Blog Postings

Light in the Darkness

Eight years ago today, our handsome boy Josh passed away in our arms. The weather this morning is chilly, but not as bitterly cold as it was in 2012. Even still, the stillness of the snow, brisk wind, and grayness of the sky hold me in the moments of that day.

This morning, I retreated from reality and soaked in the hot tub with a cup of coffee and my phone open to my blog app. As I read through the posts, especially the one about this day: Support for the Journey, and those from the past few years: Angels We Have Heard and Doing What I Love, I realize they are gifts I have given to myself to capture memories in the same way certain songs convey a past feeling or experience.

I grew up in a musical household. I remember waking up to my dad playing the organ and mom singing to practice for church. I remember falling asleep listening to polkas and waltzes when my parents would meet for band practice. Songs have always held meaning and music has often conveyed emotions for me when words alone have failed me.

Emma loves music. She sings, plays (an open interpretation of the verb) the piano, and has her favorite jams for our morning drive to school. As we have searched for the best kids’ radio station, I have guarded certain songs as Josh’s and have skipped them. Now, in her almost-four-year-old-wisdom, Emma is quick to notice my skipping and calls me on it. She is in the stage of “Why?” for which I have to search for grace as I attempt to answer her questions both honestly and age appropriately.

Last weekend we drove past a cemetery on our way across town. As she looked out her window, Emma asked,

“What are those rocks doing in that yard?”

“Those are headstones.”

“What are headstones?”

“They mark the place where bodies rest when people die.”

“Why do people die?”

“Because sometimes people get sick. Like, remember how we go to the cemetery in Laurel and baby Josh has a stone?”

“Yeah.”

“That stone is where his body is since he is in heaven.”

“But, why did he get sick?”

“Because sometimes people do.”

“But, why?”

“Oh, look at the lights and decorations on that house. Those are pretty….” The Christmas lights a welcome distraction to redirect from the question I am still hesitant to answer.

In October and November, we celebrated my dad’s, mom’s and Courtney’s birthdays. Like most celebrations this year, they looked and felt different. Still, we found ways to celebrate even if together didn’t mean together in the same way. For Mom’s 70th, Emily organized a Zoom party. From cities all across the US, over 30 voices joined together to sing happy birthday to her.

It meant so much to my family that we could take the time to celebrate my mom. For many of us, she has been a constant source of hope and happiness through the years.

There are many moments from both my childhood and my adult life in which I distinctly remember an urgency to be home: the sleepover at my new fourth grade classmates house, my first semester of college, the MRI center in Missoula, the Children’s Hospital in Denver, an airport in Atlanta, and ironically the stay at home mandate of 2020. Whether it was a lack of my maturity, homesickness, or the need to be reassured that I was safe, I remember the sinking feeling of wanting to be home and needing the embrace of my loved ones to remind me there is light even in the darkest of hours.

One night, Emma woke up crying and wanted desperately to be held. We snuggled together in the rocking chair. It is the same chair my aunt and uncle rocked their daughter in over 20 years ago. It is the same chair we rocked in with Josh. That night, as Emma and I rocked in the darkness, I sang to her This Little Light of Mine. It has been one of the songs I have been guarding and in the moment, it was what we both needed to be comforted.

The other day Emma’s childcare asked me if Emma had a brother. I shared that she has two. They said she talks about Collin all the time and how much she loves him and how every time they are together they go swimming. When I shared that her other brother, Josh, is deceased her teacher said, “that makes so much more sense. The other day we were reading a book and there was an angel on the page. Emma pointed at it and said my brother is an angel.”

All I could muster for a response was, “Yes, he is.”

Today, Courtney and I will spend the day together. There isn’t a plan or a checklist of what we have to do. Tonight, we will drive with Emma through town to look at Christmas lights and share in the joy of this time of year.

As I reflect on the year, I am thankful for each of the memories we make together even when together looks different. I keep thinking this day will stop hurting so much, but in the words from Ed Sheeran’s song Supermarket Flowers “Oh I’m in pieces, it’s tearing me up, but I know /
A heart that’s broke is a heart that’s been loved.”

Holding the Moments

The past two months have both raced and crawled by. I challenged myself this school year to only focus on the things I can control. Yet, we are only seven weeks in and I feel like a marionette dressed in a track suit. The starting gun fires and I run down the track as hard as I can only to have my strings dropped moments later by my external puppeteer. I lay in self-pity saturating my thoughts with how I could have and should have done better, done more. Moments later, my strings tighten and I am back onto the track only this time I am running the other direction. Some days, this cycle consumes me. It is a feeing I have been trying to fight and control for years.

This week my doctor, in her guidance to help me find relief from my daily tension headaches, reminded me the only things I can control are myself and my reaction. Such simple advice that is so hard for me to remember. Listening to the radio on my way home, Jeremy Camp’s “Keep Me in the Moment” served as yet another pause button on my frantic search for control. His line “I’ve been thinking ’bout time and where does it go” again reminded me to hold onto each moment. Even on those days when I am trying to run fast, I need to slow myself down and embrace the race, its hurdles, its spectators, and its finish line.

Nicolesearching (a podcaster, blogger, and advocate) recently shared an Instagram post discussing how often the things we “want” are often pushed back by the “buts” we tell ourselves. I want to be a more patient mom, a more supportive wife, a less selfish-sister and daughter, a kinder teacher BUT in order to be these things, I need to first be a better listener. Nicolesearching writes “these days are fleeting & the moments that make them up are precious….You have to be brave enough to listen to that timid voice.”

A few weeks ago, I was in one of my “dropped string” moods after what felt like a challenging week of work. I received a text from a friend notifying me one of our colleagues had passed away. I am ashamed for my previous frustrations when there are so many moments that matter more in life. All I could say was “she died” when Courtney asked me what was wrong. My reaction was an authentic, but oblivious to the fact Emma was sitting next to me, I then found myself trying to explain death to her in honest, but appropriate terms. It reminded me of standing in the funeral parlor with my nephews, Dawson and Brody, during Josh’s viewing. They brought a keepsake to put with him in his casket. It was such a heartfelt and innocent gesture of love. Emma knows death in these same innocent terms. As her mother, I want to protect her from ever feeling it any other way, yet, I know as she ages, terms will hold a different meaning than they do now.

Today, we celebrated the one year anniversary of “Emma Tyree” day. Her adoption day is a special day and well worth celebrating; yet, I know it will be a day that is different for Emma than it is for us. I hope it will always be a day we can share together; however, I also know it may become a day for her grieving the “what could have been” of her birth family. Similar to the loss of loved ones who have been in pain, even when the outcome means a release from pain, I can’t help but wonder what could have been. As a general rule, I try to not focus on the what could have beens. Still, I wonder what her life would have held if we had not been placed together. I wonder how many more students and teachers could have been influenced for the better from my colleagues guidance. I wonder what life would be like if our handsome man was able to become one. I wonder…I want…but, I am going to hold onto the moments we have together.

Last month I completed my third full marathon. Training for a race gives me lots of time to do nothing but run and think. Completing a race is both physically exhausting and mentally empowering.

Over the months of training and on race day I was humbled by the love and support I received. My parents sent me an encouraging text and a 5:28 AM selfie. They have always been my number one cheerleaders. My sister Emily came home and hung out with Emma for the race. Each time I saw them on the course, they gave me a little boost to get a few more miles (or steps) towards the finish line. My sister is my port in the storm.

