Category Archives: Motherhood

The Bonus Baby

It’s birthday time again. Each year, the full trip around the sun seems to get shorter. The passage of time is marked by my wrinkles, as distinct as tree rings. The same me, but . . . older. My children, however, turn into completely different creatures. I am still stunned by the evolution of infant to adult, the development of a tiny, helpless bundle of humanity into a fully functioning, if not fully matured, individual of “grown-up” status.

Spreading my four offspring out over 18 years was not what I envisioned. In sequence, their ages roll like numbers on a tote board from even to odd and 2022 sees my kiddos turn 37, 35, 23, and 19. I may not have planned this configuration, but each was a deliberate choice. Still, the truth might be that before we’d actually decided on a fourth child, while on birth control, said child decided for us. Initially making an appearance as a blighted ovum, imagine our surprise when the miscarriage our doctor told us to prepare for turned out to be a fully viable pregnancy.

The first time around, I was a very young mother. In the second chance, second act of my role, I was a little more, ahem, mature. By the time our little blighted ovum was born–two days after his dad’s birthday and three days before mine–I was granted “geriatric” status.

He will always know my age because he just adds 40 to his own. Today, Xander, aka the bonus baby, is 19 (you did the math, didn’t you?). It’s startling to see him, in the blink of my mind’s eye, transform from precious imp to precocious tot to “grown-ass man,” as he refers to himself now. Regardless, he is, and will always be, my baby.

Xander asked me once, “Who’s your favorite kid?” When I answered, “I don’t have a favorite,” he replied with, “Oh, come on. Don’t you love me best?” I said, “I love you all the same. Really!”

I maintain that the love I have for all four of my children is equal in fervor and devotion. At the same time, I celebrate their uniqueness and individuality. I cherish each for the gifts they alone bring to our family. But the baby is the caboose when the train has left the station for good.

The last childbirth.

The last colic.

The last sleepless nights.

The last time in diapers.

The last time for cribs.

The last first steps.

The last first day of kindergarten.

The last first lost tooth and bike-rider and piano player tap dancing on my brain on a Sunday morning.

The last report cards and sleepovers.

The last body odors and messy bedrooms.

The last draining of the checkbook.

The last first love.

The last surly attitude and adolescent broken heart and FaceTiming until 2:00 am.

The last driver and the last sleepless nights of a different sort.

The last applications and auditions and orientations. The last performances. The last graduations.

Recently he completed a rite of passage at church. That’s right, I said church. I never thought I’d go back to any sort of organized religion, but the UUs are a pretty unique and amazing crew. Their mission statement alone, “In the spirit of courageous love, we forge a community of radical welcome and deep connection that moves us together to heal the world” speaks volumes to the diverse, inclusive, beautiful people who congregate there.

Xander hung with with the YRUUs, the Young Religious Universalist Unitarians, a cadre of smart, funny, open-minded and open-hearted kids whose activities include social activism and leadership building among the movie nights and lock-ins. At the end of each school year, the rising class “graduates” and are no longer considered youth.

In recognition of their ascent into the adult world, a service is held celebrating their launch and individuality. Each honoree is lauded for being exactly who they are, surrounded by the unconditional love of community. Parents are asked to write letters to their youth, sharing thoughts on who they’ve been and who they are becoming, describing how they entered the family, the emergence of their personality and unique gifts, and concluding with words of advice and blessing.

Though the letters are anonymous, a portrait of each kid materializes as it is read. All who listen delight in pretending not to know exactly who is being referred to. In Xander’s case, anyone who knows him probably suspects his identity right from the get go. Read on and see what you think.

Dear Child,

You came into the world an irrepressible force, though the first two days of your life, you slept the sleep of the innocent. We gazed at your porcelain features in awe. “Could it be that this last baby, our late-in-life, sweet, surprise baby would be mild and calm and easy to raise? A comfort to his parents?”

A comfort? Yes. Easy? Well, let’s just say you have simultaneously kept us young and launched us into old age, an apt conundrum to describe the paradox that is you. With two gears: hyper-speed and out cold, you either rocket through life on a relentless stream of noise, your high-velocity intensity radiating outward in waves, leaving us to ponder the question, “What just happened?” Or you collapse, dead to the world in seconds, crashing out, capable of snoozing through any alarm, including a voice in your ear saying ever-so-gently, “Get. Up. Now!”

You were a chubby, precocious toddler who spoke in full sentences at eighteen months. “Mama, I you bonus baby,” you whispered one night at bedtime after overhearing me refer to you as such. I stand by this designation. You are the best kind of bonus.

That sharp intelligence was matched by creativity and imagination, and as you grew into a leggy, lanky school-age kid, a brilliant light with boundless curiosity, you blew our minds at every turn with questions like, “Who is God? What is God? Like, is he an animal? Or a monster?!”

“Well, we believe that God is in your heart,” I said. “And you are part of God.” Rather than telling you what you should believe, I thought the best strategy was to offer varying points of view. “And some people, Grandpa and your friends from Camp Barnabas, they believe God is a man, like . .  you know, Jesus.”

Without skipping a beat, you interjected emphatically, “But, Jesus is a girl!” And in case I didn’t believe it, you added with a vigorous head nod, “Uh-huh. She is!”

Seemingly overnight, you morphed into a saucy, brainy, artsy adolescent with the mouth of a sailor, a 10,000 watt smile, and talent oozing out of your pores. You wanted to go to church and so we found the UUs and the Coming of Age program and, much to your chagrin, Our Whole Life or O.W.L. for short, because even though you sing your own song, loudly, with gusto and panache, you are, at your very center, painfully shy.

