Remembering John Denver


Today is the 18th anniversary of the fatal air tragedy that took the life of popular American folklorist/singer/songwriter John Denver.  You can find a vast amount of information about John’s accident and his career on the internet.

I have also written about John Denver frequently on this blog.  A lifelong fan, I was led to an even deeper appreciation of his work during my recovery from acquired head trauma.

Please feel free to remember John by visiting any of the following links:

On Tributes, Love Letters, and Sentimentality: To John Denver from Aspen

On Writing It Down

Aspen In October 2012, Introduction, Part 1

(there are three posts that follow this):

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Talk About Opening Doors: A Tribute to Steve Weisberg


This is Day 12 in the 31 Day Writing Challenge, 31 Days of Breaking Free from Fatigue


© debra valentino, all rights reserved,

A Note to Brain Injury Survivors

as posted on Brain Injury Association of America's Facebook page

as posted on Brain Injury Association of America’s Facebook page

March has been named National Brain Injury Awareness Month, and while there is much to say to grow awareness of this acquired condition, I’ll start first with a link to some common facts herehere, here, and here.

While this blog is dedicated primarily to brain injury awareness, this specific post commemorates the plights of fellow sufferers, and as such is written for those actively recovering from brain injury.

To anyone who has sustained a head injury of any magnitude, and most particularly to the newer sufferer who might have similar questions as I had (when I first sustained my blow in September 2007), I congratulate you!  You have come through the hardest trial of your life, and in many cases beaten the odds to earn the unwanted but proud label “Survivor”–as in, surviving life over death. The road ahead may be long. Here is an abbreviated, albeit detailed list of a some of the things my experience revealed that I hope may be helpful to you as you endure the journey:

Tips for Head Injury Survivors

1.  No two head injuries are the same.

This is something I was grateful to learn early on, but something that remains glaringly true for me to this day.  Your injury depends a lot on how you were hit and where on the head, the speed and force of the impact, and specifically the kind of shape you were in at the time, including your age and even your occupation.  It also depends somewhat on the lifestyle you led leading up to the blow, such as whether you smoked cigarettes or marijuana.  In fact, it could be said that the possibility of head injury is the biggest motivation for healthy living, just ahead of lung cancer and alcoholism.  Of course, some people who are considered exceptionally healthy at the time of their injury are still at risk of the effects being fatal.

In my case, I was a non-smoker, athletic and healthy, but also very active intellectually–an avid reader with advanced academic degrees.  In time, I was able to return to teaching and continue to enjoy an active life cognitively, but I have never managed to do the same physically…to get so much accomplished in a day, to golf 18 holes in one day, or sail a boat, or even hike much or for long, all of which I enjoyed regularly before my injury. For me, the effects have been primarily physical and most notable in reduced strength, energy and agility. For a more gifted athlete, the body might return faster than other cognitive abilities return.  It’s difficult to generalize or predict, but I do suspect that all the reading I did in the years prior somehow helped restore me cognitively. While I also recovered lost speech and some of the lost hearing, others may experience longer lasting and more severe deficits in these areas.  Again, the results of your condition are dependent on many factors, and some of these get eclipsed.  The more you pay attention to your symptoms, the better you can help doctors determine a course of treatment.

2.  You may have suffered additional injuries.

Although I took a direct hit to the forehead and face, most of my treatment focused on recovery from brain injury.  Not much attention was given to my vision, nose, teeth and jaw, though several months later these proved also to be adversely affected, as well as my hearing, neck and spine.  Because of the brain injury, my balance was poor for a good long time, and this led to additional injuries from falls.  In fact, I am still accident prone–bumping into door knobs and tripping over chairs–I am able to wipe out getting out of bed; it’s almost like my new sport!  I have gotten so much better though, and my recovery continues.  I am lucky to be able to walk without assistance, though significantly slower than before my injury.  Many people are not as lucky in this area, and they require the aid of a walker or even a wheelchair.

What is important to note is that if you are aware of a discomfort that gets minimized because your brain injury takes precedence, keep reporting it to your physician.  Once additional areas are diagnosed, you can obtain the necessary treatments to get you on a fuller road to recovery.  My experience has been that the more pain and suffering you can eliminate, the faster your brain will actually heal.  You don’t need to be expending a lot of energy overcoming small discomforts, because these detract from the big energy your brain needs to repair itself.  The same, of course, can be said for stress.  The more stress you can eliminate, the more energy your brain gets to use for the ongoing hard job of healing itself.

