Ilya

He was a Russian exchange student that had come to our high school at the beginning of the year. He had a tough time assimilating and most of us didn’t make it any easier. With his thick Russian accent, his style that was different than the trends at that time, and his general different understanding of cultural norms, he was just different. He walked an uphill path, making few friends, encountering more students that made fun of and bullied him. I wish I could say I was among the brave few that stood by his side and befriended him. I was not. I was one of the students that stood aside, my heart silently breaking for him.

I didn’t know much about him. I’m not sure I had any classes with him, but I knew he was one of the kids that just didn’t have it easy our senior year. When it came time to announce the homecoming court, it was the usual suspects. The girls and guys that you knew were the most popular. Except one. The Russian exchange student. He had been nominated. As a joke.

It put a pit in my stomach. I couldn’t believe that we could come together as a student body and unite to show our mean streak. Our ugly side. I felt helpless and in disbelief at the same time. How could we team up against one struggling student? But who was I to do anything about it? What could I do anyway?

It seemed to unfold before my eyes in slow motion. Was this really happening? It was really happening. How could the star students of our high school stand behind this? Think this up? Think it was funny? My heart silently broke more and more.

What I will never forget is how he responded to this cruelty and bullying towards him. Someone asked him if he was going to go through with it. He asked why he would not. “You know it’s a joke, don’t you?” “I know it’s a joke. It’s a joke to them, but not to me. But what did I do? Nothing. I’m going to live it up.” He accepted the nomination. He held his head high. And he joined in all the court activities, with his head raised high, standing firmly on the ground he deserved.

I can’t remember who ultimately won the title of Homecoming King. I remember how a class of students rallied and showed their snarling teeth. I remember the ache of feeling his isolation. But worst of all, I remember my silence.

This was a story of how one single exchange student was bullied. But he was not the weak one. He was never the weak one. He showed us all that he was better than all of us with his bravery, with his grace, with his head held high. We were the weak ones. We, that rallied behind a mean-spirited joke. We, that stood in herds, silent to it all.

What could I do anyway? How could I have stood up to something I knew was so wrong? I was just me, and I was no one to be known. But now I realize that I was wrong. There are so many things I could have done. Now, I realize that not everyone has to react in the same way. Some may publicly and loudly protest. Some may engage in heated discourse with those with whom they disagree. Some may work more quietly, befriending and standing by the side of those that need it most. Some may commit to public service. Showing solidarity in all forms from all perspectives is necessary. It is desperately needed. I know that now more than ever.

I regret and apologize for my silence when I could have been so much better; when I could have held my head high and stood alongside another human being that mattered.

I move forward knowing that it is my responsibility to challenge myself the way I didn’t challenge myself then. To show up. To be present. To stand up. I’ll do it in my own way. I hope you’ll find your way too.

 

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Summer Cabin Week

There is one week of the summer that is the best week of our lives. Summer cabin week. We rent a cabin up north in Minnesota like Minnesotans do, and we, as a family of five, unplug from the world, spend long days on the shore of the lake, in the water, on a boat, eat s’mores and egg my husband on to make a better “World’s Best Toasted Marshmallow” than the last. In the evenings, my husband and I kick back with a glass of wine, cheese, and admire the lake or let our inner competitive natures take us to a different level in a cut throat game of Scrabble. Even rainy days can’t get us down. We watch morning cartoons, make bracelets, color drawings, and build legos. It is our week of complete togetherness and pure fun. It is the one week I look forward to the most all year long. Summer cabin week. The best week of our family’s year.

Except this past summer. It had been a grueling fall turned winter turned spring. It was a blurry concoction of muddy distress and gasping for air. I won’t get into the details, but my endurance had been my whimpering crutch to lean on through a difficult season of life. Our weeklong summer vacation was the horizon that I daydreamed about and when I took deep breaths, I imagined smelling the lake air that was just around the corner. But as the week drew closer, my husband and I both knew that we would not be out of the woods of our hard year that was wearing us both down in the worst of ways. And soon, we went from panic to surrendering that our magical summer week would be edged out by my husband’s work demands. Determined to still go, we went through the motions of packing, driving up north and settling into our cozy cabin with the sparkling reflections of the gorgeous lake taunting us from our cabin window. The week of vacation was filled with long, full work days for my husband and full, effortful days for me of trying to preserve the magic of the lake and cabin for my kids. From my kids’ perspective, it was still the best week of the summer. And while I will admit, I still enjoyed the joy of my kids as they laughed and buried one another in the sand, it ground at my patience that here I was, still leaning, trying to stay upright and keep together the fabrics of my family. I tried to hold on to the fact that all things considered, we were lucky to have this trip at all and that the bottom line was that my kids’ memories of our summer week would still be ones filled with happiness. But it was freakin’ hard.

