Friday, December 21, 2012

Guest Post: Our Cousin, Emily

So this weekend is our family Christmas on my mom's side. This is the first year of my entire life that I won't be attending.

My mom is one of seven kids. Those seven kids and their lovely spouses have produced over 20 cousins. Within those, there are several sets of sisters. And I just... can't. This week has been incredibly difficult.  Christmas in general was always Jenna and my thing.  I'll elaborate more in another post if I get time up in Madison, but the short explanation is that I just can't be around that many sisters at once right now. I can't be a large group of my family when I still have no idea whether I want everyone to act like nothing happened, or to treat me like something happened. I'm setting myself up to get hurt by something or other no matter what anyone says or does. And I just... can't. Maybe next year.

I hope that they'll understand. I'm sure that they will.  They're pretty great like that.

So today I'm posting something that one of our cousins, Emily Bisbach, sent to me shortly after we lost Jenna.  With all the stress of the holidays, I'm afraid I have to keep this intro a bit short, but this wonderful guest post speaks very well for itself.  Thank you, Emily.  This was so beautifully written.  I hope I'll se you guys next year.

Until then, I hope you'll all drop me a line when you're in my neck of the woods.  Love you all.

Emily, Chelsey, and Jordan are unfortunately not pictured, but definitely there in spirit...

Jenna: A Cousin's Perspective
By Emily Bisbach

If you knew Jenna, then you've probably heard about her extended family on her mom's side at least a few times. Maybe she's told you about her grandma's Heroin Dance. Maybe she talked about how there is nothing louder than the combined laughter - no, cackling - of her mom's sisters. Or maybe she mentioned that she is one of about a hundred cousins. I'm one of those many cousins, and these are some of my favorite memories with Jenna.

Cassie, Jenna, Chloe, and Emily
Some of my earliest memories with Jenna are from my childhood and the time we spent on Grandma's farm. Me, Jenna, and two of our other cousins, Chloe and Cassie, all lived relatively close to Grandma's, and our moms would take special trips to the farm just so we could ride in the truck or explore the creek. It was always such an adventure trying to cross the creek, explore the woods, or hop a fence into a pasture full of cows. It's hard to remember specifics from so long ago, but I do recall a day spent on the farm that ended in Jenna and I convincing our mothers to let me stay overnight at Jenna's old house all the way back in Madison. This involved our moms driving us from Montfort to Madison, and them my mom going back to Jefferson and then back to Madison the next day to pick me up. But it was well worth it: Jenna and I were determined to pull an all-nighter (such a lofty goal when you're 8 and 9 years old!!!!) I remember finally falling asleep around 5 am, despite the gallons of caffeinated soda and sugary Skittles in our stomachs.

Another of my favorite childhood memories with Jenna is from a trip our families took together when we were 12-13ish. We stayed at the Roarks' condo and I remember thinking that it was so cool. We were inseparable on that trip. I remember a day spent at the beach, just sitting in the ocean and letting the waves push us around… until someone yelled, "STINGRAY!" and we bolted from the water, half laughing, half completely freaked out. I remember going to Busch Gardens and climbing on the enormous vine trees despite the signs that clearly asked us to "Stay off!" We rode one of the roller coasters so many times that eventually, as the park was closing, the guy operating it just let us stay on multiple times in a row. We got to pet a sloth which I was completely grossed out by, but of course, Jenna loved it. And finally, a completely random memory from the trip: Jenna and I walking out of a restaurant, talking about what kind of makeup we would wear once we got into high school. For some reason, I distinctly remember this conversation:

Me: "I'm not sure what I'll do. I don't want to be one of those girls who puts on too much makeup."
Jenna: "Eww, me neither. I think I'll just do mascara, a little bit of blush, and some lipgloss."
Me: "Yeah, me too. The same thing."

The funny thing is, I can hardly think of a time that I ever saw Jenna with any makeup on at all, and of course, she was still gorgeous.

But that was something I always noticed about her - she didn't have to force anything or try too hard. I think I always kind of admired her for that. Okay, okay, I'll be honest here… when I was younger - you know, in those preteen years - I was just plain jealous. I'm only a year younger than Jenna, but when that year separates a teenager from a twelve year old, it seems like alot. Jenna always had the coolest clothes at our family gatherings and meanwhile, I was still wearing bib overalls from OshKosh Bigosh. Jenna had her ears pierced multiple times in high school, and I could barely convince my mom to let me get mine done once. Jenna had a perfect, gorgeous smile and meanwhile, I was just getting my braces put on (although to be fair, I know that she also endured years of awful braces to get those beautiful teeth). Anyway, to me, she was always the coolest cousin. Us girls used to bring boxes of clothes to Grandma's house to trade and pass around, and I'll never forget the grey tennis skirt with silk trim and a matching tank that I got from Jenna. I remember thinking it was the best, trendiest thing ever, because it had been hers.

