Friday, March 24, 2017

A Lesson in Joy

I was at The Salvation Army recently to pick up something for a client. As I was walking in the doors, there was a young man walking out with his grocery box. in his small box of groceries, they had placed a single, small bottle of soda in the box(which I've never seen before). 

This man, who appeared to have intellectual disabilities, was as happy as anyone that I've ever seen in my life. He showed me his bottle of soda and delightedly told me that he hadn't had a soda in years and that he was going to drink this one today. He was grinning ear-to-ear, his glee contagious to all around him. 

After a moment, he paused in his giddy dance of joy and noticed my empty hands. He asked, somewhat somberly, if I was getting a box of food, as well. I explained to this sweet young man that I was a nurse getting a car seat for a client and was not picking up food for myself. 

He looked confused and asked me if that meant I wouldn't get a bottle of soda. I replied that no, I wouldn't. His face, moments before filled with absolute joy, fell and he began waving back on forth on his feet as if in absolute misery. I tried to explain to him that I didn't need any soda and was not upset in the least. 

His face then lit up again with an idea. He asked me with excitement if I wanted to share his Coke. He told me that we could sit in the sun and share his soda and was so excited at the prospect that he was shaking with joy. 

I didn't, of course, share this young man's soda. He deserved to enjoy every bit himself. His soda didn't fill my stomach but his kindness fed my soul.

That afternoon, on a day in which I'd been incredibly stressed before, I sat on park bench in the sunshine and had shared some conversation with a kind, young man. This complete stranger sipped on his small bottle of soda and grinned as we talked. He was drawing every ounce of happiness out of that simple moment that he could.

After he drank the last drop of the carmel colored soda, we parted ways. I have never again had the privilege of meeting that young man again but this memory will forever be a reminder to me: that gratitude and joy are both choices that we make on a moment-to-moment basis. 

I will never be the same. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Journey Back to Baker Street

"In memory everything seems to happen to music."

It's amazing the power of a song to strip the years away in a single moment. A song from my childhood came on the radio this morning and the world folded in on itself and thirty years disappeared in a breath.

I was driving my daughter to school  and, just as I put my car into park at the elementary entrance, the song Baker Street by Gerry Rafferty came on the radio. I hugged my daughter goodbye and then sat in my car and let the waves of memory wash over me as I listened to the distinctive notes of the saxophone playing around me.

When I was little, maybe 6 or 7, I was given a tiny portable 45 record player. It was my treasured possession, even though the pink pleather box was cracked and weathered. It came with a single record, Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head by BJ Thomas and I played that solitary song over and over and over again until my parents begged for relief. I tucked the record player back into the bottom of my closet and forgot about it for some months.

One day, some months later,  I was commissioned to help a friend of my mom's pack up her apartment to move. While there, I noticed her tossing some records into the trash. I asked if I could have them and she responded that many were scratched but I could have them if I wanted. I remember her shrugging and frowning as though perplexed at my elation over scratched 45s.  The only one of the handful of records that I recognized was Uptown Girl by Billy Joel as it was still being widely played on the radio. I grabbed all of them, recognizable or not, and finished the day of cleaning and packing with a spring in my step.

When I made it home, I pulled out my pink turntable, scooted up onto the bed that I shared with my sister and put record after record on. The woman who had gifted them to me had been right-- many were so scratched that they were unplayable. Two of them, the aforementioned Uptown Girl and Harvest Moon by Neil Young would play all of the way through. Most, however, ended up in my trash can.

I remember sitting there on that bed with my back up against the cold wall of the rickety trailer that we lived in in rural Iowa and placing the last record on the turntable. It too, was very scratched but I was persistently moving the needle around trying to find a spot that would still play. I'm not sure why I was so persistent with this final record, but I was. After a few minutes, I found the sweet spot and the sound of a saxophone solo burst into that tiny, dark bedroom. That sax solo was the only playable part of the record and, only a few seconds of it at that. But, there was something about the energy of those notes that stole my breath away.

I had always been an odd kid-- prone to crying jags, feeling the weight of the world perpetually on my shoulders, struggling with depression as early as kindergarten and with my nose perpetually in a book. It seemed that no one else on earth was like me. I felt lonely every, single day. However, those few notes that played out of my cheap, cracked pink pleather turntable were a revolation  for me. 

