Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Dancing With Ghosts

Grief swirled around me like the dense gray fog that had rolled in on Monday morning. I sat down on the moist earth, grass browned from the frigid Chicago winter, and talked to my grandmother's grave.

"I'm here," I told her, "I may have been gone physically but my heart never left".  Mary and Bernadine, my grandmothers who stayed behind in the western Chicago suburbs as we pulled the Uhaul on to the highway, bound for Arizona in 1981, are still inhabiting my soul.

I was approaching my sixth birthday when I lost the first one, quick and painful, to a heart attack. I have spent years as an Emergency Room nurse now, trying fervently to prevent others from feeling the sharp sting of sudden death, like I had when I was pigtailed and carefree, making my way through kindergarten. That sting has subsided some, like I'd doused it in lidocaine, but the hurt of loss at that age isn't curable. Time is simply a patch placed carefully over the wound, shrouding and protecting it until it's not quite so raw. That is, until you can function as a grown human, a deep fear of death attaching itself strongly to your ribcage, to be drug around silently and then reappearing with each new loss or trauma, clawing at you from the inside.

I lost the second at the age of 40. Less than a year ago. So many more years of phone calls and letters, more kisses and stories and love to share. I can't say that, at this age, that it stung any less. The loss of her is fresh, open, tangled up with guilt and not being able to see her as much as I'd have liked. Not able to care for her in her last years, being the only nurse in the family, eats at me. She was 1,800 miles away. It blessed my soul that she knew the joy of a new generation; I recall the smile and the outstretched arms when, in 2004, she enveloped her first great-grandbaby, my sweet boy, into her arms. Later, two great-granddaughters would be introduced, and just last year, another great-grandson. Generations that existed because of her.

Back in Chicago this weekend, I was stricken by grief, suddenly, violently. It took my breath away. The last time in town, last June, we buried my grandmother. The familiarity of my surroundings pricked at my heart. I couldn't go see her. The goodbyes were done. I couldn't go to my other grandmother's grave, it is several hours away in southern Illinois. And yet, my roots are dug deep here. 35 years in Arizona, but my debut into the world was HERE. My first memories, being pulled by my Dad on my sled down the hill at the end of our street, the sloped back yard at one set of grandparents' house, where I picked little daisies and twirled in my hula skirt in the scorching and humid summers; the broad garden in my other grandparents' yard, now withered and grown over, where I picked cucumbers, rinsed them in the hose and enjoyed their crispness standing there in the grass.

So much life has happened since those years, rolling by in a blink, packing experiences and joys and hurts one on top of another and landing here, nearly 40 years later. The buildings remain, the people don't. Time has stolen them and returned them to the earth, me sure to follow.

I want to talk to my grandmothers. I want to ask them how they felt at this age; watching their babies grow and make their own choices, how their physical bodies wound down and how they felt about life; did they feel like they missed anything? Did they have unfulfilled dreams? Did Gram maybe want to be a physician and not a stay at home Mom all those years? Did Nana want to run more restaurants and be a businesswoman? Did they wish they had had better opportunities? Did they have regrets? I'm sure that I'll have the answers some day, but by then, I'll have moved on beyond the earth; I'll maybe have little granddaughters wondering who I was, what I thought, what it was like to raise their parents.

I'm thankful that I was able to go to my grandmother's house, talk to my uncle, pick up pictures that my grandmother had kept; of me, my Dad, my brother. Little angel figurines she surrounded herself with; two of them coming home with me, one for my daughter, a reminder of the lady she barely knew. A heart shaped pin, that I'll wear often, because she called me her sweetheart. Little connections like sharp electrical currents reaching through time and generations and death, connecting us. I'm thankful that, on the solo nights in my aunt's house, while she lay recuperating in a rehab facility, I found letters in my other grandmother's loopy cursive. They were letters of love and the latest gossip sent from Arizona, while she was visiting for the birth of my brother, sent the day before she died. Her words initially haunted me, "I'm not feeling well", punching me in the chest, her not knowing that before that letter would even reach Illinois, she'd be gone. Then her words made me laugh; at the time tears streamed down my face; I still missed her so much, but her next words made me laugh straight through the tears:

Nothing has changed. 

I rifled through pictures upon pictures. Cards I'd sent and were signed in kindergarten print, my yellow and weathered birth announcement from the local paper in 1976, perfectly preserved. My beginnings, laid out bare, to be shared with my kids. Realizing how much I was loved, being the first grandchild on both sides, and how grateful I am that I got to know those two amazing women at all.

I sat on the floor and let myself feel. Feel their presence in that place; the place we'd all been born, the place they'd lived and died. Grieving that they're gone but knowing that I will always carry them with me and that, as long as I'm still here, so are they. Because I will keep their sweet spirits alive, talk about them, and, when I come back to visit, I will make the effort to visit where their shells lie. Just because they're not physically here, doesn't mean I can't still love them.

