Kudos to Kildare’s Irish Pub in West Chester PA

Kudos to Kildare’s Irish Pub in West Chester PA

While I’m visiting up north, I’ve been spending time with my brother Ralph, doing things he enjoys. Last night, we went to Tee It Up Golf to play a round of mini golf, one of his favorite summer activities. We arrived around 8 PM to find that there was a large group ahead of us, comprised of about 20 people, broken out into smaller groups, working their way around the course.

Judging by the way they talked, laughed, drank beer, and otherwise interacted with each other, we figured they were probably celebrating some sort of milestone. Instead of being annoyed by having to wait at various holes, Ralph and I would just repeat the hole we were on for practice. In my mind, I was utilizing the Law of Non-Resistance, as described by Florence Scovel Shinn in her books. I told Ralph it was nice to be out enjoying a warm summer evening; there was no reason to rush through anything.

By the time we got to the 17th hole, a nice guy with a beard approached us to thank us for our patience and to tell us he had gone into the club house to pay for our round. He wanted us to stop in there to retrieve the money we’d paid when we arrived. Pleasantly surprised, we thanked him sincerely and assured him that their presence had not bothered us in the least — in fact, we got a kick out of watching them. My mother asked where they were from and he said Kildare’s Irish Pub in West Chester, which was sponsoring an employee appreciation night.

Once we finished, I walked into the club house expecting to receive $12 back, but the clerk handed me $30 and informed me it was from the Kildare’s group as a thank you for our patience. Wow, what a welcome surprise! It’s also evidence that when you practice non-resistance and remain undisturbed by a situation, good things result.

Before I head back to Florida, I plan to visit Kildare’s Irish Pub with my family. Thank you to the owner and the employees for your consideration and thoughtfulness!

Visit their website at www.kildarespubwc.com

 

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“A” Is For Adjustment

“A” is for Adjustment

My favorite baby photo of my “big brother” Ralph.

Early on in my parents’ visit last week, I used the old standby “A is for apple” to help us remember where we parked at a particular location. But as events played out over the past seven days, I’ve realized that at this point in time, “A” is for adjustment.

Let’s just say our time together did not unfold quite as intended, since none of us wanted or expected my dad’s four-day hospitalization to be part of the activities. Thankfully, he’s alright now.

“A” is for Adjustment.

My mother had a painful arthritis flare-up in her finger, which impacted her ability to enjoy her time in Florida. Although she looks at least ten years younger than her actual age, she takes naps now — something she never did before.

“A” is for Adjustment.

It’s not easy to acknowledge the effects of aging on your parents, especially when you’ve been accustomed to a mother and father who are full of life, optimistic, smart, fun-loving and interested in a variety of things ranging from professional sports and college basketball to politics and cultural events. As I make my adjustment to this new phase of their life, I focus on gratitude for having been their child and for still having them here with me on Earth.

“A” is for Adjustment.

Ralph in elementary school.

But as difficult as it has been to make that shift, what’s happening with my brother Ralph is the hardest to take. Born with A Little Down Syndrome, he has already overcome tremendous obstacles, with the help of my parents, our extended family, friends, teachers, and mentors. He exceeded expectations and overcame one misguided doctor’s dire prediction by being a good student (an astute elementary school teacher asked my parents for permission to promote him to a slow learners class, where he thrived) and eventually finding employment at Mercy Catholic Medical Center for 23 years, where he consistently received excellent employee reviews from happy bosses.

Most importantly, his outgoing, gregarious personality and loving nature affected everyone who knew him. How could anyone not be enriched by spending time with Ralph — someone who loved unconditionally, embraced life fully, and found joy in the simplest activities. While we were growing up, he was my go-to playmate who never turned me away and always made me laugh, no matter what we decided to do. Our most famous collaboration as kids was our imitation of Danny Zuko and Sandy Olson from the movie Grease, as they danced and their way through the fun-house in the final scene (in our case, the two long steps leading into our rec room served as our version of “The Shake Shack.”) It’s a miracle no one broke the vinyl (remember those?) soundtrack to the movie to end the insanity of our endless, repetitive demonstrations.

