Friday, November 8, 2013

Mesothelioma, Veterans & the Affordable Care Act

I was recently contacted by someone at the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance and asked to share some important information. I’d heard of mesothelioma; when I browse the community bulletin boards at the VA there are usually flyers advertising support groups or research studies for afflicted patients. Because I am not an afflicted patient, my interest has never moved beyond curiosity.

It turns out mesothelioma is a rare but aggressive cancer affecting the lining of the lungs or abdomen. The cancer is caused primarily by asbestos exposure, and because veterans who served between the WWII and Vietnam era were at risk for increased exposure, more than one third of all mesothelioma patients are veterans. Family members and colleagues of those directly exposed have also been infected due to secondary exposure.
The disease can lie dormant for decades, so many veterans are just now being diagnosed. The VA is struggling to play catch-up and provide sufficient care.

More healthcare changes are on the horizon with the implementation of the Affordable Healthcare Act. How do these changes impact veterans battling cancers like mesothelioma? reports:

“The Veterans’ Administration says that if you are enrolled in the veteran’s healthcare program; the Civilian Health and Medical program (CHAMPVA); or the spina bifida health care program, you are square with the ACA. The new law will not change your benefits or out-of-pocket costs.

Further, you don’t have to sign up or enroll in any other program. Go ahead and use your benefits just as you have in the past. If you are combining VA benefits with Medicare or other insurance, you can continue to do that, too.

In fact, some VA hospitals and clinics are trying to get the word out to all uninsured veterans — sign up for VA benefits! If you do, you won’t have to pay a penalty for being uninsured, and you won’t have to deal with the glitchy federal insurance website. If you think you might be eligible for VA benefits, you can go to the VA Health Benefits Explorer page and find out for sure.”

Read more about Veterans & Mesothelioma 

See the VA Public Health Asbestos Exposure page for information on associated health problems and disability and health care eligibility.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Original Glamour essay link

I'm pleased to present a link to my original Glamour essay, now available here on

I sincerely hope no one out there who's suffering is deterred from seeking help as a result of the Daily Mail "article" and the backlash it generated. No one should be chastised for suffering, regardless of the degree or cause, and no one who suffers should be discouraged from seeking help.

Thank you for reading,

Monday, October 7, 2013

Public Service Announcement

Dear readers,

If you found me via the Daily Mail article, hi, welcome. I appreciate you taking the time to refer to my blog rather than simply adding to the Daily Mail's comment thread. I have been receiving a lot of comments here regarding that "article" and since many deal with similar issues, I figured I'd post something here for posterity:

I did not write the Daily Mail "article," nor was I involved in it in any way (believe me, if I was, I definitely would have chosen more flattering photos, and photos that are a more representative cross-section of the Facebook page they were taken from, including at least one of my cats). I wasn't even aware of the "article" until I started receiving messages about it. The "author" of that "article" took a random assortment of quotes from my blog and the Glamour essay and smushed them together for her "story," changing the context and the tone. 

This is a public forum, and I welcome your thoughts and feedback. However, I would appreciate you withholding your feedback until you read the essay that I actually wrote versus the DM's sad excuse for journalism. Read my actual writing, then bring it on.

Thank you,

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Welcome, Veteran Poster Boy: Aaron Alexis

I should be polishing the essay I turn in to my workshop class tomorrow, or starting the research paper due next month, or chipping away at that looming thesis project. But sometimes there’s something that needs to be written before anything else can be. Today, that something revolves around Monday’s shooting at the Washington, DC Navy Yard

It’s been a violent week. Last weekend, three separate shootings rocked my home city of Boston. The Navy Yard incident, though farther from home, hit me hardest. Not because of the scale—though how can you not balk at the gruesome facts: at least 12 killed and eight injured in the “single worst loss of life in the District” since a Boeing 737 crashed into the Potomac River in 1982, killing 78 people.

No, the Navy Yard shooting hit me hardest because the shooter was a veteran

Aaron Alexis, the new veteran
Poster Boy
That makes it personal. That adds Aaron Alexis to a list of high-profile poster boys who represent what the public knows to be a veteran. He’s in the company of Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, who recently pleaded guilty to killing 16 Afghan villagers in March 2012; Iraq veteran Benjamin Colton Barnes, who shot and killed a park ranger at Mt. Rainier National Park almost exactly a year ago; and Army veteran Wade Michael Page, who fatally shot six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in August 2012.

