Last Sunday morning was the six month mark of Mom’s passing. That’s so strange to say. It feels like it’s been six days and six years all at the same time.
This morning, as I poured my coffee and stepped outside with the dog to enjoy those blissful few moments before everyone else wakes and the craziness begins, the air was (gasp!) a bit chilly. Fall is coming.
I thought I was ready. I had prepared myself. Mom loved Fall. It was most definitely her season. The heat of summer meant MS flares and falling out of remission. The weather would sap her strength, but the cool crispness of Fall always put renewed sass in her step and determination in her eye.
We made it through two major milestones in the Spring — Dad’s birthday and Mother’s Day. Then came the summer lull — a long, lazy season of healing and scabbing over of the terrible rawness I’ve felt for the last two years.
But Fall is coming, and we will start the Big Milestones, like drum cadences and football. Then her birthday. Then Fall cooking and the smells of her favorite foods — taco soup, corn bread, lasagna, and hot chocolate. Then Thanksgiving, my brother’s birthday then mine. Christmas. And then we’ll start the countdown of those last seven weeks. I wonder if the scabbing over will hold through all that? Or will the wound tear open again? I must confess — the thought of it scares me a little.
After all, the weight of it was crushing. It was a physical heaviness, this awareness that she was dying, that that was what was happening. The constant worry of “Have we done everything?” of the previous decades morphed into new nagging obsessions:
I’m an historian by trade. I deal in documents and artifacts. Assembling the documents, archiving it all…what a welcome distraction it was in those final few weeks. It was a chore to take on so that my hands and mind stayed busy while she slept. How certain I was that I would need those “things” to remind me, to comfort me and to treasure when she was gone.
I was wrong.
What I have discovered this past few week is that I don’t need the things as much as I thought I would. The things don’t remind and comfort me like I thought they would.
To my surprise, the very rituals and traditions I feared would hurt the most actually seem to be providing the most comfort.
As Fall has approached and I have steeled myself for the coming onslaught of firsts, I overlooked one. Going back to school this year caught me by surprise, and as it turns out, was my first blisteringly painful milestone of life without my mom.
My parents were always very involved in my education. Some of my happiest memories growing up were of ordinary dinner table conversations where Dad asked us, “What did you learn in school today?” What followed was usually a fabulous discussion of math, science, literature, politics, you name it. We were challenged to explain this, defend that, dig deeper, and be aware. When I was in school, my dad walked me through everything from the nuances of As I Lay Dying and Marbury v Madison that I still remember perfectly to tortuous lessons on vectors and sine waves that I have blessedly forgotten.
I remember complaining to my mom about being bored in my second grade reading circle so she said we could start our own. That was the year we read and discussed the entire Little House series, just the two of us. I remember celebrating with her when we found a new set of homophones to add to our list on the refrigerator door. I remember complaining about a tedious third grade research assignment, so she pulled out her electric typewriter, showed me how to work it, and encouraged me to start typing all of my assignments. The teacher in her made it personal and fun.
But Mom and I enjoyed back to school on a whole other level as well. She and I loved the process. One of my favorite memories is of walking through the halls of my elementary school on Meet The Teacher day, holding her hand and searching for my classroom while she said comforting things like, “Oh look how close you are to a water fountain. How wonderful!” And because she found it great, so did I.
I think Mom’s favorite part was the shopping and organizing. She came from the school of “buy it all at once so you have it when you need it” which meant we started back-to-school preparations in early August even though school didn’t start until after Labor Day. We assembled our lists, made shopping strategies, and organized it all with D-Day precision. While there was some wailing and gnashing of teeth, you can bet that by Labor Day, my drawers were tidy and filled with new (or new to me) jeans, shirts, underwear, and socks. New shoes lined the bottom of my closet, and every rain jacket, windbreaker, and winter scarf I’d need (once it finally got cold in Alabama sometime in January) were hung neatly and arranged in chronological order of most-likely-to-be-needed-when.
And then there was my desk. All the pencils were sharpened. All the pens had caps. The markers and crayons were arranged in ROYGBIV order. Fresh unspoiled notebooks stood next to the extra TrapperKeeper she bought me. You know…just in case.
(Confession time here — I’m not this organized. Most years, my kids discover they’ve outgrown their jeans or shoes only on the morning we absolutely need them. I tend not to think about raincoats until it rains or winter coats until the first cold snap. I’ve sent them to school woefully unprepared many times saying, “I’ll buy you a jacket this weekend, I promise. Please don’t tell your grandmother.”)
This trend continued once I became an adult. Whether it was college, graduate school, or starting my teaching career, the back to school planning was something we enjoyed doing together. And once I became a mom, that joy multiplied. Every year when my kids would find out who their teacher was, I would call Mom first. I’ve lost count of how many times my phone would ring during Meet The Teacher because she couldn’t wait for details. What did the classroom look like? Was the teacher going to be a good fit? Did they have friends in their classes? She and I would talk for hours, mulling over every detail.
I think my mom got more excited about the kids’ first day of school than she did about Christmas. For the past 14 years, each first day has gone something like this….