Shockingly, no one did. As a matter of fact, many years later at Ralph’s 40th birthday party, family members and friends begged us for a re-enactment, which we happily obliged. Back then, I was so grateful that he’d hit the 4-0 milestone, I didn’t care about making a fool of myself.

Ralph with nieces Sophia (left) and Julianna celebrating his 50th.

Fast forward another 10 years. We held another special celebration in honor of Ralph’s 50th birthday — an Oscar-themed party complete with life-size cut-outs and posters of his favorite actors like Clint Eastwood, and replicas of the Oscar statue. At the time, he was still passionate about movies, reading, dancing, and the WWE.

I miss those days. I miss my happy-go-lucky special brother who never needed coaxing to smile; or to put on music, sing, and dance; or to read a book.

None of us knew back then that Ralph would soon face his most formidable opponent yet; one much more powerful than Down Syndrome. One that had no mercy in its zeal to rob him of everything he’d worked so hard to accomplish, including a fully functioning mind that could comprehend John Grisham novels, and remember the names of soft drinks, and whether or not he’d taken a shower that morning, or if his clothes needed to go into the laundry.

A friend of mine had warned me about the link between Down Syndrome and Alzheimer’s years before Ralph’s diagnosis. Like any good sister, I prayed that he would be spared such a fate. Surely, God would not ask him to endure something so awful after he’d already proven himself to be a worthy overcomer?

For reasons unknown to me, Ralph was not spared from this memory-stealing monster, for which he has been on medication for almost five years. Back then, the doctor warned that it would only delay the inevitable. I suppose some gratitude is appropriate because it did stop the progression much longer than I had anticipated.

Back in the day: Ralph and I engaging in one of our favorite childhood rituals.

Even so, his personality completely transformed over time. The outgoing, confident guy who loved to laugh, joke around, and talk incessantly was gradually replaced by a reticent, serious and somber shell of his former self who sat in silence during car rides, lashed out at good-natured teasing and lost interest in just about every hobby he’d previously engaged in with passion. No longer does Ralph beg to go the movies or express interest in books, music or wrestlers like John Cena (one of his former favorites.) In fact, if you ask him about a movie he’s just seen, he has difficulty expressing any sort of informed opinion about it.

These days, the only activities he still seems to enjoy are bowling, slot machines, and using his iPad.

“A” is for Adjustment.

Somewhere along the way, during one of my visits, I was working downstairs in my parents’ basement when Ralph approached me in tears. “I want my life back. I want my memory back,” he cried, putting his arms around me. While my heart was breaking, all I could do was hug him and assure him that I would be there for him, no matter what. Nothing — not even Alzheimer’s — could ever make me lose sight of who he really is. In my mind, I contemplated how I would handle the devastating time when he would no longer remember me or anyone else in the family. It seemed impossible to comprehend but I vowed to hold onto my memories of him and do the best I could to adjust.

Celebrating mom’s birthday, circa 1992.

Which brings me back to the present. I’d been handling some unforeseen events involving an unreasonable client whose hurtful words temporarily affected my confidence and caused me to question everything I was doing professionally. Then Ralph arrived with my parents and changed my perspective.

In a horrifying moment of confirmation, we realized the doctor was right about the medication when Ralph insisted he was home in Newtown Square and not in Melbourne — even though we were surrounded by palm trees, balmy breezes and sunshine. I reminded him about the plane ride he’d taken the day before, with no success. At some point he let it go, leaving me to wonder if it’s best to just agree with him in these situations, rather than attempt to bring him back to reality.

“A” is for Adjustment.

The Ralph I loved from my earliest memories of childhood is gone, though his pure heart and capacity for unconditional love remain. He began to take his leave about a year or so after marking his 50th birthday in grand style. I mourn him every day, even as I continue to love and support the man he has become — a brave soul who continues to fight a merciless opponent that will not be satisfied until it takes everything away from him. Everything, that is, except the love of his family and friends.

