The Sounds of Thanksgiving

Growing up, Thanksgiving Day meant dinner at my maternal grandparents.  Grandma’s house was always immaculately cleaned and decorated.  The table was set with her fine china and she had the silver polished.  Mom hoped for dressing, while I hoped it was the year for Grandma’s homemade noodles.  On the best years, my aunt, uncle, and cousin were able to travel from Texas.  Other years, we were joined by family friends and/or adopted Drury basketball players without a local family.  After pie was served and the dishes were cleared, Dad and Grandpa watched football while David and I played.  I have fond memories of sitting in the living room floor coloring or playing Yahtzee with my Grandma Thanksgiving evening.  Later in the weekend, we often gathered with my other Grandma, aunts, uncles, and cousins.  This gathering was more hectic as we had more cousins running around.  Thanksgiving break, as a child, also typically involved our family attending basketball games.  When we lived in Missouri, we cheered for the Panthers and, later, in Arkansas, we rooted for the Warriors or the Bears.  I know that there were stresses during the Thanksgivings of my youth.  Perhaps, my parents were concerned about finances, someone at the table was struggling with health, someone absent was missed, something was said to offend another, or a dish hadn’t turned out as desired.  As hard as I try to recall those moments, I can’t.  In a recent mindfulness exercise, I was prompted to think of the sounds of Thanksgiving.  I thought of the stacking of dishes, laughter, and the squeak of sneakers on a basketball court.  The sounds that I reflected upon, did not include arguing, sighing, or silence.

I’ve noticed that as I grow older, I often alternate between yearning to repeat the traditions of my childhood while simultaneously feeling burdened by external pressures to follow those same traditions.  As I’ve asked people their plans for the holiday, I’ve noticed that so many people grumble and complain about travel, cooking, and family drama.  Just a few years ago, I imagine I was one of the grumblers.  We put so much pressure on ourselves to live up to the holidays presented in media or in our “windexed” memories.  I’ve fallen victim to setting the Thanksgiving bar too high (dressing children in the perfect clothing only to discover cranberry sauce dribbled down, working diligently to recreate a perfect dish from Food Network only to discover that I am not Emeril, or hoping the family will all share a grateful attitude only to witness/participate in bickering or hurt feelings) and have gone to bed that night harboring bitterness, disappointment, or exhaustion.  I’ve lived away from family and felt as though I was missing out and I’ve lived near family and wished I could have a day of solitude.  Sometimes, the stress that accompanies holidays simply overshadows what we desire most.

Dad died just 3 weeks before last Thanksgiving.  Despite it being the year for my gaggle to spend with Trey’s family, we knew we weren’t strong enough for a crowd and opted to stay close to home.  Mom, David, and I agreed to not set ourselves up for the typical holiday pressure traps.  We were not emotionally prepared.  Much of my memories of last November are a blur.  I know we did gather at my house to eat and play games.  We have videos of my brother and Logan competing in the pie in the face game and pictures of Grandma with whipped cream on her nose.  The kids laughed and for a couple of hours, our grief subsided.  In preparation for this year, we planned a “Friendsgiving” as a way to begin new traditions while also ensuring that my Mom and brother aren’t alone next year when Trey and I resume alternating years with his family.  Fortunately (and unfortunately) we have found that most of the people in our lives are connected with family and their own traditions, leaving our gathering to simply be our small crew.  Shortly after realizing that Friendsgiving 2017 might be a bust, my grandmother fell ill and was admitted to the hospital.  I don’t know what tomorrow brings and am honestly, battling familiar pangs of grief, bitterness, and dread.  I want my kids to feel joy and enjoy time with family.  I don’t want them to soak up the negative feelings the adults are experiencing.  My kids have witnessed so many tears this past year and I want to protect them from more.  I keep reminding myself that the sounds of their Thanksgivings will likely include the positives just as mine does.  Being an adult is difficult.  There appears to be an entire retail industry based on shirts and mugs with phrases about “adulting being hard” or “not wanting to adult today.”  As we become more responsible, we also become more aware, more grounded, and more jaded.  We have to be able to recognize heavy emotions and have to learn to manage stress in order to function.  As parents, we carry so much of the emotional burden to prevent our children from laboring before they ought to.

In this season of expected gratitude, I am working overtime to see the many blessings around me and to express gratitude for what I’ve experienced and am experiencing.  I am grateful for the Thanksgivings of my youth and the warm memories.  I’m grateful for the Thanksgivings I spent as a young adult living away from my family that lead to me be a more independent woman and to recognize the value of friends that become family.  I’m grateful for the Thanksgivings spent with the family I married into and the opportunities to learn new traditions and play a role in their developing memories.  I’m grateful for the Thanksgivings with my husband and children as we create our own traditions.  I’m grateful for what is yet to come because no matter how difficult a season of life may seem in the moment, there will surely come good memories, there will surely come laughter, and there will surely come new sounds of Thanksgiving.

