Reality Check
Earlene Fowler

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Reality Check

   This article was published in the November 2008 issue of Orange Coast Magazine.  I was asked to write about gratitude and how it pertains to Orange County , California , where I’ve lived for twenty years.

 REALITY CHECK – It’s Thanksgiving in the land of plenty.  Truth is, we’re more fortunate than what you see on TV.

     While doing research on winemaking for one of my novels, I discovered a meteorological term called microclimates.  Within a small area, say a county, there can be varied weather climates, from bone-dry to rain forest conditions. Those conditions affect the grapes and therefore the type of wine that is produced.

          I think Orange County is like that—a group of micro-communities within a larger one.  Within those communities, countless acts of kindnesses and courage are performed every day.  Of course, this is not the Orange County you see portrayed on TV.  Most of us aren’t like those fictional characters, images that have been formed by “The OC,” “ Laguna Beach : The Real Orange County,” “The Real Housewives of Orange County ,” “Top This Party,” and other series.  These shows portray a county where everyone is affluent, lives in magazine-perfect homes, and dreams of owning a diamond-encrusted Rolex and giving their 16-year-ol a $50,000 birthday party.  Their Orange County is not my Orange County , the one I experience on a day-to-day basis, the one I’m so grateful to live in.

            G.K. Chesterton said: “When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”  In a county as affluent as ours, it’s easy to take things for granted.  I’ll confess that I’m not always as grateful as I should be, but it is a good and necessary thing to stop and think about what we have to be grateful for, not just for good weather and restaurants, but the people in this country who make a difference every day in both big and small ways.  There is more heart here than appears on the surface, more community than we are given credit for.

            Recently, my father fell in his apartment, setting off a series of physical problems complicated by his dementia.  For a month, he was shuffled between the hospital and a nursing home.  One evening I was called back to the hospital to find my father hysterical.  He’d pulled out his catheter and IV and wouldn’t let anyone near him.  He was hallucinating, thinking he was in prison.  I finally cajoled him into trusting me—a stranger claiming to be his daughter—so the nurse could reattach both.  By the time I arrived home I was exhausted and dizzy with fear.  That’s what prompted me to send a crazed 2 a.m. email to the Orange County Alzheimer’s Association Web site.

            Her name was Jean.  She answered my email with a phone call the next morning.  Her voice was calm; the spaces between her words measured like the perfect stitches on an Amish quilt.  She told me how to find the best hospitals for my father and about resources to help him and me, how to fight for his rights.

            “You are his advocate now,” she said.  “You are his voice.”

            Jean answered my cry for help with grace and composure.  And for that, I’ll always be grateful.

            When San Diego County experienced one of its deadliest wildfires, many people had to evacuate their homes.  A young Fallbrook couple with three dogs—one an unvaccinated puppy with medical problems—could not find a place to take their animals.  Desperate, they called All Paws Dog Daycare in Fountain Valley .  Veterinarian Tara Haddad, the owner, solved their problems with two words—“Come here.”  She vaccinated the puppy, bathed the dogs, provided flea control, and kept them for five days without charge the couple one cent.

            I once attended a small Methodist church in the same town that, when it had some extra money, chose not to improve its buildings and grounds, but to build a shower for the homeless people it feeds every Saturday morning.

            My favorite quilt shop in Garden Grove hosts a “Binky Patrol” meeting once a month.  The volunteers makes quilts to give to children and teens who are abused, ill, in foster car, or experiencing other traumas—to remind the kids that they are loved.

            Because of our father, my sister, Mary, is hyperaware of people who might have dementia.  Recently, while waking with our father around her Santa Ana neighborhood, she saw an elderly gentleman peering cautiously into parked cars.

            She asked him if he would like to come to her house to rest.  He went along willingly—something that is terrifying if you think about it too long. His wallet revealed only his name and address, so she called the police.  While waiting, she looked through the phone book and found only one person with that name.  His grateful son came to pick him up, thanking my sister profusely.  My sister and I have talked about this incident, voicing our hope that if Daddy were ever lost, someone would do the same for us.  I believe they would, because those someones are everywhere in Orange County .

            I’m grateful for the woman who stopped to help me lift an elderly man who’d fallen in front of a McDonald’s drive-through while others drove around us; the minister of a church we no longer attend who calls to make sure my husband and I are doing OK; the young people in my neighborhood who banded together recently to find out why an elderly neighbor, whose fire alarm had gone off, wasn’t answering her phone or door.

            I’m grateful for my husband and his co-workers who buy bottled water from an older colleague who sells it to make extra money.  I’m grateful for teachers and librarians and police officers and our uncelebrated trash collectors.

           I’m grateful for smiling waitresses who call me “sweetie” and helpful mail clerks and the organized receptionists at my doctors’ offices.  I’m grateful for the store clerk who showed me the easiest cell phone to use, the brave tree trimmers, the hardworking pothole fillers, the bread bakers and the cheerful crossing guards.

            I’m grateful for nurses and doctors and veterinarians and the fire department paramedics who rescued my father after his fall.  I’m grateful for all the people who answer late-night cries for help with words of hope.  They are the real people of Orange County . 

            They are all heroes.

            They are us.

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