Clint and I would finally get the kids loaded into the car, and we’d head off. They’d get out in the carpool line and wave at me. I’d smile and wave back then call Mom as I was driving away. She’d answer with “Good morning! I’ve been thinking about you!” and I would promptly burst into tears. She would listen patiently while I recounted every detail of the morning, making sympathetic sounds and laughing often. Some days, if the school where I teach hadn’t started yet, I’d drive to my mother’s house and we would make a day of it — lunch, manicures, terrible daytime TV, and chatting all the while. The first day of school was always our day.
But this year, she isn’t here. I had no idea it was going to hurt this bad.
Because we stayed at our lake house all summer and didn’t move back to town until the day before the Meet The Teacher, it snuck up on me. But that night, it hit hard, and I was a basketcase. I put the kids to bed and hid in the bathtub and cried, something I haven’t done since the week of her funeral.
The whole morning of Meet The Teacher day, I was caught up in my memories…which is really sad. I totally checked out on my kids that morning. It was a big day for them, and I was on autopilot, going through the motions, just wanting to get this over with without breaking down and embarrassing them.
Thank goodness Clint, as always, knew and understood and kept things light. He was chatting and laughing and the kids were giddy with excitement, but I was completely tuned out.
We had almost made into the building when I started to feel the prickle of tears. Oh no. Complete panic. I can’t do this here. I was turning around to make an excuse to go back to the car to get myself together, when my son reached up and took my hand. He smiled at me, big 5th grader that he is, and walked into that school holding my hand, guiding me smoothly through the halls to his new classroom and murmuring things like “Almost there” and “Just one more turn.”
After Henry’s room, we went to Lillian’s class where she studied her daily schedule and I made sympathetic sounds. Then we discussed strategies of desk arrangement and pencil case design. She finally settled on a chronological order of most-likely-to-be-needed-when.
I am glad to report that the first day of school came and went without incident. They were calm and confident, full of smiles and giggles. As I waved goodbye and pulled out of the carpool line, I found myself reaching for my phone to call her. And even though I’d prepared, there was still a stab of loneliness. So I listened to her last few voicemails and sang a couple of songs we used to sing. Then I pulled into my driveway, rinsed my coffeecup, and started planning for my own school year, searching for ways to make school personal and fun, to get my students to explain this, defend that, dig deeper, and be aware.
In the process, I discovered something wonderful — the first day of school is still our day.
My mom died 76 days ago, and now it’s Mothers’ Day weekend.
People have been checking up on me. They want to know if I’m going to be okay. Yes, I assure them. I’m fine.
It’s odd, but I can now get through a hour without a constant refrain in my head of “She’s gone. She’s gone. She’s gone.” For weeks, that was all I heard.
But being without the constant refrain means that I sometimes remember it.
Sometimes the awareness slides up to me gently. I’ll be in the middle of something — teaching a class or buying Apple Jacks or driving through carpool line — and suddenly I’ll think to myself, “Mom died.” I usually lose my train of thought and stare blankly for a few seconds. Then I take a deep breath and move on.
Other times, the reminder is brutal — a jarring, blunt kick in the gut. Something will happen — this week it was my middle child breaking her arm and seeing the nurses start to wrap the cast — and I’ll reach for my phone to call her…and then stop…remembering, breathless and hurting.
I wonder when that will stop?
The last few months of Mom’s life were surreal. Transitioning from the “what’s the next thing we need to try?” mentality that got us through the first 38 years of MS to the “what is it now time to let go of?” approach of the last 38 days was tough.
The weekend before Mom died was terrible. Her digestive system was shutting down, and she was very ill for a day or so. After things leveled out, she refused all food in her feeding tube. Dad called me on Tuesday and asked me to go talk to her. He wanted me to find out if she wasn’t eating because she was scared of the nausea and vomiting or if she wasn’t eating because she was done. If she was scared of the nausea and vomiting, there was a medicine we could try. It would knock her out for a day or so, but we could pump her full of fluids and calories during that time, which would mean that she might feel pretty good the next day. We needed to find out if Mom wanted to try it.
I left school Wednesday at lunch and drove to her house. I went straight to her room and closed the door on her caregiver. No more dilly-dallying around. It was time for a serious talk.
She was not good. Her coloring and breathing were different. Her eyes and mouth were half open. I found myself staring at a pulse in her neck, afraid it would stop. Afraid it wouldn’t.
But she could talk. Granted, there was a long pause between me asking a question and her replying, and her words were faint and breathy. But we talked.
I quickly got to the point.
“Mom, if you aren’t eating because you are scared of the nausea, there’s another medicine we can try.”
I swallowed hard and took the next step. “But, if you aren’t eating because you are done. then that’s OK, too. It’s OK to be finished. You have fought hard. Being done is OK because we know how this story ends.”
She looked at me and formed her words carefully, with tremendous effort. “Yes, we know how this story ends.”
I held her hands and tried not to cry. This was it, I realized. She was letting go. I watched her pulse for a few seconds, half expecting it to stop.
In my gut I knew, but some small part of me needed clarification. I had to be absolutely sure.
“Um, Mom,” I said, “I know how this story ends. And you say you know how this story ends. But I need to be sure our endings are the same. I need you to say it.” I took the deepest breath I’ve ever taken. “Tell me, please. How does this story end?”