My husband and I are always surprised when people comment on how we “have it all.” Handing off the baton stealthily as we pass one another during all hours of the days and weeks. Him out of town. Me working a string of overnights. Him working long hours. Me working the weirdest of hours. We still choose to manage our kids’ hockey team. I still choose to participate in the PTO at both our kids’ schools. He is on the board of a non-profit charity that helps provide support for legal representation for foster children. I like to bake goods for his office on days off. He trucks the kids along to their various activities on weekends I am working. I love to write on the side. He gets honored with awards and makes national lists of awesome lawyers I disgruntling agree to not share on social media. We plan big parties for our kids’ birthdays. We host evenings with friends. We plan date nights and sneak long weekends away to ski, to our favorite retreats, to Napa, to spend with friends. We plan week-long summer vacations for our family. We make crazy choices to train together for half marathons.

How do we do it all.

I will be the first to laugh maniacally and flail my arms like a rabid animal that we are hardly capable of “doing it all.” Except, most of the time, I’m too tired to flail my arms at anything. If you asked me, we are scrambling to “have it all”, one day at a time, with nothing truly figured out. Our priorities tug and pull at us and bicker with one another to edge out their competition.  We get stuck in the middle feeling like we are watching the construction of an overambitious house made of cards that might blow over at any given moment if one flimsy card is misplaced.

This is something we never trained for when we said “I do.” While I thought I knew when we were dating that my husband would be a good father and partner, I truly and foolishly had no idea what gave me that impression. He could have turned into the worst. So, first and foremost, I am thankful that did not happen.

What makes us functional is our uncanny awareness of one another. We both carry an internal stress barometer for the other. And when the other’s stress is ticking into the red, our ability to take over expands. When the other’s frustration and mood takes a nosedive for the worse, the other is their to lay out the trampoline so when we fall, we bounce and don’t hit the ground. When these safe measures are too late and we do crumple into the ground, we snatch up the super glue and mend one another the best we can with the fiercest devotion to one another.

This is how we make it doable. The to-do’s, should-do’s, already-late-but-still-have-to-do’s catch up and cripple us at times. Those seconds during the day that we are passing the baton are wobbly, we often both come close to dropping the hand-off or colliding, and our legs buckle as we try to run in stride with one another.  But somehow, we pull it together, for one more task of the day, week, month.

It is not easy. Oh man, it is not easy. Our days are infiltrated with irritability, disappointments, resentments, frustrations, misses, falling asleep on date nights. There are demands, setbacks, things we say yes to, many things we have to say no to–however much it pains us to say goodbye to new opportunities in our careers–but we remind ourselves that this is about our family. That this is our ultimate goal. The raising of a family. A marriage, kids, the preservation of love. All this that we are doing, it is about this core unit that we uphold over everything. If the baton is a little wobbly today, and even if we flat out drop it somewhere along the way and have to run back and pick it up, our team efforts will ultimately keep us in forward motion.

All things considered, we make it work because we carry the same vision and ultimate goal: to protect the best part of all of this—our family. We may have seemingly insurmountable days, outright failed days, and make all sorts of wrong choices along the way, but as we pass this family baton back and forth, we will fervently protect it with what we can and shoulder one another the best we can. Cabin week last summer is one I don’t care to replay–in fact, last year in its overall entirety is one I am okay to leave behind–but we are already planning for our cabin week this summer; the kids could not be more excited.

