My cousin Jay has been waiting for a heart transplant for over four years. The two of us are the same age, a goofy, young 51. Jay was born with some bad luck in the form of a relatively rare heart disease that kicked in hardcore several years ago.
Sadly, his condition drastically worsened right before his wedding day with the love of his life, Cathy Bessette. Their wedding was so important to Jay that, against Doctor’s advice, he wouldn’t postpone the magical event.
The wedding was absolutely beautiful and the reception was a hoot! Sadly, Jay ended up in the intensive care unit of the hospital that evening. Just the beginning of a rocky, rollercoaster journey of complications and more doctor appointments and hospitalizations than you could shake a stick at.
Jay’s mom, Leah, has been there for the couple; taking Jay to his appointments in Boston while Cathy worked her butt off at multiple jobs.
Despite all of Jay and Cathy’s challenges, the two of them lived a life full of humor, laughter, caring and love for each other as well as for most anyone who crossed their path. This all changed on January 11, 2020.
Catherine Jean Bessette-Kirby passed away in her sleep from a heart attack at the age of 44.
The world changed that day. Not only from the shock of losing a loved one at such a young age. But also, from losing a most spectacular soul that did nothing short of make the world a better place for others…every single day.
There is such sorrow in Cathy’s leaving us, but at the same time there is such appreciation, respect and hope in the memories of the life she lived and the legacy she leaves behind.
Cathy’s sister Krista and also Cathy’s daughters Maranda and Myra helped me out in writing this piece. Despite their grief and sorrow in losing Cathy, they felt so strongly about sharing some of the beauty and magic of her life.
Here are just a few examples of Cathy’s personality and life mission.
“Catherine knew almost all of Vermont. She was known for her beautiful smile and radiant blue eyes. She gifted her resilient attitude, forgiving love and true guidance on any type of person no matter their hardships, and this was what was special about her.”
“I loved her upbeat personality! She was outgoing and so much fun to be around. She had a contagious smile. Three words to describe Cathy.....beautiful, giving, outgoing.”
“Cathy truly was a beautiful person inside and out and I was a better person to have known her. She was so friendly and accepting of everyone. The world would be a better place if everyone was half the person she was. Cathy was always so full of life and regardless of what was going on, she remained positive.”
“She always was ready to help anyone..”
“She has a great bond with whoever she came in touch with. I will never forget her laugh and the bond she and my dad had they would pick on each other when she would play bingo.”
“Cathy’s laugh was contagious...didn’t matter how mad u were she would always get u laughing. The biggest life lesson she taught me is to never give up... compassionate, sincere, giving.”
And one of the most heartwarming and personal thoughts shared: “She’s the reason I have a relationship with my father. That she loved me so much and cared so much that she made it possible to be with my dad. She made so much of the impossible possible.”
Cathy didn’t just make the world a better place when she was with us. She has continued to do the very same even after she passed.
The night after she left us, at 1:30 a.m., Jay received a call from the hospital. The voice on the other line told Jay that a patient was there, who was in need of eye transplants. They asked if they could please have permission to use Cathy’s.
As Cathy’s sister Krista told me, “I am an organ donor myself. But when you receive a call from the hospital asking to take a part of your loved one’s body, it’s a confusing feeling.”
Personally, I had never thought of the feelings of a family in this situation, and her words did make a lot of sense. But, as Krista also said, “It was the right thing to do.”
I have to chuckle as I think about Cathy at this point. I can pretty much hear her laughing up above us saying, “Oh yeah, I like this, I can still make a difference even from here.”
Through example, Cathy showed us all the power and urgency of organ donation. In doing so, she now has created a re-energized hope for Jay in his search for a heart.
The eyes that she shared are captivating and of striking beauty. Crystal bright blue with sparkles like a prism, Cathy’s eyes danced with life. Now she’s dancing with someone else.
When I think of Cathy, I think of magic.
Magic in her ability to see the world with an unbiased, pure, empathetic beauty.
Magic that made its way into her heart and soul through her reflective eyes.
And a magic that I believe will live on through the blessed person given the miraculous gift of seeing the world through Cathy’s eyes.
November and December in Vermont are arguably at the bottom of the barrel as far as months go. The combined lack of sunlight and conflicting emotions around the holidays are powerful ingredients for rough and stormy seas.
Personally, I have always had a love/hate relationship with this season: loving those special family moments, lights, decorations, children’s excitement and giving gifts and hating the severity of personal struggles for so many others--struggles from missing loved ones, financial hardships and the pressure of meeting expectations from the commercialism that has invaded our lives.
I don’t remember Christmas being this way when I was a child. Most of my young years we didn’t have a tv. And even when we did, there were only three channels, that was on a good day and if one of us kids stood and held the rabbit ears just right. Our Christmas wishes came from looking through the Sears Wish Book toy pages.
My Mom really did her best to create a magical, warm, loving experience every year through traditions and humor. Wonderfully, she still plays the role to this day.
She has always spent countless hours in the kitchen making our favorite foods. Foods that we only had at this time of year. Tourtière (meat pie) for Christmas Eve, cookies from neopolitan to pecan sandies, Chex mix, stollen for Christmas morning …and so much more.
When we were kids, we decorated the tree one week before Christmas. Decorations were a combination of hand-made dough ornaments (with the child creator’s name and year written on the back) and ornaments that have been passed down through the years. I actually now have most of those childhood ornaments. From the puffy red balls that I used to rub against my top lip while sucking my thumb to the garland that looked like magical, delicious candy. And yes, every year I did actually try to taste that candy.
Our lights were great big bulbs that were each placed against a tin reflector as they were screwed into the thick gauged green wire. These old lights were so heavy that they had to be clipped onto the branches. And hot, boy did those lights get hot! One of my favorite memories is this one very special light. It was red and Dad always placed it in the middle of the tree. Magically, this light would blink on and off. We all called it the heart of the tree.
Christmas Eve tradition included the exchanging of gifts between siblings and our folks. With six kids and two adults, this process was pretty lengthy but always such fantastic fun. My favorite memory of giving to my family was the year I was able to purchase gifts for the first time. I must have been about five years old or so, and we lived in Jericho. It was dark when we all piled into our station wagon and headed to the big city and Woolworths. To this day I vividly remember the awe I experienced when we came into Winooski and I saw all the lights. Lights, lights, lights, from decorated houses to street lights, traffic lights, business lights… the city lights just blew my mind.
