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The Soldier and the Squirrel introduces children to the Purple Heart

through a loving story of a friendship between a newly wounded soldier

and Rocky the squirrel with his backyard friends. This story began as a

blog during my first year in bed after my incident. With much

encouragement, it is now a book and has been placed in the

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum. Please watch the video

on the About page to learn for the Soldier & Rocky are changing children's

lives.

 

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Wednesday
Apr092014

The Breath

Reggie had his staples removed today. A slight indentation has left puckered skin draped in an awkward ridge from his back down his side. Before we left, I felt the urge to ask, for the third time, and the third vet in that office, what his surgery results really mean? I understood he had two tumors removed. They told me the name of the soft tissue sarcoma and I've tried to stay off the internet, but it's really hard when that name has more syllables than a Mary Poppins song.

The vet looked at the surgery results and took a breath. I hate it when doctors breathe.

"They did not get all the cancer."

What? The first doctor said they did. Then I found out he didn't actually do the surgery. So then I saw the actual vet who did his surgery, and asked him to 'explain it to me like Dezi to Lucy. Talk to me like I'm five. I want it simple and clear. But without the accent.' He said, "There are good cancers and bad cancers. This is a bad cancer."

It was then I wished he'd told me in Spanish.

He explained that although it is a slow moving cancer, it is aggressive. He explained we are lucky because it is low grade. But I definitely should take him into an oncologist as soon as possible.

My head spun. When this vet took her breath, she made me lose mine.

It looks like they did not get all of the cancer. The margins were not clean. This means he will most likely need not only another surgery, but radiation as well. This also means there were cells left behind. The one thing she said for sure, was if we do nothing, the tumors absolutely will return.

With my own surgery pending for Monday, I find myself in a quandary. Tomorrow will tell much more when he is actually
assessed by the oncologist. So tonight I will curl up with Reggie wrapped in my arms, stroking his back over the ridges in his scarring flank. I will know that no matter what tomorrow's next breath will bring, I will be there for him - as he has always been - for me.

Tuesday
Apr082014

The Invisible - A Reflection on Faith

A friend asked me today how I go on when life seems so difficult sometimes.

It has been because of my faith that I didn't lose my mind. It is because of faith that there is meaning in all that goes so wrong, even if we don't understand it at that moment in time. It is my belief there is an afterlife, that our loved ones truly never leave us but are instead waiting behind a wall of air for us to join them again.
In very little time, I have lost the ability to walk, and learned how to mobilize again. Although I am still using a chair, I am able to connect with others on a level I could never before understand. In this short time, I lost my best friend of twenty years to cancer. A limb was torn from my body and blood spilled from the core of my heart. Yet since then I have never felt closer to God in my life. But why? How can I feel so close to what I cannot see? Because He is so close, His breath is buried deep within my heart, waiting for me to join my friend when my time has come.
Within two months, as I wait for my next (and hopefully final) surgery, my other limb, my dog Reggie, who has hardly ever left my side barring the operating room, was diagnosed with cancer. His surgery was swift and he begins oncology appointments this week.
Of course my husband is my rock, my children are my shade, and my parents feed me with evidence that love is pure. So when I have a day when the skies grow dark and my feet are clogged in mud, when I wonder if I can at all go on, it is the invisible that holds me strong. It is a knowing that life goes on, until I shed my earthly skin. So while I'm here, I try to exchange the darkness for the invisible light that faith lets in.
Is it denial to get me through? I don't think so, because denial just gets one lost in a storm of unanswered thoughts. Why would I sail at sea in a storm without a sale, or stand in an awe beneath the stars that offer a hint of where I am?
So I choose faith to get me there, to a place of peace where I can breathe when the burdens of life seem too heavy to bare, it's the invisible that offers me wings.

Tuesday
Apr012014

The Pump

I pull up to the pump with my scooter on its lift and my handicap placard on the rear view mirror. My heart started to beat a little faster. I was about to call for the gas attendant to fill my tank - as a handicapped person - for the very first time. I pull up, honk my horn and wait.

Handicapped patrons of gas stations are allowed to pull up to a pump and honk to let the attendant know service is needed. The little blue man sat patiently on the checkout window next to the hours of disability operation and service. At this particular station, their hours of disability service are 8am to 2pm on weekdays.