Courtney ran the last two miles with me after Emma expressed her concern that she thought I was going to fall down (Courtney and I both shared this same concern). He kept me moving forward when I doubted my ability to keep going.

As each of my friends and I crossed the finish line, we knew our hours of training had been worth it, but in the end, for me, the hours and moments shared were just as impactful as the race.

Barriers and Breakthroughs

These past few months have been a strange version of summer. I feel like most of our plans have transitioned from plan A to plan COVID. Regardless, we have done our best to make the most of our time together: week long trip to West Glacier and Ashley Lake, fishing with Court, working in the garden with Emma, weekly trips to Red Lodge to see Mom and Dad, a trip to Missoula with family, and I have logged 280 miles in the last nine weeks towards my marathon training.

This month as I prepared both physically and mentally to return to my classroom in such an uncertain time, I tried to focus on the good and to work on the elements that are within my control. In July, I was notified that I would be teaching English from a cart. I spent the next week moving my personal items out of the classroom I have taught in for almost ten years. After the last box was moved out, I stood in the hallway and looked back into the room. It was odd to feel possessive of “my space” and then realize how much the physical space I occupy becomes a piece of my identity. With the help of an amazing custodial staff, we moved all of my classroom materials to my technology integration office. It is a nice space and I spent hours making it feel like “my space,” but something about it being an office instead of a classroom feels out of place.

On the Thursday before students arrived on a Monday, I learned I could return to “my” classroom. When the custodians came to see if I wanted help moving all of my things back to the classroom, I told them with everything going on this year I would teach from a cart. I explained I didn’t need all my things to teach, all I needed was a space to occupy with my students. In the past few weeks, I have had colleagues move not only buildings, but content and grade levels. So many of the things I use to find important are now irrelevant as I adjust to what education is during COVID.

Last Sunday, I heard an update from the health commissioner about the uptick of cases in our county. What my classroom will look like for more than a few weeks is unknown, but I will do my best regardless of what my room (or digital classroom) looks like to share a space for learning to continue. This week I was eager to teach four, two hour blocks to two sections of students. It reminded me who and what matters during this uncertain time. Again, I found myself trying to focus on the elements I can control when there are so many uncertainties.

Yet, everything this year feels fragile. So much is still and will continue to be uncertain. So much could and will still change before the class of 2021 graduates. One of our school leaders, Jeremy, shared the following with me “blessed are the flexible for they will not be broken.” Although some days I want to dismiss the statement as optimistic, most days I seek hope through its message. As a result, I have been searching for hope anywhere I can find it. During a writing club gathering, a piece from The Missoulian was read. It prompted the reader to identify 19 words of hope. Here are mine:

A trail sits

silent, surene, smoky

in shadowed sun.

My headlamp’s lone

beam illuminates

slumbering hoppers

safe from sneakers.

On a training run last weekend, I passed a gentleman walking an elderly lab. Politely, we exchanged good mornings and his voice alerted me to the fact that I knew him. I wanted to stop him and ask him all kinds of questions, yet an overwhelming emphatic feeling came over me and I choose to just keep running. When I told my running partner it was the superintendent of the district I work for, she said “oh, I didn’t recognize him without his suit. He must be in disguise.” It was part of this disguise that made me think how a person in a position of such a high level of accountability would need a day to simply be—a person. Too often, I feel we find someone to blame instead of recognizing the person is only one person in our system. Our district has asked us to focus on finding breakthroughs not barriers this year. All week as things I could not control changed and then changed again, I focused on that moment on the path and choose to just keep running. We are all just people doing the best we can with what we have.

I have been listening to the Underneath it All podcast on my solo runs. It addresses why some of us turn to the outdoors. During the third episode “Port in the Storm,” the guest speaker shares her struggle with high-functioning depression. As I listened to her story, I felt as though her words were sharing my experience: loss, trauma, shame, guilt, fear, life. It gives me hope to know I am not alone and many of us seek ways to keep moving forward.

Last night out for sushi with Courtney my fortune cookie reminded me to take time for the things that bring me joy.

On Friday afternoon, a coworker asked me what I am passionate about other than my work. I said running. He laughed and said that running didn’t count. I disagreed. Running has been one of the things I can selfishly allow myself to feel. I can’t convince myself my mental health is more important than many of the items on my daily to do list; yet, finding stability through running, I do just that. On Saturday, I joined three of my friends on a twenty mile long run. We joked about wanting to buy tickets for the struggle bus, but each of us made it by continuing to run forward, even when all we wanted was to give up. Hope and friendship (and perhaps sheer stubbornness) carried us. Sometimes, it is the struggle that makes us stronger.

The beginning of a school year brings new beginnings for friendships. Because we share a space, we share stories and we lean on each other for strength. However, each interaction in which the casual “do you have children” question surfaces, I catch my barriers going up and I want to find a disguise for my grief. In seconds I run through the pros and cons of being vulnerable about Josh’s life and the person I am now because of our time together. I am who I am because of my son. His story is the reason I continue to write my story.

I continue to search for grace in grief, hope in despair, ports in the storm, and breakthroughs not barriers on this trail I am upon. Here is to a year of uncertainty and for the strength and courage to continue even when the trail is unknown.

Snapshots and Summer

This weekend marked the official start of summer. While many of us have been anxiously awaiting summer “break,” it is an odd feeling now that it is here. I am thankful that I was able to continue teaching remotely during the COVID-19 school closure both for my sanity and so I could continue to pay my bills. This said, I am also ready for a break. The past three months have been some of the most emotionally and mentally exhausting in my teaching career. There were and still are so many unknowns about what the future will hold.

Yet, we keep moving forward

for our seniors whose final weeks of high school were historically different than what the rest of us experienced as seniors.

for our retiring teachers whose final class period didn’t have a class or a time period.

for our students whose only safe space is in our schools.

for our colleagues whose humor and companionship we took for granted before the closure.

for our kids, both ours and the ones on the other side of the computer.

So much has changed about what we consider to be best practice in education. Most of what we have learned during the closure is connected to other elements in education that need to change. It is true that we don’t know what we don’t know. It is also true that we can not unlearn what we now know. These lessons resonate in all elements of my life as I search for grace.

One of my closest teaching friends made the comment that “sometimes when the world is crumbling around you, it is time to take inventory of what is worth repairing and what needs to be discarded.” When I consider the phrase “back to school,” I truly hope whenever we are able to go back to school, that we seize the moment to keep moving forward taking only the best crumbles with us. This time of our lives becoming the snapshot documenting how we learned the lessons we learned to move forward.

My life could be recorded by a series of snapshots. I think about each of the major moments in my life and more often than not, I have a visual record from the day. A snapshot to refresh my memory when the pages of my brain begin to fade. Looking through old photos at my Aunt Lee Ann’s house, my sister Emily found this gem from the early days of Hilderman Gardens.

This weekend, two random women walked by my parents living room window inquiring if we were open. I politely explained that we were no longer operating a gardening & floral business and pointed them the direction of another greenhouse. It gave us a reason to reminisce about the way things were and the fun we had working together as a family. Emily and I both love to garden, a lesson we learned and memories we will forever hold. I love that now Papa and Grandma are sharing their joy for gardening with Emma (side note, one does not need a helmet for gardening – we were getting ready for a bike ride).

