Living at the edge of a new leaf

img_7779I am living at the edge of a new leaf.
—Arthur Sze, “The Shape of Leaves”

The day after Thanksgiving I grabbed a plastic Target bag, its red chevrons dancing as I walked down my street to the best tree on the block. I had watched the gingko for weeks, doing its annual morph from green to yellow, knowing that by Thanksgiving, most of that gold in the branches would lie on the ground.

And this year there was no one to go out each morning and rake the leavings into the gutter for the weekly pickup. I would not drive by and see a little old man bent to his task, determined to clean up around that grand tree. His wife no longer worked in the kitchen. Their children were long gone.

Byron Patterson died two years ago. His wife Ellen died last November. And for much of this year contractors have swarmed over the little house at 816 Santa Ynez Way, fixing it up, replacing the old windows, giving it a new front door with a bit of stained glass at the top, painting the whole thing, of course. I could only imagine what they were doing inside—probably sanding and restaining the old oak floors that, like mine, had weathered under the feet of who knows how many people and animals.

I hoped that it was being renovated because a family member wanted to live there. But when the for sale sign went up on the lawn under the still-green gingko, I knew all that snazzy-ing up was to get the little house ready for new owners in our highly desirable, crazily overpriced neighborhood.

I haven’t looked on the realtor’s website to see what they want for it. Somehow I can’t bear to know. But I did look up his obituary again, and I was reminded that Byron Patterson taught English at American River College for 30 years and, according to his obit, “never met a faulty pronoun reference he couldn’t give an F to.” The obit also says, “He earned the ire of the Los Rios [Community] College District management when he helped organize the teachers’ union there.”

He served as a member of the Sacramento Central Labor Council and, the obit says, “a high point in his life was walking with Cesar Chavez.”

By the time he died, after 63 married years to Ellen, Byron Patterson had lost two sons to death. Only their daughter Susan remains, so she must be selling the house. Part of me wants to call her and say I want that house, though it will probably sell for a fortune. I suspect someone also wants it and is already dreaming of living there.

Still, the for sale sign’s been on the lawn for a good month now. I was rather relieved that the house remained unoccupied as I took my gingko leaf-filled bag up on the porch to peer in the windows. The house looks brand new inside, staged within an inch of its life. The floors are perfect, as is the paint, and it looks as if they opened up the kitchen from its formerly dark, enclosed space so it flows into the small dining room on the driveway side of the house.

I unlatched the gate to see a new deck off the back, new French doors into the small master bedroom at the rear. The lone tree in the back yard stood bare.

I used to stop by from time to time with brownies, just to be neighborly. Six years ago I wrote a poem about the Pattersons’ gingko that I gave to Mr. Patterson one day while he was out in the yard, before I knew that he’d been an English teacher. I think I told him that I taught writing at City College, and from under his English driving cap, I saw his eyes crinkle and his lips curl under a bushy mustache. He did not reveal his past life.

I wish now that I’d stopped and talked to him, see if he’d engage in a little shop talk. Given that line about the faulty pronoun reference in his obituary, was he a tough-guy English teacher who’d fail students for minor infractions?  God knows I’ve wanted to fail students for dumb mistakes, for doing things that I’ve told them over and over in a composition class are just flat-out wrong, or for misspelling names in a news story. But I can’t teach from that place. It doesn’t work. I tried it early in my career. It just shuts people down, makes them feel like failures instead of beginners who could learn from their mistakes.

Instead, I purple their pages with my ballpoint and make them do it over again. The ones who are serious about journalism in particular or writing in general seem to get it. Some never do. But, with luck, I hope I’ve helped them become better and more confident writers.

I think Mr. Patterson and I would have had a lot to chat about, if I’d taken the time in inquire. What if I’d lingered, ankle deep in those fallen gingko leaves, and engaged him in conversation? Maybe Ellen would’ve invited me inside for some tea to go with the brownies and sit in the front room with its old oak floors, relax on the sofa. I could’ve asked about her life, asked him about his teaching and activist days.

“Thank you for helping to start the teachers’ union in the district,” I’d say. “Tell me about that. And what was it like to march with Cesar Chavez?”

But I didn’t know those things about him then. I learned them from his obituary. Why didn’t I reach out to that man with the bushy mustache?

Instead, I left him with a poem and brownies. I waved at Ellen when I saw her in the front window of 816 Santa Ynez Way, then trotted down the street to my house.

And now I wonder who will come to live in that house and, I hope, care for that gingko—not cut it down because it drops those golden fans all over the yard. When they fall, they flutter as if they were held in the hands of young Asian women. The magical fans carpet the grass under the gingko; they spill onto the street and into the gutter, a big swath of leafy sunshine that makes me smile on these cloudy, foggy, rainy days.

Winter is coming, the gingko reminds me. And after that, spring.


Here is the poem I wrote in 2010 and gave to the Pattersons about their magnificent tree:


thousands of little yellow fans
artfully arranged on crewcut grass
just before Thanksgiving.
For twenty-three seasons, I have
watched this neighbor’s tree
leaf greenly each spring,
weather the furnace of Sacramento
summers, then shudder itself
into its bright yellow sweater
come fall.

Now the gingko relaxes into
what is coming, lets go,
sends each fan waltzing its way
groundward like so many pieces
of scallop-edged origami.

As families turn to the table
fat with turkey and stuffing,
I come to the gingko every year
with plastic bag in hand
to retrieve those last spots
of sunshine, bound for glass bowls
spread around my house,
enough to last me
through winter.




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Whaaa? you say? C’mon, you’re an English teacher, for heaven’s sake, Jan. You can’t just make up words like that.

And I would tell you this: Sure, you can. That’s the fun of playing with words. Writers do it all the time.

But I didn’t make up this one. Dick Schmidt did. It’s lovely to have a life partner who took photos all his professional life and is also no slouch as a wordsmith (wordschmidt?!), too. I can’t remember when he started telling me that he was “gratitudinous” for me, but I loved it as a synonym (or corruption, depending on how you look at it) for “grateful.” Because he is. And I am for sosososo much.

Tis the season for giving thanks now, and I often give a prompt to my writing groups this time of year to make a gratitude list and then write into one or more things on the list. Here’s one of mine: Just last Friday night, I stood behind a microphone at the Sacramento Poetry Center and hosted a reading of a bunch of those writers who call themselves Team Haag.



