Dear Denise (a love letter):

The first time I met you was at the apartment where Dad was living. He tried to play it off like it was his apartment, but there was girl stuff in the bathroom, and the decor didn’t really seem like his style. I don’t remember much else about that visit, except that you had beautiful hair and you seemed pretty and young and nice.

You were just 24 when you came into our lives, and us into yours. You got a package deal: Dad, two 12-year-olds, and a 5-year-old. I never really thought about what that must have been like for you. You were just a kid yourself, weren’t you? It must have been hard, but you never said an unkind word, and we never heard you complain. In fact, you went out of your way to make sure you never stood in between us and Dad, especially me, always a daddy’s girl. Your summers were beset with children, and you and Dad never had your own Christmas in those years, just trips back to Missouri to be with us. I know in those early years with you both early in your careers there must have been a financial toll, too, especially after you blessed us with our beautiful sister.

I was endlessly impressed by your many talents and accomplishments (except for cooking!). I loved the stories you told me about antics with your identical twin sister Danette, especially dating and college stories. I thought it was awesome and daring that you would eat a hamburger for breakfast, which you pronounce “brack-fast.” I have never heard anyone before or since pronounce it that way! I remember the beautiful macramé plant hangers, and how you played the guitar for me and sang “One Tin Soldier” and “Big Blue Frog.” That doesn’t make you sound at all like a child of the ’60s, eh? You learned how to carve wood, beautifully, and I know your crucifixes must still grace the walls of some of the little churches there in rural North Carolina. Later, these talents extended to cabinet-making, and a futon, a crib for one of Jessica’s babies…it seems like there wasn’t anything you couldn’t do. I never really understood your work as a fancy kind of accountant, but I know you were very good at it, and held to the highest principles, which I always admired. I hope I listened well and patiently when you tried to explain it to me.

Denise and one of her hand-crafted rosaries

Your faith has always been strong, and you used that and your talents and generosity and selflessness to benefit others with the creation of beautiful rosaries that would bring them peace and comfort, even when you had neither yourself. I wrote about these gifts earlier, and I treasure them now. You returned to me the prayer shawl that my mom had made you — not because you didn’t need it any more, but because you sensed I might need it more.

Denise, Dad, and Hattie

When you first learned you had breast cancer, you tackled it methodically and pragmatically. There was never any question that you would kick cancer’s ass, and you powered through chemo, radiation, double mastectomy, reconstruction, lymphedema as if you were on the hunt for an accounting discrepancy that you knew you would find. You were the best-prepared, most well-read self-advocate any doctor would ever see, and woe to any medical professional who didn’t give you the information you were seeking. I will never forget how proud I was of you when you started riding your bike and walking. You met your 1,000-mile goal in 2017, despite bursitis and lymphedema, and were well on your way to your 2018 goal, even completing a 40K bike ride, when metastatis reared its ugly head, everywhere … brain, bones, liver, lungs, even randomly behind your eye.

In August, when Brian and I came to visit, you had just had your first chemo the day before, yet you uncomplainingly went on a hike with us to Dave’s Falls. You asked me to bring my camera and to take some photos, as if you knew I would want to have memories of you from that day, happy and lovely. And indeed, beautiful pictures they are — of you laughing, and of you and Dad in a tender, private moment.

You never tried to take the place of my mom. We were in a strange place — not quite mother and daughter, not quite friends. Yet somewhere along the line you became both: another mom, and my friend, and I have been both grateful and fortunate to have had you these 40-some years. You were a keeper of confidences, a believer in dreams, a supporter of decisions, an advocate. You rarely said those three words — I love you — but I always knew. Since August, though, you began to make a point to tell me — first in response to my own “I love you’s,” and then, unprompted, from your entire being.

I have so much more to tell you, about how much I love you and how important you have been to me, what a good wife you have been to Dad, what a good mother and friend you have been to the four of us kids, a wonderful grandmother (even to your granddogs). Brian loves you with his whole heart, too. I wish I had told you all of this before now, but here it is, the outpouring of my heart, when it is nearly too late. When I see you next week, I will read you this letter and tell you of all the love that surrounds you, and pray that you will live out your remaining days, whether many or few, knowing how much you are loved.

Your loving daughter, Gail.

