Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Category: Love

Death

August 13, 2022, 4:00 a.m.

I’m running.

My purse knocks against my thighs as I sprint toward the bright red ER sign of the hospital.

It’s okay to go, Mom. It’s okay to go.

My mind flashes to a scene in Contact, where Jodie Foster’s character, Ellie Arroway, is on the verge of being launched into space in an extraterrestrial aircraft. When the spaceship begins shaking as it ignites, through her fear, Ellie continues to utter, I’m okay to go.

Even though she doesn’t know what awaits her on the other side, she continues to say these words.

It’s okay to go, Mom. You don’t have to wait for me, is my prayer.

But I’m still running.

I’m running because none of her children are there.

Because my father died alone, without anyone who loved him to hold his hand.

I’m running because my heart is screaming for just one more moment to be with her before she escapes to places where I cannot follow.

Just one more moment.

Just one more moment.

I’m running because Love compels me.

And I will expend every last ounce of my energy to help someone I love.

The ER sign grows larger in my sight and I am breathless already because I’m so anemic. But I keep running, my heart pounding in my chest, fighting the lightheadedness, my lungs seizing.

And part of me wonders if my heart has known for years that this is how it would all unfold.

If my body was simply following the rhythms of my heart.

And now those early morning runs, my feet pounding the sidewalk at 4:00 a.m., have prepared me for this very moment.

To run to my mother at this very hour, when she needs me the most.

Perhaps my heart has felt this moment approaching for years.

***

(It’s dark.)

I haven’t really slept in days.

(It always seems like it’s dark when these things happen.)

My dreams aren’t dreams right now. They are instant replays of the last three days, holding my mother’s hand, watching her heart rate tick up, up, up as her face loses its color, its tone. Her eyes struggling to remain open.

(Labor and Birth.)

The image had been replaying in my mind for hours and hours.

It’s both too early. And too late.

(Dying and Death.)

***

I burst through the doors to the ER and slow to purposeful walk until I reach a set of double doors. I jiggle them. Locked.

A voice comes on over the intercom.

“Can I help you?”

“I need to get in. My mother is dying.”

A pause.

“Do you need help getting there?”

“No,” I say. Then I repeat the number of the hospital room.

The door unlocks.

And I’m hustling now to the end of the hallway toward the first set of elevators. I need to go to the seventh floor. The buttons read 1, 2, and 3. I press 3, going as high as I can go. I ask for more directions, someone at a nurse’s station, a security guard, a custodian.

Every person stops what they are doing and guides me.

Down this hall, to the left.

What floor? Down that hall, take a second left. You’ll find the elevators to the seventh floor.

What room? Those rooms are in the west wing. Hang a right at the Exit sign.

I’m hurrying down the hallway when I see Doug come out of the room, flagging me down. He hugs me tightly.

“She stabilized again,” he says.

I gaze into the room and see that my mother’s bed has been lowered nearly to the floor. Warren is seated on her left, holding her left hand, the softer, unbroken one.

This room at the top of the hospital is dim, barely lit at all. The brightness and bustle of yesterday’s ICU room proclaimed plans and interventions. Real hospital work. But this room lacks any of that. Instead, it has been emptied, drained of all the light and equipment and interruptions. I wade into its stillness, as if it were a pond, the water barely rippling around my movements as I press forward.

She breathes heavily through her mouth. Says nothing.

There aren’t as many tubes and wires connected to her anymore. Just enough to monitor her heart and oxygen. An IV port for medication. Warren tenderly holds her arm where her last IV was threaded by Maria, an excellent nurse on the fourth floor who took the time to warm my mother’s arm with compresses to thread the IV on the first try into her tiny veins. The tape over the IV still bears the nurse’s initials and the date, MR, 8/11.

The monitor shows her vitals in bright green numbers and letters.

“Her heart rate is 155?” I ask Doug.

He nods.

155 is my heart rate when I’ve been running for 30 minutes.

“She’s been holding at that for hours. Until just before I called you. Her vitals started dropping, but she rebounded.”

He pauses and his voice breaks.

“I think she’s waiting for you.”

I swallow.

I look at her chest rising and falling rapidly, how she is still fighting, even here at this late hour.

We could be here for hours, waiting for her body to surrender.

But I am resolved.

I will bear this moment for her. I will be here for her, no matter how long it takes. No matter how hard this gets.

“Mom, it’s Sharon,” I say. “I’m here.”

She breathes heavily, the cool washcloth still folded over her brow. Her eyes are closed.

I have no plan for this moment. I wasn’t committed to being in the room with her when she passed. I’ve allowed myself to accept whatever fate would have for the end of my mother’s life.

Whatever was bound to happen would unfold just as it should be. And it did not need to involve me.

But here I am.

In this room.

And I know that Death is here.

I feel it thick and still in the air around me. It doesn’t spin around us, like a vortex pulling my mother into some other dimension. It drifts and floats, like dust in the air when the light shines through a window. Only there’s nothing to see. You can only feel it, seeping like thick syrup, settling heavily into your ears, your mouth, your nose. So heavy is Death in this room that simply uttering words takes a concentrated effort, not to mention anything meaningful or heartfelt.

I open my mouth to speak and, at first, I choke, the sob caught in my throat.

I push it down and remember.

I will bear it for her.

“I’m going to play some music for you, okay, Mom?” I say calmly, searching for the live version of Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell, just recently performed at the Newport Folk Festival less than a month ago. “I’ll start with the one that you said you loved last night. Remember that? I played it for you and you said, ‘I love it.’ It was a little hard to hear you, but I know you said it. Here it is.”

I let the song play without interruption and we all listen to Joni sing to my mother with her haunting, soulful voice. I hold my mother’s right hand, rubbing her knuckles, her fingers. I say nothing.

