Sunday, November 17, 2013

My dad died early in the morning on September 30. A few hours later, we went on a walk down Old Falls Road as the sun came up. It was the only thing that felt right to do. Walks down that old street will always be his.

Later that day, Jessica ran into a neighbor on the street. He had noticed the hearse arriving so very early. Why was he awake and aware of things going on outside? His own wife had died of cancer a decade ago, maybe more. His twin daughters lived together in an apartment in a neighboring town, one of whom, it turns out, also has some sort of illness. How little we neighbors have shared of our lives. This neighbor is a thoughtful man, probably a little lonely, who goes on walks himself and will trap you in conversation if you aren't careful.

"I am sorry about your father," he started out. "You know, I always loved seeing you girls coming over and talking your father our for walks. It was such a beautiful thing."

"Thank you," Jessie replied.

"No more walks." He said sadly.

"No more walks," she repeated.

And with the first month of surreality and recovery from the exhaustion accompanying both caring for someone with my dad's condition and attending death, and then the handling the services, we are left with facing our feelings again, which is the harder part. I have wanted to try to pour them out onto the page, but when it comes down to it that small conversation of which I was not even a part sums it all up better than I could attempt with more words.

No more walks.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

my sunshine

photo credit to alisha lacey

Claire deserves a long, photo-laden post all her own, but my weariness will win tonight. I couldn't go to bed, though, without expressing how much I love this little girl. During a really sad, dark time in our lives as we lose our dad, Claire has been a deep comfort to me. I wish she could have known my dad, and he her. She has been the easiest little baby, from being healthy and chunkabunch to sleeping well and being endlessly content at all times. She is the light of our family. I will try not to eat her.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

the days pass slowly but the years fly by

First day of school this year sees Will off to Kindergarten and Andrew in 2nd. Porter is doing another year of preschool at Colvin Run and a little co-op style academic music program on Friday mornings, taught each week by a lady from church whom he loves.
I was especially nervous this year because somehow sending the kids to our local public school felt much more official than sending Andrew to the tiny Christian private school where he attended K and 1st.

Will was just excited, having been initiated into the routine of full day school by watching Andrew do it for the last two years. When he emerged from the building onto the playground at the end of his first day, he ran to me with a huge smile. He has remarked that they mostly doing things "involving scissors" in the classroom. He has two friends from preschool in his class, he is doing well with his meals (Carnation Instant Breakfasts) and seems generally really happy.
Andrew emerged from the school with less enthusiasm on day 1. "Too many kids, too much noise," was how he characterized public school life. His classwork so far has consisted of coloring gluing. "More like a craft day, really," he remarked. I am not in love with what I am hearing, but it is only the first week. He is making friends, including a kid named Luke who sits by him. "I talked to Luke today! Well, not really talked so much as listened. Well, not really listened so much as watched him put his finger in the pencil sharpener." So.
Porter was really happy to get back into school, despite his declaration over the summer that "it is more fun to stay home with mommies." On the way home from a chaotic first day, he looked out the window and said breathlessly, "I love mine teachers." Porter is the happiest, most loving kid I know. He will be moving from the morning class of younger kids to the afternoon class of older ones with his friend Spencer. I think it will be a wonderful fit. He already has a crush on the teacher!
It is hard to watch the kids get older. I was sitting in church and realizing that Andrew only has a few more years left in primary. It was an awful thought. I just want the time to slow down a bit so I can enjoy them at their sweet little ages. There is something contagious about aging: it isn't just the oldest one who moves up and onto the next developmental stage--he somehow pulls the younger siblings along with him. No one is ever as innocent or young as the oldest was at any given age. Porter and Will's interests have matured to keep pace with Andrew, and Andrew is trying to keep up with his older cousins. We are in the throes of the Beverly Cleary years and I want to keep it that way for as long as possible.
Our schedules are tight. Andrew and Will are doing baseball, Andrew is doing winter swim twice a week and once a week has a study group with friends from Oak Hill, which is really a nice way to keep up a wonderful friendship. We are doing our best to spend time over at my parents' house each day, too. It is nice to not be driving so much as I was last year, but I do miss the looser schedule, the later start time, the earlier release, the more time just with them all. Porter misses his brothers, Will in particular, since he can't remember a time when Andrew was home all day with us anyway. I know I got an extra year with those two older boys since they have late birthdays, but I still can't believe sometimes that they aren't supposed to be home with me.

Claire is a perfect fat angel all the time, and the boys are genuinely thrilled with her and proud of her. I have always thought babies were hard, and they are in a way, but perhaps I am just used to it now or perhaps I just know how fleeting the stage is or perhaps she is just a way easier baby (she is!), but I am feeling especially grateful to be at the very beginning of things with someone. Haven't screwed her up yet!
But that doesn't mean she won't be having some special time with the workers at the fitness center this month. Hopefully just not with this guy who was nice but clueless (he tried to plop her down on the ground to sit by herself). But if I must . . .

Monday, August 12, 2013

we shall know, even as we are known

As I was going through our Church bag in search of the tiny notebook into which I scribbled Claire's blessing to record in the computer before the household tide comes in and washes things away, I found my other church notebook. I had written down a bunch of thoughts I had on the subject I spoke upon in church back in March.

It was an embarrassing talk. I went on for so long. I ended up going into preterm labor later that day and I blame my high emotions and for that. I am cringing just typing this, but that little fact might be interesting to you someday. The subject matter meant so much to me and I dove into it in that rediscovering the wheel way I have.

