Logging the Miles

2018 to 2022; yet, so much is still true

Josh would have turned eleven this March. Each year on Josh’s birthday, Courtney and I celebrate by remaining committed to spending the day together. Although I would have preferred a bit more sunshine, the rays we received as we floated the Yellowstone made me pause and give thanks for each shared moment.

Later that same week we celebrated Emma’s birthday. It was full of energy, family, and hot springs. It also brought the first family photo without Mom. Looking at my smile it reminds me of the first few photos after losing Josh and not feeling like smiling, yet knowing it was what others were expecting of me. To me grief feels like I am treading water, but the whole time being aware the current is moving me downstream.

To say the least, the last few months have been a bit jumbly. I only realized May was quickly approaching when I received a retail store email giving me the option to opt out of their Mother’s Day notifications. Out of habit, I swiped delete. As I sat with my choice, I realized, like all firsts for the next year, this will be a different Mother’s Day. She was an amazingly graceful mother. Every moment, truly, she was present and loving. When we transitioned Mom to hospice, I was able to be home almost the entire month of January thanks to FMLA leave and loving support from Courtney who picked up all parenting duties including explaining loss to Emma. He not only understood my need to be with Mom, but encouraged me to be in each moment.

I can count on a single hand the number of times I witnessed Mom being angry. I remember her always finding ways and words to carry her point without having to yell or shout. As a child (and as an adult), I knew when I had disappointed Mom, but she never made me feel like less of a person for the choices I made. She carried this same ability when teaching me about politics, education, and religion. I am trying to model this same tolerance when I am with Emma. Too often, I get upset with her for something trivial. Emma sees everything and soaks in the good with the bad not fully understanding one from the other. I am trying to be a better parent, but have a lot left to learn. It is in this learning that I find myself deeply grieving for the teacher we lost when Mom died.

During the final month we spent together, our days ran together. Our agenda revolving solely on Mom’s needs and being aware as we lost more of her each day. In December, Courtney and I registered for the Queen Bee Montana Marathon. My training calendar had me starting training in January, but I pushed it back because I couldn’t bring myself to leave the house fearful Mom would pass while I was running. It was the same anxiousness I had when I was home with Josh and I would run in circles around our neighborhood afraid I would be unable to get home in time. I remember a run when the CNA called to say I should come back. My friend Amy and I sprinted frantically through the alleyways in attempts to shorten the distance. I distinctly remember feeling selfish for leaving him and being angry at my inability to run faster.

The similarities between grief and running makes it an obvious analogy. There are some weeks I can manage the miles and others that the path seems too daunting. I shared with someone that my multitask ability is broken. Things that used to be manageable now seem too hard. Instead of dealing with it or working through my to do list, I go to sleep to avoid having to think. Reading back through my post about the day Josh died, Support for the Journey, I remember feeling detached from the moment. That it couldn’t be real. Somehow I would shake from my slumber to arrive in reality – he would still be sick, but I would be able to hold him. Now, almost three months after Mom passed, I replay our final hours with her and find myself shaking, but unable to wake. I miss her voice, her hugs, her.

A few weeks ago I simply gave up attempting to log my weekly training miles. I convinced myself that a break was what my body needed. Although taking a pause was not the best training option, it helped me realize the role running plays in my healing. I was asked recently “what do you do to relieve stress?” I responded that I run and I write about grief. For both of these to work I need to keep logging my miles.

I am thankful for my running friends who have become some of my closest friends. They have helped me process my grief and have pushed me to keep moving. On May 7th, the Northwest Parkinson’s Foundation hosts a “Move for Parkinson’s Run.” This weekend, we laced up and logged our miles wearing purple in tribute to Mom and the foundation that gave her hope and support for her journey.

Our lives are full of paths and trails. There are some we can train for and others we learn to navigate once we are placed upon them.

I never would have imagined my life path would include losing Josh before his second birthday.

I never would have been able to imagine the joy Courtney and I share walking the road as Emma’s parents.

I never would have imagined I would be left navigating the trails of motherhood without my mother.

For now, I will keep logging the miles: some solo, some with loved ones. I will keep listening to my body when it calls for rest. I will keep writing for Josh, for Mom, for me.

Thank you for logging these miles with me.

Here is to another day together.

Keep moving.

Learning to Float

It is a hard thing to watch a person you love slowly slip away. Mom gave us the gift of a final month to hold her hand, read to her, and share our appreciation for all she shared and sacrificed for us. Each day, we witnessed as Mom struggled and fought her failing body to remain with us. She passed away peacefully in her sleep early Wednesday morning. As the sun rose, it highlighted the crisp blue sky and our snow angles in her garden.

