I write to process emotion. I take pictures because they evoke feeling for me – at the time, and later whenever I look at them again. My heart is overflowing this moment as I sit down to write and process. Let me share a story (with pictures) about serendipity, soul mates, blessings, and miracles.
From 2003 – 2005 I worked for the Central Alabama Veteran’s Health Care System in Tuskegee and Montgomery, AL. It was there that I met Tonya. The workplace environment was toxic but birds of a feather find each other and flock together. That was true of our small group. We did what we could to make the world around us just a little better. We had so much in common and become friends immediately. Tonya and I worked together on many projects over those couple of years. We were both on many of the same committees and councils. We were both in Toastmasters. I served as a mentor in the mentoring program she created. More importantly though, she was my friend.
My son was 19 years old and in Iraq at that time. He hadn’t gone to college or “just” moved out of the house. Both tough enough to be sure. My child left home for the first time and went directly into an active war zone. It was so hard! I worried about him constantly. In the halls of the VA hospital when people would ask about him, more or less in passing, I’d start crying. People stopped asking. Not Tonya. She wouldn’t just ask about him. She stopped me, held my shoulders, looked into my eyes – tears and all. She listened even to the things I didn’t say out loud. She sincerely cared about him, she worried about ME, hugged me, loved me, supported me every day throughout that year. Her bond with her son is incredibly similar to the one I share with mine. She got it. She still does.
We had dinner together my last night in Alabama and left promising we’d keep in touch.
Life happened. I moved many times after leaving Alabama, as did she. We both went through many life experiences individually. Growing. Changing. Getting busy. Losing touch with one another. She followed me on Facebook but never commented and I didn’t know she was watching my life from afar. She was always there – just in the background.
Fast forward to 30 January 2023. I flew into San Diego that evening and took a video from the plane. Posted it to Facebook. Tonya recognized the skyline and wrote to me just moments later asking, “are you in San Diego?”
“Me too!! I’d love to see you if you have time.”
I taught a few classes that week, did a little driving, but got back to San Diego on 3 February. She requested specifically that we meet for coffee (or a smoothie) and sunset by the ocean.
Three of my all-time favorites!!
Any doubt that we’re friends?
And so the woman from Maine picked up the woman from Georgia, in San Diego, California and we headed to the Pacific Ocean. It was only then that she told me she was sick. Tonya had been diagnosed with Chronic thromboembolic pulmonary hypertension (CTEPH). This is a condition where there is elevated blood pressure in the pulmonary arteries caused by chronic blood clots which obstruct the free flow of blood through the lungs. She’d never mentioned it on Facebook. She didn’t tell me about it in a call or a text. She wasn’t shopping on social media for sympathy. She didn’t say, “let’s get together for coffee because…”
Not my friend. She was scared but put on a brave face for the world. She didn’t post about it. No. She told me about it face-to-face the first time we’d seen each other in 18 years – while we were driving to get coffee. Tonya had one large clot with 5 branch clots that took over the lower left lung and a separate clot that blocked her upper left lung. This woman who had been hiking every day now couldn’t even walk up the steps to get into her house. She couldn’t breathe. I didn’t even know what to say.
I changed my plans for sunset because this woman I love so much who is – without question – one of my soulmates was not able to walk more than six steps without help. I’d planned for us to walk along the beach. That wasn’t going to be possible. Another thing the two of us share is the ability to adapt. We’re okay with Plan B, C, D, E, and so on and so on. Plan B was to drive to a higher overlook. We parked and Tonya held on to me.
Arm in arm, we walked a very short distance and sat down to wait for sunset. Talking non-stop. Picking right back up where we left off.
That night there was also a full moon!! Everything was perfect.
After sunset I drove Tonya back to the hotel where she was staying with her dad. We hugged each other and talked about getting together after her surgery. We talked about hiking in Maine during the fall but as she walked away, my cheeks were wet with tears. I cried. I was scared. I didn’t tell her that. She was crying too and so scared. She didn’t tell me that. She never looked back because she didn’t want me to see her crying. I drove away not knowing if I would ever see my friend again.
She promised to have someone let me know how surgery went. It was scheduled for 8 February. I taught that day but every time my students went on break I thought about Tonya.
I finished class at 2000, Eastern. I hadn’t heard anything from her family. I was so sad; so worried. I assumed the worst.
At 2247 I finally received a message from Tonya’s cousin. “Surgery is over and she is in the ICU. She is sedated and on ventilator and medications to control her blood pressure but she is stable.” A huge weight had been lifted. She wasn’t out of the woods but I KNOW my girlfriend. She is a fighter. Always has been.
The surgery was over, she would now fight for her life. Fight she did. Fight she does. The very next day she was taken off the ventilator and passed the swallow test. She ate dinner!! The next day she was successfully getting out of bed!! Tonya was discharged on 15 February: ONE WEEK after open heart surgery.
On the 5th of October 2023, I picked her up from the airport in Portland, Maine. Since then we’ve visited four lighthouses (and even gone to the top of two). We looked at the foliage, picked apples, and stopped in the middle of country roads to take pictures. We’ve eaten two apple pies (no judgement allowed at all), New England clam chowder, lobster rolls, shrimp, and fresh from the garden salsa. She’s learned how to eat a lobster, met my (now adult) daughter again – Jessie was a teenager in Alabama, and played Uno with my granddaughter. We had a pizza party, danced and laughed (so much that our faces and our bellies hurt). We’ve cried numerous times – mostly happy tears. I’ve taken her to the town where I grew up. She’s met several of my friends and seen a few of my very favorite places. She’s talked to my son on the phone. We’ve been called “Georgia” and “Wiscasset” by people we’ve met along the way. The two of us have made plans and set personal/professional goals. We’ve walked in the rain; both agreeing that so called “inclement weather” is nothing. We have rain jackets. We went to the top of Mt Battie even though it was so foggy we couldn’t see 6 feet in front of us – and people said we were crazy and “wasting our time”. We are crazy.
None of those things were a waste of time!!
We ARE doing things regardless of whether we’re nervous, a little scared, uncomfortable or other people are looking at (and potentially judging us).
We ARE alive.
We ARE living.
We are NOT taking one second of her second chance for granted.
This very morning 8 October 2023, exactly eight months to the day, after her surgery, we did a one hour Primal workout on the beach with friends (Wolfpack Family).
Tonya asked me a few days ago if I believe in miracles. I answered without a moment’s hesitation. Absolutely!!! Yes!!!
The fact that I was in San Diego in February.
The fact that it was such a clear, beautiful night that I took and posted an airport video.
The fact that Tonya saw it, immediately.
The fact that I had time to meet her for coffee/sunset before flying back out.
The fact that it was a gorgeous sunset AND full moon.
The fact that we reconnected after 18 years.
The fact that my friend is here!!! Here at all, and here in Maine specifically.
The fact that we’ve enjoyed a New England fall together.
The fact that my friend worked out with me this morning.
Is all the proof I need.
Miracles are all around us if we just take a moment to realize it. To truly appreciate it.