“Do you see them?”
Mom stood behind my shoulder. The anticipation rolled off her skin like the spring sun dripping down my parents’ driveway.
“Hold on a sec,” I told her. My fingers pulled back the green frame of leaves. I peered inside the shrubbery.
Yup. Mom was right. There it was. Smack dab in the middle of the tallest shrub between the sidewalk and my parents’ garage.
The bird nest was the clear result of instinctual architecture. A tangle of twigs and twine. Lopsided, but sturdy. Mama bird done good.
“See them?” my mom asked me again. Her voice pitched high with expectation and excitement.
I lifted my heels off the ground to get a closer look. A bird chirped from one of the nearby oak limbs. The breeze twisted through the trees.
“Oh yep,” I whispered as I looked down. “I see them.”
Three oval eggs sat side-by-side in the bottom of the nest’s belly. Off-white with brown specks. Like they were covered in freckles, or dipped in Oreo cookie crumbs.
“Those are the cardinal eggs,” Mom explained. “Isn’t that cool?”
“Very cool,” I breathed. I counted the eggs again. 1, 2, 3.
Mom watches the wooded backyard like the paparazzi dying to get a picture of Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift. A maroon-covered book titled “Birds of Michigan” and small set of black binoculars are always at the ready under the kitchen window, or on the back porch. Prime bird watching spots.
She told us that she discovered the nest a few days earlier. Cardinals are my mom’s favorite, second only to bluebirds. When Mom’s mom passed away when I was eight, we attributed a red cardinal to Grandma Phyllis. She loved to watch the cardinals from the big picture window at her house in St. Paul.
“There’s Grandma,” our family says whenever we see a rush of red wings. We feel better when we see cardinals. More hopeful. Less alone. I don’t know. Something.
Watching Mother Nature go to work never gets old for me. Unless she’s working the night shift during the winter, dumping king-size comforters of snow across our roads.
Still, I forget that Mother Nature wears a food chain that drapes around her neck. She does nothing without her ever-important accessory.
We have no say in the outfit. As humans, we are an impactful link in the chain. We help spur actions and reactions. Define the hunter and the hunted.
Mother Nature is not too shy to remind us where we all stand.
The following week after seeing the cardinal eggs, my husband and I went back to my parents’ house for a Memorial Day cookout. The afternoon was warm, the grass was green, and summer was ushering spring out the door like a gentleman who minds his manners, but can’t hide the fact that he wants the girl to leave.
We brought Daisy to swim in my parents’ pond. She’s obsessed with the water and loves to launch herself off the old wooden dock into the murky green-blue water. My brother and his girlfriend joined us. They brought Bentley, their German Shorthaired Pointer. The dogs were a couple of besties, galloping side-by-side after tennis balls and kicking up dead leaves as they tramped through the woods at warp speed.
The round metal grill sizzled when Mom placed the hot dogs on the grate. I could hear Dad and Adam laughing by the pond, followed by the whoosh of a splash from the pups. The air smelled like hot charcoal and new grass and fresh air.
With a book in my lap and cheap black sunglasses on my nose, I sat near the front yard in a red folding chair. The black netting of the cup holders were chewed away (courtesy of Daisy), leaving empty holes I could put my hands through. The sun felt warm. I felt happy.
My eyes followed wings as the mama cardinal flew in and out of the shrub, feeding the eggs that cracked open to become breathing babies. I smiled at the sight.
“Do you want to see the cardinal nest?” my mom offered my brother’s girlfriend, Sage. Once Mom finds a new nest or identifies a bird, she loves to share the knowledge.
“Sure,” Sage said. I kept my eyes on my book. It was just getting to the good part. The main character and the guy she liked were about to get together.
I looked up at the sound of my mom’s shriek. Panic caked her face as she held the cardinal nest high above her head. Sage had her own hands full as she tried to hold back her dog, who was lunging at the nest with intensity and strength.
“Bentley, no! NO.” Sage scolded. She tugged at the dog’s collar, pulling against the weight with a heave.
“She can smell the birds, she knows they’re in this nest, I can’t believe it.” The words tumbled out of my mom’s mouth as quickly as she thought them. She looked at me, exasperated. Her eyebrows furrowed across her forehead.
Sage pulled Bentley away while Mom tried to place the nest back into the bush. I sat in my chair, too stunned at the scene to move.
“Call your dad up here,” Mom ordered.
“Dad!” My voice boomed.
The dog lunged again, breaking free from Sage’s grasp.
“Daaaaaahhhhhhd,” I yelled again.
“Whaaaat?” Dad answered, his voice losing volume as it carried from the back of the pond.
“Come here!” I called back.
“Oh no, no, no, no,” Mom shrieked again, covering the branches with her hands as Bentley lunged at the birds.
“Bentley, stop it!” Sage repeated. She pulled the dog back and tried to step away from the shrub.
Dripping with pond water, Daisy came galloping toward me, Dad and Adam behind her. I set my book on the ground and stood up from the chair.
“Come on, let’s go pups,” I directed. I jogged back toward the pond, away from the scene of the crime. Daisy followed me, while Sage redirected Bentley back toward my brother near the pond. With Daisy refocused on the pond, I turned again toward the shrub, where Mom and Dad and Adam stood.
Adam took the nest from Mom. It still held the three balls of bird inside. He began moving branches, peeling back the shrub’s layers for a place to reposition the nest. Mom reported to Dad what just had happened.
“The mom probably won’t come back now, huh?” Mom asked Dad. “Since we messed with the nest?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
I went inside the house. My gut told me the baby birds were probably goners, which made me feel sad and quiet and weighed down, for some reason.
I told myself they were just birds. There are a lot of birds. These things happen. It was just how Mother Nature worked. You can’t change her rules.
But, I thought as I pictured my mom’s face as she held the nest above her head, they were my mom’s birds. Cardinals. Grandma’s birds.
A few minutes later, I heard the back door open, then shut. Mom climbed up the stairs and found me in my old bedroom.
“Bentley’s a bird dog, she’s designed to do that,” Mom reasoned. I nodded. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. A result of Mother Nature’s food chain, and instinct, and circumstance.
They’re just birds. But my mom was my mom. And I knew she was upset, as much as she tried to hide it.
“Do you think they’ll be OK? I don’t know if the Mama Bird will come back now,” my mom repeated. Yup. This nest situation was traveling the Worrisome Route along the train tracks of my mother’s mind. A never-ending loop.
“Did you put the nest back where it was?” I asked.
“Adam tried, but he couldn’t,” Mom glanced out the window. “The branches were knocked all over the place. He put it a bit higher than where it originally was.”
“I’m sure they’ll find it,” I said, referring to the baby birds’ parents. We had seen the dad, a burst of bright red feathers, feeding the babies just as much as the mom.
Despite my words, my own instinct inside my gut poked and prodded at my brain. We had always heard that birds wouldn’t have anything to do with their babies if they had contact with humans.
Mom and I went back outside.
“Let’s move the nest,” Dad suggested when he saw us in the driveway. “Put it inside the garage while we eat dinner so Bentley won’t try to get the birds again. After dinner, we’ll try to put the nest back.”
Mom reluctantly agreed. The baby birds, nestled inside the only home they knew, were transplanted to the roof of the red Ford Focus inside the garage.
We went inside and ate hot dogs with red ketchup and yellow mustard. Taco salad with crunchy Doritos on top. Ladles of thick beans and glasses of lemonade.
We didn’t talk about the birds.
After dinner, Adam and I left to meet his family for ice cream. I tried to put the whole Nest Situation out of my mind. What was done was done.
Hopefully Mom felt the same way. I imagined the complex map of my mother’s mind. Lots of Worry Trails.
Yeah, doubt it.
We returned to my parents’ house to pick up Daisy an hour later. As Adam drove down my parents’ gravel driveway, I could see the outline of my mom by the shrub near the garage. Dad sat in the red chair with the chewed-out cup holders. Adam parked. We stepped out into the evening air. An orchestra of crickets had replaced the afternoon’s bird symphony.
“They can’t find the nest,” Mom said as soon as my feet hit the cement. Her voice dropped with disappointment. “We put the nest back, but we had to put it higher. In a different spot.”
“The mom came back,” Dad added, “but she’s so dumb, she went back to where the nest originally was. She couldn’t find them.” He shook his head in frustration. Dad has spent his life trying to patch the sadness holes that get poked in my mom’s heart. When they were newlyweds and Mom was missing her home back in Minnesota during Easter, Dad hid eggs around their apartment for Mom to find.
