This Year We Loved – Fiercely

For Valentine’s Day, the two Girl Scout troops at my daughter’s school made cards for the residents at my mom’s assisted living home. In addition, a friend’s daughters, who taught themselves how to make hot chocolate bombs over the past month, contributed 48 of their combustible confections as well as gift bags and cards for the staff. The bounty of goodness and love was breathtaking.

Valentine’s Day, typically, is one of my least favorite “holidays.” I don’t generally take kindly to prescribed displays of affection or gift-giving.

But, this year, my Hallmark-holiday hardened heart was cracked. This year, the idea of showing love vastly, abundantly, and against all odds felt genuine and truly necessary.

This past year, love was all we had much of the time, and it both carried us through and broke our hearts.

This time last year we were just hearing reports about some virus in China that was killing lots of people. Maybe it had already moved to Europe by now, I can’t really remember. I could look it up, but everyone already knows the story anyway. What I know for certain is that from my vantage point on the East Coast of the United States we could see something brewing on the horizon, but it still seemed pretty far off, at least to those of us who are not epidemiologists.

This time last year masks were not a thing and PPE was not a term bandied about by non-medical people. This time last year you would have been hard pressed to get a bulk order of PPE. Or at least that moment was coming soon.

This time last year I can hardly remember Valentine’s Day. Strike that, I can’t remember Valentine’s Day at all. Why would I? Remember, Hallmark-hardened heart and eye-rolling are my game. But I know that within a month we will cross the year mark of when the world here turned upside down.

The last day I visited my mom in person and hugged her with reckless abandon was March 9, 2020. I thought I wouldn’t be able to visit for a couple weeks and then it would be over. I could never have imagined all that has happened this past year coming to fruition. It all seemed so unlikely and hyperbolic. The energy felt like the hysteria before a big snowstorm when grocery stores sell out of eggs, milk, and bread as though we have never seen snow before and plan to survive the end of days on French toast.

In the end I wouldn’t visit my mom for months after March 9. In late March, COVID-19 swooped in. She and many staff and other residents were caught up in the storm. When visits were no longer allowed, staff facilitated facetime calls. When she was alone in the hospital battling COVID and it looked as though she might not make it, an angel nurse risked her own well-being to visit her and tell her explicitly that my brothers and I loved her and hadn’t abandoned her. When she eventually returned to her care home on hospice, with a pulmonary embolism and not eating or drinking, the staff not only continued to show up, but showed up with heart, compassion, and love. Not only did they nurse her back to health with Boost protein shakes and cookies for breakfast – whatever it took to get calories into her – but they sang with her, danced with her, honored her, and helped her reclaim her sparkle.

When the storm came, and every day of the year since, the caregivers at my mom’s care home dug deep, dug in, and showed up in myriad courageous and unexpected ways. I know this has happened in other assisted living homes and other places as well: parents who are juggling kids at home as well as work, and are struggling with both; teachers who show up to teach, despite being scared; doctors and nurses who work shift after grueling shift in the ER and on the COVID floors; orderlies who clean what we can’t even imagine; grocery store employees; delivery drivers; pharmacists. So many people have shown up, again and again and again, because they knew that people were counting on them, depending on them, and that we would more be vulnerable without them. I look at the faces of my mom and her neighbors and I say thank GOD for those who take care of the vulnerable among us. Thank God they step up every day, but especially every day of this past year of horrors and extraordinary challenge.

Fierce love. That’s what this year has been. A year of loving fiercely and courageously and doing the best we can.

This year, love needed to be celebrated in a BIG way. This year, love has been the focal point of our very survival. This year, love not only wins, it is a triumph.

Awesome Hats by Kitr Knits

Daily motivational quote by Sailors Sweet Life

Oodles of Valentine’s cards by the Girl Scouts!

Combustible Confections by the Gauldie Girls!

Photos by the Falls!

Smiles and good vibes by me!

Island Hopping – to Jamaica and Cuba!

Our tour of island nations continues, but this time we are traveling to the green-blue and warm waters of the Caribbean and the beautiful island nations of Jamaica and Cuba!!!

