A Day With a Palm Tree: Leylah Fernandez, World-Class Fighter

“A day with a palm tree is a great day.”

Stories of personal triumph, community engagement, and environmental stewardship.

This is the first of a new series of inspirational stories I’ll be posting as I continue my path of recovery. I hope they will inspire you to appreciate each day we are given — whether you have palm trees or pine trees or buildings outside your door, it’s a great day.

Leylah Annie Fernandez had a goal

Earlier this year, when Leylah Annie Fernandez was a little-known 18-year-old Canadian tennis player living in South Florida, she said that her goal was to be in the top ten professional women players in the world. The sport writers were skeptical.

Not anymore. She turned 19 on the day before playing for the trophy in the finals of the US Open tennis tournament, having beaten top-ranked opponents on the way to Arthur Ashe stadium, beginning with Naomi Osaka. She’s zoomed into 23rd place on the roster.

In the on-court interview after her stunning victory over Osaka, she was asked if she ever believed she could best Osaka. ”Yes,” she responded with a huge smile. ”Just before the match.”

That’s confidence.

She stepped up

There’s a lot to be said for someone like Fernandez, who has lost a lot of first and second round of matches on the WTA tour this year, producing a completely different level of tennis under the bright lights of Arthur Ashe stadium, for stepping up in close matches against a series of true champions and executing better than they did. That’s what great players do.

Dan Wolken, USA Today, September 11, 2021

Inner steel

As bubbly and engaging as she is off court, the inner steel shines through.

Simon Cambers, The Guardian, September 10, 2021

It’s steel honed by hard work. The daughter of immigrants from Ecuador and the Philippines, Fernandez moved from Montreal to my neighboring town of Boynton Beach in 2018. I assumed that the move was to permit her to train at a prestigious (and expensive) tennis academy, like Chris Evert’s school. Then I read that she trains on public courts and at the beach, and that her father, a former soccer player, is her coach.

Check out this training video, and remember that it’s hot and humid — sweat dripping off your face when you go for a walk — down here.

…a world-class fighter who walks between points with the steely determination of someone on her way to break up a bar brawl.

Christopher Clarey, The New York Times, September 12, 2021

A new bar

Fernandez didn’t win the US Open championship. That went to another brown-skinned daughter of immigrants, England’s Emma Raducanu. These multicultural, multilingual teenagers have just set a new bar for grit, resilience, and joy in the game.

While Raducanu — the first qualifier to win a Grand Slam title — expressed wonderment at her unlikely win, Fernandez, whose top-100 ranking got her into the tournament, may have been tripped up by really, really being sure she would prevail. Recovering from this loss, she said during the on-court interview, would be hard. And then she added this.

I know on this day it was especially hard for New York and everyone around us. I just hope that I can be as strong and resilient as New York has been the past 20 years.

Leylah Fernandez, September 11, 2021

Class act

Leylah Fernandez, New York strong, world-class fighter, class act. You are inspiring my continuing journey of recovery.

Wellness Wednesday: Why Do I Miss Being a Patient?

I sat alone in the audiologist’s isolation room, my eyes closed, and concentrated on listening. And there it was, a beep. And another. And … there, another.

Why was I having my hearing tested? As we emerged out of the pandemic and into society, it seemed to me that I wasn’t hearing people as well. Maybe it was the masks. Or my ears. Or both. My husband, who wears hearing aids — most of the time, though masks wreak havoc with other things hooked around ears— thought I wasn’t hearing as well. So, I went to the ENT practice which had last tested my hearing in 2018.

We’ll get to the results shortly. Here’s what happened to me first.

Being in that small, quiet room and following the audiologist’s orders brought back an unexpected wave of nostalgia for the comforting simplicity of being a hospital patient. No errands. No to do list. No bills, no calls. Just being in that bed for that time was all that was required. Doing what I was told.

It felt really weird to miss it.

It was a simpler time. Maybe like “doing time”? Definitely much nicer than being locked up, but similar in requiring the acceptance that I was in this place and that’s all there was to it.

How did I lie in a single bed for three months? I just did.

The trade off, of course, was that a big bunch of that time there was absolutely nothing my body could do for itself. I was an indebted, and often inert, captive. But my body held on until my mind could join in the effort. I was a very good patient. I aced it.

