NO HITTING TIM

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I was born on July 29, 1983.

I had no way of knowing at the time but my twin would be born some time later on May 12, 1985.

My brother was born with several congenital heart defects collectively referred to as tetralogy of Fallot. This diagnosis, discovered shortly after his birth, would alter our relationship from one of "just" siblings to that of twins.

How so?

There is something to be said about the establishment of a pecking order in children and especially that of boys. I am not going to say that physical assault such as it is even in children, is to be tolerated but rough and tumble play does serve a purpose.

And yet this very simple action of being able to keep one's younger siblings in line was quite simply and unapologetically removed with a stern warning.

"Don't hit Tim."

That warning is certainly no different, save for the name, that almost any group of siblings are ever told.

What was different in my case was the lecture that followed.

Whereas many children are told not to hit and then given the, "It isn't nice to hit," or, "That's not how we treat each other," I was given a very different list of reasons.

"Don't hit Tim. Tim had surgery and if the stitches were to rupture that would be very hurtful to him and he could die."

Tim had open heart surgery when I was five.

I barely understood my ABCs but I knew that I could kill my brother if I was too rough with him. Even regular "boys being boys" horseplay could be too risky.

In time Tim would go on to have a pacemaker and the lecture changed accordingly, "Don't hit Tim because if you hit him it could cause his pacemaker to move and the leads to detach and we wouldn't be able to help him if that happened. He could die if that happened. Play nice."

This simple but weighty warning changed our lives.

My loving parents were as understanding as they could be. They were aware of how frustrating this limitation could be. They knew we wanted to rough house like our other friends did. They knew that in addition to needing a physical way of resolving our issues we were also both very competitive. They knew we needed outlets, and they did their best to provide them.

Those outlets seemed few and far between at times though.

Due to Tim's heart issues the school wouldn't allow him to compete or participate in sports. Looking back, I can now see that this hindered me as well. A sense of guilt that he couldn't compete set in. It wasn't a win if he couldn't play equally and why bother focusing on something I can't enjoy with the one person that is always playing with me? We had to find equal ground or it didn't count.

My parents tried to be champions of fairness though. If Tim couldn't go on a ride because of his pacemaker, that meant we as a family didn't go on them. This spilled into a lot of what we did growing up.

Football was ruled out for us but baseball was allowed with modifications. Games were underhand only and usually only with Whiffle branded items, though in our teens we switched to a real ball and bat. Riding bikes were a challenge as well due to the overwhelming, "What if," that loomed over every potential for catastrophe.

We were raised to be cautious, not paranoid though. A line I don't think anyone ever truly masters of course but my parents certainly tried.

All this caution and fairness only forced my brother and I to learn different ways to “fight” though. It was as if nature was waging an all-out war on nurture and some animalistic tendency had consumed us.

Enter, board games.

To this day I don't know anyone as devoted to the game Monopoly as my brother was. He even collected versions of the game. He is also one of the few people I ever played against that went for a full game according to the rules, that is, until someone went bankrupt.

Did we cheat? Absolutely! It was an argument to determine who was banker and who would be "policing" the banker but finally we found a game we could fight with.

Chess was my personal weapon of choice though. I bought a book on how to play and I forced my Dad and my grandfather to teach me. Tim caught on quick and started learning on his own...

We quickly made up for all the times we couldn't physically battle it out and engaged in every style of warfare Milton Bradley or Hoyle offered.

Sorry, not me Loser!Scrabble, go to your room Moron!

Stratego, Battleship, Parcheesi, card games galore, we treated each of them not as amusements but as no limit end of the world duels to the death of humanity.

We replaced the physical aspects with words. We trash talked but we didn't hit. Our parents would intercede when things got a bit harsh but we had finally found something we could do!

And that helped us find an equilibrium that we truly appreciated and, in many ways, needed.

