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Amazing Mountain Climb: Take Mt. Kilimanjaro Off the Bucket List

We did something big this month – as in 19,341 feet Mount Kilimanjaro big. It’s hard to top that! (Pun intended.) I use the word “we” loosely. My husband, Bill Koehne, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro while I remained in Abrams at a ridiculously low elevation of 696 feet. I may not have spent eight days climbing a mountain, but I was there in spirit. You see, Bill carried my mini-me Wonder Writer action figure to the summit to remind him of my support and to snap some rare photos of Wonder Writer soaring above the clouds.  

Do you have what it takes to climb Kilimanjaro?

For those who don’t live with a mountain climbing fanatic like I do, let me tell you a little about the amazing feat Bill achieved. On July 6, Bill departed O’Hare Airport and on July 7, arrived at Kilimanjaro International Airport 8,000 miles away. Mount Kilimanjaro actually is a dormant volcano and has three volcanic cones. Located in Tanzania in eastern Africa, Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa. It’s higher than any mountain peak in the U.S. with the exception of Mount McKinley in Alaska. Although Mount Kilimanjaro isn’t a steep climb, summiting the mountain is extremely difficult. Here are a few reasons:

Acclimate to the high altitude

Bill’s group of seven climbed four days before spending two nights at 14,117 feet to let their bodies adjust to the elevation. The next day, they hiked to high camp, called the School Hut, at 15,518 feet to prepare for the summit the following day. One night, Bill’s blood oxygen level fell to 81 percent, which was a concern because levels under 80 end a hiker’s climb. Fortunately, Bill rebounded to an acceptable 93% the following day.

Endure cold, windy sections of the trail

For someone like Bill who detests Wisconsin winters, tenting in 15-degree temps is really uncomfortable. When you add in the rain and the wind, the mountain becomes even more inhospitable. With a sleeping bag liner and hand warmers tucked inside his mummy-shaped sleeping bag, he made the best of it.

Undergo an arduous summit day

The group started the day at 3am and ended the day 11 hours, 20 minutes later. First, they climbed to Gilman’s Point to see extraordinary views from the crater rim at 18,640 feet. After two more hours of hiking, they reached the summit of Uhura Peak at 19,341 feet. You’d never guess what Bill carried to the summit. Because the porters carried his pack, he carried something belonging to his mountain climbing guide – a ukulele in its case. Why a ukulele? His guide Ricardo, a musician, wanted to record a song on at the mountain top. Unbelievable!

Make it home safe and sound

Bill returned home on July 17 after this trip of a lifetime. Wonder Writer made it home, too, with a little volcanic dust on her costume but otherwise in good shape.

Check Mt Kilimanjaro off the bucket list

Bill has had some incredible experiences hiking and climbing in Hawaii, Colorado, France, and Spain. In July 2022, he added Mount Kilimanjaro to his list of accomplishments. I’m amazed by each one! Now when Bill tells me he wants to climb something or hike something, I take him seriously. How does he do it? He tells me it’s as simple as putting one foot in front of the other.

Joan, Bill and Will Koehne

Mother’s Day 2022 Lesson: Be There for Your Kids

Will's Birthday in Madison with Joan and Bill

Call it a mother’s intuition. It never failed that I was up just shy of 1 a.m. to see our son, Will, walk through the door on his visits home from Atlanta. He’d pull into the driveway after the 15-hour drive to Wisconsin, and I was there to welcome him home.

When Will arrived home in June, I was nowhere to be found. He was surprised by my absence, and he certainly let me know it! I didn’t realize how much it meant to be there for him. I should know better by now. You’re never too old to be loved by your mom.

Talking about age, I look at Will sometimes and wonder. How can this 30-year-old man be my son? I can still picture him as a baby in my arms. The 1 a.m. feedings when he was a baby lacked the welcome-home excitement that his cross-country road trips created. Instead, the middle-of-the-night meetings were exhausting, but a rite of passage nonetheless.

Will Moves to Madison

Nowadays, Will arrives home at a decent hour. He moved to Madison in May 2021 after 4 years in Atlanta and 2 years in Philadelphia during the travel-restricted COVID-19 years. 

