Monday, February 4, 2013

It is with profound sorrow that the  family  must share that our beloved mother, grandmother, sister, friend and colleague,  Dr. Arlene Ackerman, who cared dearly for children as the superintendent of Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Philadelphia public schools, passed away February 2.  She bravely fought pancreatic cancer since being diagnosed in November. We, as family and friends, have been extremely blessed to be part of her life.  She will be deeply missed but never forgotten.  She is survived by two sons, Anthony and Matthew Antognoli; a daughter-in-law, Mickie; and four granddaughters, Sarah, Soleil, Marley and Violet, who were the source of her truest happiness.  She also leaves a sister and three brothers.  She believed and treated all of her friends, colleagues, and children she cared for as part of her family.  Her loss will be felt by all.  We, her family, wish to express our most heartfelt gratitude and appreciation for all the love, support, prayers, letters, messages, and thoughts she received especially over the last few months, but also throughout her career. They truly helped to fuel her fight.  We are extremely proud of the work and dedication to the education of all, and especially disadvantaged children.  She spent her entire life committed to educational excellence for each.  She planted the seeds of greatness in many and inspired it in many others. Please make all donations to the following organizations where funds have been set up in her name: 

St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital  - Donors may give by phone-1-800-873-6983, online at, or mail a check to:
St. Jude, 501 St. Jude Place, Memphis, Tennessee 38105
Fund Name: Arlene Ackerman     Code: 32733066

American Cancer Society- Donors may give by phone 800-227-2345, online at, or send a check to American Cancer Society:
PO box 22718, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 73123-1718

Friday, January 11, 2013

Giving all you have

After Christmas, there were only a few days of rest.  On the 27th, family members began to make their ways home.  The only activity at her house was one quick coordinated visit to say good bye.  Everyone promised to return, and some would in only days.  Friday began the influx of a new set of visitors: family, friends, and long time professional colleagues. When the our time together was over, I am sure each person felt no distinction between the three groups.
     Winter dealt a blow to the group of travelers on Saturday.  Some missed flights, some were stranded in unfamiliar cities until Sunday, and some were canceled altogether.  By the late morning, the first visitors started to sprinkle in, with the frequency building as the day got later.  A few of her close colleagues arrived early enough to spend a few joyful hours with her.  Her visits were staggered throughout the day with her immediate family there to entertain and host when she needed to rest.  Sunday, however, was the apex.  Mom rested for most of the morning and afternoon as the second half of the day was a marathon for her.  Early afternoon, the few scores of us all gathered for dinner together.  All being in one room and at two big tables allowed us to reunite with loved ones after varying lengths of separation.  There were some introductions and connections of faces to stories, but there were no strangers.  We all shared a bond evident in each person present: a deep love for her.   We assembled, mingled, hugged, and laughed.  Characteristically, but this time due to the circumstances of her cancer, Mom arrived fashionably late.  The   party rose to its feet and erupted into applause as we noticed the waitress escort her around the corner flanked by Elois and Cheryl.  There was a queue to hug and kiss her, and for some it was the first time she was able to see their faces since they arrived.  After being greeted by each individual she made her way to her seat.  While we ate and visited for a couple hours, Mom made her way around to each face at the tables and spent her precious and scarce energy making sure she gave personal time to everyone there.
     After dark, we shuttled back to the hotel to meet where we could escape the noise of the restaurant.   Once we had reassembled, our gathering quickly became a set of testimonials to the degree to which she had touched those around her.  Those of us in her family learned things about her professional career. Family shared personal stories to those who knew her professionally.  We learned how she was the first educator in the country to have had 1 million children under her tutelage.  They learned how her brother and cousin broke into her diary when they were young.  (We didn't learn what was in it, though).  We learned the type of student and force she was at Harvard.  They learned how her approach to parenting was being repeated by her son.  We heard from previous students she mentored when she taught at Columbia.  We learned the type of leader she was and how her faith and confidence in those around her caused them to soar to their own heights.  Almost each of us spoke to her.  We tried to give back what she had given so abundantly to each of us.  Unfortunately, there were more stories than Mom had energy left for.  Before Mom left with Elois and Cheryl, lots of people and cameras lined up to take pictures as this would be the last time some saw her this trip.  An hour past her medication time, the three ladies made their way back home.  The remaining party shared stories and laughter late into the night.
     Mom took the next day to recover.  Over the next few days, her cousins visited and shared personal stories of cancer survival and recipes for healthy eating (raw vegan, mostly) and Gershon therapy.  All of us, even my girls (big and small) were gobbling down the organic food.  Mickie, who collected the recipes, would carry the torch once they left.   Her cousins' visits were therapeutic.  Malik massaged her feet and body each day, and was a whispering voice of calm at times when it was most needed.  Ajili taught her how to meditate.  Upesi showed the other women how to perform a lymph node drainage rub down. We were all left with a plan to help her live as long and happy a life as God grants. By the 2nd, all of her visitors had returned home.  The house was almost back to the skeleton crew.  On the 3rd, Mom's previous pastor from Philadelphia, Rev. Kevin Johnson arrived to visit.  She and Rev. Johnson connected when they first met after moving to Philadelphia around the same time.  They had become so close that Rev. Johnson spoke at her dad's funeral (who was a pastor himself) even though he had never met him.  When mom needed to rest, Elois and I hosted until she woke.  After dinner, we ended the night in prayer, and I dropped him off at the airport.
     Exhausted from the toll a two week steady stream of visitors took on her, Mom has been trying to catch up since.  The house is quiet again.  After some semblance of peace, it didnt take long for Mom to start enjoying it.  Her stress level has mostly disappeared and her joking has returned.  Although the traffic and noise is gone, the need for a truly regular schedule remains.  We spent the better part of two days interviewing, assessing, and selecting a hospice group.  Mom chose, we think wisely, but the daily arrival of each member of the team has sparked her desire for a set schedule.  She has welcomed and waived different members of the team as she felt she was ready for.
     There is a lot more to talk about: the only aspect of death that concerns her; her new look, our celebration of her 66th birthday, and more but I'll do that tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas Joy

