Easter. Happy.

This Easter brought another reminder of yet another new normal. Easter was my dad’s favorite holiday, and this was our first without him. I was doing okay until, while sitting at the Easter Vigil mass with Mom and some of the extended family on Saturday night, the priest acknowledged us and expressed his sympathies at the absence of my dad.  I guess it might be a while before we can get through holidays without a few tears.

Otherwise, this holiday weekend brought about the usual full house and chaos. It also brought with it some new realizations.

I’ve always enjoyed the holidays with my family. I love them particularly now that the kids are grown because our usual daily lives keep us mostly spread out in different directions. I no longer have the luxury of seeing my kids every day or spending endless amounts of time with them. It is these special occasions that bring us all back together again for a little while. It’s weekends like this one that bring me the most joy these days.

All of those years when I thought I couldn’t wait to have a little time to myself again, I never imagined what would make me happiest is to share every bit of my time and space with these people whom I love so very much.

Just a few years ago, I was quite certain what the future would look like for our family by now. This weekend, I realized how different our lives look now from the pictures I’d imagined back then. I’ve learned some things in the past few years about being too certain of tomorrow, and about holding on too tightly. I’ve been reminded that life is full of highs and lows, and that people come and go from our lives, whether by choice or because their time has come. Some days might be fantastically phenomenal. Others could bring heartbreak.

But as the saying goes, life goes on, and with it comes new possibilities, new people to love, and so many new reasons to have hope.

Our Easter photos this year don’t include some people who just a few years ago I’d thought would be in all of our future pictures. It hurt for a long while after they’d gone. I often wondered what went wrong, and how things might have been different. I sometimes wished I’d had some magic power to make things go the way we’d have wished, to avoid all the hurt.

But time heals, and as new people join us on the path of our lives, I realize this is how it goes sometimes, and all we can do is love and support each other through all the ins and outs of life.

Chesney’s had someone new in her life for a few months now. I got to meet him a few weeks ago and liked him right away. I liked how respectful he was of my daughter, the quiet affection he showed her, and they way they made each other laugh. My mom got to meet him too. As soon as he told her he was from a farming family, Mom instantly loved him. How could she not? She grew up on a farm herself.

After that first meeting, Mom asked me what I thought of Chesney’s boyfriend, and I told her I liked him, but I wasn’t going to let myself get attached so quickly this time around. I learned the hard way how much it hurts to love the people your kids love, and then watch them slip away.

The new boyfriend came to spend this weekend with Chesney and celebrate Easter with us. I was nervous beforehand. Would an entire weekend be too much too soon? Would he feel crowded in our small house with all of these people and two rambunctious dogs? Would our weird-and-craziness make him uncomfortable? Would our dysfunctional extended families scare him off?

All that worry was for nothing. The kid showed up on Friday evening and settled right in as if he’d known all of us for ages. He seemed happy to meet Jaeger and Ryker, and in fact, made fast friends with Jaeger. They’re already making plans to go fishing together. And Jack’s intimidating father act melted away almost instantly. The boyfriend survived introductions to all of the extended family and handled like a champ all of the teasing Chesney’s uncles dished out.

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I can’t keep saying I’m not getting attached. What I’ve seen so far is a wonderful young man who I’m thrilled is a part of my daughter’s life right now. He makes her happy and that makes me happy. I’ve decided to let myself get attached. I’m not afraid anymore. If there’s one tough lesson I’ve learned over the past couple of years, it’s that tomorrow isn’t promised. We have to throw caution to the wind and embrace what’s in front of us today. Anyway, I’d rather feel happy at the risk of getting hurt, than sit numb on the sidelines for fear of it.

Besides, there was no question about getting attached when the boyfriend got in line behind my daughter to hug me goodbye as they were leaving after a very full and fun weekend.

That sealed it. As long as he’s around, he’ll be treated as one of my own. 🙂

Writer’s Cramp

The appeal of my self-proclaimed quiet New Year’s weekend is starting to wear off. I could use some fun! Hopefully that will happen before Monday comes around again and life goes back to the usual routine.

