Totem: /ˈtōdəm/ noun; plural noun: totems: a natural object or animal believed by a particular society to have spiritual significance and adopted by it as an emblem.

“You do not choose a Spirit Guide as your personal spirit guide. The Spirit chooses you and they decide to whom they will reveal themselves and make their friend.”

“Each Animal has its own Medicine which is unique to that specific creature as gifted by the Great Mystery and its spirit cannot be chosen like the color of your car.”

“Discovering who your animal guides are is a process of paying attention to the spirits around you and following the signs. It is a process of developing your inner knowledge and spiritual understanding.”

Takatoka – Manataka American Indian

My father was diagnosed with dementia in August of 2010. Over the next two years, he would slowly fall into Alzheimer’s monstrous grasp. Dad knew he was losing what was left of his brain, his daily frustration towards the end becoming grossly apparent. I still remember the exact moment that he forgot my name, only to be followed by, “I know who you are, but what’s your name again?”

In June of 2012 we moved our parents to Mount Laurel, New Jersey, a town about 10 minutes from where I currently live. Aside from being more than an hour away from each child and the house being too large for an elderly couple, my father’s dementia caused him to become solely reliant on my mother – a wife who had spent the past 58 years of her life being solely reliant on her husband. It was a terrible move- it took three years to sell their house and purge 58 years-worth of lifelong treasures. My mother complained about how much she hated her new home (three years later she would insist on dying in that home). My father cried over his inability to remember where he lived, carrying in his wallet a small laminated note card I made for him showing his name, address and telephone number.

My father died suddenly on April 1, 2013. He suffered a pulmonary embolism while bringing in his recycling bin and collapsed in the driveway. My mother would later say she thought he was joking around – after all, it was April Fool’s Day…

I will admit, I felt relief for myself and my family, but mostly for my father. In the end, we knew he didn’t want to live his life this way. He was clear-headed enough to know what was happening to him and dreaded the day that his brain and body would be consumed by this horrible disease.

As my husband and I were leaving my mother’s house the day after my father died, a flock of wild turkeys ran from the side of a neighbor’s yard and right in front of our car. Although wild turkeys are not uncommon in our area, we were surprised by their sudden presence. For the entire week after until his funeral, wild turkeys came out of nowhere, running through my mother’s backyard and all around her neighborhood. Then the turkeys started showing up at my house…

I remember thinking at that time how I couldn’t feel dad’s presence anymore. When my sister died less than three years earlier, I felt her presence almost immediately and have felt her every day since. I started thinking about all dad’s silly sayings, “Take all you want, but eat all you take.” “For crying out loud!” and his all-time Thanksgiving favorite, “Pass the turkey, turkey.” That’s when it dawned on me – the turkeys were my father’s animal guides! All this time I was feeling his loss, but he was right there – I just wasn’t paying attention. I could now feel his presence, knowing he was right there with us, watching and guiding…

Wild turkey teaches you how to project your voice and your truths. It is important to know when to say your message, truths or opinion; and how to say it clearly and loudly enough that other people take notice.

After the funeral, the turkeys disappeared. I felt sad and hoped it didn’t mean dad was gone forever – now I truly felt his loss. Over the following days and weeks, riding my bike seemed to be the only way of comforting my sorrow. I had my go-to place (remember, it’s where I go when I don’t want to think about where I’m going), the Cooper River. One of the other things I like about this ride is that part of the route runs parallel to several dirt trails, offering off-road cycling with some interesting photo ops.


Thinking again about my father, a lone turkey suddenly darted out from my right side, across the path in front of me and off to my left. It ran quick enough so that I didn’t need to brake and kept riding on through. And then I smiled with tears in my eyes…thanks daddy…see ya later!

“Bone for bone we are the same
Bones get tired and they can’t carry all the weight
We can talk until you can’t even remember my name
Daddy don’t you worry, I’ll do the remembering…”

Remembering – Ashley Campbell

“I had run for 3 years, 2 months, 14 days, and 16 hours.” – Forrest Gump


Sunday, September 25, 2016 – 6:30 a.m.

Bessie’s ready to rock and roll!


