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Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Urban Dwellers

It was October, and my friend invited me to a local meetup of women who had aspirations of being intentional influencers. One of the topics that emerged at the meeting was social media.  Women were vulnerably sharing how certain feeds can leave them feeling less than or jealous.

I came home and declared, “I don’t think I have ever felt that way, Stephen.  I am not duped by those perfect feeds. Everyone has a messy life in some ways, they just don’t share it."

That same month, some friends who have a bluegrass band asked me to take some band pictures.  We went out mid-day to this empty lot with a cool mural painted on the adjoining building. There I was with my single camera and step stool.  I’m 4’10’’ in the morning. They say you shrink a little bit during the day. The step stool helps me photograph people’s faces instead of their necks.  I can tell you, I strike a pretty unimposing figure.

We are there, and what I can only describe as a supremely confident photographer came over with a bride and groom.  Could her bride and groom pose with the band? Would they play for the couple? Would one of her assistants hand her the 80mm lens?  Would the other assistant take a photo of her taking a photo? Yes, yes, yes, yes. 

Days later, this photographer posted the photo of the bride a groom with the band on Instagram.  One of the bandmates brought the picture to my attention. I scrolled through the photographer's feed and discovered prettier people, better light, more creative angles, and a familiar face. 

Our children’s principal and her family were there in this photographer's feed.  I really didn’t know much about her at the time. She has two daughters. One the same age as Schroeder, the other the same age as Maggie.  I knew that she dressed well, and I knew that I didn’t like her tone when she called me to talk about Schroeder’s behavior. Did he go to preschool?  Is he young for his grade? Are you as good of a mom as you think you are? She didn’t ask the last question. There’s a solid chance that she didn’t have a tone, either.  She may have just been doing her job. We might never know.

I found out a few more things about her from her instagram feed.  It has since become private, likely because of stalkers like me. She recently sold her four bedroom home in exchange for a condo downtown.  They were no longer trapped on evenings and weekends cleaning, maintaining, and improving a home. They were now urban dwellers. The city was their backyard.I had fallen down the rabbit hole, and my mind began to churn.  In our move to the city, why hadn’t we considered moving to a condo instead of a 130 year old, beige, moth-ball filled house?  A house that had consumed a good portion of our expendable income over the last five years.

It occurred to me that one difference in her situation and mine was she has two kids and I have five.  Why did I have five kids!?  My life decisions no longer made any sense.

Just after Christmas, I tore up our upstairs hall bathroom and slowly began to put it back together.  I pulled down a grate and found it was hiding a big hole in the ceiling. I pulled out the vanity and discovered there was no wall behind it.  It was a slow process. My mom asked me, “Who are you hiring to lay the tile?” No one. I’m doing it myself. She outright laughed. I reminded her that DIY projects are as much about the process and what you learn as the end result.  I’m still clinging to this truth.

I spent a grueling mid-winter Saturday laying down tile.  I had started in the corner which was the wrong strategy, and all the poorly spaced seams were converging in the very center of the floor.   Mortar was coming up through the cracks, and I wasn’t doing a fantastic job wiping it all away.

Stephen had decided to forego the home improvement life and took D’arcy to the historic Women’s March.  While I was slugging away on my hands and knees in a bathroom with no windows, he was updating me on his day. Ran into your cousin’s family. In a strange turn of events, my cousin’s wife had just become the assistant principal at our kids' school. They are going to the principal’s condo for lunch, and have invited us to come. Is that cool? I guess. Eating butternut squash soup.  Of course you are.

The irony of this turn of events was not escaping me.

Days later, I would call Stephen crying that the thinset mortar I neglected to thoroughly wipe away had dried on the top of the tile.   Also, it was really all his fault since he was pretending to be a free wheeling urban dweller when in fact he was the kind of downtown dweller with a really big old house which required him to spend his Saturdays helping his wife lay tile in a windowless upstairs bathroom.  He refused to accept the blame. However, he took the next day off work, and we spent seven hours slowly chiseling off the excess mortar.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Penelope is 6!