Finally, one of our birdies flew closer to the nest! I remember Will opening Christmas gifts during a video call. Sure, it was the next best thing to being together in person, but a poor substitute. Now, Will attends all of the holiday gatherings, with a few extra visits thrown in. Plus, I get to visit him in Madison. We’ve gone to the Milwaukee Brewers game on Star Wars Night, walked to the Governor’s Mansion from his apartment, and toured Olbrich Botanical Garden. I met his girlfriend, Jenny, and I look forward to getting to know her. I bet she’s willing to wake up at 1 a.m. to greet him after a long absence.

So, what about the other birdie that flew the coop? Our daughter, Janet, and her husband, Tyler, are feathering their nest in Mellen and getting more comfortable in the home they purchased in the fall of 2019. Last week they planted two apple trees and ordered a weeping willow. It’s pretty obvious that they put down roots. Mellen, home of the Granite Diggers, is a Northern Wisconsin community where the people are friendly, the snow is deep, and the moon is bright. Needless to say, they like it Up North. Visiting their nest takes more time and more gasoline, but it’s worth it. It keeps my mothering instincts sharp.

This Mother’s Day I’m welcoming a new mom to the club! I just got a text message from my sister, Sue, the newest Marcks girl to become a grandma. 

Congratulations to all of the moms celebrating Mother’s Day, whether it’s your first, 30th or something even grander. Whatever your age and whatever the hour, always be there for your kids. It means more to them than you realize. To read last year’s Mother’s Day reflection, go to Mother’s Day 2021: Selfies & Family Movies

Carlsbad Caverns’ Birthday in the Chambers of Wonders

Carlsbad Caverns entrance
Look how small I am standing outside the cave entrance of Carlsbad Caverns!

I had the most magnificent birthday this year. It will be hard to top this in a million years. But I guess a million years is small-potatoes in the history of the earth. The wondrous venue where I celebrated my 57th birthday was a lot older than me! Bill and I were vacationing in New Mexico, home to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, where 4- to 6-million years ago sulfuric acid dissolved the limestone and left behind gypsum, clay, and silt.

Carlsbad Caverns cave features

Without a guide and relying on the occasional light reflecting off the formations, we walked the 1.25-mile trail that slowly meandered down 75 stories to the base of the Big Room. The Big Room is aptly named. It’s the largest single cave chamber by volume in North America. Every single cave I toured in my lifetime could have fit inside the Big Room.

At one point, after hiking for over an hour, we stopped to sit on stone benches. I sat in awe of the majesty of it all. So vast, top to bottom, side to side. So interesting, with mounds, curves, and rock that looked nothing like rock. Not beautiful. There was too much dirt to be beautiful, but stunning.

Carlsbad Caverns cave features

As I sat there, a felt a reverence for this big, open space. I hadn’t felt that way since I visited Rome and sat inside the majestic cathedrals with high arches and grandiose ceilings that took my breath away. Sitting in the Big Room, I marveled at the natural beauty found so deep underground.

Over our two weeks of hiking in New Mexico and Arizona, we saw even more beauty above ground. Sometimes, like on Cathedral Rock in Sedona, we hiked for miles before reaching the reward of a summit view.

I felt so small at times, while walking alongside the towering red rocks of Sedona or the mountains of New Mexico. Yet I never felt insignificant. Maybe it was because of all the happy birthday wishes, cards, and presents I received. Birthdays are so wonderful because of the outpouring of love – like a flash flood in the Arizona desert. Even as small as I was compared to the vast mountains and caves of the Southwest, I was big in the lives of my family and friends, especially my husband. Every time we vacation together, he tells me that he can’t imagine being with anyone else. A marriage like that is rock solid.

I am so thankful for our Southwest vacation, for the opportunity to leave everyday life behind and climb to amazing heights, travel to astounding depths, and see amazing sights. Definitely a birthday to remember. Thanks for all of the happy birthday wishes!

(To read another birthday post, go to Why I Love Turning 54.)

Carlsbad Caverns cave features
We loved our Southwest vacation, and spending my birthday with Bill at Carlsbad Caverns made the vacation even better.

