Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Alone, for a Moment



The colors of the sky washed from blue to orange to pink before fading to periwinkle and finally grey, the evening washing away the remnants of the sun. I curled up on the pleather arm chair with a book in hand, coffee in arm’s reach and watched the display. Intermittently sipping my decaf Americano and reading a paragraph or two in my book, I closed my eyes and breathed in the tones of music prescribed for a coffee shop, the click of the keyboard across the way, the chatter of an Eastern European language I couldn’t succinctly place.

I was alone, for a moment.

Traveling with a team from our rural island comes with a whole list of unique challenges, the first of which involving airplanes and ferries, the second involving multiple nights spent in sleeping bags in high school classrooms. We are together, all the time. We pack fourteen bodies among desks, organized by outlets charging various devices, agreeing to silence our phones and settle in at prearranged times driven by a common courtesy and a common goal. We share bathroom sinks and mirrors, toothpaste and alarm clocks, food and socks and sometimes uniforms. No one’s parents can drop by items left behind; no one has the luxury of a good night’s sleep at home in a comfortable bed.The track athletes act more like sibling than they do classroom peers. After a dozen shared seasons and months worth of traveling an ocean away from home, they graduate with an intimate knowledge of each other’s lives, shared over breakfast across tile floors flanking sleeping pads, whispered in the backseats of minivans rented for a long weekend of driving all over the state. As coaches we admonish them to get up on time, to plan and prepare in advance, but when the inevitable athlete fails to be ready on time, she often makes do—running out the door, duffle bag in hand, willing to brush her teeth on the road rather than penalize everyone for her poor form. They learn that everyone contributes to a successful team, that everyone must participate in the agreed upon rhythm or chaos will ensue.

In the moments where I am able to remove myself from the immediacy of a minivan packed with teenagers, or a classroom overflowing with the smell of body spray from Victoria’s Secret, I remember what a pleasure it is to be present in this stage of their lives, to have good and hard conversations about education and relationships and risk-taking and adventure. At 10:15pm the night before I had taken the team captain out to pick up pizza, a hot but quick dinner after leaving the track after 9pm, knowing we’d be back there at 7am. We were both exhausted, and inevitably ended up talking about sleep, and that’s when I learned that she slept terribly at home, as she was constantly called upon to help her mom who deals with health struggles that limit her mobility. Sitting around the infield of the track during the meet the next day I learn about another senior who is planning on staying at home after graduating to care for her mother, whose cancer has returned.  A week later this same student quit the team to take a job in town, feeling the family’s need for money was greater than athletic conquest.

After my oasis at the coffee shop, I picked up the athletes at a nearby mall and headed back to our lodging, bedding down in room 105, a classroom I have stayed in over half a dozen times. Word trickled in just before our agreed upon “lights out” time that the gym was open and balls available, and all of the sudden the team was together again: shooting around, bumping and setting, chasing and laughing and posing under the spotlight above the door. They laughed at my inability to make a three point shot. I praised their swishing baskets (or attempts) as we dribbled around in the twilight. And in that moment, I was so content to be with them. To watch them work hard, to be a part of their play.

A couple weeks later a gal I have coached for six seasons celebrated her birthday with a gathering at the beach. She invited me to stop by, and I walked the short distance from my house to the bay as Curtis put the kids down for bed. The gathered athletes cheered at my arrival, at which point I realized I was the only one over eighteen years old in attendance. I sat on a large piece of driftwood a collection of guys had drug over, adding to the commentary on marshmallow roasting technique, trying my hand at catching a marshmallow in my mouth at long range (I failed), protesting at their attempts to stand on the dried out pallets as they burned in the growing fire. These students have to hang out with me on so many weekends for so many hours in classrooms and on airplanes and at tracks and in minivans. I was honored to have been invited to the gathering, the collection of a couple dozen upper classmen I have coached, and cheered, and called-out, and encouraged.


I walked home shortly before 10pm, the light in the sky waning at last, my mind appreciating the quiet of the evening. My alone time is limited these days, a precious luxury I stumble upon in coordinated naps and the occasional hour I steal away on trips out of town. My together time—with my children, my family, my athletes, my church—it is full.  And it is good.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Premature


On the eve of my seventeenth birthday, I received a frantic call from a close friend: her sister had been killed in a car crash. In reality, both of her precious siblings had been in the car that day, but one had been spared with a short hospitalization and released with her jaw wired shut while the other had been declared dead shortly after impact. At sixteen it is hard to comprehend the death of those only a few years older--they had so much life left to live. We had so much life left to live. 