But now they only block the sun
They rain and they snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all

“Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell

More tears fall and I wipe them with the back of my hand.

I can tell how loved she is, the ICU nurse on the second floor, Regina, had said as she administered morphine the night before, into the IV that Maria had placed. Two amazing human beings who treated my mother with such compassion.

So many people here with her. You’d be surprised how many people leave this world alone in these rooms.

Have more heart-breaking words ever been said?

The song finishes and soon we are listening to troubles melting like lemon drops, away above the chimney tops, rainbows stretching off into the distance, leading my mother to an unknown land.

I want that so much for her.

Even as my heart cries out for her to stay.

I want for her to wander into a land of rest and peace, where her memories of broken hips and legs and arms and necks, of cancer, of diabetes, of untreatable, chronic pain… Where all these memories become nothing but distant moments in time through which she has persevered. Where she has no need for morphine or demerol or toradol or fentanyl or hydrocodone or any of the other medications that only cut the pain in half.

Tears and more tears. I pull her hand to my wet cheek. Just two days ago, when she could still utter words, I asked her if she was in any pain. She fought to simply whisper the words, “They can never make it pain-free.”

I wish I could have born some of this pain for her.

But I know her better.

She would never have allowed that.

Just as I would never allow my children to bear my pain.

The song finishes again and I look over my shoulder at the heart monitor.

156. 154. 155.

The fog of Death that surrounds us is growing. Why is it getting heavier?

Doug is seated behind me, his head rested against my mid-back, as if literally supporting me so I don’t fall over. Every now and then, I feel him turn to look at the monitors. Warren is gripping my mother’s hand, sometimes pressing it to his face, sometimes lowering to the bed and bending forward over it.

It’s so hard to remain upright. I’m not sure how I could explain to anyone else why, in this moment, simply sitting up and speaking takes unimaginable strength.

But it does.

How many moments has my mother faced that were as heavy as this? What would she do?

And then I know what to play.

The soft notes of the song begin and I’m transported back to those final minutes, laboring with Henry, this song soothing my ears while my screams filled the air and my hips lit on fire. Those last moments just before I hemorrhaged and nearly bled to death on the bed, only minutes after I finally pushed Henry free from me.

“I played this song when I was in labor with Henry,” I say. I pray that she can understand. That she feels my intention. Because I cannot find my words to articulate it in this moment.

What I want to express is that I’ve been here before, in this most sacred of spaces. More sacred than any cathedral or altar. I’ve been here before–But never on this side.

There is a stillness in the air when Life enters this world that I cannot explain to anyone who has not been present for it.

Now, I know that there is also an unexplainable stillness when Life leaves this world.

We all want to bear witness to the beginning of Life. We believe that it is good and holy and pure.

But who wants to bear witness to the end of Life? Even though it is just as sacred?

I will bear it for her, I tell myself.

“Mom,” I hold my voice steady. “I want to tell you that it’s okay to go. You don’t have to stay here for us. We’re all going to be okay.”

I pause and consider what to say next. Doug and Warren are both bent forward, their heads bowed, reverently as I speak, my head lifted, my back straight.

Now, I understand. Why Death is so thick, so heavy.

This room is not empty.

It’s Full.

It’s overflowing with everyone waiting for her.

My father. My mother’s mother. My mother’s father. And on and on. The generations have poured into this room, surrounding her and holding her, just as They held me when I cried out for help in laboring with Henry.

They have returned, these People of my Blood.

My heart almost cannot stand it.

I know what to say now. I close my eyes and I speak without any hesitation.

“And Mom…everyone is here with you. It’s not just me and Warren and Doug. Everyone is here. Anna is here. Nate and Lisa are here. Holly and Corey here. Dominic is here. Felicity and Henry are here.”

The words are spilling forth from me, as if she’s relinquished her sword to me and allowing me to fight this last battle for her.

So I will not stop.

I will do this for her.

I will help her over to the Other Side.

I keep listing all our family, as many as I can remember, all her brothers and sisters, their spouses, their children, her cousins, her friends. My shoulders hurt now, physically ache, simply from the action of sitting upright. I can almost feel my mother transferring her burdens, her cares, her wishes, her regrets, her Love, all to my own shoulders.

Perhaps that’s what Death really is.

A great transfer of all the emotions and cares that one person has carried to those they leave behind.

I will bear it for her.

The hospital door opens, but I don’t look at who it is. Words are still pouring out of my mouth, names, reassurances that we’re going to be okay.

“It’s okay to go, Mom. We will all be okay. You can go. Dad is waiting. Your mom is waiting. Your dad is waiting.”

“It’s okay to go, Mom.”

“It’s okay to go.”

I repeat this over and over, my last reassurance to my mother.

That if she would be courageous enough to press on toward the unknown, I would also be courageous and press on here in her place.

I choose to carry this pain of losing her. For the rest of my life.

Because it will free her.

“You gotta go, Sweetie,” Warren says, his voice as broken as his heart. He clutches her hand to his lips and kisses it, his tears freely falling. “I’ll see you there.”

“Mom,” my voice shakes. “There’s not a single person who loves you who can’t be here for you right now. We are all here and we love you so much.”

Doug taps me, but I keep going.

“But we’re going to be okay, Mom. I promise you. It’s okay to go, Mom. It’s okay to go.”

I say it over and over again.

Doug taps me again, but I keep going.

“And the last thing I’ll say, Mom, before you go…” I take a breath. “I just want to thank you for all the I Love You notes that you’d slip into my sandwiches.”

Warren reaches across the bed, over my mother’s body, and grasps my hand.

“She’s gone, Sharon.”

***

It’s true what they say about how a person changes in that first minute after death. In that first minute after death, I surrender to the wave of grief crashing over me and weep over my mother’s arm and hand until I feel her go cold.