At Woolworth my brother Bob and I went downstairs to where the fishing equipment, toys and fish tanks resided. I was ecstatic when I realized that I could buy everyone in the family their very own superball and I even had enough money for one for myself! When home, I wrapped them all, even the one for myself, and put them under the tree with 100% pure joy.
Stockings were a family favorite. Big old hunting socks were used and Santa would leave them on the foot of our bed when he visited our house. I remember one year being awake when he came, feeling the weight of the stocking as he slowly lowered it near my foot. I was beyond excited but I had to pee so badly. Afraid that if I got up too soon to go to the bathroom, he might still be there and I would scare him away! Oh, I endured so much agony that night, laying, waiting, as my bladder felt like it would burst.
We kids would wake up around 5 a.m. We’d go sit on each other’s beds and show each other the treasures we received. One of my favorite stocking stuffers was the Fuzzy Wuzzy Bear. It was a soap that – if you took it out of its box and put it on a shelf – would grow fuzzy hair. Then when his hair was fully in, he was ready to go take a bath.
Christmas morning, we had to wait until everyone was around the Christmas tree and then take turns opening a gift. Santa was pretty practical back in those days. Clothes and necessities were common. But Santa also had a sense of humor!
Somehow Santa learned about my aversion to feet, and one year brought me a huge pillow shaped as a foot, individual toes and all.
Another year, Santa must have heard that I was sprayed by a skunk. To explain, another kid (ironically named Steve Martin) told me that if I picked it up by its tail then it wouldn’t spray me. He was wrong. That Christmas I received a cute little skunk stuffed animal.
One of the greatest gifts I received was in 1971, my Drowsy Doll. The only doll that I ever played with in my life, Drowsy Doll was such a dear friend. I don’t remember when she went away. But she meant so much to me that just a few years ago, my mom found one on Ebay. Now Drowsy is back in my bedroom.
My brother Bob had a similar experience, with receiving a present that meant a lot to him. Only his story is more touching than that of my doll.
Bob, a phenomenal guitar player who even travels from Vermont to gigs in New Orleans, explained it best: “One Christmas can change a life. One present from one Christmas even. I speak of 1971. First guitar. Nobody knew it was going to shape my universe. The takeaway: dare to take chances with gift-giving. You might change somebody’s life.”
Whoaaa... I am just now seeing something! It is only in finishing this article and proofreading it that I am realizing; both my doll and Bob’s guitar were from Christmas 1971.
Like I have said before, “You can’t make this stuff up!”
By Julie Gagnon Prior
“When things get overwhelming, I find listening to music energizes, relaxes and helps me put things back in perspective.” Lynne Carver, South Hero, October, 2019.
Before we get started, take a look at the photo below. It was taken June 2019, within the walls of the South Hero Bicentennial Museum. In it, my Dad is presenting a fiddle to Teresa Robinson.
Years ago, the fiddle belonged to my great, great grampa, Joe LaRose. Joe owned a blacksmith shop just a couple doors up from the museum. After he died, the fiddle was passed down to his daughter Laura’s son, my Grampa Joseph A. Gagnon. The wish that went with the fiddle was that it would continue to be passed through the upcoming generations to the family musician who showed the most interest in playing the instrument. Before my Grampa passed, he handed the fiddle down to my pa, Joseph B. Gagnon. Unfortunately, none of the children or grandchildren in my family play the instrument. Dad thought it right to return the fiddle to the town where it first came from so many years ago.
As a side note, on the same day of the instrument gift, a cousin also donated a fully intact, gorgeous quilt that was made by Joe Larose’s wife, Linda Mae (Savage) LaRose.
On another side note, in case some of you are wondering, “What is the difference between a fiddle and a violin?” Well, the real answer is that you don’t spill beer on a violin, as stated by my Dad).
Music, to me, is the truest form of magic that exists. It has the ability to take one into flight, escaping high above a collapsing darkness shrouding us where we stand. It can also heal us through validation, support and hope, whether it be the journey of the instrumentals or the path of the lyrics.
It may sound like I am very knowledgeable about music. Ironically, out of about four generations, on my Father’s side, I am one of the least talented in any musical skill or intelligence. I am, however, an expert of feeling and enjoying the power and beauty that it conveys.
Since I was born, music has been one of the glues within our family, and I have been and continue to be surrounded by exceptionally talented artists.
My pa started picking and grinning when he was eleven years old. His father heard him plunking on a plastic ukulele and decided to buy him a guitar. Dad took off from there, from swapping skills learned with Bobby Lavigne to playing with Bonnie Raitt at her sound man’s house, which happened to be two houses away from where we lived in Jericho.
Jam sessions were almost every week at our house. One of my favorite memories is going to bed and lying there listening to the magic flowing from the many musicians loving life in the living room.
Coming from a family of eight, the musical talent within our house was amazing! Dad played any stringed instrument; Mom, Kathy and the twins sang, and the twins played piano; Bob followed in Pa’s footprints with the insane guitar picking; Joe learned to play the drums; and I…well, let’s just say that I had much more success with a soccer ball then anything musical.
Holidays and family get-togethers always ended in a jam session. My grampa always played the harmonica. Damn do I miss him and his harmonica.
The talent continues to run through the blood of the next generation of Gagnons! My kids, niece and nephews are all extremely talented – almost weird-like talented. But, let it be known that I am still better than any of them with a soccer ball.
Personally, I believe that there are two major contributors to the quality of musicians within my family. One of course is natural ability, and hard work. The second, I believe is a result of acceptance.
My parents were quite strict and they didn’t have much money. However, music was never restricted due to genre, sound or lyrics. Because of this, our home was filled with sounds from Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond, The Commodores, Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, Joe Wise, CCR, The Beatles, Abba and more. And because of this, all of us kids were exposed to the genres and artists enjoyed by our siblings or parents, ultimately teaching us so much more then we would have learned in a restricted household.
Despite the financial aspect, my folks had three stereos, all with headphones, spread throughout the house. This way, all six kids could take turns listening to our preferred music while working on homework.
