What have you lost?
I’ve told this tale many a time. It’s integral to my story. You know. The writing story. The one I tell when people ask me when did I start writing, when did I realize I wanted to be a writer, was there a moment where it all clicked? You’ve probably heard it.
What have you lost?
That was the MEAP exam prompt. Fifth grade. My best friend Jessie wrote about her roller skates. I wrote about my grandma’s death. I was certain I answered wrong. But I didn’t. I wrote my truth then, just as I write my truth now. The truth is never wrong…even if it hurts.
It’s been over 20 years since that MEAP exam and the careful cursive writing and my mom crying after reading my words and saving the printed copy that the principal gave us. It sits in my scrapbook. Mom made the book for my graduation party.
Over 20 years. I was a little girl in fifth grade then. I’m a grown woman now. I still like lab puppies and still have the same shoulder-length haircut and still adore my grandma even though she’s been gone longer than I’ve known her.
What have you lost?
The answer has changed. But it doesn’t erase the wound of woe when Grandma died. I guess that’s the thing about losing. We collect our losses like baseball cards or tarnished coins. Loss is loss is loss is loss. Unable to be erased.
We keep the losses tucked underneath our collars. Right near the neck. Pulsing alongside the jugular, where it reminds us that the losing—whether it’s a person, a place, a job, a game, a dream—can feel as deep and deadly as a cut to the throat.
What have you lost?
I’ve learned that loss has many looks.
An empty closet with unused hangers.
Stray guitar picks on the garage floor.
Blue cereal boxes filled with some off-brand Chex squares.
Tennis shoes in the closet with clumps of grass on the bottom.
A box full of Christmas ornaments that I’m not going to hang up on the tree this year because I picked them out with you and you’re not here anymore.
Loss lingers like a forgotten puppy. You’re going about your day like normal and wham! It slams you in the head like a right-handed hook.
It’s the rap song on the radio that you listened to in the passenger seat with your fuzzy hood up because it was cold but you also wanted to look cool.
It’s my hands reaching behind my back to pull up my own zipper because Daisy has paws instead of thumbs so she can’t help me get this damn dress on.
A clear umbrella. Purple nail polish. Empty desks. Saved voicemails. Unsent manuscripts. A deflated volleyball that sits on a shelf.
What have you lost?
I get that this blog isn’t warm and fuzzy. But I’m not writing this blog to bring anyone down. I am writing to be honest. I am writing to interrupt the scrolling of successes and smiles on social media to be raw and real and say that hey, things hurt sometimes. Things aren’t perfect sometimes. Not for me. Not for you. Not for any of us.
The truth? We all lose. We do. It’s inevitable. We lose people. Babies. Plans. Jobs. Businesses. Love.
Some losses are as careless and uneventful as losing an eyelash. Others feel like your heart has been replaced with an empty hole.
What have you lost?
We lose beyond the loss…but that’s a good thing. Like dropping unwanted baggage or shedding snakeskin or unfurling from the cocoon, loss leads to growth. We lose barriers. We lose disappointments. We lose the way things were done because hey, they needed to be done differently. We lose an old perspective to make room for the new vision.
And that’s the beauty of it, isn’t it? We LOSE and YET….we get back up. We set the alarm. We drive to work. We practice the shot. We catch the bouquet.
We write a blog.
We feel. We move forward. We press on. We try, try, try again. We let life happen because life doesn’t just hand us sour lemons. It gives us silver linings. Best friends. Baby snuggles. Good food. Long phone talks. Fuzzy socks. Heinz ketchup. Sea otters.
And thank God for it all.
I grew up on a dead end street in St. Charles, Michigan. Pine Street. Where the woods waved to the chocolate waters of the Bad River. The rhubarb was lush and overgrown. The rabbits munched on my mom’s marigolds.
It’s where I helped my dad string colorful Christmas lights –the large bulb ones, glowing red and orange and green and blue —along the wooden fence. When the stapler didn’t work, Dad threw it into the trees. It arced in the air like a football, propelled by pure frustration. It’s a tale that my family loves to tell: The Day Dad Got Mad at the Staple Gun.
Instead of neighbors, I had pine trees.
Instead of pavement, I had potholes.
Instead of other children to play with, I had Canadian geese, whitetail deer and my imagination.
I stood on top of our backyard picnic table in front of a large oak tree and danced with its branches, singing “Once Upon a Dream” from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. I loved sequined dance costumes and Labrador puppies. I hated snakes and math.
I picked goldenrod and Black Eyed Susans. I collected frogs. I swung on a rickety metal swing set after dinner. My toes tried to interrupt the stretch of dusk blue sky as the sun went to sleep.
For my tenth birthday, we went to Wawa, Canada. I held Northern Pikes by my fingertips and unwrapped a George Strait cassette tape and too many Beanie Babies to count. My brother and I cried in the backseat as we drove home. We didn’t want to leave that paradise of tall trees and fish-filled lakes. I've never been back. I wish I could. Maybe I will.
When I got a good report card, my mom brought me home an Oreo flurry from The Freezer. The place had yellow lights that matched the curled corners of dessert pictures under the menu. Nowadays, the same photos still cling to the glass, though I've traded in my Oreo preference for cookie dough.
My dad shook sugar on my Rice Krispies cereal. My mom put green Mr. Yuk stickers on her perfume bottles. My brother and I ran through the sprinklers in the front yard. I practiced my shuffle-ball-changes in tan tap shoes on the cement driveway.
Our carpet was the color of rust.
A stuffed pheasant stood on our mantle.
The couches were plaid and the counters were white.
I read books. I wrote cursive. I played with my Barbie dolls and counted my quarters to buy an American Girl doll. I didn’t save up enough, though.
My mom ended up buying the doll—her name was Samantha—as a gift for my eighth birthday. I normally wouldn’t have received such an ostentatious present, but that was the birthday Mom had to miss, and her guilt took over… just like the cancer bombarding my grandma’s body.
Mom went to Minnesota to sit by Grandma’s side. We both became daughters that said goodbye to our mothers that week. One for a week. One for awhile.
My grandma died three days after I blew out the candles on my cake. She wrote with scrawled cursive inside my birthday card before she passed away: “I love you forever, I’ll like you for always, forever and ever, my granddaughter you’ll be.” We still have the card.
I wrote about her death during our fifth grade MEAP exam. The prompt? "Describe something you lost." It was the first time I realized writing about your feelings can help you understand them.