Emily celebrated her 40th birthday with Zoom happy hours, texts, & emails. Originally, we had planned to go to Spain this summer. Then, we changed our mind and planned for a week in Hawaii. Next, it was her favorite girls getaway in Oregon. Finally, it was a one-way ticket to Seattle and then a road trip home. On the 902 mile drive from the SeaTac Airport to my driveway, we had sunsets and views we wanted to capture. As best we tried, the photo was never quite the same as the shared moment together. Sometimes the sweetest memories can not be recorded. They are what Brene Brown calls the “ordinary moments.”

I wanted to share a couple of photo collages for Father’s Day of Courtney. I made one of him and Emma. They have a special father/daughter friendship. They fish, bike, and explore together. I sorted through photos from the past three years and struggled to limit my selection to 9. Each photo capturing a moment of our lives together. The collage made me joyful and eager to see what their future holds.

As I sorted through photos on my phone to make a similar collage of Courtney and Josh, I realized I continue to use the same photos over and over. Then, I internalized- my snapshots of my son are limited. It made me want to print them all, just so I could hold them, suddenly afraid that like him one day they would be gone. In that moment, I had to pause, reflect, and search for grace in my grief. I found strength remembering the “ordinary moments”: the weight of his body curled up against my chest as we rocked, the way our dog Hoyt licked the top of his head when he was in his bouncer, the silent moments when the world slowed down and we focused only on each other. Now, years after his death, these ordinary moments are what I hold onto. The snapshots are my evidence, but the moments in between these moments are what matter to me most.

I have three necklaces hanging on my vanity. Each, like a photo, captures a moment of time and purpose in my life. They are keepsakes marking the journey I am on and the distance I have traveled. The diamond necklace Courtney gave me on our one year dating anniversary. The three stones representing our past, our present and our future together. The heart footprint necklace my aunt and uncle had made when Josh was diagnosed. It is crafted off of Josh’s birth certificate footprint. The name necklace was given to me by a baby loss momma at Emma’s welcome to Montana party. She understands that moving forward can also mean holding onto the sweetest crumbles from our past.

On Tuesday, Courtney and I celebrated our thirteenth wedding anniversary. We bought a box of cookies from Crumbl Cookies. Later, we sat together on our couch eating cookies and flipping through the pages of our wedding album. Each page reminded us how encompassing our community of support was and still is. As I compared our selfie from our anniversary to a selfie from our honeymoon, I know together we will continue to pick up the crumbles and move forward

for Josh

for Emma

for us.

#whywerun

It is often when I am the happiest that I am aware of my grief the most. Mother’s Day is a day to be thankful for life, but it is in this happiness that I grieve. As a result, it is one of the days I need to give myself, and others, the most grace.

Next Sunday, friends and family members will join together to Run for Heaven’s Sake. This year, the RKM run will be virtual, but it will not be any less powerful for the participants or the baby loss families who will benefit from the funds. The race gives us both an outlet for our hurt and our support for one another. We use the #whywerun for families to share the names of those we love. Every run I do, Josh is in my heart. It is through Ramsey Keller’s legacy that we continue to honor our son.

To help show how wide arching our support is, this year, we have challenged participants to help us color our support maps. Our goal is 50 states + 56 counties = one community.

If you would like to join us, register to run or learn more about the Ramsey Keller Memorial by visiting www.kisses2heaven.com.

This year, we will be running the race together as a family. These are the reasons we run:

We run for our son and the joy he gave us.

We run for our daughter and the hope she brings us.

We run for our families and those who can not join us.

We run for ourselves and the love that endures.

This morning, Emma helped me harvest flowers from our yard to take to Josh’s headstone in Laurel. We tried to explain through our tears that Josh is in heaven and the marker is only a stone. It is a day of joy, grief, and grace.

Moving Forward

Yesterday, Emma and I enjoyed the sunshine before the impending spring snowstorm and went for a bike ride. She received a “big girl” bike for her 3rd birthday, and it has given us a good excuse to get out of the house and get some exercise. Her giggling as we wheeled around the bike path was good for my heart. The fresh air was needed. We have both been getting a little stir crazy. As we paused to catch our breath on a bench, I noticed the dedication:

The quote helped me embrace what my reality currently is. We learned this week that the doors to our school would remain closed for another two weeks. As I process the update, I realize it is time for me to stop hiding in denial and to face that things are different. Previously, I chose what to attend and what not to attend, forgetting my privilege to be able to choose. Now, to protect others I choose isolation.

In a FaceTime wine date with a friend this week, she shared “Before this, I was working so hard to slow down, to spend time with my family, to cut out the excess. Now, as we are forced to do just that, it is hard.” She has been my mentor over the years as I prioritize what and who I put my energy into. We discussed how much we miss the social aspect of being busy. Not because we don’t love spending time with our families, but because we thrive being with others.

One of the Twitter handles I follow posted this:

My list so far includes:
– hug Mom and Dad
– sit in a coffee shop
– have a barbecue
– grocery shop in a leisurely way instead of our current sprint-shopping style
– have a glass of wine (or a flight) at City Vineyard
– celebrate the life of a loved one & grieve with those left behind

The Ramsey Keller Memorial recently announced this year’s Run for Heave’s Sake will be virtual. It was the right choice, but it is yet another different for me to accept. The race is close to my heart as it is the sponsor of the Joshua Tyree Half Marathon. Courtney is the race director and I help organize over 100 volunteers most of whom are friends and family who supported us during our toughest time.

In January, I set a goal to run the half marathon with Emma in her stroller. As I mentioned in Finding My Pace, the half marathon distance became our tribute distance to Josh after Courtney and his sister Tiffany completed thirteen half marathons (13.1 miles) in 2013. Two months ago, it was an important goal for me because it would be a way to honor Josh’s life and celebrate Emma’s. To reach it, I would also have to find a balance between my teaching requirements (graduation is scheduled for the week after the race), training, and organizing volunteers. For me, this balance was the larger challenge than running the half. I struggle to draw lines for myself and am frequently frustrated if I do not feel I have given everything I have to give. Essentially, I was worried I would be too busy to successfully reach my goal.

Now, a physical race is no longer important; however, the heart of the work is what must endure. I will still run a half marathon in Josh’s memory this May, but I will run on my own as will friends and family across Montana and in multiple states. A virtual race gives us a way to show our support for each other and Montana families while still honoring social distancing guidelines. Even though so much of life feels like it has been put on pause, there is still a need to support others. Baby loss, cancer, car accidents, suicide, and so many other tragedies continue in the shadow and isolation of COVID-19. My heart goes out to the baby loss families who currently are suffering and enduring the hardest moment of their lives, essentially alone as social distancing and a mandated stay-at-home order limit what memorials and funerals can look like. I think about the December Josh died and as alone as I felt, Courtney and I were supported physically, mentally, emotionally, and financially by so many of our communities.

Josh would’ve turned nine last month. On his birthday, I tried to tell myself it was just another day. It was OK. I was OK. I was needed at work. My colleagues needed me. My students needed me. I could not rationalize that I also needed me. How could I tell my heart that it’s OK to still hurt? How do I tell my family I still need space, for me? How do I explain to work on a day that was so critical as we continued to transition to distance learning, that work could wait a day? At the end of the emotional day, I retreated to the hot tub. It is my safe space. However, courtesy of my cell phone, I continued working. While doing so, I was angry at myself for not taking the time I needed. I felt guilty fearing perhaps I didn’t need the time the way I had previously. Then, the snow started to fall. Josh’s hand reminding me to take time. To put my phone down. To stop. To listen to the silence. To be still.