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Year 1 – A Difficult Chapter

Fifteen and a half years ago, my Dad and I stood outside the sanctuary with my arm linked in his. The last bridesmaid, my cousin Tess, was walking down the aisle.  Suddenly, it occurred to me that I’d focused the past 8 months on preparing for the wedding and had given little thought about what it would be like to be a wife, an adult, and independent of my parents.  I must have audibly gasped or tensed my arm, or perhaps Dad knew my thoughts were spinning out of control.  He softly said, “You know, I’m not giving you away.  I’m just walking you to the next chapter and I think it’s going to be one hell of a page turner.  We’ll begin walking when you are ready.”  He said exactly what I needed to hear in that moment.  I wrote those words down on a scrap of paper the next morning as Trey and I flew to our honeymoon.  I didn’t need to write them down because they were written on my heart.  I’ve never shared those words with anyone but they’ve served as a compass, a mantra, and a message of love.

I have lingered in a stage of anticipation of this day for months. Today marks the one year anniversary of Dad’s death. The one year mark has seemed like a landmark of sorts, despite many friends telling me that they felt the initial grief process took them closer to three years. Still, I’ve dreaded this day. This anticipation has encompassed all of the feelings that grief carries; fear, sorrow, anger, shame, guilt, and emotional fatigue.  I’ve struggled with emotional preparation for today, knowing that I needed to perform a sort of emotional ritual while still focusing on self-care.  Yeah, yeah…self-care…I really sound like a therapist or something.   I requested the day off work months ago and began creating a list of ways to spend the day; drive as far as I can before having to turn back to pick up the kids, sleep, binge Stranger Things, hike Pinnacle, read, dine alone at a nice restaurant, create something, get drunk, write (winner, winner), shop, visit the columbarium that memorializes Dad, volunteer, etc.  Ultimately, I’ve spent the day sitting in a quiet home, crying, sneaking chocolate from the Halloween buckets, meeting Trey for lunch, reading many of my journal entries that I have written about my grief over the past year, cooking, and writing. My writing took the form of a series of lists. I began with favorite memories, moved to chronicling the last week of Dad’s death and the week of his funeral, listing “Thank You Notes” that were never written, and ultimately with a list of moments of joy from the past year.

As I read what I’ve written this past year, I could help but laugh at myself. I couldn’t have been more cliché. I could print each of these entries out and categorize them into the traditional stages of grief. The progression through the stages certainly wasn’t linear but each stage is certainly represented. There were days that I chronicled my rage at politics and related how this connected with my grief (Election Day was the day following Dad’s funeral…it’s all very intertwined in my grief). I also wrote about difficult it has been knowing Dad isn’t the engine moving AETN forward and, to be completely honest, about feeling let down by people I expected to hold our family up during this difficult time but who were either absent or hurtful. I’ve also unfairly lashed out at my VERY patient husband and battled to stifle a nonsensical notion of competitive grief with loved ones. I’ve bargained, felt guilty, and I have spent time in shock and denial.

Much of the last year, as represented in what I’ve written, has been navigating feelings of sadness and depression. It has seemed like once I felt as though I was ready to step forward, something crashed down keeping my stationary in my process. Without a doubt, the most difficult challenges have been in finding a way to take care of my children, who have also been grieving, while still practicing self-care. Logan is a lot like me. He holds his feelings close until they become too heavy resulting in an explosion. Soccer is his passion and I assumed, incorrectly, that on the field he would be able to forget the burden of grief. Nine months after Dad died, Logan communicated that he missed GrandDude the most at games. Dad took great pictures of Logan playing and when he wasn’t able to see him play, Logan called him immediately after the game to give Dad the stats and play by play. I listened and observed Logan at the depths of despair. He loves soccer but the pain of knowing GrandDude wasn’t there for a new season was too heavy for him to carry. Mom found a few PBS temporary tattoos that he began wearing on his upper thigh for each game as a way to bring Dad on the field with him. When we ran out of those, I sent messages to PBS friends asking for more and, I’m sure that when we run out of our current stash, I’ll send out another cry of help if he needs it. (*Note: Logan has suggested that we allow him to just get a real PBS tattoo on his thigh. As much as I support PBS and his grief process, I’m not quite ready to have my 11 year old tattooed.)

Jack has presented a different kind of challenge. My happy go lucky, no filter, feral child has taken my breath away many times this last year with statements illustrating his grief. In the days leading up to Easter, Jack announced that Dude would be attending his party at school. No matter how much we corrected him or told him otherwise, he was insistent. It wasn’t until I overheard him explaining to his baby sister the Easter story (as shared at his daycare) that it all came together. I had to sit him down and explain that while we believe that Jesus rose from the dead at Easter, it doesn’t mean that Dude would do the same. In the periods in which I felt most comfortable wearing my denial shoes, Jack has knocked me down with statements like “I have two grandpas but one is dead, right Mama?” or “Hey, Mama, can I have a knife? I’m going to cut a hole in the sky so Dude can fall back down to me.”