Mother’s Day 2021: Selfies & Family Videos

Mother's  Day

Every Mother’s Day, I reflect on my past year as mom to Janet (Tyler) and Will. My favorite photo from the past year is the photo of Will, Janet, Bill, and me on the deck of Janet and Tyler’s home. We were out on the second-story deck shooting clay pigeons on an unseasonably warm November afternoon. We all lined up side-by-side for Bill to take a selfie. I looked at our four faces reflected on Bill’s cellphone and said, “Hey! That’s us!” Will laughed and said, “Of course, that’s us.”

Selfie Reminds Me How Family Looks

Why was I so surprised? Well, it had been a long time since I saw “us.” I guess I forgot what “us” looked like. You’d think it would be easy to get four people together more often than once a year. Not for us. This year was especially difficult. Distance is part of the problem. Although Bill and I haven’t moved from our Abrams home where we raised the kids, Will lives in Philadelphia and Janet lives in Northern Wisconsin. Covid-19 was another part of the problem. Family gatherings were few and far-between since March 2020. Trips were canceled. Holidays were smaller. Phone and video visits kept us connected, but it wasn’t the same as being together.

Family Videos = A Glimpse Into the Past

The highlight of our short weekend at Janet and Tyler’s in November was watching family videos. Those videos turned back the clock so we could see our family 20 years ago. We were reminded how we looked, the clothes we wore, but best of all, the fun we had being together.

What fun it was to see the kids doing science projects in the kitchen with soup cans and coins. Oh, did we laugh! The only clip that topped the science video was our trip to Gatorland in Florida, followed by a hilarious Gatorland re-creation by Willy and Janet and their stuffed animals. They put on a show even more entertaining than the original. We laughed until our sides hurt.

A Mother’s Day Wish

I miss those hectic days when the kids were little and the house was alive with activity. Even today, Will, Janet, and Tyler bring energy and laughter into our home when they visit. I wish those visits happened more often, so I can remember how “us” looks.

Well, I got my wish this Mother’s Day! All of us are vaccinated against Covid and feel more confident getting together. Plus, Will is moving back to Wisconsin at the end of May! He will live in Madison and work for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services as a Preparedness and Emergency Health Care Epidemiologist. That’s a mouthful! I can’t wait to welcome him back home and pose for more photos of “us.”

To read last year’s Mother’s Day reflection, go to Role reversal: A Mother’s Day Tribute to Our Kids

Father's Day

Father’s Day: A Way with Words

Father's Day memory of Jim Marcks,
Jim Marcks

Today is Father’s Day, a day to recall the ordinary things in life that make fathers extraordinary. Dads don’t need fancy words or lengthy lectures to motivate and bond with their kids. When I was a kid, my dad used a couple of great phrases to get me and my five sisters motivated in the morning. Years later, these sayings still make me smile.

Silly phrase before school

My dad, Jim Marcks, was an agriculture teacher at Luxemburg-Casco High School. Instead of riding the school bus, we would pile into the station wagon and ride to school with him each morning. I remember him calling from the utility room, “Time to go, straight shooters and crooked shooters.” Why he referred to us this way, I can only imagine. Anyway, this silly phrase got us out the door.

Triumphant saying that unified us

This leads to another of my favorite sayings. As we backed out of the garage, Dad would say, “And we’re off, like a herd of turtles and a dirty shirt.” This triumphant saying unified us as a family. We accomplished something together, even something as routine as a ride to school.

Motivation for summer chores

Summer vacation brought a new motivational phrase in the morning. We loved to sleep in, but Dad wanted us to get out of bed and out to the barn. “Sheep are hungry,” he’d call from downstairs. He confirmed what we already knew. We could hear our sheep baaing in the back yard, but we weren’t ready to get out of bed!

Simple question, important answer

The final saying I remember was a 3-word question he asked at a pivotal time in my life. He realized I was pretty serious about the guy I was dating – and later married. I didn’t get a lecture or advice. Dad simply asked, “Is he capable?” Those three words covered a lot of ground.