3.  The length of recovery is unknown.  

When I asked doctors how long I might expect to experience the effects of concussion, I was told 2 weeks–30 days–then 45–then 60–then 90 days–then 3 months–then 6–then 18 months.  When all of these dates came and passed and I had missed every deadline, I was diagnosed with post-concussive syndrome that continued to last even beyond that expectation. The length of disability is probably directly connected to the severity of the injury coupled with one’s age and general condition of overall health.  When they diagnosed me, I suspect that doctors were going with baseline numbers that were outdated or non-specific.  My age of 50 years at onset of injury as well as the intensity of the blow I sustained (which they apparently dismissed or underestimated) seem to me the possible reasons why doctors’ initial predictions failed.

Also, I do not believe there was (or is) a test for the amount of shearing, bleeding and swelling that takes place–or if there was one, I was not given it or its results.  I did have CAT scans, but never received thorough results of their findings.  Generally speaking, aside from cognitive testing (which is very in depth), it feels like no one wants to tell you anything–or that they themselves don’t really know.  They do a lot of listening, but they don’t generally do a lot of informing.  As a lifelong student and conscientious steward of my own well being, this was a huge frustration to me.  I always wanted to know the names for things and the reasons, but doctors sometimes misread my pre-morbid curiosity as evidence of cognitive healing, when in fact I wasn’t yet able to walk ten feet without tripping or falling, had chronic ringing in my ears, and was still experiencing seizures daily.

Without question, better diagnostic procedures are necessary in order to determine stronger estimates and treatment plans.  At any rate, recovery takes as long as it takes, and sometimes is never fully attained. This is a hard reality, but it doesn’t mean improvement ends. Improvement continues.  Your brain is the most incredible machine ever constructed–and if random injuries can happen through no fault of your own, then so can miracles!

4.  Your life has changed, but you look the same.  Except that you don’t really look the same.

Brain injury is considered one of those invisible illnesses–you can’t see it, so people don’t acknowledge it. You don’t typically get casseroles or pink ribbons or called anyone’s hero–there’s no chemotherapy to take, no race that can be run.  Mostly, people just like to think that you are nuts or stupid or worse…that’s one of the hardest parts, but pretty much a given, because brain injury is full of stigma.  People judge brain injury survivors in ways they never would think to judge other survivors of serious illnesses.  You realize early on how narrow-minded many people are, and you’re just glad that even as they’re calling you “strange,” your own mind is expanding–even though you’re the one with the head injury.

Only certain people will tell you that they cannot tell that you have sustained a brain injury.  Others will be shocked at the changes, which are sometimes subtle but not exclusive to behavior (contrary to popular preconceptions).  You may, as I did, age significantly.  As one person exclaimed in horror to me: “What happened to you?  YOU LOOK LIKE YOUR GRANDMOTHER!”

It’s not a lot of fun.

Your eyes, your face, your countenance–all of that changes significantly with a brain injury.  Add this to any physical scars or wounds you may suffer.  Then add or subtract your weight in any number of pounds. If you need medication, you will likely gain weight–or, at least I did.  If you suffer severe fatigue, as I do, your muscles will atrophy, and everything will drop about a half a foot lower.  This change in appearance is harder on you than on anyone else.  When you look in the mirror, you will see a new person–your new self–and every time you see this new person it triggers a grief for that healthier pre-injury state, for that lost life.

You have to be tough, and you have to be vigilant about recovering and/or rebuilding your self-esteem…but no worries, because surviving a head injury teaches you for once and for all how entirely bad ass you really are.

5.  All your relationships change; you will become the CEO of your own self.

It’s been said that by nature, people don’t like change.  People especially don’t like the change that head injuries bring (whether real or imagined by those who knew you once).  They especially don’t like what they can’t understand.  Of course, there is a lot of denial–a lot of people wishing you would just shut up and not refer to this traumatic event.  After all, if they didn’t see it, they may question whether it really happened. They don’t want you living in a past they don’t realize is truly your present.  Such reactions are another subject all their own, but don’t feel too aghast when you discover this challenge exists.

There is a lot of negativity connected to brain injury, so you need to be the eternal optimist and CEO of your own self.  You alone know what your path has been.

Just know that when a brain-injured individual exhibits the standard changes in personality or behavior associated with the trauma, it compromises relationships…and when they DON’T exhibit such behaviors, people will imagine or project them onto the brain-injured individual.  This is truly a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t condition, in that most people do not credit your victories, but exaggerate your deficits.  This may not be true for child survivors of head injury, but it is generally the case for adult survivors.

