Flow State

“I’m sitting there in the bank just crying, just reading through all of the things. Oh, look, she paid for the dogs to go to the vet. Oh, look, she bought this. So many times when we would go out to dinner — and I would pay for dinner — she would pay with what I thought was my card, coming out of my account. No. She was paying for it. And she never said it.”

It had been months since Debra died, and the bank contacted Dr. Heather Richardson, MD, on the very same day her friend Debra’s death certificate arrived.

“We were each other’s living will person, and so I went to the bank.”

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Dr. Richardson is a respected and beloved breast health surgeon at Bedford Breast Center in Beverly Hills, California. One reviewer on Yelp writes that she’s a ‘highly skilled and professional surgeon, who also just happens to be a super cool bad@ss.” Breast cancer patients write about how she saved their lives. Office staff smile about the way Dr. Richardson hums and sings so freely and skillfully.

With a passion for the fine arts and science, Dr. Richardson loves her work.

“I have to think three-dimensionally. I have to think about balance, symmetry, aesthetics. I get to talk to people about their fears and anxieties. And usually I get to make them feel better. And they’re so grateful. To connect with people, to use an analytical mind to solve problems, and then to physically have to do something… the artist in me just loves performing surgery. It’s just really elegant. They talk about the ‘flow state’ when you’re doing something and you kind of get lost. I absolutely get in the flow state when I’m performing surgery.”

About five years prior to that day at the bank, Dr. Richardson had been communicating with her friend Debra who was going through a hard time. Dr. Richardson invited Debra to come to Los Angeles to stay in her spare bedroom.

“She never wanted to be a burden, but there was this heaviness to our conversations. I don’t remember the exact day, I told her point-blank: ‘There’s never going to be a right time. Things are never going to be organized and orderly or tidy enough. At some point, you just have to get on a f*king plane.’ We used that moment, that statement, many times after that to punctuate those action thoughts that need to propel us into the next stage of our lives, as paralyzing as it may be to take action.”

They decided Debra would stay for a month or two, rent-free. She could get her feet on the ground, then go. She wouldn’t have to work or pay for anything. Just take care of home life and enjoy. Two months grew into nearly five years, and a sisterhood.

“She was a very bright girl. She didn’t have an opportunity to really get educated. She is just one of the most giving, caring, conscientious people ever.

“I have to have an education because I had to have an education. I can’t do what I’m doing without having gone through the schooling that I’ve gone through. But at the same time, I don’t necessarily think that people that are formally educated are better or smarter than other people. I know a lot of people who have learned what they know just from experiences in life lessons, and they’re so much more capable and smart than a lot of people who are more classically educated.

“One of Debra’s favorite mantras was ‘unexpressed expectations are premeditated resentments.’

“So, if you don’t tell someone what you’re thinking and you don’t communicate anything, then you don’t give anybody an opportunity to try to make it better or fix it.”

They did communicate, effortlessly. And they didn’t have unexpressed expectations.

“We just had this team living approach where I paid for everything and she took care of stuff. So she cooked and cleaned and took care of animals. She had two cats, and I had two dogs. We had like a little menagerie. We were like cousins or sisters.  I would do my thing and work, and she would do her thing and take care of the dogs and the house and listen to podcasts and research everything.

“We didn’t ask for anything from each other, but anything that we needed, we would have given to each other.”

That synchronicity changed both of their lives forever. “She was my best friend. I was her biggest cheerleader, and she was my biggest cheerleader.” Neither could have foreseen what would happen one day in the autumn of 2019.

“She came into my room at four-thirty in the morning and said, ‘something’s really wrong. I have a horrible headache.’ And after talking with her, I figured pretty immediately that something was not right. So we went to the hospital.”

Soon after arriving at the emergency room, Debra seized. “That was her last conscious moment.” Debra died of a brain aneurysm.

Even in death, Debra was as Dr. Richardson described her: giving, caring, conscientious. She donated her organs. Months later, a memorial service was held. The date was February 11, 2020. Debra’s birthday. She would have been 48 years old.

Los Angeles for Healing

Debra came to Los Angeles to heal. And so did Dr. Richardson.

Back in 1999, Dr. Richardson had finished medical school and was in her surgery residency at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, when her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time. She died in the year 2000. The young physician didn’t yet know what type of surgeon she wanted to be, but soon after, that decision was made. She joined a practice with Atlanta breast surgeon and mentor Dr. Bill Barber.

“I lost my own mom, and I’m sad without her. I wish she was still here. I think the gift in that experience of going through that with her is that I saw what people are going through mentally on their own side of it, the fear that they have, the anxiety they have, how they process information. Learning those lessons through someone who actually went through it, it really kind of gives me a scope of what my patients might be going through. And as much as I would rather be a slightly crappier doctor and still have my mom around, it’s definitely something that I’m making the most of, and I know that she would be proud of me.”

