Saturday, December 28, 2013

This Time Next Year

It's that time of year. The calendar rolls over to January and suddenly it's time to start thinking about life changes. Even if you're not into official New Years resolutions, there's something about a fresh new year, that brand new calendar page, that inspires change.

Maybe this year I can do it, you think. Maybe this is the year you will find the courage to do what needs to be done, to get the life you've dreamed of. I'm not talking about moving to the Caribbean and living on the beach. I'm talking about the more personal things. The things that have the potential to change your life in big ways, if you'll only commit, truly commit to doing them.

Maybe it's getting the courage to start working on a marriage that has changed a bit too much since the vows were whispered in a big beautiful church.  Maybe it's getting serious about all of those promises you make to your doctor, about how you'll eat better, and get your wimpy heart some exercise on a regular basis. Or maybe it's getting your messy finances in order and not having to cringe every time you open the mailbox, because you fear the stack of bills that hangs out in it's dark interior.

Because I feel your pain, I am going to help you out. I'm going to let you borrow a phrase that has helped me face some pretty big life moments. I've never run a marathon or lost a hundred pounds. But I did have my left foot cut off. There's that.

After living with a deformed foot for most of my life, and never being able to run or jump, I got rid of my left foot just about ten years ago.  

On January 12, 2014 my family will celebrate the ten year anniversary of the day mom got rid of her old foot and started over in life with one that works. It happens to be metal, but it works so much better than the one I got rid of.

And it wasn't easy. It was as scary as you'd imagine. There were months in bed, waiting for stitches to heal. At the time my kids were ages 3, 7, 11 and 12. I had to find a way to be their mom on one leg, until my limb was ready to accept the prosthetic leg. That's when I pulled out my handy life mantra. Are you ready to hear it?

This time next year.

It's as simple as that. I concentrated on this time next year. If I was patient, and did what I had to do to move forward in my recovery, my life would be very different this time next year.

This time next week, and even this time next month, not much would be different. I'd still be in the trenches, working hard to reach my goals. But this time next year? A lot would be different
And sure enough, a year after my amputation surgery, I was on a mountain in Park City, getting my first ski lesson. I never imagined I'd be able to share the slopes with my ski loving children and my black slope loving husband. That deformed foot just wouldn't work right in a ski boot.

But in January of 2005, I was on those slopes, making my way down the hill.

This time next year.

That wasn't the first major life event I used my handy phrase. Back in the summer of 1996 we had a baby boy join our family who was not well. The doctors were baffled by his symptoms and every day our newborn grew weaker and more dehydrated. As I rocked away our days in that small, dark hospital room, waiting for our magic answer, I repeated that phrase to myself.

This time next year.

This time next year I would either be chasing around a healthy little boy who had just learned to walk and was trying his best to keep up with his big brother and sister. Or this time next year we'd talk about the baby we buried and honor the date we lost him by visiting a tiny gravestone. I had no idea which scenario I would be living out, but I knew that by this time next year it would all be resolved.

The pain I was feeling, as I cradled my delicate newborn, would eventually have an end, and life would go on.

Fortunately our family was one of the lucky ones. By the summer of 1997 we celebrated Isaac's first birthday and gave some extra thank you prayers to God, feeling so lucky that we got to keep him. Today he towers over all of us, at six feet five inches tall. 

My this time next year boy.

So this year decide what you need to change. Really think about what needs to be different, so that you can live a better life. And then dive in. Jump in with both feet and don't expect changes to come instantly. Plug away and do what has to be done. In the back of your mind you can chant my mantra. This time next year.

Actively think about what your life could look like if you really stuck to your promise. How much richer, less stressed, healthier, more peaceful could your life be, if you just hung on until this time next year?

Make this the year you do it. And don't stop imagining what your world could look like.

This time next year.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Colorful October

This is my kitchen window today. The candle burns as a kind of remembrance. I pulled it out from under the cabinet and lit its wick this morning because I can't make the phone call I want to make.

I can't call my mom and wish her a happy birthday. It's been almost two decades since I've been able to hear her voice squeal out my name in that way only she could say it, as she picked up the phone and realized it was her youngest daughter on the other end of the line. A call to fuss over her, on her important day, that would so quickly turn into a phone call about me. Almost immediately she'd be asking about my welfare, how my hubby was doing, and of course those two grand-babies she loved to spoil.

We lost her in 1994, and with her passing, I lost my time with her. Instead of making plans to go antique shopping with her, or check out the latest country music band at the county fair, my interactions with her came down to a candle. A candle on my kitchen window sill to remind me, and remind her in some remote way, that she is not forgotten.

Today or any day.

There are two days a year that inspire me to pull out the candle under the sink. The first one, August 30, is the day we said our last goodbyes, when it became clear that her traumatized body would not recover from the massive stroke she'd suffered while country dancing three nights before. And the second one falls on October 11th, the day she joined the human race, way back in 1945, in a small hospital in Waco, Texas.

It's sad and ironic to me that I was never fully aware of her birthday until she was gone. My mom was the kind who was skilled at diverting attention away from herself. Her days were spent doing all the mundane chores required to keep a household full of natural children, and foster children, alive and healthy. She made a point to wave off our attempts to pat her on the back or celebrate her in any way. 

