Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Remembering a friend

Life is short ... we remind ourselves of that fact anytime something devastating happens. We think about how we should live life to the fullest, spend more time with loved ones, tell people we love them every day, take that vacation we've been dreaming of ... because we never know what tomorrow will bring.

That reminder came again last week to a huge number of people who all have one thing in common -- admiration for a truly kind, generous and thoughtful man who touched our lives in some way. Many of us met Bob Biggins at one of the most challenging and tragic times in our lives, when we faced the difficult task of laying a loved one to rest. I first met Bob in 2001 after my husband Jeff died. Our good friend Bill Moore was a funeral director at Bob's funeral home, Magoun-Biggins, so we decided to go there. Like many people our age at the time, I had never given any thought to where I would go if I had to say goodbye to a family member. So when I was in the position of staring down the dark hole of grief and feeling helpless, Bill reached out and said Bob had offered to handle Jeff's services if we wanted them to. They were there at every turn to guide me through. With real heartfelt compassion, Bob was like a big teddy bear, always willing to give a hug I desperately needed, making me smile even in the throws of grief, and knowing exactly what to say, but with sincerity, not because it was his job. 

With our input, Bob and Bill put on a beautiful service to honor Jeff, and made my family feel as comfortable as humanly possible at an uncomfortable and frightening time. In the end, Bob never sent me a bill. Years later after we had to deal with remains that were recovered, Bob and Bill again handled the "processing" with understanding and love.  

Bob and I became friends, and he became a regular supporter of the Jeff Coombs Memorial Foundation. Many of us who met him through the funeral home had the honor of calling him a friend even many years later, because that's the kind of guy he was. 

Last year when my friend lost her son suddenly, I called Bob and he said "absolutely, we'll take care of her." Bob held her hand, and more importantly, her heart, through the process, helping her honor her son in the way that was right for her and her family. He looked after her like a caring big brother, enabling her to survive the worst emotional pain she had ever felt.

Bob and I talked about catching up over a glass of wine. I know he wanted to tell me how happy he was in his new relationship with his fiance Donna, and that he hoped the same would happen for me. He sometimes checked in on me and told me "keep an open mind" when it came to love, often finishing with the inside joke "because you're kinda cute." Life got in the way and we never did get to catch up. But I had let him know how thrilled I was for him that he found love again after losing his soulmate, Chris, to breast cancer.

While in NYC the day I found out Bob had passed, I walked into Macy's to get out of the rain before meeting my nieces at the 9/11 Museum -- the whole reason I met Bob in the first place. One of the first things I saw was an enormous display of colorful, mostly patterned bow ties. After unsuccessfully fighting back tears on the train to NYC, I smiled when I saw them and said a quiet little "Hi Bob."

Rest in piece, my friend. You've reminded us that life is precious and is meant to be lived. Thank you for touching my heart, and my kids' hearts. Now our hearts are with your family and friends.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Family ties that bind ... no matter what

