Blog Postings

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.

Water & Waves

I have never lived next to the ocean; however, I have heard countless tales of its song lulling the restless to sleep. Tonight, the pitch black, Montana, October sky carries a high wind warning. I have braved its gusts to decompress from a rough day listening to her windy-melody from underneath our trusted cottonwood. Our hot tub provides both my sanctuary and my escape. Tonight, I need both.

Growing up, I was a pool rat. Daily, Emily and I would work in the garden/greenhouse from 8-11, head across the street to our home to eat lunch and change in time to ride our bicycles to the city pool opening promptly upon the noon whistle. We learned early on both the need for hard work and the simple pleasures of water. When we were not at the pool, we played in the waters of the muddy Clark’s Fork having spent our morning harvesting beans, tomatoes, squash, and pumpkins for Farmers Markets and local restaurants to later perfect into delicacies. There was seldom a day I did not receive a replenishing dip or dive.

Tonight, I am too aware the weather is changing. The leaves carry the weight of fall and soon each will plummet to its winter resting place. I sit, unwilling to let go. Not of the season, but of my thoughts.

October 20th is the National Day on Writing. The #whyiwrite is used both to celebrate and promote the event. All summer, I have struggled to find the right moment, the right words, to post my blog. It is odd how in reflection, moments do not seem as intense as while you are surviving them. A few weeks ago, when visiting with a co-worker who was unaware of Josh’s story, I simply said “it is what it is” and kept moving. I have reflected on the moment and regret my unwillingness to show vulnerability as a result of my pseudo-professionalism. Regardless of my daily struggle to use authentic voice, each year on this date, I take the time to return to the text that prompted my initial love and urgency for writing…

I write

reflecting on who I have been

who I am today and

who I will be tomorrow.

For everything

has a purpose.

I fear

I hope

I regret

I doubt

I write

striving for grace

in my most ungraceful

moments of living.

I start the school year by sharing Donald Murray’s introduction to his memoir Crafting a Life. I ask students to reflect by writing their own introductory response centered on two questions:

1) Why do you write?

2) Where do you see yourself in a year?

This introductory writing invitation gives me a glimpse into the complex individuals who will be members of a singular classroom community. I am always curious to see where my students will take their writing. But, in the same sense; I am just as curious to see where the writing and year will take me. This year, I chose to be honest and vulnerable. I shared with my senior class that I didn’t know where I would be in a year. Before this year, I never would have been that open with my students. I have an odd feeling in my stomach even now as I reflect on it, but I know it’s not any less real of a statement. Teaching is emotionally, mentally and physically draining. But, although there are moments when I do not love my job, at the end of the day, teaching is what I love to do. I hope in a year I will still be here. I hope in a year, each of my students will still be with us.

As those of you who follow the blog know, it was crafted out of my initial “Why I Write” post. This prompt has been the structure for each posting and is what holds the blog’s unified form. Still, each time I read Murray’s original essay, I find myself in a new place. Even as I reflect on a full year of blogging for a public audience, I realize it is not that things have changed, only shifted.

In the text, Murray cites Berethelme’s advice to “write about what you are most afraid of.” This year as a part of our freshman orientation we were asked to share what we are most afraid of. For the seemingly standard icebreaker, I found a fitting stereotypical response, not to open not too risky, but just enough to feel like I shared. One of my colleagues shared that her biggest fear was that something would happen to her child. I felt like a jerk. The more I analyzed my response, the more recognized I didn’t want to admit that was my fear. Why is it when we live out our worst fears that we are so afraid to recognize they still frighten us?

This is still my fear.

Perhaps that is our truest gesture in life, to fear that we will lose something or someone. Today, I was reminded of how quickly we can lose those we love. Why does it take a moment of crisis to remind me how much there is to live for? Now, hours later, I question my fear, but know it does not make it any less real. How do people balance the fear of the unknown with the knowledge that we are but pawns? Days like today I find myself searching even more for grace.

Earlier this summer we found out Emma was exposed to a blood-born pathogen. As the social worker explained the risks to me, I felt my head spinning – caught between fear and hope. It was too real of a memory to hear words, frozen holding my cell phone to my ear, not knowing how their meaning would dictate the life of my innocent child. We waited a full week, holding our breath, unable to do anything but hope and pray. One call brought good news and our week of worry turned from fear into another story to tell of trial.

On dark days, I think back to the moments of sunshine I have experienced from water’s warmth. On a September evening at 4:00 it was still 87 degrees. There was no wind and my view of the pale blue sky was framed by cottonwood and linden leaves. I loved the sunny view from the hot tub. Water, especially warm water, is my happy place. I think part of why I like it so much is because it still feels refreshing to be able to be here. I look around and wonder how all I have is possibly true.