Around the same time that I asked Lynn Carver for a quote about music, I also asked another friend, Sue Straight. Her response was a hand-written card and some pages that she pulled out of a Reader’s Digest from June of 2018. Among her personal message about the meaning of music, Sue wrote, “It’s been my therapy for 13 years.”
How powerful is just that one statement?
Now it’s with a heavy, loving sigh that I share my most recent “music” experience with you, which happened just this morning. Staying at my folks’ house for a few days, I’m quite ill and they are my proxies, I was able to sit up on the couch this morning and write. As my Pa sat in the chair next to me and we were drinking coffee, I asked him to verify some of the info that I wanted to include in the piece. While we were talking, the phone rang. It was Dolly. Dolly is my Dad’s friend Forest’s wife. Turns out she was calling him to discuss Pa visiting her husband at a nursing home today. When Dad got off the phone, I asked him if he thought Forest who has Alzheimer’s, would recognize him. Dad replied that Dolly thought he would and with that he got out of his chair to get ready to leave.
I opened my laptop and started to write this piece. Having not read the Reader’s Digest pages yet, I took them in my hand. The title is “13 Incredible Ways Music Benefits You.”
Something in my head made me want to read the 13th way first. Flipping to the last page, I read it and then yelled out to see if my Pa was still here. He was!
I read to him the 13th way…
“Maybe you’ve heard about Alzheimer’s patients coming alive when they hear a song from their past. Studies show that music helps them retrieve memories, communicate more effectively, and remember who they are.”
See, the reason that my Pa and Forest are such good friends is that they have been making music together for well over 50 years…Forest played Fiddle.
Already planning to bring his guitar with him to the nursing home, I am sure that hearing those words touched Dad’s heart.
Music is magic. A magic that started my Dad’s friendship with Forest and a magic that is going to help them both on their journey today.
By Julie Gagnon Prior
Growing up, I always wanted to be a professional clown. I was, and still am, in love with the idea of hiding behind a face full of makeup, silly clothes and acting goofy for the sole purpose of making others laugh and forget about their worries: If I were a clown, then I could make the world a better place - only people wouldn’t know that it was me underneath the costume.
When making the VT Pinup Girl Calendar 2020, I was adamant that my name not appear anywhere within the project. Wisely, however, the printer told me in no uncertain terms that not only did I need to include my name, but I also had to tell some of my personal story.
In hindsight, he was right. With a name attached, I had a marketing tool that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.
With a name in print, I am able to be a real live person. Able to be part of newspaper and tv interviews. Able to speak to others and share hugs with my real-life arms. As uncomfortable as it is being on a soap box, I have had to put on my big-girl pants and suck it up. It’s like my Dad said a few months ago. He was referring to the outfit that I told him I was going to wear on a tv interview. He said, “Nope. You can’t do that. You are being interviewed because you are a spokesperson for the Lyme community. It’s not about ‘You’. It’s about them. Make sure to dress and conduct yourself with all of this in mind.”
To date we have raised $7,000. Every penny, after taxes, will be presented to vtlyme.org, a non-profit organization whose mission is “providing effective prevention education, equitable information, and support for Vermonters affected by Lyme and other tick-borne diseases.”
You may wonder why I was driven to do such a project. To make an extremely long story short, I suffer from “Untreated Chronic Lyme Disease”. November 1 of 2009 I squeezed an engorged tick off my hairline. Doing exactly what you shouldn’t do, I inadvertently squeezed the poison into my body. Although I became ill, my primary care physician wouldn’t treat me because I did not get a bullseye rash. I trusted him, and, despite continuing to become more ill, I chocked it up to the flu.
After many years of being diagnosed with “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome,” a visit to a Lyme Specialist resulted in the Lyme diagnosis, along with co-infections. I would like to stress that my case is relatively unique in its severity due to the fact that I wasn’t treated in a timely manner. When treated properly, Lyme can be rough yet manageable.
I created the calendar to spread awareness to prevent others from the same fate. Nicely stated, Untreated Chronic Lyme sucks manure.
About three years ago, I Googled “Vermont Lyme” and only found one site that provided support and education for the afflicted and their families. That site was vtlyme.org, and that is how they became the decisive recipients of any money I made.
Sunday, Nov. 10, I was the guest speaker at the vtlyme.org support group. Rebecca Zelis, the organization’s founder attended and we had an opportunity to talk one on one.
I knew that Rebecca’s experience parenting a child with neuroborreliosis (neurological Lyme disease) led to creating the website. But I learned more of her story and really how fate was running on steroids to bring us together at the perfect time in both of our lives.
Here’s some of her story that she wrote down for me to share.
“VTLyme.org was started in 2016 and over the next couple of years my husband, Mark, and I worked to build it into a resource for Vermonters about Lyme disease and tickborne diseases. As we built VTlyme.org and we heard from Vermonters through the website’s contact page it was clear this was a bigger job that I understood at the beginning.
During this time, we would get emails about people who were told by their doctors that if they didn’t have a bulls eye rash they didn’t have Lyme disease. Others had a bulls-eye rash and fever, but since their blood test came back negative their doctor told them they didn’t have Lyme disease (according to the CDC, a blood test will most likely be negative for several weeks early in the disease since the body has not yet developed enough antibodies to be detected in the test.) Like my son, Vermonters who have delayed diagnosis are more likely to have systemic and long-term problems so these stories were disturbing, but also helped Mark and I realize the importance of continuing our work.
Along with our commitment came the cumulative effect of years of stress and financial difficulties. I was reaching a breaking point and honestly considered ending my work on VTLyme.org. Julie, this was about the time you first contacted me. I just had reached a point where my emotional and physical energy and resources were absolutely GONE! Luke had relapsed and was quite sick again, we moved several times, and we were barely making ends meet - I was totally overwhelmed.
A comical series of accidents led me to push forward a bit more and create a board in 2018. These brilliant and committed people on the new board had skills and energy I did not. They also gave me support and recognition for the quality of work I had done alone up until that point - which helped me regroup and reenergize. Through the work of this board, VTLyme.org became a 501c3 non-profit! Vermont often leads the US in incidence of Lyme disease and VTLyme.org is the only organization addressing the impact of Lyme and TBDs on Vermonters.
