Friday, May 5, 2017

When Suffering is a Good Thing

$57 worth of food (and our dog, Daisy)
It goes without saying that I’m not a doting mother. Many assume that, because I adopted many of my children, I must be a saint who wants nothing short of heavenly experiences for my brood.  In fact, the opposite is true.  I want them to suffer.

I want my kids to experience disappointment.  I want them to be the last of their friends to get the latest technology.  I want them to receive a very conservative amount of gifts for celebrations (or – in some cases – no gifts at all).  And, for one week each year, I want them to feel the pangs of hunger.

With limited enthusiasm, we registered to participate in the Mayan Families One Day 1.90 food challenge. You see, this wasn’t our first rodeo. We had participated in the Living Below The Line challenge on two previous occasions, so we knew all too well what our week would be like.  It’s not fun.  For anyone.
But, because of our absolute love and commitment to Guatemala AND because of this mama’s obsession with “Be the change you want to see in the world…”, I essentially guilted my four children into accepting the challenge yet again. (Thank you, sweet husband Jay, for standing in solidarity with me, as always.)

So, what exactly is this challenge?  Simply, it is to survive at the International Poverty Line of $1.90 (per person) each day for five consecutive days. For our family of six, this equates to a Monday thru Friday budget of a mere $57. As a reference, a dine out night at Chili’s typically runs us about $100, and our average weekly grocery bill is a very conservative $250. Because this week’s challenge budget is extra tight, it translates to… no bottled water, no fast food, no social eating, no restaurants, no fancy coffees, no baking, no purchases of school lunches, no beverages other than tap water, and no treats/desserts of any kind.  Lots and lots of no’s, nopes, and nuh-uhs.
I won’t lie. This week has been hard for all of us.  I think our boys, Luke (13) and Will (12), have been hit hardest, as their typical appetites are insatiable and our Lucas loves his protein. That said, they have been real troopers.  They have even refused food sharing offers from their friends at the school cafeteria lunch table. Now that’s commitment!  And how sweet of their friends to offer.

What have we learned this week? (Prepare yourself for our Top 10 List!)

(10) We have learned that, when you are poor, you shop the aisles rather than the perimeter of the store. (Those of us who have attempted healthy eating plans have often been told to avoid the aisles and shop the perimeter in order to achieve better nutrition.)(9) We have realized that there is no room in a poverty level budget for brand name items (bye-bye Skippy, hello store brand), and don’t even think about cage free eggs or organic produce.(8) Speaking of produce… Cross it off of your grocery list, because you can likely only afford bananas and onions.
7) And bulk… Buying in bulk saves you pennies, and every penny counts. Individual snack packs – though they are cute and fun and easy to grab - are not an option.(6) We have experienced lack of variety in our meal plan. Same breakfast each day (bulk cereal). Same lunch each day (sandwich on white bread with 20 pretzel sticks). Two alternating dinners (pasta and canned sauce or chicken/beans/rice/corn). Our palates are craving something new.(5) And I think we have all been dehydrated this week. Tap water tastes gross when you are accustomed to the options of juice or soda or iced tea or coffee OR spring water. We definitely have not been drinking enough, and I have had caffeine withdrawal headaches all week.(4) Oh… And our blood pressure may be a bit on the high side because we are salting EVERYTHING.(3) We have been sad to decline lots of social opportunities this week as well, because we don’t have funds to meet a friend for lunch or a cocktail or even an ice cream cone.(2) Interestingly, we have created far less trash this week. Not much extra packaging to toss when you buy in bulk. (You’re welcome, planet Earth.)And the #1 thing that we learned this week…
(1) When you are poor, you are better at sharing. I can’t fully explain it, but our kiddos – who normally help themselves to generous portions of food – instead took a modest serving of each meal to ensure that everyone had enough. It wasn’t until all of us felt this week’s version of “satisfaction” (never, ever a sense of proper fullness) that anyone inquired about second helpings. A beautiful sight to behold.

The Benefits of Suffering

So, why is suffering a good thing?  You know the answer, silly! 
“To understand the man, you must first walk a mile in his moccasins.” ~ Native American Proverb

It isn’t enough for my children to learn about hunger… to read the statistics that 750 million people live on less than $1.90 every single day of their entire lives… and that our beloved Guatemala, birthplace of our youngest child, has the fourth highest rate of childhood malnutrition in the world… We wanted our children to FEEL it… to SUFFER like they suffer… to indeed WALK in their shoes.

Don’t pity us.  We had but five days of this experience, and our $1.90 only covered food and not all of life’s other expenses.  The McFadyens had clothing and shelter and transportation and education and medical coverage and everything else that makes one feel secure.  We simply experienced hunger… not fear and desperation.

Suffering with hunger this week helped my children to understand how ridiculously blessed they are (even if they can’t have a cell phone until age 13). It made them better “carers and sharers.” It educated them with a physically and emotionally altering experience that cannot be found in a text book or even on a mission trip. This week, their personal suffering helped them to grow as Citizens of the World.

At least a dozen people this week offered praise and gave us credit for attempting something that they claim they could never do themselves. To those people and to all who read this, I offer you a modified food challenge… Maybe five days is too much for you. Perhaps counting pennies feels overwhelming. But could you guesstimate the amount of money you spend on dining out for a week, simply abstain from it and then donate that equivalent to the hungry?  Or skip Dunkin’s and Starbucks on days beginning with “T”?  Or pack your lunch for the week? Or buy store brands vs. name brands? Could you make one simple change for a short period of time and donate those savings to fight hunger?  Hey… And, if all that seems unrealistic, maybe you could make a straight out donation instead.  (Here’s the link.)

It’s dinnertime now. We’re on Day 5 of our challenge and the two 1 lb. boxes of 0.89 pasta are coming to a boil. We made it through the week with four slices of white bread and a can of tuna to spare. Some of us have lost some weight. Others of us have super confused bodies that are somehow holding on to all of those carb calories. We’re grouchy and have headaches and can hardly wait until our breakfast feast.
After dinner, I will trek to the market on this appropriately rainy night to buy food for the weekend. The kids have made all sorts of special requests, mostly for fresh fruit and desserts and General Tso’s chicken. I expect, as I have in years past, to get a bit teary as I peruse the aisles AND perimeter and am able to add anything of my choice to the basket. Today, I will be carrying those 750 million people who are not as fortunate in my heart.