Everyday

can not be a crisis.

Each embrace

can not be received

as our last.

I am grateful for life;

yet, we are but mortal.

I treasure moments for

our time is but an instant.

You bring life joy

and hope for tomorrow.

Your strength reminds

me of the need to

be strong. Your fight

tells me to never

surrender.

I am sorry for the times

I have hurt you,

I have turned from you,

I have let you down.

I am thankful for

your love,

your kindness,

your forgiveness.

Thank you for your patience.

Thank you for your grace.

Thank you.

You are part of my story.

You are a reason for

me to be here.

You are why I write.

Impact of a Year

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One year ago Emma took her first steps. Since that day she has been on the move, literally!  As I read back through my blog post “Baby Steps” and reflect on all that has happened in a year, I can’t help but be both encouraged and exhausted. Change is vital for growth, but it is also exhausting. So much can change in a year.  

We celebrated both Father’s Day and our wedding anniversary this past weekend.  Courtney, through all of life’s challenges, has been my solid ground. Many of my favorite memories with Josh also include Courtney and so many of the new memories we are making with Emma have the same components.  We have made the most of the days we have shared. As a result, I can honestly say we are not the same people we were over a decade ago. Loss has changed us. Life has changed us. But, through it all, we are still “us.”

Going through photos yesterday, I found one of Courtney and I getting into our get-away car after the wedding ceremony.  Although we are the focus point of the photo, the blurry people in the background are what my eye is drawn to first.  My aunt is laughing with my uncle. My mom is smiling. A friend’s mother is blowing bubbles. It was a day of celebration. The image captures a snapshot that provides testimony of how many individuals make up our shared community. Each, for better or worse, impacts my life. I think too often, I forget to look in the background of my life to see who all is there, even if their roles are not the focus. Sometimes these blurry people and the moments we share leave the longest impressions. 

I realized this year that I started teaching when the graduating class of 2019 was in kindergarten.  This May as I watched the seniors walk across the stage, I was envious. I was not in want of their hormones or the drama that comes with them, but instead their excitement and hope for the next phase.  Like the seniors, I am in need of change. I love teaching and on the days I get to do it, life is both challenging and rewarding. There are teachers at my school who have been teaching for longer than I have been alive. I know, like my critiquing of the drama of an eighteen-year-old, these colleagues can be critical of my youthful thirteen years of experience and the drama that comes with it.  

This year, I am all too aware of how quickly our lives and those in it slip away from us.  One day this spring, I was multitasking to fulfill my roles as both a mom and a teacher. I had my laptop open on the kitchen counter and Emma was coloring at the table.  Emma kept trying to hand me crayons saying, “sit, mama, sit.” I realized in that moment that instead of multitasking, I wasn’t actually completing either task.  I recognized that something needed to give and I wasn’t willing to have that something be the time I have with Emma. I made the right choice to sit down and color. Grading could be done after her bedtime.

A friend recently loaned me Mark Manson’s well-known book and although the title throws me off as I do not care for the F word, his message has a purpose.  Manson’s takeaway is that although we are unable to control our lives, we are able to control how we respond to them. He states, “Pain of one sort or another is inevitable for all of us, but we get to choose what it means to and for us” (105).  Part of the purpose of this blog is for me to be more aware of the choices I am making about my grief. Josh’s life was tragically short, but in the 633 days he was with us, he forever changed me.  I can not have those days back, but I can make sure as I go forward that at the end of the day I have made the right choices on how to spend my time.

One of my students asked me during a senior project interview “What impact do you think your writing has on other people?”.  All I could tell her is I hope my words help others in some way. I feel the same way about my teaching. At a recent professional development the question was posed “What is the major takeaway you want your students to leave your classroom being able to do successfully?”.  I hope students leave my classroom with the abilities they need to be critical readers, critical thinkers, and active members of their communities. I hope for this not only for the students in my classroom, but also for the individuals I interact with at my school and in my life.  Manson reminds us “we get to choose what it means.” The impact of a life is unknown, but I get to control my interactions and reactions. This spring one of the students in my English 1 class died unexpectedly. When we received the news, all I could do was think about her brief life and how I could have made a more positive impact on it. I can not change my interaction with her, but I can change how I interact with other students.  I have to make the choice to leave work each day knowing I was present and aware of the dynamic individuals that fill my classroom. I need to shift the way I teach. Unlike Emma, my students will no longer ask me to sit and color with them; however, in the same way I need to sit and color with Emma, I need to sit and learn with my students.