A week later the service was held to celebrate a life cut short by a drunk driver on I-5. I was scheduled to run in a race during the service, but opted for an early morning race at the same invitational, and hopped in the car with one of my coaches for a frantic two-and-a-half hour drive back into the city. The comparison was not lost on me as we weaved in and out of traffic on one of the most dangerous stretches of highway in the state--anything can happen, any time. We are not owed another day.

I stood in the back of the church since our late arrival afforded us few seating options. I watched as the surviving sister stood beside a friend who offered to read her eulogy. She could not read it herself due to her injuries. I watched as sister who had passed was grieved by her fiancee who strummed his guitar and sang to his lost love. I watched as the slideshow played the countless memories of her twenty-some years of life--endless reminders of how much was lost by her family. This was a precious member who would never be replaced, never be forgotten, never be fully grieved.

A year and a few months later, I lost my father. When the news came, I was speechless, even though I knew his health was failing, even though I knew this was realistic possibility, even though I'd been hanging on reports of his health for seven weeks. In the days that followed I struggled to interact with my friends, who walked on egg shells around me unsure of what to say. In the months that followed I resented those around me that failed to remember my grief, to acknowledge that my loss still burned within me. In the years that followed, I learned the cradle the ache I felt with the loss of my dad every time it came to the surface--sometimes at expected times, sometimes catching me with total surprise.

This week marked thirteen years since my dad's death, thirteen years of wondering what might have been different. In October we travelled to a farm belonging to one of my dad's closest friends from high school. Originally a dairy farmer, his friend had remastered his land into the quintessential elementary school field trip--corn maze, pumpkin patch, hay rides all included. The pig show delighted my two year old daughter, and someday my son will cherish the hay maze and slide housed in the old barn. After years of struggling to make it, this family has developed a business that rewards their hard work. My dad would have been so proud of his friend, and happy for his success--and he has missed it all. My dad would have loved ride behind the tractor pulling a trailer stacked with hay, carrying his grandchildren, and he will never know them. 

Today a friend I have known since junior high found out her sister died. She was traveling the world, relishing her freedom as a single twenty-something with no mortgage and few responsibilities. She died hiking a trail with a few well-known treacherous points, and lived her last moments doing what she loved--traversing the wilderness. She wasn't yet 25. 

I found myself shedding tears on multiple occasions this afternoon after hearing the news of her death. While she and I were not close, her sister and brother are people I have been close to for years, and her family is precious to me. I grieve for the loss of everything that might-have-been: her nieces and nephews that will never know her, her parents who are left without one of their children, her siblings who have lost a part of their shared history--and shared future. 

Most people don't lose an immediate family member in their teens, but now that I am in my thirties I see more and more of my peers joining the ranks as those who grieve. Billy Graham once commented that "old age can be a lonely time," and I imagine that is very true. When a loved one dies, you move on, but you don't forget. The absence remains weeks and months and years later. As we get older and lose more and more of those close to us due to death--both foreseen and unexpected--we become less attached to our lives on earth and more intent in our pursuit of heaven. 

As a pregnant woman readies for labor, so uncomfortable with the child she would prefer the pain of delivery over the continued confinement, so we grow weary of this broken world. We desire more and more earnestly the promise of heaven. Until then, until we meet our end, we grieve. We ache for lives ended too soon; we long for what might have been. We press on.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Matching


"Sit still," he repeats for the umpteenth time. He focuses, and attempts, and adjusts his method, and focuses and adjusts and asks for further clarification. "Like this?" he questions me, as I watch from a couple feet away, smiling at his insistence he learn how to accomplish this--by himself.

My husband is fixing my daughter's hair before church, and I love it. The most problematic step in the whole ordeal was creating a center part--no small feat on the head of an active two year old turning her head this way and that as she unknowingly makes my husband's job more and more difficult. He wields the pale yellow comb we received the day she was born, the same we used to comb her hair after her first bath. With the attempted precision his job often requires, he focuses on the top of her head--and her demeanor almost mocks his efforts. She has no understanding of complete stillness at age 2 and 3/4. It is a foreign concept.