Soul of the Narrator chapbook reading, Sacramento Poetry Center.

Each year my friend Laura Martin designs a lovely chapbook for us, a little journal of our writing called Soul of the Narrator. We put out the word and filled SPC with 54 folks who came to listen and applaud. And I overflowed with gratitudinousness to see all those people, some of whom are strangers who don’t write with us, who don’t even know us, enjoying the work of people I adore.


Team Haag writers writin’ in the loft.

That’s a biggie on my gratitudinous list: people who come to write with me, read their brand new baby work aloud and are so supportive of each other (and me). And because they’re really fine writers, people who come to hear us, who think they don’t like “poetry readings” leave astonished at what a good time they had. “You guys are good!” more than one person says, which is always nice to hear.

I am also gratitudinous for experiences that change my life. The biggie this year, as many know, was when I traveled this summer to China with Nikki Cardoza as she brought home her newly adopted daughter Annie. Nikki volunteered in orphanages in Hong Kong and China for a decade. There she met Annie, who has cerebral palsy and is now 7. Annie, who is getting regular physical and speech therapy, is making great progress.


Annie and Nikki Cardoza

Look at this! Annie can stand a bit with her snazzy pink butterfly leg braces and push herself up with her forearms on her chair as her mama steadies Annie’s shoulders.


Annie watching “Annie”

I also recently had the great pleasure of introducing Annie to “Annie,” the 1981 movie version (we need to show her the newer one, too). The irony of showing a movie about girls in an orphanage to a girl who lived in orphanages certainly struck me. And Annie seemed somewhat interested. And then the Annie on the screen started singing “Tomorrow,” and Annie brightened in her wheelchair. She let out a squeal. She knows that song. I sang her that song as we traveled through China with her, especially when she was having a hard time. Her mama sings her songs from “her” musical, too.


Annie Cardoza

Look at that smile. “The sun’ll come out tomorrow,” indeed. Nikki and Annie changed my life this year, and I am beyond gratitudinous to them for enlarging my world and deepening my heart.

I continue to be thankful for my good family (“them what’s made ya,” as one of my college professors used to say), this good looking group below, of whom my mother, seated on the right, is the matriarch at a spry 85. (Do not call her a senior citizen; she plans to live to be a healthy 120, she will tell you.) She sings in two Sweet Adelines’ choruses each week. Barbershop harmony’s her thing, and she’s been a baritone for 52 years. My sister, Donna Just, married Eric 32 years ago, and the produced two fabulous children, Lauren and Kevin, whose partners Gerald and Ashley, respectively, are also fine additions to the group.


The fam: (top row from left) Gerald, Lauren Eric, Donna, Jan, Dick and (seated from left) Dave the dog, Ashley with Lola, Kevin with Wendy, and Darlene/Mom

And I cannot complete my gratitude list without thinking of two dear friends who have moved on to their next incarnations this year: Dick’s former wife, Mary Lou Mangold, a dear friend to both of us, and the oldest member of the Team Haag writing group, Heide Juchnik. They died a day apart in February, and they occupy significant spaces in the hearts of many, including mine.



Mary Lou (top) and Heide

Though I am also gratitudinous for my longtime good teaching gig (thank you, Sacramento City College) and my lovely old house (now a spritely 94 years old), I find that when it’s time to make my list of thankfuls, what appears on it most are names of loved ones. It is a list tattooed on my heart of those here and gone but who never disappear because the companion spirits stay with us always… as do the living ones whom we see only occasionally. They are part of the warp and weft of our lives, and they make even the most difficult days the best reason to hang around and see how it all turns out.

Chief among those loved ones, of course, is this fella, posing with me on our favorite stretch of beach on the north shore of Kauai:


Jan and Dick in one of their favorite places on earth.

We love Hawaii, but we have a special fondness for this particular spot where the land meets the sea, framed by the triangular peak locals know as Makana and “South Pacific” fans know as Bali Hai (it did a famous stand-in for the mythical island in the 1958 movie of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical). This man takes me to places like this in the depths of winter to warm up my feet and be restored by those turquoise waters. He has been my loyal supporter and best friend for three decades. And if I had to choose one person to whom I am most gratitudinous, it would be Dick Schmidt, ace photographer, superb partner and truly the best man I know.

And to all of those who read these blog posts, who follow along and want to know what happened next… thankyouthankyouthankyou. Here’s to a fine Thanksgiving for all.

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Fumbling in the dark

Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times,
if one only remembers to turn on the light.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Searching for the light switch,
fumbling in the dark, thinking,
not again, the dark,
not again having to buck up
to face those who, with glad hearts,
would destroy so much goodness,
who would wage war on kindness
and generosity and the very earth
on which everyone walks

because they see themselves
as an “us” that does not include
so many—not this one or that one
or that whole group of ones over there,

especially not those in the dark,
who, because of the embodied dread,
cannot find the switch that would
enlighten things, that, once flipped,
might stay on for a while.

The thing is not to lose heart,
the thing is not to give in to the fear
they’re peddling, the hatred,
the thing is not to see anyone as other,
not even them.

The thing is to keep groping in the dark,
find the candle and the match
to strike against some hard surface,
watch the blue center of the tiny flame
flicker deeply within the orange,
feel its baby warmth for a bit.

But what if the match goes out?
a small voice cries.

Find another
and another
and another,
hand them to the others
there in the darkness, too,
and strike them against
a hard place, all together,
until the shadows regenerate
into an ocean of blue flame
embedded in orange,

like the descending sun before
it pretends to sink into a cobalt sea,
that big, blazing ball of light,
which has no sense of its
alleged disappearance,
which has no doubt that
it will rise again.



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this simple learning

comes in a bright yellow
tin box left behind
by a Japanese woman
who lived in America
for half a century,
a naturalized citizen
who remained stubbornly
Japanese all her 86 years,

who allowed her body,
near the end, to willingly
fade away, to shrink
into a tiny cocoon of self
until that self floated
into a chrysalis of hope,

which rests here
in her yellow tin box,
in the zippers extracted
from clothes she or her
husband wore, in the brown
lace for basting wrapped
around a cardboard
rectangle, in a small
section of elastic,
and in two pieces
of rice paper wearing
a grid of brown vertical
lines and, between them,
neat kanji cascading
down the page,
a waterfall of words
I can’t read,

but I hope are
meaningful ones,
perhaps a letter from
her brother in Fukushima
prefecture before
the tsunami,
telling her about
his family, the weather,
the progress on restoring
the family tomb
in the cemetery;

she proudly showed me
the photos—the new
white steps up to
the cenotaph pointing
into the blue
of a new morning,
the kanji proclaiming
the family name —
Saito — descendants
of samurai, she’d say,
brave people, she’d say,

like you, I’d say,
as she’d duck her chin,
lower the shades
of her eyes
and blush.

(for Heide Juchnik, departed friend and long-time writing group member; photo by Windee Dawson)


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Annie update: a month at (her forever) home


Two Joyful Purple Dragons

I lie awake in a trundle bed next to Annie, listening for her in the dark. As she sleeps, she periodically cries out as if she’s hurting, and when I rise to look at her (as her mama does many times every night), Annie is sound asleep, eyes closed. Is this a bad dream? A muscle spasm? No one knows, but this is one of the things that has yet to be determined about Rosie Suzanne Cardoza, once known as Long Xin Zi (Joyful Purple Dragon), now called Annie.

What I do, when Annie cries out, is to rise from my place on the trundle bed next to Annie’s, check on her and perhaps turn her to her opposite side since she can’t turn herself. She sleeps propped up on one side or the other. Or, if she’s rolled on her back, which she can do, perhaps straighten her body. Annie has a tendency to pretzel herself into some awkward positions with her crossed legs. She sleeps with a foam pillow between her legs to help with that a bit.

During the deep of one night, close to dawn, Annie cries, and Aunt Jan first tries some reiki, then a little head massage. I stroke the side of Annie’s head and make small circles at the base of her skull. I silently call on all the angels and saints, gods and goddesses and unseen helpers to help ease this child’s passage into sleep. I do the Buddhist lovingkindness practice—may you be peaceful, may you be at ease, may you be free from suffering. Who knows what works or doesn’t, but Annie does relax and sleep in her cool house on hot Sacramento summer nights.

And, if everyone is lucky, Annie sleeps long and well… and Nikki does, too.

As of today Annie has been in her new home with her mama, Nikki Cardoza, for a whole month. And what a month it’s been!

I’ve recently stayed overnight a couple of times so Nikki could get some uninterrupted sleep. No matter how old the new child you bring home, it seems, you’re in for a period of very little sleep. This has been true for Nikki, who maybe sleeps a few hours at a time. Annie is sleeping better; Nikki not so much. When you’re a single parent, this can be overwhelming. Nikki is handling it like the trouper she is, but she has been grateful for the break.

So Aunt Jan, who is currently not teaching, occasionally takes the overnight, as we used to say in the wire service business. We figure that Annie knows me and won’t be startled to find me in her room in the night. If she wakes and realizes it’s me (“Ayi Jan,” I whisper to her), she gives me her throaty “heh-heh-heh,” and then I have to coax her back to sleep. Best not to say anything, I’ve learned, just turn her and let her fall back into a deep sleep.

I go over to their house about 8 p.m. Nikki puts Annie to bed and reads her a story 8:30ish and by 9, the house is dark, and Nikki and Annie are on their way to sleep. (Last night Annie crashed by 7:30 p.m.) Not so for Aunt Jan, who is a later-to-bed type, but that’s OK because I read until I’m sleepy. And, like any good sitter, I’m on Annie patrol throughout the night. I don’t expect to sleep much. I’ll do that the next day when I go home.

I lie in the dark on the trundle bed closer and read one of the books I’ve downloaded on my new iPad (purchased specifically for the China trip). Its darkened screen with white type doesn’t awaken Annie, which is a blessing. Nikki is sleeping soundly, I hope, in her room next door, and I drift off here and there, but mostly I’m aware that I’m on nightwatch and what an honor that is.

In the mornings when Nikki and Annie are awake (once by 7; today Nikki got to sleep till after 8 a.m.), I am ready to crash, which I do when I go home. But first we all chat. Annie has her morning medications, Nikki whips up some oatmeal for Annie, whose current favorite programs on her mom’s iPad are “Mickey’s Clubhouse” and “Bubble Guppies.”

And look at what Annie can do, a month into her new American life:


I can hold my own SPOON!

—She tries to feed herself, which is tricky, because the darned spoon needs to go in the mouth horizontally (sheesh!). But she’s making progress. (I laughed out loud when Nikki sent me the photo above, with no accompanying caption. Very big deal!) Annie also tries to hold juice/applesauce pouches as someone squishes them into her mouth. And, just days ago, after Nikki placed a ball in one of Annie’s hands, she very slowly and intentionally brought it to her nose, then chortled about her accomplishment… as well she should.

—She can count to ten and identify numbers and shapes. Aloud. In English, though it comes out a little garbled. Still, she’s got a lot of the right sounds and inflections.

—She happily sings along to the ABCs song and “Twinkle Twinkle,” which, I’ve just realized, are sung to the same tune. She’s chirpy even in the early morning. She laughs when Aunt Jan lies on her bed and tries to sing “Good Morning to You” (“we’re all in our places with sunshine-y faces”) and croaks on the high notes. (Aunt Jan does not have the musical range she once did… especially in the early morning.)

—Annie’s gaining weight, which can be seen in her cheeks and around her ribs. She loves to eat most every food she’s given.

—She has visited the pediatrician and is being evaluated to go to school (people who know her skills say that she looks ready for kindergarten), for physical therapy and other services. Mama does home PT every day, including putting Annie on her tummy on a big bolster and urging Annie to lift her head to build up her neck muscles.

—She rides in the nifty child jogger, pushed by her mama, which puts Annie to sleep unless she’s wearing her headband earphones so she can listen and sing along to Chinese music.

—She has a new sitter (so Mama can get out and about alone a bit) and will attend daycare at a place for kids with special needs.

—Nikki figured out that Annie’s wheelchair does, in fact, fold, which would have made things a lot easier if we’d known how to do that in China and Hong Kong. Nikki had to watch a YouTube video, but she’s got the chair thing down now.

—Annie has been to a family reunion in Watsonville where she was warmly welcomed by many people.

—She loves to swim, which we learned in Hong Kong, but on hot days when the water is warmest she also loves to jump into the pool in Nikki’s arms. Still no problem with splashing or going underwater. And look at her cool floatie device:


Oh, and the Cardoza kitty (also named Rosie), who mostly hides under Nikki’s bed when strangers are in the house, is getting used to her new roommate… and company, too. Last night Rosie wandered into the living room as I sat on the sofa reading before I went to lie down in Annie’s room. I knew not to make a big deal out of it or exclaim, but I was tickled when Rosie, in mid-stride, turned her fluffy black head to look at me, noted my presence and walked on. Later she sat on an ottoman across the room to keep an eye on me.

I was not the only one on nightwatch—Rosie and I stood sentinel over the household along with all the companion spirits.

And on this night, I thought of my father, who died in 2004, whose 86th birthday fell after midnight. How much he would get a kick out of Annie, how touched he would be by Nikki and Annie’s story. And I realized… duh! He knows all this—he was along for the China journey, cheering us on the the whole time—as were so many of the unseen helpers of Nikki’s and Annie’s, too. As they will continue to be.

We are so very held, even when we forget that we are.

Amen. Or as they say in Hawaiian—amene (ah-men-ay).

Posted in Bringing Annie Home | 20 Comments

Those who made me

Roger Haag and Janis

Roger Haag and daughter Janis, 1958

We all want to share our birthdays with inspiring people, those we look up to, admire for their talents or brilliance. This is why I have have never been eager to admit that my birthday falls on the same day as… (dramatic pause) Arnold Schwarzenegger’s.

He used to get a lot of press on his day (our day) when he was governor of Cal-eee-for-nee-ya, and people occasionally mentioned him to me, knowing that July 30 was my day, too. I’m sure he’s a nice guy and a good man. But in the pantheon of humanity, I’m sorry to admit, Arnold was not the guy I’d like to be closely associated with.

It’s just a day, I’d tell myself. Big deal.

But this year, as this 1958 baby completes her 58th turn around the sun, my friend Deborah Meltvedt presented me with a card on which she’d compiled a handwritten list of others who also have July 30 birthdays (the parens are mine):

  • (actor) Hilary Swank
  • (actor) Laurence Fishbourne
  • (actor) Lisa Kudrow
  • (author) EMILY BRONTE (in all caps, Deborah wrote… a writer!)
  • (attorney) Anita Hill
  • (soccer player) Hope Solo

On my birthday this year, I met, as I typically do on Saturdays, with my writing group where nine people offered me more suggestions for birthday twins. I know of two others close to home: my across-the-street neighbor Sonya Hunter (who has complete three-quarters of a century on the planet) and my niece Lauren Just, who was born on my 29th birthday… and now she is 29.

As my father, whose birthday was Aug. 2, might’ve said about Deb’s list, “That’s more better,” just to watch my mother’s face turn purple at his intentionally bad grammar. (I can still get a rise out of her with “more better,” and I love it when she says, “And you’re an English teacher!” Yes, I am, too.)


Darlene and Roger Haag, Feb. 23, 1957

It is those two I am thinking of now, young and mad for each other in the first year of their marriage, 1957, making me some time in December. How surprised they must have been to learn, early in 1958, that they were about to be first-time parents in their first house they’d bought on Ostrom Avenue in Long Beach, Cal-eee-for-nee-ya. That house was down the street from my father’s sister, who became Auntie Lo to me and later to my sister—the best aunt ever who taught me how to aunt.

And yet my mother, who loved her job as a nurse at the Veterans Administration hospital in Long Beach, must have been a bit dismayed to realize that she’d have to stay home with an infant… who arrived a good month early, underweight and colicky and generally uncomfortable on the planet, a being not quite ready to be hatched yet. Daycare was either unavailable or beyond their means for someone who worked a lot of odd shifts in the V.A. psych ward.

My father was working, too, of course—until he lost his job several months before I was born, and a mad scramble ensued for my 27-year-old father to find a job. (I’m pretty sure there was no discussion of him staying home with the baby in 1958, though nearly 40 years later his son-in-law would take on the stay-at-home dad role with my father’s two grandchildren.)

My dad found a job, fortunately with the company that would employ him until his retirement near the end of the century—the job that put food on our table, as he would have said, and paid for braces and piano lessons and band instruments and college, ultimately, for two daughters.

My mother stayed at home with both of us until I was nearly 12, when she got credentialed and became a part-time high school nurse, which helped a little financially and a lot psychically since it both got her out of the house and put her skills and education to good use.

She was a woman born to work who spent much of her married life working at home as a mother and wife, supported by a man, something she warned her daughters not to count on. Into our tiny ears, she whispered, “You will grow up to go to college, find a career you love and not depend on a man to take care of you.”

She taught us to be independent, to make our own way in the world, which was a very smart thing. “You don’t have to marry and have children,” she told us. “But if you do, marry for love.”

My parents did, though they argued and tussled for many of the 47 years they were married, until my father’s death in 2004. But they were stubborn and loyal to each other and to their daughters, to whom they gave life and water skiing, band and a neighborhood newspaper, three dogs, a dozen cats, swimming lessons, college educations and tiny Honda Civics for commuting.

They did so much good they can never see. Only one of them still stands on the planet now, but I know they both hear my thankyouthankyouthankyou for my lucky and lovely life.

They were not perfect parents (none are, right?), but at my ripe age I can say with great pride that they were the perfect parents for me. I learned from both their mistakes and their successes (the latter of which far outweighed the former), going on to have plenty of my own. They built for me a strong foundation, literally, on the granite that undergirds Folsom Lake, where they plopped us in 1966, which is imbedded in my backbone, the rocks on which my life has been built.

They paved my way and that of my lovely and accomplished sister, the physical therapist and wife and mother to Lauren and Kevin, my sister who married a kind man who did, indeed, stay at home with their children for a time before becoming a high school art teacher. (Those two kids are now elementary school teachers… look what runs in our family!)

My parents gave me wings, which have flown me to where I am today—a former journalist/writer/editor/teacher/mentor/cheerleader to many. I learned that from them.

They set me on my way a good 40 years ago now and said, though it must have been so hard for them to do, “Fly, Janis Linn. We can’t wait to see what you will do in the world. We’re sure it will be wonderful.”

Dar, Donna, Jan-Mother's Day 2016

Darlene Haag (left) with daughters Jan (top) and Donna, Mother’s Day 2016.


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To the Chinese mother…

…who gave up a daughter found under
an overpass in Changsha, Hunan province,
May 22, 2009

She will never know the name you gave her
or the date you pushed her into the world,
though deep in her cells she holds a glimmer
of you and her father; in some dream time
she feels you still, perhaps your arms around her.

And you must have wanted someone to find her,
left, as she was, under an overpass where people
bicycled and walked and motorbiked. Someone
must have heard her cry and found her, picked up
her half-moon body, bent from birth,
her heels almost touching the back of her head.

Someone knew where to take her—
to a place of butterflies—
where some children morph into spirit
while others burst from their cocoons and thrive,
and your daughter thrived. She grew,
hands clenched and ankles crossed, and she grinned
her megawatt smile and people fell in love with her,
the little one someone named Long Xin Zi,

Joyful Purple Dragon,

taller now and called Annie by her new mama
who brought her to a far-away land where
the summers are hot but not humid,
winters are cold but not frozen, where she will
go to school and learn a new language and continue
to thrive, to be the best Annie she can be.

And she will achieve things you could not imagine for her,
though she will not know your name or the stories
of your people. Her new mama will make sure she keeps
her Mandarin as well as acquiring English, that she
remembers paper-thin rice noodles and yummy dumplings.

She will retain China in her bones.

And your daughter will close her eyes
and dream you every night, as you dream her—
she is with you always, thankful for every miracle
bestowed, not least her emergence
from the cocoon of you.

—Jan Haag

(#22 in the Annie series)

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You’re never fully dressed without a smile


Rosie Suzanne Cardoza… aka Annie.

(21st in the Annie series)

Sure, “Tomorrow” is one of her “Annie” songs, but it was not until I came home and looked at all the photos that I realized Annie’s real theme song might be this one. Just look at that megawatt smile, as the Butterfly House folks wrote in her scrapbook.


Annie on the day she came to Nikki, June 20, 2016, Changsha, Hunan, China.

And boy, do these lyrics to “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” fit this Annie:

Hey, hobo man,
Hey, dapper dan,
You’ve both got your style,
But, brother, you’re never fully dressed
Without a smile!


Annie enjoys cartoons on the iPad, Changsha, Hunan, China.

Your clothes may be beau brummelly
They stand out a mile,
But, brother, you’re never fully dressed
Without a smile!


Annie and Nikki Cardoza, Changsha, Hunan, China.

Who cares what they’re wearing
On Main Street or Saville Row?
It’s what you wear from ear to ear,
And not from head to toe,
That matters.

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Annie playing one of her favorite iPad games.

So, senator,
So, janitor,
So long for a while.
Remember you’re
Never fully dressed,
Though you may wear your best,
You’re never fully dressed
Without a smile

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Annie and Nikki Cardoza, Changsha, Hunan, China.

Despite all she’s been through, despite the challenges that await her, Annie’s bright-eyed optimism shines through and, according to all who’ve known her, this is what has been evident since she was found and brought to Butterfly House six years ago. Her strong spirit is clearly what has sustained her, what has helped her survive and grow to be 7 years old and a new American citizen.

She is one of only 18 Butterfly House children who have been adopted by their “forever families,” as they call them. (Butterfly Hospices, at their two locations in China, have cared for 170 children over the past 10 years, 104 of whom “have passed away peacefully in their ayis’ or nurses’ arms,” according to Katie Hill, head nurse at Butterfly House in Changsha.) Annie has beaten tremendous odds, this little survivor… and her infectious attitude of gratitude and joy makes everyone who meets her smile, too.

Nikki Cardoza is my hero for so many reasons. Adopting Annie is just one of them. Nikki’s can-do spirit and determination are exactly what will serve Annie so very well. Nikki is one of the strongest, kindest, most loving people I know—and a very good writer who has an incredible memoir to set down on the page… when she gets more than a few minutes to breathe. It is hers and Annie’s story to tell one day. I feel so lucky that I’ve gotten to share a bit of their new life together and record it here.

It’s been my honor and my privilege to go along on this journey of a lifetime—for Nikki and for Annie and, it turns out, for me, too. I wouldn’t have missed it. Not for all the tea in China!


Annie and Nikki ride the Star Ferry, Hong Kong.

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Going home



On the way to the airport.

(#20 in the Annie series)

I want to be one of those people on an airplane who plugs in earphones, clamps a U-shaped pillow around the back of their necks and dozes off instantly. Without even reclining the seat because to recline these days in coach means that the back of your seat is in someone else’s lap. Not cool.

•IMG_0780aTo put it mildly, I am not one of those people. I don’t recline, but I don’t sleep either. Sometimes I doze on a plane, if I’m lucky. But lack of sleep is par for the course on this trip. Honestly, I can’t begin to add up the number of hours I didn’t sleep. I don’t want to know. And Nikki, I’m sure, has had far less sleep than I have, what with turning Annie over every few hours in bed or getting up to change Annie’s diaper.

This has been one of the biggest challenges for all three of us: not enough sleep. And I was prepared for an even bigger one: the plane trip home with Annie.

Here’s the lead, as they say in the newspaper world: It was easier than we thought it would be. And harder in ways we didn’t expect. But there was assistance given, by both seen and unseen helpers, all along the way.


The Macphersons on the MTR on the way to the airport.

First, our best seen helpers. John and Anne came with us to help us haul all our stuff, which was a great kindness on their part because we are, after all, leaving with more stuff and one more person than we arrived with.

Second, we got whisked through security because Nikki had brought for Annie a big pouch of applesauce/juice that was larger than allowed on a plane—over 3 ounces. She told the ticket agent this, who frowned. “Unless you have juice boxes with straws on the plane, I’m going to need this for my daughter,” Nikki said firmly.

•IMG_0812aSome fussing ensued, which involved getting a supervisor and repeating the story again. The upshot was that the supervisor would walk us through the security area explaining this special need for someone with special needs. Front of the line, take off the shoes, put them in the plastic bins, throw our stuff on the conveyor, walk through the beepie thing. Nikki and Annie walked around, then Nikki got wanded, as they say, to make sure she wasn’t carrying anything more deadly than a pouch of applesauce. Annie got through scot-free. Nobody searched her.

Clearly, the wheelchair can be an advantage at times.

Next, because we were traveling with someone in a wheelchair, we got to board early in the “passengers requiring extra assistance or time” category. Nikki wheeled Annie down the jetway to line up behind an older woman in a wheelchair. She had to lift Annie from the chair so an attendant could take it and stash it in the luggage compartment after attaching a red tag that read “fragile.”

I had all our carry-on luggage, Nikki carried Annie, an attendant followed us with Annie’s carseat, and we made our way back to row 47, all three of us, to install the carseat next to the window.


Annie’s car seat with nifty head holder… John helping to prepare Annie for her first plane ride.

I should add here that Annie can’t sit up unsupported. The night before at the Macphersons’, Nikki had pulled the carseat from its box (which we had left in Hong Kong with Anne and John) and put Annie in it for the first time. Nikki had bought a nifty device made by a woman with a child with a disability that hangs over the back of the seat. It has fabric that wraps around the occupant’s face, Velcros under the chin, and keeps the head up straight.


Auntie Anne reads a funny story to Annie the night before we leave Hong Kong.

“Where has that been hiding?” I said as Annie’s supported head faced forward in the seat—no flopping, not requiring holding by anyone else. I was thinking how helpful that nifty device would have been at meal times.

“It was here in the box with the car seat,” Nikki said, and we exchanged a rueful glance. “I didn’t think to bring it.”

Ah, well. Live and learn. The best part was that Annie looked perfectly comfortable in her car seat. I had envisioned having to stuff towels and clothing around her to prop her up in it, but no, she was strapped in just fine, though her long legs hung down quite a bit.

That was the challenge for getting Annie to fit in her carseat in row 47 on the 747 that took us from Hong Kong to San Francisco on a 12-hour flight. Annie’s long legs sticking straight out and the lack of leg room. We were not in an exit row or one of those with extra leg room, so she was really jammed in there, her head held up by the fabric device.

But to our surprise she loved it. She seemed comfortable with the plane and the takeoff (which Nikki hates but talked to Annie as it happened… brave Nikki!). Annie seemed happy to eat in place. And she got a kick out of her bright yellow headband with the smiley face on it that has imbedded earphones so she can listen to music.


All that worked well for about five hours—through the first meal, Nikki feeding part of hers to Annie, who had already sucked down one of the verboten applesauce packets.

“This is great!” I enthused, and Nikki grinned at me. Could it be possible that we could get through a 12-hour flight unscathed?

Well, not exactly, no. Almost precisely at the five-hour mark, Annie began wailing. She’d been out of her car seat and laid on our two seats for a diaper change, but Nikki had put her back in the car seat. Annie was done. Major unhappiness, her pissed-off holler ricocheting around the cabin. Attendants came by asking urgently, “Can we do anything?”

No, we said, not unless you can get us to a place where she can lie down.

They couldn’t. The flight was full, every seat occupied. Nikki was talking to Annie, trying to calm her down. Annie wasn’t having it, probably thinking, Get me out of this chair! The people in front of us were half turned around, trying to see what was going on.

Nikki told me later that she said to Annie in Chinese, “Look, we are on an AIRplane with a LOT of people. You are disturbing them. I will try to make you more comfortable, but you need to TELL me what you want, not just scream. We have to be quiet around all these people.”

Much to her amazement (and mine, after she told me), Annie quieted down. She told her mother that she wanted to get out of her seat, please. I moved so Nikki could kneel on her seat and take Annie out of hers. Nikki put Annie on her lap and gestured for me to sit, Annie’s legs across my lap, where she see could both of us and watch the attendants walk by.

She was fine.

But clearly, she needed to lie down and rest, maybe even sleep, and the only way to do that was to put her across our two seats (we were not moving the car seat—it had no place to go). That meant I had to stand. Which I did. For about three-and-a-half hours altogether.

With a little time, Annie fell asleep on our seats, my Hawaii neck pillow meant for the plane under her head. (It’s hers now anyway, along with my purple plastic spork I travel with. Joyful Purple Dragon needs a purple spork, right?!) Nikki could sort of perch in the empty space created by Annie’s curved body, but it was in no way comfortable for Nikki. I took my iPad to the back of the plane. There was no place to sit. I tried sitting in one of the attendants’ jump seats, but one came along and told me that I was not allowed to do that. I asked if there was a place I could sit since a little girl was sleeping on my seat, and the attendant shook her head firmly. “We’re full,” she said, which I already knew.

So I stood at the back of the plane, trying not to be in the way of people waiting for the bathroom, trying to read one of my iPad books standing up. That worked for a time, but I was literally falling asleep on my feet when something caught my eye. I was standing behind the last row in the plane where two people were watching the same movie on each of their iPads. I didn’t know what it was, and I couldn’t hear the dialogue, but it had Meryl Streep in it with a horrible long hairdo, braided on one side as an aging rock’n’roller and some ’80s rock guitarist who looked vaguely familiar and Kevin Kline as this straight-looking lawyer-type. Oh, and Meryl Streep’s daughter, Mamie Gummer, whom I love just for her name.

When the people in front of me finished watching the movie, it popped back to a screen of United Airlines in-flight entertainment options. Oh! I thought. I have that app! (I don’t have many apps on the new iPad, but I have that one because Nikki had told me before the trip to download it.)


Meryl as Ricki (courtesy of TriStar Pictures).

So I “closed” my book (in the tablet sense) and poked the United app and got to the “in-flight entertainment options” and looked for a Meryl Streep movie, and there it was: “Ricki and the Flash.”

Hot spit.

I didn’t care if it was the worst movie in the world. It had Meryl Streep and her daughter in it, and there was rock music that might keep me awake. I hit the little icon that takes things from the two vertical lines (the “pause” button, as I think of it) to the sideways triangle (the “play” button to me), and I watched all one hour and 41 minutes of that movie.

Here’s my synopsis:

Meryl Streep is, as I intuited, is this aging rocker. Rick Springfield, an actual ’80s rocker, plays Streep’s guitar-playing boyfriend in the band, and Kevin Kline is her ex-husband who has raised their children after she, aspiring musician, ran off to pursue the rock’n’roll lifestyle. Which basically has gotten her to a regular gig with her band, Ricki and the Flash, at a dive bar in L.A. When her daughter (played by Streep’s real-life daughter, Mamie Gummer) falls apart after her husband leaves her, Ricki goes back to Indiana to the house of her ex-husband and his second wife (Audra Macdonald, who doesn’t sing, darn it) to try to help their daughter.

I have to say that I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. Good music, a sort of happy ending. Meryl Strep is amazing—she apparently learned to play guitar for this movie, and she does it convincingly. But then, Meryl Streep (who has transformed herself for just about every role she’s every played—Karen Von Blixen in “Out of Africa” and Julia Child in “Julie and Julia”—could read the phone book, and I’d find that riveting.

Mostly the movie helped me forget how tired I was, except that I eventually retreated to the rear galley, which had been abandoned by the attendants for a while, where I put the iPad on the stainless steel counter and leaned much of my upper body on it to watch the movie. If I could’ve laid down on the floor of the plane, I would have.

As we traveled backward in time through the night, I read and watched things on the iPad. I sat on the cold floor behind the last row of seats for a while. And as we bumped through the sky from time to time, I thought about turbulence and how it didn’t seem to faze Annie.

She gets jostled all the time. She’s not moving herself through space. She’s not in control, never is in control; she has to trust that whoever is pushing her in her chair or carrying her is capable and won’t drop her or run her into anything. And she does. She is now trusting this new mama who came such a long way to collect her.

Somehow Annie already knows that her new mama is there for her, for all happy moments and the bumps along the way, kind of like Meryl Streep in the movie, who comes back for her daughter when she hits a rough spot. We all hit rough spots, and they often make us stumble and sometimes fall. So what? We let others help us to our feet, and we keep going. The great thing is that Annie is moving—she’s typically happy to be moving—even when powered by something, someone else. And she has more trust and faith in her slender 7-year-old body than many people.

With that I got up off the floor of the plane and saw on the digital screens in the cabin that we were nearing San Francisco. I went back to our seats, and Annie was awake. She grinned at me. Nikki smiled, too, blearily.

“We’re almost there,” I said.

Nikki nodded and said to Annie in English, “We’re almost home.”


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Those waiting for travelers first see them on the monitor in the customs waiting area.

We are the last ones off the plane, as you are when one of your seatmates uses a wheelchair. Much to our consternation, the “fragile” sign placed on the chair’s aluminum before it was taken to the baggage compartment apparently wasn’t heeded. When it is returned to us at the jetway, the wheelchair has been mashed a bit. It’s a couple of inches shorter on one side than the other. Annie lists heavily to the right when she’s put in it.

Nikki is understandably upset, and, after getting through customs (a relatively quick process, much to our exhausted relief), we wait around a United counter as Nikki files a damage claim. They offer to have someone unbend the chair, but we’d have to wheel across the airport to have this done.

“The frame is bent on the wheel,” Nikki points out. “I can’t get this chair across the airport.”

It feels as if this part is taking forever. Annie is hungry, we’re all tired, and all I want is to get out of there and find Dick, who I’m sure is waiting for us, and Nikki’s parents, who I hope are waiting for her and Annie. This last half hour is for me the most excruciating of the trip, harder than standing for more than three hours, harder than all the heat and lack of sleep and every challenge we’ve met along the way.

I am on my last nerve. I love these two, and I am so glad I took this journey with them, but I want Dick to pick me up and take me someplace and feed me, after which he will drive me home as I doze in the car. I want to go home to my own bed and sleep for a month.

At last Nikki is done filing her claim, and we make it over the final hurdle. I am pushing the luggage cart; Nikki is pushing Annie. And when we finally wind around to the waiting area where our loved ones wait for us, my sweet man is out there taking photos of us on the video screen. He can see us walking toward him, this journey almost completed.

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And when two large doors open automatically as Nikki pushes Annie through them, there he is, my dear Dickie, camera in hand, and I happily relinquish all photographic duties back to the (retired professional) photojournalist in my life and give him a big hug and a kiss. I can’t remember when I’ve been so happy to see him waiting for me.

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Annie has a snack… one of the illegal juice bags after her arrival in San Francisco.

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Annie meets her grandparents (left) and their friend Sharon (right) who have brought with them Minnie Mouse.

And there are hugs and greetings all around, especially for Annie. And after a bit, Nikki’s mom and dad and their friend Sharon appear, and this is the other moment I have been waiting to see: Annie meeting her grandparents, her new family, who stand before her in a little half circle, smiling delightedly down at her as she looks up at them. They have brought her a Minnie Mouse, which matches the one on the shoes we bought her in Guangzhou. Life bestows little blessings of coincidence more often than we realize.

This is where her American life begins, this child with her shiny new U.S. passport. Annie will be driven home by her grandparents to Sacramento with her good mother, their whole lives ahead of them sure to be the greatest, grandest adventure, full of love and joy, difficulties and miracles. Lots of miracles.

Enjoy the ride, my girls. I’ll be following you, eager to see how the road unfurls before you.

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High tea


That tall building? The tallest one in Hong Kong? The International Commerce Center. Perfect place for high tea… once you get up there.

(#19 in the Annie series)

I love when Nikki said, “We’re going to high tea at the Ritz Carlton,” that she really meant HIGH tea. Not just a fancy, three-tiers-of-goodies kind of tea, but on the 103rd floor of the tallest building in Hong Kong kind of tea. That kind of high. The super-elegant kind of tea service that comes rarely in most of our lives. And it was, I have to say, a very nice first high tea for Annie.

It was also, however, a lesson in accessibility or a lack thereof.


Waiting for the lift on the MTR in Hong Kong.

Anne and John, Nikki and Annie and I all took our usual walk to the MTR station (there’s an entrance right below their building via stairs or three blocks away to the entrance with a lift) to travel not all that far in kilometers but took much longer than it should have. It turned out to be an hour’s journey to get to the tallest building in HK. Not because we couldn’t find it, but because once we’d arrived, we couldn’t find a wheelchair-accessible way to reach the 103rd floor. Stairs, elevators, all kinds of ways to move people on foot, but not for someone in a chair.

This was stressful because Nikki had made a reservation that the Ritz folks made clear they would hold only for 15 minutes before giving it to someone else. And we had traveled so far for this tea—deep into China and back—that we so looked forward to these moments of elegance and yummy bites.


Escalators and stairs: lovely but not wheelchair-friendly.

The Ritz Carlton occupies the top floors of the International Commerce Center, which consists of 108 floors, though it claims 118 above ground and four below. (It turns out that the Chinese/Hong Kongers believe that 4 is an unlucky number, so there are no floors with the number 4 in them in this building.) The Ritz Carlton occupies floors 102-118 and has, according to its website, 312 rooms that, if you look on TripAdvisor, start at about $400 U.S. per night. Also the world’s highest swimming pool and bar (called Ozone—great name) are on the 118th floor.

•IMG_0735aThis is all fine. What’s distressing is that this building opened in 2011—five years ago—and should have ideally been designed to get people high up in it without having to search for elevators, let alone change from one to another, necessitating the location of the new elevator because they are not all in the same place on every floor. (Not all the lifts go to all the floors, which is how things are done in tall buildings—I understand that.)


Nikki and Anne talk to an ICC employee about how to get to the 103rd floor.

But from the time we entered the ground floor, it became a challenge to make our way through the shopping mall (everywhere in HK lies a mall with the highest of high-end shops—who actually shops at Tiffany, Gucci and Louis Vuitton?) and locate elevators after asking too many people who didn’t know. We’d get to, say, the 48th floor and have to find another lift to the 102nd floor, the Ritz Carlton’s lobby, one floor below where we needed to be. Do you think we could find a lift to the 103rd floor? No, because there’s an escalator that most people use to get to that one last level. Even the front desk clerks were not sure how to direct us.


We’ve done our share of escalators and stairs on this trip, lifting Annie up and down, but, without saying so, Nikki and I were done with that. Our eyes must have flashed, “Find us a lift, dammit. This is a hyper-modern skyscraper. You can’t get all of us easily to the place we need to be?”

We were late for our reservation, but the staff had held it for us, though by the time we arrived, I could see steam puffing out of Nikki’s ears. (My ears were similarly steamy.) And I realized that we have become people who say things like, “Really? You can’t make an easily located elevator to the 103rd floor? You dump us out at 102 and expect us to get this child in a wheelchair up the escalator?”


There was, of course, a lift wedged into an obscure angled corner of floor 102, but it was not obvious and involved a confusing, circuitous route around mirrored walls that created a funhouse effect that was, by that time, not fun. Worse still was the path to the lift on floor 103—more mirrors that left us utterly turned around.

But by the time we had to make our way down, we had been well fed with yummy savories and sweets and teas, and we were not nearly as crabby. But when we arrived in the 103rd floor lounge area where they serve high tea, my mood was already changing. We could see through the floor-to-ceiling windows that we were, indeed, on top of the world. Nothing like a huge change in perspective to give you a new view of things. Such a sight from, oh, about 1,000 feet high can either make your blood pressure rise or fall, depending on how you feel about heights. Mine probably soared—not because I’m fond of heights—but to see Hong Kong so beautifully arrayed before us, like sweets on the triple-decker tray soon served to us, on a clear day with fast-moving clouds and blue sky and… oh, oh, oh, what magnificent light.


View from the 103rd floor of the ICC.

I forgot all about what it had taken to get us up there as we settled into cushy booths by the windows, Anne and John on one side of a nice table, Nikki and I on the other, Annie parked in her chair by Nikki. •IMG_0644aAnd as I calmed down and took in the breathtaking view (it really does take one’s breath away), I thought, Well, finally. Here we are. We have almost completed this incredible journey. Our last day in Hong Kong. Annie’s last day in Asia, for the foreseeable future.

Then came the next series of thoughts: All we have to do now is get home. On the plane. With Annie and all our stuff.

As the anxiety started to work its way up my neck, I pushed those worries away. Not now, I told myself. For a couple of hours on the top of the world, I relaxed, soaking up the elegance and the view. And the tea. I had lots of good tea. The four of us chatted as grownups do, and Annie had samples of all the sweets and savories and tea; there was nothing she didn’t like.




We each got to choose the variety of tea we liked, brought to each of us in a round silvery pot. •IMG_0685aCI ordered Weekend in Hong Kong Tea; Anne had Moroccan Mint; John had Choco Mint Truffle, and Nikki had French Earl Gray. Annie got a purple balloon on a stick, which she liked a lot, too.


This nice young woman delivered our tea and served our first cuppa, as they say in England.


And the food… it’s hard not to enthuse about the food. When the triple-decker plate arrived, it was all we could do not to dive in immediately—savories on the top deck, sweets on the middle deck, scones and cream and jam on the bottom deck. And yes, it all tasted as good as it looks.


And all this with the most gorgeous views out the windows:



I looked out the window behind me to see gorgeous shafts of godlight beaming onto the harbour.


John looked out a corner window to see if he could locate their apartment building from on high. He thought he’d found it.


Anne takes in the view, too, as I did… with the amazing camera on the iPhone:


And, through it all, this new mother and daughter duo snuggled and laughed, thoroughly enjoying their high tea in such a high place.



How much fun can two people have with a purple balloon? Quite a bit, it turns out, and this is how I will remember Nikki and Annie on their last day in Hong Kong. Despite the challenges of becoming a family, of getting to this high place, they persevered as a team. They made it. I get the feeling that this is a metaphor for their life together: There will be barriers. Meet them. Go the extra mile when necessary. Breathe. Have patience. Find ways around them.  Laugh about them with others.


Because time with family and friends and loved ones, smiling and laughing, is everything.

I love to see your face when you’re laughin’… as Antsy McClain sings.

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He also has a song that says, It’s a way cool world that we’re livin’ in.

If I look at it from a different perspective, a higher angle, I see how true that is. No matter how many challenges life presents, we have what it takes to meet them, and this journey has made me appreciate this way cool world even more.







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