Took a beautiful sunrise drive to the coast this morning to reach our tour destination for the Twin Lights Ride in Highlands, New Jersey and this was the sky we were greeted with…


Could it have been ANY other color?! The sky has been this color 99% of the time I’ve ridden over the past year – first sign that this is a ride we’re meant to be on.

So on our last tour, Kathy told me how she and her family use “code names” to find one another when lost in a crowd. Before we began, she announced to me that our code name would be “Stella” – yes, just like in Streetcar Named Desire. It was to be called out in the same fashion; that way we knew it was one or the other calling out and not some random person calling for their friend Stella…

After parking for this tour, Kathy texted me to let me know she was already on line waiting to register – “I’m wearing a lime green shirt with a black vest.” Can’t miss that, I figured. Remembering our code name, I rode up the long registration line calling, “Stella! Stella! STELLA!” Nothing…

Next thing I knew, a rather large male volunteer was standing in front of me telling me, “You can’t be riding here acting like that! Turn around and go back!” Startled, I wavered and Bessie collapsed below me. As I began to fall to my left and Bessie stuck between my legs, I felt someone grabbing my arm telling me in that wonderfully thick New York accent to, “Go ahead and fall baby! I gotcha!” but I was more concerned about my bike being damaged. My “Fall Guy” managed to catch me as I caught Bessie. I was overly apologetic, but for the Fall Guy it was nothing – he was thoroughly entertained. Twice again on the tour I would run into him, he always recognizing me – “Hey baby! How ya doin’?! Fall on me anytime!”

As another female volunteer took pity on my embarrassment and allowed me to cut in line (“Just get off the road, lady…”), I apologized to everyone around me for cutting in line, only to hear responses like, “Don’t worry about it!” “I’m not in a hurry!” “We’re just chillin’!” “We’re all going to the same place, no biggie!” Wow…if only people could behave like this while driving in their cars…imagine the possibilities?!

Finally, I find myself at the front of the line and see Kathy getting her tags. “Stella!” I yell…nothing…”STELLA!”…nothing…”Yo, Kathy!!!” Now she responds…

Starting out…

For the record, Kathy’s shirt was chartreuse, not lime green…no, it really matters when you’re looking for one person in a sea of 3,000…

We started off riding through some small residential neighborhoods along the coast. Then came the first “hill” – the bridge crossing over Sandy Hook Bay leading towards Seabright. It’s not a terrible hill, but it’s no fun starting on a hill. The view was most certainly worth the push though…


Once over the bridge, the first thing Kathy and I both notice is “Alice’s Kitchen,” American Cuisine with an Irish Flavor – that’s me! Another sign!

Before heading out, we agreed that if the weather cooperated, we would “stop and smell the roses” once in a while…

The BEST Halloween decoration EVER!

However, Kathy also informed me that we would most definitely be stopping at every rest area to stockpile whatever food was being offered – and stop we did.

Who can say no to a bike tour that offers a chocolate fountain?!

Further on down the road, we found ourselves at a red light and this is what we saw:


Our brother for whom we were riding – another sign!

I then tell Kathy that I drove past Florence, New Jersey that morning – mom’s name…and another!

Among the many conversations we had that day, we talked about how we stumble upon our names when traveling, Kathy having driven by Regina (our sister), New Mexico and met a horse named Arthur (our brother’s and father’s names) this past summer. It’s funny how these names pop up on us, never actually looking for them and yet finding them to be some kind of “sign” that we’re either meant to be there or that someone is looking down on us from above, guiding us down this path…or maybe both…

Training for this tour, 30 miles seemed impossible. I’ve ridden 30 miles on a number of occasions throughout the years, but each time struggled to keep myself going. Yesterday’s ride was a piece of cake, but why? For the same reason the Five Boro ride seemed like a piece of cake. On a larger scale, you’re surrounded by thousands of people who are sharing this same path, giving the support and encouragement you need to keep moving when needed. On a much smaller scale you’re confronted with the large male volunteer telling you to “go back” and the female volunteer guiding you onto the “right path;” a Fall Guy supporting your weight when you can no longer stand; the individuals who show you they’ve been there, done that and survived and ultimately “finished;” or the sister who shares long-awaited hours of cherished conversation.

