Sunday, December 15, 2013

No Room at the Inn

Whether you’re a non-Christian, atheist or a believer, by now I’m sure you’ve all heard the story of Mary and Joseph who were in a crowded city; Mary full with child, His birth imminent. There was no room or bed available to them anywhere. One inn keeper led the couple to a stable where under the most humble of circumstances, Mary gave birth to her baby – the Savior of all human kind.

Flash forward to 2013. My daughter and her husband were doing everything right. They owned their own, small home. My son-in-law is completing his studies at Brigham Young University. His job is tied to his attendance at the school and after finals this week, his position will be terminated. So the kids decided to move to be closer to family. (Believe me, I was delighted that I’d get to spend more time with my two-year-old grandson.)

First, their house didn’t sell. So they looked for rentals and because they have a dog and cat it wasn’t easy. All autumn they searched and finally found a duplex. They figured their verbal agreement was sufficient until they could sign papers when they got to town, just before Christmas. Then right after Thanksgiving, with three weeks until the move, the owner decided she was going to sell her home instead of renting it to them. By this time, the kids already had a renter for their home; a man with a written contract.

Suddenly, they were without a home. Some rental managers wanted to take advantage of their desperation and hiked up the price of the rentals. Time and again the “actual” amount of rent was higher than the advertisements, once the agencies found out the date that my son-in-law and daughter wanted to move and the reasoning behind the short notice.

My husband was on the phone with my daughter a few days ago. He said that the kids could move in with us. MOVE IN WITH US! Not just themselves, not just the baby, but their dog, cat and furniture. We already have our own cats and furniture. I couldn’t get my mind around it. If I’d only had more time to prepare, not just a week! I could have made the basement a home for them. I could have rearranged furniture, my youngest daughter could have moved upstairs, and darn it, “Now I can’t put the nice heirloom ornaments on the tree!”

I was on the phone that night with my little girl, now a grown woman, about to come home. I fussed and fretted until I became hyper-ventilated and seriously doubted my worth as a mother. A one-time tom-boy, my daughter even joked that they’d live in our barn if they could. I wished they would, just so they could have their own space. (The story of Mary and Joseph briefly flashed into my mind.) Then I remembered that there was no electricity to the empty barn; long since vacant of horses, barn cats, chickens, ducks and rabbits. Snow was thick and white upon the ground and below-freezing temperatures held the night creatures hostage. Weathermen were urging people to bring their pets inside. My daughter’s little family needed a home. How could I turn them down?

My daughter had already overcome so much. At less than two months of age, suffering from a high fever, she’d had a spinal tap. At twelve years old, she nearly died of salmonella poisoning. At nineteen a five found mucinous cyst was removed from her body and she was told that it would be difficult for her to become pregnant.

Then there was her husband. One winter at age nineteen he’d nearly died while hiking on a mountain side. He was afraid that his college roommates had not received his distress call because the battery on his cell phone was dead before he could finish his plea for help. He was found in the twilight, shoeless and suffering delirium from hypothermia. He nearly lost a couple of his toes. Years later, the two met and married and soon after, my daughter found that she was carrying her first child! Again, they faced tragedy and near death when the train we were riding was broadsided by a truck. As we made our way to the emergency room via ambulance and helicopter, we were eventually reunited, and I can tell you, the best sound I ever heard was my grandson’s heartbeat in the trauma unit. He was alive! Two months later, the little fellow was born.

So if the Lord in his wisdom had gotten my daughter’s little family this far, I just had to believe that with our help, they’d be spiritually and temporally cared for at some future time, if I just felt the same generous sense of sharing, without question, that my husband has.

After an evening of prayer and heartache, turmoil and doubt, I awoke with a clearer perspective. The vintage family ornaments could hang on a wreath this year. Maybe I’d make a permanent decoration with them! The kids wouldn’t have the entire basement to themselves, but we could let them have a room upstairs and store their furniture in the basement. Maybe Christmas wouldn’t be perfect in the sense of materialism, but we’d be together as a family. Maybe I wouldn’t have enough time to make them cozy, but I COULD AT LEAST MAKE THEM FEEL WELCOME.

Today, I thought about the inn keeper’s wife. Was she so preoccupied with giving her guests and tenants the perfect tax-time-and-census feast that she just couldn’t take in two more souls, let alone tend to a newborn? Was there maybe a tiny room that had been vacated recently that was still a little unkempt or messy? Perhaps she prided herself on having the loveliest inn of all Bethlehem?

What about now? Maybe you could have offered your neighbor a ride to church but thought “My car is a mess and the kids spilled gum drops on the seats. Well, perhaps next week.” Did you spend all weekend making the best gingerbread house ever created, when instead you could have been baby-sitting for the single mother down the block that got called to work overtime during the busy Christmas season? What about the old drunk on the corner. Did you step over him and not meet his eye or did you merely throw ten dollars at his feet and walk away? Maybe you could have given him a blanket and bought him a sandwich and spent lunch-time with him. Christmas should be a season of getting out of our comfort zone. I know I had to.

I wonder how the Christmas story would have played out if the inn keeper and his wife had shared their room and spent the night in the stable themselves. I may just do that. I may just move out to the barn. At least I know my kids will be warm and happy. That’s all that really matters to me.

Merry Christmas. I love you.

(Image via Simon Dewey)

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Pearl Harbor Day December 7

Who here today remembered that it's the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor?

