belonging, death, life lessons, loss, Uncategorized

Connect.

I spent the day working with 24 kids at a local non-profit. It was noisy and sweaty and warm. At one point during the day, a 5-year old boy plopped down on the floor and fell back, looking up at the ceiling. His brow furrowed, and tears started to well up in his eyes. I asked him if everything was ok. He shouted, “no!” So, I got down on the floor beside him and asked him what had happened. He sat up and then turned away from me and grunted. I asked him if he wanted me to leave him alone for a bit. Again he shouted, “no!” I then asked, “Do you want me to just sit here with you?” A tear ran down his cheek, he pulled his hoodie up over his head, and he nodded.

For a moment, the noise of the other 23 kids was gone, and it was just me and this kid sitting on the floor in our own little world. We didn’t talk or look at each other. We just sat there. After a few minutes, he looked at me and said, “I can’t remember where my chair is.” I smiled and said, “It’s pretty crazy in here today, huh?” He nodded.  “I’m not sure where my chair is either, but I will help you find yours if you want me to.” He just smiled and said, “ok!” 

This experience reminded me of a moment I shared with my daughter. She had open-heart surgery and was in bed for two days before sitting up and attempting to walk. Walking was one of the things she had to do to leave the hospital, so her physical therapist and surgeon were pushing her to try. She was in pain, and a giant bandage covered her torso. She still had tubes poking out of her tiny hands and oxygen to help her breathe. A monitor was closely recording every beat of her tiny heart. They brought in an x-ray machine to regularly take pictures of her chest, and they were constantly poking her for blood samples. She was on the third day without food. She was tired. She was scared. She didn’t want to move or talk. In the evening, during a rare moment when no one was in her hospital room, she looked at me and said, “Mommy, can you help me sit up?” “Of course, honey,” I said as I slowly slipped my arms under her to gently lift her body. She told me to back up and sit on the sofa in her room. She inched herself to the edge of the bed and slowly dropped her feet to the floor. These would be her first steps with a repaired heart, a moment more memorable to me than the first time she walked. As she did when she was a toddler, she reached out to me and held my hands, and took the three steps towards me. Then she lowered down to sit beside me. She was exhausted. It took all the energy she had to make those few small steps. She sat beside me and just leaned on me. She didn’t say a word. We didn’t look at each other. We just sat there for a moment in silence, blocking out the constant beeping of the machines. We got through the hard part, and she just needed to know that I would always be there for her to lean on. 

These two situations, one with a kid I barely knew and one with a kid I birthed, were so critical. Neither of these kids needed me to say anything. Neither of these kids needed me to do anything significant. I didn’t need to solve their problems or give them anything. They just needed me to be there in the space where they were. They just needed to know that, even for just a moment, they were not alone.  

When my dad died, people sent me flowers, cards, books about grief, messages, and shared stories of people they had lost. It was all well-intentioned and precisely what we all do when someone we know loses a loved one. It’s been almost ten years since I lost my dad, and of all those people, one sticks out the most in my memory. Despite not seeing each other for eight years, my friend took a train from New York to see me the night of the funeral. She didn’t come to the funeral or the burial. She didn’t come to the viewing or dinner after the funeral. She just invited me to meet her at her hotel after everything was over. After a day full of talking and crying and watching them lower my father’s body into the ground, I met her at the hotel. She didn’t give me anything. She didn’t say anything. She just sat with me in that space, so I knew I wasn’t alone. It was exactly what I needed, and I didn’t even know it. For the first time in a long time, I felt safe and loved, and I knew everything would be ok. 

Life is tough. Things are more challenging than usual for all of us right now, and we need each other more than ever. We often see people hurting so bad that we don’t know how to help them or what to say to them. The thing is that we are human and, unless we have a total lack of empathy, we feel compelled to help somehow. More often than not, we either say something, send something, or we don’t do anything at all because we don’t know what to do. We just look the other way because we are so scared of doing the wrong thing. I am guilty of this myself. As humans, we are meant to be connected. We are not designed to be alone. When one of us is hurting, we aren’t required to solve their problems. They don’t need our grand gestures or fancy words. They just need us to show up.

