Volunteers Like Us

The musty old Grays River Grange Hall had standing room only. 
Yet, I sat with a handful of others at the front of the room, in two rows of old theater seats, staring back at neighbors, family, and friends. Those of us up front were more than a little embarrassed with all the attention. As if we were heroes, I thought, but what had we done? We had joined the Grays River Valley Volunteer Fire Department and completed 140 hours of training to become emergency medical technicians. Two of us had signed up to become volunteer firefighters as well. This community celebration was a way of acknowledging our dedication.
Yet, it was something more, too.
A similar size crowd had gathered in the hall six months before. At that meeting, the news was grim. Without new volunteer firefighters and EMTs to answer calls, we were in danger of losing our ability to maintain these services. For our valley, that would have been dire news indeed. In a community like ours, a volunteer from the fire department is the person who shows up on the scene when you call 911 for an ambulance. After a car accident, volunteer firefighters free you if you are trapped in your car and then provide important emergency care.
We live more than 40 miles from the nearest hospital. Only a few hundred people reside in the Grays River Valley. There is no way we could afford to pay for professional fire and ambulance services. It is cold comfort to know that our community is not alone in struggling to find volunteers. The number of volunteer firefighters has declined nationwide by 15 percent over the past 20 years, while the number of 911 calls they must answer has increased significantly. Some fire departments reported a brief spike in interest after the attacks on Sept. 11, but most still report a shortage of volunteers.
As we work longer hours, commute long distances, we've come to guard our free time jealously - even if it is spent in front of a TV. Meanwhile, training requirements for firefighting and emergency medicine have increased dramatically. More hours of training are required every year.
This valley has long been home of dairy farms, loggers, and fishermen. Yet, as those industries have faded over the past 20 years, it has also become home to people who work outside the area, telecommuters, and early retirees. The EMT class represented the spectrum of people in the valley: two retirees, a dairy farmer, a mother and a grandmother, a worker for the local phone company, a mill worker, and a website editor - three men and five women.
EMT training was four months of classes two nights a week - from 6:30 to 9:30 - and a half-dozen Saturdays for all-day hands-on training sessions. Often I would get home from work, study during dinner, and then be off to class. In the last two weeks before the state certification tests, we were at the fire hall five nights a week - sometimes until 10 or 11. Our need to learn competed with family obligations and postponed vacations.
We gained confidence and inspiration from our instructors' dedication as they, too, put in long evenings and weekends. They, in turn, said that they were inspired by us. In fact, wherever we went in the community people stopped to thank us and to tell us how important all this was.
The veterans have warned that we'll see things that we'll wish we could forget. That too often the call will be to someone's house that we know. That we might often be the best thing on the worst day of someone's life.
So why did I join?
In truth, I guess I was hungry for something. It seems as if there's been a hole inside me for the past two years - dating back to a Tuesday in September 2001. I remember watching the crowds of people lining up to give blood for victims who would never be found. I understood then their need to get out from behind the TV and to do something, to strike against the feeling of uselessness. It took me two years to respond to that inner call. When asked, I joke that I joined the fire department because I realized I'd feel pretty stupid if my house was burning down and no one showed up to put it out.
But joking aside, isn't that exactly why we form communities, cities, states, and nations? We invest a part of ourselves to make something larger than us better - whether it be a volunteer fire department or a nation. Who wants to live in a place where no one comes when you need help? If you don't volunteer - or support those who do - why should you expect others to answer the call? A community isn't a place, it's the sum total of the interactions of group of people. I think that's really what we were celebrating that night in the Grange Hall.
"The thing this tells us about our community, is that we have one," one speaker at the celebration said. "Different people, with different talents coming together when needed, making a commitment to serve each other - that's what a community is. That's what a community does."
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This piece was written for the Christian Science Monitor and first appeared in that publication in September of 2003. 

Don't Forget to Sharpen Your Ax


There are always times when we try do too much. We take on too many projects and allow the weight of the world to be placed upon our shoulders.

