Ten Years Ago

Ten years ago, I stood at the back of the church waiting to walk down the aisle.  I was with my Dad listening to the violin and piano playing Canon in D when tears came unexpectedly.  I walked the long aisle mostly crying.  When I met Jamie at the end, he took my hand and squeezed it twice.  He told me later that he thought I’d changed my mind.  But that wasn’t it at all.  I was overwhelmed by all the love and beauty and hope around us.  We didn’t know then that the wedding was really the easy part, that we were starting the best and hardest adventure of our lives.  

Almost five years ago, the nurse walked into my hospital room at 2 a.m. carrying a screaming newborn. My abs and arms ached with exhaustion as she passed Jackson to me. Earlier that September day, the hospital’s air conditioner had broken, causing sweltering heat to engulf the entire floor.  I was a sweating fool as I tried to nurse this tiny, enraged human.  As the nurse left our room, Jamie sat up on his sofa-bed and proclaimed over the wailing babe, “She can’t do this to us!”  We quickly learned that yes, yes, she could.  And she did. His scream is just as piercing now as it was back then. 

Before the wailing

Two months ago, Jamie and I figured out that if we take the boys for a walk in the double stroller after dinner, we can talk in complete sentences while we wander through town.  There is some kind of magical power unleashed in the easy rhythm of wheels gliding over uneven sidewalks and down busy streets.  The boys become content and uncommonly pleasant.  And so do we, because we can finally finish that conversation we started almost five years ago.

Six years ago, we loaded up our Honda Civic and drove twenty four hours to get to Colorado.  We spent three weeks hiking, camping and drinking beer.  We attempted to reach the summit of Long’s Peak and were unsuccessful for the second time.  The fourteen mile round trip hike requires you to start in the middle of the night, but we overslept and wouldn’t have time to be off the summit before the afternoon thunderstorms rolled in.  We made the best of it, hiking just past the Keyhole before we turned around.  I still wonder if we will try it again one day.

At the Keyhole

Nine years ago, we bought our first house.  The movers spent exactly twenty minutes moving our meager belongings into the empty rooms.  Soon thereafter, Jamie planted four raspberry bushes in a row along the hillside.  Over the years, the patch grew more dense as rotten berries seeded new plants.  In late July, the limbs would drape downward, heavy with ruby red jewels.  Each morning, I would sneak outside and pick berries until my bowl was heaping full.  The boys would devour them for breakfast, leaving stained fingers, red chins and full tummies in their wake.    

Parker, post BerryFest 2014

Eleven months ago, we boarded a plane to Germany with a two and three-year-old in tow.  Parker screamed like a maniac as I tried to buckle him into his car seat just before our plane’s departure.  Jamie and I exchanged scowls across the aisle as we tried to calm Parker in our cramped quarters.  The message beneath our glares was one in the same, “Whose bright idea was this anyway?  We will never make it across the ocean.”  Jamie held a few pipe cleaners in his hand, trying to distract Parker from his raging meltdown.  He may have eventually thrown them across the aisle at me in a wave of frustration.  I may have given him the middle finger.  Sometimes marriage is about actively communicating. 

At the airport

Nearly three years ago, we welcomed Parker into the world.  He was born in the early morning, around 12:15 a.m.  His first night was spent in the nursery where he slept the whole night through, giving his Mama and Daddy a mighty fine present.  Jackson would adore him until he became mobile enough to touch and hold his toys.  The years would reveal quarrels and crying and naked wrestling.  But also, there would be love.  Lots and lots of love.

Jackson 2, Parker 2 months

Eleven years ago, we got engaged in Ellicott City, Maryland and walked to a nearby restaurant to celebrate the big news.  At the end of our meal the waitress asked us if we would like any dessert.  We smiled at each other before Jamie declared, “I think we will!  What would you recommend for two people who just got engaged?”  We waited expectantly for a hearty congratulations that never came.  Instead, she replied, “We got pecan pie, cherry pie, hot fudge sundaes and chocolate cake.”  There wasn’t even a hint of a smile.  We ate our chocolate cake while wondering if perhaps our waitress were already married. 