Why is it I insist on being busy when everything around me is pleading for me to take a break? Why when my heart is the most uneasy am I so afraid to stop and listen? After seven years of grieving, I admit there is something frightening to me in the quiet stillness. I question why it takes a snowstorm or a pandemic to make me stop being busy. This is part of what I am searching for when I say I am looking for grace.

In college, one of my poetry professors tried to teach me the art of writing about an inanimate object. His poem was rich with literary devices, but through it all, I was still blatantly aware he was writing about a dripping shower head. As poetic as it was, I kept feeling like I had to be missing something. Today, I was reminded of his poem as I sat at my makeshift teaching desk in the basement while Emma napped. For the most part my desk looks like what you would imagine: a standard particle board desk covered in papers to grade, books to read, and a baby monitor. This is not my normal work space. It is all so different. Last week, I went to school to pick up a few things from my classroom desk, tech office, and to check my mailbox. I walked by senior rail, but there were no seniors. Their senior year now so different. Being in a school without students felt empty. Each of my work spaces felt empty. My daily agenda still on the board from March 16th, even though we weren’t in school that day so no one saw it.

Sitting at my desk today, the memory of Josh’s oxygen tank humming in the other room replaces my current isolation. I remember calling my long term sub to see if she needed my help with anything. I wanted to be busy. I wanted an escape from my isolation. However, each time I called, she said everything was handled. I would hang up the phone and return to the stillness. She later told me that she knew she could find the answer somewhere. Whatever questions she had, they were not as pressing as “you spending time with your son.” Why in our current situation, am I struggling so much to find the same balance? I think part of my struggle is I hope Emma will outlive me so I do not feel selfish taking time from her now whereas I knew my time with Josh was short so nothing else mattered. This desk sat sturdy then as it does now witnessing love, life, loss, grief, and silence.

Tonight, I realized what I have been fighting to ignore since schools closed on March 16th. So much of these past few weeks have reminded me of the last two months I had with Josh. While it is very different, it is all a little too real. Part of the purpose of this blog was to be transparent in my grief process, but at the same time, it has also become testimony to my ability to continue living. As I read back through my previous posts, I recognize it is my way of capturing not only Josh’s story, but mine.

Last month, my blog reached the 3,000 view mark. I know for some blogs this is a daily view number, but for me it is a big deal. I do not know your story or why you have found your way to this blog, but I hope you know you are not alone.
Reach out.
Call a friend.
Text a hotline.
We will get through this.
Strive for balance.
Never lose hope.
Search grace.
We will keep moving forward together.

Run for Heaven’s Sake 2016

Sunshine and Birthdays

A few weeks ago I celebrated my birthday. Those of you who know me know I love my birthday. I am a firm believer in the importance of celebrating the miracle that is each year we are given. I once read a card that stated “Do not complain of growing old. Age is a gift denied to many.” For many people another year may seem that simple, it is “just” another year. For me, it is a time to reflect on both the challenges and lessons I have learned over the year.

On my birthday morning, Emma and I ate breakfast with party hats on. It was a nice morning together. I noted in my last post that I am trying to shift my mindset from what I want to instead what I have. I kept a list as I went through the day to help me be more aware of moments and things that I am thankful for. I resisted the urge to tell the story of each item. As my aunt recently reminded me, “that is for another poem.”

1. Mom and Dad’s long night 37 years ago listening to my heartbeat on the machines
2. Marco Polos from Emily at midnight
3. Sunshine through the bathroom skylight
4. Being needed
5. Breakfast party hats
6. Phone call from Court on his run in Helena
7. Sunshine and sunglasses on our drive to work
8. Emma spelling “S-U-N” and singing “Mr. Sun” on our drive
9. Childcare centers that care
10. Birthday calls and texts from friends and family
11. Auto generated birthday wishes: City Brew, Target, work, dentist
12. Normalcy
13. Building secretary
14. Hall monitor
15. Students who get it
16. Mom and Dad singing happy birthday as I drive home
17. Good thermometer and children’s Tylenol
18. Cozy blankets, a noise machine, and a baby monitor
19. Friends
20. A tech job I can do from home
21. Kitchen table with back-porch sunshine
22. WiFi
23. Disco party ceiling courtesy of Emma’s sequined turtle
24. “You are My Sunshine”
25. Kids that get well
26. Husbands who come home
27. Sunshine through the kitchen skylight
28. Children’s Pedialyte, chicken noodle soup, sushi, and birthday tiramisu
29. Birthday cards from Em & Lee
30. Montana sunsets
31. My memory
32. Family
33. Books
34. Hot tub
35. Outdoor lights over the hot tub
36. Memories
37. Birthdays

Partway through my workday, the school secretary knocked on my classroom door to tell me “daycare called. Your kid is sick. You need to go, now. I will take your class.” She said it with care and compassion, but I am not sure if she knows my story, or how much her words sent me into an emotional tailspin. I was instantly returned to my memory of running out of the building to make it to Courtney and Josh across town at our pediatrician’s office.

Currently in education, we are recognizing the need to be trauma informed. So many of our students have emotional triggers that can transport them back to moments of crisis. I try to be aware of this as I am working with students. One of the most challenging aspects of it is as outsiders, we may never know what can trigger a traumatic memory. Unfortunately, I think often we forget staff members also have these triggers. We take for granted our age and our education for learning how to manage our responses. When she told me my kid was sick, my stomach dropped, my eyes welled and my first reaction was to bolt for the door. However, I was able to manage my reaction and instead return to my classroom, outline the rest of the class period for my students, leave a sub note for the remaining classes, and then run from the building (all in 10 minutes flat).

When I picked Emma up, she had a fever. I brought her home and spent the rest of the day honoring her sweet requests of “Momma, will you sit by me.” “Momma, will you read me a book.” “Momma, will you rub my back.” As I snuggled with her on the couch, I was worried about her health, but I was also thankful for the peace of knowing she would recover. I am still learning how to parent a healthy child. The balance of how not to overreact, but how to also take the time to react and cherish the moments we are given to hold our children.

My birthday didn’t play out exactly as I had planned – many days don’t. Overall, at the end of the day, it was a good day – as most days are. Thirty-six was good to me, and I am hopeful thirty-seven will be as well. Looking back on my list, even when there were dark moments, light found its way in through the cracks. Today, as I tried to find a photo to share in this post, I noticed in many of my favorite photos the sun is shinning. True, I am not as likely to take a photo on a dreary day, but there is something about the warmth of sunlight that can make even tough moments lighter.

Photos are what hold my memories steadfast. We are almost nine years from the day Josh was born. It was one of the most wonderful and most frightening days in my life. As I look through our photos, I am put back into each moment we captured. Emma looks at photos and knows Josh as “baby Josh.” He will remain in our memory as our handsome man. He will not age. His childhood innocence forever intact. Photos are what I can hold I hold onto when my heart is heavy.

In January, my cousin Carmen @carmski posted the following on her Instagram page. Her words are as real and honest as her hashtag #thisiswhatgrieflookslike

My cousin is strong for sharing her vulnerability and grief. She is beautifully courageous. I took her advice to capture a moment. A snapshot to be able to archive a day when in years, it will only be that – a glimpse. Each of the items on my birthday list tells a piece of my story even if I am the only one who knows the story. Each provides a snapshot into my life, my grief, and my search for balance.

