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Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Most Important Man in Our Life

It was mid October, 2009.  My daughter and I had spent the day plane hopping through three airports, literally sprinting through one as I tried to drag 2 suitcases and a backpack while holding tightly to the hand of my 6 year old. On our final evening flight to Birmingham, Juniper fell asleep in the middle seat and stretched her little, sneakered feet out on an older Indian woman beside us. I reached over to move her, but the woman held up her hand, gave me serene smile, and whispered, "I have children too. Don't worry." She sat back and rested with Juniper's feet resting on her. That meant a lot from a stranger on that night. I stared out the window into the night sky, wondering what it would be like when our plane touched down. 

My brother was waiting there when we landed. He grabbed all of the luggage and drove us to the hotel where me met my mother, sister, and niece - all six of us crowded into a little hotel room. I felt a sense of familiarity, a comfort found only when surrounded by the family that built me - my sister, brother, mother, and my father. Three of them were with me that night in the hotel room. We talked and laughed as the two cousins jumped back and forth between the beds like wild banshees. 

After an hour or so of laughing and chatting amidst the two wild banshees, my mother asked if I was ready. I nodded. My sister looked at me, her eyes speaking more than words ever could, her gaze giving me comfort and strength. "I'll stay in the room with the girls," she said to me. I nodded.  

We left the hotel room, mother, brother and me, and walked through the hotel skywalk into the UAB hospital, my big brother's hand on my shoulder. The elevator ride to the intensive care unit seemed to go on forever. My mom and brother chatted and laughed casually. I know they did that for me. I stayed silent, my hands shaking and my heart pounding more and more as we neared the floor of the intensive care unit. Big brother's hand never left my shoulder, his touch speaking more than words ever could. My brother Josh, nine years older than me, is the second most influential man in my life. On that night, he never let go of his little sister as we went to see the most influential man in my life.   

A month earlier on September 12, 2009, my father was driving home from his late shift at the Honda Plant in Lincoln, Alabama, when a young man ran a stop sign at 50 miles per hour crashing into my dad. They called it a "T-Bone" crash. The young man was not hurt. My father was seriously injured. An ambulance came and took him to the nearest hospital, then airlifted him to UAB Medical Center.   

I was 2000 miles away in Arizona.

Over the phone from 2000 miles away, I learned that my dad was involved in a serious car wreck and was in critical condition with traumatic brain injury. Over the phone from 2000 miles away, I continuously called to question and sometimes yell at medical staff for updates and information. Over the phone from 2000 miles away, I was told that my dad had a heart attack while in a coma in intensive care, and then a second heart attack.  Over the phone, 2000 miles away from my family, I learned that the strongest, most important man in my life was severely injured and unconscious.

I was a world away, scared, sad, confused and detached from the situation, but I thought the phone calls and continuous updates had prepared me. I thought I was strong and ready when I flew home to see him.

When we finally stepped into that hospital room and I saw my dad lying there with  tubes and machines hooked to him, my dam broke. The tears poured down my face. My brother grabbed me and held me tight while I sobbed.

My dad has been the most influential man in my life. He has worked and supported our family his entire life. My dad didn't finish high school, but he's one of the smartest men I've ever known. I attribute much of my academic success to him. My father taught my brother, sister and me how to play every sport that we took an interest in. Some years, he would coach mine or my sister's softball team. We always came in first place those years, no exaggeration. My father was a tae kwon doe instructor and has a black belt with all the stripes. My father taught me how to shoot a gun, bait a hook, and hunt. My father is quiet, patient, gentle and strong. He is one of the nicest men you'll ever meet, but he is also a man to fear if anything or anyone threatens his family.

My dad has always been my hero and the most important man in my life, but over the past 10 years, he has done something that means even more to me than what he did for me as a father. He has been the prominent male, role-model to my daughter.

As I've raised a little blonde-headed girl on my own, he has always been there to teach her the same things that he taught his little blonde-headed girl. My father is also the most important man in my daughter's life.