The same is true in dying as in grieving – there is no how to manual. The hospice chaplain, Jim, reminded us that death is different for each of us. No two people come in or go out of this world alike. There is no typical or right way to die and even though we know others who have passed before us, Mom’s path was her own. Emily referenced Heraclitus commenting “it is so true, you can ‘never step in the same river twice.’” It made me think of Mom’s lifelong love of water.

Water was always Mom’s playing field. She grew up in Michigan and swam in it’s mighty waters from a young age. She even raced for the swim team at the city pool. In the water, Mom was able to move freely in a weightless way that her hips didn’t permit when she was on ground. She moved through the water, whether it be in a lake, pool, or river, strong and confident in each stroke.

I don’t remember learning how to swim. It has always seemed like something I have know how to do. Mom and Dad instilled in Emily and I both a respect for and an ability to find joy in water. I remember summer swims at the city pool and having to wear life jackets when we played in the river at the farm. Mom could swim for hours and taught us how to float so if we were ever too tired to swim, we could rest while still staying in water. If there was water, most likely we were in it.

The hospice nurses showed us how to adjust mom’s pillows so her body had the fewest points of contact with the bed. They call this technique floating. Emily, Papa, and I worked together to comfort Mom and adjust her float every three hours to try to alleviate her pain. Her skin fragile and raw. Eventually, this changing of position was the only time we saw Mom’s eyes open. Although open, it seemed she was looking past us. When we needed pillows for this floating we used those Courtney and I had received when Josh was at Denver Children’s and Mom’s teddy bear, Emmawen, to float her arms. It gave us, and I think her, comfort to have these special items with her.

Twice a week Davida came to care for Mom’s hygiene needs. It is during these bed baths that I saw Mom look the most comfortable. The combination of warm water and massage allowing her body to once again float without ever leaving her hospital bed. Watching as her exhausted muscles relaxed reminded me of when we took Josh to swim therapy. He flexed his feet back and forth in the warm water without restriction. I remember feeling both joy and sorrow during these therapy sessions. Joy for the hope that he was also experiencing the joy of water. Sorrow realizing how many moments he was trapped by the limitations of his body. Water provided this same medium for Mom. I remember walking with Mom to see the ocean on our last trip to California. She worked so hard to be able to walk from the parking lot to the beach. Her smile shows pure joy.

This past summer Courtney, Emma and I took a camping trip to Canyon Ferry. As we got ready to leave the house, I helped Emma get dressed into her swimming suit for the trip. Court looked at me like I was crazy. I explained that this is what I thought all families did on road trips when the end destination involved water as it was always what my mom did with us. He understood when we pulled into the campground and within fifteen minutes, Emma and I were in the water.

In the quiet moments with Mom, we played audio recordings of my aunts singing including “Peace like a River in my Soul.” Emily read Mary Oliver’s Upstream and Ivan Doig’s English Creek. When we need something to keep our minds busy to distract our hearts, we turned to the jigsaw puzzles Lee and Bill provided. In one box we opened, we found small sandwich bags with the start of sorting from the last time Mom worked it. It made us smile to know she was helping. Fittingly each puzzle we completed had a water theme. We didn’t finish the ocean section of the last puzzle before she passed. We managed only to complete the beach and a few steps into the waves. This too seems fitting.

Emma asked Courtney the other morning on their drive to school how Grandma was going to get to heaven. He explained how her body would stay here, but her spirit would go. He said Emma thought about it a moment and then replied in all certainty, “so she will fly there.” Clearly, I am no expert on how our souls find their way, but a part of me hopes Mom swam away from this life strong, confident and knowing we would be ok for all the love, wisdom, and strength she shared with us.

Caregivers

The past three weeks we have visited with family and friends both in person and through calls, texts and FaceTime. We have read English Creek, scripture, poetry, Blueberries for Sal, and a Christmas Memory. These days have been, as my sister says, “gravy.”

Living in a small town provides a network unlike others I have known elsewhere. The love my mom has for others is evident in the support and care I have seen shared with her in the past month.

The EMTs and hospital staff didn’t need to ask our story, they knew it and us by name when we came in the door. The night shift nurses understanding as we slept on couches and in recliners offering us warmed blankets and their special stash of herbal tea. When we brought Mom home, the caravan of caregivers all hugged us tight. As we drove home, I wanted to ask to detour through downtown and up the pass so Mom could see her mountains realizing, but not wanting to accept this would be her last car ride through town.