My husband David and I went to a veterans' home to hear the few remaining survivors speak. They were being honored, but it was an honor to be in their presence. A Catholic Priest gave the opening prayer and we saw a multi-media production of Native American Vets, warriors and code-talkers. Paiute dancers did their part, and we heard poems and songs from other servicemen. I got to see two men who were actually at Pearl Harbor during the attack and survived the horrors they saw, of burning ships and bloodied men. Another man honored there was three miles away from the harbor at the time the Japanese Zeros began their raid. He fought valiantly where he was. David saw his old friend Dr. Creed, who spoke about the American airmen that served with the RAF. (American Air-fighters who served in England and returned to the USA when we later became involved in the second World War.)

I was dismayed that so many people left before the two hour program had ended. I purposely left my cell home. A few times we could hear the chimes of phones. (Even vets can't miss a call these days, I guess.)

David Chung, a Vietnam Vet and former liaison to Washington DC also spoke. His late wife Cheryl was supposed to talk as well. A former nurse, she helped get the war memorial honoring women vets in place in Washington DC. She died September 4 due to complications of Agent Orange. I later introduced myself to Mr. Chung. He told me some stories after the program. Chung left his calling, voluntarily when awkward meetings (dare we say, anti-American gatherings) took place between him and the present administration in Washington. At one of these get-togethers, he was introduced as a liaison and US veteran of Vietnam. Nancy Pelosi asked him when he first came to America. He said he was born here. She asked him when his parents came here. Chung said they were born in Arizona. She asked where he was from and he said Utah. Ms. Pelosi was very put out that she was introduced to an American War Veteran and was hoping that David Chung was Vietnamese. She wanted to apologize for the horrors we put the communist troops through. She stormed off. Chung was basically told that he should have played "his part" because he was not being politically correct. Excuse me? He served our country honorably and Pelosi wants the "little old Asian man" in his place? She should know better, she serves the people of California and the entire USA.

We come from many backgrounds and ethnicities. Many vets see the writing on the wall, the end of freedom as we once knew it. They are old. They've fought for our freedom, yet most Americans stay home on Veterans Day and watch football or party all night, forgetting that someone gave their younger years, their time, their freedom and sometimes their own lives, just so some pea-brained politician can apologize to other countries for our perceived short comings.

Nancy Pelosi, a man like David Chung and all our vets deserve better. They deserve at the very least an apology from you. We should be shaking their hands and asking for their autographs.

Bless our "boys" young and old.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

November, To our Dads, Brothers, Sons and Husbands

November is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month. You don’t have to grow whiskers like the Duck Dynasty men to participate. Just pat your brother on the back and encourage him to get screened.

I wish my father-in-law had taken action sooner. Instead, he let what could have been a simple matter turn into full –blown systemic cancer that spread even into his eyes.

Some people are more fortunate. Bryce Blanch was diagnosed with cancer purely by accident. “I was suffering from heat exhaustion and taken to the hospital,” he said. Several tests were conducted. The physicians and staff concluded that it was indeed heat sickness and possibly an anxiety attack. ”I had a follow-up with my doctor and she decided to order a PSA.” According to the National Cancer Institute, a PSA (Prostate-Specific Antigen) test measures the blood level of an antigen secreted by the epithelial cells of the prostate, a gland found only in men. The higher a man’s PSA level, the more likely it is that he has prostate cancer. At the time, Blanch was 47 years old and in relatively good health. “The PSA came back the next day and it was a 9.8 which is extremely high. I was fast tracked into an urologist where an exam and biopsy were performed.” Eight out of a dozen samples were positive for grade nine aggressive carcinoma. He had more tests to see if it had metastasized, which is an aggressive spreading to other body parts.

“I had a colonoscopy, several CT scans, a full body bone scan, ultrasound and then more CT scans. I was lucky it hadn't metastasized. I had surgery and had my prostate removed along with my lymph nodes and the nerves on one side.” The surgeons got all of the cancer by a negative margin of less than half of a millimeter. Blanch went on to say “I have been cancer free for exactly two years now. Had I not had the heat exhaustion I would not have ever known that I had cancer because I wasn't one to go to the doctor. It had been seven years since I had a checkup. I am now an ambassador for all colors of cancer. Every man over fifty needs to get screened. It only takes a couple of minutes but it can save a life. I am living proof. Don’t wait until you get symptoms because by the time you have symptoms it’s too late,” and by that point, the cancer most likely will be found far from its original starting point. Blanch added, “I no longer take life for granted and have taken up running. I run for those who can't. My motto is ‘ASPIRE TO INSPIRE!’ If even one person sees me running a race in my cancer shirt and gets inspired to get well or to get screened it will be worth every mile I have run. I should be dead but because of a simple test I am very much alive.”

--Liesa Swejkoski (with Marie Swejkoski, Editor)

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Bring on your 'A' Game

Years ago, when I was a substitute teacher, some of the students claimed that grades don’t mean anything in the real world. They settled for just getting by. Although these kids might be right in many ways, they are also missing out on challenging themselves to do better.

Like my old Michigan History teacher Mr. Harrison Caswell used to say, “If you want to get better at tennis, you play with a pro, someone who is better than you.” He didn’t play tennis. As a young man, he was on the New York Giants football team. He was also a veteran of World War Two, having seen action in the South Pacific. What he meant was, if you want to be a better player, hang out with people that challenge you. If you want to be a finer person, associate with exceptional individuals. Don’t let mediocre beliefs and people drag you down. If you want to improve, follow the leader that will guide you to the goals you aspire to. (Of course if you are self-confident and ready, you may be the one reaching down to help someone up the ladder of life. You may be the one that people look up to as a mentor and leader.)

Now, back to the students: It is true that years from now your employer might not care if you got an ‘A’ in algebra or a ‘C’ grade. Then again, some bosses and college recruiters want to see how hard you worked. The higher your grades, they see that you accepted the challenge to do better.

