When I was growing up we moved a lot, big moves crisscrossing the country. Perpetually the new kid, I never stayed long enough to feel like I fit in. Then, I married a man whose childhood was the opposite of mine, who grew up in a small north Missouri town of Mayberry charm. It seemed like the ideal for many reasons and though I could not give it to my oldest two children, Columbia is the only place my youngest two remember.
A dream come true for me, raising the kids in the same town, the same schools, the same neighborhood, the same house, felt like a second chance for me, too. Like coming home.
But now it’s time to go. Change is hard, even when it’s the right thing. Objectively, I marvel at our human tendency to reverberate with surprise or even shock when life takes a turn. Why, exactly, are we so astonished? After all, the only constant in life is change. But subjectively, I am taken aback at every shift and feel it deeply, personally. Even when it’s my own choice.
Impermanence, one of the three marks of Buddhism, asserts that “all conditioned existence, without exception, is transient, inconstant, evanescent.” Unfamiliar with that last word, other than the rock band Evanescence, I had to google the definition: “. . . soon passing out of sight, memory, or existence; quickly fading or disappearing.”
Philosophically, this is a logical, over-arching law. Far removed, we can wisely acknowledge that all temporal things, whether material or mental, are in a continuous changing condition, subject to decline and destruction. But, up close, from our myopic day-to-day viewpoint, the mundane sameness of our lives gives reassurance that all will continue as is. Indefinitely. We dismiss the specter of change at our own peril when we bask in our comfort zone, taking for granted the approaching inevitability that one day things will just be . . . different.
My husband and I are selling our home of 15 years sooner than we’d planned. Our ”baby“ recently graduated, became an official adult, and is preparing to launch. Downsizing was on the horizon, but we made a spontaneous decision to go for it now based on the seller’s market.
Our house is empty. Our stuff was moved across town to a rental—what hasn’t been donated, sold, or tossed, that is. The new wood floors I always wanted were installed. Painters rolled a fresh coat of white on the walls, lightening the whole house with clean, crisp newness. Tomorrow I finish the final cleaning and walk away. It’s all happening so fast, my heart can’t keep up.
It’s not that I thought we’d live here forever or that I expected my babies to never grow up (Lord help us all if they didn’t spread their wings and get out of the nest). But as I painted over gouges and scuff marks and scrawlings in sharpie, the years sped before my eyes. Like flip book animation, a million single moments, stamped one on each page, rifled by in seconds with the scrape of a thumbnail.
Even as I anticipate new possibilities in this new chapter, it feels like loss. A big one. Yet, I find comfort in the belief that change is what we’re here for. I’ve learned in my nearly six decades that everything is impermanent: our youth, our possessions, our relationships, our status and achievements and abilities. It will all slip through our fingers eventually. We can clutch at it or we can let it go.
You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on. Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, and the mountains and the rivers. Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting over and over announcing your place in the family of things.
Mary Oliver, Wild Geese
I read once that Canadian geese are monogamous, that most couples stay together all their lives. Considering the brutality of life in this wild world, I find that to be an inspiring example of devotion, applicable to the human condition, particularly in our postmodern reality.
My husband and I have, on day 13 of the COVID-19 quarantine, brought our two goslings out to the country for a change of scenery. This is our fourth spring out at the farm. Well, that’s what we call it. Although we raise no livestock nor harvest any crops, we christened our 22 acres in the rolling countryside of Steedman, Missouri “the farm.”
When I was young, I married my best friend. It’s a cliché easy to dismiss as sentimental until it happens to you. In my husband, I found my home. Now, ensconced in midlife and traversing the terrain of family life, inherent with its joys and sorrows, I’m filled with deepening gratitude for his presence and a love that grows stronger — and simpler — with time.
A scene from the movie Valentine’s Day illustrates the enigma of mature love. After they’ve had a devastating rift, Shirley McClaine says passionately to her husband of fifty years, Hector Elizondo, “I know I let you down. And maybe you don’t think I deserve your forgiveness, but you’re going to give it to me anyway. Because when you love someone, you love all of them — that’s the job. The things that you find lovable and the things that you don’t find lovable.” His anger quickly melts. As he takes her in his arms, he whispers: “Shhhh. I understand. I’ll never leave you.”
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!
