Kid Cheryl

I hated winter clothing when I was a kid. I hated being overly warm, I hated the fuss and the bulk and exertion of putting on multiple layers. I hated constantly struggling to shove all my hair under a hat and always seeming to lose a glove, which made my mother very angry.

I really hated snow pants. I hated the overall feel, I hated the bother of getting them on and then realizing that you had to pee as soon as they were on. In the late days of elementary school there came a year my mother did not buy me snow pants in September and I did not remind her.

(I was totally understanding this time last year when the Irishman told me that his daughter refused to wear them. I came down solidly on the right of a 10-year-old to be cold on the way into the school building. This was contentious as I suspect he expected me to be solidly on the side of a loving and responsible father trying to keep his daughter warm.)

Snowpants are stupid. One of the great (and few) joys of adulthood is that no one can make me wear them. I get to be the master of my pants wearing choices. I revel in this small freedom rather more than a grown woman should.

Save this. Gracie the newish dog is just four. She requires a minimum of 45 minutes of walking and ideally it’s more like an hour and twenty minutes of walking to be a reasonable canine citizen. I have a proper winter parka. In the intervening thirty years, I have learned how to not lose my mitts. I have learned about earmuffs, which keep my ears from frostbite. I’ve learned that I have enough hair to keep my head warm.

And my legs, even with long underwear and pants, freeze. Heather Mallick described the experience of being a child in Northern Canada as long periods of time in which your legs were solid slabs of frozen meat, barely articulatable.

So, snow pants. This is the reasonable and rational thing. This is the sane and sensible decision that Adult Cheryl has made.

Dear Kid Cheryl – I’m sorry. The snow pants are a letdown. I get that. I hate to tell you, but you are also going to be horrified by the number of vegetables you willingly eat and the number of times you willingly go to bed early.

Posted in Dogs, Learning Life | 3 Comments

Old and New

It’s a mix of old and new. As this time of year ever is. As Christmas ever is.

The stockings are wrapped. There are presents under my tree. I have made the cranberry sauce, cooked the carrots, the celery and onion and mushrooms for the stuffing are chopped, waiting in a bowl.

I have delivered gifts and baking. The Christmas Cards will go out late, just like they do every year. Maybe next year I will give up and just send out cards that wish people happy new years.

The recipes I grew up with, the carrot dish I found when I was 19. I cooked it the first time for my mother’s 50th birthday, which means I’ve been cooking it for 22 years. My variant of bread stuffing that I have been tweaking for 10 years. This year, with walnuts and water chestnuts.

Tomorrow I will cram things into the oven. I will add all the leaves into the table and I will set it with the crystal and china I grew up with. The Christmas dishes my mother bought me. I will turn on all the Christmas lights and both trees. There will be candles burning. Stockings at the ready.

I will open the door and let all the light spill out so that 7 international students can join me. This too is old and new. I grew up in a house where there were a variety of people who came and went at Christmas.

So for a few hours, they will join me. There will be light and laughter. Happy Holidays in many languages. I will feed them 40 years worth of traditions.

Old and new.

Merry Christmas.

Posted in Tiny Points of Light | 3 Comments

Yellowstone River

The first time I crossed the Yellowstone River it was on the way to a wedding where I met Andy and Christie. I think it was about 2003. Maybe in 2002. I can’t remember, this is what old age is.

I drove over it last night, on the way back to my hotel. I am here for the last week of radiation and the last week of chemo. We will know in mid-January what this treatment has bought us. Maybe, oh, just maybe it has bought us more time. Maybe it has not.

I thought, when I came down, that I was here to do laundry and drive people places and run errands and empty the dishwasher and put food in front of people. I have done that, I have another 4 days of that.

My days start with a large cup of coffee, cobbled together with water heated up in the microwave, dumped into a pour-over filter. They end with a hefty slug of scotch, in a plastic cup. In the interim, it is laundry and it is driving and fighting with Jane the GPS (so many one way streets Billings, what’s with that?)

