23 Days to Say Goodbye

Recently, my aunt passed away after just under a year of the all too familiar “brave battle with cancer.” Even though she was 20 years older than my mom, up to the day she was diagnosed (and even here and there afterward), our family was convinced she would outlive us all. Certainly, she would at least make it to 100. She was sharp, active, and extremely health-conscious. She played tennis, for pete’s sake! It made no sense when she, a non-smoker, suddenly had Stage 4 lung cancer. The denial and bargaining started immediately. There must be a mistake. Maybe there is a cure. If nothing else, a miracle will happen, surely.

My aunt was one of very few Midwestern women I knew who made it through her adulthood without getting married or having children. As a child, I didn’t know what to make of that, but as a married adult with two daughters, I feel so grateful to have had her example in my life. I’m thankful my girls have someone they can point to and say, “Look! She did not need a partner in her life to feel whole.”

My aunt was independent, capable, financially secure, and completely confident in who she was. She sought comfort in nature, in a loyal pet, in traveling and gathering experiences, and most certainly, in connecting with her family, particularly my mom.

Throughout 2018, she had good days and bad days, but by the beginning of 2019, the good days became fewer and farther between. When my mom went to visit her in Arizona in February, everything was different. My mom called and said, “If you want to come, I think you should come now.”

My husband and I decided the best thing would be for me to take our eldest down for a long weekend. It was the right choice. At almost 8 years old, she was old enough to handle the trip, but still young enough to ignore a lot of what was happening.

We told her my aunt was dying, and she understood, but she also just wanted to go swimming and horseback riding and push my aunt’s little poodle around in a stroller. So we did. She made us laugh and gave us excuses to do things that were fun and pointless. She asked hard questions that made us think about our beliefs about death and Heaven and about what to teach kids and when. She broke our hearts open when she cried, and she let us be strong for her when we couldn’t be strong for ourselves. She was our saving grace on that trip, and she didn’t even know it.

We returned to Sioux Falls, unsure if we had just said goodbye to my aunt for the last time. As it turned out, she would fly back to Sioux Falls less than a week later. 10 days after her arrival, it became apparent she needed professional care around the clock. She entered the hospice house on a Friday and passed away less than two weeks later, 23 days after she returned to Sioux Falls. Sounds fast, right? It feels fast now. At the time, it was anything but.

I want so much to forget those 23 days in favor of happier ones, but I know those are the days that need parsing. Those are the days other people need to know about. During those days, I was looking for help, for support, for understanding, for a glimpse of wisdom from someone else who had been through 23 days of their own.

Search as I might, I didn’t find anything. There were no “how to” articles, no advice columns, no checklists for saying goodbye. How was I supposed to know how to act or what to say? How could I be sure I was doing everything I should be doing? We were all so lost.

Waiting for someone you love to die seems like God’s gift and cruel joke all at the same time. I wanted every second with her and wanted it to be over all at the same time. I wanted to press pause. I wanted to move forward. I wanted to take a leave of absence from work so I could be there, and I wanted to never have to go into that hospice house again. I wanted to have a really heartfelt goodbye, exchange the perfect knowing look, and tie everything up with a bow like in the movies. I wanted a do-over everyday. Every morning, I wanted the relief that she was still alive. Every morning, I wanted the relief that she had let go and was no longer suffering.

I wanted her to say something really profound to me that I could carry forever. I wanted to say something to her that would mean more than everything I had already said. I wanted her to tell me a secret she had never shared with anyone. I wanted to be content to know everything had been said. I wanted her to fight. I wanted her to feel the peace that surpasses understanding. I wanted to be there and hold her hand through her last breath. I wanted to be at home, and hold my husband’s hand when someone called to tell me she had passed.

Most of all, I wanted a miracle. She was actively dying, but I suppose once in a while, someone stops dying and gets better, right? It has happened before, I’m sure. It could happen now. People have been miraculously cured. Why not her?

But then, I’d pray for peace. Well, God, if you won’t give us a miracle, then give us peace, I guess.

When someone is dying, acceptance just feels like resignation. Giving up. How can you accept something devastating that hasn’t actually happened yet? And yet, is it healthier to come to terms with it before it happens? Did she?

She seemed so removed from the physical world. She didn’t care much about what was happening around her. She didn’t want to talk. She didn’t want to watch TV. No music. No nature. What was she thinking? Were there things she wanted to say? Was she afraid? Did she understand what was happening?