As much as I’ve struggled to walk Logan and Jack through their grief, the hardest part has been knowing that Norah won’t have any memories of Dad. The day after he died, I began putting together a slide show of pictures for his visitation and frantically realized that we had failed in the 6 months since Norah was born to take any pictures of Dad and Norah together. I was crushed and this was the source of much of my focused despair and guilt for many months. We have so many pictures of Dad holding and playing with Jack and Logan. I have so many memories of their interactions that I can continue to share. I have evidence of his love for them. I can tell Logan about how I had planned to announce my pregnancy with him in a grand gesture by mailing a picture frame with the news inside but couldn’t wait that long. I called Dad and caught him on his way to Little Rock to a meeting. When I told him that he was going to be a grandparent, I was met with silence. “Dad?” I hesitantly asked. Dad then said, “I’m sorry, Lauren. I had to pull over. I didn’t know I’d get so choked up and happy.” I can tell Jack how funny Dad thought he was when he’d babble in what we assumed must be Dutch. But I had none of this for Norah.   In something that I can only describe as a miracle, Trey mentioned to his mom how upset I was about having no pictures of Norah and Dad. My mother-in-law produced a picture from her cell phone taken shortly after Norah was born of Dad holding her. Trey and Carolyn gave me the picture for Mother’s Day and it is one of my most cherished possessions.

To stick with the metaphor Dad shared on my wedding day, this past year has been a difficult chapter but here we are on the one year mark. Nothing has exploded, we are all intact, and we continue to walk forward. I have learned a lot about myself this year and have learned a lot about my Mom, my brother, and my husband. We have all grieved but in our own way. Sometimes these processes have clashed but, for the most part, I think we are proud of how we have each coped. For me, the most significant lesson that has come from the past year is how wonderful the people around me have been. So much of the first couple of weeks was (and is) such a blur.  I have clear memories of some conversations and events and other things seem out of focus.  A friend, who lost her father years ago, texted condolences through Trey with the suggestion to wear comfortable shoes to the visitation and funeral.  I latched onto that suggestion as though it were law.  I could barely think clearly enough to perform basic tasks but I was determined to wear comfortable shoes.  I remember sitting on the floor in front of my closet searching for dress shoes with the softest insole and thinking “Mandy knows because she has been through this.”  I then began creating a collection of people in my life who have lost their dads.  As the next month progressed, my collection grew.  I visualized this collection of faces, names, and situations as a collage on a wall with pins and red string connecting each person to another.  (Perhaps I’ve watched too many crime movies!?)  I found significant comfort in collecting another name and recognizing that although losing their Dad was painful, this person was still standing, still functioning, and still able to love. I have relied on these examples as mentors as I figured out how to move forward. Some of these friends shared their experiences and others have no idea that I looked to their experience as an inspiration.  As the year has progressed, I’ve had several more friends who have lost a parent and I’ve wondered if they collected my name for this mutual grief yearbook.  It has given me hope that perhaps someday I can be looked at as someone who continued to stand, function, and love.

Throughout the past year, people have ministered to me through their words and actions over and over. I’m simply awful at asking for help but help happened when I needed it most. Friends fed us, cared for our children, gave me books (my love language), donated in Dad’s memory, shared stories and memories, laughed, and were simply present. Several coworkers, including our psychiatrist, attended Dad’s funeral despite the billable hours they has to sacrifice. Friends who own a fabulous local restaurant not only provided dinner for friends and family that came to celebrate Dad’s life, but stayed and served us the night of the visitation. My best friend, Beth, and her teenage daughters spent the afternoon and evening after Dad’s funeral on my couch loving on my babies and holding me. Friends opened their home to us the week after the funeral so that we could attend Logan’s soccer tournament but not have to muster the stamina for a hotel stay so soon into our grief. My book club cared for my heart 2 weeks after Dad died at our annual Thanksgiving dinner. The night was already scheduled but what they didn’t know is that I spent an hour sitting on the floor of my office earlier that day, with the door closed, sobbing and unsure if I would ever be able to breathe again. Only a couple hours later, I was sitting around a table with some of my dearest friends laughing until my sides ached. A high school friend mailed me a book that fed my soul and soothed my heart. Other friends bought t-shirts and answered phones at the AETN pledge drive night in memory of Dad. PBS flew mom, Logan, and I to San Diego for a week to honor Dad. Logan and I were embraced by people from all over the country who respected and were positively influenced by Dad.   Our church held a blood drive in Dad’s name. Trey’s stepdad has always been a wonderful grandfather but he has been even more attentive and loving this year so that my kids didn’t feel as much of an absence. Not a month has passed this last year without there being a note in my mailbox telling me that we are being thought of, prayed for, and loved. When I checked the mailbox today, I found 3 letters and a book mailed by a friend of Dad’s who I was fortunate to meet in San Diego. Last night we gathered, as we have done for the past 5 (or maybe 6?) Halloweens with dear friends.  They were sensitive and yet aware of our need to have fun, just as we needed last year the night before Dad died.  Perhaps the most significant source of support has been my husband, the one who took my hand from my Dad’s fifteen and a half years ago.  Trey has loved me even at my most unlovable. He has made me laugh, given me reality checks when I’ve needed them most, loved our children, negotiated through my many snot-filled crying spells, cared for my mom and brother, and continued to walk with me through this chapter.

It has been a year since my Dad died. It has been a very difficult chapter of my life. I miss him every single day but I am still turning pages. Thank you to all of you who have walked with us this year and thank you to those who will walk with us into the chapters to come.

