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Archive for July 2012

“The next day we are not”

Finished Joan Didion's Blue Nights this weekend, and as crazy as she seems right now, and you wonder who wouldn't be after losing a husband and daughter in close proximity, her book has some real insights into how death and illness can change your life in an instant.

She writes:

“When we lose the sense of the possible we lose it fast. One day we are absorbed by dressing well, following the news, keeping up, coping, what we might call staying alive; the next day we are not. One day we are turning the pages of whatever has arrived in the day's mail with enthusiasm — maybe it is Vogue, maybe it is Foreign Affairs, whatever it is we are intensely interested, pleased to have this handbook to keeping up, this key to staying alive — yet the next day we are walking uptown on Madison past Barney's and Armani or on Park past the Council on Foreign Relations and we are not even glancing at their windows.”

(S-R archives photo of Joan Didion)

Paid sick leave, heathier workers

Here, to me, is a no-brainer conclusion to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study:

Workers with access to paid sick leave are 28 percent less likely overall to suffer nonfatal work-related injuries than workers without access to paid sick leave, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study found that workers in high risk occupations and industry sectors, such as construction, manufacturing, agriculture, and health care and social assistance, appeared to benefit most from access to paid sick leave. The study is the first U.S. research that examines the issue and attempts to quantify some of the benefits of paid sick leave.  Researchers analyzed data from 2005-2008 collected by the National Health Interview Survey, that gave them the ability to examine the potential safety benefits associated with paid sick leave.  The study considered 38,000 private sector workers only; most full-time public sector workers have access to paid sick leave.  The report by CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), appears in the American Journal of Public Health.

The stars…my child…the star

In long-ago story-telling, the speaker often used inclusion, repetition, to bracket the essential point, marking the beginning and the end of an important story. And so, I write:

 Many years ago we received a call, a baby born in Latin America. Our adoption agency told us we had 24 hours to say “yes.” We took less than 1/24 of a second. But the laws of our baby’s birth country made us wait for four months before we could fly through the night sky to him. And so… the stars.

 I walked outside at night and prayed into the universe, into those stars: “Protect my baby, keep him safe, healthy, loved, until we arrive.” Never mind that the stars in the Northern Hemisphere are not shining in the Southern Hemisphere, I chattered away, every night. Talking to those stars and whispering love to my child.

 We transformed his room – splashing plain white walls with teddy bears, bright in red, blue and yellow. I knit baby blankets and sewed little quilted blankets and bought what I thought we would need, what Paraguay lacked. I sat up in bed at 3:00am one summer night and exclaimed, “I forgot socks! No socks!” My sister sent me a barrel of socks and said, “Get to sleep!”  When the imposed separation was over, the room was ready and the suitcases full, so we flew – through all those stars, north and south, to meet our child.

 In these - very fast – past 18 years, he has become himself. Even when we pulled him in one direction, he righted himself and pursued his own path. Thank God. We have loved him through sickness and health, crazy teachers (he had a few) and wonderful adventures. He has loved us through all our life learning and sometimes silly expectations. He has taken us where we would not have traveled on our own. He sings, performs, draws, acts, - he is an artist; he is a wise soul who offers sage advice quietly, profoundly.  He detects nonsense before I do. We are blessed.

 Tonight my son flew away into the stars. He will be gone three weeks – the longest we have been apart – except for those beginning months of his life. He is playing among the stars – theater stars – who sing and dance and act. As his dad drove him to the airport, I quickly invaded his room (with his permission) to deconstruct the images of the middle school re-model. Wild horse decals galloping around the room, peeled off easily. A mess under his dresser an archeologist may enjoy. (“Ah! That’s where that math assignment from freshman year is!”)  All those remnants of childhood stuffed into corners of the years.

 And while he sings and makes friends and discovers the humid, sultry nights of New York, I will paint his chosen color on bedroom walls, in a room where he has slept and dreamed, where he has rehearsed his music, in his own voice and reached determinedly for the stars.

(S-R archives photo)

Airplane trip menu, October 1963

My brother-in-law is visiting for a few days and he brought with him this visit some letters written in 1963 from his father (and my husband's father). In an Oct. 29, 1963 letter their father wrote about his airplane trip from Sioux City, Iowa to Santa Maria, Calif., a plane ride that included stops in Omaha, Denver and Los Angeles!