Above and beyond

This story is a shout-out to my new favorite person, Ms. Cathy Blair, Postmaster of Ozark, Mo., pop. 19,905. The USPS is frequently maligned, sometimes rightfully so, but perhaps Ms. Cathy will change your mind if you’re giving the postal service a bad rap.

A dear friend, a former Missourian who lives in the UK, recently bought some bird prints from me and asked me to ship them to her at her dad’s in Ozark, Mo., where she will be visiting in a few weeks.

I sent the package on its way, along with another surprise package for my friend, and went on about my business. But when I sent her the tracking number for the original package, I typed the number into the USPS tracking system and discovered to my dismay that the package was not in fact going to Ozark, but to Mount Vernon, about an hour west of Ozark. Not only that, but now the package had been marked undeliverable and was being “returned to sender.” What we soon figured out was that my friend had inadvertently transposed the numbers of her dad’s zip code, and I had not realized the mistake when I printed the label at the kiosk at the postal service. Solely human error, not the fault of the USPS.

So what’s the big deal, you might be asking. Why is this even a story? The package was being returned, and I could just reship it to the right place, right? Except that I had not put a return address on the package since I had used the label printed at the kiosk. So there was no way for the package to be returned to me, and either my friend was going to be out $100 and her prints, or I was going to be out $100 to reorder them for her, and either way one of us was going to be sorely disappointed.

Feeling certain that my next move would be completely pointless, I dutifully filled out an inquiry form on the USPS website. An agent will contact you within 24 hours, came the automatic reply. Yeah, right, I thought.

Scarcely four or five hours later, I had an incoming call that I recognized as a south Missouri area code. On the other end of the line was one Ms. Cathy Blair, Postmaster of Ozark, Missouri. I explained the situation to her, including the sad fact that there was no return address on the package. Where do such packages go, I inquired? Well, she said, first to Springfield, then to Kansas City, then to Denver, then to Atlanta. But let me see what I can do. I can call my buddies in Springfield — what does the package look like? — and maybe we can get it intercepted before it winds up in the vast maw of returned mail. (I’m paraphrasing loosely here.) Ms. Cathy, I said, there’s another wrinkle. I had another package sent from somewhere else, and it does say Ozark, but it has the Mount Vernon zip code. No problem, she said, we’ll be on the lookout for that one, too, pledging to be back in touch.

No disrespect to Ms. Cathy at this point in the story. She sounded perfectly lovely and willing to help. But she herself had expressed that it would be a long shot to intercept the package — who knew where it could be at this point — and quite frankly yesterday was a really horrendous day, so even Ms. B-Positive me wasn’t feeling too optimistic about any of this.

But at 6:50 p.m. last evening my phone rang, and it was Ms. Cathy. We found it! she said, and it’s on its way to the right place. Did I mention it was 6:50 in the evening?

I thanked her effusively. Ms. Cathy, I said, I’ve had a really crappy day, and this was a great way to end it. I’m so glad, she said, it’s a great way to end mine, too.

Thank you, Ms. Cathy, Ozark, Missouri, Postmaster Extraordinaire, for making my day, and for the gentle reminder that going above and beyond is never the wrong thing to do.

Beyond your comfort zone

On Monday I had one of those “meh” days. What seems like weeks upon weeks of wet, cold, cloudy weather has really been taking a toll on my spirits. I was off work Monday for the Mardi Gras break, and I had just about decided that all I was going to do was sit around in my coziest clothes, covered in a warm blanket, with the dogs curled up by my feet and a book in my hand. Maybe there would be napping. Or maybe there would be nothing.

Browsing Facebook, I saw a post in my Louisiana birder group addressing this very issue. The person commenting had said she even had some new photography gear and just couldn’t bring herself to get outside in the wet and cold, and I and several others in the group responded how we are just “over it” with this weather.

But then the original poster showed a photo of herself all bundled up and said she was going to brave it anyway. Someone else remarked how much they liked the challenge of shooting in low-light conditions. Still another person suggested that even getting out in the fresh air just for a little while, no matter how dreary, would be helpful to one’s psyche.

I thought about it for a while. I didn’t want to go outside. The feels-like temps were in the low 30s, and it was overcast and windy. And, frankly, I kind of wanted to wallow down in my feelings.

But I finally, as they say, put my big-girl pants on, and my coziest sweater and my Uggs and a warm jacket and scarf, scooped up my cameras and headed out.