In her podcast “Shake Up Learning,” Kasey Bell stresses the need to be aware of mindset.  She shares, “you have to make up your mind to be positive…the classroom is full of obstacles…every day…” (10:45). Bell points out that often our minds are our biggest roadblocks, but we can never let our mindset become “our excuse.”  This is the mindset I want to foster. Next year, I no longer will be a full-time classroom teacher. I will teach three sections of English and then work as a technology integration specialist for my school. The purpose of the position is to be a resource for those who want to incorporate technology in an impactful way for student learning.  I feel a little like a quitter for shifting out of a traditional teaching assignment, but I have to remind myself sometimes change takes me to better places. I know next year will hold its own challenges, but through each challenge I will have an opportunity for growth.

I think about the wife I was twelve years ago and I can say with confidence that my marriage is stronger now than it was new. I think about how much Josh changed our lives.  We love and live more fully because of his influence. I think about what changed when Emma entered our lives.  Our lives are now in a constant state of blissful motion.

Change is all around me; I just need to be willing to embrace it.

This week marks my one year anniversary blogging about Josh.  In my first post, I challenged myself to run forward instead of away.  I forced myself to share my story, Joshua’s story, with others in hopes of finding grace.  I am not sure if am any more graceful, but the past year has brought hope in a new way.

Here is to another year for growth through challenge.  Thanks for coming with me.

 

Courageous Vulnerability

There are days
that feel like years,
and years that
have felt like days.
Through each,
I am thankful
for every moment
with those I love.
I craft my story
from their example.

For those of you who know me, it is rare for me to cry out of happiness. I only cried at my wedding when my father walked me down the aisle and I saw the rose petals my mom and mother-in-law had scattered to lead the way. These two women have shaped the wife and mother I am more so than any other influence.  I am thankful daily for their unconditional love.

Recently, Courtney and I received news that physically stopped my actions and caused me to joyfully sob (in the middle of a formal district-wide assessment scoring). We learned Emma will be transferred out of foster care and into the adoption unit. In the same moment of overwhelming excitement, I also felt a sense of loss for the woman who gave us so much.  My heart goes out to this mother who I will more than likely never be able to thank. I am grateful for her courage and the strength of her decision.

As my emotions continue to flood in, it reminds me of my pregnancy with Josh.  So many of Emma’s first moments are memories we were unable to make with Josh: first steps, first words, first hugs, first bike. Yet, I also know we hold experiences and memories with Josh that we will be unable to experience with Emma: when he first kicked me during pregnancy, his delivery, and the maternal bonding we shared during nursing.

A few weeks ago, we celebrated Emma’s second birthday complete with green party hats, a homemade apple pie, and a trip to the hot springs with our friends and family.  My sister, Emily, came in for the week and Courtney and I enjoyed watching Aunt Em and baby Em. Together they are Team Em.  My sister has always been one of my heroes. I am eager to see how she will influence the woman Emma will become.  Aunts hold a special place in the lives of their nieces.

The same weekend Emma turned two, Courtney and I celebrated what would have been Josh’s eighth birthday.  We took one of the party hats from Emma’s birthday and placed it on his stone.  It is easy to want to dwell on what could have been.  A friend pointed out that Josh would have been in the third grade. Often, I find myself lost in the what ifs. I am working to transform my thoughts from what if to what was.

This week, I had the privilege of listening to Agnes M. Schwartz share her story. Born in Budapest, Hungary she survived the Holocaust as a hidden child thanks to the courageous vulnerability of her family housekeeper, Julia.  Schwartz returned time and time again through her story to share what she was thankful for during this traumatic time. It was hard, it was dangerous, but she is thankful for what she was given. When an audience member asked “if the roles were reversed, would you take Julia’s place and hide a child?,” she answered more honestly than most of us would. Schwartz said she wishes she would be able to say yes, but if it meant jeopardizing the safety of her own children, she did not know if she would have been able to make that sacrifice.

When Josh was diagnosed, we had to make the decision if we were going to give him copper injections. Children who have Menkes Disease (an x-linked neurodegenerative disease) lack sufficient copper in their brains. All the specialists could share with us about the treatment is that it would be painful for Josh, and that there were no clinical trials proving its ability to prolong or improve the quality of life. We held Josh in our arms and made the selfish decision to not subject him to further medical research. We have never regretted our decision.  We are thankful for the families who are able to provide knowledge for future generations.