We think we are strong and can power through anything and we suffer in silence, wrapped in the warm steam of our own stress.

Our ego is often swollen and fed by our labors. We tell ourselves that no one else knows how hard we are working. No one else has their nose to the grindstone like we do. We are martyrs. We look around and everyone is enjoying the sun, laughing while we slave away.

When I was trying to get into nursing school I took a college algebra class with a friend who was trying to get into dental school. It was summer session, so after a long class, we would go to the tutoring center at the college to grind through hours of homework while the world lolled about in the sun. I wanted to be home with my family and my new-born daughter. I hated math, hated that I was in my late 30's and starting from scratch trying to build a new career to support my family.

I would grind away at the homework, never taking a break or allowing myself a moment of daydreaming.

 "I have to get this done," was the mantra that a mouthed with each new problem.

Each day my friend and I would start our homework at the same time and each day we would finish within a few minutes of each other, closing our books and walking out together.

Yet my friend would punctuate his homework with frequent stretches and walks around the building to enjoy the sun. One day while walking out I asked how he manged to get the same work done while finding time to sit on the grass while I was working.

His response to my question is one of my favorite parables - one which my friends and coworkers have often heard me repeat.

Here is what he told me:

Two lumberjacks went into the woods one day. One was young and ambitious, the other was old and wise. The young lumberjack was eager to prove how much stronger and faster he was and so he worked furiously throughout the day, never taking a moment of rest. As the day progressed, he often found the old lumberjack sitting on a stump relaxing while he worked. He felt sure that his dogged efforts would outstrip the old man when the tally was made at the end of the work day. 

Yet when the work was totaled, the old lumberjack had equaled the work of the strong young man. 

How could this be, he asked the old man in frustration. It seemed like every time I looked around you were taking a break. How could you possibly chop as much wood as I did? 

The old man smiled and said: 

"Every time I took a break, I was sharpening my ax."


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Originally posted at my Redtriage.com blog. 

The Huckleberry Haj

The butterflies were all around us.

Wave after wave, spasms of blue flowed in and out of the space between us like a shimmering, levitated river threading through the forest of high, silent pine. The brown dust of the road covered the waist-high berry bushes.

Yet, we couldn’t keep our eyes off the butterflies.

They were migrating through the Cascade mountains and we were there -- in the right place -- to not only see them, but feel them, to be enveloped in their flashing color. It was a surreal, perfect moment that could have easily been missed.  

A perfect place. A perfect moment.

We were there to pick the huckleberries.
The Berry






That first year, we had not gone where the park ranger told us to pick. Instead, we followed my sister Mindy, who led us off the main road, and then up another road. The weathered ruts had tortured the truck’s suspension, but yielded to a flat parking area surrounded by trees. Below the trees were the berry bushes, thriving in the light created by windfalls and clearings.

The huckleberry is similar to a wild blueberry, but with more tartness and flavor.  It grows wild in the Indian Haven and the forests on Mount Adams near Trout Lake, Ice Caves and Natural Bridges parks

In fact, if you drive along these roads in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, there is a good chance that the underbrush flashing by your windows holds this natural treasure. Juice, purple and blue. In places you need only stop and walk 10 yards into the waist-high brush to see the dark spheres of sweetness.

So many pass this way without knowing what glory lies at their fingertips. If you only look. If you only stop and take the time to look, to pick, to savor.

The year of the butterflies was the first. Grace was still in diapers. Mindy showed us where to find the berries. Each year we returned. The Huckleberry Haj became the MUST moment of our year.

The butterflies painted this one place with magic blue only once, but they cemented in us a spiritual connection to the forest around us, to this time and this place. Like the annual Haj to the spiritual center of the Muslim world, this became an annual pilgrimage for my family. Each year we return to this place the pay homage to summer by gathering its fruits. This is the holy place of summer. The Huckleberry Haj is how we honor and remember.

