“Stay Alert! Delays are Possible!”

stay_alert

I saw the sign Friday, somewhere along the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  I laughed, in spite of myself.

We were headed on a 400 mile road trip to West Virginia, a trip I was making for the second time, and Meghan for the first.  Last weekend in June to celebrate Alan’s birthday.

As we traveled through the hills of PA, I became somewhat accustomed to shrieks of joy, as the landscape at times was utterly breathtaking.  And, there were cows.  Overwhelming for a young city girl, not given too many opportunities to travel out of a small radius.  The camera barely stopped.


I was thinking about the list of things creeping into the month of July already.  There are 8 appointments and a surgery for Meg already scheduled.  I am annoyed, not so much at the surgery, as I am about the time constantly taken to try to stay on top of this cancer -causing, tumor-provoking, life altering nightmare called Cowden’s Syndrome.

Meghan’s next major procedure is Friday July 22nd.  The pathology on that procedure will determine what, if any, delays are possible in the future.

“Stay Alert! Delays are Possible!”

There wasn’t much traffic on the way to West Virginia.  The trip itself took us a little over 7 hours.  We arrived before 9, and blended right into easy conversation on the porch.  Alan, his family, and some friends, welcomed us warmly.  They greeted Meghan as if they had known her for years, and treated me as if I stopped by every few days.  All of this oddly comforting.  In reality I met them for the very first time last June, and Meghan was meeting them that night.

 

 

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img_7548Yet, we had known each other for longer in ways that matter.  These men, most of them, were Marines that had served with my Dad some 45 years ago in the jungles of Vietnam.  These men knew my father during a brief time in his life that undoubtedly changed and shaped the man I later knew.

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Alan was the first to reach back to me when I sent a letter to Dad’s 1st Amtrac Batallion, 3rd Marine Division brothers.  I was, at the time researching an incident that we felt may have warranted a Purple Heart for Dad.  I sent over 20 letters that week in January 2014.  I heard reply from every living Marine I contacted.  EVERY SINGLE ONE.  They spoke to me, and comforted me.  Those who remembered the incident wrote letters of support.  All told me that as the daughter of a Marine I was one of theirs.  I was to call on them as needed.  It seemed surreal.

But Alan stayed in touch.  Close touch.  We spoke, and still speak via text several times a week, and often by phone at least once a week.  As he worked every angle he could for a Purple Heart that not earned in the technicalities of the USMC, we grew in friendship.  And over time I came to realize that the relationship we had built filled a larger hole than any posthumous medal could have.I do not mean ever to saint my father.  Nor do I mean to make excuses for him.  There were some terribly rocky times in my childhood that can not be repaired.  But, we had time to make peace years before he died, and I started to understand a few things.  A few really important things.

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Now, we were in West Virginia, keeping time with 5 Marines who served with Dad.  They were wounded; physically, emotionally, or both.  They shared stories.  They shared PTSD.  They shared tales of failed relationships, and difficult feelings of guilt.  They verbalized what Dad couldn’t.


And Meghan, oh did they take her in!  One by one, as if helping my father make up for lost time, they spoke and laughed and listened.  They got to know her.  They cared.

Saturday morning Alan’s grandson took time out of his day to teach Meghan to shoot a compound bow.  It was something she had always wanted to do, and circumstances had not allowed.  So, here we were in the hills of West Virginia.  And there was her lesson with the bow.  Arrows on target.  Success.

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A few hours later we were on a farm with the Marines.  We rode a “side by side” through the farm and got to take in views we would not have otherwise seen.  Then, Meghan was invited to shoot a rifle.  With a little hesitation she was guided.  And I watched as her tense face turned into a smile.  There were 4 paper targets 100 yards away.  She fired several times and hit paper repeatedly.  First try, “Oddly relaxing,” and successful.

Maybe because we live in the zone of “Stay alert!  Delays Possible!”  that seizing the opportunities as they present themselves is even easier and more logical.  I didn’t shoot a bow or a rifle, so I can’t be sure.  But, she is clearly not shy about learning new things.

The birthday party ballooned to over 50 people in the driveway and garage of this beautiful home.  There was mingling and talking, mostly with people I barely knew.  Meghan found the time to chat with each of the Marines.  She asked questions.  She got answers.  And, in some cases more questions.  But they each took time to speak, honest, and frank, about their experiences, and about her Grandpa.