Today, almost 4 years after the car accident, my dad is nearing a full recovery. As I was writing this, he walked outside and asked if I needed anything from the store. I said no, but before he got to the car I called out, "be careful Dad." He looked back at me, smiled and nodded.

On this father's day, nothing I could give my dad could ever compare to what he's given me through the years. On this Father's Day, I am the one with the greatest gift - the gift of my father. My Daddy is still here. Juniper's Grandpa is still here.

Thank you Dad. Thank you Grandpa. Happy Father's Day.

Friday, December 21, 2012

My First Alabama Game - the Iron Bowl 2012

The roar of Bryant-Denny stadium could be heard a mile away. I walked towards it thinking how my footsteps were falling in the same spots where Bear Bryant's had once fallen.

Kids in Alabama grow up watching the game and greeting strangers with a nod and "Roll Tide." For two decades I watched Alabama football from my living room every Saturday in the fall but had never made it to a game. On a visit home for Thanksgiving this year, I decided to finally check out a real game and wound up in Tuscaloosa for the 2012 Iron Bowl with no ticket, just a chance to hang with the tailgating scene and mill around the outside of the stadium.

I watched the first half of the game from a T.V. outside the stadium. Alabama was up 42-0 at halftime. By the 3rd quarter fans were pouring out for an early celebration.

I started circling the stadium looking for a way in. Security guards were still checking tickets at the entrances. 

About halfway around I noticed a group of people going in and jumped in line. A guard at the front asked for a red ticket. I turned around and kept walking. 

It was the beginning of the 4th quarter. I had nearly circled the stadium. Just as I was thinking that I might have to wait until it was empty to see the inside of this legacy, I noticed an entrance with no guards in sight. I was in.

In front of me was a field opening that led right to the Alabama sideline. I kept walking, out into a sea of crimson and watched the last five minutes of the game behind a row of Alabama jerseys.

As the clock seconds ticked down, an Alabama player ran up to high-five fans. He didn't know that I was a lifelong Alabama fan. He didn't know that this was my first game, or that I'd snuck in halfway through the fourth quarter and wound up on the sideline. He didn't even know that he was my favorite college football player of 2012. Eddie Lacy probably had other things on his mind that night, but as he grinned and slapped my hand at the 2012 Iron Bowl, he made my first Alabama game more memorable than ever.

Roll Tide.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Dogwood Days

Springtime in the Deep South brings with it two guarantees - dogwood blossoms and pollen. Those beautiful, white blossoms appear every year and serve as a sign that the damp, deadness of winter is finally over. The bright, yellow pollen appears too, covering cars in a film of sunshine colored dust. It’s everywhere.

Children growing up in the south spend most of their time outdoors in the sticky air, sweetened by springtime blossoms.  When they are young, they climb the dogwoods, dangling from the branches, and they trace words in the yellow film of pollen with little fingers. The beauty of the bright colors is all that they see.

Children see as much beauty in the dogwood blossoms as they do in the fallen pollen.  

At night, when children lay their heads on the pillow, they dream of dinosaurs, unicorns and fairy tales. All is right with the world.

Little children grow and the doors slowly close. Dogwood dangling and pollen painting become faint memories. The pollen becomes a burden, hosed off of the car on the weekends.

Those grown children no longer spend their time outside in the sticky air. They stay inside, with the lights dim and the air cool. They hire someone to plant a beautiful dogwood, right outside of the double glass doors, so that they may look at it and show it off to neighbors. The dogwood sits there, majestic and beautiful, viewed through the lens of a glass.

And try as they may, they can never keep the pollen out. Every time they open their doors, the wind blows it right into the foyer.

They cannot shut it out completely, for somewhere, deep down, they know that even the beautiful dogwood is often just a decoy, distracting and detracting from the years of pain and hatred that have darkened the Deep South.

