June 8, 2013 Day 19 — Jamaica Pond, Boston (3 miles or 6,000 steps)

It’s already two days after the walk (Monday, June 10) and I feel as if I am still in dreamland. Everything happened so fast. My Camino mind had difficulty adjusting to the new pace. However, the Friday night Terramia Restaurant Italian feast in Boston’s North End brought Judy, Carrie, and me together and fortified us amply for the Saturday Walk at Jamaica Pond. Let’s see if I remember some of the details.


Justin, Conor, and Gary

We get up early after my collapse from the night before after blogging past midnight. (Can anyone call 1 to 6 AM an adequate night’s sleep?) We rendezvous with Justin and step lively to be sure to arrive on time. During the subway ride to Jamaica Pond, I try to compose in my head my 10-minute speech before the walk starts, but activities on the T distract me, and I can’t compose even one logical sentence. Since I’m last on the program, maybe everything important will have already been said and I can just summarize.


Jennifer and Judy

When we arrive at Jamaica Pond along with about 200 others, including many family members and friends, we can see that the Foundation staff has the walk logistics well organized for ceremonies to begin at 9:30. Still no speech in my head, because every time I turn around, someone stops me to talks. Oh well. I’ll just have to wing it. Dr. Jeff Szymanski, Executive Director of IOCDF, opens the program, followed by Dr. Sabine Wilheim, Director of the OCD and Related Disorder Program at MGH, and then Dr. Katharine Phillips from the Rhode Island Hospital BDD Program. By the time it’s my turn, the crowd has learned a good deal about OCD and Related Disorders, especially about Nathaniel’s nemesis, BDD. Good. These professionals know brain disorders inside out and share candidly about their devastating impact on families.


That’s me speaking, just above the banner

Several minutes before I am to speak, the wind picks up, letting us know that the tropical storm is over and that the walk will be spared. Perfect. Prior predictions had not been so favorable. Oh, no, it’s my turn. I handle the mike uncomfortably, unable to juggle it and my few notes (three sentences on three separate pages). I’m not sure I remember what I said, but it was from the heart and I trusted that the words would flow. 10:00 arrives and it’s time to start walking.


Carrie, her roommate, friends from work, and cousin gear up for the walk

Tremendous energy is generated when many folks gather for a single purpose. As we walk, I use the opportunity to visit and talk with other participants. Signs on the side of the path give poignant descriptions of the various disorders, and a group of us stop in front of the BDD sign.photo(86) I’m thrilled that at least for this moment in this corner of Boston there is a written proclamation of the disorder that tortured Nathaniel for so many years. We’ve made some progress.

As we process the day’s events later that evening, Judy and I affirm how being together with friends, families, and suffers of OCD and BDD builds a critical sense of community, and breaks the isolation that these disorders cause. One BDD sufferer confided to us at the walk that hearing Katherine Phillips and Sabine Wilhelm talk about 944417_10152848994000316_561300956_nBDD removed the personal stigma of the disorder. How huge is that? Sufferers of cancer don’t have to add personal shame or guilt to the trauma of dealing with the disease, but sufferers of brain disorders often do. Collectively, we can and will eradicate that stigma.

Thank you, friends, for following this blog, for contributing many miles and dollars, and for supporting us in this important work.

The Foundation just posted the total to date: nearly $65,000 raised. What a stunning accomplishment!

A moment of rest on Boston Commons the day after the walk. Mission accomplished

A moment of rest on Boston Commons the day after the walk. Mission accomplished.

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June 7, 2013 Day 18 — around Washington D.C. (13.5 miles or 27,000 steps)







Robert Hordan, my host on Capitol Hill, and I rise early and do the hearty breakfast thing. He thinks I’m melting away and wants to beef me up. I think I have lost a few pounds–might explain the pants slipping down easily as I walk these days. My dad would have suggested a 2″ nail to fix the problem. No thanks!

I say goodbye to Robert, my last host on the Camino de Nathaniel South. Endings are always a bit sad. Maybe that is why it’s raining today. To finish strong, I do a few more visits on the Senate side–Senators Al Franken (MN), Elizabeth Warren (MA), photo(84)and Kelly Ayotte (NH). It’s easy for me to compare and contrast the cordiality factor in each office after each stop. Perhaps a professional development workshop on hospitality would do the trick. The welcoming factor varies.

I leave the Senate buildings and head for Union Station. It’s pouring outside and I get thoroughly soaked. I find that walking briskly around the train station achieves two ends–dries me out and adds additional steps to my walk goal. At last count, I have exceeded my original estimate of 380 miles from April 8 to June 8. Put me now down for 455 miles which translates into 910,000 steps.

