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A Million Little Pieces Of My Mind

Christmas Letter 2009

By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 3/4/2024
Occurred: 12/15/2009
Page Views: 7629
Topics: #Christmas #Autobiography
Our Christmas Letter for the year to all our friends and family.

Like you, we at the Cilwa-Manion household are stunned at how quickly this year has flown. Can it really be time for the annual Christmas (excuse us, "Holiday") letter already? Well, it is; so without any further ado let's recap what we've been up to.


At the start of the year "we" consisted of my husband Michael and myself; our youngest daughter Jenny and her son, our grandson, Zachary; and my ex-wife, Mary. Also, the two dogs Cirrus and Amber, and the cats Cassie and Milton. Not on the premises was the remainder of our extended family: Michael's sister, Surya (in Phoenix); my son John and his fiancée, Rachel (in Mesa); and our middle daughter Karen (in Virginia) and oldest daughter Dottie with her husband, Frank, and daughter, Cailey (also in Virginia).

On the first of January Michael, Mary, Zach and Paul celebrated the new year in our traditional way, by going on a hike. This year we visited Piestewa Peak in Phoenix. Although Michael pooped out pretty early (for reasons that soon became evident, described below), the weather was perfect and we had a great time. This is just another reason why we love living in the Valley of the Sun!

A couple days later, we received the present of daughter Karen's presence, as she joined us for a "second Christmas". (Her job as a flight attendant had kept her busy during the first one.

Paul and Michael at Cabo San Lucas.

Michael and Paul had been members of the 24 Hour Sport Fitness gym for some months; but in January, Michael started working out religiously five days a week and stayed focused on losing extra pounds. He maintained a low carb diet that helped a lot. By July everyone had noticed his new, svelte self.

For his Christmas present, Paul had given Michael a vacation: A trip to Cabo San Lucas in Mexico, at the southern tip of Baja California. We spent two nights there and, notwithstanding a particularly annoying mosquito that insisted on sharing the room with us, we had an awesome time seeing Los Arcos at Land's End, swimming, eating, and generally goofing off.

Just before we left, Paul received in the mail a paper cutout named Flat Stanley, sent by our granddaughter, Cailey. It included the instructions that we were to take him with use for a week, and then send him back with a description of his adventures. So he got to go to Cabo, and Paul received back an email from Cailey's teacher thanking us for recounting Flat Stanley's excellent adventures.

Our friend, Willis, continued to extend to Michael monthly opera opportunities. January's presentation was "The Elixir of Love" by the Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti. Willis was in continuing poor health so Michael's presence was both as friend and as care provider to make sure he got to the theatre and home again safely. On many of these opera weekends, while Michael enjoyed the opera, Paul enjoyed going on a hike or short trip—to each, his own.


By the way, we should mention that since daughter Karen was a flight attendant, Paul's airline tickets were free. It was Paul's intention to try and go somewhere each month. Yes, it was too bad Paul couldn't take Michael everywhere he went; but Paul wasn't about to lose an opportunity that who knew how long would last?

So Paul made a trip to St. Augustine, Florida, to visit his sisters, whom he hadn't seen in several years, and his niece and nephew who still live there (with their kids!). He also enjoyed making a tour of their old homes with his sister, Louise, who also put him up while he was there. (The whole premise of these getaways was that they would be cheap!)

Boyce Thomspon Arboretum A waterfall on Maui's Hana Coast.

And even staying close to home, Paul was able to make a morning hike at the beautiful Boyce Thompson Arboretum, located just an hour or so east of Mesa.

But Paul's big trip in February came at the end of the month, when he managed to save up money to rent a camper and fly (for free) to Maui. He had never been to Hawaii, and this was definitely the standout trip of the year as far as solo trips went. But Michael is very jealous, and is looking forward to visiting Hawaii for himself, hopefully sometime in the near future.


At the beginning of March, Willis was too ill to go to the opera, which meant there was an extra ticket. Paul had little interest in "Don Giovanni" so Michael took our friend Peter with him. (Willis improved during the following weeks, so that he and Michael were able to enjoy "Tosca" in the next performance the last weekend of the month.)

We were blessed to be able to make a major trip as a family when we drove to California and took the ferry to Santa Catalina Island where Michael, Paul, Jenny, Zach and Mary camped for several days. In addition to camping, the adventures included kayaking, hiking, and just relaxing. Thanks to John and Rachel, who couldn't get off work, for watching the dogs and cats for us while we were gone!

