Two Years

 

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It’s the crunch of the leaves and the smells of this season. The cold bite of the wind through a warm day and the dark blue of the sky.  It’s how the steam rises from rooftops on crisp mornings when the sun hits them, and how the vines that grow all over my house are changing color. All of it signifies this season of fall.

It’s my favorite season. It always has been. Though I’ve always loved the hot days of summer, there is something about the way autumn shows up. How beautifully it is able to let it all go.

Which is precisely why, though I would still call this season my favorite, I’m kind of disenchanted with it at the moment.

My mom fell and broke her pelvis two years ago today. In the busiest period of my life, amidst the crunching leaves and beautiful changing colors. Like so many pivotal moments, time stood still and I noticed. I noticed so clearly the colors and smells and feelings of that fall. Because I was clinging to some normalcy outside of the everyday life that was taking away my mom.

As soon as I found out about her pelvis, I knew that it was the end. I recalled her doctor telling us the previous winter that she probably had one year left, give or take, unless she fell and broke a hip, in which case she’d be gone in a month. As it turns out, she lasted almost 2 months after her injury. But she was not the same, and in so many ways, who my mother was left her after she fell. She was heavily medicated, still in a lot of pain, and her whole body was shutting down. There was a handful of very lucid moments that almost gave me hope, but mostly she used those times to settle her affairs and say her goodbyes.

But it’s two years later and I so badly want to enjoy this lovely season. To feel happy about it, but mixed in is the bitterness of those terrible 2 months. Because we are creatures of habit who look to the past to guide us. And this lovely autumn makes me think of falling in love when I was 16. It also reminds me of the lovely October day that I met my husband, and when my niece Addison was born, and trick or treating as a kid. And my mother dying.  Autumn has become all of those things for me.

I tell myself, because it’s true, that we are beings that get to choose. We can only think of one thing at a time. Our brain does not have to run the show. We can choose our thoughts, but like all things, this is a practice. And a work in progress.

I will have to choose the joy-filled moments, over and over, for the rest of my life. There is no one-stop-shop where I can purchase a bag of something and be fine about my mother’s death. The hard stuff, like the great stuff, is built in as a part of our foundation. We would not even be us without it.

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So I will take today, with the lovely autumn light and the wind blowing brightly colored leaves off the trees, and I will miss my mom. I will let myself be sad right now. And then I’m going to remind myself of a better memory every time the breeze tries to pull me back to sadder times. I will bring my mother with me through my life in search of what is beautiful and worth remembering. I know that this is how she wants me to carry her with me.

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Who My Son is Supposed To Be

 

My son Lincoln loves Frozen. Not so much the movie anymore, now that everyone in the house has it memorized. But he loves to play with his purple Frozen bucket in the sand box. And his pink and blue Frozen pajamas are such a hit that it’s a holy battle to get him to take them off. So when we went shopping for new shoes last weekend, he picked out fuchsia Frozen Crocs with Anna and Olaf on them. He looked around the whole store at all of the shoes, but these were the shoes that he clutched to his chest and carried proudly to the checkout.

 

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Lincoln loves dinosaurs and dragons, and he likes trucks. But he gets lost for an hour playing in the doll house that we found on Varagesale. It’s not unusual to find he’s carrying the set of babies that came with it around in his chubby little hands.

He gets excited about the real construction equipment that is working on the next block, but he could mostly take or leave the trucks at home. He does like to play with Optimus Prime on occasion, but I think that might be more about getting his big brothers undies in a bundle.

I spent a lot of my life doing “should be” things, for myself and my kids. Girls “should be” dressed a certain way. I “should be” a certain way. Boys “should” only play with certain toys.

Some of the norms we teach in our society are necessary, like manners, and hygiene. But some of the things we teach are not that important. Like what color our shoes are, or how we like to spend our spare (or play) time. They are small stuff but sometimes we talk about them until we convince everyone they are actually big stuff.

I’ve learned that some of the things I was brought up to believe (though taught to me with the best of intentions) do not fit me. I was not given the whole story, only the parts that our society and my particular family thought best for me. This is true for all of us.