The Lost Art of Wondering

Last night I dreamt that there was a knock at our front door sometime after the kids had gone to bed.  When I peeked through the peephole, I was surprised to see Paris Hilton and Nichole Richie standing on the stoop with Louis Vitton bags in hand.  Apparently, they had arrived to film another season of “The Simple Life” at our home. I awoke perplexed.  Why did my subconscious selected this for a theme? I’m not sure I even watched the show when it aired over 10 years ago and I certainly don’t remember thinking about Paris or Nichole during recent waking hours.  As I brushed my teeth this morning, I began to wonder what ol’ Paris has been up to in recent years.  I awkwardly balanced my phone while continuing to brush those pesky molars.  This is not an unusual activity for any of us, right?  Gone are the days of wondering and guessing.  Rapidly disappearing is the art of speculation and daydreaming.  Prior to having a smart phone at my finger tips, I often stewed on one ponder or another for days, weeks, and in several cases, years.  Sometime in late high school, I began wondering if giraffes are able to vomit.  Think about it…it would defy gravity!?  I asked multiple people this question and attempted to find the answer the old-fashioned way, in an encyclopedia.  This question haunted my synapses for a long time and wasn’t answered until I happened to ask a zookeeper at the St. Louis Zoo.  (Note: Giraffes are able to vomit.  Much like cows, they often regurgitate their food as a part of the digestive process.  You are welcome.)  Had this question popped into my head these days, I would have simply asked Siri or consulted Google.  Sure, I’d have been spared weeks of questioning and drawing others into my query, but at what cause?

Logan has been working on his semester project for his gifted and talented class.  He has compiled weeks of research into a presentation about Mt. St. Helens.  Last night, he asked me to help him practice the presentation portion of the project.  As I babbled on about an attention-getting opening, I was met with a blank stare.  I’d suggested Logan open with a “did you know…” statement shocking the audience (in this case, a 3rd grade class) about the existence of volcanoes in the continental United States.  Logan patiently waited out my suggestions before retorting that either kids would already know about volcanoes in the US or they wouldn’t care.  “Mom, if kids are curious about something, they just look it up.”  Wow.  What is the fun in that?  I’ll admit, I play into this with my kids.  We have googled insects, snakes, and plants from the backyard.  Logan or Jack have simply had to ask the beginnings of a “wonder” before Trey and I have jumped to locate an answer.

As an amateur fact collector, I do enjoy having knowledge at my ready.  I like having answers and being able to connect one known to another known.  Random trivia is my jam.  (Thanks, Dad!)  However, there are times that this accessibility is damaging.  We spaced Logan and Jack out 6 ½ years.  During those in between years, smart phones emerged.  We had internet with Logan was born, but looking up all of my new momma “what if’s” required me sitting at our computer desk.  With a postpartum body and a newborn, I simply didn’t make this effort much.  With Jack, however, I found myself simultaneously nursing and searching a million and one things that ‘might’ be wrong.  I took a screen shot one of those early days as I recognized that my anxiety was driving my thumb to swipe right and left on all kinds of terrifying information.  I looked up lip tie, thrush, jaundice, mastitis, post partum psychosis, neurological deficits, motor skills delays, SIDS, sibling resentment, prolapsed uterus, and more all within one nursing session.  Trey walked into the room at one point to find me sniffling that we’d waited too long between the boys and that they’d never be close.  He cocked his head and asked if we would be returning Jack to the factory?  Rather than allow myself to daydream possibilities, I simply searched for all that could go wrong and it was all at my fingertips.

I want my kids to have time to wonder and explore.  Obviously there are times we “unplug” and battle the resulting grumbles but the battle is worth it when I hear Jack talking to his toys or I see Logan outside building a fort.  Perhaps the greatest outcome of these moments is that through observing their wonder, I am drawn into the process as well.  I wonder what goals Logan will reach.  His ambition and drive are like none other and I know he will set his sights on great things someday.  I wonder who Jack will bring into our lives.  His charisma and loving spirit already draws people in and I can’t wait to be introduced to the tribe he builds as he grows.  I wonder what kind of woman Norah will be.  Will this strong-willed baby girl follow in the footsteps of her brothers or pave her own way?  I can continue to Google many questions and answers but the things that really matter are still, fortunately, left up to the imagination.  In my opinion, this is as it should be.

As Our World Changes

Jack is at a funny age. He has traded some of his joyfulness for an expanded world view.  He has begun problem solving and trying to make sense of the greater world.   Year four was a struggle with Logan as Trey and I wrestled with moving beyond simple toddler tantrums into a need to understand, reason, and work things out on his own.  As we enter Jack’s, fourth year, I’m reminded of some of Logan’s struggles (and our struggles to catch up with his changing needs) and am trying hard to accommodate Jack.

Lately, Jack has been having a difficult time. He was excited to try out both t-ball and soccer but has found them both difficult.  He wants to be big like Logan but lack attention, coordination, and experience.  We didn’t have to navigate these particular growing pains with Logan as he had no one to compare himself too.

