It’s Sunday night and I’m listening to Sara Bareilles sing the part of Mary Magdalene with sweet perfection.

We come to the song we’ve all waited for. Wait for it. Wait for it. No wait. That’s another musical. Oh honey, she starts singing and all I can hear is, (“I never thought it’d come to this. What’s it all about?”), the beautiful voice of my fifth grade teacher Mrs. Neal, singing every word as she did so often in our class.

Mrs. Neal had an incredible voice and a love of the play’s soundtrack. She taught this Jewish girl to learn to love a song about Jesus.

Sara Bareilles Singing “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” live

You see, it didn’t matter that she was the first black teacher at our school, and it didn’t matter that she was amazingly young. It just mattered that she was putting music in my soul. Feeding it, like my Mama did at home. I thrived in her classroom and I thrived at home.

Two women, who maybe met once or twice would have an incredible influence on the structure of my love of music.

I’ve thought so often of Mrs. Neal throughout the last forty six years. What and where was she? Before the days of computers and social media there wasn’t a way to look. When social media became available, I didn’t think of her as often and maybe tried once in a while to no avail. I never knew her first name.

I knew her husband’s name. Oh man, did she talk about him in class. We knew she loved him a lot.

So, back to tonight. Easter Sunday, watching, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, and hearing that song. Feeling the way I felt in fifth grade. Free and uninhibited. Free to sing, and sing loudly. That’s how Mrs. Neal taught us to be. How my Mother taught me to be.

So, after Sara was done singing, there was an overwhelming ovation. As well as a filling up of my heart. I had to look for Mrs. Neal again.

This time I saw Carey Neal’s name on FB. Aha! I knew it! I’d found the beloved husband! Let me look though his friends to see if I could find her name. I couldn’t. I did find a younger Mr. Neal. Maybe it was his Mom. I wrote him this message:

Hi I’m trying to find an old teacher of mine, who I think may have been your Mom. Did she teach at Green school in the 70’s? What’s her first name? I know it sounds crazy but I’m watching Jesus Christ Superstar live and she used to play us that soundtrack and sing with it constantly.

OMG, he wrote me back almost as fast as I’d written. Some small talk went on back and forth. In it, he’d used the words: She was. I asked, not breathing, yet knowing the answer, ‘You said was. Is she not alive?’ ‘No’, he answered. ‘She died too young. About twenty five years ago from breast cancer.’

I went on to tell him what she meant to me, and that I could hear her in my head when the song was being sung tonight. He said they were watching too.

I wondered to myself, jealously, how many times had she sung that to him?

It hurt to hear of her fate, and that the gift of a long life was not to be for Mrs. Neal. But she passed on her love of music, and on this night, her Son knows someone out there heard his Mom’s voice clearly in her head, and she was alive once again for a few minutes.

On this night Jesus Christ rose in the ears of a Jewish woman during Passover, and in the hearts of two strangers, to remember a woman who gave us both the gift of song.

Bless you Mrs. Neal RIP

Tomorrow will mark eight long years since my Mother left this plane of living and moved to a higher level of being. Some would call it heaven. I like to call it a far away vacation.

This incredible woman named Francine Lee Falkow, was born April 16, 1938 on the island known as Bronx, NYC, to a Russian immigrant Father and a second generation, American born Mother.

An only child, due to the problems with Rh negative blood factor pregnancies, (there was a lost child before and after her birth), Francine grew up in a household that was idyllic. Two parents who adored each other and her. It made for a trio of perfection.

Treated like the true princess she was, my Mother never missed a beat to bat her gorgeous green eyes at the boys, until the day she died. This was a woman who enjoyed being a girl. Doing girl things. In the days when she grew up, it was quite ok to be as frilly and girly as you wanted to be. After all, you had to catch a good husband.

She was smart in addition to her looks though, and just collecting a husband wouldn’t do. She studied at Drake University, rooming with a friend who apparently wasn’t that nice. Good wing woman material to find a husband. 😂

The phone rang on the 11th of May in 1956, with the news of her Father’s passing. And after that, she came home to continue her education and to keep her lonely and broken hearted, forty six year old Mother company.

