Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Our Family Road Trip to Birmingham to Meet Sarah Palin

by Lisa Graas, editor --

On Friday evening, our family trekked from our Kentucky home to Birmingham, Alabama, to meet Sarah Palin at her book signing there on Monday. It was both an amazingly wonderful and a horrifically awful experience for me personally.......but all in all, an experience that will stand out for me as one of the great moments of my life.

Many who follow the Palin Twibe twitter account have told me that you've enjoyed reading Amanda Carpenter's story at The Washington Times about how my mom and I have bonded more deeply because of Sarah Palin . If you haven't read it yet, I recommend you do so now before reading my report of the experience -- Bonding Over Palin, Hot Button, by Amanda Carpenter.

My mom's story is a great one that you won't want to miss. She had not voted since Jimmy Carter, and never for a Republican, until Sarah Palin. It was when Sarah Palin was introduced to America for the first time in Dayton, Ohio, that my mom realized there was someone who could fully represent who my mom is. Mom cried during that speech, went out immediately to register as an Independent, and voted the GOP ticket in November, 2008. Senator Mitch Mcconnell, if you're reading this, you have Sarah Palin to thank for my mom's vote.

Amanda told me at one point, either via email or during our telephone interview, that one of the reasons she wanted to tell our story was to show the sacrifices that people were making to get to these book signing events. She ended up not addressing that part of the story, probably because of both time and space constraints, and there is a lot of information she wasn't told about that anyway, and which happened after the interview, at the book signing itself, so I will share that part of it with you here on the blog.

Early this month, my mom, who is 73, had knee replacement surgery, so she was in a wheelchair with her knee bandaged and braced. There was no way she could have stayed in line overnight in the cold to wait for a wristband. Also, waiting overnight in a mall parking garage was a problem for my nine-year-old whom we jokingly say has a bladder the size of a walnut. So, my two sons camped out in their place along with me, my eleven-year-old daughter and my service dog. I am proud of my boys for making that sacrifice for their grandmother and their little sister.

For a person with a service dog, dealing with the public can be an ordeal at times. On the one hand, you have the overly negative people, like the young woman manning the rest stop in Alabama where we had stopped to relieve ourselves. She met me at the door and barked at me, "You can't bring that dog in here!" I managed to convince her that access for service dogs for the disabled is a federal law in time to make it to the bathroom..........but just barely. On the other hand, there are the overly positive people whom, I guess, feel sorry for me.....or just love dogs a great deal.....or think it's a novelty to have a service dog. I don't know.....but they come up to me and ask to pet my dog........or take her to potty for me........or ask me all kinds of questions about what it is that she does for me. I'm constantly trying to train my dog not to be distracted by other people. She is pretty good at that........but it goes out the window when people come up and pet her. I had to thank the people who were next to us in line overnight who never once mentioned my dog -- either positively or negatively. Not once. (Whomever you are -- I didn't catch your names -- THANK YOU!) It's nice to be given a sense of normalcy...........and normalcy is something I don't have unless people choose to give it to me. Normalcy wasn't even remotely the order of the day as I approached the signing table to meet Sarah Palin. It was a disaster for me personally........but I'd do it all again. Read on for more on that, but first, some more background on my disabilities to give you the full picture.

One thing that causes confusion for people is that I am in a wheelchair, but that my service dog's job is not related to my physical disability. The wheelchair is something I don't always use. I have Lyme Disease (late persistent infection) and can walk, but with pain. Sometimes the pain is a great deal worse than other times and it increases quickly with activity. Many times, I shuffle along like an old woman, although I'm only 42, but sometimes must use the chair because even a couple of steps is too much for me. The last time I was wheelchair-bound, I gained quite a bit of weight. After I read the Runner's World piece about Sarah Palin, I bit the bullet.....hard.....and got myself out of that chair. Through a lot of tears, I did enough exercise to lose twenty pounds. Thank goodness, the weight went fairly quickly because biting that bullet was no fun. I ended up feeling a good deal better, but this condition being as it is, it returned with a vengeance. I didn't end up soon back in the chair, but I was again a shuffling old woman until about two weeks before the book signing when the worst kicked in again and put me back into the chair. I can shuffle from chair to chair in the house, but when I want to go outside and be active, or go shopping, I have to use the chair. This is where I was when we planned our trip to meet Sarah Palin.

So, why the dog? Emmy (photo left) is a psychiatric service dog. I have panic disorder in which I have episodes that can be so bad that I am literally on the floor and non-responsive. Emmy is trained to perform the same tasks that service dogs for soldiers with PTSD perform. Before Emmy, my four kids and my elderly mom had horrific experiences dealing with me in this condition. They were helpless when I had an episode......and so was I. Now that we have Emmy, because of the tasks she performs, my family no longer has to experience this trauma. Emmy can warn me when I'm in danger of an attack even when I'm not aware of the danger. She's not 100% on that but she has a pretty good track record and I've yet to see a drug that can come remotely close to doing this. She can also keep an attack from worsening. Rarely do I ever get to the point of being non-responsive since I got Emmy, but if I do, she is there for me then, too.