Of course, any shooting death is tragic. But a perpetrator with military connections makes it doubly tragic for the veteran community. Cue the ripple effects of reinforced stereotypes.

Additionally, this situation is hard for me because I know that as a veteran, Alexis had access to a support network.

The military and VA certainly don’t lack for negative press, especially in light of shocking statistics like in 2012, the number of military suicides was higher than the number of American soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Still, the military community comes with an inherent support network that includes not only official mental healthcare channels, but also chaplains, family support centers, supervisors who are trained and charged with their soldiers’ well-being, and, of course, peers who have “been there, done that.” So many resources—if Alexis had reached out to one, could this tragedy have been prevented?

And is it really that simple? Of course not.

Seeking help requires a degree of self-awareness and an emotional vulnerability that goes against military culture and training.

The military thrives on an ethos of hyper-masculinity. In war, you can’t afford to be emotional. I am by nature one of the most emotional people I know (I still have to fast-forward through Mufasa’s death scene), but in Afghanistan, out of necessity (and somewhat unwittingly), I built barriers around my emotions. It was a defense mechanism that enabled me to do my job—one which keeps war-fighters focused and alive.

But emotional dullness doesn’t translate back to “real life.” I recognized that on some level—that’s what spurred me through the doors of my base’s Mental Health Clinic when everything in me wanted to turn around. My military mentality told me I was weak. A failure.

In hindsight, I realize that incredibly difficult, controversial decision was one of the most important choices I’ve ever made. But can a veteran be faulted for not making it? Is there an element of institutional failure as well?

Right now, the details of Alexis’ military career are sketchy. There's no information on whether he deployed. Reports say that during his service as a Navy reservist he had a “pattern of misconduct” but ultimately received an honorable discharge. The New York Times also reports that Alexis “exhibited signs of mental illness” for many years. 

Surely, there were people who interacted with Alexis and noticed red flags. Surely some such interactions occurred during his time in the service.

In response to the shocking suicide rates, the military has become, in theory, hyper-aware of mental health issues. One of my annual Air Force training requirements was a lengthy Suicide Prevention presentation that was so cheesy and mind-numbing that we all joked it made us want to commit suicide. Each unit took “training days” to discuss our individual and group concerns. We filled out questionnaires about our mental health. We were given flyers with a hotline number.

Mental health was a hot topic for discussion, but too easily clashed with the aforementioned culture in practice. A change in culture starts at the top, and takes more than handouts and PowerPoint. And ultimately, each person is responsible for his or her own sphere of influence. How many paths did Alexis cross where he could have been turned? How many people were too busy, too distracted, too disinterested, too self-absorbed, too scared, too lenient to act?

As a 2nd Lieutenant, my second year in the Air Force, I got a call in the middle of the night that one of my Airmen had been put on suicide watch. The Airman was someone I directly supervised, someone I interacted with on a daily basis, someone I was responsible for. I had failed. It can be so easy—and so terribly costly—to fail.

I could never justify or rationalize the killing of innocent people. I’m not making excuses for Alexis’ actions. I imagine there are a million factors that combine to make a person commit a violent act. And I imagine that no matter how strict our gun laws or how strong a person’s support network, if someone is dead-set on committing violence, he or she will find a way to do so.

I can only hope that in the wake of this tragedy, we can all take stock of our potential for failure—as individuals, as institutions, as a society—and be hyper-aware in practice of prevention.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Food for Thought on National BBQ Day

Last year was the first time Memorial Day really affected me. 

I’m ashamed to admit that. 2012 wasn’t my first year with military association—my mother served in the Army and deployed to Saudi Arabia when I was seven. It wasn’t my first year as a veteran myself, or my first year with a connection to a military comrade killed in action.

Memorial Day 2012 was, however, the first time I gave the holiday the consideration it deserves.

Previously, I’d bounced between opposite ends of the spectrum of observance. Before I served in the military, I flitted past the final Monday of May without much thought. There are so many distractions in civilian America: work, family, friends, school, health, groceries, cleaning, sports, hobbies, politics . . . With holiday weekends come travel, traffic, sun (or complaints about rain), relaxation, barbeques and beer . . . It’s easy to overlook the meaning of the holiday; or to simply acknowledge, but not honor the purpose.

