On being thankful

Photos by Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Ellen Batzer sits with her 2-year-old twin daughters Georgia, left, and Lilianna on Wednesday at their home in Homer.

Look around. You can probably find something to be thankful for.

Maybe — like that first Thanksgiving nearly 400 years ago — you have a meal on the table and people happy to provide it.

Maybe you have people you love, and people who love you. Maybe they won’t see you Thursday, but maybe they will.

Maybe you’ve had to deal with life’s challenges. Perhaps big, life-altering challenges.

Or you might grumble, but your little challenges are really little blessings. The holiday coming up is unique in America. It honors nothing more than an emotion — gratitude — and leaves to you to find a way to celebrate it.

So look around. If you can’t see something for which to be thankful, maybe you can be thankful you can, at least, look.

Two-year-old Georgia Batzer picks up a picture of herself, her sister Lilianna and her parents Ellen and and Mike on Nov. 15 at their home in Homer.

Little blessings
Georgia Batzer giggled and hid behind a living room chair, before peeking out and hurtling headlong into her mother for a hug.

One of many. She’s the cuddly one.

Georgia’s twin sister, Lilianna, equally blonde-haired and blue-eyed, is the independent spirit, an adventurer who outsmarted the baby gate at the top of the stairs.

What the girls don’t yet know at 2 is how much their parents are thankful they are here at all, let alone healthy.

Ellen and Mike Batzer call their twins, who were born at 27 weeks gestation, their miracle babies, for so many reasons.

All her adult life, Ellen Batzer had been told she’d never be able to conceive.

“I always dreamt of having a family of my own,” Batzer said, sitting in her Homer home Wednesday, Nov. 15.

After a miscarriage at 41, she went to an endocrinologist to get to the bottom of what was wrong.

“They told me at this stage in my life they can’t help me, but they knew who could,” Batzler said. That was when she was directed to the CNY Fertility Center in Skaneateles.

Months of painful fertility treatments were followed by months they thought the gestating girls might not make it.

On the Monday of her 22nd week of pregnancy, Ellen Batzer went to work as usual, despite feeling strange twinges.

“It wasn’t anything I’d even tell anyone about,” she said. But when she started leaking fluid, she called her doctor, who told her to come in immediately.

The exam found she was 3-centimeters dilated, with 18 weeks to go. Batzer was taken immediately to Crouse Hospital in Syracuse. She remained there five weeks, on strict bed rest, each week willing the babies to stay inside just a little bit

“The longer they go, the better chances they have to be fine, so I said, ‘Well they’re not gonna be born this week,’” Batzer said. “I did that each week.”

At 27 weeks, her body couldn’t wait any longer. Lilianna came at 8:20 p.m. Nov. 7, 2015. Born at 2 pounds, 2 ounces. Georgia was one ounce heavier, two minutes later.

“The longest two minutes of my life,” Batzer said.

It was another week before she and Mike could hold their babies. When the babies came home three months later, a little over 4 pounds each, Ellen Batzer recalls many sleepless nights. Tiny bellies needed food every three hours, but she recalls holding onto them in the night, just thankful they were there.

The thankfulness continues every time they hug a giggly twin. “After a high risk birth and pregnancy, I’m just so thankful,” Batzer said. “Being with them is my favorite thing.”
— Catherine Wilde

Maria Mucaria, of Cortland, puts a harness on her service dog on Thursday while walking on Main Street in Cortland.

The companions
Maria Mucaria is very protective of her dogs. She talks with them in a language others cannot understand, and they guide her through a world she cannot see.

Mucaria, 44, was born legally blind. The love for her dogs pours from her like the notes from the flute she plays for the Cortland Old Timers band, the Cortland Community Orchestra and other ensembles — sometimes crisp and bright, sometimes languid, but always present.

She is as protective of them as they have been of her. Both black Labradors, they both also came from the Guide Dog Foundation in Smithtown. Her first dog came to her in June 2005 and guided her with the unconditional affection that only dogs can deliver until it died in March. Her latest dog joined her life on Jan. 17.

“When I’m walking around downtown, I know the distance from my house to downtown,” Mucaria said. She knows the path, but not always what lies in it.

He guides her past obstacles in the path, nudges her when there’s a change in elevation, a curb to step down from.

It took some training for both of them — Mucaria’s came from the state Commission for the Blind. She uses a cane, too, but it’s just not the same.

“My dog can interact with me while a cane is just a cane,” Mucaria said. “It’s like having a discussion.”

The trips to Albany are scary and fun and great to share with a good guide dog. The husband she met through the Guide Dog Foundation, Aaron Baier, is something pretty good, too.