I remember being specifically told not to worry about commemorating my mom and dad's anniversary. "It's a day for the two of us to celebrate, you kids shouldn't worry about it", she'd tell me.

Now that I'm coming close to a 25th wedding anniversary myself I have to wonder if she did her best to draw attention away from her own anniversary for the reasons she quoted, or if it was just too painful to concentrate on a marriage that suffered in the years of raising so many children. I couldn't see her sadness and loneliness until I was a grown up myself, navigating the bumpy waters that come with keeping a marriage alive.

In my high school and college years I knew that my mom's birthday was in October, but if pressed for the exact date, I'm afraid I might not have hit the mark very accurately. Birthday parties were not a big deal in our house. With so many faces around the table, and so little money in the bank account, birthdays generally meant a cake with your name on it and a smattering of candles to extinguish. And that was for the kids, the household demographic who actually cared about a celebration. For the adults, a lack of fuss didn't seem to be a big deal.

The college years ended right as the married ones began for me. One baby came along, then another followed quickly after. We were just figuring out how to relate to each other, my parents and me, in this brave new world of being grownups at the same time, when she was swiftly gone.

And her birth date was forever engraved into a headstone.

A headstone I picked out and ordered, with babies balanced on my hip,  to save my father the added grief of a task that ushered him into an unexpected world of being a young widower.  Standing in that small office, surrounded by polished granite samples, and writing out the dates we wanted added to a stone, seared them into my brain.

So now that date in August is a sad day for me. The second of a pair of dates etched on a headstone. At the end of summer every year I think of her a bit more. I get reflective, especially if I find myself alone in the car for any extended amount of time. The memories re-surface, of all night hospital vigils, and hugs from friends around a fresh mound of dirt.

Then, two months later, this other date rolls around. The opposite of her death date. Her birth date has become something different with the passing years. As much as I get reflective and sad on the date in August, I have begun to think about the positive parts of her when the date in October shows up.

She always loved autumn. The leaves turning bright colors, the air temperature finally easing some as the hot humid summers in Missouri ended. Time to start cooking warm comforting dishes like her delicious homemade noodles.  It was the simple things in life that made her happy and Fall is full of simple pleasures.

When I see the signs of a season she loved so much, my thoughts circle around to my mom. Now that I live in Colorado, where we see fairly drastic season changes, having our first snowfall just a few weeks ago when September was still in full swing, the happy memories of her start sneaking into my thoughts not long after that mournful date in August.

On a drive home from Denver the other day the highway was hemmed in by bright yellow leaves. As I wound my way towards home the air temperature dropped and I could feel the Autumn season almost as distinctly as the jacket I'd thrown on that chilly morning. And I felt my mom.

Not as a heaviness I've fought in years past. But in a presence. I took the time to let the busyness of my day fall away and I let down my car window. I ceased the rushing back toward home, only to jump into the next item on the list so I could possibly be 'caught up' before I then headed off to work in the early afternoon. I let myself relax and think of my mom, and the millions of ways she helped me navigate my life for my first quarter of a century.

Today is her birthday. Even if she's not here to fight me as I try to celebrate it for her. She is on my mind and in my heart. Her spirit was as bright as that little candle that burns in my kitchen window.

Side note: This year there is a bright yellow flower next to the candle. It's the flower I was given at a heart breaking memorial service several weeks ago. As we gathered to say our goodbyes to a baby named Alice, who only got six days on the planet and will be remembered and loved by her parents for the rest of their lives, we were all given a bright colored flower to take home. And Alice's flower continues to stand tall and gorgeous in my kitchen window. 

Days keep passing and it refuses to wilt. Every day reminding me of how fragile life is, and how lucky we are to be given even one day surrounded by the people we love.

I like to think that my mom's had her turn cradling that innocent baby named Alice. After her own relatives welcomed Alice into their fold, I like to think my mom did her magic with one more baby - partially because it's a baby who belongs to a couple I care deeply about and partially because my mom was just great with babies.

Maybe, just maybe, as my mom's candle burns in my window sill today, Alice's flower is there to make sure I don't forget how precious life is, every single life. Whether we get 6 days or 50 years, life is a gift.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Baby Alice

We all gathered under a beautiful tree, its branches reaching over the large deck that encircled it. White chairs sat in neat rows, filled with people who loved her and loved her parents. A set of tables lined one side of the deck, covered with bulletin boards, handmade quilts and a baptism certificate. The pictures that were pasted to the bulletin boards were gorgeous.  They spelled out the six days that Alice was on the planet. The six days that her parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles got to love her, and kiss her, and tell her how much she was loved.

And then she was gone.

Her grandpa said it best, as he spoke his truth at her memorial service. He started his speech with "It's not fair". How right he was. He was so right, and so in tune with what every person sitting under that tree was feeling that his three words made new tears stream down my face.

How can it ever be fair that a little person as perfect as Alice not get to live a full, long life? How is it fair that she was born into a large, loving family who would have spoiled her rotten?

Her daddy is a co-worker of mine. I'd never met her mama until that day, under the tree. But what I know about them is enough to make me want to scream "IT'S NOT FAIR" into the wind.

