“Bear. Bear. Bear bear bear bear.”
This was my slightly panicked chant as I hied down a wooded trail in Forbes State Park toward three of my four sisters.
“Bear bear bear.”
I wasn’t screaming it. I was just very matter of factly telling them … “Girls? Bear.”
Let me back up.
Instead of heading to a salon for manicures or to a restaurant’s patio for a lazy sunny Sunday brunch, my four sisters and I decided we would spend the day before Labor Day, our designated Girls Day Out, doing something adventurous. Call it our mid-life crises. Call it misguided ambition. Call it epically dumb.
We ruled out biking because only 4/5ths of us were comfortable on a bike. We ruled out kayaking because 2/5 of us don’t “do” water. We ruled out Segways because 5/5 of us didn’t want to look ridiculous when we died. Ziplining? Too high and too screamy. Spelunking? Too suffocating to death-y. That left hiking. We could hike.
So with a shout of “ADVENTURE IS OUT THERE!” we headed toward Forbes State Park in Somerset with the goal of taking one of the longer trails up to the highest elevation in the state, Mt. Davis.
My sister Terri had spent a great deal of time recently watching survival reality shows and informed us that we would need to be prepared for bears. She said we would want to take precautions. Whistles. Bear repellent. Kung fu.
We couldn’t find any whistles because every mom in the world knows you don’t ever buy your kid a whistle. None of us even knew where to purchase bear repellent, if that’s a real thing. And the extent of our Kung fu was shouting “hi-ya!”
So instead we hit the trail with a free whistle app on my iPhone, pepper spray, two walking sticks, prayers, stones to smack together to make noise to let the bears know we were coming, and the plan to shout out “Hey, bear!” in regular intervals as Terri had seen contestants do on the survival shows.
Then our eldest sister Stacey told us of her friend who was actually mauled by a bear while on a hike. She managed to scare us just enough that we had conversations on the way to the park about how we would react should we encounter a bear. We all agreed that Tammy would pee her pants and Terri would freeze up like those fainting goats you see on YouTube.
We discussed which actress — or goat — would play us in the TV movie that would be made after they found our bodies in the woods.
Pulling up a map of the trails on Post-Gazette website showed us the newspaper had classified the trail as “Easy — until you see a big bear sitting in the trail up ahead.” Great.
Sufficiently 100% sure we would have a bear encounter, we set off into the trail.
[clacking of stones]
[whistle app sound] [whistle app sound]
We reached the fork in the trail that we believed would take us down the difficult trail because the easy trail was for sissy losers and we were empowered Katniss Everdeens if Katniss Everdeen carried pepper spray, a whistle app on her iPhone, and regularly shouted out “Hey, bear!” every 20 seconds like clockwork.
That trail we took down into an open rocky area ended up being a logging trail of some sort and we realized it after crawling through two sets of fallen trees and thousands of poison ivy plants while still shouting out “Hey, bear!”
After one and a half hours of being lost in the sun, we found our way back to that fork in the road and used GPS to realize we missed the turn to the difficult train way back at the beginning and would instead continue on the “easy” trail.
We were thankful to be walking in the shade of the tree canopy at this point, but at the same time, those trees could be hiding bears and we were more aware of it than ever.
I led the pack with Terri, both of us holding walking sticks. Both of us taking turns shouting “Hey, bear!” while behind us we could hear Marcia clacking her rocks together with an occasional “Hey, bear!” thrown in.
It was serene, save for the din of our scaredy pants caravan of middle-aged rock-clacking, whistling, “Hey, bear!”-shouting sissies.
We walked and chatted and laughed and “Hey, bear”-ed.
Then Terri hesitated. Stopped. Looked to her right into the forest. Her eyes became big and terrified. I don’t remember what words she used but I’m 90% sure they were, “WELL WE ARE GOING TO DIE NOW.”
I didn’t hesitate. I didn’t look where she was looking because why look at the shark’s teeth right before you feel them rip into your flesh? Instead, I grabbed my walking stick in both hands and held it straight out in front of my body like a dancing Fred Astaire holding a cane, and I literally high-knee-jogged back toward my three other sisters who were huddled together at a stop.
This is basically what I looked like but with terror on my face:
I looked like the receptionist at the Ministry of Silly Walks.
