It’s the oldest assignment in the book, but it’s a first for us – CNN Opinion is turning its weekly column over to you, our readers. After nearly a year of publishing our weekly newsletter and just over six months of asking readers to share stories with us, it felt important to pause with you, to take a deep breath together before the school year gets back in full swing and the 2020 campaign trail gets even more relentless. What better way to spend Labor Day Weekend?
2019 was a summer of extremes. Mass shootings brought extreme fear. The month of July, the hottest on record, brought extreme temperatures. We asked: What did you do with your summer vacation? What did you think about, read or do that kept you going amid the extremes?
The stories you shared – we just couldn’t stop reading them.
Marilyn Copland wrote to say: “My identical twin from MN and I from Canada (both US citizens with same DNA but opposite political views) recently celebrated our 80th Birthday on ATVs on top of Whistler Mountain in British Columbia with my family of 30 children and grandchildren who traveled from around the World. No politics, no drama just a loving beautiful family enjoying precious time together. Life doesn’t get better!”
It just doesn’t get better than this was a theme echoed by Jon Schulman of Queens, describing a trip he took to Cooperstown with his dad: “…what I’ll remember most [about summer 2019] is that road trip up north with my dad to see Mariano Rivera and the rest of the amazing 2020 class of players get inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame: the sight of other friendly baseball pilgrims walking up the hill with us to the induction tent (including a great sportswriter who became a friend for the weekend); the sound of Bernie Williams’ electric guitar playing the National Anthem; the feel of the bat in my hands as I swung at pitches at the batting range outside of Doubleday Field; the smell of smoky ballpark hot dogs and popcorn; the taste of hot pretzels with mustard and fresh-squeezed lemonade. These are experiences I’ll never forget, especially since they happened with my dad by my side.”
Family time isn’t always so happy-go-lucky, as Diana Stark Ekman, an American living in Sweden, reminded us: “My sister and I spent our summer preparing our parents’ home for sale, after the death of our mother in April. Going through 56 years’ worth of lives lived together, and the remaining five years when Mom was widowed, was bittersweet. So many memories, of when her five living kids and 17 grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren, were little, cookbooks and hand-written recipes, some with my grandmother’s writing, and tons and tons of family genealogy. Most moving, I think, was finding the casts that had been put on our infant brother, John, before he died, and a hardly-used baby blanket that must have been his. Seeing this reminded me that we have no idea how long we’ll live, but even those lives cut short have meaning for us.”
Like many of our readers, Ekman invoked the political turmoil and social conflict so evident in the United States, but offered perspective drawn from her parents’ experience: “This isn’t the first time our country has been through hard times- my mom saved newspapers from the 1950s and 1960s that documented many difficult moments in the US. Going through my parents’ memorabilia and possessions was a good exercise to understand that life moves through cycles of good and bad times, happiness and grief, but with common sense and hard work, many people manage fine. I wish they were here, but celebrated with my siblings, throughout the summer, their lives and their love for us.”
“This summer was a gift to me,” shared Bernie F. of Ellettsville, Indiana, “after being diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor with a mean survival time of 18 months, I was able to check off many of my checklist items. I have written an intimate book for my grandchildren, digitized all of our family videotapes, seen my oldest son have his second baby and secure a position in physics at Eastern Kentucky University. We also attended my other son’s wonderful wedding at the University of Chicago. My wife and I are high school sweethearts and we celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary last December. I got up enough courage to fly to San Francisco a few weeks ago and had a really fun dinner with three of our high school buddies. Overall, I’m thankful I got the chance to do so many things and have a chance to say goodbye to my family.”
Summer was a time of struggle for many of you, financially and physically. Toni, who hails from the Midwest, explained: “I cannot afford a vacation. I spent my summer struggling to get by. Working in the yard and garden and staying close to pets and friends. Oh and I cried a lot over everything from the violence in our country…to the Amazon burning, etc… Too much greed, hate and fear.” Jennefer Witter of New York City also “worked throughout my summer…taking it easy was not an option. What was surprising to me was how many people were grinding away as well – August is no longer the sleepy summer month it was once.” Some happier news: “I got engaged. While I was working like a fiend, I did not overlook my personal life. After all, at the end of the day, I won’t remember the proposal I got out. What I will always remember is the joy in my fiance’s eyes when I said ‘Yes.’” Congratulations, Jennefer!
