Facing death and choosing life

2 years ago today, my daughter Caroline had a boating accident that would change her life forever, and mine.  I would never in a million years want to walk that path again, and yet it is an experience that leaves me profoundly grateful.  This is the letter I wrote her to celebrate today.  She wanted me to share it with you.


Several hours of surgery from a remarkable team and one strong spirit.  The road to recovery begins.  

Several hours of surgery from a remarkable team and one strong spirit.  The road to recovery begins.  

My strong, brave, Super C,

It has been 2 years since you earned that nickname.  Since the day you so bravely endured an accident that would change your life.  I spent many hours in the hospital imagining the pain you were going through, but I have spent two years marveling at how you have turned this unfortunate event into a pivotal moment and used it to live out loud—showing the world your true colors, shedding the princess for the brave endurance athlete in the sport of life.  

Every step of the way, this strong girl has chosen to win at life.

Every step of the way, this strong girl has chosen to win at life.

When I first saw you laying on the gurney in the emergency room I knew you were on a path that had to be your own.  As much as I wanted to take away your pain, I could not.  Today, I am glad that I couldn’t.  That pain taught you what a warrior you are.  It showed you that you could get through things you never thought you could.  That pain forced you to use your voice to tell doctors who were much older than you (and supposedly smarter!) how you needed them to work with you.  That pain showed us all the grit that you have in your soul— to heal from a very difficult and painful accident.  That grit is going to take you further than perhaps any other character trait you have, Caroline.  It will help you persevere in chasing the dreams you already own, and the ones you have yet to imagine.  It will get you through your next hard thing, and the one after, and help you move through them and on to the other side of frolicking through your days once again.  

One of the hardest things about being a parent is watching your child go through pain.  While in the moment I would have done anything to take it away, I know it was shaping you beautifully.  I would never want to remove the gifts that the pain has given you.  

What I see in you now is a determined girl who is full of compassion.  One who can walk into a room full of German speakers and confidently introduce herself.  One who attracts friends wherever she goes, and keeps them for a lifetime because you love them where they are, not where you wish they were.  You know what it’s like to live through something really painful, and you find ways to help others live through their pain when they need you. 

She's spent this year exploring Europe with an unquenchable thirst for adventure.

She's spent this year exploring Europe with an unquenchable thirst for adventure.

It is important to remember this day, because it is the one that reminds me just how precious every single day of life is with the ones we’ve been gifted into loving.  It’s the day that showed me how to coach you instead of doing things for you.  Today is the day that reminds us that we are always growing, and no matter how hard that growth is, it is all helping us get to be better and better, to learn to love more deeply, to care for others in larger ways.  With the wisdom of these lessons and the grit I know you have, you will continue to change the world in large and small ways, and I am so thrilled I get to be one of many people who will cheer you on your path.  

 Today, I celebrate your life— the way that you never take a day for granted, you pack them full of cuddles with family, fun with friends, workouts at the pool and on the volleyball court, and jamming your brain full of all kinds of knowledge.  I love you so much, and I am amazed at the life you continue to create for yourself, and for those who love and need you to keep living your very big dreams in your compassionate, fun-loving, brave ways.  

I love you, Super C.

Windmills, Biergartens, and Bicycles: Lessons from a spring ride in Germany

1. A stout German woman on a riding mower gets the job done remarkably quickly. The way she maneuvers that tractor through the windmill dotted field, you know she trained on the autobahn.

2. A strong headwind pummels exponentially more winged bugs into your helmet. Showering afterwards requires some drain cleaning.

3. When your clients are in a different time zone you get to work at night-- that means you can enjoy the most beautiful part of the day on your bicycle.

4. Said work commitments also mean you can not enjoy the biergartens which appear nearly every mile on the riverfront path.

5. Stop to take a picture of the gorgeous German tulips. If the gardener approaches while you're leaning over her fence, compliment her work no matter how terrible your German is. It will lead you to a lovely conversation, and even if you don't understand it all, your day will be made by her exuberant declarations of what blooms each month in that little patch.

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8 lessons in 7 decades. Thanks, Mom.

Today I celebrate the woman who not only created me physically, but in so many ways shaped the person I would become.  She was a child of the 60’s— and those images that produces in your mind right now are not evidenced in a single photo of her from those days.  She wasn’t the braless hippie embracing the sexual revolution and protesting Vietnam, she was a turtle-necked knee sock wearing Marsha Brady type, raised “right” in the Boston suburbs with her grandmother in the next bedroom, and the most loving mother and father you could imagine.  Her home was the perfect colonial on a quiet little Belmont street.  She met the love of her life who was finishing his graduate work at MIT in the chapel of an Episcopal church. They moved to a suburb of Washington DC where they bought a remarkably similar perfect colonial house they weren’t sure they could afford, on a similarly quiet little suburban street.  They had four children and lived happily ever after.  

