Running from a Hurricane

storm cloudsHurricane IRMA was predicted to be a Category 5 monster and I watched The Weather Channel as it chronicled the hurricane’s approach to the Florida Keys.  Every time I turned on the TV, it seemed the track of this storm had my home in Nokomis on its radar.

I was pretty sure it was coming for me when I evacuated on Thursday, September 7, 2017.  The local Tampa news channels were reporting mandatory evacuations for the Florida Keys. My immediate thought was “Oh my God, thousands of people will be on the road soon!”  As I was only aware of one major highway out of Florida, State Highway Route 75, I imagined myself in bumper-to-bumper traffic the entire time.  Not good.  I don’t do well with that kind of stress.

So I called my handyman to ask if he could board up the windows in my Florida home and thankfully, he came through.  Then I grabbed a few important papers and valuables, gathered up my cat Caily with litter box, and food, made a hotel reservation and headed to Valdosta, Georgia.  I was fortunate. The road was clear. I assumed that the evacuees from the Keys were behind me by several hours.

Caily Kitty settled in with me as if she understood the urgency of the situation.  In the Subaru, Caily was comfortable in her little carrier, and I set up her litter box and food so she could get to them easily every time I stopped for a stretch or meal. From the back seat, Caily cried out to me about every two hours, so I let her be my guide as to when we took a break on our journey.

By that evening, we arrived at the Comfort Inn and Suites in Valdosta. The room was comfortable and it was obvious that the staff was all set to receive evacuees. The hotel offered free breakfast and a heart-warming free happy hour to welcome us.  Bravo, Comfort Inn!  They did not charge me extra for Caily.  Wasn’t that generous?

We stayed in Valdosta two nights. By Friday, September 8th, the storm was tracking north to Georgia and Tennesee.  I panicked once again. The monster storm was following me! Reports of the devastation the storm already caused in the Keys and elsewhere fed my panic.  So I fired up my laptop and searched for the next place to shelter. I knew I had to go further north and west.  I had friends and relatives in Georgia and Tennesee, but they were all located in the projected path of the storm — staying with them wasn’t an option. I considered driving all the way north to stay with family there, but I was concerned about having to get back to a ruined home to fix or board up or whatever was needed after the storm passed.  I didn’t want to be too far from home.  Funny how it turned out.

After a great deal of searching online, getting depressed over all the “sold out” messages, finally, I discovered a vacancy in a hotel in Alexandria Landing, Georgia, which was about 4 hours north. Saturday morning, I awoke and packed for the trip. I picked up my cell phone to enter into Google maps the address of the hotel in Alexandria, when I was shocked to realize that I had made the reservation in Alexandria, Louisiana, not Alexandria Landing, Georgia!!  How did I make such a colossal mistake? Only God knows. It had taken me a very long time to find that booking, and I was sure that everything was sold out by now, so I shrugged and accepted my fate.  I would travel many more miles than expected.  So I took Caily with me to the Comfort Inn check out counter, and with a nervous laugh, I shared my mistake with the hotel clerk.

Here’s where the miracle begins to unfold. The clerk looked at me in earnest and for some reason beyond my understanding, she said: “There is a reason you are going to Louisiana.”  Huh. I was stunned.

I shook off the “Twilight Zone” feeling and we hustled to the Subaru where I sat and typed into Google maps the address of the Holiday Inn, Alexandria, Louisiana.  I intentionally ignored the projected duration of the trip to avoid that stress, and we were on our way. Google took me through beautiful and scenic back road country for the first hundred miles or so, then the traffic bogged down on Route 10 West.  I witnessed traffic accidents, crawled through miles of construction and I passed a blazing wildfire as if it were some circus sideshow!  Then I navigated Route 12, through the Florida panhandle, through Alabama, then Mississippi, past New Orleans and north on Route 49 for the last hundred mile segment into Alexandria, LA. The journey was long and I traveled about 700 miles that night in a total of 14 hours. What took so long? I stopped every two hours and there were hours of crawling at 30 miles per hour with hordes of people in cars exiting Florida. But what made this trip so extraordinary was not the miles or the hours, but the purpose, and the resulting epiphany.