I honked, holding the placard in front of my face as I faced the window. I waited. But no one came. I could see hands talking from behind the register without a face. Do I honk again? I looked around to see if anyone was giving me the evil eye - wondering if my affliction was not a mobility problem so much as honkaholism.

Then I wondered how often this gas station actually has people come along who utilize the handicap service? Maybe I'll just honk again. Honk. Ok. Now I'm probably really annoying somebody. I am slowly becoming an abscess on the face of the rush hour pit stop. A young girl walked out of the cashier. I quickly rolled down my window and asked if she could let someoneknow a gimp was at pump four. She did.

Like a lemur peering around a tree, an older gentleman in a dark blue jumper assessed my abscess. Upon determining my gimpness was supported by sufficient evidence, he swung his frame along the asphalt approaching my window with reserve.

In one fleeting moment when much was being deciphered by both parties: Does he think I was being rude or lazy by summoning his presence? Will he be nice?

It's funny how such a small gesture can be so loud.

As he pumped my gas, images flashed of a time when everyone had their gas pumped in the service lane. It was a more innocent day when my brother and I would sit unbuckled in the back seat, the sweet smell of salt water stuck to our skin. Dad would sign the receipt against the steering wheel and replace the pen on top of the clipboard to hand it back.

It's not very often we experience service nowadays. But then again, how often does the server receive gratitude?

As I handed the clipboard back to him, I couldn't help but smile. Because I was grateful. His eyes stuttered as they began to look away but came back to mine for more. More gratitude, I suppose. He smiled back. The weathered skin around his eyes creased into a softened gleam. In one moment, in one simple choice, a human connection was made and I was reminded how very human we all truly are. How all of us run (or roll) around all day searching for meaning in our lives - when a taste of it it is closer than we ever imagined - somewhere between service and gratitude with the passing of a pen.

Tuesday
Mar252014

Signature Here

His voice muffled beneath his mask as he sat in the lobby's couch. Grey strands of a life long-lived peeked out from beneath his Dodgers cap. A youthful lid for a frame too frail to swing a bat. He was talking on his phone to someone asking for his personal information.

Medical buildings look and sound the same after a while. Only the people change. And even then, we all start to look and sound alike. Limbs bent into chairs that travel down the hall. Heads slumped between shoulders filling out paperwork pens on a leash that say 'signature here'. Elevators filled with uncomfortable stares. Bathrooms with keys attached to artificial bones. Waiting rooms without patience and coats so white they burn the skin.

But with every history that passes through these walls, is a story never told. A person the doctor will never know. This is what I thought as I passed the man in the lobby talking on his phone.

It was his date of birth that caught my ear. 1938. My parents were born around that time, but somehow it sounded different from a man I did not know. Images of pending war crept across my mind. I wondered what his parents thought when he was born - what kind of world were they bringing this child to? At two years of age, World War II brought change. Did his father go off to war? Did he return?

Have you ever stopped to think about how much that can matter between a building entrance and an elevator door? I had not, until yesterday, when this man made me want to know more.

We pass by so many lives each day. Worlds built and shattered, hearts filled and broken. Bridges crossed and bridges burned behind eyes that have seen too much.

Yet in that fleeting moment was just a girl in a chair passing by a man on his phone with a form he must sign with an X next to 'signature here'.

Wednesday
Mar122014

The Ten Percent

The metronomic pelting of water against my skull summons a random thought. That that is what I must blog. A blogger should post every day. My mouth goes like a duck's arse, so it is usually not too difficult to find things to say. But the issue is, is what I write about worth saying at all? The truth is, I have absolutely no idea what I'm going to blog about each day until it hits me, in the shower, and I have the razor cuts to prove it. But the thoughts this past month have been so daunting, it has almost been too difficult to write. My best friend lost her battle with cancer. Then, yesterday, my other best friend, my dog Reggie, who has pulled me through two solid years of collecting the shards of my own shattered life, was diagnosed with Myxofibrosarcoma. Evidently I missed the memo that this was Cancer Awareness Month.

The vet said he feels we caught it in time. The surgery to remove the beaded tumors I had played with beneath the padding of his fur are gone. For two months, I felt them growing larger. They started out as one tiny cyst-like ball I ran into with my palm as I stroked his back. It quickly began to grow larger. Within a couple of months there were two side by side and we knew then this should be looked at. My vet said 90% of these things are benign and perfectly harmless, but we could remove them and biopsy. So we did. Only a 10% chance of something is usually a comforting thought. But not this time. This time cancer was too close to my skin.

