The Barefoot Heart

adventures & derring-do in the third half of life

32: A Surprise Encounter

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So there I am, looking at pocketbooks, arguing with myself that I surely don’t need another pocketbook but gosh darn, it’s my birthday and I can be frivolous if I want to be, when a young teenage girl crosses the store to get to me and hands me a purple square of paper on which is drawn a heart holding these handwritten words: Don’t forget to smile. Don’t forget to love. Happy Valentine’s Day from Alex.

I want to know more, but she is gone. I don’t see her anywhere. I kick myself for not asking her what she was handing me. Eventually, though, I spot her and run to catch up. She is with a woman and a tall, lanky young man. “I’m curious,” I tell her. “What’s the story behind this valentine?”

The woman tells me that Alex is her son who died last October. His last words were “Don’t forget to smile. Don’t forget to love.” As she tells me more of the story, tears spill. I’m quite sure we’ll soon need to call for clean-up on aisle 14, and I don’t care.

“Today’s my birthday,” I tell her, “and this is the best gift ever.” Hugs are swapped and enthusiastic wishes for a happy birthday come from Alex’s sister and brother (who’s wearing a t-shirt with a photo of Alex on it, and you know, nobody thinks it the least bit odd when I reach out and touch the brother’s chest.)

Alex’s mother asks to take a photo, then more tears are shed and hugs exchanged before we part ways. I don’t even know their names, but Alex will live forever in the mind and heart of this woman called Jeanne who never had the honor of knowing him in this life.


Today Alison and I go to the surgeon’s office on the twelfth floor to have the drainage tube removed from her throat. When the elevator doors open on the eleventh floor, a woman pushes a stroller from the back of the elevator to the front, and as she’s exiting, I see that she’s wearing a shirt that says “Don’t forget to smile, Alex”.

It all happens so fast.

I see the shirt, the memory floods me just as clearly as if it happened yesterday. She pushes past me, exits the elevator cab, and in a split second decision, I go after her, turning around to hold the doors open long enough to assure Alison that I’ll be along in a few minutes.

“Excuse me,” I say to the young woman in the t-shirt. “I see your t-shirt, and well, last February on Valentine’s Day, a teenage girl stopped me in a store in Newnan to give me a purple piece of paper bearing those same words: “Don’t forget to smile. Don’t forget to love, Alex.'”

The young woman’s face lights up into a broad smile and in her best broken English, she says “That’s my sister.” She goes on to explain as best she can that the t-shirts and valentines are how Alex’s family deals with their grief and how they keep Alex’s memory alive. She reaches out and hugs me warmly just like her sister did 6.5 months ago.

And just as I did 6.5 months ago, I leave smiling and blessing Alex’s family for honoring his memory in such a fine, meaningful way and vowing that though I’ll never have the privilege of knowing Alex in this life, I’ll never forget him – memorializing him by remembering to love and remembering to smile. Seems a fine legacy to me, Alex. A mighty fine legacy.

31: Hierarchies


To make sure none of our siblings slid into our primo spot in from of the television when we needed to go to the bathroom or get a snack from the kitchen, we’d call “Coming back to my place.” As long as we called it before severing all bodily contact with our spot, nobody in their right mind would dare go near our seat in our absence. It simply wasn’t done.

When we wanted the best seat in the car – second only to the driver’s seat – we called shotgun. Even if you were opening the passenger side car door and had one foot on the floorboard, if the last person out of the house called “shotgun”, you moved to the backseat without complaint.

When we wanted first crack at something coming up, we called “dibs”, and it was honored, regardless.

It was a well-respected system that maintained order.

As we grew older, we developed more age-appropriate systems to ensure and maintain our rightful place.

Drivers, for example, controlled which 8-track or radio station we listened to, and, in the pre dual-system days, whether the fan for the car heater was kept on high, medium, or low. Cars had no air conditioning, so cool was determined by whether the windows were rolled up or down, and whoever sat closest to the window got to decide that. The worst place to sit – the seat with no power at all – was in the middle. You and to put one foot on each side of the hump, and somebody always complained about that and about you crossing the line into their space.

