Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Tag: truth

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.”

Dying

Friday, August 12th, 3:30 p.m.

“She’s out of isolation, so you don’t need to bother with a gown or gloves. Whatever it is, it’s not COVID,” the ICU nurse says. I glance at the whiteboard. Nurse: Megan.

Through the window, I see my mother reclined on the hospital bed, her eyes closed, her chest rapidly rising and falling. This labored breathing has been ongoing for days now, her heart rate increasing steadily over the days. 90. 100. 110. 125. 130.

It holds at 140 now.

140 is my heart rate when I’m jogging or doing kickboxing. And there, she lies, reclined on the hospital bed, her body racing as if accelerating toward some unknown destination in the distance. Does she know where she’s going? And when will she arrive?

What’s causing her high heart rate? I had asked the doctor.

It’s the body’s stress response.

To what?

We don’t know.

There would be nothing else to say until more tests were done. More and more tests.

I look at my mother through the door.

She is dying. Surely, they can see that.

Can’t they?

I slide the door of the ICU room open and step inside and rest my eyes on my mother. And the reality of the situation washes over me again, a horrible reminder. Oh, right. It really is as bad as the last time that I was here, just hours ago.

But then, I realize. No.

It’s not as bad as last time.

It’s actually worse.

I want to tell every nurse and doctor and hospital worker, This isn’t what she looks like. She’s really not like this.

In a week, she has transformed from a robust 68-year-old woman into a woman who looks to be in her 80s. Frail.

I place my cup of coffee on the floor beside the chair next to her bed and sit beside her. The welts that have emerged on her face and arms are starting to crust over. The doctors guess that it’s a reaction to antibiotics to treat a UTI, but it’s just a guess.

I slide my hand under hers. It’s not as hot as yesterday, when her fever was 102, but it’s still so warm. Her fingers are swollen. From what? I don’t know. Why is she breathing like this? There are new masses in her lungs, ones that have grown rapidly at some time in the last month, but is that what’s causing her body to run like its out of control?

Her spinal tap is clear. There’s no infection. Her brain is fine. Her heart is fine. Carcinoid cancer is strange. We don’t know everything about it.

“Hi, Mom,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “It’s Sharon.”

I open a document on my phone. It’s a letter that I’ve written to her. I was going to read it at her funeral, but she deserves to hear it while she’s alive. My eyes skate over the first line that I’ve written to steel myself to read it, but I can’t see through the blurry curtain of my tears. They drop freely onto my dress.

That looks so nice on you! she had said, not two months ago. Stitch Fix? I’ve never heard of it!

I look around the room for a box of tissues and see nothing. There are never enough tissues in these rooms. I wipe my face with the back of my free hand as I hold my mother’s hand. Then, I pull a used paper towel from the dispenser in her last hospital room and dab at my face again.

I close the app with the letter to my mother and navigate to a song. Something that has comforted me in the past.

See me someday sleeping softly
Flowers draped across my knees
Hear the cries of friends and family
Missing me
Press on

She’s not gone yet, but I miss her already.

I look down at my mother’s hand.

Just two weeks ago, she responded to my touch. One week ago, she could still acknowledge that I was in the room. Yesterday, with effort, she could say a few words–if they were important. I fed her a small piece of strawberry, and with great effort, she chewed it. Now, when she is aware, her communication has reduced to groans and a look from behind glassy eyes.

In this moment, her eyes are closed. I could almost convince myself that she was sleeping, if she weren’t breathing like she were running a race.

My head drops to her hand and I press it to my cheek, where my tears are now sliding over her knuckles and down her wrists. I turn my head and look up the side of her arm, upward at her as she is reclined in the bed and suddenly she seems as large as she was to me when I was a child. Authoritative. Grand. Only now, silent and suffering.

I want to wake her up, shake her out of this nightmare. I want to curl up in her arms. She was not a mother who would say something like, “Everything’s going to be okay, Sweetie.” Instead, she would say something simpler, like, “Hey, now. What’s wrong?”

Her hand is slick underneath my cheeks, my tears still spilling forth. There is Life there, inside of her, as strong as it has ever been. But not for long. Soon, her hand will turn cold and there will be no warming it up with peach tea or coffee with cream. I can still see the steam rising from her mug as she laughed about my ridiculous guesses for unscrambling words in a puzzle book.

The sadness settling over me is so heavy I cannot even hold myself up and soon, I’m collapsed over the rail of the hospital bed. I’m crawling up the side of the bed now, my face and neck pressed against her arm and hand, gazing up at her. I want her to snap out of this. For her breathing to slow. For her to look over at me and say, “I had the weirdest dream.”

But her face is so thin now. Her face has never been this pale, this thin, this drained of life.