My typically joyful child has cried himself to sleep in protest of daycare the following day and awakened crying.  We have a wonderful daycare that employs teachers that love on my kids every day.  I know that this is simply a phase Jack is going through and not an implication that anything is going wrong at school.  Jack has decided that he needs a best friend and for whatever reason, doesn’t feel like he has found his best bud yet.  He will name other pairs of friends at school but then lowers his eyes and tells me that I am his only best friend and since I’m not at school with him, he is alone.  Thanks, bud.  My heart is breaking.  On the way to school the other day, Jack was crying and protesting.

J: I don’t like school days!  I want you to stay home with me and play tball with me all day!

Me: Jack, remember that I am going to work while you do your work at school. You are going to play with your friends and learn from your teachers.  You will eat yummy foods for lunch and for snack. I will pick you up because I always come back for you!

Jack: You are not my best friend anymore! I want a new Mommy and Daddy!

Me: Wow, critter!  I am sad to hear that.  I would never want a different son!?

Jack: I want a different son! I want us to get a black son!

Me: A black son? That is an interesting idea but remember that our family has 5 people and that is our limit.

Jack: NO! I WANT A BLACK SON!  BLACK SON!  BLACK SON!

Me: Why do you want a black son, Jack?

Jack: Because that white SUN is always getting into my eyes.

These are the conversations I want to remember. I want to recall his growing awareness and vocabulary no matter how difficult it makes things in the moment; the circular arguments that have no win for parents and make us want to pull our hair out (if Trey had hair…).

When Logan was four he desperately wanted a stepdad. He cried and argued that we were the meanest parents ever because we wouldn’t let him have a stepdad.  No explanation or reasoning seemed to help.  Trey explained that if he had a stepdad that would mean that daddy didn’t live in the house anymore and that he wouldn’t get to see both of his parents every day.  In Logan’s mind, however, he knew that Big Phil, Trey’s stepdad, was the coolest.  Why wouldn’t he want another parent like Big Phil?  It made sense to him, even if it hurt Trey’s feelings a bit.

Since my Dad’s death, I’ve often felt like a four year old. I’ve found myself looking at the world in a new way and trying to make sense of things I thought I already understood.  In the past (almost) six months, I have reevaluated my marriage (no panicking, I’m keeping Trey), how I want to parent, my friends, how I spend my precious free time, and how I want to leave this world (again, no panicking…this isn’t a ’13 Reasons Why’ moment).  Goals I found important last year, have faded and things I valued before, have lost their luster.  With each stage of the grief journey, I’m trying to leave a little pain behind but put something more worthwhile in its place.  It’s hard, folks, really hard.

A couple months ago, Mom announced at a Sunday lunch that she needed to prepare herself for upcoming days that might be difficult. We all knew that April would bring back to back gut checks and so we began to brace ourselves.

April 15 – my birthday

April 16 – Jack’s 4th birthday and Easter

April 17 – Mom & Dad’s anniversary

April 18 – Norah’s 1st birthday

We all prepared in our own ways. We spent the morning of my birthday at a t-ball game and 2 soccer games and then distracted ourselves in the evening with good friends.  Day 1 was a breeze.

Easter was more difficult but we pulled through. Well, Trey and my friend Wendy pulled me through.  Due to various circumstances, I found myself without a seat for church (I was helping Logan acolyte and Trey and mom found the last 2 person pew).  I ended up sitting away from my family but with Wendy, who was also having a difficult time.  She posted on her Facebook that afternoon that she’d needed a friend to sit with her.  Little did she know that by inviting me into her pew and holding my hand, she held me together for that entire service.  I will forever be grateful and will view Easter Sunday with a new perspective.  I cried a lot that day.  Trey alternated between providing me space, giving me comfort, and reminding me that there are 3 kids watching my every move so I needed to pull myself together.  And I did.

I made it through the anniversary and Norah’s birthday fine. Like Dory’s motto goes, “Just keep swimming!”  I kept patting myself on the back because I’d made it.  Another set of difficult “firsts” were behind me and I was/am still standing.  Then everything crashed inward.  On April 21st, Logan ran in his school’s 5K.  One year ago, I stood at the finish line without any expectations of how he would finish and he came barreling around the final corner and across the finish line in 3rd place.  I was 3 days from delivering Norah but I jumped up and down and went crazy!  As soon as I hugged his sweaty neck I called my Dad to report Logan’s finish.  He asked for Logan’s time and asked about his form.  We were both so proud.  Dad was in the middle of a meeting and shared that he’d gotten misty eyed hearing how well his eldest grandson had done.  This year, Logan beat his time from last year and his form was impeccable. I walked over and hugged Logan’s sweaty neck as I had done the previous year but I didn’t get to report to Dad.  Logan hugged me and went to find my mom, who was subbing that day.  They also hugged and then Logan cheered on his friends as they crossed the line.  I lingered all the while fighting back throaty sobs.  I’d prepared for the hard days April was bringing and I’d made it through.  Why couldn’t I get through this one too.  I fought tears all day.  When I picked Logan up from school, several hours later, I began crying again.  He said, “I know, Mom.  I wanted to tell him too.”  The thing is that I have expected the holidays to be hard but it’s the other moments that seem to be the most painful.  It’s hard to prepare for the unexpected moments that I want to ask Dad something or all of the times I want to brag on my kids to him.  As a therapist, I’ve worked with people though grieving but I definitely am seeing it differently now.  You can’t prepare for everything.  There is not chart for these high tides.  My worldview is changing.