I hope that reading this post inspires you to take some action of some sort. Be it a grand gesture or a simple modification, you too have the opportunity to…

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”

God Bless Those Who Hunger…

If you would like to make a donation to the Mayan Families One Day 1.90 Challenge, please visit this link. 
Christmas Mission Trip 2014

Monday, November 28, 2016

Be The Change...

Auntie Joan
I can’t remember when I first read the life affirming quote from Ghandi, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” but I can quickly tell you the name of the person in my life who has most exemplified it.  Her name is Joan Dunlevy and she was my Aunt.

Auntie Joan was a rebel.  She had spunk and charisma and passion and the cutest rosy cheeks… all of the necessary traits required to get things done.  Over the years, I was blessed to watch her “work her magic” as a leader not only in our family but in our community as well.  I was simply in awe of her, and I am ever so grateful for the influence that she has had on my life.

She was mother to eight children, a registered nurse, our town’s first female Chairperson of the Board of Selectman, and so much more.  Whenever an opportunity presented itself to make something better, she never hesitated to take action… creating Tewksbury’s first drug awareness program, building a new school and fire station and police station, welcoming my Nana to live with her as she battled Parkinson’s disease, coaching me on strategies to convince my Dad to quit smoking… She had a hand in so many amazing transformations.  She was, indeed, “the change.”

I always loved my visits with her.  Auntie Joan had a wonderful memory and delighted in sharing the details of all of her adventures.  Her laugh couldn’t help but warm your heart as it sprang from her soul.  But she had lessons to share, as well.  She was the first to tell me that, “God gives the heaviest burdens to those who can bear the cross.”  At first, I saw it as a message about sheer strength… that our Almighty would only give us as much as we could handle.  But, as I reflect upon the exemplary life that my Aunt led, I now know that it is about responsibility.  God expects us to do good things in this world, and those of us who hear His call are charged to rise up.

No one “rose up” better than my Auntie Joan.  As we say our goodbyes to her in the coming days, I feel all the more committed to living a servant life, as she did.  God bless the change makers.  God bless Joan Dunlevy.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Remembering Dad on his Birthday

Richard Patterson, 1941-2015

We're experiencing another "first" today... Dad's first birthday since his sudden passing in January. He would have been 74 years old today.

Like many of you who have lost a parent, I find myself still in disbelief that he is gone.  Last year, on this day, I was preparing for his lobster-themed birthday party at my house.  He LOVED a good meal, and I always tried to impress him with a new recipe or an old favorite.  His rating scale was "not bad" to "that was excellent, Bethy," and the fact that there were fewer of the latter was his way of coaxing me into making more goodies for him.  There was no one that I wanted to impress more. No one.

Today, almost six months after his passing, I am aching for the comforts of home while I am living abroad... I want to be in my Tewksbury kitchen baking a cake for my Dad.  I want to visit the cemetery and have myself a good cry.  I want to hug my Mom and Brother, knowing that we all share that same deep sense of emptiness today.  Instead, we'll be honoring Dad today with a trip to a local farm where we will pick berries, just like we did with him most every summer.

I never shared our Eulogy to our Dad, but today seems like a perfect time to do so.  If you knew him, I hope that you feel like this captures his essence, and - if you didn't know him - I hope that you feel as though you now do.  He was indeed an amazing man and a wonderful Dad.  Read on to learn more...

Remembering Our Dad
Ask anyone and they will tell you that Richard Patterson was a great guy.  If you are a friend or family member from his early years, you may have known him as Rich or even Richie.  Once he entered the working world and married life, he became Dick or – to dozens of children who are now adults – Uncle Dick.  And, although he had every intention of eventually becoming Grandpa, his eldest grandchild named him Papa instead.  No matter how you knew him or what you called him, he was truly one of the most likeable people we all ever knew.

Our Dad had an amazing life and, although we are all deeply saddened that he left us too soon, he would be the first to remind us how grateful he was for each and every year.  Just last week, as we sat together in his hospital room and discussed his heart problems and the possibility of lung cancer, he said… “You know, Bethy, I have a unique perspective from most people.  I survived cancer and have been lucky to enjoy twenty years of my life that I thought I’d never have.”

And enjoy them he did…

As many of you know, Dad was offered an early retirement from the Gillette Company after his successful battle with colon cancer.  In their early 50s, he and Mom wasted no time enjoying all of the things that so many people must wait until their late 60s and 70s to do.  They were able to travel together and find special destinations that they would return to year after year.  Dad volunteered his time to serve on Wilmington’s Conservation Commission and loved doing site visits and prepping for his hearings.  He was also incredibly passionate about childhood cancers caused by pollution, and he was instrumental in advocating for compensation for local victims.  Dad was never a boastful man, but when we spoke about his meetings and the outcomes, I could see how proud he was to be part of the team that was making things right.

The top item on his fun list, of course, was golf.  Dad loved to play with his Gillette pals and would print out the tally of how many beers he had won after every game.  His cardiac doctor joked that most of his patients would come to their appointments with papers outlining their blood pressure and medications, but Dad would simply bring his golf card and a smile.  He inherited his love of gardening from his own Dad and was quick to complement me on how well I grew my weeds and the search and rescue mission that was required to find my cucumbers.  He had a great sense of humor, didn’t he?

Since becoming a Papa, one of his greatest joys was spending time with his seven grandchildren.  He absolutely loved to watch the kids play sports and simply glowed when they hit a homerun, scored a goal or shot a basket.  Nana and Papa’s house is famous for sleepovers and you know one is in progress when he answers the phone saying “Disaster Control.”  The non-stop fun (and mess) includes things like making potions in the kitchen, building tents, playing whiffle ball or soccer, swimming, coloring in Cosmo’s Place, painting, baking… you name it.  There was no doubt that he spoiled his grandchildren, but he was careful not to spoil us.

