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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.
On December 31, 2015, I launched this blog site.
One year ago.
On this exact date. With a different year.
Today is December 31, 2016. Since I launched this website, 365 days have passed. Then and Now. So much has happened in between the nostalgic Then and the constantly moving Now.
One thing hasn’t changed, though.
It hasn’t changed within the past year.
It hasn’t changed since I went from Ms. to Mrs.
It hasn’t changed since I was a college student studying communication and writing papers about identity and breakups, drinking chai teas and pulling all nighters.
It hasn’t changed since I was a high school student wearing red and black and shouting “Go Bulldogs!” and wearing nighttime headgear (heck yeah, awkward orthodontia) and feeling all of the feels about everything and anything. Sopping up the soapy, dripping emotions like a thick sponge.
It hasn’t changed since I was a girl on an elementary school playground wearing Keds and a side ponytail, all innocence and fairytales and SuperMario Bros and dandelion crowns and library trips.
Despite it all. All of the changes. All of the hurdles. All of the questions and the doubts and the seasons. Despite it all…my dream hasn’t changed.
I want to be a published author.
It’s this dream that inspired me to start this blog 365 days ago. I wanted to chronicle my journey —and my writings— on this site. And as I look back at this past year, I am grateful and excited for the progress made and the steps taken to get me closer to the goal:
I finished the manuscript. My first. A fiction manuscript.
Queryed several agents, hoping they’d be interested in my manuscript.
Got some interest. Got some rejection.
Doubted myself, then reminded myself of the dream. Kept going.
Signed with literary agent and all-around amazing person Renee Nyen with KT Literary.
Received an outline of edits. Made edits. Submitted changes to Renee.
Had solid conversations with Renee because she has an epic eye. Realized I needed to make more edits.
So what’s up with the book now? you ask.
Well, the answer is short. And unglamorous. But true:
More editing. More revising.
If I'm being honest with you,, I got too excited on my first round of edits. I focused on the breadth rather than the depth. I got so excited about moving forward that my feet went fast. Too fast. I tripped. I focused too much on the finish line instead of completing my current leg of the race.
Lucky for me, I have an awesome agent who knows what this book can be and what I can do. And I can do better. So I’m still working on my manuscript, making edits and diving deep to ensure the next draft I turn in is the best it can be.
I love writing. But writing… It’s hard at times. I'm hard on myself at times. I’m learning that the road to being published is long. It has potholes where your feet get stuck and your mind gets cluttered. Pools of doubt gather alongside me.
But as I sit here on December 31, 2016, I keep thinking about this day next year, and the days that will take place between now and then. A lot of words and writing and worrying (because I’m me and I’m a worrier and that will never change) will take place in these next 365 days.
I’ve come a long way, and I’m grateful for my friends and family who have witnessed this journey and supported me every step of the way.
But I’m not done yet.
I’m excited for what 2017 will bring….and the goal is to sit here on December 31, 2017, with exciting news and dreams achieved.
At the end of the day, though--regardless of the result--it’s all about the journey, right?
Happy New Year. Here's to 2017.
I didn't want to go into work today.
It's not that I don't like my job. I do. I work at a church. My co-workers are like a second family to me.
But I didn't want to go into work today.
I was grumpy. I wanted to sit on the couch and feel sorry for myself because I didn't fold the laundry and I was snippy to my husband and I was tired of fighting the critical self-talk in my head because sometimes it's easier to just give in to it rather than attempt positive affirmations.
Positive affirmations take a lot of energy. Energy that I did not have this morning.
Plus, it's a Friday. A beautiful fall Friday. After days of rain and clouds and wind here in Michigan, the sun finally decided to peek out and show its sparkly self to the world. Like a soloist tap dancer dressed in sequins, the sun is all, "I'll give 'em the ole razzle dazzle."
Thus, I wanted to take my time and sink in my grumpiness and sip a mug of hot apple cider and gaze out at the window at the oak trees basking in the sunshine.
Now that it's October, the trees are trading in their green wardrobes for cloaks of reds, magentas, yellows. If the sun is a sparkly soloist on stage, the oak trees are the audience members dressing up for the occasion. They're putting on their autumn best to take in the sunshiney show.
And yet the reality is: the trees are dying.
They give us their all--one last hurrah in a burst of fall foliage-- and go out in style. Their leaves scatter like confetti until we deem them yard waste: no longer brilliant in bursts of color, but browned and unattached and cluttering our manicured lawns.
We love the leaves when they're tall and together and beautiful, but discard them when they've fallen. Just like we do with people sometimes. Unfortunately.
Trees let things go so easily. When the signs of summer begin to fade, they don't fight it. They embrace the change by changing, too. When one tree morphs in a fit of speed and color and marigold yellow, another tree won't shrink at it's neighbor's brilliance. It stands tall, transforming from dark green to deep burgundy on its own terms.