Penelope is the baby of the family.  She's a tiny one.  She still has a little voice.  I have to tell her regularly to put some strength in her voice so I can hear her clearly.  Sometimes, she'll hide when I'm handing chores out.  I'm too busy instructing the other four that I forget she isn't helping.  "Where are you P!?"  When I catch her making poor choices (like eating three pb&j frozen waffles after school and leaving a mess on the table), she'll respond with "Oh, I didn't remember." or "Oh, I didn't mean to."  

She likes going up to the nursery at church.  We've allowed anyone five and under to go up after the bible lesson, and she always chooses to go.  I remember thinking to myself a couple of months ago, she's almost six.  Should I force the point that the nursery isn't for her anymore?  The Sunday after her birthday she announced to me, "I'm six now so I'm not going upstairs anymore.  It's for kids five and under."  

The other girls have gotten their ears pierced on their sixth birthday.  Penelope mentioned getting hers done a couple of months ago, but I wondered if she would be really scared and emotional about it.  On the way to the mall, Maggie asked her if she was feeling scared or excited.  Penelope said, "Both, but I'm trying to be like Ice Bear (some character on Netflix).  I'm trying to say my emotions instead of showing my emotions."  Girl did not even flinch or cry.  She choose pearls.

There isn't another little human behind Penelope to help us comprehend just how much she's grown.  And maybe her outward appearance isn't the best representation, but her mind and self and character are all getting just so big.  If we didn't notice, she's letting us know.

Sometimes she asks to be picked up.  I hold her for a minute and think this might be one of the last times that I will hold one of my babies.  And then I put her down cause she's just heavy.

She learned to ride her bike sans training wheels this spring.  She's on the cusp of swimming confidently.  We are slowly working on her reading.  She started kindergarten this year.  She liked school.  In April, her teacher said, "I've herd her talk more this week than the previous eight months combined."  Teachers who know our other kids comment, "She's quieter, isn't she?"  Yes.  Stephen says she pivots from sullen and quiet to spazzy.  

I asked her what her favorite things are; LPS (littlest pet shop), Roblox, Minecraft, YouTube, her grey & yellow birdie shirt, drawing, cheese, bouncing on the trampoline, her brother Schroeder, puppies.  And slime because it's "satisfying".   "Mom, isn't saying the word satisfying so satisfying?"  

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Holding the love I've known in my life...

My dad called me just past midnight on a Sunday morning in May.  “Your mom just passed away, Melissa. Come say goodbye.” We showed up in birth order, my sister, me, my brother.  Our family of five was all together for the last time.

We took turns sitting with her.  I sat beside her, cried, and told her I was sorry.  I’m sorry you died at 56. A third of your life was taken from you.  

The funeral home came to take her body.  One of the undertakers was surprisingly young, skinny, and tall. I’ve never known anyone who worked in the mortuary business, and I never pictured a 6’4”, 130 pound, 18 year old putting on a long suit in the middle of the night to come collect the deceased.  I sat on the chair in the living room as they wheeled her body through the house and out into the warm spring night. She was covered with a quilt which felt like love and warmth and home. I want to be covered with a quilt when I die.

Her death was simultaneously drawn out and sudden.  Six years before, she had been diagnosed with stage four uterine cancer.  She had been complaining of abdomen and hip pain. When she called to get it checked, she was told the next available appointment wasn’t for at least a month.  She waited and I didn’t worry. My inclination in life is to assume the best. Life has proven that approach to be naive.

At the time, she was 50.  She was definitely young for this type of cancer which I would later learn suggests genetics played a part.  As her daughter, I may have inherited said genetics. Her young, otherwise healthy body cooperated with the treatment, though.  Within a year, she was cancer free. Cancer free is not the same thing as remission. This type of cancer is never cured, they said.

Before my mom would give us news about her condition, she would speak to her imaginary publicist.  They would strategize and spin the news in the most positive way. That’s how it FELT when she called five years later to say, “The biopsy came back as cancer.  But I’m young, strong, and I’ll fight it again. God has a plan for this, I know.”

When we were kids, my mom would say, “I’m your mom, not your friend.”  She set the boundaries of our relationship, and for her, friend and mother did not overlap.