And I cross the Yellowstone River each day. All those years ago, I didn’t know it would come to this. I didn’t know that I would find myself almost 20 years later, watching a man I love as a brother die. I didn’t know that I would hug his children, hold his wife. I didn’t know that it would ever be this hard. I didn’t know, as I was excited to cross the river all those years ago, that I would cry each time I drove over it.

We don’t know how things end. That’s the way it goes. I’m told that we never cross the same river. I’m also told that water is part of a cycle. It’s in the river, it becomes rain and fog, it falls back to the earth. I didn’t think I would cross a river for this. I didn’t think that I would cross the river as a single woman.

It is hard to see him leave by inches. His vision is going, he knocks things over. He is often irrational. Christie is overwhelmed. The children are lost and hurting. Andy and I went to a park to watch the sunset. He looked at the clouds and I looked at the river.

I crossed that river all those years ago, and I found a family. Andy and Christie, they gave me a family. A wondrous and miraculous gift. I thought about that as I took a drive last night. To figure out what hotels are close to the hospital, so that when I come for the last time, I know where to stay.

This is hard. This is hard. Not the dishes, the laundry, reading books to children. When I come for the last time, I won’t have to drive across the river. I’ll stay on the other side. And I’ll watch him cross it.

And I don’t know how I’m going to do that.

Posted in Grief, The language of families | 1 Comment

(Extra)Ordinary

Some years this post comes easily. Some years it is written in June. Not this year. This was written last week.

****

This summer as the pregnancy memories in Facebook started showing up, I turned the notifications off, one by one. They won’t show in my daily memories anymore; startling me out of the ordinary life I’ve built.

In October I got confused about whether today was Gabriel’s 12th or 13th birthday. Well, actually, I wasn’t confused. I was quite sure that this would have been 13. I was also quite wrong. It’s 12.

I pondered, late in the fall, if I should be upset over this. Has time and distance from his death made me forget? Made me love him less?

Here’s the truth: the best of me lives tucked between my heart and my lungs. He is safe, if away from me. In a place where I cannot see him, I carry him with me.

About the time this post publishes, I will get up, I will drink my coffee, kill some zombies in a stupid phone game, walk the dog, get dressed and drive into work. I will go to a few meetings, grab lunch at noon. A follow up medical appointment for my cold. Writing a final report. It will be ordinary.

I will navigate through today and no one will know that there was a baby. No one will know that my life almost looked so very different. No one will know that 12 years ago hope and joy died and left me shattered and broken. For a brief moment, I was a mother. He was extraordinary.

Ordinary. Extraordinary. And the places they meet.

After you sing your son lullabies while he suffocates to death and dies; you live without fear. From the bottom of your soul, you know that there is nothing anyone could ever do to you that will cut so deep. There is nothing else to take from you.

You watch out for others. You become part of the race that knows Joseph. The group that walks into dark and hard places. You hold up your heart, the part that most don’t see. The part that has a jagged piece ripped out. And you tell others it’s a long road back, but they will find joy again.

Tonight I will put a candle in a piece of birthday cake. I will sing Gabriel happy birthday for the 12th time. I will post a photo. A reminder that he was here. I was his mother.

Even if you never see it, I carry him with me. Everywhere. Always.

******

Dear friends and loved ones,

With great joy and heartbreak, we wish to announce: at 10:26 PM on December 10, 2007, Gabriel Anton was born into the hands of Cathy, his midwife, sang to in the arms of his mother, rocked in the arms of his father, bathed in the arms of his grandmother, and baptized in the arms of Regula, his Parish Priest.

At just after 11 PM, he was carried to Heaven in the arms of the Angels, where we will meet him again one day. At 520 grams (1 pound 2.4 ounces), and 33 cm (13 inches) he was wee, with 10 fingers and toes, and a full head of hair. He was a perfect, but very tiny baby.