When our Dad was studying at UMASS Amherst, his father had a heart attack and Dad strongly considered quitting college and returning home to Woburn to support his parents.  He was so grateful to be able to continue his education, but that fear stuck with him and inspired him to be financially secure.  As we were growing up, Dad instilled in us a very strong work ethic and taught us how to be responsible with money.  He insisted that we significantly contribute to the cost of our college education, and he explained that credit cards absolutely must be paid in full each month.  Dad was always interested in hearing about a promotion or a job interview or a new opportunity… both for us and our spouses… and you could almost see in him a sense of relief that we would likely never experience the fear that he had experienced as a young man.  We truly credit his wisdom with helping us to be able to provide for our families, and we expect to pass those lessons on to our own children.

Our Dad was a low-key, easy going guy who took great delight in striking up conversations with friends and family and even strangers.  Unless you were a telemarketer (God help them), he genuinely enjoyed a good chat.  Many of you have fond memories of a particular topic that he would revisit time and again.  For Ellen Money, it was the perpetual request for her to make him a jelly roll, and for Sheila Burke it was always talk about Boston College, and for our dear Auntie Janet, he was constantly angling for some of her world famous meatballs.  For a long time, I would roll my eyes and think that he sounded like a broken record, but then I realized that that was not the case at all.  He valued his connection with you, and it was his unique way of making you feel special.  We hope you did.

It seems almost criminal that this memorial service should be held on the day before his beloved New England Patriots win the Super Bowl.  He watched the championship game from his hospital bed less than two weeks ago and was incredibly excited for tomorrow’s game.  Although he treated his grandchildren to several Patriots games in Foxboro, his preference was to watch the game alone – uninterrupted – with his sleeves rolled up and his pants hiked up to his knees.  Football was most definitely his favorite sport, and everyone knew it. 

Two of Dad’s sweet nieces, Joy and Julie, traveled down from Maine on Monday with a Patriots fleece blanket that they had made especially for him.  After a series of ups and downs since being readmitted to the hospital nearly a week earlier, Dad took a turn for the worse that morning and was quickly declining.  When we saw the cozy blanket, we immediately placed it over Dad and shared our messages of love with him over and over again.  We played a beautiful song called “Seagull” and – in the last few seconds of the song – our Dad peacefully passed away.  We share that image with you not to make you sad, but to help you to understand how simply perfectly our Dad left us to go to an even more wonderful place.  There is absolutely no doubt that he felt our love surrounding him and that he was grateful for what he considered to be an incredibly full and blessed life.

There are countless lessons that we have learned from our Dad, but among the most important are to be thankful for each and every day, to take time to enjoy the people in your life and make each one of them feel special, and to always, no matter what the controversy… be a loyal Patriots fan.

Three cheers for Richard, Rich, Richie, Dick, Uncle Dick, and Papa Patterson. 

We love you, Dad, and we will proudly carry on your legacy.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Following Our Hearts to Guatemala for Christmas

McFadyen Family Christmas Service Trip, 2012

In case you hadn’t heard, and you probably have, the McFadyen Six will return to Guatemala next week for our second Christmas Service Trip.  There is much to do as we prepare for our journey, but a different kind of energy is now sustaining us.  The nervousness of 2012 has been replaced with genuine excitement and anticipation.  There are no unknowns this time around. The kids have experienced the landscape, the culture, the language, the food, the heart of the people…. all of the things that make Guatemala unique compared to their lives in the Boston suburbs.  And, although not speaking the language or understanding the traditions can be a barrier at times, it only adds to the depth of the experience in serving others.

I remember, two years ago, being so afraid that the kids would panic when someone tried to talk to them in Spanish or in Kakchiquel, or that they would somehow offend others if expressing their displeasure when seeing the living conditions of the indigenous Maya, but they were true champs.  They smiled, they were respectful, and they engaged with both children and adults, despite the communication obstacles.  Needless to say, both Jay and I are carrying a lighter emotional load as we pack our suitcases and discuss our itinerary, thanks to the overwhelming success of our first Service Trip.  (And, this time around, the kids know how to say “chicken fingers” in Spanish.  Pechugitas de pollo, if you must know.) 

Again, we have decided to forego receiving Christmas presents and have asked those with whom we usually exchange gifts to instead share those funds with Mayan Families for their Christmas Tamale Basket program.  In Guatemala, the tradition – for those who can afford it – is to eat a meal of meat filled tamales and hot chocolate at midnight on Christmas Eve to celebrate Jesus' birth.  Because most families do not have the means to purchase the special ingredients required to make the tamales (especially the chicken), Mayan Families assembles Tamale Baskets that each feed up to 10 people, and they ask their donors to consider funding one so that their sponsored student can enjoy the Christmas tradition.  As you can imagine, the need is always far greater than the supply, so hundreds of families who did not receive a basket from a sponsor line up outside of the Mayan Families offices with hopes and prayers that one may have been donated for “general distribution.”

We were delighted in 2012 to supply 150 tamale baskets, feeding upwards of 1500 Maya, to those for whom a basket had not been dedicated.  This year, we set a goal to match that glorious amount, and we have been blessed beyond words to exceed it.  As I write today, our friends and family have generously donated 178 tamale baskets on our behalf, and now we’re closing in on 200.  Wouldn’t that be amazing?
We expect to be working hard alongside Mayan Families staff and other volunteers to create and distribute the baskets all next weekend, but the first stop on our itinerary on Thursday is to assist with the Christmas Party in the agricultural village of El Barranco.

About a handful of years ago, on what was my first trip to the Lake Atitlan area, I visited the village of El Barranco and truly fell in love with its people.  It is a small community that sits on a patch of farmland and does not enjoy the spectacular views of the volcano-shored lake.  The people, though, are hard-working and hopeful and are careful to maintain the culture of their Mayan ancestors.  Children in this community learn and perform folkloric dances that tell beautiful stories of the rich history of the Maya.