I help him secure the part, fix one half of her head, and watch as he attempts to match it on the other half, securing the ponytail at a similar height and then wrapping the hair around to create a tight bun. She calls this do "bear ears," a family name given to my younger sister when she frequently sported the look herself. 

I treasure my husband's efforts to participate in all of the child-rearing efforts: the cooking, the cleaning, the diaper changing, and even the hair-fixing. When our children receive new hand-me-downs from friends, he often asks for a tutorial of the "outfits"--developing a working knowledge of what pairings he should keep in mind when dressing them. I appreciate that when track season rolls around in three short months, and traveling follows soon after, he will require little preparation for weekends they weather without me. He knows our routine, the rhythms we follow on a daily basis. He can dress them and bathe them and fill their days with meaningful play. And even in this, he always welcomes me back with open arms (and occasionally a flower or two) when he experiences the exhaustion of my daily rituals, and all that our two precious babes require. That pat on the back, especially from someone who knows the routine, is pretty great as well.

For the rest of the day he compares the right side of her head with her left, examining how his work fares compares to mine. They are nearly identical, in my opinion, but when the right side begins to unravel, he questions (again) his technique. "You'll get better at it," I assure him, reminding him I've had three decades of practice on both myself and my sisters. He will probably never french braid her hair or create elaborate new looks, but the desire he has to master basic hair wrangling technique makes me happy. He wants to be a part of all of their care, and I am thankful.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Water


Today I woke up to the sound of the wind and rain. Throughout the night when my son beckoned, the rhythm of sheets of water against our siding made me feel as if I was riding the waves I could hear crashing not far beyond my window, on the beach I can glimpse through the trees. The howling continued through the morning, the window screens rippling with each gust, the glass glimmering in the steady stream of water pushed against it. With a toddler and an infant I was not sure what to do in the mess I heard outside. I'm not above bundling them both up and venturing out onto a sheltered trail, but today that felt like a lot of work, and as long as they were putting up with the washing of toilets and sweeping of floor, I was going to press forward cleaning the house. 

Then, a friend mentioned she was heading to the pool. 

I grew up in the water, filling the days of summer and the afternoons in spring and fall with hours upon hours in the pool in our backyard. The games my sisters and I invented constantly morphed into new varieties to entertain our growing imaginations,  and throughout our backyard were stations and homes and towns and businesses we had invented weeks and months and years before. There was an entire world to behold in our backyard, and it centered around the water. As an adult I still find myself drawn to it, with overwhelmingly positive connotations and countless memories attached to it. With two pregnancies and two babies in the last four years, I have spent less time than ever in the water.

A couple weeks ago when my toddler was brought to a kiddie pool I realized she was nearly afraid of the water. How could I be surprised? She's spent very little time in anything more than a bathtub, save the occasional hotel pool or a dip in a frigid Alaskan lake. I was surprised at how much this realization bothered me--how could she have a proper childhood if she was afraid of the water? At two she's not eligible for swim classes, but our city pool has an amazing wading area, and I had no one to blame but myself if she continued to bemoan swimming opportunities.

I gave myself ninety minutes to get ready and arrive at the pool; keep in mind, it is no more than three miles away from my house. Lugging two little ones to a pool was a bit intimidating to me, and I knew if I could just get out to do it once it would be infinitely easier the next time. This is true of just about every task I try to undertake on my own: intimidating until I complete it once. So I crawled (carrying my son) into our under-the-stairs closet, dug around until I found the baby-floating-intertube-thing, and lugged it upstairs. We sat in the hallway--all three of us, because I live with leaches--and I struggled to blow the tubing to life. Apparently the devices invented to prevent the de-flating of the inner-tube also make it nearly impossible to blow up. We set about outfitting ourselves in swim suits and layers for traveling in the monsoon outside. We filled a bag with towels and baby shampoo and lotion and fresh underwear. And finally after several minutes of assembling shoes and coats, I loaded both kids into the carseats--with time to spare. 