She met my Father not long after that. Funny, I never asked her or him where they met. How do you never ask your parents that question? But I digress. They met somewhere obviously, and married in August of 1957.

She was a beautiful bride.

Eight years later they divorced.

I used to spend mornings watching her out on her makeup. Everything so expertly applies. This was a real woman. In the Elizabeth Taylor sense of the word. Baudy, strong, independent, and everything you’d expect of a woman with brains and beauty.

I was so jealous of her gorgeous green eyes. They were like two shimmering emeralds staring at you. I can only imagine the men those eyes won over.

All I really know is she loved me and was proud of me. She called me every morning at 9:30am to make sure I made it to work ok. Those calls occasionally annoyed me at their regularity. We spoke 5-10 times a day, depending on the day. Sometimes it was just to tell a joke or call to hang up on each other. We were two comedians in a pod.

8 years. 8 seconds. It doesn’t matter. Missing you cannot be measured by time. It is infinite and always will be.

What I wouldn’t give for one more, slightly annoying 9:30am call.

Francine Lee Falkow

April 16, 1938 to March 31, 2010

Cathy Richardson Band: A Benefit for the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre

I’ve been raising funds for the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre since 2003. Before any Earth was moved to build a building, let alone any of the amazing life saving things they’re accomplishing there.

When you’ve been influenced as I have by Olivia’s music and life throughout my own, the way to say thank you is to pay back the positivity with philanthropy.

I’m not a wealthy person by any standard. I gave what I could every month just to contribute to brick and mortar. I didn’t know it would take the next decade for the building to be finished, but that didn’t really matter to me. The money wasn’t going to make them rich, and it wasn’t going to make me poor. My life’s mantra has been: I have two hands. One to help me, and one to help others.

I felt incredibly proud when the Centre was finished. I was a tiny part of a place that would heal people suffering from cancer, mind, body, and soul. It would bring them some comfort in their journeys. Whether it be long or short. The programs were meant to help. And that’s all I cared about.

Then I found out my name would be on the wall. I didn’t know how to feel knowing that. I don’t have children, and so my life’s legacy would be the people who’d see my name on the wall of the Centre. A place where researchers are working on treatments and the cures to many forms of cancer. It blew me away.

In a previous blog, I wrote about being diagnosed with cancer. But the first time I visited the Centre in 2016, I didn’t know I was already ill. As I walked the halls, I felt the energy of a healing, beautiful facility, where people were receiving the help they needed to stay alive and win over cancer. I even saw the eighth floor where patients making the life transition, were made comfortable for the time they had left. It was a quiet and serene place, where I felt the souls of those who’d gone before.

When I saw my name on the third floor donor’s wall, I cried. It was real. It was the most humbling moment of my life. Something that I knew would be remembered long after I was gone.

Then we walked outside in the beautiful garden and noticed another donor wall outside. Lo and behold, my name was pointed out to me on that wall as well. I was gobsmacked. I truly was overwhelmed to the point of almost being frozen in my step. Had I really given enough to have two plaques? I asked as if it wasn’t in front of my eyes.

Humility can knock you over in a moment like that. I wasn’t expecting it. But truly, for the first time in my life, I felt proud of myself.

That year, our walk team, The Sol Seven, raised over $44,000 for the Centre at the annual walk. The next year, we nearly equaled that amount. And in between I’ve raised thousands by auctioning and selling items graciously autographed by Olivia for the purpose of raising funds for the Centre.

2016 Team

2017 Team

This year, a year when I’ve had my own issues with cancer and a knee replacement, I decided I had to do bigger things to raise money. This concert is one of those things.

Please join me in thanking Cathy Richardson, The City Winery Chicago, Libby Brickson and her entire staff, for their generosity and support for what we’re trying to accomplish.

Cancer is a rough go no matter what kind it is, or how tough you think you are. Those of us who’ve experienced it, need the support of others. Let’s band together to celebrate Olivia’s accomplishments and keep the programs going by buying a ticket and checking out the autographed items we’ll have for sale the night of the show.

Thank you. From the bottom of my heart. The Sol Seven Fundraising Team thanks you as well.

If you been following the journey, you’ll know that a couple of days ago I posted about my siblings and my family relationships.

