It’s what we do.

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Today is the last day of November. It is also the last day to recognize caregivers. November is the designated month to celebrate the caregivers in our lives.

And much like what it can feel like to be a caregiver, the month went by with little recognition. And that is okay.

Most of us don’t do it for the praise, or the pat on the back. We certainly can’t say we do it for the money or the fame. We do this for someone we care about, someone we love.

But, for just a moment, I want to give you a peek inside the life of a caregiver.

• We get interrupted sleep, and we seldom (if ever) sleep a full 8 hours.

• We eat our meals last, or even standing up, in a rush to move onto the next check item on our to-do list

• We juggle so many things at once, we have a hard time focusing.

• We coordinate, organize or rearrange our schedule to take care of everyone else.

• Sometimes, we want to think of ourselves, but then feel guilty for it.

• We worry…all the time.

• We sometimes feel overwhelmed at the responsibility of caring for another.

• We have a rash of emotions that spread over us quickly, and yes, sometimes they might seem irrational. Don’t worry, the feelings dissipate quickly.

• Showers become the only private time we get to ourselves…

• We are the advocate, and the voice and the warrior for the person we care for.

• We have moments of selfishness, of wanting to not to have to think of, or put another person over ourselves all the time.

• We remember how much we love the person we are caring for, and somehow, all those emotions, and the weight of what we do seems less heavy for just a while.

• We often feel alone.

• We cry in the shower because the sound of the water washes our tears and drowns out our anguish.

• We smile through the irritations, or frustrations…and yes, even through the pain.

• We can’t imagine not trying so hard.

• We live with guilt over not being enough…every.single.day.

• We know that this role we play won’t last forever.

• We hate being told it’s not about us….

• We get irritated when others try to give us advice but have no real-life experience with the same situation.

• Seeing our loved one smile can make the frustrations and hardships more bearable.

• We would still make this choice, if it means just one more day with those we love.

Remember, you will either be a caregiver or need a caregiver at some point in your life.

If you know a caregiver, show some empathy and compassion. It’s a tough job.

If you need a caregiver, show some empathy and compassion, it’s a tough job!

 Matthew Wild

ante up…

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The dealer looks to each player at his table. Shuffling, he asks for their ante.  The sound of the chips as they bounce in a pile is all the indication the dealer needs. He shuffles…eyeing each player as he slides the cards along the felt table top.

The players duck their heads low. Holding their hands over the top of their cards, they peek at what has been dealt to them.

Some of them silently groan.

Their cards don’t offer much. They will have to discard many of their cards, and hope for something better.

Other players are inwardly giddy. Their hands are set. It won’t take much to win.

Each player discards a portion of their hand.  Looking across at each other, some for the first time, they take in what each player is doing. Looking for each other to show emotion, a tick, a nervous twitch, anything to show or tell them what hand the other person has, as the dealer gracefully pulls the discarded pile away, and swiftly thumbs the new cards.

The players shift in their seats.

Some players had poor hands, but the newest cards have given them an advantage.

Some players had a fairly decent hand but would have preferred a better one.

Others, hanging their heads in shame, they throw their cards down with a heavy sigh…not willing to bet, or even try to bluff for a win.

The dealer raises his eyebrows.

Who will raise the stakes?  Who will show their “tell” and give it all away by a twinge of their mouth or a tap of a finger?

Most players throw a few chips in.

Not a word is said.

The tension is building.  Spectators have crowded around the table. Not brave enough to join in but enthralled with the daring and recklessness that these players have.

It is time for the reveal.

Who will win?

One woman holds a pair of nines.

An older gentleman, he had bet everything he had left…on his straight.

It was the young man though. The one who had been quiet and unobtrusive the entire time. He was holding a Royal Flush, yet to everyone’s surprise, he didn’t gloat. He stood, accepting the round of applause for his strategy and discipline. He then, walked away, leaving all his chips on the table.

A young woman, her eyes bright and sharp, chased after him. She yelled, “Sir, you forgot all the money you won!”

He turned back, and said, “It was never about winning. It was simply for the joy of playing.”

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Which player are you?

How are you playing the cards you have been dealt? Sure, you could hand in a few cards and hope for a better hand. But if you can’t find happiness and the thrill of living in what you have, what makes you think you can with an entirely different hand.