The physical nature of rougher styles of play carries with it a sense of finality. Whether it be getting pinned in a wrestling match, a purple nurple, or the like, there is a logical conclusion to be drawn from the interaction. Each battle, such as it is, has a clear beginning and end no matter who started it or who vows revenge afterwards.

Physical interaction can also act as a way to vent. To work through frustration or even to just let off some steam. My brother and I absolutely loved each other and rarely ever truly fought but we had plenty of things to be frustrated with and energy to let out.

Finding board and card games as we did gave us that medium of expression. It was as if we finally had a way of "taking things outside."

How we interacted through the games was no different from how other children interact in more physical ways. Neither of us was above the occasional cheat to gain an edge, but how we gained that edge was less about brute force and more about finesse. While our friends would get into squabbles and the older, read bigger, brother usually prevailed, we had found a way that leveled our respective playing fields.

We learned that being bigger and faster wasn't always the most important but that being smarter, sharper, was.

We also learned to hold grudges and to bide our time. Whereas our friends could quickly settle things with the occasional physicality just because, we had to learn patience in a twisted way. Without the ability to just haul off and smack each other we had to hold on to these grudges and hash them out later in the safety of a game. Games where the rules of how a piece moved or what was a winning hand were just as enforced as the rules of social convention we had felt were broken earlier.

As we grew into teenagers our disagreements grew and changed accordingly. Playing board and card games gave way to verbal jousting as a means of settling our differences.

We would argue circles around each other and not only that, we were proud of it. All this arguing we engaged in made us fast thinkers, sharp witted and depending on the day or audience either savagely ruthless or hysterically funny.

On the battlefield of rhetoric and verbosity we had finally found a way to engage in the skirmishes that most children discover much earlier on. Those "in the moment" ways of handling matters of disrespect and social injustice. Of keeping an unruly sibling in line.

We may have been late to that game but we made up for it with passion and frequency to the point that our Mother and Grandmother would complain about our constantly bickering like an old married couple.

And we reveled in it.

In time we would develop a love for pop psychology. A veritable arms race ensued through our later teen years as we discovered ways to tease each other. First by getting songs stuck in each other's heads and later by using personality tests and graphology to needle each other.

Somewhere between those single digit years and early adulthood though, between the rolls of dice, the shuffling and dealing, and all the reading we did of the DSM IV, something else happened. Something transpired in our relationship that neither of us had noticed.

We learned that we weren't fighting anymore. We were sharpening each other. We were making each other stronger, better.

We were still obsessed in a way with besting the other but it had taken on a different meaning. It wasn't just enough for one of us to be better than the other. We needed to push the other too. We were dragging each other forward. Our childish frustrations over not having an easy means to establish dominance or a hierarchy had evolved into a fight about who could better apply what they had learned, who had more to teach the other and at times who could better help the other.

In this our most aggressive behavior came out.

We became increasingly aware of each other's faults but instead of exploiting them, as we used to do, we sought to cure the other from them.

To say it this way is to over simplify what was a quantum leap in our relationship, not only with each other but with our family in total. As we became closer, tighter, stronger, we dragged others into it as well. As we found our own balancing act between ourselves we also found the way to be better sons. To have more meaningful relationships with our friends and within our community.

When my parents made the decision to adopt my younger brother and later our sister, it was this bond that we had formed that impressed the social workers involved with our case. It was this dynamic that gave us the ability to adapt so fully and strongly to those additions.

It was that bond that kept us connected long after I got married and moved away.

He passed away at 29.

He was an amazing man. Incredibly resourceful and always capable of saying the right thing at the right time. Could he be a jerk at times? Absolutely! So much so that you would want to deck him occasionally. But nine times out of ten he was spot on with what he was saying even if how he said it was a bit rough.

You may have wanted to hit him, but in many things,  you could never really touch him.

CARNIVAL

When I got my monthly invitation to join the EAMF team to entertain siblings of kids in hospital the theme was CARNIVAL!!!

In the past, we’ve put on mini plays, done hip hop…but I did look at this and thought 

Carnival? How the heck do we put on a carnival?..’

