Untarnished Memories of a Sterling Friendship: The Final Gift of a Beloved Pet

Sterling the tabby catI wanted a tiny, little kitten. She, of course, had other ideas. As I would learn, she often did. And she often won. Of our two strong-willed Aries personalities, hers was just a tiny bit stronger.

I entered the Santa Clara, CA pound looking for a kitten. Having relocated from across the country months earlier, I was starting to put down roots. With a relatively stable paycheck in my future and a new apartment, I was ready for the commitment of a pet. Plus as a shy, young twenty-something in Silicon Valley, I was lonely and needed some form of companionship to come home to. Oh sure, the Valley was full of men. Engineer types. Who either didn’t notice the curvaceous blonde in front of them or found what was on their computer screens far more interesting.

Yes, I needed someone to come home to.

On my first trip to the pound, there were no kittens. But a silver tabby with gorgeous green eyes who was several months old reached out through the bars of her cage to bat at me. She meowed loudly, more like a Siamese than an average street cat, beckoning me to pay attention to her.

“Yes, you are a gorgeous kitty!” I murmured to her. “You have beautiful green eyes, just like my Shadow cat.” Shadow was one of my favorite cats growing up — a beautiful Russian Blue who would snuggle up next to me each night.

“Mee-rooowr,” she replied.

Guilt settled in. Growing up, we always had several cats. We seemed to have a beacon over our home that only stray animals could see. Cats and dogs of all shapes and ages would find us, somehow knowing this was the home where animals would be taken care of. Though I had taken in older cats before, I was really hoping to get a tiny kitten.

“You are obviously a sweet kitty. Someone will be here for your soon, I am sure. I’m sorry, but I am looking for a kitten.”

She batted at me again, and looked into my eyes. I scratched under her chin, and walked down the aisle of cages, looking for my future pet.

Though I am grateful for the services they provide, I hate going to shelters. I can’t stand the thought of the stories behind all the animals who end up there. I walked by and looked at all the cats — no kittens today. An employee told me that the kittens are usually snapped up pretty quickly. As I walked back down the long row, the gleaming silver tabby meowed and reached out to me again.

“Goodbye darling. I am sure you will have a home soon,” I said as soothingly as I could.

I don’t even remember the circumstances that brought me back — whether the shelter called me to say kittens had come in or I just went to check, but what I do remember is that I thought about that tabby a lot. I grew up with several tabbies, but I had never seen one who was truly silver rather than gray. Her coat was soft and glossy like a rabbit’s. Her tummy was white with black spots. Eyes of emerald green and instead of the expected gray or black nose, an adorable cinnamon-colored nose. I often associate “tabby” with “common” yet everything about her brought to mind a certain regalness and she certainly let you know she expected to be treated like royalty!

During the adoption process, several things about her paperwork made me laugh. Her original name was CJ, so close to my own, J.J. She, like me, had an April birthday. The reason given for adoption was “one too many kittens.” And when asked what her favorite toy was, her previous owners had written, “Anything not nailed down!!!” (Underlined three times.)

Yes, clearly, this cat and I were made for each other.

I quickly changed her name to Sterling — both for the color of her coat and her fine qualities. I had no idea how fitting that would be, right to the end.

I had been in a car accident just before I adopted Sterling (or shall we just admit, she chose me?) and shortly afterward, I had knee surgery. In addition to keeping me company in my bed and cuddling with me during my painful recovery, she delighted me with her bedeviling activities, one of which included retrieving bloody gauze bandages from garbage cans and running through the apartment with them at lightning speed. My father, who was visiting and taking care of me, did not find this so delightful. But I loved her pure sense of play — exactly why I had originally wanted a kitten — and enjoyed her utter zest for life. Everything was a game to her and when she exhausted herself, she would come back to me and go completely limp and purr loudly.

When I recovered, I ended up moving to Southern California for a while — telecommuting for work — and Sterling took to antics such as pulling off the pins off my bulletin board and sticking her head into my printer and shredding papers as they printed, decidedly not helping with my work-at-home productivity. This was slightly less delightful behavior, and I decided that Sterling need a companion, and thus, a second cat came into our lives. Once again I went in to get a kitten and instead, came home with a cat of a different age — in fact this one was 3 years old. A tortie-tabby, I ended up naming her Patina (get it?), Tina for short. And thus, Sterling ended up becoming Alpha Cat of what I didn’t know was ultimately going to become the growing JavaFamily “herd.” Down the line there would be “hers,” “his” and “ours” cats — growing to a maximum of 8 cats (currently at 5). But Sterling was always the top cat.

