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Lucky

“You should go to the mall,” my mom said. She grabbed another pan from the counter and began to scrub it with the SOS pad.  “You haven’t left the house since Thursday. It’s important to get out with the living again.” She continued. We could talk, we could get some coffee, and maybe a bite to eat.
She couldn’t have known that just four days after Sophia died, we’d also experience the nauseating taste of grief.
The three of us stand in the center of the Eden Prairie mall rotunda, where the black carpeting blends away into blond ceramic tile, waiting for the glass elevator to arrive. Chris with his hands in his jean pockets, gazing up to monitor its slow descent. His eyes are puffy and gray hair has recently won the battle over brown. Time for another “Just for Men” shampoo treatment, I decide. He better not get any on the shower curtain this time because it never comes out.
I’m wearing my bulky great hooded sweatshirt with black yoga pants – the faded ones from New York & Company, not my nice ones from Ann Taylor Loft. I glance down at Annabelle and realize one of her socks is light pink and the other, dark. She’s quiet and content, clearly not bothered by her fashion faux pas.  Does she know this is the first time we’ve taken her out without Sophia?” I wonder.
The click of high-heeled shoes surrounds us from behind. I feel the Quest salesperson’s eyes bearing down on me from the nearby kiosk. “What a great location by the elevator,” I think. “An endless stream of a fresh meat.” I consciously put on my disinterested face to guard myself from his inevitable sales pitch.
My arms feel confused pushing the single stroller and I fidget with my hair, dig in my pockets and feel small bits of cracker and old receipts that should be in my purse. I feel the warm light pouring in from the huge rectangular skylights above me. I smell coffee. Chris shifts his weight and we prepare for the doors to open.
The heavy doors open too slowly. Chris enters sluggishly and I follow pushing Annabelle to the back of the oversized, empty vault. Chris veers to the right and I follow his lead, grabbing for his hand, perhaps for comfort but probably for stability from my shaking legs.
I glance to the right and notice a plethora of  little handprints on the otherwise clear glass elevator wall and my heart chuckles knowing they are right at stroller height. Annabelle tugs at the stroller straps; something must be pinching but she’s quiet so it can’t be that bad. But are the memories haunting her privately, too?
Chris presses the 2 button and the doors begin to close. A hand reaches in to stop them. A woman about my age, jams an umbrella stroller through the opening, then steps in herself, followed by a screaming, sticky faced girl of about five and a waft of cool air.
The woman guides the stroller to the opposite back corner, hoists her bulging diaper bag higher onto her shoulder and tucks a piece of sweaty hair behind her ear.
“Can you push 2 for me,” she says breathlessly.
“Duh, there are only two floors and we’re on one,” I think, knowing Chris is thinking the same.
“Sure,” Chris says and pushes the already lit 2 button. She doesn’t notice her silly mistake.
The girl in her stroller is fishing fruit snacks out from the seat beneath her and I wonder how old they might be. The five year old yanks on her mom’s khaki pants. “You said we could go to the playland!” she wails.
The woman rolls her eyes and wiggles to free her pant leg. She sighs loudly and looks out the elevator window, probably trying to think up an excuse. I want to tell her a good line is that the playland is closed today, but decide that might be inappropriate.
The girl continues to wail unintelligible demands, clearly trying to recruit the help of her younger sister, who is much more interested in the treasures in her stroller seat. The woman glares at the 5 year old but then smiles politely as she turns her gaze to me.
“Your lucky,” she says, sizing up the contents of my stroller. “Take my advice and stick with just the one.”
“No kidding,” Chris replies.
She doesn’t notice her silly mistake.