But you’re also part of that support team – that moment when you witness someone struggling more than yourself and your words of, “Keep going!” “You can do it!” empower them to carry on and not give up. Or sharing your life’s wisdom as a middle-aged woman with the girl who hates the photo you took of her because she looks “too fat.”

I asked Kathy if she remembers teaching me how to ride that little red Schwinn. Although she didn’t, it’s a memory I have kept to this day, 46 years later. I don’t remember exactly why I couldn’t ride the bike properly – I rode it like a recumbent bike, sitting on the fender with my legs extended to the pedals. I remember that when I sat on the seat, my legs would get all scratched up, hence my fender riding style. At some point, Kathy approached me and asked if she could help and I happily obliged. She kept helping me up on the seat, holding my body on the bike so I wouldn’t fall down – giving me just enough support to get moving. I don’t remember if she simply lowered the seat or if her confidence in my ability to ride got me going, but either way, I’ve ridden my bike sitting on the saddle ever since. Now I can finish the race…


“We really ain’t that different, you and me…

’cause I’m scared the storm’s gonna take me away,
but I really don’t know what I got to say
Hold on…hold on…
Cry, if you’re gonna cry,
Come on, cry with me.
You ain’t alone,
just let me be your ticket home.”

You Ain’t Alone – Alabama Shakes

“I had run for 3 years, 2 months, 14 days, and 16 hours.” – Forrest Gump

Christmas in October…

As the one-year anniversary of my brother’s passing quickly approaches, I find myself looking back and thinking about the months, weeks, days and hours leading up to his final moments. When my daughter and I visited Michael in July 2015, he had us convinced that he was “better” and would live at least another year or so. By August, we were told he had six months…at best. Upon hearing from Elizabeth earlier in the week, Kathy had flown out to Milwaukee on the Friday before in order to say her last good byes. At that point, Michael was inpatient hospice and mostly in and out of consciousness, barely capable of speaking. On the morning of October 25th, Kathy called me to let me know that the end was coming soon – the doctors believed Michael would be gone by that Tuesday. I contemplated flying to Milwaukee. The only thing stopping me from going was reliving the death of my mother, who had also been in hospice at home, seven months before. She had died the day before my 50th birthday. Sobbing, I did the only thing I could to help me think through my decision…I went for a bike ride:

I rode almost 30 miles that day, starting out in a misty rain. By the end of the ride, the sky turned that beautiful blue I’d seen so many days before. On the return trip home, it dawned on me that my brother was no longer seeing the photos I was posting on Facebook during the weeks leading up to that day. At that moment, I knew there was no choice – I needed to fly to Milwaukee and see Michael one last time before he died. By nine years, nine months, three weeks and one day, he was my older brother…he was the only brother I knew. In the 50 years, 8 months, 3 weeks, 2 days, 2 hours and 40 minutes on this planet together, we had shared way too many moments to simply say good bye on the phone.

I booked the first flight to Milwaukee the following morning. By that afternoon, I was at his bedside. He hung on long enough to kiss me goodbye, hold my hand and “dance” with me to his favorite Christmas music. When I told him to hug everyone for me when he got to where he was going, he blinked twice. I told him I loved him a bazillion times and prayed for his pain to end. At 2:40am on October 27th, my dear brother most definitely passed on into Heaven and met with G-d.

Just like my mother before him, they both “died on a Tuesday.”

 “And take a message to Michael, message to Michael
Tell him I miss him more each day
As his train pulled out down the track
Michael promised he’d soon be coming back”

Message to Michael – Dionne Warwick

” I had run for 3 years, 2 months, 14 days, and 16 hours. “- Forrest Gump


With Twin Lights only three days away and not wanting to overdo it this week after my crazy 40-mile-getting-lost-ride to Timbuctoo last Sunday, I went to my “go to” place – the Cooper River.

This is where I go when I don’t want to think about where I’m going – the only decision being made is whether I take the hill on the way there or on the way back. I’ve been riding here for six years now and know it like the back of my hand. On occasion I find something new along the way, but not often. However, what I love about riding here is that I can photograph the same site repeatedly yet see it differently each time. Sometimes it’s the seasonal changes. Sometimes it’s a shift in angle. Sometimes …I’m just looking

Whether the hill is on the way there or on the way back, this is what I’ve been passing each time over the past year:


A memorial has been in this spot since October 13, 2015. I never actually stopped to look at it – I knew it was there and I knew why it was there. That was the day they found the body of a 3-year-old boy in the woods along my route. His alleged murderer (his father) is in prison and awaiting trial. The Prosecution says he murdered his son so he could continue a relationship with his teenage girlfriend who didn’t like kids. If this is true, I cannot imagine what a parent is thinking when they commit such an horrific act. I cannot imagine what the mother is going through, having lost her only child through violence.