I stole away some time to lay on the front lawn and appreciate the flags while enjoying the relative quiet of a “busy” street.


Meghan was met with generosity of tangible items, and generosity of kind spirits.  She now has a money clip and some Vietnamese money from the era.  She also has some special paintings, and a walking stick.  The latter two were gifts from “Uncle Moe,” who was a bit older than the rest.  After 3 tours in Vietnam, and 22 years as a US Marine, he had some tales to tell.


When she  asked what she should know about the Marine Corps., she was told “Brotherhood”.  The simplicity and depth of that answer was playing out over the weekend, and it made sense in concept and in real-time.  These “brothers” trained to never leave a man behind.  And in our case, that included his children and grandchildren.
The weekend went too fast, and before it was time to leave we even sneaked in a visit with some pigs down the road.  City girls have to make the most of things when they are around!

 

Preparing to leave on Sunday was harder than logic says it should have been.  But, we had spent the last 2 days enveloped in a Marine Corps “sandwich” of unconditional love and support.  We know now with these Marines there are no “goodbyes,” only “see you soon!”

As we drove I don’t think either of us spoke for at least 75 miles.  The enormity of it all was tough to digest.

She held the walking stick in one hand and the money clip in the other, wanting to make the weekend longer than it had been.

I cry often.  Meghan, not so much.  Yet, both of us were choking a bit.  It was the kind of experience that changes you.  The simple beauty of just fitting in.  Just because.

“Stay Alert! Delays Possible!”

Not just traffic delays, but real life ones too.  As we began the 400 mile trek home we contemplated Monday’s appointment in Manhattan – a quick toss back into reality.


I pondered whether it was right to show Meghan this world, and then take it from her so fast.  But, I knew it was.  It was a part of her.  A part of her history.  A part of her life.  It was something that I do not fully understand, and yet I needed to expose her too as well.

Dad was not a saint.  But, he loved us. Deeply.  There was never a doubt about that.   Even as he began to heal, he often struggled to find ways to express it.  It was a battle in progress, and he was winning.  But, he was called home before he could quite finish.

So, he left it to his “brothers,” his Marines.

And they did a good job.

This weekend was for the soul.

There’s plenty of time for

#beatingcowdens 

this week.

 

“The Few, The Proud…”

I have a pretty big family.  And among that family I boast countless uncles, great uncles, and aunts and cousins too.

But, I have uncles I’ve never met.  They are brothers to my father who died just about 14 months ago.

My father had 7 brothers and a sister who I’ve grown up alongside.  I have cousins galore, and I love them all.

But there is another part of my Dad’s life that only began to become real to me in the weeks preceding his death.  And that is where I began to learn about these other uncles.

And even today, as I sit, on this snowy day, in my office, in Dad’s chair, and with his old champion sweatshirt for warmth, I have plenty of time to reflect.

We spent today home.  Meghan and I were beat up by a schedule that is beyond our capability to maintain for extended periods of time.  We crashed. Hard.  Sometimes it’s easy to ignore this chronic illness we have.  Sometimes it’s easy to forget about this genetic mutation lying in wait to wreak havoc on our lives.  Sometimes we do such a good job pressing on – getting it all done – that we forget we need to pause.

Cowden’s Syndrome doesn’t cause the fatigue, per se.  At least we don’t think so.  But, somewhere in between the messed up blood counts, and the appointments, and MRIs and scans and trips to Manhattan, the fatigue finds its way in.  Add in surgery on the calendar for me in February.  Couple that with the raw determination of an 11-year-old who is intent on conquering the world – and you have focused school work, swim practice, meets, theater practice, and an epic amount of community outreach work as the date closes in on our “JEANS FOR RARE GENES” Fundraiser at the Hilton next month, and suddenly this exhaustion seems easily explained.

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/beating-cowdens-first-annual-jeans-for-rare-genes-fundraiser-tickets-14130024283

Suffice it to say, a January snow on a Saturday morning was truly a heaven-sent gift for us.

And so after the laundry is back under control, and the house is returned to reasonable order, I get time to sit with my blog – a place I have missed in the chaos of the last two weeks.

