Our marriage was wonderful.
Until it wasn’t.
I’m still making sense of it.
And now Life goes on.
Our marriage was wonderful.
Until it wasn’t.
I’m still making sense of it.
And now Life goes on.
You sent me this card for Mother’s Day, May 2022.
You died three months later.
You had so many plans.
“I miss you” doesn’t even come close to what my heart feels.
You taught me the courage of stars before you left
How light carries on endlessly, even after death
With shortness of breath
You explained the infinite
And how rare and beautiful it is to even exist
I couldn’t help but ask for you to say it all again
I tried to write it down, but I could never find a pen
I’d give anything to hear you say it one more time
That the universe was made just to be seen by my eyes
I couldn’t help but ask for you to say it all again
I tried to write it down, but I could never find a pen
I’d give anything to hear you say it one more time
That the universe was made just to be seen by my eyes
With shortness of breath
I’ll try to explain the infinite
And how rare and beautiful it is to even exist
With shortness of breath
I’ll try to explain the infinite
And how rare and beautiful it truly is that we exist
When I was 25, I asked Mom if she would teach me how to decorate a cake. She said, “Well, sure.” She showed me how to pile the icing on top and level it out, being careful not to pull crumbs up from the side. I made a lot of mistakes. The icing was too thin in some places. Chunks of cake came loose and polluted the icing. I pointed to a hole that I had somehow made in the cake. She looked at it and said this:
“Oh, that’s just a good place to put a flower.”
She took a tiny, flat metal flower nail and spun it in her fingers as her hands moved swiftly and without any hesitation, creating a flawless rose. She placed it on top of the hole that I had made.
I cannot think of a better metaphor for Mom’s life. A master of turning the holes into something beautiful.
I want to tell you about who my mom was.
Her name was Cecilia. Born May 9, 1954 in Spencer, Iowa to Cyril and Virginia Bundy. She was the second oldest child, the oldest daughter of seven children. She spent her childhood on family farms in Iowa and Minnesota. When she was in high school, she moved to “the Cities,” a.k.a. Minneapolis/ St. Paul, Minnesota. She attended a Christian university, University of Northwestern, for two years. She met my father, Leland Tjaden in August 1974 at Cross of Glory Baptist Church. They were married here, in the same place that I’m standing right now, on September 6, 1975. From 1977-1984, they had four children, Phillip–who has since become Anna–Nate, Sharon, and Holly. In 1985, they moved to Dayton, Ohio for my father’s job with Supervalu, a grocery store chain in the 1980s. In 1986, my parents adopted Cecilia’s sister’s child, DeAnna–who has since become Dominic– and they raised him as their own. Yes, two of my mother’s children are transgender. And she recognized and loved them as beautiful creations of God.
In the summer of 1987, my mother received a phone call while she was decorating cakes for other people’s celebrations–her house was on fire. We lost everything. We were homeless. This event changed our lives. It taught me that the worst tragedies in our lives are almost always the times when we see humanity shine. I witnessed and felt the care of others so many times in this period of our lives. Our church sheltered and fed us until we were back on our feet.
Our family often lived paycheck to paycheck. Our furniture came from Rent-a-Center and we were frequent users of layaway. But we always had enough. We may not have had what our friends had, but we never went without what we needed. My mom could feed a family of 7 on $50 a week in the 1990s. Again, it wasn’t necessarily what we wanted to eat. But we never went hungry.
In 1997, doctors found a slow-growing cancer in my mom’s small intestine. It was called a carcinoid tumor, a cancer that circulates in the blood and disrupts the endocrine system. My father’s response to the news was devastation and sadness. My mother’s response was level-headedness and optimism. This was just a thing that was true about her now and she would do what she needed to do to treat it. But beyond that, it wasn’t going to rob her of her joy and positivity. She believed deeply that God had plans for her and that those plans were ultimately beneficial to all those she loved–even if those plans included her death at an early age.
She kept that same spirit for the next 24 years.
I want to tell you some things that my mother loved.
Her Myer-Briggs personality type was ISFJ, like me and my dad. “The Protector” personality.
She loved musicals. The Sound of Music, Oklahoma, Carousel. Anything Rogers and Hammerstein. She could watch Christmas movies anytime of year. It’s a Wonderful Life. Literally all of the Hallmark Christmas movies ever made. And Lifetime movies. For music, she loved the Carpenters, Anne Murray, Josh Groban. Almost any Christmas song you can think of–she loved it.
But then there was her other side that loved action movies like Taken, Westerns, suspense, thrillers, and as Warren calls them, “men-bashing” movies, where the husband is the main villain. There was a period of time when Mom loved a TV series called Snapped, which was about wives who completely lost it on their husbands and ruined their cars or poisoned them or something like that.
She and Warren enjoyed something they called “Chicago Night,” with TV shows about Chicago PD or Chicago hospitals. Things she could watch over and over included Law and Order: SVU, Heartland, Walker, Texas Ranger, and Little House on the Prairie.
She was patient. She loved jigsaw puzzles, the more pieces the better. She loved crosswords and word puzzles in Penny Press puzzle books, particularly “Escalators” and “Magic Square Anagram” puzzles.
She was creative. Her passion and profession was decorating cakes and she truly loved the work. She worked at so many bakeries: Stumps, Cub Foods, the Rolling Pin, Cake Box, Ashley’s Pastry Shop, Kroger, and CJ Farms. She and her dear friend, Judy Smith, even ran their own cake decorating business for a period of time called “Classic Wedding Cakes.” I know she’s my mom, but really, her decorated cakes were among the best I’ve ever seen. She had a real talent for it. I remember taking her into a local bakery and she looked in the case at the cakes. When we left, I asked her what she thought. She just shook her head and said very simply, “Nothing special in there.” That was all she said.
Her favorite kind of cake was white cake with buttercream icing. If you were going to buy her a donut, she’d ask for a cake donut. Most people knew her for her decorated sugar Christmas cookies, but if she wanted to bake cookies just for herself, she’d make peanut butter cookies.