The topic was the question: How do we come to know Christ in our temporal lives? The bishopric member who introduced the subject to me told me that it was a question he really wanted to find an answer to. I am still pretty convinced I did not understand what he really wanted me to talk about, or what his question actually was, so I just went with what made sense to me. Which is, as always when it comes to the Gospel, the broadest and most basic principle of all.

Once again, before the tide pulls this out into the far reaches of my home, tantamount to throwing it away, I want to record the thoughts I had on the subject. I don't even want to look at the talk itself, it was so rambling and embarrassing. But I want my kids to have some sense someday about how this ordeal with Papa affected their mom, and to have some written testimony of my faith.

So often in the scriptures we find examples of people who ought to know better failing to recognize the Savior. The reaction of almost the entire population of the New Testament to Christ in light of all the prophesies and testifying ceremonies of the Old Testament is just one broad example. How is it that we can be ever learning, even about the Savior, and never come to a knowledge of the truth?

I think part of the answer is found in another question: "For how knoweth a man the master whom he has not served and who is far from the thoughts and intents of his heart?"

There are many ways to serve, but the fundamental essence of any service, of any good we do at all, is love.

"For God is love and they that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God." (1 John 4:16)

There is a reason that the great commandment is that we love God with all our heart might mind and strenght and that we love our neighbor as ourselves, since it is from that basic principle that every other commandment proceeds, or hangs, as Christ worded it.

And this is what life is. We are given a commandment to love, an example of how, and a little bit of time to practice, and families, little laboratories of love, to practice with.

Life may seem long, but we see increasingly how the time flows away from as at an astonishing rate. We have a limited number of days in this life in which to learn of Christ, to learn to love as He did. As brief as a lifetime can be, the seasons within it are even more ephemeral. We are only living with our parents for a short time, and then it is over. Our time as missionaries will come to an end and we are left with what we did during that phase. Our season as parents of very young children seems to stretch endlessly but suddenly it too is gone, and our kids, soon, also. Our time on earth with our spouses, siblings and parents is a gift, and one we are promised will be joyful if only we learn of Him, and love each other as He taught. But it is a gift we can waste and squander. So many people do.

I don't mean to sound too dismal. It is appropriate that ours is a Gospel of infinite hope. His arm is always stretched out to receive us in whatever lost path we are wandering. We also know that death is not the end and our relationships go on.

But I cannot help but also feel a warning that at least the quality of our lives, our opportunities, and the depths of our joys are diminished by not using the time we have to allow Christ to enlarge our hearts. To simply love, forgive, accept, let go.

We cannot love in this life as perfectly as He did and does. But the more we strive after his example of loving the closer we come to Him and the better we can feel Him and understand Him, for God is love. And I now think that this is what Paul meant when he wrote:

For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face. Now we know in part, but then we shall know even as we are known.

We cannot fully know Christ now, in our imperfect mortal state, just as, and also because, we cannot love perfectly as He did. But someday, the Gospel promises us, Christ will change our hearts completely, if we let Him. And it is in that day, in some day we cannot now envision accurately, that the darkness will scatter, the glass clouding our sight will evaporate and we will love and know as He eternally has loved and known us, though we never quite understood it until that very moment.

Until that day comes, it is for us to live joyfully, and while there are many deep mysteries to ponder, the way to be joyful is clear: love. So many people wander away from the Gospel table in search of a more plausible storyline or to escape looming doubts about histories or mysteries or even to just find an easier pathway. But there is no getting away from true principles, and whatever else is or is not true, is or is not discoverable, the most important feature of living a good and happy and meaningful life inescapably will have been the degree to which we have loved the people around us the way Christ told us and taught us and showed us. It is all there really is, all there ever has been. It has always been so and yet we can spend a lifetime searching.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

the little things

last summer, Glen Echo Park, Md.

Today a new bishopric was called in our ward. The new bishop had served as a counselor to my dad back in 2001. My dad had once observed that this man's daughters, he has five of them, were a decade younger than we were. Jessie pointed out that it was a decade ago that our dad was being called as the bishop and we were the college kids traipsing down the hall to his setting apart.

My dad no longer attends church meetings. This change took place suddenly. Two weeks ago he just didn't go. Maybe he will go again, but this Sunday Brigham and Matt administered the sacrament at my parents' house. Dad choked on the water.

I do not think it is bragging to note that many of my dad's finest qualities shone through during his service as a bishop, and so the reorganization of our ward has me thinking about some of his qualities that I would like to develop in myself and cultivate in my kids. Above all else, my dad was reliable. He did what he said he would do. Furthermore, he did what ought to be done. This kind of common sense competence is in surprisingly short supply, even among otherwise very respected and successful people. But my dad possessed it. I am not entirely sure how to develop this quality, but I thought there were some things I could do to otherwise follow his example.

1) Sending people notes of thanks or friendliness. He bought cards en mass at thrift stores--he was as cheap as he was a diligent pen pal to all.

2) Be on time to things. I am a terrible offender of punctuality, but I am going to make every effort to be better.

This list could go on forever but I won't be able to stick to a thousand goals, so these are my two for now. They are difficult enough for me as I seriously do not know the current price of a stamp.