We arrived home to a freshly plowed parking spot curtesy of our neighbor. Uncle Jim hauled wood so Dad could have a fire in the cookstove to make Mom’s bed cozy in the living room. The plug for the hospice bed intentionally placed in their living room floor years before for just this homecoming and the picture windows allowing Mom to look out at her garden.

Our hospice careteam has provided support and tools to keep Mom comfortable. Becky, Mom’s nurse, a lifetime friend. Her professional strength and personal touch providing comfort in this challenging time to navigate.

We have savored each moment we have had with Mom. Last Sunday, she sat in her wheelchair at the kitchen table and snuggled with Emma. Her smile and love sustaining us all. It was a day filled with the sounds of laughter and joy.

There are also the silent moments I know her mind is somewhere else. I have struggled not being able to fix what is going on. I want to rock her in my arms or crawl in bed next to her like I would do as a child. Her pain and dementia have restricted us to hand holding. The process of her body shutting down is natural, yet, I want to fight against it to keep her with me a little longer. I realize this is selfish love. She has taken such good care of us. I keep telling Mom we will take care of each other and she doesn’t have to be afraid. It is our turn to selflessly care for her.

Grief brings out the best and most tragic emotions in me. This time is personal, yet the nature of our community makes it public. I have caught myself being angry at those who are doing what they can to support us when they are not grieving the same way I am. I snap at folks instead of drawing them in closer as I feel more in control if I don’t let them see my weakness and hurting. For some reason feeling as I don’t let them in, none of this is real. I need to remember they too are losing my mom.

Sleeping on the hospital couch listening to monitors brought back memories from Denver Childrens. Not leaving in the night for fear of what would happen while I was out of the room. Thankful for daylight and a new day each morning. This stage of my life and my grief different than that time, yet, so much of the then impacts my ability to process the now.

Each morning, we open the curtains and watch the sunrise over the garden covered with snow. This summer it will be filled with iris, lilies, garlic, and daffodils. After a family friend read “As I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” Mom commented, “that is sort of like life.” Even in these final moments, Mom is still guiding us “continuous as the stars that shine.”

Strength and Fragility

Our lives are so fragile. Yet, through life we find strength and beauty in those who we love.

My mom is the strongest woman I know. She is stubborn and sassy and above all else lovingly selfless. When she and Emma are together, they are like two peas in a pod. Their smiles and giggles always make me smile.

The past few days, she has been in and out of consciousness. On Saturday, we didn’t think she would wake up. As my father, sister and I sit with her in the hospital, Mom continues to amaze me with her resiliency.

From an early age, Mom has endured significant pain. She didn’t learn to walk until 18 months and when she did she fussed so much that my Grandparents took her to the doctor. It was then that they learned she had hip dysplasia. Mom spent the next year and a half in a frog-leg cast and sling. When she needed to be more mobile, they used a baby buggy. Mom once told me she thinks her love of clouds came from this time in her life that she spent laying on her back staring at the sky. Anytime I hear Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides, Now I think of Mom. Now, as I watch her laying in a hospital bed, I am fighting the urge to tape clouds to the ceiling.

Mom has always prided herself on not letting a disease define her life. If someone tells her she can’t do something, she works even harder to accomplish it. When she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2005, she was told that movement would be her friend. She committed herself to building strength and when it was too cold to walk outside, she would walk loops around the main level of their home. We walked the Women’s Run together in 2015. I remember her smile as she beamed with pride as she crossed the finish line.

We do not know how many days we are given with those we love. Yesterday, Mom opened her eyes and smiled at us. Today, we have had moments with Mom. When I told her she is the strongest woman I know, she rolled her eyes at me. We have been talking about how quickly life can go. Emily shared the mantra of “live like today is your last day and treat people like you will live forever.”

Mom’s constant modeling of kindness has made so many of us better people. I am the mother, daughter, sister and woman I am today because of her guidance. I am thankful for every moment and smile she shares with us.

Rose Colored Lenses & Learning to Play

The other morning as Emma and I were driving to Red Lodge the sky was impressive: a deep, hazy pink layered with bursts of magenta clouds. I was so struck by its beauty, I sent a Marco Polo to Emily to try to capture and share the moment. This has been a hard year for so many and these moments of beauty feel few and far between. I have been recording these moments of goodness in my gratitude journal with Emily as my accountability partner. As siblings, we roll through most of our ups and downs together. I remember the day Josh was born. Emily made it from Portland to Seattle to Billings and to the hospital by midnight.

A few miles after my video message, it dawned on me that I was wearing Emma’s rose colored glasses. The day was actually quite gray. It made me wonder how many other moments I could have seen pink, but instead saw only gray. I am not ignorant to think when things get hard all I need to do is to borrow Emma’s glasses. However, there are times that seeing through her eyes brightens even the bleakest of skies. She starts each day with a courageous thirst for adventure.