My birthday is next week. As I turn the corner on another year, I reflect on the past 365 days—its tangles, its turns, its lessons, its loves, its losses—and then I dive deeper. I examine the years before this one, and the last one, and the one before that. They’re all pieces of the puzzle that has led me to this birthday, this year, this age.
I reflect on how I’ve grown up…and how growing up doesn’t always mean you feel like a grown up. We're all still kids at heart of it all: nervous to walk into the classroom or say hi on the playground or tell that person how we feel or fall off the bike. Skin your knee. Get a bruise. Break your heart.
It’s all the same feelings...just a different landscape.
It’s the board room instead of the classroom.
The party instead of the playground.
The car instead of the bicycle.
Still...we try to heal the best we can. We grow. We learn that the truth is a shapeshifter, and feelings can change their minds.
At the end of the day, I’m every piece of my past:
I’m the little girl picking goldenrod and placing it in my play stroller.
I’m the teenager tap-dancing on stage.
I’m the high school senior hitting the volleyball.
I’m the college student writing the essay.
I’m the woman wearing the black blazer, or drinking the white wine, or dancing to Taylor Swift.
I’m the girl in other people’s memories, too. The one who rolled silverware behind the counter at Bob Evans, or talked until 4 a.m. in the hallway of Beddow Hall, or cried in the emergency room, or hugged you goodbye.
The one that wanted to stay. The one that walked away. The one that said the right things, the wrong things, the things that needed to be said...maybe the things that shouldn’t have been said at all. The one who laughs loud and high fives and trips and falls and feels too much, too often.
I have my mother’s voice and brown eyes. My dad’s humor and ears. I am a sister. I’m a friend. I’m forever Lindsay with an A. I’ll always be impressed if you spell it right on the first try.
The sum is greater than the parts. Some things change. Some things don’t. And it’s all a part of our story. My story. Here. Now. Always.
The rain started in April.
It hasn’t stopped since.
I check my Weather app every morning. Select my Michigan location. See a string of gray clouds or dark blue dashes slanting to the side with a stubborn slash. If the rare yellow sun symbol is present, it’s shy. Never solo. Usually peeking out behind a cloud.
It’s as if the Sky broke up with the Sun. Refuses to let its rays get too close. Avoids bright blue. Pushes away the bouquets of white puffy clouds.
The Sky deals with the breakup by listening to Adele songs, filling herself up just to sob it all out. She sends big buckets of rain down on top of our black umbrellas, our silver cars, our empty farm fields. She drowns our good moods and muddies our sandcastles.
So we do the only thing we can do: we wait for the sun to shine again.
The endless rain started out innocently. I was a few weeks into my new job. Every morning, a gray ceiling of clouds or a curtain of rain followed me up the stairs and toward the bright red door of the office building.
I felt like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh. Oh bother.
A few days passed.
“Oh look, it’s raining again,” I joked with my new co-workers as I glanced out the window at the end of the hallway. The wet pavement glistened.
Another day: “Hey Lindsay,” my co-worker Julie called from her office. “Guess what? It’s raining.”
Another day: “You guys,” I said, my voice low and serious. “I don’t know if you know this but…” –I paused—“it’s raining outside.”
Weeks passed. My Weather app continued to predict forecasts full of gray clouds and cold.
“Does Mother Nature know it is JUNE?” we asked. The oak trees continued to chug the water like a college kid over a keg stand.
Despite the pattern, I was never prepared for the weather, always running from the car to the building with my hand over my head. My own personal rebellion. If I don’t bring the umbrella, the weather won’t turn to rain.
If only it were that simple.
"I just can’t do this anymore,” my co-worker Patti finally said one rainy morning, her arms and eyebrows raised in disbelief. She sat behind her angled desk. The green walls and collages of photographs wrapped her in a cocoon of color, combatting the gray outside her window. “It’s impacting my mood. When I went to Philly, it was 80 degrees and pure sun.”
“I know, I hate to be a downer, but this is getting ridiculous,” I agreed.
"If we aren't careful, it will steal our mojo," she sighed and looked out the window. “Geez, can you believe it's gray AGAIN? It’s almost comical now. I'm so tired of this weather."
Then one day, the Sky finally took a break from the sobbing. We got a nice, summer day. It was a Saturday. Pure sun and warm temps.
“Do you think we should skip this church thing?” I asked my mom the night before. She works night shift at the hospital, so our mother/daughter days are rare. We were supposed to go to a women’s craft event. “Since it’s supposed to be so nice out?”
"No, we probably should go,” Mom said.
“Yeah, I guess. We did already sign up.” Still, I felt a pang of Fear of Missing Out on the sunshine party Michigan was throwing.
The next day, the sun danced with a cloudless sky as Mom and I spent the bulk of the afternoon inside a dimly lit gymnasium. We made cards and conversation, met new people and laughed, swapped stories and spent valuable time together for once. I was glad I was there, but I made big plans in my mind to stay outside as much as possible once the event was over.
The afternoon concluded with closing speakers: a mother/daughter duo. I settled into my plastic chair around the round table and got ready to listen to lighthearted and uplifting words.
That’s not what I got.
“We want you to think of a situation that is hard and difficult that you have gone through or are going through now,” the mom of the speaker duo—Kelly—said. She had a short blonde bob, red lipstick and glasses. “Then write that word down on the cards provided on your tables. When you’ve got your word, come up and pin the card to this bulletin board behind me.”
I glanced around at the tables surrounding me. About 20 women –mostly middle-aged, some younger, some older—sat in the chairs, pens poised. I recognized many of their faces, though they wore new masks of uncertainty as they looked at their card.
One by one, the women went up to the bulletin board and pinned their card like the tail to a donkey. Darting my eyes from side to side, I kept my card close to my chest until I stood directly in front of the board. I stabbed a clear pushpin to the top of the card and pushed it into the cork. I avoided eye contact as I hurried back to my seat.
After a few minutes, the bulletin board was full.
“OK,” Chyna—the other speaker, Kelly’s 20something daughter—said. “We all are going through things.” She looked at the full board, then back at us. “And to be honest, it sucks, right? “It just”—she sighed, her breath almost a whisper—“sucks.” She paused. The quiet fell on the room like a thud. She started reading the words on the cards out loud.
“Disappointment,” Chyna read. “Punishment. Failure. Mistake. Disappointment. Out of control. Depressed. Disappointment. Another disappointment.”
