Sunday, December 28, 2014

Has It Really Been A Great Year?

Facebook has an app that’s been making some folks crazy.   Even NPR is talking about it.

 Last night I was reading through some of the comments from folks who did not have such a great year.  Some of the comments were heartbreaking: some lost loved ones, some had life-threatening diagnoses, some got divorced, some lost jobs—for some it really wasn’t a year that they wanted to review.

Then there were the others:  some lost loved ones, some had life-threatening diagnoses, some got divorced, some lost jobs—for these Facebookers, the year wasn’t that great but it reflected what really happened, they accepted the year as it was and chose to move on to a, hopefully, better year.

I was discussing this with my daughter, Rashida, this morning—during our daily “cawfee talks” that I love so much.  She chose not to generate her year in review for obvious reasons.  I chose to generate mine with modifications.  I did not say, “It’s been a great year”.  For me, it’s been a challenge but I accept the year as it was—I have no choice.  I haven’t hidden from it on Facebook throughout this year, so, I’m not going to hide from it in reflection.  Actually looking at 2014 in review makes me happy that I even got through it—gives me hope for tomorrow—and makes me know, really know, that we are stronger than we think we are and that there is strength in prayer, love and community.
Earlier in the year when I questioned whether we should even love others if they would just be torn away from us, I thought about it and a quote came to me from Alfred Lord Tennyson.  "Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."  What are we after all, if we can't experience love?  It helps us appreciate everything else in the world.

My prayer for you friends and family is that if you did not have a great 2014, that 2015 will be better.   If you had a great 2014, that 2015 will be at least as good--maybe even better and if not, that you find the strength to get through it.

Love, Light & Peace

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Christmas Reflections

The wide-eyed wonder time of the year is upon us.  People are out bustling around, coming out of stores with shopping bags hanging from their arms.  Walking around with steaming cups of hot chocolate or coffee wrapped in mittened hands. Smiles abound, Christmas tree stands everywhere, Christmas music playing everywhere, even from my laptop.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus and I can feel the spirit of the season—even embrace it.  As we get closer to December 25th, memories are flooding into my mind of Christmases past. 

I remember as a little girl money was very tight—some years worse than others.  I remember several Christmas eves my mother would send my brother up to get a free Christmas tree that the vendors no longer knew what to do with.  What a great time we had decorating those Christmas tree stragglers—some years we’d have a Charlie Brown tree, sometimes something better—whatever was left.  I remember my mother coming home some years with a brown paper bag filled with smokey chestnuts purchased from the corner vendor.  So I really understand the song Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.  I remember being so excited that I wasn’t able to sleep.  The remedy, a little brandy in some egg nog.  My brother, sister and I standing in line to get our little taste treat of the season.  Everyone knew it would not make us go to sleep—we were just too excited,but boy did it taste good and warm our body.  I remember hearing my mother, brother-in-law and older sister bringing the toys in to put under the Christmas tree.  They’d had a little of that brandy in egg nog too, so they’d be laughing and shushing each other.  As soon as they’d left, and my mother finally put her head on her pillow, we’d call out “Has Santa Claus been here yet Mama, can we get up?”  “He hasn’t been here yet, children—I’ll wake you when he has” she’d call back, desperate for a few hours sleep.  Finally after a few more attempts, she’d let us get up—still dark out I can still hear our squeals over a bike, a new dress, a doll—whatever we could afford that year.  Oh, precious memories.

I remember trying to duplicate the wonder of my childhood Christmases for my children.  I remember the wonder in their eyes, the excited energy that emanated from their bodies, the joy when they got exactly the video game, or Lego set they’d wanted.  I remember how happy they were when I promised that Santa would be able to find us at Grandma’s house in New York and knew not to bring the gifts to California .  I remember a day care provider's tradition of having a birthday cake for Jesus so that the children would remember just who’s birthday we were celebrating.  Oh, precious memories.

I remember when Lateef had a family of his own, that he would dress up like Santa Claus.  I remember the call I got when Jade was 3 ½.  An excited little voice on the phone said “Grandma, guess what?  The black Santa Claus visited me and brought gifts.  Grandma, I wish Daddy could have been here to see.”  I said, “Wow, Jade, that’s great..You’ll just have to tell Daddy about it.”  I remember that Rashida always wanted stocking stuffers, even well after we no longer piled the Christmas tree up with gifts, even today….  I remember that Ted would hold out shopping until Christmas Eve, when he’d finally break down and go Christmas shopping for a last minute gift—I remember that Rashida always had to tell him what I’d like even though I’d been dropping hints for at least 2 months.  Oh, precious memories.