Happy Father’s Day

Father's Day

It just goes to show that dads don’t need to say a lot to say a lot. Sure, Dad and I had a lot of good conversations over the years, and I’m grateful for these. These helped shape my outlook on life. Still, it’s his simple sayings that are so fun to recall, especially on this day devoted to dads. Happy Father’s Day!

Role Reversal: A Mother’s Day Tribute to Our Kids

Happy Mother's Day card

The tables were turned in 2019 when I underwent a stem cell transplant to treat leukemia. I was accustomed to being the caregiver for our two kids, but last summer, they were my caregivers instead. From June to August, I lived in an apartment complex close to Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee. A dozen different caregivers stayed with me, including our two kids, Will and Janet.

This Mother’s Day, I’m reminded of the time we spent together; the laughs and the love.

Major Life Changes for All of Us

A year ago, the three of us were undoing major life changes. In May 2019, Will earned a Master’s degree in epidemiology at Emory University in Atlanta. Since he didn’t start work at the Philadelphia Health Department until August, he became my weekday caregiver by default.

Janet married Tyler Roberts on May 4, 2019, after two years of long-distance romance. I know she was looking forward to life as a newlywed, yet she made me this offer, “I can be anywhere you need me to be.” That made my heart melt. Janet became my weekday caregiver in August, and when I broke out with an itchy rash in September, she made the 5-hour trip from her home in Washburn to get me to the doctor.

A Mother’s Day Message

Mother's Day remembrance of summer with Janet

Despite the difficultly of undergoing cancer treatment, I have many happy memories of summer 2019. I remember enjoying an accordion concert in the dining hall. I laughed when the musician chose Janet and Tyler to accompany him with odd instruments. Janet and I had a lot of fun dancing to Dance Dance Revolution and taking turns playing piano and singing songs. She made me homemade gummy bears and crepes.

Mother's Day remembrance of summer with Will

With Will, I remember his lame jokes that helped lighten the mood. One night he performed an off-the-cuff “rap” song before “wrapping” my arm to keep my PICC line dry in the shower. He’s a smart guy, and I liked to talk with him about current events, medical topics, and anything else that popped into my head. He baked chocolate chip cookies and chicken thighs.

Walking, Singing, Playing Together

The kids drove me to appointments, made sure I followed my doctor’s instructions, cooked meals, and did laundry. We played board games and dice games, shot pool, and played ping pong. We took walks around the apartment complex and the Mequon Nature Preserve.

Both of the kids are great singers, and I loved hearing them sing along to “Anchor’s Away.” I’d get myself motivated for the day by listening to marches, and “Anchor’s Away” played every time.

Out of Adversity Comes Blessings

One thing I learned this summer is this: out of adversity comes blessings. The kids and I were so blessed to spend time together – not just a holiday weekend or 30-minute phone call but every day and every night for weeks at a time. Our shared experiences drew us closer. Will and Janet were there when I needed them, helping me through the tough times and enjoying the good times.

I am now cancer free, and I’m so grateful our kids helped me reach this milestone. They were wonderful caregivers, and I’ll always remember the summer we spent together.

I might even send them a Mother’s Day card this year.

Caregiver tips

A patient’s perspective: 10 tips for caregivers

Over the past 70 days I lived in a new world of healthcare appointments and medical treatments. I learned a whole new vocabulary and adjusted to a new routine. Because of these changes, I required extra TLC. Luckily, I had wonderful caregivers caring for me. This summer I learned some important lessons about caregiving.

Here are my 10 tips for caregivers

Caregiver tips

1. Walk my pace.

It’s frustrating knowing that I’m not as peppy as I used to be. Likewise, it’s frustrating to fall behind when I walk with someone. I’m grateful to the caregivers who naturally adjust their pace to match mine.

2. Crack a joke.

Laughter is the best medicine, so they say. Caregivers who make me laugh certainly brighten my day and focus my attention on something other than my own troubles. A sense of humor can bust even my darkest mood.

3. Let me sleep in.

Rest is a precious commodity as I’m recovering. Caregivers who close the blinds and stay super-quiet in the morning are the best. Starting the day fully rested helps me deal with whatever comes my way.

