Giving Children a Healthy Shot@Life

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As a former resident of Washington DC, I am used to the many tour buses that circle the city showing off the various monuments, historic sites and points of interest within the city.  It’s also quite common to walk into a hotel or office complex and see a list of various and diverse groups – local, regional, national and international – that are hosting conferences and conventions around town.  It makes sense that many groups would convene here – DC draws many people to learn, to exchange ideas, and to make those ideas known to those officials who are debating and shaping the laws that govern the Nation.

While I have studied, lived and worked in DC over many years of my life – today is a first for me. Today I arrive as one of those people who voyaged here to gather with others at a national conference to share, learn, and make some noise! This afternoon I will join dozens of other individuals from across the country for the shot@life Champions Summit.

We are a diverse group from many states and backgrounds – but we share a commitment to children and to ending the heart-breaking truth that one child dies every 20 seconds from a disease that could have been prevented by a vaccine.

Over the next three days we will learn more about the power of vaccines and ways we can all take action to decrease vaccine-preventable childhood deaths.  I am excited and grateful for the opportunity…and hope you will follow updates from the Summit and the Champions! To learn more, go to ShotAtLife.org.

Blind Dates and Pep-talks…

As a mother of growing toddlers, most mornings I give pep-talks to my boys on one topic or another: “Don’t worry, Felix – the dentist is super great, she even has fishies in the office!” or “Just wait and see Oliver, by the end of the day you will love your new teacher!” and ”I am sure Max won’t kick you anymore on the playground, he knows not to do that Felix.”

Sometimes I believe 100 percent in what I am telling them about the new and unknown experiences that await – but sometimes I am just as uncertain as they may be – and by encouraging them I am trying to silence my own “what if” monsters! What if the new class is not good…what if the new teacher is not patient with Oliver and his various fears…what if…what if…

To be honest, I often wish the boys could give me a similar “you can do it mama” pep talk…as I type I am about to head to another “blind date” meal – something that has been a constant of my expat adventure: meeting “friends of friends” for lunches, coffees, walks, and other events with the hope that meaningful relationships will result.  The test of the transitive power of friendship and networks!

After a year in Berlin I have ventured on dozens and dozens of such dates – whether friends of friends of former colleagues, college roommates, cousins, interns, facebook friends, high school exchange students…you name it. Sometimes the date happens and neither I nor the other person can quite figure out who connected us… but I dive into it.

I have been living the expat match.com life for over a year now.

What’s crazy is that it’s worked – in spades. I have met some incredible people, many of whom I feel confident and grateful to call friends. Friends I will take beyond this Berlin chapter whenever and if ever it ends.

BUT – that does not mean that before each “date” – I don’t get the butterfly feelings, consider making an excuse to cancel, or start sweating profusely.  My mind swirls…am I overdressed? What if there is awkward silence? What if there’s something in my nose and he or she is too shy to tell me? What if? What if? What if?

Being a girl who likes to prepare – I always do my online research on my dates…does she like sports? Has he been to the US? Is she a Democrat? Does she have kids?  But even with a briefing, it can be scary.

I am off now to meet a friend of a friend of a friend for lunch. Lunch, not coffee – high stakes!

Wish me luck.

Giving others a Shot@Life on this #GivingTuesday

Last week my son Oliver had ear tubes implanted into his ears.  His first year was full of recurring ear infections, fevers and sleepless nights…after which his pediatrician recommended the procedure. Even though ear tubes are a fairly common and “routine” procedure in modern medicine and one that will result in less pain and an improved hearing capacity for Oliver, my husband and were still nervous. We researched, we consulted an Ear Nose & Throat specialist and several others in the medical field before we decided to proceed…and even then the road was full of worry.  The process intimidated me as a mother – anesthesia was required as was recovery time, pre-surgery and post-surgery check-ins. I could not help but be concerned about the “what ifs…”

The night before his procedure, my mother (“Nana” to Oliver) sent me the following note: “I just want you to know that Nana is thinking of you all right now.  One of the hardest things bringing up children is doing what is best for them when they do not understand it and when you are the one making the decisions. I know you are doing what is best for him and soon it will be all over. “

My mom was right…Oliver is already back to his energetic and slightly mischievous self, and I am now breathing a sigh of relief knowing that his hearing will be improved and he won’t suffer from unnecessary pain or irritation in the future. I can’t help but feel very fortunate: Oliver’s surgery was an elective one that will enable him to stay healthy…one that was observed and tracked by various professionals. My son was treated in a modern, clean, and well-equipped medical clinic.  He will receive check-ups in the coming weeks to ensure he’s healing well and he will resume his ongoing check-ups, immunizations, and preventive care that he has been blessed to receive all of his life.

But what about those mothers and fathers who are not able to give their children what they know is best for them and their development?  What if there is no access to medical facilities and preventive care? There’s nothing more challenging as a parent than watching your child suffer any pain, or witnessing them fight an illness – especially a preventable one. I have visited and worked in many regions of the world in which Oliver would certainly not have access to an ENT specialist, and in fact where diseases that could have been prevented by a vaccine could fatally injure him – as they do one child every 20 seconds. Imagine being in a situation where your child is faced with such dire and dramatic health challenges, and as a parent you are not able to provide relief.