It Started With a Eulogy

It started with a eulogy, as things never start. I listened as my husband spoke about his stepdad. I listened as his daughter spoke about her father. I remember the words that came to me and filled the pages as I wrote about my father-in-law. The same theme resonated: our greatest admiration and adoration of him was his commitment to his family. He gave love to his family, to his friends, to his community with the greatest generosity. It was about his loyalty. It was about his steady support and “I’ll be there for you no matter what” way of living. It was that he would offer you a roof over your head if you needed one, better yet, he would build one for you. And as I wept alone and wept publically at this great man we have lost, I also came to an eye-opening conclusion.

When we honor one another at the biggest events of our lives–weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, baby showers, and yes, even funerals, we honor the person. We honor their character, their connection to us, how they love us, how they fill our lives, whether they make us laugh, whether they challenge us, whether they support us, whether they take care of us. We honor them through our memories that have brought us closer and how they make us feel. We may touch on their accomplishments, their accolades; we may be impressed by what they have done in their lifetime, but this is not why we love them. This is not what they mean to us. To us, they are not a walking resume of achievements, but the soul that beats and fills our lives in whichever unique way that might be.

This has opened my eyes. So much of my life has been about striving. Striving to achieve. To get good grades. To reach my career goals. To always be in the top percentiles. It has always been about the climb, the achievements. I have sought the tangible accolades of degrees, position titles, awards, to prove myself and my worth.

Somewhere along this climb, I stopped myself. I thought about where I was going in this lifetime and why. I made a vow to myself that once I got to my goal of where I wanted to be with my career, it was time to change the course of how I dedicated my time and energy. It would be time to devote myself to maintaining my career goals, and shift my efforts towards what was truly my greatest aspiration and passion. And that is to be a mom, wife, and the greatest center force of my family. A close second to this is to be a loyal and present friend in the lives of those I love like family.

This was no easy shift. Why couldn’t I do it all? All those years in college and medical school, I had been told, “You can do it all. You can have it all. You can have success in your career and you can have success in your family.” I believed it. I believed every word. But as reality has shown me, when you dive into something such as a demanding career, you better give it your all to be the best. And when you give your all to one thing, where is the rest of you to give to “doing it all”? You may have a family, but you also have the support that becomes more and more essential to “having it all.” A supportive husband, supportive parents, a supportive care provider by your side, partnering in this raising of a family. These extensions of you become more dominant, they become a greater and greater force in those aspects of your life that need supporting, until you become the supporting role behind the real presence. And is that okay? Of course it is okay. Every family is a blended family of different pillars, different roles; that is how we have successful, dominating career oriented females and males in our society that we so greatly admire.

For me, this just couldn’t be the story of my life. I had to take a step back. I had to think about the repercussions of saying yes to this committee, to the added honor of accepting a promotion, writing a book chapter for a medical textbook, or a position of more responsibility. When you say yes to something, you are taking away from something. There is not an infinite amount of you to give.

This was tough for me at first, and if I am being honest, it is still something I struggle with to this day. Being entrenched in an environment that encourages you to strive for more, to reach higher, to produce greater things, to ultimately be better in your career and dedicate yourself to the pursuit of excelling, this is what I defined as success. Career success was life success. Life success was the sum of all your achievements. As I watched friends continue down that path, I felt pangs of envy, of resentment towards myself. Why aren’t you doing what they are doing? You could do that too you know. Are you lazy? Are you not good enough? Why are you giving up?

These questions haunted me heavily for years, and at times, still float to the surface and taunt me. But somewhere along the line, I acknowledged what I have known is the core of who I am. What matters to me above all else is not my career, but my family. My husband. My kids. They are my everything. My friends. Devoting my life to being present for them is a very conscious and very active decision I have made. By not “having it all”, I have intentionally created space and time to let my family know that they are what matters. Whether it be by making home-cooked meals, being home to pick the kids up from school and hear about their day, deciding to set up for a surprise, spontaneous fort-making extravaganza after school, baking zucchini bread for lazy weekend morning brunches, bringing homemade cupcakes to my husband’s office, or bringing a home-cooked meal to a friend’s family at her time of need, these are the things that matter.

This is my success story and I define success as prioritizing the people that matter most to me. Being involved in two PTO’s, managing my kids’ hockey team, these are the commitments that I invest in, because by investing in these things, I am showing my kids that they matter. That they matter to me more than any hospital committee or council I could be on.

