and inspiration to others who just don’t know if they can get through the next hour, day, week. It’s what has supported us to move forward into the new now that is our lives, and offer support to others that may need to borrow from the strength that has gotten us to where we are today.
That is what the hope for ‘Strong’ is. I want those that hear it to know that strength is within them as well, and that there are many of us walking this road alongside them. There are so many people making the best of life’s worst situations, keeping our heads above the waters of grief that threaten do drown us. Scarred people who are changing the world in little ways with the hope of leaving it a better, gentler place for others following in their footsteps. People who have found their own ‘strong’ and are using it as a force of good for others.
#MillerStrong17 is in its infancy, but as the #MillerStrong17 family continues to grow its reach and numbers, the strength of those numbers has the potential to elevate the vibration of this struggling world, one person at a time. Together, there is the potential to make change through finding and using our own strength and utilizing it to its best purpose.
As Rumi said, “we are all just walking each other home.” May we each take whatever it is that makes us ‘Strong’ and resilient and use it to make this journey the best it can be for each person we meet along the way. May we find ways to support each other, lifting each other up and offering a lifeline when we can. May our love enable others to find their own sense of ‘strong’ when they don’t think they have the ability to get through one more day. You can! You will find…you will know…then you will be ‘strong’ and your story may be the one that others will rely upon to know that they can get through life’s worst moments as well.
DD entered my life when I was six years old, two years after we’d moved back to the prairies so that I could start school, leaving behind the coastal world that had been my life up until that time.
It was a very difficult time for me, a chubby little outsider, as I entered the walls of that system not knowing any other children, not knowing until then that I was ‘fat’, not knowing it wasn’t okay to be too smart or even talented because that made you a teacher’s pet in the eyes of the other children, not knowing how tough life could be just being a kid.
DD was Mr. Dobbin to me then, the principal of the school. He was a different Mr. Dobbin on weekends, as one of my Grandfather’s best friends. We’d often venture into the hills on Sundays to visit him and his wife Doris. That relationship put him in an awkward position the first time I was sent to his office when I was in Grade 2. I had blurted out the F word in a fit of anger at another 7-year-old who was tormenting me with teasing and hair pulling. I’d only just learned the word days before when I’d seen it written on the school wall and had been told it was a very bad word that you only used when you were really, really mad at someone. At that moment I was really, really mad. Standing in the principal’s office I waited for the strap that everyone had said was inevitable if you ended up being sent there. It didn’t come, instead I received a stern but compassionate explanation that even when you are really, really mad in grade two, using that word still wasn’t a good idea.
Fast forward 30 years, and Mr. Dobbin became DD, my father-in-law. He remained in that role until the day of his death in April, for although I had been widowed when his son passed and I had remarried in the years following, there was never another father-in-law. He, in return, never let me forget I was his favorite daughter-in-law, and even created a day in June to celebrate that sending a card amended to read just that each year. We had a deep and special friendship for many, many years as he supported my continued farming of the land that had once been his. He embraced the new people that came into my life as a result of my own remarrying, and he was a kind and patient confident for so many of my life’s events.
When I decided to make the move back out to the coast last year, I worried about how I was going to tell him that we were selling much of the farmland that had once been his, and that the house he’d built would be lived in by a renter while we explored other possibilities for our lives elsewhere. When I visited to tell him, it turned out he already knew about that, as people who felt it was their duty to relay all that they ‘thought’ I was doing had already been busy on phone calls to him. His words to me were that he knew that we loved the water and fishing, and we were young and should be exploring other things in life while we had our health and energy. His words regarding those that had meddled in the business that should have been between he and I were not so kind. It wasn’t often you saw DD angered by people, but he had little tolerance for those that chose to stir pots in an attempt to cause unnecessary trouble for others.
One of my fears about moving away was that I’d be so far away from him, but we kept in touch bi-weekly through phone calls, and I made sure we had good, meaningful visits when I was back in the province. I also promised him that I’d be there when needed, and when his daughter called to tell me that things were not good and that he was being put on comfort care, I was on the next plane east to be there for him.
He was the fifth loved one that I would sit vigil with as his days wound down. I’d learned much from the previous deaths I’d walked alongside and through the interest I have in reading end of life support books. Still, with every new death, much of what is forgotten resurrects itself, and new learning takes place. As had happened previous times, in being there, I found myself becoming more present and responsive to the hours and needs of this man who had been a part of my life for so long, and was grateful that I had the means and the support to be with him on this last leg of his 98-year journey.
The first night I arrived I feared I was already too late to enjoy that small, last window of time where communication and sharing was possible, as he was so unresponsive when I arrived at the care-home at midnight. But the next morning when I returned at 7 he was wide awake and so happy that I was there. We spent much of the next few days reminiscing about the loved ones lost, and I was grateful that I had memories of many that so few are left to remember now. He shared more stories of his childhood and his family. He relished moments with his wife, daughter and grandchildren, as life had blessed him with a second family late in life, and you could see the adoration he had for the little ones that were so important to him.
We took turns as a family spelling each other off when needed, and being there together for support when that seemed the more important choice to make. Throughout the days, I started to be reminded of things that often only the dying can remind us about. These are some of those things.