Jenny, Mary, Zach, Paul and Michael on Santa Catalina Island.

Mary and Michael took a nature walk to the other side of the village of Two Harbors, where we camped, on the other side of the narrow isthmus of the island, and Michael made note of the various plant life along the way by taking some stunning photos of the flowers and plants he encountered.


Zach warming up.

April was a bit more relaxed as we stayed closer to home. Paul had his first colonoscopy, which didn't turn up anything particularly interesting, not even the dead skunk Michael frequently conjectures has crawled up there. Zachary participated in his first sparring competition and won! (We cringed, but even taking an unexpected blow to the face didn't seem to faze him.) He didn't do as well at his second competition, but we are still so proud of his achievements in Mixed Martial Arts.

About this time Mary decided to move into an apartment of her own. This took a lot of courage on her part, but she found a nice place about 10 miles west of us. That made a room available that Michael could use as a treatment room for his massage clients, and he began outfitting it. It still wasn't ideal, since it was on the first floor and a client would have to pass through the family room (where Zach is usually watching Spongebob Squarepants) on his way there. Still, it was marginally better suited than his and Paul's bedroom.

Michael at South Mountain

This was the month our friend Willis Frye finally passed on after years of poor health. He had asked Michael to scatter his ashes on South Mountain, which he and Paul did, making a day hike out of it.

Michael cooking in camp.

And the following weekend Michael and Paul made their first campout of the year at Verde Hot Spring, there to meet friends Eddie and Carl, and bringing with us our new friend, Jason, who'd never before been camping.

Frank by our tent just above the Upper Salt River.

That trip was followed immediately by not one but two Upper Salt River rafting trips. The first, right at the end of the month, was the second annual trip with Paul and our friend, Frank. Paul had planned to go with Michael and Zach at the end of May; but discovered from the guides that, due to river conditions, the coming weekend would be the last run of the year!


Zach on the Upper Salt River.

Thus, the moment Paul got back within cellphone range, he called Michael to warn him to drop everything and get Zach psyched up. And thus, the second, the following weekend, was Paul's second rafting trip of the year, this one with Michael and Zachary—Zach's first rafting trip!

A completely different kind of rush occurred mid-month, as President Obama gave the commencement speech at the Arizona State University graduation and Michael, his sister Surya, and Paul were invited to attend by our friends, Barbara and Peter, who were given tickets in return for their calling out the names at commencement. Although we haven't approved of everything he's done since winning office, no one can deny he is the most eloquent and inspiring speaker we've had as President in decades.

President Obama at ASU. Michael, Paul, our guide Jules, and Frank.

Now, if Paul's trip to Maui was the highlight of his solo trips, Michael's and Paul's trip to Alaska was definitely the highlight of our joint trips. We went with our friend, Frank, who'd suggested rafting the Nizina River, about 300 miles east of Anchorage. So our rafting trip included a lengthy but breathtaking road trip; and after the rafting trip we made a flightseeing trip back to our point of origin. Neither Michael nor Paul had ever been in Alaska before, so it was all new and all amazing.


Our son, John, and his fiancée Rachel, decided to save up money for a house of their own, by giving up their rental home and moving into what had been Mary's bedroom (and, briefly, Michael's treatment room). To say the resulting downsizing was a bit stressful for them would be putting it mildly; but financially it still seemed like a good idea and, of course, it was great to have them back—though both of them work so much we hardly saw them.

Michael took two consecutive weekends to study a course at Southwest Institute of the Healing Arts in Tempe, Arizona, and became certified in Traditional Thai Massage. Paul was the "guinea pig" for the final exam. But he survived! And shortly afterward, Michael started his application process to attend medical school at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine, also in Tempe. We kept our fingers crossed that he would be accepted into their program.



Previous years spent wrestling with 4th-of-July crowds have convinced us that away from them is the best way to celebrate our freedom. So Michael and Paul drove up to Prescott to visit Eddie and Carl (our friends from many Verde Hot Spring trips) and go hiking in the area. Michael took many beautiful photographs of the wildflowers in the area.

Michael, Zachary and Paul at Alexander Springs.