At that time, Mayan Families had wished to have a presence in the village so that they could offer support to some of the most needy residents.  As is their model, they hoped to establish a pre-school that would not only serve as a teaching center but would also provide the children with a healthy meal once each day, a vitamin to supplement their nutrition deficits, a teeth brushing activity to maintain dental health and, from a safety standpoint, the supervision that many toddlers simply don’t experience as just slightly older siblings offer care while parents work in the fields.
When a property became available for rent, our family offered funding to cover the monthly rental expense for Mayan Families and we have continued that commitment for several years.  But, great news came at the end of last year as a piece of land adjacent to the current school was advertised for sale.  We were very pleased to be able to contribute toward the construction of the brand new El Barranco Pre-School which we will see in its near completed phase on December 18th.  It makes sense that it feels good to have a hand in something real and tangible, but it somehow feels extra special when you are able to give back to a country that has helped you to create your forever family.  Nothing will ever compare to the blessing that our son Will has been in our lives, but it feels absolutely necessary that part of our legacy reside in his country of birth.  And now it does.

And so, our service week will be spent distributing stuffed animals and small toys to children, touring the new school, visiting our sponsored students and elderly women (oh how I adore Maria and Guadalupe) and assembling and distributing the coveted Tamale Baskets.  Oh…. And let’s not forget that we’ll be participating in the Panajachel Christmas Parade too, wearing reindeer noses and tossing dulces (candy) into the crowds of people lining the streets.  (Super fun!)
So what are we giving our kids for Christmas this year?  We’re giving them the gift of being Santa Claus to a people with true needs.  We’re giving them the experience of sacrifice and the understanding that giving feels way better than receiving.  We’re building their character, shaping their values and providing them with the opportunity to be good citizens of the world.  They themselves told us last Christmas, after opening their gifts and playing with their new toys, that they far preferred the Christmas Service Trip over Traditional Christmas.  Who knows what future holidays will hold for the McFadyen Six, but – this year – we’re following our hearts to Guatemala.

If you wish to offer a tax-deductible donation toward the purchase of a $40 Christmas Tamale Basket that feeds 10 people, you can do so with a credit card (or via PayPal) through this link to the Mayan Families website.  Simply enter the dollar amount and add "McFadyen Christmas Service Trip 2014 - Tamale Basket" in the text block marked "What is this donation for?"  (Ignore the prompt that suggests that you didn't indicate a designation for your gift.)  Mil gracias!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Stepping Out of the Bariatric Surgery Closet

Exactly one year ago today, on August 21, 2013, I had Roux-en-Y gastric bypass surgery.  Today, therefore, is my 1st “surg-iversary.” Perhaps this is old news to you… but it’s not one year old news, because this secret was mostly under wraps until recently.  Why, you ask?  I’m still asking that question myself, but this indeed is my first public “outing.”  Read on if you’d like to satisfy your own curiosity or indulge my need to finally share the story.

I was starting to write, “It all began last May,” when I realized that that’s not at all when it began.  Truly, the story starts at my first Diet Workshop meeting, 36 years ago, when I was 9 years old and in the fourth grade.  I feel a deep sense of sadness when I remember that chubby little girl stepping onto the check-in scale for the very first time, surrounded mostly by middle-aged and senior women seeking wisdom and fellowship on their weight loss journeys.  Not a single peer in sight, I realized in that moment that I had a problem reserved for grown-ups. What a fat, ugly, worthless little girl I must be if I, alone, was given this burden in childhood.  And so truly begins my story….

I have ALWAYS had a weight problem.  Even the photos of my toddler self in a ballerina tutu predict what was bound to be a life-long battle of the bulge.  Over the years, I’ve tried it all: Weight Watchers (at least 25 times… I’m a Lifetime Member!), gym memberships, my ill-conceived Facebook diet, HMR, Woman’s World, Zagorra hot pants, cleanses… you name it.  I had occasional success, in fact losing 60 lbs. in my 20s on the Weight Watchers at Work program (thank you, Lotus Development), but my lost pounds always found their way home.  At 44 years old, I was ever-so-close to accepting my fate as a forever fatty when I decided to pick up the phone and call a friend.

At the time, of course, I didn’t know that the conversation would be step one in changing my life forever.  My call was to a pal who had chosen gastric bypass surgery four years earlier and who appeared to have had quite amazing success.  And, even though I clearly remember telling my husband how absolutely crazy she was to risk her life for weight loss surgery and how I would never, ever, in a million years consider such a drastic step, I now found myself out of options and wondering if this might be the answer for me too.  I asked what I thought to be rather intelligent questions about her experience with both the surgery and the recovery, but it was this statement that unlocked the gate for me…  “Beth, I do a lot of things really well, but weight loss isn’t one of them.”

Freedom.  That’s the only word to describe the gift that was found in her words.  I had made hundreds of valiant attempts at weight loss with genuine confidence that I would finally be able to defeat the dragon on my own.  It hadn’t worked.  Each and every time I failed, the only thing I lost was another chunk of self-worth.  Perhaps I too could surrender, take someone’s hand and ask for help?

With a sparkle of hope in my heart, my husband and I attended an information session to learn more about weight loss surgery.  Together, we decided that I’d complete the evaluation process and trust that the results would lead us down the right path.  The summer of 2013 was spent meeting with bariatric surgeons, neurologists, cardiologists, nutritionists, and psychologists.  And, after thorough inspections of, literally, my heart and soul, they deemed me a qualified candidate.  Now the decision was fully mine.

I’ll admit that, during the months of May, June and July, there was no question in my mind that I would move forward with the surgery.  As I learned more at my doctor’s visits, talked with other friends who had chosen bariatric surgery (thanks, ladies… you know who you are!), and researched the subject online, I was convinced that this was the solution for me.  And then the call came to inform me that my surgery had been approved and we were ready to set the date.  In that very moment, uncertainty washed over me. Was I risking too much? What if I was one of the 0.5% who die as a result of the surgery?  How could I possibly leave behind a wonderful husband and four awesome kids… a family that was incredibly hard to build… simply to lose weight.  Would my friends and family judge my choice? Would they think me the ultimate failure? What if I went through with the surgery and it didn’t work?  What if?  What if?  What if?

And then I asked myself… What if your blood pressure continues to rise?  What if your sleep apnea can never be controlled?  What if you have a stroke?  What if you have a heart attack?  What if you develop colon cancer?  What if you live your remaining days feeling entirely overwhelmed by your size?  What if?  What if?  What if?