One day, a ten-year-old quoted an older sibling. “Grades don’t mean anything when you’re grown up.” The other students began to nod their heads and murmur.

I said, “You’re right. When you’re your own man, it will be in the past. All this classwork will be a memory.” Then I wrote the word PALACE on the board. I asked the kids to read it out loud. They did. “What does it mean?” I asked.

“It’s a castle!” said a girl.

“Yes, and we all want to live in our own castle when we’re grown up.”

Then I erased the first ‘A’ from the word. It now read PLACE. Scanning the room I looked at each of them. “That ‘A’ is the difference between your PALACE and just a place.” I hope they will remember that.

Grades are not for the teacher. They are for pupils. Although, just letters, they’re a gauge that helps us to determine where students need to improve. How hard individuals work for that grade and the habits they establish when they're younger help them to form the people they hope to be, where they want to go, what they will become.

‘A’ will get you the palace. ‘B’ will get you a building. ‘C’ earns you a condo. ‘D’ you may get a dump but ‘E’ will get you evicted. No matter what the grade on your report card you can always do better next year. It’s up to you.

Best wishes and Christ’s blessings to all the returning students.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Day I will Never Forget

(NOTE: The original version of this story was written July 24, 2011, a month after the accident and has appeared in my blog before. Monday marks the second anniversary of this awful collision.)-----

The bruises took over a year to heal. I have permanent scars, inside and out. Even today, if I rub my skin the wrong way, putting on lotion or toweling myself off, I feel the deep pain. The nightmares don't haunt me each and every night, like they did at first, but they do visit on occasion. Just last February, I woke up screaming in my husband’s face. Sometimes in my dreams, I'm in a fire and I see things burning. I scream, but there is no sound. There should be a sickening howl of horror, but in my dreams the sounds of my cries are inaudible.

A little past one in the morning on Friday, June 24, 2011 my family boarded the Amtrak, California Zephyr in Provo, Utah . We were on the way to my niece, Valerie's, wedding in the Bay Area, and our final destination was Emeryville, California, home of Pixar Studios. I had frequent traveler points that I wanted to use. Since major surgery three weeks before, my doctor said I could travel, but to keep walking to prevent blood clots. My pregnant daughter, Kadi, had to get up frequently, as well. This seemed to be the ideal way to travel under the circumstances. I'd taken my daughters Kadi and Marie on the train cross country when they were middle school age and now I wanted my son-in-law Johnny to see how fun train travel could be. (My husband had to remain home for work that weekend.)

The train was three hours behind schedule. When it finally arrived, the four of us walked up the stairs to the upper portion of the train and settled into our seats as quietly as we could, putting our luggage overhead and just behind Kadi's and Johnny's seats. There was a little space or "bulkhead" between the stairs and where they sat. Marie and I sat across the aisle from them, covering ourselves with a quilt I'd labored to make ten tears before. Kadi covered herself and Johnny in blankets, her round, pregnant belly filled with her first child, showing under the material. She was due to have him in August.

It was late morning in the Nevada desert. We ate some snacks and went to the observation car. We talked to each other and I met some Amish families there. I was looking forward to taking my family to lunch on the dining car. I pictured us eating a delicious meal just as we were climbing in elevation, entering the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We walked back to our seats. Then, I went to the first floor with a magazine and read it for a little while.

About 11:20 am I made my way back up the steps, almost at the top, when there was a boom, then a loud metallic popping noise and an incredible jolt. I was holding onto the railing, but my body was flung back and forth. In a fraction of a second, the side of our train car opened up. I stepped to my seat by the top of the stairs afraid of what I might see. I braced myself on the back of the seat, a dead woman in the aisle at my feet. I saw my family facing forward, looking dazed. People said later, that victims were screaming, but I couldn’t hear anything at first. Maybe my heart was pounding so loud, I don’t know.

Suddenly, the engineer applied the train brakes. I was whipped forward but managed to remain standing, holding onto the seat beside me as more metal came at our seats and stopped short. Then a hot, percussive force flew around me and through me. I saw the sky through part of the missing roof just above our heads, "Dear Lord," I said, "Please, keep us safe!" I felt the hot dust and debris fly past my face as the train began to slow, screeching against the metal rails.

When we stopped, I could still hear the sound, but quickly realized it was the voices of passengers crying and moaning. When the train was completely still, I grabbed Marie's arm. She was to my left, near the side of impact and it wasn't even a half dozen feet in front of her where a gaping hole was ripped into the side of our train car. I tugged. Marie was pinned. She extricated herself and I told her to go out the exit below. Another twelve inches and she would have been pinned so tightly, perhaps she couldn't have gotten out. Maybe she would have lost her legs. I turned to my right. Kadi was screaming, "Where's Marie? Johnny? Johnny?!" I looked at my daughter and son-in- law. There was a large strip of metal over their heads, maybe five feet long and six inches in width. It was twisted and arched over their heads. Another six inches lower, they would have been decapitated. Kadi's head was covered in blood. Her face and neck were covered with the yellow, bubbly, fatty tissue from under someone's skin. I could soon tell that this was not from my daughter. I said, "Honey, we need to get out. Please, don't look at anybody or anything. Just get out, now!" She had to crawl over the seat before her, where a corpse remained partially upright. She crawled over the dead woman, then back towards me, stepping over another body in the aisle. This victim had red-blonde hair and was facedown. My next thought was Johnny. He seemed dazed. His nose was bleeding terribly. I couldn't see any teeth for all the blood in his mouth. He stepped into the aisle.