I’m washing up in a restroom at the Oklahoma City airport and for a moment I can’t place my location: hospital? hotel? restaurant? Elegant water faucets and gleaming granite countertops add to my sense of disorientation. I don’t even recognize my own hands. Looking down at the palms rubbing together, the lather foaming, I watch with detachment as water rinses the suds away to reveal age spots and scars. The shrieking of a turbine dryer cuts the air and I’m fascinated and horrified in equal measure by the effects of high-velocity air on crinkly, tissue-paper skin as it undulates against bird bones, exposing skeletal phalanges and large blue veins, tendons as taut as violin strings. These can’t be my hands.
But they are, as are the 50 years it took them to become this weathered. As is this face that looks back at me from the mirror, eyes reddened and tired, cheeks gaunt — succulent youthful flesh gone, hair a bit frizzy. I lean in closer and smooth my makeup. I reapply my lip-gloss and pat down a few errant curls.
“You’re a grandmother,” I think, scrutinizing my reflection.
Two weeks and two days ago my first grandchild was born; the son of my only son. Jeremy and his wife Carly live 7½ hours south of us. This is my second trip down. The first, an urgent drive prompted by the onset of labor was a magical drive through the night, alone with my thoughts. I wasn’t sure I’d make it, but, as it turned out, life threw the kids a few curve balls. From a long and difficult labor to an emergency C-section to a baby in the NICU, nothing went according to plan. They were thrust into an unforeseen reality both frightening and uncertain.
When it became clear the baby wasn’t going home any time soon, I stayed. It wasn’t even a choice; there was nowhere else I could be. My husband, Steven shouldered the domestic load, my colleagues covered at work, and my busy life went on without me.
After ten long days Ashton was diagnosed with a heart defect that required an immediate operation. I went home for a few days to regroup and came back for the surgery. This time, with Steven traveling on business, I took my daughters who still live at home, Sydney, 14, and Haley, 10, out of school and brought them along. On that momentous day, they sat with us in the waiting room. Headphones on, they munched on Cheez-Its and Slim Jims while I kept my hands busy knitting a baby blanket. Thoughts of the pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon operating on a tiny newborn’s heart the size of a walnut raced around my mind. I tried instead to concentrate on the prayers uttered by many to guide those skillful hands.
Time stretched then folded in on itself; surreal, interminable. Then suddenly, the gowned doctor was there and we exhaled in learning Ashton tolerated the delicate procedure beautifully. A full recovery was expected; the new family would be on their way home soon.
Heady with relief, celebratory even, we’ve come to the airport now to pick up my husband; his absence has been felt. With some logistical creativity — a bit of planes, trains and automobiles — we maneuver to get everyone where they need to be. And in the midst, our typical routine churns along demanding attention. A perpetual balancing act, it’s been the norm for a very long time. Making the choice to spread our children out over 18 years has resulted in a parenting marathon.
We have friends in the trenches of young parenthood; their lives filled with diapers, sleepless nights and temper tantrums. Friends running from soccer games to piano lessons, who help with homework and college applications. We meet them at orchestra concerts and cheer practice and neighborhood BBQs.
We have friends in empty nests; their children gone to college or moving away to embark on careers. Friends welcoming new members into their family as their kids get married and have babies of their own. We swap stories about in-laws, the cost of weddings, and the phenomena of boomerang kids.
We don’t, however, have many friends who’re in both, and who consequently experience what I call CPF: chronic parenting fatigue.
Our oldest, Melissa, was a senior in high school when we were pregnant with our youngest, a fact which repulsed her.
“Ew!” she said, “You’re going to be old parents.”
And she was right. We’re kind of old already and we’re not done yet. I often wonder what will be left of us when all the kids are gone? Who will we be by the time we get there? We are not the same people we once were, not the same couple. The idea that marriage is both strengthened by the challenges of family life and crushed under its weight seems a paradox, but it is profoundly true. Steven and I have never stopped loving one another, but this is not to say we always like each other. Stress and exhaustion make us irritable and sometimes we’re just not nice. Everyone else gets the best of us and all that remains for our beloved is the dregs: we are robbed of the person we love most.
Those are the times I miss my sweetheart. I miss the belly laughs his sharp wit never fails to provoke. I miss his pride in my accomplishments, his comfort when I’m melancholy. I miss the pleasure of his company; gourmet dinners and stimulating conversation. I miss the end of the day when our minds unwind and our bodies entangle; when we make space for each other’s innermost thoughts. I miss spontaneous weekend getaways and leisurely lovemaking. I miss his everyday kisses.