Many think racism is a thing of the past, but it is still here. There are still doors that remain shut, and people who’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a child. For it’s not that children don’t see color, it’s just that they appreciate all color equally, from the light hues of the dogwood blossom, to the browns and grays of its branches, to the bright yellows of the pollen it produces. Children are not pinned down by ignorant morals and false values. 

We should try to remember what it’s like to be a child.

Mr. King had a dream. He hoped that “one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls would be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

Most likely, the children would have joined hands from the beginning, except that adults told them not to. When children see pollen, they see a sunshine canvas for painting. When children see other children, they see a friend to play with and a hand to hold.

Mr. King’s dream is coming true, more so every day, but we must keep marching.

If we want to get anywhere, we first have to open our doors.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Down Here

In memory of Blake Starr, Justin Sollohub, and everyone we’ve lost down here.

Growing up in a slow moving, small, southern town gives a person a different outlook on life. Outsiders might think southerners are at a disadvantage without skyscrapers and a Starbucks on every corner, but small town folks have something that some will never have-a place where everybody knows your name.

Down here, people still buy tomatoes and boiled peanuts at roadside stands and chat about the weather with the stand owner whom they’ve known for 20 years. Walking into Wal-Mart is like walking into a high school reunion, and Saturdays are spent sipping lemonade (or beer) by Terrapin creek with old friends.

Down here in this little corner of Northeastern Alabama, people grow up together. The town grows up together. In Jacksonville, Alabama, most kids attend Kitty Stone Elementary, and friends made in kindergarten often remain friends for life.

Growing up in a small town, a person’s identity is based on more than who he or she was at one point in time. Whereas others might see a man, small town friends see a toothless six year old from first grade, the best kickball player in fourth grade, a slightly awkward adolescent at the 8th grade dance, and a fellow graduate from Jacksonville High School.

Down here, high school sweethearts get married and elementary school friends attend the wedding. Some friends even go on to become college buddies.

Down here, people get to read the whole book from cover to cover, not just a chapter.  

A family is the foundation a person, and in a small town, folks know a person’s family. Friends in in 4th grade have siblings in 6th grade and older brothers play basketball together. Families are referred to by their last names - the Tippets, the Joneses, the Sollohubs, the Starrs.

People don’t just grow up together down here. Families grow up together.

Those school years don’t last forever. Some friends stick around and raise their own little families while others move off. Either way, people have a tendency to lose touch. They spread out, especially these days. But for those fortunate enough to grow up in a small town, there’s always that place to come back to. There’s always that group of people that can never be replaced in time, heart or memory.

A hometown and the family and friendships that it holds is like a safety net. It’s always there, sometimes just a car ride away, sometimes an airplane ride away. When life gets tough, a person can always come back home.

Occasionally, however, that solid piece of earth that folks have known all of their lives gets shaken, or worse. Sometimes it gets ripped apart like the aftermath of an Alabama tornado.  The recent loss of two wonderful, young men, Blake Starr and Justin Sollohub, reminded the little town of Jacksonville, Alabama just how fragile life can be.

The passing of someone in a small town affects the entire community.  Friends and cousins and schoolmates come from all over with tears in their eyes, packing into one of the local churches to pay their respects.

One phrase can be heard over and over: “It’s been so long. Too bad it takes something like this to bring everyone back together.”

It is too bad, but it shows just how many people care. It shows just how many lives can be touched by one person in one little town.

I started first grade in Kitty Stone Elementary with Blake’s little sister, and my sister started 3rd grade with Blake. Justin was one grade above me, and his little sister was one grade below me. I played softball with Blake’s sister and PARD soccer with Justin.

We all grew up together. Our families grew up together, down here.

Last month, Blake’s funeral was held at West Side Baptist Church. That’s the same church I attended when I first moved to Alabama. The Reverend Truman Norred officiated the service.

Over 20 years ago I sat in that church as a fidgety child, listening to that same pastor speak his words of love. The Starr family sat a few pews ahead or behind, listening to the same words.