But that coldness is all it takes for me to know wholly and thoroughly that the thing that made my mother who she was–a spirit, a soul, an essence–was not her body. She was not just skin and organs and fluids. She was so much more than this body that is now left, apart from her.

I’m the first to stand up.

It’s surprisingly easy to do.

To get to my feet and walk out of this room, knowing that I’m stepping into the shoes that my mother is leaving behind. She would be the one to say the hardest words to the people who need to know.

I feel it already, the passing on of matriarchy.

I will be the Keeper of Family Memory from now on. The one to memorialize what we’ve lost. The one to keep her memory alive by baking her recipes. The one to be a mother to all of us left behind.

And it starts now. With this walk down the hallway, where I will say the hardest words to say in this moment. I will say it.

At the nurse’s station, a young woman is eating what looks like her lunch, a large bowl of noodles, something that requires her to anchor her head over the bowl to not make a mess. 4:30 a.m. I suppose it is lunch for the night nurses.

She sees me and puts down her spoon.

I point to the room behind me.

“She just passed.”

The nurse’s face goes solemn.

“I’ll let the doctor know right away.”

I shake my head.

“There’s no rush.”

***

Dawn is breaking by the time I arrive back at the hotel.

The sunrise, Saturday, August 13th, Indianapolis, IN

I meet my sister in the lobby of the hotel. She is sitting on a bench, tears already running down her red cheeks. I lean down, hold her by the back of her head, and kiss her forehead. She stands to hug me.

Then, I tell her everything, as much as I have the words for. There is too much that I don’t have words for yet, that I don’t fully understand yet, that I will need time to make sense of, that I will need to find the language for. But I say as much as I can and promise to myself that someday I’ll sit down and commit the sacredness of this morning to human memory, that it may never be lost.

But in this moment, what I say over and over again is this:

“I told her we were all there. And we were. We were.”

A Eulogy for My Mother, Cecilia Tjaden-Rush

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.

Mom,

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. 

Second Chances

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.

G-O-N-E, 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

On Grace

So I’m still writing.

Still from 2:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

And there is a theme that I keep circling in different ways through different characters.

It’s this idea that people understand and anticipate things going wrong or falling apart or people failing them. Perhaps we prepare ourselves for this inevitability because we know that people are flawed and the world is imperfect. Whatever it is, we have created rituals and systems to deal with these imperfections. We have all kinds of rituals and systems set up to deal with tiny infractions (being caught in a lie) as well as with huge transgressions (sexual assault, murder).

But we are not prepared for grace.

Or forgiveness.

Or healing.

These things are too much for the mind to accept–because we can be so married to the idea of our own unworthiness. Or perhaps we distrust the ability for others to be altruistic. Perhaps the framework that we’ve created for our world is such a meritocracy that conceiving of grace is impossible.

What I’m saying is that when healing or forgiveness or grace is extended, it’s not uncommon for the recipient to view it with mistrust–all the way to the point of refusing to accept it.

I see parallels in this time of pandemic. This idea that even if there were a vaccine that were 100% effective, today, not everyone would take it–simply because of a lack of trust.

Healing, forgiveness, and grace can be freely given. But they don’t have to be accepted.

This is what I’ve been thinking about a lot.

A Time to Say Good-Bye

When my dad died five years ago, I didn’t have the chance to say good-bye.

Since then, I’ve had a few dreams about him. But nothing that has given me much closure.

Until recently.

The dream went like this: My dad is alive. So is my mom and her new husband, Warren. And everyone is okay with this.

It’s a dream, right? You know how dreams are.

It’s also Thanksgiving and we’re back at our old house in Huber Heights. The table is set up in the living room, which is awkward. But that’s because my youngest sister’s bed is set up in the dining room, and we’re all coping with that.

Fine.

There are lots of chairs around the table, but no one is sitting down. I see that it’s because, apparently, everyone has already eaten except me. I feel hungry. And yet I’m frustrated because there is food all over the table and the floor. I start picking up, scraping bits of food into my hands: lemon wedges, wet and cold Spaghetti-os, cracker crumbs, and rice. Absolutely nothing that looks like anything we would actually eat at Thanksgiving dinner.

No one is helping me. Actually, I can sense that they are annoyed that I’m cleaning up. They’re all talking with each other, laughing, having a great time.

Apparently, my dad and Warren are old pals. I can hear my dad’s laugh above everything else. That cutting HA! that interrupts what someone else is saying, just before saying, “Well, that’s just like what they did down there in…” And he segues into a new story. They’re off to the races.

Ah, whatever, I think as I get up from scraping up food from the carpet. Maybe later.

By the time I get over to where I think my dad is, I see my mom sitting on the sofa, staring out the window, a book on her knees. She’s sad. And she won’t talk about it.

And she’s also pregnant. Like third-trimester pregnant. At sixty-some years old. Her hands rest protectively on her belly.

It’s a dream, right?

Suddenly, she’s gone. The book is still there, conveniently left open to the page that she was reading, marked with underlining. The heading reads “Brain Disorders.”

“It’s her decision,” my dad says. He’s there now, sitting on the couch.

“Why won’t she talk about it with me?” I ask.

“This isn’t about you. This is between her and God.”

“But…” I can’t think of the words. But what I feel is this immense emptiness opening in the fabric of my life. This is isn’t about you. This is between her and God.

Through the window, I see the tree in our backyard tipping over, its roots becoming exposed to the air.

“I don’t want her to make that decision,” I finally say.

“It’s not about you,” he repeats.

He is not somber. He’s actually quite jovial about it. His health has been restored to the last time that I remember him being physically and mentally well, probably around 2007. He tries to help me see the positive possibilities. What if the brain disorder actually benefits the baby? He tries to give me examples of babies with certain brain disorders who were born in the past and who are now astounding doctors. He places his fingers close together and far apart, saying something about the spaces between synapses.

