Saturday, May 5, 2018

To My Sons:
Today you both graduate. Dad and I have split ways to attend separate graduations in different states. Years ago when you both learned that I never graduated from college, I will never forget the incredulous looks “Wait, what? You didn’t graduate from college?” I chipped away at it, even after marriage, but once I became pregnant, I went from studying books to studying baby boys become grown men.

Dear Christopher: Today you will accept your doctorate in physical therapy. I am not surprised. Amazed and awed and proud beyond belief, but not surprised.

Things have not always come easily to you, but I have watched you pick up the broken pieces of dreams left behind and stack them carefully to build something new.

You were a happy boy who was an only child for five years. When your brother came along you fiercely protected him at first, until the newness wore off. In the three years it took Eric to say any word clearly, you were the only one who could decipher his language. He called you “Ja Ha.” I can still hear him in his little three-year-old voice. “Ja Ha” slowly became “Christopher” as the two of you began a year’s long crusade of relentless arguing.

I was a mom with little patience and as much as you two bickered, I begged you to stop. Of the many things I wish I could undo and do over as a parent, interfering in your mostly harmless disputes would be the first. I am certain that somewhere along the way something happened that put a wedge between the two of you. If only I would have been a better parent or a more involved parent or loved you both a little better, things would be different. But I wasn’t, and I’m not and things are as they are.

Despite your age difference, or maybe because of it, Eric always looked up to you and followed closely behind in everything you did. Of yours and Eric’s many pursuits, Tae Kwon Do and high school powerlifiting were the two that gave us the most wonderful memories. Dad had been a black belt in Tae Kwon Do for many years and was determined that both of you would also earn your black belts.

You excelled at Tae Kwon Do and moved quickly from one belt to another. You started at the age of 7 and by the time you were 15, you were devoting many hours a week to practicing and studying to earn your third-degree black belt. How I begged dad to let you quit since testing came during your first year of high school and while playing freshman football.

You and dad were sparring partners as you practiced together for this hours’ long test. Red-faced and exhausted, we returned home many hours later and dumped your duffel bags filled with gear into basement storage.

Your Dad and I so enjoyed watching you play football in middle school. You seemed determined to be a brick wall standing in place that became unbreakable to all opponents. By high school the competition became a bit more dog eat dog as several middle schools poured players into one large high school.

I grew so tired of throwing your clean uniforms in the wash only to return a week later just as clean. I pleaded endlessly in my head for your coach to just give you a chance, just let you play.

Oh, the joy when you decided to join the powerlifting team! The many hours we spent at tournaments to watch you lift for 30 seconds was worth it times 100! It was always so exciting to see you challenged and then succeed.

Your subtle sense of humor, your dogged determination and fierce loyalty to anything you set your mind to, have served you well.

Dear Eric: Today you will accept you bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. That you accomplished this in only four years, not skidding into home base with dirt flying in all directions, but with grace and aptitude, is in part because of your amazing ability to adapt to what is.

When I moved you from our neighborhood school to attend the new charter school across town in third grade, you were so mad at me. When I picked you up after your first day, you walked quickly past me while uttering angrily in my ear, “I hate it here, I want to go back to my old school.” Until the second day came and you settled in so well it eventually became a second home of friends and family.

The kindness of your gentle heart was evident early in your life. I would board the school bus with you and buckle you into your seat before you headed to your early childhood classes. Before you would sit down you insisted on stopping and talking to each of the disabled kids on the bus. You always found something wonderful to say. “I love the pink ribbons in your hair.” Or “That’s a nice backpack.” You were a wonder at such an early age.

Everyone has heard the story of you going on your first service trip with your church group. Dad and I stood to the side with you at arm’s length. We didn’t recognize anyone and said as much. “Eric, do you know anyone?” I don’t know anyone yet” was your wonderful reply.

If you have a candy bar or a cookie, you will split it in half and give me the bigger piece; if there is trash on the road, you stop to pick it up; you won’t pass a donation canister without dropping in fistfuls of change. Your heart for the Lord is huge and you have been displaying his love as an example to our family since you could talk.

You are adaptable, and patient and you never choose the easy route. And the same joy that we received watching Christopher on the powerlifiting team, we experienced with you. I am certain you watched your brother and wanted to do as well as him. You both excelled through your hard work and determination.

You both matter and you have been worth the sacrifice. You are the skin in the game that gives me life. And the love I have for you, as well as the joy I receive watching you become men, is boundless.

My greatest hope is that you find your way back to each other and become the friends that only brothers, who are the only ones who have us as parents, can be.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

It is Only Change

My youngest packed up his Prius this morning and drove back for his last semester of college. As I dodged in and out of the bathroom to hide my full-body sobs, I discovered that I’ve become an expert at breaking down one minute and pulling it back together the next.

The last few years have given me a lot of practice that most people would simply call “life.” Our family has not suffered unrecoverable blows to our foundation, just a lot of small paper cuts to the tips of a few too many fingers that simply refuse to heal.

As late afternoon turned into evening, I sat on the far edge of our living room sofa and told my husband that I had spent the entire day feeling sorry for myself. I proceeded to hopscotch from one subject to the next, avoiding my husband’s eyes for fear his confusion would become one more source of self-pity. The tears began to fall again, and I let them dry on my cheeks to await the next round sure to come later.

