I held some strong convictions when I was young. I just knew what I knew was true because, well, “when you know, you know,” right? But I didn’t know what I didn’t know. For most of us, we often miss the realization that we actually don’t know. Until we’re knocked loose from those dearly held certainties, that is, and not always gently.
Around age 28, life provided me plenty of jolts to rumble the foundation I’d built, one I was sure was rock solid. I’d left the Mormon church. And my marriage. The shockwaves were severe enough to send many of my beliefs toppling ass over teakettle and smashing to bits on the ground.
When you know, you know . . . until you don’t
As I sifted through the ruins, a quieter knowing whispered an invitation–to open up to possibilities I’d never contemplated before. The transition was painful. But the accompanying shift in perspective was ecstatically liberating, rendering me free to re-imagine my values. What did I know? And how? It is humbling, startling even, to consider that knowledge can be malleable, transforming as we ourselves metamorphose.
Albert Einstein said, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know,” echoing the Socratic paradox, “I know that I know nothing.”
A few years before she died, my mother wrote me an email. “I think the upshot for me is I am second guessing every decision I have ever made.” A sad confession I thought at the time. Now, I think perhaps a natural conclusion to reach at the end of a life.
I know that I know nothing
This evening, I sat on my back patio writing. The sun shone brilliantly as it moved on its path toward the horizon. After a long and rainy mid-Missouri spring, the warmth caressed my skin like a promise, or maybe the memory of a promise. As tender as the breeze, hope softly, shyly re-emerged after lying dormant for so very long.
I’d been working all day on my memoir, Death, Rock Me Asleep, momentum carrying me finally, FINALLY! hurtling toward the finish, a place I could never quite see, but trusted would be there when I arrived. It’s close. Really close.
As I revised a passage in the last chapter describing the finite nature of Mom’s life, the words welled up from the screen with visceral meaning and, without warning, I began weeping. The sting of loss can still pierce so sharply and unexpectedly, it takes my breath away, no matter how the years go by.
But . . . mixed with grief was the euphoric thought of just how close this project is to completion. “I’m almost done. I’m almost done,” I chanted in my mind. And instantaneously, my neurotransmitters shot out another thought, “And it’s good! It’s good! It’s going to be good!” In this visionary moment I could clearly see the next steps in birthing my memoir.
Knowledge is malleable
All of this is great, but it’s not the greatest thing. No, the most stunning, magical thing is this: Immediately after these phrases chimed through my head–”I’m almost done, it’s going to be good!”–through my earbuds, from Pandora, I heard the opening notes of Claire de Lune by Claude Debussy. It’s my signature piece, the one I rehearsed and performed over and over as an adolescent pianist, obsessed and in love with playing. In other words, “my song.”
This isn’t the first case of Claire de Lune showing up. Many times since Mom died, the classical masterpiece served as a lyrical soundtrack. In public, at restaurants and bookstores and airports, in the car from XM radio, at home on Spotify or Pandora or a TV show. Always at perfectly poignant moments, always in unmistakable affirmation of my writing success.
I’m second guessing every decision I ever made
As Truvy Jones, aka Dolly Parton said in Steel Magnolias, “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.” Through a fresh sob, I laughed out loud with incredulity. I looked around, as if I could catch sight of my mom.
I feel deeply there’s more to us than these mere physical bodies, than this earthly plane. But sometimes I think, “How can we know for sure?” Yet, if I question life after death, my mother continues to dare me to not believe with her well-timed, insistent taps on the shoulder.
And if she is working from the other side to help me bring my story to the world, there is no door she cannot open, no obstacle she can’t overcome. If she’s pulling strings and nudging the right people across my path, I have no doubt this book will not only be published, but make its way into the hands of readers who might not know what they don’t know. Yet.
Binge watching TV, a pastime for which I previously had little time, and a guilty pleasure I’m loathe to acknowledge, has opened a portal for me during the pandemic, a passageway to another world. Once Upon a Time has been my alternate realm (except for the period I resided within the universe of Schitt’s Creek—almost completely comprised of two adjoining motel rooms–where I voraciously gobbled up all six seasons, the final episode leaving me a sobbing mess in disbelief that it ever was allowed to end).
Contemplative by nature, the isolation of this COVID year has forced constant and not always welcome introspection. Magnetically drawn to the tales of Storybooke, the fictional town inhabited by intersecting celebrities of the make-believe power set (and not just characters from the Brothers Grimm, mind you, but also those of C.S. Lewis, L. Frank Baum, and the numerous Disney creators of Mulan, Jasmine, and Anna and Elsa), I’ve been intrigued by my own intrigue. I have always loved stories, but why such attraction to these fairy tales and their creative twists? Magic, true love, mystical powers, light in the dark, good versus evil, the epic tales contain the stuff of classic yarns. A harmless escape into fantasy, I decided it was. A much needed exit from the chaos of this reality into the multiverse of the Enchanted Forest. A rising hero, a vanquished villain, a happy ending, the clear cinematic themes provided structure. Closure. There’s something satisfying in watching the formulaic saga repeat itself: Innocents, the undeserving victims of circumstance are trapped under a curse cast by a malevolent force seeking to retain brutal control by exerting their powers. Dire straits intensify until certain doom awaits and all hope is lost. Or is it? Because in that precise moment the miracles occur, triumph at the last moment by an unforeseeable savior. A potion, a spell, a token. True love’s kiss. No matter how dark, light always prevails. Love wins the day.
There’s something satisfying in the formulaic saga.
I thought perhaps I’ve been charmed by the childish simplicity. Real life isn’t so black and white. Upon a closer look, however, I saw that neither is life in that pretend place. When peeling back the layers of vile atrocity, no matter how black the heart, no scoundrel began their sojourn as such. Pain, abandonment, betrayal–these drive the bad guy’s blood lust for revenge and destruction. Moral devastation amplifies their rage aimed at those who have what is desired but remains out of reach. And even the good guys sometimes succumb to hopelessness or jealousy. They, too, can lose their way, pouring gasoline on the fire in their fight for justice, learning that the end cannot justify the means. I think even children can tease out the truths embedded in these stories. Especially children.
Maybe my deep dive into the fairytale world isn’t just escapism. Maybe it’s a way for me to process what I’m seeing around me: the age-old struggle of humankind for equity, collectively caught in a violent tug-of-war, “others,” perceived as enemies, dominated and killed. The battle for the soul of humanity is still happening today. For all the advances of technology, in the Information Age, we’re not much different than in the Dark Ages, when kings hoarded wealth and peasants starved. When the elite few sustained their power by climbing on the backs of the working masses.
Even children can tease out the truths in these stories.
I feel in my bones, though, the longing to evolve, to purge ourselves of ugliness and petty, selfish greed, to emerge outside the rigidity of our own thinking into a collaborative, peaceful co-existence. But how do we get from here to there? I suppose the answer lies within each heart and mind. In every choice. As we co-create the world around us, moment by moment, this synergy of choice operates on free will. And like the characters in Storybrooke, we all possess both lightness and darkness. At any given intersection, the possibility exists to take a different fork in the road.
Even then, happy endings aren’t static. They don’t last forever–that was never the point. As perfect as they might feel, our happily-ever-afters burn bright only for a season. Life is transient. For better or worse. In sickness and in health. The afterlife notwithstanding, the physical limitations of our kingdom on earth offer the inevitable exchange of heartache for the gift of having loved in real time. For every summer, there is a winter. The leaves turn. The snow falls and signals the chapter’s end. And life waits patiently, dormantly, until it renews itself in spring and a new chapter begins.
Our happily-ever-afters burn bright only for a season.
My Auntie Gwen reached the apex of her winter last week and arrived at the end of her story. She was ready, she told me, at peace. “I’m so looking forward to seeing my mom,” she said. ”And Jesus.”
