The First Thanksgiving: Pairing Grief AND Gratitude (A Life Interrupted)

Sometimes, only one person is missing, and the whole world seems depopulated.

Alphonse de Lamartine, author
The Thanksgiving Table (November 2020)

I did it. But I wish I didn’t have to.

I made a full Thanksgiving meal on my own. I roasted a turkey. Peeled a mountain of potatoes. Used the drippings to make gravy. Baked a pan full of dressing, green beans, dinner rolls, an apple crumb pie, plus loads of turkey-themed cookies. I even opened a can of cranberry sauce (it’s okay, you can laugh at me). In all my 45 years of life, I’ve never done this before…never attempted to, never wanted to, and never needed to—but these are strange times that we’re living in and strange times apparently demand complete turkey dinners on Thanksgiving…especially when your Mom is gone.

The duality of living in today’s pandemic is evident everywhere you go. In one day you can see groups of friends hanging out and carrying on without a care in the world and turn the corner to see fully masked families heading into the local grocery store. Our elderly suffer from isolation in their golden years and our healthcare workers are overwhelmed and stressed while millions of others continue to call COVID-19 a hoax to their faces. Daily, Americans walk through temperature checkpoints to get to school, work, or to travel while others plan block parties and the like. There are rallies and protests. I even read about some well-meaning parents who hosted a homecoming dance and now dozens of kids have tested positive. I’m not judging. My own family walks in this duality. We occasionally see local friends, we work outside our home, my kids go to the gym, play sports, and try to maintain normalcy all while walking this line with masks in hand. I jokingly remind them “it’s COVID out there” and ask them to stay socially distanced as they head out the door. When they come home, I greet them and immediately send them to the sink to wash their hands. We’re not perfect. At this point in the pandemic, we’ve all had moments where we’ve let our guard down and subsequently prayed that we don’t pay the penalty. Strange times, indeed.

Nine months in and I can no longer count the number of family members who have contracted COVID-19 on my fingers. I don’t want to attempt to count the number of people in my circle who have had it and my heart breaks when I think about how the Coronavirus has affected my hometown in western Kansas. I have prayed for a number of individuals who have battled, struggled, and won. Praise God! And I have cried for those who weren’t so fortunate. As I write this the death toll in the United States is 267,000+

My mother is one of them.

It’s bizarre to grieve in a pandemic. The normal grieving process is both individual and communal, but when you can’t see family members for fear of contracting or spreading a virus, the grieving process becomes even more peculiar. And when your lost loved one is a victim of that same pandemic, you proceed cautiously and carefully. Honestly, there are days where it feels like you’re barely proceeding at all—like you’re standing still while the world has moved on.

You know the saying, “once bitten, twice shy?” Those are the eggshells that I walk on daily. I know how devastating and life-changing this virus can be. There are hundreds of thousands of people who should have been at the Thanksgiving table with their families this year, but they’re not. Empty chairs, not just in my home, but everywhere. Traditions not just broken, but shattered. Those of us who have lost family members and friends to COVID-19 are experiencing this heartbreak over and over as the narrative has gone from “we’re all in this together” to “there’s nothing to see here, folks.” And yet the pandemic and the loss of life go on.

There are hundreds of thousands of people who should have been at the Thanksgiving table with their families this year, but they’re not. Empty chairs, not just in my home, but everywhere. Traditions not just broken, but shattered.

a Life Interrupted

As we move into this unusual holiday season I can feel myself picking up the pieces of my broken heart non-stop. Normal Thanksgiving meant a road trip across the state with my kids. Normal Thanksgiving meant consulting with my mom, sister and sister-in-laws about what we would each contribute to the meal. Normal Thanksgiving meant hugs and seeing my nieces and nephews. Normal Thanksgiving is game nights, snacks and cousin sleepovers. Normal Thanksgiving is coffee with my best friend. Normal Thanksgiving meant going to my mom’s house instead of making a complete Thanksgiving meal on my own.

I did it. But I wish I didn’t have to. In fact, I would have traded anything for it not to be the way that it is.

It was the First Thanksgiving without my Mom and at every turn, we paired our grief with gratitude. I miss my mother so much. Today, I am even more thankful and grateful for her love and influence on my life. Often times I feel like my mother’s memory lives in the kitchen which was so appropriate as I prepared the meal. And while she has been on my mind constantly, I felt like while I was missing her this Thanksgiving that she was somehow still mothering me…urging me to make the most of the holiday, not just for me, but for my kids. That’s the kind of mother she was. Give, give, and give some more. Grieve, but be grateful. In the back of my mind, I kept hearing “keep the traditions.” In my heart, her memory confirmed the feeling that forward is the best option, the only option.

If you know me, you know I take tons of photos and videos. I document everything. (It’s the reporter in me). As Thanksgiving approached this year and the memories started popping up on social media, my daughter said to me, “Mom, I’m so glad you take all the photos and the videos so we can see and hear each other. It makes me sad, but it also makes me happy. We laugh a lot.” Taking photos and videos to share this Thanksgiving seemed extra important. And Casey is right, we do laugh a lot. In many ways, sharing photos and videos are the only way to be together while we continue to grieve miles apart.

In the mix of photos I took this year, is this one of me at our Thanksgiving table just before the meal was served—and guess what, Mom? I didn’t break the oven like I did that time I tried making strudel! I know you’re proud…and maybe even a little bit relieved.

“In the day when I cried out, You answered me, and made me bold with strength in my soul.” Psalm 138:3


“A Life Interrupted” is an ongoing series of blog posts dealing with the loss of my mother to COVID-19.

Today, I Screwed Up the Rice (A Life Interrupted)

“Cooking and mealtimes are some of the most overlooked aspects of grief,” Heather Nickrand, author of Culinary Grief Therapy

Taco dinner complete with pico de gallo, black beans and Mexican rice.

My mother was a fabulous cook. She had this amazing way of making something truly delicious out of nothing at all. Looking back, she would have been a great contestant on The Food Network show, “Chopped.” You know the one where they give you a mismatched basket of food items and ask you to miraculously make something amazing out of it in 15 minutes flat. She was that good. One of my favorite memories of her cooking was just how much she could do with eggs. She could make them a million ways and they were always BOMB—and if she had cheese and tortillas—lookout because you were about to meet your new favorite dish. Breakfast for dinner was an absolute treat as a kid. She was creative, innovative, and basically a food magician. I miss this about her.