But the food served to them during one of the flights caught my imagination.

They came around with a dinner menu and drinks menu. I had a dry martini. We first had an introductory course of crab meat salad, beets sliced in thin strips, tomatoes and lettuce with Thousand Island dressing. We also had a serving of Macadamia nuts. Then we were served filet mignon, American fried potatoes, spinach and a delicious mustard sauce with the steaks, rolls and Boston cream pie. Everything was excellently prepared and served. We were served two pieces of filet mignon. In our opinion, one would have been sufficient.

And remember, people once complained about airplane food!

(Photo from the S-R archives of three Eastern Washington women awarded stewardess wings by Northwest Orient Airlines after completing training course in Minnesota. They are, left to right: Patti Weitzman, Liberty Lake; Marion Gibson, Spokane, and Mary Straven, Colfax. September 11, 1953.)

The salary of the St. Charles sisters

For a Sunday package of stories on Spokane Catholic schools, I contributed a historic timeline and came across many details I didn't have room for, including how much the sisters who ran the schools were paid.

In 1975, sisters were paid $270 a month in salaries that were contributed to a common pool. The breakdown of how that $270 was spent?

$75 to the motherhouse

$1.50 for food per day

$20 for insurance and another $20 for medical

$8.50 for gas and car maintenance

$15 for clothing, letters, telephone and personal needs

There was more on the list but somehow it made me sad to finally understand how little they were paid for how hard they worked. Unlike some Catholic school kids, I had a great experience and education at St. Charles. The sisters were so young, paid so little. And many of them have died. It's too late for a thank-you.

Thank you now, wherever you are.

(S-R photo of nuns in the play “Nunsense.”)

The worthiness of girlfriends

In journalism world, a controversy is being discussed stemming from a tweet sent by James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal. Referring to the three boyfriends who saved their girlfriends' lives by taking bullets for them in the Aurora theater, Taranto said: “I hope the girls whose boyfriends died to save them were worthy of the sacrifice.”

Well, here's one example of where the best of Christian teaching comes in handy. Love your neighbor as yourself. Lay down your life for another. Jesus died for people who were obviously not his equals.

You get the idea.

None of us is worthy, really, of this kind of sacrifice. So when it happens, it's both grace and miracle.

Marriage in the second half of life: stay? leave?

A story in the August edition of US Catholic kept me reading – and gasping -  to the end.  The divorce rate for the general population has remained somewhat steady over the last 20 years, but for people over the age of 50, it has doubled.

What’s the deal? Susan Brown, co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University, co-authored a study, titled “The Gray Divorce Revolution.”  Through her work, she discovered “that of all those who divorced in 2009, one in four was age 50 or older, compared with one in 10 in 1990.”

One great quote from the story by Mary Jo Pedersen, author of For Better, For Worse, For God: Exploring the Holy Mystery of Marriage: “Our expectations of marriage are so out of line,” Pedersen says. “Marriage isn’t supposed to make you happy, it’s supposed to make you married. Marriage creates an environment in which you can choose happiness and you can create a wonderful home and friendship that will bring you happiness. But the institution itself—like everything, it’s what you do with it.”

What do you think are the essential ingredients for a long-lasting marriage?

(S-R archvies photo: Tom and Louise McKay on their wedding day, Aug. 17, 1941.)

Colorado Connections

In our office today we were talking about the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado. Among seven colleagues, there were two people who knew somebody, who knew somebody, who was killed in that theatre.

In this moment, I feel that the human family is more connected than the often talked about six-degrees of separation. We are intimately connected to each other’s lives.

We seek answers – there are no answers. We seek protection from evil – so much is an illusion. We seek justice – yet, no matter what happens to the killer, the deceased loved ones will not return.

And so we do what we can: we talk about it, we empathize, we shed tears while hearing the story…and today, we prayed:

  “Creator God, we seek comfort for families, loved ones, survivors, witnesses and first responders involved in this unfathomable tragedy. We ask that you guide our hearts and our nation to lives of peace, lives of compassion and lives of courage, that we may not retreat in fear, but may live with joy and commitment to caring generously, lovingly for one another.       Amen .”