He hates seeing her upset…but he hates when he can’t do anything about it even more. I guess I was the same way, too. We try to be the protectors of Mom’s happiness. As much as we can, anyway.
“I tried to feed them,” Mom said. “Dad found me some worms.” She held up a red lid that held the squirming dark earth eaters. “They had their mouths open when I went to feed them, but then they heard my voice and shut up.” She sighed. “I shouldn’t have talked.”
I took a step toward the shrub and pulled back the higher leaves. Sure enough, the baby cardinals sat there, fluffy and alive. But their eyes were shut. So were their yellow mouths. They knew I wasn’t their mother. It was the ultimate game of “Can’t see you, so you can’t see me.”
“I need tweezers,” Mom complained. “I’ll try to feed them again, but the problem is, the worms get stuck to my fingers.” She went inside.
Adam stood next to me. Dad sat in the red chair. Quiet.
“Are the birds gonna die?” I asked him. I could always get straight to the point with Dad.
“I don’t know,” he answered, raising his eyebrows in uncertainty. “They say it’s hard when you mess with the nest.”
I nodded. My heart fell.
“Guess we’ll have to wait and see,” Dad said.
I glanced back at the baby birds, new and fresh and helpless. Waiting. Their innocence broke my heart. Their instinctual reliance on their parents in order to live. The fact that they knew food would come…and the fact that we knew it probably wouldn’t.
I pushed the thought out of the way. These things happened, I reminded myself.
They’re. Just. Birds.
End of story.
But they were more than that, I reasoned. The birds were a symbol of my mom’s happiness. Her joy at finding the eggs, and showing the nest to all of us, at watching the babies grow. Now the scenario was stunted, and she blamed herself. We all felt helpless at the disruption of my mom’s happiness.
Adam and I loaded Daisy in the back of the car. The air blew back our dog’s ears as we drove home.
“I’m kinda bummed about the birds,” I confessed.
“Me too,” he said.
I was glad I didn’t have to watch them die though,I thought. I tried not to picture the eventual lifeless birds in the brown nest. I tried not to see the clueless cardinal, returning to the same spot again and again, baffled by the fact that her babies were gone.
The next day, Mom called me. I was afraid to answer. I didn’t want to hear the details about the baby birds impending death, or hear the sadness in my mom’s voice as she put her worries on repeat.
Still, I pressed the ANSWER button on my cell phone. “Hey Mom.”
“Honey!” My mom’s voice crackled in my ear with spark. “Guess what!”
“What?” I stood still.
“We moved the nest back to where it originally was, and the parents found the babies.”
“Are you serious?” I couldn’t believe it.
“Yep,” she answered, breathless. “Dad said he saw the mom and dad go in several times to feed them, and now they’re out of the nest.”
“What do you mean, ‘they’re out of the nest’?”
“They babies are big enough that they hopped out. They’re OK!” Mom paused, then said, “I’ve named them.”
“Yes. Faith, Hope, and Love. I figured it was appropriate, you know?”
I smiled into the phone.
“I like it, Mom. Perfect names.”
“I thought so, too.”
“I can’t believe they’re OK.”
“I know, right?” Mom sighed with relief. “You should write about this.”
“It’s such a good story, don’t you think?” I could feel her smile through the phone.
Later that day, Mom texted me photos of the birds. Her joy pounced off my screen with multiple exclamation marks. I smiled at the close-up picture of one of the birds, staring directly at the camera with confidence while it sat on a branch. No longer stuck in the nest. One step away from total independence.
This one was Faith, Mom told me. My phone buzzed with another text.
MOM: You need to write the bird story!
So here it is, Mom. Here it is.
Another lesson from the birds.
I’ll take it.
On Sunday, we went to a high school graduation ceremony. ‘Tis the season for cake and caps.
Adam was worried we would be late. I could tell because he wasn’t saying much, and he stared at the road like he wanted to diminish the distance with his eyeballs. His nail-bitten fingers clutched the steering wheel at a perfect 10 and 2.
My husband doesn’t like to be late. Neither do I, but hey. It happens.
We looked at the screen in the center of the console. The dictator of our days. The digital clock read 12:53 in neon green. The same color as those Mr. Yuk stickers my mom used to put on her old perfume bottles filled with gold liquid that smelled like dried flowers.
“See?” I pointed at the numbers, our marching orders. “Plenty of time. We won’t be late.”
I adjusted my jean jacket collar over my rainbow-printed maxi dress. I like wearing beachy dresses because they are easy to put on and don’t require buttons or zippers. They aren’t confining. Like nicer-looking pajamas. This one was a gift from my aunt in Minnesota. I wear it on special occasions.
I flipped down the visor. Lipstick likes to embarrass me by covering my front teeth.
I gave the small square mirror a fake smile. All clear.
Adam pulled into the school parking lot and cut the engine. I looked up at the big orange letters adhered to the brown-red building. GO VANDALS. A collective community cry that reverberates from the football stadium to the Whippy Dip, across the dirt roads and corn fields and back to the gymnasium….which is where we needed to be right now.
I glanced at the clock one last time as we stepped out of the car. 12:58. The ceremony was scheduled for 1 p.m.
Today, it was Adam’s cousin Elijah who would wear the long black gown and mortar cap and drape the orange satin ribbons across his shoulders. He was second to last in Adam’s long line of family members who have gone through the Vandal school system. Once Montana graduates next year, there will be a drought in this bloodline at the high school.
My flip-flops thwacked against the concrete with a pace that labeled me Late. One step behind, Adam walked with his steady, sure gait. He never appears frazzled or rushed, even when he is.
We opened the heavy glass doors that gave way to the high school lobby. I was hit with a wall of energy buzzing in the air like a swarm of bees…. the flavor of excitement that only exists when Something Big and Life-Changing is about to happen.
A long line of teenagers in black and orange cut across the lobby, weaving like the body of a milk snake. A few faces glanced our way—tan girls with shimmery eye shadow, tall guys with dark hair—while bobbing their knees and overlooking each other to get a closer look into the gym entrance. We’d learn later that the 2018 class barely stretched over 40 students. Small in size but big in possibility, the salutatorian said during her speech.
“Just in time,” I whispered to Adam. He nodded.
We passed the line of anxious seniors and leaned against the doorframe that opened to the gym. The bleachers were packed with people that looked familiar but not exactly recognizable, either. In the rows of metal chairs grouped across the wooden gym floor, I saw a hand rise above the sea of faces. I traced the fingers to the elbow to the neck and found the face of Adam’s mom.
“There,” I said, grabbing Adam’s shoulder and pointing. He took a step inside the gym.
Adam had worn the same black cap and gown years ago. That was before I knew him. While he was busy graduating, I was ten minutes down the road, two years younger and a grade behind, building my own world in another small town that was the same but different: red instead of orange, Bulldogs instead of Vandals, names like Courtney and Katie and Jessie, and Marty and Stefan and Kelly, instead of Bobby, Pat, Rachel, Ashley, Shane, Trevor.
With seconds to spare, we said hello to Adam’s parents, his aunts and uncles, and settled in for the ceremony. I turned around. Big, thick metallic black 2018 balloons connected to an umbilical cord of white ribbon wound around a white archway. I looked out into the rows of faces— grandmas, grandpas, moms, dads, friends—all just as connected to these humans as the balloons to the ties.
The familiar notes of Pomp and Circumstance began. The students marched in, two by two, like an eager army.
I waited. Then, my mind pressed play on my memories.
It happens every year. My personal Pavolivian response. No matter how many days distance myself between the then and now, this time of year transports me like a time machine. Back to the Then. To graduation, and St. Charles, and 17-year-old me…a girl with blonde highlights and big dreams and naïve notions of what the world offered me, instead of what I could give to the world.
With every bite of buttercream party cake, with every nostalgic slide show, every carefully curated photo board, I often think of my Thens in comparison to my Nows.
Then, I wanted to be a magazine reporter.
Then, I had numbers in my phone that I don’t use anymore.
Then, I thought I knew everything because I thought I had nothing to lose.
My heart had less cracks. My brain had less wisdom.
I still talked to her. I hadn’t forgotten him.
My feet had yet to touch the Atlantic Ocean.
My hands had yet to hold his.
The losing comes with the learning. And the growth.