The hospice nurses and their brochures said “dying is a process.” And just like any other process, there were stages. But just like everything else in the human experience, it is a little different for everyone. It was really difficult to think of it as a process. This is the last thing she will ever go through, the end of her existence on earth, and we are using a sterile word like process? It just didn’t fit. And it certainly wasn’t comforting.

Then one morning my mom called me. “They say she is unresponsive now.” I met her at the hospice house later that day.

Each time she took a breath, I thought it might be her last. Part of me hoped it was. Being present for her last breath seemed like such an enduring act of love, one last way I could be there for her. But then again, I didn’t want to carry that memory with me. She had gone through everything in her life independently – wouldn’t it be more fitting for her to do this alone as well? She was never afraid of being by herself.

In the end, she passed in the early morning hours on a Thursday. Peacefully, we were told.

As we planned the memorial service, I counted and re-counted the amount of times I went to visit her in hospice. Did I do enough? Did she know how much she meant to me? Should I have poured my heart out? I still don’t know those answers. I guess I never will.

Now, 6 months later, I am once again watching a loved one die slowly. This time, a dog. Our 8 year old black lab has a large tumor on his liver that is eating up all his calories. We are trying our best to stay ahead of the tumor’s appetite, but Murphy’s ribs show a little more every day. The vet says he probably has a month or two.

He’s still happy as hell. He wants to play tug of war, chase the squirrels, have his tummy rubbed. But I know that will change soon, and I don’t want to go through it. I don’t want my husband and kids to go through it. But once again, I’m helpless.

I wanted to write this to help people going through this odd purgatory with someone they love, but I guess I don’t have advice, and I haven’t found a “how to” guide.

The best I can do is take a few pages from AA. Take it “one day at a time,” ask God to grant you the serenity to accept the things you cannot change. I think that’s all we can do.

Each day, I see Murphy’s wagging tail and giant pink tongue, and I think to myself: Not today. Let tomorrow worry about itself, right? All we ever really have is today anyway.

Ride the Coaster

Like a lot of adults over 30, I did not get to choose how I spent my birthday this year. So, there I was, celebrating at Valleyfair in Shakopee, Minnesota, home of Wild Thing, a rollercoaster that goes as high in the air as it can without interfering with incoming aircraft, reaching speeds higher than most states allow on any interstate freeway.

I am not even remotely an adrenaline junkie. In fact, my idea of a rush is not wearing my life jacket on a pontoon ride. But instead of fighting against the tide of my family’s excitement, I tried to make the best of it while setting very clear boundaries.

More than once, I declared, “It’s my birthday, and I will not be bullied into doing anything I don’t want to do.”

A strong backbone only goes so far in the face of a begging 8 year old, so luckily, I had an even better excuse to refuse to ride – my 5 year old. She is the perfect size for the Planet Snoopy rides but just a couple inches shy of the minimum for the more intense rides.

“You guys go,” I said to my husband and oldest daughter. “I’ll stay with her.”

It made me feel like a good mom. The little one was happy I was with her. Dad and big sister got to ride all the rides they wanted. I didn’t have to do anything that scared me. It was a win-win-win-win. Or so I thought.

Every so often, they circled back with us, eyes lit up like matching blue fireworks, smiles plastered across their faces.

“Steel Venom is the best!”

“That’s my favorite so far too! Should we do the Rip Cord?”

“Yeah! But let’s not do the Starship again. That was boring.”

“We should definitely go on Delirious though, and the Corkscrew again for sure.”

The two of them were speaking a language I didn’t understand. I started to feel like I was missing out as they took off for more adventures.

I waved to the little one as she rode up and down on the Kite-Eating Tree, but my eyes kept wandering over to the coasters.

I used to like this stuff. Maybe I should just do it.

My heart fluttered. Butterflies started dancing in my stomach. I could hear my heartbeat as my breath quickened ever so slightly.

Nah, forget it.

How often do we as moms do this? We “opt out” to watch the little ones. We use our motherly duties as an excuse to not take risks, or do scary things, or get out of our comfort zones. And, many times, we do so happily, convinced we are doing what is right, what is expected, and something no one can argue with.

I’m calling B.S.

Not on sitting out at Valleyfair – on sitting out at life. We have to stop using our kids as scape-goats.