“We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically.” ~Neil deGrasse Tyson

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belonging, death, faith, life lessons, Losing Dad, loss, parenting, Uncategorized

ready.

The following was something I wrote on October 5, 2015 when my daughter was only two years old. Today, while I was at close friend’s bridal shower, her mother took a piece of paper out of her pocket and read it to us. This piece is what she read. I wrote it six years ago and forgot about it, but I needed to hear it today, so I’m sharing it here. I don’t want to forget this again.

Bella loves the ocean. I mean she REALLY loves the ocean. She has a complete set of sea creatures that she plays with in the tub, she loves the sound of waves on her sound machine that she listens to at night, and she loves the sand so much that we carry all of her beach toys in the car just in case we see a big sandbox or a beach somewhere. Her sandbox in the backyard is full of sand and seashells from the beach where we go each year. It is her favorite place to play. When she was only two weeks old and we were both still supposed be at home healing, I took her to the beach for a week. The salt air and the sea ended up healing both of us. The ocean is in her blood and, like me; it’s what she needed. A year later, I took her back to the shores of Virginia where our family has gone for more than 20 years. Her love of the ocean had not changed, yet she was unwilling to go anywhere near the water. I kept trying to take her in, but she would cling to me and scream “no.” Though she had happily swum in pools several times, the sounds of the ocean and the waves crashing down was just too much for her in reality.

A couple months ago we went back to the beach and I tried to take Bella into the water. During the year, she had gone swimming several times, was very comfortable in the water, and still obsessed about the ocean. However, each time I took her down to the water and tried to get her to go in, or just put her feet in, she was unwilling and still terrified. We started this routine on Saturday and I tried each day, sometimes twice. Every time, she screamed and cried and did not want to go in. She was happy sitting back in the sand, chasing seagulls, and building castles. Thursday, we decided to go to the beach in the afternoon and evening since it had been an exceptionally hot day. About 30 minutes after we arrived at the beach Bella picked up her life vest, walked over to me and said, “Water, Mommy.”
I looked at her surprised. “You want to go in the water?”
“Yes! Water, Mommy.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes” she said fervently.
So, I put her life vest on, walked her to the edge of the water, and continued walking right into the ocean. Suddenly, she had no fear. The time had come. She was no longer afraid of the roaring sound of the waves. She was not afraid of the vastness of the ocean. She was no longer afraid of the unknown. I have tried so many times to get her to walk into the ocean and she refused. She just wasn’t ready. When it was time however, she knew she was ready. The experience came easy to her and to me. She smiled and splashed and loved every minute of it. The next day, she returned to the water as if it was something she did every day. She returned with confidence.

At church today we talked about times in our lives when something had to change. We talked about how people in our lives often tell us when that has to happen or how it has to happen even when we’re not ready. When we are going through something, anything, the people around us give us suggestions of how they got through something similar and hope that we can learn something from their experience. The thing is, until we are really ready, we can’t change. Each of us has to play in the sand for a little while and get used to the sound of the roaring waves. We must get comfortable with the vastness of the ocean. The courage within us must bubble up to the surface so that we can run with wild abandon towards the surf. It is only then that we can enjoy the freedom that comes with letting ourselves be vulnerable.

In the last few years, I lost my uncle and my dad, ended a relationship that I thought was forever, and embarked on parenting a child alone. With each major change, my friends and family told me stories of their own experiences. They told me how long the hardships would last, how long the pain would last, and how to deal with situations like these. At times I struggled and thought that maybe I was doing everything wrong. I found solace in the wrong places and with the wrong people. I searched for a way to make everything right. I longed for peace. I turned to yoga, therapy, travel, running, writing, drinking, misguided love, and food, but none of this was going to get me where I needed to be. I just wasn’t ready.

