Monday, May 28 - catching up

Just a moment to catch up...

The semester ended with a final exam in my large lecture class on Wednesday. And I attended UDel graduation (with Bax and Lonia who was in town for the long holiday weekend!) on Saturday. It was my first time attending graduation as a faculty member and it was really wonderful. I love my job. Bax was a hit, too. My seniors from my Media Effects class came over for dinner last friday, so several of them already knew the baxman -- so for him there were actually a lot of familiar faces. At the right is one of my students (who made me laugh during every class) Virgina. And don't let us fool you - the lil' guy in the pouffy hat is Baxter.

Here are a couple of sweet photos from my mother's day extravaganza with Susan and Baxter at Smith Memorial Playground and Playhouse near Fairmount Park. It is a fantastic place for kids - with this giant wooden slide that kids and adults both love! (see photos!)

Finally, I wanted to post a piece of writing that one of my students completed for her Magazine and Feature Writing Class. For her final paper, she asked if she could write a profile piece about me. The final piece is so well done I wanted to share it. And her professor was very pleased. She is quite a gifted writer for a junior in college. And, of course, I was flattered that she asked to write about me, but also fascinated to see myself from the perspective of one of my students. Now, for the record, I do not disclose my personal story to my large intro class (of 170 students). However, if they happen to visit my webpage or google me, it's not hard to find. That's how Ashley learned about Mike and came upon my blog.

By Ashley Williams, University of Delaware Junior
Political Science/Journalism major.
Final paper in Magazine and Feature writing

Students entering Dannagal Young’s Mass Communication and Culture class often find themselves listening to the latest Jack Johnson single or the not-yet-released Wilco album. In the large Purnell Hall lecture room, Young can usually be found bouncing between her laptop computer, the lights and sound console, and the projection room in an attempt to get the overhead projector to play a video clip she hopes to show in class.

As the 150-member class settles into their seats, the six-foot tall Young takes center stage with a big smile and a resounding “Hello!” Usually dressed in jeans and a feminine blouse, with her chin-length blonde hair Bobby-pinned near her hair’s part, Young doesn’t look much older than her students. During class, she encourages discussion, often calling on students by name, and she’s a devotee to utilizing various forms of media. Lectures range from PowerPoint slides to excerpts from “Frontline” episodes to clips from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. By using popular media, students find themselves laughing at the application of communication theories to celebrities such as Britney Spears and Anna Nicole Smith.

This is only her second semester as a member of the university’s faculty, but she has already co-hosted an event with political science Professor Michael Wagner and assisted with undergraduate research. Most notably, her passion for politics and the mass media is bringing a refreshingly new perspective to both the political science and communication departments.

“For a relatively young and new professor, if you talk to her one on one, she is perhaps one of the most intelligent people I know,” Matt Engler, a teaching assistant for Young’s Mass Communication and Culture class says. “Her ability to connect with students makes her a great professor.”

Sitting in her office though, one can see a different side of her personality. Situated on the second floor, in a back hallway of Pearson Hall, her office can be tricky to find. Like many other professors her door is decorated, revealing little nuances about her interests and personality. Homemade signs declaring “Dr. Young is in the House!” and political cartoons hang on the large green door, while fliers for improvisational comedy groups “Bad Hair” and “Comedysportz” fill in the window.

Inside, the office is spacious and clean. One wall is lined with tall bookcases filled with books about politics, communication theories and the media. A rosy-cheeked two-year-old boy smiles in nearly a dozen pictures displayed around the room and diplomas from the University of New Hampshire and the University of Pennsylvania hang above the desk.

In contrast to her classroom persona, Young now appears older than her 30 years might suggest, as if she has a past that many people know about, but don’t discuss.

Which is not too far from the truth.

A cell phone rings and spinning in her chair, Young grabs for it. “Oh no,” she says, catching a quick glimpse at the caller ID screen. “It’s daycare. Something must be wrong with Baxter.”

She answers with a friendly hello, and then emits a deflated sigh as she sinks into her chair. Her two-year-old son Baxter is running a temperature of 101.8 and needs to be picked up.

Hanging up the phone, she instantly enters into crisis mode. Eyeing the clock, she reopens the cell phone and begins flipping through her phone book. “Who can I call?” she mumbles, more to herself than anyone else in the room.

The first phone call is to her friend and neighbor.