Friday was Josh’s Angel day. Even though years have passed, it is a day filled with emotional flurries and a need for moments of stillness.

I remember

his laugh, his life, his light

His path, His pain, His peace

our love, our laughter, our loss

Man, I miss his smile.

On Friday morning, a group of friends met me to run on the icy roads of Laurel for a brisk 3 miler to the cemetery. The day reminded me of December 2012. As I drove I-90 from Billings to Laurel, my mind swiped through memories: testing, planning, announcing, a crash c-section, a hernia surgery, six months of innocence or ignorance, Court’s 30th, tests, more tests, an amazing pediatrician, a life flight, a diagnosis, Dad’s 60th, family adventures, a community of support, too little time, a snowstorm, a church filled with family and friends, standing together in the cemetery in below zero weather, but not wanting to go inside.

As we made our way through the familiar streets and up the hills, I didn’t have to explain myself or my emotions. The memories of training runs through those neighborhoods flooding my thoughts & causing my eyes to water. The wind chill then promptly freezing my tears to my face. Sarah had left evergreen boughs earlier that morning to place on his stone. It was a gray day, but there was beauty in the stillness of the snow, the company of friends, the vibrant red and orange plastic flowers on his grave sight and a ninja turtle – a testimony to the strength and endurance of the love of family.

Each year I set my only goal for this day to be gentle with myself and patient with those around me. It is for this reason that I take the day off of work. I shared with a coworker that it is simply a day I don’t want to have to be an adult. As I reflect on my rationalization, I realize processing grief is part of being an adult. Children understand loss on a different level.

Emma is in the stage where she understands everything in its literal interpretation. I am trying to be aware of how I phrase things. Often, I don’t notice I have used figurative language until I am trying to explain an idiom in four year old terms. During the Christmas stroll, Emma spotted a nativity scene in a shop window. We have been talking about Jesus and the meaning of Christmas so I asked her “who is that?” She looked at me as if I was asking a silly question and said, “Baby Josh. He is in heaven.” Later, sharing this story with a friend I said I didn’t want to correct Emma, but I knew one day I would need to. She suggested that often children learn without needing to be corrected. Too often, I express that Emma’s response is wrong as opposed to embracing her curiosity for learning.

Daily, Emma asks me “Will you play with me?”. She is fascinated by dolls, her toy kitchen, and all forms of water. When she watches shows, she watches videos of other kids playing. She is learning to play. I too need to learn to play. Too often my response is “in just a minute” or “as soon as I finish” instead of “sure.” Recently, she has been asking if she can have a sister. When I ask why, she says she wants someone to play with. I forget her understanding of siblings is not the same as what her father and I know of siblings. She will proudly share with anyone who asks that she has two brothers. I worry that at some point, an adult in all of their aged wisdom will correct her.

On Friday, I soaked in the sunshine and the stillness. Matthew West’s song “What if” running through my head:

“I wanna know I got no what ifs
I’m running till the road runs out
I’m lighting it up right here right now
No regrets, in the end
I wanna know I got no what ifs”

I have lots to learn when it comes to adulting. I need to stop trying to be right and instead learn to listen, play, and follow Emma’s courageous lead.

Harvest Season

Traditionally, harvest season is a time for thanks and a time of celebration. As kids, it meant our hours of summer labor were finally paid off as we sat atop a trailer of pumpkins and other vegetables. The concept is more striking as I consider how learning to work in our family garden business taught me both how to work hard and how to navigate struggles outside of our control (a September snowstorm for example). Our family business also taught me to be thankful for the simple things: rich soil, time together and the friendships formed with family. Whatever laid in store for us, we faced it together and worked through it. Now, all these years later, we still face the storms together even if we are miles apart.

The October pumpkin patches bring back both happy and hard memories. One photo I hold close is from the fall of 2011. I am holding six-month old Josh in his pumpkin costume. His blue eyes are vibrant and even now I can feel his delicate body pressed into mine. We had just returned from Denver Children’s and were trying to adjust to the news of his terminal diagnosis. I remember being angry at the doctors because they had to be wrong. It was a beautiful fall afternoon, but like the leaves around us, we couldn’t ignore our season was changing.

This weekend we stopped at a pumpkin patch on our way home from Papa and Grandma’s house. My childhood memories of days at the farm flooded back as I tried to explain to Emma how much picking the perfect pumpkin means to me. As we loaded in the truck for home, Emma sat proudly displaying the pumpkin she had selected. Her smile reminded me of how simple life is. The moments of joy are all that matter and sometimes we are too busy looking for something else to notice them. I am working to be more aware and grateful for these moments.