And so, in a couple of days in Illinois, I danced with ghosts. The ghosts of them, the ghosts of me that still live there, somewhere. I let the past creep out from the walls and surround me. I felt the soft earth beneath me, as tangible and real as they'd always been. I kissed my grandmother goodbye, even if it was on the cold, marbled stone that has her name engraved upon it. I told her what I'm up to, what I wish I could ask her, what it's really like being with Jesus every day, is time irrelevant?

Someday, I'll know. But for now, Mary and Bernadine travel this road right along with me. They feel the warm Arizona sun; see the messy house full of kids and voices and love. They're in the eyes of my daughter when she smiles; in the laugh of my growing son. They're in my hands as they grow older; in the smile lines on my face, in the appreciation that I woke up with breath in my lungs and joy in my heart. I'm still here, carrying on. Appreciating. Laughing. Loving.

And always, taking them right along with me, no matter where I go.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

When You've Got A Good Thing.

I just have to brag on my husband for a minute. I KNOW, I talk about how great he is like, all the time, but it's because he's legit, ya'll. Let me tell you this. 

I am currently 1800+ miles away in Illinois, being the good nurse-niece and taking care of my aunt, who is in a rehab nursing home in the western suburbs of Chicago after a fall and a subsequent femur fracture. No bueno. 

My little girl (his stepdaughter) had a daddy-daughter dance this week, which I wasn't aware of until the last minute before I was to leave for Chicago. My daughter assured me that she had a dress at her dad's house (surprising to me, as I am always the one who gets them clothes, special event dresses, etc). She told me the colors and before I left town I picked her up some shiny, sparkly patent leather shoes and some tights. We spent some sweet mother-daughter time as I taught her how to roll up the tights to put them on without putting runs in them. As I'm packing for my flight, at 9pm, my daughter informs me that her dad "couldn't find" the dress she was talking about and she'd need to find one of her old dresses to wear. So we scrambled to find one that would be appropriate for a dressy dance and settled on one that still fit, one she'd worn to school. It ate at me that I couldn't go out and find a special dress for her. My husband reminded me that it's not MY responsibility for a daddy-daughter dance, as every time his daughters have had one, he is the patient, amazing Dad who takes them dress shopping HIMSELF. His daughters have no idea how blessed they are to have a Dad who takes care of everything and someday I hope they appreciate that they never had need of a SINGLE thing, because their Dad has handled it all. 

I set out the dress, tights and shoes for my daughter and enlisted my oldest stepdaughter, who is amazing at braiding hair (because her stepmommy bought her a book on it, just saying) to do my daughter's hair. That next morning, at 530am, I was headed to Chicago. 

I spent the afternoon at the nursing home assessing my aunt and getting the ball rolling with better care in her facility (don't PLAY with an ER/ICU nurse's family, ya'll. We know what to watch for). 
It was busy, and in the middle of things, I got a text from my daughter:

"Mommy, what do you think of this dress?" it was a selfie of her in a dressing room in a beautiful black and white floral print dress. 

"Where are you? Are you SHOPPING?!" 

"Yes. John took me to get a new dress. They're all so expensive but he wants me to get one!" 

Her older sisters (stepsisters, but none of them consider themselves "step" anything) helped her pick them out. Her stepdad also found her a little sweater to match because it was rainy and chilly outside yesterday. 

And so. This man took all four girls out to the movies and then out dress shopping. He has handled everything, and somehow manages to make them all feel special. My daughter has never felt unloved by her stepdad; I texted her how beautiful she looked, and then "You really have the best stepdad in the world". Her response: "Yes, I do." So many times I see that she appreciates him even more than his other kids do. 

Last night she was dressed, her sister did her hair, and she felt like a little princess going to a ball.  

Her dad was notoriously late, leaving this little girl waiting. 

But I am grateful. I am grateful for the man that shows up every day; that patiently has learned her, that has loved her as his own. It speaks volumes when, as I am going out of town, that my daughter asks to stay home with her sisters and stepdad, because that's where she has her voice. It's where everyone is on time and she fits in. She has the example now that I always wanted for her; a man who loves his wife with an unconditional love, who is considerate, caring, faithful and thoughtful.  A man who looks at his bride every day, just like this:

(even when she's crankypants or ugly crying or ramped up and letting her temper fly at outside sources). Our first dance song, and "Our Song" is called "When You Got A Good Thing", by Lady Antebellum. It speaks truth; because when you find that One, that makes you realize how good you have it and how much you lacked in the past, you don't ever let that go. Thank you to my sweet husband, the one home holding it down with all the daughters at the moment, being the man that he is. 

My Good Thing. 