“But we don’t know what type of condition the baby has,” I say.

“You can’t know everything that you want to know,” he says. “Sometimes, you have to trust God.” He is laughing.

Laughing!

The nerve.

“Dad?”

“What?” he says.

I reach over and grip his large hand in mine, pull it to my heart and lock it there so that we are connected from fingers to elbow. This is not something I ever remember doing when he was alive. Our family wasn’t big into hugs and we certainly didn’t hold each other’s hands.

But I don’t have the words anymore.

All I have is the grief of his loss.

The knowing that when this is over, he’ll be gone again. He will slip away for months or years, away into realities that I cannot sense or galaxies where I cannot travel. He’ll be gone again and I’ll still be here.

And I won’t know when I’ll see him again.

I don’t know what I’m doing, but I feel that I’m sending out everything that I want to say but can’t find the words for. All the empty spaces in my life where he should be. All the moments that he should have seen with his grandkids. All the times that I regret I didn’t spend more time with him. All the jealousy that I have for my peers who still have their fathers with them. All the love that I still have for him that has nowhere to go, nowhere to land. And so it swirls inside of me and rises at unexpected moments. Crying in the store over 0.99 cent cinnamon rolls. (I would pay you $1 NOT to eat them!, I had joked.)

My roots are raw and exposed, my world is upside down.

I pull him all the way to me, into my very heartbeat.

And he starts weeping.

He doesn’t deny how I’m feeling. He doesn’t tell me it will all be okay. He stops mentioning God and the possibilities.

He just weeps with me.

We don’t talk anymore. I just hold his arm against me until all the emotions are gone and what remains is stillness. Peace.

Once all these emotions have been released, the truth that remains is that my father is Gone.

And I don’t have to be okay with that.

I’m not angry. Anger is just an emotion that covers a far deeper wound.

No, the anger is gone.

Now, all that’s left is love and pain. And it’s not wrong. It’s not a failure or a flaw. Sometimes, this is just the way that it is.

Sometimes, love just plain hurts. Sometimes life grinds cold Spahetti-os into the carpet, pulls out trees by their roots, and takes away the people that you love the most. And it gives zero shits about how you feel about any of it.

But there is also Peace to be felt in the middle of it.

But first, the pain has to find its way out. It cannot be numbed or ignored or medicated. It needs to be felt and acknowledged, directed and released.

The only way to Peace is through the Pain.

***

I woke up shortly after that, replaying the bits and pieces that I remember over and over. Dreams are often slippery suckers. But I think this one will stay with me for quite a well.

It felt like a chance to show my dad what I’m carrying with me through this life, now that he is gone. But also to assure him that I will be okay, as long as I have someone to hear my stories, as long as there is an outlet for the emotion to flow through me and settle elsewhere. It’s the bottling up that makes grief unbearable.

It felt like a space to catch my breath.

A moment to hold on with all I have.

A moment to decide to let it all go.

It felt like my chance to say good-bye.

When you are far away
I dream on the horizon
And words fail,
and, Yes, I know
that you are with me;
you, my moon, are here with me,
my sun, you are here with me,
with me, with me, with me.
 
Time to say goodbye
To countries I never
Saw and shared with you,
now, yes, I shall experience them.
I’ll go with you
On ships across seas
which, I know,
no, no, exist no longer.

with you I shall experience them again.
I’ll go with you

“Con Te Partiro” Lucio Quarantotto, as sung by Andrea Bocelli

On Rising Again: A Remembrance of Alyssa

Alyssa,

We were cousins who grew up states apart, seeing each other sometimes in the summer. You were two years older than me, always finding out things before I did. Always reaching milestones before me. We survived the traumatic hairstyles of the early 1990s, which inevitably led to us inhaling whole cans of Aquanet over the years.

True warriors, right?

But I didn’t know you like your family knew you. I only have a few memories that still remain sharp, even today.

Here is my favorite one.

In the summer of 2000, my friend and I were driving from Ohio to California, as a celebration of finishing high school. Our first stop was Minnetonka, MN, where we stayed with Grandma Bundy. Our second stop was Sioux Falls, SD, where you had just moved. My friend and I met you at the hair salon where you had just started working. Grinning from ear to ear, you greeted me like an old friend and insisted that we try out this burger place that you loved.

Over burgers and fries and sodas, we talked. You were 20 years old. I was 18. You seemed so much cooler, so much more grown-up than me. Your life was taking off, and it was exciting. You had an apartment of your own. A full-time job. You were the one calling the shots, and you reveled in your freedom.

While we sat there, a song came on that made you howl.

Yes, howl.

You threw your head back, laughing, saying, I LOVE THIS SONG! And right there in the middle of the restaurant, you belted it out, wiggling in your seat, arms and hips twisting in opposition.

I did not know the song. But you knew it word for word.

The best thing about being a woman
Is the prerogative to have a little fun and
Oh-OH-oh-oh, Go totally crazy, Forget I’m a lady
Men’s shirts, short skirts, Oh-OH-oh-oh,
Really go wild, yeah, Doin’ it in style, Oh-OH-oh-oh,
Get in the action, Feel the attraction, Color my hair, Do what I dare
Oh-OH-oh-oh
I want to be free yeah, to feel the way I feel
Man! I feel like a woman!

Young. Wild. Free.

I think that is how I will remember you best.

***

Although we didn’t really talk much over the years, I heard updates from my mom. You got a new job. You started a new business. You got married. You became a stepmom. Life was no longer Young and Wild and Free.