Dr. Richardson’s layers of resilience are as deep and diverse as the intricate paintings she creates.  Her perspective is ever listing toward the light.

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Moving West

“In any scenario, you have an opportunity to make something better for a person… and sometimes that person is yourself.”

By 2014 and after another loss in her personal life, Dr. Richardson needed a change. A place to heal.  It was her own time to get on a plane.

“I was in a very complicated marriage for years and years and years. And my husband took his own life. It was a really horrible situation, and I wish he had made different decisions. But I can’t unmake his decisions. And they weren’t my decisions to make. So I have to just sort of let them go and appreciate that I wish things had turned out differently. I can’t do anything else about it. And all I can do is take what I have from all of that experience and move forward. That’s why I left my practice in Atlanta and why I came to Los Angeles.

“Just start over, just give myself a new place to come. I wanted to go somewhere really different and wide open where there were tons of opportunities for me personally and socially and career-wise. And I just wanted something bigger.”

What did she do during that transition time? Did she have anchors or routines to help her feel grounded? Did she exercise? Hike? Meditate?

“I’m the worse exerciser. I am the worst dancer. I don’t do anything athletic. I’m just a giant klutz. I don’t like moving!

“The most athletic thing I do is downhill skiing and that’s because the mountain does the work. All you have to do really is stand still and go into a controlled fall. At the other end of that is a giant bowl of melted cheese and several glasses of wine!”

Humor is something her mom and dad instilled in her and her brother, Jamey.

“Our family is really funny. Whatever the situation is, it is what it is. And it doesn’t have to be good or bad. You don’t have to put a sign, a dramatic absolute, to anything. Any situation you have, you can take something good away from it or any situation you can make it better. If it’s already pretty good, you can just enjoy it and be grateful for it.

“I just threw myself into my work, and I love what I do. I came here to start with one practice, and that ended up not working out.

“To have a really busy, thriving practice and start over from scratch twice was really sort of a blow. That is really where all of my attention and all my effort went. And it bore fruit. So that was the reward. The reward was in that work: Planting those seeds and then watching everything grow and develop and blossom. I didn’t really think, well, what if I fail?”

She asked herself a different question: What am I going to do with my success?

“Any ingredients that you’re given, you can always make something from it. Any horrible situation that life presents you, presents you with a lesson of your own strength, your own resilience.”

Through her example, Dr. Richardson shares that strength and resilience with every patient she encounters and with all who come to know her caring heart.

“Every stumbling block that I encountered was a rock or a current that sent me onto this beautiful new shore.”

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Trickle, Trickle, Trickle

Back at the bank that day, Dr. Richardson was told that whatever was in Debra’s account was now hers.

Dr. Richardson knew that Debra’s father had left her about $100,000 a few years prior.

“I figured after three years, she probably had like $80,000 left. After sitting for two hours at the bank, they handed me a check.” There were $13,000 left in Debra’s account.  “I was really shocked that all of her money was gone. My first thought was, ‘way to go!’ You haven’t been sitting on a big pile of money that you’ve been waiting to spend. You did everything you wanted to do. I’m really, really impressed!’ Then I thought, maybe she’s put money somewhere, and I need to find out where it is. As I’m going through every month of her bank statement, it’s just trickle, trickle, trickle. The entire time she was living with me, she was putting money into my account.

“I had two bank accounts, and I would move money back and forth between the accounts. And when I would do that, it would just say the name of the bank. And her account was at the same bank. So when she transferred money in, it just said the name of the bank. So I never, ever, ever knew. She did it completely anonymously. The only reason I ever found out was because she died.”

Not unlike donating her organs after death, Dr. Richardson knew how befitting this gesture was of Debra’s character.

“In any relationship, I think people overestimate what they’ve put into it. Whether it’s business or personal, you overestimate what you’ve put into it. They’re overestimating what they’re putting into it. And the reality is somewhere in between. When you give freely and you’re grateful for whatever you get, then it’s complete harmony.”

It takes a selfless heart to recognize and appreciate the depth inside the soul of another person. That’s what they both did for each other. And that is why their sisterhood was complete harmony.

Dr. Richardson says Debra always gave more than she got.

I bet a lifetime of family, friends and patients would say the same thing about Dr. Heather Richardson.

Find Bedford Breast Center on Instagram and Twitter @bedfordbreastcenter and online at www.bedfordbreastcenter.com. Photos courtesy of Dr. Heather Richardson. Shown: Portraits, as well as an image of a painting done by Dr. Richardson, and an image of Dr. Richardson and her friend Debra.

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Just Turn Around

Pippi Longstocking! If she had to pick one favorite book from her childhood, L. Marelle Camel would choose Pippi Longstocking. The adventures… The lack of supervision…

“I just was so taken by this little girl who was raising herself.” Marelle’s smile and tone revealing a bit of envy for the child who was free to get into mischief unchecked. “But also, I was kind of afraid for her because she didn’t have guidance.”