That doesn’t stop you from waking up every day and asking with your signature joie de vivre, “What’s next!?” Life for you, beloved bonus baby, is an adventure best approached with an unquenchable appetite, to be lived with no-holds-barred, at full tilt.

The round-faced infant that bounced into our world 19 years ago is no more, though we will always hold those memories close. And now, the young man emerging into adulthood before our eyes, evolving into the person he was always meant to be, sits poised on the precipice of the biggest adventure yet. Proud parents, we cannot wait to see what comes next.

You already have the tools for life we think are most important, but here are some last words of wisdom to put in your pocket:

  • Don’t be afraid to talk to yourself–sometimes it’s the only way to have an intelligent conversation.
  • If you need to write an angry letter or tweet or text: Write it and put it away. Read it tomorrow and then decide if you really want to send it.
  • If you’re sad, play some music. If you’re mad, play some music. Happy? Music. Music is the spiritual guide that will take your hitchhiking brain wherever it wants to go.
  • Stay curious and wide-eyed with wonder.
  • Be kind. Always be kind.
  • And remember to love, because love is the most powerful force in the universe. And in the end, it’s all that really matters.

Wherever you go in the world, you’ll always be ours and we will always be yours. You said it best yourself when you were only five.  After you’d screamed, “I hate you!” and stomped off, probably because we cut your peanut butter sandwich in squares instead of triangles, I gave you time to mellow and by bedtime, you were ready to make up.

“Mommy, I love you.” Your voice was tired and the heavy pull of sleep dragged at your eyelids. “I love you after I hate you.” Fighting to keep your eyes open, you continued. “And I love you forever because I’ll hate you again.” As you sunk back onto your pillow, your eyes drifted closed. Your little body surrendered into the bed and you whispered, “But I’ll always love you.”

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What Do You Know?

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

The last photo of me and Mom

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.

Yeah. I’m going with that.

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Evanescent

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.

Home sweet Home

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.

This tree was 5 ft tall when we moved in. We called it a “Dr. Suess” tree because it was spiky and naked.

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.”

Xander and Sydney made this representation of our family from leaves on our maple.

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. 

Goodnight, house.

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.

Me, I’m just trying to loosen my grip.

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Filed under Aging, Babies, Community, Family, Gratitude, Growing Up, Letting Go, Loss, Marriage, Memories, Motherhood, Parenting

Antidote to Disillusionment*

*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.”

Maya Angelou

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.

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View From A Quarantine

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

Leonard Cohen

“Be careful what you wish for,” my mother used to say.

“You just might get it.” A wise woman, whose words I often disregarded when she was alive, her advice has been on my mind a lot lately. 

Time, as we experience it on this plane–as we have all agreed, is linear. A steadily-paced constant. Yet I know I’m not alone in the perception of its acceleration. In recent years I’ve felt more and more like a hamster on its wheel, running frenetically in a perpetual, never-ending race. My days consisted of  rushing to commitments, appointments, and activities packed into an impossibly tight schedule and coordinating the inherent overlapping and conflicting logistics of the same. Fueled by a bottomless to-do list, my go-mode was switched to “over-drive” nearly 24/7. 

Until March 15th, that is. Before that fateful date, I ran myself ragged trying to keep up, all the while complaining about being too busy. 

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Resurgence of Hope

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.” 

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The Way Home

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

I went to church this morning—on my couch. A dutiful daughter, I spent the first half of my life in religious prostration, and then I left. But detachment from dogma meant disconnect from community and I wandered, people-less into my middle-age. In recent years, I sometimes sat, shyly, noncommittally, on the back row of a new church I discovered, an un-church. The Unitarian Universalists. 

The UU church, nurturing spirit and service, brings a solace of words and music and familiar faces to my living room via Zoom on this second Sunday of social distancing. Congregants come like moths to the chalice flame. Greetings scroll up from the chat box as joiners bask in the warmth of shared hearts and minds, if not bodies.

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Rockin’ The Socks for World Down Syndrome Day

Repost from March 21, 2016

The sun goes down
The stars come out
And all that counts
Is here and now
My universe
Will never be the same
I’m glad you came

Steve Mac, The Wanted

My sock drawer is stuffed to overflowing: Everyday athletic socks, fuzzy slipper socks, a few dressy pair of trouser socks. But my special collection consists of crazy, colorful knee socks and on March 21st I’ll have plenty to choose from in honor of World Down Syndrome Day.

Trisomy 21 is the technical term for Down Syndrome. Chromosomes made up of DNA exist in every human cell, typically 46 chromosomes or 23 sets of two. In the case of DS, an abnormality occurs, resulting in an extra chromosome, 47 in all. The extra, third chromosome is on 21st set. 3-21. Hence, March 21st was officially declared the day the world would recognize these extraordinary individuals.

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Just Breathe

Re-posted from March 6, 2014

“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart.
I am, I am, I am.”

Sylvia Plath

There’s a stillness that descends on the hospital late at night, softening the harshness of bright lights and the sterility of hard floors. Sounds are muted and voices hushed. Sydney is the only patient in the sleep lab tonight located at the end of a long, empty corridor. It’s dark in her room but for a night light and the glowing dots of the medical devices hooked up to her. I shift uncomfortably in the reclining chair next to her bed and wonder how I’ll make it until morning when it occurs to me that my father-in-law spent more nights this way than I can count during the fourteen months of my mother-in-law’s battle with cancer. It also occurs to me that the last time I sat in the dark next to a hospital bed was with him, the night before she died.

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To Be Loved: The Greatest Gift

When I was young, I married my best friend, a cliché dismissed 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. Shirley McClaine says passionately to her husband of 50 years, Hector Elizondo after they’ve had a devastating rift: “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 and he quiets her pleading, taking her in his arms and whispering: “Shhhh. I understand. I’ll never leave you.”

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