“A” is for Adjustment. 

At this point, it’s all I can do.

 

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Quiet Heroism

Last night, I delivered my first speech to my local Girl Talk Toastmasters Chapter to a very receptive, enthusiastic, and supportive audience. I’d spent the previous three days writing, editing, and practicing my presentation while working feverishly to cut it down to the allotted four-to-six minutes. In the end, that didn’t quite unfold according to the rules and I wound up speaking for over twelve(!) minutes.

But in spite of my rule infraction, everyone had glowing praise, along with some constructive criticism, including the excellent advice to slow down. Having been raised in the Northeast, talking fast is ingrained in my persona but it’s a bad habit I am trying to break — and one of the many reasons I joined Toastmasters in the first place. On the positive side, my evaluator – a lovely woman named Barb – also complimented me on things like great poise, storytelling, audience involvement, organization, and use of props. And when the time came to announce the voting results, I won this:

TMCertificate

Below is the original version of my speech, a variation of which I delivered last night in a much more conversational tone, e.g. at the very beginning I asked the audience if they knew the song, The Greatest Love of All, and if they’d ever had the experience of getting a song “stuck” in their heads. It also includes some material I eliminated last night in an (unsuccessful) effort to pare it down to a maximum of six minutes:

In the beautiful ballad, The Greatest Love of All, there’s a line that says, “Everybody’s searching for a hero. People need someone to look up to.”

There are all kinds of heroes in the world: men and women who put on the uniform to serve and protect us, whether in the U.S. military, the police force or in their local fire department.

But there’s another kind of heroism. I like to call it “Quiet heroism.”

Whenever I hear the line from the song, I remember how blessed I am because I’ve never had to search far to find heroes: they were in my own family, beginning with my mom and dad.

I don’t consider my parents heroic for providing a loving, stable home for my four older siblings and me – although the older I get, the more I appreciate my upbringing.

The early days: Mom and Dad with my older brothers Ralph (on mom's lap) and Mark.

The early days: Mom and Dad with my older brothers Ralph (on mom’s lap) and Mark.

My parents are my heroes because they lead by example. They didn’t just go to church every Sunday, they walked the walk. Their greatest act of quiet heroism took place almost eight years before I was born yet it influenced my entire life, and still does to this day. And that is the birth of my second-oldest brother Ralph.

When Ralph came into the world a month ahead of schedule, my father had been working a medical residency several hours away in upstate Pennsylvania – far from Philadelphia, where both of my parents were born and raised.

They’d already had a healthy boy named Mark, and a promising medical career ahead of them. It had never crossed their minds that God might have completely different plans for their next baby, that anything would be different for him. And at first, all seemed well. After a speedy delivery, my mother’s OB/GYN announced, “You have a beautiful blond bundle of fluff.” And as family members gathered around to see the new baby, no one noticed anything different about him. Until a stranger entered my mother’s room while she was alone – a pediatrician she’d never seen or spoken to before – and told her in no uncertain terms that her baby was a “retard.” That for the sake of her husband’s medical career and family, she should put him in an institution lest he become a “stigma.” He even pointed to a tree outside of the hospital room window and said, “See that tree trunk? That’s going to be your son – unable to do anything but stand there.”

My mom – God love her – has always been feisty, strong, and independent. She immediately threw that doctor out of her room with the orders to stay away from her and her baby. When my father finally got to the hospital, my mother’s trusted doctor advised them that there are all shades of grey and that only the man upstairs knew for sure what Ralph’s future would be. They decided right then to come together as a family to help their son reach his full potential. And he certainly did. Ralph went on to have a good education, participate in Special Olympics, and hold a full-time job for 25 years at a local hospital where he developed a reputation for being an exceptional worker and a positive influence on everyone around him.

My favorite baby photo of my "big brother" Ralph.

My favorite baby photo of my “big brother” Ralph.

All because my parents had committed an act of quiet heroism.