For where your treasure is, there also will be your heart. Luke 12:34

Posted in Gabriel | 4 Comments

Granny Grad Student Reflects

I am almost done my first semester. By almost done, I should finish the final paper. It’s 80% written, but I’ve gone and found a bunch more sources, so it’s quite possible I’m going to rewrite it.

I’ve taken to describing my next grad degree as an expensive and painful hobby. There’s a challenge in that – I’m so very fortunate to be able to have the time and the money to do this. I also don’t want to diminish my fellow students. This is not their hobby, it’s deadly serious business for them.

Oddly, very few people asked me why I was doing this. It’s not a crazy question – no sane person takes a grad degree for fun. And here I am. I wanted to play with ideas like slinkies. I wanted to stretch. I wanted to spend time where what was asked of me was at the ragged edge of what I thought I could do. And oh, I’ve been there. When I tried to teach myself agent network theory. Each reading as I had to look up words. When my classmates used entire paragraphs to talk about something and I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about. It was a weekly struggle to take my seat and tell myself that I was smart enough, that I could learn enough, that I belonged in that classroom.

My classmates are brilliant. Smart, engaged, passionate. Full of promise and vision and knowledge. Me? I go home and die on my couch. I read and I think and I read and I scratch out what I thought. Then I read their comments and I realize how brilliant they are. I will never be that smart.

That’s ok.

It has been fun. It’s been hard fun. I know all the business plastic words. I can use strategy as a verb, noun, and adjective. I know all the jargon. I can invent words with ease. I had no idea what semiotics were. I haven’t read agent network theory in twenty years. I somehow managed to doge ever reading Foucault.

I was never quite where I needed to be. At times during class I needed to be in the office. At times in the office I’d get notifications of lectures I’d like to attend and . . . Well, there was no way. I don’t quite fit.

I played with ideas like slinkies. My goals very slightly exceeded my grasp. I learned new things, things I would have never been exposed to. I filled my brain with new and wonderful ideas.

It’s been worth it.

Posted in Grad Student | 1 Comment

And a Pot of Habitant

The man my mother was dating, the man I call a sort of step father now, tells me that he uses the day he last spoke to you as a day of reflection.

You come to me differently. At the meat counter, when I see the pea meal bacon. In Nana Pearce’s shortbread.

You speak to me when I do not think that I can carry on and I still get out of bed. When I put my napkin on my lap, when I am kinder than I have to be. When I make lists of what has to be done. When I arrange the flowers at my former brother in law’s funeral. When I love with an open hand; when I struggle to understand that things are what they are. When I tell someone that if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

There was not much good about you, if I am honest. Especially at the end, you were a bitter and vile woman. You would have destroyed me if I gave you the choice. I chose this quite and peaceful life. I am not sure that another 40 years of it will be enough to make up for what you inflicted on me.

Save this. You come to me in a pot of split pea and ham soup. In the loaves of sourdough that are rising in my oven. And when I take the soup and the bread and some flowers to a friend who finds herself starting over in a new house. That’s what you would have done.

That was the best of you. That was the part that I remember. If it was never for me, it was for others and you showed me how.

I miss you mumsy. You left without a word 5 years ago. Messiah playing in the background, a clear blue and cold sky. You saw a door open and you walked through.

I hope there’s peace. I hope there are flowers and a garden. I hope there is pea meal bacon and fresh bread and beautiful music.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Lying

I wasn’t lying, although I appreciated the question. I have had a cold for three weeks now. I am an average of 67% mucus, which means that I am constantly sniffling and blowing my nose. My eyes are red. I blew past this colleague in a hallway, she saw the red eyes, and the quick interchange of “how are you/I’m fine” stopped when she turned and said “You are lying. You are not ok.”

I explained the cold, the sniffling and red eyes were not tears.

Although they could have been. They often have been.

I am in the dying days of my master’s class, slogging through an essay which is not coming easily. Constantly worried that I am not smart enough and I don’t know enough of the right academic words to succeed.