I looked in disbelief at the other women at the round tables. It never occurred to me that they might feel the rainy days of life, too. Most of these women were older than me. I figured they’d have it all figured out: this adulting, growing up, life in general puzzle.
But we can’t prevent the weather, no matter how many rainy days we’ve lived through.
Hard things are happening. Right now. In this past week alone, I’ve heard from friends about difficult scenarios that add to the weight that we constantly carry. Miscarriages and misunderstandings. Illnesses and death. Mold in the house. Surgery in the hospital.
I keep waiting for the day that it all will go away. Like clouds parting, the dark news will make way for clear blue skies. Everything will be 100% perfect.
But it doesn’t. And it won’t. Because this is life, and we get a mix of the good and not-so-good. We have our own thunderstorms. We just don’t look out the same windows to see the lightning strike.
We don’t see each other in the counseling office.
In the doctor’s waiting room. Or the hospital hallway.
On the cold bathroom floor tile.
Underneath the pillars that once built such a strong foundation.
Alone in the car listening to that one John Mayer song that breaks your heart in two.
In the bed, staring at the ceiling fan spinning around and around and around at 2:24 a.m.
The tough stuff is what we all have in common. We all know what it feels like to get hit with the rain.
Last weekend, Adam and I got up early to plant pink and white impatiens under the two maple trees in our yard. I bought flats of dark purple petunias to fill a couple of whiskey barrels to sit on our porch. We rushed to get the roots into the dirt, trying to beat—once again—another rainstorm scheduled to arrive at our doorstep that afternoon.
The next day, I hovered over the whiskey barrel, now full of flowers. The petunias’ petals drooped downward, looking heavy and heartbroken like the sky.
“Dang it, these petunias,” I panicked, peering closely at their green stems and placing my fingers in the wet dirt. “I knew they’d die. Look at ‘em. Not even a day and they’re dying. Do you think the rain made it worse?”
Adam looked at the flowers, then at me. “Give them a break,” he said. “It’s been a day. They’re stressed. They just got planted. They aren’t dying.”
Flowers need the rain. We need the storms. But social media forgets to factor in that equation. Instagram and Facebook are like California: endless sun.
But what does constant sunshine and no rain cause?
A few days later—after a forecast full of rain clouds with patches of sun—I examined my petunias again. The petals were perky this time, their faces turned upward to look at the sky. Their stems had stretched. They weren’t just alive. They were growing.
It’s not all about reacting to the rain's existence. It’s accepting the rain's presence and respecting what it can do. The dark and dreary allow us to grow. To accept what is. To appreciate the good weather when it’s here…and learn to live --not just wait to live--when it’s not. To have both the umbrellas AND the sunglasses on hand…because we’ll need one or the other eventually.
And no matter how heartbroken the Sky may feel, she will always be the one that holds the Sun.
I never thought Stone Cold Steve Austin would get between Mom and me.
And yet, here we were.
“No,” she said. “This is not happening. No way.” She clutched the Stone Cold doll as if her life depended on it.
It really was a doll, not one of those plastic wrestler figurines, though my younger brother had those growing up, too. Back then, he had an entire bin full of the late 90s World Wrestling Federation stars: Kane. The Undertaker. Paul Bearer. X-Pac. Triple H. An eclectic mix of Good Guys and Bad Guys, complete with scowls and six packs.
Ryan’s favorite was Stone Cold Steve Austin, whose wrestling persona was all blue-collar, beer-guzzling, trash-talking. His neck would twist and turn as he stood across from his latest arch nemesis in the ring, spitting out one witty, raw, rude insult after another. But Austin was the good guy. The “face.” The hero who saved the day: one Stone Cold Stunner move at a time.
When Ryan was six or seven, he dressed up as Austin for Halloween. Mom used her Cover Girl brown eyeliner pen to draw a mustache and goatee to match the wrestler. With his new facial hair, vest and AUSTIN 3:16 hat, Ryan looked like a mini version of the Texas Rattlesnake.
Now, Mom held tightly to our doll pal Stone Cold. He stretched about a foot long. Plastic bald head and bulging arms. Soft cloth body. His black tight tee matched his black combat boots and wrestling briefs. His eyebrows were painted angry: a face that now matched my mother’s expression as she looked at me.
We faced off between my parent’s entryway and the kitchen. Brown eyes locked, hands on hips. The oak grandfather clock scolded us with its tick-tick-tick. Dad sat behind me at the kitchen table. I’d call him in for backup, though I was hoping to win this one on my own.
“You can’t,” I said. My eyes drifted to Stone Cold, lifeless in my mom’s hands. No Stunners today. “I get it, I do, but these are our memories. From childhood. Like, come on,”—I gestured toward the doll—“that was Ryan’s. He loved Stone Cold, remember? We can’t just getridof him.”
“Lindsay, you had no idea that Stone Cold was here until I brought him up from the basement,” Mom said. Her voice was as crisp as fresh linen. “We can’t keep all this STUFF.” She shook Stone Cold. He was not rattled.
“You wouldn’t want all this crap if it was in your house,” she continued. Her eyes were big now, her voice rising like a wave. “It’s all crap. Total junk.”
Oh no. I knew this tone. This tone meant rollercoaster results. Hop on board and watch Jeanne spiral.
“We are hoarders,” she stated matter-of-factly. “That’s what we are. We are a bunch of HOARDERS just like on that television show. Your dad,” she looked over my shoulder at him—“is a HOARDER.”
And here…we…go. Arms up, everybody.
I sighed. “We are not hoarders.”
“We are!” Mom argued. “We have a basement full of crap. You don’t even live here anymore and you still have a ton of stuff up in your closet.”
“I went through things.”
Mom raised her eyebrow. “Oh really? Then why do we need your old prom dresses? Where are you going to wear those?”
True. I needed to donate those.I pictured my junior year prom dress hanging in my old bedroom closet. It was pale pink: the color of cotton candy and strawberry ice cream.
“Dad,” I now said, turning around to face my father sitting in his spot at the kitchen table. “Do you hear this? Mom is getting rid of our childhood.”
Dad stood up from the table. “No, she’s not.” He walked toward my mom, still holding onto Stone Cold Steve Austin. “We aren’t getting rid of the kids’ toys, Jean.”
Mom shuddered, incredulous. “Oh OK, so they’re just going to sit in the basement, collecting dust? Why do we need to keep all of this stuff? This is ridiculous. It’s JUNK.”