What so many of us consider standard, preventive care is a faraway dream for so many children and families in the world.  On this Giving Tuesday, I am thinking about the millions of sons and daughters around the world that deserve a “shot at life” and how we can support them. Expanding access to vaccines can prevent an additional 1.5 million deaths a year. We can all help make that happen.

Shot@Life is movement to protect children worldwide by providing life-saving vaccines where they are most needed. Learn more here: http://shotatlife.org/

Learn more about #Giving Tuesday here: http://givingtuesday.org/

Happy Thanksgiving from Berlin

Several of my German friends have asked in the recent week if it’s hard for me to be away from the United States during Thanksgiving.  The answer is yes…and no.  I am unexpectedly thankful today for the opportunity to experience the holiday from a different vantage point.

While I no doubt miss gathering with my extended family and close friends in the States, spending this American holiday in Germany has enabled me to embrace it’s spirit in new ways.

Given “Thanksgiving” is not observed here – marking the day requires a commitment which makes the holiday extra festive and spirited for those who choose to participate. I have watched with wonder as certain American friends in Berlin approach the day like a scavenger hunt. Where does one get a proper turkey…and will said turkey fit in my European-sized oven? Can I buy canned pumpkin at the grocery store? Do marshmallows exist here for Aunt Marta’s famous sweet potato concoction?  Can I call the 1-800 Butterball line for help from a German phone?

One friend has been up for 3 days carefully and lovingly cooking a feast for dozens of German friends that will replicate her family’s meal back home in Wisconsin.  Tonight – a mishmash of expats are gathering at the home of another friend from Los Angeles, where each of us will bring our favorite Thanksgiving dish from “home” to the table. On Saturday, our host is screening NFL football from the previous day for post-turkey viewing.

Many of the gatherers are families with a mixed German and American heritage, but others are Germans who themselves have embraced the tradition or expats and travelers from other countries who are eager to share in the experience. I asked one German friend how his family came to adopt the American holiday, and he explained “once I learned that there was a holiday devoted simply to giving thanks, I thought – what could be better than that?”  Food for thought.

I often think about this expat chapter of my life and feel slightly overwhelmed by the challenges and the “differences” big and small that I confront during the course of the day.  But every so often it hits me, that maybe the gift of this time is the opportunity to reflect on what “home” truly means..because these traits will travel with me. In re-creating special side dishes and sports viewings, each of us is trying to share a piece of ourselves and show gratitude in our new “home.”

From keeping alive the legacy of those no longer with us on Earth, to celebrating the spirit and traditions of those that are miles away but close in heart, to welcoming new people into our lives that become family by our own choosing, to counting our blessings and finding ways to give back to the community in which we live — these are the lessons of my Berlin Thanksgiving.

-Coco

Good Things come to those who wait…

There were certain things I expected to learn in my German language class: prepositions, the genders of various nouns (DAS bier, DER Wein), how to navigate a city using German, etc.

I did not expect to learn the value of waiting.

As I have learned in my grammar training, the verb most often comes at the end of a German sentence.  (Ich kann nicht deutsch sprechen…) What does that mean? Well, as someone who struggles to learn the language – it means buckle up because this stuff is hard.

But what else does it mean?

It means that one must pay attention, listen and allow the speaker to complete his or her sentence before one can react. It’s been extremely enlightening to observe my class full of diverse students and witness how uncomfortable and unnatural this seems to some of us.  (My American self and my Israeli study partner have certainly been struggling.)

The composition and structure of a sentence has such a simple but powerful impact:

One must hear what a person is saying before barraging them with questions or interrupting. The process has shown me time and time again how strong my instincts are to impatiently rush a discussion or a fellow speaker.

The same idea happens on the streets, as my tendency is to dart across any roads if there is no visible traffic, regardless of the streetlight displaying red or green.  Not so in Germany. People (all people – young, old, bikers, workers, students) wait for the clear sign that it’s now safe to walk.  The notion of breaking the order is not acceptable, and people respect the importance of waiting for all parties involved.

So I have learned.  Whether I am speaking or listening, walking or driving…there’s a value in waiting…and as I tell my 4 year old son, “Everything is not a race!”

The Lessons of the Year

Today marks one year since my father’s death.
One year.
365 days…and 365 nights.

Another milestone that forces me, my mother, sister and others he touched to reflect on how our lives were forever changed on November 13, 2011.

Many people warned me that the first year would be the worst … and that survival should be my goal for the 365 days to follow. I have survived…and in order to move forward I feel the need to look back – on the grief, the bright spots, and the lessons of the past year.

Accept the pain.
There have been many dark moments, days and even weeks. There’s been much pain. There’s been much worry – for my mom, for my sister, for my husband, for my grandfather-less sons…and indeed worry for myself. I have questioned much: my identity, my strength and my purpose.