He's the director of children's programming at the large rec center where I work. He's the perfect person for the job. He's retained just enough of his kid side to fit in well with the little people who stream through our doors, but he's grown up enough to do the boring stuff like schedule programs, create camps and juggle a million activities at once. He's a shining light in our building, always willing to drop what he's doing to help anyone who needs it. More than once he's gotten me out of a computer jam, when I'm sure he had better things to do. He is the king of safety and co-teaches our CPR classes every six months.

He would be a perfect dad. He was ready to be a perfect dad. He'd planned to take off the whole month of December so he could stay home and throw himself into raising his little girl. He painted her nursery the exact color her mama wanted and in his free time dreamed about which Indie band she'd play in.

From what I hear about her mama, there is no doubt baby Alice picked perfect parents. Her mama works in the social services, helping troubled teens find their way. Nothing Alice would have done in her teen years would have rattled her mama. No matter which Indie band she joined.

But Alice didn't stay long. Her little light joined the world on September 20th. She spent several days hooked up to machines while the people who loved her gathered around her incubator and prayed desperate prayers.

And then the tubes were removed and the incubator opened. Her mama and daddy got to lift her out of the warm box and hold her in their arms. They got to dress her up the tiny clothes they'd received from many baby showers. They got to whisper their love for her into her tiny ears. She was passed from grandparent to grandparent, so everyone could have a chance to feel her light before she left.

And the pictures were taken. Pictures that lined one side of the deck that surrounded the tree. The tree of life sheltered those of us who were remembering a special little life. A life that enriched her parents hearts more than they could have ever imagined, and then broke their hearts deeper than they knew was possible.

She was surrounded by love, but she didn't get to stay long. Just long enough to say hello and goodbye to the amazing parents she picked to bring her into the world.

I know there is a reason for every life and every death. But after walking away from that service to celebrate her tiny life, I couldn't stop crying. No matter how much you try to reason away why she left so young, it never adds up. I always come back to

It isn't fair.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Letters From a Daughter

The anniversary of my mom's death passed just a few weeks ago. It's been so long now, that I've lived without her. Something deep in my soul carries around an ache for her, but the chaos of life does a good job of keeping those feelings off my daily radar.

This year, about the same time I was making myself stop long enough to remember that day, almost two decades ago, that we buried her, I saw an interesting invitation online. Hope Edelman mentioned on her facebook page that she was issuing a new edition of her book on mother loss and was taking submissions of letters from motherless daughters.

This is the same Hope Edelman who lost her own mother before she turned 20, and went on to write what I consider the bible of mother loss, called "Motherless Daughters". She was doing the book tour when my mom died and my sister bought three copies, one for each of our mom's suddenly motherless daughters. Hope's book made me weep, every time I read it, then re-read it through the years, but it also brought me comfort, that I was not alone in the unique lonesomeness I felt. Her follow up books about mother loss also deeply impacted my life and hold treasured spots on my personal book case.

As soon as I saw Hope's call for submissions I knew I had to send her something. I have so many thoughts and feelings about losing my mother, and how it changed who I am and how I mother my own children, that I felt a deep urge to get something written for Hope, as soon as possible.

My list for the afternoon went away. I immediately opened up a new Word document and started writing. An hour later, as I took a break from the office chair, I sat outside with my husband. Breathing fresh air helped clear my head and hearing just a bit of my husband's perspective on the subject helped me focus as I headed back to the computer desk.

In the end I came up with two letters. Two very different letters, on different aspects of losing my mom. I sent them off to Hope and got back to my daily list.

This morning she sent copies back to me with an email saying that parts of them may be printed in the new edition of her book called "Letters from Motherless Daughters". I could not have been more thrilled. I opened up the letters, to do a final edit on them before I officially submitted them, and was surprised by the tears that flowed once again.

Weeks after writing these letters, they still make me cry. Weeks after that date on the calendar that makes me think of the day I said goodbye to her forever, these words about losing her, and missing her, still stir something very deep.

In the years that have passed I have seen that many women walk among us who understand this loss, this pain of living without a mother. You might never know it until you mention your own mother loss. Then suddenly their story emerges, and that familiar pain flashes from their eyes.

I decided to post the two letters I wrote to Hope, thinking maybe there might be some other woman out there who needed to know she was not alone. It's a unique loss, and a unique pain. Since I believe 'we are all just here to help each other', I am posting these letters today. Just in case they can help someone else.

Dear Hope,                                                       August 31, 2013

Yesterday was the 19th anniversary of my mom's death. My niece, who was growing in my sister's belly when we buried my mom, will turn 19 soon. It's sad to me, that I can always know how old Rachel is, because it's the same number of years that I've missed my mom. But it's a reality in my family. We had one life, then came a funeral, and we were launched into another life.

My mom died of a stroke. She had just turned 50. She had just lost a lot of weight and was starting to really enjoy her life. After years of taking care of everyone else, she was finally having some fun. And then she was gone.

I'd learned about the 'stages of grief' in college and they made me very angry. I knew I'd go through most of the stages but the acceptance part made me furious. It would never be okay that she died. I'd never be able to accept it.

After 19 years though, I kind of have a new view on the situation. She's still gone. As much as I yearn for her, she'll never be back. And sometimes it feels like it would be weird if she were back now. So much has changed.

The lives of my family - my siblings, my dad, my own little family - have moved on. The lives that have been built in the past 19 years are probably different from what might have happened if she'd been here. It's like a different matrix.