Saying “yes” to bariatric surgery was simply the most selfish yet most generous gift I ever gave to myself.  In the end, I was convinced (and I still am) that surgery would afford me a longer life with my family.  It would improve the quality of my declining health and, as a bonus, it might even help me to buy back some of that self-worth that I had lost along the way. I said “yes” and then an entirely new wave of questions hit me square in the face.

To tell or not to tell?  Throughout the evaluation process, only a handful of our nearest and dearest knew that I was considering surgery.  In fact, for fear that they would disapprove, I didn’t share my surgery date with my parents until two days prior, and – as predicted – it was not met with a positive response. They begged me to wait 10 years, until the kids were out of school and mostly independent.  They called me selfish.  They told me I was stupid to choose elective surgery.  They sent me articles quoting death rates.  And then, six hours after my surgery, they entered my hospital room with tears in their eyes and told me that they loved me and that they were afraid they would lose me.  Isn’t it interesting how much fear plays a role in the decisions that we make and the words that we choose?  It was both fear and shame that would keep me from sharing my surgery secret for many months to come.

Recovery was equally hard and scary in the first thirty days.  The liquid diet slowly transitioned to soft food like scrambled eggs and greek yogurt, and I was eating small protein-rich meals by the end of week six.  I tried to avoid events that would require food or beverage intake as I evaluated what my body could or could not handle.  And, on a few occasions, like in the North Street School parking lot, after a parent/teacher conference, I raced to find a private space where I could throw up.  The scary part wasn’t managing the food, though; it was managing my expectations of the scale.

I assumed that the weight would just fly off of me.  Haven’t you seen Star Jones or Al Roker?  Didn’t they go from fluffy to flat in a matter of weeks?  Well, that wasn’t my experience.  My surgeon, the nutritionist, the nurse practitioner and my own primary care doctor all assured me that losing slowly is the healthy way to go… that I may experience less hair loss, that my body will heal faster, that the nutrients will absorb better, that yah-dee-yah-dee-yah.  I didn’t want to hear it.  I had said yes to major surgery and if this damn procedure didn’t work, I was going to be pissed.  The end.

They were right.  The losses started and stopped almost cyclically, and once I got below the magic number (we call it “One-derland” and you can probably figure it out), my sense of panic subsided.  At this point, some people noticed my weight loss and offered their congratulations.  I accepted it but felt it was entirely undeserved.  Some went so far as to ask how I was losing the weight.  With 100% truth but not 100% full disclosure, I explained that I had significantly changed my eating habits, that I was on a high protein diet and that I had broken up with my beloved Diet Pepsi. (Bariatric surgery = no more carbonated beverages.)  My husband joked that soda sales were going to plummet thanks to my half-truth, but I still wasn’t ready to share my story.

During the psychological evaluation that was required prior to surgery, I was told that it was not uncommon for people to feel depressed after surgery.  What?  Depressed?  After achieving something that seemed unachievable?  After going off of meds?  After buying new clothes?  After walking up a flight of stairs without feeling winded?  That’s just crazy, I thought.  And then came the blues.

I’m not sure what played the biggest role.  Guilt about not coming clean about my surgery?  Fear that I would be judged?  Shame that I couldn’t lose weight (and keep it off) on my own?  Or was it that, now, at a shrinking size, people seemed to approve of me more.  If they liked how I looked now, they must have hated how I looked then.  Even when my husband hugged me and said, “you feel so good,” I wept, because all that entered my mind was how I must have repulsed him for most of our married life.  I was in limbo… not embracing my new shell and feeling betrayed by my old one.  Between months two and eight, I was in a very dark place.

One of my most telling moments came in month seven when I participated in a group service trip to Guatemala with my mother.  It was February and new t-shirts and capris were in order for the 70-80 degree temperatures that we were anticipating.  Dressed now in size medium from head to toe, I was not feeling at all like myself, so I found it quite interesting, in retrospect of course, that by day two of our journey, I had revealed to my new traveling companions that I had undergone bariatric surgery the previous summer.  It was as if I was saying… “I’m an imposter.  This is not the real Beth.  You could have met her last year when she was wearing size XL.”  Why would I find it nearly impossible to tell my friends and family about my surgery and yet feel absolutely compelled to share it with absolute strangers?

I guess it’s because I’ve ALWAYS been an open book… until now.  After struggles with fertility and the ups and downs of adoption (both domestic and international), I truly considered myself to be the “go-to” girl for information.  “Ask me anything,” I would say.  But my weight loss struggles seemed somehow more personal than my family building ones.  So, unless you were one of the dozen people who asked me if I was dying, I likely didn’t “come out” to you until recently.

So what’s it like to step out of the bariatric closet?  For one thing, it doesn’t necessarily happen in an organized way.  What I had hoped would be a methodical unveiling with those closest to me learning my secret first turned into something entirely different.  You see, it’s not a subject that’s easy to broach, so there were plenty of planned outings that never happened because I simply chickened out.  Or, there were times when my friends had stuff happening in their lives that was clearly much more important than my news, so it seemed insensitive to share.  For lots of different reasons, I didn’t necessarily honor the placement of people in my life with the timing of our eventual conversation.  And the good girl that I am feels rather crappy about that.  I’m sorry if you feel betrayed.  And I’m also sorry that I have spent so much time worrying that you feel betrayed.

I tend to think that my weight indeed “shaped” (no pun intended) the woman that I became.  You see, I’ve always liked the person that I am on the inside.  I’ve been a people-pleaser for as long as I can remember, and I’ve essentially dedicated my life to serving my family and my community, near and far.  Would I have (often desperately) sought the approval of others if my self-esteem was fully intact?  Has my life been full of do-gooder actions because I wanted you to like me… to really, really like me?  I think we all know the answers to those questions.  I’ve been looking for love and validation every darn day of my life… ever since my nine year old self stepped on the scale at that Diet Workshop meeting so many moons ago.

And now for the burning questions…  Are you indeed healthier now?  Yes, I’ve been off of my blood pressure medication and CPAP machine since last November.  Did you achieve your weight loss goal?  I truly never had a number in mind.  My only two goals were to sit higher in the water than my husband in a double kayak and to be able to wear the wedding ring that I had to have cut off of my finger 17 years ago.  Yes and sparkly yes.  And how much weight have you lost?  Well, I won’t tell you the number, but I will tell you that I’ve lost the equivalent of an average fourth grader. (You can Google it.)  Yup… I was holding her inside of me for 36 years, but – with these words - I’m finally ready to set her free.