People will try to inhibit your growth in all sorts of offensive ways.  You will grow a thick skin.  People will also think you can’t discern their rejection or their laughter even when it is right in front of you or right behind your back–or, they’ll simply stop caring that you can.  They don’t know that there are subtleties; that you recognize when they are making fun of or mocking you, and that you will remember these moments–or again, they won’t care.  You become a sort of non-entity to them.  Remember, too, that this is typically not a sympathy-inducing condition.  It’s all unfair, but it is the way it is, and you can’t let yourself be taken down farther by any of this.

brain blog

Many people will enjoy your new (though usually temporary) lowered status.  It gives them power and prominence.  It’s okay–it’s their un-evolved thinking, not yours.  Sometimes, the ignorance can be so profound that it can seem that people practically equate brain injuries with decapitations–as if your whole head fell off.  You have to learn to shake off their primitive inferences.  Survivors of brain injury have a long road ahead educating others.  That is okay, because we are actually more patient than most of the people misjudging us.

All of these negatives can actually be to your advantage.  They keep you constantly adjusting, and they certainly keep your brain firing.

While your communication skills might be encumbered, you know that you still perceive a great deal. Some, if not most of your perceptions are accurate. Don’t dismiss your thoughts because others do. Don’t undermine your recovery because others don’t care about it. Don’t fear you cannot improve because others tell you that you can’t, or treat you as if you won’t. Putting you down makes those sorts of people feel big, superior. It enables them to dismiss what they don’t know how to address. Or maybe they just feel helpless. If they care, you will know it.

6.  Solitude is not a bad thing; embrace it.

After brain injury, you have to and will become your own best friend.  You will spend a lot of time home and in bed, unable to socialize–and this will make you fall out of favor with some people–and that’s okay. It’s all okay.  The rest is necessary, and it will restore you.

The greatest gift you will receive from your brain injury is learning to live by yourself–alone in your own perseverance.  Notice how your mind still serves you. Do not focus on what you cannot do, but rather focus on what you have re-learned and on what you are doing in this very moment.  Perhaps your wounds have healed.  Perhaps you are seizure-free.  Perhaps you have an awesome physical or speech or occupational therapist.  Even with your disabilities, you can still think, still imagine, still invent, still meditate, still pray–and if you are really lucky, maybe you can even remember to look at your planner to see where you are supposed to be and when…and maybe you will even show up on time.

One thing for certain, you don’t need anyone who doesn’t give you the respect you are due.  You have survived a life-threatening blow to the head, and you have so much still left ahead (no pun intended). Feel sorry for those who do not have a shred of the empathy you have developed.  Be proud to stand on your own and say, “I lost the one organ that controls every single thing including the breath in my body, and I am here to tell the story”…and then, tell it.

Never be ashamed to admit you have suffered a closed head injury.  It is nothing to be ashamed of, but in fact an accomplishment of the highest order.  Remember those who were not fortunate enough to survive. Endure for them.  Endure for all the millions yet to experience this harrowing affliction.

That is how you celebrate Brain Injury Awareness Month.

That is how you celebrate yourself.

I am amazed by your stories.  I am amazed by you.

Thank you for celebrating with me.

Here is some of the best news we have heard lately.

Here is a video worth watching, if you are interested in understanding TBI.


© Debra Valentino, all rights reserved

Finding Happy in the New Year

“Our inner artist responds to small acts of luxury.”  — Julia Cameron

We are well into the new year of 2015, and many of us are still processing 2014. How is your year going so far? Are you off to a running start, or feeling like you’ve already fallen behind? Have you already had your share of life’s surprises, and/or do you feel confident that you are braced for whatever comes your way? What changes have you made this year, or what changes are you hoping for? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section that follows this piece.

I am a happy planner, but 2013, my first full year of retirement from teaching, didn’t turn out any way that I planned or expected–and 2014 was every bit as shocking and exhausting. Just to give you an idea, 2014 began with a hard fall on the ice, and ended with a broken toe that is still healing. Much of my year was spent in physical pain and debilitating fatigue. And there were other nightmares I’ve yet to write about. Perhaps by writing about them I’m afraid I might jinx myself further?

This bad fortune clearly has to change. But this is not the first time I’ve felt this way. How about you? What do you do to rid the negative energy from your life? …Please tell me I am not the only one who has bad things happen to her. Often.  It’s a good thing we are high-spirited people, right?!

Feeling wiped out by the trials of 2013, and before the year even ended, I decided that it was time to force a positive focus for the upcoming New Year. Desperate to shift the winds of fortune last year, at the beginning of 2014, I resorted to a sort of pagan ritual–creating one of those “Happiness Jars,” where each day you record the best thing that happened to you–something that made you feel happy–and place it in a jar. What could it hurt, right? After all, at the time they were all the rage. I’m not exactly sure where happiness jars originated, but Elizabeth Gilbert takes credit for them here, and you can find them growing like a social movement here.