In the military, it’s impossible to forget. Reminders are everywhere, every day of every year.

My base in Afghanistan had a memorial wall with portraits of each of the 17 fallen comrades of Paktya province. I stared at those photos daily; proud faces of young men who had died in the space where I lived and worked. My base in Florida had names chiseled into a memorial outside the base chapel. There were plaques in the airpark commemorating those lost in aircraft crashes. Streets shared names with fallen Airmen. I attended memorial services; I wrote profiles on their subjects. Every day was Memorial Day.

I don’t remember how I spent Memorial Day 2011, my first year out of the military. Maybe I was stuck in limbo on that spectrum—at once too separated from the military, cozy with my family in my childhood home in Seattle; and too close, my war still fresh and raw and unprocessed.  

As Memorial Day approached last year, my mind went back to the faces in Paktya and the names at Hurlburt Field. It lingered for a long time with memories of Randy Voas, Ryan Hall and JD Loftis. I didn’t tell my mind to go there, but I didn’t try to redirect it either. I let those names and faces and memories form a backdrop to my time with family, to my sun and relaxation, food and drink. I toasted them. Then for one minute on Memorial Day, at 12:01pm Eastern Standard Time, I closed my eyes and cleared my head of everything but the names and faces I knew, and the countless others I didn’t, who made the ultimate sacrifice.

On some level, those names and faces are always with me now. They are part of who I am as a veteran. I can already feel them pushing a little harder as Memorial Day weekend approaches, and like last year, I won’t push back. I will again bring them to the forefront for a minute of silence this Memorial Day, and I hope you will do the same.

12:01pm EDT Monday: #GoSilent for one minute to honor the men and women who have given their lives for our country.

Then enjoy your weekend. That’s what they would want.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Another tragedy, and all I can do is write

I live in the Fenway area, about a mile and a half from the Boston Marathon finish line. I was safe at home yesterday when the bombs went off. I heard sirens, but with a major hospital complex right down the street, I thought nothing of it.

Then my phone lit up with inquiries from family and friends. Then my boyfriend turned on the TV and hollered at me to call my friend who lives downtown. Then I saw the first shaky video clips.

My initial reaction was horror. How could it be anything else? I joined the frantic texting/social media frenzy to account for my friends. I prayed. The news was a loop of fragmented, terrible details. Two dead. Twenty-two injured. Then 50. Then 75. One hundred.

Other thoughts filtered in. I hope the attacker isn’t a veteran; I hope it’s not a new poster boy (or girl) for PTSD.

I hope it’s not an extremist who reinforces hateful stereotypes.

I hope the bastard is brought to justice.

I thought I was done with war zones.

As a bystander in a situation like this, I think in some ways it’s easier to be a veteran. Not easy, by any means, not un-affecting—especially for those whose trauma symptoms are triggered. But, unfortunately, it’s something we’re familiar with. We’ve been involved in attacks, whether directly or on the fringes. We’ve been through planning and exercises.

We’ve carried that burden, taken that risk, in hopes that others won’t have to; that this will be a safe place to return home; that citizens will not have to live in fear; that children can watch their parents run 26.2 miles on a beautiful spring day.

I thought of the marathon I ran in Houston in 2009—masochistically wonderful and peaceful and inspiring. I thought of watching my sister run Coeur d'Alene last year, my two-year-old niece jogging along on the sidelines. I thought of the fear in the eyes of the Afghan children I met; a necessary, deep-seeded complex no child should have to endure.

Yesterday, more than fear I felt completely helpless. I wasn’t downtown to help and couldn’t get there if I tried. Because I’ve “lived” in an area with a prevalence of certain diseases, I can’t even donate blood.

So I ate a bunch of junk food. I hugged my boyfriend and snuggled with my cat. I watched something funny on TV.

And I wondered if I had been there, what would I have done? When my fight or flight reflexes kicked in, which would win? I don’t blame those who ran away—self-preservation is a logical and natural human reaction, and probably saved lives yesterday, not to mention alleviated mass confusion. But as a veteran, as someone with training and experience, would I join them?