She looked at me with a huge smile. Her eyes lit up, and she said, “When this story ends, I get to see my mom.”
My grandmother has been gone for several years.
I did cry a little then. But we smiled at each other and held hands. I finally found my voice. “It’s OK if you don’t want to eat. We’re going to miss you, but we will be alright. I promise.”
Her eyes closed. “Thank you,” she murmured, and then drifted to sleep.
She died five days later.
Those weren’t the last words she said to me, but it was our last actual conversation.
Whenever I miss her, I try to think of that moment. Of the smile on her weak face and the joy in her tired eyes as she thought of seeing her mama again.
Happy Mothers‘ Day, indeed.
Day 12 (Sun 9/21):
NOTE: This post is actually several months old. For some reason, I couldn’t seem to bring myself to publish it before now. (Actually, I have a few ideas about why, but that’s another post altogether. Ha.)
Today is Sunday, September 21, my last day of Family Medical Leave. Tomorrow I start back to work.
After moving the big items to our new house and spending one night there, it’s strange how this campus house no longer feels fully like home.
We got up this morning and headed to church. The kids were grumpy, and I spent the whole drive to church listening to them grumble. By the time we pulled into the parking lot, I was grouchy, too. I let the kids out and told them to behave, but I stayed in the car to adjust my attitude and call my dad. I had some questions about the new house punch list. My dad is a builder, but with my mom’s health, he hasn’t been able to come out to the house yet. We talked septic tanks and window caulk for several minutes.
“How’s Mom today?” I eventually asked.
“Not good. She’s having a rough day.”
I headed into the building just in time for worship. One by one, our family gathered at our usual spot. As so often happens, I felt like the sermon was meant just for us. It was on God’s love and not being selfish. I thought back to the past week and a half — of the new house, of dead snakes and mice.
And I thought of my mother. Of how many times when I was young, I took out my frustration with her disease on her and, to be honest, how she occasionally did the same to me. But then I thought of how quick we were to apologize and forgive.
I leaned over to Lillian, my middle child — the one most like me, whose arms were crossed and mouth was mulish. “I love you, even when you are grumpy,” I whispered.
Henry, who can’t stay mad for long, reached out to take her hand during communion, but she glared at him.
She glanced at me, but I refused to comment. Then I saw her sigh and reach out to take his hand.
I smiled, and she took my hand, too. But then she squeezed it, a little hard, just enough to let me know she was still mad but was doing the right thing anyway.
Oh, sweet child…I totally understand.
I have spent much of my life feeling that way. In fact, I have spent the past few days waiting for that feeling to hit. Usually, as I approach the end of a vacation and the reality of starting back to school I am flooded with a since of panic and mourning. I obsess over all the things I didn’t get done, of all the time I wasted not accomplishing more. I worry about how tired and busy I am going to be. And I pull everyone I possibly can into my foul mood.
But not this time.
Here, at the end of leave, I am surprised to find I am flooded with peace. This has been a true Sabbath. I have rested.
I took this leave with the goal of spending meaningful time with Mom. When I first asked the hospice nurses about a possible leave, they encouraged me to think about what I wanted to get out of it.
“If you want time with her when she still feels good, you should do it now,” they said.
So I did.
And I envisioned long days of sitting with Mom having deep, Meaningful Conversations. The kind of talks where she retold family stories, maybe shared a few secrets, and imparted a lifetime’s worth of wisdom. I was expecting the kind of conversations that would stay with me forever.
But that is not what happened. Well, not exactly.
We actually had surprisingly few of those long, significant conversations. She told stories, but mostly funny ones. There were no deep secrets revealed, no final details of her funeral worked out.
In fact, she and I haven’t even acknowledged to each other verbally that we are nearing the end. Which is weird because resolving that was one of my main goals of leave.
In so many ways, this leave did not go as I had planned.
But really, what ever does?
These days were different than I thought they’d be, but they were just what I needed. And I know they will be with me forever.
For Mom and me, it hasn’t been a time of the unusual. We didn’t make this into something it wasn’t. No Farewell Tour feelings here.
Instead, taking leave allowed me more opportunity to include her in the ordinary and the mundane. These precious days allowed me to include her in the chaos. And they reminded me of the importance of choosing to be joyful in the everyday.
So, it’s true, there are family stories I still haven’t written down. There are conversations about flowers and song choices that still have to happen.
But there was no time wasted here.
I feel changed. Carried. Reoriented.
For now, this is enough. ♥
Morning by morning, I wake up to find
the power and comfort of God’s hand in mine.
Season by season I watch Him, amazed,
in awe of the mystery of His perfect ways.
All I have need of, His hand will provide.
He’s always been faithful to me.
I can’t remember a trial or a pain
He did not recycle to bring me gain.
I can’t remember one single regret
In serving God only, and trusting His hand.
All I have need of, His hand will provide.
He’s always been faithful to me.
This is my anthem; this is my song,
the theme of the stories I’ve heard for so long:
God has been faithful, He will be again.
His loving compassion, it knows no end.
All I have need of, His hand will provide.
He’s always been faithful to me.