(S-R archives photo)

Jack McPeck: Grief activist

When Jack McPeck first contacted EndNotes, it was through our gmail email address and he sounded a bit angry in the email. I forget why. But we emailed over the months and he softened and finally, we were able to meet and I ran this story Saturday about the group he's involved in The Compassionate Friends.

After spending time with him for the interview, I realized that Jack's passion to help other parents grieve sometimes comes across as a sort of anger. And that's why I called him a grief activist. I've met others.

They don't have time anymore for small talk, bs of any kind, judgment or superficiality. They have suffered what some consider the greatest loss — the loss of a child — and they have a strong desire to help other navigate their special version of hell.

Was happy to finally connect with Jack. I learned a lot more from him than reflected in the short story.

Thanks Jack.

Where meanness and nastiness lead

The horrific tragedy at the movie theater in Aurora, Colo. put one thing in perspective. The nastiness and silliness of negative campaign ads make no sense in this world where people are killed in random acts of senseles violence.

So Mitt Romney and President Obama campaigns both announced they are pulling campaign ads this week from Colorado, in light of the tragedy. May both campaigns decide to keep negative ads off the air the rest of the campaign, in honor of the victims.

It takes tragedy to awaken to common sense sometimes. Our culture gets carried away with its negative, mean self. So it took Congresswoman Gibbons getting shot in the head to soften Sarah Palin's shoot 'em up rhetoric. It took Sept. 11 to shut down the media frenzy over U.S. Rep. Condit's supposed involvement (later disproved)  and the disappearance of intern Chandra Levy.

May the common sense last.

Cancer: Cause and Effect

As we move through the maze of healthcare – diagnoses and care - the challenges seem to increase, especially as we age.  When I had cancer eight years ago, one woman said to me, “I eat broccoli so I will never get cancer.”  My internal voice wanted to scream out loud, “Really?! Call the CDC to tell them that if we all eat broccoli, we will be cancer-free!”

The good news is that scientists are getting closer to identifying what does lead to cancer and therefore, how we can treat and cure this insidious disease.

In the New York Times, we read about what the scientific community is learning:

Scientists increasingly see cancer as a genetic disease defined not so much by where it starts — colon, liver, brain, breast — but by genetic aberrations that are its Achilles’ heel. And with a detailed understanding of which genetic changes make a cancer grow and thrive, they say they can figure out how best to mount an attack.”

Good news for all…enough to celebrate, with broccoli salad perhaps.

(S-R archives photo)

CDC: Scary notes from all over heck

One of the things I actually look forward to each week is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. It bascially lists some of the scary stuff going on in the greater world. Just so we know. And sometimes, good news is included, such as lower death rates by car accident in urban areas.

Here are highlights from today's report:

  • In the 50 largest U.S. metro areas, motor vehicle crash death rates were lower for all ages (8.2 deaths per 100,000 residents) compared to the nation (11.1 deaths per 100,000 residents) in 2009.
  • During April 25–28, 2011, the third deadliest tornado disaster occurred in the southeastern U.S. despite modern advances in tornado forecasting, advanced warning times, and media coverage.
  • An estimated 7.6 percent of pregnant women (or 1 in 13) and 51.5 percent of nonpregnant women (or 1 in 2) reported drinking alcohol in the past 30 days. Among pregnant women, the highest estimates of reported alcohol use were among those who were aged 35-44 years (14.3 percent); white (8.3 percent), college graduates (10.0 percent), or employed (9.6 percent).
  • (S-R archives photo)

Carving out the middle of your life

This not so great photo (taken with my cellphone) is of a unique bar of soap given to guests in the Hotel Bellevue. It comes with a hole in the middle and this explainer: “This innovative waste reducing soap has been designed to eliminate the unused center of traditional bar soaps.”

It makes so much sense, as a bar of soap. As a metaphor. So here's the question: What part of your life would you carve away because it was a waste?

Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life

I gave up most self-help books a few years ago, realizing that most answers are likely within and I was getting tired of the deeper life questions, to be honest. I was hoping to be more “superfluous” as my sister mistakenly heard me explain. I meant “superficial” but superfluous works, too.