Of all the cats, she never, ever got a flea. She never had an injury. And she never got sick. She was a lean cat and when she started to get alarmingly thin and act peculiar, such as only wanting to eat in my office and insisting on only drinking water from red, plastic Solo cups (don’t ask how I figured that out) — I rushed her to the vet in tears. Hundreds of dollars later, even the vet was shaking her head and said, “I was prepared for us to have a diagnosis for you of anything from thyroid to leukemia but I have to tell you, this is the healthiest cat I’ve seen all week. I think she’s just being a stubborn old cat!” So from that point forward, I started to simply adjust to her idiosyncracies, and assumed as long as she was eating and playful, she was fine. She finally decided that she would eat downstairs again, but I added a daily personal dish of canned food to the communal dry food that was available. She gave up on the red, plastic cups, but did seem to prefer having a separate small bowl in addition to using the larger cat water bowl. In other words, I figured she was an old lady, I’d indulge her. She still liked to sit on books as we tried to read them, bat around paper balls, and sit on top of us at the most inconvenient moments. She was Sterling. Just thinner.

I prepared for her death for 18 months, certain that after 16+ years, it was imminent. Every time we needed a pet sitter, I would warn them that if Sterling suddenly passed away, not to get upset, it was just meant to be.

And yet, though we can prepare our minds, we really can’t prepare our hearts, can we?

It was a Sunday morning when I realized Sterling wasn’t eating anything. Because she was thin, she like to sit on warm things like our laptops, so I had prepared a warm spot for her a few weeks earlier on her favorite ottoman, covering a heating pad with fluffy towels so it would be warm and soft, but not get too hot. It was in the family room, one of her favorite places to be as it is the center of activity in our house. Her routine of late had become fairly simple — meow at us to prepare her a breakfast of canned food with her special dish of water in the kitchen, clean herself in the family room, then hop onto her “bed” on the ottoman. If one of us chose to sit on the sofa, then she would come to us instead of the heating pad. But Sunday, she had no interest in breakfast. Not even when I carried her over to it to show it to her. She simply went back to her perch on the ottoman instead. No one else in the family seemed to, but I swore she took on a smell that I called the smell of death.

At that very moment, my heart started breaking.

We had been scrambling to get out the door to go to church.  The children were performing. I sat there, somewhat numb. Praying to God.

“Please God, please don’t make me do this. Don’t make me choose. Please, please God, this is too much. If she needs to go, please take her from us quickly in her sleep.”

I felt horrible guilt. I had known, of course, that it was possible when she started to get thinner that she might have had diabetes or a thyroid condition, but I had also decided that if she did, I was not going to go down the road of forcing pills or shots on her. She was 18 years old. She was happy and active and as long as she was, I was going to let her be.

But suddenly I wondered if I had done her a terrible wrong. Should I have handled things differently? The guilt, the doubt, the pain roiled inside of me, an emotional typhoon I was trying to keep anyone from seeing. After church I had us run a few errands, I am sure in part to delay facing things when I got home.

Sterling was obviously on the decline — not interested in food. Still wanting to be held and loved, but not playful, not interested in anything else.

It is probably important to point out here something I have not yet shared with you. At this point JavaDad and I had been nearly two months into our trial separation — after ten years of marriage we were living under separate roofs, figuring out where to go from here.

JavaDad swung into action — feeding everyone dinner, taking care of the kids’ bath and bedtime routine, and then dealing with me.

We knew it was time. That the next day we would be calling the vet to have Sterling put down. It was what good pet owners do. But it hurt like hell. I went into the “bargaining” part of the Seven Stages of Grief — “But what if there are heroic measures we can take?” And he counseled me, “Is that fair to her, at her age? And for what? Another month of life? What kind of quality of life?”

I cried, like a wounded animal. Gutteral, awful sounds coming from me. And then came the triple-play that happens when my emotions are more than my body can handle. The simultaneous laughing-crying-asthma-attack. I’ve never seen myself in a mirror when it happens, but I am sure it is a frightening sight with the tears streaming, snot flying, loud laughter and wheezing all at the same time. It is not one of my finer qualities as a woman. And yet, it is something  JavaDad has come to understand about me (I won’t say appreciate, I’m not sure he appreciates it — but at least he doesn’t run away.)