We don’t have to take on all of the “supposed to be’s” in life. We don’t even have to pick them up. We are beings that get to choose. It is what makes us human. That, and the fact that we are all alike, but different.

Lincoln is just Lincoln, with his own set of unique fingerprints and his own multitudes of personality. A small human being with his own likes and dislikes. And fuchsia shoes.

I have no idea who he’ll “turn out” to be. But I’m going to do all I can to let him figure it out.

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A Year Without My Mom

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I’ve been thinking back about my mom. It’s been almost a year since she died, and the weather and the start of Christmas and Thanksgiving and all of it reminds me of her. And how even though I saw it all coming, it still managed to shake me so completely that she was gone.

The thing about looking back is that it’s really only helpful briefly. We have a tendency to give our pasts (both the good and bad parts) a lot of weight and importance. And it’s good to reflect, to learn from our past, to give it space and respect and reverence or whatever it deserves. The problem starts when we set up shop and start to live there. This seems especially common with the death of loved ones.

We wrap ourselves up in the memories of those we lost, like some warm cozy blanket. And for a moment it is all warm and cozy, but only until we remember that the past is all wrapped up into one. The jagged, pointy, barbed-wire part of our past is still in there too. And still hurts.

But we reason that at least the hurt reminds us of the one we lost, and so we stay wrapped up in our cozy-spiky blanket of the past, not realizing that there is a whole world we’re missing  that is going on RIGHT NOW but that we’ll never see or find this from our blanket.

It’s hard not to do this. Grief is a process, just like life is a process. But I don’t want to lie around in that blanket anymore. Mom wouldn’t want me to either.

There is this stupid app called Timehop. Have you heard of it? I shouldn’t call it stupid because I actually really like it. It’s always felt harmless, fun and sweet, and I thought it would bring nothing but good memories to enrich my life. It’s like the Facebook Memories thing, only Timehop did it first, so I’ve had it running on my phone for years. I see cool old photos and blog posts and where I was at and how far I’ve come. But then the damn thing updated and changed the settings and thus started to include old text messages that live on my phone. From my mom, cause that’s who I texted mostly. Messages from my mom. That’s what Timehop, and technology in general, started sending me.

At first, this was maybe August or September when it changed, the messages were welcome. She bought pumpkin cream cheese for Steve and a coloring book for Brice and a hat for Lincoln. The message were sweet because they were ours,  just setting up rides for her or visits, conveying our days and lives. Lots of “I love you’s”. So many “I love you’s”.

So I let the messages stay. But I knew what was coming. I knew she was going to fall on October 11th  and break her pelvis and that I would find a message that she needed help. I knew that it was coming but I didn’t shut the messages off.

Because, how could I? My mom’s last words to me every morning when I woke up. Like a gift, but with barbed wire inside waiting to show up.

Because now, looking back to a year ago this week, the messages are just really, really sad. Just heartbreaking. And this icy morning and the cold and everything suddenly feels so much like that time. Only she’s been gone almost a year and I don’t want it to feel so close anymore. I don’t want to remember the, “Dropped buzzer and can’t breathe. Call nurse for help?” anymore. I don’t want to keep reliving her death, but it’s hard not to. Even without the messages, it would be hard not to.

My calendar for this weekend said “No matter how hard the past, you can begin again.” I love the Buddhist proverbs for their simplicity. Not easy, but simple, nonetheless.

I will always miss my mom. This I know now. This will be a truth for the remainder of my days. Our parents bring us to life and then show us our own mortality in their passing. The show us the way.

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But I don’t always have to think about the bad parts though. I don’t actually have to think about that at all. I choose it, just as I choose to think of happy memories. Or to try to focus my thoughts on my current moments or some happy thoughts of the future. It’s up to me. I don’t have to let my thoughts run wild like a toddler.

So here’s what I did today instead:

I wrote to all of you about it. Because it’s the keeping it all in that gives our sad and heart-achy thoughts their power.

Then I changed the  settings for the Timehop app on my phone so that I don’t get old messages anymore. I don’t want it to keep bringing it back, and though I didn’t invite it, I was letting it in.

