Everything else, Grief, Writing

Prose, Pain, & Plans

 

There’s something about the change of seasons – especially the transition from summer to autumn – that ignites my  creativity. My brain slides from “yeah, on the weekends I work a bit on that next book” to “yeah, you need to stop sleeping for a few weeks because now we’re crocheting a couple of blankets and maybe a new shawl, sewing a coat, and writing three fiction novels. OH WAIT! NEW IDEA! Okay, now we’re also doing a non-fiction book about learning to live with grief.”

It’s been busy for me, which is probably a good thing, given I’m just about one month from the first anniversary of my brother’s death, and it seems every day assaults me with painful reminders. The last eleven months have probably been about the most agonizing ones of my life, and for a while there I wasn’t certain I was going to be able to get through it. I think I’ve been pretty open about all of that. Last year in August, before my brother was diagnosed, I would never have imagined the following months going the way that they would. So much changed in the blink of an eye. Last year in November, I wasn’t certain I would be able to function even minimally… like, ever again. At all.

Yet, here we are, nearly a year later. No denying it’s been rough. But there’s a lot of beauty, too. A lot of laughter. Much has changed, but change isn’t always terrible. During the crux of the worst of last winter – mentally, I mean – I went through sort of a manic phase where I couldn’t stop moving or creating. I feel as if maybe that was a way my brain was trying to protect itself, flooding every second with creativity. Ideas. Imagination. But it had gotten to a point where holding still, not creating every single second, physically hurt, and I don’t think that was a healthy extreme, either. I was productive, but exhausted.

I wrote and wrote and wrote. Released three books between November and May. And then, although I knew which books I wanted to focus on next, that frantic creative pace slowed way down over the summer, and I began to worry I would not be able to finish another book. Ever. To be honest, though, I generally go through some sort of phase like after writing furiously for a while. It just lasted longer this time, so it started to freak me out. But I’m in it again, now. Not quite the manic, frantic buzz of last winter when the bats had overtaken the belfry and were throwing nightly raves in it, but the typical creative rush I often fall into around the transition to autumn.

I was a little bit worried when I released The Knowing Child in May, because it turned out to be more angst-laden than the first two books. I wasn’t certain how it would be received, but as it happened, it appears to be a favorite amongst my Windy Springs readers. I had planned for the fourth Windy Springs book to be Knowing Rogan, a prequel of sorts featuring Rogan’s early life before he met Keisha. I knew how it would start and exactly how it’ll end, and what will probably happen in the middle, so I’ve been working along on that, though I wouldn’t say with much gusto until here lately. Then I took a break, moved on over to the aliens and turnips (yes) story I started a few years back and which is SO. CLOSE. to finishing, if I could just plow through these last few thousand words. However… a few weeks ago, Captain Dash started talking (as he is wont to do) and would NOT shut up. I thought, well, I’ll just scribble this down, as a jumpstart for later on when I start his book. But his words became a waterfall in my brain and I couldn’t make it stop. So I *might* have to switch the order of books four and five, and release Knowing His Madness first, though doing so will not alter any timelines at all. It’s just not what I expected to be doing.

and then –

And then I had a dream. I know that sounds wonky. But really, what even am I, if not wonky? Anyway. I dreamed the book I was writing was a collection of pieces I’d written on grief since my sister’s death a few years back. I’d asked in my FB group if there might be any interest in such a thing, and the response was surprisingly positive. I toyed around with the idea a bit, then just to sort of see, I started collecting bits and pieces of writings on the subject and lo and behold, I’ve already got about forty-thousand words. Tentative working title is Grief in my Pockets. I’d like to get it out around the holidays this year. We’ll just have to see how that plays out.

It’s awesome when the characters are “talking” as much as they are right now, and there’s so much I want to be writing. But the fact is, I work full time at the law firm, and I live with six other people (and three dogs. and several fish.) in a house that is not a  mansion. Even when I am at home and maybe have time to write, I have no office or really, any quiet space in which to do so which is not a complaint so much as a snippet of reality. So quite often I write sporadically in stolen moments – on my phone during my lunch break at work, or while waiting in the lobby of a doctor’s office, or standing in the kitchen while I’m making dinner. I’ve been aiming for a thousand words a day on any one of my current projects. Some days I hit it, some days I don’t, but that’s always my goal. When  I do finish, then it depends on my editor’s availability, and of course, my limited budget. Even if I finish all four books by the end of this year, there’ s no way I  can afford to publish them all at once. Still, though. I enjoy having all these stories living so vividly in my upstairs. It’s a curious sort of joy.

That’s where I’m at, for  the moment. I try to mention my plans now and again on all the different platforms, because I know a lot of folks follow me only in one spot on the vast web. I’m most consistently active in my FB group, which is a delightful mix of eclectic folks much like meself. That’s also where I do live videos and Q & A days, so if you’re interested in that sort of thing –

As always, I’m so thankful for the readers who share my blog posts, my book posts, my newsletters. Thank you for telling others about my work, and for reviewing (Yeah. I notice. Thanks.) Thank you for being excited about what I’m doing, and for sending me messages about how my writing has affected you. It means so much, and I absolutely could not do any of this without you. Onward.

 

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Everything else, Writing

Unpatterned

It seems sometimes as if my brain is hardwired to do the opposite of what it’s told. Though I’ve never been one for conformity, I admit to occasionally wishing I could just make the easier choice. The path more often taken, I suppose.

But I can’t.

This holds true in the art I create, as well. There is a part of me that inherently resists following the pattern. Working inside the box, or whatever you want to call it. I’m more of an outside the box person, I guess. Some days I’m so far outside the box, I can’t see it anymore, not even if I squint real hard. It isn’t that I don’t recognize the value of following where others have trod before. I do. I think I was just born contrary. There’s something in my genetics that pushes me to look at what others are doing and say, “I’ll just figure it out my own damn self,” and that’s generally that. The path more often taken is cleared by thousands of footsteps, wide and easy to walk. I get right to the cusp of it, turn, and force myself through the brush, getting scrapes and knocking my knees on rocks all the way down. It might make a more difficult journey, but I feel more satisfied about what I’ve done, when it gets right down to it.