Over the next eight years, my mom and dad would add three more children to the family. Instead of giving into fear, they looked at Ralph as such a blessing that they knew they could handle whatever else God had in mind. Good thing. Otherwise Carolyn, Paul, and I would never have been born.

More examples of quiet heroism.

I grew up in a family of achievers. My brother Mark and sister Carolyn are both very successful attorneys. My brother Paul is a respected pathologist. Ralph exceeded all expectations and to this day continues to lead a full life. If success is measured by the amount of joy an individual brings to the world, then Ralph outperforms every one of us.

As for me, I knew my life’s purpose from a young age. For anyone who would ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” my swift reply was always, “I want to be a novelist,” or “I want to be a journalist,” or “I want to be a writer.” I’d interchange the words but I made my career intentions crystal clear to anyone who would listen.

My mother nurtured my love of books by reading to me every day and buying me classics like Golden’s Fairy Tales and A Child’s Garden of Verses. As I got older, I graduated to the Nancy Drew mysteries and the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Although my father was a successful doctor, neither one of my parents demanded the same for their children. They just wanted us to excel in whatever field we chose to pursue. In my case, encouraging my love of reading and writing was definitely another example of “quiet heroism.”

Then when I was eight years-old, my cousins Maris and Al, who also took my career plans seriously, gave me a beautiful hard-bound journal for Christmas. (Read Maris’ inscription). After I wrote my first “novel” in the one they’d given me, I went out and got another blank journal and wrote my second.

Back in the day: Dressed in our Sunday best, my family celebrates Easter in Ocean City, New Jersey.

Back in the day: Dressed in our Sunday best, my family celebrates Easter in Ocean City, New Jersey.

Well, I’d like to say I made a bee-line to success, given this solid foundation but unfortunately, adolescence hit me hard. My insecurities about my weight had been a lifelong issue. I wasn’t obese, but just chubby enough to be at the receiving end of kids’ cruelty, which fed my insecurities. But I studied hard, got good grades, and eventually graduated from Villanova University. During these years, I was always thankful I could come home to a close family that loved and supported me.

My parents and siblings, especially Ralph, were my quiet heroes.

By the time I graduated college, I let my insecurities take over. So instead of listening to the voice within, that knowingness that I was meant to be a writer, I listened to the naysayers. You know, those people who said writing wasn’t a real job; that I’d never make any money at it; that it was something to do as a hobby, not a career choice. Only very special, connected people ever made it in the writing and publishing industry.

What I didn’t know at the time was that advancements in technology and my own life experiences would eventually open doors that I never knew existed.

Fast forward to 1994, the year would completely transform my life and pave the way for my ultimate understanding of the phrase, “Write what you know.”

I’d been very frustrated because everyone else’s life seemed to be moving ahead. Mark, Carolyn and Paul had all gotten married and were settled into their chosen professions. Ralph loved his work at the hospital and was enjoying an active social life. And here I was, still single without even the benefit of career satisfaction even though I was working hard as a sales rep in the employment industry and had a MLJournal2great boss. A trained ballroom dancer, I was happily teaching group classes every Tuesday night in a little town called Pottstown, about 30 miles outside of Philly. I still lived in the beautiful home in Media in which I was raised. SIDE NOTE: Many people may snicker at this but in my family, you didn’t leave the house unless it was to go away to college or get married.

I had started a relationship with a guy two years before who had since moved to Florida and had been begging me for more than a year to join him. Of course, as much as I loved him (or thought I did), my answer was always, “No! I’m not leaving my family. My life is here.”

Until after my sister’s wedding. That’s when I started to think, “Why not?”

Given my family dynamics, I wasn’t sure exactly how I would make this happen without a lot of drama, but by this point I certainly had a big enough why. I secretly brought my goal to life by filling a photo album with clipped magazine images of Florida – beaches, palm trees, happy people walking along the sand, various landmarks and cities – all kinds of photos to help create the feeling of already being there.