Trees don't compare. They don't copy. Trees take their time turning and changing into what God intended them to be. They are their brightest before they fade.
I need to take a page out of the oak tree's book, I decided as I gazed out the window.
I wanted to stay here in front of this window and learn more life lessons from the oak trees and feel sorry for myself. As you do.
But (sigh) I got over myself and got up and got dressed and got in the office. And then I got a reminder about life and grief and lonely instead of, you know, laundry and snippy and couch potato.
Life loves to interfere with my pity parties.
Here's the thing: When you work at a church, you get to blur the lines. People trump process. Feelings override to-do lists. We witness many life-defining moments. We watch in real-time as memories are being made:
Messages that introduce people to faith and God.
On Tuesday--just three days ago--we hosted a funeral for a kind woman with a big heart and unwavering faith.
She attended a weekly class here at the church on Tuesday mornings. On those class days when I would walk in to the church, this woman was often the first face I saw. Sitting at a round oak table, she'd smile and greet me with a "Hi, Lindsay!" Her voice was excited and warm, like she was genuinely happy to see me. And that made me feel valued. Acknowledged. I loved walking in and seeing her face.
Sometimes, all it takes is a genuine hello to make someone's day. Her hello did for me, anyway.
This woman's funeral was honoring and memorable and personal. People sat in pews and said their prayers. A photo board displayed images of her life before most of us knew her. A younger version of her and her husband smiled in photos wearing clothes we now deem vintage but are still viewed as classy.
Memories. Moments. People. Staring back at us in sepia tones.
This morning, I sat at my desk in the front as I always do. The office was quiet, as most of the staff gone to meetings or appointments or final fall vacations before winter settles in for the next six months.
Then, the woman's husband came in to the office.
He is a dedicated man who sends out prayer requests and serves as a church elder and sat by his wife's side until her days on this earth ended. If this had been a Tuesday several months ago, he would have been sitting next to his wife at round table when I walked in to work.
Today, he stood in the doorway alone.
"Hi!" I greeted, surprised to see him and unsure what to say to someone who said goodbye to his wife a week ago to the day.
"Hello." He took a step closer and held out an envelope to me. "For the funeral."
He wore a burgundy polo that matched the oak tree leaves. His slacks looked a size too big. He probably lost weight from the stress, I thought. His white hair peppered and streaked with gray was combed like always, but still...he looked different.
We chatted about how his email wasn't working.
"I need to call Charter," he said. "I don't understand it. They say the password isn't right, but they're the ones who came up with it."
"Oh yeah, I've had a few arguments with them over the years," I admitted.
He nodded then looked down, his eyes focused on the floor. His face was full of sadness. The sadness wasn't splayed all over his features like a coat of cosmetics you could wipe off at the end of the day. This sadness was deeper. Engrained.
Like it was there to stay for the rest of his days.
Like he had lost something.
Because he had.
After decades of being married and taking care of his wife, her presence was gone. So here he was, three days later, left with logistics and details, envelopes and Charter communications company phone calls, and small talk with the girl sitting in the church's front office.
We made small talk about the weather. I took the envelope, promising to put it in it's proper place. As I watched him walk away, hiking up his too-big slacks, I stared at his back. He looked so alone. A tug pulled at my heart.
"Do you want a brownie?" I called after him. One of our volunteers had made zucchini brownies. There were two left.
"A brownie?" His voice sounded lighter. Relieved. Like he didn't want to walk away alone, either. "Well, sure, I'll take a brownie."
We stood across from each other in silence. Then, I acknowledged what we both were thinking. "The funeral was really beautiful."
Some people want to avoid talking about funerals and loss, but he grabbed onto the comment like a lifesaver.
"It really was," he exclaimed. "Wasn't it? The funeral home did such a good job."
"Yes," I agreed. "What a lovely memorial for her." He nodded.
"Today is the 7th," I explained. "Next month is me and my husband's 1-year anniversary. Got any advice?"
"Nope," he laughed. "Just keep on goin'."
I smiled. "Well, that's something we all can do then, isn't it?"
"It certainly is." He turned and walked back out into the hallway. I zipped up the plastic bag. One brownie left.
Like the trees, this man is entering a new season of life. He is now a widow. His face is weathered and wrinkled and deep, not unlike the bark of an old oak tree. But unlike the trees, memories of his wife and their lives won't be scattered like leaves in a gutter, only to be raked and collected in bags to burn. These memories will live on despite the changes.
No matter what season life throws our way, all we can do is adapt. The weather calls for change, and so they do.
Life calls for change.
And so we do.
We adapt. We just keep on goin'.
I'm glad I went to work today.
All of a sudden, your world turns upside down in a right side up kind of way. A small stick with a plus sign changes your life because you are now bringing another life into the world.