It seems that some can’t handle the truth or even come close to admitting their part in an issue. I admit, I was angry. I was unheard and there’s really nothing worse than being made to feel like your life doesn’t matter to some of the people closest to you. And they’re not even listening.

So what happens? You trade ugly emails and texts. And ironically, after never hearing from my Sister-In-Law in any form whatsoever throughout her thirty year marriage to my Brother, she seized the opportunity to show me exactly who she is. A jealous woman. Bringing up everything that they’ve actually been for the last decade. People, know this about me. I don’t carry debt. I pay my bills and have never run from a bill since I was twenty. I learned my lesson. My Brother? He walked away from a house and declared bankruptcy.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. If that’s what you have to do, then do it. But never turn around and then say to someone with no debt whatsoever beside real estate, that they’re all about money. She slammed me with a two by four of insults, and I just couldn’t take it anymore. I told her to F off in capital letters. Yes, the dreaded capital letters. Mind you, this was her only communication with me in any form in over a year. I forgot. How old are you? Nearly sixty. Right. I forgot for a minute and thought we were back in third grade.

There was a lot of threats of lawyers on both sides. Total ridiculousness. He couldn’t see my point at all about being at his beckon call until July to see if our relationship would work out. He couldn’t understand how he triggered the six year old in me. Truth is, he didn’t listen and didn’t care. His only worry was how fast could he block me on FB, on email, and threaten me with lawyers.

To drive him slightly nuts, I told him to please bring in lawyers. That I welcomed his litigation. For what, I’m not sure. But it made me laugh.

As I lay here thinking about it, it’s truly a ridiculous situation. When you only email or text, there’s always going to be communication issues. A metaphor for our relationship.

(see video below in link)

Kangaroo Fight

I haven’t seen him or his family in over a year. So what am I really missing? I’m missing the toxicity of chaos. Today was the first day I smiled about my life in a long time. I owned what I said. Because I knew what my truth was. He said I’d live my life absent of his family and he threw in God, and all the stuff that goes with that. Karma, you know burning fires, etc. I felt like Moses was about to come and beat the shit out of me. Truth is, emotionally, they been beating the shit out of me for years.

Now that we’ve drawn the line, it actually feels like a release. Who knew? No more pretending that I like him or his snarky Wife. A woman who was foaming at the mouth to get my dead Mother’s jewelry. She ended up with more of it than me. Funny.

I’m not saying I didn’t participate in the back and forth of the battle. But when you’ve been beaten in so many ways since you’ve been a child, I couldn’t take it one more minute. Emotionally, I was drained.

So that blog post I wrote the other day didn’t go down well. But it freed me from a life of toxic, hurtful moments.

I was reminded by many friends that families can be chosen ones as well as blood ones. That I could leave behind the pain and embrace the love my friends had for me. I received more beautiful notes than I had in a really long time. Lots of people have family issues. And lots of people just want to be loved. Sometimes that love comes from your support system of people you’ve had who know the real you. I know that going to concerts is joyful. It’s not a bad thing to be thrown in someone’s face. That loving a sport like hockey isn’t a bad thing. Not if it brings you happiness. Even when your team is sucking. Or that having the car of your dreams isn’t a bad thing. It’s an accomplishment. One that when I got sick, I gave up to save money. Just in case we had another bad rainy day. By the way, all these things were paid off with no debt.

Which brings me back to the back and forth that got so ugly. You don’t yell in writing like that unless there’s a bottom line underneath of love just because we’re siblings. A shared experience that only siblings go through. There’s an obvious amount of jealousy. That I can’t help them with. I never begrudged my Brother his cars or guitar collection. I never threw anything I had or didn’t have in anyone’s face. Funny thing, when I went to hockey games, I usually went by myself that last year. There was the one time I took my Brother to a game, and of course, it was on my dime. My Nephew will never talk about when I took him to a football game for six hundred dollars per ticket.

You see, the “things” I had, I always shared with others. Because what I value in life is experiences. And sharing them with others.

Now, I’ll never be able to share with his family again. But I ask, they’ve been absent, as he said, for over a year, so what am I missing?


Update: two out of three blood Brothers are talking to me. The oldest one? Probably never.

Let me be clear. Family is complicated. Especially when you have a spouse with no siblings, and no children of your own.