This is not to say that I believe the opposite is true.  If your path is to to pursue that high-powered career, this certainly does not mean you are any less dedicated to your kids and certainly means nothing about how much you love your kids.  You make the ends meet the way it works for your family, showing them the importance of work ethic and showing them the tremendous value of commitment to your career and your life passions.

I do recognize that when I actively say yes to one activity, I passively agree to take time away from another. I therefore choose my career-oriented responsibilities with greater scrutiny. And the things I can most easily take away from are the ones with the smallest voices, that may not even realize their needs, and those are from my children and even from my husband. They are the ones that won’t provide me with another title to add to my resume, but it is these intangibles that I find my greatest responsibilities.

I won’t lie, some days still get me down and are hard. Surrounded by the high-functioning overachievers that define success that very way I had for so many years when I was achieving right along side them, I can see it in their eyes–they know they are leaving me in the dust. That my success story is a fading one. I have come to realize, this is far from the case. My success story is a blazing one.

My worth is defined by my intentional presence in the life and lives that matters to me most. This may sound morbid, but when those that love me sit down to write my eulogy, I want it to be about my fierce dedication to loving them, about my love and pride for the family my husband and I raised, and how devoted I was to always being present and there for them.

I have sought to re-define life success. Career success is not synonymous with life success. Career success is only a small fraction of what truly matters. My priorities are in order, and I can proudly say, my husband, my kids, my family and friends, will always be my greatest definition of success.

Dear Byron

What I’ll remember most is this uncanny relationship you built with your two-year-old granddaughter. I’ll remember how she would run to you, her full head of flouncy blonde hair, whipping behind her and collapse across your legs, burying her flushed, chubby cheeks in her hands and head into your lap. You were her safety. You were her rock.  
That two-year-old. She is a smart one. Because that’s how we all felt. You were our safety. You were our rock. We all buried our heads in your lap in our own ways. For me, it was knowing every time we had a crisis with the kids–this kid had a fever and needed to be picked up from school when both Joe and I were working, that kid was vomiting and couldn’t go to school today, or someone needed to stay at our house because Joe was suddenly going out of town and I was working overnight, or we simply needed a night out–you were there. Drop everything. No questions asked. I would look at you with desperate appreciation, and you would look back at me firmly, “that’s why we’re here. Stay out longer. You guys need the time.” And I would sigh and breathe and want to cry, knowing you were there to lean on, time and time again, letting me know that being there for us was all you wanted in return.  
What I loved most of all, was that there was no questioning that your number one priority was always family. And most of all, your wife–the love of your life. At the core of it all, you lived your life to love your wife and family and to protect and take care of us all. Every ounce of everything you were went into taking care of us. I remember how when you became too weak to walk across a soccer field, you would drive your wife to her grandkids’ soccer practice and wait for her in the car. I’ll remember how you would rather be out of breath carrying bags than consider having someone else carry the burden. I’ll remember how you shooed me away from washing the dishes every time you saw my shoulders slump in exhaustion after a long day. I’ll remember how you acknowledged what an amazing dad my husband is for stopping what he was doing to help our son build a lego set he was struggling with. I’ll remember how every time without fail, you would put down your fork, and say, “My Doctor told me to stop eating when I was full”, with a wink and a nudge in my direction. I’ll remember how nothing lit you up the way talking about your kids coming to visit did, and how you were looking forward to walking around the hardware store with your son, checking out new gadgets, just like you two used to do. I’ll remember the afternoons we spent on the lake with you–always the driver of the boat–while the rest of us enjoyed a carefree summer day of sun, water balloon fights, and stops at the ice cream shop.  I’ll remember those pork chops you slow cooked over a bed of hot coals–your famous hot chops.  Oh, we’ll all remember your hot chops.  I’m so sorry if you never had Byron’s hot chops.  