Inside the gymnasium, the ceremony continued. The Senior slideshow had a few technical difficulties. A baby with blonde curls squealed. The band played, the awards were given, the hands clapped, the names were repeated.
Once they were declared graduates, the students didn’t toss their caps into the air.
Maybe they didn’t know they were supposed to.
Maybe they didn’t want to.
Instead, the group walked out just as they walked in. The school song played and their world surrounded them one last time before cracking open to reveal a wide sky hovering over a rolled-out red carpet of new opportunities. If they wanted them.
As I jumped into a photo with Adam and Elijiah and moved with the current of family, I pressed pause on the memories. The feeling of standing on the edge of the familiar and looking out at the dreams that dot our skyline like boats out to sea.
And I realize…that fresh & new isn’t reserved for graduates. The gratefulness for where we’ve come, and the excitement for where we’re going? We're allowed to feel that way...and to endlessly search for that feeling, again and again.
Life brings new seasons. New chapters. New choices, and chance, and change.
And hey…maybe some buttercream cake.
When I walked out of the office building on my lunch break today, the smell of rain hit me. The downpour had already stopped, but the scent lingered in the air. Fresh and new and clean. With a bizarre reaction that begets proof that yes, social media consumes my mind too often, I thought, "Wow, I should share this.”
Then I remembered scents can’t be shared on social media. Oh yeah. Duh.
And I kind of love that.
I love that this experience of the senses— the stepping out from the stale of the inside and smelling the fresh of the outside—was not, could not, be translated via my phone. The mixed perfume of damp tree bark and quenched grass and nature’s water was mine for my nostrils. I inhaled, breathing it all in. Staying present.
I walked toward my car. The concrete was darker gray from the rain. Puddles were perched in potholes. Michigan was ringing out its mitten and welcoming spring.
Spring. My favorite.
After months and months of offensive gray and cold and snow and ice, the flower-adorned, sunshine-kissed season decided to come back once more. Here in Michigan, she always keeps us waiting.
It’s pretty annoying.
For months, we sat and stared out the window like eager puppies at the door. But now it’s time for our feet to tippy-tap with excitement. Wag our tails a little.
Most people who live in the Midwest love autumn. And I get why fall is a fan-favorite: the cider, the apples, the leaves bursting in shades of burgundy and gold and amber. Don't get me wrong, I like fall. But I love spring.
My reasons are many.
The symbolism, for one. The fact that the world is coming back to life again. Starting anew. Growing again after the long and harsh and difficult.
The world gets turned up a notch. The colors are brighter. The season’s soundtrack is louder & more upbeat than the quiet, temperamental winter. Birds are chirping, frogs are singing (one of my all-time favorite sounds), baseball bats are cracking against a fast-pitch. Lawn mowers buzzing, grills sizzling, tennis shoes thumping across the dirt road. LIFE is being lived. ~insert hippie vibes here~
Memories. That’s another reason I love spring. It’s funny how memories are linked to scents, which are linked to seasons. When I smelled the aftermath of the downpour today, I instantly thought of rain-soaked high school track meets. It’s been over ten years since I ran in a track meet, but sometimes the images are as clear as the real thing: I smell the rain and grass, so I see my blue and silver spikes. The hurdles standing before me. The brown leather seats sticking to my legs on bus rides. The cool of the glass against my forehead.
When I smell charcoal, I see my dad standing over our small round grill in the driveway of my childhood home at the dead end road.
I smell roses and I remember corsages and pink prom dresses and dance recitals at the Dow Event Center before it was called the Dow Event Center. Popcorn and hot dogs and beer waft near my nostrils and I’m back at a Detroit Tigers game and watching my little brother in little league.
A smell can anchor you. The nostalgic scent of your parents’ house, or your cousin's Love's Baby Soft perfume, or fresh gardening dirt. And in a way, scents are just as tangible as the photos we take.
My husband and I always say, “Good things happen in the spring.” So I cross my fingers and say goodbye to winter. Let the good times come. Let the growth happen. Let the rain fall…and may us soak it up. Every drop. Every smell…and hook a memory in its heart and hold on.
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So many exclamation marks!!!
My husband surprised me by painting the room to the right of the stairs when I was out of town.
He held the handle of the soft, purple roller in his callused hands. He cracked open the paint can. Carefully poured the creamy liquid into clear plastic trays. Like a sly finger in a bowl of cookie dough, he dipped the roller into the tray.
He covered the walls in a flavorful yellow called Meringue. I picked the shade after perusing Pinterest and carefully comparing a rainbow of paint chips at the Home Depot.
“Better, right?” he told me when I came home and followed me upstairs. My eyes looked like saucers as I spun around in this sudden room of sunshine. “I wanted it to feel like yours.”
“I LOVE it,” I said. “I. Love. It. I can’t believe you did this.” I wrapped my arms around his shoulders and closed my eyes. He smelled like turpentine and soap. “It’s beautiful. Thank you.”
In another life in another decade, the first homeowner wallpapered this room. The second pair of homeowners concealed the wallpaper with brown paint.
Not dark brown. Not light brown.
The color of cheap coffee, or milk chocolate, or fake leather.
The color of my mom’s eyes when she’s unimpressed with a movie, or exhausted from a 12-hour night shift at the hospital.
The brown paint had puckered over the layer of patterned paper. The wallpaper wasn’t visible, but it refused to go unnoticed. A silent “screw you” to the people who didn’t think she was good enough.
When we first toured the house, the brown bubbled paint in the small room was a bit….off-putting.
Okay. Ugly. It was ugly.
“We’ll have to paint in here, huh?” I asked my husband. I had never painted a room before. The thought of this new task made me nervous the way new tasks always did.
He nodded. “Yeah, we can do that, no problem.”
I glanced around the narrow room. It was almost too small for a bedroom. Too big for a closet. One large window stared at the plowed corn fields and modest ranch houses lining the street.
A friend from church—a former professional painter named John—came over to check out our house once the ink was dry on the closing papers.
“We definitely have to change the color in here,” I admitted as I stepped into the small brown room, John and Adam following suit. John’s lined face turned toward the white popcorn ceiling. His eyes moved from wall to wall.
“Well, if you’re gonna be in here a lot, then you better paint it something that makes you happy,” he offered in his gravel voice. John drops wisdom the way people drop pennies.
His advice is why I picked out meringue yellow to cover up the dull brown. I wanted sunshine and bright and open.
I wanted happy.
And happy is how I felt when Adam showed me the freshly-painted walls. From that day on, we’ve slowly put the room together, piece by piece:
White book shelves lined with colorful book spines.
A wooden sparrow figurine.
A white office chair threaded with thin, silver threads—a Christmas gift from my parents.
A cream knit rug woven with a magenta diamond pattern. I got it on clearance at TJ Maxx.
Each item further transformed the room from a forgotten, brown space….to my dream writing office.
The night we moved into the new house, Adam and I laid on the wooden floor in the living room and closed our eyes. For the first time, it sunk in that we were officially homeowners. The rooms held strangers’ memories and smelled like other people, but soon, the signs would fade.
The scents of my cinnamon french toast and Adam’s ocean-scented shampoo and thick Vanilla Bean candles from Bath & Body Works would waft through the hallway and up the stairs.
Our first Christmas tree, tall and chubby and pokey, would glimmer in the front window.
Our dancing steps would cover the hardwood floors in the kitchen.
Our new chocolate lab puppy would make messes and tippy-tap with her paws and run in the back yard.
Soon, it wouldn’t be some other people’s former house. It would be our current home.
We’d leave our mark here.
On March 3, we closed on our house…which means it’s soon our one-year “homeowner-iversary.” It’s been an adventure. It’s been a learning experience.
Today, I walk into my office. I sit on the chair behind the desk and stare at the yellow walls. I breathe in the air and smile. Because it smells like home.
I’ve never seen my father without a mustache.
Once sandy brown and thick, the mustache is now gray to match Dad’s hair. “It’s blonde,” Dad corrects. (It’s gray.)
The mustache has always retained the same size and shape. No beard to accompany it ‘cause his ‘stache is a star of its own. Dad trims the upper lip hairs with dedication and tweezers and a small pair of silver scissors.
When I was young, I loved to stand next to Dad in front of our old bathroom mirror. My tiptoes tilted me closer to the sink counter. With Dad’s old, unplugged, silver electric razor in hand, I’d rub the razor head across my smooth cheeks, my mouth, my chin. I’d glance out of the corner of my eye where Dad stood next to me. His electric razor buzzed as he whirled the whiskers away. I smiled. Me and Dad. Shaving together. As dads and daughters do, don’t you know.