Anyway, the immediate shift in energy amazed me so much that I started making Happiness Jars for friends and family, even the receptionist at the doctor’s office who was having a hard year herself. And of course, my generally exuberant daughter, who maybe still has it displayed on some shelf somewhere.

What can I say; happiness is contagious, right?

I am certainly okay with anyone who has an abundance of positivity going on, and therefore no immediate need for such measures. That’s just not me, or wasn’t me the past two (to eight) years (ha!). Based on their reactions, my recipients clearly did not infuse as much hope or honor into their Happiness Jar as I did into my own–and that, too, is okay by me.  After all, such an abundance of positivity is the aim of all Happiness Jars, Gratitude JournalsBucket Lists, you name it. I realize that some people have better luck and less time for such frivolity. I once had less time and better luck, too. These tools are meant as guides and game changers for those of us who find ourselves somehow stuck, mired, or otherwise buried—all in the metaphorical sense, of course.


Fortunately, however, I was able to see this reticence toward the promise of joy as delivered through my self-crafted mason and pickle jars eclipsed by one notable exception.

I made a jar and gave it to a favorite physical therapist, who was having some trouble that winter with her young daughter. And yes, since 2013 and 2014 seemed to be the years of physical therapy for me, all of this is somehow circular, if not labyrinthine, right?

Well, to my *surprise* (the good mojo was obviously already appearing), my physical therapist told me that her daughter was so delighted to discover this Happiness Jar that she immediately took ownership, locating then placing it in her own special spot, and that the minute she arrived home from school the daughter would not only look forward to recording her own daily joys on the included pre-cut papers, but also encouraged her mother to do the same right along with her.

The mother said her daughter’s enthusiasm led to increased communication and a magical connection between herself and the daughter, who notably brightened by the practice. It seems the Happiness Jar gave this child some hope, too, and these success stories generously shared by the mother in several physical therapy sessions also doubled both her joy and my own.  One time the daughter even reportedly took the mother, who was herself out of sorts from a bad day, to the jar to select one of the recorded papers, instantly brightening her day.  And when the mother generously prepared the daughter’s favorite entree, the daughter declared it was the Happiness Jar that brought her such fortune.  Happy anecdotes like these warmed my heart, and set the tone for many a cheerful afternoon.

You know how it is, though; things come up; we get distracted; the idea gets set. Eventually I myself abandoned the practice and simply allowed this newfound energy to lead me. Perhaps that is the point of the Happiness Jar—although it is said that the point is to read the slips at the end of the year to reflect on all the awesome that has accumulated. A crucial step, I suppose, that I have yet to get around to doing. Something to look forward to!

So now it is 2015—the year preceded by the popular Happiness Jar technique.

Starting the year off with a forced shift appears to have been successful overall.

After all, I ventured across the Atlantic Ocean all on my own to attend a retreat for creative types like myself. Though I have attended retreats in the past, and even added the activity to my lists of things to do in upcoming years, this retreat was an unanticipated excursion. What made this a landmark experience was that it was the first retreat I traveled to alone since my head injury–something that had become dangerous and ill-advised. And yet this year, albeit after many years of recovery, I was not only willing, but apparently ready. It wasn’t easy because I was rather anxious about it, as I still have some residual deficits that I knew would throw some curve balls, and did. But I survived and that makes it a victory in my book, despite and maybe in spite of the debilitating fatigue that plagued the trip, both leading up to and following it.

Above all, the accomplishment left me desiring further internal shifts into 2015.  So far—perhaps magically and in part thanks to the initial practice of the Happiness Jar–these have been delivered.

In my next posts, I’d like to reflect on the best thing that happened to me in 2014, and reveal to you my “Word of the Year” for 2015.

Happy New Year, and I hope you are off to an exhilarating start!

If not, send me an email or tell me in a message, and I will send you two modifications I wrote that you can use to create your own Happiness Jars.




© Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved

On Losing My Mother (part 3): Reading, Writing, and “Fanny Fatigue”

On Losing My Mother (part 3):  Reading, Writing, and “Fanny Fatigue”

All my life, my mother was enthusiastic about education, and one of my favorite first memories is learning to read pre-kindergarten in our front yard. It was just my mother and me sitting under the big elm tree on a sunny, weekday afternoon.  My mom got me these awesome picture cards, and as it happened, we were looking at the figure of an elm leaf, learning to read the word, “elm.” This stands out as one of the first and most profound poetic memories of my life. After all, poetry can be seen as a series of embedded connections, and though these were quite literal, it all felt rather metaphoric to me in the moment (even though I hadn’t a clue at the time what a metaphor was).