I want to go back. To my beginning. When I was the Protected, and she, the Protector. When it was her tears of joy covering me at my birth, not my tears of sorrow covering her just before her death. How short the years were between those two turning points in our universe. I didn’t always take those years for granted. I cherished them more each time she told us the cancer was back. But how many years had the cancer slept–and I lost sight of my gratitude?

Moments with someone you love become so much more precious when you’re threatened with losing them forever. You find yourself making frequent trips to see them. Cherishing every word they say. Not throwing away their cards. Taking more pictures. More videos.

My mind drifts and I think of the woman who wept upon Jesus’s feet and then wiped away her tears with her hair, just before pouring expensive perfume over his feet.

Why was she crying? Jesus and his disciples believed that it was because she was “a sinful woman” and was plagued with regret.

But no one asked her. They just assumed that she was sad about her sinful life.”

But now I wonder if she knew, in the way that I know now, that Death is at the doorstep. I wonder if she felt the same tight tug at her heart when she looked at Jesus, the tightness that I’m feeling now as I gaze at my mother in these final hours, as if she is being pulled into a thick fog while I am anchored here. Unable to follow, even at a distance.

Even though there was a time when we were so connected that the echoes of our heartbeats rippled throughout the same body. My hiccups were her hiccups, and hers were mine.

Wasn’t there a verse in Isaiah (Was it Isaiah?) that said, Death where is thy sting?

I know where it is. It’s here, in this room. I feel it needling me every time a monitor beeps, announcing some new threshold that my mother has fallen too far below or risen too far above.

The nurse, Megan, quietly enters the room and I don’t even try to hide my tears. What’s the point?

“Here,” she says softly, handing me a hospital washcloth. “This is better.”

I nod, unable to even thank her properly. I push the stiff, paper towels into my purse.

She doesn’t say anything.

There is nothing to say.

Life is filled with bitter music
Breeze that whistles like a song
Death gets swept down like an eagle
Snatch us with our shoes still on

Press on

Behind me, I can hear the soft conversations of nurses in the hallway. I can’t hear the content, but the tone tells me that whatever they’re talking about weighs infinitely less than what is happening in this room.

Do they know? Can they tell what’s happening? Is it obvious to them too?

When do we start using that word, dying? Is it too soon? It doesn’t seem too soon.

Instead, it seems too late for someone to be notifying me. Instead, it seems that I was meant to figure this out on my own. It seems that we are in the wrong place here. ICUs are meant for people to get better. Why is she here anyway? Shouldn’t we be in hospice? Why are we pumping high-flow oxygen into her nostrils and administering potassium?

Why did we do a biopsy? Will the results read as clearly as a pregnancy test? Dying or Not Dying? When are the results supposed to come back? After she’s dead? Why are we still testing?

The sobs overwhelm me and I find myself praying not only to God, but also my father. My grandmother. Any ancestors who will hear me.

Please. She needs someone to guide her. She needs help to find her way forward. I cannot stand to watch her suffer like this another day.

I love her too much to allow this to go on.

There is a doctor’s knock at the door. They all knock the same–an interrupting, quick signal that you are next in line. But I cannot even lift myself to acknowledge the sound. If this doctor’s time is money, they’ll need to pay the price for now. And I will come away from this moment knowing that I owe them nothing. I will not shield them from my pain or my grief. They should know the weight of what is happening here, how the gravity of this moment warps time, slows it down, so that every moment is lived painfully and with the greatest effort imaginable.

They should feel it, if even to a small degree, in the way that I’m feeling it now.

My mother is dying.

Whoever is about to sit with me and talk with me already knows that, too.

***

He’s very kind, this doctor in his late 30s. He uses phrases like, “How are you feeling about her condition?” And “Yes, I agree that it’s time to modify her goals.”

When I ask if we can help her pass without suffering, he says, “We absolutely can.”

Then, a new flood of tears arrives as phrases that should be uttered twenty years from now are spoken today.

We can move her to a private, quiet room. Make her comfortable. Give her morphine for pain. Give her anti-anxiety medication.

How long will it take, we ask as a family.

Could be 30 minutes. A few hours. Or days.

More tears.

I’m hoping for a few hours. Time to say what we want to say to her. To pray. To read to her.

But the thought of wandering for days in this Space Between Worlds…

The thought is crushing.

But I know that I will bear it, no matter how long.

I will bear it for her.

***

The night nurse comes, Regina. I believe she is the Holy Spirit, the Great Comforter, incarnate. She can’t be older than 35, but she speaks as someone who has traveled this road of Death many times. She props her hands on her hips like she’s telling us the specials on tonight’s menu.

“I want to be clear about what we’re doing tonight. We’re going to do a terminal wean. We’ll do everything to make her comfortable and relieve her pain.”