I saw a baby seat on top of the metal that had nearly ended their lives. There was no baby in it. Baby! My mind went back to my daughter's unborn child, then flashed back to the present. On the other side of the stairs behind us, an Asian woman looked at me, pleading, holding another woman on the floor. I said, "I'm sorry, I have to help my family!"

I walked my girls down the steps and out to the field, through the brush and sharp weeds. I found a little green vegetation and told them to sit. I could see fire from the train car in front of ours. Where was Johnny? I walked through the bushes and tumbleweeds, back to the train in search of my son-in-law. Again, I boarded the train. Before I got back on, Johnny had taken the pulse of the Asian woman in front of Kadi's seat. He said she stared blankly into space. She was dead. When I got back on he was helping another woman, who'd been wearing shorts. Johnny took off his shirt and was pressing it against the wounds on the woman's legs as a man held her. The skin was peeled back from her shins. I said, "Johnny, Kadi is going to need you." He wanted to help the countless wounded, but left reluctantly, no shirt, no shoes, into the hot desert.

Black smoke was entering our train car. I grabbed my mini-cooler. There was ice in there. I wanted to apply it to Johnny's and Kadi's injuries. An elderly black woman was crying, "I can't walk, I can't move!" The smoke was getting thick. I said, "Honey, you're going to have to get out of here. I don't care if you scoot off the train, you're getting out, NOW!" I took her elbow. She was wild-eyed with fear. I walked her down the steps. As soon as I saw that she was safely away from the train, I reached for the ice in my cooler. Looking down at my hands I saw the only piece of our luggage I'd grabbed. No material thing was more important than my family, so leaving the rest of my stuff wasn't a problem. However, I didn't see my cooler: there in my grasp, I saw my purse. I hadn't snatched my mini-cooler after all! I needed that ice! What could I do? There was blood on Johnny's face and on Kadi's scalp. I needed to stop their swelling and tend to their injuries.

Then I realized something vital: I had a cell phone. Making my way out to the field, scraping my legs along the branches again, I called David. "Someone bombed our train!" I told him. "The four of us are alive; we'll be okay. I'll call you and tell you more later." I finished by telling him I loved him and not to worry. Then I called my sister, Margie, telling her the same thing, adding that if we made it to the wedding, we'd be late and not to tell the bride anything other than we were having trouble in our travels. As I spoke, the wind shifted. I guided Kadi and Marie and someone that had joined them, a young teen named Marissa Knox, away from the smoke. I walked back to the train. I knew people were hurt, but I wanted rescuers to be aware that I had a pregnant daughter in the field. I saw Johnny sitting by the train, looking shell-shocked, and told him to go out to Kadi. At some point he made it out there.

I found a conductor. Another Amtrak employee handed him a white rag. The first man had a phone or walkie-talkie. He tried to dial out. It was then that I realized he was missing fingers and blood quickly soaked the cloth. I said, "My daughter is seven months pregnant. Could you help us, please?" I later found out that upon impact, this man had been flung out of the train. He regained consciousness in the sand, several yards from the track. His co-worker, Laurette Lee, was found crushed under a door. Another conductor brought out ice and water bottles. People from along the highway came to our aid. I took two large chunks of ice and some water bottles for my family. I told Johnny to put the ice up to the front of his face and I held some over Kadi's head, telling her to hold it on her wound. Marissa was frantic, crying that her grandma and auntie were dead. She was certain. I told her not to worry, they were probably alive and on the other side of the train, or walking around looking for her. The smoke shifted and we moved again. It was getting harder to find some soft place to sit. A young man named Julian took the sandals from his own feet and gave them to Johnny.

I gathered our little group together and we prayed that help would come soon, that the injured would be healed and that the Lord would gather the dead quickly into His loving arms. A woman came over from several cars away to comfort Marissa and pray with her. Hundreds of passengers were slowly making their way a half mile or so to the highway. The critically injured remained along the tracks or in the field. A white pick-up truck drove toward us, carrying firefighters. They'd arrived on the roadway, having been on a call to a nearby brush fire. Two ladies driving in the desert offered their truck for the rescue efforts since the fire trucks were too heavy for the soft sand. The firefighters strapped Kadi onto a stretcher and began to pile wounded into the pick-up, Kadi and Johnny in the bed, Marie and I in the back seat. Many others were put in with us and driven to the road.

At a point, the highway, which ran parallel with the tracks most of the way, intersected with the rails. There, at the intersection, were the mangled remains of a truck, strewn in pieces. It wasn't a bomb! A truck had broadsided our train! My mind began to think. A truck - shouldn't we have derailed, buckled like an accordion at the least? Two miracles! Many more people could have died. The seats in front of ours on the train - they were wiped out. The metal had stopped just in front of and over my family. There was nothing, NOTHING to stop it. Yet it stopped! A body landed before my feet. It could have struck me but didn't. My family and I could have died - another miracle. We stepped out of the pick-up truck. I turned to the tracks. Our train car and the one in front of ours were fully engulfed in fire, black smoke rising in the air and surrounding the metal framework, some bodies still trapped inside. Yet the field didn't catch aflame, despite the heat and the sparks. That would have finished off the survivors and rescuers; yet another miracle.

The rescuers! They were arriving: more firefighters, helicopters, ambulances, passersby with water, food and blankets. Someone had given our little group a small white blanket, and it was just the right size for us to shade Kadi and a Korean woman with a severe head injury. This lady was also on a stretcher. Marie and I held the blanket over our two most wounded travelers. I patted Johnny's shoulder. Kadi was crying and said she felt sick. A firefighter agreed with me that we should tilt Kadi a little to the side in case she vomited. I put her at a gentle angle. Moments later, Kadi and Johnny were put on separate ambulances. I didn't know where they were going, but I said somehow we'd be back in contact that evening. I didn't know how we'd manage, but I had to say something.