Writing (and Publishing!) The Hard Stuff

My aunt Sarah keeps asking me why I have to write such depressing stories.
“Why not focus on the happy things? Why dwell on the negative?” she’ll frequently ask.
And at first it makes me angry. How can she not understand? How does she not “get” what I am doing here? I’m immediately defensive and sometimes I even end the conversation abruptly, vowing to not speak to her for a while.
But when I reflect on her question, I realize that it is a valid one. Why do I always seem to write about such sad topics? Why do people tell me that they cry after reading my stories and yet I keep writing them? Do I get gratification from upsetting people?
My family even has a phrase for my innate ability to “bring the crowd down.” They will make the sound “WAH WAH” like they did on the Debbie Downer skits on Saturday Night Live. It’s a signal that I’ve taken a happy conversation and turned it into something sad or depressing.
So I thought I would dedicate a post to this very question. Why do I write such depressing stories?
I think the best way to explain it is to tell you about last night.
Being that I’m in California on vacation with Chris, I took the opportunity to meet up with a girlfriend from high school. I haven’t seen or heard from her in 15 years, with the exception of Facebook status updates of course!
We chatted about family and jobs over a beer at a nearby pub. We updated each other on our families. We reminisced about our days in the band and church choir.
And then it happened.
She told me she had been reading my blog.
Now please understand, this is always an uncomfortable moment for me. Because it means that this person whom I know little to nothing about knows everything about me.
And I’m sure I turned red, embarrassed that I have written about my stint in the psych ward. Embarrassed that my husband was involved in a lawsuit. Embarrassed that I’ve shown such vulnerability during my grief for my daughter.
But she doesn’t seem to notice. Instead, she tells me how much my writing has affected her. How much it has meant to her that I’ve written about my struggles and how it has made her feel better about her own.
And I think, for a moment, how lucky I am to be sitting across from this woman who is opening up to me so bravely. I think I am the luckiest person in the world to know that my words, my stories, my experiences, have impacted someone across the country. And I wonder how many more people like her there are.
My writing teacher and friend, Kate Hopper, calls what I do “writing the hard stuff.” Trust me when I tell you that it is no picnic to write many of these stories. I cry just as hard while I write them as you do when you read them.
But in the end, I know that these experiences I have survived have gotten me to the place where I am today. And I hope that after reading them, you see me as a survivor, a warrior and not just a “Debbie Downer.”
Because one thing that I’ve learned these past five years is that nobody is immune to pain. Nobody gets through life without loss. Nobody lives without some sadness.
And if writing about how I’ve dealt with pain, loss and sadness can make even one person feel they are not alone, it is worth doing.