Our new Bishop gave a nice talk and quoted a this scripture:
Wherefore be not weary in well doing, for ye are laying the foundation of a great work. And out of small things proceedeth that which is great. Behold the Lord requireth the heart and a willing mind, and the willing and obedient shall eat the good of the land of Zion in these last days.
I know that these verses are talking about missionary work and establishing the Church, but I think it is true more generally, too. We are all engaged in the great work of transforming ourselves. This is true whether we believe it or not, whether we try or not. We are forming who we are every day with all of our choices, and we can do so much to direct that formation in the very little daily decisions. My great work is turning myself, through the grace of the Lord, into His disciple, and of guiding my own little family in that same path. The overarching guiding principle is love, and the various instrumentalities are invariably small ones. It will be okay that I won't always do the right things in the right spirit, but if I can only just get into the habit of doing the right things, I hope to also create the habit of having the right spirit, and I can finally get these spiral situations to turn upwards instead of down. And my own Zion will simply be a state of grateful happiness of feelings the love of Christ. I will leave out all that business of eating the good of the land for Will's sake so as not to spoil the mood for him.

Monday, August 05, 2013

on finalities

Last night was the final time my dad will have slept in his bedroom. Brigham went over tonight and helped my mom move a guest bed downstairs. The steps have become a hazard we can no longer risk. So today he came down the steps for the last time.
Last time on the trampoline, April 2012

He has always been preoccupied, to put it lightly, with time in general and with "last times" specifically. A few years ago when they bought their car my dad remarked that it would be the last car he would ever buy. We rolled our eyes and assured ourselves that he was in great health and 65 was not really that old. It isn't, but I have awakened to the fact that such things are no guarantee.

A girl I went to high school with died on Thursday morning while delivering her second baby into the world. So unexpected, so shocking and unlikely that it seems that the universe should have to give her back under the logic that it is basically impossible for such a thing to happen in this day, in an American hospital. She left her house that morning full of anticipation at meeting her new long-awaited baby and she never met him and she never came back. Her last time had no hint of farewell in it.

I have wondered which is worse and I don't have a definite answer, but I can say that I think there is mercy in being able to knowingly say goodbye, have a little time to make peace, make things right, make some more happy memories, even if it is all done under the shadow of grief. I am grateful, though, that last fall when we took our big family trip to Las Vegas, organized by great-uncle Louie, we didn't know what the next few months held. We did the trip right and went to the Grand Canyon and soaked up all our minutes together in happiness and sunshine and we didn't have to do it cloaked in a sadness that it would be the last trip, counting down to the last days of conversations, of easy togetherness.
Zions National Park, October 2012, last family trip

I have been preoccupied with last times, too, especially as a mom. The last time that I would nurse each of my babies, the last diaper, the last of each of those little daily routines that kids seem they will be in forever and then gradually just are out of. It is such a sadness to focus on that side of things, the ending, the closing of a chapter in a stage of childhood. But with the last times I think about, the melancholy is short-lived because there is a new fun beginning just barely unfurling before us gleaming with all the possibility and experiences and memory-making in store.

These last times with Dad, though, don't open up into new rooms of light and possibility. Not that I have found. All I can really do is mark the days.
Our last family beach vacation, August 2012

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Claire's Baby Blessing Day

We blessed Claire on July 14. We were lucky to have Grandpa Joe, my dad, Uncle Matt and Uncle Mark there to participate.

We were lucky to catch a shot of almost the whole group after church was over.

Claire's blessing dress was a subject that weighed heavily upon my mind for a couple of months. I really wanted to get her an old-fashioned blessing gown with a bonnet, but the ones I loved were way way too expensive, even for my tastes in baby girl fashion. I then decided to go with a gorgeous pink and grey dress I found on sale. But in the end, Brigham assured me that classic white was the best, and that this dress, though purchased at a thrift store before she was born, would be very nice. I somewhat regret that I didn't find an old fashioned gown, but on the spectrum of regrets it is a fairly forgivable one. She looked beautiful.

When Andrew was blessed 7 years ago, Grandpa Joe waltzed around my parents' house looking into every available mirror with Andrew and I have a few cute, funny little shots of them doing this. I thought I ought to catch him at it with Claire, too.
Claire really looks a lot like Andrew did. I especially see it in photographs.
We had everyone over to dinner at our house afterwards, where we ate peach cobbler, cafe rio chicken and fixings and summer vegetable soup. I did everything the night before so it was stress free.
In baby blessing past, Brigham has consulted me about what I wanted him to say. I used to joke that we needed to arrange a live feed from my mouth to his ear. Of course, he really just went with what he felt impressed to say when he was giving the blessing (like that they would be star athletes and wealthy businessmen). I love him especially when he blesses our babies because he is so earnest and thoughtful about it, and it is one of the few occasions on which he gets somewhat emotional. Claire, your blessing was beautiful and your daddy was concerned he wasn't going to make it through without crying. Don't worry, he held it in until he sat down on the pew, still holding you. We love you and I promise I will get the blessing I transcribed out of the kids' notepad in the church bag and record it for you in a more permanent way. Love, Mom

Monday, July 29, 2013

So what was the deal with the Skittles then?

I can be clueless. Sometimes I need people to just give it to me straight: you are acting inappropriately, weirdo! I wish that someone had been around whatever day it was in the early 80s when I decided on Jo from Facts of Life to be my role model. They could have even advised, "Just go with Tootie" and that might have been enough. Really. That one message, clearly delivered, could have altered the course of my life.
My previous TMI post about my high conflict relationships gets an update. It turns out that being polite really is a good way to live. I feel great and I have found very little conflict exists at this point. Which means that I think I was probably the real source of all of that, so good thing I figured that out!

Sorry world and all the people in it who have interacted with me a lot! Can we start over? I am going to be nice this time!