I have one full blood Brother, two Half Brothers from the same Father, one Step-Sister, and three Step-Brothers. Out of that bunch, two Step-Brothers have passed away, and parentally, I only have my Step-Mother. I’m an orphan. As both my Mother and Father have passed on. An interesting version of the Brady Bunch indeed.

Here’s where it becomes even more complicated. I’m very much a family oriented person. I always craved the Ozzie and Harriet home. I had that for the first three years of my life and then my parents divorced. Apparently in my world, it was going to be an image that would never be real.

My Father always sent those checks on time. But for the first of many decades, I never really felt like I was part of his new life. He’d spend time with my Brother and I when he could, but that wasn’t very often. As the years went by and I got old enough to speak up, I did. I let him know that I didn’t get what I needed from him as a parent. That unconditional love that every child wants and craves.

When I finally came out to him as a gay woman, he accepted me without question. Without judgement. And boom. The unconditional love was there. From that moment on, he was the Father I’d always hoped for. Loving, saying he was proud. All the things you want to hear.

Since I lived with my Mother, I had different obstacles to overcome. But the love was always there and I never questioned it. Her love and humor buoyed me in the good and the bad times. She let me live my dreams and encouraged every crazy scheme I ever had. We didn’t have a lot of money. And I was a latchkey kid.

And now we come to my siblings. Lots of complications. More than I care to discuss really. But since this is the crux of the story, I guess I have to. Suffice it to say, there’s been death, drugs, bad health, bad fights and yet with some, a deep sense of love.

I was young when we combined families, so some siblings were not living at home, so we never were close. In latter years, my Step-Sister and I have become much closer. She’s the Sister I always dreamed of.

My Step-Brothers? Well two are gone and the one who’s left is a great man. He does so much for people. He’s very much to himself though and so unfortunately, we’re not close. But I love him dearly.

My Half-Brothers? Hmmm…I love them beyond measure, but they got the familial I can’t pick up the phone syndrome. One of them had trouble years ago that led to a life that hasn’t exactly turned out to be all roses. How can it when you have a meth lab in your house? He paid the price with the state though, and I know he feels the stigma of his choices everyday. The pain of it will never go away because his Son chose drugs and died last Fall from a heroin overdose. That’s the kind of hell that’s pretty hard to live through. I don’t know how to help him. Nor do I have the tools to do so. He’s got my love. But he’s also got my anger for the choices that got him there.

My youngest Half-Brother is a good man. Raised his children to be fine upstanding citizens. He keeps them busy and out of trouble. He chose a good woman to be his Wife.

Together they’ve built a rural, small town, idyllic life that seems to bring them joy. We can’t discuss politics though, because then I’d like to punch his face in. You see, he’s part of that rural base that still uses bad language when speaking about groups of people and believes we’ll be better under Trump. That, I can’t handle.

Now, we’re moving on to my oldest and closest sibling. In blood terms anyway. We’ve had our ups and downs. Horrible fights and beautiful moments.

It seems though, that it was our Mother that was the family glue. You know how there’s always that one person that holds the group together. Planning holidays. The person you don’t want to disappoint so you show up. Even when your Brother’s Father-in-Law is making sexual remarks that make all the women at the table uncomfortable.

My Brother works hard and plays hard too. He’s the kind of person who says he’s broke, but has 17 guitars hanging up in his man cave.

When I was diagnosed with cancer last year, he was at the hospital for my seven hour operation. Did he do much more than that? A few things here and there.

Then I discovered much to my surprise, that his Sons had some huge beef with me and didn’t want a relationship. I’m not talking Al’s Italian Beef. I’m talking the go to hell, I’m never talking to you kind of beef. This hit me like getting my cancer diagnosis all over again. It’s out of your control, yet it grips your body like the grim reaper will never let it go. I had no idea what I could’ve possibly done since it was out of nowhere. There was a small part of me that didn’t even care. I had cancer to survive and a knee replacement to rehab. I had bigger fish to fry.

So now I’ve fried my fish to a point of living in a world of pain that seems like it’s just going to be there. Sometimes I can deal with it and sometimes I can’t.