I’ve spent the past 10 years trying to escape the mistakes I made as a teenager in this little town. I’ve traveled around to big conferences in fancy clothes, and kept my small town roots and my past mistakes hidden.  

Blake and Justin helped me remember that this little town made me who I am. They helped me remember that every chapter of life is important. A person is an entire book, not just a chapter.

To me, Blake will always be a grinning teenager who grew up to be a loving husband, brother and son.

To me, Justin will always be an energetic 12 year old playing soccer who grew up to be a heroic police officer.

In the Miranda Lambert song, “The House that Built Me,” she sings, “You move on you leave home and you do the best you can. I got lost in this big world and forgot who I am.” In the song, she goes back and visits the house she grew up in.

I thought about going back to the house in Jacksonville that I grew up in, the house that built me, but I didn’t need to. I realized that I’d already come back to the place that built me, and it wasn’t a house. It was this little town, down here.

I am so thankful that Blake and Justin were a part of this town, and they always will be. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Cyber–Bullying: What Can We Do as Parents?

Cyber-bullying is increasing at an alarming rate, thus, it is vital that steps are taken to decrease and prevent further incidents. Most schools now have a zero tolerance policy and require both students and parents to sign anti-bullying contracts at the beginning of the school year. Laws against cyber-bullying are popping up from state to state.    

In the media, critics place blame on school officials and claim that charges should have been pressed in many cases. But what about the parents? Parents are the strongest advocates and disciplinarians for their children, so what can we do as parents of a bullied or bullying teen?

Parents should also have a zero tolerance policy for bullying.

Parental support is considered a strong, protective factor against bullying, and is associated with decreased incidents of bullying, including both face-to-face encounters as well as cyber-bullying. Talk to your kids. Be there for them. Show them love, compassion and empathy.

If you suspect your teen is being cyber-bullied, do not take it lightly, especially if you notice that it’s causing your teen distress. Contact the bully’s parents immediately. Find out how often your child encounters the bully at school or other places. Look over all instances of written harassment (Facebook posts, emails, texts), and if it is truly concerning, file a harassment charge.

Do not give your kids free access to the computer and Internet. Whether they’re 9 or 17, they are still your kids. Before long, they will be grown and you won’t have a say in their computer use, so use this time while you can.

Telling a teenager she cannot use Facebook at all will probably cause more distress than necessary. However, limiting the time spent on social networking sites is both healthy and necessary. Requiring your teenager to give you access to his or her account is a perfectly reasonable and even necessary request, especially if you suspect bullying.

A good strategy is to have your child’s passwords on hand, but always ask first to view his or her profile. Do this in a gentle and friendly manner. Let your kids know that you are doing this to support and protect, not to snoop and control. 

If they refuse to show you their profiles, look for yourself. If they refuse to give you passwords, take away the computer. An angry teenager yelling at her mother is better than a depressed teenager dealing with social bullying alone.

Do not hesitate to seek psychological help, especially if you notice any signs of depression. In a recent study, cyber-bullying was shown to be the only form of bullying that significantly increases depression in teen victims (Wang, 2010).   

If you discover that your child is engaging in cyber-bullying, take the computer away immediately, no questions asked. (Note: it is not necessary to shoot the computer with a shotgun, as the father did in the popular You Tube video).

Engage in frequent discussions imploring the reasons behind the bullying behavior. The teen should take responsibility for his or her actions and realize the damage that it may be causing another person. Require your teen to personally apologize to the victims. Teach your kids love, compassion and empathy.  You may need to seek psychological help for your teen. He or she may be acting out for reasons unknown to you.