So, Julie, that brings us up to today. More than anything I am grateful my son is doing well. We are regrouping and figuring out how to move forward from the past decade. Maybe you didn’t realize what an impact your support has had?? Please know I am so grateful - and I truly believe we will prevent what happened to us from happening to other Vermonters.”
So, now here we go, with great discomfort…
I am going to make a shameless plug and ask for your help. Here are three ways that you could help.
1. Purchase a calendar or two (they make great Christmas gifts).
2. Make a monetary donation that I can add to the $7,000 already raised.
3. The most important - word of mouth is huge!!!!
When 2019 ends, It’d be awesome to make a big cardboard check, like they do on tv, for the amount of $10,000 to present to Vtlyme.org.
What do you think? Can you help with this last push before the year’s end?
By Julie Gagnon Prior
Some folks call me a “pack-rat.” I personally prefer the term “sentimentalist.” I tend to hold on to items that have meaning to me. Most often this doesn’t create an issue because the items are small and fit on a dresser or a shelf. However, this isn’t the case with my 2003 Honda Odyssey.
At the time I was looking for a vehicle, I had two small children, and their safety was the most important factor. Because I wasn’t rolling in money, quality, maintenance, longevity and other attributes were critical. To research, I purchased three publications that reviewed/rated used vehicles. I created an extensive Excel spreadsheet that had columns for each criterion, and values (from the resources) were entered accordingly. Using that data and a little bit of math, I determined that the highest scoring van was the 2003 Honda Odyssey.
When I purchased the van, it had 40,000 miles on it. It now has almost 270,000 miles and is very tired and just wants to rest.
It really makes me sad though. This van has been such a huge part of so much of so many lives. Can’t I keep it forever?
She carried my children to daycare, doctor appointments, school, and family events.
She was the one who patiently endured my kids learning to drive.
As they got older, I am sure she was squealing with enjoyment when they learned how to do donuts (backwards because of the front wheel drive), practice sliding in snowy parking lots and going places not meant for a van — while we pretended she was a Jeep.
The seats came out easily, and we learned just how much you could fit in a van. Once when transporting a dirt bike in the van, the bike tipped over. I hadn’t shut off the fuel, so the carpet became soaked and had to be removed. She never complained about that.
She carried several whitewater kayaks and stinky gear back and forth from Massachusetts to Ottawa. Put the seats back in, and she’d carry friends to Montreal or the Penobscot river in Maine. Most recently she carries a plethora of tools, a sleeping bag and pillows, and lots of doggies around the Islands.
On the dash, it says 270,000 miles. But that number is so minuscule in the life mileage that she has traveled for me, my family and friends.
She actually... yes my van, is a very dear friend.
Last week I began facing the fact that I need to find a stronger, younger friend to carry my tools and all. When I heard about a decent pickup truck in Alburgh for $1,200, I made plans to go the next day to check it out.
As I drove to the location, it occurred to me that the area was familiar. I was particularly tickled as I drove by a friend’s marina shop, a friend I hadn’t seen for a couple years. Planning to stop by on my way back through, I continued down the road but wasn’t seeing the pickup. I was told it was parked by the road with a “for sale” sign on it. Eventually I stopped at a house where I saw some men tinkering in a garage. I asked them about the pickup, and they told me that it belonged to their neighbor across the road. Looking closer, I saw the pickup was parked by the house and not by the road. Still planning to go knock on the door to inquire, I asked the guys if they knew Roger, the owner of the marina. They laughed as they said yes and then shared that the pickup truck was his daughter-in-law’s. I had to chuckle as I marveled at the fate of the situation.
It turns out the truck had sold the night before. I was a bit bummed, but it paled in comparison to the excitement of possibly seeing Roger. When I pulled in by his shop, he came out and couldn’t quite figure out who I was. After I gave him a couple of hints, he figured it out and laughing said, “I didn’t recognize you. I have only seen you in dirty work clothes and you are dressed so nice!”
He also said that it’s just coincidence that he was there. He is hardly ever at the shop. With that, he asked me to come in, sit down and talk.
Wow, he blew my mind! I had only ever talked with him while I was working and he is really Carl’s friend. I’m a tag-a-long friend. Roger was extremely interesting and insightful, and the conversation just fueled my interest in this older, hard-working, Frenchman.
Explaining to him that I submit pieces to The Islander, I asked him if I could write down some of what he was saying. He was happy to oblige and quite proud (rightfully so) of passing on his thoughts.
I feel the best way to share his words of wisdom is through quotes that I pulled out of the visit.
“A day with no challenge is a bad day. Now why? Because challenges make you better.”
“There is no such thing as ‘can’t.’ ‘Can’t’ is an easy way out.”
“I wish they had a semester in school for young children to learn the meaning of respect. Some kids are addicted to drugs because they loose respect for themselves and fall down. Respecting yourself comes first. Then you can respect others.”
“When I go places, I smile at people. I say hello. I start talking and then they are happy. I start talking, otherwise nothing happens.”
“I was talking to a man and asked him, ‘how’s retirement?’ He answered, ‘It’s the pits.’ People need to keep busy. People need to have purpose.”
Just a small sampling of Roger’s comments. I wish I could go back today and just listen and learn more!
When it was time for me to leave, we said our goodbyes and I hopped in the van. On the drive home I marveled about the coincidences within the last hour. My van, which has taken so many on so many journeys… The same van that I am dreading saying goodbye to…
She has so much class and character that even when she was bringing me to a check out a possible replacement, she brought me to yet another heartwarming, random encounter and experience.
Nope, she isn’t making it any easier to let her go.
Maybe I can keep her just a little longer….
By JULIE PRIOR GAGNON
Have you ever wondered how it came to be that this relatively new to the Islands, redneck girl began writing for The Islander?
Before I started writing for The Islander, I shared my stories on Facebook.
Yup, it was on Facebook that my “Today’s Story” posts intrigued publisher Tonya Poutry and she believed that others might enjoy them as well.
Here’s a favorite of mine that I posted exactly a year ago this week.
Today’s Story: October 30, 2018
Today is Tuesday. 3 days after this story’s events happened and I am still having difficulty finding the words to share.
I am not sure why it’s so difficult. Maybe it’s because of being in so much pain that my brain has a harder time working or maybe because the story is so deeply touching and freakishly connected to both me and my new friend’s past and present. Actually as I write this, I am sure that it is option 3, “all of the above.”