Then I made salt dough handprints with the boys. Because my mom did that with me, and it seemed a much nicer way to remember her.

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The Mom at Chuck E Cheese

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We went to Chuck E Cheese for a birthday party yesterday. This sort of breaks one of my big rules in life – going to Chuck E Cheese at all – but we were invited to a cousin’s birthday party and it seems like a good idea to have the boys grow up with family. I grew up this way, and Steve did, but as we’ve gotten older, our families have scattered and we often “do our own thing,” like so many families these days. We’re all so busy, right?

I used to call Chuck E Cheese the worst place on earth. But I’m older now and I have new definitions of the worst place on earth. Watching my mom die in a sad old nursing home and spending any time at Children’s hospital pretty much made me realize that Chuck E Cheese is a breeze. So, we went.

The boys ate pizza and cake and watched the little show they put on with the big furry robots, which Lincoln loved at a distance and hated close up. Incidentally, this reassured me that he is smart. Then the boys ran wild with the games and the coins and the tickets, having fun with all of the noise and the chaos and being allowed to act accordingly. Hence why I hate it. Because I’m a control freak, you know? Plus, I’m also a germaphobe and there are a million kids there eating and playing all at once with their snotty little noses and I’m pretty sure we could start the Bubonic plague again out of one of those places without trying hard at all.

On this note, I used the bathroom there, which also kind of breaks my rule but it was necessary. A young mother came into the bathroom as I was washing my hands. She was holding a big chubby baby of maybe 6 months old. The mom kind of peeked around as if there might be somewhere to put the baby and then went looking for a stall. I realized she was just going to do her thing with her baby in her arms.

Go ahead, freak out about the gross factor here but let me tell you that every mom has had this moment. Where you just have to pee or whatever and the baby is with you so you make the most of it. I almost didn’t ask her if she needed my help, but then I did, because I’ve been practicing using my instinct and not my crazy questioning mind.

So I said “Do you want help?” over the sound of the hand dryer. But she didn’t speak English. She cocked her head and raised one hand as if to say she didn’t understand, and kind of like why was I talking to her when she had to use the bathroom.

So I said, “Help?” and I held my arms out to her in a gesture to take the baby. And her face fell in relief and she rushed over and handed me her most prized possession. Her most prized person and her most precious anything. The one she made from her body but needed two minutes away from to take care of herself. She handed me her baby and I took her.

Big, dark, dark brown eyes and big dark lashes and the sweetest little head full of dark hair. So very different than my light-skinned, fair-haired babies, yet she had the same lazy, chubby baby body of my 3rd baby. And that amazing baby smell that every baby on the planet has. She warmed my heart from the second she hit my hands.

I thought briefly that she might cry when her mom left her sight but she didn’t. She let me hold her and looked at me like I was new but not scary. I said, “Well hello, little friend,” and she looked at me for a few moments and then laid her little head on my shoulder. I leaned my cheek into her dark hair and I was so thankful. Just bursting from top to bottom with thankful. Because this baby felt safe with me. And thankful for being a mama and knowing how to make a baby feel safe. And thankful I could help this mom, who didn’t know me but knew that I was offering help and not more problems. Just… Thankful.

It was a little moment. A blink. A fraction of the day and speck of sand in the grand scheme of my life. But it meant something to me. To know that there is trust out there. To know that there are mothers willing to take each other’s hands for help. To know that we have a connection that goes deeper than language or words. Some magic that speaks merely between the beats of a mother’s heart.

6 Months

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My mom passed away 6 months ago today.

I’ve thought about this day. I’ve thought about what it would be like when my mom had been gone for 6 months. I guess I thought, or hoped, that it would be some magical point where grief gets easier.

It turns out its true. It is easier.

Or maybe it’s just that this balmy, sunny June day felt like it had very little to do with that cold December day 6 months ago. This anniversary is a marker, a sign on the road to show how far we’ve come. The only connection is the one we give it.

The memories of her painful and difficult end of her life, they have become less vivid.  They don’t haunt me like they did at first. I remember her now in better times.