Or would I be one of the hundreds who ran toward the scene? Would I help clear debris and carry victims to safety? Would I use my combat lifesaver training to render emergency first aid? Would I offer soothing words and a hand to hold?

I hope if I were there I would stay.

I hope I never have to find out.

RIP to those who lost their lives in this senseless attack. May victims and family members find comfort and healing—physically and emotionally.

Thanks to the first responders, medical and security personnel, K-9 units, blood donors, and those around the city and across the nation who’ve offered thoughts and prayers of support. You have shown that tragedies like this unify us and make us stronger.

May we hold onto unity and love long after the wounds begin to heal. 

Friday, March 29, 2013

On top of the world...literally

Wow have I been slacking on the blog front. It's a good thing I have some super cool military friends who are doing super cool things that I can brag about in lieu of my own super coolness. 

Rob Marshall's super coolness was obvious the first time I met him: He was from Washington State, contagiously enthusiastic, drove an alternative fuel-powered vehicle, and was in the process of climbing the highest mountain on every continent to raise money for the families of Special Operations Airmen killed in action. 

It was this final point that led me to Rob. In 2009, I wrote a feature article on the U.S. Air Force 7 Summits Challenge. I was impressed not only by the effort itself--which, if successful, will be the first time a U.S. military team has accomplished the ultimate mountaineering feat--but also by Rob and his team's sheer commitment and determination. They used their own money to fund the climbs, and burned through personal vacation time. They planned, trained, and executed around two, three or more deployments-a-year schedules. Here I was, struggling to find the time and energy to make something other than frozen pizza for dinner. 

At the time Rob and his team had two peaks left to climb: Vinson Massif in Antarctica, and the crown jewel of mountaineering . . . Everest. A year later, I chronicled their preparations for the Antarctic climb, which they successfully completed just as I was leaving the Air Force. 
Rob and Graydon Muller at the summit of Vinson Massif
Rob and I have kept in touch, and a few days ago I got the news that IT'S ON. Everest or bust! As I write this,12 Airmen, including three wounded warriors, are en route to the highest mountain in the world to see a 12-year dream to completion.

I encourage you to read Rob's message below, explore the USAF 7 Summits website, follow their progress, offer support through thoughts and prayers, and, if you feel so inclined, through a donation to their very worthy cause. 

Be inspired. Be amazed.

In Rob's words:  

I'm about to depart on a huge journey.  On Thursday, March 28th, I'm flying to Nepal to lead a team of Air Force members to Mt. Everest.  Six of us will go for the summit, and six other Airmen will turn around upon reaching Everest Base Camp.  Three of these folks are wounded warriors who I invited to join us in hopes that it aids them in their emotional and physical recoveries.  No team of US military members has ever attempted to climb Mt. Everest.  If successful, not only will we be the first team of American military members to reach the summit, but we will also be the first military team from any nation to successfully climb the '7 Summits'- the highest peak on each of the seven continents.

I'm sure to most of you this isn't breaking news!  I created this climbing challenge back in 2005 with my best friend Mark Uberuaga when we were stationed with the Air Force in England.  Since then, I've been traveling the world, climbing mountains in an effort to raise esprit d' corps among Airmen, generate positive media stories, promote physical and mental health, and to honor my friends who have died since the Sept 11, 2001 attacks.  We've also been raising awareness of a great charity that pays for all the college costs for children who lose a parent serving in US Special Operations, as well as a charity that serves the men and women of Air Force Combat Rescue- the folks tasked with saving lives in the worst of conditions.  Over the last eight years, we've raised over $70,000 for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation and That Others May Live Foundation.

Suicides in the military keep going up, so I'm really hoping we can strike a chord with the Air Force and other branches when it comes to the link between physical exertion and mental health.  I've been through my lows, especially when working from an isolated area or after the loss of a friend, but I found that the best medicine for me was to get outside, get my body working, and to start sweating.  There is also something healing about forests, mountains, rivers, and oceans.  It's my hope that I can help find a way to safely get military members suffering from depression, PTSD or a similar personal issue into the outdoors and give them the opportunity to sweat, get their heart rates up, and to renew their confidence and self esteem.  Perhaps after Everest I'll get that chance!