I don’t know what it’s like to lose a child and pray to G-d every day that I never will. My child is my world. She’s put us through hell on more than one occasion, but the thought of hurting her, let alone killing her, has never crossed my mind. Trust me, I’m not a perfect parent and I do the best I can, considering I’ve never been in this situation before. Although I have never suffered the loss of a child, my parents lost two within their lifetimes.

My brother, Arthur, was also 3-years-old when he died…


Arthur is the baby on my brother Michael’s lap. I never knew him – he died by electrocution after sticking a knife into a toaster. He died June 30, 1963 – before I was born. I’ve heard stories of how my parents reacted to Arthur’s death – the devastation and sorrow is unimaginable.

Kathy, my cycling partner, is the girl on the left. The girl on the right is Maureen –  she passed on December 22, 2010 from heart failure – three days before Christmas. A family Christmas gathering was planned for the 26th. She was the proud mother of two (a girl and a boy) and the Gramma of a beautiful 6-month-old granddaughter. She was the middle child and the only blonde. She was our peace keeper. Everyone loved her – seriously…everyone loved her. I never knew any person who didn’t so much as dislike her…even a little bit.

She died suddenly…with no warning – she was only 51 years old…the age I am now. My parents’ grief was a pain I cannot describe and it left a hole in their hearts that was never refilled. The grief we have suffered from her loss almost six years later is beyond words. I think about her EVERY day…every day…My only consolation?  Knowing that my mom, my dad, my brothers and my sister are all together with other family members…and wait for the rest of us…

“Our siblings push buttons that cast us in roles we felt sure we had let go of long ago – the baby, the peacekeeper, the caretaker, the avoider…It doesn’t seem to matter how much time has elapsed or how far we’ve traveled.”

Jane Mersky Leder

“’cause there’s holes in the floor of Heaven,
“And her tears are pouring down.
“That’s how you know she’s watching,
“Wishing she could be here now.
“An’ sometimes if you’re lonely,
“Just remember she can see.
“There’s holes in the floor of Heaven
“And she’s watching over you and me.”

Holes in the Floor of Heaven – Steve Wariner

“I had run for 3 years, 2 months, 14 days, and 16 hours.” – Forrest Gump

Twin Lights here we come!

Continuing My Gump Ride, Kathy and I decided to do another bike tour – the Twin Lights Ride through Bike New York.

For those not familiar, “Bike New York is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that promotes and encourages bicycling and bicycle safety through education, community outreach and events.” Kathy discovered the program earlier this year, resulting in our TD Five Boro Bike Tour on May 1st. We rode as “The Duffy Gang” in memory of our brother, Michael (Duffy was his nickname in high school).


On the Twin Lights Ride, you can ride 15, 30, 55, 75 or 100 miles. This time we decided to do only 30 miles – we just don’t have it in us to do more than 45 again…yet!  Twin Lights refers to the two lighthouses located in Highlands, New Jersey along the shoreline:

“Situated 200 feet above sea level atop the Navesink Highlands, Twin Lights has stood as a sentinel over the treacherous coastal waters of northern New Jersey since 1828. Named Navesink Lightstation, it became known as the “Twin Lights of Highlands” to those who used its mighty beacons to navigate. As the primary seacoast light for The Highlands, New York Harbor, it was the best and brightest light in North America for generations of seafarers. Many a life and cargo were saved by the sweep of its light.”