The lesson in church today was about coming unto Jesus. I missed half of it because I stayed home with napping Claire and made bread. But it is a subject I have been thinking about a lot, and I even had a nice conversation with the boys about it, sort of, today. It started out with Andrew making a fuss over wearing a tie and for some reason I thought it might be helpful to tell him about the angel of death passing over the doors of the homes with lamb's blood on the frame and the deaths of the first born sons of those homes without the blood. I think I was going to pretend that ties were the modern equivalent of blood on the door. But before I could get to that tie-in, the conversation took off.

The boys were very interested and we talked about how God used strange, symbolic things like that (and Abraham and Isaac) to emphasize to the people that Jesus was His Son, that He would die for us and that this sacrifice was a very painful, difficult one for Heavenly Father. We got into the sheep and the goats, and the way to be a sheep is to essentially just be kind to people. Will wanted to know if a goat could turn into a sheep. I loved the entire conversation and was glad it proceeded away from my original intention of teasing Andrew.

Anyway, during the lesson the teacher asked if anyone had an experience with service that brought them closer to Christ. I didn't want to share this there but I will record it here.

Before my dad got sick, I was not super enthusiastic about our ward. I missed my old stake and all the many families in it with kids our kids' ages. But I am now so grateful to be back in the ward in which I grew up. The support we have received in the last few months has been overwhelming. We have had a few mornings or evenings gathering in small groups of old friends, and while we initiated these events in order to cheer my parents and help people more comfortably visit with my dad, they have turned into something more, at least for me. The love that I feel from these people is very moving.
It sounds dramatic to say, but the way people from so many areas of our lives have reached out has changed the way I view really fundamental things, like the importance of friendship and the small things we can do to lift the people around us. I have learned even more about my dad as these people come forward with their stories of him: cards he wrote (for every single member of the ward, kids included, on their birthdays--and these were often very thoughtful), support he gave to people struggling, one-on-one Sunday School sessions he had every Sunday with a young man he was trying to help stay in the church. And these people who have known me my whole life (embarrassingly) and whom I have somewhat taken for granted, these people love my parents and they love us, too, despite how well they know us. We sat in the living room of one wonderful family hosting a gathering for my dad and the uncritical, genuine love in the room just washed over me. This sense of community, of shared pain and joy, how could I have so long basically ignored it all? I feel like my friend's little boy who thought his Sunday School lesson was about Skittles. Or like myself when I was studying for my Civil Procedure exam using a commercial outline when it hit me: this class is about how to file an action in civil court! I have been exposed to all the right, essential messages and I have somehow succeeded in not comprehending the point at all.

I think I have found my way out of the Gospel forest, where I get lost amongst all the doctrinal trees. And it is to Just Love. Studying the scriptures, prayer, church attendance, tithing--these are all ways to get there, or things you do when are are there, but without love it really is just a tinkling cymbal, meaningless. All the things we do and say and become have no value to us if we don't feel love for other people. Kind of makes you want to re-do your whole life. Bear with me while I rediscover the Gospel wheel on the Atonement.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

A little memory, for your memory

Even though I feel like I remember my entire life in one long stream of experiences, I realized that I have also selected, randomly(?), a few sharp, short gestalts that stand in for years of my life. This happens every time I go to the library and take a certain pathway to the wooded park behind it.

I took the kids there on Thursday to meet Dad, Mom, Katie, Jessie and her kids. Dogs were also involved. This is the library I have visited since I first ever was brought to a library and I have thousands of experiences there. The library was the next stop every Saturday morning with Dad after hauling our trash to the dump at Cooper Middle School. After we got books, we headed back to the park, by way of a trail through the woods that used to seem so much longer. I remember Dad enjoying our terror as he gradually increased the gyrations on that springed square platform thing he would try to knock us off of. I remember coming here when we first moved back from Utah, pre-ambulatory Andrew crawling all over the jungle gym while my dad and I threw balls to Charlie (I miss that dog still). My instinct then was to assist Andrew; my dad assured me it would be better to let him learn on his own, to my cheering. A thousand memories in between, and since. After all, this became our library again 2 1/2 years ago.

But for some reason every time I take the path from the basketball courts (where the ghost of Carter Swift will always be playing pick up, since I saw him doing that one apparently very impressive day in the early 90s), walking between the chess table and the tennis courts, I am always back to the August day in 1995 when I was reading Margaret Atwood short story book (The Martian is the story that pops unfailingly into mind). Why that memory out of the thousands? I cannot fathom. But there it is, even Thursday almost 20 years and a whole new life later.

None of this is very interesting or remarkable, but I wanted to record it anyway because it teaches me something important about life in general and raising kids. While I do think our minds tend to latch on to the happy memories and bury the more unworthy ones, it is also true that some of these random ones will be the one illustration we have for a place or a period of time. We don't know which they will be. Already I have been surprised at some of the things that have impressed into my kids' little memories. I want their lives to be so flooded with an ordinary happiness that the random snapshots in their minds will tend to be sweet.

So in case you boys happen to remember anything about this day, or in case you don't remember it at all apart from the hundreds of other trips to that park, let me include some details to sharpen the memory's relief: Andrew ran ahead of us all and was on the jungle gym before I got past 17 year old Carter Swift. After Will and Porter split the hot dog I had wrapped in tin foil, everyone was in the trench. Nana and Papa showed up with Emma, Katie and her dog. Papa sat on the seat of his walker and watched you guys. There was a huge spider web stretched in the sun over the tree roots at the top of the trench; we noticed how many catches it had made. Will had to leave early for camp, and when I returned with McDonalds drive through, Nana and Papa had gone and everyone else had taken the trench out to the creek. Porter was half naked, having thrown his shorts into the creek and buried his underwear, logically, in the sand. You ate cheeseburgers in their wrappers since I thought I didn't have hand sanitizer (I did).