For someone who does not like change, the last few years have hit me with an onslaught of seasons. A long and cold winter with too much snow, became freshly mowed grass and bright pink zinnias, only to turn to crisp fall leaves and another winter to shovel out from under once again.

Yesterday my husband and I sat at our kitchen table across from yet another real estate agent. While my husband excused himself to retrieve some papers in our secret file cabinet of life, I sat face to face with a woman who smelled sweetly of hard work and high success to my where-has-my-life-gone flannel and stained Ugg slippers. She explained why she was the one to sell our newly-built home and I rolled a hundred reasons through my head as to why she would never be able to find the right buyer for this house.

When we moved from what was essentially our life-long home two years ago, I mourned and moved on as best I could.  Change is a guarantee in life and those who refuse to roll into its sucker punch mostly become bitter people who, like me currently, give into self-pity.

I want to be angry and have someone to blame. It is a familiar place for me. When I launch my grenades full of bitterness that freefall from our log walls to our cold, hard floors, my husband sweeps them up and gently lays them on the counter: “these sorts of things happen to people every day”; “other qualified people are applying for these jobs too”; “we have a lot of things to be thankful for.” Uggghhhh…. such optimism.

“Success is not final. Failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue, that counts.” This is one of my favorite quotes from Winston Churchill that seems to describe our lives right now: our successes certainly were not final; our failure, or, as I prefer to call it, our set-backs, were not fatal. But we always seem to find the courage to continue. In the grand scheme of life, courage and faith and following a line forward, while refusing to curse the past, is really the only choice.

Every year I seek to find some goodness or goal to pursue. Last year in January I didn’t much feel like doing this. So, this year I am picking up my goals once again and hoping I can turn something into goodness. I have found that gratitude, mostly, is a muscle that needs to be worked daily, and fear, something that needs to be fought with a steadily-held sword minute by minute.

This year I hope to fight the fear with warrior precision and fill my empty jar with gratitude and praise to better grow the baggy bicep of my heart. All the better to roll into the changes, sure to come, courageously. It is only change.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Everything is going to be...

Autumn’s early leaves, in crisp dark reds, pale yellows and cinnamon toast browns, began swirling around our driveway weeks ago. When they began drifting into our dog’s fenced-in kennel, my German shepherd would often carry them into the house between his teeth, one leaf at a time, until their numbers increased and they became piles to be ignored, along with fuzzy caterpillars and ladybugs crawling along the cement.

A few days ago, as I watched the sun set over my newly-bloomed asters and pale pink zinnias, I realized I have now touched my first three seasons in 30 years off anti-depressant drugs. And now as I get ready to set my mind on a better winter than last year, I wonder how everything is going to be.

In April I determined, along with my doctor and husband, that I would stop taking the anti-depressant that I thought had kept me going for so long. Just in case, I pulled out an extra roll of bubble wrap and a few down quilts as protective measures against life’s assaults. I don’t mean someone mugging me on a Wausau side street, I mean an iPhone that suddenly goes dead, an Excel spreadsheet that has left me flummoxed, or a dog that thinks “hello” is a paw to my face. On a bad day, anyone of those things can throw me under the bed.

Instead I used the bubble wrap to cushion homemade cookies that I sent to my son in Michigan and the extra quilts are packed in one of my husband’s hand-built dressers in the basement. I have done so well off anti-depressants that mostly I have wondered why I took them at all. When I felt bad and very bad and worse, I was certain that some combination of drugs, and there were many over 30 years, was off-kilter or not strong enough or too strong or just flat-out wrong.

At one time, drugs provided relief for me and so every time I felt depressed, even while on medications, I was sure that another medication would fix it. This mindset allowed me to spend much of my time moving along from the ages of 20-50 blaming a doctor or a counselor or another person who did not understand my depression. Six months after stopping anti-depressant drugs, I am wondering if they were just a convenient tool around which my whipping post wound itself.

Me without this thing to blame, is something that I am hoping is a little better. A little better because maybe I have found a better way to deal with life’s uncertainties; better because maybe I have stopped blaming things that have no blame; better because maybe I have learned to “just notice” instead of attack; better because maybe I have learned that my chronic worry is chronic lack of faith; and better because maybe I can do what my husband often points out to me: “You can’t always change what happens to you, but you can change how you interact with it.”

I don’t know if I will stay off anti-depressants. But I know I won’t have depression in the same way ever again. I hope I have not dishonored or disrespected those who do have depression in my journey of discovery because I may be a person with depression yet again. But never again will I be a person who blames depression. Instead I will be a person who has depression.

I am a very slow learner. Blessedly I am loved by a patient God. Instead of pounding myself and hating myself, I would like to choose a different path. This morning it involved rolling out my yoga mat and listening to my instructor calmly take me from downward facing dog to upward facing dog to warrior one and deep breath in and deep breath out. Right now, this is my passage of time. Next spring it may be different. In this peaceful slow-down, bad things still happen and life is still hard, but mostly, everything is going to be….