After they were squared away, I felt it. My abdomen was expanding. It felt like a tight water balloon. I mentioned it to a trooper and suddenly I was put on an ambulance. A man claiming to be a Navy doctor came in, poking and prodding my belly, asking me if I felt any pain. First of all I figured I must have hit my head harder than I originally thought. I was puzzled. "Navy? What?" and found out there was a navy base IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DESERT. Who would have thought? The exam continued. I said, "I'm still numb from my hysterectomy!" He poked again and that one hurt! He said something about rigidity and put me on a Seahawk, the Navy version of a Blackhawk helicopter. Despite my objections about the helicopter ride, I was strapped in. I wouldn't let Marie out of my sight and begged them to let her come along. They put a helmet and goggles on her and we flew through the skies to Renown Hospital in Reno, Nevada. Every time we hit turbulence I thought we were all going to die. Now I was hurting and frightened.

Not too long afterward, we landed and the sun was in my eyes again, the heat scorching my face. Soon I was looking up at lights and felt air conditioning. We were in the hospital triage in the emergency room. I heard a baby's heartbeat over a monitor. The emergency room staff cut my shirt from my body. Some personnel spoke to each other and before I was taken to have a scan, one of them said that the sound was the heartbeat of my grandson. He was alive! The scans showed that I hadn’t torn my spleen and wasn’t bleeding internally. The images did indicate however, that I was badly bruised inside my abdomen. Yet I was in one piece and thankful!

Later that evening, alone, my imagination played cruel tricks on me. I thought that maybe I was just telling myself that my family was alive. Maybe they'd perished and my mind was just trying to comfort me. As soon as the neck brace came off, I was up, searching for my kids. I found Marie. They'd X-rayed her lungs and one knee. She still had black soot around her nostrils. I looked down at my hands. My nails were black with oil and ash. There was blood splattered on my pants, blood on my shoes. Marie and I were released and put up in the Renown Hotel, under the same roof as the hospital. Later that evening we visited Kadi. She had to be under 24 hour monitoring in the obstetrics ward. Johnny was staying with her, crutches by his bedside. His leg was badly damaged, but the bones were not broken, neither was his nose. The blood had been cleaned from his face. He still had his front teeth, but they'd been pushed back on impact which is why I couldn't see them behind the congealing blood. The emergency room doctor moved them back into place. It also turns out that his cheekbone was cracked.

That night, as Kadi and Johnny slept in the hospital room, Marie and I took our showers at the hotel, washing the grime and blood from our bodies. As Marie walked out of the shower, clothed in a T-shirt provided by the hospital, I saw her legs for the first time since the accident. My youngest child's limbs were so purple, they were nearly black, with deep bruises, her knees swollen and misshapen. There was very little white skin. I was horrified, but tried to keep my shock inside. I was grateful that Marie had worn jeans on the trip. The people wearing shorts had deep cuts to their shins and knees, like the woman that Johnny tried to aid when he placed his shirt over her damaged legs. Those jeans had saved my baby's legs.

The next couple days were spent talking to the National Transportation Safety Board and Amtrak. The employees at the hospital were so compassionate and good to us. The local people of Reno, so kind. I was able to reach some members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who came to our aid, taking Marie and me to Walmarts for essentials, providing blessings as they laid their hands upon our heads, calling down the powers of God to comfort and heal us.(The dentist says Johnny might still lose some of his teeth, but we will faithfully believe the blessings’ words and hope for the best.)

There were so many wonderful people that I would have liked to have met under better circumstances. These were fellow passengers and other people who came to our aid. There were some who sadly didn't survive. Six people died in the train wreck. Laurette Lee, a well-liked conductor, age 68 was one of them; she'd been crushed as the engine of the rock hauler plowed into the train car in front of us. As the trailer struck our car, Marissa's auntie and grandmother also perished: Karly Anne Knox, age 18, and Francis Knox age 58. They died on impact, their bodies flung to the center of the train toward the aisle. Thirty-four year old Cheuy Ong died in front of Kadi. The woman had to be identified by DNA and dental records. The name of the last body is still unknown. Perhaps this person was going to surprise someone somewhere down the line. Maybe no one knows this passenger was coming out to see them. Maybe the friends this person said farewell to assume a choice was made to remain with the loved ones. I can only guess.

So far I can only speculate what ultimately caused Lawrence Valli to drive a semi owned by John Davis Trucking of Battle Mountain, Nevada, into an Amtrak train. Was it a medical condition? His coworkers had stopped their trucks and watched in disbelief as Valli's big rig kept going through the crossing gates despite the warning lights. Was it family problems? He left behind a little girl. Was it substance abuse? How can anyone be certain? His body, burned beyond recognition, was found inside the cab of his truck which was still imbedded into the employee dorm car, the one in front of ours. Was he distracted? Was he texting? Officials found his cell phone, a melted cinder beside his remains. They are looking into the possibility that he was using this device moments before impact. The NTSB says it might take up to a year before they complete their report.

In the meantime, we the passengers of the doomed California Zephyr, which was journeying between Chicago and Emeryville, California live with the pain, the nightmares and the grief. Our loved ones mourn and suffer with us. We know life will never be the same. Some become bitter, some have moved on with their lives. Others like me are trying to make sense of this.