Of course, there are legitimate times we need to tag out. Nobody wants to see you run a marathon with a newborn strapped to your chest. But if you are beyond that mentally and physically consuming stage of motherhood, step back and ask yourself if you are using your kids as an excuse not to try.

Being a mom takes a ton of time and energy, but it also builds invaluable skills that are needed in every aspect of our world. If you are a mom, you are a peacemaker, a rule-maker, an educator, a caretaker, a quick-thinking problem solver, and a hell of a strategist. If you weren’t, there is no way you could hold your head up long enough to read this. We need moms – like you and me – to be out there following our callings, building bridges, uniting communities.

If we “opt out” and use motherhood as an excuse, what is that saying to our kids, especially our daughters? Be a mom OR… something else. You can’t do both. I don’t know about you, but this is not the message I want my daughters to receive.

I want my daughters to know you can be an awesome mom AND…

…have a career.

…compete in sports.

…volunteer in your community.

….advocate for something you believe in.

…do something for no other reason than you love it and it’s fun.

So how do you ensure they are receiving the right message? It’s not by reigning them in and never letting them leave your sight. It’s by doing. By setting an example. By showing them that you can be a mom, this magical person who cures all ills, AND.

We cannot afford to have moms sitting on the sidelines. We have to play the game. We have to ride the Wild Thing.

And I did, literally. I screamed…a lot. I giggled…a lot. I thought I was going to throw up for a few seconds. But I know I made my daughter proud, and that was worth every terrifying second.

Grandpa

My head barely covers
the worn halo on your chair
where yours used to rest.

I can see you here,
your hand on your chest
counting the last beats of your heart,
praying for God to take you home.

You lived so gently,
let me sit on your knee
until my feet could reach the floor.

Your wide farm hands
were strangely soft, covering mine
as I drifted to sleep
in the sound of your heartbeat.

I am Me

Are you your father’s daughter?
Are you your mother’s son?
Are you the oldest in the house?
Are you the little one?

Does Grandma call you “baby doll?”
Does Uncle call you “bud?”
Do you like to keep your boots real clean
or splash around in mud?

Are you a funny giggle box?
Do you like telling jokes?
Are you a star out on the stage
entertaining all the folks?

Or would you rather just be quiet,
spend free time reading books?
Will you try almost anything
your mom or daddy cooks?

Are you tall or very small
or somewhere in between?
Do your eyes look black as night
or maybe, are they green?

Do you rise up with the sun,
or stay up with the moon?
Are you a calm and patient soul,
Or does nothing come too soon?

When someone asks you who you are
or who you want to be,
Don’t be afraid to smile and say,
“I’m happy to be me!”

Simple Spaghetti Squash Taco Bake

Meet my friend spaghetti squash. She’s easy to get along with and a very good influence. She should be your friend too. Ok, I’m going to drop this metaphor now that I am going to tell you how to bake her in the oven. First, preheat to 400 degrees.

Warning! If you have knives in need of sharpening (like mine), you will want to pop your squash into the microwave for a minute or two. This will soften the rind just enough to eliminate the chances of accidentally stabbing yourself. Then cut it in half the long way (“hotdog,” not “hamburger” as my kids would say). Scoop out all the seeds and slimy stuff in the middle, leaving the “spaghetti” flesh intact.

Grab a rimmed cookie sheet (a.k.a. jellyroll pan) and add a little water to it. Place the spaghetti squash cut side down onto the water. Bake in the oven for 20-30 minutes. (Meanwhile, start your taco meat.)

I have read several spaghetti squash recipes that say to cook it for 45 minutes. It has never taken mine that long, and you do NOT want to overcook it or it will be mushy and watery, so I tend to check it after 20 minutes and go from there. If you can easily stab a fork into it, and especially if you can squeeze the rind (USE POTHOLDERS!) to make the flesh pop out, it’s done. Scrape all the spaghetti out with a fork, then sprinkle it with salt to hold in the moisture and give it some good flavor.

Please note, this recipe is incredibly simple, but it can be time-consuming. If you make the spaghetti squash and/or taco meat ahead of time, this becomes a quick weeknight success. You’ll notice my family liked it so much, I only got a photo of half of it!