I have always said that becoming a mother was the single biggest turning point in my life. It is the moment it quit (finally) being all about me and what I want and what I need and what I can do…which was a huge relief because I am just not that interesting most of the time.
However, becoming mother to more than one child may have changed me even more because that was when I truly realized that they really are their own unique people and they really are just wired a certain way. It was a humbling and wildly freeing realization that I was there to guide and encourage them on their own individual journeys, not to lead them on mine.
There are moments when they remind me to sit back and enjoy the ride. One of those moments occurred tonight in the van on the way to our weekly family-style campus wide meal at our boarding school. The following conversation happened in the short drive from my house to the dining hall:
Henry: “Mom, why is uranium illegal?”
(NOTE: No one had said anything about uranium at any point all afternoon. This literally came out of nowhere.)
me: “Um, because it is used to make bombs, I guess.”
Henry: “I know, but what part of uranium is dangerous?”
me: “I don’t think uranium has ‘parts.'”
Henry: <sighing> “I mean, what ingredient in it is so bad?”
Lillian: “Henry, uranium is made of uranium just like okra is made of okra.”
Henry: <very frustrated> “I’m not asking you; I’m asking Mom. Mom, what in it is so bad that kids can’t have it? Is it made out of beer?”
I hate Halloween. I despise it really. It comes at THE most inconvenient time of year.
Halloween strikes at the end of the first nine weeks grading period, the time of the year when reality is setting in for my students and everyone is suddenly reaching out for help all at once. It’s usually the week of parent conferences and in the middle of my students’ semester-long research project. It’s near my mother’s birthday and usually accompanies the first big Alabama cold snap that I somehow always, ALWAYS fail to see coming.
To me, Halloween means:
No, I don’t like Halloween.
But my kids do. They really love it. To them, Halloween means:
My middle child, Lillian, likes holidays the most. She loves traditions, especially holiday traditions, and she considers Halloween the “start of the holiday season” which ends at New Years. Sigh.
I try to see Halloween the way my kids see it. I try to focus on the joyous parts and ignore the extra work.
Some days it is easier than others. Usually, however, our two different views of the holidays merge. Usually, our holidays are both fun and chaotic.
For example, yesterday was Halloween, and it was Parent Conference Day at my school. During my late afternoon conferences, I started receiving texts from my children:
“When are you coming home?”
“Where are the extra sharp scissors?”
“Can I spray paint my hair now?”
“It’s OK if I open the grey face paint, right?”
“What should I use to clean up grey face paint off the floor?”
“Can we open the candy or do we have to wait?”
“I need you to pull my tooth. It’s an emergency. It’s BLEEDING.”
My last conference ran late, so I arrived home and hit the ground running. Child by child and chore by chore, things started coming together. It was a flurry of painting hair, pulling a tooth, lighting candles, and taking pictures. Somehow, we got out the door in record time and arrived at the hayride early.
Later that night, after the chaos and cold and fun, we couldn’t find the tooth. We hunted and hunted with no luck. The tooth fairy would have to come a different day.
This morning, one of the kids went to get the pumpkin seeds ready for toasting. “Um, Mom? There’s a tooth in the pumpkin seeds…”
Today is October 20th. It is my mom’s 68th birthday. We mostly celebrated yesterday after church. Nothing huge…we kept things light and cheery with cupcakes, ice cream, and hiding each other’s shoes in the freezer. The Happy Birthday song somehow morphed into “I’ll Fly Away,” and I was struck again by the loveliness of my children’s voices blending in harmony. Mom loved it. Then we raided Dad’s tomato plants for what very well may be the last green tomatoes of the year. I guess I’ll be frying in the next few days.
Today was a Monday, but I only taught a half-day today because I had a funeral to go to. My friend Susan passed away a few days ago after battling cancer.
Susan attended the church I grew up in. Once I moved back to Birmingham and started a family of my own, we ended up at the same church again. She’s one of those people I remember at various events over my whole life, and in every memory, she is smiling and organizing and bringing people together.
My favorite memory of Susan happened one year ago this week. It was the day before Halloween, and even though my kids had been begging me to buy pumpkins for weeks, I had put it off. When we finally went to the store, they were sold out. We tried four different stores…no pumpkins. My kids were so sad. They were saying, “It’s OK, Mom. We know you’ve been busy,” but they were devastated. Designing and carving pumpkins then toasting the seeds is a tradition in our house. We tell the same jokes each year. We laugh every year as Henry fights his gag reflex every time he smells pumpkin. Then we go outside to “oooh” and “aaah” at the pretty designs flickering in the darkness.
But last year, it looked like we would have no pumpkins. I was sad, and I posted on facebook about how guilty I felt that my busy-ness at work meant no jack-o-lanterns for my kids. Within a few minutes, I received a private message from Susan. It said:
“Kelly, we are still in Houston at MD Anderson getting tests run and seeing doctors to plan the best attack strategy to beat this cancer. Looks like we will be here several more days. I have four pumpkins on my front porch just sitting there, and I want your kids to have them. Get Clint to drive over in the morning. I’ll let my neighbors know he’s coming so they don’t call the police. Love you!”
That’s Susan. Sick, scared, and in the midst of the biggest fight of her life, she helped others.
She was a force for good. I can’t believe she’s gone.