Aunt Gwen is the third of four siblings now gone. My mother, Pat, died five years ago, and their older brother, J.W., back in 1948 when he was only 10. My Grammy and Grampy, Katie and John, died in 1998 and 1990 respectively. Only Auntie Dee remains earthbound. For now. The family history is written in letters and journals and essays. It’s preserved in my DNA. It lives in my memories, passed down from generation to generation in oral traditions like the one that begins, “Once upon a time, not so long ago and not so far away, there lived a Little Old Man and a Little Old Woman and their Little Dog Turpy in a Little Old House by the field where the hemp stalks grew.” I clutch at a past that’s slipping away to die with those who lived it. Perhaps this is why I am compelled to take up the pen and tell their stories.
Katherine Gwen Lyman was born in Bozeman, Montana on May 14, 1946 and grew up in Wallowa, Oregon. After earning a Bachelor’s degree in Social Welfare and a Master’s in Special Education and School Counseling, she spent her career as a beloved teacher of students with disabilities. An avid vegetarian and lover of birds and wildlife and flowers, she was never without a feline companion. Auntie Gwen was my first musical influence, pulling me into her lap to sing as she played the piano. I watched her fingers trill on her delicate flute, amazed and enthralled at the beauty of her embouchure.
This is why I am compelled to tell their stories.
She was a free spirit, a true bohemian, with long, sleek hair and John Lennon glasses, favoring embroidered tunics and leather sandals. With no make up, no fingernail polish, and no shaved underarms, she seemed exotic to my church girl sensibilities, just wild enough. Once Mom drove us south from Phoenix to Tucson to vist her adobe cottage in the middle of the desert. When she didn’t answer we went around to the back to peer in a curtain-less window. And there she was, sitting in Sukhasana (cross-legged) on her meditation cushion, eyes closed, face serene. Completely nude.
We visited her when she lived in Eugene and Seattle and San Francisco, though not in Hilo, Hawaii where she married a gentle bearded man named Guha. They both wore long, native leis, a symbol of their love, over white muslin. His easy-going ways tempered her high energy, and they lived their bliss for a time before parting ways. Later, she lopped off her hair in an asymmetrical cut that became her signature style, short enough to showcase the long beaded earrings she’d made herself. There would only be one more love, though they never wed. Joel, another beautiful man, this one with olive skin and dark curls brushed with silver, was mellow and generous. Another uncle to cherish. But again, only for a time.
Auntie Gwen lived alone after that, but she was rarely lonely, filling her time with friends and family and travel with her widowed mother. She adored her nieces and nephews and loved watching us grow up. She endured her share of physical challenges, an aneurysm that left her without the sense of smell, breast cancer, knee surgery, chronic back pain. But these ailments never dampened her joie de vivre. She was a true optimist with an effervescent smile that lifted right up into her twinkling eyes as if to say, “Isn’t it great, this life we’re living?”
She told me my mother always accused her of being a “Pollyanna,” the caricature imbued with excessive cheerfulness and based on the heroine in a book of the same name, authored by Eleanor Porter in 1913. Pollyanna was brought to life on the big screen in 1960, with Hayley Mills playing the irrepressibly sunny orphan. A nearly life-sized doll with a dimpled grin and blond curls, wearing a gingham dress and MaryJanes was launched on the retail market to coincide with the Disney film. Either my mom or Gwen owned one because we found it, sitting upright in a corner, green eyes staring, when cleaning out my Grammy’s house after she died. My bet is on Auntie Gwen.
“Isn’t it great, this life we’re living?”
In her own defense she’d said, “What’s wrong with that? I like seeing the up side of things.” I admit, I myself am slightly suspicious of those with unyielding positivity. But of all her eccentric idiosyncrasies, because of (or maybe even in spite of) an inherently strong personality—a trademark feature of all the women in my family, I find Auntie Gwen’s rejection of gloom admirable. Something I will always seek to emulate. After all, it was her steady stream of buoyancy that kept her afloat her whole life.
She died comfortably and peacefully in her home on Friday, January 8, 2021, surrounded by love, my brother holding one hand and her dear friend, the other. My sisters and I held her in our hearts from miles and miles away. Our goodbye, like too much of this past year, was remote. On Zoom. Auntie Gwen promised if we would hang bells, she would ring them. With quivering chins and welling eyes, we promised to hang them and watch for the sound of her eternal optimism, an omen of her tangible presence and a spark of magic in our ordinary days. And a reminder that “not so long ago and not so far away” a new story has begun.
*Reading given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia, online, August 9, 2020
“Always have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.”
In what do I place my trust? This profound, existential question is, for an inherently trusting person, difficult to quantify. Before the pandemic, I trusted my alarm to go off, my car to start, and my phone to keep me on task. I trusted there would be money in the bank, food in the fridge, and job security for my partner and myself. From the sturdiness of my home and the safety of my Midwestern burg, I trusted the sun to rise and set on another ordinary day.
It’s late December, only days to Christmas. The kids are out of school and it’s dark already at 4:30 pm. All the lights burn in the kitchen where my husband is busy making sugar cookies with our girls. Flour dusts the counters and floors. A delicious aroma fills the house. I’ve got work emails to tackle, but I’m doing it reclined on the couch while listening to Christmas music. Our eclectic albums are on shuffle. iTunes creates the playlist pleasantly playing in the background until the opening phrase of Happy Xmas catches my ear.
“And so this is Christmas, and what have you done? Another year over and a new one just begun.”
The unmistakable timbre of John Lennon’s voice causes me to pause. I close my eyes to listen. Such a familiar, comforting melody.
And when she shall die, Take her and cut her out in little stars, And she will make the face of heaven so fine That all the world will be in love with night And pay no worship to the sun.
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
And now it’s happened: I’ve lost my mother. She laid down her broken body—soft and comforting still, but no longer up to the task of moving her through the days — and died. She laid down her weary head, the short-circuiting neurons in her brain finally quiet, and slept.
In her own bed, under her lovely floral quilt, she drifted away and left physical concerns behind in the vessel housing them. Her breathing stretched, the silence between each ragged inhalation hung with anticipation. Her pounding heart slowed and faded to a quiver, like the fluttering wings of a little bird, until it beat no more. My sister quoted Shakespeare: “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day.” For Mom, the pace has ceased its forward motion; there are no more tomorrows. And in retrospect, the petty becomes hallowed. “Out, out brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow . . .”
I knew it was coming, or rather, that she was going. For months, I mourned her absence even in her presence, trying to absorb everything and indelibly imprint her image on my memory. The days, finite and measured, poured like sand through the hourglass as I watched them go. I knew I would lose my mother, but I didn’t know it would bring me to my knees.
I didn’t know how heavy grief could be, that I’d drag myself under its weight from my bed each morning, pulled into motion only by the slipstream of routine. Even then, fatigue would leave me to endure the hours until I could curl up again, alone. I didn’t know the world would be too loud and too bright and too fast, its audacity for going on as if the cosmos hadn’t shifted unforgivable. I didn’t know I’d hide from my neighbors or seek solace nightly in wine or toss and turn restlessly in my sleep, dreaming of something just out of my grasp. I didn’t know it would feel like depression.
I didn’t know it would hit this hard, losing my 71-year-old mother to multiple sclerosis. I didn’t think I was entitled to the same bereavement as my friend who lost her 21-year-old son, full of potential, to a heroine overdose; or my friend, whose 5-year-old grandson was taken by a brain tumor before his life had even begun; or my sister, whose husband died of kidney cancer when he was 47, leaving a young son fatherless. Because Mom had been ill for decades and because I’d planned for the end of her life, because she’d become increasingly distraught and difficult, because she suffered, because she was at peace and ready, because I believe her death to be merely a transition—for all these reasons I thought my sorrow would be tempered. I know now, it matters not if the death is tragic or abrupt or expected, if the life has been long or interrupted; grief pierces and reverberates through all who have loved and lost.