I have never held a phone to my ear and had a doctor say a long and complicated word with sarcoma at the end. It didn't matter what the first part of the word was, or if I could spell it correctly. It was the sarcoma at the end.

The odds are pretty good that Reggie will pull through just fine. They say there's only a 10% chance it will come back. But we have already been the 10%, so somehow the odds are not as comforting now, but they will do.

Life is what it is. There is so much love to live and fur to stroke, balls to chase and wet sloppy kisses to feel across the cheek.These are my focus now. As I watch his stitches dry into an air of uncertainty, his eyes search mine for comfort, and I search his for hope. We are bonded by something that nothing could ever take away. And that is enough comfort for now.

Tuesday
Mar112014

Life 101 - Indie/Folk

My CD is finally bringing in some income. I can't believe it. Each of these songs I recorded as a single mom in a small studio. I couldn't afford musicians or a lot of studio time, so I had to play and sing at the same time to cut down on the hours loll 15 years later it is coming to life. Whodathunkit. Songs are on iTunes as well 💝 www.cdbaby.com/artist/micaelabensko

Saturday
Mar082014

How I Got Here - My Journey To Disability

Today someone asked me what the heck started all of this!? This is my answer to her, and thought it might help clear it up for others as well :0)

I suffered a concussion in fall of 2011 when the corner of the electric tailgate hatch on my car came down into my skull as I stood up. The curvature in my cervical spine inverted.

It has been over two years of surgeries, testing, MRI's, CT Scans, X-Rays, surgeries, procedures and blinding pain. Along with the mechanical injuries to my spine, after about a year symptoms began to develop that leaned toward a Motor Neuron Disease such as ALS or MS but with unrelenting pain unlike anything I had ever experienced in my life. After extensive neurological testing, and a multitude of doctors, I was diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome in my spine after one of my procedures. CRPS is a disease of the central nervous system. Although it is considered incurable, it can go into remission. My case is extremely rare and has 'presented' in a way only noted a handful of times by CRPS experts throughout the world. It resulted in a ten month paralysis of my legs and 70% right arm. Pain levels of CRPS are clinically greater than childbirth or phantom limb. A year ago I did not think I could live much longer.

I am now at the verge of what we feel may be my last surgery. I am 80% wheelchair bound but am SO incredibly blessed with the most supportive husband, four children, and loving parents and brother and friends who saved my life through fundraising efforts that allowed us to cover the costs of a six week specialized CRPS program at UCLA.

In regard to surgeries, I have so far had a fusion of C5-6, an artificial disc replacement (ADR) of C 4-5, laminotomies L4-5, bone spur removal (domino effect of head trauma to lower lumbar), microdiscectomy L4-5 then finally an ADR of that level. Last summer they implanted a spinal cord stimulator in my lumbar spine.

In between have been numerous nerve blocks, epidurals, rhizotomies, etc.

What saved my life (literally) was a six week program at UCLA that combined ketamine infusions and a Multi-disciplinary approach to treatment of CRPS under the care of Dr. Joshua Prager.

My final surgery is a rather large one with a revision of my lumbar spinal cord stimulator as the leads have slipped. They will replace the lumbar leads with new paddle leads which will be secured by drilling them into the bone (fun!;) they will then add two more longer leads that will run up into my cervical spine and secure as well via laminotomies.

So there you go! Sorry for such a long answer, I don't know how to make it shorter loll

I don't know what the future holds in regard to regaining more mobility. Much damage has been done. Walking for longer than 3-5 minutes results in complete debilitation. We hope that once I heal from this next surgery I can continue physical therapy. However, I can proudly say that I have, through the support of loved ones and my doctors, developed a quality of life I thought impossible.

Bottom line is, I'm always good for a chat on how wonderful life can be once you learn to accept a new-normal as a gift to be opened instead of a sentence to be served. 💝

CBS segment on my CRPS condition and treatment with Dr. Prager. http://losangeles.cbslocal.com/video?autoStart=true&topVideoCatNo=default&clipId=9805202

Saturday
Mar082014

Hummingbird Facts

As most of you may know, our children have adopted a hummingbird nest. You may the first video in a series here: http://vimeo.com/85173126

Frequently Asked Questions About Hummingbirds

Q: When is hummingbird season?
A: This depends on where you are located. In North America, hummingbirds can start to arrive starting as early as February and end as late as October. In the southern portions of the United States, Mexico, Central America, and South America, hummingbirds live all year long. The best way to find out what your hummingbird season is, start writing down the first and last times you see a hummingbird every year in a journal. You will be able to see a pattern after a couple of years. (See also the Migration section of this website.)