You were never one to want a lot. Just your family. Just to feel useful and needed. Just to be able to provide. Just to see your family happy and comfortable. You spoke loudly with your actions what you seldom said with words: I am here for you. Always, no matter what, because this is how I love you–with everything I can offer.  
You have been the ultimate fixture in our lives. Always steady, always there, never wavering. We all leaned on you.  
Our two-year-old continues to ask, “Where is Abba-abba?” And I will continue to tell her, that you are right here in our hearts. Our permanent fixture.  
Byron, you are truly one-of-a-kind. We all miss you greatly. But you have emblazoned your love into each of our hearts.  
Thank you for being here for us, even in these days when you have gone.  
We will continue to love you the way you loved us–with everything we’ve got.  

Beyond The Final Breath

Republished at:  https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/we-didnt-save-his-life-but-we-didnt-disrespect-him-either/2017/02/03/74612afe-d1f6-11e6-9cb0-54ab630851e8_story.html?utm_term=.9e665c02ec43

Republished at:  http://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2016/12/didnt-save-life-better.html

“Well?  Did you save him?” “No. We did better than that.”

He came in pulseless. The machine performing chest compressions with the rhythmic thud, thwack, thump. His ribs heaving under the force of the compressor, keeping his heart artificially beating. The plastic tube secured in his airway forcing puffs of air to inflate his lungs.  His skin slightly purple-gray, on that narrow brink between life and death. His eyes like speckled round pieces of glass, with fixed pupils, staring nowhere.

Our team was assembled, prepared, ready. We worked deftly with experienced hands, our focus and determination fueled by adrenaline, a synchronized team, we worked side by side; this was our life to save and we were going to do everything.

But his glassy, fixed eyes spoke to me. As we regained a heartbeat, and we halted the chest compressions, and our adrenaline settled–here he lay, not out of the woods, but heart back from a standstill. His glassy eyes told me his heart was back, but his life of living was gone. The life that laughed, that smiled, that held his wife’s hand–there was no amount of life saving measures that could bring that part of him back.  We didn’t know how long ago he had stopped breathing. But it was long enough to have robbed him of his mind, his memory, of everything that made him that man his family loved.

His wife and only daughter arrived. I left him in my able teams’ hands and sat down with them. I looked them in the eyes. I told them the story of his final hour of life, from the perspective of his fighting, beating heart.

His heart was here with us, but his  brain had gone too long without oxygen before we could reach him. He would never walk out of this hospital. They listened to my words.  Words spinning and exploding beyond comprehension. They nodded their heads, as if to ask me to keep talking.  So long as I was talking, we didn’t have to move.  Tears were inevitable. It was so sudden. How could they be asked to make a decision of whether to continue with the resuscitation or to just let life walk its final march.

Yes, this was about them, but this was ultimately about him. What would he want? It is true it was sudden. It is true it is the toughest decision anyone will make.  But with the return of his heartbeat, the decision to continue resuscitation is as big, as active a decision as it is to stop all aggressive measures and let him be comfortable. These are both big decisions with big paths for us to travel down.  I needed them to understand that this wasn’t their decision to shoulder. It was their time to respect–in the most selfless of ways–the man they loved.  To step outside themselves, slip into his shoes and honor his wishes in the greatest way possible.  What would he have wanted if he saw himself in this moment?  Representing him in this way is a responsibility no one cares to bear, but this final act is the biggest, most giving way they could love and honor him.

His daughter immediately said, “oh, he would want none of this. He would want you to stop.”

They stood by his bedside. We withdrew all aggressive cares. We turned off the beeping monitors, we stopped artificially putting oxygen in his lungs, we turned off all pumps, we covered him with warm blankets, we let him be comfortable with his wife holding his hand for his final minutes, and his daughter stroking his hair.

And that’s how he left us.

Did we save his life?  No we did not.  Not today.  We did better than that. We upheld our promise to continue to respect his wishes beyond his final breath.

Broken Oven, Glory to You

Also published at:  http://www.scarymommy.com/being-busy-not-badge-honor/

Four weeks ago, in the midst of a baking/cooking frenzy, my oven took its final breath and puttered out. With zucchini bread batter mixed and poured, I stared at it, wild eyed with that blood vessel menacingly popping out of my right temple. With flour highlights in my hair and batter splatters on my shirt and yoga pants, I had a few words with my oven.