Tri-colored heron

Oh, how glad I am that I did! At the LSU Lakes, I saw my first-ever tri-colored heron. I saw two white pelicans working in concert to get a meal. I got chased by a goose. I stopped and watched a pair of wood ducks for the longest time. The male called out to his mate with a series of whistles, and the pair swam around and checked out the duck boxes there. I had to get back in my car a few times because I was so cold, but I was determined to stick around. While I was standing there, I realized that there were dozens of little birds flying in and out of the trees and bushes on the shore by the duck boxes — in fact, Tufty, my favorite bird (you may have read my story about him here) was right in front of my face, along with cardinals, robins, chickadees, and yellow-rumped warblers.

Male wood duck

I came back home for lunch with Brian, and by that time the sun had finally come out. I had heard that there was a bald eagle’s nest down on River Road, so I drove down there after lunch and hiked down the levee a ways and got to see a juvenile eagle preening, with mom or dad flying around off in the distance. I also saw, but didn’t get good photos of, an American kestrel and a red-tailed hawk.

All in all, it was an excellent day and a lovely adventure. I got some really nice photos, some fresh air, and a renewed spirit. It also got me thinking about what happens when we step outside our comfort zones. In my case, it meant braving some physical discomfort and digging myself out of my self-wallowing, all for a rich reward — a minor example, but a lesson nonetheless. Monday made me think about the possibilities awaiting me with my photos and the fears and self-doubts that are keeping me from taking that next step. I’m hoping that someday soon I’ll be able to put my big-girl pants on for that endeavor as well.

What barriers are keeping you inside on the sofa where it’s safe and warm? What’s keeping you from pursuing a new job or opportunity? Trying something new? Writing that book you’ve always wanted to write? A fitness or educational goal? A spiritual quest?

What’s waiting for you beyond your comfort zone?

A brand-new adventure

With some encouragement from friends and family, has launched! I’ll continue to blog about birds, running, dogs, and life, but you will soon be able to purchase fine art prints of some of your favorites from my bird photos. Later this year, I’ll have some gift items available for the holidays — those are still in the planning stages! I am beyond grateful for all the love and support from family and friends and hope you enjoy the updated site!

Fork-tailed flycatcher
Bananaquit, aka sugarbird

Bien dans son âge

In wishing a friend a happy 50th birthday the other day, I said “Welcome to the best decade yet!” and as I thought about that response, I realized I really and truly meant it. Welcome to the Fabulous 50s!

Do I mean that my 50s are my literally best decade thus far? Are they simply my best because I am making them so? Did this happen to me, or is it a product of my own mindset and actions?

The other day I was reading Pamela Druckerman’s book There Are No Grownups (which I didn’t like very much, by the way), about life in your 40s. Druckerman referenced the French idiom bien dans son âge, literally “well in his age,” or as she described it, roughly meaning to live well or be the best version of yourself no matter how old you are.

I aspire to be my best self, even as each new year, new challenge, new wrinkle appears.

I don’t feel that I had the wherewithal, or perhaps the wisdom, to do this in my earlier decades. My teens and 20s were spent in a state of perpetual discomfort, not having any sense of self or belonging or place.  And while my 30s and early 40s had some definite pluses — earning a master’s degree, starting my career in higher education, and making some lifelong friends along the way — I didn’t feel like the best version of myself in a life that had never felt like the life I was supposed to be leading.

So what changed, then, in the intervening years between then and now? I changed my life. As I entered my mid-40s, I put behind me the life that didn’t feel like my life, and I made a new one, by myself and for myself. I learned to be free and independent and safe and vulnerable and strong. I took on greater challenges in my career. I became a runner. I became myself.

And then, when the time was right, I opened my world to share with B, and we fell in love and built a home together and survived hardships and tragedies and became fur-parents to a giant hairy beast of a dog, and ran marathons and an ultramarathon. I started a doctoral program that I’ll be 56 — FIFTY-SIX! — when I finish. I have the very best, dear, forever friends. I aspire to be my best self, even as each new year, new challenge, new wrinkle appears. I feel like I’ve found myself, my place.

This doesn’t mean that I have on blinders to the obstacles that life puts in front of us, or that I deny the difficulties that can come in our 50s. One day this week was a “straight from work into the tub and then pjs” kind of day, for example. When I was 51, my mom died. I lost a beloved pet this year, and I have family, friends and loved ones around me who are beginning to bear the toll of illness and age.