Dad reached out and took Stone Cold. “No, it’s not, we aren’t hoarders, it’s fine.” He gave Stone Cold to me, opened the front door and walked out toward the backyard. That was that.
“We are hoarders,” Mom repeated as the door shut behind my dad. But her voice had quieted, the tinge of defeat softening its edges. She turned around and went upstairs. I carried Stone Cold back downstairs into the basement, his face as tough as ever. Another match won. Ring the bell.
In my own house, I tend to lean toward Mom—who wants to get rid of everything—versus Dad—who wants to get rid of nothing. Earlier this year, I hopped on the minimalism bandwagon for a hot second. The approach to life centers on the concept of getting rid of stuff/things/etc. that is not of true use or happiness. Like everyone else, I watched that show on Netflix with Marie Kondo and perused her book, “Spark Joy.” I got inspired. Took everything in my closet, threw it in the living room, organized it. Kept the items that brought me joy(that was Marie Kondo’s big requirement).Got rid of the clothes that didn’t.
It felt nice, to clear things out that I didn’t need anymore. The things that had holes, or had faded, or didn’t fit, or wasn’t quite me.
As someone who likes to keep things tidy, I was loving this minimalism thing. Goodbye purposeless items! Gimme all that joy. Only joy.
Until I came across my stuff that was more than stuff. They were time capsules. Memories stitched into the fabric. Feelings faded into the paint.
And that’s when I realized that things aren’t always just things. The ordinary, everyday items can also be special and symbolic.
Things can serve as an extension of a friend you don’t talk to anymore, or a time that you can’t get back. A tangible memory that provides proof that your brain and your heart are not playing tricks on you. Yes, that really happened. See, look: Here’s the movie stub. Here’s that sweatshirt. The burnt CD with the words he scribbled in Sharpie. The faded Pistons shirt, the scuffed tap shoes, the tarnished trophy.
It happened. It did. You did. We did.
Here. Look. Remember.
Things mean memories. Memories that may seem insignificant, or forgotten, or lost. Until you rub the dress’s taffeta fabric in between your fingers, or pop in the Tim McGraw CD, or hug the brown teddy bear with the hole in it’s neck.
Our symbols—our things—are different for all of us. The memory assigns the meaning. Suddenly, something ordinary isn’t so ordinary anymore.
You see a maize and blue Michigan snapback hat or a cherry red Ford F150 truck and think nothing of it. I see my dad. I will always see my dad.
You see a cream-colored lace dress and think, “Oh, that’s pretty.” I see my and my friend Cassie’s Halloween costume, when dressing up as “dead dolls” brightened our day during a dark time.
My list goes on and on:
A mustard-colored sweater. Fuzzy socks.
A Dreamland baby doll. A tie-dyed Girls on the Run T-Shirt.
Fuschia Fusion eye shadow. Silver and blue track spikes. A wooden piggy bank.
A George Strait cassette tape. A Bob Evans name tag. Pink ballet slippers.
Like archeologists uncovering forgotten bones, the simple act of spring cleaning can stir up memories and ghosts.
That’s why some people keep things: to remember.
And that’s why people get rid of things: to forget.
We get to choose what we take, and what we let go.
Today, Stone Cold remains at my parents’ house. Ryan now has his own beard; he doesn’t need Mom to draw it on with eyeliner. But the wrestling doll represents a time in our lives that once was. A season that we remember. Despite all the space things take up, sometimes the memory is worth more than the space.
I picture the scene often.
It’s not that hard, really.
“The defense would like to call the next witness to the stand…”
I see me standing. I adjust my black blazer.
I do not smile.
I do not blink.
I raise my right hand, palms out. I show the lines traced into my skin, the same tributaries deciphered by palm readers at the Renaissance Festival. Left hand goes on the Bible.
“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God?”
It’s almost as if it’s real, you know? I mean, I’ve never actually been inside an actual court room, but in my head, the scenario feels real. There’s cherry paneled walls that make the room seem older and darker and, I dunno, more legal.
Is that a thing? More legal?
There’s the wooden rows for the wooden jurors that sit with wooden faces. Their eyebrows are chiseled into consternation. Their mouths are sculpted sullen. Seriousness is carved into their set jawlines, their stares, their sideburns.
The presiding judge is Judge Judy.
I get my court room inspiration from the shows and movies I’ve watched, like Miracle on 34th Street, but the remake, with the same girl that acted in Mrs. Doubtfire and Matilda. The courtroom in Making a Murderer stands out, too. And that OJ Simpson drama. You know that one, right? The show they recently made, with that guy that now plays Randall in This Is Us. It was good.
The questions begin.
Can you tell the jury what you saw….?
I mean, it’s not just me that saw these things. I can’t sit here on this stand with everyone staring and pretend to be special. Being a witness isn’t unique. We’ve all seen these scenes play out in other people’s lives. But we don’t always know what we’re seeing until it’s over, when the mess has been made and we’re trying to help pick up the pieces of a broken mirror. The shards sting. The cracks show. We bend down and try to put it all back together again.
But maybe it’s irreparable. The pieces of broken glass lay shattered on the ground, reflecting the truth right back at you as you look down.
Lindsay, did you see it happen…?
It depends on what we’re talking about here. Because there's a lot of bad things that happened to a lot of good people over the years.
Can you rephrase the question?
You mean, did I see my friend’s heartbreak coming? Did I see the sadness?
Did I picture the space widening?
Did I see it all ending?
Did I see the pictures taken down from the office? The vacant leather chair? The faded smell from their house, their perfume, their car air freshener? The lights turned off. The closed door.
Did I see the signs? The loss? The mental illnesses that robbed joy and stole happiness without a second thought? The idle hands, the broken ties, the empty bottles, the missed calls?
The accident? The flashing lights? The vehicle crumpled like an accordion?
Did I see onesies that went unworn, fuzzy gray sonograms shoved into drawers, back with the hopes that no longer get to see the light of day?
Did I see dashed dreams and empty beds?
Did I see black suits and tear-soaked faces and memorial flowers—circles of lilies and vases of roses— that sit in a church as alone and forgotten as the family members now feel?
Did I see the texts? The silent phone sitting on the nightstand? The frequent phone numbers, sitting stagnant in the Contacts? It hurts too much to delete the name.
...No. No, I did not.
And what did you do next?
It depends. But usually?
Wine. Words. Worry.
When you’re a witness, you don’t know what to say in times like these. You want to say so much right without saying all of the wrong. But you aren’t sure what counts as Right and what constitutes as Wrong.
