For lack of water, shelter and food …

… I would have died.

When search-and -rescue teams found me on October 6, 2013, I had been in the Chihuahuan Desert for five days and four nights.

I was just a few hours from death, according to the doctors who eventually treated me in El Paso.

Try to imagine being so thirsty, so very desperate for water, that you would try to suck the pee from your shorts.

Try to imagine being so thirsty, so very desperate for water, that you would take a knife and slice open your arm six times… just so that you could “drink” your own blood.

On October 6, 2013, I was airlifted out of the Chihuahuan Desert to a hospital in El Paso.

I was in the ER for six hours, because doctors couldn’t decide where to put me.

“I’m worried about your heart, lungs, kidneys and liver,” an ER doctor told me flatly.

At the time, I wasn’t worried. I had been FOUND. I had been RESCUED. Everything would be FINE.

By the time I was admitted to the hospital, I hadn’t eaten for four days.

According to one of my friends, who had been dispatched to cover the story of the missing reporter-hiker, I spent my first night at the hospital begging for food.

“The little doctor said I could have chocolate pudding!” I insisted to medical staff. (Bear in mind, by that point, I was hooked up to a morphine drip. The doctor in question was maybe 5 feet tall.)

I still remember my first meal after all of those days in the desert … a watery cereal, green Jello and a carton of sweet milk that was supposedly loaded with vitamins. Best stuff I’ve ever ingested.

For lunch, I got a plate of spaghetti. Heaven.

This is what I want you to know. Unless you have ever been truly desperate for water, food or shelter, you do NOT know what our fellow Americans AND immigrants suffer through.

When I was found, I was hypothermic. The temperature the night before had fallen to 37 degrees. It was two days before I stopped shivering.

I spent my time in the hospital requesting every type of drink imaginable: water, milk, apple juice, grape juice, orange juice. I wanted all of it.

Why am I reliving this? Because I want you to know that to almost die from lack of water, shelter and food is an excruciating way to go.

Because I want you to know that, even now, I am so glad that 2013 wasn’t the year that Rick and I decided to take our children hiking and camping with us.

I cannot imagine what it would have been like to watch our children suffer from dehydration, starvation and exposure to the elements.

I made Rick leave me for two reasons. One – I believed he still had a shot at making it out of the desert. Two – dying truly is a solitary process. I didn’t want him to watch me die.

I can’t imagine having to watch Rick or my children die due to a lack of water, shelter or food.

And yet.

Americans … or at the very least .. our new administration … are more than willing to let refugees (mothers and children) die rather than let them into our country.

No. Unacceptable.

God bless the ACLU. God bless those who know that this is NOT right.

And if you’re one of the few who is OK with this. … well, I question your humanity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We don’t have the luxury to despair

So tomorrow. Wow. Who ever thought it would really, actually happen?

I keep waiting for someone to leap out of the shadows, yelling, “You’re on Candid Camera!”

If only.

So what do we do now? We gather with like-minded people. We come up with a plan of action. We follow it. We support one another. We support democracy. We ACT. We do not throw up our hands and give in to despair.

This is a critical time for our country. For democracy. We cannot wallow in our grief or cower in our homes.

I’ve always lived, well… loudly. I overshare. I gush. I rant. I laugh VERY loudly. I tell you about every single feeling that I am feeling. There are some who criticize. They say I should tone it down, be more respectable, take the crazy down a notch or two.

Well, too bad. Because I’ve been like this ever since my teen years. I don’t see me changing anytime soon. Especially when raising hell is so much fun. (Also? It’s much more productive than sitting quietly on the sidelines.)

Do I make you uncomfortable? Good. Because we are entering a period of American history that requires that we be pushed out of our comfort zones.

Trump may have (accidentally) coined “bigly.” But I’m stealing it. He’s referring to “big league.”