I didn’t know it would lodge in my body, that I’d tamp down and swallow my emotions. That staying busy would be a coping mechanism. That avoiding reminders and seeking distractions would keep me functionally numb, but one handwritten note could unravel my hold. I didn’t know it would be a physical urge, this need to cry, and when unleashed, the intensity would crash over me in waves, plunging me under and washing me to shore only when the tide went out. I didn’t know I’d be a private mourner, that I’d get through the memorial with only a few tears, but in the dark of night, in my husband’s arms, I’d finally weep unabashedly, like a child.
I didn’t know people could show such tenderness, that when I returned home I’d find my friends had cleaned my house and left plants and flowers and cards and nourishing food. I didn’t know their generosity would humble me profoundly, that every thought and prayer, every gesture, every act of service would soften the pain and blur the edges.
I didn’t know I could miss my sisters so terribly, the airport goodbyes a severing. I didn’t know we would merge into the embodiment of the best of our mother, that separation would feel unnatural, impossible even. I knew the sacred experience of nurturing the exodus of our mother’s spirit from this world would bring us closer; I didn’t know escorting her body under a full moon to the teaching hospital where she would donate her brain for research would be just as holy.
I knew we’d draw comfort from each other, but I didn’t know heaving sobs punctuated by belly laughs could be so cathartic, that the somber ceremony of scattering her ashes at the ocean’s edge on a cold, overcast day could suddenly turn uproariously funny when one sister, attempting a dramatic toss into the wind, tripped and fell into the freezing surf. I didn’t know we would celebrate our mother’s magnificent life with champagne toasts, crying as we sang along to Helen Reddy and Anne Murray and Karen Carpenter.
I knew we were strong women, that working hard was inextricably woven into who she raised us to be. But, I didn’t know we could clean out her apartment in 3½ days, a whole life summarized in the boxes we carted to my sister’s garage. I didn’t know evidence of Mom’s bravery and integrity would manifest in the intimate task of settling her affairs; not only proof of her creative, tenacious resilience—the hallmark of her personality, but also, signs of her mental decline no one could see.
I knew she was loved by many, not only friends, but those to whom she bonded with fierce loyalty, her chosen family. I didn’t know I’d dread the task of calling each one to deliver the news, that the words would stick in my throat. I didn’t know that their lives would also be bereft without her and I’d be compelled to comfort them, even as my own heart was breaking.
I knew the daily texts would stop, that I wouldn’t hear her voice exclaiming, “Hi, honey!” on the other end of the phone, that when she came to visit it was the last time. I didn’t know when I logged into her account and shut off her electricity the sudden realization of its permanence would take my breath away. I didn’t know I’d question if I should have done more and agonize over whether I’d been enough. I didn’t know I’d ache for her forgiveness.
I knew she’d stay close, that we would feel her; I didn’t know she would come to me when I was exhausted and spent, in the dream-like trance of half-sleep, and spread comfort like warmth through my chest, or when I was quiet and contemplative, in a cool breeze, gently caressing my face and answering my question, “Is that you, Mom?”
I didn’t know the previous contentment with my pretty little life would now feel like complacency; that restless whispers would become clamoring discontent, catapulting me into change and insisting I choose a different path. I didn’t know this transformation was not hers alone; it was mine as well. I know now I’ll never be the same, but therein lies the gift: the pain that shattered my carefully crafted day-to-day, leaving me to ponder my purpose and revisit the very meaning of my existence, has allowed me to create the reality I was born to live.
I know now losing my mother hurts like hell; her absence incarnate is like a light gone out and it will be dark for a while. But in the darkness, I awaken. Holding hands with divinity, I glimpse that I, too am divine. My loss is not diminished by this blissful epiphany, and surprisingly, I’m glad. I don’t want its sharpness blunted. I welcome the overflowing experience, brutal one moment and glorious the next. I did not know, I could not know I would cherish my grief, a grief made exquisite because I loved her so. As I love her now. As I will forever more. This I always knew.
My youngest shouts this over the top of Katy Perry’s “Roar” playing on the radio as I’m dodging traffic on Providence Road, trying to get to gymnastics. I shouldn’t be surprised that questions of this magnitude frequently come from the back seat of the minivan. Questions like, “Why can’t gay people get married?” or, “Are you a Christian, Mom?” or, “What does it mean, ‘I’ve got passion in my pants and I ain’t afraid to show it?’” We spend a large quantity of our time in transit; it makes sense that life lessons are dispensed there.
“Some of my friends are saying it’s just your parents who put the presents under the tree,” Haley yells.
I turn down the volume and glance in my rearview mirror. So, I sigh, it’s begun.
“Hmm, they are?” Buying some time, I ask, “What do you think?”
Haley noticed a few years back that not all Santas are created equal. It wasn’t the Halloween-grade red suits, or even the slip-on shoe covers in lieu of black leather boots. No, it was the beard. Perfectly groomed white facial hair with a slit for the mouth signaled fake. Luckily, she accepted the explanation that Santa needs helpers around the world, and while they aren’t the real Santa they are bona fide representatives sanctioned by the Master Elf himself.
When the subject of Santa sightings came up with her younger cousins — so many Santas, so little time — she bragged, “I’ve seen the real Santa,” as in, “you just think you have.”
“At Bass Pro, in Columbia,” she clarified.
Wide-eyed, her spellbound audience gasped, “But, how do you know it’s him?”
“Well,” her eyes darted up to the left, “he’s pretty old, kinda fat and his beard is dusty and oldish. He’s the real one.”
This year, however, we’re skating on thin ice. At 10, her analytical ability and attention to detail are developing at an alarming pace. And she’s getting curious.
“I think that if there is really no Santa Claus and if parents buy the presents and put them under the tree themselves, that would mean that you and Dad are doing it, too, and all of these years you’re doing it, then you are LYING to the kids. Would you lie to me, Mom!?”
Curious and savvy. Case-in-point: The current question — brutal in its honesty — is almost impossible to answer.
Sydney still believes, though at 14 she’s surrounded by peers who’ve long since traded the childish story for a “nobody believes that” attitude, cue eye-roll. But because of Down syndrome, like many developmental phases, she will get there when her little sister does, and Haley isn’t in a hurry to grow up. Maybe it’s her role as baby of the family, but she’s made a conscious decision to stay arrested: She refused to potty-train until 3, and no amount of pleading would coerce her to ditch the diapers. She hung on to her pacifier until 4, hauled her booster chair out of the trash at 7 and to this day lapses into baby talk.
But, as anxious as I’ve been for her to progress, I’m not ready for this childhood rite of passage. Her innocence is adorable; Christmas seen through her eyes becomes new again for us as her parents. The year she was in second grade, she hung a tiny stocking next to her regular one with a note that read: “Merry Christmas, Santa Claus! I love you! This is mine too, Haley Kent! Shign if yove been here!” (sic) At the bottom she penciled two boxes to choose from: “Been here” and “not been here.”
Perpetuating the magic for my girls takes me back to my own childhood, revisiting my father’s firsthand account of seeing Santa. My brother and sister and I would beg to hear the tale: In the wee hours of Christmas morning, when everyone else was sleeping, he heard sleigh bells and looked up just in time to spy Santa’s sleigh flying away. The fantastical vision of my dad as a freckle-faced farm kid, leaning out an attic window into the cold night air, gazing into a starry sky and seeing something so rare, made me shiver with delight and more than a little envy.
He solidified our confidence by staging a Christmas morning I’ll never forget. Rushing into the living room before dawn, utter amazement stopped us in our tracks. There, on the shag carpeting before us, large foot prints walked directly out of the fireplace and to each present laid out on display; for me, it was a Crissy doll, with long red hair that grew from the top of her head when her belly button was pushed — exactly what I’d asked for.