Since those early years, books have moved Marelle. And she wants them to impact today’s elementary aged kids too by presenting reading not as a chore, but rather as a world of exploration, learning and wonder.  Marelle cares about this so much that in early 2019, she founded a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization called Camel Kids Foundation.

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“It’s important for kids to really see themselves reflected in books,” she said. “We provide students with free books to introduce them to authors and illustrators and lead characters of color.”

Marelle says it is imperative for children to see books that have someone who looks like them on the cover.  “Especially in children’s books, picture books… that’s important for the little kids to see.

“I want to triumph all of our people of color who are authors because they don’t get a lot of credit. I want to introduce their books to kids.” That also includes illustrators of color. “I think that the children who are not of color can also benefit from reading a story by someone who is of color. Nine times out of 10, they have friends, schoolmates or playmates or people in dance class that are of color. And it’s important for them to know how to relate.”

Marelle knows stories can be formative, and they have staying power. Decades later, the thought of Pippi Longstocking still brings a smile to Marelle’s eyes. (The story was first published in 1945 by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, and it has been translated into 75 languages.)

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Now a 32 year-old actor living in Los Angeles, Marelle embraces all aspects of storytelling, and she has made a commitment to reaching young minds through books.

The mission of Camel Kids Foundation — which Marelle says is currently operating in Los Angeles and New York, and next in Atlanta — has two parts. One part: Visit schools to read and gift carefully selected books to elementary age children. The other part: The Snack Box Project: To provide classroom supplies for teachers and snacks for their rooms.

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An estimated 94% of all teachers buy classroom supplies out of their own pocket, and up to 13 million children nationwide go to school hungry regularly.

The struggle felt by teachers to provide for their students is a reality Marelle knows well. Her mother, Pearl, has been an educator for nearly 25 years. While teaching pre-K and kindergarten, Pearl raised three daughters alone: Marelle, Marelle’s twin sister Lynne Michelle (younger than Marelle by just three minutes) and their older sister Katherine (who is also an educator and teaches K2 at a daycare).

Homework and the Human Spirit

Growing up in Atlanta, Marelle learned the importance of education from her mother.

“She is an educator to the T. So if we didn’t have homework, we had homework. She would give us homework. And even if we did have homework, she would give us homework. Our summers were spent at the library.

“If one of my sisters or I even asked a question, like, ‘I wonder if there’s butterflies that have the same pattern…’ that would be a book report that we would have to do. If you asked a question, you would learn it. You know? And it would be all of us that would have to do that book report. So being the daughter of an educator is hard, but it’s good at the same time because you learn so much.”

Marelle and her sisters learned academic lessons from Pearl. But one of the biggest life lessons Marelle learned was this:

“My mother says, ‘Turn around, child. Just turn around.’

“A lot of people wait until they’ve got Oprah money or Obama money in order to be philanthropists. (My mother) says, ‘Turn around. There’s somebody behind you that could use your help where you are now. You are capable. You don’t have to wait until you have… money to be, like, now I’m going to donate. Or now I’m going to build a school in Africa. Or I’m going to build a school in Europe. You know, there’s something that you could be doing, someone who could benefit from you, if you would just turn around.’”

Marelle thinks about how an organization like the one she has founded today could have helped back then. “We struggled as a family,” she says. “And so now that I’m capable…. (You) can hear the echo. I’ve definitely got to turn around, you know? And help somebody else.”

Camel Kids Foundation primarily serves Title 1 schools, although not exclusively. The basic principal of Title 1 is that schools with large concentrations of low-income students will receive supplemental funds to assist in meeting student’s educational goals.

Learning to Live

After graduating from high school in Atlanta, Marelle left home for the first time in the name of study: to Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama. There, she learned that being on her own wasn’t as carefree as it seemed for fictional Pippi Longstocking.

“I had a hard time my freshman year. Wow! I never realized my attachment to my mother until it was time to leave.” Four years later, she majored in Communications and went back to Atlanta to figure out what to do next. From age 21-24, Marelle would search.

“I found that period, that three year period, very hard for me. It was about discovering my identity and who I was as a person, who I was going to be, the things that I wanted to do, the things that I could do and how could I make my goals reality.”

It’s during those times of waiting or searching that we all find our spaces of grace and refuge.

“I did dance — ballet, contemporary and hip hop. I found a love for pilates and yoga during that time…. That was my release. That did … buy me some time and really helped me deeper discover who I was as a person. I’ve always been very creative, and dance is definitely a way to express myself.”

Through her yoga practice, Marelle says she found calm. “It was the stillness about it that really got me to hone in and focus, which I think is necessary as a young adult to have.

“I think that’s what really led me to just pick up and leave after I’d found my focus.”