My sister Mindy, my wife Amy, my mom, Alice, me and my daughters -- all of us out in the woods for hours on summer days. High on the mountain, it was cooler, quiet, save for the the wind swaying the lodgepole pine, the chatter of a jay, the scurrying of chipmunk or squirrel.

My mom has picked berries since she was a child. Her Swedish-born mother would send her into the New England woods with a pail and tell her not to return until is was full of blueberries.

When we moved west, we would go berry picking too -- to make jams and jellies.
Amy and Mindy were the most ardent berriers. Amy doesn’t like to return until we fill a Coleman cooler with berries. The two of them would pick and talk the hours away, following the berry deep into the forest.

The girls are better now, but in the early years would just fill their stomachs rather than the little plastic buckets tied on ropes around our waists or hung about their necks. Suspending the buckets allows you to pick with two hands. Yet for every plunk in the bucket, three more berries always went into Grace’s mouth.


When the girls got bored, it was my job to corral them and keep them occupied. To stay close so that Amy and Mindy and Mom could stay on the trail of the berry. Mom’s yellow Lab Wendy ran relay between the pickers and the dilettantes who meandered back to the truck for sandwiches and juice.

The Huckleberry Haj is our summer constant. Our annual rite taking us from Summer to Fall.

After the Wahkiakum County Fair and before school starts again, we come up here to capture the last fruit of summer. We store it away in little tupperware containers in the cooler. When we get them home, we freeze them. You can use them in muffins or other baking if you like, but best of all is to just pop them still frozen in your mouth. Summer candy, on the darkest, rainiest winter day.

We make this pilgrimage every year to pay homage to the sun and the good slow days before they slip away.

In the last few years, first Mom, and then Mindy, haven’t always made it up to pick with us.

Mom was diagnosed with lung cancer five years ago - it was in the Fall, when the days were growing shorter. It was Stage 1 - caught early on an x-ray looking for something else. She had a surgery to remove one lobe of her lung, then chemotherapy to eradicate any remaining cancer cells. The chemo was hard on Mom, but Mindy lived just a few blocks away. It was Mindy who was there to help her through the rough days.

It was Mindy who was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer almost exactly one year later. Even with chemotherapy, they told her she only had six months to live.

By Christmas - she was so sick and frail and in pain -- I did not think she would make it to the new year.

Miracles, sometimes, are just doctors and nurses just doing their job. Paying attention, making the right change at the right time, taking chances.. Chemotherapy is a science of trial and error. It takes a stubborn and determined patient. Mindy would not give up so easily. At times her husband drained a liter of fluid a day out of her lungs through a valve sewn into her side.

In early summer when her oldest son got married. Mindy was standing there in a gold dress, with long black hair, walking through the cherry blossoms, dancing in the sun.

We thought we had dodged another bullet. That, she, like Mom would now be OK.
We picked berries that summer -- something I thought would be impossible six months before.

Yet doesn’t the summer seem impossible in the dark days of winter. Hope is a dream of a path through the winter to the spring.

My mom’s cancer was caught early -- just a tiny shadow in a single lobe of one lung.
Mindy’s cancer was caught late -- spread throughout her body. Metastasis is a word that holds the appropriate malevolence. It is a diagnosis still whispered.

The cancer that both Mom and Mindy had was adenocarcinoma. It is the most common lung cancer contracted by people who never smoke. My aunt and cousin were also diagnosed with adenocarcinoma -- on the far side of the country -- about the same time.

Mindy’s was the most aggressive, it seemed.

So it seems there is some sort of genetic predisposition, but as far as I can tell, it is little understood. Mindy had never smoked, was young and otherwise healthy and active. Perhaps that is what helped Mindy get accepted into clinical trials at Oregon Health Science University for oral medications genetically matched to her tumors.  

Four days after she started taking the pills, she called me.

“I think this medicine is working,” she told me. “I’ve stopped coughing.”

The spasmodic cough was so agonizing it could silence a room. It was a hallmark of her malady.

“It can’t be,” I told her. “Nothing works that quickly.”