I knew about my mom what could be observed from living with someone for 22 years.  She drank a tall glass of milk with most of her meals. Sometimes, she walked on her toes.  She woke early and was drowsy by 9:30pm. She didn't sit still very well, always knitting or bouncing her leg.

When we talked, we shared present day updates of our lives and the lives of people we knew.  This person was having a baby. The kids were doing such and such. She was searching for something new for the house.  

There is a lot about a person that can’t be observed; thoughts, feelings, memories.  Those have to be intentionally shared. She didn’t choose to share very many of these with me.  When she was sick, she shared updates on her health with a brave face, but not her internal struggle.

I have regrets.  The last Christmas she was alive and cancer free, she told me she needed potholders.  So I gifted her apple green potholders. They matched her towels, but they were still uninspired. Lame.  

In January, she found a little lump inside her leg.  By March, it was all over her abdomen and in her lungs.   She was hospitalized in early April. My sister and I stood out in the hospital parking lot and said, “July.  At this rate, she’ll be gone by July.” But we underestimated this cancer’s veracity.

My mom, on the other hand, remained hopeful.   She had asked me to go by Fazoli's to get her some pasta.  I brought it to her in the hospital. She was proud to be sitting up in her hospital chair.  She had put her tennis shoes on and taken a walk around the floor. As she ate, she told me that they had mentioned hospice to her, but she wasn’t ready.  She said, no one knew when she was going to die. It could be May but it could be a year from now. Her genetic tests were coming back soon and there might be a treatment that could buy her some time.  

My mom was such a capable person.  All things could be solved with just a good plan and some hard work.  I loved her in that moment of hopefulness, and I almost believed her. Maybe it isn’t progressing as fast as we think.     

I had to decide how much time I could give her.  Were we playing a long game or a short one? If she was going to live until November, how often should I spend with her each week?  What if she only had two more months? I was the mother of five youngish kids, had other responsibilities with my business and church, and my parents lived a half hour away.  Plus, Stephen was having a difficult season at work that added stress to our lives.

I told her to tell me what she needed, and I would do it.  I meant it. Just tell me what you need. She asked for potholders again, and I gave them to her.  Her requests were minimal, and I didn’t exceed expectations.

Could I do some shopping for her?  One day in April she called and sad, “Melissa, you’re planning to buy me some new pajamas, right?  Remember, I don’t want anything that will be too tight around the waist and I prefer cropped legs.”  I said okay, and she hung up. That was the last time I talked to her on the phone. I bought her some pajamas.  After she died, I found them unworn in one of her drawers, and I returned them.

Could I come down one day a week and help during the day?  I came down on a weekday, and helped her get her lunch. She was determined to eat her very favorite things; bread with a very particular butter, thin pizza with ONLY mozzarella cheese, tapioca pudding.  To my frustration, we sat in silence on the couch and watched Cupcake Wars and then Tiny House Hunters. I brought her down her mirror and tweezers so she could pluck her eyebrows.

She asked me if I thought she was silly to worry about her eyebrows.  No, I didn’t. I really didn’t know she plucked her eyebrows. It felt like the most open, honest moment we had that day.  

I wanted my mom to shift into planning for her death, though.  My siblings and I had mentioned family pictures. We had mentioned interviewing her about her childhood.  She never said no, but she never said yes.

My mom wasn’t a very nostalgic person.  Everything in her home was meticulously organized, her kitchen, craft drawers, and closet.  Our family photos were all mixed up in one big plastic box, though. Her mind seemed to live in the future and not in the past.  

This did not change when she got cancer.  She remained who she was. Someone who was not particularly sentimental or likely to share tender emotions.  

My parents were having a mechanical bed delivered to put in their downstairs office.  It had become too much for my mom to go upstairs. Could I come be at the house when they delivered it?  I showed up just as the truck did. I found my mom in a panic. She was looking for cash to tip the driver and didn’t know how much to give them.  She started to cry. It had only been a week since I had seen her, but her appearance knocked the wind out of me. She had become her mother, my grandmother, dying from cancer.  I had to hide in the dining room for a minute to catch my breath.

During that visit, something hit me.  It’s hard to die. It’s physically and emotionally demanding work.  It’s embarrassing to admit that while I understood the gravity of death, I did not fully appreciate the challenge of dying.  