It wasn’t until my brave little daughter looked at me and told me she wanted to go into the ocean that I realized that no real change could ever happen until I was ready. Every one of us will have a pivotal moment in our lives where we either have to change something or suffer the consequences of stubbornness, fear, and not letting go. It may be a death, the end of a relationship, an addiction, job loss, abuse, fear, parenthood, or a tragedy. Whatever it is, it changes our perspective and expectation of how life is “supposed” to happen. The thing is that each one of us is unique. Not one of us will have the same experience or series of experiences. Some will come out of the womb craving the ocean and run to it. Others may take weeks or years to feel each grain of sand and turn over every shell before the time has come to go deeper. So think of others’ advice as rays of sunlight. Soak up each one with gratitude and feel their warmth. Just don’t force yourself into the surf until you are absolutely ready. It is only then that you will be able to feel each salty splash and allow yourself to be caught up in the new rhythm of your life guided by the tide.

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belonging, CHD, CHD Awareness, faith, Heart Mom, homeschool, imagination, kintsugi, life lessons, loss, Open Heart Surgery, shame, Uncategorized

Kintsugi

Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery and filling the cracks with gold, silver, or platinum. This repair shows that the brokenness is part of the history of the piece instead of some reason to throw it away or hide it. It celebrates each crack by filling it with precious metal. The piece often looks more beautiful as a result of this process.

Shortly after her seventh birthday, we found out that a part of my daughter, her most precious part, was broken. To repair it, the surgeons would have to further damage her tiny body by breaking through her sternum and stopping her heart, cutting out a part of her pericardium, and using it to repair a large hole. Much like a broken piece of pottery, she would forever have a crack down the center of her chest.

Shortly after her diagnosis, a friend sent us a Kintsugi kit. We opened it and looked at it, but my daughter wasn’t ready to do anything with it. Today, as part of our homeschooling, we watched a video about the art of Kintsugi and talked about how we are like that broken pottery. We opened the kit and pulled out the two beautiful whole bowls. Using a piece of cloth, we smashed the pottery with a hammer. We took time to look at each piece and see how each one fit into the other to create a new bowl. We glued the bowls back together and sealed them with gold.

Through this process, we talked about times when we felt broken. We talked about how sometimes we feel like all those broken pieces just lying there on a cloth. We talked about things in our life that make us feel new or better. We talked about how music, art, family, our dog, cuddling, and our hammock are our gold paint.  These things help us feel whole again. I told my daughter that we could look at these broken times as part of our history and recognize that they are not weaknesses, but the things that make us stronger. She said her surgeon made her stronger with stitches. She said she’s lucky because she only has one crack and the bowls have cracks all over.

This discussion led to us eventually painting her scar gold like the cracks in the pottery. She looked at it and smiled. She loves her scar. She asked if it could always be gold and I replied, “It is even if you don’t see it.”

My daughter is seven. Deep discussions don’t happen much. Even today, we only touched on the significance of the art we did. My wish for her is to remember it. I want her to see gold beaming through her skin like sun rays bursting out of her chest every time she looks down at her scar.  When she gets hurt or fails or life just knocks her down, I hope she finds her gold paint, puts herself back together with it, and realizes she is stronger and more brilliant every time. I hope she never feels shame when things go wrong, but instead sees the lesson that comes from breaking.

“The wound is the place where the light enters you.” 
~ Rumi

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death, gardening, Going Solo: Single Parenthood, life lessons, Losing Dad, loss, parenting, Run Momma Run, Uncategorized, writing

A decade.

Last night I scrolled through my Instagram feed reading so many stories of the great decade people had for their 2010’s. I loved looking at the pictures of great successes, life milestones, vacations, etc. I tried to think of what I would reflect on and all I could think IMG_0404about as a theme for the last ten years of my life was loss. Since 2009, I lost my dad, my uncle, both of my grandmothers, five close friends, my dog, and three relationships that really meant something to me with men who I cared for truly and deeply. I struggled with medical issues that required specialists, tests, scans, medications, physical therapy, more tests, surgery, and finally a diagnosis of an incurable chronic disease. I battled depression, isolation, profound loneliness, and addiction. All of this in just 10 years of my life. How could I create a happy post from that? 

