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.