The next day, the repair guys were out, and let us know that it was the central circuit board that needed repair. As luck always has it, they no longer made the parts to repair it; however, they said they could certainly send it to the manufacturer for a “small” gob of money to have it repaired. Or, we could spend the large gobs of money to replace the entire oven. Yep, I’d love to send it in to the manufacturer, I replied, as if there was much of a decision to be made. So they removed it, and on their way out the door, explained it would take two weeks and I would be without an oven, oh, and without my stove as well. Huh? What the what??? The nice repair guy grinned sheepishly, “well, there have got to be a lot of great take out options around here, right?” He zipped up his jacket, grabbed the signed paperwork and scrambled to his van, keeping one eye on that crazed vein in my right temple that was slowly starting to declare itself.

No stove or oven for two weeks???? Oh boy. I checked the freezer. Emergency corn dogs and dinosaur nuggets and microwaveable-bagged veggies to save the day. I wish I had some inspirational MacGyver-meets-Martha-Stewart story of how I used chicken wire to make a stove top with flint and kindle or how I made adorable tea party finger foods or how I did the sensible thing and went out and bought a temporary, portable stove-top, but God no. That never happened. The repair guy was right. There has been a lot of take out, and a lot of microwaved, processed foods these last few weeks. And you know what? I liked it. No, no. I didn’t like it, I loved it. I love my microwave. I am one with my microwave. There. I said it.

Since having children, I have felt this great responsibility to feed them healthy, well-balanced meals. Foods that make me feel good about what I am putting in their little, rapidly growing and developing little bodies. They have been hearty-vegetable-eaters, fruit-devouring-monsters, home-cooked-meal-lovers. They have a sweet tooth for home-made healthy baked goods. All this feels so good to be able to provide this for my family, some weeks I am better than others, but in these last two weeks . . . turned three weeks without a stove, I have come to a realization that I was too busy to notice before.

In trying to keep up with my career-family balance, I have constantly felt over-stretched, over-tired, and overwhelmed. I remember leaving a late shift at work, and one of my beloved nurses telling me, as she realized that with my husband out of town, I still had to go home and pack lunches for my kids and had to get up early the next morning to take them to school, “You have to let it go.   Just let it go.” And I looked at her with that same bewildered“HOW DID MY OVEN JUST BREAK” look, but too tired to ask further, just nodded, smiled and kept on walking out the door.

But now. Now I get it. See, the breaking of my beloved, necessary stove and oven has shown me something I’m not quite sure I could have seen myself. That in taking this break from the often insurmountable task of meal preparation and everything that goes into it for my family, I have allowed something to go and it has allowed me to breathe. Those extra hours a day that have fallen into my lap are glorious. They are hours I can spend on something productive or spend on nothing at all but my couch, a cup of coffee and HGTV. They are hours I can call a friend and ask, “How are you?” Those extra hours have lifted a weight, a responsibility, a stress, that gifts me energy and leaves me less tired, less cranky, less irritable. I had no idea that something as simple or as tough as preparing meals was doing this to me. Because, if I think about it, I tell myself, “Come on, how hard is it to make meals?” I don’t have to explain it to you if you are this person in your family. It is hard.

So, now I am thinking what else do I feel this way about? Every task, every responsibility we pile onto our shoulders is just one more “simple” thing, and we say to ourselves, come on, how hard could this be to add this one tiny thing? Well, one thing adds time, time adds energy, energy adds stress, stress leads to irritability . . . ahh, it is all making sense!!! What a simple concept. Where have I been???

I think I’ve been where all of you have been. We have been feeling that we are working mothers and fathers taking care of our family, of our home, of our communities. Sometimes, we lose sight of the value of our own limits and really, our own self. Boundaries blur until there are no boundaries, and we keep on keeping on. We estimate our capabilities, and like the old saying, our eyes are bigger than our stomachs, our undertakings underestimate what is needed from us to accomplish every minutiae of every day—and soon we are stretched too thin doing everything, but unable to do anything with the best version of ourselves.

So, let’s give ourselves a break. What we do is enough. What we don’t do is acceptable. Give what you have to the things that matter the most, and when there is not enough of you to go around, be okay with it. There is no glory in “I am so busy!” There is value to doing things with time, with your full attention and ability, choosing wisely what is important to you and having the energy to enjoy rest, relaxation, and time for calm. Let’s chisel away at this society of “busy”, and let the glory be with broken ovens and microwaves once in awhile.