The increasing problem and public awareness of cyber-bullying has resulted in tough policy enforcement in schools and the enactment of new laws against this form of harassment. However, as parents, we have the greatest power of all to stand up to this problem. Take it seriously. You’ll be doing your children a huge favor, even if they don’t see it like that at the time.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Bullying – From Grandpa’s Schoolyard to the Cyber World

Bullying is a dangerous and disturbing epidemic of today's youth, markedly different from the outdated view of bullying as typical, childhood antics in the schoolyard. The increasing use of the Internet and social networking sites has created a separate and deeply complex epidemic, now called “cyber-bullying."  

Although bullying was never condoned, it hasn’t always been a detrimental problem of our youth. Not too long ago, grandfathers told tales of schoolyard bullying with reminiscent humor.  Gathered around the fire, children listened to Grandpa recount stories, as he rocked back in forth in his chair, describing how he learned to defend himself against the “playground pusher” or how he outsmarted the “lunch money thief.”

Sadly, bullying tales today are drastically different.  

We no longer sit by the fire with Grandpa laughing about the lunch money thief. Today’s tales are more likely to be discussed around the kitchen table with a distressed mother, a pissed off father, and a crying teenager.   

In fact, the term “bullying” may not be appropriate anymore, since it still has connotations suggestive of somewhat innocent, childhood antics. Bullying was the term that Grandpa used to recount schoolyard tales, but let’s be realistic; what is happening today is more like harassment, defamation, and even assault.

The problem is greatly exacerbated by the widespread access and use of the Internet.   

Sonia Livingstone, social psychologist and leading expert on children and the Internet, describes today’s youth as the “digital generation.” Although there are many positive aspects of Internet use and even social networks, there are many negative aspects as well. Bullying can now take place from miles away with complete anonymity.

Cyber-bullying is increasing at an alarming rate, and the long-term consequences can be detrimental. One report claims that “about 20-40% of youths have experienced cyber-bullying” (Tokunaga, 2010), and it is associated with emotional distress (Wang, et. Al., 2009) and most likely increased levels of depression (Campbell, 2005). Unfortunately, since it is a relatively new problem, little research has been conducted on the issue. Such research is more vital than ever.
The consequences of cyber-bullying could be fatal. The problem has drawn national attention with recent tragedies such as those of Megan Meier, Amanda Cummings, Tyler Clementi, and many other beautiful, young people who died by suicide shortly after incidents of cyber-bullying.

Although suicide is a serious problem indicative of deeper mental and emotional distress, there can certainly be catalysts that push people over the edge, and cyber-bullying is almost without a doubt one of those catalysts.

Many of these incidents are not cases of cyber-bullying, they are straight up “cyber-assault,” and this has to stop.  

I hope that the new documentary “Bully” will bring more attention to this detrimental problem.

Recently, my teenage cousin posted a Facebook status complaining about people who antagonize others to commit suicide. This naturally caused me great concern, and I messaged my cousin. She informed me that a friend was receiving anonymous posts on her Tumblr account with statements such as “Why don’t you just hang yourself.”

This is so sickening I don’t even need to describe in words how sickening it is. The words are right there. The problem is right here, happening to a friend of my little cousin and happening to countless other silent, cyber victims.

“Why don’t you just hang yourself?”

Whoever you are, why don’t you just find a little compassion in your heart and think about what it means to be human.

For every bully out there, there is no excuse for your hateful words. Take just one minute and think about how your words could possibly destroy someone’s life. Do you really want to destroy a life? I’d like to believe that the answer to that question is no. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

The National Campaign for Suicide Prevention - Where Is It?

We are a generation in great despair. Every night, stories of crime, drugs, diseases, poverty, natural disasters, traffic accidents and bad economies fill television news hours. Disasters and problems of every kind are gathered by earnest reporters and regurgitated into the living rooms of millions of sympathizing Americans.

This nation does a lot to address these issues. From the cracked, frying, egg in the 90’s saying, “this is your brain on drugs” to the billboards today with haunting pictures of meth addicts, campaigns against drug abuse are ongoing. National funding for cancer research is greater than ever. There are federal programs to help the poor, public funds for people with disabilities and large-scale anti-smoking campaigns.