My mother was so good at understanding the mind of a child. She always encouraged us to think and to wonder, to have awe and to be inspired by what we saw. And she always encouraged us to get involved, and to jump right in to enjoy new experiences. Another favorite memory that followed many years later is when we first started e-mailing each other in the early 1990s. Nothing could have felt more appropriate than that first e-mail I ever received from my mother, which naturally contained a recipe. I immediately envisioned the two of us together in another time and culture. I could see us sending smoke signals with lists of ingredients. Anything to get those recipes shared.

Still later, after I sent several e-mails filling in Mom on the quotidian of my and my kids’ days, my mother replied, “I could read your letters all day long. You write so beautifully.” Not given to flattery, my mother never complimented me much, and that these were just letters dashed off during the frenzy of my days made her words ever more memorable. Certainly she was no critic and her words were no true measure of a daughter’s talent, but just having unexpectedly pleased her with something such as writing (that was actually so meaningful to me)–and hearing her say something she’d never before said to me–seemed vital and valuable.

My mother had an interesting ease about her, and her affable nature made her seem genuine and approachable to just about everyone. People liked her so much that they rarely forgot her. In fact, when people recognized me at my high school reunions, they often exclaimed things such as: “Debbie Valentino! HOW is YOUR MOTHER?”

It was the same way with all of my father’s friends and with my brothers’ friends. If you knew any of us, you knew my mom…and even if you didn’t especially like one of us, you liked my mom. She was always making something—from slippers to spaghetti, from curtains to Kleenex boxes, her hands were constantly knitting, crocheting, sewing, counting, cooking, crafting. Even when she sat, she was working on something.

My mother was a complete extrovert who loved staying busy and loved people almost to a fault, and she would annoy me by doing things like knitting booties for all my friends and even some of their mothers and brothers. She didn’t require a lot of attention or praise, she just did what moved her spirit.

One time I wrote a poem about her feeding my ex-husband.  “MOM! HE’S NOT your son-in-law anymore!”

You could not get her out of the kitchen ever.


“I’m not cooking! I’m just baking a cake!”

It is because of these experiences, no doubt, that writing has become so much a part of my life…that I feel at all compelled to write this blog. Critics didn’t stop my mom. Neither did perfectionism. She just did whatever she enjoyed, and that made her happy. She would find my blogging a perfectly natural thing to do. In fact, I can hear her squeals of delight, “You should see Debbie’s blog!” She was always everyone’s best cheerleader. Not just her own children’s and grandchildren’s, but everyone’s. She was high-spirited, and she delighted in the joys and successes of others.

My mother was not a writer, but she was a maker and a doer.  A woman who invented out of bangles and beads things that would last and hold meaning (if they weren’t falling apart, that is). My mom was a maverick in so many simple and yet remarkable ways, but it can’t be re-iterated enough that what she was certainly most accomplished at was providing warm and delicious meals, nearly every single day of our entire childhood and into our adulthood. Even when I was in third grade and she finally “went back to work,” she would stand in her high heels and nylon stockings, working at the stove without a break from the day. We spent hours as a family together at the table enjoying her lavish meals, leading many a friend who joined us to proclaim, “I sure wish I was Italian!”

My mother was also a woman of enormous faith and strength, and she had been tested in ways that would undo almost anyone. Though a physically tiny woman, cross-eyed and legally blind in one eye from birth, she was incredibly resilient, having overcome a lifetime of hardships and illnesses, including surviving three caesarean births when surgery procedures were nearly barbaric—as well as a complete hysterectomy just days after I was born, a thyroidectomy, and tens and tens of other operations (including the partial left lung lobectomy) that left incision scars all over her body. Resulting from the thyroidectomy, she had a raspy, sort of piercing voice with yet another scar that stretched across the entire length of the bottom front of her neck, and somewhat coarse features that made her not at all masculine, but certainly not the beauty of her family…perhaps, to put it biblically, the younger sister Leah to the older sister Rachel. Yet, she would literally say in her indelible spirit and good sense, “I think I’m beautiful.”

She was not vain, and in this way was an incredible role model both to myself and especially to all the female grandchildren. “I’m me, and this is the way God made me. I like myself. If others don’t, that’s their problem. I feel sorry for them.” And I believe she meant it. In this way she was ahead of and yet right in step with Dove’s new selfie campaign.

I won’t say these medical challenges didn’t make my mother sometimes do odd things. She named me after the doctor’s wife, because he saved her life in childbirth; I think possibly for the second or third time. That’s right, his wife.  I was an Italian-American baby with a Jewish name (spelled “D-e-b-r-a”) that I never grew to like or appreciate (at least until after her passing), much less the legacy of being named after a veritable stranger.