I, however, am referring to living this life just as loudly as possible. Bigly, in other words. For the next four years, I promise to live bigly… in my devotion to America, to democracy, to freedom of speech, to our future generations.

Bigly? Yep, I’m going to live bigly. Much to the detriment of the man who first uttered the term.

 

 

 

 

 

The might-have-beens

The other night, as I sat in the parking lot at Kroger texting a friend, there was a rap on the window.

A too-thin woman with graying, long, curly hair smiled apologetically.

I rolled down the window.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “But I’ve got three kids – and you can check this out for yourself because they’re sitting in that McDonald’s over there – they’re sitting just to the left of the door – but I had to leave my husband because he threw the 4-year-old across the room. I need $14 for a cab, and – ”

“I’m so sorry,” I said, and gave her what I had, which was $10.

And then I pulled out, preparing to head to my Zumba class. On the way, I passed the McDonald’s. Impulsively, I pulled in.

Are there kids in there?

I got out of the car and wandered inside. There weren’t any kids. The McDonald’s was practically empty, save for a group of four adults.

Was I indignant? Angry?

Nope.

Why?

Because there might have been three kids in there, one of whom had been assaulted by his father.

Because that woman might have been someone who had summoned the courage to leave an abusive relationship.

And for me, that’s enough.

I was in an abusive relationship from age 15 (almost 16) until the day I fled town and transferred to another college to get away. I was once the kid … well, teenager … who got thrown across a bathroom and into the shower.

In my mid-20s, I volunteered at a Rape Crisis & Intervention Center/Battered Women’s Shelter in the Texas panhandle. Most memorable was the night I picked up a woman and several children from a  gas station parking lot. A police officer was there, and he was clearly impatient to be done with the family standing out front.

The woman didn’t speak English. She had four … maybe five? … children. They were likely a migrant family, as the town I lived in was home to hundreds of people who flocked there each year to help harvest corn, cotton, soybean and any number of other crops.

I drove a two-seater Isuzu pickup. Somehow, however, we managed to get everyone crammed inside. The youngest child, a toddler, sat on the floorboard at his mother’s feet.

I dropped them off at the shelter, filled out the necessary paperwork, and called for one of the counselors. And then I went home, to my snug little house and my dog, Molly, grateful to be independent, on my own, and not living in fear.

I grew up as a privileged white kid. I had no idea what that woman’s background was, but, having written newspaper stories about the migrant families in that part of Texas, I had a pretty good idea of what she was up against.

And that, my friends, is why I freely handed over $10 to a woman the other night who may or may not have had three traumatized children.

Because she might have been in the same situation I once had to flee.

And I might have been the one who gave her what she needed in cab fare to get away from her abuser.

Several years ago, after a day at the pool, the kids and I stopped at Jason’s Deli to get takeout.

Since the kids were still wet and in bathing suits, I told them to wait in the car. On my way in, a tall woman with elegant features stopped me in the parking lot.

I don’t remember what her circumstances were, only that she wanted to know if I would buy her a salad.

“Sure,” I said, and we went inside.

While I waited for my takeout order, she meticulously assembled a salad. Then she asked the cashier for an extra cup for water.

On her way out, she thanked me, explaining that her father was in the car and that she was going to share the salad with him.

When I left a few minutes later, she and an elderly man were huddled together in a four-door sedan, sharing that salad. We exchanged waves as I drove by.

What I’ve learned over the years, however, is that it isn’t the money or food that means the most to those who ask us for help.

It’s being heard. It’s being treated kindly. It’s the human interaction.

So many people live in the shadows or on the fringes of our society. When they venture out, it means the world to them to be able to converse with a friendly stranger. Or to be treated with dignity.

I felt compelled to share this story because of the extraordinary time we now find ourselves in. It’s so, so important to hold on to what makes us decent and human.

2017: The year we find our way

When I was lost in the Chihuahuan Desert, I spent those long, cold nights finding comfort in the night sky.