Norah’s 1st birthday party was equally as difficult.  Again, I hadn’t braced myself because in all honesty, Dad would have found the party a bit miserable.  He would have laughed at my “baby feminist” theme and enjoyed taking pictures of Norah tasting her first cake but the small talk and forced joy would have bored him.  Sure, we would have talked books, politics, and music but we did that all of the time.  I just couldn’t shake feeling bitter that he can’t watch his granddaughter grow up.  With every picture taken, the bitterness that we somehow failed to take a single picture of Dad holding Norah corroded my soul.  I was angry that some family chose not to come to the party and found it difficult to appreciate those who were there.  I kept reminding myself to be in the moment and focus on Norah but it was difficult and it hurt a lot.  Afterwards, a couple friends sent pictures from the party.  I know that I will cherish those pictures above any others because they pulled me through those few hours.  My village lifted me up once again.  With Logan and Jack’s first birthday parties I was focused on the décor, cakes, and party.  This time, it is my village.  These people have chosen to be in my life and allow me to be in theirs are carrying me through.

Leading up to Easter, Jack kept asking if GrandDude would be at various scheduled events. “Will Dude be at my t-ball game?”  “Will Dude pick me up from school?”  “I will see Dude at soccer, right?”  Logan was growing increasingly more impatient with Jack’s questions.  “No!  Dude is dead!  Remember how Mom told you that he lives in Heaven in Jesus’ neighborhood?”  But Jack wasn’t satisfied and kept asking.  “I want Dude to come play with me.”  “Let’s facetime Dude!”

On Good Friday, Jack and Norah’s daycare was closed. I drove our normal route from home to drop off Logan at school and then strayed from our normal route to pass the daycare and drop Jack and Norah off with my mom, Jack questioned why we weren’t stopping at his school.

Jack: Mom, that’s my school. You forgot my school!

Me: Jack, your school is closed today. Remember?

Jack: Oh yeah! It’s Bloody Jesus Day!

Me: *ummm (note to self: we may need a theology lesson or two) Well, it is Good Friday.

Jack: Yes! Jesus was dead and bloody on a big ‘T’.  They put him in a hole and covered it with a big rock.  Then he gotted alive again.  (*sorta…)  And now Dude is alive too!  He can come to my t-ball game and my soccer and pick me up from school…

Oh.

Gut check.

Now I knew why he’d been so confused and how the heck do I make this all make sense to him when it doesn’t make sense to me? I’m sure that there are multiple amazing ways I could have handled this moment but, instead, I quickly pointed out something benign out of Jack’s window.  The ol’ switch and bait.

Things look different these days. Different through my grief lens and different through Jack’s growing lens, but we are making it.  We will continue to rise to each challenge, even if we fall short, and quest to do life as gracefully as we can…together.

Flashes of Grief

As the days pass since Dad’s death, I find myself thinking of his absence less often.  Instead of the pervasive absence, I find myself forgetting that he’s gone.  A day or two goes in which I’m distracted by work, care of my kids, meal planning, social interactions, and typical life.  Then, suddenly, I pick up my phone to call Dad about a story I heard on NPR or a book I’m reading.  While I’m not in constant pain, as I was the first couple of months, these sudden pangs of reality seem sharper, harsher.  Guilt floods my gut for becoming distracted from my grief.

Friends have asked the dreaded question “How are you doing?” less often and I’ve become out of practice with my vague answer.  In the days and weeks following his death, I became adept at answering these queries in a way that satisfied curiosity and convinced most that I was being sincere.  I know that people don’t know what else to say and so they often say what they need to hear in that moment.  My replies were carefully constructed for the benefit of the listener.   “I’m getting through.” … “It is hard but I’m surrounded by love.”…”I’m ok.”  Now that people have moved on, the less frequent questions often take me by surprise and are more difficult to answer.  I’m still getting through and still surrounded by love but the ache is still there.

A couple weeks ago a friend questioned me about my state and didn’t accept my dismissive answer, avoidant eyes, or fake smile.  She listened to my scripted response and asked again “but how are you?”    I didn’t want to admit that I have 6 voicemails from Dad saved on my phone that I consider listening to each day but then avoid them because I know it will be too hard.  I didn’t want to tell her that I read through Dad’s Facebook messages wishing for a new post.  I didn’t want to share that I still haven’t visited the Columbarium because I’m not ready to see his name followed by an end date.  I definitely didn’t want to tell her that I still pretend he’s just traveling and that I’ll see him at Logan’s next game or in our church pew.  I didn’t want to admit that I often set my alarm for the middle of the night so that I can cry alone without worrying my family.  I didn’t want to tell her that my stomach remains in knots at the idea of seeing my Dad’s side of the family, whom I love very much.  I didn’t want her to know that my worry about my Mom and brother’s functioning keeps me from sleeping and, at times, from being able to breathe deeply.  I didn’t want to tell her that every time I look at my precious daughter, my heart aches that we somehow didn’t take any pictures of Dad holding her.