Those notes seemed to call out to me and tell me that I wasn't alone, that someone else out there felt the world as deeply as I did. I felt immediately less alone in the world. For the next weeks, until the record would become completely unusable, I would place the needle onto the record's single, sacred, unscratched section and cry with relief as the sounds of melancholy saxophone whispered into my lonely life and filled a hole that had never before been filled.

That broken record began a love affair with music that has since rivaled my voracious need for books. I had found the escapism and human connection of art. A tiny piece of my heart was healed that day and, if judging by my emotional reaction at hearing those same notes again today, the healing continues to this day. I am thankful for that single, broken record that was gifted to me at the time that I most needed it. I am grateful for the magic of music.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Cartography for Moms: Making a Map to Leave Behind

In the still, small moments of the dark of the night, I often catch myself wondering and worrying what would happen to my children if I were to die?

I'm not a stay-at-home mother but you might guess that I were by the amount of work that I do around my home. I am married but am the sole person responsible for cooking, cleaning, laundry, shopping, bill-paying and nearly every other chore around our home. I also meet 90% of the needs of our three children. I carry the weight of this family on my back every single day, like many mothers do. I'm not saying that my husbands contributions are not worthy-- he is the primary breadwinner and a good father. However, the scales for the entirety of our marriage have been tipped, no matter how I fight it, so that I do the vast majority of the household work and childcare, even when we've both worked all day.  While this is something that causes me stress on a daily basis, this article isn't about the unfairness of the situation. No, the stress of the work is minor compared to the constant worry that I carry about what would happen to my family in the instance that I would die.

Now, I'm not planning to leave this Earth anytime soon. There is nothing more that I want in the world than to care for my children until they are grown and to see what they become as adults. I am a nurse by trade, however, and I am painfully aware everyday that we are never promised tomorrow. This fact, the fact of my very impermanence, leads me to wake suddenly in the night, heart pounding in worry about how this house will run if I were leave my Earthly body.

There is nothing in my life that I love more than being a mother. It is the greatest honor of my life. It is also, particularly as a working mother in a high-stress career, the hardest thing that I have ever done in my life. My mind is a running to-do list that is never complete. I juggle so many damn balls every day that I have forgotten what it is like to have a peaceful mind. The chores, the worry, the duties-- they are never-ending. I feel, many days, that no matter how hard I try, I am failing. This is not an easy life but I never stop learning and have become somewhat of a juggle master- able to juggle it all and only rarely letting a ball drop. I often wonder if I were to pass on, if my husband could step in and juggle the same life so that my children would continue to thrive. I worry about it every, single day.

I'll often sit in bed and wonder if my husband can remember how to balance a checkbook and form a budget. He probably doesn't even know our bank password. Shall I leave it to him in a hidden document in the computer just in case? Should I write a cheat sheet for how I create our monthly budgets? I have a running mental list of where I can find our common household items and food for the best price so that I can feed our family and provide toiletries on a tight budget. Shall I make a list- won't the prices continually change? Would a list matter? Can I teach him about coupons and planning meals around grocery sales?

I'll be sitting in traffic and wonder what my children would eat every night if I were to pass on. Would my husband remember that he has to check each and every label for our youngest daughter's allergen? Could he learn to cook more than chicken nuggets and frozen pizza? What about cleaning up after dinner? I don't think he's loaded or unloaded the dishwasher more than a handful of times in our 16 years of marriage. Will he just leave the dirty dishes out on the table like he does now? Who will clean them? Will my children eat junk food and live in filth?

In the witching hour of early evening, when I am simultaneously and frantically cooking dinner, helping the kids with homework, making sure dance/tumbling/scout costumes are cleaned for their activities and cleaning the house...I wonder if he would be able to transition from an existence in which he gets to walk in from work and go straight to the couch into an existence of having nearly every minute of every day be in service to other humans.

When I am comforting my children after they had a hard day, I wonder about writing a document about all of the tiny nuances that I know about each of them so that my knowledge of them would never leave with me. Each of my three children could have their own, massive book. I know them better than anyone else in the world. Of course, as soon as I finished the books, they would need to be rewritten. My amazing children are growing and changing each day. I make sure to sit and listen to them each and every day because, somehow, each new day they are different than the last. I am willing to forgo time with my friends, a perfectly clean house and 10,000 other things to be sure that I get this time with my kids each day. I carry these moments with me in my heart. I cannot imagine how I transfer this knowledge of the metamorphosis of my children onto paper.

There are so many daily duties, large and small, that encompass my day as a working mother. How do I transmit this information to someone else so that they can care for my children in the best way if I was to leave?