Although she was a fantastic baker, she was not known for her cooking. All five of us kids can remember the countless times that we would protest the “hot dish” that my mom had made for us, a concoction of elbow macaroni, ground beef, stewed tomatoes, onion, and sometimes celery? Actually, she put celery in a lot of things that shouldn’t have put celery. Like her chili. I remember my husband, Doug, taking a bite of her chili and a confused expression came over his face. He looked into his bowl and moved his spoon around. “Is there celery in this?” I said, “Yep.” “Who puts celery in chili?” I just shrugged. My mom leaned heavily on cream of mushroom soup and Lipton onion soup mix for seasoning a dish. One thing that it seemed that no one ever agreed with her on was her love of chicken hearts, livers, and gizzards. I remember a stuffing that my mom made. Holly took one bite of it and just said, “Mom… what did you put in this?” And she said, “You can tell?”
Beyond baking, my mom loved to do so many kinds of crafts. She sewed everything from matching Christmas and Easter dresses for her girls to curtains to handbags and even stuffed animals. There was a period in the 90s when she made–with Nate as her assistant–stuffed bunnies out of muslin cloth and dressed them up in little dresses. She quilted and made a lot of quilts for people, including me. She crocheted so many blankets, especially in her last years, when she volunteered to crochet blankets for people in hospice. In the 1980s, she went through a phase when she made barretts, all decked out in lace and beads.
As a parent, my mom recognized and valued each of her children for their uniqueness. She saw potential in each one of us, even if we disappointed her. She gave second and third and fourth chances. There was no end to the chances she would give. She was proud of whatever we did, as long as we did it to the best of our ability. She was the Keeper of the Peace in our household, the one that kept the ship sailing, even if we didn’t know the direction that we were going as the Sea of Life tossed us this way and that.
She was the owner of a perfect laugh and a Minnesota accent. And she always granted the most generous interpretation about others, even when she could have extended judgment.
My mom was an eternal optimist.
When I hugged my mom good-bye as I was leaving after my father’s funeral, I said, “I just want you to be happy for the rest of your days.” It was 2014 and the cancer was mostly asleep inside of her, but it was never too far from my mind.
She looked at me and said, “I will be.” So confidently and assuredly. And I knew she meant it.
I just couldn’t understand how she could be so optimistic, but she absolutely was. She hadn’t met Warren yet. As far as she knew in that moment, she could have been facing a lonely, financially difficult widowhood.
And yet she believed that the best was yet to come.
And by God–she was right.
My father was my mother’s first love, the father of her children, and what I say next does not take away from that cherished truth. Warren was her soulmate. Both children of farmers, lovers of the quiet land. They spent 6 incredible years together. He held her hand as she passed and still looked at her with the same adoring eyes that he had for her throughout their marriage. His last words to her were, “You gotta go, Sweetie. I’ll see you there.”
Warren, what a gift you were to my mother. Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts for being in her life. You will be in our lives forever now. You can’t get rid of us! You are my children’s grandfather and we will visit and care for you just as we would my own mother.
On the night before my mother passed, I read a letter to her that intended to read at her funeral. But she deserved to hear it in this life. I’d like to read that letter now.
We met on November 24, 1981 at 3:51 in the morning. It was a Tuesday, just two days before Thanksgiving. I don’t remember it, but now that I have two kids of my own, I know that it’s likely that you’ve never forgotten that morning. You told me after Felicity was born that I had been your hardest birth. That surprised me because I was your third child. You didn’t know why it had been that way. But it was. You and Dad had expected that I would be born before he had to leave for his early morning shift at the bakery. But no. At 1:00 a.m., Dad left for work.
And so, while the world slept and my father went to work, you labored alone in those final hours, which I know from experience are the loneliest, most painful, and most detached hours that you can experience in life. No matter how many people surround you, you are still alone in your pain.
These are hours when you are certain there is no one in the world who is currently suffering as much as you are. They are hours when you bear the entire weight of humanity, pushing, pulling, and pressing you from all sides. There would be no human life if not for the ability for women to bear this pain.
I repeat: Life depends on the strength and fortitude of women to bear this pain.
You bore so much pain in your life. You bore it without most people even knowing, a true testament to your roots and upbringing in rural Iowa and Minnesota, where the simple economics of farm life governed. You cannot reap what you don’t sow. You cannot take if you don’t give.
And so when life gave you pregnancies, it also gave you severe hyperemesis gravidarum. When it gave Dad the opportunity to turn his job into a career, it also gave you an extra 800 miles between you and everyone you loved. When it gave you the stress of raising teenagers, it gave you the stress of raising more teenagers. Sorry about that. That was actually completely unfair.
Mom, you were the oldest girl in a family of seven children. You talked about how difficult it had been to move from farm life to city life in high school. The teasing hurt you. So you turned to your faith. Your faith taught you that even if others didn’t accept you for who you were, you would always be accepted and loved by God. For you, being God’s child gave you the support and comfort that you needed as you grew up in a culture that you didn’t understand.
Losing Dad was tough, but why does it feel like it hurts more to lose you?
Maybe it’s because it feels like a world without your mother is a world without the greatest compassion and the most acceptance and unconditional love that you have ever known.
For a long time, I didn’t want to be a mom. Moms were so uncool. So passé. So not who I wanted to become. I wanted to be accomplished and talented and maybe someday well-known. I was going to do much, much harder things than being a mom.
What a fool I was. Such foolish, foolish thoughts. So full of pride. How could I ever think that you weren’t exactly the person that I should aspire to become?
How could I ever think that being a good mom was easy?
Being a good mom has turned out to be literally the hardest thing that I will ever do. And I’m finding now, over and over again, the empathy and the perspective that I need to understand just how difficult it must have been for you to raise 5 of us.
I’m so sorry, Mom.
Mom, it’s because of you that I’m able to keep the whole thing in perspective.
The world will always find another teacher or writer or employee. But your family will never find another you.