Q: Where do hummingbirds go in the winter?
A: Hummingbirds that migrate will go anywhere from the southern United States to Mexico, Panama, and the Yucatan Peninsula for the winter.

Q: Where do hummingbirds live?
A: Hummingbirds live in the Americas as far north as Alaska and as far south as Chile.

Q: How fast do hummingbird's wings beat per second?
A: Hummingbird's wings can beat at about 70 times per second in normal fight and about 200 times per second during a high speed dive.

Q: How fast does a hummingbird fly?
A: A hummingbird flies at an average speed of 25-30 miles per hour and can do a fast dive at up to 60 miles per hour.

Q: Do cheetahs run faster than hummingbirds fly?
A: Yes. A cheetah will run at about 70 miles per hour and a hummingbird flies at about 25-30 miles per hour. However, you could probably consider a hummingbird to be the cheetah in the bird kingdom.

Q: Do hummingbirds damage flowers?
A: No. Flowers love hummingbirds. Flowers need hummingbirds to help with pollination. Plants will position their flowers outward so the hummingbirds can easily reach them.

Q: Do hummingbirds reuse their nest?
A: Hummingbirds can reuse their nest if the nest survives the winter months. Do not try to save a nest for a hummingbird since illegal in the United States and many other countries.

Q: How much nectar does a hummingbird consume in a day?
A: A hummingbird can consume anywhere between half (1/2) to eight (8) times their body weight in one day.

Q: Do hummingbirds eat termites?
A: Not really. Termites have a tough exoskeleton that hummingbirds don't like to have to deal with unless they have to. Hummingbirds prefer softer insects. (See the Bugs section of this website.)

Q: What is a hummingbird's lifecycle?
A: A hummingbird is born from an egg that is the size of a very small pea. They will spend about three weeks in the nest. (See also the Baby section of this website.) When they are old enough, they will fly away and not return to the nest. If they can survive the first year of life, they will live for approximately 5 years.

Q: What do hummingbirds eat?
A: Hummingbirds drink nectar from hummingbird feeders and flowers. They eat small soft insects and bugs.

Q: When do hummingbirds nest?
A: In North America, hummingbirds will nest in the spring and early summer. In South and Central America, hummingbird will nest in both the summer and the winter (North American time). (See the Baby section of this website.)

Q: I found a banded hummingbird, what should I do?
A: f you recover a banded Hummingbird, please report the band number to the Bird Banding Lab at

1-800-327-BAND.
Q: When should I take down my hummingbird feeders so that the hummingbirds can migrate?
A: There is nothing that will stop a hummingbird from migrating. Keep the feeders up until you have not seen any for 2 full weeks. This will help straggling hummingbirds in their long journey. If at all possible, keep one feeder up all year long providing the temperatures do not drop below freezing at night. Frozen nectar can damage the hummingbird feeder.

Q: How often should I change the nectar?
A: The nectar should be changed every three days or more often as needed depending on your environment and weather.

Q: Why do hummingbird appear sometimes and not others?
A: There are many reasons why hummingbirds do things and go places, and unfortunately they don't always tell us why. It could be anything from area construction disturbing their peace to the neighbor on the next block over becoming the latest hangout. Just keep the feeder out and enjoy them while you can.

Q: How do I get rid of bees and ants at my feeder?

A: There are many suggestions and it's mostly trial and error on which one will work for you. Check out the Uninvited Guests section of the website and see what would work for your particular situation

These facts are from www.WorldOfHummingbirds.com

"There is nothing right or wrong which belief plus burning desire cannot make real."
-Napoleon Hill

Wednesday
Mar052014

My Music 

Many don't know, but I have written songs since I was fifteen. It was my escape from reality. This mini-album holds seven songs about life's challenges and joys. A country-folk sound, I have been told my voice is a cross between Stevie Nicks and Joni Mitchel. To that I say thank you! With medical bills and surgeries I am turning to my musical roots to raise funds for my treatments.
The CD of seven songs "Micaela - Life 101" is available for direct purchase on eBay (my latest obsession).
Song downloads including The Hero are at www.cdbaby.com/artist/micaelabensko
(Proceeds from The Hero will go to Rebuilding America's Warriors.)