These American Dreams

Whichever side you fall, you cannot deny that half of the country is hurting. That half of the country is in pain. In disbelief. In fear. Whichever side you fall on, you can acknowledge that there are people excited about this new era. About a leader like no other we have ever known. Whichever side you fall, there are two perspectives that deserve acknowledgement and respect. For after all is said and done, we are all in this together. Please.

My parents came to the United States of America with two suitcases of belongings as their entire inventory of wealth. My mother came to a country where she did not speak the language. My father came to a country and dove into a post-graduate program to receive his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering in a language he had just learned to speak. My mother–from a wealthy family–that wept and begrudgingly allowed her to come to America, but made it clear that this would be a journey she must make on her own.  She wrote home about seeing snow for the first time, about American grocery stores, but never spoke a word about the poorly insulated one room makeshift shed being the only place they could afford to live. She never wrote about the times when their landlord turned off their electricity because they were late on rent. My father, from a farming family in rural Taiwan that made ends meet by eating the over-supply of sweet potatoes generally reserved to feed their livestock. My father, who found his passion in the math and sciences, and dragged his desk out to the sole street light on the dirt road they lived on when it became dark to continue studying.

My father studied hard when he came into his graduate program. My brother was born within their first year of them being in America. To make ends meet, my mom took on odd jobs that she could do from home while taking care of my brother. She gratefully accepted any hand-me-downs to provide for my brother from other foreign graduate students as their kids outgrew clothes. To make ends meet, my mom kept a tight budget, allotting money for food and bare essentials.

My mom tells the story, with a calm and steady voice of when my brother was preschool age. She went to the store to buy milk, and she came short of the 19 cents it cost for his milk. She rummaged through her purse, in her pockets, and ultimately felt as if there was nowhere to hide, but to swallow that lump in her throat and nonchalantly say she would come back for it later.

She tells the story of when she was so excited that my brother had a friend come over for a play date that in the weeks following, she encouraged my brother to invite his friend back. After being met with silence on numerous urgings, my brother ultimately replied, “He said he couldn’t, because his mom said our house was not a real house.” She turned that heartbreak into strength, and vowed at that moment, that she and my father would put every ounce of their energy into providing for my brother and his siblings to come, so we would never feel less than or have the opportunity to feel humiliated in this way.

Slowly, but with unwavering strength, my parents did just that. They carved out a life for themselves. A 5-bedroom, 4-bathroom life in the suburbs of West Des Moines, Iowa. They became American citizens. They raised three children that fully identify as Americans with families of their own, fully entrenched in the communities that they serve.

My parents’ story is the story of one American dream. Immigrants that paved their own way through hard work and heart ache. That made an amazingly better life for their family and fought to provide the wealth of American opportunities within finger’s reach for their children.

But my parents’ story is only one story of one American dream. There is also the American dream of the little boy that grew up knowing he should like girls, but instead fell in love with the man of his dreams as an adult. There is also the American dream of the little girl who grew up with a single mother working three jobs who never got a free ride and wondered if her daydream to pursue college was just a far away fantasy. There is also the American dream of the African American boy who grew up in a middle class family, whose mom is on the PTO, and yet he is still being convicted of a crime he did not commit because he was at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong skin color. There is also the American dream of the boy who came from three generations of law enforcement who puts on that blue uniform for the first time knowing that he is carrying the great responsibility upheld by his family to serve and protect with pride and dignity. There is also the American dream of the boy who picks education over the violence on the streets he walks every day, who never feels the encouragement that his choices are the right choices. These are American dreams. These are the dreams we need to protect.

Whichever side you fall on, remember that our country is about heart, about hope, about fostering these American dreams. As we all breathe our next breath, let’s breathe together knowing we share this air, we share the land we live on, and we share this country.  Let’s respect and embrace one another with open minds with the ultimate goal to carry one another forward.  Let’s leave no one feeling marginalized or left behind. While some of our hearts are breaking and some of our hearts are feeling empowered, let’s fight hard to unite  when we need it most.