I know that my heart will always call out for you when I’m hurt.
I know that I will always miss your presence, but I know that I’ll miss it the most at Christmastime. Every time I smell those fragrant pine cones, covered in cinnamon and clove, I can almost hear the scratch of the record player starting up Anne Murray’s Christmas Wishes, the notes of Winter Wonderland blending into Silver Bells.
As deep as my sadness is right now, sadness is not what I want this to be about.
What I want to talk about is my gratitude—all the reasons that I’m thankful you are and will always be my mother.
Thank you, from the bottom of my soul, for not just being our mother but living your life for us, as if we were your true calling. We never felt like you had something more important to do.
Thank you for creating a home in which I always felt that there would always be enough—even when that wasn’t guaranteed.
Your optimism and positivity, which eclipsed all of Dad’s worrying.
All the times you were there when we needed you. In all the ways that we needed you. I don’t ever remember you telling us that you could not be there for us, no matter what the problem was.
For your lifelong examples of what it means to love God and live as a cherished creation of God. Through all of the financial and physical hardships, through Dad’s illness and death, you showed us how to feel grief even as you move forward.
Thank you for all the I Love You notes that you’d slip into my sandwiches and that I’d bite into while I was eating at school.
Thank you for the pair of shorts that you sewed for me late into the night when I told you I got laughed at for wearing the same pair of jeans two days in a row in fifth grade.
Thank you for disregarding the doctors’ original prognosis in 1998 and going ahead and living your life anyway. You showed me why it was important to you to not allow people to only see CANCER when they see you. Even though cancer could consume your body, you would never give it the victory of consuming your spirit. You kept your identity and your wholeness until the end.
Thank you for teaching me that one of the very best things that you can do in this life is to be kind and generous to others—Because you never know when you will be the one that needs to feel that kindness, especially when you feel like you just cannot go on.
Thank you for filling my memory with positivity, laughter, imagination, and creativity.
Thank you for my freedom, how you basically dropped me off at college and said, “Have fun!” You gave me the space to take ownership and responsibility for my life.
Thank you for allowing me to feel a broken heart and giving me the space to learn how to keep on living after rejection and loss.
You were pretty amazing with space. Space to allow me to figure out marriage. Space to figure out how to be a mom. Space to feel my way through the pain of miscarriage. You were always there when I needed you, but you were always sensitive to how space could give me agency and ultimately, more resilience.
Life is funny and awful. Because now that I have all the space, what I wouldn’t give to give it all back just to have you back in my life until I’m much, much older. No matter how old you are, you’re never ready to lose your mother.
One of the first thoughts that I had when you told me in August 2019 that the cancer was back was… “Please don’t leave me alone in this world. I don’t know how to I can be okay in this world without knowing you are in it.”
But you have always been preparing me for this, haven’t you? For years, you have been giving me the space to steer my own life. You have been cheering me on from other states as you’ve gone on to live your life. You’ve encouraged me as I’ve developed my own social support network around me through friends and church. In my mind, I know that I will be okay. I know that I will wake up tomorrow, make the coffee, do all the things, and make it to the end of the day.
But my heart doesn’t know that. All my heart wants is to stop losing the people that I love.
When I first asked you why you gave me my name, you said I was named after Song of Solomon 2:1, I am the Rose of Sharon and the Lily of the Valley. This didn’t really mean much to me, especially since I was eight years old.
But what you wrote in my baby book made more sense.
You wrote “The Rose of Sharon, the beauty of a desert.”
You saw me as a flower in the desert.
I came into your life at a challenging time. You were a stay-at-home mom to two young boys, aged 4 ½ and 2 years. Dad worked early morning hours at the bakery, often six days a week. We know now that Dad struggled with bipolar depression for years, but at the time, you just thought that he was moody and needed help seeing the positive side of life. And that’s what you were there for—to be his partner. To provide balance. From week to week, money was perpetually tight. I don’t remember, but I’m pretty sure you didn’t complain about any of this, ever. That was your life. He was your husband and we were your children and God was God. And you rejoiced and were glad in it.
You saw me as a flower in the desert.
Desert flowers don’t have deep roots, but they do have extensive roots. They spread out far and wide to gather as much nourishment as possible, to prepare for the lack of rain. I really can’t think of a better metaphor for how I’ve lived most of my life. Drink up as much as you can now because the drought is coming. One way or another, it’s coming.
My roots have never been deep. We are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants, uprooted from homes and cultures. Children of rural farmers, isolated for miles on every side. We moved away from all our extended family early in my life. For generations, this was how we lived: stretching out instead of digging down.
There were many seasons in life when you and Dad could not depend on your family because of how far away we lived. So we reached out to the church. And they were our support. They provided structure and guidance. Love and belonging. You showed me how to make a family with those around you. How to help others and how to have the humility to be helped when you needed it. And we often did. We often did.
Thank you for this, Mom. Because now that you and Dad are gone, this is how I will survive. This is how I will bloom and continue to grow in a life where my roots are almost gone. I will reach up and reach out. I will trust that someone will be there because I know the world is full of suffering—and because it is full of suffering, it is also full of empathy. My family that remains. Friends. Always friends. I will reach up and reach out because I need help to face this world without you.
“I think she’s passing out,” I say.
My stepfather is on his feet in a moment, talking to my mom, asking her questions. I move from my chair to the edge of the bed and take her hand in mine without thinking.
Are you okay, Mom?
Do you know where you are?
Warren tries to talk to her.
Who’s holding your hand? Who came to visit us?
…Sharon. And Doug…
My stepfather leaves the room to get the nurse and my mom stares at a fixed point on the wall, somewhere faraway. I pull her hand into my lap and rub her hand, her palm, her wrist, her arm, over and over again.
I want to say, It’s okay. We’re getting help.
But my mouth is dry, the words catch in my throat, as large as stones. I could not cough them out if I tried. My eyes don’t sting with impending tears, nor do they water. My heart does not panic.