I still feel the impulse to pick up the phone to check-in with my Dad. Report a sports score. Share a political chat. Seek advice on all things, big and small. Or just dial his number to hear him say “Court-o.”  Even though this instinct brings pain, I fear the day when that impulse might retreat – because it’s those moments that also remind me of the special and deep relationship I share with my father.

While initially I tried avoidance and looked for ways to expedite the pain, I have grown to believe that avoidance is simply no good.  In the dark moments, I try to pause, listen, and accept the intense emotion.

Accept the love.
While often hard to find, the sun did keep shining over the course of the past year.  Every time I approached rock bottom – someone provided comfort – family, friends, even acquaintances that that I would never have anticipated playing such a role. A note that was completely unexpected and yet perfectly timed. A visit, calls, hugs, walks, meals, prayers…so many small but powerful gestures for which I am eternally grateful. Friends and family have given me solace, empathy, sympathy and physical and spiritual support beyond measure.

My parents raised me with unconditional love – but this year taught me that my family members are not the only people who care for me unconditionally.  On a daily basis, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for this gift.

Embrace the Legacy
My father is alive and well in all of the lives that he touched. A year ago, I thought this was empty advice that one passes on to a friend in grief — but I witness it every single day.  I see it in my eldest son Felix, who reports any information received to anyone who will listen just like his grandfather. I see it in the intensity in which he cheers for his G-Daddy’s Mizzou Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals.  I hear it when my sister calls to make sure all interested parties know when a key sports event is scheduled.  I smile as little Oliver runs with a gait that is eerily similar to that of my father – even his physical form has a striking resemblance.

The “Thomas” in Felix Thomas Morgan grows everyday…and it’s the same for so many of us who have adopted my father’s quirks, his humor and his fierce loyalty to all he loved. Through my own actions and decisions, I feel a deep and wonderful responsibility to build on this legacy.

A special person once shared a piece of advice for those facing loss: “may the memory of your loved one in time bring a smile to your face before it brings a tear to your eye.”  I am not there yet – and while my tears are still flowing with more speed and strength than my smiles – I know that a tie will come soon.

And so today I feel gratitude. I am grateful for the lessons of pain, for the love of my support network, and for the hope that the future inspires.

His legacy lives.

A Birthday with a Message

Yesterday was my birthday.
The day got me thinking about my birthdays over the years and the emotions that have accompanied them.
As a young cub, birthdays are highly anticipated, big, blissful, and full of goodness- One of my favorite childhood photos is one of me with a bright yellow crown, eyes wide open as I am about to dive into a massive chocolate cake, complete with “COCO is 3” emblazoned in green icing.  I now see the excitement so clearly from the vantage point of a mother to two young boys. “Mama, when is my birthday? Mama, I want a police helicopter for my birthday. Mama, I will be five on my birthday and Oliver will be three on his birthday…but Mama, my birthday comes first. Mama, I think on my next birthday I will be big….” Birthdays of youth are bursting with all things good: cake(s), friends, songs, parties, a nap-free day, a breaking-the-rules day…joy! Birthdays can’t come quick enough…and they can’t last long enough for most lucky kiddos.
As the years continued and adolescence dawned, some fears crept into my birthday process. I remember the school year starting and feeling a slight pressure to ensure that I could rally a crowd by mid September. (“What if no one comes to my party? What if no one acknowledges my birthday? What if everyone does, and it’s embarrassing?”) Somehow, more questions became a part of the birthday: Am I too old to have a party?  Why am I developing so slowly? So quickly?  No doubt these birthdays remained a source of excitement, but some intimidation and self-judgement joined the annual event.
Early adulthood and the years that follow brought a range of feelings and emotions. There were the milestone birthdays… (I can drive! I can vote! I can drink! Should I be more settled? What about relationships and family? Baby? Work?) There was plenty of fun and celebration, but birthdays also became a check-point and sometimes a source of anxiety if some part of life was deemed lacking or troublesome.  Some years I avoided the actual number, fearing I was “too old” in certain environments but might be penalized for being “too young” in others. No need to always state the year of birth, right?
This year I turned 37. No big milestone…and a day in a year that has been challenging on many levels. Yet somehow this birthday probably taught me more than any other has to date. This year my birthday delivered a message: don’t take this day for granted.
The seemingly simple ability to track and contemplate birthdays over decades of life is a sign of incredible good fortune. I can only imagine what my father would have done to celebrate just one more birthday here on Earth with his loved ones — or what we would do to have him here for just one more day.  And on a global level – a single birthday is a goal that is out of reach for far too many people, infants, children, parents. I have witnessed this first-hand in my work with communities struggling with health epidemics, drought, and poverty…yet at times I still drift and can be consumed by much less important concerns and fears.
This year reminded me that birthdays are a true privilege – and I hope my 37th year will be guided by the joy and the call to service that they inspire…as well as the gratitude to everyone who has supported my birthdays along the way!
A very cool way to celebrate birthdays by giving children around the world a shot at life:  http://shotatlife.org/act/
-Coco