Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Year in Review Part Two

Wow, how fitting that I write this on the very last day of 2008. Hard to believe that this year is all but over. My sentimental side gets the best of me at this time of year and so hence this look back...

I've become aware of the fact that writing this year in review blog may just take the place of one of those annoying holiday letters you get in the mail.
You know those people who write you a Christmas Card and slip in this really gag-worthy...Johnny got a promotion...Little Suzy is the smartest kid in her class, We're going to Cabo San Lucas and you're not update letters. Well, I just thought of that and I apologize if my year in review resembles that because that is not the intention. Ehh...what do you care if this is a snore...go back to facebook.

The summer of 2008 was a particularly memorable one for a couple of reasons. To start things off, my sister Mary got engaged to her boyfriend Karl. Mary asked me to be her maid of honor...and of course, I was honored to accept the duty. My little sister is getting married in July. It has been widely acknowledged publicly that a dance-off will take place at the wedding...between my brother in law to be and myself. There are bets now being taken as to who will win...but I have to say...I am taking this very seriously.

Also this summer I began working with a great organization called Melissa's Living Legacy Teen Cancer Foundation (Teens Living with Cancer). They are an amazing organization that helps support and guide teenagers through the unique challenges of cancer during that difficult life stage of adolescence.

On the way to the LiveSTRONG Summit this year Mom and I took a roadtrip.
The goal was to rack up three states...putting my state count to I'd be that much closer to making my 30 in the 30th goal. I have to say it's one of the ways my Mom is so special...just being game for such a crazy adventure because she knew it meant something to me.
I broke in my new (to me) car Smurfette (yep she's a blue Hyndaui Elantra) on this trip and I added Illinois, Wisconisin and Indiana to my state roster. I think the highlight had to be a visit to the Indiana Dunes National Park.
As an environmentalist, my Mom had always taught me an appreciation for the treasure that we have near my aunt's cottage at Pine Grove (Selkirk) on Lake Ontario. To the unschooled dunes might just seem like really cool piles of someone who truly understands they are a sanctuary for unique species of birds, plants and animals. Supposedly, Indiana is the only other place that you can find sand dunes near fresh water. Fortunately their dunes are protected by state law and federal law...unfortunately for the residents of Selkirk can all attest to the fact that the sand dunes there were not at the time most of them were mowed down by development. We can all think the Brennan Dynasty for that environmental wallup.

That roadtrip was all combined with making my way to the 2008 LiveStrong Summit in Columbus Ohio. I attended as one of 1,000 delegates across the country. Mom spent the first evening at the Summit and both of us were able to hear John McCain speak along with Lance Armstrong and Paula Zahn in a townhall specifically dealing with cancer. We won't go into my own feelings on what McCain had to bring to the table on this issue...but let's just say I wish Obama had been there to share his thoughts.

I met so many amazing people touched by cancer in so many different ways...survivors, co-survivors, non-profit professionals, people in the medical field. Everyone had one goal in common: to make cancer a national priority. I'm Too Young For This was well represented there. Okay so hanging with Lance Armstrong was pretty cool, but we didn't really hang out..he was kinda busy (Kate Hudson was in town). The true big bonus was linking up with a huge group of i[2]yers from all over that congregated there.
That weekend was absoultely edition to the knowledge, training and networking it offered, I made some amazing friends there in Columbus.

I have to say the summer was pretty action packed right to the last drop of fun. My friend Jenise had a birthday party that rivaled all 30th birthday parties on August 30th at the New York State Fair no less. Her sense of humor and tongue in cheek whimsy is obvious in this birthday party invite.
Summer came and went...but the fall was pretty crazy too. Nicole, my right hand woman in our i[2]y group got us registered as our very own kickball team in a tournament. That's right...a team filled with cancer survivors! We wanted to show everyone what a bunch of cancer survivors can really do! Yeah! Boo-ya! Well, okay we did get our butts kicked... but the team playing us had a slighltly unfair advantage---a former Rochester Rhino playing with them.