Saturday was spent cleaning my room and closet, which had become a disaster area. By about 3 p.m., I was stir crazy and had to get outside, knowing by 4 p.m. or so (each day), I have to start taking muscle relaxants in order to help deal with the head pain. That all being said, I told Carl that I was going for a Jeep ride and was on my way.
I headed to South Hero to drop something off to a friend, but in typical fashion…I couldn’t figure out which house was hers. On my way back home , I had a strong urge to head up the East Shore for a change instead of the West Shore, which is my favorite route.
I was so very happy that I was out for the ride! Not only do I love cruising in the Jeep with the radio cranked, but I had the added beauty of the gorgeous foliage and lake to take in.
I was almost home, less than a mile away, when I was driving by the bay where Carl keeps the Landing Craft in the summer. As I approached the bay, I saw a car pulled over, and a man waved as I drove by.
Assuming that I knew the man and just didn’t recognize him at first, I stopped and backed up to say hi.
It turns out that I didn’t know him, but he was very pleasant as he told me that he just stopped there to take some photos of the scenery. When he spoke, of course I had to comment, “You talk funny, where are you from?”
It turns out that he was from West Virginia and is now living in the Islands.
Of course I lit right up when he said West Virginia! I spent two weeks down there whitewater kayaking and absolutely loved it. I always said that if I didn’t live in Vermont that I would live in Maine or West Virginia.
We continued to chat and found out that we had a couple other things in common, the first being a love of baseball. It turns out Thomas was a very good baseball player. He shared some stories of his favorite player Roberto Clemente, and I shared my stories of Yaz.
Then Thomas said, “wait a minute, I have something in my car for you.” He went to his car and came back with a beautiful Dinger bat. He handed it to me and said, “Here, I want you to have this.”
Honestly, I didn’t know how to react. It was such a random act of kindness but how could I accept something like this from a stranger?
But then as I gripped the bat, it fit my hands like a glove. It just had the perfect weight and balance. I had to get out in the open area and start swinging. As I did, I was brought back to those fantastic days of neighborhood baseball games and competitive softball. Looking back on it later, I realized that I wasn’t feeling any pain at the time. I was so happy and so engrossed in my gift that I was like a kid on Christmas morning.
Thomas asked if I wanted some pictures with the bat and I enthusiastically replied, “Yes.”
We then talked a bit more and he shared how much kindness he has received from strangers since moving to the islands. He was so appreciative and truly touched deeply. I wasn’t surprised, as these are the same people that accepted me when I was new to the area. But it made me smile ear to ear to hear his story.
As I was about to leave he said, “wait, I have one more thing for you.” He went to his car, took out a card of St. Pio and handed it to me.
Now, I am not a participant of an organized religion, yet I do wholeheartedly believe in Saints. My favorite Saint is St. Anthony, but I had never even heard of St. Pio of Pietrelcina.
I thanked him, wished him the best and headed home.
When I got home I looked up St. Pio on the internet. Believe it or not, he is well known for his “Prayers for the Sick.”
Finding that extremely ironic given my personal health issues, I sent a message to my mother asking her if she had heard of him. Her reply was, “My mother prayed to him. I had one of his relics when I delivered one of you kids but I don’t remember which one. I held it all through delivery.”
After all of the coincidences of this chance meeting of my new friend…I have no doubt.
I have a renewed courage and faith (very much needed) and know in my heart that I was that kid Mom brought into this world as she prayed to St. Pio of Pietrelcina.
By Julie Gagnon Prior
Writing for The Islander seems to be effortless some weeks and painfully difficult other weeks. When writing about others, words have a way of escaping from my fingertips smooth as the flow of a gradual, deep river with very few obstacles or bends in its path. Yet, when I am writing about myself, I find that the journey is more like a shallow, rocky, rushing mountain stream. I find that my words bounce back at me with a lack of control and confidence as I keep coming across potential dangers in my path.
This analogy is actually humorously ironic. One of my favorite passions in life is kayaking down crazy, dangerous, class III to V whitewater. The idea of paddling on boring, calm, event-free water is of no interest to me.
Saturday, Oct. 12 I had a heart to heart talk with a loved one. We discussed some difficulties that I am having. Honestly, the talk is one we’ve had many times before.
The familiar conversation was focused around my oversensitivity to other’s feelings and problems, how I need to learn to let things go, and how I am so poor at taking care of myself. Like I said, it was a talk that has been talked before…one that has been repeated all through my life.
After this most recent discussion, I felt a bit better. Yet, I still felt somewhat misunderstood. It’s like a “Catch 22.” I’m often embarrassed and confused when my unusual and over-sensitive personality creates such a challenge for myself and others.
That very night, before bed, I checked out Facebook. A friend had a post titled, “Empath Self Assessment Quiz.” I had heard about “empathy” before but didn’t know “empath” was a thing. Curious, I clicked on the link. I can’t even express the astonishment and disbelief as I read the information. It seemed to have been written specifically for me (which really freaked me out). One example is, “Being an empath is different from being empathetic. Being empathetic is when your heart goes out to someone else. Being an empath means you can actually feel another person’s happiness or sadness in your own body.” Dr. Judith Orloff 1 Feb 2019
I took the quiz, and out of twenty questions, only one didn’t apply. That one is, “13. Do I have a low pain threshold?” Now, if they are talking emotional threshold then it would apply. But if they are taking physical pain threshold then it doesn’t apply in the least as I am pretty much a pain-tolerating superhero.
According to Dr. Orloff, “Answering yes to more than fifteen questions means that you are a full-blown empath.”
After reading a bit more on the subject, I shared the link to my own Facebook page – excited to expose my mind-blowing discovery with the world. I hoped it might help explain me to others and maybe help someone else who is as confused in that area as myself.
The next morning, I checked Facebook and found a friend added a link to the book “The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People” by Dr. Orloff. I immediately messaged my friend and asked her when she learned about “empath” and read the book. She replied, “Literally this weekend. So funny when I read your stories, I always think that’s just like me (meeting people wherever I go and people telling me everything and the part no one sees - taking it all on and feeling it so intensely. The nature thing the animal thing. It’s all right there and explains why life is so great and so painful while others seem less affected. The stuff about addiction resonates as does relationship issues (fear of them because they are so intense when you take in the feelings of another person). It totally wild isn’t it? I’m assuming all the signs resonate with you too?”