Tipping Tables at the Teahouse

I listened and watched intently as the waitress demonstrated the fine art of preparing tea properly. She began by placing a small mesh ball called an infuser into a small porcelain pot adorned with delicate pink and purple flowers. From another larger pot in the same pattern, she slowly poured steaming water over the infuser causing it to bob up and down wildly in its small chamber. She turned her head slightly in my mom’s direction.
“When the loose tea and the water meet,” she explained in a whisper, “the leaves unfurl and unveil their flavorful infusion.” We were to time the infusion so as to not extract the bitter tannins. The variety of tea that my sister, who frequented this place, had selected off the menu called for a three-minute infusion. The little silver hourglass timer in the center of the table (the kind that comes in board games) would help us avoid this apparent tea tragedy. The first waft of the spicy tea aroma passed by and I glanced across the table at my eight-year-old niece, whose enormous blue eyes were fixated on the small silver bowl of sugar cubes sitting in the middle of the table. Understandably, she was waiting for this dull woman to address them.
As the waitress wrapped up her demonstration, she smiled sweetly, instructed us to keep the “cozy” on the pot when we weren’t pouring from it, turned, and was gone. Leaving three of us to smile nervously at each other and one of us to wonder why nothing was mentioned about the sugar.
I surmised from this short demonstration that the British probably never microwaved their water in a stained ceramic mug emblazoned with the phrase “I need donuts now!” Nor did they ever plop a pre-measured teabag into that water for either a minute or twenty, depending on how well behaved their kids were acting. They likely never fished said teabag out with a fork and tried to throw it in the garbage without dripping on the floor. And the last step in their tea preparation most certainly didn’t involve spooning enough refined sugar into the mug to completely mask the lemony Lipton flavor.
Yes, I had learned something new about myself in that enchanting teahouse nestled in historic downtown Decorah, Iowa. I was, in fact, a tea barbarian.
“So….” my mom said in a long drawn out way that meant she was nervous about asking what she was about to ask. She slowly unrolled the set of shiny silver from the napkin in front of her.
“Have you taken any of those pills Dr. Taylor prescribed you?”
I was glad someone was addressing my state of mind and whether or not I was medicating myself to get through the recent traumas that had reigned down upon me. It had been just a month since my daughter’s death. Less than 48 hours ago, I was in a police interrogation room with my husband being accused of inflicting a traumatic head injury to my daughter on the day of her death (we’d later learn the police were bluffing; Sophia had died from SIDS.) My body had started shaking in that room and hadn’t yet stopped. And now here I was, in a tea house eating a chicken salad sandwich with barley salad on the side, holding a fine china teacup in my trembling hands, trying to pretend my biggest worry was about bitter tannins. In fact, I was so anxiety ridden that what I wanted to do was flip over the entire table and watch the fine bone china shower down on us.
“No.” I responded, knowing there would be more questions.
The little orange bottle that Chris had picked up from the pharmacy over the night after Sophia died was still safely tucked inside my purse, unopened. The bottle contained the pills my mom and sister used to knock themselves out on airplanes. The pills that made them fall asleep in their seat before takeoff, with drool running down their chins and we barreled down the runway. The pills that rendered them incapable of filling out their own customs forms or carrying their own luggage.
“I’m really trying not to take them,” I said, my voice quivering as much as my body seemed to be.
“But why not just take one and see what happens?” suggested Padrin.
“I don’t know…I’m just worried that once I start them, I won’t be able to stop.”
And it was true; I was scared. I’d had my run-ins with drug addicts. Well, okay, to be honest I had seen my fair share of “Intervention” episodes on cable TV. Each episode focused on one or two people whose addiction had gotten so out of control that their family needed to confront them and demand they go into treatment. Some had started drugs after their parents divorced or they were abused or had an accident or lost a child, like me. And in almost every show, the addicts agree to go, kick their habit and move out to California by the beach. But most of the time, the final screen flashed an update saying the addict had relapsed and was last seen living on the street or selling their body to get that next hit.
“Well, if you want my opinion,” my mom said, “I think if ever there was a person who needed medication, it’d be you. I think you should start taking them.”
There was a long silence and everyone at the table seemed to be nodding her head in agreement.
And it was as if the weight of the world lifted off my shoulders in that moment. I had been given the permission, by the people I respected most in this world, to admit my weakness. To admit that I needed help. To admit that I had limitations that I could not overcome on my own. I didn’t understand how these pills would help me, exactly, but at least I had the reassurance from my mom and my sister that it was ok.
We finished our meals in silence and then, as my mom slipped her credit card into the billfold the waitress had delivered quietly, I slipped my hand into my purse, unscrewed the small orange bottle, popped a single white pill into my mouth and washed it down with a sip of cold English tea that, in my opinion, needed a lot more sugar.

Today Is The Day

Today I read this quote from Anne Lamott, my favorite writer.
“And I felt like my heart had been so thoroughly and irreparably broken that there could be no real joy again, that at best there might eventually be a little contentment. Everyone wanted me to get help and rejoin life, pick up the pieces and move on, and I tried to, I wanted to, but I just had to lie in the mud with my arms wrapped around myself, eyes closed, grieving, until I didn’t have to anymore.”
Today, my dear friends and family, is the day that I picked myself up out of the mud.

It’s Going to be OK

I had been watching an episode of Grey’s Anatomy in the living room at home. My one year old, Annabelle, was napping soundly in her room upstairs and Sophia, who was only a few weeks old, had dozed off in the swing next to me. I was just starting to drift off myself when I heard a strange noise from the baby monitor. I remember picking up the monitor and holding it to my ear. The noise sounded like bubbling water. For some reason, it alarmed me enough that I got up and went upstairs. I quietly opened Annabelle’s bedroom door.
At first I thought she was just tossing and turning but then I realized she was actually jerking from side to side, up and down. I screamed and ran to her, pulling her from the crib like a limp doll. I quickly examined her. Her face had fallen on one side and her eyes were rolled back into her head. There was mucus coating her upper lip and coming out of her mouth.
“MY GOD! MY GOD! HELP ME!” I screamed over and over as I desperately tried to hold on to her jerking body. I ran down the hallway to my bedroom where I laid her on the bed and dialed 9-1-1.
“HELP ME!” was all I could say, over and over. “PLEASE HELP ME – MY BABY IS DYING!”
The woman on the other end of the phone kept asking me questions that I couldn’t answer. What is your name? What is your address? How old is your baby? I didn’t answer. I just looked at my daughter with the horrifying realization that she would never be the same.