The flyer said there would be jugglers, and Hula Hoop, facepainting…’how are they going to pull this off?’

I arrived and took my place at the front desk, where parents register their children, and we get the kids to write their own name tags. Volunteers started to arrive, sourced from all over LA including many actors who’ve heard about this from their acting teachers. 

I found out about EAMF.ORG through Risa Bramon Garcia’s school BGB Studio where I was taking masterclasses. As part of our acting training, Risa encourages us to take care of our physical health, our mental health, with meditation and mindfulness, and volunteering. It’s a vital part of what I do as an actor…when you have over 400 rejections under your belt, it’s important to have something to do that’s feel good, where you get a chance to ‘give back’.

With the last child registered and into the room for an hour without their parents, I went in to see what was happening. 

Danny, a fellow volunteer, his first time….told me he nearly cried when he first saw it…here are these precious kids, having their face painted by a  professional, transforming their little faces with butterflies, turning them into astronauts, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and everything you could possibly think of. A group of volunteers was in hysterics showing the kids how to Hula-Hoop…another group of kids and their new volunteer friends, was standing enraptured by Shana, a woman who has been making balloon animals for 12 years and was creating jet packs for little astronauts, headbands with tigers for little girls…a unicorn….and a phoenix…Nothing the kids wanted was too much trouble for this wizard, speedy and incredibly dextrous. 

In a corner, John the Juggler, another actor with a hidden talent, had brought his own sand bags, scarves, tennis balls and juggling batons, to teach them how to juggle…after an hour, they had mastered it…particularly Juan who was amazing, and amazed! 

Snacks of cookies and what in Australia I call Fairy Floss, but you here call Cotton Candy, were being munched on by the 20 odd happy kids.

When I register them, they are nervous, holding all the energy you can imagine of having a loved brother or sister ‘upstairs’ in the hospital. We don’t talk about any of that. But we know it’s on their minds, because we see it on their faces. We see it on the faces of their resilient parents who leave them in our care for an hour. 

But when they leave….wearing funny hats, headbands of balloon animals, their faces festooned with great art..it’s a transformation. 

Bye John, bye Danny, Bye Angelica, Bye Ella…..bye, bye, bye’……waving to their new friend the volunteers. 

It’s a pretty special hour. Now, to prepare for tomorrow’s audition. My mindset uplifted as much as theirs is. Next month it’s magic, and I reckon they’ll pull a rabbit out of a hat..again!

ESMERELDA

I had never seen a face like it. The 12 year old girl stood backed into the doorway. She didn’t want to be there, but she didn’t want to be anywhere. Her face was flushed nearly purple, not with rage…but with something else. 


I was checking in kids who were coming to be a part of our monthly Sibling Support group. Recognizing that the siblings of kids who are in hospital can almost disappear when their brothers and sisters are ill, that all the attention goes to the sick one, I volunteer for the EAMF.org and we entertain the siblings, for only one hour, on the third Thursday of each month.


They start arriving with their parents and aunties at around 5:45pm. We register them, give them pens and stickers to make their own name tags…and sometimes you have to cajole them, encourage them. They either don’t want to leave their Mom, or they’re shy. They’re not joiners. 


But this young girl, was something else. The pain on her face made me draw breath and I actually clutched my chest. The pain and anguish on that beautiful face was something I had never seen before. It’s natural to see someone’s face and try to translate their emotion, but this was unfathomable. It was shock…a deep deep sadness…but dry eyed. There were no tears, nor signs of recent tears, yet it was the face of someone who would sob buckets, if only she could. 


"Go on…go in," her Mom urged smiling softly. "You’ll enjoy it, you’ll see."


Her name was added to the list, and her Mom wrote Esmerelda on her name tag and put it on her jacket. 


One of the Volunteers, Angelika was called to take Esmerelda inside. 


I lost sight of her then, focusing on the steady stream of kids from five and up who were coming in. Tonight was HipHop night. We would break them into groups, each one offering a different dance move that we would then perform for their parents in an hour’s time. 