But that little trip was just a taste of what was to come: Paul's 40th high school reunion in St. Augustine, Florida. Michael and Paul were able to take Zachary! We flew to Jacksonville, rented a car, and drove to St. Augustine for the event, managing to squeeze visits to the Alligator Farm and Alexander Springs in as well. We then drove up to Virginia, where we were able to visit Dottie, Cailey, Zachary, Karen.Karen and Dottie and her family (and see some of the Smithsonian), and then go for a hike in the Shenandoah Mountains before returning to Florida for our flight back home! Zachary is a superb traveler, interested without being annoying. We are already looking forward to taking another trip with him.

Zach in the Shenandoahs.

By the end of the month, Michael had lost 60 pounds since January, and his doctor pronounced him to be "in perfect health"! This was good news considering last year's bout with a kidney stone, and that he was hoping to return to a full-time school load for his doctorate.


Our friend Tallulah came to visit, along with her niece from Alabama. Tallulah has been a friend of Paul's since before he was born—his mother, Edna Mae, and Tallulah met when Edna was in the hospital to deliver him. She lives here in the Valley but on the far side of it, so it's always special when we get to see her.

Paul made a brief hospital stay due to an unfortunate change in his blood pressure meds. This precipitated a change from his allopathic doctor to a naturopathic one, with which he's so far been delighted. (Actually, he is being seen by naturopathic students at the same school that Michael will be attending!)

Surya and Michael enjoy the view.

Every year we try to celebrate our anniversary with our good friends Barbara and Peter because our anniversaries fall on the 12th and the 16th. This year was our ninth wedding anniversary! We celebrated with a good meal at a restaurant.

We made a trip along the Apache Trail through the Superstition Mountains, from Mesa to Lake Roosevelt. The occasion was Michael's sister, Surya's, July birthday, this being our first opportunity to celebrate it. We had offered to take Surya to Sedona, which we've done before; but she decided she'd rather make this trip along the gravel and, in some cases, frightening, road. We can't blame her; this trip is truly one of Arizona's hidden gems.

The Apache Trail.

The best news in August was that all of Michael's prerequisites for attending medical school were met and accepted! However, they required him to attend one more biology course, which he started at the Mesa Community College at Red Mountain and promptly achieved (and maintained) an A+ average.

The most startling news was that…we started looking for a new house.

We'd been renting a house in East Mesa belonging to our friends, Barbara and Peter. But Jenny wanted to plant trees in the back yard; and of course you don't make changes to a rental. So she asked Paul, if she could find a way we could afford it, would he be willing to consider buying a home?

Our new house.

Michael was also anxious to find a place where he could have a dedicated treatment room. And Paul was tired of having his "office" in the living room, where it had to be moved every year to make room for the Christmas tree.

We found one we liked no more than a mile from our rented house, which meant, if we got it, Zach wouldn't have to change schools. And we put down an offer.


Michael packing.

So, in September, the deal was closed and we began packing for an October move-in date. That kept everyone busy as we filled box after box and tried to live without anything that had already been packed. The dogs were puzzled, to put it mildly, though the cats were greatly entertained.

The new house had a room for John and Rachel. But the couple decided to remain in the old house, where the owners had expressed interest having someone they knew sit with it so it wouldn't be vacant and thus a target for vandals and looters.

Michael and Paul belong to a Facebook group of gay guys who live in the Phoenix area. On the 12th, this group organized a Salt River Float in which we participated. Although only a few people showed up, floating down the Salt is always fun and we hadn't gone as many times this year as we'd have liked.

To celebrate our friend, Barbara's, birthday, we attended a performance of Beethoven's 5th Symphony at Symphony Hall. Michael's and Paul's tickets were anniversary gifts from Barbara and her husband, Peter. The performance was outstanding, easily the equal of anything we could have attended in places known for high culture such as New York.

Jenny and her boss, Patty Henderson.

On the 27th, Jenny's place of employment, WINR (Women In New Recovery) held their annual Recovery Walk, which we all always attend. We are all so proud of her journey from meth addict to being Admissions Director of the recovery home that brought her to sobriety. It especially tickles Paul when he sees one of his kids get behind a microphone and address a crowd with clarity and poise.