It’s not insensitive the way that she says any of this. Instead, it instantly puts me at peace. What we are doing is not unusual or awful. We are only getting out of the way of Death. We are simply fulfilling my mother’s wishes, even though it means that she’s leaving us behind.

We read last minute messages from friends and family who want to say goodbye. We hold the phone up to her ear to allow family who can’t make it to talk to her. My mother says nothing. She cannot talk. All she can do now is groan, and only when absolutely necessary. She breathes heavily through her nose and mouth, which quickly dries out her lips. The tone in her jaw is gone. She cannot keep her mouth closed. Every time Warren carefully applies Chapstick to her lips, tears sting my eyes.

Can she still hear? I wonder. While half of me is glad that we are talking to my mother as if she can still hear us, the other half of me remains skeptical and wonders if this is all a show to make ourselves feel better.

Her brain is fine, the doctors had said.

As I sit on my mom’s left, my daughter, Felicity, walks in, tears slowly careening down her nine-year-old cheeks. She has been pinballing between entering the ICU room and remaining in the hallway.

Anything you want to do is fine, I assured her. Only do what you want to do.

She sits on my lap, facing away from me. She’s too tall for me to hold her like a baby anymore, so I do the next best thing and bear-hug her from behind.

Felicity gazes over at her grandmother and places her hand on top of hers.

My mother groans.

My chest tightens and I swallow.

“She can hear you, baby girl. She knows it’s you.”

Felicity leaves her hand there as her little body shakes in my lap. I know in this moment, my mother hates that she’s making Felicity sad. She hates that she can no longer mask the fact that she’s dying. She wouldn’t want to scare Felicity. She would despise the fact that the only sound she could make to comfort Felicity was a monotone groan. She would encourage Felicity to not let her condition make her sad. She might even tell Felicity what she had said so many times before, “I’m getting better and better every day, Felicity. Don’t worry about me.”

Without warning, Felicity jumps to her feet and moves to the other side of the bed.

“Can I hug her?” she asks.

“Yes. As tightly as you want.”

She leans across the bed and rests upon my mother and pushes out her shaky words.

“I love you, Grandma.”

Warren helps Regina remove my mother’s neck brace, which had been supporting her nearly healed neck after her most recent fall.

They remove the arm brace, which had been keeping her broken right arm in place.

Regina pulls away the tubing that forces high-flow oxygen from my mother’s nostrils.

A lump rises in my throat as a thought occurs to me.

We are removing all her armor now, letting it fall away, leaving her vulnerable. We all understand that she can’t be any more broken than she is now. Nor, are we are protecting her anymore. We’ve wandered off the road to recovery long ago. Now, we’re on a different path, each of us recognizing it at different times, as if we are each acquiring a new language at different speeds. I’ve been able to read the signposts for weeks, but I know that others have only been able to read them for days.

We are handing Mom over to a Thing that we have all feared, no matter what our faith teaches us. No matter how many cheery faces have told us confidently that there’s Heaven waiting for us on the other side, none of us have seen this destination, nor have we traveled there. Perhaps someday I will find comfort in the thought of Heaven. But not today. Because my mother’s path to get there is covered in thorns, ripping at her mercilessly even as she barrels blindly forward.

She will travel this last path alone, exhausting every weapon and tool that she used in this life. She will do this alone, just as she did when she gave birth four times. Just as she did when she fought through unbearable pain when she broke her back in 2007–and all the years of pain that followed. Just as she has fought this cancer for 24 years.

Like every other time before, she would do this last battle all by herself.

No man has ever come close to demonstrating the strength that my mother has.

Not even close.

She is the only person I’ve known who has chosen over and over again to walk into the shadows of Pain and Loss.

And still found the Light inside of it.

And then held that Light up for all to see.

Warrior isn’t the title that she has earned.

She is the Hero.

Maybe that’s why her body is still wielding its sword, slashing at shadows.

We can’t tell her to stop fighting.

But at least we can take away her pain while she fights.

Getting COVID: Two Years into the Pandemic

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:

POSITIVE.

And all I can think is how NEGATIVE that word feels in my life right now.

POSITIVE?

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 know.

***

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…

  • remote learning at home (worst idea ever)
  • remote learning at daycare (a paid version of worst idea ever)
  • mask policies–official and unofficial
  • teleworking policies (1 day per week in person? 2 days? Actually, stay home now. Okay, come back. Actually 2 days per week in person was probably enough. We think?)
  • our own level of risk as a family
  • a revolving door of quarantines (seven–YES, SEVEN–so far)
  • quarantine flowcharts (does the unexposed sibling need to stay home?)
  • the New Social Normal
  • missing our friends
  • missing gatherings

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?” -As Good As It Gets, 1997

Indeed…

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.