Without these things we’re great business partners, roommates and co-parents, but we aren’t the friends and lovers we started out being. Without this spark of intimacy, our day-to-day is reduced to an endless to-do list wearing us down. And out. As Garth sang, we’re “much too young to feel this damned old.” Stepping out of our responsibilities and indulging our love affair is the only way we’re going to see this through.
It’s beautiful to watch our son and daughter-in-law lean together when life necessitates they surrender control; when patience and the ability to set aside their own needs is called for. Faced with this daunting new role, I wonder if our son knows his parents grapple with the same demands and sometimes teeter on the edge themselves. I doubt he knows what’s ahead in the long haul, but I do know the richness will be far greater than he could ever imagine.
I hitch my purse to my shoulder and take one last look in the mirror.
“Not too bad for a grandma,” I surmise and turn to walk out.
Leaving the restroom my eyes cast forward down the long shiny corridor to the baggage claim where the kids have been waiting for Steven. And then I see him. I drink him in like water in the desert.
He bends over to hug Haley. Sydney throws herself over his back. Jeremy and Carly cluster around him. Everyone is talking at once and I walk toward them, unnoticed. My husband looks up over the top of Haley’s head and our eyes meet. I can’t help but smile as my feet lead me steadily to the arms I can feel around me before I get there. Weaving my way through the commotion, I come in closer and stand on my tiptoes.
“Hey, Granddad,” I whisper, brushing my lips against the 5-o’clock shadow on his jaw. “Let’s go see our baby.”
In that moment I love every chaotic, ecstatic, dynamic morsel that makes up our life and it is all wrapped up in this man, inextricably woven into our journey together. He’s my one and only. Eventually, we’ll make it to a tropical paradise or at least to St. Louis for a weekend, but for now, this is all I need.
Giving thanks for abundance is greater than abundance itself. ~ Rumi
I love Thanksgiving. It’s Christmas without the endless to-do list. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about the tree-decorating, light-hanging, mall-shopping, card-sending, present-wrapping, stocking-stuffing frenzy, it’s just I’m usually in a coma by the time the work is done. Visions of sugarplums dancing in my head are often overwhelmed by exhaustion. But, gathering for one day with family and friends, pausing the frenetic doing to simply give thanks for our cornucopia of blessings? Nothing could be better.
I grew up in the Mormon Church. Sunday mornings found my family sitting on long wooden pews in the midst of a large congregation. My favorite part of church by far was the music. Raised by musicians, I’ve been singing since I could talk. From an early age lifting my voice in a joyful noise has been a wholly (holy), transformative experience.
Although I no longer subscribe to the religion of my youth, the songs from childhood still sing to me. Hymns in 4/4 time evoke the visceral memory of breathing in the Old Spice emanating from my father’s freshly-shaven jaw, his neck encircled by a white collared shirt and tie. No matter the season he wore a full suit. I’d lean my head against his strong shoulder, the fabric rough on my cheek, his solidity my fortress. In that place, I was rooted. A lifetime later, the melodies trigger deeply embedded emotions, both poignant and comforting.
Thankful for one more day
One hymn in particular plays in my mind this time of year. A rousing favorite, written at the turn of the century, Count Your Blessings is a lively tune that bounces along with words of advice to rival any ‘keep-your-chin-up’ Disney song sung by cute little animals. The message is emphasized by a dramatic ritardando (slowing) and fermata (hold) at the end: “name them one . . by . . one . . .” And brought home with a snappy happily ever after: “count your many blessings see what God hath done.” The simple but profound truth rings clear–hope is possible, even in the darkest of times, through gratitude.
The world is in pain. People are suffering on levels I have never known and most likely, never will. War rages the globe over. Innocents are killed, cities destroyed. Despair is rampant. Homelessness, poverty and domestic violence crush the human spirit. In my comparatively safe and prosperous life, lamenting hardships feels selfish and insensitive. Yet, adversity is a human experience, no matter our circumstance.
Hope is possible through gratitude
Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, said, “… a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.”