I lunch with a friend whom I have never met before. Our common bond is that we are photo(83)both dads and we have both lost sons. That experience alone brings the conversation to a deeper level rather quickly. We talk for an hour and a half, sharing our and ours families’ journeys of grief. I am grateful for the invitation and the gift of a good meal in one of my favorite train stations. Thank you, Steve.

Turning the GPS off for the last time, I hop on to the metro to National Airport where the complexities of modern travel kick in. The metro ticket machine doesn’t like my money and refuses to sell me a ticket. I argue as much as one can with a machine. Not very effective.

The first hurdle resolved, more move in to take its place to challenge my patience. Walking has its limitations, but nothing is as irritating as the ones I face trying to take a flight to Boston for tomorrow’s walk. Inventory of obstacles: Where is my driver’s license? I had it the other day. Why can’t my walking stick travel with me? I’m a pilgrim. Does it count as two pieces of luggage requiring me to pay the additional cost? Checking with Home Land Security about this walking “weapon,” I travel up and down the corridors of National airport increasing my mileage as I go. Today’s total grows to a whopping 13.50 miles.

And then there’s the flight delay. Had I known I had another hour, I would have squeezed in a couple more congressional visits. It looks as if it may be another hour before we depart. David Levinger, Westtown, crosses my path and we talk. We had just met at Karabi’s gathering last Monday evening.

By 4:45 the flight finally takes off, and Boston seems a possibility. The great convergence is Denis from Washington, DC (by plane), Judy from Cheyney, PA (by car), and Carrie from MGH, MA by metro. We plan a reunion at the Italian North End of Boston in our favorite Terramia+Ristoranterestaurant, Terramia Ristorante, on Salem Street. There is definitely good reason to celebrate. Our accomplishments for the1,000,000+ Steps 4 OCD campaign. All that remains now is the Cake Walk around Jamaica Pond (5K) tomorrow. Do join us if you are in the vicinity!

We are raring to go and cross the finish line of this year’s walking success.



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June 6, 2013 Day 17 — Downtown Washington (7.75 miles or 15,500 steps)

Screen shot 2013-06-06 at 8.36.47 PM

What miracles a good night’s sleep (longer than usual last night) can do to frame the new day. Emily, Kendra and David’s daughter, is not the only early riser today. I joined in too. A Kendra Breakfast Special enhances my already too short stay here in Alexandria. To witness firsthand the thoughtful and loving parenting of this couple gives me hope for the next generation.

photo(81)Kendra and Otis (their senior citizen dog who loves car rides) drive me to the nearest metro station, Huntington (slightly north of Mt. Vernon). I’m totally psyched about today’s possibilities. What music can we play on the car radio to prepare me psychologically for today’s full schedule of appointments on Capitol Hill? Kendra and I examine the options and finally decide on “Lithium!” That sounds about right given recent activities on the Hill.

Returning to McPherson Station in DC where yesterday’s walk ended, I sit a short while in McPherson Park to recollect myself before proceeding. What will I say? How will I say it? What exactly am I asking my Congressional representatives to do? Why? Nathaniel’s story answers all those questions adequately. All I have to do is be mindful in the telling.

With the White House practically in front of me, I decide to call. The phone directoryphoto(73) isn’t very helpful. I finally choose the comments & messages option. After describing to the responder in some detail my walk this spring, the White House wants a more simple version of my comment. Is mental illness ever simple? Was Nathaniel’s? I then ask to speak to a White House staff member. Not possible! Using every Asselin technique of persuasion honed over the last 65 years of my life, I tackle the challenge with fortitude and grace and from every possible angle. I want to talk to a responsible White House Staff member.

My hidden rationale: You took Tom Insel of the NIH away from my Monday afternoon appointment at NIH. Let me stop by to say “Hi,” and we’ll call it even. Mrs. Comments/Messages doesn’t have a category or protocol in place to handle my candid request. After 20 minutes have passed, she decides to hang up on me. What will you tell your boss when I report you to him next week?

Last Monday, the White House had a mental health symposium, but apparently it photo(77)doesn’t seem interested in learning more about what mental illness might look like in Nathaniel’s compelling story.
Today’s foray into the political arena starts poorly. I better head to the Senate Office Building for my 11:30 with Senator Casey’s (PA) legislative staffers, Sara Mabry and Doug Hartman, followed by a scheduled photo shoot with Senator Casey at 12:30, and then on to Senator Toomey (PA) and Congressman Pat Meehan (PA) in the PM. Looks as if I’ve got a full day of conversations before me.

