One Woman, One Pry Bar and Determination

Today’s post is a “What I did this summer,” story. But the truth is it began over five years ago.

We have a small home in the Arizona mountains. Like much of the land in Strawberry it is on a steep hillside as it backs up to the Mogollon Rim. When the house was built we had to have fill dirt and rock brought in to give us a somewhat level foundation. From the back to the front of the house it’s still a three foot drop, but it was workable. As you can imagine where the bulldozer stopped leveling the ground there was a steep drop off with this fill dirt. In my eyes it wasn’t a very pretty sight. But it also wasn’t a priority.

Until the summer five years ago when I looked around and decided to make good use of the natural sandstone found everywhere on the property and build a stone wall up the hillside. The sandstone was so plentiful it seemed an easy job to level and stack. But it was not. The pry bar immediately gave a resounding thump as it bounced off a big rock. It was so heavy that after less than fifteen minutes I was ready to cry in frustration. Of course, Bob ran over to help (that’s how he is) which only irritated me more. This was to be my project but I couldn’t even move one single stone. There was a big ‘woe is me’ pity party, blaming myself for being out of shape and unable to manage the 5000 feet altitude.

You know how hindsight is 20-20? A short month later I had one of those moments. Yes, that’s when I was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. Ah ha! It was a moment of clarity. Suddenly, the fatigue, shortness of breath and lack of strength made sense. If only it had been recognized sooner…but that’s a story for another day except to say, if you are a woman get your mammogram. My doctor had recommended a baseline study and with no family history of problems my prescription had been sitting on the counter waiting for the opportune time. Because of, well, priorities… Don’t be like me. Make your health a priority.

Fast forward five years to this summer.


Planting a little peach tree right in the middle of the wall.

Other projects finished, my attention turned back to the front yard. I dug out the pry bar and headed back over to the hillside. Five years of better health brings with it strength and to my surprise, ability. Ability to pound the pry bar into the ground. Ability to move big rocks. And ability to persevere. I began stacking the sandstone, learning as the project moved along how to make them level and how to lock them together. At first, I would wait on Bob to help move the big rocks and then came realization that one person can do a whole lot using a lever and fulcrum. Learning that the same small stone that keeps a rock wiggling when you stand on it can also be used as a pivot for a much larger rock. Slowly, and some days, ever so slowly, the wall began to take shape. Bob would call and ask what we accomplished that day and I’d tell him, “I moved one rock.” Some days I imagined myself like the ancient Egyptians building the pyramids but thank goodness I wasn’t. Still one rock at a time it was built.


The finished product?

As summer ends is my rock wall finished? Maybe. Maybe not. I still haven’t decided. It’s far enough over and close enough to the brambly manzanita bushes that it could be done. Or it might be continued next summer. In the mean time we planted some vines in the cracks and a few lilacs dug up from Mom’s yard. Hopefully they will become well established over the winter.

Before leaving you’ll get a laugh from this picture that comes with an explanation. I asked Bob to take a flattering photo I could share (Rebecca says if I wanted a flattering picture I should have looked at myself in the mirror in those pants…) But I gave Bob my camera, the one he never uses, with instructions to take a panoramic picture, something he has never done. He tried to figure it out but my directions were pretty poor as was my impatience. Ha. As you can see, the picture turned out so terribly that it’s funny.

100_3425And that’s what I did this summer. Just call me the stone stacker.

The Goal

 Have you ever set a goal for yourself, then wondered how in the world you would accomplish it?  We all do.  Sometimes the task is huge and maybe we’re not quite as knowledgeable as we want others to know.  But we don’t want to admit it.  Unrealistic…or attainable…  Right???  Okay, maybe it hasn’t happened to you…but it has happened to me.