Ramblings about the End of the Trump Presidency and Blue Lives Matter

My son was born four years ago, just a few weeks after Trump’s inauguration. My life turned both inside-out and upside-down. Inside-out, as I struggled once again with bringing the life inside me into the outer world. Upside-down, as events that would once grab headlines for days, if not weeks, were now coming every few hours. The It’s-Not-a-Muslim-Ban Travel Ban. Michael Flynn. Betsy DeVos. I would put my son down for a nap, fall into a half-sleep for an hour, and then wake up to a new horrible reality of Things that Were Now Possible in the U.S..

I knew there was a reason that when I entered my classroom on the day after the 2016 election that I could barely keep from crying in front of my international students. My heart knew what was coming, even if they didn’t know it yet. I felt somewhere deep in my heart that the life that I had built teaching English and fostering intercultural understanding was now dangerously at risk of disappearing altogether.

It turns out my worry was completely founded and warranted. Because two years later, international student enrollment plummeted where I was teaching, just as it was everywhere else in the United States. I grieved the fact that I needed to seriously reconsider my career choice. It was a path that I pursued tirelessly just to be employed full-time.

Now here we are, four years later. I have left teaching, but I have managed to stay in the field of education. There are things that I miss about teaching (advising students, talking with families, joking before class, sharing snippets of American culture) and things I’m wholeheartedly grateful that I never have to do again (grade essays, sit in a faculty meeting that could have been an email, eat like a wolf at my desk while answering emails, just to name a few).

And miracle of miracles, we are saying good-bye to legitimately the Worst President in American History. I don’t feel that those words are too strong to use. And because I believe in supporting my opinions with reasons, here are just a few:

  • “They’re rapists. They’re murders. And some, I assume, are good people.” On the campaign trail, 2015
  • “There were fine people on both sides.” About the Charlottesville white supremacist rally, 2017
  • Separating children from their parents at the border. 2018.
  • “I would like you to do us a favor.” Asking the Ukrainian president for non-existent incriminating information about Biden, 2019
  • “No one saw this coming.” About the COVID-19 pandemic, March 2020.
  • Suggesting that “disinfecting” the lungs by injection may help with treating coronavirus, 2020

There is so, so, so much more.

Before the pandemic, at some point in 2019, I remember talking with friends about how concerned I was about the end of this presidency. I believed that if Trump lost in 2020 and we were following his playbook, he would say the elected was rigged, that voting fraud was rampant, and he would refuse to concede. I really wondered if he would have to be dragged from the White House. We talked about at length about the limitations of what Trump could do to hold onto power. My friends reassured me that the military swears an oath to the Constitution, not to the President.

Some of those words were comforting.

And then January 6th came.

Just. What. The. Fuck.

(Photo credit: Kent Nishimura, Los Angeles Times)

***

I’m not exuberant about Biden being sworn into office. I’m hopeful. But honestly, at this point, I’m drained. Not only by the division between Americans that is visible at the national level, but also by the division between Americans in my own community.

One of our neighbors STILL has a yard full of Trump-related campaign signs decorating her lawn. All Lives Matter. Back the Blue. Lock Her Up (a fav from 2016). God Bless America. And then to string the whole mess together in a frightening display of cognitive dissonance, a “patriotic” Christian cross, lit with red, white, and blue lights.

In January, the Trump flags are still flying.

This is deeply unsettling to me.

I drove through a middle-class neighborhood a few weeks ago and everything about it felt familiar and cozy. American flags hung from the porch or next to the mailbox or from the awning of the house.

Then I saw something new.

Blue Lives Matter flag

How can I explain to you how this made me feel? To see this bizarre twist on an American flag, flying as high and next to American flags?

I had a stone in my stomach just looking at it.

I felt disbelief, anger, and frustration.

I felt cold.

What are we? What is the United States when we cannot even agree about which flag deserves to represent what we hold most dear? Are we really so divided that we’re putting aside the flag that brings us together and pledging allegiance to something else?

It’s not just a flag. People fly flags to identify themselves. And if you choose to fly a Blue Lives Matter flag in your front yard–especially when it’s the ONLY flag in your yard–you are making a bold statement about what principles you follow and what values you hold.

That thin blue line on that flag is a clear divider.

The question stands: Who does it divide?

Who is on either side of that line? Is it police on one side? Community on the other? If it is, then I really don’t understand. Because I thought that the jobs of police officers were facilitated by working with the community, not fighting against it.

Or perhaps the flag is finally saying what we’ve all known to be true for a long time. I grew up on Cops. The theme of the show is very hard to miss. Poor people–almost always black–are criminals. Police keep us safe from them. I don’t recall a single episode where a tax evader or embezzler was dragged from his corporate office for defrauding a company for millions. But a coked-out dude running from the police? Every episode.