You looked like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting as you threw rocks and used the McDonalds cup to dredge for tadpoles and polywogs. The weather was 72 degrees and sunny. You probably won't remember it was summer because it was so perfect. Porter never really repented of his naughtiness but Andrew, you felt bad because Porter had been acting on your orders. The mosquitos became too much and we went inside the library for books. Andrew, you have been listening to The Lightning Thief for hours on end in your room ever since. When we went to Nana and Papa's later that day, you sat and read Judy Moody almost straight through. Porter, you had to wear a size 3 diaper to go inside the library. You rode there on your scooter. We got frozen yogurt after we left on our way to get Will, whom you were forbidden to tell. Claire, you were perfect the whole time.

It was just a few hours. I hope you remember.

Monday, July 08, 2013


There are many Sundays when I end up spending the Church hours in the mothers' lounge, listening to the single's ward sacrament meeting, from which there is much to be learned, actually. But I was really grateful yesterday that I made it to Relief Society, because the lesson was one I really needed to hear. It was based, really, on a recent New York Times article about how family lore binds us together, making us feel part of something larger than ourselves, a very important element in children's resilience, confidence and emotional development.

I have for several years been trying to create traditions in our little family. I have learned two lessons on achieving this:

1) Be your real self. Sometimes we try to get ourselves to enjoy things that really don't come naturally to us. We might wish we loved museums more than the movies, for ex, or whatever. There are a lot of traditions I would love to instill in my family that we probably are just not ready for right now. The best traditions stick when they come easily and naturally. Therefore, I give you the Cannon Family Traditions as of 2013:

a) Saturday Boys' Breakfast: Brigham began this before Porter was born to allow me to sleep in on the weekend. Every Saturday morning he packs up all the kids and takes them to McDonalds. They love it. I am sometimes invited. I am not sure how Claire will reconfigure this (maybe it will turn into Kids Breakfast), but we have about a year before that gets sorted.

b) Friday Night Movie Night: For years now I order or bake a Pizza, which the kids eat while they watch a movie. This was an easy way to make Fridays special, and we never miss. We have been able to incorporate nice family time with my dad on Friday nights now, too.

c) Big Family Beach Trip to Topsail Island: rent a house with my parents and all my sisters and kids. Walks on the beach with glow sticks, trips to the pier to spot sharks, the 50s style diner. It has its own traditions, too. It is time to start up playing cards, now that many of them are old enough to learn Hearts.

d) Songs and Rubs: at bedtime, after stories in Andrew's room, we sing from the same basic rotation of songs while we rub their feet, backs or heads. Will sings along. Originally we sang Amazing Grace and As I Have Loved You to Andrew. Right now Will requests hymns in Polish or Spanish--Onward Christian Soldiers, High On A Mountaintop, Armies of Helaman, The Baptism Song--Rainbows, I See My Mother Kneeling. He also likes the Marine Corps Hymn. A couple of years ago he like Octapus' Garden. Porter right now requests a scary story, which he dictates to you--usually about "ghost-es" vampires zombies or werewolves. He has nightmares about "Foxes."

2) Sometimes you have to make an effort. I know this is contradictory to the first rule, in a way, because some things are a pain but are worth it. I suppose it is not entirely contradictory, though, since they ought to still be things that people honestly enjoy and not things that you force yourself to pretend to like.

a) Annual Halloween Party: We have only done this twice and we missed in 2012 because of Will's rehab program, but this is a really fun one even though it is more work that the other two. We set up the moonbounce in the back yard, I prepare cupcakes for kids to decorate in Halloween style, we provide mummified hot-dogs and the kids make invitations. Kids come costumed and we have a fun little Friday afternoon. We will do it again this year for sure.

b) Botanical Gardens Classes for kids: Ever since Andrew was old enough, I have made sure to each year have one kids enrolled in a month-long, weekly-meeting, class at the BG. It is a pain to get to and park, esp with younger siblings in tow, but I am always glad I did it, and especially so now that we have been doing it for years. I feel like it will always be a part of their childhoods. My dad used to come with me, and even came this last spring when I took Porter and Will. He could no longer participate like he used to, but he wrote to me on our last day that he used to come here on his lunch break (he worked right next door in the capitol building) and relax and read. He had never told me that before and it adds another dimension of meaning for me to that place.

c) Christmas in Washington: On the Saturday before Christmas, we spend the entire day enjoying DC holiday festivities, starting with the Childrens Nativity Play at the National Cathedral and including the trains exhibit (Botanical Gardens) and the national Christmas Tree.

d) Mom-Kid Date Night: On Tuesdays, I have started rotating btwn Andrew and Will for a weekly date night. I have only just barely started this (tomorrow will be Will's first) but even though I have to arrange for a babysitter, I think I will always be so glad I did this with the kids. I have found it so hard to give them individual attention, but if I can institutionalize it and formalize it, at least they will *think* they are getting lots of special attention, and I am convinced that what they perceive to be true is way more important to their psyches than what actually is true.

I read a wonderful book about training kids to in chores called The Parenting Breakthrough, written by an LDS woman, which I found extremely inspiring and useful, but at the end she cautions that the most important thing to do is Family Home Evening, and that for all the value of her chore system, if you aren't doing FHE, you ought to simply put your efforts there instead. I think she is right, and while Brigham is simply never home in time to hold it regularly, we have decided to do it on Sundays instead. Not ideal for a few reasons, but better than never.