Work is terrible. Having given my all, I have been removed from a project. My boss, tired of the vagaries of the world we were working in has resigned and moved on to another project. I’m hurt and weary, without much acknowledgement of being human. I was “bulk assigned” to a new manager. He’s a nice enough man, but I am aware that I lost a cheerleader when I could use one.

My nephew’s diagnosis weighs on me. I find myself at turns unreasonably angry, heartbroken and weary. I am so far away, there is so little I can do. Horror has come to them and I cannot protect them from this. They have only the dimmest idea of what this sort of tragedy is like. They are not sure if they can stand in the face of it; I don’t know either. I do know that the universe does not care if they can stand, they are simply going to have to.

Out of the worst of 2014, I developed a trick. I call it the kind stranger. Effectively, if a stranger told me what I was going through, would I exercise care and empathy? If I can do that for a complete stranger that I am in no way invested in, could I not do that for myself? Could I not offer myself at least the care I would offer a stranger?

And the problem is the voice in my head. The voice which insists that I should be better at this, that I should be able to manage all of this. The voice that insists I should know imposter syndrome at school when I see it, and just be able to push past. The voice which reminds me that I must learn to separate my sense of self from my work life; that this has been a habitual and continual problem. I will not always succeed at work, and it will not always be my fault when I fail. And the voice which says that I am not dying, my husband is not dying, my parent is not dying, and I should be able to separate my grief and rage in order to support them.

I won’t lie, I’m struggling with those voices.

Posted in Learning Life | 2 Comments

Who Stand and Wait

I can tell you what the problems are. In a very real sense, they aren’t problems.

I will roll off this project and it will become someone else’s problem. It won’t get better, but it won’t be my pile of crud to deal with. That’s not nothing. I’m actively working on finding another gig, so that will help as well.

I can tell you, at least intellectually, it’s normal to feel like I’m not quite smart enough to be back in grad school. I can tell you that everyone feels this way, it will pass. I can tell you, from knowing some prof’s, that the prof feels that way. It’s a feeling and not fact. It will pass. I tell myself this in the same way that I tell everyone else.

I can tell you that the problem of my nephew dying is in some senses not a problem. There is nothing to be fixed. There is nothing to do. There is not a problem.

And that’s the problem.

My family, those I love, they are walking through hell. I can go and help do laundry and I can text and call and tell them that I love them. When Christie asks if I will come and curl up in bed with her on the day that she can’t get out, I can tell her that I will. I will hold her and when it’s time, I will drag her out of bed. I will come at the end, if they wish. I will come and I will talk to doctor’s and I will direct traffic and I will kindly tell Christie when it is time to let go. I will look her dead in the eye and tell her that this is the hardest thing that will ever be asked of her, but she will not do it alone.

I will tell my nephew that death is a door we go through alone, but right up until that moment he crosses the threshold? I will be there. When he crosses? I will remain behind and I will hold his wife and children. I will guard them with every bit of fierceness I possess. I imagine I will find more than I thought I had.

I think of verses and I think of poetry.

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”.

“They also serve who only stand and wait”.

Doing laundry and buying milk and talking on the phone are not, I suppose, waiting. But they feel like it. My family is going through hell, and I can make sure they have clean underwear and a cup of tea. I’d say it’s something, but in the middle of hell? Let’s be honest. It’s absolutely nothing.

I can do nothing.

And that’s a problem.

Posted in The language of families | 3 Comments

Data Points

The night we told the children, I texted my best friend that I didn’t think I could do this. She told me I could. And I did.

As I was driving home from Montana, I texted a friend and told him that I thought I should be better at managing this than I actually was. He told me that he couldn’t imagine anyone feeling like they could handle this task.

Taryn sent me bath bombs to remind me to take some time for myself. Friends and colleagues stop by and listen and hug me. I am astonished at how kind people are to me. I’m not the dying one. This should be easier for me than it seems to be. It is not easy.

