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Michealene Cristini Risley Headshot

The Softer Side of Silicon Valley

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As of the end of September, I had not cooked a single meal since the second week of June. No, no personal chef, here. And as a mother of 3 active boys, 10, 9 and 3...that is not an easy feat. Being 100% of Italian blood, this is even harder to accomplish as we have some malfunctioning gene to compulsively feed people.

Our chickens were the last to be fed by me as it was the 60 pound bag of feed that shredded my plans for the summer. I lifted the bag and poured it into a larger garbage can. From there I took a scooper and pushed the food into the metal chicken feeder. The birds were already pecking at anything that moved, including my shoe laces.

I remember thinking about the next day and creating something special for my husband since it was Father's Day. We planned to take a hike and have a picnic somewhere.

Sunday morning beckoned, but I was unable to move from the bed. My husband chastised me for lifting the bag. "You never take care of yourself" he said. I ignored him. I thought the pain would take a day or two to go away.

By Tuesday, I began to black out from the pain. The emergency room was quite comical-really as a doctor and nurse jabbed needles in my behind filled with large doses of morphine that would hopefully stop the pain. It took three rounds to lesson the spasms.

I began using a cane that someone had jokingly given my husband for his 40th birthday party. I started riding around in the electric cart at Target. My life, my summer plans came to screeching halt, although the kids loved riding in the cart.

The next month was a haze of epidurals and pain pills. Finally on July 23rd I left UCSF spine center having had a double laminectomy, stenosis and bone spurs removed. The only thing that my boys understand was that over those 3 rows of stitches mom had super glue holding her back together. Super Glue-how cool.

Pre-surgery I was extremely active with yoga, hiking and swimming. I thought for sure, due to my physical conditioning that recovery time would be minimal. It wasn't.

I struggled with what I was going to do with the kids over the summer, when I couldn't walk, I hired extra help and my babysitter was irreplaceable. Often I thought about people who did not have the wherewithal to get extra help. How did they manage? How did they cope?

Then a miracle happened right here in Silicon Valley. Home of the gold-dusted Mercedes and 23 year old millionaires. Yes, that Silicon Valley. But there is another side to this valley, one that you don't often hear about. The kindness of one's neighbors.

The miracle was the phone. It kept ringing. Suddenly people were bringing cooked meals to the house every night. (My husband would cook on weekends.) My 79 year old mother came out. I wasn't sure in that scenario who was helping who, but it was still great to have her here. A good friend started to field the calls from neighbors and friends and people that just wanted to help. It was awkward for me, I was a bit embarrassed. I was in serious pain, facing questions about mortality and the quality of my life and I couldn't take care of myself. Yet, every one was holding out a hand to help.

The first day of school I walked my middle son to class. When I went back to the car with my 3 year old, I realized that I couldn't lift him up to put him in his car seat. The simplest task-how humiliating! A girlfriend must of the saw the look of distress on my face and pulled her car over. She lifted my son, buckled him into his seat and turned to me. "There is nothing wrong with asking for help-you need to ask!" Tears streamed down my cheeks but I just nodded.

After this experience I began to ask for help. What can I do, I heard people say. I would say, "Bring us dinner". "Do your boys need a ride to soccer, I said yes. By the end of the September and close to 100 meals cooked by neighbors and friend, I was ready to take over again.

I have learned that asking for and accepting help are okay. If you search beyond that wall of pride, you can come up with enough courage to accept someone's offer to help. I am grateful to a community that took on helping our family with enthusiasm and care. I see the community do it all the time. One of the mothers in the kindergarten class as school is battling cancer.

When I see moms or dads carrying plastic containers with food, I smile. This is part of Silicon Valley that you don't hear much about. Every night people came into my house with a big smile on their face and terrific meals. No one talked about how much money they made, or how successful they were, they just walked in the house and I said. "What's for dinner?"