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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Bad Ass, CHD, faith, Going Solo: Single Parenthood, Heart Mom, Open Heart Surgery, parenting, Uncategorized

the surgery.

“I wish God would let me be born again so I could be born with a whole heart and be a normal kid. I wouldn’t have to get this surgery and I could just play tomorrow.”

 

This is what my 7-year old daughter said to me the night before her open-heart surgery. It was, as my dad would’ve put it, a preachable moment. As instructed, we had just washed all of my bedding in hot water and dried it extra long to remove any germs so she could sleep in my bed that night. We then scrubbed her down with prescription pink foam soap, cleaned her nose out with a prescription gel, and swished a strong yucky mouthwash in her mouth. It felt like I was preparing her for the slaughter. 

Isabella asked me if she could sleep in my bed that night. I usually encourage her to sleep in her bed, but all I could think that night was whether it would be the last night I would have with her or not. The “what ifs” were screaming in my brain and the complications and survival rates the doctor had discussed with us were on a continuous loop. You hear about people having successful open-heart surgery all the time. When it is your seven-year-old child, however, it is hard to remain optimistic. 

That night we both laid in my bed looking at the moonlight coming in our window. Neither one of us got much sleep. The 5 am alarm came fast. We packed our car and drove to the hospital. Bella was silent on the drive in except to say how beautiful the city looked during the sunrise. When we arrived in the parking garage of the hospital, Bella asked if we could just sit in the car for a little longer. She told me that she was scared she might wake up during the surgery. She was scared that it would hurt. I held her tight knowing I may not be able to do that for a while. 

We went up to the cardiology floor of CHOP and went into the reception area. There was a huge fish tank there and Bella went running over to it. She laughed at the fish and described each one to me. After I registered and told her it was time to go in, Bella said, “I just want a little more time looking at the fish. I’m not ready.” The nurse told her it was time and she cried, “I’m not ready. I need more time.” I assured her that we would still have time before the surgery and convinced her to go back with us to the pre-op room. I wasn’t ready either. 

In the pre-op area, I was instructed to cover Bella once again in pink foam, wipe her down, and dress her in a hospital gown. My hands shook as I coated her body with the stuff and I worked hard to hold back tears. We found a movie for Bella to watch as we waited. My mom joined us here and arrived before the surgeon came in to speak to us. 45 minutes before the surgery, they gave Bella a medicine to calm her down. It quickly took effect and she began laughing and yelled out, “I think I can do this! I’ll be asleep the whole time. Hahaha!” She then quickly fell fast asleep. This was before anesthesia was ever administered. 

Isabella’s surgeon came in and introduced herself. She was kind and gentle. She talked about loving animals and hearing that Bella loved animals too. She described what she would be doing and about how long everything would take. She assured us that a nurse would check in with us every hour to give us updates. Meeting her put me at ease. She was the right one to do this. I sent up a little “thank you.” 

When it was time, the anesthesiologist came to introduce herself(another woman, hoorah!) and let us go with her as she wheeled Bella to the OR. Though Bella was already asleep, my mom and I gave her kisses through our masks and watched as they wheeled her off. My heart pounded and my chest hurt as I watched her go. 

Due to COVID, the regular surgical waiting rooms were closed. My mom and I sat on a bridge that connected two parts of the hospital and looked out on the street from the sixth floor. It connected the CICU where Bella would be after her surgery and the CCU where she would be after her time in the ICU. As promised, the nurse called every hour with updates. The first call came to tell us that the surgery had begun. The second call was the hardest. They stopped her heart and put her on the bypass machine. While I appreciate and marvel at modern medicine, nothing is reassuring about the fact that the heartbeat you’ve heard since it was in the womb, that heartbeat that sounded like a symphony, was stopped. 

I thought about that first time when I was only a couple months pregnant and my OBGYN turned the monitor on my belly; that moment I heard Isabella’s heartbeat and realized my new purpose in life was to protect it against all odds. The cardiologist told me that this defect happens in the 4th or 5th week of pregnancy. As the surgeon was repairing the defect, I tried to remember what I was doing during those early weeks of my pregnancy. Did I even know I was pregnant yet? Did I do something that caused this? My entire pregnancy and for the last 7 years of Bella’s life, they’ve told me her heart was good. How did everyone miss this? It just didn’t make sense to me. And when you’re child’s heart is stopped, these are the thoughts going through your head. There is a desperate plea for answers. 