Can you play the game simply for the joy of living, or are you still searching for different cards to make you happy?

Something to ponder…

a bit of normalcy

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There was conversation. There was camaraderie and a sense of connection. A piece of my day, with no illness to navigate, or arrange, or schedule around.

Just me.

A meal served as voices were ebbing and flowing like the musical notes floating through the air.

Beautiful glasses of wine, handshakes and hugs.

The banging of kitchen equipment, and a chef making his rounds, as servers carried trays of delicious food, hustling to deliver plates of deliciousness.

And I sat there, absorbing it all.

I had entered through the back door. There were two small steps before I gracefully pulled the door towards me and glided in. This time, there was no scurrying in the rain to the front entrance for handicapped accessibility.

I chose a seat close to the fireplace. In the middle of a long table in fact, with chairs crammed in as close together as possible.

I didn’t have to try to rearrange the seating for a wheelchair to fit. I simply made my way, and sat where I wanted.

How simple…and how easily I forget.

These moments are few, but so very precious.

A chance to reconnect with others, without the sideways glances.  A conversation with interruptions of jokes or inquiries of the Thanksgiving gatherings, and laughter.

A napkin in my lap, that wipes only my lips.  A glass with no need for a straw.

A quick jaunt to the bathroom, with no worry of space, or who may be in the men’s room. Is there anyone who can be on the lookout? Instead, I push the door that says, “Women” and it is a non-event.

No thoughts of illness…ALS…or caring for someone…

My brain slows. My shoulders are relaxed, and I feel my cheeks smiling, not forced, but a smile born of gratitude for this moment. I feel…..

Normal?

How silly of me…how selfish to want more of those moments.

Hugs goodbye, I walk back out into the rain.

I take my time. Twinkling lights are everywhere, as I feel drops of moisture on my upturned nose.

Being present, and appreciative for all that I have.

Sad the evening is over, but grateful for the home I get to go to.

Who needs normal anyway!?

 

He waits…

 

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He waits…

There is not much more he can do these days, but to wait.

He knew the disease would slowly take his ability to move. A few days after his diagnosis, every website that explained the disease in gruesome detail explained to him what to expect. He would steadily become a prisoner in his own body. There would be no cure, no treatment to slow this process down, and no one with answers as to why this was happening.

He waited…

The days would pass, as they often do. Lives go on, people come in and out of his world, but still…he waits.

He is locked inside what was once a six-foot two-inch frame, of broad shoulders and the strongest of legs…legs that had easily ran up mountains, swam in oceans, and walked with confidence through any door. His fingers have curled, the tendons and bones are all that are left to show hands that had once caressed his wife’s body. His arms lay at his side. He no longer fights the urge to raise his arm to scratch an itch.

Instead, he calls out for someone to come wipe his eyes, to reposition certain body parts, to adjust and to maneuver.

And he waits…

His legs spasm, not in pain, but in the normal progression of the disease.  He glances down at his feet.

There is nothing normal about this.

His toes are beginning to resemble his fingers as they too, curl inward. The disease has ravaged his feet.  He stares at his toes, willing them to wiggle, to move, anything to prove that he hasn’t lost that small little ability.

He waits…

Nothing. No movement.

He glances up.

Rolling his head from side to side, he feels the heaviness that is slowly taking hold.  He knows what is coming.

Soon, the weight of his head will be too much.

He stares out the window.

There is a bustle of noise coming from the kitchen. Pots and pans clanking, the scraping of spoons as they are stirred by someone else. Someone else who can move easily from one task to another.

The familiar pang of sadness at his loss begins to creep into his consciousness.  He closes his eyes.

He has been waiting.  Waiting and wondering when the time comes that the smells that come from the kitchen become intolerable.  He wonders how long he will have to wait before he can no longer chew the food that someone else places into his mouth. His jaw is already sore.  It is getting harder to speak, and to chew.

Someone calls out his name.

The footsteps grow louder.  The door opens.

He has been waiting.

Waiting for someone to come and wheel the metal arm closer to the bed. To hook each loop into the bar, and effortlessly pick him up.

He glances at the reflection in the mirror.