Being sick catapulted you straight to the top of the heap. Being sick trumped age, car seat, grade point average, or perfect attendance awards. When sick, people brought you whatever you wanted to eat; you got to sleep at will without anybody wagging a finger of dire warnings about not being able to sleep at night; you woke up when you felt like it. When sick, you got to sit and recline wherever you wanted to, and you didn’t even have to call coming back to reserve your place. Most important of all, you got to decide what everybody watched on television.

Today, Alison, having just been released from the hospital yesterday afternoon after surgery on Friday afternoon, chose to watch every Back to the Future movie in chronological order.

I’m ready for her to feel better.

Or at least turn on the documentary channel.

But I have even less say-so than the one sitting in the middle of the backseat.


Remembering When and Don’t Forget seem to be the prevailing themes of my 100 Stories in 100 Days. At least so far. If you’d like to read along, simply mash the black “right this way” button in the orange bar at the top of the screen and follow the directions.

30: tickled pink


on her first all-state chorus trip, she spent her spending money and her free time finding just the right gift for me: a butterfly wind chime.
she was so young, i was so touched.
she still is, i still am.


decades later, it hangs right outside my studio window. i see it when i look up from my writing table.


though i still look at the wind chime and see the loving face of my young eldest child as she handed it to me, eager for me to receive her gift with the same enthusiastic caring and love with which she selected it, i see more now . . .

i see two butterflies intertwined – sometimes crossing each other, always attached at the core.

it has been restrung many times, this wind chime, and still it moves – is active – doesn’t rust.

through storms and gentle breezes, it makes lovely, delicate music.


it is pink, her favorite color.
the color of tenderness,
of unconditional love,
of compassion, empathy,
insightfulness, intuition,
and nurturing.
pink is the color of hope
of comfort,
of the sense that all will be well.


we came home from the hospital today, my girl and i, and we are tickled pink about that.


i love being a mother, and i love telling stories. because i craved a challenge, i am writing 100 stories in 100 consecutive days. today’s story was an easy one with a good and happy ending. to keep reading along, mash the black “right this way” button in the orange bar at the top of the screen, enter your name and email address, then submit. doesn’t cost a thing but a few minutes of your time.

29: Life in Room 741



The Daughter: Why don’t y’all go get some supper?

The Mama: We will after while. I want to wait till shift change so I can meet your new nurse and see about your new pain medicine, plus Dad wants to see the end of this football game.

The Daughter: Oh. It’s only 7? I thought it was 7:15.

(15 minutes to the next pain medication is an eternity.)


It’s cold, so we raise the thermostat.
It’s hot, so we lower the thermostat.
Nothing really changes. We remain cold or hot, depending.
We decide the thermostat is just for decoration, a concession to peace of mind, an attempt to make the patient feel in control of something. The Engineer (speaking from experience) assures me this is entirely possible.


There is a window in the room so we at least know night from day . . . something that didn’t happen in the hospital room my daddy died in. For reasons I don’t even want to think about, that hospital architect decided to put the patient rooms in a spoke-and-hub formation, with the patient rooms arranged as spokes coming off the throbbing hub of care and information. The hallway – positioned as the outer ring, encasing the hub, the patient rooms, and the anterooms for visitors – got all the windows. It was a poor, uneducated, unenlightened, uninformed design that I, in my deeply focused caregiver mode, probably would never have noticed had my brother-in-law Donn not said how much he hated those windowless patient rooms. “Patients need windows,” he said in his definitive way. It was during that same week that Donn looked at Daddy then at me and said, “Don’t ever let them treat me this way. You make sure they always bathe me, shave me, and put me in clean gowns.” If I never do another thing for that man called Donn, he will not ever, ever, ever lay in a hospital unkempt.


While looking at Baby Alison in the tiny clear nursery box mere hours after she was born, a friend of his parents put an arm around The Engineer and said, “She’s less trouble now than she will ever be.”


Alison’s blood pressure dips during the night, necessitating hourly visits to check her vitals. Nurse Nancy thinks it’s because of one of the drugs she’s being given, and I note that my mother’s family leans towards low blood pressure. (Something I also note when people get on their high horse with me about eating salt, one of the few things a girl can do to remedy low blood pressure.)