A bit melodramatic?  Read on if you will, then you can decide and judge.

During the trip, to avoid falling asleep by keeping my brain engaged, I turned on the radio to search for a talk radio station. Strangely enough, my car radio was already tuned to EWTN, a Catholic Radio station. At first, I thought this show would be boring, but then the announcer caught my attention: He was conducting an interview with an author who wrote about the proof of God’s existence. Although I didn’t write it down and I find myself searching Google for it today, I believe it was an interview with Dr. Edward Feser who wrote a new book: The Five Proofs of God.  

I won’t try to summarize it here – it could be a topic for a future blog post, but suffice it to say, the interview was riveting and I became totally emersed in the dialogue.  As a result, I no longer felt any effects of the hours of driving except for some stiffness in my neck and shoulders, probably from gripping the wheel to control the car in traffic. I wasn’t tired; I didn’t feel sleepy.  I was alert and awake.  I pulled over a few times to check my alertness and still did not feel any symptoms of the exhaustion that science would have dictated under the circumstances.

The radio interview did not last the entire 14 hours, however. Following Dr. Feser, the EWTN radio host introduced yet another author whose name I can’t find now, but the talk was delivered by a woman who spoke about “Why God wants us to be happy.” She explored the four levels of happiness similar to the definition you’ll find on the Catholic Education Resource Center’s website (I interpret): 1. Happiness in THINGS like food. 2. The happiness of comparative advantage, for example, happiness derived from winning a spelling bee.3. Seeing the good in others and doing good for others, and 4. A fulfillment or fullness that transcends all other forms of happiness.

In the past year, I have been struggling with my grief after my husband’s passing, and so I was “all ears,” hoping to hear some good news, some hope that I can truly be joyful again. This interview delivered.  I was amazed.

Caily the kitty in bed in hotel

Hurricane? What hurricane?

The last 100 miles were physically taxing as my energy reserves dwindled, but I made it to the hotel without accident or incident. I checked us into the Holiday Inn, Alexandria, Louisiana. Caily-Kitty was happy there as she was everywhere we went. As long as she had a pillow for her head and a toy for play, and her “Mommie,” it was all okay by her. Such an angel. I was blessed to have her with me through it all.

cathedral

St. Francis Xavier Cathedral

I was determined to enjoy the stay as best I could, so the next day I explored the area and I was pleased to find the Cathedral of St. Francis Xavier, right across the street from the hotel.  I visited the beautiful and very old Cathedral to light a candle and say a prayer and on Sunday, I attended Mass.  The pastor said prayers for the hurricane victims and the basket was passed for donations.  It was heart-warming and I felt safe.

There was a zoo in Alexandria.  I spent the next day exploring the Alexandria Zoological Park where I met a cougar, pink flamingos, alligators, a crocodile, bear, and many species of birds.

It was a beautiful, clear and cool day. Gone was the heat and humidity of Florida. I rode the little train that took me on a tour of the park. I felt young again.

cougar

A young cougar at the zoo.

So here I am. Running from a hurricane. Enjoying God’s creatures at the zoo, looking for a life beyond grief.

During all legs of my trip, I did not feel alone.  Friends and relatives kept in touch. They sent me encouraging texts and emails, called me regularly to check on my progress, cared about where I ended up and whether I was safe. Thank you to all those who kept me going.

After spending four nights in Louisiana, hurricane Irma tracked out of Florida, it’s power diminishing as it passed to the northeast, leaving the entire state of Florida in various levels of destruction. I dreaded the thought of driving the distance home in one day, so I made reservations at the Ashton Inn, Pensacola, Florida, which was about halfway. News media reported widespread gas shortages and road closures due to debris and flooding. As I traveled east, I was appalled at the stupidity of some who transformed their vehicles into explosive hazards by strapping a number of filled gas cans to the roofs of their cars or lined them up on a  trailer behind.  With all of the traffic, it’s a miracle that a fender-bender didn’t ignite one of these car bombs. I guessed law enforcement was engaged elsewhere and didn’t have the resources to address this hazard. It scared the heck out of me!  I navigated around these people with care. People do dumb things while running from a hurricane.

Gene's Lounge

Hi Gene!