I want to make sure my kids have a sense of their history and a sense of belonging to a really cool and fun group (our family, both immediate and extended) so that whatever comes their way in the form of social rejection or athletic failure or academic struggles--all of which come to us all, typically--they can feel buoyed up by that sense of belonging, that sense of perspective. The article talks about how this can come also by simply telling stories about ourselves, so that is what we did yesterday, both in our home and then with my more extended family when we went to my parents' house.

I don't have many regrets when it comes to my relationship with my dad. I really don't think you get much better than what we had, and my children, too--they saw him at least 5 times a week, and spent real quality time with him. Many people just get a few visits a year. But I do regret that I didn't get more of his stories. When we shared stories yesterday (prompted by the Friend magazine suggested questions), I wished I could have heard my dad's answers. I know many stories, but there is always something more. And I ought to write them down before they slip away.

I would love to hear other people's traditions to incorporate!

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Meeting Myself Half Way, or My Own Law of Moses, because I am not yet ready for the higher law of Christ

Lately I have been waking up with headaches after a long night of dreams in which I am fighting, sometimes physically, with another person. I was experiencing entirely too much conflict during my days and it was spilling over into my nights, as well. I woke up basically as exhausted, emotionally, at least, as I had felt going to bed.

I tried to do something about this. I began reading more Church talks, listening to podcasts about charity. I began really focusing on my goal to just love the people around me. The only problem was that, when it came to my high-conflict, high-tension circle of loved ones (and I designate them as such not because they are high tension or high conflict, but our relationships were) I just couldn't succeed. Charity was a bridge too far. It was setting the bar hopelessly high and inviting failure.

The other day I was thinking about a wonderful family I knew growing up who treated one another with an abundance of politeness. Not to give too much of in insight into my dysfunction, but as the stupid, surly teen that I was, I looked down on this as inauthentic and even a bit cold. How could they be close when they tiptoed around each other? What I had mistaken as cold politeness, of course, was really a healthy and appropriate respectfulness of one another. (My inability (perhaps disability?) to see this explains far too much.) I decided to try it. I could not have the pure love of Christ for my high conflict circle, particularly when the conflict was turned on, but I could meet myself half way. I could be polite. I had to be.

It has only been a few days. I ordinarily would not write about this, but my high conflict people do not read my blog and I also want to hold myself accountable to continue with my Miss Manners routine. My first day of it was successful beyond my wildest imaginings.

Provoker: "I am not only totally ungrateful for your efforts at this moment, but I am going to storm around you angrily and criticize you in small, annoying ways. I hope we can fight."

Me: "I am pretending you are the lady next door, whom I really like, and you are having a terrible day. It would be really awkward to call you out so I am going to ignore you."

Provoker: "I would like you to feel that you are unwelcome and I think your kids are the worst. Scream."

Me: "In fairness, I might not like my kids if I were not their mom, either. We'll work on it. But again, since you are the neighbor lady and I know you are otherwise a really nice person, I am going to politely apologize and continue to help you."

Provoker: "You aren't doing it right and I want you to leave. Or tell me you hate me."

Me: "Awkward. I better not saying anything and hope this stops."

Provoker: "Thank you."

Me: It feels good not to feel bad. Let's talk about the weather. "Sure is rainy!"

My first realization upon successfully staving off conflict was that I played a major role in the fights. I may have felt provoked, but I certainly fed a fire that otherwise would have died out. I couldn't take refuge in blaming the other person for conflict that could only exist with my participation. And second, I began to have genuinely positive and empathetic feelings for my most high conflict person. It was startling. Brigham witnessed the interaction and praised my efforts to avert a fight, so that felt nice, too, since he is the epitome of a nice, normal, likeable person. I trust his instincts and reactions. How did I end up with someone so healthy?! Thank you, Heavenly Father!

Some people turn the other cheek, or walk two miles when constrained to walk one. I am not ready for that. But if the pleasant feelings I experienced while treating my loved ones like I barely knew them but would have to interact with them socially on a regular basis and in public is any indication, this whole charity thing must be mind blowing and soul expanding. Hopefully I will find out some day. I plan to inch my way to there by way of Emily Post.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Great Unvitation

It is amazing that the most obvious and irrefutable truth of this world is also the one that no one really truly believes: we will die. One day. Any day. We say we know this, but deep down we don't believe it. (This deep, inner conviction that we are immortal is part of what comprises my testimony of the resurrection of the dead and eternal life. I realize that atheists' minds are turned the other way by this same innate belief, and I realize why, but I tend to trust deep in the gut instincts. Plus I have other reasons for my testimony, but I kind of enjoy this one.) We cannot imagine actually not existing. I know I can't.

I also couldn't, didn't, imagine this happening to my parents or sisters, or kids or husband. But it will, hopefully in the case of my kids and husband, after I have passed on. I used to laugh at parents at the zoo busy photographing animals and not their kids, but I did kind of the same when I busily recorded my kids but not my parents with them. Because my dad spent really an extraordinary amount of time with us, he happens to appear in many photos and videos, for which I am very grateful now. I will need them to help my kids remember the third most important adult in their very young lives.

My dad taught Andrew to ride a bike and swim. A week after his diagnosis he came over one evening determined to teach Will to ride. It was very inconvenient--we were struggling through dinner and we had homework to accomplish, but I realized that he just really wanted to be the one to teach Will, too. To leave that small legacy there, as well. Will was uncooperative and became increasingly belligerent until the darkness of sky and attitude forced us back inside. I felt bad that it had not worked out, but I was also happy to get back to the business of putting them to bed as soon as possible. There would be another day. Only there wasn't. The weather after that was always too cold, or something else happened, and my dad steadily worsened. I can't beat myself up over every moment not perfectly put to max use, because we really did have a wonderful life with my dad. But I realize that he felt a deeper sadness that night when it ended up a bust.