Map of Cuba and Jamaica

Cuba is a mysterious and alluring country. It is also mountainous, which I did not expect. In my mind for some reason I assumed it was flat. But it’s not. Not at all. From the Gulf of Mexico you can see it’s undulating, lush hillsides and somewhat imagine what it must look like within. Unique and beautiful historic architecture, brightly colored buildings, and old time cars that have been miraculously preserved and maintained define most people’s mental image of Cuba. If we have a notion of Cuba at all, it is these images from Havana that dominate. Today we are so lucky to be able to wander through Cuba in our imaginations thanks to photographer and creative Janice Kwan (follow her on Instagram @jwkwan and @kitrknits for more photos and other awesome creative work, including her gorgeous hand-knit pieces).

She has so many awesome images I didn’t even know where to start so I put together a slideshow. Check out the colors, the cobblestoned streets, the lighting, the purples and blues in the sky contrasted against those heavy, hovering clouds, Castro’s omnipresence. What do you see?

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Outside of Havana, the Cuba is more rural. You can get a real taste for Cuba and some powerful visual descriptions and cultural (and revolutionary) understanding by reading Our Woman in Havana by Vicky Huddleston (a former U.S. diplomat to Cuba) and Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton. 

Just south of Cuba is Jamaica. In fact Jamaica is very close to Guantanamo Bay. I don’t know how I missed it, but Guantanamo Bay is on the island of Cuba, just kind of fenced off from the rest of Cuba. I of course have heard of Guantanamo Bay, but it didn’t occur to me to think about exactly where it was. I was pretty surprised to discover it’s on Cuba of all places.

Anyway, a Jamaican friend sent me news from late March reporting that 144 Cuban health workers had arrived in Jamaica to help with the Coronavirus outbreak. This was his example of good news happening in his part of the world.

I had to pause to weigh how opportunistic versus humanitarian this show of support was on Cuba’s part and to wrestle with the possibility of our differing perspectives on Cuba’s intent. Since I am U.S.-based, the Cuban government’s actions come laden with a dose of skepticism. What is opportunistic propaganda and what is solidarity and selflessness? I am going to guess that there is gray area, perhaps it’s a bit of both, and it depends who you ask. Of course I am not professing to the U.S. government’s innocence either, to be clear. Surely many good deeds are born of strategic as well as altruistic intent.

Cuba has been sending doctors on international medical missions primarily to poorer countries all over the world for years. Currently, in fact, it has about 37,000 workers in 67 different countries. They provide more health care personnel to the developing world than all of the G8 countries combined. This is partially propaganda, but it is also a major source of revenue for the Cuban government. The U.S. has called into question the labor conditions and pay of Cuban physicians, and as part of increasing sanctions the U.S. discourages other countries from hosting these Cuban medical missions (for more on that, click this link to an Associated Press article from April 3). That said, Cuban physicians are generally quite well-trained, well-liked, and well-received wherever they go.

In the case of COVID, Cuban doctors have been on the front line in Italy since mid-March. From a practical standpoint, they are experienced with this virus and ready to assist better than many in the western hemisphere. There are also A LOT of them. Did you know that Cuba has more doctors per capita than the U.S.? In fact, it is ranked third in the world for the number of doctors per capita (67.2 per 10,000 people according to the World Atlas). WHY are there so many doctors in Cuba, you ask? That results from half of the nation’s doctors fleeing during the Cuban revolution in 1959 and Fidel Castro subsequently promoting medical education as part of a national project to reconstitute their medical corps. Universal health care is also a defining feature of communist principles.

Of course, it’s possible that the training required to become a doctor in Cuba isn’t the same as in other countries, and that that is part of the explanation for the differential in numbers. But Cuba’s health care system is widely praised and life expectancy and infant mortality in Cuba are the same as in the U.S. (if you believe the Cuban government’s statistics, which they do not allow to be independently verified). It appears they are onto something there, but no matter how you slice it, for a virus that seems to require all hands on deck a surplus of well-trained physicians seems like a welcome bright spot on an otherwise gloomy horizon. Propaganda or not, well-trained medical personnel descending en masse to help a neighboring country that isn’t as well prepared to manage it is good news.

Stay well, stay home.

You will be alright.