Now, almost a month after my birthday, our schools and communities are shut down state-(and almost nation)-wide. People are sick. People are afraid. We are practicing social distancing as we hold onto moments of warmth and light. Yesterday, it was almost sixty degrees. I sat on the porch in a tank top, running pants, and my snow boots drafting this post. Today, it is a snowstorm. Tomorrow, the forecast calls for sunshine.

This week, amidst the storm of COVID-19, Emma turned three. She doesn’t know that three years ago we had not met. She doesn’t know I am home with her on her birthday because all the schools in the state are closed. One day I will share these darker snapshots with her, but for now, Emma knows simply that we love her and that birthdays are a big deal.

Here is to another year of weathering the storms and enjoying the moments of sunshine together.

Thankful

Last Sunday as I layered up for my long run, I was grumbly about going outside in the cold, dark of February’s 6AM. I had to remind myself one of my goals for the new year is to take the time to recognize all that has been given to me. Part of where this new goal comes from is my dad. He has been working to shift the way he and my mom talk about things they want to change. Instead of saying “I want” they are trying to focus on “I have.” I have been working on developing this mindset. It is not that I don’t still want, but often, when I am focusing on the want I overlook what I already have.

So, instead of being grumpy about going outside and my want to stay inside, I took time to be thankful for the clothing that keeps me safe from the elements and a group of friends that can make a seven-miler feel like a girl’s night out. There is so much I can miss because I am too focused on what is missing. After the run, both Holly and Melissa hugged me goodbye. Such a simple act of thankfulness. The group of girls I run with are my rocks. Our friendship and the miles together have helped me not distance myself, but run closer to myself with each mile.

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So many January 1sts, I start the new year by setting a goal to change something about the way I live my life. This year is not any different; however, this year, the change is not something I want to remove (stress, pounds, debt), but instead what I want to add: a genuine appreciation for the people who make my life what it is. I would not be who I am without each of their influences. Since we lost Josh, I have lost a number of friends – some of whom I have forced out of my life, others who have chosen to leave. However, the friendships that remain are that much stronger because we have experienced life together. When I reached out to my friend Karissa to see if she would mind if I included her name in this post, she responded “I don’t mind at all, sweetheart. I’d be honored – being a part of your story makes me a lucky lady.” There is something amazing about recognizing we are each a part of another person’s story. I am thankful for each page we write together and know she, and her family, will continue to be a part of my story.

This January, I attended a book club for Joy Harjo’s poetry collection “How We Became Human” hosted by my Aunt Lee and Uncle Bill. My Aunt LeeAnn and I share a love of poetry and literature. I selected to read a passage from pages xix-xx of the introduction where Harjo acknowledges how poetry came into her life. After reading the section, I shared with the group that I truly feel all of us are writers, but in order to tell our stories we need to find our voice and the right audience. One of the participants expressed her disagreement indicating she didn’t think everyone is a writer, but she does believe everyone has a story. I think we are both right for one can not exist without the other. There are so many stories that we write, but not all of them are we able to tell; yet, that doesn’t make our story any less real.

I consider each of the characters who has helped shape my narrative and there are too many to name each by name; however, the past few months I have been writing this post in my head, on my phone, on bar napkins, on my lesson plans, wherever I have been when I have been thankful. The sections that follow are fragmented moments, but each provides a necessary snapshot of my search for grace.

My friend Bridgett makes a conscious effort to tell people in her life how much she appreciates them. Not even realizing it, her acknowledgement of thankfulness has been passed to me. One day this week, as she left my office, I told her how much I appreciate her only to realize that what I had said was typically her line and that perhaps it was something I should say to her more often. She leads her life and her classroom by example. I am thankful for her friendship and guidance.

My friend Jenny and I became friends during our pregnancies. She worked with Courtney and we met at a Christmas party a few months before Josh and her daughter, Aubrey, were born. We assumed our friendship would continue to grow over the years as we watched our children grow up together. Instead, it has grown out of our commitment to honor the time we have together. Jenny shared with me a mindset of recognizing when we say yes to something we also say no to something else. For example, we choose to have dinner with a friend and in doing so we miss dinner with our family. Holding this mindset doesn’t mean you never meet up with friends, it just asks you to recognize where you are choosing to spend your time. Similar to the want/have mindset shift, I am thankful for this mindset that asks me to reflect on the people who are in my life and to help me prioritize the way I spend my time. I have multiple friends like Jenny, who whenever they call or text, we make it a point to carve out time for one another.

One afternoon this week, a woman walked by my office in a way that caused me to look up from my desk. She was wearing a long, red, wool jacket, walked with purpose, and had a way about her that invited others to interact. I have no idea who this woman is, but in a few fleeting moments she reminded me of my friend Glenda. I took a minute out of my day to pause and appreciate my friendship. I was embarrassed reflecting on how long it had been since I had reached out to Glenda. So, I stopped using all the excuses I typically use and sent her a message. Glenda is one of the friends I do not want to let slip out of my life, and perhaps this woman’s presence was the jolt to my memory of her importance. When I needed a friend, Glenda opened her heart and her home to me. She literally gave me a key to her home and said I could come or go as often, or as seldom, as I needed for as long as I needed. She did so without judgement or expectation. She reminded me none of us are alone. There are friends who will not only support us, but will be a testimony to our strength instead of our fall.

Often I forget to be thankful for the storms I have weathered. The moments where I could have sunk, and instead, because of the people in my life, I remain afloat. After not being selected as a jury member for an assault case, Courtney told me that I am the “perfect storm” to not be selected. When I brought this up to my writing group, my friend Lacy reminded me that each of us is weathering our own storm. She is a courageous woman who reflects daily on how and why she makes the life decisions she does. I am encouraged knowing Emma may one day have her as a teacher, but am thankful for Lacy’s reminder that it is up to me to also model this bravery for my daughter. I alone choose how much of the storm will break my sails and what of it will continue to steer me on course.

The courses our lives take often feel like they are not where we want to be. I heard the other day on the radio a comparison to our life’s moments of suffering to a demolition day when remodeling. The speaker acknowledged that our lives can feel broken, destroyed, or “demolished;” yet, through these hardships our lives can also be remade. As I have mentioned before, I tend to lack grace when someone mentions that my life is now better as a result of the loss of my son. However, I am working to accept that I am a new version of myself after Josh’s death.

Two years ago, our family suffered multiple losses in a brief period of time. Since these losses, my friendships with family members have been strengthened. These are women I have known, or have rather known me, my entire life. Specifically, my friendships with my cousins Becky and Kristen have been renewed. These women have each lost in ways most can not imagine, and each is on her own search for grace in grief. We do not compare our grief, instead we support one another on our journey. Each of these women, and their families, is courageous. We openly discuss that grief takes many forms; and often, it approaches us when we are unarmed against its strength. They are also not afraid of being vulnerable and reaching out for help when sadness can feel so overwhelming. I cherish these lifelong friendships that were originated by our genetics and now have been strengthened through our experiences.

As a carrier of the ATP7A gene mutation, my connections with the women on my mother’s side of the family hold a new level of empathy. My grandparents lost a child before Menkes had been “discovered” and I regret never openly visiting with my grandma about our losses. I was fortunate to not only know, but also spend extended time with all four of my grandparents. Frequently, my decisions reflect the love and stubbornness I learned from each of them. I very distinctly remember one day as a child playing cribbage with my Grandpa Ecker and mentioning how much I loved playing cards. In doing so I thought I would win his favor; he was an avid card player; but, he quickly reminded me that playing cards was an activity, and love should be reserved for people. Each time I think about a love of something, I am reminded of his words.