And my dad isn’t the only father (or grandfather) committed to creating wonderful memories for their kids. In the Kent family, Santa has made several appearances. Announced by approaching jingle bells, he’d enter with a “Ho, ho, ho, Meeeeerrrrrry Christmas!” and a bag of presents on his back. The kids were fascinated by this special, home visit.
One year Santa made a substantial impression on our youngest. Spending time with each, he welcomed the children to sit on his lap, even the teenagers. Shy, she hung back, but in a big booming voice he said, “Haley, come sit,” slapping his thigh. “Ho, ho, ho. Have you been a good girl this year?”
Ducking her head she answered, yes, she’d been good. She hugged his furry neck and thanked him politely. Then, present in hand, she hopped down and hurried to her daddy, whispering ecstatically, “He remembered my name!”
It never gets old. The excitement never wears thin. And the kids never make the connection that PaPa is nowhere to be found during Santa’s visit.
“PaPa, where did you go? Santa was just here!”
“He was?! Well, Jim-ah-nee! I go downstairs to get a beer and I miss everything.”
My husband, too, loves to see his daughters enthralled with the wonder of the season and is not above artful manipulation. One Christmas morning, he called urgently, “Girls, come see this!” In footie pajamas they padded across the floor. Peering through the cold glass of the patio door they saw, lying on the deck, under a dusting of snowfall from sometime during the night, a pile of reindeer droppings, a tell-tale sign that Santa — and his reindeer — had indeed been there. And yet another example of what a father will do for his children.
“Is Santa real?” my children want to know. As they face this inevitable epiphany, my hope is they won’t outgrow their belief in the mystical, but will see the spirit of Santa in the ones they love, and everyone around them, if they look closely. And most importantly, it can always be found within them. It isn’t in the goods. It’s not about the stuff: the loot they stockpile, the stack of toys guaranteed to be broken by New Year’s.
In fact, the risk of greediness arising from a Christmas morning piled high in crumpled wrapping paper threatens more disillusionment than questioning Santa’s existence. What I want my girls to get is that the celebration of Christmas — Santa Claus and his jet-setting reindeer delivering presents on one night of global magic, or the miraculous birth of a baby long ago under a star followed by wise men from far away bringing precious gifts, or both — is not about the gifts themselves, but the connection between the giver and the receiver. It’s about the exchange of love and the phenomenon of belonging to each other.
The most magical Christmas memory I have is of the night before, when I was in second grade. I’d woken up and tiptoed down the hall. Afraid I’d be in big trouble if discovered, I peeked stealthily around the corner into the living room. It wasn’t Santa that I saw, but my parents, sitting on the couch together in the dark, the twinkling lights of the tree casting a glow, soft music playing on the stereo turntable. Unseen, I watched, mesmerized. The very air was enchanted. I can still remember the voices of the Ray Conniff Singers:
“And when you’re giving your presents, don’t forget as you give them away, that the real meaning of Christmas is the giving of love every day.”
Their heads turned at the same time, but instead of shooing me back to bed, they motioned me over, making room between them and handing me a mug of hot chocolate; my mom on one side, my dad on the other. Time stopped. Pure love surrounded me. I believed.
“So, I guess you have to decide, Haley Bug.” I offer this to my daughter by way of an answer.
“Well, my friends say, ‘You don’t still believe in Santa, do you?’ and I just go with the flow and say no so they won’t make fun of me, even though I really do believe.”
Saddened that she needs to protect herself from peer pressure, I’m nonetheless touched that her child-like outlook prevails, at least for one more year.
“But, I have a plan. This year? When we go to Bass Pro? I’m going to whisper in Santa’s ear, ‘Are you the real Santa?’ What do you think he’ll say, Mom?”
I smile, “I don’t know, sweetie. Maybe he’ll say, ‘Do you think I’m the real Santa?’”
“Hmm. I think he is. Besides, another reason I know? Last year you two were exhausted and I know there’s no way you could do all that in one night.”
I ran out of time. For a year I intended to write about turning 50 – a contemplative, insightful piece extoling the wisdom gained from living for half a century, but in a few days I’ll be 51. Gone the way of shoulder pads and stirrup pants, like it or not, the time has passed.
I ran out of time though I’ve tried diligently to slow down my life and clear some space. Simplify, downsize, prioritize; these are my buzz words. Progress is evident, although the perfect balance wherein I fulfill my roles of mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend and instructor, and manage to shave under my arms occasionally . . . this eludes me still.
The other night, my father-in-law, glancing at my Google calendar on my iPhone, its colorful blocks stacked atop, beside and overlapping each other like a patchwork quilt, looked from the screen to my face and said, “You’re too busy.”
This, I know. How to change it, I do not.
“What can I cut, Dad?” I asked, a little desperate, a little exasperated.
Life seems to be speeding up, or perhaps it’s that more life is crammed into a single day. I know my parents’ generation raised their families in a slower time. Compare a rotary phone on the wall, its handset tethered by a 10 foot spiral cord, to a smart phone, handheld and able to, at virtually any time, any place, connect to limitless information . . . and limitless other smart phones. Technology adds convenience, but these instant connections, particularly in the form of text messages, demand instant responses, & idk if we r betr 4 it.
During the last week of school my moderately frenetic pace kicked up to severely frantic. With routines out of whack, extra activities to manage and preparations for the upcoming summer vacation (‘vacation’ is truly a misnomer), the needle on my stress gauge pushed into the red.
With Type-A drive I tackled numerous projects at once, the way I know best – with sleep deprivation and coffee. The goal; to knock out as many items as quickly as possible. My monkey-mind chanted an endless to-do list like a scrolling marquee across the back of my mind. I was running out of time.
In the midst of it all, Sydney had, as a result of a sleep study and the subsequent diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea (common in kids with Down syndrome), a tonsillectomy, and was spending the week recovering at home. Before surgery, she charmed the staff with her smiles and snappy come-backs, but afterward, my brave girl was miserable and understandably, a bit grumpy. We stuck to an alternating 3 hour dosing of Tylenol and Motrin to keep the pain at bay. Armed with popsicles and ice cream and soup and mashed potatoes, we told her she could watch as much Disney Channel as she liked.
Since Sydney’s my easy-going kid, stoic with a high tolerance for discomfort and doesn’t complain often, I figured it would be, for the most part, business as usual. Steven and I arranged our schedules to trade off being home, but I anticipated that while she rested I’d be able to toggle between making milkshakes and sending emails.
Uh, yeah. No.
She didn’t really rest. In fact, she was rest-less, never settling for more than 30 minutes at a time. She couldn’t focus on TV, it hurt too much to eat (even ice cream), and she had no interest in her iPad. She wanted to talk. To me.
“Um, excuse me, Mom?” Sydney asked from the table. “Why my voice is low?”
I answered from my computer without looking. “It’s from your tonsils, remember?”
I’d just blended a smoothie to chase a round of medicine, hoping for a few free minutes to compose an email. “Don’t worry. It won’t last.”
“Why can’t I go to school?” she asked.
“Hmmmm?” I replied, fingers flying over the keys. “School?”
“Why am I not at school?” She repeated.
I could picture her face though my back was to her; eyes opened wide behind purple wire-frames, eyebrows arched high, her mouth frozen in the shape of the last vowel sound she made. She’d asked this question every day, several times a day, for the last week.
“You know why. You tell me,why you aren’t you in school?” I said trying to be patient, though I felt anything but.
“Because I had my tonsils out?” she asked, acting unsure.
But she knew. I’d noticed her strategy of waiting for me to pick up my phone, then immediately starting in with obvious questions to which she knew the answer. The more I needed to concentrate, the more effort she made to divert my attention. And the more she kept me from working, the more annoying it became. In front of me, my iMac displayed the afternoon’s tasks; open Word documents, several tabs on the web browser, iTunes with my playlists for teaching, an unfinished email to Sydney’s teacher. And my calendar. Always my calendar.