This Christmas season is different.  My mother, Ted and Lateef are not here, but I have my wonderful memories and they are heart warming—almost like they’re really here with me.  This Christmas we're building new traditions and keeping some of the old.  Rashida and I will go to visit the Christmas windows on Fifth Avenue on Christmas day.  That’s new.  I will cook an abbreviated Christmas dinner. That’s old.   We will see Alvin Ailey. That’s old. We will light candles for Ted, Lateef and my mother.  That’s new. We will give a little more to Salvation Army and the homeless.  That’s new. We will see, really see some of the sickness and sadness in the world and look for ways to help.  That is enhanced…

What will the holidays mean to you?  To me, they signify hope, joy and love and yes, Gerri, there is a Santa Claus—he is alive in all of us--no matter what.

Peace, love and the blessing of the holiday season to you all--today and every day.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Goodbye Lateef

On Monday night, February 24, 2014—exactly one month from Ted’s death, my son, Lateef, suffered gran mal seizures at his desk and was taken by ambulance to Grady Memorial Hospital in downtown Atlanta.

Lateef had recovered from brain surgery to remove a benign meningioma just 9 months prior.  Though his recovery was rocky, of late he seemed sharper, felt better—his stories were flowing—no more searching for words.  His doctors at Gwinett Medical Center had announced him at no risk for recurring seizures, so he was not required to take anti-seizure medication.  During his 9-month recovery, he had suffered hallucinations, headaches and what we now know were probably small seizures but as of February 24th, he was feeling really good.  Lateef had taken his dad’s death very hard and as this was the one-month anniversary of Ted’s death, and between dealing with the grief and spending hours looking at Ted’s facebook page, Lateef was weary—not enough sleep and the stress from losing Ted were the perfect setup for seizures for those who are prone to them—we know that now.

As I looked down upon my son in the emergency room—this writhing mass of humanity-- my whole being was with him—willing him to again become the cool, fun-loving son I knew him to be.

In time he was moved to ICU—a world away from the loud, scary, dirty emergency room.  The neurological ICU—a world apart—filled with beeping machines,  and electronics and hospital beds that turned into x-ray stations.  We stood watch over our son, our husband, our brother, our friend and willed him to get better.  The doctors kept him sedated but there were times when he reacted to our voices, so I knew he heard us—that he was somewhere in there.  He was on a ventilator and when he first arrived in the ICU, the ventilator was breathing 100% for him.  As the week progressed, the doctors ordered the ventilator turned down slowly so that Lateef was breathing more on his own—the ventilator less.

 My job was to stay with the girls at night and Aileen slept at the hospital.  After I dropped the girls at school, I would switch with Aileen and she would leave to run errands.  The first thing I’d look at when I arrived in the morning would be the monitors—his blood pressure (really high) his heart rate (first very low—then really high), the percentage the ventilator was breathing for him.  One day, the machine was turned down to 40%--which meant Lateef was breathing 60% on his own.  After reviewing blood tests, the doctors realized that he was in distress and they turned the ventilator back up.

  I remember the first day in ICU.  I looked at his nurse and said “We just lost his dad 4 weeks ago.  Could you do all that you can to help us hold onto him”?  She looked at me with watery eyes and said “We will do the best we can”.  That was enough for then. Every time I asked the doctors how Lateef was doing, really, they would tell me that he was moving in the right direction.  I had to trust them even though his entire body seemed to have a mind of its own.  His blood sugar was sky high (he’d never had sugar diabetes), his blood pressure was sky high, his potassium numbers were weird—all kinds of craziness was going on. 

On Friday, February 28th I got to the hospital about 10 am.  Of course, the first thing I looked at was the monitor.  Blood pressure very high—heart rate very high—his breathing was very labored.  The doctor said not to worry about the blood pressure—seizure patients benefitted from high blood pressure because that meant more infusion of blood to the brain.  They were reassuring me but somehow, that day, I felt very anxious—more than usual.  I remember texting that to my niece.  I put the anxiety off to just “mom stress”.  At 2:30 pm I left to pick up Lateef’s youngest daughter from school.  While on my way back with Ami I got a text from Rashida saying that Lateef’s blood pressure was coming down.  I was happy.