The January edition of the English Journal includes an essay from Sarah Gompers titled “‘Sounds Like Truth and Feels Like Courage’: Teaching Vulnerability” in which she models the risks needed to write something worth writing. Much of my daily professional schedule mirrors her teaching style and structure. I am thankful for her advice, which found my ears on a day I particularly needed to hear it.  Gompers poses two main questions about the purpose of her writing, “what benefit will ensue from writing about a topic that previously caused so much turmoil and pain? [and] Will this benefit outweigh the discomfort I might feel in telling the story?” Her questions linger as I compose this post. How much am I willing to share? Will this willingness bring benefit to others?

Agnes Schwarts in the preface to her memoir A Roll of the Dice: A Memoir of a Hungarian Survivor explains that she has an urgency to share her story not only for herself and her own mortality, but for us her readers and the generations to come.  In choosing to write this blog, I took the risk to write for the public sphere because I knew if I continued to write without risk, in the end, my purpose would only serve my own grief. I worried I would not heal and Josh’s story would be forever lost. Please note, I do not compare my story to that of a Holocaust survivor. There is no comparison, but instead an authentic thankfulness for her choice to share her story.  

Gompers identifies the need for writers to be able to distinguish between a productive and nonproductive risk: “a ‘productive risk’…could have value and, therefore, is worth taking… a ‘nonproductive risk’… encourages dangerous behavior or wallows in sadness.” For the past two weeks, I have been mulling over if my vulnerability in sharing as Josh’s mother is productive or nonproductive. What makes me return each day to draft his story is a feeling of urgency to write before there is nothing left to hold onto.

Grieving parents each find something to hold onto. There is no perfect remedy, no right way to grieve a loss. As we prepare for next month’s Ramsey Keller Memorial (RKM) Run for Heaven’s Sake and the Joshua Tyree Half Marathon, I am honored to be able to work with Kori and Jeff Keller.  The legacy they have created in their daughter’s name has been able to ease Montana families of the financial burden of funeral expenses. I am not envious of the phone calls they answer, but am empathetic for the emotional expense they endure to help other families.

The first Wednesday of each month our high school staff gathers for an all staff Professional Learning Community. Our building principal graciously allowed me a few minutes to ask for volunteers for this year’s race.  Each year, I have to mentally and emotionally psych myself up to share Josh’s story. It is a risk to share our story with a room of coworkers many of whom I do not know outside of work. Each year, I make the decision that the risk is worth the potential benefit. As a result of their volunteer hours, donations, and race sponsors, the Ramsey Keller Memorial is able to continue to support baby loss families.

Reflecting on the fiercely strong women in my life, I recognize I am blessed. I once had a female student-athlete remind me when I was coaching that “we are not given more than we can carry.” The origination of the biblical quote deals with temptation, but her interpretation of it showed a need for physical, emotional, and spiritual endurance. The women in my life provide testament of this statement through their displays of unconditional love both of life and for the people in it.  Daily, they make me want to live life not just better, but more fully.  They are vulnerable. They are courageous. They are graceful.  

There are days
that I cherish
and memories to
fill years of loss.
Through each,
I am thankful
for each moment
filled with love.
I write his story
to not lose mine.

Vantage Point

In February, two different families we know lost babies. I have been searching to find words of comfort that seem useful, but everything I compose feels forced, superficial, or cliche. What wisdom do I have, and what right do I hold, to pretend my words are what others need to hear? Grief is incomparable; there are no perfect words.  Often, all we can do is reach out to remind each other, and ourselves, that we are here.  Courtney posted the following after his ten mile run:

This week during my English 1 class, we read Pablo Neruda’s “We Are Many.” The lines “I’d love to be able to touch a bell / and summon the real me, / because if I really need myself, I mustn’t disappear” remind me that it is not abnormal to be critical of the me that shows up on a daily basis.  I often hide my vulnerability because I worry vocalizing my grief makes others too uncomfortable. I need to learn to embrace the me I am today, grief and all.  I need to not disappear.  Josh is in a better place, but daily I ache wishing he was still with me. I am selfish in this wish, yet, knowing I will be with him again, drives me to live my life for each day until I am with him.

When we were in Denver, we asked how bad it was going to get. Josh’s pediatrician told us to “put our mommy and daddy armor on” because we would have to be strong for Josh. Now that Josh is gone, I often use my armor to hide the true me, pretending to be strong, but truly being more afraid of looking weak:

In times of crisis,
we arm ourselves
with resilience and hope.

We set up barriers
to protect our hearts
from reality; use humor
to reload when
there is no escape
and no surrender.

Now, we battle ourselves,
our armor thin from
years of fighting.

Grief is brutal, yet,
our hearts fight to
remain strong to honor
those taken from us,
and for those we know
we are losing.