Yes, Life had taken off. But instead of riding a rocket to the stars, you found yourself navigating life in a hot air balloon. Fueled by your energy and drive to keep rising. Tethered by so many ropes. Carrying a basket holding all those you loved. You traveled a bit. Then, came back down. Then traveled more. Then, back down. Up and down. Over and over. Your will, the fuel that kept you going.

Did you ever have the chance to ride in a hot air balloon? It seems like it would be just the kind of adventure that you’d like.

Years ago, I went hot air ballooning on my honeymoon. There was a lot about the trip that surprised me, but the most surprising thing was this:

The pilot didn’t have a fixed landing site.

In fact, it was impossible to do so because the trajectory of the balloon shifts as the air currents change. At one altitude, the wind may take the balloon east. At a lower altitude, it may shift west. And so safely landing the balloon requires that the pilot be able to make adjustments and readjustments to the landing process, depending on the air currents and the landscape.

Is there a better metaphor for how many of us live life?

Hard to think of one.

You faced a lot of shifting currents as your life took off. Through the ups and downs, the surprises, the detours, and the unexpected mid-flight landings…

You kept rising.

For that is the true Measure of a Life.

It’s not about how high you rise or how far you travel.

It’s about how many times you get back off the ground.

And it’s about the people you carry and how much you lift them.

That’s what makes the loss of you difficult. You lifted so many others with you.

***

You shared memes on Facebook about raising teenagers. You seemed to be carrying a lot on your shoulders. One of the last memes that you shared was this:

That line haunts me.

We are almost there.

There.

***

How could any of us have seen this coming?

How could we imagine a future in which you died so suddenly?

Here one minute. Gone the next.

Your sister reminded us in her first post after your death that, Life is a vapor (James 4:14).

Yes. It truly is.

Even to live 80 years. A vapor.

In the millions of years that life has churned on and on and on.

A vapor.

And yet, what we do matters.

How we live our lives matters.

And when the atmosphere finally swallows the vapor that is our Life, this thing that we so painstakingly lived day after day, all the energy that we poured into our goals, getting up each morning, drinking the coffee, doing the things, making decisions, dealing with the outcomes of the decisions that we made and those that we didn’t, may we all have the perspective to hold to this Truth: All that we did mattered.

Every damn moment of it mattered.

But rest assured, no one does Life perfectly.

The true impact of our lives is measured in how we used that time. Whether we chose Love. Or not.

It’s measured by how often we chose forgiveness over grudges, mercy over vengeance, compassion over resentment, empathy over judgment, inclusion over exclusion, gratitude over envy, contentment over greed.

And so, Alyssa, when you lifted others with your sheer willpower, it mattered.

When you made space in your life for people you loved, it mattered.

When you listened to someone who was hurting, it mattered.

When you apologized for something that you had done wrong, it mattered.

And every time that you gave Love to someone, it mattered.

Love is the whole point.

It’s all that has ever mattered.

***

A final clear memory that I have of you happened during the summer when your family of six came to visit my family of seven. (How did we fit thirteen people in our tiny 1,000 square foot house? One of life’s great mysteries.) I think you may have been twelve. I can’t remember for sure.

One of the ways that we got everyone out of the house was a trip to Eastwood Lake, a fifteen-minute drive from our house.

We went canoeing.

And as a stepmom to teenagers, I’m sure you can appreciate the recollection of what happened next.

With the surface of the water so still, your father rested the oars against the sides of the canoe and closed his eyes.

Then, to the horror of my siblings, he started singing.

I’ve got peace, like a river

I’ve got peace, like a river

I’ve got peace like a river in my soul…

He didn’t have a bad voice. That wasn’t the issue. It was just Parents are so embarrassing. And what if other people hear him and look at us? What would we even do? Is he ever going to stop? How many verses are in this song?

But after it became clear that your dad was invested in this moment, you threw caution to the wind.

You sang with him.

I’ve got love like an ocean.

I’ve got love like an ocean.

I’ve got love like an ocean in my soul…

Looking back now, it was the right thing to do.

To be present and support those we love is always the right choice.

***

I believe in a God that sees through us, from top to bottom and beginning to end. I believe in a God who sees all our flaws, our mistakes, our failures, our weaknesses, and our sins. And knows the difference between them.

But I also believe in a God who sees our intentions, our motivations, our faith, our courage, all the things we’ve done right, all the love we gave, and all the goodness we shared.

And finally, I believe in a God that gathers us in and brings us Home.

May you rest forever in the spirit that you lived.

Rising again.

Young. Wild. Free.

Home.

***

If you’d like to help Alyssa’s family in their time of need, you can donate here.

Alyssa and her siblings: two younger brothers and her younger sister.
Some of the people you loved most: Your siblings. (2009)

A Long December: Reflections on a Decision that Changed Everything

Rocking my almost two-year-old son in the rocking chair.

Christmas night.

The humidifier steams. The white noise machine zzhhhhhhs.

Faint lights from passing cars travel across the walls.

With his soft breath against my shoulder, I rock back and back and back. One year. Two years. Five years. Ten years. As many Christmases as I can remember.

Plenty of happy ones.

Plenty of ones filled with tension. (Growing up in a house with four teenagers will do that).

Plenty of forgettable ones in my 20s. (That limbo between getting married and having kids.)

Now, we’ve entered a series of Christmases that no longer mean comfort and joy or the most wonderful time of the year.

There was the Christmas of Nausea (2012), when I grasped for ginger candy and Sea Bands or whatever anyone suggested that might help me ride the waves of first trimester nausea. From December until mid-January. (Truly a delight, let me tell you.)

And the 37-Weeks-Pregnant Christmas (2016), when I told myself that I only had three weeks left to go. (It turned out to be another five weeks. Yeah.)

And all those fun Christmases of Illness (2014, 2017, 2018). 2017 was by far the worst, as the baby’s diarrhea stretched on for a few weeks, taking us all down into its shitty vortex.