Unlike that first goodbye when she left Atlanta for Oakwood University, Marelle was ready when she decided to move to Los Angeles to work in production and then pursue acting.

“Leaving the nest again wasn’t something that I feared. It was something that I welcomed. I was ready for change.”

Change Maker

Even as Marelle focuses on her acting career, her mission with Camel Kids Foundation is deeply rooted in family and tradition and turning around for the next person.

I wondered if Camel Kids Foundation had made its way to Pearl’s classroom.

“I go to her class whenever I’m in Atlanta and disrupt,” she laughs. “I teach (teach, she says, with air quotes) to the best of my ability!”  But those visits have been personal visits.

If Marelle brings Camel Kids Foundation to her mother’s classroom — to sit down with students and read to them about characters just like them — it will be a sort of coming full circle,  a circle which has her mother, Pearl, at its center.

Marelle has watched her mother teach and is in awe of the way she’s able to make connections with students and sees the light bulb moments when they’ve learned something. And there is reverence there, but not only that.  “I adore her.  She’s my heart.”

And it is really heart that is motivating Marelle’s movement — to see hearts, to open hearts and to nurture hearts. Perhaps so that every child will one day find it in their own  heart … to also… turn around.

To learn more, to donate or to get involved with Camel Kids Foundation, visit www.camelkidsfoundation.org and follow them on social media at @camelkidsfndn. Email, volunteer, donate, share. Portrait 1 photo credit: Kevin Richardson/Dance As Art. Portrait 2 photo credit: Kirk McKoy. My thanks for permission to use your beautiful work.

The Record Parlour

“We buy stuff off the street. Used records. That’s where all these things come from. You get a bunch of people. And sometimes it’s a great interaction, and sometimes it’s not, you know?”

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Standing against the exposed brick of his vinyl record store, 41-year old Chadwick Hemus knows music has always been his true north. Co-owner of The Record Parlour in Hollywood, California, Chadwick remembers how records had an immediate allure for him, and working in worlds where records spin marked an early beginning to an enduring rhythm of life.

On his hand, there is a small tattoo of a faded cat sitting on a crescent moon.

“It’s off of a Ventures record cover. I don’t know. It just struck me.”

Music is like that for him, too.

His first record was a ’70’s Mickey Mouse Club record. “With Lisa Whelchel from Facts of Life, an ensemble cast,” he smiles.

Since that first vinyl, Chadwick can talk to you about Chick Corea while flipping an Otis Redding record.  The store is self-described as ‘a mecca of pre-digital entertainment and home to over 15,000 records, rare jukeboxes, restored vintage audio gear, music memorabilia and much more.’ Chandeliers and naked light bulbs glimmer in the sepia space rich with vinyl and other nostalgic things. Chadwick and his business partner Chris Honetschlaeger have been in business here for three years now.

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“This is the first time I’ve had my own store. But that’s all I’ve ever done since high school,” says Chadwick. “That’s how I’ve made a living.

“I grew up in San Diego, and I happened to be in a neighborhood where, at the time, there were  four or five music stores of varying size. There was a Tower and Warehouse. And then some very important independent stores in the area too. One of which ended up being the first place I worked.

“I just fell into that and had a knack for … kind of the way my brain works… you know, I’m pretty good at memorizing things. It lent itself to pricing,” he says. “It wasn’t something I thought consciously, ‘oh this is something I’m going to do with myself.’ I loved records.

“In the ’90’s, there was very much a trend for this snobbishness in music stores. That’s faded quite a bit. I think that overall the sort of humbling of maybe the music industry and the fact that the money’s not like it used to be …  there’s not really a lot of room for that.”

As much as his work in the record store is a labor of love, he admits there is definitely labor involved.

“It’s a lot of hours and there’s always a lot of other things to deal with besides just the good parts,” he says. “There’s a lot of street interactions. And when you run a business like this … you have a lot of other aspects to deal with that are not always pleasant.

“Sometimes you’re just a therapist. Just a bartender type helping somebody kind of move on. Sometimes you’re dealing with somebody who is very very desperate and very upset that we’re not able to help them.

“It’s not always just the stuff off the street that can be crazy. I mean, the sourcing… the places you have to go to get stuff can be really pretty creepy.

“There’s a lot of hoarders that have a lot of records. Records kind of lend themselves to that.  And a lot of times, by the time their collections are available, the person has either passed or may be in a really bad part of their life. And you’re dealing with a lot of what comes with hoarders: the dirt and filth and bugs. So there’s a lot of that when you’re sourcing this kind of stuff.”

The Flip Side

“One of the mysteries of music… is the sort of power of it and the longevity of it.

“And one of the reasons I think we have been very successful in a short amount of time is there’s a lot of interaction with people. I want to find out what they want and what they want to be turned on to, and it really doesn’t matter if that’s what you’re into or not.  It’s more about getting someone streamlined into what they want. All of those interactions are what make a good day.