When I first learned to sew, I was taught how to carefully trim the flimsy pattern, iron it, and pin it to the fabric. It seemed like such a frustrating waste of time. Once I learned the basics, I taught myself to draw patterns on the backs of paper sacks. Of course, mistakes were made. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that I was doing it myself, learning, growing, figuring it out.

Although I am capable of following crochet patterns, I generally do not use them, and am so much more satisfied with the results when  I create a blanket, shawl, or other piece freeform.

I think I’m much the same way with writing.

Over Labor Day weekend, we took a trip to northern  Michigan, squeezing in some of my son’s senior picture shoots along the way. We stopped at my sister-in-law’s place one day for a visit and to snap some photos, as my brother’s family lives in a cabin that once belonged to my parents, and there was some sentimental value in posing him there. As I stood there with my friend who is the photographer, my mind slipped back in time for a few seconds, and I remembered watching my dad build the large wraparound porch that surrounds the cabin. “He did this with no instructions,” I blurt to my friend. “My dad, I mean. Did you know he built this porch? Bought the wood and did the entire thing himself, with no pattern.”

It really is a beautiful porch. He’d started the work after having both knees replaced. I can easily conjure memories of him kneeling – very slowly – measuring, figuring out his next move.  He probably shouldn’t have spent so much time working on his knees, given the surgeries. But he was nothing if not stubborn.

I might get that from him.

My son leans with his elbows on the porch rail and smiles for the camera. “He built my swingsets that way, too,” I say.

When I was very young, I had a standard swingset, green and yellow striped. Metal poles dug into the ground. Two swings with hard plastic seats. A plastic slide on one end. I cried when I woke up one morning and realized it had been taken out of the ground and loaded on my dad’s trailer. He explained that he was taking my swingset to his brother’s house, so my cousin could have it. I cried again. He promised he would build me an even better swingset.

He did. He started with two giant logs he cemented vertically in the ground. They were painted red. The swings were flat wood, wide, with long chains that took me so high in the air when I really got going that I sometimes worried I might flip right over the top. Instead of a slide, he built a sturdy wooden teeter-totter on one end and on the opposite end, a bar that hung from long chains, with springs at the top of each, so if I took off running from across the yard and grabbed the bar, it would bounce, bounce, bounce.

Years later, he built  another swingset. It  was behind the old cabin  up north, and he built  it for the grandkids. This time, he attached a twirly pool slide to  one end, and the kids had a blast with it. He even built a  little playhouse with its own metal roof. No instructions. I stood there, thinking about the bench swings he had built – I still have one in my front yard – the pole barn. All created from the blueprints he came up with on his own.

My grandmother, my dad’s mom, baked, sewed, and crocheted. I asked her once for her pie crust recipe, so I could try my hand at it. She gave me the oddest look and told me she didn’t use a recipe. Ever. I’ve thought and thought, and I can never recall her using a pattern for her crocheted blankets or quilts, either. But they were beautiful.

So this inherent stubborn streak, this bullheaded resistance to following the pattern, maybe I come by that naturally.

It might take me the longer way ’round. I might get a few more scrapes, make a few more mistakes. But the truth is, I enjoy doing it my own way. Over four decades through life, and I can’t see myself changing now. If anything, I’m more set in my contrariness. More determined to forge my way through the woods, while everyone else takes the smooth trail.

It might make for more of a struggle, but the view is so much better.

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Going, going… gone.

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It seems our life has become filled with pets to varying degrees. We’ve got three dogs now. My mom – who tolerated us kids having dogs when we were small but never enjoyed them on any level – has a dog. My daughter and her boyfriend have a 30 gallon tank filled with fish, including one named Ted who is pleasant enough as long as he’s fed regularly, but doesn’t mind gobbling up his small friends if the fish food sprinkles don’t arrive on time.

My brother was an avid animal lover, and couldn’t resist taking in one that was in need. Over the years he’d had cats, dogs, a parrot named Wilma, pygmy goats, rabbits, pigs, ducks, chickens, and I can’t even recall what all else. When he got sick last year, he had a cat and seven dogs. Realizing he was becoming too frail to be able to care for them, he made the heartbreaking decision to rehome some of them, including his own special dog, Beau. My daughter’s boyfriend had hoped to take Beau, but his landlord squelched that idea. However, a pastor friend of my brother’s offered to take Beau in, and that was nice, because he still had opportunities to visit with him on good days. They also had to rehome two of the chihuahuas, and their pit puppy, Jade.

They kept my sister-in-law’s tiny chihuahua, my nephew’s little shih Tzu, and their elderly family dog, Ellie Mae. The chihuahuas were able to find a new home together, which was great. Jade, the pit puppy, went to a friend’s home, and though she was hesitant at first, eventually recognized they were her new people and settled in.

I called my sister-in-law last night to wish her a happy birthday. It was her first one since we lost my brother, and I figured it’d be an especially difficult day for her. In the course of conversation, she mentioned how sad she was about Jade. The last I’d heard of Jade, she’d been doing well in her new home, so I asked what had happened. Apparently, the electrical wiring in the house caught fire, and though the couple were able to rescue their baby from the blaze, they were unable to reach Jade in time, and she perished in the fire.

Some of my brother’s dogs I’ve known since they were pups. I didn’t know Jade well and really had no connection to her. My brother’s family lives a couple of hours away, and Jade was just a baby dog when they had her, so I never got the chance to bond with her. But hearing she’s passed hurts me with a strange, sharp ache. It’s like another little piece of my brother has disappeared, and I hate it. It’s nobody’s fault. The fire was a tragic fluke, and I certainly don’t blame anyone for Jade’s death. Still and all, that pain is there.

Trying to hold on to all the memories is like holding my hand beneath a faucet and trying to catch all the water. Of course the memories are there, but there are so many, over so many years, that the more recent stuff gets shoved to the front. It makes me feel kind of frantic, like I’m losing my family all over again.