The morning I awoke in Pensacola, I ventured out of the hotel in search of a healthy breakfast. At one point I veered off the main road and found myself a bit lost.  I have become accustomed to relying on Google maps for directions, so I pulled the car over into a parking lot to check the map. Momentarily, I looked to my right. Here is what I saw. I laughed and thought, “he’s with me on this trip!” HA!

 

Pensacola is a military town. The presence of the Navy is prominent on road signs and buildings such as the Naval Air Station and Naval hospital. Their city website advertises that they are the “Cradle of Naval Aviation,” home to the renowned Blue Angels, officially known as the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron. There is also about 50 miles of Gulf coastline so there were lots to see and do.  I spent my day at the Naval Air MuseumNavy Museum, wandering around hangers filled with Naval aircraft and memorabilia.  I had lunch at the theme restaurant, the Cubi Bar Cafe, decorated to re-create the bar area of the famous Navy and Marine Corps Squadron’s Cubi Point Officers’ Club.  I worked up the nerve to try the Blue Angels’ flight simulator and I enjoyed an ear-shattering IMAX film about Aircraft Carriers.  I could have spent a week there!

house after hurricane

Thank God, only lost a tree, power on!

A text from a neighbor reassured me that my home in Nokomis was safe.  The outside lights were on, so I had power.  My neighbor sent pictures which reassured me further that the damage was minimal. I lost a tree out front, but otherwise, my home was spared. For others in my neighborhood and in my state, that was not the case.  For weeks afterward, I became aware of the suffering in my state and the herculean effort to rebuild homes and reconnect all those who lost their homes or who had to deal with damage or wait for power to be restored. Everyone pitched in to help each other.

The final trek home brought me to the last lap down Route 75 and a breath-taking rainbow filled the Gulf Coast sky.  I arrived at my front door late Thursday, September 14th. Caily was absolutely gleeful and I walked around the house, counting my blessings.

When I finally collapsed into my usual place in my den, the miracle of my trip, which was all about the 14 hours of driving West to outrun hurricane Irma, listening to The Proof of God and the talk on “Why God wants me to be happy,” engulfed my mind and heart in a way that I can’t encapsulate in any words.

I recall the wise observation of the hotel clerk in Valdosta: “There is a reason you are going to Lousiana,” and she was right.  What was the reason? I think Forrest Gump said it best in the movie after he had run “for 3 years, two months, fourteen days and sixteen hours”: “My mom always said: You gotta put the past behind you before you can move on….”

That day, I put the past behind me.  Time to start a new life, thank God for the opportunity.

 

A Blessing for Caily

Caily the cat in her play tunnel

Caily hiding in her play-tunnel!

I am blessed.  I found my little Caily-Kitty at the St. Francis Animal Shelter in Venice this summer and she has been my constant companion, confidant, and receiver of tears and interminable hugs.  She is an unlimited source of entertainment. During our exodus from Florida while we escaped hurricane Irma, Caily traveled with me uncomplaining.  She spent hours upon hours in the car with me, asking for breaks every two hours, which I obliged.  In the hotel rooms, she cuddled up with me on whatever bed we had for the night, just content to be by my side. What more can anyone ask for?

This little love is precious. Caily is smart, amuses herself with all kinds of toys, and has a great appetite for food and life.  She’s happy and healthy and just glad to be with me every day.

Father Fred with pets for blessing

Father Fred with service dogs after Pet Blessing

Today, at my Church, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Osprey, our pastor, Father Fred, hosted a “Pet Blessing” in honor of St. Francis of Assisi’s Feast Day, which is this upcoming Wednesday, October 3rd. God has blessed me with Caily and today God blessed her.  It’s all very extraordinary.

I am especially fond of the St. Francis Prayer of Peace that I will share with you all here:

St. Francis Prayer of Peace

Lord make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred, Let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, Joy.
O Divine Master grant that I may
Not so much seek to be consoled
As to console; To be understood,
As to understand; To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.
And it is in dying that we are
Born to eternal life.
___________________________

Peace be with you all.