But things did not go according to plan when I arrived in the beautiful Sunshine State. Turned out, the “platonic roommate” my boyfriend had told me about was actually his fiancée – something he never mentioned during our many conversations. To say my heart was broken would be a huge understatement. Yet at the same time, I knew there was a bigger reason for my move. I realized that while he and I were not meant to be, his role in my life was still significant because he was a catalyst for change. Without that, I might never have found the courage to leave my comfort zone and find my own way.

The DiGiovanni Family at my brother Mark's wedding, 1993.

The DiGiovanni Family at my brother Mark’s wedding, 1993.

In a sense, “Ken” was another quiet hero in my life, although it would be many years before I’d credit him for that.

This all sounds well and good now, but believe me at the time these revelations were wrapped up in intense heartache – heartache I hid from everyone, including my family. In spite of everything, I had myself convinced they’d say “I told you so,” about the guy and beg me to move home. Defiantly, I kept it all in. In fact, I hid my feelings so well I forced myself to develop amnesia about the guy, to the point that whenever someone would ask me, “Why did you move to Florida,” his name didn’t even come to mind. I’d pay the price for hiding all of these intense emotions later.

Just before my selective, self-induced amnesia kicked in, I saw a book in my mind’s eye titled Water Signs, a novel written by me. It would be another thirteen years before I would think about it again.

“Write what you know.”

Fast forward to July, 1997, when two very significant events took place.

First, I’d taken the advice of the professionals who advised me I needed a writing portfolio. Remember, this was before blogging. The internet was in existence but not as prominent as it is today. It just so happened there was a new local paper starting up called The Happy Times Monthly. It was focused on sharing uplifting and inspiring news with readers. I thought, what could be more inspiring than Ralph’s story?

That’s when I wrote an article entitled, “A Little Down’s Syndrome,” – actually, I typed it out on my dinosaur typewriter, then Snail-mailed it to the editor of The Happy Times, along with this photo (use prop) of Ralph and me from October, 1995. Weeks went by without a word. I was almost convinced they hated my story and I should just give up on my childhood fantasy of being a writer. Then one afternoon, a girlfriend called me on the phone, so excited she was nearly out of breath. “You and Ralph are on the cover of The Happy Times!” she exclaimed. She’d been coming out of Whole Foods when she spotted it among a stack of other papers. Of course, she’d grabbed several copies for me and was on her way to my condo so we could celebrate in person.

The second significant event happened about a week later.

I’d been dealing with the ongoing problem of panic and anxiety disorder and although I was functioning, I wasn’t living life fully. One night I attended a meeting where I heard a speaker named Frances Fox talk about remote viewing and the power of the mind. I’d never seen this woman before in my life, nor had she ever seen me. Afterward, I shook her hand and complimented her on the speech, which was absolutely fascinating.

She looked me in the eye and said two things: “You’re still in mourning for your grandmother and she died over 20 years ago,” and “You have a middle brother, a handicapped brother. You’re feeling guilty for leaving him.”

Back in the day: Ralph and me engaging in one of our favorite childhood rituals.

Back in the day: Ralph and me engaging in one of our favorite childhood rituals.

My jaw was on the floor. Both of these things were true, although I was not consciously aware of them until she stated them out loud. The fact that a total stranger knew such personal things about me was jarring. But Frances wasn’t finished. Next she mentioned my panic and anxiety disorder. That’s when I started to cry in frustration that I had tried everything including exercise, meditation, aromatherapy, counseling – you name it – to get rid of the problem, with only mediocre results. No matter what I did, it was still there, haunting me every day like a black cloud hanging over my head.

Frances assured me, “Have just one session with me and we will solve it.”

To this day, that is the best money I have ever spent because that one phone session with Frances completely transformed my life. As promised, six months later I woke up one morning and for the first time in five years, my head was clear, my stomach was calm and I felt at peace. I knew in that moment, the black cloud was gone. And in spite of life’s ups and downs since then, it has never come back.

Frances was another quiet hero in my life.

But my book Water Signs was still over 10 years from becoming a reality.