In the end, we lasted around forty minutes in the pool, with far more than that spent unloading the car, stripping down in the locker room, showers, reassembling our many layers to depart, loading up the car while fighting hurricane force winds, and unloading again at home (thankfully with the protection of a garage). Normally I would think twice about any activity that was that was this high maintenance with only forty minutes of entertainment to show for it. For the pool, I can make an exception. My daughter was still skittish, but less so than last time. She paddled cautiously around in water that was high enough that she couldn't touch her feet but shallow enough that she could clearly see the bottom. My son was laughing in glee for the better part of it, intermittently drinking the water and trying to climb out of his floating oasis. With a couple friends and our combined six kids age four and under, the shallow pool was a bit of a circus, but it was great. In between rescuing the bold kids from drowning and the skittish kids from crying, we chatted about last weekend's mountain race and the triathlons coming this spring. We shared traveling schedules for the holidays and the class schedules for one gal's degree in progress. We talked about our personal positive associations with the pool, and our desires for our kids to (safely) love it too. 

Now that it's nap time and both kids are asleep, the thought of ever repeating the outing sounds exhausting--but I know that I will. It won't always be this hard to get out the door. Even though it seems easier to stay home at times, the days that I never leave the house feel empty and energy-draining in their own way. These are good days; these are hard days. A smile from my son and a string of hilarious antics from my daughter remind me to look past the struggles to sleep and feel like a balanced adult, and appreciate the space I am in. Some days a trip to the pool helps me feel a little more like myself.I hope that some day it may do the same for them too.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Story in My Locks

I am reminded daily of the birth of my children when I look in the mirror, not because of stretch marks--though those surely still remain--but because of my hair. Thanks to my son, each time I comb it large handfuls fall out, wrapping around my fingers as I seek to detangle it. With my daughter I eventually lost half my volume--months of shedding culminating in a slowly growing crown of short hairs that mirrored the fuzzy growth of my daughter though a bit less socially acceptable. But a funny thing happened as it grew--it came in straight. As someone that has wrestled and made my peace with a head of thick, curly hair, this threw me for a loop--what was this? Is this my new normal? And thus my hair came to catch the persona of my life: new, different, unfamiliar. The stress of a newborn, the trials of postpartum anxiety and depression, the shift in hormones with a birth and breastfeeding: all of these likely played their part in my awkward hair growth. Yet as time progressed and I became acquainted with motherhood, my hair settled in as well, curling lightly once again, growing out from baby hairs to locks that fell around my face.

All of this came to light a couple months ago when I cut my hair shortly before giving birth to my son. It had been over a year since my last cut, and I had several inches cut off, creating a fresh layered look to elongate my ever round face. And when I looked in the mirror after washing it, I was struck by the curl that emerged, freed by the extra weight that dissipated when the inches were cut. But instead of the strongest curl being near the base of my hair where it was the lightest, it was near my head with the fresh growth. The bottom few inches were barely waves and awkwardly hanging beneath the peppy curl higher up. This last evidence of one of the hardest years of my life causes me to pause on a regular basis. The stretch marks from that first pregnancy have long since faded. My body has lost weight, carried another pregnancy and gathered more stretch marks to tell of my son's gestation. This transition has been easier for any number of reasons, not the least of which being I knew what to expect. He sleeps better, cries less, eats well and is generally such a happy child. Part of this is undoubtedly due to his disposition; part is likely due to the fact that he can sense I am at ease--a reality that was a long time in coming with my daughter. And while those dark nights and darks days I weathered as my daughter aged were something I would happily never live through again, I am reminded these days that they are etched in who I am. They changed me, challenged me, made me stronger and revealed my true weaknesses and fears; they grew my faith even as it was challenged daily and sometimes hourly. I am thankful for those months of trial even as I detested every hour of them.

I need a haircut once again, and in this next trim I will likely lose the last physical evidence of that time after my daughter was born, a step that will leave me with locks of even curls, a head a little lighter, and a heart a little nostalgic.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Nomenclature

Knowing an item's proper name is almost as important to her as knowing it belongs to her...a small chair, fitting for no one to use except her small frame, fits this bill perfectly. I am not looking forward to the day her brother learns to claim things for himself; she will not be thrilled with the competition.

I'm not sure when she learned how to respond to the question, but at some point this summer she determined the answer people were looking for when they asked her "What's your name?" Around the same time she discovered that everything has a name. Everything.

"Stop sign"
"Seat belt"
"Door handle"
"Rearview mirror"
"Wheel"
"Exhaust pipe"

"What's this called?" she repeats over and over and over. The construction equipment around town needs a proper name; the different types of dinosaurs in the orange plastic container from Uncle Josh need a name; the metal pieces that hold up the railing along our stairs need a name. 