That was my mom. She had her own unique logic, and as we were fond of saying, “was a little bit goofy sometimes,” but that was also part of her charm and what made her endearing (if not challenging). She was so spontaneous that she didn’t always consider the ramifications of what felt right to her in the moment, but she never met a stranger and she didn’t suffer any fools, and certainly suffered no regrets, which she made clear to us many times in the months before her passing. “I’ve lived a good life. I accomplished a lot. I want to be remembered for having lived for my children.”

That was just the Caroline we all knew. (Named after her favorite grandmother.)

At least she didn’t name me Ira.


If there is anything left to say, it has to be said that my mother loved to laugh. The woman who made everyone laugh and sometimes laughed just to laugh, then laughed at others laughing at her laugh could have had as her anthem that Mary Poppins hit song, “I Love to Laugh.” The woman who told endless stories about remote acquaintances, and always asked in restaurants for extra lemons and lots of whipped cream, was also the woman who on her deathbed wrote in her still strong hand that she had “Fanny Fatigue.” She was ready to go when she went, but we weren’t ready to let her go, because we knew that to large measure she was the party no one ever wanted to miss.


© Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved.

On Losing My Mother (part 2): A Return to Blogging and the Creative Act

On Losing My Mother (part 2):  A Return to Blogging and the Creative Act

My mom was the quintessential first teacher for sure.  And this, among other things, is what makes her so difficult to finally say goodbye to.  She was just so much fun in so many ways.  That seems a phenomenal thing to be able to say in the end about any mother…

I suppose I really wouldn’t know.  When I went away to college, I remember being notably surprised to discover that there was such a thing as a bad mother—or even that some people actually favored their fathers over their mothers.  I’ve always loved my dad, but I had also always assumed that everyone’s mother did the multitude of things that my mom did.  When my father would relax after a long workday, my mother’s work would continue.  Even though it was my job to clean the kitchen, my mom would be sewing and ironing, or getting something accomplished before bedtime.  From knitting needles to crochet hooks to needles and thread to needle-nose pliers, my mom’s hands were always doing something. She even called it, “relaxing.”  She was responsible and reliable in every important way, and  I just assumed that everyone’s mom was also that way.

My mother was surprisingly industrious, and despite whatever might have ailed her, it was nothing to come home after school to discover the driveway painted free-hand with the paint left over from the window shutters, large boxes outlining games of Four-square and Hop-scotch, Sky Blue sitting ceremoniously on top.  We would jump right in and play for hours, days, even years. She’s likely the one who mounted the basketball backboard and hoop above the garage.  She was that versatile, that take charge.  You’d often return to find her barbecuing the evening’s supper, snapping peas, or pulling rhubarb to make a pie. You never really knew what she would come up with, but you knew it would be good…and sometimes just downright funny.

Not every idea my mother ever had was a resounding success.  One time, she decided to spruce up the kitchen by putting wood-grain contact paper over the pink tile.  That didn’t look so good for obvious reasons.  And because she was free-spirited and not at all stifling, she let me paint my bedroom with some random can of navy blue enamel.  That didn’t look so good, either.  She loved to try new things even in her cooking, which my dad the traditionalist did not always appreciate: “Do you have to experiment?  Why can’t you just do it the regular way?”  My mother loved the joy of discovery.  In fact, she was so famous for her culinary endeavors that her kitchen was affectionately known as, “Caroline’s Café.” You could have whatever you wanted, and there would always be homemade soup, something exotic, and at least two or three entrees to choose from.  If you said you liked something, it became “your favorite,” and you could count on having it again and again, and again if you wanted it.  You were always healthily fed.

My childhood memories also include groups of us gathered around our kitchen table, laughing, concentrating, and creating.  Homemade play-doh was something my mom regularly whipped up in minutes. Since Math was also important, there were endless games of Dominoes and all kinds of card games and board games to help us learn to add and subtract.  I especially loved Michigan Rummy, because that was always a big, loud crowd, but by the time I was 9 years old, I had mastered the quieter one-on-one game of Canasta to the point that no one could beat me. Yet, it wasn’t the mastery my mother cared much about.  She loved to see us engaged and learning, and she clearly understood that a young brain needed this kind of assistance; she didn’t just put the game on the table and leave (the way as a working mom I myself did too often).  Her time was our time.