As we got older, though, it became pretty obvious that Jenna wasn't the kind of girl who was cool and beautiful and flaunted it. She just… was. And that's what I think my most lasting memory of Jenna will be. She just had a very casual and effortless way about her. She always came across as outgoing, caring, and completely hilarious, and you can bet she would have had the same shining personality with or without cute clothes or straight teeth. To be completely cliche, she really was beautiful inside and out.

As time has gone on, running around Grandma's farm with the other cousins and playing in the ocean in Florida has been replaced with sitting around the table exchanging stories about our college experiences and making fun of our mothers, although - dare I say it - we've all started to become more and more like them with each year. Eeek! But sadly, as we've gotten older, having everyone together at each holiday has become increasingly difficult. The last time I saw Jenna was at Thanksgiving last year. It was your typical Bowers gathering: the moms were laughing hysterically in the kitchen, the dads were watching football in semi-awkwardness, and us cousins filled all of the random gaps in between wherever there were open chairs. We took bets on whether Grandma would wear turquoise or pink at Christmas, caught up on each others lives, and ate way too much.

When the Roarks left, Jenna and I waved goodbye and said, "See you at Christmas!" But neither of us were able to make it to Christmas that year… damn you, finals!! If I had known that that Thanksgiving would be the last time I would see Jenna, I wouldn't have just waved goodbye. I would have sat down with her, Chloe, and Cassie so that we could re-live any and every memory that we could remember with each other. I would have told her everything that I thought was so amazing about her, and maybe I'd admit that I used to be secretly jealous. She probably would have just laughed We'd all sit around reminiscing for so long that we'd have to convince our mothers to let us stay overnight with each other just like when we were younger. But when she'd finally have to leave, I would give her a huge hug and I'd tell her I love her.

I can't explain how sad it will be for us girl cousins to be without Jenna from now on. But I know that the last thing she'd want is for us to sit around at at the holidays missing her and being all depressed about it. In fact, I know she'll be pretty pissed if she floats on by to check on us and doesn't see us screaming about the Packers, imitating our mothers, or talking about how awesome Grandma is. I'm sure we will talk about her, too. But we won't dwell on how terrible it is that she's not with us. We'll talk about the fun we all had growing up as a kind of second family over the years, and the house will still be full of laughter. We might not be able to hear it, but I know she'll be laughing with us.

My face: "Do you SEE how gorgeous my cousins and sister are?  I don't know why I even bother..."

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Thoughts on the Connecticut Shooting

I was floored when I heard about the shooting in Connecticut.  I said in a previous post that shit happens and life is unfair.... Life is REALLY unfair.  I think about these families, so close to Christmas, with presents probably already bought and I can't stop crying.  I wanted to write something that made sense of this.  That put things in perspective and gave hope.  You know, that thing I sometimes manage to do.  But this is something that has no reason.  I'm still as lost as you.

I think the best thing we can do is be there for the families.  So as someone who has lost, I wrote a sort of wishlist for what I think will best serve that purpose.  Bear in mind, this entry is more for me than anyone else.  If you think some or all of this post is too preachy or self-righteous, I apologize.  But it makes me feel better to type this so I hope you won't hold it against me.

I'll get the hot button stuff out of the way first.  Feel free to skip over any of the suggestions that rub you the wrong way.  These are just my personal thoughts.

DO consider the way we handle and view mental illness

EDIT: This article is a must read about dealing with a child who has mental illness.  It explains the necessity to talk about this subject far better than I do. 

Apparently the young man responsible for this was diagnosed with Asberger's and suspected of dissociative personality disorder.  Now here's the thing.  I know a number of people with Asberger's and none of them would EVER be violent.  Asberger's is categorized as a mild form of autism, but people with it are on the high functioning end of the spectrum.  It is simply a condition that makes it difficult to pick up on social cues and make certain connections.  Asberger's, ADHD, depression, anxiety, Bi-polarism, schizophrenia, etc...  All of these things are manageable issues, but they often overlap, they come with their own set of struggles, and each person diagnosed with any of these things experiences them to varying degrees.

Unfortunately, the culture we live in (at the risk of sounding preachy) went through and is still going through a phase of over-diagnosing and most importantly, HUGELY misrepresenting many of these issues.  This often leads to feeling alienated from your peers.  And the loners that nobody listens to are the ones who find themselves with nothing to lose, and therefore capable of the worst possible things.