     It has been very busy around here over the past week.  Unfortunately, too busy to get out updates with the frequency I would have liked.  This entry should cover most of the highlights and I am happy to say there were many.
     Last week, Mom continued to regain energy as she shook off the chemotherapy drugs.  Her main source of energy; however, was visits from loved ones and dear friends.   Before the weekend last, one of Mom's closest cousins, and her very first friend came to visit.  Each the eldest daughter to twin brothers, Mom and Bernadette were born two days apart and practically twins themselves.  The first evening allowed Mom, Bernadette, Judy (Bernie's sister-in-law), Elois, Glenda, and Cheryl to sit down to a nice dinner at the table used only for special occasions. I mistook Mom's plate for my own because she had loaded it up with so much food.  While she didnt eat it all, she ate quite a bit, including dessert.   The cousins shared stories of growing up together with the other women.  Bernadette, a multiple cancer survivor offered many words of advice and encouragement to Mom.  She inducted her into the "Bloody Turnip" incredible cancer survivor club.  After about 2 hours, Mom was ready to rest so the women saved their catching up for the next afternoon.  Early the next morning, Elois sneaked out to catch a 6:00 am flight to spend a very deserved Christmas break with her family.  Mom used the morning to nap and rest, building up strength for doing some things she hadn't done in a while.  The first thing she did was arrange for the women, Matt, myself, and Mickie (Marley joined us too) to eat at her favorite place in Nob Hill, Flying Star.  All of us, worried about the effect the amount of time spent out would have on Mom, hung on every word and were constantly looking for signs of her getting exhausted.  We anticipated her words and actions so much we almost ruined her attempt to sneak around the corner to get Bernadette and Judy Christmas presents.   After a few of us followed her to interpret her actions, and realized that she was trying to get us to be complicit, we split the group up so she could quickly shop.   We made it back to her house where she slept until the early evening.  When she woke, Judy did Mom's hair to match Bernadette's style.  Both Bernadette and Judy took turns massaging Mom's hands and feet.    The women continued to relive memories until Mom ran out of steam.  Cheryl and Glenda read scripture, we prayed, and before they said their goodbyes, Mom gave each the presents she deftly procured.  Bernadette and Judy's Saturday morning departure allowed Mom to use most of Saturday to rest and prepare for Christmas visitors.