It’s been four months since my mother died. I’ve been told the all firsts are difficult and that this Thanksgiving might be particularly hard for me. Mom didn’t have an easy life and towards the end of her 71 years, she experienced more pain than joy, more loss than fulfillment. But she taught me that being free of suffering isn’t the point. Life is a journey of contrasts: heartaches and frustration, contentment and bliss, and to be human is to feelall of it.
Viktor Frankl also said, “The meaning of life is to give life meaning.” Even as we suffer, finding what is good and right and redeeming – that is our salvation. Shining a light on our blessings warms the cold night and illuminates the dark.
To be human is to feel all of it
My mom started a family tradition around the Thanksgiving table. Holding hands, each person takes a turn to name what they’re grateful for. Both light-hearted and poignant, through laughter and tears, our abundance becomes brilliantly clear with each link in the chain.
Today, I count my blessings out loud. I hold hands with all the world and take my turn.
I’m thankful for the aroma of coffee that greets me, just roused from sleep. For the radiance of the full moon in a dark sky at 5:00 am, the world utterly still and hushed. For the clean bite of cold air drawn into my lungs and the vapor as I breathe out.
I’m thankful for my hands; their age spots, like a tree’s rings telling the story of years spent holding and touching. For feet that carry me, moving ever forward. For the rush of endorphins surging through my bloodstream during exercise, my heart a steady drum, beating the never-ending rhythm: I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive.
I count my blessings out loud
I’m thankful for my mind, my intellect, and the ability to reason. For my sense of humor and the personality that’s uniquely me. And for maturity and evolution, that I’ve traveled the roads bringing me where I am today.
I’m thankful for money enough to pay my bills. For water and electricity, for heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer, for appliances and furniture and clothes. For insurance and medical care and pharmaceuticals. For technology that makes life easier and more fun. For reliable transportation that won’t leave me stranded. For a full tank of gas.
I’m thankful for connections that reach across distances: a Facebook message from my son, a sweet text from my daughter, a phone call from my best friend far away. For the love of my parents and brothers and sisters spread all over the country. For plane tickets. For cheesy peas and cinnamon rolls made from my mother’s recipes. For tradition.
I’m thankful for the million things money can’t buy, for a mother who loved me ferociously and without restraint, who remains a part of me I cannot separate, and whose lilting voice I hear in my head.
The meaning of life: to give life meaning
For my mother-in-law, gone two years now, and the memories of her unconditional love and acceptance that live on. For my grandson and his new brother coming very soon. For daughters-in-law and gay marriage. For divine love in the universe that I believe will prevail over conflict. Because it must.
I’m thankful for the companionship of my husband, the sudden belly laughs he provokes, and his arms that wrap me up, a fortress. For the sweet sound of my children’s voices, singing loudly from the back seat as I angle the rear-view mirror to glimpse their faces. For their clingy bed-time hugs as I tuck them in. For the words, “I love you, Mama.”
I’m thankful for the glorious sun as I turn my face up, eyes closed, to catch its rays. For our home–the place we go out from and come back to–for the sustenance we find in that shelter, our needs met and nourished. For a meal waiting at the end of a long day, for the contentment of belonging to each other.
Love will prevail over conflict
I’m thankful for my pillow and the bed that cradles my body, formed by the years I’ve slept there, my husband by my side. For the warmth of his calf as my heat-seeking foot finds him. For his arm that instinctively draws me close.
As I go to sleep, I’m thankful for one more day to draw breath.
With a white Styrofoam cup in hand, he bends over and carefully spoons ice chips into her mouth, her lips parched and quivering. A few pieces drop off the plastic utensil onto her collarbone, the skin exposed where the hospital gown has slipped off a bony shoulder.
“You’re not very good at this,” she says weakly. Her breathing is labored and shallow. The effort of reaching for the ice and talking at the same time is too much and she lays her head back on the pillow, exhausted.
“Well, whatcha gonna do?” He replies good-naturedly. “I am all you’ve got.”
Quiet for a few moments, eyes closed and very still, she appears to have fallen asleep. But then, my mother-in-law’s eyes open and she answers irritably, “I’m getting somebody else. You’re fired.”
But, it’s the cancer talking. And the chemo and the side effects and infections that have devastated her body and threatened to defeat her spirit.
As my husband’s father gently wipes away the melted ice, he smiles and croons, “Oh, I’m fired, am I? Okay, babe. But I get to interview my replacement.”