Behind me, my daughter waited for an answer.
Realizing it had been several seconds, I turned and looked directly into her eyes. “Yes, honey,” I said firmly, “because you had your tonsils out.”
Her days were long, her throat hurt and she was lonely. My compassion stirred when she said, “I just miss my friends, Mom.”
“I know, sweetie. I’m sorry.” I got up and walked to her, resigned to the conversation for the moment.
“Good job! You drank your whole smoothie!” I said with over-the-top enthusiasm as I took the empty cup to the kitchen sink.
She soaked up the praise with a smile and a shy little shrug.
“I know you miss your friends, but you’ll see them at yearbook signing, remember?”
She perked visibly at the mention. “Oh, yeah! Yearbook signing. On Thursday, right?”
“Yep. On Thursday.”
She sat without speaking as I rinsed dishes and loaded them into the dishwasher. Though I heard my daughter’s angst, my monkey-mind chattered louder, calculating what was due when. I was running out of time.
“Mom needs to get some work done now, Syd. Okay?”
She was quiet.
“How about a pudding?”
“Do you want anything else?” I asked. “I can put on a movie.”
“No, I’m fine,” Sydney said, matter-of-factly.
I registered her disappointment, but I was up against a deadline and the detailed work required focus. I sat down once again and the clacking of the keyboard filled the silence. For 15 seconds.
“Mom? Excuse me.”
“Wow,” I said, taking a deep breath. Patience, Lisa. “You sure are talking a lot today. Doesn’t that hurt your throat?”
“No-oo!” she answered emphatically. “I just . . . , I just have tonsil breath,” she stammered, referring to the unfortunate halitosis following a tonsillectomy.
Her voice, from behind, carried recognition; she knew what she was doing, but couldn’t stop herself. I didn’t catch the rest of what she said; I was reading the three texts I’d just received. My adrenaline rose as my shoulders tensed up to my ears. And my monkey-mind chanted away. Running. Out. Of. Time.
“I know I’m talking a lot,” Sydney admitted.
Tapped, no restraint remaining, I interjected, “And . . . you’re driving me CRA-zy.”
An offhand remark, casual, yet careless, it stung with more bite than was intended. But I didn’t know that yet. I went on with my work for a minute before a subtle energy permeated my unraveling focus. I felt more than heard something and turned around.
Grimacing with silent sobs, Sydney bent over her pudding, shoving bite after bite in her mouth until it overflowed. She inhaled sharply and coughed. Snot billowed from her nose until her face was a mass of chocolatey mucus.
“Oh, honey!” I jumped up and grabbed a Kleenex, wiping her nose and mouth quickly. “Swallow,” I said, holding the straw of her water jug to her mouth. “Breathe,” I directed. She cleared her throat repeatedly then took a shaky breath as she tried to calm herself.
When she could talk, she said softly, “I get it, Mom.” Speaking with a wisdom I forget she is capable of, her words held the implication that she did indeed understand how swamped I was and that she was doing her best not to need too much from me.
“I know we have a busy schedule?” she continued, shrugging and turning one palm up as if to say, ‘it is what it is,’ “but,” her small voice quivered, “you’re going to the gym and . . . ,” she paused, “And . . . and . . . and I just really . . . “
I waited, my attention fully–and finally–and my daughter.
” . . . miss you.” The last two words came out high-pitched and barely audible.
Her chin trembled. She tucked her head down and reaching her index finger underneath her glasses, and wiped fresh tears from her eyes. Lifting her head with a slow inhalation, she looked to see if I was watching, then choked out the words, “but, I . . . just . . . NEED . . . you!” And with that, she abandoned her fight to hold back the tide of her emotions.
Remorse hit me like a wave. My heart broke open wide. The tightness in my chest loosened and slid away as I gathered her in my arms. She buried her gooey face in my belly and we both cried.
In the past I would have castigated myself for being a bad mother, but as an older parent, my compassion extends to myself as well. With maturity comes the recognition that when I’m drained by overdoing, I lack what she needs from me; it’s just not there. I can’t make it materialize. Conclusion: In order to take care of Sydney, I need to take care of myself.
The overdoing has to stop. This I know. How I to change it, I have not known. But perhaps the analogy of sand, pebbles and rocks in a glass jar illustrates how. My time – a finite amount – is represented by the glass jar; the sand, pebbles and rocks are all the many, many things that fill that time, ranging from smallest to biggest. Fill the jar starting with the sand and only a few big rocks will fit. But reverse the order and miraculously, everything slips into place. It becomes clear to me: if the big rocks are gonna fit, they must go in first.
My fatal flaw? Everything has been a big rock; I’ve missed the distinction between size and texture and value. But now I know it just ain’t so. Obviously, Sydney is a bona fide big rock along with my other children and my husband. But, what about me? Is it possible to forgo some sand and pebbles to make room for a big rock of my own? I don’t know whose permission I’ve been waiting for. Who’s jar is it, anyway? In my 50th year, these shifting perceptions and realigning priorities influence my choices more than external expectations. The voice I’m attuning to now comes from within – not without – myself.
My friend, Jackie once told me, special-needs mom to special-needs mom: “There is just no way to get it all done, so I have to let some things, the less important things slip.” Since it is my jar, I get to decide what’s more, and less, important. If worry about the big rocks, the rest can slip. No more running out of time for what really matters.
I untangled from Sydney and pulled back to look at her puffy, reddened eyes. I sighed, smoothing her hair back from her face. Such a precious girl. My daughter.
“Do you want to watch a movie?” I asked.
She looked crestfallen. I’m sure she was thinking, ‘Mom is shoving me off again.’
I added, “With me?” and a smile lit up her face as we headed to the couch.
Every birth has a story, ripe for the telling, though the tale varies with the perspective of the teller. The closest view belongs to the mother; it is her body, after all, that houses the new life, she who evicts her burgeoning occupant. Spin the lens 180º and it is the father’s story. Once removed from the action, he nonetheless has the most vantage point. Broaden the angle, overlay a generational déjà vu, and it becomes the grandmother’s story. She observes–like the father–from the outside. But she feels–like the mother–from the inside. She is the non-impartial witness.
This birth story, told through the grandmother’s eyes, is mine.
After teaching yoga class in my home of Columbia, Missouri this morning, I notice several voicemails from my son, Jeremy, whose wife is rapidly approaching her due date. I’ve been waiting for his call, prepared to drop everything and head to Oklahoma City for the birth of their first child; my first grandchild.
As I pack with shaking hands, I think how short a time ago it was that I hastily threw clothes in a suitcase in hopes of making it to a hospital in time, then, to say goodbye to my dying mother-in-law. The circle of life, profound in its simplicity, plays out. One life ends and another begins.
It’s 5 p.m. before I get on the road with nearly 500 miles to cover. For at least a few hours, the Bluetooth in my car feeds me the comfort of my mother’s voice from far away as we reminisce about Jeremy’s birth 27 years earlier at which she was present. We share incredulity over our advancing roles: from mother to grandmother, from grandmother to great.
The rest of the night, speeding along the highway, alone in the dark with my thoughts. A grandbaby? Surreal. This grandbaby? Miraculous.
Early in the pregnancy, Jeremy texted me a black and white ultrasound image of a little bean and followed moments later with a phone call.
“Look at that baby!” I squealed upon pickin up.
My exuberance was met with silence on the other end.
When my son found his voice, he choked out the words, “Mom, there might be something wrong with the baby.”
My heart broke from miles away. They were told the pregnancy could terminate at any time. And if it did go to term, there was a high probability of chromosomal abnormalities. Testing would yield more information, but ultimately, there would be no definitive answers until the baby grew. Or didn’t.
We waited. We hoped and waited some more.