Mucaria protects her dogs as they do her. She does not give out their names, because she does not want another individual to have power over her dog.

“It’s like giving a child a name,” Mucaria said. “The dog is attached to the name. If you have children, you don’t want people having that information to do whatever they want.”

It is for the same reason that not all handlers allow other people to touch their dogs, Mucaria said. It can distract the dogs, who need a bond with the handler.

Mucaria and her dog very much rely on each other. She for navigation, the dog for love, attention and well-being.
— Robert Creenan

Dallas Mielke, 8, stands with his parents Vanessa Mielke and Stephen Vincent Jr. at the family owned Heroes and Villians in Cortland. Dallas has been diagnosed with neurofibromatosis.

8-year-old Superman
Watching 8-year-old Dallas Mielke scurry around his parents’ Cortland comic book shop, trying on a new jersey with the name “Superman” sewn on the back, you see a cheerful kid who loves life.

And he is thankful for that.

Five years ago, Dallas was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that causes tumors to grow on nerve tissue.

Vanessa Mielke, Dallas’ mother, said shortly before he turned 3, she noticed Dallas had a lazy eye effect, which didn’t get better. An MRI discovered large tumors on both of Dallas’ optic nerves, affecting his vision.

Dallas went to Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital for treatment, but there was only so much they could do.

“There is no corrective surgery they can do, as of yet, due to the fact it is the optic nerve,” Vanessa Mielke said. “There is no way for them to remove the tumors.”

For about a year, Dallas received chemotherapy to stop the growth of the tumors, which was considered aggressive, Vanessa Mielke said. It helped, but was not a solution.

Every three to six months Dallas returns to the hospital for an MRI. They became more frequent, when Dallas’ doctor thought she saw a drop in his vision.

The MRI showed the tumor had improved in that eye, so there was a cause for concern on what that actually meant, Vanessa Mielke said.

“Basically you’re never out of the woods,” said Stephen Vincent Jr., Vanessa’s boyfriend.

They’ll have to keep bringing Dallas for an MRI until he hits puberty, and he may need chemotherapy before then.

The tumors are usually noncancerous, according to the Mayo Clinic, but can become cancerous. Neurofibromatosis can lead to hearing loss, learning problems, cardiovascular issues, loss of vision and pain.

Dallas deals with vision problems, but despite what he’s been through, Mielke and Vincent Jr. said they are thankful for his “incredible spirit.”

“Nothing ever got him down,” Vanessa Mielke said. “It was harder on the adults than it was on him, and he was the one going through it.”

One day when they were leaving the hospital, another young boy was taking well to his chemotherapy. Dallas, unprompted, ran to the boy’s room, went up to him and said a prayer for him, Vincent Jr. said.

“We’re thankful for him,” Vincent Jr. said.

In the spirit of the hero who adorns his new jersey, Dallas said he is thankful for being able to help others — and for growing up in a comic book shop.
— Nick Graziano

Keeping home fires burning
In August, Hurricane Harvey ravaged Texas, bringing a record
51.9 inches of rain. People were forced from their homes, flooding and other damage occurred. The Rev. Thomas Margrave of Cortland was one of many American Red Cross volunteers who ran shelters in both Dallas and Houston.

After arriving in Texas Aug. 28, Margrave, a spiritual care responder, went to work greeting people and giving help to those in need.


Shortly after he was transferred to Houston to the George R.R. Brown Convention Center, Margrave said.

While at the center Margrave worked as lead supervisor in one of the districts of Spiritual Care Response.

At one point thousands of people filled five halls within the center. “I would go through the shelter halls and talk to people,” Margrave said. “I would make sure services went off without a hitch.”

For 12 hours a day, Margrave would look for people who just might need to talk. “I tried to be a comforting presence to people,” he said.

He didn’t see much evidence of the storm where he was, but he did see the response. At one point Kroger’s, a supermarket chain, set up shop at the convention center to give away pharmaceutical supplies. Walgreens followed suit, he said.

Soon Walmart established a mini distribution center and brought people an assortment of products.

“It really touched me,” Margrave said.

Margrave returned home Sept. 10.

The support and outreach are something to be thankful for, and he’s shared his experiences with his church community at Grace and Holy Spirit on Court Street in Cortland as well as with members of the VFW and the American Legion.

He was also thankful to be home and be able to share what he had done with his family, including his wife, Marianne, and pet Max the Wonder Dog, he said.

“It was about getting back into a routine with the people who cared about you and sent their thoughts and prayers,” Margrave said. “The family kept the home fires burning.”
— Jacob DeRochie

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