One final story… About a month ago, I was snuggling with my 10 year old son and he mentioned that he could wrap his arms all the way around me.  So, I took the opportunity to ask him how he felt about my surgery.  His response?  “Happy.”  “Why are you happy,” I asked?  “Because you’re happy now, Mom.”

Sometimes, the greatest gift you give yourself turns out to be the greatest gift you give to those you love the most.


Thursday, January 10, 2013

Day 4 - Journey to a Beautiful Land

The road to Tierra Linda with the McFadyen Family in view
It had been nearly three years (March, 2010) since I had visited the village of Tierra Linda for the very first time, and I could hardly wait to introduce my family to the place that I had often compared to Walnut Grove (from Little House on the Prairie).  There's a certain kind of brightness about it, and - like its name clearly states - it is indeed beautiful land. A small hub in the center of the village contains a school, church, tienda and a smattering of adobe brick houses.  And on the fringes of town, often right through the center of a cornfield, you'll find footpath upon footpath of passageways that lead to small parcels of property upon which modest homes stand and Mayan lives are built.  A fifteen minute hike down one of these paths will lead you to Florinda Ben Ben's house, and that's exactly where we were headed.

Due to mudslides and road closures during my last trip (October, 2011), I was not able to make the 30 minute drive in the pick-up truck or to safely hike one hour up the narrow dirt path from Panajachel to visit Florinda.  I remember the heartbreak I felt realizing that I was so close and yet still so far away, with only nature's elements to blame.  Today, on this absolutely glorious weather day, my family delighted in riding in the back of the truck all the way up the mountain. And, because Florinda has been a sponsored student of our church for the past five years, our kids were super excited to meet her in the flesh.

Luke enjoying the scenic vista of Tierra Linda
When we were first introduced to Florinda's family many years ago, we learned that her parents could not afford the nominal fees to send all of their eight children to school, so they chose to send only their eldest son, hoping that he would be educated and could eventually help to provide for the family. Years later and thanks to the Mayan Families School Sponosorship Program, the Ben Ben family was able to send the girls to school as well, but - even with sponsorship assistance - all of them have quit school upon completion of 6th grade to begin working. Fourteen year old Florinda is enrolled in 6th grade for the upcoming (Jan-Oct) school year, and we are most definitely concerned that this will indeed be her final year of schooling. All of the interest and encouragement and desire in the world cannot keep you in school when your family is struggling to survive.
Luke and Will on the trail to Florinda's house
We arrived at the edge of a cornfield with hospitality gifts in hand and were reminded to use caution as we walked the narrow path. Just like three years ago, I carefully navigated the switchback trail with steep drops on one side and a mountaintop above and wondered how it was possible to safely travel during the six month rainy season. For gosh sakes... I drive my kids to the bus stop on cold and rainy days and the Ben Ben children hike through mud and rain for 15 minutes just to get to the edge of the cornfield. I'm guessing that it's a second 15 minute walk to school from there, and - though we send umbrellas and ponchos and raincoats - there are certainly never enough for each member of the household. I am reminded of my mother's stories of walking to school through snow and storm from her cottage home in the grove of South Tewksbury back in the 1950s, and I'm realizing that - for much of the planet - time has stood still.

We were entirely grateful to the Mayan Families staff members who carried 100lb. bags of corn and beans on their backs plus a new water filtration system, so that we could make it to Florinda's house without incident. Every piece of furniture or building supply or bulk food purchase that this family has made has arrived at its final destination in arms, atop heads or across the strong backs of this family. Even the residents of Walnut Grove had wagons and horses to help carry their loads. With each step, we are reminded that the Ben Ben's are a resilient family.

With open arms, Florinda's mother, Juana, welcomed us to her home. Although her Spanish seems even stronger than during my visit several years ago, she quickly moved toward the comfort of her native Mayan language, Kakchiquel, when speaking through translator, Sergio. She expressed her family's deep gratitude to our church for continued sponsorship of Florinda and for gifts of food and clothing and furniture over the years, and we promised to carry her message of thanks home with us.

After asking permission to take photos to share with our church family upon our return, I quickly captured images of life on the mountainside. It was wonderful to see their outdoor sink,a pila, which our family had commissioned for them after my last visit. Although just a trickle of water flows from a hose with unknown origins, it is now possible for them to wash and bathe in a proper basin. Prior years' gifts from our church, including beds and an armoir, could be seen as we stood in the doorways of three small rooms, connected by a narrow front stoop. The bathroom remains as it was... a simple tarp (which looks much like one that we sent in a care package to them many years ago) hung over some high tree branches about 50 feet away from the house. And electricity? None. But, the space that I most wished to capture in photos was the kitchen. More than anything else, it speaks volumes of life in rural Guatemala.
I can't recall who it was... perhaps a staff member or intern or other volunteer... but someone once told me to look for food when I was "in the field" on home visits. They said that I would likely only find enough food for that single day.  And so, I snapped this photo of some bits and pieces of vegetables that, according to our guides, would be simmered for hours and transformed into a broth. These simple shelves serve as pantry and refrigerator all in one, and what you see here is all that will sustain this family of eight today. It was a great relief to remember that we had brought corn which could be made into tortillas to accompany the soup and beans and eggs that would provide much needed protein. Tonight, they would feast.

After a wonderful visit, we returned to the trucks and continued on to the Mayan Families Community Center in the center of town. With authorization from the Department of Solola (one of 22 "states" in Guatemala), Mayan Families runs a certified Junior High School for Tierra Linda in a building that they constructed several years ago to be used as a pre-school and for other training purposes. Realizing that most children in the village would quit school after 6th grade because of the time and expense required to travel outside the village in order to attend Junior High School, Mayan Families thought that they could use several rooms within the building for classrooms and see just how many children might continue their studies. Through the grace of God, dozens of children in Tierra Linda are now enrolled in 7th and 8th grade.