I often wonder why my family and I were spared, for what purpose. We are no better or any more or less loved by our Heavenly Father. Had we died, too, we would be in a better place, but my husband David would have been a lone man, no wife, no daughters, no son-in-law, never to have met our grandson, James. This was a miracle, a whole series of miracles, from the firefighters traveling to the scene of a nearby brush fire, the local rescuers having just had a special training session for large-scale disasters in May. It was divine grace that kept us on the tracks; the Lord helped the engineer, who put on the emergency brakes, keep the California Zephyr on the rails. If we'd toppled, there would have been more dead and wounded. Additionally, the Zephyr's individual cars did not fold, one on top of the other. There was no subsequent fire. By all rights, there should have been. Everything was as dry as a tinderbox along the tracks. Last of all, as I was walking back to my seat, I witnessed the bodies and metal stop as if an unseen force were there. The side of the train, or perhaps the side of the rock hauler, made a "tent" around Kadi's and Johnny's upper bodies. That was, to me personally, the greatest miracle of all. It defied the law of physics. When something is in motion, it remains in motion until another force stops it or slows it. There was nothing to block these objects from coming at us. Yet, the force of heat kept going through me and around me. Witnesses behind us said it was a fireball. People as far back as the observation car said moments after the jolt, flames licked the train on both sides and vanished. I'm still trying to wrap my head around all of this. My bruises, though fading, hurt. My arms and wrists have pain, I want to cry and cry, but I'm just unable to. My belly is numb. My doctor says I will take even longer to heal from my surgery. At night, my dreams are filled with trains, tracks, fire and screaming. Yet through it all, I thank the Lord that he spared us and will tell anyone at any time, that miracles still happen. If these divine events happened all the time they wouldn't be miracles, they'd be a common occurrence. But this, my friends, defied the laws of Nature and physics, and who better to defy them than the Celestial God who wrote those laws. I just hope He doesn't wait too long to tell us why we were spared. I want to know what my purpose is. I want to get going with whatever task He has for me to do, and when I do it, watch and listen and maybe you can join me in doing something good.

UPDATE: Barbara Bell, age 60 of the United Kingdom, was identified recently by dental records and DNA as the last victim in the train wreck. Update: Robert Breen, a Good Samaritan who had witnessed the accident, later died of complications due to injuries sustained during the rescue effort. He is considered by some to be the seventh, unofficial fatality. Update: John James Spelta, my grandson, was born exactly two months after the accident on August 24, 2011. He is just perfect and so precious! His mom is doing well and his daddy is so proud! Update: As of January 2012, I still have mini anxiety moments when I'm too far from members of my family or if I get too close to a "side-dumper" semi in traffic. I just take deep breaths and pray real hard during those instances. Update: December 2012-January 2013--The NTSB released its report. The driver was said to have been fatigued in the days leading up to the collision. He was reportedly using his cell phone while driving before the accident. Additionally, his employer, John Davis Trucking had bypassed safety features on the truck he was operating as well as several others in the fleet.

(Photo of Johnny Spelta in the ambulance courtesy of passenger Jean Marie.)

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Too late to say "I'm Sorry".

I'll admit, my dad and I didn't see eye-to-eye on too many things, but I learned a lot from him.

I learned about honesty. I remember the day he found a long lost buddy from the Navy. He'd spent more than twenty years searching for this individual, just to pay him back twenty dollars. His friend had long since forgotten, but my dad didn't. That was the kind of man he was.

I learned about hard work and loyalty. He put in long shifts on the assembly line at the Fisher-body Fleetwood, General Motors Factory in Delray (a part of Detroit). Despite that fact, he always had time for me. I remember so many things we did together! He took me to Elizabeth Park and sat beside me on the pony and cart rides. Also, there were weekends he would take me to a movie. Many times, he'd be passed out from exhaustion in the seat next to me, but he was there. He took time to play with me, teach me about nature, plants and animals and consoled me when I cried. I was his little girl and he was my protector.

Then I grew up. I had different opinions on religion, race relations and career choices. No matter what I chose to do, it just wasn't good enough for his little girl. By this time I was in my twenties. I thought about being a teacher and he wasn’t too keen on that. When I wanted to be a nurse, he wanted me to be a doctor. When I wanted to be a vet tech, he wanted me to be a veterinarian. When I told him I wanted to be a writer, he said to get a real career, like banking. When I had boyfriends, he wanted me to find a REAL MAN (but much later, of course, like in my thirties).

From his example, I learned that flying off the handle and name calling were rude and did nothing for our relationship. I learned that I needed to watch what I ate and drank, and to eat frequent healthy snacks, because not everything he consumed agreed with him. If he skipped a meal, he would become cranky. When he drank beer like our German neighbors did, he would get a killer headache all weekend. (It didn't agree with his Cherokee chemistry.) I learned that addiction could kill. His chain-smoking led to an aggressive lung cancer that took him way, too fast.

I learned that saying “I'm sorry,” and forgiving should never be put off. I hope that's a lesson my oldest daughter will learn before it's too late.

I love you Kadi. I'm sorry. Forgive me.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Steps to Becoming a Writer

I've had people tell me they'd like to write. Well, then, WRITE! Get it all down while you're in the mood. That’s part of a process called “brainstorming”.

I'd suggest you buy cheap spiral notebooks and carry little ones with you. Write your ideas down when inspiration strikes you, right then and there. (If you're driving, wait until you're parked, please.) I say this because not everyone carries their laptop EVERYWHERE. Inspiration could hit you in church or at a funeral, etc. and some people frown upon technology during solemn occasions.