After she died the hub of our family was gone. We gathered that Thanksgiving and ate the first turkey my dad had ever cooked, and talked about how much we all missed her. But soon we stopped gathering. There was no hub keeping us together. My dad was moving on, setting up his new life, and my siblings and I kept in touch individually.  We no longer felt like a team.

If it weren't for that fact, I don't know if my husband would have taken the job that required a move to Washington D.C. Since we didn't feel like the clan was a unit anymore, he took the job. We've lived in five amazing states since then and it helped his career immensely.

Nine years ago I made a huge decision, to have my foot cut off. It was a foot that was deformed most of my life and I finally decided that I wanted to cut it off and start over. I'm not sure I could have made that decision if my mom were still alive. She was so deeply entwined in the surgeries I had as a child, to correct that foot, and always felt like it was her fault I'd been born with it at all. It would have bothered her deeply to know I wanted to cut it off. I'm not sure I could have moved past her feelings and had it done.

Because I had the surgery, I live a pretty active life with my new bionic foot. I know she'd be happy to see that, but the irony is, I don't know if I could have had it done if she'd been here. My life matrix would have looked very different.

There are still times that I miss her deeply, but they come more in moments than full days.  When my tall 17 year old son walks in the kitchen, a child born on my brother's birthday and has turned into his Uncle's twin, I get a twinge in my heart, knowing she'll never know him. We'll never sit on my back porch and marvel at how much Isaac has grown, and how much he looks like his Uncle Dale did at that age. That hurts my heart.

When I'm walking a beautiful trail, surrounded by autumn leaves, feeling the cool autumn breeze on my face, I miss her. Her birthday was in October and she loved the fall season. Oranges and yellows make me think of her and most years I feel like I'm enjoying her season for her, as I take time to recognize the beauty around me.

And in a way I feel like she's still here sometimes. There's a song  that came out around the time of her death, that has lyrics close to what I'd imagine she would have said to us if she'd had a chance to say good-bye.

I hope life treats you kind, and I hope you have all you've dreamed of. And I wish you joy and happiness. But above all this I wish you love. I will always love you.

That song has come on the radio at too many perfect times for it to be a coincidence. I strongly feel it's her way of telling me she's still here, watching over me.

On my daughter's thirteenth birthday, the child who is named after my mom, I was driving home from a mother/daughter night out with her, looking over at her as she told me what she liked about the movie we'd seen, and a sadness fell over me. I was sad that my mom couldn't see what an amazing young woman her namesake had turned out to be. Then that song came on the radio. Tears flowed down my face.

Once I was leaned over my mother-in-law's shoulder as she flipped through pictures of the latest adventures our family had been on, and suddenly I had a twinge of sorrow. I felt a physical ache, that I'd never show this set of pictures to my own mom. And at that moment, that song came on the radio behind me. I knew she was there.

Would I rather have her here, physically? Yes. But time moved on and life unfolded without her here, and this is the reality I live with. I continue to raise my kids and count my blessings that my dad found a wonderful woman to be their step-grandmother. I have visions in my head, about what my mom would have been like now, with these teen age grandchildren. But I can't let myself dwell on them, or I get sad and forfeit the good life that has grown up around me. 

Every once in a while I hear that song. The tears flow, as they probably will until the day I meet her again on the other side. But I find comfort in the fact she's still watching over me.

Thank you for your amazing  books. They have carried me (and my two sisters) through the past 19 years. I know it must sometimes feel like a burden, that you are the token expert on mother loss, and you can never 'get away from it', but you've done such an amazing thing for so many women. You've given us a community of other women who understand. Take a break from it when you need to, but know that every effort you make is like a pond ripple moving across the water. Your influence continues on and on and on. And those of us who are touched by it are very grateful.

Very Sincerely,
Judy Berna

And the second letter: 

Dear Hope,                                                       August 31, 2013

The day after my mother died my four siblings and I were standing in circle in her kitchen. My older sister had two books in her hand. One she handed to me, and one she handed to our other sister. I read the title - "Motherless Daughters" - as my fingers began to hold it, and I nearly dropped it on the floor. At a gut level my body rejected the idea of ever relating to that title.

I had a mother. I had a great mother. I had that mom who was everybody's mom. She raised five of her own and many foster children too. She took in neighborhood kids with special needs as their moms had trouble finding day cares that would take them. I had that mom who was constantly giving to everyone  else. She sensed the needs in hurting people and instinctively knew how to meet them. 

There was no way I'd ever need a book about motherless daughters.

But then I did. 

The phone call came. We huddled in hospital waiting rooms all weekend as she fought to come back from a vicious stroke. And then we had to let her go. Release forms were signed, and we huddled around her hospital bed, hoping she could hear us tell her how much she'd be missed. 

Then she was gone.

And I was a motherless daughter.

A week after we buried her my elderly neighbor caught me as I was walking out to get the mail. "I heard about your loss. I'm so sorry. I lost my mom 42 years ago and I still miss her every day." I appreciated her condolences but the thought of living with that suffocating grief for the rest of my life honestly scared me.

At that point I was holding back tears during the day, as I mothered our two toddlers, waiting until they were asleep in bed before I allowed myself to hover in the shower, weeping into my hands, for as long as the hot water would last. I craved a place where I could go scream at the top of my lungs, "AHHHHHHH! IT'S NOT FAIR!"