We got back to the hospital and I stopped to get a happy meal for Ami.  We got up to the ICU floor and I got Ami settled in the family waiting area and proceeded to Lateef’s room.  As I came through the door I saw Lateef’s nurse.  His face looked strange and I remember asking him what was wrong.  He didn’t answer me so, unknowingly, I just kept heading towards Lateef’s room thinking “He is sooo strange.”  As I rounded the corner, I could see Lateef in his hospital bed—I did not realize that the machines were not functioning.  As I entered the room, Rashida came towards me. Her eyes were huge—I knew something was wrong.  Another man was in the room—I did not know him.  Rashida took my hand and said “Mom, he didn’t make it.”  I looked at her—incredulous.  I said “What do you mean he didn’t make it?”  I had no idea what she meant.  She repeated it and my knees buckled.  I remember sinking into a waiting chair and I remember crying out “Oh, no—not both of them—not both of them—It can’t be—It can’t be.”  I ran to the bedside.  Lateef looked like he was just sleeping.  He was still warm—but he was not breathing. 

Later I learned that while his nurse was doing his hourly assessment, Lateef’s heart just stopped.  Rashida was there and she corroborates this statement.  I asked her whether the readings on the machine started declining showing that Lateef was in distress and she said that they did not.  “Mom”, she said “It was like he was here one second and just gone the next.”  Staff came running from everywhere.  They tried to resuscitate him for 30 minutes with no success.  He was gone.  My first born, my only son, Lateef Mungin was pronounced dead at 4:27pm on Friday, February 28, 2014—five weeks to the day that his dad, Ted Mungin died.  Lateef was 41 years old and left a wife and 2 daughters (8 and 13 years old).  He also left many family members and a legion of friends who will miss him forever.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

When Life Gives You Lemons....

When I arrived in New York City on April 1, 2014 I was broken.  I was still standing upright and on the outside I looked like I was handling things very well, but inside I was a churning mass of sadness and grief.  Still and all, I declared that I was embarking on a year of discovery/a year of recovery.
How does a mother and wife survive the double barreled loss of both a husband and a son?  How do you make sense of a world that has been upended in 5 weeks?  How can you smile again, ever?
If there’s a place to try to process such a loss, New York is and is not that place.
It is a great place because there’s so much to do, so much to see.  Just picture yourself a tourist in one of the most dynamic cities in the world.  Museums, street fairs, colorful street people, concerts, theatre, libraries—much to keep you busy.  It’s not such a great place because it is so overwhelmingly big, dirty, noisy, smelly, and aggressive a place that it makes you want to curl up in the fetal position and not come out from under the covers on some days. 
Good thing I’m a New Yorker born and bred.  I grew up in New York and left when I was 25 years old so I understand the city.  Though it has changed since I lived here as a young girl, somehow it is familiar enough that I feel competent on most days.  If I need stimulation, I go for a walk up to Lexington Avenue and 86th Street which is so alive, it vibrates. I can go shopping, spend time in Barnes & Nobles or grab a bite to eat at one of the many restaurants there. I can go visit a neighborhood in the east or west village if I need to see different scenery.  If I need peace and quiet, I go for a 1 block walk to Carl Schurz park where I can watch the East River flow by, watch families playing on the grass, take a long walk along the East River causeway or admire the Mayor’s mansion. There is always beautiful Central Park, that oasis of green in a concrete city of skyscrapers and yellow taxi cabs.  I can take a quick bus or train ride and take a free bike skills class for adults, take a free 6-week sewing class at Mood Fabrics in downtown, take a great writing class in the West Village, or see Lenny Kravitz or Quest Love at the 92nd St. Y. 
None of these things make me forget my loss.  Every day I think about Ted and Lateef and whether or not they would like a specific neighborhood or restaurant that I’m visiting. None of these things make me forget my loss, but they help pass the time and they are contributing to the person that I’m becoming.
What has helped me or prepared me for this journey?  I’ve always been a stoic person.  My mom raised me to be strong—She was a single parent and did not do really well with emotion.  We had no time for tears and I just needed to be a big girl for momma, so that’s what I became.  I became the caretaker and helper as the oldest of 3 children still at home.  I grew into that role easily—I must have had the personality for it anyway.  Perhaps upbringing and environment contribute to how you handle life’s twists and turns.
I’ve always had a love for reading and was motivated to read self-improvement books.  I loved reading about people who faced adversity and overcame obstacles. I was always working on myself and in my 40’s I was motivated to read about death, dying and grief.  At the time I wondered why I was so interested in that topic.   We had very little death or loss in my family at that time but I immersed myself in Elisabeth Kubler-Ross anyhow. Oprah was my self help guru.  In 1987, I got sober—as I finally figured out that my drinking was unlike others.  I immersed myself in my 12-Step program and did all the work my mentor suggested.  One of the exercises was to picture the worst thing that could happen to you and what your response would be.  The idea was to give yourself alternatives to drinking when the worst calamity happened.  What did I pick as the worse thing that could happen to me?  The loss of a child!   I found yoga and meditation in the 90’s and became a yoga teacher.  I embraced this wonderful way to gently minister to my body and my mind and to others. Perhaps all of this work helped me.
I was always a joiner.  I loved groups and working with others.  At work, I was a Project Manager and loved working on projects.  When first Ted, then Lateef died, I reached out for grief counseling for myself and for our family members.  I researched books on loss, grief and grieving.  In other words, I sprang into action.  Perhaps that instinct to reach out helped.
Being raised in the church by a God-fearing mother and understanding that a Higher Power was always with me even when it felt like I was alone.  Perhaps this helped the most.