For 50 years they’ve faced life side by side. For better or for worse. In sickness and in health. Strong when the other is weak, optimistic when the other is sad, calm when the other is upset. She is devoted to him and he adores her. Two souls intertwined; theirs is the ultimate love story.
Young lovers can’t begin to imagine what awaits them; that the family born out of their passion will test their resolve and challenge their allegiance, forcing them to redefine love as they know it.
Years ago, when we were young, I married my best friend. It’s a cliché sung about in love songs and easily dismissed, at least until it applies to you. However prosaic it may sound, my husband is my partner, in all things. He is my co-parent in raising our children, he is my intellectual equal, my companion and comforter and confidante. The love of my life. He is my home.
Nonetheless, navigating the constant demands of family life takes a heroic commitment and requires a willingness to place another’s needs above one’s own at times, trusting that it will balance out. Never static, the relationship is fluid, the dynamics ever-changing, and it’s precisely this ebb and flow through seasons of abundance and seasons of bleakness that secures the longevity of a marriage.
Steven and I have been doing this parenting gig for a long time and the truth is we’re tired and we sometimes take it out on each other. It’s a known fact that parenting children with special needs can contribute to higher divorce rates, though interestingly one study found that in families who had children with Down syndrome the divorce rate was actually lower than in families with other birth defects or no identified disability. Predictors of divorce among parents of kids with ADHD, however, showed the divorce rate was nearly twice that of the general population before the child’s age of eight.
So, statistically speaking, Haley’s special needs add more marital stress than Sydney’s. I would concur. Haley brings an energy to our family that is amazing and astounding, but also overwhelming.
Frequently my mind will spiral into panic when tallying what needs to be done, when, how and by whom until I’m convinced that I am doing everything. Resentment poisons my thoughts and I can’t see clearly.
“Are you okay?” Steven asks. “You seem crabby.”
“I’m fine,” I mutter, crabby that he called me crabby.
And when my husband’s frustration mounts, his accumulating stress has nowhere to go but outward. His patience is depleted; he is not pleasant to be around. “Leave Daddy alone,” I tell the girls, giving him a wide berth.
Inevitably in marriage, storms hit. Some hard. Rain falls heavy and saturating until we can no longer buoy the other up. A drowning person cannot save another drowning person. Misunderstandings, unspoken expectations and harsh words flood and we are in danger of being swept apart by the current.
But gratitude is the ballast that holds fast, and forgiveness the rope that leads us safely back to each other, hand over hand.
At the end of long days I reach for my tall husband as he walks into the kitchen and wrap my arms around his waist. It takes only ten seconds to feel the bands around my chest begin to loosen. He rubs my back. I close my eyes and breathe.
Then, I feel Haley dive between us, using her body as a wedge to leverage us apart, making a parent sandwich of herself.
“Group hug!” she yells, her voice ringing through the kitchen.
And . . . the moment is over.
Yet within this chaos of everyday life, our love solidifies into an unbreakable, brilliant diamond; under pressure, the mundane is transformed into the extraordinary.
I watch him from across the room when we’re enjoying the company of friends: the expressions I know so intimately; the way his lips curve up at the corners, showing his gums when he smiles; his eyebrows, animated when he talks, and the dimples that mesmerized me when we first met, still flash when he laughs. Not as young now, but our life is written on his beautiful face.
He stands with one foot on the low rung of a stool, his legs long in slim jeans, sporting a graphic t-shirt and trendy glasses, holding a craft beer in one hand and gesturing with the other as he converses.
I fall in love all over again, but harder. I see not only an attractive man, but a man who fixes my computer, and makes me laugh, and runs through the mud in a Viking helmet with me. I see a father who camps in the backyard with his girls, and teaches them about fish and birds and nature, who strokes their cheeks tenderly with the back of his hand when he puts them to bed; a father who endures long hours, sacrificing his own leisure so he can pay insurance premiums, mortgages and college tuition, who generously provides the good things in life for his family, who gives and gives and gives and gives.
I hear not only his voice, but the clang of a lug wrench on concrete as he replaces the brakes on my car, the rhythm of the washing machine as he does 52 loads of laundry, carefully separating my Lululemon to hang-dry. I hear the soft click of the bedroom door as he tiptoes away on a Sunday morning, letting me sleep.
He feels me staring and turns. “I’ve got you,” I say without speaking when our eyes meet. “I’ve got you,” he answers.