I neared them, calling out, “Bear bear bear bear bear bear.” I didn’t care about Terri. I left her in my dust. I just needed to outrun her and let her try to outrun the bear. I would give a stirring eulogy about her bravery at her closed-casket funeral to make up for my selfishness.
Watching my approaching high-stepping, walking-stick hoisting self run toward her, Stacey looked scared while mouthing, “DON’T RUN. STOP RUNNING.” Which, screw that, lady. Fight or flight, baby, and this girl FLYS.
Marcia’s face was immediately ashen. She didn’t so much look like she saw a ghost as she looked like she WAS a ghost. She began frantically banging her stones together fast enough to light tinder on fire, while screaming, “Hey bear!” at the top of her lungs over and over again, like a horrible broken record.
Tammy may have been fumbling for the safety release on her pepper spray, filming a goodbye message to her children, or peeing. I didn’t check.
When I reached my sisters, I turned back to see that a goat would definitely be playing Terri in the movie.
She was frozen to the spot only steps from where she had been, now doubled over clutching her chest. But we saw no bear. She breathlessly said, “My chest is pounding and all my muscles are cramped up!”
“What did you see, goat?!?”
“ARE YOU KIDDING US, GOAT?! We are of the age where actual cardiac events could do us in and you freak out over a rustling!?”
Marcia, the hypochondriac of the group, voted we turn around and go back to the car in case the rustling was indeed a bear. She was overruled because ADVENTURE IS OUT THERE, KATNISS!
We marched on.
The trail turned right into a much more narrow, darker trail. We hesitated. I asked, “We have to go in THERE?”
We started in.
The trail began to ascend steeply.
Up and up.
The trail became rocky.
Up and up.
That’s right. We were so worn out from fear, getting lost in a sea of poison ivy, our bear scare, and ascending the steep trail, that we had turned into Brick from The Middle.
We couldn’t even muster “Hey, bear.” We were just letting out an occasional whoop, and I’m not sure if it was to let the bears know we were coming so they better scoot, or to let the bears know our exact location with pinpoint accuracy so they could come and put us out of our misery.
Up and up and up.
Marcia tossed her rocks to the ground.
When we finally reached the clearing where the observation tower stood, we were gross and sweaty and no longer caring about all the bugs we accidentally swallowed or that we were probably covered in poison ivy oil and would probably wake up in three days looking like burnt baked potatoes.
But this was it. The end.
More steps upward. Up and up we climbed to the top to find breathtaking 360 degree views from the highest point in Pennsylvania. We forgot about the bears, the trail, the hike, the bugs, the sun. We had done it. Eat your heart out, Katniss. We don’t need you to volunteer as tribute. We got this.
We descended the tower ready to head home and share with our sure-to-be-impressed husbands and children how we had conquered Mt. Davis with bravery and determination and only a very little bit of pants pee. We had sought adventure and found it and hear us roar!
Then we saw the sign at the head of a narrow trail that snaked deep into the woods again. “Parking Lot. One mile.”
“Where are my rocks?”
“Who has the pepper spray?”
“This makes it feel like you don’t even have anything wrong with you.” — Taylor, 19, undergoing an infusion treatment at Children’s while playing on the new XBOX just installed in her station.
Taylor has been coming to Children’s for eight years for treatment, and each one lasts hours and hours. Before yesterday, she did not have gaming to occupy herself while sitting in a treatment chair in the Infusion/Dialysis unit. But this beautiful, soccer-playing young woman saw we had soccer games like FIFA in the box, and her eyes lit up and she got busy playing.
Now, Taylor’s words to KDKA, “This makes it feel like you don’t even have anything wrong with you,” is basically the entire idea behind Make Room for Kids and is the very foundation of why we continue to raise funds and operate … our belief, our strong belief that gaming takes young patients’ minds off of scary times and sometimes painful or long treatments.
To hear a patient voice that exact thing, completely unprompted and unscripted, well, it was something. I’ll never forget that ever. She validated with one statement everything we’ve been doing for the past six years with Make Room for Kids. You can watch the video of Taylor speaking to KDKA’s Heather Abraham and make note of how Heather’s face completely changes when Taylor utters that sentence. It’s powerful.