That’s what it looked like anyway....

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Seven Weeks, Eight Shootings.

We wake again to the stories of babies lost, friends gone, children witnessing the murder of their friends and classmates.  We will hear the thoughts and prayers come from lawmakers, and the explanations of mental illness which bubble to the surface.  There is, however, no change in our behavior after these thoughts and prayers.  There is no comfort for these mothers and fathers who found Valentines next to the coffee maker this morning, but will never get another.  They will never hear “I love you” on the way out the door, or before a kiss goodnight, because last night was their child’s last...

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Money and Work Part II: Business deals at home

Our children are learning it is really ok to talk about money openly.  They are learning the value of having control over their money and where they get to spend it.  They are learning the art of negotiation.  They are learning to both win and lose gracefully.  They are learning to value other people’s work, and to manage their time so that if extra opportunity becomes available, they are able to jump on it.  It is not lost on me, either, that my daughter is learning to negotiate and hold her own in business deals where she is the only female, and our boys are seeing what a savvy negotiator looks like— and that image is not gender-based.  

Outside of parenting, there are bigger lessons for us all here.  Money is meant to be used as a tool, one of many we have and need to live rich lives.  Negotiating doesn’t always mean there is a winner and a loser, sometimes the pie is just bigger, and we all get what we wanted in the first place.

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Money and Work: Real-world lessons from an evolving family

A warning: this post is all about money-- a topic many shy away from-- it is the first of a two-part story on where we are as a family, and the lessons we are getting along the way. 

Way back in my college days, I understood the value of pure socialism.  The kind that has never worked, the kind that, when applied to society ends in corruption and oppression.  I never would have thought I would become a person who would value raising capitalist kids.  We evolve in odd ways I suppose, and one of the things I love about the society we live in is that we get to choose to use our money to take care of others.   We can argue the pros and cons of such a society in another forum, we live in capitalism though, and part of my role as a mother setting her children up to fly the coop sooner than I might like at this point, is to teach them to thrive in the economic realities they have at hand.  

My background, you should understand, is in housing people who don’t have a lot of money.  When I was just 21 years old I learned to read other people’s credit scores on housing applications, and with steely conviction I determined I never wanted to be in debt for anything other than my home.  I have stuck to that conviction with one exception:  the car I bought when I got divorced (a five year loan paid off in one).  I’ve learned a tremendous amount from working with the “poor,” who are rarely poor in anything other than money, by the way.  They taught me that having money is cheaper than not having any, that there are many things in life that are both free and enjoyable, and that there are ways to take care of people which involve everything but spending money.  Because the living conditions of really good, hard-working people plagued me, I became a student of helping  people climb out of poverty.  That’s a complicated answer I’ve only begun to uncover, but living a life outside of debt is one I’ve mastered quite well, and the base I wanted to lay for my children.  I wanted them to value money as a tool for living, but one of many they would be able to access to succeed.

My kids’ understanding of money started as mine did, with allowance.  I wanted my children to learn the value of saving, spending and giving, and in order to do that, they needed money.  That came in the form of allowance.  I was giving my children money (not much, mind you) for doing nothing.  I'm not sure what I expected them to learn from that, but they got the lesson I didn't intend-- money comes, just because.  Eventually, I realized the error of my ways, and withdrew the allowance letting them know that there would be ways to earn money, but nobody, including me, was going to give them money for doing nothing.  That is called a gift, which we get only at Christmas and on birthdays.   

Rather than offering them money just for existing, I started paying them only if their “chores” were done during the week.  We went through several iterations before finally landing on our current system(after blending our family and getting two bonus kids with yet another construct of money).  

The principle is rather matter of fact:  there is a certain amount of work needed to run a family, it should be divided among the people in that family according to ability.  We don’t pay for that work...

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Dismissing Sh*tholes: What we have to lose

Some of my favorite people come from sh*thole places.  These are the places I’ve sought out in my life for various reasons.  I’ve sought them out, not, primarily to help those who live there, but because they help me.  They are more like me than many of the folks I encounter in the United States.  Their crusts of perfection have been cracked open, they’ve been broken by circumstances from which one can never hide.  They have gathered their children in the middle of the night as the rumble of a landslide draws nearer, grabbing only their hands, and running for their lives.  All of their possessions and several loved ones would end up buried in that mud, and they would begin again.  Their souls open and wounded, their hearts so close to the surface you can see their pulsing straight through their eyes which leak sometimes involuntarily as they make their way to the water jugs Unicef left out front of their temporary homes.  In other sh*thole places I’ve held the orphans left by AIDS, I’ve met the widows crowned so by the same disease, now raising five children on their own.  They’ve told me of the way they plan their crops— some to trade with others for alternative nourishment, and the rest to save for the drought to feed their children.  The way they raise goats, not because they are rich enough to dream of eating their meat, but so they can sell one for each child every year to allow them to go to school.  Yes, even the girls.  These widows’ only hope is that AIDS doesn’t kill them before their children are self sufficient.  