“She is absolutely fabulous,” Young says. “She loves Baxter as if he is her own son.”

When she gets no response, she tries a few more numbers, but again comes up short with every call she makes. Frustration is mounting as she begins to mutter curse words under her breath and pinch the bridge of her nose in anguish.

“Think, think, think,” she murmurs. “Who else can I call?”

Eighteen months ago, she would have called her husband, Michael, to pick up Baxter and she would meet them at home once she finished teaching her morning class. This would have been an easy solution, because eighteen months ago, her husband would still have been alive.

Named after a county in Ireland, Dannagal Goldthwaite was born and raised in Hudson, New Hampshire, an average-sized town on the border of New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Summers were spent with her family in a tiny town (population: 468) in the Great Lakes region. “It was such a great way to grow up,” Young says. “Everyone knew who you were, you could ride your bike absolutely everywhere and it was just so safe. The whole place was practically idyllic, very Norman Rockwell.”

A self-proclaimed dork, Young loved high school, where she got her first taste of the media and politics by writing for the school newspaper and participating in mock government. “I always wanted to go into politics,” Young says. “Growing up in New Hampshire, I was really exposed to the presidential campaign.”

Candidates begin visiting New Hampshire a year and a half before the general election, often showing up in local diners and marching in area parades. Before even graduating college, Young met former President George H.W. Bush, former President Bill Clinton, former Senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole and President George W. Bush.

These memories had a lasting impact on Young. After high school she enrolled at the University of New Hampshire where she received her bachelor’s degree in political science and French. While in college she joined “TheatreSports,” an improvisational comedy group at the university. “That was part of my identity,” she says. “Many were theatre majors and I was the only one who really wasn’t, which was really cool.”

After college, Young worked at a public relations firm in Washington D.C., which in her opinion, so distorted the truth that she left after six months. In 1999, she decided to head back to school to get her master’s degree and eventually her doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in Communication. One night, while out at the bars in Philadelphia, Young was introduced to a group of friends who were members of “Comedysportz,” a Philadelphia-based competitive improvisational comedy group, which Young describes as “Whose Line is it Anyway?” meets a sporting match.

She was encouraged to audition for a spot, and a few weeks later she was the newest member of the group.

Through “Comedysportz,” Young met her husband, Michael Young, who created the group in 1993 and served as the artistic director for 11 years, until their son Baxter was born in December 2004. “He was a comedic genius,” she says. “Everyone says so. For him, it was effortless. He was blessed with a stage presence, confidence, and utterly perfect timing.”

Unfortunately though, Michael Young was not blessed with a clear bill of health. In the summer of 2005, he began feeling fatigued and in October he was diagnosed with a craniopharyngioma, a rare benign brain tumor. A month later, Young underwent a successful brain surgery to remove the tumor, but in March 2006, the tumor had regrown and he was hospitalized.

Craniopharyngioma is a historically benign, extra-axial, slow-growing tumor that predominately affects the brain. “Despite its benign nature craniopharyngiomas occasionally behave like malignant tumors, they can metastasize, and patients can have severe symptoms that usually require surgery and/or radiation therapy,” says Jeffrey R Wasserman, a staff physician for the Department of Diagnostic Radiology at the Medical College of Pennsylvania-Hahnemann University Hospital.

The most common presenting symptoms are headache, nausea, vomiting and visual disturbances, says Wasserman. “Craniopharyngioma represents approximately three to five percent of intracranial tumors in the United States,” he says. “Those affected have permanent endocrinologic deficits after treatment, though visual disturbances that occur are usually reversible.”

In Michael’s case, the tumor caused him to make up stories that never really happened, completely lose his short term memory, and develop diabetes insipidus, which makes the body flush out too much water, thus resulting in dehydration.

Throughout all the ups and downs of the tumor, Young kept an extensive blog of the most up-to-date information regarding her husband’s illness. Initially the purpose of the blog was for logistical reasons: so family and friends could remain informed of Michael’s health and to ask for help when needed. “It allowed me to get all that information out and to purge my insane experiences of the day into the keyboard,” she says. “I was able to empty my head and be able to enjoy some quiet time at home with Bax until it all would start again the next day.”

Young’s entries relay the devastation of watching someone you love lose their autonomy, and vividly detail the grief and heartbreak one experiences while watching someone die.

