Friday, May 30, 2014


She's nervous.  I can tell because every time she glances up at me, her eyes widen in a "this is really hard and I'm scared" sort of way.  "Try again, Natalie!" I can hear the coach yell.

She climbs up on the starting block and touches her toes.  "Now lean forward, and dive!"

She leans forward and at the last second jumps in feet-first.  She swims a lap, climbs out, walks around to the starting block and touches her toes again.  She jumps in feet-first again.  And again.  And again.  And again.  Each time I feel my whole body tense as I think, "Come on, Nat.  You can do this.  You can do this."

Last month she begged and begged me to sign her up for a swim team.  I finally did it, despite the fact that wading through the team website took way too much time and frustration.  The sport of swimming has a language and culture all its own and we were strangers to it all.  But here we are, at the very first practice. Even from up in the stands I can tell it is tiring work.  I can feel her exhaustion.  Unlike her teammates, her body isn't yet conditioned to swimming laps for an hour straight.

Finally the hour is up and I go to meet her in the humid chlorine-scented locker room.  It is filled with energetic young girls shouting greetings and slamming locker doors.  Damp goggle-adorned heads bob all around us.

"How was it?"  I asked.

I can see tears welling up in her eyes.

"It was hard.  I am so frustrated and embarrassed.  Everybody else can do all this stuff and I don't know how to do any of it.  I can't even dive!"

My heart breaks a little as we walk out to the parking lot.  There is a fight inside me between wanting things to always go smoothly for her and knowing that life's best lessons are learned in the struggles. I try to boost her spirits.  I remind her of how hard it was for her to ride a bike for the first time, and how she just kept trying.  I wonder if anything I say sinks in or if her anger and frustration just blocks out my voice completely.

We climb into the van and I turn to look at her.  She's all blond hair and freckles.  She's beautiful.  She's my baby that didn't stop crying for the first eight months of her life.  She's my toddler girl who loved all animals and would hold her newborn baby brother so proudly and carefully.  Shes my pig-tailed Kindergartener walking into her classroom for the first time, lunch box confidently swinging by her side.  She's my second-grader who worried me so much because she wouldn't say a word in her new school for months.  She's my fourth-grader who found a best friend and opened up enough to read out loud in a strong, steady voice.

In two weeks she'll finish fifth grade and her time in elementary school will be complete.

"Natalie, I know it was hard for you, but I am so impressed that every single thing they asked you to do, you did."

She turns away and stares out the window.  We drive away, towards home.

When we walk in the door her Dad asks her how her first swim practice went.  "It was hard." She says, "But the next practice will be a little better."

Yes, Nattie.  It most certainly will.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Seven Months Gone

I check my phone, notice the date and sigh.  I'm wondering when I'll stop counting the time since she died, when the 28th of the month will be just another day.  I will be both happy and sad when that happens.  Right now when I can measure the time since I last talked to her in months, she still seems close.  When it becomes years, or decades, she will seem so far away and that will hurt.  But, I'll be happy because I will have kept living my life, which is just what she wanted me to do.  She spent my whole life teaching me to be tough.  I had no idea how badly I would need those lessons.

I just really want to call her.  I really want to crack her up with our goofy jokes, or have her say something hilarious, which she always did.  I want her advice.  I want her perspective.  I even want her criticism, because there was always some good lessons in that as well.

I have so much to tell her.  So much has happened in 7 months.  Her kids are amazing, I'm so proud of them, and she would be too.  She'd be proud of all of us, I think.

I just really miss her.

Here's a kiss for you, Sue.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Why Staying Away from Facebook is the Right move for me

When people find out that you have suffered the loss of a loved one, they tell you to "take care of yourself".  I know I have definitely said that to other people but until I was on the receiving end of those comments, I hadn't thought about what it really meant.  I spent some time trying to figure it out.  I knew it was important for me to try not to become an alcoholic or a drug addict (although, to be honest, both of those have seemed to be tempting options at times!).  I also figured that getting a good amount of sleep, exercising, and eating healthy foods were important.  In other words, I didn't think of much beyond taking care of myself physically, but it turns out that mentally taking care of myself has been hugely important as well.

Within a week of Sue's death, I started to notice a disturbing trend with my behavior.  Every day I would sit down, multiple times a day, and make myself crazy and angry by reading Facebook.

(Can I just stop right here and ask all of you who were Facebook friends with me to please, please understand my state of mind at the time, and my continuing state of mind.  I am not trying to tell anyone what they should or shouldn't post on Facebook, I am only trying to relay my feelings. Also, I am totally guilty of posting any number of the things I about about to complain about on Facebook myself, so it's really not a jab at anyone. Thanks for understanding)

Why was I crazy and angry?  I'll explain.  First, I was angry with almost everyone on earth.  A random mailman drove by me and I honestly thought to myself, "Oh good for you, Mailman. You get to go on living your life just as you did last week.  Meanwhile, my whole world has been torn apart.  I really hate you."