My hands keep moving, comforting her as she drifts between consciousness and unconsciousness. I have been there myself, on that cold, shaky cusp between states of awareness. Sinking into a cloud of thick unconsciousness, swallowed whole for a dark moment. The ringing in my ears, the cold sweat, the sounds drifting back into my ears as I push back through the clouds, breathing in the clear atmosphere once again. I know what it is like to be able to hear and understand–and be unable to speak, the task of moving your mouth and articulating words too much too handle. Hoping beyond hope that someone will just stay with me and talk me through it, until I rise to the surface again.
It’s the cancer in her leg, fueled by a reoccurring hormone-disrupting carcinoid tumor, that is causing these blackouts. Her heart is fine. Her brain is fine. Her endocrine system is not. These drops in blood pressure have brought her here, where she is now–in a rehab facility, nursing a broken arm and an injured neck.
I move my hand over her bruised wrist, where they drew blood several days ago. I cringe. That’s a spot where it would burn and sting. I rub the dark spot tenderly, careful not to push too hard.
I should be crying, I think.
But I’m not.
Because I’ve stepped into something familiar. A path that I’ve walked, both consciously and unconsciously, for the last ten years.
I think of the nights I held Felicity while her chest rattled with mucus from RSV, rubbing her back so tenderly, talking into her ear.
I think of the way I would carefully transfer Henry, so smoothly, so orchestrated to minimize the sensation from my arms to his crib.
I think of how I held each of my children after injuries and surgeries, the even and loving tone that I would hear come from my mouth, so assured. I surprised even myself.
I think of all the ways that motherhood has required me to use my whole body, my touch, my hands, my shoulders, my whole physical self to be present and to move along with the rhythms and pace of my heart.
I think of these memories. And I know exactly what to do.
I know how to hold my mother’s hand, how to talk to her softly and assuredly, without making demands or imposing undue stress on her, to let her know that I am there for her and there is nothing that she needs to do for me, that all she needs to do is breathe and hold on, and how grounded I need to be to keep her from panicking or floating away completely.
And she allows me.
Whenever I ask my mom if she needs help while I’m visiting, she said, “Help is my middle name right now.”
I help her adjust the cervical collar, which holds her healing neck as still as possible. I help her grasp the dried banana chips that I’ve brought from the store. I hand the puzzle book to her to ask for her help on a clue. I direct the kids about where to stand so Grandma can see them better.
Warren is there every day, for most of her waking hours. He sits patiently next to her and helps her remember the days and what has happened. He keeps track of what occupational therapist has said, what the physical therapist has said, what the nurse has said, the medications that haven’t arrived yet, the outcomes of particular doses of this and that. He helps her lean forward in the inclined bed by gripping her unbroken arm and bracing himself. He does all the actions that she cannot do.
I don’t pray much these days. If I’m being honest, my prayers are sometimes confined to the liturgy, Help, save, comfort, and defend us, Gracious Lord.
But there as I’m watching Warren take care of my mother, I pray for him.
I downright thank God for him.
The tears don’t come as I leave the rehab facility. They don’t come on the long drive home, with my husband and kids in the car. They don’t arrive while we’re making dinner or getting the kids ready for bed.
They arrive as I lay in bed, reviewing the day in the way that all introverts do: by carefully combing through the day’s memories. The considering and classifying and making sense of. Aligning memories alongside each other, drawing the far past to the what-just-happened. The contemplation.
It all gives rise to sobbing. The ugly, whole body sobbing that just wrecks you and turns you into a red, wet, messy disaster.
What do I think about?
I wonder how many times my mother has comforted me by holding me. As an infant. As a preschooler. As a young girl.
How tall was this mountain of memories that I would never remember? And I cry more because I know, I know, how many moments of my life have been spent in this period of suspension. When nothing else got done, except for the simple act of holding.
The simple act of caring.
Now, I feel the full Truth of that moment–It was worth it.
It was worth my time, my sacrifice, my pain, my life. I knew it was worth it then, but now I know it was worth it even more than I did in those moments.
And how much of a gift it is to offer this moment to my mother now.
And how I deeply wish I would have been able to offer the same to my father as he lay dying.
But now I know.
This is a gift.
To be there for her.
To bring her grandkids to her so she can see them.
To sit with her in the silence and simply be.
To hold her hand in moments when her body conquers her mind, and reassure her that, No, you are not going anywhere.
We will wait for that moment together.
But it’s not today.
Oh, but now old friends they’re acting strange
And they shake their heads and they tell me that I’ve changed
Well something’s lost, but something’s gained
In living every day
I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at allJoni Mitchell
You know on New Year’s Eve, when we sing “Auld Lang Syne” and imagine that most of our troubles (certainly, not all–let’s not be greedy) are far behind us… And in the back of your mind, you’re kind of already rehearsing tragedy. Preparing what you cannot imagine is coming next.
That’s a good way to describe the feeling that I had on New Year’s Eve this year.
Sure, this year is going to be better. I toast my glass of water (because age has made me incapable of processing alcohol… Like, at all).
I suppose it’s a small feat to have managed to have made it to nearly two years into the pandemic before contracting the virus.
But that all came to an end this past month.
Mark it down: January 2022 will go down in my memory as one of the least enjoyable times of my life.
Wednesday, January 5th
After two days of remote work, I drop four-year-old Henry at daycare and drive in to work for an in-person work day. Because now, we have two different kinds of work days: 1) remote and 2) in-person. I park my car and head toward the COVID testing site, which is a free service offered by my university. The line–normally minimal over the last few months–is 30-people deep. Not a good sign. I don’t have symptoms of COVID, but I figure I’ll get tested since we plan to have people over on Saturday, January 8th for breakfast. And this Omicron strain is going around.
While I’m waiting in line–NOT KIDDING–I get a call from the daycare.
Henry has been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID. He needs to be picked up within the hour. He can return if he tests negative on a COVID test five days from exposure. Or he can quarantine for 10 days.