Have you ever read Mitch Albom’s ‘The Five People you Meet in Heaven’? Its one of my favourite books…well, maybe I should really say most of his books are ‘one of my’ favourites! But that one I love, mostly because in it Mitch proposes that heaven will be whatever we really, really want it to be, based on our life experience, our favourite moments and places, and what our perfect place would be. What a wonderful idea!
What is most incredible about is is how blessed I am that I am living in my heaven as I write. I’ve always loved and cherished this little nook in the world, but every year I think I cherish it more. We’ve created a little campground, up on the hill, in back of the main yard. It’s got the most beautiful sunsets over the Assiniboine River Valley. It’s so quiet, you could literally hear a pin drop, except when the generator is running to charge up the batteries in the 5th wheel. When it’s off, there isn’t a sound. Not the hum of a furnace, or traffic, or anything. What there is are birds, insects, the gentle breeze and occasionally the howl of coyotes in the distance.
We put our camper up here early in the year, and take advantage of as many moments as we can. I can tether my cell to get a little wifi reception, to work on things that I’m passionate about pursuing. The cell phone might ring, but most times not. And for the most part it is absolute, blissful peace and tranquility. It feeds my soul and nourishes my spirit like nothing else seems to be able to do. Time at the ocean comes close, but that always comes at a cost…the price of energy expended to share that space with the hundreds of other people who have chosen that as their get away of choice. This is different. This is ours, and the only other people that might be here in this little niche are those we’ve invited to embrace this with us.
I like the camper, because that is ‘my space’. Cecil prefers the quiet and the rustic life he can enjoy in his cabin, just feet away from where our camper is sitting. On the deck of the cabin, we’ve got the greatest swing that was given to us by friends who were moving and decided not to take it with them. We can sit and swing and just stare out into the beauty of the valley for hours, without the need for a word to be spoken. Just drinking in the beauty and the quiet that is this place.
We all need that ‘place’ that is ours to go to. To gather our spirits, reboot and reenergize our souls and ground ourselves for all that the world throws at us. I know how lucky I am to have this, and hope that you have a place of your own that does that for you. It doesn’t have to be large, or remote or even space that is your own, if it’s somewhere that allows you to breathe more deeply and connect more solidly with the source of what keeps you going day after day. If you don’t have that space for you….you need to find one. Honor yourself by making finding that space that is yours a priority, not something that you’ll do one day. Something you will do now, before the world pulls any more from you that you don’t have a chance to replenish.
Some people are pulled to nature, as I am. Others find that in a sacred building, a sanctuary, a coffee house that affords them a corner to themselves, or a museum. It can be on a bench along a small strip of greenspace, or a walkway along the water’s edge. It can be whatever your idea of Heaven might be, even if it’s a sacred space you’ve created in your own home that is yours to go to and be undisturbed for the time needed to replenish yourself. The where is as individual as each of us are, but the need to find this and gift it to ourselves is universal. Have you found your little peace of ‘heaven’ here on earth that nourishes you? If not, what are you waiting for….because you know it’s waiting for you.
I found this video just at the perfect time, and it resonates to deeply with the things I'm feeling these days. My husband will tell you and confirm, that I am as guilty as anyone of multi-tasking...especially when it's just he and I. Why do we do that, why do we work so hard to keep connected with people and groups and causes around the world, at the neglect of the one who is sitting here right within reach. I know I'm not the only one, but I am the only one I can make change this habit.
We all find it so easy to get distracted. To keep checking for texts and facebook notices and instagram pictures...that we miss out on the connection that is right in front of us. To be Truly Me, I have to get better at that. This video was a great reminder to me to be more present especially here at home, where at the end of the day, it's where your presence is most valued, most appreciated and most remembered.
Take a moment to watch the video, then tell me it doesn't strike a chord! This season I hope more of us can commit to #GivePresence in our homes, our communities and in all places where we have an opportunity to make an impact!
WARNING: It does manage to drop an f-bomb, that I'd prefer they hadn't, because I think we can get messages across to people without resorting to that , but I do like the underlying message.
It started in December of 2012. I was on my way home from my training as a Passion Test facilitator, and had been doing much deep thinking about what was truly meaningful in life, or more specifically, my life. That can be a dangerous thing for me to do.
We were a matter of weeks away from Christmas, and I had yet to do my shopping, but I tend to put it off because I really just don't like it. It wasn't just that Christmas had become so hard with all the losses over the past few years...my parents, mother-in-law...most deeply my son. But as I reflected, it had been a long time since I'd enjoyed it. I remembered back to my days as a child, and in my twenties, and Christmas was so special. We would wait all year, knowing that then might be the time we received those things we wanted so badly. And that would be if 'Santa' was able to afford it, as it wasn't always the case. That was when we'd receive the new clothes, the toys, the crafts...and you played with and cherished them until the next Christmas came around.
But the world is different now. We've become so disposable, and so unwilling to wait for anything. What we want, we get, so that come the holidays there is very little left on the wish-list. Add to that how incredibly commercial it is with the push by advertisers that the wish-list has become so big, so expensive or so technical, that it becomes a financial burden for families for months to follow, and in some cases years.