On August 1st, I began my training once again. Now into my eighth week, I’m just about ready for the bike tour next Sunday, September 25th. Today’s plan for September 18, 2016 was to ride for 30 miles as a practice run for the tour. With my ride mapped and GPS on hand, I started out for my destination – Timbuctoo…no, seriously…there’s a Timbuctoo in New Jersey:

Here’s proof of its existence and proof that I was there:

However, I missed my turn off and got lost on the way to Timbuctoo and ended up riding 40 miles altogether. This is what flashed in my mind as I rode into the wind approaching the 30-mile mark knowing I had 10 more miles to go:

It’s when the body says, “Nope…not doin’ it…I’m DONE!” But it’s also when the brain takes over – the one that pep talks you out of your situation, the one whose endorphins are at their peak telling you there’s no pain, the one who’s going to get you home regardless of what your quads, crotch and hands have to say about it. It’s also the moment where my spirit tells me that “this too shall pass,” that it’s only temporary and that I have the ability to keep it or make it go away. I could call a cab or suck it up. That’s the moment when I think of Michael – the pain he suffered that wasn’t a choice, that wasn’t temporary and the bravery we witnessed every day despite his pain…

Here’s what I found along my detour:

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from cycling is that getting lost is okay. Actually, I first learned this lesson when I was a student for a semester in Ireland back in the fall of 1987. For three months, in between classes I hitchhiked around the country without maps or directions. What was the worst thing that could happen? If I walked too far east, I would end up at the Irish Sea. And if I walked too far west I would end up at the Atlantic Ocean. Too far south? More Atlantic Ocean. And if I walked too far north, well, that was simple – there would be army men with guns in my face. So I never actually felt “lost” while traveling there. The same principle applies here – what’s the worst that can happen? I don’t end up where I planned, but end up finding a new place unexpected…

“Put your dreams away for now
I won’t see you for some time
I am lost in my mind
I get lost in my mind”

Lost In My Mind – The Head and the Heart

“I had run for 3 years, 2 months, 14 days, and 16 hours.” – Forrest Gump


“Return to what you are, return to who you are
Return to where you are
Born and reborn again
Return again, return again,
Return to the land of your Soul”

Return Again – Shlomo Carlebach

September 16, 2016…one year later…


So, out of curiosity, I decided to return to the scene of my first photo…and this is what I found…again!

However, this is what I also found…

Vibrant blueberries growing wild, train tracks leading to nowhere, wild flowers growing along (and sometimes in) the road, a snow pea farm, local farmers selling off their autumn harvest, a peaceful creek  running under that closed bridge.

One of the most important lessons I have learned from Kathy in recent years? “Move slow and steady.” There were so many things I was missing along the way. I wanted to stop and look around, but the impulse to “race” took over. I was missing those wild blueberries growing on the side of a parking lot I’ve parked in dozens of times. I wondered where those train tracks ended up and thought about how much my brother loved trains – of the train set he had since childhood and still sits in his home to this day. I wondered how a pretty little flower could grow out of concrete at one of the busiest intersections in Moorestown and not be crushed by every car that drove by. I looked in awe at the fields and fields of snow peas growing less than a mile away from a mall. I thought about the farmer whose land was attached to his market – how hard he worked all year long to make ends meet and how much I wanted to “act local, think global.” Then there’s that sky – how ridiculously blue with puffy white clouds. I call them “fake skies.” If my eyes hadn’t seen them, I’d think they were a piece of art. And all this within a 1o-mile radius of my home – 1 hour, 37 minutes and 3 seconds of my life.

“I move slow and steady
But I feel like a waterfall
Yeah, I move slow and steady
Past the ones that I used to know”

Slow and Steady – Of Monsters and Men

“I had run for 3 years, 2 months, 14 days, and 16 hours.” – Forrest Gump

Why I annoy all my Facebook friends with hundreds of photos of my bike rides…


This is a photograph of my big brother, Michael. It was taken by me in August of 2010 when I, my husband and our daughter visited him and his wife, Elizabeth, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Less than three years later, in the spring of 2013, Michael was diagnosed with Stage IV anal cancer. Although he had visited us in New Jersey following the death of our sister in 2010 and both our parents in 2013 and 2015, my daughter and I decided to visit him again in July of 2015, knowing it may very well be our last. This is a photograph I took of him during our visit:


He knew he was dying, yet, along with his wife’s unfettered dedication, his desire to live and his ever present humor were his strengths.