Six days ago, our whole family sat down and ate an entire dinner together.  Let me repeat:  my two-year-old and my four-year-old BOTH sat at the table for an entire meal.  Jackson explained that his favorite part of the day was Great Granny’s breakfast and Parker said he loved playing in the pool.  Daddy loved his nap the most.  I loved that we finally, FINALLY, ate a meal without the usual grumbling and frustration that permeates this stage of life.  It gives me hope that maybe we won’t raise heathens after all.  

Sixty minutes ago, Jamie and I left for the airport where we will board a flight to Denver, Colorado.  It’s a place we keep coming back to, a place we both love.  We spent our honeymoon exploring Boulder and Rocky Mountain National Park and have made four trips back over the last ten years.  This trip, we will see some of our old favorites (Mountain Sun Brewery and RMNP) and sneak in a few new adventures too (Red Rocks and Garden of the Gods.)

I hope as we wander these mountains we catch a tiny glimpse of the carefree, young kids we were all those years ago, and I hope we have the good sense to appreciate where we are today, in the present.  Much like the last ten years, today will not be perfect, but it will be ours to take on together.  I imagine we’ll find a little rooftop bar with a view of the Rockies where we will sit down and order two (or more) local beers.  

We’ll raise our glasses to life, to love, to ten years of marriage, and to talking in complete sentences.  We may even order another slice of chocolate cake to celebrate the stories we have shared, the stories that hold us together. 

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International Adventures at Home

The first time we met Qian, we went hiking together.  She climbed into our champagne mini van, and we drove to Green Hill Park where we explored a few hiking trails on a hot August morning.  As we trudged through the forest, we asked her a million questions about her life back home in Beijing and her travels across the world.  We were excited to be her host family for the school year while she taught Mandarin Chinese at Andrew Lewis Middle School.  There was so much we didn’t know on that day back in August.

We didn’t know that both Jackson and Parker would adore her immediately. On some mornings, Jackson would sneak down into the dark kitchen and jump out from the shadows yelling, “Boo!” just as Qian came in to make her breakfast.  From upstairs, I could hear a startled scream echoed by Jackson proclaiming, “Gotcha!”  She bravely embraced the chaos that small children add to the morning routine. 

We didn’t know she was an amazing cook.  Our family would regularly dine on dumplings, fried rice, hot pot, Kung Pao chicken, lo mein, and sushi.  She gave us a set of chopsticks, which Jamie would start using at most meals and the boys would try to spear peas any chance they could.  Jackson and Parker were hesitant throughout our eating adventures, but I have hope yet as they have grown to love “wo mein”; Parker has been seen licking soy sauce off his plate a time or two.

We didn’t know that dinner time would often invite questions like, “How do you say ‘car’ in Chinese?”  She would grin and reply, “chē,” and the boys would repeat her in their southern drawl.  Then, ever curious, Parker would inquire, “How do you say ‘pooty butt’ in Chinese?”  A universal language would fill the room as our voices laughed together.  We still don’t know the answer to that one!

We didn’t know all the adventures in store for us.  We would run a half marathon in Myrtle Beach, visit a couple wineries, hike McAfee’s Knob, and see the ponies at Grayson Highlands.  On the first snow, we would sled down neighborhood hills late into the evening and cook s’mores in a raging bonfire fueled by old Christmas trees.  We would celebrate the Chinese New Year by making paper lanterns with the boys.  We’d play hacky sack and backyard baseball, take yoga classes and make visits to the ice cream shop afterward.  

We didn’t know her kindness, her generosity, her easy going spirit.  She is thoughtful, adventurous, and sincere.  I imagine that it is not easy being so far away from home, but she has always handled herself with grace and offered so much to our home and community in the months she has been here.

We didn’t know that one day, Jackson would ask me if Qian were part of our family, if her last name were Garst.  I would walk through the answer from my heart, explaining that while she does have family in another part of the world, she is also part of ours because we love her.

The coming months will bring lots of new excitement for her.  She is traveling to California, through the Southwest and down to New Orleans before she heads back to Beijing.  She will get married this summer and begin a brand new adventure.  I’m so excited for all the wonderful stories that are waiting to unfold in her life.  And more than anything, I’m so thankful that our stories are now woven together.  We were strangers at the start, but now we will part as friends.