My professional training helps me know that this is all part of typical grief but that knowledge certainly doesn’t make it an easier process.  I’ve been afraid to say any of this out of fear that once I start bleeding, I won’t be able to stop.  I went home that evening and cried to Trey.  (cried is an understatement but flows better than “I laid in the fetal position on the couch while Trey told me to quiet my sobs so that I wouldn’t disturb the neighbors 2 acres away)  Trey was everything he needed to be in that moment.  He provided comfort, cursed the luck, and loved me even as I lashed out.  I slept restlessly that night and woke feeling nauseous.  I walked into my friend’s office the next morning and poured out my sorrow.  No, I’m not ok and that is normal.  Everyone else moves on and yet I’m still here, feet planted in this moment.  I’m not mad that people are moving on and I know that there are many people missing Dad too.  But life does march on.  People do make new memories and new connections but the reality that these new memories and new connections are being made without Dad in them has me vulnerable and miserable.

I needed that process.  I needed someone to push me and I needed Trey to help me pick up my pieces.  I teach people about self-care every day but am the last to put it into practice.  I have focused my energy on making sure Trey and the kids are grieving constructively but haven’t allowed myself the same journey.  I would love to now write that since having that “breakdown” I’m in a much better state, but I don’t know if that is true.  I am trying to do more for myself each day.  I’m spending time each morning meditating, have begun running again, and am soaking up precious time with my family.  I’ve distracted my mind with prompted writing and can’t seem to read enough.  As long as I keep my mind from wandering freely, I’m maintaining.

The random reminders of grief continue to throw me for a loop.  This week I was sitting in my office working on paperwork when a coworker peeked his head in my door and asked if I’d heard the Governor’s kind words about my dad.  I hadn’t and began scrambling to figure out what was happening.  With a quick internet search, I was able to listen to a soundbite of the Governor announcing my Dad’s replacement.  My breath left my body and my heart dropped into my gut.  Obviously, I knew that a replacement would be announced at some point.  Logically, I knew that the agency that my Dad headed would need a leader but hearing an actual name with the title that Dad held so proudly stung.  The Governor began the announcement with another lovely tribute to Dad’s work but I found myself throwing that to the side of my mind and focusing on a new face replacing Dad’s in the entryway of the station; a new face on the website; and a new body occupying his office.  Dad would be the first to brag about the staff he worked with and would never take credit for everything that happened under his leadership, but in my head and in my heart, that is his station.  (Note: I’m sure she is a lovely person and I can’t wait to see the amazing things she does with an already incredible staff and agency.)  This week, I’ve fought feelings of bitterness, a need to hurt more than anyone else, and a new tsunami of feelings.  Thankfully, this announcement came during Trey’s annual trip to the SEC tournament with his stepdad.  His absence has made me have to function, have to cope, and have to avoid collapsing on the floor in loud, ugly, snotty tears that would terrify my children.  I have kept a list of ways I wanted to grieve this week but wouldn’t allow myself.  Know that I actually wrote the following words: “I want to text everyone who has ever lost a parent and tell them that I hurt more than they do.”  And “I need someone to tell [another grieving family member] to move on because I can’t deal with someone else’s grief.”  Clearly these were filed in the “not productive” category.  Instead, in the past 5 days, I have read 4 books, bought way too many things online, and strayed from my diet.  (Still not productive but at least I didn’t ruin relationships…right?)  I have also written every day, stayed *fairly* focused at work, talked to friends, exercised, and enjoyed time with my kids.  Tomorrow I will wake up and keep moving forward.  Some days it will hurt like hell and others will seem better somehow. At least, that is what I keep telling myself.

 

2016

I reject the idea that 2016 is the worst year ever. Sure, we have lost icons like David Bowie, Prince, Carrie Fisher, and George Michael.  Yes, we have elected a fascist egomaniac and given a sense of power to those who aim to take away basic civil rights and freedoms.  And, above all, my hero slipped from my life leaving the biggest hole in my heart.  2016 has been hard but I cannot abide by the idea that our hard times end at midnight Saturday night.  Bowie, Prince, Fisher, and George will still be gone.  The inauguration will still occur in 20 days.  And, sadly, I still won’t have my dad.  There has been so much pain and loss in 2016 but there will be more in 2017.  Pain is a part of life, and a necessary contrast so that we recognize joy.

With my meager voice, I implore you to continue celebrating music and movies. I ask you to continue voting, advocating, and loving those who are frightened and feeling unloved.  I beg of you to see the good that has come out of 2016 and if you can’t find any examples, come gaze upon my sweet baby.  I beg you to walk with me into 2017.  I know that I need someone to lean on and want to be that person for you too.  Thank you 2016, for preparing me to fight for a better tomorrow.  Let’s carry the good forward and help each other stand.

A Sea of Grief

My Dad died over a month ago.  Some moments I feel as though I am just walking out of the hospital in disbelief that I have to drive home and tell my kids that GrandDude died. Other moments I feel like it has been ages since I laid eyes on him, heard his voice, or sat with him at church.  A few years ago, a client, with whom I was counseling, compared her grief over her mother to be like the tide.  She described sorrow washing in, encompassing her entire being, and later washing back out leaving small memories and moments of calm.  At the time, this metaphor made sense to me and I admit that I have repeated it with other clients since.  When my Grandpa Jack died three years ago, I was able to use this notion in my own healing.  Some moments I would feel as though I were drowning in the salty sea of despair, but I knew that soon the sun would shine again and I’d be left to discover joy.  This time, with losing my Dad, the tide is stronger, the salty sea is angrier, and the joy has been harder to find.