Many of you have generously supported me and these charities throughout these climbs.  Well, this is the last of the seven!  I'm sure I'll keep climbing, but as far as our project goes, this big one is also the final one.  So I'm writing to ask for your support for this last mountain.  If you are interested in making a donation, it's real easy this time.  You can visit our website.  It's possible to donate through Amazon or Paypal on our site. 50% of your donation will go directly to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which is a 501(c)3.  The other 50% will go to the USAF 7 Summits Challenge, a 501(c)19 'War Veterans Organization', and be used to pay for climbing gear, permits, and logistics.  So your donation is tax deductible in accordance with IRS regulations.  However, if you want to adjust the percentages, just let me know and we'll make it happen! 

I'm happy to say that we're going to be doing daily updates throughout the expedition.  Our website has been revamped thanks to the donation of a local Amarillo web development firm, so it's looking real nice!  Visit our blog, where you will be able to follow us up the mountain and hopefully see photos every day or so.  Our wounded warriors and climbers will be writing about the journey, likely in personal ways, so I think you'll find the reading quite entertaining.

My brain is pretty tired- it's soon to be 1:40am here and I've spent the day packing dozens of medications, first aid kit supplies, climbing gear, and clothes, so I better wrap this up!  Lots more packing to do tomorrow after work.  I'm smiling, thinking about what the next 70 days are going to hold for me.  My heart is happy, as I've wanted to return to Everest ever since I stood at its base in 2001.  I had no intention of climbing it, but when I visited it on a cloudy, deserted day in June, I had the strangest feeling that I needed to return.  But it needed to be for something bigger than just me.  Well, it took 12 years, but here I am, on my way back to the mountain, and it's for a cause bigger than I could have ever imagined way back then.  It is going to be an epic adventure and I thank all of you for supporting me with your friendship, love and wisdom throughout all these years.

Feel free to pass this on to anyone you think might be interested in following our progress on Everest.  Oh, and I am planning on setting a world record for pushups on the summit of Everest.  I've done pushups on every mountain I've climbed since I went to the Air Force Academy in '97.  Some people egg me on by pledging donations to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation for every pushup I do in one minute.  If you'd like to do that, just send me an email with your pledge.  That way I'll have a little more motivation to knock out a few extra!  I'm aiming for 40 pushups in a minute, but it could be more, and it could certainly be less!

Good luck to Rob and the 7 Summits Team!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Love Story

This is a bit of a departure from my usual blog content, but bear with me, it is military related. It’s a story of the loneliness and isolation that can accompany military life, and the adaptability necessary for (or bread from) military transience. It’s a story of comfort and compassion. It’s a story of a cat. And in honor of Valentine’s Day, it is, above all else, a love story.

(WARNING: The following may be sentimental or even downright mushy. But that’s okay, because it’s Valentine’s Day).

I got Annabelle in April 2007. Six months earlier I had moved across the country—literally as far as one can move in the continental U.S., from Seattle to Florida—to begin my Air Force career. I’d left home before, but it was a temporary arrangement, to a series of college dorms. This was my first time really truly on my own.

I dove into my new job, moved into my first grownup apartment, and adjusted way too easily to the Gulf Coast bar scene. But socially, I struggled. Everyone I knew was two time zones away. In an environment where relationships are rank-dependent, I was one of two young officers in my office and the only unmarried one. Without the social Velcro of a classroom or work setting, I was clueless on how to make friends.

So I did what any single, lonely girl would do: I adopted three cats.

Okay, that’s not really how it played out. I’d grown up with cats, loved them dearly, and planned to get one of my own once I was settled in in Florida. But fate had other plans. The day I called my apartment manager to ask about a pet deposit, he found a beautiful long-haired black cat and her four newborn kittens on his property. A few weeks later, when the kittens were weaned, I carried mama and two babies across the courtyard to my apartment. Annabelle, Gracie and Milo Johnson. We were a happy little family.

First family photo!
Eventually I did make friends (among whom I was the center of many good-natured Cat Lady jokes, which I thought afforded me a level of social prestige—I’d always wanted a cool nickname!). But we were all busy with stressful jobs and steep learning curves, and as with all nascent adult friendships, my connections lacked the shared history to make me comfortable enough to really open up. To cry. To scream. To cry and scream while eating ice cream for dinner in front of Sex the City reruns. To wonder what the heck I was doing with my life and why did I keep screwing up and when would I get a boyfriend already.

