My Gold Star Family “Leap of Faith”: Kissed by a Dolphin

Kissed by a dolphin?  It started innocently enough.  First we were introduced, then we were holding hands/fins, next we were dancing… and then Tashi poked his head out of the water, looked right at me, and planted a big kiss right on my lips!

All this took place at Island Dolphin Center in Key Largo, FL as part of a Gold Star Family “Leap of Faith Program.”  That is where I met Tashi, a male Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin, who is part of a “family” of dolphins that love interacting with military families and with children and adults with special needs.

There is something therapeutic about being “up close and personal” with dolphins.  The experience strips away fears and anxieties and replaces those feelings with pure joy and excitement.  The dolphins know how to bring us out of our comfort zone by allowing us to become part of their world, as we in turn give them our full attention.

On a beautiful, sunny, winter day in Florida, my sister and I sat on a dock and dangled our toes in the water as Tashi and Fiji swam back and forth and gave us a little “foot massage.”  The trainer said it was good for them as it helped exfoliate their skin.  But for me, it was this gentle movement that made me want to reach out and touch them.  Their skin felt smooth, and it shimmered in the Florida sunlight.  Soon we were talking with the dolphins.  The trainers taught us some hand signals/commands, and before we knew it we were waving our arms and clicking our fingers and communicating with our new friends.  Then it was time to say goodbye to Tashi and Fiji, but not before feeding them some fish and then having them wave their tails at us in a fond farewell.

We moved on to the other side of the large pool where we would meet Bella.  She is a teenage beauty!  The trainer asked my sister and I if we would like to get in the water and play with Bella, and we jumped right in.  Bella was shaking her head at us as if she was asking us…”Are you ready?”  Before we knew it, the trainer asked Cathy and I to hold hands, and said that Bella would give us a push.  All of a sudden, Bella was giving me a foot push… and this sent my sister and I into a circling spiral motion as if we were on a water merry-go-round.  Everyone watching erupted in laughter as they had never seen anything like it before!  Even the trainer was surprised!!!

Swimming with Bella was such a thrill in so many ways.  This gentle water creature showed us how to play…how to have fun together…and how to heal.

Fifty years ago, our brother Jerry died while serving his county.  At that moment, our family was changed forever.  Looking back, I now realize that his death impacted each member of our family and influenced how we interacted with each other…how we dealt with pain, worked through differences, and spoke about our feelings or kept them buried.

Our encounters with the dolphins at Island Dolphin Care touched our wounds and helped heal them in the best way possible…by touching our hearts and our lives so gently and lovingly.

Sometimes a “Leap of Faith” might mean entering the water and swimming with dolphins.  Or it might mean doing a tandem jump with one of the US Army’s Golden Knights Parachute Team.  Stay tuned for my next blog on this experience.

Spoiler alert: my sister and I did not do the jump, but we watched how others in our group were changed by the experience, and our lives were changed vicariously by being part of their “cheering section” as their parachutes opened and they floated down to earth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My Gold Star Family “Leap of Faith”: Telling Our Stories

Today I begin a series of blogs about being a Gold Star Family member.  My story began on February 7, 1967.  On that day, I picked up the phone, and received the shocking news of my brother Jerry’s death.  My parents, through their tears, told me that  that the Navy had just notified them that their son died in a freak accident in Iowa.  It all seemed surreal.  We all knew that Jerry was there receiving advanced training in military intelligence in preparation for his next tour of duty in Vietnam where he would be in harm’s way.  But Iowa?  Wasn’t it safe there!?!

Events unfolded swiftly and yet it felt like we were all moving in slow motion.  Family members were notified and we all awaited news from the Navy about final arrangements for my brother’s funeral and burial.  In the meantime, my parents and twelve-year-old sister Cathy made plans to fly from Florida to Delaware so that they could travel with my husband and I to Washington, DC when the time came.  My older brother Jim was still living in our hometown of Chicago, Illinois, and he and his wife were awaiting the birth of their first child at any moment.  Our lives seemed “suspended” yet they moved forward.

In a matter of days, my parents learned of their son Jerry’s death on February 7th and then the news of their first grandson Jimmy’s birth on February 10th.  Just two days later, on February 12th, my brother Jim had to leave his wife and newborn son back in the hospital in Chicago in order to fly to Washington, DC to bury his brother.  How could so much be happening to our family all at once!?!

A great blizzard of snow came down all across the Midwest and moved swiftly to the East Coast, from Chicago, to Delaware and Washington, DC.  It seemed to me like the heavens opened up and what came down was a great white blanket of snow trying to cover our grief.

On President’s Day Weekend, my parents, sister, husband and I made our way to Washington via Amtrak where we were met by Navy personnel and escorted to the funeral home for my brother’s viewing.  It was difficult to leave behind my two little girls, Carin age 2 and Chris age 1, but it was even harder for my brother to leave his wife’s bedside after her difficult cesarean delivery.  Fortunately, my sister-in-law Jan’s parents could care for her while Jim was away, but what should have been a great time of joy was overshadowed by the sadness that held us all captive.

My sister Cathy later wrote a moving tribute about our brother Jerry’s funeral and burial on February 13th: “It was a cold, snowy day in Washington, DC during the record breaking snow spectacle of February, 1967.  The motorcade left St. Thomas’ Church in Arlington, VA just moments after [his funeral mass ended] at 11:30 am.  It proceeded at 15 mph in the direction of Arlington National Cemetery, led by police and military escorts, the hearse, and a government limousine bearing solemn looking relatives….  Before the onlookers at the gravesite, the priest gave the family his sympathy and began the ceremony…a three-gun salute was performed, and the American flag which was draped over the casket was presented to his mother, who graciously accepted it.”

All of this happened 50 years ago, but our memories of that time still seem at times fresh and raw.  And so it is fitting that we remember and honor our brother: Radioman Second Class Gerald Martin Soens, United States Navy (1943-1967).

My sister Cathy and I shared some of our family story last weekend at an event sponsored by Operation Support Our Troops America (www.osotamerica.org).  This was a “Leap of Faith” Seminar/Retreat for Gold Star families, described as a three-day, intensive grief seminar done in partnership with the US Army Golden Knights.  During this time, family members (widows, parents and siblings) were offered grief counseling, a chance to tell their family stories, and the opportunity to tandem sky dive with the Golden Knights parachute team at Homestead Air Force Base, Homestead, FL and also to have an up close and personal therapeutic dolphin experience at Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo, FL.

On each of the three days, Gold Star Family Members were lovingly cared for by supportive staff and one another.  Our losses may have been fifty years ago or less than one year or somewhere in between.  But we all shared one thing in common: our loved ones gave their lives for our country and their sacrifices will never be forgotten.

(During the rest of this series, I will describe our interactive, therapeutic program at Island Dolphin Care, our experience with the US Army’s Golden Knights parachute team, and ways that we can support Gold Star Families.)

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