Shedding Our Heavy Coats

On the first day of spring, I stood at our back door and noted the curtain of fabric bulging from the wall-mounted coat rack in our kitchen. This solid fortress of extra clothing exposed winter’s fierce and unpredictable temperament. 

The wall was overflowing with coats for every option of weather, for each member of our family. It held my black down coat for the coldest days, Jamie’s rain jacket, a hooded winter coat for both boys, a fleece jacket for me, a fleece jacket for Jamie, Jackson’s hunter green hoodie, a lightweight coat for Parker, and quite a few more. So many, many coats.  

My eyes had grown tired of looking upon this jumbled mess, and I decided the excess of scarves and hats and coats was no longer needed. After all, spring had officially arrived.

I lifted each winter coat off its metal hanger and draped it over my left forearm, where the heaping stack grew and grew and grew. Then I delivered them to a bedroom closet for safekeeping until next winter.  

When I returned to the kitchen I glanced in the corner and noticed the newfound space unveiled. The hangers were no longer overburdened with layers of fabric. A lightness had returned and I sensed the space could once again breathe easy.

I had felt the same lightness earlier that morning when I awoke to the sound of little boys squealing with laughter. The feeling persisted as Parker chased rowdy birds and squirrels on the front lawn before preschool. No coats were needed as we raced out the door and climbed into our champagne minivan. Jackson pleaded with me to crank up Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling” so that not a soul we passed on the road could possibly doubt all the sunshine in his pocket.  

Lightness was riding proudly through the spring air and nestled in the empty spaces around my coat rack. It was pulsing out our van windows and soaring within me. Where had it come from?

In short, everywhere.  

It is in the collective blooms of lavender phlox and in three-year-olds who utter “Mama” every sixth word they speak. It is there as we eat peanut butter sandwiches on the front porch and in the vibrant trills and calls of birds just before daybreak. It is in music and motion and the sun as it warms my aging skin. It is there when I write, when I give a voice to my own truths. It is there as our heaviest coats fall away, as our shoulders and our hearts are set free from the weight they have carried. 

Farewell long winter!
Farewell heavy, heavy coats!

Spring is calling us forth.  


Ocean Treasures

Both Jackson and Parker shed their shoes and socks by a wooden staircase connecting our hotel to the ocean. Then, two barefoot boys race toward the rolling waves. They bound across soft fine sand, tiptoe over a narrow layer of coarse broken shells, and finally sink into the cold wet sand by the sea. The wind upends their golden hair as the orange sun sinks lower in the horizon.  

Neither boy has any memory of the ocean. Parker has not ventured to the seaside until now, and Jackson is far too young to recall the days he spent on the shore as an infant, feasting on fistfuls of wet sand.

A stranger approaches Parker and kindly gives him a plastic baggie to collect shells and other treasures. He scours the landscape with gusto, placing any shell that strikes his fancy into the bag – cockle shells, fragments of grey and white and deep purple, some showcasing tiny holes throughout, large and sturdy chunks, some that are thin and delicate.

Next, pant legs are rolled up, exposing knobby knees as the boys walk out into the frigid water. They stomp and splash and dance in circles. A wave crashes and they jump the layer of sprawling water as it glides toward us. 

I now know there is no saving a boy’s pants once he walks into the ocean. First the cuffs grow wet, and with each passing wave, the water creeps upward through the darkening fabric. Eventually, fleeing an extra large wave, they kick copious amounts of water through the air and find their pants completely drenched. They don’t seem to mind. 

I smile as I watch their elation before the vast Atlantic. I call to them, “Come back this way, boys! You’re out too far!” Sometimes they listen and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, I wade out into the water to retrieve a stubborn three-year-old.  

Eventually, Parker jumps a wave and loses his balance. He topples into the ocean fully clothed; only his head remains dry. I run toward him and pull him back up to his feet. His face is both surprised and joyful. He stands tall in the receding water, more resolved than ever to jump the next wave.  

Then, two ladies walking along the shore holler to me, “Your shoe! Your shoe!” I turn around to see my running shoe riding out to sea as the ocean retreats. I bolt toward it, soaking the bottom of my pants as I retrieve the wayward shoe. I have now joined the ranks of those wearing wet clothes in the ocean and decide I’m in excellent company. The good in life resides right here in the water, in the waves, in the action, as two little boys must already know.  