My cats didn’t say much, but they were good listeners. Especially Annabelle. While Milo and Gracie entertained me with their spastic kittenly antics, Annabelle comforted me. She was my lap cat. She greeted me at the door as soon as I got home. She slept on my bed every night. If I had visitors, Milo and Gracie hid. Annabelle went to the first available lap.

In my frequent absences, they liked to hang out on
"off limits" surfaces like the kitchen table
Military life can obviously be hard on people: the long and unpredictable hours, frequent moves, TDYs and deployments. We don’t often think of the toll these things must take on military pets. Less than two months after I got my cats, I was sent out of state for a six-week training session. The cats stayed with a gracious colleague (thanks Amy!).

During other, shorter trips, a series of friends rotated through cat care duty.

For base exercises, emergencies and special events, I volunteered for night and weekend shifts because I didn’t have a family at home.

When it came time to deploy, I moved out of my house and left my cats in the care of my parents . . . on the other side of the country. My parents flew to Florida to help me pack, then flew a terrified, yowling Milo and a silent, cowering Gracie back to Seattle as carryons. The airline had a two pet per flight rule, so Annabelle made the trip alone in cargo. (Her mellow demeanor made her the obvious choice—proof that no good goes unpunished).

My nine months in Afghanistan probably would have been much more pleasant with a cat. As it was, I settled for a stuffed one. My sister had given it to me before I adopted my real cats, and it just happened to look like Annabelle. The likeness slept with me on my hard Afghanistan mattress.

Back in Seattle, my mom worried about me like mothers do, and pampered my cats, fattening them up like grandmothers do. She adored them all, but said Annabelle gave her the most comfort. Annabelle sat in her lap, greeted her at the door, slept on her bed.

When I returned from my deployment, “home” was a fuzzy notion. In Florida, most of my friends had moved to other bases or were themselves deployed. My belongings were still in storage, my cats still in Seattle. I had eight months left in my military commitment, the definition of transient. Not wanting to sign a year-long lease, I bounced from spare bedroom to corporate apartment to housesitting; I took odd jobs and short term assignments at work so as not to upset the balance of operations without me.

A few months after my homecoming, my grandfather passed away after his own war: with cancer. I made it to Seattle to say goodbye and attend the memorial service. When I left I authorized the loan of “The Therapy Cat” to keep Grandma company. Annabelle took a trip to Tacoma, breaking in a new lap and getting hopelessly addicted to cat treats.

I completed my Air Force commitment just before Christmas and moved back to Seattle. I was luckier than most recently separated veterans: I had time to decompress before jumping into the next chapter of my life, and a safe, supportive place to heal. I kept to myself much of the time, holed up in my room writing about war, reading about war, thinking about war. Annabelle kept an eye on me from my childhood bed.

The following fall, I moved across the country again—not quite as far, just to Boston this time. I was excited for graduate school but hated the thought of starting over again, friendless and catless.

The transition wasn’t as difficult as I’d feared. Maybe because I’d done it before. Maybe because I found myself in classrooms with wonderfully welcoming and supportive peers. Maybe because I had a plan to bring my cats along as soon as possible. Probably because Boston has a lot of really good beer.

Whatever the reason, by the end of my first year, I was feeling happy and almost whole again. Almost. Taking advantage of the glory that is student vacation time, I flew to Seattle for a few weeks, then returned, cats in tow. Again hampered by the two pet per flight rule, and again trusting Annabelle to best handle the stress of separation, Milo and Gracie came first.

The cats brought a sense of life, comfort and coziness that had been missing from my condo. (It sounds so cheesy, but anyone who’s ever had a pet can understand). They’re just so stinking adorable and endearing.

I felt bad separating Annabelle and her babies.

They were family; they groomed each other and cuddled up together, legs and fur entwined so that it was hard to tell which cat ended where. 

I missed her too, of course. And I didn’t know it yet, but I needed her in Seattle. 

She was waiting for me when I flew home unexpectedly last fall, devastated with a broken heart. Once more, I holed up in my old room. Once more, she watched over me.