I grew up the youngest in a family of 12 kids – 8 girls and 4 boys.  With 15 years between me and the oldest, I don’t remember a lot about all 12 of us being home at once. But I vividly remember life with the youngest 6, and I remember crazy, loud and often dysfunctional holidays.
The youngest 6 consists of me, my three sisters and two brothers.  They are 1, 2, 3, 4 and 7 years older than me, with Pete, or Petey, as we called him, being the oldest of us 6. We all walked to school together, and sometimes he would walk with us to the recreation center where we spent a lot of our time in the summer. He was the one who didn’t exactly play by the rules all the time and got into a bit of juvenile trouble. He and our dad had a very difficult relationship, so he ran away from home a lot. He was my big brother, and I loved him, so when he did run away, he would sneak into the backyard some nights to pick up clothes and a peanut butter or bologna sandwich that I would leave for him.
Right after high school he went into the Navy and served in Viet Nam. He used to write us about all his adventures in the Far East, and sometimes sent us little gifts.  When it came time for him to re-up in the Navy for another few years, the government denied him because he had been caught buying weed.
 He floundered for a while and became estranged from our family.  Every few years he would resurface briefly and let us know he was ok.
Thankfully, in our parents’ senior years, he and our dad made amends. We called him the prodigal son as he became a favorite child, finally. Our parents welcomed him back into their lives with open arms, and he would visit them occasionally, cooking amazing food for them since he was a self-trained chef in the merchant marines.  Peter being Peter, he would disappear for a while again and again, randomly reaching out after months or a couple of years. Any time we had a family reunion, he was usually the one sibling missing.  One year we made a stuffed dummy and put his picture on it so we could get a picture of all 12 of us kids.  
     When 9/11 happened, I got a call from him from out at sea after not having heard from him for years. He had never even met Jeff, but heard about us in the news and wanted to let me know he had my back. He did so in a way that made sense to him. I laughed at his gesture and shook my head, thinking Pete is still Pete!  But I appreciated hearing from him.
      He loved his career in the Merchant Marines, except that it kept him from his wife and step-daughter for extended periods of time.  He had his family at sea, though; loved cooking for them, and enjoyed the travel.
Although we weren’t often in touch, he did on occasion let us know about his experiences, like when they were pursued by a boat load of pirates.
     Two summers ago I was determined to get all 12 of us siblings together. I convinced him to join us for our family reunion in San Diego. It would be the first time in more than 25 years that we would all be together and the first time most of us had seen him in many years.  He stayed with the kids and me, and of course, cooked for us and made sushi rolls, much to the kids' delight. It was the first time many of his nieces and nephews, including my kids, met him. It was strange, and ironic, that of all the Schmitt siblings, he looks the most like our father. When our mom (who, at 95, has dimentia) saw him for the first time after several years, she looked as though she was staring at the ghost of our dad. 
      This past summer we learned from his daughter Tori that he was sick.  He had suffered a stroke and wasn’t expected to survive as his condition worsened.  Miraculously, he recovered from the stroke, but tests revealed he had advanced stages of lung cancer, likely caused by exposure to agent orange and years of smoking, and remained quite ill.  Some of us flew to California to see him, knowing it would probably be the last time.
Today Tori let us know that our brother is at the end of his life, and in the last few minutes, we found out he passed. None of us knew how we would react because of the way he was in and out of our lives. But family is family, and the bond is unbreakable. For 57 years we have been 12 siblings. Often times when I say I am the youngest of 12, people will ask if everyone is still living. I’ve always felt fortunate to say yes. Now facing the death of a brother is painful. But I’m grateful to have reconnected with him and to have met his daughter, who couldn't love him more if he were her biological dad. I’m grateful to her for being his family and loving him, even after her mother died of cancer years earlier. I’m grateful for the happy memories of our childhood. And I’m grateful to have had Petey as my big brother.  We will always be the 12 Schmitt kids from Yuma. 
May the angels guide you gently home in peace, big brother. I love you.


Friday, May 26, 2017

Remember Memorial Day

Each year the families who've lost a loved one in service or as a result of their service face Memorial Day with both pride and dread. This blog is my attempt to educate anyone I can about the real meaning of Memorial Day -- because it matters to the families, and therefore, it should matter to us. It's worth reposting each year, and this year, I repost at the request of a Gold Star family member.

Memorial Day was designated in 1868 by General John Logan as a day to honor soldiers killed in battle. It was originally called Decoration Day, as 5000 volunteers decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried at Arlington.  The day was designated for the "purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country," according to General Logan, the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic.  
Simply put, it's a day to remember the fallen -- those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country. 

It wasn't intended to be a happy day, rather a day to honor and remember, and a day to reflect on the heroism of those who served and died for our country. When and how did "Happy Memorial Day" become the accepted sentiment? It is spoken by many throughout Memorial Day weekend, and when you stop to think, it makes no sense whatsoever. Would you ever say Happy Pearl Harbor Day, or Happy September 11, or Happy Anniversary on the anniversary of a loved-one's death?  It would seem insensitive and inappropriate to give such a greeting.  It's no different with Memorial Day.
The meaning of Memorial Day has been lost in car sales, barbeques, and Cape house openings. No one discourages a celebration of the weekend that signifies the unofficial start to summer, but just take some time to acknowledge its meaning -- attend a parade that honors our fallen, take your children to a local memorial and explain why the names are engraved on that wall, let them help plant flags on a veteran's grave. Teach them to respect the sacrifice the service members made as they bravely faced the enemy in defense of our country.