“This is it. My daughter is gone; she will be like this forever.” I looked at her face and observed how fallen it was on one side; I couldn’t imagine she would ever be normal again.

After what seemed like an eternity, a police car pulled up in the driveway. It was snowing. I had no shoes and no coat but I was so desperate to get Annabelle to them that I ran out the front door carrying her in my arms, screaming for help.
The police officer ran to me and led me back into the front entryway; he told me to put Annabelle down.

I didn’t want to let her go but I obeyed. I laid her on the carpeted floor and two or maybe three paramedics came in the front door behind me and swarmed her. The police officer took me by the shoulders and led me into the kitchen, where we couldn’t see Annabelle.

“WHAT’S GOING ON?” I screamed “WHAT IS HAPPENING TO MY BABY?!” Now I was the one thrashing.
“Ma’m, try to calm down,” the officer said. “We see these almost every day. Just try to calm down.”
Every day? What the hell?
“We see these all the time. Does she have a fever?” he asked.
It took a minute for his question to sink in.
“I don’t think so…no…no, she doesn’t have a fever,” I replied.
The police officer turned and walked into the front entryway where Annabelle was. When he came back he said simply, “104. She’s at 104.”
Five years later and I’m standing in the center of Nickelodeon Universe at the Mall of America. I’m with my three children and husband. Sophia has been gone for four years and I’ve since had another daughter and a son, Eve and Alec. I’m standing next to Alec’s stroller, supporting his neck with my hand while I stroke his light brown hair. His eyes are open but the left side of his body is jerking violently to the side, drool is pooling in his mouth and neck. I whisper softly into his ear, “it’s ok my sweet baby boy…everything is going to be ok.”
I take a few deep breaths and get to work. First, I tell Chris to get his phone and take a video of Alec. “Remember,” I say. “The neurologist is going to want it.” He quickly takes out his phone, aims it at Alec for 5 seconds or maybe 10 and then he turns to take the girls away – we both know they shouldn’t see this. Then I gently slip Alec out of his fleece coat and remove his checkered hat, careful to not let his head bump into the metal rod on the side of the stroller. I unbutton his long-sleeved onesie and pull it up to his neck, exposing his bulging tummy. I check to make sure his airway is open – that nothing is in his mouth. And I just kneel there, holding his neck, stroking his hair as his body jerks. Shoppers pass by unaware of what is happening just inches away.

Chris returns and tells me that help is on the way. He distracts Annabelle and Eve by offering them juice boxes while I keep stroking, stroking. And whispering to Alec, and myself. “Everything is going to be ok.”

The paramedics arrive with a gurney and I explain that the seizure is in its 9th minute. That his sister had the same thing when she was a baby. That they needed to take his temperature; give him some medication to make the seizure stop since it had been more than five minutes. I slowly spell my name, Alec’s name and date of birth. I recall his weight from a recent visit to the pediatrician and I tell the paramedic so he’ll know what dosage of medication to administer.

And then I step away and let them take care of Alec. I turn to Chris and tell him that I will ride in the ambulance to Children’s and that he should call my mom and meet us there. I follow the gurney through the mall to the waiting ambulance as they insert a needle into Alec’s tiny arm. “Everything is going to be ok,” I tell myself.

People have told me that I’m the strongest person they know. They tell me they can’t imagine living through the things that I’ve lived through. Some even tell me they wouldn’t be able to get out of bed if they were me. They want to know how I do it. They want to understand my resilience.

And I’m just starting to understand what they mean. I’m toying with the idea that maybe I am strong. Maybe I am resilient. Maybe my children will look back one day and remember me as a warrior, like my sister says I am.

“So what is my secret?” I sometimes wonder. And all I can come up with is that I’ve learned to accept that disaster is only a phone call away. That tragedy can strike when you least expect it; whether you are standing in the center of a mall or watching an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. That loss is a part of everyone’s life and that mothering children is as terrifying as it is gratifying.

I think about the mother I was when I held Annabelle’s seizing body, screaming at the 9-1-1 operator. I think about the mother I was when I cradled my baby Sophia’s body in the Emergency Room after she had died, screaming at God. And then I think of the kind of mother I was when I cradled Alec’s body, whispering, “Everything is going to be ok.”