Through the second trimester, much to our relief, evidence of the congenital defect diminished. Further testing ruled out Trisomy 13, 18, and 21 and revealed the baby was a boy. They named him Ashton.
As delivery drew closer, it appeared he was in the clear. Except for one small thing: the slight possibility of a heart defect. His parents weren’t worried, but I remained guarded. Perhaps because I knew prenatal tests weren’t always conclusive–my third, “later-in life” child was born with Down syndrome. Or maybe it was my maternal urge to shield them from the shock of an unforeseen diagnosis. Tonight, though, I’m jazzed like a kid on Christmas Eve and all I can think about is getting there before the baby does.
At 12:30 a.m., armed with snacks and an overnight bag, I weave through the deserted teaching hospital to the labor and delivery suite. My son stands by his wife’s bed, though he’s beginning to wear thin after a 12-hour shift as a paramedic. Approaching 36 hours with no sleep, he is not in the best shape for their big event. Carly greets me with a beatific smile. Unfazed, she’s been laboring for nine hours. I wonder if she has a high tolerance for pain or a gift for masking it. Both, I decide.
After unloading, I settle in to watch the monitor as Carly’s contractions, and more concerning, her blood pressure, rise and fall. Jeremy contorts his body onto a small couch. Instantly he’s asleep. Just the two of us now, I sit with my daughter-in-law. We chat and she pauses to breathe through the peaks, closing her eyes and lowering her head, enduring each one with a composure I’m quite sure I never had.
Jeremy wakes and I trade him places. I drift in and out, then wake. Together we wait. We talk, we rest. We wait more. And so it goes through the night until the nurse tells us that after 12 hours dilation has stalled and Pitocin has been prescribed. Carly declines an epidural and my admiration grows as I watch her endure four increasing doses of the drug.
After 15 hours of labor, the last three, unmedicated Pit labor, the pain begins to gnaw at her resolve. I recognize her agitation and resonate with her agony, remembering well the desire to leave my body and escape the pain.
Mothers-in-law walk a tightrope between intrusion and indifference.
As I had a wonderful example, I aim to strike the perfect balance in my new role. Involved, but not over-bearing. Available, but at arms-length. And in childbirth especially, I defer the rightful maternal province at Carly’s side to her own mother.
But now, in the harrowing depths of transition, there is just me. Jeremy, at a loss, looks helplessly on. I move next to Carly’s head and stroke her hair, murmuring softly in her ear. Does she want me here? I don’t know, but in this moment, I will mother her. And in her vulnerability she lets me.
I had no epidural when Jeremy was born and every wrenching seizure ripped through my writhing body. With eyes wild and panicked, I looked not to my husband for help, but to my mother who rubbed my shaking legs and whispered words that lifted me above the pain to another place, allowing my body to do what it was designed for. And each time I slammed back down into the sharpness she eased me up again.
I try to bring the same transcendence to Carly. By her side as she rides each wave, cresting and crashing, I feel her surrender to the suffering. But as her contractions climb, so does her blood pressure. And even still, her cervix remains unchanged. It’s just before dawn and the medication has failed to produce results. As her stamina wanes, discouragement creeps in, and though it isn’t in her birth plan, she agrees to an epidural.
To everyone’s relief, when her pain subsides, she is able to dilate fully. And finally, it’s time to push.
Out in the world, the sun is rising. Inside these walls, the day shift arrives. Medical students ready the room, bringing in equipment and supplies. I tell the kids I’ll wait outside so they can have privacy, but they answer at the same time, “Please stay.”
Their young, amiable doctor strolls in. “Let’s try to have a baby,” he says.
‘Try?’ I think, warily.
He tells us a neonatology team will be on hand when Ashton is born. Another red flag. The baby’s heart?
The room is crowded and I pull back, keeping an eye on the monitors. Contractions are close, and with each one mom’s blood pressure goes up and baby’s heart rate goes down. The easy-going doctor informs them that meconium is present which means the baby could be a little stressed. Casually stationing himself between Carly’s legs he tells her to go ahead and push.
Jeremy doesn’t pick up on the vibe and says excitedly, “Mom, get the camera!” But I hesitate. None of the students are moving. The doc hasn’t fully gowned. There aren’t any lights or sterile drapes on Carly. Something’s not right. Time takes on a rubbery quality yet everything happens very fast.
I’m aware of the descending red numbers of the baby’s heart rate, of Carly, determined, with unwavering trust in her doctor. And of my son, steady, but for just a second, frozen. I step up and urge him to support Carly’s back. Straining with all her strength, she pushes until long after her breath is gone. She pushes so hard her face turns dark purple and my concern skyrockets. Collapsing back onto the pillow, she gathers herself and surges forward again, exerting her whole body to expel the life within. Heroically, she fights to birth her baby.
Watching, I fight tears as my love for her grows exponentially in moments; I have never seen anyone so brave. I fight tears as I’m overcome with pride for my son; he’s become a man before my very eyes.
I fight tears because I know this is not going well.
I watch the doctor watch the monitors. Scanning his face and body language, I observe calmness in his demeanor, but sense the undercurrent of his apprehension. After several pushes, he stops Carly and tells her, with no urgency in his voice, the baby isn’t descending. He’s sunny side up and not tolerating the compression of labor. His heart rate is dropping below 100 with every push, which may be an indication of a heart issue. And Carly’s BP is continuing to spike. For these reasons he’s recommending a C-section, just to be safe.
Carly serenely accepts yet again what she did not plan. More disappointed than frightened, she agrees, though her consent is a formality; to his credit, this young surgeon has kept the critical nature of the situation from alarming Mom and Dad.
Abruptly, med students scatter and nurses converge. Phone calls are made, oxygen is placed over Carly’s nose and mouth, the brakes on her bed are kicked up and the whole apparatus, IVs and all, are wheeled away to surgery, leaving Jeremy and I in the empty room looking after them.
He retreats to the bathroom and I reel, thinking not only of the baby, but of Carly and the stories I’ve heard of hemorrhaging, strokes, and mothers dying in childbirth. I shake my head to ward off these images. I need to be strong for my son.
He moves from the doorway, my 6’0″, 200 lb. boy, and gathers me in his big arms, burying his head. “I don’t know what I’d do if you weren’t here, Mom. I’m so scared.”
He sobs into my neck like he did when he was 5 years old.
“But I’ve got to be strong for Carly,” he says, wiping his eyes with his sleeve. When he gives voice to my own thoughts it releases my tears and we weep together.
We’re interrupted by a nurse who has come to take him to the OR. He shakily dons paper scrubs, and in his rush, shoves his leg inside the pants with his shoe still on. His foot is stuck and he loses his balance. I reach to steady him and, bending down awkwardly, I attempt to dislodge his man-sized shoe. It’s a little ridiculous. And very tender.
He still needs me, even as life demands that he stand on his own.
Now it’s just me. The room seems very big. Time bends again as I wait. An hour? 15 minutes? I can’t tell. But then, my son is here, reassuring me quickly that everything went well. Baby boy is here and mommy is doing fine. Relief washes over me and suddenly, I am bone-tired.
Jeremy tells me he got there just in time to witness his son emerge and take his first breath. Carly, drugged and woozy, saw her newborn briefly as he held Ashton next to her face, but the family bonding was cut short when the nurses whisked the baby to the NICU and the awaiting neonatology team. Yet again, my daughter-in-law had to let go of what she dreamed: no laying her newborn on her chest, no skin-to-skin contact, no examining him from tiny toes to downy head, no photos of her husband holding their son in his first minutes of life.
After surgery, she returns to the room without her infant and is told she needs magnesium for preeclampsia; her blood pressure isn’t coming down. She’ll be bed-ridden and it will be 24 hours before she can see her son.
“Nothing is going the way we planned,” she says wearily, and my heart squeezes for her. I want to tell her I’ve learned that little in life ever does.
But I’ve also learned it’s what we don’t plan that bring us the greatest joy.