Fast forward to January of 2008. I was sitting with a friend named Ann, another woman who is highly intuitive. I’d known her for eight years but for the very first time she looked at me and said, “Who’s Kenneth?”

A testament to the strength of my self-induced amnesia, I thought she was talking about my brother-in-law.

“No!” she exclaimed. “I’m talking about a love relationship you had many years ago.”

As she began to describe it in pretty accurate detail, my memory floodgates opened wide. I was suddenly bombarded with memories of this relationship I’d carefully locked away in my mind’s vault, to protect myself from the pain. My friend could not believe in all of the years she’d known me that I never once told her about “Kenneth,” the man responsible for my decision to completely uproot my life and start over in a new state.

But I didn’t quite know what to do with these relentless memories. So I decided to “write what I knew,” but just fictionalize it enough to make it interesting and protect the innocent. In late February of 2008, I sat down at my keyboard and started writing Water Signs, the book I’d envisioned in my mind’s eye

Ralph and me, having a blast at Carolyn's party.

Ralph and me, having a blast at Carolyn’s party.

almost fourteen years earlier. It was as if Water Signs was divinely guided because the words just flowed through me. I could barely keep up with the stream of consciousness and never once had writer’s block, although I did pull out a few of my journals to help me fill in some details. At the time I had a corporate job, but as soon as I got home at night, I wrote for at least four hours. My weekends were consumed with writing and learning about the independent publishing process and social media.

My goal for completion was July 4, 2008 but I finished the book on June 29, 2008 – my parents’ 51st anniversary – just four months after I’d started. After editing, formatting and completing the independent publishing process, I released Water Signs: A Story of Love and Renewal in September, 2008.

I believe my first book was divinely guided for many reasons. First, it was a cathartic experience designed to help me finally come to terms with everything and move on. Secondly, it opened up a world of possibilities because of new media technology that enabled me to publish my own book and take it directly to my readers. Having to talk about my work led to many presentations both in person and on internet radio, which ultimately inspired me to create my own internet radio network called Writestream. Lastly, writing and publishing Water Signs led to a career in which I help clients bring their concepts to life through ghostwriting, editing, independent publishing and social media services.

My favorite projects? The memoirs I write, edit and produce for other quiet heroes so that their life stories can inspire others.

There’s another verse in the ballad, The Greatest Love of all that’s also worthy of reflection:

“I decided long ago never to walk in anyone’s shadow. If I fail, if I succeed, at least I’ll live as I believe. No matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity.”

Thanks in great part to the quiet heroes in my life, I’ve had the strength to live by this philosophy.

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Writestream Tuesday: Down Syndrome Awareness and the Right Wing Riot – UPDATED

Did you know October is also Down Syndrome Awareness Month?

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In honor of the occasion, I am hosting a very special Writestream Tuesday on October 14 at 1 p.m. Eastern. During the first hour I’ll talk about my wonderful brother Ralph and the amazing impact he’s had not just on my own life but the lives of countless others who have been blessed to know him. I also encourage listeners to call in with their personal stories of special folks in their lives with Down Syndrome at (347) 945-7246.

Back in the day: Ralph and me engaging in one of our favorite childhood rituals.

Back in the day: Ralph and me engaging in one of our favorite childhood rituals.

And because I am not one to shy away from controversy and hard realities, I’ll also discuss the depressing statistics with respect to Down Syndrome: 90% of unborn babies found to have Down Syndrome are aborted. That is a tragic, sobering fact – one I refuse to ignore. So while this will mainly be an uplifting show, I’d be remiss if I neglected to address it.

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In the second hour, stay tuned for public service satire with the Right Wing Riot featuring the Luminaries of Liberty – Scary Smart, Ms. Always Right and The Prince of Whitebread.

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Click on this link to Writestream Tuesday: Down Syndrome Awareness and the Right Wing Riot to listen online or call (347) 945-7246 to listen by phone.  See you then!

 

UPDATE: Happy to announce that Tears of Paradox author Daniella Bova will be joining me in the first hour!

 

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