Isabella’s heart was stopped for just over an hour. It seemed like forever. I eventually turned my headphones on and began listening to Kirk Franklin’s “My Life is in His Hands.” The lyrics start, “You don’t have to worry, and don’t you be afraid. Joy comes in the morning, troubles they don’t last always.” Admittedly, my faith has taken a beating since my dad died. It is nearly numb and nonexistent if I am being completely honest. However, when your child is having open heart surgery, that faith returns fast. It is quite possibly the only thing that held me together that afternoon. And for some reason on this day, it was old Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond albums that got me through. 

The next call I got was to tell me she was off bypass and they were finishing up. Her heart was beating again. She was breathing on her own. I took a huge breath. It felt like the first breath I took in days. After another two hours and two phone calls from the nurse, we got a call saying Bella was in her room and asking for me. I took another huge breath. She was done. I looked at my mom who broke into tears of relief. 

As we entered Bella’s ICU room, I saw her tiny 42-pound body in the huge bed with what looked like dozens of tubes and wires coming out of her. It was like I was seeing my baby for the first time. She looked so helpless and frail. She kept trying to open her eyes but she couldn’t open them. She let out little moans and asked for me. I took her hand, crouched beside her bed, and, through tears, sang her favorite, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” We had a long way to go, but she was still with us and she was more beautiful than I ever remembered. It was at that moment that she became my hero and a true heart warrior. IMG_4874

Stay tuned for her recovery story……

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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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Going Solo: Single Parenthood, imagination, life lessons, parenting, Uncategorized

snow day.

My morning began with my daughter dancing on top of me at 7am to Jazmine Sullivan while wearing a princess dress. I looked out the window and honestly couldn’t understand why the school district decided to cancel today. There were some flurries, but the roads were just wet. One of the downsides to working from home is that a “snow day” just means you have to spend the day trying to get your work done while your 4-year old runs around the house like a crazy person and uses you as her personal jungle gym. Every time this happens, I end up getting irritated with my daughter and the two of us end up in a screaming battle.

From about 8-11, I tried my hardest to get as much work done as possible while the television entertained my daughter. I had her help me assemble gift bags for teachers to occupy her, but by lunch time, she was getting pretty restless. We ate lunch and I continued to try to get work done. She was literally climbing the walls by 2pm and I was wondering if day drinking was kosher in this situation. By this time, the storm was dumping snow on us at a rapid rate and it was clear that this was a justified snow day and I would have to shovel at some point. I closed my laptop, dressed us both in multiple layers, and said, “let’s go play in the snow!” Bella’s eyes glowed with excitement and we headed outside with toys, salt, and a shovel.

She  immediately started running up and down the sidewalk in the snow, eating snow off our neighbor’s motorcycle, and catching snow on her tongue. I began shoveling the heavy wet snow and commiserating with my neighbor. She looked over at Bella who was laughing and chasing snowflakes with her mouth. She looked at me and said, “You know, I can’t remember the last time I caught a snowflake on my tongue.” She put down her FullSizeRender (7)shovel, looked up at the sky, and opened her mouth. A snowflake landed on her tongue and she closed her eyes, smiled, and savored it like it was the most delicious thing she had ever tasted. I stopped shoveling. I looked at my beautiful daughter running down our beautiful snow covered street. All I could hear was her laughter. I looked up to the sky and opened my mouth to catch a snowflake. A big fat wet snowflake hit my tongue and another went right in my eye, temporarily blinding me. I let out a teenage giggle and stood there, in the moment, and took in the taste, sound, and chilly air.

While my mind told me to go back inside and do more work, my heart decided that there was more fun to be had in the backyard. Bella and I finished up the shoveling, salted the sidewalk, and ran through the house to our little backyard oasis. We ate more snowflakes, built a very sad looking snowman, and laughed about the possibility that there might be yellow snow on our new snow friend’s back. Our dog barked in agreement(guilty little canine). Once the snow got so heavy that we could barely see each other, we decided to go back inside.

Inside, we assembled four puzzles, danced around the living room, played with our cat, and ate pizza and oranges. At dinner, Bella looked up at me and said, “I just love you so much.” And that was it. That is when I knew for sure that I made the right decisions today. Snow days have almost always been stressful. I always choose work over Bella and end up only getting annoyed with her. Today a switch went off in me that changed that. I put us first. I decided to live in the moment and to take in the blessing that a day together can be.

At bedtime I read her a couple books and sang the three songs we sing every night. She sat up and said, “Mommy, you left your phone downstairs!” I smiled and replied, “You know what? I don’t even care.”

Happy Snow Day! May we all have many more days like this to come.

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