“Small businesses like this are always about relationships.  That’s why people come in. When people are selling records, especially when it’s their own records, they really want acknowledgement over them. That the stuff is good stuff. That they took care of it. Or maybe they didn’t because they loved them. But there’s definitely that exchange. It’s so often not about how much money. It’s so much about acknowledging the importance they’ve given these objects, and they really want you to give that.

“I’m sure this is part of what my over-arching dream would be for an existence. I don’t know what that is.  Right now, I’m more about survival and realigning. It’s a very strange time period. So the idea of sort of a dream or a bigger picture — ugh — it’s not where I’m at.

“My favorite mantra has always been ‘don’t look down.’

“That’s the key to hanging in there. ‘Cuz it’s pretty scary.”

Maybe music helps us look up. And make sense of things. Especially in tough times. In the moment. And well beyond. In the words of musician and artist David Byrne from his book How Music Works:

“A slew of musical associations bounce around in our heads, linking to recurring memories and feelings, which, after a while, facilitate the creation and reinforcement of specific neural pathways. These pathways help us make sense of those experiences. They make us who we are.

The Power of Choice

How does one choice impact the trajectory of our lives?

The compound effect of our choices often takes time to be revealed, the influences so seemingly small.

And then some choices are more pivotal, singular, instantly decisive.

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Nineteen year-old Loc Le paced the dark beach late that night, eyes straining to see anything in the watery abyss. The plan was going wrong.

He walked up and down the shoreline, quietly convincing himself he was there at the right time, on the right day. This was his second attempt to catch the boat, and to avoid detection he had to go alone.

He found the house where the escape was coordinated. But when he spotted police hiding nearby, he knew not to approach.  “They waited to catch people who contact the person in the house.”

A small boat was supposed to pick him up and take him to a bigger boat. But where was it?

He waited. And waited.

“I cannot go to that house, so I don’t know where to go. I just think, ‘What can I do now? No one I can contact with.’”

Somewhere in the night, he hoped his father, step-mother and half brother had reached the big boat, and that they would be re-united soon.

They were all running. Away from Vietnam and communism. Into the unknown. Toward freedom.

It was 1979, and a few years had passed since the North defeated the South. When he turned 18, Loc was awakened in the middle of the night and forced to join the army. He wrapped up a few clothes and was put in a police car to report for military duty. He could feel his freedom slipping away.

Not long after, he escaped from the army for the first time. When he was caught, he was put in solitary confinement for one month. Months later, he was assigned to guard duty at the Vietnam-Cambodia border. His family didn’t know where he’d been sent. But his father searched through jungles, asking after his son, and eventually found him.

“I don’t know how he found me,” said Loc. “Only love can do that.”

Loc and his father told his superiors a story that Loc’s mother was ill, and he needed to go home.

Was that true, I asked?

“No! It’s not true at all. To survive under the communists, you cannot tell the truth.”

And his family fought to survive. His father had been a captain in the army for the South. Loc’s older brother, also a soldier, had been killed by soldiers from the North when Loc was just 12 years old. Loc’s paternal grandfather had also been killed, simply because he was working for French people and learning to speak French.

“You’re looking for the boat, right?” The voice came from a fisherman on the shore.

Loc said yes.

The fisherman said he would point him in the direction of the boat, but only for money. Loc had no money. None.

So he unclasped his necklace and gave it to the fisherman.  “I said, ‘Tell me, where is the boat?’”

The fisherman pointed to a faint light in the distance, a boat floating in the darkness on the South China Sea.

“That’s the boat that’s going to leave tonight,” he told Loc.

But how would he get there?

He walked back and forth until 2:00am, searching for a solution, searching for the small boat.

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“Then I heard the dogs start barking.” It was the police patrol, and they were moving toward the shore.

“At that time, I have to make decision.  If they catch me, they going to put me in jail because I escaped from the army. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me.

“Now, the season is life or death. So I say, if I still have some life, I have to take it!

“So I start to swim.”

His emotions surface and the gravity of the situation is written on Loc’s face as he recounts the story.

“And I am not a good swimmer. But I swim. I swim. I swim. I swim I don’t know how long. And I reached the big boat. They pulled me up, and I passed out.”

The Big Boat

The big boat was just 12 feet long and three feet wide. When Loc finally regained consciousness, he was told he could go above deck to get some fresh air.  It was then he discovered he was one of 38 people aboard that small wooden boat.

“And I see my father there! Oh, what joyful! I see my step-mom. I see my half brother.  Oh, I am so happy.”

No sooner, news came that the boat had no food supply. The supply boat never came. “But they had to leave. So we have no food. We just have three gallons of water containers. For 38 people.”

A plan was quickly set to ration the water, using the small caps of the containers as serving sizes.