In a webinar on overcoming teacher burnout, host @johndelony noted that optimism is a learned trait. We have to train ourselves to look for the positives in each element of life. It is so easy to be sidetracked by the “what ifs,” “should haves,” and “if onlys.” As I consider the past ten years since Josh’s diagnosis, I have cycled through all the stages of grief, but have never felt fully healed. On social media, a friend posted this image from the Ralph Site Blog (2021) which captures the stage I am currently experiencing.

I am unsure why I feel this pressure to “be over” Josh’s death. Some days my guilt for still grieving for my son makes me question my faith, my ability to cope, and often makes those around me uncomfortable. I am trying to practice optimism, yet, the “everything happens for a reason” still cuts a bit too deep. I am still searching for grace in my grieving.

To help keep me focused on the positives, I have started a gratitude journal. My sister, Emily, is my accountability partner. Each day we share three things from our day for which we are grateful. I covered my journal with photos that bring me joy: Emma’s handprint, her first trip to the ocean as we traced Josh’s name in the sand, a camping trip, and Marge Pierce’s poem “To be of Use.”

Being grateful shouldn’t be a challenging practice, yet, for some reason it is. Each day I look for others who help to fill my cup instead of draw from it. I am not saying there are not hard moments, but in each moment, I search for subtle reminders to keep moving forward. Even now, a decade after Josh’s diagnosis, the fall leaves remind me of another season.

The fall of 2012 I had the privilege of being home with Josh. It is a luxury many families do not have with those we are losing. Together we witnessed leaves changing colors and daylight fading. On warmer evenings, we sat in the sunshine on our front porch and soaked in the sunset. The planter on our front step, a gift from my coworkers, stating simply “happy harvest.”

I am grateful for the moments and the memories. I find myself both joyful for current moments and am stricken with sadness for moments left unmade. Yet, perhaps I am more aware as I know how quickly these joyful moments can pass. A coworker recently shared she lost a daughter six years ago. She said it has made her cherish the moments and the relationships she is able to have. She is a fiercely strong woman, both as she grieves and as she heals. Our relationships are our legacy. As the quote on my tea bag reminds me “Gratitude is not about what is received; it is about how you receive what is there.” I am working on being there – being here- present in my moments both of struggle and of strength.

A few weeks ago, I completed the Montana Half Marathon. This time, in contrast to most of my other races, I trained primarily alone. Courtney encouraged me to run it for me – with no other expectations than those I set for myself. Yet, as I did so, I found myself insecure and reaching out for support in other ways. This mirrors my need for support in my grief; my need to know I am not alone in my sadness, and that there are others who understand the oxymoron of grief in joy.

As I trained, I found a colleague who is also a runner and although we never ran together, we checked in and encouraged each other daily to keep at it. We talked about the challenges of running alone through the morning darkness and how easy it is to bail when the only person you feel you are letting down is yourself. Like in grief, when it is only ourselves we let down, it is easy to fail; however, when it is others we disappoint, we feel the heaviest burden. On race weekend, I was unable to make it to packet pickup. One of my dearest friends offered to pick up my race bag and deliver it to my house. I credit the support of these friends, in addition to my amazing cheering team & my friend Sarah’s company on race day for another successful race. As much as I want to pretend I can do it all alone – I need my support team.

An obvious understatement: life is a lot of work and is filled with the unknown. Like harvest season, the best I can do is keep working hard to hold onto hope. Hope in each pumpkin I am able to harvest, each race I am able to run, and each season of change I am able to weather.

A Beaten Path

The busy month of August is upon me. It is a season of excitement and stress as I prepare for another academic year while also working to stretch time to fit in as much summer as possible.

John Delony @johndelony shared on Instagram, “One of the best ways to get stress out of your body is to be active.” When Josh was born, Courtney had recently started running half marathons. Two years later, Courtney and his sister Tiffany completed thirteen half marathons (technically twelve half marathons and one full) in Josh’s memory. That same year, my friend Amy, who weathered many of our storms with us, convinced me I too could run a half marathon. She and my friend Sarah B. helped push me to complete my first half marathon in Seeley Lake after driving through a February whiteout to get there. I remember being so proud of myself for doing something I didn’t ever think I could do.

2013

This summer Amy again encouraged me to check something off my bucket list. Together with Courtney and three other running friends (Melissa, Sarah, & Erin), Amy and I hiked 29 miles in a little over 12 hours to successfully complete the Beaten Path. It was not only challenging, exhausting, and a bit crazy, but also breathtaking and rewarding.