Because I wasn’t sure what time we’d see the vet, in the morning I had to explain this to the children. As this was the first pet they remember losing, it was frankly, one of the worst conversations to have with them. (This, however, was a week before the Sandy Hook shootings, which turned out to be THE worst conversation.) My kids aren’t the kind of kids you can “gloss over” anything with. Especially JavaGirl. Her ability to grill someone should put her high on the CIA’s watch list for future recruits. With her unique blend of intense belief in Christianity and need for very factual explanations for everything, she wanted me to explain in great detail what would happen both to Sterling’s soul and body during the euthanasia process and afterward when she was cremated. Trying to keep myself together while being the mother I needed to be for them during this time was excruciating.

I called the vet’s office. I had steeled myself to be calm and factual. I was for the first four words. Fortunately they are pros, and they found a time slot for me with our preferred vet late that afternoon.

The children came home and sat with Sterling, taking pictures of her with their Nintendo 3DSes, which I found to be an interesting coping technique.

It was a gorgeous day and I took Sterling outside to feel the warm sunshine, but she made it clear that she did not want to be on the front step or anywhere outside. Though that morning she started to lose the use of one of her hind legs, she started to run inside. It made it clear to me that this was the end.

I held her for those final hours. She purred and nuzzled me, and I petted her and told her how much I loved her. I reminded her of how she had chosen me, and that we had been through a lot in 18 years, and I loved her through every bit of it.

JavaDad came home early from work to go to the vet with me — he didn’t think I’d manage to make it home on my own. Given where we were relationship-wise, the gesture was gigantic on his part.

After the vet’s office, the grief was unbearable. I couldn’t look at the dishes used to feed her. I couldn’t even look at the kitchen counter where I had prepared her food. JavaDad came over that day and the next to prepare lunches and dinners for the kids. He did something he hadn’t done in a long time — he hugged me. Later that night we flipped through photos and laughed about things Sterling (and the other cats) had done over the years. Laughing together was also something we hadn’t done much of lately.

In a short time things we had been working on for a long time were being worked out. At the risk of sounding (more) like a crazy cat lady, it was as if Sterling’s very last act of devotion — after her passing — was to push JavaDad and I together and force us to set things aside and reform into a family again. The grief of losing a beloved pet transformed into the joy of reconciling a marriage I wasn’t sure was going to make it. The same day I picked up Sterling’s ashes from the vet is the same day JavaDad moved back home.

I am so glad Sterling got her way.

S’mores Represent Everything Great About Camping #CampBondFire #smores

Mention going camping and JavaGirl will inevitably ask, “Will there be s’mores?” The two are inextricably intertwined in her mind and I fear the day when she encounters a camping trip without that marvelous, gooey treat. The disappointment is sure to involve tears brimming in her big, brown eyes while trying to put on a brave face — a look so pitiful that it breaks the heart of any grown man within a 50-foot radius.

Her association is not unique. I, too, can’t imagine a campfire without s’mores. In fact, I love all campfire cooking. S’mores were essentially the gateway to teaching me all about the joys of harnessing the raw power of fire to produce cooked food out in the wilderness.

Don’t get me wrong. I covet my air conditioning and California King pillowtop bed as much as the next girl, but I appreciate how empowering camping feels and I am dismayed at how often I see families shy away from it. Both JavaKids are in scouts and when their organizations have family camping trips, I’m astonished and disheartened by the number of  families who choose to come for the day and not stay overnight. We switched JavaGirl from one troop to another and one deciding factor was an insistence of one of the organizer that camping trips be catered. What?!

Most of my camping growing up was done as a Girl Scout, with my church youth group, or at summer camps. Through these experiences I learned:

  •  everything from how to pitch a tent to how to make an emergency lean-to;
  • not to be afraid of spiders (okay, sometimes I still am, but not as much);
  • that I can cope with scorpions, leeches and ticks (not that I want to, but I can);
  • a little bit of rain isn’t going to kill me;
  • going to the bathroom in the woods is also not going to kill me (even if the cow who snuck up on me and mooed almost gave me a heart attack);
  • I am capable of paddling a canoe for 20 miles;
  • I can build a fire;
  • I can use a pocketknife without ending up in the ER;
  • you can wrap just about anything in tin foil or put it on a stick and it will taste terrific when cooked on a campfire;
  • and most importantly — you don’t need electronic gadgets to have a good time and nothing is as beautiful as a starry sky on a cloudless night when you are far away from city lights.