I hang up and start looking for a COVID test appointment on Sunday, January 9th, but nothing is available in the nearest 50 miles until Monday, January 10th.
As best I can, I try to adopt a neutral attitude about being home with him January 5th-10th. I encourage Doug to stay at work while I stay with Henry. I let Henry paint and use Play-Doh. We use tangrams and crayons, building blocks and Legos. I break out Tablet Time as a last resort. We get through it.
Monday, January 10th
Rapid-test appointment for Henry at a local CVS. We take his backpack and coat because I’m going to drop him off as soon as I get the negative test result.
However, it might be a few hours to process the results because of the backlog.
No problem, I think. I’ll take him to a park even though it’s 15 degrees. He has energy to burn off.
Henry runs from me to different trees in a field, over and over again while I stand there in the cold, refreshing my phone, waiting for the test result to come in.
New Test Result Received.
I clicked on the link.
POSITIVE, it reads in giant red letters, as if to tell me, NO, THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
My first thought? Honestly?
F***. How many more days of quarantine NOW?
I do not think, Oh no! I don’t want to get COVID!
Instead, I think, Sweet Jesus. How many more days of full-time parenting do I need to survive? I am not cut out for this.
Henry has no symptoms. I feel fine. I’ve been around him for five days. I’m vaccinated AND boosted. I decide that we are going to skate past this plague because we are prepared.
I call the daycare with the update.
Well… now that he’s tested positive, he can return 10 days after his positive test result.
SAY WHAT NOW?
So that means… the daycare director shuffles papers on her desk. He can return Friday, January 21st.
10 more days? Seriously? Should I NOT have tested him?
Gone is my positive attitude. I’m going to be home, working, with this energetic preschooler for the next 10 days. Doug cancels his travel to a conference in Las Vegas and says that he will work from home and help. This helps, but my mood is still in the toilet.
I miss My Life.
Tuesday, January 11th
Doug develops a fever. Muscle aches, pains, weakness. He can’t move. It’s up to me now to take care of Henry, work, check on Doug, and keep the household going. Henry still has no symptoms. We wonder if it could be COVID, but we have our doubts. We are vaccinated AND boosted. Probably the flu.
We do not play with tangrams or building blocks. We don’t paint or play with Play-Doh. When Henry isn’t sitting with Doug in the TV room, he takes his tablet and crawls underneath the desk where I work and curls up in his “cave.” Using his finger, he “colors” in pixels of a unicorn with a flowing mane for hours upon hours. It’s now Endless Tablet Time and I have zero Mom guilt.
Every now and then, Henry taps on my leg to let me know that he’s ready for me to tap the last pixel of the picture that he’s working on. Together, we watch as the single tap sets the picture into an animated replay of his coloring. His face lights up and in moments like that, it’s hard to be upset that he is home.
But then, I remember all the times I’ve yelled, Listen to me!
And it all comes rushing back.
Wednesday, January 12th
Doug gets a doctor’s order to get tested for COVID and flu. By the end of the day, I’m wondering if I am feeling rundown from carrying the load of the whole family… or if it is something worse. I go ahead and look to schedule a COVID test. The first one available at a CVS in the nearest 50 miles to my house is Sunday, January 16th.
Thursday, January 13th
I skip my exercise, which if you know me, is kind of a big deal. I don’t do that unless something is really wrong. I’m feeling… off. I don’t know how to describe it. Hazy? Slight fever. Some body aches. But I cope. Doug’s test results are in: Negative for flu and positive for COVID.
Okay, then, I think. Here we go.
Doug is still hurting, so I keep everything going. We send the kids to bed early and I embark on a 13-hour sleep trek that I haven’t treated myself too in… Ever? I cannot remember the last time that I slept longer than 12 hours. Was it before kids? I spent years of my life just trying to get 7.5 hours of solid sleep. Remember all those times, waking up to a screaming baby and trying to figure out what kind of scream it was? My God… How many hours of sleep did we lose?
I fall asleep before I can figure it out.
Friday, January 14th
Doug is feeling better. He is able to work and do household chores. I definitely don’t feel well, but it isn’t enough to keep me from doing the things that I need to do.
Sunday, January 16th
I get tested for COVID.
Monday, January 17th
I’m sick. The kind of sick that makes you want to curl into a ball and forget about the world. It feels like every cell in my body is turned down to 30% energy. For the duration of my illness, fatigue is the biggest symptom that I have. Utter fatigue. Hard-to-climb-the-stairs fatigue. Feeling as tired as I did at the end of a long day while being eight months pregnant. That kind of fatigue.
Tuesday, January 18th – Friday, January 21st
My test results come in at 2:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning and with bleary eyes I see the word that I’m expecting:
And all I can think is how NEGATIVE that word feels in my life right now.
I’m POSITIVE that this is going push me to the absolute edge.
What happens during these days? I call in sick to work and lie on the couch while Henry watches Encanto, Raya and the Last Dragon, Sword and the Stone, and Robin Hood on an infinite and unpredictable loop. Henry creates The Triangle, the space between my bent knees and the couch, where he shoves his little body so he’s nice and snug while I drift into and out of consciousness to the music of We don’t talk about Bruno… I sleep 13 hours a night. I sweat in my sleep and don’t remember peeling all my clothes off. I develop a brain fog that leaves me feeling completely stupid and helpless.
I MISS MY LIFE. I LONG for Henry to return to daycare so I can finally be left alone to recover. On one day, Felicity complains of a headache at school and the school nurse firmly recommends that we pick her up since she has been exposed to COVID at home.
Sure, I think. Why not have everyone home while I’m trying to get better?
I envy all those people sick with COVID who don’t have to care for children or houses while they are sick. Those people who can walk away from their responsibilities, turn on Netflix, and check out of Reality until they feel better.
But hey, listen, I KNOW.
At least I was employed at a job were I could take sick leave. At this point in the pandemic, that’s not guaranteed anymore. At least I have a partner. At least I have the money to pay for my health care. At least I have a car to pick up contactless groceries for the family. At least I was vaccinated and was able to recover in two weeks. At least I have a house and food.