4. Surprise me with simple things.

Caregivers don’t need to spend a fortune to make someone smile. Just the surprise of receiving something fun is enough. I’m a sucker for a box of animal crackers or a pack of my favorite gum. It was fun to hear my caregivers play a song they knew I’d like.

5. Suggest menu alternatives.

“What are you hungry for?” was a tough question to answer when I didn’t have much of an appetite. Instead, I liked it when caregivers gave me a choice between a couple of menu options. “Do you want salmon or chicken for supper?” I could answer that question much easier.

6. Take notes at appointments.

This is a biggie. I sometimes hear only what I want to hear. By taking notes, my caregivers have a record of what my doctors say. I can look back and confirm what’s true and what’s just wishful thinking.

7. Write down my questions.

I have the doctor’s attention for just a short time. It’s too easy to forget what I wanted to ask about, and then the opportunity is gone. My caregivers added their questions, too, and wrote down the answers.

8. See what I don’t.

Having an outsider’s perspective is really helpful. Caregivers can catch me when I slip up, like when I made faces while listening to the nurse’s instructions (which my son thought was rude). I think my emotions got the best of me.

9. Keep me on task.

My caregivers got me out the door on time for appointments. They made sure I took my medicine, got enough rest, and ate well.

10. Ask how I’m feeling.

My caregivers were so considerate. They couldn’t always tell how I was feeling, so they asked me. If I wasn’t feeling well, they gave me suggestions of what to do.

Contributing to my recovery

People say it’s the little things that matter, and I think that’s true for caregivers. I’m so thankful they were able to drive me to appointments, prepare meals, keep me company, and take care of household chores. My caregivers were an integral part of my recovery process. I salute them and all caretakers who unselfishly give of themselves to others. You rock!

Mother’s Day 2019: When is it right to say, “I love you”?

A month before Mother’s Day, I was puzzling through one of those weighty questions in life. When should I say, “I love you”? I was thinking about it because someone said these words to me, unexpectedly. I’m not sure what I told him in return, but it wasn’t “I love you.” I wasn’t comfortable returning the sentiment.

Ask the smartest guy

Like I do with so many other things I ponder in life, I took the question to the smartest guy I know — my husband, Bill. He said “I love you” is a deep sentiment shared with family (either by blood or acceptance). Then he told me about a client who signed off on their phone conversation saying, “Love you!” Bill knew she said it absentmindedly. (He knows clients love the work he does for them, but this was getting too personal.) No surprise, the next time he spoke with her, she apologized.

Accidentally eavesdropping

Second story: I remember my surprise the first time I heard our daughter, Janet, tell her boyfriend, Tyler, that she loved him. It was at the end of a phone conversation I overheard while on a Spring Break trip to the Smoky Mountains. I don’t remember any other words from her conversation, but I was irked that she’d say those three words to Tyler. Those words are reserved for family, I thought. (Janet was unapologetic.)

3 magic words

Fast forward a couple of years and Tyler has become family. Janet and Tyler were married May 4, 2019. Coincidentally, our new son-in-law was the one who finally made me realize when it’s right to tell someone “I love you.” He confirmed Bill’s answer without knowing it. As he and Janet were leaving the wedding reception and I said goodbye, those three little words slipped out. “I love you, Tyler,” came off my lips before I could think about them. Unlike the words slipped out by Bill’s client, my words felt right. They had the emotion behind them to match their meaning.

The meaning of love

Truly, Tyler is now part of the family not just in name but in love, also. On their beautiful wedding day, I conclusively found the answer to my question: A person is ready to say those words when the words come out naturally. No second guessing, just effortlessly coming from the heart. So, I needn’t worry anymore about when to say those magic words. Simply put, if the moment is right, I’ll know it.

Mother’s Day 2019

In closing, on this Mother’s’ Day 2019, I’d like to officially announce I am now a mother to one more wonderful son. Tyler, I love you. Thanks for helping me understand the meaning of love on a whole new level.

Want to read more? Check out my Mother’s Day 2018 blog and Mother’s Day 2017 blog.

The reason I love turning 54

I celebrated my birthday on Friday. It wasn’t one of those milestone birthdays. I’m past the half-century mark, but I haven’t reached the 55-mph speed limit yet. I turned 54. You’d think there’s nothing special about turning 54. No big deal, right?