Anyway, on a recent road trip, I listened to A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life — a recording of a retreat given in 2004 by Franciscan priest Richard Rohr and Paula D'Arcy, writer and conference leader who lost her young husband and toddler daughter decades ago in an accident with a drunken driver.

These are wise people. And so much of what they said has stuck with me including,

At some point, everyone and everything will disappoint you.

Everything is a gift. We are entitled to nothing, really.

The task of the second half of life is to break some of the rules we adhered to in the first half of life.

What rules would you like to break?

The theory of three deaths in a row

My sister CarolLynn says celebrity deaths tend to go in threes.  And we lost three oldies but goodies in recent weeks so maybe her theory has some merit. You have to be of a certain age — mine and older — to remember these three well but rest in peace to Ernest Borgnine, Andy Griffith and Celeste Holmes, all who died this July.

Of family and other miracles…

July 15th is our family day. The day we met our son. He is 18-years-old now and I really would go back and live those years again. He is an amazing human being, a wise soul with a compassionate heart and an intuitive way of knowing the world.

Every July 15th we celebrate, we remember, in small gestures – red, white and blue clothes, looking at photos, telling him the story.

Six months after his arrival home he was welcomed into our church as he was baptized.

I wrote these words to tell him the story. Happy Family Day, Alex. All my love – through eternity into forever…Mom

 “I stand on the top step of the altar wearing a soft, white satin gown that swirls around my feet. Your dad in his tuxedo tails stares into my eyes and takes my hand. Facing the priest and community of believers, we vow to love each other through eternity into forever. We seal our promise with circles of gold and a kiss…We live our promise through adventurous years and challenging moments. Then one day we think about you – a child, our child. But our passionate longing is not enough: our broken bodies cannot make you.

We grieve, we pray, we question, we wonder. Slowly we listen to parents who know a road less traveled where home studies and social workers create families; where God’s grace brings children and grown-ups together and breathes into them the gift of family. So, we move through the maze of questions and documents – dragging our faith behind us. Then we wait. We wait. We wait. We wait.  One Thursday early, early, the telephone rings and words deliver you into our hearts. A baby boy, born in Paraguay, our son. We imagine your face, your spirit. We wonder whose arms will rock you, until we hold you. I chatter to you in my mind and ache because your little life is only waiting, waiting.

We pack diapers and documents and formula and tiny clothing and all our dreams into suitcases. An airplane, like a magic carpet carries us 7000 miles into the night over rain forests and prairies and deserts and ocean waters.

Finally, you are placed in our arms – like a puzzle piece. Your tiny hands scrunch my sleeves, your brown eyes look knowingly into my face, then close in comfortable sleep.

Our hearts beat in perfect rhythm.

 And now…we dress you in white satin and carry you to the steps of the altar, where we initiate you into our community of believers. We gather around the sacred pool. The priest reaches deep into the pool lifting holy water to your tiny head, baptizing you:

 'In the name of the Father, God the Creator,' who paints promises in rainbows and plays cosmic matchmaker…'In the name of the Son,' God’s Word made flesh; the human phoenix who beckons us to follow. 'In the name of the Holy Spirit,' God’s laughter and passion, the gentle muse who nudges and prods.

 Alexander, you are our blessing not earned, but bestowed. You are God’s whispered answer to all our questions. Today we honor the miracle of our triune family. And we promise: we shall love you through eternity into forever. Welcome Home…”

Mind your (pool) manners, please

 I thought I was in the minority. But seems my fellow swimmers get annoyed, too, at folks who misbehave in the lanes and laps of life.

Swimming offers some of us more than a bit of exercise: it is an activity that evokes creative thinking and emotional release from all the nonsense of the day.

I am not Mark Phelps or Mark Spitz, just a middle-age woman seeking some time to escape. I am an introvert by nature so I love exercise where people will not annoy me with trivial chatter. Swimming offers that preference.

Please, people. Let us Aquarius types renew our spirits at the pool in peace. Follow the rules – keep your limbs in your own lane, find the place for your pace, and follow in the right direction.

Oh, leave my towel alone, too, please…


(S-R archives photo)

A nurse’s tale: The Spirit leaves the body

In our EndNotes column two weeks ago, Cathy answered this question: “Does anyone really know when the human spirit or soul departs from its physical body?”