I’m not really a cook. I mean, I do cook, but I’m definitely not on her level. I am a baker though. We complemented each other this way. She would make my favorite dish when I would visit home (tostadas) and I would make oatmeal chocolate chip cookies or apple pie. In those moments, all was right with the world. And while I don’t consider myself a great cook, most of what I know, she taught me.

When my son was still a baby she showed me how to make Mexican rice. Sean loved to eat it, it was soft, fluffy, and flavorful. I can remember the first lesson in my kitchen and the subsequent lessons in her kitchen as she helped me perfect it. Mom cooked according to looks and taste, I, however, needed a mathematical formula. Through a series of trials and errors, I finally figured it out. Using an equation (yes, I am a nerd), I can figure out how to make any amount of Mexican rice needed to feed any size group. You can call it a gift…but mostly it’s a nerd thing.

After my Mom passed away, life was a blur. Daily chores were neglected, my mind foggy, I felt extremely lost. I’m sure I was exhausted in every sense of the word—mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually…you name it. And yet, people needed to eat. It was probably three weeks later when I finally got around to cooking something “real.” I decided on tacos, a dish I was certain I could make in my sleep, and of course an accompanying pan of Mexican rice. Every part of the process was agonizing. Each ingredient a tangible reminder of the mother/daughter and teacher/student relationship we had when it came to food. I immediately went to my Mexican rice math equation, but there was nothing. After almost two decades of memorization, my reliable recipe (formula) escaped me. I stood there looking at an empty pan, uncooked rice in hand and I couldn’t remember step one. Nothing, then tears.

I remember thinking, please, Lord, don’t let me forget this! I need to know how to do this. I can’t lose this. I’ve already lost too much. Please, help me to remember.

Here is the part where you might expect a sudden revelation. I hate to tell you this, but there was none. I tried. I cried. I screwed up the rice. Not only that, but I screwed it up the next time and the time after that. Time and time again I stood there, dumbfounded and lost. In the big scheme of things, forgetting how to make Mexican rice doesn’t seem like a disaster and yet it was. It all was. The pandemic, losing my Mom, coping, and trying to move on. It was all a disaster. The kids ate variations of crunchy, under seasoned, too wet, blah tasting Mexican rice…encouraging me all the way. I can remember my daughter, Casey, saying, “You’ll figure it out. Go slow.” These are phrases that I often say to my kids when they’re struggling and being hard on themselves. Hearing these words directed at me stopped me in my tracks. When a child repeats something you have frequently (or incessantly) told them it’s a parenting compliment, a parenting win. Honestly, though, I think it’s just called the circle of life.

I remember the frustration of learning new things as a child. Somethings came naturally, but for me, cooking wasn’t intuitive. My Mom was always gracious in her teaching. I went to college only knowing how to make cereal and grilled cheese, but through her guidance (and many telephone calls) learned to make so much more! I went through my Rachel Ray phase about the same time the internet and smartphones became a part of daily living enabling me to share my mealtime creations with just a click. I remember a phone conversation where she walked me through making a rue. I was terribly unsuccessful. We tried an in-person lesson on my next visit home. Still unsuccessful. It probably took me five years to learn, all the while she would say, “You’ll figure it out. Go Slow.” Yes, definitely, the circle of life.

You might be surprised to know that cooking wasn’t my Mom’s favorite thing. Talented as she was, and I’m convinced food was one of her love languages, she did it for us and for others lucky enough to be at her kitchen table. And, she always made it fun! I come from a large family, so preparing meals for gatherings was time-consuming. No matter, we all just piled into the kitchen and got to work. Mom was great at delegating tasks according to our abilities. This makes me laugh because most of my expertise was in chopping vegetables while my sister, Amanda, was in charge of more complicated (and delicious) menu items that required actual cooking and seasoning. All the granddaughters would get involved —assembly-line style—for enchiladas (a family favorite!) No one ever complained as being a part of Mom’s kitchen crew meant lots of taste testing and samples. A huge perk to the process! By far, the biggest win for me personally was the day my Mom complimented me on my Mexican rice. I carry those words around like a badge of honor, then and now.

So when I failed to remember how to make the Mexican rice, it felt like I was losing something special. In true resolute fashion, I refused to give up. With my Mom’s words in my head, I kept trying. Shortly after she passed I came across a social media post that said, “Be the things you love about the people who are gone.” I saved it on my phone, a poignant reminder on the hardest days. I’m not a cook. I don’t believe I’ve been gifted with that ability, but for my family, cooking and time in the kitchen were so much more than that. I believe my Mom cooked because she loved us and it kept us close. The kitchen was always the center of our home life growing up. The heart of the home, it’s still one of the rooms I spend the most time in, my kids, too.

It’s been more than four months now, and I’m not screwing up the rice anymore. I finally remembered the recipe (formula) and hope that I’m never in a place to forget it again as part of my Mother’s memory lives in the kitchen. She’s in every drawer as she has gifted me with a number of utensils and tools. She lives in the cupboard and the refrigerator as she has influenced the things I love to eat and feed my family. She lives on the countertop, her whiteboard taking up center stage on the kitchen island. And she’s certainly in my cookbook as I try to maintain the recipes and traditions that I’ve grown up with and pass them on to my own children.

May I be all the good things that I love about her…today and every day.

“Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Nehemiah 8:10

“A Life Interrupted” is an ongoing series of blog posts dealing with the loss of my mother to COVID-19.

Renaming the Stages of Grief (A Life Interrupted)

This rainbow appeared in the sky on the evening of Mom’s funeral.

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”  William Shakespeare

You can call it a charmed life, a blessing or maybe it was just dumb luck, but my experience with grief has been minimal until recently.  I barely remember attending funerals as a kid and when we did, I really didn’t have a strong connection to the departed.  However, all that has changed in adulthood…especially in the last few years.  And here, in 2020, I feel like I’ve been hit with the worst heartache yet after losing my Mom.