Weeks go by, and you prepare. Baby showers. Baby nursery. Pastel colors of sky blues, pale pinks, sunshine yellows and mint greens. Onesies. Diapers. Monthly stickers to use when your baby is out of the womb and into the world, growing and changing and showing he has your eyes or she has his lips. One month, two months, three months, four.
When people ask, “Do you want a boy or a girl?” you respond with the same response everyone says. You mean it because it’s true: “We just want a healthy baby.”
We expect a lot when we’re expecting.
But then, the unexpected happens.
Something’s not right.
And your world is turned upside down again as you turn right towards the elevators and go up a floor to the floor you never imagined when you envisioned your birth plan: The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. NICU for short.
The image of you smiling as you walk into your home nursery—the room with the white crib and jungle theme and stuffed animal giraffe and rocking chair—are replaced with your reality: tubes and wires and beeping and ringing. Beige walls and large sinks and bracelets that identify you as the parent of the baby in Nursery 6.
You stand like a soldier on guard next to the isolette —a clear plastic box with holes for wires and tubes to weave in and out—where your baby lies, protected from the world. Your baby is fragile and small and too tiny to fit into any of the newborn onesies your family gifted you at the shower many weeks ago. But that’s okay, you tell yourself. Because this is all part of you and your baby’s journey to being okay.
You just want your baby to be okay. Please God let my baby be okay.
Your new mantra is “I just want us to go home.” Home represents health.
Your emotions are determined by your baby’s small victories that are actually huge milestones. When a baby’s original birth weight is one pound, gaining another pound is to be celebrated. The nurses hang beads outside of your baby’s isolette. “Bravery beads,” they call them. “To represent every milestone.” You stare at the beads as you cling to the hope they represent.
You focus on the victories while chasing away the fear tucked in your brain. Did I do something wrong? Could we have prevented this?
But here’s the thing: You’re not wrong. You’re not alone. The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit doctors and nurses are there. And they’ve dedicated their lives to responding to the unexpected.
They’re there: night and day. Taking care of your family. Helping to get your baby healthy. But they do so much more than that. They’re advocates for you. They represent answers and permission and reassurance. Wearing scrubs and smiles, they are the calm in the midst of a churning, turning tornado of emotional storms.
My mom, with her sweet demeanor and seal blue scrubs, has worked as a registered nurse on the NICU floor for over 30 years. When I was younger, I would wake up with her in the mornings before she left for the hospital. I’d stand on the couch in front of our large picture window and peer outside, waving goodbye in my pink onesie pajamas, wishing she could stay home with me.
I knew she was a nurse. I knew she was going to the hospital. I knew she was leaving me to go to work.
But I didn’t know what my mother did for 12 hours a day. I didn’t understand why we had to celebrate Christmas early due to Mom’s work schedule. I didn’t understand why she had to sleep during the day due to exhausting night shifts and that’s why she kept a fan on in her room and that’s why I had to try to keep my voice down.
As I got older, though, my confusion turned into clarity. Every interaction still remains a reminder to me of why my mom’s job is more than a job, and all of those early Christmases or picture window goodbyes make sense:
When Mom gets stopped at the grocery store as proud parents pull out photos of their son or daughter—once a tiny premature baby—now a healthy 6-year-old kicking a soccer ball in a snapshot, it’s clear.
When Mom approaches parents she recognizes and remembers at a restaurant because they’ve celebrated and cried and hugged together over the milestones of their baby years ago on the NICU floor, it’s clear.
When I’m at a craft show with Mom and she talks to a dad who points to his elementary-age son and says, “She took care of you when you were a baby,” and the boy smiles, it’s clear.
When she comes home in tears because a baby passed away, it’s clear. Heartbreaking....but clear.
When a friend who owns a floral shop in our hometown sends my mom flowers every Father’s Day because she was the one who told him he could hold his baby girl for the first time, it’s clear. So clear.
Being a nurse is not just a job. It’s a calling.
NICU nurses spend their own time and effort to decorate baby’s isolettes by cutting scrapbook paper into letters of babies’ names. They knit Christmas booties for the babies. They stamp every baby’s tiny toes and feet in the shape of a heart to make artwork for Father’s Day. They listen and they hug and they cry, too. NICU nurses live in the balance of thinking and feeling. Celebrating victories and shedding tears. They are there to stand by your side during one of the scariest experiences life has to offer.
Whenever I ask Mom why she’s stayed in the NICU all of these years, her answer is always the same: “I love the babies.” And she means it because it’s true.
September is Neonatal Intensive Care Unit month. As this month comes to a close, I think of the babies. The parents. The families. The doctors. The nurses. All of the faces who come together to celebrate highs, lows, and everything in between. And it all becomes clear.
My mother is an angel. NICU nurses are angels. They’re angels in scrubs.