The last week has seen huge deterioration. We are now preparing a downstairs room to be my parents' bedroom. I hate the thought that he will come down the stairs of a house he lived in since 1978 and just never go back up again. It is such a small, obvious thing, but I guess it stands in for a millions things and breaks my heart again to think of it.

Right now there are several people I know who are dying, or fighting for their lives against extraordinary odds, who are still young. Two moms in their 20s, one of whom discovered her brain cancer during her pregnancy a few months ago (her first), and had to deliver early so she could begin treatment. Their odds are less than 1 percent. Another girl, younger than me, who lost her battle with cancer two weeks ago, leaving behind three young kids. They would have traded what my dad is going through to face their battle at 70 after a healthy life. My dad would prefer his current illness to missing out on the last 40 years.

I often hear people in these situations say they don't want to miss their kids' high school graduations or weddings or grandkids. I used to be rather tone deaf to that complaint. I mean that I thought that I understood what they were saying, and I sympathized, but I didn't really get it until now. I used to think that the dead were happy, waiting patiently for those they loved to join them. But now I feel like they must miss us the way we miss them. And there has got to be an element of feeling left out, missing out on the huge milestone moments of those they love. If something happened to prevent me from attending Will's preschool graduation, I would have been really sad and felt deprived. I already did feel deprived when, after Claire was born, I reacted to the epidural and experienced extreme shakes for a couple of hours and was unable to hold her during that special quiet alertness newborns experience. Brigham held her, but it is painful to me that I did not.

What would it be like to face truly missing out on every single moment, big and small? To be entirely left out of every second of the rest of my family's lives? Because the truth is that while we never forget those we love, we do move on. We have to. They want us to and we should and we do. And I see now how it feels like we are betraying them in a strange way. And how left out they must feel facing the prospect of leaving the party before it is over, and for some, just as it is only beginning.

Life is so wonderful and we can fill it with so much. My dad loved life. He always said that everything after Vietnam he considered bonus years, and looking back at how he lived I think that it also influenced him to seize life, enjoy it, really make wonderful memories. Despite his constant leg pain due to wounding in Vietnam, he never let things stop him and he never complained. He loved the beach, he loved going places, he loved good food, so long as it was steak or a hamburger and not highly seasoned, he loved regular ordinary moments of going on walks down Old Falls Rd and sitting up late talking with us over a fried egg sandwich. He loved traditions and routine: McDonalds every day at 10:30, cleaning the whole house on Wednesdays ("My Cleaning Day," he called it) while listening to country music. Monday nights eating out for FHE, which later evolved into eating out all the time after we all left home. He forged such a strong relationship with the workers at our local Fuddruckers that he bought one guy a wedding gift. He loved TV, and I looked forward to watching Law and Order with him when I returned from my mission. The man loved candles for goodness sake and burning them made him happy. He is probably the only man who loved owning a Scentsy.

He was always up for anything. He took us places, visiting all the historic sites, especially battlefields, around. If anything, he was even more this way with his grandkids, showing up at my home to take them to ice cream and the park, preferrably by himself though if I really wanted I was invited, too. He took Will to his first movie in the theatre, Up, during my Ob appointment when I found out Porter was a boy. He organized the yearly trip to Kings Dominion amusement park. He wanted to take the grandkids alone there, too. He was in attendance at everything my kids did, and always so helpful. He showed up to help out with everything, down to the autumn before his heart attack when instead of just delivering his leaf blowers to us, he stayed and helped with the yard work. And he was so happy doing it. I remember looking over and seeing my dad laughing with the boys while they gathered sticks. He was just always there, and always cheerful. I realize that he was doing all of these things with an eye towards purposefully building a relationship with the kids and creating memories. He lived very deliberately and thoughtfully. His was a life very much examined. He always thought he would die young, pointing out that the men in his family did, but he was such a force we just didn't believe it.

I am so sad that my dad won't know where the boys go on their missions, or which sports they settle into. He won't be there to be a calm voice of reason when they may need it, that extra encouragement and safe place that he could offer them as a grandfather, removed from the parenting role. He won't know who they turn into as tweens and teens. Brigham wondered who would be able to get them on social security disability when they needed to be government dependent after college. (Dad, as Bishop, mastered navigating the social security benefits program and got everyone eligible off Church welfare and onto government, which is kind of hilarious.) He won't know Claire at all, which is especially sad because he really wanted to have another granddaughter. He wrote to me right after she was born that she looked like me. I need to write that down because he has not otherwise remarked on her very much; he just cannot.

So I now see death as a huge unvitation. You just leave the party, and it is a big missing out. What a lonely, desperate feeling when there are things you still want to do, memories you want to be part of, people you still want to be with. I have taken up reading Loren Eisley, one of my dad's favorite poets, because I initially thought it might be nice to record myself reading his favorite poems to him to listen to in his bed when we are not there, since he can no longer read. But after looking them over I feel they are all just too sad and as much as he loved them and loved even tapping into that universal melancholy, right now I think he has too much sadness and what he needs is some light and laughter. I think I understand my dad even better reading them, though. I feel like if he could speak, it would be the things Eisley says. Even Eisley's tombstone felt appropriate to dad: "We loved the earth but we could not stay."

I also really like this:
"We have joined the caravan, you might say, at a certain point; we will travel as far as we can see, but we cannot in one lifetime see all that we would like to see or learn all that we hunger to know."