Now, let me walk you through the day so you can see where your donations went!
Arrival. 8:55 on the dot, two SUVs slowly pull up to the main entrance loaded with secret service –
Kidding. With boxes and boxes and boxes. And already there and waiting are lots of blue-shirted Microsoft employees, Mario Lemieux Foundation staff and hospital staff.
Here’s the mastermind of logistics, Microsoft’s Luke Sossi, who has basically run the “HOW THE HELL ARE WE GOING TO MAKE THIS HAPPEN” part of Make Room for Kids since the first year.
Assembled, time for a quick team picture!
And then Luke says, “Go to your places!” This year, the team split into two units because we had our biggest undertaking yet. Installing a new unit, maintenance on all units previously installed, and then pulling out and refurbishing/upgrading every XBOX in the transplant unit.
I head with Luke and crew to the fourth floor where the Infusion/Dialysis unit is and there they install the first XBOX in Taylor’s station.
She sweetly says thank you as if that’s the end, and I’m all, “Well, how about a game? Do you play?”
She mentions she plays Playstation with her brother, so she can pick up gaming pretty quickly. I grab the box of games and movies we designated for that unit. She saw soccer, eyes lit up, and that was that.
Across from Taylor, we have 15-year-old Haley. Who wants to do boring homework now that the XBOX is there? Not Haley.
She was playing some sort of racing game, I think. She was there with her “favorite uncle” who brought her in and sat with her during her treatment. Big Penguins fans, her family.
After installing all the XBOXs in that unit and leaving them with their games, controllers, and more, we headed up to the seventh floor where the staging area had been set up, and here’s how that room looked.
What is all this madness, you ask? This is the Microsoft team cleaning, refurbishing, and upgrading every original XBOX that was installed in the Transplant Unit five years ago, our first year of Make Room for Kids. A few XBOXs went on to replace broken or missing units and the rest were put in storage at the hospital so Child Life staff has backups should any unit break or need serviced. No kids in our units are going without gaming for long now that we have this backup refurbished stash.
They then installed brand new XBOXs in every transplant room, therefore, we did two COMPLETE units yesterday. Infusion/Dialysis and Transfusion. We also put XBOXs in the Cardiac Step Down unit which was relocated last year after our heart unit install.
Drew and Karen from the Mario Lemieux Foundation. Keeping an eye on that organized chaos.
In the transplant unit, we met Case, who isn’t quite two yet. While his XBOX was being replaced, Case wasn’t much feeling up to having visitors and certainly not having a camera on him. Until I asked him if he maybe wanted a game, and he was a changed child IMMEDIATELY. I ran to grab a few games he might like, thinking to give him one, and he grabbed all three in quick succession, squealing as he looked at each new title.
And then I said, “I don’t suppose you like Paw Patrol,” because he’s at the exact age for that. And he nearly exploded. Nancy Angus, executive director of the Mario Lemieux Foundation ran to get the DVD from the box and he was basically on Cloud 9.
His sweet mother was attempting to help him get his new stuff organized and he was all, “PAW PATROL PAW PATROL PUT ON PAW PATROL MOMMMMM.”
Further down the hall, this sweet girl who asked for a racing game and was thrilled we had a new Sonic the Hedgehog game in the box.
Here the Microsoft employee is showing her how to switch the TV over to the XBOX.
A little further down the hall, this adorable kiddo, watching the Microsoft employees install the new XBOX.
Smiles for days.
Back in the staging room, they’re still working furiously to upgrade so many old XBOXs, while Nancy Angus and I work on distributing the new games and movies to all the other units we’ve already outfitted.
Hospital staff chatting with Nancy Angus as we get closer to completion.
Back in the patient rooms, another happy kid, Noah!
Here’s Luke with hospital employee Frank. Frank works for months and months, often coming in extra early, to prepare rooms for installations. He’s the man. The man.
Finally, all XBOXs are installed, old are upgraded and refurbished, games, movies, cameras, music CDs and other requested goodies are distributed, all units received an extra stash of XBOX controllers, the Infusion unit received four Surface tablets, and we are done and ready to let the kids play … and forget for a bit.
It was a fantastic day that saw us reaching many areas of the building and that meant getting to see many many smiles.