But we now live in a world where militarizing police departments is common in the U.S., so perhaps I shouldn’t be so shocked that this is where we are, debating on the meaning of flying the Blue Lives Matter flag in your front yard. My reflective self wonders if we are just on a slow slide into a police state. My gloom-and-doom self cries out that we’re already there. But my hopeful self remembers that we are not there. Yet.

But we could be.

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.

I am Writing Again

In January 2016, I had a great idea for a novel. I had some momentum and a lot of dynamite scenes that compelled me to sit down for a time and give it space to come to life.

But then I got pregnant. I had a baby. And then the Hamster Wheel of Life spun on ceaselessly for three years.

My inspiration and motivation drained as the questions that I had about the characters and the plot were so overwhelming that I boxed myself into a corner, unable to figure out how to get out of it.

Yes, it was a great idea. But quite frankly, it was not the right time. I worked a job that drained my creativity. My supervisors sucked my joy dry. I had diapers to change. A baby to feed. A kindergartner with a broken elbow. A toddler to follow all weekend long. A preschooler with poop in his underwear. Again.

I said so sorry to the idea and moved on.

But this past January, four years later, the idea floated to the forefront again.

It really was a great idea.

I sat on it more. I asked the questions. I thought of answers. I asked more questions. I wrote ideas down in a notebook. Some of the questions, I left unanswered. But this time, I had more answers. I had been thinking about the story on and off for the last four years, but now, things were starting to make sense.

Fuck it, I thought. Here we go.

I mean, really, what’s the worst that could happen?

Here’s the worst that could happen: I could waste my time writing a book that no one wants to read but that I care deeply about.

I’m fine with that.

I didn’t sell thousands of copies of my last book.

And I’m fine with that. It is a success because I created something out of nothing and it moved people.

That’s success to me.

For me, it really is about the process. The fact that I feel better doing the work. The fact that writing these thoughts teaches me things about myself.

It heals me.

Last month, I took a casual online writing class. One of exercises that we did was creating a voice of our Inner Critic. Then, we were tasked with defacing our Inner Critic in whatever way we wanted. Here’s what I ended up with.

So, what is the book about?

This is not something I’ll be openly talking about online until much further on, especially since I know that it’s not just one book that I’m working on. This will likely be a four to five book series.

So for now, just know that I am filling notebooks with pieces of characters and plots. I am thinking of symbols and themes, lines of dialogue that won’t go away. I’m plotting them in tables and writing summaries. I’m crafting a Shitty First Draft, that is actually isn’t too shitty. And, People of the World, I am actually now nearly to the end of the Shitty First Draft phase and prepare to dig into my favorite part–the Revision Stage.

Creating makes me excited. It energizes me in a way that nothing else does.

Here’s to the journey.

Truth about the Things We Bury

Lately the American flag looks like nothing but

blood and bandages

layered one on top of another

the blood never seeping through

frozen by the iciness of heart

clogged by the pain of Too Many Hurts

each demanding to be seen, felt, but not

the blood doesn’t flow

it stays, (Hands up!)

the bandages wrapped, we bury it again

it is a great whitewashing of hurt

that has become part of the American experience.

Everything is fine.

We didn’t witness the collapse of the American financial sector and the global economy because of rampant unchecked corporate greed.

Invest today.

We didn’t have mass shootings that killed 20, 40, 60, 80 people.

We are safe.

We didn’t just watch our President escape impeachment for collaborating with a foreign government to interfere in our presidential election.

We are fair.

We didn’t just enter a pandemic with no real national strategy or leadership.

We are prepared.

We are not witnessing the death of hundreds of thousands of Americans, their bodies held in refrigerated trucks.

We are warriors.

We are not watching voters in Wisconsin and Georgia stand in line to vote in a primary for 6-8 hours during a pandemic.

Voting is a privilege.

We are not watching our politicians heartily encourage us to return to work and shopping in order to save the Great American Economy.

Exercise personal responsibility.

We are not watching our black citizens being murdered by police, over and over and over.

We are a country of law and order.

We are not explaining, once again, why we need more social workers and fewer police officers.

Justice has been done.

We are not allowing a narcissistic sociopath to use military force to dispel protesters to take a picture with a Bible in front of a church.

Don’t believe fake news.

To acknowledge such truths would be too harmful to what we hold dear about being American.

Freedom. Equality. Justice. Bravery. Compassion. The High Road.

We cannot hold these realities in our minds.

Can you imagine the pain if such a reality were true?

“USA flag” by kmezon is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This year, the flag is all blood and bandages to me

With each star a reason that we may die for it

For shopping and dining and entertainment

For living in nursing homes, or hospice, or prisons, or jails

For watching our grandchildren or going to church

For protesting or policing

For going to college or opening a business

For treating patients or collecting our garbage

For being a suspicious shade of skin

For looking like someone else

For, for, for.