     Saturday night brought Gary to town.  He happily accepted staying with and supporting Mom and Cheryl at the house.  Gary is one of the most caring people you will meet and is a natural at the job if there ever was one.  On Sunday, Glenda went home to spend Christmas with her family as more of Mom's began to stream in.  The first of Cheryl's children arrived.  Cameron and Barrett, the analog for Matt and I of Bernadette and Mom's relationship, drove in with their younger brother, Bradley.  Traveling along were Uncle Greg's children, Adrian and Darian.  Greg got in shortly after our cousins arrived.  Rather than overwhelm Mom with the entire party, Greg took his children to see their aunt, while I took Cameron, Barrett, and Bradley to catch up over pizza and a beer.   On Monday, Mom arranged for the entire group to meet at our house.  Cheri and shortly after, Lloyd, came straight from the airport.  We ate, shared love and tears with Mom, and watched videos Cameron's daughters recorded for her.  She watched Ajili's videos again so that she could share with her siblings    On Christmas, Mom's brother and sister in law, Ronnie and Liessa flew in.  Mickie, our girls, and I arrived before most to prepare the food.   Delighted to see GiGi, after not seeing her for so long, the granddaughters spent a lot of their time in and around her bed.    After everyone arrived and as the food cooked, Ronnie gathered the entire group and read to us the Bible's account of Jesus' birth in chronological order alternating between Matthew and Luke.  This led to blessing the food, and breaking of bread.  Mom watched us eat as she was not very hungry.  After everyone cleaned their plates, Mom called us to gather around the tree.  She thanked God for her life and family.  She expressed thanks to each individual and then gave out presents.  She started with the granddaughters.  Mom, sensing this may be her last Christmas with us, wanted the girls to have something that would serve as a constant reminder of her undying love for them.  For each family she wanted to give a new pet, a dog for ours and a cat for Matt's to be with them every day of their childhoods.  She did so by giving them Build-a-Bear dolls that represented their soon to be additions to the families.  This led to two "funny things kids say" moments.  Mom had promised the girls a puppy since early last year when our family dog of 15 years, Melanie, died.  Soleil took it the hardest of all.  She had truly inconsolable moments for nearly 6 months. So, Mom thought she had the perfect setup question to introduce the future puppy.  "Soleil, who in your family died last year?" she asked.  Soleil responded, "Jesus Christ!"  The room burst into laughter.   Shortly after, GiGi told Violet how she knew that what she wanted was a kitty.  When Violet opened her Build-a-Bear, she exclaimed, "But I wanted a real kitty!"  Again, the the house came down.  After the remaining gifts and cards were exchanged, we all followed Mom into her bedroom.  Ronnie told a few stories before leading into song.  We sang a few gospel songs before ending with the grandchildren leading the adults into a version of "Say a little prayer," by Aretha Franklin.
     For as much as there was going on and as many people as there were, Mom was able to keep pace and astonish each of us with how much energy she had.  Over the week, she visibly was eating more which resulted in her gaining 2 lbs since the week before.  Although recently expressing her fear about not making it to Christmas, she cruised through it with courage, strength, and grace and set her sights on getting to one more.

Our family singing "I Am Not Ashamed" this Christmas led by niece, Cheri Evans.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

New Day

The morning began slowly.  Mom had made up her mind days (maybe weeks) ago, but today felt like the time that she had to make a decision.  We gave her space to choose.  We packed things in preparation of the event that she may arrive at the cancer center and decide to continue with chemotherapy or choose a different treatment.  If she so decided, she would have plenty of entertainment, reading, music, food, and hydration.  She had plenty of support as Matt, Cheryl, and I accompanied her to the center.  She also had support at home.  Mickie worked feverishly while Mom was away to cover the wall near her bed with frames of pictures of friends and love ones that she had been preparing for weeks.   Glenda started early in the morning preparing red beans and rice.  The aroma tortured those of us who were fasting.  Elois helped clean the house, send thank you notes, and arrange her nightgowns and robes so that they were accessible and organized since these are Mom's standard attire these days.
     Matt beat us to the cancer center and checked her in so that when we arrived we could proceed to the area where her port would be flushed, the needle inserted, and prepared in case she decided to continue treatment.  It was immediately emotional.  The potential finality of her decision weighed very heavily.  When it was her turn, she simply wiped away her tears, tilted her head and smiled as she told the nurse okay, and joked with her as they made their way to the lab.  The next tidal wave of emotions hit her as the nurse performed her blood work. A woman walked up to her and said, "I know I don't know you, but I'd like to pray for you."  And she did.  Mom came out of the lab smiling, held an arm each of mine and Matt as we walked her to the elevator.  A very nice and pleasant social worker stayed with us during the visit with the oncologist because the staff could sense that Mom was stressed.  The doctor, assuming that we were here for chemotherapy asked how she felt and if she was ready to go.  "What if I choose not to continue the treatment?" she asked. Not immediately understanding, the doctor offered a different, less toxic, but also less effective option.  Mom asked questions about the milder treatment as though she were actually considering it.  "The infusion period is much shorter and we can start right now," the doctor pitched.  As though she hadn't already made up her mind, she seemed to become resolute upon hearing the doctor warn that due to the time of the year and the frequency of the infusions that her holidays would be ruined.  She gave the doctor the decision she told us earlier that she was 99.9% sure of.   The doctor and a clinician described to us a bit about hospice and the process of setting it up.  It was comforting to hear some intersection of our initial research and their recommendations.  We returned to the lab and mom informed the nurses that she needed her port de-accessed.  A nurse whispered to her, "We aren't supposed to say this, but I would do exactly the same thing if I were in your shoes."
     Her liberation materialized in the form of hunger.  She wanted to go to breakfast.  While at breakfast, she talked a lot about how confident she felt about her decision.  "I feel like God lifted 10 lbs off me," she said.  "That's almost exactly how many pounds God took off of you,"  I joked.  Her decision gave her the ability to look forward to the holidays with her family.  She no longer has to prevent her grandchildren from coming over, or into her room.  She doesn't have to worry about wearing a mask around people or sanitizing her hands before rubbing her eyes or eating.  At the table, she decided that all the granddaughters (and parents) should come over that afternoon and stay for dinner.  She squeezed, held, hugged, and kissed each one and turned on a children's show to invite them to lay with her.
     Glenda's red beans and rice were worth waiting until sundown for.  Mom ate relatively well, as did the girls.  Sensing that G.G. (Gorgeous Grandmother) was tiring, we got the girls ready to leave, kissed her good bye, and let her rest at the end of a pretty happy day.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Cheryl Loves Arlene