“We have three water caps. So, one at 10 o’clock, one at 12 o’clock, and one at 3 o’clock. Each people have three caps of water per day. No food.”

They went three days like that, in an overcrowded boat on the open sea, with only three caps of water per person per day.

Add to that, there were no experienced seamen on board. “No compass. No map. The captain, well, we call captain, of that boat: only thing he knows is that the sun rise and sun set.”

On the third day, they found a small damaged boat floating on the sea, and when Loc and other men climbed aboard, they discovered another container of water. Rusty water. “But who cares! I know I can survive a few more days with that much water in my body. So I drink and give to them and they drink it!”

The Philippines was the nearest destination, said Loc, but still they saw no land.

Day 4.

Day 5.

Day 6.

“We’re all exhausted, so we say ok, now we need to pray,” he said. “We need to pray something miracle happen.

“The next morning, around 8 o’clock, we see the cloud coming toward our boat. Maybe some rain!

“We get the tarp. Maybe some rain! Maybe some rain!

“And raindrops! The miracle thing. The raindrop! Oh, raindrops. We tried to lick the water on our hands. We tried to hold it in the tarp. Only for one minute, and that’s it. Then it stopped.”

And he stopped. He grew quiet and wiped his eyes. Finally he spoke.

“We survived on that rain.”

On the eighth day, they met a cargo ship from Holland, and while the crew couldn’t take them on, they gave everyone food and water. They also said they were close to the Philippines.

At around 6pm, they saw land. “Thank God that we see the land! Then the Philippine people, they get out, and they carry us to the land!”

He was free.

“As long as I feel free, that’s all I need. I didn’t feel fear of unknown. I can adapt. As long as I have freedom, it’s up to me!”

 Living Free, One Day at a Time

I asked Loc if that was the hardest thing he’s encountered in his life.

Through quiet tears, he answered, “Yes. Everything after that easier, yes.”

To describe his journey from the Philippines to America and to making a life here as easy would be a gross misstatement. It was hard too. But his family, freedom, faith and self-reliance were strength enough for the journey.

“Until you lose it, you don’t know how precious your freedom is. Nothing better than freedom. Nothing.

“If you have freedom, and if you have your will, then you will make it.”

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And he has made it.  Now 54 years old, if you were to visit his southern California business for dry cleaning, or alterations, or shoe repairs, the treatment you’d receive would feel less commercial and more familial. For 24 years, Loc “Peter” Le has had Knott’s Cleaners. He greets people warmly, asking about their families, their lives.

Peter’s own family consists of his wife Sunny and their teenage daughter Angelle. His father, Vien Le, is now 87 years old.

More than 30 years since their escape from Vietnam, his father still talks about that journey. “He just reminded me,” said Peter, of the day their prayers for rain were answered. “Last Monday, I took him to see the doctor. He just remind me again, that a miracle happened to us.”

Peter continues to live his life with an intense appreciation for freedom and the opportunities it allows.

“The man dignity does not matter what kind of work you do, but how you do the work. Do it with pride.”

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How We Met — Saddle Up and Ride

Many of you asked how I met each person I have interviewed for Another Door Opens, so this How We Met series is an answer to how I met the first 10 generous Another Door Opens people. Thank you for reading. Here is today’s short story.

SADDLE UP AND RIDE

With the states of New Mexico and Arizona behind me, I continued west. Lulled by the mirage on the hot ribbon of road, I thrilled at sights I’d never seen — the proud saguaro cactus and jagged mountains cutting a sharp edge on a distant horizon.

I was feeling under the weather when I arrived for a two day visit with my childhood friend Darla in southern California. But I was made to feel welcome and comfortable, as her family is like family.

The next morning, I asked her Mom, Judy, if she had any suggestions on where I should go for the day. The answer was quick and certain. “Norco!” she said. “Also known as Horsetown, USA.”

She knew about Another Door Opens and encouraged me to keep going.

“Go to Norco. And you find yourself a door, and you find yourself a cowboy!” she laughed.

I drove the strip of Sixth Street through Norco, noticing several people riding horses and waiting at stoplights where cross signals are horseback-high.

Still feeling under, I stopped at Circle K for some Vitamin C. I sat in the parking lot with my window open trying to open a bottle of orange juice when a dog came running up to my front wheel well, followed casually by a guy (Brian), then another guy (Michael Dean). They were laughing a little, and I heard Brian say, “See! When he runs away, he always runs to Circle K!”

By this time they’d followed the dog to my vehicle and open window.

Then Brian looked at me. “He always runs away to Circle K.”

And so it began, by chasing Henry.

We talked about what they were doing, what they do, who they are a little bit. They clearly had a long brotherly bond, and with all their joking, I didn’t know when to believe them and when they were pulling my leg.