Out in that part of Texas, there is no light pollution. You can see the Milky Way and falling stars galore.

On the third night, when I began hallucinating, that Far West Texas sky was the backdrop for everything I thought I saw. I truly believe that the reason I survived is because most of those hallucinations and their accompanying storylines focused on being found.

I spent two nights utterly convinced that searchers knew where I was. I just had to make them understand that they needed to come and get me because I was too weak to walk. (I did a lot of shouting at cactus and rocks that, at times, looked like human figures.)

I wasn’t just hoping that I’d been spotted by that helicopter. I believed — no, I KNEW — that all I needed to do was be patient and wait. And that’s what I did — for two days and two nights.

As we usher in 2017, I think back on my time in the desert and long to experience that kind of passionate belief again.

Right now, all these people are wishing one another a happy new year. Exclamation point! Confetti! Yippee! 2016 is dead and gone!

And I’m that petulant, fretting child off in the corner, shrugging her shoulders and rolling her eyes as she mutters, “What’s so great about it?”

Because while 2016 was a hideously crappy year, I fear that 2017 is when our country begins a dark and frightening new chapter of American history. I don’t even want to open the book, honestly.

But I must. You must. Because while a small segment of America is writing this first chapter, there’s nothing keeping us from writing the chapters that follow.

Except, that is, for our despair. We can’t let that happen.

I’m not making any resolutions this year because, fortuitously, I embarked on some new endeavors long before the presidential campaign came to its divisive end. It’s my hope that what I’ve helped start will flourish and provide just one of many safe spaces that will be needed in the years to come.

Yes, years. We’re in it for the long haul, folks. This is not the time to be a commitment-phobe. If we’re to preserve the fabric that makes up our democracy, we have to keep those ragged edges from fraying any further. I compare this election cycle to throwing a daintily embroidered bit of cloth in with the bath towels and turning the dials to “hot” and “heavily soiled.”

Preserving democracy involves much more than making the usual promises at the beginning of a new year.

It involves finding other like-minded people with similar goals. We need to boost one another up out of this pit. And when one weary soul’s shoulders give out, someone else must step in to do the lifting.

It involves refusing to allow others to normalize what emerged from this election cycle. I culled my Facebook friends list yet again because I can’t afford to let people I’ve always liked and respected attempt to convince me that I should get over it and move on because this is “just politics.”

It isn’t just politics. What happened already has allowed hatred, racism and misogyny several new means for insidiously creeping into our everyday lives.

Nothing about this campaign or election was in any way “normal.” We must ensure that 2016 was an anomaly, not help make it the new norm.

I felt terrible about some of those unfriendings. But my Facebook page is MY page. I’m tired of the debates and arguments and attempts to make me accept what has happened over the past year. I’m tired of people trying to cover coal-black hatred with a veneer of supposedly genteel pastels. They can slap on five coats and I will still see through it.

They say “sexist.” But what my teenage daughter heard during the campaign was “pussy-grabber.” Even she, at (almost) 14, knows that “sexist” is a wildly ridiculous (and vain) attempt at a euphemism.

This isn’t about political parties. It’s not elephants vs. donkeys. I know just as many from “the other side” — whichever side you happen to be on — who are horrified by what surfaced in 2016.

This is about defining human decency and what makes us Americans.

This is the time for action. This is when we create safe spaces for those who will need them. It’s when we reach out to those who want to help preserve what we know to be America. It’s when we gather — whether to plan or eat or just laugh together — because we will draw strength from such gatherings. It’s when we donate to good causes and good journalism.

So as we enter 2017, here are my wishes for you, my friends.

I wish you courage. I wish you determination. I wish you the ability to shine and laugh through the dark times. I wish for new and deepening friendships as we work together in the coming years.

And lastly, I wish for you a chance to sprawl on your back and gaze at the Milky Way … and to experience how it feels to truly believe in something — even when all circumstances point toward doom. I want you to know what it is like to be surrounded by chatter and laughter, to be covered in blankets and given water, after being found, alone, in a vast desert.