This is an army
we never planned on
pledging our lives to.

A form of warfare
others may not understand:
our trauma surreal,
our loss too personal, and
for their vantage point
we are envious.

A dark battle,
fought now by
courage and grace.

I pray for comfort, for those mothers, for me.

Doing What I Love

Love and joy are abundant during the Christmas season. This love also makes it a sentimentally-charged season. So many of us have lost loved ones. In remembering their lives, although full of joy, it is also painful to remember how much we have lost.

The first year was tough; an eternity of first-withouts. Our grief counselor encouraged us to not get attached to traditions or specific things we had to have on both Josh’s birthday and on the day he died. Her advice was simple: do not chose something you can not sustain because when you lose the ability to maintain it, you will feel the loss all over again. Instead, chose something that can be as flexible as your grief and will grow with you over the years. Her guidance continues to direct my decisions.

This year, I struggled with if I should take a personal day on the day Josh died. I have taken the day off for the past five years to allow myself space and time to grieve in whatever way I choose without societal pressures to be okay. I went back and forth on my decision to work this Monday. Shouldn’t I save my leave days for Emma? Was I being selfish for wanting a day to not have to pretend that his death doesn’t still effect me? Through all of my indecision, Courtney was supportive and patient. I teach in a district that prides itself on emphasizing staff self-care, but also know many of us feel guilty when we take time to do just that. After weeks of stressing about the right decision, I realized I was fooling myself if I though I was going to do anything but simply function that day.

Courtney suggested we spend the day fishing the Bighorn from our drift boat. This year has been unseasonably warm. We have had sunshine and 40-50 degrees most of December. Although not awesome for our potential summer fire season, most of us have enjoyed dry roads and leaving our snow shovels in the garage. As most of our friends and family know, Courtney is an avid year-round fisherman. As most of them also know, I am a warm weather fisherman often enjoying the sun more than the actual act of fishing. After a few dozen checks of the weather, I agreed to go.

A friend once shared with me a quote she heard in a mental health training, “People always say they would die for their child, so why would they not be willing to live for them.” I reflected on this quote a lot as Courtney and I worked our way down the water. We were one of a few boats on the water on a Monday morning so the majority of the day, we had views both up and downstream of nothing but the sunlight on the water. It was a beautiful day: no wind, relatively flew clouds, and almost sixty degrees. Multiple times I had to catch my breath and wipe tears from under my sunglasses. The day, the weather, and the time together were gifts. I was annoyed that I had mentally beaten myself up for weeks questioning how I should spend that day. Maybe other years I will feel differently, but this year, I was exactly where I needed to be with the only person I wanted to spend the day with to honor our son’s life.

One distinct day with Josh kept surfacing in my memory. He was only a few months old and we had not seen any indicators that he was terminally ill. It was a beautiful spring day for fishing. Courtney helped me load Josh into his Baby Bjorn and then pull my bib-style fishing waders over the top. The three of us and our dog Hoyt headed for the water. The candid snapshot I hold so close to my heart, Courtney captured from upstream. I have often wondered if it is because of the photo that I can remember so much about that moment. I have a fish on my line, Hoyt is in the water swimming upstream after the fish, and Josh is snug in his carrier on my chest. These kinds of moments are what flooded my memory as the sun caught the water just right on Monday.

As I have previously mentioned, numbers tend to haunt me. I hold onto dates that others forget and as awful as I am at math, I somehow always can calculate dates that torment me. Joshua was almost 21 months old when he died. A friend a few years after Josh’s death off-handedly mentioned that I should be over it. I rudely made a mental note to call her when her child turned 21 months old to see how she would feel if we swapped places. I, of course did not do this, but it cemented the 21 month date in my head. This week, Emma turned 21 months old. She is joy in its purest form. Her giggle is contagious. She loves shoes, her dogs, and being outside. I catch myself watching her learn new things: how to piece a puzzle together, how to yawn, and all of the tasks we take for granted that she soaks up daily to mimic. Courtney and I are learning alongside her how to parent a healthy child. The 21 months with Emma can not be compared to the 21 months with Josh. One is not more joyful than the other; both are blessings.

A student gave me a coffee cup for Christmas that reads, “Do more of what makes you happy.” Although I am not big on New Year’s resolutions, similar to searching for grace, this statement will stay on my mind to help me live my life more fully. I miss my handsome man everyday. I love my girl everyday. I love my husband everyday. I need to be gentle with my heart and myself, everyday.

Joy through Love

There is something about grief that makes people uncomfortable. Perhaps it is because we can not ignore our own mortality. This December marks six years since Josh passed away; yet, his death is still raw to the touch. They say time heals all wounds, but maybe the catch is that love is not a wound, so its pain like love itself, is unconditional and everlasting.