Then, today I spent a few hours with Bella helping her make the slime from a slime kit she got for Christmas. I felt the gooey slime in my fingers and started playing with it. Bella looked at me and said, “This slime is changing you.” I smirked and said, “Oh really? How is it changing me?” And her whole face smiled as she said, “It’s making you giggle and smile.” Surprised I responded, “What do you mean? I laugh and smile.” “No you don’t, mommy. You really don’t ever laugh or smile.” Now I was fighting back tears. This is how my 6 year old sees me? I thought about it and said, “I used to laugh and smile all the time. I guess I’ll have to work on that.” 

I tried to think about what happened to that giggly smiling girl I used to be. I’ve let my grief take over so much that my own child, the only person who lives with me and sees me everyday, doesn’t think of me as someone who giggles or smiles. I’ve been so focused on all the bad things that have happened that I forgot to really appreciate the good. That includes the good of the last 10 years. 

Between 2009 and 2019, I ran 2 full marathons, 2 Broad Street Runs, 5 half marathons, and dozens of shorter races. Sometimes I cried or walked to get there, but I still crossed. Every. Finishline. I got my Master’s Degree and a job in the field I always dreamed of working in. I bought a house. I bought my first car without a cosigner.  I travelled to Alaska four times, Montana twice, New Orleans, Nashville, Little Rock, Asheville, 100_6564Memphis, Chicago, Atlanta, Mississippi, Florida, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Kenya. I saw the Lion King, Wicked, and Hamilton on Broadway. I saw John Butler Trio twice, once up close and personal in the VIP section. I saw the Lumineers twice, Dave Matthews twice, Billy Joel and Ed Sheeran. I saw The Philadelphia Symphony, dozens of Shakespeare plays, went to my first Opera and my first Eagles game. I saw the Phillies win and lose several times over while I drank cold beer and baked in the sun at The Bank. I reconnected with old friends. I met new friends who became family. I adopted a new puppy. I gardened. I cooked. I wrote. I practiced yoga. I painted. I sang. I performed publicly. I successfully put IKEA furniture together by myself. 

And last, but most important, I created, carried, and gave birth to my first and only child. She came into the darkness of my life like a ray of sunshine covered in glitter. I sang her to sleep every night. I went treasure hunting on the beach with her. I danced in the living room with her. I celebrated her every accomplishment. I saw her first steps, heard her

P1020408 first words, and fed her her first food. I walked her to school each day and blew a kiss to her before watching her go off on her own. I listened to her say, “I love you” everyday.  She taught me how to be a solo parent. For the last seven years of this decade, she has been my first thought every morning and my last thought every night. 

I’ve had my head so far up my grief’s butt that I haven’t fully allowed myself to enjoy all of the life-giving moments in the last decade. I’m so stressed about all the little unimportant things that I haven’t relaxed and let my daughter see me truly giggle and 102_4561smile. When I really think about it, even those losses all taught me something. I carry pieces of those loved ones with me everyday. They became part of who I am. Even the broken relationships taught me so many new and wonderful things and helped me see myself more clearly. I have wonderful memories of each of those men and have learned to forgive and wish each of them happiness and success in life. They each added goodness to my life. I harbor no ill will or grudges against them and that is a lightness I never understood or felt before this decade. 

My medical problems have taught me to be empathetic towards people with chronic pain and illness. They have taught me that it’s ok to ask for help. They’ve taught me to speak up when something doesn’t feel right.  They’ve taught me to be gentle with myself and to rest. And, though my diagnosis was not what I was hoping for, it was finally an answer for years of questions and doctors literally shrugging their shoulders. It brought me new hope and a clear path for moving forward. 

So, as I sit here on the first day of the new decade, my plan is clear. I will spend it laughing with my daughter. I will smile and soak in all the goodness around me and celebrate my successes and my travels and my experiences. I will smile even if my bank account is empty or I have a bad day because there is life in everything and every day we can find joy in something. When I think of my dad, I picture him smiling. Always smiling. Even when he was battling an incurable cancer, the picture I took of him in the hospital shows him smiling ear to ear while being pumped full of chemo. He found joy in everyday. He found a reason to be thankful in everything. It is a challenge for me to do this. When I am gone and my daughter only sees me in her mind, I don’t want her memory of me to be the me with the cloud over my head all the time. I want her to see the me who is laughing and smiling without the use of a slime kit.

dad

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death, faith, Going Solo: Single Parenthood, life lessons, Losing Dad, loss, parenting, religion, Uncategorized

dear dad.