As parents, we hear so much about self-esteem. We are bombarded with media reports with interviews of “experts” telling us what we should be doing to build up our kids’ self-esteem, what tears it down. What causes bullies, what is media doing to this generation’s self-esteem? Are we eating dinner together enough as a family? Are they watching the right shows, the wrong shows? In the right sports? Are we praising them correctly?

And then we refuse to spend a night outdoors with them? And teach them some basic life skills? Really?

It may not seem like much, but give a kid a stick and a marshmallow and watch his face. Why is he so delighted? Do you think it is really just the sugary snack? I mean, yes, I think s’mores are a slice of heaven — the honey-crunchy goodness of the graham cracker and just-right softly melted chocolate with the ooey-gooey marshmallow. Pure bliss! But what your kid is thinking is, “My mom just handed me something pointy! And she is letting me step next to a FIRE! And wow, I can transform this marshmallow! COOL!” Watch how your kid experiments with the different ways to cook the marshmallow — holding it close to the fire, further away from the fire, actually setting it on fire. Call it science if you want to (and indeed, it is!) But part of it is also esteem-building. A sense of control. No, the cavemen didn’t have s’mores, but imagine how they felt, experimenting with fire.

When I’m in charge of the s’mores supplies (and I usually am, because I don’t want to disappoint JavaGirl!) I like to mix things up a bit and prepare a s’mores buffet. For the last camping trip, I brought chocolate marshmallows, jumbo marshmallows as well as the standard ones. I provided chocolate graham crackers and the usual honey ones. Because kids often dive into s’mores like locusts on a fresh crop, I like to prepare plates with the crackers already broken into half (s’mores sized — although now you can also buy some already in squares), the marshmallows in bowls, and the chocolates already portioned in bowls. A trick I’ve learned is that you can also use the snack-sized Hershey’s chocolate bars rather than breaking the large ones — I go with whatever is the best price at the time.

We have amassed a collection of telescoping campfire forks over the years. It began with our wedding registry when I saw some for the first time at Crate & Barrel and just had to have them. People thought we were crazy and they were one of our most remarked-upon registry items (but we received them!) Since then, we’ve managed to acquire more and now bring extras with us to every camping event. For some reason, this “civilized” way of making s’mores appeals to the non-campers and we’ve noticed that the adults are willing to jump in on the s’mores making if handed a telescoping fork.

When everyone is nestled into their seats, munching on their s’mores, I try to engage them in conversation about other campfire foods. Banana boats, hobo hamburgers, hobo omlettes. Recently I’ve acquired some pie irons and am itching to make some mountain pies. My kids started with s’mores, but have now learned to cook other foods as well.  It was the food that lured JavaGirl into being willing to try camping even though she wasn’t sure if she wanted to stay in a tent overnight. And now she’s a tent-sleeping, frog-catching, s’mores-cooking camper, just like her brother. Looking forward to the day when she’ll get her own pocketknife so she can try her hand at whittling like he does. It is my hope that by getting other families to see that campfire cooking is fun, they will then be willing to give up a night of air-conditioning to try out sleeping in a tent and discover what else camping has to offer. Frankly, s’mores are the universal lures of campfire cooking — not everyone likes hot dogs!

Yes, we can make s’mores on forks or in foil packets on the grill. We have an indoor s’mores maker with a sterno pot. Now you can even make them in the microwave. But there’s something to be said about instilling the love of the old-fashioned way – around a campfire with your friends, just before retiring to your tent filled with the memories of a day spent outdoors and the confidence that can only be gained by doing things yourself and knowing that if you ever really did have to rely only on yourself, you could.

—————–

Disclosure: National S’mores Day was Friday, August 10. But who needs a special day to enjoy this awesome treat? My kids’ first experience with s’mores was not on a camping trip, though I highly reccommend that if you can!  Find a time this summer or fall to spend some time outdoors with your family around a campfire roasting some marshmallows. I had the pleasure of riding the Hershey’s #CampBondfire sponsored bus home from BlogHer ’12, which inspired this post.  Hershey’s and Walmart  provided me with a ride home from BlogHer, two scrumptious s’mores kits, and some “welcome home” goodies from Walmart.