We are handed a questionnaire and asked to complete and return it. It’s a little something they do – 3 quick questions every Tuesday and Saturday, an opportunity for you to tell the hospital what they are doing well and where they could make improvements today while you’re here, not after you get home. Alison gives me total authority to complete the form, so I write:

Q: Did we exceed your expectations today?
A: Yes
Q: What did we do today that exceeded your expectations?
A: Nurse Nancy arrived! She listens without rushing or interrupting. She takes charge without taking over. Her voice and words are reassuring – she inspires confidence by her attentiveness, her tone of voice, her willingness to listen, and by doing what she says she’s going to do.
Q: What could we have done today to improve the experience for you or your family?
A: Have a different flavor (something other than lime) Powerade on hand. [Should you think me nit-picky, I only put something on those blank lines to give contrast and credibility to my #2 answer.]


Since we arrived in room 741 around 11 p.m. on Friday, 8/28/15, the nurses arrive at the top of each shift to introduce themselves and put their name on the information board hanging on the wall at the foot of Alison’s bed. Their names change every 8 hours or so, but the patient’s name remains “Brett” and the date is stuck on “Thursday, August 6, 2015”. All we need is for the President to be listed as “John F. Kennedy”, and we’ll keep neurologists – the ones who ask those inane-and-desperately-in-need-of-change questions to assess cognitive function: What day is it? Where are you? When you visit a new neighborhood you’ve never been to before, do you have a tendency to get lost? Who is the President of the United States? – laughing all the way to the new car lot.


Journal Entry: 11:30 p.m.

My grandmother declared that the second day after any trauma to the body is the worst, and now, as we enter the second day after, Grandmother’s Wisdom and Knowledge is once again confirmed. One step forward, three back will be how this day goes down in The History of Alison Chambers.

It’s been a day when she felt remarkably good; when she enjoyed visits from good friends; when once again I sit in awe of the resilience of the human body – especially hers.

But just now she hits the wall physically. Everything hurts. She can’t get comfortable. There’s itching and coughing. The drainage tube pulls. The IV tubes yank. She’s hot. She’s cold. More pain meds should arrive shortly, so it is with fingers crossed that I hope things will settle down enough for her to go to sleep. At least for a little while.


We bring her new electric scent warmer and two – count them 2 – lavender (for relaxation and healing) melts. We also bring one healing and one calming mandala coloring book and a new box of pencils. We bring facial masks and wipes and moisturizers. She brings the changes of pajamas; I bring enough clean underwear and socks for three days. She brings her planner, thinking she’ll get some things done, and she looks forward to finally finishing that library book. Knowing Friday will be a very long day and figuring we’ll stay at least one day/night longer, I am quite sure I will finish stitching the background to this one piece I’m working on. With this many uninterrupted hours, how can I not?

Do you hear me laughing maniacally?

We know there will be pain and discomfort, and we know drugs will be used to alleviate it. We bring healing accoutrements, but there is no space, no time, no wherewithal for such things as reading and coloring, for skin care, for meditative stitching, for aromatherapy.

The hospital is no home away from home, no hotel, no girls-spend-the-night party.


She put three boys through medical school by cleaning hospital rooms.

Her sons play in the high school band, and their game – the one she will not attend because she’s at work – is on ESPN tonight.

Her husband wanted to become a chaplain when he retired, and when he died unexpectedly some twenty years before getting the gold watch, she fulfilled his lifelong dream by becoming a chaplain.



Hospital cafeteria pickins’ are slim on Saturday, so The Engineer and I make a food run while Alison sleeps. And what to my wandering eyes should appear as we cross the road in front of the hospital but an accidental exclamation point.

Or a face with a pimple. Take your pick.

28a: Birthday Boy

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4:51 a.m. August 28. It’s a moment that my boy Kipp Chambers and I share. It’s the very minute he was born. I call him every year at the exact minute (time zone is his problem not mine) to tell him the story of that day – his genesis – and to remind him of how, in his very own precocious way and in the only language he had at the time, he declared his independence effectively saying “Y’all can schedule the date (Cesarean), but I’ll decide the time.” Happy birthday, Slug*. I love you more than my pocketbooks.

* Slug, the hottest coal that keeps the fire burning.