Runners refer to something called “the wall.” I was the first to hit it after soaking both of my shoes & hurting my pride on a creek crossing. I cried all the way up the next hill, knowing we still had hours left to hike. Melissa, who politely offered to be our caboose, told me, “You are ok. We all do it at one point or another. Someone else will do it too.” Her empathetic words carried weight both for our hike and for my search for grace. When I stepped in the creek for the second time, everyone simply shook their heads and Melissa said “Well, I didn’t think it would be you twice.”

It is important to acknowledge that part of my strength comes from the people who have chosen to walk the path with me. Over the course of our time on the trail, this group of strong, caring women helped to encourage and push me to keep going. Courtney was my guide. As he always does, he found the balance to both tell me to push the pace when my legs were under me as well as to slow down when my ankles couldn’t navigate the shale field.

As I reflect on our hike, I again am filled with pride for having accomplished something I never would have thought possible.

Delony finishes his post with “Do anything you can to be active. Exercise will clear your mind and heal your body unlike anything else.” For the past nine years, running is where I process grief and both the mess and beauty that is life.

In a little over a weeks time, I have ran at both 10,000 feet and at sea level as this week my sister and I gathered with three of my female cousins from my mom’s side in Orange Beach, Alabama.

As I worked to convince my ankles and bare feet to keep moving in spite of wet sand and waves, I considered how much running and family relationships parallel each other. We have grown up together even though we have been geographically thousands of miles apart. My cousins and I share a fierce friendship and an uncanny connection as a result of the way our mother’s raised us as well as the paths we have traveled.

When I think about the walls of grief each of us endures, it is like the beaten path. As we are on it, we forget there are others who have survived it before us. We are so focused on our own loss, it is easy to forget that others also know hurt. Yet, with the love and support of others, we can continue up the mountain or down the beach even if it is with tears in our eyes.

Transitions

The past two months have been jam-packed. May brought Mother’s Day, the RKM Run for Heaven’s Sake & Joshua Tyree Half Marathon, and perhaps my final day as a classroom teacher. June brought our fourteenth anniversary, Father’s Day, and a visit from Aunt Em!

My friend Stace recently shared with me that this has been a year of transition. Her words are so true. In many elements of life, I have floated from one extreme to the other, back to the first, and then tried to tread water somewhere between the two shores. Perhaps transition is the best word for the ebb and flow of life and the waves of bliss and those of sadness each holding us in their wakes. Ironically, I battle motion sickness anytime I do anything with water but swim, but I am too stubborn to admit it and instead attempt to work through it so I don’t miss the good times. Perhaps, like grief, I need to give up on some elements of control and dive into the water where I feel the most comfortable.

During her last visit, Emily commented “we all have something.” Her words echo the popular paraphrased quote from Plato about how we need to be kind to one another for each of us is fighting a battle others know nothing about. Being kind goes a long way these days. I need to work on this. There are days I am unkind. Sometimes the people we lean on for strength are the same ones we need to be holding up. My sister comforted me by sharing that just because others are suffering, it doesn’t make our pain less important. Each of us carries a weight.

My family life has always been private. It is part of what has made publishing this public blog such a risk. I remember from an early age politely responding “doing well” anytime I was asked how “enter personal situation here” was doing. I never viewed it as secretive, but more so as self preservation.

When my mother-in-law was diagnosed with breast cancer, I asked if she was comfortable with me sharing her diagnosis. She shared that the more people who know the more people who can pray for her. This week she finished her final round of radiation. Each time I visit with her I am awed by her unfaltering faith, courage, and grace. Her wisdom has passed onto Courtney and I am glad she kicked cancer’s ass so she can keep guiding us. She is a port in the storm for many of us.

When those we love are ill, it reminds us how much they mean to us. We desperately hold onto the moments and work to pack in the memories just in case they becomes our last. It calls into question the who and what we surround our lives with. It makes us question things like the jobs we work and the effort and energy we put it to certain tasks. Yet, we still take so much for granted. We miss so many moments.

I am fortunate to be able to see my parents on a weekly basis. Our time together is both joyous and emotionally draining. It is hard to watch my mother slowly change as she is held hostage to her mind and body. Each visit, I leave thankful for the time we have as I know others do not have this privilege.