For Asberger's, depression, and ADHD, many people regard these as simply a lack of self-control, perspective, or social skills.  They consider it a "cop out" or "excuse" to "get away with certain kinds of behavior."  And thanks to over diagnosis and misrepresentation, people do often joke about it and misdiagnose themselves all the time.  But that leads to a sense of shame for the people who ACTUALLY have it.  I hesitate to tell people that I have ADD because when I do, it's more often than not received with a little internal eye roll.  There have even been times when I've been afraid to ask for help or reluctant to set up systems that would benefit the way my mind works because I've been embarrassed about it.  Lucky for those of us with ADHD, the worst that can happen if you try to handle it yourself and fail is that your school work suffers, and/or your life falls into disarray.  I say that with only partial sarcasm because as much as it sucks, with something like depression... A lot worse can happen if you fail to ask for help or aren't taken seriously before it's too late.

Meanwhile, Asberger's is often associated with anyone with an intolerable personality.  People don't realize that those dealing with this condition just have a wall up and don't intend most of the behavior that tends to offend others.  They are just like everyone else if you recognize the way their minds work, have a little patience, and find the right way to talk to each other.  Asberger's, like ADHD or anxiety is also a diagnosis that is often thrown around when the actual diagnosis is unclear.  This is one more reason why we simply can't assume things about people with these disorders simply based on their "label."

That being said, assuming that you aren't "trying hard enough" is certainly better than regarding you with fear or treating you like you're not a person.  When someone says, "I have schizophrenia," or encounter someone with a personality disorder, many people immediately think of that homeless guy who talks to himself or the crazy killer they saw on Law and Order.  One politician discussing mental illness said something to the effect of, "We have to decide what's more important: Hurting these people's feelings or the fact that they might kill somebody."  Nice, man.  Really nice.  That'll REALLY encourage people to go get help rather than stay in denial about it.

If we had a better understanding of what it means to live life with these issues and medically treat them accordingly, maybe people would be more willing to seek help if they suspect they are having problems.  Maybe there would be less alienation from their peers.  Maybe they would have more support forming the types of connections that prevent terrible behavior like this from happening.

One thing I have to add that also contributes to the shame of diagnosis and the misrepresentation is the "medicate and move on" approach.  It's common knowledge that our cultures has a bad habit of throwing pills at things and hoping they go away.  But honestly, for all the condescension toward this attitude, can you really blame us?  Wouldn't it be awesome if it really did work that way?  The attitude so many people have toward those of us dealing with a mental issue would make anyone want to just be able to take a pill and forget about it.  Then there are also people who just don't WANT to be drugged.  I hate the fact that I have to take medication to be normal.  And I know for more intense mental illnesses, the drugs are also more intense.  I have friends who described them as "numbing" and "make you feel like a shell."  Who the hell wants that?  Don't get me wrong.  I know that some people, when it comes down to it, simply need a pill to correct their brain chemistry.  But the fear of having to take drugs to "be normal" is one more reason why those with serious issues may hesitate to be diagnosed and turn down that option when they are.  Expanding the way we care for people and being more vigilant about trying multiple forms of treatment in ADDITION to medication will not only help patients in a more lasting way, but it will also deter people from abusing the system.  They won't be able to just get pills and go on their merry way.

I'm sorry if this got preachy.  I am by no means an expert on how specifically we can make these changes and I'm also aware that this will probably not stop horrible tragedies from EVER occurring again.  Not every psycho who snaps is mentally ill.  But I feel like it certainly couldn't hurt.  Changing the way we medically treat those with mental issues and how they are treated by the rest of us may make those with these compulsions less afraid to seek treatment.  Most importantly, as I said before, getting real perspective on us Misfit Toys and they way we deal with our lives may decrease the social isolation that comes with the more difficult conditions.  Maybe that will prevent a person from detaching themselves enough from humanity to do something so awful.  Or at the very least, maybe it'll surround them with more people to notice the signs before it's too late.

I don't know.  All I'm really convinced of is that bringing some attention to this issue will be far more constructive (and as an added bonus, far less polarizing) than arguing about gun laws.  

So on that note...

DON'T make this about gun control.

I'm not arguing for or against, so put down your pitchfork and PLEASE don't feel defensive when I say this.  I know there are many who will passionately disagree with me, but I just don't believe this is a gun control issue.  Connecticut has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation and this still happened.  The killer's mother owned guns legally, but honestly...  If someone is sick enough to deliberately kill children, they aren't going to be stopped just because their most convenient killing tool is harder to acquire.  Do you know what happened in China the day after this happened?  A guy walked into a grade school and stabbed two kids with a knife.  They survived, but apparently it was echoing an attack in 2010 on a school with a knife leaving 20 dead.  Does that number sound familiar?