Legs dangling, a large sling wrapped around his body, as he hangs helplessly from the air. He looks away.  He knows what he looks like.  He is naked, in the most vulnerable way a man can be.  There is no covering him.  He is long past embarrassment, but the vision of seeing his reflection staring back at him and being incapable of covering his most private of areas, is difficult to see, even for him.

Someone pushes and grunts and pulls to maneuver his body back into his wheelchair.

He waits…

He waits patiently for the metal arm to slowly place him into a sitting position in his wheelchair.  A blanket has been laid gently on his lap, his teeth are brushed, and his pills have been swallowed.  One of the pills catches on the way down, causing him to cough and choke.

Quickly, someone grabs the small machine and hose that is never far from reach. The machine is meant to simulate a person coughing.

He waits…

He waits and tries not to feel claustrophobic as the mask is tightly pressed against his mouth and nose. He couldn’t protest if he wanted to. The machine forces air so hard into his mouth and lungs, his cheeks swell against the mask. A click of the machine, and the reverse happens, as the air is pulled, almost violently from his body. It is the only way his body can cough. Over and over again, this procedure is done, the machine straining, as it forces air in and back out again.

He waits…

His airway clear again, he can breathe.

The momentary adrenaline rush at the lack of air moving fluidly through his body slows as his heartbeat returns to normal once more.

He is wheeled out into the kitchen. Someone has prepared dinner.  His meal looks less than palatable. Soft foods so as not to choke again. He sighs…He waits while someone sits down next to him, grabbing a fork and begin to gracefully place the food onto the prongs and then lift it to his mouth.  He opens his mouth…chews the food, moving it around his mouth, a bit of anxiety and hope that he can swallow this bite without choking again.  Small bites. Slowly….he swallows.

He waits.

He needs a drink. Watching, he leans forward with his head, lips outstretched towards the glass.

The effort is exhausting. He shakes his head. His jaw is tired.   The water dribbles down his chin.

He waits…

He waits for someone to grab a napkin and wipe up the droplets hanging, threatening to spill beside the bits of food he had been unable to hold in his mouth, that are now laying in his lap. He waits for everyone around the table to finish their meal.

He waits…

He maneuvers back into the bedroom to watch television.  Someone else needs to get ready for the day. The children are all running, a cluster of excitement as they get ready to leave and go about their busy lives. He positions himself in front of the screen.

He waits…

He waits for everyone to say “goodbye” as they run out the door. A quick kiss to the forehead, and the door slams behind them. He listens to the stillness of the house.

He waits…

The caregiver walks in. She swiftly picks up the remote, points it towards the wall, and clicks on the tiny buttons to the channels he prefers. The television has become his only outlet and escape from this disease. It is all he can do to pass his time now.  He can lose himself in make believe for just a while. For just a moment, he doesn’t have to think about what he needs, what others do for him.  He wants to go out. He feels trapped…trapped inside the house, and inside his body.

He waits…

He watches the hours pass.  Eight more hours before someone else comes to tell him about their day at work or running errands. Nine more hours before the kids arrive.  Ten more hours and everyone will gather for another meal around the table.  Twelve more hours and he can go back to bed.

He waits…

He waits for a text message, an email, a phone call. Anything that shows that he is still participating in his life.  He seldom hears from those who had once been so close to him. He wonders if they think about him.  He understands that the world kept turning, he just isn’t turning with it.

He waits…

He waits for visitors that never come. He wants to ask them to stop by, to sit and tell him about all the new experiences they are having. He supposes they feel guilty. He knows he makes them uncomfortable now.  If, and when an old friend pops in for a visit, it is always the same.  Big smiles to hide the awkwardness as they lean in for a hug. They complement him on his inspirational strength, but the smile falters. They fumble for words, for stories, and things to talk about. They feel guilty for still living, as they sit across someone who has so little time left.  They glance at their watch. They need to go soon, but they promise to come again soon…But they won’t, and they both know it.

He waits…

He waits for conversation…but the caregiver is busy taking care of him.  The caregiver is not there for companionship. They sit out in the living room, staring at their phone. Too busy counting the hours before their shift is over so they can leave. He understands…he is counting down for their shift to be over as well.