I left her funeral with eyes so red I looked like a cheesy movie vampire and a fierce headache. I should have chugged a quart of water and gone to a yoga class. Instead, I ordered 800 calories of frozen frappachino deliciousness with a side of Advil and headed to my mom’s.
Mom and I have a dirty little secret — we love to review funerals.
OK, maybe “love” is too strong a word. And perhaps it’s more of a “retelling” than a “review” per se. But for some odd reason, for as long as I can remember, after almost every funeral either one of us has ever attended, Mom and I cozy up for a long conversation where we discuss the best parts — the parts where the speaker really captured the person’s heart, the music that really captured the moment, and the prayers that truly comforted.
Of course, we have been known to find some things we didn’t like as well. Mom has said on more than one occasion, “Don’t you let anyone say something like that at my funeral, Kelly! Write that down so you don’t forget.”
When she tells me to write it down, she isn’t kidding, and as a result of years of such post-funeral chats, I have a folder of notes and instructions. Mom has basically planned her own funeral.
This is a blessing. When a family member goes on hospice, one of the things the nurses do is encourage you to find out your loved one’s wishes. Well, Mom has been telling me hers for three decades.
Still, there are a few final details we need to discuss. And interestingly, now that Mom’s death is no longer an abstract thing that will happen some time in the distant future, now that it seems closer and more real, it has been harder to have those “when it is time” kinds of conversations.
So on this day, we curled up in her bed and talked about our friend Susan — her life, her final days, and her funeral. The church had been packed, and people from the various walks of her life had all come together to sing and pray and cry and laugh. Mom said, “That’s how it should be. That’s what I want.”
On that afternoon, Susan gave us one final gift — the opportunity and encouragement to have a special conversation. I told Mom about Susan’s final days. My friends who were with her said that she would wake at times and speak of a beautiful sky, of music just for her, and of seeing her mother who was beckoning her to come.
My mom’s eyes widened at that. A few years ago, when she was with her own mother in the final hours before she died, my mom held Grandmom’s hand and told her that it was okay for her to go. Mom encouraged Grandmom to listen to the music and to look for Grandad who was there waiting and calling for her. She used words very similar to what Susan had described.
I asked Mom, “How did you know what to say to Grandmom that night? How did you know how to describe it?”
Mom shrugged lightly and said, “I don’t really know. I just opened my mouth, not knowing what to say, and those words came out.”
We looked at each other and smiled. “The Holy Spirit is good like that,” she told me. “He’ll take care of us.”
I left Mom’s before dinner because I needed to take my oldest child shoe shopping. She is going to her first high school semi-formal Friday night. Last weekend, in the most efficient shopping trip ever, she found an adorable cocktail dress in 14 minutes flat. It was Macy’s One Day Sale, and she tends to shop on the clearance rack anyway so the dress she picked cost $5.99. No lie. She has the most amazing shopping luck of anyone I’ve ever met. “If my dress cost less than $10, we can splurge a little on shoes, right?” she asked with a grin. That’s my girl.
She and I had talked about Susan off and on throughout the evening. As we walked into the grocery store before heading home, Kadie tugged my arm and pointed to the pumpkin display.
“We should buy our pumpkins tonight, Mom,” she said. “Mrs. Susan would approve.”
Day 11 (Sat 9/20):
I woke this morning to sunlight and the sound of dishes clinking. For a moment, I was disoriented the way I always am when I sleep somewhere new, but before I even opened my eyes, I remembered we were now home and that this is how I would wake up for the next few decades. I stretched and smiled…then I heard the clink again. The only dishes I had unpacked the night before were china and crystal. Someone — some child — was working in my kitchen. Only the sound of a bed barf has ever made me fly out of bed quicker.
I found Henry putting leftover doughnuts onto a saucer and pouring milk into a champagne flute. He was making me breakfast.
We sat together on the deck, eating and chatting. One by one, the family joined us…first Lillian, then the dog, then Clint, and finally Kadie. We cooked bacon and hashbrowns, and ate on the deck watching the hawks overhead and the turtles on the log at the water’s edge. There’s an airstrip on the island just upriver from us, but we’d never seen it being used until this morning when two biplane-looking planes suddenly erupted out of the treeline and soared overhead. We cheered.
We spent the morning unpacking and making lists of what we needed to buy first — all to the background sound of Soul Train which was playing on one of the three channels we could pick up without satellite or cable. Clint killed a snake while we were working outside. It was small but looked like a water moccasin to me. I wouldn’t let my babies into the yard until it was gone. Clint nodded patiently and chopped its head off for me.
I got to take a leisurely bath in my monstrously big bathtub before the Alabama football game came on. We cheered the Tide on to victory against Florida before we packed up and headed back to the campus house.
This is what our life will be now, I suppose. We will spend the school week at our faculty house on campus. It is the place of work and jobs, of busy schedules and To Do Lists. It is the place of the grind. We find joy in many aspects of our work, but it is work. And from now, we will spend as many non-working days as possible with the family at the lake house. This will be the place of long walks and talking on the deck, of identifying animal tracks and types of rock, of Apples To Apples and five-card draw, of projects in a house that is ours, and of things that matter most.