Here’s the Lemieux Foundation’s photo gallery.
And here’s a hug from me to you for donating.
Group hug, guys.
Troysus managed to remain a shining diamond of decency and goodness in the increasingly putrid pile of dog crap that is the NFL. Respect.
— Virginia Montanez (@JanePitt) April 10, 2015
I am writing so many pieces right now.
My annual Burghy Mother’s Day Gift Guide for the magazine, so you can buy your mother something meaningful and local. My annual Pittsburgh Magazine City Guide column in which I will astound you with even more things you probably didn’t know about our fair city. A post on the new Clemente Bridge bike lane, how some people aren’t happy about it, and what Bill Peduto’s plans for it are. My regular magazine column, of which a topic I have not yet determined because I haven’t drank enough wine yet. I’ve got a lot of writing balls in the air, people!
But then Troy Polamalu was like, “Slow your roll, girl. I have news.”
And you know, it’s not the most shocking news. I think you’d agree that Troy’s exit from the NFL wasn’t a Bugatti careening onto the exit ramp at 80 miles an hour, but was rather an Amish buggy with two elderly horses, slowly rolling off the highway, enjoying the scenery as it passed. With his increasing age and diminishing physical health, we knew it was coming. The gray hairs foretold it. There’s no surprise. No abrupt ending that leaves us scratching our heads, I’m looking at you, Gillian Flynn.
I am 90% disenchanted with the National Football League and you know this because I wrote about it. I quit it. I stopped watching the games. Stopped supporting with my dollars. I can’t support an organization that seems to be allowing bad men to beat their wives and good men to destroy their precious brains.
The NFL became a bad taste in my mouth. The fly in my wine (which I would still drink because wine is delicious). The rain on my wedding day, Alanis. It became, to me, a money-worshipping, Alpha Male-encouraging, greedy, evil empire and I had to walk away from it and God did it feel good.
But within that muck, stood Troy Polamalu. A man who managed to prove that the NFL and football do not automatically destroy good and decency. That a strong enough man can rise above it and stay there for an entire career. Who can put family and God and good before money and power and vice.
We establish long ago that “The Steeler Way” is a myth, but somehow, someway, Troy Polamalu is mythical enough to live it and make it real. Every story I’ve ever heard about Troy has been uplifting, which is why I dubbed him Troysus many many years ago.
Football’s Jesus. The man who literally never stopped praying. And I feel comfortable using the word literally there, because his very essence oozes prayerfulness. Quietness. Solitude. Peace. Even when delivering a crushing blow to an opponent.
I’ve heard about his quiet visits to the homeless. His visits to sick children at the hospital without ever telling another soul. His devotion to his family. There is no cloud of questionable judgment hanging over his magnificent head of hair, and there never was. Just pure sunshine.
I think Steeler Nation loves Troy for his contributions to the physicality of the sport — to the wins. But I think he will be long remembered more for the kind of person he is. For his larger than life aura of I RISE ABOVE IT ALL ALWAYS.
Call him the Jesus of the Steelers. The Mister Rogers of the Steelers. The Superman of the Steelers. Call him Troysus. Call him what you like, and then strive to be just a little more like him.
Then and only then will the Steeler Way stop being a myth and become something this city can truly hold up and be proud of.
If you haven’t received an email from me yet with the subject line of WINNER WINNER CHICKEN DINNER YOU LUCKY DUCK, then sadly, no, you did not win any of the great Make Room for Kids prizes.
You’ll notice we sit $500 away from the goal, but not really. You see, the kiddos in the cancer, transplant, infusion, NICU, adolescent medicine, etc. sent us lists of new games and movies they wanted. I posted all of them to an Amazon wish list, let my Twitter and Facebook followers know, and in 18 hours, $2,000 worth of titles were purchased and on their way to Mario Lemieux Foundation offices. Before I ever had a chance to mention the wish list here.
So, actually, we are at $11,500 raised from my readers, therefore, I gave the prizes away.
However, if it is just driving you bonkers that the ticker isn’t at the top, well, I’m not going to throw myself on your keyboard to stop you from donating out of the goodness of your big giant Burgh heart. Funds will be welcomed and they will be used to make sick kids’ hospital stays a little brighter.