Two strong women named Cindy shared stories of facing summer challenges with a message about health care. Cindy H. of Jackson, Michigan spent the summer recovering from open-heart surgery: “I was off work for 8 weeks so I had a lot of time to think and reflect. What I thought about most was how thankful I am that I have health insurance and won’t pay a dime for my surgery. I am not bragging, believe me I am grateful beyond measure! Grateful that where I work I can take time off, be paid for it (100%) and not lose my position. I have been thinking about the millions of Americans who don’t have health care and don’t have a job that will pay them to recuperate. I can’t even imagine coping with all the pain, disfigurement and emotion of this kind of major surgery and have to worry about how you are going to pay for everything, what will happen with your bills while you are recuperating, and after, what about your job?” Cindy Taapken of Morgantown, West Virginia, wrote: “I have chronic pain, and was forced to withdraw from opioids over two years ago when the doctor who was treating my pain left his practice suddenly. Due to the epidemic of opioid abuse, I am not able to find a physician willing to treat pain with opioid medication. I’m disabled and can’t work, so I read a lot. This summer I’ve re-read most of Stephen King, Jodi Picoult, Alice Hoffman, and the Game of Thrones series. I do not have cable so I never watch news, but I look at CNN online daily. That’s enough of a reality check to send me screaming back to my favorite fiction again.”
We asked you for your tales of airline travel and you delivered. You were especially keen on sharing ideas about what airlines can do – realistically – to make flying more comfortable for everyone.
“If I could change one thing, I would ask the airlines to consistently enforce the number and size restrictions for carry on luggage and/or have the airlines stop charging people for their checked baggage,” offered Neil F. of Perth Australia. “Go back to the way it was before when the cost of your first checked bag was included in the price of the ticket.” Kris Janssen of Austin, Texas, weighed in to suggest “more leg room and wider seats. I am 6’2” with broad shoulders. I can’t even walk down the aisle straight. I have to walk at an awkward angle otherwise my hips will hit people going down the aisle. Every time I have to sit down, I have to fold up like a Transformer to sit down. If I have to get up, I have to unfold and usually hit my head on the luggage bin or have to apologize for almost hitting someone in the next row… With all the technology we have available, how can we not design a better experience that would benefit all that fly including, the crew?”
Several of you wrote about issues with air travel while disabled or ill. “Imagine having your legs taken away from you every time you fly,” insisted Dan Dorszynski of Milwaukee,Wisconsin, in his description of how he feels flying with his wheelchair. “Right before getting on the plane they’re cut off and stowed in cargo. You won’t need legroom at all. It would be so comfortable. They just carry you on, drop you in your seat and then when you arrive, do the same in reverse. Only sometimes your legs can’t be found, or they’re broken, or they drop you when moving you off the plane. Sounds amazing, right? Well, the reality is that this happens to wheelchair users all the time.”
Kristin M. of Reynoldsburg, Ohio, whose husband has end-stage kidney disease, opined: “I don’t feel that the airlines do enough training on being a bit more tolerant of people with medical equipment that are not coming to the gate in wheel chairs. As our society gets older and medical technology advances, the airlines need to put some effort into additional training on what to expect. Overall, I have usually had great experiences on flights and airline staff should generally be given kudos with the sheer volume of passengers that they have to deal with.”
It’s the furry friends that get to Bob S. of Palm Beach, Florida, who wrote: “I am highly allergic to dogs (like hospitalized allergic) and this has made flying for me a stressful anxiety inducing ordeal. Now there are dogs and cats everywhere on flights. The vast majority of these animals are pets with their owners gaming the system to abuse the law and get their pets on the plane for free. This was a crazy decision with no real thought being given to the consequences and should be rolled back to allow only genuine service animals in cabins.”
Karen Michaels of Superior Township, Michigan, offered an intriguing notion: “I think every CEO of a major airline should have to fly economy, in the back of the plane and in a middle seat.”
A back-to-school reading list (we couldn’t help it)
It’s all about you this week, but we couldn’t help recommending just a select few of our best op-eds for your holiday reading pleasure:
Robert Alexander: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has a point about the Electoral College
Frida Ghitis: Bolsonaro’s ego stands in the way of saving the Amazon
Alice Driver: Canada has replaced US as goal for some migrants
Eleanor McManus: Mark Halperin hasn’t shown he deserves redemption
Lars Anderson: As Dorian approaches, we need to prepare for the worst
Jeff Goodell: Florida’s special vulnerability to hurricanes
[Note: this one was published in 2017, but was very much on our minds this weekend as Florida braces for Hurricane Dorian.]
