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.  

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. 

Meet Libby

Our family has grown again. First there were dogs, then there were kids, then there were chickens. Now we are back to adding a sweet dog, Libby Jane. Here’s what we have learned about her in the short week she has been with us.

1. She’s already Jamie’s girl. He learned about Libby when a friend sent him her picture and information from an animal shelter in Montgomery County. He drove up there to meet her and, of course, fell in love immediately. She came home with him that afternoon and has followed him around ever since. When he leaves for work, she paces through the house frantically searching for him. Already, there’s a whole lot of love. 

2. She’s a snuggler. Despite her 60+ pounds, she thinks she’s a lap dog and will lay on top of you while you relax on the sofa.  

3. Which reminds me, I had planned to keep her off the sofa completely. You know that dog smell that gets in the cushions and the way the fabric rips with time? I was hoping to avoid that all together and train her that the sofa was off limits. This is how that is going:


4. She loves to be outside. We spent our first evening watching her fetch tennis balls and race through the yard with the boys.

 Then she took an interest in the chickens, running round and round the coop. Eventually she pawed at the chicken wire and very quickly pushed the caging up enough to get into the coop. Mayhem erupted. Feathers flew. Screams echoed. Libby cornered and pinned one of the chickens, but Jamie got into the coop to grab her just as I opened the door so the chickens could all escape. In the end, the chickens survived unscathed. But they have lost some freedom until we Libby proof their run.  

5. She’s an expert at sneaking food off the table. Recently, I left my toast unattended for a few seconds. When I returned, the plate was empty and she was gobbling down my breakfast.  

6. There’s a lot of puppy still in her. Our house is the perfect treasure trove of random plastic bite-sized toys. She has found fifty percent of them and chewed them into a plastic pulp. In a few more days, my house should be less cluttered as we lose the other fifty percent to her teeth. 

7. I’ve always heard that dogs will not poop in their crates. I just want to clarify that this is a falsehood, folks.  I’ll spare you the picture. 

8. The last week has brought an intense wave of poop and pee into my life. A lot of it is not exactly her fault. We had to take her to the vet for an ear infection and learned that she has probably had a severe infection for most of her life. She’s on a host of medicines to resolve this issue, one of them being prednisone, which makes her have to potty quite frequently. Hopefully her ears will be healed up soon and she’ll progress toward peeing in the grass instead of the basement floor.  

9. Life just got a whole lot more messy and crazy at our house. I didn’t think that was even possible. Yet, I’m fairly certain it will all be worth it, for we are quite smitten with our Libby.

Las Vegas and Pick Pockets

I promised myself I would run a marathon after each baby was born. It was a promise I would keep. Thirteen months after Jackson was born, I ran the Ridge to Bridge Marathon in North Carolina. Sixteen months after Parker was born I ran the Huntsville Marathon in Alabama with Jamie. These races were an attempt to reclaim a part of my life that fell away during my pregnancies. I was hoping to remember who I was, to restore my identity.

I first became a runner soon after Jamie and I were married.  I glean tremendous joy from chosing a race, training for it, and then putting myself to the test on race day. It provides a great opportunity for obsessive compulsive micromanaging, which control freaks such as myself enjoy. I’ve been getting ready for the Las Vegas Half Marathon since way back in March. Most of that time was just me thinking about the race, registering, and buying a plane ticket. It was not until September that the hard work started.  

Consistent running has been difficult for me for years. I’ve struggled with it since my children were born and it went from bad to worse after my thyroidectomy last Decemeber. I’ve been tired; I’ve been overwhelmed; I’ve not been myself.  

All of that changed right before my 34th birthday. I found my groove and have steadily plugged away at three runs a week getting ready for this race. My runs have been far from excellent. I’ve started out too fast on long runs and struggled horrifically during the last few miles. I’ve had achey lungs, I’ve plodded, I’ve walked, I’ve complained, most often to Jamie but also to my friend and running partner, Mike.  