God bless you.

No, wait.

God bless US.

1914222_1148297430182_2679224_n

The last night

This year, Oct. 5 fell on a Monday. I spent the evening at my son’s baseball game. Two years ago, it was a Saturday night when I tried to use my cracked fingernails to burrow down into the rocky earth for warmth.

After the game, I just couldn’t bring myself to write about it.

What is there to say? I was cold, bitterly cold. I spent the night hallucinating and coming up with all sorts of fantastical “explanations” as to why I was outside and freezing.

So instead of recollecting, I watched my kid play ball. I teared up a couple of times, imagining the things my psychologist told me not to imagine. What if I had died? Would he even be playing ball? And if so, who would be watching, cheering him on?

Yesterday, Oct. 6, I awoke with a sense of … lightness. For on this day, I was found.

I want to write about that feeling later, after I’ve had some time to process it.

What I can say, right now, is that I am so glad this anniversary is now past. Well, almost. This time two years ago, I was out of the ICU, but still not allowed to get out of bed and walk. I was, however, healing.

Many times, these past two weeks, I’ve longed to be back in that hospital, sedated and comforted by the presence of firm and compassionate hands. Instead, I’ve made a couple of trips to my psychologist and gotten a prescription for a benzo.

But again, I remind myself that I am here. I. Am. HERE. Alive. Sitting in the living room with my kids and husband and reassuring everyone that dinner is almost done.

Last year, I recognized this anniversary by watching my newspaper series run.

This year, I’ve made other arrangements. You can expect some great photos on Facebook soon.

Meanwhile, good night. Enjoy your time with your families. Hug those pesky kids and, if even your husband is being a totally annoying dude, hug him anyway and tell him you love him.

(Because one day, you, too, might have to remember during each and every argument that Dude freaking saved your butt by hiking out of the desert in search of help while you flailed around under a mesquite tree. Trust me, it’s irritating, but damn, I love the guy for everything he did to get me out of there.)

So on this night … God bless and good night.

 

 

 

‘I just sat down’

This is the difficult day, Oct. 4. It’s the day that I sat down beside a mesquite tree and told my husband to leave me in the desert.

This wasn’t an emotional scene. In fact, we were very matter-0f-fact about separating.

He could still keep going. I couldn’t.

I was the one who told him to go.

Later, Rick told me that if I had cried or shown any sign of fear at being left alone, he wouldn’t have been able to leave.

But I was done. And I could see that he wasn’t.

It just made sense to split up.

For two years, however, I’ve mentally flogged myself for “quitting.” Or, as Texans put it, for “sitting down.”

I was a mother trying to get home to two children. I’d hung in there for 2 1/2 days. And I am not a quitter. What kind of mother just … gives up? What kind of mother just sits the f*** down?

And then last weekend, I took my son to see Everest. I’ve read Thin Air. I’m well aware that the movie wasn’t true to the book.

But the scene in which guide Rob Hall refuses to leave his client, Doug, got to me.

Rob could’ve made it. If he’d left the dying Doug behind and headed down, he would have made it home to his pregnant wife. But he wouldn’t go. And Doug, in the movie, anyway, wasn’t in any condition to tell Rob to get the hell out while he still could.

At the time that Rick and I parted ways, the only thought running through my mind was that Rick still had a chance. And if he made it out, the kids would still have one of their parents.

And maybe, just maybe, if he made it out, I would live too.

I wasn’t thinking about it then, but the fact is that McFarlands thrive on missions. Give ’em a goal and they’re unstoppable.

Looking back … the best thing I ever could have done to have ensured our survival was to send Rick out on a mission.

Get out. Get help. The kids are depending on you. I am depending on you.

But it wasn’t until watching the movie last weekend that I finally understood that I made a mother’s sacrifice. I was willing to give up my life if it meant that my kids would see their Daddy come home.