And the downright sad Christmas (2015) when the baby’s heart stopped beating. After I had a D & C on New Year’s Eve, I sat in the parking lot of Whole Foods while my husband bought me a slice of apple pie. I listened to “Long December” by the Counting Crows and cried.

And it’s been a long December and there’s reason to believe

Maybe this year will be better than the last

I can’t remember all the times I tried to tell myself

to hold on to these moments as they pass

But if I’m really thinking about the Christmas when everything in my life changed direction, when I started plotting a course that brought me to this rocking chair, with this child in my arms, while my oldest sleeps in her bed across the hall, I always end up traveling back to Christmas of 2002.

It was Christmas Eve. 11:00 p.m. At Wal-Mart. And I was standing in the card aisle. Looking for cards for a few friends and my boyfriend. I had no trouble picking out the cards for my friends.

But I was having the hardest time picking out one for my boyfriend of three years.

Forever and always. My one and only. Meant for each other.

I couldn’t even pick them up to consider them.

Because I understood, suddenly and completely, that I couldn’t see a future for us anymore, the way that I used to.

What was our future? It was his vision for what we would become. A married couple. A house. No kids. I could be a teacher, but did I really need any more education than a Bachelor’s degree? Why did I want to travel when he was the most important thing in my life? Wasn’t a life with him good enough? And kids? Why have kids? They just ruin a good thing.

And for a long time, I thought, Yes, of course. You’re right. You are the only thing that I want in life. I couldn’t possibly want anything else. Right. I don’t want kids. Nah, too much work. We’d be much happier by ourselves. Living our life together without kids getting in the way.

But I did want more. Much more. And in time, conversations about the future brought me back again and again to a realization that I could not ignore.

We had come as far as we could together, but now there was more pulling us apart than was keeping us together.

And although my heart had been feeling that way for some time, I didn’t want to give up. I had poured so much of myself into making it work. I wasn’t a quitter. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I liked his family. I didn’t want to make life more difficult or more inconvenient for anyone.

And above all, I didn’t want to believe that although love can bring people together, sometimes it wasn’t enough to keep them together. No one makes movies or songs about the power of finding someone with compatible values and goals for life, or someone who trusts you and works with you to resolve conflict. It’s not sexy enough. And if I’m being honest with myself, I didn’t have the vocabulary back then to even articulate the problems.

I just remember thinking, This isn’t working.

I thought that a lot.

And yet, I was like the women in my family who came before me: devoted and long-suffering, servile and contented.

To end this relationship was not within my repertoire. At all.

But I also couldn’t lie to myself.

And therefore, I wouldn’t lie to anyone else anymore either.

I paid for the cards for my friends, got in my old car, turned the heat up, and flipped on the radio. The voice of Stevie Nicks reached through the speakers and the tears rolled.

Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?

Can I handle the seasons of my life?

I don’t know.

Well, I’ve been afraid of changing

Because I built my life around you

But time makes you bolder, children get older

And I’m getting older too

I didn’t realize it yet, but when I left that store that night, I had changed the entire trajectory of my life.

Because the very next guy that I dated became my husband.

Three years later, we were married.

And we had two kids.

Doug_Sharon_2002_01

***

I know. I know.

It’s what we’re tempted to believe: That all the decisions–good and bad–that we’ve made in our lives have brought us to a point for which we’re ultimately grateful.

But, had I made different decisions, would I have ended up somewhere else, where I would be equally as grateful?

Maybe.

Maybe not.

But what I do know is that I did something extraordinary on Christmas Eve of 2002.

For years, I imagined my future, married, but no children. Never kids.

But on Christmas Eve of 2002, I allowed myself to imagine a different future.

A life in which, someday…

maybe…

I might have kids.

It turns out, as it is with a lot of things, the biggest steps that we take all start with a thought.

The simple willingness to imagine a different future.

That ability to imagine a different future has taken me far beyond the original course that I had plotted for my life. It has helped me imagine that I could get a Master’s degree. And travel overseas. And change my political and religious beliefs. And write a book. And lose forty pounds. (Three times, yeah.) And relearn algebra. (It’s true.)

And, yeah, it has helped me to imagine a life that includes kids.

And, with endless gratitude, it has helped me imagine a future moment in my life when my children won’t always need me every moment that they are awake. And a time when we won’t have to pay for babysitters. And a time when we can travel with them without losing our minds.

What about you?

What different future do you imagine for yourself?

And what will you do tomorrow to help you get there?

May you surprise yourself in this next year.

2018 Year in Review: a.k.a Why Doing Nothing is Sometimes Everything

While I normally LOVE to be productive and useful, the past few days, I have done little else besides completely veg out.

This is what I do to myself: I do ALL THE THINGS. For months on end. (I won’t even list them out. I’m sure you have your own list of ALL OF THE THINGS).

And while I’m doing all of those things, I think in the back of my mind, When I finally have some time to myself, I’ll do X or Y. (And X or Y is usually a second-priority item from ALL OF THE THINGS that I just don’t have time for).

And then I hit a wall.

And then I do NONE OF THE THINGS.

(Are you like that? I can’t be alone in that.)

I don’t do skirts or pantyhose. Or makeup. I “sleep in” until 5:30 or 6:00. (Sad? Meh. It’s tolerable.) It’s the fluffy pink bathrobe around the house (most of the day, at least). In this week before Christmas when I’m not teaching, without a shred of guilt, I send my beautiful children to daycare.

And I am finally alone.

And what do I do?

Let’s start with what I DON’T do.

I don’t think about upcoming presentations or writing that I could be doing. I (mostly) don’t write. It’s not because I don’t want to. It’s simply because after so many months of giving pieces of myself to everyone else, I’ve got to have time to turn inward and fill my own cup.