I went into this weekend with plans to catch up and catch my breath at home after a whirlwind past few weeks. Having Dad’s funeral on December 14th, and then Christmas less than two weeks later made life feel even more crazed than it usually already is during the holiday season. Add to that, frequently checking in on Mom’s well-being, and helping finalize all the little details and paperwork that follow a person’s death, and I needed some down time.

Besides, Jack had to work right through the holiday, so our lack of celebratory plans was less of a choice than a necessity in accommodating his work schedule. And anyway, I asked around and it seems most everyone we know was planning a quiet night at home. We weren’t missing out on anything. We must be reaching that age.

There were a lot of things I planned to accomplish this quiet weekend, including putting Christmas decorations away. I wasn’t really feeling Christmas-y when they were brought out. Mostly, the decorating was done out of a sense of obligation, since it was my turn to host the family Christmas Eve celebration. Maybe next December we’ll be able to decorate with a bit more enthusiasm.

Another weekend goal is yet to bake THE cookies. My fifteen year-old nephew has been asking since Thanksgiving if I would be baking the cookies. It took a bit to figure out he’d decided the sugar cookie cut-outs that I make at Christmas time were the cookies. These are made from Jack’s grandmother’s recipe. They have a lot of butter, and I have to admit, they are good! I add the extra touch of frosting them. Actually, Chesney usually does that part. And hence was born the cookie.

Unfortunately for my nephew, cookie baking fell off the priority list at Christmas time. But I thought I might still make some and surprise him with a batch this weekend. If I manage to accomplish any baking, I’ll skip the Santa and stocking cookie cutters and just use the snowflake one. We’ll call them New Year’s cookies!

The number-one priority though, was thank-you notes. With Christmas happening so soon after Dad’s funeral, the thank you notes for all of the donations and flowers given were still waiting to be written. There was an evening last week when I might have gotten started, and dang it if I didn’t fall asleep in a living room chair that night! (I’ll blame this sinus cold I’m currently fighting.)

I took responsibility for writing about forty notes to all of those connected to me who gave something in honor of Dad’s passing. This included Jack’s and my neighbors, friends, coworkers and my in-laws. The notes we ordered have a pre-printed message in them, but I thought it was appropriate to add a personal note as well. I spent all late-morning and afternoon yesterday writing those, and when I ran out of notes, I took myself over to Mom’s to get some more and finish up my list. Then I started in on the portion of notes that were Mom’s responsibility. There were a lot more. Dad, having been a deacon for twenty-one years, participating in marriage, baptismal and funeral celebrations, touched a lot of lives.

One of Mom’s many afflictions caused by her health conditions is circulatory problems in her digits. Mom’s fingers are often inflamed, infected and usually painful. She managed to write three notes before she had to call it quits. I took the rest. And can I just say that it’s been a long time since I’ve done so much writing the old-fashioned way? The callous has returned to the side of my right middle finger, the one that was always there during my school days. I have a bad habit of squeezing the pen really hard when I write.

I finished up about eleven o’clock last night, and except for a few stragglers which need addresses researched, the job is pretty much done!

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If Christmas gets put away, if cookies get baked, if the spare bedroom gets cleaned … that will be a bonus! At least those thank you notes are done, and just barely inside the timeframe that funeral etiquette says is appropriate.

It feels like life is taking a turn back towards normal again, and I’m grateful.

Welcoming 2016

I encountered a FaceB0ok post a few days ago in which the author figuratively flipped the bird at the year 2015. All of the comments were in support of this flipping. 2015 was assigned blame for illness, job loss, and a plethora of other struggles. All were looking for better stories in the coming 365 days. The collective sentiment was goodbye and good riddance to 2015.

I could sympathize with their bitterness. 2015 was no picnic for me either. When I look back over the past twelve months, the most prominent memories revolve around the care of my parents as their aging process began to take a really serious toll. I can’t say I wouldn’t change a thing. It was one of the hardest days of my life when my dad passed away three weeks ago.