I remember the day we found out we were having a baby.
I remember the moment Josh was born.
I remember the help flight, the hospital stay, and when we first heard the word neurodegenerative.
I remember the time he first smiled.
I remember the night he left us.
I remember his joy. 

This month, while attending a teaching conference in Texas with a colleague, we immersed ourselves in conversations about pedagogy and how to improve what we do as teachers.  In addition to these work-themed conversations, we also discussed the need for self-care and our personal commitments to the people who matter in our lives outside of the student population we serve each day. We connected not only as teachers, but also as individuals with our own narratives to tell as a result of the plot lines we have endured.  She has navigated a number of life changing battles and fortunately for all of us, she is still with us.
She is tough. 
She is witty. 
She is graceful. 
She reminded me “you have to be able to still enjoy the joyful moments.” Her words defined how I have been feeling these past few weeks. My life is filled with joy, but I often struggle to just enjoy joy without guilt, without sadness, and without the overwhelming feeling of what could have been.  It is easy to get lost in the what ifs and the could have beens, and some days I have to allow myself to do just that.

I recently attended a baby shower in my college town for a couple whose excitement and happiness is down right contagious. It is fitting that the expectant mother’s middle name is Joy. The house (and yard) were filled with their families, friends, and a number of our college acquaintances most of whom I have not see in over a decade.  The casual question of “so, do you have any kids?” came up multiple times. As I have previously written, this should not be a hard question for me to answer, but I always falter in my response. Defeated by my own insecurities, I retreated outside. I sat alone on the front porch and soaked in the Montana October sunshine. For the past two years, I have struggled to interact and truly engage with people socially. For the first few years after losing Josh, I threw all of myself into social and work situations to escape being alone with my thoughts.  It was acceptable to be busy. It was unacceptable to be sad. Now, I find comfort in isolation and often think it is easier to function on my own than engage in conversations for which I am tired of searching for answers to seemingly simple questions. By giving myself the time to reflect that fall day on my friend’s porch, I was able to return to the crowded room better able to embrace my emotions and excitement. It was a joyful day. Towards the end of the party, a friend’s mother told me she had been reading my blog. Her kind words made me remember why I am committing myself to be vulnerable.

It is odd to try to convince myself that it is “ok” to be vulnerable and sad. Our society teaches us that the best response to “How are you?” is “ok.”  While back in my college town, I allowed myself the time to let my mind wander to past experiences. It was fun to look back on the what ifs and know I ended up in just the right place in life.  I believe part of finding grace is understanding as much as I try, I don’t get to control all elements of my life. Perhaps grace, like joy, is all around me and I just need a few reminders to embrace it.

Last year, the mother of one one my English 1 students was told she only had months to live. I sat at my desk in the front of the room dumbfounded as this fourteen year old informed me he didn’t finish his writing for the day because he wanted to sit up with his mom. What rationale could I give him for why his English assignment mattered?  What words of comfort could I lend him? Our daily lives and expectations become trivial during tragedy. Yet, our daily lives are what hold us together when the day is all we can muster. Sometimes we need the work to keep us busy until we can be ok being anything but ok.

As I referenced on myAbout Me” page, Terry Tempest Williams reflects on her grief and the need to write as an urge to tell the story by stating,  “To write requires an ego, a belief that what you say matters. Writing also requires an aching curiosity leading you to discover, uncover, what is gnawing at your bones.” I have spent most of my life ignoring this internal voice calling me to write. The urgency is strange to explain and even harder to rationalize when it comes down to the practical “to do list” and my need to write. It isn’t a guilty pleasure, but instead a desire from one sphere of my brain that is pushing my heart and the other sphere of my brain that only wants to take a ticket and wait in line until it is ready to deal with the rest of life. To be completely honest, somedays I write crap. I know it is crap, and I have to remind myself that regardless of the plot line, crap is still crap. When I write this way, I am thankful for my husband who functions in the role of an editor. He is lovingly willing to call my writing what it is.  He pushes me to dig deeper and to stop writing what I think I should write by calling forward what I need to write.

Dierks Bentley and Brothers Osbornevocalize this struggle for balance in their song “Burning Man,” “Half your life you struggle / half your life you fly / One day I’m the exception / most days I am just like most /…I still go a little bit crazy sometimes, but now I don’t stay near as long.”  In my search for grace, somedays I feel lost in the struggle, but other days I am overwhelmed by the joy that is and always will be a central part of my life. It is true, sometimes I spend a little too much time in the crazy, but other times I am a part of the majority. 