Finally, a month ago, we were all reunited. Annabelle tolerated the cross-country flight better than I did, and within 48 hours claimed her territory sprawled out on her back in the middle of the condo hallway.

On her first night, she peed in the bathtub. Like directly over the drain. Whether or not you’re a cat person, that’s impressive!

It took a few days, but Milo and Gracie decided they were glad to have Annabelle back too. The Johnson family was whole again.

Then last week, Annabelle died.

The vet said it was probably a heart condition, a common cause of sudden death in cats. But I like to think of her as a fuzzy black four-legged guardian angel. She came to me when I needed her and helped me through some of the most difficult times in my life—and did the same for my mom and grandma. She saw all of us over the holidays, checking in in turn, making sure we were okay. In Boston, she could tell I was okay; happy, healing, settled, in good hands. And she saw that her babies were okay.

Then she decided she could go. 

RIP to a remarkable cat

Gracie and Milo only snuggled when Annabelle was there
(she clearly brought out the best in everyone)
Evidence that my dad once let her sit on his lap!
(anyone who knows my dad knows what a phenomenon that is!)
She didn't mind my three-year-old nieces
As a parting gift, she gave my boyfriend a soul . . .
never before had he cried at the death of a pet

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Good Samaritanism

Summer 2010:

It was a dark and stormy night . . . Actually, I think it was warm and clear. But it was dark and stormy inside my head. I had finished a long day of work, in a series of many long days, and was en route back to my new condo. Which wasn't really my condo; I was house-sitting for a friend who was deployed. Before that I’d been in a short-term corporate apartment, before that I’d spent a few weeks in a friend’s spare bedroom, and before that I’d been in Afghanistan. All my belongings were still in storage.

I had recently started seeing a social worker at my Air Force base’s Behavioral Health Clinic for the depression and anxiety that had been nagging me since my deployment. At work, I was good at pretending I was okay (hence the long days, time is always a good substitute for motivation), but not far below the surface, I was stressed, tired, and unsettled, teetering on the verge of falling apart.

And, as I drove “home,” I was hungry.

I wasn't in the habit of stopping at restaurants in my uniform. I was always anxious to leave base and put on “normal” clothes (ie. pajamas), to de-militarize as quickly as possible. But that night, I needed some comfort food and couldn't fathom the energy to scrounge up dinner from the meager contents of my borrowed kitchen.

The green glow of the Olive Garden sign beckoned me from the side of Highway 98. I placed a To-Go order for something creamy and smothered in cheese and slumped onto a bench in the waiting area. All around me, people were laughing and chatting excitedly. Just listening to them made me tired.

When the hostess brought out my order, I had my credit card ready. She shook her head and smiled warmly. “It’s already been paid for. The gentlemen thanks you for your service.”

Shocked, I mumbled a “thank you,” took my food and returned to my car, where I immediately burst into tears—not because I was tired or stressed or frustrated or missing my cats that were still in Seattle with my parents, but because I was appreciated.

January 2013:

As we begin this new year, a lot of people seem to be looking for a fresh start. For many, the last few years have been soured by a tough economy, political bickering and countless other personal and financial problems. Whatever you’re dealing with in 2013, I wish you strength and perseverance.

And I issue you a challenge: Sometime this year, take a moment to step outside your own crazy, busy, frazzled life to make someone else’s day. Buy coffee for the customer behind you at the Starbucks drive through. Carry groceries for the older woman in your building. Thank those soldiers at the airport, the cops directing traffic at your 5K, the firemen on break outside their station.

The Olive Garden Good Samaritan didn't know I’d had a rough couple months. Maybe I wouldn't have been as touched by his gesture if I’d been in better spirits. If he’d gone on with his meal and not given me a second glance, he’d have an extra $15 in his pocket, and I’d probably be just fine.

I don’t know the story of the soldier sitting by himself at the Conn. Red Robin last month. I don’t know what his job is in the Army. I don’t know if he’s deployed once, multiple times, or not at all. I don’t know if he saw me slip the waitress my credit card to cover his check. I don’t know if it made him smile.

I just know, for me, it felt good on both sides.

**Photo from the Flickr Creative Commons: “Buying dinner with Change” by Flickr user “Juli Crockett” (Licensed by CC 3.0)