Then they asked me what I was doing and what I do. Since I’d just left my job months prior, I still had trouble knowing how to answer that question. So I told them about Another Door Opens.

Immediately, Brian pointed to Michael Dean and said, “You have to do a story about him. He’s had a kidney transplant, a pancreas transplant, triple bypass heart surgery and he’s blind in one eye.”

I didn’t believe him. That’s a fast turn in a conversation, and the guy standing in front of me looked strong. Turns out he’s even stronger than he looks.

They sensed my skepticism and got serious. “No, really,” said Brian.

Silence.

“That’s all true,” said Michael Dean.

The conversation went on for hours that day and topics changed and circled back throughout the morning and into the afternoon.

Finally, we all agreed to meet the next day to do an interview and photos, where I met their families and was welcomed into their homes.

Thank you, Michael Dean. Thank you, Brian.

Back to Darla’s house, and Judy opened the door.

“Well, did you find a door?” she asked.

“I did.”

“And a cowboy?” she asked.

“I found two.”

Saddle Up and Ride

Michael Dean Williams shot out the windows on a row of empty parked cars. It was not his usual behavior. He was very angry at the world.

He wanted to be a police officer.  That was his dream. In the late 1980’s, at a police academy in Huntington Beach, California, Michael Dean was a cadet with a lot of promise.

Plus, he’d spent his entire childhood wide-eyed to his Dad’s exciting, dangerous, adrenaline-rich career in Los Angeles County law enforcement. He wanted to be like his Dad.

There was no backup plan. That was all he wanted. He only needed to pass the medical exam.  But the results of the exam shattered that dream: diabetes.

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It wasn’t new information. Michael Dean was 10 years old when he was diagnosed.

“My Mom had me checked, and next thing you know, you’re a diabetic, and you’ve got all these people around you. They’ve got oranges. They’re shoving needles in them trying to show you how to take a shot. And you’ve got my Dad, a 300-pound mountain man, laying on me while they’re trying to shove needles in my legs.”

Since that day, Michael Dean has had a pancreas and kidney transplant, triple bypass heart surgery and has lost the sight in his right eye. He takes anti-rejection medication, monitors his blood sugar and takes necessary insulin shots. He’ll tell you this is just stuff he’s had to deal with. It is not who he is.

“I’ve lived so much life around the medical stuff. I refuse to let it define who I am. I am a strong guy, and I am strong-minded, whether I’m crying inside or not.

“Most people say ‘I have diabetes’ and diabetes is technically a disease. IIIIIIIIIIIII, Michael Dean Williams, don’t have a disease.” (Yes, the “I” was elongated by Michael Dean for emphasis). “I’ve got some issues I’ve gotta deal with, no doubt. But I don’t have no disease! I don’t want that shit! Keep it away from me!”

He self-medicates with a lot of laughter and a super-sized focus on having much more fun than anyone else.

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He is 47. He is 100 percent original and 200 percent heart and soul. Instead of law enforcement work, he has made a successful career in sales over the years, usually working more than one job at a time. Right now, one of his primary interests is a new product called Green Fuel Tabs.

Open a door to portions of the past and you’ll see Michael Dean in a Harley blur with the 101 freeway whipping by at over 100 mph. You’ll see him hanging out with bikers in motorcycle gangs and with cowboys at rodeos. You’ll see him cruising in old hot rods like his 1949 Lincoln with a big block engine (454), or wearing a sharp black cowboy hat and politely scooping up a pretty girl to dance the two-step. You’ll never see him drink a drop of alcohol or take illegal drugs. Never has. Never will. You’ll see some bonafide fist fights and times when he stepped in to defend a friend or family member or to protect someone from harm.  And you’ll see that short chapter when he shot out the aforementioned car windows. Michael Dean is not proud of some of the rough stuff back then. But it’s part of him, and he owns it and moves on.

As much time as he has spent being tough, he doesn’t hesitate to show love.

Today, notice the lights in his eyes as his six year old daughter Bailee shows him the frogs she just caught in the yard, and you see the proudest, most loving papa.

“The greatest day of my life was the day she was born. No doubt. And every day after…”

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Bailee Williams and Morgan Boyd

See him interact with one of his three best buddies, Brian Boyd, and you understand that friendship is kinship. They’ve known each other for about 30 years and they are brothers, blood or not. There is total loyalty in friendship, in brotherhood, in their business partnership at Green Fuel Tabs, and in life.

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Michael Dean Williams and Brian Boyd

And regardless of the distance that sometimes happens between brothers in families, when Michael Dean calls his brother Dusty on the phone in a crisis, it’s because he loves him. When he talks about his brother Mitchell, it’s because he loves him. When he struggles to keep his composure as he shares the message his sister Megan wrote on his Facebook page, it’s because he loves her. When he speaks in gentle tones with superlative words about his Mom, it’s because he loves her. When he talks about his Dad as his hero, it’s because he loves him.