Treasuring moment at Birthday celebration
Celebrating my birthday with my husband, Bill, on the cross-country ski trail.

Turning 54 is a big deal

Well, I’ve had some experiences this year that make turning 54 a BIG DEAL. The message that truly hit home this year is this: Nothing is guaranteed. Friends move away, literally or figuratively. Marriages fail. People get sick. Loved ones pass away. It seems like doom and gloom all around. Sometimes, that’s how life appears.

Fortunately, it’s not the end of the story. New friendships blossom. Couples fall in love and marry. People get well. Babies are born.

I’ve experienced both extremes this year.

Experiencing life’s extremes

I said goodbye to 2 aunts and an uncle, but I also welcomed a niece into the family. (Finally, we have another Marcks girl to carry on the proud family tradition.)

I’ve watched the marriage of someone close to me crumble, but I’ve also been swept into the whirlwind of planning a wedding. With great excitement, we will welcome a son-in-law into the family this spring.

And what about sickness? Today, I saw the doctor for my annual physical. I’m not in perfect health, but I’m better off than the guy I saw when I left the clinic. He was holding his chest and struggling for breath. He definitely belonged in the emergency room. I walked out of the clinic on my own two feet, while the nurse rushed to get a wheelchair for the poor guy.

Treasuring the moment

No, nothing in life is guaranteed. I guess that’s why it’s so important to stop every once-in-a-while and appreciate what we have in life. That’s one good reason to celebrate a birthday.

I call it treasuring the moment. You freeze time and experience the special moment a little longer. Then, you tuck the treasured moment away, into your memory.

My birthday was filled with treasured moments.

My husband, Bill, said the sweetest things at dinner. It made me treasure our love even more. My nieces, Chelsea and Sara, said the funniest things when I opened my gifts. My sister, Cathy, gave me a script from a 1970s play. I was about 12 years old at the time, and I had a part in the high school play. When I dramatically read a few lines, Chelsea said, “It’s like no time has passed.” When I opened 3 pairs of pajamas, Sara said, “Now you can go shopping at Walmart.” We all laughed. It really made me treasure the love of my family.

Celebrating a birthday

Turning 54 has changed me for the better. Thanks to everyone who helped me celebrate. We’ll celebrate again when I hit 55.

Milestones of meeting in-laws

Milestones That Make You Cry

Milestones of meeting in-lawsLife is marked by a series of milestones. My husband, Bill, and I experienced one of those milestones this weekend. We drove to the U.P. to meet our daughter’s future in-laws. Our daughter, Janet, will marry Tyler in May.

Tyler’s parents and brother were very gracious hosts. They gave us the most precious gift they could—the gift of their time. They welcomed us into their home and made us feel as if they had nothing better to do than spend the weekend with us.

I brought along Janet’s photo albums to show Tyler and his family some of the milestones of Janet’s life. I knew it would be fun to page through the books. What I didn’t bargain for was the melancholy I’d feel looking at those photos.

Janet has marked a lot of milestones in her life: her first haircut, her first day of school, her first time traveling out of the country. In February, she hit another big milestone when Tyler proposed.

While we paged through the albums looking at the kid she had been, Janet sat at a desk nearby with a photo of the grown-up woman she’s become. She was addressing Save the Date postcards. In the Save the Date photos, Janet is in Tyler’s arms, not mom’s or dad’s any longer. That’s a milestone I’m still getting accustomed to.

Being a mother-of-the-bride is rough on the emotions some days. I couldn’t be happier that Janet is all grown up and ready to share her love and her life with Tyler, but part of me still thinks of her as our little girl. I can’t comprehend how she could be ready to walk down the aisle and into a new life as Tyler’s wife. How is it possible when I can still picture her as a baby in my arms?

After our weekend with Tyler’s family, I feel more confident than ever that she’s making the right choice for a husband. She’s marrying into a family that is kind and loving.

Their May 2019 wedding will be just one more milestone on life’s journey. I’m hoping that the old adage is true: I’m not losing a daughter, I’m gaining a son.