I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a book about living with grief. It would be a compilation of pieces I’ve written during and after the deaths of my siblings. I don’t know if anyone would actually read it, but it feels like it might be cathartic for me, and I like the idea of having a tangible something with these precious memories in it. I was reading through some of the posts from when my sister died a few years back, and came across one detailing the moment she left this earth. I had written that with four of her children there, and my mom, my aunt, my sister’s ex-husband and her two little dogs perched on her bed, there hadn’t been much space. I had grabbed on to my sister’s ankles as she took her last breaths. Just to touch her skin. So she would know I was there. It was the only part of her I could reach in the crowd.

I had forgotten that. Or maybe I didn’t forget, but the memory was shoved to the back, less urgent than the others.

I don’t want to forget those little things. I don’t want these tiny pieces to float away.

So I think I’m going to do it. Tentative working title is “Grief in my Pockets.”

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Bits and Whatnots, Everything else

Off Days

You ever have those off days, where everything feels crooked? That’s me, today. I can’t seem to find my footing.

Its been a frustrating week with several personal & household battles, on top of three of the four cars (two belong to our daughters) needing some kind of work done. I left my vehicle at the mechanic’s last week for two days to get the alternator fixed, but instead of fixing that because they couldn’t find the problem, they fixed other things they found wrong to the tune of $400. Now the alternator is still having issues.

My husband has been sick and feverish for days, and he kept shivering. I noticed our house kept getting warmer yesterday but thought he must’ve turned off the air because he had the chills. Nope. Turns out, the A/C just quit working.

There was a modest vacation scheduled for next weekend, which unfortunately fell through.

This week, it seems everything I put my hand to fails. The vehicle. Housework. Yesterday I kept waiting for the water in the pot to boil, only to realize I’d turned the wrong burner on. The dryer kept getting on the wrong setting and not getting loads dry. This morning I typed and retyped and retyped a will, because I kept making the same stupid mistakes. I’m fortunate my boss is a patient person, because I’ve screwed up more ways today than I can count. And it’s not even afternoon yet.

My keyboard, printer, and mouse at work are all being absolute brats for no reason at all.

It feels like I’ve got bubble gum stuck in the cogs and gears of my brain.

I know that none of these things are a big deal in the grand scheme. It’s just cumulative irritation coupled with anxiety, but man oh man. I’m working on taking deep breaths and focusing on positives and I’ve even been messing this morning with what I call my “worry rocks”, little magnetic rocks I twirl in my hand when I’m anxious. It’s like that sensation when a tag in your shirt keeps bothering and bothering your skin, except I feel that way all over inside and out.

I am frustrated today, it seems, with everything that ever was or ever will be. But possibly most frustrated with the fact that my tossed salad doesn’t taste anything like a Snickers bar.

All that frustration has got to go somewhere, I guess. So I’m sitting in my car on my lunch break, venting on my blog.

 

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The Burden of the Beast

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I forget sometimes. Even though I know the beast; in fact, have known it now, for  many years, I forget. It comes slowly. Quietly. I watch for it, I memorize its stealthy steps. I plan ahead, how to handle an attack.

I feel its breath on my neck, its heavy weight on my back. I ignore it. I fight it. I run from it.

Still. The beast comes.

It comes in the night, invading my dreams with visions of grotesque accidents, twisted bodies, loss after loss after loss. Some mornings I write the nightmares out in a spiral notebook, just to get them out of my head. Sometimes the dreams are so terrible, I cannot bear to conjure even a faded image of them on paper. Me – a fantasy and horror writer who delights in writing about gristle and blood and death.

The nightmares are too much, even for me.

It’s inside me, pulling my nerves so taught they vibrate. Leaving me so agitated, my skin begins to itch. I absently scratch at my arm or leg and BAM – oh, hives.

This pattern repeats so often, I should know it like I know the back of my hand. Still, it catches me off guard.

Clenching stomach. Headaches. Fatigue.

Why am I so tired? I whisper to myself as my eyes flutter shut in the middle of a workday.

Why am I so tired? I ask my husband, when the alarm goes off in the morning and I feel like I haven’t slept at all.

Why am I so tired? Over and over and over.

And then I remember. The beast.

When people think about anxiety, they often imagine the five second panic attacks shown on television. Watch the character swallow a Xanax. There, now. All better. Life goes on.

The reality is that anxiety is so much more. It affects the entire body. It affects sleep. Work. Hobbies. It affects eating. The ability to relax.

Anxiety affects everything. It is fucking exhausting. I know it, yet I keep forgetting. Every time. I get so frustrated with myself.

It’s been mentioned to me that I seem to be “dwelling.” I don’t feel like I’m dwelling. In fact, I feel like I’m fighting to keep pushing forward. Some days are really difficult, but still, I get up. I work. I write about grief, depression, and anxiety quite a bit, that’s true. Not because I’m dwelling on my losses – because I’m still working on processing them. It’s not an experience to get over, but an experience to learn to live with. I am still learning.

Sometimes words come to me and I feel compelled to get them out of my head. This happened a few days ago, so I put them out as a Facebook status. I got quite a bit of feedback on that post, people messaging to tell me they felt the same way, or thanking me for the words. I’m going to share them here, as well:

“There will be times in life when it feels so cold and dark you think you can’t take one more step. This is it – the one thing in life you just can’t get through.
But you can. I know you think you can’t, but you can.
Right this minute, you may be in the coldest, darkest ditch, overwhelmed by the wind that threatens to topple you.
Please take this knowledge and hold it tight; bury it deep in your heart –
The sun will shine for you again. One day, you will hear yourself laugh and be startled by the sound of it, but recall what a beautiful feeling it is to laugh. One day you will be struck by the simple beauty of a butterfly or a newly blossomed flower. One day there will be words in a random song on the radio that strike a sense of recognition through your soul, and you will know that somewhere, someone else has felt the same way you feel, and it will spur you forward.
Take these tiny moments in. Allow them to be a balm for your raw edges.
The sun will shine for you again.
You just have to keep getting up.”

These words encompass my feelings over the last year. It has been dark. Some days, it still is. But colors are becoming bright again. Music is enjoyable again. There are tiny moments in each day where I feel grateful to be breathing. Grateful for my life. I can create. I can laugh.