So here I was sitting alone in this small room, following the audiologist’s commands, when I was overcome with nostalgia.

My reverie was interrupted by the audiologist as she prepared me for the next test. Had I had any antibiotics by IV? Yes, I said, loads while I was hospitalized in 2019. She nodded, wired me up, and shut the door. I anticipated hearing more beeps and tweets. Nothing happened. Or maybe, I thought, something had happened and I couldn’t hear it. Not one sound for what seemed like minutes.

“Sorry,” her voice called over the equipment, “Got a little tied up there. OK, now we’ll start.”

The beeps restarted. I sailed through the test. The audiologist pronounced my hearing “perfect.”

Despite all that I’d been through, I’d avoided damage that hardcore IV antibiotics can cause to the sensory cells in the inner ear that detect sound and motion, resulting in hearing loss, dizziness, and tinnitus. It’s called ototoxicity. Another bullet dodged. Another one-in-a-million story.

That night, I Googled the question, “Why do some people like being in the hospital?”

Because being hospitalized can be like a retreat. No decisions, other than medical ones. No dishes to wash,no housework. No work deadlines. 3 meals, clean sheets. A call bell.

Nancy Walters, on Quora

And, in my case, because these men and women became my community. Who wouldn’t miss this amazing support team?

Family Friday: A family drama in my backyard

Fledgling bird

Like lots of families living through the pandemic, one mother had all the time she could take with her teenager and kicked him out. Or her. It’s hard to tell with a fledgling mockingbird.

When I first spotted the little bird, I thought it was one of the lizards that flash their orange neck fan for the girl lizards to see, or, more likely, to show off to the other male lizards while the girls just roll their eyes. A closer look revealed the orange body part to be a beak, which a very young bird nestled in the grass just outside our patio was opening and closing in silence.

Rescue plan

Poor thing, I thought, too weak to even chirp. Remembering rescuing a baby squirrel in Albany on another spring day years ago, I found a small paper box and ventured outside to save another life.

I bent down to scoop the wee bird up, and two unexpected things happened: the fledgling chirped and hopped a bit — teenagers are such drama queens — and the mother bird dive bombed me.

Backing off

This was not an abandoned or lost bird. This, the wildlife rescue volunteer told me, was an expected rite of passage. The mother boots the fledgling out of the nest but continues feeding the insatiable teen.All I had to do was back off and let the process unfold.

Do not put the bird in a container. That will scare off the mother.

Mary, the volunteer wildlife rescue coordinator

Nature nurture

Even so I heard these words, the mother flew in with a beakful of lunch. After carefully assessing her surroundings, she hopped over to her kid and deposited the morsel in his yawning orange mouth. He immediately chirped for more.

Kids. Ungrateful.

She was back in a few minutes with the next bit. And so on all afternoon while Junior ventured a bit of jumping and flexed his new bony wings.

Mockingbird mother feeds her fledgling in my backyard. It took her about five minutes to scan the surroundings before she hopped down to him. Nature is amazing.

Evening intervention

If the bird is there when evening comes, you can bring it indoors so it’s not killed by an owl, or a snake, or a cat. Or an alligator. But put it right back in the same place in the morning.

Mary, the volunteer wildlife rescue coordinator

The fledgling was gone when we went out to bring him in for the night. I am hoping that he was able to take wing or at least hop to safety. It’s too sad to think that, after all those hours of feeding by a devoted mother, the fledgling was taken by a predator. But, then again, there are all kinds of babies out there needing to be taken care of.

It’s just the beginning of fledgling season. Click here for Palm Beach County information on Florida wildlife.

Wellness Wednesday: How I celebrated my second anniversary of being alive

As I sipped my first cup of coffee this morning, I checked for the Amsterdam time. It was about two in the afternoon, two years ago to the hour from when my heart stopped on May 5, 2019.

My second anniversary

We’d just crossed the Atlantic on a Holland America cruise ship and should have been at Keukenhof Gardens but my husband had bronchitis, so we had stayed in Amsterdam to pick up medicine when I fainted on the sidewalk.
The EMTs arrived quickly, but my vital signs were within normal range and I told them I felt perfectly fine. Of course I did not feel perfectly fine. I’d had several days of cramping in my abdomen but I had been ignoring it, focused as I was on the next leg of our journey and a reunion with family at the Oslo Opera. “Take us back to the ship,” I commanded.