Towards the end of my Grandpa Ecker’s life, he did not recognize me. If he did, there was no verbal expression. My mom is who helped me realize my expectation for Grandpa to know me was simply that, my expectation, and if I could be content (even if I could not be happy) to spend time in his presence, my visits would be more beneficial and less agitating to my grandpa. Even then, my mom was able to coach me into the mindset of thankfulness instead of my need or want. As my parents age, I try to model this same mindset and focus on each moment we share. I want my family to know me, but perhaps, I need to be content knowing my family. The love we share can not be taken from us.

This Friday was Valentine’s Day.  As a high school teacher, I often finish the day with an annoyance of adolescent displays of love; yet, I also know there is some authenticity to their thankfulness.  Daily, I am thankful for the love Courtney and I share as well as what each of us adds to the other’s story. Our marriage is not perfect, but we work hard and are honest about where we are. When one of us feels the other one pushing away, we stop, reflect and hold onto each other.

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This year, we spent Valentine’s curled up on the couch watching Emma’s adoption video. The evening originated with Emma’s request (or more of a two year old demand) to watch the videos of her “‘doption.” As we viewed the video clip that my Aunt Cheryl recorded, we caught new pieces of the story that we had previously missed. It was a beautiful day in the same way weddings and birth stories, in spite of flaws, are nothing but perfect in reflection.

For the past week, I have been visiting with the English 1 students about fixed vs growth mindset.  I am consistently impressed by the diverse voices in my classroom who argue both for a need for growth, but also for the fixed ideologies we need to be successful. I am thankful for my students, even the tough ones. They push me to be a better version of myself and to constantly question the status quo of my profession.

One of my friends, Marianne, recently retired from a successful teaching career. This past weekend, she shared with me her collection of resources. She is a mentor who continues to shape what and how I teach. Part of what she shared with me is a gallery walk of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. One of the excerpts we read discusses fog and the role of truth in our writing. As a class, we discussed the allusive nature of fog. How when you are in it, you are never sure if you are headed in the right direction so you just keep moving forward. Using Marianne’s resources, I asked the College Writing students to extend the war metaphor by applying it to moments when they have experienced conflict.  The students composed raw, real, stories of struggle. Each story is as unique as the individual who composed it.  We also discussed how specifically with pieces for publication, once something is published it no longer belongs to the author, but instead our words now belong to our readers. There is risk in publishing our stories, but with risk also comes a chance for growth.  While writing our stories, like walking through fog, we can often do nothing but continue moving.

Joy Harjo writes in her introduction to How We Become Human the advice poetry gave her ”You need to learn how to listen, you need grace, you need to learn how to speak” (xix). Her words give me strength to continue to listen to the voices that surround me. My sister Emily recently shared that she is trying to remind herself that not everything is about us. She said when she is struggling and sharing her story, she needs to remember to also listen to the stories of people around her. She not only listens, but makes an active effort to ask.  My sister, like my mom, is an influence of grace.

There is much suffering
but also gifts of joy, hope,
resilience, courage and love.
Each of us has struggle
Each of us has a story
I have much to be thankful for
each voice
each story
I am learning to listen

Yesterday, I again layered up for a long run thankful for another day to be able to search for grace. Thank you for being a part of my story.

Angels We Have Heard

Our house is joyously festive.
The lights, Christmas tree, and cookies
are all visible to Emma this year.

As she points at each,
I see her mind
processing meaning.

Her world is full of wonder.

During this season of joy,
I am both happy and reflective.
Tuesday was Josh’s angel day.

I recently read a post in which
the writer identified his grief
as a teenager.

I had not considered it
this way before, but
it is fitting to think

of my grief as a 7-year old boy:
independent and fierce,
but still childlike and innocent.

I like to think this is what
Josh would have been like.

How does one measure grief?
Is it in years or memories?
How does one define healing?
Is it in time or steps?

Regardless, I need to remember
not only my grief,
but also our happiness.

This past weekend we helped my parents harvest their Christmas tree. It was a bit of a cluster. Courtney even had to chain up the truck to get us to the location. It isn’t as daring (or risky) as it sounds, but it was still an adventure we shared together.

As I sat in the truck with Emma,
I thought of Christmas seven
years ago. Josh bundled in the
backseat in a snowsuit my
mom tailored to accommodate
his feeding port.

It was too cold and his
body too fragile to take
him out of the truck.
He and my mom listened
to Christmas carols as Courtney
and I hustled to cut the tree.

A snapshot of the three
of us holding onto our
precious time together.

A few weeks later, Josh
took his last breath in Courtney’s
arms in the light of our tree.

In the attic at my parents,
there is a Weber barbecue box.
It is as old as I am, held together by
packaging tape and sheer stubbornness.

It holds ornaments
from their childhoods,
and glued together macaroni gifts
Emily and I made almost
three decades ago. Our handprints
and school photos a testament to our
childhood experiences together.

In this Christmas box,
there is a glittery white photo box
with JOY written in bright letters.

Each year, my mom waits
for me to be able to
place them on the tree.

She is the strongest woman
I know. Even now,
she holds me together.

I unwrapped the handprint
we made when Josh
was 9 months old.

It was a time shortly
after his diagnosis, but when
we could still pretend
we were not aware
of what was to come.

I held it in my hands
amazed by its simple beauty.
It took us multiple tries to
help him lay his infant-like hand
flat enough to capture a print.

Such a tiny moment, but also
so much happiness from its presence.

Emma and I made a similar
handprint impression this year.
It was the first ornament to be
placed on our tree at home.
It is childlike and messy; it is
beautiful in its own way.

Another tiny moment I will treasure for a lifetime.

On Tuesday, we hung Josh’s
keepsake ornaments on our tree.

His photo filling a space
between the branches
I had not before noticed.

Like Emma, I see things
now that I hadn’t seen before.

I re-read my blog post “Doing What I Love”
from this same date a year ago.

It still rings raw my emotions.
I am unsure how another year
has gone by without him.

So much changes in a year;
yet, my memory of our life
with him is steadfast.

They say a writer should
set deadlines to hold oneself
accountable to her craft.

My deadline is one
post per month.

I missed my mark
by a full month.

My hesitation:
wanting to find
the right words,
the right time,
the right form,
the right purpose.

I should have remembered
balance is not always possible
and at some point I
need to stop using it
as my excuse and
write what I want to say.

Kelly Gallagher, @kellyGtogo, recently tweeted the following from Sheridan Blau, “Obsession with form makes writing about form. You do not write because you are going to fill out a form. You write because you have something to say.” This was the reminder I needed that we all have something to share and often we are our most aggressive critic about our writing.

I have the privilege of teaching a Dual Enrollment College Writing course. A few weeks ago when I mentioned I choose to pay a fee so my blog will appear advertisement free, my students were shocked. I explained I am proud of myself for investing in myself.

“So you, like, just write about random stuff.”

“Well, yeah.”

As I reflect on it now, I wish I would have been confident enough to add, “isn’t that what the stories of our lives are.”

I want to model for my students that writing isn’t about the perfect essay or the 100% on an assignment. It is about having something to say and believing in yourself enough to share it. My writing process is messy and unrefined. It is not that I don’t appreciate form or recognize the need for it in formal writing, but it is more that I want them to walk out of my classroom with an understanding that there is not a template to write into for life. Our lives, like our writing, often needs to be messy.