Damn, my friend is right on the money!
Needless to say, I ordered the book that very morning before heading off to the Fairgrounds to sell calendars at the WOKO Flea Market.
During my drive to Essex, I was so excited about the knowledge and validation of the word and all it represents, “Empath.” Constantly one to want to improve myself (and ultimately making others happier by doing so) I began brainstorming how to handle the unfamiliar yet familiar bag of tricks that I believe I have been carrying since birth. I thought about going to (yet another) counsellor to talk about the new discovery. But it didn’t take long for me to rule that out. It seems counsellors always want to talk about the past and that never seems to benefit me in any way. Still unsure on where to go with my new knowledge, I had to put the thoughts aside when I pulled into the fairgrounds and had to set up camp for the sales.
I immersed myself in the process of creating my presentation. When finished, I took a seat, extremely overwhelmed at all of the people and commotion around me. A friend was coming in a bit to help. In the meantime, waiting for the doors to open at 8:30, I just put my head in my hands and closed my eyes.
When I heard a voice directed at me, I looked up to see the man who had a table kiddy corner to me. I had noticed him earlier as he had a lot of “Wolf” theme. My daughter’s spiritual animal is a wolf, and I had intentions of going to his table later to see what he was about. Yet he approached me. Before I said a word, he asked, “Can I try something”? Confused, I replied, “Ok.” He asked for my wrist and then softly touched it with his hand. Seriously, and I have no explanation for why, but a shot of energy began to travel through my body. He asked if I felt anything, and I explained what I felt. He then asked where it went. Immediately I pointed to my head. He looked at me in the eyes and said, “What are the strong emotions that you are feeling today?” To this, I just stared at him and didn’t say a word. He continued, “You feel everybody’s emotions and pain. You need to learn to let things go.”
Insane, right? Seriously, I don’t make up anything that I write for the Islander. I am just sharing with you a fraction of the world that I live in.
We continued to talk a bit, but honestly, I was getting overwhelmed and I told him that I needed to just rest. The man was very cool and understanding, an Indian with great intuitive ability.
What just blows my mind is that in less than 24 hours, this common theme, education, awareness, support, rollercoaster of emotions all came across my path. The whole sequence of events, the timing, and the same message presented to me from such a variety unrelated sources…has my mind spinning.
Yes, it’s an exciting awareness that I will learn more about as I can. But I really have to tell you something.
As cool as it is learning and improving myself in this manner, I would still put it all aside when given the opportunity to be consumed by the demands of a crazy paddle down a whitewater river in my little kayak.
Respectful yet unafraid of being bounced of rocks and tossed upside down, I have more confidence and ability to right myself and continue paddling with Mother Nature than I do handling the real world.
Does this make sense?
By Julie Gagnon Prior
Ijust arrived back at my folk’s house in Waterbury Center, after a ride to the Cold Hollow Cider Mill with my brother Brad. We stopped in to grab a dozen donuts, and on our way out (and I am sure that this comes as a surprise) I talked to a stranger. An elderly man, cane by his side, was sitting by himself. He appeared happy as a clam as he swung softly on the wooden double bench glider just outside the store’s entrance.
Enamored by the calm, peaceful and happy expression on his face, I said, “It doesn’t get much better than that does it?” As a smile spread across his face he replied, “No, no it doesn’t.”
I opened my bag of donuts and reached it out to him so that he could take one. He said, “Thank you but there are some people inside buying some donuts. I will have one of those.”
I proceeded to ask him where he was from. He responded that he was from Hinesburg but had brought visitors from NY to the cider mill. As I shared with him that Brad and I had lived in Hinesburg, his wife and two NY guests came out from shopping.
We talked a bit more about Vermont and then I said, “Wait a minute please, I have something in my vehicle for you.” Brad stayed with them (actually while holding the store door open for others), and I went to the Jeep and grabbed a couple of calendars.
Before handing them over, I explained the story behind the calendars, their creation and purpose. I exclaimed that if they were taking Vermont famous donuts home, then they should have a Vermont calendar as well. When I first said that it was a “Vermont Pinup Girl Calendar,” the women’s faces immediately dropped. Honestly, I understand their initial reaction – just the mention of a pinup girl can trigger conflicting emotions for a woman. However, I put their concerns quickly to rest when I began showing them the photos. They belly laughed as they turned through the pages. They truly enjoyed the spoof on a pinup girl idea – chuckling at me in dirty work clothes posing with items like roofing shingles and a weedwhacker.
The conversation then escalated and became serious (the purpose of the calendar). Like most everyone, they all knew someone who has been affected by Lyme.
When it was time to leave, I asked if they were huggers. They all replied “Yes,” and hugs were shared across the board. The elderly man I had first spoke with commented on what a great hug I had and asked for another. When hugging him a second time I said, “You know, I never used to hug. Most Vermonters aren’t big huggers.” The woman from New York said, “He was just telling us yesterday that Vermonters don’t hug much!” I responded, “Yeah, when I got sick, I started hugging a lot. Life is too short not to have fun and share some love.” All four of the strangers readily agreed, and our conversation continued as we walked to our cars.
This story is actually relative to another from yesterday that I had thought about sharing. I had to drive to Winooski to pick up a part for my significant other and had some pretty strong emotions and observations on the trip.
One thing I saw was pure, wholesome beauty. I was at a stop light and school had been let out not too long ago. As I sat waiting for the light, I watched a young woman and her daughter walking home. Holding hands, the daughter was a spectacular example of youthful exuberance, confidence and individuality. She had long, light brown hair with natural waves that were exaggerated by the fall wind. Her fashion choice was refreshing, a warm sweater, tights, cute skirt and little boots. Her face displayed the expressions of the day as she shared her story with her mother. I rolled my driver side window down and called out to the mother, “Hi, your daughter is absolutely adorable!” The mother beamed with pride at my comment as the daughter sweetly called out, “Thank you!”
Further down the road, I saw an older gentleman begging for change. Having been outside earlier, I knew that the air was frigid. My heart broke as I read his sign that mentioned that he was a “psychiatric patient.” Knowing how many psychiatric patients aren’t receiving treatment in the modern-day world, I wanted nothing less than to go give this man a hug and take him to where he could have a hot meal. Unfortunately, the conditions were such that I couldn’t help.