Eventually, the boys bid farewell to the ocean through chattering teeth. Their clothes are soaked with salt water and sand clings to the sides of their reddened feet. Slowly, they wander back toward the staircase, toting the baggie full of treasures they’ve found along the shoreline.   

My own hands rest empty at my side as I shuffle along behind two shivering forms. Yet, I am certain that I, too, now carry the treasures of the ocean with me. 

Keep On Walking

Sometimes, life keeps sending the same lesson my way over and over again. I suppose it’s the world’s way of casually mentioning that I haven’t been paying attention too well. Maybe I think that I’m learning and growing, but the reality is that I’m quick to fall back into old habits. So, life answers my resistance by again presenting a situation that asks me to rethink what I know, to question the person I am or the person I hope to be.

Months ago, my friend Mike and I were running through town comparing notes on our thyroid-less lives when he suggested I write about how it is okay to walk. I knew exactly what he meant – we have an expectation for what we should be able to accomplish, for how it should look as we go about our business. It’s easy to cling to that notion instead of offering ourselves much needed grace in the face of hardship. When our lungs are achey and our muscles are tired, it’s fine to slow down and start walking. The same rule applies to life. Some days, some circumstances warrant a pace that seems less than desirable.

I struggle to accept this, and perhaps that is exactly why the concept keeps showing up in my life.

I saw the coming year as a chance for a little comeback. After running with Mike on and off for six years, we had made plans to take on a marathon together. Not only do we share a love for running, but we are also connected by being diagnosed with thyroid cancer within six months of each other. The marathon was a way to reclaim our old selves, while claiming victory over the cancer that has challenged us. 

But the world had other plans for me. Pregnancy has asked me to get more comfortable walking in my running shoes. My distances have decreased and my pace has slowed significantly. These days, I’m doing more walking than running.

I was asked to walk again when I stopped taking my antidepressant. The very first thing I noticed was that if I were going to stay off it, I was going to have to reshape my expectations for myself. I watched the rush around me; the minutes filled to the brim with constant activity, endless commitments, and it left me feeling overwhelmed by the hustle of life. I could keep up with it all when I took my daily dose of Celexa, but off it, I yearn for a slower pace.  

Thus, I consider all the things I value in this life. I turn each over carefully in my heart and make a decision. Some things stay and some things I leave behind for now. I simply cannot do everything I think I should be able to accomplish. I keep those that revitalize; those that bring joy; those that offer love. I have to accept my limits and know that today, a little slower, a little less to do, is the best gift I can offer myself. I keep walking.

Weeks ago, I was out with our black lab Libby when I wrapped my finger in her leash the wrong way. She lunged forward with full force, crunching one bone into four. If you’re going to break a finger, the middle finger is definitely the best one to break. I get a free pass at flipping the bird for the next few months, which has offered extensive comic relief. I was pissed and slightly amused as I considered that the same lesson was once again revealing itself.

This is gonna slow you down even more, but keep on walking, my mind whispered. 

It seems we are acutely aware of what we are missing, and the truth is that we are always missing something. But even in the absence of one longing, we are in the presence of another. It’s a battle of the mind. Seeing what we have, instead of lamenting that which is just out of reach. 

I remember how the earth slows down during the winter months. She seems to know that going full speed is an unsustainable venture and so in the quiet of winter she rests. She, too, takes up walking in her running shoes. The cold air moves through empty branches. Darkness falls early. Flurries glide through grey skies and settle on the frozen ground. Winter is a season rooted in dormancy. Winter knows me well.   

I still type at my keyboard with my nine working fingers. I still sneak out to Pandapas every Tuesday morning and wander through the forest with some of my favorite people. I still smile and read and laugh and cry. 

Still I walk. 

I walk down uneven sidewalks, over the coarse yellowed lawn, on a soft trail of pine needles, along the lakeshore, uphill and downhill, through an alcove of rhododendron, over stones in a creek. I breath in slowly, deeply, and think to myself, What a lucky, lucky fool am I!

“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” -MLK


4 + 1 = Life’s Next Big Adventure

I sat in a familiar waiting room while my foot bounced up and down, releasing nervous energy out into the quiet air. The lab results were taking way too long, and I sensed it. There was no way I’d be on time to my next appointment. What could possibly be taking so long?  