He waits…

He has to use the restroom again. He calls out for help. He waits until someone is finished doing their chores before they stomp in to help…again. He tries to hold it and tries desperately not to lose his patience. He hates asking for help, but there is no choice. He wonders what is taking so long this time.

He waits

He waits for hands to touch him, but the only caress comes in their efforts to be efficient.  He misses reaching his arms around a loved one for a hug. He misses breathing in their scent.

He waits…

He doesn’t want to ask for help again.  It feels as if it is constant.  The need for something, the constant requests for drinks, food, adjustments.  He feels like a burden.  Time is ticking by, and his requests grow more frequent with every passing day.

He wonders how his life came to this moment.  The limbo of wanting to live but waiting to die.

He looks out the window…

And waits…

When Santa came to visit…

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He looked like Santa Claus. That’s what I thought the first time I met him. Even Matthew said his blue eyes were twinkling and his cheeks were a little bit rosy. Ironically, he had no children of his own. I bet he has little children following him where ever he goes, wondering if he is the real thing.

That was over six months ago now.

He walked into our home, with his wife following slowly behind.
She was tiny, small-boned and looked as if a strong gust of wind would blow her over at any time. Her clothes were hanging loosely off her frame.
They seemed like one of those couples who were mismatched in every way. She walked slowly in, keeping her head down. Her shoulder length hair dull, and her face looked gaunt. “She looks angry,” I thought to myself. I can’t be sure, but I don’t think it was her idea to come over. He seemed to take up the entire entryway with his broad shoulders and loud voice booming down the hallway. I invite them to sit down for coffee.

They had that deer-in-the-headlight kind of look.

She had been diagnosed with Bulbar-Onset ALS.

That means she was losing her ability to speak. Although she looked perfectly fine, the disease was affecting her facial region. That means, she could walk her massive dogs around the block, and garden all day long if she wanted to. She could still care for herself, brush her own teeth, dress herself or cook a meal, but she was losing the ability to talk. The ability to chew, or swallow foods and liquids. The ability to have facial expressions.
The few times she tried talking to us, her words slurred to an almost incomprehensible moan. The effort to make her mouth form each word was drawn out…so slow… it was obviously irritating to her.
I remember Santa kept leaning in. His eyebrows drawn together, intently focused. He was trying to watch my mouth as I spoke. He was legally deaf. I tried not to groan in despair as he said this to us, a bit louder than normal, which makes sense, since he was reading my lips.
This was an awful combination and would become the biggest challenge for them.
Our ability to communicate was difficult, but we muddled through, and I took down some notes for them to remember for later. Advice about foundations and agencies to contact sooner, rather than later.
They left our home, and I don’t think we were able to lift their spirits or help them feel any better about the situation. Normally, I like to think that either Matthew or I can help one or the other feel a bit less scared. Or at least a bit less alone.

This couple…I don’t think that we helped them at all.

The man with the twinkling eyes has stayed in contact with me, though now it is only through email.
He often writes about his wife, her care and thoughts about future needs. I offer suggestions or contact information for people I think may be willing to help. I don’t think he has bothered with any of it. Hospice is involved now. She has given up. He seems lost.

I am sure she gave up as soon as she was diagnosed with ALS.
Only, he hadn’t recognized it right away.
Her anger and bitterness at the thought of dying this way has left him exhausted. It now makes me wonder if his cheery smile was all a façade. A safe place for her to lay her burdens down.
I know it must be draining him.
I meet many couples who are on the same path as Matthew and I. The diagnosis is the same, but the journey itself poses different obstacles for each person.
I find comfort in knowledge.
When I knew Matthew had ALS, I immediately researched anything and everything I could. I read every case study, medical journal and book I could find. I asked questions, sometimes repeatedly. I wanted to be prepared.
Nothing prepared me for the reality. But understanding some of it has been how I have managed to cope as the reality of ALS for us has been more gradually than for others.
Matthew was the opposite of me.
He waited to learn. He did not search for the answers until it was time to know. He was proactive in ordering every device and item needed to make my care for him easier, but he asked nothing about what he would be facing until it was time to face it.
I assume, as with any disease, one must navigate the path that they feel is right for them.
I try hard to respect those decisions.
After all, who am I to judge?
Yet, how can I stand back and witness the decisions people are making, knowing it is going to make their life more stressful. Often, waiting too long can mean the difference in how the patient will respond to every day ups and downs, and it can lead to depression and anger for everyone involved.
Instead of their last months filled with family and memories of being able to say what needs to be said, it turns into a nightmare of one bad decision followed by another, which in turn means one emergency followed by another. It is my worst fear and one that I will do everything to avoid. I can’t make others think this way so instead I try to gently point out better options if I see them struggling.