This wonderful center also serves as home to the Gabby Lewis Memorial Library. Eight year old Gabby's beautiful life on Earth was tragically cut short when she passed away from injuries sustained in a car accident in her home state of Tennessee. Her parents, Becky and Shane, generously directed all memorial gift contributions to Mayan Families so that they could build a library in Gabby's name and establish a legacy of light and learning in the country of her birth. Our family was absolutely honored to visit this very special space and make a contribution of our own. 

Realizing that, unlike Gabby and our Will, so many children in this village will never travel outside of their homeland, we thought that it would be wonderfully exciting for them to experience the adventures found in the Magic Tree House literature series, so we purchased all 20 books in Spanish and added them to the shelves.  Although I was never blessed to meet Gabby, I most certainly felt her spirit in Tierra Linda today as I witnessed toddlers playing in the loft and teenagers studying at the computers. These resources were made possible in celebration of her remarkable life.

The Gabby Lewis Library, Tierra Linda
After visiting Gabby's Library and touring the Community Center, our boys were absolutely itching to join an informal soccer game that was happening in the courtyard. Although the Tierra Linda boys matched them in size, they absolutely crushed them with their fancy footwork. As we sat on the sidelines, we were in awe of how masterfully they could maneuver that small plastic ball (not a genuine soccer ball, of course) on the cement surface. Luke and Will enjoyed every second of the challenge and showed us some great moves as well. By the look on their faces, there is no doubt that this will be one of the highlights of their trip.

Will and Luke (in red) playing soccer at the MF Community Center
The return trip to Mayan Families headquarters in Panajachel brought us through the village of Pena Blanca where the documentary Living on One was recently filmed. In an effort to bring attention to the issue of global poverty, four university students survived on just one dollar a day while living in the highlands of Guatemala.  If you have a moment, visit their website and watch the trailer for the movie. Not only will it inspire you, but it will introduce you to the landscape that we call home this week. The more time I spend here in Guatemala, the more connected I feel with the universe and the more certain I am of my calling in this life.

When we returned to the office, we were greeted by families who had been summoned to receive their Christmas Eve Tamale Basket. Over the next three days, over 1000 baskets filled with enough ingredients to prepare a tradional meal for a family of ten will be distributed thanks to the generosity of sponsors all over the globe. These $40 baskets contain a whole chicken, pineapple, carrots, pasta, bread, oil, rice, beans, sugar, mosh, chocolate, marshmallows and cookies, all in a reuable container. Our gang was excited to help assemble the baskets (called canastas) that we had been talking about for months.

It wasn't long before excitement started brewing about tonight's Christmas parade through the streets of Panajachel. The truck decorating had begun and the Santa and elf hats and reindeer noses that we had brought from home were being donned.  As if our family wasn't excited enough to drive in the back of a pick-up truck, tonight they would be expected to throw handfuls of candy to people on the street as well. Luke and Will's response: "Seriously? Awesome!"

Joining us on the truck were sisters Karina (16), Fabiola (13), and Olivia (8), and their story is a sad one. After their father recently died due to complications from alcoholism, their mother abandoned them and disappeared with their four year old brother. The girls' grandparents initially took them in, but the grandfather, who was the father of their father, told them that they were all destined to become prostitutes and alcoholics, like their mother, and he didn't want to have anything to do with them. Similarly, their uncle denied them as his nieces.  Having no where to turn, the girls found their way to the doorstep of Mayan Families where they are now being looked after pending decisions from the courts. Just a few days ago, these three girls climbed their way into an empty room above an occupied house and huddled together through the night, with no blanket to keep them warm, until the sun rose. It's hard to imagine that they will have the capacity to feel the joy that my children feel tonight as all seven of them toss candy to the crowds, but I pray that - even for this hour - they can experience the wonder and awe that every child deserves at Christmastime.
Karina (16), Fabiola (13) and Olivia (8) at the Christmas Parade
There was certainly no better way to end today than to actually be "in" this parade. The crowds had gathered and both young and old shouted "dulces" (candy) from the streets as we tossed candy canes and starlight mints to the masses. The tuk tuk ahead of us in the procession was marked Jo! Jo! Jo! (rather than Ho! Ho! Ho!) which only served to make us smile as we remembered one of our favorite friends back home. And, I couldn't get over the truck just two behind ours, upon which sat a genuine baby Santa. Yup. Here in Guatemala, the land of no car seats and seemingly few driving regulations, a Dad sat his santa-suited infant on the roof of the cab as we drove through the streets. 

It's hard to imagine all that we have accomplished in these first three full days, but I'm certain that tonight's celebration captures all that we are feeling. I have been witness to joy and kindness beyond measure, and the usual stress of Christmas preparations is nowhere in sight. Those around us are not caught up in gift purchasing and wrapping. Like us this year, they are simply preparing to share a holiday meal with their families. That freedom gives each one of us the time to blast Christmas music into the streets, dance a jig with Santa, taste the sweetness of peppermint, wear silly hats, and spread true holiday cheer. The people of Guatemala may be among the poorest and most malnourished in the world, but their spirit is as rich as rich can be.

Can you spot the candy flying through the air?

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Day 3

Cayetana's daughter, Guadelupe, with her new mattress and bear
Early in September, I learned of the passing of sweet Cayetana, a 90 year old woman from San Jorge La Laguna who I had the honor to meet in March, 2010, when I visited Mayan Families for the first time. It was many months before that trip that I had seen a photo of Cayetana with her two disabled adult daughters, and I felt drawn to her story. At that time, she was the sole caregiver of Maria and Guadelupe, both blind and the latter with undiagnosed disabilities that prevented her from walking without support or effectively communicating with others. Each day, Cayetana would leave Guadelupe at home and lead Maria up the steep path out of San Jorge and then down the highly traveled mountain road to Panajachel where they would sit at the waterfall and allow toursists to take their photograph with the hope of earning a few quetzales before gathering firewood and beginning the trek home. Cayetana was their lifeline and, during her final days, she prayed that she would be spared so that she could continue to care for them. She feared not death but life for her daughters without her.

Surely tears were shed both near and far as word spread about Cayetana's passing. It is likely that she never traveled outside of a 10 mile radius of her home, and yet boxes of tissues were being plucked as far away as Boston, Massachusetts as she took her final breaths and made her way to heaven.