My dad’s name is James. Known as Jim, or Jimmy to close family and casual friends. I didn’t understand this when I was younger. “If his name is James, why do people call him Jim?” I wondered.
Even though my dad’s personality is large and distinct, its the everyday, small, meaningless objects that symbolize my dad. They serve as an extension of his personality.
He’s the blue bottle of Suave shampoo. A toothbrush with rigid bristles that turn fluffy ‘cause Dad brushes his teeth with fervor. Closed eyes, furrowed eyebrows. Tooth decay, be gone.
He has a chip in his front tooth, but not on his shoulder.
My dad was a forest green tube of Brute deodorant….until last month, when I made a crack about him wearing Old Spice. “Nope,” he smirked. “I use Axe now.”
“Oh wow, look at you, Dad,” I laughed. “So modern and cool.”
Mom rolled her eyes and tugged her mouth upward. “It was on sale,” she explained. “I bought it for your brother, and your Dad started using it.”
My dad is Bloomin’ Onion at the Outback Steakhouse. NO seasoning. Too spicy.
He’s chicken tenders on the lunch menu at Red Lobster. He’s steak Medium Well.
He’s French dressing.
“You have to have French dressing at your wedding,” he instructed. “You have to.” So we did.
Actually, Dad is all of the foods. Because he will ask you what you had for dinner at the party. He wants detailed answers.
“We had chicken, Dad,” I’ll say.
“Oh, chicken,” he nods approvingly. “Fried? Or grilled?”
“Grilled chicken breasts.”
“What did you have for the side?”
“Sweet potato fries.”
“Pew,” he crinkles his nose. “I like regular fries much better.”
My dad is a dark blue Rick Ford Dealership trucker hat. The snapback kind, never velcro. Mesh, never cloth.
He’s my elementary school spelling words. Every night in the living room, he’d say words, and I’d spell them.
He was there with his blue jeans and T-Shirt and trucker hat and mustache during my third grade spelling bee. Mom had to work at the hospital, so she missed it. Twenty-two years later and she still feels bad…but she shouldn’t. Because Dad sat in a chair while I stood on stage in the cafeteria. And my parents…they’re a team. If he’s there, she’s there.
But I confess…it is Dad’s beaming smile and him twirling me around in a hug after the spelling bee that I remember most. I got third place and took home a golden trophy on a wooden base with a smiling bee wearing glasses. I spelled “possible” wrong. P-o-s-s-a-b-l-e. Dad said I did great and told me he was proud of me. I will never forget it.
My dad is pranks. He’s fart machines under my cousin William’s wedding table, dead fish in the back of a co-worker’s truck, a sign that says “CLARENCE: KING OF THE HOME” on the back of his grandpa’s wheelchair at the assisted living facility.
My dad is strength. He’s worked hard all of his life in the worst of weather conditions. He’s Blue Dickies and NASCAR T-Shirts and a golden farmer’s tan that makes him laugh with pure pride as he holds up his forearm to my pale skin in the summer. “Beat you,” he beams.
He’s the tickling of my toes to wake me up at 6:15 a.m. every morning from middle school to graduation. He’s dusted sugar on top of my Rice Krispies cereal because he could pat it down on top so the milk brushed the sugar but didn’t sink it.
Dad buys bright orange pumpkins on the side stand of a back road that he brings them home to my mom. He hung a glowing red lightbulb outside my window on Christmas Eve to make me believe Rudolph fell off the roof. He loves Christmas and Michigan football and plaid sweatpants.
He calls me “Sis.” Never Lindsay.
He calls my husband “Big Man” and “Sparty.” When Adam asked for Dad’s permission to marry me, Dad replied, “Well, will my grandchildren be raised as Spartan fans or Michigan fans?”
He often jokes that he molded me. The joke is so old that he doesn’t say words now, just a smirk and motions with his hands as if he’s holding clay.
My dad is one of my favorite people in the entire world.
He has the biggest piece of my heart. No one can replace a girl’s dad. No one.
Dad didn’t know if he wanted kids. Mom had to convince him. I think he wasn’t sure he was going to be a good dad.
He was right. He’s not a good dad.
He’s a phenomenal dad.
And next week on his birthday, as we go to Outback Steakhouse for Bloomin’ Onions and juicy steaks and watch him blow out candles on a chocolate cake with fluffy white whipped cream frosting, I will smile at his smile.
I will be grateful for these moments.
And I will feel, for the millionth time in my life, how blessed I am to have James Henry as my dad.
It’s January 8. The second week of the new year.
Where has the time gone?
Many places, the clock on the wall whispers. It breathes with a steady tick, tick, tick. That sound….A constant reminder of how precious every second is. How nothing is the same and everything can change in an instant.
Tick, tick, tick.
Where has the time gone?
It stopped at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night in March of 2017. Kelly called me. She asked if I was sitting down. Then she said the word I didn’t want to hear….never expected to hear.
Time stopped that night. It stayed frozen as I sat on the bedroom floor with the phone to my ear and my head in my hands.
But then it started again. Because time waits for no one.
Where did the time go? I repeated.
Many places, the clock echoed.
Time passed in the hospital. The numerous times Kelly walked through the doors of U of M hospital in Ann Arbor to treat her aggressive multiple myeloma that lived in her bones.
But it was just me with her that memorable Wednesday afternoon. Kel’s routine check-up ended with an ER visit. The hospital security guard printed my picture for an ID to clip onto my coat while Kelly waited to be admitted.
“I’ll just need you to look into the lens right here so we can get your photo,” the guard directed me, pointing at the small black digital camera on the front desk.
I shifted my feet. I didn’t know if I should smile or not. A surprise trip to the ER wasn’t exactly A smile-worthy situation.
“Here you go,” the guard said. He handed me the small ID card. The silver clip gleamed.
I peered at the grainy photo. The black ink dots blended together. I could barely see my half-smile with no teeth.
I rolled my lifelong friend to the ER room in the corner of a long hallway, right next to the bathrooms. We waited. She shared her dry chicken from the cafeteria with me. We laughed until we cried when I fell off of her bed right onto the white linoleum. We did our best to forget that we were in a hospital. It worked. For the most part.
Between the rotating questions from doctors wearing gray scrubs that looked comfortable and white coats that looked important, we watched “My 600 Pound Life” on the old TV from the ceiling and took pictures using the devil and angel filter on SnapChat. We waited. We got the verdict that her dizziness was related to vertigo, and that we could go home. We returned, forever changed. Closer than ever.
Where did the time go?
We folded seconds between thin, paper hospital gowns.
We stamped moments in our memories as we swapped text messages of dopey-looking basset hounds.
We cupped minutes in our palms as we stood in the doorway of a clothing boutique in Bay City a month before her transplant. We watched the rain splatter across the pavement, then counted to three. We shrieked and held hands as we ran to my car across the street.
Where did the time go?
Time shifted. Sometimes, hours felt like seconds.
Other times, days felt like years.
Time sat with her in beige chairs. Lingered in chemo bags. Stabbed with sharp needles.
It mixed with the hospital’s stale air, her ginger ale’s bubbles, the notes of an Ed Sheeran song as we drove home from Ann Arbor.
Curled up alongside her dark hair scattered across the salon’s wooden floor. Her curls looked like commas. As if they were saying, “This isn’t the end of your story. This is just a pause in the sentence.”
Time marched along. From early spring mornings to hot summer days to golden fall nights. It followed us as we walked with our pockets packed with worries and jokes. To the chemo. And the transplant.
Time stopped again when Kelly called me. I had just pulled in my driveway from work. The sky was a ceiling of gray. Our new Michigan normal. The summer sun had traded places with the early winter clouds a long time ago.
“Are you sitting down?” she asked.
“Yes, but I’m nervous…the last time you called and asked if I was sitting down, you told me the doctors think you have cancer.”
She chuckled lightly. “I’m going to send you something, okay?”
“Okay…” I held my breath.
My phone chirped with a text message. I pulled the phone from my ear and looked at the screenshot she sent me. It was an email from her doctor.
“Pretty fantastic results. These labs show complete remission.”
My shrieks and sobs started as I soon as held the phone back up to my ear. My heart felt light and heavy at the same time.
“You’re in remission?” I croaked.
“I am,” she said in a small, grateful voice. A hint of disbelief. The day we had waited-hoped-prayed for had finally arrived.