There are other problems which compound and add to this one. Work has exploded in the worst possible way. Something that wasn’t my fault, but will have dramatic, painful and long reaching implications to my career trajectory. Not the good kind of implications, I should hasten to add. School is busy in the middle of the term. There are things due, research to be done. My brownies co-leader is profoundly disorganized, leaving me scrambling when I least have time and fortitude to manage this.

People ask how I am doing. I can’t answer. It’s not won’t, I don’t know what to tell them. I am almost out of gas. I remembered the cupcakes for my colleague, but not the library books or the form I need to turn into university. This is better than yesterday, when I remembered none of those things. On Friday I came into the office without a jacket. I didn’t buy groceries on Sunday. I couldn’t tell you why or what I was doing. On Monday, I got to class. I had no idea I was supposed to present. It just slipped. It’s the sort of thing that would normally vastly upset me, leave me feeling ashamed and stupid for days. I shrugged, looked at the professor and said “Next Monday?”. I couldn’t tell you what I ate for dinner last night and I have no lunch for today. I seem to survive on granola bars and carrot sticks, and I do belive that I’m almost out of both.

Before I go back to Montana at the end of the month, I have to get the car serviced. I think it probably needs things done. I don’t really know what those things are, I’m not sure how to find them, I have an idea that turning up at the dealership and telling them to do . . . things is not a good idea, but I’m willing to bet that’s what is going to happen.

So, how am I doing?

The data suggests not well. I don’t know why I’m failing at this.

But there you have it.

Posted in The language of families | 2 Comments

Mr Rogers

Dear Ben:

I will make this apology to you on Sunday night, when I continue reading the adventures of Bad Kitty. It will happen right after I read to your sister from Anne of Green Gables. I will apologize, and I will ask you to remember this. I want you to know that admitting failure is both important, and ok. You will fail. Even as an adult. I also want you to learn from my mistake.

I made a bad choice on October 15. At 9:30 am that morning, having known for about 12 hours, and about 8 hours before you would know that your dad was dying, I got on to a conference call for work. Your mum and dad were making calls to their family. it was hard, difficult. I got you fed, I cuddled your sister, I started the process of negotiating clothing choices with you.

And you had a meltdown. Your shirt was too . . . something. It was an autism thing, a little boy thing, an “everything is wrong and out of sorts thing”. It was too much and your brain went into overdrive.

Here’s what I needed to do. I needed to interrupt the senior business SME, I needed to tell them that my family needed me, that I was on vacation, and I needed to hang up the call. I needed to put the phone down, the work away, and I needed to just be with you.

Instead, I tried to do both things at once. I tried to comfort you and get you dressed and still pay attention to the conference call.

You needed me. You needed Aunty Smarties, who has loved you since before you were born. You needed the Aunt that reads to you, sends you letters, is delighted by your kid drawings. You needed my full attention because in that moment you needed to be the most important thing in my world.

And you weren’t. You were an important thing. One among others. I allowed the fact that this project is on fire and my need to save things get in the way of the one thing I had to do. Which wasn’t about saving anyone, it was just about being present.

Here’s the thing. The thing I won’t tell you now, but I will tell you later, when you remember this apology as an adult. When I was 15 I tried to kill myself. They rushed me to the hospital, the hospital tracked down my mother. She arrived a few hours later, throwing the curtain open, demanding to know how I could do this to her, did I not know how busy she was. And I promised – I promised myself and the world that I would never do that. I would never put work ahead of people. I would never make my list of things to do more important than the people around me.

I broke my promise. I failed. I failed you and I failed me. Your mum and dad talk about Jesus, but I’m an agnostic. I think about being the person that Mr. Rogers wants me to be.

Great Nephew that I love beyond bounds – I was nowhere near that person at 9:30 am on October 15th. You deserved better. I failed. I am so very sorry.

Posted in The Cheerful Agnostic, The language of families, the nieces and nephews | 1 Comment