Years ago we learned about an interesting program for children with special needs.  It involved a unique interaction between the kids and dolphins.  Dolphins are smart.  They are able to sense things that we humans sometimes miss.  Dolphins (you’ve seen it with some dogs) pick up on a persons ability and feed on it.  They’ll be gentle with the fragile older woman and rambunctious with the teen.  People realized that dolphins have this uncanny way of sensing things and saw that disabled people were also relating to the dolphins in a good, positive way.  They took it a step further and found that often disabled children would be particularly motivated to “work” if the reward was a treat with a dolphin.  Speech and occupational therapists found this work/reward system to be successful in many children.

Back to Matthew.

After we learned about the program I called and got more information.  It sounded like great fun.  Yes, it was expensive but maybe we could see some benefit.  We got on their waiting list.  The wait was long…I’d almost forgotten about it when, in the spring two years later, I got a letter inviting us to schedule a in the summer.  I was so excited!  Something fun.  It might help Matthew.  We can call it a vacation.

Until I read the qualifications:  Cannot be afraid of water.  Uh, oh.

Let me just tell you that Matthew has a healthy respect for water.  He doesn’t take a shower because he doesn’t like water on his head.  He never gets too close to the edge of a lake or river, always choosing to throw rocks from ‘way back there’…  And swimming lessons???  Yeah, right.  We tried.  Many years we tried.  Always the same, screaming kid, scared of the water.

I know you’re laughing thinking, “Good grief, that should have been that.  But the pictures???”  And you’d be right.  That should have been that. 

But we said, “Let’s do it.  We’ll schedule for the end of summer.”  Talk about setting a goal.  I was not sure we would make it.  Still, we’d give it our best shot.

Luckily, Phoenix has a special pool that offers lessons to those with special needs.  I signed Matthew up.  I think they would only let us sign up for a month at a time.  Day one came and we got to the pool.  Matthew had been there before and it hadn’t been pretty.  In his usual manner he turned around and grabbed on to me wrapping his arms and legs better than any octopus.  I would say his voice was loud and boisterous but shrill and shrieking would be more correct.  I love that pool.  It’s 5ft at the deepest so the entangled two of us walked out to mid pool.  When I finally managed to get him unwrapped he discovered he’d grown.  He was standing in the middle with water only to his waist!  Score one for mom.

But learning to swim was a different story.  No, he did not want to put his face in the water.  No, he did not think it was fun to float on his back.  No, he was not going to jump off the side of the pool.  The teachers were good.  They worked patiently with him each day.  Day after day.  Every two weeks he was evaluated.  I think you had to reach Level 3 to be an independent swimmer.  He was at Level 1.  May ran into June and June into July.  One thing I have learned about Matthew is that the more times he does something the closer he is to mastery.  (I know…that’s the same for most of us…)  We decided that once a day wasn’t enough and began going back to the pool in the evening.  Rebecca also got some lessons and showed us how it could be done.  We were well tan that year.  We knew all the lifeguards and teachers by name, along with their class schedule and future goals.  But still Matthew was barely putting his face in the water.  Still screaming.  Still scared. 

August rolled around and I was pretty worried.  He had made progress but was still at Level 2.  Should I call the dolphin place?  Dear God…hear my prayer…  Had I really set a goal we could not reach? 

Then it happened.  We’re in the pool (as usual).  Matthew screaming and flailing (as usual).  But then the teacher stepped away.  HE WAS SWIMMING!  Oh my goodness!  It was so exciting.  As soon as Bob got off work we went back to show off.  It wasn’t a fluke.  He was swimming! 

One week later we were on the plane to Florida.  The size of the lagoon where the dolphins lived was pretty intimidating.  I won’t lie and tell you the first day or two was easy but he did it.  He worked hard, tried to say the words, and loved his rewards.  On the last day I overheard one of the trainers telling another that the dolphin wasn’t listening to him.  He was right, the dolphin was responding to Matthew.

So if you have what might seem an insurmountable task think of Matthew.  A lot of patience.  A lot of effort.  And a super lot of determination.  Amazing what we can do.