Julianne

Time Passing

I have finally returned home from a week long journey of evacuation from my new home in Florida.  I fled hurricane “Irma” and traveled to Georgia, then through Alabama, Mississippi and finally Louisiana. And all I can think about is the impact of “time.” So I was inspired to write this poem, not about the hurricane, but on the stressful nature of the passage of time.

poem, time passing

Is it Time to Write a Testimony to your Faith?

Our Lady of Mt. Carmel windows

The beautiful stained glass windows of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, Osprey, FL

There are many reasons why you might write and publish an autobiography or your memoirs. Some write to set the record straight, others to capture and preserve precious family memories and still others want to leave behind the proof and some measure of the meaning of their existence, for generations to come.

For those of you who have a strong faith in God, and either belong to a particular organized religion or practice your faith privately, as a personal relationship with God, creating a lifetime book can be a lasting testament to your Faith.

Most of us grew up practicing some form of religion because our parents went to Church, Synagogue or other place of worship. You may have attended religious services with your extended family, celebrating milestones, as in a Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah, and for Catholics, receiving sacraments like First Holy Communion or Confirmation.  Then as we gained our independence in college or in our new careers or vocations, many of us drifted away from organized religion. Some began to question the beliefs taught by our parents and religious leaders and we wondered, sometimes scientifically, about the meaning of life and the existence of God and we questioned His relevance to our lives.

Then without warning, there comes a day when we are struck by tragedy –a loved one is critically ill, a spouse or close friend dies from an illness or accident, a neighbor suffers from an addiction. To cope, some of us come back to God, not always because of any new revelation or understanding, but because we need Him desperately to help us find some way to bear this burden. We may turn to God because He is the only one left to petition.

This is what happened to me: After high school, I had what some might call a crisis of faith.  After a failed marriage and teaching career, I absorbed all the revolutionary thought and rejection of the “establishment” during the turbulent 1960’s. I questioned everything, including my faith. I stopped going to Church and when I met my second husband, Gene, my heart returned to God, but in a very personal way.  To be honest, Christ was not an active presence in my life, but rather Jesus’ life and teaching was the basis for my return to traditional values and beliefs.

Then tragedy struck. My husband, Gene, was diagnosed with cancer and died a year and half later. I was devastated.

I moved out of our home in New Jersey and took up residence on the Gulf Coast of Florida. I was reeling from the emotional turmoil that remained after all the time I witnessed my husband’s struggle against cancer and cared for him. I suffered deeply from the loss of his love and our relationship.

I craved the warmth of a “community,” and I sought solace in the local Catholic Church, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Osprey.  I joined this community and met a pastor and a congregation who welcomed me with open arms.  Their Grief Support Group helped me weather my personal storm, and I am so grateful. I found peace of mind in the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation and I took solace in a new relationship with God and my religion, as I practice my faith once again.

The ebb and flow of religious fervor that I believe occurs not in the mind, but in the heart, is something that merits testimony. It is a story that begs to be told! Every one of us has a personal journey that may or may not include the recognition of a God who is involved in our destiny. Every story is different. We each have a different starting point and an equally unique destination. We have our reasons for maintaining or abandoning our faith or returning to it, but there is one thing that binds us together in our humanity and cannot be denied – the certainty and inevitability of death.

We are mortal beings and someday all that is in our minds and hearts will be left to those who hold our legacy in their memories. As a resource, they will have our photos and videos and leftover texts, online posts and voice mail messages.  But someday we will no longer be around to explain these, to recount our struggles with faith, or to pass on the lessons we may have learned through the years.

So, if you have learned something important about your relationship with Christ, maybe it’s time to put your story down on paper, if for no other reason, as a testimony to your Faith.

Sincerely,

julianne

Gene’s Turn to Walk Jake

I lost my pup, “Jake” yesterday and this morning is a strange experience indeed.  Gone are the morning slurpy-kisses, gone are the hourly walks. Gone are the custom made meals of chopped meat and chicken breast, the multiple medications wrapped in cream cheese to assuage the discomfort from the symptoms of Jake’s heart failure. Gone are the funny “whispers” and Jake’s constant begging for treats.  Gone is the unconditional love I felt from him every day.

Click on this image of Jake to watch a “In Memory of Jake.”