My mind walked through my current to-do list:
1. Visit my endocrinologist’s office to run a few lab tests. Check.
2. Drive to Roanoke Memorial Hospital.
3. Ingest tracer dose of radioactive iodine.
4. Isolate at my parents’ house for two days.
5. Whole body scan to compare current radioactive iodine uptake to last year’s results. Hopefully, it would be low, meaning all thyroid cells, cancerous and not, had been destroyed.

I would never make it past the first item on my list.

The nurse came to the doorway and called my name, “Sarah?”  

I grabbed my purse and walked toward her. If I drove like a maniac, I might still make it on time. She leaned against the wall in the hallway while she explained, “Your test came back positive.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“Look, right here,” she pointed at some words on the paper in her hand. Meanwhile, I stared dumbfounded.

“You’re pregnant. Congratulations! I guess you won’t be taking the radioactive iodine this morning.”

“You’re joking,” I stammered. 

“No, I’m really not. You’re pregnant.”  

Life can be so utterly fascinating. I thought I would be taking a radioactive pill that morning, but instead, drove home with a different variety of pills – a bottle of prenatal vitamins. This is how I know that God has one hell of a sense of humor!

I wish I could say that in those first moments, I was struck with overwhelming joy, but the truth of the matter is I was absolutely scared to death. My whole world changed in an instant and I was working to make sense of what it all meant. I had finally come up for air after spending years suffocating below the surface. My mind replayed one thought over and over again: what if I go back under?

It wouldn’t take long for the wave to find me. My thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) was purposefully sent over 100 in preparation for the radioactive iodine, and it took weeks to bring it back into the normal range (for me, as close to zero as possible). Additionally, on my doctor’s advice I stopped my antidepressant cold turkey, which I realize in hindsight was not the best strategy. Discontinuation syndrome took over as the increased supply of serotonin in my brain was shut off too quickly. I spent weeks right back in the dark place I had just escaped. Slowly, serotonin levels began to rise on their own, but the waiting game was unbearable. Add all this to the regular pregnancy woes and here’s what you are left with: a crumbling, exhausted mess that once resembled a person.  

However, as the end of the first trimester draws closer, I’m feeling much better. I’ve come back up for air. My thyroid hormone levels are closer to normal; I survived the discontinuation syndrome, and I am almost out of the hardships that characterize the first trimester. I spent weeks uncertain if I would actually be able to stay off the antidepressant. I still worry about postpartum. But the good news is that I know what to look for. I’m not so foolish as to think I don’t need to take care of myself, and I’m learning how to ask for help when I need it.  

For many years, Jamie and I have talked about the possibility of having a third child. We are third children ourselves, and I’ve long suspected the third child born from third children would certainly be one amazing child. However, we were leaning toward being content as a family of four. I’d only recently begun to feel like myself again, our kids were getting older and less needy, and I simply wasn’t feeling all that brave in the Grow Your Family Department.

This little one is helping us to reconsider.  

Each new day, I close the door on all the expectations I have for how my life “should” be and instead, commit myself to all that is real and true. I laugh right along with God. I decide that my mantra for 2017 is without a doubt, “Trust the timing of your life.”  

I’m trusting something bigger than myself. I’m seeing the gift I have been blessed with. And the timing of it all was indeed, miraculous. Had my doctor’s appointment been any earlier in the month, it’s unlikely that my pregnancy would have been detected. I would have taken the radioactive iodine, and I’m sure our baby would not have survived.  

So we are carving out space in our hearts and in our home for this new little one. We are also carving out space in my body. I’m sporting a round pooch that makes you wonder how many times I over indulged at Chipotle this week. I may have already gained 12 pounds. Pants are my enemy. I’m exhausted. I’m starving. Holy moly, I’m growing a baby! 

Jackson wants to go ahead and bring all the infant stuff out of the basement so we’ll be ready. He tells anyone who will listen that we are having a baby. With eyes opened wide in amazement he confides, “It’s the size of a blueberry!”  

At day’s end, I follow behind four feet marching up the stairs. There are books and songs and whispers as I tuck two little boys into warm beds. Kisses are exchanged and then one small voice says, “I need to kiss the baby goodnight.”  

It makes me smile as I reply, “That’s a great idea, Jackson. Our baby is so lucky to have a big brother like you.” He scoots close on the bed and bends down, placing his puckered lips on my growing belly. “Mwah!”  