Memoirs of a Fat 37 Year Old

June 1, 2012
Okay, so this is the first official entry of my “fat memoir.” Who knows where this will go – if anywhere. But the point of this is to hold myself accountable for what I’m shoving in my pie hole (pun intended) every day. It’s gotten to the point of being ridiculous. I weigh the same as what I weighed 9 months pregnant with Annabelle. That’s incredible. Too close to 200 pounds for my comfort. Cripes, that’s what CHRIS weighs. As I type, I’m laying here in a pair of his pants. Granted, I was just painting the cabin but let’s just say they aren’t exactly too loose.
So today was going to be “the day.” Again. “The day” when I’d start my diet. Let’s see…I woke up and Annabelle offered me a PopTart. “I’ll start right after this,” I told myself. Can I be any more stereotypical of a dieter? So I ate two PopTarts and the crusts from the ones the girls didn’t eat. I washed them down with some leftover Fresca from last night (yes, I had mixed it with Vodka…didn’t I say I was at THE CABIN?!)
I was also going to take a “run” this morning. I even packed a sports bra. I’m not really sure what happened there. Let’s just say it never bodes well for a morning run when three crabby-ass kids bumble out of their rooms at 6:15am fighting about who gets the iPad first.
I’m not totally sure of what I ate mid-morning. Ok, that’s not true now that I actually think about it. I discovered a green Tupperware filled with yellow frosting cookies. The generic grocery store kind – not even the good ones. I managed to eat 10 of them as I kept a watchful eye on the front window in case Chris came in. He powerwashed the whole cabin today. He probably burned enough calories to eat a box of PopTarts.
Lunch was crunchy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I also shoved about 15 handfuls of corn tortilla chips into my mouth without even really tasting them. I cracked open a can of Mr. Pibb even though I’m supposed to be “off pop.” Again, I’m at the CABIN, right!? I simply can’t be held accountable for what I eat up here, can I ?
Ok, so then an hour or so later, I needed something. I glared at the bunch of bananas on the stove as I swished by headed for the bag of marshmallows just a couple feet away. Now give me some credit here – I actually sipped on a bottled water at this point. BOTTLED WATER! Now that’s borderline healthy if you ask me.
Dinner was frozen pizza – well, not frozen per se. I did manage to let it cook before I gobbled up 5 pieces. I think poor little Alec would have enjoyed one more piece, but alas, I got to it first.
Now lest you think I was done for the day…oh no! We went into town to buy some paint and Chris promised the girls ice cream if they were good at Menards. They were not. But I think Chris really wanted the ice cream so we stopped at the McDonald’s drive thru. And this is where things get ugly. Chris proceeds to order ice cream for the kids and NOTHING FOR ME!!
“Ah, excuse me…” I say as he starts pulling away from the microphone.

“What? I thought you were off sugar.”
Oh yeah. Dangit. I had told him that, didn’t I. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
“Fine,” I said, sulking down into my seat.
He put the car in reverse. “I’ll also have a fudge sundae.”
A tiny, victorious smile breaks out across my face. I turn to the window so he doesn’t see. I feel like a five year old.
Oh brother, I didn’t plan on this post being so long but man I guess I eat a lot!
Like I said, I had to paint the cabin tonight and I decided I would do much better work if I sipped on a Bloody Mary while doing it. I had pre-planned and bought a beef jerky stick at Menards so I can’t lie and say I did this on a whim. It was delicious. I almost had a second but I must admit, my tum tum is a little upset.
Now what ever could have caused that?

A Swish, A Scrunch and A Spray

Perched on the bathroom sink with your baby feet on the drain, I let you eat toothpaste. Just a bit.
You giggle with a wide-toothed grin as I guide a wide-toothed comb through your wet, well-conditioned hair.
A tranquil gaze at me through the mirror. You can’t know that I’m really thinking of her. Again. How her hair was just a hint darker.  Her curls more relaxed.
I parted her hair on the left, so I part yours on the right. Another loud statement from me to the world, that you are no replacement.
But my thoughts stay quiet and I let myself wonder; had she stayed with me longer, would her hair have lightened? Would her curls have tightened?
I give your hair a swish, a scrunch and a spray.
You manage to turn on the hot water, soaking your fresh socks. I smile like you want me to, but again I want to cry. Remembering her. Wondering why her curls had to stop short.