Jake the brittany

Click here to watch “In Memory of Jake”

My feelings this morning are part grief, part relief.  I grieve the loss of a best friend who Gene and I raised from a pup.  I can remember with crystal clarity the 4th of July Gene and I picked him up from the breeder in PA.  I held Jake in the back seat of our Toyota 4Runner while Gene drove us to Jake’s new home. His birth name was “Dude,” so I held Jake close, whispering his new name in that floppy ear.  He responded by peeing all over me!  It was a wet ride.

I am relieved that Jake will no longer panic because he can’t catch his breath.  I am relieved that he will no longer suffer sleepless nights.  I am relieved that I will no longer have to feel guilty for being so reluctant to let him go.

From the beginning of our life with Jake, his training was problematic at best.  Training him to pee outside was so very frustrating.  When we took him outside, he pee’d on every bush and tree, and when we took him back inside, he’d pee again, right on the kitchen floor!  He wouldn’t sleep alone without whining loudly, so for days Gene and I slept on the kitchen floor with the little guy, afraid to take him to bed with us because of all the peeing.  Jake loved to hunt and he preyed on everything from squirrels to ground hogs and he also chased the new-born fawns in spring.  It was a constant chase with Jake and he was indeed a handful.  He hated the leash and pulled until he took me off my feet.  So to allow him to release all of this Brittany energy, we took him to parks, to corn fields and to Swayze Mill lake, to swim and run off-leash, and play.  We fenced in a portion of the yard so he could run and play unfettered.

Jake loved his treats and we spent a fortune on Pupperoni’s and raw hide, trying to find that perfect treat that would keep him busy for a few minutes so that I could make dinner, but he gobbled everything down so fast, it was impossible to keep up.

Every morning in NJ and continuing here in Florida, we had a ritual.  After his first walk, Jake and I had breakfast together.  After his meal, I gave him 3 “Liva Snaps” treats and he sat, begged, and gave his paw, then he “whispered.” Yes, Jake learned to “whisper.” I am so sensitive to noise in the morning, that I found a way to train him to bark very faintly in a kind of whisper.  He was so cute when he did this.  It made me smile.  I am happy that I made several videos of Jake whispering and running at the Lake with his friend Skippy, so that I can still enjoy watching him point and hunt and run like a dervish.  Jake was a perfect example of the beauty and grace and loving loyalty of the Brittany breed. He was our third Brittany, and I have to say he was the most beautiful and head-strong.

I want to thank all of our friends for caring for Jake especially while Gene was ill, and I want to thank the kennel owners, Patrick and Myke of Four Paws Playground, and Doug Tigue of Hope’s Kennels, and all of the others who trained and watched over Jake when we were away.  I want to thank Dr. Shatto, Jake’s vet in Hackettstown NJ and Dr. Garner here in Florida for giving us so much time with Jake by keeping him healthy all of these years.

It took a lot of people and support for us to have Jake in our lives, and I appreciate it so much.  I will miss him everyday.  It’s time for Gene to walk Jake again, and I hope to God that Jake and Gene are together in heaven and walking, running and hunting through the beautiful fields of Elysium.

Remembering Dad

It’s so strange when I remember Dad.  It seems that so much of who we are is tangled up with the real or perceived relationship we had or didn’t have with our fathers. Thanks to Freud, I think way too muJulianne and Dad communionch weight has been placed on this relationship, but in any case, it occurred to me yesterday, Father’s Day, that maybe my memories are not as accurate as I think, and they don’t really tell the whole story.

In browsing through picture albums looking for photos of Dad and grandparents to post on Facebook for Father’s Day, I see a kinder, gentler and happier Dad than I remember from my childhood.  Why is that?

I consider my childhood a troubled one, and I blame Dad for most of my unhappiness. I blame him for being too strict a disciplinarian, who had trouble expressing his love for his kids.  He was critical and had very high standards for his children, whether it were in a school performance, academic grades or piano lessons and recitals. I never remember Dad being truly involved with me, despite the fact that I have a clear memory of him attending Father-Daughter days with me at my high school and so many other events.