What brief descriptions would I use for each encounter? Senator Bob Casey’s staff photo(75)are welcoming, good listeners. The photo shoot with the Senator is genuine and meaningful. In Senator Toomey’s Office, Theo Merkel, the legislative correspondent, gives me a few minutes, but not too long (in and out). The Senator is nowhere to be seen. As for Congressman Meehan, he’s in PA attending his 3rd son’s graduation from The Haverford School, but Senior Legislative Assistant Rachel Cook takes a long photo(78)time to listen to my story, asks good questions, and visibly shows compassion for both Nathaniel’s and for our difficult journeys. The finale for the day is an unexpected visit to the office of Congresswoman Grace F. Napolitano (CA), a
recommendation from yesterday’s AFSP visit. The congresswoman is back in CA at the moment, but her Sr. Legislative Asisstant/Mental Health Advisor, Ane Romero asks me excellent questions and invites me back for a future visit. Congresswoman Napolitano of California is a committed advocate for mental health. That last visit of the day becomes the cherry on top of today’s Capitol Hill sundae.photo(79)

Aware of how late it is, I barely beat the rain as I walk the mere three blocks to Robert Hordan’s home, tonight’s host (former high school mate at St. John’s). His Independence Avenue address in the 300 block is the perfect place for me to crash tonight for tomorrow’s final day of advocacy. We happily greet each other, continue the lively conversations as we dine out to a local delicious restaurant, and make plans for tomorrow’s hardy breakfast. I’m grateful for a Capitol Hill “bonne adresse.”


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June 5, 2013 Day 16 — Washington, D.C. (14.75 miles or 29,500 steps

Screen shot 2013-06-05 at 9.32.14 PMThe time allotted for sleep seems to be getting shorter and shorter. Late night blogging and early Camino office hours are burning the candle at both ends. Regardless, the journey must continue, and therefore, I’m on.

This morning the Grady/Farquhars prepare a robust breakfast for my long day ahead, a good thing because there is no lunch until 4:00 this afternoon. Mary Grady joins me on this segment. photo(67)Mutually, we decide to head to Catholic University with an interim stop at Rock Creek Cemetery. Obviously, we both have Saint-Gaudens’s statue of Grief on our minds.

Walking along Piney Creek Road is refreshing in the early morning. We are definitely having more fun than the commuters edging their way to offices by car throughout the District. A couple of wrong turns getting to Rock Creek help us appreciate even more the Adams Memorial sculptured by Saint-Gaudens in 1891 in memory of Henry Adam’s wife. What a stunning piece of photo(66)sculpture.

A moment of silence seems appropriate given the nature of my pilgrimage and its purpose. Then I decide to tuck into the folds of the sculptured veil of the statue the small river rock that Carrie and I took from the Pemigewasset River in Lincoln, NH the weekend before the walk started. In pilgrimage tradition, a walker carries a stone from his place of origin and deposits it along the path when the “right” place moves the walker to do so. Raised in Lincoln, I wanted a stone from the New Hampshire woods. Both Nathaniel and Carrie loved the magic of this smallphoto(69) New England town nestled in the White Mountains where their grandparents lived. At my brother Robert’s burial in May, Carrie and I fished the rock out of the local river knowing that Nathaniel would love its unique qualities. It definitely was a Nan Rock. Saint-Gaudens would wholeheartedly approve the choice of its new resting place along the 
Camino de Nathaniel South. I say goodbye to Mary on the Catholic University campus and go to the first of my  two appointments there–The Alumni Center and The Student Counseling Center.

My undergraduate Alma Mater welcomes me graciously. I leave the Alumni Center with a bag of gifts. More weight for the backpack? I then hurry to the Counseling Center where Monroe photo(70)Rayburn greets me for our noon meeting. I talk about Nathaniel and he talks about counseling services at CUA. The 5% BDD rate among college students is sobering. If the number is accurate, then we have lots of work to do on campuses to raise consciousness.

Upon exiting the center, I hear the 1:00 chimes from the Basilica tower. Time to meet cousins Anna and Cindy in front of its grand entrance. Together we head downtown to the AFSP headquarter (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention). Twice today I am accompanied to my destinations. How sweet!