All of who we are is wound up in all of what we’ve lived.  And everything that happens to us in our lives is grist for the mill.  I told Rashida yesterday that we are improving.  She is starting to go out with her friends again and I am continuing to reach out for ways to get better.  I will never, ever forget Ted and Lateef and I think of them every day.  I will never forget but I know now that there is a way to go on—forever changed though I may be. I can cry sometimes when I’m really missing them but I can also smile when I see beauty in nature and I can smile when I think of a beautiful memory of them. I can thank God for the 41 years I was married to Ted and for the 41 years that Lateef was on this planet. I can continue to grow and learn.  Amen.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

My Son, Lateef

Lateef was born on October 27, 1972.  He was a cute little boy—looked more like a little girl really with a huge mane of hair which I kept in braids during the week and let loose on the weekends.   He was a laid back child.  He went through the typical colic of the early days but once we got past that, he was a good boy.  I remember that he was in no great hurry to walk, read or tie his shoes.  Someone called me one day and asked what I was doing.  “I’m giving Lateef walking lessons”, I said.  He was 13 months old and I really thought he should be walking by then.  He was the type of baby that if you left him on the bed to run get something, you’d find him in the same spot when you returned—you didn’t have to worry about him turning over or falling off of the bed—that was too much effort.  Later I would try to teach him to read using flash cards before he entered kindergarten but finally, I just let him advance at his own level.  I was the typical mother of a first child—driven….Somehow he survived that. Children are, indeed, resilient.

Lateef always had a lot of friends.  He was happy go lucky and loved to make jokes and play pranks.  His teachers loved him but consistently tried to work with us to find ways to keep him in his seat during class.  He was just all over the place.  As he progressed from middle school to high school he became more of a challenge.  Ted and I both worked at stressful corporate jobs.  We were so tired at the end of a day that it was difficult to keep our attention on what was going on with the kids—we did our best. 

Lateef was responsible for keeping an eye on his little sister, Rashida who was 3 ½ years younger than him.  It seemed like we were always punishing him for some infraction.  First we’d just take away stuff from his room—his phone (this was before cell phones) , his TV, his video games.  We found that he could be sitting in an empty room and still find a way to amuse himself—talking to himself, singing,  later rapping, whatever.   These punishments didn’t seem to be having an effect.  So we came up with the idea of having him write us essays on whatever rule he had broken.  If he did not watch out for his sister, he’d write us an essay on responsibility.  If he broke curfew, he’d write us an essay on trust.  Bingo!  We found that these assignments kept him really engaged.  He tried to get better and better at writing—to make us laugh so that we’d let him out of his room.  One time he entitled an essay “Notes From A Prisoner” bemoaning his fate in his small, cell-like room and used tap water to sprinkle on the paper so it looked like tears.  Little did we know that these assignments would lead to a career in journalism.  He loved going to school but I used to joke with him that school was his social outlet—it was really not all about the learning.