After 30 minutes when even the shyest kids would start to join in, having chosen their own animal peaked cap and some crazy ‘sun’ glasses, they would start to dance, or high five, or twirl. Some just stand there, not knowing what to do next, and a volunteer will gently encourage them to become a part of the group or just be with them. 


From across the room, I could see she was sitting in chairs at the front of the space. She was with another little girl and a volunteer. They were talking gently, but her face was the same, unable to be comforted, sitting stiffly, withdrawn.


We all danced, and then 30 minutes later, packets of chips and water are handed out, and the kids all sit at a table with their new friends, all laughing and talking, and cramming the goodies into their smiling faces. 


‘Husky hat’ she cried with joy, reaching out to the hat that another little girl from my group had replaced with a tiger hat instead! ‘Husky hat’ she said again, reaching out to me as I passed it to her. A peaked hat with ears and the soft face of the dog on it. The normal color had returned to her face. She was animated and ran back to her seat to show her new friend. They sat opening packets of Doritos and laughing. She looked like any little girl now. Gone was the tension, the pain…I still can’t describe it. 


I went out to get the organizers. "You have to see this," I said and urged them into the room.


"You did this," I said. 


In one hour, this organization had done what it set out to do, for a short period of time. To take these kids out of whatever situation they were in. To play, to laugh, to meet new friends. 

Why eamf?

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Why eamf? That’s a question I am asked frequently and don’t always know how to answer. It started with an idea that stemmed from a need. Someone had to step up and address the need, to shine light on the situation. So, why not me? And subsequently, why not eamf?


When my daughter was in the 7th grade, a good friend of hers fell gravely ill and was admitted to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles where she stayed for several months.  After many subsequent visits to CHLA, I was inspired to become a volunteer.  I have always loved being of service to others. In fact, I was given he nickname “Nurse Jane” by the time I was 5 years old; cornered the market on babysitting in my neighborhood by age 13; was a camp counselor with the Muscular Dystrophy Association for 2 years while in high school; worked at preschools every summer; studied Child Development in college; and raised two very strong independent daughters. Being around children was second nature to me, so becoming a volunteer at a children’s hospital was a no brainer.


After donating close to 3200 hours over a 5 year period, and working with seriously ill children in various departments of the hospital (Bone Marrow Transplant, Pediatric Intensive Care units, Cancer and Transplant wards), I knew that there was more for me to do. I saw a need firsthand, which was not being addressed by the hospital, medical staff, or parents. I watched as parents became overwhelmed by the seriousness of childhood illness. I watched  families begin to crumble amid the chaos of the health crises. And most importantly, I watched as the brothers and sisters of the patients retreated into a darkness of fear, loneliness, and uncertainty.

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These circumstantially neglected siblings were experiencing grief, anger, abandonment, fear, guilt and sadness. They were suffering in silence. I felt it was of the utmost importance that I apply my heartfelt passion, energy and resources to take action and start the conversation about the Sibling Situation and work toward finding a long lasting viable solution to their dilemma. Thus, in April of 2009 the Elizabeth A. Mac Donald Charitable Foundation was founded to address the issues that families with children in health crises face. I have surrounded myself with like-minded, highly skilled and focused individuals who share my passion to help make eamf’s mission successful. I am very proud to say that we are the only nonprofit organization in the nation that focuses solely on the wellbeing of siblings, and not just siblings of children in hospitals, but all brothers and sisters of children battling any health crises, whether physical or mental.

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eamf is spearheading the movement to bring these invisible siblings out of the background and into the light so that they can get the care and attention they need. Our vision is that siblings grow into adults with increased empathy, patience, kindness and goodwill because of their experiences growing up with a brother or sister battling a physical or mental health issue.


We cannot heal all of the emotional scars of pediatric illness on our own, but we aim to limit the size of the wound. And with a little help and support, I believe we have a good chance of doing just that.