***

But things that are still alive don’t stay buried

And things that have long been dead don’t bleed

No matter how many times we send the living to the grave

The stone inconveniently rolls away again

They rise, healing in Their wings

For the price of seeing

For believing in the wounds, without needing to touch them

For gazing upon the faces of those whom the systems have killed

They rise again

But we do not sing hallelujah

Because we don’t need to be forgiven.

Because we have done nothing wrong.

We are sure of it.

We don’t feel hurt, so there is no hurt.

And anyway, we all hurt from time to time.

Life is hard.

It’s wonderful to just be alive and live in this great country.

For now.

Oh. But you are bleeding.

Here.

Take a bandage.

There, there now.

All better.

PoP #19: Potty Training

I am not used to having a child that triumphantly declares, “And I make Mama so happy!”

I am used to my older daughter, going her own way, not really responding deeply to the words, “That doesn’t make me happy.” I am used a preschooler who sat in her chair at the dinner table for three HOURS (not exaggerating), staring at a piece of pizza that she refused to eat.

Imagine my surprise that my soon-to-be three-year-old derives deep satisfaction by making his mom happy. Who rejoices in his mom’s approval.

Say what?

Some kids care about making Mom happy?

Yassss!!!!

So potty training.

The End is nigh, friends. It is so nigh.

I can be totally content doing overnight Pull-Ups until this kid is four.

But I’m beyond done with the constant vigil of diapering a child. For the past seven years, since 2013, since the beginning of Obama’s second term, since the premier of the first Frozen, we have been changing diapers and Pull-Ups and a significant number of those were cloth, which means thousands of loads of laundry.

And for an added bonus, Child # 2 went through about 8 months of on-again-off-again Toddler Diarrhea (for no apparent reason, which resolved seemingly overnight when he was almost 2). I cannot tell you how many times we woke up in the morning (and sometimes in the middle of the night) to a toddler absolutely covered in poop juice. From the back of his head to his toes. Covered.

Child # 2 is the reason we have a Steam Cleaner. And the ability to initiate hazmat protocol at 2:00 a.m. with a toddler screaming less than a foot from our faces. And the reason we probably spent $150 on tubes of diaper cream. (Pro tip for new parents: Resinol. Google it. Buy a lot.)

What I’m saying is… We’ve worked hard for this reprieve.

And I am ready for it.

A Farewell to Teaching (for now)

It’s true.

After thirteen years of professional teaching, I’m leaving my career as a full-time ESL teacher in higher education to be an Instructional Media Designer for the eLearning Division at Sinclair Community College. I will be working mostly with faculty who are developing instructional media for their face-to-face classes, from concept to production. 

Fifteen years ago, I walked into the first class that I ever taught.

I was 22 years old. A teaching assistant for the English department at Wright State University. No teaching experience. Just my Bachelor’s degree, as a testament to the fact that I, at least, knew how to write an essay. And presumably, could figure out how to teach someone who was four years younger than me how to write an essay.

I loved it.

Okay, not all of the time.

Not when I was providing feedback on the thirteenth paper in a stack of twenty-five. But overall, it was awesome.

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Graduation, Master’s Degree: June 2006

When I taught my first ESL class in the LEAP Intensive English Program at Wright State, it was even better. I was able to use my love for linguistics to inform my teaching practice. My work was not only rewarding, it was challenging. I found that I was constantly making connections between my Bachelor’s degree in linguistics with my teaching practice. My students genuinely appreciated me. They thanked me after classes and wanted to take pictures together. They actually visited me during office hours. They told me their concerns and their problems.

And I reached out to them. When my parents first moved to Texas (and later, Minnesota), I invited my students to Thanksgiving dinner in our small apartment, several years in a row. My husband and I cooked for them, and they also cooked for us. We talked about families and marriage, children and religion, stories and recipes. And we laughed a lot.

People who aren’t teachers hear over and over again how much a teacher changes the lives of their students.

But teachers know that this relationship is reciprocal.

Students change their teachers.

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2006: One of the first classes that I taught professionally

In 2006, when I first started teaching Saudi women, I quietly wondered if my female Saudi students might feel free enough to take off their hijabs if I were welcoming enough.

Through my monocultural worldview, this was how I saw hijabs: they were impediments, barriers, obstacles to overcome.

At that time, I saw difference as an obstacle. And the best way to deal with it was to pretend it didn’t exist and that everyone was the same. As long as I treated all my students in the exact same way, my teaching would be effective. After all, it’s really all about having the best informed instructional approach, right?

Thirteen years later, I can see now that acknowledging difference is the first step towards working to create an equitable classroom for all students.

I am able to see a hijab as a religious expression for my Muslim women, something that many of them wear out of a love for their faith and a symbol of their devotion to God. It’s neither an obstacle nor an ornament. For many of my Muslim women, it’s grafted into their religious expression.