Going after guns is easy and familiar.  It's something that we can do quickly and at low cost.  I don't say that disdainfully at all!  I'm saying it because I totally get why it's so many people's first thought.  I'm just urging you to take a breath.  I know your angry.  I know you're sad and scared.  But I don't want your passion distracted by a cause that is treating a symptom, not the disease.  Fair?

HOWEVER, I'm by no means suggesting that we should "arm the teachers" either.  Yes, if the teachers all had guns, maybe this guy would have been taken out before he could hurt this many people.  But maybe not.  And frankly, arming teachers is not the message nor the world we should be sending our kids into.  The world is scary enough.  The media makes it even more so.  The fact of the matter is, bad things are going to happen no matter what we do.  The best we can do is love everyone we meet and give everyone a reason NOT to be the next monster.

DON'T make the killer a celebrity.

My first thought when this happened was "Why?"  I wanted to know everything about what kind of person would do such a thing.  But then the fake Morgan Freeman quote that's currently going viral on Facebook made a really excellent point: We're allowing this guy to die as an infamous monster rather than a pointless nobody (I'm paraphrasing).  FUCK.  THAT.  This guy managed to kill a bunch of innocent people and end his life on his terms.  There is nothing we can do to change that, but what we can do is forget him.  We can make him nothing compared to the lives of those he took and the ones he left behind.  We can make it clear that anyone who thinks of following in this guy's footsteps will suffer the same fate.

I've said before that once we're gone, our existence on this Earth is measured by the ones who hold us in their hearts and minds.  Hate is not the opposite of love.  Hating and remembering someone still gives them a place inside you.  We need to let him go.  That's why I'm choosing to refrain from using his name.  I don't want any help remembering it.  Calling him "the killer" may sound harsh, but that's what he was to us.  Nothing more.

Not only is turning our focus away the best way to punish him, but it is also the best way to comfort and support the unfortunate people the GUNMAN left behind too.  He murdered his mother, but he still left behind his father and brother.  And I imagine mourning their losses is going to be a very complicated process for them.  The least we can do is give them back some privacy and control.

So if you see a news station doing a feature on him, switch the channel.  If you see an article about him online, don't read it.  We can blame the media all we want, but they're really only guilty of selling what we've shown we want to buy.  We really do have the power to show what we want to hear about when it comes to these kinds of things and what we don't.  So show them we far more interested in giving our attention to the victims, not the killer.

DO remember the victims for who they were, not as just victims

These are the names we should be memorizing:

Rachel Davino, 29
Anne Marie Murphy, 25
Charlotte Bacon, 6
Daniel Barden, 7
Josephine Gay, 7
Ana Marquez-Greene, 6
Dylan Hockley, 6
Madeleine Hsu, 6
Catherine Hubbard, 6
Chase Kowalski, 7
Jesse Lewis, 6
James Mattioli, 6
Grace McDonnell, 7
Anne Marie Murphy, 52
Jack Pinto, 6; Noah Pozner, 6
Caroline Previdi, 6
Jessica Rekos, 6
Avielle Richman, 6
Benjamin Wheeler, 6
Allison Wyatt, 6
Emilie Parker, 6
Olivia Engel, 6
Victoria Soto, 27
Lauren Rousseau, 30
Mary Sherlach, 56
Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, 47
Nancy Lanza, 52

As someone who has lost, one of the most comforting things people did (and still do) after the initial shock of losing a loved one has worn off is wanting learn about who that person was BEFORE they died.  I can't describe how truly lovely it was when Alyssa (the girl I babysit) asked me for no reason, "Was Jenna like you?  What was she like?"  And after I talked about her for a little bit, Alyssa paused a moment and said, "I wish I had known her.  I think she would have liked me."  It made me feel like Jenna is important because of her life, not her death.  And that's one of the main reasons I keep this blog.  Because I want to know her better and I want others to know her.  

Maybe it'll offer the same comfort to the families of this horrible tragedy--Knowing that there are people who haven't met them, but truly want to get to know their loved ones so that they can care too.  And mourn with them.

So here's some stuff to get you started:
  • Mary Sherlach loved gardening, reading and going to the theater.
  • Lauren Rousseau wanted to be a teacher from before she even went to kindergarten.  She also made cupcakes featuring characters from the Hobbit to prep for the movie's release.
  • Victoria Soto loved her black lab, Roxie.  She also loved flamingos and the New York Yankees.
  • Olivia Engel's favorite colors were pink and purple.  She was also very wiggly.
  • Emilie Parker always carried around her markers and pencils so she never missed an opportunity to draw a picture or make a card for someone.
  • Chase Kowalski was always outside, playing in the backyard, and riding his bicycle. He just completed and won his first mini-triathelon.
  • Josephine Gay had a lemonade stand this past summer.
  • Jessica Rekos was called "our little CEO" by her parents for the way she carefully thought out and planned everything. She loved ANYTHING to do with horses.