Spread your wings
Sending your children back to school – or taking them to college for the first time, or being the student who leaves home – is more than a rite of passage. It’s a reminder and an extension of your family’s own particular story – the joy, pain and everyday details that make you unique. You opened some amazing windows into your families with stories of the “empty nest.”
“I am a single father, blessed with five wonderful women. Moreover, my five daughters only have two birthdays; the triplets are 25 and the twins are 18. The older girls received their degrees from three different NC universities,” wrote in Reid H. of Greensboro, NC. “Given our family size and structure, Empty Nest Syndrome always seemed so far into the future, perpetually distanced on a never ending conveyor of children. Normalcy was the off to college order as the twins accompanied me on each of their older sisters’ campus move-ins (three different campuses on three consecutive days)!… Though I’m still employed and enjoying a successful career, the past 25 years have been solely focused on being the best father that I could possibly become. In a way, the work is done and the ultimate goal has been reached. All five daughters made it to college! What now? Who am I? Where will I invest my passion, energy and commitment? I do feel a bit lost and disoriented, though not really sad. I feel grateful and proud of my girls for persevering through a divorced home life, and I truly believe that their grandparents’ support and our village of wonderful friends have collectively provided each of us a peaceful path to realizing our individual potentials. We’re just now getting started.”
“Watching my children start each college chapter has been a roller coaster of emotion. For them and us,” said John Rand of Cincinnati. “They were blessed with their mother’s brain and work ethic so all of them had their choice of schools. But completing all those applications and essays took many edits around the kitchen table. We let each child decide for themselves where to go to school. But we made sure they understood the costs involved with each of their choices. My sons are studying bio-medical and chemical engineering and my daughter graduated in December 2018 from the University of Toledo in Chemical Engineering. So I know they will be successful and this helps to reduce my stress about their futures. As my own mother insisted, when I asked how she handled me moving away 12 hours to school (from Connecticut to Ohio), ‘I did my job. I taught you to be independent. So moving away meant that I had succeeded.’ But I still fear the empty nest will echo to loudly for me.”
Kids don’t just leave home to spread their wings for college – Abe Breslin of Lancaster, PA wrote to share his family’s decision to send their teenage daughter to an intensive school for ballet at 15: “My wife discussed her concerns about missing out on the high school experience, Homecoming games, Proms, concerts, etc. We decided that the opportunity was just too good for her to pass up. She selected a ballet school that is 2 hours away from our home… so she is far enough that she is going to get the full experience but close enough that we can visit, she can come home for a weekend or we can even meet her for dinner at night. It’s still an odd feeling that our younger daughter is leaving the house before our oldest…but it is an opportunity that we are embracing as a family.”
That empty nest feeling isn’t limited to parents, as Hannah B. of New York City pointed out. A recent college graduate, she watched her parents load up the car without her to take her sister back to college: “I will be sitting in my over-air-conditioned, Midtown, corporate office, thinking about what used to be. The symbolic separation of our routines has been difficult to navigate this summer. These traditions and routines are what have kept me feeling stable and secure for the past 21 years, especially during the late summer weeks, a time in which most children are transitioned from the chaos of summer, back into school year structure. But as my family continues on with normalcy, I am forming a new identity, complete with new relationships, habits, and traditions of my own. Most of my recently graduated friends are feeling this way it seems, as we all have been reaching out to check in, reconnecting with one another as to project normalcy both to ourselves and each other…. And while our new lives are filled with the structure and obligations of our first jobs, it seems as though we have more agency than ever. What will we have for dinner tonight? Can we afford to eat out again with a friend rather than being lonely in our tiny apartments….? Do we have a job that we like or should we be looking towards our next endeavors? This summer is a transitional stage of our lives. Up until now, everything was figured out for us. Now, we must try to figure things out for ourselves. It is both liberating and terrifying.”
Our regular column and newsletter will be back next week. Until then, thank you to all our readers – especially those of you who shared your stories. We wish you and yours a happy, healthy Labor Day.