After 2 ½ years of radiation treatments, chemotherapy and various other therapies attempted in vain, along with a colostomy, he had been in and out of the hospital numerous times, resulting in one last admission in early October 2015. On October 25th, I was told my brother had less than 48 hours to live. The next morning, I flew to Milwaukee to say good bye. He hung on long enough to kiss me, hold my hand and “dance” with me to his favorite Christmas tunes. At 2:40 a.m., Tuesday, October 27, 2015, my brother finally succumbed to the cancer ravaging his body.

One of the things my brother and I would often talk about was cycling. When he was a child, Michael loved to ride his bicycle. I think one of his fondest memories of riding as a teenager was when he and his friend decided to ride from Ramsey, New Jersey to West Point, New York – that’s over 30 miles one way! I can’t imagine what a 60-mile ride on a whim would feel like, but he did it.

However, over the years, my brother stopped riding. I’m not sure why he stopped, but he did. Since the age of five, over the course of my life I’ve shared the love of cycling my brother once had. There have been many times when I have stopped riding – illness, caring for my parents, being overwhelmed with work – but I managed to get “back in the saddle” and ride again.

After my visit in July of 2015, I realized how much cycling meant to me. From my very first hand-me-down red Schwinn to the diehard Trek I currently own (named Bessie the Mule), cycling is something that has kept me going, regardless of life’s obstacles. My brother no longer had that option. I couldn’t imagine something so meaningful in my life taken from me forever.

Before my visit to Milwaukee, I attempted and failed several times to get back into riding. Over the preceding  year, my riding had been sporadic for multiple reasons, but once I returned from my visit, I found myself more and more motivated to get “back in the saddle.” For the first time in my life, I decided to do some kind of bike tour. I wasn’t sure what it would be, but I needed a goal to set my sites on – something to honor my brother’s memory. I trained for over two months that summer and fall, finding places I didn’t even know existed. There was so much out there to see, but I knew I wasn’t going to see it “racing” through the streets.

It dawned on me in the middle of September 2015 – I didn’t want to “race.” My training hadn’t been about how fast I can go or how quickly I could get to the finish line. That’s when I remembered Forrest Gump:

“That day, for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run. So I ran to the end of the road. And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d run to the end of town. And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d just run across Greenbow County. And I figured, since I run this far, maybe I’d just run across the great state of Alabama. And that’s what I did. I ran clear across Alabama. For no particular reason I just kept on going. I ran clear to the ocean. And when I got there, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well turn around, just keep on going. When I got to another ocean, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well just turn back, keep right on going…My mama always said, “You got to put the past behind you before you can move on” and I think that’s what my running was all about.”

So that’s what I decided to do – I was going to ride because “I just felt like riding.” I’m riding for my brother because he can’t…I’m riding because I can…

One year ago today, September 16, 2015, I started photographing my bicycle rides and would post them on my brother’s Facebook page as a means of encouragement for him while he was in and out of the hospital. This was the very first photo I took:

9/16/15, 11:38 a.m.

I remember the caption went something like this: “My first attempt at 15 miles and this is what I hit…” I remember being angry at that moment – that I couldn’t follow the route I’d planned that day. I decided to take a break, cool off, calm down and look around the area where I was standing. There wasn’t much to photograph:

This was all I got…but it’s my favorite color…

Then I looked up at the sky…


This would be the sky I would see 99% of every ride I took over the next year. I loved this color so much, I  painted my house the same shade of blue. Even if it was raining when I started out, the sky would always end up looking like it did that very first photo, September 16, 2015.

The bike tour didn’t happen that fall. Before I could finish my training schedule, my brother passed away. However, I didn’t stop riding and returned my sites back onto my first bike tour…

“Butt selfie” – 11/4/15

On May 1, 2016, my oldest sister and I rode our first bike tour together – the TD Five Boro Bike Tour in NYC.

The Finish Line!

We rode 45 miles altogether! The temperature never went above 45 degrees, it started to rain the second we started and we battled the BQE and the Verrazano like champions. We were frozen and miserable by the end and they ran out of thermal blankets, but we did it…for Michael …because our pain could NEVER match the pain he so bravely endured for 2 1/2 years.

Two skies…

“They say it’s what you make
I say it’s up to fate
It’s woven in my soul
I need to let you go”

Demons – Imagine Dragons

“I had run for 3 years, 2 months, 14 days, and 16 hours.” – Forrest Gump