Though I can have a panic attack when I am completely alone with no activity around me, high activity can easily trigger an attack for me. For this reason, I don't go to malls. My teenage son and my mom go to the grocery for us.....and I am only rarely able to go to church. Going in to a small specialty shop (like our local bike shop) isn't much of a risk for me......but most places are just too risky and my family goes on my behalf. Before the book signing, I had been inside a mall only one time in the past several years............but we're talking Sarah Palin here. I had to try.

Getting the wristband wasn't too much of an ordeal because we were out in the parking garage most of the time. Once everyone was allowed into the store, we had to wait in a line that snaked around the aisles of books. The people were all fairly calm, though, so we managed. Being in close quarters with a lot of people wasn't too bad since my sons and daughter......and Emmy.....were right there beside me the whole way, and because the crowd was calm and not moving around much. Many were sleeping.

The day of the signing was a nightmare. We found the elevator okay to get up to the store, but once the elevator door opened we were at the food court and it was packed with hustling, bustling people. This is when Emmy did what she is supposed to do. She looked up at me like, "ARE YOU KIDDING ME??? YOU CAN'T DO THIS!!" She jumped up, put her paws on my chair (to make sure I had her attention), then immediately jumped back off again and backed up. Then, I did what I am supposed to do. I kept looking at Emmy. It's my way of putting myself in a bubble to force out the activity around me, and also to listen to what she's "saying" to me. She didn't want to exit the elevator, but she continued to look at me because her concern was for me. This is her job. This is what she does. Trust me, this is not "cute". It's not a warm fuzzy moment for us. It's serious business.

Any other time, I'd go with the dog and get the hell out of Dodge, so to speak..........but this is Sarah Palin we're talking about here. We plodded forward.

As noted, my sons had waited in line for wristbands on behalf of my youngest daughter and my mom. They came along for support, to push our wheelchairs and to get us into position in line for the signing. The mall was packed. People were gracious enough to give us room if they saw us, but you know how it is in a packed mall. People are looking everywhere but down, which is where Mom and I were in our wheelchairs. We finally got to the area of where the line was and, lo and behold, like a light at the end of the tunnel, I saw the man whom I had purchased the books from the day before at Books-A-Million. I wish I knew his name. He's a very large man with black hair pulled back in a pony tail. When I had expressed concern about the stairs from the parking garage into the store, he had offered to carry me up them. He is an incredibly compassionate person. We ended up going with the alternative: a somewhat circuitous route using the elevator. He had dressed casually, of course, in the store, but on the day of the signing, he was wearing a very nice suit. As we were lost in a sea of people and quite antsy, I looked up at him and simply said, "Help?" He took us over to where we needed to be, to the lady who was placing everyone in the line where they should be according to their line numbers.

This is where it started to get beyond bad for us and descended into insanity........at least for me. Did I mention that I also have bipolar disorder? In a nutshell, this means that I am a genius but I can't keep up with a checkbook. In fact, I tend to lose everything that isn't made of flesh. I had been of the understanding that the receipt for the books was to be presented for the wristbands, but not the signing. I had no idea what I had done with that receipt. As a result, the staff put us in a "holding cell", so to speak, just outside the entrance to the store. I was entering panic mode quickly. My mom told me later that she could see my condition was deteriorating rapidly and she was terrified for me. I have no idea what my girls were thinking.

I remember that the staff sent over the man in charge who was a short bald man (but quite handsome). I remember telling him that we had driven all the way from Kentucky and that the man we purchased the books from was "right over there" about thirty feet away from us and could verify our purchase, but he refused to "remove him from his station" to assist me. I kept looking at the two walkie-talkies he held in his hand and wondering if he could just call him with one. I remember him bending down, pointing his finger in my face and yelling at me about my "choosing to violate the rules". If any of you out there think my service dog is protection, here's proof. If that's what she were for, she'd have ripped his arm off. I have never in my life been spoken to in such a belligerent manner. NEVER. At one point, I guess I rolled my eyes and he told me that I was being belligerent for rolling my eyes. This comment immediately brought Sarah Palin to mind for me. Being accused of belligerance for rolling my eyes by a man who was barking at me and pointing his finger in my face? I recalled the similar insanity Sarah Palin has been subjected to and it brought me so much strength. I sat quietly as he continued to bark at me.

Mom came through for me, as she often does. Even as he was barking at me with his finger in my face, Mom announced from behind, "HERE IT IS!" I looked over my shoulder and there was her hand holding out the receipt. I took it, handed it to him calmly and said, "Here's your receipt." He stammered a bit and I saw his hands begin to shake as he unfolded it and looked at it. He thanked me and took us into the store, past the others in line. He told us to wait over by the magazine rack. He said, "We'll get you in line." Being quite experienced at being set aside for specialized attention and then being completely forgotten, I sat and wondered for about five minutes how we might fare before I finally asked an employee if we were going to retain our place in line. He assured us that we would.