Now that I find myself in the throes of grief I’ve become well aware of the stages that accompany it: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  As I continue to process, I realize that a more apt description might be “stages of loss” rather than grief as so many therapists acknowledge these stages include every type of bereavement and are most certainly not limited to death.  Regardless of the type of loss, the stages still exist and the process is never easy.

One of my strongest personality traits is dutifulness.  I clearly get that from my parents and it’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to over the last few months.  I approach life in a resolute fashion.  I like lists…there’s a certain satisfaction that comes with crossing things off.  I also keep a handwritten calendar and methodically cross off the days (I’ve been ridiculed for this one).  I set reminders, use post-its, carry a reporter’s notepad, etc.  All of this helps me keep up with my commitments and uphold my obligations.  I know that people expect things from me and I work hard to fulfill my responsibilities. It’s important to me.  So when approaching loss I immediately went to research the stages of grief and anticipated checking them off one by one.  Let me tell you, this is not how grief works.

Turns out the stages of grief don’t necessarily go in order and they can (and often do) repeat, sometimes more than once…if not endlessly.  This is problematic for stoic types like me who eagerly want to cross things off the list and move forward.  I am not a dweller, but my pragmatic approach to grief isn’t really working out.  I’m not sure what I expected here.  I knew the road would be hard. And while most buy into “the time heals all wounds” camp, as a realist, I know that time doesn’t necessarily heal anything.  A loss will always be a loss— a hard consequence of love.

As I move through this process, I’ve taken it upon myself to rename the stages of grief…making them more applicable for me.  Do with them what you will, but I’ve found these slight variances helpful, healing, and hopeful as I continue to sort out the emotions of losing one of the most beloved figures in my life.

DISBELIEF, not denial.  I know my Mother is gone.  I very well remember speaking to her when she tested positive for COVID-19.  I recall the day she told me she scheduled the drive-thru appointment and we went over her symptoms.  I remember the first and second time she was taken to the emergency room.  I don’t deny the fear and angst that followed.  None of us can deny the three weeks she spent in ICU.  We can’t deny the emotional ups and downs that accompanied the good and bad days in the hospital.  There is no denying that she is gone, no denying the funeral, and no denying the loss.  She isn’t here and I feel it every day, but sometimes I can’t believe all of this happened.  Not to her, not to my strong Mother.  I can’t tell you how many times I still reach for my phone…to call her, to text her.  We had so many plans.

AVOIDANCE, not anger.  I’m not really an angry person.  I can get mad, I can even be a bit of a hothead if you catch me on a bad day.  I have a passionate nature, but I’ve never seen anger solve one single thing.  For me, anger has no purpose.  People have asked me if I’m angry at God.  I am not— the thought hasn’t even crossed my mind.  What I do know is that lately it’s been easier to just avoid emotion altogether.  The loss is raw and if I think about it too much the sadness can be overwhelming.  I know that’s to be expected, but I feel like I can’t live in sadness.  For better or worse, I am guilty of avoiding the emotional component of grief until it seeps out from the corners of my eyes.  I’m doing the best I can to deal with it in small doses.  Losing my Mother is not fair, but it’s not fair for anyone who loses a loved one.

UNCONTROLLABLE TEARS, not bargaining.  As I move out of the “100-day fog,” I am reluctantly beginning to accept the new normal…and right now the new normal involves a lot of tears.  I’m not bargaining, there’s nothing to bargain about.  Therapists often say that “guilt is the wingman of bargaining.”  This is the part of grief where the questions and “what-ifs” take over, followed by guilt for not doing more, making different decisions, and on and on.  What if COVID-19 didn’t happen?  What if we made Mom stay home?  What if we had sought care sooner?  What if…what if…what if…?  The never-ending questions remind me of the old adage about worrying and rocking chairs, both give you something to do, but ultimately get you nowhere.  I know better than to negotiate over things I cannot control and I guess that’s where the uncontrollable tears come in.  Death and loss, they humble you.  They remind us of our humanness, our vulnerability, and that we are most certainly not capable of controlling most things in this life.  I cry over songs on the radio, television shows, photographs, and memories…both good and bad.  If I could make things different, I would…but I can’t…and thus, the tears.  You can’t bargain with tears.

GOOD/BAD DAYS, not depression.*  In my heart of hearts, I truly believe that it’s ok to be sad.  I remember journaling once that to truly know good, one has to fully know bad.  I have been asked countless times over the last few months if I am depressed.  I am not, but I am sad, grief-stricken, heartbroken, and emotionally exhausted.  My Mother is gone.  My world forever changed.  I will miss her every day for the rest of my life.  And yet I know, forward is the only option.  Forward is the best option.  On good days, I laugh and smile remembering and retelling funny stories and sharing treasured memories about my Mom.  On bad days I pray for peace and comfort knowing how fully blessed I am to have called her my Mother.  Then, the process repeats.

PEACE, not acceptance.  In the stages of grief, acceptance comes when one faces their new reality.  There’s an understanding that things will never be the same.  For me, acceptance is not that far removed from denial.  I knew from the moment I received that phone call that things would never be the same.  Not “accepting” the circumstances didn’t make them less real.  There’s no denying the loss and accepting the situation wasn’t negotiable.  Throughout this whole process, I have prayed for peace, an emotional status where there is tranquility and my soul is well.  I have seen this.  I have experienced this.  I have felt this with my whole being.  Right now, that kind of peace is inconsistent, but I know and trust that a feeling of permanent peace will fill my heart one day.

Obviously, the grieving process is difficult.  There are no shortcuts, although most of us will try to find some.  When I talk to my kids about the stages of grief I remind them that there’s communal grief and personal grief.  The communal grief we experience together, as a family.  We deeply feel this type of loss at family gatherings and holidays.  The personal grief is how we process the loss individually.  For most of us, this type of grief is so much harder, but avoiding the stages of grief doesn’t help.  Postponing the sadness will not move us forward.  It’s ok to be sad.  It’s ok to have all the feelings.  It’s ok to talk about the loss because losing someone changes you.

Losing someone changes you.

Because the LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.  Psalm 34:18

*Depression is real.  If you need help, please reach out.

“A Life Interrupted” is an ongoing series of blog posts dealing with the loss of my mother to COVID-19.