“There's something devastating about watching this brilliant and talented man sit in front of the television and turn it on and off and on and off and on and off and then watch the blank screen,” Young writes. “‘Mike, the TV's off.’ To which he replies matter-of-factly, ‘No it's not.’”

Some entries are peppered with humor, little anecdotes about a joke Michael made while eating dinner or visiting with friends. Others are wrought with anger, a “why me?” mentality, that despite her stoic nature or her optimistic personality, even Young couldn’t avoid feeling.

“When Mike was first diagnosed with the tumor, I was beside myself with anger and pain,” Young writes. “One night I lost it, ‘It's not fair! It's just not fair!’ I wailed like an angst-ridden child. ‘We just got married. We have a baby. We're just starting our lives! It's not fair!’ To which Mike calmly replied, ‘And who would it be fair to, smoosher? Would it be fair if it happened to someone who didn't have kids? Would it be fair to some old person? It's just luck. Dumb luck. That's all.’”

On July 18, 2006, the blog entry that no one wanted to read was posted.

“Mike died today at 11:20 am,” a family friend wrote. “Danna would like all their incredible friends and loved ones to know that everyone is invited to join together at the house all afternoon and evening. Children are welcome. She plans to turn on the sprinkler to run around in, and we'll all roast outside and remember our dear friend Mike.”

Michael had undergone 13 surgeries in nine months.

In an attempt to deal with the loss, Young continues to write in the blog as a way for her friends to unobtrusively know what is going in her life. “I have, unintentionally, distanced myself from many of Mike’s and my closest friends,” she says. “It's just so hard to be with them and be thrown back to a time that was so, so happy when now it is so, so gone. The blog allows those friends to get where I'm at and helps inform their decisions to get in touch with me.”
No longer is the blog filled with medical jargon and doctor’s notes, but rather, stories about her son and the continuing battle with grief that she deals with on a day-to-day basis. But Michael is still mentioned in the blog everyday. A recent entry details a story about Baxter playing in the snow.

“I showed him how to make a snowball. We threw them out into the yard and at the trees…I gave him a big one that he held onto with his clumsy mittened-hands. ‘I want to throw it up to the sky,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘I throw it to Daddy.” He looked at me with his big huge blue eyes through the sea of giant snowflakes falling between us. ‘Daddy catch it?’”

Being only 30 years old, Young has faced difficult situations that most people don’t experience at all in their lifetime. Despite feeling significantly older than she actually is, she remains optimistic and upbeat about the rest of her life.

“I feel a sense of wisdom and clarity that I would never want to give back,” Young says. “In a weird way, I am happier now than ever in my life because of the peacefulness that comes with facing and owning death. I appreciate every moment of every day. I have always thought that something big was going to happen in my life, I just always thought the big thing was going to be politics or a theory or a book or music or some performing thing. But now I think that this is it, that being Mike's advocate and learning how to be strong and peaceful and in the moment is that ‘something big’ that I always anticipated.”


Dannagal Young, Communication Professor

Jeffrey R Wasserman: physician at the Medical College of Pennsylvania-Hahnemann University Hospital

http://185craniopharyngiomas.blogspot.com/ Danna’s blog

Matt Engler, TA for Young’s Mass Communication and Culture class


An Approach...

[Photo of Mike Young from Kindergarten. If you cover up the mouth and hair, it IS Baxter Young.]

It's late. I should be sleeping.

I've been sensing a bit of a shift in my approach of late. I say approach becau
se it's not really a philosophy or a paradigm or anything as severe as that --- it's more of ... an approach.

I had really started spinning in circles there for a bit.
After the Feb-March match.com fellow and I parted ways I was back in the pit, forced to start straight at everything that I hated so much. I had started getting frantic in my need for stimulation - of all kinds. My cigarette habit was getting more frequent, I think there were a few weeks there where I drank daily - and I was feeling an insatiable appetite for companionship. Then, as bodies are wont to do... mine broke down. That fevery strep bug got me and forced me back into bed - and back into my head. That was three weeks ago.

I've stopped dating.
I've only had three cigarettes in the past three weeks. I've been sleeping 8-9 hours/night instead of the 6 hours that I was operating on there for months. I'm going out less and gardening more. But the most important difference is in how I'm choosing to reconnect with my sadness. I say choosing and not "being forced to" because it is very much a choice.