Some days, the beast still comes. Even in happiness. Even when I’m determined to enjoy myself. Even when I focus on peace.

I believe this is my new normal. I can accept that. The more I get up, the more I choose joy, the more I create, the smaller the beast becomes. But I’m not certain I will ever be free of it.

I can live with that. I am strong and can carry that burden. And on days that I can’t, I’ve learned to ask others to help me bear it.

In the middle of October last year, we drove my brother and his family to Nashville. It was his wish after we learned of the severity of his diagnosis. On the drive back to Michigan, he wanted to stop in Kentucky at the Mammoth Caves. He remembered our parents taking us there when we were small, and he wanted his son to share in that experience. As it happened, after several busy days in Nashville and the drive to the caves, my brother was too ill to do the tour, but he insisted we take his son and go.

We honored that wish. It was an eerie feeling, stepping down into that cavern. Our group was maybe twenty people, I’d guess, plus the tour guide. We walked cautiously in the dim light, turned a corner, and lined up, as the guide requested, along a sturdy rail so he could tell us about the history of the caves. Part of the way through, the guide asked everyone to put their cell phones away. Then he turned off the remaining lights.

The darkness was overwhelming. I could hear breathing all around me, but saw nobody. Not even my hand in front of my face was visible. Logically, I knew we were safe enough. But after several silent seconds in that blackness, my heart began to pound. Icy fingers of fear crept up my spine. The beast was there, pressing down on me, shortening my breaths.

But then I remembered, we were really just a few feet underground. If I held the rail and followed it back the way we had come, in less than a minute, I’d be back outside in the light.

The sun had not disappeared. I’d just moved away from it.

With that knowledge, the burden of the beast lessened.

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When the Wind Comes.

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There are days it just sneaks up on me. It doesn’t seem as if anything in particular sets it off. Sometimes it’s a cumulative effect; an anniversary date has passed, or I’ve read or seen something that reminds me of one of them and over the course of several days it all builds up. June is always a busy month for me, because weekends in June I work at the Ren Faire, but it’s also a difficult one, because there are so many of those painful anniversary dates to get through.

My dad had two birthdays. All his life, he celebrated on June 21st. The first day of summer. The day before my parents’ wedding anniversary. When my eldest daughter was about a year old, my parents decided to go on a cruise. When Dad went to see about his passport, he needed a copy of his birth certificate. After procuring such, he was startled to see his date of birth listed as June 12. He went to his mother’s house to question this discrepancy. My grandmother, a no nonsense farm wife who raised eight children (all born at home) while also maintaining a job at a restaurant, responded, (paraphrasing here) “Listen, Dale, you were one of eight kids. I was busy. I was tired. I don’t remember which day you were born.”

My sister’s birthday was June 15th. And then of course there was Father’s Day, which always kind of bites when you no longer have a father to visit. It was also my brother’s wife and son’s first Father’s Day without him.

While I got through these dates actually pretty well, doing my best to keep busy and generally filling my mind up with enough caffeine and yarn and extra tasks at work, and Ren Faire fun, etc., repeat, to keep me from over-focusing on my losses, there came a reckoning day. I was blindsided by the intensity of it. Like a powerful wind that’s been gaining speed for hours before plowing into a rickety barn, the grief struck me down in the middle of a work day. I was fine, working along, typing and filing and laughing with my coworker, and all at once I was NOT fine, not fine at all. Tears poured forth, furious and salty. The terrible weight that had suddenly taken up residence in my chest made it nearly impossible to breathe. I turned my head, grabbed my purse, mumbled something about taking my lunch early, and staggered out to my car. I dropped the driver’s side seat back as far as it would go, so nobody could see me sobbing, and called my husband. He talked soothingly to me for several minutes, and then reminded me to do some breathing exercises or try to meditate until I had a hold of myself. By the time we’d hung up, what had started as another wave of grief had morphed into a full-on anxiety attack. When it was time to go back in, I’d cried off all my make-up and my face was red and puffy. I’m fortunate to have kindhearted coworkers who are caring and understanding. But I was “off” for the rest of the day, and when I came home, I was so exhausted I curled up on the couch and stayed there until bedtime. My limbs all felt like lead.

I hate to use the word “trigger,” because I feel like it implies I want or need other people to censor their speech and that’s not the case. But I’ve found that one of the things that amp up the anxiety is when I see or hear about siblings coming together during a crisis. My family and I were always so close; the sort of family who would rush to be with one another during a hardship. The night my brother died, I remember walking into the hallway on the way to his room. My aunt Carol was standing there, crying and shaking her head at me. “He’s already gone,” she choked out. I’d missed his death by eight minutes.

As I stumbled into his hospital room, there was my Uncle Russ, mom’s brother, and his wife. None of them lived near the hospital, but they’d dropped what they were doing when they got the call from my mother and sped to the hospital to be with her. To help hold her up. They huddled around her, stroking her back, murmuring words of comfort, getting water, tissues, whatever they could. My mom’s other sister lived out of state, but by the next day had already booked a flight back to Michigan.

Now and again it hits me that I will never again have that. In times of trouble, I will never have my siblings to help hold me up. I will never be able to call them to talk through a struggle I’m having.  It’s a precious thing to have, and one that’s probably taken for granted by many. It’s one of those things you expect to have. Until all at once, you don’t.

I’ve heard it said that after something awful happens, you “get bitter or get better.” I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. Maybe you “get bitter or get empathetic.” Or perhaps you “get bitter or become more compassionate.”

Am I “better?” In some respects. I’m certainly better than I was six months ago, in the sense that I can think straight most of the time. I have the energy to take showers, and I remember to wash the shampoo and conditioner out of my hair now. I remember the steps I need to take to wash the dishes or the laundry. I can go to Walmart most of the time without having a panic attack from the crowds of people.

But there are holes in me that will never again be filled. There is pain that will never lessen. I’ve just learned to carry them inside, next to love for my remaining family, and joy at my kids’ laughter, and snuggles with my puppies, and the memories of extraordinary sunsets. I try not to focus on the unfairness of it, because indeed this situation is unfair. No way around that. But if I only focus on that, I miss out on the pure delight of holding my sister’s grandchildren in my arms. I miss out on beautiful days with my family. I miss out on friendships and art and all the simple parts of life that are not really simple at all. The pain and the joy just have to exist together.