And while I have so many family and friends that I love so much, the reality is that when I had things on my mind – intense medical things.  I would always and without fail use Dad as a sounding board.  He would listen for hours with no judgement passed.  He would offer advice when he could, and respect when he couldn’t.

For large parts of my youth Dad was absent, almost completely.  I didn’t understand, but it was what it was.  Sometime after I got engaged in 1999 our relationship began a lot of repair work.  We talked more and more as the years past, but there was always a detachment.  There was a shield.  Even with us.

He settled on Staten Island finally, about 5 years before he passed away.  He lived with his sister, my aunt, and they were good company for each other.  He reached out.  He made an effort.  Slowly he started to let me in.

I was a psychology and education major in college.  I remember the lessons on PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Immediately so many things made sense, and I saw my father in those lessons.  But the real moment came when he said it himself during one of our long conversations.  “I have something called PTSD…” and there was an opening to a world I had never been allowed into before.

There was a young man – still in his late teens.  A young man who became a Marine.  One who enlisted with a few friends during a war that I knew precious little about until I began my own research.

Dad

My grandfathers, all three of them had fought in World War II and tales of their service were common.  Never in a bragging way, but matter of fact lessons and experiences and stories, told and shared my whole life.

I studied World War II in school.  I learned, probably not enough, but enough to carry on an intelligent conversation.  But, I as a teacher of young children, had precious little knowledge of the horrors that were the Vietnam War.

My Dad who left for that war never came back.  Sure, he survived treacherous battles in the jungle, but he never came back as the boy who grew up on the local streets with his friends and siblings.  He returned a changed man.

veterans day 3

My Dad gave his entire life for his country, even though his service record bills his active service as about 3 years (of that 13 months were in the jungles of Vietnam,)  He came back traumatized, confused, and unsettled.  One of the talks we had after the acknowledgement of the PTSD included, “I spent the first 40 years after I came back thinking everyone else was crazy, and the last 5 thinking maybe it was me.”

Years of wandering allowed him to make “friends” with lots of people in lots of places.  But in reality Dad was a “man’s man.” It was easy for people to trust him and share with him.  Many people who viewed him as friends knew very little about my Dad the man.

Dad with a buddy in Central Park
Dad with a buddy in Central Park

As he got sick Dad authorized the release of his medical and service record to me.  He knew I would pore over every detail and search and question, and hopefully find answers no one else could.  I searched and I read and I researched and I asked, but in the end the course of events was set to be what it was.  During that process though I read, first hand accounts from my father about things I had never known.

I also got to spend more time in his apartment.  And there were three pictures there.  And Dad would talk briefly about those pictures.  And I would wonder about the other men behind those eyes.  And how their lives had turned out.

Thomson, Merkel & Zeppie close up

After we buried Dad in December of 2013 I continued my quest through our local Congressman to get his service records reviewed.  Still in a deep quest for closure I uncovered some photo CDs in Dad’s things.  Most were of photos taken by him.  One was marked Vietnam.  On it were photos not taken by Dad, of Marines who served with my him.  There were pictures of men, pictures of war, and documents that I had never seen.

Not long after that,  a conversation with Holly, a woman who we all love, who shared a long relationship with Dad, produced a contact list for Dad’s Marines.  The names matched the names on the photos and I set about writing letters to each of them.

I sent out letters to each of them, looking for specific information.  I knew my hope was a longshot.  I was looking for recall of events that had taken place over 45 years prior.  I sent out 18 letters.  I expected I’d be lucky if I heard from one of them.  Why would they answer me?

And that is where I learned of the uncles I never met.

Aside from the 2 Marines who had predeceased my Dad I had responses from all of them.  Every single one of them reached out to me, to offer condolences, to tell a story, and to offer support.  I laughed and cried and healed more during that month than I could have imagined possible.  These men, together for a relatively short window of their lives, were deeply bonded as brothers forever.  These were my “other” uncles.

semper fi

And I connected with the men from the photos, “Merck and Zepe” as Dad called them.  To listen to their tales of stories I had never heard, was a gift I could not have imagined.