Twenty years before, when my grandma was fighting lung cancer, she lived in an apartment just around the corner from our house.  Since she was single, my mom and her siblings were very involved with her care. I was seventeen, a senior in high school. My mom asked me to drop something off to her at my grandma’s apartment.  When I arrived, I knocked on the front door because it was locked. My mom was furious. You don’t loudly knock on the door of a woman who is suffering and trying to sleep! I was initially defensive and then sheepish about my mistake.  

This memory pops up as a I see my mom who had been fighting cancer for a long time, but up until that point, always looked like she was winning. But, now, it was clear, she wasn’t, and it wasn’t fair to expect her to do anything more than manage her emotions and her pain.  

I know from having my own kids that one of the toughest parts of being a mom is maintaining your own identity.  Claiming my own physical space, and determining that I’m going to use this time, energy, and money just for myself.  Drawing boundaries between all that I long to give my kids and what I need for myself is challenging. Moms of young kids joke that they can’t even go to the bathroom without their kids knocking on the door.   

The bigger joke is that even a mother’s death can’t just be about her.  Her kids have followed her there, asking her to meet their needs. Can you remind me of my roots before I become an orphan?  Can you give me enough love to carry me through the rest of my life?

By the time my mother was ready to fully accept that her death was imminent, she needed morphine.  Morphine was a comfort to her, but also robbed her of the little time she had left. She spent several weeks mostly sleeping.  

My sister-in-law is a nurse, and by Mother’s Day she could tell that my mom’s coloring suggested she only had a couple more weeks to live. On the Wednesday before my mom’s death, we met at my parent’s house to discuss the funeral arrangements.  My mom slept the whole time in the other room, but before we left, my dad offered to wake her up so we could say hello. She was startled to open her eyes and find the four of us there. “Am I dying?” The fear in her voice traumatized me. “No!  We just wanted to say goodbye...I mean hello.”

But, yes.   

I don’t think she feared death.  In fact, one of the greatest gifts my mom gave me was to see her die well.  Her hope was intact. She knew that however life ended, mercy was waiting for her.  Despite her faith, there is no denying that emotions are going to be strong when you step right up to the line and are about to cross over.  That was the last time I talked to her.

At my mother’s funeral, my siblings and I spoke.  I shared about the birth of my first son. I had a c-section with my daughter, but we were trying to avoid another so we decided to have him at home.  We were living in Texas and had asked our friend to phone our parents with any updates. We didn’t want to have to be the ones to reassure them through labor.  My contractions started on a Thursday night, and when the midwife got there to check me, I was already 7cm dilated. I was elated and surprised myself when I asked, “Stephen, Can I call my mom?!”   

She was the person most invested outside of that delivery room in the outcome of the night.  What a privilege it is to have someone who walks through life with you, who worries and hopes for you, who answers the phone at midnight so you can tearfully say, “Things are moving along, mom.  I think baby will be here soon.”

As we drove to my mom’s grave sight, white fluff was floating in the air.  It was probably just pollen making all our sinuses swell and noses run. But it was beautiful.  I want white pollen to float in the air the day I’m buried.

I met with a friend in June following her death.  I confided that this was not how I had pictured my year going.  I was eager to get back to my everyday life. She said, “This is your life, Melissa.”  But it’s no fun, and I want to ignore it. I’ve learned that about myself. I see hard things as an inconvenience, keeping me away from all the fun I have planned.  My friend was reminding me that if I was willing to slow down, I would surely find some life giving treasure in even the hardest moments.

I’m sure someday, I will experience grief that rips through my life and threatens to drown me.  Grief that smacks me in the face when I wake up in the morning and sits in my chest all day. That’s not what losing my mom feels like, though.  

My daily life moves on, but I like to make time to grieve her.  I like to cry in the car when I’m alone. I don’t want to be interrupted by someone attempting to comfort me.  I want to be sad. The best way I know how to honor her, is to think about her and grieve the loss of her. My grief and I have a song.  I’ve played it a hundred times since she died.

“When my body won't hold me anymore

And it finally lets me free

Will I be ready?” ….