I was looking back at this blog and thinking of the giant hole that is missing in this chronicle of my life from 2020 to 2022. I have been writing, but not here. Maybe because I don’t know what to say here other than this:
We have been holding on.
For two years, we have been holding on. Waiting for it to get better. And finding over and over again that… Maybe this is it.
We have been navigating…
But now I’m really wondering…
What if this is as good as it gets? (At least for the foreseeable future)
What if this is as good as it gets?
I have recovered from COVID. The last symptom that I’m still getting over is catching my breath while I’m exercising.
I am grateful for vaccines and modern medicine. I wish more people used them.
In the back of my mind, I’m wondering if/when I’ll contract COVID again. It’s entirely possible. Or perhaps I have gained this “super immunity” that researchers are starting to report.
In looking at pictures from the last two years, I’ve seen my children grow from 3 and 6 years old to 5 and 8 years old. I see them with masks on at the apple orchard, masks hanging from their ears while they are in the car, pulled below Felicity’s chin while we’re touring Chicago. Their childhood will forever by marked by the presence of masks. There’s nothing to be done about that. I don’t hate masks and I don’t love them.
I’m pro whatever-keeps-my-children-in-school-and-daycare. Just tell me what to do AND I WILL DO IT.
I’m simply doing everything I can to move us all forward.
One day at a time.
For the last 700 days.
One day at a time.
I haven’t been writing much here, but I have definitely been writing.
What I’m working on has turned into a fantasy series with (likely?) 4-5 installments. I’ve finished the first book (although… I’m already thinking a prequel to that book would be nice to write later on) and I’m approaching the climax of the second book.
I’ve been slowly chiseling away at this monster of a second book on Saturday and Sunday mornings from 2-7 a.m. (Yeah, you read that right.) I’m not very exciting on Friday and Saturday nights, but the benefit is that I’m rarely, if ever, interrupted early Saturday and Sunday morning. Everyone is asleep. Because everyone else is sane.
I understand this.
It’s a price that I’m willing to pay to bring this story to light. It’s a story that just won’t go away.
Some themes that are central to this series of books:
Some questions that the series explores:
I’ve been inspired by When God was a Woman, a book about the transition in human history from primarily polytheistic worship of a female goddess of creation to a monotheistic worship of a male god of creation. If that sounds interesting, please check out my previous post, “God, the Mother.” I’m also combining bits of history and mythology from Turkey and Serbia.
I’m not going to lie: Writing this second book has been a slog.
In April, I had a few very bad weeks and almost abandoned the book completely. I was in that “murkey middle” part of the book and things were just getting very unwieldy. I struggled to keep in mind what the motivations for my characters were and what they would want to do in certain situations. It’s very hard to write alone, in the dark, sitting on a pile of words that no one else reads, for weeks at a time.
What got me through this part was sharing parts of what I was working with others. Just getting some general feedback of, “I like this character” or “I want to know more about that” gave me the motivation to keep going.
Some people say that quitting is easy.
It has never been easy for me to quit.
Once I start something that I believe is worth the effort of my creativity and persistence, I will nurture whatever I’m doing until it grows into what I think it can become.
So the next time you’re up at 2:00 a.m. on Saturday morning, drink a cup for me.
Wish me luck.
What I have to say is kind of a mess right now.
Stay with me as I take you through some things that I’ve been thinking about.
It has been seven years since I saw that message from Mom.
Call me as soon as you can.
And I just knew. Before I pressed Call, I knew that at the end of the conversation, I would know that you were gone. I remember looking at that button on my phone thinking, Just one more moment before I know for sure. I need one more moment of not knowing. Just one more moment before I know and I can never not know again. I need just one more moment.
This is not happening.
But it is.
I sat at the top of the stairs and I pressed, Call.
I heard the words and they rattled inside my mind like marbles in a jar. Away. Passed. Unable. Last night. Nurses. Dad. Breathing. They were all words that I knew and understood, individually, until they were forced to be in the same sentence. I had the context to expect these words. You had not been doing well for weeks after you fell. I was expecting this.
My mind understood. But my heart did not.
The reality of losing someone who has seen your hand grow from the clenched fist of a newborn to the open palm of an adult. Someone whose memory populates the entire landscape of your childhood and teenage years.
It should not be possible to lose someone as important as you were to me.
And yet it does.
All the time.
The first time that Felicity asked seriously about death was shortly after the pandemic broke out, no doubt fueled by the never-ending news updates about the virus. She was six years old. We were watching Hook, specifically the scene when Rufio dies. When the movie ended, she was sobbing.
I had never seen her cry like this before. I asked her what was wrong and she said, “What happened to Rufio?”
“Well, he died,” I said.
“But what happened to him? Where did he go?”
I could feel my heart seizing in my chest. This was an important moment and I literally had no words. I almost wished that I was still 19 years old, certain of the destination of souls depending on who was right and who was wrong.
So I did what all smart parents do.
I stalled. And then I put the question back to her.
“Where do you think he went?”
“I don’t know!” she sobbed harder.
I panicked. Like I said, I had never seen her like this before. This moment was crushing her and she was seeking out my comfort and certainty.
Say something! I chided myself.
“No one knows for sure what happens when we die,” I began. “But I think that we go to be with God.”
She sobbed even harder.
And I instantly knew that it was the wrong thing to say.
“I don’t want to be with God! I want to be with you and Daddy!”
“You’re not going to die, Kermit. You’re going to be fine. This virus mostly hurts people who are older.”
“But what if it does?”
I swallowed the growing knot in my throat, pushing it deep into my stomach and straightened myself. She wasn’t saying it–but I knew what she was getting at.
“Is that what you’re afraid of? That me and Daddy will die?”
“YES!” she continued to sob.
At this point, three-year-old Henry walked into the room and saw Felicity crying. He walked over to her and put his arms around his sister and said, “S’ok, Ficity.” She hugged him back.