2016-01-01But there is a feeling … something along the lines of gratefulness for the experiences in 2015, even the really difficult ones, that helped me grow as a person.  Just about a year and a half ago, I began to feel a personal shift. The path of my life had felt pretty stagnant for a long time, and this shift was so welcome. It involved a spiritual awakening, a feeling of strength to handle whatever life would throw our way. It brought an understanding that problems don’t exist to beat us down, but to make us stronger. I began to see that all of us here in this world are more alike than we are different. It brought acceptance and a sense of relief for the inner struggle I’d been battling for so long. Over the past year, this shift has continued to open my eyes exponentially to the reason we are all here, bumping into each other and doing this thing we call living. I have rarely, if ever, wished that I could go back to a certain time in my life and if this is what growing older is all about, I’ll continue to believe that forward is the only way to go.

My younger years always seemed to find me looking ahead in search of the day when there would finally be enough time, money, stuff and happiness. I was constantly on the lookout for the point when all problems would be resolved and life would be free and easy. But lately I have the sense that this is where “it” is at; right here, right now. And with that, I more quickly appreciate every experience for the opportunity it brings to grow as a person, to accept differences in others, to love more deeply, to be thankful for all that is good in my life.

2015 was a tough one. But it was also sprinkled with joy and fun and love. I guess I wouldn’t give it back if offered the chance. And I won’t lie. I hope 2016 goes a little easier on us. I won’t be making any of the typical kind of New Year’s resolutions. I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve been doing. It seems to be working. Whatever lies ahead in the next year, I feel ready and capable of facing it. Bring it on!

Christmas 2015

I just sort of wanted to get through Christmas this year. Not that I was dreading it, or anything. I’m typically a serious Christmas enthusiast. I was just feeling a bit sad, last-minute and worn out this time around.

Still, Christmas came, as it always does. And somehow it was good. Seems my dad’s passing has allowed me to really put things in perspective and let go of expectations. Kind of sad how it took such a significant loss to make me see what was really important.

We took my mom to an early Christmas Eve mass at her church. My brothers and their families joined us. It was a poignant service. As I watched the priest and deacons, I kept remembering the many times I’d seen my dad perform those same rituals. I was feeling overwhelmingly sad for a while, until I imagined my dad sitting next to me, holding my hand. I felt a calm come over me and all was well.

Afterwards, my extended family all came to our house to eat and celebrate. There’s not nearly enough room here for all of us, but it’s never stopped us before, and no one really seemed to care.

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I have a mess of pictures, but this one seems appropriately representative of the evening. My mom, surrounded by her family, all of us just enjoying the simple and silly things.

The days have been frantic and fast-paced this past week, and I was tired going into Christmas Day.  We went to a brother-in-law’s house and celebrated with Jack’s very large extended family. There was a sense of camaraderie there. Jack and his siblings lost their own father this time last year. A sister-in-law lost her step-dad just weeks later. A nephew-in-law lost his dad recently, just days after my dad passed. We’re all getting used to a new, and not altogether welcome sense of normalcy. It helps to know I’m not doing this alone.

The Christmas Day festivities were loud, but there was much laughter and cheer. We ate ourselves silly. Big “kids” played new games with little kids. Conversations were animated. There were no cross words. I got to spend time holding my favorite baby, our great-nephew, who is just mellow and adorable.

A friend and I were exchanging comments in reference to my Christmas albums which I posted on FaceB00k this morning. She said she was thinking of me and I replied I was thinking of her as well. She lost her mother earlier this year, and it seems her dad is not long for this world either. I said that it had been a challenging year for many of us, and she responded, “But I can’t call it bad. It’s just life.”

I realized that I had to agree with her. We’ve reached that age, some of us, where having to part ways with a parent or loved one is an inevitably more common occurrence. There is sadness to bear, but if we’re lucky, as I have been, much grace as well. As I told my friend, I am grateful. It was a beautiful Christmas.

Thankful in all circumstances

It’s Saturday morning of the long Thanksgiving weekend. I have a lot for which to be thankful, even if I sometimes have to stop and remind myself of that fact.

I’ve realized that it’s true what they say. You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. When I look back on my life to this point, I can see that my perspective has always been one of thinking there was always more time. Mistakes could be made right in time. Relationships might be mended in the coming year. Things will be better when … I’ll be happy as soon as … We’ll do this after …

I suppose it’s a realization that comes with age, but I’m quickly learning that now is the only time we have. If I want to be happy, content and at peace, now is the time. I can’t wait for a point when I might have more money. None of it depends on whether I have the right car, or the perfect house. It can’t hinge on everyone being everything I expect them to be to me. This world is messy. We have to figure out how to be happy in spite of it.