As much as he wanted to help, my husband felt lost too, not knowing what to say as I cried myself to sleep every night, telling him I felt like I'd been pushed off a huge cliff, into an adulthood with no back up. The thought of my mother not being there as I navigated through the rest of my life was just hard to even comprehend.

Weeks passed. Then months. Soon it was the first anniversary of my mom's death and I couldn't believe I'd lived a whole year without talking to her, or hugging her. My babies had a whole year of developmental changes she would never know about. Most of the time I still couldn't believe she wasn't just 'out there', somewhere. I still had dreams where we'd dig up her grave and it turned out she was still alive, and so thankful we'd come to save her. It still wasn't real that she was gone. Forever gone.

That was 19 years ago. I recall it like it was yesterday because it was a huge turning point in my life. I dog paddled through the grief long enough that I finally wore myself out. Slowly I started to build the life that didn't include her.

Now I live in a house with four old 'children'. Two of them she never knew. The two she did know look very different at 20 and 21 than they did as the 1 and 2 year old toddlers she tickled and hugged. It's a surreal thought, that she doesn't know these kids who are so close to my heart.

She loved kids and she would have loved these kids. But that's not the way life turned out. My husband tells me I grieved for the idea of what life should have been like and I think he's right. I was mad that she was gone, but I was also so very sad that the life I'd imagined was not going to happen. The years of her spoiling them, encouraging them, telling them how much they reminded her of their aunts and uncles at that age - gone.

Because life doesn't stop just because your grieving heart feels like it has, years passed by. 

Those kids grew up. We moved to other states and made zillions of memories. None of them including her. I missed her, but she was not a part of my life for so long that she became a spirit that was with me, more than a mom who was there to have my back.

I try to tell my kids stories about her, and remind them that she would have loved them to their cores, but it's just words to them. She'll only be a real person to me and my husband.

Now I feel like I'm waiting for the day that I hear about a young neighbor losing her mother and I will become the elderly woman, there to tell her that I lost my own mom 42 years ago. And I still miss her. Every single day.

Thank you for your books, Hope. They have been like life rafts as I've navigated the past 19 years. Through your own grief you accidentally ended up making several million other motherless daughters feel not quite so alone. As I've told you many times before, you are a gem.

Very Sincerely,
Judy Berna

Friday, August 23, 2013

Heirloom Table

My kitchen table is full of scratches. I'm not talking accidental fork holes or occasional errant knife marks. I mean like the previous owner used this table for crafting, and didn't bother using a cutting mat when using her Exacto knife.

Most of the time it doesn't bother me. In fact, with a house full of teen agers, it helps me relax, that they can't really damage it more than it already is. On special occasions I can throw a table cloth over it. But most days it sits bare, its deep flaws exposed for the world to see.

For most of our 23 years of marriage we've had second hand tables. Except for a very special seven year period, when I had a magnificent table.

Back in 2003 we had just moved from Washington D.C. to Utah when I got the call that my grandmother had died. She and I had been close, until age and a hard life had left her to ride out her later years in a nursing home, unaware of those around her for the most part. We packed up our van full of little ones and drove down to Texas for the funeral.

Unexpectedly we discovered we had received an inheritance. A nice little chunk of change that was significant to our bare bones budget. We thought long and hard about what my grandmother would want us to do with the money she left us. And a kitchen table made the list. My grandmother loved good furniture, and she adored my children. Knowing they'd sit around a beautiful table for each meal would have definitely pleased her.

I'd always dreamed of having a big wooden table that was surrounded by sturdy chairs. I loved the idea of feeding my children around it every day, then some day sitting across from their boyfriends and girlfriends...then their fianc├ęs...then their new spouses...then someday, in the very distant future, pulling a high chair up to that same table to feed the grandbabies they'd bring home to me. I dreamed of a heritage table.

No other piece of furniture in the house spoke to me like a good, solid kitchen table. The place where every day meals were consumed. The place where homework was spread out, and board games were won and lost. Dressed up with candles and tablecloths for holidays, and filled with pumpkin scraps, birthday cake sprinkles, and gingerbread house crumbs as the seasons changed.

When we realized that our house full of hand me down and thrift store furniture would be blessed with a new (real!) kitchen table we spent months hunting down just the right set. We shopped at just about every furniture store in the Salt Lake City valley, and even considered making our own if we could find a big old barn door that we could cut down. But finally we found what we were looking for.  It was big and sturdy... fancy yet hardy. Ironically it appeared to us on the showroom floor of the furniture store owned by the family we'd bought our Utah house from. That meant we got a pretty great deal on it too, and decided to buy the eight chairs, instead of six, so there would be extra seating for those future honored guests.

The Utah house had the perfect spot for our new table. The large room attached to the open kitchen was just screaming for a big family table. It arrived just in time for my sister's visit from Texas that December, and we gathered around it with her husband and three girls, to greet the new year together, building gingerbread houses and playing board games.

Just as I'd planned and dreamed about.

We used that table every single day of our three years in Utah. Many more holidays were celebrated there, many hundreds of homework assignments were completed there. Science fair projects were constructed and Monopoly tournaments were battled out into the wee hours of the morning. A good chunk of our memories in Utah, the ones created inside the house, happened around that table.