When I got onto Facebook a day or two after my sister's funeral, what did I see?  Everyone living their lives.  I felt actual rage at the fact that people were posting brownie recipes and my sister was dead.  And let's not even talk about the people who would casually say something like, "Ugh, locked my keys in my car, this is the worst day of my f*&king life."

When someone posted an angry political opinion, I would become enraged.  Why are they wasting their precious moments on earth by being angry about something as stupid as what dumb so-and-so from whatever party said on whichever political talk show last night?  Is your loved one dead?  Then be happy, you jerk!

Even something so seemingly innocent as a mom posting about taking her child to the park would set me off. I would think, "I am a terrible parent right now.  All I do is lay on the couch and cry.  I'm probably ruining my kids."

One day, in the midst of feeling bad/sad/angry about on Facebook, I had an epiphany. Maybe it wasn't them.  Maybe it was me.  That was the day I shut down my account.  I made my social circle much smaller.  I only talked to people one-on-one, either on the phone, by email, or in person.  It began to dawn on me that nobody on Facebook was deliberately trying to hurt me.  I started to feel less stress.

I occasionally check in on Facebook by using Frank's account just to test the waters.  I quickly realize that I am not ready to return.  I want to grab some people by the shoulders, shake them, and yell, "Don't you understand that you could be dead tomorrow?  Is the crap you complain about really that important?  Don't you get that the relative you are arguing with might not wake up in the morning?"

Sue used to tell me, "Just step away from the 'book" when I would get too worked up about something I read there.  Well, Sis, I have stepped away and feel a lot more peaceful.  It has been one of the best things I've done to take care of myself.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Crabby Critic: Ben Critiques Some 80's Hits

Four year old Ben has an opinion about everything.  Sometimes I amuse myself by playing him songs and asking what he thinks of them.  Today I'll share his reactions to some 80's songs that came on the radio.

Song:  Missing You by John Waite

Me:  Ben, do you like this song?
Ben: No
Me:  Why not?
Ben:  I don't like it. It's not good music.
Me:  What about it don't you like?
Ben:  Everything. It's a bad song. I said to you already that I don't like it. I wish you would stop this song.

Song:  Sweet Dreams by Eurythmics

Me:  Ben, do you like this song?
Ben:  No
Me:  Why not?
Ben:  The music part, hear that?  It doesn't sound good.  And that lady?  I think it's a lady singer?  She has bad singing.
Me:  So you don't like it at all?
Ben:  I don't like the music parts and I don't like the singing parts.  It's, the whole thing, it's not a nice song.

Song:  Down Under by Men at Work

Me:  Ben, do you like this song?
Ben:  Yes
Me:  Why?  What do you like about it?
Ben:  The singing is good and the rest of the sound of it I like.  I hear drums and this other sound I like but I don't know what it is.
Me:  Do you mean the flute?
Ben:  I already said that I don't know what it is.

Song:  Rosanna by Toto

Ben (doing finger-pointing dance):  I like this song!  I really like this song!
Me:  You do?  Why do you like it so much?
Ben:  Two reasons: one because of the good singing and two because of the music
Me:  Cool!  What do you think this song is about?
Ben:  This part tells me what it's about.
Me:  Which part?  The "Meet you all the way" part?
Ben:  You know which part.
Me:  So you know what the song is about?
Ben: Yes, I know everything about this song.
Me:  What is it about?
Ben:  I'm not telling you.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

May Madness

Last night as I sat at Joe's Spring band concert, I was completely exhausted.  I thought maybe I hadn't gotten enough sleep the night before, or I was coming down with something.

Then it hit me.  This happens every year in May: The Day When Being Home With Four Kids All Summer Sounds Like A Relaxing Vacation.  I started to tally up what has happened so far in May and what still needs to happen before the school year ends on June 10th. It is a tiring list:

Already happened since May 1:

--2 kids' birthdays
--Birthday kids brought treats to 27 and 24 classmates
--3 birthday parties
--5 soccer games
--3 concerts
--1 overnight fundraiser at church
--3 field trips (including one that was 3 days long, to Chicago)
--Mother's Day
--1 physical
--1 dentist appointment
--1 hearing test
--Soccer picture day
--I made the periodic table cake Sam requested (no, I am not a professional periodic-table cake-maker. Yes, I was in a hurry. See the above list for reasons why.)