This past weekend my mom’s side of the family gathered for a birthday celebration honoring both my cousin, who is turning 50, and my mom. They have always been birthday buddies and were sweet enough to include us in the celebration. We laughed, cried, sewed, ate good food, cheered on Michigan State, and had not one, but two made-from-scratch cakes. During the joyful festivities, we also were aware of the absence of my cousin C.J. and my Aunt Georgia. Both C.J. and Georgia lived life and loved to the fullest capacity. They were our go-tos when we needed joy and they both loved a good party. It would have been easy to miss the joyful moments from this weekend if we focused on these tragic losses, but by allowing ourselves to grieve we also were able to enjoy the time we had together.

When we love, we have joy, always.

Support for the Journey

It feels like it has been a full week, but it is only Wednesday night. There have been multiple moments of crisis that although tragic, have also reminded me of the sheer power of the human will to provide for others. I am continually humbled by the ability of others to support one another.

I am thankful for so many people who have joined me on my journey. As I mentioned in my last post, this blog is only a small portion of Joshua’s story. It was drafted over the past five years, but only became a unified text, during my final graduate school course when I was assigned to submit an original piece. The assignment gave me the excuse I needed to write, revisit, revise, edit as well as to reflect. Now, I am working to share Josh’s story with others with the hope that they will find strength and courage for their own lives through his story. I opened the original draft with the following acknowledgement:

“If you are reading this at this point in my drafting, it is because you have been a part of Josh’s story. Thank you for your continued love, support, and guidance.”

Today, that acknowledgement still holds true. September 12 is the National Day of Encouragement. I invited my students to write in response to Matt Hires’ “Hold You Up.” Each of his lines echos the way I have felt, the way I feel, as well as the doubt I have held attempting to not feel the way I have felt, as I stumble to find my way towards grace. Yet, his piece also draws me out of this doubt reminding me of all of the people who joined together to hold up Courtney and me when we needed it most. Hires’ upbeat acknowledgement of both pain and purpose pushes me to, as one of my National Writing Project friends says, “take the time for the conversations that matter.” At the end of the day, I want the people in my life to know how much they mean to me. Life can be taken so quickly.

This weekend, while grading papers at City Brew, I learned one of my past students had been killed in a car accident. She was 20. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to say. There is no speaking at times like this. So, I opened my notebook and wrote about the life that should have been and the community that is left picking up the pieces of broken youth.

Each year I walk students through a cultural frames activity. I asked them to consider how each interaction and experience from their past has shaped and molded them into the individuals they are today. It is a hard exercise for me to model, because I know I am only allowing half my story to surface on the page as an example. Still, even now, I am critical of my story and its conflicts. I am aware that I can not unlearn what I know regardless of if it is a universal or personal truth. I am the person I am today because of both my life experiences and the people who have been influential in writing those experiences.

I write searching for warmth

I write to hold the moments

Our first home had a large picture window. Daily, at 4:30 PM, sunshine would pour through and onto my sofa. It was one of my favorite spots to sit with Josh. When I was pregnant, I would come home and sit there in the bright light and let the sunshine warm the springtime Montana chill out of me. I couldn’t have a beer, so instead, I drank in the light and colors outside the window. Months later, I would fall asleep with Josh on my chest in the middle of the night not wanting to wake the sleeping house for his late night nursing. When I was home during his final four months, and we desperately needed the sun, I would open the curtains and tell him about what was going on in our neighborhood. When we knew we needed to hold onto each moment together, this became our safe space. During our last two days with Josh, Courtney and I took turns holding him tight to us, fighting off the fear we knew was fatefully upon us, and watched the snow fall.

It is a strange gift to know our time with someone is limited. I think of my student’s family whose only warning came with the harsh news of loss.

I write to continue breathing

I write with empty arms

December 17, 2012: How can we let go when we love someone so much? Looking into his eyes, I couldn’t tell if he wanted to stay or wanted me to accept he needed to go.

He had been fighting to breathe for almost a full 24 hours, 12 of which he had been in one of our arms on the living room sofa. His breathing had increased to 90 breaths a minute. We increased the baby-sized oxygen mask to its max level.

Our families prayed. A friend had pizza and a basket of fruit delivered, prepaid, to our doorstep. Her friendship and support constant, necessary, and always timely.

We held onto each moment.

Seeing the same look I saw in our son’s eyes, Courtney asked,

“Should we give him a break from the oxygen?”

“Yeah, we probably should.”

We continued holding him for another twelve hours, our breathing slowing with his.

I write; I cannot teach experience.