My Brother, to be honest, as we know, has never been a great communicator. He’s admitted it and we’ve dealt with it. But this whole idea that I committed some atrocity that calls for the family death penalty is just too comical for words. He tells me he’s working on it earnestly. His kids then get mad that he’s trying to have a relationship with his Sister.

The fact that his children, now adults, have any say over who he speaks to or doesn’t, is a riddle I can’t answer. I can’t even fathom allowing my children to have that much say in my 56 year old life.

I’ve missed milestones in their lives we can never get back. Weddings, graduations, and birthdays. You can NEVER get those days back.

And now he’s afraid to speak to his oldest Son because he’s under pressure at work. That’s a Shakespearean play at it’s best. In my eyes as I lay in bed, a cancer survivor with no livelihood, and no family support I think; doesn’t he think I’m under pressure? He wants me to wait until July to try and repair this relationship? Here’s what I say to that. If you truly want a relationship, you better start now. Things happen in life. People die. People get sick. And then it’s too late. I watched him wheeled into an operating room once with only a 50% chance of surviving. That was the first time. There have been more incidents of life saving on both sides of the aisle. So we’re both well aware of the fact that time is a traveler. And certainly not promised. Ya better get to living or it’ll leave you behind.

July. That nearly four months from now. Should you have to beg for love from your family? In a way, it’s embarrassing to me. I’m the best me I can be. I should be enough for them. After all, I’ve been there when they needed me. No matter what it cost me. I was there. And I’m me. If you want me to accept you as you are. Then you must do the same.

Then I realize, they don’t even know the real me anymore. It’s been so long they just don’t know.

July. A lot can happen in four months. In July, I might be over the need to have them in my life. By then more milestones will have been missed. More things to cry about. Is it worth the tears? I’m not sure anymore.

Sometimes I wonder what my Mother would’ve done. If she were here, this wouldn’t be happening. This I know. July wouldn’t matter. But here we are. It’s March. Only a few days from the anniversary of her passing. Eight years went by in the flash of a camera shot. That last picture when we were all out as a family. She was the glue.

July. It’s hot. It’s muggy. The month we celebrate our freedom. It might just mean that for me too in a different way. July. A lot can happen. Use your time wisely my Brother. Every month is a gift. And July is a long way off.

It’s been a day of joy and sorrow. The true yin and yang of life. A life that was lost too soon was remembered yesterday. Then by midday today, a baby was born that incredibly, inherited his dimples and his beautiful smile.

Julia Mary Cerney, entered a world full of division and strife. But she lay in the arms of many who love her today. Healing their pain from last year’s loss of the Uncle she’ll never meet. But she’s got those dimples of his. I hope she’s as sensitive a human being as he was.

Billy was a beautiful soul who only wanted to have a family. Live a normal life. To be honest, like the lives all his siblings are living. I thank the stars above that they are living those lives.

They don’t walk around like he didn’t matter. They’re beautiful. And honor him at every chance they get. He’s never far from anyone who knew him. In thought. In energy flow. In remembering those dimples. That smile.

How does the universe take a man so wanting in his desire to be here, and have a family, with one stroke of its mighty sword? The evil injustice of opioid addiction took Billy’s smile from our lives. But put it right back a year later, plus one day on Julia Mary Cerney’s face.

She already knows joy. In her first day of life, she truly knows what joy is. You can see it right on her face. Posing with her Mama for the first of many thousands of pictures.

No, we do not forget Billy on this day. What he did was graciously let his Niece have her own day to have as her Birthday. Unconnected to the prior day, which is indeed a complicated one. His beautiful Sister’s Birthday, and the date which he chose to take one more flight that ended in heaven.

Why do these kinds of things happen? The yin and yang of joy and sorrow. I think some would say you can’t know joy without sorrow. I say bull to that thought. Billy should be here. Celebrating with all of his family. And Julia Mary Cerney should have her Uncle here to love her. To teach her all he taught so many of us. The beauty of sensitivity. He had a heart full of it.

Let’s remember him by loving his family. His children. His fight for life.

Please support his family by donating in his name to stop the addiction that held him for too long. They will be running the Chicago Marathon in his name.

William “Billy” Cerney

Thank you.

Happy Birthday Julia Mary Cerney!