Yet, a few weeks later she was scheduled for a CT guided biopsy of the tumor in her lung. She lay on the table in the room waiting for the radiologist. There was activity in the control room, but no word to her. Finally, they told her - the tumors had shrunk so much, there was not enough there to take a sample. The tumors had shrunk by 85 percent.

She saw her youngest son graduate from high school that year.

Last year she was there with us, picking huckleberries, but Mom was worried.

The experimental drugs were miraculous, but not enduring. Her cancer was so aggressive that it mutated around the drugs. So her oncologists got her into another trial -- this one with no significant effect -- and then another trial with better results. She lost her glorious black hair. Rather than wear a wig in the hot summer of Eastern Oregon, she got a henna tattoo to decorate her bald head. Each drug that worked, worked a little less than the one before. She had good days and bad days. She had radiation for tumors in her brain and in her breast. There were complications of the medications, complications of the cancer.

Her days got shorter. She woke late and took time to get going, for the spasmodic cough to subside enough for her to eat. At night she was tired but stayed up late, unable to shut off a racing mind.

After four years, we were out of options. She went on hospice. The same week the decision was made, we went ziplining through the forest and rode my motorcycle -- all with her oxygen tank strapped to her back.

She had her 49th birthday.

She would be strong and bright as friends and family visited, but increasingly she was tired and and disoriented.She became confused, and frustrated at her confusion.
I brought her frozen huckleberries for her to eat. The tart memory of our adventures came back, and we talked as we ate them. We recalled the secret hollow that Amy and Mindy had found a few years ago, where the berry bushes were thick and lush when the others were all picked over.

She turned to her son Zach.

“I want there to be huckleberries in the house this year,” she said to him. “If I can’t make it, promise me you’ll go, so there will be huckleberries.”

“I promise,” he said.

“The berries were the best last year,” she said.”There weren’t as many as you’d like, but the ones we had were so, so sweet.”

I started writing this four years ago when the dust from the rutted road was still on the dashboard of my truck.

I started writing this when the smell of the summer pine was still fresh in my mind.


I started writing this in a darkened hospital room alone with my sister, with snow falling outside and Christmas lights shining through her window.
The years since have been both cruel and kind, filled with torture, hard work and medical miracles. She fought for these years. She found the strength and joy each August to meet us on Mount Adams. To chat and laugh with Amy in the berry. Not far from Indian Heaven.

The days of summer are deceptive and cruel.

The sun greets you in the morning and lingers late and warm into the evenings. It tricks you into believing in forever.

The days are long, but summer itself is short.

Each year our scheduled lives more crowded with clutter. Once the kids were in school and 4H, we had to make sure we scheduled the haj around fair and the onset of the new school year.

In the berry we lose sight of each other in the brush and wood. We call to each other: “Marco!” and listen for the answer. “Polo!”

We lose sight of our troubles.

We lose sight of winter and dark days.

Summer is short.

We take time out for the Huckleberry Haj each year to capture a little piece of blue flying by, a piece of summer that we will never get back.

The days we have are not as many as you would like, but the memories we have are so, so sweet.

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The Story Behind the Picture

See all the pictures HERE
I picked Mindy up from her house on a Tuesday morning.

The night before I had traveled down to do some work in the backyard for mom - building planter beds and hauling in garden soil.

I wanted to bring Mindy down to visit with the girls. I wanted her to get a change of scenery for a few days and to spend as much time with her as I could.

That Monday Mindy and Eric had gone down to Portland to talk with her doctor and to ask what was next.

"I asked him if he was trying to tell us that we were running out of options," Mindy told me after we had started down the gorge toward my house. "He said we'd run out of options awhile ago."

In other words, when the latest medication she was on stopped working, the only course of action left would be hospice.

Hospice is a different kind of medical care from chemotherapy. In many ways hospice is a reaction to our modern medical system's focus on attacking a disease regardless of the pain and suffering the body in which it resides.

Traditional chemotherapy is a prime example of torture for your own good. The side effects are legion as we attempt to kill off the very last cancer cell, while leaving the patient alive. Advances have been made in recent years. New cancer drugs are targeted and much better tolerated. There are pills rather than infusions and medications much better suited to treating and preventing many of the side effects.