“Please submit a grant request for a ramp or a bathroom remodel.”
“Have you considered a support group?”
“Please reach out to as many people as possible for help.”

I guess I am trying to help ease a part of their burden, but what do you do when they will not take your advice?
What do you do when you see that they are losing faith, and the will to fight?

They have refused help.
They have refused support.
They have refused the doctor’s advice.

I am angry at the helplessness of how I feel right now….
It is just one more constant reminder of how little control I have in any of this. I am forced to not only be buckled into this ride for the duration, but also to watch helplessly as other victims crash along the way.
I can’t reach the wheel they are steering to move them out of harms way, and I am stuck to sit back in a ride that I can only vaguely remember jumping on.
And all I can do is wonder, “What is the point of all of this?”

 Matthew Wild

I grieve…

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The sound of his heel hitting the metal stopped me.  I looked down and noticed it just dangling there.

Every morning, I maneuver a sling around his body.  And every morning, I use a machine called a hoyer lift to lift him from the bed to the wheelchair.  And every morning, he wiggles and tries to adjusts himself in his chair to make himself more comfortable…

Except this time.

This time, he had to ask me to lift his foot up onto the foot plate.  This time, I noticed he couldn’t do it himself.

I suppose in some small way, it doesn’t seem like all that big of a deal, right?  I mean, it’s simply me bending down and lifting his foot to sit on a metal plate. I put both feet next to each other, and grab his blanket, and wrap it around his legs..

and I say, “Is your foot gone?”

It felt as if I had asked him if his appendage had died.  And I am…that is exactly what I am doing.  I am asking him if another part of his body had died..given out..become so weakened that he can no longer move it…And I couldn’t bare to look him in the eye as I asked this.  Instead, I fussed with straps and wires, and tucking in and lifting…I kept my eyes down and my hands busy.

“Yeah, I think its a goner!”

I look up and slap a smile on my face and I try to ignore the pain I feel deep in my chest.

And I grieve again.

I grieve for his losses, as well as my own.  I grieve every time, and I know its depressing. I know it is hard for others to look,

to watch,

to read,

to learn.

And I refuse to apologize for it!

Because I think everyone needs to know how strong this man is.  I think everyone needs to know how immensely humbled I am to see him live each day, with less and less ability to move, and needing more and more help with each and every task, yet he refuses to complain. He refuses to say, “Why me?” and he refuses to ask for more than he needs.

So…

To the person who posted this response on my Facebook page,

Jesus Theresa, why would you even post this?

If you read my blogs…

My response to you is this:

Because it is breaking my heart to watch this and be so completely helpless…

So I grieve…

every…day…

 

The best of intentions….

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“Let me know if you need anything!”

This phrase is texted, said or otherwise conveyed to people of all sorts: to caregivers of all types, and to people who are either sick, going through a loss, or even to those who are going through life changes, (i.e. new births, moving etc)

This phrase is also one of the worst phrases that have ever been uttered, with the best of intentions, of course, to people around the world!

We rush about our day, see people we know and say these things in passing.  This phrase is like saying, “Hello, how are you?” (As the person continues walking away!)

It may be said with the best of intentions, but is in fact, the worst statement you could possibly say to someone!

Let me help you help someone else with ideas and tips for how to be truly helpful to those around you!

#1 SHOW UP!

Do not just send a text message with a well-meaning hello and then assume that they will ask if they need something. This places the burden on them, which isn’t fair!  Most people do not want to be a burden to anyone.  They will not want their ego or pride bruised by asking for favors and possibly have them turned down.