It wasn’t one person who changed my perspective. It was an ongoing parade of different students, male and female, in and out of my classroom, term after term, year after year. Each of them, an individual thread, weaving together with hundreds of other threads, to create a great tapestry of what has become years of experience with intercultural communication.

When I stand back and look at the last thirteen years of my life…

I see that I am the one who has changed.

I understand now that we are all looking at the world through our own cultural lenses. They revealed to me the invisible threads of American culture, values, and worldview that hold together, and sometimes, entangle me.

And so I say, with so much more humility than I had when I first started teaching, THANK YOU.

Thank you, to my thousands of students.

From Saudi Arabia, China, Kuwait, Libya, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Oman, UAE, India, Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Chad, Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, Nigeria, Gabon, Togo, Benin, Kenya, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Congo, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Russia, Ukraine, Switzerland, France, Spain, Italy, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, and Panama.

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2009: Volunteer teaching for Miami Valley Literacy Council

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2012: Teaching high school students from Peru

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2012: English for Engineers, students working on a collaborative group project

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Circa 2013: One of the many Conversation Groups hosted by our program

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End-of-Term Party 2014

Thank you for changing me.

I know I was a serious teacher (who hated late homework), but it is my sincere hope that I left you with the feeling that you were valuable and important to me.

I hope you know that I think you are courageous.

What is courage, after all?

It is the ability to accept that life is full of moments of darkness: from failure, rejection, fear, grief, and uncertainty. And yet, to be courageous is to walk into the dark moments and say, “Even if I fail, even if I’m rejected or afraid or lose people that I love, and don’t know what comes next… I will try.”

Your journeys across oceans and time zones, carrying with you the wishes and dreams of the families that sent you inspired me every day.

You showed me courage, day after day.

I saw many of you in your most vulnerable moments, just days after your planes had landed and your feet first touched U.S. soil.

You were tired and disoriented–and we greeted you with English placement tests and two full days of “orientation.” (Sorry about that. It wasn’t my call.)

I hope I was kind to you.

I hope that when you were hurting, I was there for you.

I hope that if you weren’t passing my class, I was able to have a conversation with you to assure you that I knew you were working hard and that grades should never tell you whether or not you are worthy of love

I hope I made you think critically about something that you had never considered before.

I hope we laughed together.

I hope that when you go home and tell your family about “Americans,” you remember me.

And my favorite saying, “It’s bananas.”

students.jpg

2019: My students giving poster presentations on our university’s alternate day of learning

It was not an easy decision to leave teaching, but considering the goals that I still want to accomplish in my professional life, it is time.

I’m also thankful for the support that the University of Dayton and UD Publishing have given me for my professional development over the years, all of which was inspired by the work that I do with my students. With their support, I was able to complete a graduate certificate in Technology-Enhanced Learning, which better prepared me for this future line of work. In addition, during my years at UD, I’ve presented on interdepartmental collaborations, intercultural communication, second language listening, learner-centered teaching, and digital technologies for language learning. I’m proud of the work that I’ve accomplished with the help of talented TESOL professionals, both those with whom I’ve collaborated, those who have mentored me, and those whom I have mentored. Although it was not required for my job and I often spent vacations and weekends researching and planning these presentations, I enjoyed these opportunities to grow and learn and keep my eyes open for what’s out on the horizon.

presenter badges

I won’t say that “I hope I’ll come back to teaching.”

The truth is, I know I will. At some point.

I might come back to teach face-to-face classes, if it works with my plans. I might decide to teach fully on-line (which could be super cool, I think).

We’ll see.

But for right now, it’s time for this next step.

Playing Video Games While the Kids are in Daycare

Final Fantasy VII Characters: Red XIII, Barrett, Cait Sith, Aeris, Cloud, Tifa, Cid, Vincent, and Yuffie.
Final Fantasy VII Characters

Summer is usually the time that I write more, but I’ve ended up using the past two and a half weeks just immersing myself in the healing power of Doing What I Want to Do.

This past academic year was rough. Extremely rough. I took six graduate classes in one year while teaching full-time. And I presented at three conferences. And then there were the two kids.

I don’t mean this to sound like I’m so Amazing Because I Do So Many Things. It was actually kind of stupid of me to over-commit myself to so many responsibilities. If I learned anything from this past year, it’s this: Although my mental breaking point has risen dramatically since I had the kids (surprise! surprise!), IT STILL EXISTS.

In mid-June, there I was. Dissolving into tears at a Saturday Morning Breakfast when a friend asked, “How are you doing?”

How am I doing?

Does it matter?

I’m dying inside. 

I haven’t had more than thirty minutes to think about something besides responsibilities in over SEVEN MONTHS.