On the second day of life, after his mama holds him, I meet my grandson. The NICU nurse lifts the myriad IV lines and wires as Jeremy gently lays the little bundle in my arms. He’ll be here for some time and I couldn’t be more grateful for the excellent reputation of the Oklahoma Children’s Hospital. After a diagnosis of aortic coarctation, Ashton will undergo surgery on his newborn heart, the size of a walnut. While we wait, his very life will be held in the skilled hands of the pediatric cardiac surgeon.
Now, I gaze lovingly at the child of my child. I kiss his feather-soft head and inhale the scent of his skin. He curls his whole hand around my pinky finger, squeezing until his knuckles whiten.
‘I’ve got you, sweetie,’ I whisper, though truthfully, he’s got me. Already wrapped around his little finger. A quiet, yet momentous change is occurring, like the flutter of a butterfly’s wings halfway around the world. Life is no longer the same; I can feel it. For me, for my son. For all of us.
Every birth has many stories, diverging in places depending on the perspective of the teller. But they all return to the moment when a new life enters the world and nothing is ever the same again.
Before moving to Columbia, Missouri, spring break meant a week off school to hang around the house and catch up on projects. I soon learned this is not the case in the Midwest. In CoMo, it’s ‘hasta la vista, baby,’ and everybody gets outta dodge. Headed to prime vacation destinations like Florida and Mexico (the country, not the city in Missourah, population 11,543), people lay out the big bucks. And they take their kids with them.
For eight years I didn’t get it. An Arizona girl transplanted to Texas, I never felt the need to migrate to warmer climates; I already lived there. But, by adopting the Show-Me state as my new home, I’ve been reacquainted with the seasons, and after this particular year – the year of the interminable winter in which the world descended into an icy kind of hell, a frozen apocalypse with subzero temperatures, biting winds, ice storms and snow day upon snow day upon snow day – I got it.
“I’m so cold! I haven’t been warm in months,” I said to my friend Jane in Phoenix, who at that moment was sitting on her patio shaded by palm trees, enjoying a perfect 75 degrees. “I can’t wait to feel the sun on my face again.”
I pictured myself lying on soft sand, nearly lifeless, basking in the golden rays like a reptile sunning on a rock.
“You’re going to be gone how long?” she asked.
“Nine days. Granted, it’s four long days of driving, but five full days of camping right across from the beach. South Padre, baby. Kicking back at the KOA!”
In my mind’s eye I can see us in our little home away from home: a green sturdy mat to cover the ground outside the trailer, an awning to create a cozy space lined with Little Japanese lanterns that cast a soft glow, music resonating from outdoor speakers. The girls riding their bikes. Steven at the grill, searing steaks, enjoying a beer. Me, reclined in a comfy camping chair, feet up, wine glass in hand.
“All I’m going to do is relax.” I said, “And, Steven’s taking his kayak so he can fish. It’ll be so good for him.”
A nature lover, my husband is most at peace on a lake, river or ocean, casting his reel. It’s his meditation, his sacred communion.
“And it’ll be good for you.” Jane said. “You guys both need this after everything you’ve been through.”
Stress is a buzzword that’s become cliché in our fast-paced culture, but ‘this’ year has been even more intense for us than normal. A lot of travel, the girls’ medical and educational issues, my job, Steven’s job, our new grandbaby’s heart surgery . . . well, nothing has been routine for awhile.
And then there’s Mom’s death.
“It’s been six months already,” I said, disbelief in my voice.
Our grief cycles as we learn to live without her; it’s been hard, but more and more the sadness is imbued with vitality and getting away to enjoy each other is a significant part of that healing process.
“So, we’re going,” I exclaimed. “All the way to the coast!”
Jane celebrated with me over the phone, “I’m happy for you guys. You really deserve this.”
Steven brought the RV out of hibernation, cleaning and repairing and stocking, and making sure his 4WD truck was tow-worthy. Ever the über-boyscout, my mate impresses me with his thoroughness, making lists and spending hours following through with his plans which this time included detailed preparations for salt water fishing. He loaded his kayak atop the roof of the Super Duty. Protruding over the hood, the end rested on a carrier attached at the grill, forming a visor that framed our view as we headed south on a 1,200 mile trek in search of fun in the sun.
Everyone in their places, we drove; over 22 hours, but we made it, full of anticipation and ready for anything. Anything, except what we got.
After all that, the weather did not hold up its end of the bargain. In fact, the elements conspired to create the antithesis of perfect weather. Warm temperatures were nowhere to be found; we wore jeans instead of shorts and jackets rather than short sleeves. At night every blanket was put to use until we broke down and turned on the heat. All day, the sun hid, obliterated by cloud-cover, casting a gloomy pall. Thunderstorms shook the trailer and gales of wind blew day and night, snatching the door out of our hands and slamming it against the side of the RV, whipping up everything in its path, even extinguishing the flame on the BBQ grill. We retracted the awning and stayed inside.
We were not happy campers.
On the morning of the fourth day, I lay in bed listening to the sound of a downpour – rain dancing with tap shoes on the roof of the trailer – and had a conversation with the petulant teenager who lives inside me.
‘Let it go, Lisa. You’re ruining your own vacation.’
‘But, this isn’t the vacation I ordered. This is not the vacation I NEEDED!’
‘The girls are handling it better than you.’
They were such troopers. Sydney’s ability to go with the flow has always amazed me. And even Haley wasn’t complaining, finding other things to do. But hanging out inside our RV wasn’t what we planned.
‘This weather sucks. This totally sucks.’
‘You’re still spending time together as a family.’
‘Three miles shy of Mexico, for the love of Mike! We came all this way to get out of the cold.’
‘Lisa, shhhhhh. Let it go.’
Cue music: the infamous melody from Frozen rang through my brain, “Let it go! Let it go!” a counter to my stubborn argument. Tenacity and perseverance have gotten me a long way, but this time, a white-knuckled grip on my expectations was not serving me well.
Later that day we passed the time browsing a few touristy gift shops with their shelves of souvenir shot glasses and cheap jewelry, bins of shells and painted starfish and rows of campy T-shirts and hats.
Haley hollered at me a few aisles over, “Mom, look!”
Rounding the corner, she held up a shirt, excited to show me the writing on the front.
“Read it!” she insisted, grinning ear to ear like a little Cheshire cat.
So I read.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Yep. That’s what it said.
Haley beamed at me as if she’d discovered the meaning of life (and maybe she had). “I’ve never seen this on a shirt before. Isn’t that cool?” she asked.
Pretty cool,” I said.
Um, hello? A personal message from the universe, you think? Let. It. Go.
I looked at the past few days through this lens. I didn’t lounge lazily in the hammock like I wanted, but I did cuddle up with my girls to watch movies. I didn’t play catch with Sydney using those little Velcro mitts, but we did play Candy Land and Go Fish, much to her delight. Steven and Haley didn’t take their father-daughter fishing excursion (in fact, Dad’s kayak never even touched the water), but, on a nature walk they did find a fantastic creature called a sea hare. And as a family, we ate delicious seafood at a very cute restaurant on the pier, (while wearing pirate hats), and visited Allison at the Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, an old sea turtle with only one fin, who wears a prosthesis and stars in a documentary.
Then, on the last day, the clouds evaporated and the glorious sun shone bright, warming the air as the winds calmed. The spring break paradise we’d been longing for suddenly materialized. Gathering our gear post haste, we headed to the beach and I lay supine in the sun, eyes closed, drinking in the radiant heat, reptilian instincts satisfied. Haley surfed on her boogie board, Sydney dug in the sand and Steven combed the beach. Bittersweet. We finally got a taste of what we came for.
“Mom, I don’t want to leave,” Haley said. “The sun just came out.”
Sydney said, “But, I miss my friends.”