That said, most cancer treatments can leave you miserable, exhausted and depressed. It takes a strong person to get through a year of it.

Off and on, Mindy had been through four years. A roller coaster of good days and bad. When she was first diagnosed, she had been given just 6 months to live. Four years later her doctors were done pulling rabbits out of their hats.

Modern hospice care originated with British Registered Nurse Cicely Saunders, who created a philosophy of medicine which focused on the patient's needs rather than the disease. The goals are directed at the physical comfort and spiritual needs of the patient and the patient's family during the last days of life. It is the course of care when curing the disease is no longer an option or a choice.

Simply put hospice seeks to keep the patient comfortable and see to their needs rather than make them well. Comfort, quality of life and living fully until the end are the goals.

It is difficult in our culture to talk about death and dying, let alone enter into a system where dying is the end result -- even if the goal is to make that transition as easy and life affirming as possible. It is a hard conversation to have. Battling through chemotherapy and its side effects is all about fighting. After years of it, it is hard to change our thinking. It feels like giving up, like quitting.

It is not.

Mindy and I talked about these things on our drive through the Columbia Gorge. By the time we reached  Stevenson, she changed the subject.

"Did you know they have zip lines now at Skamania Lodge?" she asked.
"We have them down on the coast, near Astoria, too," I said.
"I want to do that," she said. "Do you?"

After that, the plan was set. I called just after we got to my house and set up a tour for Friday morning. Meanwhile, we took a motorcycle ride around the valley -- with her oxygen tank strapped to luggage rack of my bike. We visited Mary and said hi to the donkeys. We sat and watched the storms blow across the fields. The girls made her giggle and cuddled with her while we watched Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and Despicable Me. We ate at a Bosnian restaurant, enjoyed the strange food and laughed at the ranting waiter.

We both grew nervous as the day approached. I was worried about her. I called High Life Adventures to make sure they could have a cart to take her from one place to another so she wouldn't have to walk, and that it would be okay for her to ride the zipline with her oxygen tank. We watched the wind blow and the rain fall and wondered if they wouldn't cancel our tour.

We got up early and dressed in rain gear and warm clothes. We were just two out of a group of 12 people on the tour that morning. The rain stopped just as we started.

The first run is easy - close to the ground and you can see the end. The next one is higher. After a few shorter runs, you climb a tower and open a gate high above a lake and step off -- riding a line that travels hundreds of feet over water and through trees. You cannot see the end, which somehow makes it scarier.

One of the women we were on the tour with was afraid of heights. Mindy -- always taking care of other people -- reassured and encouraged her.

The woman was there with her two teenage daughters. She told Mindy that she used to be more adventurous. Then a few years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She survived and was cancer free, now, but had been more timid ever since.

Mindy understood.

 "You had to face up to what you might loose," Mindy told the woman. "Now you worry about losing all those things if anything goes wrong. You know what's at stake."

"I worry all the time," the woman said. "I never used to be like that."

"I'm terminal," Mindy said with smile and a little laugh. "I have nothing to lose."

As the woman stepped through the gate and zipped off across the lake, one of her daughters said in a tone of admiration: "my mom is such a badass."

In the four years since her diagnosis, Mindy got to do a lot of things. She saw her eldest son get married, her youngest son graduate and do well in college and a new job. She saw her middle son enter the Army and thrive. She flew across the country to watch him graduate from basic training. She swam with dolphins. She always worried about her boys, but she lived to see them grow in the world.

And when she couldn't travel anymore, there came a parade of family and friends and wishes from all the lives she touched, for she was a light in every room. She was a gift in every life she encountered.

By the end of the Zipline tour she was tired and her second 02 bottle was almost empty, but her eyes were bright and she smiled and giggled as we stepped off the top of the highest tower and raced 1200 feet across the lake.

My big sister was such a badass.

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More photos from our adventure online here