DO look for the "helpers"

  • Vicki Soto died shielding her students from the gunman. 
  •  Dawn Lafferty Hocksprung was killed trying to take the shooter down.
  • Kaitlin Roig barricaded herself and her students in the bathroom and kept them quiet, telling them she loved them and that it was going to be alright.
  • Maryann Jacobs lead 18 kids out of the library on their hands and knees, into a storage room.  She had them color to keep them calm and quiet.
  • A school custodian (who is currently unnamed) risked his life by running through the school and warning everyone of danger.
  • Maryrose Kristopik barricaded herself and her 20 students in the music room closet.  She stayed calm, held the door handle, and kept telling the children she loved them while the shooter actually banged on the door outside, demanding to be let in.
Not really sure what else to say on this topic.  Any addition sounds kind of cheap.


So that's all I've really got.  Horrible things happen in this world.  And just when you think your situation is the worst, you hear about someone else's.  I lost my sister, my parent's lost their child.  Someone else lost their child after only having 6 years with them rather than 22.  And they died frightened. Meanwhile, there are children in Pakistan honoring OUR loss.

Yeah.  Think about THAT for a while.  How many children over there have died frightened and young WITHOUT the happy, albeit short, lives the children and Connecticut got to experience?

But when it comes right down to it, human suffering is comparable to the stars in the sky: There's a lot of different types.  Each one looks small difficult to really understand from far away.  Each one looks enormous and like it's the most important thing in the universe from close up, regardless of how much bigger any other number of stars might be once you get to them.  It doesn't help to compare pain or tragedies any more than it really helps to think that there may have been a way to prevent it.  The only thing you can do is give all the love you can, do everything you can, and move forward as best you can.  Because that's all you can really do.  You're here, so why not?

You may feel insignificant and helpless, but I'm sure the Sun looks that way too from billions of miles away when viewed from another planet.  But that indistinct spec among trillions is the reason why all life on this planet exists.  No matter how pointless you feel, there will always be someone you affect and matter to.  And that's certainly something.

I hope that the ones left behind don't let themselves get stuck and frozen in this moment.  I hope that they will find a way to move forward while finding ways to honor who their child was and still is.  I hope that they can let go of anger and blame.  I hope that they find ways of explaining to their children that the world might be a scary and unfair place, but that it's also a place of love and infinite outcomes.  I hope they know that this isn't the end.  I hope they get through Christmas in one piece.  I hope that they don't forget to live for the sake of the children left behind.  I hope the children left behind will grow to be strong and compassionate people.  I hope they don't close themselves off and live in fear.  

I hope that they find hope.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Bringing the Magic Home

Hey everyone.  So this is it.  I've FINALLY finished my Harry Potter blog posts.  The past two months have been a bit of a roller coaster for me.  I believe I've transitioned to a new stage of grief.  Initially, I believe I was more devastated over the fact that someone I loved and never imagined being without had died.  It was more about the loss itself.  Now, the idea of DEATH is less stinging.  I just miss HER.  Even if she had been on a long vacation (which is what my subconscious often feels like), it's been an abnormally long time since I've seen or talked to her.  Her absence feels really empty.  Sometimes it makes me feel like I'm starting from square one.

I think it took me so long to write these posts because when we got back from our trip, I felt surprisingly at peace.  I guess I was worried that writing this blog would put me back in touch with feelings that I was kind of relieved to have a break from.  But they've started catching up with me.  I don't want to wait this long between posts anymore.  This is an important outlet for me.  It syphons off a lot of my emotions.  More importantly, I think it's especially helpful to actually accomplishing something concrete to help heal myself when I usually feel like the most I can do is let time pass.

So here it is.  I'm back on track.   Because it's good for me.  And I'm going to need all the help I can get now that the holiday season has officially commenced.

Let's bring it on home.


Celebrating Harry Potter Month

To celebrate Jenna's birthday (September 29) this year, we decided to go to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and spread some of her ashes there.  Please click here to read about my sister's love for Harry Potter and why traveling here was so significant.

So in the month leading up to our trip, I decided to celebrate the series.  My mom and I reread the whole series and I started incorporating it into various aspects of my life.  I also did some artwork and commissioned some from some very talented friends of mine.

Here is an example of an art series my friend Katie Reid is working on.  She should be finishing up the rest soon!  Isn't she talented?