I have to avoid certain foods that don’t agree with me. I seemingly have no control over an unforgiving few pounds that mysteriously disappear and reappear. The crinkles at the corners of my eyes look like the crow ran a marathon there, and my neck is beginning to make its case for year-round turtlenecks à la Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give. My job is perhaps the most challenging it’s ever been. But beneath the struggles I feel vibrant and joyful, and most days I even like the way I look.

B and me, and Sam, the giant hairy beast. (not pictured: Jackson, our smaller hairy beast)

In another 10 years, when my friend turns 60, I hope I’ll be welcoming her to her 60s with the same joy and optimism I’m feeling about this decade. I hope I’ll still know and believe in myself and not be afraid to be myself, my then-60-something self. I hope my friend and I will both be living bien dans son âge


When we first moved into the Sunshine House, B and I noticed some crinkled-up brown debris in some of the nooks and crannies of the giant oak tree in our front yard. Having no personal giant oak experience, we worried and hoped nothing was wrong with our beautiful tree, and the tree service guys who came to fertilize and trim it for us assured us that what we had was the perfectly harmless (and, I think, miraculous) and aptly named resurrection fern. During dry spells, it becomes a nondescript brown aberration on the bark of the tree, but each time there is sufficient rain, up it pops — beautiful, mysterious, green, and striking on the branches and trunk of our majestic oak.

There are many things we can say about resurrection, with the most obvious being, in Christian belief, Christ’s resurrection from the dead. It’s a word I always associate with some other “R” words as well, like renewal and revival. This summer, for a number of reasons, I began to think of the resurrection fern as metaphor in my own life, particularly about running.

My relationship with running has been, shall we say, nonexistent for most of the summer (That’s a lie, I just realized. I think maybe since that self-thwarted 50K in March …) It’s kind of my own fault and kind of a product of circumstance, all of which are really just a lot of excuses. I worked 10-hour days this summer. It was hot outside. That kind of thing. We went to northern Michigan a few weeks ago, for example, and instead of taking a run along beautiful Green Bay (where it was not hot), we walked downtown and had ice cream instead. I’m not saying that was a bad thing, necessarily; in fact, I quite enjoyed it. But still.

For me, typically once one element of the delicate balance of things we call life falls off track, once one of the balls in the air drops, everything else quickly follows. Usually to whatever degree my exercise diminishes, bad eating habits increase in equal proportion (see the ice cream reference above. It was a double dip. In a waffle cone).

I made some small attempts to get back “on track” in July–I actually ran very short distances for 11 days–but then August happened, and … nothing until last week. It was my first three-day running week since I can’t remember when.

This afternoon, Varsity Sports starts its annual fall training, and B and I will be happily out there, glad to see our running friends, and to begin again. Many of our friends have continued throughout the hot summer days, with no break, but for me it will be another fresh start. I have an unspoken goal in mind, and I need those friends to help me get there.

I am a runner, even if I have to start over again every year.

How many times have I “started over” with running training, fallen away, let the balls drop one by one? Nearly every year for the eight years I’ve been running? I started thinking of that resurrection fern, fed by what it needed, and I realized what a gift we have, what an opportunity, to do this again and again. To start over. To be resurrected, revived, renewed. And not just with running, but with so many aspects of our lives. Religion. Love. Jobs. Friendships.

Maybe this will be the last year I have to start over with running, and maybe I’ll be saying the same thing next fall. I’m learning not to beat myself up about it either way. For right now, though, I have been given this gift, and I’m planning to make the most of it. See you this afternoon?

The first day of Varsity training last fall. Our friends. Our “framily.”



Happy birthday, baby.


I love to celebrate birthdays (if you know me at all, you know that I will drag mine out for a full month, if possible) and Brian’s is no exception. This year, however — today, in fact — his birthday has taken on a whole new meaning, with a much different reason to celebrate.

What most of you don’t know because a) his wishes and b) it was too stressful and hectic to report to everyone anyway, is that he spent the last two weeks seriously ill, the last eight days in the hospital (two ER visits, two admissions with no break in between, and a whole kitchen sink of tests, including two spinal taps, CT scan, MRI, x-rays, ultrasounds, etc. etc. etc.). What began the night before we lost our Daisy girl and attributed to stress became a flu diagnosis (incorrect) at a walk-in clinic the next afternoon and another clinic later in the week (still incorrect) and eventually turned into a diagnosis of viral meningitis of unknown origin, with a seriously ill B. He is home as of yesterday, thank God, and on the mend, but I have never been more grateful to celebrate the life of the man I love.