Winners as selected by Random.org:
– The winner of the Pirates Home Opener tickets was a reader named Alan O. When I emailed him the fantastic CHICKEN DINNER news, he responded that unfortunately, he’s out of the state until May. He wondered if we could find someone deserving to use the tickets, so I reached out to Genre’s Kids With Cancer Fund, and the organization is identifying a local childhood cancer family that would enjoy attending the game. Perfect.
– Donald M. won the amazing Dave DiCello metal print. Dave is mailing or has already mailed him his prize directly.
– MaryAnne H. won the Pens Charity Gift Bag. I’m mailing it tomorrow.
– Randy G. won the autographed Sid Crosby jersey. I mailed it today and sent him the tracking number.
– Jessica M. won a previously un-featured prize, this fantastic print from local photographer Jason Furda who reached out to offer the print up for a giveaway.
Man. Love that. Lucky girl. Check his work out here. Really stunning stuff. Go to his site and find “Contemplating the Rubber Duck,” another Mister Rogers statue print, and feel the feels.
Jason is mailing or has already mailed the print directly.
– Katie S. won the prize pack from the Penguins with the autographed Sid print, the autographed Hornqvist jersey, the Letang stick, and the Pens/Flyers tickets. I met Katie and personally handed her prize to her, because how do you even mail a hockey stick, Internet?
– Rose F. and Lesley P. won the Pirates gift bags full of bobbleheads and other goodies. I’m also mailing those tomorrow.
– And finally! Wild Bill Wichrowski from Deadliest Catch sent me a great box full of good stuff from his store in Florida that just arrived. I’ll pick a winner for that tonight.
Thank you to all who donated here or via the wish list. It honestly moved me to read down the list of hundreds of names, some familiar, some not, and see such outpouring of generosity for our city’s sick children who will relish this extra distraction from pain and treatment.
Mario Lemieux Foundation, Microsoft and I will install this month (well, they install while I watch and take pictures and chat with little kiddos) and I will be sure to share all the fantastic details with you.
I would say that every day is a gift, but I don’t actually agree with that. I will say that every day is a chance to love, and my best guess is that love is what it’s all about.
I can honestly say that there is no story or person I’ve written about in my ten years of blogging that has stuck with me more than Amy’s.
I think about her at least once … every single day. Maybe while driving. Or as I pray. Or as I lay in bed at night with my thoughts. Brushing my teeth. Almost always as I tuck my children in or watch them climb onto their school buses. She flits across my brain and leaves a ripple of emotion in her wake that will reverberate until the next time.
Perhaps it’s because I’m a mom too. Perhaps because she’s around my age. Like me, she has a son and daughter (yes, HAS. Losing children doesn’t ever stop you from HAVING those children. You will always HAVE them.). Perhaps because I’ve met her, dined with her, hugged her.
Sometimes I have to stop my brain. If I imagine what happened to her happening to me, the hypothetical pain cuts my air off. Suffocates me. My heart tightens. A sense of panic tries to settle in and I have to literally shake my head and move away from those thoughts.
I’ve learned about love, loss, and strength from Amy’s story.
It has been a long time since she’s written — more than a year, but nearing the 6th anniversary of her children’s sudden deaths, it makes sense that she’s found need of an outlet for some of her emotions. Her latest post is a lesson in perspective, and such an important one.
It’s a lesson in understanding that the burdens we bear are only as heavy as the weight we’ve assigned to them. So if you’re feeling overwhelmed, as we all are at times, with a big pile of the little stuff … Little problems. Inconveniences. First-world problems. Relationship struggles. Job issues. Family dynamics. Drama. Whatever burdens you bear can be greatly lessened with a little bit of perspective. A little step back and look at the grand scheme. The big picture. What’s REALLY important.
And I think that’s the most important thing Amy’s story has taught me. Perspective. When things start to add up and get heavy, I remember Amy, and my burden is lightened.
I love that.
I hate that.
I hate that she experienced something that allowed me to learn it. I hate that I’ve gained something from her because there are one billion other ways I’d rather learn that lesson, than from a beautiful woman who lost her children.
Pittsburghers support Pittsburghers, so please have a read and leave her a small comment of support and love, especially as we near April 6.