Emily Scharpf also celebrated Jenna and Harry Potter in an incredible way. 
 She got a new tattoo.

GORGEOUS, right?  I teared up when she texted the picture to me.  I've actually been working on something for Emily myself:

It's supposed to be of Emily in case you can't tell.  It is of course by NO MEANS done.  But I haven't drawn in a while so I got excited about it.  Hopefully ruining the surprise doesn't take away anything from the finished product.  I just wanted to do something for Emily the way I wanted to do something for Dirk on his birthday (and what I will likely be doing for many people who loved Jenna).  Emily was always a constant in Jenna's life.  When Jenna felt like the whole world was against her, she always knew that Emily had her back no matter what.  They were protective and honest with each other all the time.  Jenna told me herself how grateful she was to have her in her life.  I'm grateful too.

One of the biggest celebrations was with the girl I babysit.  Her name is Alyssa, she's eight years old, and she's AMAZING.  She continues to astound me with just how empathetic she is for a girl her age.  I started nannying for her last July so she knows all about my loss, and she regularly tries to connect with me about it by asking questions about who Jenna was as a person and taking an active interest in things I mention Jenna loved.  For example, we made a trip to Barnes and Noble and she pointed out a book of piglets saying, "I bet Jenna would love that."  A pause.  "I bet Jenna is in heaven dancing with a parade of pigs!"  This girl's thoughts on heaven are brilliant.  I'll write more about her in a later post.  For now I want to talk about the thing she's connected with Jenna about the most: Harry Potter.

We started reading the series together shortly after I started working for her family.  She's a great reader and reads on her own all the time, but I really like to read out loud, so that's what we do.  I am her very own interactive audiobook.  This proved to be an especially smart choice since the later books increase in complexity.  We stop and chat about words she doesn't understand, discuss the plot points to make sure everything is clear, and just her general opinions on whatever we've just read.  She was hooked in no time.

When I told her what we planned to do for Jenna's Birthday and the month leading up to it, she was beyond excited.  She had a day off of school during September so we decided to make that our "Harry Potter Day".  We made wands, owl paper airplanes, had a "Herbology" lesson (where she sketched flowers in her yard and made up magical properties for them, played our own version of Quidditch, and made up a game we dubbed "Seeker Tryouts".  I think I liked this activity the best because it was something that Jenna would have loved.  One of us would take our "snitch" (a badminton birdie - the kind with feathers) and hid it in the yard, the other would then go search for it.  All of this while riding a broom of course.  This totally reminded me of the kind of games Jenna loved to play when she was young.  She LOVED "I Spy" and searching for Easter eggs.  Scratch that, she never stopped loving games like that.

It was a great day.  Alyssa still uses the wand to practice spells along with Harry and his classmates whenever they learn something new in the book.  She also uses the owl paper airplanes to send me messages while I'm reading.  She also uses the Snitch I brought her back from Harry Potter World to act out the Quidditch scenes.  Just a few of countless reasons why spending time with this girl has been so therapeutic for me.  We are currently on the last chapter of Order of the Phoenix.

To save some space in this entry, here's a link to an album of all the fun stuff we did that day.

My other two favorite ways of celebrating were actually shortly before September and shortly after.

At the beginning of October, we threw a Harry Potter party for Jenna's birthday.  Dirk came down to join us for the weekend.  My friends and I dressed in full wizard attire, drew our names from the sorting hat (as mentioned in the previous post, Dirk was a Hufflepuff AGAIN), and indulged in the many Potter themed treats my amazingly supportive roommate Joe provided - including his incredible whiskey-laced butterbeer.

At the end of August, I went to Comic Con.  It's a thing that I do regardless, but when I saw that Tom Felton (the actor who played Draco Malfoy) would be there, I knew I had an extra mission.  I wanted to get his autograph and burn it to "send" it to her.  Now autographs from Tom Felton were $40 a pop.  This is standard for a convention fee.  So I waited in line, and told my story to the person in charge of selling the pictures for signing.  I explained about Jenna, how she loved Harry Potter and Tom Felton, how we were planning on spreading her ashes at Harry Potter World, etc.  I told him that I was totally willing to pay the $40 fee, but since I was planning on burning it to send to her, it would be nice if we could work out a deal.

The man listened to me without a word.  I finished by saying, "I'm sure you get sob stories all the time, but I figured it couldn't hurt to ask."  He nodded.  Finally he said, "You're right.  We do hear this kind of thing a lot... But I can tell... I can tell you're sincere.  Yeah.  That's totally fine.  If you don't mind taking one of the less popular pictures."  "Of course not!"  I couldn't believe it.