But there is one.  One “Uncle” who has been there for me this past year in ways far beyond what I could have ever imagined.  “Uncle Alan” had listened to my tears, taught me, comforted me, and supported my endeavors.  His compassion knows no bounds.  He has prayed for my family, asked about my daughter, given me peace on Father’s Day, and has done more for me than I  imagine he will ever know.

he who shed blood with me

Last week I was at the height of exhausted and in my mail was a package from “Uncle Alan.”  In it was the book “90 Minutes in Heaven” as well as a bumper sticker, a T-shirt, and a “US Marine AM-GRUNTS” hat.  I cried.  Tears of gratitude.  For God’s introduction to family I never knew I had.  I cried tears of healing, as I come each day to understand more about my father through these men who call him “brother.”

Dad and I spoke sometimes, towards the end,  about the “whys.”  He wondered why he got to come back and live his life, when his dear friend Tommy was KIA.  He wondered about mine and Meghan’s Cowden’s Syndrome.  He wondered if there could be a connection to his ruthless exposure to Agent Orange.  If somehow that genetic mutation could have arrived in me through him.  He wondered about the possible connection to the cancer that took his life.  We wondered together lots of things we will never know the answer to.

But there  are things I don’t wonder.

Dad’s life had purpose.  It had meaning.  It left impact on everyone he ever loved.  Out of his suffering came great strength, and a deep faith in a good and perfect God.  I don’t wonder for a minute where Dad is now.  I am sure he is flying free in Heaven.

I don’t wonder “how” we got Cowden’s Syndrome.  Cause we have it.  I don’t even wonder “why” we have it.  Because we do.

And who we are develops through our experiences in life.  And while there are some I would have preferred for us not to endure, I don’t wish to change them.  We are learning to be the best people we can be.

And along the way, there are people looking out for us.  “Uncles” we never knew.

Alan signs his letters “S/F” for the Marine Corps motto “Semper Fi” – “Always Faithful”

A permanent addition to my ankle...
A permanent addition to my ankle…

I have not known truer words.

I plan to get to visit “Uncle Alan” in June.  We have lots more to talk about.

Blessing abound if we keep our eyes open.

something to be grateful for

Pain is temporary….

At least I hope so.

I vaguely remember a shirt my older sister used to wear when she was swimming.  The message was something like this.

pain is temporary

It was motivational, meant I am sure to remind the young swimmers that their fatigue from grueling practice would translate into race times that would forever keep them proud of their accomplishments.

And in that case, I hope the pain, the pain of lap after lap, translated into successful meet times that led to a gratifying feeling of pride.

But what about when it’s not that neat?  What about when you can’t sort it out in a package, or tie a bow on it?

There is emotional pain.  The empty pain of loss.

As I type, I have two lit candles on my desk, celebrating the 60th birthday of my uncle in heaven.  The pain of his wife, his children, his mother, my dad, (his brother,) can not be explained.  The loss is raw.  The pain is an open wound.

I think of my college roommate, and her nephews and sister-in-law preparing for Christmas without their 36 year-old father.

I think of the loss of my Dad, just over a year ago, and the flood of memories and seasonal connections complicating my every thought.

I think of the loss of our beloved Allie Girl last week.

I think… and I think.  And I know how badly it hurts.  And I know we are so far from alone.  I am grateful not to be able to imagine the depth of the pain some feel.

pain is real

Pain is temporary…

There is the pain of anxiety.  Very real.  Depression.   Equally crippling.  I’d be lying if I said I haven’t battled with both my whole life, amped up by this Cowden’s Syndrome torment under which my girl and I will live forever.

Try as I might, the worry is stifling.  The sense of urgency all the time is exhausting.  There is little room for error.   Screenings, medications, lab work, surgery.  All scheduled with precision to conserve sick days and minimize missed school.  Except when I can’t.  Like when it’s an emergency.  Then we just roll with it.

The anxiety weighs on my girl as well.  11 years old, trying so hard to be normal, and to fit in.  But, the reality is there is no “normal.”  So she fakes it as best she can, blessed to be surrounded by some spectacular kids.

But, she gets mad.  Mad at the doctor, mad at her knee, mad that she takes two steps forward and three steps back, in this poorly choreographed dance she is forced to participate in.  Mad that she can’t be “the best,” because her own best is unacceptable to her.  And some days when she is extra mad, I wonder about the thyroid.  Cause its absence affects all things.  And this week came the phone call that the numbers have increased 400% over the last 3 months again.  So we continue to raise the dose of a medication that I don’t think does a damned thing for her.  We play the game while I search, frantically for someone to “get it.”