Things that still need to happen before June 10:

--1 physical
--2 soccer games
--1 preschool bounce house party
--1 field trip
--Field Day                                                        
--5th grade graduation
--5th grade picnic
--3 swim team practices
--Countless last papers, last projects, final presentations (all of which will probably require some specialty item that will need to be bought at 10 pm the night before it's due)

Each morning Ben and I roll into his preschool class a little later and a little more disheveled.  Thankfully he will be finished with preschool at the end of this week because we are barely making it.

A list of things that have been forgotten in the last few weeks:

--Countless library and "book cart" books
--saxophone mouthpiece
--spelling homework
--band vest
--gym shoes
--permission slips
--a birthday card from Sam's Mimi, which I swore to her hadn't arrived, then I found it and remembered giving it to him.  Ooops.

Come on, Summer!  We can't take much more!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Here's the post where you start to wonder about my sanity! AKA Survival Guilt, 4 Year Olds, and Q-Bert

Ben has a habit, like a lot of four year olds, of only wanting to do the exact opposite of what we want him to do.  This results in us using tactics that may not get us into the parenting hall of fame, but they work.  For instance, he won't put on his shoes? No problem, tell him that he isn't allowed to wear shoes today. Do you want him to not steal your favorite orange yogurt?  Tell him that's the only flavor he's allowed to eat.  I use these tactics so many times a day without thinking, that it took quite awhile for me to realize that I can manage my feelings of guilt the same way I do Ben's behavior.

I have what they call "Survivor Guilt".  I feel guilty because why am I alive and Sue's not?  Why do I get to raise my kids and she doesn't?  On the flip-side, if I am alive and she's not I should live every moment fully aware of how lucky I am to be alive, right?  This is impossible to do. I then feel guilty that I'm not constantly thankful.  When I tell people about my guilt they (understandably) point out that I shouldn't feel guilty.  Then I feel guilty that I can't stop feeling guilty and that I'm really bad at figuring out how to let go of the guilt.

This is a big problem.  It can swirl around my head all day and night.

One day I told a friend who unfortunately has a lot of experience with grief about the constant guilt.  She said, "Yes that's going to happen, It's part of the process."

Suddenly I could drop the guilt about not being able to stop feeling guilty.  It's normal!  It's going to happen! It happens to all grieving people!

I spent some time mulling over how I could manage it.  Not make it go away, because it wasn't likely to go away no matter how much I tried to get it to go away.  I just needed a plan to be okay with it in my life.

I started to imagine a scenario in which the guilt was a person.  Or, well, in my case it actually looked like the 80's video game character, Q-Bert. (I have no idea why). When Q-Bert/guilt (oh!  I should call him "Guilt-Bert) was staring me in the face, getting in the way of my other thoughts and ruining my day I would say, "Okay, come hop up next to me on this bench.  You get comfortable because you can stay as long as you'd like.  You can stay for days and days if you want.  You are part of the process and it's okay for you to be here."

Then I noticed that as soon as I acknowledged him and gave him permission to stay around, he acted just like Ben and immediately left.  It's not completely foolproof.  Sometimes he stays on the bench longer than other times, but at least I have a plan!

And that's how I've been working on letting go of my survival guilt by treating it as an obstinate 4 year old Q-Bert.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

A Sue Memory: I'm Pretty Scared of that Guy

"You want to come with us to McDonalds?"  Sue asked me, casually.  I looked up from playing with my Speak and Spell, completely stunned.  Was she messing with me?

"Yup"  I mumbled, while scrambling to find my shoes.  I didn't want to show too much enthusiasm, she might decide I was acting stupid and change her mind.  I climbed into the passenger seat of her red Chevy Nova.  I had never paid much attention to cars before, but I was definitely going to have my Dad buy me a Chevy Nova when I was old enough to drive.

We drove to her friend Beth's house to pick her up.  I moved to the backseat, then sat way forward to listen to their conversations.  As a 9 year old, high school gossip was fascinating and exotic to me.  I tucked away some of the new vocabulary to use on the playground later.  "He's such a loser" sounded so much more grown up than, "He's a dummy".

The next stop was to pick up Dave, another friend.  I mulled this over.  High school boys and girls can be friends with each other?  In my class boys and girls worked very hard to never speak to each other at all.

Sue hopped out of the driver's seat and pushed it forward so Dave could get in the back seat.  I moved as far to my side of the back seat as possible.  Third grade habits die hard.  Then I looked up at him.  He had long, feathered hair.  For reasons I still can't quite articulate, this terrified me.

For the entire rest of the ride to McDonald's Dave tried to make small talk with me, asking about school, what my favorite color was, whether I had seen the movie, E.T. and I just stared at him, both amazed and appalled by his long, flowing hair.  I had seen long hair on a boy before, but it was on MTV, and it was attached to David Lee Roth, or that guy from Journey.  Dave talked like a normal person, but was he a rock star?  How was an average third grader supposed to make small talk with a person like this?