 He would tease the teachers unmercifully.  At the beginning of sophomore year, a new teacher Mr. Throckmorton was taking role.  Lateef thought his last name was unusual so he started making rhymes of the teacher’s name.  Mr. Throckmorton settled the class down and continued roll call.  When he got to “Lateef Mungin” and Lateef raised his hand, Mr. Throckmorton looked at Lateef with a twinkle in his eye and said “Oh, yes – there is a God”.   As if to say, you have the nerve to make fun of my name? They were fast friends from that day on.  As Lateef’s youngest daughter, Ami, grew up it became apparent that she would be much like her father. Lateef called me one day and in conversation he told me that Ami just couldn’t remain in her seat and that she was always making her classmates laugh—I said “Hmmm that sounds familiar—Good luck with that”.  We both chuckled—me because I was done with that, and Lateef because he knew what was coming.

Ted always made sure that Lateef had some kind of part time job.  I was of the mindset that we should probably let Lateef focus on school, but Ted insisted that our son wouldn’t put more time into studies anyway, so better to keep him busy.  He was right.  Much later, Lateef would thank Ted for raising him with a strong work ethic.   Lateef was always interested in music and he and his friends were constantly practicing dance moves and rap lyrics.  Sometimes it was impossible to talk to him without watching him moving arms and legs to some music that was playing in his head!

So, Lateef graduated high school (he told me later that he was sure they wouldn’t really call his name at the ceremony) and went to the local junior college.  We thought he wasn’t mature enough to leave home yet. So after two years in junior college, he left California to go to Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga.  Just one year showed us that he was still not mature enough as he partied his way straight out of that school.  We think he spent more time at Spellman (the girls school across the street) than at Morehouse.  So we brought him back to California and he took a break from school and found a job. He worked for AmeriCorps and became interested in teaching local gardening to children in Oakland.  He took up caoepeira (a Brazilian dance/maritial arts form) and grew dreds.  He was becoming our organic boy.  Years later, he cut his hair, went back to school and graduated from San Francisco State with a degree in journalism.  He found work at the Marin Independent Journal and shortly, Atlanta called and he followed to a job at the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

He met Aileen Dodd at the AJC and they married in October of 2002.  In addition to sharing a deep love for one another, they also shared a love for journalism and were both very invested in their children and family life.  After a few years, Lateef left the AJC to work for CNN as an editor on the night shift.  He loved his work and his family and though Ted and I would try to talk to him about making sure he got his rest, it was apparent that he would oftentimes function on too little sleep so that he could attend basketball games, cheerleading meets, plays, and dance recitals.

He was a happy-go-lucky kind of guy—he never met an enemy.  People just took to him. He was a peace keeper and a placater--sometimes that could really get on my nerves when I was trying to be serious with him! With Lateef, good always prevailed over evil.   I remember once he was riding on a subway train on a visit to New York.  Kids were bullying a boy and Lateef got into the frey and just grabbed the young boy and got off the train with him in tow.  He was always first to help someone—a good trait but one that could make a mother really fearful. 

Here we are at February 24, 2014.  Lateef was healthy again. He had recovered from brain surgery 9 months ago and was feeling really good.  Yes, still a bit over weight but making a conscious decision to work on that by exercising more and watching his diet.

Five months after his surgery, on October 1, 2013 he’d sent me the following email:

“Hey mom ... sis
Just wanted to say I love yall for an endless list of reasons but just to pick a few yall were sooooooooooo great to me when I was sick -- showing up out of no where to be at my hospital bed, helping my family. I really could not have made it without the both of you. Truly.Since May I have not smoked at all and though I am chewing nicorette like a crazy man, I still have not smoked. And I really want to get a handle on my health. Now for the help.

Ever since I left the hospital I've wanted to address my weight. But I wanted to wait until I get back to work for a while before changing my diet. I am researching diets now-- and plan to start something around my birthday. Any ideas on something that is not too drastic but will take weight off in a responsible way. I want to lose 20 pounds responsibly and have enough energy to do nights. I was leaning towards something called chuice .. Drinking that for two meals a day -- and then doing one meal a day -- with exercise.

Let me know if you have any suggestions”

He was moving in the right direction.  He was on the right track. And then this happens.