Miracle Day: Eight Years After My Traumatic Brain Injury

I’ve put off writing this post until this moment, because I wanted to make sure I enjoyed every. Single. Second. of Miracle Day.

“Miracle Day” is what I’ve decided to call November 21, 2005. It was the day I almost died–but I didn’t. Last summer, Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare asked me to tell my story for their annual report. Please watch this short video to learn about my journey (mobile users, click here):

I feel bad for the video editors, who had to cut down 2+ hours of my speaking about my experience into two minutes. 😉 I think they did a great job, though. There’s so much I have to say about all of this; as you may recall, I’m working on my memoir of this experience now.

Words are my gift, my tool, and I had to fight hard to get them back. Initially, I couldn’t speak, except through the American Sign Language alphabet that Jennifer and I had taught each other (half-correctly) at ages 5 and 7. Even after I was no longer intubated, my throat was damaged and my words were sludgy in my mind. With the help of some amazing therapists and the encouragement of my family and friends, along with a lot of hard (rewarding) work, I was able to make a tremendous recovery. It was this experience that taught me just how crucial communication is, and that my gift with words might be a gift indeed. It gave me the courage to be a writer, because I finally saw a way to make a difference through my writing. And I’ve never stopped.

I feel like God gave me back my life for a reason, and I have a huge sense of destiny and duty to give back and help other people. I never feel like I can do enough, and sometimes I worry I’m not working hard enough or being good enough. I know that my memoir is part of that destiny, and that’s part of what intimidates me–but also excites me–about it.

Although I only had <5% chance of surviving that injury, and even less chance of recovering to any great extent, I did. I am incredibly grateful to God and every person who helped me to come back. Each day since then has been a gift, even the bad ones, because they are days I almost didn’t have. I don’t feel like I’m living on borrowed time, but rather gifted time. My loved ones are a huge part of that gift, and I’m going to love them as hard as I can (and tell them so) to thank them for making my life so worthwhile and for all they do to keep me alive–not just when I was in the hospital bed, but also in the way they nourish my spirit and give my life purpose.

Today, Jennifer voted to wrap me in a comforter and hold me in a rocking chair by the fireplace. While I appreciated the loving thought, we deemed this too sweaty and bulky an option. Kidding aside, I feel overwhelmed by the love, congratulations, and protectiveness that surge forth on this day from loved ones. I was surprised I actually managed to convince my dad to go shopping with me today–not the shopping itself (he has always gone shopping with us and has personally found many of our best pieces), but the leaving the house on the day. But, we did have a miracle to celebrate, after all.

In retrospect, a day that might have seemed mundane was actually quite symbolic–almost eerily so. This morning, my dad picked up a collared shirt for me from Wal-Mart for my country-themed birthday celebration coming up. Eight years ago, he also picked up a couple of collared shirts for me from Wal-Mart to wear during therapy at Marianjoy. When he got back today, we left to buy a ball gown I’ve been pining over for two years, which I plan to wear (spoiler alert!) to the next Marianjoy gala. It was a far cry from the hospital gowns I was wearing as a Marianjoy patient eight years ago. To go with those hospital gowns, eight years ago, my dad had to buy me high-top gym shoes to wear in the hospital so my feet stayed upright while I slept/the muscles didn’t pronate. Today, we went shopping for shoes for my job at that hospital. We even took a picture today in our nearby downtown area, with all the Christmas lights in the background wrapped around trees and poles–pretty different than pole lights and X-rays in my hospital room. Then we ended the night with pizza, which was my #1 requested food item at Marianjoy, which they were so sweet to accommodate. So maybe I’m just reading too much YA literature, or maybe I’m just trying to justify making my dad go shopping with me, but I thought the day was awesomely symbolic.

I never feel more grateful, blessed, or awe-struck than this day, each year. It’s a nice feeling to have–it makes me feel simultaneously small in the universe and hugely impactful, predestined but powerful, loved and loving. Thank you to my family, friends, doctors, nurses, therapists, and firemen who rescued me not just from death, but from a darkness I might have entered, too. And thank you to you, my dear readers, for following my journey. ❤

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Silence Broken: Transformation in Haiku

Hello readers! I hope your week is going well. Yesterday, we had a really fun event for Marianjoy: our annual golf invitational. The day was a long, hot one, but it was perfect for golf, and everyone had a great time. We really appreciated the generosity of the donations for our silent auction and all of the golfers who came out to support us.