When my mom was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in the fall of 2005, she shared with me that she didn’t want people to know she had been diagnosed. Instead, she wanted at whatever point it was obvious that she had Parkinson’s to be able to simply answer “I have had it for years.” This fall will be the sixteenth year she has been battling the disease that has slowly taken pieces of joy from her. She still has her witty humor and on occasion, her full-of-joy smile, but we are no longer able to honestly say we are “doing well. Their love keeps us afloat, but many days she is out to sea and my father does his best to navigate the troubled waters.

Moments with my parents and my in-laws make me realize most of what feels like a big deal, is in fact trivial in the long run. Our time with family, the moments we share together, and the examples we leave for our children is what will remain.

I have been mentally wresting about my professional identity for the past year. Who am I, if not an English teacher? So much of my identity the last fifteen years has been centered on the work I do instead of the person I have become. On my final day of classroom teaching, I received a message from my friend Karissa.

Such a simple gesture, but her words of encouragement have stayed with me these past few weeks as I transition from a teacher to an educator. This connects to how I feel about my search for grace. I am constantly searching for the footing between what I want to do, what I should do, and what I end up doing.

This month marks my third year of contributing my voice to Josh’s story. To my story. As I drafted this blog post, I read back through my previous post on this occasion and although I feel I have grown, I feel the same pull towards needing to find balance between what was, what could be, and what is.

I hope some day to return to the classroom. As I consider the person I was when I started teaching compared to the person I am now, again I feel a surge of remorse for what I could have and should have accomplished as a teacher.

I am still in contact with one of the first students I ever taught, Katelin. It is disheartening to realize the influence I had on her versus the impact I feel I have had on students this past year

Her words have stayed in my mind as I consider my search for grace. It is fitting that the three words she uses to describe me are the same three I use to describe her. I wrote the words out and have taped them to my mirror. Perhaps a daily reminder of the me fifteen years ago will help me become more of the me I hope to become.

For the prompt on the final semester exam I asked students to reflect on “a positive moment or experience that shaped their definition of learning.” One student came up to double check that it was acceptable to reflect on a negative experience. I attempted to redirect her to the part of the prompt that asked her to find a positive, even if it was initially out of a negative. She left my desk (and perhaps my class) generally annoyed at me and my expectations; however, in the next hour she transformed her writing into one of the strongest piece of reflective writing I have read from a student. Her concern and purpose for writing (other than for a grade) was to show how a moment that could have been bitter, as a result of her reflection and commitment to growth, has instead become a positive.

This is my ultimate hope in pushing myself to continue to write this blog – that my role as a mother is not a negative or slanted, but because of the challenges – I have learned joy unlike any other. This is not to say Josh’s life or memory is a negative, but each day he spent with us has forever shaped me to appreciate the positives even in times of hardships.

Here is to another year of striving for strength, stability, and grace regardless of what waterway or hallway we find ourselves traveling down.

“With Montana, it is Love”

Today is the 6th of April, but many people in Montana celebrate it as 406 day.

406 is the Montana area code making Montana one of about a dozen states to have a single state-wide code. While this seems like an odd day to celebrate, for me, it is a day to focus on the positives and unique elements that make this 4th largest state my home. It is important to note, many people call Montana home even though through choice or circumstance they now physically reside in other places.

When I was in high school, I couldn’t wait to graduate and move away. I wanted to discover new places and people. I thought if I lived somewhere else, my story would be more exciting. Now, twenty years since my high school graduation, I have never once lived outside of Montana’s borders. I have traveled and experienced other states and countries, but at the end of the trip, I am always happy to return home. I married a man who is the epitome of a Montana boy. Through his influence, my appreciation of Montana has only continued to grow and mature.

John Steinbeck in Travels with Charlie penned “I’m in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana, it is love. And it is difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.” And while elements of Steinbeck’s facts have been disputed, this statement remains a truth for me.

Montana is known for its big sky, mountain waters, breathtaking sunsets, and open plains. Another aspect of Montana is our ability to make our big state into a small town. It is this small-town support which provides our ability to rally together, even if we are hundreds of miles apart. My love for Montana is not only for its beauty, but also the people who call it home.

One foundation that fully embraces this state-level community of support is the Ramsey Keller Memorial. Those of us who have had to say goodbye to our children too soon understand both the heart ache and the financial stressors of this kind of loss. The memorial is committed to supporting baby loss families in the state by paying funeral costs for our children under the age of one. Last year, the Ramsey Keller memorial was able to donate $99,000 to Montana families. As I have referenced in earlier posts (Courageous Vulnerability, Moving Forward, and #whywerun), the RKM Run for Heaven’s Sake is one of the ways we honor Josh’s life.

In a way, a terminal diagnosis when he was only six months old allowed us to prepare for Josh’s death. I remember reading most children with Josh’s diagnosis pass away before the age of two. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to believe it. But, it was our reality.