Over the past two weeks, especially during the time he spent in the ER and hospital, I learned some valuable lessons, about myself, about love, and about life.

  1. Your tribe is everything. Holy cats, am I lucky. Are we lucky. Our BFFs, our neighbors, school/work peeps, our families, our “framily” listened, loved, prayed. You all absolutely rock. And those of you I didn’t call on, I knew you were there anyway. Our tribe is wide and far, and we love you all more than you know.
  2. Don’t take your health for granted. Or, as the infectious disease specialist put it, you aren’t sick until you’re sick. How many of my friends out there are just like B and me? Never sick, in good or reasonably good shape, eat essentially the right things most of the time (not enough vegetables, probably), and so forth. And then, just like that, you are in the hospital, suffering, for no apparent good reason, from something over which you had no control. Go live that life! Hug the ones you love. Do it.
  3. Spontaneous public crying may occur. I cried at PetSmart when I told the veterinarian who had helped us with Daisy what was happening with B. I sure did. Just stood at the counter and cried. And I cried in Whole Foods because B wanted ham and I ran into a co-worker and said, randomly, “B wants ham,” and then the waterworks started (I found that same ham in my purse the next morning, by the way, because I carried it up to his room and forgot to give it to him …). And I had to excuse myself from the lunch table with B’s dad because I realized he was the first person in a week that I’d seen in person besides people in the hospital, and that just absolutely overcame me. But you will keep it together when you need to, and you will learn it’s okay to be vulnerable, even at the deli counter.
  4. “Don’t forget to take care of you” is great advice. But it ain’t happening. In a time of crisis, you may eat a 460-calorie blueberry scone from CC’s for breakfast every single day for eight days (hypothetically, of course), and maybe for lunch or dinner, too. And your sleep will be all jacked up, and you will not exercise. Should you be doing all the right things and “taking care of yourself”? Of course. But you may not, and eventually you will again. Don’t beat yourself up. 18446650_10211302290344927_904416173413031907_n
  5. It’s okay to go home. I wanted to spend every waking minute and every night in the hospital by my man’s side. I really did. I tried. The guilt was deep. But at 11:30 the first night, when I had tried every conceivable way to sleep, including upside-down in a recliner with my legs up the back (yes, this happened), I realized that it was okay to sleep (or try to sleep) in our own bed, or to go buy Sam’s flea medicine, or to water the wilting flowers in the garden. Those people watching over B in the hospital? Professionals. Sometimes, in order to give more, you may have to give a tiny bit less.
  6. That “for better or worse, in sickness and in health” stuff is SERIOUS BUSINESS. I don’t think much hurts worse than seeing the one you love hurting. And when you are just through the wringer, and one or both of you may or may not have had a shower or brushed your teeth, and one or both of you may be crying, the conversation about bodily functions just rolls off everyone’s tongue like butter, and you look up at your spouse and you think now this, this is the real stuff here, as real as love gets.
  7. Pain brings perspective. I saw a lot of suffering the past two weeks. Some of it was Brian’s, and some of it ours, and some of it other people’s. And some was worse than ours. It’s oh-so-hard to get that perspective when you’re in the thick of it, but that bald lady I saw in the wheelchair or that tiny boy crying his lungs out on a stretcher or all those times “Code Blue” came on the loudspeaker sure gave me some perspective. We’ve got this. He’s going to be okay.
  8. Don’t forget the man upstairs. I know skeptics say prayer doesn’t “work,” but they can go jump in a lake (sorry, God!). How do you not feel it when you are lifted up by so many people storming heaven? I’ll admit that I got so sucked under that I forgot to a) ask for help and b) say thank you until about hospital Day 5, but the rest of you didn’t forget. And we felt it. We did.

Well, happy birthday, baby. I learned some stuff, thanks to you. All that stuff above plus some serious lessons about patience, humility, and strength. This is my birthday love letter to you, my celebration of you. I would have celebrated the heck out of your special day anyway, but this year’s birthday is my new favorite holiday. I’m glad you’re home and on the mend. I love you.