“You DID it,” I marveled at the magnitude of what this meant. “YOU DID IT! You’re in REMISSION.” Adrenaline filled my veins now as realization dawned on me. Her bones were cancer-free. She was healthy again.
“I can’t believe it,” she whispered.
“I’m so proud of you,” I whispered back. And I am. I always will be.
For Kelly, each continuous chemo-like pill represents another day and more time. And though there is currently no cure for multiple myeloma, someday there will be. Maybe it will take a day. A month. A year. But until then, we have time.
So where did the time go in 2017?
The time went to spaghetti dinners, and girls’ nights in the sunroom.
The time went to kind cards and scarves and messages of encouragement.
The time went to the day I saw her for the first time after her transplant. She had a scarf on her scalp, but her smile was wide. I hugged her in the kitchen and sobbed as soon as I wrapped my arms around her. My voice cracked as I said, “You’re here. It’s you. You look so good. You look SO GOOD.”
In 2017, the time went toward finding joy in the little things.
The time went toward praying.
The time went toward battling and growing and loving and surviving.
The time went toward healing.
And breadsticks. Lots of Olive Garden breadsticks.
2018, what do you have for us? I wonder.
I glance down at the bracelet on my wrist. Gingerly touch the red and green and blue beads on one side, then brush my fingers against the pure white beads on the other side. A silver charm gleams in the middle, connecting the white with the color. STRONG IS BEAUTIFUL, the charm reads in bold, black letters. I bought the bracelet when dear friends and community members and colleagues and supporters hosted and attended a spaghetti dinner in Kelly’s honor. The tough times are tough. But there’s so much beauty and joy in the tribe that surrounds you.
I twirl the bracelet beads and think, I know what 2018 has for us. Hopefully a lot of it:
Time to make plans.
Let us not waste a single moment.
****Since sharing my blog post this spring about my more-sister-than-friend Kelly and her cancer diagnosis, many generous and kind hearts have reached out to ask about Kelly’s well-being and her next steps. To make the information-sharing process a little bit easier, and gather as many positive thoughts and prayers as we can, here is the latest update on Kelly, posted with her permission. Thoughts and prayers are appreciated for Kelly and her family this week, and these next coming weeks, as her body begins the delicate, deliberate, and debilitating healing process.***
She told me she was getting chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant this week. So I brought her breadsticks from Olive Garden.
It was the Sunday before the infamous First Week of School. Last year at this time, Kelly was gearing up for the chaotic first day like every other teacher.
But not this year.
No, this year, while students crack open fresh boxes of Crayola crayons and squeak their new tennis shoes across the school’s tiled linoleum floors, Kelly will be absent from the special ed classroom.
Instead, she will be in a hospital room in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
A place she’s spent countless hours in, week after week, for the past five months.
But this trip is different. Kelly won’t return right away after this trip. But maybe she’s never completely returned from any of the trips to Ann Arbor. She leaves pieces of herself in that hospital every time she visits: vials of blood, strands of hair, salty tears.
Still…After many long trips and exhausting appointments, the day we’ve anxiously awaited since she received the multiple myeloma diagnosis in March is now here.
At 31 years young, Kelly will walk into the hospital this Wednesday, August 30.
She will sit in a beige chair.
She will get hooked up to a cocktail of chemotherapy so poignant, the concoction is comparable to the makeup of mustard gas used in World War II.
She will allow the chemotherapy to invade her body and bully her blood cells. Harassment that leads to healing.
Kelly and her husband Shane discussed the details with me over Olive Garden takeout bags I unloaded on their round kitchen table. To us, OG is literal…the Original Gangster of Comfort Food…in more ways than one. My mom and I brought Olive Garden to the hospital when Kelly’s dad was diagnosed with leukemia in 2007. I brought the warm, drippy, carb-happy, noodle-heavy food containers again when Kelly initially got diagnosed this spring. Olive Garden is now strangely synonymous with solution.
When life is crap, my subconscious screams, “Buy the breadsticks!”
“I thought the chemo would be yellow, since, you know, mustard gas, but the chemo is blue,” Kelly explained as she sat across from me at the table, chewing the marinara-soaked lasagna from her Tour of Italy meal. After months of witnessing Kelly’s waning appetite, I exhaled relief when she ordered the menu’s tempting trifecta: fettuccine alfredo, chicken parmesan and lasagna. “The nurse told me, ‘Don’t worry, the blue chemo won’t turn you into a smurf….’ Har, har, har.”
Kelly rolled her eyes and she expelled a sarcastic fake laugh. The nurse’s corny pun coaxed matching smirks out of our mouths, pushing its way around bites of salad. She sipped her water—filtered and room temperature—out of a glass. She’s never liked cold water, but now the temperature is especially daunting to her especially sensitive teeth.
Our dinner seesawed between blissfully average and overwhelmingly abnormal. One minute, the three of us were discussing how to prevent pet pee stains that linger within the carpet (“That stuff will stain a ring in the WOOD underneath the carpet!” Shane huffed with passion.“It happened to a buddy of mine.” ) The next minute, Kelly is tugging her loose-fitting gray shirt to the side to show me her implantation port.
“These are called lumens,” Kelly pointed as she looked down at the flesh near the right of her collarbone.
“LOO-Mens?” I repeated like one of her students.
“Lumens, yes,” Kelly nodded.
“It sounds like something out of Harry Potter.” I stared at the three small tubes that dangled out of her pale, bruised skin like small Christmas lights.
“They are hooked up to a tube inside me that goes up my neck”—her index finger softly traced a path across her throat—“and down my chest, directly into my heart.” She held her finger there. I imagined her heart beating, steady like a clock.
“The lumens help so she doesn’t have to keep getting poked all the time,” Shane added. “Less bruising that way.” The tubes hung lifeless and guilty, intentionally avoiding contact. They knew we didn’t really want to need them.
Since Day 1, Shane has soaked in the information on his wife’s disease like a sponge. Caring for her, making her mugs of the warm tea that she loves, keeping others informed while he works long hours to provide for his family.
In his mind, though, he’s never doing enough. We all feel that way. Cancer is crippling in its masterful ways. A true magician, it plays mind tricks to make loved ones feel powerless. You do what you can to feel like you’re doing something. Anything.
Hence the Olive Garden breadsticks.
“Are you taking another one?” Kelly turned and mockingly accused her husband as he reached for a garlic butter-soaked breadstick innocently lying in its aluminum-wrapped bed.
“I’ve only had two!” he countered. Our laughs bounced around the room.
I turned to my left and took in the impressive gallery wall of farmhouse signs and décor clinging to the kitchen’s back wall:
An oversized antique spoon and fork.
Distressed gray letters spelling out the word E A T.
A large metal envelope.
“Shane hung them all,” Kelly’s eyes stared at the gallery wall signs and nodded proudly. She smiled at her husband.“It’s all even and measured.”
Shane glowed with pride. He took another bite of his Five Cheese Ziti. On the counter across from me, a glass jar filled with flat brown coffee beans held a balloon in the shape of a monkey. A conversation bubble hovered over the monkey’s head, encouraging us to “Go Bananas!”
“The doctors call Wednesday, which is chemotherapy day, Day 1, but then they call Thursday—stem cell transplant day—Day Zero,” Kelly continued. “Don’t ask me why they do that, though. I’m not sure.” Throughout this whole process, she’s never shied away from talking about the tough stuff. She is anything but an avoider. It’s one of the things I admire most about Kelly.
She sighed, then continued. “But basically, they are bringing me as close to death as possible without actually killing me. All my counts…red blood cells, white blood cells…they’ll all be down to nothing. It’s like I’ll have a new birthday.”
I speared my salad with the black plastic utensil forks. Crunched on my croutons. Took a sip of the bottled water. Even now, months later, I still have a hard time accepting that this scenario is reality.
“So it’s like you’re starting over,” I said, swallowing. “Like restarting a computer, I guess.”
“Pretty much, yeah,” Kelly agreed. “That’s why I can’t really have visitors right away. My immune system will be so weak.”
She stood up. “I need to go put a load of laundry in.”
Shane and I sat in silence for a moment. “She will need to get immunizations like a newborn baby,” he added gingerly.
I nodded, trying to swallow the frustration that clogged my throat. Right there and then, I wanted to return Kelly’s cancer to wherever it came from, like an unread library book banished to the bottom of a bin with a quick flip of a handle. Easily. Harmlessly. Quickly. Like it was never a part of your life to begin with.