Meanwhile, an elderly woman on oxygen was brought in to sit with us. She had her brother with her. They were from Alabama and we all had a very passionate conversation about the direction our country has taken and how important it is that we encourage Sarah Palin to run for President. These two remarkable people had a great calming influence on me. We were on the same page completely when it comes to the hopes we have in Sarah Palin's ability to get our government back on track. I believe the woman's name was Christine. Although it seemed a chore for her to stand up, when my family and I were called to take our place in line, she said, "Wait, I want to give you a hug." I thought I'd cry, I was so touched. She was about to cry, as well. She raised herself out of her chair and put her arms around me. I assured her, "We're going to get this country back on track." She whispered in my ear, "With your help, we will."

Mom, the girls and I (along with Emmy, my dog) were brought near the front of the line where the curtains were so that we wouldn't have to traverse the aisles through which the lengthy line snaked around. Behind the curtains was Sarah Palin's table. Our numbers were 44 through 47. I was number 44, my nine-year-old daughter Bethany was number 45, my eleven-year-old daughter Teresa was number 46 and my mom was number 47. Once the person who had number 43 passed us, we slipped into line behind them. Emmy was, by this time, accepting that I knew what I was doing and she was quite calm and on task. It was rather a tight situation and my chair got caught on some merchandise protruding from a store shelf, but we managed.

As we entered through the curtain "walls", I really felt that finally the big event would be a calm, enjoyable experience and be totally worth all of the pain -- physical and mental. I was wrong about the first part but right about the latter. As we turned the corner and entered the small area where Sarah Palin was at the signing table, we were met by a WALL of photographers, snapping away. Emmy freaked out. For all she knew, these things were evil things that would hurt us. The noise was new and awful, coming from big black "eyes" manned by strange humans. It might as well have been a wall of snipers, as far as she knew. She pulled back..........hard.....pulling my chair back with her. A man whom I believe was in charge of controlling these people said to them something along the lines of, "Okay,that's enough. We gotta get out of here." I'm not sure of his exact words and I'm not sure if he did this because he saw what was going on with us........but he did do it and for whatever reason he did it...........I am GRATEFUL. The people with cameras kept snapping even as they shuffled out of the way.

But........the damage was done. I was in panic mode already. I had to reassure my dog and myself.....and, at the same time, I felt I had to muster as much strength as possible and use this chance to give Sarah the encouragement I so wanted to give her. The table was high enough and we were close enough to it, and there was enough hustle and bustle anyway that I'm 100% positive that Sarah was completely unaware of the ordeal we were having right in front of her. In fact, I didn't want her to. I just had to get the job done and get out of there. I did the best thing I knew to do. I stuck my hand out and said, "I'm Lisa Graas." In a flash, I was struck by the realization that she is even more beautiful and more vibrant in person than on television. She shook my hand firmly with a big smile. Then, I intentionally and immediately deflected attention from myself (because I had to exit......NOW) gestured to my girls and my mom and said, "We're three generations of Palin fans here." Bethany was wearing a Carhartt jacket. I had told her beforehand that Sarah would LOVE her jacket. Sure enough, when I gestured to my family, I heard Sarah say to Bethany, "That's the best jacket in the world!!" I made a hasty exit, leaving behind my signed book and my backpack which had been temporarily taken from me (all bags were taken briefly, during the signing). A staffer stopped me, wondering why I was hurrying away so quickly. I was not really in my right mind. I knew I had to get out of there fast despite wanting to talk to Sarah. At the same time, I wanted the comfort of my family, but I wanted my family to stay and speak with Sarah because it was so important to them. Not knowing how to explain and being at a loss for words to explain......and just wanting to get out of this cubby hole filled with people, I just blurted out to the woman handling the books, "I'm concerned for my family" as I gestured behind me. I can only imagine her confusion from such a nonsensical answer, but it was all I could muster.

The staff caught up with me and gave me my book and backpack. Mom and the girls came out beaming with joy. Sarah had actually stood up at the table to shake Mom's hand and asked, "What's your name?" Mom was elated, she later told me -- an understatement. Later, I realized that I still had the note in my pocket that I had wanted to hand to Sarah Palin...........but it's okay. It's all okay. I got to meet the one person who truly has an innate ability to get this country back on track. It was an experience I will never forget..............and regardless of the ordeal for us, it was one of the greatest experiences of my life.
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1 comments: on "Our Family Road Trip to Birmingham to Meet Sarah Palin"

Nande - thedesignconservative.com said...

Wow. Thank you for sharing this story, and so much of yourself, with all of us.

I am certain that if anyone understands and appreciates the hurdles that people have overcome to meet her in person, even for just a few moments, it's Governor Palin.

I'm glad you and your family were able to meet the Governor, and we're glad to have you back among us! :)

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