I send love her way. I tell her my stories while I garden and do dishes and wash chubby baby fingers.

I have finally set down the trauma of that time.

But I still miss her. I still think of things I want to tell her and text her. I do it less now, but I still do it.

I’ve realized what a hole is left in my life without her. I have a very full life, but she was my touchstone each and every day. My entire life long. It was rare for me to not talk to her at all in a day, ever. I didn’t realize this missing piece at first. I couldn’t see it until the dust settled. It makes me realize how much I miss having someone to talk to during the day. We always made time for that.

So tonight, after the end of a very long day, Steve and I drove out to the cemetery, right down the road from my house a few miles. It’s lovely out there, and lovelier still for the green and the temperature. I felt far away we are from that cold December day that I had to say goodbye.

I’m glad for the growing time in between.

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Happy 1st Birthday to Lincoln!

My Lincoln.

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One year old today.

It’s surreal, this fact.

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This is us, one year ago this morning.

7 pounds 6 ounces, my biggest baby by over a pound.

My longest labor by over a mile.

Lincoln felt like a baby horse inside of me rather than a baby human, so I wasn’t surprised to see how strong he was right after birth, lifting his head off my chest while we laid there skin to skin. Eyes open, taking it all in, not even crying. So much like he is today. My mellow fourth baby who got the memo that he is not the center of the universe, just an equal part like the rest of us.

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Lincoln is all smiles. He cuddles with pillows and pets and people. He is a charmer, a sweet, daring little soul who cruises the staircases in this house like a pro. He crawls from room to room, chasing cats and the puppy and dragging trucks along with him, calling for Brice. He thinks I’m the funniest person in the house, which is nice. All my other babies thought someone else was funnier.

I noticed a family of four out on a bike ride in front of our house this week while I was working in the yard. I counted their kids and thought, “Four kids. That’s nuts!” And then I remembered that I, in fact, have four kids and I felt kind of ashamed for judging, not to mention silly for not remembering. My life is just my life and I think that I get caught up in the living of it that I forget to keep track of details. Like how many children I have, apparently.

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I remember when I was leaving Georgia to go to the hospital and deliver Holly, I was just convinced that I could not love this new baby as much as I loved Georgia. How could I? It didn’t seem possible, because we learn a whole new kind of love when we become mothers, don’t we? But when Holly was born, I realized- our love multiplies in direct proportion to how many kids we have, like magic. There is always more than enough. Even with four, there always seems to be at least enough. I may forget how many kids I have, but there is lots of love.

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And though it feels that I am lacking sufficient time for it all, I try to remember that my life is supposed to be full of needs right now. Lincoln will only be a baby so long, and babies fill your days with moments. Messy moments, needy moments, tender moments. A baby fills your life and your arms. There is room for little else. As they grow, they play and explore more on their own. They reach out to the next room and then the yard, to friends’ houses and school and sports and activities, and pretty soon they have moved right out of your house and life. They create a life of their own. It happens in the blink of an eye. I know this.

So I play with the baby and tend to his needs and this fills my life. And I write a paragraph or few pages here and there. The book I’m writing waits more patiently than a hungry kid. Some moments this is easier to take than others. Writing is part of who I am. I miss it when I can’t get there.

But before I know it, the time will be there for me to write without interruption. I have done this whole baby thing enough times to know that the fog and storms of life with small children do eventually lift.

So for now, the computer sits open to Word, waiting for me to finish something. Lots of things. And it will wait. I nurse my baby. I celebrate the gift of his presence in my life. This little everyday miracle that I lug around on my hip. My fourth. Dare I say, my last? Watching him leave babyhood right before my eyes feels nearly bearable, even though it truly feels like it’s time to be done. The tradeoff of no longer having a baby in your arms all the time is that you no longer have a baby in your arms all the time.

Happy first birthday, Lincoln Thomas. I love you with my entire being and you fill my heart with joy.

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A Little More Homework

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“…I’ve been looking in the back of the book for the answers

Hoping the bell wouldn’t chime.

I’m not ready to put down my pencil just yet.