My mother’s hard work translated naturally in her to easily thinking of ways to keep us busy—not in a contrived or arduous house-cleaning kind of way, but in a fun, spontaneous, ever magical kind of way.  It is a mystery how she came up with so many great ideas when no one else in the neighborhood seemed to bother or care. She was just naturally creative and imaginative–Pinterest before Pinterest was of anyone’s interest.  While other moms watched soap operas with their hair rolled in hollowed-out orange juice cans, my mom was setting up the Boy Scout or Bluebird group activities for the day.  It truly was her mission to “keep [us] kids occupied”…and this not only included my two older brothers, but also the neighbors’ kids, our school friends, classmates, and of course, our cousins.

My mother would do things like take record albums and heat them in the oven until they were moldable into bowls that we would decorate for chip-dip. She would give us each a beer class that we could slather with glue and glitter, then fill with wax and a wick to create glistening candleholders.  There would be glitter everywhere, but my mom seemed only concerned with the process.  She always put fun before housework—even though it was actually all work for her.  Messes just didn’t bother her at all.  She was much different from her own mother and even from me in this way.  It was like having Mary Poppins around. But my mother was never persnickety and not nearly as anal-retentive (though of course, you’d rather she didn’t sing).  I do wish I could ask her now how she came up with all the enchanting ideas she had.  She was a marvel, and an equally amazing grandmother.

(to be continued in part 3 ——-)


© Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved.

On Losing My Mother (part 1): With Sutures in My Shoulder

On Losing My Mother (part 1):  With Sutures in My Shoulder

Sitting in church before the start of Mass on my mother’s first birthday since her passing last April 2013, I had to stop and think how long she’s been gone.  Nearly ten months.  And in all of those long, painful months, now heading toward one full year, I hadn’t once been aware on the actual “anniversary date” how long it had been.  That is, that other awful numeral “10”—April 10,–the day we succumbed to pressure to remove my mother’s life support…April 10, the burial date of her own mother…just five days after my daughter’s birthday on April 5, and two days before my own birthday on April 12.  Alas, April becomes the cruelest month, indeed.

Not one time.  Not on the month, day, or ever.   This seems odd to me, as in my grief group, people are diligently marking time,

            “It’s been one month; it’s been two…”  

How did I fail to notice?  I don’t know; I just can’t do it.  Or, don’t.  Perhaps I can’t bear to.  Why think about that one horrible day when we lost her, when what comes easily is all she gave to us over the more than eight decades? Every second is a kind of agony this first year, not just one day then not so much the next.  Grief pervades our movement.  I accept this.

Hymn played at my mother's birthday Mass.

Hymn played at my mother’s birthday Mass.

For me, my mom is gone and she is gone, and suddenly the only consequence of time is how the past blends with the now, how something was and now will never be again.  Mostly, I just ache, sleeping sometimes in her nightgowns, occasionally wearing shirts of hers I never would have worn before.  I guess anything just to feel her still close.  Today I am grateful to be emerging from the lingering shock I’ve stayed in since one Tuesday late last March when my father called at 7 a.m., imploring us to come quickly. 

It’s awfully hard to lose your mom, no matter what your age or hers. It’s especially and most particularly difficult, I suppose, when one has had a good mother, with whom one is looking forward to many things.  A mother so treasured that one would take early retirement, just to help in her care.  And only a good mother, though she is ill, participates in the dreams her children have planned; in my case, added so much to the actual planning.  Indeed, we had one of our best visits ever the very night she became intubated.  Joy on Friday, horror on Saturday.  It can go that quickly.

There isn’t a thing or even things one can do to prepare oneself fully for such a loss.  I know, because I’d been preparing for years, and was given both the incentives (through multiple life-threatening setbacks, both hers and even my own), and the luxury of time (through the six-year remission from lung cancer that my mother accomplished).  She was winning that battle, and in the end did win it against lung cancer…but didn’t win it against mortality.  Her compromised left lung (and more to the point, compromised stamina) couldn’t fight the ultimate pneumonia that a healthy lung could.  After losing other loved ones too soon, I decidedly intended to cover all my bases.  I visited often and called regularly.  One day, I even spontaneously decided to retire from my longstanding teaching job the minute I became eligible, just to move closer to her, thinking I would return to work once I got settled near my hometown where I could more readily help my father with my mother’s growing needs. 