But cancer is a decorated, nail-polished, bedazzled, neon orange elephant in the room. Even though we acknowledge the elephant as it trumpets around, that still doesn’t mean we want this beast joining us for dinner, grabbing our coveted breadsticks with its trunk.
Kelly returned to the table. She offered me blueberry crumble cake.
“Mom made it,” she smiled, saying the three magic words. She knows I’m a big fan of her mother’s baking. Especially the oatmeal cookies. Kathy chocks them full of raisins. Three types of raisins, ‘cause Kathy doesn’t mess around. A trait her daughter inherited.
Over square slices of cake and scoops of vanilla bean ice cream, we ate dessert.
Kelly’s ice cream melted into the edge of her cake. The spoon clinked against the plate. She narrowed her eyes.
“I’m getting my hair cut tomorrow over at Shelby’s salon,” she told me. “At 6:30. Mom and Dad want me to get a ‘cutie pixie,’ but I kind of want to buzz it all. I don’t want to see my hair fall out into chunks.”
My eyes gravitated towards her dark brown waves pulled back into a ponytail. Threads of rainbow—purple, pink, blues—peeked through the brunette strands. The colors were the latest look courtesy of our friend Shelby’s hair expertise. “If I’m going to lose it anyway, I might as well do something fun,” Kelly reasoned. Her rainbow hair looked positively unicorn. Rebellious. Beautiful.
“How short do you think you’ll go?” I now asked.
Next to me, Shane slipped off his ball cap. He pointed to his buzzcut wordlessly, the hair more fuzz than hair.
“Like that,” Kelly pointed to her husband’s head.
The abrupt shortness of the hairstyle caught me off guard. Like the lumens imbedded in her chest, this haircut—this buzzcut— would be another visual representation of the cancer clogging Kelly’s body.
“What do the chunks of hair falling out represent to you that you want to avoid?” I asked.
“I just think it would be hard to see my hair on the pillow.” She crinkled her eyebrows thoughtfully. “And in a way, I guess, to feel a sense of control.”
I nodded. It made sense.
Kelly’s gaze shifted to the sliding glass door. In the corner of the yard, a batch of yellow Black-eyed Susan flowers swayed in the summer breeze. Fall is knocking on our door. The leaves are already blushing from the evening cold.
“Daddy said to say goodbye to my flowers before I leave,” she said wistfully. “Because they’ll be dead when I come home.”
Following the chemotherapy and transplant, the hospital will immediately admit Kelly to a room. After weeks of monitoring and tests, she will return home to receive constant and crucial care from her family. The chemo’s bullying side effects that will impact Kelly—mouth sores, loss of appetite, bleeding, hair loss—is a long list, all documented in black ink on a white handout from the hospital.
We threw away our empty takeout containers. I grabbed my leftovers, placed them back into the brown Olive Garden bag, took the bag by the handle and headed to the back door. Photos of Kelly and Shane smiled behind the picture frames’ glass as I turned to face them standing in front of me.
Shane wrapped me in a goodbye hug, then Kelly. Arms around the back, not one of those flimsy one-armed side hugs. Hugs like these are given out freely and generously within our crew these days. Like our arms will keep our feet planted on the ground, if only to keep us all from floating away.
“Love you,” I whispered in Kelly’s ear.
“Love you, too.” She squeezed me tighter.
My car had clung to the garlic-butter smell of breadsticks. The smell wafted to my nostrils as I climbed into the driver seat.
It still feels like a punch in the gut to face the facts of this situation, this diagnosis, this reality. But no one said the facts are always beautiful. No one said the facts have to be easy, or smooth. Facts are often rugged, and bruised, and gnarled. They’re the seasoned boxers that won’t back down in the ring. Round after round, the facts remain.
But so do we.
The building loomed overhead. It cut through a backdrop of blue skies and sunshine like a knife. I looked at the concrete slab of glass and mortar. Its gray, its windows, its floors stacked on top of each other like a layered cake.
This place looked more corporate than medical. Appropriate, I guess, since this building Meant Business. The most important business of all: Life.
People receive news here. Behind these doors. Within these rooms.
Good news. Bad news.
The kind of news that changes your life.
The kind of news that changes the lives of those you love the most.
Adam paused at the stoplight. People strolled the sidewalks, soaking up the warmth and walking their golden retrievers and taking photos on their cell phones.
The world buzzed with busy.
Meanwhile, I stewed in the front seat.
Trees showed signs of their rebirth, exposing green leaves the size of squirrel ears. Exhausted tulips tried their best to pop out of their beds. But they weren’t fooling anyone.
They all frustrated me. But I was mostly mad at the sun. How dare it shine today?
I shifted my eyes from the offensive sky to the building ahead. We were close now.
I exhaled. We really were here. This really was happening.
Why was this happening, again? I silently asked God. Because I don’t have a clue. I attempted to avoid thinking the whole “It’s not fair” phrase, but….this wasn’t fair. This wasn’t fair at all.
I tried to list what I was thankful for in my head. That’s what all the self-help books recommend. “Make an attitude of gratitude.”
I was grateful for time. I was grateful for answers. For God. For plans. For this knife of a building and the existence of these doctors and the nurses and the medicine. Really. I don’t know what would happen if they didn’t exist. I…don’t….
My skin prickled again. The anger blazed like glowing charcoal burning to ash.
The selfishness resurfaced. I didn’t want a reason to be here.
I wanted her home. I wanted her healthy.
I wanted couches and P.S. I Love You and Finding Nemo.
Hot raspberry tea in quirky mugs. John Mayer cooing poetic lyrics over twangy guitar solos.
Hobby Lobby shopping trips where we could pick out the farmhouse style of home décor that we both like.
We need to get that metal cow sign. When it goes on sale.
She’s better at finding sales than me. Always offering where she got her scarf or earrings or dress at an offensively low price.
I wanted to go back to four months ago. To her wedding. To dancing.
To her husband Shane crying as she walked down the aisle.
To the S’Mores bar with peanut butter cups and puffy marshmallows.
To flutes of champagne and long, lace burgundy dresses (Was that color called burgundy? Maybe it was burgundy. I can’t remember if she wanted us to call the color burgundy…or maroon…or wine…but I do remember she was adamant about the distinction).
I want to go back to before.
Before the 10 p.m. call on a Tuesday night in March. I was splayed on our couch in the duplex under a blanket in my sweatpants. The finale of “This is Us” had just finished, and my biggest problem was how bummed I was that my new favorite show wouldn’t return until September.
“Are you sitting down?”
“What’s going on?”
“Words words words words they think it's cancer words words words words”
Punch in the gut. Head in hands. Knees to chest.
Now my husband turned right and pulled into the driveway. It led to a round cul-de-sac. You could turn right into the parking garage, but we missed the sign on the first try.
“Do we park there?”
“Yeah, turn here, it says visitors and patient parking only.”
“Crap, I missed it.”
“Well, just go around.”
The black paved pathway led us directly to the front of the building. Gleaming glass doors effortlessly slid open and shut with a sigh. Open. Shut. I glanced to the left of the sliding door. The sign caught my eye. I stared. My stomach churned.
UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN CANCER CENTER
I sat quiet in the passenger seat, my eyes glued to the golden letters that spelled out this situation out for me. The word “cancer” rolled around in my thoughts like a silver ball inside a pinball machine.
Reality set it then… Just made itself nice and comfy in my heart, my brain, my bones. It clogged my throat, blocking the right words I searched to say. After weeks chewing on news that I could not swallow, the tsunami of shock finally reduced to baby waves lapping against the lining of my stomach.
She was here. So I was here. Because that’s what we do. Her here is my here. That’s how this works.
Friendship can be like marriage. You’re there for each other.
For better or for worse. In sickness and in health.
Before the multiple myeloma diagnosis.
We made it around the cul-de-sac and pulled into the parking garage. At the entrance, a metal machine spit out a yellow paper ticket. Adam placed the paper on the dashboard, then parked the car in the garage underbelly.
We stepped outside. I laced my fingers with his and held my head high as we walked towards the sighing automatic doors. My boots thumped across the cement. A nurse with blue scrubs and a dirty blonde ponytail breezed by us. She looked about my age. She smiled. It helped.
Does she know? I wondered. I stayed quiet, and I could feel my husband glancing at me. Checking in without saying much. A look can do that.