Pain-can-change-you

Pain is temporary…

Except when it’s chronic.  And it involves every single minute of every day.  And the one medication that does work is off-limits.  And the surgery to plug the hole in the artery that was likely provoked by the absence of THAT medicine, causes and abundance of scar tissue and this feeling of a lump the size of a cashew or two exactly where the knee should be able to bend.  And you have no way of knowing if its going to get better, or happen again.  Any minute.

And the pain, well if it was only in your knee it would be better.  But it’s in the shoulder, and the neck, and maybe it’s caused by the feet over a 1/2 size off, or that slight curve in the lower spine, or something else no one cares to figure out.

So, you gather your spoons.  And you borrow a few.

keep-calm-and-save-spoons-2

And you press on.  Through sixth grade and onto the principal’s honor roll, and through student council, and drama club, and fundraising activities, and swimming your butt off.  Cause what choice do you have?

hopeful-spoon

Pain is temporary…

We talk about injury pain, vs healing pain.  Tonight’s pain counts as the healing type cause it was generated largely by exercise.  This pain is movement in the right direction.  Swimming heals the soul.

You have to find what heals the soul, or you will lose your mind.  There is no other way.

Pain is temporary… cause it needs to be.

You have to find what brings you peace.

Two weeks ago on December 4th, I chose this.  The butterfly breaking out of the cocoon.  Free forever.

photo (6)

I miss my Dad.

My heart is full.

But we press on.  Because pain is temporary.  Even for all of us in the middle of the worst pain of our lives.  The sun will shine again.

Channeling that energy into raising awareness, fundraising, and helping those whose sun hasn’t come back up.

hero

Jeans for Rare Genes Fundraiser  (Click here to support our fundraiser for the Global Genes Project and the PTEN foundation)

We are living real life, AND

WE ARE BEATING COWDEN’S TOO!

Happy Birthday Dad

** I rarely go off the topic of Cowden’s Syndrome, but this is just so necessary.  Tomorrow April 18, 2014 my Dad would have been 66.**

Dear Dad,

It’s hard to imagine a year has gone by since you sat at my dining room table.  We shared pizza, and red wine, and ice cream cake.  And you, who had eaten in some of the most gourmet restaurants around, were so gracious, and thrilled to enjoy a simple dinner with Meghan and Felix and I in honor of your birthday.

You even tolerated coffee from my Keurig with a warm smile.

I still remember that night as if it was yesterday.

dad birthday 2013b

 

Make a wish!
Make a wish!
"Don't take out the knife!"
“Don’t take out the knife!”

And here I sit  a year later… in awe of all that has gone on.  Stunned that you aren’t here to celebrate.

Thinking back your year is proof positive that we need to live each moment with the knowledge there is no guarantee of tomorrow.

But, you knew that.  You learned that lesson many years ago as a young Marine in the jungles of Vietnam.  Then, you lived it.  And you learned, and you grew, and you learned some more.  But, you lived each day without malice in your heart, and with the never ending desire to do the best you could with what you had where you were.

We didn’t always have it quite right, Dad.  There were years where you weren’t around too much, and I missed you.  And I’ll admit to even spending some of those years a bit angry.  But, I grew up.

And Mom, she did the right thing.  I got to work through it all, and come out better and closer to you in the end.  Heck. I made out like a bandit, because when Mom married Ken, I got to enjoy all the benefits of two Dads.  Not a replacement – either one, but two!  What a lucky girl…

When you came back to Staten Island a few years ago I was thrilled.  Now, a mile away from my house, I got to see you more than I even had before.  You got to see Meghan.  And I watched a relationship blossom between you.

Dad and Meg recital 2013

You were there for her dance recitals, and some swim meets.  You watched her on days off from school.  You taught her chess.

You got some time to get to know her during years when life had kept us apart.  I felt so much closure.  So much love.

You smiled all the time when you were with her, and that smile is what she carries with her each day even now.

Even when we didn’t see each other, we spoke.  A lot.  I loved bouncing ideas off of you, and even when we didn’t agree, I loved hearing your point of view.  You always HEARD me.  You never JUDGED me. You listened intently to mine and Meghan’s medical issues, and I valued your perspective.   I looked forward to talking to you.  Especially on the cell phone (hands free of course!) on my way home from Whole Foods.  Your voice always gave me energy after a long night.