A fews weeks back I was having one of those runs that are characterized by too many beers the night before. As Mike and I shuffled down the Greenway, I explained my latest epiphany: it seems that runners must, in some way, like to torture themselves. When we are pushing our limit in pace or distance, it hurts. When we are unprepared, we are miserable. Sometimes it’s the conditions that get the best of us – the heat, the rain, the wind. There is physical pain. There is mental warfare. There is struggle. Yet, I keep coming right back to it.  

Why? 

Running is very much like living. It’s an endurance event. There are long hills we climb and summit. At the top, we stand proudly taking in the beautiful view we are so fortunate to behold. We recognize the effort that went into it all. We are in awe of what was possible on that day – of all that our eyes saw, of strength and ability, of the fine people we’ve shared it all with. Running and life both hold the promise of amazement. 

Then again, there are the moments we struggle through it all. We can’t gain any traction. We are exhausted. We are hurting. We feel like despite all our effort, we are getting no where, making little progress. We fail at an endeavor and grieve what never was. Running and life both hold the promise of hardship.

Yet we go forth. One step at a time, one foot in front of the other. We hold onto the hope that the struggle is worth it – that all the good stuff is still out there somewhere, even if we can’t quite see it right now.

Last Friday, when I set out for Las Vegas with two of my sisters, we arrived at the airport in Greensboro and were immediately bumped to a flight that would get us to Las Vegas EARLIER than our original flight.  What?  That never happens!  Then the gate employee gave us three tickets for a free adult beverage.  We were flying high.  All was well.  

Six hours later we landed in Vegas.  Somewhere between getting off the plane and arriving at the rental car depot, my wallet was lost or stolen.  The night plummeted hard and fast.

I first thought I could have left it on the plane.  I had purchased a pair of headphones, so I was certain I’d had it on the flight.  I back tracked to the Delta ticket counter hoping someone had found it on the plane and turned it in.  There was no such luck.  It was no where to be found.  St. Jude, the patron saint of impossible causes, had far more dire events to attend to.  

My stomach was in knots. Here I was in Vegas with no identification and no money.  The cash I brought with me was gone forever by now. Things were going horribly awry. 

I sat on a bench stewing over it all while I waited for my sisters to pick me up outside the airport. With some time, I realized life will go on, with or without my wallet.  The half marathon on Sunday will go on.  I am well.  We are safe.  It could all be so much worse.

Running and life are a mixed bag. They are candy and cavities, summer and sunburn, Vegas and pick pockets.  Through the highs and the lows we will keep on moving. 

 We will endure.  

This is all I am sure of.

Now, I’m off to spend other people’s money. Thank goodness for sisters. I promise I’ll pay you all back, if I can just get back home without my I.D. 

Mama Tried

Jamie brought “The New Bear at School” home from the library one recent evening. As the days passed, we read it a few dozen times right before bedtime. 

It is the story of a new bear named Boris who encounters all kinds of problems when he starts going to a new school. He accidentally shreds his homework with his claws, he scares his classmates with his booming bear voice, and his tiny desk shatters beneath him as he tries to sit down in it.   

When all the animals gather to play inside the classroom, Boris finds that there is no space in the small circle for him. Tears run down his cheeks as he plays all alone. As I read this part to my boys, I felt the teacher within me rising up.

I was not thinking about whether my kids know all the letters and their sounds or whether they can recall events in a story. These skills, while important, pale before the ability to empathize with others, to build a connection from our understanding of another’s situation. I sometimes wonder if in the push to help our young children achieve higher and higher academic standards, we may be unintentionally hindering their ability to develop outstanding character. Is the pressure to succeed overriding our ability to feel?  Are our priorities in line?

Anna Dewdney, author of the “Llama Llama” series wrote, “When we read with a child, we are doing so much more than teaching him to read or instilling in her a love of language. We are doing something that I believe is just as powerful, and it is something that we are losing as a culture: by reading with a child, we are teaching that child to be human. When we open a book, and share our voice and imagination with a child, that child learns to see the world through someone else’s eyes.” Books are an invitation to life.