My losses have changed me irreparably and that’s a truth I’ve had to accept. I will never be the person I was before. Part of that change is this excess of empathy and compassion. I have known the pain that has knocked me down and nearly kept me there, so when I meet someone with a similar struggle, my soul recognizes that hurt and I’m compelled to reach out. I listen more. I’m slower to come to conclusions about others. Constantly in the forefront of my thoughts is the knowledge that I have no idea what anyone else has been through, just as they have no idea what I’ve been through. Kindness makes a difference. A smile, a thoughtful word – they make a difference. The gifts of time, of acceptance, of unconditional love – they make a difference. I try to just meet people where they are at in life and love them right there.

There are other changes that aren’t so positive. I feel deeper, in every respect. Sometimes that is difficult to handle. I still struggle with what feel like stupid changes: I still cannot watch television. I haven’t read a book in months. My attention span is a problem, much more so than before, I think. I spend a lot of time lost in my own head. Quite often, I feel like I’ve slowed way down, though that might just be my own interpretation. I catch on to new tasks slower, it seems like I move slowly and though my brain is as crowded as ever before, it feels like the gears are turning at an impossibly slow pace.

On one hand, it seems impossible that all of this has even happened, and on the other, it feels like it keeps happening, day after day, minute after minute.

My rule for myself back in November was that I just had to get up and put on clothes every day. I knew if I allowed myself to stay in bed for one day, it would all be over for me and I’d never get back out. Here were are in July, and I can honestly say my life is far fuller than just climbing out of bed and pulling on leggings. I’ve put out three books since November, I’ve made new friends, I’ve laughed, I’ve gotten a new job, I’ve learned new skills, I’ve been through therapy, I’ve learned a lot about myself, about resilience, about grief, depression, and anxiety.

I’ve changed a lot for both the good and the not so good. But the important thing is that I’m here. Every day, I wake up. I interact. I seek out art and joy and beauty. Life will never be what it once was. I will never be the person I was before.

But that doesn’t mean life isn’t worthwhile.

Maybe it isn’t always beautiful. But there will always be beauty in the pain. There will always be a spot of sun in the darkness.

And even when the harsh wind comes out of nowhere to knock me down, I will always, always get back up.

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Everything else

Battle Scars

It’s that time of year again, when I head up to the enchanted woods to hawk my books and crocheted items, under the shop name, “Your Local Hookers.” It’s something I look forward to every year, as spending time in such a magical atmosphere is something that sets my soul at ease and to be quite honest, spending time with people at least at weird as me is always, always an enjoyable time. One of the things I love best about Ren Faire is the inclusivity of it. You want to dress up as a pirate? That’s cool. Mermaid? That’s cool. Storm Trooper? Knight in Shining Armor Made of Duct Tape? Guaranteed somebody will stop and tell you that you look awesome. At least at the Faire I work at, everyone is accepted. I mean that. Everyone.
This was one of the things that set the Secrets of Windy Springs series in motion. The beauty of the woods, the magical atmosphere, the joy people find in dressing up and playing different personas. The hut where Layla and Keisha sell their fairy wings is much like the little wooden hut my partners – Joe and Tamika – and I hawk my books and our collective yarn projects from. We are directly across from the belly dancing stage, which means we have music playing all day long. It’s lovely. One of my intentions in writing a fantasy series at a Ren Faire is to bring to light how inclusive it truly can be.
I know it, I love it, and I can’t wait for it to come every year. And yet…
Yet I struggle with accepting myself when I’m there. Most people who meet me – wildly curly purple hair, tattoo, brightly colored, (sometimes bizarre) ensembles, vocal about my own issues with my mental health – believe I’m “all out there”, and to a point that is true. I don’t much care what people think of my clothes or my hair or my life decisions. Two things about myself make me self-conscious: my scar and my weight.
Twenty-two years ago, when my first child was born, I had an emergency C-section AND a cholecystectomy at the same time. Because it was an emergent situation, the doctors were concerned with going as fast as possible and getting my (nearly five weeks early) baby out safely. As they should have been. However, this left me with a “zipper” of a scar from the sternum down: wide, jagged, and purple. Cut straight through what was once a normal looking belly button. And in the end, my daughter was fine and now she’s grown and beautiful and intelligent and nearly done with a Bachelors degree.
I still have mixed feelings about the scar. On one hand, I love it. It’s part of me, and the vehicle through which my child was brought safely into the world. I’m thankful for it. But I’m still self-conscious about it. Yes, it’s just one little part of my life story. One chapter in the book of my life. It’s a part I have always kept hidden.
The weight thing is another story. In the last five years, I’ve probably gained about 55 pounds. I swing wildly between trying to love myself exactly where I’m at and loathing everything about the way I look. I am frustrated with myself for allowing this to happen. In the next second, I give myself a break because, come on, in the last five years I’ve lost my sister, my mother-in-law, my husband’s grandfather, several other important people in my life, and my brother. It’s been difficult. Depression is a nasty beast, and one that often left me sleeping large portions of the day, lacking the energy to function, and yeah, eating too much ice cream. I gained at least another 15 pounds after starting on Zoloft, which isn’t something I’m willing to give up. So now that my head is getting back to a decent place, I’ve been biking and walking and considering a bit more carefully my food choices. But still. Here I am. Scarred and overweight. And it bothers me that I care so much. I don’t care about anyone else’s weight or scars. I accept them right where they are at. Why can’t I do the same for myself?
A while back, I was working at the Ren Faire. It was a boiling hot day in the forest, and a woman and her daughter walked by my shop. This woman was about three times the size of me – and I don’t say that as an insult, just as a fact – and was wearing a bikini top with sea shells glued all over it with a long shiny skirt. Her daughter was dressed the same. They looked awesome, so I waved them over and complimented them on their outfits. The woman laughed and said she’d had something else planned, but the day was so hot, they changed their minds. “We decided to be mermaids today,” she said. “Fuck it. It’s too hot for clothes.” And off they went, enjoying their day.
I stood there in my miserably hot pirate wench blouse with three yards of sleeves on each side and the corset cinched so tight I could hardly breathe when I moved and sweat dripping down every square inch of me, wondering why I couldn’t make myself have that woman’s attitude. I was boiling hot. My clothes were far too heavy for the weather, but I wore them to cover my weight and my scar.
So last summer, I drew up a pattern on a paper sack, bought some fabric, and made myself three cropped wrap tops for Faire. It was scary for me, but I wore them with my long skirts and honestly most days I also strategically wrapped scarves and such around my belly, but I felt like it was a good step toward accepting myself. And guess what? Nobody else gave a shit about my scar or the extra poundage. Nobody. Not one comment or weird look.
The only person worried about the way I looked was me.
Here I am, another year later. I am absolutely heavier this year. Faire begins next weekend, and I’ve been waffling about what I’ll wear. I hate that I think so much about my size. I hate that it makes me feel so superficial. I want that “fuck it” attitude about my weight.
I’ve decided this season I’ll work at being a little braver. I will wear the wrap tops, and try not to cover myself with scarves. I will work at loving myself exactly where I’m at, battle scars and all.
The same way I love anyone else.