And the scenes were repeated when we packed it up and moved to New York. After intense renovations of the old farm house we purchased, we created another big dining room, just off the kitchen, where our big wooden table fit perfectly. More holidays rolled by, more family memories were made. Every once in a while it would get a small ding or an errant stray mark by a permanent marker, and instead of being upset, I'd smile. Because I knew that in the years to come we'd see those marks and tell the stories about how they got there. It was all part of the family history making that first put a yearning in my heart for a good, hearty family table.

After five wonderful years in New York, we found out our next move was taking us to Colorado. There was no doubt that table would come with us. It was practically a part of our family.

But this move didn't go as smoothly as the ones in years past. We did everything right - fixed up the house perfectly,  put half our belongings into storage to make the house look bigger and cleaner, got a good appraisal before putting it on the market - but the market seemed to tank the exact day the For Sale sign was pushed into the front yard.
Month after month we dropped the price, seeing all of our tens of thousands of dollars of equity dropping away with it. We went past our 'give away' price after four months. 

Four months after that we were starting to get desperate. 

All the money we'd accumulated for decades, in every move, that was rolled over to the next house, was slowly disappearing. In the end it got ugly. 

We were weeks away from having to just walk away from it and let it go to foreclosure. A heart breaking decision, as we'd spent five years fixing just about everything in that house, down to replacing every single appliance. It was in pristine condition. It just didn't have any buyers.

Then we got one offer. Even though the price they offered was twenty thousand below what we'd paid for it, before we put tens of thousands into it, and spent all of our free time providing sweat equity to fix it up, we had to consider their offer. It would mean someone would move in and enjoy our house. It meant it would not sit vacant and deteriorate as it went through the foreclosure procedures. It meant we could live with the fact we hadn't just walked away from this house we created and loved. We could know it was being loved again.

Then, as if it couldn't hurt any more, the day the moving guys were putting our belongings into the moving truck, the call came. The new buyers were considering dropping their offer. One of the conditions to following through with their offer was that they wanted a few pieces of our furniture. And since most of our furniture was old  and worn out, of course the piece they were talking about was my kitchen table. My heirloom table.

I stood in that long driveway, watching work men haul boxes into the moving truck, and willed myself not to cry. With the realtor in my ear, asking if we were willing to honor the buyer's request, I took a deep breath.

It was truly down to deciding whether I got to keep the table that was near and dear to my heart, and let our house go to foreclosure, or let it all go to the new buyers and walk away.  There was really only one choice to make.

The moving men dug out the three dining chairs that they'd already packed deep in the bowels of the moving truck and placed them back in our old dining room, right next to my beautiful wood table. And they all stayed behind when that truck drove away.

Once we found a rental house in Colorado (all the down payment money to buy a house was lost with that house sale) we hunted around in the thrift stores and got another kitchen table. It's sturdy and it came with six sturdy chairs. It's not my first pick, but the price was right and sometimes in life you just have to move on.

For a short time I let myself grieve for that table. I was fully aware that, with the huge financial hit we took on that New York house, the budget for a new heirloom table would be nonexistent for years to come. I was also very aware that, at this point, with two of our 'kids' now being young adults, the window of time for creating kid memories around that table had just about closed for half of my children. It was time to mentally move on.

My Colorado thrift store table works just fine. 

We've had some memorable meals around it already. We've hosted friends, old and new, around it. I fed my oldest son a few last meals before he headed off to his grown up life in the military, and I'll feed him around it once again, when he visits us during the holidays. The table itself, as scratched as it is, is not the reason I smile when I'm looking at his face while we share meals there. The meals don't necessarily taste better or worse because of the quality of table they are served off of. The people who surround the table are what matter to me.

It is probably a blessing that my chickens started their flights from my nest after I lost my precious table. It has helped me to realize what's important, truly important. A house full of beautiful things, leather couches and heirloom tables, is not what makes a home happy.

People I love walking through the door, and throwing their things across whatever table happens to sit in the dining room, is what makes me happy. 

Seeing those faces I love and miss so deeply, and watching those bodies sink into my sturdy thrift store chairs as they begin to open up to me about their latest adventures is what really matters.

There is a part of my heart that will always long for that table I left behind in New York. We had built, so steadily through the years, the memories that were leading us to my dream of an heirloom table. But life happens. And sometimes it's necessary to say goodbye to things you loved. It's all a part of the journey. 

And I'm pretty sure my grandmother would understand.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

What a Decade Has Done For This Amputee

Ten years ago I was craving information. I had been pondering the idea of having my deformed foot cut off and getting a prosthetic limb for a couple of decades already, but information was hard to come by on such a specific topic. There were no books in the library, about amputation or the lives of amputees.  

Those were the days before the internet had filled out. It was mostly full of dial up email communications and basic websites set up by forward thinking companies, for advertisement purposes.

Then, a decade ago, things started to change. We got our first high(er) speed internet service and I was hooked. Suddenly I could dissect the extensive information that the ACA (Amputee Coalition of America) had posted online. I could read stories about amputees and find pictures of the newest prosthetic limbs.

This led me to websites like Hanger, a major prosthetic provider. On their sites I found more extensive pictures about the hardware I'd be wearing if I made this choice. I visited several Hanger local offices, after being encouraged by what I saw online, and held in my hand the metal foot that might give me more mobility.