So there I sat with the boys, thinking about this poor bear and his sorrow, feeling a teachable moment surface. I paused for just a moment and asked them what they could do if they noticed that someone at school had no place to sit down. We were dabbling in “Intro to Empathy.”

Jackson crossed his arms over his chest and grunted, “I’m not moving over for anyone.”  

“You wouldn’t? Why not?”

He grumbled something indiscernible. I sighed, hoping that his lack of empathy was rooted in the late hour, or his lack of sleep, or anything that could absolve me from the blame. I resolved not to engage in a back-and-forth argument about better options he could choose; instead, I offered a quick account of the choice I would make. He’s strong-willed, and he gets it honestly. We’d have to come back to this idea another day.

Still, I felt a bit disappointed as I mulled over our interaction. How can my child be so unsympathetic?  

That’s when Parker chimed in, “I know! I know what I would do!” It seemed all hope was not lost. Maybe my time and energy could still be validated.

I turned to him and asked, “What would you do to help, Parker?” 

A sly grin spread across his face. “I would, I would…poop on him!” he squealed with delight. 

Oh dear. Never mind. There would be no validation.  

Mama tried. That is all I can do.  

Sometimes moments like these taunt me. They pile up higher and higher like a formidable tower displaying evidence of all the ways I fall short as a mother. I envision the dozens of times Parker has bolted off in public, his tiny feet racing down the sidewalk while he completely ignores me as I call for him. I hear the unsavory tone of Jackson’s voice as he toes the line of the pre-meltdown stage. Falling short has become our new norm.

The truth is that we are constantly being molded by our experiences, our responses, and the meaning we make from the two. We are perpetually changing, learning, and growing. Sometimes it’s a slow, long road and other times the change happens in an instant. Parents get to work tirelessly for the long haul as we raise our children. My kids will not make the best choice every single time; no one will. It is unreasonable to entertain any other expectation, to uphold the exhausting, futile myth of perfection. I’m learning to shatter this myth.

So much is already within our kids when they come to us. So much good, so much mischief, so much we can’t change, so much we wouldn’t even dream of changing. They are their own spirited selves.

All we can do is love them fiercely.

And keep on trying, one day, one story at a time.

Saved By a Hot Dog

The course was one hilly beast.  Jamie talked about this excessively in the weeks before the Salem Half Marathon, and boy, was he right.  A wave of hills in the beginning, two trips over the Colorado Street Bridge, and one massive hill at mile 12 made for a race course with 615 feet of elevation gain.  My race strategy stood in grave contrast to Pam’s, from “The Office.”  She planned to run fast at the beginning, fast in the middle, and fast at the end.  My plan was to start out slow, maybe speed up a little on the flat parts, and then make it to the finish line.  

Finish, I did.  There is nothing like it.  When you start training, you have trouble thinking you will ever run five miles, much less 13.1.  As the weeks pass, you add a mile here and there and before you know it, you’ve run 7 miles.  It wasn’t pretty, but you did it.  A month later, you get up to 11 miles and you know that on race day, you’ll be mostly ready.  This is perhaps, the best part of running.  One step a time, one run at a time, you are slowly building stamina and strength.  It’s baby steps.  You run a little bit farther each week, and eventually can run a distance that at first seemed unimaginable.  Tiny steps in the right direction add up over time.  They turn into something big.  

The people you run with also matter, quite a lot.  These people watch you suffer on some long, hot miles.  They pull you along.  They slow down to walk with you.  They distract you from your aches with their conversation.  Sometimes, when you are crumbling, they show up with exactly what you are needing.  

My sister Amy drove in from North Carolina to run the Salem Half.  Once Jamie, Amy, and I were across the finish line, we discussed the crazy hills and then set off on important business: find some beer.  I always get a little excited about a cold beer and that afternoon was no exception.  Smiling, we carried our amber cups and sat down on the pavement to celebrate 13.1 long miles, middle-aged stiff muscles, and great company.  