We stepped in front of the glass doors. They opened up too easily, too quickly. They were trying too hard to be welcoming. We went inside anyway, exchanging fresh air for stale hospital oxygen.
The Cancer Center lobby was clean, large, and—strangely— empty. Coves of seating areas were splayed throughout the floor, chairs arranged in squares. A friendly woman with brassy, thick hair and black-rimmed glasses sat behind a large desk. She smiled, too, and I smiled back because sometimes my smile is automatic like that. Like the doors.
We walked around the lobby. I didn’t know what floor we were supposed to meet them, but I was desperate and determined to solve this puzzle myself. After pacing from one end of the room to the other, the receptionist finally had enough.
“Do you need some help?” she asked. Her words were filled with care and concern.
Just then, my phone buzzed with a text. One letter. One number. B1.
“No thanks, we're good,” I answered the receptionist, waving my phone in my hand. “We’ve gotta go to B1.”
“Oh, alright.” She nodded.
Adam and I turned and stared at the elevators. He pressed the button—the up arrow one—and the elevator dinged as the button glowed.
“There we go,” he said. I exhaled as we stepped into the elevator. It was large. Roomy. Which helped, since the air felt thick and pressing around me.
I felt the elevator shift upward with a slight jerk. After a moment, another ding as the doors opened to reveal B1: The Infusion Area at the U of M Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Now that I was on the same floor as her, adrenaline pumped through my veins. I turned to the right, Adam behind me, and we walked towards a room with a TV and chairs and people. Faces, strangers and then, there, in the back corner: my eyes fell on dark brown hair in shoulder-length waves. A sweater the color of a robin’s egg. Ivory shirt. Dark blue denim jeans. A chunky necklace with ivory teardrop pearls that dropped below her collarbone.
Kelly looked like she always looked. Beautiful, and friendly, and stylish, and sassy, and kind. There were no signs of the cancerous cells living in her bone marrow. But they were there.
She turned. Glasses and a smile on her face. The youngest person in the room.
My legs carried me in long strides to the corner where Kelly sat with her mom, Kathy, and dad, Kevin. We all smiled at each other in the same way: relieved to be together, but wishing the reunion wasn’t here in this waiting room.
Kathy squeezed me tight and whispered in my ear, “Hi, sweetie.” I turned to Kelly’s dad. He radiated calm, cool and collected as always, despite the fact that this waiting room, this cancer center, held his own ghosts from his leukemia diagnosis back when were in college. Warriors in their own right, Kelly’s parents looked both strong and weary in a way only reserved for parents who have a sick daughter or son.
Kelly’s husband Shane was working that day because bills don’t stop even when our world has. But his heart and mind are always with his wife, evident in the immediate text messages and calls he sends during the rare instances he’s not by her side.
I turned to Kelly. My arms wrapped around her in a tight hug. She felt small and skinny and fragile, like a baby bird.
“How ya doin’?” I whispered in her ear.
“Okay,” she said, her voice cracking. My arms tightened around her tiny frame.
“I like your haircut.”
“Thanks,” she smiled. She texted me about the new hairstyle earlier that week. Shelby had cut it into more of a shoulder-length bob “to transition to when I lose my hair this summer,” Kelly had explained. “We were talking about you when I got it cut. It looks like yours.”
“Yeah, but you can do those cute waves. Yours is much cuter.”
Kelly stepped back from our embrace. I noticed her movements were slower. Less sure. But she had a smile on her face, and I felt relieved to be here by her side. Adam sat across from me, stoic and loving and supportive. I glanced at him with grateful eyes.
We talked about the traffic. As country bumpkins familiar with back roads and country lanes, the vehicles that littered the lanes to Ann Arbor were intimidating and annoying to all of us.
“A lady was yelling at me when we were going through the roundabouts in Brighton,” Kelly told me. “So I flipped her off.”
“Of course you did,” I laughed.
“And I smiled when I did it.” Her mouth stretched into a grin.
Kelly took a sip of ginger ale from an emerald Vernors can. Several more cans sat on a side table next to her.
“It’s the only thing that helps my stomach,” she nodded towards the cans. “And I need to drink liquids to make it easier for them to take my blood.”
“We had to pee so bad on the way here!” her mom exclaimed. “Every bumpy road we hit nearly hurt.”
“I tried to avoid them,” Kelly’s dad smiled as he spoke in his soft, steady voice. “But every time I hit one, I was like, ‘Oh no’.”
“Oh my God, it was the worst!” Kelly added. Our laughter bounced around the waiting room, feeling out of place but welcomed at the same time.
I glanced at the cans. “Do you get them for free? Like from the hospital?”
“Heck yeah, I do.”
“Geez, you remind me of Mr. Welzein,” I chuckled. Our former high school Algebra teacher slash Varsity football coach loved Vernors. The only one I knew who really did. He loomed over us with his beard and glasses and stood at nearly seven-feet tall. But he never intimidated Kelly, even back then. Nothing seemed to intimidate Kelly.
The mention of Mr. Welzein launched Kelly’s mom into a classic Kelly story: “Do you remember when this one”—she nodded towards her daughter—“put condoms in his cart?”
“What, no?” I gasped. “I don’t remember that at all.”
“Yes, she put condoms in his cart! When you girls were in high school!” A smile danced around her eyes.
Kelly smirked. “He was in front of me in line at Frank’s” –our hometown grocery store—“and I grabbed a box of condoms and threw them in his cart when he wasn’t looking, then I said, ‘Big plans this weekend?’ He just shook his head and laughed.”
A nurse paused in front of our corner of chairs. We silenced. She double-checked Kelly’s name on a clipboard, then gave her a piece of paper covered in numbers from front to back.
“Here are your counts,” the nurse said.
“Thank you,” Kelly replied in a sweet voice as she took the paper. She stayed serene, but I could see her eager eyes scanning the paper that reduced one of my best friends to black and white numbers.
She is more than numbers. That sheet tells nothing about her tendency to snort when she laughs, or the fact that she’s a great driver, or the time we dressed up as Wayne and Garth for Halloween. It doesn’t talk about her ability to love with her entire heart, or her skillful ways with words, and people, and kids.
But the numbers tell a lot about the cancer that lives inside Kelly. Red blood cell count. White blood cell count. Hemoglobin. Every time Kelly gets chemotherapy--twice a week-- the cancer center checks her vitals, then prints out a report of her counts to ensure she is healthy enough to get chemotherapy that day. The chemo kills the cancer cells. We need the cancer cells to die so the healthy cells can live.
So yeah…the numbers are important.
“It’s an aggressive form of cancer,” Kelly told her lap. “And they just can’t seem to find a cure.”
Kelly’s dad stood up and took the counts report from Kelly after she took in the information.
“My white blood cell count is crap,” she reported.
Kevin poised his glasses over his nose, peering at the paper for a long time. He looked like he was examining a report card. Maybe he was. He understands what his daughter is going through in a much different way than the rest of us. He’s been through this, too. He’s walked this walk. He’s fought this fight. Now he is a trailblazer as his daughter has a fight of her own.
“He told me he understands now why he had leukemia,” Kelly told me a few days after she received her own diagnosis. “So he can help me through mine. He said he is almost glad he had cancer, because he doesn’t know how he’d get through this if he hadn’t.”
Kelly turned to me now. “Do you want to go with me to get my treatment?”
“Yes,” I automatically answered.
A strange feeling tugged at my stomach. I was about to go watch Kelly—more sister than friend—get chemotherapy. I repeated the word in my head.
Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy.
I glanced around the room at the other patients and people spending their sunny Saturday in a hospital cancer center. Most were older, their faces blanketed in wrinkles. Some sat in wheelchairs. Others covered their heads in silky scarves.
“All of my scarves will come in handy now,” Kelly joked. “When I lose my hair.”
“Yeah,” I added. “You’ll be the grandest tiger in the jungle.”
“She has a problem with scarves,” Kelly’s mom joined in. “Even Shane says so.”
“So true,” I laughed as I turned to Kelly. “You have so many. Too many.”
“Whatever,” Kelly smirked. “They’ll come in handy now. I just saw a really cute one the other day.”
An image of Kelly flashed in my mind. Brown locks gone, replaced with a shiny head and a patterned scarf wrapped around it. A visual sign of the intense chemotherapy she will get this summer in preparation for her bone marrow transplant.
A nurse named Zack called Kelly’s name once again. She stood up slowly. I stood up, too. Together, we walked down the hall towards the room where one of my best friends would get injected with the poison that would hopefully lead to the healing.