Memorial Day is also often confused with Veterans Day, and many will use it as a time to say thank you to Veterans and active duty/reservists.  Veterans Day, Nov. 11, is the day designated for thanking a vet.  Reserve Memorial Day for remembering the fallen -- "Memorial" does suggest a remembrance of someone no longer here.
The Flag Garden on the Boston Common is a beautiful and poignant reminder of the real meaning of Memorial Day. The idea came from a story told about the impact 3000 flags had on my daughter, a young college student away from home for her first time on the anniversary of 9/11, the day that took her father from her.  From there, the germ of an idea was born, and the first annual Massachusetts Military Heroes Fund garden of 20,000 flags (dating back to the Civil War) quickly grew.

 Now more than 37,000 flags cascade down from the Sailors and Soldiers Memorial, each flag representing a Massachusetts service member who died in service to our country or as a result of service since the Revolutionary War.  37,000.  It's a big number, and one that is hard to comprehend, until you see the flags.  They seem to wave in unison as the breeze catches them.   Nearly 300 of them represent the sisters, brothers, sons and daughters, wives and husbands, partners, mothers and fathers, friends and other relatives who died in service or as a result of service since 9/11. 
 It's difficult to look at the flags without feeling a connection; without seeing a tear from a child's eye who is missing his or her daddy; without feeling the pride of a father as he talks about his hero daughter; without hearing the pain in the laughter of siblings remembering the last time they were together before the uniformed military personnel showed up at their door with news of their loved one's passing. Each flag stands for a life -- for a family in mourning.  

A discussion of how best to honor the fallen heroes of the Massachusetts Military Heroes Fund Families on Memorial Day became a Garden of Flags that has now become a part of Boston's tribute to Massachusetts heroes for the last 9 years. Thousands visit the garden each day, taking pictures, marveling at the bittersweet beauty, and shaking their head at the numbers.  Thousands stop for at least a moment to realize there is a real meaning behind memorial Day -- to remember a life; to honor a family who feels the loss in their lives every day. 

So instead of saying Happy Memorial Day, encourage gratitude and respect for the sacrifices made. Honor and Remember the fallen on Memorial Day.  

Monday, April 10, 2017

Running for Good

Bad things happen to good people all the time, and while we try to understand why, it really just comes down to being part of life. People deal in many different ways, but I think becoming part of something bigger than ourselves is significant in helping some people cope through the grief.
The last six years the Jeff Coombs Memorial Foundation, which we created after 9/11 to give us a positive focus, has been fortunate to be part of something amazing – the John Hancock Boston Marathon Charity Program. The first time we applied for a bib, we were granted one to give to a runner who would be willing to raise at least $5,000 for the Foundation. A college friend of my daughter Meaghan was our willing guinea pig.  She was a runner at Roger Williams University and running Boston was on her bucket list. She exceeded her $5000 goal and added the Boston Marathon to her list of accomplishments. Surpassing our annual goal again the next year, we eventually received two bibs and had no problem recruiting runners from a long list of family friends. While they raised huge sums of money for the Foundation, we in turn were able to help women like Jess Kraiza, Leah Ammon, Meg Yanosick, Chelsei Kane, Brooke Maltby and Kim Lynch achieve their dream of running Boston. Last year we had our first male runners, and with the demand for charity bibs becoming more competitive, we upped our minimum fundraising amount to $7500 per runner. Alex London, my friend’s son, traveled from Edmond, Oklahoma and John “Jack” Walsh, a high school and college buddy of my son, came from Stanford, Connecticut to run and raise an impressive $40,000 with the help of a couple of fundraisers and generous donors, earning us an additional bib for this year.
 Alex’s wife, Dr. Danielle London, an  Orthodontic student at Oklahoma University, was so inspired by her husband in 2016 that she asked to run for us this year and is running her first marathon. So is young mom and nurse from Winchester Margaret Fratus. Wearing the third bib in his first Boston marathon is Air Force National Guard Reservist, decorated Army Veteran, and Ohio Police Officer Andrew Hickey, the son of a friend.