September was the most amazing Light The Night yet for Leah's Line-up. Our team together raised more than $3,000 for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society. I was an ambassador of Rochester's walk along with an 8th grader named Tony. Tony and I had a lot of fun shooting the commercial at Channel 8 with Elizabeth Harness, this year's spokesperson. We had a pretty darn large team this year and everyone helped make it a success, even little Lucy (AKA Leah's Magic Medecine) who was so tuckered out at the end of the walk that she took a nap.

Another milestone was acheived in 2008---My 30th state! Back around the time of cancer diagnosis #2, when things were darkest, I'd made this something on my bucket list and I was determined to do it! I'll have you all know that the state that made the 30th distinction was ---drumroll please...Connecticut. I happened to share this special occasion with my best friend, Jillian which made it even better. She wanted to help me get this 30th state done so we hopped a ferry from Long Island to Mystic CT...and in late September mission accomplished. I've always loved watching the movie Mystic Pizza so our trip included a stop in the actual Mystic Pizza restaurant. Jillian and I ate our fare share of pizza in college...and sadly for most of those four years at Bonaventure a decent slice was hard to come by. Jillian has on more than one occasion proved to me that New York City and Long Island make the state's best pizza. However Mystic Conneticut isn't doing too bad for itself. Yummy!

In October...I ventured back to my alma mater to do a presentation with Curt Balch where we spoke to students on the issue of young adult cancer survivorship. St. Bonaventure was incredibly generous with their support of us and of I'm Too Young For This as well and proved it with a fundraiser for i[2]y that following weekend.

Just a few days later was the annual dinner for Melissa's Living Legacy. It was quite a busy weekend with Sean Swarner the guest speaker for that event in town. This Ironman/mountain climber was even nice enough to throw in a speech for students and staff at my school. Sean was kept hopping that whole weekend and never stopped smiling even through the garbage plate he devoured just hours before his keynote. He also inspired me to do something I never thought I'd do. I climbed to the top of a rock wall. That's right...that same girl whose fear of heights kept her from climbing trees as a kid. Originally, I thought I'd hang out at the bottom with other spectators.
I made a pact with i[2]y founder Matthew Zachary...he'd do it---if and only if I did it. Ask Matthew--that promise was kept. He proved to all of us i[2]yers that there's a little mountaineer in everyone, even the uber technologically inclined.

One of the most memorable moments of 2008? Right up there had to be my friend Zach DeRidder winning the LiveSTRONG video contest. He was the little engine that could and he grabbed the votes and hearts of people all across the nation...maybe across the world. We are sooo proud of the Z-Man!

Okay, I'm running out of time...and you're likely running out of patience reading this so I'll cut to the chase...there were some other cool things about turning 31...which I thought would be painful...but actually was not. I could tell you about the blizzard of 2008 which was not so cool. It cancelled my plans to journey to NYC December 19th. That was a major bummer. I was so looking forward to seeing Rockefeller Center lit up for Christmas and of course congregating with some fellow i[2]yers. But we won't go into's just going to make me sad again.

Instead I have to just focus on what's ahead for the new year. I'm jumping into 2009 with a fresh perspective on life that 2008 helped bring about for me. I'm feeling more and more like things are headed in the right may take a little elbow grease and a little faith on my part...but I have high hopes for 2009. Lots of things to accomplish...and lots of memories to make.

For all of us looking at a new year...and thinking about what we'd like to see in it...remember...
Life is really like a you have to enjoy those big bites. Every bite!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Leah's Year in Review Part One

Now that the wrapping paper has been thrown aside...I'd like to take a moment heading into this new year to acknowledge all that I am grateful for. Life has been very good to me this year.

One year ago I was in a very different place than I am today and perhaps that is the beauty of the passage of time. Nothing remains the same and we are all in constant motion. Life moves on.
In acknowledgement of that I'd like to do Leah's year in review. Looking back at 2008....

I celebrated New Years 2008 with friends and for the first time in 4 years I wasn't sick when the ball dropped. This was a very big deal for me.