Tom Felton was very sweet, but a bit caught off guard by my story.  I think he got a bit flustered when I asked him to write Dumbledore's quote.  He clearly had a routine to signing these things and it was a hard habit to break.  It ended up being quite a bit of awkward writing.  I thought it was great.

He added lots of x's under the heart for EXTRA love (his words).
I went home the following weekend for a bench dedication to Jenna in Quan Park (where the Edgewood Tennis team always practiced).  More on the ceremony and Jenna's love of tennis soon.  Anyway, I thought that night would be a great choice for burning the picture.  First, Patrick Lagman, Matt Wilson, Dirk, and I went to go see Step Up 4.  Jenna LOVED the Step Up movies and forced Dirk and I to watch them  fairly regularly.  She and I especially had a fondness for Step Up 2... But once again, this is a topic for another blog post (her terrible taste in movies deserve a special kind of attention).  Anyway, after honoring her memory with the bench and subjecting ourselves to mediocre dialogue with undeniably awesome dancing, we were ready to cap off the evening with the closing ceremony.  The boys and I journeyed back to my house to meet Laura Phelan and the Sarah's Stoehr and Keller.  We built a bonfire under the cloudy sky (hiding the incredible Perseid meteor shower that was currently in full swing and on display the night before), said a few words, and sent Jenna her prize.  By far my favorite part was when we all thought to grab handfuls of ashy paper that had fallen onto the grass, crumble it in our hands, and blow it on to the fire.  Watching it ride the heat and smoke as it swirled up into the sky was really special.

Video is on its way.  I just didn't want to wait another day to put up this entry.

Celebrating Jenna's Actual Birthday

Arriving in Florida was really difficult.  We stayed at a hotel we'd stayed in before as a family.  I actually had a very distinct flashback of walking down a specific hallway with my sister while sharing iPod headphones.  On our first night there, we went straight to Universal for their Halloween celebrations.  It felt so weird.  We have been to Universal numerous times as a family and it felt completely bizarre to be there without her.  I could tell the rest of my family was feeling it too.  Vacations and holidays are where Jenna and my relationship lived.  It's when we bonded and spent the most time together.  It felt so wrong being in the same hotel room but without Jenna fighting with me over which bed to sleep in or what television show to watch.

On the ferry ride back to the hotel from Universal.
Mom caught an OMG moment apparently.
Jenna would hate the way her neck/chin looks at this angle (this is a
genetic curse we share), but this is one of my favorite pictures
I'd like to take a moment to thank my boyfriend Dashi for coming along on the trip (his real name is Mike, but I refuse to call him that since that would make 3/4 of my "facebook official" relationships with men named Mike... and I just can't handle that).  I know he felt a little out of place since he only hung out with Jenna twice (though they both occasions when they got to know each other) and his Russian origins give him a natural aversion to "the feelings," but he's made such an effort to be my rock these past few months.  I couldn't have gotten through this week without him.

The day of my sister's birthday, we went back to Universal.  We carried with us, a small tube that used to hold bath salts and now contained the portion of Jenna's ashes we intended to leave there.  Since it was a small container, it was easy enough to smuggle in.  After all, Jenna has been used to bending theme park rules since she was little and used platform tennis shoes to get onto rides she was technically too short for (and almost fly out as a result... but that's beside the point).

The crowd was light and it was a beautiful day.  We spent the first half in Universal, saving Harry Potter World for last.  I was a bit disappointed to see that the "Fear Factor" show was no longer playing (though it's not totally unexpected) because... Well I'll just let Jenna tell you (taken off facebook).

Ok so...
We're at this show at Universal Studios.. They are talking about this big spider that they are going to take out of a box to show the crowd...
They fling the lid open and a giant black spider flies through the air and hits me in the face.
I'm DEATHLY afraid of spiders.
I fling myselt into my sisters lap, completely freaking out.
It turns out it was a rubber spider.

By the time I sat up, I was crying haha.
Oh and to make it even better, they had a camera on me the entire time and it was being shown on a giant screen infront of everyone so the whole stadium could see.
Great times.

She CLIMBED ME LIKE A TREE.  And it's true.  There were tears actually running down her face when she came back up.  It was one of the funniest things I've ever seen.

After Universal, we made our way to Island of Adventure.  Crossing through the Dr. Seuss area was difficult because all I could think about were two of my favorite pictures we took a couple years back:

We hastily pushed through.  It was Dashi's first time in Orlando so we had that to keep our spirits up.  We went on all the great coasters and simulators until there was only one stop left:

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

I love this picture because whenever I see sunbursts like that in pictures now, it
makes me feel like that's Jenna photobombing.
The best way to describe this place is that every expectation I had was met.  Except for the hope that there were LIVE owls flying around.  And that I would suddenly become a wizard upon entry.  That was a little disappointing.  Well, what are we waiting for?  Let's go in!

