The First Time – Thanks Ann

umbrellas My mom’s friend, Ann Ryan, died and I refuse to fall into my pattern of railing against the unfairness. Instead I choose to celebrate her life. Ann lived knowing her purpose, moved with courage through difficult choices and was fiercely committed to her family and friends. She was a fighter, surviving a breast cancer diagnosis more than twenty years ago. In the book of life she is one of the champions. We could all learn how to live with courage from Ann's example. I have her to thank for many "first times" in my life. The first time I . . .
  1. Appeared in a McDonald’s commercial.
  2. Knew that parents could love kids that weren’t “theirs”
  3. Saw a penis other than my baby brother’s.
  4. Saved a life.
  5. Understood the power of change.
  6. Flew in an airplane.
  7. Faced death.
  8. Saw my mom drunk.
  9. Went to a foreign country.
  10. Knew cancer was not always the end of a story.
250px-Blue_Star_in_window_June_2012While I was growing up in a west Toledo, Ohio neighborhood, the Ryan’s moved into a house down the street from us. When just a few feet separate houses, things can go either way. Fortunately, the mood of our neighborhood was mostly congenial, save for a few crabby neighbors. It was the late 60’s, Saigon had not yet fallen, and several windows displayed stars representing family members who were serving in the war. We all knew the faces behind the stars. Ann and Mom had sons the same age, so their friendship started through their children’s connection. Tom, Ann’s husband, worked for a promotions agency that had an account with McDonalds. Ann thought I’d be good on TV. She gave me my first shot at stardom, acting in commercial for McDonald’s sippy dipper, a straw in the shape of McDonald’s arches. In addition to winning local fame, I made $25 dollars, more than any kool-aid stand I had ever run.
mcds sippy dipper
Sippy Dipper
Not long after we met the Ryan’s, they adopted a beautiful baby girl. I was her devoted babysitter and on sunny days I spent countless hours strolling her down the sidewalks of our street with my friend Terry. He and I, both around age 8, would pretend we were married and the proud parents of a baby girl. What a sight we must have been – me – hands tightly controlling the stroller - him - parading beside me twirling an umbrella in the sunshine. Terry and I bonded during our short marriage. We decided to watch each other pee because that’s what married people do. It was a symbolic act of our commitment to each other. Terry was more feminine and flamboyant than me, hence the umbrella without the rain. He was my first gay friend. He died during the AIDS epidemic. Sometimes I'd babysit while Ann did house chores. Like a mother hen, I'd sit loyally beside her baby girl on the couch. On one occasion, the baby decided she would practice rolling over. My hands caught her before she hit the floor. Ann said I probably saved her life. I believed it. A couple years passed and my resume grew with adventures of baby-sitting that included more heroic acts and even another McDonalds commercial; this time for a “double-cheese please”. Then one day I learned the shocking news that the Ryans were moving to Arizona to seek out better job opportunities. Nobody I knew did that. They stayed put and complained. My heart broke when they left. I can’t count the tears that were shed to Elton John’s song Daniel. But, under that grief something happened; I began to understand how change can hold hope and possibility. A year later I found myself on my first plane trip because of Ann. After a short flight to the Chicago airport, our family switched planes for a fateful flight to Phoenix, Arizona. We were in the air thirty minutes when the pilot announced that our main engine was out. He quickly came back on to apologize for the inadvertent announcement. I guess he didn’t know the intercom was live. Too late! The passengers were in an uproar. The woman next to me got out her rosary and started her “Holy Mary’s” only to pause intermittently to bemoan our sure demise and her decision to fly again after the last flight she had taken twenty years ago had an emergency landing. Drinks started flowing to appease the adults. Us kids were left to figure out things for ourselves. By the time we were landing, my mother, who I’d never seen drinking, was the only person allowed out of her seat. She was in the bathroom throwing up. My brother kept shouting “Ma’s drunk!”, an unnecessary proclamation. Besides, she probably wasn’t the only one.
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Dancers in Nogales, Mexico
On solid ground, life was sweeter after our harrowing in-air calamity. During the vacation we travelled to Mexico for a day trip to Nogales. I’d been to Canada before, but I considered this trip to be my real first foreign country experience since they spoke a different language. Following our vacation, I didn’t see Ann until more than twenty years later when I finally made it back to Arizona. Her wide smile and good humor were well intact. She had been a cancer survivor for many years and she looked great. After that, I never saw her again. Yet, I will always remember her; this one person was behind many "firsts" and an inspiration for the single best decision I have ever made, to adopt my two beloved children. How can I be an inspiration to others? I ask this question every day. Today it feels more pressing. In making life choices how do you keep your passion and purpose on pace with your feet? I do know that making the choice to write today and unpack how Ann lived, not how she died, is a good step. Take time to write. Maybe you want to forget something, write it down then destroy it, Maybe you want to remember something, like your first times. What will be your story?        

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