Boston Athletic Association Race Director Dave McGillivray said the Boston Marathon once had an intimidation factor, “but the walls of intimidation have crumbled … (and people are running) for a greater purpose than themselves.” 

That greater purpose is evident, even palpable, among the non-profit coordinators whose role is to guide our marathoners in their effort to raise money for our causes.  As Dave and the John Hancock Corporate Responsibility Team convey to us how special this program is, and how extraordinary the Boston Marathon has become, I feel fortunate, thankful and honored that our Foundation is part of this. John Hancock’s sponsorship of the Boston Marathon has resulted in a partnership with hundreds of non-profits, enabling small and large organizations to raise millions of dollars collectively. John Hancock gets it right -- they provide us with the means to raise money, advise us in the process, and even provide incentives along the way. Every penny we raise goes directly to the foundations for distribution as described in our mission statements.   It has given the Jeff Coombs Memorial Foundation another opportunity to raise upwards of $40,000, which goes out to the families and programs we assist. 
For the seventh year, I will stand on the sidelines in Boston as a very grateful and proud cheerleader to our runners. And I will think about all the good work the money they’ve raised (and will continue to raise through May) can do for those who need it, in the name of Jeff.

Many thanks to all those who've donated or supported the Foundation and our runners' efforts in any way!


Saturday, September 10, 2016

From tragedy comes unity

They call this a “milestone” anniversary, the 15th Anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. For that, is it supposed to be any more significant or more important than the 14th, or 16th?  Are we supposed to feel any different because it’s the 15th and not just a random year?

For those of us who live it every day, this is just another anniversary, another moment in time that our loved ones are not with us.  I’m sure this feeling resonates with anyone who lost someone, regardless of the cause of death. I have many friends who are widows and widowers, too many to count, and I know they feel their loss, too, not just on the anniversary of their loved one’s death, but every day. None of us who’ve lost someone on 9/11 think that our grief is any more difficult than anyone else’s.  Grief is hard, and it’s endless. But we move forward in life, because living stuck in the moment does no one any good.

But sometimes I think back. I think about tonight, 15 years ago, and how wonderfully normal life was then.  Jeff and I tucked the kids in for the night, with no inclination that the next day our lives, and our family would be changed forever. I remember that day as vividly as my mind allows me to, and I remember bits and pieces of the days and weeks following. I do remember feeling so much love from family, friends and strangers. I remember the wonderful way the entire country came together, bonded as one through tragedy. Patriotism was evident with flags being flown on homes, on cars, and on street corners across the country. Stores ran out of flags, and red/white/blue ribbon. No one would dare, back then, disrespect the flag by taking a knee or sitting during the National Anthem.

Let’s recreate the positivity that resulted from the darkest day in our history. In honor of this anniversary, find a way to pay it forward for the blessings in your life. Make someone smile with a random act of kindness. Buy someone coffee at your favorite coffee stop. Fill a bag of groceries for your local food pantry. Help save a life by giving blood. Or drop a dollar or two in the homeless person’s cup instead of just walking by. Of those nearly 3000 people who died, there were a lot of souls who were doing, and would have continued to do good things in their lives. Let’s make it our promise, even 15 years later, to continue that spirit in Jeff's memory and in memory of all those who died.

When hatred touches your life, touch others with kindness. The results can be amazing.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

In a minute they're grown

When we become parents, we make a silent promise to ourselves and our kids to raise them to be kind, loving, considerate, and responsible individuals. We wonder to ourselves who they will be, what they will become. We know they will leave us one day, even though at six years old, they promise they'll live with us forever.  But as they grow up into teens with challenging personalities (because let's be honest, aren't all teens a bit challenging?) we sometimes think the day when they become independent adults can't come soon enough.