"Sewing Machine"
"Needle"
"Ruler"
"Rotary Cutter"
"Fabric"
"Iron"
"Sewing Machine"

It can be a bit embarrassing at times when a new person walks in the room and she loudly proclaims, pointing at the human that now stands before her, "What's that called?" She doesn't want to know their gender--she will happily tell you that if you ask--she wants a name. And she will repeat it to herself ad nauseum once she knows it.

"Windex"
"Rag"
"Toilet bowl cleaner"
"Toilet brush"
"Toilet seat"

At the end of the day, when I'm hoping for peace and quiet and she is still moving full speed I find it challenging to answer these requests patiently, especially as they circle around to the same items repeatedly because she has forgotten what I told her the first time. Other times she shocks me by naming an item we haven't seen (or discussed) for weeks. She remembers more than she forgets, a trait I envy at times and condemn at others. 

"Tea cup"
"Saucer"
"Tea pot"
"Sugar bowl"
"Lid"

She is in tune with so much these days: the rhythm she has come to count on with our schedule, the items she expects to eat at regular meals based on frequency, the meanings of the different noises her brother makes, the probable location we are headed based on the route we are driving in the car. 

"I need food", she declared this morning, almost an hour before we typically eat lunch. "I need breakfast, a banana," she added to amend her initial request. Now that she can communicate, she regularly tries her hand at negotiation, requesting "one more time" with an item she is not ready to put away, "one second" for an action she is not ready to quit. We realize the phrases we speak without thinking because she repeats them back to us--over and over and over again.

When you become a parent, people warn you of the challenges you will face. What you don't understand initially is how these little people will wear you down. It's not just that they don't sleep--it's that they don't sleep for months. It's not that they throw fits when they don't get their way, it's that they do it over and over and over again. Even when you don't give in to their whims, even when you make it clear that you are the boss, they continue to try---for days, and weeks, and sometimes months. And if they don't wear you down with misbehavior, they may slowly drive you insane with the little questions asked all day, every day.

Yet, even as my husband and I high five over getting two kids to bed to close out another day, we spend the evening chuckling about the funny things our daughter said, the adorable grin flashed by our baby son, the hilarious chain of events that took place earlier in the day. And in that way, it is probably a gift that our memories are not quite as sharp these days: how quickly we forget the exasperating moments as they are overshadowed by the adorable. I am thankful for the short memory I have these days; I would rather start relatively fresh each morning. Perhaps the sleep deprivation is a gift, after all.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Tile Floors and Birdcages


There's an understanding among parents with small children that sleeping away from home offers it's own set of challenges. Add in a single room with lots of unfamiliar noises and uncontrollable barriers and you may be met with looks of terror. Sleep time is often the break you need at the end of the day; a few precious moments to reset away from the crying of babies or incessant questions from toddlers. Hotel rooms offer none of these respites; hotel rooms trap you all together to cry it out in one large symphony.

I found myself laying on the floor of our hotel room last night, whispering in our son's ear as I stared up at the hems of our dresses and coats, feeling the cool of the tile against my bare shoulder. He often sleeps in the closet when we travel, the doors offering a small barrier against noise--both for him and me. My daughter was snuggled into the provided crib, which we had draped with a blanket on the sides facing the bed, an attempted barrier against visual distractions. One evening as she fell asleep she talked about her "little fort". Though she protested the birdcage-esque covering during her first nap time, that evening when she returned she requested the brown blanket as she bedded down, needing it to complete the ensemble.


Children have a way of bringing you down from whatever semblance of pride you would normally exist within. Lying on floors to awkwardly shush a baby to sleep is only the beginning. I have walked around for hours without realizing I have a waterfall of spit up decorating my front. I have paraded through grocery stores with one child crawling and the other proclaiming each and every detail of our lives to each shopper that passes us by. I have made plans and cancelled them at the last minute, made plans and shown up and then left prematurely, made plans and totally forgotten about them. I have flown on airplanes while covered in vomit, been urinated on more times than I can count, and held chewed up food in my hands for far too long while searching for a place to dispose of it. When you're caring for children, it's what you do. 

Two years down, so many (I hope) to go.

Even as these little people take me down a notch every time I get my act together. I can't help but love them. And even as vacation is more exhausting than normal life, it's nice to change things up once in a while: see new places, exist in milder weather, and spend time a bit less distracted by everyday details. This is why falling asleep on a tile floor doesn't bother me as much as it might have two years ago--it's just for a couple days, and then we will be back to normal life.