Perhaps the hardest part is that the tide isn’t scheduled and certainly not predictable.  When we lived in Virginia and Georgia, I became accustomed to hearing times for both high tide and low tide on the daily weather forecasts.  We would sometimes plan our beach days around the tide and local businesses like chair rentals and seafood markets would do the same.  I like life to be predictable.  I’m a planner.  My calendar is full of possible family adventures as well as scheduled “to do’s.”  I like knowing which clients I will see each day and what meetings are approaching.  When Trey and I began seriously dating, our biggest arguments were always over planning and scheduling.  He had no sense of time and lived in a carefree spontaneous manner that didn’t always agree with my planned, and often controlled, personality.  One of our first vacations spent together, he told me that we were either going to go to Kansas City or St. Louis but that we were going to flip a coin after driving as far as we could without committing either way.  We packed, drove, and flipped the coin.  I then pulled two hidden binders out from beneath my car seat.  One was a St. Louis itinerary and the other the Kansas City option.  Trey continues to tease me about how much time I invested in planning to be spontaneous.  As the years have passed, life has influenced Trey to be more scheduled and life has influenced me to embrace down time.  I still struggle with spontaneity and surprise, but my co-captain helps remind me to be in the moment.  As I’ve struggled through each day since Dad died, I’ve felt unprepared and anxious about when the next wave of sadness will come.  Days in which I expected to drown have passed relatively easy.  His funeral was emotional but I made it through and while I dreaded Thanksgiving, I enjoyed the company of my family and made it through.  Other days have saturated my soul and I’ve barely stayed standing.  I had to return to work for two days between Dad’s death and his funeral.  One of those days I had already registered to attend a conference on prescription drug abuse.  I reasoned in my head that the conference was in no way connected to my Dad, would be a good distraction, and kept me out of my office where good meaning coworkers would be stopping in to check on me.  The day was surprisingly horrible and packed full of crazy connectors to Dad.  The Governor was the first speaker which reminded me that he had been quoted in one of the articles about my Dad’s death.  The second speaker was a local politician that Dad and I often complained to one another about.  I actually picked up my phone to text him after one ridiculous point was made in the speech before remembering that there would be no texts back from Dad.  It took every ounce of energy to make it through the morning without bursting into tears and calling attention to myself.  I left the sessions twice to sit on the floor of the hotel hallway and chase away tearful anxiety.  In the most ridiculous coincidence, the afternoon keynote speaker, a medical examiner, showed autopsy photographs and several photographs of a heart with a faulty valve due to endocarditis, the infection that caused Dad’s death.  Seriously!?  Of all the keynotes, of all the conditions, of all the topics, this is the tide I faced just two days after I lost my Dad!?  It was brutal and my poor doctor got a message from me on my way home that perhaps I did need a new prescription for antidepressants.

We all experience grief differently and Dad’s death is certainly an illustration of this point.  My Mom has needed the care and comfort of her friends this past month.  My brother has needed routine and opportunities to take care of my Mom.  Logan is processing his grief in his own way.  In the corner of his bedroom, underneath his beanbag chair he had a notebook hidden for the first couple of weeks after his GrandDude died.  In the notebook he wrote letters to my Dad, journal entries about his own feelings, and glued pictures and mementos.  He kept his scrapbook secret and we haven’t talked to him about it.  I added pictures at one point but none of us acknowledged them.  I noticed in the past week that the scrapbook has been moved.  He’s getting through in his own way.

Between work and family, I’m rarely alone and that has been both good and bad.  I am not one to publically display my emotions.  I fight to keep my tears to myself and then find myself overflowing in the shower, at night, or in my car.  My chest has felt constricted for the past month as though my heart might burst through my ribs at any moment.  My sorrow is always in the back of my throat making it hard for me to breathe.  I am still trying to discover what I need.  Some days I have yearned to be near my Mom and brother and others I’ve needed to isolate in my house.  I’ve spent valuable time with good friends, some of it seeking a distraction and other times taking advantage of friends who have offered to listen.  I have tried diligently to not let my kids know how much they are helping me through the rough waters.  I don’t want them to feel burdened with my grief or responsible for my health.  As usual, Trey had kept me moving forward.  He has allowed me time at night to cry and also nudged me beyond catatonia.  The bitter side of me wants to say that nothing has helped, but that isn’t true.   I know that despite the strong tide, each of the jetties has helped get me through.  I want to scream out that I want my Dad but I know the reality.  I know that this is our new normal and that I have to be satisfied with memories but it doesn’t yet feel like enough…and my greatest fear is that it never will.  So each day, with each wave, I’m desperately trying to build and collect more jetties to help find some control over the tides in hopes that someday they haven’t washed me away.  Hopefully someday I will find the beautiful mementos left behind as the tide retreats.