While all of yesterday was wonderful, I wanted to share a particularly enchanting experience.

In my most recent post, “Summer Heat,” I talked about how everything seems to come alive in the summer. Sometimes, though, when it gets REALLY hot, especially coupled with humidity, it’s hard to remember that. The weather can feel stifling in such a literal way that you notice everything around you is still and quiet–including yourself. Trees are still full and green, but you stop hearing their leaves rustle in the wind. Birds sit where they can find shade, too lethargic to fly or sing. Of course, bugs never seem deterred by the humidity, but maybe that’s nature’s way of keeping us awake. 😉

The golf hole I was stationed at yesterday had a beautiful view. I took this picture at the hottest time of the day. Look how the lake is a perfect mirror of the trees and sky–you almost can’t tell which side is right-side up! I was very grateful for the shade of the tree you can see in the foreground. 🙂

Everything was placid and still. The trees and sky were perfectly reflected in the unmoving lake.

Everything was placid and still. The trees and sky were perfectly reflected in the unmoving lake.

All of a sudden, without warning, the sky opened up and began raining. It went from a drizzle to steady rain, breaking nature’s trance with movement and sound. The rain fell straight down, and it was easy enough to avoid (especially with the awesome canopy chair my dad bought me), but it reinvigorated everything.

Raindrops broke the stillness

Raindrops broke the stillness–look at the movement in the lake.

The rain was completely transformative, and the sound of the raindrops hitting the lake’s surface, plus the reinvigorated birds’ calls, truly sounded like a song. These pictures don’t do the experience justice, so I also resolved to illustrate it with words.

I wrote two haiku of the experience. This seemed a fitting format, because, as mentioned in my last post, the most common subject of the haiku is nature, and it is supposed to describe a moment. It’s also appropriate because the moment took place during a work event for Marianjoy; it echoed the first poetry I began to write after my traumatic brain injury–also haiku and also at Marianjoy. I think I was drawn to haiku as my first attempt at poetry–at writing, period–because the haiku is so brief and accessible. Indeed, the brevity can be intimidating, but if it is insurmountable, it is the wrong format for what you wish to describe. It forces you to focus on a single thought. The syllabic guide is almost therapeutic, a drum keeping the time of your thoughts. The effect is subtle, a dampened expression of emotion that doesn’t overwhelm the casual reader but explodes into realization with repeated deep readings.

At the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference I went to this year, I attended a few panels about the healing effect of writing. I could attest to the power first-hand, but I was happy to hear it is a growing trend in therapy. As part of my memoir,  I plan to include some of the poetry I wrote during my recovery.

Without further ado, I hope you enjoy these haiku (accidental rhymes are just an intrinsic part of a poet’s life). The moment was so pretty, I had to write two. That’s shaky justification, and I’d get criticized for my inability to be concise in a poetry class, but darn it, this is MY blog. 😉

After all the build-up, I’m afraid you’ll be searching for some huge buried truth, but I promise these are just my awe of nature. At least, I think so. Sometimes, poetry betrays more of the poet than the poet herself is aware of. 😉

Eager to merge drops
crescendoing in patters
breaking the tension

Raindrops awaken
all muted by scorching sun.
Life sings in chorus.

Happy Father’s Day

My first Easter, with my dad. ❤ The gown and bonnet were custom-made as a gift for me.

 

Happy Father’s Day to all the fathers out there–biological, adoptive, mentor, and otherwise. 🙂 It’s been a nice, relaxing day for us so far. My mom and sister made a tremendous breakfast of omelettes, potatoes, and pancakes from scratch. My sister and I bought our dad baseball tickets and mini-golf/batting cage passes, but my dad elected for us to use those on a not-as-crowded weekend. 😉