And then the day does come. In what seems like a minute, it is here. We've prepared for it, sort of -- they've already been away at college, so we're used to not having them around all the time.  And when they come home, they're not home that much between work, friends and their social life, not necessarily in that order! But now it's different.

I've sent three kids off to college and on their way to pursue their careers.  Each time was emotional, but I was so happy they were fulfilling their dreams. I looked on the bright side ... my house would be cleaner and I wouldn't have to cook if I didn't want to! That did little to ease how much I miss them, but I keep telling myself there are benefits.  But now it truly is different. This month I watched my youngest walk out the door and drive away to begin her new independence in New York City, just like her older siblings did 4 and 6 years ago.

I couldn't be more proud or happier for her. But as I walk by her bedroom with the bed neatly made and the teddy bear perched against the pillows, I see my little girl with bangs clutching the teddy bear and I hear her sweet voice say "goodnight mommy.  I love you." I feel a lump in my throat and a tear stings my eye.

Then I remember that I did what I was supposed to do as their mom, guided by their dad. I gave them wings, and for the short time Jeff had to influence them in person, together we gave them the encouragement and confidence to fly. And just when I'm feeling a little disconnected, my phone buzzes with a message that almost always ends with "thanks, Love you" to make my day.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

A Father's Day letter to Jeff

I can still see the smile on your face; I can hear the joy in your voice when you were spending time with our kids.  Likewise, I can feel their sheer happiness from time spent with you.

Most of my most vivid memories of you relate to you being a dad.  I remember you taking me out to dinner the night we found out I was pregnant with Matthew.  We talked about what it would be like; whether we wanted a boy or girl; what we would name “it”; would we find out the gender.  I remember lying in bed with you one night, my bulging belly in the curve of your back.  The little human inside me kicked with the oomph of the Karate Kid he would become, and you felt it.  You thought it was the coolest feeling in the world.  And so did I.  Your elation made it memorable – extra special. January 14, 1988, we became parents for the first time.  I remember your tears of relief, sheer joy, and pride at 11:57 p.m. when you heard “it’s a boy!”  

You jumped right into the role of fatherhood without hesitation.  You laughed when you got peed on and spit up on (playing airplane while laying on your back with a baby who is prone to spitting up was a lesson learned!), and you stood outside in the cold with him when he struggled with asthma, or tolerated the crying when he wouldn’t take a bottle so I could have an hour or two of “me time.” 

Twice more you and I experienced the wonder of life together, and each time the excitement was different, but the same.  You had your boy, then your girl.  Life was full.  One for each hand, you said.  Then came the third – another girl – no more even numbers, but even more joy. They were your princesses, and you were their king. 

You became an expert at Legos; at singing the Barney song (I can still hear you croon every word, locking eyes with our Barney queen, Meaghan, as you sang it together); at reciting Good Night Moon; in reading the Sunday Globe with anxious little eyes peering over the paper, filled with anticipation of playing with you; at making up games, that usually involved candy. You didn’t mind that your hike up Blue Hills took three times as long because you had Julz at your side, or the work in the yard became more work now that you had little helpers.

As the kids grew, so did your devotion to them.  Our conversations were often about where the kids would go to school, what they would be like as independent little beings.  We talked about our philosophies in parenting impressionable teens, and how we would use, and not use, what we learned from our parents.  You now had someone to recite the “Don’t Quit” poem to, hoping it would help them the way it helped you through tough moments.

You taught me what it means to be a father …  and a dad.  I never imagined I’d need to fill the role myself.  That was supposed to be yours for a much longer time.  But I’m grateful to have had the best teacher, and I know our kids are grateful to have had the greatest dad.  You may have left us physically, but you are with us every day, every minute, with your words of encouragement, your goofy laugh, your captivating smile, and your always-uplifting group hug. 

Happy Father’s Day in Heaven, Jeff. With much love.