To help with the medical costs a family member set up an account for donations. For the next year, this account funded through the love and support of our community helped ease the financial stressors. This account slowly transformed from a medical expense account to an end of life expense account. When we met with the funeral director and he began to break down the expenses, it gave us comfort to be able to not worry about the cost of honoring our son with a headstone and service. We purchased three plots on the cemetery hill and selected the middle plot so Josh could rest between us when our time comes. While I am at peace knowing only his body rests here, my heart is buried in this Montana soil.

In a little over a month, our community will rally together to raise funds for RKM at the 10th annual Run for Heaven’s Sake. Last year, the race was virtual and we had support from all 50 states and all 56 counties. This year, along with the virtual run there is a 5K, 10K and the Joshua Tyree Half Marathon.

Each year, I witness how heartache and loss have brought our families, communities, and state together. It is a love like no other, but as Steinbeck writes “it is difficult to analyze when you are in it.”

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To read more about the Ramsey Keller Memorial, to register for the run, or if you know a Montana family in need of support please visit the RKM website.

Ten

This past weekend, we celebrated Emma’s fourth birthday. There were cupcakes, balloons, and a water slide! As I listened to a room full of people who love her sing Happy Birthday, I was filled with joy for the life and love we share.

Emma is a sassy, fiercely independent girl. Even when she is driving me crazy, my heart is full for the miracle that she is. She reminds me each day to celebrate the small things and to cherish each moment with those we love. The moments she still lets me snuggle with her are the best!

Today we celebrated Josh’s tenth birthday. And while it looked much different than Emma’s birthday, it was no less joyful or full of love. Courtney and I spent the day fishing the Stillwater.

It was a day to simply be together remembering the day Joshua joined us:

Driving like crazy to get to the clinic

Having to wait for a parking space

Visiting with the woman ahead of us in line who clearly was not having the time of her life

Calling our family to say he was officially on the way

Courtney calling back an hour and a half later to say he was here

The trips back and forth to the NCIU from first the maternity wing and then our home

Road construction bumps exaggerated by crash c-section scars

The days we spent desperately wanting to take him home, but the doctors knowing something wasn’t quite right.

An April Fools joke that wasn’t a joke, and another day of together, but not.

Although the first few weeks were not a standard delivery story, they were some of the most joyous days of my life because I was able to hold him in my arms. I remember thinking I just wanted to take him home so the scary part of his story could be over and we could just be together.

Ten years ago, I did not know life or loss the way I know it today. Yet, it is because of this knowledge that today we held each other a little tighter.

One of my favorite poems is “On Turning Ten” by Billy Collins. Every time I read the final stanza it causes me to pause and consider a paraphrased version of Rumsfeld’s quote:

we do not know

what we do not know

until we know it

This week I visited with a colleague who I have not see for a year. She is one of the most vibrant, strong, and authentic teachers I have worked with. She shared with me that her mother had recently passed and that this year has been especially tragic. I resisted my sympathetic urge to say I understood assuming if I explained I knew loss it would make her grief less. Instead, I tried to convey how sorry I was for her loss and that even when we know someone is no longer in pain, we must still give ourselves grace to suffer from the absence of those we love.

We discussed how as teachers we need to share both our uplifting and vulnerable moments with our students. This year, especially, we need to model what it is to be human. As Collins writes the moments “I fall upon the sidewalks of life / I skin my knees. I bleed.” As I connect this to my life outside of the classroom, I realize it is not only my students who need to be reminded of this, but myself as well.

Emily, on her last trip home, shared her mantra of “not perfect, but better”. I find myself too often caught in the anxiety of attempting to fix things, when instead, I need to accept most things are outside of my ability and find peace knowing I have helped make them better. I also am learning that better can simply be the best I can be in the moment. I know there are moments where I could be a better mom, wife, daughter, sister and teacher; yet, I also have to accept the best version of me is all I can offer.

My sister, like my mom, always finds the good in a situation. She always looks for the best in people. She makes so many of our lives better.

Life, love, and loss are all moments of vulnerability. By having one, we also experience the others. Sometimes, even when those we love are still with us, we lose pieces of them. It is this slow crumbling which still aches deeply when I think of my days with Josh. We held onto each sunrise we were given, knowing fully, we were losing him a little each day. Even on the days we fell upon “the sidewalks of life”, joy and love gave us comfort.

Collins writes,

“It seems only yesterday I used to believe

there was nothing under my skin but light

if you cut me

I would shine”

Today I am reminded that some cuts can both shine and bleed.