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28b: Life in the Hard Places


It’s hard to listen to the dire possibilities of stroke, paralysis, mental retardation, even death, even when you know it’s required by the doctor’s insurance company.
It’s easier when people rally around you, offering hope the doctor didn’t.

It’s hard to watch your daughter be wheeled off tearful at the thought of what surely sounds and feels like her imminent and sure demise.
It’s easier when caring folks offer their stories of hearing the worst and experiencing the best.

It’s hard to know that the surgeons and anesthesiologist are exhausted and hungry and still working on your daughter.
It’s easier when they text then talk to you almost giddy with excitement for how well the hard stuff went.

It’s hard not knowing what’s going on.
It’s easer when you have a brother-in-law (who’s an anesthesiologist and involved in the day’s events) sends frequent updates, sometimes using exclamation points.

It’s hard when your brain, in an effort to prepare you, lapses into thoughts of worst case scenarios.
It’s easier when family and friends text and call and come sit with you at the hospital and send funny videos, offering much-needed distraction for your brain.

It’s hard to watch your mother sit through a 13+ hour day, knowing she didn’t sleep the night before because she is hard of hearing and was afraid she’d not hear the alarm and oversleep.
It’s easier when she accepts a seat when offered; when she walks around (and finds her way back); when her friends and siblings eagerly await her call then keep her on the phone talking a while; when you see the relief on her face as she kisses the forehead of the granddaughter at the end of this grueling day.

It’s hard to hear your husband doubt his helpfulness.
It’s easier when he takes over the cooking (among so many other things) so that we can eat well and eat at home.

It’s hard to think of your loved one – and any other hospital patient, for that matter, because they’re all somebody’s loved one – being a number, a slab, a car note.
It’s easier when the hospital staffers smile warmly, ask if there’s anything they can do, and give you the impression they have all the time in the world to spend on you (when you know they don’t).

It’s hard when your son lives far away and you need and want him here beside you, holding your hand like only he can do.
It’s easier when your son tells you he’s keeping his phone within reach all day and will answer it no matter what (and does);
when your Other Son Thomas shows up to sit with you at the hospital
and your Other Son Whit stays in touch with upbeat, supportive messages.

It’s hard not knowing how, if, and how much your new daughter-in-law wants to be involved in her husband’s family . . . a hard thing made harder with distance.
It’s easier when she sends beautiful flowers to her sister-in-law that somehow, miraculously, find us in one of the many waiting rooms we camped out in.

It’s hard to keep thoughts of permanent vocal damage at bay when your daughter is a professional singer and actress who underwent surgery involving her throat.
It’s easier when she talks to you after surgery, the inevitable hoarseness fading after only a few hours (even though you know you’re not out of the woods yet, that there still could be changes in her voice).

It’s hard hearing your daughter apologize for being so much trouble.
It’s easier knowing that she’s actually giving you a chance to feel like a mother again, to feel needed, to feel protective, to feel appreciated.

It’s hard being fearful, knowing that if you don’t stop, you run the risk of having something to be fearful about.
It’s easier when family members (even those you don’t see nearly often enough) rally round you with expressions of love like only family can provide.

It’s hard making your potentially distressing news, your occasional anger and dissatisfaction, your uncertainties public.
It’s easier when you receive private messages telling you the memories your posts enkindle for them, not all of the memories necessarily good, but the act of remembering, worthwhile.

It’s hard when you see your daughter with tubes and drains and monitors.
It’s easier knowing that this is the beginning of recovery.

It’s hard when there’s nothing you can do.
It’s easier when you busy your hands stitching something.

It’s hard when your daughter is undergoing major procedures and surgery.
It’s hard made easier when there are thousands of people sitting with you, cheering for her, holding everyone involved close, sending light and prayers and positive thoughts and healing energy, and Reiki, and pure, unadulterated love.

It’s hard living in the land of doubt and not knowing and pain, both physical and emotional.
It’s easier when there’s a huge vat of gratitude being constantly refilled with appreciation for the goodness, caring, and loving support of people, some of whom you’ll never meet in person.

Thank y’all for all you did yesterday. We couldn’t’ve made it through without you.
And now, let the healing begin.