Her answer generated the most feedback yet here at EndNotes. We heard from a lot of  aetheists who wondered why we didn't reflect the viewpoint that there may not even be a soul or spirit to depart.

Others told stories of holding bedside vigils and sensing the lifting of a soul or spirit. I received this beautifully written letter last week from a nurse named Karen:

I am a registered nurse. and more than 20 years ago, I had an experience that is still fresh in my mind. I was working in the intensive care unit at (a local hospital), and one of my patients was a young man who had been injured in a car accident one that was not his fault. He was on life support. HiIs parents had agreed to organ donation and we were waiting for that process to start. His mother and I stood, early in the morning, on each side of his bed, looking down on this beautiful young man who just appeared to be sleeping. As his chest continued to rise and fall, I felt — rather than saw — an odd change in the quality of light in the room. A pink mist then seemed to manifest over his body, where it hovered for a moment, then lifted off into the room and faded to nothing. The ventilator continued to push air into his lungs, nothing really changed, but it seemed as if his body had hollowed out, becoming a flat shell. There is no real scientific proof of a living creature having a soul, but at that moment I felt as if I had just witnessed that soul leaving its body.  

A simply lovely statement

I love this guest columnist’s thoughts from today’s New York Times.  Education in America is at a crisis point. Some places get it right, while others simply warehouse kids until they reach 18-years-old.

And some people – like this writer - survive the system, and then flourish.

From Ta-Nehisi Coates’ column: “I can tell you everything that was wrong with my education — how cold pedagogy reduced the poetry of Macbeth to a wan hunt for hamartia, how the beautiful French language broke under rote vocabulary. But more than that, I can tell you what happens when education is decoupled from curiosity…”

The clock is ticking; we need to figure out how to inspire our children to learn about the world in which they live, not simply learn how to survive a broken system.

(S-R archives photo)

The Sherpa role: Caregiving

My friend Kathleen entered a new world 11 weeks ago when her husband had a stroke that he is recovering well from. But Kathleen, a retired nurse in her 60s, has learned so much she didn't know about the caregiving role. Here are some things she learned that she gave me permission to pass on:

  • Caregivers are like sherpas to mountain climbers. The climbers get all the attention and praise while the sherpas do so much of the heavy lifting. Her point: Appreciate the sherpa, too. They are climbing the mountain as well. And carrying a huge pack of responsibility.
  • Offer to help only if you mean it and can do something and then tell the caregiver the times you are available and what you might do to help. Kathleen's husband is able to go into work a couple of hours a day, but he can't yet drive himself. This is one example of where a specific action — driving her husband to work - would help.
  • Quit saying they both look great. They do. But people can physically look good and feel like crapola inside. When you tell them they look good, it comes off as you “look good so you should be back to 100 percent.” They are not. They are climbing the very steep mountain.
  • Drink lots of water. It helps with anxiety.
  • Be aware of caregiver grief. Their lives change, often forever. And they are experiencing all the emotions associated with grief — anger, depression, sadness.

(S-R archive photo of two Mount Everest sherpas)

Boomer backlash: why?

One of my “beats” at work now is tracking aging baby boomers. Sunday, I wrote a story about how boomers will be shedding a lot of “stuff” in the next decade as they downsize their homes.

As was the case with my recent Sunday story on aging boomers who will work past retirement, the reader comments were filled with boomer bashing.

What's up with that? Theories welcome.

Learning, still

I have often written about my friend, Mary, who died a week before she turned 91.  

Becky’s story today about Act 2, a learning center for people 50+, reminds me of Mary’s wisdom for a full, long life: keep curious, keep learning.  Mary bought a computer after she turned 80. And she used it, mostly for e-mail connections and to “look things up.”

When people ask me what I would like to do when I retire, I often say, “Take a class or two.” I would like to fill in the gaps of what I missed: Greek Mythology, a scripture class on Luke-Acts, and a class or two on what I love: algebra –  I love algebra.

While many classes teach new concepts and offer opportunities, perhaps the greatest lesson of Act 2 is:  no matter our stage or age in life, it is never too late to develop our gifts and enjoy new friendships.

