Sunday, May 29, 2011

Life's Too Short

The day I set myself on fire, I knew I had a problem.

The morning began like most.  The alarm clock began its annoying bleet-bleet-bleet at 4:00 a.m.  I quickly groped for the clock radio, as not to wake my husband, Jeff, or Spike, who was sleeping in the center of the bed on her back with her hind legs spread-eagle and her front paws in praying mantis position.  I took a moment to envy her carefree existence.

Still exhausted, I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and mentally fumbled to understand why it was that I was getting up so early.  I had begun this insane routine a few months back in hopes of actually catching up on all of my work—warped logic not only because it didn’t work, but also because I didn’t give a rat’s ass about my job. 

I was thirty-seven years old and spending sixteen hours a day working for a CEO with whom I didn’t see eye-to-eye, in a company at which I didn’t feel I could be myself, in an industry that held no appeal for me.  Go figure. 

I had joined this small video game publisher six months prior as vice president of marketing, leaving behind the more stable environment of an educational publishing conglomerate.  Initially, when the recruiter’s call came through, I laughed.  Video games?  Me? 

Then the compensation package was quoted and I stopped laughing.  I thought about the hefty increase in salary, the potential for a big bonus and an even bigger stock payout.  I also thought about the thrill of coming into this “turn around situation,” and how invigorating it would be to join the management team that would foster positive change within the organization.  But mostly, I thought about the money. 

In a matter of minutes computerized war games had gone from being a senseless form of violent entertainment, if not a bit of a joke, to being, well, not so bad.  After all, they were just fantasy, I told myself, a way to kill time and relieve stress. 

“Oh puh-leeze,” I could hear my conscience chortling from deep within me.  I ignored the little bugger and signed the employment contract the day it was offered. My plan was to do this job for a couple of years, work hard to help the company succeed, vest my stock options, and take the money and run. 

Then I could solve world hunger.  

By the end of my first month, I knew I had made a huge mistake.  But the embarrassment of leaving so soon after starting, and the promise of big bucks kept me miserably in place.  I slogged my way through work, day after day—and often on the weekends, too—trying to focus on the positive.  But none of the rewards, including the money, offered any sense of authentic joy or lasting satisfaction. 

Realizing that the snooze button was due to activate soon, I turned off the alarm and slipped out of bed.  After a quick shower, I pulled my freshly fluffed and heated robe from the dryer and wrapped myself in it.  I walked to our small second bedroom, where our makeshift meditation area was and sat cross-legged on the floor preparing to “om” my way to a state of centered calm.  Lately I found that I needed this brief bit of time to just sit with my thoughts—or lack thereof—before launching into the world of animated violence. 

As I lit a match to light a small candle, I accidentally dropped it.  In the split second that the match fell downward, I assumed it would simply burn out as it hit the heavy fabric of my robe.  Instead, the oil-based coating of the fabric softener caused a bluish flame to immediately engulf my entire lap like a flambéed dessert. 

 “HONEY, I’M ON FIRE!” I screeched. 

Jeff launched naked from the bed.  At the same time, I managed to stand up and was pulling the burning robe off my body as I made my way toward the bedroom exit.  We almost collided in the hallway as I threw the robe to the floor.  Jeff made a flying tackle and easily extinguished the flames. 

I stood—naked and in shock—two feet from Jeff—naked and in shock—as he lay on the floor covering the terrycloth culprit.  Our eyes met and we simultaneously broke into uncontrollable laughter at the absurdity of the situation. Then, just as quickly, I melted into a mass of heaving sobs.

“Life is…(sob)...too short…(sob) work…(sob) a job…(sob) hate!”

Having completed this insightful observation, I sank to the floor.  Jeff crawled over to me and wrapped me in a hug.  He rocked me in his arms and told me that no amount of money was more important than my sanity. 

I resigned the following week.  

Download a PDF of the first 4 chapters of Lauren's memoir, Zuzu's Petals: A True Story of Second Chances, FREE here.  Click on the link below the green "Buy the Book" button.  Happy reading!  

Friday, May 27, 2011

Happy Birthday, Kid!

Every year, Harold Mintz sends a birthday card to his own kidney. Sure, that’s kind of weird in itself, but wouldn’t you think he could simply put his hand on his gut and whisper, “Happy birthday, kid”? Instead, Harold signs and seals a card and then sends it to the address of a woman who was once a complete stranger. You might even say they were from different worlds.