Today’s story, #28 in the intended 100, is about having fear and anxiety strap you into an emotional roller coaster . . . and having the love, caring, skill, and training of thousands be the attendant who stops the ride and lets you off.


27: Is That Where It All Started?


We moved back into the house with my Grandmother and Granddaddy so we could help him take care of her. I sat at the kitchen table and watched him feed her – one forkful at a time – before he fed himself. Being only four or five years old and too young to know what else to do, I sat beside stoke-riddled Grandmother mimicking her vacant look on my face and a washcloth over my hands that remained neatly folded in my lap just like hers so at least she would know she wasn’t alone.

When she went into the hospital to get relief from the bad headaches. Daddy drove me to the hospital in Newnan on his way to work where I spent the day at Mother’s side, then he picked me up on his way home.

When he was diagnosed with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis and later Juvenile Diabetes, I dove in to learn everything I could about both chronic diseases, calling labs as far away as Ireland to get information about cures in the making. When he has lasik surgery (a more complicated kind of lasik because he’s a skydiver), I flew to Denver to be his chauffeur and his eyes for a few days.

When she was hit by the car while crossing the street on her way to cheerleading practice, people said “Call me”, “Let me know”, “Keep me posted”, so I took a roll of quarters to the hospital and set up a phone tree and worked the pay phone.

When his second wife went on one of her trips and left him quite ill and near immobile, I moved into his house to stay with him, picking him up when he fell, sitting him on the screened-in porch while I silently (so he wouldn’t be embarrassed at his daughter-in-law doing such a thing) cleaned the result of his explosive diarrhea, cooking for us, reading to him, listening to his hard-to-come-by stories, taking him for a ride over to beautiful Lake Lure on a sunny day when he felt like getting out.

When Daddy went into the hospital for the last time, I stayed by his side, taking notes in my journal, soaking him in, loving him quietly, and releasing him reluctantly.

I don’t know where or how it started – maybe I was born this way, maybe I learned at the hand of example, maybe I’m fulfilling a contract I forged with these people in a prior life. Was it nature or nurture? Who knows? Does it matter? I make a good caregiver and a fine patient advocate. I know how to be on-the-ready and available. My Bones guide me, whispering what I need to hear, what I need to do, and their whisperings come through loud and clear because all else falls away. There is only the person in need.

Tomorrow I ask your loving support – support for Alison, for my family, for the medical teams tending to Alison, and for myself – as I sit beside my daughter who will have surgery that’s similar to last the surgery she underwent last year – similar but different, more complicated. Much more complicated.

Communicating is caring.
Feeding is caring.
Praying is caring.
Holding is caring.
And caring is a healing life force.

For those who say “I’m praying, and I won’t stop till you tell me to”, and do
For those who ask “What can I do?” and mean it
For those who say “I will be there to wait with you” and show up
For those who text or call to say “I’m thinking about y’all” and do
For those who message “I am there with you” and are . . .
Thank you.
Two words that aren’t nearly enough, but they’ll have to do for now.



I’ll be posting updates through the day tomorrow over on Facebook. When it comes to goodness, there really is strength in numbers, so thank you for being part of that – for holding us close as we weather tomorrow.

26: Good News, Bad News


Dianna and I have been friends from the cradle. Not that our parents had enough money or space for a cradle, you understand, it’s just a term to let you know that we’ve been friends from the get-go. Her family would come over every Sunday afternoon, and while our parents played badminton, Dianna and I played school. I was the teacher, she, the student. Like any good teacher, I always prepared ahead, turning game boards into bulletin boards and newspapers into folders to hold handouts and homework.

It’s a wonder I lived to tell you about this.

One summer our parents shipped us off Dianna and I went to Camp Inagahe. The good news is: we got there early enough (try before the staff woke up early, thanks to eager parents) that we got our pick of top bunks. Right beside each other. The bad news is that the top half of every wall in the cabin was screen . . . which means that when it rained – and in Georgia summers, it rains every afternoon like clockwork – our beds got soaked.