I thought about our large, combined family. For years we'd get each of the grandchildren something useful, or smaller, clothes or a toy. Then because we don't see them as often, or don't know what their individual tastes are, we'd give each of them a card with $50 in it so they could go and buy themselves something. But as I thought about this habit on the trip home from San Diego, I became very sad, realizing that the habit was only widening the distance between them and us, as we never followed up on what it was that they chose to purchase, who they were becoming, if they even appreciated the money that was received. My heart told me it was time for change, to bring a different meaning to these large family gatherings, and a stronger connection to those we love.
There was another catalyst to my wanting to make change as well. Whenever I am away from home, I worry, as I'm sure many others do, that in our absence someone will break in. It's not that we don't have insurance to cover everything we have...stuff is replaceable. But what I always tended to worry about more was my 'treasures', those things I've held on to as the family historian, or the pack-rat who attaches so much memory to items, knowing that if someone came in and vandalized our home, those 'treasures' would likely be destroyed and they were not things that I could replace.
The final thing that had me thinking was that I'd spent the previous two years in the clean up of my parents estate spending days on end going through the boxes and shelves of a home that held our family history for four generations. With that came the sadness that so much of this 'stuff' meant something to someone. Of course there were things that were clearly valued that you could tell why, but there were more things that were kept for reasons we can't know, and there was a certain sadness of getting rid of someone elses 'treasures'. I learned much from that process, and several things came out of it. One being our new Christmas tradition.
I decided that year that from now on we all have enough 'stuff', and in so many cases we have way too much. I want to pass along things to our kids that have meaning, at least for me, and I hope that in doing that I can provide a deeper meaning for them in terms of what I value, but also what is now their history, as they are now part of my family. So I started that year, looking around the house at all of those things that I have my heart attached to, and began picking out one thing for each person in the family, our children and grandchildren. My husband Cecil did the same.
When we had picked out something for everyone, I then wrote each of them a letter to go with the item. I explained to them why this item was so close to my heart, who it had come from, how I'd ended up with it...any story attached to it that I wanted to share.
It was such an amazing experience, because as I wrote those letters and shared those memories, all of my lost loved ones gathered around me and became part of the celebration of all the wonderful memories I've had the privilege of collecting on this journey. In sharing the stories I was able to share them with my own grandchildren and they could begin to see the people that were so instrumental in laying the foundation of who I have become. My own grandparents, my parents, my son as well as Cecil's parents.
The second part of that Christmas's gift was creating a certificate for each of the grand-kids to fill out telling us what they would like to do in the next year with either their Grandpa, myself or both of us, that we could do together to create a memory. This part made me very nervous, I will admit, because we could have had 12 kids all say they wanted to go to Disney world, and we'd have had to find a way to make it happen, as we'd opened the door. But they didn't, instead we had wishes like going to a movie together, going put-put glow golfing, a camping trip in the summer, having manicures together, me teaching one to play guitar and a day of baking together.
I had been very nervous that they would look at this decision at our Christmas gathering and wonder what in the heck I had in my mind, passing along all this old 'stuff' and not receiving the expected $50 (which note to self, would have worked out a lot cheaper in the end, but we wouldn't be where we are now as a family). Instead, everyone felt it was our best Christmas ever, and the best part was it lasted so long into the New Year as we arranged dates to follow through on all that we'd promised we'd do together. That time spent together has created an entirely different connection, and I'm loving it.
One of my greatest memories is from after the day Haley and I had our baking day, making cupcakes for Grandpa's birthday at a campground in Kenora. The family knows I'm not a baker, but we did it, even though some of the cupcakes turned out a little dark you might say. She said not to worry, she's just put more icing on those ones. When we were done she asked me if we were going to do certificates again the upcoming Christmas, so I asked her if she thought we should. She said yes, that was the best Christmas ever. That coming from a nine year old was a compliment that warmed my heart so much, and so we did.
I love so many things about that decision. I love that we are challenged to keep that list in mind, and arrange our lives around making sure it gets fulfilled and the time we promised is spent. I love that when the kids come to my house now, they are looking at everything differently and asking the story behind things, engaging in a completely different way. I love that we are creating memories, because from where I stand now, looking back, I remember so little of the things that people gave me, but so much of the memories we made together. That is what I want for them.
Last year, to make sure everyone had something to unwrap, we got each of the kids a gingerbread house kit..the one year old right through to the eighteen year olds. I made sure that we had lots of extra decoration and had everything set up, so that after the tobogganing, eating, snowmobiling and unwrapping was done, everyone headed down to the tables in the garage and we spent the next two hours putting together those little works of art. The kids loved it, the adults had no choice but to help, and we as a family had fun...together. To me, that is what the spirit of Christmas is about.
Thanks for letting me share.
It takes time and energy to become who we truly are! In life, so many things can get in the way of our figuring that out..but the time comes in each of our lives where we need to be able to do that if we're going to live happy fulfilling lives that are authentic reflections of our best selves. These are just things I've learned along the way. I hope that they might help you in your own journey into being Truly You!