As we opened the door to our campus house, we were assaulted with the stench of decay. Clint tracked down the smell and discovered three mice had electrocuted themselves inside our dryer. He spent the next hour cleaning singed fur and bones out of the cord housing all the while managing to keep up a hilarious running commentary on the tragedy of mouse suicide pacts.
This, I realized, is true love. Over the years, along with the usual spiders and bugs, he’s taken care of snakes, mice, opossum, and a squirrel for me. In hindsight, wedding vows should include such realities. Clint’s could have been, “I promise to love you and honor you and help clean up all messes — biological and otherwise — our children make and to get rid of all the wild animals that make their way into your house forever.” Oh, how I love this man. ♥
At some point over the past couple of days, I started humming a song I haven’t heard or thought of in years. It was “our” song the whole six and half years we were dating. It’s by Toad the Wet Sprocket, and when we used to listen to it in college, I would picture what our life would be like…one day…when we were “grownups” with a house and kids and a dog:
Music in the bedroom
Laughter in the hall
Dive into the ocean
Singing by the fire
Running through the forest
And standing in the wind
In rolling canyons
I will not take these things for granted.
Day 10 (Fri 9/19):
This was one of those odd days that actually felt like four separate days.
First, it was Kadie’s day to be with Mom. Since Kadie had memories of playing and shopping with Mom before her stroke in 2008, she wanted to go to the mall for lunch and then build a stuffed animal at Build-A-Bear. However, Mom’s blood pressure was alternating between sky high and alarmingly low, so she couldn’t join us. She and Kadie spoke about it and decided that Kadie and I would go together and then go to Di’s house to tell her all about it.
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one of these create-your-own stuffed animal stores, but it is a really cute idea. First, you choose the animal. (Kadie picked an elephant.) Then you select a sound. (Kadie chose to make her own animal sound which meant we ended up crowding into the store bathroom to record ourselves yelling, “Roooooooll Tide Roll!” into the recorder. I didn’t take a picture of that. Ha.) After that, you go to the stuffing station where a store employee fills your new toy with fluff.
Before stitching the animal closed, the clerk helps you pick a heart for your new friend. This is where things get fun because the best employees create routines for the child to give the animal personality. You shake the heart high (to shake out all the sad feelings), rub the heart on your head (to make her smart), and dance around (to fill her with joy). This is all quite fun..if you are five years old and don’t really care about making a spectacle of yourself at the mall. Kadie, however is 13, and I wondered if she would skip this part, especially since Di wasn’t there.
But no. Not Kadie.
Instead, she told the clerk that she was making this special gift for her grandmother who was too sick to come so it had to be “extra special.” Nodding in understanding, our clerk added some extra steps…like rubbing the elephant’s heart on her biceps (“for extra strength”), waving it to heaven (“for extra grace”), and having Kadie “shake what her mama gave her” so her toy would “laugh a lot and never be afraid to speak her own mind.” The two of them were loud and silly and could have been a commercial for what that store wants people to get out of the experience.
Hearing Kadie explain the situation so maturely and then watching her dance and laugh like a loon were too much, and all those emotions that had been bubbling near the surface for days finally spilled over. I stood there in Build-A-Bear snapping pictures with tears streaming down my face while Kadie smiled patiently and said, “It’s OK, Mom, really. It’s all good. Come dance with me!”
And while that made me cry harder, it also made me laugh. So we danced and toasted “To Di!” as we put that special heart into the stuffed elephant.
This is my mother’s legacy…or at least a part of it. No matter what is going on around them, my kids (usually) choose joy. This is what she has shown them, and generations will reap what she has sown.
We took the elephant to Mom, and she ooh’d and aaah’d as she has always done. She made us play the “Roll Tide” sound over and over. Then she smiled and told us to display the elephant proudly where my dad (the Auburn grad) would be sure to see it.
The second phase of my day, after we left Mom’s, was driving all over creation tackling our “before we head to the lake house” to-do list. We picked up the twins at the bus stop. We drove to the builder’s office to pick up our house keys. We went to a local donut shop to get free donuts for talking like a pirate. After a major “new house essentials” grocery run, we loaded the car and hit the road. My mom would have loved this road trip because we sang the whole way down. The Jacobs family singers’ rendition of “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” that night was epic. The kids know every word, and they have divvied up sections for leads and harmonies. It was really something.
The third part of the day was moving day. We finally showed up at the house at 9pm. Clint and the dog were there to greet us, and for the next two hours we unloaded furniture and boxes from the U-Haul and van. (It didn’t take long because we don’t have much furniture yet. The house, like most aspects of our lives, will be a work in progress for a long while.) Load by load, the house started taking shape. It was exhausting and amazing all at once. After a couple of hours, the kids hit the wall so we set up air mattresses and sleeping bags, and they fell asleep the moment their heads hit their pillows.
All in all, the final part of the day was the best part. It was still and quiet, and Clint and I sat giggling softly in the dark on our very own deck over the water watching the clouds move in the starlight late into the night. ♥
I thought about picking Charlie Daniels for my song for today, and it would be a good one. But years from now, when I look back on this day and think about it, I know I will hear this song. In my mind, I’ll hear my kids singing along in the car…with choreography:
Doesn’t take much to make me happy
And make me smile with glee.