Everybody keeps telling me I'm such a lucky man
Lookin' at you standin' there I know I am
Barefooted beauty with eyes that blue
Sunshine sure looks good on you
I swear
Oh I can't believe I finally found you baby
Happy ever after, after all this time
Oh there's gonna be some ups and downs
But with you to wrap my arms around
I'm fine
So baby, hold on tight
Don't let go
Hold onto the love we're making
Cause baby when the ground starts shakin'
You gotta know when you've got a good thing
You know you keep on bringin' out the best of me
And I need you now even more than the air I breathe
You can make me laugh when I wanna cry
This will last forever I just know, I know
So baby, hold on tight
Don't let go
Hold onto the love we're making
Cause baby when the ground starts shakin'
You gotta know when you've gotta good thing
We got a good thing, baby, whoa
So hold on tight
Baby, don't let go
Hold onto the love we're making
Cause baby when the ground starts shakin'
You gotta know, oh you gotta know
Oh you gotta know, you gotta know
When you got a good thing
We got a good thing baby

Monday, February 6, 2017

When Change Breaks Your Heart

The last time I was with my grandmother I fed her her dessert at my cousin's wedding.

It was one of those full circle moments, this woman who had held me the day I came into the world, first baby of a new generation two removed from her, was now being tenderly cared for herself. She was different by then, but she had many moments of clarity. Snippets of my sharp, funny Gram. I can still see her form an "o" with her thin lipped little mouth, her left hand falling against her lower left cheek when she was pondering something you told her, and responding in her sweet little old lady voice, a drawn out "ohhhh yeah?" I can't still hear her say everytime I went to leave after a visit "ohhhkay. I LOVE you." And she'd touch my face with her tiny arthritic hands and kiss me square on the lips. She wrote me letters in college, and I would write back. I can perfectly imitate her loopy cursive "L" that became progressively shaky and unsure as the years marched on. 

I can't believe she's gone. When I went to her house while in town for her funeral, I couldn't imagine that when I sat on the couch she wasn't making her way carefully down the hall with her walker to take her usual seat in the corner of the couch. That I would never again see her puttering around her kitchen making tea. The way she would laugh in the middle of telling a story, and have to pause because she was so tickled. How she would flippantly toss her hand dismissively toward my grandfather, my uncles or my dad when they teased her. She raised four boys and a girl. She could take it. She collected angel figurines and they were scattered around every bit of shelf space in her living room as though she was building a tiny army to carry her home. A picture of the Pope leaned against the candle on her coffee table. 

She is gone. Admittedly, having been moved to Arizona from Illinois as a child, I didn't talk to her as much as other family members. But I'd been with her long enough in my first several years to know how much I loved her and how much she loved me, her first grandbaby. I still called her. She still sent cards. I still stopped by to see her every single time I was in town. Kissed her goodbye. Told her I loved her. 

I tried desperately to get a plane flight back while she was in hospice, working around the frenetic schedules of a busy job and a large blended family. Two hours after buying my ticket and preparing to leave the next morning, she was gone. 

Change had come, without my consent.

In January this year, my aunt, the one whom I just wrote a Christmas post for, to honor her for what she's been to me, fell at home, splintering her femur. She underwent surgery, spent a week in the hospital and was transferred to a nursing home rehab facility, where she is unable to walk or move around on her own; she slurs her words from the narcotic pain medications that numb both the physical and emotional pain she's in. She is not her; she is only able to relay when the care is subpar and how desperately she wants to be home, if she's ever able to reside there again. The sadness and melancholy of her voice makes my heart ache and long for the aunt I knew all my life. She is hidden somewhere, behind a tired, battered woman trapped in the shell of a body that fails her.  She isn't able to hand out advice; her strength has gone, at least for now. I couldn't call her to talk about the meeting at the school today about my son's academic challenges; the one after which I cried in the parking lot, unsure of what to do and feeling alone as a parent. She was a teacher, she'd know what to do. 
Except now I'm on my own in that.

Change has again come.  

I sit next to my son in that same meeting, discussing learning difficulties he has, feeling helpless as to the future course of action. I look at him; the little boy is gone. He grows, exponetially it seems, in a matter of days. His face is dotted with the blemishes of new and unfamiliar hormones, a wispy mustache is appearing above those perfect little boy lips. He still throws his arms around me, but I can't pick him up and walk the house with him clinging to my hip, asking for bananas and snuggling in for an episode of Blues Clues. His voice has deepened, the distance between mother and son, for so long tiny and immeasurable, now sometimes feeling like a chasm that won't be bridged until the maturity of adulthood has fully bloomed. It will be different; it already IS different and that one little boy I had can't, under any circumstances, be seen as a little boy anymore. My heart cracks a little more every time he shares an inside joke with his father, or has a conversation that I'm not privy to with a friend, as his bedroom door closes on my Mom feelings. He'll always be my little boy, and yet he won't be.