Dad and momPoklemba family, Marie, John, Julianne and Johnnie bought our summer house in Lakewood. Wasn’t that so my brother and I could get out of the city in the summers and enjoy swimming in the lake and picking blueberries in the woods?  Didn’t Dad take us to amusement parks and host barbeques with the extended family?  And although he punished my rebellious acts, my lying, my subterfuge and sneakiness, didn’t I deserve some punishment, even if what was meted out to me was maybe a bit harsh at times?

I guess the most disturbing memories were those of my mom and dad fighting, which was often accompanied by throwing things and cursing. I thought there was way too much drinking to escape reality. I don’t know how often the conflicts occurred, but in my unbalanced memory, it was a constant background noise that accompanied my upbringing. But all of that had more to do with their happiness, no?  Why was I so affected by their disharmony?  Maybe it was the uncertainty of it all.  Would they stay together? Would they divorce?  When would the next argument explode? I had no idea what they were really fighting about. As a small child, I had no true understanding of the meaning of their hateful words. As I grew to be a rebellious teenager, they seemed quite selfish to me, when, in truth, they sacrificed so much so that I could be secure.

I guess I’ll never know the answer to my questions, but I am grateful for the last decade of Julianne and Dad graduationDad’s life and the new relationship we enjoyed.  He taught me to play golf and took me on fishing trips and to the beach, during visits to their home in Florida. He was a new man in this tropical paradise, and although the cacophony of my parents’ arguments continued, there was definitely a “mellowing” of his personality in his final years. When Dad was struck down by cancer, he drifted away from me as his mind passed into oblivion as a result of the spreading of the cancer throughout his body.  When he left his family to enter the next life, it was a quiet relief.  He had lost all of his dignity and power with this disease, and I know he had finally escaped his own nightmares.

Till There Was You!

Julianne playing piano with Dad

Julianne and Dad at the piano in Jersey City

Flipping through old photographs is how we summon memories most of the time. That’s what I was doing in the garage today, when I had the strong feeling that I needed to get rid of some of these dusty old remnants of a life that seems long gone.

When I moved to Florida from New Jersey, I was filled with reminiscence. I moved into the house my parents built back in 1978, just a year before I met and fell in love with Gene.  Everywhere here in the Florida home there are memories, but they are not mine; they belong to my mom and dad, John and Marie. I was just an occasional visitor when they lived their lives here together in “Paradise.”

Today, the photo above, which I discovered in the pile buried in a container in the garage, is a memory of Dad that reaches back in time to my days on 135 Lake Street in Jersey City and the piano playing that was so very important to Dad, but mostly a chore to me. Strange as it may seem, when I thought about how to complete furnishing the Florida living room, the idea of a “piano” was undeniable. I longed for a second chance at that skill. I wondered if it would still be a chore, or if somehow deep down inside of me there was really some desire to play, some latent talent, some subconscious ability, that if awakened, would bring me peace.

Last fall, after much of the living room renovation was complete, I shopped for a piano.  After feeling pushed and shoved this way and that by piano dealers in Venice and Sarasota, I met Anthony Duffy at Bayfront Music.  Anthony has an amazing talent.  He played each piano in his showroom so beautifully, and I could tell he was dedicated to sharing his passion with others through his store. With his guidance, I selected a Kawai acoustic upright piano in a beautiful walnut finish that was a perfect complement to the new wood-grain tile I had installed in the living room.  And the sound was melodic and true.

I took lessons at the store with a purpose.  I wanted to re-learn the favorite pieces I mastered in my youth. One of those was also my dad’s favorite, “Till There Was You,” a tune from the musical, also made into a movie, The Music Man. Looking at the photo now, I recall so clearly, like it was yesterday, how Dad sang while I played. The affection he showed me in these times was a rare treat — when I played the song without mistakes, that is. Now, when I play it each night, I never tire of it. The song brings me back. It brings Dad back. That brings me peace.

In case you’ve forgotten how it goes, Shirley Jones belts out this tune in a clip from the movie:  https://youtu.be/JLDsLeVxOaU

And did you know that the Beatles recorded the song too? Listen:  https://youtu.be/vJaap5XwiPA

And last, but not least, here is a sample of my humble performance:

Wish I could sing!