Shot At Life: Save Lives, Change the World, With a Few Clicks #shotatlifedc

If you could prevent a child’s death would you? Of course you would. Picture all the children who enter kindergarten in the US each year and then imagine half of them being dead by the end of the year from preventable diseases. That’s the number of children in developing countries who are lost each year, all for the want of some simple vaccines. (Statistics in this post are  provided by the United Nations Foundation).

One in five children around the world does not have access to the vaccines they need to survive, which means that a child dies every 20 seconds in developing countries of a disease that can be prevented by a vaccine.  

This does not have to happen. There is a very simple solution.

$20 can provide a lifetime of life-saving vaccines for a child in a developing country. The United Nations Foundation with many partners, has a program called Shot@Life focused on global health for children, currently by providing vaccines against four preventable diseases: polio, measles, diarrhea and pneumonia.

In the US, many of us have the option to delay or even deny vaccines, where in other parts of the world, mothers are walking 15 miles, desperate to get their children vaccines so they won’t lose another child to a preventable disease. United Nations Foundation Shot@Life Director Devi Ramachandran Thomas shared with us that in some countries, “They may have very few posessions, but they cling onto their immunization cards as their most precious possession, because it is that important.”

Every child deserves a shot at life. Every child should be able to reach the milestones we look forward to our own children reaching. His first smile. Her first bike ride. His first time reading a book out loud all by himself. Her first cartwheel. Knowing the facts, can we turn a blind eye? We can’t.

I learned about Shot@Life by attending a press event Friday evening, hosted by Monica Sakala of Wired Momma and Anastasia and Gianluigi Dellaccio, owners of the local business Dolci Gelati. They are ambassadors for the program and shared their stories about why they have become involved. And while the event itself was lighthearted and fun, the seriousness of the campaign was not lost on any of us who were there. Children are dying. And we can stop it. But we have to get the word out about how simple this solution is.

Here are a few more facts to know:

  • 70% of all unvaccinated children live in just 10 developing countries.
  • The Measles Initiative, which vaccinated one billion children in 60 developing countries since 2001, decreased world measles deaths by 78%.
  • Polio eradication is within reach — the world is 99% polio-free, but getting that final 1% is critical.

This week is World Immunization Week. Will you join me in advocating about the need to help? Here are some very simple things you can do:

  • Educate yourself further about the need and the program at the Shot@Life site.
  • Tweet about the program or World Immunization Week using the hashtags #shotatlifedc and #vaccineswork. Feel free to give a shout out to @shotatlife and to me as well @caffandaprayer.
  • Don’t know what to say? You can always tweet this post using the short link http://caffeineandaprayer.com/?p=3232 with the hash tags #shotatlifedc and #vaccineswork.
  • Keep current on the campaign by following @ShotatLife on Twitter and Liking them on Facebook.
  • Sign the pledge on their web site.
  • Put your money where your mouth is and donate whatever you can to the cause – remember, $20 can provide a lifetime of vaccines to a child.
  • Share, share, share the info any way you can, from old-fashioned word-of-mouth to your personal Facebook pages, to even offering to host your own informational night about Shot@Life.

Very rarely can we actually make a global difference right from our living rooms, but this time, we can.  Let’s do it!

——————————-

Disclosure: I attended a press event with other bloggers and members of the media and was provided a PR gift bag. I have not been compensated for this post and everything is from my heart. I believe in this campaign. All statistics cited have been provided by the Shot@Life media kit. All photos are provided by and copyrighted by Shot@Life .

Spontaneous “Discovery” and the Red Pajamas

There was a time when my husband found my spontaneity endearing. Enticing. Sexy, even. Now, it is more often met with an eyeroll and a look that says, “Really, I’m in the middle of eating my dinner here.”

No, I’m not talking about that.

I mean when I looked at him and said, “Hey, two of my friends have arrived at Dulles airport in the past couple of hours and said they saw Discovery on the tarmac. Let’s hop in the car right now and see if we can find a place where we can see it!”

Commence pained look from JavaDad.

Okay, I understand his perspective — he’s tired, he’s almost done eating dinner, it’s raining. He doesn’t like rapid change. It wasn’t previously discussed.

This is my perspective: Ohmygodohmygodohmygod….IcangetMOREpicturesoftheshuttle…..itwouldbesoCOOLto
seeitontheTARMAC!!!  RememberwatchingplanesarrivewhenWEwerekids????
THE KIDS WILL LOVE IT!