But in the end I learned the ironic lesson that no matter how comprehensive I was, I really didn’t come close.  The bitter truth is, we cannot know what we don’t know (even when we know a lot and anticipate a good deal), and we really can’t see life in its fullness until we see the very death we are evading.  It sounds obsessive, until you meet the entrance to this cave of change.  You think you know what love is, and you think you might even know how to forgive, and then you lose your mother…and all of a sudden the Holy Grail is whacking you upside the head.  In comes marching the reality that you couldn’t apprehend unless and until she was gone.  Hello, new truth of life.  And then, of course, it is too late to say or do a thing, to show her you finally see, to settle any scores. Even if she’s somehow listening in the great beyond, you’re initially too stunned to speak.  And what are you going to say anyway that isn’t preceded by a pre-mature and grotesquely guttural, hauntingly primal and extended, “Mooooommmmmy!”  It can be maddening the way losing your mother snaps you back to an infancy you thought was long lost.  Before I knew consciously that she would pass, I can remember sensing it subconsciously–shuffling around the house in circles; sinking blindly, tearfully into the bathtub, uttering continually, “My mommmy…my mommy…my mommy!”    

Hymn played and sung at my mother's birthday Mass.

Hymn played and sung at my mother’s birthday Mass.


The good news is that death delivers plenty to learn from, and in this way, the deceased keeps teaching us in ways similar to when they were here, yet so much more profoundly.  Somehow, we finally understand that which we never got. We see the beloved in new light, in the fullness that was their truer being.  Not so much as a parent, but as a person.  Such tender feelings arise.  Seeing a photograph of my mother at age 12 suddenly unveils to me the innocence that informed her great, pure spirit.  It’s as if we get out of our own way, and our perception comes more keenly into focus.

This must be how the admission, “You were right, after all,” originated.  And what you didn’t value about them becomes precious.  What seemed senseless makes sense.  I held stacks set aside in piles to give away of what I saw as my mother’s most recent silly gifts.  After she passed, I ran to those piles to retrieve what I now use and never will part with.  The metal earring stand that once seemed gaudy now looks charming, functional, and endearing atop the jewelry armoire I gratefully inherited.  It may still be gaudy, but it is a piece of my mom, something that ignited something in her spirit, and in this way, it now warms mine. 

(to be continued in part 2——)


© Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved.

On Five Years, Post-Disaster

5th Anniversary — Part 1

Saturday, September 15, 2012 marked five years since the day I nearly lost my life.

I remember thinking to myself on that day, September 15, 2007, just after sustaining an incredibly powerful blow to the head and face,

“I must not fall.”

“If I fall, I will never get up.”

“If I fall, I will die right here, and no one will ever know what happened to me.”

These words are painful to write, and so, I will leave the story of that day for *another day* when perhaps they no longer feel so devastating.  The day I long for, the day I work every day so hard for–

*The day I will finally be healed.  Strong again.  Pain and symptom free!*

— That is the day this blog seeks.  This blog and every other effort I’ve made and will make.  This blog, in large measure, is about what we must do to save ourselves.

We all have a journey, some goal we long to reach.  My goal is doing the best I can to regain as much of my own health as I possibly can.  In order to do so, I must press forward.  “Word press,” if you will, can help me, I think.  I hope.  I want to believe.  I am willing to do whatever and as much as it takes, including write.  Including share.  Because to me, nothing replaces good health.  Nothing is worth more.  I must fight. And hard!  Every day.

Just as I did the day this happened to me.

Oh, I have longed for restored health for so long.

I have given up on that day which still eludes me.

I have started over–the long arduous stagger so many times toward that very day alone.

In large part, that is also what this blog is about.  Navigating these past five years of my life with post-concussive syndrome, recovering from traumatic brain injury, a smashed nose, cracked and chipped teeth, all kinds of pain.

Those words themselves put a lump in my throat.

Post-concussive syndrome.

Traumatic Brain Injury.

Chronic pain and fatigue.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.

This has not been an easy ride.  In fact, it often seems that it has been the most miserable five years that anyone could ever possibly imagine.  Indeed, there might be worse things, but if there are, I surely wouldn’t want to think of them, let alone write about them.

But the truth is, on that brilliantly sunny September day–before I had ever even heard the term post-concussive syndrome–life as I knew it changed completely.

I am just now–five long, hard years later–able to begin to try to write about what it is like to stumble through those dark, dark depths, and to struggle one’s way back, not even knowing if tomorrow will arrive. Confused, and in chronic pain.  A little frustrated, and often crabby…

Excruciating physical pain.

Pain so great one’s spirit and emotions implode.

Did I say pain?!

There isn’t a quieter or a more raucous place in the human brain or body.  It is a place of the shallowest of breathing and the lowest of pulse rates.  It is like a dry, dark cave, where even bats can’t live.

But that was those days.

The dark, dark depths.

Most days.

For the past four and half years at the least.

This fifth anniversary brings a long-awaited new here and now.  I’m not where I am going, but I sure as hell am not where I have been…and that is cause for great celebration, indeed.

Thank you for celebrating with me by reading these words.


© Debra Valentino, all rights reserved.