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Everything else, Grief

Another Year in the Rearview Mirror

I blew out my candles (placed carefully in the shape of a smiley face) in a pecan pie last night. Thankfully there weren’t really forty-three of them or we might have had to call the fire department.

It was a nice birthday, as far as such things go. I mean, there was work, but I like my job and my boss brought in a chocolate cake so I had that for breakfast which felt mildly rebellious.

Once upon a time, wearing ripped jeans and a motorcycle jacket and staying out past curfew felt rebellious, but those days are so far in the past they’re no longer really visible in the rearview mirror.

There was an odd sort of sense that I was shifting in time last night… my daughter’s boyfriend invited us to his house, and the two of them made us a delightful dinner with my favorite things. The kids put the candles in my pie and carried it to me, singing. It was wonderful, truly, but I felt somewhat cockeyed for a second. For so many (many, many) years, I’ve been the one planning and making the birthday dinners, lighting the candles, initiating the obligatory belting out of the birthday song. The role reversal was cool, for sure, but it just felt a bit odd for a second. Three of my kids are adults now. When did that happen?

The night before my birthday, on Mother’s Day, my uncle died. I hadn’t seen him in a few years, but I cried over the loss. When I was young, we spent a lot of time at my parents’ cabin up north. (That might be a Michigan thing, “Up north.” Basically, it means anywhere above the Zilwaukee bridge, not necessarily in the upper peninsula.) This particular cabin was about two and a half hours from the house I grew up in. In the winters, we would go up on the weekends to head out snowmobiling, but the summers were the best time. Memorial weekend, Labor Day weekend, and several weekends in between we would go north and family would come in for the duration. The cabin was small but the yard was big and when we ran out of room for bodies to sleep on a couch or the floor, tents would pop up in the yard or relatives would drop a rusty tin can-style camper in the front yard. With my siblings and their families, aunts, uncles, and cousins, it would be nothing to have forty relatives or more hanging out for the weekend. The uncle that passed on Sunday was my dad’s closest brother and best friend. They were two peas in a pod; the same mannerisms, same expressions, same grunts of affirmation or disgust. Uncle Vern was always there on those weekends. He and my dad would get up before sunrise to start the massive breakfast for the family, scrambling a hundred eggs and thirty pounds of potatoes while the rest of us woke slowly, took turns with the only bathroom, and stumbled outside in the early morning light. Plates in hand, we’d wait around until food was done then sit in folding chairs on the lawn, reminiscing, planning, laughing. I’m sad that those days are gone, and I’m sad that so many of the people who were there have passed away now.

And I’m not trying to dwell on the past or anything like that. The right now time is good. It’s solid. Every day holds some measure of joy, and my family is happy and growing. We’re making our own memories. But there’s a weird ache in my gut every time I realize most of the people who shared those days with me are gone. There are very few people alive who remember the same things I do. I have no siblings to reminisce with. Nobody else who remembers Christmas mornings, sitting at the top of the stairs while our parents fixed coffee and opened a can of Tab before we were allowed to run into the family room to see the tree and presents. I sort through photos and laugh at a memory, then remember the faces in the picture have all passed away now. Those weekends up north at the old cabin were pure happiness. I miss them, and the people who shared them with me.

Last Friday, I left work early and spent three hours at a local tattoo shop. My left forearm is now decorated with the ink of a memorial for my lost family. It turned out beautiful. I thought long and hard about what symbols to choose for each family member. My dad’s was pretty easy: a sunflower. He always had a garden out back, and bordered the perimeter of the vegetable plot with tall, vibrant sunflowers. To this day, every time I see a sunflower, I immediately think of my dad. For my sister, I chose a sun/moon. She used to buy all sorts of decorations with the sun/moon on them. Something about it really spoke to her, so I chose a bright, happy style with crinkly eyes in the face of the sun and rosy cheeks. Even the face of the moon sports a tolerant smirk. My brother loved all things Viking: history, television, exaggerated lore, random facts. For him I chose a raven. Odin, the Viking god, has two ravens, thought to represent “memory” and “thoughts.” Seemed fitting, to me.

The words are impossible to see in a photo because they wrap around my arm, but they are lyrics from a song called “Less than Whole:”

“The grey clouds have departed

The stars light up the night

Now I can see through darkness

The river shines with life

I’ve waded through the water

My soul is comin’ clean

I’ve held my breath forever

But now it’s time to breathe.”

Here I am, another year in the rearview mirror.

And I’m finally breathing.

ink

 

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Milestone Days

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It’s the milestone days that hit the hardest, I think. It sneaks up on me and quite often I can’t figure out why I’m extra emotional until all at once, I remember.

This week has been a big one in terms of milestones.