On Monday, my friend Scott gave me two CDs to listen to. He and Steve (both colleagues of mine) have been talking about this Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron. How she has helped them so much - to sit and face their fears, to embrace the present moment, to acknowledge the uncertainty of life, and to stop resisting feeling emotions that are painful. There were a couple of days last week when I would arrive on campus frazzled and glassy-eyed. For whatever reason, my drive those days had brought me "into it" and I fought every second to get out. I fought the tears and the pain so hard that my head was throbbing. Scott simply said, "Just be in it. It's just going to make it worse to fight it." And then a few days later, he left these Pema Chodron CDs for me to listen to on my drive.

I can't explain it all here.. it would sound trite and hokey. But the crux of it is about facing the demons that torment you. Abandoning any notion of an attainable state of peace or security is what sets us free. Embracing loneliness and pain takes away their mystiqu
e. As she says, "Loneliness is not a problem." This is what I've been meditating on for a few days now. Because it is my loneliness that plagues me most.

Chodron writes about an ancient Buddhist parable about a group of men who were attacked by dogs. Two of the men froze and trembled in fear. The third man ran as fast as he could ---
straight at the dogs. Bewildered, they stopped in their tracks.

That is what I feel like I'm doing. Running at the dogs. Instead of that buzzing sensation that forces me to want to smoke, or watch some shitty TV, or go online to find a new husband, I'm trying to just sit in the suckage. Own it and call it what it is: hell. Really, right? It is.

I miss Mike so much in some moments that my fingers tingle. My lips throb with the beating of my own heart, in a rhythm so fast and strong that I sometimes fear I will pass out. Waves of nausea come over me, like if I can't just reach out and touch him one mo
re time, I will die. I will worse than die -- I'll live here in this abyss... and always always just be hurting.

It sometimes feels like it is killing me.
But then... after some time, for whatever unknown reason, that wave passes, and I just get up. I emerge stronger, confident... not bitter as you would imagine, but instead filled with love. For what? Not for God, no. Not for Mike, though I do love him and will always. But the love is for ... well... for me, I guess.

Sometimes after a spell like this I visualize different yoga poses. When I'm sobbing I feel child's pose, but when I'm gathering myself back up, I feel Warrior one. With all of me standing straight and looking up at the sunshine between my outstretched hands.

And as lonely as I am, there are times now when I'm going about my day to day and I feel a sense of companionship.
Not in a conscious way, but just as a sort of presence. I've wondered if it's Mike... or the thought of my dear friends... but I think sometimes it might just be me - embracing myself - feeling compassion because of all the shit I've been through, because of all the horror that I've seen, for all the work I'm trying to do to raise my son and do what's right. I look at that person who's done all that and who's still just moving forward - one foot in front of the other, and sometimes I'm in awe. How is she doing this? How the fuck does the cat get fet, the bills get paid, and the oil in the car get changed? I have no idea. She's just doing it. Cause what else is there to do?

I leave you with a scrapbook entry that I came across from one
Michael Young (see photo at right). He had a little scrapbook where he put each year's class photo and could write details about his clubs, hobbies, friends, etc. The book also included a little section where you could check off "What I want to be when I grow up," appropriately dichotomized for boys and girls (it was 1972 after all). Girls had the choice of: Mother, Nurse, School Teacher, Airline Stuardess, Model (no, i'm not kidding). And Boys had the choice of Fireman, Soldier, Policeman, Astronaut.

Then there was a box you could check next to a blank line where you could write in your own profession. In the section for "Sixth Grade," Mike had this "other" box checked, and on the blank line he had written, "
Alive." Nice, Mike. Always the fucking comedian. Nice. I love you, smoosher.


Happy Mother's Day

No, that's not ironic... It is quite a Happy Mother's Day weekend here in the Young household.

Yesterday included:
  • A trip to Target
  • A wonderful time at the Collingswood farmer's market buying fresh veggies and watching Baxter and his girlfriend Hazel shake their booties to the live music
  • A yummy picnic lunch in the backyard with Michelle, Jamie, and Baxter
  • Receiving cheery Mom's day cards from Michaela, Michelle, and Heather (Heather - you are my hero, btw, with a subscription to US Weekly!! I'm never leaving the house again).
  • A 2 hour nap fo' Mama AND Bax
  • Some arts and crafts in the backyard with baxter and neighborhood kids
  • Yummola dinner at Buca di Beppo with Michelle, Scott, Jamie, and Baxter
And the whole time, Bax was pretty darned charming.