I don’t do anything besides chores, work, school, chores, work, school. 

Well, yes, I exercise, but I get up at 4:00 a.m. just to do that. 

I haven’t seen adult TV since April. Period.

I haven’t done anything creative, FOR ME, for ten months.

I think that’s what has hurt the most. I’ve been holding onto a list of Things to Do that is about 100 items deep, and every time I knock enough of the things off the list and edge closer to a moment when I can do something that I want to do, SOMETHING ELSE FOR SOMEONE ELSE TAKES ITS PLACE.

Well, that’s just motherhood, hon’. Get over it, part of me thinks. You can do something for yourself in fifteen more years. 

And so the fight goes on.

This is the headspace of Mother of Two compared to Mother of One.

I truly don’t know how my mom survived being Mother of Five.

She didn’t drink. She had no vices that I could see. Her weapon was optimism.

I still don’t know.

***

So this is what burnout looks like.

Dusting off the ole’ PS 2 (purchased in 2001…) and playing Final Fantasy VII from the beginning, this time checking off the acquisition of each and every damn Enemy Skill, leveling up the characters beyond what they need, and grinding away at enemy fights with high AP.

Burnout is reveling in the complete obliteration of fake monsters, which you’ve already beat at least five times before, mind you, (even if it was years ago) that cower with your use of Beta or Bolt 3. It is actually mentally and physically enjoyable to watch yourself knock out Boss after Boss in a few major magic attacks–when you’ve spent the entire academic year grinding away, teaching the same classes over and over again, wondering if you’ve yet told that joke to this current roster of students.

Oh, they laughed, so nope, that joke was still new to them. But you are so very tired of yourself. You don’t find yourself clever or interesting anymore. Teaching has become a bit of an out-of-body experience where you actually–while verbally giving instruction–imagine a reality in which you are finally completely ALONE in a cabin, high in the mountains, with nothing but silent snow falling all around and six more books in the Wheel of Time series to read.

That’s burnout.

That’s what I’ve been coming back from over the last two weeks.

***

In mid-May, I came across this blog post about the level of burnout that working moms feel, with which I wholeheartedly agree.

However, it’s conclusion was this: Hey, Moms. Be vulnerable and let people know that you can’t do it all. Be real and don’t pretend that it’s all okay.

Um. Thanks. That’s not helpful.

I’m real all the time about how things are going. A month ago, an energetic co-worker saw me in the office’s kitchen and cheerfully asked how I was doing.

I said, “Running on fumes.”

“Awww, poor thing. Sorry to hear that.”

Which, yes, is somewhat nice to hear, but it doesn’t do much. And I’m certainly not expecting acquaintances to solve my burnout problems. I might also hear or “Eck, that sucks” or the murderously infuriating, “Well, this time goes fast, so don’t waste these moments!”

But it’s not helping to be vulnerable and real with people about the stress that I typically carry when I’m working full-time and taking care of two little ones.

That’s because the problems are systemic. When you live in a country that PITIFULLY supports parents, you end up with high levels of stress and burnout among working parents. (Not just working moms, hello.)

The 40-hour work week sucks for parents because you’re probably spending an additional 3-4 hours each day just caring for kids. And when you’re done with that, you just want to sleep. So really, between working and caring for kids, you’re putting in 60+ hours.

AND THEN HERE COMES THE WEEKEND.

Only it’s not the “weekend” anymore. It’s 24 waking hours of taking care of your kids, or at least keeping them safely occupied.

And if at any point in this post, you’ve had the thought, Oh please, move on, hon. This is your responsibility–You are proving my point.

Being real and being vulnerable about these issues doesn’t help because too often society says that parents (in particular, moms) should not only selflessly accept their responsibilities–they should revel in these most sacred of moments, when the children are small. Because that is what GOOD MOTHERS do. They find endless amounts of fulfillment and life satisfaction simply in seeing their children thrive.

If that’s what a good mother is, then I’m doomed to be a Mediocre Mom.

As much as I love my kids (and I really do), I cannot pretend that neglecting myself for months on end doesn’t have its consequences.

Right now, the consequence looks like this:

final_fantasy_vii_rerelease_screenshot_01

Of course, it truly does help when you hear your two-year-old says this:

***

Okay, truthfully, that’s not all I’ve been doing. I’ve definitely needed time to myself, but I am still very much me–and there’s part of me that just cannot be tamed, I guess.

We have finally filmed a video on knife sharpening for our YouTube cooking channel, which we have been planning to film for the past ten months. I’ve laid it out. It’s edited. It’s mixed and almost produced.

There’s also another project that I’ve been quietly working on, which I’ll debut in a few weeks, if not earlier.

More to come.

And, hey, thanks for reading and not judging.

Hopefully, I’m not scorched in the comments for “being real.”

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