One night I stumbled upon a story on the ACA website about a man who had chosen to have his foot cut off. He'd had a bad ankle injury that would never heal and he decided a prosthetic foot would give him a better chance at an active life. The 25 year old was now walking beaches with his wife, and learning how to run.

I was astonished. Until that moment I had never heard of another person who would choose to have their foot amputated. This guy had made the decision I had thought about for years, and he wasn't crazy. In fact, he got a better life afterward. Finding his story on the internet put fuel on my fire.

A year later I had my surgery. And now, almost ten years later, I'm still enjoying a newer version of that same metal foot I held in my hand a decade ago. At the time of my surgery I knew that if prosthetic technology never advanced one bit in the years to come, I'd be happy with where it was in 2004. But it has advanced. In so many exciting ways. Today I wear a foot that wasn't even designed five years ago.

The running (Cheetah) legs that you see on Paralymic athletes was just being tested in 2004. I now have amputee friends, casual athletes, who use them for their daily runs. There are mechanical knees and ankles that can memorize your gait and replicate it, to make a more natural walking pattern. If you enjoy a hobby, there are amazing options in attachments you can attach to the end of your artificial limb. The world of prosthetic options has exploded and will continue to grow in the years to come.

But it's not just the hardware that has changed. Attitudes have changed. When I was a kid, an amputee was a person who most likely used a wheelchair. They were old men who had been in a war and come home with a few less limbs. They were not people we saw very often and they were most certainly not people who would jog around our neighborhoods or show up on our TV screens.

I visit many amputee internet boards. I hear stories about what it was like to be an amputee before 2004.  I've read books about people my age, who grew up with wooden legs...literally legs made of wood. The world was a different place for those amputees, and not just in the hardware they strapped on every morning.

In the ten years since I've joined their club, public attitudes have changed. I don't hesitate to wear shorts in public. I've never had a negative comment about my prosthetic leg. In fact, I've had the opposite reaction. People are fascinated by my hardware. Little children might squat behind me in the grocery store line (a common occurrence), but it's not because they see me as a cripple. It's because they want to figure out how my metal ankle works. They want to see my 'robot' leg.

My co-workers are not afraid to ask about my limb, and listen with interest as I tell them how much it's changed my life for the better. No one sees me as 'less than'. They see me as differently abled.

I will forever be grateful that the climate of acceptance has washed over the amputee community in the years since I made my difficult choice. I'm grateful that, with new options in hardware, younger amputees have come out of hiding and bravely mixed in with the public, demonstrating how we are just normal people who happen to get around on metal limbs.

I'm grateful for the adaptive athletic organizations that have popped up in the last decade, and encouraged amputees to get off the couch and get back to their active lives. I'm grateful for amputee support sites, which have been flooded with new members once the internet caught up to our needs. Interacting with other active amputees inspired those who thought they were alone in their journey.

Tthe news about newly injured young military folks, who were getting their lives back after amputations, and videos showing little kids using new prosthetics to run across the playground, changed people's attitudes. The more they saw how normal an amputee is, the more amputees were accepted back into the able bodied world.

Everyone has their own opinion about the court case surrounding one of the most famous amputee athletes. Whether or not Oscar Pistorius is found guilty of a terrible crime, he has changed the world of amputee perception. By qualifying to run, on his two prosthetic legs, in the able bodied Olympics, he became a symbol to all amputees, especially amputee children, of what could be accomplished on metal legs. He changed how the world looks at us.

I'm still astonished when I see amputees represented positively on television. Both AmyPurdy and Sarah Reinertsen competed in the Amazing Race. Chad Crittenden held his own on Survivor. A main character on Grey's Anatomy is an amputee. Luke, a character on the popular sitcom Modern Family, casually tells his sister that it wouldn't be a big deal if he lost his leg, because then he could get one of those 'cool running legs'. A revealing episode of House informed us that Dr. House, who limps through the series with a bad leg, wishes he'd had his leg amputated when he'd has his medical crisis. He wishes he'd had the courage to amputate. That's a new way of thinking and I'm thrilled to see it on my TV.

My 'ampuversary' is a few months away. On January 12, 2004, I will celebrate a decade of new mobility. A decade is a long time. Long enough for me to feel totally comfortable in my amputee life. It quickly became a non issue in our house. My four children have grown up seeing their mom do everything else other mommies do and the fact I click on a leg in the morning seems very normal to them. Their friends have cycled through the house, in the three different states we've lived in the past ten years, and not one of them saw my amputee status as anything more than fascinating.

Attitudes have changed and this new generation is growing up with new ideas. In the next decade amputees will continue to be out there, mixed into the able bodied world. We no longer hide behind long pants or stay home when adventure calls. I'll celebrate my anniversary with a grateful heart. I'm so incredibly grateful to be a part of a community of amazing people, and grateful I get to be a part of an exciting new world.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Rediscovering Utah

Say the word 'Utah' and it brings up different images to different people. Some will think of the world famous powdery snow that makes Utah a top skiing destination. Red rock arches will come to mind for others. Some will think of the miles and miles of salt flats that are used to race some of the fastest cars in the world. And, of course, there will always be the lingering stereo types of families with multiple wives because of the concentrated presence of the Mormon church. But when I think of Utah, I think of people.