The thought of them losing both parents? I just couldn’t conceive of it.

I have the most amazing husband in the world. But I see now that I short-changed myself.

Yeah, I sat down. But I did so knowing that it was the only way to make my husband go. To leave. To turn his back on me.

And for that … I. Am. Proud.

 

 

MotherLove

1743670_10204353787032168_6083542445130168527_nThis. This photo.

This is a mother, praying over her teenage son in the ICU. This picture has gone viral. Why?

Because we mothers know what it is to love a human being beyond infinity. We know what it is to offer ourselves in exchange for a life, to be willing to die for a child.

Look at her. This mother. Her son, once just a fluttering inside her stomach, once the baby scrounging for a nipple, once the little boy who collected rocks or bugs, once the little boy who shared all of his secrets with the main woman in his life …

She kneels before his bed and prays. She begs God to bring him back to her. She just wants one more conversation, one more hug, one more chance to let that boy know that he is her everything.

Please remember this mama and her boy in your prayers.

 

 

More effective than pleading a headache

So six weeks or so into the Legislative session, I became Patient Zero at the Capitol.

I roamed the hallways and committee rooms, hacking and wheezing, with handfuls of tissue stuffed into my purse.

Those lucky enough to encounter me on a regular basis soon succumbed. I infected co-workers, lawmakers and reporters.

One day, I approached a member of the Democrat-Gazette’s Capitol Bureau to ask if his roommate, a mutual friend, was feeling better.

“I heard she was sick,” I said.

“So it was you,” he said, backing away. “You’re Patient Zero.”

“It’s OK,” I assured him. “I don’t think … *cough* … that I’m contagious … *cough* … anymore.”

“Uh-huh,” he replied. “Riiiight…”

And then he vanished into the media room. Which locked emphatically behind him.

Weeks passed. Still, I continued to collapse into coughing fits. When I ran out of cough drops, people from other state agencies gave me peppermints and candy. Anything, really, to shut me up.

Now just a couple of years ago, I would have high-tailed it into the doctor’s office, where I would have presented the staff with a list of possible diagnoses, all of them dire and, usually, terminal.

But that whole near-death-in-the-wilderness thing cured me of my lifelong hypochondria. Because really? If you can go out for what’s supposed to be a pleasant hike and find yourself in the throes of renal and heart failure a week later, you realize that there’s not much point in trying to pinpoint what might be your ultimate cause of death.

It could be a spider bite. It could be lung cancer. *cough*

In our household, I am normally the one nagging Rick to go to the doctor.

This time, it was my husband issuing pleas that I make an appointment.

For myself.

“I don’t have time,” I argued, honking into a Kleenax.

He looked at me and shook his head.

“What?” I protested. “It’s my new mating call.”

I honked again and arched an eyebrow.

“You’re already keeping me up all night,” he noted dryly. “And not in a fun way.”

I felt his pain. I wasn’t getting much sleep either. Did you know it’s possible to reverse-snore? Like, instead of making noise when you inhale, you make these hideous mucousy sounds when you exhale?

Yeah. I’ve been all sorts of sexy, let me tell you.

Anyway, today I finally ventured into my doctor’s exam room.

“This has been going on for how long?” he asked incredulously.

Bear in mind, I have more than once burst into his office in a panic.

(Questions I have asked my doctor: “Are you sure I don’t have lymphoma?”

“So these are migraines and not a sign that a bulging brain aneurysm is about to burst?”

“Are you sure it’s mono and not Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever or Tuleremia?”)

Now here I was, all sorts of casual, lounging on the exam table while he looked at x-rays of my lungs and sinuses.

“Given how you sound and the fact that you’re running a fever, I would have sworn that you had walking pneumonia,” he mused.

“Uh-huh.”

“Well. I’m going to start by treating you for bronchitis and sinusitus.”

“OK,” I replied.