Except for that one night.  When I called you on a Friday from the road back from Whole Foods, and you told me you were in ICU.  Stunned, I told you I’d see you in the morning.  You said I didn’t “have” to come.

We spent a lot of time together those days as they ran test after test.  You were getting edgy.  A caged bird.

I took you home after the answers stayed sketchy.  But I was worried.

You who could walk miles.  You who could work countless hours.  You who was always busy.  You were tired.

Your skin told the tale of jaundice.  Your eyes were tired.

Meghan asked and asked to see you.  You put her off.  You wanted to feel better.

Then on Halloween we got a 5 minute visit…

dad and meg halloween 2013

And even though she was worried about you, that hug carried her for quite some time.

There were appointments.  Back and forth.  I was so grateful to be able to take you.  And I was so thankful for the time we had – to talk about everything and anything.

We had some easy conversations, and we had some of the hardest conversations I will ever have in my life.  But I am grateful for every one of them.

You see I always loved you – but not until those last months did I really get to know you.

“I always wanted to exclude you from my pain, never my love.  But the two became one in the same.”

And in that moment there was peace.  You spoke what I knew.  In very few words you elaborated on the Marine who returned from Vietnam, forever changed.  You told me about the hurt, and the heartache, and the fear.  I learned later the scope of the losses you suffered through, and the horrors you experienced.  No wonder.  No wonder at all.

The months got all garbled up.  There was Shane, in to stay for a while, at exactly the right time.  There was Lisa, at the ready to drive anywhere we needed to be.  your “team” converged, got our acts together, discovered our skill sets and became unstoppable.

Road Trips to Columbia Presbyterian.  Gut wrenching diagnostic testing.  Your strength – surreal.  Your focus – laser sharp.

You were back to survival mode.  A Marine in the jungle.  We were in awe.

That last week at the VA was torture, and therapy all at the same time.  You had made your wishes clear.  We knew the mission.  We just didn’t like it one bit.

marine's mission

And when the angels grabbed hold of you on December 4th, and we knew that you were finally able to rest, there was a painful peace among us.

The days of your funeral were surreal.

The days after it just as intense.  So many people had to be notified.  Somewhere in your 6,000 contacts we found the strength to reach out to those who loved you so.

Perhaps if I had one wish, one regret- it would be that you didn’t know how much you were loved.  By your family, and by those whose lives you touched on a daily basis.

You changed people.  Your impact was intense.

You suffered too much Dad, with the physical, and emotional traumas of a war fought as a young man.  For 45 years you bore burdens too intense for the strongest to process.  You were tired.

You told me once about Cowden’s Syndrome to never let it define Meghan and I.  You told me to listen to my heart and my gut, just as much, if not more than I listened to the doctors.  No worries Dad.  I haven’t forgotten.

I am sad that the cancer reached up and snatched you away – with no warning.  I am at least in that way grateful for the warning system that is Cowden’s Syndrome.  But, don’t worry Dad… I will never forget.

You know in the months after you died I reached out to your Marines.  The few you spoke a little about, and the ones I had never heard of before.  There were photos, and then names, and then long conversations.  They, each of them a gentleman, called me upon hearing of your death.  With some I laughed.  With some I cried.  With all I felt a bond.  They were also your brothers, each one.  I learned the meaning of “Semper Fi” in those conversations.  More than 45 years later they wanted to know what they could do.  And they meant it.

You would be so proud to know.  You are remembered.  Not as a saint, but as a good man.  A man who made mistakes, and owned up to them.  A man who loved, deeply.  A man who desired to make the world better.  A man who taught by living.  A man who saw beauty through his camera lens.

You made a difference; to your Marine Brothers, to your parents, to your children, to your grandchildren, to your siblings, to your nieces and nephews, to the friends form all walks of life who loved you so, to the people you worked for, to the people you worked with, and to the people who worked for you.

We played music the day before you died.  You smiled.  We laughed.  That is the spirit I hold close in my heart – even through my tears.

Dad Marine shirt

Dad Washington summer 2013

Happy Birthday in Heaven.  Give Angel Meghan a kiss for me.

Semper Fi Daddy.  Always faithful.  Until we meet again.

All my love,

Lori

marine