Yesterday, my biggest little girl turned twenty-two. I was eleven days shy of turning twenty-one the day she was born. I’d had an all natural birth plan written out, which was promptly tossed in the trash when, a month before she was due to be born, my gall bladder decided it needed to come out. I was feverish and in extraordinary pain, and when my doctor told me they were planning an emergency C-section, I was terrified. Family came up immediately, of course. In the end, everything turned out all right. My sister was beyond thrilled to be an auntie. My brother was ecstatic – he and his wife had just welcomed their son two weeks prior. I have the cutest picture of my husband and my brother holding the babies in the hall at the hospital. They both look so very young.

Yesterday was also my last day at a job I really loved. I hadn’t been planning to leave and then all at once, the situation changed. I’d been half-heartedly looking to pick up a second part time job, and an amazing full time opportunity fell from the sky. I couldn’t NOT take it, but man oh man, it was painful to give notice at a job I truly enjoyed. More than the work, I’ll miss my coworkers terribly. It was a difficult decision to make, and I keep wondering if I made the right choice. I know that I did, for the sake of my family, but it still hurts. Lots of tears the last several days, especially yesterday, packing up my desk and walking out for the last time.

Today is my son’s Junior prom. We picked his suit up yesterday – in the brief window of time between when I left my former job, sobbing, and when we were meeting at the restaurant to celebrate my daughter’s birthday – and wow, does my little boy look grown when he puts it on. He’s taller than I am, now, with facial hair and a new (adorable) girlfriend. Time, man. It marches forward at a ridiculous pace. I wish sometimes I could catch moments like this in my hands just so I could hold them for a while longer.

These are the times when it really strikes me that both my siblings are gone. I have no brother or sister to invite to my kid’s birthday party. Or to call and tell about my new job, or how hard it is for me to leave the old one. No siblings to come tonight and see my son all dressed up, looking sharp and posing with his girl for pictures. It feels so wrong that this is the reality. They should be here. 

Tomorrow, my youngest daughter graduates from college. I’m so proud of her. She’s overcome a myriad of obstacles to get to this point, and to see her with her cap and gown, knowing how hard she’s worked to get to this point, fills me with such an indescribable sense of joy. My sister was a hairstylist. Five years ago, when she was on Hospice, my daughter was telling her how she was going to follow in her footsteps and go to cosmetology school. “Just like Aunt Char Char.” My God, would my sister ever be proud to see her walk tomorrow.

It’s been an exhausting and emotional week, all around. I’m overflowing with conflicting emotions. Some days I miss my siblings so much I can’t catch my breath. Tears well up over the smallest moments that trigger memories. It’s like being kicked in the gut without warning.

I didn’t plan it this way, but a while back I made an appointment to get a memorial tattoo for my dad and my siblings. My appointment is next Friday. This morning I was thinking how fitting the timing is. This week has been almost overwhelming in the feelings department. Next week, I’m taking this step forward in my healing process, honoring my lost loved ones with bright and beautiful ink.

It’s the milestone days that hurt the most.

It’s the milestone days that mean the most.

It’s the milestone days that bring me so much joy.

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Birth Stories, Everything else

Sixteen and Life to Go

Several years ago I committed to writing out the birth stories of each of my children. Probably a task that is long overdue, considering their ages, but I’ve never been what you might call “punctual.”

Today my youngest baby is sixteen. It’s hard to believe, because five minutes ago he was starting kindergarten, but here we are. I remember well my pregnancy and delivery with him, details that probably should have faded by now, but still burn bright in my memory. The pregnancy itself was awful but his birth was my favorite of the four.

In the summer of 2001, we took a family vacation with my parents, siblings and their families to the west side of Michigan. We camped, took the kids to see lighthouses and Lake Michigan, and the trip culminated in a much-anticipated stop at an amusement park, Michigan Adventures. At that time, my children were five, three, and one and a half. I felt fine on the vacation though a little extra tired, but I put that down to the exhaustion of chasing three small children day in and day out. The day we went to the amusement park, I was sitting at a café having a snack. Something had gone wrong – I don’t remember just what, seems like a ride we wanted to go on was broken or something – and out of the blue I started sobbing. I couldn’t stop. Even as I was crying, in the back of my mind I was thinking, “Wow. This is weird. Why am I so upset?”

Upon our return home, I had an appointment with an allergist. He wanted to start me on a regime of medications to help control my very out of control allergy symptoms. But first, he said, he wanted me to take a round of Tetracycline. I hadn’t taken that drug before, so after I picked it up from the pharmacy, I spent some time reading the pamphlet on it. One of the warnings that stuck out to me was all the terrible things it could do to a baby if a pregnant woman took it. At that time in my life, I kept extra pregnancy tests around often. The responsible thing, I thought, would be to take a test before starting that medication. Just to be safe. To put my mind at ease. So I did.

And it was positive. I was stunned.

Everyone I told seemed to think it was funny. My family doctor laughed. My sister laughed. My friends laughed. I didn’t laugh, as my head was generally hanging over the toilet by that point. The fourth go ’round was the worst as far as the hyperemesis went. After multiple trips to the ER for fluids, my doctor finally put in a PICC line and set me up with a home nurse. Halfway through my pregnancy, I switched doctors. Then I was diagnosed with placenta previa. My due date was April 14th and we were seriously considering the possibility that I would need another C-section. However, at the last moment, the previa took care of itself.

My doctor was concerned because my third labor and delivery had gone so fast – three hours, start to finish – and worried I might not make it to the hospital in time once I went into labor. I was cautioned to go in to the hospital if I had any indication labor might be starting and not to wait. April 14th came and went. No contractions. Nothing. Another week came and went. On the 22nd, I had an appointment with my doctor. I was heavy, hot, and aggravated. I very clearly recall demanding he do something to move the situation along. I said something along the lines of, “Listen, buddy, I’m having this baby today whether you help me or not.” He scheduled an induction for later in the afternoon.

We went home. Packed bags for the children and called family members. It was decided we would go out for lunch first, and we all met at a local diner. From there, my parents took the kids home with them, and my husband and I headed back to the hospital. Due to the problems that had plagued all four of my pregnancies, we knew this one would be my last. As such, I had chosen not to learn the gender of the baby beforehand. I wanted to be surprised. My husband couldn’t wait, and had asked the sonographer a few weeks before. He did a decent job keeping it secret, although he did make one slip that he hurriedly covered up. As we waited for my induction to begin, we discussed baby names. We still hadn’t decided on a name for a boy. For a girl, I’d picked out Elyssa Rose.