In February I travelled to Kansas to see my cousins...I got two states out of that trip...if you count time spent in Missouri shopping and eating. It was of during quite a cold snap but Julia and Emily and I found lots of ways to entertain ourselves indoors. As usual I can always be persuaded to play dress is never too old for that. In the few months they had been based at Fort Leavenworth the girls had taken up horseback riding. I had the chance to get back on a horse for the first time in years and realized one thing. It's never good to stay away from something you love for too long. This is so true of many things in life. Note to self: I have to take opportunities to ride more often.

In March James and I travelled from Albany to surprise Carol in Boston for her 30th birthday!
We had quite a grand time, especially when you add the fact that it was St. Patrick's Day weekend. The South Boston Parade was the most fun I've had on St. Pattys Day ever. Okay, I've had a lot of fun on this day pretty much annually...but this took the cake. One might say I got a little too crazy at the parade but Carol and James were okay with that...right? You only live once and if you want to dance with the guy dressed like Sam Adams...why not do it? And if he swings you up in the air in the process then all the better. If you want to high five 100 people in Southie in half an hour ya do it...the mood really called for it. By the end of the parade as we piled on to the T, which was absolutely mobbed, I had the beads and green lollypops to account for my fun. Mardi Gras this was not and I didn't bare anything to get them (it was too cold)...but fun fun fun!

On the way home James put up with my singing in the long car ride and even joined I think it's safe to say we're kindred roadtrippers.

In April I sat down with my list and realized that if I wanted to get 30 states under my belt in my 30th year I'd have to get crackin'. Mom jumped in the car to head with me to Michigan for a very short trip through Canada and into Port Huron Michigan, the capital city of the Great Lakes.
Port Huron is a really cool place to visit. You can see the real blog from that trip here.
As it happens that blog grabbed the attention of a Port Huron tourism website and the webmaster asked for my permission to use it. She even sent me a check. It didn't quite pay for the gas there but it was a nice little compliment.

May was quite possibly my busiest month ever...after months and months of planning we held our first Stupid Cancer happy hour here in Rochester. This was followed the next day with a trek to Syracuse for the first OMG young adult cancer conference. Hard to believe that at that point I'd been communicating with I'm Too Young For This founder Matthew Zachary for almost a year and this was the first time we met in person.
All of us involved had quite the crazy weekend...but in the end it was every bit worth it!

Another exciting thing in May...the trip to Montana to Camp Mak-A-Dream for the Young Adult Survivors Conference. I met some friends there that I hope to keep in touch with for many years to come. Almost a week of fresh air, scenery, workshops, a hike or two and plenty of fun was what my body and my spirit needed. Oh and did I mention that the 4 hr lay-over on the way there got me a bonus state...Minnesota. This put my state count at 26.

Three days after returning home I did the keynote speech along with Matthew Zachary for the Ithaca Cancer Resource Center's annual luncheon.

And then...there was the passing of Blanche, my long struggling car. After almost ten years of me behind her wheel she finally turned over for the last time...and expired. It was time to say goodbye to the car that seemingly for so long just wouldn't quit. Read about her life and times here.

Another clean scan...who isn't happy about those results?...I started summer off on the right foot.
This was a real turning point for me as things started to get just a little bit easier in the whole process of putting cancer behind me...don't know why, maybe because a year and a half had gone by since treatment ended. Suddenly I felt okay to snap a few quick pics with my favorite chemo nurse, Carol and Lori my favorite office staffer. The tension was still there but somehow I feel like a whole new patient they are seeing. This is definitely a place I've spent a lot of time. Like it or not a lot of my memories of my late 20s were in large part spent in and out of Strong Memorial.

As with all things...we have to take the good memories, the laughter and the happy moments in, even as they are tinged with the sad or hard memories. There is joy even here.


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Speaking of Heroes

William Duxbury was an incredible man...and to boot I had the honor of calling him Grandpa.
My sister, Mary and I lost our beloved Grandpa on December 10th 1988...20 years ago.

My memories of him are somewhat softened by the lens of childhood and the passage of time but my heart is still full of as much love as I had for him then.

When I was a little girl making Grandpa smile or getting his attention was tops on my list. He was a quiet man who was bright and loving and when he said something you listened. I watched others all around me who respected my Gramps...marvelling at his wisdom in so many areas of life. He was in his own simple kind way larger than life to me.