Today, Baxter and I are going on a surprise trip, escorted by CSM... to... somewhere!

Also, in Today's Philly Inquirer, I'm quoted in an article about The Daily Show's influence on young people.

Yes, the article's author spelled my first name incorrectly. Yes, that's super effing annoying, but... whatevs. That's life.

Funny tidbit

I just remembered that last year on Mother's Day, when Mike was in the hospital, I was trying to get him to remember it was Mother's day.... I said,

"Do you know what today is?"

"Ummm... nope." he said with a smile.

"I'll give you a hint," I said, "It's a day to celebrate people like me."

"It's brown-noser's day?" He smiled.

He was always always funny. Always so freaking funny.

The funny thing is, Baxter is just the same. This morning, I got him out of his crib with his taggie and his duck blanket. "Bax" I said, "Do you remember what day it is?"

"Ummmm..." he said and looked around and his eyes landed on his duck blanket, "Is it DUCK day?" he said with a sheepish grin across his face.

"NO!" I said, feigning frustration, "It's not DUCK day!"

He laughed.

"Baxter, remember, all week long at school they talked about how this weekend you were going to tell your mama, 'Happy....... What?"

"Happy DUCK DAY!"

I attacked him with tickles and finally he acknowledged that it was mother's day.

Freaking comedians.


I'll look around

Lately I've been asking Mike to tell me what it is that i'm supposed to do - how I'm supposed to live my life, who he wants raising his son with me, what it is that he wants me to do to find happiness. Somehow I feel like since he brought me so much happiness when he was here ... that he has to know how to guide me from here on out.

So, tonight, I put Bax down to sleep - it's been a doozy of a day by the way, had to jet back from Newark, DE around noontime cause Bax had a 102 fever (yes, I think he's coming down with whatever I had last week).... and I'm looking through Mike's iTunes on the eMac - looking at the date that many of these songs were last played, remembering how, in early 2005, when bax was a newborn, we were up in the night and Mike would play songs from his iTunes to make the night hours a little more pleasant.

So, I've been asking and asking him to tell me what the f*ck it is that I need to do... and I come across this song. Most songs have a playcount around 4-7. This song was played like 15 times and I couldn't place the artist or title. Madeleine Peyroux, "I'll look around." Apparently it's an old Billie Holiday Song, and Mike had put it on this special mix he liked to play for when we had dinner parties - this beautiful mix of great jazz songs. So, the song is so beautiful... it's smoky and slow and sad... and all it says is:

I know somewhere
Love must fill the air
With sweetness just as rare
As the flower
That you gave me to wear

I look around
And when I've found someone
Who laughs like you
I'll know this love
I'm dreaming of
Won't be the old love
I always knew

I don't even know what I think this means... but... just that I think he wants me to know that i'm not going to find someone just like him... I'm not going to have my old love back. But, that I'll find someone. Someone who, if anything, shares Mike Young's capacity for joy. that's it. That's what I need.

I hate that he's gone. I don't know when the fuck I'm ever going to stop saying that.

On Tuesday, talking to dear therapist David, I got more upset than I have in months. I think it had built up for a while ...and I had been sick for a week or so, and I heard myself saying things I didn't even know that I thought. Angry thoughts about how last spring I spent every fucking day at the hospital day after day after day, got dressed, put a smile on my face, prepared Mike fresh fruit, brought him a lil' something - music, a story, a stuffed animal - and trekked off to Jefferson EVERY fucking day. For what?

For nothing. He still died.

All the beautiful moments and laughs, and smooshy hugs through our beautiful romance -- our son, our home, the love we share... and my last 6 months with him were spent where? In the fucking hospital with him in a diaper, with a catheter, with fucked up hair, blind, not able to walk, sometimes tied to his fucking bed or chair so he wouldn't walk away or inadvertendly hurt himself.

And... in spite of everything... i lost him anyway. After all that, he still died.

I know most of you have assumed that I have encountered these feelings before... but I think I haven't let myself be mad... It just didn't seem productive. But now... for some reason now I hate it so much.

Don't get me wrong. I'm really ok. - I'm going about my normal routine, I'm teaching, I'm mothering my son, I'm laughing at random bullshit, enjoying the company of Michelle, Susan, and my colleagues... but underneath all that I'm bitter in a way I didn't know I could be bitter.

...and next Sunday is Mother's Day. Awesome.