Never, never will I feel discouraged
‘Cause our love’s no mystery.
Demonstrating love and affection
That you give so openly, yeah.
I like the way you make me feel about you, baby
Want the whole wide world to see.
Going in and out of changes.
The kind that come around each day.
My life has a better meaning.
Love has kissed me in a beautiful way.
Whoa whoa, you got the best of my love.
“If we close today…”
How many times have I started a sentence that way?
Since leaving my parents’ house at age 18, I lived four years in an undergrad dorm, three years in grad school apartments, and then seventeen years — my entire married life so far — in on-campus faculty housing.
When Clint and I were dating, choosing careers, and planning our future, we deliberately made choices based on passion and calling, not on money. He is a musician-turned-teacher. I’m a full-time teacher/part-time aerobics instructor.
We’ve always known home ownership was going to be something we had to plan for…for a looooong time. But from the time the kids were very young, we dreamed of a house on a lake.
By the time the twins were walking, the conversation had evolved to “Which lake?” And by the time they started preschool, we were sitting up late at night pouring over property listings and dreaming big.
Then one day in the summer of 2010, Clint met me at the door, laptop in hand, and said, “Kelly, you’ve got to look at this one.” He’d found our dream lot. We made an offer and bought it. Since it was a foreclosure, we had to wait a few months for the Right of Redemption period to end, but as soon as it was officially ours, we walked the property as a family, dreaming of sitting on a deck and fishing off a dock.
“When we have a house…” became a periodic refrain, but we didn’t get serious until the spring of 2013. That’s when we found our builder and started earnestly looking at floor plans. We designed and priced…then scaled-back and designed again (ha!) for months. I learned more about getting electricity to a country build site, the best size for a propane tank, specially engineered septic systems, water purification options, and pump houses than a history teacher should ever have to know. But it was all worth it because on December 20, our sixteenth wedding anniversary, we closed on our construction loan.
After a few million weather and permitting delays, we broke ground on February 28. We walked the property with our builder to choose the exact house site. We talked ravines, slope, the danger of “hitting rock,” and concrete. Our builder told us, “I understand what you want, but we aren’t going to know exactly what we are dealing with until we start moving dirt.” I must have looked skeptical because he looked at me and said, “Kelly, you are going to have to trust me to put the house in the best possible spot.”
I decided then and there to let go and just enjoy the ride. It was one of the best decisions I made in the whole process.
And there were So. Many. Decisions. I’ve always heard that building a house is a stressful process. But that winter and early spring were brutal. Terrible weather. Stressful situations at work. Seasons of loss for friends and family. Declining health for my mom and grandmother. And a health scare for me. My scare turned out fine, but long weeks of tests and waiting took their toll.
For Clint and me, the house was a source of solace. In the midst of all the sorrow and uncertainty, we cherished those conversations and decisions. In choosing countertops, lighting packages, tile, cabinets, floors, and paint, we were choosing to be hopeful.
Of course, I only had to make the fun decisions. For long months, Clint was shielding me from the more stressful aspects of house construction. He calmly dealt with countless problems, overages, and delays, only involving me when absolutely necessary. There are no words to describe how hard he worked and how grateful I am.
Spring finally came, and with it came some big benchmarks. We spent a cold and windy Spring Break day at the house site watching the concrete pour. By April we had plumbing. In May, the house was framed. By late June, we had sheet rock and windows, and in July we started planning landscaping, picking plants, and pricing stairs to the water.
I can’t take a two dimensional design and envision three dimensional reality. I have never been able to do this, and believe me, it makes things like studying maps and learning geometry challenging.
So, in building this house, I approved floor plans and picked colors and textures without having any real big mental picture of how it would all come together. This build truly was a leap of faith. The month of August was filled with walk-throughs and punch lists. The house was done, and it was more amazing than I had ever dared to envision.
So now, here we are. Only closing on the mortgage stands in the way.
Today is the day.
We are scheduled to close at 2pm. Of course, we’d been told this several times before, so I was preparing myself for more delays. The morning was blur of phone calls and last minute details. The underwriters still hadn’t approved the file. I was told to “stand by.”
“If we close today,” I told Mom on one of our many phone calls that day, “I’m sleeping there tomorrow night.”
“But you don’t have window coverings.” She has always been slightly obsessed by window treatments.
“Mom, the closest house is five minutes by boat and twenty minutes by car. We’re fine.”
Silence. She’s not so sure about this.
Later we spoke again.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Staring at my phone. Willing it to ring.”
“If you don’t close today…”
“Oh, we are closing today. I’m thinking about going to the attorney’s office now and refusing to leave unless he lets me sign the loan papers.”
“That’s not a good idea. If you get arrested, I can’t come bail you out. I’m getting my hair done at 1.”
Apparently, my mom wasn’t the only one worried about me and my decision-making that day. I got a text from my friend Andrea:
“Have you closed?”
“Not yet. Still waiting. I’m thinking of driving there anyway.”
“Text me if you need me to bust you out of jail. You’re worth losing my teaching license for.”
And then there was this phone exchange with Clint:
“Where are you?”