As part of the ongoing plotline of whether Michael would be accepted into medical school, he participated in his first interview at the school, which was organized as part of an "open house" at which spouses were invited; so Paul came along. Not to the interview itself, but for the tour of the school and a wine-and-cheese get-together. We then had dinner in Tempe with the other prospective students, who had applied from all over the country. They turned out to be really terrific people and both Michael and Paul hoped all the more that he would be accepted so that we could spend more time with them.


Michael and his high school best friend, Derek.

And so, in the first weekend of October, we moved into the new house. we would love to show pictures of it now that we're completely unpacked, but we can't…because we aren't. But every week brings us closer, and we hope to be able to post photos on Paul's blog before the year actually ends.

The moving involved a lot of painting, in which we all participated, as well as physical modifications. John came in to remove a shelf from the built-in TV nook so it would accommodate our large-screen, HD TV. And we hired a friend, Greg, to change the archway into what was to become Michael's treatment room, into a doorway with a door. Paul and Jenny mounted and wired the surround-sound speakers; we look forward to getting Greg to install crown molding to cover the wires sometime soon.

The thing is, whether we've moved or not, life goes on. For example, Zachary continued with his karate/mixed martial arts, achieving his Red Belt in October.

And the admissions team at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine required Michael to "shadow" a practicing doctor of naturopathic medicine for 40 hours, which took about two week's calendar time since the doctor he chose doesn't work in his office every day.

Tricia and Paul

And even though it would be nice to focus on unpacking, the fact is we still haven't stopped doing things on the weekend. For example, the weekend after we moved, Michael had his 40th high school class reunion in Eastchester, New York; and Paul and Michael both attended that (as well as our friends Barbara and Peter; Barbara had been one of Michael's classmates).

In addition to the two planned events, there was a tour of the high school; and we also had the chance to visit Michael's nieces Tricia and and Rose, and Rose's family.

Michael in costume.

And then, of course, came Halloween, which is a Big Deal at our house—Zachary says it's his second-favorite holiday, and a close second at that. Plus, this being the first Halloween in our new house, there were new decorations to be bought and new places to be found in which to put them.

Lots of kids came by for candy, and Zachary pronounced this as his "best Halloween ever!"


Zach hiking the Superstitions Superstitions Sunset

Jenny, John, Zach, Michael and Paul took a Sunday afternoon off to go hiking in the Superstitions, just in time to enjoy a spectacular sunset.

Jenny John

And Michael and Paul made our last joint trip to Verde Hot Spring of the "season". (Camping in November? Sure, if it's Arizona!)

Paul at the camp stove.

After turning in his essay describing his shadowing the doctor, Michael was invited back for a second interview at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine. The following Tuesday, he was accepted! He will start classes there in the Spring of 2010.

Thanksgiving was simple this year, with just a few of us participating (though Barbara and Peter, and Peter's sister Julie were able to join us for a late serving). Not even John and Rachel could make it (they were working). Michael outdid himself as usual; and not even the low attendance got in the way of our having superb roast turkey with garlic mashed potatoes and herbed stuffing, candied yams, green bean casserole, homemade cranberry relish, and apple and pumpkin pies. The day after, our friends Eddie and Carl dropped by for a belated sample. (And, of course, we continued to eat Thanksgiving leftovers for the next two weeks!)


Our 12-foot Christmas Tree

We started off the Christmas season by erecting our 12-foot tree. We had selected this particular house partly because Paul thought there was a place to put the tree, but it turned out not to really fit in that spot. So we put it at the foot of the front stairway which we don't use all that often, anyway. Jenny and Zachary decorated the back yard, stringing lights along the fence that borders the golf course, as our HOA has requested we all do. And Michael, who puts up a custom wreath on the door every month, officially mounted December's Christmas wreath.

We've also decorated the outside front of the house. It is a big thing in our new neighborhood and we are working hard not to look like a dim sunspot by comparison to the blazing glories of our neighbors.

We are also hoping to be able to go caroling this year with friends.

Michael completed his Biology course with an A+.

And Paul, envious of Michael's weight loss, finally got back on the Atkins diet (no pie for him this Christmas!).

While most of our Christmas presents are, of course, secrets known only to Santa, we do know of one: Karen will be flying in to spend the holiday with us. (Whether that's Karen's present or ours isn't quite clear.)

And so…

We hope you have a wonderful holiday season with times filled with joy and may you have a prosperous New Year.

From all of us here of the Cilwa-Manion family at 9526 E Natal Ave., Mesa, Arizona!