We didn’t know how lucky we were on that day back in August.  

Xiè xiè, Qian.  You will be missed so very much! Best wishes to you!  I know more adventures await us in the future!

Paint Nite at ALMS
Sledding with Jackson
Grayson Highlands State Park
Before the Myrtle Beach Half Marathon
McAfee’s Knob
Dinner with Jackson

The Day After

When I woke up on November 11, 2015, I didn’t know how I was going to make it through the next 24 hours.  The day stretched out before me like a blistering highway extending across the Midwest.  My only goal for the day was to survive, to withstand each exhausting minute.

I broke the morning up into tiny parts.  Get out of bed.  Get the kids fed.  Get the kids dressed.  Get everyone in the van.  Get Jackson dropped off at preschool.  It was a habit born from years of running long distances.  The last three or four miles of a twenty miler are often treacherous – I would find myself dehydrated and hungry, covered with layers of sweat and salt, and desperate to be finished.  Miles were too long to fathom, so I’d run to the next light post or cow or mailbox up ahead, making slow and steady progress.  I completed one small section at a time until I found my way back to the starting point where my weary legs could find their reprieve.  On this day, I would wade through hours instead of miles, but the strategy worked just the same.

I dropped Jackson off at preschool and sat in the parking lot trying to decide what to do next.  I was teetering between “go back home” and “cry” when a Mother from Jackson’s school walked by the van.  She stopped outside my window, and we spoke a few words.  Then she mentioned that she was meeting some friends at the park that morning.  Would I like to join them?  

I thought through a million excuses; there were so many reasons not to go.  But I surprised myself when I replied, “Yes, I’ll meet you there in a bit!”  It seemed the universe knew what I needed far better than I did.

I left the school and drove down Main Street absorbed in the endless chatter of my mind.  I relived the events of the previous day over and over looking for some indication that it was all a hallucination, a joke, a dream, or a page from the book at my bedside.  I replayed every aching detail.  The doctor’s stoic face – his dark brows stooped with concern as he explained the results of the biopsy.  His hands clasped together across his bent knee as he sat discussing my options.  The way I fought so hard not to cry before him.  The quiver of my chin revealing more than I wanted to expose.  I walked through the Land of What If’s feeling a heaviness grow in my heart.  What if it has spread?  What if there are complications during surgery?  For the first time in my life, I felt utterly powerless.  There was no action that could change the journey I was starting.  

We arrived at the park and I unbuckled Parker’s seat belt and lifted him out of the van.  I held his tiny hand in my own as we wandered over to the playground equipment. He climbed ladders and went down slides, and as I watched him that morning, I pretended to be someone else.  I pretended that the doctor had not diagnosed me with thyroid cancer the day before.  I pretended that I wasn’t scared out of my mind.  I pretended that I had slept soundly the night before.  I pretended that the kids and I had laughed together at breakfast and then cheerfully paraded out the door to start this beautiful, fresh new day.  I asked the other Moms questions about their lives and their children.  I listened to plans for dinner parties and potty training woes and for the entire morning, I pretended my life was not my own.  I hid from the truth right in plain sight.

It was exactly what I needed.

There would be other days to come to terms with it all, to absorb my new course and to talk with family and friends about it.  But the day after, I needed to pretend that none of it was true.  Amazingly, I stumbled upon a group of women, most of them strangers, who could let that happen. They carried me through a few of the longest hours of my life. 

Weeks ago, while returning some books at the library, I ran into the same Mom from that November morning.  I had not seen her in months.  We waved to each other and talked a few minutes before we were pulled in opposite directions by our young children.  As we said our good-byes, it struck me that she will never know how much her invitation helped me that day.  She will never know that her kindness allowed me to escape my unraveling world and my scattered mind for a few precious hours.

While she may never know, I suspect this story will travel with me for a lifetime.  It will stay with me, reminding me to believe in the power of time and space weaving souls together.  It will remind me that the simplest of moments are often the most profound; the smallest of actions are mighty indeed.  And, most of all, it will remind me God is all around us, tucked away in people’s hearts and nestled in the smallest acts of kindness. 

How else would we ever find our weary way through the day after?