Gennet Belay grew up in Ethiopia. When she was twelve, she developed a kidney infection that landed her in the hospital. Her father insisted that she wasn’t ill (after all, he reasoned, children don’t get sick) and discharged her from the hospital against medical orders. Left untreated, Gennet’s kidney infection worsened and, years later, nearly cost her her life.

In 1987, Gennet and her husband and baby immigrated to the US, and eight months later, both of Gennet’s kidneys went into failure. She began receiving dialysis treatments upwards of three times a week and was added to the kidney transplant list. Eleven years passed, and still no kidney. 

The whole time, Gennet prayed for a miracle. While praying on New Year’s Eve of 2000, Gennet distinctly heard a voice tell her: “This year is the end of your suffering.”

Enter Harold. As a life-long blood and platelet donor (and a member of the national bone marrow registry), Harold already knew how good it felt to help people. His wife and 10-year-old daughter already had plenty of reasons to be proud of the impact he was having on the lives of others. But after reading about a teacher who donated a kidney to one of her students, Harold felt compelled to take his giving up a notch. He picked up the phone and began the process of becoming a “live donor.”

Months later, Harold went under anesthesia, and one of his kidneys was removed and transported across town where Gennet was waiting to undergo her 45th surgery in two decades. That evening, while recovering from his own surgical procedure, Harold received a phone call. His kidney recipient was doing great, he was told. And his kidney? “Peeing up a storm,” according to the doctor who phoned to share the good news.

Harold and Gennet were later introduced and have since shared many family meals and celebrations together. Harold has given countless talks at high schools, and when he speaks of blood and organ donation, his eyes light up. I’m not kidding – this guy is on fire about the subject!

Harold believes there are no coincidences. Gennet believes in miracles. And I believe in the synchronicity of life that brought these two strangers together to form a lifelong bond of friendship. They come from different worlds, but they now share a remarkable experience – one that underscores the depth of humanity that dwells within us all.

Harold once told me his guiding principal in life has always been: follow the fun. Apparently, Harold’s idea of a good time is to help others. With thousands of people dying every year while awaiting organ transplants, we can only hope that more people follow in his footsteps and discover the “fun” in helping others. And next April, Harold’s kidney just might be getting a birthday card from me, too.

Download a PDF of the first 4 chapters of Lauren's memoir, Zuzu's Petals: A True Story of Second Chances, FREE here.  Click on the link below the green "Buy the Book" button.  Happy reading!  

Sunday, May 15, 2011

No Longer Lost

In the spring of 2001, I received a phone call from an acquaintance asking if I could drive some refugees to a picnic.  Sure, I told her.  Then I hung up the phone and called down to Jeff in his home office.  Honey? Where’s Sudan?

That weekend, Jeff, baby Clare, and I drove to a dilapidated home on the outskirts of Denver to pick up several young men—teens, really—all tall, dark and thin.  With Clare sandwiched between them in the back seat, we drove into the mountains above Boulder to a wooded campground where 30 or so other refugees—all recent arrivals to the U.S.—and an equal number of Americans were gathered.  Together, we grilled hamburgers and kicked soccer balls, and when the games and food were exhausted, we sat in small groups throughout the picnic area and heard the refugees’ stories. 

Without apparent emotion, these gentle young men known as the Lost Boys of Sudan calmly told us how they had been at school or tending cattle when government-backed raiders attacked their villages, raping women and girls, capturing some as slaves, and killing men, women, and children who were unable to escape.  We heard in horrifying detail how they ran from aerial bombings and the gunfire of soldiers, and spent the next several months walking hundreds of miles, their numbers growing as they joined up with other small groups of boys in the same predicament.  They walked and walked, at times so hungry they ate mud and so thirsty they drank their own urine. And at night, when they slept on the ground in a tight cluster, the boys at the outermost edge of the group would creep over sleeping bodies to get closer to the center.  This process would continue until dawn, each boy hoping to avoid the inevitable attack of a hungry lion during the night.

By the time they arrived at a refugee camp in Kenya, they had walked more than 1,000 miles and their numbers—estimated to be more than 30,000 at the outset—had been cut in half due to starvation, dehydration, drowning as they crossed the Nile, lion and hyena attacks, and the bullets of soldiers they encountered. After spending a decade in the harsh conditions of the camp, 4,000 or so Lost Boys immigrated to the U.S., about 60 of them to the Denver/Boulder area.