Mary and I were his only grandkids...and his pride was obvious whenever he showed us off. Boy, did he make you feel loved. He was a man of few words most of the time. The exact opposite of his two spritish grandchildren sometimes jabbering even through mealtime.
He'd quietly say "Let your meat stop your mouth." And he'd smile while he tinked his spoon round his coffee cup. You loved him for the way he said was never harsh.

Grandpa was the one who taught me to swim. He spent many hours in the summer with me swimming up at the lake. He gently instructed me and showed me the crawl, demonstrated the proper way to turn my face just so in the water. He didn't just watch me swim. He'd say 'watch this' and swim past me like a man twenty years younger. Then he'd tell me to try. And I would. I wanted nothing more than to hear him say "that's a good job, Leah" and when I got it right he would. This would be just about the time Grandma would come over the hill, telling us both dinner was ready. The sun would be going down.

Grandpa's vote of confidence was like a special prize and I always won it. He was proud of me trying and wanting to succeed. Mary and I were both water lovers but he used to call me a fish. He'd grown up poor and taught himself to swim as a kid. That's just the way he was. His whole life if he wanted to do something he just set about doing it, learning it. He never seemed to fear anything and I wanted to be just like him. And so though I received swimming lessons from a professional instructor when I was a kid, I'll always consider my Gramps my one true coach.

About 3 years after my Grandpa's death (he died when I was 11 years old) I joined the newly formed swim team at school. Our school had only recently built the indoor pool, everything about it was showroom new, so I was joining an experimental breed of school athletes...and I was fearful at first.

The night of my first swim meet much to my delight, my Grandma was up in the stands with my parents and sister. They were in for a show, I thought. I'd not mastered a graceful entrance into the pool, afterall I was a lake swimmer, so when they spotted me begin my event it must have been a sight.I was one big plunky splash. But I swam like there was a shark at my heels with a kinesthetic memory of each stroke, each breath and powerful push. It was written there and had remained...because of my Grandpa. When I hit the touchpad one of my teammates leaned down into the pool to tell me, inexperienced as I was, that I had actually won my event. I started to gasp harder and tears formed. My disbelief was overshadowed by a soft and silent wish. I wish he'd been there to see me do it. To see his little fish beat all those other kids who might have had fancy lessons or gone to schools that had afforded pools in their budgets many many years before. And Grandma took pride in hearing me say that this win was for Grandpa.

I didn't get the chance to be the athlete I'd wanted to be in high school. My illness deferred that dream. But in a strange parallel line my Grandfather had lost out on his own pursuit of athletic identity. As a young man he'd earned his shot at college through football only to lose it all after an injury during a game. A bright student, he'd had to leave Alfred because once football was over so too, was his tuition break. A college degree was not in the cards. But Willy did not despair because some bends in the road are just meant to be. He met my grandmother not long after he returned home.

He taught me by example that life is not about perfection or having the best of all things, and the best circumstances. He showed that life was about rolling with the punches and never carrying a chip on your shoulder if it didn't work out your way. I know that no matter what--- my Grandpa would have delighted in whatever it was that I gave to the world.

To him, Mary and I were bright stars...and his pride was in what we could do...and that made our lives enriched. Love, acceptance and a kind gentle spirit. William Duxbury was my grandfather...and twenty years after he left this earth he is still with me. His lessons and his love are imprinted on my heart forever.

In Loving Memory of William Duxbury 1912-1988

Thursday, December 4, 2008

My definition of a hero

Those of you faithful readers of my blog know about Zach DeRidder.
One year ago I met Zach and his best friend Michael in a hospital waiting area "by the candy machines" as Zach likes to say...and well, my life has never been the same since.

Zach's struggle with liver cancer since diagnosis in January 2006 has been three years of uncertainty. His survival is a testament to his absolute determination to never give up.
Unforunately, Zach's journey has taken yet another frightening turn. Very late this past Sunday night Zach was rushed to the hospital with a very low body temperature and blood pressure. He was admitted to ICU at once. Just hours later I received the call from his mom and that night I went to the hospital to see him. Michael and his wife Alice sped two hours from their home in Corning to come be with Zach.