I am so lucky to have such a great relationship with my dad, and we’ve only grown closer over the years. He has always been a wonderful mentor, role model, and protector, but now that Jennifer and I are older, he is also one of our best friends. He is one of my favorite people to have deep conversations with about philosophy, religion, government, and classical music, and I so appreciate that he and our mom have always taken our opinions seriously, no matter what age we were–I think that really helps children develop into confident individuals. 🙂 As I mentioned in this post (which is actually my most-viewed day of all time!), I also love how he will take Jennifer and me out on daddy-daughter dates, one-on-one. My lovely fellow-blogger friend Misty made this comment on that blog post, which I totally agree with and didn’t even think of till she mentioned it: “It is SO important for fathers to take their girls out to show them how their future husband should treat them!” Well-said, Misty! Since we were little girls, Jennifer and I have always imagined our future husbands to have many of the qualities our dad has: dependable, supportive, honorable, loving, hard-working, thoughtful, and more. Potential suitors can tell immediately that they have a lot to live up to, and like Misty said, I think that’s a good thing. After all, for most little girls, their fathers were the first men they ever loved.

It’s one thing for a dad to be there during happy times, but it’s another for him also to be there during the hard times. A lot of men can be intimidated or overwhelmed when “the going gets tough,” but not my dad. He has always been our hero, and he argues that we put him on too high of a pedestal, but the truth is that there isn’t a pedestal in existence that’s high enough for him. And that’s OK, because my sister sewed him a superhero cape a number of years ago, so he doesn’t need to stand when he could fly in the stratosphere, anyway. 😉

I think the hardest thing a parent could go through is losing a child–and the next-hardest thing would be almost losing one. That’s why I always say that my traumatic brain injury experience was harder for my family than for me. When you boil it down, for me, my experience was mostly positive: I survived, I was getting better every day, I was surrounded by people who loved and supported me no matter what. It’s hard for me to imagine what my parents felt, and that’s one of the hardest aspects of writing my memoir–but I know it couldn’t have been easy, squelching negative “what-ifs” and replacing them with unconditional smiles and positivity. I don’t remember a lot of things about my TBI recovery, but one thing that resounds through all my memories is my father saying “she can do it”–no matter how bleak a medical prediction was pronounced. And that’s what I always held onto, because I’ve always trusted my father so much–so I knew that if he thought I could do it, I must be able to. 🙂

When I was in the secondary education (teaching) program at UIUC, one of our assignments was to write a thank-you note to someone who has inspired us. I knew immediately who that would be, and for what. Here is the letter I wrote on 8/31/07, less than two years after my TBI.

Dear Dad,

            The simplest words we’ve heard so many times are sometimes the most effective; the repetition makes them especially powerful, so that when they are said at more poignant times, we remember them especially well.

            “She can do it”—not even spoken to me, but about me. Hearing you tell someone else that I could do it meant knowing that the sentiment wasn’t a term reserved simply to comfort me with perhaps exaggerated situational confidence.

            Never was this more critical than when you said it, while I was in the hospital, in response to several doctors’ doubts about my ability to walk, write, etc.—let alone return to college—again. At a time where I was less certain than ever of my abilities and potential, the person whose judgment I had always considered the soundest (well, along with Mom’s and Jennifer’s), just voiced firmly that I would be able to do potentially everything I wished—just as you had always told us.

            Maybe I wasn’t so different then than the little girl who looks to her hero (her father, of course) for identification, encouragement and guidance for her potential. I know for certain that I would not be the person I am today without that invaluable, unconditional support and faith you bestowed upon me; I know I would not have returned to that person without that very similar faith.

            Dad, thank you not only for telling me that “I can do it,” but telling others “she [I] can do it,” too. This very simple act of publicizing your faith reinforces that belief in me.

            Just as this now-big girl will always be your little girl, so will you always be her hero; and she hopes to continue to hear that simple phrase from you that means so much to her.

Love,
Amanda

I mailed that letter to my dad, and he’s kept it ever since–and he has indeed continued to tell me “she can do it” through every endeavor I try.

Thank you, Dad, for all your support and guidance of shaping me into who I am today. I love you forever. ❤

Surprise Publications!

Happy middle-of-the-night, my lovely followers! What other time would a writer be writing, when she doesn’t have work the next day? 😉 My best inspiration usually comes at night, which can be inconvenient, as I’m sure you could imagine.

Anyway, I was taking a break from the project I’m working on to partake in a favorite modern pastime for writers: Googling myself, or “egosurfing,” as Wikipedia calls it. I think all writers like to imagine they’re famous, even before we’re quite there yet. 😉 Usually, I don’t find much besides my own blog posts, things I’ve written for Marianjoy, or school publications.