I understood the sentiments of both my girls. Incredibly grateful for one gorgeous day, I was, nonetheless, disappointed that we didn’t have more. But, I had finally let it go and was ready to go home.
I’m recovering now, adjusting to the discrepancy between what was hoped for and what was. As I contemplate my resistance to (okay, my utter rejection of) accepting the things I could not change, I had to wonder why was I so terribly disheartened? Life happens; C’est la vie and all that, right? But, there was too much riding on the trip; it absolutely had be renewing and rejuvenating. Desperate for rest, we knew it would be a long time before we could commit this kind of time, money and effort to another lengthy sabbatical.
The life lesson comes in not only leaning into the acceptance piece, but embracing the courage piece; the courage to change the things I can. Moving forward, I can create time and space in my busy life for recreation before the need becomes critical. I can infuse my daily routine with all the good things life has to offer, seizing opportunities for joy whenever they present themselves – who said I have to wait? Using my hard-won wisdom, I can sort out the difference. I can have . . . Serenity Now!
One love, one blood, one life. You got to do what you should. One life with each other, Sisters and Brothers. One life, but we’re not the same. We get to carry each other, carry each other.
She doesn’t even know them. Not personally, anyway. Connected by three degrees of separation, she’s a friend of a neighbor of the family, this mom, dad and two sons, leading ordinary lives until a few weeks ago when their world was up-ended when the youngest brother received a shocking diagnosis: Stage 4 Medulloblastoma. She doesn’t know them, but no matter. She, too, is a mother, and that’s enough. Today she’ll shave her head for an 8-year-old boy she’s never met.
Movie-star gorgeous, sitting tall and poised, her hands shake in her lap. She is prepared to be rendered hair-less. Bald. A statement of undeniable solidarity. Long, silky tresses gathered into ponytails sprout from her head, Medusa-like. Her gift is a double offering as the endowment of the hair itself will go to Locks of Love to make wigs for children who have lost theirs. Children like Aiden.
The lights on stage are bright. She squints, looking out over the darkened room. The typical late night crowd of the live music venue has been replaced this Saturday morning with people of all ages. The place is packed. With barely enough room to move, little ones are carried and bigger children are pulled by the hand through clumps of people as their parents edge past to congregate up front. Food vendors and silent auction items line the walls. The community has shown up. They intend and expect to give their support. What they don’t expect is how much they will receive in exchange.
Suspense hangs in the air as the clock ticks down to show time. In the spotlight, three more women–mothers, all of them–sit on folding chairs, draped in plastic capes snapped at the back of their necks. One lives next-door to the family, grown close as neighbors will, by the proximity of their shared lives over the span of years. A drink in the driveway after work, a rant of parenting frustrations, a new gardening idea, a remodeling project. A sick child. Dark brown wavy hair hangs past her shoulders and bangs frame her pretty face. Brushing a tear from the corner of her eye, she blinks her long eye lashes; extensions that, along with big earrings, will soon accessorize her new look.
The next woman’s hair, thick and black, has been divided into segments, also going to Locks of Love. She smiles broadly, exuberance radiating from her face. Aiden and her young son are best friends and the families neighbors. The boys went to school, camped and rode scooters together until recently. Until the news.
It started with headaches that worsened. Doctor appointments revealed nothing conclusive, but Aiden’s parents persisted. Asking questions, insisting on more investigation, tests and more tests were performed and finally, a 2 ½ inch tumor resting on his brain stem was discovered along with other masses in his brain and tumors on his spine. Not what anyone wants to hear, the family had their answer: a rare and aggressive form of cancer. And with it a surreal new reality filled with surgery, hospitalizations, drugs, finding the best treatment options available, and relocating far from home to get it.
Mom and Dad are Skyping with Aiden today from his hospital room. Technical difficulties threaten to thwart success and the disappointment is palpable when the connection drops. After a few more tries, suddenly, there is Aiden, larger than life, yet with a vulnerability that makes him appear small no matter how much of the wall is covered by his projected image. Cheers go up from the throng when this little boy comes into view. His parents lean into the camera and smile their gratitude. The shavees blow kisses and shout their hellos. And with the family’s presence, preparations are finally complete. It can begin.
Excitement buzzes through the audience as people whisper their amazement to one another.
“They’re so brave.”
“I could never do it.”
“Can you imagine what they’re going through?”
Referring to the other mothers, these things can also be said of Aiden and his parents. In the air, something magical emerges, an alchemy of love beyond description, and it is the last woman on stage who has made it happen. Neither a neighbor or a stranger, this mother is an acquaintance, a friend of a neighbor, who socialized with the family casually at barbecues and birthday parties. For years she knew that one day she’d make this choice, for many reasons and many people, not the least of whom is her own mother who died with no hair on her head after enduring not one, but two bouts with two different types of cancer. And the cruelest truth is this: the second cancer was caused by the curing of the first. This woman is colorful from her sassy chin-length brunette mane streaked with red and purple, to her shining eyes and dimples etched deeply into her round cheeks. She radiates joie de vivre even when her voice quivers with emotion during her welcome speech.
Initially, she envisioned a dare; a fun, gutsy campaign culminating in a bold public display that would garner cash, cold and hard, for the family in need. “How much would you pay,” she queried, “to see me shave my head?” When the other three added their momentum, issuing their challenge, a movement was born.
“What are you willing to give to this family if we are willing to cut off all our hair?”
Who wouldn’t admire them enough to donate money, based on their chutzpah alone? No doubt, funds will be raised, but more than money, the rallying of a community around one family garners energy. Efforts expanded as more and more people volunteered, good people who wanted to do something meaningful. Besides these four, at the end of the day, dozens of others, women and men, mothers and fathers and uncles, even Aiden’s classmates—both girls and boys—will have stepped up and joined the ranks of the hairless to say, “We’re with you.”
On stage, they reach out, hand to hand, forming a linked chain, shaking and laughing and blinking back tears. There’s no turning back. The time is now. And as this realization takes hold, the noisy, celebratory atmosphere is charged with a profound undercurrent of intensity and an overtone of the sacred. Enrapt, people find themselves strangely moved to tears. For some, a strong and unexpected reaction. These mothers are brave; it is no small thing what they do. It takes guts, but also inspires awe and reverence. Do they know how brave they are? Possibly, but they would tell you that their courage pales in comparison to the bravery being asked of one small child.
He could be any of theirs, this darling boy with liquid brown eyes and a smile to melt a mother’s heart, who likes snow and ice cream and Dr. Pepper, this typical second-grader who loves his family and his dogs and his pet hamster. A vibrant, happy kid who wants nothing more than to play with his friends–and the chance to grow up. This boy, he is all of theirs.
With a hairdresser for each, the shearing commences simultaneously. Razors are set to scalps. Quick, deft strokes reveal rows of bared skin. Whoops rise up from the house as sheaths of hair fall to the floor and ponytails are severed like dismembered limbs. The impact is powerful. Tears run, unheeded now, down faces, falling to the floor with the locks of hair. This has become far more than a benefit. It is a sacrament. The degrees of separation between neighbors and friends and acquaintances, even strangers, merge and blend until no division exists and all are encompassed by a tangible sense of belonging.
Newly shorn, the women huddle, arm-in-arm. Exhilarated by the fulfillment of their conquest, they laugh through their tears. In disbelief they can’t resist reaching out to rub each other’s heads, now lightened, the weight of all their hair, gone. And the translucent image of Aiden and his parents is cast across the stage, over all of them, and reflected back to those watching. Lighter than air, love lifts the heaviest of burdens and illuminates the soul. Stripped down, love bares the beautiful, naked truth: no one is ever alone.
Lisa Pullen Kent is a writer, yoga teacher, musician, and passionate lover of people. She writes on parenting, marriage and the sacredness of the ordinary in everyday life. She lives in Columbia, Missouri with her husband and their two youngest children, one of whom has Down syndrome.