So you stay silent. You awkwardly joke. You wonder if you should hug, or talk, or keep cover under the concealment of Maybe They Need Space.
You watch. You see. At work, at home, in the grocery story, on the sidewalk.
And you wonder.
And you worry.
And you wish that you could step into their shoes. You wish you could take away their pain by taking it on instead.
But you can’t. So you won’t.
But you wish you could.
You look up at the stars. You blow out birthday candles. You close your eyes as the clock reads 11:11. And you wish, you wish, you wish, you wish.
Have you thought about doing physical damage?
I mean…what are we talking here? To the people who hurt my people? Well.
Like a slap to the face? A key to the car door? Not enough to cause significant pain, but enough to cause slight damage?
I plead the fifth.
BUT let the record show….
Aren’t we all witnesses to something? We are witnesses to our loved one’s pain, and suffering, and loss. Yes, we kick ourselves for not seeing enough, or not predicting what would have happened, or not responding right.
The hardest realization is often understanding that you can’t always do something to eliminate the situation. I don’t want to just see. I don’t want to simply stand by. We live in a world where we need to take action, so the hardest thing is to stand back, and just watch it unfold.
But being a witness isn’t about what we can do.
It’s about what we see.
Amongst the pain, I see strength. Immeasurable grit. Steps forward. I see people gathering around their people. I see pranks on co-workers, and giggles from a baby, and lunches with parents.
I see Wizard of Oz costumes on Halloween, and rap music on the radio, and hunting camouflage in the woods.
I see growth. I see love.
I see silver linings.
I see my favorite people, hurting and loving and living. I dust off my shoulder. I stand by their sides, forever hoping it helps.
You may step down from the stand.
It’s 6:43 a.m. on a Saturday morning. I’m half-awake and hazy as I walk into class.
I didn’t want to come here today. My bed was warm. My pajamas were soft.
But Trisha is saving me a bike. I don’t want to leave her hanging.
So here I am.
The studio at Sarah Fechter Fitness is bathed in red and blue lights this morning, looking more dance club than gym. Shadows blanket the silver Spin bikes. They’re gathered in a gleaming group like a herd of stallions. Pop music plays…something familiar but not exactly memorable… with a sturdy, thick beat.
I feel antsy as I anticipate the difficult and discomfort that awaits me. But that’s working out, I guess. I adjust my white cotton headband—a strategic dam for my forehead sweat—and head toward the front of the class.
People are already on their bikes, turning pedals and swigging water. Some are wearing maize and blue. Others are wearing green and white. I’m wearing neon pants and a purple tank top. The same color as Barney the Dinosaur. I got it for $5 at Old Navy a million years ago.
Oh yeah, I remember. The game is today. THE Game. Michigan vs. Michigan State. Mom has moved from slot machines to sports bets, just waiting for the day when she’s finally won her millions.
“Who would you bet on?” my mom asked my brother last week over sirloin and fried onions at Outback Steakhouse. Ryan shrugged.
“I just don’t know,” she continued. “They say Michigan is supposed to win, but then again, Michigan State always comes back, so…” She twisted her mouth to the side. Her thinking face.
Now, the soft hum of the spinning wheels fills the room. I wonder which team Mom picked to prevail.
“Hey Trisha,” I say as I walk up to the bike in the front row, one off from dead center. “This bike mine?”
“Yep, I saved it for you,” she smiled, adjusting her bike to the left of mine. She’s more hardcore than me. She’s got special cycling shoes and two water bottles.
“Thanks.” I clutch on to my water bottle from Meijer. The cheap plastic crunches beneath my grip.
I look down at the shiny wooden floor. Trisha has set down her tennis shoes on one of the studio’s black foam mats. The words “PERFORM BETTER!” are branded in white letters. The “O” in “PERFORM” is a smiley face.
I sit down on the bike and settle in. The class is full now. I turn the pedals, joining the chorus of caloric burning.
The music stops. Janelle stands in front of me on the small, square stage. Janelle’s bike sits stoic behind her, lone and looming over the room. Waiting.
“Welcome to Saturday Spin, friends!” she bellows. She’s tall and lean, her long brown hair slicked back into a sleek ponytail.
Janelle is an elementary school teacher. You can tell. She commands a room with kindness and authority, her voice ringing clear as a bell. “I’ve got to ask: Who’s cheering for Michigan?” Some cyclists cheer. “And who’s cheering for Michigan State?” More cheers. She grins.
“OK, we’ve got a great ride for you today,” she tells us as she plugs in an iPod to the outlet in the wall. Music pulses over our heads. “Great playlist, great class. Let’s get going.” She hops on the bike and begins to pedal.
Suddenly, the class takes on a focused seriousness that reminds me of church. Janelle stands tall over us like a pastor. The bikes are in line like pews. We follow her every move.
My enemy comes in the form of a small, red knob on the bike. It looks gray under the red and blue lights. The actual name of the thing is the Resistance Knob. Yeah. RESISTANCE Knob. A turn to the right adds tension by adding weight to the wheel. A turn to the left lightens the load. You determine the difficulty.
“Add,” Janelle orders. We turn our knobs. We spin our wheels. The ride gets harder, mimicking an upward climb on a hill. The song switches.
“I’m sweating like a man up here,” Janelle jokes. Um, same. The red light catches the gleam on her face.
“Now I want you to add resistance,” she coaches. “Add enough tension to stand tall.”
I turn my knob to the right. My cadence slows under the new weight. “Now stand up in the saddle,” Janelle instructs. “Don’t fly off.”
I stand up from the bike seat, my knees bouncing like bobbers in the water. My mind wanders. Enough tension to stand tall. Sweat pours down my back. I’m still bobbin’, still standin’, until Janelle tells us to sit back down.
“Take some tension off, grab a towel, get a drink.” I guzzle from my cheap water bottle, gulp oxygen into my lungs, turn that wheel with quiet desperation.
The hollowed, intergalactic sounds of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” begins.
“Okay, we are going to do a strength climb,” Janelle instructs. Her wheels are turning. “It’s going to get heavy.”
Michael wails in his high-pitched voice. “Now, add, add, add, ADD,” Janelle chants. “Now go.”
The song plays. My legs burn. The wheel slows. The mind games begin as my body wails. All it takes is one turn for me to end this misery, to ease up, to let off. To make it, you know, not so damn hard.
But then Janelle chimes in, as if she’s reading my thoughts.