I admired Cayetana. On days when my kids were challenging, I imagined the strength that it took to care for children well into their 50s while living in dire poverty. Suddenly, my challenges felt like minor speedbumps. Cayetana provided perspective without ever intending to do so. By all accounts, she was the finest example of motherhood that I was ever blessed to witness.  And so, when today finally arrived, I traveled to San Jorge with both joy and sadness in my heart, to pay my respects to Maria and Guadelupe and to provide them with some comfort items in memory of their sweet mother.

Our day began with the final Mayan Families Christmas Party of 2012 for the sponsored students and ancianos (elderly) of the village. It was yesterday's El Barranco celebration reproduced in full for a group twice its size... clown, music, two Santas, toys, food, and fun. The women in the village kindly prepared a meal for the staff and volunteers which we quietly enjoyed behind the scenes. And, just like yesterday, the McFadyen kids quickly made new friends. The ability of young people to reach out to others and instantaneously connect is a pleasure to behold.

After the party, which was held on the grounds of the local school, we walked down the hill to the elderly feeding program where even more ancianos were awaiting small gift baskets of food from their sponsors. Even as a young child, I found great joy in gleaning wisdom from the elderly. When you hold hands with these seemingly ancient women and stare into their eyes, something truly magical happens. Language barriers no longer exist and they pass along to you, through the palms of their hands, the desire to become a better woman.

While Jay, Juliana and I enjoyed the reception of elderly women as they departed the feeding program, Kendra, Luke and Will began a game of street baseball with some local children. A boy who had received a baseball bat and ball at the party from Santa (and selected with great care by Kendra), was hoping for some batting practice and he wisely sensed that the McFadyen boys would be very interested in pitching to him. Little did he know, though, that Kendra would soon recruit the group of girls who were watching on the sidelines to form the first San Jorge Girls Softball Club. Jay and I were all smiles as we watched them race around to chase the ball in their ankle length skirts while laughing hysterically. Kendra was indeed very proud of her team.

We said our goodbyes, as children age six and under lit fireworks a bit too close for comfort, and made our way to Cayetana's house nearer to the entrance of the village. A steep climb down a narrow stairway of stones led the way to two small rooms with a small cement landing that they shared. Guadelupe sat in the corner of her doorway on the ground and Maria stood in hers as she keenly listened for our approach and then, through touch, carefully navigated her way to the two stairs at the top of the landing. Without a railing to hold, she reached way down to the top rim of the pila (outdoor sink) to guide her way. I couldn't help but imagine how frightening it must be to be without sight in a landscape with so many natural obstacles. The twenty or so stairs that I had just climbed down from the roadside were treacherous for my able-bodied self. To make that climb each day without sight is unimaginable, and yet it is part of everyday life here.

Just a few weeks ago, I had learned that Guadelupe had been sleeping on the same mattress upon which Cayetana had died. Sadly, Cayetana's blood and bodily fluids had soiled the mattress but, because the daughters had no money to spare, they simply flipped the mattress and Guadelupe slept on the other side. It seemed like an ideal gift to present both Guadelupe and Maria with new mattresses, new pillows and new blankets, and so we did just that. We also brought a new large stuffed bear for Guadelupe, as we had heard that, for days and days after her mom's passing, she clenched two small stuffed toys and banged them together over and over again while crying. For one brief but incredibly touching moment, Guadelupe held the bear close to her heart and offered us the most sweet smile. It was the highlight of my day.

We spoke with Maria and extended our sympathies for their great loss. She tearfully told us how hard life had been since September and how thankful she was for our gifts. We offered our promise of monthly sponsorship which would ensure that she would have access to the feeding program in the village and we also noticed the condition of the bed in her room (a broken metal cot upon which her new mattress would not fit) and arranged to have a new bed delivered to her by the end of the week. As food is always needed, we also ordered a 100 lb. bag of corn to be delivered so that Maria could make tortillas for the coming month. What a blessing it was to our family to meet these women and provide them with comfort and care at a time when they needed it most. There's no doubt that Cayetana was smiling down upon us all today.

Our day had been full but was not yet done as we then traveled to the village of El Tablon to visit our sponsored student, Daniel Pablo, and his brother, Victor Antonio, who is the sponsored student of my parents. When we arrived, it appeared that no one was home, but - sure enough - both boys (who seem to be as tightly connected as our Luke and Will) came walking around the corner to our delight. My enthusiasm may have overwhelmed these shy boys, now ages 14 and 12, as I quickly moved in for hellos and hugs. Thankfully, their teenage sister and niece were full of smiles and stories and took the spotlight off of the boys for a bit so that they could adjust to our arrival.

In addition to the practical gifts, we brought some fun things this time too, including a Monopoly game in Spanish and the ever appreciated soccer ball. While we were reviewing the items in the care package with the boys, Mayan Families' Julio set up their new ten year water filter and table and provided instruction on how to use it. We also had brought 100 lb. bags of corn and beans and 30 eggs as a special treat.

On behalf of their mother, Alejandra, who was caring for her own ill mother not too far away, the teenage girls presented us with a lovely tapestry in appreciation of our continued sponsorship and support of the family.  We look forward to passing it along to my parents in recognition of their many gifts to Alejandra and her children. My mother, in particular, has always felt a special connection to this family, as Alejandra's husband died many years ago when the boys were just toddlers, and my mom lost her own dear dad when she was just five years old. She remembers her own mother struggling to keep her large family afloat as a single parent and feels blessed to be in a position to make life easier for this mother, many miles away. I hope, with all my heart, that someday my mom will meet Alejandra so that she too can experience this family's generosity of spirit and affection. Forever intertwined, we are indeed!

It was after 6pm and the mountain road from Solola to Panajachel was dark and windy as we returned to home base at the hotel. Exhausted from a day overflowing with activity, we will rest well tonight knowing that the gifts that we've offered in these two days alone have been life changing ones. As I close this blog entry, my thoughts can't help but wander to sweet Guadelupe, snuggling her new teddy bear in her cozy new bed. Oh how I pray that Cayetana will visit her in her dreams tonight and offer her the comfort and joy that she provided for each of her more than fifty years. Buenas noches, queridas amigas.