These women and men, these children have taught me what it is to live close to the edge, to endure and savor a life which is so apparently tenuous.  They have seen me not for the clothes I wear or the color of my skin, but for the cracks in my outside that let the true light out.  They are real in a more accessible way than most people will let you access in the United States.  They are real because they can’t help but be real.  The world has shaped them more quickly than it shapes those of us who are cushioned by air conditioning and car transportation which is better housed than are many people in the world.  There are those of us that live in the creek beds and have our rough spots smoothed over a century or more, and those who are born of volcanoes and earthquakes, those who emerge from crevasses left by disease and drought. ...

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Shine on, Tim

Cancer sucks, and I'm becoming increasingly convinced through my own evidence-based research that the gene that makes you susceptible to growing cancer in your body carries with it the one that makes you an incredible gift to the human race. 


The world lost a great man on Sunday.  He was the man who came to honor his friend Ray, a loyal Habitat volunteer for the first decade of our affiliate who had just passed away very suddenly himself.  We were building a memorial home for Ray, one of Tim’s dearest friends.  Tim arrived on our job site one of the best carpenters we’d ever hosted, one of the best we would ever host.  He was careful and quiet, he was astonished at what we were allowing volunteers with no experience to do, and perhaps a little frustrated by needing to fix some of their errors to get the home up to snuff.  I was still fairly new to homebuilding, and appropriately intimidated by Tim’s gifts.  That was before I knew his soul.  I didn’t get that glimpse inside Tim until his daughter Hannah invited him to build with her on the high school’s Habitat house.  Tim signed up for an every-Saturday commitment, and his shining, sunny, articulate and energetic daughter was with him every single Saturday morning.  To commit a full day of work every week outside of the other five or six days you are using your body to work is really something else.  Tim was sparkly on the job site though, he loved it.  Not because of the work, but because he was with Hannah, and they were doing something they both loved to do:  helping others.  He loved it, I imagine, because he got to share his incredible talent with Hannah and teach her along the way.  I saw Tim’s patience with those students in the months he worked on our sites so regularly.  I saw his heart with the homeowners, and the way he shifted his focus from producing to teaching.  

Tim was the guy we called when we had a major addition to put on our old home on 8th Street.  We were preparing for Caroline’s arrival, and needed another bedroom.  Nothing is simple in a 120 year old home though, and the addition was to be nearly as costly as the rest of the home had been.  We waited for the weather to break that soggy fall to dig a foundation.  The morning after I found out my marriage was falling apart a backhoe appeared through the kitchen window.  Pregnant, scared, and donning only a bathrobe and slippers, I ventured out to tell the driver he needed to load up and leave.  He didn’t believe me.  Said he had just spoken to Tim that morning, and this was the day.  

“I know, Tim doesn’t know yet, but I’ll call him” I assured the driver.  

That project was undoubtedly Tim’s bread and butter that fall.  He ran a small team and only committed to what he could manage, he likely had prioritized this project over others he turned down.  I called and only told him that we needed to cancel the project and that I was very sorry.  

Always hard to get a snap of Tim on site AND looking at the camera.  He was there to work, and he did it with much love.

Always hard to get a snap of Tim on site AND looking at the camera.  He was there to work, and he did it with much love.

“I understand, Kerry.  I will be thinking of you.” Was his only response.  The kindness in his tone could not be missed.  He knew I could not bare to tell him more, that the tears were too close to causing a full breakdown.  When I saw him again, he gave me a long hug and told me if I needed anything at all just to call him.  He’d be there.  

That was the man Tim was.  Putting aside his disappointment to look at the bigger picture, to see what the rest of the story might be.  Always there for others.  He is the one that defied doctor’s orders to show up at my farewell party in June, though his strength would not allow him to stay long.  “Just because I had to come see you and wish you well.  To thank you.”

For the many homes you built for others, with and without lots of money, I thank you Tim.  For the many lessons you taught me about giving, I thank you.  For the solidly grounded, non-partisan political discussions, I thank you.  For the warm hugs and forgiveness, for the leadership you provided our community, for the way you loved your family, and for the dignified way you lived and died, thank you Tim.  You are a treasure.  Shine on, my friend.  Shine through me, and through the many you taught while we were with you.