See my point?

We were losing daylight fast, there was no time for debate. It was either hop in the car in the next five minutes, or the opportunity was lost. Forever. There would be no do-overs.

I offered him an out — something like, “You can stay here if you want, but I’m taking the kids and we’re going!” With a chirpy voice and a slight frown on my face. Simultaneously being supportive of the fact that he can be a stick-in-the-mud while subtly reminding him that it was this unique brand of craziness that he claims to have fallen in love with way before he had a driver’s license.

Did I mention I was in my pajamas? My bright red pajamas with hearts on them and phrases like “Be Mine” and “KissKissKiss” all across the legs. Not 20 minutes earlier my sinus infection was making me miserable and uncharacteristically ready to snuggle under a blanket and call it a night. Usually I am up until well past midnight, but tonight, I was toast. Thus, the pajamas.

I told the kids to throw on some jackets, grab their shoes and get in the car. I threw on a red fleece and figured that I’d throw caution to the wind and just go in my PJs. After all, we were just going to pull over on the side of the road in the rain — who would ever know I was in my PJs?

We’ve never watched planes at Dulles (IAD) from the road before. We’ve certainly done it from the observation tower at Udvar-Hazy, so I guess we never had a reason to do so from the road. We were surprised not to find a true observation point like most airports have. But we found a narrow shoulder and indeed, saw Discovery, still strapped to the jet. Space Shuttle Discovery parked on the IAD Tarmac

JavaGirl was unhappy with her vantage point from the backseat on the passenger’s side, so she and JavaDad finally decided to get out of the car and JavaBoy joined them, which prompted me to hop out so I could get a photo of them.

Just then, a minivan pulled behind us and the driver enthusiastically waved at us.

Oh no, surely I am not standing here, on the side of the road in my bright red pajamas and someone who knows me has pulled up?!

Oh yes, not only that, but my friend K. from the Junior League. Now I’ll admit that shamefully, I often show up at school pickup in my “schlumpy mom” look — no makeup, shorts, flip-flops, ponytail or my hair looking a bit flyaway. I shouldn’t, but on those days when the most exciting thing I’m doing is laundry, the grocery store, or writing, I often focus on getting the tasks done in the window between the first and last rings of the school bell more than my appearance, but when it came to my time at the League, I tried to at least pull it together and appear decent most of the time. And I certainly don’t appear in public in my pajamas even on my worst days!

Fortunately, K. had a big laugh over it. In fact, she said some other friends of hers was debating coming but were worried because their kids were in pajamas and moments later, said friends called on the phone to get directions to our vantage point.

They showed up, pulling up in their minivan, parking in front of us. Why not, let’s have a party! Everyone there, you know, with me, in my bright red pajamas… They weren’t even my CUTE pajamas. Or my satin ones. I have special pajamas for when I travel to conventions and have to share a room with female friends and want to appear somewhat presentable. Nooo, couldn’t have been THOSE pajamas.

So K.’s friends were polite but I think were slightly suspicious of this grown woman in red pajamas with hearts. (They are Valentine’s Day pajamas, for goodness’ sakes, they weren’t even the appropriate season! Note to self: Buy some Space Shuttle pajamas.) I tried to redeem myself by sharing our binoculars with them. We swapped space shuttle sighting stories while my children became inexplicably ill-behaved in my SUV. And then when we all decided it was time to pack it all in, K. went to her minivan to find her battery dead.

JavaDad once again shot me a slightly pained look. The Iwasjusttryingtoeatmydinnerwhathavochaveyouwroughtnow look. As we were now wedged between K.’s minivan and her friends’ minivan, we needed to pull out, do a highly illegal but unavoidable three-point turn on the one-way highway exit, and position our SUV so it would face her minivan so we the cables would reach in order to jump K.’s battery. Then, both JavaDad and the husband from the other couple bravely admitted to each other they didn’t remember exactly how to jump a battery and wisely allowed me to look up the instructions in my car’s manual despite the fact that I know this violates the very highest law of The Man Code.

So there I was, in the rain, off Highway 28, reading from page 325 of the Toyota Highlander manual how to jump a battery to two men who were half-listening to me. Gesturing wildly for emphasis in an attempt to get their full attention. In my red pajamas. While my kids acted like wild banshees in the backseat.

Her car started, the men disconnected the jumper cables without blowing up anything or harming anyone, JavaDad once again successfully executed another illegal three-point turn, and we were on our way home.

“That was COOL!” JavaBoy exclaimed.

JavaDad grinned slightly. I think he just may remember why he married me after all.

 

Goodbye Susan — For Now

The long strand of white Chinese freshwater pearls I wore to her memorial mass/celebration of life are still on the dresser in the front hallway where I tossed them the second I came home. The purple carnations I bought a week before her death because of their bright hue and their lunar name, “Howl at the Moon,” stand at attention in the crystal vase on the console table, cruelly taunting me with their chirpiness. The deep purple manicure I got three weeks ago along with the other TheDCMoms.com bloggers in her honor and in an attempt to brighten her days in bed, finally needed attention. I cried softly as the manicurist took it off, just as I did when she put it on. Three weeks ago, with every stroke of the lacquer on my nails, I knew this would probably be the first, last, and only time I would wear purple nail polish. I knew in my heart time was running out.

Susan is gone.

 

She fought a valiant fight against what I consider to be a particularly vicious form of cancer — inflammatory breast cancer (“the one without a lump”). So hard, so long, and so well that almost to the end many of us thought she was going to rebound and make it for a while longer. Or as she told me two weeks before the end, that she was just “regrouping.” But there comes a point when you know it is time to say goodbye.  I am eternally grateful to both Susan and her family for allowing me the time to do so while she was alive.

I must pause to say that I’ve been reminded that Susan did not “lose her battle with cancer.” Susan lived longer than expected, and she lived the heck out of every single day. She kicked cancer up and down and back again. It may have ultimately claimed her life, but cancer won nothing.

beautiful moon

This is the gorgeous moon that rose over the Metro DC area on the evening of Susan's passing, as captured by our mutual friend Robin (@noteverstill). Her blog is The Not-Ever-Still Life: http://noteverstill.blogspot.com/

Susan is gone. But she is not. She is here. I run into her almost everywhere I go. The evening of the day she passed, her many, many friends were amazed by the glorious moon that rose early and put on a brilliant show. Only to be followed by a gorgeous Snow Moon the night of the visitation. So many of us felt like it was a sign, like she was just smiling her very radiant smile from heaven via the moon, saying, “See, I told you, it’s going to be okay.”

I’ve written more than once about how much Susan inspired me (and continues to do so).  There are so many people who have written so beautifully about Susan that I am not even going to try to sum up her life any better than they have. (See JeanAmyRobin… )

I have written and deleted this post several times. Should it be a tribute? A summary of a friendship? An accounting of events? Finally, I’ve decided to simply share a story.

When the Junior League of Northern Virginia was holding a fundraiser to raise money for The Children’s Science Center and put out the call for a Celebrity Scientist, I turned to Susan. Would she be willing to share her story of how museums helped shape her career? Susan, being so Susan, answered that she would be delighted.

Sadly, it turned out to be a day when she was in pain.  The cancer had returned, she just didn’t know it yet. I had begged her not to come if she was in pain, telling her we’d make do, but she came anyway. Because that was Susan. She’d fight through pain to do a favor for a friend and to do something she thought was important.

March 6, 2010 Dr. Susan Niebur presenting at the Junior League of Northern Virginia's STEM Awareness Day

Dr. Susan Niebur speaking as a "Celebrity Scientist" at the Junior League of Northern Virginia's STEM Awareness Day, an event to raise awareness about the need and raise funds for a Children's Science Center in Northern Virginia. Susan's touching story about how a visit to a museum at the age of three touched the hearts of many people in the audience. (March 6, 2010, photo is my own.)

Without anyone else knowing the pain she was in, she stood behind that podium and shared a story that people still talk about today. Her parents had taken her to a museum in Galveston, TX when she was three years old. After looking at all the astronaut suits, she looked up at her mother and asked, “Mommy, why aren’t there any GIRL astronauts?” To which her mother replied, “I’m not sure.” At the end of the exhibit, you could write a question on a card and drop it into a box, and Susan decided to ask NASA why girls weren’t astronauts, too. And at the tender age of three, she decided that she was going to grow up and work for NASA. And she did.