The bad news is that the camp made us drink milk. About a gallon and a half of milk at every meal. Two gallons for breakfast. Now I don’t like milk, and Dianna doesn’t either, though she was smart enough to tell the camp staff that she’s allergic to milk. They didn’t care. They made her drink it anyway, so she had no choice but to get sick and wind up in the nurse’s office. Being her best friend, there was no way I was letting her stay on that cot in the nurse’s office by herself, so we spent the entire afternoon – including our favorite time of day : arts and crafts – there. The good news is they didn’t make either of us drink milk any more after that.

The good news is that arts and crafts came around every day, and our favorite craft of all was to take some of those thin colorful plastic strips and weave them into lanyards. The bad news is that we made so many lanyards – enough to give one to everybody on our Christmas gift list – we used up the entire allotment of thin colorful plastic strips and had to switch to building bookends and bowls and skyscrapers and wallets and stuff from popsicle sticks.

The good news is that mail call came every afternoon right between lunch and free time. The bad news is that Dianna is the only one who got mail, and boy oh boy did she get mail. That girl got her own mail delivery truck. It took three – nay, sixteen – mail carriers to tote the boxes and bags of Dianna’s mail over to her bunk. The first day of mail call, the staffer distributing the mail lost her voice from calling out Dianna’s name so many times. The good news is that Dianna (sometimes, when she was in a particularly good mood) (or when I paid her with my cookie from lunch) let me read her mail because the bad news is: I didn’t get envelopes with my name on them.

Nary a one.

Why, you ask?

It seem my mother talked to her friend, Helen G. after dropping us off at camp, and Helen told Mother that when her boy Jimmy went to camp (now bear in mind that Jimmy is waaaayyyy older than me. He’s so much older than me that he still doesn’t speak to me when he sees me.), it made him homesick to get mail.

I’m not kidding.

Because Jimmy was such a wimp and got homesick when he got cards and letters at camp, I didn’t get so much as a postcard. Not even a smoke signal. Next time you see my mother, maybe you want to ask her what she has to say for herself.


Yep, I’m still at it – penning 100 stories in 100 days. Thanks for reading along. If you want them delivered to your e-mailbox – and it’s okay because Jimmy no longer gets homesick when he gets mail or email – just mash the black “right this way” button in the orange strip at the top of the screen, enter your email, hit the send button, and there you go. It’s all free, too, except for about two minute soft your time.

25: To Rub Her Feet Would’ve Cost Her a Quarter

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on hot, muggy summer days,
she would cut a hole in the air,
loosen the bobby pins,
and shake her head
back and forth
and forth and back,
her hair spilling out
as though trying to escape
to somewhere,

she’d sit in the afghan covered chair,
sighing as she
hit the chair with a
plump and a grunt.
she put a hairbrush in one hand
of the grandchild,
and a dime in the grandchild’s
other hand,
turned herself around
and smiled
in keen anticipation.


Today marks the one quarter mark of my 100 stories in 100 days. I appreciate y’all reading along, and if you’d like to get them delivered to your e-mailbox, just mash the black “right this way” button in the orange strip across the top of the screen, enter your email address, and press the submit button. It’s absolutely free, costing only about 3 minutes of your time.

24: life lessons from the falls


things – often big things – like trees, for example – find themselves in the falls. perhaps they were pushed in by mischievous humans or beavers, perhaps they died a natural death and fell in. whatever the cause, however they got there – big things land in the falls . . . and here’s the important part: the water just flows around them. it doesn’t stop, it just finds a new path.


the falls are made up of bajillions of droplets of water, and when they come together, they create a formidable force and a mighty roar.


you must be well motivated, fortified, and thoroughly dedicated to walk in the opposite direction of the water. to go against the flow is not an easy or restful activity.


water is determined and tireless. it doesn’t stop of its own accord, flowing on and on and on until something out of its control brings it to a halt. water can’t control the weather. water, weather – they are both pieces of nature’s jewelry, but they are different. separate.


the water frolics over the rocks as one great big never-ceasing transparent barrel of fun. but step in and hit a slick spot, and – whoosh – down you go. there are always things you can’t see.


Because I craved a challenge, I’m penning 100 stories in 100 days, and I sure do thank you for reading them. If you’d like a daily tuck-in tale, feel free to mash the black “Right This Way” button in the orange strip at the top of the screen. Enter your email address (all else is optional), and hit the “send” button. Doesn’t cost a thing but a minute of your time.

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