It is challenging to explain to someone the messiness of the emotional drain of an angel day. I think of Josh daily and this time of year it seems there are so many reminders of his love. When “Angels We Have Heard on High” comes across my radio, I pause and remember a church filled with friends and family singing through our sobs. Courtney’s dad shared with us this year that it was on this week seven years ago that he knew how strong our community was.

On Tuesday, Courtney and I received messages and phone calls from friends who were thinking of us and Josh. It means so much to us that people remember our handsome man. One friend and I exchanged these messages:

We are thankful for our memories and our friends who treasure them with us.  On weeks like this, there are moments when the sunlight catches my tattoo just so and I pause to relish the moment.

There are also moments
even in the joyfulness of
the Christmas season
that I need both the sunlight
and the darkness

Tonight, there is no moon
so I stare into the abyss.
The sunlight a day ago
brought me hope
gave me courage
encouraged me to be graceful.

But tonight I choose to
embrace the silent darkness
and the tranquility that
comes from its presence.

The familiar lyrics surface in my thoughts,
“Angels We Have Heard on High
sweetly singing o’er the plains
and the mountains in reply
echoing their joyous strains”
and I am comforted.

Our Journey to Emma

Dear Emma,

This month you legally became our daughter. Each day you have been in our lives we have thanked God for introducing you to us.

Your laugh is contagious.
Your willpower is impressive.

You love being outdoors.
You love learning and exploring.

Your strength is pure.
You love your family.

Each of us has a story.

A narrative of the journey
that brought us here,
and all that we have survived.

This our story of how you joined our family.

Your brother, Joshua, passed away in December of 2012.  We had always hoped to have children; yet, as I am a carrier of Menkes Disease, we did not want to run the risk of losing another child or passing on the gene deletion to the next generation. We made the choice to pursue adoption. Once we had made the decision, all other options seemed out of place. It became our new normal.

Saying our journey to you took many turns is an understatement. It is always strange to reflect on the choices we make in our lives, that we no longer consider as choices, only the path for which we were intended. I struggle for grace when people tell me that Josh was intended to pass on from this life, yet we would be left here to continue living ours. I wonder what it would be like to have an eight year old right now, yet, I look at you and am thankful for our life together. I know one would not be without the other. I don’t think it is fair that we couldn’t hold you both.

One of our friends brought this sign to hang in your nursery. She said she thought Josh would want you to have it. We agree.

Hearing we planned to pursue adoption, a family member suggested we look into one of the two licensed adoption agencies in the state. We met with an adoption counselor and learned their mission was “to provide loving opportunities within nurturing environments of hope, dignity and love.” It sounded like the perfect fit for our family. We poured the next few months into the process of building and financing our adoption portfolio.  There were background checks, deposits, trainings, paperwork, payments, and even more paperwork.

As we moved through the process, the agencies expectation for an open adoption was always a part of our focus.   As parents who had lost a child, our hearts were guarded, but we also knew one of the highest risks of an open adoption is what they called a “change of heart.” We openly discussed with each other, our social worker, and our family counselor, that if the worst case situation was that the child would be with another family instead of us, it was a more humane option than a child carrying or dying from Menkes Disease.

One of the required adoption forms asked us to identify what medical conditions we would be open to care for with a child.  We met with Josh’s trusted pediatrician and she walked us through the risk factors of each of the items on the list.  Our pediatrician’s guidance and friendship helped us move forward. To this day, she continues to be one of the individuals we lean on. She professionally introduces herself as our family pediatrician, but to us, she is family.

In March 2015 on what would have been Josh’s 4th birthday, while a Montana spring style blizzard raged outside, we participated in a workshop to fulfill the training hours for licensure as an adoptive home.  We checked all the boxes, completed each of the procedural steps, and did our best to ensure the agency knew our ability to care for a child. In retrospect, we recognize our adoption profile was limited, but at the time we could not imagine it was anything but open.

Some people joke about adoption the same way they do teaching “those who can’t do, teach” and “those who can’t bear, adopt.” We wanted so badly to feel whole again, and although we understood a child would not fill Josh’s void, we felt we could support a child who had a similar feeling of loss.  The last step before we could be on the “ready and waiting list” was to complete an adoption profile. The profile is what the agency shares with the birth mother so she can select the right home for her child. It was an odd challenge to compose a piece that would indicate we were good people who would love a child as though s/he was our own, while still being careful to not say we were better.

These were our letters:

Now, as I reread these letters, I wish I could mail them to your mom. If your mother would have been able to chose, would she have picked us? It has been over two years since she last held you. I hope she would want you to be in our arms knowing she could not hold you in hers.

The first year we were on the ready and waiting list we were giddy. The way it was explained to us was that at any moment we could receive a call that we had been matched with a child. The agency was cautious to not give any kind of timeline for a placement.  They encouraged us to not purchase anything for the nursery that could expire, pointing out Walmart was open 24 hours a day for a reason. While we listened to their practical advice and waited to purchase a crib and car seat, we were hopeful for a placement. The past two years of grief had worn us down. Now, when we walked by Josh’s nursery, we found hope sitting next to despair instead of only loss filling the room. That first year on the list we didn’t commit to any extra assignments at work. We didn’t plan any trips that couldn’t be canceled on short notice. Each time we left town, we made sure our emergency contacts knew how to get ahold of us, just in case the agency called to say we were matched with a baby. I distinctly remember fishing on Ashley Lake and having the whole boat on high alert for the sound of our voicemail notification because we would only have a small window to accept a placement. Little did we know that our first placement call would not come until November 2016, almost 20 months later.

I look back on our road map from March 2011 when Josh was born, to March 2015 when we were first placed on the adoption list, to March 2017 when you entered the world and our lives. I can not question the turns we took only wonder how the master plan was perceived for so much turbulence brought us together.  I freeze on a memory of a moment that forever altered my path to you.

When I was little, I was afraid of the dark. I would cry until my mom would rescue me with a nightlight.  I was afraid my home would go up in flames, so I packed an emergency backpack with my favorite stuffed animals and fell asleep at the end of my bunk bed.  30 years later I still shout at my irrational childhood self for being so naive. I want to go back to where the boogie men were fictional, and my mom could save me with her love and a simple light.

Now, I am afraid of my memory. One night. His choice. Life changed. No escape.

This summer at a mandatory run-lock-fight training a stranger introduced himself and my memory was forced back to my nightmare of that fall night. Not the same man, but as much as I fought, my mind remained trapped – frozen in an instant. Heart racing, but my body numb to an escape. “Do anything, but freeze” he instructed. My past can not undue it’s learning.

After the assault, your dad and I worked to remain committed to each other when no one would have thought twice about us giving up and walking away, not only from our hopes of children but from each other. We had the support of our loved ones, but similar to grief, trauma is not acceptable in our society. It was during this trying moment that we received our first placement call. There was a baby who matched our family profile and all we had to do was say “yes.” Courtney met with the social worker, was honest, and admitted we needed to work on us before we could welcome a child into our home.

The agency punished us for our honesty and placed us on hold so no other family would consider our home a healthy placement. We were not the picture perfect home and because we were open and honest about our flaws, the agency removed us from the list of potential parents for a year with only a promise to revisit our case.