Ours is an ultimate love story. Tested and true, redefining love as we knew it.
Like my parents-in-law.
Love is sleeping on a roll-away bed in a hospital room, an arm’s length from his wife. Love is fighting the battle of a lifetime, with unending courage so she can stay longer with her husband.
“I was supposed to have more time,” she sighs.
“You’re not dying today,” he answers. “Not today.”
My husband and I had dinner last week with another couple, friends of ours expecting their first child(ren), twins, and expecting them soon. As we joked about the wife’s swelling feet and widening girth, (and the good fortune that her husband is strong enough to hoist her off the couch), I notice beneath her overt anticipation of the blessed event(s), the covert exhaustion she was hiding. An unmasked expression crossed her pretty face, just for a moment. One that only a gestating woman in her last weeks would understand, one that said, “Please, God, let this be over. Right now.”
In sisterly solidarity I immediately flashed back to pregnancy, a state both magical and miserable, completely consuming; a transformative rite of passage. In the nanosecond it took to relive, the realization that I’d never actually be pregnant again descended on me with finality. I will never again grow a child inside my body and I’m not sure how I feel.
Coworkers, friends and family all seem to be doing it: multiplying and replenishing the earth. Pregnant women surround me, their ripening bodies nurturing the genesis of life where there was only potential. No matter that women have been giving birth since the dawn of time, each new miracle astounds me.
I won’t experience an unseen little stranger rolling underneath my rounded belly, pushing me from the inside (and in the case of my youngest, punching me), proclaiming their presence with every hiccup and jab to my ribs, staking claim to my heart long before their grand entrance. I won’t bring a brand new person into the world, someone who didn’t exist before, but without whom I’d be incomplete. That part of my life is over. Chapter closed.
It’s not about wanting another baby — twinges of longing for a tiny human, swaddled and sweet smelling have been replaced by relief over no more diapers or colic or projectile vomit. Plus, after a bit of waffling, the decision to be done was made after my third baby, though the fourth did not get the memo.
No, this is about discovering myself past childbearing age, about acknowledging my progression from maiden to mother to crone. What is this ambivalence, and why does it feel like loss? Possibly because fertility and youth are intertwined; I’m no longer fertile therefore no longer young? But perhaps it’s more about seeing the journey from birth to death as a one-way trip, and feeling time, like a strong gust of wind, pushing me forward.
The first time a child split me wide open, body and soul, I found purpose. Fragile, yet resilient, so new, yet so familiar, I held, in my arms, the answer to every question; the meaning of life itself. And each time I cupped a small rounded head and inhaled the intoxicating fragrance of newborn skin I was reborn. Changed. I simply do not know who I would have been had I not been a mother. The archetype has imprinted my identity so as to affect all other relationships; all paths taken and not taken.
Bearing evidence of birthing and breastfeeding four babies, my body has lost the elasticity to reshape itself. My psyche still grapples with maintaining a separate sense of self while giving my children my whole self, an inescapable urge. But, though I may disparage my life or wish briefly for something different, I know I wouldn’t trade the sacrifices made for the indulgences gained.
At 31, a divorced mom of two school-aged children, I remarried with hopes of a second chance at the happy family I’d always wanted. I dreamt of more babies to cradle. After a miscarriage, at 36, I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl with thick red hair, milky white skin, and Trisomy 21, Down syndrome. The initial shock of her diagnosis was surprisingly short-lived. Bringing gifts, her presence was cause for celebration. She taught me to slow down, breathe, and stop long enough to find stillness. She taught me the richness of a simple life. She taught me contentment. And her younger sister, despite the 99.9 percent effectiveness of birth control, was born when I turned 40. She teaches me… patience.
Mothering is nothing if not an exploit of extremes, and for every Hallmark moment there are 200 ‘Suck it up, you’re the Mom!’ moments. Like being eight months pregnant and worried sick over an absent teenager, hours past curfew, before cell phones. Like weeks of hospitalization with a two-year-old in critical condition. Like night terrors at 3 am with a delirious 7-year-old. Or apoplectic meltdowns in the supermarket and shoes thrown from the back of a minivan. Or Sesame Street and Teletubbies on video loop. Or pet salamanders and pet mice and pet birds, who still poop, even though they’re small. Like all things educational; relentless forms and meetings and bureaucracy, from kinder to college. Like sleep deprivation that lasts for years, and new appliances that last five minutes, and endless sticky messes.