Instead, I watch movies and shows. I read books. I listen to podcasts or read articles that I’ve been meaning to read for months. I exercise when I want to. I send the cards, I dole out the Christmas bonuses to every lovely daycare teacher that deals with our kids, and I stuff the stockings.

In fact, I kind of love that part of Christmas. Because it gives me time to think about the people in my life for whom I’m grateful. It takes a village, right? Damn right, it does. And I want my village to know that I’m grateful for every blessed day that they take care of my kids so I can continue to pursue my own goals.

I also get the few gifts that we’ll give our kids. (Don’t tell them, but it’s a few small games, some Play-Doh, hand puppets, and some winter clothes.) We don’t really do many gifts at Christmas. My husband and I don’t exchange gifts. Seriously. What’s the point? Instead of gifts, what we’ve said we’re going to do for each other is give the other person a solid day of not having to take care of the kids from sunup to sundown.

(Merry Christmas, BG. Love you.)

Love my kids.

Love ’em.

But I also enjoy such privileges like, I don’t know, setting my own agenda. Or making a decision based on what I feel like.

Guess what I discovered over the past few days while my kids have been at daycare?

7:00 a.m. is the perfect time on a winter day to go for a run. The sun is just starting to come up and the frost is still crisp on the fallen leaves. It’s light enough to easily spot patches of ice, but the sun isn’t high enough yet to blind you. And in that perfect light, your breath comes out in fluffy white puffs, momentarily adorning the air.

And I love lying still on the middle of the living room floor, eyes closed, no damn phone in my hand or notifications calling for my attention, for a solid 30 minutes.

And laughing about South Park’s Buddha Box.

And crying with PBS’ newest version of Little Women.

And thinking about Black Mirror’s Hang the DJ.

And reflecting on how much the kids have grown this past year.

 

So this Christmas, I’m happy to Bow Out, Sign Off, and Check Out.

And be happy to do None of the Things.

Hoping you all find your own Time and Space and Peace.

Sharon

POP # 16 : I’m 37!?

Because I have pretty much no time to write lately due to a combination of factors and because I feel like, Come on, it’s been a whole month and you’ve written nothing

Totally expecting to find only memes related to the infamous Clerks’ line of “I’m 37!?!“, I was surprised to find that googling “I’m 37” led me to a several humorous tidbits that have helped me to celebrate my 37th birthday this year.

Enjoy.

  1. Bad Science Journalism: According to what I can only assume I should view as bad science journalism, the age 37-38 is when you start to feel old. I have to say though, I don’t typically “feel old” yet. Well, at least until it’s 6 p.m. By 7 p.m., I’m begging to crawl into bed so I can be ready to do it all over again at 4:30 the next morning.

2. Monty Python: I’m not a lover of Monty Python (though my husband is). Still, this made me laugh out loud.

3. “37 Things I’m Thinking about Now that I’m 37” by Casey Lewis.

Please enjoy this gentleman’s thoughts because I really don’t think I could have done any better in explaining where I’m at in work, relationships, and reckoning with my place in the world.

And here are some birthday artifacts that I’ve found particularly humorous. Kudos to my birthday buddy, Cate, on her clever birthday cake ideas.

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She’s also great at picking cards. (We’re also Game of Thrones buddies.)

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Cards from my husband (respects my love for puns) and daughter (practicing “cursive”):

My daughter’s first “Writer’s Workshop” in her kindergarten class. The teacher interviews one student a day and records their ideas on paper for the whole class to read together.

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Lately, most days pass by in a blur of responsibilities with barely more than 10 minutes at a time for me to catch a breath and retreat into much-needed alone time.

And then I remember:

Christmas is coming.

Oh, sweet Lord.

Here we go.

And yet…

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On Wonder: A Eulogy to My Physics Teacher, Mrs. Norma Howell

Norma,

I can still see you holding my three-week-old daughter in our living room, rocking in the glider. You offered to stay overnight at our place and help out with the night feedings on occasion, and we gladly took you up on the offer.

You cradled her in your arms, your gaze landing on her tiny face, your hands tracing her tiny hands. You said, “Oh… This is the best.”

“Really?” I asked, thinking of how unbelievably sleep-deprived I was. “The newborn part? Not when they were older?”

“Well…” You paused for a moment, before breaking into a wide grin, “Actually, it was all pretty awesome. But this… I just have such fond memories of my nursing my boys.”

I smiled. You rocked.

“But honestly,” you said. “I really loved it all. Every moment of it. I’d do it all over if I could.”

We talked for a time about your health, as you had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer several years earlier.

“I remember praying to God,” you said, “And I said, ‘Well, if this is my time, then it’s my time…'” Then you broke into that same wide grin, “I thought, ‘But, I sure hope it’s not!’ Turned out it wasn’t yet, and now I’m just grateful for every day I have here.”

Norma and Felicity

Norma and Felicity: October 2013

After the initial shock that you had recently passed wore off, I combed over my memories of you. Things you had said to me first as a student, and then later as a kind of occasional life mentor. And I arrived at a common refrain:

I’m sorry I couldn’t see what you were trying to show me.

I remember all those times when I was your student and I was working through physics problems. Rather than teaching the laws of physics deductively without fully understanding their application, you used a clever, inductive reasoning approach to help students discover the laws for themselves.

I didn’t realize how clever of a method it was. I just knew it was making me think. A lot. And because I didn’t trust my own logic and judgment, it made me nervous.

When I’d come to you with a set of questions or completed problems, ready for you to approve so I could move on to the next module, I remember thinking…

I hope I got the answers right.

I hope I don’t look stupid in front of you.

I hope I don’t let you down.

I remember you gently asking me to consider, once again, what was the difference between acceleration and velocity.