I walked cautiously and nervously into the room. I was really afraid of what I might see.
Zach, a devout Mormon who truly is led by his faith, was surrounded bedside by members of his church. Zach was ready with a bright smile and he gave me a joyous greeting immediately flooding me with relief. With this guy's air of positvity it's absolutely impossible to feel doom and gloom.

Zach's pastor blessed him before he was wheeled off for a procedure. While we waited for Zach to get out of surgery Michael, Alice and I shared dinner in the hospital cafeteria and reminisced about all that had happened since Zach, Michael and I were first introduced that October afternoon last year by the candy machines. We were in awe of how good it was and how reassuring it felt to see Zach smiling and his bubbly self in spite of all that he is enduring.

I wanted to share with you what I have learned from my courageous friend... the young man that by all accounts before his illness was an athlete, a hard worker and a generous and unfailingly giving human being. Except for his health, none of that has changed.

When he got out of surgery I watched Zach ask his doctor matter of factly and simply "what do I have to do to get home for Christmas?" He reminded him several times that his sister was performing in the Nutcracker this weekend...and he wanted to see her dance. There were no promises of his release and Zach nodded with reluctant acknowledgement. This is serious. Serious enough to come between Zach and his plans.

The picture above shows Zach proudly holding a signed copy of Keep Climbing, a book that was overnighted to me by Sean Swarner, who Zach befriended when Sean was here in October. Zach has this book and Lance Armstrong's book "It's not About the Bike" by his bedside. These books and Scripture are his textbooks, which he highlights and pours over like textbooks. He is treating this like any challenge he's faced before, soaking up inspiration and learning all he can about how to give it everything he's got.

Zach's method is really quite inspiring. He is very conciously lining up those heroes in his life, those who have done it before, beat the odds and shared with others. This is what Zach hopes he can do as well. But he has already touched so many. He is only accutely aware of the impact he has had on people around the country and around the world. When his story was broadcast over the internet for all to see and he won the LiveSTRONG contest...he had not even seen the video. You can not get more humble or pure than that. His friends Tim and Michael had rushed to create not one, but two videos, one of which garnered him entrance as a finalist to the contest.

Since winning that contest and that signed bike from Lance so many hearts have been lifted by the Z-Man. I think when we look at what we have facing us, the frustrations or the challenges in our own lives, we have to just for a moment think of Zach. It's hard to argue our excuses for bad attitudes when we take on his example. Through the hardships and obstacles he looks at life like a great party. Even the hospital is a joyous and happy place because Zach is in Room 6. You see it in the smiles of all who enter his room. This guy doesn't back down and he doesn't give in. Attitude is everything...and he has it. No matter what the future holds for him he's told me himself that he is going to enjoy what he has.

I keep thinking of that moment more than a month ago when I realized fully how this guy really lives. He was not supposed to actively participate in indoor rock climbing with us. Can you imagine that being in the doctor's orders for someone in his condition? He'd made me think he'd hang below with me ( because I'm really chicken about heights) while rooting others on. That gave me my excuse to cherish the role of cheerleader...hold someone's clipboard and watch from the safety of the floor below.

I have to forgive Zach now for his dishonesty...but I think he knew all along he couldn't resist. Before I knew it he was signing the consent form and was my absolute panic. Perhaps somewhere deep inside he was thinking he had to grab this chance. I urged him not to and expressed my fears for his well-being. In his condition the concern was more than justified it was absolutely warranted.
But he turned to me and looked me straight in the eye and said "Leah, you've gotta live like you're dying". It scared the crap out of me...I wanted to stop his crazy talk...and turn around but he did it. He climbed to the very top of the wall and came down skillfully. He proved me so very wrong and brought everyone there in Rock Ventures who witnessed it to tears. And yes, my excuse was gone...I climbed too.

He scaled to the top...and he didn't look back at the decision with any regret. He was triumphant in utter exhaustion. He smiled as wide as I'd ever seen. Really this was just another day in the life of Zach DeRidder. But a day in my life that I will never, ever forget.

Is it possible that an amazing attitude toward life like this can help us face anything?
If you're betting against haven't met Zach.