Later, put the events into a timeline. Expect your story to be written and rewritten several times. Your first draft is just ideas from your brain and feelings from your heart. It won't be perfect and it won't be anything like the final product. Then if you're a good typist, go for it, or hire a college student to do the typing for you. It's worth it to hire a typist if you’re like me. I'm terrible at the keyboard. I take a long, long time to type and I have a little dyslexia. (Somewhere, my high school typing teacher Mrs. Theodore is still suffering from a nervous condition caused by my inability to properly use the keys. Lord knows the poor lady tried.)

Then what? Where do you go to refine your story? A writing course would be the next step. I hope you get a good, enthusiastic teacher, one who encourages your creativity over the technical process. I'm not technical. I do know some basics, but that's what my daughter, proofreader and editor are for.

Also, if your community has a writers’ guild, you should join. A good writers’ group will help you and each member by making suggestions. Everyone has a story and only helpful criticism will build up a writer's confidence and creativity. The groups that aren't good are the ones that get a couple "divas" who monopolize the meetings and run your work down. It becomes all about them, a showcase for their poetry and short stories. I've heard about these meetings and I'm happy to tell you, I haven't encountered people like that in any of the writers' groups I've participated in.

When you are satisfied with what you've created, find an editor. They sometimes charge by the page or by the hour, but a good one is worth it. At the very least, if you live near a university, hire a student or teacher's assistant. They need the money and have fresh ideas. They also know the rules of the English language.

Last of all, save your work on at least TWO devices. Keep a thumb-drive in a “firebox” in an envelope with a label on it. I learned this the hard way because my manuscript for the Kindle edition of "Lizzie's Blue Ridge Memories" was on my Dell notebook. It was burned to a crisp on June 24, 2011 when I was involved in a train wreck. People died in front of my family, so losing my little lap-top is insignificant, but I gained valuable knowledge from that experience. I’m grateful that my daughter was able to re-format the entire book for me. Now, I keep my work on a hard drive and copies on paper as well as stored in a secure thumb drive.

Best of luck and blessings to you!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Fighting a Physical Battle

Today my nephew Stephen asked "How do you think obesity relates to the word of wisdom? Can you be obese and still be following the commandment to treat your body as a temple?"

The Word of Wisdom is a health code that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints choose to live by. It predates most other health movements including the one John Harvey Kellogg and his brothers founded by at least eighty-five years.

I answered Stephen via facebook: "There are many people who believe they are eating healthy and consume traditional meals (recipes). They aren't munching on junk food. They still cannot lose weight. There are GMOs, additives, preservatives and high fructose corn syrup in everyday things that we eat. HFCS is even found in yogurt, apple sauce and soon, milk! It won’t even be required to be labeled in milk!!! That's really messing up the metabolism and digestion of human beings. The heart suffers and the brain also becomes sluggish. The only way I can see past this is to grow your own foods, in season. Buy heritage seeds, preserve your produce and keep rabbits or chickens in a pen. Buy your wheat from a farm that pledges to not use GMOs. Purchase your meat and milk from farmers that promise to never use hormones on their livestock. It's expensive and the average American family cannot do this. Most countries ban these nasty ingredients. Ours doesn't! Even the average pet is becoming obese. So next time you see a "fat" person, just take into consideration, they may be eating very little and eating healthy by traditional standards, but battling chemicals that are trapped in their bodies."

So yes, an individual may not be smoking, consuming alcohol or coffee. He might even be eating produce in season and very little red meat. He may be watching his portions and exercising moderately and still fail to lose the weight. He is still treating his body as a temple, following the Word of Wisdom, and we are not here to judge. It is between him and his doctor and God.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Did you hear the one about. . .

Your elderly mother is visiting from out of town and tells you at least three times this weekend that when she gets home she's going to the hospital to have a cyst removed. You mutter under your breath "Be sure to have the doctor check your brain, too." Instead, you should hold her hand and lovingly say, "It must be weighing on your mind. You're thinking about this procedure a lot, aren't you?" A little patience will go a long, long way. Still you wonder, is Momma suffering from Alzheimer's?

Why do we just assume the elderly are suffering from dementia? It's a fact that teens and young adults as well as the little ones need to be gently reminded of things. How many times does that seventeen-year-old boy run into the house, set his keys down and run to the TV, then when it's time to drive his kid brother to practice he forgot where he put those keys? Then the eight-year-old forgets to put her bike away. The college student who lives in your basement forgets to take her assignment to class, thinking it's in her backpack. Your thirty-nine year old husband puts the wrench down to get a glass of ice water and can't find it in the tool box when he returns to work. (He left it on the porch.) Then you're talking to your forty-eight year old neighbor about the new family that moved in down the street. She simply cannot remember the last name of the family and she just met them earlier that morning. That's just our minds filled with so many daily tasks that need to get done, plans that we're making and lists of things to do. We excuse ourselves.

However, the minute Grammy forgets you told her last week that you don't like sweet potatoes, the stuff hits the fan and "She must be losing her mind!" Well, the more memories you stuff into that mind, the more that brain has to remember. It's not crazy to want to share wisdom with the younger generation and after twenty-five grandchildren and several great-grand babies, you forget who you told the tales to. That's not Alzheimer’s.

You'll know grandfather is "losing it" when he picks up a spoon and tries to cut his meat with it, and he normally has the table manners of royalty. When Uncle Bob who has led scouts on campouts for decades suddenly forgets how to light a match, then you can be sure, something is seriously wrong.

Either way, simple forgetfulness or serious mental handicap, love that person with endless patience. Set an example of how you'd like to be treated when you're that old. Aging happens to all of us. The other choice leaves us six feet under.