Life took a turn over the past few months. It began when my dad broke his hip in early September. Since then, there’s been a growing realization that my parents’ time here with us grows more limited by the day. For the past few years, there’s been a gradual role reversal during which my siblings and I have begun to take care of our parents’ needs more than they take care of ours. In the time since my dad’s fall, I’ve worried and cried more than any other time in my life. Our family has struggled more than ever before.  Some relationships have pulled closer together. Some have broken apart irreparably. Every day I wonder how many, or how few, more days either of my parents will stay with us.

This Thanksgiving, I reminded myself to be grateful even for those things that didn’t quite meet my expectations. Jaeger came home from Fargo, and Chesney came home from school in Mankato to join the rest of us at home. I had all three of my kids with me at one time, if only for a little while. Chesney arrived home Wednesday afternoon, but had to go back right away on Thursday night. Her job in retail required her to work on Black Friday. I really wished she could stay home for the long weekend. She makes me laugh and lightens the mood no matter what’s going on. But having her for an overnight was better than not having her home at all. It was wonderful to feel the sunshine of her presence in the household, even if it was just for a short time. I’m just happy she goes to school within reasonable driving distance.

Jack had to work on Thanksgiving Day. I can’t even count the number of holidays his job has kept him away from the kids and me and the rest of the family on special days. I used to feel a lot of bitterness about it. It was a lot of years before I thought to be grateful that he was willing to make that sacrifice for us, because it meant he was taking care of his family. How much would we have gone without if it weren’t for all of the years he dedicated himself to a job that kept us fed and clothed? I was grateful that he could join us a little late, and get himself a plate of food while it was still relatively fresh and hot.

The kids and I picked up my parents and brought them with us to my sister’s home on Thanksgiving day. It had been snowing all morning, and there was a small accumulation of snow and ice outside. Jaeger and Ryker walked beside my dad as he went to my car, each holding him by an arm, ready to catch him should he slip and begin to fall. They then did the same for my mom. Dad’s walker was tossed in the back of Jaeger’s truck so Dad would have it  at my sister’s if he needed it.

Thanksgiving was different than in years past. One brother and his family were noticeably absent. And Mom and Dad appeared worn out before we’d even left their house. As we all gathered at my sister’s home, we did our best to keep the mood celebratory. But the awareness that Mom and Dad are gradually slipping away from us was never far from my thoughts. I kept an eye on them throughout the day and they seemed tired, sad … We’re moving them out of their town house into an assisted living apartment in the next two weeks, and they’ve reluctantly accepted those circumstances. But they are saddened at the loss of their independence. Every day is a trial for them, a struggle to just get through simple routines like dressing and eating. My dad fights the reality of his circumstances until his body proves to him once again that he can’t win.

Not long after dinner and dessert were over, I asked Mom how they were feeling and she said they were ready to go home as soon as I was willing to take them. Dad was sound asleep in another chair, oblivious to the chaos of holiday laughter and conversation. It used to be that he’d spend holidays wrapped up in conversations with his sons about fishing, vacations, or the best tasting beers. Or he’d sit and lovingly tease his grandkids. Now the grandkids have grown too big for that kind of teasing, and he’s too tired to play along.

There’s a bible verse I stumbled upon a while ago that I think about often.

Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances …

It seemed like good advice before such serious issues began to permeate our lives. But I’m trying to remember this verse, every day. It’s not easy. Still, I’m striving to find joy in all that I can. If I don’t, I think sometimes I might just lay down and cry.

So this weekend, I’m grateful … that my parents are surviving another day, that I had some time with all of my kids. Jaeger is here through Sunday with his dog, Dacotah. And Ryker has even stayed home more than he usually does. The Christmas tree is lit and decorated, and the sun is shining today. Also? The dogs didn’t burn down the house while we were gone on Thanksgiving Day, despite their best efforts. But that’s a story for another time.

Thanksgiving 2015