And just like that, love overshadows all of my worries, all of my doubts and every single last one of my fears.  

No, Libby!

A tribute to our wild, spirited, Libby; modeled after David Shannon’s “No, David!”

“No, Libby!”

“Bad girl!”

“No, Libby, no! Don’t pee in the house!”

“Drop it, Libby!”

“No, not my lunch!”

“Don’t jump the fence!!”  !#%@

“Come back here, Libby! Treats! Treats!”

“Good girl, Libby! Yes, of course we love you!”

The Best Words To Wake Up To

I was awake, but still in bed. The first rays of light were peaking through the blinds on a cold December morning. Both Parker and Jackson were still cozy in their beds and I decided it was a luxury I’d grant myself as well. The radiant heat of full night’s rest was trapped beneath my heavy comforter and I wasn’t quite ready to leave it behind.

My mind wandered through the day before – it had been both fast paced and productive. I had driven up to Christiansburg early in the morning to get Libby spayed, embarked on a trail run at Pandapas, and then shopped excessively for Christmas before picking Libby up after surgery and heading back down the mountain. I had barely seen my boys in all the hustle of a full day’s worth of errands.

Suddenly, the high pitched screech of a creaky door knob broke the silence. I heard the crash of an old door being thrown open just down the hallway. Two small bare feet pounded across the wood floor. They turned the corner and headed downstairs. I smiled when I heard the words that accompanied those two marching feet. The words were soft, breathless, and filled with anticipation.  

“Ma – ma, Ma – ma, Ma – ma,” Parker whispered to himself.

As my ears soaked up his sweet song, I realized that I was the first person he thought of when he woke up. Me! Of all the amazing people in the world, he couldn’t wait to see me, his Ma – ma.

I climbed out of bed and noticed the air wasn’t nearly as cold as I thought it would be outside the warmth of my covers. I suspected that this had everything to do with the sweet voice I’d just heard outside my doorway.  

I retraced his foot steps down the stairs as my heart sang, “Par – ker, Par – ker, Par – ker,” the whole way. 

“Good morning, Monkey!” I smiled as I hugged his tiny frame.  

It certainly was, all because I was a little boy’s Mama.

Invisible Scars

A year ago, a nurse wheeled me down a long hallway toward Jamie after my total thyroidectomy. He sat with me for a bit before my parents came down to check on me. They stood at my bedside smiling and doing most of the talking. I was a bit groggy as I looked at them and whispered, “How big is it?”  I knew I shouldn’t really care about my incision, but there was a part of me that did. 

My dad moved his pointer finger up to his neck and traced an invisible line as he explained, “It goes from one side of you neck all the way over to the other side.” 

What? Across my entire neck? I had thought the damage would be so much smaller.  

My mom nudged my dad and gave him the marital death stare. I knew the words she was speaking with her glance. “Pete, come on! Can’t you tone it down a little bit? You don’t have to be completely honest right now.”

Today, one year later, this cut that went from one side of my neck all the way to the other side, is barely noticeable. It is a thin white line that has faded over the passing of 365 days.  

This scar I carry with me often reminds me of fear and bravery, uncertainty and grace, hardship and love.

It is a physical symbol of the struggle I went through last year. But not all scars are so visible. Quite often, they remain unseen, hidden away far below the surface. I’ve decided that these are the hardest scars to carry.

Long before my cancer scare, I was sick and I didn’t even know it. I suspect that sometime after Parker was born, I started a long slow fall into depression. The signs were all there, but I missed every single one of them. I was exhausted. I wasn’t running. I was perpetually irritable and overwhelmed. Mostly, I was numb. I tried to explain things away. Motherhood is just hard, I told myself. This will all get easier. I just need to try harder. I just need to keep looking the part. Keep mothering. Keep pushing on. Keep making dinner. Keep smiling. I became an actress by day as I went through the motions of all that I thought I should be doing.  

Days and weeks and months and years got harder and harder. I was completely overwhelmed with the demands of my life. I wondered how on earth people got it all done. I napped with the kids nearly everyday because exhaustion was a constant companion. I withdrew from the people I love. I was wrought with the guilt of falling short over and over again and began to harness a growing resentment toward the people I love most. I was working so damn hard to survive, to make it through each passing day.  It felt like I had to give twice the effort to accomplish only half of a task. I could sense that I was a shell of my old self, but I couldn’t make sense of what I was feeling.  Where was the person I used to be? I wrote her off as having disappeared after the kids were born. Apparently, she had the good sense to get out of town and escape the mayhem that surrounded me.