“Come on,” she urges, pulling her fingers toward her palms in a “gimme more” gesture. “Don’t fall off, come with me.” She looks into our faces. I bite my lip.
“You’re uncomfortable,” she says to the class matter-of-factly, “not dead. You’re not going to die.” She continues cycling. “Mind over muscle.”
And I realize Janelle is right.
This is supposed to be uncomfortable. It’s supposed to be hard. It’s hard as the resistance gets turned up, it’s hard as my legs turn from fire to jelly, it’s hard as the sweat seeps into my eyes and Michael Jackson keeps singing, and THIS SONG IS SERIOUSLY THE LONGEST SONG EVER. WHO THE HECK IS DIRTY DIANA ANYWAY?
It’s all hard.
But just as quickly as the difficult comes?
The song ends. The weight is lifted.
“Great job,” Janelle boasts. “Way to finish strong.”
As I wipe sweat from my eyebrow, I think about what Janelle said back at the beginning of class…how we need to add enough tension so we can stand tall. If you don’t have enough tension, you’ll lose control of the wheel. You feel like you’re going to spin right off the bike.
Maybe that’s how life works.
We need the tension in order to stand tall. To rise above. To see where we stand. To maintain control. It’s uncomfortable. It hurts. It’s not fun.
But it’s necessary.
Last week, I visited my friend Cassie after work. She has the cutest 8-month baby boy in the world, and he isn’t a big fan of getting ready for bed. He cries as she lovingly changes him out of his clothes and into his jammies. He shakes his head no. He wants to stay awake and take in the world.
“How do you deal with the crying?” I ask. “Like when it gets really bad?”
She shrugged. “The crying stops eventually.”
Now, Janelle slows her pedals. “Great class today,” she nods as we clap.
I turn the knob to the left. The tension is gone. I sit still. I stretch. I remember Cassie, and her son, and how lovingly she looked at him, read him a story, counted to ten and tickled his toes. He gives the biggest grin and the best giggle, cracking open us all with joy.
The crying stops eventually.
It all stops eventually.
Nothing lasts forever. Including the pain.
Especially the pain.
It’s easy to forgot that in the dark holes of life—in the drippy tears and caked sweat and dirty dishes and missed opportunities and guilt-ridden mistakes— we find who we are. We design—or redesign—our lives. We get angry, we forgive, we let go. It’s a constant turn on the Resistance Knob.
We get off the bike.
Back on again.
And move forward.
Our street is busy.
The busiest street I’ve ever lived on, anyway.
The constant whoosh of cars still sounds foreign to me. Whenever the bass of some big Buick blares by the house, I can’t help but look out the window. Daisy accompanies me.
She barks. I don’t.
The first house I called home was a 1970s ranch where we lived during the 90s. It sat on the last leg of a dead end road. Pine Street.
My room was located at the end of the house. Last window on the right. I had a peach-colored comforter and a blue boom box with red and yellow buttons. I’d pop in my cassettes—the Space Jam soundtrack, Celine Dion, George Strait, the Spice Girls—and imagine stage-worthy scenarios with packed audiences. In front of my dresser mirror, I’d dance and lip sync while wearing my purple velvet dance leotard. The flower print one. A two piece because it showed my belly button. ‘Cause I wanted to be a little bit scandalous.
The house had a basketball hoop, and a dog kennel, and a two-car garage. Across the street, thick woods thinned toward the shore of the Bad River’s brown waters. When an unexpected car made the slow, bumpy drive down, down, down the road to our driveway, it was an Event.
“Who’s here?” my mom would ask, her eyebrows reaching the sky.
“Some car,” I’d answer.
“Oh. They’re probably just turning around.”
I’d step back from the big picture window to hide my owl eyes. The car pulled in, backed up, headed where it came from. I felt disappointed that they were leaving because it was such an occasion, to see a car. We usually saw more deer than people.
Every year on Halloween, we used an orange plastic bowl from McDonald’s…one of those free gimmies for buying a Happy Meal. It had black triangle eyes and a toothy smile to resemble a pumpkin. We filled the bowl with Neapolitan taffy and left it on the porch, just in case any stray trick-or-treaters wandered our way. We bundled up and went to a few houses to collect Kit Kats and Twix bars. When we got home, our pumpkin bowl remained untouched.
Since we didn’t have neighbors, there were no neighborly waves. No borrowed cups of sugar. No fear of noise complaints. During the warm summer nights, my little brother and I took turns riding on the back of Dad’s yellow Honda Mini Trail bike. The engine snarled as we squealed past our fence in the front yard, past the orange and yellow marigolds my dad planted, past the wild rhubarb we never picked but probably should have.
I loved when Dad steered us along the overgrown trail into the gnarled woods. I’d close my eyes and feel the wind’s fingers tangle my hair. The bushes tickled my face. The scent of Black-Eyed Susans filled my nostrils, lodging the memories into my mind. They come forward whenever I smell the wildflowers now.
Twenty years have passed since I lived on Pine Street. I can still remember the address. Can still recite the phone number.
One afternoon a few months ago, I stood across from my mom in the kitchen while she folded bath towels.
“Did you ever feel pressure from other parents?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Like, did you feel like you needed to send us to a certain school, or do things a certain way?”
In other words: Mom, did you feel the need to drink the juice out of the Perfect Parenting punch bowl?
Mom spread the pink towel on the counter. Folded one end in, then the other.
“Honey, you grew up on a dead end street across from the Bad River,” she answered matter-of-factly. She added the folded towel to the pile. “And I think you turned out just fine.”
Nowadays, my husband and I have neighbors. There’s traffic. We’re two minutes from the Class A high school. But we get a taste of the country, too. Behind our house, it’s all fields and tall trees. Blackbirds chatter like the old men drinking black coffee at McDonald’s.
A sugar beet field stretches along the south side of our house. A few weeks ago, a weathered farmer went back and forth with his harvester outside our window, scraping the fields clean and crop-free. He was so close to the house, we could have reached out and given him a high five.
Daisy barked. I didn’t.
Whenever I’m coming or going from Meijer or (let’s be honest) TJ Maxx, I pass the same line of houses. One house uses a projector to splash holiday-themed light designs on their brown siding. Not just for Christmas, either. This year, I’ve seen hearts for Valentine’s Day, and stars for the Fourth of July, and eggs for Easter. Another house further down is long and skinny and brown. It has a burgundy star hanging on the front. The fancy red brick two-story across the street has a perfect lawn and a stunning chandelier. It makes me think of that ballroom scene in “Beauty and the Beast.”