Cheryl and Arlene
Gary, Cheryl, Arlene and Gary (sorry Ron)
Okay Ron is missing, but he was greeting his guests for David’s wedding.  But this is not about a wedding.  This is about Arlene and our incredible experience that started October 13, 2012.  We were two sisters having a “week-long” visit, and it turned into a journey of our hearts.

Arlene and I have not spent this much time together as adults and I will cherish the first 7 weeks I’ve spent with my much loved Sister.  I look forward to the rest of this miraculous journey together.  For those who have been blessed with siblings, you know the pain of sibling rivalry.  Arlene and I are so blessed that this journey has been one of love and caring.  I simply wish it had started sooner.

Arlene has been my sister for 62 years and she has been my role model (that I could never live up to, and frankly her work hours make me tired).   I have always been proud of her accomplishments and even claim bragging rights.  My friends and coworkers probably got tired of hearing me brag about my incredibly invincible sister Arlene, a Phenomenal Woman. 

Recently, Paul (Ronald’s wife Leissa’s brother) passed on.  At his memorial it was mentioned that near the end of his life Paul said he was Invicted.  “Invictus” is a poem Arlene memorized in grade school. 


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

William Ernest Henley

My big Sis’ life is summoned up in the last two lines of this poem.   She is in a class of her own!

Arlene, I love you undeniably, irrevocably and unconditionally.  You have my heart!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Turning Point

On Friday, I promised to talk about Mom's visions.  Over the past few weeks, she has been intermittently seeing people she knows and has known.  Here and passed on.  At first, she was pretty frightened by them.  She refused to take the pain medication until we ultimately switched medications.   Shortly, she realized that they would continue.  She remembered each vividly.  She awoke to a turbaned "Mandingo" (her words) slowly fanning her with a huge palm leaf.  She yelled for him to get out of her room (an action she now regrets).  She saw her Grandmother Elsie dressed in anachronistic Native American clothing and hair.  She has seen each of her granddaughters at her bed quietly waiting for permission to crawl in with her.  She has felt different people get into bed and rub her face or back.  She's seen different people standing over her smiling.  Sometime last week, she explained to me how interesting the evolution of her visions had become.  At first she was scared, but slowly she realized the common thread to all of them.  They were comforting.  They reassured her.  The leprechauns dancing on the stack of pillows weren't there to make her fear.  They were there to make her laugh.  And so she did.  She began to welcome the visions.  And the people she saw.  She knew that she wasn't going through this alone.  There are angels standing post in her room.  She explained to Elois and I that she knew why those angels looked like people she knew and  had particular recognizable characteristics.  "Glenda has just such a peaceful and angelic face.  It is comforting."..."Cheryl sings so sweetly."..."No one was as tough as Elsie."   She sort of jokingly said to Elois and I (and she was probably talking to both of us) "You know why I don't see you?  Because if I did, I would think I was getting bossed."
     Yesterday, was an intense but clarifying day for her.  It began with visitors.  My godparents came to support.  Glenda will be here all week to help around the house and deliver her famous New Orleans cooking.  We hoped the smell would entice Mom to eat.   One of Mom's brothers and her sister also came to town.   Cheryl to stay and support; Ronnie just for the day.  The amount of people was a shock to the noise level in the house.  It has been very quiet in recent weeks, and adding a handful of adults that aren't familiar with the protocol was obvious immediately.   Ten minutes after people showed up, I was taking the whole bunch to breakfast just to return the house to some normalcy.  With so many people, even whispering turns into inadvertent competition that graduates to talking and then near yelling.  While Mom slept the adults had to be closed off into the far part of the house so as not to disturb her.  She slept most of the morning and afternoon and into the evening.  However, the truly transformative time came later that night.  After most of the crowd left (including her sons and their families), she asked her present siblings and lifelong friends not to leave her bedside.  She confessed to them that she had decided not to continue with chemotherapy.  She also confessed that she expected it to be her last night among us.  Mom led prayer and prayed for each of her family members, friends, and foes.  She asked the Lord for forgiveness for her sins.  She announced to Him her acceptance of His plan.  Then came the singing.  Ronnie, Cheryl, Mom, Elois, and Glenda all took turns requesting, playing, or singing their favorite gospel songs.  I made it back to her house around 11:00 pm.  The iPod switching continued until almost 12:30.  Mom slowly sunk into her pillow.  She asked to keep the playlist on repeat and that someone remain with her.  I insisted.  As she slept, I monitored her breathing for about an hour.  Finally, I laid down next to her and went to sleep myself.   I am happy to report that the Lord had different plans for her today.  And while none of us may be, and her body might not be, and the Lord might not be, she is ready.   She is waiting.  Waiting on the Lord.