“In the lobby of the bank. I’ve been here for 20 minutes. I think I’m making them nervous.”
“Please don’t get arrested.”
At 1:52pm, while I’m hanging out in the bank lobby, the mortgage person finally called. She didn’t even say hello; she just started quoting numbers — the exact dollar amount we need to bring to closing. The underwriters have approved everything. Can we bring a certified check? And can we be there at 2pm?
It was surreal. This took four years to plan and build.
Four years plus ten minutes to get the certified check, eight minutes to drive to the attorney’s office, twelve minutes waiting the lobby while the receptionist figures out what’s up with a furniture delivery (Oh. My. God. Are you kidding me???), and then eighteen minutes with the lawyer to sign all the papers.
Clint and I looked at each other. We did it; we pulled it off. A wave of relief and joy hit. We started giggling, and we couldn’t stop. The attorney looked at us oddly.
Clint gave me a quick kiss, then we dashed out to the parking lot. Clint had a lesson in ten minutes, and the twins would get off the school bus in fifteen. We had to hurry back to campus.
As I was pulling out of the parking lot, my mom called.
“Well, are you in jail?”
“No. Mom, I own a house.”
She was silent for a long time, and then I heard her sniff. “Oh, Kelly. I am so happy.” ♥
Mama cut out pictures of houses for years
From ‘Better Homes and Garden’ magazines.
Plans were drawn, and concrete poured.
Nail by nail, board by board,
Daddy gave life to Mama’s dream.
You leave home, you move on,
You do the best you can.
I got lost in this whole world
And forgot who I am.
I thought if I could touch this place or feel it
This brokenness inside me might start healing.
Out here it’s like I’m someone else;
I thought that maybe I could find myself.
If I could walk around, I swear I’ll leave.
Won’t take nothing but a memory
From the house that built me.
Day 8 (Wed 9/17):
I didn’t get to go to Mom’s house on Wednesday, and I was not happy about that at all, but other parts of my life intruded and demanded to be dealt with so I spent the day at home. With grade reports due at midnight, I spent day 8 of my Family Medical Leave grading virtually every assignment I had given thus far this school year.
In between essays, I was taking calls from my mortgage person. The current plan was to close on our mortgage at 2pm the next day, and the banking people were finally FINALLY getting serious about dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s in our file. Of course, we’d been told we would close several times before and hadn’t so I was trying not to get my hopes up.
Throughout it all, Mom and I talked on the phone, of course — a constant running dialogue that unexpectedly forced me to process and verbalize my thoughts about my day as it unfolded.
“Mom, I just graded the most amazing assignment ever. I’d never assigned this particular TED Talk as homework before, but wow! It really got them thinking.”
“Good for you! Write it down so you don’t forget. I used to love it when a lesson plan actually worked. Things that seem great in theory don’t always work in a real classroom.”
Ain’t that the truth.
The calls from our mortgage loan originator person were not as pleasant. Around lunchtime, she and I had an exchange that went like this:
Her: “We may not close tomorrow. We’ve got a problem.”
Me: “I’m shocked.”
Her (either not catching or just ignoring my sarcasm — not sure which): “The underwriters can’t verify your employment. They verified Clint’s employment, but they can’t verify yours.”
Me: “Um, he and I work at the same place. You all know this.”
Her: (Complete silence.) “Hmmm. Oh yeah. OK. I’ll email her now.”
And so it went. All day long. After the employment verification conversation, I called my mother to vent.
“Kelly,” she said when I finally paused to take a breath, “I’m worried about this situation.”
“Me, too. These people are making me crazy.”
“I know. They’re driving me crazy, too. But you are going to have to deal with them even after you close on the mortgage so you need to be nice. I’m serious. Don’t show your ass.”
Hold on a sec. My mom never ever EVER cussed when I was growing up. Never. The worst word I ever heard her say was “Dern!” and that was when she cut off the end of her finger while making beef stew. But nowadays she is feeling spunky enough to say “ass.” I can’t talk for long seconds.
“Why are you laughing?” she asked. “Didn’t I say it right?”
Oh. my. goodness. I was literally on the floor crying tears.
An hour or so later, she called again.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m putting on shoes and makeup for the first time all day so I don’t look like a heathen at church.”
“You’re going to church? Are your grade reports done?” This is a new twist on a very old conversation — “You’re going out? Is your homework done?”
“No, not quite. But I’m not skipping church. The kids want to go and so do I. Grading can wait. My priorities are you and the kids. Well, and the new dog — she is very high maintenance. And the house, of course. And Clint. Well, and God.”
“Not in that order, I hope. I taught you better than that.”
And she was right. She did teach me better than that. She taught me that what mattered was faith, family, and friends…in that order. She taught me to be kind instead of “showing my ass”…even when life is unfair and I have been wronged. And she taught me to stop and reflect on my days…because whether they were monumental or humdrum, there is something in every day to be acknowledged and celebrated and learned. ♥
I spent much of the day grumpy so if there was a theme song, it would have probably been the “Imperial March” from Star Wars. But after laughing with my mom and going to church, I was singing this some as well. It reminds me of what matters and soothes my soul:
So I’ll walk upon salvation
Your spirit alive in me
This life to declare your promise
My soul now to stand.