HOWEVER, tonight was different! I found three publications I didn’t even know about before! I just had to share. 🙂

Newspapers B&W (5)

Newspapers B&W (5) (Photo credit: NS Newsflash)

Do you remember my blog post about hope after tragedy in Moore, Oklahoma after their recent tornado? I had submitted excerpts from it, along with my poem, “Clouds” (also in that post) to a few different newspapers. I didn’t know it till tonight, but the Daily Herald, a Chicagoland newspaper, published my opinion piece! I’m so honored they posted it, and I hope it has brought/continues to bring some people hope and comfort. You can see the online version here.

Then, I found another newspaper article–but this one was written about me by someone else, using some excerpts from things I’ve written. “Living Life in the Surprising ‘Afterglow’ of a Tragedy: Amanda Fowler Talks about Her Amazing Journey at May 9 Fundraising Luncheon” is an article by Jennifer Mesenbrink previewing my memoir preview event for the Glen Ellyn Patch. If you missed it, I wrote a blog post detailing the amazing experience of sharing my story with my sister to such a nice group of people.

The last publication I discovered tonight was totally by accident and also a nice surprise. My sister and I are both hooked on Buzzfeed.com right now, since they tend to post adorable pictures of animals and hilarious observations about life. When I was clicking around on Twitter tonight, I stumbled upon a random person’s post of a Buzzfeed article that looked like it would fit the latter category and give a few laughs about being a poet. Every single item on their list made me laugh, except #15, because I was shocked to discover it was a screencap of my Tweet! You can view the article here.
I am so honored to be a member of meme-land, especially for words I chose to write, as opposed to an unflattering candid. But, I suppose I shouldn’t speak too soon…it’s all part of the fame we writers strive for, right? 😉

Speaking of publishing, I wanted to thank all of you for reading my blog. I believe I’ve just reached about 100 followers and 1281 views. I really appreciate every single one; thank you for allowing me to share my writing with you.

Just wanted to share this quick post with you all about my exciting Googling results. I can’t decide if I should get back to work or to bed, but either way, I know I’ll be working on my writing! 🙂

Memoir Preview Event, and Why I’m Writing It in the First Place

Happy Tuesday! I hope people aren’t too tired from busy Mother’s Day weekends; the beginnings of the week are hard enough, right? 😉 One coworker of mine told me she was tired from helping her mom plant 50 new flowers Sunday, buying and spreading 35 bags of mulch! And I guess 50 and 35 must have been magic numbers, because Jeremiah had to tote 35 50-lb. bags of rocks to cover a sinkhole on their farm Sunday. Holy cow!  My Sunday was comparatively laid-back–well, I suppose, laid-back, period. 😉

Thank you again to all of you who supported my memoir preview event, either with your presence or your encouragement. Jennifer and I had been invited by Marianjoy’s Auxiliary to speak at their Spring Luncheon this year. (Click here to see my initial announcement and the invitation.)

The whole event was fabulous, from the location, to the food, to the presentation itself. College of DuPage’s Waterleaf Restaurant was a gorgeous venue to choose for a spring luncheon, and apparently, this was the Marianjoy Auxiliary’s second luncheon there (the restaurant opened only a couple of years ago). With spring finally arriving here in the last few weeks, the buds around facility were in full bloom–a lovely site with the venue’s glass walls. I don’t have the photos from our event yet, but I will post some at a later time, and here is a photo from Waterleaf’s Facebook page:

The Waterleaf Restaurant at College of DuPage (courtesy of their Facebook page)

It was hard to count exactly how many people attended, but it sure seemed crowded, especially from our little spot up front. (Jennifer and I rather comically figured out how to maneuver to share the microphone meant for one.) I think there were at least 70 people there.

After raffles and a delicious lunch, Jennifer and I were up! We were incredibly nervous; no matter how many times we tell my family’s story of my TBI, it is emotional and nerve-wracking. Part of it was that “performance high” feeling I’ve gotten from being onstage since the age of five. (Having no other high to compare this to, it is an imaginary allusion. 😉 ) It’s the rush that comes from working really hard on something and imagining the best case scenario, and it feels like you’re flying–but the giddiness, too, that comes from not wanting to look down and see how far away the ground is. You’re flying, this is the moment you’ve been waiting for, and the only thing to do is focus on the act, to look ahead at where you’re going; focusing on the ground will only make you crash. There I go, inserting poetry into an entry that’s meant to be narration… 😉 Anyway, I love that feeling right before performances or speeches I’ve worked hard on, and I’m so lucky I get the opportunity to do public speaking all the time for my job at Marianjoy.