 

 

 

No Place OR Space to Sing (A Life Interrupted)

Grief is just love with no place to go.  —Jamie Anderson, author

Not many know this about me, but I love to sing…and I sing all the time!  I have a deep love for all types of music…popular songs from the radio, church hymns, TV theme songs, little ditties from musicals, you name it—I’ve even been known to make up my own songs!  But here’s the thing, if we’re going to get real here, my love for singing is CONDITIONAL as I rarely sing in front of others.  And while I wouldn’t necessarily categorize myself as shy (more of an introvert…and yes, there is a difference,) I do come from a musical family so I think I may have some skill (?), it’s just that my love for music and singing, in particular, is a pastime (a pleasure) just for me.  

When the pandemic began and the Stay at Home order took effect, most of us found ourselves quickly adapting to our new circumstances and reorganizing our lives to accommodate working from home and for those of us with kids, the pros and cons of distance learning.  Since I already work from home I had become very used to having the entire house to myself from 8am-3:30pm every day during the week.  These hours, which I regretfully took for granted, allowed me to work, meet with clients, volunteer, and establish a schedule with plenty of introvert time…in other words, a place and a space to sing.  

During the first few weeks of the shutdown, I barely noticed the lack of song in my life.  With everyone homebound, daily life was consumed with trying to find a new rhythm, learning the ins and outs of Zoom meetings, and checking in on loved ones.  No singing with the bedmaking or laundry.  No singing while making a lunchtime sandwich.  No songs at the coffee pot.  Without kid pick-ups and drop-offs, travel to meetings, or even just outings for shopping, my drive-time concerts ceased, too.  It’s not that I wasn’t plugged in or without access—I felt like I was constantly connected to my iPhone and my earbuds were practically glued to my ears at all times!  The reality was that I just couldn’t find a time or a place to sing.  In some ways, it was like our average size home transformed into an HGTV tiny house overnight.  A tiny house with no place to sing.

I’m not sure how real singers manage, but for myself, I have to be in the mood to sing.  Singing is not something that I can just turn on or off.  Aside from being in a place to sing there are so many things to consider.  Music genre, tempo, and playlist.  It shouldn’t be this complicated and so if this sounds like it is, it’s just me.  This is my way.  Complicated.  And it’s not that I stopped listening to music during these early days of the pandemic, it’s just that I couldn’t sing.  Maybe, more like a feeling that I shouldn’t sing.

Easter came and went.  My birthday came and went.  Still no singing.  Then at the beginning of May, both my parents tested positive for COVID-19.  I’m going to state the obvious.  You need air to sing, and suddenly there simply was no air.  Up to this point, all the emotions that accompany a pandemic (stress, anxiety, weariness) were an undercurrent for me.  I’m a realist, I understood the risks when all this began.  I was not naive to think that our family would go untouched.  Yet, I worked hard to balance faith over fear.  With their diagnosis came a heaviness and a weight of worry and concern.  As my father recovered, my mother’s condition worsened…eventually she was hospitalized.  Like I said, you can’t sing without air.

My mother’s time in the hospital was filled with ups and downs, hope and trepidation, good days and bad days…and finally, the worst day.  

Nothing prepares you for grief. The day following her death, I found myself for the first time in many weeks alone in the car.  Settled in for a four-hour drive, I finally had a place to sing.  My first inclination was to turn on the radio, but it wasn’t to be.  Although I had a place to sing, there was just no space in my heart to sing.  Instead, I drove in silence.

In the past two months, I have experienced a vast array of emotions.  Some days have been a complete blur, as the time has both flown by and stood eerily still. As much as one can after loss, we have settled into the uncomfortable and are moving forward, it is the only option. Today, finding a place and a space to sing still remains challenging, but thanks to my daughter’s shared love of musicals (and the absurdly catchy “Hamilton”), I am again slowly finding my voice.  

Ironically, on my way to pick Casey up from soccer practice last week, the song “Drinking Problem” came on the radio along with a flood of memories.  My mother, who never had a beer in her life, loved this song!  My sister and I discovered this interesting tidbit while driving with her to my grandmother’s 90th birthday party last fall.  We were floored to learn that she knew every single word and wasn’t afraid to sing it out.  Through tears, neither was I.  In her memory, a place and a space to sing.

The Lord is my strength and my shield; in Him my heart trusts, and I am helped; my heart exults, and with my song, I give thanks to HIm. —Psalm 28:7

“A Life Interrupted” is an ongoing series of blog posts dealing with the loss of my mother to COVID-19.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Great Humbling (Responding to a Pandemic)

What humility does for one is it reminds us that there are people before me. I have already been paid for. And what I need to do is prepare myself so that I can pay for someone else who has yet to come but who may be here and needs me.

Maya Angelou

I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist.  I categorize myself simply as a realist.  Midlife will do that to you.  I fully believe in the good of mankind.  I have high hopes for myself and the human race.  I like to give people the benefit of the doubt.  I choose kindness and grace at every opportunity.  I believe in going the extra mile and not expecting anything in return. And yet, I confess that I’m skeptical.  I’ve seen enough to know that we (myself included) don’t always rise to the occasion.  We are flawed, broken, weary, judgmental, and more than these we are fully human seeking to serve self first.  We (again myself included) hate to hear the word “no.”  Pride is incredibly insidious and has earned its rightful rank as one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

In light of current events, both our collective and personal flaws have become more evident.  The hoarding is just the beginning.  The outright backbiting and blaming on social media, television, radio and in-person are a reminder that we are not operating as our best selves.  Dismissing and cutting down noted medical professionals and downplaying directives from our elected leaders demonstrates our inability to hear the word “no.”  My first thought was that this was entirely an American phenomenon, but that’s not the case.  Selfishness exists around the world.  We’re all guilty here.  People I know and love are presently operating out of this selfishness and privilege.  While we are collectively coping with this pandemic, the root of this global “me-first” perspective is pride.  And pride is a human condition, one than equally affects politicians, religious leaders, CEOs, celebrities, athletes, influencers, neighbors, family members, friends, you and me.