Your dad and my love for each other, and our sheer determination to fulfill our promise to Josh to live our best lives together still overwhelms any doubt. I understand the agencies oversight to view honesty as weakness and a liability; however, only now as I can legally say you are my daughter, am I willing to admit I still need help and to not be ashamed of feeling broken. The system of which we are a part wants what is good on paper, it is not enough to be genuine in heart.

After we were placed on hold your dad and I fought to hold onto each other and our hopes of one day being parents again. Our broken lives and the broken system delivered us to each other. Sometimes the broken pieces are put together and our lives are melded into a shattered whole.

On March 22, 2017 your dad received a call from his Uncle Derek and Aunt Sue in Washington. You were two days old and had been placed in their home with your birth brother, Collin. Later, I will share more with you about the first few weeks of your life and the 31 months it took for us to legally call you Emma, but know the day you came into our lives was the day you became our family.

We first met you the weekend of Joshua’s memorial half marathon. I remember visiting with our counselor and wondering if it was “the right” time to first meet you. Legally, we couldn’t yet take any steps towards adopting you and although we were hopeful, we were cautious of being too hopeful. With our counselors encouragement, we recognized there is no right and wrong, only the present moment. I held you in my arms for the first time on the evening of Saturday, May 20th. I had imagined the moment for weeks. I fantasized we would look into one another’s eyes and know we were meant to be together. Instead, you cried as my arms were foreign. I chose to step back, as painful as it was, and remember I was a stranger to you. Although that first moment was not as I had pictured, it better illustrates our placement with one another. There was no make believe, only unconditional love and a need for a rebuilding of trust.

That June, your dad and I celebrated our tenth anniversary with a trip to Hawaii. Our marriage had weathered many obstacles and the trip gave us the opportunity to reconnect and reflect on our journey. You were in our thoughts daily and on the last day of our trip, we received word from Washington that we could “begin to pursue the paperwork” for your placement in Montana. Your dad immediately hung up the phone and called the agency to notify them that we were electing to remain on hold from their wait list (our placement of which, we were still waiting to revisit with the agency). When your dad visited with the case worker she cautioned us about all the unknowns of this kind of interstate placement. Ironically, she was concerned that “it could be a long process.” She also informed us that there was a baby who matched our profile and she had planned on reaching out. We assured her we planned to follow through for your placement in our home.

Later that summer, you met us in Missoula for the Missoula Marathon. Derek ran the half and then joined you, Collin, and Sue on the course to witness as your dad and I completed my first marathon. You were on the course at the last half mile. Your dad and I held hands and cried under our sunglasses all the way to the finish line knowing how significant your presence is and was in that moment.

In August, your Aunt Em and I came to Washington so I could spend a week with you. Before we made it to Derek and Sue’s, we stopped to buy a few books. Two of your now friends, Claire and Reagan, had sent a basket of books for you and I wanted to add to the stack. We found You Belong Here by M.H. Clark. The back cover reads “You are a dream that the world once dreamt and now you are a part of its song. That’s why you are here, in the place where you’re meant, for this is right where you belong.” The quote now hangs both in your nursery and in our kitchen.  Daily, they remind us that we are all a part of the same story.

The smoke from summer wildfires had transformed the air quality from moderate to dangerous for infants. So, we spent most of our week together indoors. We read books, FaceTimed with your dad, worked on tummy time, and I completed my masters project portfolio sitting on the floor with you in the bouncer beside me. I couldn’t help but feel like I was playing make believe. I was your mom, you were our daughter, and we were together.

On the last day of that week, your dad called to tell me the agency had called: there was a baby boy in Bozeman. We had 24 hours to either make it to Bozeman, or decide to turn down the placement. I often wonder about that little boy, not out of hope or what ifs, but only in prayer that he is happy and healthy in the family he was meant to be a part of forever.

In October, Sue needed to go out of town and asked if we would be able to come stay with you. The three of us stayed in a hotel in Spokane for almost a week. We went for walks, took a family photo in the mall photo booth, visited family in Spokane, and the three of us started to figure each other out. I truly see this week as our first week as a family.

I am thankful to be able to tell you that your entire life has been spent with our family. The only exceptions are the first two days of your life and a single night at the end of this week. Your dad and I had to leave a day before Sue returned to return to Montana for a mandatory adoption training. It is a clear illustration of the broken system that instead of caring for you for another night, we had to leave you in order to attend a training to learn how to care for you.

A few weeks after our trip to Spokane, Sue called to see if she could bring you for a visit. We said of course! While you were in Montana we learned there was an option for us to care for you for 30 days. Our first weekend with you was spent with dozens of friends and family coming to meet you.  Our neighbors caught me placing a diaper in the trash and were so excited to meet you they almost raced me back into the house to hold you. A friend was roofing our home and recently told us his testimony of witnessing our first days together.

Sue left on Sunday and since your placement was identified as “temporary,” by our employers, we all returned to work and daycare on Monday. It was hunting season so your dad was working crazy long hours. The last day of the season matched with your thirtieth day in our home. Legally, we needed to participate in a home visit in Spokane at some point in the next 48 hours. So, on little sleep and eight-month old you in tow, your dad drove you to Spokane. 24 hours later you returned. 48 hours later, you were placed in our home under an ICPC contract between Washington and Montana. It took us months to get you to not hate your carseat after that quick turn around road trip.

The next two years included home visits, paperwork, a few too many state workers explaining to us that “they dropped the ball,” and so many memories together. I am thankful that our memories are just that, ours. We went fishing, camping, to California, ran a half marathon for your first birthday, and filled our memories with loved ones. You have brought joy to us all.

When family and friends would ask where we were in the process your dad and I got in the habit of saying “one day closer.” We always considered you our daughter, but also were governed and controlled to always place an asterisks next to daughter. It gave us the same unsettled feeling we have when acquaintances ask if we had children and we don’t know how to answer: two, one, zero.

The weekend we traveled to Washington to adopt you, Aunt Em’s Facebook timehop was full of our help flight trip to Denver eight years earlier with Joshua. Time is a strange thing. He will always be our handsome man, just as you will always be our beautiful girl.

Our journey through life with Josh and our road to you both solidify the support and love we receive from all of our communities. Through it all, we were never alone. A friend left this note for you at one of our adoption parties “Never forget that you are very loved and your family is bigger than you know.”  We agree.

On October 11, 2019 you legally became Emma Danielle Tyree. The jury box and two rows of the courtroom were filled with friends and family. We recorded it as well for the rest of the family and to be able to later share it with you.

When the lawyer asked if there was anything we wanted to say about what it means to have Emma as a daughter, we honestly responded that it seemed like an odd question because you “were Emma.” As I read my words now, I wonder how you will interpret them later in life. So much of adoption sounds possessive when really all we desire is for you to know you are loved; you are safe. We accidentally fall into using the common phrase and say “you are ours” when really, what we should be saying is “we are yours.”

After your adoption, it took us a few days to process that the legal tape surrounding your role in our family had been removed. On the drive home, your dad and I talked about the twists and turns our journey had taken to bring us to you. In the end, all that mattered was the road brought the three of us together and we were finally headed home. We had three different celebrations for your adoption, each equally joyful with many of the people who have been a part of our journey.

Your dad eloquently phrased on his social media post “We’ve loved you since the moment we met you. You have enriched our lives and filled our world with smiles. You have always called us Mommy and Daddy and we have always called you daughter, but last Friday, it became official. We love you Emma Tyree. Welcome to forever.”

We love you.