However, with this type of speech, there is always an inherent fear that people won’t “get” it. It’s one thing for someone to dismiss a poem you’ve written about a butterfly or an ancient Greek goddess, maybe both beautiful, but neither directly related to you. It’s another thing to pour out your entire soul, bare yourself completely naked and worry that people won’t respond well. Of course, this is a metaphorical  baring; I was, in fact, wearing a gray shift dress, black blazer, and gray pearls that I remember vividly because I spent hours agonizing over what to wear. 😉

It’s a nakedness that’s taken me years to be comfortable with. The more you can refer to something in the “past tense,” the easier it is to separate yourself from a painful memory, right? Well, that may be true in general, but the fact is, a brain injury is a permanent badge–it stays with you for life. There is great potential for recovery (like I was blessed to undergo–from <5% chance of survival to having two degrees and a great job), but it is something that will always be part of you. I’ve learned that the secret to true peace and “wholeness” comes when you embrace the very thing you’ve been trying to overcome. Always strive to surpass limitations and be the best you can be; it’s not about accepting limitations, it’s about admiring how far you’ve come and how those triumphs have defined your character.

This can be a hard place to get to when you’ve been through a traumatic event. While I’ll never remember the car accident (it happened too quickly for my brain to process it), remembering and learning anew what my family went through when they supported me is a humbling and somber process. I’ve been so blessed to have their support all along, and it felt so reassuring to have my sister by my side at this memoir event.

I’ve never ignored the TBI or recovery process, but it’s not something I really pondered over at enormous length until my graduate memoir class at DePaul with Michele Morano. That very class was the whole reason I signed up for the Writing & Publishing program there; I knew I would need help putting the muddied emotions into words. I love to write, but ironically, it had always been hard to write about myself (still is, at times). It’s much easier to imagine how a fictional character might react to a situation than to dissect how you, yourself feel–and then, you have to turn it into art! My professor was wonderfully understanding, giving me the advice and push I needed to start the process of writing my memoir about the event. Ever since the TBI happened, everyone who’s heard about what happened to me urged me to write a book about it, even before knowing I was actually a writer. I realized that while people sadly get injured all the time, the perspective, support, and beauty of what I went through was something special that needed to be shared so it could help other people going through a dark time.

When the President of the Marianjoy Auxiliary, Mimi Rose, asked Jennifer and me to share our story at the annual Spring Luncheon, we were flattered and agreed immediately. When Mimi found out I was writing a memoir about it, she encouraged me to share selections from it as part of the presentation.

Although we were excited for our presentation, it was a pretty daunting feat. I have spoken at several events for Marianjoy in the past, but this would be much longer and more comprehensive. I chose what I thought was a good array of pieces reflecting different aspects of the experience, and Jennifer helped me form an outline for the presentation. It was our mom’s idea to intersperse verbal anecdotes in between the stories, mostly from Jennifer, and we thought the idea was brilliant and went with it.

In the end, I didn’t get to read everything I’d planned within the time constraints–but that was OK. The audience was so kind and empathetic; my boss says “there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.” There was a lot of laughter, too, because so many absurd things happen when things are supposed to go a certain way in recovery–they never do, right? I think the more serious an event is, the more potential there is for little things you’d never expect to sneak in and be funny at the same time. I was so happy for the balance of reaction, because that’s the very message I want to get across, the very reason I’m writing my memoir and even this blog: when things seem sad or dark, have faith, because they just may turn out for the best. They may change your path and give you purpose; I know they did for me.