That image feels exactly right.

Eiseley, incidentally, was the originator of that Starfish story the church made into a movie. It actually happened to him and he wrote an essay about it. Now I don't feel so silly for the chills I got watching that movie in seminary.

When he was three, he and his dad watched Halley's comet blaze across the sky. His dad told him to look for it in 75 years. This is what he wrote, and I cry every time I read it:

... somewhere in the remote darkness I could sense Halley's comet turning on its long ellipse. Hurry, I half formed the words. Hurry, or I will not be here. I did not know why I said it. Yes, I did. I wanted to return to that bare world of 1910, held in my father's arms -- lay back and vanish. Pa, I said. There was no sound from the dark.
— The Lost Notebooks
Eiseley never did see it--he died before the comet came back. Right now there is no sound coming from the darkness with my dad. But I know someday there will be no no darkness at all, or silence.

Sunday, June 09, 2013


It is his identity as a marine officer that he seems to most want the people around him to know, to remember about him. I think this is because he feels those qualities that made him such an excellent soldier are seeping out of him like blood. The strength, leadership, independence and competence he brought to everything he ever did is trapped inside of a body that is diminishing in front of us every week.

After his heart attack last May, he made a very slow recovery. He was moving more slowly. A natural and comfortable public speaker, his talks in church became more halting, embarrassing to him. He seemed to say less to us, too. Even though I live less than a mile from my parents, I kept up my old long-distance habit of talking to my dad every day on the phone as I drove. The last conversation was in August. I didn't know it then, of course, and I am glad of that. It was marked by many long pauses, which I attributed to thoughtfulness or hesitancy to give a quick answer. He told us at the beach in August that he was feeling tongue-tied. We began to suspect the medication he was taking was having side effects.

He continued to decline. His speech became slurred, stroke-like, but stroke victims' speech impairments plateau, even possibly improve, while his steadily grew worse. There was no stroke. Still, life kept happening. Will and I were at Hopkins every day for 8 weeks, we went on a trip to Las Vegas, there was Thanksgiving to plan, then Christmas. It was right after Christmas that he got the diagnosis: PSP. Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, a degenerative brain disease that robs people of speech and mobility. Most sufferers die from choking, pneumonia or the trauma of a fall. It is extremely rare and not much is known, aside from that there is currently no treatment and no cure. When he and my little sister who had accompanied him to his neurological appointment came by my house that night to gather for a dinner out and told us the news, none of us knew how to react. I didn't really understand what PSP meant. My dad, in his typical organized fashion had printed out copies of a description of the disease off a medical website to distribute to each of us. I read it, but the words somehow did not register through my disbelief that anything truly horribly could happen to us.

Up to that point, I had seen my dad cry possibly 5 times, which meant that I had seen him become teary. That night he sobbed. I can barely stand to remember. We all froze, paralyzed by some perverse combination of not wanting to acknowledge his sobbing so as not to embarrass him, not wanting to accept the diagnosis, and old fashioned lack of practice. My sweet boys, however, did not hesitate. They each ran to him, even Porter, and threw their arms around him and stayed there. "I'm never going to get better," was all he said. I wish writing this down could take it out of my brain.

He can no longer speak at all. He swallows with great difficulty, too, and has lost significant weight. He communicates with a thumbs up or down, and uses a writing pad, but this last form of communication is not easy. His thoughts are in his mind, but it is like he has to translate them to a foreign language to get them out. I miss his smile the most.

His service as a marine was probably the most defining experience of his life. He often thought about it--or, more accurately, re-hashed every detail of his experience, on a regular basis. Maybe 5 or ten years ago he felt he hit upon an answer to a question he had wondered about since 1966: What was it that the Corps had been looking for in a man? Why had the training been so brutal? For decades he had thought that the insults they had hurled had been sincere, that some of the hopeless training assignments mysterious.

"I think I know now," he said. "They were not looking for the smartest man or the strongest or even the bravest. They just wanted men who wouldn't give up. They gave us tasks that were simply not possible to complete, and it was to see if we would continue to try despite its incontrovertible impossibility."

My dad is someone who does not give up. I do not mean by this that he thinks he can fight PSP and win. He is unflinchingly realistic about everything in life. He thinks he is a pessimist because he does not Pollyanize anything. But he is possibly the most optimistic person I know, because he accepts reality and forges ahead with a careful, thoughtful plan to achieve the best possible outcome, even when the best possible is awful. People who mistake romanticizing and pretending for optimism don't know what it is. And while he accepted before any of us did that he had a terrible and irreversible condition, he has done all he can to hold on to himself. Despite his extreme limitation and sufferings, he still does everything he can to be a part of life. He does not miss our boys' sporting events. He sits through every cartoon movie night with the kids. He even gets out on the trampoline to play. He cannot jump, but he pretends to be that same water buffalo that wore out the knees of the green cords I picked out for his father's day gift when I was three.

One of the most remarkable aspects of human nature is our ability to adapt to new situations. Often I am able to go into auto pilot mode about this. My dad is sick. He can't talk or easily control his facial muscles. He is feeble. He is living his absolute worst nightmare. It will only get worse. Okay. But sometimes I let myself think of him as he was just months ago. Could it really be? Just months. And I am floored.

I am trying to find anything positive I can out of this horribleness. I am blessed to have had such a wonderful father, and to have had him for as long as I have. Most people with PSP are hit at 60; my dad got an extra ten years. He got to meet and develop the most wonderful relationship with my children. And lastly, while it is an awful way to be reminded, it is essential to remember that life is short and in the end, there is only love.