I write; there is never enough time.

We sat together on the sofa and took turns calling family members. While on the phone, we were strong, trying to support the person on the other end of the line. However, each time one of us heard the other say he was gone, it felt like a punch in the stomach we couldn’t defend.

A few years before Josh’s birth, I lost a close friend at the young age of 26 to brain cancer. His best friend learned of his passing when it came across his Facebook feed. At the time, I pledged to never have it happen to those I love. When we learned of Josh’s diagnosis, we set up a phone tree in the hopes that our close friends and family would not learn of our son’s death on social media. One friend, who was traveling when she heard the news, activated her branch of the phone tree sitting in an airport. Our notification tree worked for about two hours until a random acquaintance posted “So sorry to hear of the loss of your son. Praying for you” on my Facebook page. Social media can be both a means of support or another punch to the stomach.

We waited for the on-call hospice worker to arrive to confirm Josh’s passing. There was a knock on the door. I answered assuming at 6:00 PM on a Monday night it was the on-call hospice worker, instead it was a door-to-door vacuum salesman. I am familiar with some of their pitches, but this man, young and seemingly new at his job, appeared nervous as he frantically spit out “Do you use Kleenex?” instantaneously as I opened the door. I said, “I do,” and he launched into his vacuum selling campaign. I soon stopped him with my unsteady “I am sorry, our child just died. We really aren’t interested, but yes, we have been using a lot of Kleenex.” He stared at me, then looked past me into our living room to see Courtney holding Josh. “I am so sorry. May I give you a hug?” I accepted his hug and said “thank you.” He left, and Courtney and I laughed a little wondering if the man would call it a night, after mistakenly thinking it was a good idea to knock on our door.

Three days earlier there had been a school shooting in Connecticut at Sandy Hook Elementary. When the on-call hospice worker arrived to confirm Josh was no longer with us, she told us we were fortunate since we knew our child would die. Within an hour and a half of our son’s passing, she told us we should be thankful because she couldn’t imagine how sad the 20 families were that night. The shooting was tragic, we agreed, but her comment caught us off guard because in that moment, all we could think of was our loss.

If you don’t know what to say,

Sometimes saying nothing is better.

Over time we have received hundreds of comments similar to hers. Sometimes I brush it off, other times I come unglued. I remind myself one can not compare loss, grief, or a level of sadness. Loss is loss.

To allow space for our grief, we went to the nursery and held Josh until the mortician arrived. We could hear the hospice worker playing games on her phone in the living room, each Angry Bird explosion echoed through our silent home. I still hear that sound when I think of that night.

While we waited, another friend arrived. She had heard the news and wanted to know if we needed anything. We thanked her for her support and asked to have a little more time alone as a family. Again, support came in the form of a friend.

When the mortician arrived, he introduced himself and said “I am so sorry for your loss. I am a grandfather and I can’t imagine what you are going through.” He waited for me to say goodbye and then ever so gently took Josh from my arms. He said “I have the heater going in the car and will seatbelt him in so that he will stay safe on the drive.” I handed him Josh’s blanket and waited as he carefully wrapped it around my son. It was a genuine gesture of kindness.

Courtney and I sat for a while in the living room and then decided we should go for a walk. The stars were out. The December air was the kind that burned our lungs. Christmas lights lit up in our neighborhood and we walked the half a mile to the post office, not really to check mail, but just to have a destination when we didn’t know where to go.

Sometimes when you don’t know where to go, you just have to keep going. But as you go, it is important to remember we are not alone on the road. Matt Hires’ writes:

“Out of sight

Out of mind

And the silence won’t break

All your signals in the sky

They go unnoticed

Left alone

Left behind

And it’s all you can take

When it’s all you can take

Let me be your escape

Oh and nothing’s gonna stop my love for you”

Courtney and I asked a friend to compile a slideshow to share during Josh’s service. It was a gift of true compassion. In almost every photo, our handsome man was in someone’s arms. He spent his entire life being literally held up by those who loved him. I believe there is grace to be found in our capacity to love.

I hope my love for my son is evident not only in the way I cared for him, but in my commitment to share the hard stories with others who may feel alone in the silence of grief.

This past weekend I completed my second marathon. My sister flew out for the weekend and left encouraging sticky-notes in my shoes and on my race bag. All along the 26.2 mile course, I had support and love from so many of my key supporters. It was still a long race, but I didn’t have to run it alone. Emma even gave me a high five before I crossed the finish line.

Grief, unlike a race, doesn’t have a finish line. I think of the family who is just beginning this race. Tonight my heart is heavy, but I know the morning will bring sunlight.