Julianne signature

Honoring our Veterans

John Poklemba

John J. Poklemba

Growing up in the 1960’s in Jersey City, New Jersey, I had no clear understanding of what it was like to serve in the United States military.  I graduated high school in 1969, a year scarred by Vietnam War protests and youth’s rage against the “Military Industrial Complex.”  I knew so little then about any of the issues involved, and often went with the flow of popular opinion because I just didn’t know any better and my husband at the time, Warren, was influencing my political point of view.

Later in life, as I matured in age and attitude, my heart broke to see how poorly our military men and women were treated when they came home from what so many called an “unjust war.”  My heart still breaks today to learn that even now, the wounded and families of those returning from war do not get the treatment they need or are kept waiting for months and sometimes years to receive urgently needed services from the U.S. Veterans Administration.

My dad served in Japan during or after the Guadalcanal Campaign in the 1940’s and that’s all I know and I’m ashamed to say how little I know.  My dad didn’t talk about his military service, and although I don’t believe he was involved in actual fighting, I wish he told me about his experiences overseas.  All I have now are a few pictures and a one page summary of his military service record. Mom didn’t talk much about dad’s experience either and to be fair to them, I didn’t ask.

John J. Poklemba, Sr.

My Dad, John Poklemba

So, I urge those who have served or are serving in the armed services today to tell your sons and daughters, your nieces and nephews and your grandchildren, as much as you can, and as much as they will absorb.  It’s important because there are valuable lessons that our service men and women have learned that those of us who don’t serve will never have the opportunity to know. The next generation shouldn’t have to wonder or guess at their relatives’ military experience. They shouldn’t have to wonder why they served or how they felt when they returned home. They shouldn’t have to repeat the mistakes of those who have no clue and who may have false impressions or naive beliefs about the importance of a strong military.

That’s why I am offering a FREE Lifetime Book to a Veteran who will spend the time with me to tell his or her story in as little or as much detail as they want.  I will offer this service and one printed book free to any Vet, active or retired, for as long as I am able to write. The first U.S. armed services Veteran to request a book will be selected as my first project.  I can only write and publish one book at a time, so right now, I am looking for one person to work with me on my first Lifetime Book for someone who served proudly in our military.  If you are a Veteran of any war, please contact me by email or phone if you are interested in a free Lifetime Book. I am searching for my first “pro bono” project and I am anxious to begin.

jw@lifetimewriter.com | 908-883-1296 (mobile)

Thank you.

My New Year’s Eve Miracle

The holidays will never be what they once were for those of us suffering from the recent loss of a loved one. The time of year that used to bring anticipation of presents and Santa and the Baby Jesus and sweets in our stockings and “Auld Lang Syne,” becomes an unwelcome ghost in the face of grief.  Each mourner finds a way to get through the holidays with the help of family and friends, or maybe with a creative plan to shake things up a bit and do something different.  Some escape on a cruise ship or take a plane, train or automobile somewhere warm or scenic.

I threw a party for Christmas and invited my neighbors and new Florida friends.  It was just what I needed.  My piano teacher played Christmas Carols and everyone dutifully sang.  I beamed with joy, so grateful that my plan to escape the emptiness was working.

And yes, that story is a miracle itself, but it was on New Year’s Eve that I was visited by an angel. Before you call the paramedics to rush me into therapy, read on.

I figured a distraction plan worked for Christmas, so I thought: “Better figure out some strategy for New Year’s Eve as well.”  The holiday was not one that my late husband Gene and I celebrated too frequently, although we had a great time one year at Camelback Ski Area when they hosted a party in their lodge. But mostly we would just toast the New Year at about 9 pm and drift off to sleep before the ball dropped. But I was determined to do something festive.

sharkeys at sunsetI thought I’d begin with sunset on the beach at Sharkey’s pier in Venice. Sharkey’s advertised a New Year’s Eve beach bash, but doing that solo was risky.  As I watched the sun sneak below the earth, taking pictures with my phone and sending them to friends and relatives, wishing everyone a Happy New Year from the beach, I weighed the pros and cons of bar hopping to maybe “Sharkey’s,” “The Crows’s Nest,” and “Pops Sunset Grill.” I realized “…oops, I have no driver.”  Drinking and driving was also too risky.