It was this story I shared with her mother at the visitation, and her mother says she vividly remembered that day. I wanted to share it with her, mother to mother, to let her know just how much that moment in time meant to Susan. Sometimes, as mothers, we forget just how precious those trips to a museum, a library or a zoo can mean. They can literally change a child’s life. Somehow I just wanted to give her mother a piece of her daughter back with that story. A memory of Susan as a little girl. Her father told us, “We taught her how to read at three and then she didn’t need us again!” Oh how, that sounds like Susan. And frankly, like my JavaGirl.

I credit Susan’s story with the success of the fundraiser that night. But I also credit it with planting a seed in my mind that though my son is the one who exhibits the most interest in science, that I need to be sure that I take equal time to foster it in my daughter. It’s not that I didn’t know this was important, it’s just that in the hubbub of parenting, it is so easy to lose sight of things. JavaBoy already wants to be a chemist. JavaGirl currently wants to be a horseback rescue rider. JavaBoy sees everything through science-filtered eyes, whereas I have to work at it just a little more with JavaGirl. She enjoys science, it’s just I have to remember to include her because she doesn’t have a single-minded focus like her brother.

Mere days after Susan’s funeral, we were at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Dulles, where I was proud to see the Museum Without Walls partnership between the Junior League and the Children’s Science Center in action on a Super Science Saturday — kids were trying out mobile exhibits with a glee that I know would’ve brought out Susan’s brilliant smile. The Children’s Science Center is still raising money toward a goal of a future permanent building, but now has traveling exhibits it takes to schools and fairs. From there we walked over to the space exhibit, and I took JavaGirl by the hand to show her an astronaut suit in a glass case and explain to her “Miss Susan’s” story.

JavaGirl contemplates an astronaut suit

JavaGirl at the National Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center just a couple of years older than Susan was when she made that life-changing trip to a museum in Texas. (Photo is my own.)

“You see, when Miss Susan and I were little girls, there weren’t any women astronauts. But now there are. Miss Susan thought it was very important to have more women in science, so not only did she study very hard to be a scientist who worked at NASA, but she worked to make it better for other women to work in science, too. I want you to know that you can be anything you want to be, honey. And that includes being a scientist.”

We walked by an exhibit about exploration on Mars and I said that I knew that Susan was involved with that but that I didn’t know all the details — the kids were pounding me with questions. I was already regretting not having had enough time to ask Susan all the questions I would’ve liked to. When I spoke with Susan about science, it was usually more on the kid level, rather than delving into her career. It had always been my intention to get her together with my kids for a career discussion — she had met them once, but all our kids played while the adults talked — but the timing never worked out. I’m hoping some of Susan’s Women in Planetary Science friends will help me fill in some of the gaps.

At the end of a long day, after she was in her pajamas, JavaGirl came into my room and said, “Mommy, before I go to bed, I would like you to talk to me some more about Miss Susan and science.” I fought back my tears — mixed sadness over losing Susan and joy over a little girl’s interest — and we talked some more.

The next day, while working with JavaBoy on his science fair project for school, I turned to JavaGirl (kindergarten) and said, “Would you like to do a science fair project, too?” She practically leapt out of her chair with excitement. “Yes! I’m going to be like Miss Susan, except I’m going to be the first girl to do experiments!” (Okay, we still have some history work to do.)

We’ve spent the past several days working on the kids’ science fair projects, and I could swear I’ve heard Susan laughing from heaven a few times, like when I called the chemistry department at George Mason to ask a grad student to explain some unexpected results to JavaBoy, or when JavaGirl came up with zillions of questions of her own. I wore my IBC Research pin to the Discover Engineering Family Day both in the hopes it would open up a conversation with someone, and in a way, to “bring” Susan with me to a day I think she would’ve immensely enjoyed. Seeing so many kids enjoying STEM activities, such as building Lego structures and testing them out in a tsunami wave machine. No matter what the specific discipline, Susan encouraged intellectual curiosity in children (and people) of all ages. I just pictured her standing there, with that broad smile on her face, saying, “COOL!” And wouldn’t  you know it, the “prize” for completing your passport for visiting several booths was a chance to sit and talk to an astronaut.

Susan is gone. But she’s still here. Forever in my heart, my memory, and yes, I believe watching us from above. At times, giggling.

Susan, you are an inspiration always, in so many ways. There are many ways I could have been a better friend to you, but know that I could never have asked for a better friend than you. I miss you.

I have made a donation in her memory to the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Please consider doing the same or making a difference to the charity of your choice. Unless otherwise noted, all photos are my own.