I wrote this letter today, on the eve of the 7th anniversary of my dad’s death. I’m sharing it because it made me feel better and maybe it will help other people who have lost someone close.

Dear Dad,

It’s been seven years since we said goodbye to you. Seven years since we sat around your bed and told you it was ok to go and that we would be ok. I remember that day in the car after your doctor’s appointment a couple months before you passed  when you told me you were ready to go, but you were worried that we weren’t ready. You were probably right. I can only speak for myself, but I think we have all been managing as best we can, just with an ache in our chest that won’t seem to go away. I’d give absolutely anything to get you back or to just chat for a few hours. Even though we knew you were leaving us, there were so many things I forgot to say. There were so many questions I forgot to ask.

I’ve struggled with that question of why good people like you have to die so early when some really crappy people get to live so long. It’s a hard question and it’s left me with a pretty cynical and unfair perspective of the world. It’s left me with a lot of anger towards God. Maybe those people are still around because they need more time to figure out howsleeping to get things right. Who knows? You told me once that God is ok with us being mad at him because it means we are still engaged with him in some way(that probably isn’t verbatim, but that’s how I understood what you said). God and I haven’t been right since you left, but I’m still trying.

I heard Anne Lamott speak a couple years ago and she said when cancer takes someone from you, it’s like an atomic bomb goes off in your life. She couldn’t be more right. For me, it meant running a lot, then hours of yoga, then so much alcohol that I started to think it was ok to put vodka in my coffee in the morning. I would say I should have stuck to the running and yoga, but the drinking led me to get pregnant unexpectedly and though that was pretty scary at first, becoming a mother has forced me to grow in ways I never thought possible. I became a mother at 35. Talk about an atomic bomb! The nurses actually said I was of “advanced maternal age” and whispered it every time they said it like I had leprosy or something.

I named my daughter, your granddaughter, Isabella Grace. I read that the Hebrew meaning of the name is “God is perfection.” It’s such a perfect name for her. I chose her middle name because as she was growing inside me, I felt like she was God’s grace for everything I had ever done wrong in my life. We have frustrating moments from time to time, but no matter what, we tell each other “I love you” at least a dozen times a day. She tells me I am beautiful every morning and I think I’ve actually become more beautiful inside and out because of her. She brings out the very best of me.

We moved to Philadelphia and are living in the city now. She does really well with city living, but she loves the country and our visits to Central PA. You can tell it’s in her blood. She loves horses and animals in general. She especially likes to pretend she is one. This makes her come across as a little weird sometimes, but I absolutely love that about her. She doesn’t have a father in her life which is hard for me sometimes since I had such a good one, but she is surrounded by so many people who love her that she doesn’t seem to mind. She is an incredible artist and likes puns, so I know you would really like spending time with her. Sometimes she smiles or laughs and I feel like I’m looking right at you. Today was an emotionally rough day for me and I went to pick her up from her art school. I walked into the room and she was laughing and dancing to music and just fully enjoying every ounce of life without a care. Then, she saw me and ran across the room and gave me a huge hug. That made me think of you too. I wish you could meet her. I think you two would really like each other. I tell her stories about you all the time.

Aside from Isabella, my other big news is that I am finally working full time at a theatre. I’ve been there just over four years. It’s not always easy and the pay isn’t impressive, but I love the work. I think you might be able to relate. 🙂

The trees are changing here and it’s so beautiful. I remember that day just before you left when we drove through Cumberland County to see all the beautiful colors on the trees. I remember the brisk fall air and the feeling like life would go on and things would be ok. I hope the trees change where you are and that you are able to hike and fish and read all day. We sure do miss you here.

Love,

Rebekah

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