Other houses are sandwiched in between the rest, but they all blur together so they look the same. Like a boy band. I see them as The Bunch of Houses on the Left Side of the Street.
At the beginning of this summer, one house broke free from the pack.
It started with the bushes.
Normally, thick green bushes concealed this house from the road. But one day, they were gone, revealing a house that faced the road dead-on, defiant in its visibility. Like, “Yep. I’ve been here this whole time.” It was small—900 square feet? 800?—and shaped like a tissue box. White. Yellow caution tape criss-crossed the driveway. A hint and a warning.
As Adam and I made our daily drives into Saginaw to run errands or do whatever, we’d glance at the house. The once-hidden yard had turned into the Center of Hustle and Bustle. Men wearing jeans and construction boots were always there: moving drywall and carrying siding and pushing piles of dirt with a Bobcat.
We still weren’t quite sure what they were doing until they did it. In July, a huge garage-like structure stood large and looming next to the small house. It was two stories, and at least double the size of its partner.
“So do you think it’s a garage?” I said as I stared out the passenger window while Adam drove straight. “Or a new house?”
“If it’s a new house, I don’t know why they’re so hell-bent on saving that original house,” Adam glanced out the window, then back at the road. “Why make the addition bigger than the house that was already there?”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “You’d think it’d be easier to just start from scratch. Build exactly what you want.”
The new house-garage was too big, the old house too small. The pair didn't line up. Like a tall, gangly girl and an awkward pre-teen boy trying to slow dance in a middle school gymnasium. It didn't make sense.
But then—then!—it did.
The changes to the house were probably gradual. Not to the owners, or the workers. But to us, it was as if it all happened overnight. Like a drastic haircut combined with fresh makeup and a new outfit, the pieces all clicked together to create The Big Noticeable Change.
That change? A hallway.
The builders had connected the small house to the huge garage with a hallway, or a breezeway. Either way, the two weren't separate anymore. Suddenly, we realized: they weren’t building a garage, or a new house. They weren’t starting over. They were adding on. It was one big house.
We saw the other changes come quickly afterwards. The gray siding. The white garage doors. The new roof. They still aren’t done. Every day, it looks more beautiful. More cohesive.
What looked like a hodge-podge of a situation is now a beautiful, updated home.
“Look how pretty that house looks,” I told Adam as we drove by once again. They have recently added a copper-colored awning to a portion of the old house.
“Yeah,” he nodded. “They’re really coming along with it. It looks so different.”
“It’s crazy,” I said, turning to face the windshield. “We thought they’d be better off starting from scratch.”
“Guess we were wrong.”
I admit it: I was skeptical at first. I didn’t see the vision. Not that the opinion of Lindsay the Nosy Neighbor matters. But all I saw was a tall square garage-house dwarfing a small tissue box house. I kept thinking, "Why salvage the old when you can start brand new?"
The little house down the road taught me something though.
Maybe we don’t need to start over by tearing down.
Maybe it’s good to keep the bones. Rebuild by adding on to the existing foundation. The original isn’t always a hurdle…it’s a starting place to create something new. Starting over can mean making something beautiful out of what others on the outside see as Not Worth It.
Maybe adding on is a way to let go.
All it takes is time, and effort…and a hallway to connect the two.
(Yes, I'm creepy and took a paparazzi-like photo of the house down the street.)
When Adam and I first got married, we lived in a 900-square foot duplex. We called it “The Plex.” Partly to sound cool. Partly to make the place feel like it was ours.
After we got engaged, our home search started with realtor websites. Which gifted us with some, erm, unforgettable options.
There was the house in Midland with the decal-covered walls. You know, the ones with the inspirational sayings in black swirly letters? Like, “LIVE LAUGH LOVE” and “FAMILY” and “HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS.”
Those decals were everywhere. The entryway. The kitchen. The bathroom. It was an admirable aesthetic…until you saw the fist-shaped holes that outnumbered the adhesive platitudes.
There was the apartment that looked pretty nice, but smelled bad. Really bad. Like rotten eggs, or dead mice. Or both.
There was the place where the landlord was an hour late to show us around. Adam and I stood under a gray sky on the crumbling concrete stoop and waited. We tried to call. We almost left. Then the landlord finally pulled up alongside the curb. He was an older, wiry man with gray hair and bad eye contact. He grumbled “Hello” as he walked up to greet us. No apologies.
He opened the door with a gold key and a grim face. The hallway smelled like molded food. But the counters were clean and white, and the natural lighting was welcoming. The floors were smooth hardwood. The rooms resembled rooms, not closets.
The landlord took us down a dark, damp staircase. It led to an even darker basement with a low ceiling. Rickety washers and dryers sat in the corner, looming and leering. A small slant of light filtered in from one grimy window. A 20something man with long, stringy hair and narrowed eyes shot us a blank stare as he folded a faded shirt. No smile. No nod. No words.
“People definitely hide bodies in here,” I whispered behind Adam as we headed back up the stairs.
After seeing those gems, I continued our quest for a place by searching Craigslist. A Hail Mary attempt that gave me a huge win a few years prior.
Before—before the Plex, and the wedding, and the engagement, and everything else—I lived in a gray house with a kind roommate named Kaylee and her happy goldendoodle named Cooper. It was my first Craigslist find after wanting (needing) to move out of my parents’ house after grad school.
The house sat in the middle of a Saginaw suburb. It was furnished with a beautiful leather couch, a large table, black bar stools and a glass hutch that held pretty dishes.
Kaylee and I alternated taking out the trash and washing the floors and mowing the lawn with an old, red push mower. There was a porch in the back, a garage in the front, and neighbors that waved. I had my own bathroom. It was the perfect living situation for me. The epitome of right time, right place.
The experience gave me enough hope to try Craigslist again to find a home for me and Adam. I crossed my fingers. Please no creepers, no murderers, no scam artists.
One afternoon while perusing the site, I saw a post for a duplex in a nearby town. I clicked to learn more. The listing showed a small description and few pictures of the place. Tan. Front window. Side porch. Small yard.
The best part? It was a 10-minute drive from my work. Fifteen minutes for Adam. A dream for two country kids who were used to a half-hour commute or more.
Hm, I thought as I clicked though the photos. This looks promising.
Still, doubt tugged at my brain. We had been through this enough to know that the photos always looked good. It was what you saw in person that showed the true reality.