You knew how to talk to a fragile overachiever like me. You didn’t tell me I was wrong. You just asked me to “tighten up” my understanding.

You were also merciful to the class as a whole. I remember a time when our entire class failed a quiz. You stood at the room, your right hand clutching the frayed edges of notebook paper, and you said somberly, “Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The bad news is…everyone failed.”

A brief moment passed to let that information sink in.

“The good news,” you continued cheerfully, “is that you can take a second quiz to replace that awful grade!”

For you, there was never failure. There were just more opportunities to try again.

For you, it was never about arriving at a destination.

It was always about the journey.

***

I wish I could have seen it that way. I wish you could have brainwashed me completely into seeing the world as full of wonder and possibilities.

It makes me sad to admit it, but I held myself back in your class.

I wish I could have let go of my fear of getting a bad grade in order to really embrace the deeper mysteries that this universe holds.

But I was young and insecure. I defined myself by what I achieved. And if I didn’t achieve, who was I? What did I have to define myself?

And so, I wouldn’t allow myself to imagine a future in which I was uncertain of whether or not I would succeed. I wouldn’t take the risk of pursuing a career in science or math. Because I was convinced that eventually, people would realize that I was an impostor. It would all catch up with me and I would fail.

So instead, I would carve out a path on which I wouldn’t fail.

Because, after all, what was worse than failing?

I was young. I was insecure.

***

After high school, I stayed in touched with you because your son married my good friend, Linda. I saw you over the years at get-togethers at your house or Linda’s house, and each time, you were the same: smiling, laughing, joyful.

You still peppered your speech with intonation and emphasis that made a lot of what you were saying into either Great News! or A Good Joke!

You were always interested in what I had to say, no matter what I talked about. You were that way with everyone, I think, and it’s why people loved you. You cared about what people said. You didn’t just listen–you heard people. Maybe this was because you found joy, real joy, in the happiness of others.

This is partly what made you such a great teacher: You were able to see me as a whole, complicated, unique person, someone more than just the scared-of-math-and-science teenage girl sitting on the left side of your class from August 1999 to May 2000.

But your willingness to being authentic with me also helped me see you as a whole, complicated, unique person.

Reciprocity like that is rare. And it is powerful.

***

Last night, I had a dream. It was one of those recurring dreams that you feel like you’ve had hundreds of times before (and it’s a mystery to you why you’ve always forgotten about it in your waking life).

I was walking a perfectly paved path, high in the most beautiful, lush mountains I’ve ever seen. But it wasn’t cold. Even the highest peaks had no snow. As I walked that path, I was completely free of any responsibility that I’ve ever had. I was so untethered, I felt like I was floating.

I was so, so full of joy.

And the music. If I knew how to compose music, I could have written out all of the notes when I woke up this morning. But that memory is fading.

What stays with me from this dream is my certainty that I was coming back.

I had been there before. Many times.

And I was home among something beautiful and wild that had missed me as much as I had missed it. And my joy was coming from the realization that I had been away for so long on a journey that had taken me everywhere but here. That everything I needed to do and everything that people needed from me was completely finished.

But it was the journey that made my coming home so joyful. For how can you be as joyful to see something that you never left?

It was all those moments spent with my own students, from countries far and wide, who first awakened my own curiosity in other ways of seeing the world. The same ones who helped me open my mind to the fact that (shockingly) there were so many ways of seeing and living in the same world.

It was all the times I thought well, this well definitely be the thing that breaks me… and then it wasn’t.

It was all the happiness, the stories, the hugs, the missed chances, the blatant mistakes, the fights, the kisses, the stress, the doubts, and all the uncertainty of the journey…

That made coming home so joyful.

***

What happens when we die?

I used to be so certain of the answer to that.

I used to be so well-educated on all things spiritual, particularly in my senior year of high school. I had answers, and those answers were supported by carefully selected Bible verses.

But I’m being a lot more honest with myself these days.

And I’m willing to say, I don’t know.

What happens when we die? 

During my morning runs this week, I thought about this over and over again.

If we are more than body, what happens to us? Where do we go? Do we travel to some higher dimension that we can’t possibly imagine with our three-dimensional brain? Will I return to this heaven in the mountains, some strange place that calls to me for reasons I don’t understand? Do we review our lives in retrospect, weighing everything we’ve done? Do we wait between worlds until we feel ready to move on? Are we re-united with the ones we’ve lost? Or do we lose all sense of self and join a larger, higher consciousness? And what would that even be like?

I thought a lot as I ran.

And then clarity hit me.

I was finally doing the thing that you were trying to teach me.

I was wondering.

I was in wonder.

I was allowing myself to not have the answers. To allow myself to live in the space of uncertainty. And I was doing it without thinking of myself as a failure.

Isn’t that what you were trying to teach us the whole time?

To wonder? To think?

To allow yourself to not have the answers, but by God, to think about it.

Sometimes, clarity hits you in odd ways.

Sometimes, it comes to you as you think about a loved one passing.

Sometimes, it seems almost supernatural.

Because when I slowed to a walk during one of my morning runs, I looked over at the sign for the apartment complex down the street. Lots of things around here are named “Normandy.” Normandy United Methodist Church. Normandy Elementary. Normandy Ridge Road.

But in that moment, the sign of the apartment complex was partially covered.

And all I saw was,

Norma.

It was my honor to have met you in life. I hope we meet again, if that’s what happens when we die.

If you see my dad (You can’t miss him. He’s about 6′ 3″, mostly bald, and he’ll be wearing a short-sleeved dress shirt, tucked into his swim trunks, which he calls his wrestling todds), please tell him that I’d give anything to listen to one of his annoying political rants, even if it meant hearing the words Make America Great Again hundreds of times–as long as he makes me his Famous Thresherman’s Breakfast when he’s done.

With gratitude,

Sharon

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