Yet, hope is not lost.  There is good.  I’ve seen it.  You’ve seen it.  We’re all trying.  And let’s be honest, some days are better than others.  I truly believe the difference maker here is humility.  The dictionary defines the word humble as not proud, haughty, arrogant, or assertive.  To be humble is to express deference or submission.  In a culture that values status and seeks accolades, it’s easy to note our lack of humility.  It’s not because we don’t understand the definition.  We do.  We just don’t like it.  We don’t value it. Plus, the messaging has always been confusing.  How am I supposed to stand up for myself, value myself, claim and proclaim my self worth, and cultivate healthy self-esteem if I put others above myself?  No one wants to be walked on, dismissed or set aside, and yet that remains the connotation.

The Bible offers us another perspective on humility.  One where we earnestly value others, where we understand that we’re all in this human experience together, one where my life is no more significant than any other life.  I have no right to anything or anyone.  My life is a gift and I’m called to live in response to that.  I have been claimed by an almighty and powerful God.  My eternity was bought and paid for by the sacrifice of a Savior.  I am not called to react, but only to respond.  And that response is humility.

Years ago I heard a Christian leader describe the Bible as God’s great love story.  It changed my perspective.  The Bible was no longer a collection of books, but one big narrative about a Creator and His creation.  My understanding grew.  I could see new and more meaningful connections not just between its chapters and characters, but between then and now.  The Bible became not just a love story but a living, breathing, and extremely timely on-going narrative for Christians today.  And that story continues.  As followers, our lives are an unwritten testimony for all to see.

The reality of the pandemic has weighed heavily on my heart.  My reflective nature and night owl tendencies have given me a lot of time to ponder.  When stress, worry, and anxiety fill my thoughts, I pray and think about the things I can control.  And I am grateful for a faith that I can rely upon.  I wholeheartedly believe that while these days are scary, uncomfortable, and unpredictable, there are lessons and blessings to be found.  Still, I am not naive.  We are largely walking through unchartered territory and we will all respond differently in the days, weeks, and months to come. Fear will take over at times.  Tensions will run high.  We will be tested.  We will fail.  And again, some days will be better than others.  But, there will be opportunities for us to be a light, to meet the needs of others, and most of all, opportunities to respond humbly.

Life isn’t a short game.  It is a journey.  Are you able, or more accurately, are you willing to make sacrifices, submit to those who know more than you do, and go without?  Can you pause, wait, and humble yourself before God and neighbor?  My prayer is that each of us will respond accordingly and do our part.  Stay home, wear the mask when necessary, and don’t forget to wash your hands.

Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.   James 4:10

From Gray to Grace

Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it.  Haruki Murakami

Last week’s tragedy will never make sense.  No answer will ever be good enough.  Understanding will likely never come.  A life cut short.  Senseless violence.

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ERNIE ORTIZ 1949-2019

It has been said that we’re all one phone call away from dropping to our knees. And nothing has ever been more true. Human life is fragile and fleeting. Most of us naively walking around as if we have all the time in the world, as if our days are not numbered, as if we have some sense of control…and sadly, we do not.  And while life itself is a gift, we don’t always live like it.  Our words, our actions, our brokenness speak for themselves reminding us that we are all fallible humans.  Even the best of us walk the line between sinner and saint daily.

So it is no surprise that at some point, we all find ourselves here…struggling with loss in its many forms, be it friendships, relationships, marriages, jobs, hopes or dreams, but I feel it is the loss of life that hurts the most.  It’s inescapable.  Unavoidable.  The grief, the permanency, maybe even the unknown…it fills our thoughts, occupies our hearts and often leaves wounds that never quite heal.

Statistically, death occurs on a bell curve with our most vulnerable moments at the beginning and the end of our life spans.  If you’re lucky, it’s something one only deals with during their latter days.  We know that death due to age, illness, and disease remain tragic, but a life taken too soon, a life snuffed out, a life robbed at any age hurts as if it’s been compounded tenfold.  Many will tell you that time heals all wounds.  Maybe.  More realistically though, time only allows for space between the hurt.

Finding peace is all circumstances isn’t easy.  In fact, it’s a lot of work.  If you’re not a Christian, I honestly don’t know how you do it.  For me, knowing that I have a God who walks beside me is something that I don’t take for granted.  When I am weak, He is my strength.  When I am lost, He is my rock.  Christ’s ultimate sacrifice reminds us that death doesn’t have the final say.  Uncle Ernie was a believer, I take comfort in that.  Our lives, our very existence is not in vain.  On the mountaintop and in the valley, there remains a plan and a purpose for each of us.

In the days and weeks to come, stories will be told and photos will be shared. In talking with family, we have chosen to focus on the “dash” and celebrate a life LIVED.  As poet Linda Ellis explains, “He noted that first came the date of birth and spoke of the following date with tears, but he said what mattered most of all was the dash between those years.”  And what a dash it was!  Countless adventures, innumerable memories, and a bounty of friends.

When you’re a kid, life seems so black and white.  There’s good and evil.  Right and wrong.  The lines are clearly drawn.  As we grow up, move from adolescence through adulthood, we realize that life is actually more of a marbled gray.  Dark shades, complicated, stressful, and uneven as we navigate day to day living among the broken, but intermixed with bright hues, beautiful, joyful, and full of promise!  As we all inch forward, I pray that we move from that marbled gray into grace!  Life is too short to live any other way.  Let us approach each other more tenderly and offer love, patience, and kind words…only then can we truly find resolve (and maybe even peace) along the way.

Rest Easy, Uncle Ernie.

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 

2 Corinthians 5:1

Teen Birthday? Whatever, You’ll Always Be My Baby

I’m one of those moms who tends to go overboard with my kids’ birthdays.  Elaborate cakes, carefully planned parties, and that oh-so-perfect gift.  That being said, I had a little epiphany today–today being my son’s birthday.  As the memories came flooding back of the day he was born and the tear drops started forming, my left brain made a striking realization.  Turns out that my “overboard” approach to celebrating these special days, has a lot to do with my own personal fear of my children growing up.  So, to borrow a phrase from my mommy handbook…”you may not understand now, but I have my reasons.”

My little boy came bouncing into this world three weeks early after a healthy pregnancy turned troublesome.  I was so ready following a month of bed rest, a week of being repeatedly induced, and swelling that made me practically unrecognizable.  Our little bundle was gorgeous and perfect in every way.  And despite some post-pregnancy bumps, we finally settled into parenthood and the real fun (work?) began.