During lunch at work, I sent the link to Adam. My subject line matched the email body: DUPLEX?!?!
I composed a second email. Just say the word and I will send an email.
Adam eloquently responded a few minutes later:
My fingers tingled with the special brand of excitement. The kind that comes with a hint of the Maybe This Is It feeling. I was sick of worrying about where we would live. I hoped this was the answer.
I typed a third message.
My name is Lindsay; my fiancé and I are looking for a duplex to rent and saw your ad on Craigslist. Would love to take a look at the place if possible? Let me know if and when the duplex would be available for us to see.
The owner of the duplex—a middle-aged realtor named Matt—responded right away. We arranged for a tour the next day.
As soon as Adam and I pulled into the duplex’s driveway, we knew it was the place we’d start our first chapter as husband and wife.
“Is that it?” I asked. Adam slowly drove down the back road. I looked down at the address on my phone, then back up at the tan duplex with the small front yard.
“Yup, that one right there on the left, I think so,” Adam answered. He parked across the street: two tires on the road, two tires on the tall grass in front of a large field.
“Oh my gosh, it looks so cute, look at the soybeans!” I said. I stared out the window.
The duplex was even cuter in person. I loved the light blue door. The small, winding sidewalk. The side porch with the brown paint. The pair of short green bushes that sat in the front yard like a chubby welcoming committee.
“This is it, it has to be,” I said to Adam.
“Let’s go in and see more,” he said.
The front yard sat across from a potholed back road that ran parallel to a soybean field. A small tree hugged the siding like a smooth arm across the back of a chair.
Neighborhood kids squealed as they played outside. The springs of a trampoline squeaked as the kids bounced up and down. Large pine trees lined a back yard that butted up to the edge of a subdivision.
“Hello!” Matt the Landlord got out of his black truck. He wore a suit and looked like the brother of one of Adam’s friends. The random familiarity was oddly reassuring. “I’m Matt,”—he stuck out his hand to each of us—“nice to meet you both. Come on in.”
The duplex’s connecting unit looked exactly the same, but flipped like a reflection.
“He works at Dow,” Matt pointed a thumb toward the neighbor’s silver Dodge truck as we walked toward the front door. A sleek yellow racing boat loomed on his side of the driveway. “He’s lived here awhile. Solo. He keeps to himself.”
Matt got out the key and opened the light blue door. We stepped inside a good-sized living room. Curtains with a brown geometric pattern hung in the front window. A sliding glass window opened up to the side porch. The kitchen window stretched above the sink, and a long, white counter jutted out from the elbow of the wall.
“Can we paint?” I asked Matt as he showed us the two bedrooms, and the washer and dryer in the closet. I don’t know why I was asking. I didn’t have intentions of painting. I was fishing for faults. Just in case.
“Sure,” he said. “We can talk about that.”
As we walked down the stairs to the carpeted basement, I turned mid-step to look at Adam behind me. My eyes bugged out of my head, eyebrows touching my hairline as I whispered, “Oh my God.” Adam smiled with a nod.
The next day, Adam emailed Matt to let him know we’d like to live at the duplex. We went to Matt’s house to sign the lease. It was Official. We had found our first home.
After our honeymoon, we returned to the Plex as husband and wife. Adam carried me over the altar. We lived at the Plex for a year and a half.
We spent our first Christmas there, putting up the tiniest fake tree that gave Charlie Brown’s tree a run for its money. It sat on an end table, the wiry arms proudly displaying our new ornament from Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland. It was painted sparkly red and said “Our First Christmas as Mr. and Mrs.: 2015” in white letters.
“This can be our tradition!” I exclaimed as I readjusted the ornament so it faced the front. “We go and pick out a new ornament every year.”
On the caramel brown couch in the living room—my grandpa’s old couch before he passed away—I answered the call from Kelly on a Tuesday night. I moved as she talked, making my way to the bedroom floor, knees to chest, back to bed frame, as my beautiful friend told me her bloody nose has turned into a cancer diagnosis.
In the kitchen, Courtney and I had our first annual Christmas girls’ day. We baked lemon cookies and painted snowmen faces on glass Mason jars.
Around the coffee table—the one I bought from my friend Leslie in the parking lot of the community center—girls from church sat with me as we talked about God and life and the future.
We hosted our first garage sale…and quickly learned that hosting a garage sale requires a lot of work. And sorting. And pricing. And junk.
I finished my first novel at the Plex.
I paced the living room as my first literary agent made me an offer to represent me as an author.
I got my first agent contract in the mailbox.
Back then, Adam and I didn’t have our puppy.
We didn’t know how to share.
We didn’t know how to decorate.
We didn’t know how to be married.
But we were figuring out. Trying, anyway.
One day, I almost burned the place down while making macaroni and cheese. I grew up with an electric stove, completely naïve and annoyingly privileged in kitchen appliances. I turned the knob on the gas stove but the flame did not ignite. As I stirred the limp pasta, I realized it was not cooking. I dipped my finger in the sauce. It wasn’t even warm.
I called Adam.
“Um, I’m cooking this, but it’s not warm at all?”
“Well, did the flame ignite?”
“Look underneath the pot. Is there a flame burning?”
“You’ve probably got the gas on, but it’s not lit. Turn it off,” Adam said in a hurried voice.
I turned the dial to the left, then turned it back on. This time, the flame lit.
“Ohhh,” I said. “OK. Now I get it.”
“You could have burnt the whole place down!” my mom scolded me later.
The day we moved out of the Plex, I stood in the empty living room and thought of all the memories stuffed in between the walls. I took a long glance back, my heart both light and heavy at the same time. I shut the blue door and turned the key.
We live in a house in a different city now. We know more than we did then. But there is still a soft place in my heart for the duplex. There always will be. It was where we learned so much, and grew even more.
We drove by the Plex on the way home from church today. It looks the same, but different. The field across the street still has soybeans. The neighbor still has a truck. The curtains with the geometric pattern still hang in the front window, but a new welcome mat sits on the stoop.
“I loved the Plex,” I said longingly as I stared at the blue door.
They say it doesn’t matter where you are, but who you’re with. I get that. I do. But I also believe the place DOES matter. Because the place can play just as big of a part in your life as a person.
A place holds memories. They’re in the floors, and the rooms, and the curtains. They’re behind closed doors and in the front yard and stuffed in the mailbox.
A place is part of your past….and it helps you appreciate the present. Especially when the place wasn’t just a place. It was home.
“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.