Many people came up to Jennifer and me afterwards and complimented us, thanking us for sharing our stories. We both really appreciated this, because as I said, it can be nerve-wracking being so completely candid about something so personal and deep. To top off the loveliness of the whole day, our mom won a donated raffle for a bottle of wine and a restaurant gift certificate, and each of us got to take home a transferable flower pot. While I’m not sure exactly how many people attended the event, I know each ticket was $40, so I’m sure we raised a nice amount of money for the Marianjoy Auxiliary. 🙂

I’d like to end this post with a thank-you again to everyone who made the event possible. Thank you to the Marianjoy Auxiliary for the invitation; to my sister, Jennifer, for speaking with me; to our mom as well as our family friend, Sue Ann, for attending and supporting us; to everyone who attended the event; to the doctors, nurses, firemen, therapists, friends, and family who assisted in my recovery; to my memoir teacher, Professor Morano; and to you, dear readers, for reading this post and your constant support. ❤

Memoir and Letting Go–“The Stone”

Sadly, the weekend is coming to an end, so I’m going to make tonight’s post a little shorter so we can both soak up the remaining drops of Sunday!

I’ve been thinking a lot about memoir lately, especially because of my upcoming presentation on May 9th (you can view the event in the calendar on the right side bar). My sister and I are going to be telling the story of the incredible journey that my traumatic brain injury took my family on. I will be reading excerpts from my upcoming memoir, Afterglow. The event will include an elegant luncheon at the Waterleaf Restaurant at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. There will also be fabulous gift baskets available for raffle!  All proceeds go to Marianjoy. Tickets are $40, and you can pay by mail or at the door, but RSVP is required by April 30th. To register, just email me at jellysideupblog@gmail.com or leave a comment with your info and I will contact you!

Anyway, I’ve been working a lot on shaping some memoir pieces for my presentation. This process is pretty complicated and emotional, but it is so important. To build off of last night’s post, there is so much healing that can take place when you write out your pain. The unique situation for my memoir is I’m writing about a time where my memory is pretty shaky–that part of my brain was damaged at that time, and therefore, so is my memory. Luckily, my family kept really good records, both on paper and in their own memories, so those are rich resources for me to tap into. Reaching back into the past of that painful time for my family has been rewarding and shocking for me. The whole experience was packed full of emotion from everyone, and the presiding emotion that bound together all the fragments of pain was love. The discovery of that pain itself is a fresh shock to me–an aftershock–because my family (and friends and boyfriend) were so brave to hide anything but happiness and encouragement around me, and that is why I healed so well. The writing of the memoir itself is almost a new experience for me, and it carries its pain with it, but there is a beauty in the retrospect of how there was so much good during such a dark time.

I recently wrote this poem, describing the burden of this new knowledge, and the impulse to be selfish with it–not to want anyone to share the pain with you, not only because you don’t want to hurt them, but also because there is a pride in owning something so enormous and deep. At the AWP conference this year, I attended a panel about memoir, and one of the panelists said something that really stuck with me. This poem is also a response to that statement.  I’m sharing this with you now because it builds so well off of last night’s post, and it also matches NaPoWriMo‘s prompt for today:

I challenge you to write a poem in which each line except the last takes the form of a single, declarative sentence. Then, the final line should take the form of a question. With any luck, this will result in poems that have a sort of driving, reportorial tone, but with a powerful rhetorical finish.

“The Stone”
By: Amanda K. Fowler

A memoirist professed—
“This story,
It is a stone fastened to the heart.”
Yes, I said,
Yes.
“Once you tell the story,
The stone is loosened
And falls away.
You will be free.”
I’m not sure
I’m ready
To let it go,
For this stone
Has crept into my heart.
Once I let it go,
What part of me
Will leave with it?

Marianjoy Auxiliary Spring Luncheon

Now that they made the official invitations for this event, I can share it with you! Every spring and fall, the Marianjoy Auxiliary hosts a women’s luncheon. This spring, I will be the featured speaker. My sister and I will talk about the incredible journey that the traumatic brain injury I acquired took us on. Also, I will be reading selections from my upcoming memoir, Afterglow.

The event will be held at the award-winning Waterleaf Restaurant at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. The elegant luncheon will be prepared by the culinary students of this top school. At the event, you can also choose to enter raffles for popular gift baskets! All proceeds will go to benefit Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital.

Wear your spring best and join us on May 9th! Reservations by April 30th required, but you can pay at the door.

If you’d like an official invitation mailed to you, please send me a message with your address and I will send one to you. I can also email you a copy.

Marianjoy Auxiliary Spring Luncheon Invitation

Marianjoy Auxiliary Spring Luncheon Invitation