Denis and Anna_2

With cousin Anna

At AFSP, I meet Nicole Gibson, State Advocacy and Grassroots Outreach. She and I talk about our calling to advocacy, both motivated by a huge personal loss in our lives. I wish Carrie could spend an hour with her  sharing the heartbreak of losing a sibling through suicide. Nicole knows how that feels. She shows me a picture of her brother, and I reciprocate with one of Nathaniel. Both young men deserved to live full lives.

At 4:00 I eat lunch or “First Dinner” at Au Bon Pain. Temporarily refueled, I turn off the GPS and hop on my first public transportation ride in weeks, the DC Metro (Yellow Line) to Alexandria where my niece Kendra and her husband David (and daughter Emily) will photo(68)feed and house me. “Second Dinner” includes a delicious mixed green salad and a Whole Foods vegetarian pizza, my first in weeks. Hits the spot.

Tomorrow I go to Capitol Hill to tell Nathaniel’s story. It feels like the end is approaching too fast. I want to savor and relish each moment during the two remaining days. But first of all, I need to get some sleep if I’m to be coherent among our elected representatives. Or maybe coherence is no longer a requirement in politics. I’ll see.


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June 4, 2013 Day 15 — Chevy Chase to D.C. to Arlington to D.C. (21.75 miles or 43,500 steps)

Screen shot 2013-06-04 at 11.20.42 PMThis morning Judy and I wake up to the most beautiful of spring days–deep blue sky, no clouds, and mild temperatures (leaning slightly toward the cool). The morning light makes every detail in nature sparkle with freshness. Is this Washington? Karabi and Malay set out a tasty photo(58)breakfast for us–one that will fuel me forth.

By 7:45 I’m out the front door saying goodbyes again to a host family that has gone out of its way to welcome us. I now firmly believe that great students of the past become even greater adults in the present. I march south toward The National Cathedral where a former Shipley student, now adult, Elizabeth Maddock Eastwick, welcomes me to photo(52)this amazing religious structure on the highest point in Washington. We visit the Bishop’s Garden and then head inside for a quick tour before opening hours. I feel quite special. Elizabeth holds in her snuggly her youngest child of two, Brooks. What a cutie!

Totally aware that Sidwell Friends is not that far away, we chat casually as we walk together. We get to observe a maypole dance in the church’s sanctuary by students from the Beauvoir Elementary School. This will be part of a graduation ceremony within a few days.

photo(65)A forced march north on Wisconsin Avenue brings me to Sidwell Friends School, the fourth and last school on my spring tour. The counseling team, Dr. Parker and Ms. Grebsky, take time out of their schedule to talk about mental illness issues at the school and how the school’s support systems work. Based on our conversation, I can see that Sidwell tries hard to respond effectively to student mental issues. In the spirit of my walk, we explore other possible best practices to widen the web of support.

By 11:00 I’m descending Wisconsin (all downhill) toward Georgetown to cross the Potomac River on the Key Bridge into VA. I no sooner enter DC this morning than already I’m exiting the Capital for VA for my 2:00 appointment at NAMI’s (National photo(62)Alliance for Mental Illness) headquarters in Arlington. I’m already getting a feeling that today’s mile tally with be significant. No surprise there. Every stage of this year’s pilgrimage has overshot my original estimates.

NAMI’s offices cover three different floors, each section focusing on a different aspect of the organization’s overall mission. I meet with Darcy Gruttadaro in policy. Both of us affirm the incredible importance of spreading awareness.

Now comes the hard part–the trek back up Wisconsin Avenue to tonight’s host family, Tom Farquhar and Mary Grady. I meet Andre, a young man on the sidewalk trying to solicit monthly contributions to Planned Parenthood. I politely decline, but he asks good questions about my project. I’m grateful to tell him Nathaniel’s story.

Now it’s all back uphill from Georgetown to Porter Street. No wonder this morning I made such good time. My hosts, Tom and Mary, welcome me in to their lovely home. They are such dear friends. Their son, Drew, and our Nathaniel spent hours playing together back at Westtown years ago. Strong bonds of friendship can endure geographical separation.

To crown off a perfect spring day in DC, I meet Mike Spigler, former Programs Director at IOCDF, for a Thai dinner on Connecticut Avenue, a half mile away from Porter Street where I’m spending the night. We eat good food; catch up on family news, and share stories of our most recent activities–mine walking the Camino de Nathaniel and his doing a brand new job in a non-profit organization that focuses on food allergies. Lucky them to inherit a dedicated, able organizer.

It’s late and time to close shop. Tomorrow’s activities will be equally demanding. Better get rest now!


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