The ship doctor would not let us back on board unless we signed waivers relieving Holland America of the responsibility for our actions. I was determined, R was sick, and getting back to our room seemed like the only thing to do. We signed the waivers and got to the room, but when R returned with lunch 15 minutes later I was sprawled on the bed, semi conscious. This time, the decision was made for us — the ship doctor and his staff, along with a new set of EMTs, evacuated us off the ship within minutes. Although I understand I must have been unconscious, I remember someone saying as I was rolled into the ER at OLVG Hospital, “We are starting CPR.”

Imagine my poor husband watching this drama unfold, sitting in the ER lounge with our luggage and still very, very sick himself.

Surviving

The ER team identified a ruptured arterial aneurysm in my abdomen as the reason for my condition, and they quickly performed a clamping procedure that stopped the leak. However, the amount of blood in my abdomen had already begun to wreak havoc with my organs, and I spent the next six weeks in the ICU as my body fought off failure.

Our daughter and my sister flew to be at my husband’s side through these very long and dark weeks, and they were supported by the remarkably compassionate OLVG doctors and nurses and the extended family of another ICU patient. These dear people became our friends forever — I just mailed them some gifts.

Recovering

When I was discharged to the hospital’s gastroenterology unit, I had lost 30% of my bodyweight and the ability to move. The doctors told me that I might not have made it at all had I not been strong, the result of teaching water exercise to fellow retirees in Florida. The lifetime exercise habit gave my body the muscle memory it needed as I slowly recovered my ability to move, then to stand, then to walk.

R and I flew to Florida at the end of July, where the University of Florida Shands Hospital took over my care and confirmed that I was strong enough to continue my recovery as an outpatient. I shuffled down my neighborhood sidewalk using a walker and then a cane, and regained my ability to walk unassisted through physical therapy. We even joined a gym, and then, just weeks before my first anniversary, the pandemic hit.

Living

Quarantine did not stop me. My walks got longer and faster. The hand weights came out from the closet. I worked out on Zoom with my sister’s Colorado fitness instructor. We bought a stationary bike. I swam in our community pool and jogged in the ocean.

I have regained, maybe even surpassed, my May 5, 2019 strength and resilience. My next Shands checkup is in July, and we’re expecting me to be discharged.

Gratitude

I really wasn’t sure how I was going to celebrate this day. But then, I got a surprise call from Marsha, who was the first person to entrust me with being her personal trainer in the water. Marsha had just finished a water exercise class with an instructor who was filled with joy and enthusiasm, the feeling that I hoped to impart with every class when I was teaching. The repetition of exercises we’d worked on together, the freedom of moving in water and connecting with others — well, she simply had to call me.

As we caught up with each others lives, I was filled with gratitude for Marsha and all my former students who helped me to be strong enough to survive in 2019. We have made it through this awful pandemic year and will see each other over breakfast or in a pool when conditions permit. We are in each other’s lives, and that is a wonderful thing.

Indeed, I am reminded, today and every day, that life is a wonderful thing.

Travel Tuesday: Looking At The Dutch Tulips

Visitors tiptoe through the tulips in Dutch virus test, wrote Mike Corder recently for the AP, documenting the opening of the famed Keukenhof Gardens for a lucky 5,000 people. It is one of hundreds of public venues that the Dutch government has allowed to reopen under strict conditions to evaluate whether rapid testing can safely help the country ease coronavirus restrictions amid rising levels of vaccinations and warmer weather.

This is a gift. It feels great today. It is beautiful weather anyway … but to walk through the tulips is fantastic!

Corder quotesWritingBerries blogger Berry de Nijs, who shared the following picture on her WritingBerries Facebook page. Dank, Berry!
Dutch blogger Berry De Nijs posted this photo of the tulips in Keukenhof Gardens after her recent visit.

On May 5, 2019, we were scheduled to spend the day at Keukenhof Gardens when our cruise ship stopped in Amsterdam for the day before sailing on to Norway to complete a three-week cross-Atlantic voyage. We had missed the brief tulip season when we were in Amsterdam 2018, catching glimpses of the flowers only at the floating market during our week-long stay, so we’re really looking forward to seeing the 7 million tulips, hyacinths, daffodils and myriad other flowers meticulously hand-planted throughout Keukenhof’s manicured lawns by a small army of gardeners.