“I’m not a china doll”

Thinking back to his diagnosis at age 10, he’ll tell you he learned ‘really quick’ that if he said he was alright, everyone else seemed to exhale. “So rather than learning about the disease and really handling it and conquering it, I was like ‘No, I’m good! All my tests are good!’

“I’d take my shot in the morning, and I’d go about my way.” He knows now he might have benefited by monitoring his blood sugar and taking insulin more often back then.

There are medical and emotional pieces to dealing with diabetes, and then there is the sometimes frustrating dynamic that happens around a diabetic, however well-meaning.

More than feeling really lousy sometimes… And more than feeling guilty for his chocolate cake intake… And more than the recovery from so many operations… Michael Dean can’t stand when people treat him like he is different or delicate.

“Get me out of the glass case! I am not a china doll. I am a badass!” he laughs. But he means it.

“A kid that shoves heroin or smokes dope or whatever — that was their choice. It was not  my choice to be a diabetic, and I didn’t do anything to get it. We just have to deal with it. So don’t make me be the pink elephant in the room. I’m not.

“And when you’re sitting at a restaurant, and the waitress asks if you want dessert, don’t scream at the lady ‘Oh, no! He’s diabetic!'”

He whispers: “‘Chill out.’ I know it’s all from massive incredible love, but ‘chill out’.” He breaks into laughter.

He is a stoic pillar of strength and positivity. He says he has to be that way.

“If I sit around and think about the diabetes, and what’s happened to me, and the kidney and pancreas transplant, and some day the kidney is probably gonna fail like the pancreas did, and am I going to wake up tomorrow blind and not see my daughter…You’d be a wreck! How are you gonna live that way?

“I’ve quit several times. I have called Brian and said ‘I’m done with it, man.’ Those were the longest three or five minutes of my life. “Then my own brain says ‘you’re not a quitter. Cowboy up. What’s wrong with you?'”

Cowboy Up

Michael Dean loves American Graffiti and definitely sees himself as a throwback from that 1950’s era. But if that makes him a city boy, he’s equal parts country. When he and Bailee drive around the property in the pickup truck, they listen to George Strait or Zac Brown Band, Vince Gill or Conway Twitty.

One of Michael Dean’s favorite actors is John Wayne, and as he sees it, the man John Wayne is on the big screen is the way men ought to be.

Michael Dean lives by the John Wayne motto: “Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway.”

He does it every day.

He did it the night he drove himself to the hospital many years ago because the call came saying that it was time: the donor pancreas and kidney were ready. He arrived to about 30 loved ones waiting for him at the hospital. “I pulled up, and they said ‘Where have you been’?

I said, ‘I had to return my movies!’ My mom goes, ‘damn you, Michael Dean, what is wrong with you!'” He breaks into laughter again. 

That transplant gave Michael Dean nine and a half years without having to take insulin. The kidney and pancreas were functioning well. Unfortunately the pancreas is no longer working. So he’s back to the shots. “For nine and a half years, I wasn’t a diabetic. It was incredible. I had energy.” The timing is extra painful: if the pancreas had lasted for 10 years, Michael Dean would have been able to get life insurance.

He did it when he drove himself to the hospital in recent years because it was time for triple bypass heart surgery.

“Saddle up and ride anyways is: get in your car, drive, park and get your ass through the door, knowing that you’re about to put a gown on, and you’re about to go under, and could not wake up again and see your baby girl.  I was scared shitless.”

He just wanted to get it done. “I don’t know if it’s stoic, or heroic, or cowardly, just get it done!”  And they got it done. The surgery went well. And the family and friends around him did what they do: they cowboy up too. Michael Dean’s Mom and Dad moved in for a while and friends opened their homes.  “I tell you what, after they crack your chest, you ain’t doing anything ’til it’s time!”

He did it when his wife left somewhere in the middle of all of that.

“That was rough. That was rougher than anything I’ve ever dealt with. This (medical) crap was nothing.

“But I would go through it 10 times over for that little girl,” he says, gesturing to Bailee. “Yah, that little girl to me is … top notch.

“That little girl is what gave me the second wind to go ‘Ok. I gotta cowboy up.'”

Just then Bailee comes running in to the kitchen in her pink dress, smiling, long hair flying. She pulls out a large plastic bowl from the cupboard. Her eyes register an unspoken message from her Dad. Then she smirks and declares, “It’s for FOOD,” and runs back outside.

“She has been told you are not allowed to take another plastic tupperware thing outside, and shove bugs in it!

“It grosses your Dad out when I go to get a bowl — even though it’s been washed — and I remember there were seven frogs in there and I want to put a salad in there! Noooo. Tough guy or not, that’s disgusting!”

And with that fast kitchen visit by a six year old wonder, the mood is lighter, the day is better, and Michael Dean’s smile is even brighter.