Change continues. 

I visit with my parents, active, fun and full of life; yet can't help but see the signs of aging on their hands; pronounced veins, bonier fingers, crinkling skin. They aren't rushing off to work and I'm not safe nestled on their couch, our family life swirling around us, talks of dances and little league games and what's going on at work long forgotten. They are retired; but thankfully are more close by than ever. Their focus has transferred from the boy and girl they raised to the two little boys and two little girls their own two have brought into the world. It's a beautiful sight to see your parents loving your children so well; and yet you know you never get to be that little girl, that hopeful teen, that enthusiastic college girl home for the weekend again. It is no longer your turn. 

Change, time, marches forward

You. 41, an age that you couldn't fathom in 1992, so far removed from your everyday reality then. You see those tiny sharp lines at your eyes that signify four decades of smiles. Overall, you look and feel much younger than you are, but see the changes in the texture of your neck, the lessening ease at which pounds fall off. You begin to accept that the four lost babies in your 40th year means that this body, or your husband's, can't quite handle the jobs done so easily in the early 30's. Pregnancy was so easy then. Taken for granted that once pregnant, staying that way for the next 40 weeks. Your elbow hurts most days. Sleep eludes you more than ever, the changes swirling around you keeping you up and anxious at night. There is no turning back that clock. And so you are thankful for every normal minute, feel good day, happy news that comes, because you are now so very familiar with how quickly it can all be pulled from beneath you. 

I feel changes every day.  

And so, What Now?

For me, the Change That Breaks My Heart is given over to the knowledge that, for me, the Creator of the Universe is fully aware of these hurts; is fully in control and fully standing by for when I move up the chain and am standing in the place of my grandmother, my body giving way to forever. 
There is no stopping it. 

So, in my humble opinion, it all comes down to Love , because we truly have nothing else. 
The social media fights; the political discourse, the stupid obsession with all things Kardashian, none of it matters. They are all distractions from the pain of change we're all fighting every single day. The only thing that heals is the love that I both give and receive. The arms of my husband after a bad day. The quiet bike ride with my daughter on a warm Sunday afternoon. The calls to my aunt to say "I'm still here and I love you". The time spent with my Mom and Dad, making sure they know how grateful I am for them. Encouraging my friends. Helping my coworkers. Spreading joy and silliness through my podcast to give our weary hearts a break and maybe laugh a little at our irreverence. 

Change hurts but it grows us; expands our appreciation, deepens our understanding of the universe around us. It may inspire us and give us something, someone, or a memory to live for; to be better for. Nothing ever happens by accident. 

All we can hope for is that, through the struggles and fires of change, we figure out who we are supposed to be, in the midst of all of the tangles. 



Sunday, February 5, 2017

Not A Recipe Blog, But This Breakfast Casserole Is Everything.

Hey ya'll.

Yeah, I KNOW this isn't a recipe blog, because I'm just not that kind of girl.

But I HAVE TO fill you in on my family's FAVORITE weekend breakfast 'round here. My 11-year-old said today, "Can you make this every day? You're the best cook ever". So, I thought I'd share just one more aspect of my awesomeness. ha. 

I have made it in the past but modified for our preferences and essentially combined three different recipes.

It is NOT, I REPEAT, NOT healthy, so if you're no-sugar-carb-bad crap like I am, you can just stare at it, like I did, whilst partaking of my plain greek yogurt with stevia and berries. Almost as good (ok not really but I'm 13 pounds lighter than 2 1/2 weeks ago so it's worth it).

This is perfect for a Sunday morning, especially if you make your kids wait until like 11am for breakfast because you sent your husband to the store. They'll eat better than they ever have, therefore annoying you MUCH less than usual. Also a GREAT and easy idea for "Brinner" as my kinds call breakfast-for-dinner.

So, your shopping list for this recipe will be:

1. 1 16oz. can of Grands biscuits
2. 1 pkg sausage links of your choice
3. 1 packet of country gravy mix
4. 6-8 eggs (depending on family size)
5. 1 c. shredded cheddar cheese
6. 2 c. frozen hashbrowns
7. 1/2 c. milk
Salt and Pepper to taste


Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Brown sausage and cut into bite-size pieces
Spray a 9x13glass baking dish with non-stick spray
Cut each biscuit into four pieces
Layer on the bottom of the baking dish
Layer frozen hashbrowns on top
Sprinkle with Pepper
Mix eggs, salt and pepper, milk and 1/2 c. shredded cheese in a bowl
Pour over biscuit/hashbrown mixture
Prepare gravy mix per directions
Pour on top of egg mixture
Top with remaining shredded cheese

Bake for 40-45 minutes at 350 degrees!
That's it!

You'll thank me for this one, because everyone will shut up long enough for you to drink your coffee in peace. And isn't that what Sunday mornings are all about?