And, so I wonder- is there such a thing as cartography for Moms?  Is there a way for me to make a map to show others the way of my family's life?  How can I leave a map behind in the case that I am no longer able to lead the way for my family?

Some items on the map seem much easier to navigate. I can much more easily leave a detailed budget than I teach the subtle nuances in our teenage son's voice that let me know that he had a bad day and might need to talk. I can leave recipes for healthy dinners and lists of what each child likes to eat but how do I explain how to navigate our middle daughter's mood swings when puberty rears its ugly head? I can teach him how to manage a calendar that is carefully color-coded so that he never misses an important activity for one of the kids but how do I explain the way our youngest daughter's eyes change ever so slightly before she has a flare up of her medical condition?

I do not know how to create this magical map, one which keeps my family afloat and moving forward even if their mother, the captain of the boat for the entirety of my children's lives, had moved on.

I think that maybe the maps that we, as mothers, so carefully craft to keep our children's life journeys running smoothly always have roads that lead our children back their mothers so that we can love and care for them at every step in the journey. I fear that if the mother is removed, that this magical map would not work at all. All of this worry has led me no closer to the cartography of the mythical mother map, and maybe the reason is that if you remove the mother, the map becomes useless.

I simply must trust that, should I leave this world, even as hard as I try to tether myself to it, everything will be okay. The map would not stay the same, their lives would not remain the same but my family would carry on their journey without me. Instead of spending my hours worrying about what my children would do without me, I must focus my time on making the most of the hours that we have today. Tomorrow isn't promised but this moment is and I must use it in a better way. I cannot leave my husband or my children a map that will magically light their paths but I can leave them a legacy of love.

Friday, March 3, 2017

The Bittersweet Beauty of Our Children's Growing Independence

I’m not sure when it started, this fixation of taking photos of my children while walking or standing behind them. It must seem strange to some, I’m sure, this view of the back of my children’s heads and bodies.

It has always seemed natural for me, however. What no one tells you before you have children is that parenting is just a long series of letting go, of allowing freedom. In many ways, both literally and figuratively, our children spend much of their lives walking away from us. The events are too many to list here and they begin the very moment of birth:

-The first time that you hold them outside of your own body, your stomach mourning the loss of the movement and life within.

-The first time your baby eats table food, instead of the nourishment from your own body.

-The first tentative steps taken, which quickly turns into running and, for the first time, you are chasing after your child-- the same child that spent the last year safely in the confines of your body and then your arms.

-The first day of preschool, when they run excitedly to play with other children and away from the safety of you.

-The first time that you realize that they would rather spend an evening with their friends, instead of with you.

-The first time that they keep a secret from you and you realize that they have parts of their life that you aren’t a part of.

There are many of these moments. They often come suddenly, these flashes of your child’s independence. It’s enough to take your breath away. It is the way of parenthood, a natural happening and, yet, it can be so painful for the parents who want so desperately to be able to keep their children safe and loved forever. The days often pass so slowly, but the years pass so breathtakingly quickly as a parent. 

So, these pictures of my children walking away from me seem incredibly natural to me. It is natural for children to grow up and learn to live a life separate from their parents, even as painful as it can be for me as their mother.

It is our job, however, to raise our children as independent souls who will thrive on their own in the world. So, while it often hurts my heart to think of how my children are growing up and will be someday off on their own in this big old world, I am proud to see them becoming amazing young adults.

I am trying terribly hard to not view these photos as walking away from their mother, but to see them for what they really are-- my children walking towards an extraordinarily beautiful life for them out in the world.

My children will have their own journey in this life. They will have a life completely separate from mine. That is such a lovely and wonderful part of life. It is my job to prepare them to explore the world, and themselves, at their own pace as they step into themselves and their purpose in the world. I admit that it pains me that they will someday leave the safety of my nest, but I am embracing the beauty of my own journey of motherhood and the journey of what will come for my own life after my loves leave my home to make a place of their own.

These pictures of my children walking away from me are a beautiful reminder to me of the impermanence of the time that my children will spend in my home and in my arms. However, motherhood is not impermanent-- I will love and support them forever and always. 

 Keep walking, wandering and discovering the big world outside of the safety of my arms,  my littlest loves. It is okay to leave your Mama behind- I will always be waiting for you to fly back into my arms when you can. I can’t wait to see the mark that you leave on this world and you cannot do that if you live your entire life sheltered by me, as much as my mother’s heart longs to keep you safe. There is a great, big world out there and it is yours for the taking.