Sean was an easy baby except where sleep was concerned.  That kid hated to sleep and when he finally did fall asleep, it was never, EVER for long (a phenomenon that still holds true.)  His saving grace was his sweet little brown eyes that sparkled in the most amazing way.  Excuse my “mom-gush”, but that boy’s eyes “smile.”  Even to this day, he will be as ornery as any boy can be and follow it up with this look that could melt just about anything…especially my heart.  (Let it be noted that while these smiling eyes occasionally get him OUT of trouble, it’s the same smiling eyes that serve as his TELL when he’s trying to put one over on me.)

Like most kids, Sean has inherited qualities from both my husband and myself.  He has a terrific sense of humor like his Dad.  He’s such a funny kid with a quick wit and the ability to turn a phrase…especially when you least expect it!  Fortunately, he’s a good student like his Mom and manages to keep his clownishness at a reasonable level and not get into trouble at school.  Sean is a huge sports fan like his Dad and has enough good sense to choose the Kansas Jayhawks over every other team (like his Mom.)  Sean loves to build things and has a knack for figuring things out sans instruction booklets…that’s a Dad thing.  At the same time, he likes to watch ridiculous comedies (Kicking & Screaming, Even Stevens Movie or Christmas with the Kranks) over and over like his Mom.

So here’s where it comes full circle.  I don’t just love my son.  I really, truly like him, too…and thus, the overboard birthday parties.  I enjoy baking him extra special chocolate birthday cakes, I like creating and planning parties that reflect his favorite things, and I put a lot of thought into his gifts…all to purposefully mark the day when God blessed me with his precious child, a child who despite my objections, continues to grow up.  Let’s face it, time is ticking.  And while I am perpetually celebrating my 22nd birthday (lol), my little boy is racking up the birthday candles and moving ever closer to birthdays that I won’t be able to plan.  And it’s all coming too quickly.

Thank you, Lord, for blessing me with a gift more wonderful than anything I could have asked for.  Happy birthday, Sean.  I love you.  You are my sonshine…cheesy, but true.

Son, you outgrew my lap, but never my heart.  ~Author Unknown

Parents are Perpetual LOSERS (Looking for the Win Column)

“The first 40 years of parenthood are always the hardest” – Unknown

I guess it’s fair to say that we’ve hit the “rocky stage.”  It’s the craggy valley where your kids try your patience, serve up dozens of complaints, defy you at every turn, accuse you of the most outlandish things (like purposefully ruining their lives!) and all before Cheerios.  I believe the marketing industry categorizes this phase of adolescence as “tween,” but that sounds a little too benign for this particular stage of development.  And while I’m not sure how we got here, (as far as I can tell) there are no posted signs for the nearest exit.  The most baffling part (at least for me) is that just when I think things can’t get any crazier and I start wondering who these children REALLY belong to, I find myself the recipient of a hug and a warm smile.

04-ecardSo what’s up?  It’s the same old story.  Only it seems all the more confusing since I’m the Mom actually living through it.  I feel like the victim of some kind of psychological warfare, thus making it hard to balance what I know is age appropriate behavior with these outrageous episodes.  I know enough to realize that I wasn’t the perfect child.  Yet, I still seem to think that on so many levels I had to be a little easier than my two kiddos.  “Can I have this?  Can you get me that?  If I do this, then will you…” (fill in the blank with some outlandish request), followed by, “Do I have to?” and “You CAN’T make me!” It’s like we stepped back in time and I’m the mother of toddlers again.  Suddenly, the automatic kid response to everything is “No” accompanied with eye rolling (that’s new) and foot stomping.  I shudder to think of what might happen if the two actually got along long enough to conspire against my husband and I.  My sweet, darling daughter often takes her cues from her older brother which only seems to compound the problem.  And whoever said that boys were easier than girls doesn’t know squat about my household.  So what’s a Mom to do?

Basically, I pray a lot.  I try to understand where they’re coming from and channel my own tween years.  I take a deep breath and sometimes I actually have to ESCAPE to my happy place.  I remind myself that parenting is not easy.    In fact, it’s pretty much a thankless job.  And I think that’s the part that bothers me the most.  That’s the part that hurts so much.  The lack of gratitude.  These children have EVERYTHING.  I’m not just talking about material things, these children absolutely have the whole, wide world laid out before them!  My brain knows that their lack of gratitude isn’t something I should take personally, but still my heartstrings can’t help but feel heavy and pulled and sometimes even FRAYED at the end of the day.  It’s tiresome, worrying and basically not much fun.

On bad days…well, it’s bad.  Good days (as in 24 continuous hours of bliss) are hard to come by.  That’s why I’m trying to hang on (and find hope in) the little things.  I’ve secretly started calling these rare occurrences “Mom-tastic Moments.”  They’re the small victories that I tuck into my heart and hold on to for dear life.  They stack up like this….

win column

Like with anything, the good times are unpredictable and unscheduled.  The outrageous moments seem to happen at the most inconvenient times.  And since this parenting thing doesn’t come naturally to me, I have to call upon my own life experiences to get by…and sometimes that makes for a parent-child disconnect.  For example, I remember how much my husband laughed when he overheard me telling our newborn, “If this breastfeeding thing is going to work out, you’re going to have to learn to FOCUS.”  Needless to say, my baby didn’t choose to listen to me (even at two days old) and we had to move on to bottle feeding.  Short-term loss, long-term gain (the kid had to eat right?)  And many years later, my rational approach to life still gets trumped by these two irrational beings.  I’ve read all the books, researched and googled every problem, and (in desperation) I’ve even tried to reason with them!  Most of which has gotten me nowhere.  So while I’m still neck-deep in this motherhood thing, here’s What I Now Know (WINK) about parenting:

  • THERE’S POWER IN NUMBERS.  Don’t go at this parenting thing alone.  I know the two parent household isn’t the norm for everyone, and that’s okay.  As much as you can, involve the other parent, both sets of grandparents, aunts, uncles and even trusted friends.  Role models do not have to be blood related.  Many times things that I have harped on my kids about become an “aha” experience when the same advice comes out of the mouth of an adult other than myself.  I’m way over feeding any sort of parenting ego…if there’s someone else who can aid my efforts and serve as a voice of reason, then by all means 🙂
  • MAKE YOUR EXPECTATIONS KNOWN.  Not all things go as planned, but I’m slowly finding that if I speak up about what I expect from my kiddos then at least we’re all on the same page (if only for a brief second.)  No–this doesn’t mean everything will go perfectly, but it’s better than having that horrible conversation after everything has gone wrong only to hear your child say to you, “Well, why didn’t you tell me that’s what you wanted in the beginning” or “I didn’t know that’s how it was supposed to go down.”  Although they sometimes act like three-year olds, I find that things go a lot smoother when I approach them with clear “big kid” expectations.
  • DON’T TAKE EVERYTHING PERSONALLY.  This is probably the hardest one.  I really try to live by the golden rule.  I’m not sure this is a priority for my kids…and I have to remind myself to cut them some slack.  Science reminds us of all the growth and development that takes place in a child’s mind.  Researchers have proven that a “mature,” functioning brain (complete with a rationale for risk taking) doesn’t exist until one’s early 20s.  Obviously, they’re not going to be perfect.  I often remind myself (and them) that we all have feelings, words and actions both speak volumes, and that we’re a family that LOVES each other.  Some days are better than others.
  • IT’S OKAY TO BE A LOSER.  This one is going to need some clarification.  Remember how I mentioned short-term loss, long-term gain?  That’s parenting in a nut shell.  We lose a lot in this exchange:  sleep, control, time, energy, money, arguments…and the list could go on and on.  The gains don’t typically take place in the parenting trenches.  Often times they come much (much) later.  It’s a miracle to me that any of us signed up to do this! But then I think about the gains:  smiles, hugs, love, and eventually…appreciation, respect, and wisdom 🙂  This is big picture stuff, and the big stuff never is (and maybe shouldn’t be) easy.
  • CALL YOUR MOM (a lot.)  She has a way of putting things into focus.  My mom reminds me that I’m not the first mother to go through this and that it’s all NORMAL.  I need to hear it and you probably do, too!  Mothers who have graduated into “grandmotherhood” have an insight and a perspective that just cannot be matched.  Besides, acknowledging your mother’s hard-earned wisdom is a heartwarming way of showing your mother how much you love and appreciate her…even if it took you decades to get there!  No one person has had more influence on my life than my mom…and she deserves to know that!

I am far from the perfect parent.  There are still days when I’m as far away from the win column as any one person can get.  I lose my cool more often that I like.  But, like most of us, I’m in it for the long haul–these kids have my whole heart 🙂  For some crazy reason, (as irrational as it sounds) I wouldn’t trade it for the world.  And when my children are 40…well, maybe (just maybe) I’ll get that win column tally mark I’ve been waiting for….  Hope you get yours, too!

😉 What I Now Know (W.I.N.K.) is a recurring entry on this blog.  The idea of WINK as an acronym popped into my head the other day while I was doing laundry.  You see, aside from being a slave to housework I actually have quite a bit of knowledge filed away in my overworked brain.  While I don’t claim to be an expert on anything, I know something about a few subjects that just might be worth sharing.  And just like that this new blog idea was born–WINK (What I Now Know).  I hope to share a little bit of what I’ve learned as a daughter, sister, friend, wife, mother and all-around regular, ordinary girl.  Look for ongoing posts, but What I Now Know (as a busy wife and mother) is not to promise weekly entries because life happens– and it usually happens when I want to blog!  (Here’s where if I could wink at you, I WOULD.)

Lest We Forget

11988726_429047497291597_5725020903439229141_nI was not anywhere near the tragedies of 9-11…at least not physically. We watched the events unfold on television while sitting on a couch in our tiny apartment on a seminary campus just north of San Francisco.  Like most of the country, we sat dumbfounded.  No one spoke.  Everyone cried, including my newborn son.  It was a lot to take in.  Clearly the world had changed.  I’m certain I will never forget that day…and yet I do.  We all do.  It slips in and out of our thoughts as we Americans seek routine and demand normalcy.  And then, we remember again.

My mother-in-law, Karen, woke us up with the news that day.  Given the three-hour difference between New York and California, my husband and I were still sleeping.  Karen was helping to care for our newborn son (she had been up feeding the baby) and held him in her arms when she came into the bedroom.    I remember her voice, mostly a whisper, saying, “You have to see this,” as she ushered us into the next room.  It didn’t take but a moment for us to realize that this was not good news.  Over the next few hours we watched news coverage of our country being attacked.  Like a bad movie, it all seemed so surreal as report after report showed one plane crash and then another and another.  Time stood still.

Eventually, there were phone calls.  Lots of phone calls.  While the East Coast was under attack, it didn’t take long for family and friends to try to reach out to one another…making sure everyone was accounted for.  Living in the Bay Area, it occurred to us that San Francisco could easily be on a target list.  I tried to put it out of my mind, but looking at my baby, Sean, I remember thinking THIS WASN’T THE PLAN!  If you know me, you know I have these random (and possibly irrational) thought outbursts.  Sean and I had already been through a bumpy pregnancy, a scary delivery, followed by two hospital stays and he wasn’t even two weeks old yet.  I cried.  What kind of a world was this?

Panic is an interesting emotion.  It builds upon itself and opens the door to sadness, fear and anger.  Nothing seemed right.  Immediately, I prayed for those at the scene.  I prayed that there would be survivors.  I prayed that help would arrive on time.  I prayed for justice.  I worried about kids who were at schools and people on the freeway trying to get home.  I especially prayed for those in the air.  Eventually, we learned that Steve’s uncle’s flight was diverted to Canada.  My mother informed me that large passenger planes had been forced to land at the small airport in the tiny, Kansas town where I grew up.  Everyone was on heightened alert.  And this is where we stayed emotionally, not just for the day…but for days and days which eventually stretched into weeks.

There is another memory that I will forever carry with me about this particular time in our nation’s history.  On the way to church the next week, there were armed soldiers on the Golden Gate Bridge.  Dozens of them.  The beauty of this national landmark and the breathtaking scenery surrounding it took a backseat to the reality of life in the United States at that moment.  My heart sank.  Would it always be like this?  Could we find our way back?  Would anything ever be the same?  I know I was not alone in asking these questions.  Yet, it’s at times like these where we find our faith and ultimately our strength.  That Sunday we praised, prayed and sang to an all-powerful, loving God.  This, I will always want to remember.

America is a great nation, founded on wonderful principles that continue to fill its people with a sense of pride and purpose.  Our country rallied.  We made plans, sought out ways to ensure the safety of our people, and moved forward.  Some would say that THIS IS the American way.  The days since have not always been easy.  The threat of terrorism has become the new normal.  And we’ve had to adjust.  The world is different and we are different.  A swell of nationalism permeated every part of our country during those times.  Many laid aside their differences as we came together in prayer and resolve.  In the following months and years much was sacrificed to apprehend those responsible for this unbelievable tragedy.  The events of that one day dramatically affecting every part of American life.

Unfortunately, in the years since the attack we have seen that sense of unity erode.  Nowadays, America is known for its political infighting.  Activists of all kinds have sought to divide the people in countless ways.  Those spewing hate have managed to turn neighbors against one another.  Agendas have created word wars and many have been hurt…even killed.  All of this within our own borders while the threat of terrorism still looms large.  I hate what happened to our country on 9-11, but in remembering the tragedy itself we can find hope.  Today (on the anniversary,) in every way and shape imaginable WE REMEMBER.   Today, at every turn we recall the significance of this day and remember the lives lost.  Today, we seek to honor and recognize the true heroes among us.  Today, social media is filled with symbolism and pride as we cannot and will not forget what has happened.  Surprisingly, I find comfort in this type of remembering.

I’m certain I will never forget that day…and yet I do.  We all do.  It slips in and out of our thoughts as we Americans seek routine and demand normalcy.  And then, we remember again…lest we forget.

9-11 Timeline

When pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.  –C.S. Lewis

College Bound? READ THIS.

“I’m not telling you it’s going to be easy – I’m telling you it’s going to be worth it.”  -Art Williams

Congratulations!  You’re about to embark on an exciting adventure!  And if you’re anything like I was at age 18, then you had one foot halfway out the door during senior year.  I originally offered this advice to my niece when she made her BIG move, but I thought I would offer it again here.  (Original post-January 5, 2017.)

  1. Moving away from home/going to school takes guts. Not everyone can do it. Not everyone should do it, but having the courage to walk away from everything you know and try something new/exciting/scary and uncomfortable deserves some major props. In doing this, you have already proven one thing: you are WILLING to take chances. Kudos.
  2. In many ways, you’ve been preparing for this your whole life and in many other ways, you’re not prepared at all. This is okay. In fact, it’s better than okay. It’s absolutely normal.
  3. Good things will happen and bad things will happen, too. How you deal with these things will make all the difference. My favorite quote is by author Og Mandino. It says “Count your blessings, proclaim your rarity, go another mile, USE WISELY YOUR POWER OF CHOICE, and one more–to fulfill the other four–do all things with love…love for yourself, love for all others, and love for GOD….You Are the Greatest Miracle in The World.” You can always choose. Remember that no hole is too deep, no place is too far for redemption.
  4. Never date a man with hair better than your own. Random, I know…but really. Who needs the competition? I actually came up with this rule while visiting friends at K-State. I can’t remember what the circumstances were exactly, but it’s a rule that has served me well.
  5. Talk to God (a lot) and don’t forget to listen, too. Although I think you should go to church, I have to admit that I didn’t attend while I was in college. I can honestly tell you that I missed out and I would definitely do this part differently today. Nonetheless, I did a whole lot of praying during that time and LISTENING to God, too. This saved my bacon more than once and I am eternally grateful. Looking back I can clearly see God at work during my college years. Make your relationship with Him a priority.
  6. Practice the “pause.” I didn’t come up with this…I’m not sure who did, but it makes a lot of sense and it may actually save your life someday. “When in doubt, pause. When angry, pause. When tired, pause. When stressed, pause. And when you pause, always pray.”
  7. Keep an eye on your drink. Again, another random one…but this is vital. There are bad guys (and girls) out there. People who do not have your best interest at heart. People who will try to use (and abuse) you and hurt you to satisfy their own evil desires. These people will buy you drinks and worse, they may even spike your drink. I made it a practice to never, ever, EVER accept a drink from a stranger (and eventually I didn’t accept any drinks at all.) It was not always well received. I’ve been called countless names, been yelled at, and made fun of. I didn’t care. In fact, it just proved that this was someone who I definitely didn’t have any business hanging out with. If someone wants to buy you a drink, great. The two of you can go up to the bar and order it together. At a party, keep in mind that you are perfectly capable of pouring your own drink. Carry a water bottle (drunkenness is overrated anyway.) Be on guard. Protect yourself…and look after your friends, too.
  8. You’re not expected to peak now. While these clearly are some of the best days of your life…they’re not the only days of your life. Someday you might choose to travel, land your dream job, become President, meet an awesome guy, have a fabulous wedding, start your own business, become a mother…the list goes on and on. Life is a series of journeys. Never think that your best days are behind you…always look forward.
  9. Trust your gut…that’s the Holy Spirit at work. Look people in the eye, but more importantly, watch what they say and do. I wholeheartedly believe God speaks to us and a little warning light goes off when we’re in bad company. Do not ignore this! Women (especially) tend to discount this small little voice. We want to be nice, we want to give people the benefit of the doubt, we don’t want to seem childish or afraid…you get the point. So we make nice…and often times this puts us in very vulnerable situations. If it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t right. End of story. You owe no one an explanation.
  10. Finally, know this…you can always go home. ALWAYS. There is no shame. You’ve stepped out once, you can and will do it again. This IS life. Having a home base is a luxury not afforded to everyone. You have a family that would move mountains for you (just ask.) This is an incredible blessing.

SPECIAL NOTE:  You cannot live on Ramen.  You will try (we all do.)  But I repeat, you cannot live on Ramen.  

Remember, there are a lot of people rooting for you, kid!  You got THIS.  Welcome to your next adventure!

The old is gone.  The new is here.  2 Corinthians 5:17