Finally, it was go time. IV was hooked up. My mom decided to come up and hang out with us. My five-year-old daughter followed her to the car and refused to go back inside the house, so she brought her along. At 6:10 p.m. my doctor broke my water. Shortly after, I expressed to my nurse that labor was definitely rolling along quickly. I did this by grabbing the bed rail with both hands and attempting to yank it off while screaming. She responded by setting the room up for delivery. She called my doctor, who said it couldn’t possibly be happening that fast and he would stop in after a couple of hours.

“How long was your last labor?” she asked me.

“Three hours,” I panted.

Her pace quickened. My screams settled to a repetitive whisper as I lay on my side, still gripping the bed rail and rocking it. “I want drugs this time, I want drugs this time, I want drugs this time, I want drugs this time,” was my mantra. My first baby was an emergency C-section that I wasn’t even awake to experience. My second had a failed epidural, and my third happened so fast there was no time for medication.

None of my labors were light or easy. There is no parade or trophy for doing it without pain medication. I wanted it. Right then. I couldn’t think of anything else. My nurse paused, watched me carefully for about two minutes, and then called my doctor again. When he arrived, he did so with the statement, “Valarie, I heard you’re giving your nurse a hard time. It can’t possibly be going this fast. Just try to relax.”

He went on to say since he was already there, he would go ahead and check me. I declined to give him permission to touch me until he brought me drugs. He laughed. I maintained my order. He called in the epidural guy, who refused to give me one since I had a latex allergy and something about something in the epidural had latex in it. I sat up, grabbed one bed rail in each hand, and alternated growling, cussing, and wailing in a fashion that caused the epidural guy to hustle. In minutes, he’d given me a shot that numbed all the pertinent areas.

“Now, Valarie, let’s see what all this fuss is about,” my doctor said.

The injection was a blessed relief. I reclined on my pillows. Held my husband’s hand while the doctor did his thing. Suddenly, everything was in high speed.

“Um, Valarie?” my doctor asked.

“Yeah.”

“Whatever you do, don’t push.”

I hadn’t been planning on it right then, but agreed anyway.

“Also, don’t sit up until I get this bed broken down. Head’s already coming out.”

So much for me being overdramatic.

My water had been broken at 6:10 p.m. My baby was born at 7:18 p.m. Start to finish: 68 minutes.

We had another little boy. Obviously, he was perfect. Black hair. Ridiculously adorable.

Nameless.

My husband leaned toward Christopher Caleb. I tended to like names that were slightly unusual and had lots of vowels.

The next morning, I signed the paperwork for a tubal ligation. Two girls, two boys, all under the age of six. Our family was exactly the right size. Because of my surgery, we stayed an extra day at the hospital.

Fun fact: After two days, the birth certificate people quit calling your room and just barge right in, demanding you name your baby for  God’s sake, just call the kid something.

It wasn’t that we hadn’t been trying to agree on a name. We had gone through books and made lists of possibilities. Finally, we made a choice: I would pick the first name, whatever I wanted. My husband would pick the middle name, whatever he wanted.

I held my little black-haired boy in my arms, considering. In my head, I had a short list of favorite names and I turned that list over and over while I decided.

Then it struck me that one of the names I’d liked the best meant “raven.”

Raven. It suited him, with his dark hair.

“Brennan,” I told my husband. “His name is Brennan.” It fit him just right.

My husband chose Christopher for his middle name.

As a baby, Brennan made the funniest facial expressions that kept us in stitches. As a toddler, he was rowdy but so ridiculously cute it was difficult to discipline him. By about age five, we realized he had a rather enjoyable knack for dry humor. His quick wit has continued to flourish over the years, and I can honestly say he’s made us laugh daily since his arrival. A budding conspiracy theorist, he’s down to discuss trivia about Sasquatch, the zombie apocalypse, or aliens at just about any time. He is thoughtful and brave, and has a ready stock of puns to pull out for any imaginable occasion.

It seems impossible that my baby is sixteen today. He is getting taller and has the beginnings of a mustache. His green eyes are identical to mine. His once-black hair has turned to a light brown. He’ll be learning to drive this summer.

He might be getting older, but he’ll always remain my little raven. The surprise baby that completed our family and taught us that life is always better with extra laughter.

I’ve compiled a few funny FB statuses from over the years regarding this kid that have cracked me up. It’s been suggested to me that I write a “Bean Book” someday. (Bean is his nickname).

Bean: Mom, you’re my best pickle!
Me: I’m your… your pickle? What?
Bean: Yeah! BECAUSE I RELISH OUR TIME TOGETHER! I RELISH IT!

Bean: Help me button my sleeves?
Me: I don’t understand why you are getting dressed up before bed, instead of getting into pajamas.
Bean: You don’t know what I do after you go to sleep. For all you know, I go out to parties. Or wrestle bears under my assumed name of Mr. Beast.

Me (plowing through yet another sink full of dishes): I wish I could look at my kitchen counter just once and not have to see a mountain of dirty dishes.
Bean: Yeah, I know what you mean. Maybe we could lay a blanket over them.

Me, at a party today, playing with a delightful dumpling of a baby:
“I like him. Let’s keep him!”
Bean: “He is pretty cute. But is he hypoallergenic?”

Took some Nyquil.
Konked out on the couch for like 30 minutes.
Bean jacked my phone and used it to text the other kids and tell them they were grounded.

Yesterday in a parking lot, Bean suddenly disappeared for a second.
Then he leaped out from behind a car, wielding finger guns at me, and shouted, “Stick ’em up! And give me all your Facebook followers!”

My mom and her bf were over, and mom mentioned he had to get back to Canada for awhile, and jokingly added that she didn’t want him to become an “illegal alien”.
Brennan stared intently for several minutes, and then, narrowing his eyes, he leaned in and whispered to him,
“Tell me everything you know about Area 51.” (he was nine)

Life has certainly been an adventure since he’s come into our lives. Happy sixteenth birthday, Bean.

 

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