When hurricanes, wildfires and tornadoes strike, people and money come pouring into Louisiana, California and Alabama. Everyone agrees that the economy is bad. Everyone also seems to agree that no one is doing an adequate job of fixing it. Whether or not the solutions are working, however, senators, congressman and presidential hopefuls remain focused on the issue, promising to put the majority of their time and effort into fixing the economy.

We may not agree with the solutions, but at least we can agree that our leaders attempt to address the issues at hand and bring them into the public’s eye. When America has a problem, it is broadcasted, discussed, and picked apart until something is done, whatever that may be.

Despite our constant focus on the most pressing current affairs, one of the most persistent problems plaguing our youth right now is seldom spoken of, and it is certainly not being addressed adequately. That problem is suicide.

We are a generation in great despair.

Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death in college students and in the general population between the ages of 24-34. It is the 3rd leading cause of death in teenagers. The suicide rate in The United States has been rising for the past ten years, and every 14.2 minutes, someone in the U.S. dies by suicide. Sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers and friends are dying.

These numbers are both sad and horrific. There should be no question or doubt that something must be done to prevent one of the leading causes of death in our youth, our future leaders.

So where is the national campaign against suicide? Right now, I’m not sure it exists.

In the past month, one of the most popular topics in the news was the case of Dharun Ravi. Dharun placed a Spy Cam on his roommate, Tyler Clementi, and broadcast it live on the Internet. Clementi jumped to his death the next day.

Millions followed the story, eager to learn of the trial outcome for the man that many accuse of causing Tyler’s death. All eyes were on him. Pictures, stories and family members stirred up memories of Tyler, but the focus quickly shifted back to the prosecution and punishment of Dharun.

The focus needs to shift away from Dharun and onto the manner of Tyler Clementi’s death. Tyler died by suicide.

As a nation, it is time to focus on suicide.

Because of tragedies like the case of Clementi and many others, issues such as cyber bullying and privacy laws are starting to be addressed, as evidenced by anti-bullying commercials, YouTube videos and a beautiful new Shinedown song titled “Bully.”

These are important and necessary steps to take in the prevention of suicide, but as important as these issues are, they are not the causes of suicide. Neither a bad economy, bullying, nor Dharun Ravi are to blame for suicide. They may have been catalysts, but they are catalysts to a deeper, more persistent problem that already exists.

The causes of suicide are complex and difficult to understand. They come from feelings of despair, distress, desperation and depression. It is estimated that in 90% of suicides, the person had a diagnosable and treatable mental illness.

Federally funded research should focus on the causes leading up to suicide from a behavioral, brain, and genetic perspective and on effective medical and behavioral strategies for preventing suicide.

Suicide is preventable. We cannot continue to stigmatize mental illness and talk about suicide in whispers. Our fear will only push the problem further from the public’s eye, making help unavailable to those in need. Suicide must be brought into the public’s eye, and there it should remain. How can we ignore a problem that is killing our youth?

The same billboards used to wage the much-needed war against drugs should also be used to promote preventative campaigns against suicide. We need to see more commercials, You Tube videos and news stories on this issue. If people see that help is available and that it is ok to seek help, many will seek it.  

We should talk to our teenagers. We should talk to our children. We should talk to our leaders. Help should be both available and affordable for people in distress. 

Suicide is an urgent, national, public health crisis that deserves immediate attention. More people are affected and more families are devastated with each passing hour. Something must be done.

As Americans, we can continue to sit in front of our televisions, speculating over whether Dharun Ravi caused Tyler Clementi’s death. Or, we can stand up as a nation and actually address this crisis that is taking the lives of our youth and threatening many more.

There is no question that problems such as crime, drugs and the economy must be addressed, but unless we do something to help the mental health of our youth, we may be losing some of the best future leaders who could address these problems.

It is time to stand up to suicide.

Data taken from The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention