Good Enough

My local radio station started a new series for the holidays, “Good Enough,” about just relaxing and letting Christmas be, well, good enough. The first time I heard the announcers talking about it I smiled. Yep! That’s me! I’m hosting 15 in the midst of closing a business I’ve run for 12 years (which means emptying the house of tons of baby equipment), starting a new job (working at home so I need to set up an office), and finishing my classes (at my age I should be having a mid-life crisis, not pulling all-nighters). So yeah, they’ll be lucky if the house is clean and there’s food, and that has to be good enough this time around.

The radio host said she wasn’t really feeling the Christmas spirit, and that also resonated with me. Of course there’s the busy-ness listed above, but in recent years I’ve had a hard time summoning the joy. I think it’s something beyond feeling overwhelmed but I couldn’t put a finger on it until I did some holiday shopping. There was a mom showing her daughter the Frozen toys, while the girl’s eyes opened wide as saucers. The little boy who was literally screaming while running toward the Star Wars display. I don’t get to revel in that excitement because my kids are older now.

My teenagers don’t jump for joy in the aisles. They’d rather melt into the background. As I shopped, I longed for the days when I could just buy whatever junk off the $1 pile and have them react like it was the best thing they’d ever seen. Now I have to take a hard look and think, do they really want this, and is it worth what I’m investing, or will it end up in the pile under their bed? And will they think I’m completely out of touch because why would they even want something like this? I remember the Christmas mornings where the gift opening went on for an hour because the tree was piled with Play-Doh, Matchbox cars, and plastic dinosaurs, and every gift was a treasure. Now they’re still happy with their gifts but it’s over much faster, and are the cinnamon rolls done yet?

I’ve got one kid who stubbornly clings to the magic of Christmas, and I told him he’s carrying the spirit for our family this year. He started a tradition of bringing candy canes to his class, which I totally forgot about. He followed me grocery shopping this weekend just so he could pick out his canes. When I pointed out he only needed one box (I thought for his teachers), he said “Don’t you remember? I give them to the whole class.” OK, now on top of being the Grinch I’m a lousy mother to boot.

For this boy, I’m rallying. He gave me a list of items he needed for the teacher presents he assembles every year: pencils, dry erase markers, sticky notes, erasers, and of course chocolate. He found bags, stuffed them with tissue, and put labels on each one. He found an old soccer ball of his own and taped a candy cane to it for his gym teacher. My heart swelled (3 sizes that day?) and I felt it – the joy of the season comes in a different way, and it doesn’t just disappear because they’re older.

It doesn’t have to be about what Santa left and how high they’re going to jump when they see it. Both of my kids are so happy to have their entire family coming here, they can’t stand the wait. At first we weren’t going to host (see paragraph 1) and they were disappointed. They started talking about how awesome it was when we had the family over and my husband and I just melted. If I can’t give them joy through gifts, I can give them their family. And when I started thinking of it that way I remembered it’s not the presents, food, and hubbub they remember about Christmas. What they want is their loved ones nearby. That’s enough for me.

 

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PARCC vs. Real Learning

This morning I sent both of my boys off to the same school, but they had two very different days ahead of them. Younger was packing up his bag with quiet activities – a book to read, a notebook to scribble in – because he would be refusing his PARCC test. This is the third day in two weeks that he would have to sit for the first 90 minutes of his school day twiddling his thumbs.

Older Son, on the other hand, had his 8th grade science project presentation today. A huge day – one that has been a benchmark since his first year of middle school. He was packing his bag with reports, models, and items he had used in his experiment. He was practicing his speech and worrying that he would forget all the tests he’d done. His excitement and nervousness were palpable. I was teary and bursting with pride as I watched this handsome young man head to the bus stop.

When Older first got to middle school we went to the 8th grade science fair. Judging from that night, I thought I’d be working on this project with him for weeks. They looked so elaborate, so detailed and involved, I imagined how complicated going through this process would be. I expected nagging, tearing around town for last-minute supplies, lots of tears and drama as I painfully forced calmly helped him get it done.

The truth was completely the opposite. Older Son worked on this project with his partner for weeks. They got together after school, made their own schedule, urged me to get on board when I wasn’t paying enough attention to their needs, and generally handled everything themselves. They spent one easy afternoon doing their tests and then invited friends over to run a second round. The result was good data, an amazing looking display, and a great experience with project planning and organization.

This is real education. The kids were allowed to choose their own experiment or project based on their interests. They were given a timeline and guided on how to plan and achieve all the steps they needed to finish. They had to write a theory and use scientific method to prove or disprove it. They experimented and then evaluated their data so it could be presented in a clear and attractive way. They had unexpected results that led them to ask more questions.

The learning from the science project will remain with my son because, among other things, it taught him a valuable skill in life: think for yourself. My other son was enduring the polar opposite through his experience with the PARCC test.

As I’ve become more involved in fighting PARCC, I’ve heard horror stories from parents. Kids who were forced by teachers and administrators to take tests even after their parents refused. Kids coming home in tears after being told they didn’t have to take the tests and then being coerced them to take them after all. Kids who normally receive classroom support on a special education plan taking tests – that are completely beyond their capability – without the help of their paraprofessional. Parents being lied to about the legality of what’s happening in their childrens’ schools. Teachers whose right to free speech has been essentially revoked by corporate interests. The testing companies are counting on parents to continue not thinking for themselves.

IMG_0464My sons get a good education when their teachers are in charge of what they’re learning. I was crowing last week when Younger Son came home with a permission slip for a field trip to the symphony to see Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” Sure, the kids won’t get it. They’ll spend more time jostling around in their seats than listening to the music. But maybe they’ll remember something. The form came with a flyer explaining how revolutionary the ballet was and how people almost rioted during its first performance. The conductor explained that “this is one of the most important pieces of music ever written” and how Stravinsky was a rebel. I feel like my children today are having to continue that tradition just by refusing to take a test in their school.

The tale of my two kids on this beautiful spring day was the difference between real education and corporate education. Our obsession with applying a business model to our schools strips teachers of their credibility and turns our kids into child labor for testing companies. Even in the face of everything we know about brain science, and more and more real evidence that our children need variety and spontaneity to learn, we are still quietly accepting that businesses know more about education than our teachers do. This is wrong, and it has to stop.

I urge anyone in MA to write to their house representative in support of the bills listed on this page: Mass Teachers and Parents United

3 Boys + 1/2 Day of School = More Learning than PARCC

Testing season has begun at my kids’ school, and we are suffering the burden of PARCC this year. For weeks I’ve been meeting with other parents, joining Facebook groups, trying to strategize ways to put a stop to this nonsense, and generally letting the rest of my life and responsibilities slide. But I’m not here to talk about PARCC today.

I’m here to talk about what happens when kids are allowed to explore and learn on their own. The boys had a half day of school and their favorite thing to do is walk home, stopping for pizza and candy on the way. But yesterday they had a mission. One of Older Son’s friends had a book with blueprints for “weapons of mini destruction:” blow darts, catapults, missile launchers, and the like made with household items like Q-tips, tape, and candy boxes.

The night before the half day, Older took inventory. He made a list of what we had here and what they’d need at the store. He searched on shelves and in drawers for random items and made sure he had enough cash to cover the items we didn’t. They did stop for a bite, and then they hit every store on the block for the rest of the supplies.

Mad scientist work area

Mad scientist work area

They came home and gathered all the rest of the tools they needed: twine, hole punchers, scissors, the sharpener from the knife block (I have no idea why. Probably just because it’s cool). I haven’t seen them this focused and excited in weeks. I didn’t hear a peep while they worked except for an occasional thud and then a lot of cackling laughter. The mad scientists were hard at work.

When they brought me the finished product I was truly impressed. I hadn’t thought they’d be able to come up with much, considering all the failed cereal-box projects we’ve tried in the past. These things actually worked. They were made with great care and attention to detail. I discovered the new deck of cards from Christmas had been sacrificed and at first had the mom reaction – Why would you ruin a complete deck?! – but quickly got past it when I realized how hard they’d worked. Plus they hadn’t played with the cards anyway. They couldn’t wait to show their creations to Dad when he got home from work.

When I asked the boys how the tests were going at school, I got one-word answers and exasperation about how hard the questions were. When I asked about the mission to create the blow darts, I got a lecture. “We had everything but the pens, and we didn’t think they’d have them at the auto parts store, but we were already on our way out of town so we decided to try there. And they had the roll of tape that was twice as big as at the hardware store, but it was 85 cents cheaper! The hardware store ripped me off! And I have no idea what the people at the drug store thought, these kids buying this random stuff, but nobody said anything. Did you know that when I shot this at the door, it stuck, but on the couch it didn’t? I need to figure out why. Maybe if I use a new dart.”

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

I had to put pictures of the finished products up on Facebook (some parents brag about their honors kids. I brag about homemade weapons). One of my teacher friends commented, “Created new from old…synthesized, designed and applied, and can explain his process… Too bad he won’t be tested on those abilities!” She didn’t even get to see the planning, economics, trials, and analysis that went into it as well.

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That’s real learning. That’s what our kids should be doing in school, and it’s what I’m sure the teachers would much rather be doing as well. Our antiquated education system and dangerous obsession with testing have got to go. When the kids can learn more from being set loose on the town for an afternoon than they did in the previous two weeks of test prep, there is something rotten in Denmark (except Denmark doesn’t have standardized tests, and they rank significantly higher than America). In our time, in this economy, now more than ever, our children need to be creative thinkers and problem-solvers in order to carve out a decent living. Our schools must be allowed to provide them with the education they truly need.

This Ain’t the Super Bowl

On the morning of the Super Bowl I sit and reflect on my sons’ experiences in youth sports. I’ve been told that I’m not a good judge of these things, as someone who was a lousy athlete and never had the competitive gene. I’m also a mom and a teacher, so I come at games with the feeling that all kids deserve equal and fair treatment. Do you see the joke in that?

But for my family sports are a huge part of our lives. Every weekend and several nights a week are consumed by practices and games, and that’s great. Especially for many boys, sports are the one place they get to be themselves without being scolded for being too loud, too boisterous, and generally climbing the walls. On the field it’s encouraged.

Sports keep them busy, engaged, and most importantly, healthy. At my son’s last physical the doctor was shocked by the six-pack he has at his young age. Soccer. I wish that at some point in my life I’d been as fit as my boys are. I’d like to know what it feels like to have your body be that strong and responsive. Without all the work of actually exercising of course.

Overall I’m thrilled that my boys like to play and they’re pretty good at it. But as a parent I still have a hard time watching other parents behave like animals on the sidelines. Younger Son had an intensely scary indoor soccer game the other night. The parents were screeching and screaming from the opening moments, willing their kids on, and if that included being dirty in order to win, so be it. The kids responded by acting as if this was the Super Bowl, literally tackling, pushing, pulling, and slamming our guys into the walls. The coach was also screaming at his kids and hassling the ref from the start – you could see this team’s attitude came from the top down.

I watched in fear as a kid almost my size repeatedly crashed into Younger in goal. To add to my anxiety, Older Son had a collision in goal a few weeks ago and needed an x-ray to confirm he didn’t have a broken bone. I knew it would happen someday – that I’d be half-carrying one of my boys off the field, as I’ve seen so many other parents do – and praying our injuries would be the kind that heal quickly and easily.

A game like that makes me someone I don’t like. I’ve learned the hard way to be impartial at games, respect the other team, and remember the big picture: this ain’t the major leagues. But when I hear a bunch of adults calling for a bunch of kids to attack each other in an arena, gladiator-style, I start screaming just as loud as they are (but with positive comments – GOOD JOB GUYS!!! AT THE TOP OF MY LUNGS!!!). Even my husband, who is usually the amazingly calm/cool/collected and impartial-to-bad-calls coach, was screaming at the ref to blow his whistle.

I don’t understand why parents behave this way. What lesson do they want their kids to get out of this? In a meaningless game, in a winter indoor soccer league that most people see as a way to keep moving during the frigid months – why do you behave like winning this game at all costs is a matter of life and death? You know what’s a matter of life and death? Cancer.

After the game we were all shaken. Oddly, the players that were streaming out told Younger he’d done a great job in goal. Was their sportsmanship real or forced? It seemed genuine but our kids didn’t believe them, especially after the beating they’d just taken. They said it was just sarcastic, and I had a hard time myself figuring out what it meant. Is it possible to turn your decency on and off that quickly?

As we watched this spectacle my friend turned to me and said, “We should be so concerned about how they’re doing in math.” I think we aren’t because it’s not a place where we’re allowed to sit on bleachers and watch their performance. If we were, would we be there at every class, cheering the correct answers and screaming when they get one wrong? How screwed up would our kids be in that scenario. I’m actually laughing at the thought.

After the game we re-bandaged a swollen raspberry the size of a softball on Younger’s hip that he’d sustained that morning in practice. He said, “This was the worst day of soccer I’ve ever had.” I felt it too. So why do we do this?

I think more than any other place, in a different way than that math classroom, sports are teaching my kids a lot of life lessons. How to deal with people of all kinds, like those you will meet throughout your life. How to set a goal and keep at it, whether or not you succeed. How to work with others and play a role even if you don’t like it that much. How to deal with authority figures, whether you respect them or not. How to accept winning and losing with grace. How to stand up for what you need and accept the outcome.

My guys don’t care that much about the Super Bowl. Maybe that’s because I don’t. Maybe it’s because every four-hour football game broadcast has only 8 minutes of action compared to the 90-plus minutes in soccer. (Maybe I have a hard time cheering for wife-beaters, drug-abusers, and guys who literally kill people and get away with it because of money and power. Or as my husband put it, “Wouldn’t it be nice if people got as upset about inequality and corporate greed as they did about deflategate?” But that’s a different story.)

My husband remembers being rapt and excitedly watching every minute of the Super Bowl when he was young, but I haven’t felt that way since the 1987 Giants. Sure we’ll have some friends over and watch the game, but I’m most excited about having an excuse to eat crappy food. Mid-way through the second quarter, the boys will disappear with their friends upstairs and play FIFA. They won’t care that much about who wins. We’ll be back at soccer practice on Tuesday. There will be more games. There will be triumph, drama, pain, and despair, much like life. And they’ll have sensational abs.

I Know How to Get Through Winter with Six Kids

Sometimes you have to turn a disadvantage into an advantage. Or at least an embarrassment into something useful. For example:

Why is "Do You Hear the People Sing?" stuck in my head?

I often have piles of laundry this big and am ashamed to let people see them. Why? We all have laundry piles and no time to fold them. I’m not alone. Still, I usually tuck them away in a corner where I think they’re less obvious. But they’re always there.

Anyway as you can see by my groovy sectional couch (circa 1984, I kid you not) there is a perfect way for littles to climb up a seat, go over the table, and down the other side for a lovely roundy round jumping game. That is if they don’t stop in the middle and throw themselves off the table. I like to call it the “Make Amy Insane Game!”

I can stop this activity in a variety of ways:

1. Nagging
2. Physically removing them (which hurts my neck)
3. Pushing the table into the corner every day (which hurts my back)
4. Blocking them with the laundry

Ahh, the laundry blockade. The perfect solution! Sometimes you have to be creative.

And that’s what getting through winter with six kids in the house boils down to. Being VERY creative. I try to come up with projects they can all do, including the toddlers who eat stuff and the three-year-olds who want to use the beads. We sing hour-long renditions of “The Wheels on the Bus,” and man is that a wild and crazy bus (the dogs on the bus go woof woof woof. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the bus go “Cowabunga!!”). I dig through the music collection for favorite songs, games and dances, we do yoga (most of them have a pretty mean downward dog), I get out the giant box of stickers, and then there’s coloring. Lots of coloring.

Sometimes the solutions are simple. The kids love reading a book in my lap, as much of it as there it to go around with four of them vying for it when they see someone else in it. I also have two teething babies who want to eat the books. So I found a giant box of board books and just brought the whole darn thing out of storage. We have been working our way through them, several books a day, and aren’t even close to reaching the end of the pile. It’s a perfect activity – they get my attention. They are learning. And they love being in a puppy pile of kids on the couch (until somebody starts asserting dominance. Much like puppies).

We spend a lot of time cleaning up the messes they make. Because they are literally climbing the walls. We lost our chair privileges last week when Mr. W taught Mr. P how to use them to climb up and get what we want off the high shelves. So when they get bored with the toys that are available, they find their own. Watching piles of construction paper cascade off the art shelf is very entertaining. Or letting babies empty an entire box of kleenex. So fun. Evil geniuses.

But the thing is, I can’t get mad at these activities. I know this is what two-year-old boys do especially when they can’t get outside to run, jump, spin, climb, and get rid of that energy in a positive way. We just keep cleaning up. I try to explain how some things in this room belong to Amy and shouldn’t be touched. But I know logically they don’t get that. They see a challenge, they want something, they problem-solve to get it. Two.

As I process all this information and think of what’s happening in the education community today, it makes me sad. The teachers in my neighboring city of Holyoke are facing a new academic hell, something called “receivership,” which I’ve never even heard of, due to low test scores. This means that the state can make them re-apply for their jobs and force the school to get outside help (paid for by who?) even though it’s been proven not to work time and time again. (Oh and standardized tests have been proven not to work time and time again but we’re basing receivership on that. Follow the money trail, friends. Your kids are a cog in the wheel. Child labor. But that’s another story.)

I think about what would happen if some state educational representative walked into my program on an 8-degree day in January. When toys were strewn all over the floor and kids were cranky, noisy, and hard to please. I would say Yes, it looks crazy. And I’ve been doing this for fifteen years, and I know that this is what two-year-olds do. And I know how to handle it. But my voice would not be heard, because a politician and a businessman sitting in a quiet office somewhere, while other people raised their children (if they had any), decided that that’s not what kids should be doing at their age.

I’ve gone from creative laundry uses to a dark place here. I guess what I’m trying to say is, where kids are involved, some things are predictable, and some things are controllable. The rest is beyond us, and being the creative, supportive, patient, guiding adult is our job. And the voices of the professionals who do this job are the ones we should be listening to, no matter how ridiculous the solution may look to an outsider. Because believe it or not baby, I am a pro.

 

Knowing When to Push Your Kids

The other day Mr. O realized that his bff was getting on the rocket swing without him and he scrambled to get there before takeoff. I said, “You want a big push?” and he, with his foot stuck underneath himself, said, “I’m not ready yet.” I replied, “I won’t push you ’til you’re ready.”

I was so proud of my little life truism. I felt like Splinter to his Leonardo. Master Shifu to his Po. Avatar Roku to his Aang. For those of you who don’t watch children’s cartoons all day, I was Obi-wan to his Luke (my geek police are not pleased, I realize that).

Silliness aside, I find this is one of the daily challenges of parenting and working with children. When is the right time to push a child, and when do you hold back? It’s one of those questions that never has one simple answer, because every child is different. When you live and work with them you learn what is the right amount of expectation and support for each individual, but it’s a constant balancing act.

On a daily basis I find myself presented with a situation that begs this question. Do I push him now, or do I realize he needs help and give him that instead. Chores and consequences are one thing – you can’t go to your friend’s house until your homework is done. That’s simple enough but it’s just a basic rule, not a judgment call. When he’s had a bad day because he failed a test, do I say YOU NEED TO WORK HARDER NEXT TIME! Or do I tell him these things happen, and pledge to help him study for the next test?

Even the child who could always be pressured a little to do better has periods of regression. The kid who was a superstar last year may have had something bad happen and now he’s plummeting. It doesn’t mean he turned bad – he needs support and love more than ever, and we in our competitive culture tend to be harder on them when they most need kindness. You were great before – why can’t you be great now? Suck it up kid!

We all go through periods like this and I still find myself on that roller coaster as an adult. Usually I’m on top of my game all the time – I got the mom thing mastered and I love it. But when I have those downswings I just want someone to tell me it’s going to be ok. Doesn’t it make sense that when our children are in a dark place, we should do the same for them instead of just demanding for them to “be better”?

I can’t…how can I put this delicately? provide constructive feedback to? or sometimes even make a simple comment to my teenager without fear that he’ll sink into depression. All parents of teens know this. But when we think they’re just being emotional and crazy and want to react and write them off, we should remember how everything felt like a personal attack at that age (hormones). My husband told our son he did a good job on something and his response was a litany of things he did wrong and storming out of the room. That shirt looks good on you. How could you SAY something like that?!

So the story becomes, as we decide when to push our child, we should also be pushing ourselves as parents. We must assess what we’re doing and take an honest look at our own behavior. We have to recognize when we’re out of line or when we need to change instead of trying to force a change on our children. They are their own people and will make their own choices. We can only provide guidance, and constant reminders of what’s right and wrong of course. Back to the hero’s journey. We send them on their way and hope they find the right path.

When parents are having trouble communicating with their children I always ask them, How would you feel if your boss spoke to you that way? Or your partner? We need to be aware of our tone of voice and body language when talking to our kids – which is often lecturing, yelling, or tossing some remark at them while we rush to the next thing or stare at our phone, if we’re really honest.

It is our job to recognize when it is time to push, when it is time step back and let our kids fail a little, and definitely, most importantly, when we need to have real open communication and hear what they need. Then figure out the best way to get them that support – which might not even involve our help, but instead teaching them how to find it elsewhere.

I say it constantly, but parenting is the hardest – and most important – thing most of us will ever do. No one fully understands that until they’re in it – at 2AM after a string of sleepless nights with a baby who still won’t go to sleep and we are ready to lose our freaking mind. Or just standing there at the end of the school day with a kid in tears, trying to find the right way to help him. Steel yourselves, Masters of young heroes. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Addiction is a Disease. Period.

In the last year we’ve lost three of the greatest actors of our time: James Gandolfini. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Robin Williams. Only after they died did we learn the true depth of their suffering.

After Gandolfini’s passing you didn’t hear as much anger or blame in the response. People were just sad. Because his compulsion was overindulgence – we can all relate to that. He was a man of big passions, he loved food, he loved cigars. While worrisome (and ultimately fatal), this type of behavior can even be admired in a man of his stature – he deserved to put his feet up and enjoy himself after all his hard work. People weren’t angry at him.

In the cases of Hoffman and Williams, I don’t have to discuss how visceral and inappropriate the response has been. And I probably don’t have to spell out that the difference is because their problems were addiction and depression. It is widely known that if a person had cancer we’d all be rallying to support them and their family, bringing food, making hospital visits, starting funds, holding charity baseball games, leaving coffee cans around town for donations. But when they have the disease of depression, or alcoholism, and a host of others I’m forgetting, we shun them. We blame the sick person.

Ironically, while looking for answers to Williams’ death, I found comfort (or at least a laugh) in Chris Rock’s retweet of an Onion story about how assigning blame is now the fastest human reflex. I think when we’re feeling grief over a suicide or an overdose, we blame the person because we are hurting and it’s their fault. Then it becomes very easy not to see the victim’s hurt.

When I first studied alcoholism, I learned that anyone can suffer from addiction. And many people in your daily life are actively struggling with it. It is very easy to put on a mask of normality and continue about your business. You can rise to the highest position in your career and go on for years in an active drugs and alcohol situation without anyone really suspecting what’s going on. A “drunk” is not just the guy living in the gutter.

Thank you Mrs. McShea, 2nd grade

Thank you Mrs. McShea, 2nd grade

In elementary school we learn (well we used to learn, I don’t know if it lives up to common core standards nowadays) that you have several aspects to your “self” – mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical. We were told that in order to have a happy life, we should work to keep all these areas healthy. My husband and I are teaching our kids that when your body is sick, you go to the doctor. When your mind is sick, you go to the therapist. There is no shame in this. It’s common sense. Our society needs to embrace this ideology and stop shunning normal human responses to stress. Because we’ve got more stress than ever nowadays.

Throughout my life I’ve loved people who suffered from mental illness. I’ve loved people who suffered from depression. I’ve loved people who suffered from addiction. Those people deserve no less respect than the ones stricken with other more socially acceptable diseases. They crave compassion just as any other sick, hurting person does, and it is not their fault that they are sick.

Until you’ve walked in someone else’s shoes you have no idea what they suffer. There but for the grace of God go I. In these times of loss no one has the right to cast judgment, or call someone a coward, or say how could they not get help. These men were fighting battles their whole lives, as any addict does. Sometimes they win. Sometimes they don’t.

I don't have his egg anymore :(

I don’t have his egg anymore 😦

Mr. Williams’ death hit me hard. The odd thing is several of my friends said they thought of me when they heard the news – I don’t know why, except that I’ve obviously loved him as so many other people have throughout the years (or maybe it was my Mork from Ork action figure). People say he had everything, and how could this happen. I think we need to flip that around and see the other side: the fact that he was able to get up, get out of bed, get to work, get on stage, get in front of people – everything that he gave in spite of what he was dealing with is nothing short of a miracle. We should simply be grateful.