It turns out, the old “me” was in there all along. She was waiting patiently for the numbness to fall away, for me to walk back into the light.

This summer, I got lucky and stumbled my way out of the darkness.  

It was an ordinary Saturday morning. We had plans to meet an old family friend at Barnes and Noble and so Jamie and I worked through the process of getting clean clothes on everyone so that we could look mostly civilized when we arrived.  

As my feet trod down the stairs, I glanced at the clock and realized we were all ready to go and it was quite early in the day. The sun was shining and blue skies shown through our finger smudged windows. Parker sat in front of the storm door with his right leg bent before him as he worked to fit his small foot into the correct shoe. I felt something odd stir within me. It rose up in my chest. It was light. It was something I had not felt in a very very long time. It was the faintest seed of joy.  


“Maybe I’m getting better,” I thought to myself. “Maybe everything is going to be okay.”

I turned the corner at the bottom of the stairs and walked back into the kitchen. I opened the cabinet and pulled out the medication I’d been prescibed four weeks earlier as I sat before a doctor sharing details that I’d hoped to spare everyone.  

My palm pushed down on the white top and twisted the cap off. One small pill fell down into my palm. I grabbed a small water glass and took an antidepressant. It was the first time I didn’t second guess my decision to do so.

I carried a small hope around with me for an entire day. Maybe I’m getting better. Maybe joy would find me again.  

It was the beginning of my return to life.  

At first I felt intense relief that I would not have to live that way any longer. I was free from the cage that had held me.  Thankfulness washed over me as I reclaimed myself.  But then the shame and regret set in. I had missed years of my kids’ lives. Everything I should have felt when Parker was a baby, I had missed. Even though I’d been there physically, I was numb through it all. The memories felt tainted by my depression, by my irritation, by my anxiety. A wave of guilt swelled around me as I thought about how this has affected my boys and my husband. It was enough to make me cry for a very long time.

There is a saying that happiness is a choice. I used to believe these words. Now I know it’s not always as simple as that. Sometimes the wall is too high, the hole is too dark. Sometimes we just can’t find our way out.

I am learning to make peace with what happened. I can beat myself up over the past, over something I cannot change, or I can start living today.    

But making peace is some hard, heavy work. As I started that process, it occurred to me that while I’ve never once been ashamed of my thyroid cancer diagnosis, there is a sense of shame that I feel at having suffered from depression. It taunts me at times, whispering, “Your life is beautiful. What reason could you possibly have to be depressed?”

I’m a girl who likes answers and it unnerves me that I have no reasonable explanation. My mind walks through postpartum, through a move, through motherhood, through thyroid cancer and knows that one or all of these reasons are enough. But that doesn’t satisfy shame’s torment.  

So I find myself back in familiar territory, typing steadily away at my keyboard. It’s a place that helps me make sense of the senseless; a place I find hope in my heartache. My fingers dance together, bringing a story I have tucked deep within me out into the crisp fall air. I remember the heaviness I carried for so long, the way I struggled to get through the day, the relief I felt when plans fell through because I wouldn’t have to put energy into pretending to be okay.  Depression stole a few years of my life, but it didn’t steal them all. I am fortunate to have found joy again, to have found myself. 

I am alive once again.

For me, this December will be about finding and sharing joy. Our little family will watch the twinkling lights scattered though trees and outlining homes as we drive through town on dark, blustery nights. We will roam the fields at Joe’s Tree Farm with red cheeks and runny noses. We will breathe in the scent of pine that fills our living room while the boys play game after game of foosball. We will drink hot cocoa and build a blazing fire below festive stockings. We will savor the joy of gathering together with the people we love. We will rejoice. And this year, I will bask in the fullness of the season. Joy isn’t just around me; it is once again within me.

Our scars, whether visible or not, tell a story. They are little miracles that show our ability to heal after trauma. They are proof of our resilience; proof that we have stood in the fires of life and walked onward.

May we remember the perspective we have gained, the lessons we have learned along the way.  May we be brave enough to carry each of our scars with unwavering grace.