Sue turned on the radio, an Ozzy Osbourne song was on.  I knew all the words to his songs from sitting around in Sue's room while she listened to records, promising that I would act cool and begging her not to kick me out.  I momentarily forgot my Dave-fear and started to sing along.  Dave said, "Your little sister knows all the words to an Ozzy song?  Cool!"  He held his hand up to me for a high five.  I stopped singing, hunched down in my seat, and stared out the window.

"Wow, she really doesn't like me!"  he announced to Sue and Beth.  They all laughed hysterically.

After we went through the drive-thru (where I managed to quietly order a coke) we drove around, and I wished we could just go home.  Maybe I wasn't cut out for being around high schoolers after all.

When we dropped them both back off at their houses and started our drive home, Sue said, "Why were you acting like such a goon-bucket?"

"Shut up! You're the goon-bucket."  I replied.

I stared out the window and smiled.  I had just had one of the most exciting afternoons of my life.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Happy Birthday, Sam!

Today our Sammy turns 8.  He is an amazing kid.  Just last week he won a Chicken Polka dance contest, while wearing roller skates, and it was the first time he had ever attempted the Chicken Polka.  That pretty much sums up Sammy.

Sam, I can't believe how quickly you went from this (there's no sound on the first one because I had a horrible camera back then):

To this:

To this:

To this:

To this:

I just realized that he wore the same shirt to Kindergarten graduation as he did for his second grade concert last week!  At the second grade concert, in case it's hard to tell, he is introducing a song by saying, "Our first stop is school, a place we think is cool.  Mrs. Reneau (gym teacher) tries her best to get us moving with plenty of zest."

Today we are thankful for you, Sammy!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A whole lot of Gratitude

The flip side of living through this kind of emotional pain is that, while the hurting is intense, I have also never felt so much intense gratitude.  I am not going to say that I go around marveling and singing the praises of everything, (The weeds in my yard bring much needed color!  Ben's tantrum means he has a strong will and can think for himself!  The dog chewed up another pair of underwear, but we needed to buy some new ones anyway!)  No, I'm not cut out to be quite that positive.  But, when I can see through the fog of the grief, I can see all around me the amazing gifts I have been given.

1.  My kids.  They can be so irritating, they can rattle me to my core, they take up all of my energy and patience and then some.  But they make every day good.  They keep bringing me back to joy.  When Ben makes his belly button talk to me, Natalie wears a crazy mismatched outfit, Joe tries to force me to play "Guess which element on the Periodic Table I am", or Sammy almost gets a goal at his soccer game, I smile, I laugh, I feel so much hope.  I'm so glad that I get to parent them.

2.  My friends.  They are in this with me.  Each of my precious friends is walking this journey with me and they don't have to!  They don't have to put themselves in a position to feel my pain, to listen to me cry, to send me texts and make phone calls just to make sure I'm hanging in there.  Some of the things I say are terribly sad and upsetting, but they keep showing up.  I'm so grateful.

3.  My family.  My other sister, my Mom, my brother-in-law who misses his wife terribly, but whose grief is multiplied because not only does he live it everyday, he lives it through the eyes of their four beautiful children that he now parents alone.  These people feel this intense pain every day with me.  We are working on it together.  We all have big plans to not let my sister's death scar our lives permanently, but to use it to help us become stronger and more alive in the time we have left on earth.  How lucky am I that I have these people in my life?  The luckiest.

4.  My husband.  He has it rough.  I am not an easy person to live with right now. People who are grieving are, let's say, unpredictable. If you ask me what's for dinner, I might say, "Nachos!  And it isn't easy to make nachos!  Everything is so hard and I'm barely able to do this!" and start sobbing.  So many things can come up during an average day that can throw me into an emotional tailspin.  Since I never know when these triggers will come up, he obviously never knows, either.  He gets pelted with my emotional shrapnel every day and never falters.  My sister hand-picked my husband for me, and for that I am forever in her debt.

Life is hard, but it is so, so good.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Sometimes the Grief is like this

I need to learn, but I keep forgetting

when I check the phone and expect to see a text from her, I have forgotten

when my first thought is, "she's going to love hearing this", I have forgotten

when I am lost in thought and turn down her street to visit her, I have forgotten

when I realize it's been a long time since I heard from her and what is she so busy doing?, I have forgotten

I am mean to myself

I harshly bark at myself, "She's dead!  Stop being dumb!  She won't be calling you!"

and the hurt comes back again

I don't want to stop forgetting

because during those few, fleeting seconds when I forget, she is still alive to me