Coming off the beach and swishing the sand off my feet, I climbed into the Subaru and headed to “The Crow’s Nest”, still sober.  I couldn’t find a parking space, so I drove on to the south Jetty, where I parked, sat and stared at the stars in the sky and I began to get all nostalgic.  A deep sadness crept like a thief into my heart, taking a wrecking ball to my big plan. The tears welled up and I thought my night was over, then the phone rang.  It was my friend, Margie.  God bless Margie.  We talked and laughed and my mood improved as I struggled to hear because there were loud noises behind me.  Margie and I ended our call offering each other best wishes for the New Year and I turned the car around.  Fireworks!!  There were beautiful fireworks shooting up directly behind the North Jetty Fish Camp.  This was Gene’s favorite place in Florida!  Our old fishing pier.fireworks

Things were looking up.  Next I knew I had to go to Pops.  This was our favorite restaurant and bar in Florida!! Situated on the Intercoastal Waterway, Pops is the best place to relax and watch boats motor by, drink something tropical, wine, or a beer, and listen to some fantastic local band. I never thought I’d get a parking space on New Year’s Eve, but there it was, second space, right in front of the door.  What are the odds?

I felt a little out of place, but asked the waitress if I could sit at the bar and she welcomed me and ushered me inside. Pops Sunset GrillI ordered a glass of wine.  A bench in the common area looked more roomy than a bar stool and several people were already seated there.  I slid into a vacant spot and began to listen to the music as the flames flickered from the fire pits burning at each table and the holiday lights blinked red and green, illuminating the palm trees and making them seem magical. The band was R.P.M. with Dan and Mary.  They played a mix of 1960’s folk rock and rock tunes including Janis Joplin’s “Bobby McGee.” This was followed by a Beatles set and I had the thought that maybe I’d request our wedding song, The Beatles, “In My Life.”  Then I thought about that again.  “No way, I’ll fall apart if I hear that song tonight.  Can’t do that.” The Band played McCartney’s “The Long and Winding Road.” Oh my God. So beautiful, so apropos, so heart-wrenchingly sad. I wondered “Why God?” I was soon to have an answer.

As I finished the thought and recovered from McCartney’s lyrics, guess what the band played next?  Yes.  They played “In My Life.”  I couldn’t bear it..  As I broke down in tears, I remembered so clearly the glory of our fall wedding day and the quirkiness of the backyard ceremony. I recalled the local folksinger who crooned this Beatles song despite her laryngitis and played guitar so sweetly.  I smiled and began to feel warm as if the sun was shining down on me.  It occurred to me to be embarrassed, wondering if the servers or patrons were staring at me and if I was spoiling the party for them. But to my surprise, no one reacted to me.  It was as if I were in a bubble in time, separated from everyone, allowed to grieve without interruption and without disturbing or penetrating the world of anyone around me.  That is….. except for one person.

Earlier in the evening, when I first found my seat on the bench, I did a bit of “people-watching.” I noticed an American family, a father, mother, daughter and one who appeared to be a boyfriend, laughing and singing and dancing.  Next to them stood a young man who didn’t seem to fit.  He was Middle Eastern, dark hair and eyes, very young, maybe late teens or early 20’s, and to me he looked very ill at ease.  His movements seemed to be practiced, and I thought he might be pretending he was having a good time, but maybe not feeling quite as “cool” as he would have liked.

The family sat on the bench, and this young man sat next to me.

As I sobbed, I looked up at him to see if I was disturbing his revery, and he spoke to me: Quite clearly and with a wide smile, he said: “God Bless You.”

Just then the music reached a crescendo, “…In my life, I love you more…” followed by the touching instrumental interlude. That line always makes me sob, whenever I hear it. The young man next to me must wonder, and I felt I owed him an explanation.  I wiped my eyes and turned. Gently, I laid my hand on his and I apologized.  I explained that I lost my love this year, and that this was our wedding song, and I was overcome with grief. I was sorry but I lost control.

He smiled again, an amazing smile that lit up his entire face.  And he said simply and again, “God Bless You.”
I stared in disbelief but accepted the blessing in my heart.
The family rose to leave and he followed.

Whoever you were, young man, for this New Year’s Eve, you were an angel who comforted me. Thank you.