Show up! It is that simple.  Take some time out of your week and stop by.  Call them and ask them when a good time would be to come over for a visit.  Bring flowers, or some coffee or a beverage and spend time with this person.   (And please…put your damn phone down!!! Be present!  It may be uncomfortable to sit with someone who is sick but imagine how the person feels if you are constantly checking your phone!)

P.S. Do not offer to show up and cancel repeatedly either. It is rude and will make the person you are offering to visit feel not only like they are inconveniencing YOU but makes them feel as if they are not actually important, but that you are doing this to make yourself feel better!

#2 OFFER TANGIBLE THINGS!

Instead of offering something that is vague, offer something tangible.  Offer to bring over a meal that can be frozen for later. Offer to carpool the kids if it is already on your way. Offer to run some errands or pick up some groceries or to mow the yard. Offer to take their car to the car wash or vacuum it out for them. Offer something that you think you would appreciate if you were in their situation.

# 3 EMPATHIZE! DO NOT SYMPATHIZE!

Empathy is the ability to understand what another person is going through.  Take a moment to try to understand things from their perspective, and then offer something that you think you would appreciate if you were in that situation.

Sympathy is feeling sorry or pity for another. DO NOT do this.

There is a clear difference between the two.

#4 DO NOT JUDGE!

Many people do not ask for help when it is offered because they are worried about being judged!  If someone came over to my house right now, they would find some dishes in my sink, a stack of clothes on my dresser that I haven’t hung up yet (I absolutely hate laundry, it is my arch nemesis!) and they would find a messy garage, and who knows what else!

However, unless you live my life, you have absolutely no room to judge me! I have woken up 8 times in the middle of the night to adjust my husband. Three times, I had to physically get out of bed and sit him up, and remove his mask, etc etc.  I am often sleep deprived and there are many times that things around the house do not seem like a priority.  If a spotless house is your priority, great! But do not come over to my house and judge me for not taking care of your priorities. Come over because you really want to be with me or offer help. Making me feel judged will only lead to anxiety and more stress.

#5 EXPECT NOTHING IN RETURN!

So, you brought a meal over…Great!  Please don’t expect accolades posted on Facebook or a thank you card in return! If you are doing a gesture to be helpful, remember that it is a gesture that should be given out of friendship or love, not for your own ego or pride!

#6 TAKE THE KIDS!

Okay, this one is purely selfish on my part!  I have three children.  I have a terminally ill husband. While we still get out and about right now, I know that my children do not get to do as much as they used to.  We have to plan absolutely every detail now.  We have to plan showers, bathrooms, and medical equipment back up and battery charging. We have to plan wheelchair accessibility, and ease of travel.  We even have to plan for the weather, as my husband cannot handle extreme temperatures.

If someone offered to take my children along with them to a movie, or swimming or on a fun excursion, that would help alleviate my guilt.  I cannot always take them, and they are often left out of going to places because of this.

#7 BE AWARE THAT THINGS ARE DIFFERENT NOW

No matter what the circumstance is, whether it is a new baby, or an extreme life-altering situation, be aware that this person’s life will forever be different. This person’s routine will be different. The things they were once comfortable doing, may not be as easy to do.  They may not be able to communicate their frustrations or their new anxieties out of fear of judgement or ridicule.  Spending time doing what they used to do may not be as easy. Try to meet them half way.  Your invitations are appreciated, and just because they do not show anymore, doesn’t mean the friendship isn’t valued. It is just different.

Try to communicate how you can make their life easier, instead of expecting them to continue with the status quo!

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 “Let me know if you need anything.”

A phrase that is said with the best of intentions yet grates on my nerves.

Please don’t think I am unappreciative!

I am not!

But this simple phrase fills me with so much anxiety, causing so much stress and frustration. I will default with a smile, say “Thank You” and go about my day.

I am a caregiver, a wife, and a mother, among other things.  However, I cannot juggle it all, and I cannot ask for help!  My pride will not let me lean on others. I am not the only one who feels this way either. My husband is sick, and yet he is filled with dread asking for help as well. We understand how busy everyone else is. We also feel intense guilt if we feel we have added an extra burden to someone else. Hopefully these little tips have been helpful

If you want to be a part of someone’s life, you will make an effort. If you do not, you will make an excuse. It is really that simple…