I realize, most people would not stop and talk to a man on a bench and offer him a donut, or role down their window to tell a woman her daughter is adorable, or think twice about helping a homeless person. But I have been told more often than not: I am not “most people.” Having been told that, many times it’s a compliment but many times it’s quite the opposite.
Actually, just last weekend someone who has known me for a very long time told me that I have very defunct social skills. They said that I say and do things that I shouldn’t in public, but that I am lucky because most people love me anyways. It was a confusing statement to hear but the gist was that I should be different in public.
Not long after that, another person who has known me for a long time stated, “I can’t believe you are still alive,” implying that strangers can be dangerous.
Honestly, hearing these comments cuts like a knife and causes me to question myself and my personality. Seriously I don’t know why I am the way I am. Maybe I was born this way, or maybe it’s a learned behavior or maybe even a defense mechanism-based behavior.
Either way, it’s hard for me to swallow that such great stories (in my mind) can be met with such disgust and negativity. Should I change? Should I work to be more normal? Am I wrong to be who I am and to act this way?
But after thinking long and hard about things…… I am not going to change.
I do what I do because my gut tells me to.
I have an unbound faith in the good of the people I approach.
I know for a fact that my “quirks” make a lot of people smile.
And, I also know that when I can make people smile or let them know that they aren’t alone…it makes my heart feel good.
And I like it when my heart feels good. How cool is that?
By Julie Gagnon Prior
Even now, 50 years old, I still have nightmares about school. The dreams involve forgetting my locker combo, my schedule, or being unprepared. Honestly, these themes were my reality. I learned to carry books around in a backpack so I wouldn’t need a locker. I had a schedule in every notebook. And, I was most always unprepared for class.
I began school at 5 years old, 1st grade at Jericho Elementary. With no preschool or kindergarten under my belt, that introduction involved a significant learning curve for this young, active child. My teacher was extremely strict. Unfortunately, she didn’t appreciate my personality, and I endured consequences. My days often involved time sitting on a stool facing the corner as well as physical discipline. I spent most recesses alone in the classroom, instructed to keep my head down on the desk. Needless to say, in 1st grade I learned the survival skills of being very quiet and still.
Teachers after 1st grade were mostly decent. Because I was quiet and still, I didn’t draw attention to myself. Unfortunately, I had other traits that slipped by teachers until high school.
Concentration and the ability to focus on a task, much less complete one, were significant challenges. My classroom time was spent daydreaming. Looking back, I wish there was a way to capture all the stories that I created in my head. The adventures in my imagination, while the teacher talked in the background, would be the makings for some fantastic stories!
Socially, school was no problem and sports were my saving grace. Unfortunately, I learned a tough lesson in 8th grade about “balance”. That year Essex Middle School had their first involvement in interscholastic soccer. Not only did I make the team as starting striker, I was voted captain. Despite being our inaugural year, we made it to the finals.
Before the championship game, I earned a detention in Science class. I was then informed that my incomplete assignments resulted in a failing grade. As a consequence, I was removed from the soccer team.
This hurt deeply. Not only personally because I wasn’t allowed to play, but I felt extreme guilt as I let the team down. At game time, I wasn’t allowed anywhere near the team. I watched from a distance as we lost the most significant game at that point in our young lives.
In high school, I vowed never to be kicked off a team again. I was able to “get by” with my grades despite the issues with my fantastic imagination and lack of interest in anything else when confined to a classroom.
My mother, of course, knew of my challenges. It was the spring of sophomore year when she sat down and read through the course options for the next year. She suggested that I read about “Farming and Forestry”. The class was part of the Essex Vocational Program, involving half of the school day for juniors and seniors. Mostly based on “hands on” and “field work”, the curriculum included areas of study that were right up my alley.
With an unfamiliar enthusiasm, I made the trek up to the Agriculture Building on the first day of my junior year. Little did I know, I was beginning a life-changing educational journey.
Mr. Canedy was an absolutely outstanding teacher and also became one of my best friends in life.
He recognized my learning quirks. While practicing extreme patience, he taught so much more then farming and forestry skills. He taught me how to learn. I still smile when I think about when he was teaching me to back up a hay wagon with the tractor. I turned the wheel too sharply and ended up cutting part of a tread off the tractor tire as it cranked against the wagon. I went into a panic, thinking he would be furious. He was only feet away watching me. When I finally gathered enough courage to look him in the face, I was very confused. I could tell he was bummed about the tire, but he hid it well. He softly explained to me what I had done wrong and asked me to try again. I had great difficulty understanding why he didn’t get pissed off and take me off the tractor. Instead, he taught me the most valuable lesson of making a mistake: take accountability, buck up, and try again.
He realized that the classroom was rough for me. Acknowledging that, he altered my personal curriculum to provide me with more “hands-on” learning.
One example was having me go (as a junior) with the senior class for the winter. The task was woodland maintenance on a lot in Jericho. Instead of being stuck inside, I was outside in the elements. My time was spent with the big boys cutting down trees, skidding them out, chainsaw maintenance, etc. Needless to say, at that point, I loved school!
Senior year, Mr. Canedy provided me with another priceless opportunity. He had me work at Chapin’s Orchards in Essex Center. Perfect! I was already helping milk at the dairy farm that was on the property. And, Chapin’s was only a hop, skip, and a jump from where I lived. The year was 1985.
Now I’d like to fast forward to last week, almost 35 years later.
My son asked me to go apple picking. It would be our first trip to an orchard with his newborn son. I asked where he’d like to go. Expecting South Hero because that’s where I always brought him and his sister, I was pleasantly surprised when he answered Chapin’s.”
Driving to the orchard, I became overwhelmed with heartfelt emotion. Once there, I was like a little kid, showing them all around and sharing my stories from my time there (stories my kids already heard half a million times). The most impressive accomplishment I showed them was the large number of apple trees that I planted in the field to the left of the barn. That section of the orchard wasn’t open to the public that day. But, with permission, we walked over to those magical, fruit-bearing trees that were nothing more than a twig when I placed them in the ground so very long ago.