We were living in Washington D.C. back in 2003, when we found out hubby's job would be taking us to that Western state. The internet was not old enough to give us many visuals but we found a few books in the local library and decided that if this new state were half as beautiful as it seemed to be, we were game for the cross country relocation.

When we arrived, on a sunny day in August of 2003, Park City was one of the first towns we experienced. It's just as stunning as it had been represented to us in Hollywood movies. Then we made our way down to Salt Lake City, rounding that curve in the highway as it meanders down the mountain and weaves into the valley, we were once again left breathless at our good fortune, to be moving to such a visually stunning location.

Within weeks we were settled into a comfortable house just west of Salt Lake City, in a town called Stansbury. Mountains surrounded the valley we lived in, and the immense great Salt Lake bordered our views to the north. As we enjoyed the beauty all around us we had no idea that it wasn't physical attributes that would make us fall in love with Utah completely. It would be the people we met and had relationships with that would seal the deal.

For three years we called Utah home. We grew to know and love a wide circle of new friends, who quickly turned into the kind of people who are lifetime friends. When it was time to move on, this time to New York, it was a gut wrenching goodbye.

Now we're living in the West once again. This time we made it only as far as Colorado. We've finally settled in enough that we had the time to head over to our old stomping grounds, and catch up with our old Utah friends. It's been seven years since we'd been there. Seven years since we'd sat around fire pits late into the night, sharing laughs and heart felt life stories. We were ready to hug those familiar friends and catch up on all that has happened in the years we've been gone.

It all went by way too quickly, as truly special trips always do. I took a million pictures and we laughed a million laughs. I don't think I stopped smiling all weekend.

It was surreal to see their kids. I know my kids have grown, but it's easy to forget that theirs have too. I've been the one buying all those groceries, as our 17 year old grew to be six and a half feet tall. He was a fourth grader when we left Utah. Those friends remember him as being a skinny little boy who loved to ride a scooter down the street. He's now a high schooler, taller than most of his teachers, with a set of car keys in his pocket. It's strange for them to see this 'new' kid, as he ducks his head to get through their front door frame.

But it's just as strange for me to see their baby girl, who is now at the end of her elementary school years. She was still gestating in her mama's belly when I first 'met' her. Since her mama lived right across the street from me, and became one of my favorite people on the planet, I knew this baby girl from the day she was born. My school aged kids spent our hanging out times hauling her around on their hips. Even my boys passed her around, like she was our mascot baby. She took her first steps on the sidewalk between our houses, toddling from the hands of my middle school daughter, to her mama's waiting arms. This baby girl wasn't supposed to grow up so fast. But there she was, that same bright smile, but this time on an older kid's body.

But, as it always is with those magical lifetime friends, the second the front door opened, we were back to being just 'us'. We were the same couples we'd been on the day we pulled out of our driveway, headed off to New York. They were the same hilarious, fun, true blue friends we'd left behind. It was as if seven years had not even passed. If you didn't let yourself look at the tall kids who surrounded us, it would be easy to believe it had only been a few weeks since we'd last seen each other.

Before nightfall the fire pit had been made. The kids had easily mingled into a pack again and entertained themselves without any adult guidance for the rest of the night. It was like stepping into a time machine, looking across the crackling fire at those familiar faces I'd missed so much. The conversation flowed easily, as we once again bonded over parenting stories, this time not so much revolving around potty training and elementary school science fairs, but more focused on worries about the dating lives of high schoolers and the woes of empty nests.

The next day we reluctantly left that driveway once again, this time promising to be back in much less than seven years. We headed back to our old street, looked at our old house, and each shared our most vivid memories. Since my youngest was a preschooler when we moved away from Utah, we re-introduced him to places that he'd spent his days. The skate park where he rode his little red bike we called 'the clown bike'. The lake house where he'd hunted for Easter eggs. The church building where he'd been surrounded by people who loved  and encouraged him. The endless sidewalks he'd traveled with big brothers, on scooters and bikes.

We ended up at another house, this one still occupied by another family we grew to love deeply. Their kids are the ages of our older children, so they are parenting young adults now too. The kids we remember were still navigating high school hallways. Through the magic of facebook I've kept in touch with some of these new adult/kids and it was great to hug them in person, see those smiles I remembered so well. We spent the afternoon catching up with them. When it was time to leave, our kids were begging us to stay 'just a little longer'. It's easy to see why this family meant so much to us. They fit us in such a nice way.

We will go back. Now that we're more settled in our new home state of Colorado, and we were reminded that it's only a 8 hour drive to get to our old stomping grounds, we will go back. I'm thrilled that my children will have the chance to rekindle special friendships. For adults it's easier to step back into quality relationships from the past. Sometimes it's not so easy for kids, who left the old place as not fully developed people. But it's nice to see they still fit with our old friends. And they will stop being referred to as 'those people we used to know in Utah' and now, once again, be referred to as 'our friends, the Motts.'

Life is short and life is long. Seven years can change a lot. Children become totally different people in seven years. But seven years is not too long. It's not long enough to let us forget how nice it is to be surrounded by good people. It's long enough to make us realize just how much a good friendship is worth. And just how deep a friendship can run.