There are too many answers that I didn’t get.

I need a little less pressure

and a little more time.

I am trying to follow

I am trying to lead.

I am trying to learn what is true.

I’m trying to be what you want and I need

but we all have

a little more homework to do.”

We played this song at my mom’s funeral, because it fit her in so many ways. She was someone who gave people the benefit of the doubt, and a lot of space to be who they were because she believed that we are all works in progress. And this was the last song that she saw the girls perform in our high school auditorium. That was back in August, the closing number of the FOG show. After so many dozens and dozens of times that we sat in that auditorium together over the years watching the girls grow up one performance at a time, that was the final time. The last song. I was holding her hand and we were all crying, Steve included. It was Georgia’s last performance on that stage before she headed off to NYC for school. It was the final number of the first show that Georgia ever directed. It felt like a big moment. I remember that so clearly. I felt like a wreck for reasons that I didn’t fully understand in that moment.

So the song has lots of meaning already. I listen to it whenever it shuffles through on my music player (we bought some music to play in the background at my mom’s visitation. A funeral playlist, my girls called it. Sigh.) I realize the song means more now than just those memories. It’s interesting how time and space can give us so many ways to look at something.

The end of my mom’s life was hard. She was in pain and sick and suffering for the last 2 months of her life. She was having a pretty hard time before that, too. But those last months, I spent so much time going to see her in the nursing home. Taking her what she needed, brushing her hair and trying to help find foods she could eat. Paying her bills, making sure her medications were right. But mostly, watching her die. I knew that she wasn’t going to make it, even though nearly everyone had their hopes up. But I didn’t. She’d been talking about dying and her wishes for when she passed in detail for quite a while before she fell and broke her pelvis. I knew when it happened that we were in the final part of her life. We had reached the back of the book.

And that is how it felt, like I was trying to gleam some closure from that time, as if there had to be some answer there if this horrific thing was going to take my mother and make her suffer. But I didn’t see it, and time was running out.

I spent that time trying to follow her lead and let her feel what she was feeling, trying to take the lead and keep her spirits up and do everything that needed to be done. And then, when it was clear she was dying, trying to openly talk with her about that, since no one else really could handle her talking about her death except myself and my daughter Holly. And the dying need to have their say, I’ve found. Even if it’s just to talk out loud without saying much of anything except to acknowledge it all.

So I spent that time trying to be strong for her, telling her it was okay. Trying to figure out what the hell to do and how to make sure her wishes were followed. This is easier said than done with the current system we have set up for the dying elderly in nursing homes. To say they are cast off to die out of sight is an understatement. So I jumped through hoop after hoop and wished I had more time to spend with my mom and less on the phone screaming to get doctors or hospice or insurance to listen. Two months have passed since she died, and I realize now that my shoulders were pretty much attached to my ears during time, in a constant state of stress and anxiety. And how death, as sad and terrible and frightening as it was, turned out to be a relief.

I went out to my mom’s grave today. It’s her 69th birthday. The entrance to the cemetery wasn’t plowed so I just parked on the road and looked at where she was buried. I figured it was a sign that I wasn’t supposed to go stand there in the bitter cold in a spot where she isn’t and be sad. She told me that so many times. Don’t stand around feeling sad at some cemetery. I won’t be there. I’ll be with you, always. I have to believe her, and believe that she blocked that drive on purpose. So I told her happy birthday, I let myself have a minute to be sad and I turned my van around to go on with my day. I will make her favorite dinner for my family tonight. We’ll have cake and celebrate her life.

I still struggle that there has to be answer in all of this. We all try to avoid death so completely, as if getting too close may rub off on us and we’d rather just indefinitely dodge the inevitable.

But if there is something to be found in the back of the book, it seems to me that watching a parent die is a glimpse. We are all mortal. We have limited time here to live our lives. How do we want to live them? What are we doing with our day? Right here, right now, since that’s all we have anyway. And of course, the not-so-subtle reminder that we in fact have a life. And we should not stand around some lonely place feeling sad over what is gone. We should go out and live our lives.

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Happy Birthday Mom! I hope there is cake.