Having been years since being there, I went into a giddy shock when I saw an old tractor. It’s on display and is the very one that I used when working there. I was ecstatic to have my butt back in that familiar seat that I warmed for so many hours years ago, while holding my first grandchild in my arms.
We then walked into the barn and saw a sign on the wall. Again, a pride (that I never experienced in a classroom) came over me as I read the first line to my son and his family. “The original orchard at Chapin Farm was planted in 1929, with the newer orchard of 1500 semi-dwarf trees planted in 1985.”
So overwhelmingly proud by the end of that experience, I’m surprised my head fit inside my car for the drive home. It did fit, and driving home, I warmly reflected on the day’s events. I realized, I didn’t just share these stories with my family, as they sat listening to me talk.
I shared these stories with a “hands-on” experience in which they were able to use all of their senses…sight, sound, smell, taste and touch…
How cool is that?
By Julie Gagnon Prior
Last week my 34-year-old cousin Chucky shared this on Facebook, “It really sucks I can’t get close to anyone because of my own stupidity. I can’t just blame everything on the brain injury. I really wish for clear thoughts and love. I’m really sorry for hurting anyone.”
His words struck me like a bolt of lightning to my core. After reading and re-reading his post countless times, I eventually broke free from my computer to organize my thoughts, only to be drawn back to re-read it several times again. I then reached out to him and asked if he wanted to be part of a piece for the Islander that I have wanted to do for months but have not had the courage to complete.
“Cuz” readily agreed and put his story down in writing for me. I am so deeply thankful. Unknowingly, he is paving the way for me to confront and share some of my own issues that have been killing my spirit slowly and painfully. By only changing one word, I am able to use the rest of his words to share with the world what I have been feeling so long. Here’s my version, ““It really sucks I can’t get close to anyone because of my own stupidity. I can’t just blame everything on the Lyme brain. I really wish for clear thoughts and love. I’m really sorry for hurting anyone.”
See, Chucky and I have always been kindred spirits. We both love to have fun, enjoy nature to its fullest, and we are both quite talented at hiding our pain on the inside with a full smile on the outside. It turns out we are even more similar then we originally realized, now that we both have “brain quirk” badges.
Here is some of Chucky’s story: “The first of my struggles after the brain injury was confusion and fear. My normal world was connecting with others and helping out friends, for it was the day after Christmas of 2017. I was headed northbound on 105 to visit my friend in Enosburg. I made it to Swanton before an oncoming Subaru was hit in the rear and flew into my lane. Smash! My face hit the steering wheel and my knee hit the dash as my body remained fastened luckily.... I woke in the smoke. Frantically, I looked for my friends outside the vehicle. They were okay. The ambulance was already there. I hobbled on to the cold pavement and hopped to the ambulance in sight. That was just the beginning of the survival horror.
After being hospitalized and transported to Burlington, my primary concern was my friends’ condition and my shattered orbital plate in my face. Many faded faces tried to speak to me in the hospital, but I couldn’t quite comprehend all of their words or begin to read the paperwork I needed to fill out in order to get financial and recommended assistance. Very frustrating. My brain always wanted rest. I would typically sleep over eight hours, then wake for a few, only to go back to sleep for another 3 hours uncontrollably. I rested at home for a long while as paperwork from the hospital piled in.
It was nearly impossible to convey my situation over the phone, as my speech was greatly affected by the accident. Anxiety and depression weighed heavy on me. I was quite worrisome and somewhat delusional. All that stuck with me was that I was “lucky.” But I was scared that I’d never be the same. And I had a fear of fear. Many of my emotions blew up into tremendous stress. Many conversations and situations I couldn’t/can’t understand.
This brain injury rocked my world! It continues to shape my world into a confusing lifestyle at times. I’ve learned to write everything down such as plans, groceries or any tiny reminder that can simply be forgotten within a matter of seconds. My greatest motivator while having a brain injury is patience. Because I have come a long way to get a little bit better. Letting go of unhealthy stress and taking a necessary break from a noisy world has been the greatest help.
I am most thankful for family and friends who stuck by me and reminded me what love and life truly was.
Many things are still overwhelming almost two years after the accident. I focus on routines and relaxing in order to get through every day. Now I am strong. I survived horrors of confusion and I am conquering my fears one day at a time. I still tear up telling my story because it’s the greatest pain I have ever conquered and I am so thankful to feel and live.”
It’s by clinging to the coattails of his courage that I now writing this piece. It’s been hanging over my head like the cloud that hangs over Eeyore. I too am scared, confused and heavily afraid of hurting others. I’m also one who used to live to have fun with others and help in any way I could.
Now I stay close to home as possible and live in fear of exposing my brain short-circuitry to others. Familiar faces, names, and memories can all be so overwhelming. My brain knows very well that it should remember all of them but it just can’t fill in the blanks. I fear that people will think that I am rude, standoffish, or a jerk because I don’t remember even the most basic things that a normal brain would. And just like with Chucky and so many others with cognitive challenges, the struggle isn’t obvious (like a leg in a cast for example).
If we add into the mix, a personality that is well adept at concealing pain of any kind… well that makes the puzzle even more confusing, misunderstood and lonely.
I live in conflict with balancing “the old me” with “the now me.” My heart wants to be out there helping others and playing as it’s always done. But my brain is now cloudy, confused, anxious, scared and very easily overwhelmed. My coping mechanisms are so defunct that the smallest challenges that should be molehills are steep, rocky mountains.
My purpose for writing on this topic it to share a reminder with others…. Please be patient. This world has become so fast paced and challenging with of the ever-changing technology. Add on to that the political, social and environmental conflicts and a perfect storm is created and can swallow an injured brain into the fog.
Please try to keep in mind that a large number of people who you encounter on a daily schedule may have these challenges.
The brain is an amazing thing, but also so fragile.
A traumatic brain injury, drugs, birth defects, dementia, illness, PTSD, and so many other conditions affect a person’s cognitive abilities.
Please, be patient, don’t judge if someone if having difficulty with even the simplest tasks. We are all only human and in human bodies. And were we can’t be expected to know or even understand what someone else is dealing with… we can at least be open minded, kind and again… Patient.
Julie Gagnon Prior
Julie Gagnon Prior resides in Grand Isle with her partner Carl and their 5 dogs. Prior has been battling Lyme Disease for several years, which she
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