Sunday, April 7, 2013


Today I thought about my first home, in the Delray part of Detroit. I remembered something awful that I couldn't possibly recollect, but it was talked about enough that I recalled the story. In fact, it's included in my second book, "A Sideshow Journey". I was either an infant when it happened, or not born yet.

Anyway, it was the early 1960s. There were some really rough kids from the neighborhood around Dill Street. They were brothers. They got ahold of my sister's kittens, poured gasoline on the little calicos and set them on fire. The youths thought it was pretty funny. My dad had to finish the kittens off as they were beyond saving.

My sister was inconsolable. My dad called the police, and a vet had to examine the little things, as part of the investigation. The police talked to the kids' parents who "reasoned" with the cops. The police then said, "Well it was just cats. What are ya' gonna do. Boys will be boys." Those boys were thugs and later ended up in prison for assault and worse.

I can't help but think, what if there had been intervention sooner and the parents hadn't stopped the authorities from doing their job? Those kids might have done better with their lives and the victims might not have suffered.

Today while I was walking through a park in a really nice town, I saw a kid beating on a wall with a broomstick or pole, doing damage. I told him to stop. He wouldn't. I had a talk with the middle-school aged kid and told him to do good, build something rather than tearing it down. Instead he followed me for about a mile harassing me. Finally I went to a house and the elderly couple that lived there saw what was going on and called the police.

I wonder what will happen. Will his parents say "It's just a wall he was beating and no harm was done to the "little lady"?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The New Women's Movement: The Freedom to Breastfeed.

My daughter is a breastfeeding advocate. She's in training to become a lactation consultant and I don't think she knows just how proud I am of her. Many women these days nurse openly in stores and diners. I covered, because it was the 80s and 90s. I did this for modesty and because my oldest baby was distracted by EVERYTHING! I had European neighbors that supported me, even the men who said "We're used to it, it's natural. We've seen our sisters and aunts nursing and it's not a big deal."

On the other hand, my sister-in-law insisted "Nursing past three months is pointless. They got all the healthy stuff already." I just quietly disagreed.

In my opinion, when the baby is running around with a sippy cup, she is weaning herself, and my girls did just that around a year of age, each. Sometimes they wanted to suckle before bed time, but after a while they forgot about breastfeeding, except when my two year old nursed her dollies while I breastfed her baby sister.

Back then it was unusual for American mothers to openly breastfeed up to a year, let alone, longer. When did we in the western hemisphere push our infants aside in favor of powder and water? Why did we as a society fall for the formula companies’ propaganda? My concern is this: in farming, calves and foals are separated for many reasons from their mothers. They are given a "peer" or stable mate, even an entire heard to commiserate with. Their will is broken and later these animals are more easily led by the herd or the farmers. Is this what we want for our children? Do we want them to fall to peer pressure, or do we want children who turn first to their mothers and families for advice? Additionally, when family is far away, when our children are at college or living in another state, do we want them to follow the crowd or do we want them to think for themselves?

We are human beings, not herd animals. We should NEVER fall for some big pharma company telling women to abdicate their God-given rights to feeding their children the way nature intended.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

A Fable for Modern Times.

There were two men. Each had a backyard with a half-acre. One planted beautiful flowers all around his house. The other planted some flowers to share with the neighbors, but in the back, he planted potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, onions and fruit. The first man was gratified by the praise of the neighbors. He never shared his flowers.

The second man, although not growing the most beautiful flowers, shared his seeds and wisdom. When the crops came in, he bottled and canned, sharing some of the produce with people in the neighborhood. Some of these people snickered behind his back, “What pathetic apples! They aren’t smooth and shiny like the ones at the market! Look at these tomatoes. They are so tiny!” The first man secretly looked down upon the second man and sneered.

A couple years went by. The first man brought home a trophy wife after a long honeymoon in some foreign country. Weeks later, the second man married a pretty girl in a small church ceremony. They spent their honeymoon in cabin. The first man and his wife looked down upon their simple neighbors. While the first couple showed off their possessions and fancy yard, the second couple spent their money on necessities, planning for a family. The second wife became large with a baby. That child was followed by another and yet another. She was fertile like her husband’s garden. The first wife wiggled her little behind and caught the attentions of every person on the block, with her beauty and the latest fashions that she wore.

The second wife shared her skills with the neighbors: how to save money during hard times, how to can. She tended to the sick and kept confidences. She was a true friend to all. Her children helped the elderly and were a joy to many. The first wife’s hands were smooth and she feared marring them with the hard work that comes with helping the needy. She was put off by the thought that people might think that some of these deprived souls were her friends and wouldn’t be seen near them. One year, there was a drought. It continued into the next year. The markets had little food and what little there was cost an unprecedented amount of money. The first couple soon ran out of funds. The second man shared what he had with the neighbors but the first couple was too proud to take the canned goods he offered.

Every day, the second family walked all the way to the little stream that was once a broad river and carried back large buckets of water for their plants. There was not enough to nourish the flowers, but they knew what was more important than the blossoms’ beauty: it was the harvest. The crops had their own appeal, from the petals in the spring to the variety of colors and flavors in the autumn. The drought went on for a decade. All the while, the first wife grew old and restless. Her skin no longer had the dew of youth. The resentment for her living conditions began to show on the woman’s face. Yet, the second wife’s happiness seemed to radiate. The woman’s husband and children were her joy and together they helped the neighborhood make it through.

In the end, everyone acknowledged that the second man and his wife were wise and kind. They were remembered long after the first wife left her husband, long after he died of heartache and loneliness and was lowered into the ground. We are not statues to be worshiped, but basins full of water.

A Sideshow Journey by Liesa Swejkoski

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