Ingredients:
Spaghetti squash, prepared
1 pound taco meat, prepared
Diced bell peppers
4 oz. cream cheese
Shredded cheese to preference
S&P to taste
Sour cream, avocado, salsa, crushed tortilla chips (optional garnishes)

Quick directions: Bake at 400 degrees for 25-30 minutes.

Directions:
1. Prepare a 9×13 casserole pan with your choice of nonstick medium, then spread the prepared spaghetti squash on the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
2. Melt the 4 oz (half a block) of cream cheese into your prepared taco meat.
3. Add diced bell peppers to the taco meat. Mix well.
4. Spread taco meat mixture on top of spaghetti squash.
5. Top with shredded cheese to your preference.
6. Bake uncovered at 400 degrees for 25-30 minutes.
7. Garnish with sour cream, avocado, salsa, tortilla chips, etc. Enjoy!

Enough (part II)

Your bald head fit perfectly in my palm,
and the first time you opened your eyes,
you saw me.

I had just awakened from a dream
I’d been having my whole life
to find that it was true.

It was you.

My world tilted to meet
the lazy lean of your head,
and I used my wrist as your neck.

You yawned,
the jet-lagged yawn of birth,
not yet knowing what it is to be awake.

I watched in wonder as you slept,
your first real breaths
an imperfect rhythm.

Nine months of doubt
were cast away in a moment
as my knuckle brushed your velvet cheek,
and for the first time,
I trusted myself not to fail.

Should I Have More Kids?

I can’t tell you how many hours, days, and even years I have spent brain wrestling myself over this one. But finally, I found my answer. Not with the flip of a switch, but gradually, like waiting in the half-darkness of a neighborhood bonfire, moving my lawn chair around as I squinted through the smoke, finally seeing the white hot embers of a fire in ideal marshmallow-roasting condition.

That’s how I found my answer. Spoiler alert: I didn’t find yours. If you are looking for someone to answer this question for you, let me send you a coupon for a magic 8-ball. While I don’t have answers for you, I can relate, and I will give you advice. I know what these brain-wrestling matches look like, and maybe the questions that helped me the most can help you too.

First, I want to acknowledge the privilege of being able to ponder this question. The ability to conceive a child when you want to is a gift that so many people have not been given. I write this post knowing it is a moot question for too many. Truth be told, it was one reason I felt like I should have more kids. For all those moms-in-waiting who can’t have their babies or lose their babies or continue to wait for their babies, why would I not want to have more kids? What greater gift is there than growing life inside your own body? Take advantage of that privilege, dummy! On the other hand, I am one of few women I know who has not had to face the loss of a pregnancy. And why, when I have two healthy children, why would I want to risk that? Be satisfied with what you have, dummy!

As someone who has made this impossible decision, here’s my advice to you.

1. Listen to Your Heart

I remember one mom of three telling me that after she had two, “I looked in the rear view mirror, and I just knew there was an empty seat. Our family wasn’t complete.” How magical is that? I thought for sure I would have that feeling too.
After my first, I said to everyone who would listen, it’s going to be a LONG time before I do that again. But 3 years later when I laid eyes on my second daughter, I felt it so clearly, we are definitely going to do this again. (Apparently, planned C-sections don’t illicit the same snarky exhaustion as a 30 hour labor). But here we are, over four years later, and we haven’t done it again. And we won’t. The heart may be your guide, but it’s fickle.

2. Listen to Your Head

Think about the risks. Do you or your partner have any health issues? How have your other pregnancies been? How old are you?
Let’s be real. Since I’m talking to women who already have a child or two here, please consider that you are needed. If your last pregnancy almost physically killed you or mentally wore you down to the brink of a breakdown, consider that. Your pre-existing kid(s) need you.

3. Listen to Your Wallet

I know, this is so lame. But kids are expensive! Now, if you are one of those families who thrives on minimalism, makes your own clothes, and considers coupon-cutting an exciting Sunday afternoon, kudos to you! I sincerely admire that. But for the rest of you shameful consumers like me, things add up. Sometimes it is not even the things you choose, but it’s things like medical bills or high-priced organic hemp baby formula. The point is, the expenses can be unpredictable, so make sure you are prepared to take it on. Financial stress is toxic and truly is no laughing matter.