It is impossible to meet boys like these, hear their stories, and then simply say, “Well, good luck.” And so—along with dozens of other locals—we jumped in, helping our new friends find jobs, learn to cook, shop for necessities.  During our first trip to the grocery store together, I had the deli worker sample various lunchmeats to the six guys who were with me. Then, while we waited for our order of sliced roast beef, Daniel asked me where in the store the live cattle were kept.

Over time, Jeff’s and my relationship with the Lost Boys shifted from that of parents to that of friends, the focus of our interactions from job applications and cooking lessons to college graduations and citizenship ceremonies.  In December 2006, Jeff went to Sudan with five other Americans and six Sudanese to help rebuild their homeland.  He and Panther worked with a group of locals to drill several wells. Like blood, access to safe drinking water is a matter of life and death in sub-Saharan Africa, where 1 in 4 children dies of a water-borne disease before their fifth birthday.

Today, Panther is completing his undergraduate degree while working fulltime. He is married to his refugee-camp sweetheart, Mary, and they’re raising their two young sons in Denver. Daniel managed to relocate five surviving family members to the U.S and is putting his brothers through college. He’s currently living in Sudan for a year to build schools and drill wells.

No longer “lost” and no longer “boys,” these incredible young men have clearly found their place in this world. 

Download a PDF of the first 4 chapters of Lauren's memoir, Zuzu's Petals: A True Story of Second Chances, FREE here.  Click on the link below the green "Buy the Book" button.  Happy reading!  

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Mom Always Took Good Notes

SHORTLY AFTER I MOVED TO BOULDER, Colorado, my mother stopped by my home and handed me a thick document. Across the top and in all caps it read LAUREN’S LOG.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“It’s what happened,” she said.

I thumbed through page after page to see that everything she’d written in her blue notebook during the worst two months of my life was now typed up and organized, each separate date an underlined heading. Single-spaced, the pages totaled forty-seven.

“Forty-seven pages?” I asked, incredulous.

“You have no idea,” Mom said. “Hell, you weren’t really there half the time!” She laughed at her own joke and left to resume her morning errands.

By then, I was getting used to these whirlwind visits from Mom. Rarely a day passed that she didn’t stop by to give me an interesting article she’d cut out for me or to pick up an empty Tupperware container that had held the soup she’d dropped off two days earlier. I thought the frequency of her visits was tied to the excitement of finally having one of her four grown children living in the same neighborhood, let alone in the same time zone. Today, however, I believe these visits were Mom’s way of reassuring herself that the nightmare was over—that her youngest child, the one who would’ve been voted Most Likely to Laugh in the Face of Adversity, was still alive, and indeed laughing again.

I stood alone in my kitchen staring at Lauren’s Log, my head buzzing. I’d been told that Mom had taken copious notes and collected scraps of paper with others’ notes during what I now refer to simply as “the train wreck,” but I was taken aback by the abruptness of actually receiving them. Over the past six months anecdotes had been doled out—gradually and tentatively—by those who’d been with me as I lay unconscious and unlikely to live, or as I screamed from physical pain so great I wanted only to die. As if putting together a jigsaw puzzle with no photo on the box to guide me, I’d taken each detail, each story, and figured out where it fit into the larger picture that was unfolding, the richness and depth of the scene not yet taking shape. I sensed that in my hands I held fistfuls of additional puzzle pieces.

I tucked the document under my right arm and climbed the stairs of my new home, clutching the railing with both hands to pull the weight of my body up each step, slowly and one at a time. Reaching the second floor, I paused to catch my breath, then wobbled precariously to the overstuffed chair in my home office and sat, exhausted.

I began to read, and ten pages in I was choking back tears for these people: the baby, the husband, the new mom. Oh my god, oh my god, I said under my breath over and over and over again. I felt like I was watching a movie and was suddenly transposed from the audience to the screen. Holy cow, this is me, I remember thinking, as if discovering this fact for the first time.

I had no idea how unprepared I was to look back, naïvely believing that because I was alive and breathing and moving more each day, I was healing. I had no idea that the wounds to my psyche were far greater than the wounds to my body, that the true healing hadn’t even begun.

Lauren’s Log helped fill in more details, but the bigger picture revealing purpose and meaning wouldn’t emerge until I began to write about it, presumably to give encouragement to others in similar situations. With ten years of hindsight, I now know that I wrote Zuzu’s Petals for me, and in so doing gave myself the final piece of the puzzle.

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This is the Introduction to Zuzu's Petals: A True Story of Second Chances by, well, ME! Download a PDF of the first 4 chapters of Zuzu's Petals FREE here.  Click on the link below the green "Buy the Book" button.  Happy reading!