And in that moment, my three-year-old had given more comfort to her than I had.
Of course telling her that she would “go to be with God” was a terrifying concept. Who was God to her? Some large, unknowable entity who lived up in the clouds. Although she had learned in church that “God is Love,” her six-year-old brain understood love as a packed lunch, a hug when you’re sad, and the voice that says “good night” before the light goes out.
I pulled her into my arms and held her while she sobbed.
And then I told her the truth.
“You will never be alone. Daddy and I have surrounded you with friends and family so that this will never happen. Even if you lose me and Daddy, there will be someone to take care of you. You don’t ever have to worry about who will take care of you and Henry.”
“Who will take care of me?”
And then we spent the next five minutes listing, in order, the people that would take care of her. I started with those we had designated as her legal guardians should such a situation arise. Then, I kept going. I named every friend that we had incorporated into our lives, one by one, holding a finger up for each person who loved her and cared about her. When I ran out of fingers, I made her hold one of her fingers up for the names that I was still listing.
When we got to twenty names, we looked at our fingers and then I held her hands in mine.
“You will never, ever be left alone. Ever.”
The day after you died, I got a bouquet of flowers from my friends.
Our friendships are special.
I understand this more now that I’m approaching 40. To continue to share weekly dinners and breakfasts with a group of friends throughout your 20s and 30s is not typical. We’ve taken vacations together, both long and short. We’ve stayed after parties and helped each other clean up. We’ve made each meals when we were sick. We’ve supported each other through the stuff that we don’t talk about with just anyone. We’ve come together to support each other as we’ve lost parents. Six times over now.
And when the pandemic came, we moved our dinners to Zoom and suffered through the constant, Wait, what did you say? Go ahead. Wait, me?, just so we could stay connected.
After 15 months of separation, we had our first in-person dinner a few weeks ago. When I hugged my friend, Ben, I said, “I’m not letting go first.”
He said, “Okay.”
And we just stayed like that for a full minute.
What is a word stronger than “grateful”? If there is one, that’s how I feel toward my friends.
I wish you had a friend group like this when you were alive.
Does time make it easier?
It’s not so hard when I’m remembering the things about you that make me laugh and smile. All the ways that you were completely unique and unforgettable. Whenever I see someone dressed oddly, I remember that one time we were at the gas station together. I took stock of what you were wearing on a hot July afternoon through the driver’s side window of your sedan. You were so tall that all I could see was your belly, covered by a blue and maroon striped dress shirt, tucked into teal and black swimming trunks. When you got back in the car, I laughed at your bare feet, shoved into brown loafers. You grabbed a McDonald’s napkin from your glove compartment and mopped at the sweat underneath your baseball cap.
It’s also not so hard when I’m remembering things you used to say. Whenever situational context pulls something you would say out of the depths of my memory, it makes me smile. You lack motivation, but not know-how, you used to say our border collie, Gator. Down at the Old Country Buffer, you would say to talk about the restaurant, Old Country Buffet. It’s the Boss! You know they call him the Boss?, you would ask me every time Bruce Springsteen came on the radio in the car.
But then sometimes, no, time does not make losing you easier.
It hasn’t been easy to hear How Great Thou Art or Amazing Grace. I miss the way you would lower your head and mutter the words. Not sing. You weren’t a huge singer. But mutter, yes. You were a soulful mutterer. I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed.
It’s not easy when Felicity reads a story to Henry, cover and to cover, and he asks her what the difference is between a My Little Pony storybook and a My Little Pony comic, and she comes up with a perfect child-appropriate answer. You never got to see them like this. I wish you had.
And the squeezing of my heart when I look at Henry’s school pictures and I think, He has my eyes. Which means he has Dad’s eyes.
Those are the times when it is not easier.
After seven years of life without you, I understand a few things better now than I did in the immediate days after you passed.
First, the times when I’ve felt your loss the most were the times when I built the walls high and kept everyone at arm’s length.
These were times when I was perpetually stressed by the endless juggling of work and care-taking when the kids were small(er). To be honest, I was afraid of running out. Running out of what? Everything. Energy. Time. Love. Everyone wanted something from me and so I gave and gave and gave–almost as if I were trying to beat life to the punch. Ha-ha. You can’t take away when I’m readily giving and giving and giving. And that’s what I did.
Until I had nothing left except numbness.
And in that quiet numbness, the feeling of loss would rear its ugly head at surprising and unpredictable times. And I was shocked by it. I thought I was fine. I had been getting everything done for everyone else, hadn’t I? But in all that business, my heart called out for me to acknowledge what I had lost.
Dwell on it? No. But acknowledge? Yes.
I don’t fully understand why the acknowledgment matters so much. But something within the human heart calls out for remembrance. It’s why we have namesakes and statues and days of remembrance. Perhaps we sense on a primal level that the worst horror of death is in the Forgetting.
Maybe it’s why no matter how far I meander here and there throughout the year and throughout my writing, my steps and my words always bring me back to this sacred space of remembering you around this time of year.
Second, after seven years of life without you, I can say for sure that the one thing that has helped the most is this:
My commitment to keep my heart open to Love.
To welcome new friends into my life.
To share my house and food, conversation and laughter.
To sacrifice for those I love, even when I’m not sure of the outcome.
To listen and believe and comfort.
To give and hold.
Every act of love and care that I’ve given someone else in the time since your death has healed me.
Because every act of love proves I have not surrendered to the pain of loss.
Because every act of love is an act of Courage.
People who have lost understand this more acutely than those who have not. Because after someone you love dies, you have the evidence that the act of loving can feel like a painful, reckless act.
Because the more people you love, the more you have to lose.
And so to continue to love after you have lost proves, once and for all, your tremendous bravery.
You understand this, Dad, especially because of your experience as a father. That first child that enters your arms opens a giant hole to your heart that remains exposed forevermore. The more children you have, the more vulnerable you are to the ways they can hurt you.
And you were a father of five.