Photo by Jane Kelly Amerson López, 2018

But, through one of the zillion of timing miracles that allow me to tell you this today, we were not among the tulips on May 5, 2019, when I fainted on an Amsterdam sidewalk. We were outside a pharmacy getting medication for my husband’s bronchitis. Quick response by EMTs had me in an ER within minutes just as my heart stopped. I had ruptured an undiagnosed aneurysm. OLVG Hospital’s expert intervention sealed the leak, but I would be in the ICU for six weeks as my body struggled to survive, and another six weeks in the gastroenterology unit as I slowly regained movement of my wasted limbs.

I celebrated my one-year anniversary back on my feet. But this year as I commemorate surviving and recovering, I am even more grateful to have been spared breast cancer, to be vaccinated, and to be the least interesting patient in my doctor’s roster.

There’s a whole lot to look forward to, maybe even tiptoeing through Kukenhof one day, while living in each moment.

Weekend Wildcard: Poet Kate Hutchinson’s Abecedarian Pandemic Poem

Today, I am sharing a timely and thought-provoking poem by fellow blogger poet Kate Hutchinson (bio below) as she looks back at the year of pandemic. It’s an abecedarian poem, a new term for me but a logical one: she takes a look at COVID, from A to Z. I found it inspiring my thinking back with gratitude, sorrow, and perspective.

It All Matters

Antiseptics. Air for our lungs and air hugs for our hearts.

Boxes of beans plus blue skies and bikes and bare feet.

Clorox on the shelf along with cat food, chocolates and coffee.

Doctors, yes, and drive-thru windows and drive-by birthdays.

Exercise, elastic waistbands, evergreen trees in the yard.

Facts over falsehoods . . . and Facebook. Food kitchens.

Gloves and newly-gray hair and grandparents on screens.

Hospitals full of heroes plus houseplants and hummingbirds.

IV drips, igloos outside restaurants. Vivid imaginations.

Jeans, jammies, jigsaws, Jeopardy! and Jupiter kissing Saturn.

Keeping our distance but keeping the faith. Kindness.

Libraries, leaves greening then falling on lawns. Love.

Masks and music and movies and mothers and miracles.

Nurses, oh yes. Newspapers and neighbors on the front porch.

Oximeters, ovens full of bread. Open minds, open hearts.

Personal protective equipment. Pets on laps and leashes. Poetry.

Q-tip swabs and questions on quarantining.

Remdesivir plus reading, reading, reading.

Steroids, sourdough starter, and solos on balconies.

Too much toilet paper and time on treadmills. Tireless teachers.

Ultraviolet light and unsung heroes all around us.

Ventilators. Vaccines! Vegetables from our own gardens.

Windows kept open and long walks and wine.

X-rays of lungs, experts who temper our expectations.

Yeast and yarn and yoga and yearning for normal.

Zoom gluing us together under zillions of stars.

~ Kate Hutchinson

The golden sunset peaks through the clouds above the horizon on Juno Beach, Florida last Thanksgiving. Photo: Jane Kelly Amerson López

From “Both Sides of the Window,” Kate Hutchinson’s blog:

Kate Hutchinson recently retired from teaching high school English, and she has on occasion taught poetry writing at a local university.  Her first chapbook of poetry, The Gray Limbo of Perhaps, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2012 and is available at their website (linked to the right). A full-length collection of her poems and prose-poems, Map Making: Poems of Land and Identity, was released by THEAQ Press (Rosemount, MN) in 2015.  It is available through Amazon or directly from the author upon request.

Kate has had poems and short essays published in many literary magazines and anthologies since she began writing professionally in the early 2000’s, and several of her pieces have earned recognition in local or national contests.  Her poem “Fowler Ridge Wind Farm,” winner of the 2010 Mobius literary magazine poetry contest, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  A second Pushcart nomination came in 2018 for a golden shovel poem written on the day of Elie Wiesel’s death, which uses the Emily Dickinson line, “Hope inspires the good to reveal itself.”

Blogging is Kate’s way of forcing herself to write and think about the deeper elements of life amidst the daily demands of job, family, and home.