People, I came home today with a whole passel of drugs, which will either knock me into sedated oblivian or turn me into a ravenous, raging fiend. Or maybe they’ll just cancel each other out.

Regardless, I promise: The days of Typhoid Cathy are coming to an end.

It will be safe, once again, to enter my office.

And my husband might actually find me somewhat attractive again. Unless, of course, he’s too busy catching up on all that missed sleep.

 

 

 

She called me mija … ‘My daughter’

1379680_10151919907945239_1506049872_n“It’s OK, mija,” crooned the petite, dark-haired woman as she scrubbed nearly a week’s worth of grime from my battered body. “You will feel better when you are clean again.”

Mija.

My daughter.

The woman’s hands were firm, yet gentle. She plucked the twigs from my snarled hair. And then she washed it three times.

“Look,” she said, showing me the rinse water after the third shampooing. “It is clean now.”

All morning, she had lurked outside my hospital room, thwarted time and again by doctors and nurses who insisted on blood draws, breathing treatments and tests.

Finally, when the medical staff departed, she shooed my husband from the room and set to work.

Often, I flinched and moaned when her washcloth skimmed over the cactus needles still embedded in my hands, torso and legs.

“I am sorry, mija,” the woman murmured. “So sorry.”

But she wasn’t just sorry for the pain she inflicted. She was sorry that I had suffered at all. I could hear it in her voice.

Word had spread quickly through hospital hallways that the woman lost for five days and four nights in the Chihuahuan Desert was in the Telemetry Unit at the University Medical Center of El Paso.

My caregivers didn’t judge me. That first night, they kept me alive. And then over the next several days, they tended to my wounds. They marveled that I had survived.

When I walked again for the first time in five days, one of the physical therapists asked me to autograph the cane I had used.

All of these people believed that if I had been given a second chance, well … then there was hope for all.

Not everyone shared this attitude. Over the next year, even as I thanked God daily for my second chance, I learned what it is like to be second-guessed.

“But why didn’t you …?”

I get it. It’s totally human to want to second-guess others. Doing so makes us feel better, safer.

“Well, that would never happen to me because I would never…”

Yeah. Well. Until it does. Because you did.

We are none of us infallible. And most of us, most of the time, are pretty good at figuring out where we went wrong. And we accept responsibility for the consequences.

Your pointing finger does nothing but remind us of our own former smugness … and how it leads to downfall.

My arrogance almost cost me my life. Karma? She’s not just a bitch. She’s a bitch on wheels with lightning strikes etched on each spoke.

When I think of the woman who washed my hair, my body … apologizing as she did so … I marvel at her grace.

I was lost and then found. I was dirty, and then cleansed.

On this Easter, my advice to you … to me … is this:

Don’t second-guess the actions of someone who — trust me, here — already has been thoroughly humbled.

Instead, help that person appreciate and take advantage of his second chance.

After all, second chances are few. They should be celebrated. Not questioned.

 

 

 

Living without fear

I tell people that what happened in the desert in late 2013 was a transformative experience.

It was the worst — and best — thing that ever happened to me.

Worst, because I almost died. I almost lost the chance to see my children grow.

Best, because the experience taught me that you can’t let fear dictate your life’s course.

And so it is that I — a lifelong journalist — started a new job in a new field last week.

I knew I needed a change. But until I started my new job, I didn’t realize just how much I needed something different. Something challenging.

And I’ve found that once you start making big changes, it’s easier to keep embracing the new.

Suddenly, I’m thinking about new schools, new houses, new hobbies.

I feel so alive. So invigorated.

And I wonder if that’s why God let us stumble through the desert close to death.

Maybe you have to accept death in order to embrace life.

I don’t know.

Regardless. I am so grateful to still be around. I am so happy to have a chance to try something out of my comfort zone.

What I do know, after last year, is that life is meant to LIVED — not endured or survived.

So happy new year, all! And God bless.