Many of the photos of the different shops and interesting window displays can be found on our facebook page wall and in the album we posted.

Our first really special moment happened during our visit to Ollivander's wand shop.

Before visiting the shop, you have the option to go in a special entrance with a group of about twenty to watch Ollivander himself select a person from the crowd and measure them for a wand in a special demonstration.  We asked one of the employees at the door what our chances were for being chosen, and they (very nicely) told us not to get our hopes up since he usually chooses the kids.  There were multiple kids in our group.

Nevertheless, I muttered under my breath to Jenna, "You wanna help me out with this?  See if you can whisper in his ear."

I don't know if Jenna got around to whispering (she DOES hate engaging strangers after all), the fact that I was wearing my Slytherin t-shirt that day, or that I was VISIBLY bouncing up and down with excitement, but when Ollivander appeared...

He chose me.


It was pretty awesome.  He measured me, then had me try out a couple of different wands, but no luck (much like Harry).  I accidentally knocked some wands off a high shelf, and made it thunderstorm.  Oops.  Then he asked me for my birthday and found me the one "I was meant for." 

Unfortunately, I TOTALLY HATED the wand that was picked out for me.  It looked WAY too evil.
See?  Bleh.

After the presentation, we went into the shop next door and had the opportunity to purchase our own wands.  I was pretty disappointed that the one that had been picked out for me wasn't what I wanted.  I could have easily picked out any ol' wand I liked the look of (they had plenty of character replicas as well as wands related to your birthday), but I wanted something special.  Meant to be... You know?  The fact that I was chosen during that demonstration meant something awesome.  I couldn't just let it fall flat.

Suddenly... I experienced an Ollivander "I wondah..." moment.

I asked the clerk what wand they would choose for September 29th (Jenna's birthday).  When I saw it, I knew it was exactly the kind of wand I'd hoped for all along.  I say it was fate.
MUCH better!

As the day drew to a close, and the crowd started thinning, we started spreading Jenna's ashes.

The first place was in Hogwarts Castle.  The Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride is in the heart of the castle, but waiting in line takes you through all sorts of corridors and rooms that you imagined as you got into trouble with Harry, Ron, and Hermione.  The Greenhouses, staircases with talking portraits, the Gryffindor common room, various classrooms, and Dumbledore's office.  We made sure we spread her all throughout.

Dumbledore's office

Another special moment I experienced was during the ride itself.  My mom and I poured a portion of the ashes into each others hands and clutched them tightly as we got on.  Once the ride was going, we sprinkled bits of ashes throughout the ride in appropriate spots.  At one point, you are sent flying into the Forbidden Forest and come face to face with the giant spider, Aragog, and his children.  Without even thinking, I sprinkled some ashes.  I knew Jenna would obviously HATE being among the giant spiders, but I couldn't help myself.  I teased her relentlessly in life, I wasn't going to stop now.  I started laughing and I couldn't stop (while my mother, who clearly knew what I was doing, shot me looks of slight disapproval).  Then in the middle of my sprinkling, a rather large piece of ash flew back and hit me SQUARE in the eye.  I started laughing even harder.  Message received, Jenna!  GOD!

So here's where Jenna now resides:
  • Hogwarts Castle
  • In front of the Mirror of Erised (short story in progress)
  • Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey Ride
  • Filch's Office
  • Honeyduke's
  • Weasley's Wizard Wheezes
  • Hagrid's Hut
  • The door step of every shop in Hogsmeade
  • The soil around the trees outside the castle
The first time we dropped her outside, she was actually swept up almost immediately.  I could pretty much hear her muttering, "Oh great.  Awesome idea, Amanda."  It caused us to rethink our strategy.  We made sure to distribute her in hard to reach places.  Our attempts to be stealthy while doing this made for some awkward moments while wandering around the shops - I decided that if I was caught, I would tell them I was trying to wave away wrackspurts.

It was a really emotional time, but surprisingly not sad.  I felt so connected to Jenna all day.  Granted, I did eventually let loose an emotional tidal wave at my poor boyfriend within the next two days, but it was cleansing.  It makes me feel encouraged that the things that bonded Jenna and me can make me feel closer to her rather than make the distance more apparent.  I just hope than I can bring that to the holidays... In the meantime, I think Jenna would be proud (in a FINALLY sort of way) that I've finally shared the entirety of this chapter.  Now to work on the next one.

I'm so glad The Wizarding World of Harry Potter lived up to all of our expectations.  I know that if Jenna had been able to come with us in the way we'd originally planned, she never would have wanted to leave.  Now she never has to.