“Will I join with the ocean blue

Or run into the savior true

And shake hands laughing

And walk through the night

Straight to the light

Holding the love I've known in my life

And no hard feelings”

If feels good to remember her just as she was.  Capable. Faithful. Determined. Unsentimental.  I had a mom who was real and complicated and flawed.  A mom who loved me. And I hold that love and treasure it.  

Friday, May 10, 2019

Hey there, Lola.

This birth was really unique and beautiful.  Mama went into labor on a Friday night, but by Saturday morning, labor stalled.  Her water wasn't broken so the midwives SENT HER HOME.  When you come in in labor, you expect to leave with a baby!  But by Sunday afternoon, mama's water broke and labor was back on.  Sweet Lola Blue came out blue which confirmed her name, but she quickly pinked up.  She unexpectedly weighed in at 10 pounds 10 ounces!  What a beautiful example of what a woman's body is capable of.  I loved capturing this birth story.  

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Schroeder is TEN.

In the car the other day, Stephen and I listened to a podcast about the enneagram.  Maggie asked me what number she was.  I told her I wasn't sure.  We are still getting to know each of you.  You are still getting to know yourselves.  The enneagram has given me a new way of observing my kids, though.  For example, certain numbers have more energy than others.  Schroeder has energy.  He's up for a walk or a bike ride.  He's gets excited about a fun project or Littlest Pet Shop role playing game with his two younger sisters.  He wants to help cook dinner.  He's eager to join soccer and volleyball.

Schroeder is in fourth grade.  His teacher was Julian's fourth grade teacher, too.  At the beginning of the year, we went to a parent teacher conference ready to tell her all the ways these two boys are NOT the same.  She already knew.  She knew that he always needs a task or job.  She knew that he sometimes needs help staying focused.  She knew that he was curious and eager and impulsive.  She knew he was kind and funny.  It's always, always a gift to have another adult see your child for who they are...the beauty, potential, and problems.

Schroe has worked hard on making good choices at school this year.  On Valentine's Day, he was eager to start his party and became frustrated with a kid who was goofing off.  He made an offhanded threatening comment to the kid and got himself suspended for the day.  Every comment is taken seriously in today's culture.  I came home and wrote this.

"Schroeder threatened a kid today.  He uses inflammatory speech to gain power.  I want to help him gain power in other ways.  He has power when he believes in himself.  He gains power when he can sit with the truth that he isn't good at everything.  He gains power when he can speak what he means without inflating it.
He was so beautiful to me today.  He was humbled and remorseful.  He was eager to help around the house and thanked me for dinner."

He asked for a nerf gun for his birthday.  We told him no after the Valentine's Day incident.  If you can't respect the power of violence in how you communicate, we are going to limit fake guns.  I caught myself saying, "If you get through the rest of the year without any other calls home, maybe we can get you a new, big nerf gun."  Stephen looked at me like I was crazy.  Yeah, never mind.  Bad idea.

Schroeder has a friend who was recently diagnosed with diabetes.  It's such a scary diagnosis.  He has to go down to the nurse to check his blood sugar around lunchtime.  Sometimes Schroeder goes with him.  He can now tell you what levels are normal or elevated.  I can see his tender heart as he talks about his friend.  

He's also so sweet when he plays with the toddlers at church.  

A friend guessed that Schroeder was my favorite kid.  Ha!  My relationship with each of my kids is different.  They are different people.  There is an Avett Brothers lyric that says, "I wonder which brother is better, Which one our parents love the most?"  and the response to the question is "He said I love you, And I'm proud of you both, in so many different ways".  This is truth.  I'm going to make a print of it and put it in the kids' bathroom.  

I love Schroeder for his energy, his curiosity, his hugs, his dimple, his freckles.   I love that his favorite color is purple.  I'm proud of him for his determination.  I connect with him because we're both middle kids.  Plus, it looks like I gave him all my height genes.  I'm just now coming to terms with how my height has affected my life in a million subtle ways so I'm aware of the subtle ways it might affect him.  That impulsiveness was all from me, too.  You're welcome, kid. 

Happy first decade, my beautiful boy.