Mom has touched very many peoples lives and we all feel that it is important to see her and to let her know how much we love her and the effect that she has had on us; however, her energy is extremely limited.  And none of us will get the amount of time that we want with her. Especially, the closest to her.  She has asked me to help her see certain people that as she put it, "I will go get on a plane by myself and go see them if that's what it takes."  As God grants her more time, she will be able to see more people.  If you would like to see her, please email or call me with your availability, and I will help her to arrange visits as she chooses, but please respect our protocol, and realize that whether or not you get to see her that she loves you and wants to.   Also know that there is a way that she can see your face and hear your voice.  Nearly every computer and phone has a camera nowadays.  Record a video and link it in your comments here.    Her email time is almost nonexistent these days, so emailing me is a much more certain way of getting it to her.  Those of you that have so far have really brightened her days. My contact information is: (505) 620-0383

Friday, December 14, 2012


     It is easy to underestimate what an effect a loved one's face, voice, or presence can have.   Fresh off of finals, Matt was able to be with Mom all day Thursday.  He got her out of bed and she sat in the living room with him and talked.  Mom's cousin recorded a YouTube video to her recalling stories of their childhood that had her laughing through every minute of it.  And yesterday a very close and dear friend visited her.  The effect was enormous.  By yesterday evening she was out of bed giving a tour of the house.  She sat in the living room and visited as long as she could.   Mom's bedroom is comfortable enough for a few people to congregate and visit but still allow her to relax.  Not long after she was exhausted and needed to nap.  We thought we would have to wake her, especially since she had spent so many hours awake, yet about an hour later she woke up on her own and asked for food.  We nearly had to force her to try to eat the past five days.  It was a relief to hear her asking for food.  Even though she only ate a few bites it was an encouraging sign.  It didn't stop there.  Elois told me that Mom was up until 10:30 pm or so.   Normally, Elois wakes her at 8:00 am to take medicine.  Today, however, Elois noticed her light on at 7:15.  Surprisingly, Mom was awake and in the bathroom brushing her teeth.   She was alert and although her delivery was slowed her wit was as sharp as ever.  She was a regular Dorothy Parker.   And she continued to talk about food.  She recalled home cooked meals from the past although promised to eat everything we offered "in about an hour from now."  She slept more today to make up for all the energy she expended the day before.  But the energy she gained from her visit remained.  Around noon I heard what I thought had to be Elois in the kitchen, but when I looked up it was Mom looking for something to eat.  Now she was actively seeking food out.  Elois was drawn by Mom's activity.  She prepared what Mom asked for: a small bowl of chili beans and a cup of pineapple chunks.   She ate at the dining room table rather than in bed.  The last time she did that was weeks before chemo started.  She slept for a few hours in the afternoon.  She woke up in the early evening and wanted a southwest chicken salad from McDonald's.  Even though she no longer wanted it when I returned we were all excited by her recharging appetite.  
     Tomorrow, my godmother and lifelong friend of my mom is coming to town to help care for her.  She and my Aunt Cheryl will give Elois a much needed break.  My mom wants everyone to know that she is reading your comments and drawing strength from your prayers and messages.  She is seeing a lot of you in her dreams but I will save that story for tomorrow's blog entry.