Sunday
Mar022014

My Hair - From Long To Short

My hair. It's a moan every woman who has exhaled throughout her life. Rarely do you hear a woman expound upon the exquisiteness of her own locks.

My hair has teased me my entire life with its fine tattles of do. Others found it thick and envied its mass while those who knew me would rue it too. My hair lobbied a lounge of a thousand fine strands; when they gathered it was wrangling gnats. Fly-always taunted my lips, getting stuck in their gloss at the slightest passing of the wind.

My days of shooting weddings grew longer with every annoying piece of hair that launched into my eyes or across my lens. I tied it back into a strangled tail, but the wisps still proved too wild. So I slicked them back with spray. Still to no avail - they arched in a limping el across my face. So I pinned them down. Like a school girl going to gymnastics. The pins were the first thing real men saw. So I tried gel. Super Gel. Hair Cement. Surfer's Glue. The more I pasted the harder I looked. The lines of time upon my forehead read like War and Peace. Bangs. I needed bangs. To hide the lines and hardened face.

Bangs are the bane of a girls' existence. We are prodded into chopping them by false advertisements of celebrities on red carpets with a team of architects who work into the night to create their masterpiece of men. Bangs. They should be shot. They torture women and make us wonder why we are so weak that we cannot control the frailest of things. The hours spent attempting to master this quarrel leaves us exhausted and in a cap.

It was then that I cut my hair off into a cut so short a pixie would find it long. It was as close to a Brittany Spears meltdown as possible without the celebrity, baseball bat or news. Because I was calm when it transposed. I was so calm you could hear the stillness of my heart. Because I was done. I was done fighting the battle of the hair. I was done with hands tied by locks without a key. I cut it off.

I was alone that day on my way to a shoot at the beach with time to kill. Visions of whipping strands danced in my head - of hair getting caught in my lips on the sand. I was heading down San Vicente and saw my old salon coming up. Deja Vu - no, not déjà vu as in I thought I had been there before. The name of the salon was Déjà Vu. I actually had been there before. So I pulled over and stopped. Without a second thought I entered the salon and their opening was mine.

Nothing delights a European stylist more than when a woman asks for him to take it off. It reminds him of home. Of women with pixie cuts and long lean bodies who allow their beauty to shine from within. Or so I found out. The salon began to buzz with my bravery. "She is cutting it off!" As though I had commenced the bravest battle of my life. When, to me, it was the most natural thing to do, because I was done.

I was done being a slave to my hair every moment of my life. Not because of how it looked. I had lost that war long ago. It was about how it had prevented me from living my life. I found myself jealous of men and their ease throughout the day. From waking to sleep the very last thought for most was their hair. In boardrooms, the gym, the beach or the street, jogging and sweating or black tie or briefs - their hair was an afterthought of gods.

All of my life I felt that in order to be a goddess I had to have long flowing locks. But after a lifetime of roiling ringlets around my fingers for the perfect coil, I could roil the coil no more.

The assistant draped the black cape around my chest and buttoned it close to my neck. An offer of coffee or tea I normally refused was accepted with resignation that this was indeed a special day.

I did not look up. It didn't take long for my life to change.

Then he asked me if I would like to see the back.

He spun me around and placed a mirror in my hand. I raised it to reflect the image on the looking glass behind my chair. And for the first time in my life I saw the elegant nape of my neck. The one my husband had placed in his hand the night we said I do.

I accepted its grace as it ran from my shoulder to my ear. The skin untouched by light at a hairline I had never met.

The shape of my head was revealed. A thought rarely seized unless reviewing brochures on cancer at my annual review. When I wondered how I would look if I were bald. Or had very short hair. I used to think women recovering from chemotherapy were the most beautiful in the world. There is something about the shaving of hair to its shortest point, or the re-growth of hair at the verge of a life, that reminds me of how fragile and beautiful life can be - if we just don't worry about the little things. Like hair.

I removed the cape and stood to a thousand remnants of who I used to be. Women awed at my bravery and the shedding of a skin. One said I looked French. I felt different. I felt new. But most of all, in the birth of ecstatic glee, I had never felt more like me.

It has been years now since I cut it off and I have not once looked back. Except after a cut when I am spun around and see my self in the looking glass.

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