(S-R archives photo)

What would Miss Ellie think?

I was a huge “Dallas” fan when the series ran throughout the 1980s. Last night I tuned in to the reprise of it. Linda Gray, the actor who played J.R.'s wife, is back in the “sequel” series. I always liked her, but it was disheartening to see how much face work she has obviously had in order to stay marketable.

Made me think back to Barbara Bel Geddes who played the family matriarch, Miss Eliie, until 1990. She was obviously a woman of a certain age in that series, and she didn't need any (obvious) face work to play the role. A lot has changed in two decades.

(S-R Archives photo)

The Spokane Vortex in history

In our newsroom, we call it the Spokane Vortex. It occurs when someone from the Inland Northwest is involved with a national or international news event. Or someone is related to someone in Spokane in coincidences beyond explanation.

Recently, I discovered some Spokane Vortex in history. In my Voice story today, I talked about discovering photos of two women (now deceased) who I'd written about May 27. I found photos of Eva Hardin and Ada Schaefer — career women in an era when that was uncommon — in albums once owned by Keo King LaVell, who belongs to a family who left us a collection of historic photos and memorabilia. And the next day, a man called me to tell me he'd just found one of Keo's paintings, from 1908, in a garage sale.

For some reason, it was comforting to see all these coincidences, though all the people involved have been  dead for many decades now. It was almost like they were reaching out of history to remind me how we are all so connected, in so many amazing ways.

Thanks Eva, Ada and Keo. You made my busy week a joy.

(Photo of Keo King LaVell painting courtesy of Ted Bidon)

Remembering our heroes…

Today we celebrate our freedom as a nation. We remember all the men and women who offered their service, some their lives, for our country.  

While our nation honors our freedom today, we remember all the heroes who keep us free, and it is the hero’s family who must live the reality of their loved one's choice to serve.

May all people who miss their moms, dads, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters soon enjoy the loving reunions that they deserve.

 Our heartfelt gratitude to our military and to their loved ones.


(S-R archives photo)

Nuns off the bus

The nuns who traveled 2700 miles to educate citizens about the budget proposal of Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. arrived at the nation’s capital on Monday.

 The sisters claim that the budget proposal rejects Catholic social teaching principles because it favors the rich –ignoring the option for the poor as well as the common good.

 Catholic social teaching is a response to issues within our society. The church is in an ongoing dialogue with contemporary issues and applies Catholic social teaching principles to those issues, edgy issues.

 “Far too many Catholics are not familiar with the basic content of Catholic social teaching. More fundamentally, many Catholics do not adequately understand that the social teaching of the Church is an essential part of Catholic faith. This poses a serious challenge for all Catholics, since it weakens our capacity to be a Church that is true to the demands of the Gospel. We need to do more to share the social mission and message of our Church.”
Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions
U.S. Catholic Bishops

 Welcome home, sisters, and thank you for using your prophetic voice to share the social mission and message of our Church on behalf of all those Americans who have been ignored.

(S-R archives photo)

Of Hoopfest, nephews and baby quail

Our backyard is home to several quail families. We watch for the babies, as tiny as a sneeze, and then marvel how fast they become teen quails and then, mom and dad quails themselves.

In my large, extended Italian family — 15 nieces, 25 great nieces and nephews — it's like watching quail families in human time. Saturday, my husband and I went to Hoopfest to watch my great-nephew Adam play, coached by his father, my nephew Matthew.

Was it just about 20 years ago, Matthew was just a bit older than his son, playing his heart out at Hoopfest? Yes. And Tony and I were courtside, taking photos, like the one above. Son and coach/father. We do not think we age, watching from our windows to the quail outside and watching courtside at Hoopfest.

But just as teen nephew grew into father nephew and quail as tiny as sneezes become parent quails, so we, too, age. The watchers age.

It goes so fast. I say it more and more. You take a picture of it, hoping to slow it down somehow or freeze some of it for later.

(Photo by Tony Wadden)

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About this blog

Writer Catherine Johnston of Olympia, Wash., addresses issues facing aging baby boomers and seniors as well as issues of serious illness, death and dying, grief and loss.

Ask a question: Catherine welcomes questions about aging issues and grief. Email her at

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