Babies are akin to kittens; adorable at first, but quickly turning into cats. Adoration got me through midnight feedings, hysterical crying, and explosions out both ends. Devotion gets me through the rest: dirty dishes, dirty faces, dirty clothes and dirty rooms. Through broken bones and bruised hearts. Through whatever it takes to get my chicks from here to there, to their moment in the sun, when I, their biggest fan, cheer loudly, “You did it! I knew you could. I knew you would!”
I’m not a perfect mom. Far from it. I lose it on a regular basis (my sanity, my temper, my grip). My kids drive me right over the edge, but I love them with a ferocity bordering on psychotic. I don’t think I’m unique. Mother-love, the most powerful force in the universe, can save the world and I wouldn’t swap it for a stunning body or a hundred trips to Europe or a life of leisure, even on the days I swear I’m this close to selling my offspring to the highest bidder. On the days I need a reminder, I replay in my mind a particular night I put my youngest, the one who defied the odds, to bed. Not yet 2, she’d overheard me referring to her unexpected arrival on the planet as I often did by way of an affectionate nickname. Most likely, I’d had a rough day, since every day’s a challenge when you have toddlers. Presumably I wanted to get her down and escape to a glass of wine. As she nestled close for a kiss she said, “Mama? I you bonus baby, wight?”
Oh, yes. A bonus. Something extra. Much more than I bargained for, the challenges of motherhood were impossible to foresee, but equally unknowable were the profound rewards. And its infinite nature; a mother doesn’t stop mothering when her children are grown. In my mother-in-law’s soothing voice over the phone as she reassures her son, a middle-aged man, is the love of a mom for her little boy. Across the miles, in an email, my mother’s words carry a tender caress to me, her daughter, the mother of grown children herself.
There will be no more babies, at least not from my womb. Someday in the not-too-distant future, the babies of my babies will christen me Grammy or Nana or Gran. The thought is surreal, yet, enchanting. When the child of my child is placed in my arms, I will lean in close and press my cheek to that precious face, so new, yet so familiar. I will inhale the intoxicating fragrance of newborn skin and look into soulful eyes seeing generations past and future. And in the sacred hush I might hear heaven whisper, “This is the meaning of life.”
And so lying underneath those stormy skies She’d say, oh, I know the sun must set to rise.
Paradise by Coldplay
~For Richard, Heidi and Gabriel~
It was Sunday afternoon. The weekend that seemed to stretch out enticingly before me on Friday was, for all intents and purposes, over. I sat on the couch, mindlessly surfing Facebook, playing Angry Birds. I had the ‘Sunday blues,’ that restless dissatisfaction that strikes around 5:00 p.m. when the realization that a weekend filled with relaxation and leisure is just not going to materialize. This happens frequently. My days get filled with grocery shopping, running kids to activities, projects at home, work issues, and other mundane tasks. My fun time gets relegated to Saturday night after the kids go to bed and I pass out halfway through a movie.
I felt a shift coming in the weather foretold by the pounding headache that stormed my skull. Sitting alone I looked out the window at the gathering clouds and malaise settled over me as I thought with a sigh how the girls would be home shortly. I’d have to get up from this couch to start the nighttime routine: wrangle up dinner, corral kids into the shower and herd them to bed. I’d go through Friday folders (Sunday night folders, let’s be real) and look ahead to everyone’s schedules, gearing up for another busy week.
But that was all before I got the news that my brother-in-law had died. Just 45 minutes earlier, while I was lamenting the end of the weekend, he’d taken his last breath and given up the battle he’d waged to the finish. Though he and my sister were separated, in the end, their differences didn’t matter. The strife and tension between them healed spontaneously on his journey from this plane to the next. When cancer took over his body, she took him into her home. She tended to his dying and in the process found forgiveness. Her focus was on creating lasting memories for her son, their son. He is seven, my nephew, much too young to lose his father. And his father, much too young to lose his life.
Richard suffered in pain and struggled for every breath. He had not come peacefully to his death. The denial tortured both he and Heidi. When his agitation became too great, the meds gave relief and he drifted in a morphine-induced fog. My sister lay down with her husband, pressing her body to his, her mouth to his ear.
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.