To love deeply is the definition of courage. So much can go wrong. But it is the act of loving that gives us the greatest joy, the greatest reason to not only live, but thrive.
When I want to remember you the clearest, I always find myself in the passenger seat, you in the driver seat, hand on the wheel. I don’t know why, but we are headed south on route 127, going toward Oxford, back to Miami for classes. We pull over for Croissan’wiches–sausage, egg, and cheese–and coffee from Burger King and we eat from fast food wrappers in the front seat. We talk past each other over and over again because the space of our common ground is shrinking now that I’m building my own life, replete with different interests and concerns. We both feel it, crumbling on all sides of us, accelerating now that the time we spend together is limited to school breaks and summers. It pushes us closer together for the moment even as the edge approaches fast.
But I couldn’t see that.
I was looking somewhere else.
Somewhere off into the distance.
Somewhere where you were not.
I was falling in love, making new friends, traveling, taking class after class after class, and redefining my beliefs. I was growing up, reaching out, moving on.
And you were standing there.
Is this the terrible pain of parenthood that they don’t tell you about?
That as you are standing there, the circle where you stand with your kids gradually and imperceptibly shrinks over the years? Until you realize that everything around you has changed and your shared common ground has dwindled to only your shared moments from the past?
Maybe it is.
And maybe your wisdom to me now would be to say,
Stop looking off into the distance. Stop looking for the approaching edge. It will get here soon enough. Just stand with me. For now.
For one more moment.
Just one more moment before everything changes.
Just one more moment.
Love this moment.
Write it on your heart.
And when it’s time to let go, remember that they can be loved by others, just as much as they were loved by you.
Find comfort in that. Because I know it’s true for you.
It is, Dad. It is absolutely true.
But I still love you.
And I still miss you.
I remember staring out the window at the laughing children, sliding around on the giant 80′ Slip N’ Slide that my husband had constructed for Felicity’s sixth birthday. Blue skies, white fluffy clouds, 85 degrees, the smell of a freshly cut lawn, the sound of laughter, and a tub of beers and soda, already half gone.
I was holding back tears.
Not thirty minutes earlier, my mother was telling me in her it’s-not-a-big-deal voice that her cancer was back.
And it had spread.
And it was not good.
I stopped cutting the corn cobs, afraid the knife would go straight through my hand. When I looked at her, she was on the verge of tears.
My mom does not cry easily. And almost never in front of her kids.
It’s nothing to worry about. Don’t even give it a second thought.
These are things she has said over and over again since the first diagnosis in 1998. It was a blood cancer, something that would circulate in her blood, basically forevermore, emerging in locations like her intestines and her liver.
Neverthless, It’s nothing to worry about and Don’t even give it a second thought, were how she lived her life. Even when we didn’t believe her.
But shockingly, that advice has held up for time. Even after my father passed away, she kept on swimming. And if she felt sadness of anxiety, she never let it show.
And so to see her eyes filled with tears like that… That shook me.
I could hear “Young Blood” playing over the outdoor speakers as my husband pulled a long rope, held by a dozen tiny hands as they squealed in delight. I envisioned cancerous cells circulating in my mother’s blood and taking residence wherever they damn well pleased.
And all I could think was, There is never enough time, and I’m not ready, and but how much time do we have? and maybe we can start visiting every weekend, and Will there even be one more summer for Felicity to spend with her?
Through the window, I could see my two-and-a-half-year-old son, toddling through the giant bubbles of Dawn detergent until he fell backwards with glee. Tiny legs and arms sliding down the river of bubbles and water.
My sister came in through the back door and I fought my feelings with every shield that I had. Nothing’s wrong. Just don’t look at her. Talk about it later. You can’t talk about it right now. You have thirty people at your house. This is a fun event. It’s Felicity’s birthday. Don’t talk about it.
But when something this massive moves into your life, there isn’t enough armor to save you from feeling the full force of its crushing weight.
Our eyes met. And then we just walked toward each other, tears streaming down both of our faces.
And all I could say was,
There is never enough time.
But what I prayed was,
Please, God, don’t keep her here for me.
Keep her here for my kids.
That was August 2019.
We managed to get in two visits before my mother’s radiation treatments started. They lasted six months, so she would finish by February 2020. When we passed that milestone, I breathed a slow sigh of relief. At least that was done. We wouldn’t know how effective the treatments had been for perhaps another year, but at least the treatments were over.
And then March 2020 came, and with it, a new reason to panic.
My mom was still like, Well, what are you gonna do?
In October 2020, she got COVID and was hospitalized.
And when that news came, I felt that familiar sinking feeling of, There is never enough time and I’m not ready. I prepared myself again for what might be coming. If a truck is going to hit me, I’m the kind of person that would prefer to see it as it approaches, even if it doesn’t change the outcome. I just want to know. I want a few moments to think, “So this is how it happens.” I want to be alone with my thoughts for just a moment to say, “Okay, I’m ready.”
And then she recovered.
And after she got vaccinated, she was making plans to have my daughter stay at her farm for two weeks this summer.
I was sitting at my desk, working, when I received the text from my mother.
The malignant tumors are gone.
The long-standing, stubborn tumors remain. The ones she has lived with for over ten years.
I read the text from my mother with the news over and over again, shock keeping the emotion at bay.
But as I started talking about it with my husband that night, the dam burst. I turned into a slow stream of disbelieving, but grateful tears.
She’s going to live. For now. For how long? Will it come back? Probably. But not now. Do I deserve this? No, I don’t. But Mom does. I don’t want to go through this again. But we probably will. But she’s here for now. And that was my prayer. That she would be here for the kids. As long as it’s possible.
I couldn’t say any of these thoughts. They were too heavy for an already-heavy moment. But my mind drifted back to that moment in the living room, my sister and I holding each other as we cried.
We’re only young and naive still
We require certain skills
The mood it changes like the wind
Hard to control when it begins
The bittersweet between my teeth
Trying to find the in-between
Fall back in love eventually
“Young Blood” by The Naked and The Famous