I sat across from her in a room shaped like a half circle. A wall of windows opened to blue sky above and paved parking lot below. Everything was beige in this room: the leather recliner chairs. The walls. The curtains hanging on metal rods to separate each of these chemo stations. I read the fluffy, encouraging sentiments printed on the fabric: “Peace. Nurture your strength. Trust your journey.”
We followed the nurse around the half-moon of chairs, passing people with IVs running through their veins. Every person had their person –a wife or husband or family member or someone—sitting in the seat across from them. Some were reading. Others were on tablets or iPads. The vibe was more airport waiting area than cancer/chemotherapy/infusion.
The nurse gestured towards a beige chair. Kelly sat down in the recliner. I looked at the empty seat across from her—the place where the person’s person sits—and lowered myself into the chair, formerly taking on the role I was here to fill.
From that seat, I watched as a youngish nurse with dark blue scrubs and four silver earrings lining each ear hustled over to Kelly. Her name badge said ANNE. She wore dark black loafers that looked like they were made of Styrofoam.
“What’s your birthday?” she asked. Her voice was kind and nonchalant. Like she had done this a million times.
Kelly rattled off her birthday. Like she had done this a million times.
30 years old, I thought for the millionth time since her diagnosis. She’s only 30 years old.
“Can I see your wrist?” Nurse Anne asked.
Kelly handed over her wrist to the nurse, who scanned the bar code bracelet as if Kelly was a piece of produce at the grocery store.
After confirming Kelly was Kelly, the nurse motioned for her to lift her shirt.
“I know this stuff is intense when it’s in,” Nurse Anne empathized as she held the needle that held the chemo.
Kelly lifted and unbuttoned, revealing a line of small purple bruises from the previous chemo shots. A blank outline of her first tattoo that she got in high school (the Chinese symbol for love) peeked out below the bruises.
Nurse Anne squeezed a piece of flesh below Kelly’s belly button to pool the blood. She poised the needle above the skin. I stared at Kelly’s face as the chemo went in.
Kelly winced, but just for a second. No words. No complaints. When it was over, she slowly stood up, and so did I.
“Thank you, Anne,” Kelly smiled. “It didn’t hurt so much this time, so I thank you so much for that.”
“Let’s go home,” I said to her as we walked out the same way we came in.
There was no way to deny this situation anymore. The phone call in March had happened. The diagnosis had happened. The drive to Ann Arbor had happened. This was real. Despite the fact that I wanted to deny, I wanted to go back, I wanted to imagine this was all a bad dream…this was life. And avoiding the truth is not an effective way to overcome a hurdle.
You must face it head on.
My tennis shoes squeaked like a wheel that needed grease. I glanced down at my feet framed by hardwood. The hot pink laces stood out amongst the shoe’s black material.
These sneakers require some oil, I thought. Or fuel. Or flames.
Or bananas. Mario Kart-style.
Something slick and slippery. Hot and bothered.
Anything to turn up the heat and make me kick it up a notch.
With the winter winds waltzing outside, I needed a little spring in my step. I needed to run, to move my legs, to put one step in front of the other even though I was running on empty.
I waited in my living room.
Sure enough, my guilty conscience arrived. It always shows up during my down time. Oprah beckoned from beyond the television screen. “I eat bread!” she exclaimed, raising her hands in carb-loaded victory. “I love bread!” The couch’s arms released me. I grabbed my car keys off the kitchen counter.
Now I stood still, facing the track in my sneakered, sweatpanted, ponytailed glory. The gym was packed with people, their invisible hopes stacked tall like poker chips. People were betting on themselves this year.
With each person that walked into the gym lobby, I pictured thought bubbles popping up with promises above every head:
2017 will be different.
The smell of willpower lingered in the air with the disinfectant used to clean the elliptical machines. Sports announcers recapped a football play on the television screen hanging in the corner. Basketballs bounced on the court while jeers and cheers from the players echoed in the linoleum-lined hallways.
I inhaled, exhaled, and stepped on the track. My iPod ear buds pulsed with music as I tried to align my steps with the beat. I mean, I like running. I do. But some days I like it more than others. On this day, running was lower on the list of enjoyable things to do.
Just focus on the song, I thought. Get through the workout so you can put a check in the to-do box.
As I ran, my movements were canned and repetitive. Robotic. My black patterned pants stretched, but they felt like metal.
I was a Tin-Man.
Clunky and clanging.
But hey. I was here.
Suddenly, I felt someone brush past me. I turned my head. She was a mop of dark curls swept up in a high ponytail. Black leggings. A shirt that read “Girls Rule.” She pitter-pattered on the edge of the track, her little legs moving a mile a minute.
No taller than my knee caps, the girl continued around the track. Her mouth stretched from ear to ear as she ran, revealing a grin so wide and pure and downright adorable that I couldn’t help but feel my own lips stretch over my teeth. I continued clip-clopping around the circle, intrigued by the Little Runner that Could.
A blonde woman with a bob cut jogged ahead. She smiled a mother’s smile as the girl ran past her, looking back at the woman’s face with eyes that screamed, “Look at me!” I’m running!” The woman nodded and smiled in response. There was no sense of pressure or expectation from the mom. She wasn’t trying to turn her daughter into the next female Usain Bolt. She simply looked happy that her daughter looked happy.
I continued along, assuming the little girl would stop after a lap. But she kept running. And running. And running. Fast.
I was in awe of this energizer bunny. I slowed my jog to a walk, mesmerized by the little girl’s abilities.
It wasn’t her ability that mesmerized me. Her speed —though impressive—didn’t completely captivate me. It drew me in at first, sure. But I’ve seen a lot of fast on this track and in gymnasiums. I’ve seen talent. I’ve seen skill. I’ve seen competition and anxious and relief and willpower.
But this little girl? This girl had happiness. And It was her genuine happy that felt unique. It was her joy that inspired my intrigue. You don’t see a ton of open-faced, unapologetic, old-fashioned, pure enjoyment these days.
I mean, there’s glimpses and shades of happy mixed with other emotions or fears. Expectations by society, from parents, within ourselves, cloud and confuse us. They make us forget why we started what we started in the first place.
But this girl in the black leggings and the dark hair and the big grin had 100% HAPPY splayed all over her face for the whole world to see while she ran around this track. It radiated off of her like water rising and returning to the clouds on a hot summer day. Watching this girl run, I wished for a mason jar so I could capture the excess joy beams flashing like fireflies behind her footsteps.
The mom paused by the track entryway and said to her daughter whizzing past, “Honey, you can go around one more time, yes.” And so she did.
“She just doesn’t quit!” I couldn’t help but remark to the mom as I walked by, exchanging eye contact and a smile.
“Right?!” The mom laughed, her eyes wide in that “I don’t get it either” way. “She just loves it so much.”
“How old is she?” I asked.
“Four.” We both turned to look at her daughter, now halfway around the track. “She loves to come here. She’ll ask me, ‘Can we go running today?’ My husband said to me the other day, ‘Is this normal? I don’t think this is normal. I think she may be really fast’.”
“Definitely,” I nodded. “She’s amazing. I want her energy.”
“Thanks,” she smiled. I walked on.
“God gave her a gift to run,” I told my husband later that night. “Like, she just kept going. For no reason. I swear we are going to hear about her winning the Olympics in 20 years.”
She’s a 4-year-old girl. She doesn’t run to lose weight or because the guilt monster is snarling from the inner corners of her conscience. She isn’t running to be the fastest or prove something to someone.
She runs because she likes it. End of story.
I think about the activities that have brought me happiness in my life: Dance. Volleyball. Writing. I started each of them during different times in my life because I enjoyed them. And at one point or another, each of the activities have gotten tangled up in the wicked webs of fear and doubt and all of the other junk that simply serves as distraction from the fact that I started doing them because I liked it. I had to fight back against the web and go back to the beginning of why I started. I think we all have to do that a time or two. Or four. Or more.
When was the last time you did something you loved because you enjoyed it? Not for praise or prizes. Not for affirmation or inclusion. Not to meet expectations or calm fears. Just straight up love for whatever it is: Making music. Art. Movies. Hunting. Hockey. Baking. Running.
Fear and competition can be healthy. But not when it erases the enjoyment from whatever you are doing. Do things because you love them, and try hard not to forget why you started in the first place.
Don't forget to take the happy with you.