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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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?”
“That stone is where his body is since he is in heaven.”
“But, why did he get sick?”
“Because sometimes people do.”
“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.”
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.