The beer went down easy.  It was cold, refreshing and nothing short of amazing.  But pretty soon I realized I was not feeling well.  I had two slices of buttered toast an hour before the race started.  Now, it was nearly 1 o’clock and I was starting to fade fast.  The beer probably wasn’t helping.

“I’m not feeling so good, guys.  I think I really need to eat something.”  I explained.  

There was a little problem.  We’d bought a lot of beer tickets.  Nearly full cups sat before us and several tickets were yet to be used. 

We devised a plan.  Drink up, then we’ll head to a restaurant and gorge ourselves on anything and everything on the menu.  I sat on the pavement hoping the feeling would pass.  

“Maybe I can find some food to buy,” Amy suggested.  “I’ll wander around a little and see what they have.”

I waited.  The emptiness was growing.  I felt ill.  I reminded myself that next time, food shall come before the beer.  

And that’s when she walked back carrying the most glorious hot dog I have ever laid eyes on.  “Thank you! Thank you! You are the best!”  I cheered as she passed it into my hands.  She really is the best.

“You want chili on it?” she asked.  “I’ll go back and get some chili.”

“No, no.  This is good.  This is perfect.”

I inhaled it because chewing is overrated when you are starving.  The hollowness in my stomach was giving way to substance.  Immediately, I started to feel better.

My sister saved the day with that hot dog, reminding me that most often, the best parts of life are our people.  They love us, they help us, they celebrate our victories and stand with us in hardship, they notice when we are in dire need of a hot dog and then they go and procure one.  

Thanks, dear sister.  You are a rock star.  I’m so thankful you are one of my people.

before
after

Thank Goodness We Didn’t Say “No”

At least a hundred times a day, I utter the word “no.”

Can I have more goldfish?
No.
Can I jump from this step?
No.
Can I watch a movie?
No.
Can we go to Kmart?
No.
Pleeeeeeease?
No.

No. No. No. No. No.

Most days I feel like the No Monster.  Of course it’s necessary.  Kids need to hear no; they need to know boundaries and respect them; they need to experience big and little “no’s.”  But sometimes, a little “yes” can go a long, long way.  

A few nights ago, we went out for a family walk.  The boys climbed in the double stroller and we set off wandering down the sidewalk around our house.  We were soon headed in the direction of Roanoke College’s Elizabeth Campus.  There’s a nice stone pathway with a quiet loop that doesn’t require too much uphill effort, and near our house flat terrain is hard to find.  As we crossed the street, Jackson asked, “Can we walk when get to the pathway?”

“No” was sitting right on the tip on my tongue.  I glanced down to see four barefeet resting on the floor of the stroller.  This observation seemed to support my initial inclination.  Parker had already bathed and the bottoms of his feet would be dirty again for sure.  Who knows what sharp objects were waiting to be stepped on!  In their excitement they’d probably take off running, only to stumble and fall, leaving tearful sobs and bloody knees as our company for the long ride home.  “No” was definitely the most sensible answer, but it wasn’t the one that they would hear.


Before my “no” even had a chance, Jamie replied, “Yeah, go for it.  But stay on the walkway.  When we get back to the road you have to climb in the stroller again.”  

“But what about Parker?” I countered. “He’s already bathed.” 

“It doesn’t matter.  It will be fine.” 

The boys kicked their bare feet over the edge of the stroller and raced into freedom.  They didn’t go far before they stopped to examine a pile of sand nestled in the seams between the stones.  They talked together as their fingers moved the tiny grains around and around like miniature bulldozers.  After they grew weary of this task, they stood up; Jackson turned to Parker and asked, “Wanna hold hands?”  

I caught my breath.  Would the answer be yes or no?

I watched as Parker took Jackson’s hand in his own and they scampered down the path, talking and laughing side by side, their small hands locked with love.  We would have missed a mighty beautiful scene that evening had the word “no” reigned over our actions.  

A simple “yes” can hold a mountain of magic.