4. Listen to Your Family

If your partner in life is adamant about having or not having more kids, you need to listen. What are they truly seeking? Why do they feel so strongly?
And of course, listen to your existing kids. It might not be in their words (if they even have words yet), but you likely have an inkling as to how full your hands are. What will be the effect of another sibling on your existing ones?
Don’t forget about the grandparents if you are lucky enough to have them. Especially if they are heavily involved with the children and/or you depend on them for childcare on a regular basis, the effect on them should probably be considered. The status of your support system (i.e. the proverbial “village” that it takes) is a key factor in raising healthy children.

5. Keep Listening

Sometimes it is hard to hear your own voice over the din of other people’s opinions. Keep trying. Ask yourself, am I making my decision for the wrong reasons? As a lawyer, I fully understand we could argue all day about what the definition of a “wrong” reason is, but as a woman and a mother, might I suggest that the only wrong reason is one that’s not your own.
If you’re not having more kids because you are terrified every time the child you have gets a cold and you know deep down that your heart can’t handle more sleepless nights, then who is to say that’s the wrong reason?
If you want to have four kids because you can’t stand the thought of an odd number, who is to say that’s the wrong reason?
If you’ve always longed for an idyllic holiday season when a big group of adult children comes home to reunite, who can say that’s the wrong reason?

I think all we can do is acknowledge that this decision will be different for each family. In the end, there are just as many pros as cons, but the weight of those pros and cons depends upon who you are, what you believe, and what your circumstances are.
For me, I got comfortable with occasionally doubting my decision not to have another kid. Some days, I can tangibly feel that doubt coursing through me, my arms aching for the weight of a sleeping baby. But eventually, it shakes off of me somehow…
I guess the high-pitched screaming about who hit who first and whose turn it is with the remote kind of helps.

The Tooth Fairy’s Request

Warning: This post is for people with all of their adult teeth only! If you still have baby teeth, stop reading NOW!

Are they gone? Ok, good. Now let me ask you a question. Why are you still torturing yourself with sneaking into your child’s room and digging around under their pillow while they are sleeping like some dentally-obsessed ninja? It’s insane!

I remember the first time I played tooth fairy. My daughter was an early tooth-loser (which apparently is expected when your teeth grow in at 4 1/2 months), and I was not prepared. The good (?) news was she swallowed her first tooth (down the hatch with a hotdog at daycare), so I didn’t need to dig for a tooth. We penned an apology letter to the tooth fairy and stuck that under her pillow instead. Still, my heart was beating so hard when I tiptoed into her dark bedroom that I was sure the sound would wake her up. It didn’t, of course, but the stress was too much. After a couple more of these late night adventures, enough was enough. I needed a plan.

Enter: the tooth fairy distress letter. I put the below poem into my daughter’s little rinse cup in the bathroom, and my tooth fairy anxiety was over. The tooth fairy’s request was as good as gold, beyond questioning, and incapable of having its terms negotiated. Please, by all means, feel free to use my method with your own tooth-losers.

Dear [Child’s Name],

You lost a tooth! Good for you!
Now here is what you need to do.

Brush it clean, shine it up,
and drop it in this little cup.

It’s hard for me to fly around
And dig through pillows ‘til it’s found.

So many kids are losing teeth.
I don’t have time to get much sleep.

So, could you please do me a favor?
It will be a real time-saver.

Put the cup somewhere that’s stable,
like in your kitchen or on a table.

Thanks for helping – you’re the best!
This will help me get some rest!

Love,
The Tooth Fairy

The Curse of the Cozy Womb

My stomach is squished
There’s no room for food
I’m constantly fighting
A very bad mood

My face has grown jowls
My pants barely fit
No energy for standing
But it hurts when I sit

My belly keeps growing
My skin showing marks
I swear as I’m walking
I’m throwing off sparks

I keep growing outward
My back caving in
It feels like this baby
could break through my skin

I see other people
Mask their confusion
When my shirt suddenly forms
an oblong protrusion

As I laugh it off as
“she’s saying hello”
I see genuine fear
That my belly might blow.

My womb must be cozy
A place of pure joy
If only you’d learn
My ribs aren’t a toy

Nor is my bladder
Your own trampoline
Sometimes I wonder
Can a fetus be mean?

My aches and my pains
Soreness and swelling
How does this make
For your comfortable dwelling?

It does me no good
To cry or to shout
Sooner or later
You’ll have to come out

I know this discomfort
Is worth it for you,
But I promise you this –
My arms are cozy too.

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